I am a fan of both ambitious ideas and country music and so, last Thursday, I corralled a few pals and drove out to Overland Park for the grand opening of Kanza Hall, a new, country-oriented live-music venue at 119th Street and Metcalf.
Kanza Hall is phase one of One Block South, club owner Shawn McClenny's plan to re-imagine a JoCo strip mall as a south Kansas City nightlife epicenter. The concept also includes annexing half of Fuel (the sports bar and nightclub next door to Kanza Hall) and converting it into an upscale, by-the-hour billiards hall to be called Red 8. Once Red 8 is up and running (it's expected to open midsummer), Raoul's Velvet Room, down the strip and currently closed, will reopen as a casual French bistro called Milieu.
"Kanza Hall? It sounds like a rotary club or something," Jason said as we made our way out to the suburbs.
"Oh, hall," Mike said. "I thought it was a mashing up of the words Kansas and alcohol, like Kansahol."
"No, no," Berry said.
"Is it kan-za or kawn-za?" I asked. Nobody said anything. I pulled into the parking lot, and my air-starved tires let out a cartoonlike screeching sound. It's getting to the point where I feel bad for the people who have to show up to things with me.
Inside, the air conditioning was pumping, and old rodeo clips were playing on a projector on the stage and on various plasma TVs. Hot chicks in cowboy hats were slinging drinks behind a 40-foot bar (total guess; it was long). Tumblers of Jim Beam on the rocks were going for zero dollars early in the evening; later, after the free-booze window closed, they were a very reasonable $5. "Those are Brick prices, dog," Berry said.
Waitresses roamed the room offering up plates of finger food. I politely took one mini cornbread muffin, which I was delighted to discover contained a juicy pulled-pork center. "Actually ..." I said as the waitress began to move along, and I grabbed three more without looking her in the eye.
There weren't any bands performing — Outlaw Jim and the Whiskey Benders and Drew Six are among the acts booked in the next month — so I couldn't get an accurate sense of the acoustics. But in terms of layout, I'd liken Kanza Hall to a slightly smaller Beaumont Club. There's wide-open floor space in front of the stage, flanked on one side by the bar and some high tables, and on the other by six lush circle booths. Clearly, cash was spent making the place look good, and it shows. There's a lodge feel to the interior: Stuffed deer heads line the wall above the bar, and the DJ booth and soundboard are encased in wood. Near the entrance are a shuffleboard table and two pool tables. Hanging above the shuffleboard table is a huge buffalo hide with the Red Bull logo emblazoned on it, a softball metaphor for Kanza Hall: A boot-stomping roadhouse aesthetic with all the pleasures of 2012 suburban living.
"If you watch the Grammys or look at who's selling out Arrowhead, it's country artists," McClenny told me. "Country is making a huge resurgence, and not just in the outer sketches of Kansas City. It's very big right in the heart of Johnson County. And by being out south, Kanza Hall can also pull people in from places like Lee's Summit, Gardner, Stilwell."
He's 100 percent right about all of that, and I think Kanza Hall (for the record, McClenny pronounced it like Tony Danza, not Kwanzaa) could make a killing by catering exclusively to the cowboy crowd. But McClenny wants Kanza Hall to be more eclectic in terms of the acts it brings in. "We've spent a lot of time and energy into not pigeonholing ourselves into being a country bar," he said. "We want to be able to host blues, alternative rock, pop, a lot of genres. The primary focus is country from Wednesday through Saturday. That gives us Sunday through Tuesday to book different kinds of regional and national acts."
The DJ Thursday night was hardly a country purist. All the selections were country songs, but most were mixed with deep, bass-heavy dance beats. "It sounds like Travis Tritt if his backing band was the Baha Men," Jason noted. The crowd came around to it. Out on the floor, there was some square dancing and some regular dancing, and a very old man dancing the way one might dance if one were doing an impression of a very old man dancing. The ladies ate it up. I worried about his health. But I had to respect his stamina.
I walked out of Kanza Hall convinced that the venue, and the entire One Block South concept, could be a pretty huge hit, particularly if McClennon and his people book some high-profile country acts. Even if they don't, I still think it might work, in the same way PBR Big Sky in the Power & Light District works. What they seem to be building out there is essentially a miniature version of the P&L: themed bars conducive to wild parties. And a lot of the folks who hang out at the P&L are from the suburbs anyway. Why not build something for them a little closer to home?