Too Much Rock was beginning to feel like a sham. How is it possible to cover the live music scene in Kansas City for over fifteen years and not have attended a single show by the city's elder statesman, Howard Iceberg? After spotting my favourite imports were scheduled to play a free early show with Iceberg on the eve of a long business trip, I jumped at the chance to mend my ways and restore legitimacy to the (html) pages of this site. The fact that Kate was game as long as we could begin the night with a delicious vegan meal at the club, well, we'll call that the icing on the cake.
As I finished my portabella burger Kansas City's (by the way of New York City) Schwervon! began its soundcheck. Drummer Nan Turner tested her microphone with an a capella "Country Roads," wedging that John Denver nugget into Kate's head for the next 24 (and counting) hours. Soon Matt Roth stood on the stage, riffing some warm, reverb heavy guitar lines, while Turner made her now-customary entrance to the stage – via a poorly choreographed, poorly executed, and entirely precious tap dance routine that took her back and forth in front of the stage several times before landing her behind her kit.
The beginning of the band's ten-song set was brazen, with Roth's guitar leaking Iommi-big riffs over Turner's percussion. This is not a band anyone would describe as heavy, yet suddenly Roth's guitar decided to audition for the doomy SunO))). While he plays with a special rig that includes a bottom-boosting bass amplifier, Roth credits the house's sound engineer for the unexpected roar. It would be several songs into the set before the couple's signature sound crept out â€“ one less sinister, but instead owing to the slacker alternative rock of the '90s and the garage revivalist of the '00s. Although the band has earned praise for its wit and subtle pop sensibilities, it's the humorous deadpan banter of Roth that makes the band's live show irresistible. And it's Turner's reactions to his banter that makes the interstitials as enjoyable as the songs. One such exchange involved Roth congratulating the audience for merely leaving the house, noting that if one never left the house, they might not notice if they had a "piece" of toothpaste on their face all day. As Roth continued on, attempting to dig himself out of the curious hole he created, the audience only laughed louder. Turner gave the audience a look that said "pity me," and then shared one with Roth that said "it's okay honey, let's just play a song." My wife gives me similar looks on a daily basis.
The band finished its 40-minute set with an older tune entitled "American Girl," resurrected for the Fourth of July holiday. Despite the unavoidably small arrangement, the song could be a lost Pixies track with its disjointed riffs, sardonic lyrics, spoken male interlude, and fiery female vocals. While the band's new material is certainly more polished and honed, this older song had real fire, and drew big applause from both the band's fans, and the (considerably older) seated crowd that had come for the headliner.
Having recently read an excellent article on Howard Iceberg from The Pitch's web archives, I held relatively informed notions about Iceberg and his Titanics. I knew of his history as an army medic, his progressive politics and the law degree they inspired, the preternatural frequency at which he writes new material, his musical cohorts, his mysterious style of playing a customized acoustic guitar flat like a dobro, and his venerability. The article, however, did not prepare me for just how quick-witted and lively this eccentric performer is.
Iceberg cracked numerous jokes through the set, most of them dusty groaners that only made him more endearing to the audience. How many times as a performer declared himself to be a postman that "always delivers?" More than anyone can count I'm sure. And how often has Iceberg cracked that it was good to see an item on the menu named after him, only to reveal he had only spotted "iceberg wedge?" He surely has brought that one out weekly for decades. But like a kooky uncle that is confusingly hipper than your mother could have ever been, you can't help be be amused. The audience responded with Iceberg with hoots, applause, and occasional bouts of dancing, despite the early hour and the sunlight streaming in through the club's glass door.
While the Titanics, in theory, could include nearly anyone, for the past several years the band has coalesced around lead guitarist Gary Paredes and other veteran area musicians including rhythm guitarist Dan Mesh, bassist Scott Easterday, and drummer Pat Tomek. Although each plays an important role, it was the backing vocals of Easterday and the hot licks' (and all the baggage that phrase carries) of Paredes that stood out. Paredes solos in "Play Me a Slow One" actually stole that song.
Armed with only background information on Howard, I can't provide much detail on the songs he played during the his fourteen-song set, though I can report that no song drifted far from straightforward pop rock even when coloured with hints of rootsy blues and Americana. Generational touchstones would include both Nick Lowe and Richard Thompson, and while that's elite songwriting company to keep, Iceberg goes toe-to-toe with either in consistency, if not quite reaching those respective artists' highs.
As advertised, the show ended early, allowing everyone to finish their drinks while leisurely catching up with friends and bands and friends in bands. Inspired by the social atmosphere around us, and the surprise elation of seeing a show to completion without feeling exhausted, Kate and I stayed for a while, visiting with new friends. Still it wasn't long before I remembered my looming early morning flight, and the empty, open suitcase sitting on the bed at home. Knowing that I had acquired the information necessary to return the illusion of respectability to Too Much Rock, I said my farewells, and ushered Kate out the door towards home.