At 9:00 I was rushing home after watching the US Men's Soccer Team defeat Guatemala 3-1. At 9:15 I was in line at Joe's Buy the Slice, just in front of Marty Hillard. At 9:30 I was at the Riot Room, watching him kick off the second half of my night.
I've written about Lawrence, Kansas's Cowboy Indian Bear many times [see the links on the right], and while each performance is enjoyable, the set dynamics have changed very little over the last few months. As has been the trend, the foursome played a 45-minute set that skewed heavily toward songs slated for their now-completed, forthcoming album. These tracks accent the fullness and complexity of the band's hazy indie rock – adhering to the philosophy that if one is good, three (or more!) is better. For example, guitarist CJ Calhoun carries the bulk of lead vocal responsibilities, but every member provides backing vocals. And while Beau Bruns is nominally the band's drummer, both Calhoun and keyboardist Katlyn Conroy provide secondary percussion as well. And because three drummers aren't enough, the band also plays along to sequenced rhythm tracks. Hillard rounds out the foursome playing either slinking bass or chiming processed guitar. Both have their charms, and each highlights a slightly different version of the band. Despite a few technical glitches (the sequencer was sending an audible click track through the house sound system), the band remained relaxed and conversational, with each member addressing the audience and other band members as the mood struck. At times, this informal ease seems at odds with the band's position on stage, and its rising national profile, but this isn't news for fans of the band who are all aware of Conroy's preference for house shows.
A long delay preceded Shearwater's set, with the five touring members of the band not taking the stage until 10:55. Although the band is in the midst of a large national tour opening for Dinosaur Jr., the quintet elected to use their day off to join friends and musical compatriots Cowboy Indian Bear in Kansas City. Shearwater's connection to the region is well-established, with several members (past and present) of local buzz band Hospital Ships serving as long-standing member of the band. Unfortunately that band's Jordan Geiger was nowhere to be found on this night, nor were two official members of Shearwater: bassist Kimberly Burke and drummer Thor Harris. But worry not, it's guitarist/vocalist Jonathan Meiburg that drives and directs this band.
Like Cowboy Indian Bear, Shearwater's sound is heady and propulsive, though the later builds even grander compositions that frequently explode into noise. And while the bands share similar instrumentation, Shearwater celebrates the space between notes, rather than filling the voids with electronic chatter. The result is songs that are just as moody, but decidedly darker. While the band's releases cover a variety of ground, Meiburg's supporting cast was selected with its current album (Animal Joy, Sub Pop, 2012) in mind. As such, rock guitar Mitch Billeaud made his muscle felt nearly as often as colorist Lucas Oswald's guitars, keyboards, or backing vocals. The rhythm section of bassist Christiaan Mader and Danny Reisch were exceptionally busy, guiding the band through the complicated arrangements, and still finding time to provide accents and interest.
The kinship between acts didn't only apply to a shared musical vision, but to their preferences for the sort of dimly-lit stages that bedevil photographers, and their interaction with the audience as well. Although performing in front of a sizeable crowd, Meiburg avoided the frontman clichés, and instead spoke openly about the hardships of being in a small touring band, and his passion for it. He noted several times how excited he was to be playing with Cowboy Indian Bear, and expressed giddy joy at headlining a show rather than opening for larger acts, warning the audience that the band intended to play all night. This, of course, elicited cheers from the entire audience, though I noticed some of those same revellers slipping out the door after Midnight.
Ultimately the band played an strong 80-minute, fifteen-song set, including the crowd-demanded, but likely scripted, encore. Meiburg kicked off the three-song coda with a solo rendition of "Hail Mary" from the band's 2006 album Palo Santo (Misra Records). The song highlighted both his clear, haunting voice (something lost in the fuller rock compositions favoured on this tour), and his ability to lay down a real guitar freakout when given the space.
After packing up my gear, I found Meiburg outside talking to friends and fans. He was genuine, asking the name of everyone who spoke with him, and remembering it. In what may be a first for my post-show interactions with bands, I felt rude for cutting my conversation with Meiburg short. But after standing for nearly seven hours, I wanted to get home, take off my shoes, and see if there was any pizza left.