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Saturday February 5th, 2011 at The Riot Room in Kansas City, MO
The Latenight Callers, & Canasta
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I've longed for matinee shows since before I processed what that term really meant. The pages of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll were rife with enticing photos and reviews of Agnostic Front or Youth of Today playing packed all-ages Sunday matinees in New York's collapsing squatted venues. I wistfully imagined how wonderful it would be to attend one. For me, "matinee" was the entirety of the experience that I read about, and I glossed over the fact that "matinee" referred only to the start time of the show and nothing else. In hindsight, all the shows I went to – the all-ages punk shows at VFW hall or Knights of Columbus assembly rooms – were matinees that started by 6pm and wrapped by up 10pm to meet curfew. Now it's 20+ years later, and I'm not so interested in stage diving, dank venues, or all-ages shows, but the early start time is more appealing than ever. As Kate and I hurried over to the Riot Room just before 6pm, I hoped the rest of Kansas City felt the same way I did.

At first, things seemed grim. The doorman at the club politely told us there was no guest list, and that we were only the fifth and sixth people to come in. We dutifully paid the $10, handed over IDs for inspection, and then circled the club looking for the familiar faces we expected to meet up with. Those friends joined us soon after, but the impossibly loud Iron Maiden playing on the sound system made conversation difficult. We retired to the back of the club where the music was reduced to merely annoyance levels, and watched as the sound guy worked the opening band through its paces. At 6:20 things were ready to begin.

Opening the evening was Canasta – a six-piece orchestral pop band from Chicago making its Kansas City debut. The band is led by Matt Priest who provides vocals, occasional bass, and even less frequent trombone. He's good looking with a square jaw and a bright, all-American smile, and he knows how to interact with an audience. An audience, I should mention, that had grown to about thirty by the time the band began. Priest's vocals were strong, assured, and right up front in the mix. He was flanked by violinist and backing vocalist Elizabeth Lindau to his right, and guitarist Jeremy Beckford on his left. Further in the wings were keyboardists (and backing vocals all) Angie Ma and Ryan Tracy. Drummer Brian Palmieri sat behind the the ensemble.

The band played a 45-minute set that included songs from it's 2003 debut EP Find the Time ("Slow Down Chicago"), it's 2005 full-length We Were Set Up ("Microphone Song"), and numerous cuts from its 2010 album The Fakeout, the Tease and the Breather. The band also included an incredibly well-orchestrated cover of Blackstreet's "No Diggity," featuring the rapping skills of both Priest and Lindau, as well as the funky acoustic guitar work of Beckford, who smirked confidently from under his trademark fedora that tilted dangerously over his brow. The entire band – and soon a large portion of the audience – joined in on the chorus. Tempos varied wildly throughout the set, leaving room for several ballads including the beautiful multi-movemented "I Don't Know Where I Was Going with This."

Midway through the set an audience member called out a request for "Reading the Map Upside Down" from the band's latest album. The song is a bouncy pop number that recalls the late '60s work of Harry Nilsson. Unfortunately, Priest declined, explaining that the song couldn't be performed without a full horn section. Yes, sometimes Canasta is even more massive.

Throughout the set the band and sound were simply spot on, particularly Lindau's pitch-perfect backing vocals that couldn't have been better if they were recorded in a studio. They were so good, in fact, that I looked carefully to see if they were being performed live. There were signs after all. Lindau's asymmetrical hair hangs long on her right side, ensuring that even when she places her violin to her left shoulder, she all but disappears from view.

The band finished with the aforementioned, quick-paced "Microphone Song" then retired to the back of the club to sell CDs. Based on the way money was flying at Lindau, I expect both band and fans will wish Canasta a speedy return to Kansas City.

The stage was quickly handed over to the five members of Kansas City's The Latenight Callers. I'd read press that described the band's performance as theatre, so I wasn't surprised to see plenty of '40s-inspired fashion on stage. Vocalist Julie Berndsen wore a patterned dress with a period-appropriate oriental neckline, her hair pulled, pinned, and curled in just the right way, and her lips were red. Very red. Although she laughed at the mention of it later in the set, she plays the femme fatale in this noir-inspired band. She's coy; there are nods and winks. It's burlesque without any skin, but still dirty. Her voice has a growl, but not one of a tiger, just a kitten. Guitarist Ellen O'Hayer is the good woman, the innocent. In our play, she happens to be about the same size as the hollow body baritone guitar she slowly strums through the band's atmospheric compositions. Her backing vocals are round and soft. Not angelic – there are no angels in noir – but not insistent or needy either. Guitarist and co-founder Krysztof Nemeth might be the dick, though the stage banter he was able to slip in was much too kind and shy for the casting. His Gibson Les Paul knew one sound: twang. Every song was full of the sort of pluck and echo that Angelo Badalamenti has brought to television and film for decades. But the band's sound isn't made for soft strings, or stirring saxophones, it's got a bit more (and just a bit more) legs. This is largely due to the simple bass runs of our criminal Gavin Mac. Or maybe he's just been framed – you can't be sure. Behind them sits drummer Nick Combs – only he doesn't play drums. He plays keyboards and handles percussion via a sequencer and triggers. How does he fit into our drama? Maybe he's the criminal mastermind, pushing the buttons that begin the simple rhythms, and those that trigger the accenting rattle from the shadowy area at the back of the stage. He set this whole scene into motion.

Unfortunately I'm sad to say the plot couldn't live up to the scene it set. With only one exception, the band's songs maintained the same slow lounge tempo and utilized the same effects again and again. Even the band's closer – a cover of The Misfit's "Hybrid Moments" – was indistinguishable from the rest of the set when sent through the Latenight Callers' machinery. The lone variation was the lively and bright "Mad Season" featuring hefty doses of vocals from both gals. This song recalls the jazzy pop of The Bird and the Bee more than the inky sounds of a David Lynch soundtrack that dominate the rest of the band's material. With that said, The Latenight Callers is making the exact movie that it wants to make, on its own terms, and under its own direction. You just can't argue with someone's vision, and I wouldn't want to try.

The band finished its set at 8:10. 8:10! How wonderful does that sound? I gathered up my belongings, said goodbye to friends, rounded up the members of Canasta, and together we all slipped over to Jerusalem Cafe for dinner. After a long meal, heretofore only known in Olive Garden commercials, Kate and I headed for home. Still it was only 10:30. Plenty of time to read in my easy chair before retiring up to bed. Kansas City, this matinee thing is pure gold, let's do it again real soon.