THE DOMINO KINGS: THE DOMINO KINGS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019)

If you have followed the music scene in Springfield, Missouri even casually for the past twenty years, you probably know who the Domino Kings are. Steve Newman, Les Gallier and Brian Capps are absolute stalwarts in the music community in this distinguished Ozark burgh; on every other weekend, one or more of them are probably playing somewhere (all three perform in multiple combos). And, when the legendary Lou Whitney was still alive, manning the controls at “The Studio,” the famed downtown recording site, these guys and their many associates would be in and out for music-making duties with regularity. At the turn of the millennium, the DKs released two punchy, well-received recordings – LONESOME HIGHWAY and LIFE AND 20, signed at the time to Slewfoot Records. Capps left the band after that second disc, but Newman and Gallier carried on with two more mostly decent records. Then Slewfoot went away and so did the music industry as most of us knew it. The three musicians still turned up at each other’s shows periodically, and once in a while there were even Domino Kings listings on the local calendar. But there was no particular reason to think there would be another DKs record, especially with all three original members as a focused unit. They had no label, they had widely varying schedules, and Springfield’s most famed studio went away not long after Lou Whitney’s death from cancer in 2014.

THE DOMINO KINGS, circa 2000 (Brian Capps, Steve Newman, Les Gallier) (uncredited photo)

Ah, but here’s the thing that casual fans couldn’t have known. In 2011, before Whitney died, he got the boys into the studio for another go-round. Yes, the original trio. A record was made, we heard, but then… silence. The great and powerful Lou got sicker and sicker and headed for that never-ending music festival in the sky. There was a feeling that the motivation to put out the new record wasn’t really there. I know, ‘cause I tried to ask the band about it a few times. It was in the category of “shelved,” it seemed. And, whatcha gonna do if ya ain’t got no label? Happily, we finally have that answer: PUT IT OUT YOURSELVES. This self-titled fifth album is now available, and it’s a corker. If you’re a longtime fan, you’ll definitely be smiling at the rollicking sounds on this new, Whitney-produced tunefest. “A nice surprise” is a good way to sum it up.

,  The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

THE DOMINO KINGS is an uncommonly democratic affair: Four songs penned by each musician, plus a short group instrumental at the end. There’s a palpable atmosphere of cooperation, and a consistent groove that just won’t quit. Newman, the trio’s truly stellar guitarist, offers up absolutely RIGHT-sounding tunes such as “The Only Thing She Left” and “Nobody Knows,” tunes that won’t leave once they lodge themselves in your brain. The influence of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard among others lurks in the background, but Newman’s songs have a casual truthfulness about the head-scratching nature of chasing love that rings clear and true. His best here is perhaps “2nd Luckiest Guy,” which is a foot-tapping, melodic number that documents the angst of having lost your gal to another, watching HIM take the prize love thang that you blew it with. The tune does this with about as much wit and musical verve as any song I’ve heard lately. I wrote in my notes that “the scenarios these guys write about are truly relatable for most of us guys.” And you have to tip your hat to the flawless arrangements of songs like this, as well as Newman’s vibrant guitar playing. At THAT, there is no fear of him coming in second. “How Does Gone Feel?” is a smidge lesser of a tune overall, but still kickin’.

THE DOMINO KINGS, 2015 (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: STEVEN SPENCER/SPRINGFIELD NEWS-LEADER)

I’ve always been a fan of Les Gallier’s approach to songcraft; the word “pretension” is not in his vocabulary, and he’s a tremendous hooksmith. His raucous number “Another Drunken Fool” is a gritty little hard Rockabilly tune that has an admirable toughness about it, possibly masking some real bitterness – the kind of thing listeners can ponder privately. Imagining this one coming together at the studio makes me smile. The band is having FUN here, undoubtedly. But even better are “Can’t Be Too Much Longer” and “Some Kinda Power,” easily two of this album’s best songs. The former makes plain the impatience of waiting for new love when a couple of situations ended badly, and it does so with sterling songwriting and the whole band laying down an awesome guitar-driven groove. Oh, and by the way, Gallier is a fantastic drummer; his style has been referred to as the Tulsa shuffle, but no matter what you call it, it makes an impression and always sounds like a master enjoying every minute of his work. “Some Kinda Power” is big-time Rock ‘n’ Roll in the service of pondering what it is that women do to men to make them wig out. “I can open up your tight jar/And I can fetch your little car/I can answer your every call/You can make me do it all/Cause you hold some kind of power over me… you hold the power like a freight train/Every time I lose you gain/You hold the power that stops my go/Every time you tell me NO,” the lyrics relate. The band is simply firing on all cylinders here, with superb Newman guitar work and Mister Gallier singing the living crap outta this number. Marvelous stuff.

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

As for Brian Capps, primarily known as the band’s standup bass maestro, he has proven his chops as a solo artist, with the Kings, with the commercial stint he did for some years with “Branson on the Road,” and in his current incarnation as half of The Widowmakers (with Cliff Boone), serving up classic Country and early Rock and Roll, show after show. Capps’ vocalizing on the first two Kings’ recordings was some of the best in the genre, and gems such as “Two Nights Without Sleeping” and, especially, “Alice” were definitive examples of angst-ridden existential hard Country. That latter tune is permanently in my “Liquor-fueled rockers about pain caused by manipulative women” Hall of Fame. It is literally a perfect example of a miserable real-life scenario being turned into life-affirming bar-room sonics. Although the songs here aren’t quite as transcendent, “I Don’t Want To Forget” and “Devil’s Den” come close, with insight and self-awareness beyond the ability of most songwriters. These songs deserve to be covered widely, and “Devil’s Den,” which Capps recorded in a very different version on an early solo album, gets a just as fetching take here with the Kings crowning it musically. Awesome stuff. And it’s a delight that “Saturday Night is New Year’s Eve,” a song I’ve heard in several versions, really hits its stride with the Domino Kings doing it up proud here; the energy feels right, which wasn’t quite the case in at least one prior version.

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

Some songs on this album feel LIVE all the way, Gallier’s “Would You Let Me Be Your Man” being perhaps the best example, and Capps’ “I Don’t Want to Forget” close behind. There is no muss, no fuss overall. Spontaneity and pure GRIT dominate the atmosphere, and Whitney clearly was not interested in polishing anything too much in the studio. LIFE AND 20 may have been a bigger, more attentive production, but there is a raw feel to the proceedings here that serves the sound of the Domino Kings quite well. This is a fun, energetic platter. The concluding instrumental, “Thrown Clear” is a zippy little energy burst that puts the topping on the freewheelin’ atmosphere displayed throughout the recording. They can play fast, these guys, and this song shows it, although the whole album moves at a brisk tempo… no filler at all. It is worth stating clearly that Newman, Gallier and Capps are all veterans at the art of traditional, rootsy American songcraft, with the ability to construct hooky tunes in a familiar musical milieu around simple, often wryly humorous but always universal lyrics about man’s favorite pastime (which doesn’t always produce the desired romantic results). If there’s an art to pairing upbeat arrangements with sometimes sad or restless themes, these guys have mastered it. The music of this band soundtracks a simpler world: Where men chase after women, women decide whether they want to be caught or not, bars are always at least half full, and musicians gigging in the corner always know at least half the greatest Country and Rock and Roll songs ever written and are skilled at getting the patrons out on the dance floor, ready for another shot after that. This world is reassuring, timeless and full of promise and enthusiasm. Just like this kick-ass trio themselves.

(Not available in stores but you can order the Domino Kings recording by sending check or money order made out to “Domino Kings” for $10, to Domino Kings, c/o Brian Capps, PO Box 612, Lebanon, MO 65536)


THE APRIL FOOLS: THIRD; MICHAEL OWENS: THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY

(BLACKBERRY WAY RECORDS; 2019)

In the past, whenever I got bogged down with too many records to listen to and review, I would lump a lot of like-minded releases (straight-ahead rock, Jazz, Country, compilations,,, whatever) together, giving each a nice little paragraph (or more, depending on how many I had to write about… I remember doing something like fourteen Punk records in the course of one review) about each. I still do that occasionally, when it makes sense to do so; this one is a no-brainer: Michael Owens produced both releases, Fools Brian Drake and Terri Owens do some backing vocals on THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY, both records were released by Michael’s Blackberry Way Records on the same day. It really wasn’t my intention to review them together, but the final piece seemed to fall into place when the Owens record showed up at my door in the same package as THIRD. The die, as the saying goes, was cast.

THE APRIL FOOLS (Scott Hreha, Brad McLemore, Terri Owens, Brian Drake, Ben Kaplan) (photo credit: ERIN DRAKE)

The April Fools’ third release (thus the name of the record) features a retooled band, having lost guitarist Clay Williams, whom, I assume, has gone on to greener pastures. Williams was replaced by two musicians, guitarists Brad McLemore and the aforementioned Terri Owens. The result made the original quartet’s tight sound even tighter as a quintet. This is borne out on the opening track, “Bell of Stone,” a sort of updated psychedelic Americana. Vocalist Brian Drake has a rather world-weary rasp that is immediately the crowning glory of this song and album, somewhere between Bob Seger and a young Levon Helm. The guitars (by McLemore, Owens and Drake) seem to shimmer and there’s an undeniable sting and bite to the solo. Ben Kaplan offers up some solid drumming and an insistent, melodic bass line by Scott Hreha gives the whole thing a certain buoyancy that is not unappealing. “Long Shadows” is a tune that reminds me of both the Band (musically) and the Dead (vocally). It’s a slow ballady sort of thing that highlights the group’s four part harmonies. The piece borders on overstaying its welcome, but seems to end at just the right moment. Graham Gouldman’s (by way of the Hollies) “Bus Stop” is a shimmering piece of Pop history that gets a fairly faithful retelling here. The guitars may be a bit more urgent and Terri Owens’ mandolin adds a new flavor, weaving in and out of the mix, just under Drake’s pleasantly gruff delivery. For some reason, the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” comes to mind listening to “Shaky Ground.” Could be the wah-wah guitar and utterly haze-inducing solo; maybe it’s the swirling vocals that are brilliantly scattershot, alternately overlapping each other, then complimenting the rest with a great harmony part. Owens is a lady that certainly knows how to write a great ‘60s acid burn of a tune! “If I Can’t Make Her Happy” is sort of a throwback to those star-crossed tragic lover songs from the late ‘50s, all gussied up with a new millenial sheen, and highlighted by some really pretty guitar work and backing vocals.

The Fools put a nice gloss on Dylan’s classic “My Back Pages.” This version features finely understated vocals and a Byrdsian approach to the instrumentation that has always worked so well on the Zim’s music. There’s more of the brilliant guitar solos that we’ve come to expect from this band, with the rhythm section highlighting their ample abilities with a great Hreha bass line and a solid backbeat and fills from Kaplan on drums. Terri Owens takes on the vocal duties for “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast,” a slow-burning rocker written by Julie Anne Miller (originally recorded for the BUDDY AND JULIE MILLER album in 2001 by, well… Buddy and Julie Miller). The track features killer guitar throughout, as another awesome solo rides the cut into the fade. “Summer Sun (Redux)” has a slightly psychedelic Blues groove, a distinct highlight of this remake from the Fools’ first album. I know I’m sounding like a broken record by this time but… again, great guitar, both straight and effects-laden. Scott’s rumbling bass, Ben’s spot-on drumming and an idling organ part from guest Glenn Manske (of which we’ll hear more later) add to the lazy feel of the song, the musical equivalence of the lethargic feeling brought on by the summer sun. Closing out the record is “15 Minutes.” It’s a Country-flavored tune that features a brilliant bass part that could very easily have appeared on an album by the Jam or Elvis (the important one, not the dead fat guy). With a dobro and Terri’s mandolin filtering through the swampy miasma of the instrumentation, the drums offer a lot to enjoy just under the current. The backing vocals are a nice counter to Brian’s gruff voice. As an introduction to what’s happening in the Minneapolis music scene today, you can definitely do worse than the April Fools’ THIRD.

MICHAEL OWENS (photo credit: LARRY HUTCHINSON)

Cementing the connection between the Minneapolis of the Replacements, Prince and Husker Du is producer/recording studio owner/record company owner/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist (and probably another string of slash marks that I’m missing) Michael Owens. Owens’ latest record, THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY, is fourteen tracks (and one bonus cut from a reunited Fingerprints, Michael’s late ‘70s band) that is as varied as the scene that spawned that first major wave of the “Minneapolis sound,” as well as Michael’s own Blackberry Way Studio and the record company that shares that name. The first track, “Comic Book Creep,” features some awesome boogie with a little bit of woogie thrown in for good measure. Owens has a pleasing, better than average voice; there’s some very nice guitar leads and solo from guest artist Curtiss A and Owens himself and excellent piano from Glenn Manske, who plays a major role on this record. “A Song For You” switches gears from a rockin’ Blues to a slow, tragic type of girl group sort of song that features strong backing vocals (as such songs require) from Robert Langhorst and Terri Owens. Also on display is an echoey, reverb-drenched solo and another strong piano part from Glenn. Sounding very much like vintage Monkees, “60 Cycle Rumble” sees Michael delivering an over-the-top vocal performance that reminds me of a younger, still-alive Wolfman Jack. Manske’s organ and outstanding guitar work from Owens make the Pre-Fab Four comparison even more relevant. As the name implies, “Used Blues” is a slow Blues that falls somewhere between Stevie Ray and Michael Buble on the Blues authenticity scale. Owens former Fingerprints bandmate, Robb Henry, offers up some solid lead work and a soulful solo. “Without Sin” sounds a little like “Minnesota boy does the Eagles” during the intro.Thankfully, it morphs into another slow-burn number with a strong Bill Grenke bassline. I kept waiting for a child’s voice to say “Mommy, where’s Daddy?” during the breaks leading into the guitar solos and, of course, anything that elicits memories of the Coopers ranks very high on my list. However, the cut, at more than seven minutes, does tend to drag on; thankfully, though, it doesn’t overstay its welcome by much. Up next is “Old Man Joad,” a kind of jangly Byrds-cum-Tom-Petty thing, only without the jangle. Continuing a nice little theme here, the number features some nifty lead and backing vocals, more solid bass from Grenke and a killer guitar melody throughout. In a different time, this one coulda been a hit at AOR, Adult Contemporary or Country radio. Unfortunately, as radio has become ever more genre-centric, it’s unlikely that today’s programmers could figure out what to do with such a great song! “Chase the Rain” is yet another slow tune with some nice guitar. Grenke continues to impress on bass as does Manske with some more great organ work. I guess the title comes from the sounds of falling rain at the beginning and end of the track.

“Falling” is not a cover of the Tom Petty song; this one has more of an Alternative Celtic feel to it (if that makes any kind of sense). The Celtic vibe is enhanced with Manske adding strings and flutes to his solid piano playing, while Kevin Glynn (another refugee from Fingerprints) adds a little added thump to Owens’ programmed drums with some live tom toms. The vocals blend into the hazy mist of the musical backdrop, leaving the listener with a gooey warm feeling somewhere around the heart. A short little ditty called “Over the Moon” follows. With a jaunty, bouncy feel, it’s simply a fun love song, evoking the feeling the name conjures in one’s mind. Gifted with one of the best song titles ever, “Just Got Over Being Hungover,” has a melody that puts me in mind of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help.” The cut is loaded with an abundance of honky-tonk piano, organ accents and lots of guitars doing guitary things. “You Can’t Get In” is a frantic little piece of Swamp Punk, with Glynn offering some percussive help while a weird Replacements vibe permeates the whole 1:48. Some cool backwards guitar and massive riffage courtesy of Robb Henry informs “High Price Shoes,” a Beatlesy piece of Pop fluff. Not surprisingly, the piece features more heavy lifting from Glenn on organ and Bill on bass. All of the above makes this one a current album favorite. “Hole In Your Pocket” is another tune that sounds vaguely familiar (Minnesota’s favorite sons, Bob Dylan meets Prince maybe?), with a tinkling piano coda and a vocal mostly buried in the mix to good effect. The sing-songy partially spoken lead vocals definitely gives rise to Dylan comparisons. The lyrical coda, “I know there’s magic out there,” isn’t indicative of this song, but… if the lyrics fit, right? There’s a slight echo on the vocals on “The Last Thing,” adding a bit of a dreamy feel to another strong offering.Again, the cut features strong organ, bass and guitar leads and solo; the backing vocals are nice, as well, with Brian Drake joining Robert Langhorst and Terri Owens for this one. A bonus track, “14 South 5th Street Blues,” features four fifths of Fingerprints (bassist Steve Fjelstad was missing from the recording/performance with Michael taking over those duties). The song, featured in the documentary, JAY’S LONGHORN, is an ode to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Minneapolis scene’s venue of choice, the title derived from the address of the legendary club. Besides Owens on bass and guitar, the other featured Fingerprints are lead vocalist Mark Throne, the previously introduced Robb Henry on lead guitar and Kevin Glynn moving to an ancillary percussionist role due to Owens’ very organic-sounding drum programming. The quartet are augmented by former Figures guitarist Jeff Waryan on slide, Chris Osgood of the Suicide Commandos on additional lead guitar, the legendary Curtiss A on harmonica and the by-now ubiquitous Glenn Marske on piano. The rollicking paean to past triumphs is a fitting close to solid release from a man who should be a household name outside of the relatively small Minneapolis region.


NEIL YOUNG/JOHN HAMMOND

(June 28, 2018; FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

A chance to see Neil Young solo is rare indeed, and Saint Louis fans have not had that opportunity for many years. As a lifelong fan, there was no way I would pass up such an opportunity. I’ve seen Neil with Crazy Horse, with CSNY, with the International Harvesters, with the Stray Gators and more, but the solo acoustic concerts have certainly been among the most memorable. When I flew to San Francisco in 1978 to see Neil at the tiny Boarding House nightclub, that may well have been the most stunning concert I’ve ever seen. So, to say I was stoked for this rare Saint Louis solo show would be an understatement. John Hammond, a grizzled old blues rocker, opened the show despite not being billed. Favoring a bottleneck guitar and looking as craggy as an old oak tree, Hammond was amiable and interesting, but there was some restlessness getting through his set. And it was at least 45 minutes after he finished before Neil finally came out. Dressed all in black, a la Johnny Cash, Neil looked around, waved to the crowd, and finally took his seat. He opened with the nostalgic and totally appropriate Buffalo Springfield-era classic “On the Way Home.” This song speaks volumes to die-hard Rusties, and Neil delivered it with focus and clarity. In fact, it was quickly apparent he was in great voice tonight. At his age, it’s a wonder he can still reach most of those high notes. “Homefires” was next, the first of many surprises. That song was intended for the unreleased HARVEST follow-up, HOMEGROWN, and I couldn’t help but think it was kind of a comment on Neil’s changed love life in the last two years. “I’m free to give my love/But you’re not the one I’m thinking of/So for me, the wheels keep turning/Got to keep those homefires burning.” His ex-wife Pegi might have been the one Young was NOT thinking of. He is certainly thinking about new gal Darryl Hannah, and plenty.

NEIL YOUNG (photo credit: THRASHER)

“Love is a Rose” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ came next, and the latter was a special treat for me. I could not remember hearing that one at a Neil show before, and it was charming. Neil told little anecdotes about many things during the show. He pointed to several guitars and with a couple of them said, “I got that one from Steve Stills. He’s a great guy.” In fact, it soon became apparent that Neil was in an especially chatty mood. This is not typical for him at all. “I feel like I’m talking too much up here,” he remarked at one point. “Like I’m doin’ a job interview or something.” “You’re HIRED!” someone bellowed from the audience, and it was a memorable moment. Young fiddled with his harmonicas, telling his assistant he needed a “C harp.” But when he started the song, he quickly stopped and said, “No, I need a B flat harp!” That song was “Mellow My Mind,” one of three he performed from TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT. He told the story of how he and his band had all drunk alot of tequila and gotten into a certain mood, so they could pay tribute to Bruce Berry and others who had died around that time. Neil played great, ringing piano on that song and “Speakin’ Out,” another tune I had never heard him do. The audience went nuts when he talked about a time in his career when he changed the type of songs he was writing, and how the Kent State massacre drove him to write about a new ill wind blowing in. He then performed “Ohio” on solo electric guitar, a truly compelling and unexpected moment, one the sold-out throng reveled in. His only hint about the times we’re living in came when he talked about school shootings and all the “anger” out there, leading to the fiery song “Angry World.” Some of us thought he might bring up our current president, but that did not happen. It was clear that Neil was NOT speaking from a script; spontaneity was the rule of the night.

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

For me, after Neil talked about where two of his pianos came from (one had fire damage and he was still able to play it), I was thrilled to hear “There’s a World,” possibly one of his most underrated songs. It’s a dreamlike ode to looking both inward and outward, and Neil played it with great delicacy. That was one of about five songs he played from his most popular album, HARVEST. “Are You Ready For the Country,” a note perfect “Out On the Weekend” and “Heart of Gold” were others. “Love In Mind,” a tender ode from the “ditch-trilogy” live album TIME FADES AWAY, also got an airing… wonderfully evocative. But for hardcore Neil-ites and “Rusties,” the one-two punch of “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” from the not often heralded LENOISE album, were the emotional peak of the show. Both these songs touch on violence, things being out of control, and environmental apocalypse, with love being seen as the one necessity for all of us, the ultimate way to peace. The guitar Neil played on that latter song allows for a certain rich, atmospheric resonance in the simple strumming of a powerful chord. The edgy sound, which potently rang through the entire theatre, accented Neil’s existential lyrics perfectly. “A polar bear was drifting on an ice floe/Sun beating down from the sky/Politicians gathered for a summit/And came away with nothing to decide… Who’ll be the one to lead this world/Who’ll be the beacon in the night?” Most in the audience sat in hushed awe.

Unfortunately, that did NOT include a chowderheaded idiot across the aisle from me, who simply could not shut up. He drew a few complaints with that, but when he stood directly in front of the people behind him and blocked their view, that’s when it got serious. The addle-brained druggie (I was sure he had to be; no one could be that rude just naturally, could they?) earned two visits from ushers, but even that didn’t do it. When he continued to jabber, the guy behind him had enough and probably called him a name. The two men stood up, and I was about to witness a fight, I thought. Right here during Neil’s apt song “Love and War”! The good guy’s girlfriend intervened to stop the violence, instead opting to go for security. They did, and the troublemaker was unceremoniously removed by Security. Maybe it’s just me, but if I paid $100 for a Neil Young ticket (or even more), I would not get so fucked up that I would lose all sense of decorum and risk getting escorted out of the show prematurely. Takes all kinds, I guess.

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

Neil appeared to not be phased by shouted requests or various fan comments. “What d’ya mean?” he said wryly, when someone shouted “Old Man!” And he remarked “It doesn’t even register” after another comment. It was striking to see this iconic, charismatic legend stalking the stage, walking this way and that way, looking as if he was making it up on the fly. “I would do something if I could remember what I was just thinking,” I believe he said near the end. The show barely grazed the 90-minute mark. He closed with “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Heart of Gold,” and was coaxed out for a single encore, “Tumbleweed,” which he played on ukelele. The tender song was clearly directed at Darryl Hannah, a sweet ode to her positive influence on him (it appears on the soundtrack to their new movie, PARADOX). Always leave ’em wanting more, it is said. Mister Young did just that; the fans were yelling until the lights went on. Altogether an eccentric, often dramatic and mostly moving performance by a performer who is seldom less than mesmerizing. I counted in my head, and with all the configurations I’ve seen him in, I think this was Neil show number 25 for me. Many moments from this one will stay with me. That’s how it tends to be with Neil Young shows.


ADRIAN AARDVARK: DYING OPTIMISTICALLY

(EPIFO MUSIC; 2018)

Upon first seeing the name, Adrian Aardvark seemed to me a devouring angel, an agent of the bleakest of Black Metals. Nah… just kidding. In fact, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album but, I gotta say, it isn’t at all like anything else I’ve heard before… not even close! I mean, it looks and smells like a rock and roll record, spliced with a fair amount of Americana and not a little bit of angst. Even so, my initial thoughts were leaning toward “Ah! Someone’s rich father has bought studio time for his son and his friends to record an album. Kinda like the Shags, woefully untalented but determined to become a band.” After a couple of songs, however, I began to warm up to, even appreciate, what this motley crew were attempting to convey. Oddly enough, while researching the band for this piece, I was amazed to discover that DYING OPTIMISTICALLY is the group’s seventh release since 2008 (and the first since BONES POSITIVE, an EP released in 2014)! I cannot honestly conceive of how I could have missed anything for the last ten years called Adrian Aardvark, though I am now old enough that such things do escape me upon occasion. Anyway, on to the review…

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee) (photo credit: JERRY CADIEUX)

The first thing that you notice on “Just Us” is alluded to in rather veiled terms up above: Everything (wait… make that EVERYTHING) seems woefully out of tune, with the singer, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, sounding alarmingly like a drunken karaoke enthusiast. Somewhere around the two minute mark, things almost come together, as a fuzzy bass (or, is it a cello?), insistent drumming and the scraping of a violin keep the thing from totally going over the cliff. Bonus points for – unlike the short prelude/introduction/tune-up that starts the song off – everything ending together. “If Only” definitely sounds like a drunken lament to a litany of “what if’s” in a relationship gone very wrong. Stott-Rigsbee lists his transgressions before admitting, “Yes, I am ashamed of my insecurities/Yes, I am ashamed of my stupid feelings.” Here, the music kinda sounds more in tune and of one mind, occupying a certain feedback/drone frequency that is not unappealing. In fact, the discordant buzz of the whole mess is really starting to grow on me. The cello takes a more prominent spot on “Peace In a Loving Way,” with Shannon Stott-Rigsbee droning away masterfully. The lyrics seem as though they are wedged into a melody that is simply too small to adequately contain them; try, for instance, to fit the first verse into any standard rock format without breaking your tongue: “Through updates, versions and brand new postages/The letters inside remain the same as they travel to/You through signals unseen, speaking words/Floating like waves whisper your way.” It ain’t easy. Even so, at less than two-and-a-half minutes, it feels like you’re in and out almost before you realize that the sound – and, in fact, the entire record – is actually becoming, not only palatable but, begrudgingly enjoyable, as well. The bizarrely-titled “Young Pharaohs and Horses” comes with an equally bizarre video… as it should! Drummer Daz Bard adds a bit of trombone to the proceedings, with Shannon chiming in with a scratchy (whinnying?) violin part; the weird, out-of-place gang vocals, like just about everything else on this album, are no doubt added to merely muddle the lyrical issue. Four songs in and Christopher is starting to come across as more of a true musical genius, as opposed to the offspring of a wealthy Daddy Warbucks type bankrolling his kid’s musical aspirations. “I Don’t Wanna Love No More” is a step back for me. It isn’t necessarily that the sentiments aren’t spot-on in a society of individuals struggling to find their place but, the acapella (aside from three drum rolls somewhere in the middle) delivery – impassioned as it is – just doesn’t do it for me. “Little Girl,” however, is a completely different beast. Despite some rather questionable lyrics: “I am a little girl in a big big world/My dress so clean and my hair is curled” and “Don’t you want to ride with me/Don’t you want to sleep with me” (allusions to Christopher Stott-Rigsbee’s… uh… fluid sexual identity, I know, but… still… ), this is the most fully realized, hardest rocking and most in-tune song so far. A throbbing bass line (Catherine Harrison-Wurster… on the upright, no less) and a frantic vocal performance from Christopher highlight the number.

Creaky Wooden Floor” opens the second half – continuing the strong showing from “Little Girl” – with more weird metaphorical (metaphysical?) lyrics about beets and elephants. The song is pretty nifty, in a New Country kind of way and is delivered, like the previous four tracks, in a short, punk rock fashion. On “Get Gotten,” a chunky guitar riff rides along for a spell before being joined by a very nice violin part; the unmelodic, unnerving howls of Stott-Rigsbee deliver quite an impressive effect. Somewhere about two minutes in, the whole thing shifts gears amidst a beautifully shambolic break before completely collapsing in upon itself at the end. I may have just crowned a new favorite track! There is an insistent hint of didgeridoo (a masterfully understated performance by Christopher) throughout “Horny Wildebeast,” which seems perfectly natural given the song’s title. After a rather rambunctious start, the final four minutes or so seem to settle into a nice mid-tempo with – dare I say? – quietly elegant violin and cello dancing over the top. “Oo Ra Ra” and “The Sun” form a sort of intermingled couplet, with melody, choruses and chanting kinda running through the two-as-one pieces (or, piece, as the case may be). The former is a surprisingly melodic bit of falderol with lyrics somehow befitting the proceedings, such as “Put down the knife, we don’t have to fight/We can make love till morning’s light.” The number eventually devolves into the type of musical chants that the “natives” in all of those old Johnny Weissmuller movies are so fond of. “The Sun” blasts forth from that, a forceful, blistering piece of noise of the type I find so appealing. The lyrics here tend to lean toward a rather cogent warning from everybody’s favorite ball of light: “Feel my heat/Feel the cancer/You can’t be given life/Without being given death.” Oh, Sun, you’re such a kidder! A cool, unexpected blast of the Blues, filtered through various other styles of what has generally become known as “Americana” may, at a mere five-and-a-quarter minutes, prove “Misery Shaker” to be Adrian Aardvark’s magnum opus. Time changes and style shifts glide together seamlessly, held together by the superior percussive efforts of Daz Bird.

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee) (uncredited photo)

As mentioned at the outset, I was totally unprepared for the musical onslaught of Adrian Aardvark and was, initially, taken aback by the complete atonality of the first track but… I must say that I have been richly rewarded by sticking with the program, seeing it through to its brilliant climax. Heck, I may just have to revisit the group’s Bandcamp page and listen to their other releases… after I’ve rested up a bit from this DYING OPTIMISTICALLY experience.


THE QUEBE SISTERS/TOMMY HALLORAN

(February 17, 2016; THE BALLROOM AT THE SHELDON CONCERT HALL, Saint Louis MO)

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I have long heard great things about the Sheldon Concert Hall but, though I have visited the venue in a sales capacity when I worked at WDLJ radio, I have never been to a show there. Needless to say, I was stoked for this one… not only would I have the pleasure of witnessing the amazing fiddling acumen of the three Quebe Sisters but, I would finally see a show at what has often been referred to as the “most acoustically perfect” room in the Midwest. Initially, I was brought low once I realized that the show was scheduled for another room at the Sheldon complex, the Ballroom located on the fourth floor. To call the Ballroom intimate is a bit of an understatement (the room is slightly larger than Off Broadway); the top floor location, high ceilings and general layout of the room concerned me: Would the acoustics be an issue here? Once the music started, however, all fears were laid aside, as the sound was phenomenal throughout the night.

Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Local Jazz and Blues artiste Tommy Halloran left his combo – the exquisitely titled Guerrilla Swing – at home but, he wasn’t alone… he brought violin player Abbie Steiling along to keep him company. The duo worked their way through a set of mostly original material, primarily from Halloran and the Guerrilla’s 2014 offering, UNDER THE CATALPA TREES, stopping along the way for offerings from Irving Berlin (the opening number, “My Walking Stick,” originally performed by Ethel Merman in 1938; other memorable versions were by Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers) and Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter (“Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” performed by Armstrong and Billie Holiday in the 1947 movie NEW ORLEANS). Tommy is a dabbler; he dabbles in a variety of styles, everything from Hot Jazz to Texas Swing to a form of jazzy Blues that is inherently Saint Louis in nature. Halloran has a supple, pleasant voice with just a hint of rasp on the uptempo tunes, like the… uh… highly-caffeinated “Caffeine.” His facial expressions, general demeanor and vocal phrasing bring to mind both Tom Waits and the incomparable Leon Redbone; his physical appearance and style of dress brings the term “disheveled gentleman chic” to mind. The more “love song” ballady numbers, like “Under the Catalpa Trees” and “Gardenias For Rita” highlighted Ms Steiling’s subtle, almost fragile violin work, as well as Tommy’s playful rhythm guitar; but, don’t think the pair incapable of kicking up a bit of the proverbial dust, if the tune called for it, as on “My Favorite Sin.” Even though this was my first exposure to Tommy Halloran, his is a familiar name in Saint Louis music circles. I can now understand the reverence with which many speak his name… I was left wanting more and would certainly relish the chance to hear a full-band dissertation from Guerrilla Swing in the future.

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As impressed as I was by Halloran and Steiling, this night definitely belonged to Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe (which, according to their website, rhymes with “maybe”). The sisters have all been fiddle champions, both in their home-state of Texas and on a national level. Accompanied by Daniel Parr on upright bass and Simon Stipp on guitar, the ladies proved themselves proficient in everything from the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Swing of Ray Benson to the Big Band sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman to the pure Country of Hank Williams, Connie Smith and Jeannie Seely and the myriad of connective styles between. The highlights came fast and furious, as the group kicked things of with an anthem of the Mexican Revolution of 1912, the instrumental workout, “Jesse Polka.” From there, it was on to a beautiful version of Hank Senior’s classic honky-tonk tear jerker, “Cold Cold Heart,” with amazing harmony vocals from the trio, huddled around a single microphone, like the radio and Opry stars of yore. The hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican’s “Every Which A-Way” led into “Twin Guitar Special,” a classic fiddle hoedown from the Quebe’s biggest influence, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bridging the gap between Western Swing and the “tear-in-my-beer” Country and Western tunes so prominent in the 1960s was a number written by Cindy Walker and recorded by Wills, “Going Away Party.” The high harmony vocals and the plaintive strains of the fiddles lend an air of authenticity that three twenty-somethings like Hulda, Grace and Sophia simply should not possess. “If I Talk To Him” is full-on Country misery, as Sophia takes the lead on the Connie Smith sob-fest; the harmonies, as always, are beautiful but, it’s also nice to hear each sister take a lead.

The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a couple of true Country tunes, a version of Roy Rogers’ “Along the Navajo Trail” (which was later recorded by – among others – Wills and the Playboys; the Quebes recorded a version with Benson and his group, Asleep At the Wheel last year for an album called STILL THE KING: CELEBRATING THE MUSIC OF BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS) and “Once a Day,” written by Bill Anderson and originally recorded by Connie Smith, things started to get a bit adventurous with trips down avenues rarely traveled by a group such as the Quebe Sisters. These excursions included “How High the Moon,” a Jazz number first recorded by Big Band legend Benny Goodman and a later, more popular version by the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford; “Be My Life’s Companion,” a vocal hit for both crooners the Mills Brothers and Rosemary Clooney; the Rhythm and Blues barn-burner (and early template for the music we call Rock and Roll), “Teardrops From My Eyes,” a song that propelled Ruth Brown to the top of the R and B charts; and set-closer “It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie,” a Country Blues ballad made popular by Fats Waller and recorded by the Ink Spots, among many others. As each of the trio, as well as Stipp and Parr, performed near-mind-numbing solos and the Quebes displayed further talents with dual and triple harmony fiddle leads, I, nevertheless, found myself engulfed in the sound of the transcendent female voices, blending in perfect harmony. Both Jeannie Seely’s “Leaving and Saying Goodbye.” a hit for Faron Young, and one of Willie Nelson’s most examples beautiful compositions, “Summer of Roses,” sent chills down my spine.

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Aside from the already-alluded to “It’s a Sin To Tell a lie,” the final portion of the set was given over to classic Folk numbers, beginning with Woody Guthrie’s “Sally Goodin,” which turned into a fiery fiddle breakdown, again highlighting the individual and collective talents of the Quebe Sisters. Perhaps the most stirring moments of the show came with a medley of early nineteenth century Folk tunes, one quite English in origin, the other unmistakably American. Starting with the haunting “The Wayfaring Stranger,” the group’s strong vocals and the weariness evoked by the moans of the fiddles had the entire room transfixed; “Speed the Plow” was, likewise, very emotionally charged and moving. I’ve tried to give words to the soaring voices and exemplary playing of the Quebe Sisters; I’ve attempted to describe the genre-bending musical choices played on this night. I’m not exactly sure how best to describe what happened on the fourth floor of the Sheldon Concert Hall on the evening of February 17, 2016, other than to say that this was the music of America (call it “Americana,” if you must), played by what may very well be the best and the brightest we have to offer.


THE HILLBENDERS: TOMMY – A BLUEGRASS OPRY

(Compass Records; 2015)

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Ambition is an awesome thing. In music, it often leads to groundbreaking work or concepts, and this here album from Springfield, Missouri bluegrass band the Hillbenders is a doozy in that regard. The notion of doing a bluegrass interpretation of the Who’s legendary TOMMY album seems preposterous at first… how could the sonic intricacies and intense storyline of Pete Townsend’s magnum opus be re-interpreted in such a different genre, one as down to earth as Ozarks-style bluegrass? The fact that it works so well says a great deal about the abilities (and pure ATTITUDE) of this band – guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves, banjo player Mark Cassidy and bass player Gary Rea. Pete Townsend himself gave a thumbs-up to the record and invited the band to a show on the Who’s recent tour, doing photos with them. So yeah, this crazy project is a success. But how does it SOUND? Well, the amazing thing is that the band largely sticks to the structure of the original songs. It’s just that in place of electric guitars, Roger Daltrey’s peerless vocals and Keith Moon’s powerhouse drumming, you get, well, acoustic instruments like banjo and dobro. There are no long, jammy bluegrass workouts of the type often seen in the genre… the Hillbenders adhere to the original song structures. That is striking on tracks like the magnificent “Overture,” the carefully rendered “Amazing Journey” (which really IS amazing in this sassy, grassy rendition) and the classic “Pinball Wizard,” a rousing performance in which the band makes sure their energy matches the original, and renders the concern about whether a banjo and mandolin could possibly match what Pete did on the original absolutely moot. “Tommy, Can You Hear Me” is delivered simply and soulfully, with perfectly pleasant harmonies. “Sally Simpson” becomes a truly curious hybrid, a song that, thematically, would likely never see its ilk on another bluegrass album. I mean, this is rock and roll in its energy and pure panache. What a revelation to hear the Who’s richly layered classic rock presented in such a different manner. It says something about the universality of music and themes that the Hillbenders could pull this off so thrillingly.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad "Gravy Boat" Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)

Not everything brings the awe, though. Daltrey’s haunting “See Me, Feel Me” performance in its two appearances on the original is a work of vocal majesty that inevitably loses something in the simpler, more rustic approach taken here. Similarly, the drama and shifting elements of “Welcome” as a composition are diminished in this arrangement… maybe by this point, the sound is just getting too samey. And “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is missing an edge it badly needs. But gosh, songs like “Christmas” and especially, “Sensatiion,” are utterly inspired and perfectly performed by the Hillbenders, giving fresh life to compositions that most of us from the classic rock era know like the backs of our hands. There is something revolutionary about hearing a modest Ozark string band fearlessly take on a classic rock opera by legendary Brits, and do it with their own personalities and aesthetic intact, triumphantly. It’s a bold leap into rarified musical territory, and it proves once again that all things are possible if you’ve got courage, chops and, well, a pretty awesome source work. Here’s to the Hillbenders for TRULY “kicking out the jams” in every way.


REVEREND HORTON HEAT WITH UNKNOWN HINSON/NASHVILLE PUSSY/IGOR AND THE RED ELVISES

(February 6, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

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What a wonderful, bizarre night this was. Reverend Horton Heat have always been one of my favorite live acts; I vaguely remember seeing Nashville Pussy somewhere about fifteen years ago… they didn’t do a lot for me but, well, things change; for me, there were two wild cards: the enigmatic Unknown Hinson, who did a short set toward the end of the Reverend’s show, and the goofball antics of Igor and the Red Elvises. Let’s start things off – as we always do – at the beginning with…

Igor and the Red Elvises (Natalie John; Igor Yuzov; Dregas Smith) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Igor and the Red Elvises (Natalie John; Igor Yuzov; Dregas Smith) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The wild and wonderful women who make up the current incarnation of the Red Elvises (shouldn’t that be “Red Elvi?” Just wondering) and their Commissar of Jocularity, Igor Yuzov. With shaking hips and thrusting pelvis eliciting visions very much like that of a certain ’50s teen idol, sporting a head of “Elvoid”-based follicles and dressed in what can only be described as a lame’ jungle print zoot suit, the larger-than-life singer exhorted (extorted?) the crowd to sing along, clap along, dance along, surf along and pretty much any other “along” he could think of as he built a set from the ground up, randomly calling out – Zappa-style – the next tune. At one point, he even cajoled a good portion of the audience to “spontaneously” erupt into a shimmying, snaking conga line. Is there any wonder why this rockin’ teenage combo is “your favorite band?”

Igor and the Red Elvises (Dejah Sandoval; Igor Yuzov; Jasmin Guevara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Igor and the Red Elvises (Dejah Sandoval; Igor Yuzov; Jasmin Guevara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Well, yeah… all of that over-the-top lunacy is as cool as it sounds, but this band is so much more: Musically, Igor and his ever-revolving, evolving group of Elvises play a hip, retro brand of Rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll, laced with enough updated alternative grooves to keep even the most jaded of youngsters’ heads bobbing and butts shaking; the band, especially the rhythm section of Dejah Sandoval and Jasmin Guevara (on bass and drums, respectively), are first rate musicians and, obviously, are having just as much fun as Igor and the fans. Aside from her bass-playing abilities, Sandoval proved improbably adept at remaining upright while sporting stacked boots that would give Gene Simmons a nosebleed, while Guevara was virtually a perpetual motion machine, bobbing and shaking her head like Ringo and pounding her kit like a miniature Bonzo. Keyboard player Dregas Smith showed herself capable of laying down a wicked boogie woogie piano one minute, a fuzzy, grungy garage Farfisa the next; as Igor – more often than not – neglected his guitar, Natalie John took up some of the slack on trumpet and various horned instruments, as well as the occasional funky solo. When Igor did play his chosen instrument, he mixed James Burton-style Rockabilly with Dick Dale or Link Wray-like tremolo-laced Surf guitar. The fact that he sounded like Boris Badanov fronting a band of KGB operatives only added to the man’s charm and mystique on songs like “Closet Disco Dancer,” “Surfing In Siberia,” “I Wanna See You Bellydance” and “She Works For KGB.” The aforementioned conga line took shape at the beginning of “Sad Cowboy Song,” which also featured an incredible (as in, not boring) drum solo from Jasmin; the solo actually started with the other three ladies surrounding the kit and joining in on the percussive fun. I could probably write a novella filled with superlatives about Igor and the Red Elvises, but then I would never get to the rest of the show. Suffice to say that a Red Elvises show is pretty much like watching Frank Zappa’s Mothers eat Madness and then throw up Link Wray; that’s kinda my way of saying that a good time was had by all.

Nashville Pussy (Jeremy Thompson; Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys; Bonnie Buitrago) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy (Jeremy Thompson; Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys; Bonnie Buitrago) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy, the hard-rocking, four-headed Blues beast may seem – on the surface, at least – an odd choice as tour-mates for the Heat boys, but they’ve been traveling the highways and by-ways together for nearly twenty years. If you’re not familiar with this outfit, they play a drug-fueled, beer-soaked Southern boogie… kinda like early Lynyrd Skynyrd laced with liberal doses of Motorhead, as well as a little bit of Hank, Senior. Up top, I mentioned that the only other time I saw them live, Nashville Pussy really didn’t trip my trigger; a few months back, I saw vocalist Blaine Cartwright play an acoustic set two doors down, at the Demo. Cartwright mentioned that he’d been working on his vocals and, obviously, in that stripped down environment, the melodies and the wickedly funny (and equally perceptive) lyrics weren’t so easily lost in the sheer decibels of a Pussy show and, guess what… somewhere in between that show and this one, I went back and listened to last year’s TEN YEARS OF PUSSY compilation and, well, I like ’em… I really like ’em! And, for the record, Blaine’s vocals ARE stronger and clearer than ever, kinda like Uncle Ted or Alice gargling with the ashes of Wolfman Jack and Bon Scott. In fact, with the addition of bassist Bonnie Buitrago a few years back (and, just maybe, the seasoning that comes from almost constant touring), the band has definitely taken on a more cohesive sound since I first saw them, lo, those many years ago.

Nashville Pussy (Blaine Cartwright; Blaine and Ruyter; Ruyter Suys) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy (Blaine Cartwright; Blaine and Ruyter; Ruyter Suys) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Though the band has, indeed, coalesced into a well-oiled machine, the songs maintain their inherently lewd and rude lyrical bent, while each of the four musicians appear ready to go into the crowd for a bit of a throw down at the drop of a black cowboy hat (or, at the very least, to go into the crowd to throw back a drink or two with their rabid fans). Buitrago and drummer Jeremy Thompson laid down a thunderous rumble over which Cartwright and his wife, Ruyter Suys, worked their six-string magic. Don’t think that because Blaine has concentrated on improving his vocals that he’s neglected his guitar playing… he hasn’t; true, Ruyter still does most of the lead work and soloing in her inimitable style, but I believe that Cartwright’s newfound confidence in his voice has allowed him to just let go on guitar. An example of both appeared in the unexpected form of a cover of the classic Marshall Tucker Band ballad, “Can’t You See.” Don’t think for a second, however, that that means this group has mellowed… they are still as cantankerous and debaucherous as ever; classics like “Pillbilly Blues,” “Struttin’ Cock,” “Hate and Whiskey,” “Rub It To Death” and the ever genteel “Go Motherfucker Go” tells you that this is a buncha folks that would’ve made Caligula blush. Well, most of ’em, anyway; it was kinda funny watching Ruyter, Blaine and Bonnie sweating and thrashing and knocking back shots (or, more often, taking a slug straight from a bottle of Jack) while Jeremy just goes about his job with as little exertion as possible, but still – somehow – managing to sound like two drummers. While Suys’ guitar seemed to occasionally fall out of tune as she throttled the the neck, abused the trings and writhed about the stage, it just didn’t matter; what did matter and what came across from the time Nashville Pussy took the stage was the passion that these people (and their ravenous fans) have for the MUSIC. In a world where electronic beats and auto-tuned voices are becoming the norm, it is refreshing to hear real music played by a band that isn’t afraid to mess up from time to time.

Reverend Horton Heat (Jim Heath) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Jim Heath) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

For over thirty years, guitarist Jim Heath has fronted the band Reverend Horton Heat… to most of his fans, he IS the right Reverend Heat. The band’s sound (a melding of Western Swing, Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues, Surf Music, and pretty much any other genre that they can work into the stew) really began to come together when bassist Jimbo Wallace came onboard in 1989; many, including Heath himself, consider Jimbo to be the heart and soul of the group. Spanning two different tours of duty, Scott Churilla is the trio’s longest-tenured drummer, having served from 1994 to 2006 and coming back into the fold in 2012. As you can imagine, these guys have become a well oiled live machine and, this show was certainly no different. Proving their staying power – and the continued popularity of their music – the band ripped into the fairly straight-forward Surf instrumental “Big Sky” coupled with the wild hillbilly honk of “Baddest of the Bad,” both from 1994’s breakthrough album LIQUOR IN THE FRONT, before sending the sold-out crowd into a feeding frenzy with “Psychobilly Freakout,” a fan favorite from their debut album, SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM.

Reverend Horton Heat (Jimbo Wallace; Jim Heath; Jimbo Wallace) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Jimbo Wallace; Jim Heath; Jimbo Wallace) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

From there, the boys dipped into the earliest years of Rockabilly with “School of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a 1958 single from fellow Texans Gene Summers and His Rebels; not only are these guys celebrating their own history, but they continue to celebrate their roots, as well as turning their fans on to music they may not have otherwise heard. In most instances, an upright tends to get lost in the mix… not Jimbo‘s; he prompted pops and thrums out of his instrument like no other could. Scott’s excellent stickwork proved why Jim and Jimbo brought him back into the fold after six years away; many of the Reverend’s best albums feature Churilla mounted on the throne (actually, he plays on all but the first three albums and 2009’s LAUGHIN’ AND CRYIN’ WITH THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT). And, of course, what can you say about Jim Heath? He’s never been a flashy guitarist, but he makes what he does seem so easy; it’s the same with his vocals… rock solid from start to finish. With his eyes in perpetual squint-mode (lights, I would guess) and his face either wearing an all-knowing, world-weary smirk or a mile-wide smile, Heath is one of the most unassuming rockers you’ll ever see. The set list looked like the back of a “Best of… ” album, with such fan-pleasing entries as “I Can’t Surf,” “Bales of Cocaine,” the hard-driving Psychobilly paean to Mister Wallace, “Jimbo Song,” as well as Chuck and Johnnie’s “Little Queenie.” Toss in the instant-classic “Zombie Dumb” from the group’s most recent release (2014’s REV) and a few more selections from an impressive catalog and you’ve got a rock ‘n’ roll show to remember. However, the boys were just getting started and… we hadn’t even seen their special guest yet!

Reverend Horton Heat (Unknown Hinson; Jim Heath; Unknown Hinson) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Unknown Hinson; Jim Heath; Unknown Hinson) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As the houselights came back up after “It’s a Dark Day,” Heath had this to say by way of introduction about Unknown Hinson (the special guest, if you haven’t been following along), “This man scares me to death. Not only because of all that vampire shit, but because of the way he plays guitar… he’s better than any of us could ever hope to be.” Sporting the suit he was buried in (I’m not positive, but I’d bet it cinched in the back) and a pompadour from Hell, the vampiric Hinson lumbered to center stage, still wearing the black gloves so important to his evening wear as he sates his murderous predilection; he removed the gloves only to pick up his guitar. Like the music of the Heat lads, Hinson is sorta all over the place: Everything from surfin’ Gothic Country to metallic hillbilly punk. Hinson’s wide palette included hardcore Western swing, Carl Perkins-style Rockabilly, fuzzed-out slabs of pure psychedelia, old-school Rhythm and Blues and his own twisted take on Southern honk; if you close your eyes just the right kind of tight, you’d swear it was Early Cuyler hisself serenading you. Unknown’s short set-within-a-set included the misogynistic “Silver Platter,” as well as such delicately titled little ditties as “I Ain’t Afraid of Your Husband,” “Fish Camp Woman” and “Your Man Is Gay.” Hinson proved to be as good advertised on guitar, moving from Heavy Metal power chords and manic Country pickin’ to mind-expanding psychedelic soloing and mournful Blues licks. The whole thing was rather like what would happen if the legendary George Jones were to hook up with Brian Warner at a Satanic mixer hosted by the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Minnie Pearl… in short, everything a true music lover hopes for in a live experience.

Reverend Horton Heat (Scott Churilla; Jim Heath; Scott Churilla) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Scott Churilla; Jim Heath; Scott Churilla) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As Hinson exited the stage, Jimbo, Scott and Jim charged into the salacious “Let Me Teach You How To Eat” and its thinly veiled lyrical innuendo. One of Heath’s earliest (from THE FULL-CUSTOM GOSPEL SOUNDS OF THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT, released in 1993), heaviest and funniest tunes, “400 Bucks,” led into a sort of gear-head finale, with the divorce settlement classic “Galaxy 500” and the Surfabilly couplet about fast cars and faster women, “Victory Lap” and “Smell of Gasoline,” the latter featuring solos from both Scott and Jimbo. The encore brought Unknown Hinson back to the stage for an extended jam on “The King of the Country Western Troubadours,including a very Trower-esque solo from Unknown. I’ve seen Reverend Horton Heat several times since 1996 or so and they just keep getting better; throwing Hinson into the mix just upped their game even more. I can’t wait to see what they bring next year… I know it’ll be killer.


JOHNNY CASH: MAN IN BLACK: LIVE IN DENMARK 1971

(LEGACY RECORDINGS/COLUMBIA RECORDS/SONY MUSIC; 2015)

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There was a time when Cash ruled the world… a time before Rick Rubin and AMERICAN RECORDINGS and “Hurt.” In those days, a Johnny Cash concert was a cross-section of Americana: Equal parts Vaudeville, Grand Ole Opry and the Man’s hit variety show… you didn’t just get John, you would also get his wife, June Carter, along with her legendary family; his long-time friend and fellow Sun Records pioneer, Carl Perkins; >Cash’s famous backing band, the Tennessee Three (bassist Marshall Grant, drummer WS Holland and guitarist Bob Wootton) and longtime background singers, the Statler Brothers (real brothers Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley and Lew DeWitt), who were also one of the biggest Country acts of the day. MAN IN BLACK: LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 is a live television spectacular, originally available only in Australia on DVD… released thirty-five years after the event in 2006; it makes its American debut as an audio release (in a standard CD version, as well as a limited, Black Friday Record Store Day two-record set) here, nine years later.

MAN IN BLACK LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 (Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Johnny Cash, Bob Wootton, Carl Perkins) (video still)

MAN IN BLACK LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 (Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Johnny Cash, Bob Wootton, Carl Perkins) (video still)

The set starts with a rather mild take of Cash’s then-hit record, “A Boy Named Sue.” This version is nothing to write home about; the best description for the performance is probably “professional” and “workmanlike.” It is funny, though, when Johnny self-censors himself on the line “’Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue,’” replacing the pivotal invective, using “ …son-of-a-bleep… ” instead. Two songs in and it appears that the real problems here are a small, seemingly dispassionate audience and an equally dispassionate mix, not a lackluster performance by Cash, guest guitarist Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three. This second tune, a serviceable reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” is the first of three Kristofferson compositions featured in this set. Johnny’s halting spiel in Danish (or Swedish, as he calls it in a later exchange with June) – slow, reasoned and without inflection – kinda sums up the proceedings to this point. By the next number, a more lively version of Cash’s own “I Walk the Line,” the Man seems to be settling into his sterile studio environment. Carl Perkins’ brief solo set threatens to kick the proceedings into another gear, with a smokin’ version of the song that almost made him a household name… curse that Presley boy for recording his own version of “Blue Suede Shoes,” released (on the ELVIS PRESLEY album) just two months after Carl’s Sun single began its ascent to the top of the charts. “Matchbox” follows, a foot-stomping, hand-clapping Rockabilly highlight. Seemingly energized by Perkins’ performance, John offers up a truly heartfelt vocal on another Kristofferson masterpiece, “Me and Bobby McGee.”

A short snippet of an early Sun single from Cash, “Guess Things Happen That Way,” is really more of an introduction to the Statler Brothers, who are finally featured more prominently on backing vocals. With the spotlight shining on them for such a short time, the Brothers kinda forgo their comedy schtick, putting the focus on the music; that means that we have one of the greatest vocal groups of any genre performing one of their biggest hits, the relatively new “Bed of Rose’s,” with the rhythm section of Holland and Grant finally hitting their stride. A brilliant version of one of the Statler’s best (and most beloved) tunes, the crossover hit “Flowers On the Wall,” is highlighted by Harold’s voice, as he digs a little bit deeper and gets a little bit lower on the musical register than at any other time in the quartet’s storied career. The familiar chugging groove that was Johnny Cash’s trademark is on display on one of the Man’s biggest hits, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, John seems at ease with his surroundings, delivering a nice vocal on his signature tune, with Bob Wootton adding a great solo.

MAN IN BLACK LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 (June, Maybelle, Anita and Helen Carter, Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bob Wootton, Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley, Lew DeWitt) (video still)

MAN IN BLACK LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 (June, Maybelle, Anita and Helen Carter, Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bob Wootton, Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley, Lew DeWitt) (video still)

You can actually hear Johnny’s heartbeat quicken as he introduces the love of his life, Valerie June Carter-Cash. June always brought out the best in Cash and her playful growls on John Sebastian’s “Darlin’ Companion” pushes a somewhat pedestrian song over the top. John’s gruff voice plays beautifully against June’s sweet warble on “If I Were a Carpenter,” one of the most brilliantly conceived love songs of all time. This is one of the best versions I’ve ever heard. The number transitions right into the final Kristofferson tune, “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” The male-female duet completely changes the context of the song into something far different than any solo version – not necessarily better, just different. Johnny Cash was always a rebel, an outsider – a sympathetic and an empathetic everyman who, like Jesus Christ, would dine with sinners and saints alike, drawing attention to the plight of downtrodden and the forgotten, the worth of men imprisoned due to their bad decisions… men deserving of a second chance.And, of course, the insanity of war. With one song, in less than three minutes, he voiced his concerns in one of the most damning indictments of “Man’s inhumanity to Man.” That song, “Man In Black,” is still as powerful and moving now as then and you can feel the anger and the world-weary pain through the haze of nearly forty-five years with this version.

After Johnny’s heartfelt introduction, the legendary Mother Maybelle Carter is joined by daughters Anita and Helen for a rousing version of the traditional fiddle tune, “Black Mountain Rag,” with Maybelle’s auto-harp replacing the fiddle. June joins her sisters for “A Song To Mama,” a tribute with a sentiment that is still valid for most of us today. The ladies, a classic Country and Western trio, bring in Cash for a spoken word piece before he leads them in the final chorus. A highlight of a Johnny Cash show in 1971 was a kind of everybody-in free-for-all Gospel campmeeting. John and June, with the Carters and the Statlers, belt out their new single, “No Need To Worry,” before diving into the eighteenth century hymn, “Rock of Ages.” The set closes with a rocking, stomping, high energy call and response Christmas song, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Perkins, who had been sitting back as a member of the band, joins the rest of the headliners, managing to get everybody worked up with an unrestrained fervor when his vocal part comes around on “Six for the six that never got fixed” and, just maybe, reveling in the fact that he was one of those six. Cash, sharing his microphone with Carl, gets tickled as the two do a little jig toward the end of the song… it’s a moment in time, as the two music legends revel in a decade-and-a-half of friendship. Johnny Cash is an artist that we will never tire of and, because of our continual need for a Cash fix, one whose archive will continue to be mined for whatever material is available; MAN IN BLACK: LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 may not be the greatest release in the Cash canon but, it is fun and captures the Man at the height of his popularity.


ALL THEM WITCHES/RANCH GHOST

(January 16, 2016; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

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Walking to the Demo before this show, I ran into my young friends from the recent Koa show. First Koa, now All Them Witches… maybe – just maybe – there is hope for us as a civilization; I asked these young men and ladies if they shouldn’t be listening to the Bieb or One Direction or Kanye and was heartened by their answer: “Who? That’s not music.” A tear of happiness rolled down my cheek. So, we know that the kids’ allegiance to Koa is well-earned but, will All Them Witches live up to expectations? We’ll answer that question shortly but, first…

Ranch Ghost (Joshua Meadors; Matt Sharer; Andy Ferro) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ranch Ghost (Joshua Meadors; Matt Sharer; Andy Ferro) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Opening the show were All Them Witches’ Nashville neighbors and kindred spirits, the not-spooky-at-all (well, hardly-even-spooky) Ranch Ghost. The four-piece – augmented by a keyboardist for this show – offered up a rich rock stew, cooked up in a Nashville garage, with ample amounts of Surf and psychedelic flavoring, alongside a pinch of Folk and Country for extra seasoning. Joshua Meadors’ high, nasally voice (think Jello Biafra or Johnny Thunders or, perhaps, a more apt comparison would be Hank, Senior) lent itself well to the reverb-drenched chaos, while he and fellow guitarist Andy Ferro reveled in their Dick Dale/Link Wray sonic blasts. Matt Sharer’s bass, Tanner Lunn’s drums and Mitch Jones’ “atmospherics” added a perfect sludgyiness to Ranch Ghost classics like “Nahla” and “New News,” as well as tunes from the band’s forthcoming Rough Beast album. More than a simple chameleon-like morphing of musical styles from song to song, each tune’s genre-bending sound was an amalgam of the last hundred years of popular music, creating something that is wholly… Ranch Ghost. Even the physical appearance of these Ghosts seemed to hit on some well-known stylistic pop reference points: Ferro’s facial hair and wool cap put me in mind of Cheech Marin, with Sharer filling in for the larger-than-life beard of Tommy Chong; Meadors’ blonde mane and the music’s heavy Surf vibe virtually screamed (to no one but me, I’m sure) “Al Jardine,” one of the original Beach Boys. Just to bring this line of observation full circle, Lunn reminded me of actor Jason Mewes (the “Jay” half of “ …and Silent Bob”), while Jones could be the younger brother of actor/musician Billy Mumy (LOST IN SPACE, Barnes and Barnes). As random as those comparisons are, the music of Ranch Ghost is just as random… hard to pin down, but definitely something worth checking out.

All Them Witches (Michael Parks, Junior; Robby Staebler; Ben McLeod) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

All Them Witches (Michael Parks, Junior; Robby Staebler; Ben McLeod) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

While Ranch Ghost sort of dumps everything into a giant blender to get their musical point across, All Them Witches sticks pretty close to a Psychedelic Blues, played in a heavier-than-gravity style that evokes Hawkwindian space jams alongside the acoustic-metal slam of Jimmy Page’s New Yardbirds (check your history books if that one baffles you, children). Kicking the set off with “Call Me Star,” the opening track from their excellent new record, DYING SURFER MEETS HIS MAKER, the quartet quickly makes known their musical manifesto; the tune charges into a mesmeric approximation of “El Centro,” an extended instrumental jam that also features on DYING SURFER… that rather put me in mind of “No Quarter” from HOUSES OF THE HOLY. Frontman Michael Parks, Junior’s voice seemed more an ethereal entity unto itself, adding an other-worldly quality to the already dense instrumental wall-of-sound, a wall constructed by guitarist Ben McLeod, keyboardist Allan Van Cleave, drummer Robby Staebler and Parks’ bass. The fact that these four young men are capable of delivering such a massive sound in a seemingly effortless fashion belies the complexities of the arrangements and the music itself; it’s almost like watching the early ’70s version of the Mothers of Invention performing “My Bonnie” or some other rudimentary campfire song… child’s play.

All Them Witches (Ben McLeod; Allan Van Cleave; Ben McLeod, Michael Parks, Junior, Robby Staebler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

All Them Witches (Ben McLeod; Allan Van Cleave; Ben McLeod, Michael Parks, Junior, Robby Staebler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The set was nearly equally divided between newer material and stuff from 2013‘s LIGHTNING AT THE DOOR, with each song melting into the next, forming what could best be described as a sort of Native American suite. Following the hypnotic swirl of “Open Passageways” and an extended jam on the instrumental, “Welcome To the Caveman Future,” the next six numbers were from the earlier album, beginning with a shamanistic, Doors-likeDeath of Coyote Woman,” which featured a raging solo from McLeod. At times, Van Cleave’s Fender Rhodes sliced through the atmospheric desert grooves (as on the monolithic “Mountain”), at others, his electric piano added a perfect texture (especially on bluesy numbers like “Marriage of Coyote Woman”). The rhythm section delivered their parts with a devastatingly brutal precision that added to the roiling mysticism throughout, but the throbbing, tribal pulse laid down by Parks and Staebler on “Talisman” was a thing of dark and disturbing beauty. How many times has professional wrestling promoter Billy Corgan declared guitar-driven rock “dead?” Well, it would seem that bands like All Them Witches are here to prove you wrong, Billy… given the amount (and diversity) of new rock and roll spewing forth from the Country Music Capital of the World, it would seem that the medium is alive and getting better every day. For a taste of All Them Witches live, check out their album, AT THE GARAGE, or, better yet, catch ’em on tour at a venue near you.


LISA SAID: FIRST TIME, LONG TIME

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2015)

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Lisa Said kinda exemplifies what I love about this country. She is the embodiment of the classic melting pot: Egyptian and American heritage, living on the outskirts of Washington DC, raised in the Tennessee hills listening to Pop, Soul, Country, Folk, Oldies and Arabic music. FIRST TIME, LONG TIME is her debut EP and it features a delightful mish-mash of all of those musical styles and more; with all of those elements coming to bear, generally all vying for attention within the framework of each of the five tracks, this is the epitome of Americana music. Lisa’s Bandcamp page describes the recording process of these songs (some of which are as old as ten years) as “fueled by pistachios and bourbon,” trying to find “the sweet spot between early ’70s Folk Rock and North African percussion.” The first track, “Been Around,” begins with some cool Middle Eastern percussion courtesy of Andrew Toy before morphing into a nifty little 1950s rock and roll tune with a kind of strolling piano from Jon Carroll and Lisa’s acoustic guitar and some subtle sitar from Seth Kauffman. The vocals come off as sort of a breathy Country Soul thing. “For Today” is well on its way to being a weird mix of Uncle Tupelo style Americana and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”-era Nancy Sinatra. Carroll adds a solid organ part that somehow would not have sounded out of place on a record by the Band.

Lisa Said (publicity photo)

Lisa Said (publicity photo)

There are more comparisons on the record’s centerpiece (literally and figuratively), the raucous, countrified old time rock and roll of “Hard To Brake,” as Said’s melody line puts me in mind of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” – in particular, the “See Me, Feel Me” section – from the Who’s TOMMY. There’s a Rockabilly urgency in Toy’s percussion and Justin Harbin’s bass; Carroll’s piano tinkles along, while Al Sevilla virtually mimics it on the mandolin. “Somebody Someday” is a real-deal Country number with that vague honky-tonk feel from the piano. The only thing missing is the drawl and the twang. Kauffman’s bass highlights the song, while Sevilla’s playing is so understated that you may need a few listens to pick it out of a line-up. One of those moody alternative singer/songwriter thingys closes out the EP. Lisa’s vocals have an Aimee Mann-cum-Sheryl Crow vibe happening on “One Too Many,” with Kauffman adding some echoey Hawaiian sounding guitar in the breaks, as well as some nice solos. The whole song is rather dichotomous, with a stripped-down sound that still manages to evoke Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound. While the production tends to be a tad muddy in parts, FIRST TIME, LONG TIME is a fine debut. Lisa is already in the studio working on a follow-up full-length, scheduled for a mid-to-late 2016 release.