Whomever says that cool things never happen in Kansas City clearly has never been to one of the Middle of the Map Festivals. Middle of the Map is kind of like a miniature version of Austin’s SXSW festival, but with a spotlight on Kansas City/Lawrence bands. This year’s festival kept the Westport setting of last year’s debut, featuring over 100 bands spread across 10 venues. Middle of the Map expanded to include a third day to accommodate even more bands than last year. In addition to an extra day of music, an interactive forum with movie screenings was even added. Headlining bands from across the nation such as the catchy Fun., a reunited Mission to Burma, the chill Neon Indian and the wild Fucked Up were part of the draw, but a stellar local lineup featuring bands such as Quiet Corral, Cowboy Indian Bear, Making Movies and Capybara made the ticket price a steal. It’s with little surprise that the festival sold out nearly all three night.
Thursday at Middle of the Map
Thursday kicked things off with an abbreviated lineup. Making Movies proved that they’re one of the hardest working bands in Kansas City by playing a two hour set over at Gusto: the first of two sets during the festival. Whether you could understand the oft Spanish lyrics or not, their fun Latina beats got everyone moving. Meanwhile, over at the RecordBar punk fans excited to see Molly Maguire filled the venue. Midcoast Station caught a bit of a Cher UK – a local KC/Austin act that had a bit more of a classic rock sound. Our Midcoast crew spent most of the night bouncing between The Riot Room and The Union. The Union is a cave-like bar, but it created a fittingly moody ambiance for the bands performing there. We were impressed by The Loom – an indie rock group that beautifully incorporates the French Horn and other instruments that don’t get the attention they deserve by other groups. We also enjoyed the folk rock of Christopher Paul Stelling. And despite the technical problems that plagued their set, we were glad to close out our night with locals, Old Canes. However, as great as all these other venues and lineups were, the place to be this evening was hands down the Riot Room. Here we got swept away by the lyrics of Hospital Ships and we danced to Hooray for Earth – an eclectic sounding band think electronica-indie-rock with a nasally singer. That description doesn’t do Hooray for Earth justice, but they’re great, trust us. Local electronica act Parts of Speech got the crowd warmed up with their own dance tunes, but we would like to see them to a leaf from Hooray for Earth and become more adventurous with their music.
Of all the bands to play Thursday – national and local – there was one show stealer: Quiet Corral. These guys just get better with each performance. This Americana six-piece band from Lawrence has some amazingly talented musicians. I think it must have been a rule upon joining the band that each member must know how to play drums, sing and play at least two other instruments. The guys are constantly switching around between keys, guitars, banjos, and tom & snare drums. Their show always steals breath when they break out the big instrumental group drum section near the end of their set. However, tonight’s most impressive moment wasn’t when everyone drummed, but instead when everyone save the lead singer set down their instruments and gathered around the microphones to sing a beautiful, soulful six-piece harmony song. As they sang about going down to the ‘river’ and ‘following the path,’ I was reminded of those old Civil War era songs – “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” etc. If you close your eyes and forget that these are young, college age guys, then their music has this classic, aged sound – as if their tunes have been passed down through the ages. For how young they are (both in age & time spent as a band), they’ve already flawlessly mastered a timeless sound.
Friday at Middle of the Map
Friday was an even bigger day. We started out with some local acts at the Beaumont Club. Ad Astra Arkestra had a pretty different lineup the last time we saw them at the Crossroads Music Festival a couple of years ago, so we were curious how this large group had evolved. It was a bit tricky to see who all they had participating in the band as half the members were crazy monkey-like masks. From who we could identify though, we could see that the lead vocal duties were being filled by The Grisly Hand’s Lauren, and she brought a more soulful folk sound to the band. The multiple percussion performers in the band though kept the old tribal beats the same and people danced as wildly as before. KC’s Capybara kept the energy high with a set that mostly featured songs off their newly released album, Dave Drusky. Some describe them as ‘tribal,’ but I’m not quite sure that’s the right word – if anything, the ‘tribal’ sound is due to the extra drums…Is there some rule that KC area band members must all know how to play drums? There’s a definite trend, but it is a trend that we love. This is another band with multi-talented members that were able to switch around instruments and vocal duties with ease. Speaking of talented bands with extra drums, Lawrence’s increasingly popular Cowboy Indian Bear followed with their more relaxed, but just as danceable, indie pop. The Beaumont’s sound made it a bit hard to hear Katlyn’s keyboards (a reoccurring problem at this venue for keyboards throughout the weekend), but we could still crisply hear her vocals layer against her male bandmates’ vocals. We took a break from the Beaumont to check out Owen at Riot Room – the place was packed, but it was almost eerily quiet as we walked in. It took a second to realize that Owen was playing acoustic guitar at the front and crooning softly over the instrument. The audience was politely listening quietly, leaning in to hear his every word and strum. From here we bounced around to see as many locals as possible. The stage tucked away behind Westport Coffee House housed two indie rock favorites: Fullbloods & Everyday/Everynight. We watched a slightly harder rock, but very high energy set from Apples for Archers down at Firefly. Gusto had folkier indie rock from Ghosty and indie pop from the ACBs. Of course, it wasn’t just KC area bands that played Friday. Back at Beaumont we watched husband & wife duo Mates of State. The keyboardist and drummer couple were backed by two touring musicians, one of which added a great brass effect. Again, we had trouble hearing the keyboards in Beaumont, but it was still an enjoyable, light-hearted set. We particularly enjoyed when MoS dedicated a song to Cowboy Indian Bear. From indie dream pop to Americana rock, the old Southern sounds of Murder by Death came next. They’re not your typical Southern rock band though thanks to the incorporation of a cello. Who knew that instrument could be used so diversely?
To end out the night, we swung by RecordBar for one of the most buzzed about bands at the festival: Mission to Burma. RecordBar was running about an hour behind, which meant we also got to catch three-piece The Life and Times, who impressed us with their moody rock. While we respect Mission to Burma’s lightly punk, classic rock, it wasn’t our cup of tea and we didn’t know them in their heyday to feel nostalgic for their tunes like many in the club. So we ventured down to Gusto for our final band of the night and this evening’s show stopper: The Beautiful Bodies. This is one of those bands we’ve seen a lot on larger stages for radio shows, and admittedly, we didn’t get the appeal. But in a small venue, completely surrounded by people, we finally got it. Their high-pitched rock and roll still isn’t quite our cup of tea, but we are officially in love with their live show. In the small corner they were crammed into, they found room to climb on counters, equipment and even people. Their high energy set literally (yes, we do mean literally and are using this word correctly) brought down the roof. It was a spectacular way to end the night.
Saturday at Middle of the Map
Other commitments prevented us from making Saturday’s daytime festivities, but we arrived in time to catch plenty of great acts during the festival’s final night. Venues risked (and eventually did) capacity, so you had to be a lot more choosy about what you wanted to see to make sure you got in. We opted to hole up in the Beaumont Club for the night, but we still made it to a few other venues beforehand. We caught the new folk act She’s a Keeper at RecordBar. They were fun and adorable. Despite a few rough moments and wrong notes here and there, they show a lot of potential. With how much Quiet Corral is taking off, then paired with She’s a Keeper, KC/Lawrence is really developing itself as a folk/Americana town. While at RecordBar, we also caught the Olympic Size reunion in all its keyboard and male/female vocal harmony goodness. We made it to Riot Room twice for indie rockers The Casket Lottery and later the very different, hardcore rock act Fucked Up. Again, not our usual type of music, but the energy was high and the band was a blast – the singer his worked his way through the packed crowd to dance or sing with as many people as possible. It was a fun venue to be in for that. For those looking for some calmer bands, McCoy’s had a nice folk, Americana lineup and we caught the night’s final act, Blackbird Revue there.
As we mentioned earlier, many venues hit capacity Saturday night, so you could do some venue hopping earlier in the evening, but you really needed to choose one place to stay for most of the night. We stayed at the Beaumont, which ended up being a great choice not only because one of the nation’s hottest bands was headlining there, but because it had an all around solid, and very diverse, lineup. Local band Making Movies opened for this venue and while we had already caught them once at this fest, they were just as fun the second time in a weekend – they even managed to keep the set fresh. Next was the female-fronted rock band Sleeper Agent. If multiple drums was one theme from this weekend, the other motif was powerful females, and this band brought that trend to light. The following act, Friends, also had a strong frontwoman. They were a quirky, glam rock band – I found them a blast, but I don’t think their sound is for everyone. Their frontwoman did a great job interacting with the crowd regardless of what people thought of their sound – she played around her bandmates, entered the audience to start a dance party and even invited a kid up on stage to dance in order win a stuffed bunny…no joke. So like I said…quirky. Chillwavers Neon Indian followed and again, the synth/keys sounded mushy in this venue, which is a shame because this band sounded great through the RecordBar’s system when they were here a few months ago, The ho hum sound quality didn’t faze the audience from dancing along though and this was still a fun set.
The mood in the Beaumont was a gleeful buzz as everyone eagerly awaited the headlining act, Fun. “We want fun! We want fun,” was chanted all through the band’s set up and when singer Nate Ruess and company came bouncing out, the Beaumont practically erupted. I was worried that since “We Are Young” is the big radio hit and this being a festival, that the audience wouldn’t know any of the other songs by this band, especially the older ones. Boy was I wrong. Everyone was dancing, singing and clapping along with the band. Most of the band’s songs are big, bombastic, trumpet blaring numbers, but when the beautifully simple “The Gambler” was performed, the audience respectfully listened. The crowd really made this experience extra great. And though they’re a national band, it was like a homecoming for a local band. Touring bassist Nate Harold is from Kansas and it was great to see him smile widely at a “Weskan” sign (his hometown). As for the other Nate, Ruess claimed he was suffering from Mono, and he apologized to the front row for being in the spray zone. But if Ruess hadn’t said anything about being sick, no one would have ever guessed it. His voice never wavered as he swept all over the vocal scale and his energy was unmatched as he jumped around the stage. He’s easily one of the best live singers in rock music: a distinct voice, wide range, dynamic control, and smart lyrics. Fun.’s success has been a long time coming and as this performance showed, its well deserved.
Fun. Set List
Walking the Dog
Why Am I
All the Pretty Girls
Some Nights Intro
We Are Young
Take Your Time
All in all, this was a great weekend and it was great to have been a part of it. We’re already eagerly looking forward to next year.
Middle of the Map Fest in Photos:
Day 1, Thursday – Hooray for Earth, Quiet Corral, Hospital Ships, Cher UK, Christopher Paul Stelling, Making Movies, Old Canes, Parts of Speech, The Loom
Day 2, Friday – Mates of State, Mission to Burma, Capybara, Murder by Death, Owen, The Life & Times, The ACBs, Ad Astra Arkestra, Apples for Archers, Beautiful Bodies, Cowboy Indian Bear, Everyday/Everynight, Fullbloods, Ghosty
Day 3, Saturday – fun., Neon Indian, Making Movies, Olympic Size, Friends, She’s a Keeper, The Casket Lottery, Blackbird Revue, Sleeper Agent
Visit our friends, lostinreviews.com and iheartlocalmusic.com for even more coverage and photos from the event.