I wonder if all punk scenes are like the Kansas City scene. It's a bell curve here in the City of Fountains with lots of young kids in new punk bands, dropping to only a few bands that last ten years and into the players' late 20s, and then the numbers grow again as the lifers make their presence felt. These are the grizzled, tattooed Midtown lot that have kept their band alive for 30 years because they know no other way to live. As I arrived at the Black & Gold Tavern I wasn't sure which how far up the the other side of the curve I should expect. The headliner, after all, was the 52-year-old Kevin Seconds, a legend in the punk rock, hardcore, and straightedge communities. But Seconds' current brand of acoustic punk typically calls to a younger audience, so the ultimate outcome was anyone's guess.
The evening began inauspiciously with Bad Nugent, the moniker of Thad Nugent, guitarist of local anarcho-punks Smash the State. In a room tacked onto the back of the bar that looked like a poorly appointed suburban man cave (large flat screen TV, astroturf on the floor, sports memorabilia on the panelled walls, folding chairs and tables), Nugent ran through a twenty-minute set of punk rock tunes barely re-arranged for acoustic guitar. Thankfully friends (and bandmates) were present to support the nervous Nugent as he stepped in front of the microphone. Forgotten vocal lines were cued from the audience as he imitated the vocals of NoFX, Rise Against, and Bouncing Souls. Each of these, as well as a cover of his own Smash the State track, were presented in clumsy barre chords, while most of his angsty originals rang with easy open chords. A shift away from politics, brought the set's most enjoyable (if marginally misogynist) song – a tale lamenting a girlfriend that should have never been. While I didn't catch the name of this fully fleshed gem, I heard an audience member refer to it as "his Irish song." While not exceptionally Pogues-ian (a patron saint of the acoustic/folk punk genre), the appellation was nonetheless deserved.
As Nugent was leaving the stage, he lowered the microphone for the next performer. And after pulling up a chair, and taking a pull from his flask, Gregg Todt was ready to begin. Todt definitely belongs in the lifer camp, where he can usually be found playing guitar and fronting the dangerous boogie of Federation of Horsepower. His voice is always whiskey-soaked, but during this acoustic set the longing and loss was palpable, recalling the croak of William Elliott Whitmore. While Bad Nugent's set shilled for revolution, Todt's searched for solace. Despite pointing out that he was not a religious man, the 25-minute, all-original set was rife with blues calling for redemption or resolution. These are Todt's self-described pretty songs – ones that don't fit into Federation of Horsepower's unholy trinity of Ms (Molly Hatchet, Motorhead, and The Misfits). And while those songs were enthralling, it was the bounding rocker "Sinner" (played on a dazzling resonator guitar) that brought the audience to life.
After the "stage" was quickly handed over to Dead Ven, the fiercely DIY band stalled the night by fussing with the small sound system for a disproportionately long time. I've read that the band is usually a quintet, so maybe this makeshift trio caused some confusion. Reduced to only Ven Smith (vocals, guitar, and coifed moustache), an upright bassist, and a percussionist who simultaneously managed quick-fingered melody work on a melodica, the band sped through an ample 40-minute set similar to that pioneered decades earlier by the Plan-It-X progenitors. The band's bounding, breakneck pace nearly dictated Smith's ramshackle delivery as he sang a set composed entirely of anti-establishment songs (or so was the running joke) singing the praise of the common man. While the pro-union tribute to Smith's departed grandfather slowed things down a bit, allowing the bassist a chance to demonstrate his bowing skills, the set's lone request, a 45-second blast of power that paid tribute to local Boulevard brewery, provided the audience with its highest fun per second ratio of the night.
During the long break that separated the local from the touring musicians, I sat outside enjoying the unseasonably temperate weather and the excellent DJs that spanned the night. Despite the pervasive cigarette smoke and intermittent sprinkles, the patio at Black & Gold was a delightful escape from the somber windowless room where the bands performed. I saw a few familiar faces, a few familiar tattoos, and a few familiar haircuts, but it's been years since I mingled with this tribe, setting me apart from the tight cliques of friends drinking a capstone to their weekends. Sadly most of these punks and skinheads never made it to the back room to see the bands, making my quick dash up the stairs the moment I heard an amplified guitar all that more abrupt.
It was 9:00 when Kepi Ghoulie played his first song. Backed by simple, and likely unrehearsed, percussion by Kevin Seconds, Ghoulie played a 30-minute set that merely tilted the pop-punk of his long-running The Groovie Ghoulies toward an acoustic guitar. And while this transmogrification is seldom successful, Ghoulie pulled it off without a hitch thanks to strong songs with big pop melodies that shone regardless of the arrangement. Ghoulie promised to take any and all requests (a feat he delivered on when challenged), yet there were few sing-a-longs from the twenty or so person audience who stood quietly and watched. Inactivity hit its apex when the smell of pot overpowered the room, prompting Ghoulie to sarcastically declare his success as a musical entertainer. By his figuring, he had just joined the ranks of Pink Floyd and Steely Dan. To celebrate this victory Ghoulie decided to take another guitar solo so that the audience could "groove with [his] music." He finished his short set with "Tornado Love" – a song about the inevitable dangers of love, not about "the unfortunate natural phenomena" as he was sure to point out to the Kansas City crowd.
After another curiously long break, the two performers returned to the stage, although this time it was Kevin Seconds who stood at the microphone with an acoustic guitar in hand, and Ghoulie behind the drumkit offering up unobtrusive percussion. In a nearly hour-long set, Seconds played selections from his solo records, debuted songs from a forthcoming album, relayed stories of his own travels (including his tours through Kansas City before several members of the young audience were even born), and notably, despite one fan's call, no 7 Seconds songs.
For many, it's hard to separate Seconds' from the influential band he started 33 years ago, though the bearded, middle-aged Seconds, missing a tooth, a little heavy, with long hair that he admitted to maintaining only for his wife's benefit, looked nothing like the 1988 Kevin Seconds that shaped my youth. We've both grown up, and seeing this man rip through an acoustic version of "Regress No Way" was the last thing on either of our minds.
Still, this is the same Kevin Seconds in many ways. He has maintained his high tenor (his voice not spoiled by vice, I presume), and his lyrics were still gloriously positive, finding hope even in the dire moments. As Seconds never played guitar for his famous band, his current guitar work is kept strikingly simple, with most songs built around a single open chord or maybe two. There were no solos or intricate finger picking during his set, just the ringing jangle of that acoustic guitar with a soft snare keeping time in the background. Because of this, many songs blended together for me, with highlights happening here or there as a particularly lovely vocal melody cut through. Truthfully, it wasn't the guitar, vocals, melodies, nor songs that I came to see, but rather Kevin Seconds himself. And that element was brilliant. The direct and honest connection he created with the audience made the set delightful. His stories – about life, about the songs he played, about anything – made the set.
After offering new song "Love or Hate" (a song about his hometown of Sacramento), Seconds closed with "Forever Try" from his current album (Don't Let Me Lose You, Asian Man Records, 2012). This song is, as you might guess, a ode to pushing hard for the things you believe in. This is the same Kevin Seconds.
After the set I stopped by the merch table to buy a print of one of Seconds' framed illustrations (he's a talented artist as well), and tell him that it had been 25 years since I saw him last. We reminisced about Bogart's in Cincinnati and how much younger we both were then. After a handshake I slipped off to pack my camera while Seconds sold a cassette copy of his last album. So that makes two things the snotty young punks and the worn lifers have in common: Kevin Seconds and cassette tapes.