Just a quickie because, although I could feverishly scrawl 10,000 words about the state of Kansas City's Middle of the Map festival, the result would be an unreadable mixture of conjecture and anti-festival bias. Maybe that's not too far from normal, but I'll try to behave. Long-time readers know festivals make me anxious, but I was in fine spirits as I slipped into Josey Records in the Kansas City's Crossroads Arts District to see the annual event kick off. The barrier to entry was small, there was no cover, the venue spacious, and the bill featured a fine all-local lineup. I could do this. I would do this.
Berwanger strummed the festival's first chord at 6pm. Quite civilized. Frontman Josh Berwanger was joined by longtime collaborator Christian "Janko" Jankowski on drums, and recent conspirator Sam Boatright (of Psychic Heat) on bass. The trio played through an infectious set of pop songs culled from Berwanger's five albums, augmented by a resurrected number from Berwanger's previous Only Children project, and a tributary Muffs cover. Josh Berwanger's musical focus is never held long, giving each album a different sound, and each live show a different vibe. The band has delivered quite a few raucous sets lately, and while this one was similarly loose, the set list and its musicians favored a classic tone rather than a explosive one. The Gibson Flying V and hair metal solos were left at home, and instead a large hollow-body guitar brought a warm richness to the set. The snap of the band's power pop wasn't dulled, and the band stopped short of Americana twang, but the sturdy roots of rock & roll were felt. Between songs Berwanger and Janko joked, offering mini reviews of the DVDs that lined the makeshift stage — "Saved" was declared a classic while "Coming to Dinner" derided as an unnecessary remake despite some fondness for Bernie Mac. Expectedly, the small audience of browsers idly flicking through the racks didn't provide a lot for the band to feed on. I, however, remained rapt as earlier in the day I had been tipped off to expect something special. Although I wasn't filled in on the details until later, I eventually learned Berwanger had messaged his bandmates the night before suggesting that they cover a song by The Muffs in honor of that band's frontwoman, Kim Shattuck, who lost her battle with ALS earlier in the week. Although the song's key was decided through contradictory late-night text messages, and the tempos never settled, the band unabashedly launched into "Agony" for the first (and I suspect only) time. The audience was rewarded with a false start, an unexpected key change after the first verse, a broken string, and a delightful pop-punk song picked by someone who bravely wears his heart on his sleeve. The energy would have continued with the pogo-worthy "I Want You Bad" from 2016's Exorcism Rock, but the broken string seemed like an omen and the band ended its set one song early. I decided that breaking a string for a fellow fallen guitarist is like pouring out just a bit of your forty for a lost friend.
Although I was still happy with my festival choice, I had already booked myself an escape plan in the form of another show across town. So, to JC & the Nuns (whom I still haven't seen), to The Bad Ideas (whom I haven't seen in a while), and to Mild Cats (whom I haven't seen since the band's first show), I apologize and promise to catch each of you soon. As long as it's not part of a weird festival.