By Ken Bradbury
One of Jacksonville’s best ideas in recent years has been the performance of musical groups on Friday evenings in the summer. Even scalding hot weather or a drizzle will bring folks to the downtown square in welcome numbers and when the weather is civilized there’s hardly room to walk around the park’s meandering sidewalks.
But leaving the audiences aside for the moment, I truly admire the chutzpah of groups who agree to perform outdoors in the wide-open spaces. My take on this is short and sweet: I used to it and I don’t do it any longer. Performing outdoors is sport for younger more adventurous young men and women, and I have a lifetime of all-weather performing that proves that I need to stay indoors.
For several years I was a member of a Christian musical group named “Shiloh” and we were often busy nearly every weekend at one venue or another in Central Illinois. These were fun guys and when your gig list is God-based then you can pretty much avoid the barroom rowdies. But I can remember one stormy night at Nichols Park when we were performing for a church group under one of the park’s shelter roofs with no side walls. Storm clouds started bunching up in the west as we began the concert and by the time we reached the second or third song we found ourselves trying to sing over the roar of a genuine Midwest thunder boomer. Bolts of lightening were slapping at trees all over the south end of Jacksonville it got pretty scary as some of the bolts were hitting the park. Every member of our band was somehow connected to an electric cord through our instruments … that is all of us but our drummer, Mike Crawford. During a praise song I leaned over and ask if he’d please wrap an extension cord around his left ankle. I explained that if we all got struck by lightening and went to heaven then we’d be without a drummer unless Mike went with us. Mike declined, opting instead for a lifetime of solo drumming.
A similar thing happened when my rock band during the sixties, the Maddics, played for a fish fry at Bath, Illinois. Bath used to throw a free fish fry for anyone who’d like to spend an evening in the burg’s tiny park located along the highway, and they’d hired our band of four to provide rock music for the local teens. All well and good until we arrived and found that the town had just suffered a downpour and the open-air concrete platform we were to play upon was a mass of water puddles. Stupidly, and with no real knowledge of physics and electricity we set up our electric equipment in these puddles and when the concert began we found that every time we’d touch each other’s shoulder we’d get a terrible shock. Then before long we couldn’t even touch our own instruments without getting a jolt. Do you have any idea what it’s like to play an electric organ that bites you with each touch?
Another outdoor kerfuffle that comes to mind is regarding a memorable night at the Menard County Fair, within spitting distance of Petersburg, where I’d been hired to do a musical program on the fair’s racetrack stage. I’d gathered perhaps a dozen singers of various kinds and when we arrived we found that our stage was about a quarter-mile from the audience. They were out there somewhere but we had no idea where. It was the Fourth of July and the fair’s timing was off as they started shooting off fireworks right behind us while our concert was going on. The noise disturbed every steed in the horse barn and between the boom of the gunpowder and the neighing of the horses I’m not sure the audience heard a word we said or sang.
A thrill that few people on earth get to experience is playing a calliope on the top deck of a paddle wheeler during a driving rainstorm. Our boat, the Spirit of St. Louis, has a custom made calliope designed to wake the dead and drive otherwise sane souls mad. It’s sort of the trademark of the boat so you have to play it. The captain will radio down that we’re about to float past Chillicothe or Meredosia or Alton and that’s my signal to run up to the third deck, pull a few switches and crank out “The Robert E. Lee” or “Cruising Down the River.” This is just peachy when the weather’s good and the deck is dry but when we’re in the middle of an Illinois gully washer and the rain is coming into my sheltered awning sideways, I’ve learned to play very quickly then get the heck out of there. Listening to a calliope up close is painful enough but when you add water it becomes less than a heavenly musical experience.
So, let these young folks do the Jacksonville square, the Morgan County Fair and every burgoo and barbecue in sight. This old guy is going to be in the air-conditioned building across the street listening through the glass.