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Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest establishes downtown as a destination music district

Watch a timelapse of the Middle of the Map performers Friday night

Watch a timelapse video of the Middle of the Map shows at Crossroads KC Friday night, May 6, 2016.
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Watch a timelapse video of the Middle of the Map shows at Crossroads KC Friday night, May 6, 2016.

Kansas City looked and felt like a different city this past weekend.

Friday night, the streets were filled with pedestrians, thanks to the monthly First Friday events, the launching of the streetcars and the music portion of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest, which pitched its tent downtown for the first time in its six-year history. The final two days of the four-day festival were at six clubs just south of the Sprint Center.

Thousands of music fans were part of that pedestrian traffic each night. At Crossroads KC, more than 1,000 attended sets by the Cold War Kids on Friday and Manchester Orchestra on Saturday. More than 800 watched Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires’ Saturday night soul revival at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.

The smaller venues were busy, too. It was one-out/one-in Saturday night at the RecordBar (capacity 400ish), which reopened at 1520 Grand Blvd. The Brick and the Tank Room were near capacity during late-night sets both evenings.

One of Middle of the Map’s founding missions is to introduce bands from the Kansas City/Lawrence region to new audiences by putting them on bills with international and national touring bands.

Mission accomplished.

Both nights, bands like Rachel Mallin and the Wild Type, Ebony Tusks, Blk Flanl, the Noise FM, Pink Royal and John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons were on the big-venue bills at Crossroads KC and the Midland, joining acts like Bradley, Aimee Mann, the Struts, the Cold War Kids, Manchester Orchestra, Gallant, Vince Staples and Zhu.

Just as important, this year’s festival went a long way in establishing the downtown area as another viable live-music district. The first two nights of the festival were in Westport, which already has a strong live-music identity.

Californos’ patio is an ideal setting for a smaller show when the weather is as pitch-perfect as it was last weekend. And I’m all for more shows at Ernie Biggs Piano Bar, which is just the right size for shows that can draw a few hundred fans.

Plus, the Westport Saloon has established itself, with the Riot Room, as the district’s live-music anchors.

But downtown has for a long time been a loose affiliation of music clubs. When the RecordBar announced last year it was getting pushed out of its locale at 1020 Westport Road, lots of mourning and anger were expressed. In hindsight, it was a blessing.

The new room is bigger and better by all measures. And it’s in the heart of what is now a collection of venues that are all within walking distance — or a streetcar’s ride — from one another: Crossroads KC, the Brick, the Tank Room, the Green Lady Lounge, Coda, Prohibition Hall.

You can add to that list Josey Records Kansas City, which has a stage for in-store performances. And jazz clubs like the Phoenix and the Majestic Restaurant are a short cab or Uber ride away.

All this is good news for people like Bill Sundahl, special events coordinator at KKFI (90.1 FM) and organizer of the annual Crossroads Music Fest.

When Crosstown Station closed in 2011, his festival and the music scene took a hard hit. Crosstown had become an anchor venue for the festival and a place to book shows that draw crowds in the 300 to 400 range. Two years ago, the festival and the local scene took another hit when the Czar Bar closed after hosting live music for nearly six years in a space near 15th and Grand.

Things are different now, and for the better. Now, there’s a circuit of venues just south of the Sprint Center, plus Prohibition Hall, which is just north of the arena. This weekend pedestrian flow was steady among all the clubs and as far north and west as the Midland, which is right on the streetcar line.

Each year, Middle of the Map has grown in size and reputation, attracting a five-star roster of well-known bands and performers. This year’s lineup was no different.

But this year’s festival was equally significant because it not only showcased many of the excellent bands and musicians from around Kansas City, it brought thousands of fans downtown and showed off what should become another thriving live-music district.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain