Although I was a little disappointed to find my normal spot at the edge of the Bottleneck stage already occupied, I have to tip my cap to the fanaticism of youth. Twenty minutes before the opener was scheduled to go on, and not only was the stage lined with kids (mostly girls), but that the mob already stretched three rows deep. There were older exceptions, but we were exactly that. I took a backup position pushed hard stage left, inches from the speakers (my earplugs are good) and waited for the opener.
Iris Elke walked onto stage just after 9:00. I expected cheers from friends in the crowd but there was only focus. I expected an awkward introduction, but that was skipped as well. Instead Elke simply started her set, confident that her songs could make all the necessary introductions. She was right. The 25-minute set that followed was built on slow, personal (I suspect) ballads about navigating relationships of all sorts. Some songs were strummed, others full of tumbling fingers picking strings. Her voice is nice, and she did some fun octave shifts from time to time, but there weren't many vocal gymnastics. There was emotion, but no rising histrionics. Her songs mirrored her influences, and she confessed as much when she shared her excitement to be playing with Lucy Dacus. That led to a run-through of her very homogenous Spotify "top five" of 2018. When there wasn't banter, Elke was entertaining in the silences — once, after 30 seconds of unsuccessful knob turning overlaid with small talk, she was forced to admit that she couldn't simultaneously talk and tune. Fruitful tuning and silence followed while I stifled my chuckles. Another time, after a clumsy water break left puddles on the stage floor, she quipped that she regretted not practicing drinking water before the set. Maybe it doesn't translate, but it was endearing and humanizing. It also makes me wonder, where all that poise came from? I've decided to credit her seasons in Girls Rock Lawrence — a program that has shown its ability to build up performers, and one that is already bolstering and diversifying the Lawrence scene in wonderful ways.
The robust applause that followed Elke's final number eventually gave way to house music so contiguous that if I were not facing the stage, I might have thought I was listening to one three-hour-long set from the same delightful band. But the continuity didn't end there. The stage was not swept up and replaced between acts as the opener required little, and the touring acts shared gear back-lined before the doors opened. There wasn't even the usual exodus between acts as one performer's fans left to be replaced by another's. It was consistent. And because of this, I was forced to hold my ground throughout the night; any movement for a different vantage point would be a gamble in this packed and stationary crowd. So I stood between acts, in my spot, dreaming about the water I'd get after the headliner finished. My preoccupation with impending dehydration didn't last long though, as I was soon distracted by the members of Illuminati Hotties jogging out onto the stage.
Illuminati Hotties is ostensibly a one-woman project, although songwriter Sarah Tudzin is currently out on the road with what she refers to as, "three of [her] BFFs." Together the foursome has formed a team, and just to reinforce that fact, they took the stage in matching uniforms of red shorts, white shirts, and athletic socks. With an Olivia Newton John-certified headband, Tudzin was the sportiest of them all. During the forty-minute set Tudzin put her kit to the test: falling to her knees while playing guitar, climbing on rickety amps, abandoning her guitar to bang on dedicated floor toms, throwing a pick to the audience, and, in general, covering every inch of the stage. The sportswear wasn't a gimmick, it was a necessity.
Although the band was occasionally allowed catch its breath when Tudzin slowed down to proffer the quiet, intimate songs from her catalog, the highlights were the joyous pop numbers. In particular, "Shape of My Hands" was simply perfection. Covering this much of the field took some serious utility players and her teammates were up to the task. In the poppiest songs, bassist Zach Bilson's shifted to synthesizer adding a slick sheen, and drummer "Trucker" Tim Kmet focused on his electronic drum pads giving the tracks a tighter punch. Later in the band's 40-minute set, Kmet's acoustic drums would add the swagger needed for the indie rock explosions ignited by guitarist Nathaniel Noton-Feeman. The team put on one hell of a performance, and I'll definitely be at its next game.
The break between acts is always painful, but twenty-minutes feels like an eternity when the stage is ready to go, and the delay is entirely created by the club to adhere to scheduled start times. As I stood by the speaker, my personal space ever diminishing, my knees aching, and my mouth getting dryer and dryer, I began to feel the thirty-year age gap between myself and the kids who stood in front of me. Sometimes it sneaks up on you like that.
At the appointed time (10:45) Lucy Dacus took the stage. She's soft-spoken and her mannerisms are far from the theatrics provided by Illuminati Hotties. She started the night with a new song and a sincere request that the audience not record it. She'd make that request again later in the night when offering a second unreleased track, quipping that she'd like to be the first to record it. Her banter was conversational though felt guarded. This is an interesting contrast to her songs which lay it all bare. It must be hard to talk to a stranger that you've already told your secrets. Throughout the evening Dacus's voice remained steady, and under control even when songs exploded around her. Her exquisite songwriting was on full display. Each cut grew and unfolded in the most organic of ways. Each honest without ever being hackneyed. Her writing is sharp. There's nothing left undone. Her accolades are deserved.
Dacus's vision was brought to live by a backing band that consisted of bassist Dominic Angellela, drummer Ricardo Lagomasimo, and guitarist Jacob Blizard. Blizard was the wild card. He used a copious number of pedals to sculpt sound, but there were also just fiery solos that told another side of the story — one quite distinct from that laid out by Lucy's own vocals or her complimentary guitar. Throughout the night the audience was engaged, but during Dacus's set, the focus was intense. The front row sang along to every song — as did several other pockets in the crowd. I was envious. I never seem to spend the time with new records (even the ones I love) to know all the words to all the songs. I did when I was young. And I still know all those words today — now whether it's good or bad to know every word to every song on Styx's Paradise Theatre is something we can debate later, but the commitment clearly transforms the experience. Dacus appreciated the voices coming back to her from the audience, explaining that someone singing her songs to her is the greatest compliment she can get as a songwriter. But then she took a beat, looked concerned, and provided the caveat that she didn't want that to happen at the grocery store. "Please, not at the grocery store."
The band's long set concluded with a sweeping telling of standout cut "Night Shift." Volumes crested, the composition pushed at its seams, but Dacus and her band kept everything safely between the lines. When complete, Dacus thanked the audience over the sound of Blizard's still-ringing jettisoned guitar. Calls and claps and stomps brought Dacus back moments later. She confessed to not being entirely comfortable with the playacting of the process, knowing from the start that she'd return to play another track already determined and documented in 32-point laser-printed bold black letters on her setlist. "I think it's tradition," she shrugged dismissively. Standing there at the microphone, without her guitar for the first time that night, joined onstage by only Blizard, she seemed vulnerable. Disconcertingly so. Together the duo closed with "Historians" — the title track from her latest album. It was a quiet telling, though not a sparse one, that made for a sweet goodnight.
The night's final round of applause died down quickly when the audience pivoted with the precision of a marching band, transforming into orderly line culminating at the merch table. I pondered joining the queue, but my mind had already shifted to the 8am meeting that awaited in a few hours. Instead I made my quick stop at the water cooler, then headed out into the winter air.