(June 10, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)
Nineteen years on and… I’ve finally made it to a TWANGFEST show! Sure, I was gonna go anyway; I mean… Cracker AND Marah, on the same bill, right? It had been some thirteen years since I last saw Cracker live (at the still-lamented Mississippi Nights) and longer still since I’d seen Marah (a very different version of the band onstage tonight opened for Union at Pop’s in 2000). The packed floor at Off Broadway signalled only one thing: Opening night of TWANGFEST 19 was gonna be one big party!
Local group Grace Basement were a surprising party favor… not simply because I didn’t know that there would be a third act on the bill, but also because I liked them so much. Spiritual leader, singer, songwriter and guitarist Kevin Buckley’s background in folk music is definitely on display in a live setting, but his voice has a bit more bite and his electric guitar is a bit more explosive than anything from Grace Basement’s latest recorded output, 2013’s WHEEL WITHIN A WHEEL. This night, Buckley was ably augmented by guitarist Marc Schneider, bassist Greg Lamb, keyboardist Tim Sullivan and the group’s not-so-secret weapon, drummer Jill Aboussie. The band ambled through – more than they tore through – a set that featured as many new tunes as songs from the three previous Grace Basement releases, with Aboussie, Sullivan and Lamb supplying a rock-steady underpinning over which Buckley and Schneider could weave their rather unique, rocking guitar sound.
It would have been easy for the group to rein in their sound, giving the crowd more approximate versions of the familiar songs but, when emotion and the reaction of a packed house kicked in, the vocals became gruffer, more immediate and the guitars louder and, at times, snottier than the gentle, lilting tones and melodic voices generally associated with Buckley’s more recent studio work. It’s obvious that Kevin’s dream of turning this outfit into more of a classic guitar rock band – at least in a live setting – is, if not fully realized on this night, close to a reality. That’s not to say that there weren’t gentler moments; the bouncy, happy “Summertime Is Coming” and the Irish folk balladry of “Tilly Lingers” still offered glimpses of Buckley’s work with fellow multi-instrumentalist Ian Walsh. I rather like Buckley’s new, brash configuration of Grace Basement; from the response from the floor, the audience liked the sound, too.
As suprising as Grace Basment were, perhaps the most surprising set of the evening (for me, anyway) came from David Bielanko and his group, Marah; this is a far different band than the one I saw open for Union (the band that featured guitarist Bruce Kulick and vocalist John Corabi) in 2000. Though Bielanko’s brother Serge is no longer by his side on stage, the band’s music really hasn’t changed all that much but, I suppose, opening for a group with a hard rock pedigree like Union’s, you tend to play more of the loud, guitar-oriented numbers. Tonight, there were no such restrictions, with Bielanko moving deftly from acoustic to electric guitar to banjo; the band (Christine Smith on piano, vocals and accordion; Mark Sosnoski on bass; Chris Rattie on drums) were definitely up to the task, no matter what he asked of them or where he led them.
The Appalachian stomp of “Faraway You” (from KIDS IN PHILLY, the band’s 2000 sophomore release) followed by the rollicking barrel roll of “Fever” (the opening track from the debut release, LET’S CUT THE CRAP AND HOOK UP LATER ON TONIGHT) are as powerful an opening salvo as you’re likely to hear anywhere. The intensity and raw emotion on display was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. The emotional musical hotbed saw Bielanko and Smith trading heartfelt vocals on a tune like “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft” one minute, delivering a plaintive version of “The Falling of the Pine” from the audience the next; one minute, David was putting the band through their paces on the incendiary guitar rave-up of “Catfisherman,” the next stretching out on a muscular “Limb.” Bielanko’s passionate performance (and the band’s equally fiery backing) was rewarded with the crowd’s insistent call for an encore, which led to an emotional outpouring (and a pretty funny story about the first time playing in front of a paying crowd sober) from David before diving into a fittingly ramshackle take of “Barstool Boys” (or that coulda taken place earlier in the evening or it coulda been a different story and I’m fairly certain I remember hearing “The History of Where Someone Has Been Killed,” but… then again… ). Though I’m unable to identify each song Marah played that night, the pure passion emanating from the stage was real and palpable; if not the particulars of the evening’s set, I will long remember the visceral high of what was happening on the intimate stage of Off Broadway on June 10, 2015.
While Grace Basement were indisputably great and Marah were brilliant, it was obvious that these people were here for a little Cracker. And, so… it was on to the evening’s main event. From the outset, vocalist/guitarist David Lowery and lead guitarist/vocalist Johnny Hickman, the band’s only constants and focal points, took control of the crowd, holding most enraptured and hanging on every word, every note. One of the more entertaining things happening onstage was the disappearance and subsequent reappearance of pedal steel player Matt “Pistol” Stoessel, as dictated by the quirky set list, which relied heavily on last year’s BERKELEY TO BAKERSFIELD and, naturally, the “hits,” which were kinda lumped all together mid-set. Pistol started onstage with the rest of the band for “One Fine Day,” from 2002’s FOREVER album and was prominently featured on most of the new material which has more of a countrified vibe.
For the most part, the rhythm section of keyboard player Robbie Crowell, bassist Bryan Howard and drummer Carlton “Coco” Owens were content to lay back in the pocket, allowing Lowery, Hickman and Stoessel to shine in lead roles. The Hickman sung “California Country Boy,” a rollicking Bakersfield stroll, shone the spotlight on both Crowell and Pistol, with great solos from each. Johnny added just the right amount of twang to his guitar on “King of Bakersfield,” a seeming paean to Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam. The voices of both Lowery and Hickman sounded a bit ragged on this night, at the end of a long tour; that only added to the rough, take-no-prisoners approach to the music, especially on the 1990 “alternative” tunes. Those songs – “Low,” “Sweet Potato,” “This Is Cracker Soul” and “Euro-Trash Girl” – sound as alive and vital as they did the first time we heard them, allowing Howard and Owens to stretch out a bit, especially on the slinky “Euro-Trash Girl.” As always, Johnny Hickman’s guitar work was impeccable, bordering on the sublime, regardless of musical style and it was more than obvious that he and David Lowery were truly enjoying themselves.
What a great way to kick off the four-day TWANGFEST 19! I just wish that I could have made it to the other shows, which featured artists as diverse as the Bottle Rockets, Matthew Sweet, Lydia Loveless and a reunited Nadine, featuring an old friend, Jimmy Griffin. This show, however, will be forever etched into my memory as one of the best I have ever seen… hands down! If you missed it, shame on you.