I prefer seeing bands in all-ages venues. I saw my first punk show at a VFW Hall, and soon afterwards I cranked my own amp in the basement of an unlicensed all-ages venue. I sold 7"s, optimistically calling it a distro, at illegal punk houses, and later shilled my zines at all-ages clubs across the country. I'm comfortable in these places because I know the rules, and, for the most part, I know the people that are going to be there and what I can expect from them. For 25 years I've never hesitated to follow a flyer to an inner city punk house or a suburban Elks Lodge to see a band with an amusing name, or with a genre or location attribution that struck my fancy. But now that I'm older than most of the other attendees' parents, I do wonder how I'm received. Am I an undercover cop? A helicopter parent? A creeper?
At my VFW Hall in Beech Grove, Indiana there was a middle-aged couple that used to come out to shows. I have no idea how old. To a seventeen-year-old kid, I only knew "old." Were they 60? Where they 50? 40? I'll never know. But I do remember that I was in awe of the greying twosome that drove a sedan so covered in Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sex Pistols stickers as to make the back window completely useless. Never once did I wonder why they were there; to me, it was obvious – Zero Boys was the best band in town, and this is where they were playing. That couple is in the back of my mind every time I open the door to a dubious all-ages venue. Lately that venue has been Kansas City's Art Closet Studios.
Sybassion began at 8:30 in the middle of a violent Midwestern thunderstorm. The band is a local three piece that probably skews more towards indie rock or some third generation punk offshoot like post-mathrock than the traditional fare played at the club. Yet, the club promoted the band as "punk" which sent twitters through the trio who then urged their friends to the show with "Come watch us be a punk band this Sunday," and "We ams [sic] genre chameleons." By the looks of the crowd, their friends did not take the irony bait. While the weather likely contributed to the low turnout, it also set the mood for the band's brooding, complex, and occasionally bombastic instrumental rock. As with the case in all the genre's best trios, finger tapped and jagged guitar work (Brodie Belt) is balanced by big mutating bass runs (Ben Chipman) and rapid syncopated drumming (Adam Brumback). But rather than trying to beat Don Cabellero at it's own game, the band occasionally opened up it's sound to incorporate pastoral moments of quiet before roaring back with floor-shaking volume. Despite the small turnout (which numbered at only a dozen including other bands and staff) and the oppressive heat inside the club, Sybassion played a healthy half hour set then packed it in.
Despite honest and concerted efforts, spaces like Art Closet are heavily stratified, and often cliquish. Patrons and promoters push to create an all-inclusive space, building quick and lasting bonds between patrons and house bands. But for those bands that sit just outside of this tight knit circle, that camaraderie can be a wall. I believe Lawrence's Vigil and Thieves hit that wall.
Vigil and Thieves is a new three-piece indie rock band with a sound that embraces every subgenre signifier from pop to queercore. It is led by the clean show choir vocals of Sarah Storm (who also contributes either piano or guitar) and the winding guitar work of Stephanie Castor. Drummer Andrew Flaherty is a role player at best. Storm seems like an amiable sort, but despite her frequent banter, she couldn't make any inroads with an audience that while polite, remained unmoved. Compounding the discomfort, both Flaherty and Castor were silent, leaving Storm to fend for herself. Although Storm's voice is strong, and the songs fine, I was actively disappointed by Castor's guitar work. I enjoyed Castor's work in the high-energy Grenadina, but her efforts in Vigil and Thieves are subdued at best, and stifled at worst. In fact, she seemed sullen throughout the 25-minute set. Maybe after spending the weekend under the hot sun at KC Pride Fest – including a brightly lit set earlier that afternoon – Castor was just too exhausted to push forward. I'll reserve my judgment for another day, but I found myself no more receptive than the rest of the small audience.
Between bands I slipped outside to survey the storm damage. Thankfully the hot day was now replaced by a cool night thanks to the invading front. And although it was still sprinkling, and I was surrounded by smokers (albeit pleasant ones), it was still infinitely more agreeable to be outside than in the Art Closet sweatbox. Clubs operating at this level fear neighbors and sound ordinances above all else. To wit, windows are not only battened, but covered in sound-proofing materials. The result is an extremely uncomfortable, if not dangerously hot club. I've been to a lot of airless venues, but Art Closet is among the worst. If anything will keep me away from the club, it won't be diffidence, it will be the heat.
Just before their set, I watched the members of Gatekeeper hop in a car and speed out of the Art Closet parking lot. When the band returned, it set up without hesitation, yet when it was time for it to begin its set, the expected trio was only a duo. When questioned, guitarist Blaze Williams admitted that he wasn't exactly sure where the band's bassist/vocalist was (though he may have muttered an aside indicating that it wasn't a complete mystery). So after discussing the matter with drummer Devin Roberts, the duo decided on an opening number and jumped into one of the band's math-y songs. However, as mentioned earlier, each member of a trio of this sort has a specific role. Without the bass of Morgan "Punch" Mabrey there was nothing to anchor Roberts's explosive drums to Williams's note-y taps. This was something Williams discovered quickly and apologized for after the first number. Still the duo continued on, discussing song options at each break, and ultimately delivering a ten-minute set of crippled compositions.
During this short set, the members of both touring acts arrived at the club having just completed the deadening drive from Denver to Kansas City. This is a deceptively long drive that stresses many bands when they first attempt it. I felt for them, yet 50% of the bands that come through Kansas City have just come from Denver or are heading there next, so I am certainly desensitized. After determining that Pope would play first, its members immediately went to work setting up their gear.
In all the rush, the band's Alex Skalany never got his bearings, and consequently began the set by telling the audience that he was happy to be in Kansas for the first time. He was in Missouri. Later another band member would offer that the band had just driven a long way, and smoked a lot. Either may have explained the gaff.
Pope is a brand new three-piece, based in New Orleans, aiming to keep the noisy guitar pop of the '90s alive and well. Pavement comparisons abound, yet there is both a modern shoegaze element, and a haze of psychedelic smoke over everything the band does, effectively rounding off most of the edges. For the first three songs, Skalany offered his guitar and deep resonate vocals with bassist Matthew Seferian and drummer Atticus Lopez in tow. For the final three songs, Skalany and Seferian swapped roles, allowing the jagged pop elements to shine. Still, the band's fifteen-minute set was too short to allow me to record any poignant observations. My friend Holly, however, bought both a cassette and a t-shirt from the band, and since she's a child of the '90s there's probably something good in that.
Headliners Donovan Wolfington share many things with touring partners Pope: transportation, musical gear, a member (Seferian), short sets, a fetish for flannel shirts, and a fondness for guitar-based rock that had fallen out of favour before its 21-year-old members were out of grade school. However, while Pope is a new trio, Donovan Wolfington is a quintet whose core dates back to a college freshman orientation in the fall of 2011. The time and breadth yields exponential results.
Donovan Wolfington is led by the vocals and guitar of long-haired frontman Neil Berthier and the delightful overlapping guitar leads of Seferian. Additional (and effective) backing vocals are provided by keyboardist Savannah Saxton, who limits her keyboard to supporting roles – never stealing the melody from the guitars. The rhythm section of drummer Mike Saladis and bassist Chris Lanthier is peppy, propulsive, and active. To be short, the band lurches and stabs and roars while still remaining tightly focused by pop structures – sort of the sonic equivalent of dropping a Mentos into a two-liter of Diet Coke.
During this set the audience finally began to loosen up, and swaying turned into dancing. Unfortunately, just as the pall that hung heavily over the previous bands was lifting, Berthier announced the group would play only three more songs. With an average song length just shy of two minutes, that didn't leave much time – especially when the final songs were presented as a seamless medley. Ultimately the band would close its twenty-minute set with "Spencer Green," not from its just released EP (Scary Stories You Tell in the Dark, Topshelf Records, 2014), but from its 2013 full-length debut, Stop Breathing (Community Records). Then it was over – a finality punctuated by the return of fluorescent lights.
Although the door was now propped open in an attempt to finally cool the room, I knew the good stuff was outside. After dropping off Too Much Rock pins for the touring acts, I waved non-committal goodbyes to the regulars whose names I have learned, and slipped outside. Do these kids know I come to Art Closet because that is where the interesting music happens, or do they suspect sinister motives? Is there a chance that 25 years from now they will they step into a new all-ages club that somehow feels like home, and recall Sid from Too Much Rock the way I remember the couple in the stickered car? Maybe. If I see them at the show, I'll ask them then.