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Dance Music

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT/COOL COOL COOL

(February 22, 2023; THE FACTORY IN THE DISTRICT, Chesterfield MO)


I have always been a huge Talking Heads fan, right from the beginning of their CBGB’s/weird art-punk days. I listened obsessively to their debut album when I was working at a record store, was thrilled beyond measure when my musical and creative hero Brian Eno started working with them on their second album MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD, and was literally ecstatic by the transcendent weirdness of their artistic peak with FEAR OF MUSIC and the colossal REMAIN IN LIGHT. I could write pages about how much I adored those two albums, but… this is a concert review, so I gotta be disciplined here. But I’m just stating unequivocally how much David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison have meant to me as a music fan and still do. I saw the Heads twice in their heyday but never got to see the REMAIN IN LIGHT stuff performed live, until Harrison and Adrian Belew put together this amazing touring show with former members of Turkuaz, now renamed as Cool Cool Cool. I could not pass this show up, and although I had some personal circumstances that were daunting, I soon found myself venturing to the Factory in far St. Louis County for the first time. I was eager to see how these performers were going to make up for the lack of vocalist David Byrne and killer rhythm section Chris and Tina, one of the best EVER.

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (ADRIAN BELEW, JERRY HARRISON) (photo credit: MICHAEL WIEINTROB/REMAIN IN LIGHT)

Cool Cool Cool opened the show with their expansive ensemble rhythmic funk, impressing with sterling musicianship that include a three-piece horn section, two percussionists and the delightful high-energy vocals of Sammi Garett and Shira Elias. It was a pleasant danceable mix, and the audience responded with enthusiasm. But there was definitely a feeling of anticipation in the air about what everyone had come here to see. Jerry Harrison had planned a “REMAIN IN LIGHT” celebration since before the pandemic, when his plans with Belew were derailed by an industry-halting nightmare. Once things returned to relative normalcy, the two legends revived their inspired plans, and you could be forgiven by perhaps thinking that doing something like this without Heads leader David Byrne might be a daunting proposition. But two key factors made this an absolutely thrilling show. First, Harrison and Belew were aiming to recreate some of the feeling of the legendary STOP MAKING SENSE tour that Jonathan Demme captured so amazingly in his film, where an extended cast of players could add layers and layers of sonic details to the blend both vocally and rhythmically… as well as the notable 1980 concert in Rome that a huge audience blissed out to and that the Heads themselves have pointed out as a career high point (Belew was part of that show, and it’s still available to see on YouTube). Secondly, the smart decision was made to have different musicians taking lead vocals depending on the song and who sounded best on it. Hence Belew sang lead on “Psycho Killer,” a surprising “Drugs” and a genuinely riveting “Life During Wartime,” which gained obvious rich thematic resonance due to the savage ongoing war in Ukraine. Harrison sang lead effectively on “Houses in Motion,” which was fab. But maybe the biggest surprise of the night was the strength of the vocals by “Cool” member (and baritone sax man-handler) Josh Schwartz, a tall bespectacled fellow at stage right who didn’t “Byrne it” so much on lead vocals as he “interpreted energetically” on songs like “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Born Under Punches” and the utterly transcendent classic “Once In a Lifetime.” These three songs transported me somewhere I haven’t been in years: I wrote in my notes “shivers of joy,” as such were traveling up my spine especially on the latter two songs. Besides the effectiveness of the insistent rhythms we were treated to, I cannot say enough about the hypnotic backing vocals of Sammi Garett and Shira Elias on these and other songs here. Whether it was their repeated “I’m STILL waiting” on “Crosseyed…, ” or the unbelievably transfixing phrases like “All I want is to breathe,” and “and the heat goes on” in concert high point “Born Under Punches” and the insistent “letting the days go by” and various water references in “OIAL,” these two ladies absolutely killed it musically. As a fan of backing vocals and repeated refrains and a recording artist myself lately, I just LOVE this aspect of music, and part of the true GENIUS of the album REMAIN IN LIGHT is how much of that kind of thing listeners were treated to, courtesy of the Talking Heads’ evolved aesthetic by that point and the crazy machinations of producer Eno in the studio. The gals also had their bigger than usual moment on “Slippery People,” a gospel-flavored workout in which they essentially sing lead on much of the song. Truly wonderful. It was also wonderful to hear “I Zimbra” from the FEAR OF MUSIC album, another chance for Schwartz to take the lead at the mic, even though this is certainly a group-based number, with its singular challenge of chanting made-up lyrics over tribal-sounding sonics.

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (JERRY HARRISON) (photo credit: REMAIN IN LIGHT)
JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (ADRIAN BELEW) (photo credit: REMAIN IN LIGHT)

Okay, we gotta pause and single out Adrian Belew here. Holy effing shit. This guy is one of the most distinctive and trailblazing guitarists in the history of rock, and his leads are very much present throughout REMAIN IN LIGHT. Everything you were probably hoping to hear him do in this concert was firmly on display. I was writing down phrases like “great piercing lead by AB” in my notes on “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Houses in Motion” and others as fast as I could scribble, noting the smile on Belew’s face so much of the time, which I could see through my binoculars. Belew nodded to his long tenure with King Crimson by performing the band’s “Thela Hun Ginjeet” and sidling up to the fetchingly attired, chorus-sharing Garett, who was clearly having a ball all night. So was I, for sure! I was a happy man to be able to experience such tunes as “Cities” and my mega-favorite “Once In a Lifetime” and pretend I was approximating the joy any true fan must have felt experiencing the Heads at their performing peak. As for Harrison, he did a great keyboard solo on his own tune “Rev It Up” and served up the “quirk” on “Slippery People” and others. Harrison doesn’t always get credit for the delightful flavoring his insistent repeated keyboard parts added to the Heads’ oeuvre, and certainly classics like “Once In a Lifetime” wouldn’t have attained their legendary status without his work.

COOL COOL COOL (SHIRA ELIAS, CHRIS BROUWERS, MICHAEL CARUBBA, GREG SNADERSON, SAMMI GARETT, JOSH SCHWARTZ, CRAIG BRODHEAD) (uncredited publicity photo)

A spirited “Take Me To the River” found the whole ensemble wringing every bit of iconic juice out of a song that we all know extremely well, with the ladies adding drama by repeating the two-line refrain over and over, singing it more and more quietly (which the audience was noticeably riveted by) and then kicking up the volume at the end for a glorious climax. On both the floor and the balcony, contingents of people were dancing happily. There HAD to be an encore, of course, and Belew said “Are you sure?” to the audience when the ensemble was summoned for their expected callback. I was CERTAIN the song would be “The Great Curve,” the only RIL classic not already played, and I was right. It was thrilling, powerful and very much the rhythmic and danceable classic of its original incarnation. What an ensemble! What a show! Many people have listed REMAIN IN LIGHT as one of their “ten favorite albums of all time,” myself included. I was thinking about that in the waning moments of the concert, WHY that album made such an impact. Was it the reinvented afrobeat sound for a modern audience? Talking Heads leaping beyond their quirky art rock to another dimension? The timeliness of that album and its hit “Once In a Lifetime” finding a fresh audience at the dawn of MTV? Sure, all of that. But my own phrase is “transfixing weirdness,” captured on the album like few others at the time. Hearing Harrison, Belew and the very inspired members of Cool Cool Cool doing powerful justice to a beloved album which is unlike anything else ever released… weird, life-affirming, body-moving and consistently challenging and mysterious… made me very happy. Kudos to these immensely talented musicians for coming up with a great idea, and then carrying it off so thrillingly.

SCOUT DURWOOD: COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE

(EP; BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

There are a few ways to be funny in a song. One is to do a straight-up parody, a la Weird Al Yankovic or, in the old days, Spike Jones. Another is to offer a song packed with wryly humorous observations about human life and behavior, which John Prine and Harry Nilsson did quite often. And you can generate laughs with complete bizarre vocals and instrumentation, too… I have plenty of examples of that in my record collection… Ween comes immediately to mind. But to make electronic pop music with silly, often riotous lyrics that you have to pay attention to in order to fully enjoy, well, that’s a bit different. And for actress/writer/comedian/singer Scout Durwood, the sheer panache needed to produce something like COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE, a 5-song digital EP that is undeniably entertaining, is worth pausing to appreciate. Durwood can count TAKE ONE THING OFF, a 22-episode digital TV series which got plenty of attention (and her debut recording of the same name) among her previous accomplishments, and a stint on the Oxygen Channel’s FUNNY GIRLS. She’s also done at least one comedy special. Born in Kansas City but based in LA these days, Durwood seems to be an unstoppable bundle of energy. With many different talents already on display, it’s curious that she wants to record goofy original songs. But she’s done just that here.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

Durwood lures you in subtly, by starting this EP with “Steal UR Girlfriend,” an infectious, synth-driven rocker that sounds commercial and catchy from a distance… something that no one would object to casually. Start listening to the lyrics, though, and you realize something different is going on here. It moves real fast, but I caught lines like “I’ll take your princess home and I’ll ‘Leia’/You thought you’d have a threesome, but you left with your Han solo.” There was also a reference to Justin Bieber and a recurring phrase about a “predatory lesbian.” Durwood can sing and manipulate words and she’s a hottie, so there are plenty of ways she can get attention. To make you tap your feet and laugh a bunch seems genuinely ambitious to me. “I Don’t Want to Hold UR Baby” is next, and you gotta watch the YouTube video to fully appreciate this bit of nuttiness. Surrounded by dancers of both genders clad in ridiculous pink swimming attire, Durwood speaks assertively for the contingent of folks who, that’s right, have ZERO interest in holding your cute little infant. “”You’ve always wanted to be a mom/So you know, so you know, so you know/I’ve never even wanted to be an aunt/Maybe I could handle like a distant aunt, like a once a year aunt/Who drops off a gift and gets high in my car/Cuz babies freak me out.” This is zany stuff period, but coming from a woman, the comedic impact is undeniable, and Durwood wrings every bit of mockery the topic clearly inspires, from both the song and the video.

For those of us who are writers and musicians, “Sad Ukulele” is some kind of classic, though, with endlessly quotable lyrics. “Sad songs are inappropriate when you sing them on a ukulele,” Durwood begins, playing said instrument almost guiltily. The simple theme here touches on unsatisfying relationships, a sad tale of a sick old man in Durwood’s building and his cat that may need care, and random bursts of existential dread that eerily come close to actual conversations I’ve had with one of my own musician friends. “Sometimes I wake up in the dead of night/Having a panic attack that sexual slavery exists… what dark part of humanity can possibly explain it?” After many lines of this sort, Durwood can only conclude “It’s hard to acknowledge social justice on a ukulele.” To hear such sentiments sung in this context is somehow both bold and blackly comic, underscoring how, in many cases, laughter may be the ONLY remedy for some of us. “Sky Dancer” is a kind of exaggerated dance song with raps included… Durwood’s musical approach does allow her to explore this kind of musical setting, but the arrangement feels a bit frantic and cluttered to me. Much better is “Sexually Implicit,” a creatively ribald wordplay exercise that’ll having you listening close to catch everything. Mostly the listed words either SOUND sexual or are sex-related in nature. But Durwood mixes it up for maximum silliness. “Nut butter, Oedipus, oral, panties, peacock, penal code, pendulous, penultimate, pounding… pro bono,” one section goes (not totally sure about a couple of those). This is actually, by my reckoning, a pretty ambitious song, and a listenable one. Maybe Durwood will inspire some listeners to look up a few words, or to just get in the mood. But she’s doing something fun, witty and even literate here, and it’s been a while that I’ve been able to say that about a pop offering.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

I haven’t heard Durwood’s previous full-length recording, so I can’t make comparisons. I can only say that, as a newcomer to her kooky, upfront talents, I was truly entertained by both the music and the two videos I watched. Anyone likely named after a beloved character in Harper Lee’s classic novel immediately puts me in a certain frame of mind. And this “Scout” is doing some “mocking,” all right – birds, babies, business and a whole lot more. Well worth your time if you want to giggle at life’s absurdities and enjoy a fresh, bracing new talent.

NYAH: DISCONNECTED

(EP; INRAGE ENTERTAINMENT; 2020)

InRage Entertainment is a Los Angeles-based artist development company formed by Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Bruce “Automatic” Vanderveer as sort of a proving ground for up-and-coming talents. Hailing from Florence, Oregon, sixteen year old Nyah Vollmar is the first non-Californian signed to their roster. One listen to Nyah’s debut EP, DISCONNECTED, tells you why. The multi-talented teen (she sings, she writes her own music, she dances, she acts) is light years ahead of many singer/songwriters who’ve been in the game for more years than she’s been alive. Are there moments throughout the five tracks that highlight the fact that she is only sixteen (fifteen when the tracks were recorded and, in many cases, younger when the songs were written)? Sure. But, her vocal prowess more than makes up for any cringe-worthy teenage moments.

NYAH (photo credit: JEREMY DAVID CREATIVE)

The opening tune, “Midnight,” is a pumping, ethereal piece of Pop confection with a slight Middle Eastern vibe, particularly in the percussion. Nyah’s vocals are strong and confident, while maintaining a rather wispy quality… kinda like early Stevie Nicks. The number starts strong and finishes the same way. “Empty Spaces” features some nice acoustic guitar and keyboards, lending a more rocking sound to the proceedings. Producer Vanderveer’s multi-layering of Nyah’s voice bolsters the already hefty sounding lead vocals. A brief return after a full stop presents a whimsical, 16 year old’s idea of a “wild” remix (vocals sped up to a chipmunky squeal and otherwise manipulated). Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but it does work.

A Thousand Wishes” is a love story to a best friend, a family member, a planet misunderstood and hurting. The lyrics convey a very mature concept for someone who just turned old enough to drive. A very cool Middle Eastern/Asian vibe in instrumentation and vocal melody lines inform “Legends In the Stars,” a girl-meets-boy narrative, unfortunately hampered by standard-issue Pop-production tropes. The tune, thankfully, is saved by Nyah’s lyrics and flawless vocal performance. Undoubtedly, my favorite track on the unfortunately short EP is “Flowers On My Grave.” An ebb and flow of piano-driven orchestration on the verses and a throbbing Pop Punk intensity on the choruses is the perfect combination for the dark sentiments of the song: “Would you care to be so kind as to lay flowers on my grave/Let them wither, let them fade so I don’t die alone.”

NYAH (photo credit: JEREMY DAVID CREATIVE)

As with any collection of songs, DISCONNECTED is not without flaws. Those flaws, however, are minor and in no way detracts from the whole of the work. Nyah appears to be on the verge of something wholly spectacular and I am definitely excited to see where she goes from here.

ARIANA AND THE ROSE: CONSTELLATIONS PHASE ONE

(12” EP; POOKIEBIRD RECORDS, 2019)

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart (or maybe in my head) for Pop music. As a youngster, I had a thing with ABBA, Leo Sayer, even Gilbert O’Sullivan; later, I tended to lean toward Synth-Pop like the Human League, Soft Cell and Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. Now, that soft spot has found a new love: Ariana and the Rose. Remember when Prince was writing songs and producing records for Shiela E, Vanity, or whichever girlfriend he was with on a particular Tuesday? In a thinly veneered nutshell, with a gooey Synth-Pop filling, that is exactly what Ariana’s CONSTELLATIONS PHASE ONE brings to mind. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the EP is available on beautiful, beautiful vinyl (well, actually, it’s wax, but… ). Ariana and her cohorts offer up four catchy, groove-induced tracks with more than a little bit of darkness around the edges… just the thing for this Pop junkie’s needs.

ARIANA AND THE ROSE (Ariana DiLorenzo) (photo credit: LOUIS BROWNE)

Night Owl” starts with a breathy Ariana vocal backed only by a synth delivering majestic church organ swells and fingersnaps (also synthesized?) for percussion. The tune slowly builds into a joyful celebration of the night life, featuring live bass and an energetic groove that’s too hard to ignore as Ariana’s higher range vocals and well-placed backing singers kick the tune up to another level. This one is sure to be hit on the dancefloor. I’m pretty sure that the word “catchy” was created just for “You Were Never My Boyfriend.” The song is the ultimate diss track, a deluxe kiss off and the perfect empowerment tune for taking back your life from someone who doesn’t deserve to have you in theirs, with lyrics like: “Every promise that you never kept/We won’t see Paris, the way we said/You made me think that it was in my head,” “You can’t save what you never had, don’t pretend/You were never my boyfriend,” “I’ve stuck it out through some stormy weather/But you can’t seem to get your shit together/And all my friends say I deserve better” and “Maybe with some time we can mend/But I don’t really wanna be friends/Sorry I was crazy while you were being shady/I guess it’s for the best in the end.” Plus, there’s an undeniably dark vibe that I really like, with an ultra-cool bounce, some really nice backing vocals and more of those synth-produced handclaps. And, all in less than three minutes!

Honesty” is the diametric opposite of the last number… sorta. Along with “You Were Never My Boyfriend,” this is the track that turns Ariana into a true artist, playing the heartstrings like a true lyrical genius: “You fall asleep, so at peace/So let’s live our new life/And everyday that you wake/I can feel myself dying.” If the live shows are anything close to this emotionally charged, she will have transformed herself into more than just a Pop Diva with nice choreography. So, naturally, just to prove that she can still bring those Pop Diva vibes to a song, Ariana drops “True Love” on you. The lyrical chain that binds the four cuts together is still here, just with a little more of the positivity of “Night Owl.” There is a bonus track of sorts in the form of “You Were Never My Boyfriend (Great Good Fine OK Remix).” I don’t usually like remixes and, while this one is better than most, it certainly pales in comparison to the version offered earlier on this set. The original set a slow, almost somber pace with just the right amount of instrumentation and various other accoutrements; here, the additional BPMs and basic feel makes it sound like it was produced expressly for the dance floor. And, that’s okay. I just find the original far more emotionally appealing. As the name of the record implies, this is part of a bigger project that will be released over the next few months and I, for one, cannot wait to witness the continued growth from Ariana into the musical ARTIST that she is quickly becoming.

4U: A SYMPHONIC CELEBRATION OF PRINCE

(October 14, 2018; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

Celebrity deaths are not new and I tend to ponder such passings for only a short time before moving on. Exceptions, of course, do happen. The first that really – make that REALLY – affected me was the plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s entourage. Groucho Marx, a couple of months earlier, was big but… the deaths and the devastation to the entire Skynyrd band shook me. Others – Glen Buxton, Rick Nelson, Johnnie Johnson, Johnny Cash, David Bowie – all had profound affects on me, as did the untimely deaths of three musicians I had considered friends: God Lives Underwater vocalist David Reilly, and drummers Dustin Hengst and John “Beatz” Holohan of Damone and Bayside, respectively. With all of these (and a few others), my personal feeling of loss was palpable. All of them pale, however, to the majestic hole left by the departure of Prince Rogers Nelson in April, 2016. He always seemed to be so relatable. Not just to me or his legions of fans, but to those outside of his music’s scope, as well. Heck, even my Dad sat through and liked PURPLE RAIN. So, this was an evening that I knew I must be a part of. I was not disappointed!

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (JAMES OLMSTEAD) (photo courtesy: JEN GRAY/ReviesSTL)

The show was delivered in two parts, as the project’s curator, the Roots’ Questlove, announced (via a recorded introduction). The first would highlight “deep cuts,” while the second half would feature the hits. The deep cuts came mostly from the movie UNDER THE CHERRY MOON. While the material – “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” “I Wonder U,” “New Position,” among them – are fairly unknown to me, as I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, but having been arranged and orchestrated by Clare Fischer, they, seemingly, were no-brainers for this show. In a brilliant move, Quest had approached Fischer’s son, Brent, as he had worked with his father on several Prince projects. The first half also featured fairly different takes on songs like “Controversy” and the 1999 album cuts “Automatic” and “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” Complete surprises were the unreleased compositions “It Ain’t Over ‘til the Fat Lady Sings” and “All My Dreams,” leftovers from the UNDER THE CHERRY MOON sessions. More than twenty minutes into the show, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first song that I really recognized straight off. I certainly don’t mean to slight the talented band accompanying the orchestra; however, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first time that one of the group stepped forward for any type of sustained exposure as electric violinist Ginny Luke delivered a brilliant solo. For the first time, “1999” got some folks on their feet, shaking off the staid, almost sterile orchestra feel of the evening. Miss Luke, likewise, was on her feet, delivering the first minimal vocals of the evening, as well as a bit of booty shakin’ of her own. Bassist CJ Alexander, drummer Skeeter, electronic percussionist Titus Johnson and a still unidentified guitarist, steadfast all night long, seemed energized by the crowd, pushing into new heights of rocking funkiness. If this first half dealt us a somewhat laid-back take on the Prince legacy until the end, that ending certainly did bode well for part two.

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (CJ ALEXANDER) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (THE UNKNOWN GUITARIST) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Totally eschewing that “stay in your seat, this is an orchestra” stuff, as “Let’s Go Crazy” kicked off part two, the front of the stage was crashed by a slew of hearty revellers. A Prince-worthy solo by Luke ended the number. “When Doves Cry” turned into a massive sing-along, with the Fabulous Fox crowd raising their voices as one. It was, for me, the first truly moving moment of the evening, though certainly not the last. As Ginny Luke became more involved with the crowd, I mentally noted that she had turned into quite the show-stopper. “Little Red Corvette” sounded like it was made to be played in this orchestrated fashion. Mister Alexander delivered an absolutely amazing bass solo and the guitarist (does ANYBODY know this guy’s name?) definitely proved his funky mettle. The inherent funkiness of His Royal Purpleness continued on a cool version of “Kiss.” Though an odd choice (in my opinion) of “Starfish and Coffee” kinda slowed things down at just the right time before spilling into a majestic “Take Me With U.” A snippet of “Irresistible Bitch” followed before morphing into “Raspberry Beret.” The symphony took over for an incredible interlude that led into… the Revolution doing “Purple Rain?” Yes, at this point, the live band sat out and let the legendary moment from PURPLE RAIN speak for itself. Though we had been seeing images and visual cues of Prince all night, his voice literally (and, yes, I have used that word properly) sent a chill down my spine, put a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye. In fact, there were several audience members wiping away the tears during this one. The orchestra continued to accompany as Prince’s solo hit. It is, without any doubt in my head, one of the greatest, most soulful guitar workouts in the history of rock, funk, soul or any other genre of music. As the live band joined in, the already overwhelming emotions merely intensified. It was a brilliant finish to an absolutely stunning show! But, wait… after most of the musicians had quit the stage, the video screens came alive again, with the Man himself delivering those familiar words: “I ain’t done yet. Chalk one up for the Kid!” As Prince and the Revolution launched into “Baby I’m a Star” before the band and orchestra joined in amidst an insane light show. While the tune and the presentation was cool, it almost seemed anti-climactic after the stirring “Purple Rain.” My thanks go to Questlove and the Prince Trust for bringing this vision to life and for the band, conductor James Olmstead and the local musicians of the orchestra for an unforgettable evening celebrating the one, the only Prince.

4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (PRINCE) (uncredited photo)

LIARS: TFCF

(Mute Records; 2017)

Liars have managed an unprecedented feat in my music world. The art punk band that, until their new CD was the work of duo Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, have now made 8 albums in a row that I have loved. In the past 30 or so years, no other artist has made that many consecutive albums that knocked me out. Radiohead and Wilco were in the running, but then each made an album that failed to floor me. So Wilco stalled at 7 in a row. That leaves Liars in this unique position… a band I love who have never made an album I didn’t find thrilling. Their debut in 2002, the bizarrely titled THEY THREW US ALL IN A TRENCH AND STUCK A MONUMENT ON TOP, was responsible for one of the most memorable listening experiences I’ve ever had on the road, with a 30-minute closing track that absolutely marked them out as authentic weirdos. The follow-up, THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, was kind of a song cycle about witches and witchcraft, with some seriously spooky stuff on it, and some willfully perverse anti-commercial compositions that dared you to like them. I did, though… something this band was doing sounded like no one else, and seemed to be the product of an aesthetic that was hard to pin down. Their music combined chants, tribal percussive elements, odd fragments that could be haunting for a spell and then disappear, ambient passages and, sometimes, kick-ass driving rockers. Through it all, the voice of Angus Andrew, which sometimes he’d use to actually sing and sometimes he’d employ in the service of controlled atonality or spooky asides, served as a sonic trademark; Liars established their sound early on, one that was never less than intriguing and that featured fascinating stylistic variations each time out. It was weird, hypnotic, rhythmic and mysterious. It wasn’t for everybody, but so what? It was for ME, that’s all that mattered. In just 15 years, this eccentric band have made 8 albums I love. That’s a damn good track record!

LIARS (Angus Andrew) (uncredited photo)

But when I heard that Hemphill had left the band before this new CD, I was seriously worried. My first reaction was anger.… what, Aaron, being in one of the most fascinating bands of the new millennium wasn’t enough for you? Was Angus too controlling? Was your own muse being stifled? Not enough records being sold? I really wanted to know WHAT happened, and in the pre-release publicity, I read that Andrews wasn’t too happy about the departure. He went back to his native Australia after shuffling around multiple locations between the US and Europe, and set about making TFCF on his own. He remarked that he felt like a “bride being left at the altar” or somesuch, and indeed, the unsettling cover photo shows a dejected looking Andrew sitting by himself wearing a bridal gown, an uneaten cake nearby. It’s the most off-putting Liars cover, but in context, it makes sense and it’s quite sad. As a fan, going into this record, you had to be wondering if this was going to be the first Liars album to fall short – if the departure of Hemphill was gonna reveal that Andrew REALLY needed someone else to rein in his weirder artistic impulses, of which there were many. What were we in for, anyway?

The answer, miraculously, is another great Liars record. Here is proof positive that Angus Andrew is a true visionary, a singular composing talent who has enough adventurous ideas and experimental willfulness to keep the Liars sound fresh and flowing. One big surprise is the prevalence of acoustic guitar on this album. “The Grand Delusional” begins right away with a bit of sombre picking… haunting and evocative. “We said we would ride/We said we would take them out to sea,” Andrew sings, and it could be a reference to his ex-bandmate or a metaphor for something else. It doesn’t really matter; it’s lovely and cryptic. There are two songs that have a specific recurring line that must surely have something to do with the pain of Hemphill’s departure. “Staring at Zero” is short but it has a fairly typical ominous Liars rhythm track over which Andrew sings “Why can’t you shoot me through the heart?… We both were broke right from the start.” Sounds like admitted self-pity to me, and when it segues into some singer/songwriter-y acoustic guitar again right away, the effect is not typical Liars at all, and yet startling in that Liars way. Fascinating stuff. On the memorably titled “No Tree No Branch,” one of several songs that has echoes of Radiohead (past albums had even more songs somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke and company), the recurring lyric that sticks in your head is “If you listen you’ll hear that sound right there in my mind.” It’s true, we DO hear that sound and the rapid, demented keyboard bit over which it’s sung is captivating. This goes right into “Cred Woes,” possibly the most quintessential Liars track on the album. With a truly insistent simple percussion track and an ascending synth line that is sort of an earworm for those of us into this kind of weirdness, Andrew goes on about something obviously important to him but you won’t necessarily make out all the words. You also may not be able to read them in their tiny white type over green background flora as presented in the CD booklet. No matter; something compelling is being presented here, something dramatic and original. It has never mattered to me personally if I could understand everything Andrew was singing on Liars recordings. Some of the most memorable moments are slow and contemplative here: “Ripe Ripe Rot” is like an Eno-esque, slightly sour ambient track with a subdued Iggy Pop-style vocal. “You don’t remember what I said/And it’s time again to explode your heart/Yeah it’s time again to let go,” Andrew sings, with a resigned sadness. This dissolves into a big slice of ambient drift that would be pure hymn-like afterthought if not for the repeating dissonant machine sound that laces it, but maybe that’s the point. Andrew is still carrying on, still indulging his sense of sonic wonder… but his brain is surely hurting, and he’s up to something more than prettiness. In fact, he’s always been up to something partially inscrutable, something where others may not go gently. Liars albums take WORK, and I’m glad this one is no different. It’s one of the shortest Liars discs, but a worthy successor to 2014’s MESS. Sorry about your bandmate, Angus, but hell… you’ve proved you don’t need ANYONE, right? You’re one of the most interesting guys in rock, and I for one plan to follow you wherever you go.

TURKUAZ/GHOST-NOTE

(February 4, 2016; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

When you walk into a venue and see the amount of equipment, instruments and cases strewn over the room that met me when I arrived early at the Old Rock House, you can expect a few different things, including (but not limited to): First, a Chicago-like pop-candy type of band; two, a swingin’ wedding band doing sad, tarted up versions of sad, tarted up 1980s radio/MTV hits; or, three, a wicked tight rock and soul nine-piece with gloriously funky overtones. Yeah, I know that there are plenty of sadists out there wishing for a horrible wedding band evening to befall yours truly (and there are still a few masochists out there that think Chicago has made really good music over the past 35 years or so) but, thankfully, rock, soul, funk and more funk held sway on a rainy Thursday night in Saint Louis. The night was filled with funky bass lines, solid horn playing, great vocal work outs and blazing guitar. Oh, and some of the best drum and percussion work you are ever likely to hear in today’s sterilized and homogenized musical landscape.

Ghost-Note (Nate Werth; Sylvester Onyejiaka; Robert Searight) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The groove-heavy Ghost-Note opened the proceedings in… uh… cramped style; I actually feared for a couple of the players (as well as the expensive equipment of both bands) as they navigated their way onto the crowded stage, which included the headliners’ massive lighting rig. This loose construct is the side project of Snarky Puppy percussionists Nate Werth and Robert “Sput” Searight, who were joined onstage by woodwind specialist Sylvester Onyejiaka, bassist AJ Brown and Nick Werth, who handled – after some programming and electrical issues – an instrument called the xylosynth. The sound can best be described as “dumping Terry Bozzio, Latin percussionist Coke Escovedo, Stanley Clarke (or, maybe, Victor Wooten) and Miles Davis into a blender and pouring the results onto a stage to perform.”

Ghost-Note (Robert Searight; AJ Brown; Nate Werth) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As may be expected, with two percussionists at the helm, the sound is dictated by Sput’s powerful drumming and Nate’s inventive use of just about every other type of percussion instrument, both acoustic and electronc; this is borne out from the opening of the first number, “Ja-Make-Ya Dance,” an impressive workout which also featured a nice flute part from Onyejiaka. Highlights of the set included “Conversations,” a brilliant discussion of the symbiotic relationship between Werth, Searight and the perpetual groove; “Shrill Tones,” which prominently featured the funky bass of AJ Brown, who I would rate among the best on his instrument in any genre from any era; and a cool reconstruction of Bjork’s “Hyperballad.” There really isn’t a standard “melody” to any of Ghost-Note’s music; even Sylevester’s saxes and flutes have more of a percussive feel than a straight melody line that you can pin down and say, “Ah… there’s a nice melody.” In fact, and this may be something that only musicians will understand but, the melody is in the groove and it’s in the beat… and there was plenty of both on display on this night. Oh, yeah… did I mention? Cowbell! Lotsa cowbell! Beautiful, beautiful cowbell…

Turkuaz (Dave Brandwein; Sammi Garett; Craig Brodhead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With Ghost-Note’s instruments and equipment removed, the stage opened up into a vast expanse, allowing the nine members of Turkuaz to perform in relative comfort. No, it didn’t… yeah, there was more room, but that extra room was taken up by the equipment and the bodies of four extra people. As with Ghost-Note, the small dimensions of the stage seemed to spur the headliners toward new musical heights rather than stifle the individual players. Back in the day, an ensemble such as Turkuaz would have been called a “rock and soul revue,” the kinda band you’d find backing legends like James Brown or Ike Turner; with some wicked jazz and funk riffs tossed in, the cool factor is heightened exponentially… imagine if George Duke and Earth Wind and Fire had a bunch of white babies. Those babies have been laying down some of the funkiest, dirtiest grooves you’re likely to hear this side of Sly and the Family Stone or George Clinton for the past half-a-decade, including the recently released DIGITONIUM.

Turkuaz (Josh Schwartz, Greg Sanderson; Chris Brouwers; Taylor Shell, Craig Brodhead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Speaking of the Family Stone, on of the many highlights of the evening was a cover of that group’s 1973 album track, “Babies Makin’ Babies,” which featured Sammi Garett sharing lead vocals with Dave Brandwein and some funky mid-’70s Stevie Wonder-like keyboards from Craig Brodhead. DIGITONIUM was well represented in the set with the loopy, horny (sax players Josh Schwartz and Greg Sanderson and trumpeter Chris Brouwers, who does double duty, adding keyboard flourishes, as well) “Percy Thrills the Moondog,” the “Atomic Dog” groove of “The Generator” and the New Wavish “King Computer.” The group is definitely well-equipped to adapt to any situation on the fly, dropping numbers from the set and adding another that would be a better fit for the Saint Louis crowd; during sound-check, Brandwein and drummer Michelangelo Carubba tried out a new arrangement for “The Generator,” which led to them flipping the tune with the bouncy, Princely “Chatte Lunatique.” As there were some questions from the band about whether the different arrangement was going to work, I was surprised when the changes were introduced and, I must say, dopping “The Generator” down a spot certainly paid off, as it worked far better coming out of “Chatte… ” and into “Smarter Than the Speaker” than the original order would have. The sound took on a heavier, more rocking sound when Brodhead picked up a guitar, dropping in some wicked solos along the way… not that Brandwein was a slouch himself. Having made a passing mention of the band’s drummer, I should mention the uncompromisingly funky work of both Carubba and his partner-in-rhythm, Taylor Shell; even on more rock-infused songs like “Electric Habitat” and aforementioned “King Computer,” the innate funkiness of the duo came shining through. Shell (along with vocalists Garett and Shira Elias), solid throughout, really stepped up the game on the set closer, a mean cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Every One’s a Winner.” Other highlights included the charging funk of “Coast To Coast” and the slow, soulful groove of “Future 86.” There was so much happening on stage and the players were all so insanely talented, it was truly hard to focus on any one person for any length of time; add the highly entertaining (and mostly drunk) bodies gyrating on the dancefloor and there was more than enough to keep both my eyes and my ears busy throughout the night… there’s fun and then there’s Fun. This night was Fun, from start to finish.

KOA/THE DRIFTAWAYS

(December 19, 2015; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

Koa display their Hip-Hop street cred at the Music Record Shop; Koa and their Saint Louis Contingent after the show (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Koa display their Hip-Hop street cred at the Music Record Shop; Koa and their Saint Louis Contingent after the show (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

This evening started much like most others when the show is scheduled at the Demo or Ready Room: A visit to Rise for a cup of coffee, followed by a visit to Music Record Shop, conveniently located between the two venues. Walking into the MRS, I noticed a few young people milling about, obviously excited that Koa were being interviewed at the back of the store. Once the guys finished with one journalist, they were accosted by a second… me. The labors of our mutual work is at the top left of this review. The band were nearly as excited to see the kids as vice versa, labeling them “the Saint Louis contingent.” The youngsters were enthusiastic enough that guitarist Conor Kelly announced that they would be his guests for the show; when he was told that the group’s guest list was full, he paid for the extra tickets out of his own pocket. A class act that paid off with an appreciative, zealous group of fans at the front of the stage (and, later, onstage, for the group photo above, right).

The Driftaways (Zaq Nunley; Dane Wells; Nick Christie) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Driftaways (Zaq Nunley; Dane Wells; Nick Christie) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Local artists, the Driftaways, opened the festivities, with their Midwestern mash-up of Ska, Reggae and Dub. I happened to be talking to Koa bassist Ryan Ladd during the Driftaways’ sound check and commented on Nick Christie’s ability to coax that authentic, low rumble sound of Dub out of his bass… I wondered what kind of effects pedal he was using. Ryan told me that it was all Christie; he was using Ryan’s rig and he didn’t have any pedals. I was suitably impressed. From the Two-Tone Ska of originals like “Sun Shining” to their spot-on cover of the Wailers’ “Burn Down Babylon,” the six-piece group (trombonist Sean Myers was absent) offered a set that was, not only widely varied but, totally fun and engaging from the start. Guitarist Dane Wells (who serves double-duty as the band’s vocalist, as well) lays down some seriously wicked reverb-drenched roots-rockin’ leads and solos, particularly on the slow burn of “Creepin’.” Zaq Nunley, Dane’s sax-blowing counterpart, added a nice balance with his own leads, as well a series of quite inventive solos. But, as awesome as the other guys (including drummer Kevin Krauss and Ryan Stewart on keyboards) were, the set belonged to Christie and his spongy bass; his Dub riddim offered a strand of continuity throughout the genre-bending set. His talents were most prominently featured on a pair of instrumentals, “Golden Dub” and the band’s theme song, “Driftaway.” If you have a chance to see the Driftaways, don’t waste it… they will definitely put a smile on your face!

Koa (Conor Kelly; Will Youngclaus; Alex Mathews) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Koa (Conor Kelly; Will Youngclaus; Alex Mathews) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

On record, Koa are a funky, jazzy smooth sorta jam band with a definite hippy cast to their lyrics; live, they rough up their sound into a hard rockin’ funk monster. As good as the studio Koa sounds, it’s obvious that they are built for the stage; in fact, as guitarist Conor Kelly told me before the show, “ …the jam element kind of embellishes on the live performance… keeping things fresh by playing things a little bit differently every night.” It’s hard to believe that these guys have only been a band for barely two years. Chase Bader’s voice has a certain husky rasp that can carry a show; add Kelly’s slide work and you have a show and a sound that many older, more experienced bands can only dream about. The jazz-tinged “False Calls,” featuring a smoking Alex Mathews sax solo, kicked the set off in fine fashion. “What Now,” the first track from the group’s new EP, THIS IS KOA, followed. The new material has a more hard-edged sound that translates quite well in a live setting. Which could explain the fact that all five tracks from the EP (offered as a free download from NoiseTrade, which is where I discovered Koa) were featured in the band’s ten song set.

Koa (Ryan Ladd; Ryan Ladd, Chase Bader, Will Youngclaus; Chase Bader) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Koa (Ryan Ladd; Ryan Ladd, Chase Bader, Will Youngclaus; Chase Bader) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unexpect Ability,” had a cool, punky Jam (as in, Paul Weller’s late ’70s trio) vibe, with a chiming guitar part from Kelly and solid rhythm work from both Ryan Ladd on bass and Will Youngclaus on drums; special guest, keyboardist Ian Miller, added some nice piano to the affair. Miller continued to impress on the Southern Soul groove of “Cool It Down,” which also featured one of Bader’s more impassioned vocals of the evening. The syncopated, nearly Caribbean rhythms of “Corbett’s Place” again allowed Youngclaus and his partner in percussion, Ryan McClanahan, to strut their stuff; Mathews also added to the song’s flavor with a double sax solo (duet?). The diversity of THIS IS KOA was perhaps best exhibited on “Gemini,” a kind of Country hoedown with power chords aplenty and a killer slide solo from Conor, as well as a sax part from Alex that kinda reminded me of Boots Randolph’s classic “Yakety Sax.” After the shortest of breaks, the guys returned to the stage (well, to be honest, they never actually left the stage… they just kinda stood at the back before heading back to their instruments) for an encore of the atmospheric “Turtles,” here transformed into a swirling stew of genre-bending jamming and heady solos from just about everyone on stage – a great way to end what was an exceptionally fun night with two groups of highly accomplished musicians.

THE EDUCATED GUESS/SYNA SO PRO

(August 21, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Wear the Educated Guess home!

For whatever reason, the tag “local band” is anathema in these parts; unless, of course, you’re talking about a cover – oh… I’m SO sorry… I meant a “tribute” – band playing in the corner of a bar somewhere. I’ve never quite understood that mentality, ’cause every band is local SOMEWHERE… right? Now, obviously, there are exceptions – bands and artists who offer a sound so unique or simply too good to be ignored… even in their hometown. The Educated Guest is one such band. This Friday night saw a packed house at Off Broadway, there to see the self-proclaimed symphonic pop brainchild of Charlie Brumley rock the rafters. And, as we’ll impart later, they most certainly did!

Syna No Pro (Syrhea Conaway) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Syna No Pro (Syrhea Conaway) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening kicked off with Syrhea Conaway, a solo artist doing business as Syna So Pro. Initially, I thought, “Oh, great! Another singer/songwriter with a keyboard! How imaginative!” Man, was I wrong! Syrhea picked up a guitar, punched a couple of buttons on her keyboard and tapped a pedal or two with her feet and played a series of power chords while intoning a line or two of lyrics into a mic; she then hit another few buttons, looping everything, before picking up a violin and repeating the process. The piece eventually brought her back to the guitar, where she played a rather intricate progression of notes that, once looped and re-looped, brought the whole thing together. The really cool thing about the way Conaway works is the fact that most of her songs seem to emerge fully realized BEFORE she starts adding layer after layer of guitar, vocals, keys or violin; watching her basically produce a new piece of music on the spot was mesmerizing. Aside from the digital trickery, it is quite apparent that Syrhea Conaway possesses a massive amount of talent as both musician and composer. Another quirky aspect of the live set was the stage banter, with Syrhea holding a conversation with herself, via pre-recorded comments, questions and jokes; they didn’t all work, but it was still a neat touch. At one point, her digital recorder misfired. A lot of performers would have had a major meltdown; Syrhea’s incredible stage presence and self-effacing humor came to the fore, as she kept the crowd entertained while fixing the problem. As ultimately enjoyable as this performance was, I would kinda like to see Conaway in a full band context (she has played in several over the years), creating these mind-boggling soundscapes while bouncing ideas off a group of like-minded musicians. Even if that never happens, I will still have this six-song set by Syna So Pro stuck in my head as one of the most imaginative performances I’ve ever seen.

The Educated Guess (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Educated Guess (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Charlie Brumley’s eleven piece (yes… I said eleven piece!) band worked as a well-oiled machine, delivering a show that was part Motown Soul, part Vegas spectacle, all 1960s-style pop brilliance. An Ike Turner/mad genius type (without the violence and mounds of white powder that not-so-mysteriously disappear up his nose), Brumley acts as lead vocalist, keyboardist and musical director, leading a four-piece brass section (Devin LaRue and Kenny Summers on tenor and bass trombone, respectively; Zack Hall on trumpet; Jim Scheffer on alto sax), three background singers (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) and a soulful rhythm section (drummer Brian Pincus, bassist Jon Venegoni, guitarist Grant Alexander) through what one would imagine an early ’60s pop or Motown live extravaganza would look and sound like… without a feeling of nostalgia or the kitsch generally associated with such endeavors.

The Educated Guess (Charlie Brumley, Jon Venegoni, Arrika Rayburn) (photo credit DARREN TRACY)
The Educated Guess (Charlie Brumley, Jon Venegoni, Arrika Rayburn) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The tone for the show was set from the get-go, with the wonderful “Sweet On You (and Getting Sweeter).” Brumley’s deep, soulful voice plays well off the backing and harmony vocals of the three ladies, while the horns add a warm, rich layer that many like-minded bands cannot hope to recreate. As the band (and the crowd) loosened up, their sound took on an even funkier groove, interspersing – of course – the poppy dance tunes with a slow jam or two. One such song, “The Best Part,” taken from the group’s new album (get it here), is a kind of Righteous Brothers ballady thing. That number was followed up by another track from THE EDUCATED GUESS, a Sunshine Pop confection called “Saint Monday (Love, Love, Love).” Later, another pair of songs from the new recording highlighted, not only Brumley’s writing and arranging abilities but, the talented members of the ensemble; “Get You Girl” has a loose sorta “I Can’t Help Myself” (the Four Tops song commonly referred to as “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”) with a pumping bass, beautiful backing vocals and a nice solo from saxophonist Scheffer, while “Maybe” is a slow building tune that again features Scheffer, this time as singing counterpoint to Brumley, who adds his own amazing piano signature.

The Educated Guess (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Educated Guess (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The twelve song set ended with an absolutely stunning “remix” of R Kelly’s remix of his own “Ignition.” Other highlights of the set proper included “A Good Kisser (Don’t Kiss and Tell),” “Wandering Eyes,” and “Playing For Keeps.” Not close to having their fill, the audience demanded – and received – an encore of “Tell Me Honey” and “Missin’ Me Some Kissin’ Blues.” Most of the Educated Guess’ recordings and previous performances featured the Emperor Norton Orchestra, so one would have expected the sound to be… uh… a little thin. Far from it, the musicians and singers filled any void that may have occurred due to the (relatively) smaller pop-oriented group. This was, simply stated, an evening filled with fun music, meant to evoke the warm fuzzies and to get toes tapping and butts shaking. If you haven’t seen (or heard) the Educated Guess, you owe it to yourself to do so at your earliest convenience.

The Educated Guess (Zack Hall and Jim Scheffer; Brian Pincus, Grant Alexander and Jon Venegoni) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The Educated Guess (Zack Hall and Jim Scheffer; Brian Pincus, Grant Alexander and Jon Venegoni) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

CHUI WAN/BUG CHASER/TONE RODENT

(May 11, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

To say that I was stoked to see Chui Wan, a young psychedelic band from Beijing, China, is something akin to an understatement. All it took was hearing one song from their self-titled second album and, I was hooked. The fact that some old friends, Tone Rodent, were on the bill, alongside the belligerently unhinged octet, Bug Chaser, was merely icing on an already perfect cake. Though, as a touring band, Chui Wan were the de facto headliner, the decision was made to slot them between the two local acts (a choice precipitated by the fact that drummer Li Zichao was using Tone Rodent Adam Dick’s kit; plus, bassist Matty Coonfield was pulling double duty, playing in both Saint Louis bands); to maintain a certain “you were there” sense of continuity, this review will start with Tone Rodent and end with Bug Chaser.

Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

At some point in the last decade and a half, I reviewed a Tone Rodent show (give me a break if I can’t remember specifics, huh? I’m old!). Here’s what I do remember: I liked them. So, now, all these years (or months or days or hours… whatever) later, I can unequivocally tell you this: I still like them. At this point, Adam Watkins (vocals and guitar) and Matty Coonfield (bass) are the only original members from that band I saw way back when; the current version – with guitarist Jeff Robtoy, keyboard player Mark Early and drummer Adam Dick – were playing what may have been their final show, as Adam Dick is calling it a day and Coonfield is leaving to direct his energies toward Bug Chaser. The band lumbered, rather than tore, through a shambolic 35 minute set that, aside from some minor technical issues was, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable. Watkins and Robtoy complimented and played against each other (as the situation dictated) quite well and Early’s ambient drone added a depth that isn’t usually found in the noisy, hard-edged psychedelia at which Tone Rodent excel. Dick proved himself to be much more than a timekeeper, with precise fills and unexpected flourishes. And, as I’ve said too many times to count, there’s just something in the water supply that lifts Saint Louis bass players to another level; the style of music being played is irrelevant… once I hear that deep-in-the-pocket groove of the bass, I can almost always tell that the player has Saint Louis roots. Matty is no exception and is as solid and as funky as any bassist to come out of the Lou in the past three decades. Six songs into the set, Watkins said, “We have two more. After sixteen years, we’re down to two songs… and we plan to fuck both of ’em up.” The next tune sounded great but, as the group started “Amen,” Jeff’s guitar cord shorted out but, after much chiding from his bandmates and a save from a Bug Chaser, the final song from the current line-up of Tone Rodent was over, the notes ringing in the ears of the Monday night denizens of Off Broadway.

Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Okay… so this is where a little learnin’ may come in handy. To understand the importance of a group like Chui Wan, I think we should first understand a bit about where they come from. Beijing’s history traces back more than three millennia – under different names – and boasts such cultural and historic sites as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. As the cultural and political center of the People’s Republic of China, it has also been the scene of political unrest, revolution and protest: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the infamous Gang of Four and, perhaps, the most famous societal event in recent history, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Beijing is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 20 million citizens packed into an area a little over 6,300 square miles (that comes out to something like 3,400 people per square mile… to paraphrase Cheap Trick, “That’s tight!”). That’s the background – the culture and the history – that informs the music and lives of Chui Wan, alongside a diverse musical landscape that includes, individually, Classical and traditional Chinese music, avant garde pioneer John Cage (himself influenced by Eastern music and the philosophy of the I CHING) and, the one major influence that all four members cite: The Velvet Underground. Now, imagine these four young musicians venturing forth into a very different Western culture… a culture where, especially in the United States, celebrity and money are more important than history and tradition; a culture that claims superiority and looks down upon the cultural and societal mores of someone – anyone – who doesn’t share our culture and beliefs… even when we’re on their home turf. Let’s face it… we are arrogant and shallow. So, it’s with that backdrop of major culture shock (not to mention the language barrier… WE expect these young people to be conversant in our language because… “Hey, we’re Americans. What makes you so special that you can’t even learn our language?”) that Chui Wan made their third appearance in the USA (Visa problems caused them a delay of about ten days and seven shows). And what an appearance it was!

Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As bassist Wu Qiong began an intro riff that would make Tony Levin proud, all of those cultural differences didn’t matter anymore; all that mattered was the music. Though their sound is seemingly tight and structured, there is also a sense of the adventurous, the experimental. I immediately heard an Adrian Belew-era King Crimson influence (though I was assured that reference would have been lost on the quartet) – or to be more accurate, Fripp’s other, more improvisational group of the same period, the League of Gentlemen – as well the free-wheeling feel of some of the early 1970s (mostly) instrumental offerings from Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; there were also moments that had me nodding my head, thinking, “Now I get the John Cage reference.” Though many of the band’s compositions border on free-form jazz, it’s Liu Xinyu’s effects-heavy guitar and Li Zichao’s progressive drumming that garners the group its psychedelic label; the sounds Liu coaxes out of his instrument can best be described as “otherworldly,” and isn’t that a prime definition of psychedelic music? Yan Yulong adds atmospheric soundscapes on, not only guitar, but keyboard and – briefly (and very effectively) – viola, as well. Yan, who also supplies the majority of what vocals there are, delivers them in a nearly inaudible drone that further feeds the psychedelic miasma; Wu Qiong has one vocal, a quiet and – dare I say – humble performance that seems a much more comfortable match for her demeanor than is her spirited, funky bass playing. Maybe the most amazing aspect of the inspired (and inspiring) performance is the fact that the four are – literally – wunderkinds… all are in their very early 20s (drummer Li is barely 20) and have been playing – individually and collectively – since an early age (the band’s debut album, WHITE NIGHT, was released in 2012). Even if most of the Monday night denizens were unfamiliar with Chui Wan when they took the stage, after their set, I heard nothing but terms of reverential awe regarding what will long be remembered as a triumphal Saint Louis debut.

Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a prolonged delay, the eight-headed beast known as Bug Chaser took the stage. If Tone Rodent’s set was shambolic, then Bug Chaser’s could only be labeled chaotic, with Matty Coonfield reveling in the unbridled insanity. There were actual songs played but, naming them would merely be an exercise in futility… all you really need to know is that the band and the crowd were having too much fun to worry about things like song titles. The group was occasionally augmented and exhorted by a gentleman who originally appeared to be a drunken, overzealous fan but, as the set proceeded, seemed to be more of a well-placed prop, dancing and prancing behind the group one minute and playing the role of cocktail waitress the next. The tunes (noises?) ranged from boisterous boogie to raging rock to furious funk (see what I did there?), all delivered with a reckless abandon reminiscent of George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars at their most debauched. The percussive unit of Kevin Insinna and Taylor Huff (for I believe it was they of whom I speak) laid down a solid groove, where the notes they didn’t play were as important as the ones they did; their rhythm section inmate, Coonfield, pumped out bass riffs dense enough to caulk a large-scale bathroom at the Mall of America. Zeng Zengerling and Jake Jones are potent forces of guitar showmanship, sharing frantic leads and trading querulous solos over the expansive bottom end, which also included keyboard and effects work from Jake Bremler and Jeff White. Standing over all is the strutting vocal peacock, Pat Grosch, who reminds me of a younger, more boisterous Weird Al Yankovic… but with better hair. For a full-on sonic assault, you’ve gotta see these guys live… until then, check out some tunes at Bandcamp.