KXT Summer Cut With Death Cab for Cutie, Iron & Wine, Hold Steady Gexa Energy Pavilion, Dallas Friday, August 15, 2014
At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards sits the Dallas MLK Center, where on Friday, six days after Missouri teenager Michael Brown was killed, residents of Dallas gathered to hold a candlelight vigil. It was here that I found myself at 6 p.m. standing amongst a crowd in the shadow of a statue of Dr. King observing a moment of silence in the 100-degree heat.
Times are heavy in America, particularly in Missouri, but there in the heat and silence I realized we're closer to each other than we think. Around me stood people of varied race, all here to show support for each other, to show that while the division exists, we can come together. Unfortunately, a mile away at the Gexa Energy Pavilion, the division never felt stronger.
I'll be blunt: KXT has a diversity issue. The station itself has suffered from an identity issue since its launch five years ago in 2009, never sure if it's wanted to be an independent music station or the station for "cool dads." This has resulted in an uneven playlist, one that comes off as diverse only at night when the NPR-produced World Cafe takes over the signal. Sundays have been the haven for fans of a truly diverse playlist thanks to the phenomenally curated Paul Slavens show, and the airing of the history lesson that is American Routes, but without these highlights you're left with a homogenized rotation of artists who are overwhelmingly white and safe. The few blips of minority artists being played tend to go the safe route of canonized artists along the lines of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, artists who are universally liked and not likely to ruffle any feathers.
Making matters worse is the fact that KXT touts itself as the only station to play local artists, while ignoring the fact that it tends to play the same 10 artists in a row, and, with the exception of Seryn's lead singer, none of these artists are People of Color. This is an area with an incredibly diverse music scene, one made up of people of all races, creeds and sexualities, yet KXT has turned a blind eye toward many of them. There's no excuse for not playing R&B and hip-hop when Dallas is experiencing a boom in both those genres. Why do I not hear Sam Lao when I turn on my radio? Why do I only hear A.Dd+ on the Ticket? Shouldn't the local station be sharing these artists?
The booking of KXT's annual Summer Cut festival puts a spotlight on these issues. The bands booked to perform, with the exception of one act, are all white and male. The lone exception was Thao Nguyen's excellent band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, who were shuffled off to the side stage. This was a miscue, not only because it opens the station up to further criticism, but also because the act performing on the main stage at the same time as Thao failed to garner a crowd close to the size of what she drew.
The Hold Steady have long been known as the "best bar band in the world," a title they more than deserve, but one that does have its limits. An act who's crafted a sound meant to reverberate off the back walls of a venue doesn't do well with a venue that lacks walls. And, despite the best efforts of some of its fans, their act didn't translate well.
South Carolina-raised, Virginia-educated and Texas-weathered act Iron & Wine fared much better as Sam Beam took to the stage alone to perform his songs of lament and love. Such is the devotion of his fan base that the breaking of a string elicits wild cheers. Beam, knowing his surroundings, stuck to his songs about Texas, including a rendition of "Waves of Galveston" that was prefaced by a Dallas-approved shot at Houston.
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Then came the headliners, Death Cab for Cutie. Earlier in the week it was announced that after a 17-year partnership with the band lead guitarist and producer Chris Walla would be leaving. This added an air of importance to the band's set, so much so that it felt as if the crowd tripled in size for it.
During their set, lead singer Ben Gibbard quipped that the show "kind of fells like the 'indie rock reunion, class of 2003,'" which the crowd whole-heartedly agreed with. Death Cab made it a point to stick to their most well-known material, starting with "I Will Posses Your Heart" from Narrow Stairs, and then slowly working their way through Plans, We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes! and Transatlanticism. A highlight of the night was a friend of mine shouting "I used to have sex to this song in college!" when "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" was played, causing me to shout back "We all had sex to this song in college." Nostalgia is a hell of a thing.
As if exhausted from the media blitz from Walla's announcement, Death Cab seemed almost restrained on stage, playing a shorter set, and ending the night around 11. It's as if Gibbard's intro to one of the songs -- "This is a song about two artists living together and failing" -- was more autobiographical than intended.
Making my way out from Gexa, I paused to take in my surroundings and noticed how different they are than my surroundings earlier in the night at the MLK Center. Here the crowd is mostly caucasian, with a limited number of minorities sprinkled in. But the biggest take away from Summer Cut is this: With sparse attendance, listeners should be ready for a looooong membership drive this fall. And unless the station finally embraces the diversity of its city and audience, they won't see a penny from me.