Monday nights are rough for touring bands. Crowds are typically small, and those that do come out to the bars are often there to drink the edge off of the work week, not to provide energetic feedback to the performers. As I entered The Riot Room, it appeared this show would suffer expectedly.
It was a bit after 8:00 when opening act Mr. History completed its laborious soundcheck. When one member asked the sound engineer what time the band would go on, he was shocked by the answer – "Now." With visual protest but little more, the drummer began pounding on her toms, signalling the twenty or so patrons in the club that it was time.
In a bit of irony, Mr. History seems to have very little in the way of history. There is no bio, or at least no functional one that might explain where the band came from, how long it has been around or even who is in the band. Instead there is only a blurb containing vague notions of a "midwest collective," and a ridiculously diverse list of genres and musical touchstones. As such, I'll be making up the details the band has kept from us. For example, I believe that the band is a religious cult that travels from town to town in the converted bus that its members live in, selling enormous vegetarian sandwiches and engaging in minor grift. I believe that they were once charged with kidnapping, but the DA in Sedalia couldn't make it stick, sending the long-haired cult leader's ego into the stratosphere.
Five minute into the band's set those megalomaniac tendencies came to the forefront as the frontman/guitarist/vocalist halted the band's set to berate those sitting at the back of the bar, declaring that he could hear them whispering during the "dynamic parts" of the band's songs. Jackass. Those who did come forward for the band were bombarded with the disparate elements celebrated in the band's official description. The heavily effected guitar was often trippy, channelling in a stoner shoegaze vibe, though in one song rampant finger taps told a different progressive rock story. The slapped and fingered bass definitely spelled funk when paired with tight drumming, but more often the drumming was scattershot and singularly inventive. Similarly each band member contributed lead vocals during the set, offering the audience the contrasting soulful tones of the drummer, the high thin voice of the guitarist, and the trained vibrato of the band's dedicated female vocalist. Separated into its musical components, the cosmic disconnect eagerly proffered by the band's official description was apparent, but once piled upon each other, there was nothing jarring, demanding, or all that interesting left. In truth, Mr. History is just a jam band loosely piloted by a diverse group of hippies. And just like your finger painting experiments as child, one too many colours leaves you with a putrid brown – one you were forced to defend as intentional, and one I'm sure the band will go to bat for as well. Me? I call bullshit, although the collective's non-performing members danced as if Jerry himself was pulling the strings. I hope the sandwiches are better.
For the week leading up to the show I'd followed Wampire on Twitter – I do this for all the bands I plan to cover in an effort to gain some context. In that week, I learned that Wampire like pot. A lot. That was the extent of my discovery; any other information about the band would have to come from its publicist.
Wampire is Portland, Oregon's Eric Phipps and Rocky Tinder; both play guitar, both provide vocals. To recreate the band's dense swirl of sound on stage, the duo has recruited bassist Cole Browning, drummer Andrew Meininger, and keyboardist Kevin Rafn. Live, each musician had his own role, adding his layer to the band's thick stew, though not necessarily interacting with the other musicians. Tinder's elongated vocals were heavily processed, losing their humanity, and becoming another instrument buried in the mix. Phipps's vocals were more recognizable, though his main focus was the multiple guitar solos that weaved through the entirety of some songs, and accented the rest. With simple drumming, a bass that played a truly supporting role, and keyboards that chimed colour, the band's music was heavy on atmosphere and a tad sluggish. Finding melody was particularly tricky at first, making the noisy, feedback squall of "Spirit Forest," from the band's only album Curiousity (Polyvinyl, 2013), an easy-to-appreciate moment in the band's set. As the set continued I began to pierce the band's noisy veil, discovering the pure pop in songs like "Train."
While I was slow to discover the pop underpinnings, the rest of the one hundred person audience (including Kyle Rausch from the similarly inclined Shy Boys) was locked in for the entirety of the band's long 50-minute set. This focus was particularly curious as Phipps made little effort to connect with the audience, and Tinder did even less. I wasn't sure if the buzz(ed) band was just exceptionally high, or if was it living up to its reputation as smug hipsters. Either way I found it off-putting, particularly when it continued through the headliner's set as well.
It was 10:15 when Chicago's Smith Westerns took the stage, immediately launching into "End of the Night" from 2011's Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum). The song is a simple, bright, rocking power-pop number that recalls all the best elements of the genre. Like the best of the band's material, the song has a righteous guitar solo played by Max Kakacek that commands every bit of attention in the room. Disappointingly these obvious odes to T. Rex are played down in the band's latest album (Soft Will, Mom + Pop, 2013), which provided seven of its songs to the band's twelve-song set. There is growth and craftsmanship in these new songs, careful editing and refinement, and even a bit of cerebral development. While these can be fine developments for a songwriter, unfortunately the band's performance has followed this same ark. Brothers Cullen (vocals, guitar) and Cameron (bass) Omori were tired and staid, as if suffering from the extended hangover created by the band's first two albums and the complete (on stage and off) mimicry of their glam rock hereos (Bowie, Bolan). Cullen Omori barely spoke to the audience, and when he did he was rattled, misspeaking and then hurriedly repeating himself. The band was spent before taking the stage.
Sure, Smith Westerns still delivered a proficient performance, rife with catchy choruses and memorable rock riffs, but the quintet (the trio of permanent members was joined by touring keyboardist Ziyad Asrar and wide-eyed drummer Julien Ehrlich) rushed through its 45-minute set, as if it had somewhere else it needed to be. In fact, Cullen Omori went as far as to rule out even the possibility of an encore before playing the closing song ("Varsity"). There was no obligatory "come see us after the show" or even a plea to buy merchandise, just the contractually obligated completion of the set.
And that ended the night. Three bands seemingly unhappy to spend their Monday night in front of a large Kansas City crowd – a receptive crowd that had come out intending to bask in the glow of bands on the rise, but instead got slighted by the performers' hubris. Monday nights are rough for touring bands, but on this night, it was the fans that suffered for it.