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.


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.


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 epitome of Americana music. Lisa’s Bandcamp page describes the recording process of these songs (some of which 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.


KINKY FRIEDMAN/BRIAN MOLNAR AND JOE CIROTTI

(November 5, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

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And, now… for something completely different. No, seriously! And, I will explain that first sentence during the course of this review. First of all, I have met or interviewed a few legends in my twenty-plus years of doing this stuff: Dave Davies of the Kinks, Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, Gregg Allman, Mick Jones of the Clash (not Foreigner) and several Ramones among them. I have never really found myself tongue-tied except when I ran into Joey Ramone backstage at a big radio show (probably PointFest, but I can’t remember for sure) in the late ’90s; now, I can add the “Last of the Texas Jewboys,” Kinky Friedman, to that stratified air with Joey. There wasn’t a lot happening at Off Broadway around six o’clock, so I was just hanging out in my car, catching up on some reading, when I saw that cowboy hat and that cigar and… I knew that I had to go over and say something to one of the last truly legendary characters around, which is pretty much what I said to him. Kinky shook my hand and asked my name, an act that will take on a special meaning a little later in the evening. Anyway, Kinky had just awoken from a nap and was in search of a cup of coffee, so I told him that I was looking forward to the show and headed back to my car and my book. A short time later, a few more people started to wander up to the venue, a sign that it was time for me to disembark once more and join the line; by the time I had crossed Lemp Avenue, Kinky was back outside, shaking hands and taking names. Once the doors were opened, he was standing just inside the entrance, greeting everyone by their name or, if he hadn’t met them outside, asking their name… that, boys and girls, is something that you don’t see every day (as a matter of fact, in my entire concert-going career, it has only happened this one time).

Brian Molnar (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Brian Molnar (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

This was, as it turned out, not the final oddity of the evening. There have been fairly few instances – especially in a club setting – where I have utilized a chair; tonight, standing wasn’t really an option, as the first row of seats were just far enough from the stage to keep knees from banging into the front. It was a strange feeling, but one I had embraced by the time the duo of Brian Molnar and Joe Cirotti took the stage. Molnar and Cirotti could probably best be described as Kinky’s “handlers,” acting as road managers, selling merch, backing the man on a few songs on stage; both also appeared on Kinky’s latest album, THE LONELIEST MAN I EVER MET, which was produced by Brian. The guys offered a solid set of songs from Molnar’s solo career and from his band, the Naked Hearts, as well as a few well-chosen classic Country and Folk tunes. Brian has a pleasant, if interesting voice, somewhere between Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, and Joe is a passionate, soulful guitar player (despite his world-weary countenance); conversely, Molnar is a fine guitarist in his own right, while Cirotti’s voice is the perfect counterweight to Molnar’s leads.

Joe Cirotti (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Joe Cirotti (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Brian kicked things off solo, with the Stanley Brothers’ “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” a great old tune that set the tone for the entire evening. After the original song, “I Knew I’d See You Again” and another cover (Rosalie Sorrels’ “Rocksalt and Nails”), Joe joined Brian onstage before “Freight Train” and, the difference was immediately felt, with the duo’s vocals blending in near-perfect harmony and Cirotti offering up amazing lead work and solos… had he been playing an electric, in a rock band, it could be said that Joe shredded. A few songs later, Cirotti took a lead vocal on “Fine For Now,” a track from the new LITTLE FISH release from his band, Only Living Boy; where the band’s version raged, here, it bristled with a restrained energy in this sparse arrangement. The pair ended their ten-song set with “Wait For the Light To Shine,” a haunting Fred Rose hymn first recorded by Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys in 1947 and, later, by Hank Williams (released posthumously in 1960). Cirotti and Morlan could very easily hold their own in a headlining capacity; as table-setters for the legendary Kinky Friedman, they were exceptional.

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Irreverent and unrepentantly un-PC, Friedman‘s hour-long set (give or take) was filled with classic Kinky stories and statements, a verbal exchange with an offended patron of German descent and those story-songs that is his stock-in-trade. Brian was onstage to introduce the man of the evening as “A man who’ll sign anything except bad legislation.” Opening with “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” Kinky moved seamlessly from story to song; his introduction to the song gave the audience a small glimpse into the life of the title character, the nearly forgotten Country singer/songwriter Tompall Glaser. Moving forward, he talked of enraging the bra-burning set with “Get Your Biscuits In the Oven and Your Buns In Bed” when it reared its “barefoot and pregnant” head on his 1973 debut, SOLD AMERICAN, and how the song continues to infuriate Feminists more than forty years later; of course, the politically correct thing to do would have been to say that he’d grown as a human being and apologize for any hurt feelings and, of course, that didn’t happen… he played the song with the zeal of a school boy. In giving a brief dissertation regarding his new album, which opens with Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning,” Kinky disclosed that he doesn’t smoke dope… except when he’s with Willie because that’s just “Texas etiquette.” He introduced “Waitret, Please, Waitret” as Bill Clinton’s favorite Kinky Friedman song, with its refrain of “Waitret, please, waitret/Come set on my face.” After the last couple of songs, it was obvious that the entendres – occasionally doubled and possibly tripled – would be flying fast and furious for the rest of the show. But, as with the mini-biography of Tompall Glaser, Friedman again showed his softer side with his heartfelt and patriotic introduction about the drunken Indian who had been one of the Marines to raise the flag at Iwo Jima before a poignant “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” brought tears to more than a few eyes.

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Never shy, Kinky then took on another legend, Merle Haggard, with a touching rendition of “Hungry Eyes.” Not one to let sentiment get in the way of a great story (or a good song), he then went all the way back to 1974 for the higher education of “Homo Erectus,” a tale of… uh… let’s call it “self-discovery.” As he always does, Kinky did find the time to highlight a song or two about his religion, with “Ride ‘em Jewboy” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” While introducing the former, he mentioned that he was considered the new David Hasselhoff by Germany’s younger generation; while making a point about how most Germans have come to terms with their past (he had commented earlier how Germany was his second least favorite country), he mentioned that there was the distinct possibility that if a German citizen were to delve into his ancestry, he may be faced with the fact that his grandfather or great grandfather may have murdered 250 people in a ditch, which prompted a negative response from someone in the back of the room. Deftly and hilariously, Kinky managed to cut the guy off at the knees with a couple of well-placed barbs as he told the gentleman that if he would shut up, he was trying to give Germans a compliment. This exchange somehow turned into a story about Nelson Mandela and his favorite Kinky Friedman song… “Ride ‘em Jewboy.” At some point, either before or after “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” he spoke a bit about things political; someone asked who he was voting for in 2016. There was a smattering of applause when he said “Bernie Sanders.” The applause ended with his next line: “I just want to see a Jew in the White House. If he wins, it’ll be the first time a Jew family moved into a place after a Black family moved out.” Take a hint, folks… if you are easily offended, maybe you should be somewhere else, because Kinky Friedman is an equal-opportunity offender and no one is safe from his verbal jabs.

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The final portion of the show featured the return to the stage of Joe Cirotti, who joined Kinky on the Tom Waits Christmas classic, “Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis.” As he introduced the number, Friedman reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a folded and crumpled Christmas card, which he started to read from, as Cirotti accompanied him with a nice Country Jazz vamp. One of three originals from THE LONELIEST MAN I EVER MET followed, the sentimentally beautiful “Lady Yesterday.” After a short intro, relating his experiences with Warren Zevon, Kinky delivered a devilishly understated “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” featuring a brilliant, bluesy break from Joe; Warren woulda definitely been proud. As Brian Molnar joined Kinky and Joe, Friedman introduced “Pickin’ Time” as his father’s favorite Johnny Cash song. The simple melody and pure Americana lyrics continue to strike a chord, particularly in the Midwest. After a short break, Kinky was back by the merch table, shaking hands (and remembering everybody’s name) and signing everything put in front of him. This was the kind of show that all music lovers dream of and one that I won’t soon forget.


OLD 97S/BANDITOS

(October 29, 2015; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

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It’s kinda funny how things tend to run in cycles in this business. Earlier this year, it seemed that I was in the Grove more often than not to review a show at either the Demo or Ready Room; then, for a long stretch, most of the action seemed to be taking place at Off Broadway. Now, the last three shows I’ve reviewed have been at the two Grove venues. I have no explanation or theory regarding this phenomenon… I just go where the music is. This night, the music was at the Ready Room, where twenty year veterans Old 97’s and rookie upstarts Banditos presented two very different styles of Americana for a packed house.

Banditos (Stephen Pierce; Mary Beth Richardson; Corey Parsons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Banditos (Stephen Pierce; Mary Beth Richardson; Corey Parsons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Improbably, Nashville’s (by way of Birmingham, Alabama) Banditos have only been a band for about five years and have been touring extensively for only the past three. Why is that improbable? Well, the six member conglomerate exhibit the sound and the easy stage presence of a much more seasoned band. Though the group features three lead singers, the spotlight seemed to shine the brightest on Mary Beth Richardson, whose sultry wail immediately brings to mind Janis Joplin, with just a bit of Tracy Nelson and Dale Krantz-Rossington (the latter’s gravelly purr comes to mind on the more ballady fare). The band’s co-founders, Stephen Pierce and Corey Parsons, are the other two vocalists, both with a buttery smooth style capable of delivering on anything from real-deal Country music to rowdy Rock ‘n’ Roll and rough-edged Southern Soul. Pierce also plays banjo, though if you’re listening and watching him pick, his playing has more of a classic Rock guitar sound; Parsons plays guitar – primarily handling the rhythm but, he also takes the occasional lead or offers up a tasty solo run. Jeffrey Salter, the other guitarist, does most of the heavy lifting, with lead and solo work; the rhythm section of Danny Vines on bass and drummer Randy Wade are rock-solid animals, providing a beefy bottom-end. Before delving into the “meat-and-taters” of their set, it should be duly noted that Banditos are, by far, the wooliest band I have ever seen; there is enough head and facial hair on display to supply toupees and wigs for the entire populace of a balding third-world country.

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Danny Vines) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Danny Vines) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Musically, the group hit the stage running with “Golden Grease,” one of eight songs on display from their self-titled debut. The tune highlighted the talents of Wade and Vines, as well as some nice guitar from Salter but, when Richardson sang that first note, it was obvious to everyone that she was a force to be reckoned with. According to Parsons, that and a handful of other songs from the evening’s set have been around since nearly the beginning of the band, and those tunes have kind of taken on a life of their own, with the band tweaking them on a nightly basis to keep them interesting for the players; the group, by this point, are working as a well-oiled machine on these numbers (and, in some instances, are straining at the bit to write and record new material so certain tunes can be “retired,” at least temporarily). This night, those tunes included “Long Gone, Anyway,” “Cry Baby Cry” and “Old Ways.” Alongside those original numbers, other highlights were Corey’s cover of an old Waylon Jennings B-side, “Waymore’s Blues”; a rockin’ new tune, sung by Stephen, called “Fun All Night”; Mary Beth hitting all the right notes on a frantic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” Just like their album, Banditos live is a hard animal to nail down; they move and slide in and out of genres as easily as most of us change our clothes. “Cry Baby Cry” has a certain New Orleans flair while “Still Sober (After All These Beers),” despite the obvious Country title, is more of a surf tune with a lot of Dick Dale/Link Wray reverb-style guitar and “Waitin’” wouldn’t have sounded out of place as a June Carter/Johnny Cash duet. Some bands have success almost immediately and are gone almost before anyone even notices; Banditos is one of those groups that – like tonight’s headliners, Old 97’s – looks to have the staying power for a long career.

Old 97's (Rhett Miller; Murry Hammond) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Rhett Miller; Murry Hammond) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amazingly enough, as much as I like their music, this was the first time that I have seen Old 97’s play live. Not that I haven’t had plenty of opportunities, they have played everywhere from Mississippi Nights (a moment of silence, please) to the Pageant; the band loves Saint Louis and Saint Louis definitely loves them. The quartet’s sound still retains a certain NO DEPRESSION-Americana vibe though, with their propensity for a harder-edged punk rock esthetic, they come across more like their contemporaries in Wilco than the shared ancestral linkage of Uncle Tupelo. On this night, they started slow and (purposefully?) a little sloppy with “Give It Time.” All four players seemed somehow distracted, particularly frontman Rhett Miller; they soon found their groove, with bassist Murry Hammond (looking very much like a younger, more dapper Phil Lesh) and drummer Philip Peeples reigning in the wandering guitarists (Miller and lead player, Ken Bethea) and tightening up the arrangements on a set that was long on material from the latest album, MOST MESSED UP, and chock full of fan favorites from the band’s catalog. By the time they got around to the third number, “King of All the World,” the band was firing on all cylinders and Rhett was back to his usual acerbic self. The new tunes – including “Wasted,” “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and “This Is the Ballad” – fared quite well, while the classics – “Big Brown Eyes,” “Niteclub,” “Murder (Or a Heart Attack” and “Over the Cliff” among them – bristled with a renewed energy that, more than once, seemed to border on some type of “angry young man” passion.

Old 97's (Murry Hammond; Philip Peeples) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Murry Hammond; Philip Peeples) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Miller, as expected, supplied the majority of the lead vocals, though Hammond lent his rather world-weary voice to a handful of tunes, including the Country stomp of “West Texas Teardrops” and the tear-drenched ballad, “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue.” As the group moved seamlessly from Country to Alternative Rock to Punk to flat out, steamrolling Rock and Roll, guitarist Bethea had a lead or a solo for every occasion, never faltering in his quest for the perfect guitar part for each song; likewise, Peeples and Hammond laid down the perfect groove, no matter what the style demanded. Rhett, though he continued to seem distracted by something at the back of the room (the monitor mix, mayhap?), tore through his songs like a man possessed, delivering the lyrics in a passionate, matter-of-fact style; he had worked up quite a sweat very early into the set, which seemed to fuel his zeal to give the crowd everything he had to offer. Much of the new material is a little… let’s just call it off-color, shall we? Miller delivered every F-bomb and every mention of booze or allusion to various body parts with a wink and a grin that had the faithful either laughing or singing along. By the time they got to the rollicking set closer, “Most Messed Up,” which ticked off all sorts of offenses, with Miller virtually screaming the refrain, “I am the most messed up mother fucker in this town,” both band and audience were ready for a breather.

Old 97's (Philip Peeples; Ken Bethea) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Philip Peeples; Ken Bethea) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a short break, Rhett returned to the stage for a solo rendition of the ballad “Most In the Summertime” from his latest release, THE TRAVELER; the song has a nice melody lurking behind the humorous, self-deprecating lyrics and you have got to love a guy that manages to work the term “barometric pressure” into a love song. Murry rejoined Miller for a lead vocal on the old-timey Rock and Roll of “Valentine,” which reminded me of a Buddy Holly tune with the Jordanaires singing back-up (and, yeah, I know that there were only two people singing, but the analogy is still valid). Ken and Philip took up their places and the foursome charged into what may be the coolest, funniest sing-along party song of all-time, “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On.” After the quick Cowpunk of “Timebomb,” the group left the stage again; with the crowd demanding more, the lights came up, reminding me of the old showbiz axiom, “Always leave ‘em wanting more.”

Old 97's (Ken Bethea; Rhett Miller) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Ken Bethea; Rhett Miller) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

It is obvious – and rightly so – that Old 97’s own Saint Louis; the band, Rhett Miller in particular, may have been slightly off but, the energy and enthusiasm of the packed Ready Room audience urged them on to a riotous good set. The one-two punch of the headliners and openers, Banditos, made for one of the best nights of flat-out great music to come through the Lou. If you missed this one, you certainly missed a good one.


BIRDCLOUD/MOUNTAIN SPROUT/BLAINE CARTWRIGHT AND EARL CRIM

(October 22, 2015; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

The Door Between

Arriving early at the venue, as I generally do, I found Blaine Cartwright and Earl Crim sound-checking inside, Mountain Sprout sleeping outside in their van and Birdcloud still about a half hour out. These early arrivals allow me to work out any kinks or missed communications between the artists, their publicist and myself; they also allow me to grab a bite to eat or a cup of coffee, explore various cultural sites or enjoy the local fauna. Catching a show at the Demo (or the Ready Room, just two doors down) means a visit (or two) to Music Record Shop, one of many actual RECORD repositories that are cropping up across this great land, conveniently situated between the two venues, with a door opening into the Demo; I’m sure that Dan, the guy behind the counter is getting really tired of seeing me wander in and out continually, though I do enjoy our discussions about old Soul, Funk and Jazz records. For a great cup of coffee and, maybe, a scone, it’s across the street to Rise Coffee House. I told you all of this to, first, let you know that there is plenty to do and to see if you take the time to get to a show early and, second, to let you know that, when I asked about parking for the Demo, Sara, the Rise barista was very excited that someone else actually understood what Birdcloud was all about; it seems that her friends either stare blankly at her or cock their head like a puppy that doesn’t know what the heck she’s talking about (come to think of it, I get those looks when I talk about some of the music I like, too). Anyway, I think I can confidently announce that she, her friends and I all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves this Thursday evening in the Grove. Well… mostly. To wit:

Blaine Cartwright; Eric Crim (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Blaine Cartwright; Eric Crim (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As a general rule, twenty-something hipsters are mostly okay, at most, a mere annoyance; however, if you get more than, say, three in a confined scenario (like a small club), they can often become intolerable. Such was the case on this evening. I was speaking with an older couple with whom I became acquainted sometime during the excursions related in the previous paragraph; while we weren’t hugging the wall, we were sitting against it when the first group of hipsters came in, making a beeline for the bar before taking up a spot that actually forced the couple and myself to shift our location. Mind you, now… there were maybe ten people in the place, counting the three of us geezers and the bar staff but, these loud, obnoxious people just had to be where we were. Things went downhill from there, as I’ll continue to relate throughout the course of this review. So, anyway, there was a Hank song playing on the in-house system (I’m thinkin’ it was either “Hey Good Lookin’” or “Cold Cold Heart” but, it has been a few days) as Cartwright and Crim took the stage; the in-house was cut as they sat themselves down at opposite ends of the stage, eliciting this comment from Blaine: “There’s a special place in Hell for people who interrupt a Hank Senior song. Guess we’ll be seein’ ya’ll there.” After a few nervous giggles from the hipsters (both gentlemen are imposing, burly biker types… at least, on the outside), the duo dove into a bawdy, rowdy, funny set of beer-drenched rockin’ country blues, including more than a few reworked numbers from the Nashville Pussy (Cartwright’s day job) songbook (“Lazy Jesus” and “You Give Drugs a Bad Name”), as well as several Nine Pound Hammer (a group both of the guys dabble in upon occasion) tunes, including the delicately titled “Mama’s Doin’ Meth Again.” The older folks had a good time; the hipsters were confused (which seemed to bring a grin to Cartwright’s face) and, in some instances, total jackasses; Eric and Blaine shrugged it all off with a muttered comment about how hard they’d been working to get kicked off of this tour. At the end of their set (they played about half-an-hour because they couldn’t remember anymore songs they could play as a duo), though, everyone seemed happy with what they had heard (or what they had played).

Mountain Sprout (Blayne Thiebaud; Grayson Klauber) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Mountain Sprout (Blayne Thiebaud; Grayson Klauber) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As the hipsters became more numerous and more intoxicated, they became louder and more obnoxious, one rather tall gentleman going above and beyond the call of duty on this night: Between sets, I generally relax by sitting on the edge of the stage (old knees, tired back… you know, you’ve been there), usually with my arms folded – not because I’m not having fun or am trying to look tough or whatever; I have a bum shoulder to go along with all of my other bum parts and, for whatever reason, it’s just more comfortable for me with arms folded. Anyway, the hipster – after spending a few seconds trying to stare me down – apparently thought the sight of me in repose was worth a jab or two; when I replied, amiably enough, he told me that my voice was wrong for my head. When I answered him in my “Howie Mandel as Bobby” voice, he seemed content and wandered away; we had not heard the last from our drunken hipster friend, however. Having unfolded my arms, I stood up, faced the stage and got ready for… Mountain Sprout? Yup… they just felt like switching things up and going on before Birdcloud. Okay… cool. The Arkansas-based hillbilly rollers performed as an economical three-piece tonight, with lead singer and banjo picker Grayson Klauber keeping things sprightly with his song intros and random asides, all the while laying down some of the evilest picking I’ve heard this side of Hogscraper; Blayne Thiebaud set aside his walking stick (he mentioned missing some dates to recover from an unspecified injury and/or surgery), rosined up his bow and proceeded to fiddle about; bassist Nathan McReynolds kept things thumping with a rhythmic bottom-end that allowed the other two to debauch as they saw fit, and… debauch they did!

Mountain Sprout (Nathan McReynolds; Grayson Klauber) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Mountain Sprout (Nathan McReynolds; Grayson Klauber) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With Thiebaud and McReynolds looking like escaped lunatics from Bray Wyatt’s backwoods family tree (wrestling fans will understand the comparison), Klauber wove tales of money, drugs, family dysfunction and sex, defiling the English language at every turn, much to the delight of everyone who was even halfway paying attention. Set highlights included – but were definitely not limited to – “Dry Counties” and the accompanying intro about fleeing from such places, where the purchase of alcoholic beverages is illegal; “Whiskey Church of the Green Bud”; “Blue Marble,” which is… uh… the meaning of life or something of equal importance; the shout-along anthem of free-thinking, tax-paying Americans everywhere, “Screw the Government”; and, of course, the band’s raison d’etre, “Money, Pussy and Drugs,” because, sometime, you have one to get the other in the hopes that she has more of at least one of the other two. Our inebriated friend returned to the front of the stage, performing a kind of modified version of the old HEE HAW stomp, making friends and losing them just as quickly, as his carefree dance style led to him careening into several people, knocking at least to beers out of unsuspecting hands; each time he was made aware that he wasn’t welcome, he would dance his way back to the bar, reappearing periodically to upset someone else. It should be noted that, by this time, his two companions had also tired of his shenanigans and had fairly well given up on trying to corral him.

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green; Jasmin Kaset) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green; Jasmin Kaset) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With his submersion into the ever-growing crowd, I had virtually forgotten the snockered hipster as the floor in front of the stage began to fill up with a more palatable group of people, including the Rise barista and her friends, for Birdcloud’s set. It would appear that switching spots with Mountain Sprout was a brilliant idea; with the Sprout’s wholly politically incorrect set as lead in, the crowd was definitely ready for the Murfreesboro, Tennessee duo‘s brand of Country smut. It would be easy for the uninitiated to dismiss the songs of Birdcloud as crude, rude attempts at comedy but, funny though they are, the tunes tend to have a deeper meaning, delving into subjects generally deemed taboo, especially for a pair of “genteel girls” from the South: Sexuality, racial tensions, interracial relationships, religion and spirituality are all fair game, with lead singer and madolin player Mackenzie Green and guitarist Jasmin Kaset taking a couple of steps over the line to get their points across. Taking the stage to shouts of “Show us your butts!,” the ladies opened their set with an obvious crowd favorite, “Fuck You Cop,” which, amazingly enough touches on police harassment, as well as utilizing your sexuality to your best advantage; the irreverent track obviously struck a lot of the right nerves. One of the nerves struck apparently belonged to our increasingly more belligerent hipster drunk, who was continually rebuffed by a crowd that was having way too much fun to put up with his attempts to force his way to the front of the stage. By the time Jasmin and Mackenzie kicked into the prophetically titled “Damn Dumb,” the boob had had enough of other people not letting him do what he wanted to do; I don’t know what – musta been some innate inner radar – led me to look over my shoulder but, as I turned, I saw the guy look at his empty beer can, look at the stage, look at his empty beer can and… heave it at the stage. Thankfully, no one was hit by the projectile as it landed on the stage right in front of me, though it did come close to hitting the young lady to my left. The song ended and Mackenzie, justifiably angry, said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Hey! No one throws shit at our stage! Either get him out of here or we’ll find someone else who won’t be so nice about it!” A cheer erupted as the hipster’s humiliated friends hustled him out of the venue and Birdcloud got down to business once more.

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green and Jasmin Kaset) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green and Jasmin Kaset) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Running through a set that included enough politically incorrect lyrics and imagery to make Jenna Jameson blush and the ACLU’s collective heads explode, Green and Kaset played coy with the audience (and each other), with a wink and a grin and a middle finger that was rigid and stiff (Zappa fans will understand that one) aimed right at the heart of corporate Country music and small minded humans everywhere. Whether those small minded humans included members of the duo’s family or are just indicative of small town America in general, the defiantly anthemic “I Like Black Guys” was hilariously on-point. Other pokes in the eye of respectability included “Ice Balls,” “Warshin’ My Big Ol’ Pussy” and “Do What I Want,” which had the ladies mimicking big-time Country and Rock stars, as Mackenzie reached around Jasmin from behind to play a solo on the latter’s guitar; the act, naturally, turned into a bit – an indictment, if you will, of the excesses of stardom – as Green began to crawl up and over, wrapping her legs around Kaset before they fell to the stage, laughing. An unexpected diversion from the set list was “Cool Christmas,” the new single, which goes from delicate and sweet to raging punk screams and back again. The encore, “Saving Myself For Jesus,” according to some, borders on sacrilege, though the message rings all-too true: Jasmin and Mackenzie relate all of the nasty, violent sexual acts that a young girl would be okay with, but… “My hymen belongs to Jesus” and “You’ll be so glad that we waited.” The couple of guys who had been yelling to see the ladies’ posteriors finally got their wish… kinda. With Jasmin on her knees, Mackenzie began to pull down her shorts, revealing… a harmonica harness placed just about so high; the giggles almost got the better of the two as Kaset began playing a solo. The song ended, once again, with the pair on the floor, laughing.

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green and Jasmin Kaset) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green and Jasmin Kaset) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Honestly, this type of music isn’t for everybody; if you or your rainbow-colored unicorn are easily offended, stay away… don’t be so serious, have a little fun and have a laugh at your own expense. It does the body good. Oh, and by the way, the twenty-something hipsters were – by-and-large – pretty cool, except for a few self-important ideologues and one drunken lout (who was still standing outside the venue with a bewildered look on his face after the show). If you missed this one, everybody is coming back relatively soon: Birdcloud is opening for Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room on November 20th; Mountain Sprout are headlining a show at Off Broadway on December 12th; and, Blaine Cartwright is back with Nashville Pussy, opening for Reverend Horton Heat, at the Ready Room on February 6th.


DOUBLE THE PLEASURE: THE ZACK MURPHY INTERVIEW

BLACKFOOT GYPSIES AT THE DEMO, OCTOBER 11

BG Demo

Having been introduced to the Nashville band Blackfoot Gypsies, via their recently released second long-player, HANDLE IT, I have been on the lookout (begging their publicist, actually) for a Saint Louis date. That date has arrived! The newly engorged group will be playing at the Demo – on Manchester, in the Grove – this Sunday, October 11, 2015. For tickets, directions and everything you need to know about the show, check out the Demo’s site.

Founding members guitarist and vocalist Matthew Paige and drummer Zack Murphy have added bassist Dylan Whitlow and harmonica player Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton to the mix, freeing the duo up to concentrate on their instruments of choice (Matthew has added the fiddle to his instrument list) without sacrificing the larger, fuller sound that they are known for. The ten tracks on HANDLE IT range from Country to New Orleans Blues, Nashville Soul to straight out Rock ‘n’ Roll… sometimes, all within the course of one song. “Scream My Name” opens the album with a dose of RAW POWER-era Stooges punk; Paige’s fiddle and over-dubbed harmony vocals give “Spent All My Money” an authentic Country feel, while “In Your Mind” is a Stonesy “Gimme Shelter” rocker. There are Steve Marriott/Humble Pie hard rock tunes (“Dead On the Road”), a pop ditty that I find rather reminiscent of PET SOUNDS-era Beach Boys or, believe it or not, early Sonny and Cher (“So Be It”) and a slice of punky Americana (“Too Bad”), all of which I’m certain will sound great in a live setting. In anticipation and preparation for a night of bluesy, rockin’ Country hippified honky-tonk, I sent a few questions to the band via e-mail; Zack Murphy replied. Here’s that interview, wherein Murphy discusses the new dynamics in the band and what we can look forward to on a Sunday night in the Lou.

Blackfoot Gypsies (HANDLE IT cover art)

Blackfoot Gypsies (HANDLE IT cover art)

THE MULE: One of the biggest recent changes has been the doubling of the band, going from a duo to a quartet. What prompted the change?

ZACK MURPHY: Nothing other than finding the right people. We wanted to have a full band all along. At first, it just meant Matthew and I. After we found Dylan and Ollie Dogg, it was a perfect and natural fit, so there was really no reason not to add them. They have enhanced our sound so much, we would’ve made a mistake not to add them.

THE MULE: Discuss how the change in the band’s make-up has impacted the over-all sound of the group’s performances, both in the studio and in a live setting.

ZACK MURPHY: Matthew and I don’t have to worry about filling out the sound as much. We can play what we would normally want to play for each of our parts instead of having to also worry about if the sound is too sparse or not full enough. Also, Dylan plays better bass parts than either of us would, and Ollie Dogg plays better harmonica than either of us would, so that definitely helps in the studio.

THE MULE: How has your approach to writing changed since the additions of Dylan and Ollie? Is there more of a group approach with the new songs on HANDLE IT?

ZACK MURPHY: Definitely. Matthew writes the lyrics and such and then the band kinda shapes the song after that with all of our parts and we arrange and change and figure out a good foundation for the song. The songs never stop changing and growing cuz we like to play them at least a little, if not a lot, differently each time. But yeah, they have helped change what we would normally play, write, think of, et cetera.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow, Zack Murphy, Oliver "Ollie Dogg" Horton) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)

Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow, Zack Murphy, Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)

THE MULE: The new music has sort of a very modern feel and sheen, production-wise, but the lyrics and the vibe are very much based in traditional Blues and Country. Can you give us a bit of insight into the things that have been most influential in giving Blackfoot Gypsies their sound?

ZACK MURPHY: Real music made by real people. We aren’t going for a vintage or modern vibe, we’re simply trying to be our own natural selves. Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country and Blues… it’s all there and it pretty much is the same stuff. It’s what we do best. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just make it move and groove.

THE MULE: Plowboy Records is a relatively new label run by veteran musicians and long-time industry insiders. What considerations went into the thought process of signing with a small indie label? How did the past experiences of Don (Cusic, who has worked in virtually every aspect of the music industry in a career spanning more than forty years), Shannon (Pollard, a thirty year music veteran and grandson of Country great Eddy Arnold) and Cheetah (Chrome, a co-founder of Cleveland’s legendary punks, the Dead Boys, as well as a producer and solo artist) influence that decision?

ZACK MURPHY: They just seemed really cool and laid back. Obviously they all knew the business, which has helped a ton, but they weren’t looking for a bunch of stuff that they could take from us and it seemed like a real natural and easy fit. Each one of those guys brings a lot of good experience to the table, so it’s nice to have them on our team.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Oliver "Ollie Dogg" Horton, Zack Murphy, Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)

Blackfoot Gypsies (Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton, Zack Murphy, Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)

THE MULE: When was the last time you played Saint Louis? Can you give us an idea of what we can expect when you play the Demo on Sunday night?

ZACK MURPHY: To shake your ass. We haven’t played STL since summer of 2014, so we’re pumped like Arnold to be back. We’re playin’ with some friends, Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals, so it’ll be nice to see those guys. Bring the confetti, we’ll bring the pinata. It’s gonna be a real good time, so treat yo’ self.

THE MULE: The tour runs through just before Christmas. What’s next for Blackfoot Gypsies?

ZACK MURPHY: Currently, we’re planning a European tour for 2016 and working on the next album. We are writing, rehearsing, and recording songs for the new album as we speak.

Thanks, Zack, for taking the time to answer these few questions. We look forward to seeing Blackfoot Gypsies at the Demo on Sunday!

You can order a copy of HANDLE IT on vinyl or CD at the band’s site, at Plowboy Records’ site or you can probably pick one up at the show. Come up and say “Howdy” if you make it out… I’ll be the guy right in front of the stage, drooling like an idjit.