Lager in a video performance
Photo by George Lauby
Kris Lager, at left, flashes his favorite sign with bandmates, from left, Jeremiah Weir, John Fairchild and Brandon Miller at the Hullabaloo music festival in July at Lake Maloney.
Kris Lager, long hair flowing, dominates the stage, driving out licks and riffs on his guitar with a voice that wails, crunches and persuades.The Kris Lager Band is a perennial choice as the best blues band in Omaha, with Lager on lead guitar, Jeremiah Weir on keyboards and the backbeat by John Fairchild, who has logged seven years with the band, and Brandon Miller on bass.
The band put on the second annual “Hullabaloo” festival in July at the Lakehouse at Lake Maloney, headlining six bands during an afternoon and evening of outdoor music.
And, KLB, as they are known, typically fill North Platte’s Rail Bar when they perform there, which happens 3-4 times a year as they tour the area.
KLB plays about 150 shows a year.
Lager is a distinct presence onstage. His long hair tops a six-foot frame. He dresses funky, with a top hat. His goes barefoot.
But in talking to Lager, he comes across as unassuming, sincere, respectful and kind. Onstage, he reaches out, leaning, smiling and moving contagiously to the music. During a break he is apt to go from table to table to sell CDs and talk to people.
And although Lager is the band leader, he frequently defers to his band mates onstage. He plays a supporting role when Fairchild raps and punches his drums, or when Weir plays long improvisations on keyboards. Lager plays and watches with a happy smile.
“I like to do my thing onstage,” Kris said, “but as a bandleader, I am into making sure that everyone gets some time too, to do what they want to do.”
“Obviously, music is a passionate business, and you do want to present yourself in a certain light, with a kind of sharpness, so it’s easy not to be nice, but if someone points out that I’m slipping away from it, I try to correct it right away,” he said.
“Being nice is one of the most underrated things in the world,” he said. “I try to stay on kindness.”
Lager said people tend to judge others by their shoes.
“You know, cowboys and construction workers wear boots, but I go barefoot,” he said. “I think it gives a disarming presence.”
Lager, now 30, started playing guitar as a teen when he was in deep trouble at home.
“I got grounded for shoplifting for a month,” he said. “I had a guitar that Dad bought for me when I was 7 or 8. For the month I was grounded, I really picked it up.”
He was 13. He said he got obsessed with the guitar.
“Dad always had Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn records, and Woodstock, and I loved the blues. From there, I got into Albert King, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker. And my dad rediscovered his love for music too. He was a bass player when he was younger, and we got to jamming, and Dad went out and bought a new bass. He knew I had the hunger," Lager said.
“I wanted to make the guitar scream and cry,” Lager said. “I was fortunate, because when Dad and I were jamming, he would play the rhythm.”
A couple years later, Lager and Weir met at an open stage at Duggan’s bar in Lincoln. Weir had graduated from high school in Grant and headed to eastern Nebraska to see what he could find. He played horns in the high school band and liked keyboards too.
Shortly after they met, Weir jumped right into what Lager was playing,” he said. They were both recruited for a backup band. In another year or so, Lager was organizing his own band, and Weir was the key guy.
They played shows with changing band members. At times it was just the two of them. A couple years later, as the band finished playing a rough bar in Laramie, Wyo., where a man had been killed a few days earlier, they got a call from Mato Nanji, the guitar player and singer of Indigenous, a Native American blues band from Yankton, S.D.
Nanji asked if the band would back him on a West Coast tour.
“I said ‘yes,’” Lager said. “Get us out of here.”
They toured with Nanji for two and a half years before Lager resumed is career as the lead man. Nanji continues to make waves as a national blues musician. B.B. King is a self-proclaimed Nanji fan.
When they were playing together, Lager said he adjusted to the supporting role.
“I got to be a side guy, and it was a little difficult at times,” he said. “You see the moments when you could take it to another place, but the front man ushers the show and in taking the back seat for that chapter, I got to witness and think about how I would do it. It wasn’t my place to take the lead, but I came out with those thoughts, which helped me grow.”
Lager's music is mostly original. He said he spent years writing and playing dark, sad songs that stemmed from his personal life, relationships that went bad, “and the drama that came out of that.”
But he came out of that around 2010-11, he said.
“I realized I would only have as good a time as I could make," he said. "I thought if I’m doing this for the rest of my life, I might as well have fun. I really wanted to make the show a celebration.”
The result is his show, now known as “celebrate life." A key song is a quick-tempo hand clapping tune that at one point says, “feels so good… just to be alive.”
The audience, and Lager, celebrate life together during his shows.
Lager said he is content with his career, even though he is moving constantly. He is steadily climbing in the music business.
“There is a perception that I’m trying to ‘make it,’ but I’m making it now,” he said. “There is no golden reward. The reward is now – uplifting spirits, smiling, connecting, letting people know we are all capable. That’s another cultural misperception -- people want to be the ‘gifted ones,’ but we are all gifted. We are all capable."
The Kris Lager Band is scheduled to return to the Rail Bar in North Platte during Thanksgiving week, to celebrate life.
First published in the Aug. 7 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.