For the past four years, the downtown bar now known as Czar has been the answer to an unasked question. Although located on the outside edge of two of the city's entertainment districts (Power & Light, The Crossroads), the small venue has never found its niche in KC's modest nightclub landscape. Still, the plucky club has survived an ownership change, a name change, at least four different kitchens, and several different entertainment buyers to arrive at this night. Kansas Citians love an underdog.
Although only at it a year, Kansas City's Rev Gusto is similarly on the verge of something big. While the band's day was dominated by a performance on the set of KC Live (the local NBC affiliate's mid-morning lifestyle program), it would spend the evening kicking off a big-ticket bill that featured a national touring act. Not bad for a Monday.
The band is the musical vision of Jerry Frederick who makes no bones about his role as bandleader and sole songwriter. A backing band consisting of guitarists Shawn Crowley and Peter Beatty (the latter providing keyboards as well), bassist (and younger brother) Sam Frederick, and drummer Quinn Hernandez allow Frederick to realise his muscular pop vision. Live, this quintet ripped through a 30-minute set that blended Graham Parker-styled '70s pub rock with late '00s indie pop. Frederick's laid back vocals were especially reminiscent of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, who were not-entirely coincidently in attendance. And while Frederick may lead the band, his arrangements left plenty of room for a big ringing bass that made frequent runs, strong backing vocals from Beatty and others, and screaming guitar solos from Crowley's hollow-body electric. Though Crowley typically hid at the back of the stage, I did catch a glimpse of the black Xs scribed onto his hands, designating him as under 21. Several other band members were similarly young, as were the band's most devoted fans – a duo of blonde girls who mouthed the words to every song, and later made rounds through the audience to sell the band's demo CD-R. Someday they'll run the fan club of a very successful Rev Gusto.
I've got a bad memory, and it manifests itself in many ways. On this night a friendly drummer struck up a conversation with me, whereupon he quickly realized where he knew me from, but I was at a loss. Why I didn't ask which band he was from, I don't know. Later I watched him play with Not a Planet, and connected the a few dots. I even texted my wife a recap, knowing that she was curious about his band after seeing him on our neighbourhood's email group. The next day, while editing photos of the show, I was hunting for some information about the band when Google returned just the article I was after – after clicking the link I discovered it was a show account that I had written about the band only four months earlier. My memory had failed me before, but this may be a new high water mark. On the plus side, the copious notes I took during the band's performance match very well with the notes I took last time. My memory may be gone, but at least I'm consistent. Apologies to Not a Planet's Liam Sumnicht for not being friendlier. Getting old is a bitch.
So, for the second time, Not a Planet is a trio – no, make that a power trio. The Kansas City band was fronted by Nathan Corsi who provided ambitious stage banter along with high, sung vocals ripe with histrionics and emotion. His soft verses often gave way to loud choruses, but both were coloured by a blues rock undertone sure to make fans of Jack White's various projects happy. He also provided a constantly meandering guitar that may have represented each song's melody, or may have been one long solo. Bassist Bill Sturges' fingered bass was similarly obvious, paying particular attention to notes high up the neck. Liam Sumnicht beat his small C&C drum kit so hard that even C&C's Jake Cardwell would have been impressed. Sumnicht makes it obvious that this is a rock band, but that doesn't preclude the trio from having few tricks up its sleeve. For example, the winding, knotty guitar of closer "Bang Goes the Gun" hinted at a both more aggressive and progressive side to the band. And the carefully picked portions of "There's No Coming Back" suggested the Corsi had spent some time with The Grateful Dead's American Beauty. Neither of these were incongruous to the band's sound, but they did provide some refreshing subtlety that was often hard to find in the band's quick seven-song, 25-minute set.
While the bands shifted gear about the stage, the audience underwent a similar upheaval. Younger members of the audience were satisfied that they had seen their friends perform, and either retreated to the back of the club, or more often, left entirely. This new real estate was quickly gobbled up by the headliner's older, 30-something fan base. However, the demographics didn't skew much older, so as a result, very few audience members were old enough to have picked up Cheap Trick's In Color when it was released in 1977, or who could remember the time when power-pop ruled Casey Kasem's "American Top 40." And while it's true that Free Energy weren't there either, the band reproduces the big melodies and tight arrangements of the era perfectly. Its this apery that has created an irreconcilable schism among music critics and the band's fans.
It was 10:15 when Free Energy began its set, launching into the surging "Backscratcher" from its just-released album, Love Sign (self released, 2013). The band followed up with the album's lead track, "Electric Fever," before dipping back into its debut self-titled EP (DFA Records, 2009) for the eponymous "Free Energy." Before the night was over, the band would play a balanced set that included six tracks its new album, four from its break-out debut album (Stuck on Nothing, DFA, 2010), and all three from its EP. Incredulously, the majority of audience's unanswered requests were for songs from the new album. Do bands ever get requests for songs from their new album? Like the band itself, Free Energy's fan's defy conventional wisdom.
The band carried its initial burst of energy through a 55-minute set that never stopped moving (though it did slow for the well-received new ballad "Dance All Night"). Vocalist Paul Sprangers bounced about the stage for the entire set, shedding clothes as the night continued. Rhythm guitarist Sheridan Fox must have spent 50% of the set in the air between his constant hopping and more adventurous jumps. How he kept from getting his cord tangled with lead guitarist Scott Wells's is a mystery, because the duo must have crossed paths a dozen times. Half of those occurred as Wells made his way to centre stage to deliver a whining guitar solo inches from the faces of enthused fans. There may have only been 75 people at the modestly-powered Czar, but the show felt much, much bigger. Everywhere I looked, the audience was engaged. Everyone watched as three tipsy girls danced throughout the set, and sang exuberantly (if not well) when handed the microphone. Two other women stood only inches away, dutifully singing along with every song. One guy who had sidled up to the stage before the first note sounded spent the set drumming against his leg and body, gazing up starstruck at the band. This was his fourth Free Energy show. While most of the audience wasn't nearly so fanatical, everyone sang along to irresistible single "Bang Pop." Everyone.
At 11:00 the band finished its set with a big flourish, waved to the audience, and walked off the stage. Although the lights came up along with the house music, the audience called out for an encore. Soon the claps, stomps, and hoots were rewarded with the the sizzling "Young Hearts" and the slow burning "Dark Trance," both from the band's first album. A similarly big finish capped the night, allowing Sprangers time to rush to the merchandise booth while Fox's guitar still hung heavy with feedback.
While Free Energy certainly scored big with its strong Monday night draw (earning a long line of autograph seekers at the merch booth to boot), the real winner was Czar. At one point the club was packed with over 100 people, giving the bar staff everything it could handle and more. When the evening calmed down to 75 patrons, the club felt comfortably full and alive. The audience was populated by area musicians, music critics and photographers, fans who had driven from Lawrence and Springfield, and even a curious tourist who had ventured just a bit outside of the city's defined entertainment districts and found something he liked. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come for the little bar. If so, expect to see Czar appearing on Too Much Rock's pages with more frequency in the coming months.