KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 3/3)

PART 3/3 – A MUSICAL PRIVILEGE

IMG_5208

Knuckleheads – settling in for a musical treat

Equipped with glasses of Bourbon and chilled cans of Kansas-brewed beer, we perched on stools in the shady area, alongside a pair of toe-tapping cowboy boots and bright pink cropped top.  And onto the stage came Scotty Dennis and his incredible voice.

Wearing jeans and a short-sleaved panelled shirt with a baseball cap and dark glasses, Scotty was about 6 feet tall and a big strong man with lungs to match.  He oozed soul as he sang Eric Clapton’s “Five Long Years” and gave the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Wait on Time” an epic Blues makeover, making the hairs on my arms stand on end.  Through the loud beat thumping out of the speakers, John shouted in my ear that it would put hairs on my chest, but I think he was referring to the rather strong Bourbon he was sampling in small shot glasses, rather than our friend Dennis. As the big man wandered past our table after his set, we couldn’t help gushing at him how brilliant he was. Ever the professional, he handed me a card for his band Scotty and the Soultones, told me about his recording contract and when his next album was coming out, before ‘disappearing’ me into a huge bear hug.  I got a faceful of pecs and biceps and a drawled deep gravelly “Thank you Lorna” in my one uncompromised ear.  He could sing to me anytime.

with Scotty Dennis

The big man with the big voice – Scotty Dennis

As the resident band carried on and Dennis worked his audience shaking hands and hugging people all around, country music followed soul and the scorching sun over Kansas City continued to burn the necks and shoulders in the seats in front of us.

As the afternoon jamming session was drawing to a close, a striking looking woman, with dramatically black cropped and shaved hair with a shock of orange on top, heavy eye make-up and covered in tattoos made her way towards the stage.  She was one of the few non-bikers at the venue and had been noticeable throughout the afternoon for sitting quietly at one of the picnic tables near the stage.  She had spent that time watching and filming her friend on her phone.  The friend was tall and lithe with long bleach blond hair extensions, ‘boyfriend’ torn jeans, and a cropped knotted T-shirt showing off a very tanned and taut midriff and was making the most of her fabulous figure.  About 30 years younger and at least fifty pounds lighter than most of the biker ladies boogeying on the dance gravel, and with legs up to her armpits, the friend threw her legs up into splits high kicks repeatedly, posed suggestively, laughed theatrically and threw her head forward and back swishing her extensions like a mane in the manner of a shampoo advert.  But when Megan Ruger took to the stage and picked up the microphone, her platinum friend became photographer, general groupie and proudest fan.  Megan kicked off her shoes and – in her ripped jeans, socks, Rock n Roll black T-Shirt and Ray Ban Aviator glasses – was, as Simon Cowell might say, “stripped back”. And she had a voice worth waiting for. She flipped from country to rock with ease.  She projected gutsy chesty notes across the train tracks, talked through some toe-tapping old country favourite lyrics and held the most delicate breathy high notes while holding the band and the audience under her spell throughout.  I might even have got up for a bit of a dance so she must have been doing something right.

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 19.56.37

Megan Ruger

It turned out Megan and her friend were visiting for a couple of days from Vegas, where she is currently appearing in a tribute show (John and I found this out by shamelessly fawning over her like two groupies when she grabbed a beer at the bar).  Her friend was probably, judging by her dancing moves, in another show in Vegas.  Megan had spent some time in Nashville and, keen to pursue her love for rock rather than country, had gone to Vegas.  The old favourite country songs and her rock renditions of “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” “Sweet Home Chicago” had everyone on their feet.

Who knew that such a gem as Knuckleheads could be found on the wrong side of the tracks in Kansas City hidden in amongst the industrial hangars and deafening horns of passing freight trains.  What a revelation of a Sunday afternoon… my friends and I were welcomed into the bikers’ haven like old friends, served inexpensive cold beer and lip-smacking barbecue meat.  But most of all for a small optional donation into a bucket, we were entertained by a talented band of musicians who played for the best part of five hours and by two standout performers.  They sang live – no frills and nothing but musicians to support them – and had talent and voices that would put many of the popstrels, boybands and divas in the charts today to shame.

The X Factor and American Idol don’t know what they’re missing, and I hope Dennis and Megan get to perform in their own right to sell-out arenas.  But just for that Sunday in Kansas City, I felt selfishly thrilled to have our own intimate live gig, and the music world’s loss – at least temporarily – was our gain.

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 20.03.15

A musical treat

 

 

Advertisements

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 2/3)

PART 2/3 – BLENDING IN….IN HARLEY HEAVEN

IMG_5201

We’ve arrived?

With a name like Knuckleheads, its location should not have come as a surprise and – in hindsight – its clientele probably should not have either.  Glowing profusely in the scorching midday sun and humid 35C degree heat – having been shivering in the taxi’s air conditioning just seconds before –  and dragging our weekend bags behind us, we made our way toward the heavy beat.  A simple gate entrance led us into a dusty bit of road, temporarily turned into the Knuckleheads parking area.

image

Knuckleheads, Kansas City

Over a hundred Harley Davidson motorbikes stood glinting in the blinding sunshine, guarded by a heavily tattooed man wearing black wraparound shades below a bandana-covered head and sporting an impressive handlebar moustache.  As he was busily tucking into what looked like half a fried chicken and had both his large muscular arms and his mouth full, I thought John and I might just be able to take him on.  Thankfully we never had to find out as he gave us an apologetic greasy smile as he wiped his mouth, said “Howdy” and waved us in.

IMG_5203

The entire hangar wall at the entrance to Knuckleheads was a shrine to musical greats – with huge black and white graffiti type paintings of artists ranging from Prince to John Lennon, and Johnny Cash to James Brown.

IMG_5219

A shrine to musical greats

John and I eventually tracked Witek down – our concern that he might have been taken round the back and filled in was unfounded – and were able to dispose of our travel bags in his hire car.  Relieved that we would now be able to truly blend in, we made our way through the throng of black Harley Davidson T-Shirts, bushy sideburns and ponytails (the men), rhinestoned bandanas and unfeasibly tight and trendily torn jeans (the ladies) and lengths of skin adorned with garish tattoos depicting skulls, American flags and what looked like scenes from horror movies (both).

IMG_5207

Beards, beer and bandanas

Inside, Knuckleheads had a basic outdoor stage constructed from what looked like scaffolding poles and wooden slats, facing a small gravel dance area and a collection of wooden picnic tables and benches.  Further back and under the shade of a protruding roof, were long bar tables with stools down either side.  Further back still, was an indoor warren of smaller rooms with stages and seating areas. Dotted inside and out, were bars cluttered with neon lights and rows of different types of beers and Bourbon, and a brightly lit hatch where you could order the ubiquitous Kansas BBQ food. Every wall was covered from top to bottom with music memorabilia, cowboy hats and plaques shouting philosophical statements.

As I stood trying to read a sign that was perched upside down over a doorway, I came face to face with a T-Shirt that read ‘Harley Fucking Davidson” stretched over a very large pair of breasts.  I stumbled out of the way feeling thoroughly inadequate, un-motto’d as I was in my patterned linen shirt.  I needn’t have worried.  John, anticipating my unease, reappeared having bought me a memento of our visit – a bright pink T-Shirt with ‘Knuckleheads’ emblazoned across it.  I resolved to wear it on Monday back at Fort Leavenworth for our first session back in class, as an adviser to the US and UK military on their joint military planning exercise.

Next Part 3/3: A Musical Privilege…

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden Gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 1/3)

PART 1/3 – FROM KANSAS CITY BRUNCH TO KANSAS KNUCKLEHEAD KNOCK-OUT

I had finished my spot of retail therapy in the neatly aligned four blocks of the disconcertingly modern and clean shopping district, Central Plaza, in Kansas City.  Showing great restraint, I had managed to limit myself to just two books from Barnes & Noble and an overpriced but irresistibly cute pair of leggings covered in whales for my baby daughter (she’s a huge fan and shouts ‘Bubba! Bubba!’ at every picture of a whale).  My colleague and friend John and I had indulged in a leisurely brunch under a parasol on the terrace of the Classic Cup Cafe – it was Sunday morning, gloriously sunny, there was some quality people-watching to be done and we had a rare day off.   I was tucking into another carb-heavy meal – a treat of American pancakes covered in melting butter and maple syrup with a side of bacon.  John – a well travelled and hugely experienced humanitarian worker with a penchant for good food and lethal cocktails – was feeling smug after opting for the moderately healthier option of ‘crab benedict’; basically eggs benedict with crab cakes instead of an English muffin.  His dish had spinach on it.  It meant at least one of us had succeeded, for the first time in our two week work trip, to consume one of our ‘five-a-day’.

Our colleague and venerable team leader on this trip, Witek, had raved about a bar and music venue on the outskirts of town, that played live music on Sunday afternoons.  We were not sure what to expect but thought why not?

IMG_5195 2

Kansas City’s Union Station

As our Uber made its way past the impressive Union Station, along the cosmopolitan and eclectic River Market in the North end of Kansas City and left the business centre and dormant night spots of the Power and Light district behind, we wondered where our driver was taking us.  Heading East along the river, we gradually found ourselves with train tracks running either side of the dusty single lane road, wasteland on one side and an industrial area made up of large warehouses and the odd metal water tower on the other.  I began to wonder if I was suffering a repeat of my cab drive from hell on my visit to Kansas almost exactly a year ago or if we had distracted our Palestinian driver so much with our questions about immigrants in Trump’s America, that he had driven off the page on Google Maps.

IMG_5227

Road to nowhere?

The Uber came to an unexpected halt near an open parking lot full of outsized pick-ups and John and I looked at each other with a hint of alarm.  With a “We’re here”, our driver was drowned out by the sudden sound of a mile-long freight train honking its way through a level crossing a few feet away from our parking spot.  I felt like the main character Ariel in the movie Footloose, when she and her small-town friends spend their evenings playing chicken with freight trains by standing on the tracks screaming at the oncoming beast, as its driver frantically pulls the horn to get them to move.  At the last minute, Kevin Bacon’s heartthrob out-of-towner character leaps to get Ariel out of the path of the speeding train as the classic 80s Bonnie Tyler soundtrack crescendos in the background.  Clearly in my case, I wasn’t standing in front of the train, I wasn’t screaming or wearing red cowboy boots (“I wear ‘em cawz my Daddy hates ‘em”). And my friend John standing looking perplexed in his shorts, t-shirt and flip flops – absolutely lovely though he is – was no leaping life-saving Kevin Bacon.  Suffice to say it brought back memories of 80s classic movies, so many of which depicted ‘authentic’ middle America, and which for so many of us Europeans, were our earliest and sometimes only exposure to places like Kansas.

IMG_5225

Footloose’s honking freight train without Kevin Bacon

As noise of the freight train subsided, John and I noticed a loud throbbing beat and the sound of some serious soul being belted out nearby.  Then I noticed the squiggly neon sign – scrawled in handwritten font – across the nearest hangar: ‘Knuckleheads’.  We had arrived.

Part 2/3 next: Blending in….in Harley heaven…

Surviving a taxi ride in Kansas

I expect a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expect cab drivers to have a vague knowledge of their local area. Maybe I’m just too demanding. Either way, yesterday I had to adjust those expectations radically. I was in Fort Leavenworth and had aspirations to get to Kansas City before nightfall. Leaving at around 3pm with about a 45 minute car journey ahead, I thought this was more than manageable. I should have known things were not going to go my way when the cab eventually turned up over an hour later, after three calls to remind the local firm that I was still waiting.

The battered saloon car coughed up to the porch and a large very sweaty looking middle-aged woman chewing gum noisily – in that way that suggests it’s a necessity rather than enjoyable – turned around from the driver’s seat as I slid across the back bench with my bag, looking at me as if I’d got into the wrong car. There was a meter and a taxi light attached to the roof of the car so I was pretty sure I hadn’t just hijacked an unfortunate local out for a drive to the local Walmart. I checked and she was indeed my designated cab driver. What an odd manner given her career choice in the service industry. As it would turn out she was just terrified of driving and in entirely the wrong profession.

We set off through Leavenworth town and all seemed well. I should have picked up when she asked for the third time where I was going that she was perhaps not as experienced as her age and the battered old 2-way radio suggested. She talked about the difficulty of following “the blue blob that is my car you know” as she unconvincingly juggled the Google Map screen on her phone with the steering wheel. She then started talking. To begin with I thought she was being friendly – like so many of the locals who invariably gave us a warm welcome when we came to Fort Leavenworth. Then I realised she was just talking, talking to herself continuously; a sort of mantra to calm herself down. Occasionally the odd comment was directed at me and it was clear a soothing response was expected. When at first I didn’t pick up on this, my driver’s control of the car faltered and she showed a propensity to swerve across lanes into truck-like vehicles – much larger and sturdier than our saloon car – to avoid imaginary threats. So I dutifully chipped in with “it’s ok, keep going straight on” and “don’t worry about the other drivers”, as the gum chewing behind the wheel grew louder and the smell of nervous sweat reached my nostrils.

As we approached the city, brake lights lined up ahead, unsurprisingly given that it was now rush hour on a Friday evening. The chewer in the front muttered quietly in a voice of shocked desperation: “oh my lord, there’s traffic”. There was a 2 second high point when the traffic cleared, but it was short-lived. As the skyscrapers of the city loomed over the freeway ahead of us, she said “oh my lord, Kansas City is so big”. Seconds later I saw my life flash before me as my sweaty friend dropped her phone into the foot well of the passenger seat, panicked that she was meant to be coming off the freeway, reached down into the foot well bringing the steering wheel violently round with her and ploughed us through the hashed area towards a large metal bollarded area in between the freeway and the ‘off ramp’. We cleared the bollards. Just. At this point, I took over. I held her shoulders from the back seat, brought up the route on my own phone, and ordered her to look straight ahead with a “do as I say” and “just drive”. I was hijacking a Leavenworth local after all.  She said “thank you, thank you” and “I don’t like to let my customers down”. I wasn’t sure how she felt about turning her customers into messy roadkill.

It took us another 45 minutes of missing turn offs because she “wasn’t quite ready’, or was “scared because of that big red truck”, or “was concentrating because I’ve been told to keep both hands on the wheel”, but we made it eventually. We pulled up outside the hotel and I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt like the driving instructor whose least favourite student had just made it to the end of the test – had failed but had at least got instructor and student to destination without killing anyone.

Suddenly, the large sweat patches on her oversized red top dried out and the frantic gum masticating subsided. My incompetent driver announced loudly: “that’ll be 58 dollars now darlin”. I almost laughed out loud: she HAD to be kidding. But I did pay up – albeit while fulfilling my British stereotype.  I handed over the notes politely but muttered under my breath at the outrage: I expected a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expected a taxi driver to a vague idea of their local area…

Maybe it was the relief to have finally made it to my destination in one piece or maybe I just couldn’t face arguing or spending another minute with her. Or maybe I could afford to be generous: I was about to sip a cocktail while taking in the view of Kansas City from the rooftop bar of my hotel. My sweaty friend was about to embark on a nightmare return trip to Leavenworth. Through rush hour traffic. Searching in vain for the blue blob “that was her car you know”, on Google Maps. Sweating profusely and masticating loudly.  And – now – on her own.