If you had a chance to attend the 2nd Annual “Carnaval” at Knuckleheads Saloon on Saturday, September 19th, you were presented with quite a treat. Over the past year, I have been to quite a number of live shows at a variety of venues in Kansas City (Grinder’s, the Uptown, Midland, etc, the Riot Room, etc.). And I have seen some great indie and slightly bigger acts that have put out incredible performances, with Sean Rowe, Madison Ward and the Mama Bear and Iron and Wine at the Middle of the Map headline venue at the Uptown Theater combining to produce one of the best shows I have seen up until Saturday.
But with apologies to those indie folk bands and singers I listed with reverence above, last night’s Carnaval topped that and all the other shows I have seen in the past year considerably.
First of all, Knuckleheads is simply an incredible venue. Located on the outskirts of historic Northeast, the venue doesn’t have the local attractions of Grinder’s (which is in the Crossroads, and makes it a great venue for First Friday concerts) or Midland (Power and Light) or Uptown and the Riot Room (Westport). But the dual inside-outside stage set up made it ideal to host a musical showcase like Carnaval. There was plenty of room to roam, bars were plentiful and didn’t require long waits (and they had Schlitz! Bonus points!), and the sound projected throughout the venue, making it easy to hear the bands playing no matter where you sat. Without a doubt, Knuckleheads is a place I definitely will be paying attention to when it comes to scoping out potential shows.
But back to the event, a great venue is nice and all (though the location by the train tracks makes it not ideal when trains are making late night runs, as they did last night), but without good acts, it can ring hollow and simply not make it much better than the typical P&L bar on a Friday night in July (i.e. not my style). Fortunately, for everyone in attendance, the show was entertaining from start to finish and worth more than the $20 price of admission. Coinciding with the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month and organized by the Latino rock band Making Movies (whose members sport a mix of Panamanian and Mexican-American heritage), the 2nd Annual Carnaval was a bountiful and diverse showcase of eclectic musical styles and the progression of Latin-American culture and music in this millennial generation. As a 2nd generation Filipino-American, it made me jealous a Filipino counterpart of “Carnaval” doesn’t exist in Kansas City. The energy of the crowd, bands and music was so intoxicating and gravitating that I felt a tad sad when it was over. I wished that it could have gone hours longer and it bummed me out that I would have to wait a whole year for a similar event to occur again. (Come on Kansas City! Let’s get some Filipino-American acts here! Or another Carnaval-esque event in the Spring at least. As long as we get Making Movies to perform!)
That’s how great and impacting “Carnaval” was for me. Just when I think “Man, I don’t fit here. Kansas City just seems so distant and unfamiliar to what I know from being in the West Coast all my life in terms of culture and attractions,” something like “Carnaval” comes along, pumps me full of energy and gives me hope in this damn city all over again. It’s a dreadful cycle, this love-hate-love again relationship with this city, but I am willing to go through this to attend events like “Carnaval” and watch acts like Making Movies, etc. The aura of the moment of those performances simply outweigh any funky misery I go through time to time with my experience with this city.
As I got home, being the basketball junkie that I am, I got to thinking: if you could describe “Carnaval” as any NBA team in any period of history, which team would it be? After a minute or two, I came to an easy answer: the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Like Carnaval, the Suns were a distinct but enjoyable contrast to the current atmosphere in the NBA at the time (mid-2000’s). The team consisted of a unique cast of NBA characters who brought a bevy of unique talents and capabilities to form a team that performed well, but went under-appreciated because they did not win a title. Carnaval proved to be the same: unique acts and styles of music, blending into a show that probably will go under-appreciated in the retrospect of shows in 2015 from magazines like The Pitch or Ink because the bands don’t have the mainstream appeal or the hook that will attract most KC music scene people (i.e. they’re not Madison Ward or traditional Indie Folk…that is not a knock on Ward…love them, but they’re sound and style will attract a majority of the young live-music-attending public here in KC).
So, to review each act, I am going to compare each band to a member of the 2006-2007 Phoenix Suns, which arguably was the best of the SSOL bunch (and could’ve gone far if not for Robert Horry “hip check” moment). The only act I will not review is Heart of Darkness, as I only caught the last couple of songs of their act. Thankfully, the band is Kansas City-based, so hopefully I will be able to check them out at another venue sometime in the near future (if anybody has an inside track on where they’re playing in the future, it would be much appreciated).
So here it goes, act by act reviews and Suns player comps from Carnaval!
Migrant Kids: The Shawn Marion
I witnessed Sports a couple of weeks ago at the Riot Room. A electro/pop/rock band from Tulsa, Oklahoma, I enjoyed Sports for their 80’s-esque sound that made me feel as if I was listening to the soundtrack of an early Bret Easton Ellis novel like “Less than Zero” or “The Rules of Attraction.” Migrant Kids, a trio from Austin, Texas, sported the same kind of sound: rock, but with an electronic tinge that made you hark back to the 80’s.
To be honest, I wonder if this is some kind of new trend emerging, as I find it surprising that Sports and Migrant Kids would be sporting the same kind of sound. Last time I checked, I don’t recall a lot of people in the scene these days clamoring for homages to “Huey Lewis and the News” and Phil Collins, and yet Sports and Migrant Kids are producing that kind of sound (though more obvious in Sports than Migrant Kids) much to my surprise and enjoyment. That is why I compare Migrant Kids to Shawn Marion: a tweener of a player with long arms and probably the worst looking jump shot in the history of the NBA. There certainly wasn’t a lot of clamoring for his skill set, but despite the eccentric package, he put up a memorable and productive career with the Suns that defined and highlighted his playing legacy. The electronic sound of Migrant Kids may not be familiar or in huge demand with the typical indie music person, but damn it, they do it extremely well and are extremely enjoyable to listen to.
Playing inside, three songs stood out for Migrant Kids: ‘Thread”, “Canvas of Me” and “Primordial Soup”. “Soup” stood out as the strongest song of their set, the haunting sounds and lyrics and heartfelt passion of the performers on stage capturing the audience over the six-minute span. I liked Migrant Kids’ act so much that I bought their album off of ITunes the next day. However, I was a bit disappointed, as “Primordial Soup” was not on it, and neither was “Thread” (only “Canvas of Me” was the song I recalled). Furthermore, the album was filled of ambient sounds that seemed like a waste of album space. Migrant Kids live is like Marion in Phoenix: unique, vibrant and entertaining. Migrant Kids on their album though is like Marion everywhere else: underwhelming and not exactly what we hoped or were expecting (though certainly not poor in any means).
Maybe Migrant Kids is building up to their next album and it will really rock the house, similar to their live performances. But for now, I will just enjoy them mostly for their act, which they performed incredibly well at Carnaval.
Hurray for the Riff Raff: the Boris Diaw
Hurray for the Riff Raff, led by Alynda Lee Segarra, was probably one of the more unique acts at Carnaval. Based out of New Orleans, her act is more American Folk than the Latino-inspired fusion acts typical of Carnaval. And that is what makes her the Diaw of the bunch: a 6’8 big man who plays more like a guard? They have Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and in a pinch Marion. How does Diaw fit in, especially with Amare Stoudamire in the post? You could be saying the same thing about Riff Raff? How does her Folkish-style fit in with the other acts at Carnaval?
Surprisingly, like Diaw, amazingly well. Without a doubt, Riff Raff was the most mellow act of the night, as the crew I attended the event with had remarked that they didn’t dig her sound in compared to some of the others. But, I appreciated Segarra’s heartfelt passion and skills on stage. On a handful of songs, Segarra went solo with just an acoustic guitar and killed with songs like “Blue Ridge Mountain.” But songs that incorporated the use of the fiddle is when Hurray for the Riff Raff really stood out: it was Lumineers meeting Mumford and Sons meeting First Aid Kit in one unique blend similar to the uniqueness of Diaw’s ballhandling, passing and three-point shooting in a 6’8, Croissant-loving frame. There is no questioning Segarra and Riff Raff’s talent. It will be interesting to see if Riff Raff will continue to grow in Folk circles and break through in a crowded scene.
But furthermore, one thing that was also endearing about Segarra and Riff Raff is her passion for music. Earlier in the day at Carnaval, Segarra worked with young musicians in helping them with the process for creating songs. That kind of generosity is endearing in an industry that seems at times so cutthroat. And that’s what makes Riff Raff like Diaw: much like Diaw seems to be a good teammate and good dude on the court who really has a profound respect for the game, Segarra and Riff Raff seem like genuinely awesome people off stage who really care about people and music.
Gio Chamba: the Raja Bell
I’m not going to lie: the group I hung out with kind of took it easy when Gio Chamba played inside after Hurray for the Riff Raff. With good seats, it didn’t make sense for us to move and put our great seats at risk, especially with the headliners (Las Cafeteras and Making Movies) both playing back-to-back on the outside stage. So, we just watched them on the projector screen, their music still clearly audible from where we were sitting.
Raja Bell typically got the same kind of treatment. When it comes to game-planning, opposing teams are thinking about Nash. They’re planning to stop Amare and Marion on the pick and roll. But Bell? Forget it. To other teams, he’s the fifth guy, a supporting role player at best that is there to just fill up a spot because they don’t have anyone else on the bench better equipped to be the starter at the shooting guard.
And then Bell starts making 3’s. And then Bell starts locking up your scorers on defense. And before you know it, teams are like “Crap! How come we didn’t account for Raja Bell damn it!”
Gio Chamba had the same kind of effect on me. The energy was incredible. They switched between instruments seemingly on the fly. They went on and off the screen, on and off the stage, head banging, bongo drumming, going to the turntables, going away from the turntables for a bit, going absolutely insane, loving every second of what they were playing and the crowd that was there to listen and support them. It seemed from where I was sitting they were having so…much…fun.
And when I went to the bathroom and then tried to debate whether or not to buy a seven-dollar pack of Camel menthols from the cigarette vending machine outside the bathroom, I was able to swing by the stage and see them in action. The crowd was absolutely into it, jamming as hard as Gio Chamba was on that stage. They didn’t play long. Hell, I can’t even remember what any of their songs sounded like or if they were even a band (I think technically Gio Chamba is a DJ). But they were an act filled with energy and reckless abandon and you gotta love that.
Next time Gio Chamba is performing I won’t sleep on them. Just like opposing teams won’t sleep on Raja sitting in the corner ready for the catch and shoot 3-pointer.
Las Cafeteras: the Amare Stoudamire
Amare will always be one of the more special players in the history of the NBA. Not only did he have a unique and dominating skill set as a big, but he was also one of the more unique players in the league. He was one of the forefathers of dressing like a “Hipster” post game, and he had some weird habits to help with his health (like bathing in red wine...HOW IS THIS A THING? HOW RICH DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO FLUSH GALLONS OF RED WINE LIKE THAT!??)
Las Cafeteras is a unique band that really goes against the grain when it comes to Latin music. Yes, they have a unique Latin rock sound, but at the core they are more activists than musicians. They have only produced one official album, but their impact in social rights issues in California as well as nationally also has helped Las Cafeteras gain so attention in music circles. And yes, their passion for human rights is inspiring. But they aren’t activists masquerading as musicians. This is a talented and diverse musical bunch and it was on full display Saturday night.
Despite being quite large in number (the band features seven members: four men and three women), their sound and energy captured the audience from the start of their set. With high energy numbers like “Ya Me Voy”, “La Zapateado” and “La Bamba Rebelde”, they had the crowd dancing and singing along, even if we weren’t totally sure what the lyrics were. Like “La Bamba Rebelde” for example. I knew it wasn’t technically “La Bamba”. But the way they invited the crowd…it didn’t matter if their version of “La Bamba” was a little different in the band’s eyes. They made their act feel less like a performance and more like a drunken New Year’s celebration in your Filipino uncle’s backyard. They just wanted the crowd to have fun and they certainly were immensely successful in doing that.
However, they certainly are fantastic performers, and that shouldn’t be minimized. The lead singer’s voice had a scratchy/raspy tone that enhanced the songs and the lyrics. One of the female singers, a redhead in a black flower dress, displayed her tap dancing skills on frequent occasion (sometimes with help from Making Movies’ own dancing band member). Las Cafeteras may be about the crowd experience during their act, but musically, they are incredibly diverse and talented in their skill set.
And that is why Las Cafeteras may go under the radar, like Amare goes under the radar as one of the better big men of all time. We focus on what they are not. Las Cafeteras is too big in the number of members in their band. Amare doesn’t play defense all that well. Las Cafeteras doesn’t produce enough songs. Amare doesn’t have a great history of playoff success.
But like Amare, we should quit trying to figure out what Las Cafeteras ought to be or should be doing to make it big and more maintream, and simply appreciate what they are: a talented group of diverse musicians who have a fantastic sound and are incredible, energetic performers on the stage. If they are performing anywhere close to you, you should make it a priority to see them.
Making Movies: the Steve Nash
I could go on for days about Making Movies. I have seen them perform three times, including Carnaval. I dropped 45 bucks solely because they were the opening act for Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Uptown (and I left midway through Rodrigo y Gabriela…talented duo, just a terrible set up for a concert). I can listen to their album A La Deriva on loop for hours on end like I could watch Steve Nash work the Pick and Roll on tape for hours on end as well. Making Movies killed it, like they always do. Every time I see them, they seem to get better and better, even if the songs are the same. “Pendulum Swing”, “Chase your Tail”, “La Cuna de Vida” it doesn’t matter. They all shone as they have at every previous show I have been to, but in a slightly different way from each performance. That’s the sign of talented musicians: they make the same songs seem unique and distinct with each and every performance.
But, I compare Making Movies to Nash not because they were the headliner of Carnaval similar to Nash being the headliner of the Suns. But like Nash, there is an endearing quality to Making Movies that goes beyond their music. One of the great things about Nash is how candid he is when it comes to his career and basketball issues. If you ever have seen the Finish Line series by Grantland, it’s amazing how open and insightful he is in describing the end of his career as a NBA player. But furthermore, Nash always seemed to be concerned with more than just basketball and more than just his own personal future and legacy. He helped fund documentaries. He is helping build the Canadian Men’s National team into a more competitive team in FIBA circles (and with Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk, they could be; they are one of the youngest national teams in the World, with no one on their roster over 30). Nash has such a profound respect for his background and his country, that he seemingly puts his own personal ambitions aside for the long-term benefit of his country and the game in his country. That kind of “give back” is unique and refreshing in a professional athlete.
Making Movies has the same kind of vibe. They could be worrying about their own act, making more songs, performing more in hopes of becoming more maisntream, but instead they’re hosting an event like Carnaval. Their singers and band care about Kansas City. They care about their Latin American culture. They care about Latinos in Kansas City. For an industry that can be so insular and self-absorbed, they truly give back. And not just with their performances or events like Carnaval, but in the way they demonstrate their passion with music and young musicians in Kansas City, especially young Latino musicians. Just like Nash, there is something incredibly genuine about the members of Making Movies and that makes you as a music fan root for them, and hope they get more recognition, not just for their personal fame, but so their genuineness can reach and impact a greater number of people outside of Kansas City.
Carnaval in my mind is one of the Top-5 Music Events in Kansas City and should be going forward. I hope Making Movies continues to put this on. I hope Knuckleheads continues to host it. I hope more and more unique Millenial Latin-American bands continue to grace the event.
Because events like Carnaval make transplants like myself truly appreciate the diversity Kansas City has to offer that may not be obvious at first glance or a lot of the time. There is more to Kansas City than Royals, Chiefs, BBQ, P&L, Westport, and KU and K-State alums and Wichita and St. Louis transplants.
Thank you Making Movies and Carnaval for helping us see Kansas City in amazing and refreshing new ways. I look forward to 2016.