Kate stood in the dark asphalt parking lot, drooping her shoulders in an attempt to hide within the small strip of shade created by tented booths. She reloaded the Weather Bug application on her phone like it were a slot machine. Does 104 feel different than 102? Both are dangerously hot. I'm not sure how many more Kansas City summers she has in her. But abandoning Kansas City would be such a shame now that the local music scene seems to have gotten organised, focused. While the city can't yet compete with the never-ending stream of music-driven block parties and festivals that Kate and I enjoyed while living in Chicago, Kansas City has begun filling up its social calendar at a breakneck pace. The latest is the Crossroads Summer Block Party organized by Golden Sound Records, Mildred's Coffehouse, and The Pitch. It's this six-hour, eight-band bill that had us out in the direct afternoon sun, surrounded by the exhaust of food truck generators, and hemmed in by barricades that temporarily reserve 19th Street for local vendors and a glorious stage.
At 5pm there were but 20 anticipatory fans present, and all, except me, were clinging to that strip of shade – I was braving the sun in an attempt to frame a better photograph. After a quick introduction from the event's emcee, local six-piece Spirit is the Spirit began its 25-minute set of exploratory indie rock. The short set served to focus the band's intent, forcing out some of the epic, explosive compositions, instead making room for the airier, almost jam band-like elements. I wasn't happy about this development. While the backing cast played musical chairs, swapping a bass for a trumpet, or a keyboard for a trombone, frontman Austen Malone holds a steady trajectory. He probably knew that the brooding and atmospheric elements of the band wouldn't play well on a blindingly bright stage, but still, he was jovial, and put a lot of energy toward winning over the crowd. Results were mixed, but the band was solid nonetheless.
There's was a long break between acts as the two-man sound crew worked to find its rhythm and defeat arising technical difficulties. As a result, the Caves began 10 minutes late, and suffered with microphone issues throughout its abbreviated set.
Since the band's inception, fans have been left confused by an unstable live lineup where frontman Andrew Ashby is the only guarantee. So while this block party version may not have been the exact foursome the band publicizes, with Ashby ready with his guitar, Jake Cardwell securely at the drum kit, and Elizabeth Bohannon behind her electric piano, the necessary components were present to create the band's ambling pop. Ashby's sleepy vocals found a comrade in the hot afternoon air, filling the street with easy songs, that were bolstered by Bohannon's hand shakers even when her faulty microphone hid her vocal harmonies. The Caves' music may have very well been built for relaxing on lawn chairs, drinking beer on porches, and sunny gatherings just like this one. How could this not go well?
Like The Caves before them, Ghosty is a pop band with a smooth, almost ethereal easiness about it. Throughout the band's nearly 15-year career, singer/songwriter Andrew Connor has consistently wowed critics with his wry lyrics, round voice, and the rich tones from his strummed hollow-body guitar. Along with Bill Belzer's steady drumming, and the bouncing, skipping bass work of Mike Nolte, the band delivered a solid, if low-key, performance. Just as the band played the fan-favourite – and NPR-lauded track "Big Surrender" – the sun began to sink behind a tall building, producing an enticing shadow near the stage.
Up until this point, each act was one that I had seen before, and many of the performers were old friends and scene stalwarts. As Fullbloods took the stage at 7:15, this changed – not only had I never seen the quartet, its Millennial members were clearly ten years younger than those in the preceding acts. Frontman Ross Brown is the face of the band; he has the rosy cheeks of a cherub, and the preppy look of an East Coast elite. Brown's Rickenbacker guitar and Alex Chapman's Hofner bass ensured the band's sound remained bright, however the quartet's set still traveled from buoyant indie pop led by the snapping drums of Bill Bollock, to thick shuffles accented by the could-be-country leads of guitarist Glenn Shipps. While I had a hard time pinning the band down at first listen, the mobbing audience was already sold on the locals.
The shift from Fullbloods to Everyday/Everynight was seamless. Not only do the two bands share a label, but the bands were nominated by the Pitch as Best New Emerging artists in consecutive years. However, while Fullbloods' sound is firmly rooted in pop structure, Everyday/Everynight aren't afraid to toe into post rock territory. That sense of adventure makes the latter infinitely more interesting, but just as difficult to categorize. Although the band is a five-piece, its sound starts with jittery frontman Jerad Colton Tomassino, and is propelled by Mat Shoare. Together the duo trade instruments (guitar or keyboard), trade roles, and simultaneously tear apart and rebuild the band's sound. Shoare's falsetto is lush and shocking, Tomasino's stage explosions lost him both a guitar strap and unplugged him in separate incidents. Even in the typically glacial post-rock moments, there is a lot going on. I had trouble keeping up and then!, then there was this glorious anthemic closer. Although I'm still not sure of everything that happened, it was obvious that Everyday/Everynight's set served as the transition between a lawnchair-would-be-nice street festival and full-on a rock show.
The 20-minute pause between acts allowed me enough time to visit the five or six food trucks assembled on the block and weigh the vegan options. I settled on the rather dull-sounding – but incredibly satisfying – hummus and rice stuffed pita at a truck I now can't remember the name of. As I ate, the sun dipped below the horizon, and the intensity of the stage's red spotlights grew. Hundreds of people walked down 19th Street as part of the monthly First Fridays promenade, while hundreds more stood in the street. The mosquitos came out as well.
When the sound was right, the established foursome of Cowboy Indian Bear began its half-hour set. I've written about the band many times, so I encourage you to read those accounts (to the right) if you're interested. The short version is that the band's deft blending of heady atmosphere, skittery rock, and dance-enticing beats make Cowboy Indian Bear not only one of the best bands in the region, but has earned it a national following as well. As has been the case for the past several months, the band's set focused on new songs from its forthcoming album. The outdoor setting proved an excellent venue for highlighting the vocal harmonies between keyboardist Katlyn Conroy and multi-instrumentalist CJ Calhoun, however there simply wasn't enough volume to envelop the streets the way the band typically saturates smaller rooms. I think to truly appreciate this band, you need to feel its music – an airy setting just doesn't do it justice.
Golden Sound's final offering of the night was Empty Spaces. And as was the case with the earlier Golden Sound bands, this was an entirely new experience for me. While initially a Mat Shoare solo project (remember him from Everyday/Everynight?), the band has grown to a three piece put together to showcase what must be the many whims of its creator. Shoare delivered big on the delightfully disinterested deadpan of "B-52s," but that modern blank wave gem would be a bit of an anathema as most of the set skewed toward rock & roll, garage rock, or rockabilly – the latter really sold by the rattling bass of William Brent Wright. This eye to heritage brought both young and old alive, inspiring dancing in the streets, and plenty of crowd participation as the audience shouted out the "PEnnsylvania 6-5000"-like refrain of "Party Line" on cue.
As the stage was prepared for the headliner, the block party had already begun to assess itself. More than one food truck had closed after selling out its entire menu, trash barrels overflowed with plastic water bottles and beer cups that should have been recycled, and the casual observers who walked through the cordoned off street were becoming fewer and fewer. The families and vendors had packed up and headed home, leaving the streets to the 20-somethings exhibiting the effects of battling a long afternoon in the sun with cold beer. But this wasn't the end of a weekend music festival, and no one stood pinned to a barricade for 12 hours in an effort to see an international rock star – the stakes weren't that high. No one was passed out, and there was no first aid tent treating the ignorant and overzealous. Still, what had begun as a day of music on a closed street in the very hot sun had, for better or worse, taken on some of the festival trappings, and it was about to be closed in festival style by Kansas City's Soft Reeds.
With the initial twitchy riff of opener "Funny Patterns," Soft Reeds came to an understanding with the audience: the band would provide an infectious post-punk soundtrack, as long as the audience would jump, flail, pogo, and jerk at the edge of the stage. The two players would honour this contract, exchanging their energies for an an all-too-brief 35-minute, ten-song set that showcased material from the band's forthcoming album. The set deviated from this plan only long enough to plug in two fan-favourites from its 2010 Soft Reeds are Bastards album, and its now-ubiquitous cover of Talking Heads' "Stay Hungry." But regardless of the material's origins, funky bass lines from Beckie Trost, steady beats from Josh Wiedenfeld, and jagged guitar lines from Ben Grimes and John Mitchell are pervasive. The keyboard of newest member Jeffrey Harvey rounded the band's sound a bit, but hadn't a prayer of softening Grimes's excitable yelped vocals. If Soft Reeds aren't the best band in Kansas City, no one tell Grimes.
After the echoes of closer "This Affair" ended, with stage lights still burning brightly, the block party organisers announced their intention to make this a regular affair. A weary cheer rose up from the concertgoers whose focus had already shifted to passing through the barricades and returning to their cars. While the organisers and their friends would continue the party at a nearby bar, I knew that I was only at the cusp of a long hot weekend. Whether it was commitment or stupidity that sent Kate and I out to stand in the afternoon heat six hours ago, we had persevered, Kansas City had triumphed, and I intended to celebrate the victory with a shower, not an encore.
(This article was edited on 7/23/12 to correct the title of a song played by the Empty Spaces.)