Words by: Nathan Rodriguez

Split Lip Rayfield :: 08.21.06 :: The Bottleneck :: Lawrence, KS

What would you do if doctors gave you a terminal prognosis and anywhere from two to six months to live?

For Split Lip Rayfield front man Kirk Rundstrom, the answer was simple - fire the doctor and get the band back together.

The Backdrop

Split Lip Rayfield
(L to R): Eaton, Rundstrom, Mardis
Split Lip has been a fixture in the Midwest for several years, going through a number of incarnations recently. Mandolin player Wayne Gottstine had left the band for about a year, and while the trio of Rundstrom (guitar), Jeff Eaton (bass), and Eric Mardis (banjo) continued to play to packed houses, their concerts had a slightly different dynamic.

Over the years, Split Lip traveled across the nation and earned new fans from California to New York, opening for artists like Del McCoury, Dolly Parton and Nashville Pussy. Despite the across-the-board rave reviews, it seemed the Kansas-based "punkgrass" group felt most comfortable near their old stomping grounds. In February 2005, JamBase interviewed the group at the Fox Theater in Boulder, and when asked about their favorite shows, they offered, "Playing New Years in Chicago was a lot of fun, but man, there's something to be said for rockin' out The Bottleneck back home for the folks that have been coming out for years."

You will soon discover
That the road
Ain't as easy as it seems

Kirk Rundstrom - Split Lip Rayfield
Photo courtesy of www.splitliprayfield.com
In January 2006, the perpetually playful mood of the band darkened with the announcement that Kirk Rundstrom had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. This past June, Rundstrom underwent surgery to remove the cancerous cells when doctors detected cancer in the lymph nodes surrounding his aorta. It was considered inoperable, and it was at that time that doctors gave the "two to six months" prognosis.

Before this announcement, the quartet hadn't been communicating as frequently, as Gottstine points out: "There wasn't any bad blood or anything; it was just a matter of a lack of communication. It just took a phone call or two to change that."

Rundstrom got to work and, in his words, had to "relearn the guitar." His goal was non-negotiable: Get the band back together with the classic lineup and go on tour. As he explains, "Just getting my strength back was a huge deal. For two straight months I couldn't even get out of bed, so to be able to come back and play these shows, it's something I really appreciate being able to do."

Split Lip Rayfield
(L to R): Rundstrom, Eaton, Mardis
For years, Rundstrom exuded the on-stage persona of a hard-livin' guy that feared nothing and no one. With wild eyes and a mischievous grin, you got the impression that this tattooed speed-guitarist was the kind of guy that would pick a fight with someone twice his size. Off-stage, he becomes friendly and engaging. As he noted, "It's kind of strange maturing under the spotlight." These days he is a bit more reflective on the whole situation: "Split Lip starting was a total accident. We just wanted free beer from the bars, but we started and wound up getting gigs out of it. For me, I love it; I love the work and I love the music. I just love my job, and I'm grateful that I'm not stuck in bed again. I'm very, very grateful that I get to play a show tonight because for a while it didn't look like that would happen again. It's been a rough climb back, and I still have to be careful to not wear myself down."

Rundstrom & Eaton by Tobin Voggesser
Not wearing yourself down seems directly at odds with the on-stage antics of Split Lip Rayfield. The group is revered for its high-energy picking, so when word came out that the band was getting back together for "one last tour," reactions ranged from stunned to speechless.

As Rundstrom casually comments, "We have fans all over America, and I just wanted to say 'Hi' to everybody. I've just gotta be real careful and rest a lot. After shows, I won't hang out, I'll go straight to bed. I've been taking good care of myself and made a lot of lifestyle changes – just being a lot healthier." He has also taken a leap of faith and is experimenting with alternative medicine: "Drinking lots of water, doing acupuncture, IVs of Vitamin C – the hope is that it fights off the cancer cells. You boost up your immune system so the body fights it naturally."

Getting Back Together

Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
The quartet has an undeniable chemistry in their live performances. Their remarkably tight musicianship has earned them arguably the most diverse fan base in music. As Rundstrom notes, "We have just wonderful fans - a really diverse crowd from punk-rockers to bikers to suits and bluegrass people. Fans that appreciate our songs seem to be a more educated group of listeners. They don't really rock out to Mariah Carey. That's great if you're into it... I love that – but that type of thing isn't for me."

The best artists are able to tear down the barriers of genre and can appeal to an array of people with a variety of tastes. Split Lip's members are no different, and in their time away from the Lip, Rundstrom created three solo albums and explored prog-rock while Eric Mardis traded his banjo in for a spot in a jazz band.

When asked what he's been up to, Wayne Gottstine offers a slight grin and says, "Making candles."

I bite, "Really?"

After enjoying a good laugh, he shakes his head and continues, "Naw... first I got a job at Raytheon aircraft company, and that was an incredibly fantastic way to battle off the depression I was feeling after leaving the band - by chaining myself to a 400-ton machine that will chop your hand off at any given moment. So they switched me over to a machine that will daintily cut your hand off. So I had to quit that, and it felt fantastic. Now I play a lot of guitar." Gottstine was able to forego teaching guitar to his students for a few weeks, and suddenly Split Lip Rayfield was poised for a unique farewell reunion tour.

So Far, So Good

The fans are excited and super-positive about the whole thing. –Eric Mardis

Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
It didn't take long to recapture the sound and spirit. "It was like we were never apart," said Gottstine. It only took a couple hours, as Mardis explained, "We had two full band rehearsals where everyone was available. Geography was between us – about 130 miles, and with jobs and everything, it was tough to meet up. But it felt really damn good getting back together, and it all came back pretty quickly."

Hard-core fans have flocked from afar to the shows this tour. Each night has sold out, and Gottstine recalled the opening performance: "The first show... the emotions of the crowd – everyone was so concerned. They were also happy that I came back, but the positive outpouring from everyone was incredible. Just the anticipation was so high we wanted to be able to justify it. When it all finally came together and worked, it was just this collective sigh of relief."

Just getting my strength back was a huge deal. For two straight months I couldn't even get out of bed, so to be able to come back and play these shows, it's is something I really appreciate being able to do.
-Kirk Rundstrom
Photo of Rundstrom Frank Swider/Special to the Journal-World

Back Home at The Bottleneck

With a few shows under their belt, the band turned their attention back to one of their favorite haunts, The Bottleneck in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. The Bottleneck is an amalgam of your classic dive bar with the atmosphere and acoustic intimacy of a smaller music venue. An assembly of old pool tables near the entryway are offset by hundreds of black-and-white press photos from bands that had passed through. The main room features bleacher seating on the sides and an elevated deck in back that provided some seating for those reluctant to engage the hectic shoulder-to-shoulder hustle and flow of the floor.

Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
With total capacity of only a few hundred people, the performance quickly sold out. In response, the band added a second and final Monday night show. Whatever tickets remained had disappeared by sound check that afternoon. There were a couple dozen people scattered around the venue for the sound check, including about five children dancing wildly in front of the stage. "There's just something about our music that really seems to appeal to six-year-old boys," Rundstrom laughs. "But a lot of people will come to our shows thinking that they're watching us, when we're actually watching them."

At 10:30 p.m. The Bottleneck was jam-packed and heating up. The cheering came and went in waves as anticipation grew, and around 11 the band triumphantly lumbered onstage. The response was deafening, and with a slight wave and nod, they launched into the first string of songs.

Within the first few minutes, it became evident that the band meant business. The playing was fast and furious, but remarkably precise. Rundstrom had regained the fire in his eyes, but more importantly, he sounded incredible. Had someone not known of his condition, they wouldn't have figured anything was different from their early years. In one of their first jams of the night, Rundstrom and Eaton were back-to-back leaning into one another, with Kirk's lightning-quick strumming complemented by the thunderous thumps from the one-string stand-up bass. For the third song, the band delivered a flawless execution of "Easy Street," and it was clear it could be one of those nights. The band could hardly bottle their excitement, and the usually reserved Gottstine seemed to be holding back tears of joy when he exchanged a smile and nod with Rundstrom from across the stage. The crowd exploded with appreciation, and the emotional eruption was cathartic.

Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
Toward the middle of the show, the band slipped into a few slower songs that contained exceptionally detailed interplay. The return to the classic lineup with Gottstine on mandolin seemed to elevate the music and give it additional depth and texture. His greatest contributions may be to the vocal harmonies, but he also delivers thoughtful solos. Gottstine's presence also seemed to shift the spotlight away from Rundstrom as the traditional ringleader. Kirk was right in the middle of things, but the rest of the band stepped up and each seemed to be on equal footing with the other. The group dynamic had shifted only slightly, but it was for the better. They had reached an equilibrium that enabled any member to move forward at any point in the song.

The frenzied introduction to "Record Store" was met with a roar of recognition from the crowd, and the band again failed to disappoint, offering up a textbook version. The song has a certain timeless quality to it – something that you, your grandparents, and one day your grandkids can all agree sounds fresh. The hastened pace of some of the composed portions of the song is quickly exchanged for a sauntering tempo as the band bellows with an exaggerated drawl in the chorus:

You will soon discover
That the road
Ain't as Easy
As it Seems!

Split Lip Rayfield courtesy of www.splitliprayfield.com
Then, without warning, they launch back into the song double-time and again contrast their ridiculous chops with the elegant craftsmanship of a well-written song. Simply put, they were firing on all cylinders, and it was clear this would be a night for the ages.

No more than thirty minutes into the show, the band and audience were dripping with sweat. Gottstine captures the moment, coolly commenting, "Shoulda brought a sweater." He then formally introduced Rundstrom to the crowd, which damn near spontaneously combusted with exuberance. For the next few songs, different members of the band would pair up, watching each other pick and play off one another. The transitions within and between songs were seamless. The only misstep during the night was an off-kilter synchronized intro, which lasted about four seconds but caused Gottstine to force a bemused half-grin. Shrugging it off quickly, they emerged in perfect lock-step formation.

The anthemic chorus of "Crazy" found the crowd shaking their fists in the air, shouting with the band:

Nighttime drives me crazy
I bang my fist on the wall
Used to call me baby
Now she don't call at all!

"Redneck Tailgate Dream," one of the more popular tracks off Should Have Seen It Coming, was introduced as "a song about Lawrence, circa 1995." The tempo of the set and mood of the crowd converged at a fever pitch for the four-song medley that closed the set. "Never" found Jeff Eaton busting out the kazoo, and as the crowd-favorite "Outlaw" wound down to a close, Rundstrom stepped up to the mic and offered the parting words:

We're Split Lip Rayfield... FROM KANSAS!

The crowd burst with appreciation, and the unrelenting screams and whistles attempted to express the collective gratitude from the past and present.

Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
Split Lip Rayfield's final performance at The Bottleneck was nothing short of epic. With a setlist as diverse as the crowd itself, the band demonstrated their versatility in a concert that was as good as any that I've seen in some time. I went in hoping for a few moments of quality musicianship and walked out completely blown away after two of the most rewarding hours I've spent in front of a set of speakers. It was one of those rare nights that you'll carry with you for the rest of your days. The performance was a farewell celebration, and if the era of "Split Lip at The Bottleneck" had to come to a close, it would be difficult to create a better finish.

Although a few folks have taken it upon themselves to drive ten-plus hours to witness the band's final shows firsthand, others may one day be able to uncover the experience. As Mardis explained: "We're recording all of the shows. All of the Kansas shows are being videotaped and recorded. We don't know what we're going to do with it yet, so it's just for us right now. But that energy transfer at all these shows has been there. And that was the main concern for us – that the live show is still a full, energetic experience for everyone. And getting out there and playing just brought it all back."

For more information on Kirk's battle, visit www.kirkrundstrom.com.

Additional tour dates are as follows:
9.16.06 | Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival | Winfield, KS
9.20.06 | The Dream Theater | Tahlequah, OK
9.21.06 | George's Majestic Lounge | Fayetteville, AR
9.23.06 | Continental Club | Austin, TX
9.24.06 | Continental Club | Austin, TX

JamBase | Lawrence
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Luthur starstarstarstarstar Tue 9/5/2006 07:58PM
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Split Lip Fucking Rocks.

bbcfm starstarstarstarstar Tue 9/5/2006 09:33PM
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I really feel lucky to have seen Split Lip a number of times. They are a true Kansas original.

All Loving Liberal White Guy Tue 9/5/2006 10:44PM
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All Loving Liberal White Guy

if you like split lip rayfield, you should check out the supersuckers

Luthur starstarstarstarstar Wed 9/6/2006 07:59AM
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Ciffy - I do like The Supersuckers. Must've Been High is awesome. As well as the punk/cowboy thing. In fact, Kirk was wearing a Supersuckers T-Shirt for the Davey's show in Kansas City.

enelson Fri 9/8/2006 09:44AM
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The Pride of Kansas....nuff said!

joester2 starstarstarstarstar Mon 9/11/2006 03:28PM
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joe and teri here - Arizona's biggest Split Lip fans. recently flew to Denver for the show at the Bluebird - HOT HOT HOT! great energy - and also flew to kansas for the show at Auntie Maes - thanks jeff! love the band - never make it home was our favorite cd for 5 years - now the show from the Bottleneck 8.18.06 has replaced it - it may be one of their finest shows EVER. we continue to send love to Kirk and pray that music and love can cure his cancer - please send the positive vibrations his way.
aggressive acoustic indeed- love the music, the band, amanda, the whole scene is just addictive. can't explain this mysterious attraction to anyone who hasn't been - other than to say "it's unlike any other band you've ever seen". if you can, grab a best friend and go see this band as often as possible, and if you do - tell them Teri and Joe from Arizona said hi!

stiipndeep starstarstarstarstar Wed 9/13/2006 03:17PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Saw them in Fort Collins a couple of weeks back. Wow! Convinced 4 of my buddies to venture to Austin for the two shows. Anybody know how to get tics before hand?

joester2 starstarstarstarstar Tue 12/26/2006 09:01AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


best live band of the millenium -
well worth RT plane tickets to see them for one night - anywhere, anytime!
get well KIRK! the world is a better place with you in it.