How Kansas City's music and Filipino community reunited Fanny for one special concert
For musicians, nothing is stronger than the bond between performer and audience. It's an intangible joy that makes a live concert experience unlike any other, and it's what brought Kansas City, Mo. fans together to celebrate the iconic band Fanny, for one special evening in October.
"It felt like we were walking on champagne bubbles," Fanny co-founder and guitarist June Millington exclaimed, about a whirlwind 48 hours that included a film screening and a live show at the recordBar on Oct. 5. "The audience, the kids ... so obviously an intact community united by their love of music. We felt you all as one."
Formed in California by June and Jean Millington in 1969, Fanny was the first all-woman band to release an album on a major label. The half-Filipina sisters immigrated with their family to Sacramento, Calif. from the Philippines as teenagers. Struggling to fit in, they immersed themselves in the articulate grooves of R&B, intricate vocal harmonies and an ornate boogie-woogie style of rock and roll. They built a solid reputation on their musicianship and through it, found a sense of belonging.
The band's arrival in Kansas City was the culmination of a nine-month process that united the city's music, film and Filipino communities in one common goal: to lavish Fanny with the praise the band has long deserved. Despite being a band rooted in California rock tradition, the local embrace of Fanny in Kansas City speaks to how the band's ethos transcends geography.
Earlier this year, a documentary about the band, Fanny: The Right To Rock, debuted in select theaters around the country. Nita Norris, public relations coordinator at the Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City and a Board member at Film Society KC, was determined to use her connections to add Kansas City to that list. Like many, Norris discovered the band decades after its initial run, specifically at Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, an exhibit in the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame Museum.
"I saw a photo with a caption along the lines of, 'Filipina-American sisters June and Jean Millington, first all-female rock band,' and was just blown away," Norris says. "Why hadn't I ever heard of Fanny?"
While the band's sound was a foundational influence on many rock groups, Fanny's music was essentially stricken from the historical record. In spite of releasing five albums in five years, appearing on programs like American Bandstand, and The Sonny and Cher Show, and touring worldwide, Fanny was dismissed as a novelty act, largely for being musically-minded women in a male-dominated industry.
That story struck a chord with Jackie Nugent, Board Vice Chair of the Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City — one of three nonprofits that partnered to bring Fanny to the city, along with Film Society KC and Midwest Music Foundation.
"I have experienced the sometimes painful challenge of trying to fit in, be accepted and be recognized. It was always hard to see myself as beautiful, capable or high potential," said Nugent, a Filipina American who grew up in rural Kansas. "While the Filipino aspect initially intrigued me, I came to love them even more because they didn't let their challenges [as women and queer artists] keep them from being true rock musicians. It was a no-brainer to help make this show a reality — to inspire awareness of Filipino culture and to inspire my daughter and other young girls."
This would be one of less than a handful of live Fanny performances in support of the documentary, with members arriving from all parts of the country — drummer Brie Howard-Darling from Portland, Ore., guitarist Patti Quatro from Austin, Texas, and June Millington from Goshen, Mass. With sister Jean unable to attend due to health issues, June enlisted bassist Mia Huggins, a former student from her Institute for the Musical Arts music camp. The lineup was billed as Fanny+.
With under 72 hours to rehearse, local musicians offered above-and-beyond accommodations, such as a cozy, ready-to-rock home rehearsal space and specific gear for each member. This involved tracking down a vintage Les Paul guitar, akin to June's trademark 1957 axe. Filipino Association members provided hospitality and a taste of home — both June and Howard-Darling are Filipina American — preparing homemade delicacies like ginataan and hosting tours of the Filipino Cultural Center.
The dozens of local musicians who filled the venue stood in awe of a band whose musical finesse was as superb as the barriers — of gender, race, age and sexual orientation — the group continues to break down today. To many of them, the night's support for Fanny's legacy could help cultivate a more inclusive music scene in Kansas City.
Drummer Stephanie Williams is half of Katy Guillen & The Drive — a prominent Kansas City roots-rock duo who supported the show — and discovered Fanny through its years in an all-woman touring band.
"Our band was often asked if our sound was inspired by Fanny, so I decided to do a deep dive into their catalog a few years ago," she said. Both Williams and Guillen were floored by Fanny's expressive and technical sense of musicality, and brought that into their own fierce original compositions. Being able to watch the band perform and meet the members sparked further inspiration and adulation.
"Something that stood out to me was the way the women seemed to carry themselves. They were confident and wise, while managing to seem completely down to earth and excited to be present in the moment," Williams observed. "I learned as much from those interactions as I did from the performance itself."
"People who don't know Fanny have actually been ready for them since the '70s," said songwriter Alison Hawkins of local act True Lions. "It's hard to envision a music community that includes all genders and races unless we actually see that on stage. Fanny was among the first to do it, they're still doing it, and they're making it possible for everyone else to do it, too."
"That night had a special feeling because I knew it was going to work. The crowd felt like one fabric and nothing was gonna break that, and I haven't felt that for so long," June Millington said of the performance. "We were feeding on you, you were feeding on us ... it was synergistic. To be able to trust that made me dig in more to please you all. I threw caution to the wind, baby!"
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