More than 225 people, a mix of family, friends, fans and former bandmates, gathered Friday at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton for a concert commemorating the birthday of missing internationally known percussionist Joe Cripps. While Dentonites and North Texans made up the bulk of the packed house that sang, danced, hugged and drank to celebrate his 53rd birthday, about 20 close friends and family hailed from Cripps' hometown of Little Rock, and a handful came in from as far away as New York and Los Angeles.
John Bowen, who describes himself as a “lifelong friend” of Cripps, drove in for the show from Little Rock. “If you just look at the different age groups and backgrounds and how people came in from all over the place to participate, it’s a testament to who Joe was and how many friends he had,” Bowen said.
The “Happy Birthday Joe!” lineup included moving, often dance-worthy performances by Paul Chesne and Dutch Suoninen, Isaac Hoskins, Brent Best, A Taste of Herb, Brave Combo, Cuero Madera and El Nuevo Mi Son.
Chesne, one of Joe's friends from Los Angeles, kicked off the party. Chesne, who describes Cripps as a buddy, spiritual guide, tour manager and band member, said one of the most memorable things about him was that he had “no pretense or prejudice against anyone.” He says this helped Cripps make friends wherever he traveled or toured.
In between the sets, Jeffrey Barnes read some “Crippsisms”; Joe’s brother, James Cripps, addressed the crowd; and at 7 p.m., Denton City Councilwoman Keely Briggs read a proclamation from Mayor Chris Watts declaring Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, to be “Joe Cripps Day” in Denton.
“I was blown away tonight,” James Cripps said in an interview with the Observer later in the evening. “I’ve probably never been in a room with 250 people in it — if that’s what it is, it’s just packed — who are so full of love. And as I talked to my son earlier, we joked to each other that we’re friends with all of these people here through no fault of our own. It’s all because of Joe Cripps that everyone loves us tonight. ... If I had more tears to cry over Joe Cripps, I would be bawling tears of joy.”
James Cripps filed the missing person report in Little Rock after he discovered his brother’s blood pressure medication and a bag with drumsticks and other gear, items he said his brother would never have left behind.
Joe Cripps, a master percussionist and social butterfly, is best known locally for his work through much of the '90s with Denton-based, Grammy Award-winning polka band Brave Combo, Ten Hands, the Drams and the late bluesman CeDell Davis, as well as dozens of other bands and musicians.
He is remembered for his oddball sense of humor, outgoing nature, piercing blue eyes and signature thick walrus mustache. But the mystery surrounding his disappearance on Oct. 20, 2016, seemed to hang over the celebration for many. Friends try not to use the past tense when referring to Joe, but some seem to have accepted the worst.
The event was likely the closest thing to an open-to-the-public memorial service that Cripps' friends, fans and bandmates will ever attend. Many described the night as bittersweet.
“I have mixed feelings tonight,” Carl Finch said as he placed his gear on the sidewalk after Brave Combo’s set. “Because the reason we all gathered, there’s a lot of mystery and a lot of darkness and a lot of sadness and a lot of questions and a lot of unanswered things, which have been plaguing a lot of the people in that room for well over a year. Something that a lot of us can’t even really think about, in a way.
“But the fact that it’s on his birthday, and also knowing what an oddball guy Joe was, or is, in a way, this would have made total sense to him. That’s kind of what made me look at this as something — I don’t even want to say a celebration of anything, that just seems wrong — but knowing how he looked at life and how he kind of thrived on the absurd, I’m trying to twist this around into my mind someway as something beautifully absurd that we’re even doing this. So that’s how I got through it.”
Bubba Hernandez, who formerly played and sang with Brave Combo, described the mixed emotions that came with attending and performing at the event.
“I couldn’t come here with a feeling of celebration, and I couldn’t get over here with a feeling of grief, either, because it’s unclear,” he said. “I’d been feeling more like numb. But I really appreciate all the brotherhood and sisterhood and family-hood and all the hugs going around. It’s been really nice. I’m glad I came. Everybody’s being so sweet and kind and holding onto each other.”
Tex Bosley was one of the hosts of the event and also performed.
“This was very much a collaborative effort,” he says. About year ago, he says, Chris Hawley, Dan Mojica and Marcus Watson all thought something should be done for Cripps' birthday. Bosley reached out to the family to run the idea past them.
“After the family gave their blessing, then it just sort of organically developed,” he explained. “All I did was take that rickety kinda general idea and duct tape the wheels onto it, and mumble and bumble it on down the road to get it to tonight. We did a great thing for a couple of local charities.”
Attendees made donations benefiting two local charities, Denton Music and Arts Collaborative and the Denton Animal Shelter. The event raised $2,500, Bosley says.
“It was a really good night for both charities,” says DMAC president Nic Bagherpour.
Nearing the end of the evening, James Cripps turned to Bosley on the patio and said, “Tex, this has truly been amazing. What a birthday and what a sendoff all at the same time. I think Joe would have been completely pleased. … He would not have been able to believe it himself that all those folks were on the stage on the same night about him.
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“This was the best sendoff I’ve ever been to. Joe would love you for it; you know he would. I can’t imagine a better way to send him off than in his adopted hometown. And the proclamation, it was almost beyond belief. … I wonder if I’m dreaming it all. But I hope that Joe somewhere, somehow is seeing or feeling some of this. There’s too much energy here for him not to feel it.”
He estimated that about 19 or 20 people visited from Little Rock and mentioned that social media savvy folks in Arkansas seem to want a similar event in Little Rock later this year.
Longtime friend and bandmate Brent Best had to juggle performing and running sound for the event. After the performances, he sat on a bar stool on the patio.
“This, tonight, was to me the best possible thing,” he says. “It felt like a release tonight. It was nice.”