Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Kanrocksas Review | Rockin' at the Speedway

All photos by Jason Gonulsen

Kanrocksas. I heard Grace Potter say it. I heard Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips try to say it. Most, like Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, simply kept saying, "Hello, Kansas!" Or, during Eminem's set, you heard a lot of "fuck yeah, KC!!" But really, it didn't matter. We were in Kansas, in the infield at a motor speedway, and we were rocking our sweaty asses off at a first-year festival. And, for the most part, things seemed to go off without a hitch.

First impressions at a motor speedway are a bit tricky, though, especially when your mind is in music festival mode. Since I'm not a racing fan, and had never been to a place quite like this, it was hard for me to wrap my head around how massive the area was; this place dwarfs your normal football stadium. I'm still not sure if I ever got past the fact that the campgrounds felt like tailgating at a sporting event, or that I was walking on concrete (while not on the infield grass) when trying to get to the Ad Astra Stage, which was placed near the Ferris wheel and water slide. And then there's the incline of the actual race track that you walked across while entering and exiting the speedway's ground level. It was all a unique music festival experience, one that you're not going to find anywhere else, for better or worse.

It's important to paint this picture because, unlike the name of the festival, as wacky or stupid as you might deem it to be, it affected your every move. During Arctic Monkeys' set, the first band I caught on Friday, I kept looking up at all the empty speedway seats. Although there were a couple thousand fans enjoying the music, I kept imagining what it must feel like when the place was packed, with cars zooming by. It was eerie -- I almost felt alone, even with a great band just feet in front of me.

This feeling soon passed, as Doomtree, a group of rappers from Minneapolis, quickly engaged the crowd by coming out into the audience and embracing the moment that was before them. Although perhaps only a few hundred fans enjoyed their set, it was one of the most energetic moments of the two-day festival. Led by Dessa, Doomtree proved that this massive space could work just fine as a makeshift music venue -- it felt intimate for just under an hour, and soon, I was ready for more.

Kid Cudi, playing the main stage opposite from the stage Doomtree had left, kept the magic rolling. Now, I am not a rap enthusiast by any means, but I do enjoy a confident and talented performer, and Cudi knows how to work a stage. There were sing-a-longs (mostly about smoking weed), and sure enough, he knew how to close his performance, bringing his biggest hit, "Pursuit of Happiness," to life just as his time was about to run out. The sun would soon set, and things were feeling alive -- the crowds at each stage were growing, the weather wasn't too muggy, and the general consensus was that everyone was having a good time.

Of course, there was a lot of fun on the way, courtesy of The Flaming Lips and Eminem, two of the main draws. Wayne Coyne did the usual, appearing on stage during his band's set up, and rolling out into the audience in an oversized inflatable ball. Even if you've seen him do it before, it's always a sight to see, as is The Lips' video screen that provides psychedelic imagery and up-close shots of Coyne's face while they play their tunes. As they closed with "Do You Realize??," I was lying down in the infield, staring at the stars. The moment validated why I was there -- to enjoy the final dog days of summer listening to live music, without a care in the world.

Eminem was next, and the crowd was at its peak -- if I had to guess it swelled to close to 20,000, although I am bad with numbers (that's why I'm writing this). Oddly enough, this was my second Eminem show in two months, and the rapper, who was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, was only making his third public performance of the year at Kanrocksas. Still, I am not an Eminem expert, even though I knew roughly half of the songs performed. And yeah, I may or may not have been singing and dancing along to "The Real Slim Shady" and "Lose Yourself." What happens in Kansas stays in Kansas, right?


Saturday, the final day of the festival, was a bit sleepy at first. Most of the campers, which included me, stayed near the campgrounds until The Black Angels' set, which, I have to tell you, was as good if not better than The Black Keys' set much later in the day. The band from Austin knows how to rock, and they could have easily entertained a crowd more than three times the size the one that they played to. That's how festival crowds go, though, and I easily snagged a front row spot -- something that was common throughout the afternoon sets on both days. If you walked up to a stage just as a band started playing, you were going to be close.

And I like being close. Especially when it comes to Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, who, once again, blew me away with their sexy and infectious rock 'n' roll. Their opening song, "Oasis," started without Potter, who casually danced her way onto the stage behind Matt Burr's drum kit, not for one second looking like she wasn't totally in control of everyone who was immediately caught in her seductive presence. Soon, we were treated to a sonic onslaught, courtesy of the Nocturnals' two exceptional guitarists, Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco. Sure, this is Potter's band, but Tournet and Yurco provide plenty of power; as "Oasis" wound to its climax, Tournet had set the tone with one of his solos, which kept climbing and climbing until his fingers had had enough. Their set closed with "Medicine," which featured every band member crowded around the drums, banging on anything that was in front of them. Potter then ran off stage, but sprinted back to give us one more dose of the lyric that she owns: "I've got the medicine that everybody wants." She tossed her mic stand to the ground, took a bow with the Nocturnals, and that was that. She's a star, and you're going to be seeing a lot of her in the years to come.

The rest of the day went something like this: Flogging Molly surprised with their upbeat, communal songs about hope and, basically, being happy and Irish. Their fans love to spray each with water, and their lead singer, Dave King, likes to punt oranges into the crowd. It all works somehow, and it happened to be the last big highlight for me of the festival. I gotta admit, Girl Talk was a little disappointing, and as solid as The Black Keys sounded, and as extravagant (although irritating) as Muse's light show was, I'll choose to remember leaving Flogging Molly's set as when Kanrocksas made me really smile for one last final time.

Kanrocksas, funny name and all, you rocked.