A week ago someone pointed me to a thread lamenting the lack of national touring acts playing in Kansas City. The perceived problem was analyzed from every angle. Do Kansas City fans just not turn up? Do we have the wrong size venues? Are our promoters not plugged in? Is it a matter of population? I didn't contribute, though I've my own thoughts. Maybe I'll share them someday, but there's no denying that we're down to a strikingly small pool of live music venues. And why we should all pour one out for Hurricane, Riot Room, and Czar Bar, for Davey's and for Tank Room, for the Beaumont, and for the others we've lost, the better move is to show up at Record Bar for Friday night bill of three locals all playing original music.
Starting things off was Gemini Parks, the new pop project of Josh Berwanger. He's a survivor. I first saw him fronting The Anniversary in 1998 shortly after I moved to Kansas City. There have been a half dozen projects since The Anniversary – some with similar international profiles and some that only existed in studios, excitedly shared with friends as mp3s but otherwise unheard. Each has been a departure from the last, and each is Berwanger's idea about what's next. Not only for him, but often, for the music industry. Sometimes being one step ahead is just bad timing.
The current live band features "J-Swamp" on bass and Mitchell Hewlett on drums. Both are familiar faces in the KC music scene. Berwanger started the set roaming the stage with a golden microphone in hand. His vocals are forever high and breathy. Nearly sultry. He was lit by unsynchronized video of all sorts, ranging from 1980s computer-generated 3D images to psychedelic snippets of Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror episodes, all bound for the back wall of the stage. In the middle of the set, he'd pick up his guitar, but for the bookends, he roamed freely. I recognized the two singles he's shared digitally and reveled in a very funky instrumental that was brand new. One song had a '90s feel to it, bubbling with the energy of Inspiral Carpets and other Madchester acts. Throughout it all, J-Swamp's bass work was funky, and his backing vocals substantive. Hewlett's drumming ranged from the minimal to tight disco punk cadences. Sampled synth lines, additional backing vocals, and some extra percussion came from a laptop. The result is danceable, but the band got few takers. Maybe that's because the band's sound also exists outside of any set genre or era, instead reshaping its so many influences into something new that is both immediately recognizable and yet askew. Just when I thought I knew the answer, I realized I was wrong. Fans grousing about the lack of touring acts in town should pay more attention to Gemini Parks. The band doesn't plan to play live often, so don't miss your chance.
The night moved quickly to New Obsessions. I missed frontman Jorge Arana's successful early aughts project Pixel Panda, but since then I've seen him countless times leading his own trio. New Obsessions is something else. And on this night, it was extra, as he was not only joined by brother and usual suspect Luis Arana on bass, but also by Mark Lomas on live drums. The band's sonic brew begins with the murky mix of goth and post-punk that is darkwave, but it's not that simple. In New Obsessions, Jorge's guitar is distorted so much that it only gurgles and the band's compositions are complex with heady layers of thoughtful noise. Noise that was provided not only by his live band, but also by backing tracks that including organs and additional percussion. Try to take it all in.
Throughout the half-hour set, red and white floor lights pulsed on and off, hiding and revealing the brothers as they moved through thick stage fog. Luis wore a bird mask with a large beak that covered most of his face as he spun and held his bass above his head. Jorge wore his usual Pierrot-inspired white face makeup and neck ruffle. He tilts his head when he sings in a way that I can't explain other than to say it's unnerving. There was little banter, and although the audience did push forward, none were dancers. I've seen concertgoers tear it up to New Obsessions before, so come out, leave your inhibitions at the door, and dance to a local band delivering something unexpected.
Then it was time for Various Blondes fronted by Joshua Allen. You may know him from other projects stretching back twenty years, but I don't. For me Various Blonde has been it, but it's still a lot to wrap your head around. Allen plays guitar or keyboards or both as well as providing vocals. He has a strong voice and is a good entertainer that doesn't resort to gymnastics. The show was booked to celebrate his 40th birthday, a fact he shared with the audience during several of his chatty interludes between the sixteen songs in the band's set. Most of the material was new. Like nearly every band in Kansas City, Various Blonde promises a full length this year. At the end of the set, Allen and his steady crew consisting of guitarist Bryson Thomas, bassist Jason Nash, and drummer Mark Lomas (double duty!) played a handful of older songs. Fan favorites. New or old, it was funky. Nash slaps and pulls at his bass strings, building a jumping foundation with Lomas. Thomas brings bits of post-punk to the party and a lot of motion. His guitar playing is out of step with any genre the band might try to recreate, and it works exquisitely. His leads are jagged and provoking, contrasting and complementing Allen's slower, soulful, and bending solos. As with other acts, tracks from a laptop bolstered the band's live assemblage.
In the middle of the set, I wandered away from the stage to hear a different mix. I walked past the two dancers at front, past another dancing couple in the middle of the room amidst the tables, and to the rear of the room where two others danced joyfully, if curiously far from the stage. When I returned to my post, the number of dancers had multiplied. First six, then a dozen and then twenty bounced and spun and twisted to Various Blondes' propulsive pop. Allen was feeling good. And as he looked out at the dancers, he must have been feeling generous too, asking "Raise your hand if you've done ayahuasca," then after seeing few hands, added "Meet me at the merch table." That's not the sort of service you'll get at an Arctic Monkeys show.
It wasn't even 11:00 when the show ended. Fans called for an encore, but Allen just returned to the microphone to sincerely thank the audience and then retreat for a well-earned drink. I hope someone was buying him birthday drinks. And I hope someone was buying drinks for all the local bands playing Record Bar that night. There are lots of ways to make the music scene better in a city, but it always starts with showing up and supporting the local bands. I look forward to dancing with you at the next gig.