(Note: the following feature appeared in the April, 2008 issue of KC Magazine.)
By Joel Francis
When Keenan Nichols was 19, he couldn’t wait to get out of Kansas City. The Avondale native and North Kansas City High School graduate wanted a bigger city where he had a better chance of making a living as a guitarist. He escaped to a town with a more promising music setting-Dallas.
“The scene in Dallas was great at first, but over the last few years, it started dying off,” Nichols said. “Everyone down there lost interest in live music. Everything became a race to become the next Miami and see who could build the most dance clubs.”
When Nichols came back to Kansas City on visits, he’d catch glimpses in his hometown of what he’d hoped to find in Dallas. Eventually, he moved back.
“It seemed like the scene had grown up a little bit,” said Nichols, guitarist for the hard rock band The Architects. “With that distance, I gained a big appreciation for everyone here sticking to their guns and trying to make things happen.”
Scott Hobart moved to Kansas City in 1989 to take classes at the Kansas City Art Institute, but he found himself gravitating to the clubs more than the classrooms. Hobart was a member of the hard rock band Giant Chair when he had a change of heart (and name) and started writing country songs. Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys celebrated 10 years of honky tonk last December.
“I’ve never felt stifled geographically by playing in Kansas City,” Hobart said. “Being a country band, people always ask us why we aren’t in Nashville. Nashville’s inundated. Our music doesn’t mean anything there. There’s something more original about playing here. You can’t just be in a band to impress someone. It has to mean something.”
In the neighborhood
The desire for musical integrity, which is shared by many Kansas City bands, translates to a neighborhood of musicians who collaborate more than compete.
“The greatest thing about our scene is that it is so supportive,” said Auggie Wolber, member of Americana band In the Pines. “We’ve all played together so long, everyone has gotten to know each other.”
The spirit of fraternity is reflected in the number of benefit shows thrown for other musicians. When blues guitarist Danny Cox’s house burned down in January, several bands (including Irish ensemble The Elders) eagerly signed on to perform at a sold-out benefit concert. That same spirit showed at a successful 2006 benefit for Blackpool Lights drummer Billy Brimblecom.
Making the decision to help Billy was not difficult for The Architects.
“Our old band and his old band had done some touring together and become pretty close. If he had needed a transplant, I would’ve considered it,” said Architects singer Brandon Phillips. “It turned out he only needed us to play [for] 45 minutes and not get paid.”
Audiences show the same supportive spirit.
“The biggest show of support I’ve seen was when I was playing hard rock and decided I wanted to sing songs with a story in front of a country band,” Hobart said. “It may have confused some people at first, but everyone I knew from the rock side came out to hear me, and they’ve supported me the whole time.
“If you can switch genres drastically and have people willing to try it on some level, it proves the open-mindedness and good nature of our community,” Hobart said.
It also means more musical diversity. A punk band might play Davy’s Uptown opposite a country band at the Record Bar one night, but the next day those same clubs may offer blues or indie rock.
“One of the great things about this town is you can go to the Record Bar and see Rex (Hobart) and have dinner, or you can go to Davy’s Uptown and hear free jazz,” said Wolber of In the Pines.
The success of First Fridays and the revitalization of downtown points to the appetite and appreciation Kansas Citians have for the arts.
“I’m always surprised at how many people turn out for The Pitch Music Showcase,” said Record Bar co-owner and Roman Numerals instrumentalist Steven Tulipana. “Five bucks gets you all over town to hear different kinds of music.”
In the past, record stores provided an outlet for local artists with in-store performances and prominent displays. Today, Myspace pages and email lists provide a level of promotion and exposure that reaches far beyond stapling a flier to the wall.
Just ask Adam McGill of The Republic Tigers, a local band recently signed to an imprint of Atlantic Records and discovered via the band’s Myspace site.
“An A and R (artist and relations) rep with Atlantic found us on our site and started talking with us,” McGill said. “She asked for a CD and then passed it on to Alexandra.”
Alexandra is Alexandra Patsavas. The name might not be familiar, but the TV shows for which she selects music are-“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Numb3rs” and “Gossip Girl.” Patvas loved the band and made them the first act signed to her Chop Shop Records label. The Republic Tigers’ debut album was just released earlier this spring.
Similarly, Olympic Size found one of their songs featured prominently on MTV’s “The Real World” thanks to a pitch from Anodyne, a local record label. It’s an impressive feat for anyone, let alone a band without a long-term record contract or even a finished album.
“I think you’re more likely to get discovered out of Kansas City than you are in a big city where you’ll get lost in the mix of a billion other bands,” said Republic Tiger Kenn Jankowski. “With the Internet, it’s easy for anyone to find you.”
Knowing about the “next big thing” could be as close as a write-up in The Pitch or The Kansas City Star‘s preview section.
“If a band shows up in there, it’s a pretty good chance they have their stuff together,” said Olympic Size guitarist Kirsten Paludan. “I think some people have a perception that rock isn’t for everyone, but this is a music scene that can appeal to a wide range of people. It’s not just for teenagers, hipsters or artists.”
Kansas City is big enough to support many types of music yet small enough that it’s not difficult to stay in the know about what’s happening across town.
“Our city is very diverse. There’s a band out there for everybody-for the kids, for the rockers; it’s all out there waiting to be discovered,” said Darren Welch of In the Pines. “Just take a chance. Pay the $5 cover and wait to be surprised.”