The Dark Knight of Duffy’s Tavern
What’s interesting about The Kickback is not that they have problems. It’s that The Kickback’s problems are what appear to drive them.
Without the incredible amount of pressure frontman Billy Yost seems to put on himself — screaming obscenities after missing one chord out of dozens — he wouldn’t clench his face like an astronaut in a centrifuge, doing little to shield the cathartic release he experiences when the band’s songs are working. After he shoots grappling hooks of gossamer saliva onto the mic, and after he launches spit globules into a full-room crowd, he’s not quietly asking the audience to buy a T-shirt. He and any one of the band’s members — guitarist Jonny Ifergan, bassist Eamonn Donnelly and drummer Ryan Farnham — would give blood if you bought a T-shirt. Plus, Yost is a musician who often uses the imminence of death as a reason to get things done.
Although The Kickback’s biggest problem is something left undone: Their debut full-length, Sorry All Over the Place, which the band recorded with Spoon’s Jim Eno in summer 2013, has long been complete and waiting for a label to release it. Not resigning themselves to a small drop in the bucket, they’ve shopped their Kickstarter-funded record around for months. But they’re hitting the road again this fall, on a tour spanning both coasts, playing important dates like CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, hoping to catch that label they need. Rather than concede to the problem of being a mid-level band, The Kickback recognizes its place, on the cusp of a wider release, and the work it takes to convince new ears that they matter.
Since moving from Vermillion S.D., to Chicago in 2009, The Kickback have joined the Lincoln Calling lineup four years in a row. Which is to say a good portion of Duffy’s crowd on Saturday were not new ears. We’ve heard them play “Please Hurt,” a song that needs, needs the audience to sing along to the chorus, “I want you to hurt like I do.” We’ve heard the Canadian-superhero named “Alpha Flight,” and we’ve seen “Sting’s Teacher Years,” which Love Drunk filmed just across the street from Duffy’s on the roof of Sandy’s in 2010. It’s true that the main release valve from the reality of the band’s problems has been pop culture, so we’ve likely heard other songs like “White Lodge,” which Yost is hoping to force onto the new Twin Peaks soundtrack.
Including a cover of Australian rock band Midnight Oil and an older Kickback song about bulimia, circa 2007, the setlist was also a diverse one that played well to a familiar crowd, ranging from South Dakota friends to casual local music fans. And it wasn’t the two or three rows of close friends that requested “Rob Our House” multiple times. It was someone farther back, who had no doubt seen the band play their requisite Lincoln Calling closer. It’s a song equal parts throat-reddening improvisation and sad-true-story-turned-comedic, recounting the time Yost’s apartment was burglarized, not by someone breaking through the front door, but someone denigrating Yost’s manhood by coming in through the bathroom window. Yost lamented playing the song last year at The Bourbon, but dressed it up this year by, well, dressing up, unzipping Batman pajamas and stepping in to play the closer.
In the show’s final seconds, Yost shot a crooked smile at Ifergan, a look that gave the guitarist a moment to veto what could be a harebrained idea: Batman would fly, from the front of the stage through the drums.
Without a “no,” Yost hopped off the stage, parted the audience and cleared the runway. He jumped between the cymbals, knocking over part of the set, which Farnham helped in tipping and thwapping.
For a few measures, it wasn’t clear if Yost was bruised emotionally or physically as he didn’t move. But just like the thousands of other times that something hurt him while playing music, he’d get back up. And that’s what we love about The Kickback.
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Growing Lincoln Calling
There were two official showcases this week at Lincoln Calling. The Bourbon hosted the X-Rated: Women in Music showcase on Wednesday night and Duffy’s hosted the two-stage Sower Records showcase on Friday night. But unofficially, there was at least one showcase every night.
Wednesday at The Zoo Bar was the place to be for funk and reggae with Ro Hempel Band, Melon Company and Sol Seed. Duffy’s that same night was a collection of hard rock featuring Domestica, The Gov’t and Laughing Falcon. At the end of the evening, it took a slight turn for the weird with Omni Arms. Thursday saw country night at The Bourbon with County Road, Addis Browne Band, Dylan Bloom Band and Emmett Bower Band. The next night, The Bourbon’s marquee read “Jamband Showcase” for The Midland Band, Zed Tempo and A Ferocious Jungle Cat. Saturday’s Duffy’s lineup was full of alternative pop rock with Little Brazil, The Kickback, Ages and Ages and Twinsmith, deviating for Powers and Halfwit (and Dude Won’t Die, depending on which song they played).
It’s convenient and, really, it’s fun to see a handful of like-minded acts in one place. But it’s not that interesting in terms of what the festival offers as a cumulative experience. The exciting part of Lincoln Calling is the invitation to variety and discovery.
A Duffy’s lineup like Friday’s is going to keep someone interested in seeing acts like The Bottle Tops pretty anchored to one venue when it’s a question of more folk or the jambands across the street. Venue-hopping is part of what makes Lincoln Calling engaging, the perfect festival model for a town where venues are all within walking distance of each other.
Last year, as a counter example, John Klemmensen and the Party and Jack Hotel played on the same Zoo Bar billing. Jeremy Messersmith and Boy shared The Bourbon. Masses and The Whipkey Three both appeared at Duffy’s on the same night. Maybe show up early for classic rock and see an unrelated instrumental prog rock band wrap a set.
The most dynamic lineups this year were the X-Rated showcase and Zoo Bar’s Friday night. While X-Rated was one of the official showcases, the order of bands saw a gentle slide from the folk-pop of Churls and Lars and Mal into the overdriven punk of The Baberaham Lincolns and Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Thirst Things First, Freakabout, AZP and Sidewalk Chalk each did their part to crowd The Zoo Bar on Friday.
Lineups like those get people out of one venue and into another, offering incidental exposure, but the most captivating part is seeing how acts as vastly different as Thirst Things First and Sidewalk Chalk can feed off each other’s energy.
By all accounts, the Sower Records showcase on Friday night was a smashing success, deftly hitting unique high points through each set, but probably did very little for growing the festival or reaching new audiences. This isn’t to suggest that every band on the Lincoln Calling lineup is or should be prioritizing popularity, but a growing festival with surprising lineups means bigger touring acts and a more diverse music community.
It’s a different set-up than Lincoln Calling has committed to in the past and worth trying. South by Southwest, after all, finds success in organizing lineups by sponsored showcases. But that format may be a necessity of the sheer production size of SXSW, where Lincoln Calling’s varied lineups make for a more useful festival.
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The Silent Importance of Ages and Ages
It’s one of those ancient truths about art, that the air between the notes, the negative space on the canvas, or the thoughts implied but not written explicitly, are equally as important as the content itself.
And in the midst of intertwining melodies, handclap-propelled choruses and an insistent tambourine, it was the more barren parts of Ages and Ages’ songs that defined the clean edges of their dysfunctional triumph. It was in frontman Tim Perry’s first, lonesome trip through the “do the right thing” refrain of “Divisionary,” or the vocals-only round at the end of the tune. It was in the immediately a cappella, mid-song core of “Souvenir,” which repeats a call to “brace yourself for the hour,” gradually growing to include all six voices that traveled to Lincoln from a hometown of Portland, Ore.
After an extended soundcheck, it was much easier to see the struggle within the shine. The mid-October grayness crept across the outside stage with Perry at the center, proving that it’s easier to look conflicted under a beanie. Although the temperature onstage seemed to be warmer earlier on — Dude Won’t Die’s singer Geoff Ramsey and Twinsmith’s drummer Oliver Morgan opted for T-shirts — Ages and Ages’ guitarist/vocalist Annie Bethancourt marked the night as her first peacoat-covered show.
And although the full-band vocals were a difficult task to manage without a few high-pitched mic squeals, the band needled its way expertly through an armful of woven harmonies. Here’s hoping those sweaters of sound helped to keep them warm, too.
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It’s interesting to consider that Twinsmith could be famous on the level of Fleet Foxes or Local Natives.
If some archaic major-label A&R representative were at the Duffy’s backlot show on Saturday night to watch Jordan Smith, Matt Regner, Bill Sharp and Oliver Morgan churn out their of-the-now indie pop rock, he might have pointed the nub of his cigar stageward and said to his companions, “These guys have it.” After the set, maybe he would have met them on their loadout, saying “You boys want to work for me?”
That admittedly cartoonish notion stems from a mixture of the quartet’s stage presence — gently coiffed hair, easygoing smiles and attire that might influence Urban Outfitters’ inventory — and, of course, their music. If you’ve been paying attention to the prevalent waves in the national indie music scene these last few years, you’ll know that Twinsmith is neck deep in the surf.
Part Vampire Weekend, part Future Islands, the pop rock quartet swings between smart (like an understated tie-bar on a navy knit tie) and gently aggressive (like small volcanic eruptions, punctuated by Smith’s signature yelps) with charming ease.
There aren’t many acts at Lincoln Calling as pre-packaged for a major label breakthrough as Twinsmith and for that, they’re comfortable enough on a bigger stage (like Duffy’s backlot) to find a fitting home on any festival lineup.
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Little Brazil Keeps Pace
Little Brazil is like a long distance runner: steady, consistent and in it for a strong finish.
The gritty indie-punk band has been at it in one way or another for 12 years now and every show since then has been the same high-energy start-to-finish set, featuring, in this order, vocalist Landon Hedges pushing his voice into its extreme upper-reaches, guitars playing heavy-knit, punk-inspired dirges, drums beat to hell, sweating, cheap-beer chugging, sweating.
It might get tiring to see time and again if it weren’t so physically and musically impressive, as evidenced by the crowd packing into Duffy’s inside stage for a relatively early, 9:45, set time.
Bands like Little Brazil and Twinsmith, mainstays in Omaha’s scene, should play Duffy’s more often. Little Brazil has the notoriety to fill a room that fits their sweaty punk rock and the presence of the Omaha acts on Saturday’s billing brought a handful of people from Omaha to Lincoln Calling’s final night, something that doesn’t happen nearly as often as the reverse, but maybe could.
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The Elephant on Halfwit’s Stage
Talk about Halfwit without talking about bassist Saber Blazek’s unfathomable stage presence and you’ll end up talking about a beach, avoiding mention of the ocean.
It takes about one second at the beginning of the set, if you’re careful, to catch the moment when Blazek winds up before launching into a sort of demonic musical possession, contorting his body and making faces worthy of The Exorcist. It’s been well-photographed, well-written about.
Singer/guitarist Dan Jenkins seems like he prefers it that way. He stands to the Blazek’s right and slightly behind, almost obscured by a stack of speakers and certainly dwarfed by Blazek’s unpredictable trajectory. It’s not unlike electronic band Beats Antique. Belly dancer Zoe Jakes, one of the trio’s original members, is a visual, performance art element to the band’s music. Blazek is something to awe at while the band performs.
It’s easy to forget, or maybe not even notice, that guitarist Kevin Waltemath and drummer Lance Fielder are in possession of their own commanding stage presences. Beside almost any other bassist, we’d be noting how exciting it is to watch Waltemath posture with his guitar held aloft, bringing his heavy metal aesthetic to the garage punk outfit.
Still, Blazek’s struggle to control his bass or be controlled by it is ultimately for the good. The last set on the end of a long day at the end of a long week of shows found Halfwit playing to a crowd of worn-down Lincoln Calling full-timers. But Blazek had been out there every night, too, and he’s managing to work himself into a frenzy and so the audience follows suit.
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*Shout-out to everyone who played more than once this week, including Ryan Stier who played with The River Monks and Annalibera (one right after the other), Chris Ford with Christopher the Conquered and Gloom Balloon (again, one right after the other), Jordan Elfers who played three nights in a row (Universe Contest, Thirst Things First, Powers), Jon Dell (Universe Contest, Gerardo Meza, Bonehart Flannigan), Jordan Ellis (Universe Contest, Gerardo Meza), Mike McCracken (The Bottle Tops, Bonehart Flannigan), Casey Hollingsworth (Bud Heavy, Jack Hotel, Root Marm), Günter Voelker (Jack Hotel, Gerardo Meza), all of Sidewalk Chalk for playing Zoo Bar and the steps of Everett Elementary School on Saturday morning, Freakabout (Tower Square, Zoo Bar) If we missed anyone, give them props in the comments.
*Vega was added to the venue roster this year, which given its integral part in the success of Folk and Roots Festival and its popularity as a weekend hangout for the Haymarket crowd, was a good move despite its 8-block distance from The Bourbon/Duffy’s/Zoo Bar. As long as we’re talking ways to grow Lincoln Calling’s audience, this might be one. Many of the people gathered there on Friday for Stonebelly, Lucas Kellison and the Undisco Kids and Bailiff probably only saw one Lincoln Calling show all week, incidental participants who didn’t mind paying a few bucks to hang out at a bar with a band. But two full billings is a good start.
*Orion Walsh’s songs typically land righteously. And that’s fine for Walsh’s purposes. On the title track of his latest album, The Tale of a Broken Compass, he more or less sings that he wasn’t sent here (cosmically, it sounds like) to put you, a bar-going listener, at ease. If there’s a happy medium, though, Walsh might have struck it just before closing time at Zoo Bar on Saturday: get wild. Certainly, having tour buddy and fellow songwriter Jordan-Morgan Lansdowne flailing around as part of The Rambling Hearts helped. But as Walsh and company busted through “Subtle Foe,” a dark fable about alcoholism, their energy fittingly matched the song’s intoxication, more “feel this” than “listen to this.”
.@orionwalshmusic rings in last call for Lincoln Calling 2014.
*Powers played a handful of new tracks at Duffy’s on Saturday that showed the band working with a lighter touch. Rather than beginning every song at full-bore and keeping the foot on the gas pedal all the way through, these often build with a slow-burning intensity, spreading out before erupting in a carefully controlled explosion. It’s a subtler take on the hard rock outfit’s prog rock tendencies.
See more photos from Lincoln Calling’s Saturday shows:
Sidewalk Chalk at Everett Elementary School, Saturday morning
Dude Won’t Die at Duffy’s Tavern
DEERPEOPLE at Duffy’s Tavern
The Boxers at Tower Square on Sunday
photos by JP Davis
The Wondermonds at Zoo Bar on Sunday
photos by Will Stott