Blue Riddim gets back into the groove

Originally published by The Pitch Aug 29, 2002
C2002 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Riddim Nation
Blue Riddim gets back into the groove.
By Mike Warren

Twenty-three years ago, Bob Marley played Hoch Auditorium at the University of Kansas. Local fans knew and loved Marley's music, but their regular exposure to roots-reggae came from the opening act, Pat's Blue Riddim Band, and that group's frequent visits to KC's Parody Hall and Lawrence's Off the Wall Hall. Kansas City's PBR, as it was, and frequently still is, affectionately known, held its own with the king of reggae that night.

"We were the first guys down the pike -- we had that opportunity," longtime Blue Riddim drummer Steve "Duck" McLane says, warm memories audible in his voice. "What was really cool [in our career] was having a chance to open for Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, and Black Uhuru. Every night we'd get clobbered by them, but we'd climb up another notch. It was a real chop-builder."

In its earliest incarnations, PBR consisted of friends who graduated from Shawnee Mission East in '67 and '68. "We were born out of that late-'60s Kansas City scene -- the Vanguard, the Aquarius -- places where people were hanging out," McLane says. "We'd all played jazz and R&B together, in all different kinds of aggregations." McLane, who started hearing reggae when he played in New York and south Florida in the early '70s, immediately knew it was something he wanted to do.

"I came back to KC and said, 'We really ought to try to play some reggae music,'" McLane explains. "It was big-time dance music, and we all love dance music, so we started experimenting. By '74, we had something that was workable, a band called Rhythm Funkshun. That band, basically a rhythm section version of what became PBR, broke up because it was a little bit ahead of its time.

"About a year and a half later, we started PBR," McLane continues. "We were playing 10 percent ska, 10 percent calypso, maybe 25 percent straight-up R&B, and the rest of it would be reggae. People were just everywhere, on top of each other, dancing."

During the early '80s, PBR toured nonstop, burning through two vans and 42 of 50 states. "We just had our nose to the grindstone and never stopped," McLane says. "We really should have taken more time out to record, but it was 'dollar a day, give us what you can' and keep moving. When it got to the point where we could actually play it good, we made a
record [1981's Restless Spirit]."

PBR made several trips to Jamaica, where it learned from the genre' best practitioners. "Jamaican musicians are really approachable, and we'd hang out with them -- a cultural exchange," McLane explains. Equally accessible were Jamaican DJs. "When I flew down there in late '81, I brought a box of 25 records, and I thought, What the hell. I'll drive them up to [Kingston radio stations] RJR and JBC. While I was driving to JBC, I heard the song come over RJR -- and I just about drove off the road. I thought, I'm driving around Jamaica, and I'm hearing my own music on the radio!"

Six months later, Blue Riddim became the first American band to play Sunsplash in Jamaica. "We were voted co-'Best Band' of the entire festival," McLane says. "It blew me away that we blew them away. I was expecting pineapples and cantaloupes thrown at us. We're playing these old songs, and we're also from America, and we're also white. It's five o'clock in the morning, and they're going, 'What in the ... ?'

"The lyrics from the very first song, "Smile," are It's best to arrive with a smile on your face, and just at that moment, the sun was creaking up over the mountain and shining down onto the field," McLane recalls. "People are getting the sun in their eyes right as they hear these lyrics, and they started screaming and bawling and jumping up and down. All of a sudden you had 20,000 people jumping up and down." That performance, released in 1984 as Alive in Jamaica, earned the band a Grammy nomination.

Twenty years later, the Blue Riddim Band returns home for an encore. Longstanding veterans, including Scott Korchak (vocals, brass), Jack Lightfoot (trumpet), Jeff Porter (vocals, guitar), Jack Blackett (tenor sax), Joe Miquelon (keyboards) and Todd "Bebop" Byrd (bass) will be joined by folks such as Stephanie Cox (trombonist for the Loose Cannon Brass Band -- still another of PBR's permutations). Says McLane, "It's like any band that's been around for this long -- whoever's left standing who wants to show up can play.

"We lost Bob Zohn, a great singer and songwriter from Florida who died several years back, but basically the core of the band exists here in good ol' Kansas City," McLane explains. "It's great, because a lot of SDI [Strategic Dance Initiative] alums have come into the Blue Riddim
fold, and we all play together. For this particular show, we'll have a taste of SDI, a taste of New Riddim [a more recent dancehall version of the band], older Blue Riddim, newer Blue Riddim -- whatever we're serving up at that particular time." For old fans -- and new -- it's a
chance to get reacquainted with a band that made the Caribbean feel as if it were just next door.

Details Blue Riddim
Music Date: Sunday, September 1
Where: Grand Emporium

Posted: Thu - February 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM