Oh, what a tangled web we weave! The miniBar played host to a tangled mess of bands that are side projects of other bands playing music that slips between multiple genres that are just offshoots of more established genres. Straightening it all out would be a fool’s errand, but I might just be that fool. Let’s see if I can suck all the fun out of a Friday night.
The night opened with Static Phantoms. The duo is comprised of Dedric Moore (of Monta at Odds) and Krysztof Nemeth (of Emmaline Twist and a dozen other acts, including Monta at Odds). Nemeth sings and plays baritone guitar, Moore plays keyboards and adds in backing vocals, and a laptop does the rest. The band has only played a couple of shows in advance of its full-length debut due September 17th on Record Machine. As such, its draw is largely familiar faces in the KC scene who came to investigate the project and support their friends (and in many cases, fellow bandmates). These early adopters were rewarded with a 40-minute set that blended the players’ influences in wholly expected way. There was a Pet Shop Boys-styled new wave grandiosity, but without the gloss and sheen. There was the early ‘70s psych of Pink Floyd, though thankfully compositions never stretched to album sides. And there were also hints of Flesh for Lulu or Psychedelic Furs slipped in to provide just a little post-punk intrigue, but Static Phantoms’ songs never wallowed in high goth gloom.
Like the others present, I was curious about the project. Especially about Krysztof Nemeth’s vocals. After all, lead vocals are a new trick for the musical journeyman. They were delivered coolly with a casual droll indifference, colored with echo, and occasionally punctuated with a bum note. More effects would hide the imperfections, but that might push the duo into shoegaze territory, and I appreciate their current commitment to cleaner alternative pop. Dedric Moore’s backing vocals were dryer, deeper, and mostly monotone. I suspect some sort of robotic intention. It worked. The computer-provided accompaniment was largely rhythm tracks and synthesized swirls. The more epic string arrangements heard on the band’s two pre-release singles were either omitted or lost in the middling sound of the room. This was my first time seeing the act, but it won’t be my last.
One duo side project was soon followed by the other. New Obsessions is the project of vocalist/guitar Jorge Arana (of Jorge Arana Trio) and brother bassist Luis Arana (ex-Beautiful Bodies). I first saw the project in 2018, though somehow the band still feels new. Blame it on the pandemic. Or maybe it’s because the band solidified its image and stage show only in the past few months. Or maybe it’s because the band’s commitment to regular live gigs has really escalated this summer. I’ve written about a number of those recent summer shows and encourage everyone to click those accounts for a deeper dive into what the band is all about, as the fans at miniBar got a performance quite like those past affairs. Specifically, Jorge Arana’s striking Pierrot imagery persists with his white face makeup and neck ruffle. And Luis Arana continued to juxtapose his western-wear shirt with a beaked plague-doctor mask. The stage was still a river of fog, illuminated occasionally by glowing red lights, or pierced by white strobes. Luis Arana’s wireless rig still allowed him to spin and twirl and make forays into the audience – and there was some of that, just less than usual. Unlike past shows, the audience wasn’t ready to dance. The biggest difference wasn’t the lack of dancers, but rather Jorge Arana’s vocals – they were stronger this time around. Maybe they sat higher in the mix. Maybe the monitors allowed him to push with more confidence. Either way, the change was palpable and appreciated. Similarly, the backing tracks were better realized in miniBar. Distinct parts shone that had often been relegated to muddy amalgamations at past venues. As a result, the cacophonous experimentalism of the band’s dark wave post-punk was less grating, and more revelatory. For some audience members, this was their first taste of the duo, and one offered that this must have been what it was like to see Sisters of Mercy in 1981. Sure. You’ll find the hissing drum machine and chaotic guitar in both, though the embryonic Sisters of Mercy had not yet succumbed to the allure of engrossing organs and eerie baroque harpsichords that currently provide intrigue in New Obsessions’ sets.
After two courses of local side-project duos, the steadfast patrons watched as the table was reset for Miami’s Donzii. The line-up of this band ebbs and flows, although vocalist and visionary Jenna Balfe is always at the helm, and Dennis Fuller (live bass, but responsible for much of the programming) is her steady first mate. For this tour the band also featured frequent member Danny Heinze on guitar, and performer Tef Baker. We’ll unpack that last one in a bit.
The band began with a slow song that Balfe cryptically dedicated to someone “very important.” Both Fuller and Heinze played guitars on this song – each adding atmosphere, not riffs. Pre-programmed backing tracks provided a light rhythm. After that cut, Balfe stripped off her long leather duster, Fuller picked up his bass, and the tempo and energy shot up. The remainder of the set was for dancing, and the audience was now ready. Donzii provided a soundtrack that consisted of both anxious compositions with funky bass lines, jabbing guitar interjections, and yelped vocals that recalled the post-punk mid-‘80s output of Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd, or even Missing Persons, and of more polished songs with sparkling melodious guitars that evoked the alternative rock of late-‘80s New Order, Siouxsie Sioux, or even Depeche Mode. The distinction was somewhat subtle, and several songs (such as latest single, “Fun”) often incorporated both elements. Thankfully, feet moved freely to both.
Under uncharacteristically active houselights, the band put on a lively performance fit for a Friday night. Fuller and Heinze were both active and entertaining, but it was Balfe’s energetic centerstage performance that held the (figurative) spotlight. The trained dancer exhibited her craft as she strutted the stage, sashayed into the audience, and punctuated her vocals with flowing movement. And to ensure the audiences’ eyes never wandered from her, Balfe rocked a lot of look – from the green eyeshadow that matched her strapless bralette, to the chains and choker around her neck, to her short white gloves, all the way down to her tall black boots. Between songs she was conversational and gracious, but she didn’t share information about the songs, or let lose any secrets.
Once Balfe had secured everyone’s attention, she shared the spotlight with Tef Baker (remember her?). When beckoned, Baker stripped off her oversized jacket and hat (both labeled “security”) to dance among the crowd. At various points in the night, Baker also circled the floor, guarded the edge of the stage in her security garb, played dead on the dance floor, or joined the band on stage, matching the rehearsed choreography of Balfe. After that planned routine, she knelt before Balfe to retie the frontwoman’s boot. Performance? Service? Cordiality? Who can say. During the next song, Balfe picked up a mass of chains – leashes attached one to another – holding them above her head allowing them to cascade down her arm. Imagery? Dog whistle? Again, who can say.
The band ended its short set fulfilling an audience request for “Pepper” – the B-side of its 2018 debut 12” single. This post-punk track lurches in all the best ways while simultaneously remaining buoyant and fun. Like the rest of the set, its balance of composition and chaos aligned perfectly with all the genres and subgenres visited throughout the night by all the bands and all the mercurial musicians contained within. So maybe the show was a tangled mess, and maybe I’ve not untied a single knot by shining my light on it, but maybe being wrapped up in the madness is better than the easy solution anyway.