Kansas City often boasts it’s jazz heritage, but the musical scene doesn’t discriminate. We have it all, with a population to support it and the enthusiasm to sustain. The latest thing on the scene is Union Station’s “The Science of Rock ‘n’ Roll” exhibit, the world premiere presentation in a touring show here through May, where the visitors are the stars – and the crew and the producer and the engineers.
The exhibition is incredibly proactive and elaborately user-friendly. Not only do you get to learn about audio recordings and technology, acoustics, rock history, sing in a sound booth, muck about with a mixing board, play light director with some vicious strobes, but you can record yourself jamming on a full drum kit or slapping the bass guitar and send the video to yourself (via a QR code on your personal “all access backstage pass”), post it on facebook, and tweet your experience. The creators made sure that they utilized just about every currently trending social media outlet. You can even record and share a StoryCorps-ish “greatest rock moment” personal storytelling video.
But it isn’t just a vaulted version of “Rock Band”. The instruments are real (if the delay is a little frustrating for a real musician and not everything we tried actually worked) and the information is overwhelming. Monitors throughout the exhibit have touch-screen technology to process vats of factoids, while wall-mounted plaques vie for an eyeball’s worth of time. There is music pumping from every nook, posters and artwork on the walls, and plenty of vintage equipment to ogle. When you put on the headphones karaoke-esque tracks play everything from Motown to Metal. It is just as overstimulating as a live show, minus the crush of a thousand focused spectators.
Even though this is created to be a national touring show, the first part of the exhibition featured local tidbits and memorabalia. A big part of that featured Riverrock, a band from the ’70s, which included our friend Jake’s dad, with albums, music reviews, signs, bumper stickers, etc. Seeing a 45 with “Jim Blanton” on the author credits was pretty darn cool.
My dudes, of course, were primarily attracted to the drum kits. Jack was dressed for the occasion in his “Animal” double kit t-shirt and Sam was wearing his “Killers” crew sweatshirt – so you know we were ready to rock. What difference does it make if we have three drum kits in our own home – here we have backing tracks, a light show, video recording capabilities and a wall of cymbals. Jack refused to wear the headphones, so he couldn’t actually hear his own performance (all the drum heads had electronic pads and the cymbals were electronic, too) but that apparently takes nothing away from the raging joy of carte blanche banging. The tanrum when we made him stop playing was heartbreaking, hilarious and not entirely unexpected.
I noticed that I wasn’t the only mom walking past with the universal sign for “five minutes.”
I can’t attest to the “science” aspect of the exhibit. Even with two hours, I wasn’t allowed enough time or focus (re: visiting museums with a toddler) to glean any indepth information that isn’t readily available elsewhere (though, um, we couldn’t do better than major keys sound “happy” and minor keys sound “sad” ?… ), but it was a relatively clear and succint overview to the many, many aspects of rock’n’roll: social history, music theory, and recording technology. There was even a neuroscience wall:
We had a blast, regardless, even though most of our recordings (along with the drums, we sampled keyboard, guitar, and created some simply terrible group renditions of “Heard it through the Grapevine” and “Old Time Rock’n’Roll” – Jack belched, yelled into the mic and then bit me for not sharing – and that’s not even accounting for his parents’ singing), sounded more avant garde than rock’n’roll. ‘Cause that’s how we like it.