I woke up Saturday morning with a hangover. I think. My body was definitely complaining that it hadn't been treated properly the night before. My throat hurt, and my head was clouded by a dull ache. Maybe it was sleep deprivation. Maybe it was a musty basement. Maybe it was the pervasive cigarette smoke. Maybe it was all three. But my night at the East Wing was definitely to blame. For an hour I lay in bed, sipping water, sucking on a Halls, and wondering why I do it. Wondering if it is worth it. Wondering if I'm too old.
A crude flyer posted on a band's Instagram feed led me to The East Wing. The house is in the heart of Kansas City's Eastside poverty zone. It's not the notorious "Murder Factory" zip code, but empty lots and boarded up houses are more prevalent than inhabited homes. I'm told the owner of East Wing bought the house (and an adjoining house that creates a compound of sorts) for a song, and has spent his time and efforts to stabilize both. There are punk shows in the basement of East Wing. There is a nice PA in the basement of East Wing. There is a bar in the basement of East Wing. There is a dartboard in the basement of East Wing. There is not a furnace, duct work, or a hot water heater in the basement of East Wing. All of those were likely cleared out by the past owner (or thieves) unknowingly creating more room for musicians and fans willing to trek through the dark neighborhood, through the rickety wooden privacy fence, past the barking dogs, and down the rickety cellar stairs in back.
It was after 10pm when Kansas City's Schwervon decided to start the show. Under two bulbs of blue and green, flanked by a strand of red Christmas lights that ran along the floor joists overhead, and illuminated by their own yellow floor lights, the duo launched into "Daydream Ration" from its 2012 album Courage. As if adhering to a basement show code, the band was quieter than normal. Most noticeably Matt Roth's guitar never growled or exploded in snarls, instead it remained consciously composed. Whether it was this alone, or the song choices made in creating the band's short eight-song (plus a solid show poem/interpretive dance interlude) set, the audience of a fifteen or so fans saw the band's pop finesse rather than its punk aggression. Although I've seen the band a dozen times or more, I found new subtitles in this setting. For example, the beginning riff of "Landlocked" was remarkably more complicated and nuanced than when it was recorded 3 years ago. For reasons I can't understand, this made me giddy. While performing in a stone basement without monitors and with only vocal microphones amplified by the PA may sound like a musician's nightmare, the sound was wonderful and clear. In fact, the sound was much better than any show I had been to in months and drummer Nan Turner's vocals were particularly crisp. The only downside? Turner later confessed that the concrete floor was not conducive to her typically full-contact dance technique.
While Turner packed up her chromed cymbal stands, placing them into a canvas bag, Phil Diamond stepped behind his cart of electronics and began pressing buttons sending waves of orchestral swells throughout the room. At some point Diamond looked up to notice that the audience had turned its attention to him, forcing him to sheepishly introduce his project as Scammers, and note that he would now begin playing in earnest. While the first several pieces were instrumental, soon Diamond stepped out from behind his laptop and triggers and mixers and outed himself as a crooner with a nice baritone and a theatrical flair. Whether as a focus or merely a backing track, Scammers' music was generally thick, layered, and heavily orchestrated. Although electronic, there were no pounding drums, and the languid pace was swayable at best. Several tracks incorporated minor "world music" elements recalling Dead Can Dance, while another seemed to be a sly nod toward the slow jam R&B world. The most memorable track in the set was "Devil," a cut taken from the project's just-released Deathly Hallows cassette where Scammers marries a pop structure complete with a repeatable chorus to samples of dark orchestral string swells. The combination landed not terribly far from Nick Cave, and that's a nice neighbourhood to be in. The short encore, however, seemed out of place for the second band on a four-band basement bill.
Between bands I stepped out of the basement looking for fresh air. When I ran into a slow but steady rain, I understood why the basement had suddenly become a cloud of cigarette (and other) smoke. Faced with that predicament, I pulled my cap forward to shield my glasses and found partial shelter under a large leafy tree. Beside me I spied the fire pit that is often a focus of East Wing shows; it also stood alone, another victim of the rain.
The night's bill seemed to be built with little regard to tenure or popularity, so it might have just been happenstance that evening's third band was Little Big Bangs. This Saint Louis quartet has been around for three years, two albums, and a number of split releases (generally on cassette). The band is built around the threesome of Eric Boschen, Lucy Dougherty, and Ryan Macias all of whom write, sing, play guitar, and bass at various points in the band's set (newest member drummer Colin Immenschuh is evidently excused from this game of musical chairs). As a result, the sound of Little Big Bangs is hard to pin down. While generally punk with hints of garage rock, there are moments that are downright hardcore. The band also relies on a strong guitar rock sensibility that links it back to the '90s alternative heyday. Meaty riffs and notey leads are prevalent, and when Dougherty feels the itch, the bass work is positively lightning. If all of those hit at the same time, The Minutemen would seem like an obvious touchstone, though don't expect any jazzy openness from Little Big Bangs – the band is all swinging fists, all the time. Even in the two instrumentals performed, the band asked audience members (who instantly obliged) to provide impromptu vocals, filling any gaps. If any band can be maximalist, it is Little Big Bangs.
It was 12:45 when the final act of the evening began. I know very little about locals Toad Tartare, and the internet knows even less. So I may need to make up things entirely to keep us all entertained. The quartet are local, but look to be put together from disparate parts from disparate scenes. I suspect a mad scientist was involved. And someone with a MFA. There are no vocals, but bassist Stephanie Eckermann leads the effort. After the show I'd ask if she was the responsible one in the band, and although she said that she thought she might be, it was only by process of elimination. The mad scientist theory now has legs.
Toad Tartare began with two songs built from drums, keyboards, bass, and guitar. All of them simple and repetitive, setting up a nice groove that floated somewhere between krautrock and stoned indie pop. With more keyboard accompaniment, Sea and Cake might be a touchstone, but as it is, the band lives its own existence. After the two songs, the band members swapped instruments moving Eckermann to keyboards, and sending the keyboardist to guitar – but he's a lefty so he had to turn Eckermann's guitar upside down and play it that way. After some discussion about possible songs and a bit of noodling, our new guitarist announced "We don't know any songs so we're just going to play something." Eckermann chimed up from her new position in the back, "We're just going to Toad for a little while." And that's what they did. For about 15 minutes there was long sprawling song that Toaded through crescendos and solos, though false stops, and through even more repetition than the earlier songs. The players seemed aware of each other, and I began to wonder if this wasn't the plan all along. When I later found flyers proving that the band has been playing shows for months, I then began to suspect that maybe toading is what this band is all about. There is a mystery here, and I intend to investigate further when the band plays at The Drugstore (formally the Katz drugstore at Westport and Main) on May 4th (Cinco de Cuatro!). Until then, I'll have time to ponder what it is about joining twenty strangers in a musty, smoky basement, listening to a band Toad until 1:30 in the morning that has kept me so entertained for 27 years that I keep coming back for more.
Rock and Roll Sighting: Rita Brinkerhoff of Blondie Brunetti.