Leipelt and a few other guys in and out of the Art Institute call their loft the Hassle Castle. (They're more or less the successors to artist Seth Johnson's venue-slash-collective Your Face, which, for years, threw its own far-out shindigs in the West Bottoms.) What he likes best about being one of the kings of the Castle, Leipelt said, is getting to see bands that he otherwise wouldn't get to see in Kansas City -- in his own home.
Now, at the mention of the West Bottoms, a red flag might have gone up for anyone who's not a part of the hyped-up Crossroads scene, never took an art class past middle school, unashamedly buys his or her jeans from the Gap or finds the whole Art Institute scene -- though it's really not as snotty as it's reputed to be -- a bit clownish. But as a seeker of musical transcendence, one must be willing to rub shoulders with gutter punks, ne'er-do-wells and, yes, even artists in order to get the kind of beatific kick that kids in the '40s used to get off Charlie Parker and George Shearing.
Leipelt recounted previous weeks' shows, one by noise outfit Sword Heaven, one by acid-slab rock band Dead Meadow. During both shows, the audience fused with the band -- in the case of the former, Leipelt said, the crowd was "essentially playing with them, banging old motorcycle mufflers on broken cymbals and everything else."
Therefore, when passing through the entryway, past derelict washing machines and an overturned desk, then clomping up the seemingly endless flights of dusty wooden stairs to the uppermost loft, I knew better than to expect a band that would provoke some mild foot-tapping and winsome nodding. One glance at the ragtag, vamped-up hipsters clustered around the Formica-topped dining table smoking cigarettes and eating veggie dip in the dim light over the dirty-dish-filled sink instantly revealed that something truly -- and perhaps disappointingly -- occult was going on.
But, oh, how deliciously freaky it turned out to be.
After a couple of local acts that were way too akin to performance art to actually be entertaining, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti took the section of the floor between two borrowed PA speakers on stands and launched into an avant-pop set of spooky keyboards, blatting bass and indiscernible but vaguely melodic mystery sounds. The elfin Ariel paced back and forth like a caged animal, one hand clutching the microphone, the other held up beside his face tightened into a claw, as though a nail were driven through his palm.
Once the crowd of 50 or so found the beat hidden in the psychedelic mush, dancing ensued. That was followed by the whalelike appearance of a crowd-surfing mattress, which was subsequently used as a safety pad when someone got the idea to begin flipping people into the rafters from a blanket, heave-ho style. Ashley Miller, beloved and ripe-smelling musician of Golden Calves fame, was the last to board the blanket, sitting on it Brahmin-style, as if using the opportunity to prove once and for all that he could levitate. Naturally, this didn't work as well as the complete-surrender approach of those who lay on their backs in the flying cradle, and the enterprise was abandoned in favor of more dancing.
The party broke up before 11 p.m. (The Hassle Castle shares its building with several normal loft dwellers who actually have to get up in the morning and go to work.) Most headed for Balanca's. Others headed home, perhaps wisely fearing that any further exposure to the scene might put them at risk of identity change (complete with an artsy tattoo, old-man pants and growth of ironic mustache and mullet) and eventual loss of job and home.
But that wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen. After all, the Hassle Castle, unlike many venues with stages and liquor licenses, is actually filling a void in the underground scene.
In an e-mail a few days later, Leipelt mentioned the other thing he valued about his truly indie enterprise.
"I have a chance to fix what I see as one of the main deficiencies in KC culture: a good venue for underground/experimental/whatever shows, that makes KC an actual draw for that type of music, instead of all the bands hitting Denver and St. Louis, maybe Lawrence, but skipping KC."
In the end, the music you'll encounter at most HC shows won't be something you'll take home and apply as a bromide on the boring drive to the office the next day (unless your commute involves copious ganja and a plastic Power Wheels truck). But the experience there proves that music has a deeper application -- that it can still have narcotic power. So until upscale condo developers rid the West Bottoms of culture, there'll be at least one place in town where having fun at a concert will never be a hassle.