It was ten years ago to the day that Kansas City's Namelessnumberheadman played its first gig. And although the band continues to perform, it would be a stretch to call the band active. Families and careers trumped stardom from the beginning, leaving little time for late night gigs, much less for national tours. The band suffered further when keyboardist Jason Lewis moved to Boston, forcing the trio to work against time-consuming long distance. Drummer (and then some, but more on that in a bit) Andrew Sallee and guitarist (again, more on that soon) Chuck Whittington perform a handful of local shows a year without the benefit of Lewis, but, as Sallee is quick to admit, it has never been the same. To mark the tenth anniversary of the band's debut performance, Lewis would have to return, and Namelessnumberheadman would celebrate in Kansas City's premiere rock club.
But then something curious happened. A defining progenitor of the local music scene decided to reform for a series of concerts. Seizing the opportunity, the club owner added the band to the bill. Whittington remembers receiving the call, hearing that Zoom would be added to the bill, and asking "Are they any good?" I'm not sure if anyone could answer that question, as the band hadn't played a show in over a decade. In its prime, Lawrence, Kansas' Zoom was a powerhouse of discordant punk noise and driving guitars. In the years since, the band's local importance and legend grew, and its players remained active in other musical projects, but no one could say what a 2011 Zoom performance might sound like.
But before anyone would find out, there was Rustin Smith, a local singer/songwriter who hadn't played a full set of original material in five years. Friends and family anxiously awaited Smith's return to the stage, to see the man they know transformed to a rocker under hot stage lights.
So there's the set up: one band noting its ten-year anniversary, another reuniting having played their last gig before the other even formed, and a third coaxed back onto the stage under a very bright spotlight. Each band preparing to celebrate, each drawing in their far-flung fans to do the same. This show was destined to sell-out, and did before the first band even walked onto the stage.
Rustin Smith is straightforward and yet still quite curious. He is a singer/songwriter whose songs are built on hallelujah choruses and Gibson Les Paul power chords. The songs on his MySpace page hint at both Elliott Smith and modern commercial country artists, leaving listeners to wonder which persona he might bring to the stage. It was, in fact, neither, as Smith chose to write entirely new material (all within the last month actually) for this performance. Still, this didn't illuminate any singular vision. His first song recalled Billy Bragg, the second a wonderful nod to Graham Parker, and from there songs settled into a disappointing blandness somewhere between coffee shop fare and '90s roots-rockers such as Gin Blossoms. His lyrics didn't stray far from the confusion of boy-meets-girl, although strong Christian overtones (Smith is the Pastor at Vox Dei Community) provide the direction.
Smith was joined on stage by guitarist Jeremy Sharp, who contributed filler acoustic guitar, pleasant backing vocals, and two songs which Smith performed. While there was no interplay between the guitars, Smith did play a singular solo in one of Sharp's compositions which provided a bit of interest to a half-hour set that had begun to drag. While several dozen fans stood upfront with cameras flashing, a hundred others gathered at the bar and in the recesses of the club, talking loudly, uninterested in the happenings on stage. The majority of the audience had come for Zoom's reunion show.
At 10:50 the four men of Zoom came to the stage. Although all four members have stayed involved in music throughout the years, I still expected to see a stageful of once-wases pulled out of retirement. Instead the players looked barely old enough to have released an album in 1994, much less to have released their second and final album that year. Vocalist/guitarist Mark Henning bounced on the stage with a Greg Brady afro and an unfathomable amount of excitement – practically everything you need to succeed as a frontman. He provided no heartfelt remembrances between songs, and no time for his bandmates to catch their breath. Instead he pushed the foursome into each song while the previous still rang through the audience's heads. Soundman David Gaume assisted in this assault by ensuring that the band was impossibly loud.
Although the set began with the band's final material – complex songs that recall Polvo and the early guitar overdrive/loud-soft-loud elements that would define the Kansas City sound at the time of the band's demise – the middle of the set was filled with older songs built on the speed, power, and frantic punk energy of Mission of Burma or Husker Du. After noticing the crowd response to these songs, Henning declared that the band would only play the old material for the rest of the set. While the band couldn't keep that promise, it was this material that did excite the packed club into action – many of them, seemingly, for the first time in years. This untamed energy led me to miss guitarist Steve Tubbert's big (and sole) rock jump while I dodged the sloshing drinks precariously held by out-of-practise bar patrons. But don't think I hold any ill will towards these revellers; Zoom is the sort of band that could define your young adult years, and undoubtedly did for so many audience members returning to clubs after absences likely as long as the band's.
While the story here is obviously that Zoom played at all, the icing is that the band sounded great. Complex time signatures were handled with apparent ease, and songs written nearly twenty years ago were recalled as if written yesterday. Drummer Chris Cosgrove may have cheated by omitting a fill or two, there may have been a couple of false starts, and strings were broken all around, but this was a great show by a great band. Period.
When Zoom finished it was nearly Midnight. Whether the crowd was simply not adventurous, whether it was scared by looming weather, or whether it dreaded the thought of paying the babysitter after-midnight rates, the club began to clear out. The three members of Kansas City's Namelessnumberheadman worked quickly to assemble their gear, and by 12:15 were ready to begin – record time for a band that features more than twice as many keyboards, synthesizers, and sequencers as it does members.
Before playing a note, Namelessnumberheadman's Andrew Sallee came to the front of the stage to explain the significance of the occasion, and to thank all the necessary parties. With that said (and little else), Sallee carefully made his way back to his drum kit, and the band began its hour-long set.
While Sallee is typically the band's drummer, he simultaneously handles vocals and keyboard duties. His vocals do suffer from the multitasking, but the feat is fun to watch. Chuck Whittington also juggles his duties handling guitar, piano, and vocals concurrently. Whittington is twice the guitarist he was when Namelessnumberheadman played its debut, although I do miss the old ringing and rattling acoustic guitar that was long ago replaced by a sleek electric Gibson Les Paul. To his left stood keyboardist Jason Lewis. This in itself is amazing as Lewis used to perform sitting cross-legged on the floor with his array of keyboards, synthesizers, sequencers, and noise makes spread about him. Now Lewis has an expertly built case to support smaller stable of keyboards. Although it may have been my position at the front of the stage, but I didn't hear the sampled dialogue that he used to trigger as part of the early compositions. Finally, short silent films, often of mundane images and apropos of nothing, played for the duration of each song on a screen at the back of the stage. There were no floating pigs or swirling lights (in fact the stage lights were largely cut during the band's performance), but every person remaining in the club was focused on the stage.
Namelessnumberheadman has performed a few shows in the past year as a duo, but seeing the band as the full intended trio was an entirely different experience. Layers of sound washed over and through the audience. Bone rattling bass lows, synthesized bells chiming at the top end, and waves of atmosphere supporting the focal piano or guitar lines. Every song has a flow that pushes the composition forward, rarely relying on the verse and chorus pop formula. While the band defies genre (truly), touchstones like Flaming Lips, Grandaddy and Sparklehorse are useful in understanding the sweeping and epic – but still intimate – songs. The band begin its set with "Locked in the Station" from its 2000 demo 100,000 Subtle Times, and closed with "Douglas Rossback's Indecision" from the same. I'd be willing to bet that these are the songs that opened and closed the band's first performance as well. While material from the demo bookended the set, the remainder of the performance included songs from each of the band's three albums, and two new, unrecorded pieces.
It was after curfew when the last strains of the final number fell silent. Immediately the lights came up, and a large bouncer began chiding patrons to leave the club. It takes a while to digest a Namlessnumberheadman show, but security was having none of it, and the audience was rushed out into the cold; I just wasn't ready to go home. So, to honour the band's anniversary performance, Kate and I went to a 24-hour diner for some tater tots – just as I did ten years ago.