Folk-Funk Comes to Hickman High School!

Bobby autographs

Bobby Rush signs student autographs after his show in Hickman High School’s Little Theater. (Photo by Notley Hawkins)

(This piece is part of a memoir-in-progress about my 30+-years of high school edumacating that may or may not appear some day in completed form.)

Sometimes great things fall into your lap, and you have to be ready for them.

In 2009, my wife and I had just returned from a trip to Memphis, and on the way down and back, we’d listened to a heap of Bobby Rush tracks. Bobby, a native of Homer, Louisiana, is the inventor of what he calls “folk funk”: music too funky for blues, too bluesy for funk, and designed for very down-to-earth people. He has also been incredibly durable. One could argue that not only his recordings but also his performances are more vital now than they were thirty years ago; currently in his eighties as of this writing, he shows no signs of slowing down. We’d barely unpacked when my phone rang. The caller was an associate of the Missouri Arts Council, and she’d gotten my name from an acquaintance who’d mentioned that I’d arranged rock and roll concerts at my high school.

“Would Hickman be interested in hosting a blues artist for a concert next month?”

That would seem to be a no-brainer, but as fans of the graphic novel and film Ghost World know, the wrong band or artist can give an audience the blues rather than relieve it of them. I wasn’t going to be held accountable for a Blueshammer-styled band, nor, I must be honest, a painfully sincere “bloozeman” of any stripe. Thus, I had to put on the brakes.

“Well, it depends upon whom. When we do these things, we like to do ‘em up all the way, and I’d hate to, you know, do up something anti-climactic.”

“Have you heard of Bobby Rush?”

I didn’t know whether to shit twice or die.

“Can you hear me ok?”

“Yeah, sorry, I was just a little overcome there. Hell, yes, we’ll do it! Give me the details!” Usually, I asked for the details before agreeing, but, in this case, I would have been a fool.

“Well,” she said, “It’s free of charge to you and the audience; a grant’s paid for it. Bobby’s got his own band and gear—you’d just need to provide a basic PA and monitors. And we’d like to schedule it for the evening so kids could bring their families if they wanted to. I tried to pitch this to Jefferson City Public Schools, but they wanted nothing to do with it.”

“You snooze, you lose. And this will be a huge loss for them. We’re A-OK on the equipment. And evening is great. But, regarding the kids and their families—is Bobby bringing the girls?”

I am sure this is a question anyone trying to book Rush is going to get asked. Bobby frequently performs with three triple-mega-bootylicious dancers to whom he often makes leering but strangely warm and charming reference throughout his shows, and a) I seriously hoped he was travelling with them, but b) I wasn’t sure the snug stage had room for them, and c) I was not sure a transition from high school performance stage to chitlin’ circuit showcase would be altogether without bumps (take that as you will).

She chuckled. “Oh no, he doesn’t have the girls on this leg.” I breathed a sigh of disappointed relief, as well as applied a mental Bobby Rush-like chuckle of lechery to her phrasing.

The next day, the kids of the Academy of Rock, our music appreciation club, and I revved into PR gear. We made and posted flyers, we networked the hallways and school nooks and crannies, and we set up visits to the American history classes, where we planned to show a brief “teaser” segment on Rush from Richard Pearce’s “The Road to Memphis,” an installment of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series. Because I have been a serious nut about music since I heard “Then Came You” float out of a swimming pool jukebox, I have always been careful to find a solid justification for connecting any school use of it to curriculum—probably too careful, but I am like a Pentecostal preacher when I get going, and may the Devil take the curriculum. In this case, the justification too had fallen into my lap: it happened to be Black History Month, and, as dubious as I consider the concept (I prefer Black History Year), I was happy to exploit it. I was also happy that, in my long experience at Hickman, I’d seldom seen a major event staged that directly and intentionally appealed to our 25% black population. Not that I could take credit for anything but saying “yes” to the proposal; in fact, that could accurately serve as my epitaph: “He said ‘Yes’ to life.”

We also got word out to the local press—who were underwhelmed as usual, for the most part—and the Columbia music community, which resulted in my fellow music maniac Kevin Walsh and his young pal Chase Thompson showing up to make a film—as yet unreleased, but I have a dub—of Rush’s appearance.

The day of the show seemed to arrive in an instant. We promptly set up the stage and PA—but, for some reason, the monitors, not exactly top of the gear list in complexity of use, were malfunctioning. We tried everything we knew (admittedly, not much), to no avail. At least we had a computer properly jacked into the PA to record the show, which Bobby’d happily agreed to let us do. Still—one of the few things we’d been asked for we couldn’t deliver. I was also nervous about the turnout, as we had no way of knowing how many folks would arrive, since admission was free.

Bobby and his band (also known as the crew—they hauled and set up their own equipment, which is no unremarkable habit, especially for road vets) arrived right on schedule, and, after finding him and introducing myself and my wife Nicole, I cut right to the chase: “Bobby, our monitors are screwed. That’s about all you wanted, and we messed it up.”

“Phil, Bobby Rush got this! You OK! Been on the road for sixty years and ain’t nothin’ like that ever stopped us! You all just sit back and relax and let Bobby Rush take care of business.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Would you have?

We did as we were told and took a seat. The space was an old-style “Little Theater,” capacity 150, with nice track lighting, comfortable seating, and just enough stage for a five-piece band (Bobby had seven). I am assuming it was originally built for student theatrical performances, but, in the ‘Oughts, it was just as frequently a concert venue. As I write, I feel a pang of sadness in not being there to continue using it.

Bobby and his band genially integrated our small crew of students into their own set-up and soundcheck—they’d also quickly jerry-rigged the monitors and had them working—and were thrilled to find that we planned to have one of the kids run sound for the show. This had been our philosophy since the club was formed in 2004: move over and let some students do the popcorn! An element of risk always threatened proceedings as a result, but that’s life, learning happened, and it’s more fun riding on The Wall of Death, anyway.

I had been in a bit of a nervous trance when I suddenly broke it, looked around, and noticed that the house was almost packed. Not only that, but the concertgoers were predominantly black—with a considerable number of parents and grandparents among them. As is my wont, I quickly twisted my joy into worry as I began to recall certain bawdy Rush routines that might be revisited that very eve.

Bobby

I needn’t have worried. Bobby Rush had this. 75 at the time, he must have set the record for pelvic thrusts in one show. The crowd went wild. He told raunchy stories, including one featuring his minister father. The crowd hollered. He plum-picked his sly repertoire: “Uncle Esau,” “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya,” “I Got Three Problems,” “Henpecked” (“I ain’t henpecked!/I just been pecked by the right hen!”), “Night Fishin’,” “Evil,” “What’s Good for the Goose.” The crowd exploded. He produced a pair of size-75 women’s undies to demonstrate his taste in derrieres. The crowd went bonkers, and the grandmas stood up and shouted amen. He accused our sound man of being a virgin. The crowd—and our soundman—went nuts. He talked about visiting Iraq, about his prison ministry, about struggling up out of the Great Migration to Chicago, about being on damn near every black music scene for fifty years—and about coming through it all to vote for a black president who actually got elected. And the crowd hung, hushed, on his every word, as he delivered a brilliant, deeply personal history lesson we hadn’t even asked for. Even the jerry-rigged sound in that little room was hot as fire and deep as a well, with Rush playing harp like he was possessed by the ghost of Sonny Boy Williamson and snatching a guitar away from a band member to play some razor-sharp solo slide. As I continued to nervously scan what had become a congregation, I was thrilled to notice that the older the person was whom I spied, the wider his (or most definitely her) grin was. The students? They had clearly never seen anything like Bobby Rush before. Our soundman was so mesmerized he forgot to check the recording levels, so our aural document of the show is way into the red.

I know it’s a cliché, but it was, for damn sure, a religious experience. The audience, I think, was more drained than Bobby at show’s end, but not too drained to be shaking their heads in wonderment and giggling with glee. Several of those older folks swung by to tell me, “More of this, please!” The principal who’d drawn event supervision—lucky man!—asked me, “How in hell did this happen, and when’s the next one, ‘cause I’m calling dibs?” Of course, I’d liked to have met those demands with serious supply—but witnessing a bona fide, down and dirty, authentic-but-for-the-booze-smoke-and-BBQ chitlin’ circuit show at a Bible Belt high school, I’m afraid, is a once in a lifetime experience. God, I do love grants and art councils.

Bobby Rush and Us

Nicole and I walked Bobby out into the February night, his arms around both of our shoulders. His eyes and jeri curls were shining, but he hadn’t seemed to have broken a sweat. “I want to thank you all for having us,” he offered, humbly. “I don’t know who had more fun, us or them!”

I quickly replied, “No, man, thank you! That show was so good you’d think you were playing for the president! And we’re just a high school in Missouri!”

He shook his head, smiling.

“I told you, Phil…Bobby Rush got this!”

See Columbia photographer Notley Hawkins’ classic shots from the show here, and do yourself a solid and grab Omnivore Records’ stellar four-CD career summation of Rush, Chicken Heads, here!

Midwest Lo-Fi Psycho-delic Attack: A review of Woody Records’ artist sampler CD by Mackenzie Thomas

It’s always tempting for the cooler-than-thou to think that the kids are out of touch with what’s really cool, but I would refer those misguided individuals to Local H’s “All the Kids Are Right,” and its warning line: “They won’t wear your t-shirts now.” Recently, the best thing about Kansas in this day and age, Woody Records, sent a package to Hickman High School’s Academy of Rock, hoping–daring–that some kids would sample the musical merch and find it…good. In fact, it happened. What follows is Hickman 10th grader Mackenzie Thomas’ take on Woody’s CD sampler–she makes the most of an opportunity I dreamed of at her age but had no way of making real (it was ’78–and neither the underground or technology had erupted)–and I think you’ll see a DECENT and fair music writer at work. Enjoy. And visit Woody Records. (The Editor.)

I am quite new to the lo-fi media scene, but the more I keep listening to the Woody Records Compilation disk, the more I begin to like it and understand the hard work put into it. This compilation contains fifteen tracks by various artists from the midwest area who are all a part of Woody Records, a small label out of Kansas. (Check out Woody Records’ Soundcloud page here to sample these artists yourself. – Ed.)

“If A Man Made A Machine” and “Mild Violence” by Fake Fancy, the first two tracks on the album, immediately caught my attention. “If A Man Made A Machine” has a sweet sound to it, and the rhythm moves to the same rate as my heartbeat. The song makes me feel alive. “Mild Violence” is a little heavier, with grooving bass and lyrics that are quick to the point, the singer stating that he has nothing, and no time for anything: “I’ve got nothing, I’ve got nothing, got nothing, but sunshine to keep me wide awake…” After hearing these two tracks, and assuming that a label would put the best of best on a compilation disk, I wouldn’t mind listening to more by Fake Fancy. Their songs seem to be short and sweet, and with fairly understandable lyrics.

It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around why a band would record and release a song where the vocals are so distorted that it’s impossible to understand what the singer is saying. For example, in “Salsa That One,” by Cucumber and the Suntans, the instrumental intro to the song started off nicely, but as soon as the vocals were added in, it became unenjoyable. All I could hear was “Wa, wa, wa ,wa…”– but that could possibly be the actual words to the song. Cucumber and the Suntans, however, redeem themselves with “Lifes,” a short, folksy tune that would be appealing to those listeners who spend their Sundays down at Cooper’s Landing south of Columbia, watching the muddy river flow by, a cold beer in hand and ears tuned into that weekend’s entertainment, usually something along the lines of country/folk/bluegrass/acoustic.

A doom rock/metal band by the name of Merlin takes their music a whole different direction than that of Cucumber and the Suntans. Their 11-minute instrumental track, “Christ Killer,” starts off with acoustic guitar for the first six minutes, then fades into eerie psychedelic rock. After listening to “Christ Killer,” I went on to listen to Merlin’s self-titled album , which consisted of “heavy hours of drinking, smoking, and worshiping the Dark Lord in a beer soaked, incense filled basement to produce our finest release to date. Implementing all the mystical, doomy, psychedelic, evil vibes from everything we’ve put out thus far, we have created a witches’ brew of all the Elements of MERLIN,” according to their Bandcamp page. Throughout their years of playing and making music together, they’ve seemed to maintain the same overall sound in their songs, while still creating new masterpieces each time.

I believe that Woody Records releases this lo-fi material because it’s cheaper on both the artist and the label, but it also sends out a creative vibe that is hard to find in albums by modern rock/pop artists. This album feels more natural because it hasn’t been auto-tuned and doesn’t consist of electronic beats and bass drops. There is definitely something special about lo-fi music–and this album. The Woody Records Compilation would be appealing to anyone who’s really open-minded about music and loves to support local musicians. This disk ranges from punk to electro-indie to psychedelic rock. It has something for everyone!

Mackenzie Thomas review picture

Mackenzie Thomas is a sophomore at David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, the bass player in Graveyard Youth, and a member of that school’s Academy of Rock. This is her first professional review, and it’s five times better than my first one. 

Mr. and The Mrs.: Raging Punk from Paola, Kansas–The Interview

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Rock and roll–or punk rock, if you prefer–is wonderful in its inclusiveness. For all of its wild reputation, it’s made room for plenty of couples, husbands and wives, even, to make their marks, from X to The Pierced Arrows (the married couple involved in the latter moving up on its 50th anniversary). Speaking of couples, my wife and I made a sojourn to Lawrence, Kansas, a few years ago to see one of our favorite bands, Natural Child, play at the Replay Lounge. We were immediately blown away by the opener, a two-piece band called Mr. and The Mrs. (Ben Hughes, guitar and vocals; Michele Choate, drums) hailing from Paola, Kansas, that defied the current two-piece band convention: no blues or gimmickry, just head-on, raving, bashing rhythm that kept our eyebrows raised. Last year, they dropped the excellent Radiation Beach Blues, and they’ve started a label, Woody Records, which features a fascinating line-up of (what? THAT’S RIGHT!!!) Midwestern rock and roll–if you doubt my enthusiasm, check out their Swamp Comp mixtape from the cream of the label.

As the retired but still semi-aggressive sponsor of Columbia, Missouri’s Hickman High School Academy of Rock, I took up Mr.’s (Ben Hughes’) challenge to encourage our student members to review Woody Records’ output. To kick off that experiment, I offer you here an inspiring interview I recently conducted with the band–the inspiration comes from the answers, not the questions. Also, if you are a Kansan or Missourian and see them billed, GO! If you’re not seeing them billed, petition your local venue operator to GET WITH THE REGIONAL TALENT and help you and your homefolks shake their asses!

Phil Overeem: First, are you really Mr. and The Mrs.? Two-person bands can’t always be trusted, you know!

Mr. and the Mrs: Yes, we are actually married. We were married about two years before we decided to be a band. We couldn’t really think of a band name, so Mr. and the Mrs. it is.

PO: That out of the way, what is the origin of the band?

MM: I went to the Replay Lounge to get a Paperhead 7-inch signed. They’re a band off the label Nashville’s Dead. Anyways, it was such an awesome show that I came home and told Michele. We went to shows for about a year, then decided this is something we should be doing.

PO: What are your favorite bands and influences—I know they can be two separate things? Also, in the MO-KS Matrix of Semi-to-Totally Unknown Punk Bands, what is one band (besides yourselves) you think everyone should see?

MM:

(Michele) Well, my favorite band growing up was Tupac, for sure. I don’t really have a favorite now (too many good bands). As for influences, I’ve been told I have a Ramones sound, but I never really paid close attention to how someone else played. It’s probably a mix of everything I’ve ever heard subconsciously influencing how I play.

(Ben) I have many, many influences from many genres. My favorite bands at the moment that someone might know are Nobunny, and Thee Oh Sees. I’d say if you want to see an awesome punk band, then Nobunny’s the show to see. He has tons of energy, the crowd is going nuts, plus he’s a weirdo and plays in his whities and a raggedy bunny mask.

PO: My people are all from the center of Kansas (Hutchinson area), and I know from observation that the landscape can drive a young person to drugs—seriously. Did living in Kansas play a role in you “turning to” punk rock music? And are there other outposts than Lawrence, Kansas City, or (I’m assuming) Manhattan that we Show-Me Staters don’t know about?

MM: We can’t say for sure that living in Kansas led us to punk music, but it definitely led us to music, for sure. As you know, there’s not much to do most the time and music is the best way to express your boredom, anger, happiness, or however you feel. Wichita would be another place—they have all kinds of stuff going on. There’s This Ain’t Heaven Recordings, and Red Cat Recording. That’s just two we know of. They have all sorts of cool bands like Slime Flower (a band of high schoolers that rock), and Iron Octomoms. One of the guys from Iron Octomoms also does all sorts of crazy photography. Wichita also has ICT/Noise, and Psychfest that have become pretty popular over the past few years.

This is not in Kansas or Missouri, but Oklahoma has a pretty decent scene going on too. We have played with with the bands The Daddyos, Cucumber and the Suntans, and Who and the Fu**s. All awesome bands, and people, the place is producing all kinds of cool bands lately. The last time we played there we played a place called The Fur Trap and it was packed! It has a place downstairs that’s for normal bar attendees, and upstairs the bands play and work on drawing the other crowd upstairs. Oh, plus the band Broncho is from there—check them out!

PO: This is a little different question, but what are the special challenges of being a band from Kansas? Of being a two-piece? Of not having a beard when it’s mandatory? Of being in a band with someone you love?

MM: Until recently, I don’t think many people took the Midwest seriously, we had no viable scene, and not a whole lot of bands had ever made it out of this area. Not that a lot of bands have “made it” recently, but there are enough cool bands from here touring and spreading the word, or bands coming here on tour and getting a good crowd response. Or even quite a few local bands being picked up on mid-class record labels to make people notice. It’s sort of been a group effort.
As a two-piece we catch a lot of grief for lacking a bass player. We also get a lot of White Stripes nods as a two-piece with a girl drummer. Not that it’s a bad nod, but our music sounds nothing like the White Stripes.

PO: Agreed! And not really like any two-piece band I’ve ever seen!

mr and Mrs 2

MM: (Michele) As for the beard, Ben always has a beard. It may not always be long and outta control, but it’s always there.
(Ben) Also I’m not a hipster and don’t have my beard as a fad, I’m just a dude with a beard who likes my beard. Well, being in a band with my lover doesn’t really have any drawbacks. Maybe the biggest drawback not music related would be, we often need a babysitter for our three kids. We play a lot of shows, and it’s not always easy. Actually, good to be in a band with your lover, because we push each other to keep going, we can’t miss practice because of some made up excuse, plus we’re a couple that has something besides family we build together. We’re not a guy who hangs in the garage or golf course, while the chick drinks wine & cleans house. Sorry, but there just aren’t many drawbacks for us.

PO: WOW! That’s nothing to apologize for!!! While we are talking challenges, and since we’re a high school rock and roll club that is entering the world of Woody Records and that features bands that play live here in town, what are your 5 keys to being able to sustain a band in today’s economy and entertainment world?

MM:

1) Don’t quit your day job.

2) You get paid in coolness more than in cash.

3) Shut your mouth. This means people WILL be or act messed up; however, if you open your mouth even if it’s for the benefit of the scene, someone will find a way to twist it around and make you seem like the bad guy. It’s a mix between politics & high school.

4) Do it because you love it. This stands for whatever you choose to do in life. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has been said a million times; it has also broken up a million bands. The rock ‘n’ roll part is what it’s about—it may not seem that way as a high schooler, but save yourself the trouble and do the first two sparingly.

5) Do your own thing. Don’t make music a certain way because that’s how everyone else is doing it. Music is about self-expression, not trying to be like someone else.

PO: What was the inspiration behind Woody Records? I am assuming you are the founder, but, if not, tell us what your role is, and maybe what the label’s philosophy is?

MM:

(Michele) Woody Records started as a character me and a friend drew in school. He has a whole life story that spans the beginning to reincarnation. I used to write raps when I was younger & decided that I would make my own label, produce, & put out rap that I liked. Instead, I quit writing raps, started playing drums, and, when it came time to put out music, it just seemed right to use Woody Records. Our philosophy is put out good music, put it out in physical formats, and spread it to as many people as possible.

PO: What is your songwriting process? Words or music first, or do they kind of come out together?

MM:

(Michele) Our song writing happens during practice. One of us, usually Ben, will randomly come up with a riff and we’ll just build on it and mess around a bit. Sometimes it will turn into a song, sometimes not. Music always comes before lyrics. It’s easier to have a base to work from when writing lyrics.

PO: Several of my favorite bands (Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows, X, you two) feature or featured a husband and a wife. When it comes to writing lyrics, or choosing subjects for songs, do they come from your own life experiences, or from just an idea for a rock and roll song, or…where?

MM: Our lyrics are generally based on life, ours or the people around us, even just a read on society as a whole. We just add a little twisted humor to the situation. However we have a few songs that are just BS like “Dead Pets,” for an example.

PO: What’s the best band you’ve ever played with? And a slightly different question: who are the best human beings who’ve been in a band you’ve played with?

MM: Best band? We’ve played with some awesome bands. Natural Child, which is the show we met you at, Phil, The Conquerors, a band from KC. The Night Beats–I dunno, there isn’t just one best band. [As for the second question], [e]ach other. I know it comes off as corny, but when it’s crunch time, we can count on each other to get what needs done, done. Everyone else seems flaky when it comes to practice, or being sober. Sometimes stuff needs to get done and you have to focus—not many people accept music isn’t always just a party.

PO: Describe the best show you two have ever played.

MM: We got to open up for Natural Child and the Night Beats. Two bands we really love. When you’re just starting out as the little guy in the scene and you get a chance like this, it’s almost indescribable. It’s awesome, for lack of a better word.

PO: Thanks for your time, and for rocking out, and for being a great and unique model for a rock and roll band. We hope to bring you to the school, or at least to Columbia, for a show.

Mr. and and The Mrs. next play at Harling’s in Kansas City on March 27!