During these trying times, Too Much Rock is happy to endorse Lemonade Park as the only venue for live music in Kansas City. Lemonade Park is an outdoor West Bottoms pop-up conceived by the folks at Record Bar and Voltaire. It's expansive, it's contactless, and safety is a priority. I'm on the overly cautious side, but I feel comfortable there in my own camp chair, drinking my own water, outside and far from anyone else. Other groups may make themselves a bit too comfortable at picnic tables, but it's easy to stay well clear of them and tsk them from a safe distance.
I've been to the venue a handful of times, and with each visit I'm grateful for the hint of comforting normalcy that it offers. Familiar faces (or portions of familiar faces anyway) are a welcome sight, and Lemonade Park draws out so many of the scene regulars that had previously been AWOL. But familiarity is not just about the fans seated at the venue, but also the bands on stage. Friends and compatriots. Especially this bill. With so much chaos in 2020, it's nice to settle in with bands and musicians I've seen on KC stages for over twenty years. We'll worry about pushing boundaries later — for now I'm happy under the sonic equivalent of a weighted blanket.
The night began with Wonderful Moments. The duo features Mike Myers on vocals and drums and Jerrod Jones on a bass with too many strings or a guitar with just the right amount. Myers describes the band as "rant rock." It's really just good old-fashioned indie rock. The sort that Jesus Lizard or Shellac brought to (niche) success in the '90s. Hectic. Noisy. Complicated. Full of force and fury. On either instrument, Jones' tones were heavy and sludgy. Not doom, just plenty of fuzz. Not mathy, not succinct. Myers was similarly bold in his playing. Less nuanced than his other acts (especially the one which would headline the night). This was my second time seeing the pair. They were tighter this time. And I enjoyed them more. Oh and about that "rant rock" thing? Myers does rant. About the president and his supporters. There was a lot about them. Myers is not a fan. About vaccines? He's pro. Especially for kids. And about breakfast burritos from the golden arches. He doesn't seem impressed, but I think there's a secret affinity. He definitely likes the way they make his crotch warm at the drive thru. Between songs there were sarcastic and sincere pleas for the audience to vote. At one point during the set, Myers described a ten-minute sprawling instrumental song (a definite outlier in the set) as a good opening band song. Clarifying that it was, "You know, good enough for an opening band." Definitely.
Knife Crime followed. The foursome is a hard one to pin down, and it's getting harder. Songs written by established frontman Byron Huhmann (vocals, guitar) are guitar-driven alternative rock songs. The sort that flourished in the mid '90s performed by bands that were good for name dropping but could never pack a club during their initial tenures. This version of Knife Crime, like the best of its inspirations, occasionally hit on a nugget of brilliance. If it were the '90s, set opener "Kids' Excuses" would earn the band a "buzz band" designation and a big record advance that they'd never be able to pay back. I'm in love.
But Huhmann isn't the only one at the front of the stage now. There's a "new" lineup with Jeremiah James on second guitar. The "new" lineup is over two years old. It's still the new lineup. When the sync was right, and when James's swirling guitar sat under Huhmann's big riffs (all supported by workmanlike bassist Brad Huhmann and hard-hitting drummer Jake Cardwell), all was great. When James sang is own songs, results were mixed. His vocals were rough. The songs too new. And the two songwriters' visions felt jarringly distinct. There's a seed here, but it's not bearing fruit yet. Thankfully the universe was righted during the finale. The band ended with signature song "Hum." Can your signature song be a cover? It is. By The Sheila Divine. What was I saying about inspirations above? Byron's vocals. I'm back in love.
At 10:00 The String & Return took the stage. Is the band back together? Did they ever break up? Have they written any new material in fifteen years? I have no idea. But it's nice to see the boys on the stage, and to be reminded why this band is so special. Vocalist Andrew Ashby's voice echoed nicely as the night grew colder and the crowd sparser. It was transportive. Enveloping. There's something different about music outside. It can expand in a way not possible in a small club. You can feel the enormity. Well, you can when the music allows for it and the band knows what it's doing. It did. Complicated rhythms and timings but smoothed out in a delightfully surreptitious way. Every note matters. The foursome was tight. Well-rehearsed. Guitarist Auggie Wolber and bassist Dan Weber carry the load without flash. Drummer Mike Myers can hardly be called a secret weapon, but the vastness of the band's sound hides just how hard he works behind the kit. As the night drew down, Andrew grew surly, egged on by Myers. With what might be described as belligerence, the band called for its own encore — "Roundworm" from its 2000 debut "Invisible City." The long closer stretched even further that it did decades ago, cresting the ten-minute mark. It should have gone on for another twenty. And the end I stood up and applauded. Not the rote applause of 2019, or even 2000, but the grateful applause of 2020.