"Who is this fucking band? It's full of fucking hipsters," a kid in a baseball cap complained loudly in the back of the Riot Room. Hospital Ships was onstage, and the Riot Room was admirably filled out for 7:45 p.m. Punks, crusty kids and girls in sundresses crowded inside the Westport bar -- as did those who, evidently, weren't familiar with some of the more artsy outcroppings of Kansas City's music scene. It didn't matter: The aforementioned brah was outnumbered by 'staches, piercings and the artfully tattooed, and the first annual Middle of the Map Fest was all the more vibrant for it.
It was the second night of the festival, and Kansas City's homegrown bar district was thrumming with anticipation. After all, tonight yielded some of the biggest headliners yet: indie-rock kids Margot and the Nuclear So and So's, perennial Saddle Creek favorites Cursive and, most importantly, lo-fi legend Daniel Johnston.
Jordan Geiger, the songwriter behind Hospital Ships, donned a Cowboy Indian Bear shirt -- Lawrence, represent! -- and his voice floated over a band with much more muscle than the last time I saw the Lawrence ensemble. After all, the band has scored some impressive exposure in the last year, including a slot on SXSW's official showcase in March. The band's new album, Lonely Twin, comes out on June 7; and from the sound of it, Kansas City and Lawrence have a lot to look forward to from this revered songwriter's project.
I then trekked back to the Beaumont to watch Cowboy Indian Bear take over the venue's stage. All of the things that I love about the band was even bigger in the Beaumont's long ballroom. Stark contrasts in the band's songs were given the full spotlight that they deserved: high points were louder, and the tenderness in Hillard, Calhoun and Conroy's voices was even softer. Two ladies in cropped sweaters and capris next to me asked the name of the band onstage, and swayed their hips back and forth to CIB's melodies. (Local music: one, universe: zero.)
I thought about hoofing it over to the Riot Room to catch Capybara's set before the band joined Daniel Johnston on stage later; but CIB roped me in again with a version of "Santiago" that was positively rapturous.
When CIB toted its instruments off stage, I surveyed the crowd, which filled the Beaumont's floor back to the sound booth. It was a long time since I'd seen beads of sweat on fellow concert-goers' foreheads. Dudes with sleeves and Tutankhamun beards stood next to ladies in flip-flops with bobs. In front of me, there was a guy in a Cramps shirt that proclaimed that the band was "more powerful than a vat of boiling acid" -- fuck yes -- and lots of young local rock fans crowded next to each other, eagerly.
Excited whoops issued from the crowd when the lead singer of Margot and the Nuclear So and So's, Richard Edwards, began tuning his guitar. (He looked a bit like James Franco in person.) Cute indie girls in hats fanned themselves and snapped pictures of the empty stage, while the crowd staged a gigantic, drunk sing-along to "Hey Jude," which echoed over the speakers.
The band, however, seemed nonplussed about the Beaumont's enthusiasm. "He's gonna get really pissed and not play at all," a kid next to me commented to a friend. The band led off with a salty, grungy number: Seems like the only way out's through the back. Some of the idiosyncratic sound effects on the band's albums that seemed to be nearly impossible to render onstage were replicated in full, fleshed-out form. The infectious joy in some of my favorite tracks -- like the band's closer, "As Tall As Cliffs"-- was nowhere to be found on these guys' faces, though. The band instead seemed focused on the craft of the song, and, hey, it showed. The Margot and the Nuclear So and So's set was close to flawless.
Meanwhile, Edwards lethargically took a swig of his beer and played the guitar with his bottle. Apart from a few clipped thanks, he barely acknowledged the crowd, but he did seem legitimately impressed that so much of Kansas City knew the words to the songs. (Several times, he could be spotted making a "damn, son" face between lyrics.)
By the time Daniel Johnston took the stage, the Beaumont lineup was running a half-hour later than scheduled. No problem: Other than my aching soles and the venue's sweaty, humid temperature, the night was running impeccably smoothly.
After Johnston sauntered out onstage in a red, white and blue long-sleeved shirt, he immediately started paging through a songbook on a music stand. (If you're not familiar with Johnston's long, storied history, which is too involved to summarize here, then I suggest you brush up.) The crowd was rabid: "We love you! We love you, Daniel!" Johnston seemed to be forcibly avoiding the audience, either out of stage fright or concentration. "Thank you," his reedy voice peeped into the microphone, at last. He was drinking something that looked like cough syrup. ("I'm drinking root beer, in case you're curious," he added later.) Hoisting his guitar up underneath the crook of his elbow, like he was cradling a kitten, Johnston opened with the line that made him famous in 1992: Hi, how are you?
His stuttering guitar strums sounded like they were played on a toy. I love you all but I hate myself, he sang, intoning the line like a question. Johnston's songs were simple and sweet, and they possessed the same infectiousness of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- except rendered through sticky, disjointed guitar riffs and Johnston's haunting, childlike vocals.
"Are you with me so far?" Johnston asked us. The response was deafening.
Several times, Johnston peered at his guitar with his brow furrowed, as if his fingers couldn't quite articulate the tune that floated inside his head. There were several flubbed chords, but it made no difference: The melodies sounded like they were lost B-sides from the Kinks' catalog. Johnston ripped on his guitar chords like he was trying to wrench more sound out of them.
"Hello, hello! Ohio, right?" Johnston said facetiously.
"Cleveland," someone in the crowd yelled back.
Older, more seasoned music fans gathered toward the stage like moths to a flame, and the young kids hung back, as if Johnston were a joke they weren't in on. This was the problem with having a cult favorite headlining a festival: In a crowd that would be packed with dedicated fans at a normal touring show, loud-talkers shouted at each other in the background. The area in the back of the venue looked like a cocktail party, not a rock show.
"We were going to take a short break, and he back with the band," Johnston said after a few songs. He then tried to walk offstage, still plugged into his amplifier.
After local indie-rock kids Capybara set up behind Johnston's music stand, the quartet looked at each other with undisguised anticipation.
"Are we ready yet?" Johnston asked. "What's the name of the band?"
Darin Seal, sitting behind Johnston, put his hand to his face and enunciated into Johnston's ear.
"Campy borrowed," Johnston pronounced into the microphone, smiling.
While Capybara's members fiddled with instruments and plugs, Johnston said, "I'll tell ya a joke: I had this dream that a guy was sentenced to death for trying to commit suicide. And in the dream, it was me. And I was in the back of the courtroom yelling, No! No!"
After this odd little gem, he abruptly cut himself off, and the band launched into "Fear Yourself." Capybara sounded incredible backing Johnston. The band's uplifting, sweet, bright sound filled out Johnston's dark lyrics and sweet, innocent melodies perfectly: I love you more than myself. The band effortlessly complemented Johnston's eccentricities, and draped Johnston's melodies in swaths of cotton candy-colored sound with the utmost grace and respect. Well done, guys. You made Kansas City proud.
Margot and the Nuclear So and So's singer, Edwards, peered out from backstage, watching Johnston's set. The singer's head bobbed enthusiastically, and he clapped with his hand over his head like a prize winner.
The crowd members weren't the only ones swept up in the moment: The guys in Capybara grinned unselfconsciously throughout the set, and sang along with Johnston on many of the lyrics. "What's that song you wanna hear?" Johnston asked, before he opened with the tinkling melody of "Speeding Motorcycle." Capybara's instrumentation was like the realization of the fractured melodies that Johnston pounded out on his guitar or keyboard. "This is really great," someone beside me commented warmly. Agreed. "Worried Shoes" was nothing short of heart-wrenching, and during "Living Life," someone screamed, "You're a legend!"
Taking the mic in his hands, Johnston's clamped fist shook slightly as he joked with the crowd. "It's really great to be back in Colorado," Johnston said, grinning. "No, wait, where are we? Kansas City." The crowd roared.
"I would like to leave with this song," Johnston said, after emerging for one last number during the encore. "It's a very special Christmas wish," Johnston said. And, of course, it was "True Love Will Find You in the End." It wasn't hard to see why many eyes in the venue were glistening slightly -- mine included.
Critic's Notebook: When I arrived at the festival, I stopped to chat with the Record Machine's Nathan Reusch, who was gathered in a group with Johnston. Johnston stood, peering at the ground, in a white T-shirt and sweatpants, looking as though he should be heading to Denny's, not ascending the Beaumont's stage in a few hours to play to an adoring crowd. Who knew?
Also: If you'd like to see some video of the Beaumont's lineup, head over to I Heart Local Music.