The drive out to Lawrence was completely uneventful. I used the time to revisit the three The Most Serene Republic albums, Katie passed the time by thinking of inane interview questions, and we learned the tolls are going up on I-70. That's all you need to know.
After finding a fortuitous parking spot right in front of The Jackpot Saloon, Katie and I slipped in during the sound check, met the band's road manager, and finalised the details surrounding a scheduled interview with members of The Most Serene Republic. Ten minutes later, guitarist Nick Greaves and bassist Simon Lukasewich joined us on the club's sidewalk patio for a twenty-minute conversation. By the band's own choice, the interview began with Katie's questions covering non sequiturs like the band members' opinions on dog sweaters (Greaves was not a fan, though Lukasewich believed sweaters to be necessary during cold Canadian winters), and their thoughts on gravy (both were pro-gravy, citing a required affection for poutine). I followed up with a series of questions concerning the band's segmented musical output, its compulsive need for change, and its affinity for audience-alienating prog-rock time signatures. That interview – in both parts – will be available on Too Much Rock shortly.
At a bit after 10:00 (more-or-less as scheduled) the five members of Lawrence, Kansas's Mammoth Life climbed on to the stage in matching costumes. While the fashion inspiration is hard to pin down, the flowery pirate shirt and knickers (worn over white hosiery, naturally) of bandleader and bassist Nicholas Goss warned of the theatrics to come.
The band began its set with howled vocals, Eastern European folk rhythms, and indie chamber pop. On stage, the band would later refer to this as a "spaghetti western" aesthetic, though I'm not sure I ever heard that. While the band brims with potential, keyboardist Elizabeth Mead's and bassist Bobby Sauder's live vocals were quite painful, the drumming of Rachael Mulford was identical from song to song, and all chord changes were elementary and expected. The songs played in the middle of the band's 45-minute set experimented with a few variations on the major theme, but the band was at its best when its music was kept simple and folky. Specifically this meant Goss playing acoustic guitar, and Melicent King providing violin over the band's jumping rhythms.
Per the frequent awkward and ill-advised banter of Goss, I learned the band has released one album, a 7" single, and is preparing a second 7" single before releasing a second full length in 2010. If the songs released on the band's MySpace page are any indication of the recorded works as a whole, this is a band of writers and producers much more than of performers, and we should all look forward to the forthcoming album.
A quick set change brought Toronto's (or parts thereabouts) Still Life Still to the stage. This quintet is fronted by guitarists/vocalists Eric Young and Brendon Saarinen, with Josh Romaniuk on keyboards, Aaron Romaniuk on drums, and Derek Paulin on bass. Previously I was only aware of the band's music via its "Pastel" single released earlier this year, which had left me with the impression that the band played dense indie rock with substantial nods to the shoegazer genre. Live, the band seemed to care little for atmosphere and texture; instead it focused on a lackadaisical indie rock sound. In fact, one might go as far as to describe the band's performance, on the whole, as lazy. Songs lacked energy and bite. Aside from the manic tambourine of Josh Romaniuk, or his work as a second percussionist beating the dickens out of cymbals, the band seemed too weary to go on. Even songs with snapping rhythms were dragged down by elongated keyboard parts that smothered any chiming guitar interplay that may have existed. Luckily Young and Saarinen's vocals were able to blend, delivering on the two frontman formation. This is exceptionally fortuitous as, when singing lead, Saarinen's vocals were consistently flat. The set was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment.
The already small Sunday night crowd began thinning immediately after Mammoth Life's set, leaving only a dozen patrons in the club by the time Still Life Still completed its 45-minute set. While the number of fans would rebound to approximately two dozen for the evening's headliners, the turnout was still abysmal. The previous time I saw the band perform, it managed to pack a similar-sized club despite a vicious Chicago ice storm. It's no wonder that Kansas City and Lawrence are skipped over by touring bands so often.
It took a few minutes for the soundman to settle in the seven members of The Most Serene Republic. Like touring partners Still Life Still, The Most Serene Republic (TMSR) is from parts near Toronto, and record for the Arts & Crafts label. The difference, however, is that this band sounds like it. The band banks in prog-influenced indie pop built on layers of contributing instruments and vocals. While the band is capable of the beautiful chamber pop elements dear to Mammoth Life's heart, TMSR prefers to honour Yes, not The Beach Boys. This was particularly true with the band's previous material, where as the new album (the first to make use of an outside producer) is noticeably grounded with an abundance of standard 4/4 rhythms and straightforward crooning vocals from frontman Adrian Jewett. The setlist may have been tilted towards the newer material, however fans got a tasty sampling of all the band's chops.
Initially TMSR suffered from the same malaise as Still Life Still. Jewett is normally a powder keg of energy teetering on an exuberant edge, but the small turn out and the late start time (the band didn't begin the show until after midnight) must have toned him down. Luckily there were audience-provided whiskey shots, and after several rounds of them, Jewett began to hop, jump, and shake his hips. Throughout the night his banter – along with that of guitarist Emma Ditchburn – was appropriately subdued (it would have done no good to play to a room of 20 as if were the packed arenas the band saw when opening for The Strokes), and very witty with entertaining asides that Jewett noted served double duty as both advice and stage banter.
The band worked without a set list, and upon exhausting their initial plans, began soliciting suggestions from the audience. When a bold audience member suggested the highly orchestrated "Patternicity" the band balked and allowed keyboardist Ryan Lenssen to proffer the dancy "Don't Hold Back, Feel A Little Longer" instead. Moments later the keyboards pulsed through eurotrash chords that were soon subverted by limping, high BPM percussion and staccato guitar chords. In this song, the trio of Ditchburn, Jewett, and guitarist Sean Woolven sing the ever-evolving chorus, leaving Ditchburn to handle the verses, providing twitchy vocals that jump up and down through her high register. Despite the intentionally trying arrangements, awkward time signatures, and the tense vocals, everything still feels right. This is a song you can dance to. This is what The Most Serene Republic can do that few other bands can.
After one more song, TMSR left the stage. There were no calls for an encore; it was late. Not a lot of merch was sold, and the band couldn't have made enough money from the club to cover the day's gas and meals. I hope the band has more prosperous future shows, because next time it comes through, it will need more money for the toll.