My time is not my own. For the next year it belongs to a mid-sized company in New Hampshire that makes its money transforming your trash into electricity. Every Friday afternoon I leave their offices, drive one hour south, and catch a plane back to Kansas City. Sunday I repeat the journey in reverse. My life is the 44-hour sliver between the two events. In those hours I must remind my wife why she should stay married to me, play ball with an attention-starved 10lb westie-poo, and (hopefully) sleep twice. If I spend my Saturday night at a rock show, I've not only given my only free night to a group of musicians, but my Sunday morning to editing photographs of them, and my Sunday afternoon to writing the circumstances of the night. To the bands of Kansas City, all I can say is that you better bring everything you have to that show, because I'm giving you everything I got.
I kissed my wife goodnight just before 10pm and rode over to the Record Bar. While the order the three local bands would perform in was somewhat of a mystery, everyone agreed the show would begin at 10:00 – everyone except the soundman whom I overheard making a pact with The Latenight Callers' Krysztof Nemeth that the band would start at 10:15 and play a 45-minute set. It would be a late night.
At 10:15 a four-piece version of The Latenight Callers took the stage. I suppose it had been some time since I had seen the band, as second vocalist/guitarist Ellen O'Hayer was not only absent from the stage, but she has also been completely erased from the band's photographs, biography, and immaculate online branding. In most bands, audiences would only assume O'Hayer moved away, refocused her energies, or suffered those oft-cited artistic differences, but with the cool noir of The Latenight Callers, O'Hayer's absence may have involved a poisoned tumbler of scotch, and a long 3am drive across the barren Kansas plains in an old car with a big trunk. It's easy to let your imagination roam when listening to The Latenight Callers, and that hasn't changed since pairing down to a quartet.
In this new configuration the band's has become sleeker. Electronic percussion that previously served as a clumsy analog to acoustic drums, now provide deep, hypnotizing beats free to explore their own advantages. Drummer/keyboard Nick Combs has also added a small, upright, acoustic kit with a deep floor tom, two small toms, and several cymbals. When elements of rock are called for, he turns to this kit adding live percussion over the electronic base. The result is a game-changer. The purred vocals of Julie Berndsen lurk just above the percussion, half-lit by its shadow, yet made all the more visible for it. She's a sensual frontwoman who not only tempts the audience with the forbidden apple, but also makes them watch while she polishes it on her tight pencil skirt first. Behind Berndsen are bassist Gavin Mac and guitarist (and co-founder) Krysztof Nemeth – the former still slinky but never obvious, the latter now muted. Only during his solos does Nemeth's guitar come into focus, the rest of the time, it seems to have no place in a down-tempo soundscape that has inched ever closer to Massive Attack or Portishead. While my first inclination was to imagine how Nemeth's guitar could regain its voice, I soon began wondering if a constant guitar presence was even needed. The Latenight Callers sit at a crossroads, and I'm excited to see where things go next.
Despite the plethora of electronic gizmos used to augment and build The Capsules' sound, the once-local, now Dallas-based, dream pop trio began its set only fifteen minutes after the previous band left the stage. Still, it was late, and the band had made the nine-hour drive up to Kansas City for this one gig. The miles showed. Although the band's sound is built on waves of blissed out pop, a live performance should always be delivered with verve. Instead, The Capsules delivered a low-energy set that failed to engage the audience. Vocalist/guitarist Julie Shields still provided her high, soaring vocals, sharp and steady, husband and bassist Jason Shields still sent the band's gorgeous washes cascading into the audience, drummer Kevin Trevino continued to demonstrate how a drummer can be technical and active without overplaying his band, yet there was something off. Was it Trevino's new smaller and subdued drum kit? Was it the odd mix of the band's (delightful) video single "Symmetry?" Was it the chugging cover of "I Will Survive" that seemed to mock the resolve of the original? Was it an audience that refused to give any energy back to the performers? Whatever the case, there have been better shows by The Capsules, and I began to wonder if I had made the best use of my Saturday night.
Noting the thinning crowd, and sensing a shift, The Slowdown quickly set up for its headlining set. What the band failed to realize is that it was rapidly approaching the venues 1:00am curfew. Or maybe it just didn't care.
While The Slowdown have been around Kansas City for several years, the band's current incarnation is somewhat new, having moved from an angular indie rock band to a very danceable electronic band with its last album Digital Gold. Drummer Drew Little's disco beats defined most of the band's songs with vocalist Sam Hoskins' Daft Punk-styled keyboards battling with the wah-wah funk guitar of Josh Johnson for focus. Bassist Jordan Smith seemed oblivious to the war being waged around him, possibly a result of the headphones he (and the rest of the band) wore. I listened carefully to understand the band's intent, yet all the while I was simply waiting for the soundman's call. It came only ten minutes into the band's set. The band promised only one more but then slid in another two or three songs afterwards despite the bright houselights that now outshone the cannons focused on the band.
As was the case only a band earlier, I stood at the edge of the stage wondering what was wrong. Was it the light, the late hour, the emptied club, or my established aversion to funk? Was my heart not in it? Was the band's? Whatever the case, I was looking for more than I got. So when The Slowdown were finally driven from the stage, I packed up my gear, waved noncommittal goodbyes to my acquaintances, and headed toward home thinking that everyone is going to have to try harder next weekend.