Before anything else is written, it's important to note that at 7:30pm local-enough University of Kansas defeated rivals Kansas State University to win the Big 12 Championship. This was not merely happening on every television in every bar, but also happening at the Sprint Center only two blocks from the Czar Bar. Because of the Big 12, for the past week Kansas City has been overrun with glorious tourists filling our city coffers. Thank you, tourists. Now get the hell out of my bar.
To capitalise on the increased patronage, the Czar Bar decided to devote every available moment of the day to the glory of rock. This would be grand, except that I showed up for a three-band bill that was scheduled to begin at 8:00 and the opener from the 6:00 two-band bill was still performing. Meanwhile, the packed bar was simply haemorrhaging KU-clad alumni who had just watched the win on television and were now taking to the streets to celebrate. Outside, bar owner Billy Smith explained that everything was running about a half hour late. Kate and I used this time to dash to Füd on the Westside and sample the vegan desserts. It was a delicious use of our time.
When we returned closer to 9:00 (obviously not fooled by Smith's optimism) our entrance was blocked by a chartered party bus that had stopped to release a loud and lubricated stream of gals, several with penis-shaped straws tucked into their cleavage. Really? The Czar Bar was going to be full of sports fans and bachelorettes? Really? Oh this night just keeps getting better. Inside, The Expassionates (band two of the aforementioned 6:00 bill) were finishing up a set of breezy rock. To the side of the stage several Hip (note the capital "h") members of one of the upcoming bands leaned against their gear, the pointy toes of their boots pointed skyward.
That band turned out to be opener The Rouge. If you were the sort to judge a book by its cover, then you'd have bet dollars to donuts that sleazy hair metal was about to make a comeback. Not only were there piles of layered hair that flowed into rocker mullets, but there were cut t-shirts, vests, dangly necklaces, fingerless gloves, and skintight jeans with bandanas escaping from the back pockets. I hoped for a Hanoi Rocks cover. Turns out, I missed that mark by a mile.
While The Rouge's image may be all rock, the band's music is entirely sanitized for commercial alternative radio. The band's three-guitar sound builds on atmosphere and chiming guitars with Joshua Vaught's overwrought emotive vocals fastened securely on top. Each song in the band's 25-minute set was a crawling arena ballad readymade for the Coldplay set. Lots of someones somewhere will like this band, I'm just not one of them.
The next act up was The Photo Atlas. I stumbled onto the band a several years ago at the Beat Kitchen in Chicago, where I was blown away by the band's energy, urgency and passion. While its recordings never captured that same hectic chaos, that one live show was something else. Of course, that was a packed all-ages show, while this time the band would be playing to a bar full of uninterested patrons. Would it be the same? Could it be the same?
To be blunt, no, it wasn't. I suspect that an exorcist or a feng shui expert or a lighting engineer is needed to re-invent Czar Bar, as the venue has sucked the life out of every band that has ever stepped onto its stage. And although the band sent everything it had out into the audience, nothing came back. Still, the Denver four-piece played an kinetic set built on the motion of bassist Mark Hawkins, the squawking guitar of Bill Threlkeld, the propulsive post-punk and dance-punk drumming of Nick Miles, and the dry yelps of frontman Alan Andrews. Knowing the evening was not going to be an explosive triumph, the band played a short set (only 25 minutes), with little banter. In fact, if Threlkeld had not broken two guitar strings, the band may not have stopped between songs at all.
By 11:00 the bachelorettes and twenty-something basketball fans had left the bar, creating a vacuum that welcomed in middle-aged tourists in a variety of Big 12-logoed sweatshirts. It was purely accidental that this new audience had arrived just in time for an age-appropriate set from the evening's headliners.
Curiously enough, I wasn't even sure the headlining band had shown up until its members began loading gear onto the stage. While anyone could identify the members of The Rouge as "the band," and it wasn't much more difficult to peg the road-worn members of The Photo Atlas, the members of Landing on the Moon look more like the IT guys from work than a rock band.
This unassuming nature was mirrored by the band's stage persona. Instead of having a focal point or frontperson, this Omaha five-piece tucks each of its three vocalists (lead guitarist John Klemmenson, drummer Oliver Morgan, and keyboardist Megan Morgan) away in disparate corners of the stage. This meant while banter came from the unseen drummer at the back of the stage, the positively stoic Eric Harris (bass) and Matt Carroll (rhythm guitar) stood silently under the spotlights. I find this confusing at best.
Regardless of stage placement, the band creates (or re-creates) the radio friendly rock of the late 90s and early 00s. There are pop song structures, a hint of jam band noodly proficiency, and frequent guitar solos. Kelmmenson, who provides the majority of the vocals, is a large man with a deep voice and a particular warble that brought John Popper to mind. Each voice offered something a little different, and, at times, blended pleasantly. Unfortunately the swaying, shrugging, and rolling of Megan Morgan's shoulders as she sat behind her keyboard was the only movement during the band's 40-minute set. Knowing there was nothing to see, I slipped to the back of the bar to get a better listen.
Unfortunately the sound at the back of the room was just as bad. The mix was so tilted towards cymbals, I could hear nothing but Oliver Morgan's swooshing crashes. I thought I caught some playful lyrics in the song "California" but thanks to curious decisions from the soundman, I just can't be sure. Sadly, these issues were present throughout the night. Even between bands the house music was impossibly loud (it positively dwarfed the performers), and even the choice of music was mind-boggling. I like flute-heavy instrumental jazz renditions of "California Dreamin'" and versions of "Change is Gonna Come" with soul-scarring screams as much as the next guy, but what were they doing between indie rock acts at the Czar Bar?
Landing on the Moon completed its set with a couple of Kelmmenson-sung numbers highlighted by extended guitar solos and the technical acrobatics of Oliver Morgan. In the final number, the entire band worked itself into an enormous climax before coming down for a gentle landing and end of the evening. It wasn't that late, but it sure seemed like it when I packed up my gear and slipped through the bar and out the door. Flyers noted that some other bands or DJs or mimes (I honestly have no idea) were scheduled to have begun almost an hour ago, but that hoopla was going to go on without me. I was finished.