Circumstances required that I travel from Livestrong Sporting Park to The Jackpot at incredibly high speeds. While the Scion seemed willing, its limits were quickly met, and I didn't walk into the club, paying my $12, until 10:50. While the promoter advertised a 9pm start time, I had moles on the inside keeping me apprised of the truth. While I regrettably missed the first 15 minutes of the opener, I supposed it could have been much worse.
When I reached the stage, Berwanger was recovering from some technical difficulty (a broken string, I believe) and discussing whether or not the band should start the song over. After coming to a quick decision, the five-piece opted to push forward with the two final numbers in its eight-song (if the setlist is to be believed) set. This quick 20-minute performance would be the world's live introduction to Berwanger, and the welcome return of Berwanger frontman, Josh Berwanger.
Josh Berwanger made a name for himself in the late '90s and early '00s fronting the local band The Anniversary. In the years afterwards, he kept himself busy with The Only Children. While that band's lineup changed frequently, one collaborator remained constant – Heidi Gluck. And although Gluck remains a part of the Berwanger project, this band feels different from its predecessor. While The Only Children realised the roots-y Americana vision that The Anniversary slowly slid towards, Berwanger is a return to the frontman's pop roots. With help from Gluck on guitar, drummer Michael Hetcherson, bassist David Glenn White, and guitarist Richard Gintowt, Josh Berwanger has created a sound out of time. With simple, retrospective pop songs and modern indie pop arrangements, the band is both familiar and the sound of now.
While I would like to say that I deduced all this from the couple of songs I caught, I must admit most of my observations are informed by the compilation track, video, and outtakes leaked by the band. The songs that I did catch were buoyant affairs, rife with multi-part vocals and strong guitar leads, but beyond that, you'll have to wait until after I catch the band's November 23rd show at The Riot Room before I can say anything substantive about the band's live show.
Between acts I pumped my friends for information on the headliner. To be honest, I couldn't recall why I added the show to my calendar, or really anything about the band. I had a vague memory of hearing a single track during the summer, and then excitedly discovering the band would be touring through some months later. Any recollection beyond that tidbit had been lost. Luckily from the moment that long-haired Jesse Smith (the titular Jesse of Gentleman Jesse & His Men) stepped to the microphone, introduced himself, and then began to saw away on his Rickenbacker, no backstory or context was necessary.
That's the great thing about power-pop. Even having never heard Gentleman Jesse's two albums, I anticipated every chord and key change, every "ooh" and "ahh" backing vocal, and, better still, was singing the choruses by the second time they rolled around. You can (and should) fault many genres for this formulaic approach, but power-pop lives outside these rules; it's the heartbeat of rock & roll, and no one wants arrhythmia.
Smith's voice guides the band through the genre expertly, sampling touchstones from the urgent punk vitriol of Elvis Costello to pop/rock sheen of The Romantics. Throughout the set, Smith's ringing guitar was matched by Adrian Berrera's, and bolstered by the bass of Joseph Plunkett. This duo share a microphone, each leaning in tightly and theatrically to provide the band's pervasive backing vocals. With their shaggy black hair, the twosome could easily step in for any missing Ramone if only they were willing to trade their matching Vans for Converse. Veteran drummer Dave Rahn provides sharp, tight percussion from his small kit, filling the role perfectly, but doing little to define the band's sound. Curiously that job is left to Gentleman Jesse's newest man, keyboardist/backing vocalist Milton Chapman. When providing percussive organ blasts, Chapman tilts the band toward the mod-revival edge of power-pop; when he provides chiming piano chords, the band takes on the honest rock & roll of early Bruce Springsteen. Somewhere in the middle lies "Take It Easy On Me" with its ringing allusion to fellow Southerner Tom Petty. Like I said, the heartbeat of rock & roll.
The band's planned 40-minute set focused heavily on the just released Leaving Atlanta (Douchemaster Records, 2012), including eight of that albums thirteen songs, with another six songs drawn from the band's first album. After closing with the aptly-named "We Got To Get Out Of Here," Smith didn't skip a heartbeat before stepping back up to the microphone to ask the small cheering audience what it would like to hear next. It was as if Smith was happy to be done with the formalities, and was now excited to move on with the party.
The band's encore opened with a cover of Rockin' Horse's forgotten power-pop gem "Biggest Gossip In Town," quickly jumped to meet another fan suggestion, but then stalled out due to lack of audience input. Left to their own devices, the band settled on "Frostbite" from the new album, and then said its farewells. Despite the embarrassingly small audience, I had the feeling that Smith and crew would have played all night if fans would have kept shouting song titles. I only wish I would have known the titles to shout.
It was just after Midnight when the band wrapped up, and while my exit wasn't quite as quick as my entrance, I didn't loiter long. After packing my camera and saying a few quick goodbyes to the bands, I slipped out to my car, and headed back to Kansas City. As I drove by Livestrong Sporting Park, I realised that my exit from the park hours earlier was so hurried that I hadn't processed the premature end of Sporting Kansas City's season. Ouch. Just ouch. It's going to take a lot of snappy power-pop to get me through this.