My love of music knows no bounds. That is, until it butts up against my love of Sporting Kansas City. So while the local dreamy electronic project Sinple opened the show at the Riot Room, I watched Sporting KC take its first step toward the Open Cup by defeating Orlando City Soccer Club at Livestrong Sporting Park. After the match I hurried home, dropped off my wife and mother-in-law, grabbed my camera bag, hopped on a scooter, and headed for the club. I wish I would have looked at the weather forecast first.
When I arrived a little after 10:00, Brooklyn's Class Actress was setting up its gear in the curiously quiet club. For nearly a half hour there was fussing as the synthpop trio worked to bring its electronics into alignment with the house sound system. Once everything was tested and adjusted, the band began its set, drawing the Tuesday night audience of 35 toward the stage.
Without argument, vocalist Elizabeth Harper is the face of Class Actress. It is her voice and her image that define the band. And image is important. On this night, Harper strode the stage wearing a white button up shirt that hung to her knees, yet was still mostly obscured by a long dark blazer. I think this was Demi Moore's uniform in St. Elmo's Fire. Near the end of her energetic performance, she delighted the crowd by peeling off both items, revealing a thin white tank and plenty of black bra. Although she was not terribly talkative between songs, she held the audience's attention.
But something else held Harper's attention. There were plenty of instances where Harper could been seen staring off into unknown space while pacing the stage or idly playing with the microphone stand. These may have been the singer's reaction to the overly amorous, and incredibly drunk, fan that stood at the edge of the stage, attempting to dance with (and "up on") Harper. Thankfully these temporary disconnects were balanced by the moments when her eyes locked with a fan's, and simply sparkled with connection.
While motion was the order of the evening, she did find her way to a small synthesizer for occasional leads. Most of the instrumental work was performed by Scott Rosenthal whose synthesizer provided the band's deep fat bass tones. Occasionally Rosenthal would be called on for guitar or bass duties as well. Rosenthal left all communication with the audience up to Harper, as did touring drummer Jeff Curtain. How Curtain was able to blend his beats with the backing tracks without the use of headphones and a click track is beyond me.
For 35 minutes the band played its bouncy take on '80s pop. Throughout this set several girls stood at the stage's edge, singing along to every song and smiling broadly during the breaks, several guys danced awkwardly, over-lubricated by the beverages in their frequently refilled plastic cups, and the rest of the audience watched attentively. This should have been a no-holds-barred dance party, but the showing was still respectable for a Tuesday night at the Riot Room.
On this bill, the prestige gap between opening act and headliner was largely an arbitrary one – both bands appeal to the same audience, and neither carry much name recognition to the world at large. While the headliner got a better light show then the opener, there were no more fans (and potentially a few less) when Penguin Prison began its set at 11:15.
Penguin Prison is the project of multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Glover. While it's tempting to look at his resume of remixes, watch his videos, and listen to his original electronic dance music, and imagine Glover touring with only a MacBook, he insists that his songs are meant to be played on a stage by a live band. To that end, Glover has assembled a trio of players to provide live drums, bass, and keyboards. Glover sings, and plays guitar when one is necessary. Unfortunately the identities of his backing musicians is evidently a tightly guarded secret as neither the Internet nor his own management company could provide me their names, much less their backgrounds.
Here is what we do know: Like Class Actress, Penguin Prison's electro-pop songs owe a debt to the music of the '80s. In fact, sliding Penguin Prison's "Fair Warning" single between Billy Ocean and The Jets in a 1987 sandwich would raise few eyebrows. This isn't a bad thing – those bands had huge hits – but it is hardly cutting edge. Thankfully, when performed live, the over-produced synthesizer hits and ancillary percussion were downplayed, leaving room for winding, funky, post-punk bass lines. This is what I enjoyed most about Penguin Prison's set.
As a front man, Glover is a hard one to figure out. He might be smart and coy, or he might be a jerk. Was he sincere when he told the crowd he was having a good time, or was he being condescending? Even after the band completed its 50-minute set, I wasn't sure. Maybe the rest of the audience had it figured out, or maybe they were too busy dancing to care – particularly when it came to crowd-pleasing tracks like "Don't Fuck with My Money" and "Hollywood" (a recent collaboration with RAC producer Andre Allen Anjos). Throughout the band's set, a quartet of women danced at the edge of the stage, while the aforementioned drunkard stumbled about, curiously still managing to mouth the words to every song. He must have been a huge fan, which made it all the sadder that he won't remember a bit of the concert. His friends (all wearing a uniform of button up dress shirts, khaki shorts, and boat shoes) attempted to steer him from away from trouble, though they had their hands full simply keeping him upright.
While I'll show my ignorance and age here, I was perplexed when the band covered the Lana Del Rey song "Blue Jeans." Not because it was a cover, but precisely because it wasn't introduced as such at all – it was introduced as a remix. The word "remix" has since lost all of it's meaning to me. During the song, as was the case during much of the set, the bassist and drummer exchanged gleeful smiles, communicating a obvious delight. They weren't over thinking it, the dancing audience wasn't over thinking it, but I obviously was.
When the set ended I zipped up my camera bag, told Glover I had been sent by his PR company and thanked him for the show, then stepped outside into a horrendous downpour. I immediately rescued my helmet in an attempt to keep it from sopping up any more of the cloudburst, then returned to the club where I planned to wait the storm out. However, after a quick look at the radar, I swallowed hard, poured the water out of my helmet, and braved the driving rain and flooding streets. Like I said earlier, I wish I had looked at the forecast first.