In a recent Entertainment Weekly, Avril Lavigne, the alleged anti-Britney, convincingly pleaded ignorance to a wide-ranging variety of subjects, drawing her biggest blank on the puzzling phrase inferiority complex. Unlike Lavigne, whose omnipresent neckties have strangled her already feeble flow of oxygen to the brain, Kansas Citians completely comprehend this concept. In fact, they not only know it but live it, to the point where local music fans embrace area players only after those musicians have attracted accolades elsewhere. Until the cool kids on the coasts tell ’em otherwise, many locals just assume KC’s bands, like its arenas and downtown development, rank far behind the curve. Some cities create their own celebrities; Kansas City chases its most promising prospects away, then gives them a fatted-calf reception after they’ve been stamped with out-of-state approval.
St. Louis, for example, inflates its musical importance until record labels can’t help but believe the hype. The Urge, a funk/ska party band that scavenged Fishbone‘s skeleton, played some of Missouri’s largest indoor venues before anyone outside of the Show-Me State had a clue about its existence. Nelly rose to prominence thanks to massive hometown radio support and consistent club play; “Country Grammar” was the jam in Cardinal country for months before anyone outside the area even heard it. Such strategies fit St. Louis’ self-assured personality. The people under the Arch believe it’s a big deal to be the biggest thing there, just as it would be to be the toast of New York or Chicago.
By contrast, being the most popular unsigned act in Kansas City means relatively little. A group such as the People, a steady-drawing, buzz-building quartet with an of-the-moment sound, can count on weekend showcase gigs at clubs such as the Brick and the Hurricane (where it plays Sunday, November 10). It might draw the opening slot the next time the Strokes or the Hives come to town; it will probably make the short list of any label lackey aiming to uncover the next Gadjits, Ultimate Fakebook or Frogpond. But that’s all; no program directors rushing to spin its singles, no promoters placing the group in rock-star arenas, no hand-holding, banner-waving shows of support from a public eager to embrace any homegrown product. The People have grown as popular as this stifling city will allow; now the band must make its own fortune.
So far, it’s made all the right moves, playing a CMJ Marathon-related gig in New York that the group described as its best ever in front of an audience padded with talent scouts and musicians. Its set, filled with knowing nods to ’70s glam rock and keyboard-covered ’80s new wave, references the Big Apple’s sonic style du jour without seeming overly derivative or deferential. The People, like the best KC players, from Tech N9ne to Pat Metheny, digest current trends and pioneering works, twist the two, then add a unique touch that differentiates its finished product from both national trailblazers and their regional imitators. During the People’s recent tours — its first decent-sized treks outside of the area — fans saw a fresh voice, not a shoddy Midwestern makeover of MTV’s renowned rock revivalists.
For some local musicians, large-scale tours might as well be booked with one-way tickets. Jazz players often leave because they rightly feel that there’s only so much they can achieve in Kansas City; hard-rock smashers relocate either to find more accepting radio climates or because they’re conscientious objectors to Club Wars-style battles of the bands. Indie-rock acts might be tempted to pack up when they observe the unabashed enthusiasm with which other audiences greet their hometown heroes, but they often decide to stay. The members of the Get Up Kids bought homes and now a House — Lawrence’s legendary Red House Studio will soon become GUK property — and the People’s members, all of whom share the same Midtown residence, also plan to keep Kansas City as their base of operations.
“Some bands like to come home and play the big hometown show,” says singer Ben Grimes. “I’d almost like the opposite, to come home from playing bigger places and do some low-key shows here at small clubs.”
It’s the perfect match: a city that downplays its assets, and a band that doesn’t need ego stroking to know it’s headed in the right direction. In St. Louis, maybe they’d be rock stars. Here, they’re just People.