It's astounding / Time is fleeting / Madness takes its toll
Harling's Upstairs is coming into its own as a rock club. The dirty Midtown dive bar has moved beyond its aging blues brunches and begun to attract a younger audience. In fact, a year of fast-moving gentrification has seen the old drunks replaced with old punks and now with hipsters. The bar has repaired and reopened the previously water damaged portion of the club, there's an active Twitter account, a Facebook page, and even flyers around town promoting shows. This is my hood, and I'm happy about the progress. Until I learned about this show I had planned to drive the hour to Lawrence to catch the headliner's gig there on Saturday. Instead, I walked 3 blocks on Friday. Thank you Harling's.
The evening started comparatively early, with (suburban) Kansas City's Rev Gusto beginning somewhere around 9:30. I wouldn't exactly know, as I ran up the stairs a bit closer to 10. Happy to find no cover, I strode purposefully to the edge of the stage, unpacking my camera with every step. Despite my skillful conservation of movement I still only caught the final three songs of the set. What I saw was a confident pop band, still young, but no longer tentative. Although front man Jerry Frederick didn't interact with the audience much, he dropped to his knees during the final song, stretching up to the downturned microphone providing the crowd a bit of theatricality. Even with the small sampling I heard, the band seems comfortable drawing from '60s psychedelic rock, '70s power pop, and the modern slacker indie pop that currently owns Kansas City. With its debut album due on local High Dive Records in January, fans will finally get a chance to find out just what sort of art the band fancies.
In the 20 minutes between acts, the loud crowd at Harling's drew my attention. (I believe this may have been the goal.) A quick scan revealed local hipster fashionistas, Lawrence scenesters, bearded recent art school grads, and a surprising number of coifed future junior partners slumming it along with their dates who most certainly thought they'd never be at Harling's – that is if they knew Harling's existed at all. In short, a reasonable mix, though I do miss the midtown rabble.
At 10:35 Mat Shoare began. Although certain that I'd seen Shoare perform a dozen times, if my records are correct, this was actually only my second time. I suspect my confusion can be excused considering the vast number of bands that Shoare is a part of. Joining Shoare on stage was frequent cohort Ross Brown (on bass tonight), as well as a guitarist and drummer that I didn't recognize. The result was the delicate strummed pop of a singer/songwriter with a no-frills rhythm section, and the delightful chiming accents of a second guitarist. Slow tempos were the order of the night – one song dragging on such that Shoare apologized to the lulled crowd upon its completion. While I was one of those feeling the tiresome tug of that particular song, sly hints of calypso in later songs provided a much-needed dose of pep. The final number was created around on a single plodding chord that quietly built a tension that it never intended to release. Instead, an abrupt ending proved that Shoare's fractured pop isn't quite as easy as first appears.
Before jumping into the headliner's set, background is in order. For years (roughly the years that kids stick around in college towns before ultimately striking out for adulthood) Lawrence, Kansas was blessed with Fourth of July – an indie pop band with a bad name, a rabid following, unstoppable melodies, and insightful, revelatory lyrics. Brendan Hangauer led that act, helming the band's final concert just over a year ago. While Fourth of July is no more, fans will be quickly sated by Hangauer's new effort, Empty Moon (named for his previous band's final album). There will be those who say Empty Moon is not a direct continuation of Fourth of July, but it is – or it is at least a continuation of everything Hangauer learned from Fourth of July. Using that blueprint, Hangauer was able to quickly turn his Oakland solo recordings into a viable project and a new album. Although fans "back home" got a taste of the new project through a pre-release Internet stream, this show would serve as the album's official release party – and the tour kickoff. And the first public performance of the songs played by Hangauer's new band – a band built in Kansas City (and Lawrence) with only three practices to its name. Hangauer was excited for this show, but Hangauer's fans were even more excited.
Empty Moon began just shy of 11:30, and Brendan Hangauer quickly set the tone with his strummed acoustic guitar and a backing band of familiar faces including brother Kelly Hangauer on piano, Ross Brown (again) on electric guitar and organ, Fritz Hutenson on drums, and Eric Dobbins on bass. Hangauer's voice is not good, but it's golden, and it can casually express love lost, new love, and the confusion of both. There is little bounce to the new project, and the fresh band spent as much time watching each other for clues as they did performing for the audience, but the faithful didn't seem to mind as they pushed closer and closer to the stage as the set continued. It might have taken a "cover" of Fourth of July's "L Train" from that band's first album to get the audience dancing, but from that point forward the big room at Harling's began to feel like the comforting womb of Lawrence's Replay Lounge. Midway through the new-yet-immediately-familiar "High Hopes," the audience was rejoicing at the second coming of Fourth of July. Sure there are differences between the projects – though most I imagine are a result of scale rather than intent – but this show didn't attempt to draw those lines. Instead it reassured the locals that the voice that accompanied them through first loves and big break ups while at the University of Kansas is going to be with them as they move away, plan weddings, worry about children, make missteps in their careers, and suffer through divorce.
The show ended just after midnight, allowing me to get home at a surprisingly reasonable hour. During my walk down the hill I thought about Harling's youthful rejuvenation, about the members of Rev Gusto moving into their first band house, about Mat Shoare and Brendan Hangauer coming into their prime as artists, and about an audience still raging on a Friday night out, yet now with the knowledge that they will have pay for it the next morning. It's funny to think about where we all come from, and how we all meet in the middle at a rock show in Midtown. Thank you Harling's.