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