A new book coming out next week takes a look at the role Kent played in music history. “Small Town, Big Music” tells the story of the nationally known bands who performed at Kent State as well as the bands that made up the local music scene.
Author Jason Prufer says the book grew out of a project he put together for Kent State University’s centennial in 2010. He had heard stories of well-known acts playing at the school in the past, and decided to learn more by exploring the archives of the Daily Kent Stater newspaper.
He says he “couldn’t believe” he was reading about performances by artists as varied as Duke Ellington, Sly & the Family Stone and German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Two acts – Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen – played at Kent State just as they became superstars. Prufer says that’s because “college kids always know what’s cool first – to this day. The first time I had ever heard of Bruno Mars or Drake or Kendrick Lamar was from announcements of performances that were happening here at Kent State.”
Prufer says the rise of arena rock in the late 1960s also helped Kent State to land national acts. “At that time, [the school] had the biggest [indoor] room in Northeast Ohio. What’s now the MAC Center; it used to be called the Memorial Gym. That was replaced, eventually, in the mid-1970s by the Richfield Coliseum.”
The Black Keys are one of several acts featured in “Small Town, Big Music” who built a following locally before finding national fame.
“Everybody knows that they’re from Akron, and they are Akron-proud. But before Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were in the Black Keys, they were in other bands. Those other bands played in Kent. I was able to dig up photographs of Patrick Carney when he was in a group called Christopher Whispers playing at the Europe Gyro – it’s sort of the last relic of ‘old Kent.’ He told me that even though they’re Akron-proud, they wanted to play in Kent. Because Kent had the venues and Kent was inherently cooler than Akron.”
Prufer says Kent had a mystique that’s somewhat tied to the events of May 4, 1970, which “kind of blacked-out all of these stories. That’s why there’s [at least] 30 books about May 4, and there’s no books about [this]. So things like the James Gang and Devo were kind of overlooked for this much bigger event.”
Kent State University Press is holding a launch party for the book on February 8.