Donnelly: Noise for Toys at the Bottleneck – December 11, 2010

What can warm even the coldest, darkest of hearts on a nasty Kansas winter night? 

OK, booze, yes. Though that wasn’t the answer I was looking for.  Does watching college girls in mini skirts and high heels make the sub-arctic trudge through the snow worthwhile?  Probably, but you’re still missing the point.
 
An ugly sweater contest?  There you go.  Getting a bit warmer…
 
or how about the second annual Noise for Toys benefit at the Bottleneck, featuring a handful of local bands? 

Ding ding ding!
 
The bar was decked out in its horrible Christmas best, and so were concertgoers.  There was a raffle, a bad (good) Christmas rap freestyle, and over $1,000 was raised for kids.  The bands were killer, too, and as I walked in, a new band, Quiet Corral, was already on stage rocking it.  
 
Quiet Corral’s indie pop, complete with solid, four part harmonies and interesting enough songwriting was a promising start to the evening.  The band was really well balanced, guitar tones were spot on, and the room was sounding just about right.  I’ll look for them in the future.  

That is, until Hawley Shoffner took the stage with her one-woman ukulele and kazoo show. 

Between the feedback and some tuning issues, Hawley didn’t even get through the first song without aborting. 

"What can I do to make it not sound so bad?" she asked everyone in the room.
 
"Get off the stage!" answered a guy in the back as the crowd gasped. 

I assume he was promptly thrown out by the collar of his Cosby sweater.  Yes, the crowd was very pro-Hawley (she won the KJHK Farmer’s Ball a few years back), and who can blame them?
 
She mainly plays sweet little bedroom tunes about things girls think about.  Her great voice, girl next door looks, and innocent stage presence makes it really easy to root for her.  So easy, in fact, that the last few times I’ve caught her act I’ve been a little disappointed that her set has changed very little in quite some time.
 
Now, that being said, on Saturday night Hawley did mix in a new tune or two.  And she made things a little more interesting by inviting Alex and Austin Ward of the Noise FM onstage to fill out a few songs.  As long as she keeps pushing on, writing and expanding her repertoire she should have no problem living up to that crystal clear voice she’s got.
 
Cowboy Indian Bear took the reins next, with their programmed beats and synth pop textures. The CIB boys (and girl, new-ish keyboardist Katlyn Conroy, formerly of several other Lawrence bands) haven’t been playing all that much lately, instead focusing on writing and recording new material.
 
Their set started out light and breezy, just how they like it, with haunting, ghost-like ambience and shivering high vocals that evoked an almost Prince-like vibe.

The band showed off its harmonies, one of the real strengths of this outfit, especially with the addition of Conroy, who can sing her ass off.
 
Around the third song or so, it was time for what has become the almost obligatory full band indie drum circle. 

I’ve seen so many bands use this move that at this point it’s never all that effective unless executed perfectly.  And when you put a drum in the hands of a guitar player, it usually isn’t.     
 
As CIB’s short set wound down I couldn’t help but think what I always think about this band: oddly compelling, with some real solid moments, but always waiting for everything to really click.  Best song of the night, for me, was the second to last, I think a new one (?), that started real slow with Marty on the vocals.  I’ll be sure to check them again when they have their new material ready for prime time.    
 
The headliner, The Noise FM, closed out the night to a thinning crowd.  Too bad for those who left early because they might have missed the best Lawrence (now Chicago) band to come around in awhile.
 
Noise is a three piece – guitar, bass, and drums.  But they don’t sound like it.   I’ll get right to the point: Alex Ward, lead singer/guitarist, is a stud.  Between his ripping guitar and vast vocal range, I thought at times I was watching the next Muse.  Maybe some day I will be able to say I saw them way back when.  Yeah, they were that good.
 
And I think the move to Chi-town has done these boys some good.  After the show, Alex pretty much said as much, that the move to the Windy City has been huge.  They had grown strong by suckling off the Lawrence/KC teat.  Now let’s try a bigger teat.
 
I would give these guys a big stack of speakers, sit back, and watch them explode.  The band looked pro as they rolled through their set, transitioning effortlessly from 10 pedal guitar solos to bridges, to augmented chorded verses – not a simple trick for a three piece. Alex’s fluid voice soared to Buckley-esque falsettos as the rhythm section sat in the pocket all night long.  A couple songs sounded like singles.
 
I wouldn’t be surprised to see this band rise further and, with the right song, end up blaring out of the speakers of your car.
 
At the end of the night, the only thing I regretted was my own fault – too much nog and not enough dancing. 

There’s still time to make it right.     
 

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