For skeptics, reggae in the Midwest has always been a silly scenario: a bunch of landlocked suburban kids earnestly empathizing with the political struggles of poverty-stricken Jamaicans. (Think of the clueless “right on, mon” dreadlocked white Rastas in Ten Things I Hate About You.) But the people who actually became involved in Kansas City’s scene know that it overcame this easy caricature. Kansas City has hosted successful reggae festivals, attracted artists such as Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear and Culture, and spawned bands like Green Card and Common Ground. And for sixteen years, The Grand Emporium has nurtured this growth with its Wednesday reggae showcases, which provided a forum for local groups as well as a tour-stop for national and international artists. But on Wednesday, October 24, that tradition ended with a performance by Jamaican dancehall star Elephant Man. From now on, Wednesday nights will be the domain of jam bands, who roam the Midwestern plains like yesteryear’s buffalo.
“Attendance has been light over the past several months,” Grand Emporium owner Roger Naber explains. After a pause, he reevaluates his assessment. “Over the past year, really. And it’s continued to dwindle.”
Naber tried to combat this downward trend with aggressive prices on import beers and other attractions for the internationally focused set, but the aging roots-reggae crowd stayed at home. Meanwhile, the annual reggae festival, facing languishing attendance, sought crossover fans by booking hip-hop acts such as Tech N9ne and Ja Rule. But people would show up only to see the rappers, leaving immediately after their sets.
Naber says this problem is now out of promoters’ hands. “What reggae needs now is for someone to come along and replace Bob Marley,” he says. “Yellowman has persevered for fifteen years or so, but other than that, there’s really no one.”
Actually, some of the Wednesday-night falloff stems from musicians aiming to be the next Yellowman or Marley. “Those shows would instill a passion in the people who came to see them,” Naber says. “So they’d start bands, and those bands would practice on Wednesday nights, which they’d already set aside for reggae night.”
With the multiplatinum success of Shaggy, who is to his genre what Shania Twain is to authentic country, dancehall might seem to be an up-and-coming replacement for reggae. However, Naber says that many of that genre’s artists present a message that loses much of its meaning outside its original context. “A lot of dancehall is not favorable to modern civilization,” he says. “America’s a lot different than Jamaica, and I don’t think some of the gangster dancehall is appropriate over here.”
So Naber opted for jam-rock outfits, whose instrumental noodling and feel-good quirky lyrics need no translation. “There’s been a groundswell lately,” he says, noting recent big-venue shows by the likes of The String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic. As any number of frustrated metal musicians could tell you, a sold-out showing by OZZfest at Sandstone doesn’t mean big crowds for local hard-rock acts. But Naber has lined up some of the region’s hippest hippie draws — The Juice Looseners on November 7, The Band That Saved The World on November 15, The Schwag on November 21 and 22 — to fill the bills.
On October 17, Naber eased into the new format by pairing the jam-leaning Tabla Rasa with Brent Berry and the Roots Crew. Interestingly, much of the sizable crowd came to see Berry, whose gigs at The Jazzhaus in Lawrence often become standing-room-only affairs. (He’s playing a costume party at The Jazzhaus on Wednesday, October 31.) Berry says his band’s immunity to the current reggae crisis stems from its ability to push the genre’s boundaries. “We play so many different kinds of music,” he says. “Highlife is really what we like to call it, good dancing music.” Like “highlife,” jam rock hops between genres and offers a danceable groove, but Berry balks at equating the two. “We are definitely not a jam band,” he emphasizes. “Practically all our songs follow a traditional format, and most of them are less than five minutes long.”
After his impressive recent showing, Berry should be able to score another invite to the Emporium, as should longtime performers such as Common Ground. “I’ll still probably do some reggae on occasion,” Naber says. “Those bands are saying ‘Don’t turn your back on us,’ and I think they did a pretty good job of working the streets to try to get a crowd in here.”
As for the jam groups, Naber says he’ll give them a fairly lengthy trial period to prove they can pack the place. He’s had to pull the plug on some other experiments in recent years, including Wednesday-night matinee singer/songwriter showcases (“It was hard to get people out that early”) and a Sunday-night DJ. (“It just wasn’t the right room. We’re a live-music venue, and that’s what people want to see when they walk in here,” Naber says.) But others have stuck, including Monday-night alternative rock (sixteen years and running, though the definition of “alternative” has changed countless times during that time span) and, recently, roots rock on Tuesdays.
The Grand Emporium still does a lot more than blues, but without the names of reggae acts and African musicians (Wednesday evenings were also the domain of Afro-beat performers; Naber says the attendance for those shows had also waned), its calendar will look a little less eclectic. It’s a bittersweet farewell for Naber, who says he’s “extremely pleased with the reggae community” and with reggae night’s “great lifespan.”
For their part, musicians such as Berry want to prove that reggae isn’t dead. “People are saying that reggae is leveling off,” Berry says. “And I’m here to let them know that it just ain’t so.”