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