Around Kansas City, the story is damn near legendary: A bunch of white hipsters go down to Jamaica's Reggae Sunsplash Music Festival and impress a mostly black audience of 20,000 with an inspired 5 a.m. performance as the sun creeps over the mountains.
The live recording of the show gets nominated for a Grammy (in 1986), and all of a sudden, it doesn't seem so ridiculous to play reggae music in the heartland.
The year was 1982, and the band was the Blue Riddim Band. The group's arrival helped establish a reputable "blue-eyed" reggae scene in KC, spawning sister acts like New Riddim and S.D.I. (Strategic Dance Initiative) and packing local clubs with audiences hungry for rock-steady roots sounds.
But this story might have been lost on Jeff Pritchett had his brother not done time in the joint a few years ago.
"I remember my brother calling me from jail, going, 'Dude, you gotta hear this guy sing — I guess he was in this reggae band,'" recalls Pritchett, who now plays drums and keys for KC's SeedLove.
Pritchett's brother discovered, after he got home, that a man he had met in prison — Scotty Korchak, lead singer of the Blue Riddim Band — lived down the street.
"I remember meeting the guy and just thinking, he's this crazy old guy," Pritchett recalls. "Then he shows me these newspaper articles and these Blue Riddim records. It just blew me away."
From there, Korchak took Pritchett under his wing, teaching him reggae-groove essentials like the "bubble" and the "skank."
Sadly, Korchak succumbed to liver disease in September 2007, but not before instilling his passion in Pritchett and living long enough to hear it expressed.
"I had finally gotten good at the bubble and the skank, and he was eating it up — dancing and singing," Pritchett says. "He would talk forever about reggae. Just about the time he was getting really sick was when I got really into it."
Pritchett found a kindred soul in Richard Faught, a bass player who started a band called Nu Riddim. The group pays tribute to Blue Riddim both in name and in its dedication to outside-the-mainstream island vibes.
"We play songs that people aren't familiar with, that will get them into reggae," Faught says of Nu Riddim. "Everybody's heard of Bob Marley, but not everybody gets to see the culture and how it affects the music."
The two bonded over a 1978 movie titled Rockers, which features reggae drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace and the singer Burning Spear.
"I remember hearing those songs and thinking I'd been cheated by mainstream reggae," Pritchett says. "It was one of the things that really switched on the light."
Faught helped bring Pritchett into the fold of SeedLove, a Kansas City reggae outfit that was just finding its footing under the direction of singer and guitarist Damon Bailey and keyboardist Kian Byrne (who is no longer with the group). Inspired by such American reggae acts as John Brown's Body and Groundation, Bailey had been writing reggae songs for a couple of years with no real outlet for them.
"The reggae theme of unity is enticing when you're looking to reach a lot of people," says Bailey, who previously played Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead covers in a band called Eskimo Crack Shack.
After laying down some foundation tracks at West End Studios and testing its footing at local venues, SeedLove expanded its sound by bringing aboard Rick Cole (guitar), Joseph Young (sax) and Andrew Floyd (percussion). The group has quickly become a staple of a tightknit local reggae scene that also includes such bands as 77 Jefferson, the Irietions, Jah Roots, Livitation Station and Jahration.
"I still hear people say all the time that they didn't know there were that many reggae bands in Kansas City," Bailey says. "Each band's ability to promote each other has been incredible. But there's also a lot of competition — you wanna play the most shows and get the most exposure."
The desire to play multiple shows each month has steered SeedLove toward some pretty off-the-beaten-path venues, such as a show at Camp Gaea for the eccentric Hash House Harriers running club.
"We thought it was just a bunch of guys who liked to get drunk and run around, but we got out there, and everything was flopping around," Faught recalls. "You turn around, and there's a naked guy asking you how your show went. You just keep eye contact."
The group's recent CD-release show for its debut album, Grow People, packed Californos in Westport to the brim. They'll aim to re-create that success Friday at the Jackpot in Lawrence, when they co-headline a "Midwest Reggae Showcase" with the Irietions. Both bands will also take part in a Bob Marley birthday celebration February 7 at Crosstown Station.
"I really want to put reggae on the map for the Midwest," Pritchett says. "I won't stop until it's known."