Local musicians will hold a second tribute concert for the late Cris Kauffman, Friday night at 9 p.m. at Shakespeare's Pub in Kalamazoo. Proceeds will benefit the Michigan Epilepsy Foundation.
If you’ve been part of the Kalamazoo music scene for long, you probably knew Cris Kauffman. He was the official keyboard player for bands like Item 9 and Pleasant Drive. Former bandmate and friend Evan Kincaid says he’d play drums next to just about anybody.
“Cris was the type of guy that he would grab his djembe and he’d go out to open mics and just sit there and wait for somebody like, ‘Hey, can I play with you? Can I play with you?’” he says
Kauffman passed away February of last year from an epileptic seizure. He was only 27 years old. His memory - his love of music and community - started a tradition. It all began in the Kauffmans’ basement. Just hours after he passed, Cris’s friends showed up at Cris’s parents’ home - David and Catriena Kauffman - and held a jam session in his room.
“Cause his room was in the basement, which is wonderful for music and everything. And it kind of was wafting up and I heard it and I thought, you know, he would love this so much. It’s what he wanted always - just to be with his friends and play music,” says Catriena.
“We just played and we cried and we laughed and it was good. It was very cathartic and very appropriate,” says Kincaid.
After that, Kincaid and other local musicians decided to put on a tribute concert for Cris. The show brought together artists like Desi Taylor, Branden Mann, Reggae Lou, and many more. On Friday, they’ll do it all over again. This time not just to celebrate a staple of the Kalamazoo music scene, but also to bring awareness about epilepsy - the disease that affected Cris for more than ten years.
“Our first day his sophomore year in high school he had a seizure. They didn’t know if he had hit his head and had the seizure or vice versa. But we were at Disney World about a month later and he had another one - which then we took him in. And after that he was on constant medication,” says Catriena.
He had to walk everywhere, she says, because the seizures made it unsafe for him to drive. Catriena says in the last few years of his life, Cris would have seizures at least once a week.
According to the national Epilepsy Foundation, one out of every thousand people with epilepsy dies of a seizure per year in the United States. Without medication, that risk increases ten-fold.
Catriena says the disease didn’t hold Cris back from his music though. His dad, David Kauffman says, Cris was always determined to play whatever was put in front of him.
David: “We were at the blues fest, he was five. Begged us to buy a harmonica for him - ‘all right, all right we’ll buy it.’ And we didn’t see him for hours after that. He just sat on the curb and taught himself how to play the harmonica. Granted it was a five year old playing the harmonica, but you know."
Catriena: “And so one of the guys from the stage heard him - one of the bands and I can’t recall who was playing that particular day - but they had them come up on stage and play with them.”
David: “He was sold after that.”
So when the members of the funk and jam band Pleasant Drive mentioned to Cris that they needed a keyboardist. Cris went to work and learned keyboard. Kincaid says when he played with Cris in Pleasant Drive, Cris had a big sound and a lot of personality on stage.
“He would get wild sometimes and he always loved to have his volume up - he was always clipping. So we would have to ‘Cris turn it down, turn it down.’ And like ‘I’m down, I’m down.’ And you know especially when we got into some of the improv stuff, he would just go off,” he says.
“And that’s what I mean by big sound is he’d just…sometimes you’d wonder if Cris is playing with the band or we’re playing with Cris.”
The second annual Chris Kauffman tribute show takes place Friday night at 9 p.m. at Shakespeare’s Pub in Kalamazoo. Proceeds go to the Michigan Epilepsy Foundation.