Photo of Rundstrom Frank Swider/Special to the Journal-World
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.
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.
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."
Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
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.
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.
Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
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!
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'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.
Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
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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