For a few weeks, Center of the City was a festival without a home.
As they had the previous three years, organizers of the punk festival expected to hold the three-day event in early May at Vandals, a venue at 37th Street and Broadway. But the building changed ownership and Center of the City lost the room.
“The guys moving in agreed to let us hold the festival there, kind of like a last hurrah for Vandals, which would have been great,” said Mike Alexander, a co-founder of the festival. “But the guy who owns the building pulled the plug on it. It was a mess. We had to change the date and find another place.”
Then the owners of Harling’s Upstairs, 3941 Main St., stepped up. The festival is this weekend.
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“They basically said, ‘Come in here and do whatever you want,’” Alexander said. “It’s a big space so we’ll be able to have two stages set up.”
Alexander and Matt Warriner started Center of the City as a two-day festival in April 2012, the same weekend as Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Warriner is in the band Smash the State. Alexander is in several bands, including Hipshot Killer. Both bands have played every Center of the City.
“Mike and I were kicking around the idea of doing a fest that was about the bands we knew and liked around Kansas City, bands that didn’t really fit in with what Middle of the Map was doing,” Warriner said. “So we kinda just threw it together one year, and it was awesome.”
“We thought the freaks needed to be represented, too,” Alexander said, “so we thought, ‘We should do a punk rock festival.’”
The festival has grown larger every year, in attendance and in the number of bands who want to participate.
“The first year, I think we booked 16 or 20 bands and probably turned down eight or 10,” Warriner said. “In addition to the 34 we have booked this year, the standby list is probably 10 or 12 deep. Not to mention the couple dozen bands that contacted us trying to get on after even the (standby) list was full.”
The first year, all the bands were from Kansas City or Lawrence. This year, the festival has booked bands from St. Louis, Joplin, Omaha and Hutchinson. A band from Minneapolis had been booked but had to cancel. Attendance has more than doubled since year one, Warriner said, from between 60 and 80 per night the first year to more than 120 a night last year.
Bands will play 30-minute sets. Once one band finishes, another starts a few minutes later on the other stage. First bands go on at 7 p.m. Thursday and 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The last band goes on at 12:25 a.m. This year’s crowds are expected to be larger than last year’s, given that the venue is bigger and nothing is outdoors, as it was at last year’s festival.
“Center of the City isn’t just about punk, though,” Warriner said. “It’s about all the excellent and underappreciated music that goes ignored by mainstream and (alternative) promoters.”
But it is also about the community that has formed around the music, one that is supportive and loyal, said Thad Nugent, also a festival organizer and member of Smash the State.
“The best part of the punk scene is the way they come together to do amazing things like this,” he said. “We put the festival on, but it would be nothing without the overwhelming support that the fans and the bands show for each other.”
If all goes well this year, the festival could have a permanent home at Harling’s. The festival is a 21-and-older event, a symptom of the one thing missing in Kansas City: a regular all-ages venue that caters to teens, who, Alexander said, epitomize the music’s spirit.
“With any luck, some day there will be furious, pissed-off 16-year-old kids putting pen to paper and pick to string, playing music on Mars,” he said. “And it will be the most important thing in the world to them.
“The anger that lies in the heart of a 16-year-old is going to be real forever, like it was to me when I was coming up, like it was when the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were playing. I don’t think it will ever go away.”
Center of the City starts at 7 p.m. Thursday, 6 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday at Harling’s Upstairs, 3941 Main St. Admission is $7 per day. A weekend pass is $15. Passes are available at Harling’s and at Mills Record Co., 314 Westport Road.