Songs for Insane Times

How a month-long concert bender restored my faith in humanity

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Big Thief at the Bottleneck, 10/12/17. Photo by David Wetzel

Reality has been a bit much lately. Fires, floods, shootings, Trump: Each morning I look at my phone to see if it’s all over, but it only seems to get worse.

I’ve tried various palliatives — overeating, football, ibuprofen — but nothing seems to do the trick. At times I wish things would just go back to normal, but then I think about how, for many others less fortunate than me, “normal” has never had a positive connotation.

I have, however, found at least one reliably soul-restoring activity lately: live music. While it doesn’t blot out the darker aspects of humanity, going to a concert feels like a healthy immersion in its best qualities — a way to pull oneself from the brink of despair while also having a good time.

For these reasons, as well as the quirks of the concert calendar, I’ve been to more shows in the first few weeks of fall than I did the entire spring and summer.

My KC live music bender actually began in LA, where I saw a headlining set by Kevin Morby, an Overland Park native whose songwriting and stage presence have improved with each tour. Morby’s band includes Meg Duffy, one of the most interesting lead guitarists in indie music, whose ornate, soulful guitar lines give each song a sparkle not found on Morby’s earlier efforts.

These days, Morby and pals call Los Angeles home, and several people in the Teragram Ballroom crowd seemed to know all the words. Between songs, a guy behind me said to a friend, “He’s got like this Midwestern, Kansas City vibe going. I’m digging it!” Somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut. LA digs the KC vibe? Coolness, it would seem, is a moving target.

To my Midwestern eyes, Morby looked serious and focused, his songs straightforward and perfectly on point. During a short acoustic set, he played “Beautiful Strangers,” his song addressing the Paris attacks of 2015, the Orlando nightclub massacre and the police killing of Freddie Gray. Part folk song, part prayer, the song urges listeners to keep calm in the face of violence and terror.

Why is no one else writing songs like this? I wondered. Probably because it requires exceptional skill and heart. I’d always thought of Morby as a good songwriter, but this was great.

The song was still in my head a week later, when it became all too relevant once again. Reading the headlines about the massacre in Las Vegas, I felt instantly numb — the brain insulating itself from what it would prefer not to understand. Morby’s lyrics echoed: “If the gunmen come, or if I die too young, I’m full of love.” Midwestern? Yes. Better yet: human.

The next day, I bought a couple of discounted, last-minute tickets to see The XX at Starlight. It would be my first visit to the venerable Swope Park venue since I saw the musical “Camelot” as a 5-year-old (which, come to think of it, probably explains the Arthurian nostalgia I feel every time I catch a glimpse of the Swope Memorial).

Thirty years later, Starlight is still beautiful, its trees, fountains and faux-Venetian architecture a welcome relief from bars, televisions and the real world. It was a perfect setting for The XX, whose songs about vulnerability, empathy and hope somehow sound even more intimate amplified from the big stage. The music was much clearer than I would have expected from the outdoor stage, with intricate light displays refracted in rotating, mirrored panels.

In the dimness, I focused on objects that captured the light — a pink glow from the stage lights in someone’s cup of beer, a moth pirouetting above the orchestra seats, a nimbus moon holding court in the clouds left of the stage. This is full-on sensory escapism, I thought, realizing that I felt OK again. Everything was still wrong in the world, but the concert had put it all on mute. I knew that not everyone had the same privilege, but I decided to indulge anyway.

The band did not dissuade me. Bassist Oliver Sim told the crowd they hope people can leave at home whatever is causing them pain so that they can have a good time at the show. Each band member thanked us for being there, sounding sincere in the way only the British can. It’s hard to know how much Las Vegas (or Paris, or Manchester) were on their minds, but The XX seemed keenly aware of the physical and emotional vulnerability of performing in public, and genuinely grateful we were taking those risks alongside them.

Two nights later, at the Angel Olsen show in Lawrence, the vibe was more festive. It was Thursday night in a college town, and people were there to party, the triple homicide that happened outside the venue a week earlier seemingly forgotten. With her glittering jumpsuit, teased-up hair and playful stage banter, Olsen was in sassier form than her 2014 visit to the Riot Room, calling for tequila shots and joking about retiring to become a librarian.

Her music, however, sounded solemn, beautiful and very much of its time. On the climactic verse of “Woman,” a searing number about love and loss, Olsen sings: “I dare you to understand / what makes me a woman.” You can hear so much in that final syllable, which she stretches out with anguish, her voice soaring before plunging back into the noise of the band. It’s a dare (white, male) listeners like me may be willing to accept, while also acknowledging that we will never truly understand.

The local acts I’ve seen this past month have been no less impressive. At a reunion of Lawrence musicians in town for an October wedding, I was reminded of how special a performer Suzannah Johannes is, how weird and fun a Drakkar Sauna show can be, how perfectly a Fourth of July song pairs with PBR and a nagging sense of regret.

A showcase of local composers at the Folly Theater, hosted by the Charlotte Street Foundation, reminded me of how much musical innovation is alive in Kansas City. During a three-song set of new music, J. Ashley Miller ran his mythology-inspired lyrics through a vocoder, while Pat Alonzo Conway musically weaponized cell phones in the audience to stage an unexpected intro to the meditative tones of his gamelan ensemble. The upbeat, joyful compositions of Bolivian musical polymath Amado Espinoza showcased the scorching violin solos of Tina Bilberry, and bassist Jeff Harshbarger debuted a composition that appeared in his head while suffering from viral meningitis, performed by a dozen guitarists obscured in the recesses of the balcony level.

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J Fernandez at Holy Cow, 10/13/17

On a much smaller stage, a DIY showcase by local bands The Shy Boys and The Fullbloods, and Chicago group J. Fernandez reminded me that the best shows are often $5 and require drinking beer in an alley because the venue has no liquor license and nobody want any heat from the cops. I saw a lot of people I knew, or knew by sight, although none of us wanted to talk through the music. It was an ordinary weeknight show that managed to feel like something special, if for no other reason than KC’s own Kyle Rausch adeptly played drums in all three bands.

But much like my beer buzz that night, the invigorating effects of my concert bender eventually wore off. After a show at the Bottleneck by Brooklyn band Big Thief — my second show in a row that week — I woke up with a headache, an empty wallet, and a wife who had run out of patience. It was a good run, and I’d gladly do it again, but for the time being it was back to the more customary evening routines of loading the dishwasher and reading stories to the kids.

Still, it had felt good to stand in a crowd of strangers and friends — drinking, smiling and nodding along to the beat. Watching performers of all genres, genders and geographical origins share their talents, I was reminded of how our species, while capable of hate, destruction and violence, can also produce moments of profound beauty, harmony and vision. Even in times likes these, the shows must go on. And we, for our part, must keep showing up.

***

Addendum: Two new releases I’m super excited about — “Nothing Valley” by Melkbelly, the Chicago band my brother James plays drums in. It’s an amazing record. They’ll be in Lawrence Nov. 17 and KC on March 6. Earned some nice write-ups from The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Reader and Pitchfork. I also really like the new John Maus record. If you fit into that weird venn diagram of people who like leftist neo coldwave synth jams and also watch football unironically, this video will be perfect for you. And in case you’re wondering where the title of this blog post is from, allow me to (re)introduce you to my good friend Kevin Ayers.

 

 

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