Along the Walnut River at its confluence with Timber Creek, on the western edge of the Kansas Flint Hills, and just a short 17 miles north of Oklahoma, lies the sleepy little town of Winfield, Kansas. The town appears rather unremarkable in stature and history. Boom and bust years litter the past, but one thing has been constant. The town has always been a focal point for music.
Chautauqua, an extremely popular adult education movement of the early 20th century, established a solid base at Island Park in the early years of the town. The philosophy of the movement centered on enlightening and educating rural American communities through artistic entertainment and cultural outreach with speakers, teachers, preachers, musicians, and other entertainers. Formed at a time when rural America starved for associated education and social activities, the movement established Winfield as a cultural center for Kansas, influencing establishment of an Opera House, as well as a highly respected School of Music at Southwestern College.
While the movement faded with introduction of television and movies, it left an indelible mark easily recognized in the annual fall music event. The Walnut Valley Festival evolved from the National Guitar Flat-Picking Championships, formed originally in 1972. It began with a 10 simple acts, hosting two championship contests, but is now host to eight different contests, two international contests, and five national contests with more than 30 acts and continues to grow every year. Fifteen thousand visitors, contestants, and entertainers come from all over the world for this one of a kind event that lasts 5 days.
As a "participation" event, even the most famous are sometimes found sitting around a campfire pickin’ and grinin’ with their fans, so it is no surprise that there is a lot of excitement leading up to the event. Indeed, so much so that Kansas City has begun hosting “Halfway to Winfield” over the last several years to celebrate the halfway point of the year, in the months leading up to the main event in Winfield, KS.
Some of the finest up-and-coming artists continue to grow this now annual event, and we finally had an opportunity to check it out this year. It was really not so much an opportunity, as a desire to go and see one specific act we had heard so much about recently, the Ben Miller Band; everything else turned out to be a bonus.
The Ben Miller Band out of Joplin is quickly rising on not only the Country music scene, but also in Alternative rock circles, with a unique style referred to as Ozark Stomp or Mudstomp. Grinding and grooving, it is somewhat reminiscent of sounds from years past and folks like Blackfoot, Lynyrd Skynard, George Thorogood, ZZ Top, and Molly Hatchet and other Southern Fried delicacies all rolled up with every Delta Blues Man that ever hammered a cigar box into their own unique sound.
Opening the night up for them, a line-up of new folks and standards from the Walnut Creek Festival appeared and raised the roof on Knuckleheads Garage. We arrived in the middle of a set by the John Brown Boys on the Side Stage (literally a stage to the side of the main stage), and just in time to catch Sugar Britches out of Lawrence, an entertaining group of girls playing what I term Saloon Tunes.
We discovered the sound at the front of the stage contained a serious vocal dead zone though, causing their performance to sound a little empty. The sound on the side stage was a bit much at times too. While the music was good, the high-end on Betse & Clarke was a bit much at one point, so we stepped out for some air and to let our ears relax a little.
We found the sweet spot when we returned, near the back of the floor, about center-stage. From there, we enjoyed the rest of the show and some fun and fantastic sets from the likes of Konza Swamp Band, appearing along with special guest Jimmy Campbell, and after a side stage showing, Loaded Goat; the latter plagued by microphone and feedback difficulties the sound guy and his little tablet could never seem to overcome. The band managed through it anyway and put out some great music.
In between, the side stage hosted a few acts of interest. Jr Soapbox sang his set through a small megaphone, reminding us of the 80s Wall of Voodoo tune “Mexican Radio.” A couple of songs probably would have been better without it though, as it was almost impossible to hear anything of what he was singing; perhaps, the problem was simply the sound, yet again. The Fast Food Junkies were loud and clear though, keeping things up beat and lively, and acting as perfect precursor to Ben Miller.
The only disappointment, they only played for a little over an hour I suppose it should not have come a a surprise the long line-up preceding them.
Ben Miller is definitely an energetic and driving force in his band. We got a good live taste of most everything we had previously seen on YouTube, and definitely look forward to catching a longer performance sometime in the near future; perhaps, we might even find our way out to Winfield in September for more.
Until then, here's a little video montage.