If, years from now, some misguided soul attempts to document the Kansas City music scene in this new century, and makes grand pronouncements about homogeneity, or endeavors to place artists in their proper boxes, let this show account serve as a breadcrumb to the outliers and their importance to our scene.
The evening began at 10pm with Deco Auto. Deco Auto is the perpetual opener, the also-rans, the nice-guys-finish-last band in the KC rock scene. Songwriter Steve Garcia is to blame, and he knows it. His songs straddle the line between power pop and pop punk — never casual enough for the former, nor saccharine enough for the latter. I suggest that with some curation, and a scalpel to split the band in two, we might end up with two great bands that fans could get behind. This isn't as silly as it sounds, as there are currently two complete lineups of Deco Auto (a la Vulgar Boatmen) to ensure maximum availability. Still, he's not interested. On this night, Garcia was joined by A-team bassist Tracy Flowers, who carried lead vocals for about a third of the set, and backing vocals throughout. Curiously, while her vocals were solid on the band's new tracks, they were tentative on the band's mainstay-cover of The Nerves' (via Blondie) "Hanging on the Telephone." Someone give that woman some monitors! Understudy drummer Keith Howell (formerly of KC's power pop should-have-been Man Bear) is a more active drummer than first-choicer Pat Tomek, but there was no drop off in quality as he handled each song as Garcia called them out ad hoc. As usual, Garcia's performance was well rehearsed with buzzsaw power chords, rock jumps, and a trashing finale that sent his eyeglasses crashing against the club wall. I hoped by removing his glasses, and shaking out his hair, everyone might realize how good Deco Auto is, but the twenty or so patrons who had arrived early didn't need a teen movie trope to tell them, they already knew.
During the short intermission, Deco Auto's gear was cleared from the stage, and replaced by a projection screen, and two large, red, inflatable figures. The Magic Cyclops was coming. For those not familiar with Magic Cyclops, the Cliff Notes will tell you that Magic Cyclops is the persona of Denver's Scott Fuller. He's a comedian, a DJ, a musician, an emcee, a national air guitar semi-finalist, and he's been known to officiate a wedding if asked. I'm sure bar mitzvahs are not out of the question if you have a need.
His set began with an edited screening of his American Idol audition as a way of introduction, then segued into a twenty-minute set of absurd songs augmented by visuals and videos. Backing tracks came from a hidden laptop, but Magic Cyclops' heavily processed vocals were performed live, giving rise to production failures, which then allowed Magic Cyclops to play the hapless performer for big laughs. His short set ended with a karaoke-esque cover of Depeche Mode's "Everything Counts" accompanied by anti-Trump imagery projected onto the screen behind him. This was a curiously straightforward finale for what had been a long surrealist joke. Maybe "Everything Counts" is the anti-joke? Oh, and the inflatables? They provided moral support for Magic Cyclops when he needed a high five. But Magic Cyclops didn't need this support from inanimate friends, the audience gave plenty of love and even backing vocals when directed.
During the ensuing set change I worried how the humor of Magic Cyclops might be interpreted by Armchair Martian. Here we had a reunited band touring through Kansas City for the first time in a decade or more, a band with a twenty-year catalog of well-respected (if not genre-defining) music, and Kansas City had a clown opening for them. Then I googled, saw they were on tour together, and felt awfully provincial. I guess the joke was on me.
I was introduced to Armchair Martian in 1997 when I reviewed the band's self-titled album for my zine. Twenty years ago, I wrote:
Post-punk hasn't sounded like this since Husker Du. It's punk rock with a well-crafted rock and roll feel that'll make ya dance and play air guitar. There are interesting bits and generally this is just a good release that doesn't break new ground but covers some familiar ground so well.
Basically, that. They haven't changed. I haven't changed. My insight hasn't either. Though my knowledge of Husker Du definitely has, so I'll clarify that it's mid-period Du, and that guitarist/vocalist Jon Snodgrass doesn't solo nearly as often (or as well, if we're being honest) as Bob Mould. His voice, however, still spot on. Elsewhere, we seldom got straight 4/4 beats from expressive drummer Paul Rucker, with some songs manifesting themselves as nothing but a delightful stream of fills. Bassist Miguel Barron provided backing vocals (unfortunately getting shocked each time he approached the microphone) as well as lead vocals for "17 Years" from 2001's collaboration with Bad Astronaut. The band ended its rapid-fire set with a dense cover of Cheap Trick's "Downed" featuring ex-member Chad Rex playing second guitar. Interestingly enough, Rex was only one of the two ex-members of Armchair Martian present that night — Steve Garcia being the other. It's all starting to come together.
As the headliners set up, I contemplated how serious absurdist performance art should be taken, and more importantly, how importantly those performers should take their performances. What happens when a performer turns into their art, and what happens when that art is taken to levels that transcend the initial attraction. All these deep thoughts were inspired by the evening's final act — Drop A Grand. A band bizarre and ridiculous, yet strangely proficient and dedicated. A joke band that has stopped being a joke, and become a really good band.
It had been nearly a year since I had seen the band and its masked, wigged, and costumed members. Drop A Grand's players never officially break character, and interviews are always conducted under stage names, never allowing real identities to come to light. I've seen the band countless times and I still don't know who all the members really are. I don't want to. But it does make me wonder if the band even knows. Does bassist "UNIkRON" show up to practice in his tight white levis, old man mask, and enormous gray beard, precluding vocalist/guitarist "Gern Blanzden" (most certainly a nod to Steve Martin's faux origin story) from ever knowing who he's playing with? Do the ski masks worn by drummer "2 Dolla Bill" and "White N Shitty II" hide secrets from each other? And how does the band know this is White N Shitty II? Maybe it's III or IV under the mask. Who's to say? Adding further intrigue, this show featured a previously unknown third guitarist, introduced as "Unicorn 7." With only a long blond wig and baseball cap to mask his identity, this transient member lacked the panache of Glanzden, in his fancy Nudie suit and boots. Aside from Unicorn 7 (and the mystery of the White N Shitties), the visuals haven't changed much, musically, however, there have been changes.
To my ear Drop A Grand has moved from the arty and conceptual to an exceptional hardrock band. Sure, some punk speed and intensity, but those guitar riffs, those solos, that glorious boom — this is a band that enjoys its gimmick, not one that needs it. This was obvious from the moment the band launched into Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'" as an opening number/soundcheck. The quintet elevated the already explosive number to Motörhead levels of face meltery. Throughout the night White N Shitty II's back bends and bent-string solos stole the show, leaving just enough room on the stage for UNIkRON's high kicks, and just enough room in the mix for the Bon Scott-like screeched vocals of Blanzden. What he's singing about is anyone's guess. I've read the lyrics on the band's website, and I still haven't a clue. Maybe I don't want to know.
So Mr. Historian, dig deep when you write about Kansas City. Learn the importance of Drop A Grand and its friends, remember that history shouldn't be dictated by the winners, and don't neglect the fringe and those that inhabit it by choice.