One of the things I like most about music festivals are the opportunities for discovery. At the sixth annual Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest, nearly 10 dozen artists and bands will perform, and I’ve not seen or heard more than half of them. Deciding whom to see can be a daunting task. Sometimes it’s most rewarding to take a chance on someone you’ve never seen or heard, but a little bit of guidance can be a help. Here are some of my recommendations. Go forth and explore.
Cold War Kids
They’re a rock band from California, but their rock is infused with heavy doses of soul and blues. Cold War Kids have been at it since 2004. They’ve withstood several personnel changes, but two co-founders remain: multi-instrumentalist Nathan Willett, whose lead vocals define the band’s sound; and bassist Matt Maust.
As the lineup changed, so did the band’s focus and sound. Ten years after their breakthrough “Robbers & Cowards” album, Cold War Kids sound refocused, evidenced by “Hold My Home,” released in 2014 and the band’s strongest album in years.
Cold War Kids perform Friday at Crossroads KC.
Manchester Orchestra broke through in 2009 with “Mean Everything to Nothing,” which generated widespread praise for its primal and dynamic blend of punk and indie rock.
Andy Hull is both the eye and the hurricane in MO’s storm, and he turns their live shows into fits of thunder and fury interrupted by spells of calm. Highly recommended for fans of loud, brawny rock.
Manchester Orchestra performs Saturday at Crossroads KC.
We first met Aimee Mann through ’Til Tuesday, the Boston band that popped onto the charts and into heavy MTV rotation with the new-wave/pop tune “Voices Carry.” After two follow-up albums performed badly, ’Til Tuesday folded and Mann pursued a solo career.
Her first two solo albums generated positive reviews, especially “I’m With Stupid,” released in 1995. Her breakthrough came in 2000, with the soundtrack to the film “Magnolia,” which included her Oscar-nominated single “Save Me.” That album spurred interest in the critically acclaimed “Bachelor No. 2,” which she self-released and sold only online, until it got a conventional release and distribution.
Mann has released eight solo albums, including her most recent, “Charmer,” and has earned a reputation as a personable and entertaining live performer.
Aimee Mann performs Saturday at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.
Vince Staples is a 22-year-old rapper from Long Beach, Calif., with a discography that comprises three mixtapes, an EP and a full-length, “Summertime ‘06,” that received high praise when it was released in June. Pitchfork rated “Summertime” as the 10th best album of the year. XXL called it one of the best rap debuts of 2016.
“Vince Staples’ first full-length for Def Jam is brilliant,” wrote Pitchfork. “The Long Beach rapper expresses complex ideas in plain, hard sentences, ones that can be handed to you like a pamphlet. His rapping is conversational, but these are conversations you have when all optimism has burned away.”
His live shows have a good reputation, too. From a review at Consequences of Sound: “The 22-year-old takes advantage of his physicality when he needs to, spitting off a few extra verses in places where his peers would already be gasping for breath. He’s wise beyond his years in some respects, though cocky enough to use that wisdom as a weapon when he wants to.”
Vince Staples performs Friday at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.
When it came time to make music for Bassh, their new side project, Jimmy Brown and CJ Hardee of the North Carolina band Matrimony went to Nashville to get some help from a well-known producer: Bill Reynolds, bassist for Band of Horses, who has done studio work for the Avett Brothers, Lissie and Sea Stars.
Last year the three got together in Reynolds’ Fleetwood Shack Studio in Nashville and started recording. One of the tracks they produced is “Body,” available on SoundCloud and YouTube. The song bears some BoH traits: It’s a breezy, melodic guitar-centric indie-rock anthem with a big singalong chorus — catchy and instantly accessible.
“An insidious pop treat, ‘Body’ is an excellent introduction to Bassh,” wrote Bruce Warren in a “Songs We Love” blog at NPR.com.
The band recently signed to Antler Records, an independent label in Los Angeles. Bassh expects to release its debut recording this year.
Bassh performs Saturday at Crossroads KC.
The Struts have only one full-length album in their discography. It’s called “Everybody Wants,” which is fitting considering how much in demand the band from Derbyshire, England, has been since the album’s release. Not many bands can say they’ve opened for the Rolling Stones (in Paris, no less) and Mötley Crüe in the same year.
“Everybody Wants” is a collection of songs that bristles with melody, grooves and attitude. It’s a blend of glam rock, pop metal and punk — hard, brash and catchy all at once.
The band is fronted by lead singer Luke Spiller, a guy with rock-star looks and a cock-of-the-block walk. Song titles reflect the group’s point of view, songs like “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Let’s Make This Happen Tonight” and “Kiss This.”
The band has drawn widespread comparisons, from Queen and the Kaiser Chiefs to Oasis and Catfish and the Bottlemen — an indication of both the diversity and accessibility of its sound.
The Struts perform Friday at Crossroads KC.
They’re from Austin, Texas, and at this year’s South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, I saw the Rocketboys perform among other Middle of the Map bands at the Midcoast Takeover, hosted by the Shangri-La.
They favor sparse, midtempo anthems and groovy ballads - extra-textural music landscapes built around keyboards and guitars. Lyrics often go beyond trite explorations of love, romance and heartache and delve into deeper themes. Their sound compiles several influences, starting with Death Cab for Cutie and Band of Horses, but they also apply more mainstream traits of bands like Coldplay and Travis.
In my review of their 30-minute Shangri-La set, I wrote: “They apply their own accents and twists to songs that typically ride a light groove but are melodic, often polished with keen vocal harmonies. Their down-tempo cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ was interesting.”
The Rocketboys perform Saturday at the Brick.
The Besnard Lakes
Comparisons to Arcade Fire are natural but off-target. The Besnard Lakes are from Montreal and were founded by a wife-husband team, Olga Goreas and Jace Lasek - all traits of Arcade Fire. But the Lakes’ music has roots in different terrains.
They are named after a lake in rural Saskatchewan, a pastoral setting that inspires the Lakes’ music, including their lyrics. In January, the six-piece band released “A Coliseum Complex Museum, “ its fifth studio album and fourth on Jagjaguwar records.
“Coliseum” picks up where its predecessors left off, dabbling in and experimenting with several flavors of music – indie rock, indie folk, psychedelic rock, prog-rock, classic rock – and delivering with broad strokes the Lakes’ signature dreamy, symphonic sound. The music gets grandiose at times, but it takes its listeners to places few bands explore and along the way issues its own unique rewards.
The Besnard Lakes perform Thursday at Ernie Biggs.
Brother isn’t even a year old, but the foursome from Kansas City is already making waves in the local music community, like snagging a recent opening slot for Eliot Sumner (Sting’s daughter) at the Riot Room.
The quartet comprises Danzell Capers (guitar, synths), Quinn Pudenz (vocals, synths), DJ/producer Brooks Brown (bass, synths) and Christian Lester (drums). Brother cites as its influences electro-rock bands like Passion Pit, Chvrches and St. Lucia, and those influences are evident in “Mobbin’,” a song from the band’s soon-to-be-released debut EP.
“Mobbin’” is synth-driven electronic rock embroidered with clever guitar lines and lacquered with celestial vocals and harmonies. It’s a satisfying mix of sweet melody and smooth groove, and it arouses interest in what else might be on that impending EP.
Brother performs Saturday at Collection.
Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires
Even amid the four-day torrent of live music that is the South by Southwest Music Festival, Charles Bradley stood out.
The old-school soul singer from Gainesville, Fla., delivered a few sets at the annual music orgy in Austin earlier this month, including the set I saw at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q on March 16, where he stirred up a big crowd with a set filled with horn-fed soul, R&B and gospel tunes.
Bradley, 67, was a James Brown impersonator in the late 1990s when he was discovered by the co-founder of Daptone Records, home of, among other artists, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. His sound taps into the styles of soul legends like Brown and Otis Redding, and Bradley delivers it with a feverish sincerity, like one of its founders and survivors, not a come-lately revivalist. And his faith in it is deep. In 2013, he told Spin magazine, “If we didn’t have this music any more, I don’t think the world would ever have no more music that comes from the soul.”
Charles Bradley performs Saturday at Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.
Archie Powell & the Exports
One of my favorite sets at this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, was Friday afternoon at the Shangri-La during the MidCoast Takeover. Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest was sponsoring the stage that day, and it presented several bands that will perform at the four-day festival in May. One of them was Archie Powell & the Exports.
They’re a Chicago five-piece that delivers catchy and crunchy guitar-driven pop songs infused with wafts of garage rock and soul, especially when the organ kicks in, and lacquered in harmonies. On songs like “Lean,” from 2014’s “Back in Black” album, they swerve into aggro-punk terrain. Lyrics and song titles are clever, even when the song is about heartache.
The band has a local connection thanks to guitarist Alex Ward, who also plays in The Noise FM.
On their Facebook page, the band cites Elvis Costello and Paul Westerberg among its influences, and they show up in the Exports’ songs, lyrically and melodically. Highly recommended for anyone who likes their pop music to get a bit aggressive and ramshackle while sustaining tunefulness and groove.
Archie Powell & the Exports perform Saturday at the Brick.
Ryan Adams produced La Sera’s brand-new jangly, roots-pop album called “Music for Listening to Music To, “a tongue-in-cheek title that shortchanges the sounds inside. “Music” is music that deserves listening to.
La Sera is Katy Goodman and Todd Wisenbaker – she of the nearly famous DIY garage-rock band the Vivian Girls, he of a few indie projects that were less nearly famous. Goodman formed La Sera in 2011, while still a member of the now-gone Girls, from which she headed off in different directions.
A pop band from California, La Sera’s music from the start was rooted and steeped in the sounds of other eras, from ’60s girl-pop to ’80s punk and new wave. On “Music,” Adams takes them into other terrains, including insurgent country. It’s all invigorating: a cocktail of retro-pop, indie- and roots-rock, with a punk mentality. Think of the confluence of Denise James and early Neko Case with some Chrissie Hynde thrown in.
La Sera performs Thursday at Ernie Biggs.
A four-day pass to Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest is $80. A four-day VIP pass is $150. It includes preferred viewing at the Midland and Crossroads KC. A weekend pass is $65. A Wednesday/Thursday pass is $30. Single-day weekend passes are $35. Single-day weekend VIP packages are $75. Tickets are available at middleofthemapfest.com.