I don't know that I'm worse than others. In fact, I like to think I try harder than most, yet when I find myself with a free night, you'll generally find me and my camera at the usual places, covering the usual bands. I know there are new bands in the city that I would certainly like – my musical tastes aren't terribly refined – but seeing them involves more than showing up at a prescribed time at an established venue. Instead it requires the infiltration of an insular network curated by the young and hip who either do not publicize their house shows, or obfuscate them on flyers by referring only to "the triangle house" or "the ghost house." These flyers are left in plain sight at the cafes and record stores I patronize, but like hobo codes, they are breadcrumbs left for another audience, and I can only assume that interlopers are not welcome. In short, seeing new bands in Kansas City involves finding them first, and when the easy alternative is to see wonderful bands at the tried and filthy bar at the end of my street, I'm afraid it's the path of least resistance for me.
Harling's is a dive with a checkered history of highs and lows and a hands-off approach to live music. I don't believe there is any in-house "talent buyer," and those that book the bar are a motley crew that answer to no one – not even the bar's management. It's anarchy, but as any good anarchist will tell you, things generally work out just fine. On this night there was no rioting, just an opening act that disappeared when they were scheduled to go live. When the band did show up, they hadn't been shooting heroin on the terrifying "deck" (a tar roof bolstered by sheets of plywood and sectioned off by occasional 2x4s), but in a back room changing into beach wear. "We heard it was a beach-themed show," announced Willie Jordan. Oh the humanity.
Willie Jordan provides vocals and guitar for Drugs & Attics. He's young, stoned and living his dream. He's also witty and self aware, and he writes excellent songs for the scuzzed-out Burger Records set. The band is currently a trio, down from the expansive five-piece that I first saw the band perform as months ago. I think this slimming has benefitted the band, allowing it a bit more space to wind up for that punch. Songs are typically fast, typically short, and typically the sort of revved up '60s garage/punk hybrid that has infected the city lately. Every song is about partying and drugs. Still, there are moments when Jordan's voice strains and cracks in a soulful way, leaving me to wonder what the band would be like in a parallel universe where I get to play Svengali. The band's slow, straight up rock & roll closer only adds fuel to my imagination's fire.
Next up was Schwervon. Schwervon is not a new band of young stoners, and as a duo, it would be hard for the band to skinny down to a lower fighting weight the way Drugs & Attics have. In fact, not only has this hardworking band been around the block, but this show was the first hometown gig after completing another East Coast tour the week before. This resulted in a new set of songs, and a welcoming audience.
The twosome of guitarist Matt Roth and drummer Nan Turner (both of whom provide vocals) started off with some perennial favorites, but soon sidestepped into six or seven new songs that are coming together nicely. One wiry new wave song first debuted in late winter has shed some of its kitsch, while another new song "Wrath of Angels" appears to have been born nearly complete. Afterwards Roth told me the set was "a little loose" which may have been a kind way of saying that Turner was a little loose herself. Not only did Turner regularly offer pronouncements of her love for the audience from behind her kit, but when Roth broke a string and had to pause to change it, she took the opportunity to perform one of her solo rap tracks. Unable to find her normal backup drummer in the audience, Turner stayed behind her kit and enlisted The Bad Ideas' Breaka Dawn to lead the audience through the song's synchronized choreography.
All deference to Turner's skillz, but the highlight of the band's stage show came from Roth who had just come back from working crowd control at the Warped Tour the day before, and decided to test out all the crowd interaction tools he had seen work there. Turns out about two dozen fans at Harling's will respond to belligerent demands to come forward (for a song or two at least), but there was no getting the audience to jump in unison or engage in a wall of death. Roth seemed a little disappointed with each successive failure, which, of course, made each request all the more entertaining.
The evening's headliner was the reunited Onward Crispin Glover. Brought back together for a special event last year, the foursome quickly decided that it had unfinished business and decided to continue on. Today the band's live set certainly revisits the heavy disjointed alternative pop songs of their late '90s incarnation, but it also features stellar new material slated for an upcoming parade of 7" singles.
Onward Crispin Glover is lead by charming vocalist/guitarist Byron Huhmann whose quick wit is only matched by a ribald sense of humor. It is this charisma grants him all sorts of leeway that other performers might not be given. For example, after playing a new song recalling the over-the-top hard rock of the 1970s, Huhmann noted the song didn't have a name yet, so on-the-spot he christen it "Dick Sheath." This may earn some performers groans, but Huhmann was rewarded with laughter – so much laughter from Turner in particular that the song was quickly renamed "Nan's Dick Sheath" much to her delight. Bassist Kristin Thompson Conkright was seen rolling her eyes.
My favorite bit of banter came as Huhmann was offering his appreciation to the other bands in the customary "give it up for" way. But after scanning the dwindling crowd for Drugs & Addicts' Willie Jordan and not finding him, Huhmann announced his disappointment, offering "I had drugs and I was going to share them with him." The band then quipped that Drugs & Addicts were probably too busy writing songs about drugs to actually do them anyway. During the band's first stint, OCG became an authority on such pharmacological things.
Early into its set, the band decided to streamline its planned setlist, skipping "Lunch" and other songs based on the band's desire to play only the fast songs. Huhmann had a long week after finding his practice space broken into, and all of his gear stolen. After such a week I can only assume he was ready for some catharsis, and that is exactly what the entire band got during closer "It's the Good I Can't Stand." Although written and recorded before the band's first demise, the song was never released, making it a prime target for revitalization. This live telling was a noisy and powerful composition that teetered uneasily between the dissonant guitar leads of Marty Robertson and pounding drums of Billy Johnson. For nearly five minutes the song built before finally exploding at the song's (and show's) final moments.
It was just after midnight when I said goodbye to my friends and slipped out the door for the two-block ride back to my house. I imagined that at the same time, in an unnamed location, an excellent new band was wrapping up its first show in a sweaty basement. In a few weeks that band will probably break up, and its legacy will remain unwritten. But if the band does persevere, and they do decide to risk tetanus, I'm sure I'll see them at Harling's – at first opening for my friends, and soon, becoming my friends. At this point in my life I may be late to the party, but at least I still go. Don't count Too Much Rock out just yet.