Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest returned to the Uptown Theater for its third night, but it also spread out into bars and venues in Westport. Here’s look at some of the sets performed Friday night.
Lee Bains and the Glory Fires: Lee Bains III opened his set at Ernie Biggs with a dedication to Michael Brown and other “people of color” who have died in altercations with authorities. He and his Alabama-based band the Glory Fires performed Southern rock with the extreme volume of a heavy metal group and with the surly attitude of punk rockers. The fierce attack scared away many listeners. About two dozen people braved the quartet’s unruly, politically charged outburst.
Amanda Fish: Vocalist Amanda Fish and her band play the sort of smoky barroom blues that’s ideally suited for use in a biker-themed television show. The approach of the Kansas City ensemble owes as much to Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones as it does to the original blues pioneers. While blues purists wouldn’t approve, Fish’s barroom music pleased a few dozen people at the Westport Saloon who likely count “Tumbling Dice” and “Piece of My Heart” among their favorite songs.
Billy Beale: Billy Beale is such an institution at the Westport Saloon that a burger on the establishment’s menu is named after the weathered musician. The Billy Beale Bacon Blue burger is topped with bacon and marbled blue cheese. Beale’s gruff voice made his bluesy songs about rambling men, energetic women and the travails of travel entirely believable during his engaging solo-acoustic outing.
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The Jorge Arana Trio: They can be considered either as a deviant jazz group or as a rock ensemble gone horribly wrong. One of the festival’s most challenging acts, the Kansas City instrumental trio earned new fans during a ferocious set on the patio of the Riot Room. The rubbery bass lines of Jason Nash and the powerhouse drumming of Josh Enyart enhanced the discordant guitar and keyboard work of Jorge Arana.
The Phantastics: One of Kansas City’s most rambunctious party bands, the Phantastics play a sophisticated blend of funk, rock, R&B and hip-hop. The suave rapper and vocalist the Phantom and the authoritative singer Leigh Gibbs are a dynamic tandem. The sense of joy exuded by all six members of the Phantastics was mirrored by the appreciative smiles and unhinged dance moves of revelers at the Riot Room. When the vocalists demanded that everyone in the Riot Room “shake what your mama gave you,” most people happily complied.
The Relationship: It hardly qualifies as a super-group, but the Relationship has an impressive pedigree. Its members have been in popular bands including Weezer and the Bravery. The Los Angeles-based quartet evoked the power-pop of those ensembles as well as the melodic rock of vintage acts including Dwight Twilley and Badfinger for about 100 people at Ernie Biggs.
Young Ejecta: Her appearance at the Riot Room consisted of vocalist Leanne Macomber gently cooing over mellow prerecorded synth-pop tracks. While the musician from Brooklyn wasn’t visually or sonically compelling, her set served as a relaxing respite from the bustle of Westport for about 50 tranquil people.
The String & Return: Their first performance in three years attracted about 75 fest-goers to Ernie Biggs. The quartet is a compelling offshoot of the brawny guitar-based rock that defined the Kansas City scene in the 1990s. The band created metallic labyrinths that contained precipitous drops and hairpin turns. In spite of its heaviness, String & Return’s outing was oddly soothing.
Royalphonic: A midnight set at the Westport Saloon by Royalphonic resembled a disjointed practice session by an enormously talented band. The quartet of terrific musicians is anchored by Brad Williams, but the commanding drummer was unable to prevent the puzzling project from pursuing unproductive digressions. Like an indecisive jam band on a jazz jag, Royalphonic bounced between a multitude of ideas without fully developing a single tangent.
Four Fists: This partnership between the esteemed underground hip-hop artists P.O.S and Astronautalis performed its first show outside Minneapolis in the wee hours of Saturday morning at the Riot Room.
Backed by DJ Fundo, a man whose improvisational skills were repeatedly put to the test, Four Fists’ 75-minute set included new material from its forthcoming debut album and fan favorites culled from each man’s extensive catalog.
P.O.S and Astronautalis craft hip-hop songs with sung choruses. The format allowed about 100 fanatical fans to shout along to each selection. Lively banter between the musicians and fans occasionally became confrontational.
P.O.S suggested that “you guys look like Drake at a Toronto game,” an unflattering reference to the popular Canadian rapper’s odd behavior at professional basketball events. Upon noticing that an unresponsive member of the audience was wearing a Royals cap, Astronautalis told the man that he wasn’t worthy of wearing the gear of the brawl-prone team.
Astronautalis implored the audience to dance rather than listen to the words of a new selection. Because Astronautalis is one of hip-hop’s most gifted lyricists, it was impossible to comply with his request.
Ghastly Menace: There weren’t many people in the Uptown Theater shortly after 6 p.m., but Ghastly Menace played with an intensity like they were trying to convert everyone in the room.
Pushed to the lip of the stage by everyone else’s equipment, the six-piece band from Chicago had no problem generating multi-layered indie pop that had the small cluster of fans dancing throughout the 30-minute set.
Hembree: It didn’t feel like Friday night until “Walk Alone.” The third song in Hembree’s half-hour set at the Uptown opened with a loping guitar eventually joined with a four-to-the-floor drum line that nailed everything into place. The rest of the set didn’t match that moment, but blending synth-pop with shades of Americana and folk harmonies created an interesting sound definitely worth further exploration.
Shiner: Positioned between three indie-centric bands, Shiner hit the reset button at the Uptown with a 40-minute slab of hard rock. One of Kansas City’s best ’90s bands, Shiner hasn’t played many shows since breaking up in 2003.
Singer/guitarist Allen Epley was a bit rusty, begging fans to forgive him if he flubbed the lyrics. After one number he told the crowd the band played it just to prove they still could.
He needn’t have worried. The dedicated fans that filled a healthy portion of the floor were just happy to soak up every note they could, knowing it would likely be a while until this next chance.
Lord Huron: Near the start of Lord Huron’s one-hour set, frontman Ben Schneider recalled the last time the band played town they were at the Riot Room.
Those days are long over. Overcrowding on the floor at the Uptown forced the balcony open. If Coldplay went camping they’d land pretty close to Huron’s earthy, indie folk. Schneider’s warm vocals and jaunty arrangements managed to make lyrics like “darkness got a hold on me” sound sunny. Highlights included the spaghetti Western-influenced “The World Ender” and “Fool for Love,” a new song driven by the Bo Diddley beat.
Atmosphere: In the hands of anyone else, getting a crowd to shout “I’m happy to be alive” and commanding them to wear a smile would be corny. Not so for Slug, MC for the Minneapolis hip-hop group Atmosphere.
Witty wordplay and upbeat samples made the show more party than preachy. Fans at the Uptown eagerly rhymed along and bounced up and down with each song. For 70 minutes, he told stories to a packed floor about fighting temptation (”Lucy Ford”), celebrating circumstances (”Kanye West”) and self-worth (”God Loves Ugly”).
Two of the most poignant moments came back-to-back. “The Waitress” paints a portrait of a woman from the perspective of a homeless man. Moments later, thoughts of a deserted, deceased father flood the mind during “Yesterday.”
Ostensibly promoting their eighth album, Slug conferred with his two DJs and focused on older material, going back as far as 1995 for “God’s Bathroom Floor.”
Bass Drum of Death: While not particularly lethal, Bass Drum of Death are very much what-you-see-is-what-you-get. With just two guitars and drums, the sound is so stripped down that even backing vocals are considered a luxury.
The three-piece band from Oxford, Miss., traffics in the same garage and classic rock as Jeff the Brotherhood: sharp bursts of scuzz that pack plenty of punch and don’t overstay their welcome. The post-midnight crowd at Ernie Biggs enjoyed what it got. A low stage meant bad sight lines, but dozens of heads clustered around the band bobbed and throbbed with the beat throughout the 50-minute performance.
Katy Guillen and the Girls: They closed down the Westport Saloon. Their 1 a.m. set drew a substantial amount of fans, who sang along and rejoiced in Guillen’s every guitar solo. Rooted in the same blues rock as Cream, Guillen and her tight two-piece rhythm section shined especially bright when they stretched out on long instrumental passages.