By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The Folly Theater, a setting harkening back to the “good old days” of the early 20th century, and the Blackberry Winter Band, playing the music of early settlers to the Missouri Ozarks in front of a backdrop of nature photographs of the region — a combination that proved irresistible to the audience. Heads nodded, hands clapped and feet tapped.
The Aug. 18 concert, Bright Lights on Bright Futures, A Missouri Medley, was a benefit for the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan Bright Futures Fund, which works to make Catholic education affordable through programs like the Strong City Schools Fund and Honoring Family Scholarships.
The evening began with a Gastropub, a buffet, featuring food from Webster House restaurant, local wines, beer and cocktails. In a very laid-back atmosphere, concert-goers milled around in the lobby and sat on the steps leading to the theater’s upper level.
The Blackberry Winter Band’s lead vocalist, Marideth Sisco, opened the concert by singing Oh Shenandoah, a poignant old folk song about the Missouri River, accompanied by Catholic Schools Superintendent Dan Peters and the diocese’s Financial Officer, Dave Malanowski on guitars.
Then a presentation of nature photographs taken by University of Central Missouri Biology Professor Emeritus Dr. John Hess appeared on the 40 foot screen at the back of the stage — rivers, rocks, flora and fauna, all found in the hills of the Ozarks. Six comfortably dressed men and women – Sisco, followed by banjoist Van Colbert, vocalist Linda Stoffel, guitarist Dennis Cider, bassist Tedi May, and Bo Brown, Mandolin and Dobro (a type of acoustic guitar that is played in the lap, in country music) walked on stage.
What followed was as Lillig said later, “It really felt as though the band was on a front porch playing for us.”
Bright Futures director Jeremy Lillig had seen the movie, Winter’s Bone, several years ago and was impressed and intrigued by Marideth Sisco and the Blackberry Winter Band, who supplied the haunting, yet fun music in the Oscar-nominated film.
When Lillig, who shortly after he was hired by the Bright Futures Fund stepped into the directorship, wanted to kick off the school year with something memorable, he thought of the Blackberry Winter Band. He found Sisco’s contact information online and invited her and the band to Kansas City.
“I said ‘yes’ right away,” Sisco said in a telephone conversation with The Catholic Key. “Kansas City has a lot of meaning for me and for several folks in the band. Besides being a city with a lot of history, it was the place to go for jobs; a lot of my family — my mother’s older siblings, dad’s brother and sisters — went to Kansas City to get Christmas jobs in the 1940s. Those jobs, which lasted from October to Dec. 15 or so, provided an influx of money during the winter when living on a farm didn’t bring in any money. The Ozarks was and still is, in ways, a very poor and culturally isolated part of the country. Kansas City was important economically to many families in the Ozarks and in Kansas — it was the economic engine that kept us going back then.” She added that a lot of folks who traveled to Kansas City in search of jobs found work, stayed, married and raised their families.
Storyteller, singer and songwriter, Sisco spends a lot of time working in and enjoying her garden along with the birds and wildlife who visit it. She laughingly says, “My official bio says I’m a veteran journalist, teacher, author, musician, student of folklore … and collector of scraps of mostly useless knowledge.”
Sisco said she was floored by the theater’s acoustics: “a whisper could be heard in the back,” and that helps bring band and audience together.
The band arrived in Kansas City Aug. 17, and visited Holy Cross School, one of the Strong City Schools. Jean Ferrara, principal of Holy Cross, said that most of the students had no idea what country or folk music was, but they caught on quickly and enjoyed it. Sisco and band members Bo Brown and Van Colbert were delighted by one of the children and spoke of it later. Brown pointed to Colbert, seated on a stool with his banjo, and asked the students, “Have you ever seen one of these?” When the kids in front solemnly shook their heads, Brown said, “This is a hillbilly.” A moment of silence, then a voice piped up, “Hullo, Hill Bill.”
The band performed three songs for the students, an old tune about the California Gold Rush, a song about a little girl peering through bits of broken glass, sung by Tedi May, and an original song about recycling. By the final song, the students were bobbing their heads in time to the music and clapping softly.
Sisco said, “The kids were so present, they were there, curious, wanting to find out what happened next. Curiosity trumps intelligence when it comes to learning, because it makes a person want to find out more about something. The kids were bright-eyed and ready to learn something new. We were enthralled with them.”
Lillig was pleased with the concert the following evening. I think what stood out was the warm, welcoming atmosphere. The integration of the photography and the music was a perfect balance.
The Gastropub was Lillig’s idea. “I got the idea while watching a cooking show once and then saw that the Blackberry Winter Band had played at a Gastropub in Springfield, Mo., so we decided to create our own.”
The screen was donated by the KC Repertory Theater and the Friends of Chamber Music, he said.
The music was by turns poignant — The Wood Thrush’s Song; reminiscent — June Carter and Broken Glass; foot-tapping — The Song of ’49; and sing-along — Happy Trails to You, to name a few of the pieces.
As the concert-goers exited the theater, they were handed boxes of Topsy’s caramel popcorn as “party favors.”
Lillig said the evening was a success for the Bright Futures Fund and they plan to make the Bright Lights Concert an annual event.
To learn more about Marideth Sisco and the Blackberry Winter Band, visit blackberrywinterband.com.