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GET ON YOUR FEET: A top-notch live band can make your reception into the party of a lifetime

Strategy, creativity, and a playbook drawn from years of observation: The success of a wedding band is more akin to Andy Reid’s playbook than you might think. A band throws out songs the way Andy tries crazy plays early in a game, just to gauge responses, adjusting the game-plan as he goes.

KOKOMO / Photo by A Day to Adore Photography

A band ensures a “win” by learning how to read a crowd, riding its ebb and flow toward building a winning touchdown that the wedding party will remember for the rest of their lives.

Though some might prefer DJs, those who hire a band of skilled musicians for their reception almost never regret it. Just as you attend a concert at Helzberg Hall to hear real people play, at such a critical event as your wedding, don’t you want live interaction with human beings?

“We’re hired to drive the dance floor, and most of the time I work directly with the bride and groom, because they want that kind of personal service,” said Jeff Wright of KOKOMO, arguably the gold standard of Kansas City wedding bands for nearly 40 years. “To make sure that everybody’s dancing and having a good time: That’s the directive.”

This doesn’t just happen by itself, according to Jeff, the band’s drummer, who together with Bassist Jeff Moffet formed KOKOMO in 1981 in Lawrence. It is crafted to a T. “We map it out in advance,” Jeff said. “And as the tactician, I will get us where we need to go.” Just as Andy Reid reaps rewards later in the game for some of his quirky early plays, KOKOMO has strategies for doing something quite similar.

KOKOMO / Photo by A Day to Adore Photography

“My biggest challenge is figuring out how to get them onto the dance floor,” said Jeff, who by day is a professor at Rockhurst University’s College of Business. “And that’s where we kind of ‘go fishing,’ we throw a song out that’s not going to offend. … Then we can kind of take the temperature of the room. From there, we can go in this direction, or fall back in another direction.”

As part of the mapping-out stage, Jeff solicits from the wedding party “five songs you definitely want for sure, five you don’t want … and let me pick the rest.” Overmanaging a playlist can kill spontaneity: “People can over-edit their song list, but the more diverse it is, the better.”

Jeff and the band (including vocalists Kirsten Paludan and Emmett Lee, keyboardist Alex Cordero, and guitarist Andy Launder) draw upon a wide-ranging repertoire of some 90 “group-fresh” songs, any of which they can start with the prompt of a bass riff or a drumbeat.

KOKOMO

“My Girl” is a good example: Emmett’s soulful voice can almost make you think the Temptations are in the house, “and if people come out to dance, then we’ve got to go for the throat,” Jeff said. “If they don’t, then let’s kick it to a ballad.” The goal is to get everyone on that floor. “A wedding is a bi-generational party, and you’ve got to have songs that bridge both groups.”

There are three driving forces that get people to dance (setting aside, if we may, alcohol consumption): melody, rhythm, and lighting. “People come out to the dance floor because of the melody, because they recognize the song,” Jeff said. “Once they’re there, they are a captive audience, and we know how to keep them there.”

At this point, rhythm kicks in, as a strategic mix of up-tempo and down-tempo keeps things moving. “You’re watching the crowd,” Jeff said, toward building an organic flow that has to be sustained for three hours. Almost as important, he said, is lighting: “If it’s too light, people aren’t going to dance. If it’s too dark, they don’t know what’s going on.”

Whatever KOKOMO is doing, it’s working: Since its formation in 1981, and especially since its first big event (the 1984 Kansas City Ballet Ball, where people “went bananas” when they started to play), KOKOMO remains one of the most durable wedding-and-party bands around. “I count success as when other people hire you,” Jeff said. “Or when, after an event, they hire you back.”

Contact: kokomoband.com or jeff@thebandstoreonline.com.

 

Bands on the verge:

Kansas City is also rich in professional-level bands that are “in transition”: groups that appear to be, or at least hope to be, moving toward major careers. Such bands are often “gigging” enough already that they don’t feel a strong financial necessity to perform many wedding receptions. But they’ll often play two or three a year, and you might snag them if you know a band member, or if you happen to be especially enthusiastic about their music.

Hudson Drive

“Usually when we’re hired for a wedding, we bring ‘our show,’ with few alterations,” said Brian Folkers, lead vocalist for the Kansas City-based Hudson Drive, a highly accomplished Country band that has opened for the likes of Thompson Square and Maren Morris. “Weddings aren’t a large part of our schedule. … We bring the music we’ve written: the stage show that people would know from one of our live shows.”

Customization is negotiable, of course, but Hudson Drive receptions tend to have more of a concert-like feel. “We’ll play original music alongside covers that we have in our repertoire,” Brian said. “I will ask if there is a certain song they’d like us to learn for a first dance song, or sometimes the party will even ask what we have in our setlist that may be a good first dance song.”

For the most part, though, couples that hire Hudson Drive know exactly what they are getting: “We enjoy doing weddings, as usually we get contacted by people who are fans or friends and know exactly what to expect from us.”

Contact: hudsondriveband.com or booking@hudsondriveband.com.

 

Other notable options:

Patrick Lentz / Morgan Miller Photography

The Patrick Lentz Band: This well-established group features the impressive talents of Patrick himself, a sophisticated singer who can get down-low when he needs to, and several other fine musicians as well (patricklentzmusic.com).

Private Stock: Known for a broad range of events, this band features a wide-ranging playlist. “We’re seen it all, done most of it, and we absolutely love what we do,” reads the website (privatestockkc.com).

The KC All Stars: A large and varied playlist (the website touts “new songs added weekly”), a highly professional lineup, and a prestigious profile characterize this local favorite (kcallstars.com).

In Good Company

In Good Company: Top-scale performers and operations make this a sure-fire choice, and like some other organizations in town, they can also provide music for your wedding ceremony (ingoodcompany.band).

The Magnetics: Versatile, contemporary, and youthful, this group covers a range of events and styles. “From Johnny Cash to Justin Timberlake,” reads to the website, “Buffalo Springfield to Black Keys” (themagneticsmusic.com).

Musivo Live: The group that calls itself a “Kansas City Wedding Band” is not exclusive to weddings but certainly favors them. Professionally trained and diverse in musical gifts, its members have garnered quite a following (musivolive.com).

—By Paul Horsley

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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