In the early ‘90s there was “the Kansas City sound.” Perhaps it wasn’t as pervasive as us olds would have you believe, but there was some throughline connecting the area bands that traded in muscular and jagged guitar rock. Decades later, I would have wagered that the Kansas City sound was one of effervescent indie rock full of sun and surf jangle. Today, that era feels like it’s coming to an end, making room for darker stories colored by deep purples and blacks. If you’re ready for that descent, here are some bands to keep your eyes on. But don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
The evening began with Nightosphere. This local trio is new and still mysterious. They do mystery well. At 8:30 Brittany [last names withheld for furtive reasons, I assume] stood behind the microphone holding a guitar. She glanced at the assembling audience before turning to face her band. I then heard her whisper, “I don’t want to talk. Let’s just start,” and then they did. Brittany is joined by Claire. Claire began on bass, but the duo swapped instruments throughout the set. The guitarist du jour always had control of the lone microphone. Both alignments produced indie rock that was rich with atmosphere. Some songs, or portions of songs, were percussive and full of bold intention. On these, drummer Hop (Hopyard Mathison of Employer, Tall Boys, Family Bed and other bygone DIY staples) hit the drums to destroy them. In the most extreme moments, timing was lost, and the trio went separate directions reveling in chaotic interludes. In other songs Hop left space for Claire’s sparsely picked guitar and ethereal vocals. In these quiet and foreboding passages, Brittany might eschew bass notes entirely, and instead slowly pound on the instrument producing an eerie slow heartbeat or creating plodding footsteps. While the intra-song transitions from quiet to loud weren’t always crisp, the young band’s assured audacity made up for any flaws. Claire promises its first recordings will be released in a few weeks. Until then, you’ll have to see the band live and risk falling under its spell.
Between acts I slipped out the front door, bound for the bench in front of the venue. Big pickup trucks rolled by with revving engines and spinning screeching wheels. There’s not much to do in this lawless part of town and any audience will do. The mosquitos know this as well and a scourge descended on me quickly. I sustained several direct hits before I heard noise from the stage and returned inside to find one woman standing under the red and blue lights of the Farewell stage.
Newly-Minnesotan Alina Maira brought her own mystery to the show – not with her music, but merely by her presence. A solo performer playing seven hours from home but not part of any tour? What call was she answering when she waved farewell to her band, packed her electric guitar and skateboard, and hit the highway aiming for our little roadhouse? And how would her finely produced and alternative radio ready songs fare stripped down? Maira never revealed the answers to the first questions, but she cleared up the musical conundrums quickly. Everything would be exposed, hearts and all.
The first few songs were slow and quiet. Fingerpicked with considerable talent. Her soft voice conveyed a lot of emotion. As the set grew, so did the strumming. Her voice growing louder as well. And then peaking in strong wails that had the soundperson running up to adjust the suddenly all-wrong levels. It was a seven-song set drawing from digital singles and yet-to-be recorded songs. Maira searched for a title for one track, then realized she hadn’t gotten that far yet. She thought for a moment then explained that it’s a song about coming out of an abusive relationship, adding, “So don’t get mad if I make too many mistakes, as that would be messed up.” There were no mistakes. Maybe none in her short set. Just gripping and honest songs, played directly to a rapt audience. No mystery about that.
Between acts I stayed inside, sitting on a couch, petting a dog – there’s always a dog at Farewell. The stage sat abandoned for fifteen or twenty minutes. It felt much longer, especially after the dog scampered off to chase another four-legged friend. Eventually the next band took the stage, and after the complex arrangement of speaker vis-à-vis chair was worked out, Ashville’s Secret Shame were ready to start.
But frontperson Lena Machina was in rough shape – not only was she wearing an orthopedic boot on her foot that confined her to a chair, but she was emotionally wrecked. The first condition resulted from the unfortunate mixing of hallucinogens, platform boots, and a skateboard. When that story was told, the audience cheered. A lot of enablers at Farewell. The latter condition was a result of Alina Maira’s set. It hit awfully close to home for Machina who has been open about her past experience with an abuser. While Machina endured the set, her performance was jagged and raw. The anguish on her face was only intensified by the clown makeup that transformed her into a grotesque Ronald McDonald completed by her dyed-red hair. She spent the set confined to the chair, but twitching and itching and clawing and writhing like she was coming off something bad. It was a nightmare I won’t forget.
Machina’s visuals were matched by her lyrics. Dark tales about mental illness, abuse, and addiction. The band is one big trigger warning. The fact that the first number edged on jangle pop created some cognitive dissonance. Of course, The Smiths made an entire career from this pairing, but Morrissey was never this crushed. Later songs lost some of the brightness, and the band soon slipped into a shadowy world dominated by gothic rock, dark wave, and post-punk. It’s Siouxsie and the Banshees. It’s The Cure. Nothing new, but exquisitely arranged. Drummer Nathan Landolt often played sparingly – keeping time, but always providing more than a simple foundation. I love drumming that can tell a story. The bass work of Matthew Boman was similarly fluid, but still managed to lock into grooves with the crashing Landolt when necessary. Guitarist Aster Nema was all chime, with just the right commitment to hazy effects. The final piece of the sonic puzzle was provided by Machina’s voice that moved exquisitely from low-end husk to clear high resonating calls. Calls that summoned the audience and compelled their tall black boots to dance. Although I merely took photographs through the animated bodies, I felt a strange compulsion to buy merch from the band, and left with the quartet’s most recent 2019 album and a newer 7” single – both excellent, but neither containing my favorite songs from the live set. I hope the next album solves that mystery.
As the stage cleared, I slipped out the front door once again. Experience has taught me that although New Obsessions is only a duo, their stage preparation takes considerable time. It was after 11:00 and the pickup trucks had gone home in anticipation of early alarm clocks and dusty construction sites. I watched several patrons make a similar exit so layers of makeup, fishnets, chains and spikes could be carefully removed before bed. It’s quiet in this part of town where fireflies light unused warehouses and weeds grow tall in rusted chainlink fences. If there were ever a place for ghosts, this would be it. Such an odd place for a club, but probably the right one.
It was nearing Midnight when the harsh noise of New Obsessions began. I had caught the band at Farewell only two weeks ago, and wrote about that show. Not much has changed. Guitarist and vocalist Jorge Arana was still in his Pierrot makeup and ruffed collar. Brother Luis Arana continued in his beaked plague doctor mask. The band had the stage lights extinguished, with only its red lights and bright white strobes left to pierce the darkness. Two smoke machines pushed out fog that was diffused and dispersed by a floor fan until the whole room was a hazy moor.
The band’s experimental post-punk is dark and moody. While tempos vary, there is always a twitching energy. Jorge Arana’s guitar saws through the hissing drum machine and clanging backing tracks, while Luis Arana’s distorted bass carries what melody there is. Jorge Arana’s vocals never take center stage, instead they manifest as half-heard pained calls from another room. Somehow, amidst all the chaos and cacophony, a small contingent of the audience danced. Legs and arms flailed while bodies pitched to and fro. It wasn’t pretty but it was mesmerizing. Jorge Arana encouraged the pandemonium, unsuccessfully calling for a circle pit. Luis Arana danced in the middle of the moving, but not revolving, crowd.
After several hundred unsuccessful photographs of shadows, fog, and glaring strobe lights, I set down my camera and joined the arc of spectators. Among the dwindling crowd were the three members of Nightosphere, watching intently as they had during each act throughout the night. There is no better measure of a band than the attention it gives other performers. Of course, New Obsessions are an easy band to become transfixed with, and the more I see them, the less I understand.
At 12:15 the duo completed their set, releasing their hold on the remaining audience. Exhausted by the bands more than the clock, I ducked out of the club, failing to even wave at my concerting cohorts as I pushed through door. I’m told others stayed and the revelry continued until the witching hour, but that’s a dark side that I’m not ready to embrace.