For the past five years, one of the most exciting and unique venues to see a show in Kansas City wasn’t a bar, theater or a nightclub — it was a second-story warehouse space in the West Bottoms.
The Pistol Social Club, opened in 2005 by Joe Hammers and Laura Frank and operated with the help of dozens of volunteers, has played host to well over a hundred groups, from popular national acts to fledgling local performers.
And now, after five years of concerts, exhibits, showcases and parties, the venerable alternative space at 12th and Union Streets is closing its doors for good.
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The Pistol was easily my favorite place to see bands perform in KC. In the last few years, I saw several touring acts that have since become my favorites, including Mahjongg, the Sic Alps and Viking Fuck.
I especially enjoyed the performances by local artists — a farewell show by Mythical Beast in which singer Corinne Sweeney mingled with the crowd like a spell-casting sorceress, a rousing set by Hearts of Darkness at the 4th anniversary show in September, an acrobatic performance by “I Love You” in which Charlie Mylie swung from the rafters, and a lengthy jam by Toxic Shock in which the group transitioned from a Britney Spears cover to the Negro spiritual, “Motherless Child.”
At a masquerade ball in late 2006 — my first visit — I enjoyed barbecue ribs served on large platters and danced my way through the night along with a couple hundred others to the sounds of the Dirty Force Bare Knuckle Brass Band and Street Brigade.
And though I considered myself a regular, I still saw only a fraction of the acts that graced the Pistol’s stage (or lack thereof). Vivid as they are, my recollections are but a small part of the collective Pistol Social Club story.
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So what made the Pistol so unique?
For one, it wasn’t a venue in any official sense. Unlike bars or most nightclubs, the Pistol’s shows were open to all ages, all the time. Loud conversation and shouts of “Last Call” never rang out from the bar, because their wasn’t one. The place could definitely get raucous, as it did when groups like The Sperm or This Is My Condition were on the bill, but the crowd was generally attentive and respectful. Even with a packed house, the Pistol stayed quiet enough to allow visiting Finnish songwriting duo Mi and L-au the hushed tones their set required.
The Pistol also succeeded in turning a street that was generally empty at night into a popular destination. Bands could make as much noise and play as late as they wanted. Various works of art and sculpture adorned the place throughout the years, including a massive sculpture of a cyclops with a spear through his only eye. Bands played on the far end of the wood floor between a painted backdrop of dueling pistols designed by Scott “Rex” Hobart.
“Our events were happenings,” Hammers said. “Regardless of their size, the crowd numbered true followers of the visiting acts and our mission.”
It’s a mission that, after half a decade, Hammers believes is complete.
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The genesis of the Pistol Social Club came about when building owner Adam Jones mentioned the space to Frank upon hearing that she was looking for a rehearsal space. After living in cramped apartments in Midtown, Hammers and Frank viewed the 10,000-square-foot space as rife with possibilities.
Frank began using the space for theater and dance projects, but when the group Glass Candy was looking for a show in Kansas City, someone suggested having it at their loft. Word spread, and a large number of art students and music fans attended. Soon after, local musicians and groups began contacting the Pistol owners about playing shows there, and a new venue was born.
“It was one of those things that, for lack of batter word, happened organically,” she said. “It’s not a bar, it’s not a restaurant, it’s a place where you have a lot of space to make a lot noise.”
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Operating a DIY venue in the West Bottoms — which Hammers calls a “wonderful, difficult place” — was not without its challenges, most notably the temperature and the dirt. Frank recalls one summer in which the thermometer she bought registered 120 degrees for two weeks straight. The same trains that lent the building a unique aural ambiance also shook the dust off the bricks each time they went by.
“Those buildings are literally in the process of crumbling,” Frank said. “One day it looked like horsehair tails were hanging from the ceiling. It turned out to be tar that had melted and was dripping very slowly.”
Frank said being a part of the Pistol gave her a taste of the touring lifestyle without needing to leave the Bottoms. “It was really fun and interesting just shocking all these people from big cities. The West Bottoms is unknown even to a lot of locals.”
After Frank bowed out of co-operating the Pistol in 2008, Hammers kept the venue’s momentum going along with a number of volunteers that helped with sound, working the door, and providing hospitality to the bands. As the self-described “owner, janitor and executive teenager,” Hammers could be seen collecting suggested admission fees, securing the drummer’s bass drum, finding refreshments for the group and pumping his fist along to the music — often within a span of just a few minutes.
“The Pistol was a labor of love for everyone involved,” Hammers said. “It was run by artists and was for supporting artists, entirely.”
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Although Hammers is planning his next move and is already giving away the Pistol’s furniture, writing an epitaph for the underground venue feels premature. Several places with a similar all-ages DIY aesthetic have sprung up in Kansas City since the Pistol opened, including the Foundation Room just across the hall. Most of the local groups and artists the Pistol helped launch are still active — each, no doubt, with their own stories to tell about the place.
The most visible icon of the space’s continuing relevance is still the large Pistol hanging out front, a fiberglass and Styrofoam sculpture made by Kansas City Art Institute graduate Burak Duvenci. Hammers calls it one of the most important pieces of public art in the city.
“We hopefully made Kansas City more visible as a cultural hub and a cultural center,” he said. “I feel like we accomplished what we wanted.”