It's an oasis of sweaty, fragrant humanity in a neighborhood typically devoid of life after dark. Almost everyone's under eighteen -- and they aren't assembling futons. They're watching Sister Mary Rotten Crotch kick up dust while pacing a filthy floor, the band's aggressive sounds shaking and threatening the trembling walls.
About three songs into the set, a few light-headed fans stumble outside and start panting, but most of the spectators seem to enjoy the conflict between the stifling heat and the uncompromising music. After Sister Mary finishes, the warehouse empties completely, and the flushed teenagers wring out their shirts. Eventually, a disembodied voice from inside announces that the next group, Lower Class Brats, is ready to go. Everyone files back in, and the cycle repeats.
A few blocks past that is the sporadically open art gallery called the Next Space. Occasionally, the warehouse-basic inside of this single-floor storefront becomes an unofficial live-music venue -- and the most popular spot on 18th Street, jazz district included. Teens socialize on the sidewalk before and after shows, while inside could lurk anything from hip-hop to grinding metal to puppet productions. Notably absent are adults -- and authority figures such as doormen.
About 7 miles farther east, nestled between used-car lots and fast-food stops, there's a modest medical facility that specializes in instant drug testing. A sign says "Please do not loiter in the lobby," but it says nothing about punk bands. So presumably, the vocalist in the next room -- who's screaming into a microphone suspended from the ceiling -- isn't breaking any rules.
In the past year, all of these locations have been unorthodox concert halls, housing off-the-radar bands and the club-averse audiences that support them. This phantom scene, invisible to the uninitiated, operates completely independently of the music-industry model. It's alcohol-free and largely self-policing. And for now, it might be the only remaining option for punk-rock kids.
Bands and music fans younger than age 21 have always been nomads in Kansas City's nightlife. For young punks, the '80s do-it-yourself movement, spearheaded by groups such as Black Flag and Minor Threat, made for glory years. Back then, anti-establishment musicians -- who had no qualms about playing shows in private homes or VFW halls -- worked with audiences whose members would do almost anything to bring them to town. Sometimes, the resulting shows could be life-changing. No-frills midtown venues such as the Downliner, Foolkiller and Music Box made every show feel like a house party for their underage patrons, and even when club shows fell through, a strong national network made spontaneous substitute shows possible.
In the late '80s, punks made the pilgrimage to a Lawrence cornfield, where Outhouse promoters Jeff Fortier and Brian Saunders booked bands such as Nirvana, GWAR and Hole. There were only two rules at this renegade stop: Pay at the gate and no alcohol inside. In the anything-goes buffer zone between the gate and the barn door, people would drink -- and occasionally fight -- before shows and between sets. Inside the Outhouse, overpopulation was common; more than 1,000 people somehow squeezed in to see Bad Brains. An unusually sympathetic police force winked at the punk paradise.
"The cops would come by, check out the crowd and say, 'Who's playing?'" Saunders recalls. "Then they'd say, 'Cool, we'll be back in an hour.' And they'd show up -- with beer."
Though less outrageous, Kansas City's Rhumba Box (a venue at 10th Street and McGee that lasted from summer 1993 to spring 1994) had its moments, particularly a Beck concert at the height of his "Loser" fame that had desperate teenage fans literally hanging from rafters for a view. The Rhumba Box also presented Schoolly D and Girls Against Boys and hosted numerous high school start-up bands on all-local bills.