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.


FREAKWATER: THE ASP AND THE ALBATROSS

After nearly a decade, Freakwater, the band fronted by Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, have a new album… SCHEHERAZADE. The release is the group’s eighth overall and first for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records in what can only be described as a sporadic recording career. Likewise, live appearances by the legendary (near-mythical) Southern Gothic six-piece are exceedingly rare so we were excited to hear that they are, in fact, touring to celebrate the release of SCHEHERAZADE. The band bring their haunting, swampy Bluegrass music to Saint Louis on Monday, March 14, as they play Off Broadway. The intimate room is literally just off Broadway, at 3509 Lemp Avenue (in the city’s historic Cherokee District). If you’ve never experienced a show at Off Broadway, you are certainly in for a treat; the sound is amazing, the staff and the overall vibe is top-notch and… well, FREAKWATER! Below is a sneak peak at what you can expect: “The Asp and the Albatross,” the first single from the new record.

Freakwater are bringing along Jaye Jayle (the alter ego of Young Widows frontman Evan Patterson), who is also supporting the release of new music, the darkly miasmic HOUSE CRICKS AND OTHER EXCUSES TO GET OUT. Patterson’s deep-throated vocals and sludgy soundscapes are the perfect match for Freakwater’s intensely personal Swampgrass. Don’t miss what is sure to be one of the most talked about shows of the year. Ticket information, show time and directions to the venue are here.


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.


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.