Adulthood eventually requires the management of responsibilities and priorities. Bill Sundahl has figured that out.
When he moved to Kansas City in late 2000, Sundahl was footloose and single and he immediately immersed himself in the music community. Or forced himself on it, you might say.
“I started going to shows all the time,” he said. “I kept hearing how cliquey the scene was. But I didn’t notice.
“I’ll talk to anyone and act like I own the place. There was so much going on.”
So much that in 2003, he decided it was time to promote and showcase some of the many bands, musicians, artists, dancers and entertainers he’d met in Kansas City. That’s the year he started his company, Spice of Life Productions, and sponsored his first Donkey Show, a mixed bag of music, dance, comedy, film and various variety-show hijinks and antics. He didn’t stop there.
Two years later, he started an annual festival to showcase the diversity of the local music scene.
“I was at a show at the City Market and the lineup was incredible: De La Soul, Modest Mouse, Cake and the Hackensaw Boys,” he said. “It seemed like every type of person Kansas City had to offer was there. I thought, ‘I could do a smaller version of that.’”
This weekend, he will present the ninth annual Crossroads Music Festival, which will feature more than two dozen bands and performers from several genres at six venues within walking distance of one another in downtown Kansas City.
These days, he’s not so footloose. He’s married and the father of two young children, so he has scaled back his involvement in the music scene. His job is service manager at Accurate Superior Scale, but the festival remains a priority and a way to show off the best parts of a community he remains entrenched in.
His road to Kansas City was circuitous, and along the way he wore many hats.
Sundahl grew up in Myrtle, a speck of a town near the Arkansas border in south-central Missouri. In 1991, he graduated from nearby Thayer High School and started a string of career moves that have taken him as far south as Key West, Fla., and as far west as Albuquerque, N.M.
He started off as an auto body repair technician but walked away from that job, literally. “I went to lunch one day and never went back,” he said. “Left my tools there and everything.” Then he went to work for his father for two years. “I became a door-to-door dairy-equipment salesman,” he said, chuckling. “Gaskets, pipes, cleaning chemicals, teat-suckers.”
After two years of that, he worked as a welder in Columbia, then in Clarksville, Tenn., and Key West. At one point he started teaching himself to play guitar, then bass guitar. He joined a couple of cover bands that never went anywhere.
“In Key West, no one wants to hear your original tunes unless they sound like ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ or Jimmy Buffet,” he said. But it ignited his interest in joining a band, if not starting one.
He moved to Albuquerque near the turn of the millennium to hang out with friend and fellow musician Rod Peal. When Peal moved back to Kansas City for family reasons, Sundahl followed shortly after and started exploring its music scene.
In 2002, he met Jamie Searle and they started a collaboration that resulted in the high-energy band It’s Over, which released an EP and a full-length album. Searle shut down the band in 2008 to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.
“We got along like a house on fire,” Sundahl said.
It’s Over is one of several bands on Sundahl’s music resume, along with the Gaslights, the Afterparty and the Columns, the band he started after It’s Over was over.
In 2003, he became part of another team. That’s the year he met Wende Williamson, now his wife and mother of their children and his co-founder and co-conspirator in the Donkey Show shenanigans.
“We were on a road trip to see my family in Iowa and we had this conversation about variety shows,” she said. “We started daydreaming and brainstorming ideas on how to put together all these different kinds of performances into one show.”
Later that year, at the Brick, they presented Donkey Show I. They would organize nearly two dozen Donkey Shows over eight years, each with a theme that provided guidelines for entertainers and anyone who wanted to attend in costume.
For example, Donkey Show XXI was a 21st birthday party featuring five bands (all singing drinking songs), a short-film showcase, break dancers, belly dancers, aerialists and a drinking-game tournament. The theme of the next show theme was “baby” because Williamson was eight months pregnant with their first child.
The Donkey Shows are on hiatus for now; child-rearing is the priority. “If Wende can’t do it, I don’t want to do it,” Sundahl said. “I got all the credit, but she had all the great ideas.”
“I don’t think it’s done for good,” Williamson said. “There just isn’t really time between raising kids and jobs and Bill keeping other projects going, like the music festival.”
Over nine years, the Crossroads Music Festival has changed and grown. The first two festivals were held in the sculpture garden behind Grinders, in the space that is now Crossroads KC. “They were still cutting down trees to make more space the morning of the show,” Sundahl said. The first festival in 2005 featured eight bands on one stage; the second showcased 13 bands on two stages.
In 2007, he expanded it to two days at three venues: Crossroads KC, the Brick and the Gorilla Theater on Locust Street. The 50-band lineup was stellar. It included Eleni Mandell, Lucero, Krystle Warren and the Faculty, the Scamps and Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle.
But attendance was lighter than expected. Sundahl was proud of the lineup but decided maybe bigger wasn’t better. “The lineup was awesome,” he said. “But I had to be smarter and more savvy.”
So he made it a one-day event, on a Saturday night, and started enlisting new venues in the neighborhood, like Czar Bar, Midwestern Musical Co. and Crosstown Station, which became the festival’s main venue for three years. When that closed in 2011 (and became a church), the festival returned to Crossroads KC.
Over the years, it has introduced many local bands to new audiences.
“That was kind of our coming-out party as a band,” said Lauren Krum of the Grisly Hand, which stirred up a buzz at the 2009 CMF. “It’s great to be in that environment where lots of local bands are playing and people are looking for something new — to be ‘pulled in’ by a band.”
This year’s CMF will add two new venues on Grand Boulevard: the Green Lady Lounge, which will feature two jazz acts; and the restaurant Collection, which will feature singer/songwriters.
Sundahl will perform at the Brick with his only band at the moment, the Starhaven Rounders, a classic-country cover band. “It’s a ton of fun,” he said. “I grew up in southern Missouri and ‘Hee-Haw’ was on in every house and that music was playing in every restaurant.”
Rounders is more of a hobby, a band that doesn’t travel or record or perform.
“One reason I stopped the Columns was I realized that with two kids and a job, I didn’t have the time to prepare for it,” Sundahl said. “I can’t be in a touring band. I don’t want to miss my kids’ growing up.”
He is looking forward to the 10th anniversary of the CMF, expecting to add at least two more venues and more bands. That’s one priority that hasn’t changed.
“It’s almost harder these days, booking the festival,” he said, “because there are so many good bands in town and so many want to be a part of it. I just try to keep it fresh and to get as many good bands as I can in front of a lot of people.”