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Up the Lazy River

The weather on Monday was far too uncommonly perfect in our portion of the Great Plains to worry about politics or economics or other such dreary matters, so after a frustrating hour or so of getting the e-mail working again, and then another couple of hours of composing and sending out some pressing e-mails and doing other unavoidable chores, we vowed to take a day off from the news and instead ventured into the heart of the River Festival. For those of you who aren’t so lucky as to live in Wichita, Kansas, on a such a glorious Great Plains day in early June, and are therefore unlikely to be familiar with the River Festival, suffice to say it’s the big annual civic celebration around here, and it’s really something to see.
The festival is also quite an inconvenience to those of us who live in the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of the city, which is bounded by the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers that give both it and the River Festival their names, and especially to those of us Riversiders who also frequently do business in the downtown district just past the nearby confluence, where most of the action takes place these days and many of the streets are suddenly and rather unaccountably blocked off and the usual free-flowing traffic is now just dreadful, so that just seemed all the more reason to take advantage of it. Being wised up to all the short cuts in our city we successfully motored our top-down way to the parking lot of the huge Metropolitan Baptist Church, listening to some swingin’ Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’67 on the old folks’ AM station en route rather than our usual right-wing talk radio fare, then walked across scenic McClean Boulevard and past the nice fountain monument to city father Ben McClean and over the Douglas Bridge that spans the Arkansas River into downtown. Along the way we encountered some ugly old women and some pretty young girls and some surly skateboarding young punks with tattoos and a genial old fellow in a a fine straw hat who handed us some Biblical scriptures and an invitation to the services at the Temple Baptist Church, “If you don’t already have a church home,” and when we told him that we did have a church home but very much appreciated the invitation he seemed pleased by the response, and in such perfect weather it all felt quite pleasingly like Wichita.
When we flashed our reasonably priced button and entered the festival area without any intrusive pat-downs, gospel music was blaring, and it was glorious. The annual “Gospelfest” concert was taking place on a temporary stage at the Kennedy Plaza next to the big circular Century II concert and convention and exhibition and theater and whatnot building, and an all-star choir from the city’s many mostly-black churches and an absolutely brilliant fellow named Cameo Profit from St. Mark’s Church of God in Christ in the lead were kicking out some Holy Spirit with a more beguiling backbeat than you could find at the sleaziest nightspot anywhere even on a Saturday night, and the old black women in their church hats were waving their hands and a handsome young black man was doing that gospel two-step just behind us and even our stiffly Church of Christ white knees were moving in that sanctified time. We happily absorbed that for an hour or so, then wandered past the food courts with their steak sandwiches and chickens on a stick and other culinary delights, and the t-shirt stands and the street musicians and the statue of Prairie Populist heroine Mary Elizabeth Lease and the gorgeous old Proudfoot and Bird-built City Building where an old friend of ours now runs the Sedgwick County Historical Museum, which is well is worth a visit if you’re ever in town and have time, and then toward the “Waterwalk” area that was supposed to be a garden spot by now according to some well-connected real estate mogul’s grandiose plans but is still mostly a parking lot, where Brave Combo was set to play a concert.
If you’re not fortunate enough to have been in on the punk-polka movement that swept the hipper portions of the Great Plains back in the early ’80s, suffice to say that Brave Combo is one of the very best bands in the entire history of music. We’ve been fans for the past 30 years or so, ever since they first wandered out of Denton, Texas, and into the old Coyote Club on that rough patch of North Broadway, and with the most excellent musicianship they play polkas, polka nortena, rhumbas, cha-chas, fox-trots, twists, tangos, horas, waltzes, show tunes, chicken dances, and anything else that people might dance to anywhere in the world, and always with the most hilariously punk sense of humor. We rather liked it that they’d moved from that rough patch on North Broadway to that parking lot in the heart of the big civic celebration, not so far removed from the “Gospelfest,” and we had the good fortune to run into our old friend Teri Mott and thank her for making it happen.
We go way back with Mott, to the early ’80s days when she was spinning discs on the local college radio station’s very alternative “After Midnight” show and we were both promulgating our own notions of musical rebellion in the local media, but by now she’s insinuated herself so far into the River Festival organization that she’s turning it into a 10-day musical festival that beats Woodstock for sheer eclectic weirdness. We’ve already missed performances by the Violent Femmes and the Meat Puppets and the missing-its-big-star Black Flag, who we once spent a memorably hazy night with at a friend’s cheap apartment after their shut-down-by-the-man performance on at a tiny joint on North Market, and if you’re not hip to the seminal punk scene suffice to say they were all notable, and there’s some old-school hip-hop names that even we recognize. The obligatory country-and-western offerings are hipper than usual, and there are some intriguing jazz offerings and the annual appearance by our better-than-you’d-expect local symphony orchestra, and Mott was especially proud of that all-star choir kicking out that great gospel music over in Kennedy Plaza, even if she is the unchurched sort.
Still, it’s all rather odd to anyone who’s been through so many River Festivals. The whole hubbub started with the city’s centennial in 1972, when the Century II building was unveiled and a two-day “Wichitennial” celebration marked the occasion. There was a big parade, featuring ourselves riding a unicycle decorated as a cardboard horse, a “bathtub race” down the Arkansas River and a “bed race” down Broadway, and a performance by the local Midian Shrine Dixieland Jazz Band, which was also one of the greatest bands in the history of music, and it was such an endearingly corny big city version of a small town celebration that the city decided to do it again the next year. What started as a yearly custom soon became an annual tradition, and it grew to include canoe races along the Little Arkansas river and tug-of-wars on the sand bank of the Arkansas and a “block party” on a strip just east of downtown that was slowly converting from skid row to a yuppie zone and turned into a bloody brawl, and a popular blues concert that was cancelled when the local Blues Society couldn’t afford the big fees that the increasingly corporate Wichita Festivals Inc. was charging for inclusion in the increasingly corporatized event, and now it’s evolving into an eclectic musical festival where the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen and her rather handsome young mother were gleefully doing the chicken dance with Brave Combo.
We’ll get back to the dreary business of politics and economics tomorrow, but with a bolstered hope that it somehow leaves us the hell alone to have our parties as we see fit here in Wichita, Kansas, and that the good people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, can continue to hold their annual Groundhog Day corniness and that whatever town in upstate New York it was that always had their annual ice-skating and barrel-jumping competition on “The Wide World of Sports” is still doing that, and that whatever cheers your heart in your hometown will still persist. On a perfect early summer day a free people can do great things, and all that dreary political and economic news should be absorbed with that in mind.

— Bud Norman

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