Saturday December 30th, 2000 at Club 301 in Olathe, KS
Jade Raven, National Fire Theory, & The Trophy Wives
In my three-year Kansas City lifetime, Gee Coffee (under any name) has always been there. And although I go to several area shows a week, I only visited the all-ages suburban mainstay but a dozen times. Although the club seldom booked bands I enjoy, the primary reason for my avoidance is I've never felt comfortable there. The space itself is fine, it's pretty nice actually with graffiti decorated walls, shabby couches, shabbier pool tables, a snack bar, and a nice wide stage. Sure the building is always either hot or cold and the sound is atrocious and the stage lighting is usually non-existent, but that's what an all-ages space is in every city. The real problem has always been the club never really wanted me there.
In its years of existence under various ownership the club has always catered to the local suburban youth, and when I did come for a show it was obvious that I was a voyeur or worse a raider. Sitting outside on a Friday night you could watch the parade of mothers in mini-vans and SUVs stop, drop off their kids, and shout curfew reminders to them before pulling off. The average age of a Gee Coffee show attendee always hovered around 15, and half of them seemed to be there not for the show at all, but rather to have a place to make out with their grrlfriend and smoke cigarettes away from their parents' eyes. Don't get me wrong, this is a fine use for a space, especially in it's final days when the club was operated by these same kids. However, it just wasn't made for me.
When I did show up, it was usually for a momentous event such as band's first or last show or some benefit or another. The club booked almost exclusively three-week-old pop-punk bands culled from the area high schools. Although musically the genre seldom appeals to me, occasionally I would peek in (as a voyeur) to see the state of things only to be quickly reminded that no one had invited me there. When the club did book local bands I liked, it seemed like I had just seem them a week earlier at one of the bars and it was overkill. With the exception of a freak Fugazi show (booked by an outside promoter), I can't recollect a single touring band that headlined a show at Gee Coffee. It's hard to run an all-ages club in any circumstance, but when you rely on the draw of high school kids in their first band, it becomes nearly impossible.
So the point of all this reflection is that December 30th marked the closing of Gee Coffee. Of course the club has closed before only to reopen weeks later, but this time it seems final. I arrived at the show at a quarter to eight (with eight o'clock being the announced start time) and paid my five dollars to get in. One of the kids collecting money (or hanging out with the ones who were) admired my anti-sweatshop labour pin and offered up a trade. Out of sorts and almost embarrassed, I removed the pin and gifted it. I hope the pin makes its way to a bookbag and serves as a rallying cry to the impressionable youth at her high school, but I'd settle to know that it makes her feel cool to have it pinned there for all to see.
In a quick tour of the club I spied twenty-five or so kids, but of course no one I knew. Finding a pool table, all the appropriate balls, a cue and a rack (all quite miraculous as all four tables share at least one of these common items), I figured I'd just waste the time until the show shooting pool. Break, then a solid colour, then the matching striped ball, then my pattern repeats. Despite the severe lean of the table and the sorry condition of all equipment, I shot pretty well. With four or five balls on the table, I was approached by a bouncy grrl with blonde pigtails asking if I was "going to, uh, play another game after this one." Again I shied away and muttered no. I quickly (and thusly quite inefficiently) finished my game and handed the single cue ball over to the grrl and her friend. I watched them play for a while hoping that I could get in on a match, but after discovering they were simply horrible (but having a lovely time at it), I realized that again, this wasn't something I invited to be a part of. So I left the pool tables and found a seat on an empty couch to slump into.
Around that time Nick the soundman came in and began his pre-show ritual of jam-based folk rock. Although initially surprised by the tolerable Beatles, he quickly moved to The Grateful Dead and I'm sure later progressed to Phish or Widespread Panic or something equally as distasteful that I wouldn't be able to recognize. At 8:30 the first band's gear was waiting on stage, but no microphones were set up (and I believe I overheard not even the building), and no band members were seen to be milling around anxiously. I should have brought a book.
Ultimately after a painful half hour sound check the band started their first song. Based entirely on a correct hunch, I guessed the band to be The Trophy Wives playing their first show. Although the band has been together in loose forms for longer, the current line up has been playing together for only three months. To scratch the surface, the band are rock -- female fronted rock with some power-pop tendencies -- in fact fronted by the bouncy pigtailed pool player of paragraphs prior. On stage, Audrey Zager, as we now know her name, was quiet and guardedly nervous most of night. She stood coldly in front of the microphone with not so much as a head bob while sang. Her vocals are deep, somewhat throaty, and due to a very weak monitor, flat for most of the night. You old folks can think of Ann-Margret's vocals in the movie Tommy and you'll have a pretty solid idea of what transpired.
The rest of the band faired about equally as well. The song co-writers, bassist Mike Hoffman and guitarist Steve Hittner, each seemed to bring their personal tastes into songs creating guitar parts with emo dissonance and jumping pop-punk bass lines. First time drummer Matt Zager played a basic beat well although his fills often dragged or were just plain misses. This is, after all, a new band's first show so conclusions can't be drawn quite yet. On the upside, there were catchy songs and one in particular entitled Prayer Closet, made excellent use of Hittner's always-chords-never-notes style to create the night's only real guitar lead. Give the band some time to find their direction (and those melodic leads) and then go check 'em out.
Once National Fire Theory loaded their substantial gear on stage, the club featured another painful half hour sound check. But even after all that, everything wasn't quite right: the lights were too low, the monitors inappropriate and even the mix was bad. The band, as is their way, let ol' Nick know about it and with the exception of some later missed cues blamed on the drum monitor, things went smoother for it. As always the band was tight in their mix of crunching metallic guitars, soaring vocals and driving rhythms -- oddly part Blink 182, part Avail and part Pantara. Although the crowd of forty had come to see National Fire Theory, they were very passive and ultimately vocalist/guitarist Timbo Gutschenritter surrendered his ideal of motivating the crowd to contribution. A flat crowd can lead to a flat band but NFT weathered the indifference for nearly an hour before leaving the stage they must have played scores of times throughout their adolescence.
The evening's final half hour sound check gave the audience just enough time to get to their cars (or meet their mothers at the curb) and go home. In fact Jade Raven began their set at 11:30 to an audience of barely a dozen family members and friends. Although the band has most recently played to captive audiences of thousands at Kansas City Blades games, they didn't let the small draw worry them and played a full set of infectious pop rock.
If you haven't read my thoughts on the band before, just click on another show account; they're good, and getting better, particularly frontwoman Holly King. Although King doesn't appear to have taken many guitar lessons, it looks like she might have been coached on her stage presence -- suddenly she seemed to own the stage and the audience. Throughout the night she was relaxed and comfortable, however once she removed the guitar and unclasped the microphone from its stand, she became Wonder FrontWoman and the show became just that, a show.
King seems to be attending the Brittany Spears' school of coy sexuality. I noted each time she consciously leaned in tight to the audience, singing to them confidentially, and then noted each time she flirted off to dance with the rest of the stage. Her eye, arm, head and neck movements expressed the songs as completely as her mouth formed the words. She frequently told the audience how great they were which might be a little rehearsed, although I let that slide as sheer exuberance.
If you haven't already gotten the news about Jade Raven, you soon will. This band's popularity is growing at an enormous rate and they're about to reach critical mass. In fact both Jade Raven and National Fire Theory could be Gee Coffee's success stories. Although financially the club was a bust, it was one of Gee Coffee's many shows of unknown high school kids doing pop punk for their friends that first brought Jade Raven and National Fire Theory (then as The Sunshine Vandals) to a stage. Gee Coffee's place in Kansas City history as a clubhouse for kids is secure, it's up to Jade Raven and National Fire Theory to prove there was more happening in that warehouse than hickeys and nicotine.