Shows at Records with Merritt are for those in the know. If there is promotion, it happens only in closed circles. I often find out about shows after they've happened. But mostly I never find out at all. Maybe that's by design. Middle-aged guys aren't the target demographic. Most nights it's a locals-only affair — for area teens by area teens. This has created a safe space where gender is fluid and a dialectic discussion of sexual preference can require a dictionary. It's become the preferred venue for the all-ages DIY set — particularly those with emo leanings. The record store is small, and easily filled by the bands and their significant others. Having a draw isn't necessary. Money isn't important. Sometimes someone asks for donations for the bands. Sometimes there's a bucket on the counter near the tubs of the soda, beer, and water. I don't know who provides the drinks or how they're reimbursed. The bigger mystery is why the shop turns over the reins to the kids once or twice a week. Financially nothing makes much sense about the record store that turns into a venue at night. But it's paying dividends. The current crop of bands that have come up through (and remain loyal to) Records with Merritt is amazing. The future of Kansas City music is bright, and this nonsensical storefront on Westport Road can take a lot of credit for that.
This show began at 8:30 like most shows at the venue. 8:30 is when the last client from the acting school next door is done with their lesson. That's when things can get loud at Records with Merritt. And they usually do. And they would tonight, but that's not where things started. They started with Hungry Foxes. The solo project of Hannah Maria Albina and her electric guitar. She's a dexterous player. But, generally, a delicate one. Her voice is confident, but she never pushes it. Her songs are sad and she apologizes for that during her twenty-minute set. The set is a mix of songs shared nearly real-time on Bandcamp over the last year, several new ones (including one that she noted was still nameless), and a cover of song from local musician Doby Watson as the finale. Albina effused that Watson was her "music dad," providing inspiration and taking her on her first tour. But the cover didn't sit right. Watson's song is built on strong chords, bypassing the individually fingered strings that make Hungry Foxes' songs engaging. At the end of the set there was a call for more, but Albina told the crowd she didn't know any others, adding a hopeful "yet" at the end.
It's common in the DIY world to make a touring band sandwich. This is to ensure that the friends of the local acts don't leave before the touring band plays. This put California's awakebutstillinbed next. Although the band was born as Shannon Taylor's solo project, she was remarkably concealed during most of the set. Standing at the microphone, her hair hung down in front of her face, all but hiding her from view. Her vocals were similarly buried — a victim of the store's small PA and the loud backing band. Her guitar, on the other hand, made itself known. The loud crashing chords from her amp freed touring guitarist Jacob Gill to handle either soaring leads or twinkling accent parts as each section of each song required. Bassist Connor Gill spent the set studying the simple but tight drumming of Elijah Stoll, offering chords of his own to fatten the band's sound. The quartet are emo, though not aping any particular band or era. There's space in Taylor's compositions. Room to breathe. Which is good because there are also raw, jagged, throat-shredding screams. And pounding. And catharsis. The audience felt this. Some screamed along. One with tears rolling down her face.
Headlining the night was Party Fridge. Until recently this three-piece was known as Egg Drop Soup. So they're moving in the right direction. The band is young. All the bands were young. But this one felt like it. The band's half-hour set contained multitudes. Several songs were over-the-top capital-E emo. Anguish dialed up to eleven. Frontwoman Bailey Larkin admitted that one of these was written after listening to nothing but awakebutstillinbed's debut album. Most tracks were more complex. Maybe hinting at math rock. Maybe the noisy indie rock that flourished in Chicago in the mid '90s or on labels like Skingraft. But not. Less mechanical, less muscle, less masculine. Simply wild abandon. Larkin's guitar is strident. It's broken chords sawed at savagely and augmented by effects pedals. So many pedals. Drummer Sophie Neuman is a lyrical drummer. Don't expect to count time based on repeated beats and patterns, there are none. Her ingenuity is matched by bassist Elijah Hazim whose fingered (and even slapped) bass work grows and contracts so eloquently during the band's songs. The stage (such as it is) is cramped. Still Larkin moves a lot. Her guitar swung wildly. She held it aloft. At the end of the night she hit the ground, pulling down the microphone with her, shouting the final refrain as her guitar howled and everything came apart.
It was only 10:30 when the amplifiers were switched off and the lights were turned back on. I wanted to stay and talk to the bands. To share my gratitude. But I knew that the room belonged to another generation, and I should leave it for them. Soon cars and vans would be packed with gear, and the venue would return to its day job as a record store. Maybe Records with Merritt's nighttime escapades don't exactly qualify as a secret identity, but what's happening there is no less heroic.