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Monday September 25th, 2017 at Minibar in Kansas City, MO
The Jukebox Romantics, From Parts Unknown, & Stiff Middle Fingers
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Several years back I was made aware of the term "bar punk." It's essentially a label applied to punk bands that play in bars as opposed to those that exclusively play in basements and at other nontraditional venues. It's a term of derision spoken from the DIY set. In Kansas City, this rift is real — half of Kansas City's punk scene inexplicably wants nothing to do with the other. I have no idea why. On this night, I'd be attending a "bar punk" show.

Everything was running late at Minibar. Openers Stiff Middle Fingers didn't arrive until after 10pm, offering up tales of an unseen hard rain that slowed traffic. After checking in, its members hurriedly transported their gear from the closest parking spot a block away, and then began hauling it up the steep stairs to the second floor of the club where shows happen. A quick sound check followed, then the band was pushed into action without any thought of foreplay.

Despite the rush, the Lawrence four-piece put on a solid 25-minute set of punk built on the foundations laid by SST Records in the late '80s. Frontman Travis Arey was his usual bundle of energy — rushing about the stage and into the crowd, losing clothes as the night wore on, jumping like a madman, and sweating up the joint. Sadly, his vocals were lost due to a bad mix that favored the versatile guitar of Aron Swenson. Luckily the bass work of Doug Griffin still cut through the mix, as it's something to behold. His runs often recalled the hyper-caffeinated work of original Descendents bassist Tony Lombardo, though he also did a pretty good Mike Watt impression when the band slipped a Minutemen cover into its set. Unfortunately, the band were unable to lure its fans to Kansas City, and the small audience remained passive throughout the set. Sensing there was no reason to stick around after the closing number, the members of Stiff Middle Fingers packed up their gear and vanished without even setting up a merch table.

Attending concerts for the last 30 years has taught me to fear certain things. On that list, just between guitarists playing a full stack in a club and white guys with dreadlocks, you'll find upright basses. I quaked as From Parts Unknown bassist Chris Parrish carried his instrument onto the stage. It's not only purple, but pinstriped like a '66 Impala in the barrio. This was something that I had never even considered for my list of terrors. An update is in order.

At 11:00 the Dallas trio kicked off its set, snapping my preoccupation with that bass. Despite the small and mostly empty room, guitarist Ben McCracken began the night with grandiose, Warp-tour-appropriate crowd baiting. He'd continue this throughout the set. That's commitment. I'd never seen the band before, and so aside from one (rather cute) video I watched days before the show, I didn't really know what to expect. Here's a cheat code for you: the band is fast. Everything about From Parts Unknown is done in double time, from Parrish's constantly slapping hand, to the pounding double bass work of drummer Kyle Owens, to McCracken's strumming hand that I never actually saw due to motion blur. Despite all this speed, the band is categorically punk rock. But… McCracken's vocals do flirt with nu metal, and the band did play a cover of Metallica's "The Four Horsemen" that would have had Cliff Burton making finger flames for Parrish. But really, otherwise, the band was totally punk by the numbers. Except… there was some phase shifting during "Rad Pitt" and there was that song with the skank-worthy breakdown that came out of nowhere. When the band's 40-minute set ended with a giant crashing finale (naturally), I actually had more questions than answers. Thankfully McCracken was exceptionally nice, and offered to explain it all to me. But that's for another day.

When the headliner took the stage at midnight I was able to do an inventory. Generously, there were eight people in the club that weren't in a band playing that night. Only eight, but these were no passive regulars — these were dedicated fans ready to stick it out to the end on a Monday night. Frontman Mike Terry would later call out this ride-or-die crew by name. They deserved the props.

New York's Jukebox Romantics are a ballsy punk band that has a lot in common with our own American Dischord. There's pop punk song structures, rattling bass from Bobby Edge, crashing cymbals from Mike Normann, and driving guitar from Terry. Both Edge and Terry share vocals duties, often trading lines within songs. The trio continued the energy shown by the previous bands, moving about the small stage, and coming forward to stand on box placed between the monitors (presumably so those in the back of the festival could get a glimpse). While I had seen the band once before, I wasn't prepared for the singalong that accompanied the (unknown to me) crowd-favorite penultimate song of the night, forcing me to slip abashedly to the back of the club. Thankfully during the four new songs that the band played I was on equal footing with the rest of the audience.

After the band's set, I talked to Mike Terry who provided me with a tour-only sampler featuring two new songs, and two songs from a four-way split cassette that came out in 2015. This insistence to give away merch to fans is universal — whether the show is in a basement or a bar. So, how ARE the DIY and "bar punk" scenes different? Moments later, when the club handed over the entire door to the touring bands, yet it wasn't enough to buy gas for the two vans headed to Saint Louis the next morning, I wondered who made up that ridiculous distinction. It's all punk, and it's all done for the same reason, so just shove that safety pin through your nose and let's go build a scene.

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