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Friday September 29th, 2023 at VooDoo Lounge in North Kansas City, MO
Unwritten Rulz, Ramona Clay, The Hard Margarets, & Mooncaller

I'm at two or three shows a week. It's been that way for years. Many years. Still there are entire local scenes that I'm barely aware of. Ones that feature music not far from genres that are dear to my heart yet come from entirely different universes. Aaron Rhodes once wrote about the divide between DIY punk bands and bar punk bands in Kansas City. I debated that, but there was something worth debating. The divide between from-punk rock bands and from-rock rock bands is an even bigger schism, one that few fans and even fewer bands cross. I made my way over the divide on a Friday night to see a friend's band. She's one of those rare daywalkers, and I had to see what her other life was like.

VooDoo Lounge is in a casino. In an enormous hulking casino owned by an enormous hulking conglomerate. It's in an out of the way place in North Kansas City that you'd never stumble upon. It's surrounded by a ditch connected to the Missouri River that allowed it to claim it was a riverboat when it was built 30 years ago. I'd never been before. Not to the casino. Not to the lounge. Just not my scene. At all. Still, I drove over on a Friday night, parked in the enormous garage, and walked the mostly empty liminal spaces until I arrived at the club. After passing through perfunctory metal detectors and spreading my camera bag, I was handed a wristband and sent inside. The room is big. Capacity 1150, if Google can be trusted. Bars line both sides of the club with an elevated VIP area in back that was used by bands for merch tables. In front of it there was a large A/V pit full of computer screens that allowed several techs to manage the sound and lights for the stage. It's a large stage. And a high one. Maybe five foot. And it's lit like a Christmas tree. It sounded good and felicitously loud. I wasn't at the Minibar anymore.

The night opened with Mooncaller. I'm not equipped to weigh the merits of the project or act the critic, so here's some facts. The band is a trio led by Lumo Mooncaller. It's their guitar and vocals that define the band. Their vocals traverse several styles, sometimes offering up quiet soulful moments, sometimes soaring to power metal heights. Their guitar playing was rife with overdriven, sharpened, and aggressive tones. Solos were long and engagingly off kilter. There wasn't much banter, but Mooncaller commanded the crowd. Surprisingly there were over 100 fans present for a 7pm opener. Colby Hughes' fingered bass was punchy, but he sulked on stage, seldom looking up or offering energy. Drummer Cameron Marks sat behind a big drum rack, worked a double bass pedal, delivered a lot of fills, but maintained the stable rhythm. And what sort of band are they? I don't know. A metal one? But not the sort that I normally see. Not one rooted in the culture of extreme metal. A commercial one. One that covered "Toxicity" by System of a Down. One that could get played on a radio station that I wouldn't listen to. Still, there was something intriguing about the horror theme delivered during the band's 35-minute set. Listen to its new single "Lycanthropic Transformation" and see if you agree.

After a short break, The Hard Margarets followed. The band pulls in classic hardrock, grunge, and alternative metal influences to build a sound that drifts and flows wherever the quintet wants to take it. The lack of a purity test hurts my taxonomical brain. Jacob Duncan provided lead vocals. He was a smiling sort, standing behind his keyboard in a kaftan and a turban. He later swapped out the turban for a ballcap, looking more comfortable for it. Most of the set he opted for strong raspy vocals – firmly from the rock rulebook, and delivered well. Occasionally he growled more aggressively, even introducing several songs with the death metal parlance. Bassist Jared Dagley offered clean backing vocals. They bolstered more than contrasted, setting the duo apart from the screamo paradigm that I'm more familiar with. His Rickenbacker made me smile. Derek Mueller and Jacob Henson are the guitarists. Both stepped up for leads. Both are talented players, but Henson has the more voluptuous beard, so he gets the points. Drummer Chris Hankins charged at his drums, delivering hard rock rhythms without interest in fillagree or gimmicks. The crowd had grown. Over a hundred fans lined the stage with more than that again standing along the perimeter of room. Duncan tried to stir the audience, shouting "Come on Kansas City! Goddammit! What the F*ck?!" as inspiration. Fans moved, but no mosh pit erupted. If anyone was at fault for that, it wasn't the A/V techs. They understood the assignment and cranked the light show up to eleven, ensuring that much of band's set was accompanied by the sort of frantic flashing, strobing, and scanning lights usually only seen during an extended trash can finale. The Hard Margarets got the headliner treatment, especially during the band's cover of "Chop Suey!" by System of a Down. This crowd loves their System of a Down.

Between acts, a crowd assembled on the stage. The night was a birthday celebration (and a bit of a medical fundraiser) for Cory O'Meara who books local events for Stratgazer. He's been at it for 25 years. He was joined by friends including a mega fan who is "at the front of the stage for every show" and a photographer who is evidently similarly omnipresent. I'd never seen any of these people. There is a gulf between this world of rock and the one I operate in. O'Meara championed the bands on the bill, and live music in general, asking why KC couldn't sell out every concert if we can sellout Arrowhead every weekend. He called for an army of 5 or 10 thousand fans to support local music. I was frightened. When I'm at a show with over 60 people I feel hemmed in. Sure, there are musical differences between these scenes, but there are aspirational ones as well. This is a scene whose goal is to birth the next Godsmack, whereas mine hopes to be the next Gel. I need to research this more; luckily the night was only half over.

The bill continued with Ramona Clay. Ramona Clay isn't a person, but rather one of the many musical outlets for Katerina "Kat" Jae. Jae is a tireless promoter of both her music and her causes, and Ramona Clay combines those passions, layering moody rock on top of direct calls to destigmatize conversations around mental health. It's curious for a band to have such an outward mission statement, but Jae is fearless. Most of Ramona Clay is Jae: it's her songs, her vocals, and her piano. On this night she was joined by two guitarists – frequent collaborator Tim Jenkins and Nick Sauceman. I believe it was Sauceman who provided most of the leads, but I may have been focused elsewhere. Drummer Alex Boyd and bassist Brad Padley handled the remaining rhythmic responsibilities. None of them offered much in the way of showmanship, but that's really the domain of Jae. When not emoting behind her keyboard, Jae took her microphone in hand and skipped around stage in a sparkly costume, sang directly to audience members, thrashed her hair about, shook, stomped and generally left it all on the stage. Between songs there was only hints of the standard stage banter, instead mostly Jae spoke of the band's mission. This was particularly true of the introduction to final song, "Can't Bring You Back." During this break she discussed a friend's suicide and was sure to promote the newish 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Does that sound heavy? It was. But the audience wasn't bummed. They moved to the songs' powerful climaxes and cooed during the emotional ballads. At the end of the band's half-hour set, Jae collapsed on the stage, taking a moment to collect herself before embracing the mob of fans and friends that pooled around her. I've seen a lot of shows, but this wasn't like any of them.

Before the final act, I walked around the room. There was some thinning after Ramona Clay's set, but there were still hundreds of people in the crowd. Most of them on the other side of forty. This rock scene is full of lifers. I counted three guys wearing top hats and just as many with canes – some ornamental and some medically prescribed. I also saw dozens wearing Ramona Clay shirts. The rock set shows up big to support its bands.

The headlining act was Unwritten Rulz. The band has been playing its hard rock all over the Midwest since its 2009 inception, releasing three albums and an EP along the way. The band exudes a blue collar, hard-drinking vibe, playing songs that sit between the southern flank of classic rock and the bluesier elements of the hair metal era. I suspect the band is more likely to play a Great White cover than a System of a Down one, but the audience was just as engaged as it had been from the night's start. Part of that is due to new vocalist Melissa Paavola who has recently replaced Wes Helton. Despite being new in the role, she was comfortable at the center of the stage, and in the literal spotlight – even after the battery pack on her in-ear monitors failed. Her voice is strong and was pushed out with confidence. Some voices are described as honeyed – this one was whiskeyed. The rhythm section of bassist Daniel Reid and drummer Jason Massengale are similarly green, leaving lead guitarist Byron Coatney and rhythm guitarist Richard Bullock to guide the band into this new chapter. Reid started the set by leaving the stage with his five-string bass and moving back and forth across room, allowing his wireless rig to earn its keep for the duration of the gimmick. Massengale sat on his throne, barely visible behind a large drum kit. Banging away, presumably. Bullock did maintain the steady ship, while Coatney spent his time coloring rock leads over the top of it all until Paavola brought the band down for introductions as well as to voice her support for the striking UAW workers. "Where is Ford 249?" she called out to the audience before explaining that she has worked on the assembly line for twelve years. Some bands put on that blue collar persona, others have the receipts.

For the band's thirteenth and final song, it played "I Know My Rights." It's the title song of the band's latest album that was released in 2019. The song is a rocker, layered with bending and hammered metallic leads, and delivered with a staccato vocal cadence that edges rap rock. Its lyrics don't fall far from the Jason Aldean tree, leaving me to ponder the Venn diagram of rock's hellraisers and the "Try That in a Small Town" right. I hadn't considered the Ted Nugents and Kid Rocks of the world when I decided to trespass in this scene. Thankfully that grim thought wasn't the one that stuck with me as I left the venue, nor did I really spend any time pondering the similarities between these rock bands and those that I regularly photograph. To be honest, I didn't even think much about whether I liked the bands I saw. [For the record, they were fine – not cringeworthy, just not my thing.] Instead, I mostly pondered this scene's loyal fanbase, and marveled at what Cory O'Meara and his crew have cultivated. I'm not ready to switch allegiances, but there's something interesting happening on the other side of this looking glass in venues like Vivo and VooDoo Lounge.