It was a dark and stormy night. Well somewhere, but not in Kansas City. The snowpocalypse ended, roads were traversable again, and life had returned to normal. That message, however, didn't make it as far as The Riot Room. When Kate and I stepped in the door just before the 9 o'clock scheduled start time, no one (save the doorman and the bartender) was in the club. When I questioned this, the doorman explained that the show was still on, but that the first band would probably go on at ten o'clock. The bartender chimed in that it would be 10:15. Kate and I left expecting to return later, and contemplating how late a night it was going to be if the first of three bands didn't go on until after ten o'clock.
On the way back to the car we happened upon Mammoth Life's ever-optimistic Nick Goss, who, along with wife Elizabeth Goss, explained that one of the evening's bands had cancelled (due to concerns over road conditions between Omaha and Kansas City). The bill would now be just two bands: Mammoth Life and Tut Tut. I'm old, so I took this shortened bill as good news, and we promised to be back at 10:15 for the show. However, once settled back onto the couch with a book, Kate thought better of a late night out, and when it was time, wished me well as I headed back to the club.
At ten o'clock The Riot Room was populated solely by the bands, venue staff, and myself; it didn't look good. Still, at 10:15 Mammoth Life climbed onto the stage, and with great gusto thanked the audience, declared (with complete earnestness) how much they loved playing in Kansas City, and began a 35-minute opening set.
A bit of background is in order here, so please bear with me if you have heard this one before. Mammoth Life were a large chamber pop ensemble until a rift sent the support cast fleeing in different directions after a late-summer tour. Since then, Mammoth Life has slimmed down to a duo featuring the husband-and-wife team of guitarist Nick Goss and keyboardist/vocalist Elizabeth Goss. For the past several months, this smaller Mammoth Life has had some trouble bringing its layered orchestral pop to the stage. Simultaneously, the band has struggled to determine what new paths it will take. While there were no definitive answers to these questions, this show did offer some clarity.
In the past few months the band has worked tirelessly to translate as much of the its recorded grandiosity onto backing tracks that can be used on stage. While all the layers are not yet present, the improvement is vast. The live duo is now augmented by a more robust rhythm track, additional guitars, and the much-needed layers of backing vocals. We're still (sorely) missing the strings, but overall, the band has begun to sound like itself again.
Furthermore, a new Mammoth Life has started to take shape as well. Before the show Nick Goss confessed that he is currently infatuated with female-fronted party rock, and that the new Mammoth Life might not be far from a modern-day Eurythmics. While I'm still not sure what that would actually sound like, the audience did get a glimpse of the band's new focus. For example, the once-violin-heavy "Upon The Shoulders Of Giants" now eschews that instrument in exchange for tight electronic drums and a new pervasive bass line. It's not Ke$ha but it does sound like the dance floor was a bigger consideration than the concert hall when the pair reworked this song. Suddenly the thin and hissing electronic percussion from the band's new single "An Oasis in the Midwest" seemed less like the unfortunate result of a lost drummer, and more like an intentional step toward the sound of Eurythmics.
Elizabeth Goss's voice sounded as good as ever, but the band has yet to remedy the loss of male vocalist Bobby Sauder. Although Nick Goss attempted to assume this role in a previous show (with mixed results), male vocals were conspicuously absent from this performance. This was highlighted by the band's cover of The Vaselines' "You Think You're A Man." This seems like an brilliant choice for the now-electronic nodding, co-ed indie pop duo, but when it came time for the male-voiced second verse (originally offered by Eugene Kelly), Nick Goss didn't step up to the microphone. Elizabeth Goss looked to him for direction, but ultimately the band just played on until the chorus when she picked up again.
By the time the band closed with its new single, "Tightrope Walker," the audience had grown to eight very appreciative fans – four of whom would quickly climb onto the stage to prepare for their own set.
What I know about headliners Tut Tut can be conveyed in about a paragraph – and most of that information is either outdated, wrong, or completely made up. With that in mind, here we go:
Tut Tut is the project of Alex Abnos, a singular man and his ukulele – or at least it was. Now, Abnos is joined on stage by drummer Michael Judge, and – for the start of the set anyway – keyboardist Marie Parker. Abnos noted that Parker has only been in Tut Tut for several days, but that this was her second stint in the band. Oh, and Abnos, he played a beaten Dan Electro electric guitar, not a ukulele, for about half the songs in the set. See, what I mean?
And one more thing: remember when I said there were four people on stage? Well there is a fourth. Guitarist Jimmy Darrah stood quietly at the back of the stage for the first half of the set, then suddenly went wild for second. Coincidently (or not), his performance only overlapped Parker's for one song. At first I was impressed with Darrah's energy, then I was confused on why he had a cheap guitar, but a wireless transmitter, then I got close enough to note that he wasn't plugged in and he wasn't playing anything – just jumping around, mouthing words and pantomiming guitar fingerings. Unlike Pavement's Bob Nastanovich or Avail's Beau Beau, Darrah doesn't even get a microphone.
So what does this expanded Tut Tut sound like? Frankly, I never figured it out. It was pop. A little power pop. A little pop punk. A little geeky. Magnetic Fields references seem common, though not for the impossible to miss melodies, but rather for the quirky compositions and arrangements. A few songs even recalled the West African rhythms of Vampire Weekend. It's amazing how a ukulele run through a host of effects pedals can sound like a thumb piano.
As it happens, this night served as the release party for Tut Tut's new digital-only EP Heart Beats: 'The Heart Goes Nine' Remixed. This EP is made up of Tut Tut songs tarted up lap pop style by Ceego (aka Charlie Gokey, the leader of band Secret Cities, which, not-possibly-coincidently, also features Abnos and Parker). To celebrate the event, the band closed its set with the five songs of the EP, performed in order, and with the help of a Macintosh laptop containing all the backing tracks. The night's final song – the Ceego remix of "Umbrella" which borrows heavily from the 1975 hit "The Hustle" – ended in a big noisy crescendo that brought both Abnos and Darrah tumbling to the stage floor. After both band and fans stopped laughing, The Riot Room was handed off to the half-dozen or so patrons who had just arrived for the scheduled dance night. I headed straight home.