New sounds: Your guide to exploring the bands of Middle of the Map Fest
If any word describes the seventh annual Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest, “diversity” is as good as any.
This year’s three-day lineup is topped by a marquee show each night, and each showcases bands or performers who define different genres.
Thursday’s main attraction is Lewis Del Mar, the duo of Danny Miller (vocals, guitar) and Max Hardwood (drums, percussion), childhood friends from New York via Washington, D.C., who mess around with various forms and flavors of music. Their sound is broadly described as “experimental folk pop,” but it explores and samples other terrains, including Latin polyrhythms.
Live, the duo brings a full band — three other musicians — and unloads a dynamic fusillade of sounds and visuals. They top a bill that includes Zipper Club, a shape-shifting rock/pop band from Los Angeles, and Anna Wise, a captivating vocalist who got her start in the band Sonnymoon but made a name for herself — and won a Grammy — for her collaboration with Kendrick Lamar.
Thursday’s show is at the Madrid Theatre.
Friday’s headliner is Jason Isbell, an elite songwriter whose first splash in the music world was as part of the Southern alt-country band Drive-By Truckers. He spent six years with that band before launching a solo career in 2007 and starting his own band, the 400 Unit.
Isbell, a native of Green Hill, Ala., has released five solo albums; his sixth, “The Nashville Sound,” is due in June. His songwriting chops draw comparisons to giants like Neil Young and John Prine. Isbell’s previous show in Kansas City was at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, where he supported his wife, Amanda Shires, who opened the show for Prine.
Isbell performs at the Uptown Theater. Strand of Oaks opens.
One of the most influential and radically diverse hip-hop troupes of the very late 1980s and 1990s, and the crown jewel of this year’s festival, headlines Saturday night’s show at Crossroads KC. De La Soul crashed the scene in 1989 with the album “3 Feet High and Rising,” introducing a sound that was a lavish pastiche of genres and styles and innovations. Or as critic Robert Christgau put it: A sound that was “radically unlike any rap you or anybody else has ever heard — inspirations include the Jarmels and a learn-it-yourself French record.”
De La Soul sustained its relevance well into the 1990s and into the new millennium, always evolving and experimenting. In 2016, they released “And the Anonymous Nobody,” their eighth studio album, which received a Grammy nomination for best rap album. The lineup also includes hip-hop provocateur Talib Kweli, who deftly and incisively explores social issues and political injustice in his poetic lyrics.
Here’s a recap of other acts worth exploring among the more than 100 bands performing at this year’s festival.
Thursday at the Madrid Theatre
Anna Wise has made feminism an eminent cause in her music. In February, the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, who will perform at Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest in May, told National Public Radio:
“This is an important time for all women to feel proud and happy to be ourselves, exactly as we are, to love ourselves and truly listen to and love others. I hope this project is a testament to the strength and the power that women have when we work together.”
“This project” is “The Feminine: Act II, “ the follow-up to 2016’s “Act I, “ an EP that examined perceptions and attitudes toward women. “Act II, “ released in February, picks up where its predecessor left off, including the song “Coconuts, “ an ethereal, hypnotic mix of pop, electronica and R&B that encourages women to muster the strength to pursue their dreams, no matter the resistance they face.
Wise, a native of Brooklyn and an alumna of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, was introduced to the music world through Sonnymoon, a duo that trafficked in hypnotic compositions that fused pop, jazz, electronica and R&B, foreshadowing her solo material. She was drawn into the brighter spotlight by rapper Kendrick Lamar, who enlisted her as a collaborator and vocalist on several projects, including the track “These Walls, “ which won a 2016 Grammy for best rap/song collaboration.
Run River North
Friday at the RecordBar
On the iTunes page for Run River North, the list of contemporaries includes some familiar names: Of Monsters and Men, the Head and the Heart, the Lumineers, Darlingside.
It might be time to renovate that list.
Run River North is a sextet from Los Angeles that initially called itself Monsters Calling Home. Its first break came after Honda caught wind of the video to the song “Fight to Keep, “ which included the band riding around in Hondas, and used the song in a commercial. That led to an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, which led to a deal with the Nettwerk Music Group, which led to the name change.
In 2014, the band released its self-titled debut, produced by Phil Ek (Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses), which comprised a collection of songs written by frontman Alex Hwang, all rife with folk-revival sounds: gang vocals, foot-stomping rhythms, sing-along choruses and lots of acoustic instruments.
Time on the road changed the band’s dynamics and increased its thirst for a new direction. In 2016, Run River North released “Drinking From a Salt Pond, “ which was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Lars Stalfors, who has worked with the Cold War Kids, the Mars Volta, the Colourist and Matt & Kim. This time, the songs were entirely collaborative, and Stalfors navigated the band into heavier, indie-rock terrain. The melodies are still there, but the arrangements are more diverse and adventurous. See the galloping, piano-centric “29” as a prime example of why that iTunes list of contemporaries needs to be refreshed.
Run River North performs Friday, May 5, at the RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd., as part of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Valley Hush and Cobi are also on the bill.
Friday at Californos
The song “Every Night” opens with doo-wop vocals and finger snaps keeping a soulful groove over a bed of brash, rocking guitars and keyboards as Walker Lukens sings/shouts, “Every night it’s the same old scene …”
The song has a Spoon vibe, and by no accident or coincidence. It was produced by Spoon’s drummer, Jim Eno, and it provides an apt introduction to Lukens, an adventurous singer/songwriter whose sound is more than just sweet hooks and catchy melodies.
Lukens, a resident of Austin, Texas, has issued a few EPs, most recently “Never Understood, “ and an acclaimed full-length, “Devoted, “ which the Houston Chronicle called “a masterful and expansive collection of progressive contemporary indie pop.”
Song titles will give a sense of his whimsy: “The Night I Was Kissed by Patti Smith, “ “Kindle to Your Fire (Oprah Voice)” and “When I Lost You, Goddamn I Lost.” But they don’t reveal his knack for sonic cleverness or his ability to swoop from one genre or influence to another.
In April, Lukens will release another EP, “Ain’t Got A Reason, “ which includes the single “Simple Man, “ a breezy pop song also produced by Eno. Its arrangement is more straightforward, giving the lyrics space to live among the sway of guitars and background vocals and the melody room to breathe.
Lukens has been touring with a five-piece band, The Side Arms, which Fusion magazine in his hometown
Saturday at the RecordBar
There is nothing campy about Caamp, a folk duo from Columbus, Ohio, comprising Taylor Meier on guitar and lead vocals and Evan Westfall on banjo and harmony vocals.
The childhood buddies started playing together as high school freshmen. After their first project folded, Meier and Westfall continued on as Caamp (the extra “a” was added for the sake of easier internet searches).
In March 2016, they released their self-titled debut on Square Roots Records. It’s a collection of 10 songs that showcase Meier’s soulful, raspy vocals - Ray LaMontagne seems to be a heavy influence - lively interplay between guitar and banjo and lyrics that tell stories.
Some of them are dark and ominous, like “All the Debts I Owe, “ which includes the verse: “Remember the thing I told you, three years two moons ago? / Promise I’ll be right behind you / But you’re gonna die if you don’t hit the road.”
The duo has developed an audience online: Two tracks from “Caamp” - “Ohio” and “Misty” - are approaching 1 million hits on Spotify. Highly recommended for fans of LaMontagne and Bon Iver.
Caamp performs Saturday, May 6, at the RecordBar as part of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest.
Saturday at the Tank Room
Arkells may seem like newcomers on the music scene, but the Canadian band has been making records for 10 years, since it self-released its “Deadline” EP in 2007.
The band, a five-piece, named itself after a famous street in its hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, where all five attended McMaster University. In 2008, on Dine Alone Records, they released their first full-length, the breakthrough “Jackson Square” album. That led to a Juno Award (Canada’s Grammys) for best new group in 2010 - their first of several Junos. That then led to a deal with Universal Music Canada, which has released three full-length albums that all made the top 5 on the Canadian charts, including “Morning Report, “ released on the Universal subsidiary Last Gang Records in August 2016.
The band’s music bears several influences - mixes of rock, pop, indie-rock, soul and ’80s pop-wave that draw a variety of comparisons. From a review of the “High Noon” album at AllMusic.com: “Both the Springsteen-style stadium rockers and the modern-pop synth bits have been dramatically emphasized to mixed results.”
And in August, Paste magazine said the “Morning Report” album “finds the band taking a step away from their rock ‘n’ soul comfort zone and launching into a light pop vibe that sounds like a milder version of Coldplay.”
Arkells have been getting plenty of traction outside Canada, performing at many of the large U.S. festivals, including, most recently, Coachella, letting their neighbors to the south know that they are a veteran, award-winning band that has been around for a decade.
Arkells perform Saturday, May 6, at the Tank Room as part of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Pageant Boys, Tart and Overcoats are also on the bill.
Saturday at the Brick
Mystic Braves is a five-piece from Los Angeles that plumbs rock’s pop-psychedelic era and gives it a few twists and traits of their own. The quintet comprising Julian Ducatenzeiler, Tony Malacara, Cameron Gartung, Shane Stotsenberg and Ignacio Gonzalez was founded in 2011. Since then, the group released three full-length albums, starting with a self-titled debut in 2012 and including “Days of Yesteryear, “ released in November 2015 on Lollipop Records.
The music is an appealing blend of pop, garage rock and and organ-fueled psychedelic rock. Songs like “Born to Get You” and “Desert Island” recall neo-psych contemporaries like Sugar Candy Mountain and psych-revivalists like Cosmic Rough Riders. The boys look the part, too, affecting period fashion and hair styles. It all fits the summery, West Coast-vibe of their music, which is as engaging as it is instantly familiar and reminiscent of bygone days.
of Austin praised for its ability to be “at one moment heartbreakingly soulful, the next barn-burningly raucous.”