I've been back in Kansas City for a year now. I'm finally settling in. Finally seeing bands that aren't simply the new projects from the old musicians I knew 10 years ago. This infusion of new blood is, in a vacuum, a good thing. In the real world, the results are mixed and songs uploaded to MySpace aren't always the best indicator of how the night will turn out.
At 9:00 the four members of the opening band stood on the stage, their instruments in their hands, anxious to begin. Unfortunately the sound staff at The Riot Room felt no such urgency. First there was a laboured sound check, followed by a forced delay. The respectable audience drank through the process, nodding their heads to the revved rock of Valiant Thorr that played through the PA. The brain-rattling volume made conversation nearly impossible. I had heard The Straight Ups online, and I fretted for them, knowing that there was just no way the band could compete with recorded music that preceeded them. By the end of the band's 30-minute set, all doubts were erased.
The Straight Ups are four fresh-faced Kansas City kids that excel at goofy costumes, low-concept comedy skits, garage rock revival, aerial acrobatics, big guitar solos, and overblown stage presence. The band never lets its lack of talent or entry level instruments and equipment get in the way of a good time. Here is how it went down:
The band has no real frontperson. Guitarists Robert Bacon and John Moroso both share vocal duties, and either are just as likely to handle lead or rhythm guitar. While Bacon wore a full gi (you know, the karate uniform) ornamented with lightning bolts and a curious bike helmet, Moroso's costume was merely inspired by the martial arts in that way that we all were in the mid 80s. His sleeveless shirt (revealing some mighty guns), long shaggy hair, and red headband oozed trouble (and maybe a bit of Billy Squier). Bassist Tracy Flowers stood centre stage. Her bass lines are bouncy, her backing vocals a bit forced. Drummer Michelle O'Brien plays loose. Both girls rocked layered 80s apparel. For two or three songs in the set O'Brien and Bacon switched places presumably to provide a bit more horsepower behind the drumkit, though that could be entirely conjecture as my memory is a bit fuzzy on that.
The band's songs speak to the over-the-top aesthetic and not-so-subtle sexual innuendo of AC/DC, replete with Bon Scott-esque manic ad-libbed grunts. There are guitar solos everywhere, the guitarists are in the air as much as grounded onto the stage, and Moroso's stage banter pays direct homage to Paul Stanley. Of course there was also the ill-conceived "Geek Rap," but we'll just forget that ever happened. At one point Moroso produced a bag from the back of the stage, informed the audience it contained treats for later, and then knowingly demanded that no one touch it until then. Moments later a masked ninja sprung from the back of the stage, grabbed the goodies and slipped into the audience. Bacon shouted "Ninja Attack!" which launched the band into that selfsame named sloppy punk-infused number, and launched Moroso awkwardly into the audience to retrieve the treats. After some Power Rangers-styled fighting amidst the audience, the ninja was finally subdued. Once the bag was given up, the ninja slinked off, and Moroso, sounding like a Saturday morning breakfast cereal commercial, explained that "The ninja tries hard, but he never gets the candy."
While I wasn't initially prepared for such lunacy, I eventually caught the bug, and found myself smiling instead of merely shaking my head in disbelief. The very friendly audience, however, were onboard from the start. Somehow it made perfect sense that drunken fans booty dropped throughout the set, or that another dancer "flossed" her crotch with a scarf while the band rocked through ridiculous numbers like "She Loves My Rock and Roll" and "Cock Mountain." Like I said, Valiant Thorr who?
Sadly, although MySpace giveth, it also taketh away. When recorded, Nuthatch-47 is a charming and propulsive blending of ethnic Eastern European music and observational, witty, and inane lyrics – imagine a blending of Gogol Bordello and Magnetic Fields. The animated videos the band produces are as silly and fun as any internet dancing banana meme. On stage, however, the band was a nightmare.
Nuthatch-47 is led by Russian-born Max Kunakhovich whose thick accent spits out (and occasionally trips over) a rapid stream of English lyrics – his delivery often so quick that his words are rapped as much as spoken. He sometimes strums a Spanish acoustic guitar, but it merely hangs on his back nearly as often. He's a jolly frontman. Likeable. Fun. The backing band is a confusing assemblage of players that reminds me of Ethan's Revenge a decade earlier in Kansas City's history. Guitarist Adam Purdon is deadly serious with his wah wah pedal and long jam-band guitar solos. He also provided lead vocals for the aberrant "Not Fade Away" (a Buddy Holly cover) which was introduced as a "return to the western world." Accordionist Matthew Gibbs is similarly enthralled with his own playing. Untethered via a wireless connection, Gibbs stepped off the stage and into the audience in an effort to mingle with the now-more intoxicated dance crew. The simultaneously smug and sensuous look on his face was perplexing if not nauseating. He does know he's playing an accordion right? Drummer Jake Gronberg and bassist Jeff Cowan provide the skipping rhythms for the band, but little else. How someone with a Bad Religion sticker on their bass ends up on this band is probably a mystery for the ages.
The friendly audience that had been present for The Straight Ups had mostly vanished by now, leaving only a dozen or so patrons in the room for Nuthatch-47. As I noted, the drunken dancers were still up front, still booty dropping, but now shouting "Opa!" at the end of every song. The dancing girls wouldn't last through the end of the band's 30-minute set.
At a bit after 11:00 the headlining band stood on stage working through its soundcheck. In the audience stood exactly five people. This was the headlining act I had heard on MySpace and had come out to see. Did I get it all wrong?
At 11:10 Mother Culture began its set with should-be hit "Cancer for Commerce." During the song's introduction vocalist Jessi Lu Rud ran from her post in the audience up onto the stage to join her bandmates. In an arena the crowd might have erupted upon seeing the vocalist appear on stage for the first time, and although Lu Rud looked triumphant after her assent, in an empty club, the grand entrance seemed spectacularly pointless. In these "paid practise" situations, a band has to simply be humble, play seven songs, and then quickly pack its gear. Thankfully, the band's 35-minute set honoured that formula.
Mother Culture is a recent transplant to Kansas City from Omaha. I appreciate the move from a cosmopolitan standpoint, but one wonders if Omaha music fans are as fickle as Kansas City's. The band is led by Justin Hayes who sings and plays guitar. He's a frumpy young man with red hair, a round belly, and glasses that constantly fall to the end of his nose. His stage banter is serious, and he shot down keyboardist Andrew Bullington when Bullington made a late attempt to introduce levity. Jessi Lu Rud provides a second vocal that may lead a song segment, overlap Hayes's, or simply back it up. She's a thin gal with high piles of layered hair, red lips, and a darling dress. From a distance she recalls The Beautiful Bodies's Alicia Solombrino. On stage, she does not. In fact, she often seems awkward and unsure of what to do with herself. Although other members are saddled with instruments or behind microphones, Lu Rud should be free to move about the stage. It just doesn't happen. Bullington, however seems comfortable standing behind his keyboard, proffering backing vocals and banter when he can get it in. Bassist Kyle Anthony and drummer (and founding member) Nick Talley are quiet unassuming role players.
Together the band creates a comfortable indie rock sound with strong pop elements. This is a sound that Kansas City saw before with both The Anniversary and The Believe It Or Nots. Hayes’s guitar is the focal point of most songs, as it smartly winds, twists, and jabs into dense arrangements. Bullington's keyboard chimes in accents that provide small bits of melody, or splashes songs with playful Theremin. However by the time the band adds two or three vocal lines, its compositions often become muddy. This is particularly obvious in both the band's longer and slower songs, leaving the ballad "Hanging on Like Lemmings" to suffer on both accounts.
Mother Culture has set itself up for a big March. Next month will include a Midwestern tour, the self-release of its first CD, and a showcase at South by Southwest. With guidance, this band of big aspirations and bigger ideas could skip to the top of the local pig pile, without it, only time will tell. Either way, it's going to take a lot of work to go from an empty Riot Room to the tip of tastemakers' tongues.