Cross Rivers: roots and blues festival keeps Americana culture alive
Wood and brick from floor to ceiling, Port Cape’s Yacht Club is a venue frozen in time. Tall windows look out on Water Street below and the flood wall, layered with artistic depictions of this town’s history. With a blues act on the bandstand and a freight train chugging by, the atmosphere is almost timeless. Saturday, March 10, the Cross Rivers Roots and Blues Festival will transport the audience even further into the past.
The event is returning for its seventh year, and organizer Ivas John said the Yacht Club, with its long bar, chic seating and stage-front dance floor, lends itself well to the event.
“It’s an old vaudeville theatre with a 1920s speakeasy vibe about it,” John said. “And that goes really well with the feel of the lineup. Usually about halfway through the show the dance floor is packed and everybody’s loosened up. It’s a really laid back atmosphere.”
John said his initial plan for the event was to bring together musicians from both sides of the river. The mini-festival was a success in its first year and shows no signs of slowing down.
Of the night’s heavy lineup of musicians, John said blues is the common denominator
“There’s so many different categories within that style,” he said. “From Chicago blues, to Memphis blues; St. Louis has its own unique sound; there’s acoustic and electric and jazzier blues. A lot of those things are represented in the various artists that are playing in this show, and hopefully that creates a variety of different sounds throughout the night.”
John said he generally starts things off on a mellow note, with some finger-style acoustic stuff, and the energy will grow as the night goes on. John’s longtime friend, and fellow roots-songs connoisseur, Brian Curran will give the audience a taste of Mississippi River delta country blues.
“Brian is a traditionalist — a purist,” John said. “His style is something that when you hear it, it sounds authentic. You know it’s the real deal. The songs that he chooses to sing have been played for 100 years or more, so he’s true to the art form in that way, and really good at what he does.”
Also gracing the stage will be one of Cape Girardeau’s longest running groups, Bruce Zimmerman and the Water Street Band. Zimmerman and his colleagues have been playing Port Cape Girardeau for more than two decades. The group began as a duo of Zimmerman and Dull “Whitey” Hendrix.
“After Whitey passed away the guys started sitting in, and after all those years it evolved into this,” Zimmerman said. “We called it the Water Street Band because that’s where it all got started.”
Zimmerman said he’s been playing in a working band since the age of 9, and being in the business so long, he has collected all sorts of influences. But he said roots music is what truly represents America.
“It’s the working-class sound,” he said. “It’s sometimes simple, but it’s real music that touches people. Everything comes from the roots.”
John agreed with that sentiment. He said his group, The Ivas John Band employs all elements of Americana.
“It’s being made by a human being on an instrument that’s made of wood and wire,” John said. “There will always be something appealing about that.”
John said the sounds he finds most attractive are the ones that have stood the test of time, passed down from generation to generation.
“It’s not just a trend or something that fades away,” he said. “Some of those stories, if they weren’t being portrayed in a song, might otherwise be lost. So it goes beyond music. It’s about keeping that culture alive.”
The final act in The Cross Rivers Festival lineup, Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers, thrive on the idea of keeping the jazz and blues culture alive. John said the St. Louis swing band dresses and acts the part of prohibition-era entertainers, who will make the place jump and keep the dancers happy.
John said his hope for the festival is to give the audience a memory to take away and that cultural events like this one are crucial to the community. He said Cape Girardeau was once a corridor for the countless genres that moved up north out of the Mississippi River delta region to find a home in cities like Chicago and St. Louis.
“Hopefully people will get used to things like this, that are happening regularly on a smaller scale, and that will pave the way to bringing back some of the bigger events that used to happen here,” John said.
Tickets for the Cross Rivers Roots and Blues Festival are $15 in advance and $17 at the door, and are available at Port Cape Girardeau, Hempies and Shivelbines Music, or by contacting Ivas John at (730) 646-1132. An all night appetizer buffet is included in the ticket price and seating is first come, first serve.