Requiem for Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club
If you wanted to build a bar from scratch and tailor it for a Telecaster-slinging rock-n-roll musician to cut their teeth in, you would want to model everything from the timbers to the furnishings to the smell of the urinal cakes on Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club. The bar, ravaged by fire Saturday morning, operated in Kansas City for nearly a century and has been in the Markowitz family since 1950.
The current owner, Michele Markowitz, gave me my first gig there sometime around 1992 on the recommendation of my friends who owned my favorite guitar shop, Midwestern Musical Company. I was playing guitar in a band with a terrible drummer and a singer named Ben who was pretty good at impersonating “Green”-era Michael Stipe, which worked great at covering up my attempts to impersonate “Reckoning”-era Peter Buck.
Ben and I played our first show as a duo. We arrived for our debut at Davey’s and Merle, the dreadlocked doorman, marked Ben with a pair of giant black Xs on the backs of his hands. We sat atop a couple barstools at the back of the room where we crooned and mashed on open chords to a Tuesday night crowd. I never saw a single face that night for fear of taking my eyes off the fretboard of my 1964 Hofner Western 496 Model. I remember three things: Merle complimenting us because he liked R.E.M., Michele being pleased enough with the weeknight crowd, and getting my first inklings of how important Davey’s is to Kansas City.
A big part of that importance was Jim Strahm. Along with co-owning Midwestern Musical Company with his partner, Matt Kesler, Jim was a regular performer and patron at Davey’s. He was a godsend for touring musicians. There are countless stories of Jim meeting a band when they played the bar and starting a lifelong friendship with them in the time it took to play a set and knock back a few Budweisers. Beyond being a good drinking partner, Jim knew how important it was to keep working bands working.
Over years performing all over the country, I’ve run into musicians who asked me if I ever met a guy in KC named Jim who owned a little shop and repaired their guitar or bass. The story was usually the same. After their gig Jim, still smelling of beer and cigarettes, would head into the shop early to replace a nut, do a proper setup, fix some drum lugs, or rewire input jacks and pickups while the band slept in. It was like having your personal guitar angel stationed at the intersection of Interstates 70 and 35. I remember one night in Memphis, a sound tech for another band telling me a version of this story and asking, “And do you know what he said when I asked him how much?”
I smiled and guessed, “‘Nah, dude. It’ll come around.’ Then he gave you a little smile.” And then I mimicked Jim’s laugh.
“That was it, exactly,” he replied. “Even nailed the laugh.”
I always considered Jim one of my rock ‘n’ roll big brothers and still try to comport my own recording business with this ethos of looking out for my musician friends — letting our fortunes take care of themselves.
One chilly night in 1999 I walked into Davey’s after a late studio session. I only recognized one face that night — a bass player named Matt Irwin — who looked crestfallen. I said hi and he asked me, “Did you hear about Jim?”. I hadn’t.
Jim had been sick for a while and earlier that day he was taken to KU Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Over that winter and the following spring he went through aggressive treatment for the disease, incurring the costly medical bills that come along with a cancer diagnosis. Six months later, in May of 2000, Kansas City’s music community held a benefit show to raise money to help pay some of those expenses. With Jim’s friends, Alejandro Escovedo and Southern Culture on the Skids headlining along with several Kansas City bands on the bill, the event had grown so big it had to be moved to an outdoor venue in the River Market. What was supposed to be a fundraiser ended up being a celebration of life; Jim died earlier on May 12, 2000. After the show, we all gathered at Davey’s until daylight broke. Then we went home and changed our clothes for his funeral.
There in the church, Alejandro sang his song, “Last to Know,” which includes the line; “The stores are all closed, couldn't buy a break anyway / Saint Jude he couldn't save you or me, I suppose.” That always reminds me of Jim’s dedication to folks like Alejandro and the other working musicians he met at Davey’s and elsewhere. He was sort of our Saint Jude, the patron saint of the lost cause of being a bar band. A few years later I named my own bar band Saint Jude as my homage to Jim’s memory and the brotherhoods he formed over years.
John Velghe (2nd from left) has performed at Davey's for nearly three decades. He plays there with his band The Prodigal Sons in 2013. | Photo: Michelle Bacon
Around that time, in 2003, Alejandro incurred his own medical expenses after he collapsed in the wings off stage in Phoenix from severely untreated Hepatitis C, cirrhosis and internal hemorrhaging. Davey’s was practically a second home for Alejandro, so a group of us Kansas City bands gathered there and played one of several benefit shows around the country to help fund Alejandro’s own healthcare and recovery costs.
Back when Davey’s was half its current size, they hadn’t yet broken through the wall into Jimmy and Mary’s, the Italian steakhouse in the adjoining building to the north. So bands crowded onto a stage which was little more than a couple of fortified pallets covered in carpet and bolted to the floor next to the women’s restroom door. This was just big enough for a drum set and a couple of small amps. So the rest of the band stood on the floor, and on crowded nights anyone playing on the flanks looked like they were standing in line for the restroom.
Reading that description, one may think the space is diminutive; and yes, there were band members who thought such a small stage was unworthy of their musical standing. But that performance space reflected the magic of the people who gathered around it. It didn’t depend on size so much as the connection between the artists and audience.
I loved (and still love) being on stage and unseen to all but the closest congregants. Performing at Davey’s in those days meant you were in the crowd rather than above it. Lost in that scrum of faces, even the smallest crowd felt perfectly claustrophobic. You watched your songs register in real time on the sweaty faces right in front of you. That tiny space at Davey’s embodied the ethos of many an earnest Midwestern songwriter; emotions are immediate, mistakes absolved, and memories indelible. One of the faces you might see right in front of you giving you honest feedback belonged to Abigail Henderson.
Abigail always seemed entranced by a solid band. Long blond tresses bouncing in time to a two-beat train shuffle, she was striking in appearance and in her passion for the music she loved. That passion that would go on to sustain Kansas City bands beyond the stage.
Featuring the unmistakable voice of Abigail Henderson and husband Chris Meck (far left) on guitar, The Gaslights were a staple of the Davey's Uptown stage. | Photo: © Todd Zimmer 2009
I first heard Abigail sing when she came to my airplane bungalow to record with the band she fronted called Trouble Junction. She was young, but fielded a band of veterans who knocked out basic rhythm tracks pretty quickly. Then came Abigail’s vocal tracks. I sat in the control room listening to her nail every first take, looking at her guitar player, DJ Clem (Mike Stover), gobsmacked. He just nodded.
Clem and I were the same age, older than Abigail. We knew her from hanging around Davey’s, but here was that “girl” who’d been bouncing around in front of bands all those nights at Davey’s and she’d been sandbagging us the whole time. Sure, it was novel when someone was enthusiastic about your band, but if you had an ounce of sense (and ambition) Abigail would have been fronting it.
Abigail quickly won the city over, becoming one of the best songwriters, singers and performers around. Her bands — Trouble Junction, The Gaslights, Atlantic Fadeout and Tiny Horse — were staples at Davey’s, but it was a gig in New Orleans that would change her life and give her the catalyst for the legacy she built for the musicians of Kansas City.
The Gaslights were in the middle of an extended tour and Abigail was loading amps in and out of the van for weeks, as one does. Over time she developed abdominal pain (it turned out to be a hernia). Loading out in New Orleans, someone told her to take her guts and her CD down to the local musicians’ clinic. So she did. The clinic treated her and told her there was no cost since she was a working musician. Abigail thought Kansas City needed something like that, so she built her version.
In 2008, Abigail was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and in the middle of cancer treatment she founded the Midwest Music Foundation (MMF). She, her husband Chris, and their friends built the nonprofit with the same intense love Abigail always showed for the musicians of Kansas City. She fought her cancer for five years. Abigail died on Aug. 27, 2013. It would have been Jim Strahm’s 53rd birthday.
But before she died Abigail turned her love of music and the people who make it — a love she spread in places like Davey’s — into a legacy that supports Kansas City-area musicians every day. In fact, almost four years to the day after I said goodbye to Abigail on her deathbed, the MMF provided a medical funding grant to my partner, Juj, to help pay for her stage 3 breast cancer treatments. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I first met Juj perched next to that little stage at Davey’s and her oldest grew up to work for a while as a bar back there in the late 2000s.)
There’s a line connecting folks like Jim, Abigail, Alejandro and my own family. That line stretched through Midwestern Musical Company, the MMF, Austin, Texas and countless cities throughout the United States. But it’s a line that always feels anchored to Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club. Playing places like The Uptown in Minneapolis, The Barking Spider in Cleveland, Lounge Ax in Chicago, or the 313 in Belleville always filled me with that sense of perfectly sweaty claustrophobia that a musician needs to get them on to the next gig. These are venues that welcomed and sustained me, whether we were hauling a full rock band’s worth of gear up the precarious staircases or I was performing solo with my dog Picco asleep on the stage next to me.
Health care is crucial. Artists also need the kind of sustenance the Markowitz family has provided us over their 70 years of owning Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club. Whether it’s in the form of a repair, a celebration, a mentor or an inspiration, the kind of intangible support places like Davey’s provide are vital for the survival of an arts community. In my experience, they can best be described as divine intervention.
—John Velghe is a failed piano player turned multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and composer. He's toured the country and released full-length albums on the Lakeshore Records label with his band The Prodigal Sons. He lives in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, with his partner Juj and their dogs, Picco and Gilbert.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was originally written in July 2019.
Listen back to Mornings with Bryan Truta from Monday to hear more memories of Davey's Uptown from musicians Billy Brimblecom, Jr. and David George. On Tuesday morning, Truta will chat with Lyla Masters — daughter of Davey's owner Michele Markowitz — about how patrons can support.