Middle of the Map: The indie genre at its best and worst

The first night of Middle of the Map Fest took place Friday Oct. 4 at the Uptown Theater. The night started out rough, but each act was more memorable and engaging than the last.

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Middle of the Map: The indie genre at its best and worst

Claire Cottrill, who uses the stage name

Claire Cottrill, who uses the stage name "Clairo," performs at the Uptown Theater

Claire Cottrill, who uses the stage name "Clairo," performs at the Uptown Theater

Claire Cottrill, who uses the stage name "Clairo," performs at the Uptown Theater

by Rachel Robinson, Opinion Editor

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When I bought tickets for Middle of the Map Fest, I did so because Clairo was headlining. The only thing I was listening to at the time was her new album “Immunity,” a chill, emotionally vibrant masterpiece that transcends genre. It diverts from her familiar bedroom pop sound in the best way possible and I was obsessed with it.  I knew that there were other bands playing, but I mostly thought of them as something I would have to sit through before she came on and I wrote it down in my calendar as “the Clairo concert.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see anyone else, I was just so fixated on “Immunity” that the rest didn’t matter.

By Friday Oct. 4, the day of the show, I knew that the lineup for the night was Hello Yello at 7:00 pm, followed by beabadoobee, Snail Mail, and finally Clairo at 10:00. I had listened to some of Snail Mail’s music and wasn’t a huge fan, but other than that, I was completely unsure of what to expect. 

The show was supposed to be at CrossroadsKC, but it got moved to the Uptown Theater at the last minute due to rain. This was great for me because the Uptown is right down the street from one of my favorite coffee shops, Monarch Coffee, but it also meant that I was almost late. I meant to get there early so I could get a good spot, but I am habitually late to everything and of course, I had to get coffee before I went in, so I got inside the theater just before it started. Incredibly, I still ended up less than five feet from the front; I had the kind of spot I’ve waited in line for seven hours to get at other concerts. So the night was off to a good start, but I was already anxious to get through the first three acts. 

The main thing I can say about Hello Yello is that they were clearly happy to be there. Their stage presence was great, but their lyrics didn’t resonate with me and the instrumentals weren’t good enough to make up for it. Nothing out of their set really stuck to me so I didn’t immediately think to look up their music the way I normally do. However, when I finally did for journalistic purposes, I found that I liked it less through headphones. Without the lights and the speakers and the vibrations in the floor to create the illusion of entertainment, there was no redeeming element. Their lyrics are repetitive in a way that doesn’t add to the song as a whole and they come across as rushed and somewhat unoriginal. For me, lyrics are the most important part of any song and Hello Yello did not impress me with theirs. 

Next was beabadoobee. This was a band that was frequently recommended to me on my “Discover Weekly” playlist, but not one I had ever taken the time to listen to. My first impression of them was that they were a mediocre indie band with a few good songs and for the most part, it was correct. Their songs “She Plays Bass” and “If You Want To” stood out from their set, the former for its catchy chorus and the latter for its strange but cool lyrics like, “Bed bugs in my mind, keep them all alive, insomnia creeps at night, sleep paralysis till I die.” The rest blended together with an occasional verse or guitar riff that would catch my attention.

Snail Mail, whose real name is Lindsey Jordan, exceeded all expectations. The night before the concert, I listened to her top five songs on Spotify to get a feel for her music and none of them were memorable enough for me to be that excited to see her live. However, live music can be truly transformative which is something that I often forget. Nearly every concert I’ve ever been to I have left with more songs saved to my Spotify playlist than I had when I arrived. Snail Mail was one of the most prominent examples of that I have experienced.

Jordan had an incredible stage presence. She talked to the audience, she was funny, she moved all over the place and danced erratically with her band while she performed. Snail Mail is technically Jordan’s solo act, but I appreciated how she brought her bass player and drummer into the performance instead of just treating them like her supporting cast.

The highlight of all three acts leading up to Clairo was Jordan’s second to last song “Pristine.” As the loud and moody chorus, “And don’t you like me for me? Is there any better feeling than coming clean? And I know myself and I’ll never love anyone else, I won’t love anyone else” blasted through enormous speakers five feet above my head, I forgot why I was there in the first place. For those five minutes, I could have been at the Snail Mail concert with no promise of seeing Clairo and been completely fine with it.

However, when Clairo came on during Snail Mail’s “Heat Wave,”  the crowd screamed and pressed forward and I was suddenly being pushed even closer than I was before. She was only there for part of the song, but it was enough to electrify the theater.

Forty minutes later, the lights went out again and a half-moon backdrop illuminated the stage. Clairo and her band came out, backlit and glowing, and the crowd was starstruck. She opened with “Alewife,” an interesting choice because heavy subject matter. The song is bittersweet, as it revolves around how grateful Claire is for her best friend who helped her through a night when she was contemplating suicide. Despite the gravity of the song’s content, it has a hopeful feeling to it and Clairo uses humor in many of the lyrics to lighten the mood. “Alewife” set the tone for the rest of the show by introducing Clairo’s common musical tactic of shifting seamlessly between light-hearted and deeply sentimental and rarely settling on one definitive mood.

About halfway through her set, the crowd’s energy peaked at the opening guitar of one of Clairo’s most upbeat songs, “Sofia.” The half-moon projected a blue swirl pattern behind her as she danced around the stage with flowy movements, singing to different parts of the audience. I was in the perfect place in the crowd for her to look right at me when addressing the right side and for my brain to shut off every time she did. For the next few songs, I was pretty much zoned out and kind of mad that I didn’t record any of it. As a rule, I never record concerts because I think it takes away from the experience, but I found myself wanting proof and details from that moment that I couldn’t keep in my mind.

By far my favorite part of the night was Clairo’s final song before the encore: the sad, confessional closing track on “Immunity” called “I Wouldn’t Ask You.” For this, Clairo sat down cross-legged in the middle of the stage and pointed her eyes downwards as she sang, physically bringing herself down to our level. A few times, she pointed the microphone at the audience so they could finish the repeating chorus, “I wouldn’t ask you to take care of me, oh and I wouldn’t ask you to take care of me,” creating an echo throughout the theater. The studio version also includes a children’s choir near the end of the song and some people took up their part instead, making the two sets of lyrics intertwine and overlap among hundreds of voices. It was all-encompassing, unifying, it felt like we were experiencing the song with Clairo and feeling what she felt. The song itself is hymn-like due to its low pitch, repetitive lyrics and intermittent piano in the minor key. Paired with the soft, dreamy lighting and the congregational feel of the audience, the experience was nothing short of religious.  

Clairo closed out her set with two of her older songs, including “Pretty Girl,” the song that gave her her start as a musician. Paired with her final and most recent work, “I Don’t Think I Can Do This Again,” it was the perfect ending. Although it was called the, “Immunity Tour,” these two songs were a reminder of how Clairo became the icon that she is before ”Immunity” and how much more she is capable of.

I would rate the festival as a whole at 4 stars. It was both what I expected it to be and full of surprises. I thought that Clairo would be my favorite and she was, but I also have to admit that Snail Mail deserves more credit than I originally gave her. Now, more than a week after the show, I am still listening to her album, “Lush” and I like it more every time I do. For those two acts alone, I would rate Middle of the Map highly and should Clairo or Snail Mail come back to Kansas City, I’ll be the first to buy tickets.

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