This past weekend, the Annual Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival took over the streets of charming Cherokee, IA, the way it does every January. The event really does get the whole town out, no matter what the weather (and Saturday night’s temperatures were downright dangerous). For two days, music is the business of Cherokee, with events ranging from clinics for high school musicians to the raucous nightly pub crawls (in which different bands rock different venues simultaneously, and revelers follow their bliss from scene to scene). This year, there was a grand ballroom dance, too, which brought some truly phenomenal dancers to the sweet big band sounds of the Mearl Lake Orchestra; these same dancers also classed up the pub crawl with some serious moves.
The music is not, strictly speaking, all jazz and blues. It’s not a purist’s festival, to be sure — but that’s actually a good thing, I think. The Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival is, in some ways, a brilliantly local celebration that also happens to bring in some great people from out of town, and even venues not directly involved with the festival find it to their advantage to celebrate, too (local rock trio Justus played Saturday during pub crawl, and no doubt crawlers found it; the amazing Kris Lager Band shredded The Other Place bar on Friday night and drew no few of the festival participants in as well as the usual local Lager (and lager) fans. That some of the music may not satisfy a purist (or an ethnomusicologist) matters less than the whole experience. There’s always a little something for everyone: clinics for student musicians, a big band dance, sweet old standards, blues-rock madness, a delightful Saturday afternoon jam session hosted by one of the visiting bands, etc.
To get the feel of the festival, though, you have to have some sense of the venues on the pub crawl. To my mind, the crawl is an amazing festival feature — it draws huge crowds through several different venues, and creates a sort of moving party all over town. It also shows off the many different faces of Cherokee, in both its spaces and its sounds.
On Friday night this year, I started out at The Gasthaus, where Chad Elliott (marvelous local singer/songwriter of the Americana variety) and his delightful musical sidekick Bonita Crowe were squeezed into a tight, busy corner by the bar.
(L to R) Bonita Crowe, Chad Elliott, Paul Sleezer (Hi, Paul! Just noticed I got you in the shot!)
The Gasthaus is not what you’d call a spacious joint, and Chad’s a got a lot of fans in the area, which means that the restaurant and bar were packed to the walls. The walls themselves are also packed (you can get a small taste of how busy they are in the photo), covered with photos and old license plates and assorted signs and memorabilia. There’s not an inch of the place left unoccupied by either a person, a place setting, or a sign. The resulting atmosphere is cluttered and chummy, and Chad and Bonita filled any tiny spaces left in the air with great music.
My next stop was The Gathering Place
, where Jimmy Davis and Friends (aka The Buffalo Ridge Band) were backing up local country prodigy Kelsey Klingensmith
as well as slinging a little of their own fun.
(L to R) Brooks Begay, Kelsey Klingensmith, Jimmy Davis, and Jimmy Davis’ Hat
Across Main Street from the Gasthaus, The Gathering Place (a venue I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many times as performer and as audience member) is its opposite in terms of size, design, and atmosphere. It’s a long, narrow, high-ceilinged building with two mezzanine rises at each end, studios and offices in the basement, and a small kitchen below the rear mezzanine. A stage commands space in front of the rear mezzanine on the main floor, and that stage is always lit by a waiting moon. It’s just a meeting space (not a bar or restaurant), so while people are permitted (nay, encouraged) to bring refreshments for themselves, there’s no clink of glassware or busy waitstaff fighting the crowds here. There are chairs, there are chairs at tables, there are standing tables with no chairs…one responds as one pleases to this space. There are decorations (metal wall sculptures, posters, hanging tapestries/carpets), but the decor is sparse; the stage dominates all attention.
On Friday, Kelsey’s many fans were there to see her step off that stage with her wireless mic and walk among them, already professional and assured at 14 years old. This was a different audience from the bar crowd across the street. It was also a slicker sort of show; instead of cluttered and chummy Americana in a bar, this music was tightly produced Contemporary Country on stage, which is a much, much different critter. Kelsey had lights and a sound guy. Chad and Bonita had two mics, a couple of guitars, and a large amp, and barely fit in the available room.
When Kelsey’s second set ended, local musician Charlie Leissler, troubador of Cherokee, joined the Buffalo Ridge Band/Jimmy Davis et. al. for a little late-night original folk-rocking (with occasional CSN — Charlie and several of the BRB also perform a CSN tribute show). It was a big change — Kelsey’s crew left with her (many young family sorts not likely to stay out late), and folks filtered in from other pub crawl venues to see Charlie. After he finished, a few of us stuck around and jammed on into the wee hours (including the keyboard player from the Kris Lager Band, whose set had finished at The Other Place). When the crowds left, the band played on…because, of course, the crowd wasn’t really why anyone was playing at that point.
Not all music is a show, no matter how you do it.