One of the annual highlights of summer here abouts is the Little Apple Music Festival K-State’s Union Program Council puts on at the Norvell Bandshell in City Park. The event is a marathon of music—this last Saturday there were five acts playing sequentially from 5 p.m. to 10:30.
A second stage was, as usual, provided to the side of the bandshell one, so there is little time between acts. But it was, as it always seems to be, hot out there. The festival’s usual good-sized crowd swells after the sun goes down.
This year’s festival, following a trend begun last year, was not solely dedicated to jazz. Despite the variety of musical genres, though, it was true that each of the five acts stayed remarkably close to their own paradigms. Wayne Goins didn’t stand up in the middle of his set and begin to play “Basin Street Blues.”
Local pop rock band Vineyard didn’t break into late ‘60s Soul, and “loop artist” Noah Hoehn didn’t put down his electronic gear and honor Lionel Hampton for a song. Samantha Fish’s trio did stop long enough for its leader to do an acoustic guitar version of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” but how far is that great song from Fish’s usual twelve-bar blues?
And headliners The Steel Wheels stayed very close to contemporary folk music sounds.
This is not to say the musicians weren’t skilled, talented, and interesting to listen to. Festival fans and area jazz buffs already know that Goins’s guitar can amuse anyone with ears. Dr. Goins’s Jazz Combo was, in this case, a duo of arch-top guitarists.
They played a pleasant fifty-minute set of nine songs, performing from chairs on the main stage. The template here was simple but adaptable. Goins would begin with a pattern from which his partner produced a rhythm support line. Then one of them, usually Goins, would play the song’s familiar melody—”If I Only Had a Heart” from the Wizard of Oz, for example, or “Summertime.”
From there the developments would flow. It wasn’t until the fifth number that the duo changed their rhythm and rate, and the change immediately produced the first action on the Festival’s dance floor.
Local (and young) quintet Vineyard then took the auxiliary stage. Playing with precision and enthusiasm, the group had a happy pop sound that was most obvious when they covered Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls”—even the original recording is more Country than was Vineyard’s version.
At least three members of the band sang, with two taking lead vocals at different times, and they sang harmony and unison all pretty well. During much of their set, one of the singers played fiddle, and there was a little use of banjo as a novelty sound.
Then came the intellectual problem set of the show, a performance by the very talented singer and harmonica player Noah Hoehn, from Minneapolis Minnesota. Hoehn used, he told us, eighty-seven different digital recording loops, never relying on anything pre-recorded, but always beginning each song by playing and “taping” (for those of us old enough to remember the Echo-Plex) musical lines which were then re-played so that Hoehn could add to them, building up a song from individual lines.
He is an adept mallet instrument player who could use his portable electronic “mallet cat” to make sounds that seemed guitarish, bass-like, or as if it were any melodic instrument. He also made good use of some percussion instruments, especially the Udu, which looks something like a pony keg.
Hoehn relied on processed “effects.” The electronic music was going to seem unnatural enough anyway without the echo, for example. But this seems like a small gunch. Generally speaking his set was fascinating, and his late performance of the Who’s “Baba O’Reily” did a lot to reveal what he was doing with all those recorded loops.
Next, on the auxiliary stage, we got a guitar power trio led by KCMO’s Samantha Fish. Fish plays guitar (and its cigar box bodied cousin and something called “oil can”) quite well, and sings well too, especially the ramp-out improvised frills that test the pipes. She likes Blues, and the band gave us Blues, usually in fairly simple forms which began with her near conversational singing of a verse followed by increasingly operatic treatments of the choruses.
But twelve-bar is a pretty simple framework, and Fish’s rhythm section seemed to imagine itself a solid foundation rather than a pair of collaborative explorers. So the break for that “Dead Flowers” was welcome, even though we were enjoying the set. And the closing stripped-down Zeppelin sounds were almost an ironic comment on the rest of the highly competent performance by the skilled and hard working band.
The key to understanding The Steel Wheels, it seems to me, is to think of them as a vocal group, not as an instrumental one. Fiddle player Eric Brubaker was the featured soloist, and through we also got solo lines from the group’s mandolin and guitar, the emphasis was on the singing.
Despite the group’s instrumentation (the fourth member plays an upright bass, and there was some banjo playing during the set), this is not a Bluegrass band. Guitarist Trent Wagler—a former Kansan playing with guys from Virginia—did most of the lead singing, and there’s a little rasp in his voice. The others sang good harmony, and the material was at the folk end of what we’ve come to refer to as “roots.” Their “Redwing” (for which they were joined on-stage by Wagler’s father) comes from the same melody archetype as P.F. Sloan’s “This Mornin’.”
Altogether, then, the 2014 Little Apple Music Festival brought an interesting assortment of musicians, each act with its own scheme, to a darkness (and coolness) preferring local audience who got a marathon of musical pleasure free of charge.