Written by Chad Taylor
The Monday Mourners were put in an unenviable situation.
It wouldn't seem like it at first. Weekend gig, opening for Randy Burk and that master of western swing, Wayne “The Train” Hancock. But sometimes great situations are double edged swords.
Don't get me wrong: Monday Mourners—gutarists Matt Handley and Clint Meyer, bassist Aaron Tinder and drummer Pat Curtis—come to the yard packing a lot of heat. They're a talented group of musicans and thoroughly entertaining in their own right. But Burk is one of the two or three best showmen in the city, and Hancock is a genuine legend, so putting Monday Mourners at the beginning of this show was a bit like having a comedian start the night at a strip club: you might be really good at your job, sir, but you're not what we're here to see.
The crowd at Gas Lamp steadily grew as the Mourners' set progressed, but remained largely indifferent to the band's efforts. It's partly because the Mourners—as good as they genuinely are—are a kind of frustrating musical hybrid that can sometimes feel like it's always clapping on the upbeat. It's a vaguely discordant feeling that the band itself is aware of. “If you like rock, we sound like country,” the band's Facebook page proclaims. “If you like country, we sound like rock.”
After a spirited 60-minute set, the Mourners gave way to Randy Burk & The Prisoners, and if you haven't seen Burk live before then Jesus Christ what's wrong with you. As previously mentioned, Burk is an absolutely classic showman, with a stage presence that's equal parts Johnny Cash and Elvis. The Atlantic, Iowa native has been honing his craft around Des Moines and the surrounding area for years, and he's an impressive act both musically and artistically.
The players The Prisoners brings to the stage will change from time to time (I saw them in Valley Junction last summer with James Biehn on guitar and they nearly used up West Des Moines' strategic reserves of Awesome), but the act remains stunningly consistant. Throwing out a good mix of original songs and lovingly tweaked covers, Burk and The Prisoners were clearly the meal ticket on the card this evening.
Eventually, it was time for the act that everyone had (ostensibly) come out to see, but a funny thing happened when Hancock took the stage: the air kind of left the room. Perhaps Burk's firey set had burned everyone out too quickly. Maybe the bulk of the audience had turned out just to hear Burk in the first place. But when Hancock took the stage, the feel of the audience changed noticeably.
Hancock didn't help matters by turning in a lackluster set. There was nothing obscenely wrong with it, mind you, and Hancock on a B+ night is still better than a large portion of the people out there, but Hancock's set came equipped with neither the fire of Burk's, nor the solid execution of the Mourners'. And in response, the crowd began to noticeably thin as the evening progressed, and what was once a filled-to-capacity Gas Lamp midway through Burk's set, finished the evening as 20 or so hardcore Hancock fans.
But even though the night ended on a bit of a whimper, there's good stuff to be taken from this past weekend's events at Gas Lamp. Because even though the touring headliner turned in an indifferent performance, the local acts carried the night, and nobody who was in attendance can legitimately say that they didn't get their money's worth out of the evening.