Kansas City has a summer full of free, live concerts and festivals. Here's where to get started
Summer is the perfect time to sample some of Kansas City's rich and diverse musical offerings. Enjoy free, live music all season throughout the metro area with this guide to concerts and festivals around town.
This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure! newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.
If you’re still hoping to sneak into Taylor Swift’s two sold-out concerts at Arrowhead Stadium in July, tickets on the secondary market begin in the low four digits. But there’s no need to mope.
Whether you’re saving every penny for a stadium event, or you’re a more budget-minded music lover, there are plenty of free and affordable summer concerts and festivals around Kansas City that will leave you rich in memorable music experiences.
Looking for a joyous celebration? Try Juneteenth KC. How about taking part in a cherished Kansas City tradition? The Blue Room has you covered. Did you miss out on the era of flower power? First Sundays at Volker Park are miniature versions of Woodstock.
This summer’s offerings will bring you rootsy sounds at a suburban shopping center, and give you a glance into the future at a fashionable speakeasy.
Far from a comprehensive list, these concerts and festivals are just a sampling of Kansas City’s best free events. Why not try a few?
For more of the hottest tickets in town (albeit ones you have to pay for), check out KCUR’s monthly concert recommendations.
Sunset Music Fest at Town Center Plaza
Hoping to attract foot traffic, area shopping centers are dependable sources of free summer entertainment. Two concerts in the Sunset Music Fest series at Town Center Plaza this summer outshine the competition.
The formidable blues-rock belter Danielle Nicole rose to prominence in the Kansas City-based family band Trampled Under Foot. Her 2018 release “Cry No More” was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. She’ll be joined by Casi Joy and Henry Conlon at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 8.
The Elders are likely to draw an even bigger crowd to Town Center Plaza two weeks later. By combining heartland rock and traditional Irish music, the Elders are one of Kansas City’s most popular bands. Michael Shaun Brown opens the show at approximately 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 22.
The Kansas City Boys and Girls Choirs (4 p.m. in Helzberg Hall) and the youth ensemble 5 Star Jazz Band (noon at St. Luke’s Outdoor Stage) are representative of the offerings in the 10th annual edition of the youth-oriented event on Sunday, June 11.
In addition to the offerings on two stages outside the landmark structure, showcases transpire on the two grandest stages in Kansas City. Future Stages allows attendees to luxuriate in the elegant Helzberg Hall and Muriel Kauffman Theatre at no cost.
Jam sessions at The Blue Room
Several of the jam sessions held during Kansas City’s jazz heyday are legendary. The tradition continues at The Blue Room, the nightclub operated by the American Jazz Museum, which offers an essential Kansas City experience every Monday evening.
These free events typically begin with an opening performance by the jam session host at 7 p.m. Following a set break, intrepid musicians who have signed up on a list near the bandstand are gradually invited to the stage to perform. As Charlie Parker learned in the 1930s, jam sessions can make or break a young musician’s reputation.
The Kansas City organist Chris Hazelton is the host on Monday, June 12. Since serving an invaluable apprenticeship under the late Everette DeVan, Hazelton has become best known for his throwback soul band The Freedom Affair. “Amsterdam After Dark” showcases his funky sound as a solo artist.
Hot Country Nights
The free shows in the Hot Country Nights concert series, in the Power & Light District, are among Kansas City’s biggest bargains. Thousands of country fans pack the neon-lit courtyard at KC Live! stage on Thursday evenings to hear performances by hit-making stars.
All are welcome, but the throngs of young singles that dominate the audiences can cause the series to resemble loud speed-dating events.
Several shows in the 2023 season require tickets, but the appearance by the rising star Priscilla Block on Thursday, June 15 is free. Block’s compelling songs including “Thick Thighs” and “Just About Over You” will incite hearty singalongs.
Nighthawk immediately joined the ranks of Kansas City’s most inviting basement lounges when it opened in late 2021. The eclectic atmosphere beneath Hotel Kansas City adds a fresh spin to the speakeasy concept.
There’s no cover charge for the frequent performances at Nighthawk. Amber Underwood, the Kansas City jazz flutist who performs a jazz-inflected style of R&B as Flutienastiness, takes the stage at Nighthawk at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 16.
Other promising Nighthawk bookings include vocalist Eboni Fondren at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 13, the Grateful Dead cover band Shakedown Strings at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 20, and the blues-rock duo Womanish Girl at 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 24.
Juneteenth KC is one of Kansas City’s most meaningful parties, timed just before Juneteenth, the federal holiday also known as Emancipation Day.
Headlining the musical component of this year’s event -- Saturday, June 17 at 18th & Vine -- are stars on the Southern blues circuit. The feel-good songs of headliners Sir Charles Jones (9 p.m.) and Pokey Bear (8 p.m.) are bound to elicit broad smiles and uninhibited dancing.
The agenda of the festival also includes speeches, a gospel performance and loads of children’s activities.
For more ways to celebrate Juneteenth in Kansas City this year, check out this roundup from our KC Media Collective partner The Beacon.
Make Music Day
Make Music Day has become a global phenomenon since originating in France three decades ago. Kansas City is among the hundreds of cities hosting free performances on Wednesday, June 21.
Many of the performances sponsored by Make Music Day KC take place in unconventional settings. Alan Voss, a jazz guitarist who released a fine debut album in March, is among the artists performing at Mill Creek Park. His set begins at 1 p.m.
Brant Jester, Bram Wijnands and several other jazz pianists will participate in a “Roomful of Pianos” recital (4:30-6:30 p.m.) at Upcycle Piano Craft. A two-hour performance by the Dan Riggs Big Band begins at 6:30 p.m. at The National WW1 Museum and Memorial.
Traditional venues are also in the mix. Neo-soul artist Jass (who also submitted one of KCUR’s favorite Tiny Desk Contest entries this year) headlines a strong bill at Lemonade Park at 7 p.m. Bands Undercover, a project in which musicians interpret one another’s songs, transpires at Knuckleheads at 4 p.m.
First Sundays at Volker Park
Calling all hippies: The First Sundays at Volker Park concert series is a counterculture time machine -- bringing listeners back to a period when longhaired musicians performed for fans smoking funny-smelling “cigarettes.”
At the park east of the Country Club Plaza, The Mad Kings, Broken Pieces and Lee Walter Redding will play nostalgic grooves from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 2. From 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, August 6, True Lions, Rich Hill and Dan Jones & The Squids will provide the cosmic vibrations.
The bill for the Sunday, September 3 show has not yet been announced. Tye-dye t-shirts and bell bottom jeans are optional at the throwback concert series, but freewill offerings will be accepted.
Kansas City’s Lawn Party
The myriad of games, costumed entertainers and permanent art collection in the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park can be wondrously mystifying. Yet attendees would be remiss if they missed the musical component of the annual party from 4 to 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 23.
The multi-generational and cross-cultural The Salvation Choir is one of Kansas City’s most exciting ensembles. Since its breakout performance at Kansas City’s Lawn Party last year, the band has collaborated with the celebrated singer-songwriter Kevin Morby.
Jazz icon Charlie Parker may be the Kansas City area’s most famous native son. Yet his relationship with his hometown during his brief life was complicated.
The Spotlight: Charlie Parker initiative seeks to resolve some of the tension by honoring the jazz icon every August. Parker was born August 29, 1920.
Tia Fuller, one of today’s most prominent jazz saxophonists, will be in Kansas City as the organization’s 2023 artist in residence. Fuller will participate in a salute to Parker at Robert Graham's statue in the Jazz District at 3 p.m. Saturday, August 19, one of several free events presented by Spotlight: Charlie Parker.