Festival Diary: Middle of the Map | Column & Photos

In the midst of rapper Talib Kweli’s fire set Saturday night at Middle of the Map, the festival’s ethos started to merge into focus. That might have been because one of this year’s most memorable moments was happening right in front of us. His name flashing in the background, the Brooklyn-native emcee trampled across the stage, hands raised in the air, whipping the crowd into frenzy and dropping verse after impossibly quick verse.

That crowd, he would observe, wasn’t a typical hip-hop crowd. “I know not all of y’all listen to hip-hop on a daily basis, but look around at all the faces,” Kweli said, gesturing with a wide sweep of his arm toward a diverse yet white-skewed crowd. He and his producer had just bounced through a series of country, reggae and indie rock samplings — evidence for Kweli of the genre’s power.

“As you can see, hip-hop is the most unifying force on the planet.”

Talib Kweli at Crossroads KC

For my money, the best festival experiences offer more than just the music, but in a way that doesn’t shove them down your throat. Middle of the Map was a success in that way, from its crack assembly of performers to its well-planned logistics. For an out-of-towner, the benefits of such a (relatively) sprawling map were many. It opened up parts of the city an occasional tourist might not have seen, restaurants not yet patronized, clubs not yet attended and of course, the best in local musical talent.

The festival reaches from Californos Patio on the south side of Westport, through the Crossroads art district up to RecordBar near the heart of downtown. Imagine one ticket led you from shows in Omaha’s Benson neighborhood to the Slowdown. That distance is walkable but not easily; good for Middle of the Map, then, for distributing shows throughout the weekend. While RecordBar was part of the action all three days, the first two happened mostly in Westport, moving down to Crossroads Saturday to inhabit record stores and day parties.

The best way to relay this experience is by starting at the top, at least for HN’s team, which arrived Friday evening at the Uptown Theater, where Jason Isbell had just taken the stage. On the festival poster, the country singer/songwriter’s name popped against marquee hip-hop names like Talib Kweli and De La Soul and up-and-coming indie rock act Lewis Del Mar. But Isbell seemingly has a following in many circles, as evidenced by a packed crowd inside the beautifully ornate theater.

Uptown Theater

From there, it was a quick car ride over to Westport and the Riot Room, where we spent most of the evening. The club, which is essentially like a shoebox ripe for punk and hardcore shows, showcased a variety of acts throughout the weekend. We caught the dynamic riff rock of Various Blonde, the psyched-out soul of Spirit is the Spirit and the creative, winding, at times befuddling WHY? in the venue’s indoor main stage.

During a break, we walked out the backdoor, down a staircase across the outdoor stage area and out into the Pennsylvania & Westport intersection. Down the street, Shy Boys was playing in the intimate Californos Patio, accessed from the street down a series of ramps and stairs. Dimmed light strands hung throughout the space and above the stage, which was framed by a row of pine trees. The indie rock band played at perfect volume to maybe the youngest (and hippest) crowd I saw all weekend.

The Riot Room

Various Blonde at Riot Room

Californos Patio

Shy Boys at Californos

Then it was back to the Riot Room for a slice of home in Lincoln’s AZP. A lot has changed for the band over the last few months, with a lineup change and a new side-project for emcee Ishma Valenti and vocalist/keyboard player Zach Watkins. But it was the same unshakeable  AZP, which moved as a soulful, energetic cohesive unit. The formula is familiar, especially with “Maria”: smooth keyboard-laden verses give way to big breakdowns before everything clears out for Valenti’s flow. And of course, they had the peace sign raised all the way to the back, audience swaying in unison.

AZP on the Riot Room outdoor stage 

Saturday came and we took the opportunity granted by the festival to spend some time exploring the city. After digging through the bins at Mills and Josey record stores, we stayed at the latter, in the Crossroads art district, for rapper/doo-wop artist Second Hand King and folk/rock band Run With It. From someone who had only been there a day, the chill vibe of a record store show hit the spot, and I can imagine the reprieve for those who had been on foot for the entire weekend. And it was cool to see Run With It traipse up and down the rows of blues, country and jazz.

The rest of the afternoon and evening brought the greatest amount of walking, a towering downtown skyline as the perfect backdrop. The Tank Room was sweaty during the afternoon sets, which seemed to enhance tension and intensity of Lawrence hip-hop group Ebony Tusks. The group was part of a fantastic hip-hop showcase at last year’s Lincoln Calling and we were eager to see them closer to their base. Emcee Marty Hillard shifted abruptly yet effortlessly from raging verses over industrial beats to a cappella poetry, hype man Nathan Giesecke raging behind him. After their set’s penultimate song, which he said was about growing older, he shouted the last bits of chorus from the crowd. To conclude the set, he waded back out to go on a run of freestyle, about fathers dying, bullets you can’t take back and wound the finest clothes won’t cover. Someone’s phone rang. “Answer it,” he said. “Tell them to come.” Hillard spilled aggression and pain and passion; it’s hard not to be angry when you’ve seen some shit. Among the last of his freestyle lines: “what a time to be among the popular consciousness.”

Run With It at Josey

The Tank Room

Ebony Tusks at The Tank Room

I left that show with my mouth open and my brow moist, so we walked up to the RecordBar for a break from the heat and the evening’s first drink. Lawrence indie rock band Westerners were soundchecking and would soon go on. The venue recently moved to its new location on 15th and Grand and the space is really very nice. Signed vinyl sleeves line the upper walls; we even caught a glimpse of The Show Is The Rainbow’s GYMNASIA. And to get personal for a moment, I find much of my favorite music to be challenging and thought-provoking (see above), but sometimes you need a palate cleanser. That was Westerners, which was fun and upbeat, churning out twangy Telecaster solos, group harmonies and tons of energy with a wicked blues streak.

As if all the venue hopping didn’t do it, there’s nothing like the pre-set soundcheck. “It should be pretty loud out there,” REYNA’s Gabriela Banuelos confirmed through the Tank Room stage right mic, shortly after our return to the venue. Already thumping, she wanted the bass near overwhelming (I’d later find out I didn’t truly know the meaning of the word — just wait). REYNA, the Milwaukee pop duo of sisters Gabriela and Victoriah Banuelos suggested to us by a friend, was our surprise of the weekend, a cool drink of water after a scorching weekend of guitar music (mostly played by men). Formerly “Vic & Gab,” the pair have landed last year on one of the five bands to watch in Milwaukee list and have opened for Their voices blended perfectly, powering songs like “Kill Me” or “Ink On My Skin” which recalled the likes of Haim, Cyndi Lauper and Selena. They were endlessly charming, even dedicating a song to “their current favorite TV couple,” Glenn and Maggie from The Walking Dead (eek) and issuing a spellbinding Drake cover.

Westerners at recordBar

Reyna at The Tank Room

Middle of the Map’s climax happened blocks away at Crossroads KC, behind Grinders bar and restaurant, where we raced after staying for the entirety of Reyna’s set. Talib Kweli was just a few songs into his 50 minute set, dotted with hits from his Blackstar partnership with Mos Def, from his own catalogue and odes to legendary producer J Dilla. We found our way to the front, positioned in the blast radius of the main stack, which felt as though it were resetting my heartbeat and exploding my ear drums. We backed up a little bit to enjoy one of the better performances I’ve ever seen. Kweli was energetic and unabashedly talented. He ripped off a particularly rapid verse of “Definition” and gave a kind of knowing nod. If hip-hop is a school, the individuals Kweli shouted-out — The Roots, Dilla, Mos — are his classmates.

That would make De La Soul the principals and superintendents, a legacy they proved while displaying one of the greatest command-of-audience skills I’ve ever seen. I’ll admit it was my first major hip-hop show, as it presumably was for many in the crowd, but my word did they take ownership. The duo ran effortlessly through a laundry list of classics like “Oodles of Os” and “Me Myself and I,” oozing charisma and positivity. It was a clinic in old-school rap and its 29-year evolution.

Talib Kweli at Crossroads KC

De La Soul at Crossroads KC

Dizzy from the past three hours, I escaped back to the RecordBar for Athens indie/folk band Mothers, my final set of the night. The band broke out in 2014 with single “No Crying In Baseball” and followed it up with a beautifully sorrowful When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired. They led the set with that single, frontwoman Kristine Leschper singing in spindly vibrato about a subject (baseball) seemingly too rooted in the ground for her ethereal voice. Indeed, the band was much less folky and much more sharp and angular, something like early Foals or, at times, Modest Mouse. But her lyrical subjects soar above the forwardness of the former and the menacing playfulness of the latter. Her voice, juxtaposed with hers and guitarist Drew Kirby’s mathrobatics made for a disorienting yet mesmerising show.

 

I left that show weary but grateful, as it had tied a brazen knot on top of a weekend filled with unique and striking performances. With downtown Kansas City as its backdrop, it made Middle of the Map an aesthetically beautiful and sonically considered festival. But it isn’t overdone, nothing frilly or superfluous. Just a unifying, engaging, heart-pounding thrill of a weekend.

See more photos from Middle of the Map Festival below:

Friday

Various Blonde

Californos Patio

LIONMAKER at The Riot Room outdoor stage

Spirit is the Spirit at The Riot Room

AZP behind The Riot Room

Saturday

Mills Record Store, Westport

Westport, Kansas City

Crossroads, Kansas City

Josey Records, Kansas City

Run With It at Josey Records

Kemet The Phantom at The Tank Room

Ebony Tusks at The Tank Room

De La Soul at Crossroads KC

Mothers at recordBar

William Elliott Whitmore at recordBar

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.