On a cold night in early October, hundreds of people crowded into Rock Island Live to witness a milestone in a Wichita artist's career.
Aaron Newton, guitar in hand and voice penetrating through the audience's cheers, performed that night to celebrate the release of his first EP, "Two Rivers," a six-track compilation of bluegrass-tinged songs.
For the singer-songwriter, who will perform Saturday night at the Riverside Perk, the scene was a long way from where he started.
Newton's music career began in the usually mellow coffeehouse scene. After trying a stint in Lawrence as an artist, he returned to Wichita to seek a more collegial environment for musicianship.
He found that creative synergy at the Riverside Perk.
"I just liked the atmosphere," Newton said. "People were connected, thoughtful, friendly and open. It was the sort of place where art just seemed to happen naturally."
Writing songs came easily, he said.
"I write about stuff that happens to me — things that make me mad, sad, disappointed or happy — and try to take those emotions to the next level," he said.
Newton worked at the Perk for several years. Eventually, he met other musicians there, such as bass player Derek Tucker, and began to break out as an artist. Playing gigs at places like Kirby's, John Barleycorn's and the Bay Leaf Cafe became a regular part of his development as an artist.
After playing in several bands, including Outerboundary, he decided it was time to focus on his solo work. The time was right not only for a recording, but also for a tour that would showcase what his record label dubs a "uniquely Wichita sound."
Along with a band of musicians, Newton recorded "Two Rivers" last July, working 12-hour days on the top floor of a steamy gallery with no air conditioning.
Next up was arranging a tour to help give him more of a regional following. Accompanying him were Tucker on bass, Rudy Love Jr. on keys and Marrque Nunley on drums.
Packed into a large white van full of equipment, Newton and his band hit the road the day after the CD release party. The first leg of their tour took them to Kansas City, Chicago and Columbus and Youngstown, Ohio.
It was often a bumpy ride, but the band learned a lot about networking. In Columbus, they teamed up with a popular songwriter on the coffeehouse circuit who was able to help get them gigs in town. "It was really great to be able to play with and learn from musicians in other parts of the country," Newton said.
Youngstown was a particularly welcoming city, he said.
"Because of the economic slowdown and the steel mills going under, there isn't much of a thriving arts scene in the city," he said. "A lot of young people are leaving town as fast as they can. The folks who showed up at our show really appreciated us being there because they usually had to drive a good distance to see music."
With the first leg of the tour behind them, the "Two Rivers" crew looks forward to hitting the road again soon. In the meantime, Newton will continue performing in the Wichita area.
"When you have such a saturation of corporate media outlets limiting what gets played on the radio, you have to start just doing it yourself," he said. "The emergence of a local scene is a reaction to that."
If you go>
What: Wichita blues and pop singer-songwriter
Where: Riverside Perk, 1144 Bitting
When: 8 p.m. Sat.
How much: No cover