April 2, 2014

Middle of the Map Fest is a musical vortex for talent

After three successful years, Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest has become a staple and a highlight of the city’s music landscape. Starting Thursday, for the fourth April in a row, scores of bands and recording artists from other states and other countries will perform in Westport venues. Some of them are national performers, such as headliners Of Montreal, Gary Numan, Kate Nash and Del the Funky Homosapien.

After three successful years, Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest has become a staple and a highlight of the city’s music landscape.

This weekend, for the fourth April in a row, scores of bands and recording artists from other states and other countries will perform in Westport venues. Some of them are national performers, such as headliners Of Montreal, Gary Numan, Kate Nash and Del the Funky Homosapien.

But nearly five dozen of the 120-plus bands on the bill this weekend are from the Kansas City and Lawrence area. Some are well-known outside Kansas City, like the Get Up Kids and Reggie and the Full Effect. Others have long been stalwarts in the local scene, like Howard Iceberg the Titanics and the Pedaljets.

But many others have emerged or become better-known recently. Here’s a look at four performers you ought to listen to if you’re at Middle of the Map this weekend, including a 15-year-old singer/songwriter whose future looks very bright.

Gracie Schram: Beyond her years

Chances are you haven’t yet heard of Gracie Schram, but chances are you will, soon enough.

Schram is 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, and she’s from Leawood, but she’s not your typical suburban teen.

She’s a singer/songwriter who will soon self-release (most likely) a record she has been making for two years, schlepping to Nashville to work with Grammy-winning producer Charlie Peacock, who has, by the way, worked with the Civil Wars.

The album will be called “I Am Me,” and it’s a collection of country- and folk-tinged pop tunes that sound sophisticated beyond her years.

Some are songs of inspiration, like “We Are the Change”: “Who says we have to wait / Who says, who says, we can’t be the wind that starts the wave / We are the change.”

Others address the kinds of isolation and doubt that most adolescents endure, like “Wallflower”: “I am a wallflower / You might miss me if you’re not looking.”

And then there’s the effervescent “Yellow Shoes,” a sing-along ditty sugar-coated with whistles: “It’s a rainbow-colored life / You get to choose your point of view / I get a twinkle in my eye / Lucky I’m lucky in my yellow shoes.”

Like Taylor Swift, Schram can write with savvy about teen romance. From “What If I Like You, Too”: “You asked me out a thousand times / But I always found something better to do / You stuck around long enough / That now I caught on to you ... What are you going to do, if I like you, too?”

The comparisons to Swift are easy, but vocally Schram also resembles Colbie Caillat, Leah Nash of Sixpence None the Richer and another local singer, Kristen May, now of Flyleaf and formerly of the Kansas City band Vedera.

Schram’s strength, though, is her songs, which, like Swift’s, are well-crafted and poised to resonate beyond the girls she is singing to.

Gracie Schram plays at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at RecordBar. Not a Planet: Eclectic trio channels Beatles, Bowie and more

He booked a tour before he had assembled a band and he didn’t really have a sense of musical direction, but Nathan Corsi figured those details would take care of themselves. And they did.

Four years later and several personnel changes later, Not a Planet has established itself as one of Kansas City’s more eclectic bands.

Corsi, a native of Akron, Ohio, started the band shortly after he moved to Kansas City from New York in April 2010.

“My family was in Kansas City, and I decided I needed a break from the bustle and the high cost of living in New York,” he said.

He brought with him to Kansas City a bushel of songs.

“I’d been writing a lot of songs in New York,” he said. “When I got to Kansas City, I recorded some demos and used those demos to book a two-week tour to New York and back.”

That tour was booked in June; the shows were in August. All he needed was the rest of the band.

“There was no one else in the band when I started booking the tour,” Corsi said. “But I’d met some people in Kansas City that played music and put out a Craigslist ad. That’s actually how I met Liam, our drummer.”

That would be Liam Sumnicht, who was looking for a band to join.

“So he jumped aboard and learned the songs not long before we left,” Corsi said.

At that time, the band was a four-piece with a much different sound than it has now.

“Our sound was pretty spacey back then because we were using a lot more keyboard sounds,” he said. “And there were less harmonies. Those were a hodge-podge of songs I’d written in the past and was trying to put with a band.

“My influences were the indie pop scene in Brooklyn. Plus I’ve always been a student of the blues, so that’s always been a big part of our music. I don’t think we knew where we were going back then. The lineup changed a lot. And we were really just trying to get out and play music.”

They’ve settled on a lineup as a three-piece now, with Bill Sturges on bass, which really grounded the band, Corsi said.

“When you play as a trio, you really have to have a strong rhythm section,” he said. “Bill is really great. He can really dig in and make a heavy groove. And Liam is a really creative drummer. Since Bill joined, we’ve really been playing to our strengths and finding this direction of what we want to sound like.”

You can hear that sound on “The Few, The Proud, the Strange,” the band’s full-length album, released in 2013. It comes from a variety of influences.

“I’m a crazy Beatles fan,” Corsi said. “I like a lot of dramatic music, too, like Queen. And I like stuff like Leon Russell. So I try to write stuff that has some of those features and complexities in it and the use of harmonies.”

They’ve developed a reputation as a band with a sound that is distinctive yet mercurial, that keeps evolving.

“I really appreciate their constant progress,” said Chris Meck, who fronts Chris Meck the Guilty Birds. “When they started, it was a very Beatlesque pop thing they were doing, which is great. However, they’ve morphed into being more of a rock band, toying with psychedelic influences while never losing their melodic and harmonic sensibilities. Their use of harmony is great.

“Nathan can do a lot of things with his voice, from crooning to howling and it never feels forced. He’s one of the more original guitarists around as well. He’s clearly studied up on his George Harrison-isms, but can get fuzzy and wild. There’s also an almost Bowie-like sense of never staying put artistically.”

It has all emerged from a band that was at first just a notion and a batch of disparate songs.

“We are trying to create intelligent rock ’n’ roll,” Corsi said, “with a little bit of a heavy assault but very melodic and with pop sensibilities.”

Mission accomplished.

Not a Planet performs at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Outdoor Stage. Drop a Grand

Drop a Grand is a Kansas City band or a performance-art ensemble. Or both.

Its members wear costumes and go by pseudonyms or noms-de-tunes. Their performances are loud, brash, dramatic and subversive. Their music is a deranged, riff-roaring clamor that clings to a steel-toed groove.

“It’s psychotropic blues-punk,” said Unicron, the band’s bassist. We recently interviewed the band’s founder, Gern Blanzden, about the band’s music and the art of costuming.

What was the concept of Drop a Grand from the beginning?

It’s very self-serving: I have $1,000 to blow with my buddies. What should we do? Sure as hell ain’t gonna play a round of golf, now are we? Mommy always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing. In DAG we’d get blurry-eyed, make some enemies and blame it on the Tiger.

Were costumes part of the concept from the start?

Complete disguise was initially the only means of getting others to join me on a stage. Kind of an afterthought, but whatever. The art of costuming has significant advantages: minimal stalkers and no unwarranted shop talk from town to town.

Tell us about Gern Blanzden.

I was born in 1959 in North Vancouver and migrated to the Midwest with a pipeline operation. A farmer whose land we were ram-shackling was a partner in a local used-car lot and bait shop. In exchange for insider tips, he gave me a sales gig at nights. I moved a ton of pickup trucks and nightcrawlers for the guy. On Sundays he’d beat on a Hawaiian Gretsch to his Slim Whitman record collection, while I was sneaking factory throw-out Nicaraguan Robustos from his humidor. Eventually spent some intimate time with that guitar and a stolen Mel Bay pamphlet of chords. From there I just chemically progressed into the character I am today, you might say.

How are the songs written?

Fox headlines, corporate coffeehouse speak, big shots wanking around: There is never a shortage of spew at our earholes. It’s impossible not to retain some phrases. That’s their point, right? Then you get a rhythm and make a shell. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the rest of the blanks are filled on the toilet. Seems fitting.

The band takes it from there. Anyone that’s followed DAG in recent years knows on-the-job training is policy. Aside from some spacey jam stuff (some say B-grade carnival music), tracks are 100 percent certified ADD-worthy. In general, we take what some might call a bleak outlook on the human condition and communicate in a loud, fun and distasteful demeanor. We also perform songs about Chilitos and the Sixth Dimension.

How would you describe the band and its sound to people who haven’t seen DAG?

Schmooze? Fire-melting steel? It’s just easier to share what others say. For vocals we’ve heard Bon Scott-era AC/DC (the highest of praise!) to high-pitch barking and David Lynchian growls. Band “sound” comparisons: Flipper, Butthole Surfers, Black Flag, Hot Snakes.

Drop a Grand plays at 9:30 p.m. Friday at the Riot Room. Bummer: Modern Stone Age

Bummer is a hardcore punk band, a trio from Olathe that describes its music in a variety of ways: primal, Neanderthal, noise rock, sludge.

But don’t call it progressive or math rock.

“We like to keep it primitive,” guitarist/singer Matt Perrin said. “It’s all 4/4 (time), sometimes 3/4, maybe some 7/4. But it’s all boneheaded.”

The trio of Perrin, bassist Mike Gustafson and drummer Thomas Williams came together under the name Vestibule. When Williams left the band in summer 2012, Gustafson and Perrin found another drummer, Sam Hunter, and changed the band’s name to Bummer.

Last April, they released “Young Ben Franklin,” a three-song EP. In July, Hunter left the band and Williams rejoined. In October, they released “Milk,” a four-song EP.

Bummer’s roots and influences are in hard rock. Gustafson, 21, is a big Queens of the Stone Age fan.

“I love stuff that’s heavy and dark,” he said. “I like pop-song structures, stuff that gets stuck in your head. But it has to be heavy.”

Perrin, 19, admits he had a Nirvana/Kurt Cobain dependency as a young teen but has since moved on to bands like the Melvins, Unsane, Young Widows and P*ssed Jeans.

“Those were all turning points,” he said. “It’s all really raw, aggressive stuff.”

Williams said initially he was more of a pop-punk fan.

“I was the odd one,” he said. “I was more into Blink 182 and My Chemical Romance. But once I started hanging out with these guys, it became more Nirvana and Foo Fighters.”

Bummer became a go-to band in Kansas City’s house-show scene, earning a reputation for its loud, high-energy live shows. But word is out among club owners that the band can draw a crowd and deliver a memorable show. Neill Smith, who books shows for the Riot Room and Czar Bar, is a big fan.

“What really sold me was the live show,” he said. “They did 150 people at Riot Room January 16, which is amazing since I would imagine most of their peers are not quite 21.

“There is definitely a buzz going around the local music scene about them, and it is very exciting. I see them truly connecting with more and more people each show. They opened for Yuck February 6 at Riot, and even Yuck was kind of floored by them in a good way.”

Bummer’s playlist has about a dozen originals and a few covers, including “Cars” by Gary Numan.

“I don’t think Gary Numan’s going to appreciate it,” Perrin said.

The live shows are typically quick and fearsome.

“We do usually 20- to 25-minute sets,” Gustafson said. “We don’t overstay our welcome. We like to get in and out real quick.”

“Take Unsane, Sweet Cobra, some Melvins and Jesus Lizard, put them in a blender and pour some Sriracha on it,” Perrin said, “and then splatter it on the wall.”

“I call it Neanderthal: music cavemen might listen to,” Gustafson said. “It’s super-heavy and aggressive but simple. It’s stuff you can bob your head to.”

Bummer plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Riot Room. TALKING MUSIC WITH KC MAYOR SLY JAMES

Music matters to the mayor of Kansas City, and he wants it to be a prominent part of the city’s arts and entertainment culture.

“I love music,” Mayor Sly James told The Star on Tuesday. “I’ve always been immersed in it. My schedule doesn’t allow me to see as much live music as I’d like to, but as much as I can, I listen to music every day.”

In high school in the 1960s, James was in a rock band that covered everyone from Frank Zappa and the Buffalo Springfield to Jethro Tull. He remembers that time and the Kansas City music scene fondly.

“Back then, live music was the order of the day,” he said. “There were venues all over the place and bands playing for next to nothing just to get out there. There was music in Volker Park on Sundays, multiple bands playing multiple styles. That’s how I grew up and what I’d like to return to: when music was king and everybody had options.”

In January, James launched his Mayor’s Task Force for the Arts, which is working to strengthen the city’s image as a destination for arts, entertainment and culture. This weekend’s Middle of the Map is precisely the kind of event that can polish that reputation, James said. And the city would like to do more to promote the festival.

“Everybody who knows about it has tried to promote it in some way,” James said. “But we ought to be talking to them in terms of where they see Middle of the Map going and how to build on that and what role we can play.”

Festivals like Middle of the Map can help revive what has diminished over the years, he said.

“We’ve lost some of our mojo,” James said. “We have a huge jazz tradition but no jazz radio station. We have a huge jazz and blues tradition but not enough venues for that. The good news is, as I see it, is more venues are coming online. I don’t know if that trend is sustainable, but it’s good to see.

“Music is as important as the Nelson and Kemper and Negro Leagues Museum. It’s a huge part of what this city is, and frankly we need more of it, not less.”

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