Clashing with the Titans

Let’s say you’re a member of an up-and-coming Kansas City-based group, one with a couple of EPs and some touring experience under its belt. Looking for a late-in-the-year showcase gig, you spot Tuesday, November 27, and savor the possibility. Everyone will be back from holiday travel — check. People who recently have gorged themselves on leftovers and ditched their visiting relatives will be looking for an excuse to party and release the tension they’ve accumulated — bonus. Suburban touristy types will be out in abundance gawking at the Plaza Lights and might feel inclined to spend an entertaining night in the big scary city — sign the contract, already. But then the big-time concert announcements come: Slayer, King Crimson, Linkin Park and then, bam, U2. Suddenly, National Fire Theory‘s slot at The Hurricane doesn’t look so prime anymore.

It’s really not that bad to go head-to-head against Slayer unless the competition is a speed-soloing contest or some sort of blasphem-o-rama. For a local pop-punk group playing the same night that the Angels of Death descend upon the city, attendance shouldn’t really suffer. (True Slayer fans don’t really check out other bands — they only emerge from their caskets/use up their precious parole time on their idol’s concert dates.) The same goes for King Crimson — its fans won’t interrupt their killer games of Dungeons and Dragons unless a group uses quarter-tone tunings, 7/8 time signatures and/or a plus-three healing staff. National Fire Theory’s compositions aren’t mere three-chord wonders (and the “Theory” part of its name might intrigue the prog nation), but the high-art set might scoff at its lowbrow use of catchy, accessible melodies.

However, going up against Linkin Park, a rap/metal group that’s in touch with its sensitive side, could be tough, especially when its opening act (turntablists X-Ecutioners) is capable all by itself of attracting the hipster crowd that frequents live-rock haunts. And opposing U2, a veritable stadium-filler that all sorts of music lovers have appreciated at some point, is an unenviable task for any area outfit.

National Fire Theory also played October 21, matching up against a punk superbill (Sick of It All/Dropkick Murphys/Tiger Army) and the mighty Tool. Given that it’s the only group that’s had to clash with the titans on both of these big-city nights, National Fire Theory might seem cursed, a perennial winner of a Shirley Jackson-variety lottery. But its affable manager, Gooch, disagrees, offering a pragmatic take on the group’s twice-lightning-struck fate. “Touring bands are only here at certain times, but there will be other opportunities to see us perform,” he reasons. “Not that we don’t want everyone to be at our shows, but we understand that everyone has to go see whoever’s in town.”

“We’re so very fortunate to have a following that would miss a favorite national act to help support us,” adds the group’s lead guitarist, Jon Wessel. “We have kids who come to shows with homemade NFT shirts that obviously took a lot of time and effort to make, and that sort of devotion/admiration/dedication means a lot to me personally.” (Fans already holding a ticket to one of those other November 27 shows, take note — NFT plays next on December 8 with Ultimate Fakebook at The Hurricane, where the group will have new, professionally printed T-shirts on hand.)

While NFT drew a decent crowd in October, kill.pop, a group on the same bill that bears a much stronger resemblance to Tool, saw its support shrivel. “A lot of people who wanted to see us that night were at the Tool show; but how many times does a show in Lawrence conflict with a show in Kansas City, or a show at The Bottleneck with a show at The Replay?” asks bassist Brent Kinder. “That’s pretty much just the business.”


Kill.pop knew about the Tool show when it booked its gig at The Hurricane and decided to follow through because all its members had already caught that group in action. It’s a different story, though, when such competition comes as a surprise. “The first time we played on the patio at America’s Pub in Wichita, George Clinton was playing right across the street at an all-night outside concert,” recalls Eddie Schubert, guitarist of Full Feature. “We were playing to no one, and all we could hear was P-Funk. We had no idea they were playing until we got there.” Though he jokes that his group should just have given up on that night, he maintains that “watching music will never be more fun than playing music, not even if it’s Satan on a harp.” (Full Feature plays at The Hurricane Friday, November 23; Satan’s plans remain shrouded in mystery.)

Given that Clinton tends to play curfew-flouting marathon shows, Full Feature was unable to benefit from the spill-over effect. After opening its sets in front of sparse crowds, Sister Mary Rotten Crotch (contending with Motorhead) and Spleen (facing Fear Factory) welcomed a stream of stragglers who had tasted rock and wanted more. And it’s not just the fans who search for something to do with the remainder of their evenings — Blayney’s owner Dick Schulte says everyone from Al Jarreau to The Moody Blues has stopped in after playing local sets. Perhaps an impromptu cameo from Bono would lessen the sting of seeing U2 capture a small but significant pocket of music lovers who might have headed to Blayney’s to catch gifted singer/songwriter Kate Schrock‘s November 27 show.

Occasionally, bands must battle even larger obstacles, like Denver’s always-ready-to-riot sports fans the night when the Colorado Avalanche clinched the Stanley Cup. “Not a single person showed, and we were playing with A Band Called Horse, one of Denver’s biggest groups,” guitarist Nathan Alexander says, remembering an ill-fated road trip with his group Albino Fly.

For its upcoming visit to Chicago, The Go Generation doesn’t have to square off against Da Bears, but it will lose some potential fans to a familiar foe — The Gadjits, who booked a gig on the same December night. It’s a sitcom-style mix-up, setting two friendly groups to war in a vacation setting, which is fitting given that The Gadjits and Go Generation played together at The Hurricane on the same night Jerry Seinfeld yakked it up at The Midland. Because of the bond that develops between musicians who share bills, showtimes that conflict with those of other local bands can be more painful than faceless big-venue competition. Even National Fire Theory, who is clearly unafraid of taking on any world-touring Goliath, has canceled gigs so that its members could attend shows by area acts.

But most groups wouldn’t skip out on a scheduled show, no matter what concert gets announced after the deal is done. “We play every show unless Holly is choking up furballs or Allen‘s face is the size of Epcot Center after a dentist appointment,” Jade Raven bassist Kelly reports. “I don’t think that bands who want to be taken seriously should cancel booked shows so they can go see something else,” says Spleen‘s Tom, who once drove to Wichita to catch Kyuss because the group’s KC date conflicted with one of his band’s concerts. As far as concerts for which local musicians admit they’d bail on a booked show, Radiohead tops the wish list — “If someone gave me free tickets,” Kinder says, clarifying his vote, “and a promise to get laid.” (Kinder will be checking out King Crimson November 27, but, much to the dismay of that band’s fanbase, guaranteed hook-ups aren’t part of the marketing campaign. However, this show does have a secret weapon — a link to a supergroup even bigger than Bono’s. Referring to opener John Paul Jones, Kinder says simply, “Led Zeppelin. Drool.”)


Short of offering complimentary admission and dubious dating services, National Fire Theory might not have the ammunition to lure King Crimson, U2, Slayer and Linkin Park fanatics away from their respective venues. But on a night when almost every other rock venue (The Bottleneck is closed for repairs that evening) cleared the way for the major-label big boys, NFT courageously stands up for a principle stated eloquently by Jade Raven singer Holly King: “It’s only fair for everyone to get their groove on, no matter what their rank in the world.”

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