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(Above: “New Dawn Fades” for Peter Hook and the Light.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

“This is the way,” Peter Hook sang during the opening song. “Step inside.”

The smallest crowd of the night at Middle of the Map’s outdoor stage was all too eager to follow.

Hook is a founding member of the influential post-punk band Joy Division. The British group famously broke up on the eve of their first U.S. tour. The surviving members were well into their second life as New Order by the time they finally reached America.

peter hookAs the bass player in both bands, Hook’s new group finally gives fans – many of whom weren’t alive during Joy Division’s late ’70s run – a chance to finally hear the beloved songs performed by a founding member.

The execution was as straightforward as it was magical: Both of Joy Division’s studio albums in their original order and arrangements, with a couple non-album songs at the end. The experience mimicked what fans have enjoyed for years at home, only exponentially better.

“Closer,” the second of Joy Division’s two albums, opened the night. After a brief break, the band returned to perform “Unknown Pleasures.” The combination of “New Dawn Fades” into “She’s Lost Control” – separated by a side break on the original album – generated one of the strongest one-two punches of the 90-minute set. By the end of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Hook had his shirt off, tearing around the stage with a maniacal smile, acting like it was the first time he had performed the band’s best-known number.

A combination of cool temperature and constant mist of rain actually improved the atmosphere. Joy Division’s music is many things – groundbreaking, intense, visceral – but it is not made for a sunny afternoon.

Hook was ably assisted by the five-piece Light, which included his son, Jack Bates, handling many of his dad’s signature basslines. The remaining three members are veterans of Monaco, another of Hook’s bands.

Although the audience was intimately familiar with the material, there wasn’t a lot of singing along. Instead there were a lot of and spontaneous hugs and high fives when favorite songs like “Isolation” or “She’s Lost Control” started. There were also lots of closed eyes as fans let the music and experience wash over them.

Setlilst: Closer: Atrocity Exhibition; Isolation; Passover; Colony; A Means to an End; Heart and Soul; Twenty Four Hours; The Eternal; Decades. Unknown Pleasures: Disorder; Day of the Lords; Candidate; Insight; New Dawn Fades; She Lost Control; Shadowplay; Wilderness; Interzone; I Remember Nothing. Transmission; Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Keep reading:

Middle of the Map 2015 – day four

Middle of the Map 2015 – day three

Review: TV on the Radio

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(Above: William Elliott Whitmore looks forward to “Digging My Grave” on the outdoor stage at the 2015 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

(Note: With more than 100 bands performing on eight stages across four days, it is impossible to hear everything at the Middle of the Map festival. I spent most of the festival’s final day on an unseasonably cold day at the outdoor stage.)

Phox:

Despite cold hands and early sound issues, Phox delivered an enjoyable set that delighted the fans that filled about two-thirds of the parking lot around the outdoor stage.

The six-piece band from Wisconsin performs soulful, confessional indie rock that recalls fellow Wisconsinite and mentor Bon Iver. Their delicate melodies never got lost in the expansive outdoor environment, thanks to inventive arrangements.

“Evil” featured a New Orleans jazz trumpet solo, while “Never Love,” an unreleased song, opened with a recorder and African guitar line a la Vampire Weekend. Throughout it all, lead singer Monica Martin was the not-so-secret weapon. Her soulful voice and playful stage talk kept the songs weighty and the downtime light.

The band threw a curveball into the mix with a hushed, dainty cover of Blink-182’s “I Miss You.” More fans sang along with that number than any of the band’s original numbers.

murder by death

Murder by Death

William Elliott Whitmore:

Armed with a guitar, banjo and bass drum, William Elliott Whitmore did a great job prepping the crowd for Murder By Death’s Americana rock. His 45-minute set was filled traditional folk songs about train trestles, digging graves and devils.

Between songs, Whitmore bantered with the audience with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Whitmore said he wanted his time to feel like friends hanging out on the front porch. While he’s a bit early for that festival, he accomplished the feel.

Murder by Death:

Murder by Death play the kind of songs that make you more likely to get pulled over for speeding. Even the band’s down-tempo numbers are full-throttle. Case in point “Curse of Elkhart,” a torrid cautionary tale fueled by Sarah Balliet’s furiously strummed cello.

Several of the band’s Americana opuses unfold like novellas. Judging by apparel and lips, plenty of the crowd already knew the stories. Highlights of the hourlong set included the David Bowie tribute “I Shot an Arrow,” “Spring Break 1899” and “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs.”

Keep reading:

Middle of the Map 2015 – day three

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: Vampire Weekend

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(Above: Minneapolis rapper Atmosphere performs the song “Kanye West” at the Uptown Theater during the 2015 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

(Note: With more than 100 bands on eight stages across four days, hearing everything at Middle of the Map is impossible. I bunkered down at the Uptown Theater for most of the festival’s third day.)

Ghastly Menace: There weren’t many people in the Uptown Theater shortly after 6 p.m., but Ghastly Menace played with an intensity like they were trying to convert everyone in the room.

Pushed to the lip of the stage by everyone else’s equipment, the six-piece band from Chicago had no problem generating multi-layered indie pop that had the small cluster of fans dancing throughout the 30-minute set.

Hembree: It didn’t feel like Friday night until “Walk Alone.” The third song in Hembree’s half-hour set at the Uptown opened with a loping guitar eventually joined with a four-to-the-floor drum line that nailed everything into place. The rest of the set didn’t match that moment, but blending synth-pop with shades of Americana and folk harmonies created an interesting sound definitely worth further exploration.

Shiner: Positioned between three indie-centric bands, Shiner hit the reset button at the Uptown with a 40-minute slab of hard rock. One of Kansas City’s best ’90s bands, Shiner hasn’t played many shows since breaking up in 2003.

Singer/guitarist Allen Epley was a bit rusty, begging fans to forgive him if he flubbed the lyrics. After one number he told the crowd the band played it just to prove they still could.

He needn’t have worried. The dedicated fans that filled a healthy portion of the floor were just happy to soak up every note they could, knowing it would likely be a while until this next chance.

lord huron

Lord Huron

Lord Huron: Near the start of Lord Huron’s one-hour set, frontman Ben Schneider recalled the last time the band played town they were at the Riot Room.

Those days are long over. Overcrowding on the floor at the Uptown forced the balcony open. If Coldplay went camping they’d land pretty close to Huron’s earthy, indie folk. Schneider’s warm vocals and jaunty arrangements managed to make lyrics like “darkness got a hold on me” sound sunny. Highlights included the spaghetti Western-influenced “The World Ender” and “Fool for Love,” a new song driven by the Bo Diddley beat.

Atmosphere: In the hands of anyone else, getting a crowd to shout “I’m happy to be alive” and commanding them to wear a smile would be corny. Not so for Slug, MC for the Minneapolis hip-hop group Atmosphere.
Witty wordplay and upbeat samples made the show more party than preachy. Fans at the Uptown eagerly rhymed along and bounced up and down with each song. For 70 minutes, he told stories to a packed floor about fighting temptation (”Lucy Ford”), celebrating circumstances (”Kanye West”) and self-worth (”God Loves Ugly”).

Two of the most poignant moments came back-to-back. “The Waitress” paints a portrait of a woman from the perspective of a homeless man. Moments later, thoughts of a deserted, deceased father flood the mind during “Yesterday.”

Ostensibly promoting their eighth album, Slug conferred with his two DJs and focused on older material, going back as far as 1995 for “God’s Bathroom Floor.”

bass drum

Bass Drum of Death

Bass Drum of Death: While not particularly lethal, Bass Drum of Death are very much what-you-see-is-what-you-get. With just two guitars and drums, the sound is so stripped down that even backing vocals are considered a luxury.

The three-piece band from Oxford, Miss., traffics in the same garage and classic rock as Jeff the Brotherhood: sharp bursts of scuzz that pack plenty of punch and don’t overstay their welcome. The post-midnight crowd at Ernie Biggs enjoyed what it got. A low stage meant bad sight lines, but dozens of heads clustered around the band bobbed and throbbed with the beat throughout the 50-minute performance.

Katy Guillen and the Girls: They closed down the Westport Saloon. Their 1 a.m. set drew a substantial amount of fans, who sang along and rejoiced in Guillen’s every guitar solo. Rooted in the same blues rock as Cream, Guillen and her tight two-piece rhythm section shined especially bright when they stretched out on long instrumental passages.

Keep reading:

Review: Mission of Burma (at MOTM 2012)

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: F*cked Up (at MOTM 2012)

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(Above: Roman Numerals fill in for the Guards at the RecordBar on the second night of the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: Sigur Ros pulled me away from covering the first day of MoTM, but I was at the RecordBar on Friday and the outdoor stage on Saturday (with a quick reprise back at the RecordBar).

Friday

In some unfortunate scheduling, Spirit is the Spirit, a Lawrence-based quintet, was forced to compete with Grizzly Bear. It’s too bad fans of laid-back, analog rock were forced to chose, because many Grizzly fans would likely appreciate Austen Malone’s easygoing, reassuring approach.Spirit’s 40-minute set recalled the earthier moments from the Band and the relaxed vibe of “Workingman’s Dead.” The quintet performed several songs from its new EP and was finally able to coax the sparse crowd to dance on the set-closing “Pillows.”

photo (2)

Indie rock supergroup Divine Fits rock the Middle of the Map outdoor stage on Saturday.

Roman Numerals are technically a local band, but Friday’s abbreviated set felt more like a homecoming. The four-piece band was playing with drummer Pete LaPorte for the first time in five years and singer/guitarist William Smith had flown in from his home in New York City.

Stepping in at the last minute for the Guards, who called in sick, the Numerals delivered a gripping 30-minute preview of their set planned for Saturday on the outdoor stage.

The RecordBar crowd swelled considerably for the Numerals, but it didn’t approach feeling full until fans started appearing at the conclusion of Grizzly Bear’s set, in anticipation of Deerhoof.

By the time Deerhoof went onstage at midnight, the RecordBar had a line out the door. A packed house watched the avante-indie quartet make its Kansas City debut (although the band did open for the Flaming Lips mini-residency at Liberty Hall in Lawrence last summer).

Cross Sonic Youth with a Japanese game show and you’re in the ballpark of Deerhoof’s unique sound. The diminuitive Satomi Matsuzaki’s enchanting vocals served as a counterpoint to the chaos, while Greg Saunier’s drumming anchored the seemingly free-form songs.

The biggest responses during the 70-minute set came early for the catchy “Panda Panda Panda” and Flaming Lips’ drummer (and Lawrence resident) Kliph Scurlock’s surprise guest appearance behind the kit.

Saturday

Beautiful Bodies had no problem sustaining the momentum from Roman Numerals’ incredible set-closing cover of Joy Division’s “Transmission.”
Bodies singer Alicia Solombrino spent more time in the crowd than she did onstage. She wasn’t always visible, but it was easy to gauge where she was by the disproportionate amount of hands (and phones) in the air.

Fans further away found plenty to like from the five-piece band’s high energy, half-hour set. The parking lot hosting the outdoor stage was only a third full, but the balcony at nearby Buzzard Beach was packed.

Sandwiched between Beautiful Bodies’ grrl-power pop and Futurebirds’ alt-country, the Soft Reeds were a palate cleanser.

The quintet’s 30 minute set previewed material from an upcoming new album. Bursts of free jazz sax highlighted the opening number, and songs like “Finding Patterns” and “Moving in Time” recalled the nervous energy of the Talking Heads. The band also covered Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain.”

Fans missing Uncle Tupelo will have an instant friend in Futurebirds. The five-piece alt-country band from Athens, Ga. made an impressive KC debut.
Their too-short 50 minute set was grounded in the earthy jangle of three guitars and driven to the stratosphere by the cry of a pedal steel.
A cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” highlighted the band’s strengths, a perfect balance of smooth yet ragged. The one-two of “Wild Heart” and the anthemic “Yur Not Dead” closed the set on the highest moment of the day so far.

photo (1)

The Futurebirds make their Kansas City debut at the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.

Divine Fits had its work cut out following Futurebirds. The supergroup comprised of members of Spoon, Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks proved up to the task. The quartet performed all but one track from their sole LP during the one-hour set, with a new song, “Chained to Love” and a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.”

Both diversions blended well with the group’s sound: driving indie rock built over basic synth patterns. The material blossomed onstage gaining raw energy and losing the sterility of the recorded versions. Frontmen Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner alternated vocal and lead guitar duties. Two of the band’s most neurotic numbers, “What Gets You Alone” and “Shivers” also provided the night’s best moments.

It was hard not to miss the Beaumont Club throughout the weekend, the outdoor stage offered several benefits. Although capacity never rose more than two-thirds full, it offered much greater capacity. It also provided the opportunity to simultaneous enjoy great music and beautiful spring weather.

Tennis
It seemed no one wanted to leave the RecordBar after Making Movies. The venue was one-in, one-out well into Tennis’ set and the room didn’t start to thin until around 1 a.m.

The husband and wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were augmented by a two-piece rhythm section for their 50-minute set. The band’s jangly indie pop and confessional, introspective lyrics made them seem like the cool aunt and uncle to Best Coast. Songs were filled with complex lyrics and romantic devotion typical of a married couple who met in a college philosophy course. The biggest responses went to “Petition” and “Origins.” The response to “Petition” was so great that Moore joked that know she knows how Taylor Swift feels.

The final notes had barely died before the house lights were thrown on and patrons were ordered out. Middle of the Map 2013 was officially over at the RecordBar.

Keep reading:

Review: Kanrocksas (Day 1)

Review: Mission of Burma at MoTM

Review: F*cked Up at MoTM

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(Above: Kansas City’s own Maps for Travelers cover “The Other Shoe” in anticipation of Fucked Up’s appearance at the Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The band may be Fucked Up, but they do many things very well. During the inaugural hour of Easter Sunday, 2012, the six-piece hardcore punk band from Toronto abolished the barrier between artist and audience with an enthusiastic set that turned fans into friends.

The hourlong set leaned heavily on last year’s “David Comes to Life,” an ambitious masterpiece that can stand proudly with other genre-redefining, double-LPs like “London Calling,” “Zen Arcade” and “Double Nickels on the Dime.”

The band had barely kicked into opening number “Queen of Hearts” before frontman Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham was leaning into the crowd, offering his mic to anyone willing to bellow. Over the next hour he walked through the crowd, encouraging hugs, high fives and anything else to encourage fans and make them feel like part of the performance.

Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham displays an intense delight at the Riot Room.

Although the themes in its music can be dark, the atmosphere is entirely positive. During “The Other Shoe,” Abraham got the entire room singing the chorus. A room full of people singing the words “dying on the inside” never felt so upbeat and optimistic.

His vocals are screamed, but the delivery is more out of enthusiasm than anger. While hardcore punk can quickly become numbing in the wrong hands, F’ed Up is surprisingly melodic. The backing vocals from bass player Sandy “Mustard Gas” Miranda and guitarist Ben Cook go a long way toward tempering Abraham’s abrasive technique. The band is also unafraid to show it’s classic rock influences. The three-guitar attack during “Under My Nose” recalled Thin Lizzy. Later, drummer Jonah Falco  quoted Keith Moon’s drum pattern from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” while Abraham twirled his microphone a la Roger Daltrey.

Anticipation was high for F’ed Up’s set. They were talked up by Mission of Burma on Friday night, and the one-in, one-out policy went into effect hours earlier, generating a line to the door that stretched to the corner. Once inside, from the lip of the stage to the back of the bar, everyone seemed mesmerized.

Of the seven bands on the Riot Room’s lineup for Saturday, all but two acts were part of the local music scene. The Chicago-quartet A Lull delivered a set of dreamy, atmospheric music that included the moving “Some Love.” Longtime hardcore/metal mainstays Coalesce were given the final slot before F’ed Up. Singer Sean Ingram successfully cleared a good portion of the crowd from the stage simply by testing his mic.

The band’s intense 40-minute set polarized the room between dedicated fans gathered by the stage, and the rest of the room, politely waiting for the headliner. At one point, guitarist Jes Steineger lept from the stage and played while hanging from the rafter above the crowd.

Keep reading:

Dischord finds harmony in D.C. hardcore scene

Review – Greg Ginn and the Taylor Texas Corrugators

Review: “The Art of the LP”

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