Tuesday night presented a dilemma for music fans in Kansas City. We're not like the largest cities where there are a dozen equally appealing shows on any given weeknight. We generally only have an option or two. I'm thankful for this – not only because there is always a good show for me, but also because my decisions are made easy. But this particular Tuesday night offered concertgoers options: Queens of the Stone Age, Slayer, Ssion, Matt Pond PA, Water Liars, and who knows how many more acts all performing within the city limits. Months ago I took my indecision public, asking Matt Pond how I could possibly choose between his set and seeing Slayer. Pond unequivocally replied "Slayer. The answer to most questions is Slayer." And that might have answered my question if I had not heard the new Slayer single. That solved that and my camera and I would be at Record Bar for Matt Pond PA and opener The Lighthouse and the Whaler.
Cleveland's The Lighthouse and the Whaler are not unlike our favorite new bands. That (rather obfuscated) statement is the litmus test for your interest in this project. If you find that the bright, chiming guitars, jumping rhythms, heart-felt vocals, and lush arrangements from an ensemble cast make your toes tap then let's go with it. If instead you interpret those same components to be actively strangling rock & roll's primal urges with puny mandolin strings, well, at least we all know where we stand. It's Arcade Fire. It's Mumford & Sons. It's Vampire Weekend. It's current. For better or worse.
The Lighthouse and the Whaler (or "TLATW" as the band is apt to abbreviate) began its set around 10:15, assembling the touring quintet behind vocalist, guitarist, and pony-tailed frontman Michael LoPresti. He's comfortable at the front of the stage, gracious and engaged without pandering, though not a commanding presence. This allows eyes to roam the stage to drummer (and brother) Matthew LoPresti, to (new) bassist Ryan Walker, to (new, touring) violinist ????, and ultimately to rest upon Mark Poro who moves between mandolin and glockenspiel. He's comely, he moves about the stage with energy, and his open-mouthed smiles convey what a good time he's having playing with the band. It's his charisma that would draw the audience's attention.
Thanks a two-band bill with shared gear, TLATW had plenty of time to stretch out in its long set, playing large portions of its 2012 self-released album This is an Adventure, as well as performing four or five songs expected on its next. Throughout the set, with both new and old songs, the uniformity was deafening. First, the new material was surprisingly similar to the songs written years before. This consistency can either be appealing or disappointing depending on your viewpoint. As fickle consumers, we're likely to complain about a band reaching for artistic growth just as often as we complain about artists rehashing their past – there's no way for a band to win. Second, and decidedly disappointing for me, was the sheer uniformity of the band's entire set. Even the band's best songs (such as "Pioneer," which leads off the band's album yet was buried in the middle of the set) barely stood above the rest of the band's catalogue. This is to both say that the band has a high success rate, and that it also relies on the same formulas over and over again: sweeping strings, pounding keyboards, and delay-laden, note-y guitar parts played on the highest frets of Michael LoPresti's hollow-body guitar. It's good, it's now, but is it enough?
The stage required very little preparation for the headliner. Not only did the opening band play in front of the headliner's logoed banner and share a drum kit and other gear, but several of its members also performed in both bands. This quick turnaround is always appreciated – except when I must return home between sets to hunt for equipment missing from my camera bag. By the time I returned 15 minutes later, I had missed nearly five minutes of headlining set, including my favorite track, "KC."
If I had been smarter, I might have simply done without the missing items (though my obsessive nature seldom lets things like that go). Matt Pond is currently on tour as the fuller Matt Pond PA to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his breakthrough album Emblems (2004, Altitude Records). To accomplish this, he's assembled a six-piece band consisting of Pond himself on vocals and guitar, bassist and backing vocalist Tierney Tough, drummer David Montague, (mainstay) lead guitarist Chris Hansen, and borrowed musicians Poro (again on mandolin and keyboards) and Walker (this time on cello). As would be obvious, the band played through the album in its established running order, starting with "KC." I should have thought that trip home through before rushing for the door.
As I returned, bursting through the crowd and toward the stage during "Closest (Look Out)," it was immediately apparent that Pond did not intended to recreate the studio version of the album. The still-lush arrangements differed slightly as instruments were assigned new roles to cover for the absence of both accordion and pedal steel (both merely accent instruments on the album). While I missed the true Rhodes Piano from the recordings, the new assignments were mastered by the well-rehearsed ensemble, leaving plenty of air in its performance. This is important as the songs of Emblems are organic, and to its fans they are supportive, and active comforters and consolers. Pond in particular was in lovely form and spirit. This was best demonstrated in the quieter moments, such as set highlight "New Hampshire," whose spare arrangement left Pond all the room he needed to showcase his truly wonderful voice and warm presence. The resulting heartfelt performance left Pond visible shaken despite all the years that have passed since the song of despair was written.
While there is a maudlin element to Emblems, the album also turned a corner for Pond, highlighting not only uplifting choruses, but verses that often rush headlong into then-uncharted territory. Those moments (such as in "Closest" or "Claire") were also well represented by the band, particularly by newcomer Montague, whose hard-hitting and quick foot added urgency. Long-time collaborator Hansen similarly understood the peppy (if not rock) undertones of the songs, providing guitar leads with sharp edges when called for.
Although there was a sizable audience (despite the competition), the crowd was restrained. Sure, there were broad smiles worn by the audience, but those smiles remained on the other side of a self-imposed ten-foot gap between audience and band. That DMZ was only invaded late in the evening, and then by one drunken fan and his two reluctant friends. It's possible that the songs of Emblems aren't ones that push audiences to action, as much as allow them to reflect. Is this an album for detached observers?
When the band completed Emblems' final contemplative track "Close (KC Two)" at 12:10am, I expected the set (if not the night) to end. However the band immediately launched into "Halloween," with Pond reassuring the audience by explaining "This was the first single on our next album." Montague was now racing, and the band flew through the number. At its completion, rather than participating in the ritual of the make-believe encore, Pond offered the audience a few more tracks outright. The three-song encore continued the turbo-charged elements introduced in "Halloween" effectively bringing the audience out of the maudlin comfort of Emblems and toward (but certainly not all the way to) the current Matt Pond sans "PA."
Once I returned home, I combed my social media sites for reports of the concert I had not chosen. The Instagrammed photos of Slayer did look menacing, and blog entries indicated that the band and room sounded great. But as I envisioned the swirling pit of clueless kids and the e-cigarette vapor rising from the balding long-hairs that would line the stage, I knew I had made the right choice. So if Pond is right, and "the answer to most questions is Slayer," then the answer to those few remaining questions must be Matt Pond PA.