When my wife is out of town, chances are that you'll find me at a rock show. So after a productive Saturday where my to do list was whittled to nearly nothing, I felt that I had earned a late night out on the town. Luckily Sonic Spectrum – a local radio show (and much more) produced by Kansas City musical gadfly Robert Moore – had put together a great bill at the Record Bar. It was just off of the day's 102 degree high temperature when I hopped on my scooter, traversed the drunken wilds of Westport, and parked at the club. As always, I was about a half hour early for the 10pm scheduled start time.
The three members of Drop a Grand got a quick soundcheck just before show time, then vanished to apply obscuring costumery. Evidently the identities of the band members is something the trio wishes to keep under wraps. As such I'll only refer to the members as Chicken (for the drummer wore a beaked and feathered mask), Coyote (as the bassist wore a plastic canid mask), and Sunglasses (for the wig and sunglasses worn by the vocalist/guitarist).
Drop a Grand has been around in various incarnations for eight years, with Sunglasses being the only constant member. Various stylistic shifts have taken place, bringing in keytars and fourth members, only to drop them later when circumstances required it. This particular version of the band is about a year old, and has become the tightest, most focused version of the band yet. In fact, the band is focused to the point of simplicity. Simplicity in music isn't a bad thing.
Whether Drop a Grand is a raw garage act or a punk band is a pointless taxonomical quandary. Sunglasses plays big rock power chords, and small focused leads. Generally he has a high scratchy scream that recalls AC/DC's Brian Johnson, however it shifts to a frenzied bark when the trio rips through one of its one-minute punk blasts. Chicken's drumming is inventive and interesting without ever drawing attention to itself, but if you focus on his playing, you'll note all sorts of fills and curious beats happening. Coyote's bass didn't often venture beyond utilitarian, but his heavily distorted backing vocals contributed to the hazy, Lynch-ian quality the band set in motion with the masks. His howls (literally) between songs may have been my favourite part of the band's set, but that's not a dig – I really thought they put the band and its 20-minute set into context wonderfully.
While Sunglasses tried to get off stage without coming to blows with a drunk, adoring fan, the four members of The Quivers assembled their gear. The band was dressed in sharp suits and ties (with frontwoman Terra Peal wearing a party dress and heels). I looked down at my cargo shorts and trainers and immediately felt underdressed. It's over 100 degrees in Kansas City, who has that sort of commitment to fashion? Evidently The Quivers do.
The Kansas City quartet began with several soul-fuelled garage rock numbers that could have been lost tracks by ? And the Mysterians or The Standells. I was delighted by the familiarity of it all, even if keyboardist Todd Grantham may have borrowed a line or two from other artists. Maybe his Vox Continental organ was simply returning to it's roots? Somewhere in the middle of the set, Grantham's organ took a backseat to the guitar of Abe Haddad, and the band veered into rockabilly (even flirting with psychobilly) territory. Haddad may have worn the suit, but he refused to relinquish his signature doo rag. Similarly, his clone-of-a-Fender guitar might have been better replaced with a big Gretsch hollowbody, but when he tears through those big riffs, it's obvious the man knows what he's doing. At the centre of it all is Peal. She's a big gal, with an even bigger voice. Despite carrying bass guitar duties, she is an animated frontwoman and a spectacular vocalist. And ladies and gentlemen, she can scream. Oh she can scream. With all that star power up front, poor Bernie Dugan and his small drum kit were left without a spotlight. Worry not, The Quivers didn't suffer in the rhythm department, evidenced by several dancing audience members – one of which kicked her shoes off onto the stage where they joined the heels Peal kicked off moments before. All that dancing, all that sweat, and only a 20-minute set. That's a sure sign that something good was happening.
Ultimately it would be revealed that The Quivers drew the biggest crowd of the night. That is, their friends and fans came out in the largest numbers. However, everyone was curious about the young trio from Saint Joe that had recently begun to gobble up so much press. The crowd watched with rapt interest as Radkey's 17-year-old frontman and bassist worked his way through soundcheck. Just before 11:30 the band launched headlong into its nine-song, 30-minute set.
Radkey's list of influences are cute, and they're probably pretty similar to your own favourites when you were a teen – especially if you are male. Regardless of the decade there will always be teenage boys excited by Led Zeppelin; they come in a never-ending parade driven by angst, alienation, and impuissance. The band's key confessed influence, however, is The Misfits. While Radkey has frequently been labeled as Ramones-esque by the local press, it's really Glen Danzig and crew that shine most apparent in the band's blend of punk aggression and classic rock ballast. The crowd at Record Bar saw that immediately.
Radkey's sound is built by the power chords and surprisingly complex solos of 18-year-old Darrion (Dee) Radkey. His voice is deep – full grown man and then some deep. Like his brother Isaiah, his vocals are crooned, falling heavily from the sound system. On the rare occasion that he screams, his voice is disappointingly high and thin, reminding the crowd that this dreadlocked guitar slinger is still years from being allowed in most of Kansas City's clubs. Isaiah contributes vocals nearly as often, but only occasionally trades lines with his brother. His fingered bass swirls around the guitar lines creating a thick and powerful bottom end. Youngest sibling Solomon Radkey plays a small drum kit that he makes even smaller by focusing 95% of his hits on snare, kick drum, and a single cymbal. He beats the hell out them. In "Overwhelmed" he shifted to a breakneck double time pace without dropping a beat, and his all-snare fill in "Cat and Mouse" was relentless. This isn't the bright, breakneck and bouncing pop of The Ramones, this is something entirely Radkey.
Between songs, Isaiah breathlessly addressed the crowd, salting his banter with awkward expletives and introductions to every song regardless of the transparency. "This song is called 'Is He Alright?', it's about asking someone if they're alright." When he introduced "Little Man," he explained the song was about his grandfather forgetting his birthday, adding "Who the fuck does that?" I chuckled at the serious indignation in his voice, recalling the earnestness of of an earlier pre-teen punk trio Old Skull. Isaiah introduced the last song as "Teen Titans," explaining that it's about kids a lot like them, except for these kids have super powers. While Radkey may not save the world, they've certainly made the region pay attention to the once-presumed-dead Saint Joe music scene.
There was a 20-minute break as headliners Soft Reeds set up. The five-piece is deliberate and mechanical in its construction, but not in a hurry. It's members are used to headlining slots starting after midnight, and used to rolling with whatever punches a bill throws at them. Sadly, many of the audience members were not, and the crowd thinned before the band began its half-hour set at 12:20.
I've covered Soft Reeds a lot, and since Too Much Rock is entirely mine to do with as I please, I'll avoid repeating myself, and instead direct you to the links on the right. Suffice it to say, the band is rife with jagged riffs, heavy on funky rhythms, and completely in line with my favourite late '70s post-punk performers – particularly Talking Heads whom they regularly cover. For the last few months the band has performed as a five-piece, dedicating new member Jeffrey Harvey to keyboards, backing vocals, and an occasional bout with a tambourine. Although a fine utility player, his vocals tend to overpower those of bassist Beckie Trost, and his keyboard parts often distract from the angular guitar lines of Grimes and John Mitchell. Though I imagine the latter is entirely intentional as the band carves out their own sound, rather than simply aping Gang of Four. Thankfully the always relaxed and witty stage banter of Ben Grimes is left completely intact irrespective of the line up.
The majority of the band's 10-song set was taken from its forthcoming album. An album that, according to Grimes, is very nearly finished. To say I'm anticipating it would be an understatement. How will all the parts come together? Will studio wizardry rob the band of its live urgency, or hone its sound to a focused jab? We'll find out soon enough, but until then you can get a free taste of Soft Reeds when they play the Crossroads Summer Block Party on July 6th. I'll see you there, assuming my to do list isn't too long.