Reunited and it feels so good.
The importance of aligning yourself with a particular musical scene has all but disappeared in the age of omnipresent musical availability. You can cast a wider net now, communicating with hundreds of online acquaintances to mine their tastes and favorites, rely on the recommendation engines of a dozen faceless websites to tell you what you will like, and read the criticisms of absolutely everyone with a large enough sense of self to detail their own musical voyage. And hearing all this music is but a click away. The world is your oyster.
Of course, this is a new development. When A Minor Forest and Giants Chair began, hearing about their music required hunting down paper zines (that themselves were often just as hard to discover), soliciting opinions from touring bands, and getting the recommendation of friends in this common scene. Actually hearing the band's music meant driving long distances to shows, buying 7"s from a friend who ran a "distro" from his bedroom, or sending well concealed cash to a record label run by a kid just like you. To be a fan meant being part of the scene, and that required active participation. Whether you were in a band, promoted shows, ran a label, a distro, or put out a zine, you did something. Often you did everything. The mid-nineties post-hardcore (a term we now apply though it was all just "punk" at the time) scene was a cooperative endeavor, and its successes were hard won victories. I'm not foolish enough to assert that music meant more then, but I know it did for me.
The evening began just after 10pm with Muscle Worship. While this local band is relatively new, its members are seasoned veterans of the post-hardcore scene. Early into the band's set bassist Billy Ning recalled the first time he saw headliners A Minor Forest nineteen years ago. He rattled off the list of bands on the bill as if he were thumbing through my period record collection. While Muscle Worship wasn't around in 1995, its members were, and those experiences have certainly shaped the band's tight, angular, and bombastic musical vision. Guitarist and vocalist Sean Bergman plays with a bevy of pedals at his feet, yet his always churning and yelping guitar work is defined by the constant use of his Jazzmaster's tremolo arm. The result is a sound that is always unsteady, always tilting, always on the verge of collapse. Drummer Nathan Wilder plays a small kit with no rack toms, just a constant thwack followed by exceptionally tight rolls between his thick snare and floor tom. Ning is a dichotomy – moving nimbly around the neck of his instrument, yet forceful picking every note. Of the three, he has the greatest license to move about the stage, and takes advantage of the opportunity – maybe not as much as in past project Proudentall, where he often thrashed about leaving his bass to ring in uncontrolled feedback, but enough that his lunges often involve short moments of flight. Near the end of the band's set, a second bassist was introduced adding a full growl to the band's sharp attack. But before I could access his real impact on the band's sound, its set was over. While the audience would have happily heard more, the band members themselves were anxious to hear the performers to follow.
When I moved to Kansas City in 1997, locals Giants Chair had just broken up. Many of the bands in this wave (not the first, but certainly the first that had impact) of emo were dissolving. Guitarist/vocalist Scott Hobart became Rex Hobart, indulging himself and audiences in a flight of Bakersfield-era country fancy. In 2002 there was a reunion and I was there, happy to see a band that I thought I'd never see live. There may have been other reunions before and maybe since, but the band's rather unexpected reunion on this night was certainly an event that brought out audience members from far and wide. As Hobart told the audience from the stage, the reunion simply happened because A Minor Forest asked the band to play. Is that really why Kansas City has not seen Giants Chair in over a decade? No one has asked the band to play?
Giants Chair began its set with "Mainline" from the 1995 album Red and Clear (Caulfield Records). In the long ten-song set that followed, the band delighted the rapt audience comprised mostly of fans seeing the band again – this is not the sort of Doc Martins nineties revival currently popular in mass culture. Sure the band were winded between songs, and Scott Hobart has lost some of his scream, and all the band members have lost a bit of hair, but Hobart's guitar was just are furious as ever, soaring to great heights, and crashing down in dissonance, with rapid fingers working quickly through the math-y passages. Byron Collum's fingered bass work had not lost step, and while drummer Paul Ackerman could be seen massaging sore forearms between each number, there was no trepidation as he pounded his way through the complex time signatures and sudden changes found throughout the band's body of work. I've said in the past that the best shows are the ones I write the least about – ones where I didn't have copious notes to draw from because I was too engaged in the band's performance. That is the case here. Maybe I'll have more intelligent thoughts to convey after seeing the band again on Tuesday May 6th at an early all-ages show at the Record Bar.
As the headliner transformed the stage for its set, I visited with friends, ate some popcorn (when did The Replay get a popcorn machine?!) , and surveyed the crowd. It was just as old and male as I expected it to be, but I hadn't counted on seeing so many other musicians in the audience. Why I hadn't expected it is beyond me, as not only was Giants Chair a formative band for many of the current area musicians, but its complicated arrangements and minor key preferences were instrumental in cementing the "Kansas City sound." So of course Chris Crisci of Appleseed Cast was there – could there have been an Appleseed Cast without Giants Chair? Is this what brought that band to Kansas City in the first place?
It was 12:15 by the time San Diego's A Minor Forest had rearranged the stage to its liking. Drummer Andee Connors was set up at the front of the stage, but he faced backwards toward guitarist Erik Hoversten and bassist John Trevor Benson. When a band has a unique set up like this, one of two things can happen: overwhelming musical complexity and virtuosity or unpalatable pompous wankery. Generally the difference is in the execution not the intent. Unfortunately that call would have to wait another fifteen minutes while the band worked through technical difficulties caused by a dead cable or a dying bass head or both. When everything was sorted, the band began a monstrous set highlighted by unexpected humility.
While I could spend time talking about odd time signatures and sudden stops, about a guitar that both twinkles and darts, about bubbling bass lines and chords, about slowly developing passages, about post rock and math rock, about the proficiency of these musicians even after such a long sabbatical, curiously the thing which made this set so utterly enjoyable was the humanity and personality injected in music styles discounted for cold detachment. A Minor Forest's not only brought its music to Lawrence, but it brought its flesh and blood (literally in the case of Connors bleeding knuckles).
For an hour (and then some) A Minor Forest played for friends and peers, immediately reclaiming an assumed bond with the audience that even the most revered local bands are unable to call upon today. After a few songs Hoversten commented that "this feels like it used to," and it did. Maybe not as wide-eyed as it was in 1995, but maybe those years provided some hindsight for the audience, letting us all know how unique the experience is, reminding us to appreciate it. There aren't many chances to return to the "all in" days of music, but this was one of them. Thank you to A Minor Forest for reminding us of how different this shared culture and shared experience differs from simply clicking "Like." Thank you to Giants Chair for adding your brilliant touches to the city's musical past and present. Thank you to Muscle Worship for continuing what you know to be right about music.