Dancing Rabbit Music Festival keeps on hoppin'

JAMES BEATY | Staff photo

Singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Shawn James performs during the July 16 free concert presented as part of the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival series in downtown McAlester.

While fans of artists like Bruce Springsteen are upset about concert ticket prices that have surged as high as $5,000 each, McAlester residents have already been treated to a trio of free concerts this year through the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival.

Since the May, June and July events all featured three artists each, it’s really as if nine concerts were brought to McAlester to be presented free of charge to the public by the Dancing Rabbit Music Association, along with the event’s sponsors and volunteers. And that’s not even counting the after-shows, offered free at Downtown 312 and Spaceship Earth Coffee.

What that? No artists with a pedigree like Springsteen’s were in the Dancing Rabbit lineup? Well, there was a time when Springsteen’s main venues were in clubs along the Jersey Shore — not in $5,000 a seat concert halls.

This year’s Dancing Rabbit Music Festival finale wrapped up the 2022 main events for the spring and summer series, featuring a diverse group of talented performers in The Texas Gentlemen, Shawn James and band, and the Quaker City Nighthawks.

Once again the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival performances were held on the outdoor stage, with the festival held along Choctaw Avenue between Third Street and Fifth Street.

Anyone could attend the event free of charge, but concertgoers had an option paying $10 to get closer to the stage in the area organizers have termed “the pit” — and many chose to do so. While some brought lawn chairs, took a seat on the sidewalk or stood along the street, others advanced to the front of the stage. Some wanted closer to the action, while others danced in the street.

As the final July 16 concert date approached, some viewed the weather forecast with trepidation, with a high of 102 degrees predicted for the day. With plans to start the concert at 6 p.m., Dancing Rabbit Music Association President Blake Lynch said it would start a half-hour later if there was not adequate cloud cover at that time.

It turned out to be a moot point though — since two of the bands traveling to McAlester had trouble with their buses that day, resulting in their arrival in McAlester a little later than they had expected. As a result, the concerts didn’t start until well after 7 p.m., when the sun had already started its slow descent to the west.

That not only meant it was later than had been expected when The Texas Gentlemen took to the stage, but the band also had the backdrop of a colorful sunset for its performance.

With the group consisting of the cream of Texas studio musicians, they locked into groove-after-groove for their McAlester show.

Highlights included their intricately-arranged rendition of “Charlie’s House” from their newest album, “Floor It!!!” While several members of the band sang, keyboardist Daniel Creamer took the lead on most of the vocals

 Soon, some in the audience were making like Martha and the Vandellas and dancing in the street.

Along with songs from “Floor It!!!” and their debut album, “TX Jelly,” The Texas Gentlemen also gave the McAlester audience a preview of coming attractions, introducing a song “from the new album we’re putting together.”

As I took it all in, leaning back against one of the metal barricades separating the pit from the street, Brecken Wagner told me The Texas Gentlemen also play some songs by The Band and Neil Young.

Right on cue, as if The Gents had overheard our conversation, they broke into a boisterous rendition of The Band’s song, “The Shape I’m In.”

Local resident Kaylee Stanfield stepped close to the stage to snap some photos as others danced around her to the Texas Gentlemen’s music. She considers herself a strong supporter of the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival.

“I grew up with nothing to do,” she said, noting that has changed.

“I feel like new blood and new life is being pumped into McAlester,” she said. “Dancing Rabbit is a real big part of it.”

Following The Texas Gentlemen, the next artist, Shawn James, took to the stage with his band and their brew of smoky rock-blues-gospel infused music. James and his band fanned the flames, with violinist Sage Cornelious lifting his violin bow and pointing it straight overhead, following a fiery solo.

Next to him, James ripped out riff after riff from his electric guitar. Many of his songs, including “Through the Valley” — which he dedicated to a young girl with her mom who had requested the song — were performed in a minor key. It added to the sometimes mysterious ambiance of his music, such as on his song, “The Curse of the Fold.”

James, who currently lives in Portland, Oregon, is obviously one of the most powerful vocalists to perform at Dancing Rabbit, but Cornelious paused from his violin playing long enough to take a vocal solo himself.

Following their set, I told Cornelious he seemed to have a strong connection with the Oklahoma audience.

“I used to live around Lawton,” he said, naming a local park to check out if I’m ever down that way.

I told Cornelious he should tell James to let him have more vocal solos during the band’s set.

He paused a minute and grinned. “Maybe you’d better tell him,”  said Cornelious.

After the set by James and his band, the Quaker City Night Hawks took the stage. Featuring Sam Anderson and David Mastler, who alternated on both lead vocals and lead guitar, the Quaker City Night Hawks delivered a strong set featuring some of their old, and some of their new songs. 

“We came all the way from Fort Worth, Texas,” one of the musicians said.

From their album, “El Astronuata,” they played “Medicine Man,” followed by an outstanding performance of “Rattlesnake Boogie.” Their music reminds me of a bit of Southern rock by way of a Steely Dan vibe, mixed with their Texas roots.

They also played songs from their 2019 album, “QCNH” — which one of the group couldn’t resist joking about.

“It’s a mystery,” he said of the meaning of the “QCNH” title. “The Q is for Quesadilla,” he said. “We’ll tell you that.”

Following the performances by the three bands on the outdoor stage, two free after-shows were presented without cover charges, with Blacktop Mojo performing at Downtown 312 and Joint Custody playing at Spaceship Earth — making a total of five shows by different artists presented to the public free of charge that night.

May’s edition of the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival featured singer-songwriters John Moreland, of Tulsa; fellow Oklahoman Travis Linville and his band, and acoustic solo artist Joe Pug. All were enthusiastically received by the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival’s audience which obviously wanted the music to continue in the night. Many gave Moreland a rousing standing ovation at the end of his set as he started to descend the stairs leading from the stage to the street.

When he heard the ovation, he turned around and walked back up the stairs and gave an encore performance.

June’s Dancing Rabbit show offered something for almost everyone, including performances on the outdoor stage by the rockers/rappers Flobots, along with solo artist Josie Dunne and the indy band Stroke 9.

In addition to the festival’s free concerts, the group also held its first paid event this summer, featuring renowned singer/songwriter James McMurtry and his band in a sold-out show at Downtown 312.

McMurtry and band delivered a rousing performance, which had its quieter moments as well — especially when McMurtry let the band take a break, He picked up an acoustic guitar, stepped from the inches-high bandstand, and stood nearly face-to-face with some standing audience members as he sang a song sans microphone.

The Dancing Rabbit Music Festival is already an award-winning series, taking home the Merit Award for Best New Event during the Redbud Awards ceremony, the state’s highest tourism honor presented by the Oklahoma Travel Industry Association.

Word is more events are in the planning stages, both from the Dancing Rabbit Music Association as well as Spaceship Earth and Downtown 312.

Oklahoma artist Isaac McClung is set to record a live album at Spaceship Earth on Saturday night, July 30. That’s only the first in a series of events designed to keep McAlester rocking through 2022. Although final details for some additional events are yet to be finalized, they’re in the works.

We’ll let everyone know when they’re ready to roll.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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