Local musician Ivas John organizes sixth Cross Rivers Roots & Blues Festival, unites area musicians

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Ivas John likes to get down.

Way down.

It’s deep below the surface that he finds the best, a place where the roots reside.

As the blues guitarist and vocalist branches out in his career, he remains loyal to the place that helped establish him along the banks of the Mississippi River.

His Ivas John Band will be playing Saturday at the sixth annual Cross Rivers Roots Blues Festival, an event the 35-year-old started in 2012.

While John still plays at least once a month in Cape Girardeau, which serves as his home base, he doesn’t get to play as often these days at the Port Cape Girardeau River City Yacht Club, housed on the second level above the restaurant, where the festival will be held. Its intimate environment provides what he calls a great atmosphere for music.

“My relationship with Port Cape, even though they’re not doing much music any more, that was how I kind of got my start in Cape,” John said. “I had a regular gig I was doing every week at Port Cape and introduced me to the area, and I met a ton of people through that gig, which is not going on any longer, but a lot of those relationships still exist with various people and musicians.”

John previously lived in Carbondale, Illinois, for 10 years, and his past, as well as the makeup of his band, has forged his commitment to the blues festival.

Jamie Pender, the band’s bassist, hails from Cape Girardeau, while longtime drummer Charlie Morrow and pianist Mel Goot both reside in Illinois.

The Cross Rivers theme will play out throughout the show, which begins at 7 p.m. and runs to closing time. The evening also will include Rip Lee Pryor from Southern Illinois, The Green McDonough Band out of St. Louis and local group Bruce Zimmerman and the Water Street Band.

“That ties into the whole reason why I started doing this in the first place, to bring musicians that I knew from my time living in Illinois and kind of combine them from musicians I know from Cape and St. Louis, where I work a lot,” John said. “The Cross Rivers Blues Festival kind of stems from that.”

John, who has released five albums, plays a hectic schedule of about 250 dates a year, and his territory is expanding. In 2016, he received his first taste of playing internationally, performing in Ireland, England and Canada.

He’s also spending more time in Chicago, his birthplace and where he lived until age 17, and in Nashville, Tennessee, making inroads and increasing his exposure after his 2015 album, “Good Days a Comin,” reached No. 1 on the Folk Music Airplay Chart in June 2016 and finished No. 8 overall for the year. The acoustic format of the album, classified as alternative folk, was a departure from his previous releases and broadened his audience.

The folk approach played well in the pubs of Ireland, where John said patrons dial in tightly.

“It’s really neat to see how the culture in general kind of reacts to music,” John said. “It’s kind of a noisy pub environment, and as soon as the music starts, pretty much the whole place would go dead quiet and hanging on every word of every song. That was really neat to see.

“It wasn’t so much the blues I was playing over there. It was more my folky material, but they love American music. There is a lot of overlap in terms of American music folk styling and Irish music. A lot of those traditions here in the States started from early Irish settlers in Appalachia and all that. There’s definitely related styles.”

John’s own style has evolved since the age of 16, when a borrowed dime record by Chicago blues legend Fenton Robinson inspired him to pick up the guitar.

Robinson was the thunderbolt from heaven in a long-brewing storm, one that included a father who played guitar and constantly sang around the house and an older brother who also played guitar. Music never was pushed on John, but the exposure was ever present.

“Your tastes really have to grow and develop, and there’s no way to really rush that process,” John said.

Through Robinson, he said, he truly heard blues for the first time.

“It changed my life,” he said.

John got hooked on guitar and blues and three years later got reeled into performing when he was asked to make an appearance with a band in front of about 500 people in Carbondale. Initial trepidation turned into “I couldn’t get enough.”

“The blues, just the soulfulness of it and the simplicity of the music, I think has always been attractive to me,” John said. “It definitely has an emotional quality to it. It’s very human-sounding. … It was a gateway for me discovering all kinds of music that has those same qualities.”

It’s opened his world to country, folk, bluegrass, early jazz and swing and honky tonk. His original music will oscillate between and blend the styles, something he said occurs with no conscious effort.

“I’ve studied a lot of those different styles of music, and they’ve all found their way into my playing and songwriting, I guess,” John said.

His enthusiasm shines when he talks about fellow artists, such as the ones he’ll share the stage with at Port Cape. They’re all blues to the core, but with differing deliveries.

Pryor is old-school blues, a soloist who sings, plays guitar and wears a neck-rack harmonica.

The Green McDonough Band, with whom John has shared a stage on numerous occasions in St. Louis, will be making its first appearance in Cape Girardeau. The band, which John said plays a dance-friendly blues, features Doug McDonough on lead guitar and Laura Green on vocals. Green will be the first female singer in the history of the festival.

“She’s really great,” John said. “I think folks will get a kick out of that.”

And then there will be Zimmerman and his band in full home mode on Water Street.

“Everybody knows who Bruce is,” John said. “You couldn’t have a blues show in Cape without including him. That wouldn’t be right.”

The festival has played to packed crowds over the years, and Saturday should be no different. The doors open at 6 p.m., and fans looking for seats may want to arrive early. Tickets cost $13 in advance — available at Port Cape Girardeau, Hempies and Shivelbine Music — or $15 at the door and include an appetizer buffet.

jbreer@semissourian

(573) 388-3629

Pertinent address:

19 N. Water St., Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Culled from here

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