For months, the Sheer Mag concert on my calendar has been a beacon of hope. When anyone asked what show I was excited about, it always got first billing. There haven't been many bands in the last few years whose songs have excited me more, and my single past experience seeing the band live was amazing. My anticipation was at an all-time high as I arrived at the club pointlessly (but predictably) early.
Local openers Nancy Boys were allotted 30-minutes for its set. This made frontman Jesse Dickerhoof laugh. The punk band started 30 minutes late and somehow still finished on time. Figure that one out. During that time warp, Dickerhoof shouted undecipherable vocals while he paced the floor, often flexing and shouting to the rafters, more hardcore than punk. The band's two guitarists just sawed away. There were no solos. Probably no leads. The rhythm section was fast. Precision wasn't important. The band's songs are short, so short that repairing a kick pedal took nearly as long as the rest of the set. The five-piece chose to set up on the floor, away from stage lights, microphones, and monitors, to be closer to its fans. Two or three dozen obliged the band by forming a semi-circle around it, but while the musicians trashed about, the audience remained somber. Curious for locals seeing a local band.
Ten minutes later The Whiffs stood on the stage bathed in sickly green lights — maybe Nancy Boys were right to play on the floor. But the Whiffs aren't a punk band, and while its sloppy, garage-born power pop plays well anywhere, the band's harmonies are best when its rotating cast of three vocalists are planted near stage monitors. The Kansas City's band's 30-minute set included most of the songs from its demo-turned-first-EP, joined by just as many new songs earmarked for future releases. My favorite of the lot is "Dream About Judy" with its muscular power chord introduction and its explosive chorus practically shouted by all three vocalists. The song sounded particularly good at the Bottleneck, where Rory Cameron's normally slurred vocals were instead strong and clear, and his twelve-string (actually eleven, due to an unexpected snap in the middle of the set) rang vibrantly in the mix. Despite an uncharacteristically serious stage presence (normally sets are defined by constant jocular conversation with friends in the audience), the band was feeling good, sharing atypical smiles throughout the night, and especially during the final number when drummer Jake Cardwell pushed the quartet through an exceptionally fast version of "She Lies."
The third leg of the night was manned by Bloomington Indiana's Laffing Gas. The band keeps a curiously low social media profile (there seems to be a certain amount of Midwestern suspicion emanating from Bloomington punks), but if you search YouTube you'll find digital versions of the band's cassettes uploaded by its guitarist. Listen to the band's self-titled cassette, and in 5:42 you can hear five songs of lo-fi '80s punk that sits firmly between West Coast skate punk and the isolated Midwestern punk that grew feral in that era. Live, that second notion played out as freshly-shorn singer Miles Grimmer stalked the stage, intense and pissed off, while bassist Damion Schiralli and guitarist Kora Puckett faced drummer Justin Hatton at the rear of the stage forming in impenetrable huddle. During this set, the previously sedate audience was infiltrated by dancers who performed the low, slow, and slinky serpentine skank the region's punks favor. There were no flying fists or real danger as the all-male crew made its way back and forth across the pit, but it was a reassuring sign of life. Laffing Gas ended its set with an expanded version of "Don't Ask Me" from the scene-report compilation cassette 10 Golden Bloomington Hits that showcased Puckett's ability to sculpt feedback, and the band's capacity to expand beyond simple, powerful jabs.
I said that I had seen Sheer Mag once before, but don't go looking for photos or video on the website. It was dark and crowded and chaotic and I put away my camera and I danced with strangers and it sounded like crap and I hadn't been so sweaty or happy at a show in years. The difference between that Blind Tiger show in Kansas City, and this Bottleneck show in Lawrence was unfathomable.
Fifty fans assembled at the front of the stage as the six (more on that in a bit) members of Philadelphia's Sheer Mag completed its soundcheck. It sounded good. It sounded good all night. Frontwoman Tina Halladay's vocals were front and center with just the right amount of grit. Although Halladay often hides behind walls of lo-fi distortion in the studio, the Bottleneck soundman made sure everyone knew that she's got a set of pipes. The three guitars blended nicely, whether it was rhythm guitarist Matt Palmer, lead guitarist Kyle Seely, or tourist guitarist Kora Puckett of Laffing Gas pulling double duty. Of course, "lead" and "rhythm" were pointless signifiers as both played leads and both took solos — either separately or in wonderful twin guitar tandem. Hart Seely's bass was bright and surprisingly funky, something not typically heard in the band's recorded work. Finally, new drummer Cameron Wisch slid into the established band without a hitch, but drumming for Sheer Mag isn't complex task: play big, play loud, have fun.
Although bathed in the same unfortunate static green stage lights, I was happy for my view of Sheer Mag this time around. During my last outing, I would have not seen the scowl that Halladay wore throughout the set, the contorted faces made by Kyle Seely when he reached high up his fretboard for a solo, or the way Palmer let his guitar hang limply when he was called upon to contribute keyboards. However, that was mostly it. There wasn't a stage show, and I don't recall any banter aside from a quick "Thank you" as each song ended. Was this the result of a band awkwardly moving from punk spaces to bar stages? An off night? Or was the small comatose audience to blame? Are Sheer Mag fans now the college kids who stand politely, respecting each other's personal spaces, silently mouthing the lyrics to themselves? I'd blame the New York Times/NPR effect (is that a thing?) if I had seen my tote-bag carrying peers, but it was a school night and they hadn't made the trek at all. While three or four young women tried to inject energy, dancing with each other next to the stage, it wasn't contagious, and soon their effort was expended, returning the crowd to its stasis.
Afterwards I talked to someone else who had been at the Kansas City show. He recalled that he was hoisted into the air, passed to the stage, and didn't notice that he had lost his glasses until he was already hanging upside down from the exposed water pipes over the stage. But this wasn't the show that Lawrence got, because it wasn't the show that Lawrence created. Maybe the Bottleneck audience was confused by the band's melodic classic rock cloak, never understanding that Sheer Mag is actually a DIY punk band. Maybe they didn't know that the punk compact says band and audience are one, and the scene lives or dies based on combined effort. Whatever the cause, Lawrence needs to do better next time. The Lawrence punks deserve better, the band deserves better, we all deserve better.