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If you don't associate the Blues with the small town of Salina, Kansas, you're missing out on a very unique annual event. For the last 15 years, each October Chad Kassem throws a Blues party called The Blues Masters at the Crossroads in a small church in downtown Salina. While it’s certainly not on the scale of the large city events, the festival is quite distinctive and also offers a special treat for record aficionados. Since I do not have the knowledge or experience of a music critic, I approached this photo essay as a Blues fan, offering some pictures with a little taste and feeling of an amazing weekend.

You do not come to these Blues Master concerts casually as you might for a big city festival. You don’t just show up in Salina Kansas impulsively on the spur of the moment. That’s because you can’t easily get there from here, wherever here is. For me it was an hour to the Philadelphia airport, then a flight to Dallas, then Wichita, then a 100-mile drive. Salina sits in the middle of the county as the very definition of the Great Plains. From Dallas it’s a seven-hour drive, from Denver another seven hours. You get the idea. With no direct flights-actually no flights at all- getting to Salina takes commitment. And that’s reflected in the enthusiasm of the audience. These concerts attract a middle-aged and older audience with a unified passion for the music. Attendees come from all over the US and internationally for the annual event. Based on informal discussions with the concertgoers, it appears that the vast majority are from out of town.

First a little background. Chad Kassem is one of the great success stories in the specialty musical business. Fifteen years ago he began trading and selling used records from a small apartment. Today his enterprise has morphed into what one could describe as a small musical empire enveloping three buildings totaling 70,000 ft.² with manufacturing, mail order, used records, audiophile equipment, accessories, a recording studio and the subject of this story – an annual Blues concert.

Every year during October, visitors from all across the United States and abroad come to a small church near the geographical center of the USA. The venue itself is a fascinating story. Driving past the former Salina First Christian Church offers no clue as to its repurposed interior. Even on the inside the church maintains its traditional look and feel complete with stained-glass windows, original sanctuary and of course wooden pews. Aside from the overhead stage lighting, the interior appears on the surface like a prototypical church. But looks can be deceiving. Nestled into this unassuming church in America's heartland resides one of the world’s premier audiophile recording facilities – Blue Heaven Studios, home to the APO record label, producing arguably the finest quality Blues recordings today. 

The church was designed and built 85 years ago and its natural acoustics were confirmed to be “phenomenal” by engineering tests. Whether by acoustic design, accident, divine intervention or some combination thereof, Blue Heaven’s sound is spectacular not just as a performance venue but also as recording studio. Behind a glass wall in the rear of the church are multiple rooms filled with classic analog recording equipment. Restored, upgraded and sprinkled with familiar audiophile names such as VTL, Manley and Vandersteen, the studio produces extraordinary sound quality, with over 150 of the greatest living Blues legends having either recorded or performed here.

The quality of the live sound is what you would expect from one of the world's finest recording studios. The amplified music was intimate with amazing articulation. The church is just big enough to allow for a spacious air but small enough for the room to be energized by the drums and electric bass. The pews literally pulsated and with the driving rhythms you truly felt the music emotionally and physically. I was I initially concerned that with a brick exterior and plaster interior, a ton of windows and no obvious acoustic treatments, the sound might have been hard, bright and overly reflective. Fortunately, this was not the case – not even close. Even at a few rock-level crescendos, the sound was crisp and clean.

We heard an interesting demonstration of the church’s natural acoustics. During her performance, Shemekia Copeland set down her microphone and proceeded to walk around the church in the aisles and pews while singing without amplification. Powered only by her own amazing voice, her tone, harmonics and even volume level did not change appreciably from location to location. I know that this might sound a little strange but the church’s basement is an integral part of the concert experience and not just for souvenirs, food and the restrooms. After their performance the musicians literally step offstage into the basement.

In a very small and intimate area they relax and mingle with the concertgoers not just in a two second autograph line but in a relaxed and open setting. Spending a few moments listening to some of their stories and history was thrilling. I wandered through a door looking for a restroom and literally bumped into DC Bellamy as he stepped from the stage after an utterly electrifying performance. He looked both drained and exhilarated. I offered him a hearty handshake and congratulations followed by others. The appreciation showed by the audience clearly touched him. At other times you could find performers sitting quietly watching the main performance on the video feed almost in a contemplative mode. One could only imagine their thoughts as they watched their fellow performers.

The festival spans two nights with tickets available individually for each day, with the Saturday crowd seemingly slightly larger. The master of ceremonies for the two-day event was Michael Fremer of Stereophile magazine. In between sets he offered a quick biography of the musicians sprinkled with a few corny jokes and some inside audiophile shtick. Overall he filled in the holes well and kept the pace moving. Generally the acts flowed together at lightning speed. There is nothing worse than having an electric performance only to lose the energy with a 20-minute break between acts. With some acts using a common backing band, the changeover between performances was usually only a few minutes so the event felt more like a continuous concert than a series of acts.

As to the music long associated with the deep south, the Blues has a deep and rich heritage as the root of much of our popular music over the past 50 years. We have all heard the Blues and can easily recognize its unique style. But until I started to collect Blues records and attend some Blues concerts, I never realized the depth and genealogy of the music as it relates to most popular music. At times their most simple, the stories told in music were clearly a forerunner of the modern folk era. At another extreme the Blues sits at the very foundation of classic Rock. Dive in deep past their mainstream hits and you will find a profound Blues influence and presence with such super groups Fleetwood Mac, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Clapton, Hendrix and dozens more. At these Blues Master shows you can follow and hear the music as precursor to much of modern Rock. But the festival doesn’t just present a singular style. This year the steel guitar was featured with Aubrey Ghent and Ted Beard and the Campbell Brothers clearly had at times a ‘country’ flavor not to mention the Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, lowdown dirty Blues and a Blues/gospel blend.

From the old grandmasters to some of the youngest Blues performers on the national scene, this year’s roster included:
  • Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton
  • Ironing Board Sam
  • Calvin Cooke
  • Campbell Brothers
  • Aubrey Ghent
  • Tail Dragger
  • Mud Morganfield
  • Alabama Slim
  • Robert Lee Coleman
  • DC Bellamy
  • Shemekia Copeland
  • Ted Beard

These are living legends and their performances were both eclectic and electric, riveting the audience for five hours non-stop each night, with each performer receiving a spontaneous and well deserved standing ovation. One thing that we did miss was the after-hour’s jam session. The concerts ran from 7:15 past midnight. Then the musicians head back to the hotel and offer a jam session reportedly lasting until 4am. Unfortunately with travel, this was way past our bedtime, so maybe next year.

The down time on Saturday allowed for exploration. Unfortunately and with all due respect to the good citizens of Salina, once you get past the generic shopping malls and chain restaurants, there is not much to do. But if you are lover of vinyl, there is something quite special on Saturday. From 10am to 3pm Chad opens his entire operation for tours, browsing and shopping. His new 70.000ft2 facilities are spread over three buildings, offices, warehouse and pressing factory. At each facility you are greeted by an Acoustic Sounds employee, all of whom seem to share a passion for music, passion for their company and a likeable mid-western ethic.

While appearing generic at first glance, the offices hold clues that define Acoustic Sounds as a somewhat unique workplace – sound systems with turntables in offices; a room containing historic audio equipment from the past 100 years each to be eventually restored to working condition; and a listening room with restored Quad ESL 57 speakers and a Kuzma table. Down one hall you’ll find the master tapes for Santana casually on a bookshelf. Another large room holds their stock of used records for sale. Again it’s not your average office.

Across the street is a cavernous 30.000ft2 warehouse. Assuming that I heard correctly, one employee claimed that it contained 9.000.000 pieces of inventory. On Saturday one section was opened to the public with aisle after aisle of luscious vinyl records. It was an amazing overwhelming supply of the newest releases not just from their plant but virtually all the items in their catalog. For vinyl aficionados,it was like being a kid in a candy store. We could have spent the day here but after purchasing 19 records, there was one final stop – on to the Quality Record pressing plant next door. 

The audiophile media have produced several articles on this pressing plant so I won’t duplicate their work. However the short version is that by taking classic presses, hiring top technicians, restoring the presses to better than new condition,and then installing state-of the art microprocessor sensors and controls for the temperature and duration of the pressings, you achieve a record with a quality and consistency never before possible. To top it off, the tour was not of static machines. The plant was operating with the presses running and records in production during the tours. Each step was explained in detail with the employees taking as much time as necessary to answer every one of the visitors’ questions. Really amazing.

Blue Heaven and by extension Acoustic Sounds is more than just a recording studio or performance venue. It is a preservation of history and the lost music of a previous generation. The countless recordings from this facility will preserve the Blues for generations. For new listeners and old, the unmatched state-of-the-art sound quality of APO records allows the listener to hear these masters as never before. With many reaching 80 or 90 years of age, time is running out for these musical pioneers. Each year the tribute list to those passed on grows longer. If you love the Blues or just love live music, you owe it to yourself to try the Blues Masters at the Crossroads. It might be a long trip but you will not be disappointed.