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Local musicians talk about their own versions of showmanship

Les Izmore has earned a reputation as a high-energy frontman. Hearts of Darkness performs March 22 at the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road, and April 4 at Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Heartfelt Anarchy performs April 5 at the Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest.

Les Izmore has earned a reputation as a high-energy frontman.

The Beautiful Bodies are band members Luis Arana (from left), Alicia Solombrino and Thomas Becker. The band’s next performances will be in Austin on March 15: at the Shangri-La for the Midcoast Takeover and at the SoHo Lounge for an official South by Southwest Music Conference showcase.

Stevie Cruz is lead singer of metal band Hammerlord. The band performs April 5 at Ink's Middle of the Map Fest.

Mark Lowrey (left) and Enrique Chi will collaborate with the Social Club, a side project of Making Movies performing on March 21 at the VooDoo Lounge and on April 18 at the Kill Devil Club.

Tim Ellis fronts the band Outsides. Outsides performs at 10 p.m. Thursday at MiniBar, 3810 Broadway, and April 5 at Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest.

You should be able to feel the energy coming off the stage without watching the band. Then the crowd feeds off that energy, then we feed off the crowd, and everybody’s having fun.” Les Izmore

Ink

If you’re at a Beautiful Bodies show, watching lead singer Alicia Solombrino dance, crowd surf or serenade a fan in the front row and you look around and notice guitarist Thomas Becker isn’t on stage, you should probably look up. Way up. Chances are he has alighted somewhere high off the ground, like atop a stack of amps or, if you’re outdoors, maybe on the roof of the stage.

“One day, I just decided that to make more room onstage, I’d just go up,” Becker said. “After that I realized that there was no reason to be confined to the stage, so I play wherever I can. It’s liberating.”

It’s also a regular part of the Bodies’ live shows, which are contagious with energy and personality. Their music is a manic mix of rock, punk and pop, and when it’s delivered by a band that’s constantly in motion, all that energy spreads to the crowd.

Call it showmanship, stage presence or performance art, the element that separates the best live bands from others (all other things being equal) is how they give their audiences a show, something more dynamic than just a rote live performance.

“It always bums me out when I go see a band live and they plant themselves statically behind their mic stand and don’t move the entire set,” Becker said. “The whole point of a live show is to experience something different from listening to a record at home.”

Ink talked to some of the better live performers in Kansas City, bands and artists who are known for making their shows something more than just a listening experience. Each said the goal is to give fans something beyond a recitation of songs.

Mark Lowrey is a jazz pianist, but even in jazz, where the focus is primarily on the music, he said, some showmanship is necessary, whether it’s talking to his audience or expressing his enthusiasm physically.

“When it comes to presentation, I always think of content first,” he said. “But I’m aware that we are a visual culture; we listen with our eyes. So even though the music is foremost the focus, it’s OK to have a little fun. That doesn’t mean I have to flop around all over the stage, but I think it’s important to be physically involved in your music to some extent.”

It’s also important to give the audience some attention and gratitude, he said, which is something he learned from a few of his local peers.

“Barclay Martin, Dave Stephens and Lonnie McFadden,” he said. “What they have in common is their honest and true appreciation of their audience, whether it’s onstage or before and after the show. They make a point to let each audience member know how much they appreciate them.”

Engaging the crowd is a high priority at a Beautiful Bodies show.

“Expressing myself live, whether it’s through the lyrics, the (dance) moves, grabbing audience members, jumping into the crowd — connecting is what it’s all about for me,” Solombrino said. “I want people leaving the room inspired.”

Solombrino said Michael Jackson was her biggest influence. “The way he performed and the way he sang: He was a complete package, which seems so rare today.” She works out and does yoga regularly to stay in shape for her shows, she said, but none of what happens onstage is rehearsed or choreographed.

“You have to be loose onstage and have fun,” she said. “Nothing is planned. Everything (happens) at that moment onstage, which makes every show unique.”

Becker said the Bodies’ shows can get so unhinged the stage can become a rugged playground. “I can’t tell you how many bruises and cuts I’ve gotten from Luis (Arana) hitting me with his bass or Alicia whipping me with a mic cable. I’ve even chipped teeth.

“So far, nothing bad has happened from me climbing all over things. We have been kicked off plenty of shows. A sound guy once put me in a headlock while I was playing onstage for hanging from a stack of speakers. But fortunately I haven’t fallen from rafters or anything like that.”

Things get wild onstage when Hammerlord is playing. Stevie Cruz, lead singer of the high-speed hardcore metal band, is a dervish of a live performer, always in motion, shrieking lyrics over the band’s monstrous din. He cites an array of influences, including James Brown, David Lee Roth, Alice Cooper and Phil Anselmo of Pantera.

“I saw Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell Tour when I was still living in California,” he said. “(Anselmo) got the whole crowd out of their minds. They were pulling kids onstage, kids were flying across the room. I was 12 or 13, and I went home thinking, ‘I want to be the frontman of a metal band.’”

Cruz doesn’t choreograph any routines, but he does cop some of his manic moves from an unlikely source.

“I’m a big-time professional wrestling fan,” he said. “I ape a lot of those ’80s guys. The Ultimate Warrior, how he grabs the ropes and bangs his head. That’s in my mix. And Macho Man, how he puts his finger in the air. And the way various guys strut.”

Cruz also gets inspiration from the lyrics he writes. “A lot of our songs are character-driven,” he said. “So a lot of times, I’ll act out the character’s perspective.” Such as in the “Wolves at War’s End” live video, in which Cruz is costumed as some freakish, masked Roman warrior.

“I’d love to go all out with that,” he said. “I’m very inspired by Alice Cooper, too, and the whole ‘show’ aspect with playing different characters. Doing something like that would be amazing. We can’t do that now; we don’t have the budget. But I can still project (concepts) physically that connect with the audience.”

Les Izmore is the charismatic, high-energy frontman for the Afro-Cuban orchestra Hearts of Darkness and for Heartfelt Anarchy, the hip-hop/rock duo he’s in with producer and beatmaker D/Will. “I started kind of late, so my first real influence as far as performing goes was OutKast,” he said. “Then I went back to funk and James Brown, Funkadelic, P-Funk, and Sly and the Family Stone. There’s Bad Brains and Gogol Bordello. And Ces Cru. There’s a local influence. They’re a real energetic live act.”

He is not extroverted, Izmore said, until he gets onstage.

“I’m pretty quiet and chill, but onstage it just kind of comes out naturally,” he said. “The thing is the music is so energetic, I can’t help it. If I wanted to be chill and still, it wouldn’t happen.”

The key, he said, is to generate energy onstage that spreads to the audience and back to the band.

“I like to see a band vibing with each other,” he said. “You should be able to feel the energy coming off the stage without watching the band. Then the crowd feeds off that energy, then we feed off the crowd, and everybody’s having fun.”

The Latin-rock band Making Movies has developed a very visual live show that celebrates its sound, which extracts elements of traditional Latin and Afro-Cuban music and fuses them with rock.

Enrique Chi, the band’s guitarist and lead singer, said growing up he remembers seeing footage of Peter Gabriel when he was with Genesis, performing in masks and other costumes. “You couldn’t really understand the lyrics because of the masks,” he said, “but it was very theatrical, and he was so committed to creating a spectacle. It stuck with me, even as a child.”

Chi also recalled a My Morning Jacket show at Starlight Theatre that deeply affected him. “Their frontman, Jim James, is so unabashedly himself onstage,” he said. “You feel very close to him as he performs, prancing around onstage and being a showman in an honest, genuine way. It really affected me.”

The show also influenced how Making Movies puts together its shows. Keeping them fresh and unique has become paramount, he said.

“(My Morning Jacket) did a real heavy set, then for the encore, they came back and did some real ethereal stuff,” he said. “It was a great concept. Rock hard and leave on a pretty note.

“It was so well done and well put together, I assumed it’s what they did every night. Nope, it’s just what they did that Monday night in Kansas City. What they did in Denver two days before was completely different. It was so cool to see something so organic with that level of showmanship to it. And we saw something that happened once and won’t happen again. That requires a band that really loves each other. You have to be really in sync and be able to communicate to pull that off. It inspired me a lot.

“So now we never play the same set or play songs exactly the same way. We want to get to that point where we give an audience a show that has a really well-conceived concept but is different from any show we’ll play of that tour or that year. It’s really rewarding for a crowd to get that kind of experience.”

Because they perform many of their songs in Spanish, Chi said, the band tries to convey the lyrics physically and musically for those who don’t speak the language.

“We try to be really in touch with every moment onstage,” he said. “So maybe inside a song that talks about domestic violence, there’s a punk-rock frenetic, freak-out moment so maybe if you don’t speak Spanish you can realize, this song is darker than I thought.”

Its shows typically include a traditional Mexican dance from percussionist Juan-Carlos Chaurand, which he learned growing up from his mother, Maria Chaurand, who founded the dance troupe Grupo Folklorico Atotonilco at the Guadalupe Center.

“One intention of our live shows is to showcase all the cultures that are part of our music,” Chi said.

Masks, role-playing and gothic-psychedelic blues are the primary elements of a Freight Train Rabbit Killer show. The duo comprises Kristopher Bruders and Mark Smeltzer, who founded the concept almost accidentally after beginning a collaboration last year.

“I’d always wanted to work with Mark,” Bruders said. “Every time I’d see him, he left a big impression. Onstage, his persona is as big as Muddy Waters.”

Bruders, who also fronts the band Cadillac Flambe, said he grew up a punk-rock fan. He remembers a show at the Fusebox back in the 1990s when a local punk band dragged a dead deer head onstage. “No, it wasn’t stuffed, it was roadkill,” he said. “That was some real shock-rock.”

Yet he was a more traditional performer until last spring, when he and Smeltzer recorded about a dozen songs, nine of which ended up on their inaugural, self-titled recording. Although they wrote songs independent of each other, a theme arose among their material.

“They were all about renegade, outlaw musicians,” he said. “His were more about the supernatural, spiritual side. Mine were more on the physical side.”

Their first performance was at the RecordBar in October. The two wore masks that evoked their namesakes — Bruders is Freight Train, Smeltzer is Rabbit Killer — and let their songs tell the story they’d hatched about vigilante superheroes. The crowd, apparently, was spellbound into silence.

“It was very intense,” Bruders said. “Way more intense than I expected. The crowd really didn’t do anything. There was some applause but it was mostly silent. Nobody talked. At first I wondered whether it was awful, but later people said they loved it, they couldn’t get over it.”

A performer doesn’t always need costumes or choreography or rock-climbing skills to engage an audience. Sometimes a little conversation can go a long way.

“My stage presence is an extension of myself,” Lowrey said. “I don’t think I’m necessarily blunt, but I’m very open. And that seems to serve me well onstage, as long as I’m not in a bad mood.

“If the audience is pin-drop silent, like they can get at the Majestic, I like to talk to them, give them an anecdote about the song I’m about to perform.”

And sometimes all you have to be is the most excited person in the room. Tim Ellis, who fronts the dance-pop trio Outsides (think Phoenix with a twist), is a kinetic frontman and his band’s biggest cheerleader. His exuberance can be contagious.

“Sometimes when I’m performing, I’m thinking about things that have happened that day or week and try to release that and transform it into something positive, not unlike a religious ceremony,” he said. “I really love it when you can listen to a record and then see an artist live and get a fuller, more vibrant and vivid range of emotions and maybe a more primal connection to the performer.”

Not everything works and not everything should be attempted, Lowrey said, but it’s usually worth the gamble to try to give an audience something to remember beyond the songs, whether it’s a high-flying stage feat or a peek inside a singer’s psyche.

“I think there’s a lot of bullshit in showmanship, but a lot of great stuff happens,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a spectacle. When you see someone’s personality come out, like when you see a singer/songwriter smile at a certain lyric, it can make you think they’re remembering something, maybe the person they wrote the song about.

“Even if rehearsed, moments of great stage presence can be some of the greatest experiences in live music.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816.234.4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

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