For the first time in its six-year history, the music portion of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest pitched its tent in downtown Kansas City, and it picked a spectacular Friday to do so.
The weather was idyllic; it was a First Friday, so the streets and sidewalks were teeming with pedestrians; it was the launch day for the Kansas City streetcar system; and after a four-month hiatus, the RecordBar reopened in its new confines. It all made for a historic and memorable evening.
More than two dozen bands performed at five venues. Here’s a snapshot of Friday’s music performances.
At Crossroads KC, Rachel Mallin and he Wild Type delivered a brief but triumphant set. They’re a five-piece Kansas City band, and their music is a catchy blend of indie-rock and -pop.
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Mallin, who recently turned 21, is an engaging and seasoned performer and a commanding lead singer. Her voice is agile and powerful and perfectly suited for the band’s melodic, radio-ready pop tunes, which are instantly winsome. Her between-song personae, which is bright and smart, adds another element to their live performances. This is a band with all the right components in place: clever songwriting, polished musicianship and a leader who can charm a crowd. Keep an eye on them; their star is rising.
Not A Planet has been playing around Kansas City for years, but on Friday, it landed a notable gig: a pop-up show at the new RecordBar. The venue lost its lease and had to vacate its space at 1020 Westport Road, where it had been for more than 10 years. In March, the owners began renovating a space at 1520 Grand Blvd. Friday, though the space isn’t completely finished, they opened a pop-up to host Middle of the Map shows.
More than 150 people showed up to get a look at the space, which is bigger and slicker than its predecessor. Not A Planet showed off the room’s sound system and acoustics with its invigorating blend of rock, which mixes the sounds and styles of a few genres and eras. Nathan Corsi leads the trio, which added a keyboardist for this show. He’s as dynamic a vocalist as he is a guitar player. They were the perfect band to christen a room that will become a destination music venue.
The Struts’ set at Crossroads KC drew a crowd of several hundred, and the quartet from England gave them 45 minutes of flash, pomp and rock.
Luke Spiller is the band’s swashbuckling lead singer, a mix of Freddy Mercury, Marc Bolan and Mick Jagger, and he spent the entire set prancing about the stage flamboyantly, cajoling the crowd and propelling his band to higher levels of enthusiasm. He also displayed a wardrobe that would give Cher a fit of the envies.
The Struts are touring on “Everybody Wants,” its debut full-length album, which was released in 2014 but re-released, with some new tracks, in March. Its music is arena-ready rock, the kind that gets a band gigs opening for the Rolling Stones, which the Struts did in Paris last summer, and Motley Crüe — a mix of punk, pop metal and glam rock.
Their set included some of the album’s best tracks, like “Roll Up,” “Put Your Money On Me” and “Kiss This,” and established the Struts as a legitimate band worthy of a longer set.
The Brick hosted one of Friday’s best lineups. Spencer Mackenzie Brown and his band opened the bill with a solid set of rustic and rootsy folk and rock songs that showed off Brown’s polished songwriting chops.
Shel, a quartet of sisters from Fort Collins, Colo., followed Brown. Shel is an acronym for each of the Holbrook sister’s first names: Sarah, Hanna, Eva and Liza. Their music is endearing folk, cast in guitar, mandolin, cello, banjo, bass and keyboards with the occasional beatbox (from Liza) thrown in. Their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” was a highlight of the entire evening.
Down the street and around the corner from The Brick, the Kansas City band Yes You Are played a late set at a nearly full Tank Room. Their songs are hefty and melodic — skyscraping rock anthems built on sturdy, danceable grooves. Their set list included “Buffy Sainte-Marie,” “Ur the 1” and the catchy “Secret Song.” Lead singer Kianna Alarid is a relentlessly spirited and kinetic live performer, one who exudes passion for her music and her band and brings out the same in her audiences. A debut album is in the works.
After Shel’s set, Kansas City’s the Grisly Hand commanded The Brick’s stage, and they put on their usual high-octane set, an entertaining mix of great songwriting and first-class musicianship. They showcased songs from their latest album, the dandy “Flesh & Gold,” which takes the band away from country/American and into rock and soul territories, but also pays homage to its predecessors, including the impeccable “Country Singles” album.
At The Midland
The Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland was one of two large venues hosting music. Here is contributing reviewer Bill Brownlee’s account:
Hip-hop aficionados and beat lovers congregated at the Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland. A crowd that peaked at more than 1,000 on Friday reveled in the rhythmic sounds of five accomplished purveyors of hip-hop, soul and electronic dance music.
Zhu, an electronic dance music producer shrouded in mystery, was the headliner. Like the saxophonist and guitarist who burnished his elaborate sound sculptures and heavily processed vocals, Zhu was cloaked in a black hood.
While he has yet to release an official album, Zhu’s glossy form of electronic dance music has made him one of the most celebrated producers of the past year. A ravishing light show and suggestive videos accentuated his wavy beats.
The punishingly loud 90-minute performance included fragments of smooth jazz, light funk and party rap, but Zhu’s most distinctive material possessed a psychedelic cast. A disembodied voice moaned “I’m wasted” on a version of the Grammy-nominated song “Faded.” The narrator of the disorienting “In the Morning” suggested that “there’s something in this water.” The predilections of jetsetters were detailed on “Cocaine Model.”
Gallant, a sleek soul artist based in Los Angeles, is Zhu’s tour mate. Blessed with a come-hither falsetto, Gallant careened around the stage as if he were overcome by the intoxicating sultriness of his own voice.
A three-piece band allowed Gallant to extend his high-pitched testimonials as the spirit moved him. “Weight In Gold” was among the passionate selections that Gallant delivered like an ecstatic hymn.
Gallant’s fanciful elegance was countered by the raw street stories of Vince Staples. The rapper from Long Beach, Calif., is just 22, but he exuded the demeanor of a jaded veteran.
His perfunctory 50-minute set opened with “Lift Me Up,” a song that addresses Staples’ mixed feelings about performing for predominantly white audiences precisely like the one that greeted him at The Midland.
Staples didn’t seem enthused to perform powerful material like “Señorita,” but he directed a provocative barb inspired by a hat worn by a member of the audience: “That’s what Martin Luther King was talking about: ‘At the end of the day, I want white people in Negro Leagues baseball caps and black people in Polo.’ ”
While Staples appeared disinterested during his lackluster appearance, two locally based acts displayed unbridled passion.
Blk Flanl, the duo of Denzel Williams and Morgan Cooper, were impressive on “Keep Me Safe,” a song that addresses the unrealized potential of victims of urban violence. The thoughtful freestyles of Cooper, a man who raps under the alias of Barrel Maker, indicated that he’s one of the most intriguing voices in Kansas City’s music community.
Ebony Tusks was even better. Less a conventional hip-hop ensemble than a hyperintelligent industrial rock band, Ebony Tusks incited a mosh pit. The charismatic Martinez Hillard led a chant of “I want it” as he pogoed with fans in front of the stage.
Although it lacked the blinding production of Zhu, the star power of Staples or the talent of Gallant, the celebration of hip-hop fellowship provided the evening’s best moment.