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Country Rock

THE DOMINO KINGS: THE DOMINO KINGS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(BLACKBERRY WAY RECORDS; 2019)

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

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

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

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

MICHAEL OWENS (photo credit: LARRY HUTCHINSON)

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

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

UPCOMING: THE VANDOLIERS

(12 July, 2019; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

Two of my favorite things converge on Friday, July 12: Bloodshot Records and Old Rock House. The former is represented by the self-proclaimed “Converse cowboys,” the Dallas-Fort Worth band, the VANDOLIERS; the latter is one of my favorite places in the Lou to experience live music. The band is opening for PARKER MCCOLLUM, an artist of some repute in his own right, and touring in support of their third album and Bloodshot debut, FOREVER. As if you’re gonna need another reason to head out to the super-cool Old Rock House for this show, here’s a brief description from the band’s bio: “It’s twang and tattoos, grit and guitars, honky-tonk and horns, Tejano and Telecasters.” What more could you ask for on a Friday night?

NEIL YOUNG/JOHN HAMMOND

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

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

NEIL YOUNG (photo credit: THRASHER)

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

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

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

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

NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)

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

GREGG ALLMAN: SOUTHERN BLOOD

(ROUNDER RECORDS/CONCORD RECORDS; 2017)

SOUTHERN BLOOD is a fitting last release for the star-crossed survivor, Gregg Allman. Allman was quite ill and he knew that this would be his last record, a final goodbye to his fans, a love letter to family and friends. As his son, Devon, writes in the liner notes. “What you hold in your hands is our father’s last statement. He wanted to leave you a most poignant, soulful and deep parting gift as he left us all.” The album is filled with great tunes – most of them covers – done in that inimitable Allman style, with that whiskey voice and Southern growl, maybe a little weaker due to his failing health but unmistakable, nonetheless. That style made him a true rock legend, alongside his brother, Duane, and their prototype for Southern Rock and Blues, the Allman Brothers Band. His band – Steve Potts and Marc Quinones on drums and percussion, Ronald Johnson on bass, Peter Levin on keyboards, a horn section of Jay Collins, Marc Franklin and Art Edmaiston and musical director Scott Sharrard on guitar – offer just the right tone and backing for such an important project.

GREGG ALLMAN (photo credit: PATRICIA O’DRISCOLL)

The covers range from Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” and Willie Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live” to Bob Dylan’s, “Going Going Gone” and Lowell George’s “Willin’,” songs that leave the listener with a bitter-sweet feeling, as they all – in one way or another – deal with endings and loss and loneliness. One of the most powerful songs on SOUTHERN BLOOD is the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” as Gregg sings “I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And dream me a dream of my own.” What an emotional, draining song, with a mournful pedal steel part provided by Greg Leisz. Jackson Browne guests on his own “Song For Adam,” possibly the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful lament as, according to producer Don Was, “Gregg always loved this song because it reminded him of his brother, Duane. When he gets to the line ‘Still it seems that he stopped singing in the middle of his song,’ you can here him choke up and falter.” Was says that they never got to finish the song’s last two lines and feels that it was a “poetic way for him to make his exit.” Definitely a fitting end to a storied career and a final album.

GREGG ALLMAN (photo credit: MATT BUTLER)

Like David Bowie before him, Gregg Allman knew this would be his final statement and he put everything – his heart, his soul – into it. It will stand as a great, lasting testament to Gregg and his phenomenal legacy. His life and his legacy can best be summed up in the record’s opening cut, an original called “My Only True Friend.” If these lyrics don’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing will: “Keep me in your heart/Keep your soul on the mend,” “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul/When I’m gone,” “I can’t bear to think this might be the end” and “Still on and on I run/It feels like home is just around the bend/I got so much left to give/But I’m running out of time, my friend.” Rest well, friend. Enjoy that reunion with Duane and Barry.

ALL THEM WITCHES/RANCH GHOST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

BLACKFOOT GYPSIES/BROTHER LEE AND THE LEATHER JACKALS

(October 11, 2015; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

The Wall Between

I am continually dumbfounded by this area’s music fans; things like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Bruce Springsteen can sell out arenas, sometimes multiple nights in a row and everybody seems willing to turn out for a cover band playing in the corner of a bar somewhere but, a band like Blackfoot Gypsies plays to a nearly empty club on their first trip to Saint Louis in over a year. Yeah… I’m talking about you. You know who you are and so do I… ’cause you weren’t at the Demo last Sunday to catch what turned out to be one heck of a show!

Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals (Josh Eaker; Danny Blaies; Sean Kimble) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals (Josh Eaker; Danny Blaies; Sean Kimble) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Gypsies hand-picked some old friends, locals Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals to open. The now-three piece have somehow managed to elude me to this point but, what a great band! Guitarist Josh Eaker hit the distort pedal before charging into the first song, “Outlaw Revival,” and didn’t touch it the rest of the night; the effect was a dense, late ’60s-early ’70s hard rock/boogie sound… think Leslie West during his Mountain-eering days, the Groundhogs’ Tony McPhee or that dirty sound Tony Iommi had on the first Black Sabbath record. The same era seemed to reference Eaker’s dress and facial hair; at first I was thinking of Lemmy in Motorhead’s early days but, it suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at a Duane Allman/Eric Clapton kinda hybrid. But, the question is… can the guy play? The short answer is, “Yes!” Give a listen to something like “Waltz Upon a Time In Mexico” or “Xanax and Cigarettes” or the drunken revelry of the bluesy Country sing-along, “Boredom Leads To the Bottle” and tell me that this sludgy, seemingly sloppy style doesn’t evoke the heavy psychedelic sound of the time period and the players listed above. By the way, Josh also acts as the power trio’s singer, with a voice that is a ragged approximation of George Harrison with a bit of John Lennon’s growl. As impressive as Eaker’s performance was, I haven’t even mentioned the rhythm section. Sean Kimble’s bass rumbled underneath, occasionally pinning the melody of a number, allowing Eaker to solo over the top; to call Kimble’s playing “gymnastic” in style would not be an exaggeration. Drummer Danny Blaies is so much more than a time-keeper, pummeling his kit like Keith Moon on steroids one minute, finessing it like the great Uriel Jones or Richard “Pistol” Allen of the legendary Motown backing band, the Funk Brothers. The give-and-take between Danny and Sean, as mentioned above, allowed Josh to take off on his incredible flights of fancy, knowing that when he needed them, they could draw him back into their miasmic groove. I know that, in Rock and Roll, no one player is irreplaceable, but I have a hard time imagining this group in any other configuration than Danny Blaies, Josh Eaker and Sean Kimble. Having found Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals, I cannot wait to hear where they go from here, either live or in a studio.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As ramshackle as the opening act was, the first couple of tunes of Blackfoot Gypsies’ set was even more chaotic and disheveled. With bassist Dylan Whitlow stalking in the shadows, stage left, harp blower Ollie “Dogg” Horton hiding out in the corner, stage right and Zack Murphy furiously attacking his drum kit behind him, vocalist and guitarist Matthew Paige is the consummate front-man, his strange, stream-of-consciousness banter and introductions the perfect match for his manic footwork and brilliant slide playing; he also bears a striking resemblance to both Slade’s Noddy Holder and the “Sunshine Superman” himself, Donovan Leitch, right down to Donovan’s hippy-chic couture. Paige also possesses a high, kind of nasally vocal style that is more than a little reminiscent of a very young Bob Dylan. Even as the music began to gel on stage, Matthew remained purposefully oblique regarding his stage patois, leaving the entire room feeling that he was playing and goofing just for them… a rare talent, not often seen with today’s disposable, cookie-cutter singers. Gypsies co-founder Murphy, a Hawaiian-shirted caveman, laid down a ferocious backbeat that never seemed to lose that Stonesy, bluesy groove no matter how hard he hit; Whitlow matched Zack’s groove, falling into that pocket that only the best rhythm section duos can find (in fact, while Murphy is more of a powerhouse style drummer than the Stones’ Charlie Watts, he and Dylan locked into what the other was doing in a way very similar to the way Watts and Bill Wyman did during their late ’60s-early ’70s heyday). Ollie offered a welcome change of pace on harmonica, never overpowering the other players, as can often happen, especially when soloing (I know that Blues Traveler and John Popper is a completely different animal, but listen to that band and listen to what Horton does with the Gypsies and you’ll understand what I’m talking about).

Blackfoot Gypsies (Zack Murphy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Blackfoot Gypsies (Zack Murphy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band didn’t seem to have an official set list (none were visible onstage, anyway), with either Zack or Matthew suggesting a song, giving the key to Ollie and Dylan and charging into whatever tune was named. The set included several numbers from HANDLE IT, the group’s new record; those tunes included “Spent All My Money,” “Scream My Name,” “Dead On the Road,” “Pork Rind” and “Under My Skin,” all of which bristled with an urgency that you just don’t get from a studio recording. Another newish tune, “Everybody’s Watching,” is an infectious stomper with a Memphis soul groove that can be found on a split compilation called PIZZA PARTY, VOLUME 1 (three tracks each from four different bands); the call and response vocals between Paige and Whitlow add a nice layer to the group’s already solid sound. It seemed as though, whether he was rolling around the stage or on his knees or prancing around like a demented Mick Jagger, Matthew was capable of delivering spot-on solos, mostly – but not confined to – of the slide variety… there’s just something about the sound of a slide guitar or dobro that really gets to me and, Matthew’s affected me more than most.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Dylan Whitlow) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Blackfoot Gypsies (Dylan Whitlow) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

My favorite moments of the show came when the band covered a song called “Charlie’s Blues” by a band called Denny and the Jets, as well as an unrecorded (and as yet, untitled?) Gypsies number about the insanity of celebrity. “Charlie’s Blues” is a wicked funny kinda drunken Country Blues that enumerates the lifelong string of events and misery that has given Charlie such a bad case of the blues, including Charlie’s wife driving the family pick-up (three kids included) into the lake and Charlie’s rodeo clown brother meeting his demise in the arms of another woman; the crowd response was rather like the song itself, with drunken hoots and hollers to match the depressing revelry coming from the stage. The other song features a chorus that goes “I wanna be famous/For bein’ famous/For bein’ famous/For nothing at all,” which turned into a great sing-along as the sparse but energetic crowd began to loosen up and appreciate what was happening on stage.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Ollie Dogg Horton) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Blackfoot Gypsies (Ollie Dogg Horton) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Speaking of what was happening on stage, Paige’s unwavering enthusiasm seemed almost to wear down the audience, rather than infect them; a shame, really, as these guys left everything they had on that stage. Please, Saint Louis, don’t be the kind of town that bands like Blackfoot Gypsies scratch off of their tour itineraries because you can’t be bothered to get out on a beautiful fall Sunday to be entertained by live music in a great setting… it’s already happened with bigger, more established bands, who will play Chicago and Kansas City and, if they play a show in between, it’s usually in Springfield (IL or MO) or Columbia. That’s just sad!

DEVIL CITY ANGELS: DEVIL CITY ANGELS

(CENTURY MEDIA RECORDS; 2015)

Devil City Angels

Devil City Angels is band with a past. Quite a few pasts, actually. Guitarist Tracii Guns was the guiding light and creative force behind LA Guns (as well as the “Guns” in Guns ‘n’ Roses, though he left and was replaced by some guy named Slash before that group released their first record); Rikki Rockett has seen the highs and lows of Poison’s thirty year career from his drum riser; bassist Eric Brittingham (who left the band shortly after the album’s completion and has been replaced by Rudy Sarzo, who also has a long resume in the hard rock arena) is a wandering soul, founding the bands Cinderella and Naked Beggars, as well as playing in various superstar groups over his thirty-plus year career. Eric was asked along for this ride by his Cheap Thrill bandmate and Angels vocalist, Brandon Gibbs. Okay… now that you’re caught up, let’s look at the band’s new album.

Devil City Angels, 2014  (Eric Brittingham, Rikki Rockett, Brandon Gibbs, Tracii Guns) (photo credit: FABIAN MARTORELL)
Devil City Angels, 2014 (Eric Brittingham, Rikki Rockett, Brandon Gibbs, Tracii Guns) (photo credit: FABIAN MARTORELL)

Remember that album that the Crue did with John Corabi on vocals? You know the one I’m talkin’ about… the REALLY good one. DEVIL CITY ANGELS starts off with that type of heavy duty rock and great vocals. “Numb,” the opening cut, will leave you anything but with its hard rockin’ kick in the teeth. The first single, “All My People,” has an undeniable groove and serves as well as anything as DCA’s mission statement: “We’re here, you’re here, these are my people.” With “Boneyard,” it’s obvious that this band is not living in the past. The track – along with several others – has a slight modern Country sound that isn’t unappealing, with enough firepower from these veterans to keep even the most diehard rocker happy; Guns’ guitars, in particular, stand out, with a jangly sorta solo that works really well. By the way, this “Boneyard” ain’t exactly the one you’re likely to conjure up in your mind. Featuring another solid solo from Guns, “I’m Living,” is a bluesy pop thing with a nice vocal groove.

No Angels” is kind of an updated, harder rocking version of the Monkees and… I’m totally okay with that. There’s a sort of Country power ballad thing happening on “Goodbye Forever.” I don’t want you guys to think that I’m trashing this band (or Country music, for that matter) when I make that comparison. I’m not. I’m just giving you as close a reference point as I can so you can make what I hope is an informed decision about this record. Having said that, the Country references are back for “Ride With Me,” which, musically, reminds me of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” Brandon’s lyrics are definitely steeped in modern Country but, Rikki’s powerhouse drumming and Tracii’s screaming solos give the whole thing a hard rock sheen.

Devil City Angels, 2015 (Rudy Sarzo, Brandon Gibbs, Tracii Guns, Rikki Rockett) (publicity photo)
Devil City Angels, 2015 (Rudy Sarzo, Brandon Gibbs, Tracii Guns, Rikki Rockett) (photo credit: RON LYON)

All I Need” is a bizarre sunshine daydream of a bubblegum pop ballad, highlighted by Brittingham’s fun bass line, yet another great guitar part from Guns and some trippy production effects. Could “Back To The Drive” be a sequel to Suzi Quatro’s “Devil Gate Drive?” Probably not but, it is definitely a throwback to that early ’70s Glam sound; it does share certain musical attributes with the Quatro classic. There’s a bouncy bass part, some wicked guitar, gang vocals and even the chorus seems to recall the chorus of the earlier song. “Bad Decisions” closes the album and seems to be the one song that best embodies the collective pasts of Devil City Angels better than any other. There’s a certain joyful reckless abandon here that encompassed the entire early “hair metal” era that saw the rise of bands like Ratt, Motley Crue and, yes, Poison and Cinderella. Personally, I’m glad that the band didn’t feel a need to revisit past accomplishments but, instead, forged a new path, utilizing a plethora of musical styles to give us a thoroughly modern rock and roll sound.

WISHBONE ASH; WISHBONE ASH/MATT TAUL

(September 12, 2015; September 13, 2015; THE WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville IL)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check at the Wildey Theatre (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check at the Wildey Theatre (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

What can conceivably be better than seeing Wishbone Ash live? Why, seeing Wishbone Ash live two nights in a row, of course! Now, I loves me some Wishbone Ash but, this isn’t going to be a fan-boy rant about how great it was to see a band play the exact same show two nights in a row… because it wasn’t the same show two nights in a row. Night two at the beautiful Wildey Theatre was a recent addition to the group’s schedule and a bit of a departure from the regular ROAD WARRIORS TOUR; in the middle of the set, the band played their crowning achievement, ARGUS, from front to back… well, kinda (more on that later). This was my first Wildey experience and, I must admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The recently (2010) renovated Wildey began life in 1909 as a vaudeville theater and now serves as a live venue for music, comedy and stage plays, as well as a movie theater, showing classics from the not-too-distant past (we just missed PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE; MEAN GIRLS is upcoming). The seating capacity is somewhere around 300, give or take, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house; the sound is phenomenal. So… what am I trying to say? Well… I like this place. I really like this place! And, apparently, so do a lot of… uh… let’s call them “well established” acts, as the Wildey continues to show up on tour itineraries for Savoy Brown, Dave Mason, Gypsy and, yes, Wishbone Ash.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check (Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check (Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Both nights featured a VIP ticket option (something a lot of bands are doing in an effort to keep regular ticket prices more affordable), including a meet and greet session with the band, a “sound check” with original guitarist Andy Powell offering up anecdotes from the group’s forty-six year career and answering questions from the fans. The quartet also played snippets of rarely played favorites from that long career. Unfortunately, we didn’t get into the first night’s session in time to catch anything other than a few questions; the second night, however, featured a bit of “Lady Whisky,” from the first Wishbone Ash record, and a verse and chorus from “Ballad of the Beacon,” which comes from my all-time favorite album from the group, WISHBONE FOUR. Everybody – including Andy and his boys – seemed to have a great time in this informal setting.

Wishbone Ash, night 1 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell; Andy Powell with Bob Skeat) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 1 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell; Andy Powell with Bob Skeat) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The first evening’s set began with three tunes from the latest album, 2014’s BLUE HORIZON, including the jazzy island vibe of the title track. Unlike a lot of other “classic” artists, Wishbone Ash have continually been able to introduce new material to their live sets rather than simply relying on their past achievements; of course, the fact that they continue to place a premium on producing high quality music certainly doesn’t hurt. Most of the set, naturally, was made up of songs from the first several years of the band’s existence, including a favorite from 1979’s JUST TESTING, “Helpless,” several songs from ARGUS, “Jail Bait” from the PILGRIMAGE record and a fiery (pun definitely intended) “Phoenix” from WISHBONE ASH. This Wishbone Ash is the real deal, no pale imitator of the band’s earlier incarnations; they have been together for some ten years, more than twice as long as the original group (Andy Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner and Steve Upton). Even adding the service time of the second version of the group (with Laurie Wisefield taking over Ted Turner’s guitar spot), this band matches both together for longevity… they know how to put on a show. In an interview before the shows, Andy commented on the “youngster” of the band, drummer Joe Crabtree, as being half his age and “kicking him up the arse,” both on stage and in the studio. Andy’s guitar-slinging partner, Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen (who physically reminded me of the sorely missed Glen Buxton), more than upholds his end of the band’s innovative dual lead sound; he can also lay down a brilliantly bluesy solo when required. Aside from Andy, bass player Bob Skeat is the longest tenured member of the group, at eighteen years and counting. He and Crabtree are a formidable rhythm section, keeping the sound tight even as they add their own flairs to the most well-known numbers from the band’s illustrious past. I should note that a collective groan went up from the crowd when Andy broke a string and had to put aside his Flying V before launching into “Phoenix.” That guitar body has become synonymous with Andy Powell and Wishbone Ash and watching the man playing something other than that guitar was sorta strange,

Matt Taul (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Matt Taul (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Night two was a different beast. The first night was broken up into two sets of roughly fifty minutes each; this night featured an opening act and one ninety minute set from the headliners. Matt Taul, of the Stubblefield Band, offered a serviceable (if rather uninspired) acoustic set, augmented by hot-shot guitarist Phil Waits, who did exhibit a bit of fire with his lead work and solos. To be fair to Taul, I think that this acoustic outing may not have been the best option as an opener for a group like Wishbone Ash. His evocative, raspy rock growl was just so out of place with the folky playing (Waits’ stellar picking notwithstanding) on display throughout the set.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Ash opened night two with the same three BLUE HORIZON tunes before introducing the tour’s only North American performance of the entire ARGUS album. Predictably, the earlier question and answer session revolved around the evening’s special event; Andy related the band’s literary influences for the seven songs on their third album (a fascination with Tolkein and Arthurian legend, as well as Martin Turner’s study of the Bible). Even though these things were obvious when ARGUS was released in 1972, hearing the stories made me listen to things a little differently… shining a new light (THE light?) on the familiar songs. After a brilliant “Time Was,” Powell led the band into “Blowin’ Free.” He didn’t realize his mistake until Skeat whispered in his ear that he had forgotten the record’s second song, “Sometime World.” Joking about his earlier rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and his advanced age, Andy set things right, in a backward kind of way. With the program back on track, Andy reminded us ALL just how old we are, by mentioning that it was time to flip the record to side two for “The King Will Come.” Aside from the lyrical themes and reliance on traditional English folk music for inspiration, the album is known for the extended instrumental sections, particularly on “Warrior,” one of the hardest rocking tunes out of the seven. Watching Andy (with his trademark Flying V, though not the famed white one he used during the band’s early years) and Muddy lock into a harmonic groove or seeing one of the pair break away for a nearly note-perfect solo, with Bob and Joe laying down a solid bottom end, was definitely a highlight of the show.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Having thrilled the crowd with ARGUS, the band returned to the new BLUE HORIZON album, as well as dipping into one of their more overlooked releases with the title tune from 1977’s FRONT PAGE NEWS and ending with an even better version of “Phoenix” than they played the previous evening. They returned with a pair of rarely performed numbers for an encore, “Persephone” from THERE’S THE RUB, the band’s first with Laurie Wisefield, and “Blind Eye” from the venerable debut release. “Persephone” is perhaps one of the finest ballads of the “arena rock” era and was a request from the earlier VIP session; when Powell asked the gentleman why he requested that particular tune, he said that it was the most beautiful song he’d ever heard. Andy, visibly taken aback at the pronouncement, could only say, “Wow.” When the number was over, there were more than a few members of the audience seconding that response. “Blind Eye” exhibits the earliest progressive proclivities of the band, but is also an astonishingly effective example of Wishbone Ash’s contributions to the British Blues Movement, with great harmony leads from Manninen and Powell and solos from all four members of the group.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell with Muddy Manninen; Bob Skeat) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell with Muddy Manninen; Bob Skeat) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

I’d seen the band once before, in 1993, on a package tour with Uriah Heep and Nazareth (Blue Oyster Cult was a no-show) but, that version (featuring only Ted and Andy from the recently reunited original four) paled in comparison to the Wishbone Ash beast on display over these two nights in mid-September, 2015. And, while the heart pines for the chance to see the original four perform again, I don’t hear any complaints (nor do I have any) about the four guys who pulled out all the stops to give their fans the music they wanted to hear.