Players wandered on and off the stage like wrestlers in a WWE tag-team free-for-all. By the time the evening climaxed with an anarchic rendition of Pantera's "Cowboys From Hell" that saw more people onstage than in the audience, the only missing elements were pulled punches and break-easy chairs.
Like pro wrestling itself, this whole event was phony, in a sense. Not that there were any lip synchers in attendance; every sound that came from the stage was genuine. But the event was billed as Phony Jam II, incorporating a shrouded-in-mystery term of endearment local metal heads have used for the past two years.
Though they won't divulge all the details, Kansas City's "phonies" admit that they've taken the unusual step of forming a sort of heavy-metal musicians' syndicate -- think of it as a headbangers union -- to help each other out by attending the shows of rival bands and otherwise cooperate in order to sustain their scene.
"These guys got tired of no one coming to their shows, so they set up this thing called 'phonies,' where every phony goes to every other phony's shows," said a member at the December show who asked to remain anonymous. (Apparently, sharing the phonies' philosophy is like revealing a magician's secrets.) "Then all the metal groups have the best attendance and get booked at the best clubs."
Joe Spiller, former Audio Kombat Arsenal singer and originator of the nebulous "phony" label, rejects this scenario.
"We get a bad rap," Spiller says. "People say we're a clique and that we only go to each other's shows, which is absolute bullshit. I have heard we're pushing our beliefs on others, like a cult. The last I remember, we have not sacrificed any virgins. We are just bands trying to get better shows and more radio play."
The truth falls somewhere in between these explanations. The phony movement does promote guitar rock with no strings attached, though there is some internal support for becoming a labor-unionlike force, with monthly dues and membership cards. And in some ways, "phony" seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, there's something illusory about a bunch of musicians playing shows almost exclusively for each other. But that's better, some of them say, than the cutthroat scene they're rebelling against.
"It was very competitive a few years ago, as in, 'Man, we kicked those guys' asses,' leave after you're done playing, bullshit like that," says Dave Johnson, who fronts Everybody's X. "[Boomstick vocalist Galactic] Celt and I had similar views about how to improve things, and I liked the idea that I could save some of the younger bands years of spinning their wheels if I could arm them with a little knowledge."
For his part, Spiller contributed the name "phonies," though he won't elaborate on its origin. "We have been asked numerous times and have never told," he says. He suggests that the insatiable curiosity about the name might be much ado about nothing. "We tricked everyone into believing that there was some great hidden meaning, and it is still working."
Regardless of its true definition, the name stuck. It appeared on the organization's first formal release, the 2003 compilation CD Hooked on Phonies, which included two tracks each from Everybody's X, AKA, Boomstick and six other local acts. Each participating group pitched in $50 for inclusion on the sampler, which was given away at phony shows.
"DIY [do it yourself] can only go so far," says Celt, who coordinated the compilation. "If we want to create a real scene, it has to be with a DIT [do it together] approach."
Unusually pragmatic, as musicians go, the phonies started organizing round tables, covering topics as varied as instrument insurance, pawn-shop detectives (and how they can recover stolen gear), licensing and copyright information, guerrilla marketing tips (says Johnson: "A free sampler CD is even better than a flier with titties") and stick-bass instructions. More than the local musicians in any other genre, Kansas City's hard-rock soldiers share an uncanny interest in the auxiliary intricacies of their craft. It's difficult to imagine local punks or hip-hop heads cramming rooms on weekend afternoons for voluntary seminars.
"Even after playing out as long as I have, I'm guilty of not really having a ton of knowledge of licensing, copyright and distribution," Celt admits. "Being mindful of the business side of the music business is an advantage that many don't have."
The phonies held their first round table in July 2003 at Capn's, a suitably rustic spot in Higginsville. At this gathering of 25 musicians, promoters, and metal and hardcore 'zine editors, Celt and Johnson laid out the phonies' blueprint.
"We had long discussions about the way clubs are run and where local musicians are on the food chain," Johnson says. "I talked about everyone banding together to force clubs to give us guarantees, with the idea that we are our own consumers and any club would book any of us knowing that a built-in fanbase would follow. We decided we didn't want to work all night, do all the promotion and drag all the motherfuckers into the bar just to make $50, and we shouldn't have to. We were selling the club for them. Why shouldn't we be paid at least as much as the doorman?"
This strategy contained obvious union overtones, and the implications were made explicit at the second round table, which took place on January 24 at the Stardust Lounge in Kansas City, Kansas, a throwback dive decorated like an Elvis-obsessed T.G.I. Friday's. Celt and Johnson distributed a brochure titled "Benefits of Phonydom" that listed the perks of dues-paying membership, including Phony Jam participation, promotion of each other's shows, access to a Web site, advertising funds to promote that Web site, and discounts at print shops and recording studios. The proposed monthly fee for such services, $7 to $10 a month, drew mixed reactions, even from the organization's leaders.
"I am not too big on the dues thing, Spiller says. "It's a bit too corporate for me."
"People associate dues and money and membership with control," Johnson says. "I don't want to control these bands. I just want to help them. But because of that stigma, I don't think we'll ever get that phase going."
"Any time money is brought into the mix, people get apprehensive about it and someone has to be responsible for it," Celt says. "I really don't want that job."
One topic about which all 75-100 phonies in attendance expressed enthusiasm at the Stardust round table was Phony Jam III, which took place this past weekend at the Hurricane.
Moving Phony Jam III to the Hurricane marked a breakthrough for the hard-rock set, which hoped to break out of its limited-available-venues ghetto. Mention of the club's name drew some heckles at the Stardust round table. A voice from the crowd razzed, "Will they have cool DJs? Can we bust a move?" Hurricane booking agent Charley Bliese issued a curt reply: "It pays bills -- get past that." Still, the round-table rockers reached the consensus that an affiliation with the Hurricane gave the event legitimacy. And Johnson is already looking ahead to the next upgrade.
"I'd love to see Phony Jam turn into an annual event at the Uptown where dozens of popular Kansas City acts come out and play Iron Maiden songs badly," he says.
About 100 paid spectators attended the first two jams -- roughly two musicians for every enthusiast.
At the third round table, a sparsely attended affair at the Grand Emporium on March 27, Johnson addressed this issue: "This is all probably masturbatory anyway, because we'll be the only ones there."
"It's completely self-indulgent," agreed a voice from the crowd. "But it's fun."
This past Saturday night, at Phony Jam III, the Hurricane paid off as a venue. This time, at least, spectators far outnumbered musicians.