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Long-Silent Blues Festival Set For A Revival In Kansas City, Kansas

Courtesy Dawayne Gilley
K.C. Kelsey Hill and Linda Shell are the king- and queen-in-waiting of the Kansas City Kansas Street Blues Festival.

The Kansas City Kansas Street Blues Festival has had a hard life. In fact, fans of the scrappy two-day concert featuring all-local musicians probably thought it was dead, since it hasn't graced the corner of 13th and State with baleful riffs and barbecue smoke since 2009.

But like the characters in its performers' songs, it's found a way to survive. After seven years of silence, festival founder Dawayne Gilley says he's bringing it back this summer.

Gilley was finalizing plans for the 2010 festival when he heard from the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Works Department that state statutes governing liquor at outdoor festivals had changed, and Gilley lacked the necessary permits.

"I had to explain to them we don’t hire B.B. King or Aretha Franklin or Al Green," he says. "For nine years we’d been BYOB, and now we had to gate the whole thing off and tell people they couldn't bring in their cooler? We’re not the type of event that somebody’s going to pay $3, $4 or $8 dollars a drink. We weren’t about selling alcohol. We were about presenting music."

He'd already named a king and queen for that year's festival – musicians K.C. Kelsey Hill and Linda Shell – but he had to call it off.

"I felt like I cheated my daughter out of a wedding or going to college, that’s how I felt about it," Gilley says.

He spent the last seven years saving up his money, and now he's secured the necessary permits – not for a street corner, but on a 44-acre plot of land owned by a longtime festival supporter named Frank Lavender. The site, Lavender’s Circle L Ranch, is on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River just west of the old Quindaro Township.

"It's rolling hillside, not residential. You're in the city but it feels like being in the country, Gilley says.

That doesn't mean he's changing the name of his Street Blues Festival.

"That's our heritage. That's who we are," Gilley says. "We started at 3rd and Parallel because there were so many clubs in that area, on Third and Fifth streets, that were gone. So many of our black heritage performers would say, 'It’s thrilling to play for white audiences, we love it, but there’s no opportunity to play in the black community.' That’s how the festival ended up on Third Street."

After a six-year run in that spot, the festival moved to Kaw Point Park for one year, and then to 13th and State Avenue for its last two summers. Gilley estimates as many as 7,000 people attended the free, two-day festival there.

Gilley is presenting the event as a fundraiser for Widow's Sons Masonic Lodge of Kansas City, Kansas. He's lined up a couple of sponsors, but he'll still have to charge "a small something" this year: ten bucks for adults. (Kids get in free.)

"I wish we could maintain free," he says. "I know it will hurt in some ways, but if we don’t charge something to offset the expenses, there's no way I will be willing to bankroll the event back to its feet year after year."

Given the entrance fee and the new location, he doesn't expect the same crowds as in previous years.

"But I think there are still a lot of people who want to see it," Gilley says. "Our program is still the same. We still present the same type of heritage performers and sprinkle a lot of younger folks in."

Among those heritage performers: K.C. Kelsey Hill and Linda Shell, who will finally get their crowns.

The Kansas City Kansas Street Blues Festival, 3-8 p.m. on Friday, June 24, and noon-8 p.m. on Saturday, June 25, at Lavender's Circle L Ranch, 3924 N 49th Drive, Kansas City, Kansas, 66104. Scheduled acts include K.C. Kelsey Hill and Linda Shell, Diane "Mama" Ray, John Paul Drum, Millage Gilbert, Danny Cox, Bob & Diana Suckiel, D.C. Bellamy, Ida McBeth, Bill Carter and others yet to be named.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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