Two of the more memorable shows of 2011 were the Exile on Main St. tribute and Raising the Titanics: An Evening with Howard Iceberg and Friends. Both occasions saw dozens of local musicians performing together in a positive celebration of their community. And both were held at Crosstown Station, a place that no longer exists.
A polished, midsize venue in downtown Kansas City, Crosstown opened four years ago. It closed for good October 2. It started as a jam-band-oriented spot but had become, in its last 18 months, a gathering place for big shows, like the two mentioned above. But it wasn't drawing big enough crowds to keep the lights on. Now it's something called Church of the Resurrection.
When doors close, others inevitably open. So it was that a November show which surely would have been booked at Crosstown — Austin cult singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, backed by many of the same local musicians (Cody Wyoming, Chris Meck, Erik Voeks) who participated in the Iceberg and Stones tributes — was held at 1911 Main. A dinner and jazz club that opened over the summer in the space formerly occupied by Flo's Cabaret (which shuttered around this time last year), 1911 Main aimed to bring part of the city's jazz scene back downtown. But apart from a handful of jazz performances and a live broadcast or two of 12th Street Jump, that rollicking Escovedo show is poised to go down as 1911 Main's finest hour. Because it, too, is set to close at the end of the year.
Well, maybe Kansas City doesn't need another jazz club — we've still got Jardine's. Sort of. On November 30, owner Beena Raja closed the club and fired most of her staff. Jardine's has since reopened, but the bad blood among Raja, the service industry and members of the local jazz community is still roiling. At press time, the calendar on the Jardine's website was blank, and there was a shirt for sale in the merchandise section with the tagline "In Memoriam."
The severity of the Kansas City jazz mess makes the transfer of ownership at the Jackpot Music Hall in Lawrence seem relatively insignificant by comparison. Nick Carroll sold the venue in November to a husband-and-wife team in San Francisco. The new owners say they plan to continue booking some live music but also add things like a pool table and food. The Jackpot was an anchor spot for up-and-coming national touring acts, but Lawrence will live without it. The Bottleneck, the Granada and the Replay Lounge (the latter of which Carroll still owns) can pick up the slack.
Speaking of Kansas: This New Year's Eve marks the end of the road for Raoul's Velvet Room in Overland Park. But owner Shawn McClenny has big plans for the strip mall that housed it at 119th Street and Metcalf. Raoul's will be Milieu, a sexy wine-and-spirits bar. Its neighbor Fuel (also owned by McClenny) is being downsized to make way for Red 8, an upscale pool joint. Schmitt Music, on the other side of Fuel, will also be cut back to make way for Kanza Hall, a live-music venue that can hold up to 1,000 people. "My gamble is that nightlife is going to come back south," McClenny says.
About a hundred blocks north, on the same side of the state line, in a neighborhood where the presumed clientele of One Block South probably wouldn't dare to tread, there are surprising signs of life. FOKL, a new art space on Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas, has been catering to a variety of downtown scenester events that might once have been held in such dubiously legal DIY venues as the Studded Bird or the Firehouse, both of which are no longer active. FOKL hosted the We Are Tribe fashion show in November, which included performances from druggy drone acts Expo 70, the Devil and the Conquerors. The Port Fonda truck served tacos to all the beautiful weirdos outside. Around the corner on Seventh Street is Johnnie's, which former Harling's bartender Chris O'Connor reopened late last year and which boasts some of the best and oldest bar décor in the city. And farther into Strawberry Hill is the 403 Club, which former Riot Room bartender Artie Scholes opened in May. It has been drawing a respectable share of midtown musician types to KCK.
Like Strawberry Hill, Waldo is historically a working-class neighborhood, but the last decade has seen shiny new changes to the area. It's not gentrification exactly, because it seems to have skipped the part where gay people and artists move in and gone directly to the part where hulking nightclubs crowd the landscape. Hannibal's (formerly Fin's Waldo Bar, or simply Waldo Bar to locals) was transformed into the college-town chain Quinton's. A tavern that once bore a strong resemblance to Moe's on The Simpsons now blares Rihanna on the weekends and is staffed by young women in knee-high socks.
Kennedy's, once a fixture of Kansas City's underage drinking scene, hasn't been quite the same since it burned to the ground in 2007. It's now a sleek, clean, dark bar that largely lacks charisma. This past summer, Kennedy's began lining up jam bands in an effort to carve out some identity in Waldo, but with the bar's recent sale — it's expected to move quietly in a more upscale direction — those Widespread Panic tribute bands on Thursday nights are likely a thing of the past. Mike Flaherty, Kennedy's original owner, opened Taco Factory last December in the old Sweet Guy space. It closed last month and recently reopened as Point Loco, a more booze-drive fusion of Taco Factory and Flaherty's other bar, the Point.
We've written at length about the dynamics at Gusto Lounge (Google it). It moved in late October from the Broadway corridor to Westport proper — into the space formerly occupied by Hell Bar, which both opened and closed in 2011. So far, things seem to be going OK at the new Gusto. The small patio overlooking Westport Road teems with smokers on weekends, and the DJs are generally on point. Its neighbor to the west, America's Pub, hasn't been so fortunate. Despite steady business, the club has remained under fire for drawing unruly behavior to the area. Its lease expires at year's end, at which point Westport won't have America's Pub to kick around anymore. Rumors are flying about what will replace it — the most interesting one I've heard is that gay-club and bachelorette-party magnet Missie B's will move in — but it seems safe to assume that whatever replaces America's Pub will not be providing a, shall we say, hip-hop-friendly environment.
Some establishments are holding steady. Take Knuckleheads. On a Saturday night in August, the East Bottoms roots-blues venue hosted what was, for my coin, the best local show of the year, a split bill with beloved KC acts the Grisly Hand and Hearts of Darkness. A large crowd of friendly, laid-back folks turned up. The bands played the outdoor stage. People sat on the bleachers and talked, or they moved up front and danced. A cool breeze blew through. We sipped on Boulevards and Budweisers and bounced along to those glorious HOD horns. Were there train whistles blowing in the distance? That's how I remember it.