- An Evening with the Music of Howard Iceberg
By Jason Harper
Despite a decades-long career in music, Iceberg has never been signed to a label. Though he’s written and recorded hundreds of songs, he has never really learned to play guitar the proper way. As a musician, Iceberg has not defied the odds. He has reinvented them.
Most musicians get together, decide on a niche and a band name, put out a few albums that people buy or not and listen to or not, maybe tour a little, and then call it a day. Iceberg, however, works more like an outsider artist.
He’s never adhered to the prescribed process – he didn’t tour then and doesn’t tweet now – but over the years, with the help of his backing band, the Titanics, he’s developed a uniquely Howardian approach that produces music that’s equally accessible to old-school disciples of Dylan as it is to the kids who worship Swift (Taylor, not Jonathan). Howard communicates profound human experiences through deceptively simple, clever lyrics and obviously simple, catchy hooks. Like Leonard Cohen, his language is plain, but his choices are fresh, funny, comfortingly downtrodden, and always real.
Though he’s been playing since the ’70s, this 64-year-old immigration lawyer by day (legal surname: Eisberg) has solidified his musical legacy in the past seven or eight years through an ambitious “nonstop recording project” that has pulled in friends and collaborators from around the Kansas City music culture. With this battalion of 50 or so sidemen and sidewomen, Iceberg has recorded around 300 songs, forming a definitive, yet (because he’s still adding to it) fluid and shifting document of a life spent using music to cut to the heart of things.
Howard released about a third of his recording project in the form of a seven-CD boxed set, Welcome Aboard, which he unveiled this past Sunday night at one hell of an epic evening Crosstown Station. (He also gave away individual CDs from the set to everyone who bought a $5 admission ticket.) Billed as “Raising the Titanic: An Evening with the Music of Howard Iceberg,” this was no ordinary show for Howard Iceberg and the Titanics. For one thing, 90 percent of the evening consisted of a slate of four dozen of Howard’s collaborators performing their own, completely new versions of Howard’s songs.
The night kicked off with Amy Farrand singing “A Beautiful Girl,” followed by the Atlantic Fadeout taking on “In This Lonesome Town” and “Count on Me.” Next, Rockhill offered up “Waiting for the Prisoners” and a couple others. Then, Tony Ladesich growled “A Dozen Dead Roses” and “The Hurtin’ Kind” and the Columns eased out “Dark Flowers” and “Not too Drunk.” Under the venue’s flashing lights and wooden beams, a picture unfolded of an entire family of Kansas City musicians touched by the work of a man and his friends.
The word “funeral” was jokingly invoked in the lead-up to the show as well as at the show itself. And with the pure, honest outpouring of communal love and admiration for Howard that ensued, Sunday night kind of was like a funeral – albeit with a boisterously naughty, grinning, jigging, and decidedly living departed.
Yet throughout the evening, Howard never stopped celebrating his fellow musicians (i.e., those, like Gary Paredes, Pat Tomek, Mike Ireland, and Dan Mesh, who have stuck by his side over the years; along with more recent collaborators Elaine McMilian and Scott Easterday, who organized the evening) nor did he cease conveying his humility and gratitude.
And with some of the awesome, rocking, and beautiful performances that took place Sunday night, Howard had a lot to be thankful for.
Duetting on “Jennifer” and “In Any Other Lifetime,” Paredes and Chad Rex – evoking a poor midwesterner’s Ron Wood and Elvis Costello, respectively – staggered and careened off each other, yo-yoing back and forth to the microphone stand, sweating and strumming and wailing like their souls were at stake.
Next, KKFI host Barry Lee, with help from Scott Easterday on keys and Mark Smeltzer on handmade “pandolin,” delivered an improvised spoken-word piece of Howard’s called “O’Malley’s.” Then, the deadpan romantic Easterday took the stage, flanked by the harmonizing Tummons Sisters and poet Cheri Lu Woods (pack of American Spirit blues tucked proudly in waistline), for a warm, hymnlike take “It’s Not That Hard to Fall in Love.”
After performances from Expassionates and McMilian, it was Howard’s turn. Though he’d already made several impromptu appearances up to that point to sing backup, this time he took up his patented belly-up guitar and summoned Paredes and Ireland to dish out “Regrets Only” and “I Am Breaking.”
Then the Wilders came on, and things got intense. After making “Won’t You Kiss Me, Caroline” and “Shadow” sound like classics from the Western swing songbook written in a time of strife and hope for a young America (which, you know, could be now, too), the quartet invited Grisly Hand frontwoman Lauren Krum to the stage. The mood turned twilight blue as she and Ike Sheldon minted a knee-weakening version of “Calling Robert Burns” that pushed the night into the transcendental realm. (A side note on Sheldon: sporting a vest, snug-brim fedora and Jackie O sunglasses, the feisty Wilders honcho became the evening’s spotlight stealer, cracking jokes, praising Howard, and, most of all, tossing back his head and singing his prairie-born heart out.)
The next stretch found the full lineup of Titanics (Iceberg plus Paredes, Easterday, Tomek, and Mesh) bashing out four numbers like the band does once or twice a month at area haunts – which is to say: confidently, brilliantly, and with swagger. But this sequence served merely as a bridge to the night’s closer, “Play Me a Slow One,” a group singalong that saw country belters Brendan Moreland and Abigail Henderson joining the Titanics and Wilders to forge a moment of stunning radiance.
Like the night taken as a whole, this closing number was a display of ramshackle radiance and blissful abandon, born of artists working together with pride in each other and their community, singing music they loved for people who loved them. It was one of the best moments in local music I’ve witnessed in my eight years in this city.
And thank God, it was nobody’s funeral.
Amy Farrand – “Beautiful Girl”
Atlantic Fadeout (Abigail Henderson, Chris Meck, Amy Farrand, Dutch Humphrey) – “In This Lonesome Town,” “Count on Me”
Rockhill (Doug Osborn, Steve DiFranco, Gary Paredes, Josh Mobley, Lisa McKenzie) – “Waiting for the Prisoners,” “Maybe You Will See Me Then,” “Scarlet Fever”
Tony Ladesich with Kasey Rausch, Lin Buck, Rich Burgess and Sam Platt – “A Dozen Dead Roses,” “The Hurtin’ Kind”
The Columns (Bill Sundahl, Matt Richey, John Parker, Sarah Carpenter) – “Dark Flowers,” “Not Too Drunk”
The Splinters (Scott Hrabko, Keith Galusha, Dave Stewart, Tim Higgins) – “Honey,” “Before You,” “Maybe You’re Missing Me Too”
Brendan Moreland with Cody Wyoming, Tilden Snow, Lin Buck, Mike Dolembo and Nate Gawron – “L.A. When You’re All Alone,” “Summer of ’99,” “Heathen’s Prayer”
Hidden Pictures (Richard Gintowt, Michelle Gaume Sanders, Nate Holt) – “Southern Comfort,” “How We Fall Apart,” “Sentimental (feat. Howard)”
Chad Rex and Gary Paredes – “Jennifer,” “In Any Other Lifetime”
Chad Rex, Gary Paredes, Kasey Rausch and Johnny Nichol – “The Wrestler”
John Greiner, Chad Rex, Kasey Rausch and Johnny Nichol – “Texas Connects Us”
Barry Lee, Mark Smeltzer and Scott Easterday – “O’Malley’s”
Scott Easterday with Emily Tummons, Beth Ann Tummons and Cheri Lu Woods – “It’s Not That Hard to Fall in Love”
The Tummons Sisters with Johnny Nichol, Jeff Larison and Josh Mobley – “Moonlight on Missouri”
Elaine McMilian – “Thorn”
Expassionates (Scott Easterday, Rich Burgess, Marco Pascolini, Sam Platt) – “Too Far Gone to Cry (feat. Elaine McMilian),” “Darling Linda”
Howard Iceberg with Mike Ireland and Dan Mesh – “Regrets Only,” “I Am Breaking
The Wilders (Ike Sheldon, Betse Ellis, Phil Wade, Nate Gawron) – “Won’t You Kiss Me Caroline,” “Shadow,” “Calling Robert Burns (feat. Lauren Krum)”
Howard Iceberg & the Titanics (Howard Iceberg, Gary Paredes, Dan Mesh, Scott Easterday, Pat Tomek) – “I Think About You”, “True Confessions,” “Our Last Night,” “Lauren”
The Titanics with Ike Sheldon, Abigail Henderson, Brendan Moreland & others – “Play Me A Slow One”