The Uptown Theater’s marquee broadcasts Kansas City’s continuing relevance as a tour stop for major musical talents. Bringing star power to an otherwise unremarkable stretch of Broadway, the sign announces: Robert Plant! No Doubt! Dolly Parton! B.B. King! The Uptown’s signature architectural feature seldom touts KC residents, though, except for an occasional betrothed couple. But that might start to change if a locals-only show on Friday, September 13, draws well enough to convince Uptown owner Larry Sells to host more area-act showcases.
Not that this will be an easy task. Tech N9ne and the Get Up Kids pack the place, but both acts have outgrown the local tag. Thrust drew a comfortable crowd of about 400 to its CD-release party earlier this year, a gathering that would have looked much more impressive at a smaller venue. But none of the groups on Friday’s bill boasts massive drawing power: Jade Raven, on the strength of an irresistible EP and a few radio spins, headlines; Kingpin, with a Club Wars championship under its belt, hopes to lure followers to a noncompetitive setting; Green Means Go is a recognizable, if not fully established, multifaceted eclectopop outfit; and the Screaming Hots, featuring former members of the Electra Complex, will be playing its first show. It’s a solid lineup for, say, El Torreon on a Thursday night, but weekend warriors with a wide range of entertainment options might ask “Where’s Moaning Lisa, Season to Risk or Shiner?”
Kingpin kingpin James Watkins poses the same question. “I would feel better if one of those groups was headlining,” he admits. “Or they should have a regional or national act headline the show. That way, the owners are less likely to lose money and more likely to have these shows regularly, and the opening local acts will have a chance to be put in front of a bigger crowd that otherwise might not have seen them.”
Screaming Hots singer John Doom agrees, to some degree. “I understand why some people feel that way, but I hope people don’t look at it as just another concert. It’s more like a social event. We’d be comfortable with being background music,” he says.
In Doom’s mind, the Uptown Friday night could resemble one of the proms the venue sometimes hosts, with people striking up conversations while the Hots rock, moving forward during Green Meets Go, moshing during Kingpin and making overnight arrangements during Jade Raven’s curfew-breaking closer. The local music scene could use such a meet-and-greet, he theorizes, because it’s currently too contentious.
“Right now, it’s just terrible,” he says. “So much fighting. But if people step up at events like these, Puddle of Mudd won’t be our only claim to fame. Kansas City doesn’t have an identity. We need to create celebrities, even local celebrities, people we can point to and say, ‘That’s Kansas City; that’s music.'”
On the one hand, Doom is right — Puddle’s Wes Scantlin is the city’s only multiplatinum native son. On the other, KC isn’t exactly hurting for recognizable local figures: Dozens of area musicians can expect to be stopped around town and asked about their musical endeavors. Regardless, most observers would agree that nothing but good can come from any event that heightens the music scene’s profile. And the Uptown gig, absence of a big-name door-draw notwithstanding, could still achieve this goal.
For one thing, the Uptown’s prestige gives the affair a formal feel, which might attract casual fans who enjoy the acts but don’t care to check them out regularly at bar shows. Uptown concerts have the atmosphere of major events; bar gigs exude a come-and-go vibe. An Uptown show could lure a selective crowd, the music-scene equivalent of folks who go to church only on Christmas and Easter. (Battles of the bands draw well for similar reasons, but that phenomenon is more analogous to people who attend NASCAR or boxing matches only when they believe a fatal accident is especially probable.)
“It’s a necessity for local bands to play shows at places such as the Uptown to keep the music scene on the rise,” says Jade Raven guitarist Eric Cornwell, whose band has played the Verizon’s second stage and that venue’s parking lot (at the Warped Tour), as well as the Madrid Theatre and nearly every area club.
“I coughed up a few butterflies when I found out we got this show,” adds JR singer Holly King. “I wish Gwen [Stefani] could see this!”
Stefani might not be in attendance, but chances are hella good that radio programmers and promoters might keep an eye on the evening’s attendance. Fairly or not, such influential figures could use statistics from this performance to support the oft-stated hypothesis that “local music doesn’t sell.” Green Means Go guitarist Scott Witmer, who planned the event, hopes to offer evidence to the contrary.
“We’re hoping that when people see local bands on a stage normally reserved for national touring acts, they’ll come out and realize there are Kansas City bands that have as much, if not more talent, than some of the acts that are considered ‘big,'” he says. “We’re hoping to wake some people up and have them realize that yes, KC does have a viable, maybe even bankable, music scene.”
But like many first-time promoters, organizer Witmer won’t be coming back for seconds. “I don’t know how promoters keep their sanity,” he marvels, having dealt with three date changes and skeptical scenesters who wonder about the $10 ticket price and the lack of a household-name headliner. (With such headliners being Shiner and Season to Risk, this would be a hip household.)
Booking his own band was certainly the easiest part of the equation. After that, he signed the next three groups he asked. He had recently played with Jade Raven and Kingpin and was already a fan of the Electra Complex. (Doom calls his new band “less butt-rock,” adding that significantly less hair spray, makeup and other “polish” will be involved in the Screaming Hots.)
The show was initially set for June 26, but it was moved to avoid conflict with the David Lee Roth/Sammy Hagar show at Verizon. August 13 was scrapped because of other major same-day shows (such as 311, which would hammer Kingpin’s fanbase). September 13 was subsequently carved in stone. “If Jesus, Elvis and the Beatles get back together and jam, we’ll still do this show on that night,” promises Doom. (Though certainly a charming option, power-popper Dwight Tilley, whose show at the Grand Emporium ranks as the night’s biggest music event, poses a much smaller threat than this reunion spectacular.)
Then again, fellow musicians aren’t the only enemies of such shows. All sorts of factors can result in abysmal attendance figures. Doom and gloom aside, though, Kansas City’s music scene isn’t faring too badly. The Brick and Niener’s attract solid crowds for indie rock and metal, respectively, and if some venues suffer on a certain night, it’s probably because a multitude of options splits concertgoers’ votes.
If the city’s biggest bands aren’t signed on for Uptown duty, it’s because they don’t need it — they’ve already earned a consistent following and name recognition. The groups that need such showcases are the up-and-comers, the ones that paradoxically could condemn these events to failure by attracting scant crowds. But if nothing else, these musicians will take away memories of playing where the megastars once stood, and a hunger to reach the big stage again could intensify their efforts. As King says of playing Verizon’s auxiliary stages, “Now that we have had a little piece of the pie to snack on, we want more.”