PAUL MCCARTNEY

(August 13, 2016; BUSCH STADIUM, Saint Louis MO)

Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)

It’s really worth a moment of reflection here: What’s it like to be Paul McCartney? None of us can really know. McCartney is almost unarguably the most successful and influential singer/songwriter/musician in the history of popular music. He’s reached a place no one else has gotten to, a rarified zone of rock royalty where interest and reverence for him is ongoing, on a global scale. Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen may be able to sell out stadiums at times, and the Rolling Stones can say they’ve been around as long still doing their classic rockin’ thing. But NO ONE has had the impact through multi generations, the acknowledged cultural influence, the extensive body of work and the ability to sell out shows around the world, like Sir Paul McCartney. On the pop culture landscape, it’s like there is Mount McCartney, soaring high towards the clouds to a peak you can’t even make out or even comprehend, and then way below, there are some other peaks that are also impressive but not as gigantic. Mount Dylan. The Jagger-Richards Range. Who International Park. Et cetera.

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

You get the idea. So beloved are the Beatles, and so deep and enduring is the nostalgia for all that they represented, all the good memories they provided for millions, that people around the world want to experience any taste of that magic again, and to believe that Beatlemania is not just a thing of the past. Sir Paul McCartney bears that burden (not discounting Ringo here, but he doesn’t tour as much and he simply wasn’t one of the prime architects of that Beatles songwriting thing that changed the world) on his 74-year-old shoulders, and he does so with class, good cheer and almost unbelievable energy. Mount McCartney indeed! And we fans are lucky enough to still climb those musical heights each time Paulie decides to perform. He’s doing it often these days, and it is never less than a spectacle. He might be technically a senior citizen, but man oh man, Mister McCartney still shows he’s got it, and that he loves doing it. Song after song after song.

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

At Busch Stadium, August 13… nearly 50 years since the Beatles played here at the stadium’s previous location (the year that REVOLVER, one of their very best albums came out!), McCartney treated a wildly enthusiastic crowd to a generous platter of classic songs and some obscurities, from throughout his career. He opened with “A Hard Day’s Night,” a timeless classic that he’d not done before live. Another from that beloved movie, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” soon followed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only long-time fan to experience a chill or two just from those two rockers. Dressed smartly in a purple jacket and dark jeans, McCartney sounded and looked younger than his age, and wasted no time chatting up the audience. Miraculously, considering that the acoustics for a sold-out stadium show are by no means always optimal, you could hear just about every word he uttered. And you WANTED to “listen to what the man said” because, hey, how often do you get to share time with him? At one point, McCartney took time to acknowledge all the many signs people were holding up in the stadium. There were the usual lovey-dovey kinda things, but a young girl held up a sign that said (I had high-powered binoculars to try to catch all this), I think, “Loved you as a bug, loved you as a wing and love you still today.” I saw her laugh delightedly when McCartney mentioned that sign. In fact, the ample projection screen repeatedly showed people laughing, dancing, and singing along to favorite tunes. It was a celebration, after all, McCartney being “one on one” (as it was billed) with thousands and thousands of delighted fans. And the set list was by no means predictable. Sure, you’d be reasonably safe to expect stuff like “Back In the USSR,” “Let It Be,” the inevitable “Hey Jude,” “Maybe I’m Amazed” (and yeah, he DID mostly hit those high notes despite a few subtle strains evident in his vocals here and there) and the great “Band on the Run,” one of his finest solo songs. But genuine surprises (unless you were an internet set list junkie) included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “We Can Work It Out” (a personal favorite), a warm and tender “Here, There and Everywhere,” “And I Love Her” (gorgeous) and “Fool on the Hill.” At one point, McCartney gave a nice mini-talk on where songs come from, something he’s obviously been asked a zillion times. He explained that sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes a lyric idea, and sometimes an insistent chord progression that has “potential.” He began playing one such evocative progression on guitar a few times until it evolved, marvelously, into “You Won’t See Me,” another delightful surprise. And what else can be said about brilliant songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Blackbird,” two of the many, many touchstones in Macca’s career, never losing their beauty or impact?

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Of course, there were not just Beatle songs on the list. Solo numbers as diverse as “Let Me Roll It,” “Temporary Secretary” (I personally enjoyed this one though others apparently were not in my company), “1985,” a searing “Hi, Hi, Hi” (an early Wings classic) and a clutch of tunes from McCartney’s last disc NEW (“Save Us” and “Queenie Eye” among them) sounded just fine, although it was amusing to see McCartney gesture or feign mock disappointment when the reaction to less famous songs was not as thunderous as that for Beatle classics. McCartney knows full well that fans want to hear the tunes they grew up on, and he is incredibly generous (he has been for many years) in bulking up beloved tunes on set lists these days. Two potently touching and dramatic moments occurred in the middle of the show. “Here Today,” the song McCartney wrote as “a conversation I never got to have” with John Lennon, is a tune he almost always plays in concert, but it had an intense emotional resonance to it in this performance… delicate, tender, unbearably sad… and the legend almost looked like he was tearing up anew as he sang. The audience was spellbound. Another genuine surprise was “In Spite of All the Danger,” a song the boys conceived in their Quarrymen days, and which McCartney explained they cut in a primitive studio as a demo. This event is depicted at the end of the movie NOWHERE BOY, which I’d been lucky enough to see, so it had a major impact on me, and McCartney seemed delighted to tell the story. For a song that few at the stadium could have known, it was staggering that McCartney was able to get the crowd to sing the repeated “Whoa oh oh oh” chorus with almost perfect timing. Maybe I’m amazed by this, indeed! Also a sweet and tender “My Valentine,” which he dedicated to his wife Nancy, was subtly compelling in its intimacy, and featured visual aids by Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp on the adjoining screens, something that struck me as surreal but beautiful. But it was old Beatles classics that got the crowd really jazzed: “Lady Madonna,” “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” the George Harrison tribute “Something” (which McCartney began on ukulele as expected, but this time it quickly evolved into a full Beatle-y band arrangement, unlike the last time I saw him perform it), and a stirring “Love Me Do,” complete with the precise harmonica part that Lennon played all those years ago. No one can ever say that Paul McCartney is not a good team player, by the way… the band he’s with now, which consists of some of the most crackerjack players around (keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, bassist and guitarist Brian Ray, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel, Junior), has been with him for 14 years plus, longer than the Beatles were together! And any encore that includes the perfection that is “Yesterday,” the White Album novelty “Birthday” and the gripping “Golden Slumbers” section of the dazzling ABBEY ROAD medley, well, it lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are one lucky fan to be at this concert. You’re getting rock history live, right here, right now.

Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney’s importance is not just his place in the musical scheme of things, it’s the fact that he is a living testament to the ongoing power of songwriting, performing and communicating with fans. He’s had to endure continual comparisons to his former partner Lennon, judgments about his work since the Beatles, and the always fascinating reappraisals of his recordings that new writers always feel motivated to offer. For example, the once-maligned RAM album is now considered a charming low-key classic by most, and Wings, who nearly always got short-changed in the 70s by snobby comparisons to the Beatles, now have their own special fan base, and McCartney knows that. More than anything, what McCartney knows is that music can transform, inspire, document, delight and be really, really personal for different people, different generations, over a long, long time. You just don’t get to go on the kind of journey Paul McCartney has been on, very often. Because of the volatility of the times he flourished in, and the unimaginable success, McCartney gets to see the impact of his life’s work over and over, and to keep writing, recording, and rocking. And somehow he still manages to do it with that same boyish glint in his eye that he had back on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. That is one staggering triumph of an artist and a human being, across six decades, and still going. How can you not regard Mount McCartney with absolute awe? And he’s still here today, his legend secured for all time.


RED JASPER: 777

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2016)

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Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW – relatively speaking, anyway… before that January 2015 album, the band’s previous release was 1997’s ANAGRAMARY – comes the seventh and latest chapter of the progressively-inclined Red Jasper, called 777. Like its predecessor, the record is a gently rocking progressive affair… kinda like latter-day Genesis or early Gentle Giant, with just enough bite to keep the more hard rock-inclined among us happy (not to mention some Marillion-esque keyboard work and some very tasty guitar from time to time). 777 is sort of a sequel to the Clive Barker-inspired …SECRET SHOW, with the lyrics once again exploring the very personal religious imagery from that release; as vocalist David Clifford writes in his liner notes, “777 is described as the antithesis of 666.” The first track is called “7” and it has a definite Marillion feel, though without the harsh, powerful vocals of Derek Dick (better known as Fish) or even the smoother pop stylings of Steve Hogarth. Clifford hangs around the upper registers, sort of somewhere around Geddy Lee’s mid-period Rush stuff, while avoiding the nasally proclivities of that stalwart. “Nothing To Believe” features a galloping bass line from Jim Thornton and really cool multi-tracked and harmony riffing from guitarist Robin Harrison. The lyrics document the struggles of youth and, finally, rising above the chaos and dismay with the chorus, “That life has gone/But my life will carry on.” Bonus points to newish drummer Florin Werner for his indiscreet use of the cowbell throughout the tune. Shifting from a demented waltz to a punky, charging hard rock affair, the schizophrenic “She Waits” offers a little something for everybody, including a completely unhinged Harrison solo and more words-per-square-inch than most tunes. “Forth of Fife” could very easily be considered either an homage or a flat-out rip of the Genesis classic “Firth of Fifth.” It has so many like elements that it’s hard not to compare the two: Lloyd George’s amazing keyboard work, particularly the solo piano; a flute part that may or may not be another George keyboard creation (no mention of a flute appears anywhere in the album credits); more stellar fretwork from Harrison; a melody line that is quite reminiscent of the Genesis tune. Given all of these similarities, it wouldn’t be too difficult to consider “Forth of Fife” a musical parody of an iconic piece of progressive rock. Thankfully, the tune stands on its own, as the nods to the previous work manage to weave themselves into the songs original fabric, allowing the words and music to tell their own story, live in their own reality. The most forceful track thus far, “The Gathering” features all of the hallmarks of a great progressive number, falling somewhere between classic Yes and a more metallic Rush. The rhythm section, in particular, puts a little extra punch into their parts – Thornton’s bass moves from Chris Squire’s melodic picking style to something akin to Tony Levin’s fluid stick thumps, while Werner falls just south of the percussive overload created by Neal Peart. Even at eight-and-a-half minutes, the song never lagged and, in fact, seemed to end far sooner than I expected. Again, bonus points to the other three Jaspers, with amazing work turned in by Clifford, George and Harrison.

Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)

Red Jasper (Jon Thornton, Robin Harrison, David Clifford, Lloyd George, Florin Werner) (uncredited photo)

Reaching Out” begins with a lone, chiming guitar before developing into a really cool psuedo-’60s Folk-pop sort of affair. The addition of an “arena rock” keyboard solo (it reminds me of something Ken Hensley may have played during Uriah Heep’s heyday; David Byron called it the “Moog simplifier”), which could have rendered the song cheesy beyond repair, actually enhances the overall vibe. More late ’60s guitar highlights “Blessed With Gold,” a track that is equal parts “California Dreamin’,” Lordian (as in, Deep Purple’s Jon) keyboard bombast, Middle Eastern melodies and a certain “Arrh, matey” nautical theme. “Dragonfly” is a gauzy, pastoral number, with elegant fretwork from Harrison and keyboard washes from George. However, though Clifford’s ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS lyrics lend a child-like charm to the tune, it’s Werner’s percussive restraint and Thornton’s rather lilting bassline that really make the song work for me. It seems as though these Jaspers got most of their hard rocking tendencies out of their systems in the first half of 777, as “Paradise Folly” continues the Fairport Convention/English Folk sound prevalent on the second half. Another beautiful guitar solo from Harrison highlights the proceedings. “October and April” is listed as a bonus track. It’s a stripped-down cover of an obscure song by an even more obscure Finnish group called the Rasmus. Clifford duets with his daughter, Soheila, with brilliant accompaniment by Red Jasper’s original guitarist, Tony Heath, on a number that kinda reminds me of a Celtic version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” A nice, if rather light, end to an unassuming record that sort of sneaks up on you… before you realize what’s happening, your toes are a-tappin’ and you’re having a quietly good time with one of England’s best secret weapons of progressive music.


THE QUEBE SISTERS/TOMMY HALLORAN

(February 17, 2016; THE BALLROOM AT THE SHELDON CONCERT HALL, Saint Louis MO)

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I have long heard great things about the Sheldon Concert Hall but, though I have visited the venue in a sales capacity when I worked at WDLJ radio, I have never been to a show there. Needless to say, I was stoked for this one… not only would I have the pleasure of witnessing the amazing fiddling acumen of the three Quebe Sisters but, I would finally see a show at what has often been referred to as the “most acoustically perfect” room in the Midwest. Initially, I was brought low once I realized that the show was scheduled for another room at the Sheldon complex, the Ballroom located on the fourth floor. To call the Ballroom intimate is a bit of an understatement (the room is slightly larger than Off Broadway); the top floor location, high ceilings and general layout of the room concerned me: Would the acoustics be an issue here? Once the music started, however, all fears were laid aside, as the sound was phenomenal throughout the night.

Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Local Jazz and Blues artiste Tommy Halloran left his combo – the exquisitely titled Guerrilla Swing – at home but, he wasn’t alone… he brought violin player Abbie Steiling along to keep him company. The duo worked their way through a set of mostly original material, primarily from Halloran and the Guerrilla’s 2014 offering, UNDER THE CATALPA TREES, stopping along the way for offerings from Irving Berlin (the opening number, “My Walking Stick,” originally performed by Ethel Merman in 1938; other memorable versions were by Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers) and Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter (“Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” performed by Armstrong and Billie Holiday in the 1947 movie NEW ORLEANS). Tommy is a dabbler; he dabbles in a variety of styles, everything from Hot Jazz to Texas Swing to a form of jazzy Blues that is inherently Saint Louis in nature. Halloran has a supple, pleasant voice with just a hint of rasp on the uptempo tunes, like the… uh… highly-caffeinated “Caffeine.” His facial expressions, general demeanor and vocal phrasing bring to mind both Tom Waits and the incomparable Leon Redbone; his physical appearance and style of dress brings the term “disheveled gentleman chic” to mind. The more “love song” ballady numbers, like “Under the Catalpa Trees” and “Gardenias For Rita” highlighted Ms Steiling’s subtle, almost fragile violin work, as well as Tommy’s playful rhythm guitar; but, don’t think the pair incapable of kicking up a bit of the proverbial dust, if the tune called for it, as on “My Favorite Sin.” Even though this was my first exposure to Tommy Halloran, his is a familiar name in Saint Louis music circles. I can now understand the reverence with which many speak his name… I was left wanting more and would certainly relish the chance to hear a full-band dissertation from Guerrilla Swing in the future.

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As impressed as I was by Halloran and Steiling, this night definitely belonged to Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe (which, according to their website, rhymes with “maybe”). The sisters have all been fiddle champions, both in their home-state of Texas and on a national level. Accompanied by Daniel Parr on upright bass and Simon Stipp on guitar, the ladies proved themselves proficient in everything from the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Swing of Ray Benson to the Big Band sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman to the pure Country of Hank Williams, Connie Smith and Jeannie Seely and the myriad of connective styles between. The highlights came fast and furious, as the group kicked things of with an anthem of the Mexican Revolution of 1912, the instrumental workout, “Jesse Polka.” From there, it was on to a beautiful version of Hank Senior’s classic honky-tonk tear jerker, “Cold Cold Heart,” with amazing harmony vocals from the trio, huddled around a single microphone, like the radio and Opry stars of yore. The hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican’s “Every Which A-Way” led into “Twin Guitar Special,” a classic fiddle hoedown from the Quebe’s biggest influence, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bridging the gap between Western Swing and the “tear-in-my-beer” Country and Western tunes so prominent in the 1960s was a number written by Cindy Walker and recorded by Wills, “Going Away Party.” The high harmony vocals and the plaintive strains of the fiddles lend an air of authenticity that three twenty-somethings like Hulda, Grace and Sophia simply should not possess. “If I Talk To Him” is full-on Country misery, as Sophia takes the lead on the Connie Smith sob-fest; the harmonies, as always, are beautiful but, it’s also nice to hear each sister take a lead.

The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a couple of true Country tunes, a version of Roy Rogers’ “Along the Navajo Trail” (which was later recorded by – among others – Wills and the Playboys; the Quebes recorded a version with Benson and his group, Asleep At the Wheel last year for an album called STILL THE KING: CELEBRATING THE MUSIC OF BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS) and “Once a Day,” written by Bill Anderson and originally recorded by Connie Smith, things started to get a bit adventurous with trips down avenues rarely traveled by a group such as the Quebe Sisters. These excursions included “How High the Moon,” a Jazz number first recorded by Big Band legend Benny Goodman and a later, more popular version by the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford; “Be My Life’s Companion,” a vocal hit for both crooners the Mills Brothers and Rosemary Clooney; the Rhythm and Blues barn-burner (and early template for the music we call Rock and Roll), “Teardrops From My Eyes,” a song that propelled Ruth Brown to the top of the R and B charts; and set-closer “It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie,” a Country Blues ballad made popular by Fats Waller and recorded by the Ink Spots, among many others. As each of the trio, as well as Stipp and Parr, performed near-mind-numbing solos and the Quebes displayed further talents with dual and triple harmony fiddle leads, I, nevertheless, found myself engulfed in the sound of the transcendent female voices, blending in perfect harmony. Both Jeannie Seely’s “Leaving and Saying Goodbye.” a hit for Faron Young, and one of Willie Nelson’s most examples beautiful compositions, “Summer of Roses,” sent chills down my spine.

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Aside from the already-alluded to “It’s a Sin To Tell a lie,” the final portion of the set was given over to classic Folk numbers, beginning with Woody Guthrie’s “Sally Goodin,” which turned into a fiery fiddle breakdown, again highlighting the individual and collective talents of the Quebe Sisters. Perhaps the most stirring moments of the show came with a medley of early nineteenth century Folk tunes, one quite English in origin, the other unmistakably American. Starting with the haunting “The Wayfaring Stranger,” the group’s strong vocals and the weariness evoked by the moans of the fiddles had the entire room transfixed; “Speed the Plow” was, likewise, very emotionally charged and moving. I’ve tried to give words to the soaring voices and exemplary playing of the Quebe Sisters; I’ve attempted to describe the genre-bending musical choices played on this night. I’m not exactly sure how best to describe what happened on the fourth floor of the Sheldon Concert Hall on the evening of February 17, 2016, other than to say that this was the music of America (call it “Americana,” if you must), played by what may very well be the best and the brightest we have to offer.


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO

(February 9, 2016; WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville IL)

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Before jumping into the night’s music, a quick word about the venerable Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, Illinois. The theater opened as a vaudeville venue in 1909 and still carries much of the charm of the era, as well as much of the Art Deco styling of a major mid-’20s renovation. This was my first experience at the Wildey and I was quite impressed with it as a concert venue; if a place can capture the unique ability to be both intimate and expansive at the same time, it is the Wildey Theatre.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Pius Shezi; Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala;  Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongiseni Shabalala (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Pius Shezi; Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongiseni Shabalala (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I imagine that, like most Americans, my introduction to Ladysmith Black Mambazo came through Paul Simon’s incredible 1986 album, GRACELAND. However, the group has a rich and storied history going back to 1960 when Joseph Shabalala formed Ezimnyama, the precursor to LBM. The group still features four of Shabalala’s sons, Thamsanqa, Msizi, Thulani and Sibongiseni. Like their home country of South Africa, the history of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is littered with death and violence; in 1969, the longest serving member of the group (aside from Joseph, who now acts as the group’s musical director), Albert Mazibuko and his younger brother, Milton, joined the band. In 1980, Milton was murdered; the Mazibuko’s younger brother, Abednego became a member in the mid-’70s. Joseph Sabalala’s brother, Ben, also a member of LBM, was murdered in 1991, Jospeh’s wife, in 2004. Life is not easy for Ladysmith Black Mambazo but, through their continuing struggles, they have never lost their optimism or their joyous, uplifting sound.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Thulani Shabalala, Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongisen Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Thulani Shabalala, Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongisen Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a short introduction, the nine-member group took the stage and, after taking a bit of time to relate the meaning of the first song, they jumped right in. Along the way, each took their turn dancing out front and performing as frontman, with lead vocals that soared over the others’ backing. One of the highlights of the first set was the stirring “Long Walk To Freedom,” dedicated to the late freedom activist and former South African president, Nelson Mandela, in celebration of the country’s twenty-two years of freedom and Democracy. Even though we come from very different backgrounds, moments like this bring us all together; these are the times when the color of a man’s skin or his geographical heritage become secondary and we all join together to celebrate the Human Race.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko; Pius Shezi; Sibongiseni Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko; Pius Shezi; Sibongiseni Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a brief intermission, the singers greeted us with a short intro and snippet of “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes.” The second half of the show featured a great deal of dancing and some audience participation. Throughout this set, several members offered introductions to the other men onstage, as well as introspection to the meaning of most of the songs. Highlights from the latter half of the night included “Homeless” (a song co-written by Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon, which appeared on GRACELAND and Ladysmith’s ZIBUYINHLAZANE album of the same year) and my favorite song from the second set, “Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain.” Ladysmith Black Mambazo have a timeless sound that somehow conveys nostalgia and spiritual depth at the same time. Seeing the group live is truly amazing… even if you aren’t fluent in Zulu.


JOHNNY CASH: MAN IN BLACK: LIVE IN DENMARK 1971

(LEGACY RECORDINGS/COLUMBIA RECORDS/SONY MUSIC; 2015)

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There was a time when Cash ruled the world… a time before Rick Rubin and AMERICAN RECORDINGS and “Hurt.” In those days, a Johnny Cash concert was a cross-section of Americana: Equal parts Vaudeville, Grand Ole Opry and the Man’s hit variety show… you didn’t just get John, you would also get his wife, June Carter, along with her legendary family; his long-time friend and fellow Sun Records pioneer, Carl Perkins; >Cash’s famous backing band, the Tennessee Three (bassist Marshall Grant, drummer WS Holland and guitarist Bob Wootton) and longtime background singers, the Statler Brothers (real brothers Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley and Lew DeWitt), who were also one of the biggest Country acts of the day. MAN IN BLACK: LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 is a live television spectacular, originally available only in Australia on DVD… released thirty-five years after the event in 2006; it makes its American debut as an audio release (in a standard CD version, as well as a limited, Black Friday Record Store Day two-record set) here, nine years later.

MAN IN BLACK LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 (Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Johnny Cash, Bob Wootton, Carl Perkins) (video still)

MAN IN BLACK LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 (Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Johnny Cash, Bob Wootton, Carl Perkins) (video still)

The set starts with a rather mild take of Cash’s then-hit record, “A Boy Named Sue.” This version is nothing to write home about; the best description for the performance is probably “professional” and “workmanlike.” It is funny, though, when Johnny self-censors himself on the line “’Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue,’” replacing the pivotal invective, using “ …son-of-a-bleep… ” instead. Two songs in and it appears that the real problems here are a small, seemingly dispassionate audience and an equally dispassionate mix, not a lackluster performance by Cash, guest guitarist Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three. This second tune, a serviceable reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” is the first of three Kristofferson compositions featured in this set. Johnny’s halting spiel in Danish (or Swedish, as he calls it in a later exchange with June) – slow, reasoned and without inflection – kinda sums up the proceedings to this point. By the next number, a more lively version of Cash’s own “I Walk the Line,” the Man seems to be settling into his sterile studio environment. Carl Perkins’ brief solo set threatens to kick the proceedings into another gear, with a smokin’ version of the song that almost made him a household name… curse that Presley boy for recording his own version of “Blue Suede Shoes,” released (on the ELVIS PRESLEY album) just two months after Carl’s Sun single began its ascent to the top of the charts. “Matchbox” follows, a foot-stomping, hand-clapping Rockabilly highlight. Seemingly energized by Perkins’ performance, John offers up a truly heartfelt vocal on another Kristofferson masterpiece, “Me and Bobby McGee.”

A short snippet of an early Sun single from Cash, “Guess Things Happen That Way,” is really more of an introduction to the Statler Brothers, who are finally featured more prominently on backing vocals. With the spotlight shining on them for such a short time, the Brothers kinda forgo their comedy schtick, putting the focus on the music; that means that we have one of the greatest vocal groups of any genre performing one of their biggest hits, the relatively new “Bed of Rose’s,” with the rhythm section of Holland and Grant finally hitting their stride. A brilliant version of one of the Statler’s best (and most beloved) tunes, the crossover hit “Flowers On the Wall,” is highlighted by Harold’s voice, as he digs a little bit deeper and gets a little bit lower on the musical register than at any other time in the quartet’s storied career. The familiar chugging groove that was Johnny Cash’s trademark is on display on one of the Man’s biggest hits, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, John seems at ease with his surroundings, delivering a nice vocal on his signature tune, with Bob Wootton adding a great solo.

MAN IN BLACK LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 (June, Maybelle, Anita and Helen Carter, Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bob Wootton, Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley, Lew DeWitt) (video still)

MAN IN BLACK LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 (June, Maybelle, Anita and Helen Carter, Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bob Wootton, Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley, Lew DeWitt) (video still)

You can actually hear Johnny’s heartbeat quicken as he introduces the love of his life, Valerie June Carter-Cash. June always brought out the best in Cash and her playful growls on John Sebastian’s “Darlin’ Companion” pushes a somewhat pedestrian song over the top. John’s gruff voice plays beautifully against June’s sweet warble on “If I Were a Carpenter,” one of the most brilliantly conceived love songs of all time. This is one of the best versions I’ve ever heard. The number transitions right into the final Kristofferson tune, “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” The male-female duet completely changes the context of the song into something far different than any solo version – not necessarily better, just different. Johnny Cash was always a rebel, an outsider – a sympathetic and an empathetic everyman who, like Jesus Christ, would dine with sinners and saints alike, drawing attention to the plight of downtrodden and the forgotten, the worth of men imprisoned due to their bad decisions… men deserving of a second chance.And, of course, the insanity of war. With one song, in less than three minutes, he voiced his concerns in one of the most damning indictments of “Man’s inhumanity to Man.” That song, “Man In Black,” is still as powerful and moving now as then and you can feel the anger and the world-weary pain through the haze of nearly forty-five years with this version.

After Johnny’s heartfelt introduction, the legendary Mother Maybelle Carter is joined by daughters Anita and Helen for a rousing version of the traditional fiddle tune, “Black Mountain Rag,” with Maybelle’s auto-harp replacing the fiddle. June joins her sisters for “A Song To Mama,” a tribute with a sentiment that is still valid for most of us today. The ladies, a classic Country and Western trio, bring in Cash for a spoken word piece before he leads them in the final chorus. A highlight of a Johnny Cash show in 1971 was a kind of everybody-in free-for-all Gospel campmeeting. John and June, with the Carters and the Statlers, belt out their new single, “No Need To Worry,” before diving into the eighteenth century hymn, “Rock of Ages.” The set closes with a rocking, stomping, high energy call and response Christmas song, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Perkins, who had been sitting back as a member of the band, joins the rest of the headliners, managing to get everybody worked up with an unrestrained fervor when his vocal part comes around on “Six for the six that never got fixed” and, just maybe, reveling in the fact that he was one of those six. Cash, sharing his microphone with Carl, gets tickled as the two do a little jig toward the end of the song… it’s a moment in time, as the two music legends revel in a decade-and-a-half of friendship. Johnny Cash is an artist that we will never tire of and, because of our continual need for a Cash fix, one whose archive will continue to be mined for whatever material is available; MAN IN BLACK: LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 may not be the greatest release in the Cash canon but, it is fun and captures the Man at the height of his popularity.


LISA SAID: FIRST TIME, LONG TIME

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2015)

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Lisa Said kinda exemplifies what I love about this country. She is the embodiment of the classic melting pot: Egyptian and American heritage, living on the outskirts of Washington DC, raised in the Tennessee hills listening to Pop, Soul, Country, Folk, Oldies and Arabic music. FIRST TIME, LONG TIME is her debut EP and it features a delightful mish-mash of all of those musical styles and more; with all of those elements coming to bear, generally all vying for attention within the framework of each of the five tracks, this is the epitome of Americana music. Lisa’s Bandcamp page describes the recording process of these songs (some of which are as old as ten years) as “fueled by pistachios and bourbon,” trying to find “the sweet spot between early ’70s Folk Rock and North African percussion.” The first track, “Been Around,” begins with some cool Middle Eastern percussion courtesy of Andrew Toy before morphing into a nifty little 1950s rock and roll tune with a kind of strolling piano from Jon Carroll and Lisa’s acoustic guitar and some subtle sitar from Seth Kauffman. The vocals come off as sort of a breathy Country Soul thing. “For Today” is well on its way to being a weird mix of Uncle Tupelo style Americana and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”-era Nancy Sinatra. Carroll adds a solid organ part that somehow would not have sounded out of place on a record by the Band.

Lisa Said (publicity photo)

Lisa Said (publicity photo)

There are more comparisons on the record’s centerpiece (literally and figuratively), the raucous, countrified old time rock and roll of “Hard To Brake,” as Said’s melody line puts me in mind of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” – in particular, the “See Me, Feel Me” section – from the Who’s TOMMY. There’s a Rockabilly urgency in Toy’s percussion and Justin Harbin’s bass; Carroll’s piano tinkles along, while Al Sevilla virtually mimics it on the mandolin. “Somebody Someday” is a real-deal Country number with that vague honky-tonk feel from the piano. The only thing missing is the drawl and the twang. Kauffman’s bass highlights the song, while Sevilla’s playing is so understated that you may need a few listens to pick it out of a line-up. One of those moody alternative singer/songwriter thingys closes out the EP. Lisa’s vocals have an Aimee Mann-cum-Sheryl Crow vibe happening on “One Too Many,” with Kauffman adding some echoey Hawaiian sounding guitar in the breaks, as well as some nice solos. The whole song is rather dichotomous, with a stripped-down sound that still manages to evoke Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound. While the production tends to be a tad muddy in parts, FIRST TIME, LONG TIME is a fine debut. Lisa is already in the studio working on a follow-up full-length, scheduled for a mid-to-late 2016 release.


KINKY FRIEDMAN/BRIAN MOLNAR AND JOE CIROTTI

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

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

Brian Molnar (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Brian Molnar (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

Joe Cirotti (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Joe Cirotti (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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


BIRDCLOUD/MOUNTAIN SPROUT/BLAINE CARTWRIGHT AND EARL CRIM

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

The Door Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BLACKFOOT GYPSIES/BROTHER LEE AND THE LEATHER JACKALS

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

The Wall Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DOUBLE THE PLEASURE: THE ZACK MURPHY INTERVIEW

BLACKFOOT GYPSIES AT THE DEMO, OCTOBER 11

BG Demo

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

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

Blackfoot Gypsies (HANDLE IT cover art)

Blackfoot Gypsies (HANDLE IT cover art)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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