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Boulevardia festival gets it right the first time with a lively mix of local and national bands

06/15/2014 4:45 PM

06/16/2014 2:40 PM

Kansas City has another major annual festival on its hands, given the rousing success of this weekend’s inaugural Boulevardia.

The three-day street festival, which took over a large area in the West Bottoms, drew thousands of people. Crowd estimates for Friday night were more than 7,000. The crowd estimate for Saturday, when the festival ran from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., was around 15,000. And it felt like it. Both music stages were packed nearly all day.

And so was the 12th Street Bridge for nearly four hours, when the 2,000 attendees of the festival’s sold-out Taps & Taste event were present.

All three days, the music bill featured a mix of national acts on the main stage and local acts on the “homegrown” stage, set up in an alleyway amid a nest of large buildings that made for a nice industrial, urban setting. The sound wasn’t perfect, but given the rugged surroundings it was usually more than passable.

Here’s a look at some of the music performances the first two days.

Friday

At 6 p.m., the Grisly Hand started its set on the homegrown stage, the band’s first show after a long hiatus and its first with Dan Loftus, its new bassist/keyboardist/vocalist.

The Grisly played tracks from its “Western Avenue” EP, including the title track and “Black Coffee”; from the stellar full-length, “Country Singles,” including the title track, “That’s Not Affection” (issuing an f-bomb warning beforehand) and “Any Other Way” plus a new song, “Baby Talk,” which took their sound in a different and interesting direction. As will be the case for all the local bands playing this festival, the Grisly Hand made a lot of new fans and sold a chunk of merchandise.

At the main stage, Blondfire started its set right after the Grisly Hand’s ended. An electro-pop band from Los Angeles (via Michigan and New York), Blondfire at times bears some strong resemblances to a few other bands’ sound (the Cardigans, Metric). Much of the crowd (me included) was hearing the band for the first time, and it got a warm response throughout the set. Erica Driscoll is Blondfire’s lead singer, and her porcelain voice is ideal for the band’s best tunes, which are odysseys in dreamy, jangly indie-pop, songs like “Kites” and “We Are One,” which was familiar to many in the crowd.

After Blondfire’s set, Hearts of Darkness turned the homegrown stage into a dance fest. The band has undergone several substantial personnel changes over the past couple of years. It’s now a 13-piece ensemble, but it’s still led by Les Izmore and still includes singers Rachel Christia and Erica Townsend and its dynamic blend of funk, soul, R&B, rock and hip-hop still arouses a feverish party mood. Hearts of Darkness, too, made a lot of new fans.

The Wild Feathers were the next main stage band. Their music bears a variety of influences as it shifts from country to rock to folk: the Eagles, the Band, Crosby Stills & Nash, Tom Petty, the Black Crowes and a few modern country acts. The Wild Feathers mixed several of their own songs, like “I’m Alive” and “Happy,” with covers: Led Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do” and the Band’s “The Weight.”

The sun had set long before the Latenight Callers started their set, which closed the homegrown stage. They brew a noirish, sultry mix of rock and electronica that sounds of another era. Whether through a microphone or megaphone, lead vocalist Julie Berndsen has an arresting voice that’s equal parts jazz and soul. They’ve called themselves “the soundtrack to a David Lynch pool party” for a good reason.

Kansas City’s own Quixotic closed both the main stage and the evening’s entertainment. To the sounds of Shane Borth (electric violin), Anthony Magliano (percussion) and Hermon Mehari (trumpet), the troupe’s dancers performed a variety of stunts and dance numbers, many featuring fire.

Nothing topped the stunt by a guy on stilts: Lying on his back, in a sit-up position, the stilts perpendicular to the ground, he hoisted himself into an upright position. Yeah, he needed a step or two to catch his balance, but he stuck the landing. And the crowd roared.

Saturday

Three local bands opened the main stage with a nice variety of music: Dollar Fox, a roots-rock quintet; the Starhaven Rounders, a classic-country cover band; and the MGDs, a horn-fed electric funk/blues band.

The weather was ideal except for the strong winds, which stirred up some dust in the gravel patches, especially over at the homegrown stage, where it was blowing directly at the bands. My Brothers and Sisters forged on through the wind and some sound issues, which were rectified before their 40-minute set was over. Jamie Searle is the leader of the 12-piece band, which includes horns, strings and backup singers, and he led them through a set that featured music from the band’s dandy genre-hopping full-length, “Violet Music,” including “In My Sights” and “Fall Winter Spring and Summer.” The crowd responded enthusiastically to the entire set, especially to a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”

The Joplin band Me Like Bees followed the MGDs on the main stage. Its energetic music has instant appeal, bearing resemblances to a few bands, especially Modest Mouse and including bands like Grouplove or Of Monsters and Men.

Not a Planet was the next band to endure the winds at the homegrown stage. The trio makes a big sound and issues a variety of styles, much of it steeped in the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. The Beatles are an obvious influence, but there were some Paul Simon resemblances, too. And Not a Planet can muster some heavy blues, too, tapping into the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

The uniformed March Fourth Marching Band invaded the main stage after Me Like Bees. An ensemble of musicians (lots of horns), dancers and some incredible acrobats on stilts, they are a musical circus onstage. They’re from Portland, Ore., but their music is steeped in the sounds of New Orleans. They can also stir up some heavy funk, in the style of Sly Stone and P-Funk. Theirs was one of the liveliest sets of the day.

Back at the homegrown stage, the Josh Berwanger Band put on a kinetic set of bright and peppy pop songs. Berwanger has a keen knack for crafting melodic pop tunes buttered in harmonies and packing a hard guitar punch and delivering them with energy and swagger. The crowd responded likewise.

Robert DeLong, a DJ/musician from Washington state, was next up on the main stage, which jumped from one style to another all day. DeLong’s sound is a mix of rock and electronic dance music, fortified by his live percussion. His set aroused a lot of dancing amid a sun-baked crowd and was punctuated a few times by roars coming from the Sporting KC tent, which was packed with soccer fans watching the World Cup.

The Kansas City band Six Percent followed the Berwanger band on the homegrown stage. It’s a six-piece with two trombonists who add an invigorating brassy sheen to their hearty punk anthems. Comparisons to Rise Against are reasonable.

You’d think a band named Catfish and the Bottlemen would sound like a punk/bluegrass band. Instead they’re a buzz band from the United Kingdom, and they sound like it. Led by mop-headed Van McCann, who bears more than a slight resemblance to former teen idol Leif Garrett, they fuse the traits and sounds of several British bands (the Verve came to mind more than once) into melodic, wall-of-sound guitar anthems.

No band was better suited to close the homegrown stage on a rowdy Saturday night than the Architects, one of Kansas City’s best all-time bands. With the stage’s largest crowd of the day, they issued 40 minutes of feral, unvarnished rock ’n’ roll with a sweaty, uninhibited fury.

The Architects’ sound is about as far from Capital Cities as it can get. The electronic duo from Los Angeles crafts breezy, groovy pop tunes, bolstering their sound with live instrumentation, including guitars, keyboards and horns. The crowd gave their cover of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” a big thumbs up and their hit “Safe and Sound” a thunderous roar.

By then, many in the crowd, which had diminished a bit over the final two hours or so, started heading to the gates and out to their cars or cabs awaiting in the West Bottoms, which was still teeming with a festive atmosphere, 12 hours after the gates to Boulevardia opened.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

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