Earlier this year I pledged to attend at least one random rock show a month in an effort to both broaden my palette and to support smaller local acts. At 7:50 I hit the websites for the two reliable clubs closest to my house, settled on a bill that seemed to better fit my mission statement, kissed my wife goodbye, and zipped over to the club with just enough time to make the advertised 8pm start. After paying my $7 and investigating the empty club, I learned the start time had been shifted to 9pm. Oh well. I left, went home, and tried it all again 45 minutes later to much better success.
At 9pm the members of I Am Nation took the stage. This coed foursome is led by vocalist/guitarist Liz Greub, and anchored by lead guitarist Megan Gladbach. Rambunctious bassist Wyatt Lemmon and crash-heavy drummer David Gonzales round out this quartet of high school rockers. While the band has nominally been around for three years, its experience in the Kansas City bar scene is understandably limited. Undaunted, and with black Xs Sharpied upon their hands, the band eagerly tore through a 25-minute set of pop punk originals. Greub is a game frontwoman who (for better or worse) hasn't picked up the cool, polished sheen and affectations of the game; instead, she was excited, and that excitement was both infectious and endearing. Greub's guitar work was limited to occasional power chords, but mostly her cheap ESP LTD electric hung unused while Gladbach carried the melodic weight. Thankfully, Gladbach was up to the challenge. While focused and clinical at first, by the end of the set she was smiling so broadly, it was obvious that she couldn't imagine a better time. It was her guitar leads, her backing vocals, and her impressive pogoing that created the set's most lasting impressions. Impending college plans will undoubtably play havoc on the band, but somewhere these kids will make a splash.
Adem Sibic had a look of panic as he rushed around the club gathering equipment and assembling his borrowed drum kit. The other four members of Home & Away had already run through soundcheck, and waited impatiently as their allotted time ticked away. However, once everything was deemed ready, the five members of the St. Louis-based band put on their game faces, and launched into a five-song set of emo pop heavily augmented by metalcore flourishes.
Vocalist Bryan Casselman began the set by removing his microphone from its stand, clutching it tightly, and then telling the audience they needed to sing along – a bold move for a out of town band playing early in a bill on a Tuesday night. It's vital for a frontman to read the room, and base his banter on the mood, but Casselman ignored the languid reception and pushed forward, delivering a high energy performance. He must have seen something I didn't, because almost immediately his push paid dividends, bringing the audience to life with the band. Of course the near-constant double-kick drums didn't hurt either. Guitarists Dan Bradbury and Evan Murray kept things crunching along through the set, though neither showed any technical pyrotechnics. Murray carried the additional duty as designated screamer (though the band did bring up a ringer from the audience for one song), or "second lead vocals" as he told the engineer during soundcheck. He was able to calm his vocals enough to provide pleasant harmonies during the band's mother-loving ballad "Less Than 3." Sadly the two vocals and lone guitar composition was too long, heavy on schmaltz, and buried by Murray's clumsy 4/4 down-stroked power chords. The audience, however, erupted in cheers as the song found its conclusion. In other songs, David Fernandez's fingered bass work was nothing to scream about, but he did give an excited shout out to "gender equality" when referencing the evening's opener. It's lucky my wife wasn't at the show, or she'd have scooped him up for her imaginary "Katie's Home for Wayward Punk Rock Boys" – a place for earnest boys who think they're ready to take on the world, but still need a motherly bowl of soup and someone to mend the holes in their favourite Misfits t-shirts.
Between acts the crowd churned a bit, as some younger fans moved back, and older regulars moved forward. Where had this second crowd come from? When I first arrived I was worried I might be the only paying audience member at the show. It was, after all, a Tuesday night bill that featured four young bands in a 21+ venue. Turns out I was completely off base. Even for the opener there were 30 interested people standing at the edge of the stage, and that number only grew as the night went on. In addition, another crowd (presumably those under 21) stood outside listening to the bands, and visiting with the musicians between sets. While I still may have been the oldest patron (including the mothers of several band members), I definitely wasn't alone.
As Kansas City's Le Grand began to set up, I saw a shift coming. Subtle things like the shortened guitar straps of Sterling Dorrell and bassist Austin Pointer, or the way that drummer Sam Sartorius held the drumstick in his left hand, hinted that Le Grand was going to be a band of musicians playing something a bit more complicated than pop punk. My assumptions were proven correct immediately as the band began a 30-minute set of indie rock and post hardcore built upon shifting tempos and changing time signatures.
Josh Snow fronts the band, providing high vocals that verge on a scream, and a guitar that moves organically between rhythmic power chords and noodly leads. Dorrell's roles are nearly identical, although his voice is deeper and fuller than Snow's. Pointer is a slinky bass player who moves aggressively along his fretboard. His intent face gives way to an occasional satisfied grin as he paces back and forth on the left side of the stage. As is necessary for the genre, Sartorius is a dynamic drummer who is both precise and inventive. He was a pleasure to watch, particularly as he played his own fill-heavy beats between songs, filling the silence created as the guitarists tuned.
Although Le Grand flirts with the austere realm of math rock and the trippy headspace of progressive rock, its songs are built around pop's verses and choruses. This is highlighted in the studio where Snow's vocals are polished to bland commercial heights. Maybe this is the result of a young band far more familiar with Mars Volta than with Rodan. Here's to hoping they ditch the gloss and turn up the guts. If they do, the band will be crowned heir to the fine line of complicated and compelling indie rock bands that ruled Kansas City in the late '90s.
Grenadina's Mia Morrow was drunk when she took the stage, and was even more so when she left it. It was her 21st birthday, and this was – as she slurred loudly into the microphone – the best birthday of her life. Curiously, two other performers that evening were celebrating their 21sts (give or take a week), which gave Home & Away's Evan Murray pause to do the nine-month math and declare, basely, the obvious. Grenadina's vocalist, Katie Ford, smiled sheepishly during the pronouncements in the way that the lone sober person (she's not yet 21) does when surrounded by drunks. I know, I'm usually that guy.
It was 11:20 when Grenadina began its set. Ford leads the band; she's tiny and her skinny jeans and high wedges only accent that. She has a loud voice, but she keeps it conspicuously clean and pleasant. The band describes its sound as "girlcore" – a description I can only guess at decoding. I know it doesn't equate the band to the haphazard punk of the early riot girl movement, though I suppose the band does share Sleater-Kinney's moody, dynamic indie rock sound. In separates, Stefanie Petrozz is an amazingly tight drummer, capable of playing both the notes and the rests with aplomb, and Morrow's big bass work was surprisingly on cue despite her condition. However it is the raw guitar work of Steph Castor that gives the band its depth and soul. Her playing shifts from sizzling leads to atmospheric notes to bombastic minor chords in an instant, and recalls my favourite Ian MacKaye in Fugazi moments. If I were to start a band tomorrow, Castor would be my first call. And I wasn't alone in my adoration – the members of Home & Away were constantly warming their hands on the invisible flames Castor created with her guitar.
After 35minutes, the band completed its set with "Merriweather," a song named for, and about, Ford's ex-boyfriend. In her words, "it's going to be awesome when he finds out." Castor finished the set lying flat on her back at the centre of the stage, guitar still humming. There were serious calls for an encore, but the band simply knew no other songs. While the band pondered an unrehearsed cover (something Morrow was in no condition to attempt), the lights and house music came up, putting an end to the set and the night.
Obviously I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the Riot Room, but always hope that I'll find my new favourite band. At the very least, I hope that I get a better picture of live music in Kansas City, and, in cases like this, a picture of the talent coming up through the ranks. While I wont be putting my Gang of Four and Mission of Burma records into the back of the closet just yet, I did discover a couple of bands that I look forward to watching as they take their places in the local scene.