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Saturday November 16th, 2019 at The Rino in North Kansas City, MO
Mess, Hand Out, Salt Creek, & Kill Vargas

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I've been lax on the recaps lately. Here's a short something-something so we remember what happened.

At 8:00 the four guys in Kill Vargas climbed on stage. While only eight or nine people were in the room — and I suspect most of them were playing in other bands — the opener did its duty. Soon the guitar rock from Wichita drew out the passive audience members from the adjoining coffee shop/bar [I still haven't figured it out, but it seems to be doing all right] and now twenty or more heads were bobbing. The band describes itself as power pop, and while I can be loose with my definitions, I don't buy that one. Power pop is short songs, concise pop patterns of verses and choruses, and tight, polite guitar solos. Kill Vargas gave me none of that. That isn't to say that I or the audience were disappointed. The band provided plenty of energy, pounced and lunged about the small stage, provided strong solos, and were generally a solid indie rock band (with the emphasis on rock). Sadly, the band opted to end its half hour opening set with an unearned expansive finale that pounded and built and built and pounded and paused for false stops and built and pounded and really pounded before ending in a squall of feedback and a guitar crashing to the floor of the stage. Fine histrionics for a headliner, but a bit of an overreach for this young band opening a four-band bill.

The stage was turned around quickly for the five dudes of Lincoln, Nebraska's Salt Creek. Roughly the quintet is emo, but not the current revival wave of finger taps and complex rhythms — rather an earlier version where more was definitely more, and the twinkles of Appleseed Cast were pushing the genre forward. If anything spoke to the band's time and place, it was the eyes-closed vocalist who grasped his microphone with both hands, belting out his lyrics with the sort of post-grunge earnestness that seldom rings true for me. Thankfully his brief banter between songs was warm and authentic, calming my nerves a bit. After a battle with a pedal board that put the rhythm guitarist out of commission for most of a song, we heard that the band was playing on borrowed gear after a van breakdown that resulted in a last-minute switch to a small minivan outside of Tulsa. "It's been quite a 48 hours," explained the guitarist. Although visibly worn, the set was solid, the drummer 100% into it, and at least one person in the audience (a particularly active camera man likely touring with the band) was excited enough to mouth the words to a number of songs.

Another expeditious set change transferred control to Hand Out from New Orleans. This polished all-male quartet lands squarely in indie rock territory with the right amount of complexity to keep heads nodding in time, yet never nodding off. I was especially captivated by the second guitarist who provided color and atmosphere using effects pedals that allowed his guitar to hum like an organ during the verses, before, with a stomp of his foot, crashing back in for the raucous and rolling choruses. He was also distractingly clean cut compared to the ragged hair, tattoos and piercings of his bandmates. The foursome's vocalist/bassist fronted the band, offering good banter, though I'm not sure I'd tell the audience that the city I'm from is much better than theirs, and I certainly wouldn't lead with it. Luckily, we're midwestern nice. Especially at the Rino.

About a year ago my wife told me she was tired of going to shows, as she just didn't care what white boys in their twenties had to say anymore. As a white boy who played in bands in his twenties, it was hard to not take offense. But it's also hard not to see her point. In the last week I'd seen six bands at Rino, and every single musician was a guy. All but one white. Few outside of their twenties. After so much vanilla, I was looking forward to the headliner and the different voice the band's non-binary frontperson was likely to bring.

Mess is currently in the middle of a three- or four-week tour, only stopping by for a hometown gig on its way to its next destination. This is the second or third trip like this that the band has made this year. Based on the reviews I've seen, the band is faring well, and doing the city proud. Feeling a bit uninformed, last week I purchased the band's 2019 album, Learning How to Talk, and listened through a half dozen times before heading to the show. I wanted some idea what to expect.

Most of the band's material is delicate. I suspect it begins in the head of vocalist Allison Gliesman. It's their picked guitar and quiet vocals that begin most songs, and only sometimes do the other players in the quartet get layered in for pleasing loud/soft dynamics. While there are hints of sweeping emo and textured dream pop mixed in among Gliesman's singer/songwriter fare, there's nothing particularly new about what Mess is doing, but it does it well, and the lyrics resonate. Gliesman is not yet a polished frontperson, they're slightly awkward on the microphone between sets, but when performing they're able to create an intimacy with the audience, easily holding the 40 or 50 people crowded into the Rino in silence during the band's quietest moments. That feels big.

The band's short set ended with a flourish, and another guitar did hit the stage, yet there was a workmanlike professionalism to it all — a touring band had come to town, shown its heart to be on its sleeve, made its statement, and let the audience decide. Based on the line at the merch table, and the number of selfies Gliesman was asked to take afterwards, Mess might just be as popular at home as it is on the road.