Lucas Wetzel’s top shows of ’09

I know, I know — year-end top 10 lists are supposed to be published in the year they document. I get that. But rather than effectively entomb my list of favorite shows from 2009 in that bygone era, I’d prefer to present this as a list of suggestions for who to keep an ear open for in the year ahead.

So here, in no particular order, is my list of concerts worth recalling from 2009…

Dan Deacon @ The Foundation Room

Attending rock shows can get repetitive. You stand around and watch the group, get a drink, talk to your friends, and stand around some more. Touring bands themselves play the same or similar sets city after city, night after night. Might as well have some fun with it, right?

This seems to be the line of thought for Baltimore electronic musician Dan Deacon, who somewhere along the line decided he’d spice up performances by adding a small army of performers, playing relentless, upbeat music, and leading the crowd in giant games of London Bridge and ring-around-the-rosie.

Grant Snider did a nice write-up for the Pitch that captures a lot of the details from that early morning show (the band didn’t hit the stage until close to 3 a.m.) Anyone who might have gone home early can get a great sense of what the night was like from the time-lapse video posted by Bob Bollen at his blog on

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major performed by the Kansas City Symphony @ The Lyric Theater

Mahler’s first symphony contains everything I want in a romantic composition: reflection, trepidation, bombast, a funeral march based on “Frère Jacques.” To quote an interview the composer gave to the New York Times in 1908: “The longing to express myself musically comes over me only in the realm of obscure feelings, at the threshold of the world beyond, the world in which the categories of time and space rule no more.” Thanks to the masterful conducting of Michael Stern and the skilled execution of the KC Symphony, the audience that weekend got a nice little peek into Mahler’s world beyond. Though it could be a good deal of time before “The Titan” is performed again locally, the KC Symphony will be presenting a number of other exciting concerts in the month ahead. For more info, visit

Thee Oh-Sees, Bandit Teeth & AAArkestra @ the Jackpot Saloon

My big week in San Francisco last May was supposed to end by seeing Thee Oh Sees perform at a little club in the Mission. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account that Thee Oh Sees are a San Francisco band, and the place was already far too full by the time we got there.

But not to worry — all I had to do was wait a few short months for the group to make their way to Lawrence for a concert with local groups Ad Astra Arkestra and Bandit Teeth, a combined lineup that made for one of the best all-around shows of the year.

Although their music is great, both local groups are worth watching for their choreography alone, with Bandit Teeth switching instruments between almost every song and the Arkestra giving Arcade Fire a run for its money when it comes to the amount of people and energy on stage at one time.

As for Thee Oh Sees, it’s true what they say about the band’s explosive frontman — nobody puts their mouth on a microphone quite like John Dwyer.

The People’s Liberation Big Band of Kansas City @ recordBar

No matter what exact lineup is performing on any given night, the People’s Liberation Big Band is one of Kansas City’s most exciting ensembles. From the group’s slightly subversive title to its byzantine arrangements and dynamic execution, the Big Band pushes the parameters of jazz with every single performance. If the ghost of Charlie Parker were to alight in KC for a spectral jam session, something tells me he’d feel most at home sitting in with this adventurous group of performers.

One of my favorite pieces they played this year was when arranger Brad Cox led the ensemble in a tribute to Michael Jackson in the month following the King of Pop’s death. When Jeff Harshbarger began playing the bassline to Billy Jean a few minutes into the piece, the audience broke out in laughter and smiles of recognition. But as the tribute progressed into a free-jazz vamping on some of MJ’s other hits, the medley attained an unexpected poignancy. What would have been a mere stunt in the hands of a lesser outfit became a moment of pop/jazz transcendence thanks to the Big Band’s virtuosity and heart. I only wish I would have made it to the Owen/Cox presentation of the Nutcracker to hear what the Big Band did with Tchaikosvky.

Look for the People’s Liberation Big Band Feb. 7 at recordBar. They will also be performing a special set Jan. 30th at Crosstown Station for the Top of The Bottoms Mardi Gras masquerade ball.

Suzannah Johannes

Speaking of Michael Jackson covers, you might enjoy Suzannah Johannes’ version of “Man In The Mirror” posted by Range Life Records, the Lawrence label that put out Suzie’s 4-song EP in 2008. It’s not a great video, quality-wise, but like anything Suzie does, the song contains a warmth and sincerity that help give an otherwise simple arrangement a touch of magic.

Though she gets instrumental backing from the members of local group Ghosty, Suzie’s singing is often most arresting when accompanied only by her fingerstyle guitar playing. Whether it’s a dozen people at Gusto lounge, where she played a solo set in November, or several hundred people at a CMJ set at the new Knitting Factory in Brooklyn in October, songs like “The Dark Is Setting In” keep the crowd silent and spellbound.

With luck, local music fans will be treated to more releases and performances from Suzie in the year ahead. In the meantime, there’s some great tracks on Daytrotter, the Turnpike and MySpace as well as her EP.

[full disclosure: my brother David backs up Suzie on stage and in the studio, and recently completed a remix of her song “Kelly Ann”]

While I’m conflicting interests, I would be remiss not to mention Ree Yees in my top shows of the year list. My brother James carried on the noise-improvisation outfit after his bandmate Eric Ratzel left for grad school in Chicago, and his blistering live sets — which sound something like Lightning Bolt crossed with a blaster battle from Star Wars — have lit up DIY venues from The Church to this performance on a West Bottoms loading dock.

Neko Case @ The Uptown Theater

Even though you knew it was coming the entire time, seeing Neko and co. perform the Shangri-La’s “The Train From Kansas City” was pretty sweet. (I couldn’t find any footage of the KC show, but I did find this clip from Chicago, which is, after all, one of the places a train from Kansas City is likely to end up.)

Viking Fuck @ the Pistol Social Club

Once you hit a certain point in your concert-going career, it’s easy to start thinking you’ve seen everything before. Once in a while, though, a band comes along and reminds you why you take a chance on rock shows in the first place.

The scene at soundcheck did not look promising — a few skinny shirtless guys standing around in kabuki makeup — and it looked like we were in for some bizarre mash-up of the Ssion and ICP.

A minute into the performance, however, my previously skeptical friends and I had already reached an unspoken consensus: these guys were great. The formula was simple enough: a rollicking, keyboard-driven stomp punctuated by the howling, echoey vocals of the lead singer. But the exuberance with which they carried it all out was phenomenal. This little art-punk trio from Iowa City was playing with more energy than band I’d seen all year, and we didn’t even know what they were called. After the set my friend John walked back to find out what we had just witnessed.

Viking Fuck,” he said.

Of course.

Bonnie Prince Billy @ The Granada

Will Oldham’s spring 2009 tour included an all-star lineup of Josh Abrams on bass, Jim White of the Dirty Three on drums, Cheyenne Mize on violin and vocals, and Emmett Kelly on guitar. The entire set (and Oldham’s jumbled, humorous banter) made for an enjoyable night, but the most transcendent moment took place when the band played “I See A Darkness,” the slow, somber title track of his 2001 album. But instead of playing it at its usual almost oppressive pace, they played an upbeat, almost uplifting, version. Hearing this upbeat take of one of Will Oldham’s bleakest ballads had an almost cathartic effect for this long-time fan. It was like seeing a darkness in a whole new light.

Speaking of Darkness…

Hearts of Darkness, KC’s 17-piece Afrobeat all-star group, has without question produced some of the brightest moments in local music this year. HOD concerts have become some of KC’s most celebrated events, with recent performances taking place at the Crossroads Music Festival, the Pistol Social Club anniversary show, Halloween, Thanksgiving weekend and New Year’s Eve. An appearance at the aforementioned Mardi Gras Masquerade Ball on Jan. 30 will feature the group’s unique blend of explosive funk, hiphop and afrobeat.

Using the songs, polyrhythmic arrangements and politcal consciousness of Fela Kuti as a jumping off point, the group has since come into its own as a songwriting force. Songs like “America = One!” call U.S. imperialism into question, and the explosive “Unplug Yourself” is a melodic call to shut off electronic devices, detach from media programming, and just enjoy the moment. And nothing hits the spot quite like a good cover of Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopalicious.”

I have to admit, though, I was pretty unsure about things the first time I saw the Hearts of Darkness. The music itself was great from the start. It was the cagey guy with the machete hovering around the first row of dancers that made me nervous. Before I could decide whether to intervene I saw the guy step forward and hack a watermelon into two pieces at the foot of the saxophone player — a sacramental releasing of the juices of Afrobeat. Thankfully, the juices haven’t stopped flowing since.

Photo by Paul Andrews

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