THE END OF A BEER… STACKRIDGE TAKE THEIR FINAL BOW: THE JAMES WARREN INTERVIEW

(UPDATE BELOW)

PART ONE: THE PROCESS, HISTORICALLY

Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Jim "Crun" Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)

Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)

Growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, Illinois as I did, it was hard enough finding a store that stocked the popular music of the day, much less the fringe releases I preferred, by such artists as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart or Fireballet. The special order became a way of life for me, allowing me to be the only kid on my block to own the latest releases by Fanny or Osibisa or the odder-than-usual concept album, FLASH FEARLESS VERSUS THE ZORG WOMEN PARTS FIVE AND SIX; actually, I may have been the only kid on my block that wanted those albums… but, you get my point. Anyway, with all of that, the band Stackridge somehow slipped under my radar. Naturally, I was familiar with the name. After all, I could and did read a lot of music publications as a young impressionable pup (still can and do, as an old impressionable hound); it just seemed that there was always something that interested me more.

Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)

Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)

So, I said all of that so I could say this: I eventually did manage to get my grubby fingers on a Stackridge album – EXTRAVAGANZA, I believe – and I was hooked. I was ecstatic when England’s Angel Air Records began their painstakingly comprehensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog, along with a live album and a couple of collections peppered in among them. When I decided to get back into the review game, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was an interview with the two-headed beast that led and continue to lead Stackridge: James Warren and Andy Davis. In early 2014, I contacted their manager, supplied him with a few questions via e-mail and awaited a reply. Fast forward approximately ten months and, I am finally in receipt of answers from Mister Warren. Fast forward another couple of months and, with no reply from Mister Davis, the decision was made to move ahead with a revamped format, using James’ answers. Now, nearly a full two years since my initial request, here – so to speak – is the finished product. There are several questions and answers that allude to the 45th anniversary of the band and the chances of them recording another album of new material, as well as an extensive mention of the Korgis (the other band fronted by Andy and James) that may sound redundant, but please keep in mind that questions were posed and answers were given in 2014. Following the interview, we’re gonna delve into some of the best from both Stackridge and the Korgis, so stick around.

PART TWO: JAMES WARREN, MOSTLY

Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren) (uncredited photo)

Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: The original band got together in 1969, making this your 45th anniversary. The current line-up still features both of the primary songwriters and vocalists of the various incarnations of the group. Aside from the occasional break-up or vacation from each other, to what do you attribute the longevity of Stackridge?

JAMES: I think the longevity is due to the fact that the repertoire is so stimulating and diverse. It’s great to be able to perform songs as varied as “Fish In a Glass,” “Anyone For Tennis,” “The Road To Venezuela” and “Something About the Beatles” all in the same set. I’ve never been in any other musical combination that offers anything as fun or challenging.

THE MULE: Aside from Andy Davis and yourself, who is involved in the current version of Stackridge? Are the musicians – comparatively speaking – young guns or do you all enjoy a certain advanced… uh… musical acuity. Can we get a feel of the players’ musical pedigree?

Stackridge, 2008 (Glenn Tommey) (uncredited photo)

Stackridge, 2008 (Glenn Tommey) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: So, we have Glenn Tommey on keyboards – we’ve known Glenn since 1978. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but, when we met him, he was a recording engineer who worked on the first Korgis album and even sang backing vocals on “If I Had You,” a top twenty hit for the band in the UK. Clare Lindley is on violin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We only met her around seven years ago but ,she’s a veteran of the folk and classical circuit. She’s from Aberdeen, in Scotland. Eddie John is on drums and has been a very well-known and respected player on the Bristol scene since the 1980s. Clare and Eddie are in their 40s, Glenn, myself and Andy have all made it beyond 60!

THE MULE: The last album of new material, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE, was released in 2009, after a long lay-off from recording. That album featured two more original members, Michael “Mutter” Slater and Jim “Crun” Walter. How did the album come about? How was it to work with Crun and Mutter in the studio again?

JAMES: The album was produced by Chris Hughes, original drummer with Adam and the Ants and producer of Tears For Fears and we recorded it at his home studio just outside of Bath. We’d known Chris for many years and the idea was suggested at a birthday party we were all attending. Because both Crun and Mutter had full-time day jobs and Mutter had the additional problem of living about 40 miles away from Bath, at least 75% of the work was performed by Andy and I. Crun is a lovely bloke but wildly eccentric, so creating music with him is never easy-going – he continually suggested completely perverse and off-the-wall ideas that we had to try then, inevitably, discard – and Mutter hardly participated at all except to sing his songs. So, it was a very different situation to how we worked together in the 1970s.

Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Jim "Crun" Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)

Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: Did the Angel Air reissue program rekindle a kind of warm fuzzy spot for you regarding the group? Did it tempt you to reform some version of the band and get out on the boards and into the studio again? Have the reissues raised the public awareness of Stackridge, bringing along new fans? Or, is it just geezers like me looking to upgrade from that scratchy old vinyl?

JAMES: I think we never wanted to rule out the thought of a reformation. A handful of new fans have appeared but, to be honest, it’s essentially the “old guard” re-living their youth!

THE MULE: Can we expect to see new Stackridge music soon… or ever? If so, who will be involved in the project? Are you and Andy game to play with the “old guys” again?

JAMES: Sadly, I have to report that September 2015 will see the farewell tour of Stackridge. We’ve now pretty much exhausted the back catalogue in a live performance situation and it no longer makes any economic sense to record new material. There just isn’t sufficient demand for Stackridge music in the modern world! So, come and see us for the last time in 2015!

THE MULE: The group’s sound has always been the epitome of British “outsider” music, taking in bits of free jazz, traditional folk, Northern Soul, Beatles pop, the Incredible String Band and Frank Zappa. How have your musical tastes and influences changed over the years? When you are on holiday or have down time, what can we generally find you listening to?

Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)

Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)

JAMES: My wife, Clare, and I have sixteen year old twins, so when I do the school run in the mornings, me and the kids always listen to CD compilations of the latest top 20 hits – so I’m right up-to-date with contemporary pop! And I like a lot of it. Clean Bandit are one of my current favourites. I hate the typical middle-age attitude of only being able to appreciate the music you grew up with – I’m not sentimental about past musical eras in that way. I still adore and listen to the Beatles; don’t listen to the Incredibles any more, but THE HANGMAN’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER will always be a work of genius for me. I listen to a lot more classical and jazz these days. I’m especially fascinated by 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Ravel and Satie. One of my treasured possessions is a 22-CD box set of STRAVINSKY CONDUCTING STRAVINSKY.

THE MULE: Your fans were and are, if not legion, very loyal. What is the profile of the standard Stack-fan? Do they now tend to bring along the kiddies (or grand-kids), to introduce them to the music of their youth?

JAMES: Don’t think there is a standard profile – they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see youngsters in the audience, although there are a few. I know when I was a teenager I wouldn’t be seen dead going to a concert of music my parents were into!

THE MULE: Forty-five years in, what keeps bringing you back to Stackridge? Is it the musical intricacies, the fans or some other intangible?

JAMES: I can’t improve on the answer I gave to your first question. The Stackridge repertoire is so wonderfully diverse and challenging so it’s like a musical holiday to go out and perform that stuff.

THE MULE: Certainly, over the years – particularly the first run – you have released some great albums (FRIENDLINESS, THE MAN WITH THE BOWLER HAT) and some very memorable tunes. Do you have any favorites, individual tracks or full albums? How about least favorites? Are there some albums or tracks that you thought were great at the outset but have since come to loathe?

Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)

Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)

JAMES: The first album (STACKRIDGE) is a problem for me. I can’t listen to most of it any more. My singing is so fragile and under-confident, especially the falsetto bits and, most of the lyrics are painfully adolescent in a ridiculously self-indulgent sense. But, it was 1971 and I was only 20 so that explains a lot. I think there are some lovely tunes on FRIENDLINESS; the title track, “There Is No Refuge,” “Father Frankenstein,” “Lummy Days.” …BOWLER HAT still holds up well except for “To the Sun and Moon” (because of my singing). I think “Venezuela,” “Galloping Gaucho,” “Humiliation” and “Fundamentally Yours” are great. And “God Speed the Plough” is an absolute classic. I like almost all the tracks on EXTRAVAGANZA and MISTER MICK. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND I still love. It’s more whacky and harks back to the original Stackridge mainly due to my extensive collaboration with John Miller, an incredibly eccentric keyboard player full of brilliant unconventional ideas. Wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.

THE MULE: I think that my favorites probably mirror those of most fans: “Dora the Female Explorer,” “Slark,” “Syracuse the Elephant.” The list could go on but, for brevity’s sake, what are your memories regarding the writing and recording processes of these fan favorites? Were they kinda instant favorites or do you remember them slowly taking on a life of their own to eventually become essential?

JAMES: “Dora… ,” “Slark” and “Syracuse… ” were “first generation” Stackridge compositions. Andy and Crun had the basic ideas then we would rehearse and rehearse to hammer out the arrangements. It was tremendous fun. The FRIENDLINESS songs I contributed were pretty much already mapped-out before I introduced them to the band but, then again, with …BOWLER HAT and beyond we would work hard as a unit to make a finished track from one person’s basic idea. I think the “favourites” sounded special from the outset.

THE MULE: You are one of the few bands, aside from the Beatles, to boast a production job by Sir George Martin. What was it like to work with him? How much – before, during and after THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT – has his work been an influence to you, personally, and the band, as a whole?

Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: It was fantastic working with George. I’m happy to report he was as gentlemanly and effortlessly competent as one expected him to be. The …BOWLER HAT experience was very brief (about three weeks) but very intense. It’s a wonderful production. Even now I love and am influenced by his very simple but strong arrangement style.

THE MULE: Through the years, Andy and you have both worked on projects outside of Stackridge, both during the band’s heyday and following the original break-up. Did you use those instances – your solo album, Andy’s work on John Lennon’s IMAGINE, the Korgis, – to refresh the batteries, so to speak, or as a chance to branch out into something completely different from Stackridge? Can we expect to see something coming from either of you soon, outside of the usual Stackridge lunacy and the Korgis reunion gigs?

JAMES: Can’t speak for Andy but, our various alternative projects are, for me, both a refreshment process and an opportunity to investigate something completely different. I think Andy has been working on an album, whereas I’ve just been trying to come up with “coverable” commercial material.

THE MULE: Speaking of the Korgis, the other band that you have both been with since the beginning, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, as well. The Korgis have been called “the pop side of Stackridge.” How do you view the Korgis, in comparison to the “mother” group?

JAMES: The Korgis is a way of expressing a more distilled, “radio-friendly” type of songwriting. I’m quite excited by the prospect of performing that material live. It’ll be the first time we’ve done it and, you never know, the project might “have legs” and lead on to an interesting new path.

THE MULE: Over the years, you’ve been able to slip out of one band and into the other rather seamlessly. How much of that ability to switch gears has to do with the dynamics of and differences in the musical styles?

Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)

Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: We used to love the Kinks, the Hollies, 10CC – and it’s just easier to come up with and produce that kind of thing when it’s just the two of you, rather than having to take account of the whims and preferences of a whole band. Hence the need for the Korgis project.

THE MULE: A Korgis tour has been announced, the first in a while. Is it hard to get into a “Korgis state of mind” after such a long time off? What can fans expect to see from the Korgis as they celebrate their 35th anniversary?

JAMES: We’re about to start rehearsals, in January 2015. Basically we’ll be making the show up as we rehearse. But we’ll be aiming to provide an evening of dynamic and scintillating pure poptasticness!

THE MULE: Are there plans beyond this tour for more Korgis? A new album or more touring? Will you simply return to Stackridge to continue that group’s string of successful tours and live releases?

JAMES: As I mentioned above, we’ll be putting Stackridge to bed after September 2015. We’ll just have to see if there’s a public appetite for the Korgis. If there is, then I’m sure we’ll be inspired to record new material. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Thank you, James, for taking the time to fill us in on Stackridge, the Korgis and your plans for the future.

PART THREE: STACKRIDGE, ESSENTIALLY

When exploring adventurous music, it may be prudent to start with a “greatest hits” or “best of… ” collection. Even though most of Stackridge’s proper albums are definitely worth adding to your own personal collection, you may want to heed the above maxim and check out…

PURPLE SPACESHIPS OVER YATTON – BEST OF…

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(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2006)

The 2006 Angel Air Records release features fifteen essentials from four of the band’s first five releases (not even “Spin ‘Round the Room,” the single from EXTRAVAGANZA made the cut) and heralded in the label’s brilliant reissue program of the band’s catalog. The collection was reissued in 2008 as ANYONE FOR TENNIS?, part of Angel Air’s Sound and Vision series, coupled with a DVD of the band’s April 1, 2007 show (25 songs, the audio of which has also been released as a double CD called THE FORBIDDEN CITY… got all of that?). The only flaw with this release is the exclusion of one of Stackridge’s best known and most loved tunes, “Slark.” But, we’ll be addressing that one later. The accompanying booklet for PURPLE SPACESHIPS… features a fine essay from author Michael Heatley (as do the subsequent reissue titles), archival photos and complete lyrics. The music itself is chock full of just-left-of-center fan favorites like “Dora, the Female Explorer,” “Do the Stanley,” “Fish In a Glass,” “Syracuse the Elephant” and a rerecorded version of the title track (originally a non-album B-side to the “Slark” single), all magnificently remastered under the watchful eyes (hearful ears?) of James Warren and Andy Davis. Having listened to this impressive sampler (in one of its various forms or another), you will undoubtedly want to check out the original albums to hear the tunes in their natural habitat, so to speak. Of course, that is best accomplished by re-starting at the beginning with…

STACKRIDGE

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(MCA RECORDS; 1971)

In 1971, everyone wanted to be the Beatles. James, Andy and the other members of Stackridge were no different. Well… maybe they were a little different; they also wanted to be Frank Zappa… and Bob Dylan… and King Crimson… and the Incredible String Band. The quintet of progressive folkies (or is that folky progressives?) are out of the gate with what must be declared “an instant classic,” with nine tracks of mesmerizing pop and rambunctious rock, including at least four that should be required listening.

Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)

Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)

The album kicks off with the elegant, ambitious “Grande Piano,” which features a great bass part from Warren (original bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, by the time the band began recording, had opted for a more reasonable career as a bricklayer before returning to the fold for FRIENDLINESS) and a memorable – dare I say, “grand?” – piano part from Davis. “Dora the Female Explorer” is the only song on the debut album credited to the entire band; with it’s bouncing, reeling music – highlighted by Michael Evans’ violin – and oddly engaging vocal melody, the tune has stood the test of time as well as any of the tracks from STACKRIDGE. “Dora… ” is followed by the instrumental “Essence of Porphyry,” an eight minute piece with several distinct movements, all of them quite operatic in their scope (despite the lack of lyrics). Evans’ violin is again a featured instrument, along with Michael “Mutter” Slater’s flute. The entire affair has an air of Zappa about it, the final section a prog rocker’s dream, evoking RED-era Crimson and Brian Eno’s Roxy Music. The centerpiece of the album (if not the career) is “Slark,” a fourteen plus minute “monster” that plays beautifully off the theme and melody of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and led once again by Davis’ piano, Mutter’s flute and Evans’ violin. The lyrics suggest a lonely “monster” looking for acceptance and love but, being rejected because he isn’t like everyone else. The other tunes on STACKRIDGE are all pleasant progressive folk numbers, with just enough oddball charm and sweet melodies to make the album, in its entirety, indispensable. Angel Air’s reissue apends a stomping, rousing traditional reel called “Let There Be Lids,” a B-side from an unreleased 1973 single, as well as the single version of “Slark,” to the original album.

FRIENDLINESS

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(MCA RECORDS; 1972)

As essential as the band’s debut is, it is, perhaps, their second release that offers the absolute best of what Stackridge aspired to be: A traditional English folk band with progressive and slightly loopy leanings. The opening track, “Lummy Days,” is rollicking, rolling sort of instrumental reel featuring some impressively heavy drumming from Billy Bent, now calling himself “Billy Sparkle.” What surely would have been a dancehall fixture in the early-to-mid 1920s, “Anyone For Tennis” shows the boys’ affinity for the oblique. At nearly nine minutes, “Syracuse the Elephant” would appear to be the band’s attempt to recreate the mini-operatic feel of the first album’s “Slark.” The tune, however, is a majestic piece of childlike progressivity, the tale of a forlorn elephant, raised in captivity and wanting nothing more than to live out his days in the company of his trainer, eating his favorite herbs.

The second side of the original album features such oddball fare as “Amazingly Agnes,” about a mule lamenting the fact that she is, in fact, a mule. That one is followed by the ballad, “Doctor Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow,” an apparent leftover from the first record, and the Beatles-esque rocker, “Keep On Clucking,” which features a killer backwards guitar solo from Crun toward the end. The final track, “Teatime,” would not sound out of place on Jethro Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY or SONGS FROM THE WOODS; it starts as a rather pastoral madrigal before erupting in frenzied progressive blues, with Evans’ flute front and center throughout. The Angel Air reissue features the bonus tracks “Everyman,” the B-side to the “Flora, the Female Explorer” single; the chaotic, occasionally dissonant “Slark” B-side, the previously alluded to “Purple Spaceship Over Yatton,” one of the single greatest progressive tracks ever put to tape; the single-only release, “Do the Stanley,” a non-dancecraze inducing stomper, and it’s accompanying B-side, the beautiful, lilting “C’est La Vie.”

THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT

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(MCA RECORDS; 1974)

The third Stackridge album, the intended title of which was THE ROAD TO VENEZUELA (and was renamed PINAFORE DAYS – with a very different track listing – for consumption in North America), was something of a dream come true for the sextet, as legendary (even then!) Beatles producer George Martin came on board (with engineer Geoff Emerick in tow) to lead the lads to new heights. The group was particularly disappointed with the sound quality of the first two records; along with Martin and Emerick came Sir George’s (such is his current title) state-of-the-art Air Studios in London and the sparkling, vibrant production quality and the brilliant arrangements and orchestrations that was nearly as important as the music on those highly revered Beatles sides. The difference is immediately heard, with the opening track, the poppy romp “Fundamentally Yours,” with Martin adding some well-placed piano.

As with the Beatles’ albums, Martin’s handprints are all over the remaining nine tracks of …BOWLER HAT, as well, adding piano here and there, bringing in orchestration elsewhere and generally giving the lads the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience in musical arrangements and production. The essential cuts include “Pinafore Days,” with its somehow Victorian sounding waltz and lyrics that would not seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch; released as a single in advance of the album, “The Galloping Guacho” opened side two, with a swirling calliope of carnival music that would not have been out of place on a late-period Beatles offering; the sparkling pop of “Dangerous Bacon” features a galloping drum pattern, a great guitar solo and a guest spot from Roxy Music’s sax man, Andy Mackay; a shot of Andy Davis whimsy, “The Indifferent Hedgehog,” leads into the majestically orchestrated instrumental, “God Speed the Plough,” which again highlights the flute of Mutter and violin of Mike Evans to great effect. Unfortunately, Martin’s involvement with …BOWLER HAT did not result in increased sales. Equally regrettable is the fact that the recording session seems to have included only the ten tracks featured here, as both singles from the period (the second was “Dangerous Bacon”), as well as their respective B-sides (“Fundamentally Yours” and “The Last Plimsoll”), come from the album; as a result, this is the first Angel Air reissue to not feature bonus material.

EXTRAVAGANZA

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(THE ROCKET RECORD COMPANY; 1974)

With a move to Elton John’s new vanity label and Tony Ashton (late of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and a brief stint in Family) in tow as producer, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater (Mike Evans appears briefly, performing the solo on “The Volunteer”) introduced a radically reconfigured group to the stalwart Stackridge fans. Not that there was an appreciable change in the music, although, without James Warren’s charming compositional skills, Davis and Slater tended to lean toward the more cabaret-esque side of the Stackridge spectrum; the pair also seems to have abdicated their newly-minted leadership to Rod Bowkett, the band’s new keyboardist, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s ten tracks. The album opens with Bowkett’s 1920s dancehall-styled single, “Spin ‘Round the Room.” Considering the prevailing musical climate in the United Kingdom, I find it virtually incomprehensible that neither this nor the pair of …BOWLER HAT singles were radio or chart hits. It isn’t until the third track, “The Volunteer,” that we here a song from Davis, one of three co-songwriting credits on EXTRAVAGANZA. The song moves between a somber waltz and a rollicking sort of reel, one of the very few tunes that harken back to the original Stackridgian joie de vivre.

Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

Highbury Incident (Rainy July Morning)” follows, a jaunty little piece of Beatles-like pop written by Davis, Bowkett and Mutter, highlighted by rather Crimsonesque work (consider Ian McDonald’s work on IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING) from new woodwinds player Keith Gemmell. Side two of the original vinyl took a decidedly jazzy swerve into – cover your ears… uh… eyes, children, as I type that word that should never be typed – fusion territory with, incomprehensibly, three cuts out of four being instrumentals. Former King Crimson (there’s that name again!) bassist Gordon Haskell walked in the front door, dropping off “No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm,” the most progressive tune here (go figure, huh?), on his way out the back door, leaving the bass duties to Paul Karas, formerly of Rare Bird. The three instrumentals are adventurous but, aside from “Pocket Billiards,” sound out of place here. “Rufus T Firefly,” the side’s opening track, is mentioned here because… well… Groucho Marx! Like …BOWLER HAT, Angel Air’s reissue of EXTRAVAGANZA features no bonus material. The album isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t come off as a proper Stackridge record.

MISTER MICK

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(THE ROCKET RCORDING COMPANY; 1976)

The fifth Stackridge full-length comes with an oddly familiar history behind it: Their record company didn’t like the concept and demanded changes be made. The record started life as a concept album, following the life of a cranky old man, with Mutter adding odd bits of dialogue – written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde – to move the story along. Rocket Records sent them back to the drawing board, basically telling the boys to “lose all this talking stuff, cut these songs and, by the way, where’s the single?” The resultant product looked and sounded quite different than the original, as did the band as Andy and Mutter welcomed back Crun Walter on the bass, with Keith Gemmell the only holdover from the EXTRAVAGANZA band; the lineup was completed with drummer Peter Van Hooke and former Greensalde member Dave Lawson adding synthesizer textures. As much as Stackridge had known a bit of success on the singles chart, it must have been quite humorous to be told, “We don’t hear a single. We need a single.” Another trip to the studio and the band had a single, a sort of Caribbean (or, if you rather, psuedo-Reggae) take on the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight,” which was released several months before the MISTER MICK album. Rocket Records were immediately rewarded with a release that seemed to disappear from existence virtually before it was released due to a surging apathy for anything that could not be considered punk.

Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

The reorganized and partially rerecorded version of the album featured a sound that owed more to 10CC, than it did to any of the original Stackridge’s influences or, indeed, to any of the previous four Stackridge records. Having missed the mark (chart-wise) with the band’s Beatles cover, Rocket decided to cut their losses and open their version of MISTER MICK with “Hold Me Tight.” This version really isn’t too bad but, with the more standard progressive pop featured throughout the remaining nine cuts, sounds very much out of place. Possibly, the most adventurous piece on the album is the B-side to “Hold Me Tight,” “Breakfast With Werner Von Braun,” a holdover from the original sessions, which could best be described as a Bedouin waltz. The incongruities rear their ugly heads rather quickly, as “The Steam Radio Song” features the accompanying narrative thread (written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde and delivered by Mutter) from the original recording; as sequenced by the record company, this bit of dialogue shows up about four tracks too soon. While the official version of MISTER MICK has its flaws, there are still enough nice moments to make it listenable, including the original album’s opening track, “Hey! Good Looking” and the Beatles-esque “Fish In a Glass,” also from the original, Stackridge version of the record. The Angel Air reissue pairs the Rocket Records release with the original, rejected twelve track version, which previously saw release as THE ORIGINAL MISTER MICK in 2000. Comparisons prove there are now stunning differences between the two but, with only seven overlapping tunes, the double disc release gives you five previously unheard (or, at least, very rarely heard) tracks.

PART FOUR: THE KORGIS, COLLECTIVELY

The Korgis, Andy’s and James’ other band, like Stackridge, got the “best of” treatment from Angel Air, first with 2005’s KOLLECTION, which, like a lot of Angel Air releases showed up a little later on in a Sound and Vision version as SOMETHING ABOUT THE KORGIS (a demo called “Make a Fuss About Us” was replaced with a new version of the Stackridge tune “Something About the Beatles”). The recent release of a much different package called …BY APPOINTMENT weeds out a few of the lesser tracks from KOLLECTION and adds a few cuts from an acoustic release called – naturally – UNPLUGGED. For essential music from the Korgis, I humbly suggest…

THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT

The Korgis cover

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2015)

After the MISTER MICK debacle, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater laid Stackridge to rest. Shortly thereafter, Andy and James Warren made nice and formed the Korgis, with violinist Stuart Gordon and keyboard player Phil Harrison along for the ride. The eponymous first album was released within two years of the demise of the mother band and garnered Warren and Davis something that had alluded them throughout the seven year career of Stackridge: An actual charting single… a hit, in the form of “If I Had You.”

The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)

The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)

The gently rocking “If I Had You” opens …BY APPOINTMENT, sounding for all the world like a George Harrison outtake. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” follows; the languorous lead single from the second Korgis album, DUMB WAITERS, hit number five in the UK and was Top 20 in the States. The next single, the Beach Boys-lite of “If It’s Alright With You Baby,” barely nudged its way into the British charts, the last release from the group to see any such action. THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT – by my calculations, the tenth compilation package from the group – features a mix of single releases and album tracks, rerecorded for this release, though a few are culled from 2005’s UNPLUGGED record; Andy and James are joined by long-time collaborator, John Baker. Highlights include the oddly appealing “True Life Confessions,” which is a bizarre combination of Mariachi horns, English pop and Caribbean percussion… truly an embracing of the “world music” vibe; a taught, tense “Lines,” from UNPLUGGED; the anthemic “One Life,” with its brilliant lead and harmony vocals, charging percussion track and massive organ leading the way.

The second half of the collection features “Mount Everest Sings the Blues,” a blast of old time rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie; a beautiful, lush remake of “Something About the Beatles,” from the late-90s Warren-led Stackridge reunion (SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND also featured original members Crun Walter on bass and Michael Evans on violin); a cool version of the Korgis’ first single, “Young ‘n’ Russian,” from UNPLUGGED; a weird, faux-jazz Andy Davis tune called “Art School Annexe.” While the final half of …BY APPOINTMENT is more easy listening than the first half, overall, this is a solid introduction to the Korgis and their music.

PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD, FINALLY

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With Stackridge calling it a career and Angel Air Records reissuing the original albums (with plenty of bonus material), now is definitely the time to jump on this band’s wagon. As mentioned above, a great starting place is the “best of” collection, PURPLE SPACESHIP OVER YATTON but, you really can’t go wrong with the group’s original run of albums (STACKRIDGE through to MISTER MICK). Other recorded highlights from the band’s reformative years include SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND (1999), THE FORBIDDEN CITY (2008’s double CD of the group’s April Fool’s Day show from the previous year) and their final album, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE (2009). Any or all (as well as any of the Korgis collections – UNPLUGGED and …BY APPOINTMENT being personal favorites – and various James Warren and Andy Davis solo projects) are worthy of your attention.

UPDATE: Stackridge took their final bow in their hometown of Bristol on December 19, 2015. A film of that last show will be edited and released on DVD sometime in 2016. Of course, we know that – like comic book characters – rock bands never truly die and, sometime when we least expect it, Stackridge will mount another comeback. I’ll be waiting.


COAL CHAMBER/FEAR FACTORY/JASTA/SAINT RIDLEY/MADLIFE

(July 31, 2015; POP’S NIGHTCLUB, Sauget IL)

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I don’t get out to Pop’s as much as I used to; it used to be THE place for the heaviest of metal and extreme acts but, now, with places like the Firebird, Fubar and Ready Room stepping up their game across the river, a good number of the smaller shows are booking those places. THIS was not a small show; a reconstituted Coal Chamber were touring behind the release of their excellent RIVALS album, Fear Factory’s new record GENEXUS was due for release the following week and, well… I mean, Jamey Jasta… am I right?

Madlife (Isaiah Stuart; Angry Phill) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Madlife (Isaiah Stuart; Angry Phill) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Los Angeles based four-piece Madlife are fifteen year veterans of the metal wars, with three EPs and one full-length album to their credit. The group’s live sound is not unlike that of the early industrial noises of old friends, Godhead. Founding members Angry Phill (vocals) and Isaiah Stuart (guitar) are joined by Kyle Cunningham on drums and new guy Topher Graves on bass, skirting the boundaries between industrial, metal and hard rock with a uniquely twisted LA pop sensibility. The concept and the blurred lines work well on a stacked tour like this one, particularly on tunes like “To Live and Die In Hollywood.” The band’s stage look is kinda nu-metal chic, with Phill’s modified flak jacket and coal miner-like facial smudges, evoking memories of Rammstein. Pop’s crowds are notoriously noncommittal (if not downright nasty) to opening acts, especially on high-profile tours like Coal Chamber’s latest jaunt but, if the early birds didn’t necessarily welcome the group with wide open arms, a good majority seemed to accept and appreciate what they were offering. With a new album due out soon, Madlife is a band to keep your eye on.

Saint Ridley (Paul Ridley) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Saint Ridley (Paul Ridley) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Saint Ridley – the band led by (and the alter ego of) vocalist Paul Ridley – hail from Detroit, the home of bad-ass rockers since the dawn of time. Ridley may just be the baddest of all; having died twice on the table while undergoing an invasive weight loss surgery called a duodenal switch, he was onstage at Michigan’s Dirt Fest two days later (against doctor’s orders)! The man is either crazy or totally dedicated to his music and his fans. The violent din rising from the stage on this night gave credence to both assumptions. Ridley’s vocals roared over the down-tuned rumble of the well-oiled machinery of guitarists Phil “Alabama” Durham and David “Texas” Flynn, bassist Nathan Garcia and drummer Richard Schlager. With a sound that was equal parts Pantera, Filter, Korn and just a bit of MC5 Motor City mayhem (particularly evident on “Burn”), the group kept it tight and heavy, offering up doses of Ridley’s brutal introspections, both new and from 2014’s FOOL OR A KING release. Paul mentioned a new album will be heading our way soon… I, for one, can’t wait!

Jasta (Jamey Jasta; Pat Seymour) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Jasta (Jamey Jasta; Pat Seymour) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As the culture and face of metal began to shift in the shadows of a new millennium, MTV began shifting the focus of their HEADBANGER’S BALL to the harder, more extreme types of metal and hardcore that were then gaining momentum; as part of that refocusing, Hatebreed songwriter and vocalist Jamey Jasta was tapped as the new host of the program. The national exposure catapulted Jamey (though, unfortunately, not the band) to new heights of popularity. While some claim that the experience softened Jasta and his musical ventures, it did nothing of the sort, as he continues to explore the darkest recesses of the metalcore genre that he helped create. His solo band, Jasta, hit the Pop’s stage raging and barely slowed enough to suck oxygen into their lungs. The band was a super-group of sorts, with Jasta utilizing members of the sludgy Kingdom of Sorrow – bassist Chris Beaudette and former guitarist Steve Gibb (who has also spent time with both Crowbar and Black Label Society) – as well Eyes of the Dead guitarist Pat Seymour and drummer Joey DiBiase, on loan from the band Oath.

Jasta (Jamey Jasta; Chris Beaudette) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Jasta (Jamey Jasta; Chris Beaudette) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Most of the material played was from the self-titled album, JASTA, including set opener, “Walk That Path Alone.” The grinding brutality of the onslaught of “Screams From the Sanctuary” and “Enslaved, Dead or Depraved” were well received, as were a cover of Running Wild’s “Soldiers of Hell” and “Buried In Black,” a tune from Kingdom of Sorrow’s first album. The high point of the set was Hatebreed’s call-to-arms, “I Will Be Heard,” with Jamey telling the minions that he wanted to see “an old-fashioned circle pit.” He eventually gave up when it was obvious that no one knew what a circle pit was and, instead, began shoving and swinging at everyone indiscriminately. You see, guys… that’s why we can’t have nice things! This band was every bit as driven and impassioned as Hatebreed and, hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of Jasta.

Fear Factory (Dino Cazares) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Fear Factory (Dino Cazares) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As a newly reconstructed (former Static X and Soulfly bassist Tony Campos is now in the fold) and revitalized Fear Factory took the stage, their mission statement was obvious: Crush all contenders, demolish all pretenders. Founding members, vocalist Burton C Bell and guitarist Dino Cazares, ruled the stage and commanded the attention of even the most distracted members of the crowd from the outset. With Campos and newish drummer Mike Heller laying down a suffocating bottom end, the band tore through a couple of tunes from the 1998 breakthrough album, OBSOLETE; “Shock” was followed by fan favorite “Edgecrusher,” with Bell’s feral growl cementing his place as one of the best in the business. As the group worked their way through a ten song set that included classics like “Martyr” and “Damaged,” the repetitive grooves of Fear Factory’s industrial roots were on ample display. Those roots came to bear most explicitly on the new GENEXUS songs, “Soul Hacker” and “Dielectric,” as well as set closers, “Demanufacture” and “Replica,” both from the DEMANUFACTURE album.

Fear Factory (Burton C Bell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Fear Factory (Burton C Bell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Earlier live versions of the band had featured a keyboard player; though Dino, Tony and Mike are more than capable of replicating most of those parts, “Dielectric” was the only number that prominently featured a prerecorded keyboard part. Heller’s drums gave the band an overall heavier sound, one that fits much better with Burt’s aggressive vocal delivery, the doom-laden lyrics and Cazares’ inventive guitar parts. Dino’s playing mixed nu-metal down-tuned riffing, metallic sheets of industrial sonics and straight forward blasts of edgy rock runs that never felt derivative or out of place. There was certainly plenty of furious pit action throughout their set, even if much of the audience were riveted to their spots, mesmerized by the performance. This is a completely new Fear Factory, a band that is set to reclaim its place at the top of the industrial heap with heavier guitars and Bell’s take-no-prisoners approach.

Coal Chamber (Dez Fafara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Coal Chamber (Dez Fafara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After far too long away, the mighty Coal Chamber have returned! This tour, hot on the heels of their first record in fifteen years, when initially announced, had me hoping for a Saint Louis stop. Needless to say, I was absolutely stoked when I found out that they would be playing Pop’s. Vocalist Dez Fafara, likewise, was stoked for the show: “When I saw this show on the schedule, I thought, ‘Friday night? At Pop’s? That sounds like a party! Fuck, yeah! Let’s do this!’” The high-tech light show would have buried a lesser band but, Coal Chamber is NOT a lesser band. Fafara, guitarist Meegs Rascon, drummer Mikey Cox and long-time touring bassist (the new RIVALS is her first studio work with the band), Nadja Peulen, grabbed the crowd by their collective throats, screaming “Listen to this!,” with a pair of classics from their first album, “Loco” and “Big Truck.” It was off to the races (or, perhaps, the demolition derby would be more apt) from that point.

Coal Chamber (Meegs Rascon) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Coal Chamber (Meegs Rascon) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Meegs has toned down his glacial stares and emotionless facial expressions and jerky, robotic movements but, he is still one of the premier guitarists in the extreme metal game. That statement was borne out from the opening notes of “Loco” through to the final crescendo of “Sway,” but was particularly evident on the first single from RIVALS, “IOU Nothing,” as well as the title track from that album. The familiar sight of Nadja’s red mane flying, her constant motion keeping time, hasn’t changed; nor has her bass playing skills diminished… in fact, she has upped her game, keeping pace with the other members of the band. I was stricken from the outset by how forceful and proficient Mikey has become, to the extent that he was the focal point – at least, in my eyes – of the performance, driving the other three to new heights of musical heaviness. As much as Dez and Meegs may be the guiding lights of Coal Chamber, they simply would not sound anywhere as vicious without Mikey’s powerhouse drumming.

Coal Chamber (Mikey Cox) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Coal Chamber (Mikey Cox) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The set featured songs from the group’s four albums, though it did seem to be stacked with songs from the first record and their 2002 swansong, DARK DAYS. While it is fairly common for an artist to “sprinkle” in a few tunes from a new release (including “Another Nail In the Coffin,” there were three), I was rather surprised that they only played one track from their break-out record, CHAMBER MUSIC. Maybe Dez and the others wanted to distance themselves from the slicker, more radio-friendly sound of that album, relying more on the gritty vibe of the other three but, I gotta tell ya, I would have loved hearing their cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” in a live setting. I suppose if I had to choose only one tune from CHAMBER MUSIC to hear live, it probably wouldn’t be “No Home” but, more likely the more Goth-sounding, atmospheric “Burgundy” or the rhythmically challenging “Entwined.” But, after thirteen years, I’ll takes what I can gets.

Coal Chamber (Nadja Peulen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Coal Chamber (Nadja Peulen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Besides the obvious crowd favorites, like “Big Truck” and “Fiend,” other highlights included “Sway,” “Dark Days” and “Rivals.” It should be noted that, aside from Fafara’s work with DevilDriver, the other members of Coal Chamber were pretty quiet until the unofficial reunion a few years back, with a handful of shows, leading to a full-blown reunion, with preparations for and recording of RIVALS. I’m not sure how long they rehearsed for this run, but it seems as though they’ve never been away. If there were any signs of stage-rust, I sure didn’t catch them. Along with Jamey Jasta’s Hatebreed and Fear Factory, these are the bands that I cut my journalistic teeth on; it’s nice to relive the past a bit, as well as look to the future with some old friends.


BUNNYGRUNT/NERVOSAS/ROYAL HOLLAND/VEIL

(July 18,2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

4, 2, 1, 3, Go (photo credit: KENDALL BRUNS)

4, 2, 1, 3, Go (photo credit: KENDALL BRUNS)

I know that none of you could ever conceive of this, but… yours truly has, upon occasion, been known as the perpetrator of some fairly boneheaded moves. Perhaps one of the biggest involves the band Bunnygrunt. You see, over my twenty-plus years in this business, I have never seen (or really even heard) one of Saint Louis’ most-beloved musical acts. Why, you ask? As odd as it sounds… I didn’t particularly care for the name; yup… that’s it! I simply did not think Bunnygrunt was a name befitting a rock ‘n’ roll ensemble. After Saturday’s show at Off Broadway (my first “grunting”), I come to you, knees bent and head bowed in an abject act of contrition for being such a name-hating idjit.

Veil (Ashley) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Veil (Ashley) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening’s affair actually encompasses two separate and very distinct shows: Bunnygrunt and Royal Holland were originally scheduled with another act at the venue but, when the third act had to cancel, the ‘Grunt’s Matt Harnish asked a couple of punk bands, who had a house show scheduled, if they would like to join forces for the Off Broadway show. It certainly looks odd on paper but, it makes a certain amount of sense, as Ashley Hohman, from the Saint Louis group Veil, had already been penciled in as Bunnygrunt’s bassist-for-the-night.

Veil (Gabe) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Veil (Gabe) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The music of Veil is old school, a cool blend of the Damned and early Misfits. The reverb and echo sometimes got in the way of Ashley’s vocals and, somehow, managed to seep into every aspect of the performance. I mean, seriously… how do you manage to get reverb on a drum kit? Ashley’s bass and Gabe’s primal skin-beating fueled the group through a set that was, though technically short (about 20 minutes), filled to the brim with punk goodness. With Chris and Leo’s grinding, slashing guitar attack, the quartet played their latest six-song demo, MANIAC, in it’s entirety and tossed in a killer version of Patti Smith’s classic anthem, “Because the Night,” for good measure. Aside from the reverb overkill, Veil’s set was fun… a great way to kick off the night.

Royal Holland with Kendall Bruns (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Royal Holland with Kendall Bruns (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Royal Holland is a scruffy-looking, soft-spoken, unassuming sort of guy; the kind of guy you may not even give a second look, except for his piercing eyes and friendly smile. If you’ve given a listen to his music (a pair of EPs), his voice is a lilting, calming thing; the tunes range from folky solo outings to ethereal doses of poppy Americana. However, once he took the stage, the soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor was gone, replaced by a confident, snarling singer and raging guitarist; the music took on a tougher patina, pushing the songs’ boundaries into a harder rocking vein. And, yeah… he did it mostly with an acoustic guitar, a notable exception being the freak-out/rave-up of set closer, “Flamingo,” from the recently released VOLUME TWO set.

Royal Holland (Margaret Darling; Matt Retherford; Wonky Tonk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Royal Holland (Margaret Darling; Matt Retherford; Wonky Tonk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Holland’s band, all top-notch musicians and as unassuming as the singer, may appear laid back in their approach but, they matched Royal’s incendiary performance note for note. Drummer Matt Retherford and percussionist Margaret Darling (who also provides some keyboard shading to the darker songs) expertly drive the music forward without overplaying or overshadowing the tunes with flashy displays. Kendall Bruns adds just the right amount of vocal support and his rootsy ukelele accompaniment keeps the music grounded in Americana. Jasmine Poole, who goes by the odd sobriquet “Wonky Tonk,” was filling in on bass and hitting all the right notes. As animated as she is off-stage, she tended to stay just out of the reach of the stage lights, pouring everything she had into her playing. Royal and the band started their set slow, with “Shore” from the first EP, VOLUME ONE, and built the tempo and the cascading emotional moments with strikingly brilliant songs like “Statues” and “The Grave,” leading into that final release on “Flamingo.” Lyrically, musically and emotionally, this is a thinking man’s band; in those euphoric moments, when word and melody and heart transcend the boundaries of what we call music, it stirs something deep in the soul. For me, on this night, Royal Holland stirred my soul.

Nervosas (Mickey; Jeff) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nervosas (Mickey; Jeff) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

If Veil reveled in punk’s more ghoulish, Hammer Horror side, Nervosas celebrated the early days of English punk, with equal parts Sex Pistols, Chelsea, Billy Idol’s Generation X and the Clash (with more than a touch of TSOL, Dead Kennedys and classic X thrown in for good measure); main vocalist and bass player Jeff even has Idol’s bleach blond punk cut, chiseled good looks and just the right amount of venom in his voice. The slash and burn attack of guitarist and second vocalist Mickey gives the tunes an air of chaos, punctuated by her backing vocals… more of a manic howl than anything else. As Nervosas’ sound occasionally threatens to uncoil, the group’s third member, Nick, manages to hold everything together with a thunderous – and surprisingly supple – approach to his drumming.

Nervosas (Nick) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nervosas (Nick) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Seven of the set’s nine tunes came from the brand-spanking-new self-titled release from Dirtnap Records, which is more nuanced than the trio’s previous recordings. Even so, the buzzsaw guitars, pummeling drum attack and Jeff’s Ian Curtis wail on such graveyard ballads as “Night Room,” Quarantine” and “Arcadia” tended to tear at the jugular. Nervosas’ set proved to be as visceral an experience as that of Royal Holland but, where that seared the soul, this was more like a punch to the solar plexus… just like any punk band worth their salt should deliver. I look forward to each evolutionary advancement on future Nervosas records; I likewise look forward to more scorching, unapologetically balls-out live sets.

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman, Eric Von Damage, Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman, Eric Von Damage, Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

And so, it was on to the headliners: Saint Louis’ mighty Bunnygrunt, feting the release of their first album in six years, VOLUME FOUROpening with the high impact couplet of “Big Fake Out” (the first track from 1998’s JEN-FI album) and “South Kingshighway Bubblegum Factory” (from 2009’s MATT HARNISH AND OTHER DELIGHTS), the modified trio (figurehead and de facto leader Matt Harnish, drummer Eric Von Damage and Karen Reid’s more-than-capable semi-permanant fill-in, Ashley Hohman) joked and played their way through a set that was long on songs from the new record, while still offering the fans a good dose of the songs they’ve come to love over the band’s twnety-plus year career. The house was rockin’, with the crowd singing along, holding a running conversation with Harnish between tunes and giggling like school girls at the stories and commentary from the stage. And, of course, who could not have a good time hearing bent little pop ditties like “Transportation Pants” (from the group’s first full-length, ACTION PANTS, which eventually devolved into the trashy, thrashy “1000% Not Creepy”), “Young Abe Lincoln” andChunt Bump?”

Bunnygrunt (Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Bunnygrunt (Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Von Damage and Hohman kept things tight but bouncy rhythmically, allowing Harnish the luxury of doing just about anything that came to mind melodically, including the occasional guitar freak-out, as on the Kinks’ “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” which morphed into “Led It Out,” a tune from the new record that‘s more than a nod and a wink to the dirigibly renamed New Yardbirds and their poppier predecessors. On “Frankie Is a Killer,” the bass and drums rolled and crashed underneath Matt’s dire warnings to protect your loved ones; the song, delivered wrapped in a pretty, jangly pop bow, featured a guitar solo that paid homage to the Saint Louis sound created by Johnnie and Chuck, lo, those many years ago. Ashley handled the vocals on the rambunctious “Still Chooglin’ (After All These Beers),” a number that’s equal parts Creedence Clearwater Revival swampy pop and early Stooges mayhem. “Don’t Forget Who Your Friends Are” turned into a purposefully sloppy train wreck, with a messed up kinda guitar solo that led to a full stop in the proceedings before charging back into the chorus.

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman; Eric Von Damage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman; Eric Von Damage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Matt, Eric and Ashley showed off their rock ‘n’ roll chops from the get-go and, seeking to please the rabid crowd, pulled out every trick they had in their magician’s hat of musical stage magic, ensuring that everyone – from the long time, diehard fans to the newcomers like me – would long look back on this night with the fondest of memories. Now, who could possibly ask for more than that?


TWANGFEST 19: CRACKER/MARAH/GRACE BASEMENT

(June 10, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

TWANGFEST 19 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TWANGFEST 19 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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!

Grace Basement (Kevin Buckley and Greg Lamb) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Grace Basement (Kevin Buckley and Greg Lamb) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Grace Basement (Jill Aboussie; Kevin Buckley; Marc Schneider) (photo Credits: DARREN TRACY)

Grace Basement (Jill Aboussie; Kevin Buckley; Marc Schneider) (photo Credits: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Marah (David Bielanko) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Marah (David Bielanko) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Marah (Christine Smith) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Marah (Christine Smith) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Cracker (Johnny Hickman) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Cracker (Johnny Hickman) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Cracker (David Lowery) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Cracker (David Lowery) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Cracker (Johnny Hickman; Carlton "Coco" Owens; Bryan Howard) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Cracker (Johnny Hickman; Carlton “Coco” Owens; Bryan Howard) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

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.


JENNY LEWIS/NIKKI LANE

(May 17, 2015; THE READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

Jenny Lewis set list (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis set list (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Arriving late to the venue, seeing the line outside and, later, the crowd inside, this thought kept creeping into my head: “Man… there are certainly more TROOP BEVERLY HILLS fans around than I ever thought possible.” Of course, most of the diverse crowd really had no idea what TROOP BEVERLY HILLS was (if you’re among that group, Google the title… I’ll be here when you get back), they just knew that Jenny Lewis has released some amazing music during her career, including the recent album, THE VOYAGER. I found myself in the midst of some die-hard fans who have been following Lewis’ musical career since TAKE OFFS AND LANDINGS, the 2001 debut release from Rilo Kiley; obviously in the mood for a good time and some great music, my new-found friends welcomed opener Nikki Lane as enthusiastically as they would the headliner later in the evening.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

While my first live experience with Nikki Lane had the feel of a last-minute addition to an already announced line-up (it wasn’t exactly that but, it was really close), with Nikki taking the stage in a simple tee shirt and jeans, her opening slot on this tour has the feel of a full-blown Nikki Lane show, with the singer donning an ANNIE OAKLEY (the 1950s television show, not the real thing) style red vest with white fringe, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. That first performance was top-notch but, if you have the opportunity to see Nikki live, this is the Nikki you want. The set didn’t veer too much from last year’s show at the Demo, which really didn’t bother me at all, as the band was tighter and Nikki more aptly displayed the vocal style that has garnered her comparisons to the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. And, of course, her sly sense of humor and superb songwriting skills sure don’t hurt.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Once again highlighting tunes from last year’s ALL OR NOTHIN’, Lane and her band tore through a set that included “Man Up,” “Right Time” and the title track, all the while trying to figure out why, no matter how furiously she strummed or how hard she stomped her new pedal board, her guitar seemed to be boycotting the performance (eventually, a tech came on stage to fix the problematic plug, eliciting the usual response from Nikki, a self-effacing quip:”Oh… it does work! I thought you guys just didn’t like my playing.”). Other tunes included “Walk of Shame” (the title tune of her 2011 debut album) along with some new material, planned for record number three. In a set full of highlights, the best moment came as Nikki introduced “Sleep With a Stranger,” saying that a couple of friends were celebrating their wedding anniversary and, when she asked what song they wanted to hear to mark the occasion, “they picked this one. That means that they were fucking before they knew each other, because this next song is about fucking someone you don’t know yet. If there’s anybody out there you don’t know yet, you can tell ’em it was my idea.” Nikki Lane is one fierce country wildcat and, with her band laying down a solid wall of sound behind her, she can pack more music, more downright fun into a forty minute set than most artists can muster in a two hour show. Look for Nikki this June at various festivals before she heads out in July with Social Distortion (for full tour info, go to nikkilane.com).

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

While not as in-your-face as her opening act, Jenny Lewis, nonetheless put on a spectacular – though rather low key – show. One of the ladies I’d been talking to between sets admitted that she wasn’t all that familiar with Jenny’s solo work, but was hoping that she would be dipping into her Rilo Kiley songbook. She didn’t have long to wait; after “Head Underwater,” the funky, folky opener (and the lead track on THE VOYAGER), Jenny and her band stepped back in time to deliver the sparkling pop of “Silver Lining” followed the darker groove of “The Moneymaker,” both from the group’s final album, 2007’s UNDER THE BLACKLIGHT. While the set was, for obvious reasons, heavy on material from Jenny’s latest release, the rest of the set seemed to be packed with some of the more adventurous numbers from her earlier projects, including the bluesy sonic meltdown of “The Next Messiah” and the smokey jazz of “Pretty Bird,” both from ACID TONGUE, as well as some more Rilo Kiley like the pristine alterna-pop of “Portions For Foxes” and the haunting lyricism of “With Arms Outstretched” and “A Better Son/Daughter.” Sometimes, as on the blue-eyed soul of “She’s Not Me” or the country pop of “Just One of the Guys,” Lewis’ wry sense of humor gets lost amid the shimmering vocals and superb backing.

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As much as her fans adore Jenny Lewis, seeing her live bears witness to the fact that she genuinely loves her fans. When she smiles or waves, the actions are sincere and heartfelt, giving each person in the room the feeling that this moment was intended for them alone; at one point, she took a flower from her piano and handed it to a young lady, stage right and, even if that’s something she does every single night, it felt special and rang true. When, later, she sat facing her bandmates and playfully leaned back, caressing a smitten young man, stage left, the effect was the same. Was she working the room, playing to the crowd? You bet she was! But, it was still one of the most natural, genuine things for her to do, without ever seeming calculated. She also connected with the crowd when she mentioned going for a walk in the city and finding a peach jumpsuit that she just couldn’t resist at the Goodwill store (there’s a picture of guitarist Michael Bloom modeling said garment here). There were plenty of great musical moments, as well, as Jenny has surrounded herself with a group of players who are adept at virtually any style of music. Bloom acts as musical director and lead guitarist, utilizing massive swaths of sound one minute and delivering a cutting solo the next; his guitar partner, Megan McCormick, keeps the rhythm tight, occasionally exploding for her own sonic assault. The rhythm section of keyboardist Natalie Prass, bassist Thomas Taylor and drummer Josh Adams give Lewis, McCormick and Bloom a spongy, fluid bottom-end to work over, each adding their own little flourishes to the mix. By the way, Jenny can definitely hold her own on, not only guitar, but keyboards, as well.

Jenny Lewis with Megan McCormick (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis with Megan McCormick (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Other than Nikki Lane, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this show. There was a cool, laid back vibe in the club and the sound was near perfect throughout the evening. Maybe the surprise of the night was the headliner, confident in herself and her band, resplendent in her pastel jacket (with matching guitar), obviously having fun onstage. That’s certainly a great take-away from this show… plus, it’s always nice to make new friends at your job.


LOCAL H/BATTLEME/FUMER

(April 30,2015; FIREBIRD, Saint Louis MO)

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The intimate, unassuming Firebird is nestled in an office building, with a law firm and other concerns on either side, and… HOLY CRAP! Is the place hard to find! I mean, there’s a sign and everything but, it’s sort of obscured by a couple of trees plus, once you get there, the place really isn’t the place… it’s the back door; the front door is around back, where everybody else’s back door is found. So, anyway, enough complaining about location and entrances and such… once I figured out where I was going, manager Ryan Sears and the entire staff made me feel right at home. The club’s layout puts me in mind of such Saint Louis venues as Cicero’s and the Demo, as well as long-gone places like the Galaxy and the original Creepy Crawl; the sound is top notch, though there tends to be a certain amount of bleed and distortion, especially on the vocals, when you’re standing right in front of the stage and are hearing more monitor than house speakers. A minor complaint (I’ll get into one more a bit later in this review) that in no measurable way detracted from the show. And, what a show it was!

Fumer (Jennifer Tilly) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Fumer (Jennifer Tilly) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The opening band, Fumer, are Saint Louis originals. They’re kind of a hybrid beast – a classic rock mentality with a thrash metal stoner sheen; sorta like Led Zeppelin hooking up with Nirvana for a dust-up with Exciter. Guitarist and vocalist Joan Cusack sort of sneaks up on you, keeping the lead work tight, then shredding an ear-piercing solo that would make that one guy from that one band hang up his Gibson and retire; Rosie Perez (wait… is it just me, or do these names look vaguely familiar?) lays down an impossibly heavy groove, considering the size of his kit; Rosie’s partner in crime, Jennifer Tilly (hmmm… guess I was wrong about the names, huh? I mean, Jennifer Tilly isn’t a real thing, is it?), approaches his bass work in a suitably subtle fashion… akin to the subtle ax work utilized by Lizzy Borden on her parents. Tilly’s use of distortion to further enhance his already deep, rafter-shaking notes is, indeed, a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, Joan’s vocals were all but lost in the mix but, there was enough angst and emotion in his delivery to carry the set. The band’s latest release is called WE ALONE ARE DEATH ENOUGH and, the couple of songs I’ve been able to identify – “Water Song” and “Salesman” – come from there; it is available as a “name your own price” download on the trio’s Bandcamp page, as are their other two releases. Fumer were quite a surprise and a great way to kick off the evening. This just in: That one guy from that one band has announced his official retirement after listening to Fumer’s new record, issuing a prepared statement that said, “Though Joan Cusack doesn’t appear to have aged particularly well, he can still shred a ring around me. I quit!”

Battleme (JJ Eliot; Matt Dee) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Battleme (JJ Eliot; Matt Dee) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Eventually locating the entrance to the venue, the first people I ran into were the direct support (that’s the one that goes on right before the headliner), the Portland group Battleme. In one of my patented bonehead moves, I approached the guy who looked very much like Local H’s Scott Lucas (especially wearing sunglasses, as he was) and told him it was great to see him again after too long a time; in an odd coincidence that could only happen to me, the confusion was exacerbated when he said, “Hey… I’m Scott. But, I’ve never met you before.” Once I realized my mistake and they (hopefully) figured out that I was relatively harmless, I learned a bit about the guys and was even more psyched about this show. Battleme did not disappoint!

Battleme (Scott Noben; Chad Savage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Battleme (Scott Noben; Chad Savage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Not-Local-H Scott (Noben) lays down an impressive beat, matched by his brother-in-rhythm, bassist Chad Savage, a Philthy Animal Taylor look-alike and possessor of the biggest hair in rock since the Melvins’ King Buzzo or the early (pre-Steve Perry) Journey version of Neil Schon; the duo is powerful – occasionally brutal – without ever losing their groove. About midway through the set, Noben did the unthinkable for a band like Battleme: He did a drum solo; even more unthinkable, the crowd went nuts as he pounded away. Guitarists JJ Eliot and Matt Dee (Drenik) slip some very tasty lead work and soloing in amidst the feedback and general noisy effects that permeates the band’s live sound. Matt’s frenetic stage machinations, understated modified folky vocal delivery and scraggly Pete-Townshend-on-a-bender looks is worth the price of admission alone. At one point, Drenik experienced some type of malfunction with his guitar (something other than a string breaking); in true “the show must go on” fashion, rather than stopping mid-song, he unplugged and simply danced (looking kinda like a spastic bull in a very small china shop) to the side of the stage during an Eliot solo before returning – guitarless – to the mic to finish the song. As the boys blasted through their set of supercharged tunes, highlighting the freshly-minted HABITUAL EP, it became quite obvious that they are the perfect lead in to the volatile Local H. Battleme aren’t interested in projecting an image; this is a band that is all about the show and the music. When you can catch the people on stage laughing at (and with) each other during a song, you cannot help but be drawn to them and feel a connection – a closeness – that you usually don’t sense from a band. Even though many in the audience were unfamiliar with Battleme’s music, by the end of their set, we all felt that kinship… a kinship that virtually guarantees a packed house the next time the quartet rolls into town.

Local H (Scott Lucas) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Local H (Scott Lucas) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

If Fumer were the arsonists, setting a blaze from the stage, and Battleme came along, pouring fuel onto the slow smoldering embers, stoking the flames to the point they became out of control, then Local H were the resultant explosion that takes out an entire city block. The Not-Battleme-Scott would have seemed to be in a surly mood to anyone not familiar with his odd sense of humor (of which, more later); his feigned impatience at the sound guy and newish drummer, Ryan Harding, was more a product of nervous energy, as this was the first night of the duo’s HEY KILLER tour. The new album is well-represented in the new set, with eight of the eleven tunes being featured, including the record’s first track and the opening song of the live show, “The Last Picture Show In Zion,” a sprawling slab of guitar pyrotechnics and squall, forced to the edge of endurance by the manic drumming from Harding. From there, Lucas and Harding tore through a ninety-minute set that included such fan favorites as “All the Kids Are Right,” “Fritz’s Corner,” “Hand On the Bible” and “California Songs,” alongside “Gig Bag Road,” “Leon and the Game of Skin,” “John the Baptist Blues,” the self-depricating humor of “Mansplainer” and more new stuff from HEY KILLER. Of course, as generally happens at a Local H show, there were more than a few shouted requests for “High-Fiving Motherfucker” and “Eddie Vedder.” One particularly vociferous gentleman actually managed to get Scott’s attention, as he responded by telling him, “Well, now you’re never going to hear it. You’ve blown it for everybody… we’re not going to play it!” And, when they left the stage, the song remained unplayed. Here, too, is where I would like to mention another complaint… this one directed at the two louts – it’s this type of Neandethals that “High-Fiving… ” is written about – who decided they wanted to start a little pit action. That’s okay… no problem with that; what I do have a problem with is the fact that they decided that EVERYONE else should be involved in their frivolity. As I was at the front of the stage, shooting photos, my back was to the action; I was punched in the back of the head and pushed hard in the back, as were others – including a couple of young ladies – who just wanted to enjoy the show (I’m used to the general errant jostling that goes on in a pit, but for someone to directly target people who obviously wish to remain on the periphery is definitely not cool).

Local H (Ryan Harding) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Local H (Ryan Harding) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As things began to cool down on the floor, the band returned for an encore, though Scott spent more than 15 minutes proclaiming that the show was over, due in part to a lady near the front of the stage who was more interested in texting her friends than watching the show (before you get upset, the woman in question is an acquaintance of the band and Scott’s diatribe merely a send-up), as well as telling the crowd how great it felt to be back on the road, opening the tour at one of his favorite venues. Eventually, he did pick up his guitar and the duo ripped into the final HEY KILLER offering, “The Misanthrope.” With “Bound For the Floor,” the pit once again roiled behind us, but… we front row minions were hardly touched, as a group of very large gentlemen had formed a protective barrier, taking the brunt of the abuse. After a wicked “That’s What They All Say,” Lucas called a “troublemaker” up from the floor and told him to put his phone down and stand at the back of the stage until he was called upon (though the guy could hardly contain himself and tended to wander); with that, Scott and Ryan broke into a raging “High-Fiving Motherfucker.” I have a feeling that if he hadn’t been completely sick of hearing requests for “Eddie Vedder,” both songs would have remained unplayed. After Scott sang the first verse and chorus, he turned the microphone over to Mike (for that was his name) to finish the song; obviously nervous, Mike nevertheless acquitted himself quite well, actually and, now, has a story to tell his grandkids, when Scott Lucas and whatever drummer he’s playing with in thirty years show up for yet another gig at the Firebird.

Local H (Scott Lucas) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Local H (Scott Lucas) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

It had been probably ten years since I last saw Local H (with the mighty Brian Saint Clair on drums… our thoughts and prayers are with you, buddy) and Scott and the new guy definitely held up their end of things. The show (even with the overly aggressive clowns in the pit – and, let me reiterate, it wasn’t the entire group… just two mooks who seriously need a crash course in pit etiquette) was a cut above; one might even say, “Epic.” The newer batch of songs nestled in nicely with fan favorites and radio hits and, while Scott’s voice sometimes sounds a bit hoarse, there are – thankfully – no apparent ill-effects from the injuries suffered in the 2013 mugging. If you haven’t seen them on this tour yet (or if you haven’t seen them in a while), make plans and get your tickets now; with Battleme along for the ride and Local H rejuvinated and tearing up the stage every night, you owe it to yourself.


SLEATER-KINNEY/THEESATISFACTION

(April 24, 2015; THE PAGEANT, Saint Louis MO)

Sleater-Kinney

So… what exactly happened on this beautiful, cool April evening in Saint Louis, within the jam-packed confines of the Pageant? Well, five outrageously talented musicians (six, actually, counting an auxiliary player, augmenting the furious noise of the headliners) – women – commanded the respect and attention of every single person in attendance. It was almost like a mini LILITH FAIR, but without the “we’re going to prove that we can rock as well as the boys, but in a more genteel girly-girl fashion, with lilacs in our hair and pansies on the stocks of our acoustic guitars.” These ladies had, all, proven that point years ago; no, they were here to rock. You gotta live in a cave, or – well, under a rock, if you haven’t figured out that women can rock every bit as hard as men (harder, in some respects)… always have; always will. After hearing more than one knucklehead make the comment that “they play pretty good for girls,” I just had to get that out of my system; I absolutely cannot believe that the subject is even up for debate anymore.

THEESatisfaction (Stasia Irons, Catherine Harris-White) (photo credit: KING TEXAS)

THEESatisfaction (Stasia Irons, Catherine Harris-White) (photo credit: KING TEXAS)

My butt was inside the venue thanks to the ladies of THEESatisfaction, who took pity on a lowly scribe and put him on their guest list. Choosing a Hip-Hop act to open for them may seem an odd choice for Sleater-Kinney and their punk roar – putting aside the fact that the two groups both call Sub Pop home – but, Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons (whose stage names are Cat and Stas) are kindred spirits with the trio… riot grrrls to the core. The duo’s music could best be described as Hawkwind-ian space-hippy synthesizers over some seriously funky beats; Cat and Stas both have great voices, with Stas handling the raps and, when they harmonize, you are magically transported back to Motown’s 1960s heyday. There’s also a bit of Supremes-style choreography going on (and, at one time, there was even a hint of some old O’Jays moves, showing love for the Philly soul movement, too). The tunes themselves were uplifting and empowering without being preachy: “Recognition,” from the recently released EARTHEE album; “Queens,” from its predecessor, AWE NATURALE; and the wickedly on-point “Bisexual,” from 2009’s SNOW MOTION release. Stas sent the latter out to “boys who like boys, girls who like girls, girls who like boys and boys who like girls.” The 45-minute set was well-received… I even saw a couple of older guys bobbing their heads and singing along to the newer songs. THEESatisfaction actually flew in from Nashville just a couple of hours before the show (their plane was late, forcing a scheduled in-store appearance at Vintage Vinyl to be delayed and cut short), leaving them little time to rest before taking the stage; as amazing as this performance was, I can only imagine the type of set they could have pulled off had they been well-rested.

Sleater-Kinney (Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein) (uncredited photo)

Sleater-Kinney (Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein) (uncredited photo)

After a thirty minute break, the reunited Sleater-Kinney took the stage in rather unassuming fashion, waving and smiling to the house. The demure entrance quickly turned into an explosion of noise and power, as Janet Weiss began pummeling her drum kit and the trio ripped into “Price Tag,” the opening salvo from the group’s new NO CITIES TO LOVE album. Corin Tucker’s harsh, sometimes grating vocal style plays well in this live setting and her rhythm guitar, tuned down to give the music a beefed up bottom-end, allows the extraordinary Carrie Brownstein to explore an almost experimental sound as lead guitarist. There are very few guitarists you can identify by tone and style alone; Brain May and Gary Richrath immediately come to mind. Now, after hearing Carrie play live, I would add her work to that short list. The jam-packed nineteen song main set, delivered at a fast and furious pace, left the group (which also included auxiliary player Katie Harkin) – and the crowd – very little time to catch their breath, as they ripped through new favorites and classic tunes, alike: “Bury Our Friends,” “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” “Light Rail Coyote,” “Surface Envy,” “Oh,” “No Cities To Love” and “Ironclad,” among them; the five (!) song encore was kicked off with the syncopated groove of “Gimme Love,” one of the strongest tracks from the new record and the evening ended with THE WOODS’ “Modern Girl,” a jangly, power pop sort of thing… an odd but effective choice to end the show.

Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss) (uncredited photo)

Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss) (uncredited photo)

Before this night, I really wasn’t all that familiar with S-K’s music – as close I came had been Janet’s band, Quasi – but, the energy and overwhelming power of this trio has made me a fan. Tucker’s lead vocals (with the occasional Brownstein lead to keep things interesting) border on the sublime; Brownstein’s guitar heroics and on-stage histrionics add a touch of chaos to the magnificent din; and… what can I conceivably say about Weiss’ drumming? Watching her play, she seems to be more of a finesse percussionist but, her sound is as big (maybe bigger) as her idol, John Bonham (I believe he played in the Band of Joy and was part of Jimmy Page’s New Yardbirds). Even with that massive sound, she gives many of the band’s tunes an undeniable groove that’s reminiscent of Tony Thompson’s work with Chic and Power Station. Anyone who had any fears about Sleater-Kinney suffering from their ten year layoff can rest assured that they haven’t lost a beat; in fact, the time off (though each continued playing in other projects) seems to have reinvigorated the band, spurring them to new heights. I, for one, can’t wait to hear what’s next.


THE GREAT CRUSADES/PLANEAUSTERS: SPLIT

(BOXING CLEVER RECORDS 7” single; 2014)

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Way back in the previous century, the Great Crusades released one of my favorite albums, 1997’s THE FIRST SPILLED DRINK OF THE EVENING. The record was filled with songs that were equal parts sloppy Rolling Stones rock ‘n’ roll, snotty Replacements punk, moody Americana and drunken Celtic reels, with Brian Krumm’s smokey Leonard Cohen cum Kris Kristofferson baritone delivering his own Dylanesque lyrics. Seventeen years later, the band still sounds wonderfully ragged on “Sometimes On Sundays, Too,” a love song that wouldn’t be out of place on something coming from Dylan himself. During the ensuing years following that first release, Krumm has continued to gargle with broken glass, giving him a voice that is a huskier (and more melodic) approximation of Rod McKuen. When he rasps the chorus, “There were parties every Saturday/At the house on Illinois Street/And sometimes on Sundays, too,” you may find yourself clearing your throat in sympathy. The music is a jangly, acoustic blast of what has been dubbed “rock-noir,” featuring a very hymn-like arrangement and orchestration. In short, “Sometimes On Sundays, Too” is every bit as sublime as anything from that first Great Crusades album.

The Great Crusades (Christian Moder, Brian Leach, Brian Krumm, Brian Hunt) (uncredited photo)

The Great Crusades (Christian Moder, Brian Leach, Brian Krumm, Brian Hunt) (uncredited photo)

The B-side of this special split single features frequent tour-mates and kindred spirits of the Great Crusades, Germany’s Planeausters. In fact, Crusader Brian Leach is listed as producer; he adds a nice bit of piano to the track, as well. “Wouldn’t Say It’s Over, But It’s Gone” also acts as the flip-side of the new-love tale of “Sometimes On Sundays, Too.” The tune has to be one of the most horribly effective break-up songs of all time. Musically, the track is a sleepy, languorous bit of shoegazing with some nice guitar work from Michael Moravek and an impossibly slow drum track from Per Ceurremans, one that sounds like it was played back at half-speed while the song was being mixed. “Wouldn’t Say… ” is my introduction to Planeausters, but I gotta say, if this cut is what this band is all about… gimme more. As the magnificent Boxing Clever Records branches out past the release of these exquisite split singles, moving into the realm of full-length albums, maybe a deal can be struck for the release of the latest Planeausters record. Make it happen, Jim!

Planeausters (Michael Moravek, Per Ceurremans, William Kollmar) (uncredited photo)

Planeausters (Michael Moravek, Per Ceurremans, William Kollmar) (uncredited photo)

The Great Crusades’ latest full-length is THIEVES OF CHICAGO, available at their Bandcamp page. As with all singles from Boxing Clever Records, this release is available directly from the label’s web-site; also available from the fine folk at Boxing Clever is a limited edition skate deck featuring the record’s cover art. Tell ‘em the Mule sent you!


THE STANDELLS: BUMP

(GLOBAL RECORDING ARTIST; 2013)

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American rock and roll during the early ’60s had become homogenized… I’m talkin’ Pat Boone homogenized; even Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard Penniman had significantly toned down their acts. Suddenly, the land that invented rock and roll no longer had the guts for it. It seemed that the only fire was coming from England: The Who, the Kinks, the Animals, those filthy Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, the guys that made all of the others look like choir boys. All of that changed with the release of the Standells’ “Dirty Water” at the very end of 1965… with its vicious, snotty vocals, ominous organ and immediately recognizable riff, suddenly American rock and roll was dangerous again. But, unfortunately, the band that saved American rock music had an amazingly short shelf life. Their 1967 album TRY IT would be their last… until the release of BUMP. Co-founder, vocalist and keyboard player Larry Tamblyn (who, for the trivia buffs out there, is the younger brother of actor Russ and uncle to actress Amber) is the only original member of the band, though John “Fleck” Fleckenstein had been in the band for a time after leaving fellow Los Angeleans Love. Guitarist and vocalist Mark Adrian and drummer Greg Burnham complete the 21st century version of the “dirtiest band in America.” BUMP is short (ten songs in 35 minutes), but the brevity is more than compensated for with the high-energy playing, offering a killer blast of nostalgia spiked with a decidedly modern dose of rock.

The Standells (Larry Tamblyn, Mark Adrian, John Fleckenstein, Greg Burnham) (publicity photo)

The Standells (Larry Tamblyn, Mark Adrian, John Fleckenstein, Greg Burnham) (publicity photo)

The album kicks of with a rollicking version of the Love classic “Seven and Seven Is,” falling somewhere between the original and Alice Cooper’s punk-metal take from SPECIAL FORCES. As contemporaries of the Standells, this one falls very nicely into their garage-sized wheelhouse, even if Tamblyn’s vocal prowess can’t hope to come close to Arthur Lee. The band takes the song in a completely different direction as it shifts into a slower gear for a bluesy solo from Adrain. “It’s All About the Money” is a very modern sounding number, with some nice guitar and cool backing vocals. If you were wondering, Tamblyn’s organ playing is still the dirtiest thing this side of Lady Gaga’s undies (wait… does she even where those?). Though the Standells weren’t from Boston, they continue to be Boston proud; “Boston’s Badass” is a sequel of sorts to the group’s biggest success, “Dirty Water.” The song has a distinct early Alice Cooper groove to it (the Standells were obviously an influence on the boys from Detroit). “Help You Ann” is a kind of paisley power pop thing, a cover of the Lyres’ (a band that actually was from Boston) paisley underground track. It features a great guitar riff and lead vocals from Mark Adrian. Another cover, the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” features an awesome arrangement that sorta mixes the riff from “You Really Got Me” with a hard rockin’ Iron Butterfly rhythm.

The Standells (Greg Burnham, John Fleckenstein, Larry Tamblyn, Mark Adrian) (publicity photo)

The Standells (Greg Burnham, John Fleckenstein, Larry Tamblyn, Mark Adrian) (publicity photo)

Adrian is back on lead vocals for “Big Fat Liar,” with vocals and melody line straight outta the ’80s Cali punk scene and smushed up against the band’s own arrogant style of garage rock. Mark supplies some beefy guitar solos to the proceedings, as well. “Mister One Percent” is the political portion of our program. Larry’s passionate lead vocals are enhanced by some particularly fine backing from the rest of the band. Again, Adrian offers up some very tasty guitar with Tamblyn’s organ working a nice balance just below. Burnham and Fleckenstein, while just percolating along, give the song a perfect backdrop, proving that a flamboyant rhythm section isn’t always advantageous to a song; it’s all about knowing what to play and when and where to play it. Another Mark Adrian lead vocal follows on “She’s Just 18,” one of those lo-fi kinda chugging rockers. John has sort of a “Peter Gunn” bass thing going on that works well within the confines of this track. If any song here absolutely screams “classic Standells,” it’s “And I Got It.” There’s also a bit of a nod to the Nazz in there, if you’re paying attention. All four guys are firing on all cylinders here, with Tamblyn, once again, reasserting his dominance as king of the garage band organ players. “Bump In the Night” is a smoldering, smarmy pop confection. With its urgent rhythm, Larry’s lecherous vocals and lines like “This ain’t gonna be a big romance/We’re just gonna have some fun tonight/Let’s go bump tonight/We can bump ’til the broad daylight/Let’s go bump/Let’s go bump in the night/You know what I’m talkin’ about, baby,” the song leaves little to the imagination. The number makes a great album closer and you’ll find yourself humming the raunchy groove long after the thing’s over. But, then, that’s what you’d expect from the Standells, right?


WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 2

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

It’s interesting how certain albums come to mean so much to you, the longer you are an active music fan. From 1976 to 1979, I worked at a major record store, which increased my access to all kinds of new and upcoming artists. I also began to read music magazines obsessively, so I was able to follow the music scene really attentively. Hundreds and hundreds of albums crossed my path during that time and beyond. I went to college from 1980 to 1983, and that, too, brought a ton of new artists into my life. So-called “new wave” music ruled at that time, with artists such as Elvis Costello, the English Beat, the Clash, the Cars and many more finding favor among people I hung out with, and my friend Tina Carl and I began trading and sharing and even dancing to a lot of the music at that time. There was so much stuff I loved, but the sheer volume of it probably prevented most of it from becoming INFLUENTIAL. And that is my focus here: what were the albums that actively, in a meaningful way, became an influence on my life and creative journey? So, here is part two of that list of 25, carrying us from the late 70s to the present…

14. TALKING HEADS: FEAR OF MUSIC and REMAIN IN LIGHT (tie)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

This is the second time I am cheating by calling a TIE between two albums. I pretty much HAVE to, because each of these albums by the New York new wave group fronted by David Byrne was HUGE for me. FEAR OF MUSIC came out while I worked at Record Bar, in the summer. It was an amazing piece of work, quirky as hell, rhythmically unique and heavily atmospheric. Songs like “Air,” “Cities,” “Animals,” “Drugs” and the new wave dance anthem “Life During Wartime” were like catnip for my ever-growing interest in offbeat music. And the hypnotic piece “Mind” became the unofficial breakup song for me and that girl who looked like Joni Mitchell. I loved this band, and the fact they were produced by my new hero, Brian Eno, was a bonus. But the following year, while I was attending Webster University, the incomparable REMAIN IN LIGHT came out. Influenced by African high life music, and featuring Eno again as producer and even co-writer of many of the tracks, this was just a full-on masterpiece of innovative modern rock. I absolutely went gaga over it, and “Once In A Lifetime” remains, to this day, one of the most instantly captivating weird songs ever recorded. Topping things off, MTV was becoming a going concern, showcasing this new “music video” art form to a fast-growing, interested public, and the Heads’ video for this song got huge attention. My friend Ted Moniak and I also discussed this album at length in college, and I remember him taking a long verse from the song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and writing the lyrics on a piece of paper which he posted on a door in the theatre conservatory to make a point. These were major, heady days of music listening for me, always intense, always communal. REMAIN IN LIGHT is truly one of the greatest and most interesting albums of all time, and that coincided with it being influential for me in its awesome creativity, its often dark and globally inclusive mood, and a palpable sense of ALL things truly being possible now. It made me want to learn about ethnic music, and my mind just kept opening more and more…

15. NICK DRAKE: FIVE LEAVES LEFT

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

I didn’t know anything about Nick Drake when he was alive and making music (1969-1974). It was some years later that I learned about him through my friend, Ted. The doomed British singer/songwriter, who died at the age of 24 either through suicide or an accidental drug overdose (theories differ on that), was an instantly compelling new “find” for me. Nick always sounded like he was apart from the rest of humanity, a lonesome figure who couldn’t fit in and related more to nature and quiet moments than anything else. I probably identified a little too much with this, I have to say. FIVE LEAVES LEFT was his first album, and it’s one of the best debut albums ever. I love every song on it; “Time Has Told Me,” the gorgeous “River Man,” “Cello Song” and “Fruit Tree” are just a few of the timeless, intimate songs on this album. I began performing “River Man” as a musician myself some years later; the mood of isolation combined with a deep reverence and connection to nature, was a recurring and potent theme in Nick’s music. Also, the way his career never took off (fame eluded him during his lifetime; it took a clever Volkswagen commercial using his song “Pink Moon” to catapult him to real fame after his death) and the aching solitude made me start thinking much more about the uncertainties of being an artist and the pain of being perhaps too sensitive. This is essential singer/songwriter stuff, and will likely always be one of my top 10 albums of all time.

16. BRIAN ENO: ON LAND

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

I already covered Eno’s album DISCREET MUSIC, which found him inventing a new kind of music that baffled many listeners and critics at the time. And in 1979, he basically announced ambient music as an “official” new genre with the release of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, labeled as “Ambient 1” in his new series at the time. That album was influential, for sure, but 1982’s ON LAND was so far ahead of the game in this genre, so much farther than his own DISCREET MUSIC, in fact, that in a way, my life instantly changed right then and there. If DISCREET MUSIC had made me feel like dreams had come to life, ON LAND recreated the experience of being lost in nature, and thinking about the most private and long-gone of memories while doing so. It was a series of rather lengthy pieces with titles such as “Lizard Point,” “The Lost Day,” “Lantern Marsh” and “Unfamiliar Wind,” all of which were made in such a mysterious process that almost no recognizable instruments appeared on them. Eno had traveled deeply into new, mysterious musical territory, and in these heady days before the internet, finding albums like this and maybe, just MAYBE encountering another human being who liked it, made you part of a cult in a way. I was utterly, utterly shocked and amazed that an album like ON LAND, which vividly captured the way I felt when I was out in nature, watching birds and feeling the glorious solitude of my surroundings, could exist. I had literally never been so affected by an album before, and I went a little nuts. I started collecting every article and review of Eno I could find, even compiling a scrapbook. More significantly, I decided I had to write to Brian Eno himself and express my admiration. It was a crazy, bold impulse, but I was unstoppable; I wrote about a 25-page letter to Mister Eno telling him about how I had long dreamed of a kind of cinematic, pastoral music that would evoke landscapes and the mysteries of life, and how in awe I was that HE had single-handedly created this music. Late in 1982, one day when I was at Webster University, I was flabbergasted when Eno answered my letter. He was warmly appreciative of my enthusiasm, hand-wrote a 3-page letter to me, and shared some of his thoughts about this bold new music that was happening. We corresponded several times, and it was a highlight of my life. It’s possible that ON LAND is, in fact, the MOST influential album of my life, it depends on how you want to measure these things. But the way this album combined many of my interests, veered sharply into unknown and haunting new sonic territory and carried with it an entire new philosophy about recorded musical art, was to change the big picture for me forever. And the time I played it on my car stereo at sunrise while driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of my entire life.

17. COCTEAU TWINS: VICTORIALAND

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

Ah, the Cocteau Twins. Their fans sigh and swoon at the mere mention of this so-called “shoegaze” band (a lousy label that some critic made famous, even though none of the dreamy sounding bands saddled with that label could stand it). You’re lucky in life if you meet friends who introduce you to some new band that goes on to really affect you, a band you might not have encountered otherwise. That was the case with my first introduction to this ethereal Scottish trio. Liz Fraser, the sublimely gifted female singer who fronted the band, sang like no one else EVER, not even singing understandable lyrics until the last years of the band. Instead, fans were treated to wailing, intoning, swooping and soaring, shiver-inducing tones and unearthly vocal bursts that were uncategorizable. With her partner at the time, Robin Guthrie, who conjured one of the most recognizable and groundbreaking painterly guitar sounds to ever come along, the Cocteau Twins (joined by bassist Simon Raymonde on most of their albums) earned in instant cult following with their visionary sonic palette. Many of their albums are now considered classics, but VICTORIALAND, a largely acoustic and sparsely played recording, has some of their most singularly beautiful moments. It’s music that is not easy to describe. In many ways, it is ambient, because Liz Fraser does not sing understandable lyrics, and the overall mood, a haunted one, is what you respond to most. The music is wintery, solemn and desolately beautiful, filled with mystery and destinations unknown. Some friends and I listened to it one day while we were all sprawled out on the floor together at a party, in a totally receptive mood. There was a sense of discovery at this time in the mid 80s that was magical, and by the time the internet came along and music like this was analyzed and discussed to death by countless pundits, some of that mystery went away. But the Cocteaus’ powerful music endures (though they disbanded in the late 90s), and Robin Guthrie is now a prominent ambient musician and soundtrack composer, continuing the awesome legacy of this pioneering band.

How it influenced me: By proving that truly wondrous music could render lyrics irrelevant, by emphasizing mystery over almost everything else, by demonstrating that a female voice could power a kind of “new form of ambient,” and by partially inspiring me to start writing my first novel, a story about a girl who worshipped this band, and happens to get embroiled in a supernatural murder mystery. Not sure if the novel will get finished or not, but if it does, I am contacting Robin Guthrie to compose the score.

18. REM: AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

This Athens, Georgia band became heroic in the ’90s for their status as one of the ultimate college bands and for helping to create the very notion of what “indie rock” meant. Michael Stipe had a unique, stylish approach to vocals (in the early days he utilized a kind of beguiling mumble), and there was something about the SOUND of these guys that was able to keep growing an audience year after year. “Losing My Religion” became their most classic song, but in 1992, they released AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, an evocative song cycle about loss, change and disillusionment. Three of my favorite themes! This was an autumnal album, one that I played constantly and featured regularly on road trips with a couple of friends. It was conceptually solid, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I reacted most to the melancholy songs like “Try Not to Breathe” (a painful song about an old person’s last moments), “Sweetness Follows” (heartbreaking song, with potent cello playing, about the aftermath of a death in a family) “Nightswimming” and a personal favorite, “Find the River.” This album made me cry a few times, and I have to mention in particular that the song “Sweetness Follows,” a truly haunting piece, was something I listened to on the fateful day I found out that a close friend, and the founder of a publication I had written for, was killed in a horrible car accident coming home from Chicago. I was on the highway the same day, maybe an hour behind her, and didn’t find out ’til the next day what happened. It was a huge, tragic event. There were many upbeat REM songs, and I had fun growing with them album after album for almost 30 years. But it was their softer, more intimate songs that ultimately affected me the most. I don’t play this album that often because it brings back some painful memories, but it definitely had an impact.

19. PETE NAMLOOK: AIR 2

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

Considering that most non-aficionados consider “ambient” to be nothing more than background music, something probably with repetitive droning or tinkly keyboards and not much variety, it’s a huge surprise to discover that there’s actually a HUGE diversity of sounds and approaches in the world of ambient releases. That topic will be discussed in depth another time on this site, but I have to include a Pete Namlook album on my list because Pete, like Eno, created an entire world of ambient releases. He launched a private German record label called Fax in the early 90s, and began releasing limited-edition recordings that became collectors items fairly quickly. The releases spanned the musical spectrum from straight ambient to stuff heavy on beats to weird experimental things to jazz stylings and beyond. Fax fans were challenged by all this and discussed Pete’s work on several key websites. One of the best pairs of ambient recordings on Fax was the first two volumes in a series called AIR. These were meant to be expansive, “ethno-ambient” projects that included instrumentation far beyond mere drones and keyboards. AIR 2, in particular, was a spectacular album. It’s hard to even describe, because it constantly changes, from hypnotic travelogue soundscape (with subtle rhythms) to breezy synth to chanted middle-eastern sounding vocals to glassy, wind chimey stuff and more. “Traveling Without Moving” is the subtitle of the work overall, but it is so filled with diversity, and so enthralling to listen to while driving, that it became a personal landmark for me. I played the entire thing in my car while driving in the mountains of Colorado one evening, with some dangerous conditions happening, and it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life. This is real musical art, raising the notion of “ambient to a much, much higher level.”

How it influenced me: By creating a bold, fascinating new vision of what ambient could be, and by allowing me to lure friends and other newbies into the ambient “fold” by providing a stellar, immersive and unforgettable listening experience.

20. RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

Radiohead took the music world by storm with this album. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was said to be an epic meditation on millennial angst and the growing encroachment of technology in our lives (with the subsequent alienation we were sure to face). I was utterly enthralled with this recording; it really did achieve some sort of pinnacle of creativity for a rock album. Having always loved high, emotive male voices, Thom Yorke’s singing on stunning tracks like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Let Down,” and “Lucky” was spine-tingling, and the arrangements (and production by Nigel Goodrich) maximized the emotional impact. I listened to this one over and over; it was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece that took me back to the days of listening to Pink Floyd, Yes and the Moody Blues when I was a teen. The underlying anxiety about the future and the ups and downs that were soon to come with the pervasiveness of the internet and other technologies, were deeply ingrained in the musical aesthetic of this record.

How it influenced me: By announcing a new candidate for “Best group in the world,” showcasing powerful new songwriting and arrangements in a neo-prog rock idiom, and reminding me clearly of the power of writing music that echoed the times and tried to make people think and feel about our fate as humans.

21. THE DOMINO KINGS: LIFE AND 20

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

This is the only Missouri album on my list, and at this writing, it is out of print, sadly. The trio of guitarist Steve Newman, upright bassist Brian Capps and drummer Les Gallier, based in Springfield, play roots music that blends barroom country and early rock and roll into a snappy, lively formula that is a genuine pleasure to listen to. But that’s not why the album is on my list. It’s here because the album came out when I was an active music journalist for a publication called NOISYPAPER, and I was assigned to review a show by the Domino Kings. I met Brian Capps and struck up a friendship with him. Just a few years later, when I saw Brian in concert again, I was about to endure one of the most painful relationship breakups of my entire life, and Brian’s songs not only served as a bit of a soundtrack for this period, they made me want to dance through the heartache. The Kings were (and still ARE) crack musicians, capable of playing the kind of alcohol-fueled, lost-at-love rave-ups that patrons have been dancing to and enjoying for years. On this album, the Capps tunes “Borrow A Lie,” “Alice” (a wickedly catchy stomper about a bad, bad woman), “Don’t Be Indifferent” and “Steppin’ Out Again” all deal with the kind of women and relationships that tear a man’s soul apart. As this happened to me at the end of 2003 and the first part of 2004, I got to hear Brian Capps perform live several times, with most of these tunes in the mix. And he was kind enough to discuss relationships with me and tell me his own stories of romantic woe. Very cathartic and significant. Additionally, the Kings’ music increased my awareness that Springfield, Missouri was a center of musical vitality. Not far in my future at this point was a deep connection and involvement in that city that would affect my own music career dramatically.

22. EPHEMERA: BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

It’s funny how one little action can end up leading to something much bigger, something you couldn’t predict. By 2002, I was working at an advertising agency, getting into the groove of internet communication and browsing, and trying to learn about new music and discover new things. I had read a few things about Norwegian music, just sort of casually, and I ended up purchasing a CD called THIS IS NORWAY on impulse. It was a compilation of Norwegian pop and rock bands, and there was a track by a band called Ephemera on there. I had never heard of them, and knew nothing about them. The song, “Last Thing,” featured several female singers offering beautiful, tight vocal harmonies, and unusually crystalline keyboards and production. It stood out, and I wanted to know more about this group. Nothing by them was available in the US, but I ordered this album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE. Lordy. It so far exceeded anything I could have expected, that it’s hard to put into words. It was like realizing your eyes have been impaired for a long time, causing you to never see certain details, and then being given a pair of stunning new glasses that brighten up the entire world, with colors, details and landscapes you were never aware of appearing vividly before you. The three women of Ephemera – Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen – are singer/songwriters of peerless, diamond-pure talent. Since I have an interview with Ingerlise pending, I’ll save most of my thoughts for that piece. But I was bowled over by this magical trio from the start, and they are one of my absolute favorite musical groups in the world. On BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, tracks such as “Act,” “Air,” “Bye” and the title track are such heartbreakingly beautiful, with emotive, delicate singing and a level of purity that I had almost never heard on an American record. I love literally every song this band has recorded, and I came to the conclusion early on that they don’t really know how good they are. They are some kind of magical musical goddesses that simply do what they do, and trust that some people will like it. Ephemera opened up a new world to me, the world of Scandinavian pop music, which I would, within a year, be writing about regularly for a couple of different publications. They actually changed the way I LISTEN to music, because after absorbing the beauty of their vocals and the genius production techinques of their producer, Yngve Saetre, I could no longer respond the same way to typical American pop records. Here’s how passionately in love I am with Ephemera’s music. If there was a fire or a coming tornado, and I could only save a limited number of CDs from my collection, I’d grab an armful of ambient CDs and then use my other hand to grab my small stack of Ephemera CDs. They have been a HUGE, huge influence, and when I became a musician, I kept their intimate vocals in mind at all times as I advanced in my own career.

23. DANIELSON FAMILE: TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL' CHOPPIN' BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

I never, never found so-called “Christian groups” musically interesting; the vast majority of what I heard in that vein seemed like the most shallow, over-reverent, musically insipid crap I could imagine. Nothing against Christianity, only something against boring music. But Lord God almighty! The Danielsons changed that in a big way. It is, of course, not cool or even accurate to call them a “Christian” band. In fact, they are so weird and arty that their first label, a Christian one called Tooth and Nail, dropped them after one album. Instead, Daniel Smith, the composer and frontman for this band along with a rotating cast of family members and friends, began to attract a following from the fringes of indie rock and outsider music. Smith has a very, very high voice, and he makes it even higher by singing one of the highest falsettos in the history of pop music. It is showcased on several tracks on this amazing, visionary album. But the entire album is notable for the focused PASSION on display, the extremely original songwriting, and the sense of communal empathy that pours from the whole thing. Less important than the Christianity of the band is their deep, poignant humanity and concern for the well-being of everyone, meaning every single listener. They really don’t PREACH per se, they simply share their souls, and they do it with powerful music that ranges from Beatles to Beefheart in influence. I’ve tried to share Danielson music with various friends, and it is honestly too much for a lot of them. When Smith ascends to that remarkable falsetto and starts ranting about something in the modern world, it results in a singular, aggressively original sound that is not meant for all. But the humanity and intensity of this album is undeniably hypnotic, emotional and yes, quite beautiful. Some of their later albums, although I like all of them, are at times spotty. But TELL ANOTHER JOKE… is a masterpiece to me.

How it influenced me: By demonstrating that religious themes on an album can be musically riveting, that the subject of confessed vulnerability (one of my favorites) is worth examining, and that weirdness and focused passion are absolutely compatible bedfellows, something I have kept in mind ever since.

24. LISA GERMANO: LULLABYE FOR LIQUID PIG

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

I decided to include this one among some of the final “candidates” for this list because it was a crystal-clear example of a dark, depressing album being cathartic at a time when I was lost. The very offbeat, non-commercial style of Ms Germano is an acquired taste, but fans of originality and darker artsy/folksy stuff can find a lot to love in her work. LULLABYE… was released to little fanfare late in 2003, right as I was breaking up with a girl named Star in an unexpected manner. I went into a downward spiral for a time, and this record is about just that, a downward spiral. Although I’d found other dark, sad albums in the past to be compelling, such as stuff by Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joy Division and others, Lisa Germano really let her worst fears and sorrows hang out, and the album was willfully uncommercial. Yet it had a lot of fragile beauty on it. There were some verses, and eerie sounds (inspired by struggles with alcoholism, reportedly) on this album that could absolutely get under your skin. One verse that almost brought me to tears, was “Without you here/Without your love/The world’s just THERE/It doesn’t move me.” The songs are generally short, and Ms Germano really sounds like she is fighting off a breakdown, which oughta sound familiar to anyone who has suddenly lost their love, or found themselves on the wrong end of a battle with substance abuse. This is not a fun album, but I’ll never forget how it provided therapy and catharsis during a pretty rotten four month stretch for me.

25. In order for this list to have a sense of “completeness” for me, I have to put FILM SOUNDTRACKS

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

for the final slot. I don’t mean loose collections of songs, I mean orchestral scores. I grew up with film music and I love it, and my brother is one of the most knowledgeable film soundtrack buffs in the country; he writes a column about it. Film music has been described as the “first cousin” of ambient music; it’s generally instrumental, generally evocative and mood-setting, and able to be created in many different musical idioms. Watching movies and TV shows all my life, I have to say that I always noticed the music, and the mood-enhancing nature of movie music got deeply into my psyche. When I write songs now, there is always part of me that hopes to capture something subtly cinematic. There are tons of soundtracks in my collection, but to round out this list of influences, I will pick three different ones: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score for the classic Gregory Peck movie (with a main theme that everyone loves and remembers); DANCES WITH WOLVES, a rapturous, Western-themed score by John Barry that covers as much terrain as the epic film itself does, and NEVER CRY WOLF, by the prolific Mark Isham, whose 1983 score was one of the first ambient soundtracks ever. Isham stated in interviews that he was influenced by Brian Eno, so… it figures I could identify with his movie work!

TEN OTHER INFLUENTIAL RECORDINGS THAT MISSED OUT ON THE MAIN LIST:

NEIL YOUNG: ZUMA… THE WHO: TOMMY… MIKE OLDFIELD: OMMADAWN… XTC: ENGLISH SETTLEMENT… THE SAMPLES: NO ROOM… THE RESIDENTS: NOT AVAILABLE… PHILIP GLASS: GLASSWORKS… HAROLD BUDD AND BRIAN ENO: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR… MUM: FINALLY WE ARE NO ONE… PINK FLOYD: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION:

ROBYNN RAGLAND: MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

Although it didn’t feel right to place this on the main list of 25, I need to include Robynn Ragland’s record because, first of all, it was one of the most well-written and well-produced collections of songs by a local artist during my early years as a writer, first for NOISYPAPER, and then for PLAYBACK STL and fLUSH. Appreciating artists in Saint Louis wasn’t always easy, but Robynn made it a cinch. Her true significance for me was that we became close friends, and she really encouraged me with my own writing and creative pursuits. And in a twist that neither of us could have foreseen, when I had my surprising success with the UP IN THE AIR song, Robynn became my manager for a few years. She was singularly responsible for my spectacular trip to Japan to promote the movie, and I could hardly forget something like that!