For the past few weeks I've been sequestered at a power plant in upstate South Carolina. This has, unfortunately, afforded me few opportunities to catch live music. Returning to Kansas City for the Thanksgiving holiday was certainly a welcome respite from work, and, of course, a opportunity to share in festive activities with family, but it also provided me with a chance to catch live music for the first time in nearly two weeks. Dismissing both relaxation and family, I slipped out of the house at 9pm, heading for The Riot Room.
The evening opened at 9:30 with a four-piece version of Kansas City's Berwanger. Curiously, this new project of The Anniversary's Josh Berwanger has played three shows thus far, and each has featured a slightly different line up. Tonight's version lacked the third guitar and backing vocals of Heidi Gluck, who, unable to find a sitter, remained home with the couple's child. While the lack of her third guitar was not terribly notable, her backing vocals were missed. Lead guitarist Richard Gintowt (also of The Hidden Pictures) was able to cover the absent "oohs" and "ahs," but he did so in a different register, slightly changing the balance of the band's indie pop. As was the case during the band's debut performance a month ago, drummer Michael Hutcherson remained mostly inconspicuous; however, the rattling bass work of David Glenn White was decidedly more prominent this time around. Similarly, while I remembered hints of garage rock then, those scruffy elements were nowhere to be found during this 25-minute Riot Room set. This is an excellent detersion, as it allowed the bands power pop instincts to bubble up nicely. Very nicely. While I've only caught two shows, I'm already confident that Berwanger is best new band of 2012. If only I could decipher the set-long obsession with Kansas City Chief's kicker Ryan Succop, I'm sure I'd be invited to run the band's fanclub.
As Berwanger left the stage, the six members of Louisiana's Gashcat began assembling their gear. And while there was some consternation as the synthesiser and vintage organ were set up by Haley Massey, and the "magic box" of effects was configured by Joshua October, the process came to a quick conclusion when it was revealed that only guitarist Kyle Craft would need a microphone. Rounding out the ensemble were bassist Rick Hancock, guitarist Landon Miller (both playing modern Dan Electro guitars) and drummer Jason Sedillos. Sedillos, it turns out, is a speed demon.
Gashcat's music, in a word, is eager. From the double time rhythms, to Craft's pushed, overly-earnest vocals, everything about the band says "go." Even the grounding foundation of the bass clef was jettisoned as part of the band's quest for streamlined pop. To wit, Craft plays an acoustic guitar flanked by the even brighter tones of Hancock and Miller's guitars. Massey provides no parachute; instead, her Ace Tone organ punches out the sugary sounds of a carnival, only egging the band forward. Furthermore, the swelling, disembodied tones of October's gear certainly do nothing to ground the band's sound either. While Sedillos could attempt to balance out the treble-happy band, he largely ignores the peril, allowing the sextet to work without a net. Luckily this is only pop, not the high wire. There might be a sugar crash, but everyone is going to be okay.
During the band's 45-minute set, Craft said little to the audience, resulting in short, wordless breaks between songs when there were breaks at all. And while October would occasionally dance behind his mysterious collection of electronics, most of the band remained stationary. Massey trumped the lot, choosing to wear her coat, stocking cap, and a sterile, serious expression the entire time she was on stage. I chuckled when Craft announced Massey would be selling CDs and other merchandise for the band; I suppose that at the end of the day, a cute girl, however disinterested, is still a better salesperson than a sweaty boy.
While Massey hawked Gashcat's wares, the stage was quickly reset for The Babies. As the band's two guitarists fiddled with their gear, I studied the duo remembering that they provide the band with its pedigree. Though, I must admit their celebrity eluded me when I was first introduced to the band some months back. It began when the The Babies PR agent sent along a glowing write-up of the band urging me to cover the show. While she made sure to note that The Babies is the side project of Cassie Ramone and Kevin Morby, she failed to mention either of the duo's full-time projects (Vivian Girls and Woods respectively) – as if everyone would know by the musicians' names alone. Because of my ignorance, I offered to cover the show, offered the band a place to stay, and offered to conduct a timely Thanksgiving-themed interview where Kate and I intended to ask the band members mostly about their gravy preferences. Although I thought I had made a friendly gesture, the PR agent was instead insulted on behalf of the band, and my gestures summarily dismissed with prejudice. You live and you learn. Bruised ego aside, my excitement about the show remained intact.
The Babies are, in a lot of ways, an obvious side project. Both Ramone and Morby provide guitar and vocals, each taking the lead on the compositions that they bring to the table. The songs Ramone sings sound, as one should expect, a lot like Vivian Girls songs; they're buoyant pop affairs with growling punk attitude. Morby's songs lack much of that fierceness, and instead add nuance and just a hint of complexity. Although the set wasn't entirely black & white – probably due to the creative influences brokered by drummer Justin Sullivan and bassist Brian Schleyer – there was an obvious division. Fortunately these differences were subtle enough to provide variation on the band's well-executed indie pop theme, rather than divide it. Like the sunny, warm, and jangling beach rock that has dominated the CD racks for the last few years, The Babies' music feels good, and listening to a set of it was nothing if not fun.
Sadly, listening to the songs was often more pleasant than watching the band perform them. Neither Morby nor Ramone were gregarious showmen, with Ramone setting the bar exceptionally low by singing behind a curtain of her stringy blonde hair, obscuring any display of emotion. This veil may have been just as well, and no one in the band seemed to have much energy, or be terribly excited to be playing the show. And while the audience definitely showed up, sang along, and even burst into dance on occasion, the members of the band seemed to still be suffering from a tryptophan hangover.
Before the short 40-minute set reached its conclusion, the band had played twelve songs drawn largely from its new album (Our House on the Hill, Woodist, 2012). Wanting more, the audience called the band back to the stage for a encore of the popping, Ramone-led "All Things Come to Pass" taken from the band's debut, followed by the single-only track "Somebody Else." Then, it was over.
While it was after midnight, and all of my family were already tucked into bed, I still decided not to linger too long at the club. After a round of farewells, I packed my camera and returned home to celebrate the rest of the holiday weekend my own way – huddled in front of a glowing monitor, editing photos and videos of rock bands.