Kansas City is in the midst of a musical renaissance. And while it's been in this position before (I recall fifteen years ago when the city was hyped as the "next Seattle"), the current musical apex is not built on a pervasive style or sound, but on an disparate sea of talented acts working their individual asses off. While there are differences between bands that operate out of Kansas City proper and those based in the university satellite of Lawrence, Kansas, those subtleties can effectively be ignored as the two cities are a single musical market. The list of bands gaining national attention makes me positively giddy, and three of them on the same bill is too good to pass up.
The evening began a bit after 10:00 with the twitchy Kansas City band, Soft Reeds. The band is the musical outlet for Ben Grimes (formerly of The Golden Republic), and as such, has had a somewhat volatile line-up as he has added and subtracted players to meet his needs. The current four-piece incarnation (two guitars, bass, drums) has become my personal favourite for their ability to create lean, angular, and hungry post-punk. Here, it's Grimes's large hollow body electric guitar that takes centre stage (quite literally). With it, Grimes delivers a tone that is remarkably similar to that created by Gang of Four's Andy Gill. His vocals are delivered in a controlled yelp, easily aping those of David Bryne during the band's cover of Talking Heads' "Stay Hungry." As with both of those bands, Soft Reeds has a funky underbelly currently laid down by bassist Beckie Troost. There are no histrionics in the band's performance, so it may be Troost who is the most animated as her head nods and shakes out the band's slithering rhythms. As an added bonus, she provided backing vocals for the closing number – and current single – "Magic." It's amazing how free that song can be when it's not weighed down by studio synthesizer. After just 22 minutes on stage, and seven songs, the band thanked the small audience and bowed out. While entirely appropriate for its opening slot, I definitely wanted more.
The stage was quickly wiped clean of Soft Reed's angular pugilism, and prepared for the surging indie pop of Fourth of July. The band's predominately female fan base was also mobilised, quickly surrounding the young men who had previously held down the front of the stage alone. Five minutes before the band's appointed 11pm start time, frontman Brendan Hangauer launched his band into its opening number.
Fourth of July is a band that I fell in love with immediately, and one that I enjoy more with every live show. However, the more I experience the band, the less I feel I know them. There are time-honoured pop elements like multi-part harmonies, tight well-defined song structures, and witty lyrics rife with word play, but there is also a growling undercurrent that recalls Elvis Costello. Sometimes the glossy sheen of Squeeze coats a song, but soon a twee simplicity clears the air as songs float and bob out over the audience. The lead guitar work of Brendan Costello provides punctuating punches that signal many of these shifts, but it's the rhythm section of drummer Brian Costello and bassist Patrick Hangauer that is responsible for meeting the guitarist's goals. All the while, Brendan Hangauer stands at the fore of the stage, strumming mightily on a beaten Ibanez guitar, looking a lot like the manager of an insurance agency with his worn black shoes, no-nonsense slacks, Members Only-style jacket, and curiously unhip (even ironically) moustache. The band has never bothered to build or cultivate an image – either you like the band's music or you don't. Of all the bands blowing up in the region, this is the one most likely to intentionally step off the train, letting success (with all it's bonuses and befuddlement) pass right by.
The band's half-hour set was heavily weighted toward new material, including three or four songs from its upcoming album. The new song "Eskimo Brothers" was particularly engaging, and I look forward to hearing that one again. My next chance will come when the band headlines the Brick in Kansas City later this month.
While the the audience and stage shuffled for the final time, I caught up with Fourth of July's "manager" (her quotation marks, not mine), who explained all the exciting things happening for the band. I begged my leave when the room began to settle. By now the band's indie pop fangirls had migrated further away from the stage, and an older crowd (those who might have been pushing 25 – this is a college town after all) replaced them. As the area near the stage packed in tighter, I realized that a speaker which used to hang conspicuously at the edge of the stage had been moved, opening up exciting new sightlines. There would now be plenty of room for all of the headliner's dancing fans.
At 11:50 the foursome of Cowboy Indian Bear slid into their first song. After the funky pummelling of the opener, and the pop punches of the evening's second act, the headliner was a comforting reward. The band's dense, warm music slowly envelopes listeners, creating a headspace so rich and inviting that your body finds the underlying beats long before your head realises that you're dancing. The band's basic formula combines shimmering guitar with chiming keyboard hits, a prominent post-punk bass line, and tumbling drums augmented by additional electronic percussive loops, but instruments are discarded or traded in nearly every song, vocals are spread between three members, and both keyboardist Katlyn Conroy and multi-instrumentalist CJ Calhoun provide additional tribal percussion throughout the set – every song has its own path.
Just as all members (save drummer Beau Bruns) are called upon to perform multiple musical tasks, each also takes his or her stab at fronting the band and engaging the audience. While Calhoun and Marty Hillard tune or exchange their instruments, Conroy pipes up. On this night it was to make apologies for the long downtime between songs. In her words, the band was simply out of practice, but she expected the show to be much tighter as the band continues on a two week tour of the Upper Midwest. Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa during the first two weeks of February? The band is just tempting snowpocalypse there.
During this performance, the tour sendoff, the band played a number of new songs that are likely to appear on its anticipated next album. The differences between the new songs written since the arrival of Conroy and the older, pre-Conroy material are subtle on the stage. In fact, the stark songs from the band's 2010 debut album have been so radically reworked and enhanced, that the newer, more sophisticated retellings are essentially new songs. The band's recent Daytrotter session illustrates this nicely.
While indie rock crowds are notoriously stationary, by the end of the band's set the crowd was spinning about with their hands waving above their heads. It was 1am when the house music came up, but the college kids were just getting started. I, on the other hand, was resigned to retreat. The Kansas City region has a lot going on, and I knew I'd be at another show the next night, seeing the band that might just be the next big thing.