Music Festivals Showcase Kent
By Deborah Frazier (from Vol 1 aroundKent Magazine 2013)
The city of Kent has long been known as a gathering place for musicians and music lovers.
In the 1940s, the night club and dance pavilion at Brady Lake brought in famous big bands. But it was in the 1960s, when Joe Shannon opened The Fifth Quarter, and shortly following that, The Deck and The Townhouse Lounge, that Kent became a musical hotbed. Walter’s Café, The Kove, JBs, Mother’s Junction, Water Street Saloon, The Dome and many other clubs served as a magnet, bringing people into Kent for quality local performers and national touring acts.
Kent’s entertainment scene has certainly continued to change with the times, but the city has remained a destination for music lovers of all kinds. Today many restaurants and clubs regularly feature live music. The city of Kent has been known as a destination for musicians and music fans for decades, and that rich history continues today.
Venues such JBs, Water Street Tavern, Mugs Brew Pub, Ohio Guitar Shop, Brewhouse, Zephyr Pub, and, of course, The Kent Stage, offer live music regularly. The newly opened Bar 145, part of the town’s recent renewal, is committed to presenting live music as part of its mission. Kent State University’s School of Music on campus brings in talent from all over the world.
Kent is also home of two respected music stores as well as a luthier shop. The Ohio Guitar Shop and Stage, formerly known as Ohio Music Shop, is the home of Woody James guitars. Its stage, complete with bar, provides yet another place for live music performances. Woodsy’s Music is known throughout Northeast Ohio and beyond for its world class selection of instruments and sound equipment.
Thurman Guitar & Violin Repair helps to maintain the music tradition alive in town with luthier arts. Clientele around Kent, and around the nation, keep these music businesses busy year-round.
Kent’s music festivals are playing an increasing role in showcasing the city’s musical offerings.
Three years ago, Charlie Thomas, owner of Ray’s Place in Kent, put together the first Reggae Meltdown. Thomas, a big fan of events such as the Kent State Folk Festival and the Kent Blues Fest, wanted to contribute something to the community and have a good time in the process.
Reggae was a natural choice, as Thomas has a long history of presenting the Jamaican staple at his establishments. Popular Northeast Ohio reggae bands such as I-Tal and First Light were regulars at Mother’s Junction, as the upstairs area of Ray’s Place used to be called. From the late 70s through the 80s, reggae bands drew big crowds to “Mother’s,” as it was known.
“We were the first place outside of Cleveland that I-Tal played on a regular basis, and they would draw 500 people a night,” Thomas said. “We eventually became their home away from home.”
Last year Thomas decided to expand the horizons of the festival by including feel-good party music from the islands – from Put-In-Bay to Key West and beyond.
“By broadening our focus, we’re able to have more venues participate,” Thomas explained. “We had a wide range of great artists with reggae from Outlaws I & I, steel drum music from Flash in the Pan, and other island songs from Alex Bevan and Colin John, so folks have a great time. There is pretty much something for everybody.”
Also last year, Thomas partnered with the Crooked River Arts Council, the group that presents the popular Kent Blues Fest each July, to help put on the reggae event. The nonprofit organization is best known for the annual popular Kent Blues Fest which will present its fifth offering this year.
”We were thrilled to be able to work with Charlie Thomas again this year on another fun event for the city of Kent,” said Crooked River Arts Council president Bob Burford. “Reggae Meltdown was Charlie’s brainchild, and we think it’s another great opportunity to build on Kent’s reputation for live music to showcase the town, make a positive impact on the local economy and to put smiles on faces all over town.”
“Kent’s Reggae Meltdown was an outstanding event,” said Packy Malley, founder and promoter of the area’s Mid West Reggae Fest for the past 21 years. “We made it to 12 venues and caught 12 acts all in one night. Incredible time! It was the best bar hopping experience I have ever been on. Kent is a great town. I need to hang there more often.”
“Events such as the Reggae Meltdown, the Kent State Folk Festival and The Kent Blues Fest all underscore the City of Kent as a destination,” Burford continued. “It already is a destination for the university, for outdoor activities, speakers and concerts. With the new development downtown, Kent is becoming more of a dining and entertainment destination.”
“When I expanded my business in 2007, one of the primary motivations was to have a space for live music,” said Mike Beder, owner of Water Street Tavern. “Live music brings people together and creates a great social environment. Participating in music festivals such as Reggae Meltdown or the Kent Blues Fest is not only a lot of fun, it also makes good business sense, as we get lots of first-time patrons during those events. Plus, since we feature live music every week, the music festivals provide us the opportunity to remind folks what we do year round.”
Kent’s Reggae Meltdown will return next April, but you needn’t wait until then to join the party – because there is music in town every week, and more festivals coming up this year.
The Kent Blues Fest returns July 19 and 20. The Brighter Side band from Canton will open the event with a free live performance at the new Acorn Plaza. The Brighter Side is a group of five young, talented musicians. And we do mean young, as most members are still in their middle-teens! But don’t let their tender ages worry you, because these are some talented musicians, having won numerous blues competitions, including the 2013 NE Ohio International Blues Challenge.
The Brighter Side band describe their music as “an eclectic mix of sound that is both retro and modern, with an old style that is both raw and refined.” These young men are clearly going places.
The fifth annual Kent Blues Fest will also feature free live, hot, rockin’ blues from The Juke Hounds, Blue Lunch, Memphis Cradle, and many more performers. Past headliners have included blues harmonica legend James Cotton, Detroit soul singer Mitch Ryder, and Southside Johnny of The Asbury Jukes. A complete schedule will be available by early June at www.kentbluesfest.org.
This year, the venerable Kent State Folk Festival begins a new tradition as the Kent State Around Town Music Festival, reflecting an expanded musical focus.
Burford helped develop the current model for Kent’s music festivals while managing the Kent State Folk Festival, as part of that event’s town-gown initiative. “The Around Town night of the folk festival quickly became one of its most popular offerings,” Burford said. “People love that it is free, allowing folks to park once and visit venues all around downtown. We used that as the model for both the Kent Blues Fest and the recent reggae event.”
Kent’s music festivals spread a lot more than just good vibrations – they are important economically as well.
“The economic impact of these events is significant,” said Cass Mayfield, owner of the Black Squirrel Gallery and McKay Bricker Framing. “Patrons often visit our restaurants and shops during these events. We definitely see an increase in business, and we occasionally adjust our hours to take advantage of additional foot traffic.”
Mayfield appreciates what music means for business, but as someone who remembers the “good old days” of the Kent scene, she loves seeing things flourish again.
Reggae Meltdown, the Kent Blues Fest and the Kent State Around Town Music Festival showcase the wonderful new developments in the city of Kent. They build on the city’s strong music legacy and highlight the city as a destination for music, dining and entertainment.