INTIMATELY LOUD: THE JON AUER INTERVIEW

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After a year of loss (drummer Darius Minwalla and former bassist Joe Skyward both passed away) and of new beginnings (the release of their first record in six years, SOLID STATES), the Posies – Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, with drummer Frankie Siragusa – hit the road with a string of secret, “Pop-Up” shows. Playing in unconventional locations and venues, the newly revitalized band has hit upon one of the more intriguing ways to get their music out to the most die-hard Posies fans. I had the opportunity to speak with Jon Auer before a recent show in Minneapolis, which found him traveling and taking a ferry to his appointed destination.

THE MULE: So, you’ve been doing this since you were… what, seventeen? The Posies, solo work, REM, Big Star…

JON AUER: Well, yes…there’s solo work and I’ve been in Big Star. Ken’s done REM and also Big Star… we’ve both done many other things and worked in many different situations with different people… for instance, I’ve also worked on a record with William Shatner and Ben Folds (2004’s HAS BEEN).

THE MULE: Well, there you go. That’s even more important; that’s really impressive!

JON: Right, haha! But, anyway… you were saying?

THE MULE: How do you keep things fresh? How do you maintain that initial excitement? You know… what you felt at the beginning?

JON: I think it’s by trying to not repeat ourselves. That’s had a huge impact on the amount of enjoyment that I or we get out of what we do. I mean, I think it’s the same in life; if you’re sorta coasting and doing what you’ve always done perhaps it’s nice for awhile but eventually it can become stale. I mean, it may be comfortable in a way but… is it exciting? That’s the question. And, I think we’ve been very good about making the effort to not just take an easy route when we make a record or try something new. I think that if you examine every one of our records there are common threads for sure but they are all very different, each their own distinct thing… like little aural time capsules of where we were at the point in time we made them. I don’t know, man… I mean, there are bands that just try to do one thing and they do it – like Orville Redenbacher, you know? “Do one thing and do it better than anybody else” haha! – That works for certain groups… AC/DC springs to mind; I mean, I don’t really think I’ll be expecting a new AC/DC record to surprise me. If they do, that would be kinda cool but, by the same token – no offense to AC/DC – will I really need a new AC/DC record if it doesn’t? I mean… I could be wrong but I’d wager it’s probably just gonna sound like what you would expect. The Posies aren’t like that. We fall into the camp of musicians and artists who ask “What’s the point of repeating yourself?” But, the funny thing is, though we often make concerted efforts to sound massively different and then, you know…. we are who we are anyways. It may be different from what we’ve done before, often very much so, but it still sounds like “us.” It doesn’t ever sound like a completely different band because it still has the vocals and the harmonies and the way that we write songs, it’s just… It’s more like buying a new outfit ’cause you wanna try a new look or feel or maybe like trying some kind of new food that you’ve never had before because you don’t want to keep the same items on the menu all the time. It’s that kind of vibe. That’s what keeps it fresh: The new ideas and approaches.

The Posies (Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow) (photo credit: DOT PIERSON)

The Posies (Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow) (photo credit: DOT PIERSON)

And, adding to that, this whole method of touring that we’re utilizing now is another way in which we’ve been able to re-invigorate the process because it’s not being done in way that we’ve experienced ourselves before. It’s a new format, a new line-up… we’re going out as a three-piece, playing unlikely spaces, unusual venues. We’ve turned it into a way of doing things where it’s just… the band. We are the crew, we are the roadies, we are the ones who sell the merchandise… we’re the drivers. We do it all.

THE MULE: So, it’s almost back to the beginning again.

JON: In a way, yes. We’re finding… you’d think it would be kind of like, “Oh jeez, what have we taken on? It’s too much!” But, the opposite has occurred where I feel like, “Wow, I’ve got a real sense of purpose here” because there’s always something to do and nobody’s doing it for us. You either succeed or fail by your own hand, whatever you have to accomplish on any given day. It’s really kinda up to you; there’s no one else to shoulder anything on. All the activity morphs into having a lot of satisfaction with what gets accomplished, which is a ton.

THE MULE: Right. Uh… how did this idea of the pop-up show come about and how does that exactly work?

JON: Well, as far as this recent touring we’re doing, Ken toured in a very similar manner with an artist named Holly last year and he thought it would work really well with us… and he was right, big time. Due to scheduling, we missed a window in 2016 to do a regular club tour and this is what we did instead and it was a real eye opener, a pleasant surprise. That said, I’ve got to go back a little farther even. I realize that playing living rooms or atypical spaces isn’t a new concept. I mean, other people have been and are doing it and I admit that even as a solo artist, I’ve done… I had a nice little… what would you call it? Not a tour per se, but I had a nice little thing going where I would do certain house concerts every year at the same places since the mid-2000s. I had a nice group of regulars, really cool people, that would have me to visit and perform and they were always super great places and people there were just people there to listen. The audiences were a nice cozy size and merch sales were always good. Often there would be excellent bottles of wine around, you know… nice meals and you were well taken care of and had a great time hanging out around the show as well. There’s a lot to be said for that way of doing it; you take that and compare that to the model of maybe playing a dingy rock club in some city and then staying in, say, a Motel 6, if you wanna be cost effective, and it’s not quite the same equation, is it? Haha! Don’t get me wrong… there are many cool, classic clubs in America but then there’s often the issue that not everybody in the club is there to see you. Like, maybe there’s someone that comes because they’re a friend of the bartender or they just come to casually check you out for a few songs or they just come because they got on the list for free and wanna drink beers and talk in the back and they aren’t listening to you anyway.

That’s why this whole pop-up thing, playing in these unique venues, is so… works so well, because you really don’t get anybody there that’s just a casual audience member; they’re all usually, generally, fans that have many of your records. Or, they’re bringing people with them who’ve never heard really us but are very curious, like they’re friends are trying to indoctrinate them into the ‘ways’ of the Posies, pass it on to them. People are very respectful and they’re there because they want to listen and have a fun hang. Not only that, they’re also willing to hear us play new stuff, you know? It’s not just someone showing up to hear the hit. You know what I mean? Like they want to hear the one song and then they’re gonna leave? That never happens. We actually play our entire new record in our set… we mix it in with other stuff, of course, but, we play all twelve songs most nights. Nobody seems to mind and I think we did a very good job of designing our set list so there’s just enough familiar stuff and new stuff mixed together in the right combination at the right times so that nobody gets bored or too anxious…us included. It’s worked out incredibly well. I mean, when you experience something like this and everybody has such a good time, you kind of wonder, “What’s the point of doing it the other way?” And, also, in terms of the whole pop-up concept, it really does add mystery to the whole event as well and I mean, hey…who doesn’t like a little mystery in life? That also keeps things interesting, keeps things humming. It makes everyone more curious and filled with more anticipation and then there’s also the surprise and payoff of showing up and finding out, “Oh, this is where the show is tonight!” Okay… I’m in a back yard in Phoenix. Or, I’m at some recording studio I’ve always wanted to go to that I didn’t know they did shows there. Or, my God, look at this amazing house and how good it would sound in here.” Anyway, it’s surprising how well it’s worked… and that’s why we’re doing it again: Because it was so good.

THE MULE: Very cool. So, you’ve kinda half way answered one of my… well, actually a couple of other questions. The first, about how the tour is going; obviously, it’s going swimmingly well. And, the other thing is, obviously, I’m talking to you not only because of SOLID STATES, but also because you are playing in kinda my back yard, next Wednesday, in Saint Louis. So, I was going to ask you what we could expect at the Saint Louis show.

The Posies (Ken Stringfellow, Frankie Siragusa, Jon Auer) (photo credit: RENE OONK)

The Posies (Ken Stringfellow, Frankie Siragusa, Jon Auer) (photo credit: RENE OONK)

JON: Well, you know… uh, it’s cool because I don’t think we’ve done a Posies show in Saint Louis since… I want to say… 2005 maybe? Is that even possible? Hmm… Maybe it was even longer ago than that, maybe Ken and I played as a duo last time around, in 2000 or so… it’s been a while, you know? The last time I was actually in Saint Louis for anything, I think, was to play with Big Star, at a small outdoor festival with Son Volt, I believe. I forget where it was…I want to say it was downtown by some impressive looking architecture, some State buildings or structures like that. This time around I think you can expect us to be psyched to be playing a place we haven’t really done enough playing in. And you can also expect something visceral … there’s a lot of energy in our show; I mean, the record’s very… it has a lot of energy in it but, it’s also rather lush and pretty and moody and the live show kicks all of it up a couple of notches at least, because it’s just… well, it’s louder for one thing! Word to the wise: Bring earplugs! I’d tell everybody to do that. It’s not a quiet show and a lot of these shows are in smaller and/or unusual spaces where the acoustics are more explosive sounding… So, it’s always good to have some protection for your ears. Seriously, folks. You can really expect some… We don’t phone it in, you know, just because we’ve been doing what we do for quite a while now. I mean, we really try to give it our all every night, no matter how far we have traveled to get there or if our bodies are aching or whatnot. I mean, there’s no point coming to do it if we’re not having… we just want people to have a great time and enjoy it ourselves.

THE MULE: Okay… this may be kind of a hard question for you to answer. But… uh, I’m gonna ask it anyway. How did the deaths of Darius and, later, Joe effect the recording process and plans for the tours you’ve been doing since?

JON: Well… Darius was… Oh, jeez… I mean, it’s the kind of thing you really can’t do justice to in an interview, honestly, you know. Explaining just how much of an impact not having Darius and then Joe around anymore had… just how much of an impact that’s had on my life, on our lives…well, I mean, in the case of Darius, you’re talking about someone who played in my solo band three years before he joined the Posies and then he was with the Posies fourteen years afterwards. He was pretty much my best male friend and I was devastated when he died. And, he died right near the beginning of… I’d say a third to maybe almost halfway through making SOLID STATES? So, the question for me then became, “What do I even want to make a record for anymore?” I was super distraught and confused by the loss and I was constantly trying to make sense out of losing him when ultimately there was no sense to be found in any of it. Eventually, what ended up happening was it worked its way into some of the remaining songs I hadn’t written yet and… how could it not, y’know? It’s funny, because I always think it’s kind of obvious but, many people, they need more direct clues or a clearer road map to figure it out because they often misconstrue a song’s meaning… and fair enough, people interpret songs the way they want to interpret them unless they’re clearly spelled out, sure. And, I bring in some… we often use unusual imagery and metaphors so, actually, it’s not always so straight forward. For instance, there’s a song “Unlikely Places,” I’ve seen many reviews of it now, and unless people knew what it was about, some seem to consider it… they think it’s about a boy and a girl relationship, a romantic relationship and it’s so far from that. It’s really about me dealing with the loss of Darius, what it did to me and where I was trying to go or get to to figure out how to deal with the loss. People can help you and you can get advice… you can do therapy and you can do whatever but, no one can really totally… It’s such a personal thing. No one can get you through it, to a place where you can live with it, but yourself in the end. I don’t know what you’ve experienced as far as loss… parental or… but, it was a total ‘before and after’ moment for me in life, losing Darius, and…well… that’s just the way it is. We did eventually soldier on and got back to the music but it was painful. There’s another song, “Rollercoaster Zen,” that is for Darius. If you really look at the lyrics to that, you can see that I’m talking about him… almost to him. The dreams I’ve had… I had… oh, God, I had some incredibly vivid dreams about him, like he was still here. I don’t know. I don’t wanna keep going on too much about it because it’s too hard to explain, totally. But, you get the vibe, right?

THE MULE: Yeah. I actually just lost my mother a few weeks ago and… I was actually her caregiver for the last ten years and… it’s rough, man.

JON: So you’ve been… You know – in an even more primal way, since it’s your mother – probably the stuff I’m talking about. It just is what it is but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. You’ve just got to learn live with it eventually, you know? And it takes time. And it can bubble up at the weirdest times in the weirdest places, the grief, yes?

THE MULE: Right and, like you were saying, everybody is trying to help… there are the platitudes, “It’ll get better” and I know all that stuff but, there are times where it’s just like, “Leave me alone. Let me deal.”

Darius Minwalla; Joe Skyward (uncredited photos)

Darius Minwalla; Joe Skyward (uncredited photos)

JON: Yeah, and you know what?… It’s so true… at times, often there’s nothing worse than a platitude because… you know people mean well but, it really doesn’t do justice to the loss. It’s nobody’s fault, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t really help so… it would almost be better if people would… So, yeah, I feel for you, man. There’s been a couple for me recently… As mentioned, Darius… and right before we went our first tour this year in Europe, Joe passing as well…In his case, Joe had been dealing with his cancer for awhile so we knew that he was in trouble and trying to work through it but when he finally passed it happened so fast that it was shocking too. I mean, one day I just woke up to a Facebook message from our old drummer, Brian Young, who was in the band when Joe was in the band, and… it was just pretty much, “Joe passed.” and I was just…I felt like… it was hard to believe. So then it became not only one friend lost in the last couple of years, but two. It’s still hard to believe, to wrap my head around it all, that they are no longer with us. I don’t know how old you are; I’ll be forty-seven this year.

THE MULE: Yeah… I got you beat by a few years.

JON: Okay. Still, my brother and I were just talking about this… he mentioned that really we’re just getting to the point in our lives, the ‘season’ you could say, where that’s gonna be part of our lives from now on. Like, simply, the older you get, more loss can occur… Okay… we’re getting pretty philosophical here now but… it seems true enough.. The record ended up being a way to help me deal with some of that and it kinda does a little bit and helps me celebrate lost friends… but, I don’t think anyone likes that kind change, losing people close to you, learning about loss the hard way. It hurts. My God! But, ultimately…what else can you do? We’ve gotta get back to life and live as best we can.

THE MULE: Exactly. Well, let’s get back to some more, uh… rock and rolley kind of things. Actually, last question and I will let you get back to life. Beyond SOLID STATES and this tour, what is next for you, personally, and the band?

Dynamo Royale (Tiz Aramini, Jon Auer) (photo credit: JASON TANG)

Dynamo Royale (Tiz Aramini, Jon Auer) (photo credit: JASON TANG)

JON: I have some other projects that I’d like to promote more, spend more quality time with. There’s a duo project with Tiz Aramini called Dynamo Royale that I’m working on a proper release for. The record’s called STRAIGHT ON THE DIAGONAL and there will be more time to spread that around. You can find it and us on Bandcamp as well. It’s quite different from the Posies, perhaps more layered even, but it still has that kind of… it’s got my melodic sense woven in there with hers as well. It’s a very unique collaboration. I’d also like to make another solo record. It’s been… Jeez, the last one I put out, SONGS FROM THE YEAR OF OUR DEMISES was in 2006 so, like… I’m way overdue! And, there’s also a group I’m part of called Unseen Beings with Stephen Becker from Le Concorde and Brian Young, who played with Fountains of Wayne and now plays with The Jesus and Marychain, we have a record called AKA INFINITY due to be released next year. Then, hopefully, along with all that, we’re going to continue to realize some Posies reissues that we’ve been talking about. One of them has been out for a while – our first record, FAILURE – on this great label called Omnivore Recordings. They do excellent reissues with deluxe packaging and a lot of care, the works…we feel they like do things right, let’s put it that way. They’ve been asking to do our three major label records too: DEAR 23, FROSTING ON THE BEATER, and AMAZING DISGRACE. That’s been in talks for a while and I think 2017 might be the year for it, when they actually do come out or at least they start to come out.

And then, beyond that…I had so much fun doing this last round of touring, it was so reinvigorating and life affirming after everything we went through so, I think we’d… You never can predict what’s going to happen exactly but…I think we’d really like to try to make another Posies record and sooner than later, you know? Not wait another six years… Try to get one out in the no so distant future because… hey, we’re not getting any younger and we’re having so much fun. I think we all thought this, you know, that this is working, what we’re doing now feels good… we’re playing great, we’re enjoying it, we are a good working unit … and I don’t think we expect to enjoy it as much as we did. I certainly didn’t. To me, it feels like we thought, well, let’s see if we can do this even, after what we went through with losing our bandmates and… we pulled through and it feels… It feels really good. So, uh… I’d like some more of that feeling, please.

The Poseis (Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, Franke Siragusa) (photo credit: MARC GOLDSMITH)

The Poseis (Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, Franke Siragusa) (photo credit: MARC GOLDSMITH)

Jon and the Posies are playing a pop-up show in Saint Louis, on Wednesday, September 28. For ticket prices and location, visit the band’s website. Other upcoming tour dates and more news about the Posies are available there, as well.


THE OXFORD COMA: PARIS IS MINE

(SELF RELEASED; 2015)

ParisIsMine

The Oxford Coma (only one “m”) is a Phoenix three-piece (I suppose we could call them a “power trio”) that has alternately been described as “psychedelic anxiety rock” or “the world’s heaviest jam band.” Call them what you will… I rather prefer “math genius metal.” A few seconds into “Canadian Question Mark,” the opening cut of the self-released PARIS IS MINE, it is obvious (to these ears, anyway) that this is something exceptional. The song, a sort of progressive hard rock instrumental affair (if there are vocals, they are minimal and buried deep in the mix), features a nice mid-tempo groove, with oddly appealing dissonant guitars and a humongous, thudding bass. Though the guitars sometimes sound as if the track is about to explode in a flurry of speed, the rhythm section remains solid. On “Ritaling,” James Williams offers a very punk rock kind of a bass line, while the vocals and guitars have a distinct mid-’90s Kansas City sound (think Season To Risk). There’s a heavier-than-the-rest section with a certain Tony Iommi-like heaviness in Billy Tegethoff’s guitar; the second half of the tune is sort of creepy, with great atmospheric work from Tegethoff. “Daisies” is trippy and psychedelic, with a chukka-chukka kind of rhythm guitar thing and near-Residents like vocal outbursts (Tegethoff and Williams are both credited as vocalists, but who sings what isn‘t listed). Once again, the bass and drums (the latter supplied by Patrick Williams) border on minimalist, leaving the almighty riff to do most of the heavy lifting. This isn’t metal, but it is suffocatingly heavy and there’s a great wah-infused solo at the end that is hard to ignore.

The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)

The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)

The Pulls” is propelled by heavier-than-thou bass and some understated (though still powerful) drumming, allowing for some excellent guitar and haunting vocals to hover just above the surface, giving the tune a demon-spawn sound akin to the offspring of some 1970s hard rock band and Stone Temple Pilots, circa their first three records. The next track, “Ados Watts Jam,” is exactly what the name implies: A jam. Clocking in at a robust ten-and-a-half minutes, the KC/Season To Risk comparisons find their way back into the conversation, with bullhorn vocals crawling just above the mix. There are also a couple of jazzy, Sabbath-esque breaks leading into the final, improvisational section of the tune, all of which proved to be quite entertaining. Even if the song doesn’t exactly fall into the “jam band” category, it is a stretch on the group’s standard song structure. The final track is well-known to rockers and blues aficionados the world over: “When the Levee Breaks,” The Oxford Coma’s version manages to out-heavy the Led Zeppelin version, with Patrick’s nearly ham-fisted Bonham-esque skin pounding and a massive guitar sound. This version is as far from Zeppelin’s version as their version was from the 1929 original by Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife, Memphis Minnie Lawlers. You can listen to (and purchase) PARIS IS MINE, as well as earlier releases, at the group’s Bandcamp page. You will not be disappointed! And, if you are… you need to acquire better taste in music.


ACID KAT ‘ZINE FOURTH ANNIVERSARY SHOW: THE COWBOYS/SODA BOYS/WRAY/THOSE JERKS/TUBBY TOM

(February 13, 2016; FOAM, Saint Louis MO)

Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I’ve been to Foam exactly twice now; the first time was for an interview with Beth Bombara and, now, for this show. Wray, the evening’s headliners (even though they eventually went on third of five acts), and I arrived at approximately the same time (6:00 PM), due to the venue’s web-site giving the start time as 8:00 PM (or, 8:30 per the Facebook page for ACID KAT ‘ZINE). Around about 10, the sound guy/bartender told someone that it was probably time to start the show; fifteen minutes later, rapper/performance artist (and AK’Z contributor) Tubby Tom began a bizarre set that we’ll discuss shortly. Foam is a very cool place, with a great vibe, friendly staff and really good coffee but, if this is a standard occurrence, they’ve really got to rein in these acts (especially the locals) and keep things tight, on schedule and moving along. So, anyway, having arrived early, I had the pleasure of hanging out with a young Hip-Hop artist named Carlos (see above photo). It’s really cool to see someone so passionate about music… not only his own work, but just music in general; I mean, that’s why I started writing more than twenty years ago… a passion for music. Carlos may or may not have what it takes to get to the next level or to be a huge star but, I certainly heard enough to tell you that I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more from this young man somewhere down the line.

Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Performing a patently odd style of Hip-Hop over old Disco, Soul and pop records, avant-garde rapper Tubby Tom’s set seemed to be,,, uh,,, divisive. The material proved to be particularly well received by a small contingency of female revelers, while a smaller contingency of patrons merely decided to visit the rest rooms of to step outside for a smoke. Most of the tunes were kinda dorky little ditties about lust, love found and love lost. However, the very short set ended with a very compelling piece; the tale of kidnap, abuse and eventual escape was as urgent and claustrophobic as the scenario implies. By any musical standards, the song, with a distinct Gothic horror feel, was a brilliant use of lyrical imagery and a stifling musical bed to add to the emotional chaos. I gotta admit, I was rather ambivalent about most of Tubby Tom’s set… that final, extended dose of weird definitely upped my estimation of the man’s talents. I have no idea if any of this material is available in any recorded form (or if they are merely spur-of-the-moment fever dreams) but, if they are, they’re well worth checking out.

Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

According to advance promotions, Freeburg Illinois noisemongers Dem Scientist was scheduled to play their final show as part of this bill; I have no idea what happened but, they were replaced by an apparently thrown-together three-piece who, when I asked their name after the show, decided that Those Jerks worked as well as any… after much Stooges-like (of the Moe, Larry and Curly variety, not the Iggy and the… type) debate. The band also came up with the rather descriptive personal sobriquets of Nasty Jordan, Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony. Given the tight confines of the Foam stage, the guys set up on the dance floor, with drummer Tommy facing the stage and the others, hanging close to the stage, facing each other. Their music – a combination of barely formed originals and impossibly obscure covers – was a rambling, shambolic skree of fast and loose old school punk; in short, Those Jerks’ set was the virtual epitome of dumb, stupid fun. And, we all know that there just ain’t near enough of that sorta thing in the world today.

Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unbeknownst to me (and, probably, the listening public at large), there is a burgeoning experimental music enclave in the unlikeliest of places: Birmingham, Alabama. Sure, I’d heard of (and listened to) Through the Sparks, Wray and, of course, Communicating Vessels (the label home of both) founder Jeffrey Cain’s group, Remy Zero (not from Birmingham, by the way, but the connection is valid), but… you really don’t envision this type of Eurocentric music to come out of Alabama. Wray plays an unrepentantly jangly, gauzy type of shoegazing elegantia, with throbbing bass, powerful drums, layered, effects-laden guitar and, hovering above it all, wispy, nearly whispered vocals; with a visual presentation (actually, a series of images and visual stimuli created – or chosen – by the band to augment each song) that is as mind-bendingly beautiful as the music, their show is a multimedia tour de force. Bassist and primary lyricist David Brown handled most of the vocals, while guitarist David Swatzell was content to build soaring layers of sonic Nirvana, adding the occasional backing vocal or a short, atmospheric lead with a voice as ethereal as Brown’s. Blake Wimberly followed where the music led, sometimes diverging from any type of standard time-keeping percussion but always bringing his playing back around to the rhythmic thread, all of which contributed to the hypnotic vibe of the song (most of which were from of the band’s latest release, HYPATIA). A highlight of the set was the group’s subtle, amazing cover of Faust’s Krautrock classic, “Jennifer.” Unfortunately, with the late start, rearranged order and other variables, Wray’s set was woefully short (somewhere around thirty minutes), but, without question, the highlight of the evening.

Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Like Those Jerks, Soda Boys play fast and loud; it’s punk, if tinged with a defiant dose of pop and a distinct Saint Louis flavor. Local scenester and founder of ACID KAT ‘ZINE, Austin Nitsua, is the band’s guiding light, a genial spaz in a Steak ‘n’ Shake paper hat, shouting lyrics over bass-heavy tunes like “Creamy Soda,” “Burgers and Fries” and the coulda-been-a-hit-in-another-era “Soda Girl.” These Boys (especially Nitsua) ran, jumped and rolled around the floor in a punk rock frenzy, obviously enjoying their set as much as the dwindling audience. Unfortunately, the only other band member I was able to identify was drummer Jordy Shearer, who somewhat reminded me of the late, great Tommy Erdelyi, the original skin-beater of the Ramones; as with Shearer, the unidentified guitarist and bassist more than held their own, but this show was unquestionably all about their charismatic (enigmatic?) singer, Austin Nitsua.

The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Cowboys, from Bloomington Indiana, may have been the closest thing to a rock band playing on this Saturday. Their music is equal parts hard rock, psychedelia, punk rock and echo-drenched Rockabilly, delivered with an alcohol-fueled zeal. Celebrating the release of a compilation of the best material from their three cassette-only releases, the group – led by main songwriter and vocalist Keith Harman – charged through a set of tunes that included “Thumbs,” the trippy, late ’60s psychedelic groove of “Aqua Marine Love Machine” and the loopy hillbilly punk of “Cool Beans and Godspeed,” which featured some cool effects from guitarist Mark McWhirter. McWhirter proved himself adept at a variety of styles, including the riff-filled Buddy Holly inspired “Cindy Lou” and a fuzzy, screeching solo on “Creature of the Deep.” The rhythm section of Zackery Worcel on bass (and backing vocals) and drummer Jordan Tarantino were suitably sloppy while somehow managing to stay in the pocket throughout the night. Yeah, the night started off in a somewhat suspect manner, but the folks who stayed around for the finish were treated to a fun – if occasionally disjointed – evening of musical diversity.


DAVID BOWIE: BLACKSTAR

(ISO/SONY RECORDS; 2016)

Blackstar

KEVIN RENICK review:

Things can change just like THAT. One day the reality is THIS, the next it is something very different. That is certainly the case with BLACKSTAR, the newest album from the (unexpectedly) late David Bowie. The narrative should have been (and clearly WAS for the early reviewers) that Bowie was back doing experimental stuff, returning to his glory days of the late ’70s, at least in terms of creative daring, and adding to the thrill of his “comeback” on 2013’s THE NEXT DAY with an even more classic, incredible album. The pioneering artist is back! He’s challenging us again! He’s made another boldly original statement! The tone of some early reviews of this record is painful to ponder now, and in some cases, even embarrassing. David Bowie has died. It was a huge, huge shock. It was anything but common knowledge how sick he was except perhaps to his family and a few close friends, so all of us waking up the morning of December 11 to hear the news were devastated. Bowie? The beautiful conceptual architect behind Ziggy Stardust? The “Thin White Duke”? The “Berlin trilogy”? GONE? Impossible. He was bigger than life, this man, an artist so entrenched in the full history of classic rock from the end of the ’60s to right now that a world without him seems unthinkable. It’s a world greatly reduced somehow, with a music industry wobbling in a more unstable manner. We NEEDED David Bowie… he represented the consummate rock icon, the master of disguises, the ultimate creative auteur who could control his image and take his audience on a wild, unpredictable ride. Bowie was HUGELY influential, often thrillingly weird and original, and the master manipulator of image, fashion, and the entirety of the “rock star game,” whatever that means. He shouldn’t be gone. We should have been better prepared… why didn’t he tell us he was so sick? Except, why SHOULD he? The amazing thing about BLACKSTAR is that it is an incredibly rare example of someone making a powerful artistic statement almost certainly KNOWING they are dying, laying down sounds and sentiments that are not often presented in such a choreographed, “this may be FAREWELL, folks” manner. But Bowie infuses this album with so much mystery, so many unanswered questions, that you hunger for more as you listen. You wonder whether he was suffering as he recorded these tracks… it’s known that he loved to work FAST, but was there added urgency because of his ill health? How much did he know about when the end would come? Were tracks like the title track and “Lazarus” intended as messages to his fans, perhaps intended to be comforting in the coming “after period,” or were they just his latest songs? We don’t know. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer and collaborator, simply said “Bowie did what he wanted to do; he’s always done that” in a recent interview. We don’t know all the things we’d like to know, that’s for sure. Bowie took many secrets to the grave. And the outpouring of grief has been steady since he died, from musicians of all stripes, fans around the world. Not David Bowie. Not HIM! He CAN’T be gone! But… he can be, and he is.

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

So, listening to BLACKSTAR now, knowing it’s the last album David Bowie made as the purposeful, visionary artist he’s always been, is an utterly haunting, unforgettable experience. It is a phenomenal album, one that ranks extremely high in the Bowie canon. A friend asked me if I would think so highly of the album if Bowie hadn’t died. Yes… I had heard two of the songs before the news came, and I was riveted. I heard something new, eerie and boldly experimental in those two tracks (including the long title cut) and couldn’t WAIT to hear the rest. What Bowie’s death does to the listening experience is mostly about adding layers of sadness, forcing you to hear a “last testament” in these grooves, a place that Bowie knew he was going to that his fans could not follow, a place he himself had never been. The back cover of the CD jacket, the disc itself and the pages of the insert booklet are all black, with some shadowy photographs inside and the lyrics and credits almost unreadable as they, too, are black. But despite the darkness permeating this entire presentation, the music is vividly, powerfully full of life and wonder. It’s beautiful stuff from start to finish, reminiscent of the Berlin trilogy in many ways, but a new, jazzier kind of experimentalism that represented a new direction for Bowie. The 10-minute opener finds Bowie singing a perfect fifth harmony with himself that is mesmerizing, building a LOW era-vibe that keeps expanding outward, taking you on a journey to an unknown destination. There’s a solemn, minor-key mood that unexpectedly changes after a few minutes to a major key, almost upbeat section that features some of Bowie’s most plaintive vocals EVER, giving chills at the originality of the music. Ironically, though, Bowie sings this widely quoted lyric here: “Something happened on the day he died/His spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar/I’m a blackstar.” The word “blackstar” appears throughout this track, along with curious star negations such as “I’m not a popstar… I’m not a gangstar… I’m not a film star,” always followed by “I’m a blackstar.” It’s overwhelmingly unsettling to learn that the term “blackstar” is an oft-used term in medical literature to refer to a kind of cancerous tumor due to its appearance under close examination. This is something missed by the early reviewers of the album… they were looking for a more cosmic, outer-spacey sort of meaning, and perhaps Bowie wanted that interpretation to be valid as well. After all, one panel of the sleeve does indeed show a starfield, with a particularly bright star in the lower left corner. Whatever Bowie meant we can only guess at, but I’m betting that the significance of the “blackstar” concept was very much on his mind as his mortality came more and more to the front and center of his reality, and he had to wrestle with it in his own unique way. It makes this very daring track impossible to forget; it’s a soundscape worthy of immersion on every level. Mark Guiliana’s drums on this track are worth singling out… he’s called upon to do some unusual things, and he matches and holds down the weirdness Bowie himself is putting down on multiple other instruments. “’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore” continues the thrilling art rock with riveting saxophone from Donny McCaslin, one of the musical stars of this record. There are echoes of HEROES, LOW and SCARY MONSTERS in what we get here, but McCaslin plays with atmospheric bravado in a way that Bowie must have been thrilled by. The song rocks, rolls and soars madly, and Bowie sounds like he is having a blast in the studio. On the other hand, “Lazarus,” a song made into a morbid, unforgettable video, is going to be regarded by most of us as some sort of epitaph. With squonking horns again and some of Bowie’s most impassioned singing, we get lyrics like these: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now… You know I’ll be free/Just like that Bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me.” How can fans NOT react emotionally to stuff like this? It’s simply impossible to separate the reality of Bowie’s passing from the immediate reality of what this track does. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a snarling, frenzied rocker that would’ve almost been easy to enjoy for its madness and musicality except that Bowie yells out at one point “Sue… Good bye!” and then you have to deal with truth again. “Girl Love Me” is a pretty weird song, with the repeated refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (a question a lot of us probably ask from time to time, although more about OTHER days, I imagine) and it has an impatient, aggravated sense of ennui that is uniquely Bowie and his vocals reflect it. But the two closing tracks really KILL emotionally… that would be “Dollar Days,” an elegaic ballad and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In the former, over a plodding rhythm and that McCaslin sax again, Bowie seems to be heading out right before our ears and his voice trails off over these lyrics: “I’m falling down/Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” That penultimate passage is just too much to take in light of reality, and someone is gonna shed tears if they bother to strain their eyes to read the black lyrics on the black page. Finally, in “I Can’t… ” Bowie gives us one last classic, a melodic, beautifully sung gem with a haunting refrain (that title), airy synth, and a band that is in absolute perfect lockstep with him. It sounds like the end of his story, frankly, and I can’t hear it without getting chills. “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent/I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.” That title is in a larger point size in the lyrics… maybe it isn’t as significant as I think. Or, maybe, Bowie was clearly saying to us, “Some things have to remain a mystery. Figure it out yourself. I can’t spell out all my secrets for you.” Whatever the case, he left an astounding final musical statement. BLACKSTAR is a sad, haunting classic, a soundtrack to the final journey of one of the greatest musical adventurers and multi-media artists of all time. We won’t see the likes of the former David Jones ever again, and it’s fitting he went out with one of his greatest recordings. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty LOW that one of our most important musical HEROES is now a true starman in the great beyond. Bowie titled a recent career anthology NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Sadly, that’s not true at all. EVERYTHING has changed with his departure.

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

BILL WINER review:

I bought David Bowie’s new album, BLACKSTAR, the day it came out, on his 69th birthday. It’s haunting, adventurous, sonically beautiful… everything you would expect from him and more. Very different from his previous album, THE NEXT DAY, which was his first in ten years. I played BLACKSTAR all weekend, then found out Monday morning, he had passed away after a long battle with cancer. To say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. BLACKSTAR is such a wonderful album… now, it has turned into his swansong and his epitaph. The title song and “Lazarus” are the longest tracks and are haunting in every respect. I must also add that his backing band are New York Jazz musicians, including Donny McCaslin, who plays some of the most haunting saxophone I have ever heard on a pop or rock record. Mark Guiliana is a wonderful percussionist and is all over the place with great fills and superb drumming, adding to the sonic depth of the album. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is one of the best rockers on the album; two of the middle songs “Sue(Or In a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me” are very strange; “Dollar Days” is a great piano ballad. The real kicker is the last number, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is Bowie saying goodbye with a wonderful song and he sings his heart out on it. I’ve seen some of the video for “Lazarus,” which is one of the most haunting and bizarre music videos ever. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and his body starts floating away. BLACKSTAR is a must have album and as good as anything he has done. The fact that, now, it becomes his swansong makes it even more important. As Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, said, “His death was no different than his life… a work of art.”


DOYLE/ELEMENT A440/HUNG LIKE A MARTYR/THE SUPERMEN

(November 21, 2015; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

DSCN3500

So, this is the second metal show I’ve seen in the past five days and, like the Amaranthe show at Pop’s, this one had its fair share of drunken yahoos and intolerable idjits; in fact, several of the drunken yahoos and intolerable idjits from Pop’s were performing the same functions at the Ready Room. Even before the lights went down and the first band took the stage, a woman who seemed relatively sane five nights previous (her twelve year old son was with her then) was already so sloshed that she was slurring her words and was unable to navigate her way across the floor to the rest room, but we’ll get into more specifics as we go through the evening’s festivities, beginning with…

Supermen (Jimmy All-Dick; Valiance Jack; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Supermen (Jimmy All-Dick; Valiance Jack; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Supermen, an unrepentant mish-mash of punk, metal, misogyny, soft-core porn, comedy and wrestling from the StL. This band is pure, mindless mayhem and their stage show had so much happening that it was hard to find a focal point; I’m sure that a majority of the males in attendance spent most of their time focusing on the barely-dressed dancer/dominatrix who, according to the Supermen’s Facebook page is called (Hail the New) Dawn and is listed as “Property.” For the ladies, there was Tiger Mask IV, the male counterpart to Dawn, who is the group’s “Lead Partier” and was, likewise, barely dressed, sporting a Luchidor mask, wrestling trunks and boots. The rest of the band have also adopted wrestling gear and names (Maxxx Loads, “the Prom King,” plays bass; Valiance Jack, “the Promiscuous Protomartyr,” plays drums; Jimmy All-Dick, “the Alpha Male,” plays guitar; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty is the singer; and the “manager” is Osama Bin Erickson, the Dean of Debauchery). Musically, think early punk laced with liberal doses of Motorhead-style metallic speed; lyrically, look to bands such as the Cramps or Dwarves for like-minded reference points (translation: Don’t try to read too much into what’s going on with the Supermen; they don’t take themselves too seriously and neither should you). Even though the look and songs do, in fact, border on the cartoonish, don’t miss out on the fact that these guys are actually really good players. The band’s twenty-minute, ten song set included such instant classics as “White Women In Distress,” “Live Punk Sex Act,” “I Kill Everything I Fuck” and their call-to-arms anthem, “Blood, Honor and Pussy.” A fun time was had by all, except for a fellow cameraman, who was continually hit or shoved from behind by (surprise, surprise!) a drunken tool who would wander to the back of the room and then charge to the front, yelling, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” to whoever happened to be on stage at the time. Music reviews should not focus so much on the audience’s behavior, but when that behavior actually hinders your enjoyment of the music, it must be addressed (in an effort, hopefully, to curtail such incidents in the future for the enjoyment and safety of everyone involved).

Hung Like a Martyr (Mark Nicol; Bruce Morrison; Paul Dontigney) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Hung Like a Martyr (Mark Nicol; Bruce Morrison; Paul Dontigney) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Another local act, Hung Like a Martyr (who, coincidentally, have opened for Doyle’s old band, the Misfits), offered more of a straight metal sound that was not unappreciated by yours truly. Bruce Morrison’s voice has a certain Vince Neil quality, but carries the emotional weight of a John Corabi (thus embodying both Crue singers in one), though the actual music was heavier than the Crue’s pop metal. The dual guitars of Erik Spiller and Paul Dontigney reminded me of the Phil Campbell/Wurzel two-pronged guitar attack of Motorhead’s mid-’80s to mid-’90s period… rough, fast and insanely melodic; the rhythm section of bassist Adam “Adamned” Fuchs and drummer Mark Nicol managed to keep things brutally heavy while never giving up their funky groove. The set built from the frustration of watching this country crumble under the weight of internal strife and increasing violence, as well as attacks from without, with the opening song, “Bent,” a battle cry that lets everyone know that we may be bent but we’re not broken; “Kill Your Own King” and “Watching the World Burn” are laments to the fact that America is so divided that we can seemingly no longer find a common ground on which to come together; “The Reaper” and “Nuclear Salvation” follow the same apocalyptic message. The final number, “Dead Body Dumptruck,” is basically a dark hymn to what we have to look forward to if we don’t get our act together: Death from within and annihilation from without, leading to a sort of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD zombie apocalypse of rotting corpses in mass graves. The songs – while very much in the horror/science fiction vein – had an angry spark of truth, delivered with a conviction and energy that was hard to ignore… even the drunks and idjits behaved during the set. All of the tunes, aside from “Bent,” are from earlier incarnations of Hung Like a Martyr; with a new record eminent, I, for one, am excited to see where new vocalist Morrison leads the group, lyrically, from here.

Element A440 (Kat; Halo; Katt) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Element A440 (Kat; Halo; Katt) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Though I’m not really into the “Anti-Christ Superstar” imagery and lyrics of groups like Marilyn Manson, I must say that Element A440 serve up their version with something that Manson frontman Brian Warner could never offer: Talent. Add to that a genuine conviction for what they’re doing (a seemingly concerted effort to not just shock or offend for the sake of being shocking and offensive… I mean, this FEELS real coming from this group) and, whether you agree with their stance or not, you have the makings of a fiery, evil set of industrial metal that is hard to ignore. Where the band does appear to be pandering to the lowest common denominator is the over-the-top attempts to titillate with sophomoric pornographic lyrics and visuals; a shame really, as the horror and religious elements of their set are what drives the narrative. It would appear that vocalist Halo (who also does programming and plays guitar… at least in the studio) is the mastermind behind the look and sound of Element A440… he is the sole songwriter and, I would guess, the visual designer of the band’s appearance and onstage set-up; the set was structured with a smart ebb-and-flow at the beginning, eventually ramping up to a chaotic close with the entire band donning some of the creepiest half-masks this side of the original Slipknot… the only thing we didn’t see was Halo’s fire-breathing (a matter of strict fire laws and low ceilings, I would guess). The musicians – guitarist Graven, drummer Kat and bassist Katt – were tight and scalpel-sharp, delivering their brutal, misshapen pop with a glee that never quite matched Halo’s but… that didn’t keep them from trying, pushing each other (and their manic leader) to ever harsher heights of musical mayhem. The songs that had the most impact, for me, included “Dance Dead,” “Wasted,” “Godless,” “Freak” and, I suppose, “Porn Star,” though for different reasons than you would think. I would definitely like to see a full Element A440 headlining set with the group pulling out all of the musical and effects stops… perhaps outdoors at Pop’s? Naturally, the drunks were back from their sabbatical during the last set, as the “Hey! Hey! Hey!” guy was back, seeking the acknowledgment from the stage that would validate his coolness and, the seemingly sane mother from five nights ago was all but molesting a couple of young men in the front row.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein; Alex Story) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein; Alex Story) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With a new band, a new album and a tour with Glenn Danzig highlighting the last few years in the career of Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein, the Misfit guitarist is building on those successes with a headlining run through the States. Doyle (the man and the band) brought their ABOMINATOR TOUR to the Ready Room on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and absolutely destroyed! Doyle’s signature slash-and-burn style of guitar playing meshes well with the howling, growling vocal gymnastics of Alex “Wolfman” Story (he of Cancerslug fame) and, with bassist Left Hand Graham and drummer Brandon Pertzborn laying down a rhythmic bottom end denser than a graveyard fog, the crowd hung on every note, every scream. The set, as may be expected, was heavy on music from ABOMINATOR (ten tunes) and classic Misfits (eight songs). In fact, until the final four numbers, the group alternated three Doyle songs with three Misfits numbers; that pattern was broken up by a cover of KISS’ “Strutter,” which we’ll discuss later.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein with Brandon Pertzborn; Doyle) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein with Brandon Pertzborn; Doyle) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Kicking off with Abominator,” the band proved their metal mettle (sorry… couldn’t resist), with Doyle already stalking the stage and hammering his guitar mercilessly. As much as I enjoyed Story’s vocals throughout, it wasn’t until the fifth song, the classic punk of “Ghouls Night Out.” I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention that our screamer did change up the act a bit for the headliners; his mantra now became, “Doyle! Doyle! Hey, Doyle,” which at the beginning of the set was directed at Alex Story. The inebriated Mom, cajoled and egged on by this goof between bouts of yelling his lungs out at the band, even made it onto the stage, a little to the right of Graham, where she just kinda swayed to the music until the tour manager took her arm and led her off, at which point, I assume, she began cozying up to the brothers who had been fending her off the entire evening. So, anyway, after “Skulls” (from the WALK AMONG US album), it was back to new material, including the wickedly awesome “Dreamingdeadgirls” and Love Like Murder.”

Doyle (Alex Story; Alex with Left Hand Graham) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Alex Story; Alex with Left Hand Graham) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The musical merry-go-round continued with three of the best tracks from EARTH AD, “Green Hell,” “Bloodfeast” and “Devilock.” Now, of course, hearing all of the great Misfits songs, when I sat down with Doyle after the show, I had to ask the question that has been on every Fiend’s mind since the original group broke up nearly 35 years ago: “Are the reunion rumors true and, if so, where do things stand now?” Doyle tells me, “I’m workin’ on it. I’ve got two fuckin’ bulls to deal with, ya know? One dogs lookin’ this way, one dogs lookin’ that way and this guy’s sayin’, ‘What do you want from me?’” What more can we hope for? Well, for one thing, a second album from Doyle, the band but, more immediately, the final round of ABOMINATOR songs, including the heavy, atmospheric Mark of the Beast,” and the graveyard mysticism of “Cemeterysexxxand “Drawing Down the Moon.” This was the point where the guys broke the cycle, tearing into “Strutter.” It’s also the point that the two drunks actually managed to get Doyle’s attention; the woman was attempting to lift her shirt up, an occurrence that the gentleman just couldn’t let pass without alerting the guitarist: “Hey, Doyle! Doyle! Doyle! Look at these!” In mid-solo, without missing a beat, Doyle replied, “I don’t wanna see those nasty old things.” Crest (breast?) fallen, the duo were utterly lost, put in their places by the one guy in the whole building you didn’t want to cross. With a smirk on his face, Alex introduced the final two – and possibly the two most well-known – Misfits numbers, “Last Caress” and “Die Die My Darling,” which has attained legendary status among fans and punks everywhere. Closing with “Hope Hell Is Warm,” Doyle, Alex, Brandon and Graham left the crowd with ringing ears and memories of a great night of punk and metal.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Before leaving this review, I should probably explain why I spent so much time relating the actions of two very drunk people. The reasons are really simple: First, your actions made you a part of the show to the group of people around you, ruining what may have been their only night out for the entire month (or longer… considering the economy, live shows are very much a luxury nowadays). Second (and most important), there is no way that being fall-down drunk before the show even started can be construed as “just having fun,” miss… you have a serious problem that could endanger your life; please, take your actions into consideration, as you have a twelve year-old son to think about… how would you react if a stranger old enough to be his mother spent the night hitting on him? Plus, to both of you (and anyone else who decides to drink to excess), I don’t want to be on the road, worrying if you’re behind the wheel of one of the vehicles in my general vicinity. I understand that we all need a little release from time to time, a chance to let go and have a good time but, please, remember that there are others who have to put up with you and your drunken shenanigans and… please, don’t be the fatal statistic who crashed and burned on their way home from a killer night of Rock ‘n’ Roll.


AMARANTHE/BUTCHER BABIES/LULLWATER

(November 17, 2015; POP’S, Sauget IL)

Amaranthe Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

From the outset, standing in line and listening to the various comments, it was obvious that the majority of the people at Pop’s on the evening of November 17th were there to see Butcher Babies; I even heard comments and questions like, “I have never heard of this Amaranthe band. Do you know anything about them?” I can kinda understand that… while both acts play metal, they take very different approaches: Amaranthe play a symphonic, well-orchestrated and choreographed style of progressive metal, while Butcher Babies blur the line where punk and metal meet. I am all for diversity and can and have enjoyed bills featuring several different musical styles. Unfortunately, I tend to be part of an ever-shrinking fan base that enjoys listening to a myriad of genres and styles in the course of an evening of live music. So, with that as a backdrop, here’s how this night shook out.

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Opening act Lullwater was a total surprise. The Athens, Georgia quartet play the type of hard rock that I grew up on, though steeped in the early 1990s sound of the Seattle scene; there are touches of Alice In Chains and Nirvana, as well liberal doses of Stone Temple Pilots (yeah, I know they weren’t from Seattle, but… ) and Soundgarden. As Southern boys, there’s plenty of good ol’ Lynyrd Skynyrd and Seven Mary Three style rock and roll. With their new album, REVIVAL, barely a month old, they were determined to make an impression. And, make an impression they certainly did! It didn’t take these guys (vocalist/ guitarist John Strickland, bassist Roy “Ray” Beatty, drummer Joe Wilson and lead guitarist Brett Strickland) long to win over an early crowd hyped to see Butcher Babies.

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Strickland’s imaginative guitar licks are certainly hard to ignore, particularly on the stinging “Oddline,” from the band’s 2013 self-titled debut, as well as its cousin, “Evenline,” from the new record; the pair’s biting style is further enhanced by Beatty’s bass, which is tuned to a higher register (a trick also used by the Who’s John Entwistle), adding to the buzzsaw tone. Roy’s style also lends itself well to the Southern rock “guitar army” feel on songs like “Broken Wings,” allowing Brett and John to soar on an extended harmony part. Wilson’s playing demands attention, though it is never overbearing or dominating… as has been said many times before, it ain’t always the notes you play, sometimes it’s the spaces between that make a performance special; make no mistake, though, when he hits those notes, it is with power and precision. John’s chameleon-like vocals draw from most of the bands listed above, though mostly, he tends to sound like a tasty three-meat stew of Layne Staley, Scott Weiland and Seven Mary Three’s Jason Ross. From front to back, Lullwater delivered the type of high energy, flat-out rock ‘n’ roll show that you very rarely get a chance to see anymore… I just wish they could have played a longer set.

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Honestly, though I’ve heard quite a bit – both pro (usually from avid fans) and con (usually from music journalists like myself) – about Butcher Babies, this was my first time to experience the live bludgeoning. The band are obviously fans of the Plasmatics and their enigmatic vocalist, Wendy O Williams; I mean, the group’s name is an homage to the Plasmatics’ very first single from way back in 1978. You can also plot the progression of Williams’ band from anarchic punk noisemongers to heavy metal behemoth through Carla Harvey’s near-gutteral screams and Heidi Shepherd’s more melodic, sultry wails. And, even though the ladies’ stage attire was rather tame on this night, most images and videos show they have a proclivity for, at least, a mildly titillating form of exhibitionism. Shepherd and Harvey are twin balls of kinetic energy, in motion virtually from the time they hit the stage for “Monsters Ball” until their final exit during “Magnolia Boulevard.” The three-piece band – guitarist Henry Flury, bassist Jason Klein and drummer Chrissy Warner – are a well-oiled, if predictable, industrial punk metal machine; their sound falls somewhere between the Plasmatics’ NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED punk overload and COUP D’ETAT metal mayhem, with more than a touch of Nu-Metal around the edges.

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The group highlighted material from their latest release, TAKE IT LIKE A MAN, including their approximation of a power ballad, “Thrown Away.” As well received as tunes like “Monsters Ball,” “Jesus Needs More Babies For His War Machine” and “Gravemaker” were, when the ladies introduced “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” a cover of a fifty-year-old pop hit by Napoleon XIV, the crowd erupted. I will say that, even though I was a tad under-impressed, this group must be doing something right to have such a loyal following (a couple of guys – one sorta laid back and cool, the other more of the rabid “Hey… look at me! I know their bus driver! Wooo!” kind of guy – were in from Kansas City for the Tuesday night show). Considering the solid musicianship of Lullwater and the symphonic sheen of Amaranthe, it may have been a case of Butcher Babies being the wrong band at the wrong time; as such, I’m willing to hold further opinions until I can see them in their natural habitat, with more like-minded groups (and, yes, I realize that goes against everything that I said in my opening paragraph but, like everything else in life, there are exceptions to the rule).

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I was actually pleasantly surprised when it became apparent that a large number of the folks on the floor remained there for Amaranthe, although there was considerable turnover at the front of the stage. This, of course is where I get all curmudgeonly and tell you how much I dislike being around drunks; as I bid adieu to the laid back guy from KC, a couple of excitable drunks pushed in front of my spot and began documenting EVERY freaking moment of their time at the front of the stage with their phones… all with me trying to shoot pictures either over or through them. I usually let people around me know that I’m working and that I am only allowed to take pictures (I use an actual camera, for which I have obtained a photo pass, as well as permission from the band’s management to use) for the first three songs of any set and they’re usually cool and let me work, trying to avoid getting in my way or obstructing my view; these two were having none of that… I took close to 150 shots of Aramanthe, a hundred of them starring either at least one of the pair’s phones or the gentleman’s cap. If that weren’t bad enough, they compared notes on virtually every image or video they captured in an approximation of the English language that I can only refer to as trailer park rustic (my apologies if I’ve offended any of the millions of fine people who live in trailer parks but, I’m sure you know what I mean), loud enough to annoy more than just this humble cameraman. Okay… with that out of my system and, as I’m sure you didn’t come here just to hear me vent about my job, let’s talk about the real reason you’re here: Amaranthe.

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

At first, I couldn’t fathom what the heck was taking place on stage; there were no amplifiers, there were no monitors. It definitely made it easier for the band’s three-pronged vocal attack to maneuver around the stage but… it just looked SO weird! All six band members wore ear monitors, something that is generally only done by the singer; as mentioned above, I am usually at the front of the stage, which means that most of what I hear comes from the stage monitors. Without those monitors, those of us situated up front, between the speakers on either side of the Pop’s stage had kind of a muffled sound, especially on the vocals; I’m sure that to those a little farther back on the floor, the sound was as pristine as the stage looked. This was merely a minor annoyance and, other than louder-than-they-shoulda-been pre-recorded keyboards and having to strain to catch some of the lyrics (especially from Elize Ryd), did not hinder my enjoyment of this highly technical (not to mention high-tech) Swedish outfit. The group was obviously enjoying themselves, as well, mugging for the legions of I-phones and I-pads, posing for the occasional selfie with a fan; at one point, Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund (the “dirty” vocalist) took the phone away from a young man behind me and began videoing himself and the other members of the group before handing it back to the excited fan. These moments are the things that I’ll remember long after Jethro and Minnie have been forgotten.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

So, here’s where I’m gonna talk about the audience again, okay? Two of the new faces that joined me at the front of the stage before Amaranthe’s set included a young woman with a face that had me thinking that I should know her from somewhere and her daughter; as it turns out, while we had never actually met, we do frequent some of the same stores and shops in our respective home towns (we live in two small communities, eight miles apart). Anyway, I noticed that, not only was the daughter (eleven year old Danielle) thoroughly enjoying herself, she was singing along to ALL of the songs. Eventually, all three singers (the other clean singer – aside from Elize – is Smash Into Pieces vocalist Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye, who was filling in for co-founder Jake E Lundberg) noticed her, as well, and began coming over to take her hand or make eye contact. After a set that began with “Digital World” and included “Invincible,” “Massive Addictive,” “Afterlife” and “Electroheart,” the band – which also features musicians Olof Morck (guitarist and chief music-writer; Lundberg and Ryd handle most of the lyrics), Johann Andreassen (bassist and encore break MC) and Morten Lowe Sorensen (drums) – kicked into their theme-song, “Amaranthe.” After singing a verse and a chorus, Elize came over to Danielle and asked her if she knew the song; Danielle answered in the affirmative and sang the next verse into Ryd’s microphone. After a final song, “Call Out My Name,” the group left the stage.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

But, of course, Amaranthe weren’t finished yet. After a brief break, Andreassen was back to pump up the crowd (allowing the others to towel off – it was HOT in the venue and even hotter under the stage lights – and for Elize to affect a costume change). The rest of the band joined Johann, charging into “The Nexus,” the title track from their second album. The night ended, three songs later, with Englund asking Danielle, “If I were to say, ‘Drop Dead,’ what would you say?” Without hesitation, she replied, “Cynical” and the band tore into the very danceable, heavy pop of “Drop Dead Cynical.” Before leaving the stage, the three vocalists and Olof took time to greet, not only Danielle, but just about everybody in the first couple of rows. Amaranthe is a band that gets it; they understand that without fans like Danielle and her mother (and even the overbearing couple in front of me), they wouldn’t be able to do what they love to do. I enjoyed the set more than I thought I would; I just hope that before I see them again, they figure out that sound system.


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!


RASPUTINA/DANIEL KNOX

(August 9, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

The place to be.

Pretty much everybody has a bucket list. The bucket lists of people who write about music looks a whole lot different than other such lists; my list probably looks unlike anyone, anywhere, in any profession. Unfortunately, at least two-thirds of my list would require a time machine, so… what about that other third? Well, on a Sunday night in August, I was able to cross one item from my list: Rasputina live, with yours truly front and center. I have, occasionally, been disappointed after accomplishing something from my list; this one more than lived up to my expectations. The fact that the show took place at Saint Louis’ Old Rock House was a bonus.

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A second bonus was the opening act, Daniel Knox, a quirky, disheveled singer/songwriter with a pen tucked behind his left ear and a penchant for rummaging through a stack of crumpled notebook paper, looking for the lyrics to his next song. It wasn’t hard to keep track of how many songs Knox performed… you just had to follow the bouncing wads of paper. You see, as he finished one song, he would crumple the lyrics and drop the paper at his feet. Accompanying himself on electric piano and the occasional backing track or kazoo (on “You Win Some, You Tie Some”), Knox relied heavily on his new, eponymous third album, offering up the new single, “Blue Car,” a song about a near-deserted mall in his hometown (Springfield IL) called “White Oaks Mall” and a “song about my imaginary friend… my Mom wouldn’t allow him in her car, he wasn’t allowed in the house” called “David Carmichael.” Daniel’s odd, mumbling stream-of-unconsciousness intros were almost as good as the songs themselves. He introduced “Blue Car” as, “A song about time travel. I wrote it when I was ten… ten years from now.” The lyrics to another, called “Chasescene,” includes the macabre couplet “I love you in the ground/Your naked and cannot make a sound.” As stark and bleak as the studio versions tend to be, they take on a whole new creepiness with the minimal, solo approach, especially stuff like “Get To Know Your Neighbors” and “Ghostsong.” This performance was totally unexpected and very much the perfect table-setter for the headliners.

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Melora Creager may forever be linked to Nirvana as the cellist on the European leg of their IN UTERO tour (the final tour, a couple of months before Kurdt shuffled himself off this mortal coil) but, to an ever-growing fan base, for the past twenty-some years, she is the musical and visual mastermind behind Rasputina. Creager’s backward-looking, forward-thinking music and fashion-sense glorifies the forgotten women and near-apocalyptic events of history, primarily highlighting the Victorian Age; her aesthetics have been a major contributor to the rise of the Steampunk phenomenon. And, of course, her music and Rasputina fill a big hole for people who miss the anything-goes quirkiness of the mid-to-late 1960s. A quick look around the room shows that the enigmatic three-piece reaches everyone from old hippies to young alt-rock punks, all of them rapturously soaking in the sounds of the past two centuries. Melora’s current bandmates – Carpella Parvo, who also plays cello, and Luis Mojica, who adds some well-placed keyboard elements and anachronistic beat-boxing – are equally important in bringing her vision to the stage. Covering a wide range of material (from 2002’s CABIN FEVER! to the recently released UNKNOWN, as well as some cool covers), Rasputina’s set was a slow-burn affair, relying more on lyrical emotion than musical crescendos, though there were enough intense moments and interaction between the players (especially Creager and Parvo) to keep the uninitiated (including me) involved and captivated by the show.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The majority of the material came from the last three Rasputina releases, with four from 2010’s SISTER KINDERHOOK and three each from 2007’s OH PERILOUS WORLD (including the frigid set opener, “1816, the Year Without a Summer,” which name-checks Mary Shelley – the inclement weather forced her and her friends to stay indoors, where Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS during the prolonged exile – among others) and UNKNOWN. A frantic Holocaust of Giants” kicked off a trio of …KINDERHOOK tunes, followed by an operaticSweet Sister Temperance” and “Humankind, As the Sailor,” which featured Mojica’s persistent Native American percussion to great effect. An oddly appealing cover of Goldfrapp’s “Clowns” put an end to the first portion of the recital.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The three new songs made up the set’s middle section, with a tale of a famed lady-in-waiting in the Court of Queen Elizabeth, Bridget Manners,” “Indian Weed,” which allowed Melora and Carpella a bit of a break, with Luis looping the rhythm part of Creager’s cello, and a fever dream paean to Melora’s poltergeist called “Psychopathic Logic.” The latter led into a very cool take on Ray Davies’ “I Go To Sleep,” an early demo of which appeared on a “kitchen sink” compilation called GREAT AMERICAN GINGERBREAD. Other highlights of the evening – of which there were too many to tell you about – included the final SISTER KINDERHOOD number, the fragile “This, My Porcelain Life,” another historical piece called “Rats,” which recounts the time Bolivians asked the Pope to declare the vermin to be fish to alleviate starvation and featured a squalling, slide guitar-like solo from Melora and fan favorite, In Old Yellowcake,” which not only featured hauntingly visual lyrics about the vagaries of war but, rocks pretty hard, too, with a fairly awesome instrumental section with the cellos coming in with a rather dissonant sounding counterpoint before sliding into a nice harmony bit. And, of course, what Rasputina recitation would be complete without their brilliant take on Pink Floyd’s ode to broken friends, “Wish You Were Here?”

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I will admit that this was an exceedingly different show than I usually go in for but, by the end of the night, I was taken by the sheer theatricality of Melora Creager’s music and lyrics and the performance of all three members of Rasputina. Luis Mojica, in particular, comes across as a sort of super utility player, with his beat-box percussion, his use of the occasional hand drum and other percussive instruments and, naturally, the variety of instruments programmed into his simple keyboard. As in most great musical pieces, this performance proved that it isn’t only the notes played but, sometime, it’s the notes not played. Even though I can now cross Rasputina live off my bucket list, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t revisit that particular item if given the opportunity.


RASPUTINA: UNKNOWN

(SELF RELEASED; 2015)

unknowncover

I have long been enamored of the look, the feel, the sound of Melora Creager’s pioneering Gothic cellists, Rasputina. For the past two decades (more or less), Creager’s dark pop sensibilities have collided with her sense of adventure, creating a sound that is, at once, steeped in musical styles long out of vogue and thoroughly modern in its approach. Rasputina’s lyrics are legendary in scope, retelling the folkloric stories of women – both real and fictional – generally relegated to the footnotes and page margins of history and myth. Now, after a prolonged layoff, Melora and Rasputina have returned with a new collection of fourteen chamber pop masterpieces, the self-released UNKNOWN. While the album is mostly Melora alone, in what she has called “a dank basement studio,” current Rasputina members Luis Mojica and, after a near-twenty year sabbatical, the returning Carpella Parvo do make the occasional guest appearances.

Rasputina's Melora Creager (publicity photo)

Rasputina’s Melora Creager (publicity photo)

Though the album (only available here) is less than 50 minutes in length, it is a sprawling miasma of diabolic visions and unsettling noises, as befits the purely modern incident that triggered the music… Melora was Cloud-hacked. The opening track, “Curse Tablet,” is a mad madrigal, with pretty voices reciting dark lyrics just below the furiously sawed cellos… rather like the voices you hear coming from beneath the blasphemed soil in an abandoned graveyard. The song is operatic in its musical scope and lyrical content (what you can make out through the haze, anyway). “Pastoral Noir” is a sing-song fever dream featuring a tribal vibe underneath some squalling, feedback-drenched cello. The narrative follows the goddess Vesta on her search for a shepherd named Tony. The goat-god with the answers, Pan, is embodied by Mojica and his chaos piano. Next is “Sparrow-Hawk Proud,” a (mostly) instrumental extension of the previous tunes aural abuse. “Unicorn Horn Mounted” is a unicorn’s lament for her lost horn. A whimsical tale of a guileless maiden named “Bridget Manners” sees the title character seeking her place in the world (or her stuff in the Cloud). The song is a brilliant vocal exercise featuring great harmonies (Malora’s multi-tracked voice, mayhap?). The dichotomous paranoia of “Indian Weedoffers another multi-tracked psychedelic vocal trip; it manages to be very disconcerting while sounding quite pleasant. “Unknown” is a jazzy, instrumental improv sort of thing, kinda like a Jaco or Stanley bass solo performed on a cello.

Rasputina (Luis Mojica, Carpella Parvo, Melora Creager) (publicity photo)

Rasputina (Luis Mojica, Carpella Parvo, Melora Creager) (publicity photo)

Emily Dickinson’s Trophy Envelope” is a seemingly rambling discourse on… Emily Dickinson by… uh… Emily Dickinson. It’s a frenetic, lunatic fringe of heavy, chugging cellos and tinkling piano fills. God, the Wizard of Oz and pudding all meet on the back of an envelope… that Dickinson woman was nuts! Another instrumental, “Steady Rain” is sort of like a Gothic hoedown. A very Siouxsie Sioux-like vocal performance with lyrics that well suit the track’s title informs “Psychopathic Logic.” Early on, the question becomes “just who is the psychopath?”The music is vaguely Middle Eastern. “Untitled I” is an instrumental, tonal in quality and a percursor to “Sensed.” That number is a languorous poem about death and obsession, but… is it real or imagined? Is the death natural or a murder or a suicide? Scraped strings and eerie vocals add a definite sense of horror to “Taken Scary,” a Sixteen Horsepower type of Gothic tale of revenge and murder. The album closes with “Hymn of the Wormwood Women,” another sullen, solemn mostly instrumental piece, with cellos and spooky vocalizations (no actual lyrics) doing the heavy work.

Rasputina's Melora Creager on stage, circa 2010 (uncredited photo)

Rasputina’s Melora Creager on stage, circa 2010 (uncredited photo)

After too long away, it is certainly good to have Melora Creager and Rasputina back with new music and back on the road, including a stop in Saint Louis at the magnificent Old Rock House on Sunday, August 9. Find other dates at the above link.


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?