This week, hundreds of Kansas City musicians travel down to Austin to eat tacos, drink Tecates and pray that somebody important notices their band at South by Southwest, the city's annual music-industry festival.
The critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Sam Baker lives in Austin. But on Thursday — right in the thick of the SXSW party — he's heading north, to Kansas City, where he's the anchor act at the inaugural HomeGuard Festival, a three-day event being held at various locations around the city.
The idea for HomeGuard has been incubating since about this time last year. Tommy Donoho and Christian Hankel, bandmates in local group the Hillary Watts Riot, scheduled a show at RecordBar with that act and Donoho's other band, Dollar Fox. The Latenight Callers rounded out the bill.
"It was the Saturday of the week everybody was in Austin, and we called it South by Southwest Trafficway," Donoho says. "And it sold out. There were still a lot of people left in Kansas City who wanted to see some music. So that got us thinking about expanding into something that could keep Kansas City's live-music heritage alive while a lot of people are doing their thing down in Austin. And it quickly went from one night last year to flying a guy in from California and bringing a guy up from Austin."
On the docket for the weekend: Sam Baker Thursday night, a sprawling lineup of bands (Dream Wolf, Be/Non, M. Incroyable of L.A.'s Peculiar Pretzelmen, Nuthatch-47, Molly Picture Club, and the Rumblejetts) on Friday, and a wrap party Saturday night at Midwestern Musical Co.
"I think it's fair to say Sam Baker is one of the greatest living songwriters," Hankel says. "I saw him at the Folly last year, and I've never been around such a silent, respectful audience in my life. People were just blown away."
"Sam's a really engaging performer, and we knew we wanted to create a situation with HomeGuard where you could have a totally intimate experience," Donoho says. "So we thought, Why not do a house show? Put Sam in a 45-person room, have a meet and greet, serve food and drinks?"
Donoho has some experience putting on house shows. The local label he runs, Money Wolf Music, regularly stages shows at surprise locations around town. Seating is typically limited, and the location is revealed 24 hours beforehand. That's basically the deal with Baker's performance Thursday, except that the $65 ticket price — tickets were still available as of press time — also gets you entry into every other HomeGuard event.
Somewhat ironically, one of the sponsors of HomeGuard is Folk Alliance International, a folk-music-promoting organization helmed by Louis Jay Meyers, one of the original founders of South by Southwest. Last year, Folk Alliance International announced that it was moving its headquarters in 2014 from Memphis to Kansas City.
"They're in the process of moving up here, so we thought HomeGuard could work as their first big step into the Kansas City scene," Hankel says. "And they really wanted to be involved in taking care of the musicians, so they're helping pay for food and drink for musicians at RecordBar and at the Saturday party.
"That's the main thing we want to emphasize with HomeGuard," Hankel continues. "It's about the musicians. We want them to come out of this weekend feeling like it was a positive event — that they made money, had a good time and were treated well. I think it's great that all the bands go to Austin, but it's just so big and maybe not as much about the musicians as it should be. So I foolishly envision HomeGuard as a festival where, five or 10 years from now, musicians say, 'Well, we can go to South by Southwest, or we can go to HomeGuard,' and they choose HomeGuard because they know they'll be taken care of here."