5 Aug 2011: Kansas Speedway Kansas City, KS
The inaugural Kanrocksas Music Festival wasn’t a bad experience considering it took place on the same weekend as the more recognizable and sizeable Lollapalooza in Chicago. Lollapalooza was also celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. That fact may be convenient for touring musicians, but it’s not the brightest idea for regional fans compelled to choose between two Midwestern music festivals. It’s nice that Eminem and Muse, among others, could hip-hop, DJ, and rock out at two festivals in a matter of days, though. For budget-concerned fans it’s a true negative and a rather easy choice to make.
Who makes the decision to hold festivals in the hottest part of the summer? Even so, the heat this weekend was, mercifully, only a miniscule threat; it could have been much different just one week prior to this show. But Kanrocksas, apologies for its noxious name, must begin somehow and, in fact, experiment a bit with the local musical climate. Over fifty bands were on the bill. Approximately 60,000 music fans attended the two-day event. Some came from Ireland and Australia, and prices were reasonable ($179 for both days). But this attendance had to be transparently far below the estimated number of festival-goers.
It was evident that the biggest draw was rapper Eminem, an artist who is particularly lauded in both Kansas City and the Midwest; he headlined the first night. On the second day, the afternoon crowd was almost nonexistent. The racetrack area seemed a sunny scene from a post-apocalyptic film, maybe Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, and this was most sad. Headliner Muse didn’t hit the stage till 11:10PM and Best Coast didn’t play till 3:40. Thus, one of the principal lessons should be that more recognizable or credible bands should play early and late afternoon sets, and it shouldn’t be so warm.
Eminem’s 90-minute set on Friday was certainly decent, good not great. He did, in fact, draw a record amount of loyal fans that were inclined to both mouth lyrics and wave their hands about. It seemed many thought they were little Eminems. But Eminem began his set with a ridiculous and cheesy ad for a certain iced tea, which was a demonstrative nod to the corporate-world. This is sleazy at best—that a hardcore, no-sacred-cow rapper who, in his songs, illustrates the plight of the underclass sans regard to race would pay so little attention to democratic ideals. But I suppose corporations are people, too.
His rapping, however, was well-accomplished, and the set’s hits were his newer tracks “Not Afraid” and “Love The Way You Lie”, both from Recovery (2010). Interestingly, Eminem noted that he was proud to be back to his old “home” and “stomping ground”. He recited a narrative that could have wound up on a record: Eminem told the crowd that he visited a Missouri Kmart to buy some underwear and came across a 700-pound woman fan who claimed to get loaded on Eminem’s songs. Can one beat a compliment of that sort? Two Bad Meets Evil songs were played, the most popular of which being iTunes-hit “Lighters”; conveniently, Eminem told the audience to get out its lighters. Eminem’s band was relatively sound but the continuous call-outs to the crowd were superfluous and wasted time. Further more, I don’t know how many times he plugged his record. I lost count. His earlier, colorful tracks were less emphasized as if outdated; he, for example, did a medley that featured “My Name Is”, “The Real Slim Shady”, and “Without Me”. “I Need a Doctor” just shouldn’t have been on the list. Eminem exceptionally closed with his signature, idealistic track “Lose Yourself”.
Matthew Bellamy, Muse
Muse, on the other hand, couldn’t get along by preaching to the choir. The English triad tried rather hard to prove itself to the Saturday audience, and that it in fact did. The band performed a glammed-up variety of alternative rock, but it would be a mistake to discount its immediately noticeable skill in the midst of the bright lights and showy spectacles. Unlike The Flaming Lips, which put on a terrible set comprised of a pathetic handful of tricks, including a cane gun, and put its music aside, Muse was primarily song-driven. It’s not ready for some Las Vegas strip dramatic production.
During Muse’s 90-minute set, few gimmicks were applied; the music was the focus. Just about every song from the band’s set was most appealing and performed excellently. One could start from its first number—the potent “Uprising”, a kind of straightforward, populist rant against the political system set to the war drum. But the rhythm section rock out “Helsinki Jam” too was a standout; that song showcased bassist Christopher Wolstoneholme and drummer Dominic Howard’s live technique. And how could one forget the epical, U2-on-steroids track “Map of the Prolematique”?
Lead singer Matthew Bellamy basically was the life of party: he made all sorts of absurd superhero poses, spent time nearly making love to an amplifier, and tossed his guitar over the drum kit. But musically, his guitar was very loud and he sung and played about as well as anyone could. The band, in my view, won over a good number of people not only due to its near-sublime, exuberant set, but also to its reliance on music over total distraction. Laser lights and giant confetti-filled balls excluded. Dominic Howard expressed his sincere thanks at the set’s conclusion, stating “Cheers”.
The Joy Formidable
Other standouts included Kerli, an Estonian-born electro-goth-pop singer who performed her song “Walking on Air”; and three British bands—The Joy Formidable, Ellie Goulding, Arctic Monkeys—that put on strong, impressive afternoon sets. Arctic Monkeys played a solid show in support of its latest, Suck it and See (2011). Alex Turner had his hair done up like Travolta in Grease, a good thing. The band did a fine job of blending its new material, alongside its older hits, during a forty minute set. They sounded great, too.
Alex Turner, Arctic Monkeys
Best Coast proffered a much-needed, impressive sense of authenticity to the festival, most especially compared to bands that relied on unparalleled amounts of gimmickry (The Flaming Lips) and entitlement, or, ineptitude (A Perfect Circle). And let’s not forget Eminem, a most talented artist whose live show mainly combined gimmickry and entitlement, alongside technique of course.
Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast
Best Coast’s set was well-done and unusually straightforward. Lead singer Bethany Cosentino informed the good-sized audience that Best Coast was indeed fatigued, having played several gigs recently. She even responded to a fan in front of the stage who requested that Best Coast come to Kansas more often. But Cosentino’s best line had to be her frustration with a plastic beer bottle. She also subtly mocked Eminem, and asked if he had been present at all. Best Coast played pop-rock songs; the acoustics were quite sound. The band’s brief “Crazy For You” was a doubtless buzz-point; Cosentino keenly stressed the lyric “Maybe I’m just crazy” with success. On several tracks she skillfully drew out her vocal parts, as on the garage-rocker “I Want To”. The pinnacle of the set was the signature track “When I’m With You”.
A Perfect Circle’s set was a first-rate disappointment. The band has been thought a “supergroup”, but its twilight set, pun intended, bespoke of festival amateur night. Its musicianship was positively sloppy and sleepy, with few exceptions. It shouldn’t have been that way. Dubiously, it appeared that the sound had been decreased for every member but for reclusive vocalist Maynard James Keenan. In turn, Keenan’s vocals were crisp, clear. In fact, they were italicized throughout the set. Not a good sign.
A Perfect Circle
Keenan is the most prominent member; he is the singer of prog-metal band Tool. But A Perfect Circle is also lead guitarist Billy Howerdel’s love of labor. Keenan is rather perceived a celebrity. Notwithstanding, A Perfect Circle’s several cover songs did garner notoriety. The drawn-out “Annihilation”, and a somber but meaningful rendition of Lennon’s “Imagine”, its first two numbers, were well-done. Drummer Josh Freese and bassist Paz Lenchantin were, however, sorely missed. And no “Judith” tonight, either.
Billy Howerdel, A Perfect Circle
Howerdel’s enthusiasm was most evident, but James Iha (former Smashing Pumpkin) appeared to be utterly soused and perhaps indifferent to the entire show. Like Keenan, he hid near the stage’s rear and was strangely positioned out of the crowd’s view. I last saw Iha perform at an exclusive but modest event in Oklahoma for Tinted Windows, another so-called supergroup that featured, among Iha, members of Cheap Trick, Hanson, and Fountains of Wayne. Iha’s guitar playing was more pronounced and influential then, as was his demeanor. Save for during a few heavier songs tonight (“Magdalena”, “The Package”), Iha played minor, relaxed guitar bits.
Kanrocksas was no Lollapalooza this year, but it was a fine, inaugural music festival with great potential.
Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast
A Perfect Circle
Matthew Bellamy, Muse