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Examiner
  • Local roots, blues band prepares for international competition

  • In most cases, the diehard fans of a musical group follow after the band’s formation.



    With the current lineup of Jason Vivone and The Billy Bats, that process took place in reverse, its six members coming together after many followed Vivone’s original duo with musician Zach McCall.

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  • In most cases, the diehard fans of a musical group follow after the band’s formation.
    With the current lineup of Jason Vivone and The Billy Bats, that process took place in reverse, its six members coming together after many followed Vivone’s original duo with musician Zach McCall.
    Regardless of how the roots and blues sextet came to be, from May 2009 until the present, the group with strong Independence ties has gained strong Kansas City regional recognition in winning the local round for the International Blues Challenge in September. In late January, The Billy Bats will travel to Memphis, Tenn., for the 29th International Blues Challenge, the world’s largest gathering of blues acts where many up and coming musicians are scouted and discovered.
    The foundation of what is today The Billy Bats had humble beginnings in November 2006 as a two-piece act featuring McCall (who is no longer with the group) and Vivone.
    Independence resident Imani Glasgow, one of two female members in The Billy Bats, smiles as she recalls how she became part of the group.
    “I just followed them everywhere,” she says. “What’s the term?”
    Another member chimes in.
    “Stalked?”
    “Yeah,” Glasgow says, laughing. “I stalked them with my little hand drum, asking them if I could play.”
    Glasgow and Vivone had previously met through performing theater connections. Two other future Billy Bats, Jeremy Clark and Ben Hoppes, had known each other a long time, both graduating from Fort Osage High School.
    “I wasn’t a musician, really, at the time,” says Clark, a bassist, of when The Billy Bats began forming. “I was kind of acting as Ben’s manager, because he had a solo act, and I was helping with getting him booked. The story of Ben befriending Zach and Jason – I was basically there the whole time.”
    Vivone asked Clark one day if he wanted to contribute on bass for a side project.
    Clark laughs. “I didn’t really play bass. I mean, I played a little bit. (Vivone) kind of convinced me to pick it up and kind of just took me under his wing.”
    Independence musician Paula Crawford, a graduate of William Chrisman High School, met Vivone in a non-musical setting, at first, at Main Street Coffee House on the Square. Crawford’s future landlord introduced the two, who immediately clicked through mutual interests in music. Crawford and Vivone started dating several months later, and they’ve been together for five years.
    Last but not least, Matt Bustamante of Kansas City, Kan., knew Vivone through the American Heartland Theatre. Bustamante is the group’s lead percussionist and provides back-up vocals.
    Now, for the name. Vivone tells its origin like this: He and McCall wanted a band name that “would be fun to say.” Billy Batts, a character from the 1990 movie “Goodfellas” came to mind, Vivone said.
    Page 2 of 2 - One of the duo’s first gigs took place inside a Lawrence, Kan., bookstore, and as Vivone remembers it, “We played so loud we blew the books off the shelves.”
    “They were really, really mad at us,” he adds.    
    This year, the group also performed at the Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival, in addition to regular gigs at Main Street Coffee House and elsewhere across the metropolitan and Midwest regions. The band’s weekly rehearsals take place at Clark’s Independence home.
    “Independence has been – pardon the pun – instrumental in helping our band,” Vivone says. “If you throw a rock, you’ll hit a pretty good guitar player here in Independence.”
    The roots-and-blues group performs original songs, as well as covering the classics of its genre. In 2011, The Billy Bats were crowned King of the Roots as part of the Blues N Roots N BBQ Festival in Columbia, Mo.
    A week after the win, Vivone was seriously injured in a car accident. The lasting effects of memory loss, whiplash, dizziness and chronic pain still take their toll on Vivone, more than a year later, and he’s had to make adjustments musically. The weight of a six-string guitar puts strain on his neck and shoulders, so Vivone now plays a lighter cigar box guitar.
    “I sing harder. Life is too short to sing things you don’t mean,” Vivone says. 
    Winning isn’t so important for The Billy Bats, its members agree. They’d like to see their attendance in Memphis as an opportunity to expand gig offers into even more states, as well as eventually develop The Billy Bats into a full-time job for all six band mates.
    “You don’t want to get hung up on whether or not you win,” Clark says. “I wouldn’t really be exaggerating if I said that it’s been pretty life-changing for me. I mean, I was just a fan of The Billy Bats. Being able to be in The Billy Bats has been unbelievable.”
    Two other members follow up on Clark’s “I was just a fan” comment.
    “So was I,” they say. 
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