I've left myself with very little time to talk about a very long show. Let's see how quickly we can do this.
At 9:45 the Kansas City three-piece Deco Auto began its half-hour set by promising that the bands would get sexier as the night went on. In the way of clarification, bassist Tracy Flowers offered "We're just a cute snack." On this night, Flowers provided most of the band's interaction with the audience, leaving just enough room for vocalist/guitarist Steve Garcia to slide in for a comic rejoinder or two. Drummer Michelle Bacon didn't seem to a part of the duo's comedy schtick, though she did make entertaining and expressive faces throughout the set. Unfortunately for her, they're the unpleasant grimaces of concentration usually seen only on Olympic weight lifters and heavyweight boxers. As hard as she hit her toms, I'm inclined to give her the gold.
The band's nine-song set bounced gaily between power pop and pop punk, with one track ("I Shouldn't Know") veering awfully close to Foo Fighters epicness. Elsewhere in the set Flowers' lead vocal contribution fell a little short of the mark, but her backing vocals were spot on, and included some nice harmonies. Garcia's busy power chords rang out easily, allowing him enough enough leeway to not only provide his vocals, but also toss in a few jumps – one of which unfortunately sent his glasses to the stage floor where they met an untimely fate.
While the evening's next band was also a Kansas City trio, Now Now Sleepyhead delivered a 30-minute set that highlighted differences more than similarities. Gregarious (if not actually goofy) frontman Phil Park provided both vocals and guitar, with backing vocal contributions from both bassist Kim Baldwin and drummer Aaron Crawford. Crawford also handled keyboards, triggering sequences that added samples and hints of electronica to the band's rock core; beyond that base, anything seemed to go. The first song of the set aped the tight pounding rhythm of so many post-punk revival bands, but later songs remained open, jazzy, and experimental. Baldwin's bass work was surprisingly varied; with each song she happily worked a different register, causing seismic shifts in the band's sound. When playing the high notes, her bass blended with Park's heavily processed guitar; when focused on the low, it cut through the sound boldly. And while Park was tethered to his microphone, Baldwin took advantage of her freedom, pogoing about the stage and banging her head with abandon. Although I initially pegged this all-clad-in-black buzz band as hipster bait, Now Now Sleepyhead was sincere and engaged – it's hard to be aloof when your finale involves passing a cardboard cutout of Darth Vader out to the audience, so "he" can crowd surf his way around the club.
While I don't recall the provenance, I do remember that In Back of a Black Car is the re-assemblage of local musicians from other bands important enough to be mentioned repeatedly in a press kit. If forced, I might guess that the band was cast using former members of both The Faint and The Killers, and raised on 30-year-old issues of NME. Is the band cold electronica with added rock elements, or is it rock with heavy electronic touches? The taxonomy is, of course, unimportant, because, as the band's dance-happy audience can testify, the result is infectious, and flawlessly executed.
In an icy 30-minute set marked more by what was concealed than revealed, each member of the quartet did his best to exude cool. Vocalist/guitarist Joel Hines never spoke to the audience, and was barely visible on a stage lit only by dim, straw-like glow sticks that outlined elements of each band member's musical gear. During the occasional flash of a camera phone, I caught Zachary Bozich squinting hard at his keyboards, attempting to locate the proper settings in the dark. And I have no idea how drummer Matt Pluff was able to play with his glowing sticks without going into seizure. The only member not lost in the Tron mainframe was bassist/keyboardist Mychael Scott Reed who was lit by the unavoidable glow of his MacBook's monitor. This darkwave band may well be destined for great things, but I'm not sure I can stomach the pretence again to find out.
After In Back of a Black Car completed its set, the band's fans quickly vanished into the corners of the club, willing the floor to The Latenight Callers' legion. This meant the stage was soon mobbed by men in fedoras and heavy vintage vests, women with bright red lips wearing dresses resurrected from the '40s, and all of them in sharp shoes. In short, they looked like the band. Any fan not dressed for the revival was probably wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the band's distinctive logo – a rotary telephone dial with crossbones beneath – pirates looting their grandparents' closets, looking for vintage gold.
The quintet began its set just before 12:30, working through an eight-song setlist as if it were a screenplay. While the theatrical elements of the performance have been detailed ad nauseum, they override every other element of the band; to ignore them would be to ignore the band. So, briefly, vocalist Julie Berndsen is the stereotype of a femme fatale. She doesn't sing for the band, as much as perform the role of the band's singer. On the Record Bar stage, she purred like a kitten, playing with the fingers of her short, red gloves, but unlike the neo-burlesque scene so closely associated with the band, she didn't drop them at her audience's feet. Instead, she picked up a megaphone, instantly transporting the audience to the front seat of a '47 Packard crawling across the desert at 1am. The car's radio – naturally playing The Latenight Callers – picked up in fuzzy waves from an across-the-border radio station. This is the band's gestalt.
Berndsen was joined on stage by Ellen O'Hayer who provided hesitant backing vocals and the deep, resonating hollow body guitar that defines the band's lonely, atmosphere-rich sound. While Krysztof Nemeth's twangy guitar only played a supporting role, his position as frontman allowed Berndsen to preserve her carefully crafted image of mysterious vixen. The bass work of Gavin Mac is similarly utilitarian, as is the curious percussion of Nick Combs. You see, Combs is a drummer without a drum kit. Instead he leans over a keyboard, his tie safely pinned to his black shirt. In a band so concerned with image and authenticity, the choice of sequenced percussion and synthesized keyboards seems positively queer.
After completing its planned set with a cover of The Misfits' "Hybrid Moments," the band quickly launched into an impromptu two-song encore. At this point Nemeth was racing the clock and testing the venue – a gamble he'd lose when the club's bright white lights slammed on during the second (and suddenly destined to be final) song of the encore. It was 1:20. Late, but neither the band nor its loyal fans cared. This was the band's final performance of 2012, and a farewell of sorts before the quintet checks into the studio to record its debut album (scheduled for a February 2013 release). I, however, was much too tired for any more of this extended celebratory send-off, and welcomed the bar's sane interruption. And in that spirit, we'll end this right here.