I may be old, but even I could tell the vibes were off. Encore is a strange room. A sterile box with a tall deep stage that places the drummer far behind the band and fifteen feet from the front of the stage. It's not a bar (though there was a bar there and occasionally a bartender). It's not even a club. There are no tables, just a half dozen chairs pressed against the wall under a shallow ledge. A raised, fenced area with padded benches was to the side of the stage. Once the show began, the lighting in the room constantly cycled, seemingly linked with the stage lighting. I suppose it's an event space, but the lack of décor of any kind makes the room uninviting. Also, the ceiling is impossibly high – it's as tall as it is wide – contributing to an echo. And worst of all, it was empty. Just me, the opening band, and one of their friends milling about. As the clock neared the published 8pm start time a few other people had come in: a few lone wolf guys in their 30s, a dozen young girls who came in pairs reminding me the show was all-ages, and a few older likely-relative types. I wondered about the headliner and about the show's promotion. I wondered who the target audience was. And I wondered how this all came to be. Nothing made sense. Vibes were just off. But the show was on.
Daniel Gum took the stage accompanied by his loyal band comprised of bassist Joel Stratton and drummer Micah Ritchie. Gum's music can come in several forms, and more if you count each of the intersections possible. Initially, there's power pop in the school of Big Star. He replicates the gorgeous melodies and earnest longing of Alex Chilton better than anyone I've ever heard. The set included a number of those songs – ones both old (from his debut record) and new (slated for the next record). They lift me up. He also plays quiet songs rife with a melancholy that evokes Elliot Smith. These often work better in his solo acoustic set, though the eleven-song all-electric setlist dipped a toe into this territory several times. Closer "Parker Posey" from that motif worked exceptionally well. He wears each of those influences on his sleeve and has covered both in his live sets. But neither were covered at Encore; instead the band chose to cover "You Wreck Me" by Tom Petty. The original’s jangle might seem a good fit for the band, but curiously most of that buoyancy was stripped as the band played the song in a third style Daniel Gum has recently embraced – a loose and noisy ‘90s indie rock pastiche. Many of Gum's newest songs fit into this category. They're songs too new to be recorded for the new album. Songs for the one after that, perhaps. The live trio excel this style – a sort of more urgent slacker rock that's somewhere between Pavement and Nirvana. The still-forming songs in this category tend to disintegrate as much as end. The audience appreciated the chaotic pedal-driven apexes of these songs the most if applause is the measure. Between songs Gum admitted he was nervous. He’s a shy performer, but wickedly smart and funny, and able to deflect. Ten seconds into one song he realized the capo was a half-step too high, forcing his band to restart. In another it was a half-step too low. As he fixed the error this time, he mimed a mea culpa to his band and the audience, then began again with a fresh smile. In one tuning break he began to plug his merchandise but instead became infatuated by the jeans he had brought to the table in hopes of rehoming them. The interested audience heard about the Wranglers for a solid minute before the set continued. I think the small audience enjoyed this as much as I did. If not, well, the artist they came for was up next.
Headliners The Aquadolls intrigue me. The band started as the bedroom project of a teenage Melissa Brooks over a decade ago. The band's sound was steeped in the California sunshine with warm pop waves not far from Bleached or Best Coast. Early releases found their way to the once-venerable, now-shuttered Burger Records. Soon bassist Keilah Nina and drummer Jacqueline Proctor cemented Brook's rhythm section, and the trio released handful of singles along with a second album. Nothing about this path is curious. In fact, the band sounded as though they'd be right up my alley. Yet somehow, I had never heard of the band. A quick Google shows the band has performed in Kansas City at least twice before – once on a big tour at Azura Amphitheatre, another as an opener on a package tour at The Truman. A search shows dozens of shows across the country but mostly festivals and large outings. Did the band never play the DIY punk clubs and dive bars in Kansas City? And how did they end up at Encore? Was it the result of formal management? Extreme social media engagement? Alas dear reader, I have no answers, so let's talk about what I do know.
The house music switched abruptly just before 9:30 and "Barbie Girl" by Aqua enveloped the room. I looked up from my book, as the three members of The Aquadolls bounded on to the stage with all the energy of a cheer competition. Then the band launched into "Burn Baby Burn" from its forthcoming third album, Charmed. The guitar tone was gnarly, the bass big, and the drums snappy. Brooks was a bit of a kitten, but the sort that carries a switchblade. You wouldn't want to mess with her. Nina and Proctor offered backing vocals. I was amazed as this version of Aquadolls was straight up garage rock delivered by a trio of tough grrrls. As the set went on, the mood shifted. Slower and less intimidating surf tunes made their appearance – not as exciting, but ever so enjoyable – and then there was the bubble grunge. Bubble grunge is a loosely defined genre consisting of glittery pop songs with bits of '90s angst and loud guitars. A few of the most energetic ones were only steps from the riotous Le Tigre. Brooks has a mighty good scream.
As the band worked through its hour-long set, some of my prejudicial notions were dispelled while others were confirmed. Brooks has a big personality that comes with crocs, pig tails, sunglasses and the determination to put on a show. While the band did have a score of fans in the room, audience participation was just not going to work no matter how hard Brooks tried – and she tried hard. Between songs she and Nina both provided banter, often explaining the intent of songs. "Rich Boyz" came with a long story from Brooks about a girl smashing the windshield of her assailant's car. Nina dedicated that song to all the "bad bitches" in the audience (she made sure to explain "bad bitches" was gender neutral in this context) as well as "anyone who has ever gotten so drunk that they threw up." Later Nina explained "Boys Who Sk8" was both about deserving more than stinky skater boys as romantic partners, and also about wanting to be them because they get all the hotties. Eventually I figured out this was music by and for Zoomers, and I made my retreat to the benches. A few songs later generational differences became a topic again, as the band covered "Take Me Away" as seen in the 2003 Freaky Friday film. Thankfully no body swapping happened – it was a Monday.
After completing their set, the band slipped back to the merch table where nearly everyone in the room now waited in line – there's no clearer sign that the band had put on a good show that satisfied their audience. As I walked home, I reexamined my initial concerns. The room was weird, that's objectively true, but maybe the vibes weren't actually off. Maybe they just were at one of those high frequency that can't be perceived by old guys. That's okay, I had still found a band whose music was great, and the vibes will be perfect when I play the record at home.