When the Backstreet Boys postponed their summer tour dates because of A.J. McLean‘s bout with alcoholism and depression (or, as the same cynics who accuse Dale Earnhardt Jr. of winning a fixed race might posit, because of a publicity stunt unveiled on TRL just weeks before the release of the new ‘N Sync disc), the parents of eight-year-old Jennifer Fotopoulos were at least as disappointed as their daughter, a fervent fan. It seems the Boston family had spent $2,000 on a limo and reservations at the Hard Rock Cafe, only to find the show had been canceled. People who shell out big bucks to ensure a magical evening with a disposable teen-pop quartet might deserve what’s coming to them, but what’s interesting about this scenario is that the members of the Fotopoulos family, like many others, enjoy making a concert into an all-night event.
That type of thing is easy to do when the featured venue is part of an already vital downtown. The closest Kansas City fans come to this type of splurging is firing up the grill in the Arrowhead parking lot before an ‘N Sync show. That sort of activity may be representative of this football- and barbecue-loving populace, but it lacks the cosmopolitan feel of a night of dining and concertgoing downtown.
It’s not an immediate fix — bands such as Tool and Radiohead that are skipping the city won’t be lured by sparkling new arenas as easily as the NCAA — but by sparking excitement downtown, an arena would generate word-of-mouth, which would eventually make its way to the booking agents who currently regard Kansas City as a sprawling ghost town.
To see the potential, consider the fact that last week was a big one: Kansas Rock City held two major shows inside city limits instead of delegating them to outlying consultants Bonner Springs and Lawrence. On Monday, July 9, Municipal Auditorium welcomed the Extreme Steel tour, inviting into its archaic walls much of the same fanbase that has made the new NASCAR track such a smash. Fans encountered a big-city feel when they walked through the door, hearing the deafening din of what sounded like a combination of speeding subway trains, industrial machinery and an exotic lion roaring at an urban zoo. Later, the source of this impossibly loud, seemingly inhuman racket was discovered to be the death-metal veterans in Morbid Angel. And after enduring the tedium of Florida’s latest musical atrocity, Skrape, fans who ventured downtown got a taste of Sandstone-style showmanship when Static X played a set that was as electronically enhanced (eerie accompaniment from an unseen keyboardist, curiously pedal-free guitar effects) as any offering from a pop sensation.
The next act, Slayer, played with an assassin’s precision and lack of emotion, its guitarists often standing with their backs to the audience as they thrashed through their riffs. Perhaps Slayer parked its tour bus near the venue, realized that it was playing downtown and decided to eschew any antics because these just-off-work businesspeople take their music straight.
Boasting a fire-heavy assault that made even people in the cheap seats feel as if their heads were wedged in an oven (thus rendering Extreme Steel’s slogan — “It’s air-conditioned!” — superfluous), Pantera must have missed any such signs. However, the group did considerately deliver an educational, Science City-type tour heavy on fauna and history. Look, boys and girls, those are marijuana leaves, projected in gleaming-green glory against every wall of the auditorium. And, hey, is that the Confederate flag, both on Dimebag Darrell‘s guitar and, again, projected over the faces of the people in the balcony? Er, yes. Well, perhaps Pantera isn’t the ideal act for a city seeking a united, racially diverse downtown audience, but the throngs that attended Extreme Steel — and later dropped by the neighborhood Denny’s or Town Topic — represented the start of what could be something promising. Practice makes perfect, or, as Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo told his fans after stopping a tune midsong because he deemed their response lackluster, “We’re just going to keep doing this over until we do it right … originally.”
Which is excellent advice for city planners, as well. Better yet, they could take a cue from a revitalized venue that’s already had an impact on Kansas City’s concert scene. The Uptown Theater, which stands between downtown and Westport, delivered its third standout rock show of the year (The Cult and The Offspring being the others) on Wednesday, July 11, when Rammstein graced the classy venue. Complementing its grinding industrial assault with ethereal keyboards, brilliant lighting and an intriguing stage design, then punctuating its transitions with fire and explosions, Rammstein kept its set compelling without ever seeming desperate for attention.
After the Rammstein show, patrons shuffled off to Chubby’s, Sidney’s, Planet Cafe or Westport to describe the marvels they’d just witnessed, making another concert into a bridge for further interaction with the nearby neighborhood. The Uptown has injected life into its surroundings, and downtown planners would do well to place a duplicate of this success story squarely in the ashes of the proposed Power and Light District — or at least near the ashes left by Pantera’s men of Steel. Painted cows have done wonders for the city’s foot traffic, but Kansas City is now as much of a metal town as it is a cowtown, and a downtown where parking lots are filled with Camaros and sidewalks are packed with mullets is a vision worth embracing.