What might the last few decades of Atlanta’s underground music scene look like if beer sales weren’t a factor in determining who gets booked to play a show? If the cover charge at the door was simply a donation of whatever you wanted to give? And, most importantly, performers showed up specifically to play something new that they’ve been kicking around, all for an audience that’s hungry for adventurous music — the wilder and the more challenging the better?
Tight Bros. Network promoter Randy Castello christened the Kirkwood Ballers Club at Lenny’s Bar on Memorial Drive (now the site of the live-work-play condo building dubbed The Leonard) in March of 2004. But the idea was initially hatched in the late ‘90s, while hosting late-night parties in the basement at KBC co-founder Unisa Asokan’s house on Martha Ave. in Kirkwood.
“We had a sign in the door that said “Kirkwood Ballers,” Castello says. “Playing music was always the center of attention and the reason for getting together there.”
Castello even recalls one late-night gathering during Kirkwood Ballers Club’s early years in which composer and indie rock/avant-garde luminary David Grubbs (Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and Gastr del Sol) came back to stay at their house after performing at Eyedrum with cellist Nikos Veliotis earlier that evening.
“It was late at night, he was on the road, and we started playing right beneath his room, it had to be so loud,” Castello says. “It got to a point where he came downstairs — he was so cool about it — and said, ‘guys, can we just keep it down.’”
From the beginning, Kirkwood Ballers Club’s mission has always been to, “provide an open forum for experimental musicians and performance artists who’ve found it difficult to get shows elsewhere around town,” Castello says. “I also wanted to create an idea incubator that would allow others to perform and experiment with each other musically, and to create and nurture new creative ensembles.”
In its various incarnations, Kirkwood Ballers Club has created an environment where generations of avant-garde musical energy and talent has flourished throughout periods of existence and inactivity.
During its early years at Lenny’s, a parade of local punk, hip-hop, jazz, and indie rock musicians would sign up to perform including everyone from garage punks and avant-garde musicians Cole Alexander of the Black Lips and Bradford Cox of Deerhunter to Grammy-winning saxophone player Kebbi Williams of Tedeschi Trucks Band. All utilized the format to create music in-the-moment that expanded upon their typical repertoires.
“The Kirkwood Ballers Club was always a place of pure freedom,” says Kebbi Williams, who often showed up with large ensembles of musicians who lit up the room with an explosive freeform skroking jazz set.
Years later, Williams facilitates a similarly-minded Sunday evening jazz jam at Gallery 992 in West End, building upon the energy he tapped into while performing during KBC nights.
“I learned from Kirkwood Ballers Club at Lenny’s and from the scene at Eyedrum how to be free,” Williams goes on to say. “I saw some of the most original and provocative things at the Kirkwood Ballers Club, and it totally affected my life as an artist.”
Kirkwood Ballers Club has also drawn the attention of nationally touring acts who happened to be in town for the night. King Khan’s first Atlanta show was a KBC night.
“I remember introducing myself to Arish [King Khan] and he sprayed me in the face with Silly String,” Castello says. “It caught me off guard, and I didn’t know what to say, but it turned out to be a great night!”
Over the years, KBC changed locations, setting up at other now defunct venues along the way, including 11:11 Teahouse, The Highland Ballroom, and The Big House. It even settled in for a late-night incarnation at The Star Bar in Little Five Points for a stint.
Oftentimes other promoters including Matt McCalvin, Waylon Pouncy, and Matt Greenia stepped in to keep it going.
Brad Hoss of Hoss Records and Ryan Rasheed of LebLaze and Prefuse 73 launched a New York version of KBC at Brooklyn venue Zebulon Concert Cafe in 2011.In Atlanta, mashup artist Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, songwriter Jana Hunter, and even John Dwyer of psych-punk outfit Osees have also made KBC appearances.
In 2021, the rebirth of Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery at its current location brought with it a wholly new iteration of the Kirkwood Ballers Club. Sun Christopher hosts the monthly event as Castello settles into his evolving role as Eyedrum’s Facility Manager.
In the modern era, KBC’s spirit has been embraced by a wholly new generation of musicians, signing up for a 15-minute time slot, all under the evening’s long standing tagline: “Bring an instrument, record, beat, turntable, laptop, prepared piece, song, film score, voice, bag of blood, agenda, youth rebellion …”
Castello adds that, in the past, he never used the term “open mic” in relation to KBC. “I was worried that it would bring out a lot of singer-songwriters playing cover songs, which has happened from time to time.”
In Eyedrum’s new home at 515 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd., a wholly new set of faces has picked up the mantle, ranging from artists reading poetry, gorgeous minimalist piano compositions, blazing industrial beats, and free-form art-rock ensembles have filled out the roster.
Of the more recent staples of KBC’s monthly rounds Mikey and Hoff of the band Upchuck perform regularly with various new outfits. Another next generation fixture is noise artist Nathan Emerson, who performs sometimes solo, sometimes with an ensemble, under the name It’s About time.
It’s About Time’s sets have taken shape as screaming, squelching displays of noise, clanging metal percussion, and feedback, punctuated by blasts of fireworks, and Emerson writhing on the floor in a half-naked state. It’s a blend of real-time catharsis cut from abstract emotions — all set to the tune of old school industrial clatter and confrontation. It is the bleeding edge of the creative spirit that KBC has always nurtured, with precisely the type of DIY pyrotechnics that wouldn’t fly in most small club settings.
“When I first pulled up to Kirkwood Ballers Club I didn’t really know how my act would come across,” Emerson says. “I actually kinda intended to rile people up and maybe stir up the audience a little bit. Which of course did happen, but I think most folks kinda dug what I was doing. It’s so surprising to have a space where someone like myself can perform an explosive act, flogging myself and screaming bloody murder, and not even receive the slightest of heckles. There is simply not a more open and accepting space in Atlanta, in my opinion,” he adds. “Literally all sorts of people can perform whatever their hearts desire there. I’m eternally grateful to have gotten my career started there and continue to perform there whenever I can.”
For Castello, it’s this engagement with the community, and the love of music that keeps Kirkwood Ballers Club coming back.
“Getting something started, getting people to come and maybe they’ll want to start a band or a new project, or just to play music,” Castello says. “That’s what we do here, and that’s what we do it for.”
This article originally appeared in the May issue of Record Plug Magazine.
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