Kansas City and Lawrence used to get a lot of shows comparative to their sizes. Not because the crowds were good or the venues agreeable or anything like that, but because they're smack dab in the middle of the country. Might as well stop and play a show here because you're probably driving through to hit the other coast anyway. What are you going to do, drive 16 hours between gigs? Then Omaha started really investing in its scene, and soon it was drawing a good portion of the tours to our north and across the I-80 corridor. That's right, I'm starting interstate beef. I-70 rules I-80 drools. Anyway, this is all to say that when East coast bands started making their way to Denver for a big festival, they had options. Thankfully, Kansas City has The Whiffs. With that band as our ace, a gaggle of those festival-bound acts decided to take the middle road and stop in Lawrence, putting on one of the best shows of the year. Thank you to them, to The Whiffs, the Replay Lounge, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
First up was Chicago's Criminal Kids. Southsiders through and through with the Sox hat and the rough and tumble riffs to prove it. As much hard rock as punk rock, and more AC/DC than Screeching Weasel. Lots of guitar leads that turned into solos with plenty of hammers and bends. Frontman Ryan Burgeson tried to work the crowd a bit, wandering out into the masses on several occasions. The masses, I should note, were interested, a few were dancing, but the room wasn't packed. The life of an opener.
Mel Machete from Richmond, VA followed. When the show was announced I listened to the two songs posted on the band's bandcamp page, and from that moment forward I couldn't wait to see this gang in action. Like Criminal Kids before them, the members of Mel Machete have been around the block and woken up under a bush. As such, past bands and other parallel projects exist for so many of these rockers. The five members walked on stage with a lot of look — maybe Johnny Thunders or Duff McKagan, maybe all the way to early Faster Pussycat based on the various bandanas and scarves tied about. The focus of the band is vocalist Melina Medina whose voice incorporates the chaos of Natalie Sweet and the balls of Tina Halladay. She's petite with 50% of her mass coming from the large teased and tangled mass of hair piled high on her head. A leopard print stole hung around her neck covering the deep cleavage that would otherwise be revealed by her black bodysuit. There's not much room to perform on the small Replay stage, so she stayed in the spotlight (figuratively and literally), selling the band's sex and sleazy rock & roll. But while everything about the band's look screamed excess, musically I heard a lot of pretty power pop — just soaked in whiskey and played by a crew that did a bump just before hitting the stage. Specifically, guitar leads followed the power pop principle of get in, have your say, and get out quick. I was in love. Turns out there's a digital-only EP on the streaming sites, not available on bandcamp. It's songs that the band promises will make it to a scheduled 2022 album. I'll be waiting.
The parade of stars continued with Dirty Fences from NYC who started just after midnight. The dudes that make up this decade-running band don't put much stock in image, or play with much flash, but they definitely get it right. Four guys. Four microphones. Excellent harmonies. This is hard to do on the Replay stage where monitors are cursory at best. The hard rock elements found in the previous two bands melted away, with punk rock taking the limelight. Some songs were Ramones-core with speed and energy, some recalled the pop punk of Cruz Records, some songs (particularly in the middle of the set) were just sweet AF power pop. That middle portion inspired me to set down my camera and just dance for the rest of the set. So there not many photos of the band, but the light was bad (it always is) and the photos wouldn't have been good anyway. The crowd thinned a little during this set, with most of the ladies finding their way out to the patio or elsewhere. I've no explanation, as the set was wonderful.
The night ended with The Whiffs. I've written about the band a dozen times and photographed its members even more. I'm a fan. A big fan. What can I say, I love the band's power pop. It's the harmonies between the three guys up front. It's the short songs that make use of Rory Cameron's 12-string jangle, and Joey Rubs' short clean solos. It's the swagger and loose swing from drummer Jake Cardwell and bassist Zach Campbell. The entire frontline writes and sings lead, and each time I think I have a favorite writer in the band, I discover I'm wrong when the next guy steps up to the microphone. The band's set was mostly new songs. I'm told the album is nearing completion and I've been promised some rough mixes soon. And again, I'll be waiting. Every new song performed sounds like a winner, but the few older songs came across wonderfully. I've never heard "On the Boulevard" sound so good. I suspect it's just one of those songs that sound better after 1am — like everything Thin Lizzy ever wrote. I took even fewer photos of The Whiffs. I've taken thousands already and the lights had gotten even dimmer. Besides, I had my dancing shoes on now. At 1:30 the band called it quits and its members blended back into the crowd without a fuss. While I'm sure the party continued much later into the night — both at The Replay and then later at some house with sleepless neighbors or a hotel with permissive policies — I packed up my gear and headed towards I-70 for my drive back to Kansas City.