FREAKWATER: THE ASP AND THE ALBATROSS

After nearly a decade, Freakwater, the band fronted by Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, have a new album… SCHEHERAZADE. The release is the group’s eighth overall and first for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records in what can only be described as a sporadic recording career. Likewise, live appearances by the legendary (near-mythical) Southern Gothic six-piece are exceedingly rare so we were excited to hear that they are, in fact, touring to celebrate the release of SCHEHERAZADE. The band bring their haunting, swampy Bluegrass music to Saint Louis on Monday, March 14, as they play Off Broadway. The intimate room is literally just off Broadway, at 3509 Lemp Avenue (in the city’s historic Cherokee District). If you’ve never experienced a show at Off Broadway, you are certainly in for a treat; the sound is amazing, the staff and the overall vibe is top-notch and… well, FREAKWATER! Below is a sneak peak at what you can expect: “The Asp and the Albatross,” the first single from the new record.

Freakwater are bringing along Jaye Jayle (the alter ego of Young Widows frontman Evan Patterson), who is also supporting the release of new music, the darkly miasmic HOUSE CRICKS AND OTHER EXCUSES TO GET OUT. Patterson’s deep-throated vocals and sludgy soundscapes are the perfect match for Freakwater’s intensely personal Swampgrass. Don’t miss what is sure to be one of the most talked about shows of the year. Ticket information, show time and directions to the venue are here.


KINKY FRIEDMAN/BRIAN MOLNAR AND JOE CIROTTI

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

DSCN2938

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

Brian Molnar (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Brian Molnar (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

Joe Cirotti (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Joe Cirotti (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Kinky Friedman (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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


VOODOO GLOW SKULLS/PHENOMENAUTS/PINATA PROTEST/SNOOTY AND THE RATFINKS

(September 30, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

VGS

It has certainly been a long time since I’ve been to an honest-to-goodness punk rock show and it had been a good ten years since I had seen the campy space-abilly of the Phenomenauts and longer since last I witnessed the full-on Ska-rnage of the fabulous Voodoo Glow Skulls; there was no way I could pass up both on the same bill. Toss in the provocatively named Pinata Protest and last minute additions, Snooty and the Ratfinks, and we had ourselves a punk rock party at the unlikeliest of venues: Off Broadway, a place most recently known as the favored stopping point for straight-ahead rock and roll, roots rock and Americana acts. As the afternoon turned to evening, it was beginning to look like it would be even longer before I would see another honest-to-goodness punk rock show. With doors scheduled to open at seven o’clock, it was a little after five that Pinata Protest pulled up to the place. With nary a Glow Skull or Phenomenaut in sight, the San Antonio band decided to do a little site-seeing; as a couple of their entourage had never been to the Lou before, they were off to observe the wonder that is the Gateway Arch. With time ticking away, the headliners made their appearance roughly a half hour before doors; the Protest returned from their sojourn a short time later, just about the same time the Phenomenauts’ ship pulled into view. Amazingly enough, the bands managed to load in, with the Glow Skulls actually having time for a quick sound check.

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Jared Pitonak) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Jared Pitonak) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As local boys Snooty and the Ratfinks took the stage (fashionably late), it was starting to look like the only people to show (aside from myself and one other photographer) would be their family and friends. Thankfully, others soon began filing in, ready for the madness to come. The Ratfinks played a modified kind of Ska, somewhere between the Specials and the evening’s headliners, with guitarist and primary vocalist Jared Pitonak leading them through a short and randomly sloppy (the good kind of sloppy, though) set, highlighted by the antics and running commentary of bassist AJ Jernigan. Like most bass players from the area, Jernigan has a sound and style distinctive to Saint Louis – a sort of funky fluidity that stands out in any genre.

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Ian Buschmann and Andrew Hopwood; Neill Wolf) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Ian Buschmann and Andrew Hopwood; Neill Wolf) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Found amidst the unique set of tunage was a short blast of snotty punk bluster called “Poppyseed Avenue,” a heavy Blues thing with a wild guitar solo called “Ukulele Blues” and “Meet Me In My Treehouse,” a bizarre sort of surf thing written and sung by trumpeter Andrew Hopwood. As the set progressed, the sound became a bit more… I suppose “experimental” would be the best term to use and, by the last song, I thought that the band had hit on a sound that really suited their talents – kind of a sludgy heaviness, lightened by the use of a horn section (saxophonist Ian Buschmann did stellar work throughout) and a rhythm section (Jernigan and drummer Neill Wolf) with a funky, almost Motown-like vibe. To be honest, I wasn’t initially impressed with what I heard but, as the crowd started to fill out and the band hit a solid groove, I was feeling the music and wouldn’t mind seeing what kind of set the guys could put together with a little more notice.

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The wild card in the night’s deck was definitely Pinata Protest, a Tex-Mex punk band that blends traditional Tejano music with straight forward punk. It was apparent from the first note of “Vato Perron” that these guys were somewhere left of center and that was enough to draw me in (of course, spending time with them before the show, discussing the similarities of San Antonio and Saint Louis, as well as haunted houses and the Lemp family suicides had already made me a fan). Vocalist Alvaro Del Norte is as charismatic onstage as anyone in recent memory; besides his voice, his chosen instrument is the accordion (and, on a tarted up version of the traditional Spanish folk song, “La Cucaracha,” a pocket trumpet). The accordion and Alvaro’s reckless style adds a depth to the music that can only come from the Lone Star State.

Pinata Protest (Marcus Cazares; JJ Martinez) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Marcus Cazares; JJ Martinez) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band performs tunes written in both English and Mexican Spanish, highlighting their origins and heritage. I had no idea what they were singing about (well, I kinda had an idea, but without an actual translation, I was mostly lost) on numbers like “Que Pedo,” “Campesino” and “Cantina” but, that in no way hindered my enjoyment of what was coming from the stage. Songs like “Jackeee,” “El Valiente” and “Life On the Border” touched on the usual punk themes of not fitting in and distrust of the government (any government, really). New guitarist Jose Morales seemed particularly inspired to be playing in the Lou for the first time, blasting power chords or picking more notes per second than should be humanly possible, each more tasty than the last. JJ Martinez on drums and Marcus Cazares on bass kept everything tight, allowing Morales and Del Norte to go off on wild tangents with some wicked solos.

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I’m sure that, like me, many in the crowd were experiencing the Protest for the first time, as many couldn’t decide whether the band was for real or not. The jokesters on stage were only too happy to add to the confusion and, in some cases, the uncomfortable feeling that something… uh… illegal was taking place. Cazares’ Pancho Villa cum Frito Bandito mustache, with his bass slung low, bordered on a caricature that had a couple of folks checking for the clearest route to an exit. Alvaro’s introduction to “DUI” was funny, as was the song, allowing the crowd to loosen up a bit. At one point, I seemed to be the only person camped out right in front of the stage; Del Norte nudged the crowd, exhorting them, “Hey, you can come closer. We’re not here to steal your jobs. We might steal your girlfriends, though!” That seemed to do the trick, as there was soon a nice little bit of activity on the dance floor. I had so much fun with these guys, I cannot wait to see Pinata Protest again; Jose and I have made tentative plans to visit the Lemp Mansion on the band’s next trip through… should be a blast.

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Jimmy Boom; AR7) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Jimmy Boom; AR7) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The intergalactic tour ship Hawking Cruiser and its crew, led by Commander Angel Nova, reached escape velocity, leaving the Phenomenauts Command Center (located at a secret government installation in Earth’s Capital… Oakland, California), landing just down Lemp Avenue from Off Broadway. In their fifteenth year of an ongoing mission to bring “Science and Honor” to the masses, the Commander’s crew has undergone several reassignments, with only Major Jimmy Boom remaining from Nova’s original mission; current Phenomenauts crew members include the robotic Lieutenant AR7, Chief Engineer Atom Bomb and Mission Specialist Ripley Clips, who came on board only six months before this mission to Saint Louis. Unbelievably, more than a few of the people I spoke to before the show and between sets seemed to be oblivious to the Phenomenauts and their mission. By the time Commander Angel and the other crew members took the stage, those false humans had been replaced by the real deal, as those surrounding me were dancing, singing along and interacting with the (mostly) human musicians of the Hawking’s crew.

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Angel Nova; Ripley Clips) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Angel Nova; Ripley Clips) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The rowdy rocketeers kicked off with “I Don’t Care Whether Earth Is the Best (I Love It Anyway),” an anthem in the truest sense of the term, with our Commander barking the lyrics as AR7 shredded his stringed device, daring – nay… demanding – the rest of the crew to match his Stooges-like ferosity. Major Boom, Specialist Clips and Engineer Bomb were more than up to the task; in fact, Jimmy played with an intensity that would have made Marky Ramone or John Bonham blush… I’m just not sure that “subtle” is a word that crops up in discussions with the drummer too often. The band’s set was full of ebb and flow, kinda like those schlocky sci-fi flicks from the 1950s, with a lot of fun moments throughout.

Phenomenauts' Commander Angel Nova seranades the local fauna (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts’ Commander Angel Nova seranades the local fauna (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Highlights included an intense sci-fi thrasher from the new-ish ESCAPE VELOCITY album called “GI581-5,” with Atom taking lead vocals and Nova on “stand-down” bass; a modified sorta doo-wop number called “It’s Only Chemical,” which began with AR7 and Angel alone on stage (the former on keyboard accompaniment and harmony vocals, the latter singing) before Angel went into the crowd for a twice-around-the-room up-close-and-personal. Nova and the rest of the band came back to the stage to end the number in rocking fashion, with Ripley taking on guitar duties; “Rocket Soul” is a straight out punk rocker with a definite Ramones vibe and a very cool Link Wray-like guitar solo; “Broken Robot Jerk” had AR7 on lead vocals as he led the crowd in a spastic new dance craze; “One In Seven Billion Girl” was classic ’50s pop ‘n’ roll, with sci-fi keyboards and guitar and Angel once more in the crowd, sounding very Presley-esque on one knee, serenading the ladies. Aside from the great music, the usual Phenomenauts stage tomfoolery was afoot… just on a slightly smaller scale; a lot of fog machine action, space-age laser looking lights and a lot of dancing from Mission Specialist Clips (she is particularly adept at doing the Carlson… if you don’t know what that is, Google it). One of the primary weapons in the crew’s arsenal is the dreaded atomic-powered toilet paper launcher, wielded tonight by Ripley; unfortunately, the volatile blaster misfired several times before Clips unjammed the firing mechanism, unleashing chaos and mayhem. Bottom line here, kids, is this: If you didn’t have fun during this set, you’re either dead or in serious need of having that large foreign object removed from that orifice you keep behind your front!

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Jorge Casillas; Frank Casillas; Eddie Casillas) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Jorge Casillas; Frank Casillas; Eddie Casillas) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Casillas brothers – Frank on vocals, Eddie on guitar and Jorge on bass – along with drummer AJ Condosta and brass section Dan Albert (trombone) and Mark Bush (trumpet), doing business as Voodoo Glow Skulls, have been at the forefront of the Orange County punk Ska movement for the better part of three decades. What can one possibly say that hasn’t already been said in the past 27 years? So… that’s it; we’re done here.

Voodoo Glow Skulls (AJ Condosta) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (AJ Condosta) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Yeah… not so much! As much as the audience was into Phenomenauts, the Glow Skulls managed to crank the enthusiasm up to eleven, blasting right out of the box, with Frank sporting his now-traditional luchidor headgear for “Voodoo Anthem,” a wicked chunk of hardcore metal Ska. Barely slowing down to suck wind, the band tore through a pair of tunes from THE BAND GEEK MAFIA, “Human Pinata” and “Symptomatic.” The monster set also included “You’re the Problem,” “Land of Misfit Toys,” “Closet Monster,” and their absolutely brilliant cover of the ancient Coasters hit, “Charlie Brown.” Of course, the biggest reaction came when Frank introduced “Fat Randy,” and mayhem ensued from the first note of the raging behemoth about the unwanted party guest who is… well… a raging behemoth. Later in the set, the group dedicated a couple of Spanish language songs to openers Pinata Protest, “El Mas Chingon” and the charging, insane “El Coo Cooi.” The Skulls rarely wore out a song’s welcome, they were in and out, like a precision surgical military strike. Solos, as may be expected were few and far between and short in duration. That doesn’t mean that Eddie, Mark and Dan weren’t on-point musically; Eddie, in particular, delivered sheets of metallic power from the get-go.

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Dan Albert; Frank Casillas; Mark Bush) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Dan Albert; Frank Casillas; Mark Bush) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

It’s particularly hard to pin any one member of the band down for too long, as even the horn players and drummer Condosta were seeming whirling dervishes the entire set. Everyone on stage, as well as everyone on the floor, were drenched after the show. Which brings me to a point about mosh pits – circle pits, especially: I have made comments in more than one review about the Neanderthalic tendencies of most Saint Louis pits, noting that these idjits wouldn’t know a circle pit if they were tossed into one; all they understand is chaos and the attempt to inflict injury on others. These are generally large, gorilla like beings, intent on doing as much damage as possible to those in the crowd wishing to remain on the periphery of the action (the people who just wanna watch the show and not be a part of any action on the floor). I must now applaud the few (but loyally intense) CIRCLE pit dancers, all of whom were considerate to, not only each other but, those of us around them not really wanting to be a part of their celebration. Was I (and others) jostled a few times? Sure… but that’s to be expected. The point is, these dancers were not out to see anyone hurt and, in the end, everyone on the floor had a great time. And, that’s the feeling that you should have when you leave a Voodoo Glow Skulls show… “Wow! I really had fun tonight!” Mission accomplished, boys!


HEARTLESS BASTARDS/ALBERTA CROSS

(September 29, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Waiting on line for the show (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Waiting on line for the show (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A couple of notes regarding life waiting for a show (and this show in particular) to start… specifically, a bit about the above picture, as well as the randomness of meeting and interacting with other music lovers before the doors to the venue are opened. The gentleman in the picture above happened to be in front of me, just hanging out in front of Off Broadway. I watched this mantis for quite awhile before deciding to take the photo; he didn’t move, didn’t twitch… nothing. I was beginning to think that the critter was dead or, mayhap, it was a plastic toy placed there by a demented prankster; there were, of course, a couple other options: The mantis was, in fact, lost deep in prayer or, he was inscrutable as all get-out. Curiosity eventually got the better of me and I tapped the wall about an inch from his perch. The bugger was very much alive and quite annoyed that I had disturbed his meditation; his head swiveled in my direction and his glare seemed to bore into my very soul for the next twenty minutes. Boys and girls, you have no idea the depth of the despair one experiences when being stared down by such a creature. Now, in this line of work, I don’t usually have too many opportunities to talk to a lot of people (or soul-devouring giant green beasts) before a show. Sound check for the show pushed doors back about twenty minutes, so there was a lot of hanging around waiting for them to open. Things can get a little goofy (to wit, my encounter with the praying mantis) when a group of strangers are standing about with nothing to do. Usually, though, everyone is genial, cracking jokes, asking where everyone else is from… that sort of thing; tonight was no different. One of the more humorous exchanges took place between myself and another man… a man much larger than me: I was leaning against the wall, close to the door; he asked, “So… are you a security guard?” “No. Why? Do I really look that imposing?” “Uh… no. Not really.” We all had a good laugh. Eventually, things got around to, “Who are you here to see?” I told the little group that I really liked Heartless Bastards, but I was really looking forward to seeing Alberta Cross. Apparently, I was the only one familiar with the group, as the questions then became, “What do they sound like? Why do you like them?” Shortly after guaranteeing everybody that they would love Alberta Cross, the doors were opened and our little group scattered to our various vantage points for the show.

Alberta Cross (Dave Levy; Petter Ericson Stakee; Rene Villanueva) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Alberta Cross (Dave Levy; Petter Ericson Stakee; Rene Villanueva) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Over the past couple of years, Alberta Cross has undergone a transformation; the duo (guitarist and vocalist Petter Ericson Stakee and bassist Terry Wolfers) has been halved, with Stakee becoming – for all intents and purposes – Alberta Cross. With a new, self-titled album still a little over two weeks away, Stakee and “friends” brought the new show to Off Broadway, leaning heavily on music from the new album. Petter’s new band featured a childhood friend from Switzerland, drummer Fredrik Aspelin, guitarist Dan Iead (who also played a bit of pedal steel), trumpeter/keyboardist (at the same time, by the way) Dave Levy and bassist Rene Villanueva, on loan from the band Hacienda. Most of them have been playing together live since earlier this year, honing the new material to a rock and roll sheen and giving the tunes an overall tougher sound than the studio versions.

Alberta Cross (Fredrik Aspelin; Petter Ericson Stakee; Dan Iead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Alberta Cross (Fredrik Aspelin; Petter Ericson Stakee; Dan Iead) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

A couple of things were evident from the beginning: Petter’s voice, while a bit reedy on record and during acoustic performances, has a huskier – dare I say – a heavier rock quality that fits this band and this material quite well; likewise, his guitar playing takes on a bluesy quality (amidst a few insane rave-ups) that brings to mind such players as Keith Richard and, yes, even the late ’60s trinity of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. The rhythm section more than held their own, with Aspelin proving to be an adept timekeeper, as well as delivering some well-placed, occasionally adventurous fills and Villanueva’s sonorous bass lines holding everything together nicely. Levy added his trumpet (and synth-produced brass parts) primarily to the newer material, which has a soulful, Memphis feel about it. With Iead matching Stakee in the intensity market on guitar and adding the occasional plaintive strains of the pedal steel, the Memphis vibe was even more evident. The material from the ALBERTA CROSS album - “Western State,” “Ghost of Santa Fe” and “Isolation” among them – has set a new standard for Stakee and Alberta Cross (in whatever form) to build on for future live appearances, while the new, beefed up sound has also infused songs like “Money For the Weekend (Pocket Full of Shame)” with a renewed vitality. This show was everything I had envisioned it would be… and more! Though I would certainly have preferred a longer, headlining set from Petter and his group, I must admit that they were the perfect opener for Erika Wennerstrom’s rampaging Heartless Bastards.

Heartless Bastards (Kyleen King; Erika Wennerstrom; Mark Nathan) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Heartless Bastards (Kyleen King; Erika Wennerstrom; Mark Nathan) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Bastards took the stage with Jesse Ebaugh on pedal steel, Mark Nathan on bass and super-utility player Kyleen King on second guitar for a hard-hitting version of “The Mountain.” Nathan and Ebaugh returned to their “natural” positions (Jesse on bass; Mark back to guitar) with Wennerstrom taking up an acoustic guitar for the first of several tracks from the recently released RESTLEES ONES, Gates of Dawn,” which has a bluesy, sloppy, occasionally glammed-out Pretty Things meet Mott the Hoople vibe. Erika’s vocal style has been likened to Grace Slick but, I also get a touch of Bonnie Raitt… maybe that has more to do with her bluesy guitar and the strong Midwestern ethos she evokes through her lyrics. Whether she’s strumming or picking a beautiful melody or blasting jagged shards of noise and feedback, it is obvious that Erika Wennerstrom is a guitar player to be reckoned with… a force of nature, barely restrained by the confines of a simple pop tune; the fact that she makes it all seem so effortless merely adds to the mystique of Heartless Bastards‘ live sound.

Heartless Bastards (Dave Colvin; Erika Wennerstrom; Jesse Ebaugh) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Heartless Bastards (Dave Colvin; Erika Wennerstrom; Jesse Ebaugh) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Erika’s bandmates proved they were no slouches themselves, as evinced by their beefy, Zepplinesque playing on “Got To Have Rock and Roll,” with drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh adopting the heavy, funky groove of Bonham and Jones and Mark Nathan delivering monster power chords and a brilliantly conceived solo. New music, including the atmospheric “Pocket Full of Thirst,” the sludgy hard rock of “Wind Up Bird” and the fragile balladry of “Into the Light,” dominated the set to great effect; generally speaking, veteran bands are lucky to be able to incorporate two or three new songs into a set of old favorites without causing undo anxiety among their fans. It is a compliment to the Bastards and their fans that at least half of the evening’s set comes from an album that is barely three months old. The show ended with an incredible version of the anthemic “Parted Ways,” from 2012’s ARROW release, which, as the tune morphed into the pseudo-psychedelia of “Tristessa,” saw the band lean their guitars against their amps before exiting the stage, leaving Erika alone at her microphone amid the throbbing feedback. With emotions running high throughout the set, this finale was like an emotional bloodletting, like a launderer ringing out the last vestiges of dampness from a favored shirt. And, that, dear friends, is what a night of great music should be like, with artist and audience investing every ounce of their beings into a performance, drawing off the emotions emanating from both the stage and the floor.


THE EDUCATED GUESS/SYNA SO PRO

(August 21, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Wear the Educated Guess home!

For whatever reason, the tag “local band” is anathema in these parts; unless, of course, you’re talking about a cover – oh… I’m SO sorry… I meant a “tribute” – band playing in the corner of a bar somewhere. I’ve never quite understood that mentality, ’cause every band is local SOMEWHERE… right? Now, obviously, there are exceptions – bands and artists who offer a sound so unique or simply too good to be ignored… even in their hometown. The Educated Guest is one such band. This Friday night saw a packed house at Off Broadway, there to see the self-proclaimed symphonic pop brainchild of Charlie Brumley rock the rafters. And, as we’ll impart later, they most certainly did!

Syna No Pro (Syrhea Conaway) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Syna No Pro (Syrhea Conaway) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening kicked off with Syrhea Conaway, a solo artist doing business as Syna So Pro. Initially, I thought, “Oh, great! Another singer/songwriter with a keyboard! How imaginative!” Man, was I wrong! Syrhea picked up a guitar, punched a couple of buttons on her keyboard and tapped a pedal or two with her feet and played a series of power chords while intoning a line or two of lyrics into a mic; she then hit another few buttons, looping everything, before picking up a violin and repeating the process. The piece eventually brought her back to the guitar, where she played a rather intricate progression of notes that, once looped and re-looped, brought the whole thing together. The really cool thing about the way Conaway works is the fact that most of her songs seem to emerge fully realized BEFORE she starts adding layer after layer of guitar, vocals, keys or violin; watching her basically produce a new piece of music on the spot was mesmerizing. Aside from the digital trickery, it is quite apparent that Syrhea Conaway possesses a massive amount of talent as both musician and composer. Another quirky aspect of the live set was the stage banter, with Syrhea holding a conversation with herself, via pre-recorded comments, questions and jokes; they didn’t all work, but it was still a neat touch. At one point, her digital recorder misfired. A lot of performers would have had a major meltdown; Syrhea’s incredible stage presence and self-effacing humor came to the fore, as she kept the crowd entertained while fixing the problem. As ultimately enjoyable as this performance was, I would kinda like to see Conaway in a full band context (she has played in several over the years), creating these mind-boggling soundscapes while bouncing ideas off a group of like-minded musicians. Even if that never happens, I will still have this six-song set by Syna So Pro stuck in my head as one of the most imaginative performances I’ve ever seen.

The Educated Guess (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Educated Guess (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Charlie Brumley’s eleven piece (yes… I said eleven piece!) band worked as a well-oiled machine, delivering a show that was part Motown Soul, part Vegas spectacle, all 1960s-style pop brilliance. An Ike Turner/mad genius type (without the violence and mounds of white powder that not-so-mysteriously disappear up his nose), Brumley acts as lead vocalist, keyboardist and musical director, leading a four-piece brass section (Devin LaRue and Kenny Summers on tenor and bass trombone, respectively; Zack Hall on trumpet; Jim Scheffer on alto sax), three background singers (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) and a soulful rhythm section (drummer Brian Pincus, bassist Jon Venegoni, guitarist Grant Alexander) through what one would imagine an early ’60s pop or Motown live extravaganza would look and sound like… without a feeling of nostalgia or the kitsch generally associated with such endeavors.

The Educated Guess (Charlie Brumley, Jon Venegoni, Arrika Rayburn) (photo credit DARREN TRACY)

The Educated Guess (Charlie Brumley, Jon Venegoni, Arrika Rayburn) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The tone for the show was set from the get-go, with the wonderful “Sweet On You (and Getting Sweeter).” Brumley’s deep, soulful voice plays well off the backing and harmony vocals of the three ladies, while the horns add a warm, rich layer that many like-minded bands cannot hope to recreate. As the band (and the crowd) loosened up, their sound took on an even funkier groove, interspersing – of course – the poppy dance tunes with a slow jam or two. One such song, “The Best Part,” taken from the group’s new album (get it here), is a kind of Righteous Brothers ballady thing. That number was followed up by another track from THE EDUCATED GUESS, a Sunshine Pop confection called “Saint Monday (Love, Love, Love).” Later, another pair of songs from the new recording highlighted, not only Brumley’s writing and arranging abilities but, the talented members of the ensemble; “Get You Girl” has a loose sorta “I Can’t Help Myself” (the Four Tops song commonly referred to as “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”) with a pumping bass, beautiful backing vocals and a nice solo from saxophonist Scheffer, while “Maybe” is a slow building tune that again features Scheffer, this time as singing counterpoint to Brumley, who adds his own amazing piano signature.

The Educated Guess (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Educated Guess (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The twelve song set ended with an absolutely stunning “remix” of R Kelly’s remix of his own “Ignition.” Other highlights of the set proper included “A Good Kisser (Don’t Kiss and Tell),” “Wandering Eyes,” and “Playing For Keeps.” Not close to having their fill, the audience demanded – and received – an encore of “Tell Me Honey” and “Missin’ Me Some Kissin’ Blues.” Most of the Educated Guess’ recordings and previous performances featured the Emperor Norton Orchestra, so one would have expected the sound to be… uh… a little thin. Far from it, the musicians and singers filled any void that may have occurred due to the (relatively) smaller pop-oriented group. This was, simply stated, an evening filled with fun music, meant to evoke the warm fuzzies and to get toes tapping and butts shaking. If you haven’t seen (or heard) the Educated Guess, you owe it to yourself to do so at your earliest convenience.

The Educated Guess (Zack Hall and Jim Scheffer; Brian Pincus, Grant Alexander and Jon Venegoni) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Educated Guess (Zack Hall and Jim Scheffer; Brian Pincus, Grant Alexander and Jon Venegoni) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)


BUNNYGRUNT/NERVOSAS/ROYAL HOLLAND/VEIL

(July 18,2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

4, 2, 1, 3, Go (photo credit: KENDALL BRUNS)

4, 2, 1, 3, Go (photo credit: KENDALL BRUNS)

I know that none of you could ever conceive of this, but… yours truly has, upon occasion, been known as the perpetrator of some fairly boneheaded moves. Perhaps one of the biggest involves the band Bunnygrunt. You see, over my twenty-plus years in this business, I have never seen (or really even heard) one of Saint Louis’ most-beloved musical acts. Why, you ask? As odd as it sounds… I didn’t particularly care for the name; yup… that’s it! I simply did not think Bunnygrunt was a name befitting a rock ‘n’ roll ensemble. After Saturday’s show at Off Broadway (my first “grunting”), I come to you, knees bent and head bowed in an abject act of contrition for being such a name-hating idjit.

Veil (Ashley) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Veil (Ashley) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening’s affair actually encompasses two separate and very distinct shows: Bunnygrunt and Royal Holland were originally scheduled with another act at the venue but, when the third act had to cancel, the ‘Grunt’s Matt Harnish asked a couple of punk bands, who had a house show scheduled, if they would like to join forces for the Off Broadway show. It certainly looks odd on paper but, it makes a certain amount of sense, as Ashley Hohman, from the Saint Louis group Veil, had already been penciled in as Bunnygrunt’s bassist-for-the-night.

Veil (Gabe) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Veil (Gabe) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The music of Veil is old school, a cool blend of the Damned and early Misfits. The reverb and echo sometimes got in the way of Ashley’s vocals and, somehow, managed to seep into every aspect of the performance. I mean, seriously… how do you manage to get reverb on a drum kit? Ashley’s bass and Gabe’s primal skin-beating fueled the group through a set that was, though technically short (about 20 minutes), filled to the brim with punk goodness. With Chris and Leo’s grinding, slashing guitar attack, the quartet played their latest six-song demo, MANIAC, in it’s entirety and tossed in a killer version of Patti Smith’s classic anthem, “Because the Night,” for good measure. Aside from the reverb overkill, Veil’s set was fun… a great way to kick off the night.

Royal Holland with Kendall Bruns (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Royal Holland with Kendall Bruns (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Royal Holland is a scruffy-looking, soft-spoken, unassuming sort of guy; the kind of guy you may not even give a second look, except for his piercing eyes and friendly smile. If you’ve given a listen to his music (a pair of EPs), his voice is a lilting, calming thing; the tunes range from folky solo outings to ethereal doses of poppy Americana. However, once he took the stage, the soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor was gone, replaced by a confident, snarling singer and raging guitarist; the music took on a tougher patina, pushing the songs’ boundaries into a harder rocking vein. And, yeah… he did it mostly with an acoustic guitar, a notable exception being the freak-out/rave-up of set closer, “Flamingo,” from the recently released VOLUME TWO set.

Royal Holland (Margaret Darling; Matt Retherford; Wonky Tonk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Royal Holland (Margaret Darling; Matt Retherford; Wonky Tonk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Holland’s band, all top-notch musicians and as unassuming as the singer, may appear laid back in their approach but, they matched Royal’s incendiary performance note for note. Drummer Matt Retherford and percussionist Margaret Darling (who also provides some keyboard shading to the darker songs) expertly drive the music forward without overplaying or overshadowing the tunes with flashy displays. Kendall Bruns adds just the right amount of vocal support and his rootsy ukelele accompaniment keeps the music grounded in Americana. Jasmine Poole, who goes by the odd sobriquet “Wonky Tonk,” was filling in on bass and hitting all the right notes. As animated as she is off-stage, she tended to stay just out of the reach of the stage lights, pouring everything she had into her playing. Royal and the band started their set slow, with “Shore” from the first EP, VOLUME ONE, and built the tempo and the cascading emotional moments with strikingly brilliant songs like “Statues” and “The Grave,” leading into that final release on “Flamingo.” Lyrically, musically and emotionally, this is a thinking man’s band; in those euphoric moments, when word and melody and heart transcend the boundaries of what we call music, it stirs something deep in the soul. For me, on this night, Royal Holland stirred my soul.

Nervosas (Mickey; Jeff) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nervosas (Mickey; Jeff) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

If Veil reveled in punk’s more ghoulish, Hammer Horror side, Nervosas celebrated the early days of English punk, with equal parts Sex Pistols, Chelsea, Billy Idol’s Generation X and the Clash (with more than a touch of TSOL, Dead Kennedys and classic X thrown in for good measure); main vocalist and bass player Jeff even has Idol’s bleach blond punk cut, chiseled good looks and just the right amount of venom in his voice. The slash and burn attack of guitarist and second vocalist Mickey gives the tunes an air of chaos, punctuated by her backing vocals… more of a manic howl than anything else. As Nervosas’ sound occasionally threatens to uncoil, the group’s third member, Nick, manages to hold everything together with a thunderous – and surprisingly supple – approach to his drumming.

Nervosas (Nick) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nervosas (Nick) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Seven of the set’s nine tunes came from the brand-spanking-new self-titled release from Dirtnap Records, which is more nuanced than the trio’s previous recordings. Even so, the buzzsaw guitars, pummeling drum attack and Jeff’s Ian Curtis wail on such graveyard ballads as “Night Room,” Quarantine” and “Arcadia” tended to tear at the jugular. Nervosas’ set proved to be as visceral an experience as that of Royal Holland but, where that seared the soul, this was more like a punch to the solar plexus… just like any punk band worth their salt should deliver. I look forward to each evolutionary advancement on future Nervosas records; I likewise look forward to more scorching, unapologetically balls-out live sets.

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman, Eric Von Damage, Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman, Eric Von Damage, Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

And so, it was on to the headliners: Saint Louis’ mighty Bunnygrunt, feting the release of their first album in six years, VOLUME FOUROpening with the high impact couplet of “Big Fake Out” (the first track from 1998’s JEN-FI album) and “South Kingshighway Bubblegum Factory” (from 2009’s MATT HARNISH AND OTHER DELIGHTS), the modified trio (figurehead and de facto leader Matt Harnish, drummer Eric Von Damage and Karen Reid’s more-than-capable semi-permanant fill-in, Ashley Hohman) joked and played their way through a set that was long on songs from the new record, while still offering the fans a good dose of the songs they’ve come to love over the band’s twnety-plus year career. The house was rockin’, with the crowd singing along, holding a running conversation with Harnish between tunes and giggling like school girls at the stories and commentary from the stage. And, of course, who could not have a good time hearing bent little pop ditties like “Transportation Pants” (from the group’s first full-length, ACTION PANTS, which eventually devolved into the trashy, thrashy “1000% Not Creepy”), “Young Abe Lincoln” andChunt Bump?”

Bunnygrunt (Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Bunnygrunt (Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Von Damage and Hohman kept things tight but bouncy rhythmically, allowing Harnish the luxury of doing just about anything that came to mind melodically, including the occasional guitar freak-out, as on the Kinks’ “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” which morphed into “Led It Out,” a tune from the new record that‘s more than a nod and a wink to the dirigibly renamed New Yardbirds and their poppier predecessors. On “Frankie Is a Killer,” the bass and drums rolled and crashed underneath Matt’s dire warnings to protect your loved ones; the song, delivered wrapped in a pretty, jangly pop bow, featured a guitar solo that paid homage to the Saint Louis sound created by Johnnie and Chuck, lo, those many years ago. Ashley handled the vocals on the rambunctious “Still Chooglin’ (After All These Beers),” a number that’s equal parts Creedence Clearwater Revival swampy pop and early Stooges mayhem. “Don’t Forget Who Your Friends Are” turned into a purposefully sloppy train wreck, with a messed up kinda guitar solo that led to a full stop in the proceedings before charging back into the chorus.

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman; Eric Von Damage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman; Eric Von Damage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Matt, Eric and Ashley showed off their rock ‘n’ roll chops from the get-go and, seeking to please the rabid crowd, pulled out every trick they had in their magician’s hat of musical stage magic, ensuring that everyone – from the long time, diehard fans to the newcomers like me – would long look back on this night with the fondest of memories. Now, who could possibly ask for more than that?


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.


TWANGFEST 19: CRACKER/MARAH/GRACE BASEMENT

(June 10, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

TWANGFEST 19 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TWANGFEST 19 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nineteen years on and… I’ve finally made it to a TWANGFEST show! Sure, I was gonna go anyway; I mean… Cracker AND Marah, on the same bill, right? It had been some thirteen years since I last saw Cracker live (at the still-lamented Mississippi Nights) and longer still since I’d seen Marah (a very different version of the band onstage tonight opened for Union at Pop’s in 2000). The packed floor at Off Broadway signalled only one thing: Opening night of TWANGFEST 19 was gonna be one big party!

Grace Basement (Kevin Buckley and Greg Lamb) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Grace Basement (Kevin Buckley and Greg Lamb) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Local group Grace Basement were a surprising party favor… not simply because I didn’t know that there would be a third act on the bill, but also because I liked them so much. Spiritual leader, singer, songwriter and guitarist Kevin Buckley’s background in folk music is definitely on display in a live setting, but his voice has a bit more bite and his electric guitar is a bit more explosive than anything from Grace Basement’s latest recorded output, 2013’s WHEEL WITHIN A WHEEL. This night, Buckley was ably augmented by guitarist Marc Schneider, bassist Greg Lamb, keyboardist Tim Sullivan and the group’s not-so-secret weapon, drummer Jill Aboussie. The band ambled through – more than they tore through – a set that featured as many new tunes as songs from the three previous Grace Basement releases, with Aboussie, Sullivan and Lamb supplying a rock-steady underpinning over which Buckley and Schneider could weave their rather unique, rocking guitar sound.

Grace Basement (Jill Aboussie; Kevin Buckley; Marc Schneider) (photo Credits: DARREN TRACY)

Grace Basement (Jill Aboussie; Kevin Buckley; Marc Schneider) (photo Credits: DARREN TRACY)

It would have been easy for the group to rein in their sound, giving the crowd more approximate versions of the familiar songs but, when emotion and the reaction of a packed house kicked in, the vocals became gruffer, more immediate and the guitars louder and, at times, snottier than the gentle, lilting tones and melodic voices generally associated with Buckley’s more recent studio work. It’s obvious that Kevin’s dream of turning this outfit into more of a classic guitar rock band – at least in a live setting – is, if not fully realized on this night, close to a reality. That’s not to say that there weren’t gentler moments; the bouncy, happy “Summertime Is Coming” and the Irish folk balladry of “Tilly Lingers” still offered glimpses of Buckley’s work with fellow multi-instrumentalist Ian Walsh. I rather like Buckley’s new, brash configuration of Grace Basement; from the response from the floor, the audience liked the sound, too.

Marah (David Bielanko) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Marah (David Bielanko) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As suprising as Grace Basment were, perhaps the most surprising set of the evening (for me, anyway) came from David Bielanko and his group, Marah; this is a far different band than the one I saw open for Union (the band that featured guitarist Bruce Kulick and vocalist John Corabi) in 2000. Though Bielanko’s brother Serge is no longer by his side on stage, the band’s music really hasn’t changed all that much but, I suppose, opening for a group with a hard rock pedigree like Union’s, you tend to play more of the loud, guitar-oriented numbers. Tonight, there were no such restrictions, with Bielanko moving deftly from acoustic to electric guitar to banjo; the band (Christine Smith on piano, vocals and accordion; Mark Sosnoski on bass; Chris Rattie on drums) were definitely up to the task, no matter what he asked of them or where he led them.

Marah (Christine Smith) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Marah (Christine Smith) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Appalachian stomp of “Faraway You” (from KIDS IN PHILLY, the band’s 2000 sophomore release) followed by the rollicking barrel roll of “Fever” (the opening track from the debut release, LET’S CUT THE CRAP AND HOOK UP LATER ON TONIGHT) are as powerful an opening salvo as you’re likely to hear anywhere. The intensity and raw emotion on display was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. The emotional musical hotbed saw Bielanko and Smith trading heartfelt vocals on a tune like “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft” one minute, delivering a plaintive version of “The Falling of the Pine” from the audience the next; one minute, David was putting the band through their paces on the incendiary guitar rave-up of “Catfisherman,” the next stretching out on a muscular “Limb.” Bielanko’s passionate performance (and the band’s equally fiery backing) was rewarded with the crowd’s insistent call for an encore, which led to an emotional outpouring (and a pretty funny story about the first time playing in front of a paying crowd sober) from David before diving into a fittingly ramshackle take of “Barstool Boys” (or that coulda taken place earlier in the evening or it coulda been a different story and I’m fairly certain I remember hearing “The History of Where Someone Has Been Killed,” but… then again… ). Though I’m unable to identify each song Marah played that night, the pure passion emanating from the stage was real and palpable; if not the particulars of the evening’s set, I will long remember the visceral high of what was happening on the intimate stage of Off Broadway on June 10, 2015.

Cracker (Johnny Hickman) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Cracker (Johnny Hickman) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

While Grace Basement were indisputably great and Marah were brilliant, it was obvious that these people were here for a little Cracker. And, so… it was on to the evening’s main event. From the outset, vocalist/guitarist David Lowery and lead guitarist/vocalist Johnny Hickman, the band’s only constants and focal points, took control of the crowd, holding most enraptured and hanging on every word, every note. One of the more entertaining things happening onstage was the disappearance and subsequent reappearance of pedal steel player Matt “Pistol” Stoessel, as dictated by the quirky set list, which relied heavily on last year’s BERKELEY TO BAKERSFIELD and, naturally, the “hits,” which were kinda lumped all together mid-set. Pistol started onstage with the rest of the band for “One Fine Day,” from 2002’s FOREVER album and was prominently featured on most of the new material which has more of a countrified vibe.

Cracker (David Lowery) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Cracker (David Lowery) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

For the most part, the rhythm section of keyboard player Robbie Crowell, bassist Bryan Howard and drummer Carlton “Coco” Owens were content to lay back in the pocket, allowing Lowery, Hickman and Stoessel to shine in lead roles. The Hickman sung “California Country Boy,” a rollicking Bakersfield stroll, shone the spotlight on both Crowell and Pistol, with great solos from each. Johnny added just the right amount of twang to his guitar on “King of Bakersfield,” a seeming paean to Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam. The voices of both Lowery and Hickman sounded a bit ragged on this night, at the end of a long tour; that only added to the rough, take-no-prisoners approach to the music, especially on the 1990 “alternative” tunes. Those songs – “Low,” “Sweet Potato,” “This Is Cracker Soul” and “Euro-Trash Girl” – sound as alive and vital as they did the first time we heard them, allowing Howard and Owens to stretch out a bit, especially on the slinky “Euro-Trash Girl.” As always, Johnny Hickman’s guitar work was impeccable, bordering on the sublime, regardless of musical style and it was more than obvious that he and David Lowery were truly enjoying themselves.

Cracker (Johnny Hickman; Carlton "Coco" Owens; Bryan Howard) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Cracker (Johnny Hickman; Carlton “Coco” Owens; Bryan Howard) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

What a great way to kick off the four-day TWANGFEST 19! I just wish that I could have made it to the other shows, which featured artists as diverse as the Bottle Rockets, Matthew Sweet, Lydia Loveless and a reunited Nadine, featuring an old friend, Jimmy Griffin. This show, however, will be forever etched into my memory as one of the best I have ever seen… hands down! If you missed it, shame on you.


CHUI WAN/BUG CHASER/TONE RODENT

(May 11, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

To say that I was stoked to see Chui Wan, a young psychedelic band from Beijing, China, is something akin to an understatement. All it took was hearing one song from their self-titled second album and, I was hooked. The fact that some old friends, Tone Rodent, were on the bill, alongside the belligerently unhinged octet, Bug Chaser, was merely icing on an already perfect cake. Though, as a touring band, Chui Wan were the de facto headliner, the decision was made to slot them between the two local acts (a choice precipitated by the fact that drummer Li Zichao was using Tone Rodent Adam Dick’s kit; plus, bassist Matty Coonfield was pulling double duty, playing in both Saint Louis bands); to maintain a certain “you were there” sense of continuity, this review will start with Tone Rodent and end with Bug Chaser.

Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

At some point in the last decade and a half, I reviewed a Tone Rodent show (give me a break if I can’t remember specifics, huh? I’m old!). Here’s what I do remember: I liked them. So, now, all these years (or months or days or hours… whatever) later, I can unequivocally tell you this: I still like them. At this point, Adam Watkins (vocals and guitar) and Matty Coonfield (bass) are the only original members from that band I saw way back when; the current version – with guitarist Jeff Robtoy, keyboard player Mark Early and drummer Adam Dick – were playing what may have been their final show, as Adam Dick is calling it a day and Coonfield is leaving to direct his energies toward Bug Chaser. The band lumbered, rather than tore, through a shambolic 35 minute set that, aside from some minor technical issues was, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable. Watkins and Robtoy complimented and played against each other (as the situation dictated) quite well and Early’s ambient drone added a depth that isn’t usually found in the noisy, hard-edged psychedelia at which Tone Rodent excel. Dick proved himself to be much more than a timekeeper, with precise fills and unexpected flourishes. And, as I’ve said too many times to count, there’s just something in the water supply that lifts Saint Louis bass players to another level; the style of music being played is irrelevant… once I hear that deep-in-the-pocket groove of the bass, I can almost always tell that the player has Saint Louis roots. Matty is no exception and is as solid and as funky as any bassist to come out of the Lou in the past three decades. Six songs into the set, Watkins said, “We have two more. After sixteen years, we’re down to two songs… and we plan to fuck both of ‘em up.” The next tune sounded great but, as the group started “Amen,” Jeff’s guitar cord shorted out but, after much chiding from his bandmates and a save from a Bug Chaser, the final song from the current line-up of Tone Rodent was over, the notes ringing in the ears of the Monday night denizens of Off Broadway.

Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Okay… so this is where a little learnin’ may come in handy. To understand the importance of a group like Chui Wan, I think we should first understand a bit about where they come from. Beijing’s history traces back more than three millennia – under different names – and boasts such cultural and historic sites as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. As the cultural and political center of the People’s Republic of China, it has also been the scene of political unrest, revolution and protest: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the infamous Gang of Four and, perhaps, the most famous societal event in recent history, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Beijing is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 20 million citizens packed into an area a little over 6,300 square miles (that comes out to something like 3,400 people per square mile… to paraphrase Cheap Trick, “That’s tight!”). That’s the background – the culture and the history – that informs the music and lives of Chui Wan, alongside a diverse musical landscape that includes, individually, Classical and traditional Chinese music, avant garde pioneer John Cage (himself influenced by Eastern music and the philosophy of the I CHING) and, the one major influence that all four members cite: The Velvet Underground. Now, imagine these four young musicians venturing forth into a very different Western culture… a culture where, especially in the United States, celebrity and money are more important than history and tradition; a culture that claims superiority and looks down upon the cultural and societal mores of someone – anyone – who doesn’t share our culture and beliefs… even when we’re on their home turf. Let’s face it… we are arrogant and shallow. So, it’s with that backdrop of major culture shock (not to mention the language barrier… WE expect these young people to be conversant in our language because… “Hey, we’re Americans. What makes you so special that you can’t even learn our language?”) that Chui Wan made their third appearance in the USA (Visa problems caused them a delay of about ten days and seven shows). And what an appearance it was!

Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As bassist Wu Qiong began an intro riff that would make Tony Levin proud, all of those cultural differences didn’t matter anymore; all that mattered was the music. Though their sound is seemingly tight and structured, there is also a sense of the adventurous, the experimental. I immediately heard an Adrian Belew-era King Crimson influence (though I was assured that reference would have been lost on the quartet) – or to be more accurate, Fripp’s other, more improvisational group of the same period, the League of Gentlemen – as well the free-wheeling feel of some of the early 1970s (mostly) instrumental offerings from Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; there were also moments that had me nodding my head, thinking, “Now I get the John Cage reference.” Though many of the band’s compositions border on free-form jazz, it’s Liu Xinyu’s effects-heavy guitar and Li Zichao’s progressive drumming that garners the group its psychedelic label; the sounds Liu coaxes out of his instrument can best be described as “otherworldly,” and isn’t that a prime definition of psychedelic music? Yan Yulong adds atmospheric soundscapes on, not only guitar, but keyboard and – briefly (and very effectively) – viola, as well. Yan, who also supplies the majority of what vocals there are, delivers them in a nearly inaudible drone that further feeds the psychedelic miasma; Wu Qiong has one vocal, a quiet and – dare I say – humble performance that seems a much more comfortable match for her demeanor than is her spirited, funky bass playing. Maybe the most amazing aspect of the inspired (and inspiring) performance is the fact that the four are – literally – wunderkinds… all are in their very early 20s (drummer Li is barely 20) and have been playing – individually and collectively – since an early age (the band’s debut album, WHITE NIGHT, was released in 2012). Even if most of the Monday night denizens were unfamiliar with Chui Wan when they took the stage, after their set, I heard nothing but terms of reverential awe regarding what will long be remembered as a triumphal Saint Louis debut.

Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a prolonged delay, the eight-headed beast known as Bug Chaser took the stage. If Tone Rodent’s set was shambolic, then Bug Chaser’s could only be labeled chaotic, with Matty Coonfield reveling in the unbridled insanity. There were actual songs played but, naming them would merely be an exercise in futility… all you really need to know is that the band and the crowd were having too much fun to worry about things like song titles. The group was occasionally augmented and exhorted by a gentleman who originally appeared to be a drunken, overzealous fan but, as the set proceeded, seemed to be more of a well-placed prop, dancing and prancing behind the group one minute and playing the role of cocktail waitress the next. The tunes (noises?) ranged from boisterous boogie to raging rock to furious funk (see what I did there?), all delivered with a reckless abandon reminiscent of George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars at their most debauched. The percussive unit of Kevin Insinna and Taylor Huff (for I believe it was they of whom I speak) laid down a solid groove, where the notes they didn’t play were as important as the ones they did; their rhythm section inmate, Coonfield, pumped out bass riffs dense enough to caulk a large-scale bathroom at the Mall of America. Zeng Zengerling and Jake Jones are potent forces of guitar showmanship, sharing frantic leads and trading querulous solos over the expansive bottom end, which also included keyboard and effects work from Jake Bremler and Jeff White. Standing over all is the strutting vocal peacock, Pat Grosch, who reminds me of a younger, more boisterous Weird Al Yankovic… but with better hair. For a full-on sonic assault, you’ve gotta see these guys live… until then, check out some tunes at Bandcamp.


THOSE DARLINS/DIAHREA PLANET/SPEEDBOATS

(22 February, 2014; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis, MO)

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

When reviewing a band live, sometimes things work out, sometimes there are a couple of bumps in the road, sometimes things completely fall apart. This review kinda falls into the “bumps in the road” category. Nothing serious, just a matter of… timing. Planning to meet up with some friends, I was at the venue early. It was then that I found out that not only was the door time an hour later than expected, but there was one more band on the bill than anticipated. All of this meant that – besides a 9:10 starting time – I had time to kill… a lot of time to kill! But… you don’t really care about that, do you? You just wanna know about the show. So…

Speedboats (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Speedboats (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

The “extra” band was Speedboats, a newish hometown group whose sound is borderline pop punk, leaning heavier toward a cool California skater punk/stoner rock vibe. The five-piece has a great sense of self-deprecating humor and energy to burn. There was also a huge case of the nerves on display, as singer Greg Crittenden had some problems with his control. Now, how, you may ask, do I know it was “nerves” and not something else? Well… I watched the boys’ sound-check and he didn’t crack at all. There’s actually so much to like about these guys and this is such a minor complaint that, truthfully, besides the guys on stage, I may have been the only other one to notice. The guitar duo of Sean Gartner (stage right) and Karl Stefanski (stage left… where else?) elevated the music to something way past standard pop punk, particularly on a song so new that it didn’t even have an official name yet. The working title is “Roller SK8 or Die,” which as far as I can tell (what lyrics there were weren’t totally clear to these ears), had absolutely nothing to do with rollerskating or death. Speedboats got the crowd into things early on and set up the evening nicely. I seriously expect great things from these guys in the not too distant future.

Diarrhea Planet (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Diarrhea Planet (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Up next was Diarrhea Planet, a band hand-picked by fellow Nashvillains (?) and headliners, Those Darlins. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I got absolutely blew me away. Imagine… oh, let’s say, Dead Kennedys… with… let’s go with Eddie Van Halen and then multiply him by four. That’s right: old school California punk with four guitar players continually soloing, shredding and finger-tapping like mad scientists. Founding member Jordan Smith handles most of the vocals, but the other guitarists (Emmett Miller, Brent Toler and Evan Bird) all have their moments. With the rhythm section (drummer Casey Weissbuch and bassist Mike Boyle) holding everything together – in the very loosest sense – the four front line guys were allowed to entertain the fans (and, occasionally, each other) with some of the hottest playing I’ve ever seen, including two of the guys finger-tapping in harmony. Absolutely amazing! This band managed to do something that I haven’t seen for quite some time: They had the crowd moshing, bouncing and bringing back that old school punk pit vibe. At one point, they brought the “least punk person” to the stage to prove that “anyone can be a punk.” They gave Ty the mic and 35 seconds to rant, vent and be punk. He started out with a truly epic scream, but was soon lost in the swirling guitar overload. What a fun show! However – and, please, don’t hold this against me guys – Diarrhea Planet may just be the fourth worst band name ever – right behind Panic! At the Disco, Vampire Weekend and Justin Bieber. Since I have absolutely no idea where the name came from, I’m gonna go with this: It’s a geo-political statement aimed at the leaders of the world. Thankfully, the band elevates the music to a level that transcends the horrible noises of the Disco Vampire Bieber. There latest release is called I’M RICH BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS and is available at all of the usual places. Don’t let the name scare you!

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

In Nashville, Those Darlins (as well as Diarrhea Planet) are godlike. In fact, they had a large contingent of their hometown fans front and center at the intimate Off Broadway stage. There were also quite a few folk from upstate Illinois: Chicago and, if I heard right, a suburb called Berwyn. People absolutely love the Darlins… with good reason. The quartet took the stage and the crowd by storm, with the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that has people making five hour drives to see them onstage. Jessi Zazu (who handles most of the vocals) and Nikki Kvarnes continued the guitar showcase, with their own brand of sweet leads and tasty solos. Things seemed to kick into a higher gear with the set’s third song, “Red Light Love,” which – even if you had no idea who Those Darlins are – is a tune that you’re gonna recognize, as it was featured in several commercials for Kia Motors over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, this is where the whole time thing came in to bite me on the posterior: About the time that the band was finishing “Red Light Love,” I received a call telling me that I was needed at home. I love the Darlins, but – and I’m sure they’ll agree – family comes first. I am really sorry that I didn’t have the chance to hear the entire set from Those Darlins. If the rest of the set was as hot as the first three or four songs, I certainly missed a great one!

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Those Darlins (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Before I go, I’ve gotta say something about the venue. Off Broadway is currently one of the best sounding rooms in Saint Louis. The vibe is awesome and laid back, as are the people who work there. Even though Off Broadway is smaller, the closest comparison I can come up with is the late, lamented Mississippi Nights. If you have the chance, get out to Off Broadway for some live music. Check out their schedule here: www.offbroadwaystl.com.