I leaned in toward Josh, pointing at the unfamiliar four-piece on the stage, "Who is that?" Josh replied with long and flattering biography of Lawrence's Spencer Brown, but then stopped short of recommending the entire quartet, explaining, "I've only seen him play solo."
Spencer Brown is a new commodity in the local music scene, yet whether treating audiences to his explosive acoustic folk, or, as here, delivering a set of rootsy pop rock, his expressive voice immediately earns him mention alongside of the areas top bands. Beginning with a real burner, and continuing through a 30-minute set of short, well-crafted songs, Spencer and his backing band worked to engage a room of other bands' fans. While the songs were there all along, it wasn't until a well-timed blending of Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" with Tom Petty's "You Got Lucky" that the audience perked up. Luckily that track brought the audience in just as the band made a push through a trio of its most satisfying songs, including closer "Used By You" (slated for release on a future demo EP imaginatively titled Part II). Here the backing vocalist – who nervously wrung her hands during the set's early moments – stepped into the spotlight, belting out full-voiced accompaniment, the band's bassist leaned back as his hands climbed the fretboard, and the drummer let loose a furious fill, all bolstering Brown's guitar work and excellent lyrics. Afterwards I caught Josh's eye across the room, and sent him a thumbs up of appreciation.
Although landing in similar places in Kansas City's music scene, both Brown and the evening's support act, Schwervon, took entirely different paths, with Brown seemingly sprouting from the area's soil fully formed, armed with excellent songs and a strong vision, and Schwervon appearing suddenly with a charming wit and ingenious songcraft earned by years of recording and touring from it's previous home base in New York City. While Brown begins his climb, Schwervon circles the summit of Kansas City's musical mountain.
I've written about Schwervon more times than anyone would care to read, so it's tempting to ignore the band's music and report on the happenings, or worse yet, only detail the variances. This would be a disservice to the band, as each time I see it, I'm reminded of just how powerful this duo truly is. In a 45-minute, eleven-song set, the band mixed the popular songs from its canon with older tracks reimagined for the band's forthcoming album Broken Teeth scheduled for 9/3 on Haymaker Records).
In most cases these new arrangements blended perfectly with the tried and true audience favourites, testifying to the strength of the band's material.
Although audiences are always kept on edge by the band's jittery compositions, during this set an exceptionally hot snare ensured that Nan Turner's punchy drumming was more dangerous than ever. This snare stood in contrast to Matt Roth's guitar, which was noticeably less toothsome than usual. Whether intentional or not, this lack of roar brought out his nuanced picking – particularly in "Side Saddle," an honest-to-goodness ballad scheduled for Broken Teeth. While the audience wasn't entirely sure what to think of the softer side of Schwervon, following track "Truth Teller" immediately brought the fans back around. And all the band's regular fans were there. Breaka Dawn had a brief moment of improvised interpretive dance with Nan (though there was no show poetry or full tap excursion), "Dancing Charlie" (as he was greeted from the stage) held true to his moniker throughout the night, and Kurt from the ODs snapped photos from his portable camera for an ever-growing and unseen library.
With no show poetry, this left more time for Roth's curious tangents. On this night they all centered around Branson, Missouri. Excited to talk about his eye-opening adventure there earlier in the week, Roth reached out to the audience only to be met by silence. From that point forward each break was a chance to continue his questioning disbelief that no one else had ventured to the nearby vacation destination (for the elderly, the tacky, and the devout). As always, you had to be there.
The evening's headliner demonstrated yet a third path into Kansas City's musical heart: the comeback. Fifteen years ago Josh Berwanger fronted The Anniversary and rode that band to great heights. Immediately afterwards, he struck again with The Only Children. And now, years later, Berwanger has again claimed his spot alongside the current elite with a project bearing his name. Each incarnation is entirely different, yet each has the same simple heart – a heart that is pinned to the sleeve of big riffs, sing-a-long choruses, and honest lyrics. Yet, despite his decades in the music industry, he remains an outsider and underdog, and Kansas City will always root for the underdog.
Each Josh Berwanger Band set is a bit different from the last, with each influenced by Josh's mood, and which musicians join him on the stage. This night's lineup featured the current rhythm section of bassist Brian Klein and drummer Jesse Petas, alongside guitarist Zach Shoffner. Shoffner hadn't played with the band for six months, but was pressed into duty when current guitarist Heidi Gluck was unable to make the show. The result was a set that focused on the band's last album, eschewing the new tracks that have recently started to appear in the band's live set as preparation for its sophomore release. These older songs were tight, played fast, and delivered in rapid-fire succession without time for applause or banter. When the band did stop to tune, it was the audience that derailed the pace, engaging with Berwanger, sending the affable frontman into tangents, and inspiring Schoffner to join him. Berwanger's interaction with the audience is always humorous, but often so insular that it can be alienating for the uninitiated. Luckily this was an audience of friends and fans who understood Berwanger's usual fixations with horror movies, basketball, and chain restaurants. And on this night, a new infatuation with Riot Fest was added. Throughout the set he repeatedly thanked the audience for coming to see him play Riot Fest. Sure he was only performing on The Brick's small stage to 25 fans, but that didn't stop him from announcing a post-fest DJ set that he would (not) be playing.
As with Schwervon, I've written about Berwanger's music far too often to offer any new insight. Simply put, everything just clicks in Berwanger's songs. Each song is an excited Pop Rock sizzling on your tongue – a three-minute sugary blast of energy with a big guitar solo. And on this night, Shoffner played the solos, contorting and bending with his guitar, radiating energy in a way that the band's other guitarists never muster. It was good to have him back, even if it meant that Gluck's backing vocals were missing. Still, there was remediation for that when Britt Bowman joined the band on stage to provide the backing vocals for "I Can Feel The Moon." While Heidi's vocals are impossible to replace, watching Bowman and Shoffner share a microphone made for great visuals. And although band's energy level dipped a bit during its cover of "Adolescence" by forgotten band The Crack Babies, when Berwanger closed with "Baby Loses Her Mind," everything was right with the world.
As the feedback died down, I quickly made for the door, barely stopping to return waves of goodbye. My wife thought I was crazy when I left the house just before 10pm. It was cold (as cold can feel on a suddenly fall night), already late, I was running a temperature, and the bill was weighted with locals that I had seen a dozen (or more) times each. But if two of Kansas City's top acts aren't excuse enough to leave the house, then the promise that each unknown opening band might just be the next flag bearer for our excellent scene should be. As I pulled on my heavy gloves and kickstarted my scooter I knew I had made the right decision.