Long-time readers will remember that I don't drink, so chances are that unless a bar has live music or a vegan-friendly kitchen, I've never been there. Although I've heard nothing but good reviews (aside from those who bash the hipster class) about the reopened Gusto Lounge on Westport Road, I've never had a reason to go there – that is, until Gusto bartender Ryan Shank convinced his bosses that the bar should throw a "Glam-O-Ween" party. The event would tap Shank's band, Be/Non, to perform as T. Rex with friend-of-the-family Soft Reeds to perform as David Bowie. To further sweeten the pot, the club would continue its no-cover charge policy as well as award free drinks to patrons in winning costumes.
The night got started late, with Soft Reeds not taking the stage until 10:45. Frontman Ben Grimes wasn't likely to become Ziggy Stardust, so some makeup and swirling paisley prints would have to do the trick. The other guys in the band were markedly less invested in the theme, with third guitarist Jeffrey Harvey even putting his jean jacket on over his gold lamé tunic when a chill hit him. Bassist Becki Trost, in her geisha outfit and make up, would have to carry the weight for the lot of them.
Soft Reeds' original material is a jerky blend of angular post punk and synthesiser sheen, so it only made sense that the band shone brightest when recasting Bowie's mid '70s material. Trost's normally funky bass work translated flawlessly to the songs, and the guitars of Grimes, Harvey, and John Mitchell stalked the jagged edges bringing excellent energy to "Fame," "Sound and Vision," and to a lesser extent, "Golden Years." When dealing with the earlier glam era, it was a mixed bag. Opening cuts "Life on Mars" and "Lady Stardust" were flat, with "Queen Bitch" also lacking any pizzaz. However the final three tracks of the evening – "All the Young Dudes," "Moonage Daydream," and "Suffragette City" – revived the set. Specifically, the first was lifted by drummer Josh Widenfeld, and the latter two driven home by the (surprise) saxophone work of Mitchell. The band limited its set to nine songs and wisely avoided Bowie's New Romantic period, realising that Grimes' yelps could do no justice to Bowie's crooning hits of the '80s.
In the agonizing 45-minute wait between bands, I cased the cavernous club, learning that the Gusto Lounge is a sprawling collection of rooms and spaces built from historic buildings, new construction, and a reclaimed alleyway. The latter, with it's steeply pitched ceiling served as the temporary stage. While this long, narrow, enclosed courtyard afforded few a good view, interested parties were able to peer directly at the band from the side, through open archways that once served as exterior windows and doors. Signs indicated the space upstairs was currently closed, forcing me to wonder just how large the club must be.
While initially the clientele appeared to be young and hip, the median age of the audience grew considerably after 11:00, and at times seemed decidedly suburban. I suppose this happens when a venue is in the heart of the city's entertainment district, offers life music, and charges no cover. My favourite overheard exchange involved a guy attempting to make time with the wife of Soft Reed's John Mitchell whilst he played on stage. Don't worry, John – despite his continued interest (and the complimentary things said about your band), your wife somehow resisted.
As the headliner began testing its gear, the highlights kept coming. I watched as my vantage point near the stage was soon usurped by a host of 40-somethings excited by Be/Non, T. Rex, or just a drunken night out without the kids. Based on the couple who were not only double, but triple fisting, I have to assume the latter. And while this crowd danced and whooped as Be/Non began its set at Midnight, by 12:45, most had run out of steam and left the club. I should admit, however, that I wasn't far behind them, but more on that in a bit.
Be/Non, I believe, has been around since the 1930s. I remember the band being active when I moved to Kansas City in 1997, existing on the periphery of the angsty indie-rock scene that dominated the area at the time. While I never would have thought to tap this long-standing progressive rock band for a T. Rex tribute (though if I hear of anyone organising a Capitan Beefheart tribute, Be/Non will be my first call), bandleader Brodie Rush was undeniably enthusiastic about the affair. His smile only broadened as he set a thick binder of Marc Bolan's lyrics on to the music stand, and then passed out wigs to bandmates Ben Ruth (bass) and Ryan Shank (drums). While there were three guest musicians present (backing vocals, congas, and guitar), they were left to accessorise (or not) for themselves. For his part, Rush wore a large brown kinky wig, a shirt that plunged dangerously low (leading to nipple slip on more than one occasion), and a groovy gold chain. Having not seen him in years, I, somehow, saw this not as a costume at all. Anything is quite plausible when it comes to Brodie Rush.
Before beginning the set, Rush announced that the band was going to play a long set (I was told 30 songs by someone in the know), including the hits and the deep cuts. T. Rex fans in the audience cheered, but I cringed. While I won't say that I love T. Rex, I can hum a dozen or so of the band's songs, and own the band's three important albums (1971's Electric Warrior, 1972's The Slider, 1973's Tanx), yet the thought of 30 songs just seemed ludicrous. With no time left to retreat, I checked the battery on my camera, took a deep breath, and prepared to let Be/Non take me away.
Unfortunately, between the smart phone photographers that blocked my view, technical difficulties that hindered the flow of the show, and my own limited view of T. Rex, I was never brought on board. Rush couldn't deliver the raw sexuality of Bolan's T. Rex, nor did he recast that band's songs into the mould of his own warped progressive act. Instead, the audience was presented with a bland and neutered retelling of T. Rex that was short on dynamics and interest. But why?
Well, I think covers generally work best when the song is easily recognizable – ignored tracks from critically panned albums just don't create covers that interest wide audiences. As such, Be/Non's "Children of the Revolution" was fun, and guest vocalist Nanci Ayala's backing vocals were particularly nice on "20th Century Boy," but if T. Rex couldn't make a hit out of "Sound Pit" (from the UK-only 1975 album Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow), then Be/Non simply had no shot. But I suppose that's the key here, Be/Non have never worried about hits, nor creating music for wide audiences – the band just doesn't care. This take-it-or-leave-it attitude has certainly alienated music fans that happen upon the band, but it has also fuelled a small, rabid fanbase that has provided the band with unconditional love for years.
About an hour into this exhaustive set, Rush released the band, sat down on the floor, and played three solo numbers. By now the raucous audience present at the set's start had mostly moved on, leaving only the most zealous in the tight confines of the show space. The evening now seemed like a house show. After this intimate interlude, he recalled the rest of the band to their instruments, and announced that Be/Non would now start its second set. I knew then that I'd never make it. So after an hour and fifteen minutes, and two songs into this second set, I wavered. Sure, the revellers at the bar were still whooping it up as if it were Friday night, but I knew it was 1:15 on a Thursday morning. So I packed up my camera, slipped out past the bar crowd, and headed for home. I don't know when I'll make it back to Gusto – maybe not until that Captain Beefheart tribute happens.