By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Dust off your blues shoes; the Sixth Annual North Liberty Blues & BBQ festival will take place near Liberty Centre Park & Pond on May 26, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and the musical lineup is ready to get the house a-rockin.
The festival brings in the best local and regional musicians, and admission is always free. This year’s talent includes professional musicians with loyal followings and years of experience, as well as some young performers fresh to the festival stage.
It’s a bit of an experiment; the Blues & BBQ committee has never opened the venue to student performers. Committee member BJ Jaggers said the opportunity for students to perform at Blues & BBQ helps foster their interest in the genre, and raises the community’s awareness of the ways in which music programs in local schools and private studios are positively influencing their protégés.
To get things started, the North Central Junior High (NCJH) Jazz Band will play the national anthem, along with a couple more high-energy tunes that complement the venue’s flavor.
The Jazz Band, usually a 40-piece ensemble, will be whittled down slightly because some students have scheduling conflicts, but NCJH band instructor Bill Scheidecker said the students were excited about being invited.
“When I first mentioned it, I was pleasantly surprised by how many students knew about the festival, and had attended it,” said Scheidecker. “They instantly seemed to say, ‘Wow, that’s cool. We really get to do that?”
Their commitment remains strong, he said, as jazz band members have to come to school early, twice a week, in order to rehearse.
“Our last Jazz Band concert was in April, but these students continue to come in early when they could be sleeping in,” he said.
Scheidecker, who has been teaching band at NCJH for five years as well as fifth and sixth grade band students at Penn Elementary in North Liberty, said the festival is a chance to showcase what the students have learned.
“There is a lot of overlap between blues music and jazz music,” he said. “We talk through the 12-bar blues structure and introduce the blues scale.”
It is also an occasion to play to a wider audience, beyond their parents and family members.
“I know the kids will step up and do a great job, because they always want to do a great job for any audience,” Scheidecker said. “I think this opportunity will show them their hard work is worthwhile, and I hope they stick around and listen to the professional musicians and get inspired to continue.”
Another set of young musicians will debut for Blues & BBQ later in the day; students from North Liberty’s music4life program perform at 3:45 p.m. This group has had some experience at improvising with music as they perfect their playing at the local studio, but this is the first time they will take the stage as a group for such a large audience. Studio owner and instructor Marek Sznyrgala said the chance for his students to perform at Blues & BBQ is empowering.
“Hopefully, when they grow, they will feel comfortable playing gigs in other places,” said Sznyrgala. “We love this community, and we want to contribute. We want people to know what is going on with the students at music4life, and we want the town to be proud of them.”
This year’s festival offers up even more homegrown talent playing down home blues. Matt “Matty Koolaid” Panek is a 10-year North Liberty resident, and heads up the Electric Koolaid Trio, a combo of musicians that have played the Blues & BBQ stage before, but not in this incarnation. Lead guitarist Panek, drummer Eric Madison and bass player John Lane have backed veteran Kevin “BF” Burt for about 20 years as the Instigators. Panek decided to stretch his own blues wings, and the Electric Koolaid Trio has been headlining their own gigs for about two years now, although Panek and Madison will still be jamming with Burt during his late-evening set this Saturday as well. Lane had a conflict with the date, so the Electric Koolaid Trio will be rounded out by bassist Al Robinson, and expanded to four with special guest Tommy “T-Bone” Giblin– Iowa Blues Hall of Fame 2004 inductee– on keyboards.
Panek said picking up the blues has come naturally to him, though he didn’t start playing the guitar until he was about 19 years old.
“I could feel the music,” he said, ever since his older brother brought home a Stevie Ray Vaughn album. “I though, wow, what is this? It captivated me, and I bought a guitar. I obsessed over it until I felt like I was good enough to play in a band.”
Panek obsessed himself all the way to the recording studio; Electrik Koolaid just released its first CD, self-titled and consisting of six covers of Panek’s favorite blues artists and four original tunes. Panek has written songs before– for others to sing, until now– and the band works collaboratively on the arrangements on this CD, including the track “Occupy the Blues,” a piece that Panek wrote while undergoing both a career change and the influence of the media-hyped Occupy Wall Street movement.
Panek grew up in Marion, and that afforded him the opportunity to bask in the brilliance of another Marion musician who will storm the Blues & BBQ stage this year.
“I used to sneak into the back door of the bar in downtown Marion and listen to Bryce Janey and his family,” said Panek. “He was, like, 12 years old and he’d be playing the guitar up over his head.”
That is, in fact, how Janey got his start. In the blues/rock trio The Janeys, with Bryce’s mom on drums and he and his father Billy Lee on guitar, the Janey’s built a regional following and have performed all over the nation with more than 100 big-name acts, including Buddy Guy, Delbert McClinton, Blues Traveler, Johnny Winter and the late Koko Taylor. Bryce launched a solo career in 1995, and has eight well-reviewed CDs in his discography.
Bryce claims that most of the original blues greats are gone, “so all of us after that are just players of the music,” he said. “Blues is an art form, but the people who really lived it– they had hard times. We are not the original players of the original art form, so we are not totally traditional.”
Over the years and through his own dues-paying, Bryce has developed a blues style distinctively his own. While Iowa isn’t considered a blues mecca– “It’s not Memphis,” Bryce said– his father helped to bring a lot of musicians from Chicago and other large cities, and that helped to build a local blues following.
“That had a big influence on us playing the kind of music we play,” he said.
And he is in good company, he added.
“There is a lot of talent here in bands of all genres,” he said. “It gives musicians a lot of opportunities to play and write their music without a lot of the pressure from being in the rat race, where it’s so competitive.”
Like Memphis, perhaps. But Bryce holds his own in competitions; he was winner of the 2011 Iowa Blues Challenge in the solo/duo category, and a semi-finalist in the International Blues Challenge, held in Memphis in January.
This weekend, the Bryce Janey group will be in full force, with DJ Johnson on bass, Eric Douglas on drums, and BillyLee Janey and Bryce on guitar, as well as “T-Bone” Giblin playing his second set for the day on keyboards.
“We always try to throw out some stuff people know, but we mix in a lot of own stuff too, in a way that isn’t too pushy. We like people to have a good time and not be overly serious,” said Bryce.
Also performing laid-back blues with seriously supreme style will be the Avey Brothers, Iowa Blues Hall of Famer Ernie Peniston and perennial Blues & BBQ crowd-pleaser Kevin “BF” Burt and the Instigators.
Burt is the only act to return to the Blues & BBQ festival every year, and he likes the venue for the way it continues to honor Iowa blues musicians, such as the Avey Brothers from the Quad Cities.
The Avey Brothers are lead guitarist and vocalist Chris Avey, brother Mark Avey on bass and Bryan West on drums (drummer Wes Weeber will be filling in this weekend). The guitar-driven power trio infuses blues and rock with a little taste of zydeco for their own brand of blues.
“We play traditional blues with a lot of energy, and add a lot of our own flavor to our originals,” said Mark Avey.
The band was champion of the 2008 and 2009 Iowa Blues Challenge and finalists at the 2010 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. The Avey Brothers have just released their third CD. Though the Avey Brothers is another band that has traveled and performed internationally, Mark Avey agreed that there’s no place like home.
“We really enjoy playing for our fans in Iowa,” said Mark. “It’s like playing in our own back yard.”
So come on down to the crossroads of Penn Street and Liberty Way in North Liberty this weekend; it’s One Day. One Party. One cool time.