The Swarm

September 29, 2013

America's Great Music Towns: Meet Kansas City...

Matt Diehl

Way back in the ’20s and ’30s, Kansas City first got put on the musical map as one of the most esteemed locales for jazz and blues in the country, famed for the nightclubs dotting the neighborhood around 18th Street and Vine. Kansas City was the birthplace of jazz legend Charlie Parker, and the likes of Count Basie and Lester Young made their names there, as did locals like blues titan Big Joe Turner. The town’s musical heritage has been the subject of numerous films, from the acclaimed documentary Last of the Blue Devils to iconoclastic auteur Robert Altman’s fictional 1996 noir, Kansas City. “Kansas City is known throughout the world for jazz, blues, and BBQ,” notes Roger Naber, proprietor of Kansas City’s famed venue Grand Emporium, the head of the area’s renowned Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival for much of its existence, and currently CEO of the popular Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.

Traditional African-American musical forms still run deep in Kansas City. The 14-piece Hearts of Darkness collective helps keep the local jazz tradition alive, updating it with Afrobeat, funk, and hip-hop grooves; the family trio Trampled Under Foot, meanwhile, recently topped the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon blues charts with their album Badlands. But Kansas City has proven to have a far more eclectic music scene beyond jazz and blues. National acts as disparate as hard rockers Puddle of Mudd, indie-noise outfits Season To Risk and Shiner, and emo icons The Get Up Kids and Reggie and the Full Effect all hail from Kansas City.

The area is also an unusual hip-hop stronghold, with local hardcore MCs like Tech N9ne and Mac Lethal creating massive national followings while remaining staunchly independent. There’s also a new raft of buzz bands making the transition from regional to national acts. From nearby St. Joseph, Radkey, a three-piece comprising three teen home-schooled African-American siblings, has been drawing attention for their hooky rifferama pop-punk mixed with rich crooner vocals – including a write-up in The New York Times, a hype-inducing tour of England, and triumphant appearances at FYF Fest and SXSW, all leading up to the release of Radkey’s first official EP, Cat & Mouse. (Radkey has a follow-up EP, Devil Fruit, out October 15th.) Another KC outfit gaining attention is alt-rockers The Beautiful Bodies, who’ve played Warped Tour and shared stages with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Paramore. Indie-popsters O Giant Man, meanwhile, were recently named to Paste’s list of “10 Missouri Bands You Should Listen To.”

What distinguishes Kansas City most of all, though, is its position as a live-music stronghold. The Knucklehead Saloon took over the torch from Grand Emporium, which closed in 2004, to showcase more blues and roots-oriented acts. There are also mid-sized theaters like The Midland and The Uptown, as well as stunning outdoor venues like The Crossroads and especially the Starlight Theatre, a sort of Midwestern version of Red Rocks that Buzzfeed called one of The 6 Outdoor Music Venues You Need To Visit In Your Lifetime alongside the likes of the L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl. Smaller stages like Riot Room and Record Bar, meanwhile, help keep the indie spirit alive for upcoming musicians. “It’s ridiculous – we’ve got more music venues than towns twice our size,” says Jeff Fortier of Kansas City’s live-music powerhouse organization, Mammoth. “It’s jumping now. It hasn’t been like this since the ’30s!”

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