I'm older than I used to be. Most of us are. But lately I'm feeling it and with every step I take deeper into my 40s, I find my fanaticism dim. In years past I would have found Kansas City's Middle of the Map Fest – a three-day celebration of over 100 local, regional, and rising national musicians performing at a dozen venues only a mile from my home – to be a cause for celebration. Yet this year I only summoned the energy to to attend one night of the festival, and on that night I limited myself to one venue, and more telling still, to only bands that I was already familiar with. This is the face of ageing.
At 9:15 Kate and I arrived at The Union, and, after passing through a gauntlet of security guards, walked down the wrought iron steps into the rough-hewn stone basement. Although this bar is normally the domain of drunken douche bags and woo girls, when populated entirely by Midtown indie rock fans, the subterranean club seemed cozy and welcoming.
When we made it to the small stage in the corner of the club we found Drew Black and Dirty Electric just beginning a set that merged no-frills rock with a punk edge. Frontman Drew Black provided both eponymous dirty guitar and a vocal warble that recalled The Dead Kennedy's Jello Biafra or, when pushed further, the flutter of John Darnielle of Mountain Goats. Second guitarist Zach Hodson added either noisy diversion aided by effects pedals, or joined the entire quartet for a lockstep steady pounding pace. Propulsive drummer Michelle Bacon joined the raunchy bass of Terra Peal for some pleasurable big back beat moments, but beyond that, I have few specific memories.
It should be said that this is not a venue for sight lines, stage lighting, or sound quality. Every band struggled with underpowered monitors, and feedback was common. However, due to its setting, it wasn't hard to imagine this not as performance in a rock club, but as a basement show. When viewed through that lens, the venue's shortcomings were perfectly acceptable, if not expected.
The evening continued on schedule at 10:15 when Schwervon drummer Nan Turner tap danced her way across the club's concrete floor, accompanied by the noodling guitar of Matt Roth. When Turner landed behind her kit, the band was at full force, blasting through tracks that highlighted both its punk urgency and pop sensibilities. Unfortunately, the intermittent monitors nearly undid Turner, derailing any intentions of a tight set or idealised professionalism. At its worse, Turner stopped mid song believing her microphone had entirely cut out. Roth quickly addressed her concerns, offering, "It's only your monitor, honey." Turner repeated the phrase, laughing, nearly blushing, adding an aside to the audience: "We're a couple." Nearly everything about this band is adorable, which might seem incongruous when the bands songs are built on the aggressive growl of Roth's guitar, the pounding drums of Turner, and Turner's urgent proto-riot grrl vocal delivery. All of which were well demonstrated in "Landlocked" – a short new song inspired by the band's relocation to Kansas City exactly one year ago.
While the audience doubled during Schwervon's 35-minute set, it waned during the Berwanger set that followed. Such as shame as there's not a band in town that I'm hotter on right now. The foursome's brilliant power pop songs shone brightly despite a low-energy set that lacked much of frontman Josh Berwanger's usual comedic banter. The return (if only for this special occasion) of second guitarist Heidi Gluck allowed for excellent backing vocals, but fewer guitar leads, skewing songs toward their pop pleasantries rather than the muscular swagger spotlighted by her regular replacements (either Richard Gintowt of Hidden Pictures or Thomas Becker of Beautiful Bodies). Still, there is no denying that the band has an excellent set of songs which Berwanger promises will see release this summer.
The audience returned in an awesome flood as The Belles attempted to place five players and their equipment on the tiny section of floor railed off as the stage. While not broken up, that band has been somewhat dormant lately, and hadn't played as a full ensemble in recent memory. This reunion of sorts was only a prelude to the evening's main event, but served to reinforce the show's theme of Kansas City's musical past (if that legacy only extends back ten to twenty years).
Once assembled, The Belles' played a long set that traded in gentle indie rock and folk. The pace remained slow (at times bordering on languid), with Christopher Tolle, Andrew Ashby, and Elizabeth Bohannon harmonising and blending while the rhythm section led by drummer Jake Cardwell set a warm foundation. There was no sign of cobwebs, as the band hit every note and set every mood. Tolle seemed a bit perplexed by his surroundings the in the hot basement, and, curiously, kept telling the audience that he really was having a good time. I'm not sure anyone thought otherwise.
From my perch on a ledge, pressed against the sweating stone wall, peering through cables and over a speaker, I watched The Regrets set up for the first time in sixteen years. While the audience held a smattering of 20- and 30-somethings, they were uncharacteristically outnumbered by a crowd into its 40s. Many were familiar faces who, like myself, are still slogging it out at shows most weeks, keeping up the good fight. Other fans seemed to have come out of retirement to see a band that defined an important period in their lives. These fans savoured every moment, and nudged their way close to the stage in an effort to make eye contact with the band, where they were rewarded with bright smiles and genuine greetings upon recognition. While certainly not exclusive to these groups, the audience was noticeably rife with musicians past and present, anxious to feel the glow of the golden era of the Kansas City Sound once again. I understood this longing, and as I waited, I revisited my arrival in Kansas City in 1997. My relocation was fuelled by The Regrets (and Vitreous Humor), Boys Life, Giant's Chair, and The Get Up Kids, and a scene that I wanted to be a part of. Despite its ridiculously fertile soil, Kansas City never became the "next Seattle" as predicted, and thank goodness for that, because that outside attention and competition would have spoiled our nurturing, supportive scene. As The Regrets took the stage once again, it wasn't hard to remember the band's last show sixteen years ago, nor was it hard to see the fruits that era continues to spawn. But where has the time gone?
With little fanfare, Danny Pound led a threesome formed in the late 1980s through a set that was both pummelling and revelatory. Pound's guitar melodies soared above the surging rhythm section of bassist Brad Allen and drummer Dan Benson, creating a fuller, more textured sound than any three-piece has right to. The tenderest moment's of the band's later career were skipped, allowing the trio to focus on its driving, climbing, and explosive earlier material.
Pound was in high spirits, joking and smiling broadly throughout the night as if surprised by muscle memory both retained and lost. If the band felt any pressure, it never let on. After a cover of The Who's "Tattoo," Pound addressed the audience with only, "Just for fun, you know. I mean, why not?" And why indeed not? The band were unexpectedly tight, Pound sounded great, the band filled the basement, and everything was coming up roses.
The band finished with "India Ink" from its lone album, thanked the audience, then attempted to leave the stage. As if not anticipating the loud calls for an encore, the band held an emergency huddle to determine its next move. Soon it returned with positively monster version of "Sharin' Stone" that dwarfed the version the band recorded decades earlier as Vitreous Humor.
If the audience hadn't suddenly been infected by the club's typical clientele (I presume the club began admitting paying patrons in anticipation of the festival's finale), or had the room not been inundated by the pounding dance music from the floor above and the smoking patio behind, I would have lead the calls for more. But at that moment, suddenly feeling unwelcome in a club not my own, I accepted the band's exit, and made my way through the throngs of staggering drunks, impossibly tight tube dresses, and bros bathed in Axe Body Spray toward the front door. Survivor Steve Tulipana called for true believers to meet at Chubby's for a late night tator tot nightcap, and I considered it for a moment, but only a moment, then I turned the scooter toward home.