The young Kansas City blues band and its fans call it TUF, pronounced tough. Last week, the group played Wednesday through Sunday, including two shows on Saturday. On Sunday, the singer sat in with another band for an extra noon show before playing again with TUF at 5. And these aren't straight-edged folk. These kids smoke cigs and throw back beers and shots all night. Tough is fuckin' right.
Siblings Danielle (23 years old, bass and vocals), Kris (25, drums) and Nick (27, guitar and vocals) Schnebelen are the children of Lisa Swedlund and Robert Schnebelen, who had their own blues band, called Little Eva and the Works. Mom and dad, naturally, didn't deter their children from learning the trade.
"We were listening to Muddy Waters from the womb," Danielle says.
Robert died in 1999, but his wife has kept the band going. Both Little Eva and the Works and TUF played last Friday night at Blayney's.
The gig was a strange departure for me, considering I see a lot of shows, local and touring, that allow about 40 minutes for each act. But TUF was scheduled to start at 10 p.m. and stop at 2:30 a.m. I didn't even know Little Eva was there until I wandered onto the back deck and saw her band in full swing. That night, I hung out for three and a half hours and still felt like I was ditching early.
It's hard not to feel good while watching TUF. They're all young and attractive dark-haired and olive-skinned with prominent cheekbones and jaws especially Danielle, who's like a hair-whipping, bass-cuddling Etta James. Her trademark, between-song toast: Raise the glass and holler, "One, two, three awww, shit!"
All three Schnebelens are hardcore bluejammers. Danielle and Nick both sing their throats out, and when Nick solos, he makes faces like he's crapping pineapples. That's not to say the music is especially hard. Going by the Led Zeppelin reference in TUF's name, I had hoped to see some youngsters who took their parents' music, scrawled dirty words on it with pink lipstick and then took a chainsaw to it. Instead, TUF is as traditional as they come, only younger and sexier.
At first, the crowd was the predictable lot of baby boomers, characterized by white men in shorts and sneakers the bane of live blues nowadays. Within half an hour of the first downbeat, the babes arrived: permed hair, flip-flops, tans. Then, the dudes: polo shirts, baseball caps, big shoulders. As the evening progressed, however, I realized these weren't your normal Westport yuppies. These kids came to get drunk and dance to the music.
After the first hourlong set, I hit the outside deck and discovered Little Eva and her boys kicking it under the lights. It was out there that the dance fever started. Little Eva strutted around the stage, shaking a tambourine and Aretha-ing into the mic, gradually convincing the crowd not to be shy. Seven or eight twentysomethings (plus the requisite old guy in a Hawaiian shirt) jumped up and rocked out to the final string of songs, which included "Superstitious," "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Come to Papa," or, in this case, Mama.
Just after midnight, Little Eva shut down, Trampled fired up inside, and the dancers followed.
By the end of the next set, at least 15 people were crowding the small dance floor, all of them shakin' ass to Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," done Janis Joplin-style. After that, Danielle fittingly led an a cappella sing-along to "Mercedes Benz." She had changed from the first show, removing the black pants she'd been wearing under her black, strapless dress. Now she looked like a high-heeled blues moll.
After another break it was about 1:30 TUF crept into "Shaky Ground," and it couldn't have come sooner for the people who had been waiting to dance. A slow-burning "Little Wing" cleared some room for couples to get close. But at the end of the song, most everyone stopped shuffling and looked on in awe as Nick veered into a solo jam that led him into baroque, Van Halen territory.
It was all party after that. People were hooking up or desperately wanting to and I saw my first pair of bona fide KC Concert Tits, albeit flashed by a gal who was less spring chicken than old hooter.
The next day, I dragged my carcass down to B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ, where Danielle kicked off a Harversters benefit with her boyfriend's band, Levee Town. (Guitarist Brandon Hudspeth is the lucky guy.) The Blayney's show had brought in people wanting to dance. At B.B.'s, people were there for the music. There wasn't even room to dance.
That didn't matter to Jamie (23), Cat (26) and Gretchen (26), all three of whom had paid the $10 cover to see their favorite local bands. I had assumed that finding a young, genuine blues fan in Kansas City would be like finding a poor person at Whole Foods Market. These three women were for real, though; all work at the Trouser Mouse in Lee's Summit, which Jamie described as a blues club geared toward younger people. Not surprisingly, TUF and Levee Town the city's youngest blues bands were Jamie's top two picks.
It was easy to see why. Despite the previous night's workout, Danielle, who was just singing this time, bounced around like a horny Pentecostal churchgoer full of all kinds of spirits. While her man took solos, sweating and tearing up his six-string, she swayed and shimmied and fired up the crowd so much that they clapped for her when she belted out the next verse.
"I'm not a big tease on stage," she told me after that show. But, she added, "It's nice to feel sexy when you're playing the blues."
Amen to that, sister.