Fall hit Kansas City hard and quickly. On a night when everyone should have been celebrating the area's harvest festivals or meandering through the city on First Fridays, temperatures suddenly dropped into the 40s keeping many people at home. At least that is my best guess as to why one of the areas most popular bars, hosting a musician of international reputation, supported by one of the city's more popular bands, sat nearly empty on a Friday night.
Kansas City trio The Empty Spaces climbed onto stage at 10:10. After a quick introduction, and an expression of thanks for being part of the show, frontman Mat Shoare brought his band to life. In a 35-minute set that included songs from the band's most recent EP (Party Line, Golden Sound Records, 2012), older favourites, and brand-new material, The Empty Spaces did what they do best: bright lo-fi indie pop that draws heavily from the surf rock and rockabilly traditions. Shoare's guitar work was breezy (if not downright jangly), and soaked in copious amounts of reverb. When he took solos, they were always clumsy, and obfuscated by ill-fitting effects; it was charming every time. Bassist William Brent Wright's playing was either buoyant and bubbly (particularly in the instrumental surf song he contributed to the band), or more generally rumbling, but clean. The bright and snappy drum work of Ross Brown balanced things nicely. Compared to previous outings, the band's Record Bar set was a bit looser, revealing aspects of the band's sound that I hadn't noticed before, and sending me through a mental inventory of record of my collection to assign similarities. Ultimately I settled on The Smugglers, but any of the not-quite-punk DIY bands of that era and region would work fine.
Throughout the band's set, the small audience remained seated in the periphery of the club, or (in the case of two or three fans) standing in the wings. There were several attempts to interact with the audience, but after both Wright and Shoare failed to raise the energy level in the sleepy club, Shoare promised the band would stick to the music. The band ended its ten-song set with "I Wanna Go To The Beach" – a yet-to-be-recorded fan favourite, and easily the most urgent song of the night.
A long pause preceded the Corin Tucker Band's set, although I haven't the slightest idea why, since all instruments were back-lined and line-checked before the doors opened. I guess two-band bills are just like that.
It's been six years since Corin Tucker fronted the much-loved Sleater-Kinney, and despite rumblings that the trio may work together again, the new surroundings continue to do Tucker good. For better or worse, Sleater-Kinney is, was, and forever shall be viewed as a riot grrrl band. That's an impossibly small box to be confined to for one's entire creative life. Today, Tucker is a self-described "middle-aged mom" who still holds her beliefs dearly, but is undoubtably a more complex person than she was when Sleater-Kinney was conceived. With the assistance of her current supporting cast, Tucker is now able to make music (or not) on her own terms, and with her own goals in mind. As a result, her new album (Kill My Blues, Kill Rock Stars, 2012) contains some of the best music in her twenty-plus year career.
The band's set (like the album it drew most of its songs from), ranged from mid-tempo rockers like opener "No Bad News Tonight" through ballads such as "Joey" (written in tribute to Joey Ramone) to angular stompers like "Tiptoe." Consistent throughout the evening was Tucker's love-it-or-hate-it barely-controlled vocal warble, and a host of big riffs from her growly Les Paul. While drummer Sara Lund (formerly of noisy indie stalwarts Unwound) provided rounding backing vocals, her explosive drumming only urged everything forward. Seth Lorinczi played a similarly dichotic role, adding adrenaline-fueled guitar leads, as well as keyboard lines that offered more atmosphere than melody. The bright Rickenbacker of tour-only bassist Dave Depper helped maintain the band's mixture of fractious rock, devil-may-care punk, and glam swagger.
Despite a charged set played wonderfully, the majority of the small audience remained near-comatose. Sure there were several girls mouthing the words in time, and a couple of others dared to dance on occasion, but most of the audience stood quietly at the edge of the stage, politely chuckling or applauding each time Tucker tried to break through with a corny joke, political urging (Tucker is not a fan of Todd Akin), song dedication, or birthday wish. For her part, Tucker might occasionally stomp a boot, or lean back into a guitar riff, tossing her blonde hair away from her face, but the majority of her time was spent nestled to the microphone, eyes closed, and lips wavering. Lorinczi might have bent backwards for a guitar solo or two, but infinitely more interesting was his manipulation of an analogue tape loop device built into his guitar effects rig. As dry as that may seem, even that modicum of stage presence outshone that of Depper.
The band ended its set with current single "Neskowin" followed by the driving "Doubt." When the band left the stage I expected the night to end there, but the lights remained off, and the house music was held at bay while the audience made its weak call for an encore. Soon the foursome returned to the stage for an unscripted cover of The Selecter's 1980 second-wave ska hit "Three Minute Hero." I can't fully explain the joy of hearing the band pay tribute to this song, or how it instantly brought me back to my broad introduction to punk culture in the '80s, or why I instantly felt a kinship with the Tucker, but it did. Although Kansas City didn't brave the sudden chill to see the Corin Tucker Band, I'm so very glad that I did.