The 2014 Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival has just wrapped up, and once again I find myself thinking about it. It seems to have been a rousing success, even after losing one of its original headliners (the marvelous Kris Lager Band) and having to punt. It was, as always, a huge amount of fun!

This year, I was only able to make it to the Friday night pub crawl and the Saturday jam session, so I can’t say much about the typically epic events of Saturday night (usually the biggest night of the Fest). Still, if Friday was any indication, the crowds on Saturday night’s pub crawl must have been massive. The whole town came out, and so did busloads of folks from Sioux City and environs. Even with the usual inclement weather, downtown Cherokee was full of revelers, and everyone was having (as far as I could tell) an absolutely marvelous time.
Still, I was especially struck this year by the connection between the packed houses and the decidedly broad interpretation of the categories of “jazz” and “blues” on display. There was a wonderful jazz combo on the pub crawl at Main Street Catering (local gem Justin Kisor) and a clinic for student musicians in the afternoon, but Friday’s big acts were really pop/rock cover and tribute acts, not dedicated blues or jazz players. Elizabeth Hunstad and company held down the fort at The Gasthaus with a nice, fun mix of pop covers and occasional American Songbook-variety jazz/blues classics (I gather she also did originals, but I wasn’t there for the whole night). The Gasthaus is a tough place to play — space is tight — but she did a fine job of entertaining a capacity crowd. Sweet-voiced Damon Dotson kept the very crowded party jumping at the Brightside Lounge with a mix of originals and covers of the contemporary pop singer-songwriter variety (think Coldplay). Every hippie of every possible age was at The Gathering Place  to hear the Daylight Again show (a very popular Crosby Stills Nash tribute act).
Do not mistake what I’m saying here for a criticism of the bands or the festival organizers — the bands worked hard, and they entertained their HUGE crowds really, really well. Cherokee’s downtown businesses made good money, and everyone had a terrific time.  I still found myself wondering (as I sat in the comparatively calm but still full Main Street Catering venue to hear Justin Kisor’s combo do marvelous things) what would happen if the Friday night bands had all been jazz and blues acts rather than pop acts. I gather one of the reasons why festivals of this kind in some regions of the country have gone pop is because they feel that they have a better shot at filling venues — serious jazz and blues acts are, in some parts of the country at least, acts for a discerning few rather than a raucus many. Party music in some places now really is bro-country or classic rock covers or hip-hop, not old-school jazz and blues. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — people like what they like, and we don’t all have to agree — but there is something that I personally find a little sad about a jazz and blues festival with so little actual jazz and blues. Still, I can’t complain too loudly about fun and good music, and there was plenty of that to go around!
Of course, some of my judgy elitist jerk worries were assuaged by the Saturday jam, hosted by a po/rock cover act (the very gracious and lovely Omaha band Abby Normal, stepping in for Kris Lager). For me, there were three really brilliant moments that gave me jazz-and-blues hope. The first was the always great appearance of young blues guitar prodigy Paul Zelle (playing as Sleepy Bones Allison & The Sleepy Bones Blues Band). 11 years old and brilliantly crunchy on his guitar, rocking out with his mom slapping some great bass. They had played on Friday night, too (a late addition to the program) right before Daylight Again. Even cooler, he stepped up to jam with local blues fiddler Joe Cullen for the Muddy Waters-esque noise, and they really did live the spirit of a blues jam. This wasn’t polished, perfect, mature stuff — this was raucous, sometimes very weird, fun and funky kid stuff. It was a beer bottle slide on a fiddle.

The third great bit was when local band Short Notice stepped up to close out the day. What they brought to the table was not traditional blues or jazz, but the kind of really blues-filled rock (Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Black Keys covers) that bridges the gap between cover party bands and real blues acts in the best sort of way. They were just right.
Oh, so much fun! I wish I could have made it to the Saturday night acts (especially Studebaker John, another serious blues act).

About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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