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Wednesday September 14th, 2022 at Record Bar in Kansas City, MO
Surfbort, Camp Clover, & Midwest Telegram

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I’ve seen a lot of shows lately. Most of them have been in basements or DIY spots with little or no stage and even less lighting. Despite industry lore, not all bands long for a brighter spotlight, and bigger stages come with bigger challenges. On a Wednesday night I set out to see how three different bands might confront The Record Bar stage.

Openers Midwest Telegram are a bit of an enigma. It’s a band in flux as members have come and gone with college semesters and mutable twenty-something interests. With each iteration it flutters between indie and emo and folk, each delivered with a DIY raggedness. On this night, frontman Miles Luce (the last man standing from earlier incarnations of the band) was joined by bassist Jack LaGue (of Jack Offs) and drummer Tate Poindexter (of Piss Kinks). Luce says this is the new line up of Midwest Telegram. For all intents and purposes, this is a brand-new band.

The set began with an unfortunate thud. Ten seconds into the first song, technical difficulties sent LaGue scurrying off the stage to rectify an issue. Luce apologized to the seated crowd and offered a jam to kill time. Poindexter was not interested, and seconds of solo guitar noodling lasted for hours while everyone waited for the bassist’s return. Once there was replacement instrument in hand, the show began again. Take two.

As foretold, the band’s 30-minute set moved freely across genres. Luce’s guitar work was built on power chords, but pleasantly punctuated with complex and broken ones too. The fingered bass work of LaGue was exciting. Poindexter kept it basic. There were times where Luce’s vocals were tentative. Times when they simply pushed them despite the flaws, as has always been de rigueur for emo. I’ll agree with David Berman, who wrote, “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” Tempos shifted between songs. It’s a band and set in transition. New songs debuted that were written only weeks ago. Others were adapted from this band’s prehistory.

Only a trio of onlookers came forward, making it hard for the Midwest Telegram to pull energy from the room. But for performers more accustomed to dark basements and concrete floors, they made the most of the high stage illuminated by bright blue lights. Luce was congenial between songs, and alive and active during them. LaGue even more active. No backbends, jumps, or synchronized dance moves, but alive. And the trio fared somewhat better than the fish out of water that they naturally were.

The following act, however, were a different story. Camp Clover may have been birthed in the same DIY basements as the opener, but its members have always envisioned something grand. Maybe that’s because the project operates less like a band and more like a salon of interdisciplinary artists gathered to make and say something. Because of this, the live band, and its stage show, expands and contracts based on the involvement of its participants. On this night the band was comprised of vocalist Spade Nine, guitarists Alec Nicholas and Zack Hames, bassist Sydney Aldridge, and drummer Simon Huntley. Sort of.

As guitars and amplifiers were plugged in and tested, a large flat screen television was placed at the front of the stage. It lit up with a pre-recorded feed that was also projected on the wall behind the drum kit. First it was merely the band’s logo and a disturbing image of Casper the Friendly Ghost with breasts. Large ones. Precisely at 9pm the feed changed and a video of drummer Simon Huntley counted the band in. The band then roared to life playing alongside the pre-recorded Huntley. It worked marvelously and only got better when the video would pull in tightly to Huntley’s face flexing through the driving beats. Sure, a band such as this, with a revolving line up, could have easily used a replacement drummer, but this video was infinitely more entertaining and inventive. But it was not the most interesting thing on stage. That was Spade Nine.

Nine is a puzzling little pixie on the microphone. One in combat boots. One that runs back and forth across the stage, thrashes their long hair, twerks their ass for the audience, and screams like a banshee. They wore yellow rubber dish gloves, a spiked collar, a bikini top held in place by bondage tape emblazoned with the words “Stachybotrys Chartarum” (that’s toxic black mold for us non biologists), and a short skirt that they were happy to let ride up whenever they lifted a boot into the monitors at the front of the stage. Large swathes of their skin was painted white with leopard spots. There was no way the band was going to let you take your eyes off its frontperson.

The band’s 25-minute set was tailored to accent the headliner. Punk songs – fast ones – dominated the set. Things got positively thrashy for “Don’t Step,” a sub one-minute rager from the band’s new self-titled debut album. Sadly, the gear gremlin got Zack Hames after a couple of songs. And like LaGue earlier, he had to hurry backstage to retrieve another guitar. He struggled to strap it on due to the large angel wings he wore. As he temporarily removed them to accomplish the feat, he apologized to the audience for ruining the illusion. Soon he was back in action. Almost as much action as Nine. And this time there were back bends.

The area in front of the stage was initially dominated by Camp Clover’s fans. They’re an obvious sort with every bit of hair, make up, clothing, and unclothed area carefully curated to shock, titillate, and empower. The covey would have made 1976 Vivian Westwood proud. But as the band’s first song turned into its second, the seated crowd also came forward, soon packing the area in front of the stage. That area would turn into a playground for the finale.

The band closed with “Pug on a Chair,” an unreleased song sung by Nicholas. Like a lot of the set, it was rhythmically intense with pulsing drums and bass, and augmented by feedback and big guitar riffs. Unencumbered, Nine skulked around the stage. They climbed onto a table and clung to a pole. They jumped into the audience pushing and shoving the crowd. Then they picked up a hammer and swung it wildly at the still-glowing TV, shattering the screen, pushing it off the stage, and then jumping onto it from the stage above just to ensure it was actually dead. The show ended with that crash.

Between sets someone swept the floor. Members of Camp Clover visited with longtime friends and new fast fans. And the middle-aged white guys came up to stand at the edge of the stage in preparation for the headliner. Luckily for our fallen arches, we didn’t have to wait long.

The audience cheered as frontwoman Dani Miller came on stage. She started Surfbort in 2015 after moving from California to Brooklyn. Members have come and gone through the years. Currently the band tours as a quintet with Alex Kilgore and Matt Picola on guitars, Nick Arnold on bass, and Sean Powell on drums. Of the backing band, Kilgore has the biggest personality. He moved around the stage a lot, and he was quick to ham it up when a camera was pointed at him. Like the rest of the band, he looked like old skate rat that had stories about skating bowls in the ‘80s and who had years that he couldn’t account for. When the set began, his microphone was lit by video projected to the back wall, but after two songs it died, leaving only an error message (No Internet) on the screen. It was then replaced with white lights. Lights the band soon asked to be turned off, leaving everyone bathed in deep red for the rest of the set. But the band didn’t need lights or video, it had Dani Miller.

Miller strode around the stage in black boots, a modified long peasant skirt, and a cropped t-shirt that read “Too Blessed To Be Stressed.” She was having a good time. Even when the subject of her songs are heavy, the music around her is a hectic explosion of sawn riffs and pounded drums, and she’s jumping up and down and stomping wildly, she’s having a good time. She’s quick to flash her trademark toothy grin for a camera. Or provide an exaggerated snarl. She flashes devil horns to the crowd. Or more frequently makes a heart with her fingers and thumbs. She’s having fun. Everyone else is too. She spent most of the set at the apron, bent between the monitors to connect with the audience, or standing tall, bending backward, arms above her head, screaming into a microphone. For one song she joined the fun in the small pit, pushing and dancing and spinning with the women up front.

The band’s sixteen song setlist drew mostly from 2021’s Keep on Truckin’ but pulled from the debut LP as well as EPs and singles too. This meant songs varied from speedy skate punk to sunny ballads. The latter maybe just shy of Best Coast but certainly in line with The Muffs, who had a similar range. Miller seemed confused when the audience preferred the love songs. We’re a sentimental lot in Kansas City. We’re also a complicated one, because during the encore when the audience called out requests, someone asked for digital-only arcana “Condom With No Cum.” That one made Miller laugh. She announced proudly that she wrote that one and then the band ripped through it. Another request put a disconsolate frown on Powell, which also made Miller laugh, and then the band ripped through that song too. The band ended the night with “Hollywood Trashpile” – a song of its own choosing, and from its most recent album.

As soon as the fracas on stage ended, Miller made a beeline for the merch table. She was mobbed by well-wishers buying vinyl and getting it signed, and by those asking for selfies. So many selfies. On stage, Kilgore visited with members of the other bands. On my way out I dropped a Too Much Rock pin with Miller, and to the other two photographers that were shooting the show. I look forward to seeing what they came up with. Miles Luce cornered me as well. Excited about the show, wondering if I had noticed a new song, and both thrilled and confused to be on the bill. I suspect he was wondering if he made the most of his opportunity. He had. A shaky foot forward, but forward. As had Camp Clover who certainly know how to grab the spotlight. As for Surfbort, I suspect this was a smaller affair than most of their shows on the current tour. This allowed both band and fans to enjoy the comradery of a stage without a barrier, and a venue without a bouncer in sight.