About 450 miles from my home in the Twin Cities are Kansas City, Missouri and Penn Valley Park; the site of the 10th Annual Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival. After my first visit to the festival in 1999, I was determined to return for the 2000 event. In addition to having the company of my wife at the festival, I was lucky enough to hookup early on with Michael Evan; another Twin Cities blues fan who had decided to take in the sights and sounds of the Kansas City festival. Although our paths crossed numerous times, combined we were able to experience a great deal more of the festival than either of us could have accomplished alone. What follows are our collective experiences at the 10th Annual Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival.
The festival opened on a clear and unseasonably cool day (with almost no humidity) at Penn Valley Park, located on the edge of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Friday, and the rest of the weekend, turned out to be per-r-r-r-r-fect for the festival from both an audience and performer perspective. The 2000 festival included three stages, one for blues, one for jazz and the Heritage Stage, which offered a mix of young and classic performers from both blues and jazz each day of the event. Finally, the festival's "Soul School" offered fans a chance to get up close and personal with some of their favorite performers in a more intimate and informal setting. By choice, I focused a major portion of my attention for the weekend on the happenings on the CGI Blues Stage, with occasional visits tot he other performance areas for artists that I was specifically interested in seeing.
The abbreviated Friday line-up opened with an interesting local band, Fo' Fried Chickens and a Coke, featuring a massive seven piece horn section and three vocalists in the twelve-piece band. Performing mostly cover tunes, the band put on a creative and entertaining show of powerful horn-driven swing and rhythm & blues.
Fo' Fried Chickens was followed by a band that I did not get to see enough of two weeks earlier at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa, Big Al and the Heavyweights. After meeting several members of the band at my hotel, I was looking forward to seeing them perform their high energy Louisiana cajun funk. Led by Dangerous Tim Waggoner on guitar and Harmonica Red on harp, the band put on an excellent show, easily on par with their performance in Iowa two weeks earlier.
The show that I was most interested in seeing on Friday evening was Canned Heat, featuring two original band members, Fito De La Parra and Larry "The Mole" Taylor. The band came directly to Kansas City from a European tour that was scheduled to resume immediately following their festival appearance. In addition to several newer songs from their recording, "Boogie 2000," the band thrilled fans with some classic Canned Heat hits like "Goin' Up The Country," "On The Road Again" and Wilbert Harrison's, "Let's Work Together." I was pleased to discover that Canned Heat is still comprised of a talented group of musicians who are still excited about their music and not just a bunch of former rock stars trying to jump on the retro bandwagon.
The activities at the blues stage ended with another fantastic performance by Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Although original guitarist and co-founder, Jimmie Vaughan has been gone from the T-Birds for quite a long time, his legacy and the band's sound remain strong, thanks to Wilson's harp work and the stellar guitar of Kid Ramos. The set included some Fab T-Birds classics like "She's Tuff" and "Tuff Enuff" from the band's 25 year history, as well as songs from their current release, "High Water." The set also included a great cover of "Things That I Used To Do," featuring some powerful guitar licks from Kid Ramos.
During the T-Birds set, I managed to slip over to the Heritage Stage to catch a portion of the fine 75 minute set by Claude "Fiddler" Williams and an allstar band including New Orleans' pianist, Henry Butler, and Kansas City-bred saxman, Bobby Watson. At age 80 something, Williams can still play an excellent jazz fiddle that sounded even better because of the excellence of Butler's piano and Watson's sax playing!
These two fine sets ended the first evening at the festival, leaving the unusually large Friday crowd primed and ready for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday began with my first opportunity to hear the Frank Ace Blues Band. During the set, Frank Ace proved himself to be and excellent and stylishly innovative guitarist with a seasoned, tight band. The show had lots of energy and featured a number of songs from "Get On Line, Baby," the Frank Ace Band's exceptional 1999 release. Following their performance in Kansas City, the Frank Ace Blues Band was off to Amsterdam for a festival appearance in that European city.
One of Saturday's great treats for me was my second chance to see Howlin' Wolf guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, for the second time in just one week (I saw him in Florida the previous Saturday). This time though, the show was even more memorable as Sumlin partnered with Kansas City harp legend, and fellow Acoustic Sounds recording artist, Little Hatch. Backed by The Sean Chambers Band, these two gentlemen put on a truly memorable show that NO ONE in the gigantic Saturday crowd want to see end. They practically had to drag Sumlin off the stage as he was ready to continue playing and, clearly, Little Hatch is one of the best unknown harp players around.
The feeling at the blues stage changed abruptly with back-to-back performances by power blues band, and Twin Cities favorites, Indigenous; followed by the southern style blues-rock of Gov't. Mule, featuring three former members of the Allman Brothers Band, Warren Haynes, Allen Woody and Matt Abts. Both sets featured what I would call "blues with an edge." One of the best parts of Gov't. Mule's set was the appearance by Little Milton Campbell to perform "When The Blues Come Knocking" and "I Can't Quit You Baby, two songs that were released as part of Milton's recent recording, "Welcome To Little Milton."
Little Milton put on my favorite show during the second day of the festival. After hearing him discuss his career and perform a brief, but entertaining solo performance at Soul School, combined with his "preview performance" during the Gov't. Mule set, Little Milton came to the stage and put on an incredible show that offered something to satisfy everyone's musical tastes, including blues, soul, rhythm & blues, funk and even a bit of rock n' roll. Milton proved himself to be a charismatic performer and one who truly plays from the heart.
The final act of the night on the blues stage was guitar phenom, Kenny Wayne Shepherd. With a gigantic crowd cheering him on (especially the teenage girls), Shepherd put on an incendiary performance. His show allowed everyone to leave on a high note, setting the stage for Day Three of the festival.
Saturday's festival crowd was so large that it was difficult to get near any of the stages. Although I tried to get a glimpse of the performances by Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers and Jay McShann with The Duke Robillard Band, it was virtually impossible to get close enough to the jazz stage to see the performers, but they sure did sound good. Fortunately, I did get a little closer to the Heritage Stage where I was able to hear Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown demonstrate his versatile musical talents on guitar and fiddle, as well as his incredible range of styles from cajun and country to blues and jazz. With Brown, Shepherd, Robillard and McShann on three different stages simultaneously, you couldn't have asked for a more incredible musical "triple threat."
On Sunday, my wife and I arrived at the festival just in time to catch 16 year-old harp sensation and Kansas City native, Brody Buster, backed by the veteran talents of the Eugene Smiley Band. It was very satisfying to hear how much Brody's sound has matured in the past year. His vocals were notably stronger and his harp playing better than ever. His new CD, "Clearing The Smoke," sold like wildfire during and after his set. The CD was, in part, the sad result of the unfortunate death of Brody's uncle, and Kansas City firefighter, in the line of duty. Proceeds from the sale of the CD are being contributed to the Kansas City Fire Department to purchase special imaging safety equipment for the department; a noble gesture by young Brody Buster in honor of the man who he felt to be his number one fan.
Following an unusual show by preacher/bluesman/comedian, Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, Marcia Ball put on an ivory hammering performance with her New Orlean's style piano and solid vocals. Ball was quite entertaining with a solid back-up band that included guitarist Pat Boyack of Pat Boyack and the Prowlers. The only thing missing from the set was the "guest poodle" that she performed for during "Let Me Play With Your Poodle," as occurred during her show at the Sound Advice Blues Festival in Ft. Lauderdale last November.
Finishing out the festival on the blues stage was Lonestar Shootout, the super group including guitarists Lonnie Brooks, Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker. Thankfully, Walker made his appearance at the festival despite being in a minor auto accident earlier in the day. One of the best things about Lonestar Shootout is that their set is like seeing four different groups perform all in one set., with each guitarist playing a portion of the set along with the band, concluding with all three guitarists on stage together.
The event of the day at Soul School was the only appearance of Charlie Musselwhite at the festival, paired with Hubert Sumlin, to demonstrate the unique relationship between guitar and harp in the blues. Unlike some of the earlier Soul School "sessions", the appearance by Musselwhite and Sumlin came off more like a musical set than an education session. Musselwhite started the session solo, later bringing Sumlin up on stage to finish off the enjoyable musical session.
On Sunday, for many, the place to be was the Heritage Stage with Henry Townsend, Roy Rogers with Shana Morrison and Robert Lockwood, Jr. appearing in succession. It's not every day that you can see two blues pioneers along with the king of slide guitar and Van Morrison's daughter appearing all in one place..
Ninety year-old Henry Townsend was accompanied by writer and slide guitarist, Ron Edwards. Shifting between guitar and piano, Townsend demonstrated that he can still rock a stage regardless of his age. Townsend was one of the most visible performers at the festival, popping up at various locations on Saturday and Sunday, listening to the music and fulfilling the many requests for his autograph.
Although I had heard about the collaboration between guitarist Roy Rogers and Shana Morrison, the sweet-voiced daughter of music legend, Van Morrison, had never had the opportunity to see them perform together. As it turned out, it was a great experience. Rogers guitar rang out strong during the set and was made even better by Shana Morrison's beautiful and powerful voice. Although her famous father is known to be something of a recluse, Shana is a pleasant and very friendly person who seemed to enjoy talking with members of the audience who sought her autograph after the show.
Since the Heritage Stage was running late, the last act of the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival was blues legend Robert Lockwood, Jr., the stepson and last living link to the immortal Robert Johnson. Although offstage Lockwood did not appear to be in the best humor, onstage he put on a great show, playing an electric twelve string guitar, accompanied only by a bass guitar. Playing a combination of classic delta blues and songs from his current CD, "Delta Crossroads," Lockwood laid claim to his legacy as a member of the blues royalty. I really enjoyed the parts of Lockwood's show that I was able to catch as I bounced back and forth between the Heritage and CGI Blues Stages.
For me, the 10th Annual Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival is more than just a festival, but also a homecoming since I grew up in South Kansas City. Not only did I get to experience three days of great food and music, but also got to visit my old neighborhood and some of my favorite dining and shopping areas of Kansas City. With perfect weather, huge crowds and a great line up of musical talent, I am definitely making plans for a return visit to Kansas City for the 2001 festival.
This was the tenth anniversary of the Kansas City Blues & Jazz Festival, and by far one of the best in terms of talent and weather. Some of the biggest names in blues and jazz, as well as some of Kansas City's finest musicians, treated the ever-increasing crowd (84,000 for the event) to three days of great performances. The perfect weather (mid 80's & sunny) provided a little something extra, adding to everyone's comfort. The festival began with a first rate performance by a Kansas City band, Fo' Fried Chickens and a Coke. This 12-piece band wasted no time lighting up the record Friday night crowd with solid renditions of some of the best R&B classics. Big Al and the Heavyweights followed with some "gumbo party blues", a New Orleans sounding band from Nashville, setting the table for Canned Heat. As the sun was beginning to set over the first day, Canned Heat, lifted young and old to their feet to celebrate over thirty years of great music with, " Goin' Up the Country" and "On The Road Again", plus a couple of songs from their release, "Turning Up the Heat." The evening only got better as Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds delivered a ninety minute-plus performance that proved to be the best of the day. Leaving the audience chanting more, the T-Birds brought an end to a great day of music.
Saturday was a much harder day to select the artists I wanted to see. All three stages were packed full with exceptional talent. I chose to begin with Soul School, a interactive workshop in a small setting, where the audience and artists could exchange questions and answers, and discuss theory and different styles of music. Saturday's Instructors were; Henry Butler, Little Milton, and Duke Robillard.
It was a nice way to start the day, as I am sure everyone would agree. That was reason enough to return for the Sunday classes, which featured Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Bobby Watson, Charlie Musselwhite and Hubert Sumlin, each conducting their own workshops. Back to Saturday, which was just getting started, the artists I chose to see following Soul School were, Cotton Candy and So Many Men with special guest guitarist, Lloyd Spiegel.
Cotton Candy, is a Kansas City favorite, and Lloyd is an Australian guitarist on his fourth U.S. tour. Next on the agenda, Hubert Sumlin and Little Hatch on the Blues Stage playing together for the first time, followed by Indigenous, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Later in the evening on the Jazz Stage, the pinnacle of the my entire weekend, began with Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers.
Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are one of the best swing and jump blues bands I've ever heard. Lavay's performance was outstanding, heating the crowd up for The Duke Robillard Band, who hit the stage running full speed. This is the best band that Duke Robillard has toured with. After a forty-five minute set, Duke introduced Kansas City's own, the legendary Jay McShann. The crowd, (many of which had been waiting hours for this moment) rose to their feet with thunderous applause in an expression of appreciation for his 60-plus years as a bandleader and a pianist. As Jay reached the piano, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors, followed by a presentation of this year's Kansas City Blues & Jazz Festival poster, (featuring Jay) by artist Tom Gieseke.
It was time to continue the set with Jay at the piano. This was the place to be if you are a blues, jump blues, or jazz enthusiast. The set included many favorites like, "Say Forward And I'll March", "Jump the Blues", "Going to Chicago", "Rain is Such a Lonesome Sound", "Lonely Boy Blues", "Moten Swings", and Jay's biggest hit "Confessin' the Blues." It was plain to see that everyone on stage was having fun. Jay told me later, "I got a big kick out of Duke, he was really playing hard, man he was sincere." It was a very special night indeed.
Sunday was another beautiful day, among the many performances I was able to see, Marcia Ball, Henry Townsend, The Kansas City Boys Choir, Roy Rogers and Shana Morrison (Van's daughter), and finally, Robert Lockwood, Jr.
These three shows brought an end to a very enjoyable three days of exceptional blues and jazz performances. I wish I were able to have seen all the artists, the list of those I didn't see is almost as long as list of artists that I did see. The special thing about the Kansas City Blue & Jazz Festival is its smorgasbord of entertainment. It's hard to pick what to put on your plate. But, not to worry, because everyone attending will go home full, having tasted some of the finest blues and jazz on the planet. For me, my entire stay in Kansas City was a wonderful experience, due in part to the warm hospitality of its people. The festival staff did a great job; this festival would make a good case study for anyone interested in how to do it right. I will definitely return.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Dave "Doc" Piltz & Michael Evan, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.