Middle of the Map: Festival Wrap-Up – by Ian McFarland

The second annual Middle of the Map music festival wrapped up early Sunday morning, in most respects, as an improvement upon an already strong if low-key event. With bigger bands and more participants, it’s hard to imagine it not getting even better next year.

Kansas City is not a great place to live in for concertgoers. Compared to other cities of similar size, we’re just too far away from the must-hit metros for a lot of bands to bother visiting. It’s hard to blame them though – attendance at shows is nothing remarkable, and often not enough to convince a tour to spend an extra day driving eight hours from Chicago to hit.

It’s this weakness that makes Middle of the Map so great. Giving acts an event that will bring in more new fans during a slow part of the year provides a valued service in a city whose concert schedule is normally lacking.

That’s not to imply that Middle of the Map is all about bringing in national bands. Though the foreign acts are the most popular, the roster is just as much about highlighting local talent. This is perfect for someone like me – and, I suspect, far too many other indie-music-minded Kansas Citians – as an opportunity to catch up with all the local bands I keep hearing about.

And though I didn’t get to catch many of them, I was very impressed with what I did. Capybara’s hyper-literate chill-out pop was a wonder to behold, and Ghosty drove its basic three-piece band with a precision you don’t expect from a nearby garage act. Even Beautiful Bodies, which many have decried as the unworthy king of the Local scene, displayed a horny, energetic drive that felt entirely and impressively polished.

And all that was just Friday.

The out-of-town acts didn’t have a hard time matching up, though. The Life and Times pushed out a pulsing, headbanger of an emo set, with guitar tones that sounded at times like a synth, and a bass guitar stained in glorious sweat-marks that rained down all over the body.

The next night, Fucked Up closed the Riot Room with a mercilessly fast and loud crash course mostly composed with songs from their densely-awesome 2011 double LP, David Comes to Life, which reimagines punk as blended with pop music in a fashion that sounds nothing like Pop Punk. Their guitars were so loud that it was hard to discern which song was being played, but under the command of screaming vocalist Pink Eyes (real name Damian Abraham), a tall, bald but hairy man with a beard and a beer gut, it all felt intimately deafening. He bear-hugged front row on several occasions, and frequently held out the mike to anyone screaming lyrics along with him. At one moment, this writer was screaming along only to have Abraham lean right down and scream right back at my mouth from a couple inches away. If there’s any such thing as punk rock kissing, I’ve experienced it.

The festival ended with Acid Temple Mothers, an act I’d never heard of but was brought to by a friend. My unfamiliarity didn’t prevent me from washing in the almost 20-year-old act’s jazzy psychedelia. Cordoned off in the corner of the Union’s basement, the Japanese act jammed on four songs for its fifty minute set, each one building on the previous. That one festival can encompass this sort of band alongside a band with the current #1 single in the country in one night just a block away from each other should speak to the eccentric strength of Middle of the Map.

There were some minor issues with the festival. At various points, the three main venues reached capacity and had enormous one-in-one-out lines to get in, including an impassible wait for the Beaumont Club that almost reached Joe’s Pizza. Also at issue is the Beaumont itself, a natural primary venue for the festival given its relatively huge size, but that has a design that poses a serious challenge to the sound. Though, I must admit, everything sounded pretty good for Ad Astra Arkestra on Friday night.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the one very serious issue of the festival. On Sunday morning, rapper Kendrick Williams – who had performed at the festival earlier on Saturday – was shot dead in the parking lot of the Sun Fresh. His only crime, according to an account in the Kansas City Star, was talking back to men driving by in an SUV who commented on a woman walking with Williams.

It’s hard to construe anything in a positive light when an innocent life is lost, but I hope Middle of the Map can continue on next year without being stained by this meaningless tragedy. Westport has been host to lowlife scum a lot over the past twenty years; but for one weekend at the beginning of April for the last two years, it’s also hosted a fantastic music festival.

By Ian McFarland

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