Day two of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest was filled with discoveries and fulfilled expectations.
Thursday night began like Wednesday: in the confines of Mills Record Co., site of a High Dive Records showcase. The Lawrence quartet Psychic Heat opened the bill with a set of songs that lived up to the band’s name.
Their music is an arousing mix of fuzzed-up, groove-infested psychedelic rock, blues, metal and punk, like a heavier and grittier version of the Black Angels. Look for Psychic Heat’s debut full-length, “Sunshower,” to be released later this month.
The Conquerors, a quintet from Kansas City, followed Psychic Heat, taking the mood in a completely different direction. They’re a garage-rock band that issues bursts of well-crafted pop bliss with psychedelic-soul accents, usually in less than two and a half minutes. Their sound evokes comparisons to the poppier bands in the “Nuggets” collection: catchy and clever. Their inaugural full-length album is due this summer.
The patio at Californos is an ideal intimate venue when the weather is idyllic, as it was Thursday night, and it was a perfect setting for My Oh My, an eight-piece ensemble from Kansas City that blends rock and soul with dandy results. Imagine a mix of the Band with Elton John in his “Honky Chateau” and “Tumbleweed Connection” days and you have an idea of their sound: warm, organic and melodic, set to engaging grooves (especially when the keyboard jumps in) and embellished with soulful harmonies, thanks to the three-part backing vocals.
The soul theme continued when Amy Farrand and the Like took command of the stage at Ernie Biggs Dueling Piano Bar. Farrand (rhymes with errand) is a veteran of the Kansas City music community, typically as a member of rock or punk bands. With the Like, she has taken a hard swerve into rock and soul. She was backed by two singers (including actress Katie Gilchrist) and a stout four-piece band. Their sound sways from horn-fortified numbers with an Ike and Tina Turner vibe to a more classic rock-soul sound with a Janis Joplin feel. It was all bright, taut, groovy and well-executed.
The two-man Lawrence band the Sluts took over Californos’ patio, delivering a set of primitive songs that packed an appealing mix of aggression, melody and groove. They can tap into the gritty blues like other drum-guitar duos (Black Keys), but the Sluts are at their best when they steer into a punk, post-punk and other genres and songs that evoked comparisons to bands like Clinic, the Vines and Nirvana.
The Philistines are a six-piece Kansas City band that tinkers with an array of rock sounds. They call it “interstellar rock and roll,” an apt description. It’s primarily psychedelic rock but they take it in interesting directions and explore uncharted galaxies. Their music can be as cosmic as it is furious, but even when things get feral and effusive, it’s delivered with impressive polish and finesse, from the strong lead vocals and keen harmonies to the impressive guitar play, the keyboard filigrees and the volcanic percussion.
The discovery of the evening came at Californos’ inside stage, when the New York band San Fermin took the stage. They’re an eight-piece, self-proclaimed “baroque pop” orchestra, but that’s a descriptor that barely gets at their sound, which is rendered from a panoramic pallet of styles.
The band is commanded by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who studied composition while a student at Yale University, and it shows in his mercurial songs, which are at once unpredictable yet engaging and accessible, a menagerie of styles: —jazzy, progressive, poppy, operatic, electronic.
The band comprises Ludwig-Leone on keyboards, two horn players, a violinist, a drummer, a guitarist and two primary vocalists: Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye. Tate has a baritone that gives the band’s sound a heavy Red House Painters/Mark Kozelek vibe. Kaye comes from another angle vocally, one more Florence and the Machine. It was San Fermin’s second performance in Kansas City, Ludwig-Leone said. Here’s hoping the third is soon.
I made it back to Ernie Biggs to catch the end of Le Sera’s set. The trio from Los Angeles is led by Katy Goodman, a former Vivian Girl. They’d just started covering Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” as I walked in, an engaging introduction. Goodman has a strong, show-tune voice that on the surface feels mismatched with her music — La Sera has been described as “Lesley Gore fronting Black Flag” — but it works, thanks in large part to Goodman’s enthusiasm. During one song, she jumped into the crowd with her bass, and ended up on her back, issuing a long riff.
After Le Sera’s set, the Besnard Lakes took over Ernie Biggs, visually and sonically. The six-piece band from Montreal gets its name from a tranquil place in Saskatchewan, but its sound is profoundly more volcanic than bucolic. It veered from celestial, shoegazing anthems to thunderous and jackhammer squalls of guitars and keyboards issued in riffs and rhythms repeated over and over, then climaxing.
Throughout the set, gusts of fog swirled onstage and into the crowd. The backlighting embellished the mood, casting band members as silhouettes. It was an impressive display of sights and sounds, one that affirmed the Besnard Lakes’ reputation as a must-see live band.