I worried that 5pm rush hour traffic out to Lawrence would be awful. It was not. However, the never-ending construction on 23rd Street is unbearable. My children’s children will be dealing with that one. Despite the snarls, I was still able to find free parking a block from the club, pay my $5 admission, and commandeer a booth on the patio before the opener began. Truly a red-letter day.
The three members of The Harrisonics started the evening precisely and punctually at 6:00. That’s a good time for a show if you’re old. And both the band and its audience were old. The trio is led by namesake Jon Harrison. His Fender growls through the band’s power pop songs. His vocals are the prettiest of the trio, and thus he sings the most. Or maybe it doesn’t work that way. Drummer Bret Dillingham sang three or four as well. Turns out he wasn’t drafted, or even allotted songs--those songs are his. His voice is more rugged, but his songs are still power pop. He debuted "Just a Song on the Radio." The verses are populated with herky-jerky guitar leads that grow through a bridge before erupting into nasty power chords by the chorus. The bass of Bryan Anderson pings delightfully. He works up the neck of his Rickenbacker in a lot of the band’s songs. He sang lead on a cover of Yo La Tengo’s "From a Motel 6," which he introduced as "a traditional New Jersey folk song." Small crowd, familiar faces, and easy banter. Dillingham sang one he called his "ode to daylight savings time." Harrison trumped him on the next tune, introducing it as "'Shitheart'…my ode to being an asshole." That song, and a handful of others in the band’s 45-minute set, was pulled from the 2020’s Love Songs for All Occasions LP. The rest were mostly new songs with a few other covers (including opener "No Reply" borrowed from the Fab Four) tossed in just to make sure everyone knew where the trio’s allegiances lie. But there’s no mystery to the Harrisonics, just some veterans having fun and delivering great power pop. And I’m here for it. Every time.
Jon Harrison introduced the next act, declaring that it was an all-star band of familiar faces playing its first gig. He added the rest of the show was going to be really good, "now that [The Harrisonics were] out of the way." The "all-star" appellation may be a bit of hyperbole, but each of the trio have been in other local bands. And this wasn’t the threesome’s first show, it was its second. But who’s counting?
The Fun Guy is led by Ranjit Arab. He sings and plays guitar. Maybe you know him from his films, or his mid-'90s stint in Butterglory when that act was Merge’s next big thing. He was decked out in black and white replete with the skinny tie. Based on that, and the opening act, I was sure I knew what was coming. I was wrong. While the band opened with a cover, it wasn’t something from The Knack’s snappy 1979 debut, but rather from The Cure’s moody 1980 second album. How wrong can you be? Arab’s clean tone felt good during "A Forest," and his vocals worked. The cover made me happy I was wrong. Bassist Noah Meitler played with a pick. Actually, he attacked with a pick. Loud and clear. Drummer Foy Keith played simply and with aplomb. Neither offered backing vocals. After the first song, Arab explained the band would split its set between originals and covers. The indie rock originals varied from urgent to funky to bluesy. All of it just a hint off kilter, like every act on a 1987 Homestead Records cassette sampler you picked up for $1 at the record store on a flyer. Between songs he joked with the audience – especially when introducing the covers. There were five, pulled from The Cure, The Pixies, The Clash, The Smiths, and David Bowie. Some worked well. Some didn’t. Ranjit nailed Black Francis’ histrionics in "Monkey Gone to Heaven," but without a second guitar and backing vocals, how does that song work? Maybe it doesn’t matter, because the band had the audience singing along, or at least mouthing the words, each of them enjoying the lovely evening.
The night would culminate with Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy. That’s the full-band version where Willis and his electric guitar are joined by lead guitarist Bradley McKellip (you’ve seen him play a similar sideman role with The Roseline), bassist Eric Binkly and drummer Austin Sinkler. Together the foursome put their foot on the accelerator, blowing past the Americana elements I thought I’d hear, and instead blasting the audience with heartland rock played with gusto. Binkly stayed at the back of the stage gelling with Sinkler. He fingers his bass, and it’s big and bouncy. Sinkler plays snapping drums, seldom swinging the band. It’s the guitars that fill the room. Willis offered a few solos, but mostly he left that work to McKellip who can light up a room. His solo in the new song "Smells Like Honey" was great. Later in the night Willis introduced "a sentimental one" but added it has a ripping solo. McKellip agreed, adding that it is "in poor taste." I guess that’s true if you have a disdain for two-handed finger taps. I, however, do not. The solo was fire. Willis has a solid voice. When quiet it has good texture and a bit of a vibrato that I’m sure serves him well when he plays acoustic sets. When he lets go, it recalls Roger Miller (of Mission of Burma), cutting through the tunes. That’s not the Roger Miller I expected to compare Willis to. The night ended with an extended version of "Cold Hum" that must have stretched on for seven minutes, delivering a galloping, crashing, dramatic, corybantic hug.
It was still pleasantly early when the show ended. The bands had transformed my mood from one of obligation and schedules to one of possibility and tranquility. With this outlook, I consulted the map and I plotted a slow route out of town. Turns out that if you drive just a few miles away from the nightlife of Mass Ave, you’re soon surrounded by farmland and stars and your own thoughts. As I meandered toward Kansas City, I mostly thought about the modest bands playing for friends on a Friday night. I thought about how that creates community, and how lucky it is when we can be a part of that.