Grumble all you want about the name. Just say it or attempt to, since many seem to have their own way of saying “Kanrocksas.” It’s abrasive, it doesn’t work, and in some cases, just down right pisses local folks off. Mix in the idea of having a music festival that is aiming for the big leagues, like the concurrently running and very similar lineup at Lollapalooza, or say Coachella or Bonnaroo, and having the fest at a Nascar race track and people seemed mixed. There were many things leading up to the inaugural Kanrocksas that seemed to have fans in doubt. They didn’t think the organizers could pull off something like this in Kansas City, KS. A city that in itself has undergone a radical transformation in the last decade. They thought having it at a Nascar speedway was silly and wouldn’t work. I personally approached it with a bit of optimism but many of the same reservations that I commonly read on Twitter and Facebook.
On Friday, August 5, all the questions were finally answered. Is the name still silly? Yes, but what about everything else? Driving toward Kansas Speedway on I-70, I have to confess that the “curb appeal” left me wanting. I expected to pull up seeing hints of what is inside, the speedway is built in a way that it’s hard, if not downright impossible, to see from the street and or highway what is going on in there. Thus, I was initially disappointed. I had hoped to see hints of things to entice and excite me about what was inside, but I ultimately wasn’t. Once arriving at the infield of Kansas Speedway, my initial thoughts started to wane. Presented with three stages, two of which as I’d find as the day progressed perfectly situated across from each other. There was a micro carnival and the requisite festival corporate sponsor tents mixed in with pizza slingers, locally owned food trucks, and volumes of neon shirted water ($4) and beer ($7) sellers. Suddenly it seemed that having this at a speedway with many things like air conditioned garages in which to eat, some, though not many indoor bathroom facilities, and plenty of misting tents and water refill stations that would all have to be built in the typical festival open field type layout, was perhaps a fine moment of clarity by the festivals’ organizers.
The festival mood throughout the day was seemingly a positive one as well. Twitter searches seemed to confirm this the morning after. Arriving just a little after 1:30, the mood in the air was one of excitement. The crowd was still very thin as Kansas City locals The Beautiful Bodies played the main stage as I made my way inside. It was hot, though not quite as hot as it had been earlier in the week, and mother nature played nice by sending some occasional cloud cover in to help out with the heat. It was still a very hot day though fans seemed to, for the most part, keep their wits about them drinking enough water mixed with early day boozing to last until the headliner Eminem took the main stage with a start time of 11PM.
I kicked off my music portion of Kanrocksas at the “Stageasaurus Rex” stage that sat directly across from the Main stage. The Austin, TX based trio UME opened the stage almost right as the Beautiful Bodies set concluded at the main stage. UME pronounced ‘ooo-may’ features Lauren Larson as lead guitarist and vocalist with Eric Larson on the bass and drummer Jeff Barrera. I read that Lauren started playing guitar learning Nirvana tabs and her live persona seems like something one would expect from such roots. The dynamic front woman was bouncing around with a head of platinum blonde hair that obscured her face more often than not as she rocked out on stage. Their sound is something of a mix of that early Seattle sound with a slightly more pop friendly sensibility. The crowd that migrated over from the main stage was giving the group and its energetic performance a warm response.
From here I wondered over to the third stage that made up Kanrocksas which was named after its home state’s moto Ad Astra Per Aspera or usually shortened to Ad Astra latin for “to the stars.” To walk from the Stageasaurus Rex stage to the Ad astra stage wasn’t bad. But to go from the front of the main stage to the Ad Astra stage, it was a bit of a haul since you were walking from one end of the racetrack to the other. That complaint about stage location to the side, I don’t recall having a problem with sound bleeding once throughout day one. The lineup was done in such a way on day one that acts would only be overlapping on the Main Stage and usual the Ad astra stage. Case in point, I missed Fitz & The Tantrums on the Main stage to catch the North Wales trio The Joy Formidable. The Joy Formidable consists of lead singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan, bassist Rhydilan Dafydd and drummer Matt TThomas. The group’s track ‘Whirring’ seems to be getting quite a bit of radio attention lately even though it’s a couple of years old. Regardless of its age, the track is a solid one and capped off an energetic, occasionally chaotic set that saw guitars being thrown and effects petals being mashed. My kind of show event for a quick 40 minute set by the band.
After taking a break to get some water and some shade, I made my way back to Stageasurus Rex to catch a set by Detroit’s D12. D12 was the first non-rock act of the day that lent itself to the spirit of a music festival; to encourage listening to something you might not typically give its proper due. Also much like the growing crowd, it seemed most everyone at the speedway had made their way to the stage with hopes of catching D12 member Eminem making a surprise early appearance before his headlining set later that night. Or perhaps it was due to this being a noteworthy performance. It was the first time the group had performed live in a long time. Those hopes were dashed by the end of the group’s 40 minute set, which got off to a 15 minute late start. The delay was the first of what so far had been humming along like a finely tuned instrument at Kanrocksas. Set times were precise to the minute it seemed to this point. Thankfully this would be the only set that experienced a delay after a tech problem required the change of a mixer. The growing crowd enjoyed the group’s set that seemed to serve more as a primer for the headliner later that evening. It seemed that some fans of Kanas City rapper Tech N9ne were also disappointed that he didn’t make a surprise appearance to cover the track ‘She-Devil’ which the artist worked together on Tech’s 2002 Absolute Power.
I finally made my way to the Main Stage for a sun laden set by the English indie rockers the Arctic Monkeys. The group known for their occasional stage antics kept their set mostly business like. Lead singer Alex Turner introduced the band, made reference to their limited time, and proceeded to keep things on a steady track as the band played a set covering most of their studio releases. It was a tight, solid performance from the band and easily the high water mark up to this point of the day, and may have been the best traditional rock performance of the day.
After retreating to shade, air conditioning, and water, I ventured back out to the main stage to catch Kid Cudi who easily attracted the largest crowd yet as Friday after-work attendees had made their way out to the speedway. The crowd was also easily the most obnoxious crowds I encountered the whole day. Getting into and out of the crowd was an exercise in frustration. Crowd complaints aside, Cudi’s performance was a rousing one that continued to build on the momentum of the day. Cudi’s set as he outlined early on covered parts of most his career thus far.
The day wasn’t even half quite over and I had already seen five bands. Five bands that I hadn’t seen before and were quite good.
Primus greeted a crowd that I quickly detected wasn’t their usual, which would spell trouble later for those that are fans of the Flaming Lips with a couple of inflated astronauts waiving to the crowd. The band, which has been around since 1984, has a very devout cult following based on my experience in the past with Primus fans. Those fans seemed to skip Kanrocksas, as those that made their way over to the Stageasaurus Rex stage after Kid Cudi’s completed set didn’t seem to know what to expect. The band had a coupled of bigger hits back in the nineties, two of which were ‘John the Fisherman’ and ‘Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,’ a song that HAD to be played at a Nascar speed way, were included in the bands hour long set.
The true tough call after Primus was which dance party to attend. Either one promised to be solid, though a tough call for fans of the genre. On the main stage was Bassnectar, who to be honest I hadn’t heard of prior to Kanrocksas. Over at the Critical Mass Tent was Major Lazer, a collaborative project of super producers Switch and Diplo. I ended up splitting time between the two. Based on the crowd levels at each, Bassnectar easily had the biggest crowd I had seen gathered yet at Kanrocksas on day one. That was impressive considering Ween was playing at the same time on the Ad Astra Stage and the draw of Major Lazer over at Critical Mass. While I liked what I saw of the Major Lazer set, the draw and the pure energy coming from the main stage for Bassnectars set was a sight to behold. Thanks partially to the sun going down and ever-growing crowds of ravers mixing with Eminem fans alike were eating up everything Bassnectar (real name Lorin Ashton) was throwing at them. From the light show to the music mix, it was hard not to get pulled into the action and at least throw your hand in the air or bust a few moves. The hour long set felt like it could have easily gone the rest of the night and easily into the earliest hours of the next day feeling like a quick time warp.
The Oklahoma City-based The Flaming Lips, much like Primus, are another band that have a devout following that sadly didn’t seem to turn out for Kanrocksas. Hopefully, their show,, that I feel is a large, positive, happy party, drew some new fans in. The band certainly gave those that are used to a Lips show one that they have grown to know and love, but didn’t offer much of anything new if one caught their performance down the road at Sandstone last spring. Wayne Coyne and company including Kansas-born drummer Kliph Scurlock certainly tried to get the audience to buy into their show but it seemed they struggled out of the gates to get a predominately heavy Eminem-ready crowd to turn in their favor.
Surprisingly set times were running like a precise clock after the minor hiccup at D12’s set earlier in the day. A feat the Kanrocksas organizers can be commended for when such things can so easily get out of hand. As the Flaming lips set rapped up promptly at 10:40, it gave fans who hadn’t already made their way back to the main stage a chance to do just that. Eminem as indicated by a short video intro that played before the rapper, producer and actor appeared on stage hadn’t performed a full tour in quite some time. This date was one of four, only two in the entire US that are scheduled for the year at the moment. The rapper arrived from below the stage with ‘Won’t Back Down’ off of 2010’s Recovery. He would go on to cover most every hit the rapper is known for in a near two hour set that featured 24 tracks including a melody of three tracks the rapper is arguably best known for, ‘My Name is…’, ‘The Real Slim Shady,’ and ‘Without Me.’ Eminem’s show featured, not surprisingly, some D12 tracks including ‘Purple Pills’ and ‘Fight Music.’ Also in attendance was Royce Da 5’9″ for a couple of Bad Meets Evil tracks ‘Fast Lane’ and ‘Lighters.’ Eminem was backed by a full band and a DJ on a set that looked like a car junkyard from his native Detroit. Considering the time he took away from music, he hasn’t lost anything in his live presentation. His flow and style are as on point as they may have ever been. While the show didn’t contain any particular stand out moments, the lone encore ‘Lose Yourself,’ the Academy Award winning song from the 2002 film 8 Mile, closed out Eminem’s show and was arguably the highlight of his near two hour set.