|When it all began, Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley were out in the front,
pounding their guitars and getting off on the sounds of Witchi-Tai-To, a
thousand year old Peyote chant. They were finishing up the very last
set of a long string of concerts at the Bitter End. I sat backstage
amid the empty guitar cases and musicians, talking to Paul Peterson, the
duo's manager. He was very glad to be going home to Missouri the next day.
I told him that most everyone I had ever spoken with that has come back from
Kansas City has told me that it's the deadest town in America.
"There's not much happening. It's pretty slow down there. I'll
admit that," he admitted. "But it's kinda nice. I like it."
Four days later, I flew out to Kansas City to see Brewer & Shipley record a
live album. There was no Missouri sunshine, only bleak dark clouds and
a shitty little drizzle. A couple of airport hassles and taxi cabs
made me wonder if I had ever really left that great gotham of New York.
It took me a little bit of time, but eventually I made my way to the Cowtown
The Ballroom turned out to be a huge, non-descript building that looked more
like a warehouse than a rock house. Inside the doorway, a staircase
led to the second floor, and the Ballroom itself. As the term
"Ballroom" implies, there were no chairs, only a large floor for the people
to sit on. Three-quarters of the hall is surrounded by a balcony also
without seats. At one time, the Cowtown Ballroom was a roller skating
rink, and there are still signs on the wall warning of the dangers of going
down the stairs with your skates on. It's a good funky place to listen
The afternoon prior to the concert was a busy one. Everyone around
seeing about their own little job. There's a lot of setting up to do
at any concert, especially one that's going to be recorded.
But finally the technicians finished setting up the equipment, the band was
assembled, and so a sound check was about to be made.
A year ago, Brewer and Shipley were a simple acoustic duo, just two guitars
and voices, but since last November they've been using a backup band: Larry
Knight on guitars, Bill Berosini on bass, and for tonight's gig, Steve Starr
on piano. The resulting sound is different, though not necessarily
better than the simple acoustic duo of the past.
The sound check was made and the music was good. The band did, "I Am
Less Than The Song I Am Singing," a Hoyt Axton tune which may be on the next
studio album. "Blue Highway" from the new album was done, and everyone
including myself became more and more sure it was going to be a good night.
"Just another night at Cowtown," Michael Brewer would later say.
* * *
About 6:30 p.m., people began to line up outside and around the theater.
I looked, and I couldn't really notice a big difference between a New York
rock audience and a Kansas City audience, except that in Kansas City, they
all spoke with funny Missouri twang, and maybe they were a bit more friendly
Upon entering the building each ticket holder was disarmed of all wine
bottles and beer cans. The house was sold out in advance, and the
crowd sat on the Ballroom floor, smoked their dope, and waited patiently for
the show to begin.
The first set was the up-and-coming local band called the Ozark Mountain
Daredevils. I'm told they were very good. I can't be considered
much of a judge though, as I spent most of this set in the ticket office.
The second set was performed by Loudon Wainright III which I cannot speak
about either. This time I was in Michael and Tom's dressing
rooms, absorbing it all and taking notes.
There were many kids of people in the dressing room. The entire band
of course, along with some family. Pretty ladies, all of whom seemed
to be with someone or another, wandered about aimlessly. Chet Nichols
was there with a lady friend. No one knew it then, but he was later to
jam with the band on the encore. Super-producer Glyn Johns was on
hand, "on vacation" I was told by an unreliable source. Guitarist
Larry Knight sat about, picking out idle riffs on his electric guitar.
After a bit, Larry, Michael, and Bill Berosini got down on some serious
music with another version of "I Am Less Than The Song I Am Singing."
Suddenly it was showtime. Nobody in the band really seemed nervous.
"Just another gig at Cowtown." The sidemen left for the stage,
as Brewer & Shipley remained in a corner of the room tuning their guitars to
each other. Then they too left for the stage, and the room became
ominously silent. It was really all very dramatic. I looked
about, trying to read all the faces at once, and I got the feeling everyone
was confident. It was going to go well.
A simple calling card introduction heralds the two young men on stage.
The crowd cheers, and the set is begun.
"Black Sky," from the new album "Rural Space" is first. The
band sounds fairly tight, which is surprising, considering it's only the
second night for Steve Starr.
The next half hour or so is a mixture from Brewer & Shipley's past four
albums. (There are actually five albums, but one of them, Down In
L.A., they choose to ignore.)
"Don't Want To Die In Georgia," the only tune added since the New York sets,
is a local favorite. As the line, "I woke up in Kansas City" is sung,
the crowd cheers. I suppose Brewer & Shipley are an outlet of
some kind of civic pride in Kansas City, much in the same way the Grateful
Dead are thought of in San Francisco, only in a smaller scale.
A few interval moments of quiet, for tuning, and Shipley introduces a tune
"people have been getting off on for a thousand years."
As the first chords of Witchi-Tai-To are heard, a white light fills the
stage. Everyone in the house is on his feet, clapping and dancing.
It's easy to see why people have been getting off on this song for a
millennium. It's even easier to see why people are getting off on it
The song, as well as the set, end acoustically, the way it began. And
for just a moment, my mind floats back to the memory of that acoustic duo,
just two guitars and voices. I believe the same thing is probably true
of anyone who had seen them way back when.
Well, it all ended pretty fast, and when it was over, there was nothing left
to do except wait it all out until the next day. Tomorrow would be
Sunday, when everyone concerned would listen to the tapes, to see if it had
all been worth it. It's all there now, and there's nothing left to do,
but wait until tomorrow.
After the show, there was a party at the Ballroom, which led to a jam.
I am told that it went on almost till dawn. I personally left it all
behind hours before that.
As I said, the next day was Sunday, and we all went back to Cowtown to
listen to the tapes. I thought they were good, but it seems that some
people, more experienced than myself in matters of this sort, held a
different point of view.
"All I ever wanted it to be was just another night at Cowtown," Michael
Brewer said. "But it didn't work out that way." As he
spoke, I could sense frustration. Apparently, the combined opinion was
that most of the tapes weren't quite up to snuff.
And so, I flew back to New York wondering if it was worth it. After
all, after flying over a thousand miles and combating innumerable hassles,
only a few tracks from the Cowtown gig were to be used on the album.
But in the end, I decided that at least for me, the good times overrode the
bad, and the music, interwoven with the beautiful spirit that lies beyond,
made it a valuable, enjoyable experience.
"What a spirit:
Spinning, spinning, 'round my head....".
That spirit is the reason it was worth it all.