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Tuesday September 20th, 2022 at miniBar in Kansas City, MO
Smokes Let's Go, Junkyard Royalty, North by North, & Saving Miles Lemon

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There was never a busier Tuesday night in the Kansas City music scene. Two separate shows built around bands who had their heydays in the ‘90s attracted most of city’s attention, but just down the street in a small basement venue (which happens to be UP a long flight of stairs), four bands still making their names also played a show. That seemed like the place for me.

The night opened with Saving Miles Lemon. The band is the project of Mig Silva-Leon [did you see what he did there?]. In the studio, they create lush compositions built on synthesizers, drum machines, effects-drenched guitars, and processed vocals. It’s cotton candy and paisley clouds. I was prepared to lose myself in the swirling psych pop but Silva-Leon had another idea for the live version of their band – one that discounts the project’s chillwave tendencies and amplifies its psych rock undertones. The live show starts with Silva-Leon’s guitar. It’s plasticized with the sixteen effects pedals situated on the two boards at Silva-Leon’s feet. They play constant melodic leads. Silva-Leon’s unnatural tones are matched by the alien tonality from James Wiltfang’s synthesizer. Nothing in nature has ever made those sounds. Bassist Jacob Frisbie isn’t shy. He wiggled about the stage, coaxing out active basslines using his funky fingers. Drummer Zeke Bockelman kept it pop, though he did get a big rock intro to kick off a song somewhere in the middle of set. Together the quartet drifted in and out of styles flawlessly, always offering up something interested. Silva-Leon’s vocals are high, not far from the falsetto of Shy Boys’ Collin Rausch. This lightness floats nicely in both realizations of their band. Their banter was easy and relaxed as they worked the small room that was seeded with friends all lining the stage. The final song of the band’s thirty-minute set combined a big riff, psychedelia, and pop to land in the same spot Stone Roses had so much success with years ago. The result was out of this world.

Next up were touring juggernauts North by North. The duo is from Chicago, but it’s likely they could apply for citizenship in just about any city in the country. The years the band has spent on the road have honed its DIY operation such that it knows exactly what it wants from every venue. They’ve become accomplished sound engineers, lighting techs, merchandisers, and publicists. It’s a pleasure to work with a band who knows what it’s doing, and North by North are positively punctilious.

The band played a short 25-minute set of music too pop to be punk, and too punk to be pop. We can call it power pop, but that’s not it either. Nate Girard sings. He’s a crooner with a clear voice. He plays guitar as well. Lots of leads. Lots of note-bending solos. His counterpart Kendra Blank plays drums. She gives him the room to roam by holding down steady beats and tossing fills in during the transitions. She hits her drums hard. She also provides backing vocals that lift each song. Songs that are catchy, with memorable lyrics, memorable riffs, memorable hooks. Girard handled most of the banter. He’s funny and casual. If he’s the play-by-play guy, Blank is the color commentator, jumping in with the spice. For example, when Girard said it was hot, Blank told the story of Cleveland gig played in a sweltering attic within viewing distance of kids splashing in an unattainable pool. Throughout the years, I’ve noted other North by North regulars at the band’s Kansas City shows. Sadly, that audience is the older sort that was likely off watching other bands that night. But while the young crowd may have been first timers, they were game for the audience participation requested during the band’s closer. In fact, Girard seemed taken aback, exclaiming “You guys are angry!” after hearing the level of effort that the fresh audience put forth. But this was just the appetizer. The main course was coming next.

Three months ago, when I first saw Junkyard Royalty, the band was a mystery to me. I noted in my write up that I’d slowly get my answers. It’s going slower than expected. The band is still frontwoman Richie Rich. Her songs. Her mission. While any combination or absence of players could constitute Junkyard Royalty, her backing band has stabilized around guitarists Miguel Silva-Leon (pulling double duty tonight) and Nate Morley, bassist Garrett, and drummer Luca Morpurgo. Trumpeter Caden Smith has joined the fray since I last saw the act. True to form, the sextet could (and did) perform absolutely any sort of music from punk to dance pop and it would still be Junkyard Royalty. Richie Rich has no filter, but also no limits.

The band opened with two beloved songs that remain unreleased except in TikTok snippets captured by fans. Rich’s screams were clipped by the PA during “Cowboy.” Her voice is unexpectedly strong, and her moves are pro. She’s only twenty. A good chunk of the band’s fanbase is similarly underage, and thus, barred from entry. So during the moment in “Bottles,” when a dozen girls would normally be bouncing and screaming “Oh my God. I’m gonna die!” the energy just wasn’t there. Sure, there were some shouters, but not nearly enough. Afterwards the set slowed down. One slow song followed by second that Rich warned was “another depressing song.” Later in the set she picked up her guitar, adding a third to the mix. The resulting band is big and full, and curiously straightforward rock & roll. Morpurgo and Silva-Leon even got solos. But it was somehow the trumpet of Smith that held a starring role by both blending the other instruments and blaring melodies.

The energy returned late in the set when Rich set down her guitar for a fiery cover of Turnstiles’ “Holiday.” It was low stakes fun and Rich danced just as much as she leapt and stomped and kicked about the stage. The finale was similarly large and ended with Rich standing on Morpurgo’s kick drum. The audience asked for more, but Junkyard Royalty were not the evening’s last act – merely its headliner.

It was Smokes Let’s Go who would wrap up the night – possibly by request of North by North. If so, the touring act didn’t do the quintet any favors. Kansas City has trended to four band bills lately. It has also trended that everyone leaves after the third act. So Smokes Let’s Go shouldn’t take it personally that they started their set to only four people. If anything, they should be proud that there were ten when they ended their short twenty-minute.

The band trades in pop/rock. Middle of the road stuff – not too much of any one thing. Maybe a hint of roots rock in one song, maybe some ‘90s alternative verve in another. Bradford Miller provides vocals. He’s often tethered to his microphone stand. He sometimes raps in a way that felt a little too close to Barenaked Ladies. He was joined by guitarists Nick King and Ryan Traistaru, bassist Nick Rogers, and drummer Jason Rabuck. King played some fancy solos. Rogers made some excellent bass player faces. The layering of the two guitars was effective. They’re a respectable lot, but there wasn’t much more to their show – it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for an empty room. Wisely, the band played a truncated five-song set that, in the best of moments, was bouncy, earnest, and poppy with a pleasant Front Bottoms-esque appeal.

I left the show with the sour taste of anti-climax in my mouth. It only got more acrid when I looked at my phone full of messages and videos from friends at the other shows. One had the best night of her life and was scheming to follow the band on the rest of its reunion tour around the country. Had I made the right choice? I didn’t have to think long to remember that I had seen those other bands in small rooms during their heydays – when they were new and exciting. Seeing them now wouldn’t be the same. However, there’s always another crop of new and exciting bands in the small clubs, scrapping to be heard. And that’s where I want to be.