Five In A Row: Middle Of The Map Fest Review 04/25/15

For the fifth year in a row, Kansas City has proven itself to be a new hotbed of live music with the Middle of the Map Festival. Growing from a couple nights of shows at a few venues to a 4-day festival encompassing all of Westport, inside and out, with hundreds of bands, Middle of the Map is easily Kansas City’s answer to SXSW – both in size and quality of music. Saturday, the final day, may have taken place under grey skies and falling temperatures, but the quality of the performances didn’t suffer one bit.

Opening the outside stage of the Riot Room was laid-back rockers Captiva. Being one of the first bands of the day didn’t slow them down a bit – they launched right into a catchy set of surf-inspired pop rock in the vein of Sublime and Dirty Heads. They caused a few onlookers on the patio of the Riot Room to dance along with them, especially when the vocalist showcased his rhyming ability while the rest of the band grooved along behind him.

Later on in the day, when the temperatures started to drop, St. Louis punk duo Bruiser Queen turned up the volume and the energy inside the Riot Room. With just a guitar, drums and two musicians donning capes, Bruiser Queen delivered old-school rock and roll with a punk tinge, not so unlike a current day Bikini Kill. The group rarely let up on the aggression but when they did, the guitar melodies easily provided for some of the best dancing music of the festival weekend.

Local group Westerners are no strangers to the Kansas City scene, but their stage presence and performance were still outstanding. Combining the bluesy, modern day hard rock like The Black Keys with a little bit of psychedelia a la Tame Impala. Every so often, the members of the band would completely rock out – Westerners seems like a band that shouldn’t be confined to a stage away from their audience when performing.

On tour for her recently released solo EP, Company of Thieves’ frontwoman Genevieve took the outside stage next as the crowd continued to grow during her performance. Whereas Company of Thieves showcases their propensity for heavy pop rock, Genevieve’s solo performance was more of a showcase for her vocal talents – and what vocal talents they are. Whether it was just her accompanied by a piano on the hauntingly beautiful “For You,” or the soon-to-be summer hit “Colors”, Genevieve’s vocals took center stage for her thoroughly entertaining set. We can only hope she’ll return to Kansas City soon.

The inside stage at the Riot Room was packed next – not just for people wanting to get out of the cold, but to also witness the complete show that is a live set by The Philistines. Combining punk, rock and roll, soul and just about every other music genre imaginable, The Philistines ripped through a much-too short, yet high-energy and well-received set of tunes. After performing covers by The Monkees and Neil Young, The Philistines proved to everyone (although it didn’t need proving) that Kansas City breeds some of the best live music around.

Westport dueling piano bar Ernie Biggs hosted some of the craziest shows of last years Middle of the Map, and this year would be no different. Like a cross between the best eras of The White Stripes and The Stroked with a healthy dose of punk, garage rockers Scruffy & The Janitors performed flawlessly to a much-too small crowd. Each member of the trio had moments of musical brilliance on their respective instruments that made them one of the hidden gems of this year’s festival.

All this music has been a little bit to happy, right? With their first show ever, Sie Lieben Maschinen looked to put a stop to all that nonsense. A nonstop chaotic combination of noise rock, progressive rock and a bit of industrial to put the cherry on top of the sinister undertones, this group of Kansas City musicians put on perhaps the most memorable set by a local group this year. Full of feedback, dissonance and haunting tones before launching into a burst of rock with shouted vocals that would make Michael Gira proud, if Sie Lieben Maschinen’s first show is any indication of what the rest of their career is going to look like, Kansas City is in for one hell of a new music group.

The patio of the Riot Room is a near-perfect venue for live hip-hop, and it showed on this cold, rainy Saturday night. Vocalist Barrel Maker collaborated with DJ/beat-maker/fellow emcee D/Will to create mellow beats with a fantastic flow from the frontman. With an emphasis on infectious beats to let Barrel Maker rap over them, these two lit up the patio of the Riot Room harder than it has been in quite some time.

Perhaps the best part of being from Kansas, Ebony Tusks, took the patio stage next. Fronted by the enigmatic Martinez Hillard, who is more of a spoken word poet than a traditional hip-hop emcee, and backed by beats from Nathan Giesecke and Daniel Smith, Ebony Tusks straddle the line between shiver-inducing preached poetry and hip-hop bangers to get the crowd going. Multiple times, Hillard would abandon the microphone for walking around the crowd outside whilst performing his rhymes, putting an intense personal feeling on the night’s performance. Cutting out the beats behind “Everybody Run” and using the crowd for callback’s during the chorus, Ebony Tusks ended their set as maybe, just maybe, the greatest hip-hop group in the Kansas City area (and maybe beyond) right now.

A mammoth crowd had gathered around the outside stage, despite the cold and rainy conditions, for alternative country/indie rock mainstays Murder By Death. It seemed like every song the group played was an anthem that had a passionate crowd of fans singing along to every lyric – the electric “I’m Comin’ Home” induced some of the biggest dance parties of the entire festival. Murder By Death flawlessly combines the catchiness of alternative rock with the down-to-earth roots of Americana and country to create positively unique and captivating music and it’s easy to see why they had one of the biggest crowds of the entire festival.

No matter where you went during the last day of the Middle of the Map Festival, you were guaranteed to see lots of attendees wearing Joy Division shirts. The excitement was palpable as the final group of the outside stage, Peter Hook & The Light, launched into their set that consisted of almost every song off Joy Division’s first two albums. It’s almost impossible to overstate how influential and important Joy Division was and continues to be, so I won’t even try. Founding bassist Peter Hook did a fine job replicating the somber tones of late frontman Ian Curtis without sounding like a carbon copy. Although Hook had a bass guitar slung over his shoulder for the entire set, he only sometimes strummed along to the songs, leaving most of the bass duties to his backing band. The opening drum beat and bass chords of “Disorder” brought a cheer, but the final trio of “Digital,” “Transmission” and everyone’s favorite “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was met with the biggest crowd reaction of the night. In the freezing rain, it was the perfect atmosphere for some of the coldest music ever recorded.
With year number five being its biggest year yet, it’s hard to call Middle of the Map anything but a success. I can only imagine how much this festival will grow over the next few years and I’m eagerly awaiting the first artist announcements for the 2016 edition of this wonderful, locally grown festival.

About Jackson May

Read more from Jackson at Mandatory Metallica and follow him on Twitter at @Mankvill.

View all articles by Jackson May

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