After The Pitch's music editor, Elke Mermis, handed me my wristband and basically said, "Have at it," I was hit with a wondrous and terrifying feeling as I walked into the nucleus of Westport. It was the feeling of too many options: too many places to go, people to see, beers to drink, and bands to watch.
This overload, of course, is the beauty of something like the Pitch Music Showcase, which offers a choose-your-adventure style portrait of the Kansas City and Lawrence music scene. I had an itinerary, but even as early as my arrival at 8:10 PM, I could tell my plan was going to be subject to some last minute impulses. I would, as they say, go with the flow, and flowed I did.
The question one faces when approaching a music event as open-ended at the Pitch Music Showcase is: do you stick with the tried-and-true bands you know, or do you take a risk, even when the band's name is absurdly awful and foreboding?
In the beginning, I tried to follow my favorites, but soon realized that this was denying me the full flavor of Kansas City's music scene. Even though I caught mere glimpses -- two-or-three songs of a set at the Beaumont followed by one-or-two at McCoy's -- the wide variety and top-notch quality always satisfied me.
Things started off simply, with the sweet, diaphanous folktronica of Sam Billen, who performed an eight o'clock set at McCoy's. For some, Billen's tunes might verge on too pretty and ornamental, but his recurring themes of domesticity and fraternity hit you if you listen carefully enough and let the emotions wash over you. (Not that we need another solo guitarist supported by a Macbook; but, Billen's unforced clarity and focus topple that prejudice.)
After about forty-five minutes, I decided to head to the Riot Room, where Soft Reeds was performing inside. Having heard of them in nearly reverent tones by colleagues and friends, I was excited to check out the last five minutes of their set.
Holy shit, I'm glad I did. Though their closing song was excellent, it didn't match the transcendence of their penultimate tune -- the one I initially wandered in on. It was something epic and epochal: the sound of continents fucking; a dirty, heavy-rock version of early Franz Ferdinand. It all goes back to my theory that bands are often won on the strength of one song, caught at the right time, in the right context.
I'm sure the Soft Reeds' other songs are all great -- in the same vein of the proto-punk of their last tune -- but, what I experienced during that second-to-last song was something great and wonderful: a moment of recognition in which I was sucker-punched by these gnarly tunesmiths. This kind of experience, of course, is what we all hope comes from live music, especially in a showcase or festival setting.
Things took another dramatic turn when I staked out a spot on the Riot Room patio for Dutch Newman's nine o'clock set. After sound-checks with cohorts King Real and Dirty D, Newman was hot-to-trot before he was informed that he actually had fifteen minutes until his start time. Exit Newman. Arriving about fifteen minutes late, in new clothes, Newman began a little rusty before vaulting into his cocky rhymes.
Even at this late at night, the heat wasn't oppressive as it was a fucking dictator, and we all wilted under its crushing power. This may explain why there wasn't much of a crowd for Newman and crew initially, who handled their sparse audience the same way they do with packed houses: full on bravado and cocksuredness.
Eventually, people got wise and suffered the heat to witness some of Kansas City's finest hip-hop performers do their thing. Midway through the set, the patio was flush with bodies. Despite Newman's coarse pet themes, he displayed a baby-faced charm that made it impossible to ignore his grace, wit, and tenderness.
I split the ten o'clock hour floating between the sets of whoever-was-at-the-Beaumont and Hidden Pictures. (Whoever-was-at-the-Beaumont, I later found out, was the Slowdown, filling in for Mammoth Life, who canceled at the last minute).
The Slowdown's name befits its musical philosophy. We're talking about a hard-rock outfit that crushes: it's not sludgy, but stacked. As can be expected of a six-member band -- five of which are operating guitars or bass -- the sound was dense, angry, and claustrophobic, even when the music tilted upward, rising in an envelope of heated friction.
My neck was cocked again (downwards, this time) when I went to see the Hidden Pictures, whose bright country-pop was the most dramatic transition I made of the night (that is, until I went back to the Beaumont in the eleven o'clock hour).
Richard Gintowt has never sounded better. I've seen Hidden Pictures at least twice sober -- and probably as many times un-sober -- but I've never heard the Gintowt's voice with as much color, character, and candor as I did during the band's showcase performance. To play the music critic mad-geneticist, his voice seemed to be a potent combination of Spoon's Brit Daniel and Bob Dylan. It was complimented beautifully by frontwoman Michelle Sanders, and the rest of the band provided easy, chipper instrumentation. As with Sam Billen, some people might find Hidden Pictures too pretty, winsome, and catching; but, both create mood as well as other harder-driving acts.
"Awfully lonely for a fucking Thursday," said Gregg Todt, the Federation of Horsepower's lead singer, two songs into their set. True, during the eleven o'clock hour at the Beaumont, the audience was a little thin. At first I was unsure of the band. What is a Federation of Horsepower? God, it sounds like something out of Pynchon or George Saunders: a secret, absurd organization, or some kind of global conspiracy. But really, it's just dudes who play balls-to-the-throttle rock and roll.
Doing their best MC5 impression, with Todt seemingly channeling Fred "Sonic" Smith, the band sounded huge and mountainous. It was a little strange, given that there were maybe twenty people at the Beaumont, but Todt sang as if he was trying to clear boulders from his throat. Plenty of bands, especially at the local level, will go through the motions when there isn't much love from the audience, or much audience to get love from. It certainly can feel awkward for both the band and the few members of a crowd if the room is nearly empty. Federation of Horsepower demonstrated that you have to make every song and show count, and perform as if you're performing to a tens of thousands. By the end of the band's set, the Beaumont had a few more silhouettes crowding the floor.
Sadly, this was not true for the Rooftop Vigilantes' set, which closed out the Beaumont at the one o'clock hour. My favorite Lawrence band was seemingly on the edge of a destruction. Early on, a bass string snapped. There was clear tension, marked by jokes about how the Vigilantes don't perform, or that this is their first time on a stage. But this ramshackle quality befits their bratty music, which also feels wistful in some ways. There's a whole spectrum of emotions contained in their impressionistic punk; and Rooftop Vigilantes proved to be just as good at articulating mood as any of the more subdued and relaxed acts at the showcase.
During the last hour and half or so, my plan really fell apart and I wandered. I mean really wandered: getting a slice of pizza, snagging more beer, sipping another free energy drink. By the end of the night, I was so dazed by exhaustion and overstimulation that I couldn't remember where I had parked.
And that, my friends, is the sign of a good showcase.