Friday April 6th, 2012 at Record Bar in Kansas City, MO
Middle of the Map Fest: Mission of Burma, The Life & Times, Thee Water Moccasins, Soft Reeds, Minus Story, & Deadringers
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Let's just start with the assertion that my job is a constant mystery and is often a pain. Without digging in to the details, on Friday morning I found myself boarding a last minute flight back to Kansas City, excited to catch a portion of the Middle of the Map Fest. I say a portion for several reasons: First, plans conspired such that I'd only be able to attend the Friday night functions. Second, music festivals terrify me. Even the thought of catching only portions of sets by a myriad bands gives me OCD nightmares. I have to see all the songs by all the bands on a bill or a discomforting unease takes over. As such, I allowed my wife to pick the venue, then insisted we arrive there thirty minutes before the first band, and not leave until it was all over. And yes, that is what I was looking forward to.

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I'm not sure if organizers have particular themes in mind when they schedule a festival, but the Friday night lineup at The Record Bar was built entirely of locals – including several newer projects of '90s mainstays – with the very notable exception of the end cap, Boston's Mission of Burma. Most of the acts were noisy in some fashion or another. Most of the fans in attendance were guys. And there were Guitars.

At 6:30 Kansas City's Deadringers kicked off the night with a rock & roll explosion, immediately hitting the unsettled audience with jaw-dropping dynamics delivered suddenly and with overwhelming force. It was the sort of crush that Black Sabbath built its first few albums upon. The bombast quickly settled as the band found a comfortable pace delivering a set of desert rock songs created from the trio's clanging hollow-body guitar, twangy bass, and furious drumming. The bulk of the band's material is this amalgamation of the blues, a lot of hard rock, a little psychedelia, and a touch of Americana, all filtered through a rough DIY aesthetic. And it was on this material that guitarist Ian Flower's yowling vocals most recalled early desert rock icon, Green on Red's Dan Stuart. Unfortunately, just as the band seemed to approach its peak, the trio lost focus, playing a long blues number that was stretched beyond its breaking point with endless guitar solos. And while the band may have hoped to regain the audience's attention by playing a cover, the effort proved moot when the cover was too arcane to be recognizable. For the band's final number, it returned to the combustible formula of the first song, leaving the audience pleasantly devastated, but still unsure what Deadringers might be all about.

While Deadringers is a young band still honing its sound, the second band on the bill is battling middle age. Minus Story was founded by Jordan Geiger in Boonville, Missouri, but over the course of 12 years, seven releases, and a move to Lawrence, Kansas, the band has gone into a bit of a hibernation. The fact that Geiger now fronts the NPR-approved band The Hospital Ships has only contributed to the languishing of Minus Story. But neither completely gone nor forgotten, Minus Story assembled on stage at 7:30 ready to remind audiences of its provenance.

At first blush, the music of Minus Story seems very busy. With three guitars, each with their own roles (if not visions), the fractured pop of the band swirls with cushioning noise. When three distinct guitar lines may not make sense, the five-piece shifts, sending guitarist Andy Byers to handle either second percussion or keyboard duties, or in the most intimate of songs, sending Geiger himself to the electric piano. Geiger's high tenor cuts a distinct clarity through each of the band's compositions, but Byers contributes wide stretches of vocals as well, with guitarist Taylor Holenbeck also adding backing vocals. Only bassist Brian Phillips and drummer Nick Christus are tied to a single task. The band's compositions take advantage of all this versatility and bandwidth, growing to the arena proportions of alternative rock chart toppers. Curiously it's these songs that sound the most dated, while the quirky Elephant 6-styled pop moments still remain fresh and enjoyable. Of particular note was "The Way Beyond" from the band's final full length, 2007's My Ion Truss.

In the week's leading up to the festival I was asked by a number of acquaintances which bands they should see. Invariably I told them about Soft Reeds. While few seemed to have taken me up on my advice (most seemed to have opted for the strong lineup at the Beaumont featuring Ad Astra Arkestra, Capybara, Cowboy Indian Bear, Mates of State, and Murder by Death instead), I remained enthused as the band – now a five piece – set up. I must admit my devotion was tested while newest band member Jeffrey Harvey struggled futilely to set up his keyboard eating away the first ten minutes of the band's allotted set time, though all was forgiven when frontman Ben Grimes and bassist Beckie Trost began entertaining themselves by playing bits of Gang of Four and Deee-Lite songs. I told you that you should have seen this band.

I've written about Soft Reeds before, so it's pointless to dig too deeply into the band's history or sound. But even for the diehard fan who has seen every Soft Reeds move to date, this evening would be different. Working with a shortened 35-minute set, the band slipped in a few favourites (including the better-each-time-its-played single "Magic") and a Talking Heads cover, but spent most of the evening previewing songs from the its forthcoming album. Although one might worry that the addition of keyboard/guitarist/second percussionist Harvey might make the band less nimble, that simply wasn't been the case; the band's new material positively bristles with post-punk energy. And not the sort of Bloc Party post-punk revival that is all disco beats, but one that still buzzes and lunges and yelps. While Trost seemed unnecessarily unsure about her backing vocals, Grimes is always "on." His stage banter is brilliant and witty – whether baiting the audience about tracks they hadn't heard before, poking fun of the car dealership logo they were asked to play under, or catching himself digging too deeply into the mechanics of a song, then shouting "Shop Talk!" as a launch into another tune – it was all great fun. Sadly it had to end early, leaving the audience to wonder what songs we might have heard in the full set, and looking forward to the new album.

The evening's schedule continued to slide as the large ensemble version of Kansas City's Thee Water Moccasins set up. There is a lot of prep work when the stage is filled by the five core members of the band, plus additional live augmenting by two female backing vocalists and a gentleman playing (what appeared to be) an euphonium or a baritone. Although Thee Water Moccasins is local, and features members from other bands I've seen countless times (Season to Risk, Dirtnap, Stella Link, etc.), the band carried little more than name recognition for me. In the spirit of the festival, I prepared to have my mind opened.

Like Deadringers earlier, Thee Water Moccasins began with a big Rock sound that spoke to the band members' other projects. Billy Smith stood at the front of the stage playing bass lines on a keyboard while leaning awkwardly into a microphone; his face contorted in a pained expression recalling Joe Cocker. Emotion is not in short supply. For the next song Smith retreated to the edge of the stage and picked up his guitar, allowing Steve Tulipana and his bass guitar access to the keyboards. This was the configuration the band used for most of the set, with either Smith or Tulipana contributing lead vocals at various times, and each addressing the audience as the mood struck. Soon, however, the pugilist elements of the opening songs faded away revealing a poppier side to the band that was now dominated by the synthesised keyboard lines of Wade Williamson (who also juggled guitar nearly simultaneously). The rhythm section played along obediently, with the drummer often adding flourishes over a pre-sequenced drum track. In the most buoyant of these numbers, the euphonium would also perk up, providing a bounding melody line. I do love brass. Oh and those backing vocalists? I couldn't hear them at all from my vantage point.

For the next 30 minutes the band continued forward, feeding the audience with its indie rock, and washing that down with rugged pop, but then something changed. Another shift happened bringing the sequenced synthesiser lines to the forefront, almost calling back to The Postal Service's (or at least Interpol's) heyday in the early 2000s. The transmogrification continued, incorporating West African percussion (mostly via a pre-programmed drum loop), until the band sat sonically alongside of KC's Capybara. No where was this more evident than in "Diablo Diablo" from the band's most recent album. While I may not have recognised this as the product of a Steve Tulipana and Billy Smith collaboration, you can't argue with a great pop song.

The schedule had slipped a half hour by the time The Life and Times began its set. While every mention of band must include the obligatory statement that vocalist/guitarist Allen Epley led the hugely influential band Shiner, the truth is that The Life and Times has now been around nearly as long as Shiner. I suppose the same could have been said about The Beatles and Wings though.

Over the past few years The Life and Times have settled into a curious musical den that exists on the fringes of taxonomy. Take Epley's vocals for instance: they're stretched and terribly sincere in a way that makes big nods to the '90s grunge and post-grunge eras. Both when recorded and sung live, they are heavily processed to be large, enveloping, and comforting. While those vocals place the band in line with other modern commercial alternative acts, the band's music is often contrarily abrasive and pummelling. Leading this attack is the unhinged percussion of Chris Metcalf, whose always-in-overdrive style both sets the rhythm for the band, and simultaneously plays counter to it. How bassist Eric Abert writes bass lines around that chaos is beyond me. Although the combination of noise and mathy precision seems paradoxical, the duality lands the band somewhere in vaguely progressive rock territory. The added synth lines and triggered sequences (played live by Epley), add atmosphere and send compositions meandering off on tangents, raising the spectre of space rock. The Life and Times' den, like most dens, is a man's place and the make up of the audience attested to that fact. However every man, woman, and child got behind the stadium-sized chorus of the tilting "Day Twelve" from the band's new album, No One Loves You Like I Do.

Epley is a veteran frontman who chooses his audience interaction carefully. His stage banter is both effusive and honest – when he tells an audience that he is happy to be there, it's obvious that he means it. Similarly, when he expressed great excitement at opening for Mission of Burma, it was decidedly not perfunctory.

Epley was not the only one amped to be at Record Bar that night. Since 10pm the club had been at capacity, allowing new patrons in only when other exited. While my wife had held her seat at the booth nearest the stage for six hours, just before Mission of Burma went on, she worked her way as close to guitarist Roger Miller as possible; I've never seen her more excited for a band. While the Middle of the Map ticket was an easy one to get, getting in to see Mission of Burma took either planning or patience.

Since the band reunited in 2002, every review of the band has included a long history lesson. Before the show I wondered if we were finally at the point where we could stop referencing the past and instead focus on the now. I'm happy to say that we (mostly) are. My proof is this: Just before the band went on I heard a kid in the audience tell another that he had never even heard Mission of Burma before last month, but that he liked the song he heard on the Middle of the Map website, so he came to check them out. Sure there were those in the audience who have deified the band for the lone album they released in 1982 before breaking up, but there are now kids who are just as excited to discover the band for their current material – new fans that are interested in the band, not the backstory nor pedigree. Great, let's move on from there.

The three founding members of Mission of Burma took the stage a bit after Midnight, and held it until long after the bar had turned up the houselights in an effort to clear the room. In that 75-minute set the band played 16 or 17 tracks that spanned its entire career, but with a heavy focus on songs from its forthcoming Unsound due later this summer. While the anthems ("This Not a Photograph," "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," "Academy Fight Song," "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate") were mostly concentrated at the end of the set, and certainly drew the biggest response (I can't remember the last time my body shook as I screamed out the lyrics to a song at a concert), the set was remarkably consistent. That's because throughout the band's history the same elements have come together to create a single vision. The mechanics of how such disparate personalities do it is curious and wonderful.

Roger Miller's guitar work is avant garde and bold. He makes as many rhythmic choices as he does melodic ones. And even the melodic ones are built with curious tunings or odd intervals. When he sings (and shouts) his face shows every bit of emotion. He's having fun, but the audience understands that this is not frivolous. Clint Conley's bass playing is understated, though his style is huge with lots of chords. The songs he contributes are much closer to pop than the experimentation Miller is known for. Neither vocalist sounds the way he did 30 years ago, but both sounded good. Drummer Peter Prescott, is another animal all together. His vocals and songs are righteous, ragged punk rock affairs, and the years have only served to make him more vicious. While he has indicated that these performances are taxing on him, the resulting explosions (both behind the kit and when he contributes lead vocals) act as life-affirming punches to the audience's solar plexus. Hidden away off-stage is Bob Weston (he joined the group in 2002, replacing original member Martin Swope), who digitally captures moments of the band's live set, manipulates it, and then reinserts it back into the mix. While these moments seldom stand out, audiences would be shocked to hear just how different the band sounds without this added dimension.

While I've made it my business to see the band as many times as possible, I was struck by a single thought while watching this performance: This band is punk. While the band fits much nicer into the post-punk storyline, and musically it has much more in common with Wire than it does The Ramones, Mission of Burma do it all in a way that continues to emphasize the foundations of punk rock. While post-punk revival bands focus on the progression gained by incorporating outside influences, they've all (from A to Z) downplayed the visceral punk root of their hybrid. Mission of Burma don't. Even at 50 and with painful tinnitus, Roger Miller is still writing and playing punk rock. And this thrills me.

As the night turned into morning, the audience thinned. Those willing to sacrifice their sleep and health were rewarded with nearly every song they came for. While I would have liked to heard "Fame and Fortune" from the band's classic period and "Nancy Reagan's Head" from 2006's The Obliterati, the band were playing a festival and not headlining their own tour, and not even those who came purely for Mission of Burma left disappointed with what they saw.

As I rode back home through Westport, past crowds of concertgoers standing outside of its bars and music venues, I was reminded that the city is in the midst of a large music festival. But for me, Middle of the Map Fest was just six bands playing a crowding, exhausting, and engaging show at the Record Bar on a Friday night. And that was about all I could handle anyway.

Too Much Rock / 4027 Locust Street / KCMO 64110