(October 29, 2015; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)
It’s kinda funny how things tend to run in cycles in this business. Earlier this year, it seemed that I was in the Grove more often than not to review a show at either the Demo or Ready Room; then, for a long stretch, most of the action seemed to be taking place at Off Broadway. Now, the last three shows I’ve reviewed have been at the two Grove venues. I have no explanation or theory regarding this phenomenon… I just go where the music is. This night, the music was at the Ready Room, where twenty year veterans Old 97’s and rookie upstarts Banditos presented two very different styles of Americana for a packed house.
Improbably, Nashville’s (by way of Birmingham, Alabama) Banditos have only been a band for about five years and have been touring extensively for only the past three. Why is that improbable? Well, the six member conglomerate exhibit the sound and the easy stage presence of a much more seasoned band. Though the group features three lead singers, the spotlight seemed to shine the brightest on Mary Beth Richardson, whose sultry wail immediately brings to mind Janis Joplin, with just a bit of Tracy Nelson and Dale Krantz-Rossington (the latter’s gravelly purr comes to mind on the more ballady fare). The band’s co-founders, Stephen Pierce and Corey Parsons, are the other two vocalists, both with a buttery smooth style capable of delivering on anything from real-deal Country music to rowdy Rock ‘n’ Roll and rough-edged Southern Soul. Pierce also plays banjo, though if you’re listening and watching him pick, his playing has more of a classic Rock guitar sound; Parsons plays guitar – primarily handling the rhythm but, he also takes the occasional lead or offers up a tasty solo run. Jeffrey Salter, the other guitarist, does most of the heavy lifting, with lead and solo work; the rhythm section of Danny Vines on bass and drummer Randy Wade are rock-solid animals, providing a beefy bottom-end. Before delving into the “meat-and-taters” of their set, it should be duly noted that Banditos are, by far, the wooliest band I have ever seen; there is enough head and facial hair on display to supply toupees and wigs for the entire populace of a balding third-world country.
Musically, the group hit the stage running with “Golden Grease,” one of eight songs on display from their self-titled debut. The tune highlighted the talents of Wade and Vines, as well as some nice guitar from Salter but, when Richardson sang that first note, it was obvious to everyone that she was a force to be reckoned with. According to Parsons, that and a handful of other songs from the evening’s set have been around since nearly the beginning of the band, and those tunes have kind of taken on a life of their own, with the band tweaking them on a nightly basis to keep them interesting for the players; the group, by this point, are working as a well-oiled machine on these numbers (and, in some instances, are straining at the bit to write and record new material so certain tunes can be “retired,” at least temporarily). This night, those tunes included “Long Gone, Anyway,” “Cry Baby Cry” and “Old Ways.” Alongside those original numbers, other highlights were Corey’s cover of an old Waylon Jennings B-side, “Waymore’s Blues”; a rockin’ new tune, sung by Stephen, called “Fun All Night”; Mary Beth hitting all the right notes on a frantic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” Just like their album, Banditos live is a hard animal to nail down; they move and slide in and out of genres as easily as most of us change our clothes. “Cry Baby Cry” has a certain New Orleans flair while “Still Sober (After All These Beers),” despite the obvious Country title, is more of a surf tune with a lot of Dick Dale/Link Wray reverb-style guitar and “Waitin’” wouldn’t have sounded out of place as a June Carter/Johnny Cash duet. Some bands have success almost immediately and are gone almost before anyone even notices; Banditos is one of those groups that – like tonight’s headliners, Old 97’s – looks to have the staying power for a long career.
Amazingly enough, as much as I like their music, this was the first time that I have seen Old 97’s play live. Not that I haven’t had plenty of opportunities, they have played everywhere from Mississippi Nights (a moment of silence, please) to the Pageant; the band loves Saint Louis and Saint Louis definitely loves them. The quartet’s sound still retains a certain NO DEPRESSION-Americana vibe though, with their propensity for a harder-edged punk rock esthetic, they come across more like their contemporaries in Wilco than the shared ancestral linkage of Uncle Tupelo. On this night, they started slow and (purposefully?) a little sloppy with “Give It Time.” All four players seemed somehow distracted, particularly frontman Rhett Miller; they soon found their groove, with bassist Murry Hammond (looking very much like a younger, more dapper Phil Lesh) and drummer Philip Peeples reigning in the wandering guitarists (Miller and lead player, Ken Bethea) and tightening up the arrangements on a set that was long on material from the latest album, MOST MESSED UP, and chock full of fan favorites from the band’s catalog. By the time they got around to the third number, “King of All the World,” the band was firing on all cylinders and Rhett was back to his usual acerbic self. The new tunes – including “Wasted,” “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and “This Is the Ballad” – fared quite well, while the classics – “Big Brown Eyes,” “Niteclub,” “Murder (Or a Heart Attack” and “Over the Cliff” among them – bristled with a renewed energy that, more than once, seemed to border on some type of “angry young man” passion.
Miller, as expected, supplied the majority of the lead vocals, though Hammond lent his rather world-weary voice to a handful of tunes, including the Country stomp of “West Texas Teardrops” and the tear-drenched ballad, “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue.” As the group moved seamlessly from Country to Alternative Rock to Punk to flat out, steamrolling Rock and Roll, guitarist Bethea had a lead or a solo for every occasion, never faltering in his quest for the perfect guitar part for each song; likewise, Peeples and Hammond laid down the perfect groove, no matter what the style demanded. Rhett, though he continued to seem distracted by something at the back of the room (the monitor mix, mayhap?), tore through his songs like a man possessed, delivering the lyrics in a passionate, matter-of-fact style; he had worked up quite a sweat very early into the set, which seemed to fuel his zeal to give the crowd everything he had to offer. Much of the new material is a little… let’s just call it off-color, shall we? Miller delivered every F-bomb and every mention of booze or allusion to various body parts with a wink and a grin that had the faithful either laughing or singing along. By the time they got to the rollicking set closer, “Most Messed Up,” which ticked off all sorts of offenses, with Miller virtually screaming the refrain, “I am the most messed up mother fucker in this town,” both band and audience were ready for a breather.
After a short break, Rhett returned to the stage for a solo rendition of the ballad “Most In the Summertime” from his latest release, THE TRAVELER; the song has a nice melody lurking behind the humorous, self-deprecating lyrics and you have got to love a guy that manages to work the term “barometric pressure” into a love song. Murry rejoined Miller for a lead vocal on the old-timey Rock and Roll of “Valentine,” which reminded me of a Buddy Holly tune with the Jordanaires singing back-up (and, yeah, I know that there were only two people singing, but the analogy is still valid). Ken and Philip took up their places and the foursome charged into what may be the coolest, funniest sing-along party song of all-time, “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On.” After the quick Cowpunk of “Timebomb,” the group left the stage again; with the crowd demanding more, the lights came up, reminding me of the old showbiz axiom, “Always leave ’em wanting more.”
It is obvious – and rightly so – that Old 97’s own Saint Louis; the band, Rhett Miller in particular, may have been slightly off but, the energy and enthusiasm of the packed Ready Room audience urged them on to a riotous good set. The one-two punch of the headliners and openers, Banditos, made for one of the best nights of flat-out great music to come through the Lou. If you missed this one, you certainly missed a good one.