Kanrocksas, Day One: Observations

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I wrote about Kanrocksas in the July 28 issue — the people behind it, how it came to be, who came up with the terrible name, what kind of venue a speedway might make for a music festival. On Friday, I got in my car and drove 20 minutes west on I-70, exited, steered around a few bends, and pulled into the gates of the Kansas Speedway to attend Kanrocksas. The land was flat and covered in a sea of tents. I parked my car and spent the next nine hours wandering around.

I could hear D-12's set as I made my way through security and walked along the concourse. But it was its last song, and as I arrived out in the bleachers, when a swarm of fans was migrating from what I would soon know as Stageasaurus Rex (a name voted for by Kanrocksas Facebook fans — democracy is tricky business) over to the Main Stage, where Arctic Monkeys was about to perform. I stood there and kind of breathed everything in for a minute, then I descended the aluminum steps and walked down the slanted racetrack onto the field.

One of the first things I noticed was that the festival had positioned one-man vendors throughout the field. You didn't have to go all the way to the concession areas to get a bottle of water or a beer — usually there were a couple of guys on the outskirts of whatever stage you were at standing next to Igloo coolers or big Tupperware containers full of drinks. Like little outposts. A nice touch. Also interspersed throughout the crowd were these sturdy wooden boxes upon which hippie chicks in fishnet danced with hula hoops. The boxes said 'Vibe Tribe KC' on them, which I take to be a peaceful organization of some kind or other.

Arctic Monkeys is a bratty, British pop-punk act that sounds great at midnight in a dark club; its charms are less obvious in the late-afternoon sun, on a huge stage, with the temperatures up close to 100 degrees. The band members have accents like John Lennon's and some of Lennon's wit, as well. I have an endless well of affection for dumb/smart lines like Don't sit down, 'cause I moved your chair, and they've got those in spades. The band played a good hour, and I watched it on the Jumbotrons (one on each side of the stage) as I walked around and got my bearings.

The two biggest stages — the Main Stage and Stageasaurus Rex — were positioned on opposing ends of the field, and to go back and forth, you could either just move along in the grass or walk along the paved middle area where the merch tables and concessions were set up. I thought the concessions seemed a little light until I stumbled upon the food-truck area, which was deeper into the middle paved area and past a few fences. Many of the usual suspects were on hand — Coffee Cake KC, Magical Meatball Tour, Mad Jack's, Jerusalem Cafe — maybe 10 or 12 trucks in all. Across from the trucks was a shaded area with tables where you could eat, and beyond that was a row of vendors selling patchouli and patchwork pants and glass bowls and all the usual festival stuff. Beyond that, all the way in the deepest, loneliest space on the grounds — Siberia — were the nonprofit/charity booths. But isn't it always that way?

What else? A ferris wheel sat motionless. A Ford Focus sat hoisted on a small stage. We could register to win it. Outside a Camel promotional lounge, two attractive blondes in short black dresses and black heels worked the line. "If I walk in there, am I coming out with cigarettes or coupons?" I asked one. "I think you should go in and find out," she said, and smiled coyly. That sounded like coupons to me, and so I resisted the urge to stand around and flirt with a person who is more or less paid to flirt and headed over to the Ad Astra Per Aspera Stage to check out Doomtree.

Both genders and at least three races are represented in Doomtree, a hip-hop collective out of Minneapolis that I tend to associate with founding member P.O.S., who's one of the more underrated rappers out there and has the solo career to show for it. Doomtree's got an upbeat vibe, and the group worked the stage more like the Black Eyed Peas than hard-ass rappers. It was a fun, if underattended, set, but the 300 or so die-hards up front were as psyched as anybody I saw all day. The DJs started playing a song, then one of the MCs — can't remember which — said, "Wait, do you want to hear this one? Or do you want to hear a new one?" The crowd didn't want to hear the new one. They wanted to hear that one.

Shade was a valuable commodity. People sought it out, seized it, curled up in it. Scaffolding above a soundboard projected a 30-by-3-foot shadow onto the pavement, and people positioned themselves inside its darkness, a single-file line to nowhere. "No line, no wait," said the outpost cooler guy.

Walking over to see Kid Cudi, I spied another of the fest's amenities: a 40-foot waterslide: $15 for unlimited slides all weekend, $10 for one-day unlimited slides, $5 for one slide. I handed over $5, took off my shirt, tucked all my belongings into a safe spot in the grass, and marched over to the stairs. There wasn't a line. "Hold up," the guy said. "I gotta spray you down." He sprayed me with a hose. "Turn around," he said, and sprayed me some more. "OK," he said. I ascended the bubbly, moonwalk-like steps to the top, and looked out across the field. The sun was still bright but beginning its descent. I jumped up and crossed my arms across my chest and flew down that sucker on my back. At the base my face was drenched with a pool of water, and I slid like a hockey puck all the way to the end of the line, spinning and smiling.

By the time Kid Cudi went on, my shorts were dry, and just about everybody had assembled at the Main Stage. Cudi is of a new breed of rappers who arguably aren't really rappers at all. He sings about weed and his feelings, and his records have a pop gloss that endears him to an audience beyond hip-hop. He also speaks the language of Millennials. "Who's pregaming out there?" he asked the crowd. Roars. Cudi can be introspective and sensitive on record, but he did not appear to be lacking in confidence on Friday. He spoke of his own discography as though it were that of one of his favorite artists — a distinct possibility. He informed us, with no discernible trace of irony, that he would be taking us through some of his old-school classics, "some Man on the Moon-type stuff," then "all the way back to 2008, to some A Kid Named Cudi stuff." And then he did, and the crowd ate it up completely. I walked up to the grandstands to have a look at the scene. On "Memories," a club track, the field was a sea of waving arms. About 15,000 people sang along to "Pursuit of Happiness." Cudi sauntered around the stage, told us how much fun he was having, inserted the word "fuck" into most of his banter. If his pop star bona fides weren't clear before, they are now.

During Cudi's last song, the faint, sloppy sounds of Primus drifted in from the Stageasaurus Rex stage. Along with about 3.000 other people, I took that opportunity to wander out into the campsite area. A brown-haired girl smoked a cigarette outside a pop-up convenience store/tent outside the gates. She wore a pink bikini top and jean shorts that were unbuttoned at the waist so you could see the matching pink bottoms. Further out, a group of college-aged guys assembled around the bed of a truck. "I've only got enough for three people," one of them said. Been there, man. An old, tan couple sat cross-legged next to each other on a blanket just outside their tent. The woman ran her fingernails back and forth along the man's back, arcing a rainbow.

Ween came on. People don't take Ween very seriously, which is fine — the band probably likes it that way. But those guys can play. They're also great musical shape-shifters, capable of bouncing from genre to genre. They were doing a prog-rock thing at the beginning of their set. Dean Ween was puffing cigs onstage. Then they did a few bouncy, country-punk type of songs. They did the filthy and hilarious "My Own Bare Hands": She's gonna be my cock professor / Studying my dick / She's gonna get her master's degree in fucking me. They stretched "Voodoo Lady" out to about 10 minutes. Gene Ween's voice assumed a proper elegant British theatricality for a cover of Bowie's "Let's Dance." I was sitting in the grass off to the side of the stage, and when they closed with "Roses Are Free," a nice breeze blew in, and I felt as relaxed as I had all day.

It's my opinion that the Flaming Lips are a national treasure; I love most of the band's records, I love the weirdness that they stand for. I love that Wayne Coyne calls pretentious people out on their bullshit. I love that they still rep Oklahoma City. And I love their live shows. They've been doing this confetti-hamster bubble-crazy dancers stage show for about a decade now, and I'm ready for something new, but the joyous spectacle of it cannot be denied. The band took the stage one-by-one through a projected eye-door at the top of the stage. Then up came Coyne from the bottom of the stage, struggling inside a plastic sheet that we soon discovered to be the hamster bubble, in which he subsequently rolled himself out into the crowd. Balloons appeared, glowsticks were thrown out from strategic points in the audience, Coyne shot confetti guns up into the rafters, and they rolled through a psychedelic set that included "She Don't Use Jelly," "Oh My Pregnant Head," "Yoshimi Pt. 1," and closer "Do You Realize." Maybe I'm trippin', but I thought the crowd was a little tepid given all the bells and whistles and fun being had onstage. "Thank you for inviting us to your summertime festival," Coyne said toward the end of the performance, which made me laugh, mostly because there was something about the way he said it that wasn't entirely sincere.

Bassnectar
Eminem started right on schedule — everything all day was right on schedule. The stage went dark, and we were treated to an advertisement for Brisk Iced Tea featuring a cursing, cartoon Eminem. Then we got a Star Wars-type introduction to Eminem, with outer space in the background and text in the foreground explaining to us how Eminem quit performing in 2005 but now he's back, and we are about to witness his RECOVERY, which is the name of the most recent Eminem record. He stormed the stage to "Won't Back Down," (a Recovery track) wearing a hoodie pulled up over his head, a white T-shirt, a baseball cap. He's in good shape, and he spent most of the hour-and-a-half set leaping and sprinting across the stage. Backing him up on the mic was Mr. Porter, a capable number two/hype man.

Eminem remains a first-class rapper, one of the best in the world. He's as fast and ferocious as ever. And if you had forgotten that Eminem has hits for days, the show served as an efficient reminder. Unfortunately, he lumped most of his best songs — "My Name Is," "The Real Slim Shady," "Without Me," and about five more — into medleys where he did about a verse and moved on to the next song. That's a restriction of only having an hour and a half to play, of course, but I think most people would agree with me when I say I'd gladly have traded in songs from the last couple of albums for full versions of hits from his heyday. Although I'm not sure I'd be comfortable proposing that to Eminem. The man has earned the right to play whatever the hell he damn well pleases.

He did some more current collab jams, like "Love the Way You Lie" and "Forever," and he brought out D-12 for a tribute to the rapper Nate Dogg, who died earlier this year. The video backdrop — mostly his old videos — wasn't especially creative, but there were a few big moments, like the gunshot sound after "Kill You," which lifted my shoulders about a foot in the air. He came out for the encore and did "Lose Yourself," still probably Eminem's best song, and he killed it. Everybody's hands in the air, everybody singing along, everyone — yes — losing themselves in the moment. Was Kanrocksas a success? Still a little early to say, but it felt like it right then.

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