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Monday September 21st, 2009 at The Bottleneck in Lawrence, KS
Ra Ra Riot, Maps & Atlases, & Princeton
Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot
Mathieu Santos of Ra Ra Riot
Shiraz Dada of Maps and Atlases
Matt Kivel of Princeton
[more photos]
[linked video]

All-ages shows are both a curse and a blessing; I like getting home at a reasonable hour, but the over stimulated young audiences are just hell to be around. So, in an attempt to reduce the shock, Katie decided we should head into Lawrence a bit early, get dinner there, and slowly acclimate ourselves to being surrounded by vapid kids. A lovely idea. So after a fairly-priced dinner (read: it'll hurt your wallet but provide someone with a living wage) at Local Burger, Katie and I took a deep breath and headed over to the Bottleneck.

All the promotion indicated the show would start at 8:00, so showing up at 7:45 seemed perfectly reasonable (if not cutting it a bit close); unfortunately after checking with someone behind the soundboard, we learned things weren't scheduled to begin until 9:00. Shouldn't the all-ages set be snuggled into bed by then? Never mind, showing up early just meant that we were able to play a couple of comical games of 75-cent pool on the club's barely-felted tables.

At 9:00 the four young lads of Princeton took the stage, beginning a 45-minute set of buoyant pop rock. This LA band is led by twin brothers Jesse and Matt Kivel who, in some Parent Trap-like effort to confuse the audience, trade both lead vocals and instruments throughout the set. If you have trouble telling the two apart, just look to their feet – the boys have given you a clue by wearing different colour boat shoes. Although the band's set contained several moments that paid homage to the danceable post punk of New Order, more often it reached for the indie pop of Vampire Weekend. In a less direct comparison, there were a number of songs that had an early '60s feel as sweet vocals were sung over clean guitar arpeggios.

Ignoring the atrocious calliope tones from Ben Usen's Korg keyboard, the band's music was quite serviceable, if sometimes a bit nondescript. And although the stage presence of both brothers was subdued at best – and more generally awkward – it was Jesse Kivel who was uniquely unaware of his lack of charisma. There may be a geeky cache to this Kivel, although it would be on par with Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin) showing up at your brother's LAN party. He's a sort of laughable lab puppy that is excited to see you, yet unable to control his legs. And yes, he did nearly fall into the drum kit before the show even began. Was it fun to watch? Yeah, actually, it was.

Up next was Chicago's Maps & Atlases. This is a no-nonsense quartet with an intense musical focus – there was only one microphone on stage, there were no extraneous instruments, and there was not an effects pedal to be found. Throughout the band's 40-minute set, frontman Dave Davison was polite to the audience, but not terribly social. In fact, throughout the night his long hair hung in front of his face until it intermingled with his full beard, leaving him nearly invisible to the amped crowd.

Maps & Atlases are frequently lumped together with Chicago math rock bands, however that classification is more convenient than accurate. The band's music can more aptly be described as progressive rock, albeit with fewer grandiose, '70s-styled theatrics, and an almost jam band-esque sense of freedom. Live, all three guitarists (Davison, Erin Elders and bassist Shiraz Dada) even engaged in several of the most taboo trademarks of the prog-rock genre, as each were regularly seen with both hands finger-tapping up and down the necks of their guitars. Davison even showcased his Steve Howe-styled fingerpicking abilities, seemingly unafraid of the inevitable Yes comparisons. Somehow all this wizardry didn't come across as cold exercises in technical proficiency, but rather as just the proper tools to create the band's aggressive yet entirely melodic music.

The young audience had crowded the stage long before the openers began, but only stood passively throughout the first act. However, once Maps & Atlases began, the kids were genuinely excited. Audience members sung along, clapped out the complicated time signatures, called for requests, and applauded through the first few bars of recognizable favourites. Frankly I was a little stunned. Have these kids been buying up King Crimson vinyl from the Goodwill?

In the long break between acts, the audience packed in even tighter, forcing me to become an unwilling party to inane conversations about first-world problems. I never remember high school being so dramatic. I think I'll blame it on Facebook before I admit that it may only be my own revisionist history.

It was after 11pm when Ra Ra Riot took the stage. And although I had hoped a curfew might have gone into effect, thereby thinning out the crowd, it turns out that Lawrence and/or The Bottleneck have never heard of such a thing. Instead, as the six members of the band crowded onto the stage, the 300 (mostly minor) members of the audience stood nuts to butts. Luckily no one wanted to dance anyway.

If the show gained professionalism in the shift from Providence to Maps & Atlases, it gained experience and poise with the arrival of Ra Ra Riot. This three-year-old Syracuse sextet has toured both Europe and North American many times, and with that experience developed an earnest and energetic set heavy on showmanship. Frontman Wes Miles ran between his keyboard placed in a dark corner of the stage and his microphone stand placed at the absolute front of the stage, only inches from the fans. Throughout the night he played to the audience, but never pandered to them.

The rest of the band was similarly engaging, and in such effortless ways. Each player was always smiling, always dancing, and frequently laughing with the other bandmates. This energy carries over to the band's fractured indie pop songs as well. Melodies glide from Rebecca Zeller's violin with full support from Mathieu Santos's bouncing bass guitar lines. Alexandra Lawn's cello nestles somewhere in the middle, providing a sturdy low end sometimes, while other times darting through the wall of sound with quick pulses alongside the winding guitar of Milo Bonacci. The band's songs are frequently epic with building crescendos that erupt in fantastic releases driven by Gabriel Duquette's disco drumming, or conversely, fall nearly silent with only a plucked violin or guitar. Somehow all of this happens in a three-and-a-half-minute pop song.

The band's exuberance was contagious and the packed audience couldn't help but enjoy themselves as well. Unfortunately some members were enjoying themselves too much, and it had little to do with the band's performance. One particularly grating gal screamed and hooted for "International Peace Day" throughout the evening, an annoyance that reached an apex during Ra Ra Riot's set. Even the enabling-by-nature bar crowd started to tire of the lout by that time.

After a 50-minute set the band closed with a high-energy version of "Dying is Fine," left the stage, then returned quickly for a two-song encore in response to the audience's calls. While the audience may have demanded more, the sextet was obviously exhausted, and after the two songs, it slinked backstage. At that point I gathered my camera equipment so Katie and I could begin the drive back to Kansas City. An all-ages show and I still wouldn't make it home until after one o'clock. Oh the injustice. Oh my first-world problems.

Too Much Rock / 4027 Locust Street / KCMO 64110