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Saturday May 25th, 2024 at Lucia in Lawrence, KS
Get Smart, The Embarassmen, & The Mortal Micronotz

For an epic feature about the live music scene in Kansas during late 1970s and 1980s, how it is finally getting its due with reissues and books, and the importance of this reunion show turn to page 43. To read my thoughts on some bands playing a bar in a college town on a Saturday night turn to page 12. Of course the reality is that I'm not the one who should write the former, so I'll stick as closely as I can to the latter, only offering the minimum of required context. Now turn the page to begin.

The Mortal Micronotz opened minutes after 8:00 to a sold-out room on Lawrence's main drag. I promised minimal exposition so just know the band was active in the region in the early 80s, creating the sort of alternative punk that could only come from the Midwest. The sort that earned the band an album on Homestead. Did they play with Naked Raygun or Husker Du? Maybe. But they could have if they didn't. For this reunion gig the band featured original members Dean Lubensky (vocals), John Harper (guitar), Steve Eddy (drums), along with period-correct bassist Matt Kesler of Pedaljets. Lubensky paced the stage, shouting into his microphone, dropping to his knees, and adding an appropriate amount of theatrics. Lots of it reminded me of Milo Aukerman, and only some of it was the glasses. He warned the audience from the outset that he wasn't much of a singer, and by the end of the long 40-minute opening set his voice had mostly given out. That's okay, that absence left sonic space for the shifting power chords of Harper. He played fast and added in noisy and gritty bits that made me grin. Eddy's drumming was loose and simple. There was a comfortable breeziness to it. Actually, it left holes you could drive a truck through, and Kesler did just that with big and loud tones. After twelve songs and ending with 1983's "Smash," it might have been time to bow out, but the band had other ideas. Lubensky confessed the only reason the band got back together was to bash out some Stooges covers and that's what they did. With both a guest vocalist (a great bit of insurance for Lubensky's failing voice) and a guest guitarist (Lubensky's son), the expanded lineup ripped through three more including a pretty impressive "Search and Destroy" where the young guest guitarist nailed the solo despite looking nervious as hell. While the set list hinted that one more ("Piece of My Heart") was planned, I'm not sure whose voice could have handled that. Instead, the band thanked members who could be there – vocalist Jay Hauptli who fronted the band from 1985 until its demise in 1986, and bassist David Dale who committed suicide in 1993 – then turned the stage over to The Embarassmen.

The Embarrassment have gotten a bit of press lately. Most of it stemming from the excellent documentary released in 2023 about the band. If you haven't seen We Were Famous, You Don't Remember: The Embarrassment, you should. Like the opener, The Embarrassment were an important part of the Kansas rock scene in the early '80s. The band had influential fans and were well positioned for a breakthrough that never happened. In 1983 the band blew apart. Guitarist Bill Goffrier (who later went on to found Boston's Big Dipper) has recently assembled a band to play his band's songs. Billed alternatively as The Embarrassmen or The Embarrassed Men, Goffrier is now joined by Eric Cale (bass) and Britt Rosencutter (drums/backing vocals). Wow that's a lot more background than I promised. Sorry about that. So let's talk about the now.

The Embrassmen's exhaustive set featured all the band's hits, humorous anecdotes, and the melding of jangle pop, punk aggression, and jagged post-punk that made The Embarrasment so special. Goffrier remains good frontman even into his middle sixties. He was in fine voice and fighting shape, and he has surrounded himself by strong players in Cale and Rosencutter. Rosencutter's vocals are essential to recreating the band's sound. Still, father time is undefeated, and as one might expect, 45 years has toned the band down considerably. Nearly all the jittery urgency that once drove the band is gone, and some of the songs' nuances have started to fade as well. For example, Goffrier announced favorite "Wellsville" as "having fewer chords than ever." Thankfully the band's wry lyrics and underpinning humor remain, and that's enough to ensure a good time. For nearly an hour similarly seasoned fans packed the area in front of the stage, dancing to the songs they remembered while imported lights threw arcs of color around the room. A hot yellow spotlight cooked Goffrier when he stood at his microphone, and then followed him when he stepped back to solo. By the end of the set, both the band and its fans were ready for a cold drink, and I was impressed with the stamina of each.

Get Smart (generally marked as Get Smart!) headlined this night. Get Smart was based out of Lawrence, Kansas in the early '80s, but the trio decided to make the big leap to Chicago not long after its founding. They also made the leap from local tastemaker Fresh Sounds to Enigma for its two albums. In 1987 the line-up changes started and by 1990 it was all over. Until, of course, it wasn't. In 2020 the band reunited, and since then infrequent gigs have been played and vaults opened a "new" EP. That original line up returned for this show with Marc Koch (guitar), Lisa Wertman (bass), and Frank Loose (drums) all reprising their roles. Each was more than up to the task, blasting out an impressive 85-minute set, that would have thrilled any audience, not just ones reliving memories.

The band's surprisingly rowdy crowd caused me to shelter at the side of the stage for the entirety of the night. This put me directly in front of Wertman's bass amp. It was a fine place to be. Her playing balances the angular, propulsive, and melodic exceptionally well. And it often deliveries the melodies in the band's songs. While Get Smart may have been a memory for decades, she's kept her fingers nimble playing in a Gang of Four tribute act. She's an excellent fit for that act, and Gang of Four is a fine touchstone for the jagged post-punk Get Smart often delivers. Koch's guitar provided the foundational chords, biting leads, and intriguing noises that kept the audience on its toes. From my position his spikey lines and harmonics were softened a bit, and I wondered if I'd heard the roar if I were standing in front of his amplifier instead. But then again, Koch didn't only employ the sharp edges of Andy Gill (Gang of Four) or Roger Miller (Mission of Burma), sometimes his playing was positively swampy. Loose's drumming carried it all no matter the mood. He even provided lead vocals for two cuts, though most of the vocals were split between Wertman and Koch. Occasionly the two traded leads throughout a song, but more often one backed up the other. The harmonies in "Paradise" from the band's recent vault EP Oh Yeah No were spectacular, easily bested the recording made in 1987. Great Smart are not merely good for a nostalgia act, Get Smart are a solid act that could compete with any band on any stage in the region.

As the set began to wind down there were some guests – Clay Gailbraith of Abuse joined the band for two songs by Sweet Pills. Both of those bands were early punk trios that served time in Kansas before heading out to LA, and Abuse later backed Sweet Pills' guitarist Git Smart, no doubt playing both "No Pictures of Dad" and "Person to Avoid" long before he relived them here. Another guest, Steve Dahlberg, was brought up on second guitar to join the band for finale "Ankle Deep in Mud" from Get Smart's 1981 debut single. Wertman noted that the band has a policy of absolutely not rehearsing this expansive minimalist plodder. The slow ticking rhythm section left space for the odd jazz noodling of Dahlberg until the song eventually unraveled, appropriately ending the night.

This fall Get Smart will continue to fail at retirement by playing a Chicago show corresponding with the re-release its 1984 album Action Reaction. The Embarrassmen return to Lucia this August for another go around. The Mortal Micronotz have nothing on the calendar, but it's possible someone has a hankering to play "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and summons the band back to a stage.

That was way more than I hoped to write, but if you still want more information about the Kansas bands of this era, then be sure to pre-order your copy of the upcoming book, No Choice But Action. It looks amazing.