Fools on the Hill

Last Saturday brought the first University of Kansas-sponsored Day on the Hill in four years. Before 2002, the daylong concert had been going every year since 1988, sparking fond memories for longtime locals.

The event probably peaked in 1992, when thousands of people showed up to hear a then-underground band called Pearl Jam. The last two concerts were declared disappointments, and the four-year hiatus created pretty much an entire student body with no happy memories of the event. Still, the Student Union wanted to go big with it — according to, KU students voted to increase their activities fee by $5 to create a budget of $90,000 for the affair.

The show, which was free to KU students but cost everyone else $10, started at 2 that afternoon. Four popular local bands opened for the headliners, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Spoon.

Hardly anyone was there.

A tent the size of a football field stretched out from the stage. The entrance was atop a slope, dotted with troughs full of ice and bottled water. Robust college dudes tossed Frisbees and footballs. Several food stands were set up, but it didn’t take long to notice one horrifying truth: no beer. Anywhere. Not a drop. It seemed that everyone but me knew that KU is a dry campus. Our morale was shattered. Grieving, we ate some dollar hot dogs, drank (sigh) Cokes and waited for the first act, Superargo.

For an audience of about eight, Superargo’s sole musician, Adam Jeffers, busted out Beck-funky dance moves, whipping about his mane of fine, brown hair and keeping his hands locked to the keypad of his laptop, which was issuing Aphex Twin-meets-Atari experimental thrash-electro. After a couple of songs, the classic Nintendo Popeye theme chirped from Jeffers’ computer, and his sidekick, Skullface, ran onstage. The two continued dancing to the music’s jarring breaks and machine-gun percussion. Freaking out in a plastic skull mask and suit with his floppy blond hair pouring over the mask, Skullface looked like a high school math teacher on a heinous PCP trip. Usually, Superargo employs narrative video projections, but those weren’t working. The duo’s hilarious “pizza dance” did work, however, and a personal pie was delivered to the stage.

While the next act, the Belles, set up, we retreated to the parking lot and covertly (read: almost in full view of the cops) drank 40s of Olde English out of the hatchback of a friend’s Kia. It’s sad, I know, but it helped.

The Belles had put on a compelling show the previous Thursday in the close, dark confines of Jilly’s in KC. They played well enough Saturday, too, but their brand of serious, melody-driven rustic pop wasn’t exactly rocket fuel for the setting. It didn’t help that only 30 people were paying any attention.

The crowd grew only slightly for each of the next two bands, Kelpie and Ghosty. I wrote a lukewarm review of Kelpie’s last album, but I was thoroughly impressed with its live show. The Lawrence five-piece rocked through its set with vocal and instrumental confidence. (I still think the band relies more on chops and quantity of ideas than on straight-ahead tunes — its music is intellectually interesting but hard to connect with emotionally.)

We retired to the slope and sat on the grass while Ghosty played. I like Ghosty — the songs are delightful, the hooks top-notch — but I was getting bored. All the bands had been good, but the vibe never rose above the environment: a few acres of grass, sunshine, Frisbees, dogs and chill indie pop. No revelry whatsoever.

Sharon Jones was about to change all that. Decked in Guayabera shirts and slacks, her Dap Kings (so named for their label, Daptone) began cooking up a classic funk groove as soon as they hit the stage, priming the crowd for Ms. J’s arrival. When she came on, it was like the appearance of a cultural icon — the OG Boss Bitch herself. She’s played Lawrence before, so most of the crowd knew exactly what to do: boogie down. Only a handful were actually dancing, but it was the biggest, liveliest response of the day by far, and it was impossible not to enjoy the female equivalent of James Brown and her band of way-cool New York funksters.

She sang soul numbers about no-good men and showed off moves that would have gotten any good girl banned from church back in the day. She pulled a couple of crowd members onstage for impromptu dances, and before the encore she helped the Student Union by chucking their free T-shirts into the crowd. She threw so many, in fact, that her lead guitarist had to yell at her to get back on the mic and sing, which she did, blowing us away a little bit more. It made me wonder why I even bother with rock music.

The sun was sinking, and people who’d come without jackets or had worn flip-flops were starting to hate life. The tent was at last about half full, which couldn’t have mattered too much to the guys in Spoon, who were getting $25,000 for the one-off gig. Fortunately, the acclaimed rockers didn’t phone it in. Instead, they played their mostly bland material with skill and grace — at least for the first three songs, which were all I saw before we ditched and headed downtown to get some grub.

Day on the Hill was pleasant but hardly a blast. Apparently, the SU didn’t promote it very well; several of my Lawrence-dwelling friends said they didn’t even know about it until a few days before. As maddening and filthy as packed outdoor rock concerts can be, they’re at least more fun than a Lutheran church picnic. Fools on the Hill After a four-year break, KU’s Day on the Hill concert returned with a clunk.

Categories: Music