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Archive for Thursday, February 18, 1999

S PICKING UP THE PACE

February 18, 1999

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A Kansas City blues guitarist and his band are celebrating the release of a new CD.

Sometimes, music is in the genes. Wynonna Judd takes after her countrified mom, Naomi. Jakob Dylan -- Bob's son -- and his band, The Wallflowers, moved up the charts with "Bringing Down the Horse."

And then there's Fast Johnny Ricker, the blues guitarist from Kansas City, Mo., whom ex-Rolling Stone editor Stephen Davis called "the best electric guitar in the Midwest." No one in his family knows how to play an instrument.

"I got my first guitar when I was 10 years old," Ricker said during a recent phone interview. "So I started playing in grade school ... mostly rock 'n' roll and The Beatles."

In junior high and high school, his concentration switched to the kind of blues rock churned out by Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and he and some friends formed a band called Bakerstreet.

"I got my first gig in a club when I was 17 or 18 years old and I've been doing it ever since," he said, adding that the band's first steady gig was at a club in North Kansas City owned by a Kansas City Chiefs player.

Ricker studied music at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and ended up teaching at William Jewell for 10 years. Throughout that time, he continued playing dates. About eight years ago, he formed his own band, Fast Johnny Ricker and the Riders.

"We play blues rock but we play a lot of improvisation so every night it's something new for us," he said. "We incorporate elements of Texas and Delta blues in an experimental mix."

The makeup of the Riders has changed over the years. Current backup players are Beth Robinson, drums, who has been with the band five or six years, and Robbie Martin, bass, who recently joined.

"We play about 150 dates a year through the Midwest," Ricker said, adding that the band's touring area stretches from Minnesota to Arkansas. "It's nothing too grueling."

The band has opened for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Bo Diddley, George Thorogood, Leon Russell, Corey Stevens and Tommy Castro. It has played at the Kansas City Spirit Festival, Eureka Springs, Ark., Blues Festival and a blues festival at South Padre Island, Tex.

In Lawrence, Ricker and his band have performed at the annual Toys for Tots Blues Revue and at Rick's Place. Friday night, they will be at The Laughing Dog Saloon and then go across town for a Saturday night gig at the grand opening of Stu's Midtown Tavern. They will also play March 13 at the Brown Bear Brewing Co.

Ricker said audience members can expect a high-energy, four-hour show of original and cover songs that strives to re-create the feel of a '60s jam. This weekend's shows celebrate the release of the band's new CD, "Power and Light."

The CD, he said, was recorded with the help of several guests artists, including Lawrence singer-songwriter-pianist Kelley Hunt, Kansas City musician Ernie Locke, harmonica player John Paul Drum and guitarist Steve Phillips and bassist Michael Bliss, both of the Rainmakers.

The CD was recorded at Phillips' recording studio in Kansas City, Mo., and put together in "bits and pieces" over the past year.

"The songs are a mix of the styles of blues. ... Our main thrust is electricity," he said.

Ricker writes many of the original songs performed by the band and says his creative process is free-flowing.

"I wait for it to come to me -- usually it's just a piece of the idea," he said. "I concentrate on it more when I'm traveling."

Ricker said he brings the outline of a song to rehearsal and then relies on his bandmates to enhance it with their instrumental expertise.

"Then we change it on the spot," he said with a laugh.

Ricker said the band doesn't have another album in the works and instead is focusing on getting more gigs in the Midwest area.

"The energy of the band," he said, "really depends on live performances."

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is jbiles@ljworld.com.

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