A Love Letter to Kansas City
by Michelle Bacon
Every spring, the streets of Westport brim with crowds bobbing from venue to venue to catch their favorite bands and make new discoveries. Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest has become an essential tradition for supporters of the arts in Kansas City, and a hotbed destination point for concertgoers, film lovers and information seekers.
“After the 2012 fest, we went through all of our pre-order tickets and counted that people from 37 states bought tickets,” said festival organizer Chris Haghirian of Ink. The main draw was Fun, who gained widespread success shortly before their performance. This was only the festival’s second year, and it set a precedent that Haghirian and co-organizer Nathan Reusch continue to raise with each passing event.
In its sixth year, Middle of the Map has grown into an almost two-week engagement, attracting attendees from all 50 states and a handful of other countries to its cultural epicenter. In 2015, attendance numbers for the entire fest reached 15,000—up 10 times from its inaugural year. This year, MOTM expects upwards of 20,000 people.
“There is a great energy around the festival that is contagious,” said singer/songwriter Jessica Paige. This energy became palpable this March, when a hearty group packed Ollie’s Local to be among the first to hear the lineup announcement. Eruptions of cheer ignited the room as the launch video announced the class of 2016, an impressive roster of touring acts interspersed with cameos from local up-and-comers like Dreamgirl and Pink Royal.
But the excitement of this year’s lineup started well before March, according to Haghirian.
“I was in the middle of a pile of work, sorting through band info and a hundred emails, and then I got a text that said, ‘Aimee Mann confirmed,’ and I just stopped. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Throughout the years, the organizers have secured acclaimed touring acts (last year’s big names included OK Go and Iron and Wine) with support from some of Kansas City’s biggest and brightest bands. This year, 115 acts will grace 9 stages throughout the city in 4 days; 74 of these performers live in the metro area.
Mann, whose charming, sophisticated tunes have earned her Oscar and Grammy nods, will headline the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland on May 7 along with funk/soul sensation Charles Bradley. Other big draws that weekend in the Crossroads include the soaring sonic rock of Manchester Orchestra, electronic artist Zhu and rapper Vince Staples. The two preceding nights will welcome buzzworthy touring acts like The Besnard Lakes and La Sera—both of whom have recently released new albums—on familiar MOTM stages in Westport.
“MOTM reinforces the perception that Kansas City is a music and arts power player in the overall national scene,” says Kangaroo Knife Fight bassist Gus Rechtien.
Kangaroo Knife Fight, one of KC’s most compelling indie rock bands, will perform on the Crossroads KC stage before two more of the festival’s main headliners, Cold War Kids and The Struts. For Rechtien and many other Kansas Citians, MOTM has opened the door to discovery—the chance to gain prospective fans and become a new fan.
“I don’t ever want to have to leave to make the music happen or to find an audience,” Rechtien said. “I think we can develop and draw the people we need to make big things happen in art and music, just like KC has done with business and sports.”
Although it originated as a music festival, MOTM added separate portions for film and an arts, tech and culture forum in 2013. This has boosted it into becoming a premier cultural event, putting celebrity speakers, exclusive films and charting international acts in front of a diversified audience. On April 30 the fest features arguably its most anticipated appearance to date: Fred Armisen. Though he’s best known for portraying a variety of hilarious roles on “Portlandia” and “Saturday Night Live,” Armisen is also a musician. Well before making waves on Saturday Night Live, he played drums in Chicago with a punk band called Trenchmouth and, later, the Blue Man Group. In 2014, Armisen took on the duty of leading The 8G Band, the house band for “The Late Show with Seth Meyers.”
“His set might be the most exciting and unpredictable thing in the fest’s history,” Haghirian said.
Armisen’s appearance is part of the MOTM’s Ideas segment, previously known as the Forum. The rest of this lineup is stacked with creative thinkers and doers—among them, best-selling tech author Tom Vanderbilt; Pandora Music’s musicologist Nolan Gasser; and Aaron Draplin, designer and founder of Field Notes. The three speakers will appear at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza branch on May 2 and 3.
From April 28 to May 1, MOTM’s film fest begins at the Alamo Drafthouse. One of its main attractions will be an opening-night screening of Mad Tiger, a documentary about the action-packed Japanese comic punk band Peelander-Z. From diving into bowling pins to pulling audience members onto the stage for jumping jacks, this wacky, superhero-suited spectacle has become a must-see act at the music fest each year. The group will give a special performance that evening in the Alamo’s Chesterfield Club.
But at its core, MOTM is about the music. “I grew up in KC and started going to shows in high school. I pretty much went to at least a show a week,” noted Reusch, who is also co-founder of The Record Machine, a local record label that curates the fest. He credits these early connections as inspiration to start the label, which focuses on “creating an organic community of artists and connecting them to a larger fan base.”
In turn, this dedication to casting KC music in a radiant spotlight sparks creative development and encouragement within the community.
“Giving local musicians any opportunity to perform for an event with such a great reputation for putting together amazing shows builds the community’s trust in that band’s talent and ability,” said Paige, whose group will performing at the fest. The singer/songwriter recently appeared on “American Idol,” and has made a name for herself for stunning melodies and a masterful vocal range.
“A festival like this gives Kansas City musicians something to work on and enjoy together, and allows us to really utilize and develop a neighborhood into something vibrant,” says Heidi Lynne Gluck, who settled in Lawrence in recent years to pursue her songwriting career. Before that, Gluck collaborated with groups like Juliana Hatfield and Some Girls, Margot and The Nuclear So and Sos and a number of other studio and touring acts. She will be performing material with her band and playing bass in The Roseline during a locally-sponsored day party at The Tank Room.
At the end of the day, the festival’s mission is not to simply draw crowds in, but to give fans a chance to be entertained and inspired, often by talent cultivated in their own backyard.
“I’ve always described the festival as a love letter to KC,” Reusch says. “It’s everything I feel the city has informed and engrained in me growing up here. I grew up and was inspired and now we want to inspire that next generation.”