Some nights just feel really good. I'd never been to the Hillsider before but everything about it is homey – from its neighborhood-bar location in Strawberry Hill, through its warm interior décor, to its ample patio adorned with fairy lights. It was packed – one in, one out – normally a stress trigger, but that capacity crowd included so many of my friends, and those that I didn't know all looked like people I'd like to meet, that it didn't matter. The establishment is a thin, railroad-style room with a few tables in front and a pool table in the rear. A low shallow stage runs along the bulk of right left wall, while a wooden bar spans nearly the entire the length of the room to the right. The little space between the two was used as a thoroughfare to get from the front door to the patio in back. The room is not exactly conducive to photographing the stage, but I did my best to capture the night without blocking the view of my new potential besties.
It was just after 10pm when 95 Sweetbird took the stage. The Lawrence, Kansas band is an amalgam of familiar faces assembled to do what musicians love doing. Jeff Stolz (of Drakkar Sauna) plays keyboards and sings. Many of the band's songs are his. Heidi Gluck plays bass and provides additional vocals. Some of the songs are hers. James Thomblinson plays guitar and did sing lead on one occasion. Justin Parr drums and sings plenty of backing vocals. The band is indie rock with a few rootsy elements folded in. It's bit darker than The New Pornographers, but fans of one are sure to enjoy the other. Most of the melodic lifting comes from Stolz's electric piano, while Thomblinson's guitar work is often freed for inventive deconstruction. Gluck is a confident player whose bass anchors songs alongside the utilitarian playing of Parr. Originals from Stolz and Gluck both sounded good interpreted by the quartet. "Skyscraper" is a great song that Gluck has yet to find a home for. This may be it. Tellingly, the foursome was just as good at interpreting songs originating from outside of its membership, with Leonard Cohen's prayer "Who By Fire" serving as a highlight in the eight-song set. While low stakes gigging seems to be the band's plan at the moment, the greedy music fan in me would love to hear that the band was plotting an album.
While 95 Sweetbird fit perfectly on the Hillsider's stage amid its comforting bric-a-brac, The Whiffs clashed. The small lights that earlier shone on the two singers now left the headliner's three singers either in darkness or washed out. I mourned for the photographs that would come. Of course, I've shot the band once or twice before (ahem) so there's really no crime in an off night. And it was an off night.
The Whiffs scheduled this gig as a warmup for a two-week tour of the east coast that would kick off the following day. It's always good to shake out the gremlins before embarking on an odyssey, and there were plenty of the little buggers to get out. Vocalist and guitarist Rory Cameron spent most of the set battling a vintage amp that just couldn't muster enough volume to balance the lead guitar of Joey Rubbish (Joe Montanaro). Cameron's vocal mic was similarly problematic and prone to feedback. His frustration was evident and justified – the mix wasn't right. Even the audience called out for more of this or that. After deciding it just wasn't possible, bassist Zach Campbell pushed the band to just continue, and even quipped to the crowd, "Haven't you ever been to a show in a small bar before?" I had, and this fit the bill. All bands have off nights, and my favorite ones are known for their off nights as much as the ones where everything clicks. I can recall some utterly drunken disasters from The Whiffs that reached Westerburg-ian proportions, so compared to them, this was a sneeze.
Ignoring the minor woes, both band and fans found joy in an excellent version of "Wanted" pulled from the band's new album, Scratch 'N' Sniff. The thirteen-song set not only included highlights from that album, but also debuted two new numbers, and even delivered older gems such as incomparable power pop pinnacle "On the Boulevard." As the night wore on, the Hillsider audience began to loosen, and by the time the band hit wiry closer "Verlaine," there were a dozen bouncing bodies filling the premium transit space in front of stage. It wasn't a sweaty or intimate show in a dark club surrounded only by friends and fans, yet everyone in the bar was having a good enough time that the band added an unplanned encore, bashing out "My Vision of Love" just to keep the show going two-and-a-half minutes longer.
After the band's set, the bar continued much as it had all night – no one flicked on lights, there was no stampede for the exists, and the patio remained full. "Right," I realized, "This is a neighborhood bar, not a club." To honor that spirit, I didn't rush out as I normally might; instead I paused to talk to friends, and even reconnected with the stranger whom I had swapped Prong stories with earlier in the night while I sipped my ginger beer. Soon, however, I had exhausted my fifteen-minute well of sociability, so I slipped out into the Strawberry Hill neighborhood. As someone who doesn't drink, I don't spend a lot of time just sitting in bars, but the welcoming Hillsider may just be the place that changes that.