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.


REVEREND HORTON HEAT WITH UNKNOWN HINSON/NASHVILLE PUSSY/IGOR AND THE RED ELVISES

(February 6, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

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What a wonderful, bizarre night this was. Reverend Horton Heat have always been one of my favorite live acts; I vaguely remember seeing Nashville Pussy somewhere about fifteen years ago… they didn’t do a lot for me but, well, things change; for me, there were two wild cards: the enigmatic Unknown Hinson, who did a short set toward the end of the Reverend’s show, and the goofball antics of Igor and the Red Elvises. Let’s start things off – as we always do – at the beginning with…

Igor and the Red Elvises (Natalie John; Igor Yuzov; Dregas Smith) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Igor and the Red Elvises (Natalie John; Igor Yuzov; Dregas Smith) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The wild and wonderful women who make up the current incarnation of the Red Elvises (shouldn’t that be “Red Elvi?” Just wondering) and their Commissar of Jocularity, Igor Yuzov. With shaking hips and thrusting pelvis eliciting visions very much like that of a certain ’50s teen idol, sporting a head of “Elvoid”-based follicles and dressed in what can only be described as a lame’ jungle print zoot suit, the larger-than-life singer exhorted (extorted?) the crowd to sing along, clap along, dance along, surf along and pretty much any other “along” he could think of as he built a set from the ground up, randomly calling out – Zappa-style – the next tune. At one point, he even cajoled a good portion of the audience to “spontaneously” erupt into a shimmying, snaking conga line. Is there any wonder why this rockin’ teenage combo is “your favorite band?”

Igor and the Red Elvises (Dejah Sandoval; Igor Yuzov; Jasmin Guevara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Igor and the Red Elvises (Dejah Sandoval; Igor Yuzov; Jasmin Guevara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Well, yeah… all of that over-the-top lunacy is as cool as it sounds, but this band is so much more: Musically, Igor and his ever-revolving, evolving group of Elvises play a hip, retro brand of Rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll, laced with enough updated alternative grooves to keep even the most jaded of youngsters’ heads bobbing and butts shaking; the band, especially the rhythm section of Dejah Sandoval and Jasmin Guevara (on bass and drums, respectively), are first rate musicians and, obviously, are having just as much fun as Igor and the fans. Aside from her bass-playing abilities, Sandoval proved improbably adept at remaining upright while sporting stacked boots that would give Gene Simmons a nosebleed, while Guevara was virtually a perpetual motion machine, bobbing and shaking her head like Ringo and pounding her kit like a miniature Bonzo. Keyboard player Dregas Smith showed herself capable of laying down a wicked boogie woogie piano one minute, a fuzzy, grungy garage Farfisa the next; as Igor – more often than not – neglected his guitar, Natalie John took up some of the slack on trumpet and various horned instruments, as well as the occasional funky solo. When Igor did play his chosen instrument, he mixed James Burton-style Rockabilly with Dick Dale or Link Wray-like tremolo-laced Surf guitar. The fact that he sounded like Boris Badanov fronting a band of KGB operatives only added to the man’s charm and mystique on songs like “Closet Disco Dancer,” “Surfing In Siberia,” “I Wanna See You Bellydance” and “She Works For KGB.” The aforementioned conga line took shape at the beginning of “Sad Cowboy Song,” which also featured an incredible (as in, not boring) drum solo from Jasmin; the solo actually started with the other three ladies surrounding the kit and joining in on the percussive fun. I could probably write a novella filled with superlatives about Igor and the Red Elvises, but then I would never get to the rest of the show. Suffice to say that a Red Elvises show is pretty much like watching Frank Zappa’s Mothers eat Madness and then throw up Link Wray; that’s kinda my way of saying that a good time was had by all.

Nashville Pussy (Jeremy Thompson; Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys; Bonnie Buitrago) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy (Jeremy Thompson; Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys; Bonnie Buitrago) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy, the hard-rocking, four-headed Blues beast may seem – on the surface, at least – an odd choice as tour-mates for the Heat boys, but they’ve been traveling the highways and by-ways together for nearly twenty years. If you’re not familiar with this outfit, they play a drug-fueled, beer-soaked Southern boogie… kinda like early Lynyrd Skynyrd laced with liberal doses of Motorhead, as well as a little bit of Hank, Senior. Up top, I mentioned that the only other time I saw them live, Nashville Pussy really didn’t trip my trigger; a few months back, I saw vocalist Blaine Cartwright play an acoustic set two doors down, at the Demo. Cartwright mentioned that he’d been working on his vocals and, obviously, in that stripped down environment, the melodies and the wickedly funny (and equally perceptive) lyrics weren’t so easily lost in the sheer decibels of a Pussy show and, guess what… somewhere in between that show and this one, I went back and listened to last year’s TEN YEARS OF PUSSY compilation and, well, I like ’em… I really like ’em! And, for the record, Blaine’s vocals ARE stronger and clearer than ever, kinda like Uncle Ted or Alice gargling with the ashes of Wolfman Jack and Bon Scott. In fact, with the addition of bassist Bonnie Buitrago a few years back (and, just maybe, the seasoning that comes from almost constant touring), the band has definitely taken on a more cohesive sound since I first saw them, lo, those many years ago.

Nashville Pussy (Blaine Cartwright; Blaine and Ruyter; Ruyter Suys) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy (Blaine Cartwright; Blaine and Ruyter; Ruyter Suys) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Though the band has, indeed, coalesced into a well-oiled machine, the songs maintain their inherently lewd and rude lyrical bent, while each of the four musicians appear ready to go into the crowd for a bit of a throw down at the drop of a black cowboy hat (or, at the very least, to go into the crowd to throw back a drink or two with their rabid fans). Buitrago and drummer Jeremy Thompson laid down a thunderous rumble over which Cartwright and his wife, Ruyter Suys, worked their six-string magic. Don’t think that because Blaine has concentrated on improving his vocals that he’s neglected his guitar playing… he hasn’t; true, Ruyter still does most of the lead work and soloing in her inimitable style, but I believe that Cartwright’s newfound confidence in his voice has allowed him to just let go on guitar. An example of both appeared in the unexpected form of a cover of the classic Marshall Tucker Band ballad, “Can’t You See.” Don’t think for a second, however, that that means this group has mellowed… they are still as cantankerous and debaucherous as ever; classics like “Pillbilly Blues,” “Struttin’ Cock,” “Hate and Whiskey,” “Rub It To Death” and the ever genteel “Go Motherfucker Go” tells you that this is a buncha folks that would’ve made Caligula blush. Well, most of ’em, anyway; it was kinda funny watching Ruyter, Blaine and Bonnie sweating and thrashing and knocking back shots (or, more often, taking a slug straight from a bottle of Jack) while Jeremy just goes about his job with as little exertion as possible, but still – somehow – managing to sound like two drummers. While Suys’ guitar seemed to occasionally fall out of tune as she throttled the the neck, abused the trings and writhed about the stage, it just didn’t matter; what did matter and what came across from the time Nashville Pussy took the stage was the passion that these people (and their ravenous fans) have for the MUSIC. In a world where electronic beats and auto-tuned voices are becoming the norm, it is refreshing to hear real music played by a band that isn’t afraid to mess up from time to time.

Reverend Horton Heat (Jim Heath) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Jim Heath) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

For over thirty years, guitarist Jim Heath has fronted the band Reverend Horton Heat… to most of his fans, he IS the right Reverend Heat. The band’s sound (a melding of Western Swing, Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues, Surf Music, and pretty much any other genre that they can work into the stew) really began to come together when bassist Jimbo Wallace came onboard in 1989; many, including Heath himself, consider Jimbo to be the heart and soul of the group. Spanning two different tours of duty, Scott Churilla is the trio’s longest-tenured drummer, having served from 1994 to 2006 and coming back into the fold in 2012. As you can imagine, these guys have become a well oiled live machine and, this show was certainly no different. Proving their staying power – and the continued popularity of their music – the band ripped into the fairly straight-forward Surf instrumental “Big Sky” coupled with the wild hillbilly honk of “Baddest of the Bad,” both from 1994’s breakthrough album LIQUOR IN THE FRONT, before sending the sold-out crowd into a feeding frenzy with “Psychobilly Freakout,” a fan favorite from their debut album, SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM.

Reverend Horton Heat (Jimbo Wallace; Jim Heath; Jimbo Wallace) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Jimbo Wallace; Jim Heath; Jimbo Wallace) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

From there, the boys dipped into the earliest years of Rockabilly with “School of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a 1958 single from fellow Texans Gene Summers and His Rebels; not only are these guys celebrating their own history, but they continue to celebrate their roots, as well as turning their fans on to music they may not have otherwise heard. In most instances, an upright tends to get lost in the mix… not Jimbo‘s; he prompted pops and thrums out of his instrument like no other could. Scott’s excellent stickwork proved why Jim and Jimbo brought him back into the fold after six years away; many of the Reverend’s best albums feature Churilla mounted on the throne (actually, he plays on all but the first three albums and 2009’s LAUGHIN’ AND CRYIN’ WITH THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT). And, of course, what can you say about Jim Heath? He’s never been a flashy guitarist, but he makes what he does seem so easy; it’s the same with his vocals… rock solid from start to finish. With his eyes in perpetual squint-mode (lights, I would guess) and his face either wearing an all-knowing, world-weary smirk or a mile-wide smile, Heath is one of the most unassuming rockers you’ll ever see. The set list looked like the back of a “Best of… ” album, with such fan-pleasing entries as “I Can’t Surf,” “Bales of Cocaine,” the hard-driving Psychobilly paean to Mister Wallace, “Jimbo Song,” as well as Chuck and Johnnie’s “Little Queenie.” Toss in the instant-classic “Zombie Dumb” from the group’s most recent release (2014’s REV) and a few more selections from an impressive catalog and you’ve got a rock ‘n’ roll show to remember. However, the boys were just getting started and… we hadn’t even seen their special guest yet!

Reverend Horton Heat (Unknown Hinson; Jim Heath; Unknown Hinson) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Unknown Hinson; Jim Heath; Unknown Hinson) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As the houselights came back up after “It’s a Dark Day,” Heath had this to say by way of introduction about Unknown Hinson (the special guest, if you haven’t been following along), “This man scares me to death. Not only because of all that vampire shit, but because of the way he plays guitar… he’s better than any of us could ever hope to be.” Sporting the suit he was buried in (I’m not positive, but I’d bet it cinched in the back) and a pompadour from Hell, the vampiric Hinson lumbered to center stage, still wearing the black gloves so important to his evening wear as he sates his murderous predilection; he removed the gloves only to pick up his guitar. Like the music of the Heat lads, Hinson is sorta all over the place: Everything from surfin’ Gothic Country to metallic hillbilly punk. Hinson’s wide palette included hardcore Western swing, Carl Perkins-style Rockabilly, fuzzed-out slabs of pure psychedelia, old-school Rhythm and Blues and his own twisted take on Southern honk; if you close your eyes just the right kind of tight, you’d swear it was Early Cuyler hisself serenading you. Unknown’s short set-within-a-set included the misogynistic “Silver Platter,” as well as such delicately titled little ditties as “I Ain’t Afraid of Your Husband,” “Fish Camp Woman” and “Your Man Is Gay.” Hinson proved to be as good advertised on guitar, moving from Heavy Metal power chords and manic Country pickin’ to mind-expanding psychedelic soloing and mournful Blues licks. The whole thing was rather like what would happen if the legendary George Jones were to hook up with Brian Warner at a Satanic mixer hosted by the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Minnie Pearl… in short, everything a true music lover hopes for in a live experience.

Reverend Horton Heat (Scott Churilla; Jim Heath; Scott Churilla) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Scott Churilla; Jim Heath; Scott Churilla) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As Hinson exited the stage, Jimbo, Scott and Jim charged into the salacious “Let Me Teach You How To Eat” and its thinly veiled lyrical innuendo. One of Heath’s earliest (from THE FULL-CUSTOM GOSPEL SOUNDS OF THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT, released in 1993), heaviest and funniest tunes, “400 Bucks,” led into a sort of gear-head finale, with the divorce settlement classic “Galaxy 500” and the Surfabilly couplet about fast cars and faster women, “Victory Lap” and “Smell of Gasoline,” the latter featuring solos from both Scott and Jimbo. The encore brought Unknown Hinson back to the stage for an extended jam on “The King of the Country Western Troubadours,including a very Trower-esque solo from Unknown. I’ve seen Reverend Horton Heat several times since 1996 or so and they just keep getting better; throwing Hinson into the mix just upped their game even more. I can’t wait to see what they bring next year… I know it’ll be killer.


TURKUAZ/GHOST-NOTE

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

Pre-show stage set up (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Pre-show stage set up (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


EPICA/MOONSPELL/STARKILL

(January 30, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

Epica-Tour

I gotta admit, I wasn’t real sure what to expect out of Epica… I just knew that I really wanted to see legendary Portuguese Goth metallers, Moonspell, again. Serious doubts entered my mind about the whole night when it seemed as though this was going to be another one of those sparsely attended Saint Louis shows; with about 30 minutes to go before start time, the room was less than half full. However, to my utter surprise (and delight), each check over my shoulder saw the head count rise to the point that, by the time Starkill took the stage, the floor was packed. And, what a great evening of rock and roll was on hand for one and all, beginning with…

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Chicago progressive speed merchants, Starkill. The band’s prime mover, Parker Jameson, showed himself adept at both dirty and clean vocal styles, as well as impressive lead and solo guitar… he was even responsible for the prerecorded keyboard parts featured throughout the six-song set. The show highlighted Starkill’s most recent release, VIRUS OF THE MIND with three songs, including their opening salvo, “Be Dead or Die.” Odd title aside, the tune featured an intense orchestral intro from Jameson and a massive drum sound. Surprisingly, the strongest material has yet to be officially released, “Burn Your World” and “Cloudless,” from an upcoming third album (after two albums with Century Media, the band is self-releasing this one with fan funding from Indiegogo); maybe the strength of these new songs comes from the fact that guitarist Tony Keathley and bassist Shaun Andruchuk are now firmly ensconced in the fold (VIRUS OF THE MIND was pretty much finished when they were brought on board). Andruchuk is an absolute beast, prowling the stage and giving the guitars and vocals ample underpinning alongside the borderline maniacal drum-bashing of Spencer Weidner. As impressive as the rhythm section is, this group’s strength lies in the vocals (with Keathley supporting Jameson with clean counter-vocals and, in some instances, nice harmonies) and the twin lead work from the fleet-fingered guitarists, put to particularly good use on “Virus of the Mind.” What could have been a fairly unextraordinary set of Death Metal was continually lifted to unexpected heights by the clean vocals of both Parker and Tony, Spencer’s percussive expertise and the use of Parker’s keyboard and orchestral embellishments. These guys can only get better.

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell have always tended toward the dark, Gothic edges of metal. More recently, they have gone full-tilt into the Gothic sound and lyrical imagery of such bands as the Damned, True Sounds of Liberty (TSOL), Danzig (both the metal band and their punk Misfit leader) and the lugubrious funeral dirges of Type-O Negative. The band were ushered to the stage with the atmospheric, near-operatic (as in THE PHAMTOM OF… ) “La Baphomette,” the final track from their latest record, EXTINCT; as vocalist Fernando Ribeiro took to the boards, the recorded intro faded, replaced by the ponderous beats of Mike Gaspar’s drums and the massive sound of Pedro Paixao’s pipe organ for the haunting “Breathe (Until We Are No More),” the opening cut from the same album. Guitarist Ricardo Amorim and bassist Aires Pereira initially seemed to be completely buried in the mix with the nearly overwhelming volume of the pipe organ. However, the problem was soon rectified and, to paraphrase the dearly departed Lemmy, everything was louder than everything else, with Pereira’s bass adding to the rhythmic din laid down by Gaspar and Amorim’s tasty licks leading the way on Moonspell’s musical moonlight drive through the cemetery. The band seemed to kick into high gear with the title track from EXTINCT, particularly Ricardo, who delivered the first of many killer solos; they really hit their stride, however, on older tunes like the slow grind of “Awake” (from 1998’s IRRELIGIOUS album) and a pair of late set favorites from their 1995 debut, WOLFHEART (the eerie fist-pumper “Vampiria” and “Alma Mater,” which featured a very nice old-school rock solo from Amorim). Ribeiro hung around the lower registers, occasionally approximating the bone-rattling baritone of the sorely missed Peter Steele or, alternately, delivering the gutteral death-rattle of the genre – moving effortlessly between the two at the drop of a coffin lid… plus, his accent kinda reminded me of Bela Lugosi. As good as Starkill was, this was definitely the highlight of the evening for me; could the headliner hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Kicking their set off with a couple of tracks from their latest release (THE QUANTUM ENIGMA from 2014), from the get-go, it was obvious that the name of these Nederlanders’ game was speed and precision; guitarists Isaac Delahaye (the lone Belgian in the group) and Mark Jansen proved to be fleet-of-finger, while bassist Rob van der Loo and drummer Arien van Weesenbeek matched them with a wicked ferocity and keyboardist Coen Janssen added a touch of the symphonic. Of course, above all was the unbelievable mezzo-soprano voice of the lovely Simone Simons. “The Second Stone” and “The Essence of Silence” were formidable blasts of Wagnerian bombast, with mystical/metaphysical lyrics, alternating between Simons’ operatic vocals and Jansen’s harsh, throaty growl. Amidst a flurry of hair-whipping, it was obvious – much like Moonspell before them – that the band (and an appreciative audience) really started to have fun with the introduction of some fan-favorite older material, beginning with “Sensorium,” from the group’s debut release, THE PHANTOM AGONY. With “Martyr of the Free World,” Coen Janssen emerged from the shadows (and fog) engulfing stage-right’s back corner with a unique bowed keyboard, soloing and mugging for the crowd (and I still couldn’t get a decent shot of the third original member of the group, along with Simone and band founder, Mark Jansen); toward the end of the song, after basking in the much-deserved accolades of the packed room, Janssen returned to his omni-directional keyboard as Delahaye killed a lightning-quick solo.

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As you may well guess, any band with the type of near-virtuosity that each member possesses is going to solo and solo often. On “Cry For the Moon,” it was Weesenbeek’s turn, as the hard-pounding drummer delivered a powerful, tastefully short exhibit of his abilities. The song itself, another track from THE PHANTOM AGONY, built from a basic, martial rhythm to an anthemic slow-simmer to a full-blown operatic tour de force, with a Teutonic-sounding choir (via a sample or backing tape) adding a new dimension to the already forceful vocals of Simone Simons. Though Epica has been called a “Gothic Metal” band, it really isn’t until “Storm the Sorrow” that I caught anything (other than certain lyrical content) remotely Gothic in their music, with the heavy, near-industrial riffage and doom-laden piano flourishes; the fact that the upbeat vocal performance belies the nightmarish lyrics only adds to the Goth feel… a real highlight. The brutally dark vibe continued, with Mark delivering more of his intense, harsh vocals throughout the next few songs,” including “The Obsessive Devotion” and, from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Victims of Contengiency.” This darker sound also gave van der Loo a chance to shine with more complex bass lines, rather than sticking fairly close to the rhythmic patterns laid down by the drums and guitars; this complexity was best displayed on the title track to 2009’s DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE, the closing number of the main set, which also featured some very nice multi-textured keyboard work from Coen.

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unsated, the appreciative crowd refused to leave without hearing more; Epica was more than willing to oblige. With Janssen exhorting the rabid fans, he was soon joined by Weesenbeek, Delahaye and van der Loo, teasing the encore before Simons and Jansen returned for a stirring “Sancta Terra.” The band wasn’t messing around with a “one-and-done” trip back to the stage; they followed that tune with a great version of one of the stronger songs from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Unchain Utopia.” If that wasn’t enough, refusing to go gentle into that good night, the sextet finished with a thundering version of the bombastic, anthemic epic, “Consign To Oblivion.” Like last November’s Amaranthe show at Pop’s, Epica eschewed the use of any visible, onstage amplification or monitors; however, where the sound was, at best, spotty for that earlier show, here, it was near perfect. The lighting, also, was some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. So, earlier in this review, I asked the question, “Could Epica hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?” The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal, “Yes!” A great night of metal, from top to bottom.


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.


NILE/TYRANNY ENTHRONED/ABSALA/PARADIGM SYMPHONY

(January 25, 2016; FUBAR, Saint Louis MO)

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My first visit to Fubar started well enough, but ended… uh… unexpectedly early. After confirming with the evening’s headliners, English punk legends, Slaughter and the Dogs, I hung out in the venue for the next three hours, talking to family members of the opening act, a group of teenagers called Million Hits; a few minutes before doors, everybody was ushered outside to either pay the cover charge or have their name checked off of the will call/guest list. This is where things took a downward turn, as the night’s main event forgot to leave their guest list before heading to their hotel for some much-needed sleep; even though I had been inside the venue most of the afternoon, it was either pay up, wait for my benefactors to return to the venue or make other plans for the evening. This really wasn’t any one person’s fault, but it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth… I mean, do YOU pay at the door to do your job? Yeah… neither do I. So, anyway, I went into this visit with a more-than-slight trepidation but, as it turned out, the only thing I had to worry about was a stifling heat as the crowd roiled and pushed and head-banged to some of the heaviest music ever.

Paradigm Symphony (Bailey Hamor; Niko Alsup; Andrew Coppage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Paradigm Symphony (Bailey Hamor; Niko Alsup; Andrew Coppage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The festivities were kicked off by Paradigm Symphony, sort of an amalgam of Death Metal and classic heavy metal, punctuated by a vocalist who not only looks like the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Anthony Kiedis, but sounds like him, too. These guys are definitely high-energy, with guitarist Niko Alsup and his partner-in-shred, Bailey Hamor, being the stand-outs. While – in my humble opinion – Andrew Coppage’s voice may be the weak link in the sound, he does have great stage presence. However, it’s hard to ignore Alsup’s Eddie Van Halen on steroids fingertapping style, as your eyes are inexorably drawn to his side of the stage, trying to figure out exactly how he is coaxing those sounds out of his instrument; at one point, he played one of the most amazingly fluid backward solos you’re ever likely to hear. Hamor left most of the soloing to Niko but, when he did take one, it was a precision strike and stunningly effective. The rhythm section – skin-basher Nick Sternfeld and bassist David McGillem – added to the Chili Peppers comparison with a loose and funky groove for the guitars and voice to work over. The group’s set was short and, though I have seen better, I also saw a definite upside and great potential in what they have to offer.

Absala (Tristin King; Jordan Harris; Dylan Lorinc) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Absala (Tristin King; Jordan Harris; Dylan Lorinc) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With titles like “A Voyage So Bleak,” “The Mortician’s Penchant” (possibly the best song about necrophilia since “Code Blue” by TSOL, though Alice Cooper’s “I Love the Dead” remains the ultimate in what is, admittedly, a small sample size) and “Methods of Sacrifice,” the five-piece Absala definitely upped the Death Metal ante. Led by the vocal prowess of Jordan Harris, who falls somewhere between King Diamond and Six Feet Under’s legendary frontman, Chris Barnes, on the sonic scale, the group play with a technical precision that is both meat-clever brutal and scalpel sharp. Lightning-fast twin guitar runs from Dylan Lorinc and Jason Asberry highlight the sound, though both are also capable of tastefully dark solos; Lorinc may just have the edge over Asberry, more for his totally unassuming presence than anything else… there’s just something about watching an almost emotionless dude playing such passionate music. Noah Pogue, on the other hand, is anything but emotionless (or motionless), as he is a whirling dervish of constant movement and facial contortions; Pogue’s six-string bass playing, along with the drumming of Tristin King, is the ballast that keeps Absala afloat. After an impressive set of originals, the band paid tribute to one of the fore-fathers of speed, the recently departed Ian Kilmister, ending their set with a great version of Motorhead’s “Iron Fist.” The evening was beginning to take shape nicely.

Tyranny Enthroned (Jesse McCoy; Brandon Park; Gabe Price) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tyranny Enthroned (Jesse McCoy; Brandon Park; Gabe Price) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tyranny Enthroned kept the energy high – if not the speed – with their brutal blackened Death Metal attack. The set list was short… only four songs, extended takes of grinding ferocity like “Born of Hate,” “The Incubus” and “The Harrowing Inferno.” Drummer Brandon Park and bassist Anthony George anchored the sound with a pummeling style that threatened the Cervical plexus of even the heartiest of those who bang their heads. Jesse McCoy’s vocals were a thing of beauty (in a gargled glass sort of way), as he delivered both guttural growls and explosive roars with ease; the fact that he was responsible for most of the heavy lifting on guitar, as well, made his performance stand out even more. That, in no way, should diminish the six-string-slinging efforts of Gabe Price, who more than held his own through the melee, slashing out wicked leads and the occasional monster solo. Though all three openers exhibited moments of brilliance, proving their mettle (and metal) before a Nile-crazed crowd, Tyranny Enthroned appears to be the band closest to breaking out of the burgeoning Saint Louis metal scene into the big time. I look forward to hearing more from all three acts.

Nile (Karl Sanders; Dallas Toler-Wade; Brad Parris) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nile (Karl Sanders; Dallas Toler-Wade; Brad Parris) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Our headliners, twenty-three year veterans of the dark metal wars (and closet Egyptologists) blasted through a thirteen song set, highlighting tracks from each of their riff-laden major label releases, beginning with “Sacrifice Unto Sebek” and the caustic “Cast Down the Heretic,” both from 2005’s ANNIHILATION OF THE WICKED. With so much material to choose from, the set was tightly constructed, with only three numbers from the group’s latest, WHAT SHOULD NOT BE UNEARTHED; “Call To Destruction” and “Evil To Cast Out Evil” from that record stand as some of the most vicious and uncompromising work of Nile’s incredible career. Even the oldest song played, “The Howling of the Jinn,” from the 1998 offering, AMONGST THE CATACOMBS OF NEPHREN-KA, fit in seamlessly with primary songwriter Karl Sanders’ ever more densely layered progressive approach. Sanders shared shredding and vocal duties with Dallas Toler-Wade, with suitably grinding rhythm work, barbaric riffing and stinging solos delivered with buzz-saw proficiency. The double-bass thunder of human drum machine George Kollias was matched by the destructive force that is new bass player, Brad Parris; though both were excellent throughout, the duo seemed to up their game during the second half of the show, particularly on such fare as “Sarcophagus,” “The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh” and set closer, “Black Seeds of Vengeance.” By this time, the heat had taken a toll on me and I had moved to the relative cool by the side of the stage; from my new vantage point, I could see just how intense and rabid the crowd were for this band. I’m not always so blown away by doomy Death Metallers, but in this instance, I can definitely say that the audience reaction to Nile was well-deserved.


ALL THEM WITCHES/RANCH GHOST

(January 16, 2016; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

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Walking to the Demo before this show, I ran into my young friends from the recent Koa show. First Koa, now All Them Witches… maybe – just maybe – there is hope for us as a civilization; I asked these young men and ladies if they shouldn’t be listening to the Bieb or One Direction or Kanye and was heartened by their answer: “Who? That’s not music.” A tear of happiness rolled down my cheek. So, we know that the kids’ allegiance to Koa is well-earned but, will All Them Witches live up to expectations? We’ll answer that question shortly but, first…

Ranch Ghost (Joshua Meadors; Matt Sharer; Andy Ferro) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ranch Ghost (Joshua Meadors; Matt Sharer; Andy Ferro) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Opening the show were All Them Witches’ Nashville neighbors and kindred spirits, the not-spooky-at-all (well, hardly-even-spooky) Ranch Ghost. The four-piece – augmented by a keyboardist for this show – offered up a rich rock stew, cooked up in a Nashville garage, with ample amounts of Surf and psychedelic flavoring, alongside a pinch of Folk and Country for extra seasoning. Joshua Meadors’ high, nasally voice (think Jello Biafra or Johnny Thunders or, perhaps, a more apt comparison would be Hank, Senior) lent itself well to the reverb-drenched chaos, while he and fellow guitarist Andy Ferro reveled in their Dick Dale/Link Wray sonic blasts. Matt Sharer’s bass, Tanner Lunn’s drums and Mitch Jones’ “atmospherics” added a perfect sludgyiness to Ranch Ghost classics like “Nahla” and “New News,” as well as tunes from the band’s forthcoming Rough Beast album. More than a simple chameleon-like morphing of musical styles from song to song, each tune’s genre-bending sound was an amalgam of the last hundred years of popular music, creating something that is wholly… Ranch Ghost. Even the physical appearance of these Ghosts seemed to hit on some well-known stylistic pop reference points: Ferro’s facial hair and wool cap put me in mind of Cheech Marin, with Sharer filling in for the larger-than-life beard of Tommy Chong; Meadors’ blonde mane and the music’s heavy Surf vibe virtually screamed (to no one but me, I’m sure) “Al Jardine,” one of the original Beach Boys. Just to bring this line of observation full circle, Lunn reminded me of actor Jason Mewes (the “Jay” half of “ …and Silent Bob”), while Jones could be the younger brother of actor/musician Billy Mumy (LOST IN SPACE, Barnes and Barnes). As random as those comparisons are, the music of Ranch Ghost is just as random… hard to pin down, but definitely something worth checking out.

All Them Witches (Michael Parks, Junior; Robby Staebler; Ben McLeod) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

All Them Witches (Michael Parks, Junior; Robby Staebler; Ben McLeod) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

While Ranch Ghost sort of dumps everything into a giant blender to get their musical point across, All Them Witches sticks pretty close to a Psychedelic Blues, played in a heavier-than-gravity style that evokes Hawkwindian space jams alongside the acoustic-metal slam of Jimmy Page’s New Yardbirds (check your history books if that one baffles you, children). Kicking the set off with “Call Me Star,” the opening track from their excellent new record, DYING SURFER MEETS HIS MAKER, the quartet quickly makes known their musical manifesto; the tune charges into a mesmeric approximation of “El Centro,” an extended instrumental jam that also features on DYING SURFER… that rather put me in mind of “No Quarter” from HOUSES OF THE HOLY. Frontman Michael Parks, Junior’s voice seemed more an ethereal entity unto itself, adding an other-worldly quality to the already dense instrumental wall-of-sound, a wall constructed by guitarist Ben McLeod, keyboardist Allan Van Cleave, drummer Robby Staebler and Parks’ bass. The fact that these four young men are capable of delivering such a massive sound in a seemingly effortless fashion belies the complexities of the arrangements and the music itself; it’s almost like watching the early ’70s version of the Mothers of Invention performing “My Bonnie” or some other rudimentary campfire song… child’s play.

All Them Witches (Ben McLeod; Allan Van Cleave; Ben McLeod, Michael Parks, Junior, Robby Staebler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

All Them Witches (Ben McLeod; Allan Van Cleave; Ben McLeod, Michael Parks, Junior, Robby Staebler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The set was nearly equally divided between newer material and stuff from 2013‘s LIGHTNING AT THE DOOR, with each song melting into the next, forming what could best be described as a sort of Native American suite. Following the hypnotic swirl of “Open Passageways” and an extended jam on the instrumental, “Welcome To the Caveman Future,” the next six numbers were from the earlier album, beginning with a shamanistic, Doors-likeDeath of Coyote Woman,” which featured a raging solo from McLeod. At times, Van Cleave’s Fender Rhodes sliced through the atmospheric desert grooves (as on the monolithic “Mountain”), at others, his electric piano added a perfect texture (especially on bluesy numbers like “Marriage of Coyote Woman”). The rhythm section delivered their parts with a devastatingly brutal precision that added to the roiling mysticism throughout, but the throbbing, tribal pulse laid down by Parks and Staebler on “Talisman” was a thing of dark and disturbing beauty. How many times has professional wrestling promoter Billy Corgan declared guitar-driven rock “dead?” Well, it would seem that bands like All Them Witches are here to prove you wrong, Billy… given the amount (and diversity) of new rock and roll spewing forth from the Country Music Capital of the World, it would seem that the medium is alive and getting better every day. For a taste of All Them Witches live, check out their album, AT THE GARAGE, or, better yet, catch ’em on tour at a venue near you.


KOA/THE DRIFTAWAYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


WIZARDS OF WINTER

(December 18, 2015; EFFINGHAM PERFORMANCE CENTER, Effingham IL)

Wizards of Winter (sound and lights) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Wizards of Winter (sound and lights) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Let me say this upfront: I do not go in for these big Christmas spectacles. I have never seen the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I have never seen Mannheim Steamroller; I have never bemoaned the fact that I’ve never seen either act. The same could probably be said about the Wizards of Winter, as well, so I was perhaps a bit apprehensive when their publicist, Arielle, contacted me to review the show. All I can say is, “Thank you, Arielle!” I came away with an entirely new perspective regarding these types of shows. Not only was the show’s choreography amazing, the narration spot-on and the music both stirring and hard-rocking, highlighting both the Christian and secular aspects of Christmas, but every member of the band and their crew – right down to the bus driver – went out of their way to make me feel at ease and, yes, at home, amongst their little group. Additionally, the management and staff of the Effingham Performance Center made my first visit there as easy and pain-free as any venue I’ve ever worked. Thank you all for making this night’s assignment such a joy.

Wizards of Winter (Scott Kelly; Guy LeMonnier, Sharon Kelly, Mary McIntyre, Natalia Niarezka; Greg Smith, TW Durfy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Scott Kelly; Guy LeMonnier, Sharon Kelly, Mary McIntyre, Natalia Niarezka; Greg Smith, TW Durfy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band asked me to try to get a few shots from behind the drum riser into the crowd. The idea sounded good to me; however, the smoke machines were working overtime, which caused problems seeing the front of the stage, much less past the lights into the crowd. It did offer a unique glimpse into the band, though. The show kicked off with the first track from the group’s new album, THE MAGIC OF WINTER. As an overture, the instrumental “Flight of the Snow Angels” had everything you would expect from a holiday show, including heavy metal keyboard bombast, massive soloing from guitarists Fred Gorhau and TW Durfy, flautist Sharon Kelly and violinist Natalia Niarezka and… snow? Yeah, snow. The illusion was pretty cool and set the feeling for the entire evening. The albums “title track,” “Winter Magic,” was next, followed by another instrumental, the relatively quiet piano-dominated “The Arctic Flyer” and the power ballad, “Special Feeling,” which featured some nice dual lead guitar and the introduction of former Trans-Siberian Orchestra vocalist Guy LeMonnier. Both of the numbers are from last year’s eponymous record (and, apparently, an earlier version called TALES BENEATH A NORTHERN STAR). With drummer Tommy Ference pounding away and Gorhau and Durfy trading solos and power chords, it was hard not to get into the spirit of the season or, at least, into the progressive rock monster on stage. Sharon Kelly (co-founder of the group, with her husband, Scott), keyboardist Mary McIntyre and Natalia Niarezka added, not only a touch of beauty but, some nice choreographed flourishes, as well. With “First Snow,” we were presented with the first of several TSO covers (along with a few others).

Wizards of Winter (Tony Gaynor; Guy LeMonnier, Mary McIntyre; Fred Gorhau) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Tony Gaynor; Guy LeMonnier, Mary McIntyre; Fred Gorhau) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The music could very easily have carried the entire show but, Tony Gaynor’s presence, delivering a loose narrative thread, utilizing the accepted Christian nativity, as well as adding bits of ancient Winter Solstice celebrations and the legend of Santa Claus, was impressive. You are definitely drawn to Gaynor when he’s onstage, hanging on his every word. The first half of the show ended with a retelling of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, highlighted by Scott’s keyboards (approximating a harpsichord and a pipe organ). The song, “Ebeneezer,” was sandwiched between a pair of covers, the pomp of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Nut Rocker” (itself, a cover of a 1962 Bumble and the Stingers recording of Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Toy Soldiers” from THE NUTCRACKER) and the TSO hit, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” (again, a cover of a cover, as TSO progenitor, Savatge first recorded the medley of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” for their 1995 album, DEAD WINTER DEAD). The latter, coupling a pair of the most well-known and beloved Christmas Carols of all time, was certainly stirring and elicited one of the loudest reactions from the audience.

Wizards of Winter (Tommy  Ference; TW Durfy; Sharon Kelly) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Tommy Ference; TW Durfy; Sharon Kelly) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

During the short intermission, someone called the bass player (who I’d been eying all night long as someone I should know) “Greg” and, as the light went on over my head, I turned into the fan-boy that I am, pointed to him and said, “You’re Greg Smith. You used to play with Alice.” Sharon said, “Yeah, and we borrowed him from Ted Nugent’s band for this tour. He gets around.” Suddenly, this whole thing had been elevated a notch in my estimation, as if the spectacle (and the warmth of the band and the crew themselves) hadn’t already made this a great night. As the second part of the show opened, more keyboard and guitar bombast was in the air, with the hard-driving “March of the Metal Soldiers.” It’s obvious that this is a band of consummate – if not virtuoso – musicians, as they exhibited on several instrumentals throughout the evening, including “Gales of December,” which highlighted Sharon’s flute and some killer dual shredding from Fred and TW. A definite highlight of the night came when Mary McIntyre donned a little red Missus Claus costume, heading into the crowd for a spirited “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Another instrumental, “Toys Will Be Toys,” saw the vocalists tossing mini beach balls into the audience, as well as featuring a nice Natalia Niarezka violin solo. Even though all of the vocalists continued to be featured, the metal maven, Vinny Jiovino, was fully in charge of the second set, with his keening vocals falling somewhere between Dee Snider and Mark Slaughter, including a great version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The anthemic “Spirit of Christmas” closed the show proper. “Requiem,” the fifth and final Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover, opened the encore before the rousing, everybody-in finale, “With One Voice.”

Wizards of Winter (Mary McIntyre; Natalia Niarezka; Vinny Jiovino) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Mary McIntyre; Natalia Niarezka; Vinny Jiovino) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I really cannot say enough about the friendly atmosphere the band fostered backstage and, when I mentioned seeing a young special needs fan in the audience, Vinny and the rest went out of their way to make sure she had a mini beach ball, autographed by the entire band (I’m sure I made a pain of myself in securing the autographs for the young lady). So… maybe next year, not only will I revisit the Wizards of Winter, but add the TSO and Mannheim Steamroller to my winter concert schedule also.


THE BEATLES: 1+

(APPLE RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP; 2015)

Album

This newly remastered Beatles 1 set, featuring the Beatles’ 27 UK and US chart-topping songs, now comes with a second disc (the “+,” available as either Blu-Ray or DVD), with videos of all 27 number ones. The set is also available with a special third disc, which offers still more videos, including many alternate versions, not to mention a wonderful 124-page booklet with plenty of pictures and descriptions of all the tunes and info for all of the videos. It’s quite a package for fans and also serves as a great introduction to the magic of the Beatles.

The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (uncredited photo)

The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (uncredited photo)

The songs – from 1962’s “Love Me Do to 1970’s “The Long and Winding Road” – take you through the time when the Fab Four dominated the world’s musical landscape, making great music and pushing the envelope as they evolved. Though just about everyone on the face of the planet knows these tunes, the real bonus here is the second, rarities-filled disc of videos with great alternate versions of “Day Tripper,” “Rain” and “Hello, Goodbye.” Seeing the revolutionary film for “Strawberry Fields Forever” had unknowingly prepared us for the upcoming age of the music video; “Penny Lane” is also wonderful.

The earliest videos are from TV appearances or live shows: THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, the 1965 Shea Stadium concert and so forth. One of my personal favorites is from 1968, when the lads did “Hey Jude” on THE DAVID FROST SHOW and the audience came on stage to join in on the “na na na’s.” “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down” from the group’s last live public appearance, commonly referred to as “the rooftop concert,” is great, as is “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” with Paul, George and Ringo gathering together one final time to create new Beatles music from two John Lennon demos. As a lifelong fan, reliving (or, in some instances, experiencing for the first time) all of these amazing memories certainly gives me much pleasure, as the music of the Beatles continues – after all these years – to bring such joy and happiness to the world.