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(Above: Harry and the Potters rock a Wisconsin bookstore.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It is doubtful that Irma Pince, mistress of the library at Hogwarts, would approve of Harry and the Potters.

The band is loud, noisy and proud of its subversive punk influences. For nearly a decade, it has also been the delight of librarians across the country.

The band makes a return appearance to the downtown branch of the Kansas City Public Library at 2 p.m. Sunday in a free performance and Monday at the Replay Lounge in Lawrence.

“Most libraries don’t see any bands;they see author readings and story time,” said guitarist Paul DeGeorge, who founded the group with his brother Joe in Boston in 2002 and now lives in Lawrence. “Sometimes we get librarians who think we’re too loud, but now that our reputation precedes us, I think they like that what we do is unique.”

Tying in to the most popular fiction series of the new millennium doesn’t hurt either. With songs such as “Gryffindor Rocks,” “Dumbledore’s Army” and “Saving Ginny Weasley from Dean Thomas,” the duo has plugged right into the zeitgeist.

The band is among the more successful of a long list of wizard rockers, including such Potter-inspired groups as Draco and the Malfoys, the Moaning Myrtles and the Whomping Willows. They even gather for festivals, such as the annual Hallows and Horcruxes Ball in Manhattan, Kan.

“It all started as sort of a whimsical idea after reading the Harry Potter book for the first time. We wanted to find a way to convince librarians to let us play loud punk rock music in their libraries,” DeGeorge said. “We didn’t realize how extensive and pervasive the Harry Potter fan world is. Once our website [Web site] was up, word spread really quickly, and that’s when we started touring nationally.”

Onstage, both brothers are dressed as Potter. Older brother Paul portrays the seventh-year wizard, while Joe represents Potter in his fourth year at Hogwarts. Although the family-friendly music attracts a young audience, Paul DeGeorge aims for a wide demographic.

“They Might Be Giants is a band I really related to in junior high, but as I grew up I realized there were a lot of smart things in those songs that I didn’t get when I was 12,” DeGeorge said. “We want to do the same thing. We want to keep the parents engaged as well, give them stuff to smile at that their kids won’t get and give the kids things to laugh at the parents will just think is cute.”

J.K. Rowling hasn’t weighed in on Harry and the Potters, but she is a big fan of the Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit group DeGeorge founded.

“The Harry Potter Alliance was inspired by the fact that Harry and his friends were just teenagers, but because they were dedicated to fighting evil they changed the world,” DeGeorge said. “We re-contextualize complex global issues through Harry Potter’s world. It’s a way to help young people understand the world and get involved using language they understand.”

Although the band is strong, DeGeorge confessed it isn’t as all-encompassing since he moved from his native Boston to Lawrence, Kan. a year ago. DeGeorge moved away from his brother to be with his girlfriend, who is earning her doctorate in art history at the University of Kansas.

“We used to do 120 shows a year, then record,” DeGeorge said. “Now we’re doing a two-month tour and will take some time off. In some ways, though, the distance makes us more focused, because we know we have to maximize our time together.”

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(Above: Cake’s newest video is called “Sick of You.” They definitely seem tired of the lifestyle.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It won’t be hard to spot John McCrea on Friday night. The lead singer and chief songwriter for the alt-rock band Cake will hold center stage in a night of music in the City Market.

Seeing him in the future, however, may be more problematic.

Concerned with the direction of the music industry and unwilling to make a living by touring alone, McCrea is seriously considering a second career as a farmer.

“When I look five to 10 years in the future, I don’t see myself able to afford to make a living as a musician,” McCrea said. “We just spent 2½ years on an album, which is a significant investment. I’m not willing to do that again if people are just going to take it against our will, play it a few times then move on to the next thing to consume.”

Although celebrity musicians will always exist, McCrea said, midlevel, working-class bands like Cake may cease to be if there’s not reciprocity between fans and artists.

“Touring is a grueling thing to do, and if that’s a musician’s only source of income it means they can never come home,” he continued. “I have a family. I hate touring, and if there’s no other option I’ll get out.”

Fans can rest easy for now, however.

When Cake’s sixth album, “Showroom of Compassion,” debuted at No. 1 last January, much was made about the fact that it had sold fewer copies than any previous chart-topper.

What people missed, McCrea said, was that it sold roughly the same number of copies in its first week as Cake’s previous release, “Pressure Chief.”

This consistency is even more remarkable considering seven years had passed between those albums, years marked by turmoil in the record industry.

“We watched everyone stop paying for music during those years (between albums),” McCrea said. “The joke in the studio was that by the time we were finished nobody would be buying music anymore.”

Cake had a solid run of Top 40 hits in the 1990s, including “The Distance,” a cover of “I Will Survive,” “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” Vince DiFiore’s trumpet and McCrea’s sardonic spoken/sung lyrics became the band’s calling card. Radio airplay combined with constant touring earned the band a cult following.

“So far I’m happy with what’s happened with this album,” McCrea said. “It tells me we have a relationship with our fans, and they trust us to go out on a limb and buy something without hearing it.

“I know when I was a kid I didn’t have that much money, and sometimes you’d buy an album and there’d only be one good song on it. I learned to be careful, but at the same time I learned that other artists always seemed to put out good records and knew I could trust them. We try very hard not to waste our fans’ time or money.”

The California-based quintet still toured during their recording hiatus — they stopped in Kansas City several times — but for the main part the group’s focus was on extricating themselves from their contract with Columbia Records and setting up their own shop.

“I don’t think a major label is a good place for a band like us,” McCrea said. “Since music is now free, the industry needs to economize and go out to dinner less. We didn’t want to have to pay for all the waste at a label.”

After testing the waters with a 2005 rarities and B-sides collection, Cake decided to self-release “Showroom of Compassion.” Liberation and success instilled a newfound sense of confidence, and for the first time in a while all of the band’s members were excited to contribute.

“Democracy is a slow process,” McCrea said. “There were a lot of disagreements, but we found our way through. Unlike past albums, everyone is completely happy with how this one turned out.”

A band at a crossroads, Cake is considering setting up an annual summer event similar to Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival or Cracker’s campouts. Cake tested the concept several years ago with its own multi-artist Unlimited Sunshine Tour, but the idea of staying in one place appeals to McCrea.

“I guess by definition fewer people would be able to see it,” McCrea said, “but I travel enough as it is.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cake

Cracker: The Grateful Dead of indie rock

Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Cake

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(Above: Cracker perform “Take Me Down to the Infirmary” at Crossroads in Kansas City on July 6, 2007.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

As the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, David Lowery was riding high. The underground band he started in 1983 had attained major label success, and his new band, Cracker, continued to ride that wave. His songs “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” were all over the radio and MTV.

This year, Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band they founded together out of the ashes of Camper Van Beethoven. In that time, Cracker has come full circle, operating in a landscape that eerily mirrors the early days of Camper Van Beethoven.

“To me the real story isn’t that we had bit MTV and radio hits in the early ‘90s,” Lowery said, “but how the band kept going after that for 15 years. We’ve done it by cultivating a loyal following that exists away from the rest of the industry.”

Cracker’s model of relentless touring, taper- and fan-friendly policies and annual weekend destination festival should be instantly recognizable to any jam band fans.

“We all got it from the same place,” Lowery said. “I remember back in Camper (Van Beethoven) days telling people we had more in common with the (Grateful) Dead than the punk scene. Out of all the jam bands, I don’t know how many played with the Dead, but we did.”

David Lowery (second from left) and Cracker perform a free concert tonight on the KC Live! stage in the Power and Light District. Start time is listed as 8 p.m., but bands usually go on much later.

The Dead invited Cracker to open for them in 1994 at their annual stand at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. Lowery remembers well his meeting with Jerry Garcia.

“Apparently when I met Jerry he had just come out of a porta-potty. I went to shake his hand, but the only thing I could think was ‘there’s no sink in there,’” Lowery said. “Jerry told me he totally loved our song ‘Euro-Trash Girl’ and was trying to work up an arrangement so the Dead could play it. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to get it done.”

Camper Van Beethoven emerged in the early ‘80s, in the Southern California underground rock scene, but didn’t fit comfortably. They definitely weren’t punk and too quirky to be mainstream. Over the course of five albums, Lowery and his band mates carved their own niche. Similarly, Cracker came up in an era where they were too poppy for grunge and too much of a country influence to rest beside other rock bands. In 2000, Lowery revived Camper and splits his time between bands.

“The music business has gone all the way back to where we started, where we had to do a lot of stuff independently, within our own organization,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t a challenge for me, because I learned how from the Camper Van Beethoven days. When the labels started coming apart, we always knew what to do.”

In a way, Lowery and his bands have always operated both on their own and on their own turns. The window of high-profile success was so brief they didn’t consider changing how they worked.

“The alt-rock bubble or financial bubble,” Lowery said, “where any band together for more than two weeks and three shows got signed was such a brief period in the 20 years of Cracker and my 27 years of recording that it almost seems like a fluke. There was hardly time to adjust.”

After seeing Internet entrepreneurs being praised for the books they wrote about their five-year-old businesses, Lowery decided he might have something to say about his 27 years in the music business and started working on a book that’s part memoir and business manual.

“People give record labels way too much importance in their minds,” Lowery said. “I learned some things doing research for my book. Like, very few labels last more than 10 or 15 years. Most collapse or are absorbed. The average lifespan of an A&R man (a talent scout who works as a liaison between the label and artist) is less than four years. The people who have been around a long time, that have all the experience, are the artists and the managers.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cracker get on this (again) at Crossroads

Concert Review: Cracker and others at the Wakarusa Music Festival (2006)

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(Above: The Taylor Texas Corrugators captured onstage via cell phone at the Record Bar on April 7, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

In person, Greg Ginn couldn’t be more different the songs he wrote for the legendary hardcore punk band Black Flag. The primary architect of the group’s sound, Ginn’s songs were brash, aggressive and threatening. In contrast, Ginn is gentle, soft-spoken and hospitable.

Likewise, the music Ginn is currently making with the Taylor Texas Corrugators couldn’t be further removed. Black Flag’s taught bursts of violence have been replaced by extended, amorphous, improvised pieces.

The mechanics of Ginn’s recent show with the Corrugators at the Record Bar, however, were eerily similar to the rituals he performed more than two decades ago. Ginn pulled into town late Tuesday afternoon and gave a brief, free performance at the Guitar Syndicate music shop in the Crossroads district before heading to Westport for the evening gig.

The three-piece outfit hauled all their own equipment in a white panel van that showed some scars from its many treks across the continent. With only one roadie/soundman in tow, they set up and broke down all their own equipment with an efficiency born from years of routine.

Once all the amps, cords and instruments were assembled onstage, a simple rat-a-tat-tat from Sean Hutchinson’s snare signaled the start of the proper set. For the next 20 minutes, the three bobbed and weaved, trying to make sense of the monstrous sound they were creating. Gary Piazza’s guitar solos were heavily indebted to Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, but with enough bursts of feedback and weird noises to topple any jam band tedium.

At 55 years old, Ginn was easily older than the combined ages of his two bandmates, but he was very much the bedrock of the group. Anchoring the songs on bass guitar, Ginn hasn’t lost his keen ear for melody. Time and again he tossed out a bass line begging to be fleshed out and turned into a proper song, only to be discarded for the next impulse.

As Piazza wailed and Hutchinson held the backbeat, Ginn closed his eyes and swayed back and forth in unison with Hutchinson’s backbeat. One got the feeling Ginn would be doing this regardless, and was just as happy to play for fans on the road as in a studio or rehearsal space.

Ginn was equally happy to talk with anyone who approached him. He made it a point to catch everyone’s name, listened patiently and answered thoughtfully. Sadly, there were only a handful of fans at the opening end of the Corrugators’ allotted hour at Guitar Syndicate, and about two dozen souls in the Record Bar that night.

When I asked Ginn how he hooked up with the Corrugators, at the pre-show stop at Guitar Syndicate, he shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said softly. “They’re probably into U2.” Turning to me he asked, “Do you like U2?” I confessed that I liked the band, but that their last few albums had been too similar and I had fallen away.

“Everybody likes U2,” he said with weary resignation. “I guess that’s why thousands of people turn out for Bono wherever he goes.”

Moments later, Ginn proved his disdain for the group when Hutchison threatened to start playing “Where the Streets Have No Name” one night during a show. “Is that one of their songs?” Ginn asked. “I don’t even know what that is.”

Ginn could be forgiven – even respected – for not knowing one of U2’s biggest songs. When that single broke in the summer of 1987 he was on the tour, reasserting himself after the recent demise of Black Flag. The road, the van, the do-it-yourself ethos weren’t just part of Ginn’s punk persona; they are the core of who he is.

The night ended as spontaneously as it began. After three songs and 45 minutes, Ginn thanked the sparse Record Bar crowd for coming out, and started packing up. It wouldn’t be long before the gear was hauled out and Ginn was back home, back in the van.

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