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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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After a Slow and Busy Weekend

For the next week or so the denouement of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination awaits the results of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe of his high school days, and for now the special counsel’s ongoing investigation of the “Russia thing” seems on a traditional hold until the mid-term elections, and although those mid-term-elections are already heating up in this cool fall weather they’re still more than a month away. In the meantime, we had a pretty good weekend around here.
The highlight of our weekend was accompanying our beloved Mom to the Saturday night opening of a new exhibit at the nearby Wichita Art Museum. She very much wanted to go, but these days our our beloved Dad isn’t getting around well, so she called to ask if we were willing to accompany her instead, and of course we couldn’t refuse the offer. Our Mom is the main reason we’re such culture vultures, as she dragged us every few months to the Wichita Art Museum and subjected us to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s young people concerts and took us on weekly visits to the Wichita Public Library,as well as occasional visits to nights at the local theater, and we were eager to partially repay the debt and re-live the precious memories of our childhood.
The new exhibit at the Wichita Art Museum features some exceptional photographs of the subtly beautiful Kansas landscape, as well as some tough-but-true accounts of the off-beat Kansas farmers who keep it going, and if you happen to be in Wichita while it’s still up we highly recommend it. Our beloved Mom seemed impressed that we were friends with most of The Haymakers, the outstanding country-jazz-folky-and-bluesy outfit that played the opening, although the usual bass player was preoccupied due to his first-chair gig with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, and we were delighted to introduce her to several of our weird culture vulture friends, and they all seemed to enjoy meeting our beloved Mom, too.
The rest of the weekend was filled with a rousing but relatively early morning worship service at the West Douglas Church of Christ, followed by a long afternoon nap afterwards, and then some joke-swapping with a Navy veteran at Kirby’s Beer Store, and on the whole it was a pretty good weekend. All of the politics is for now unresolved, and won’t be for at least another five weeks or so, but in the meantime things seem to be working out well enough here on the south-central plains of Kansas.

— Bud Norman