A lot of factors conspired to get Kate and I to The Replay Lounge. Not the least of which was that the show allowed us a plausible escape from a family holiday gathering that threatened to drag on indefinitely. So at 9:30, after hours of standing outside to witness the promised (but unverifiable) "1000 Voice Choir" at Parkville's Christmas on the River, we bid the family "Season's Greetings," and hurried to our car. With ears still stinging with the cold, we considered abandoning our plans and heading home when as far west as I-435 and I-70, but the promise of a new Mammoth Life single kept us on the road to Lawrence.
At 10:30 the streets of Lawrence were packed despite the seasonable weather, and parking was a bit of a hassle. The Replay's $2 cover, however, was painless. Now, if only the venue would just start its shows earlier, have reasonable sound, better lighting, a layout that doesn't send drunks streaming to the bathroom through the attentive audience, and didn't reek of cigarette smoke (despite the ban).
It was nearly 11:00 when local opener Panda Circus began its set. Although frontman Quinton Cheney revealed that the band has been active for about four years, this was my first experience with this particularly tricky act. Songs seemed to fall into one of two camps: The first were a group of songs that recalled the explosive choruses and hooky guitar leads of '90s alternative rock. The band's song "Dropout," in particular, owes a debt to "Breakfast At Tiffany's." A second group of songs (including a new number about terraforming Venus) owed more to the mid '00s ramshackle pop punk scene of Plan-It-X bands – particularly when Cheney's shouted vocals were pushed to the breaking point. Even without the extra push, his vocals never sounded good (no one's do at The Replay), but this fact seemed somehow immaterial. Ben Barthell contributed pounded-out rhythms and signalled key changes from his keyboards, but he never provided melody. The bespectacled cellist Erin Zingre was invisible at the back of the stage as were new bassist Travis Arey and tiny drummer Caroline Lohrenz. While one performance (at The Replay no less) is hardly a good indication of a band's merit, I enjoyed the set well enough to see the band again, but not enough to buy their CD.
If I was a bit confused by Panda Circus, things got no easier when Jumbling Towers took the stage. Initially I felt I had a fuzzy idea of the band's sound from the samples on its website, but the band sounded entirely different on stage. At its core, Jumbling Towers is a rock band. But there's nothing straightforward about its music. The note-y guitar lines of frontman Joe DeBoer often border on mathrock, forcing everything to spin just off of true. The synthesizer flourishes of Michael Kendall are reminiscent of the '90s techno quick hits – ignoring the larger concerns of the songs, but providing hooks just the same. The rhythm section of bassist Nate Drexler and drummer Louis Wall provide the songs with epic down beats that occasionally escalate to disco punk. DeBoer's vocal delivery is odd. The intense syncopation in which they are delivered borders on rap. Except for when it doesn't. Those times it's delivered in a faux English accent recalling Thomas Dolby. After the band's half hour set, I had more questions than answers.
It was nearly 1:00am when Mammoth Life was ready to debut its newly pared-down lineup. After a summer tour, three members of this chamber pop outfit left the band, trimming Mammoth Life to the husband-and-wife duo of Nick and Elizabeth Goss. Elizabeth Goss' role as keyboardist and principal vocalist has not changed, but Nick Goss has gained vocal duties as well as being tied to acoustic guitar. When the band joked that the three-foot high "M" and "L" letters at the back of the stage were the newest members of the band, I understood that even the band was anxious to find out if two players would be able to re-create the band's ornate orchestral pop.
Mammoth Life played a short 30-minute set consisting of an assortment of songs from its most recent album, each song from the just-released single, and even a song or two from its debut release. A sequencer provided drums and bass to augment the live band. It may have provided strings and horns as well, but from my vantage point at the side of the stage, I couldn't be sure. The lack of instrumentation, the missing backing vocals, and the still-unsure vocals of Nick Goss made the songs sound like the demo versions of the band's usually polished masterpieces. While the friendly audience danced and sang along, I couldn't help but feel a bit let down. But then again, this is the band's first shot.
So here's to the future. To Mammoth Life rebuilding to present Nick Goss' brilliant arrangements live – whether that's done with a small orchestra and 1000 voices or via some serious programming and sequencing. Either way, I'm anxious to see the band through.
Note: Sorry the photos are pretty weak and there's no video. My camera is in the shop and I was shooting with an old loaner.