Review of the 1997 KC Blues and Jazz Fest

Jeff Yelton
Wed Jul 23 01:14:54 EDT 1997

The Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival was July 18-20, held on a hilly park
overlooking old Union Station. The event was a little somber in tone, as both
Luther Allison and Johnny Clyde Copeland had been booked. I missed Friday
night. The blues acts opened with Big Babe Martin & Chump Change, my old
hometown favorites. Kelly Hunt, Tower of Power, and George Benson also played
that night. Joe Louis Walker subbed for Luther, and several people told me
that his set was fantastic, with plenty of fine slide guitar work.

I dragged in on Saturday afternoon, missing Kansas City blues institution
Millage Gilbert's set. The fest has two main stages, sponsored by CGI
communications and Piggly Wiggly (the first supermarket chain), and a tent
for some local and speciality acts. In  between are rows of food booths (BBQ,
Creole, BBQ, Greek, BBQ, beer, and of course Amazing Grace's BBQ); a tent for
Streetside Records; and booths for souvenirs, the Kansas City Blues Society,
and Blues Access magazine. The colorful pendants of corporate sponsors were
all along this walkway, which also featured an on-site ATM and a misting tent
to help people cool off. As usual, the KCBS volunteers were busy manning
booths, policing trash (the fest is KC's biggest recycling event as well as
biggest outdoor event each year), and helping set up acts. Part of the
proceeds from the souvenir tent will help pay Allison's medical expenses. The
crowd was huge and wonderfully mixed: black and white, young and old. I twice
saw men in old t-shirts and shorts snooze in the sun alongside their cellular

I came in on the tail end of Brody Buster & the BWB Band's set. I had seen
Buster three years ago when he was 8 or 9. Although the program photo still
showed him at that cute age, he's now looks about twice as tall and dresses
like a gangster rapper. He still blows a pretty good harp, and the band was
sharp and energetic. They were followed by Lil' Brian Terry & the Zydeco
Travelers. They're from Houston, Texas and mix zydeco with plenty of soul and
funk. In fact, Lil' Brian's frequent war cry was 'Funky Zydeco.'   Their
biggest song was 'Brick House,' plucked from the jaws of disco.

R.L. Burnside came next, replacing Copeland. He was backed only by his
grandson Cedric on drums and spiritual son Kenny Brown on bass.  This was my
favorite set of the afternoon, as Burnside mainly relied on bass-rich,
traditional numbers, such as "Diving Duck" and "Walking Blues." At one point,
he even played one song solo, giving his sidemen a break from setting that
hard beat. R.L. also said "Well, WELL, well" a lot and even went into a few
of his one-liners: "My family was too poor to have kids. The neighbors had to
have me." Some of us, young and old, really got into his music, dancing or
nodding hard to the beat. Most of the crowd was quiet but attentive, and I
have no clue what that meant.

The next act was Corey Stevens, and the crowd was quite noisy in appreciation
of his guitar work. This is the second time I've seen him this summer, and my
vote is still out. Just as he did at the Eureka Springs fest, he started the
set with two SRV-sound-alike numbers, before turning to other material. Then
he sounded, in voice and guitar sound, very much like Eric Clapton. Most of
the songs were in one of those two modes, but he played his own style (I
think) on "My Neighborhood" and a long instrumental dedicated to Luther
Allison. My favorites were two EC-styled covers of Albert King's "Crosscut
Saw" and "I'll Play the Blues for You." Before launching into his encore, he
announced that it would be "something from the Delta." My interest was
piqued, and I leaned forward to guessed it...the opening riffs of
Cream's version of "Crossroad Blues." The crowd cheered, my eyes rolled, and
the black lady sitting behind me had a giggling fit.

The highlight of the whole fest was Saturday night's closing act, Etta James.
 Her full band (3-piece horn section, 2 guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards)
warmed up by playing a couple of numbers before she ambled, unhurriedly, up
to the mike, milking the crowd perfectly. Her hair was pulled back, and her
outfit was cut low. She launched into a killer version of "Feel Like Breaking
up Somebody's Home." She followed that with "I'd Rather be a Blind Girl,"
"Come to Mama," "At Last," a rocking "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," and a
few others. At one point, she began to scat verses, and this led to a fun
crowd 'scat-along.' She also threw in some autobiographical bits from her
youth in Kansas City, hanging out on 19th and Vine. She closed with a funky
medley that somehow wound up with "My Funny Valentine." Beautiful. As it
turned out, her son Santos (?) was the bass player and son Mentos (?) was on
drums. In the middle of this great set, I overheard a conversation on my
left. A guy was telling his friends, "She's alright, but this crowd wants to
rock. What they should have done is have Etta James warm up for Corey
Stevens. Then this crowd would go crazy." It made me want to apologize for my

Sunday afternoon was cooler, as storm clouds hovered. The crowd was smaller
and mellower. The blues stage opened with local acts and the Boneshakers, a
tight band with an album out on Pointblank. James Harmon followed with a long
(one-hour-plus) set of some good harp work. I wish I could give a
play-by-play of it. However, the pint of Foster's, the BBQ ham sandwich, and
the fried onion blossom were all working, allowing me to enjoy the set
without being able to study it. Score another one for the food booths.

Bobby Rush followed, and I confess that I snuck out half way through his act.
He had a full band and two background dancers (they did shake their
backgrounds a great deal). The crowd loved his antics and props (huge women's
underwear, you can take it from there), but I just could not get into the
set. Anyway, the 1997 Blues and Jazz Fest was great. Fine and varied music,
fine and varied food, and some fine folk I got to visit with.

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