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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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-like “Death 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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 playerMackenzie 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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 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.
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) (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.
(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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Nineteen years on and… I’ve finally made it to a TWANGFEST show! Sure, I was gonna go anyway; I mean… Cracker AND Marah, on the same bill, right? It had been some thirteen years since I last saw Cracker live (at the still-lamented Mississippi Nights) and longer still since I’d seen Marah (a very different version of the band onstage tonight opened for Union at Pop’s in 2000). The packed floor at Off Broadway signalled only one thing: Opening night of TWANGFEST 19 was gonna be one big party!
Grace Basement (Kevin Buckley and Greg Lamb) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Local group Grace Basement were a surprising party favor… not simply because I didn’t know that there would be a third act on the bill, but also because I liked them so much. Spiritual leader, singer, songwriter and guitarist Kevin Buckley’s background in folk music is definitely on display in a live setting, but his voice has a bit more bite and his electric guitar is a bit more explosive than anything from Grace Basement’s latest recorded output, 2013’s WHEEL WITHIN A WHEEL. This night, Buckley was ably augmented by guitarist Marc Schneider, bassist Greg Lamb, keyboardist Tim Sullivan and the group’s not-so-secret weapon, drummer Jill Aboussie. The band ambled through – more than they tore through – a set that featured as many new tunes as songs from the three previous Grace Basement releases, with Aboussie, Sullivan and Lamb supplying a rock-steady underpinning over which Buckley and Schneider could weave their rather unique, rocking guitar sound.
Grace Basement (Jill Aboussie; Kevin Buckley; Marc Schneider) (photo Credits: DARREN TRACY)
It would have been easy for the group to rein in their sound, giving the crowd more approximate versions of the familiar songs but, when emotion and the reaction of a packed house kicked in, the vocals became gruffer, more immediate and the guitars louder and, at times, snottier than the gentle, lilting tones and melodic voices generally associated with Buckley’s more recent studio work. It’s obvious that Kevin’s dream of turning this outfit into more of a classic guitar rock band – at least in a live setting – is, if not fully realized on this night, close to a reality. That’s not to say that there weren’t gentler moments; the bouncy, happy “Summertime Is Coming” and the Irish folk balladry of “Tilly Lingers” still offered glimpses of Buckley’s work with fellow multi-instrumentalist Ian Walsh. I rather like Buckley’s new, brash configuration of Grace Basement; from the response from the floor, the audience liked the sound, too.
Marah (David Bielanko) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
As suprising as Grace Basment were, perhaps the most surprising set of the evening (for me, anyway) came from David Bielanko and his group, Marah; this is a far different band than the one I saw open for Union (the band that featured guitarist Bruce Kulick and vocalist John Corabi) in 2000. Though Bielanko’s brother Serge is no longer by his side on stage, the band’s music really hasn’t changed all that much but, I suppose, opening for a group with a hard rock pedigree like Union’s, you tend to play more of the loud, guitar-oriented numbers. Tonight, there were no such restrictions, with Bielanko moving deftly from acoustic to electric guitar to banjo; the band (Christine Smith on piano, vocals and accordion; Mark Sosnoski on bass; Chris Rattie on drums) were definitely up to the task, no matter what he asked of them or where he led them.
Marah (Christine Smith) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Appalachian stomp of “Faraway You” (from KIDS IN PHILLY, the band’s 2000 sophomore release) followed by the rollicking barrel roll of “Fever” (the opening track from the debut release, LET’S CUT THE CRAP AND HOOK UP LATER ON TONIGHT) are as powerful an opening salvo as you’re likely to hear anywhere. The intensity and raw emotion on display was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. The emotional musical hotbed saw Bielanko and Smith trading heartfelt vocals on a tune like “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft” one minute, delivering a plaintive version of “The Falling of the Pine” from the audience the next; one minute, David was putting the band through their paces on the incendiary guitar rave-up of “Catfisherman,” the next stretching out on a muscular “Limb.” Bielanko’s passionate performance (and the band’s equally fiery backing) was rewarded with the crowd’s insistent call for an encore, which led to an emotional outpouring (and a pretty funny story about the first time playing in front of a paying crowd sober) from David before diving into a fittingly ramshackle take of “Barstool Boys” (or that coulda taken place earlier in the evening or it coulda been a different story and I’m fairly certain I remember hearing “The History of Where Someone Has Been Killed,” but… then again… ). Though I’m unable to identify each song Marah played that night, the pure passion emanating from the stage was real and palpable; if not the particulars of the evening’s set, I will long remember the visceral high of what was happening on the intimate stage of Off Broadway on June 10, 2015.
Cracker (Johnny Hickman) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
While Grace Basement were indisputably great and Marah were brilliant, it was obvious that these people were here for a little Cracker. And, so… it was on to the evening’s main event. From the outset, vocalist/guitarist David Lowery and lead guitarist/vocalist Johnny Hickman, the band’s only constants and focal points, took control of the crowd, holding most enraptured and hanging on every word, every note. One of the more entertaining things happening onstage was the disappearance and subsequent reappearance of pedal steel player Matt “Pistol” Stoessel, as dictated by the quirky set list, which relied heavily on last year’s BERKELEY TO BAKERSFIELD and, naturally, the “hits,” which were kinda lumped all together mid-set. Pistol started onstage with the rest of the band for “One Fine Day,” from 2002’s FOREVER album and was prominently featured on most of the new material which has more of a countrified vibe.
Cracker (David Lowery) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
For the most part, the rhythm section of keyboard player Robbie Crowell, bassist Bryan Howard and drummer Carlton “Coco” Owens were content to lay back in the pocket, allowing Lowery, Hickman and Stoessel to shine in lead roles. The Hickman sung “California Country Boy,” a rollicking Bakersfield stroll, shone the spotlight on both Crowell and Pistol, with great solos from each. Johnny added just the right amount of twang to his guitar on “King of Bakersfield,” a seeming paean to Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam. The voices of both Lowery and Hickman sounded a bit ragged on this night, at the end of a long tour; that only added to the rough, take-no-prisoners approach to the music, especially on the 1990 “alternative” tunes. Those songs – “Low,” “Sweet Potato,” “This Is Cracker Soul” and “Euro-Trash Girl” – sound as alive and vital as they did the first time we heard them, allowing Howard and Owens to stretch out a bit, especially on the slinky “Euro-Trash Girl.” As always, Johnny Hickman’s guitar work was impeccable, bordering on the sublime, regardless of musical style and it was more than obvious that he and David Lowery were truly enjoying themselves.
What a great way to kick off the four-day TWANGFEST 19! I just wish that I could have made it to the other shows, which featured artists as diverse as the Bottle Rockets, Matthew Sweet, Lydia Loveless and a reunited Nadine, featuring an old friend, Jimmy Griffin. This show, however, will be forever etched into my memory as one of the best I have ever seen… hands down! If you missed it, shame on you.
Arriving late to the venue, seeing the line outside and, later, the crowd inside, this thought kept creeping into my head: “Man… there are certainly more TROOP BEVERLY HILLS fans around than I ever thought possible.” Of course, most of the diverse crowd really had no idea what TROOP BEVERLY HILLS was (if you’re among that group, Google the title… I’ll be here when you get back), they just knew that Jenny Lewis has released some amazing music during her career, including the recent album, THE VOYAGER. I found myself in the midst of some die-hard fans who have been following Lewis’ musical career since TAKE OFFS AND LANDINGS, the 2001 debut release from Rilo Kiley; obviously in the mood for a good time and some great music, my new-found friends welcomed opener Nikki Lane as enthusiastically as they would the headliner later in the evening.
Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
While my first live experience with Nikki Lane had the feel of a last-minute addition to an already announced line-up (it wasn’t exactly that but, it was really close), with Nikki taking the stage in a simple tee shirt and jeans, her opening slot on this tour has the feel of a full-blown Nikki Lane show, with the singer donning an ANNIE OAKLEY (the 1950s television show, not the real thing) style red vest with white fringe, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. That first performance was top-notch but, if you have the opportunity to see Nikki live, this is the Nikki you want. The set didn’t veer too much from last year’s show at the Demo, which really didn’t bother me at all, as the band was tighter and Nikki more aptly displayed the vocal style that has garnered her comparisons to the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. And, of course, her sly sense of humor and superb songwriting skills sure don’t hurt.
Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Once again highlighting tunes from last year’s ALL OR NOTHIN’, Lane and her band tore through a set that included “Man Up,” “Right Time” and the title track, all the while trying to figure out why, no matter how furiously she strummed or how hard she stomped her new pedal board, her guitar seemed to be boycotting the performance (eventually, a tech came on stage to fix the problematic plug, eliciting the usual response from Nikki, a self-effacing quip:”Oh… it does work! I thought you guys just didn’t like my playing.”). Other tunes included “Walk of Shame” (the title tune of her 2011 debut album) along with some new material, planned for record number three. In a set full of highlights, the best moment came as Nikki introduced “Sleep With a Stranger,” saying that a couple of friends were celebrating their wedding anniversary and, when she asked what song they wanted to hear to mark the occasion, “they picked this one. That means that they were fucking before they knew each other, because this next song is about fucking someone you don’t know yet. If there’s anybody out there you don’t know yet, you can tell ’em it was my idea.” Nikki Lane is one fierce country wildcat and, with her band laying down a solid wall of sound behind her, she can pack more music, more downright fun into a forty minute set than most artists can muster in a two hour show. Look for Nikki this June at various festivals before she heads out in July with Social Distortion (for full tour info, go to nikkilane.com).
Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
While not as in-your-face as her opening act, Jenny Lewis, nonetheless put on a spectacular – though rather low key – show. One of the ladies I’d been talking to between sets admitted that she wasn’t all that familiar with Jenny’s solo work, but was hoping that she would be dipping into her Rilo Kiley songbook. She didn’t have long to wait; after “Head Underwater,” the funky, folky opener (and the lead track on THE VOYAGER), Jenny and her band stepped back in time to deliverthe sparkling pop of “Silver Lining” followed the darker groove of “The Moneymaker,” both from the group’s final album, 2007’s UNDER THE BLACKLIGHT. While the set was, for obvious reasons, heavy on material from Jenny’s latest release, the rest of the set seemed to be packed with some of the more adventurous numbers from her earlier projects, including the bluesy sonic meltdown of “The Next Messiah” and the smokey jazz of “Pretty Bird,” both from ACID TONGUE, as well as some more Rilo Kiley like the pristine alterna-pop of “Portions For Foxes” and the haunting lyricism of “With Arms Outstretched” and “A Better Son/Daughter.” Sometimes, as on the blue-eyed soul of “She’s Not Me” or the country pop of “Just One of the Guys,” Lewis’ wry sense of humor gets lost amid the shimmering vocals and superb backing.
Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
As much as her fans adore Jenny Lewis, seeing her live bears witness to the fact that she genuinely loves her fans. When she smiles or waves, the actions are sincere and heartfelt, giving each person in the room the feeling that this moment was intended for them alone; at one point, she took a flower from her piano and handed it to a young lady, stage right and, even if that’s something she does every single night, it felt special and rang true. When, later, she sat facing her bandmates and playfully leaned back, caressing a smitten young man, stage left, the effect was the same. Was she working the room, playing to the crowd? You bet she was! But, it was still one of the most natural, genuine things for her to do, without ever seeming calculated. She also connected with the crowd when she mentioned going for a walk in the city and finding a peach jumpsuit that she just couldn’t resist at the Goodwill store (there’s a picture of guitarist Michael Bloom modeling said garment here). There were plenty of great musical moments, as well, as Jenny has surrounded herself with a group of players who are adept at virtually any style of music. Bloom acts as musical director and lead guitarist, utilizing massive swaths of sound one minute and delivering a cutting solo the next; his guitar partner, Megan McCormick, keeps the rhythm tight, occasionally exploding for her own sonic assault. The rhythm section of keyboardist Natalie Prass, bassist Thomas Taylor and drummer Josh Adams give Lewis, McCormick and Bloom a spongy, fluid bottom-end to work over, each adding their own little flourishes to the mix. By the way, Jenny can definitely hold her own on, not only guitar, but keyboards, as well.
Jenny Lewis with Megan McCormick (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Other than Nikki Lane, I wasn’t quite sure what to expectfrom this show. There was a cool, laid back vibe in the club and the sound was near perfect throughout the evening. Maybe the surprise of the night was the headliner, confident in herself and her band, resplendent in her pastel jacket (with matching guitar), obviously having fun onstage. That’s certainly a great take-away from this show… plus, it’s always nice to make new friends at your job.
Jerry Jeff Walker and Patrick Tourville, 2011 (uncredited photo)
This is the story of two men – two visionaries – and how their lives have intersected, not only with each other but, also with those of us who can appreciate people who are unafraid to “buck the system” for a principle they believe in. Both are steadfast and unwavering in their commitment to doing the right thing and making things better.
The first, an upstate New Yorker named Ronald Crosby, became Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966, embarking on a fifty year (and counting) career of musical and personal highs and lows that can only be described as “legendary.” During his early busking days, Walker landed in a New Orleans jail cell with a down-on-his-luck drunken tap dancer known as Bojangles; Jerry Jeff turned the experience into one of the most recognized songs of the last half-century, “Mister Bojangles.” That experience and that song has colored Jerry Jeff’s career ever since. However, it was the decision to make Austin, Texas his home base that thrust Walker into the forefront of the outlaw country movement, along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Ray Benson’s Asleep At the Wheel. Suddenly, the wayward troubadour found himself on the major label treadmill, cranking out an album (or two) a year for MCA and, later, Elektra, throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. During this time, an angel named Susan came into his life, grounding and stabilizing the wild life Walker had led for most of his adult life. As the grind of being a major label recording artist began to take its toll, Jerry Jeff, with Susan’s blessing, walked away from the insanity in 1982. In 1986, Jerry Jeff and Susan Walker formed Tried and True Music, an independent label dedicated to releasing new music from Jerry Jeff, on their own terms. Always being a man who believed in causes and, looking for a way to give back, the couple eventually founded the Tried and True Foundation, which is a reflection of their commitment to the fostering of young musicians’ talents.
Jerry Jeff Walker onstage (uncredited photo)
Those final few sentences lead us, quite naturally, to the second visionary: Filmmaker Patrick Tourville. Patrick was introduced to the music of Jerry Jeff Walker through his first MCA Records album and that record’s lead track, “Hill Country Rain.” A couple decades later, with Patrick already a well-respected commercial director, he was contacted by a large telecom conglomerate to produce a spot to sell their company to the Texas audience; as Tourville pitched his concepts to a room of suits, he found that he had a divided audience – half of the Board loved the idea, the other half weren’t completely sold. Eventually, the company’s president (an old friend of Patrick’s) suggested Patrick approach Jerry Jeff and ask him to appear in the commercial. Tourville contacted Susan (who has been Jerry Jeff’s manager for quite some time) with the proposal; when it came time to talk money, Patrick said that he knew the company had set aside a certain amount of funding to go to Walker; Susan countered with, “I think they have this to offer, so let’s meet in the middle and be finished.” From that short phone conversation, a friendship and a true kinship of hearts and minds developed. As Patrick became more involved with societal and political issues, he began seeking out projects that would truly uplift, rather than simply promote. The real Jerry Jeff Walker story is much deeper than a simple retelling of the career of a sometimes out-of-control singer/songwriter; at the heart of Jerry Jeff’s tale is a story of redemption and salvation, a story of a man wanting to do better and, above all else, a love story. These are the things that brought a well-respected filmmaker named Patrick Tourville to direct OK BUCKAROOS. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and fleshed out via several phone conversations with Patrick. But, first…
A REVIEW: OK BUCKAROOS
(PUBLIK PICTURES/TRIED AND TRUE MUSIC (121 minutes; Unrated); 2014)
OK BUCKAROOS is a straight-forward biographical sketch of one of the founding engineers of what has become known as “Outlaw Country,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Director Patrick Tourville, thankfully, doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on some of Jerry Jeff’s more widely publicized proclivities, highlighting the under-publicized family man and champion of the underdog aspects of his life that make him a much more interesting and uplifting subject... I mean, if you wanna see a musician self-explode, you can catch that any night of the week on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or VH1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC. Along the way, however, we do get to see some of those wild stage performances and antics that Walker was so famous for, through archival footage from his Gonzo heyday. Through interviews with Jerry Jeff and his wife of 41 years, Susan, as well as friends and fellow musicians, we get a true vision of the creative and influential mark that Walker has left on popular American music.
Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson on the set of THE TEXAS CONNECTION, 1992 (publicity photo)
Interspersed with those manic snippets (and later, more laid back, elder statesman performances) of Jerry Jeff onstage, with friends such as Bob Livingstone and Gary P Nunn and the Lost Gonzo Band or with legends like Willie Nelson, are also intimate solo acoustic performances – reminiscences, really – from the man himself, giving new depth and insight into the song and the songwriter. Archival interviews with Walker, Guy Clark, Jimmy Buffett and Kris Kristofferson and new musings and stories from singer/songwriters influenced by Jerry Jeff like Todd Snider and Bruce Robison and from old friends likeRay Wylie Hubbard (who wrote that song about the “Redneck Mother”). The eagle-eyed will recognize David Bromberg, iconic Austin musician Joe Ely and others among the mass of humanity onstage with Jerry Jeff and, variably, the Interchangeable Dance Band or the Lost Gonzo Band from some of those early live clips.
Patrick Tourville with Ray Wylie Hubbard (publicity still)
Patrick Tourville has gone above and beyond with OK BUCKAROOS, digging deep and hitting the right nerves to bring out the story and the man behind some of the greatest American music written in the past fifty-plus years. Being a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker since my brother played RIDIN’ HIGH for me back in 1975, this film has certainly given me a new appreciation for his music and for who he has become over those passing years. OK BUCKAROOS should be required viewing for anyone interested in music or a career in music; the film offers valuable life and business lessons from a man who has looked at life from the bottom of the pile and from the top of the heap. As a cautionary tale or as a redemptive love story, the documentary works on enough levels to keep even non-fans interested. By the way, there are several bonus music-only videos (“Mister Bojangles,” “Hill Country Rain” and others), from live shows in 1982 and 2009… they’re great additions to the package. OK BUCKAROOS is available here and at all the usual locations.
Patrick Tourville (publicity photo)
THE MULE: Patrick, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about the Jerry Jeff Walker documentary, OK BUCKAROOS. Despite some moderate successes in the ’70s, Jerry Jeff Walker isn’t exactly a household name. So, how did you come to direct and co-write a documentary about the man? What initially drew you to the project?
PATRICK: I won’t guess at your age, but assume your location. If you were “of age” in the early seventies and living in Texas, Jerry Jeff was huge. So, my household included Jerry Jeff, along with my Rolling Stones and my sister’s Beatles; so, it’s one of those “you had to be there” stories. However, something “household wise” was happening or all the fat cats from LA would not have descended on the Austin scene, en masse.
I was lucky. There are two songs that are seminal in my early (transistor) radio experience: “ …Satisfaction” and “Hill Country Rain.”
THE MULE: While Jerry Jeff certainly isn’t a recluse, he is a man who doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself. How was he convinced that his was a story that needed to be told? And, equally as important, how did you convince him that you were the person to tell that story?
PATRICK: Susan… PERIOD! I had done some commercial work with the Walkers years earlier. Then, I found myself with five cameras and a crane on July 4th, 2009, at Dell Diamond for a Kellie Pickler show. JJ was on that stage and I kept rolling. The rest is history… Thanks to Susan for trusting me with the family… LOL.
Patrick Tourville with Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker, 2011 (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: As you researched your subject and interviewed him, his family, his friends and bandmates, were you surprised by anything you learned or by anything you were told?
PATRICK: Yes… what a truly decent, loving and hard core family man he is. And, with his incredible wife, Susan, they beat the rock and roll odds… they are still together. Do you know how cool that is?!!!
THE MULE: He’s very much a “songwriter’s songwriter,” as exemplified by the number of great songwriters who appear in OK BUCKAROOS, extolling his virtues. After filming the documentary, what insights into, not only Jerry Jeff’s music, but his psyche, as well, did you glean from the experience? In your opinion, what do you think makes him and, really, all great troubadours tick?
PATRICK: When I interviewed Bruce Robison for the film, off camera he told me that without Susan, JJ would still be playing in a bus station for tips. I related the story to JJ and his response was, “He is right and I would have no problem with that.” Need I say more?
Jerry Jeff Walker, circa mid-1970s (photo credit: SCOTT NEWTON)
THE MULE: At any time, did you find yourself second guessing your decision to make OK BUCKAROOS? If so, why and what kept you going?
PATRICK: OMG… Yes! It was the rear end of the process that did me in… the business, the licensing, the marketing. For all filmmakers out there: Do not take refuge in the creative process… find rest in the creative process, but don’t expect that bliss to translate into commercial success.
THE MULE: Let’s delve into your history and background a bit. How did you get into the movie and documentary game?
THE MULE: OK BUCKAROOS is your first feature. What advice can you give to first time documentarians or film-makers in general?
PATRICK: Do your film with enough passion to sustain what will be huge waves of opposition to your “dream.” I think it’s called a tsunami… LOL… of questioning, doubt and otherwise negative influence on your story.
OK BUCKAROOS executive producers Beau Ross and Daniel Trube with Patrick Tourville (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Do you prefer to work on documentaries like this or would you like to try your hand at a more traditional scripted movie? Are there any other people that you would be interested in helming a documentary about?
PATRICK:Good question. Yes and yes. Film-making came to me as an inspiration very young. I won my first national film award at age seventeen and got some money from PBS to remake it. I think everybody at that age wants to make the Great American Movie, which is, you know… America. It was worth it, though. Ultimately, I became a very successful commercial director, made a lot of money, doing what I do, from a craft standpoint but… at the same time, evolved emotionally, spiritually and politically and, the more that I looked at my successful commercial work, the more I realized it was about real stories, it was about real people as opposed to displaying shrimp on a grill or milk being poured on a peach or Tide being poured into a washing machine. So, when I decided to leave the marketing world, documentaries just felt like a natural thing to do; I just wanted to talk about stories… That’s not to say that I would not – given the right circumstances – engage in a narrative feature and all that entails but, right now, I’m very comfortable in a documentary format. I mean, a narrative? I would still be tempted to cut to archive footage.
The last part of the question is… For whatever reason, I have a rich history in music. I did a lot of music videos with those early southern California rockers… a lot of those guys are friends of mine: Jackson Browne and Little Feat and Joe Walsh. So, music just seems to keep following me around and, so, would I want to do another music documentary? Yeah… Maybe. Based on the experience with Jerry Jeff, I’d rather do some other socially important or politically important things. I am in sort of a holding pattern, developing a film on Eugene McDaniels, who was a black pop artist in the late ’60s who performed a song called “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.” He became this sort of pop icon, as a black man with a huge white female audience. Long story short, by the time the ’60s had ended, he was a full-blown radical and had written a song called “Compared To What” that Les McCann recorded; it’s a Vietnam… sort of an anti-Vietnam rant. He passed away, unexpectedly, a few years ago. Eugene is considered by many – including the Roots’ Questlove – to be the Godfather of Hip-Hop… his was a soulful spirit that went from light to dark and found his way back to the light. So, we’re working with maybe developing a film there. That embraces both things. It’s a music thing, it’s a political thing. I’m also working on a project that will take me to Senegal to explore the Hip-Hop scene there so, I guess I’m stuck with music. That’s the bottom line… I’m stuck with music.
I was a big fan of Godard – Jean-Luc Godard – who sort of pushed that envelop to its limit in terms of authorship and aesthetics and, basically, said, “you don’t need to put your name on the film, you just need to help change the world.” I’m sorta stuck in that.
Patrick Tourville, Jerry Jeff Walker and OK BUCKAROOS executive producer Marty Garvin (publicity still)
THE MULE: When can we expect to see finished product for these projects?
PATRICK:I don’t know about finished product. Eugene McDaniels is on the back burner; Senegal and its music scene is on the front burner. I’m supposed to leave for West Africa on the 22nd of this month (May) for ten days… I don’t know, man. What can I say? Here’s the answer to that: If you’re doing this stuff, you never know. You never know when you can expect finished product. You know it’s a year from now… if then. That’s the problem with making a documentary. I do believe in the written word; I do not approach anything without scripting. Obviously, with a documentary, the script gets written at the final edit, in terms of something that you would turn in as a script; but, you have to start with writers, you have to start with a structure, you have to start with three acts and, you have to define those acts and you have to determine what scenes are relevant and salient to those acts. You have to figure out classic Greek storytelling. But, as you get into it and you research it and, then, you’ve got people telling you what you should do, ’cause they heard things… it evolves. But, at the end of the day, if you wrote the written word right, you’ll be happy to see that it’s pretty close to what you originally wrote down.
It doesn’t always happen that way, but if you don’t go in with a preconceived notion, you’re in trouble… you’re in big trouble. You have to have scaffolding in place, you have to have a structure in place, you have to know… I’ll tell you what, you don’t shoot anything unless you know what the log line is; you gotta know in the elevator pitch what this is about. So, as you’re discovering and you’re getting influenced and you have people telling you, “What about this? What about that?,” you’ve got that structure to fall back on. You’ve got to have that. That’s my most important recommendation to any… ANY filmmaker. You know, cinema verite, I get it… you’re gonna follow someone around for three years or four years… that’s cool but, if you’re trying to do a narrative piece, via the documentary platform, don’t think that you don’t have to have something written down before you turn on the cameras.
THE MULE: Thanks for spending a little bit of time with the Mule. And, thanks for telling Jerry Jeff Walker’s story.