[This first appeared in The Pitch Weekly, July 2016]
On a recent Friday in the Crossroads, Mikey Wheeler executed his usual high-wire act. Performing with his band, Coward, he switched between two not particularly similar instruments, drums and guitar. In close-knit DIY music scenes, it’s not uncommon to see one musician switch instruments between sets — playing bass in one band and drums in another, for example. Rare, though, is the player who trades duties in the same band, from one song to the next.
For Wheeler, it’s all part of the job. He wears a lot of hats — both in the band and outside it.
Coward is a talented bunch. With the frequent absence of guitar, the all-instrumental quartet traffics in waves of heavy dual drumming from Wheeler and Cody Mains, who punish their interconnected kits with astonishing synchronization, anchored by Paul Baughman’s driving bass. Woven into this heavy racket are Nathan Driskil’s keyboards, emphasizing an airy electronic organ sound that lets Coward pivot wildly between gazey melodies and heavy, punk-tinged prog in which Baughman clearly owns the top of the mix.
Yet Wheeler says Coward aims to be accessible — catchy, even. “There’s some math in there,” he says. “But it’s supposed to be fun to listen to.” By and large, Coward succeeds at this.
The scene on this Friday was a dead-end alleyway behind Mercy Seat, the tattoo parlor where Wheeler works as one of the city’s most sought-after skin illustrators. The shop has hosted shows here for more than a decade, dating back to a time when First Fridays in the Crossroads felt more like a block party than a citywide event. When former Mercy Seat artist Chet Duvenci began booking shows in the alley, Cordish had yet to fabricate the Power & Light District, and rent in the Crossroads was still cheap enough for artists to rent lofts.
Three years ago, Wheeler took over responsibility for booking the Mercy Seat gigs, alongside store manager James Oshel. They schedule two or three bands on the first Friday of every month from May until October, give or take, and the acts typically skew heavier — the shop’s kickoff show this year featured the deep stoner metal of Keef Mountain, and Coward shared its evening with local heavies Bummer and Dodecad. But Wheeler says it’s a mingling ground for First Fridays denizens of all varieties, and so it is: The polo-and–chinos crowd, teeth stained red by free wine, rub elbows with buzzed hip-hop heads wandering by after attending another nearby gig.
On July’s First Friday, those who arrived with intent hovered near the makeshift stage at the end of the alley, where the bands performed against a backdrop of red brick, gas meters and a light dusting of graffiti. But from front to back, beyond the stage and the DJ booth where Oshel spins records between bands, folks with tattoo sleeves stood by older, clean-cut parents and a few of the Merlot-lipped browsers. Everyone was content to sip free suds from a keg of Boulevard and hear some tunes before moving on to the next thing.
A few days after the show, Wheeler sits on a bench along the front wall inside the Mercy Seat. It’s a couple of hours before the shop opens and his shift begins; he’s come in early to work on a rib-cage piece he’s doing for a guy, art that involves roses and a lion’s skull and a patch of honeycomb. Mercy Seat maintains an intentionally dusty vibe, a little steampunk, a little Old West, overseen by the head of some great antlered animal above walls of mahogany and pressed black tin. Wheeler himself stands out here, whistle-clean in a green polo shirt, blue jeans and black sneakers, radiating an easygoing, Midwestern thoughtfulness. He’s a believer in this moment Kansas City is having, he says, not one to roll his eyes at the mountains of KC-themed shirts and tchotchkes that fill the shelves of Crossroads boutiques.
“I just think it’s a really, really strong art town right now, that has a lot to say and is developing really quickly,” he tells me as we talk about the vibe and vibrancy of the neighborhood.
Art matters here, inside and outside the tattoo shop, and artistry is in Wheeler’s blood. His mother was involved in the architecture industry; she moved to Wisconsin to work for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and others in the family have photography or painting in their backgrounds. (He’s the first to take up a tattoo gun.) The architecture of Kansas City speaks to him from all around: the decade-by-decade progression through the downtown skyline, the 19th-century buildings nestled around the north loop, toward the river, the hidden gems. There’s a lot to the city that people don’t see, he says, unless they are out there experiencing it.
The alleyway gigs behind the Mercy Seat might be one of those hidden things, though they predate most of what now draws crowds to the center of the city. Wheeler doesn’t mind those different elements mingling in the neighborhood, the art snobs and the partygoers and the weirdos and the punks. They’re the living architecture of the city’s varied, human skyline.
“I like to think it’s all the same thing,” he says. “Which is a crazy thing to say. Ultimately, everything from down there, at 20th or 21st [Street] or wherever, all the way to the highway — the idea is that it’s supposed to be a community party, an enormous block party.” If his gig is the last party someone hits before they reach Power & Light, that’s fine by him.
“If people are down there drinking wine, looking at fine art and listening to Steely Dan, well, guess what — I’m way into Steely Dan, too! I don’t think: We’re over here doing our thing, and they’re down there. Yeah, maybe those are two polar opposite ends of the spectrum, but the spectrum is all the same thing.”