It's an old saw, but truly, you had to be there. I could write a book and still not capture enough of the show to adequately describe the scene. And since you don't want to read that book – and I don't have time to write it – we'll shoot for a more modest version with caveat that it will indeed be a poor substitute.
Vivo Live Events (or possibly just Vivo) is in a strip mall in the acme of suburbia at Metcalf and 119th in Overland Park, Kansas. It's an unlikely place for a club. It's an unlikely club. For some reason I thought it'd be bigger. It wasn't. It has a capacity of 200, plenty of high-top tables, booths, and fried appetizers. There's a PA with a busted speaker, inadequate stage lighting, and between bands the club played music from some free service littered with commercials. By the end of the night I still wasn't sure what to think of the club, but I knew it was both better and worse than I had imagined. And I knew I'd be back.
As advertised, the first band of the five-act bill began at 7:00. Locals What is Within have been through a few line ups, and dabbled with a few metal subgenres, but as singer Dakota Sanders took the stage in a backwards baseball hat, gauged ears, full sleeves and roared "Get the f*ck up!", I knew I'd be getting a heavy dose of metalcore. He alternated his growls with clean vocals both sung and occasionally rapped. He mostly paced the stage, choking the microphone with both hands when delivering his screed. There were no dramatic jumps or kicks, but his wireless mic allowed him to trapse through the audience. Seven-string guitarist Jeff Agnitsch also found himself in the pit thanks to his wireless gear. His guitar churned heavily throughout the half-hour set, with hammered notes and heavy metal sweeps coming in for the solos. At the back of the stage was Thomas Henson, beating the hell out of an enormous metal kit. He contained his long hair in a beanie, wore his own band's shirt, was viciously tattooed, and blew clouds from his vape pen between songs. The stage lights framed him wonderfully, creating stunning visuals. Sadly, the lights only put harsh highlights on Sanders, and left Agnitsch and five-string bassist Ellis Mays forgotten in the shadows. Still, the fog that rolled in across the corner stage was a nice give for an opening act. Before the last song Sanders announced, "This one is another heavy one – it's about kicking someone's ass. Let's go!" The song didn't result in any beat downs, or instigate a mosh pit, but it did keep the substantial audience of friends-as-fans that lined the stage nodding and head banging. It was, after all, the night's first set. It's important to pace oneself.
Twenty minutes and a bar pretzel later, local quartet Khaos Theory were up. The band dwells in my genre blind spot, proffering a sort of emotional alternative metal propped with electronic backing tracks. The band's cover of "Can You Feel My Heart" by Bring Me the Horizon probably tells you more of the band's intent than I could. Vocalist KJ Khaotic (nee Johnson) fronts the foursome, and she put on quite a show. She dropped to her knees several times, her hands stretched to grasp for the ether throughout the night, and she introduced songs using the classic, out-of-breath, rambling hardcore style. Her screams were solid, and her gruff, throaty vocals fun, but her clean vocals were often rough despite in-ear monitors. That's a tough break since the clean vocals generally held the melody. Thankfully most of the clean vocals came from the backing tracks that provided everything from vocal lines to four-on-the-floor techno beats to keyboards. Guitarist Calli Dressen also provided live vocals, meshing well with Johnson. Both Dressen and bassist Dylan "Pickles" Miller played it straightforward, offering few leads and no memorable solos. The hooks came from the tracks. Drummer Nate Sparks was a busy drummer on a big kit playing big crashing half times, expansive fills, and occasional moments of complicated trickery. The quartet left me scratching my head, but the rest of the audience was up front bouncing along and waving their hands in the air. I'll need a second taste before I'm prepared to join them.
With the locals done, the mood shifted. The touring support act that followed took a long time to dial in the monitors, sending local acts and their fans went outside to unwind. When the band called for the audience to return, very few did. As the kids would say, the vibe was now off.
Owls & Aliens is from the inland high desert of Oregon where small populations make for strange bedfellows. In this case, the five piece seems to have sampled from nearly every musical style to build their own aural attack. I heard a lot of hard rock and grunge, but what you'll recognize probably depends on your own musical touchstones. The band is fronted by Justin Carter whose vocals shift to accommodate each song. He delivered clean vocals, high falsetto vocals, and typically, raspy, back-of-the-throat rock vocals that recalled Dan McCafferty of Nazareth. He worked hard to inject energy back into the room, as did lead guitarist Jeffry Maryinez who came from the showman school of '80s metal, constantly flinging his long hair, contorting his body, and bending his guitar while he laid in taps and whammy bar-powered dive bombs. The remaining three members' yeoman work never found to the spotlight (often quite literally as the band spent most of the set bathed in a dim red light). Still, rhythm guitarist Travis Siebecke did take a turn on lead vocals where he delivered the set highlight, as did bouncing, barefoot bassist Nicholi Ohbronovich who added the harshest growls, and drummer Dakotah Webb who added high, clean backing vocals (think Iron Maiden?) alongside his crashing drums. Eventually the band's efforts paid off, winning back a dozen fans who created the night's only push pit just as the band wrapped up its half-hour set.
Like many of the evening's acts, Living Dead Girl has chosen to live a stylistic dichotomy. In fact, reading the band's press releases, one might believe its entire appeal comes from melding noxious pop with metal. It starts with "tracks." In what was becoming an unfortunate trend, the foursome spent a long time working with the sound engineer to get the tracks, vocals, and instruments correctly mixed for the monitors. This was vital for not only frontwoman Molly Rennick's in-ear monitors, but also the stage monitors that would serve as guitarist Jonni Law and bassist Jordan Storring's only sonic options as neither play with amplifiers, but instead plug in directly to the PA. It's a curious choice as heavy British tube amps are the calling card of metal, but, like I said, the band lives in duotone.
Rennick is fun frontperson. At first blush, she's a gothic pin-up with long black hair, extreme makeup, and full sleeves of tattoos. Her all-black outfit with mesh peekaboo cutouts and a short skirt left the audience expecting a succubus, but that's not what they got. Instead Rennick is a bubbling performer with an honest and smiling personality – both of which came across in her conversational banter with the small but eager crowd. She's the Canadian girl next door, equally obsessed with Elvira and Britney Spears. It's a combination so complete that the band's mid-set cover of Avril Lavigne's "Sk8er Boi" was almost too dead-on.
Rennick's stage performance was similarly bifurcated as she either sang with arms outstretched as if in an earnest performance of Godspell, or screamed aggressively, doubled over, banging her head. Aware of the score, both Storring and Law were restrained – aside from occasionally swapping their positions at the sides of the stage, they the show to Rennick. Drummer Steve Haining's live kit provided some propulsion, but the interest came from the full backing tracks he controlled. It contained synth swells, keyboard melodies, pop percussion, backing vocals, and more. However, the more organic the band became, the better the performance. This was particularly true when Rennick's voice fell flat singing along with the quiet pop backing tracks. It was a letdown remedied entirely by the hair-raising screams unleashed when she was surrounded by the riff-fortified metal of her backing band. The band's publicist may be pushing the band's equal balance of pop and metal, but live, the metal won hands down.
Living Dead Girl had brought everyone back into the room, and most to the edge of the stage. The club was far from capacity (a surreptitious peak at the doorman's tally counter showed 56 paid), but it was an energetic crowd. I find a show with a small devoted fanbase is generally more enjoyable than a show with hundreds, but that math is a hard sell for a tour trying to stay on the road – especially one with a curiously large support crew including managers and drivers. To make up the difference, the merch tables set up at the back of the room were busy. There were t-shirts and CDs of course. Socks and hats and posters too. And then a host of oddities including a guitar. Each of which was ready to be autographed by the band, and there was a queue.
The tour's headlining act was Raven Black. I suspect there is a long and interesting history behind the band, but, again, I've already written too much. I'm sure, however, that it starts with vocalist "Raven" Cox and her husband, drummer "Muppet" (aka Ryan Cox). The band's "dark metal carnival" is one of the duo's many creative efforts, combining the various theatrical, musical, and visual interests the duo share. The current live line up is completed by guitarist Maezi Kacey and bassist "King Zabb" (aka Nathaniel Zaborac). Broadminded fans may know this duo from their work in the extreme trap act "Scythe Gang 666." The duo's multimedia interests seem to line up well with that of Raven and Muppet, resulting in a stage show unlike any other you're likely to come across.
The four band members took the stage around 10:40 behind heavy makeup. Raven's face was painted white with black stitches drawn to hold her together. Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. But rather than a tall collection of gangly limbs, Raven was petite even in her high platform sneakers. Even in the enormous striped clown costume puffed and padded until it cinched at ruffled wrists and ankles. We're dealing with an evil clown this tour. One not far from that other dark carnival inhabited by Insane Clown Posse. The connection is not accidental, as King Zabb has directed videos for ICP, and the band has played the Gathering of the Juggalos.
Like Rennick before her, Raven is the focal point of the band. She stomps and parades around the stage, stopping at a mysterious box at the back of the stage to draw a new prop for each song. I recall a noose, a hula hoop, a hat, a paper fan, a parasol, and a masquerade mask all highlighted during the band's fourteen-song set. Maezi provided her own show, moving from side to side on the stage, propping a leg up on the monitor to tease the crowd with her scandalously short skirt, and flicking her tongue whenever a camera was pointed at her. Her eight-string guitar offered few leads or solos, and only a handful of memorable riffs. Instead, it provided the chugging undercurrent, that along with Zabb, provided the basis for the band's alternative metal fare. Muppet's live drumming was full of accents and cymbals, with substantial backing tracks happily handling the more mundane percussion.
While other acts struggled with the monitors during quiet moments, Raven did not. Her voice was solid as it moved through cleanly sung passages, rapped cadences, and down to inhumanly low croaked noises that were intentionally unnerving. Between songs Raven was relaxed and fun, explaining the intent behind several songs, recognizing the tour's drivers and tour managers, and thanking the other acts. There may have only been two dozen people in the audience, by the time the band completed its 55-minute set, but Raven Black performed every minute of it, rewarding those that had come out.
After the set, I packed up my camera bag and started toward the door. When I spied Raven, I thought I would explain who I was shooting for and toss her a Too Much Rock button to let her where to look for coverage, but as soon as I approached her, I was engulfed by a warm confusing hug. And that was the night in a nutshell. An odd club in an odd location hosting an odd tour featuring odd bands and every bit of it friendly and enjoyable. And if that doesn't make any sense to you, well, I guess you had to be there.