For the generation that came of drinking age and had Blayney's, the Levee and the original Grand Emporium at its disposal, the midtown blues scene might appear to be an unquestioned local staple, like a sold-out Arrowhead Stadium. But as much as the Chiefs languished in the '80s, losing in front of thousands of empty seats, the blues suffered locally for decades, orphaned without regular venues, until Colt 45: The Kansas City Blues Band started championing the cause in 1976.
"The blues had not been resurging, and it was getting difficult to find it in town," says Colt 45 keyboardist and singer Larry Van Loon. The quartet selected the Baghdad, a now-defunct venue adjacent to the Uptown Theater, as its base of operations, playing Saturday-afternoon jam sessions that drew capacity crowds. Colt 45 became the Uptown's de facto house band, opening for the likes of Rare Earth and John Mayall. It also staged the city's first blues festival at the Uptown, with Chick Willis headlining.
When the Baghdad started to wane in the late '70s, Colt 45 looked to Westport, then more of a boarded-up retail graveyard than an entertainment district. "When we first went to Blayney's," drummer Mike O'Neil says, "there was an Irish folk singer in the corner performing 'What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?' and two people passed out at the table." Colt instituted a Monday-night jam at Blayney's, which drew luminaries such as Steve Van Zandt and musicians from Kenny Rogers', Billy Idol's and the Righteous Brothers' bands — "basically," O'Neil says, "anybody playing with a headliner that wanted to get out and stretch."
"It was a vibrant scene — fast-moving, fun and not particularly dangerous," Van Loon says. "The blues was like an alternative music of the day, an alternative to the post-disco pop stuff. And it was great nightclub music because it was good-times music."
When the band underwent production on its debut record, Too Many Drivers, malt-liquor label Colt 45 caught wind of its moniker and sent the group a cease-and-desist letter. Perhaps fearing the wrath of intergalactic smuggler and Colt 45 celebrity spokesman Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Colt 45 obliged, becoming the Kansas City Blues Band.
The KCBB started touring regularly in 1980, spending two or three days a week on the road and frequenting New Orleans. In 1984, the members began moving to Nashville, with O'Neil starting the trend and Van Loon, the last holdout, relocating in 1995. All members remain involved in the music industry. O'Neil operates his own label, Serenity Hill. For the past year, Bark, Van Loon and guitarist Rick Hendrix have been visiting O'Neil's barn studio weekly to jam, reminisce and snack on banana pudding, a tradition that's been christened the "Tuesday Night Sewing Circle."
The KCBB started rehearsing in earnest a few months ago in preparation for Saturday's Knuckleheads gig, originally intended as a CD-release party for Kansas City guitarist the Reverend Jimmie Bratcher. (O'Neil is Bratcher's drummer.) With that album still in production, the group decided to convert this date into a full-fledged reunion show, with Bratcher playing an opening set.
Knuckleheads lies outside the midtown radius in which Colt 45 reigned, but the blues still lives in that area, serving as the group's most lasting legacy. "If it hadn't been us, it would've been somebody else," Van Loon says. "There's just something about the air in KC. Jazz and blues will always be part of the fabric of the Kansas City nightlife."