A Tribute Artist Recreates A Legendary Protest Singer For A Show With Kansas City Musicians

Aug 21, 2017

Outside a Small Circle of Friends,” by Phil Ochs, is not a typical protest song.

The song tells the biting, sardonic tale of all-too-normal people walking away from tragedies without helping — because, after all, “outside a small circle of friends,” who would care? The message is simple: just help.

Last February, when Zachary Stevenson, a Vancouver native who lives part-time in Kansas City (and an absolute vocal doppelganger for Ochs), sang “Small Circle” and other Ochs tunes at the Kansas City Folk Festival, Mike Paget, an organizer of the local Green Guitar Folk Series, heard the call.

“I thought, ‘This is exactly what’s in my head,’” Paget says.

The result was a concert called The Common Ground of Justice for All, next up in the folk series that’s been based at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church since June 2015.

“This music series is a work of love,” Paget explains. “It’s all volunteer labor, and our goal is to make the community a little bit better by bringing in some of these quality musicians.”

So Stevenson, an actor also well-known for his one-man Buddy Holly show, will be there along with Kansas City musicians Kasey Rausch and Kyle Reid, and Mikal Shapiro and Chad Brothers. Also on the bill is Springfield-based Patrick Mureithi, a native of Kenya and a filmmaker as well as a musician, who has worked to pull together both survivors and perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

“He’s used his musical energies to try to create some healing for something as intense as genocide,” Paget says.

The show wraps up with Stevenson’s versions of Ochs.

“I took an interest in Phil Ochs’ music and story back when I was at university in the early 2000s, and I started doing a modest theatrical show about him,” Stevenson remembers. “When I was a kid, I was quite fascinated with a poem called ‘The Highwayman,’ and Phil Ochs set that to music.”

Stevenson’s father saw he was interested in the poem, and played Ochs’ record “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” for his son.

“I liked to follow along the poem and listen to the record,” Stevenson says. Before he was even ten years old, he says, “I knew that record, where a guy was sitting against a wall with some torn-up posters and peace sign.”

Stevenson grew more becoming more politically aware at college. Then 9-11 happened, followed by the Iraq War. And the record had even greater meaning for him.

“My dad also had the Phil Ochs ‘In Concert album,’ and that one really knocked me out,” Stevenson says. “I put the record on and lay on the floor in the bedroom I grew up in and listened to that from start to finish. At the end of it, I was moved to tears. I was completely sold as a Phil Ochs enthusiast.”

With the assistance of Ochs’ sister, Sonny, and her archive of filmed performances, Stevenson has been devoted to keeping Ochs’s memory alive.

“(Ochs) was convinced that if he could blend Elvis Presley and Che Guevara, that was the ultimate answer to reaching the widest audience in America, which was a bit of a failure,” Stevenson concedes.

For Ochs, and now for Stevenson, the challenge is, he says, “How do you reach the people that you want to reach, whose minds you hope you could sway in a direction you think is positive, through music or conversation or whatnot?”

This show is designed to begin, and continue, conversations.

Three 30-minute opening acts are interspersed with 15-minute intermissions, Paget says, which allows time for audience members to visit with representatives from more than a dozen social justice exhibitors and organizations who will also be there.

“Our hope is that people will learn some things that will give us a stronger voice on social justice issues and get people actively engaged,” he says.

“Granted,” he admits, “the evening is certainly going to be slanted left of center, because it’s about socially progressive people, but the goal is not to go here to bash the right. The idea is to recognize the ideal of America as an ideal that is always just beyond reach, and we’re always having to reach for it.”

The Common Ground of Justice for All show, 6 p.m., Saturday, August 26 at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, 9400 Pflumm Road, Lenexa, Kansas, 66215. Tickets are $17 at the door or $15 with a reservation; email mike@greenguitarfolk.com or call 913-304-4816 for reservations.

KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.