At first blush, Olathe doesn’t immediately come to mind as one of the primary refuges for folk music in the region.
But starting about two years ago, the Olathe Public Library became a surprisingly frequent go-to place for folk, bluegrass and roots music.
Sometimes it’s locals like Betse and Clarke, Julian Davis and the Hayburners, Sky Smeed, Howard Iceberg and the Titanics, or the John Brown Boys. Sometimes it’s a crowd of musicians romping through a traditional tune like “The Battle of New Orleans” at the regular Tuesday night acoustic jam.
Either way, the library has become a reliable depot for acoustic music fans and musicians.
And on February 20, the library hosts a free concert with Ottawa, Canada natives James Hill and Anne Janelle and their eclectic blend of ukulele (Hill) and cello (Janelle). His down-to-earth, lived-in voice is buoyed by her pure, almost angelic vocals, and the instrumental and vocal blend is theirs alone.
Before their library gig, Hill and Janelle are in town for the Folk Alliance International Conference, where they have several showcases and music camp workshops scheduled. The library show gives area residents a taste of the music enjoyed by those who attend the conference — including the expanding repertoire of ukulele possibilities.
“(Anne and I) are both a little bit hyperactive, or have a short attention span or something," says Hill. “I don’t know if we can quite make up our mind where we want to set down, and musically speaking, that gives us a lot of freedom to explore beyond the boundaries of what you’d normally think of (with ukulele music).”
Their music, Hill says, is “pretty eclectic, very much like Canada. It’s a patchwork of so many things.”
Anne Janelle’s path began with classical cello. Hill started out playing classical music and fiddle music, picking up the ukulele when he was eight years old.
“With the uke, I was playing everything from jazz to old time and rock and roll and some classical as well,” he says. “All of that mingled, and I played in rock bands and punk bands as a teenager. Then Anne and I moved east together in our twenties and started to dig and absorb the music of Ontario and Quebec and the Maritimes. That kind of rounded it out, I think — if you listen close, I think you can hear all of those influences now.”
Along with all of those influences, audiences also get a wonderful sense of humor. When the duo performs a jazzy romp through “Ode To a Frozen Boot,” the music carries both the Eastern Canada traditions and a wink.
“That’s an eastern-Canadian expression,” Hill explains. “If you ask them how it’s going, they’ll say ‘Better than a kick in the head with a frozen boot.’”
But Hill admits he most enjoys playing “some of the more boisterous folk and folk rock tunes" such as the material on his latest The Old Silo.
"It’s slightly more rock and roll," he says, "and whenever we get a chance to stretch out on those kinds of tunes, I really enjoy it.”
Hill credits Monday's show openers Victor and Penny (Erin McGrane and Jeff Freling) for Kansas City’s burgeoning interest in the ukulele. The two duos met at the New Jersey Uke Fest.
“When you see Victor and Penny perform, you just want to be close to where they are,” he says.
“It sounds to me as if they do have a bit of a ukulele following at the library,” says Hill. “Here’s what we find when we travel: There are little pockets of ‘uke heads,’ and they really drive a lot of our schedule. It becomes a very interactive, community-oriented event. The ukulele makes it a much more grassroots event, and I think that’s what appealed to the library.”
Monday’s performance is the first big show of what promises to be a busy year at the library, with shows from locals The Alferd Packer Memorial String Band, Salt Lake City’s Otter Creek, and New Mexico’s Bayou Seco (who call their music “Chile Gumbo”) later this year.
“I’m excited about the diversity of the music coming through the library,” says Adult Services Librarian Ralph Tomlinson, who arranges the concerts and jam sessions. “It’s a nice way to bring music out to the suburbs.”
James Hill and Anne Janelle, Monday, February 20 at the Olathe Community Center, 1205 E. Kansas City Road, Olathe, Kansas. Victor and Penny open the show at 7:30, followed by Hill and Janelle at 8:30 p.m. The concert is free. Doors open at 7 p.m., and seating is limited.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.