No one wants to read 40 pages of details analyzing a dozen punk bands and their twenty-minute fest sets, so let's see how short we can make this, while still committing it to history.
Center of the City Fest is an annual Kansas City punk fest celebrating its fifth edition. This year the organizers started the fest with the punkest thing possible – a rap act. And so it was that the night began with Breaka Dawn (from The Bad Ideas) rapping over backing tracks played on an Apple laptop. She was joined by Melissa Dehner (introduced as" MMD") who provided hype and a second voice, and (for a few songs) by LosCauz who came to trade verses. Rap makes me uncomfortable. Feels like cultural appropriation to me. I've got hang ups. Breaka Dawn doesn't. As she announced in the song "Be Everything," she's wants to be both a "gang banger" and a "punk rocker" and sees the two as different sides of the same coin. I can't. It just feels dirty to me.
Destroy Nate Allen were up next, and marking the occasion by playing with a full band (aka an added rhythm section) for the first time in years. Are they a punk band? Oh hell. Short silly songs feel more like "Yo Gabba Gabba" than "Gabba Gabba Hey," but we agree Atom & His Package were pretty punk, so make up your own mind. Really though, the band is about the stage show – a stage show often isn't on the stage at all, but involves interactive romps through audience. It's a ridiculous affair, and the costumed band has fun at every show. Possibly more fun than I've ever had. While audience participation is key to the band set, the married core of Tess and Nate Allen got very little – a fan or two, but the rest of the sparse crowd (including yours truly) wasn't interested in playing along. Again, I've got hang ups. Damn if Nate and Tess aren't the best people for putting themselves out there 100% every time. Now I feel like I let them down by not doing calisthenics with them.
Of all the bands playing the fest, I was most looking forward to Suicide Robins - largely because it was one of the few bands that I knew of, but hadn't seen or shot yet. And I like female fronted punk bands. The set put Melissa Dehner back on the stage (or rather the "stage"), but this time with her guitar, and standing in front of a microphone. Breaka Dawn was back as well. On drums (and backing vocals). There was a bassist too. Despite his five-string bass, he tried to stay out of the way. So it's loose and simple garage rock more than anything else. On first listen there weren't a lot of hooks to draw me in. Breaka Dawn kept getting reprimanded for playing too fast. She didn't give a fuck. That was entertaining.
Back on the mainstage was The Protesters in power trio formation. Green and black striped shirts made the band look like a gang of villains from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Damn why don't they wear little black masks across their eyes? Pop punk to blasting punk to full on hardcore all done well. It was like Gillman Street in 1993. The singer makes awful faces when he sings. There were mess ups and restarts. It was kinda charming. Vanessa would have loved them. She wrote MRR classified expressing her love for Reverend Norb and Pete Oblivion. I think she lives in Toronto now; someone let her know.
The Black Hand was next. I'd never heard of this band. I assumed the quintet was regional as the fest promoters have sucked in a few bands from Columbia and St. Louis. It was not. The band is local. How have I missed them? Hardcore. Just like I cut my teeth on. A singer that jumps, a few break downs, and plenty of youth crew appeal. Definitely more nuanced than the Spine or Blindsided set, but not quite to the post-hardcore point. Just right. 8/10 would definitely see again.
Wrong Alice are evidently alums of Center of the City. I hadn't seen or even heard them before. Sid fail. Curious fest selection as the band really feels like a roadhouse band. Shaggy hair and beards, guitar solos, tons of tambourine, a brassy female backing vocalist, players who really could play, catchy songs, and some really wonderful bass work. The band is led by Scott Dixon who I've seen around. I think he runs sound for some shows. Not sure what to make of his band in this context, but find me in the right mood, and I could go for a band like this.
Now we're to the folk portion of the show. We know this because there was a banjo player wearing suspenders. But there was also a guitar player in a battle vest. So Center of the City Fest approved. Slow Motion Commotion is a three piece that lines up guitar, banjo, and upright bass. There was folk punk, and folk, and straight up blues. Vocals were croaked, slide used on the guitar, and banjo strummed with a pick. A great energy, great songs, a backed room, and a really long set.
In the first night of the fest two bands cancelled and one (Alien Youth) was denied entry into the club. Visa problems? No, just underage. While COTC fest definitely covers a certain punk scene in Kansas City, there's an entire other Kansas City punk scene that it doesn't even touch. A blogger in town refers to the COTC set divisively as the "bar punk" bands – he's not made many friends in that scene by using it. That said, it would be nice if we could bridge the all-ages basement punk and "bar punk" divide. Maybe next year. Or maybe we just have separate fests. All this is a long way of saying there were last minute changes, and one of those was the surprise addition of American Dischord.
I suspect that American Dischord wasn't originally scheduled to play only because they were booked to play Midwest Punk Fest in Illinois the following day. But pressed into duty the band returned to tear things up just as they've done other years. Before starting, frontman Tyler Temple warned the audience the set would be a train wreck, but the revamped line up was as fast and tight as ever. So melodic, so powerful. And not afraid of the "rock" in "punk rock." For the first time in the night, a pit erupted in the audience. The band is playing basically every punk fest in the country this summer, and we couldn't ask for better ambassadors.
The next band left everyone asking "Who the hell are The Abominable Showmen?" No one knew before the set, and afterwards everyone only wanted to know more. An instrumental surf trio taxonomically, but frontman Jon Huffman isn't all strum and reverb twang. Yeah, he likes his tremolo arm, but there's also lots of power, and Kerry King would be proud of the speed on those leads. Wireless gear for a set on the floor? Sure and soon Huffman was walking on top of the bar, skinny tie blowing in the ceiling fan. Knowing the audience, at the end of its set the band launched into a couple of blistering punk covers garnering singalongs. Man my backing vocals during "Astro Zombies" were on fleek.
Here is where we got a bit of a gap due to the missing band. While we had been going from room to room quickly – without even time for a bathroom break (if anyone was brave enough for that) – now there was a delay as the next act set up the DJ equipment and synchronized light show. Both of which may have been firsts for the Center of the City Fest.
Ebony Tusks is the the rap project of Marty Hilliard. He did his time in the indie rock world as a member of Cowboy Indian Bear, but does Marty have punk credentials? If a battle jacket is required, then probably not, but if punk can be about outrage, standing up for the downtrodden, demanding a better way, and connecting with everyone regardless of their background on a truly human level, Marty is punk as fuck. While earlier Breaka Dawn rap act touched on classic styles like New Jack Swing, Ebony Tusks is dark, dense, and current. industrial noise and dub step chaos explode all around Mary's incendiary rhymes. While a few members of the crowd seemed familiar with the act (and the genre it plays in), the rest were just punks who couldn't help but be sucked in by a fantastic performance.
At every COTC there is a head scratching moment. And so now we talk about the dense shoegaze of Sundiver. I've caught the quartet before and found it perfectly enjoyable. It's a great act to open for The Life and Times (for example), but to play a headlining set at a punk fest, I just didn't get it. And I suspect the band didn't get it either. I didn't see the band members watch any of the other acts, instead they seemed to appear just in time for their set. Even on stage the band was standoffish, never engaging with the crowd. Compounding the confoundment, the quartet's set of textured indie rock seemed to go on forever. When the band was cut off by the fest organizers, its members seemed confused that they didn't get to play their normal full set. Head officially scratched.
And this takes us to the finale of the first night. Plug Uglies are a third-wave ska band, except for when they're not. On this night they were not. They were a straight up pop punk trio that were drunk off their asses, and having a wonderful time. The audience was right there with them on both accounts. Soon there was a small pit of pushers and dancers on the floor, crashing in time with the bands sonic punches. And while rowdy is a good and fitting way to end the first night of a three-night punk fest, watching the young girls in the audience fight off the unwanted advances of some handsy jackass in the audience was a real buzzkill. What the hell? I talked to the girls, and while none felt the situation needed to be escalated, it definitely ended the night on a sour note. Not punk rock, dude. Not punk rock.