Kentucky Arts and Culture
Popular Breathitt Band Reunites
On a Saturday night in September 1978, a group of musicians climbed atop a flatbed truck and performed in front of an overflow crowd in downtown Jackson. The guys were all students at Breathitt County High School, close friends with each other, and – in step with the musical tastes at the time – were big fans of the rock group “KISS.”
The event was the very first Breathitt County Honey Festival, almost 34 years ago. From what some of the band's members said, the cheers and screams from the audience that night were “chaotic.” And for a group of high school chums who loved to get together and play music, the thought of being a jukebox hero at the time was heady stuff indeed.
That band's name was “KAOS” and after that first festival onstage, they're reuniting to be the featured band at this year's Honey Festival on Saturday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m., at the Honey Festival Main Stage in the City Hall Parking Lot on Broadway in downtown Jackson.
For the members of the popular band who last performed in 1981, it's a chance to return in front of a live crowd and to play the Southern Rock-Classic Rock tunes KAOS would become best-known for.
“We were young kids at the time, and that first Honey Festival was among our first concerts,” said Baker Burke, one of the original band members of KAOS. Burke, who now lives in Lexington, talked Monday afternoon about the electricity that filled the air during that night. “We started as a band in 1977, and before the Honey Festival, we had played at a show in the basement of Edsel and Penny McCoun's house. About 30 to 40 people attended that concert, mostly people our age with their dates. Now we were here with these people our age screaming and yelling for us to keep playing. It was a Saturday night, around 8 o'clock, and Court Street between the old Whiz restaurant and the Courthouse (where the Justice Center is now located) was completely filled. We were all pretty nervous. We played for around an hour, and people knew us. They liked us, and it was one of the best receptions I've ever gotten, and I've played for 35 years.”
“That very first concert at the very first Honey Festival? It was really exciting from the community's standpoint. It was exciting thing, fresh and new at the time, and it was great to play for that crowd. We learned a lot from it,” echoed Scott Noble, another KAOS member who now lives in Corbin, and who'll rejoin fellow guitarist Burke, as well as guitarists Mike Watts of Clarskville, Tenn. and Anthony Tincher of Cynthiana, bass guitarist John Francis of Richmond and drummer Tommy Molands of Wolfe County at the reunion event.
In addition to the Honey Festival concert downtown, the group will attend their own class reunion that afternoon. As members of the Breathitt High Class of 1981, they'll be at their 30th Reunion, which takes place that same day from 1-4 p.m. in the fellowship hall of the First Church of God on Route 30 West in Jackson.
Both Burke and Noble always liked music, and like many a young man at the time, picking up a guitar would lead to a lasting friendship – with each other, their fellow band members, and to a grateful legion of followers. “We were freshmen at Breathitt High when we started KAOS, and we practiced the living room of my parents' house on Picnic Hill,” Burke told the Times-Voice in a phone interview. “On Saturday nights, they would go to their bedroom in the back of the house, our friends would come over, and we practiced all night. I look back at that today, and think about all the noise we caused to them and the neighborhood, bless their hearts.”
Somehow from the occasional chaos of practice, a musical pattern came together, which led to the band's signature sound. And watching reruns of a popular 60's TV show didn't hurt, either. That led to the band's name. “We watched the comedy show 'Get Smart' on television a few times, and noticed that 'KAOS' was the evil organization. The name 'KAOS' was also very similar to the band name 'KISS'. We played several of their songs while we were a band, and we did play a lot of KISS songs at that first Honey Festival. But we weren't really chaotic on stage,” recalled Burke. “We did that for about a year, then we graduated to a more Southern Rock-Classic Rock sound. Groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Blackfoot, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Molly Hatchet. We began playing their songs, and that's the sound that we're mainly remembered for today.”
Like their four years of high school, the members of KAOS had some interesting times as a band, which led to some stories that only a few people have heard - until now. “We needed to buy some PA equipment, so we went down to one of the local banks and applied for a loan. We met with the president of that bank and we got a $2,000 loan. Or so we thought. We did pay off that loan from the money we played doing concerts. But about six months ago, I was talking with my dad (Bill Burke, who formerly headed the “Project Opportunity” program for the Breathitt and Lee County school systems in the late 60's and early 70's). He told me that the bank never officially loaned us money, but they knew where to reach my dad, just in case.”
Noble remembered a reception where the band's music was really appreciated, after the wedding party got lots of satisfaction when they received a big “spike”. “A local caterer was doing a wedding reception in Knott County, and he contacted us to play and we did. So we all loaded up our gear, got there, and as it turned out, we were playing for a couple in their mid-60's who'd just gotten married. They requested some Big Band songs, and being high school kids, we didn't know any of them whatsoever. At first it was rough. We were like a fish out of water. But after the wedding party consumed quite a few 'refreshments', we were popular. Very popular. Towards the end of the reception, they were requesting quite a few Rolling Stones songs.”
Together as a group, onstage and at Breathitt High, the good times rolled for KAOS throughout their school years. After their inaugural performance atop the flatbed truck on Sept. 7, 1978, the band played two more Honey Festivals. But after graduation in 1981, the band went their separate ways. “We went to college. We got married, got jobs, and entered the real world. Some of us played for bands here and there. I know I did, because playing guitar's always been important to me,” noted Burke, who works at the Microbiology Lab at the Veterans Administration Hospital on Cooper Drive in Lexington. His wife Sonya is the daughter of South and Maxine Hudson of Jackson, and together the Burkes have two daughters – 25-year-old Jennifer, and 23-year-old Kelley.
All of the six band members who performed as KAOS live outside Breathitt County today. While Burke lives in Lexington, Noble has lived in Corbin with his wife and three children since 1984, and works as Director of Information Technology for Senture, a London-based company which provides premium contact center support. Their manager, Steve Williams, is now a minister in Prestonsburg. Only Tony Cole, their lighting man, lives in Jackson now. In time, many of them hadn't seen or heard each other in years. But the growth of social media and the Internet changed the way many of us communicate. And it opened up the door for the band's reunion.
“Thanks to Facebook, I got to get back together with them after all these years. We'd missed each other, and we'd missed making music together,” Burke recalled. “We began practicing in Richmond, and I thought, 'How about a KAOS reunion concert?' So here we are.”
Noble agreed. “What was missing all those years? First, the camaraderie with the guys and the experiences we had as a band in our younger days. And you had that common bond with Southern Rock and Classic Rock with other listeners over the last 30 years. Baker and John wanted to practice again, and we'd meet at John's place in Richmond to do it. Social media online played a big part of it, and it's good to reunite.”
They'll be one more practice for KAOS before the Honey Festival. Baker Burke says it will probably be later this month – a week before the annual buzz around Jackson cranks up. Like the members of the band, many of their fans who were high school students during that magical time are now approaching middle age themselves. But once the sound checks are completed and the lights grace the stage, one of the festival's first bands will perform for a new generation of fans – and those who yelled and cheered for more that September night in 1978.
“You know, I really am just excited to see people I haven't seen in years,” said Scott Noble. “It's wild to come home again and do this. We're very appreciative of that.”
The applause still rings in Burke's ears, adding, “We're ready to do it.”