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The Beat Goes On in the Heartland

Wichita is a surprising city, and even after more than half a century here we have recently been surprised to discover that the local music scene is better than ever and suddenly as good as you’ll find in far bigger cities.
Kirby’s Beer Store held its annual “Meat Fest” on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and you should have been there. The notorious little ghetto dive bar has been holding the event in the dead of winter for the past couple of decades are so, and it always features plenty of free meat grilled on the patio, a non-stop lineup of local bands, and a massive crowd of young and old hipsters, but this year’s edition was the best we can recall. The hot dogs and sausages and burgers and pulled barbecue barbecue were delicious, and the music even more so. We didn’t get to hang around long enough to hear all of the 38 — count ’em, 38 — local acts, but we heard enough to confirm that Wichita at the moment is one of America’s most musical cities.
Aside from the quality and quantity of the output, we were also struck by its diversity. On Thursday we heard an intriguing jazz-rock-hip-hop quarter called the Lewelheads, the next night was a hard-rocking but straight-up country-and-western outfit called Sunshine Trucking, and Saturday’s highlight was a rough-edged punk band with a slightly country woman singing called Herd of the Huntress. Sunday brought an assortment of small group and solo acts, including a sleepy-eyed six-foot-six or so fellow of approximately 280 pounds who bills himself Tired Giant and had some heartbreaking songs about his alcoholic dad, a dreadlocked young white woman named Juliet Celedor, and a hard-to-define trio of bass and cello and guitar called Sombre Sangre. Local hard rock legends Black Flag also performed, as did the popular blues chanteuse Jenny Wood and the venerable jazz guitarist Sterling Gray, and the always excellent guitarist and singer Tom Page did a set, and we’re told we missed a whole lot of other good stuff.
Somehow some of the city’s best missed the lineup, too. The top-notch folk-country-jazz-blues Haymakers couldn’t be there, Folk rocker and standards singer Nikki Moddelmog and her crack brand were unavailable, and although the lovely rock chanteuse Lalanea Chastain was in the audience she never took the stage, and there’s a very hot young trumpet-playing jazzbo named Nathan williams who didn’t appear with either of his two very good outfits. Not to mention all the great show tune singers and gospel shouters in town who didn’t get an invitation.
Not bad for a mid-sized city in the middle of the country, but Wichita does have its advantages. Folks have been playing music all along around here, and the city has produced such notable performers as rockabilly legend Marvin Rainwater and hippie heroes The Serfs and the all-time great punk band The Embarrassment, as well the punk-bluegrass Split Lip Rayfield with its small but fervent internal cult following, and a surprising number of globally acclaimed opera singers. Here in the middle of the country Wichita was a regular stop for all the great jazz bands of Kansas City’s heyday, as well as northern stop for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and all the great western swing outfits, the southern bluesman also played here on a regular basis, and Wichita always welcomed all the hard-rocking bands from the industrial midwest during the ’60s and ’70s. The music departments at Wichita State University and Friends University supply the city with well-trained classical and jazz players, too, and the city’s churches provide plenty more thoroughly educated musicians, not to mention all the autodidacts that Wichita seems to spawn.
Wichita’s big enough to have talented people from each of America’s many rich musical traditions, but it’s small enough that they all wind up meeting one another and playing together and creating some intriguing combinations of styles you won’t find elsewhere. The city is racially diverse, as well, and lately several of its best bands feature talented white and black and Latino and Native American and Asian players, and the teenagers and the twenty-somethings and even the players we fondly remember from our long-ago youth on the Wichita music scene also get together.There’s a variety of venues of various sizes that offer them a place to play, and the city government has even started a free bus service along the stretch of Douglas where you’ll find most of them. Lacey Cruse, another talented singer, was recently elected to the Sedgwick County Commission, and music retains a powerful influence in Wichita.
Throughout America’s rich musical history such cities as New Orleans and Chicago and Memphis and Nashville and New York and Los Angeles have always played an outsized role, and at times such locals as Akron, Ohio, and Athens, Georgia, and Minneapolis and Oklahoma City have their eras of prominence, but American music lovers shouldn’t overlook Wichita, especially now.
If you’re out of town and can’t make here for a night at Kirby’s or Barleycorns or the Shamrock or the Artichoke or the Cotillion or that new Wave place over in rocking Old Town, we suggest you venture out in your own hometown to see what’s cooking in the local dives. What’s on the radio and television these days is mostly awful, and the best American music has always popped in the most unusual places, so there’s a good chance you’ll find something better.

— Bud Norman

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