Too Much Rock
Pics+Video Podcasts Singles About
Friday July 22nd, 2022 at Record Bar in Kansas City, MO
Ultimate Fakebook, Frogpond, & Ashtray Babyhead

Other Views:
email me your links!

Where do you stand on nostalgia? If you were given an opportunity to return to your halcyon days, would you? Do you trust your memories of that era? Or is everything a bit sunnier in your mind than it really was at the time? A sellout crowd at Record Bar took the gamble on a Friday night straight-from-the-‘90s bill featuring Ultimate Fakebook, Frogpond, & Ashtray Babyhead. Can bands and audiences turn back 25 years without consequences?

For locals on the sidelines, opening act Ashtray Babyhead may have seemed like an outlier on a bill celebrating local bands reunited and resurrected. But those that frequented The Bottleneck or The Hurricane during those bands’ reigns know that Little Rock’s Ashtray Babyhead were ubiquitous. They played here so often that I thought they were locals for the first few months that I lived in Kansas City. The four-piece has been dormant since the early 2000s when a gimmicky name change, a deal with the faltering TVT Records, and catalog re-releases failed to find an audience. Since then, its members have popped up in strange places. I saw frontman Scott Cook playing with Julian Lennon on the CBS Early Show. I did a double take when guitarist Jeff Matika appeared with Green Day, and later as part of Billie Joe Armstrong’s excellent power-pop side gig, The Longshot. For some there have been careers outside of music. Families for most. I suspect the same is true for each of the fans in the audience. Well, except for the Green Day part.

To be honest, while I always enjoyed the band, I was never as big a fan as I probably should have been. And I’ve not listened to its albums in ages. Others were seemingly picking up my slack. Those fans positioned themselves in the first few rows where they sang every word to every song with conviction and unbridled joy. Best life and all that. The band’s thirteen-song set pulled from its two albums evenly, with the extra track coming from the Hello Hong Kong re-package. No matter the source, the songs were pop punk with definite song structures, bright and driven guitars, and enormous hooks. The sort that should have elevated the band alongside peers Blink-182 and Green Day. And about that extra track? Cook introduced it as a new one, making someone else in the band chuckle when they clarified it was from 2001. That’s when I knew that Scott Cook had ridden the time machine with the audience.

As any fan of science fiction knows, toying with the fabric of time always comes with rewards and consequences. Thankfully, the performance was more of the former. The quartet was tight and punchy with all the energy the genre requires (and that’s a lot). Its players hadn’t forgotten notes nor how to perform. There were (small) jumps. Drumsticks head aloft. Guitar solos by bent and contorted musicians. And there was jovial banter for both the audience and intra-band as well. Cook’s voice has matured, and it suits the current band. The snotty pop-punk vocal affectation of the first album (especially) was gone. Backing vocals came in nicely. Cook was joined by a period-correct line up that featured not only Matika, but bassist Josh Faulkner and drummer Ryan Scott. With a little squinting, one could believe this was an active touring band in 1998 playing Kansas City as part of its monthly visit. Of course, if you were wearing your bifocals (and many of us were), you saw the little cracks. The flubbed ending here. Or the bass note missed as Faulkner pushed his glasses back up his nose – a new experience for a player who didn’t need to contend with spectacles twenty years ago.

The set ended with Cook urging the audience toward the merch booth. To sell shirts commemorating the three-band bill. To clear out the boxes of CDs that had been in someone’s basement for decades. Maybe I should have picked up a CD. Just as I had decided to leave my post for a trip to the merch booth, new audience members began to pack around me. It was already time for the next act.

Frogpond’s origin story and obituary are like that of Ashtray Babyhead. Formed in the ‘90s. A couple of albums. A record deal with a piece of a major. Some nice buzz. Some praise from influential people. But never breakthrough success. It was a time when a lot of bands got half a chance from the music industry. There was no development, just album and a tour. And if a band wasn’t the next Nirvana, then the label money and support dried up quickly. Frogpond suffered through multiple labels and multiple line ups before folding in 2000. Or so we thought.

In 2018, former drummer Billy Johnson passed. Frogpond reunited for a public memorial. The experience got frontwoman Heidi Phillips thinking about her old band again. New songs were written. Old friends were enjoined (though bassist Justine Volpe has since been replaced with Emmaline Twist’s Meredith McGrade) and new ones were incorporated (guitarist Kristin Conkright also of Emmaline Twist and drummer Michelle Bacon of Other Americans). And a new album was released in 2021. This is where the story differs from that of the opener. Frogpond are walking a line. Trading in both the nostalgia of its ‘90s heyday and trying to forge a new path forward with new music and new fans. It’s going to be tricky.

The band opened with "Trust?" from its 1996 debut Count to Ten giving the audience what it asked for. New songs followed, and by the end of the night, the seven selections from the new album would outnumber the six from the debut, and the three from its second album. But the songs flowed well. Phillips songwriting hasn’t changed materially during the gap years. It’s still pop. Still ugly and grungy. I stood stage left, in front of bassist Meredith McGrade who dominated my personal mix. Songs were heavy. Power chords and fifths defined them. Bass lines seldom did more than support. But it must have been my position, as what felt leaden to me was glorious to the members of the audience who sang along to songs both old and new (but mostly old). It took me a while to catch on, but as the set neared its finale, I found myself reveling in the crawling bassline and bouncing rhythm of "Be." I banged my head to the big riff that defines "Drunk." I fell into the sweet trap of mission statement "It’s Not Over." And it all came together for "I Did" with its big guitar lead and bigger energy. That’s a run of four songs, pulled from all three albums, creating a seamless vibe. The new Frogpond has a chance.

Before the final number (the roiling, riffing, and churning new "Future"), Phillips thanked the audience and plugged the band’s new album at the merch tables. A middle-aged man next to me told his friend, "I guess I’m going to have to start buying vinyl again." Just more nostalgia for the fire, sir. Phillips didn’t speak long. Or much. Through the set she was subdued whether talking to the audience or singing a chorus. She never let loose. No one in the band did. Everyone in this iteration of the band is more measured than exuberant. But that’s not how I remember Frogpond. I remember Justine Volpe pogoing about the stage, histrionic solos from Marty Robertson, and Billy Johnson’s demonstrative drumming. While the songs haven’t changed, the personnel has. Is this a case where I shouldn't trust my memories?

While any of the support acts could have headlined the night, the main attraction was Ultimate Fakebook. Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before, but the band put out a few records in the ‘90s, got signed to a small division of a major, toured a lot, got dropped, and then broke up in the early 2000s. There’s a theme. Like the other acts, there have been reunions. One-offs for special causes and occasions, or just when everyone was going to be in the same city by chance. In 2020, the maybe-not-really-still-a-band completed a new album. Celebratory release shows were planned until COVID had other ideas. Fast forward to 2022 when the world seemed more manageable and the band could finally hold its album release parties, and just maybe, sell a few copies of a record that got buried by the pandemic.

In the years after the band’s breakup, the three members of Ultimate Fakebook have remained busy. Frontman Bill McShane fronted the excellent Costello-worshipping The Pride of Erie PA along with a trio of musicians from arguably more famous bands. Drummer Eric Melin and bassist Nick Colby continued their Cheap Trick-loving ways in The Dead Girls. That latter band featured guitarists/vocalists Jojo Longbottom and Cameron Hawk. Remember those names. Although both of those projects have been dead or dormant as the musicians spread across the country, the players have never stopped making music. Returning to the stage as Ultimate Fakebook, however, was a long time coming. And now it was time.

At 11:15 the members of Ultimate Fakebook stood at the side of the stage waiting to make their entrance. The audience was waiting to explode. Instead, Trey Hock walked across the stage and commandeered a microphone. Hock was the band’s first manager, and on this night, he’d serve as its hype man, delivering a well-prepared and poetic two-minute introduction that incorporated song titles and motifs from the band’s career. The anticipation level was immense. Then Bill McShane walked out onto the stage with his electric guitar and began the band’s call-to-arms, 1999’s "Real Drums." Soon drummer Eric Melin joined in and then suddenly the stage was flush with musicians. Not only bassist Nick Colby, but guests Hawk and Longbottom, and then, in a sparkly silver cape in an homage to Rick Wakeman (I guess), keyboardist Aaron Swenson joined the party. Within seconds, the trio was a sextet.

Like Frogpond, Ultimate Fakebook followed the leading fan favorite with a cut from the new album. In the end, that album would contribute just as many songs to the setlist as the seminal This Will Be Laughing Week. The band’s remaining two albums accounted for only four more songs of the band’s eighteen-song setlist. Both band and audience exploded out of the gate. This is to be expected. Colby is always in motion, strangling his bass with big meaty hands, smiling and grimacing in equal measure. Melin swings his sticks high. High enough that he’s surely gotten them caught in his long hair as both occupy the same fly zone. Although McShane is largely tethered to his microphone stand, Longbottom and his guitar had more leeway, and Hawk and his acoustic guitar or tambourine had even more. It was back and forth across the stage all night. And then there was the Rock Box™. Longtime fans remember the multicolored box that lit up when McShane would stand on it. Fans may also remember its sad demise. But worry no more, Rock Box 2.0 is born. Now built entirely of blinding white light LEDs, this sturdy new version is ready to carry the band through decades to come. All four members that roamed the front of the stage made use of the box and the associated fog machine that amplified its effect at various times throughout the night. Each time earning cheers from the audience.

Although I stated any of the bands could have been the headliner, it was Ultimate Fakebook who had sold out the club, drawing fans from all over the US (and beyond) for the gig. These fans knew all the words to all the songs, with new ones like "Manhattan, KS" and "After Hours at Melin’s" sung back at the band just as loudly as staples like "Far, Far Away." Both band and audience were having such a lovely time that it seems immaterial to mention the sound, but it was good. McShane sounded as strong as ever, with backing vocals from Longbottom and Hawk coming across loud and clear. From my position, Swenson’s keyboards seemed to largely to provide heft, though it’s possible a sneaky counter melody could have been in there just hidden from my purview. The additional guitars served a similar purpose, with the added benefit of allowing McShane to cover the leads. Somehow Ultimate Fakebook and its fans were immune to the passage of time.

The band chose classic cut "When I’m With You, I’m Okay" to end the formal portion of its set. For this song McShane handed off his guitar to Hawk, took the microphone from its stand, and bounded around the stage in his white tennis shoes. Left side, right side, on the Rock Box, and into the audience when every bit of stage had been used up. This super-sized version of Ultimate Fakebook has its advantages.

The audience called for an encore, knowing there was at least one song that had to played. They were right. When the band returned it was for three songs all from …Laughing Week: "Brokyn Needle," "Little Apple Girl," & "Glitter & Glue." The final number performed Fakebook style (can I make that a thing?) with 40 or so fans packed onto the stage obscuring the band. Fans danced and sang and tested out the Rock Box and took selfies and played air guitar and remembered their twenties. Time travel is real.

Even after the encore finished and the stage was cleared, I held out hope for frequent closer "Alex Chilton." But it wasn’t to be. Maybe the band was too tired or sore. Maybe fans didn’t dare stay out any later. We knew there would be consequences to ignoring father time, but if aching feet, ringing ears, a dull headache, and a babysitter getting time and a half are the only prices to be paid for returning to your glory days for one night, then what’s so dangerous about time travel?

POSTSCRIPT: While nostalgia wasn't dangerous on this night, COVID was. A number of fans and band members tested positive after this show. If you were there, test yourself. Also, it's still a good idea to wear masks at shows.