Let's just say I've been to a lot of shows; this one ranks among the oddest. I could write pages about the peculiarities, but that might be putting too much effort into something that was, frankly, a disaster. Instead, let's make this quick.
The show was scheduled to start at 10pm. It didn't. At 10:15 I heard that Grant Hart hadn't even shown up yet. My policy of showing up a half hour early for every show is very often a mistake. For a change of scenery I went outside to the smoking patio where I spotted several friends talking to a strange guy standing in the parking lot. The guy had shaggy hair, round metal glasses, and a face that had seen too much life. He wore his wrinkled shirt unbuttoned to his navel, and was passionate about silent films set during World War I. He was the sort of person you often find yourself having short, uninitiated conversations with on the streets of any city.
At some point I confessed to my friends that I was already tired, and cursed the club for not starting the show on time. The rumpled stranger blamed it on Grant Hart getting lost in the Missouri wilds, and added a comical accent to poke at the more "Ozark-ian" residents of the state. He added that he'd better get busy, then walked away. Ten minutes later he was on stage. Had I just chided Grant Hart? I think so. Oops.
I must confess that my awareness of Grant Hart's activities dwindled quickly after Husker Du's demise. And that it was only that band's legacy that brought me out to Record Bar on a Wednesday night. I had no expectations, nor did I read any previews – I simply showed up to pay respect to the drummer whose songs have blown my mind for decades.
Today Grant Hart is not a drummer, but a guitar-wielding troubadour. Alone on the stage, his vintage Gibson electric rings harshly (and sometimes clumsily), while his voice ebbs and flows from great heights down to a nasal and constrained Dylan-like delivery. More often than not, his voice recalled that magic early '70s era when both Bowie and Lou Reed sang boldly over urgent instruments. I've often snickered when seeing Bowie's "Rock & Roll Suicide" in karaoke song books, wondering who could ever pull that one off. Grant Hart could. And he might do it better. Despite all of the publicized ups and downs and addictions of Hart's life, he retains amazing control of his voice.
Based on my limited exposure to Hart's solo material, the set seemed to draw from his entire catalog – from 1988's first single "2541" to the striking "California Zephyr" from his most recent studio album, 2009's Hot Wax. During the set he silently acknowledged the audience, although he didn't say a single word to introduce himself or his material. When he was done, he left the stage, and the majority of the embarrassingly small audience left with him.
Five minutes later it was The Breakpoint Method's turn. The Salina, Kansas metalcore quartet came equipped with wireless instruments, screens printed with their logo, a truckload of merchandise, and all the arena rock swagger in the world. There were screamed lead vocals, matched by metallic croaked backing vocals, and two-handed finger taps performed by a guitarist balanced on top of his stage monitor. If this were Rock Fest, the band would have had an ocean of new fans, but instead they played to six devoted followers who sang along – particularly to the band's cover of The Cranberries' 1994 hit "Zombie." After a long 40-minute set, the band urged (on threat of physical violence, actually) the audience to stick around for their friends in the next act – they never mentioned the fact that they had just played on the same bill as Grant Hart.
It was 12:30 when Kansas City's Get Busy Living began its set. At this point the entire club had emptied out with the exception of four drunken patrons who stood at the front of the stage. Even the previously adamant members of The Breakpoint Method (and their fans) stood outside. This, however, didn't detour the band from delivering its grandiose stage banter. "Hello Kansas City, how are you doing tonight?!" Really?
While Get Busy Living's sound was certainly reminiscent of other emo pop bands, there were moments when hints of melodic punk a la Bad Religion were allowed to shine through. Sadly any shred of hope I had for the band was soon outweighed by its ridiculous adherence to a rehearsed stage presence, and by its paint-by-numbers song writing. On any other night I would have stayed to see the whole set – feeling that it's an insult to bands not to give them your attention – but on this night, I felt it was an insult to Grant Hart to stick around and watch the rest of the show. I left after three songs.
So what happened? How did this bill come together? Why were there only a dozen patrons at the show? And why did the legendary Grant Hart open for young bands that can only strive to fit into a crowded and homogenous musical genre? This show was odd – let's just leave it at that uneasy peace and not dwell on it any longer.