Too Much Rock
Pics+Video Podcasts Singles About
Friday February 2nd, 2024 at The Bottleneck in Lawrence, KS
The Roseline, Empty Moon, & Suzannah Johannes

Lawrence, Kansas is a college town. Twenty thousand students come and go every four years. The turnover brings fresh ideas to town, as well as a lack of continuity that keeps those ideas from growing very large. It's that way in most college towns, anyway. But Lawrence is also a cozy sort of town. It's small and homey, and it has collected people from all over. Ones that were passing through, found it suited them, and then just stayed. Friend groups are tight and musicians shockingly supportive of one another. Lawrence is full of good people and stable communities if you know where to look. The Bottleneck is usually not that place. It's been a fixture in the live music scene since the '80s, but it has to chase the tastes of the students. It's not often that the bar is turned over to the locals on a Friday night. It's not often that it's filled entirely with faces I know, ones from the communities that exist outside of the ebb and flow of the university. So, this promised to be a good night.

The evening began with Suzannah Johannes. I know she's got plenty of history in Lawrence, but I'm not one who can recount it. I do know that her star really started to climb in the late '00s but then she seemed to disappear. Maybe there's a story there. Or maybe there isn't – life can just be that way sometimes. But seeing Johannes back on a big stage was nice. Even better to see her with a big, rehearsed band that featured some familiar faces, including Steve Swyers (lead guitar), Sean McCue (bass), Jeff Stolz (drums), & Nate Holt (keyboards). Like so many musicians in the area, you can link any of them to any other musician in town with a jump or two. Johannes led the quintet through a long eleven-song set of mostly original tracks, many dating back fifteen years to her last releases. But the songs that were then folk and stark were now bigger, poppier, and buoyant. Some verged on twee when Stolz's snapping drums (usually no more than snare) kicked up, or when McCue's bass added touches of hip-shaking funk. Johannes, however, is not a bouncy player. Her rhythm guitar work was limited to simple foundational strums with Swyers doing most of the melodic lifting. Her vocals were similarly sleepy. Not languid, but cozy. Is cottagecore a musical genre? If so, could this be it? Or maybe it's just time to revive cuddlecore. Either way, let's hope this is a sign of a reemerged Johannes and that we'll finally see a follow up to her 2008 debut EP.

The mood didn't need to shift much for Empty Moon. The band is led by Brendan Hangauer. Like Johannes, Hangauer appeared in the late 2000s with local solo project called Fourth of July. Soon it became a band. A really good one. Around 2013 he decided to leave Lawrence, so he broke up the band and started Empty Moon. Then Lawrence did what it often does and Hangauer came back. Now that solo project is on stage as a six-piece. A really good one. Tonight Hangauer was supported by familiar faces – his brothers Patrick and Kelly Hangauer (bass and keyboards respectively), Mike Tuley (guitar), Luke Welsh (drums), and Mike Stover (pedal steel). Hangauer's songs are smart. His lyrics poignant and full of knowing winks. It's indie pop with plenty of bounce (see "500 Friends") but frequently draped with a folk or even country longing. Think David Berman. That's some Mount Rushmore-sized praise. The nine-song set featured a couple from the project's 2014 debut, a couple more from the 2019 follow-up, and the rest were new. "Mr. September" is a winner. Closer "This is Bad," written during the pandemic, brought back the feels. The band was loose and light. A fun set of smiles, easy laughs, and direct connection to the large audience. Most of the audience knew Brendan Hangauer. Actually, most of it knew everyone on stage. Honestly, most everyone knew everyone in the room. It was one of those crowds. You know, a good one.

The night would reach its apex with The Roseline, the long-running alt-country project of Colin Halliburton. You'll not be surprised to hear it was born in the mid '00s as well. Like I said, it's a close scene. Lately he's been backed by a dynamite quartet consisting of Bradley McKellip (lead guitar), Colin Jones (bass), Jim Piller (drums), and Heidi Gluck (keys and backing vocals). Halliburton's voice is a thing of beauty. Like a pair of boots broken in perfectly and now ready to get on with living. His lyrics are touching, capturing moments of life that ring true in either their joy or pain or, often, both. The songs are old friends. You'll not be surprised by where Halliburton takes a composition and there's nothing much new about what he does, but he does it exceptionally well. As good as anyone. Grammy good. The band sounded great. Arrangements twinkled and sparkled with every instrument serving the whole and yet, still shining. McKellip took the solos. He's an amazing player who has mastered both the emotional and technical capabilities of his instrument. His solo in "Seven Hundred Second Chances" (from 2021's Constancy) earned whoops and applause, but it wasn't his only star turn of the night.

Maybe it's important to note that this night served as the launch party for band's new album, Keystone of the Heart. To cement that, six of the album's nine songs made an appearance, with the upbeat "Hot Dice" closing out the band's initial set. It's a great song with a big hook that transcends genre. Then the band moved directly into a slapstick-plagued encore starting with "Paper Plane." During the song, Haliburton's guitar strap broke, and members of his band and the audience all tried (unsuccessfully) to help. He refused to stop despite being forced to squat with the guitar on his knee throughout the song. Already bitten, Haliburton sounded dubious as he explained the band would try a cover as their final number. With some help from guest Mike Stover's twangy pedal steel goodness, the band shuffled through George Strait's "Here for a Good Time," ending the gig.

Afterwards, I smiled and waved and nodded my bare minimum goodbyes to nearly everyone I knew, trying hard not to interrupt their conversations about unseasonably early growth in flower beds, school band fundraisers, how good it was to see so many of their friends out, or how long it has been since they were last in The Bottleneck. Finding community at The Bottleneck is hit or miss, but on this night, it was a hit.