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Thursday February 7th, 2013 at Jackpot Saloon in Lawrence, KS
Berwanger, Hidden Pictures, The Way Back, & Margo May

At 9:00 the Jackpot was populated by a few regulars, a couple of employees, a sound-checking band, a band member's girlfriend, and me. Obviously things weren't going to get started anytime soon. In fact, it would be 10:35 before the first band climbed upon the stage, leaving me with a glut of time that I spent cleaning my camera lenses, drinking so much water that I had to visit the club's vile restroom, and completing one iPhone crossword puzzle after another. After the 95-minute wait I must have been a bit loopy, as I remember being thrilled by the mere appearance of opener Margo May. I decided whatever music she played was just going to be icing on the cake.

I'll confess now that I knew next to nothing about Margo May before her set. That, as regular readers know, seldom stops me from writing about a performer. Still, I felt I was more prepared than others in attendance. For example, before May's set, the aforementioned girlfriend asked her beau when his band would perform, he replied that it would be after Margo May, she asked what that was, he replied "a chick." So taking it from there, Margo May is indeed a chick. An early twenty-something chick in leopard-print tights, purple Doc Martins, and a comically oversized t-shirt. She stood on the stage alone, her long hair hanging behind her ears, opening up her face to the club's gruesome pale blue lights. Her electric guitar served as minor accompaniment for her lyrics and voice. A voice that is pleasant, clean, high, and although a little thin and breathy at the top of her range, stronger toward the bottom. She played a set of folky love/love lost songs built on soft open chords strummed behind her vocals, flanked by distorted power chords ringing out between lines – a mashup of Lois and PJ Harvey. This juxtaposition of soft vocals and aggressive, clanging electric guitar may have been engineered to piss off coffee shop patrons, or more likely, to ensure she never joins that particular sect of performers. The noisy elements were largely the result of a primitive strumming technique that sent her entire hand down across the strings with no thought to precision; listeners will either love or hate this. She proved her prowess with traditional chords during a sweet cover of Elliot Smith's "Twilight," but returned to her normal oeuvre for the final number in her 25-minute set.

Kansas City's The Way Back took the stage as soon as Margo May relinquished it. At that moment I wondered if this urgency was a sign of enthusiasm, or merely a desire to get the night over with. With only fifteen people in the audience (including other band members), the latter seemed like the more reasonable option, but the band had made the hour drive for its first Lawrence show, and was determined to make the most of the night by playing a full 45-minute set, including a drum solo, and ample use of a fog machine.

The Way Back is led by vocalist/guitarist Jeff Kinney with guitarist/programmer Alex Ellis playing the role of silent partner. Augmented by Paul Herman on guitar and synth duties, Daniel Cole on drums, and new bassist Michael Byrnes, the five piece blend glitchy electronics with a big alternative rock sound. Kinney's voice is a rock voice, jumping registers, and occasionally oozing the sort of seriousness that post-grunge rock bands prefer. Both Ellis and Herman provide backing vocals for big choruses, and when they both provide guitar as well, the band's sound is ginormous. Byrnes spent the majority of the set facing away from the audience, seemingly unengaged with his bandmates, focused on his finger-picked five-string bass work. Cole, on the other hand, was aching for the limelight, spinning his sticks throughout the set, and pounding out a long solo in the middle of the band's set. This was the first drum solo I'd ever heard at The Jackpot, and I hope it's my last. That's not to say he's not a fine drummer, but there's a time to go all out, and a time to play it cool. Cole and his cohorts misjudged their audience on this night.

It was a bit after Midnight when Hidden Pictures started its set. I was curious what it would bring. While the band has always been the creative vision of vocalist/guitarist Richard Gintowt, longtime musical collaborator and partner Michelle Saunders has left the band, requiring Gintowt to retool his songs for different instruments and a different line up. While Gintowt has experimented with new female vocalists (most recently recruiting Appropriate Grammar's Claire Adams), the line up this night was an all-boy affair with long time keyboardist Nate Holt picking up many of Saunders previous Glockenspiel parts, and regular drummer Cameron Hawk tackling the backing vocals. While this line up couldn't replicate some of the original sparkle, it made up for it in muscle. In fact, "Boyfriend A.D.D." from the band's previous album (Rainbow Records, Golden Sound, 2012) worked particularly well with this lineup. While nothing to lose, the band demoed two or three new songs for the small audience. The bright new song "I Hope No One Dies This Week" was breezy pop genius highlighted by a twinkling piano line that recalled Todd Rundgren's early '70s output. That's a good thing. Unfortunately Gintowt's illness-weakened voice soon gave out, moving from a pleasant David Lowery-esque scratch, through a hoarse Rod Stewart gravel, and finally to a painful croak by the end of the band's 30-minute set.

To make matters worse, there was no rest for Gintowt, for as soon as he completed his set with Hidden Pictures, he was called upon to provide guitar, and presumptuously backing vocals, for headliner Berwanger. Before the set began Gintowt informed Berwanger frontman and namesake Josh Berwanger that it would be best if he didn't sing, but Berwanger goaded Gintowt on, promising him and the audience that the set would only be twenty-minutes long. While he didn't keep that promise, he was surprisingly close.

Berwanger is an modern take on power-pop's blending of propulsive rock and simple pop. Since the band's live debut last November, it has quickly become one of the brightest new stars in the Kansas City scene, despite a live show that frequently lacks Berwanger's partner and musical conspirator Heidi Gluck – female backing vocalists are evidently in short supply in Kansas City. On this night Berwanger was hit with the double whammy of an absent Gluck and a weakened Gintowt, leaving the band's sound a bit thinner than expected. This had the unintended consequence of revealing the way each instrument fits into arrangements that previously seemed so basic and effortless. Who knew how often bassist David White slips in and out of the spotlight in each song, or how Gintowt's effects pedals make colouring cameos in songs without ever stealing focus, or that despite sitting behind a large kit, drummer Michael Hutcherson limits his playing to snappy rhythms played simply? And when not dazzled by vocal harmonies, one can really see how Berwanger shifts the mood by transitioning from cleanly picked arpeggios to flawlessly composed chords that bristle with life. While providing a glimpse into song construction was obviously not Berwanger's intent, sometimes a show seems to have it's own agenda.

In such a short set, there was little opportunity for stage banter, yet the jocular interaction between Berwanger and Gintowt still shone through. With Berwanger as the comic and Gintowt as the straight man, the duo couldn't have scripted a funnier introduction to "Neon Corners" from the band's upcoming TK Webb split 7". For those looking for a full dose of the band, Berwanger promises the band's debut album will be out this summer.

When the quartet finished its set at 1:15, the bar looked much like it did when I came in: a few band members, a few regulars, a few employees, and me. While no band, and no amount of fog, can turn an empty club into a rock & roll experience, small turn outs provide patrons with rare intimacy. It's this rewarding glimpse into a band's musical process that make a quiet night out just as entertaining as a roaring rager in a packed club. Thankfully the headliners knew which role they had to play, leaving me happily sated.