The Alferd Packer Memorial String Band may just be Lawrence’s longest running band– and on Saturday night, a rare and exceptional event brought to light the incredible history behind one of the city’s most unique (and unusual) musical acts.
This group can be a little morbid. Named after famous cannibal Alferd Packer, the 40-year anniversary of the band was commemorated with an event cheekily titled “Chomp.” Luthier Steve Mason even custom-made a “Chomp” guitar for the occasion. But macabre took a back seat as the lengthy celebration gave way to high emotions while the band recounted their milestones over the decades. The old-timey getups, unique array of percussion instruments, puns (oh my God, SO many puns), and endless songs about science were all on display (their paleontology hit “It’s A Long Way From Amphioxus” was a particular hit). Jim Brothers, an instrumental member who passed away not too long ago, was brought up regularly.
Moving away from traditional venues Downtown, the show set up shop at Cider Gallery in the East Lawrence Arts District. BOTH galleries were absolutely full, just stuffed. Imagine two large rooms full of polite, elderly Midwesterners “ope”ing past each other as they tried to squeeze through the narrow spaces throughout the night. Screens were posted up everywhere, displaying photos, song titles, and lyrics for an entertaining accompanying slideshow. Between songs, members shared memories and stories (the crowd was particularly fond of learning when part-time pilot Jim Brothers almost killed the band when he flew them out to a gig in Western Kansas).
The family affair even brought out banjo player Noah Musser’s young daughter providing guest vocals on “Donut Tractor,” hammer dulcimer artist and all-around funny man Matt Kirby’s grandson donning an outfit modeled after Brothers’ famous threads, and Mason’s daughter Lily clogging along with former Lawrence Mayor Mike Rundle.
But the highlight of the night by far was when every living members (except for one, who fell ill earlier in the evening), joined the band for two grand finishes. Doug Dubois, Jim Rome, Bob Johnson, David Johnston, Julie Hume, and Dick Powers (who literally played only ONE gig with the band prior to this night) all squeezed up into the stage area and threw down for their famous Tax Day Party song. Before taxes were filed online, it was a mad dash to the post office to get your taxes mailed before Midnight. So for years, the band hosted a party at the post office to encourage taxpayers to make the best of it. Five minutes before the Post Office locked their doors at Midnight, they would dive into the William Tell Overture. The event made them nationally famous, and you can watch a great news story on it here.
The Overture rounded out the first half of the set, just before intermission. Their second half focused on more of their recent and popular hits, ending with the band’s big finish. They started marching around the Cider Gallery for the “Packers Parade,” while the cloggers in the corner kept the momentum high. Just before this, the MC for the night proclaimed “This is what a connected community looks like!” It was easy to feel sentimental, as the night was really a reminder of Lawrence days past. We’re all fond of what the future holds, but it was easy (just for one night) to fall in love with the simpler time of Tax Day Parties and heavily-attended shows with local bands. Keeping a band in motion for 40 years is no easy feat– and if anything, the general hope is that bands can take a lesson in this longevity from one of the most easy-going, jovial bands to ever grace Lawrence stages.