Music » Wayward Son

Wichita Wildmen

Split Lip Rayfield's latest, and possibly last, Kansas City show put the kickass back in bluegrass.

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Last Thursday night, Davey¹s Uptown Ramblers Club was a crucible of sweat, screaming and bluegrass music. To some — and, normally, to me — that would sound like a depiction of hell straight out of a Far Side comic. But when one of the most compelling local music stories this year concerns a punk-bluegrass musician¹s battle with esophageal cancer, you push your dread of pickin¹ aside and pay respects. Because Split Lip Rayfield and its beloved guitarist, Kirk Rundstrom, are definitely worth going through hell to see one last time.

The bartenders were working like dogs to serve the beyond-sold-out house. I saw more people toting pitchers or fisting two cans of beer, one on top of the other. Lawrence duo Drakkar Sauna opened the show. Its two members, Jeff Stolz and Wallace Cochran, sat close onstage, plunking and drawling songs of backwoods eccentricity to the beat of Stolz¹s tambourine shoe. Sadly, more people, including me, like the idea of that band better than actually watching them play.

When Sauna finished, the theater room was on its way to becoming a real sauna. ³Is anyone else here sweating?² I heard a guy ask. At 9:45, people began yelling for Split Lip, even though it would be another 20 minutes before they¹d begin.

I caught Stolz weaving through the crowd, carting copious amounts of beer. I asked him what it was like being the opening act on Split Lip¹s possibly final tour. (That night¹s show was the first gig.) ³It¹s an honor,² he replied. ³When I was hearing them soundcheck, I realized how much I loved ¹em. Their songs are fucking amazing — that¹s why so many people are here.²

Drinks were hoisted into the air when the band finally did take the stage. At stage right was longhaired banjo player Eric Mardis. Next to him, on mandolin, was the professorial Wayne Gottstine, flanked on his right by gas-tank-bass player Jeff Eaton. And on stage left, nearly emaciated, with a short-brimmed fedora covering his bare head — but still glowing with life and energy — was Rundstrom. He chugged away on his acoustic guitar with his thin, tattooed arms.

As he told the Pitch in last week¹s music feature (³The Last Thrash²), he¹s gone off chemo and is feeling better, even though he¹s now looking death more squarely in the eye. Onstage that night, though, anything seemed possible. He looked like a man with years ahead of him. Who knows? That could be the case.

The audience¹s cheering practically obliterated the first song, and throughout the rest of the night, when people weren¹t hooting, whistling, yelling fuck yeah! or chanting turn it up! — the four main classes of between-song crowd noise — they were singing along with pretty much every word to every song.

It was very Kansas.

Split Lip is based mostly in Wichita, and there¹s always debate as to whether the band qualifies here as a local act. I say wherever the band goes in Kansas (including the few miles east into Jackson County, Missouri), it¹s fucking local.

In Split Lip Rayfield, you see both the traditional (in their old-time hollerin¹ and pickin¹) and the progressive (in the band¹s punk-rock refusal to stay calm and clean). Split Lip doesn¹t play fancy solos and sing about biscuits. All four of them pound the shit out of each song, at times crowing in unison about liquor and the devil. It¹s the perfect concoction for the Sunflower State, and it¹s another reason that, if it comes to it, Split Lip will be sorely missed.

I was drenched in sweat by the encore, and even now I don¹t know how people kept dancing. The gyrations of the woman next to me cleared a good 2 feet of space in all directions around her, she was so amped up.

And then the most chilling moment of the show came. Rundstrom sang lead on the last song, ³San Antone,² a chicken-stomper that had the momentum of a runaway truck. Rundstrom¹s eyes widened and his teeth shone white and savage as he belted out the chorus:

If you wanna die with me, let¹s go/If you wanna die with me, let¹s go!

Split Lip recorded that song in ¹98. Here¹s hoping it¹s not as prescient as it seemed.

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