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Encore: A Kick Ass decade comes to a close

Brandyn Jones, left, and Ann Haubrich
Photo provided by Andrea Avery

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 24, 2013: On a pretty regular basis, at least two times a week, I travel past what can now safely be called “the old Garavelli’s” near Chippewa and Watson. The classic cafeteria’s been gone for just a few months, but the building has embraced the feel of an abandoned business. The corner signage has been painted over. The window treatments hang a bit haphazardly. Look closely and there might be a weed, or two, sprouting from the cracks.

The location is too desirable for the building to sit vacant for long. But for the moment, the place gives off that forlorn feeling of an institution that’s joined so many others in that special corner of Dead St. Louis Stuff.

I might not have the professional nostalgist credits of someone like Johnny Rabbitt, but when the closure of Garavelli’s was announced, at least three people told me about it the first day, all mentioning that it was “(my) kind of story.” While I’d like to be offended, they were all pretty much right; I’m a sucker for things that mark the passages of time. Then the local press jumped all over the Garavelli’s news, and it didn’t seem as if my vegetarian wanderings through the joint would make that much of a difference. So I passed on a last plate of green beans and mashed potatoes (“no gravy, please”).

Those of us who’ve called this place home for a bit have our own memories of those unquestionably “authentic St. Louis” venues and experiences -- especially the Dead St. Louis Stuff.

For the past decade, I’ve been part of a group that’s tried to celebrate the present with a distinct, but mild, nod to the past. With the Kick Ass Awards, we’ve also tried to beat down another old tradition: celebrating the same St. Louisans over and over again.

Disagree if you’d like, but if you comb through the lists of annual awards, the same names appear; sometimes these are the very same people, making the rounds year-after-year; at other times, the names come in the form of their progeny, who pick up notoriety where the parents have left off. Forgive the crass term, but it can get a little bit civically incestuous around these parts.

The Kick Ass Awards were imported from Austin, Texas, in the fall of 2004. There, Spike Gillespie, who briefly and memorably alighted in St. Louis during the 1990s, had created the event, hosting it on her birthday. She celebrated people in a city that’s proudly wrapped itself in the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.” To find celebrants in that kind of community might provide its own challenges, what with hundreds, if not thousands of true, died-in-the-wool creatives living and working in the region. Somehow, Spike managed to find just the right folks, offering the event in most years since.

In St. Louis, I quickly recruited writer Stefene Russell as an associate for the first round of winners in 2004. We’d eventually add three folks to our loose committee within the next few years, all of them previous recipients of the awards: Andrea Avery and Brandyn Jones first, quickly followed by Ann Haubrich. Everyone came to the table with extensive experience in the local arts and civics scenes. It’s been a nice blend of folks with whom to work, a truly collaborative experience.

Now, 10 years into any project, you can start to reflect a tad; patterns have been established, history’s been made, nostalgia, hell, even that’s ripe-and-ready for the pickin’.

Tonight, our last version of the Kick Ass Awards will be held at 7 p.m., inside the friendly, cozy confines of The Heavy Anchor, a South City rock club with just enough quirks and weirdness to call the event home. Because our conceit is nostalgia-peddling, let’s look back at some of the antics and venues that have been known over the place over the past, oh, 10 years.

KAA, v.1, 2004-05, Gallery Urbis Orbis: It’s almost amusing to think back on it, but the renaissance of Downtown in the early-to-mid portion of the aughts was still an unproven thing. Lots of mom-and-pop businesses were taking root in vacant storefronts. Among their number came a serious run of artistic pursuits, including art galleries. Moving eastward from an early version on Washington and 14th, over to new digs on St. Charles and 10th, Gallery Urbis Orbis was the perfect place to launch this series. It wasn’t too big, so even if an embarrassingly small number of people showed up to our debut, the space inside the 10th Street Lofts would still have given the sense of fullness. Luckily, people did show up. A sigh of relief was had by all.

Some previous winners

The space, devoted to emerging area artists, as well as those with established track records, was a real boon to Downtown for the relatively short time that Alan Brunettin and Margie Newman kept the doors open. They lived upstairs from their second space and hosted lots of great parties and openings, while representing a few artists exclusively. The KAAs worked well here, but the dynamic duo running the space eventually returned to Chicago. Had they not, we probably would’ve kept things with them. These two events had a little bit of the dust spread on them, felt not just today, through the prism of time;  but feeling good and alive even then. RIP, Gallery Urbis Orbis.

KAA v.2, 2006, Atomic Cowboy: Atomic Cowboy was first found in what would become a popular strip of clubs and restaurants in Maplewood’s stretch of Manchester. The business moved from what was becoming a destination district, resettling in the newly dubbed Grove, one of the first clubs to take hold and stick there. The club’s been through various concept changes and ownerships since, so you’d have to give the spot credit for sticking it out all these years, especially without ever changing the name or basic decor.

Featuring a bawdy improv set by the Non-Prophet Theatre Company that competed with noise from the room next door, our single night at Atomic got off to a lively start. And it got livelier from there. Held in a somewhat-common space, the club’s usual, very-light, dining crowd swelled that night, joined by an early-than-usual drinking crowd. Things got louder and louder. And then a bit louder. Lesson learned.

KAA, v.3, 2007, Duff’s: Speaking of recent nostalgia, a very real outpouring of love occurred when Duff’s went out of business earlier this year. In 2007, the space was in all of its glory. The longtime staffers, the dark interiors, the vibes put into the place by decades of poetry readings and jazz … folks can ascribe a lot of other-worldly feelings to a place, but Duff’s really did have an amazing vibe. From ownership down to clientele, everyone worked together to make this place a special one.

This year’s event, in particular, had a musical leaning. Among the winners: longtime radio host Bernie Hayes, KDHX free jazz broadcaster Josh Weinstein, artist and musician Dana Smith and the Dock Ellis Band … all took home the hardware. For those who’ve appreciated culture in St. Louis, Duff’s would rank among the finest places to ever hang out a shingle in this town. For those who’ve thrown events, to host something at Duff’s was a pleasure, if not an honor. For those of you who never enjoyed the space, for a meal, a drink, a reading or a concert, well, I’m sorry you didn’t get to experience it. RIP, Duff’s.

KAA, v.4, 2008-10, Joe’s Cafe: Few places in St. Louis have the kind of singular, unique appeal of Joe’s Cafe. Artist Bill Christman built onto his house a temple to blues-and-roots music, surrounded by artistic flourishes in all media. When you add creative people to a place like Joe’s, things can get really interesting. And the three years at Joe’s offered plenty of unique moments. The staging, itself, offered some of that magic, with spotlights shining in your eyes just a little bit, giving the sensation of really “being on stage.” The magical outdoor garden’s a wonder, of course, chock full of St. Louis bric’a’brac, like Gaslight Square’s original, corner street signage.

Water features, giant sculptures, plants of all sorts … everything about Joe’s has a bit of a special feel. For a number of years, events at the space have been limited, mostly to Thursday nights, when it affects a private club/speakeasy feel. The fact that it’s even a bit confusing to find only adds to the notion that you’re attending something special at Joe’s. These were some golden years, the event held in a venue that will hopefully yield many more stories, for even more generations of St. Louisans.

KAA, v.5, 2011, Bworks: In a corner of Soulard near the Boy’s Club, Bworks is home to educational and transportation support for youth, offering computer classwork and bicycles to area young people. It’s an innovative program that’s morphed emphases over the years, found in a beautiful, fully rehabbed workspace in a vibrant city neighborhood. While hosting an awards ceremony alongside reconditioned bikes-for-sale might seem like a curious choice, it worked for this ceremony.

KAA, v.6, 2012-13: Located in the proverbial shadows of the Bevo Mill, the Heavy Anchor’s the kind of rock club that you can’t help but root for. Despite not booking a lot of “name brand” talent, the room offers the local scene a place for young groups to gain experience, along with a flexible, two-room venue that offers movie and improv nights and cheap specials. In a lot of ways, it’s a spiritual jump-off of Frederick’s Music Lounge and the Way Out Club, with amusing wall art and plenty of nooks-and-crannies for private conversations, which can be held even when bands are blasting away in the next room.

Last year’s show was a good one, though seating went fast. Only one person nearly crumpled on the weird drop-off leading to the stage. And plenty of people were exposed to this underrated little gem of a venue on the South Side. Here, too, things worked. We had to come back.

Tonight, those of us who’ve hosted the event will give it one last go. If you’ve never been (and don’t trust me, a biased source), we’ll let Beacon Associate Editor and Kick Ass Award recipient Robert W. Duffy tell the story. Or you can sum up the previous winners. Maybe someone you know is on the list. Or among the current winners.

There’s maybe a little goal out there that we’ve never articulated, even up to this last year: Someday, it’d be nice for people to say, “You know, the Kick Ass Awards were kind of a St. Louis institution?” If that ever happens, this will have all been worth it. If you’d care to join us and add your spirit, there’s no cover. And no pretension. And no chance that we’ll ever do it again. RIP, Kick Ass Awards; long live the Kick Ass Awards!

About this series

For the past two-decades-and-change, Thomas Crone has covered alternative music and culture in St. Louis for the St. Louis Beacon, Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch and St. Louis magazine, along with a host of smaller, deceased titles like Jet Lag, 15 Minutes and his own zines Silver Tray and 52nd City. He's co-produced the music documentaries "Old Dog, New Trick" and "The Pride of St. Louis," along with several shorts. He's currently pre-producing the web series "Half Order Fried Rice," while teaching media writing at Webster University. And a lot of his memorabilia is available to the public at www.silvertrayonline.com/

The "Second Set" series highlights known and unknown stories of St. Louis musicians, deejays, promoters and gadflies. Each week's edition will showcase artists, albums and songs that collectively make up a fascinating Midwestern musical culture, one filled with both major successes and vexing could-have-beens. Combining personal recollections with interviews of the principals, these articles will put into context the people, recordings and venues that have informed St. Louis' recent rock'n'roll and pop music.

"Encores" follow in the spirit of the earlier series as Crone and The Beacon roll out an ebook that developed from Second Set. Read Second Set columns.