Sunday, February 22, 2009

Precious

Danny Alexander writes:

One of my favorite Kansas City musicians, one of my favorite musicians period, is a woman named Kristie Stremel. When I first saw her, she was playing guitar with the band Frogpond, which had some notoriety in the late 90s after Art Alexakis produced its album, "Count to Ten."

Stremel was the perfect foil for the somewhat reserved lead singer of that band, Heidi Phillips. While Heidi diffidently addressed the mic like Kurt Cobain's lost sister, Stremel would work the crowd, fist pumping, bounding around the stage, and eventually, climbing the rafters. It was a wonderful contrast live, but it never felt like it would last.

After Stremel left and formed her own band, Exit 159, I understood why. She'd woodshedded with her two new bandmates all summer and emerged early in the fall with a full set of poignant, catchy and hard-rocking material. I still have the newspaper I was holding in my hand during that first show, its margins full of notes on songs I had never heard before. I knew I'd be writing about them. And I did, early and often, as they toured across the country twice and found their way into regular rotation on local alternative radio playlists.

After the first year, the bassist left, and the band took on more of a punk style reflecting the sensibility of its newest member. They had a strong second year together, taking on yet another player, three of them having fronted their own bands before. They played the Viper Room in Los Angeles where, word had it, 26 labels were in the house. Nothing happened. And then the inevitable tensions tore them apart.

Stremel went on to record as a solo artist, and her songwriting grew increasingly sophisticated both musically and lyrically, but, unfortunately, without a consistent band to back her up, she never regained the kind of audience she'd had with Exit 159.

Friday night, Exit 159 reunited, and the show was fantastic. The band played to an attentive packed house, as hard as it ever did but with a more supple touch. The band members have all gotten better in the 10 years since they broke up.

The drummer was always good, but he used to play on the stiff side of Max Weinberg, with perfect posture. The perfect posture's still there, but what's unusual about Rob VanBiber's style is also key to his strength--he's precise as hell, and Friday night he played more dynamically, with a deeper pocket and a ton of surprising fills, all the while hitting hard as ever.

The bass player, Jamey Wheeler, was always a strong second vocalist for Stremel, kind of a warm, almost sweetening, complement. His vocals seem even stronger today, more self-assured. He takes a verse in one song, and it's a great moment, but the best thing about the two of them is a certain call and response between their vocals. I'd also forgotten how much his bass style, rooted in jam band fluidity, provided a unique counterpoint to everything else going on and helped define Exit's sound.

My wife Lauren had never seen Exit before, except that she had gone with me last weekend to watch them rehearse in the studio. That day, they ended with this new cover of "Simply the Best," the Tina Turner song, that got Lauren beaming.

Later, in the car, she said, "They need to play their own stuff the way they played that song."

I reassured her that, with the sound coming through a soundboard and with a crowd in front of them (rather than the two of us and the drummer's wife), it would all be at that level. I was hoping....betting...

And, fortunately, I was right. They came out with every bit the intensity of that cover. Stremel and the crowd were ringing sweat midway through the set, and it only built from there.

They played something like 90 minutes ending with covers of "Something So Strong" and "Little Red Corvette," an old rave-up of their own called "Cigarette Kiss" (the traditional set closer) and then "Simply the Best."

One of the great things about Stremel with a 3 piece is that she takes lead on guitar. And it's not that she's some great guitarist, but she knows how to make you feel a solo, even if she fucks it up she salvages it (which happened at some point Friday night).

That was always a highlight of the "Little Red Corvette" cover in the old days.... In that quiet bridge at the center of the song, she'd bend over and seemingly search for the notes on her lead--and it was always this moving moment, very hard and on the edge of atonality, but somehow perfect.

She had several moments like that Friday, but one of the wonders of the Tina Turner song (which has never before been a favorite of mine) was not only how she made it her own but also how she managed to make it a vehicle for one hell of an exciting guitar solo after the bridge. Everything exploded into the final chorus, and it was a perfect finale to the night.

Lauren, who never does this, went over to Lawrence to watch her play again Saturday. I'd already committed to reviewing the Pretenders show for our alternative weekly, the Pitch. I have an almost three decade old soft spot for Chrissie, but I wanted to be at Kristie's show again, watching the exact same set all over. Frustrated as I was, that's a good feeling to have.

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