I strained to hear as the promoter huddled with the two opening acts. The show needed to start, but the PA hadn't arrived. I listened as he sheepishly polled the acts, asking if either could go on without a microphone. He first turned to Ven Smith. Smith is a shouter, but his husky voice is no match for his guitar amp. The promoter then turned to Nate Allen. Allen considered his set, made a few pained faces, but ultimately accommodated the plea. The show must go on.
Duty bound, Nate Allen stood on the floor at the front of the record store holding his acoustic guitar. After removing his trademark translucent eyeglasses, he squinted toward the back of the shop as if still considering his commission. Eventually he asked everyone to come closer, telling the crowd (quite matter-of-factly) that he'd be whispering his vocals. Was the Destroy Nate Allen frontman ill? Not a bit, but the rambunctious vocal delivery of the singer's primary project is worlds away from the intimate style that defines this Good Saint Nathanael project. Maybe the rest of the audience already knew this, but I only learned this during Allen's half-hour set as it meandered from '70s-styled, open-chord folk to a more modern, warm, and confessional delivery that reminded me of Death Cab's Ben Gibbard. Songs were strummed. Songs were fingerpicked. And every song came with an explanation as to why it was relevant, how it came into being, and, often, how it might inspire Allen or his audience to be part of a better world. This banter was earnest but entirely enjoyable. No lectures. No cajoling the audience into participation. And only during a reworking of Destroy Nate Allen's "35, 35, 35" did Allen rise above a library whisper.
As if planned, the PA arrived immediately after Good Saint Nathanael's set. Maybe it was planned to draw the audience deeper into the opener's set. Maybe it just worked out that way. Either way, ten minutes later, a microphone was connected to a small board and Dead Ven was ready to go. The whispered portion of the night was over.
A one-man band standing at the front of a record store really doesn't need much of a soundcheck, but still Dead Ven's Ven Smith strummed, chugged, and belted his way through Fugazi's "Waiting Room" with a rascal's smirk. A gift for those who knew. And we were obnoxious in our recognition. After declining to work his way through the rest of the band's discography, Smith instead provided six new songs planned for an upcoming EP. The pickguards on his Fender acoustic took a beating. His vocal chords couldn't have fared much better. While Dead Ven is easily slotted alongside the campfire acoustic punk of Frank Turner, lately he's joined Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon in producing weathered rock anthemic enough for stadiums but destined for basements. Although each song being entirely new to me, I was singing along by the second time the chorus rolled around. Everything familiar. Everything righteous. Rumor is Smith may be leaving KC for sunny San Diego soon, so if you see Dead Ven on a flyer, make the effort before it's too late.
While Ven Smith's departure is still rumored, the demise of The Hillary Watts Riot is public knowledge. This record store gig served as the long-running foursome's penultimate gig, and a chance to pack in the band's friends and family for a farewell. Shows at Merritt are always cramped, by this point in the evening, this one was especially so. Also, most gigs don't have a front row of seated children, occasionally dozing, unimpressed by their rambunctious frontwoman mother. This one did. As I watched the self-described "freak pop" band (a meaningless taxonomy as useful as any other in describing the band's blend of new wave quick, post-punk funk, guitar heroics, and bluesy vocals) perform, I wondered why its four members were calling it quits. Between songs, frontwoman Miss Hillary (Hillary Watts) provided a myriad of comical answers, but none of them satisfying. For example, after signature song "Tube Top" – a song familiar enough to inspire a shout-along from members of the audience – Miss Hillary explained that the band's passing was only natural, that age has taken its toll, and she just can't keep the titular tube top up anymore, "at least not on one side anyway." Despite her pessimism, Watts is still a delightful frontwoman, full of energy, passion, and sex appeal. The hive (see, the rest of the band are drones to Miss Hillary's queen) are similarly animated. 648157 (Christian Hankel) stepped to the crowded fore several times, taking his five-string bass vertical as his fingers bounded up and down the neck. 703343 (Tommy Donoho) made his own voyage through the crowd, whereupon he discovered his guitar was not loud enough. He returned to the "stage" aghast, halted the song abruptly, and announced that the band was definitely not loud enough for those in the back. Amplifiers were turned up, the song began again, and my earplugs were pressed into service. As Watts made funny faces to her nonplussed children, drummer 70883 (Logan Compton) had no audience in mind for his cartoonish frown of concentration. 648157 christened the drummer "Il Grimace," then explained that it means "the grimace" in Italian. It does not.
As the set list drained, and ten o'clock loomed, the band attempted to end the affair. When asked for more, the band went into conference. There was some wrangling – maybe concerning sound choices, maybe more – but ultimately 648157 acquiesced, but only after urging his bandmates on, insisting that the audience was tired and wanted to get home to bed. That's the sort of concern for my well-being that I want from my rock bands, and I'll miss this one when it's gone. You can catch the band one final time before the hive collapses on December 21st at The RINO.