Middle of the Map Fest (Friday Night) Review
Fellow Kansas Citians, consider Friday night at the well-curated Middle of the Map Fest to be revenge straight from 1985, a night when denizens of Missouri’s other major-city came into town and took the 816 by storm. Save for a few centurion-like bands standing at the walls to keep marauders out, Friday night was an onslaught on the local-level.
St. Louis two-piece Sleepy Kitty began the storming of the gates early in the night at the Riot’s Rooms Patio Stage. The mathematically precise “Bodhisattva” by Steely Dan played before the show, serving as a perfect counterpoint to Sleepy Kitty’s sprawling strut. The duo tore into originals and a cover with equal fervor, the latter being a riotous take on the Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There”, that increased the wattage without sacrificing any of the giddy sentimentality. Lead-vocalist Paige Brubeck and drummer Evan Sult had the “nostalgic” look down pat, with Sult rocking a tiger vest on top of a blue jean jacket and Brubeck bringing out a black-sequined skirt. That said, the communal vocals and feint sneers were entirely of the time; a look that projects a sharp edge or a rounded corner depending on the angle you take. “Don’t You Start”, off of Sleepy Kitty’s latest release offered the best of both worlds. Sult’s drums pummeled like a jackhammer as Brubeck’s voice waxed and waned between pining and pissed off. As the feedback began to recede, their promise of “this is one everyone can sing along to” had warn off. Something so beautifully specific isn’t “for everyone.”
Slightly rocked by the first major victory for a St Louis band, I took up “shelter” in the Jerusalem Cafe; partly out of a need for comfort and partly because of a “dire hunger.” After devouring a piquant falafel sandwich and a spinach/feta pastry, I trekked back across Westport Road to reclaim a position at the Riot Room’s Patio Stage. I tried to jockey for a position as close to the stage as I could for Wolf Eyes, which may very well have been a colossal mistake.
Not for the faint of heart. Not for the faint of heart. Not for the faint of heart. Softies, wide-eyed longhairs, stargazers, and solo-dolo stoners need not apply when it comes to the Detroit-based Wolf Eyes. The noise/post-industrial that’s been going for nearly two decades resembles what Death Grips would sound like if they were fed a cocktail of black tar heroin & Timothy Leary’s LSD, then piped through a crumbling 1991 modem and hurled down a flight of concrete steps. While typically hyperbolic, a word such as “punishing” actually underserves their efforts. By the time I went back inside the Riot Room: my ear drums had been busted wide-open, my brain turned to mush, and my had leapt out of my chest at least half a dozen times. Inanities like song-titles or illuminating lyrics ceased to matter with Wolf Eyes. The Tony Iommi in a tornado guitar riffs and lacerating electronics were more than enough to leave an impression.
To recover from the bedlam I had just been apart of, I trudged back down a wooden staircase into the heart of the Riot Room where the next-band Dots Not Feathers was setting up. Still a bit frazzled from the set, I went over to the circular bar to order a drink to wash away the poison that had just been spit at me. I don’t quite know if I’ve ever drank a drink that slowly. It had nothing to do with wanting to pace myself or being cautious, I just had no energy left in me after what I had just witnessed.
If you were somehow able to bottle a lightning bolt, you still wouldn’t be able to to power St. Louis sextet Dots Not Feathers. Forming a negative opinion about them is tough because your head would be swirling around too much from their jigsaw sound to think straight. With occasional elastic “funk” basslines, scraggly Dirty Projectors guitar figures, animated keys, and rallying vocals that The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am Not Longer Afraid To Die would chant along to, Dots Not Feathers possess an unmistakable earnestness you cannot help but cast a smile towards. Standout “Planets Revolve In Your Eyes” is a track stronger than any mood stabilizer, a love ballad that doesn’t dwell or grow maudlin. On a mix tape culled in any year, the song could convincingly bat lead-off because of its magnetism. Like the band that authored it, the tune casts a spell without resorting to dark witchcraft. Vibrant energy and desire is all it needs to thrive.
Spilling out from Dots Not Feathers, I headed back down Westport Rd. towards Ernie Biggs Piano Bar to see the fabled Del the Funky Homosapien, encountering a carnivalesque cast of characters along the way. There was the shirtless drunk being escorted into a police cruiser, a full acoustic band playing on a street-corner, bros paradoxically tucked into business suits, and throngs of besotted drunks. Even without these colorful folks clamoring to see Del, the line for the show was out the door. It snaked through a dingy side-alley, past a few other drinking establishments, which is where I caught it. Not wanting to stand around in the cold at 11 oclock at night, I went to my car to charge my phone and outlast the line. After sitting and listening to Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs for about 20 minutes in my CD-littered Scion, I had sufficient juice to continue my note-taking. At this point the line had dissipated and I was able to leisurely stroll in.
Forgive me if this part of the review begins to resemble a fanboy freakout, but it is hard to contain myself when talking about Del the Funky Homosapien. Back before I was a rap-fanatic, the only hip-hop I had rattling around in my skull was the Gorillaz breezy “Clint Eastwood”. I remember first hearing the song playing over the speakers of my local AMC theater in 2001. With one listen it was emblazoned upon my consciousness, particularly Del’s verse which was the most effortless thing my adolescent ears had heard up to that point. And though it would be a few more years before hip-hop had a fully hold on me, Del in that one track managed to grab me.
More than two decades after the Oakland-resident’s seminal I Wish My Brother George Was Here, Del’s abilities are as terrific as ever. He remains a sharp, if somewhat goofy storyteller that has you gut-laughing at break-ins by psychopathic exes. He has the type of personality that can carry a line like “hotter than Tabasco” and keep it from sounding corny. That’s to say nothing of his voice, which gets my vote as one of the five most malleable in hip-hop history. A medley of: Biggie’s “Hypnotize”, dead prez’s “Hip Hop”, GZA’s “Liquid Swords”, and countless other rap classics served as the proof. At no point did his flow ever falter or fall behind the shifting beats. Instead it leisurely dance around them, never sounding the least bit harried. The effortlessness was still there and it was a sight to behold.
Had I called it a night after seeing Del, I would’ve been entirely satisfying, but I knew I couldn’t escape without seeing at least one more band. I knew of S. Carey as a critical component of Bon Iver, but had never experienced any of his own music, so my interested was piqued before the show even started. Scheduled to go on at 12:30 inside of the Riot Room, the band was still setting up as I chatted with a fellow Truman State alum about what we’d both been listening to recently. Future Island’s flawless new LP Singles came up, as did Rick Ross’ opulent Mastermind and the laconic Atlas. We could’ve kept talking for the rest of the night, had Carey himself not interrupted with the quiet joke “it’s well past our bed time, but we’re going to play some songs for you.”
“Somnambulant” is really the only word I can use to describe S. Carey’s reverent folk/chamber pop/ambient hybrid. Guided by warm ripples of Wurlitzer, the nature-struck music sounds like a blissful dream that lifts you off your feet and sends you shuffling around a carpeted room. Infrequently you may thrash or jerk about as a swelling guitar creeps through your thoughts, but inevitable you’ll return to a relaxed, tranquil state. A place where the carefully plucked guitar chords found in “Mothers” resemble a pebble slowly sinking to the bottom of a pond. Where drooping pedal steel leads to a lullaby for a seven-month-old daughter (Carey’s own) in “Chrysalis”. The locale the band creates is the kind everyone wants to travel to and no one wants to leave. Even when his voice is imbued with a profound aching, you long to travel to the place where that ache first seized him. In his delicate hands, pain isn’t revolting but alluring. It’s dreamy and atmospheric. Range of Light closer “Neverending Fountain” embodied this dream in its most sublime form. Slight pops and crackles come close to disturbing the pristine surface, but never do. Carey’s tender voice just floats right along, down a crystal-blue river weaving into the horizon. It looks towards the future with a glint of hope while still memorializing what’s come before. Both out of time and well within it.
(Today Saturday April 5th marks the final day of the 2014 MOTM Fest and I hope anyone reading this is able to attend. My personal suggestions are for acts like Kate Nash, !!!, Shabazz Palaces, and WHY?. But don’t be afraid to embrace local acts like Shy Boys or David Hasselhoff on Acid. And speaking of local acts, shout-out to the Jorge Arana Trio for holding down the fort for the 816. While I was only able to catch their final two songs, they had all the feral jazz qualities they’ve been honing over the past several years.)