There is much to be said about Americana music as a means by which to reveal an allegory. The true beauty lying therein comes from the narration administered by generations of story-tellers, woven into the accompaniments provided. The path one must take to attain the status of a celebrated raconteur is often wrought with years of relentless touring and can ultimately be joined by misfortunes of substance abuse, strained relationships, and ostracization from the general public. Those few that reach the zenith of a lauded career are either gifted by luck or have a past haunted by the tribulations that give them the voice by which they earned their keep.
While Kansas City singer-songwriter John Velghe may not have many looming skeletons in his closet to speak of, the man has given decades of his life writing and performing for rooms across the country. It would be experiences had during these formative years that provided Velghe the articulation that culminates with an outstanding ensemble on his new LP, Don’t Let Me Stay.
In the first line of album opener “Time Bomb,” Velghe asks in a self-imposed drawl, “Could you blame me if I don’t trust pretty faces?” followed later by a proposal to allow the imagined former lover to whom he speaks the ability to tell a story which he never wants revealed. The basis of the entire song lies in that single sentence, but Velghe’s conversational writing style expands it into a nearly four-minute-long piece that gives the listener insight to the direction the album’s sound will be driven. Velghe’s portraiture is given further depth by the voices of Kirsten Paludan, guitarist Mike Alexander and bassist Chris Wagner, whose vocals braid together through the entire album and are strengthened by drummer “Go-Go” Ray Pollard providing the metronome by which the album retains its pace.
“Blood Line” begins with a purposeful false start before picking up to a marching beat of a repetitive snare and kick with a guitar providing the only cushioning. Piece by piece the instruments begin to fill in, and at each new measure another layer is added to the vocals. The sound explodes once the chorus is reached, as we are brought the first noticeable taste of the three-piece horn section from Hermon Mehari, Mike Walker, and Sam Hughes. It is at this very moment that Don’t Let Me Stay becomes more than an alt-country or Americana record, and begins to brazenly reveal flashes of the Big Star and Replacements influences that drove Velghe to begin creating music in the first place.
Not to be outdone with a mere nod toward that on which he was reared, the A-side is given closure with an acoustic song titled “Iron Skin,” whose echoing haunt immediately conjures thoughts of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary this very year. Later in the album there is an additional salute to Alex Chilton with “Owe My Soul,” a play on words from Big Star’s “O My Soul.” Velghe sends out one final love letter to the most musically prosperous city in the south with “Austin (you sorta stole my heart).” Austin is a city that has been kind to Velghe in his previous endeavors, to the effect that he is something of a protegé of roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo, and will be playing a SXSW showcase with him this year.
The 12 tracks on Don’t Let Me Stay coil around the intricacies that are possible when the investment into your work comes at a level of detail so concentrated that instruments are removed and added even though the change may be wholly unnoticed by a large number of the listeners. Mike Alexander trades in a guitar for a mandolin on “Stage Inside the Main,” and there also exists the inclusion of James Mitchell, Whitney Williamson and Catherine Root as an understated string section on a handful of tracks. That brings the count to 11 well-versed musicians that lend their talents to the release, creating a patchwork of backgrounds and an amalgam of sounds on an album that would do well to be in any local music fan’s rotation. If Velghe thinks his hands were “meant for telling three-minute lies,” then consider this review an investment in deceit.
I overheard a conversation at The Brick on Saturday night, wherein two patrons discussed briefly that the show happening that night was a reunion, of sorts, for the Manhattan, KS, music crowd of the mid ’90s to present day. Though it may have been spoken as a bit of an exaggeration, the pitifully filled room would beg to differ. Standing about the floor were a few dozen concert goers engaging in conversations or entertaining themselves at the bar, almost all of them having been of the age to have witnessed not only Little Apple locals Egomaniacs‘ initial shake as a performing band, but to have also been witness to the members’ previous acts, of which there are many.
The night opened right after 10:00 with The Chaotic Goods playing a 35-minute set. Though the members hail from various parts of Kansas (namely the city to which I have referred), the five-piece now collectively call the Kansas City area their home. I had experienced the band’s set only once prior (at the same venue, no less), and concluded upon the second time that in the nine months since then, the band has cut a lot of the fat out from their sound. Gone was the hour-long, multi-genre set, in its place a well-trimmed handful of songs displaying what I initially liked best about the band: quirky, nerdy and poppy rock songs with an added bite. So well received they were, that even as an opener, the crowd that gathered requested an encore. That may have been the already freely flowing drinks talking, though. Overall, vocalist and frequent air guitar player Ralph Reichert harmonized well among guitarists Marty Robertson and Ray Kristek, only falling flat with one another a time or two.
“Good evening,” drummer/vocalist Tyson Schroeder proclaimed once sitting behind the kit at 11:15, “we’re (the) Medicine Theory, and we love whiskey.” What followed was a 40-minute set that calls to mind the best stripped-down Chicago and twin cities filth that Amphetamine Reptile Records ever released in the early days of noise rock (refer to the first few installations of the Dope, Guns & Fucking in the Streets compilations or St. Louis band Drunks With Guns for guidance in this area). Joined only by guitarist Jeff Irvine and a variety of pedals, the duo blasted through weird, out-of-tune, and often downright crude songs that covered topics from pornography to Presidential hopefuls. That’s a two-for-one, actually, as both appeared in the same song, along with the line “I’m gonna occupy Rick Santorum’s mouth.” Some in the crowd seemed uneasy, but Schroeder’s light-hearted banter and the public calling out of those who were leaving between songs kept up the mood.
Egomaniacs started their 45-minute set about 12:30 and ran through more than a full-length’s worth of songs in that time. I recall in my younger days listening to the band’s only legitimate album, Primer (their triple-disc The Rest Of can be found in digital format as well), and thinking how great it would have been had I not completely missed out on their existence. This night was only one of a few reunion shows the band has played since they parted ways about a decade ago. Not to say the members have not kept busy with great projects in the interim, as singer/guitarist John Evans has kept himself busy with music for the last 15 years. The band’s live show was both deafeningly loud and blindingly fast, all of the songs played at a rhythm that puts the source material to shame. Evans would mostly shout or growl the words to the songs, occasionally hitting a shriek reminiscent of Black Francis or Poster Children’s Rick Valentin. Despite the crowd yelling for more songs at the end, the trio gave a thank you and quietly left the stage.
I Dress Smartly
In Europe They Like Their Metal with Swords
Short Bus Union
Nerd talk: As mentioned above, John Evans (not to be confused with the KC-based Evans with the stage name John Velghe) is a rather prolific musician in his hometown of Manhattan, KS. Before forming Egomaniacs, he spent time with Marty Robertson in El Fontain, and since then has been seen in The Pembertons, Faultlines, Variable Speed Control, The Goodbye Sort (with Egos bassist David Boomer), The Hard Guilt (with Egos drummer Matt Anderson), and Thick Electric (once again with Boomer on bass).
Tyson Schroeder and Jeff Irvine have been playing music together intermittently for nearly two decades. First, in the ’90s noise band Methods of Man, then upon both members residing in the same city once more, in the mid-’00s rock band (I hesitate to refer to it as noise, as it has much more melody than the current project) under the name of kill.pop., a band which essentially morphed into MT. In addition to the listed bands, Irvine has played with instrumental rockers Auternus and is currently honing A Light Within for their debut live performance this spring. Schroeder, who when not professing his affinity for adult beverages and entertainment, is a locally renowned artist (and creator of the poster you see at the top of this piece), and plays in Knife Crime with Byron Huhmann, a doorman at The Brick, and Brad Huhmann, who played in Onward Crispin Glover with Marty Robertson.
Entering the RecordBar around 10:00 last Friday, one could not walk through the narrows without rubbing shoulders amid those throughout. The venue was particularly crowded for an all-local lineup, though as the night raged on, the audience noticeably waned from a college-aged demographic to a weekend warrior vibe. As though it were filled with drunken Cinderellas, the place all but cleared by midnight, save for some table or booth clusters and a pack of patrons standing near the patio door.The night opened at 10:05, as The Sawyers launched into a 40 minute set of No Depression alt-country lifted from the altar of Tweedy and Farrar, with some elements of honky-tonk thrown in for good measure. The band is led by local songwriter John Greiner, and is backed by Chad Rex on guitar. Rex fronts The Victorstands and previously played in Colorado’s own No Depression purveyors Armchair Martian with St. Joseph, MO, natives Jon Snodgrass and Steven Garcia, the latter of whom now plays in KC powerpop trio Deco Auto. Betse Ellis of The Wilders played the fiddle at stage right, and Chris Wagner (most recently of punk trio Hipshot Killer) filled in for the group’s recently departed bassist. Jonathan Kraft, a sound engineer who has spent time with SSION, and in another life, played with Florida screamo band Kite Flying Society served as the drummer. That was a mouthful, but I thought it necessary to document how varied the backgrounds are of the five members that shared the stage.
Over the duration of the band’s time on stage there was very little audience interaction. I don’t require a story when watching a band play live — and there are many artists that don’t really know when to shut up and play — but at the close, I was left wondering if there exists a tangible album that could be purchased, and remained without answer as nothing of the kind was mentioned.
Author note: I’d like to apologize to those reading this as a casual music follower. What you are about to see in the next two paragraphs is nothing short of conspiratorial six degrees of Kevin Bacon nerding out. If you can’t keep up, feel free to skip through it. I won’t take offense.
John Velghe (née Evans, as the man took his matrilineal surname for the stage to stand apart from the other musically inclined Evans’ in the area, of which there are apparently many) was joined on stage by the full-band form of The Prodigal Sons. Tonight, this included Mike Alexander, who as of this writing plays punk with Hipshot Killer, country with Starhaven Rounders, and Irish rock with Blarney Stoned. Alexander has done everything short of playing the part of Neil Schon in a Journey tribute band. Wait, what’s that? Oh, he has totally done that as well, and will undoubtedly be forming a new band by the time you finish reading this sentence. Chris Wagner pulled a double shift on bass, and in addition to playing with Alexander in a band now mentioned twice (not to mention the Revolvers), provided the rhythm section for Velghe in The Mendoza Lie, a post-Famous FM/Saint Jude band that had a backbone provided by Dan Dumit, who is still billed as a drummer for the Sons, though he did not make an appearance on this night. “Go-Go Ray” Pollard sat behind the kit, and is a nationally recognized performer who has served as the touring drummer for a few major label bands which, if mentioned, would sully the anticipation that you as a reader have surely built about this lineup.
But wait, there’s more. On trombone was Mike Walker, who played in the well-received, though tragically defunct Olympic Size (with Wade Williamson and Kirsten Paludan, both of whom play in Alexander’s Starhaven Rounders) as well as The Maytags, a “neo-dub explosion” led by Zach Phillips of the Architects and The Gadjits, of which Alexander was also a part for some time. On saxophone was the illustrious Sam Hughes, also seen as part of the seven-piece horn ensemble in Afrobeat jazz sensation Hearts of Darkness. Additionally, Hughes was in good company with Walker as a five-piece horn section on the most recent release by The Hearers, a country-spanning membership whose horn section can also be seen in various pairings in the jumpin’ and swingin’ Grand Marquis, roots reggae group The New Riddim, soul revival band The Good Foot, and almost any other act in town requiring some brass. Last, but certainly not least was the talented Hermon Mehari on trumpet, who moonlights in the Diverse trio, playing compositions that pay homage to the 18th & Vine sound that put Kansas City on the proverbial jazz map long ago.
Whew. Now that I have that out of the way, let us continue with the live performance. The band played an hour-long set that alternated from the full lineup that I made a passing reference to above, to an electric four-piece with the addition of Betse Ellis lending her fiddle and vocals. I spoke with Velghe briefly before they began hauling their gear up on stage, at which point he acknowledged his twenty year musical crush on Ms. Ellis, so for her to contribute those talents to a few songs (“Assume the Ground”) from his upcoming full-length, Don’t Let Me Stay (to be released on Lakeshore Records, the label that brought us The Belles‘ Omertà), must be a thrill. The set meandered very little from a full-bodied country-tinged Americana rock with strong horn presence (“Blood Line”), but the instrument changes were plenty.
Acoustic guitars and mandolins replaced electric Telecasters and hollow-bodies for portions of the set (“Stage Inside the Main”), and near the end, the full band took the stage once again for what Velghe referred to as a part of the set in which they will be playing some songs in the key of Paul. Following this, he plucked the opening notes to The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which they played at the Sonic Spectrum tribute series for the ‘Mats at the same venue nearly a year ago. The lone song that saw Velghe without a guitar around his shoulder was a set closer of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” which brought a little less excitement from the crowd than one would think, but it was a fitting end to a very energetic, if instrumentally attention deficit set.
Whether by choice or by chance, the lineup thus far had built up to a swelling climax that could have potentially come crashing down if someone closed the night and was not prepared to hand the crowd their asses on a plate of rock (don’t let that imagery slip past you). Lucky for the audience, Katy Guillen (of The B’Dinas) took the stage and dished out a three-course meal of ass (already regretting that metaphor) and Go-Go Ray was there to serve as the second musician of the night to pull in some overtime. Taking a look at the two of them on stage, an obvious reaction would be to assume you are about to hear something of the White Stripes or Black Keys variety, both two-piece bands who built their reputation out of playing stripped-down blues rock in their own, weird ways. Well, you would have been wrong to assume that, and should be ashamed of yourself.
The reality is that the assumption is not a complete fallacy, but the sheer force with which Katy and Go-Go exerted sound as a two-piece, with Ray given the chance to show off on extended drum fills, and Guillen slinging out fast-paced blues riffs while the two kept in perfect stride with one another was something impressive. The two jammed a full 45 minutes until the house lights came up and the bar was ready to start kicking people out into the cold, and then they played one more song even after that. The two-piece is expected to release an album in late March, and a new one from Guillen’s full rock band is due out in the near future as well.