Friday September 3rd, 1999 at Liberty Memorial
Park in Kansas City, MO
The Violent Femmes, Moby, Boom Boom Satellites, Janis Figure & The Creature Comforts.
For the last 10 years Kansas Citians have gotten together over Labor Day weekend to celebrate Kansas City, its people and its music. Almost 100,000 people, from the working poor in Parkville to the doctors in Overland Park, spend a weekend walking between exhibition booths filling plastic bags with free samples of antacids, cheese puffs and coupons good for a dollar off of steak sauce (10oz size or larger). Most feed their kids over-priced hotdogs, and nearly all of them sit on a blanket straining to see the headlining band 300 feet away on the main stage.
There is another group of people who come to Spirit Fest every year. They don't really care about $3.00 bratwurst or discounts on cellular service, they come for the new music stage. Spirit Fest's new music stage serves as a weekend home for the area's community of music fanatics, local musicians, entertainment writers and concert photographers. For three days they support friends, share information, take in performances by excellent local and regional acts, and basically do what it is that they enjoy. It is this community that I am a part of, and it is this community that I write for.
At four minutes after six, Lawrence, Kansas' The Creature Comforts started their set, beginning Spirit Fest 1999. In the next ten minutes they ran through four perfect pop songs that could have been from an unreleased 1978 Joe Jackson album. J.D. then left his keyboards and picked his sparkly silver Gibson Les Paul to add additional bite to another five. Chris' vocals were relaxed and confident as the band played a good mix of songs from their first CD as well as songs from their upcoming album, including the hit-before-release, Showboat.
Before they played, virtually no one had heard of Minnesota's Janis Figure, but afterwards everyone was carrying a copy of their CD. The agent who booked the band must have had a hard time selling them to the rest of the entertainment directors. After all, why book a sludgy hardrock band with a propensity for long, jamming, nearly-psychedelic numbers when those things are so very out of vogue? Why book a band for a family music festival who write songs about abusing Robitussin or whose Morrison-like singer fingers and pumps his crotch at the audience? What that booking agent knew and I didn't was that such a primal sound will speak to all fans of rock, and it certainly did to the appreciative New Rock stage audience.
As it got dark, the crowd's attention was forced to the lit stage and the large protection screens set up on either side of the stage. No one knew exactly what to expect from Tokyo's Boom Boom Satellites until Masayuki Nakano stood behind his wall of sequencers, synthesizers and keyboards to start the show with a thick drum 'n bass beat. A live drummer on an acoustic kit thickened the beat and Michiyuki Kawashima's guitar roared in, unifying both the rock and the electronica crowds who had gathered for the evening's headliners. This duality of rock-heavy bass lines (can you say "Sabbath"?) and distorted vocals layered over breakbeat, techno and even jazz rhythms was only one of the factors that kept everyone in the audience unexpectedly entertained--the other was the pure energy of Nakano. Whether he was working behind his rack of gear, dancing around the stage wearing hip waders or playing his Steinberger bass, he was always in motion, mouthing lyric samples, and directing the live instruments. Chalk up yet another American audience won over to the Boom Boom Satellites side.
It was quite an odd pairing for the headliners for this first evening of Spirit Fest. I'm sure the crowd that had come for Moby thought he should have been the headliner, while undoubtedly fans of the Violent Femmes believed if anyone deserved a headline spot it was these three men from Milwaukee who have been at it nearly 20 years with hardly a note of airplay. Although I wasn't sure if the promoter had the band order right before I saw the show, I was certain afterwards.
I watched backstage as Moby and his band stretched out and I wondered if they were preparing for a concert or a rugby match. Let's just say that it hasn't been since high school soccer practice that I have seen so many ways to limber up a hamstring. But from the time that the Lazer DJ introduced the band until the final strains of the last song, the entire band did not stop moving.
They opened up with Machete from the new album, an alternative tinged rocker that kept Moby close to the microphone but with their second song Why Can't It Stop?, Moby was free to move about, involve the crowd, and show off his considerable skills on the congas. Although in constant motion, he always focused the attention of the appreciative audience. Some bands lose themselves in the music, but for Moby's music to work it must include the active involvement of the audience.
Although Moby's interviews and album liner notes concern his progressive political and social views, only once did he hint at them during his performance. After announcing that there were a lot of sexy people - both men and wimmin - in the crowd, he continued "I'd go into more detail but this is a pretty conservative state." The audience cheered loudly, though I'm not sure they knew what they were applauding for. Call it concert frenzy.
Moby's set favored the high energy dance songs of his previous two albums, accented by two surprisingly old house numbers (Next is the E & Go) and four songs from the new album. Missing from his set were the "punk revival" songs from his Animal Rights ep such as his version of Mission of Burma's That's When I Reach for My Revolver, which he has played on other stops of the current tour.
While Moby's show focused on movement, energy, youth and the fans, the headlining performer took a different approach that had the band playing for their own satisfaction instead of the audience's, beginning as the three members of The Violent Femmes stood stiffly on stage and unassumingly waited for a cue to begin playing. The Femmes, as they are known to their fans, have been operating under the scope of popular music since their 1982 debut, impressing the fickle alternative music fans for nearly 20 years. In a genre where fans smell a sellout a mile away, The Femmes are one of the few bands with the integrity to carry old audiences while picking up new ones with a string of critically acclaimed albums.
Despite the radio attention given to later singles like American Music, it was the early material the crowd came to hear. And the band obliged them by playing no less than seven songs from the first album, and adding only a cut or two from each of the next five. To prove they didn't belong on the same stage with A Flock of Seagulls, Wang Chung, Rick Springfield and the other 80s has-beens scheduled to play this year's Spirit Fest, they included several new songs including I Swear It from the South Park Movie Soundtrack and another from their forthcoming album Freak Magnet.
As you might guess, after 20 years the band and their songs changed a bit. The "guitar solo" in Add It Up wasn't the recorded thrust of youthful energy, but a relaxed release of notes. The rebellious push and juvenile sneer to Kiss Off were all but missing. But for every minor disappointment in the set there was a high. Guitarist/vocalist Gordon Gaino seemed more indignant than ever when singing the not-approved-for-the-Bible-belt lyrics to Black Girls and Brian Ritchie's bass work was more adventurous than ever. And speaking of adventure - when the four members of The Horns of Dilemma joined the band on the stage with their assortment of squeaking and squawking horns things really got crazy - and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
The 1999 Spirit Fest had been kicked off with an evening accenting different elements of the music that moves us. Individually the five very different bands presented the audience with thoughtful musical artistry, showmanship, pure physical exuberance, rebellion and a fresh-faced desire. And like Kansas City itself, it all somehow fit together.