How The World Wags
By Dave Kiffer
There is a scene in the movie where Ray Charles is performing before a packed auditorium and it takes me back to the old Kayhi Auditorium in the early 1970s, when Charles brought his big band to Ketchikan. It was one of the great moments of my youth and changed my life.
Watching the Ray Charles big band in the old 1,200 - standing room only - seat auditorium was a great treat. It was my first chance to hear the power and drive of a professional big band. You can listen to all the records you want, but the minute I heard that big V-8, Cadillac of a band launch into the opening notes of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser" I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a musician and I wanted to play that type of music. That, of course, eventually lead me and my trusty saxophone into the musical jungle of Los Angeles after high school. But I digress.
When Ray Charles himself came on stage after that first band "warm up" number, you could just feel the electricity shoot through the crowd.. I've seen dozens of concerts since then in everything from small clubs to huge arenas to motor speedways (my ears are still ringing from "Cal Jam" 25 years ago) and I've never matched that feeling of sheer joy when Charles launched into his first song "I Got A Woman."
It was a great concert. It was a long concert (well over two hours). And it was a surprising concert (he played Country Western songs to go along with the blues, gospel, jazz, pop and soul). Driving it all was that powerful 20-piece big band punching all the accents and making the slinky outfits of the Raelettes (there's a great line in "Ray" about how they got that name,) shimmy, shimmy, shimmy all across the Kayhi stage.
Toward the end of the concert, the band launched into the opening strains of "Georgia" and a woman behind me actually sighed. It wasn't "Beatlemania" but it was about as close as it gets around these parts.
Watching the movie made me a little nostalgic for a time in Ketchikan's history when it was still possible to bring big and semi big music names into the community. In those years, the Frontier Saloon hosted folks like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. I remember Bobbie Gentry (Harper Valley PTA) performing in the shortest little yellow skirt I had ever seen (gore tex mini-skirts were late arriving on these shores!).
Folk /pop stars like Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin also came to town in those years, along with other well-known entertainers like Victor Borge and the Irish Rovers (the Kayhi backstage reportedly smelled like beer for the next week).
These days you don't see too many national or international "names" locally. It has just become too prohibitively expensive to bring them here. They end up satisfying their "Alaska" urge by hitting Los Anchorage or Squarebanks. In the old days, they sometimes sat in Seattle and said "what the heck, it's just a short plane ride" and that's how they got here. Now the really big names need bigger venues (think Sullivan Arena) or bigger ticket prices (think Las Vegas) than we can afford.
That's too bad, because - as I was reminded watching the Ying Quartet this week - that we gain an immeasurable amount when we watch the true professionals of music perform. It reminds one - in a way that listening to a CD or watching someone on TV can't - that real people, through hard work and ability, can transcend the day-to-day and create something that is so much greater than the sum of our human parts. The Arts Council does a great job in bringing top quality artists - like the Ying String Quartet - to our community year after year, but I still find myself hankering for that occasional "spark" of a seeing a true legend in our "house," our fair Salmon City.
When I was on the committee planning the Ketchikan Centennial Celebration in 2000, we thought we had reached an agreement with a fairly big name, the rock band Los Lobos. But that deal fell through and we replaced Los Lobos with three "smaller groups": The Blind Boys of Alabama, cajun star Terrance Simien and the San Francisco swing band Lavay Smith and the Red Hot Skillet Lickers. In the end, it was more music (and great music at that) but I know some folks were bummed that we didn't bring in a "name." Recently, Paul Revere and Raiders were in town and they were a once a "name" but that was a few years ago (although not as far back as the American Revolution).
Of course, just bringing a "name" into town can sometimes backfire. At least a couple of the "names" the Frontier brought in, in the old days, arrived on stage so drunk that they were barely able to stand up, let alone "perform." That continues to happen as two other recent entertainers didn't exactly light up the Saxman Tribal House because they were a little too "lit" themselves.
One of the most memorable "backfires" was a group that hit the Kayhi stage a couple of years after Charles' visit. The Native American group "Redbone" came to town. "Redbone" had a couple of top forty hits in the mid 1970s, most notably a catchy little number called "Come and Get Your Love." They were a pretty good band and we were excited to have a real, live rock band come to town.
Unfortunately, they had a hard time adjusting their volume level to the realities of the Kayhi auditorium. They showed up with racks of amplifiers that I thought - at the time - would have been better suited to the LA Coliseum. Years later, I played in the LA Coliseum with less amplification than Redbone foisted upon those of us in K-town.
Was it loud? (What? What?? What did you say????) Yes, it was loud. It was very loud. It was very, very loud.
It was beyond "painful stereo" loud. It was beyond jet engine loud. It was worse than Cal Jam loud (see above). It was so loud that the unthinkable happened. After about three songs, we left. We walked over to my girlfriend's house on Denali Street. We sat on her front steps (easily about half a mile away from Kayhi). There it was like sitting in your living room with the stereo just at the "too loud to converse" level. We enjoyed the rest of the concert.
For the next few days, there were quite a few people walking around town cupping their ears during conversations. I don't think the damage was permanent. Then again, when I mentioned the name "Redbone" in polite conversation a while back at least two of the now middle-aged former rock and roll fans began twitching uncontrollably.
I guess I shouldn't make comparisons. It's just that when I think about that long ago Ray Charles concert my toes start to tap and my head starts to shake back and forth and I probably start biting my lip in some funny way. I'm sure it looks something like an uncontrollable twitch.
"But On the Other Hand, Baby" nostalgia like that will just lead me to "Drown in My Own Tears" so maybe I better "Just Hit the Road, Jack", at least for now.