On her first trip to Climax, Kan., fledgling songwriter Lisa Mandelstein ended up with the worst seat in the city.
She was accompanying Doug DuBois, a pipe organ technician/engineer with Reuter Organ Company, and had the laborious job of assisting him while he tuned an organ. It involved sitting at the instrument for hours.
"'E flat below middle C' Doug would call out, and I would hold the key down while the organ wheezed out a note and Doug would bang, clang, file, knock the note into tune," Mandelstein recalls. "You had to have a lot of patience to be the organ tuner's assistant."
But that patience paid off. Later that night - after a few rounds of whiskey shared with friends - and surrounded by "dark fields with cows" and "wondering about the fragility of life," the Climax trip served as the story line for one of Mandelstein's first-ever compositions: "Jay and Linda's Song."
That night also helped inspire the musicians to create the Climax Festival.
The small Kansas town - 100 miles southwest of Lawrence - became the setting for a 1983 concert/recording session that still enjoys reverberations in the Lawrence music scene.
BuBois' "pipe dream" turned into a reality after he rented an old schoolhouse in Climax for the Memorial Day weekend, in addition to an eight-channel, open-reel recording console which he set up in the building's kitchen. Then he spread the word.
"They were mostly grassroots acoustic musicians from the Lawrence/KC-area music scene," DuBois says. "We invited everyone in that vein we could think of, and a musician friend in Wichita invited people he knew in his community. The event itself became very unifying for these communities, creating a regional musical family from a bunch of scattered musicians who otherwise may not have ever interacted."
Many of these same folks will be gathering a quarter century later when the Climax Festival 25-Year Reunion Concert is staged at 7 p.m. Saturday at The Jackpot Music Hall, 943 Mass.
"When the idea of the 25-year reunion hit us, it didn't take long for the idea to swell to epic proportions. It was gonna be outside, at least two days duration, with a band contest on one night and a multi-act concert the next," says DuBois, a 30-year Lawrence resident who co-founded the Alferd Packer Memorial Stringband in 1979, the Euphoria Stringband in 1988 and recently the old-timey act Peghead.
But after many months of pondering, DuBois decided on a single-day indoor gathering that would be "much easier to manage and probably just as fun." It also would be structured around one crucial criteria: Every act that performs must feature at least one Climax alum.
On that Saturday in 1983 - which occurred the same weekend as the notoriously disastrous US Festival - DuBois recalls being one of the first two people to arrive at the empty schoolyard in Climax. But gradually tents began popping up, and an estimated crowd of 130 people piled into the venue.
"The '83 festival was infused by a very palpable feeling of enthusiasm and magic, and the buzz got very strong on Saturday night," DuBois says. "The weather got stormy, and we all found ourselves inside the large main room of the schoolhouse. People were singing songs and dancing when the power went out. In darkness, the music continued uninterrupted. This was a very high point."
"That was what I loved about the first festival especially: that it was just a bunch of friends, and friends of friends - not something you bought a ticket to or heard about on the radio," says performer Mandelstein, who relocated to San Francisco years ago and has contributed live backing vocals to The Grateful Dead.
Various selections of music were showcased at the debut event, typically featuring combinations of acoustic guitar, fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin and upright bass.
But the most unusual instrument wielded was a "human pipe organ" under the direction of Mandelstein.
Because of DuBois' job at Reuter, he had a personal collection of old organ pipes. He hauled them to Climax and passed them out to a dozen or so participants.
"We must have had some sort of sheet music, because it was a hymn ("We Gather Together"), and being a Jewish gal myself, I wouldn't have known to choose it," Mandelstein recalls.
"It was like a bell choir. Everyone had their pipe and got in order from lowest to highest. I stood in front and pointed out the melody. 'Blow when I point to you' was probably the technical terminology. ... It was a bit haphazard, but a lot of fun!"
What kept the "fun" immortalized was the meticulous half-inch tape recordings that were made of the evening's sessions.
Tracked, mixed and engineered by DuBois, John Barger and Jay Brown, the music was released as a 27-song, 80-minute cassette album. (These songs are digitally available at www.ljworld.com.)
"We rented and borrowed equipment, and hung scavenged shag carpet on the walls for acoustical treatment. Recording-wise, we barely knew what we were doing, to boot," DuBois recalls.
Fortunately, by the next year, DuBois and company understood a bit more how to approach things. So they decided to stage another festival and release another tape album.
Still calling the event the Climax Festival, the concert migrated to a secluded home north of Lawrence. Organizers built a "big top" tent, which provided shelter from the torrential downpour that transpired. Yet attendance was nearly double. This time the legendary Ramona Studios assisted with the recording.
Reasons to stop
In 1986, after taking a year off to recover from the financial drain of staging Climax, the gang returned to the rural Kansas schoolhouse. No recording was made this time.
Unfortunately, the '86 festival was not without its share of drawbacks.
Apparently, some locals in a pickup truck decided to take a late-night joyride through the area.
"I remember waking up in my tent to loud engines and seeing lights driving through the campground," says Lawrence musician Deborah Pine, whose band Lila will play at the reunion.
"It was very freaky to say the least. I thought they were going to run over people's tents. They came very close. Hey, we were just a peaceful, music loving group of people - I guess a little too strange and hippie-like for their taste."
DuBois adds, "It was certainly a factor in not having another event in Climax."
Thankfully, it's rather unlikely that some gear-grinding yokels will attempt to steamroll the reunion crowd inside the Jackpot. Instead, audiences can expect 14 bands, one juggler/fire eater and a whole lot of nostalgia.
"I have so many personal memories - probably best left unshared," Mandelstein says. "But overall from the actual festivals, I have a snapshot in my mind from the very first Climax Festival. We were there out by our tents in the sunshine and grass, working up a tune and I just remember being so happy that the whole thing was happening."