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.


BETH BOMBARA/LOOT ROCK GANG/RIVER KITTENS

(June 27, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Window Time With Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Window Time With Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Words truly cannot express how much I like seeing a show at Off Broadway. Since I started reviewing live music again, I have found myself at this venue more often than not and I am totally enamored of the look, the sound, the staff and the overall vibe of the club. Of course, the fact that they are currently booking some of the most interesting shows in town doesn’t hurt; so I was more than willing to make another visit for Beth Bombara’s record release show.

River Kittens (Mattie Schell, Martha Mehring, Allie Vogler) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

River Kittens (Mattie Schell, Martha Mehring, Allie Vogler) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

River Kittens are an old-school Country Western vocal group; think the Carter Family… Mother Maybelle with Helen, Anita and June huddled around a single microphone. Or, maybe, a more accurate approximation would be Dolly, Emmylou and Linda, a la their TRIO album… only bawdier. The ladies mixed some well chosen covers (Wayne Raney and Lonnie Glosson’s 1949 classic ode to the “love bug,” “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” and Aretha’s slinky, funky “Baby I Love You” from 1967) in with solid originals like set opener “Trouble,” “On My Way” and set closer “Praise Be.” The bulk of the leads were taken by Martha Mehring, though multi-instrumentalist Allie Vogler and mandolin player Mattie Schell added the occasional lead part to the group’s magnificent harmonies. There-in lies the strength of these Kittens: Three strong voices blending together beautifully.

River Kittens (Mattie Schell; Martha Mehring; Allie Vogler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

River Kittens (Mattie Schell; Martha Mehring; Allie Vogler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

If it wasn’t obvious before, it became quite evident that Mehring was the “Mama” Kitten with her intro to “Dressing On the Side.” She mentioned that she wasn’t in a very good mood because she’d had a bad day at her other job, as a waitress, and then went through a litany of weird demands and rude comments she’d heard and little (or nothing) in the way of tips from the customers at the little cafe where she works. At the end of her hilarious tirade, she seemed contrite, finishing with, “So, if you were one of those customers… you look familiar, sir. Fuck you and please come again!” An old pal, Tim Gebauer, told me that River Kittens were the real deal; now, I’m here to tell you that he was spot on with his assessment… River Kittens are definitely the real deal! If you have a chance to see them, don’t pass it up; you will be thoroughly entertained.

The Loot Rock Gang (Stephen Inman; Kevin O'Conner; Little Rachel) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Loot Rock Gang (Stephen Inman; Kevin O’Conner; Little Rachel) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Loot Rock Gang followed with their rootsy Hot Jazz vibe – spiced with liberal doses of true Saint Louis Blues. The melting pot of musical styles was the perfect compliment to both River Kittens’ opening shot and Beth Bombara’s celebratory closing set. The playful vocals of the husband and wife team of Mat Wilson and Little Rachel set the feel of the music; Mat’s acoustic resonator guitar, Stephen Inman’s upright bass and the baritone of guest sax blower Kevin O’Conner (on loan from the Seven Shot Screamers, where he mans the drum throne) filled in some of the bright spots. Starting with the band’s mission statement, “Loot Rock Boogie,” Rachel was an always-smiling dervish of kinetic energy; she wore me out just watching her. She has one of those voices that leaves me thinking that she should be performing in an Old West saloon, which easily compliments Wilson’s smooth-as-silk delivery.

The Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Gang’s set was heavy on material from the recent THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING release – and… can you blame them? From front to back, it’s full of great originals from Mat, including the fun, countrified boogie of “My Gal Friday,” the joyous title cut (which saw Mat really cut loose on guitar) and the twin anthems to their hometown, “Bank Despair” (“a song about a certain river around here”) and “Love For My City.” Sprinkled amongst the originals were such gems as Blind Blake (real name: Alphonso Higgs) and His Royal Calypsos’ 1952 song, “The Goombay Rock” and the 1920s novelty hit “Kansas City Kitty,” performed with the same aplomb as Wilson’s tunes. As a nearly-last-minute replacement, O’Conner should definitely receive a mention for his spot-on performance, offering up great renditions of Kellie Everett’s wailing, bleating bari parts. As with River Kittens, a great time was had by all.

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara is the Saint Louis music scene’s tiny secret weapon; she has a folk singer’s head and a rocker’s heart… her lyrics are definitely as heartfelt as any songwriter’s and I would pit her guitar work and vocal prowess (imagine Joan Baez, Brandy Johnson and Linda Ronstadt meeting up at the back of Aretha Franklin’s throat for a good ol’ fashioned hoedown) against just about any roots rock or Americana performer out there. Congregating for a release party for her new, self-titled album (which featured prominently in the evening’s set list… nine of the ten songs made up the bulk of the fifteen tune set list), the eager Off Broadway crowd humbled Beth with their enthusiastic welcome and accepting reaction to the new material. She is – rightfully – proud of the new record and the songs she and husband Kit Hamon have written. She told the Mule in a recent interview, “This album was definitely the first time I really sat down, focused and said, ‘Okay, I’m really gonna do this and I’m gonna do it in a certain amount of time’ and, really, just try to give myself deadlines, which I’d never done before… Some people might think that’s kind of counter-intuitive for creativity but, I think it can be a really good thing.” And, to these ears that enforced schedule worked; this new work ethic forced Beth, Kit and her band to up their already considerable game. “Yeah. I feel like it did… well, for one, it made me kind of take writing a little more seriously than I had before, taking myself more seriously as a writer.”

Beth Bombara with Kit Hamon (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara with Kit Hamon (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

You can call what Beth does “singer/songwriter,” Americana, Rock and Roll or any other term you can think of but, it was apparent, from the opening strains of “Found Your Way,” that she is the consummate musician and performer, a great storyteller and an amazing guitar player. Hers is a style and tone that demands your attention as much as the songs and the vocals. “I’ve played a lot of different guitars and a lot of different amps over the years but, I would attribute a lot of the tone to Kit. He’s actually built all of my guitar amps… he’s done a lot to build a couple different ones for different uses, whatever kind of song we’re trying to record. I’d say that a lot of that his fault.” As for the guitar in question, the one used most often for this show, Beth says, “That guitar, I’ve probably have had for a year, a year and a half. I’ve been playing it out at gigs a lot… even solo gigs and it seems to work pretty well, using that most of the time and then bringing out the acoustic guitar to balance it out a little bit. That seems to work good for the sound.” The solos range from pretty, melodic interludes to squalling, Neil Youngian blasts of feedback and sustain, each as memorable as the last for the passion and pure joy Bomabara displays, at times taken with the energy of the moment, others with the beauty of the melody and the lyric.

Beth Bombara (Karl Eggers; Corey Woodruff; JJ Hamon) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara (Karl Eggers; Corey Woodruff; JJ Hamon) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Beth’s bright, powerful vocals and her incredible backing band come to the fore on songs like the slow Blues burn of “Right My Wrongs,” one of four tunes performed this night taken from 2013’s RAISE YOUR FLAG EP. Kit’s upright bass work adds a supple bounce to whatever tune they’re playing; whether playing the banjo or offering rhythm guitar support, Karl Eggers gives the music an additional layer that’s so subtle, you may not notice but, I guarantee that you would notice if it wasn’t there; Corey Woodruff’s drumming and percussion are impressively rock-steady, proving that a drummer doesn’t have to be particularly flashy to make a musical impression; Kit’s brother, JJ, is the group’s equivalent of a baseball team’s super utility player – a guy you can plug in anywhere and he can get the job done – playing mandolin, lap steel, some guitar (on “In My Head,” from the new record) and the occasional trombone.

Beth Bombara (Kit Hamon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara (Kit Hamon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

One of the many highlights of the evening was “Long Dark Hallelujah,” performed by Beth and Kit alone; Hamon’s backing vocals add just the right plaintive tone to the song, a Woody Guthrie-like lyric that wonders aloud how far this country can fall and if we can find our way back to the promises it holds for its citizens and its immigrants. Lyrically, “Promised Land” has an “us-against-the-world” vibe and could well be the sequel to “Long Dark Hallelujah.” JJ’s trombone features on a few tunes, the best example being “In the Water.” A cover of the quirky Cake tune (but then, aren’t they all?), “Jesus Wrote a Blank Check,” slips comfortably into the set list. The set proper ended with Beth, solo, on “Greet the Day,” a number that she says, “almost didn’t make it on the album with lyrics. We recorded an instrumental version just in case I didn’t have time to finish writing lyrics. And so, it really came down to the last day we were recording vocals in the studio and I was trying to finish lyrics for this song and, I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to get done!’ They said, ‘Well, you have one hour to do it.” The story hearkens back to tales of Brian Wilson being told he needed one more song for the next Beach Boys album and Brian disappearing for fifteen minutes and returning with another pop masterpiece.

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening ended with Beth and her band, joined by the Loot Rock Gang and River Kittens, in a circle on the floor, delivering the grand finale… no lights, no microphones. An absolutely stirring moment… even if I was too far away to make out what they were playing. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that this was a special night of music from three very different artists, each keeping the Saint Louis music scene and its rich history alive for new generations of dreamers and performers.


BANDITOS: BANDITOS

(BLOODSHOT RECORDS; 2015)

BS231_Banditos_Cover_1500_1

The debut album from Banditos, a sextet of like-minded musicians, all with disparate musical backgrounds, is everything that you would expect from a Nashville band – by way of Birmingham Alabama – and… nothing like anything you would ever expect to hear from a Nashville band. The group is somewhat of a throwback, with three distinct lead singers (founding members Corey Parsons and Stephen Pierce, as well as church-trained vixen Mary Beth Richardson) delivering on styles ranging from Rock and Roll, Gospel and Country to Soul, Rhythm and Blues and Jazz. Regardless of the musical style, the group’s hard-charging approach makes everything seem effortless and, ultimately, uniquely its own.

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Corey Parsons; Mary Beth Richardson; Stephen Pierce; Danny Vines) (photo credit: ALBERT KUHNE)

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Corey Parsons; Mary Beth Richardson; Stephen Pierce; Danny Vines) (photo credit: ALBERT KUHNE)

The record starts off with “The Breeze,” which has a sloppy New York Dolls/Lords of the New Church kinda sound with a Stiv Bator (or Johnny Thunders) vocal wail (from Pierce?). Cool, persistent keyboards (piano from Micah Hulscher; Farfisa from Mitch Jones) and beautifully ragtag guitar and banjo feature throughout. “Waitin’” is a disjointed Tennessee stomp with Mary Beth’s Dolly-Parton-on-helium vocals (mull that one over for a tad, folks). Pierce adds a more traditional banjo this time and Randy Wade’s shuffling drumbeat definitely gives the tune a distinct hillbilly vibe. A snotty, jazzy piece of Americana, “Golden Grease” is a slow-cooking number with a dirty guitar sound that somehow reminds me of Aerosmith. A nasty (and uncredited) harmonica part seems all but wasted, only coming to the fore for the final 30 seconds of the tune. “No Good” is a wicked Memphis Soul barn-burner with Richardson proving her mettle as one of the great Blues belters of the Rock era, purring like a kitten one minute, growling like a lioness the next. Parsons and Jeffrey Salter offer two very different guitar solos toward the end of the cut and Stephen’s displaced-sounding banjo lends a touch of the surreal to the proceedings. Corey and Mary Beth share leads and harmonies on “Ain’t It Hard,” a haunting almost-waltz with an oddly appealing melody line. Closing out the first half of the album, “Still Sober (After All These Beers)” is kind of a hybrid dose of jangly, late ’50s/early ’60s rock and roll and a Saturday night hillbilly stomp.

A Country-Jazz type of thing, “Long Gone, Anyway” is new-era Texas Swing siphoned through classic Hot Jazz. Richardson’s vocals have a certain period charm, as do Hulscher’s ragtime piano and Danny Vines’ upright bass. Mary Beth provides the solos…on kazoo. “Old Ways” is a bluesy type of torch song, a la Tracy Nelson or Maggie Bell. The players, though tasty throughout, ascribe to the “less is more” theory of musicality here, allowing Richardson’s commanding voice to shine. So, how do I describe the next cut, “Can’t Get Away?” There’s a Link Wray-like ultra-reverb on the guitar and the song itself sounds like a dirty tin-pan-alley-meets-David-Bowie kinda weird Carl Perkins Rockabilly thing… ponder that description for a while, huh? “Blue Mosey #2” is a Country stroll, with awesome interplay between Pierce’s banjo, Salter’s twangy guitar and Dan Fernandez’s pedal steel. As the title implies, the song is a heart-broken lament, Parson’s smooth vocal drawl somehow reminding me of the great Rick Nelson. There’s more critical name-checking with “Cry Baby Cry,” a great slice of rock and roll, with a cool little shuffle-break from Stephen, Randy and Danny (once more on the upright). Imagine Bill Haley with Johnnie Johnson on piano, LaVern Baker vamping on background vocals and… I don’t know… maybe Marty McFly on guitar. “Preachin’ To the Choir” is a perfect example of saving the best for last. It’s a spooky bit of Americana, highlighted by suitably strained (nearly strangled) vocals and atmospheric guitar and pedal steel. There’s also an eerie, plodding banjo that adds to the creepiness. Most of these songs have been in Bandito’s live repertoire for a few years… after jelling as a band during that time, I am stoked to see what they can come up with for their sophomore release.


LOOT ROCK GANG: THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING

(BIG MUDDY RECORDS; 2014)

Loot Rock Gang album cover

Germination of a record review: The reviewer, with time to kill, visits a legendary Saint Louis record shop; of course, while there, the reviewer is on the look-out for new and interesting releases – especially from local artists – to write about… sometimes, it’s just an interesting cover. Imagine the above cover staring back at you as a glorious 12” by 12” album sleeve… a real live slab of vinyl. I was mesmerized… I had to hear this music! So, what’s the next step? Contacting the record label (or the artist) to request a copy for review. Then, it was just a matter of playing the waiting game, counting the days until that special package arrived at my doorstep. Naturally, there’s always the off-chance that the cover belies the musical talents of the artist and… well… the music sucks to high Heaven (believe me, boys and girls, I’ve been burned by a great cover many times playing this game). Thankfully, though the musical style was really something totally unexpected, I can tell you that in this instance, cover and material mesh perfectly. So, here’s the skinny on THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING:

Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson, Little Rachel, Kellie Everett, Stephen Inman) (uncredited photo)

Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson, Little Rachel, Kellie Everett, Stephen Inman) (uncredited photo)

The music of Loot Rock Gang, written by vocalist Mat Wilson (who adds acoustic resonator guitar to his LRG resume), encompasses a wide range of styles, all rooted in the deep heritage of the Blues and Americana. Likewise, the group’s instrumental configuration – Wilson is joined by his wife, Little Rachel on harmony and backing vocals, Stephen Inman on upright bass and, taking most leads and solos, Kellie Everett on the baritone sax (with help from Ryan Koenig on percussion, mandolin and harmonica) – hearkens back to a bygone era in American musical history. “Loot Rock Boogie,” a theme song of sorts for the band, gets the record off to a rip-roaring start. It’s kind of a dirty throwback to those great B-grade teen exploitation movies from the ’50s and early ’60s. The ancient rock ‘n’ jive continues on “Road To Burn,” a stompin’ good time boogie with a great baritone sax solo from Everett. The titular song, a Western swing kinda thing, features the Gang’s mission statement: “Just can’t help it/That’s why I’ve got to sing.” Next up is “Full Moon Cataluna,” a drowsy ballad with some nice pickin’ from Wilson and beautiful harmony vocals from Rachel. “Happy Boy To Be Your Man” is kind of a small band version of Squirrel Nut Zippers’ updated take on the Hot Jazz scene of the 1930s. The call and response duet vocals and upright piano (supplied by guest artist Chris Baracevic) add a distinctive flair. “Bank Despair” is a slow cookin’ hillbilly boogie-woogie number, the kind of tune that coulda ended up as a production number in a ’30s or ’40s comedy.

Loot Rock Gang (Kellie Everett, Little Rachel, Mat Wilson, Stephen Inman, Ryan Koenig) (uncredited photo)

Loot Rock Gang (Kellie Everett, Little Rachel, Mat Wilson, Stephen Inman, Ryan Koenig) (uncredited photo)

As dichotomous as the assertion sounds, “Better ‘Bout You” is a howling harmonica honk with a down-home Southern Gospel feel. “Won’t Get Lost” has a classic rock vibe but, the traditional swing instrumentation turns it into something uniquely Loot Rock Gang. The ’50s style rocker “My Gal Friday” channels a ’30s Western jump vibe. A skittering guitar leads the strolling waltz of “The Wrong Kind,” a number highlighted by particularly effective vocals. “Love For My City” is the sound of a small jazz combo performing a country stomp in honor of their hometown, the StL. The song “It’s You That I Do Enjoy” features a rather odd vocal and comes off as a weird homage to the original AMERICAN BANDSTAND theme song. “Trinidad,” as the name implies, has a wistful Caribbean vibe with a beautiful guitar intro and outro. Various Gang members have played and toured with kindred spirit Pokey LaFarge, honing their already razor-sharp talents to the pinpoint brilliance displayed on THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING, a debut that definitely bodes well for the future of the diverse Saint Louis music scene in general and Loot Rock Gang in particular. I, for one, cannot wait for the next chapter in this band’s story. I’m sure it’ll be a blast! For now, though, you can listen to and purchase THAT’S WHY… in your choice of CD, vinyl or digital formats at the group’s Bandcamp page.


WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 1

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

Hey everyone, it’s 2015! Didja notice? Yep, it’s a symmetrical year three fourths of the way through the first fifth of the new millennium! I find that this is making me, and plenty of other people I’ve spoken to, think about numbers, halfway points, anniversaries, etc. For me, this year marks the major anniversary of a lot of key things in my life and career, and I plan to write about some of those right here at the Mule. It’s gonna be fun, so saddle up and take this trip with me, through the past, smartly! Not that I feel like acknowledging my age or anything, but I would say I have been a true “music fan” for 50 years now. As a bonafide baby boomer, I grew up in the ’60s listening to all that classic stuff that makes the “Best Ever” lists these days. Sometime in 1965, probably after the Beatles’ RUBBER SOUL album came out, I became aware of music in a bigger way than before. It was no longer just the radio hits my sisters were listening to incessantly on AM, now they were buying albums (mostly the Beatles at first), and the repeated playing of these began to affect my young ears with increasing intensity. I love melodies and good singing, and everyone at the time was into the Beatles. A new era was upon us, and it was exhilarating.

What I thought I would do to celebrate my 50 years of being an active listener, is pick the 25 albums that influenced me the most. Here at the Mule, we like to take things personally, that’s why a conventional list of “Best of All Time” or “Best of the Decade,” that kinda thing, is not much fun to do. Stuff like that is all over the web or in your latest issue of ROLLING STONE. And though fun, that kind of clinical exercise can get tedious. But if I tell you I’m going to make a list of 25 albums that truly affected my life, that either set something in motion, changed me or altered my musical taste in some way, well, I get all tingly just thinking about that. The list could be much longer, of course, but it’s important to have parameters. And I like the symmetry of “25 in 50,” ie: The 25 recordings that had the greatest personal impact in 50 years of listening. You will encounter some of the great classics in here, and you’ll also read about stuff you never heard of. Maybe you’ll be shocked that there are no Dylan, Rolling Stones or Beach Boys albums on my list. I’ll say it again, this is NOT a list of the most influential albums, period. It’s a list of what most influenced ME, and made my musical life what it is. This is a thoughtful, personal exercise, and I hope you’ll enjoy sharing it with me. Maybe it will encourage some of you to think about what music most made a difference to YOU, and affected your personality the most. Fun, right? Making something all about YOU is more honest and real than those tedious “Best of” lists. So, here we go. These albums will roughly be listed in the order that I encountered them, although I can’t absolutely swear to that. But… all of these works helped make me whatever and whoever the heck I am today. Enjoy!

1. THE BEATLES: REVOLVER

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

Although SERGEANT PEPPER… is usually cited as the greatest Beatles album, the 1966 classic REVOLVER had a bigger impact on me. It was the Fabs entering their psychedelic period, and my sisters, Therese and Pam, played this album all the time. I was fascinated by the unusual sounds on it (“Tomorrow Never Knows” was utterly hypnotic, as were the strings on “Eleanor Rigby”), and classic gems of songcraft like “Good Day Sunshine,” “I Want To Tell You” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” became lodged firmly in my young mind. I feel sad for people who never know the experience of growing up with a classic album like this.

How it influenced me: Gave me perhaps my first experience of enjoying an album all the way through, with melodies and sounds that seeped deep into my brain.

2. THE BEATLES: THE BEATLES (WHITE ALBUM)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

Barely two years after REVOLVER, the Beatles had evolved so much that it was almost dizzying to a budding music fan at the time. By 1968, only my sister Therese was still home among my siblings, and this album got constant play. It was a weird, unsettling, enthralling experience to listen to it back then. I vividly remember a couple of times when I fell asleep on the extra bed in Therese’s room absorbing the strange, diverse tracks on this album. Each side had a unique flow; some songs rocked out (“Back in the USSR,” “Glass Onion”), some songs were folksy and pretty (“Mother Nature’s Son,” “Julia”) and some were scary and from a place I yearned to know more about (“Long Long Long,” “Revolution 9”) What a remarkable sonic journey this double album took fans on! Nobody at the time talked about the “divisions” within the Beatles, or how “self-indulgent” the album was. We simply ate it up, listened with fascination, and marveled at the new age of rock that was now dawning.

How it influenced me: The first massive song collection I ever lost myself in, with unforgettable moments across the musical spectrum, including the first moments on record to scare the crap out of me (the moaning sounds at the end of “Long Long Long” and the entire “Revolution 9”). Hearing dark, weird sounds on a record began for me, oddly, with the Fab Four.

3. THE MONKEES: PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

In the late 60s, the Monkees were the OTHER band that captured the lion’s share of attention in my circles. We all knew the hits like we knew the shrubs in our front yard, and we watched the MONKEES TV show faithfully. This 1967 album was a superb collection of tunes that got constant play in my neighborhood. The previous Monkees albums seemed more like collections of big hits, but this one headed into some new territory. “Star Collector” was downright psychedelic, and Davy Jones sang it! “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was simply one of the best songs ever, ever, ever, one of the first songs to become a solid favorite for me. And many others stood out, like the minor-key laden “Words,” the Nesmith classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” and the Nilsson gem “Cuddly Toy,” which, decades later, would become a song I would sometimes perform live when I became a musician myself.

How it influenced me: A solid soundtrack to my childhood, full of innocence, whimsy and suburban dreams.

4. TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS: THE BEST OF…

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

From 1967 to 1970, Tommy James was a fixture on radio, with classic hit after classic hit. They were often in the summer, becoming wondrous summer classics like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Crimson and Clover.” At every swimming pool where radio was in the background, Tommy James was a part of the atmosphere. And the first song I ever declared to be my personal favorite, was “Sweet Cherry Wine.” This song absolutely captivated me, and I would sometimes wait for it to come on the radio, getting very emotional when it did. It was a beautifully produced song, with background vocals that got under my skin and never left my memory. THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS was, I believe, the first album I bought with my own money. It’s possible a Monkees album preceded it in that regard; memory can be sketchy. But it was unquestionably the first hits collection I ever bought, and the first non Beatles or Monkees music to get repeat play in my life. A soundtrack for the year 1969 in particular.

How it influenced me: The sound of the last year before I became a teenager. The first record to actively make me aware of the magic of background vocals. A collection of songs I truly, truly could listen to over and over.

5. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: BOOKENDS and BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (tie)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

If you become a musician, some influences don’t become apparent to you right away; you might have to work on developing your style and think about the kinds of songs you want to do, before the stylistic touchstones become obvious. I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, and all but their first album were regular spins at our home in Kirkwood. Most of their songs struck me as sad, intimate and evocative, and the musical personality they presented… the tight harmonies, the sometimes quirky lyrics… was vivid and powerful. These two albums affected me about equally, the former for its melancholy musings on the passing of time (“Old Friends,” “Bookends”) and quirky sing-alongs (“Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo”), the latter for its epic production and exhilarating musical dramas (“Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” “The Boxer,” the title track). This was one of a clutch of albums I listened to a great deal with an early girlfriend in 1972; such things stay with you. Years later, I fell in love with a girl actually NAMED Cecilia, and that song became significant in a very personal way. More importantly, Paul Simon’s songwriting stood out for me as artful, impactful stuff, and he is one of the composers I always mention as an influence on my own music and aesthetic.

6. CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: DEJA VU

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

They were called the “first big supergroup,” “the American Beatles” and more. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were not destined to sustain the kind of impact such lofty labels created expectations for, but they made this one incredible studio album as a foursome. It was a 1970 classic, and that year they were omnipresent. Every song was amazing, and the potency of their musical personalities was overwhelming if you were a fan of singer/songwriters. I was, and this album, plus the live album FOUR WAY STREET, essentially planted the seeds of my own desire to write songs. From the iconic cover photo to the peerless harmonies to the counterculture sass, this was an unmissable classic of its time. And that guy Neil…

How it influenced me: The songwriting. The personalities. The times!

7. NEIL YOUNG: HARVEST

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

It’s really not easy picking one Neil Young album for my list. Considering that Neil Young is one of the two most important and influential musicians in my entire life, it seems inadequate to talk about one album. It actually could have been ANY of his first four: the NEIL YOUNG debut, the epic Crazy Horse workout EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE in 1969, the popular fan favorite AFTER THE GOLDRUSH from 1970. All had an impact, but HARVEST was one of my high school soundtracks. I listened to it with my first real girlfriend. I was profoundly affected by Neil’s singing and arrangements throughout, and, quite simply, I was a different person by the time I fully absorbed this album. Neil Young was the first singer/songwriter I claimed as my own, the first to pervade my life and shift my understanding of the craft of songwriting. I memorized everything on this album; it became a huge soundtrack for me. I even liked the orchestration on “There’s a World,” which some reviewers lambasted. Everything in my music life changed after Neil Young; he’s even the artist that got me interested in reading reviews, which then led to my writing career. His influence was profound.

8. PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

If you were in high school in the early to mid-’70s, Pink Floyd were a staple. FM radio played them all the time, and the longhairs and tokers were ALWAYS talking about them. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON was one of the first albums to become a genuine phenomenon, and it was absolutely everywhere when I was in high school. I was intrigued enough by the band to research all their earlier work, and I found their 1971 classic MEDDLE. That’s the one that burrowed into my brain. The trilogy of atmospheric gems on side one: “A Pillow of Winds,” “Fearless” and “San Tropez” stirred me with their smooth vocals, melancholy arrangements and haunted romanticism. I found these tracks more than a little compelling. And, as for “Echoes,” the spacey side-long excursion that graced side two, well, it was the first immersive space rock spectacle I had encountered, a headphone extravaganza for many of us buying our first stereo systems at the time. Progressive rock had arrived, and so had a plethora of mysterious sounds we’d never heard the likes of before, us teens.

How it influenced me: The dawn of headphones-ready space rock, David Gilmour and Rick Wright creating a perfect sonic template to serve Roger Waters’ lyrical ideas, and the important notion that something could be epic and intimate at the same time in music.

9. YES: CLOSE TO THE EDGE

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

And they WERE, too. Close to the edge of sonic possibilities at the time, as evidenced by the side-long title track that pretty much blew everyone’s mind. I didn’t truly listen to Yes with any depth until 1973, but CLOSE TO THE EDGE became a staple. Progressive rock was becoming one of the most popular genres, with Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and others dominating the talk among hardcore music fans at the time. With musicianship on a scale hardly imagined before, Jon Anderson’s soaring voice and “out there” lyrics, and passages of music that were so hypnotic and evocative that they could be said to represent the beginning of the power of “ambient sound” (which would transform my life a few years later), Yes were unrvaveling layers of new possibilities in music. I ate it all up, shared it with friends, and even began trying to memorize some of the more interesting lyrics.

How it influenced me: The mystical, far-reaching “subjects,” the compelling lyrics, the incredible purity of Jon Anderson’s voice, the early ambient sounds.

10. BLACK SABBATH: SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

I was never much into what was called “heavy metal,” although both Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were huge during my teen years. I have no idea what first got me into Black Sabbath, but I listened to MASTER OF REALITY pretty often with the same girlfriend I mentioned in an early paragraph, and it had a lot of mystery about it. The heaviness of the riffs and the darker themes were quite compelling to me. I started reading some of the reviews of Black Sabbath, and by the time their fifth album came out, I was a senior in high school and a budding amateur musician. There seemed to be something of real substance to SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH to my ears at the time, and I even liked Ozzy Osbourne’s shrill voice. The oddest thing that happened, though, is that I began trying to play a couple of the songs on piano. I’d had a year or so of lessons, and I would occasionally try to just “pick out” chords or melodies from popular songs. Came up with my own versions of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and, inexplicably, “Sabbra Cadabra” from the Black Sabbath album. I was playing controlled double octaves, and I was doing it with all the energy I possessed. I had the structure of this song down pretty well! It got to the point where this was pretty impressive, I suppose, because I played it at a couple of parties and for a number of friends, who always seemed to clap. Inadvertently, Black Sabbath had given me my first taste of what it might be like to be a musician. That’s influential, ain’t it?

11. BRIAN ENO: DISCREET MUSIC

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

In a month or two, I’ll be doing a piece on Brian Eno for this site, so I don’t want to go into undue detail right now. But… people who know me, know that Eno is the single most influential musical artist of my life, just a shade more than Neil Young because of the differing STREAMS of influence he had. This 1975 album was a game changer, to say the least, and of earthshaking importance in my life. Try to imagine what it would be like to have your actual dreams and subconscious memories represented in musical terms. That’s what Eno’s first true “ambient” recording did for me. Consisting of wispy, ethereal, repeating and interweaving synth melodies, what Eno came up with was so new and different that no one really knew what to do with it at the time. I did, though. I listened to it late at night both through headphones and without. I played it any time I had a hangover, and the hangover would miraculously go away. I listened to it when I felt depressed, and I felt that, somehow, there was a force out there that understood me. “Miracle music,” I began to call this stuff, and it launched my lifetime love affair with ambient music. How did it influence me? In every possible way as a music listener. It asked questions that many people are STILL trying to answer. And a whole new world had opened up that I walked into with an open mind and open ears…

12. JONI MITCHELL: HEJIRA

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

By 1976, the legendary Joni Mitchell was exploring jazz stylings more and more in her music, and she was well past the stage of having conventional “hits” (1974’s COURT AND SPARK was her last album to feature anything like that). I’d been a fan, but HEJIRA was more than just a new album by a songwriter I loved; it was a restless travelogue by an artist at the peak of her powers. Songs such as “Amelia” (which referenced ill-fated pilot Amelia Earhart), “Song for Sharon” and “Refuge of the Road” really stirred me with their ruminations on life, memories and uncertainty, and furthered a growing desire I had to write meaningful things myself. If that weren’t enough, I fell in love with a girl not long after this that looked very much LIKE Joni Mitchell, and kind of worshipped her. So, me with my Neil Young obsession and this girl with her Joni fixation, began comparing notes and trading insights on our idols. It was heady stuff, and although it ended badly, this Joni Mitchell album in particular captured something emotionally potent that was not only on the recording itself, but echoed through my own personal life. And the lyrics of that “Refuge of the Roads” song are brilliant and sobering.

13. TELEVISION: MARQUEE MOON

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

Something strange and mysterious was going on in New York City in the mid ’70s, and my cousin Roxanne, who lived there, started talking to me about it. There were a lot of new bands playing at a club called CBGB’s, and Roxanne and I, who were already close partially due to shared letters and phone calls about relationships and the music we loved, began going to that club and others in NYC, regularly. A band called Television was getting a great deal of attention, and I didn’t think too much about this until I went to New York myself in 1977 and got to see them, with my cousin and my brother Kyle along for the experience. There’s a thing that happens when you see a band that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. You get transported, you have your mind blown, and it expands your reference points for the old sonic vocabulary. Television had two incredible guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, and the mesmerizing interplay of the two lead guitars, coupled with bizarre, evocative lyrics and Verlaine’s charisma on stage, was unforgettable for anyone who saw the band. The term “new wave” was created to try to label bands like this; “punk” just wasn’t cutting it. These guys were musicians, and they were reaching for something out there that the punk bands couldn’t care less about. Roxanne sang me her favorite lyrics from the band over and over, even my snobby brother was affected, and I was left reeling by yet another brand new rock sound. The MARQUEE MOON album came out later in 1977 and took the indie music scene by storm. Some of the best guitar work ever played was on this album.

How it influenced me: By generating understanding of the far-reaching drama that two electric guitars could generate, seeing the experience of people getting swept away by music in the dingiest of dingy Bowery clubs (at a legendary time in rock music history), and by raising the stakes for underground music, which was also to generate so much press that the mere READING of reviews and articles at this time became an experience unto itself.


UNCONSCIOUS COLLECTIVE: PLEISTOCENE MOON

(TOFU CARNAGE; 2014)

12 Jacket (Gatefold - Two Pocket) [GD30OB2-N]

The avant metal/doom jazz experimental trio Unconscious Collective is back with their second full-length, the impossibly retro-progressive PLEISTOCENE MOON, putting the best parts of Sun Ra, the Mothers, Mile Davis, Crawling Chaos and Captain Beefheart in a bag, shaking them up and dumping them out onto two slabs of 12 inch vinyl (wax, actually, but… you know what I’m talking about) that are uniquely their own. This is some seriously brain-damaged stuff! I like it… I like it a lot!

Unconscious Collective (Aaron Gonzalez, Gregg Prickett, Stefan Gonzalez) photo credit: GINGER BERRY)

Unconscious Collective (Aaron Gonzalez, Gregg Prickett, Stefan Gonzalez) photo credit: GINGER BERRY)

The first three minutes of the title track is every camper’s nightmare, with various animal and… uh… other noises (I’m thinking RACE WITH THE DEVIL… look it up). It leads into an even creepier Gothic fever dream, featuring ominous bass and drum parts (courtesy of Aaron Gonzalez and Stefan Gonzalez, respectively), a scratchy, atmospheric guitar (provided by Gregg Prickett) and other deeply disturbing noises and effects. Simply stated, “Pleistocene Moon” is the soundtrack to the scariest horror movie never made. “Tribe Apini” is fueled by a deep, sonorous bass, some jazzy drumwork and some avant guitar noodling with subtle flamenco undertones. Frank Zappa woulda been proud! There’s a jazzy vibe to “Requiem For Biodiversity.” The first section is a plaintive, emotive tenor sax thing by Mike Forbes. Aaron chimes in with a great bass line and a cool bowed acoustic bass (like a cello, no?) part. The track is very much in the free-form jazz vein that eventually turns into manic Motorhead Sherwood skronks. Prickett’s feedback and echo drenched guitar during the first 150 seconds of “Kotsoteka” comes off like soundtrack music for a spaghetti western starring face-eating demons. From that point, it’s a fairly straight forward rocker with a light jazz glaze.

Is the Spine the Dividing Line?” has an odd, but appealing jazz time signature, with requisite great work from the rhythm section and minimally intrusive guitar and horn noodling to carry the melody, which is quite reminiscent of Flesh Eaters’ magnificent “Satan’s Stomp.” The final few minutes turn rather ominous, reiterating the haunted foreboding of the first half of the record. A squalling stun guitar and solid bass/sax interplay informs “Methane Rising,” the shortest track on the album. The tune is a wicked, violent improv of noise and an unlikely groove that slowly falls apart in a deconstructive heap with Aaron plucking single notes to the fade. “The Transformation of Matter” is an almost normal sounding jazz tune with plenty of soloing and adventurous swerves and bumps along the way. The final track, “Greedy Tongue” is a percussion piece – not a drum solo – with Stefan incorporating a coil spring and other, more standard percussive instruments and running them through a blender for an other-worldly sound. Guitar and bass scratch and claw just below the surface as the disembodied voices from the first tune reappear, adding to the luncay. With the track clocking in at over eight minutes, you may think that it will get really stale fairly quickly; far from it, Stefan engages from the get-go and keeps it interesting ’til the end. The same can be said for the whole record, as five of the tracks come in at ten minutes or more. If you miss the adventurous improvisational aspects of yesterday’s musical innovators, PLEISTOCENE MOON should put that shiver back in your spine.The album is available in a downlaodable form or as a two record set from tofucarnage.com.


LAKE STREET DIVE: BAD SELF PORTRAITS

(SIGNATURE SOUNDS; 2014)

lakestreetdive2013

The four-piece Lake Street Dive would be as comfortable on-stage at a big Country show as they would be at a small Jazz club; they would fit in equally well with old-school Soul or Rock ‘n’ Roll and would even find (or gain) ardent fans on a Warped Tour stage. On their latest release, BAD SELF PORTRAITS, the immediate point of distinction – as with everything that has come before – is the voice of Rachel Price. While Price is the obvious focal point, the musicians behind her are responsible for putting words in her mouth: drummer Mike Calabrese; guitarist, trumpeter and founding member Mike “McDuck” Olson; bassist and primary songwriter (at least on this album) Bridget Kearney. The diverse sound of Lake Street Dive can most easily be traced by the geographical history of the four members: Olson hails from Minneapolis (home of Prince and Husker Du); Calabrese calls Philadelphia home (Philly Soul, anyone?); Kearney is from Iowa (as was/is Big Band leader Glenn Miller and metal extremists Slipknot); Price comes from just outside Nashville (the one in Tennessee… you know… “Music City”). This huddled mass melted into the New England Conservatory pot in Boston.

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Rachel Price, Mike Olson) (publicity photo)

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Rachel Price, Mike Olson) (publicity photo)

BAD SELF PORTRAITS kicks of with the title track, a very cool Motown vibe and vocals that have a throwback appeal – think Norah Jones channeling Ronnie Specter… kinda thick and sultry. “Stop Your Crying” is very much in the same vein: girl group pop for the next century with backing vocals that are best described as… uh-hum!… “Supreme.” The next tune, “Better Than,” has a distinct Buckingham-Nicks/Fleetwood Mac groove, with a syncopated percussion pattern, a medley line and backing vocals that are quite Stevie-esque (Nicks not Wonder, in case you didn’t get the previous reference), and a very churchy sounding organ. Bridget Kearney (who wrote this one, the equally infectious title track and three more of the 11 songs here) also adds a very nice acoustic bass line. “Rabid Animal” is a wicked girl group/Carole King-Brill Building tune with a punchy rhythm and a tack piano driving toward its abrupt end.

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Rachel Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson) (photo credit: JARROD MCCABE)

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Rachel Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson) (photo credit: JARROD MCCABE)

You Go Down Smooth” is a kind of dirty blues, featuring a standard George Thorogood guitar riff. There’s a great horn chart that gives the number a grand, Big Band feel, which is accentuated by some jazzy, charging drums and excellent backing vocals on the chorus. The funky soul of “Use Me Up” features a snappy percussion pattern but, it’s the slapping bass line, with just enough resonance, bounce and spring in the strings to give it a nifty ’30s Jazz vibe. “Bobby Tanqueray” is a cool mix of modern alternative rock guitar parts, loopy, out-of-left-field bizarro stage production lyrics and an odd sci-fi/fantasy siren (the mythological chicks, not the noisey, wailing warning devices) sound (is it a synthesizer thingy… is it a theremin… is it a human voice?) that really kicks this one up a notch on my “like-o-meter.” Believe it or not, “Just Ask,” reminds me of something from Paice Ashton Lord (a Deep Purple off-shoot), with a heavy organ sound, a beefy guitar sound and a funky groove.

Lake Street Dive (Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, Rachel Price) (publicity photo)

Lake Street Dive (Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, Rachel Price) (publicity photo)

Seventeen” is probably the rockin’est track, with a driving, crisp Southern Rock guitar sound and almost tribal drumming from Calabrese. The male/female duet vocals adds another dimension, reminiscent of the sound Dale Krantz and Barry Harwood brought to their duets with the Rossington-Collins Band. The chorus and the rhythm of the track are of the variety that gets stuck in your head, on perpetual rewind. A loose, random feel permeates the percussion heavy “What About Me,” giving it a funky, rollicking late ’60s feel. The church choir chorus and New Orleans-style guitar and drums adds to the almost sloppy party atmosphere, kinda like a Big Easy funeral procession during Mardi Gras. The final track, “Rental Love,” clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, is as close as this record gets to a ballad. The instrumentation is – once again – crisp and imaginative but, Price’s vocal performance raises the track to another level… something more than a standard Rock/Pop/whatever ballad.

BAD SELF PORTRAITS is short by today’s standards, a few seconds shy of 40 minutes. You get so lost, however, in the little nuances (lyrically, vocally and instrumentally) of the album that you don’t realize the brevity… you just know you want to hear more. I’m well aware that we’re barely a quarter of the way through the year, but I’m gonna be hard pressed to find many more deserving releases for a spot in my “Best of 2014” list.


JEFF BERLIN: LOW STANDARDS

(RANDOM ACT RECORDS; 2013)

Jeff Berlin LOW STANDARDS

Jeff Berlin has jazz hands… big ol’ bass-playin’ jazz hands. Jeff is a masterful player, as are the other two members – acoustic bassist/pianist Richard Drexler and drummer Mike Clark – of this trio (do the math… it adds up… really!). LOW STANDARDS is marketed as “an incredible nod to master jazz composers” and the first track, Wayne Shorter’s “ESP,” is full-on Stanley Clarke bass-as-lead-instrument rockin’ jazz (fusion, if such a word is still used). Drexler, on acoustic bass, I suppose, is holding the rhythm with Clark, though it’s rather hard to tell for sure. He does, however, solo on piano on each of the eight tracks. “ESP” is one of three Shorter pieces featured (“El Gaucho” and “Fee Fi Fo Fum” are the others) and, therein seems to lie the chink in the armor of LOW STANDARDS. Wayne Shorter is wildly talented sax player and composer but the players here seem to have dug themselves a rut by picking too many slow-to-mid tempo numbers (or maybe it’s just a matter of the band’s arrangements… I don’t know). These guys border on virtuoso stature in the jazz field, but so much of this album just feels ponderous and over-thought-out. So much of what’s good about jazz is its unpredictable nature; I don’t feel that here. Everything is just too neat and tidy!

Mark Clark, Jeff Berlin, Richard Drexler (Brad Kugler Photography)

Mark Clark, Jeff Berlin, Richard Drexler (photo credit: BRAD KUGLER PHOTOGRAPHY)

Things don’t pick up again, for me anyway, until Carla Bley’s “Vashkar,” track number 5. It, then, however, reverts back to form with more – for want of a better term – “easy listening elevator muzak.” I wish I had more nice things to say about LOW STANDARDS as a whole but, especially after that first track and “Vashkar,” I just get a sense of unmet expectations. I know that Jeff Berlin has more to offer. Hopefully, he’ll bounce back with his next one. Here’s a really cool thing about Random Act Records: 10% of the proceeds from album sales goes to charity. In the case of Jeff Berlin’s LOW STANDARDS, sales benefit the Doctor Theodore A Atlas Foundation (www.dratlasfoundation.com), a worthy endeavor, indeed.