One could write a book about The Embarrassment and I bet someone is doing that right now. But what they have already done is make a movie about the Wichita quartet. It's called We Were Famous, You Don't Remember: The Embarrassment, and that's where Too Much Rock is going to pick up the story.
Despite the film's title, Lawrence, Kansas remembers The Embarrassment. Hundreds turned out at Liberty Hall to watch the documentary that is currently making its way around the festival circuit. We Were Famous covers the band from its formative days in 1979 through to its woebegone demise in 1983. Archival footage follows the band to rehearsal spaces, pool parties, recordings studios, and road gigs, and the director gives voice to not only the band, but also its fans, and the small industry of local record labels, radio stations, and zines that all played a part in the band's story. The Lawrence audience (most of which were on the far side of fifty) delighted in hearing the tunes, seeing familiar landmarks unmarred by time, and occasionally in seeing themselves bopping to the band's quirky college rock. The Embos (as they were known affectionately) had a sound that combined the jangle of REM with the edge of Mission of Burma and the pop of the dBs. They were something to behold and the film tells the story of these obstinate also-rans with equal doses of humor and the plaintive what-ifs of a fan. Catch it when you can.
The screening was followed by a short Q&A hosted by local entertainment writer Joe Niccum and featuring the film's director, the band's vocalist and guitarist, and a superfan. Rather than answering my questions, it asked more. Why didn’t the film cover the band's brief reformation in the '90s? Why was the band's performance at a prison not part of the documentary? And what really happened to bassist Ronnie Klaus after the band's breakup? Some things are meant to be lost to time, I guess. Besides, the highlight of the night was yet to come, a reunion performance from the band.
Just after 9:30 the band took the stage. Original vocalist John Nicols and guitarist Bill Goffrier were joined by drummer Britt Rosencutter and bassist Eric Cale. While not the authentic lineup, the replacement players were active contemporaries and compatriots of the band during its initial run. I pressed myself against the stage as the show started, snapping a photo of the setlist. I expected four or five songs as a quick reward to the audience who had come for the film. Instead, I was shocked to see a sixteen song setlist. This wasn't a courtesy; it was a victory lap.
The set began with a cover of The Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard." While it was a staple of the band's set in the early '80s, beginning with a cover is an interesting choice. Thankfully the band followed with "Patio Set" – the b-side of its debut single, and then continued to rip through its initial discography. Early in the set, Nicols was a little stiff, by the end he was dancing with his shirt more off than on. Goffrier was active (and surprisingly buff). While he never strayed too far from his microphone, he danced a lot, and sweated even more. By the middle of the set, the band really hit its stride. The speedy telling of "Elizabeth Montgomery's Face" was amazing, and "Two Cars" was as wiry and bright as the band ever was. The set ended with favorite "Wellsville" followed by "Sex Drive" – two of the best songs to ever come out of the American underground.
Is it fair to ask if the band still has it? Maybe not fair, but certainly valid. The audience had just spent 90 minutes watching the rough and tumble lads tear it up at the height of their powers. They saw young men who were jittery and played with chips on their shoulders. There's no way a partial reunion played 40 years later was going to match that. The edge simply wasn't there. Thankfully, the intent was, and the songs undeniably were. This wasn't a time machine performance for the audience, but rather was a reminder of just how good this band was.
The set quickly continued with a planned encore of Bowie's "Rebel Rebel." It was nearly 11pm and the balcony had mostly emptied out by this point. Fans, however, had not gone home for bed, they instead filled the floor in front of the stage, bouncing, dancing, and clapping with zeal. After the encore, Goffrier wanted to play more, but the band couldn't think of another song that it knew. There was consternation and consultations among the foursome, and I worried we'd soon hear a loose eight-minute cover of "Louie Louie." Instead, Nicols and Goffrier returned to their posts, wiped the sweat from their heads, and offered up another version of "Elizabeth Montgomery's Face" – this one slowed down to the pace found on the band's 1981 EP. After that, there was truly nothing else left to play. Maybe not ever again, as the band ominously hinted. I hope not, as The Embarrassment deserves all the applause (however delayed) that it can get. But if that is the case, and this was the final curtain call, the band went out thrilling Kansas audiences once again.