It's a never-ending battle with The Jackpot, but on this night, I took the fight to them. And by "fight," I mean that I called the bar and just asked when the show would start. After some checking, the bartender returned telling me it would be 10pm. I left my home a little after 9:00, hurling the Scion west to Lawrence on I-70. Predictably, at 10:00 I didn't find a band ready to rock, but rather a mostly empty club. Thwarted by The Jackpot again. It seems that in a fit of optimism, the club asked the opening act to hold off until 11:00 – you know, to wait for the late-night concertgoers to show. Unfortunately, that crowd never came, damning both a dozen paying fans, and the first band, to wander around the club bored and anxious for an hour.
Unable to wait any longer, Denver's The Swayback climbed onto the stage at 10:55 and began its ten-song set with several solid rock numbers that drew the audience toward the stage. After that, however, the quartet shifted allegiances, and morphed into a lacklustre bar band playing the blues. It was really that dramatic. Vocalist/bassist Eric Halborg fronted the band with a voice like Uriah Heep's David Byron and a mod shag like Rod Stewart's. He had vocal help from rhythm guitarist Adam Tymn, with heavily-tattooed lead guitarist William Murphy happily soloing as Carl Sorensen contributed his crashing drums. On occasion the band's compositions listed toward interesting '70s psychedelia, or even progressive rock, leading me to wonder what earlier keyboard-heavy incarnations of this band may have sounded like. I hoped for Sugarloaf. But ultimately the band's long 40-minute set did little for me.
There was a short break as the five-piece headliner from San Francisco set up its gear. Although only days into a long fall tour, the members of The Fresh & Onlys already appeared tired, a bit gruff, and simply ready to get the set over with – maybe they hadn't gotten their touring legs yet. Although playing a late show to a small crowd, it was neither late enough nor empty enough to warrant any grumpiness. In fact, before a note was played, two dozen fans had already come forward to line the front and side of the stage. That's good for a weeknight, right?
Halloween's black and orange crepe paper still hung from the ceiling, blocking the club's spotlights, and cloaking the members' faces in darkness. As the band prepared its gear, stepping in and out of the shadows, I noticed how remarkably unhip the guys lining the front of the stage really were. The Fresh & Onlys do not look like rock stars – maybe record store clerks, maybe a Dungeons and Dragons guild, but not rock stars. Recognising kindred spirits, I assumed this meant the band's knowledge of music (and frost giants) would be unparalleled.
After all was tested, the band began its set with "Secret Walls" from the EP of the same name. Unfortunately there was still an issue with the microphones, leaving all of them mute. Undaunted, the band played the entire song, and afterwards, when the microphones suddenly began working again, noted the impromptu instrumental version of the song, and announced themselves to be Explosions in the Sky. Maybe the band wasn't grumpy after all, just wry.
The band's set continued with the lush pop number "20 Days & 20 Nights" from the just-released "Long Slow Dance" (Mexican Summer, 2012). While the evening would continue to favour the breezy compositions from that album (playing nine of its eleven songs), the live versions of these tracks would often be burdened with layers of unrelenting guitar and vocal echo. The lilting "Dream Girls," for example, was no longer an acoustic '60s-styled pop song, but rather a swirling electric cacophony for fans of The Jesus and Mary Chain. "No Regard" suffered the same fate, with its catchy refrain of "you're never gonna break my heart" barely making it past the psychedelic effects applied to frontman Tim Cohen's vocals.
The reasoning behind this shift is a bit murky. It's unlikely that personnel is responsible, as Cohen is backed by many of the same musicians who recorded the album (guitarist Wymond Miles, bassist Shayde Sartin, drummer Kyle Gibson), with only keyboardist Rachel Fannan (formerly of Sleepy Sun and now a fantastic solo artist) added for the tour. Maybe there just wasn't room for that acoustic guitar in the van. Or maybe the band adheres to the idea that the studio and the stage are entirely different experiences, and neither should try to replicate the other. While my twee-leaning ears may have been a bit (but only a bit) wounded by all the noise, there was no indication that the rest of the audience was anything but thrilled.
Eventually the band shed the sour label that I had hastily assigned to it, but its interaction with the audience remained limited. Aside from Cohen and Miles' mumbled suggestion that the audience pelt them with paper airplanes blotted with LSD, the band's 45-minute, fourteen-song was workmanlike and devoid of flare. Although Gibson proved himself to be a spry drummer, and both Miles and Sartin moved well with their instruments, Cohen remained tethered to his microphone, and Fannan was glued to her keyboards and underutilised microphone. It was only during the band's final number, "Diamond in the Dark," that the audience saw Cohen explode with energy, thrashing about the stage with his guitar during the song's final climax. Before the feedback even subsided, Cohen and his crew were off the stage. And it wasn't but moments later that I was in my car headed back to Kansas City.