The Crossroads Summer Block Party had the unfortunate timing to be the second of two all-evening, multi-band outdoor festivals that I attended in the same week. While the first was a benefit to (indirectly) aid the victims of recent tornados in Oklahoma, the Block Party was a free event coinciding with the Crossroads' First Friday gallery openings for the benefit of the citizenry, the Crossroads Arts District, and the bands on Golden Sounds Records – the label who organizes the event. Both recipients are worthy causes.
Kansas City's Akkilles began its set at 6:00 – precisely as advertised. The project is nominally the solo effort of vocalist/guitarist David Bennett, although this showing called for a full backing band that included Rachel Pollock on violin and backing vocals, bassist Nick Pick, drummer Isaac Anderson, and lead guitarist Jeff Larison. The ensemble was a wise choice – intimacy is not possible on a sunlit festival stage positioned in the middle of a broad intersection. As a full band, Akkilles presented richly textured, relaxed folk rock akin to local act The Caves (with whom, the band repeatedly announced, they would be playing their album release show soon). While I wasn't able to hear Pollock's violin regardless of my location, Larison's muscular leads (particularly when playing his large hollow body guitar) added a bold layer atop of Bennett singer/songwriter base. The band ended its short and sweet set with a cover of Spiritualized's "Little Girl."
Between acts, local aerial acrobatic school (for lack of a better description) Quixotic presented its suspended modern dance. And just as new bands would relinquish the stage to established ones as the night progressed, Quixotic's performances would also grow in complexity, waxing from novice students early in the evening to performances on even footing with those in Cirque du Soleil by the evening's close. In a brilliant feat of scheduling, as each Quixotic set ended, another band would begin on the stage, ensuring continuous entertainment.
The next band on the stage was Kansas City's Opossum Trot. The band's music references the '90s alternative era, despite the fact that no band member is old enough to remember those heady years. Muddy guitar tones and other grunge hallmarks dominated the band's sound, though hints Archers of Loaf and other indie rock luminaries occasionally poked through. This was particularly evident in a new song (as announced by vocalist/guitarist Andrew Zahniser) titled "Girls Are Chameleons." While this bit of banter wasn't exactly rare, Zahniser did generally hide behind tie-dyed sunglasses, only addressing the crowd when necessary. Bassist Matt Gratton, however, jumped in to fill the awkward pauses between songs, soon finding himself unable to end his long, rambling banter. Afterwards a proud mother tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to the stage and proclaimed, "That is my baby." Sorry kid, it happened. Drummer Boomhauer Simington also had plenty of family present, which may have encouraged his cool-as-ice, drumstick-spinning performance – a level of showmanship that stood in direct contrast to the intent focus of guitarist Andrew Sherrill. The band closed with an uncharacteristically light and drifting number that matched its "we are floating out to sea" refrain.
The evening's schedule held tight, putting Lawrence's Oils on stage at precisely 7:30. Vocalist/guitarist Andrew Frederick remains the only constant in this band whose membership changes performance by performance. Consistency, however is not in the band's vocabulary. Songs seemed to begin (and sometimes end) organically, with Frederick occasionally sending bassist Taryn Miller and drummer Mark Osman ahead and catching up with them after moments of improvisational scat. His vocals were sloppy and pitchy, matching the overall looseness of the band's indie pop; however, neither audience nor performers were worried by such formality. Frederick smiled warmly throughout the set, dancing in circles and waving his hands in the air, spreading his joy to the bemused Miller. Osman, conversely, was all business, and seemingly carried the weight of the band on his shoulders. Halfway through the band's allotted time, Frederick asked the sound engineer if there was time for one more. After learning there was fifteen minutes to spare, the band launched into a long, noisy, yet groove-heavy number that recalled early Modern Lovers. This became the highlight of the set in my estimation.
8:15 brought Omaha's Millions of Boys to the stage. The act had the distinction of being the only non-local band, though with the band's Golden Sound associations, its appearance was not exactly surprising either. And while Millions of Boys continued the jovial mood created by Oils, this trio kept its punk-fuelled indie pop tight and focused. Infectious songs like "Gimme Yr Blood" (from 2011's Competing For Your Love) had both an audience of fans singing, and a cadre of toddlers dancing. For the majority of the set, diminutive Sara Bretuldo played frantic electric guitar and provided lead vocals (with plenty of help from bassist Alex Van Beaumont and drummer Ryan Haas). Later, lead vocal duties would be distributed amongst the band, and for the final numbers, Bretuldo and Van Beaumont would swap instrumental duties as well. Regardless of roles, the resulting happy DIY punk and driving pop moments recalled the wonderful early catalog of K Records, and sent me scurrying to the Golden Sound merchandise table.
The sun had set by 9:00, spurring the hot yellow stage lights into action and onto the face of Hidden Pictures frontman (and only mainstay) Richard Gintowt. True to a band history that has featured an ever-revolving cast of musicians, Gintowt was joined by an entirely new stripped down lineup featuring the backing vocals and ukulele of Claire Adams, the bass of Chad Toney, and first-time-with-the-band drummer Lennon Bone of Ha Ha Tonka. Bone, however, was not the big story here, but rather the versatility of Adams. Not only did she provide the sweet spot-on harmonies demanded by Gintowt's effervescent pop, but also played the leads previously provided by a lead guitarist or a dedicated keyboardist. And although a ukulele (even when electrified) doesn't have the power of a guitar, the result was surprisingly fun. Luckily the band's nine-song set focused largely on new material (including current single "Sister Wife"), sparing Adams from re-creating the glockenspiel on her ukulele as well. The new line up shone the brightest during the loose swing of unreleased live staple "Firm Way to Say Goodbye," though "Evil Kangaroo" and "Solo Record Shop" (both from 2012's Rainbow Records) were certainly the fan favourites.
Between acts I made a beeline for the four food trucks assembled nearby. After surveying the options, I ultimately chose a (quite delicious) falafel and hummus sandwich from Jerusalem Cafe. I watched the time carefully as I waited in the long line, all the while soothing my OCD by repeating that I had plenty of time to get back to the stage before the next act began. But then the impossible happened: at 9:40 (five minutes early!), Shy Boys took the stage. I hurried back, spending the next few minutes sneaking bites of my sandwich between each snap of the shutter.
Shy Boys is a local three piece of pedigree and reputation, but not one I would have placed so late into the evening. The promoters, however, knew more than I, a fact proven when the band's simple and snapping airy pop quickly mesmerized the entire audience, drawing in not only the hipsters, but the boomers as well. While this was the biggest show the band had played, frontman, vocalist and guitarist Collin Rausch showed no sign of nervousness. During a particularly sloppy, discordant, and clanking guitar solo (only slightly more of each than intended) Rausch stuck out his tongue, happily enjoying the chaos of his music. The band's rhythm section, Kyle Rausch and Konnor Ervin, swapped between drums and bass several times throughout the set, but always contributed backing or secondary vocals to Collin Rausch's twangy and beautiful compositions regardless of their posts on stage. After a short 25-minute set, the band left the stage despite the audience's calls for more.
A quick turn around brought local foursome Fullbloods to the stage a full ten minutes earlier than advertised. Led by the vocals and guitar of Golden Sound's Ross Brown, backed by the tremolo-heavy guitar and vocals of Glenn Shipps, and supported by the funky rhythm section of drummer Bill Pollock and bassist Alex Chapman, the band's bouncing rock skews toward the commercially viable territory laid out by Vampire Weekend and others. The quartet took full advantage of its 30-minute set, providing an appreciative audience with a good time, but leaving me a bit cold.
As Quixotic put on its breathtaking last performance of the night, the expert sound engineers completed their final set change of the night. And despite all the auxiliary percussion, pre-recorded rhythm tracks, microphones, and live instruments to check, the headlining act still took the stage fifteen minutes earlier than expected, making this the only festival ever to not run late.
As was the case last year, Lawrence, Kansas's Cowboy Indian Bear was tapped to close the party. So at 11:00, surrounded by hundreds of eager fans, and halting hundreds more in their tracks, the band began with the ethereal "I Want a Stranger's Heart." By night's end, the band would play a 50-minute, eight-song set culled entirely from its 2013 album Live Old, Die Young (The Record Machine). While translating that album's richly layered compositions to the festival stage would seem to be a challenge, the four members of the band brought every lovely vocal harmony, every lush electronic flourish, and every deep bass tone to life. After several tours earlier in the spring, the band has brought its live set to a level of second-nature professionalism unmatched by any other band in the region. Both guitarist CJ Calhoun and bassist (and occasional guitarist) Marty Hillard seemed particularly at ease, communicating with an audience that couldn't have been more enthusiastic. While drummer Beau Bruns carefully navigated the tricky rhythms without flaw, it was the live vocals of keyboardist Katlyn Conroy that truly shone. As cries of "Katlyn" rang out from the crowd, Conroy responded with shock, noting that it's normally shouts of "Marty" that come from the audience. Shouts aside, its the interplay of all four musicians that make Cowboy Indian Bear such a special band.
After the final tones of "Does Anybody See You Out?" were played, and Calhoun had thanked the audience, I turned to find a mob of fans – new and old – assembling at the side of the stage. From my vantage point I heard multiple conversations from excited individuals asking for the band's name, followed by questions about purchasing the band's CD. Another group of fans waited to take photographs with the musicians as further proof of the intimate connection that the band inspires.
Although local frozen cocktail bar "Snow & Company" promised an official after party for those over 21, only a small portion of the crowd attended. The majority seemed content to enjoy the cool evening and the novelty of visiting with friends in the wide open streets. That is the best benefit of a block party, and for that I thank Golden Sound and all of the sponsors who made that possible.