Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

(Above: Jeff Beck darn near steals “A Day in the Life” from the Beatles.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitar wizard Jeff Beck’s career spans six decades and encompasses rock, fusion, prog rock, rockabilly, techno and blues.

So when Beck says he prefers to experiment in different styles, it’s a bit like Mick Jagger saying he likes groupies.

There are few times on Beck’s 17 studio albums where he dips into as many styles as he has on his latest release, “Emotion and Commotion.”

The record includes performances with a full orchestra, collaborations with Irish, soul and opera singers and a pair of tributes to the late Jeff Buckley.

“I try not to get stuck on something or I’ll end up doing four albums of the same thing. I dabble,” Beck said in a recent telephone interview while on tour in Australia.

While Beck covers the gamut, his latest album was largely the product of good-luck accidents. Taking a cue from his fellow guitarists in the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck appears with an orchestra on several pieces, including Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” and an arrangement of “Corpus Christi Carol,” recorded in tribute to Buckley.

“The whole idea of me doing classical numbers started five or six years ago,” Beck said. “I was trying to get my guitar to sound like a voice in an orchestra.”

The initial result — an interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 — remains unreleased, but it encouraged Beck to keep trying.

“It was a hell of a lot of work for it to just be lying around, but (Mahler’s Fifth) allowed me to compromise,” Beck said. “I didn’t want to take an entire album’s worth to EMI Classics, because I couldn’t see a career jumping on orchestra stages every night with me as conductor. So we just have a taste.”

Beck unintentionally mirrored another aspect of Clapton’s career when he covered “Over the Rainbow.” Clapton performed the number on his 2001 tour, but Beck said he has no intention of hearing Clapton’s interpretation “because I don’t want to realize any similarity.

“I used to watch weepy movies, genuine quality films by Busby Berkeley, where all of a sudden a band kicks in and music would happen,” Beck said. “When I heard that song, it was one of the most beautiful performances.”

The lush orchestral numbers are countered by a pair of songs featuring Joss Stone on vocals, and several hard-rocking cuts with his old touring band, including young British bass savant Tal Wilkenfeld.

On “Lilac Wine,” a second tribute to Buckley, Beck is joined by Imelda May on the mic.

“This is how my life is,” Beck said. “I meet people or hear about them, and then I find out they’re available when I look into them. Imelda and Joss are two of the most beautiful women ever, and they fancy working with me, so who’s going to say no?”

“Emotion and Commotion” closes with a song from the Oscar-winning score to “Atonement.” Beck had been working with an orchestra on the piece, when producer Steve Lipson told him opera singer Olivia Safe was recording next door.

“We played her ‘Elegy for Dunkirk,’ and she completely flipped out. The next thing I know, she’s sitting in on it,” Beck said. “I was missing some element on my own. The performance is much deeper, thanks to her.”

The tributes to Buckley were also serendipitous. Beck wasn’t familiar with the late singer-songwriter until someone slipped him a CD on the way out of a party.

Beck said he was incredibly moved by Buckley’s singing and wanted to interpret that voice on the guitar.

“Without any design, these songs slid into place,” he said. “At first we were going to do ‘Hallelujah,’ but that song has become very popular, so we decided against it.”

Before embarking on his latest tour, Beck paired with Clapton for a handful of dates in Japan. The shows featured solo sets from each guitarist and culminated with a jam.

“Eric and I have always been linked through the Yardbirds, but we always seem to brush casually past each other,” Beck said. “I know people were hoping we’d compete to see who’s better, but I’ve always thought it looks stupid to try and out-shred someone. Eric would hit me with a certain style of music, and then it’s up to me to respond. It’s a meeting of two people, not a guitar contest.”

While Beck’s tour will include about half of the songs from “Emotion and Commotion,” it will feature none of the guest musicians, including Wilkenfeld.

However, the tour has reunited Beck with drummer Narada Michael Walden, who played on Beck’s 1976 album “Wired.” Walden has since produced “The Bodyguard” soundtrack, wrote the No. 1 hit “Freeway of Love” for Aretha Franklin and has penned or produced other chart-toppers for Mariah Carey, Diana Ross, Starship and Al Jarreau.

“I had to replace the rhythm section because they had other commitments,” Beck said. “Tal had her own project to do, which she delayed while she was playing with me. I hesitated to call Narada because I knew how busy he was, but he said I should have called 30 years ago. He was waiting for the call.”

Keep reading:

The Best of Jeff Beck

Review: B.B. King and Buddy Guy

Review: Experience Hendrix

The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part One): The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues


The Best of Jeff Beck

(Above: “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was Charles Mingus’ tribute to Lester Young. It has been a regular part of Jeff Beck’s performances for the past 30 years.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The guitarist’s guitarist, Jeff Beck has a long and varied career. Here are some of the high points from each of the genres he’s worked in.


“Ultimate Yardbirds” (2001)

The song “For Your Love” brought the Yardbirds their first big hit, but it cost them their guitarist. When Eric Clapton quit the group for abandoning their blues roots, Jeff Beck was recruited. Beck’s tenure in the Yardbirds bridged the early rave-up blues era and the later psychedelic rock phase. For a brief period, he was joined by Jimmy Page on bass and, later, second guitar. Shortly after the Beck-Page incarnation appeared in the film “Blow Up,” Beck left the band and started his solo career. He has, however, participated on several of the Yardbirds’ reunion albums.

Note: The Yardbirds’ catalog was a frustrating mess of reissues and piecemeal compilations until Rhino released the two-disc anthology “Ultimate Yardbirds.” The collection contains every A-side, key album tracks and a handful of rarities across all three eras of the band.

Hard rock

“Truth” (1968), “Beck-Ola” (1969)

As a nonvocalist, Beck has always had to hunt for a singer. When assembling his first post-Yardbirds project, he nabbed a little-known English R&B singer Rod “The Mod” Stewart. He also recruited Ronnie Wood to play bass. The trio — joined by a rotating cast of drummers — made two albums together before Stewart and Wood left to join the Faces. Both records have a similar feel to the heavy blues/rock Beck’s former bandmate Jimmy Page was making with Led Zeppelin.

Progressive rock

“Beck Bogert Appice,” “Live in Japan” (both 1973)

After the demise of the Jeff Beck Group’s second lineup, Beck teamed up with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge, drummer Carmen Appice and bass player Tim Bogert. While the studio album was a typical slab of power trio hard rock, the band expanded its template on the live album, stretching several songs to the 10-minute mark. Both albums contain Beck’s version of “Superstition,” the song Stevie Wonder wrote with Beck in mind, before Wonder’s manager persuaded him to keep it for himself.


“Blow by Blow” (1975), “Wired” (1976)

Beck teamed with producer George Martin for his first all-instrumental solo projects. Asthetically, the albums fit comfortably alongside Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever” and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “Blow by Blow” contains two Stevie Wonder covers and a version of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman.” “Wired” contains some outtakes from the “Blow by Blow” sessions and a cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” that has become a concert staple. The drummer on “Wired,” Narada Michael Walden, is in Beck’s current touring band.


“Flash” (1985)

After a five-year recess, Beck returned with Nile Rodgers of Chic. “Flash” was Beck’s bid for mainstream credibility and featured eight singers across its 11 tracks. The album won a Grammy and reunited Beck with Stewart on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”


“Crazy Legs” (1993)

The guitar sound on “B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go” and other early Gene Vincent singles had a big effect on Beck as a teenager. In the early ’90s he paired with the Big Town Playboys to pay tribute to Cliff Gallup, Vincent’s guitar player.


“Who Else!” (1999), “You Had It Coming” (2001)

Longtime fans were surprised when Beck embraced the samples and looping techniques made popular by the Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twins. “You Had It Coming” finds Beck sparring with guitarist Jennifer Batten and features an update of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling and Tumbling” with Imogen Heap on vocals.

Guest Appearances

Jeff Beck has popped up in some unlikely places over the years. Here are some of his most noteworthy performances on others’ albums.

  • Stevie Wonder – “Talking Book” on the song “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love”
  • Tina Turner – “Private Dancer” on the song “Private Dancer”
  • Mick Jagger – “She’s the Boss” and “Primitive Cool”
  • Roger Waters – “Amused to Death”
  • Jon Bon Jovi – “Blaze of Glory – Young Guns II” soundtrack
  • Hans Zimmer – “Days of Thunder” soundtrack
  • Buddy Guy – “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” on the song “Mustang Sally”
  • The Pretenders – “Viva el Amor!” on the song “Legalise Me”
  • Toots and the Maytals – “True Love” on the song “54-46 Was My Number”
  • Cyndi Lauper – “The Body Acoustic” on the song “Above the Clouds”
  • Morrissey – “Years of Refusal” on the song “Black Cloud”

Keep Reading:

Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

Reggae, rock, hip-hop, pop: It’s all Michael Franti

(Above: Released last summer, “Say Hey (I Love You)” is the biggest hit in Michael Franti and Spearhead’s 16-year career.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Michael Franti’s first trip beyond the borders of the United States came when his family spent a year in Canada.

Seeing his homeland from the outside opened his eyes.

The musician has been around the world several times during his 20 years as a performer, but he has never stopped searching for new perspectives. Many of those experiences are funneled into the music he makes with the band Spearhead, which combines pop, rock, reggae, hip-hop and world influences.

“Playing music was really my first opportunity to travel,” Franti said. “Wherever I went, I would always go out and see stuff — museums, architecture, rivers, lakes, parks.”

As Franti became familiar with the larger offerings of major cities, he started seeking smaller experiences.

“The most unique experience you can have is just to have a conversation,” Franti said. “I’ve had heartfelt talks with people in parks in cities, and farmers in undeveloped countries who lay out plastic tarps to collect rainwater.”

Michael Franti is the opening act on John Mayer’s Battle Studies Tour. The two will perform at the Sprint Center in Kansas City on March 22.

Standing six and a half feet tall and sporting long dreadlocks, Franti rarely blends in with a crowd. He can often be spotted with a guitar slung over his shoulder, walking barefoot.

“I’ve carried my guitar to places with the most harsh conditions. I’m talking about famine, hunger, poverty,” Franti said. “But those people don’t want to sing about how hard life is. They want to dance and clap and sing along.”

The adopted son of a teacher and university professor, Franti formed his first band while attending the University of San Francisco. He has been fronting Spearhead, his third outfit, for 16 years. Although Franti’s medium has shifted from hard-core punk to hip-hop to reggae and pop, his lyrics have always retained a fervent, though upbeat, political bent.

In 2006, Franti took his politics to a new level when he toured the Middle East with his guitar and a movie camera. His goal was to capture the emotions of war-torn people on film and in song. Franti returned with 200 hours of footage that was edited down to the 86-minute documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone.” The music from the trip appeared on the album “Yell Fire!”

“These experiences helped me realize a political song is only as good as its ability to make people dance and move,” Franti said. “I started writing songs of upliftment, inspiration. A lot of songs are about conviction for life and rising above.”

Franti and Spearhead’s most successful song by far is “Say Hey (I Love You).” Despite being released nearly a year ago, the song has taken on a surprising second life. It has popped up on the television show “Weeds,” appeared on the “Valentine’s Day” movie soundtrack and peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

“Say Hey” had just started to crest last summer when Franti’s appendix ruptured, sending him to the hospital and the band’s concert dates by the wayside.

“We had been touring for a while, and things were starting to blow up,” Franti said. “Suddenly I have a near-death experience, and I’m in the hospital. It was a healthy reminder that life is precious, and you have to value every second. There are several songs on the new album about the preciousness of life and how grateful I am to be able to play music.”

Continuing the trend of his previous two albums, Franti made his new record, “The Sound of Sunshine,” in Jamaica with producers Sly and Robbie. The legendary duo has worked with everyone from reggae giants Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

“Working with Sly and Robbie is always a thrill. They are so quick to share their knowledge,” Franti said. “Every time I think a song needs a better beat, they’re the only ones I think of.”

As Spearhead worked in the studio in Jamaica, people on the street could hear the music they were making. The band could tell how well a track was working by how much it inspired the people outside.

“Jamaica is an island of contradictions,” Franti said. “It’s a tropical island, but a poor country. I could see what people were going through trying to find the light. That’s really what I was trying to write about on this album.”

One of the few places Franti hasn’t taken his music to is Haiti.

“We’ve been invited, but it hasn’t worked out,” Franti said. “We have played in East Timor, however, which is in a similar economic situation. I remember thinking when we played there, if this place ever had an earthquake, everything would crumble. There was no economic infrastructure.”

John Mayer, the headlining act on Franti’s current tour, once sang he was “waiting on the world to change.” Unlike Mayer, however, Franti says he has seen progress from his actions.

“When I first got started, I wrote a lot about the prisons in California and how much money was spent there instead of in schools,” Franti said. “Then someone asked me if I’d play in a prison, so we did that. Afterward, people would come up to me and tell me what they’ve done and how much music has helped them through that time and what they want to do to get out. I’m still getting letters from guys I played for.

“That’s why I travel with my guitar,” Franti said. “I don’t want to just sing about it, I want to be directly involved.”

An early visit to Kansas City

For all of his travels, Michael Franti will always remember Kansas City. In 1992, his political rap group the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy opened for U2.

Shortly after their concert at Arrowhead Stadium, Franti was hanging out with Bono and another band member when William S. Burroughs walked in. The Beat Generation legend was living in Lawrence at the time and was about to record an album with the Heroes.

“He came in carrying what looked like a bowling ball bag with him,” Franti said. “He drops it on the bed and it bounced like it was real heavy. Burroughs looks at us and goes, ‘I just thought you’d like to see my gun collection’ and pulls out a pistol with a barrel longer than my forearm.”

While Franti and Bono collected themselves, Franti’s bandmate Rono Tse picked up one of the weapons.

“Burroughs reaches over to him and says, ‘Give me a second here.’ He opens the chamber, dumps the bullets out and gives Rono the gun back,” Franti said. “Bono and I were talking about it later. We think he did it just for effect.”

Michael Franti timeline
1966 Michael Franti is born in Oakland, Calif., the son of an African-American father and an Irish-German-French mother. His mother puts him up for adoption because she is worried her family will not accept the baby. Franti is adopted by a couple with three biological children and one other adopted child.1986 As a student at the University of San Francisco, Franti forms his first band, the Beatnigs, an industrial, hard-core punk outfit.

1988 The Beatnigs release their only album. Their song “Television” becomes an underground success.

1990 Franti and his bandmate Rono Tse form the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The group is known for its jazz-based samples and heavy political lyrics.

1992 The Heroes release their only album, “Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury.” The band is invited to open for U2 on its tour, which stops at Arrowhead Stadium in October.

1994 Franti forms the band Spearhead, which releases its first album, “Home.”

1997 Spearhead leaves Capitol Records after releasing two albums. Franti starts his own label, Boo Boo Wax.

1999 Franti founds the annual Power to the Peaceful music festival in San Francisco.

2000 Franti rails against the death penalty on the concept album “Stay Human.”

2003 Spearhead responds to the post-9/11 landscape with the song “Bomb the World” and the album “Everyone Deserves Music.” Franti works with reggae musicians Sly and Robbie for the first time when he hires them to remix a track.

2006 Inspired by a trip to Israel, Baghdad, the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Franti produces the anti-war film “I Know I’m Not Alone.” The trip also influences Spearhead’s album “Yell Fire!” which is produced by Sly and Robbie. In June, the band headlines on the main stage on the final day of the Wakarusa Music Festival outside of Lawrence.

2007 Franti and Spearhead make their second appearance at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. The group made its Bonnaroo debut in 2003 and is scheduled to perform there this June.

2008 Spearhead releases its sixth studio album, “All Rebel Rockers.” Again produced by Sly and Robbie, it is the group’s best-selling and highest-charting record to date.

2009 “Say Hey (I Love You)” is released as a single in June. Weeks later, Franti is hospitalized after his appendix ruptures. The band is forced to cancel its headlining slot at Wanderlust and several other festivals.

2010 Michael Franti and Spearhead open for John Mayer on his Battle Studies tour.

Keep reading:

Review: Michael Franti at Wakarusa

Review: Sly and Robbie

The Derek Trucks Band makes old-school rock new


By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitarist Derek Trucks was 12 years old when Bob Dylan asked him onstage during a show to play “Highway 61 Revisited.”

For Trucks, it was just another gig. The look on his dad’s face, however, told a different story.

“I knew who Dylan was because my dad was a massive fan, but it didn’t hit me then like it would have now or even 10 years ago,” Trucks said. “But even though I didn’t realize the significance, I could see it in my dad’s eyes that this was life-changing.”

Trucks and his father were both right. Playing with Dylan was just another encounter for the prodigy who would go on to play with Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and numerous others. But it also opened the door to other possibilities.

Trucks, who turns 30 in June, now helms his own eponymous group (performing Friday at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge) and also plays in the Allman Brothers Band. He returned Dylan’s favor with his supercharged blues cover of Dylan’s “Down in the Flood,” which opens his sixth and newest studio album, “Already Free.”

“I try to pick covers with some connection to the band,” Trucks said. “Part of that is Dylan is such a good songwriter with a great amount of tunes, but on top of that I figured after Katrina and the flooding in Iowa, the title and the lyrics were just a great metaphor for all that.”

Trucks didn’t go into the studio planning on cutting a record. Finding himself with downtime at his Jacksonville, Fla., home – atypical for a man who averages 300 shows a year – and a recently completed home studio called Swamp Raga Studio, Trucks and his band decided to lay down some tracks just to see how the room felt.

“The first day we wrote and ” Trucks said. “The next thing we recorded (the song) ‘Already Free,’ knew there were a dozen, then two dozen songs. We started calling people from (wife and blues guitarist) Susan (Tedeschi)’s band, Doyle (Bramhall II), Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, to come in.”

The resulting release has a laid-back yet focused organic vibe that inhabits the best of the Allman Brothers’ Capricorn albums.

“It’s the most natural record I’ve done,” Trucks said. “It was very comfortable recording, and I think you can feel it. We captured tunes hours after they were written. There’s a freshness that comes across when songs are captured so quickly.”

Unsurprisingly, Trucks wanted to translate that urgency to the road as quickly as possible. The Derek Trucks Band tour kicked off last week.

For someone who has seemingly played with everyone, Trucks had the opportunity to encounter another legend and influence last year.

When you record two John Coltrane numbers on your debut album, and the opportunity to play with Coltrane’s longtime pianist McCoy Tyner arises, you don’t say no.

Still, Trucks was intimidated. Especially when he walked into the studio and saw bass player Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Those guys are legends in their own right, but McCoy is on his own level,” Trucks said. “He was such a sweet guy. He really made it feel comfortable.”

Trucks entered the studio with a list of four songs he hoped to play with the trio, but as the last guitarist on the session, some of his choices had already been recorded.

“My first choice of song was ‘Contemplations,’ but (jazz guitarist Bill) Frisell had already recorded it,” Trucks said.

The two-day session yielded collaborations with Trucks, Frisell, Bela Fleck, Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Trucks was the only “rock” guitarist invited, but he works well on his two featured cuts, “Slapback Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Trucks’ presence in the company of such eclectic legends is unsurprising given the range of covers his band performs – everything from Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Delta bluesman Son House – and the diversity of the band playing them, which contains a four-decade age span.

Trucks said his innate musical curiosity has not only expanded his palate but has also given him a level of comfort playing with nearly anyone.

“It started at such a young age. I was always around musicians, so I’d try to pick their brains and see what influenced their music,” Trucks said. “A huge part of being able to stay on the road and on top of the game is to keep finding inspiration. You keep finding different things that turn you on, things that tweak different parts of the brain. In the long run you’re a better musician for it.”

Trucks hopes that same level of comfort and curiosity extends to his home Swamp Raga Studio.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Willie (Nelson) in Maui, and anywhere he is has a clubhouse vibe. I can see that communal feeling. Wherever you are with him – on his bus, in his home – he makes sure everybody is absolutely comfortable,” Trucks said. “That’s kind of what it’s (Swamp Raga) starting to turn into in the month and a half we’ve gotten into it.”

Swamp Raga is not only musician-friendly but environmentally friendly as well.

“The beauty of building from scratch is that you can think about stuff ahead of time,” Trucks said. “When I figured the electric bill would be double, not only was that a financial hit, but psychologically I started feeling guilty because of all the energy we’d be using. We went out of our way to be conscious of that. We made it a point to do everything as efficiently as possible.”

To that end, Trucks and Tedeschi installed 26 solar panels on the studio and their home. And in the months when the family is out on tour, the local utility company pays them for the energy their panels generate.

“Sometimes our bill comes in right around zero,” Trucks said. “By doing the right thing it actually works out better in the end.”

Despite such 21st century enterprises, Trucks believes his band and his music are a throwback to a time where wooden instruments were hand-crafted and stepping onstage meant being ready to cut some heads.

“When you get on stage, you have to bring it,” Trucks said. “I get a sense from new music that the idea is to outsmart your audience or be so ultra-hip you can pull one over on them.

“With a band like ours, we try to represent a more honest music. We’re musicians representing our craft first and then trying to connect with people.”

A war journal: Memories of KU’s 77th Evac

KU Medical Center doctors and nurses formed the backbone
of one of World War II’s first mobile hospital units.

By Joel Francis

On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, the War Department approved a plan to form mobile military hospital units to serve in a national emergency. Under the plan, certain units would be affiliated with outstanding medical civil institutions. U.S. Army Surgeon General James C. Magee wrote to Dr. H.R. Wahl, dean of medicine and administrator of the University of Kansas Hospitals, as KU Medical Center was known at the time. Would KU Hospitals accept the affiliation of the 77th Evacuation Hospital?

The medical center responded. KU faculty and staff joined with School of Medicine alumni and area physicians, dentists and nurses to form the unit. Activated in May 1942, the 77th Evac was attached to Gen. George Patton’s 7th Army during the North African Campaign and treated troops in the European Theater, moving to the point of greatest need over a three-year period.

In November 2008, KU Medical Center celebrated the 77th Evac with the release of a newly edited book and a documentary film. For this issue of KU Giving, three members of the unit shared snapshots from their experiences: Dr. James McConchie of Independence, Mo., the sole surviving physician from the original unit; Dr. John Shellito of Wichita, who joined later; and Louise Gilliland of Vero Beach, Fla., who served as a nurse.

In the spring of 1942, with just weeks to go in his rotating internship, KU medical resident James McConchie knew he would soon enter World War II. Where he would end up was in question. He had just learned that the 77th Evac, one of the first hospital units to be activated, had two openings. They invited him to join.

“They had openings in internal medicine and radiology. I don’t know how they picked me, but they did,” McConchie said. He talked to physicians who had served in World War I about his options. “They said if I took internal medicine I’d see a lot of shell shock and pneumonia. In radiology I’d be learning something new. I agreed and chose radiology, because no matter what I chose after the war, radiology would be part of it.”

Finally, McConchie’s orders arrived from the Army. It was official: He was to meet up with the rest of the unit at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. With only a month of radiology training under his belt, McConchie departed for basic training and a crash course in radiology.

“Our unit was the best thing the Army had as far as our function,” he said. “We had the talent, the organization and the fraternization. Everyone knew everybody they were working with. We knew what someone could and couldn’t do.”

That knowledge and intimacy was based in the unit’s development and growth together at KU Hospitals. Before they worked near the front lines together, the core of the unit trained and worked side-by-side as Jayhawks at Bell Memorial Hospital in what is now Murphy Hall at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.

Shock tubes and mud

After landing in Liverpool, England, that summer, the 77th Evac was sent to Oran, Algeria, to treat soldiers injured in the British and American invasion of Northern Africa. They were stationed there from November 1942 through January 1943 and spent the first few weeks in a hospital in the city.

“We had to use an old, non-shockproof X-ray machine that consisted of the X-ray tube and then several cables you pulled down from the ceiling and attached to the tube,” McConchie said. “These were bare wires. If you got close – about a foot away – the electricity could knock you across the room. We called it an electrocution device slightly modified for taking X-rays.”

In early December, the unit left the hospital as the Allied troops continued to advance. They moved to “Mud Flats,” a field south of Oran and closer to the front line, and set began shortly before the move, and sometimes the doctors and nurses were up to their knees in water and mud.

“We called that mud the ‘Oran Ooze,'” said Louise Gilliland, a nurse in the surgery ward. She had joined the 77th in New York and remained with the unit until the end of the war. “I remember on Christmas Eve I was going on duty, and a doctor had a record of ‘White Christmas’ he wanted to play. When I left to get it for him, I slipped and fell in the mud. I had to clean up again and change my uniform.”

Hospital ships transported the wounded across Oran Harbor to the evac hospital. For the soldiers who needed it, radiology was an early stop after going through admissions.

“When we were real busy, seeing up to 2,000 patients a day, John Bowser and I would work in shifts,” McConchie said. “We were the only two radiologists in the 77th. There were two X-ray machines with a full staff of technicians on each one. Then we had the Mole developing film.”

“The Mole” was Giovanni D’Amico, an Italian volunteer who spoke little English. He earned his nickname by reporting to the X-ray film-developing tent before sunrise and leaving after dark.

The doctors used what they had on hand to keep the mud away and to keep the film tent dark enough to develop the X-rays.

“The operating rooms draped sheets everywhere – that is, when they had them – to keep them sterile,” McConchie said. “When you went from tent to tent, you had to duck to go in through the flaps. When you got to our tent, you had to duck twice, because we were in a tent inside a tent.”

After D-Day

In July 1944, McConchie’s field experience was put to the test when the 77th arrived at Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five beaches designated for the D-Day invasion, 30 days after battle.

“We had to wait that long because it took them that long to get a big enough area cleared for us to set up our hospital,” McConchie said. “In the meantime, we were in England training, staying in contact with the local radiologists and studying.”

Although the heavy fighting was over when the 77th arrived, the area was riddled with reminders. German concrete pillboxes jutted out of the sand, houses and roads were pocked with shell marks, signs warned of grounds littered with land mines, and machine gunners sat tensely, alert for hostile aircraft.

“The lucky ones would walk in from the battlefield. We just took care of what came in,” McConchie said. “The triage docs would go over the patients as they came in. They’d divide who went where. The extremely bad cases would be set aside so we could get back to the others.”

John Shellito joined the 77th Evac shortly before the unit left England for Utah Beach.

“It was the most wonderful hospital. I couldn’t imagine such a place,” Shellito said. “They’d been through it all and knew exactly what to do. The reason I got on with such a wonderful outfit was that they needed an anesthesiologist. I wanted to be a surgeon; they wanted an anesthesiologist.”

The hospital was run in two 12- hour, 7 o’clock-to-7 o’clock shifts. Because the other anesthesiologist had two weeks of seniority and first pick, Shellito got the night shift. But he got up during the day to monitor use of the tracheotomy tube.

“The secret to good anesthesia is keeping an open airway,” Shellito said. “The best way to do this is to put a tube in the trachea and hook it up to an anesthesia machine or oxygen or whatever else you want to give them. This tube wasn’t something you could just go to the store and ask for. So I made do.”

He made the tube by placing a catheter alongside a larger tube and using half of a condom as an inflatable balloon to seal off leaks.

“I made another one of these a few years ago and sent it to a fellow at KU so he’d know,” Shellito said. “We guarded these very carefully. I didn’t want to have to make any more.”

One lost

In Verviers, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, the 77th set up inside a schoolhouse. On the day before the hospital was scheduled to open in October 1944, German planes strafed the building and bombed the urology ward. Although no one was hurt that night, the bombing became a familiar occurrence.

“You could be a little afraid when the bombers went over,” McConchie said. “When I went to sleep, I always had my helmet right beside me. When I heard the bombers, I’d put my helmet on and hope. It was a rough way to sleep, but you kind of got used to it. There was nothing you could do about it, anyway.”

It was in Verviers that the 77th suffered its only fatality. Anne Kathleen Cullen, a Red Cross volunteer, was recovering from the flu on the third floor of the converted school. She went to the fourth floor – the top floor – to use the restroom. The moment she entered the doorway, a shell struck, and the room collapsed on top of her.

Louise Gilliland lived on the fourth floor. As luck would have it, she was on another part of it when the shell hit.

“I had my sleeping bag there with everybody else,” she said. “That night when I went to go to bed, I turned my bag open and found a large piece of shrapnel. If I had been sleeping in my normal position, it would have got me in the kidney.”

The hospital in Verviers was set up for 1,000 patients, but the staff soon was caring for 1,400. The battle was only a couple of hills away, and the wounded were shipped straight from the front line. If the staff was overwhelmed, they had been treating above capacity for most of the war anyway. At least they were working from a bricks-and-mortar structure.

“The way we were set up, there were rows of cots, and we had a desk with a box where we kept medications,” said Gilliland. “Patients came in with their EMT [emergency medical tags] and an envelope containing their records. We would feed and care for them, change their dressings and wash them if possible.”


Cease-fire orders came in 1945. Back home, James McConchie and John Bowser, his fellow radiologist in the unit, opened a practice together. John Shellito switched specialties from anesthesiology to surgery. From 1973 to 1985, he was an associate professor at the KU School of Medicine-Wichita. Louise Gilliland continued her nursing career in Pennsylvania and Florida.

Members of the 77th held regular reunions from 1945 until 2004. Robert Gerlach, an enlisted man who won a bronze star for streamlining the discharge process, planned many of the reunions. Surviving members met once more this past November.

“The 77th has become like family to many of us,” Gilliland said. “I felt a kinship with this group and the good work we did. Even though there’s not as many of us around today, I’m happy to be there and see who shows up.”

Kansas City Rocks Out

(Note: the following feature appeared in the April, 2008 issue of KC Magazine.)

By Joel Francis

When Keenan Nichols was 19, he couldn’t wait to get out of Kansas City. The Avondale native and North Kansas City High School graduate wanted a bigger city where he had a better chance of making a living as a guitarist. He escaped to a town with a more promising music setting-Dallas.

“The scene in Dallas was great at first, but over the last few years, it started dying off,” Nichols said. “Everyone down there lost interest in live music. Everything became a race to become the next Miami and see who could build the most dance clubs.”

When Nichols came back to Kansas City on visits, he’d catch glimpses in his hometown of what he’d hoped to find in Dallas. Even­tually, he moved back.

“It seemed like the scene had grown up a little bit,” said Nichols, guitarist for the hard rock band The Architects. “With that distance, I gained a big appreciation for everyone here sticking to their guns and trying to make things happen.”

Scott Hobart moved to Kansas City in 1989 to take classes at the Kansas City Art Institute, but he found himself gravitating to the clubs more than the classrooms. Hobart was a member of the hard rock band Giant Chair when he had a change of heart (and name) and started writing country songs. Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys cel­ebrated 10 years of honky tonk last December.

“I’ve never felt stifled geographically by playing in Kansas City,” Hobart said. “Being a country band, people always ask us why we aren’t in Nashville. Nashville’s inundated. Our music doesn’t mean anything there. There’s something more original about playing here. You can’t just be in a band to impress someone. It has to mean something.”

In the neighborhood

The desire for musical integrity, which is shared by many Kansas City bands, translates to a neighborhood of musicians who collaborate more than compete.

“The greatest thing about our scene is that it is so supportive,” said Auggie Wolber, mem­ber of Americana band In the Pines. “We’ve all played together so long, everyone has gotten to know each other.”

The spirit of fraternity is reflected in the number of benefit shows thrown for other musicians. When blues guitarist Danny Cox’s house burned down in January, several bands (including Irish ensemble The Elders) eagerly signed on to perform at a sold-out benefit con­cert. That same spirit showed at a successful 2006 benefit for Blackpool Lights drummer Billy Brimblecom.

Making the decision to help Billy was not difficult for The Architects.

“Our old band and his old band had done some touring together and become pretty close. If he had needed a transplant, I would’ve con­sidered it,” said Architects singer Brandon Phillips. “It turned out he only needed us to play [for] 45 minutes and not get paid.”

Audiences show the same supportive spirit.

“The biggest show of support I’ve seen was when I was playing hard rock and de­cided I wanted to sing songs with a story in front of a country band,” Hobart said. “It may have confused some people at first, but everyone I knew from the rock side came out to hear me, and they’ve supported me the whole time.

“If you can switch genres drastically and have people willing to try it on some level, it proves the open-mindedness and good nature of our community,” Hobart said.

It also means more musical diversity. A punk band might play Davy’s Uptown op­posite a country band at the Record Bar one night, but the next day those same clubs may offer blues or indie rock.

“One of the great things about this town is you can go to the Re­cord Bar and see Rex (Hobart) and have dinner, or you can go to Davy’s Uptown and hear free jazz,” said Wolber of In the Pines.

The success of First Fridays and the revitalization of downtown points to the appetite and appreciation Kansas Citians have for the arts.

“I’m always surprised at how many people turn out for The Pitch Music Showcase,” said Record Bar co-owner and Roman Numerals instrumentalist Steven Tulipana. “Five bucks gets you all over town to hear different kinds of music.”

Ayo Technology

In the past, record stores provided an outlet for local artists with in-store performances and prominent displays. Today, Myspace pages and email lists provide a level of promotion and exposure that reaches far be­yond stapling a flier to the wall.

Just ask Adam McGill of The Republic Tigers, a local band re­cently signed to an imprint of Atlantic Records and discovered via the band’s Myspace site.

“An A and R (artist and relations) rep with Atlantic found us on our site and started talking with us,” McGill said. “She asked for a CD and then passed it on to Alexandra.”

Alexandra is Alexandra Patsavas. The name might not be familiar, but the TV shows for which she selects music are-“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Numb3rs” and “Gossip Girl.” Patvas loved the band and made them the first act signed to her Chop Shop Records label. The Republic Tigers’ debut album was just released earlier this spring.

Similarly, Olympic Size found one of their songs featured prominently on MTV’s “The Real World” thanks to a pitch from Anodyne, a local record label. It’s an impressive feat for anyone, let alone a band without a long-term record contract or even a finished album.

“I think you’re more likely to get discovered out of Kansas City than you are in a big city where you’ll get lost in the mix of a billion other bands,” said Republic Tiger Kenn Jankowski. “With the Internet, it’s easy for anyone to find you.”

Join Together

Knowing about the “next big thing” could be as close as a write-up in The Pitch or The Kansas City Star‘s preview section.

“If a band shows up in there, it’s a pretty good chance they have their stuff together,” said Olympic Size guitarist Kirsten Paludan. “I think some people have a perception that rock isn’t for every­one, but this is a music scene that can appeal to a wide range of people. It’s not just for teenagers, hipsters or artists.”

Kansas City is big enough to support many types of music yet small enough that it’s not difficult to stay in the know about what’s happening across town.

“Our city is very diverse. There’s a band out there for every­body-for the kids, for the rockers; it’s all out there waiting to be discovered,” said Darren Welch of In the Pines. “Just take a chance. Pay the $5 cover and wait to be surprised.”

Hail Death Cab

Expect a ‘faster and louder’ show at the Bleeding Kansas Festival.

Cover story, August 03, 2006

By Joel Francis
The Kanas City Star

Elvis Costello, Atlantic Records, Franz Ferdinand and Lollapalooza have at least one thing in common: Death Cab for Cutie.
The Seattle band had been building a loyal fan base since 1998 when last year it signed to Atlantic Records and released the album “Plans.” The fans rejoiced when the big label association didn’t alter the music. In fact, the band wasn’t done pushing its core conceptions.
“We knew full well when we signed (with Atlantic) that we didn’t have to,” said keyboard player, guitarist and producer Chris Walla. “If they didn’t give us what we wanted, they wouldn’t get us. What we wanted was to be able to do exactly what we were doing but with more resources and access to people.”
Walla and the rest of the band — singer, guitarist and chief songwriter Ben Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr — are headlining the Bleeding Kansas Arts & Music Festival at Burcham Park in Lawrence on Saturday. The steamy outdoor setting isn’t ideal for “Plans,” an album best suited for rainy afternoons indoors.
“We’re not performancy performers. There are no rock-star moves or laser shows,” Walla said. “Festivals are difficult for us because there are so many ‘X’ factors. We just turn it up and play faster and louder than we would otherwise.”
The more popular Death Cab gets, however, the more it plays in places that serve thousands of fans than it does intimate clubs. In June, Death Cab played Bonnaroo; Friday the band plays Lollapalooza in Chicago. In both places, Walla said, the band will adjust.
“It’s a different mind-set,” he said. “The whole performance from the stage keeps having to get bigger and bigger to reach the back of the places we’re playing.”
That’s not the only adjustment fans have had to make. It recently toured with Franz Ferdinand, whose frenetic disco rock is the complete opposite of Death Cab’s introspective, mellow sound.
“It was an exercise in counterpoint,” Walla said. “Franz could go out with American Hi-Fi or the Arctic Monkeys, but how much of one thing do you need?”
The bands were already mutual fans and quickly embraced the idea, alternating opening and closing nights.
“If we were the first band up that night, we’d start big, but if Franz would open then we’d start out super quiet,” Walla said. “We bring it back as far as we could. To highlight and contrast (the two bands) just seemed to be the thing to do.”
Death Cab recently performed with Elvis Costello for VH1’s televised “Legends” concert.
“It was especially exciting for me because Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and the first few XTC albums are my bread and butter,” Walla said. “It was difficult to find a song that made sense to us and that we could play (with Costello). It would be completely inappropriate for us to play anything from ‘This Year’s Model.’ I wanted to play ‘Peace in Our Time,’ but it didn’t work out.”
In the end, “Accidents Will Happen” and “Kinder Murder” won out.
So what are the consequences of all this mingling with strange bedfellows and playing huge festivals?
“Our musical direction right now is pretty static,” he said. “We’re just playing shows. There are no new songs or decisions about the next record.”
For a band that has been as adventurous as Death Cab has been lately, static is a new direction.