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Middle of the Map Fest reflects Kansas City’s growing reputation as a big music town

OK Go. Middle Of The Map Fest Day 1 at Uptown Theater
OK Go. Middle Of The Map Fest Day 1 at Uptown Theater

For the fifth straight April, Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest will bring dozens of bands to Kansas City, many from other states and other countries.

After five years, festivals like Middle of the Map can be taken for granted, just another event that comes and goes every year. But this year’s festival is significant for several reasons.

Now a four-day festival, it continues to grow and thrive. The first year, 2011, organizers hoped to attract about 1,000 attendees over two days. They drew 2,000. The second Middle of the Map was a three-day festival that drew about 4,000, thanks in large part to the band Fun, who had become wildly popular just before its performance at the Beaumont Club.

Attendance continued to climb. Nathan Reusch, owner of local record label the Record Machine and one of the festival’s organizers, said they’re expecting around 10,000 people to attend this year.

“To see how Middle of the Map Fest has grown in five years totally blows me away,” he said. “We didn’t know it would make it five years when we started. The Record Machine had a pretty ambitious vision, but I don’t think we could have even dreamed that it would get to this point.”

One of the festival’s founding premises was to put together shows that feature big-name acts with local bands as a way to give the local acts exposure to fans who may not otherwise see or know about them. And there are plenty of local bands to choose from — more acts than there are slots.

Thursday night at the Westport Saloon, for example, there’s a stellar country/roots bill featuring all locals: Kasey Rausch, Old Sound, the Blue Boot Heelers, Jason Beers, the Hardship Letters and Dusty Rust.

Music can be a cultural catalyst, an agent for introducing elements of a city’s food and entertainment culture. By the time the festival ends early Sunday morning, thousands of fans will have seen about six dozen local acts in eight venues and will have dined or drunk in many of Westport’s bars and restaurants. And many will have seen those bands and visited those establishments for the first time.

Middle of the Map involves more than bands and venues. It also gets radio stations involved, such as the Bridge (90.9 FM) and KKFI (90.1 FM). Both stations, which play the music of a lot of local bands, are promoting the festival on the air and sponsoring stages at the festival.

“The emphasis on local talent is the heart and soul of the event,” said Barry Lee, station manager of KKFI. “That’s why Kansas City is lucky to have this done right in the heart of Westport. It gives folks a lot more options. We’re proud to be a sponsor. Middle of the Map is SXSW done right.”

Jon Hart, program director at the Bridge, says Middle of the Map gives fans of national acts a chance to discover local bands.

“You can talk about the local music scene all you want, but this is a way to prove to the community that the things you are saying are true,” he said.

“Our affiliation with the festival really helps us fulfill our mission to support local music. All those bands en masse in one neighborhood really gives people the true scope of the local scene.”

It’s tough to gauge the fallout from a festival like this and whether it helps the bands and everyone else involved attract new customers or listeners, but there is anecdotal evidence that the audience for local music is growing.

There are many more rooms and venues featuring live music now than there were five years ago, a good thing because there are more worthy bands out there looking for rooms to play in.

And many local bands are drawing big crowds to shows, even on nights when there are other options. The double bill of Katy Guillen & the Girls and the Grisly Hand, for example, sold out Knuckleheads in February, something some touring acts can’t do. Samantha Fish and the Rainmakers regularly sell out the same room.

Middle of the Map can condition music fans to try out local bands and venues, showing them the high quality of both. And the price of admission typically is affordable.

In a recent post at Forbes.com, a writer recommended five music festivals in April. Middle of the Map was one of them, along with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He wrote, “Kansas City isn’t known as a big music city, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to have a good time.”

He’s right about that last part, but there’s plenty of evidence that our reputation as a music city is getting larger, too. This weekend is your chance to get out there and experience some of that growth and excitement.

Local sounds abound

After Middle of the Map Fest is over, this looks to be a fortuitous year for the Kansas City music community. Several bands and artists will release debut albums and perform on national and international tours in the coming weeks. Here’s some of the exciting news.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear: The son/mother duo, who perform tonight at the Uptown Theater as part of Day 2 of Middle of the Map, have already had a good year.

In February, they performed as part of the Universal Music Group’s Grammy luncheon in Los Angeles, on a bill with Iggy Azalea, Sam Smith, Keith Urban, Fall Out Boy and Maroon 5. A few days later, they performed on “Late Show With David Letterman.” In March, they played South by Southwest.

This week, the duo’s management announced the pair had been selected to open for Sufjan Stevens on his European tour this summer. “Skeleton Crew,” their debut album on Glassnote Records, will be released May 19.

The Beautiful Bodies: The Kansas City pop-punk band will release its debut album on Epitaph Records in June, then head out to play the entire Warped Tour.

Radkey: The trio from St. Joseph recently played Coachella. Before the festival, the band was mentioned in an article in the Los Angeles Times with the headline, “Which of Coachella’s smaller acts will go on to make it big?” Critic Randall Roberts wrote, “Other acts to watch include hot young rock band Radkey, who move with the riffed fluidity of Queens of the Stone Age.”

The band will do some light touring of the U.S. this summer before heading to Europe for some festivals, including the Reading Festival in August, right after it releases its full-length album in July.

Tech N9ne: Any release by Kansas City’s best-known rapper is big news. But he’s about to release “Special Effects,” which includes the track “Speedom (WWC2)” featuring Eminem.

Samantha Fish: She will tour relentlessly this summer, promoting a new album.

Mac Lethal: He has several big projects cooking, and an announcement on one of them is pending.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

About the fest

Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest runs through Saturday. Tonight the festival will feature shows at the Uptown Theater and Westport Saloon. Friday and Saturday nights, more than 100 bands will perform in Westport at an outdoor stage, RecordBar, Ernie Biggs, the Westport Saloon, Mills Record Co., the Riot Room and Riot Room patio.

A regular multi-day pass is $75. A weekend pass is $50. Daily passes are $15 to $45.

Buy tickets, preview bands and build a schedule for Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest at MiddleOfTheMapFest.com.

More than 130 acts have been booked, including Atmosphere, Murder By Death, Shiner, Ben Kweller, William Elliott Whitmore, the Slackers, Phox, Mickey Avalon, the Relationship (featuring Brian Bell of Weezer), the Republic Tigers, Ghastly Menace, the Noise FM, Westerners, Katy Guillen & the Girls, Me Like Bees, Yore, the Sluts, Not a Planet, Heartfelt Anarchy, the Philistines, the Slowdown, Scruffy & the Janitors, Maps for Travelers, Josh Berwanger Band, Jorge Arana Trio, the Phantastics, D/Will & Barrel Maker, Ebony Tusks, Captiva, the Abnorm, the Lucky, She’s a Keeper, David George & a Crooked Mile, the Kansas City Bear Fighters, Reach, the Blue Boot Heelers and the Grisly Hand.

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