THE DOMINO KINGS: THE DOMINO KINGS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019)

If you have followed the music scene in Springfield, Missouri even casually for the past twenty years, you probably know who the Domino Kings are. Steve Newman, Les Gallier and Brian Capps are absolute stalwarts in the music community in this distinguished Ozark burgh; on every other weekend, one or more of them are probably playing somewhere (all three perform in multiple combos). And, when the legendary Lou Whitney was still alive, manning the controls at “The Studio,” the famed downtown recording site, these guys and their many associates would be in and out for music-making duties with regularity. At the turn of the millennium, the DKs released two punchy, well-received recordings – LONESOME HIGHWAY and LIFE AND 20, signed at the time to Slewfoot Records. Capps left the band after that second disc, but Newman and Gallier carried on with two more mostly decent records. Then Slewfoot went away and so did the music industry as most of us knew it. The three musicians still turned up at each other’s shows periodically, and once in a while there were even Domino Kings listings on the local calendar. But there was no particular reason to think there would be another DKs record, especially with all three original members as a focused unit. They had no label, they had widely varying schedules, and Springfield’s most famed studio went away not long after Lou Whitney’s death from cancer in 2014.

THE DOMINO KINGS, circa 2000 (Brian Capps, Steve Newman, Les Gallier) (uncredited photo)

Ah, but here’s the thing that casual fans couldn’t have known. In 2011, before Whitney died, he got the boys into the studio for another go-round. Yes, the original trio. A record was made, we heard, but then… silence. The great and powerful Lou got sicker and sicker and headed for that never-ending music festival in the sky. There was a feeling that the motivation to put out the new record wasn’t really there. I know, ‘cause I tried to ask the band about it a few times. It was in the category of “shelved,” it seemed. And, whatcha gonna do if ya ain’t got no label? Happily, we finally have that answer: PUT IT OUT YOURSELVES. This self-titled fifth album is now available, and it’s a corker. If you’re a longtime fan, you’ll definitely be smiling at the rollicking sounds on this new, Whitney-produced tunefest. “A nice surprise” is a good way to sum it up.

,  The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

THE DOMINO KINGS is an uncommonly democratic affair: Four songs penned by each musician, plus a short group instrumental at the end. There’s a palpable atmosphere of cooperation, and a consistent groove that just won’t quit. Newman, the trio’s truly stellar guitarist, offers up absolutely RIGHT-sounding tunes such as “The Only Thing She Left” and “Nobody Knows,” tunes that won’t leave once they lodge themselves in your brain. The influence of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard among others lurks in the background, but Newman’s songs have a casual truthfulness about the head-scratching nature of chasing love that rings clear and true. His best here is perhaps “2nd Luckiest Guy,” which is a foot-tapping, melodic number that documents the angst of having lost your gal to another, watching HIM take the prize love thang that you blew it with. The tune does this with about as much wit and musical verve as any song I’ve heard lately. I wrote in my notes that “the scenarios these guys write about are truly relatable for most of us guys.” And you have to tip your hat to the flawless arrangements of songs like this, as well as Newman’s vibrant guitar playing. At THAT, there is no fear of him coming in second. “How Does Gone Feel?” is a smidge lesser of a tune overall, but still kickin’.

THE DOMINO KINGS, 2015 (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: STEVEN SPENCER/SPRINGFIELD NEWS-LEADER)

I’ve always been a fan of Les Gallier’s approach to songcraft; the word “pretension” is not in his vocabulary, and he’s a tremendous hooksmith. His raucous number “Another Drunken Fool” is a gritty little hard Rockabilly tune that has an admirable toughness about it, possibly masking some real bitterness – the kind of thing listeners can ponder privately. Imagining this one coming together at the studio makes me smile. The band is having FUN here, undoubtedly. But even better are “Can’t Be Too Much Longer” and “Some Kinda Power,” easily two of this album’s best songs. The former makes plain the impatience of waiting for new love when a couple of situations ended badly, and it does so with sterling songwriting and the whole band laying down an awesome guitar-driven groove. Oh, and by the way, Gallier is a fantastic drummer; his style has been referred to as the Tulsa shuffle, but no matter what you call it, it makes an impression and always sounds like a master enjoying every minute of his work. “Some Kinda Power” is big-time Rock ‘n’ Roll in the service of pondering what it is that women do to men to make them wig out. “I can open up your tight jar/And I can fetch your little car/I can answer your every call/You can make me do it all/Cause you hold some kind of power over me… you hold the power like a freight train/Every time I lose you gain/You hold the power that stops my go/Every time you tell me NO,” the lyrics relate. The band is simply firing on all cylinders here, with superb Newman guitar work and Mister Gallier singing the living crap outta this number. Marvelous stuff.

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

As for Brian Capps, primarily known as the band’s standup bass maestro, he has proven his chops as a solo artist, with the Kings, with the commercial stint he did for some years with “Branson on the Road,” and in his current incarnation as half of The Widowmakers (with Cliff Boone), serving up classic Country and early Rock and Roll, show after show. Capps’ vocalizing on the first two Kings’ recordings was some of the best in the genre, and gems such as “Two Nights Without Sleeping” and, especially, “Alice” were definitive examples of angst-ridden existential hard Country. That latter tune is permanently in my “Liquor-fueled rockers about pain caused by manipulative women” Hall of Fame. It is literally a perfect example of a miserable real-life scenario being turned into life-affirming bar-room sonics. Although the songs here aren’t quite as transcendent, “I Don’t Want To Forget” and “Devil’s Den” come close, with insight and self-awareness beyond the ability of most songwriters. These songs deserve to be covered widely, and “Devil’s Den,” which Capps recorded in a very different version on an early solo album, gets a just as fetching take here with the Kings crowning it musically. Awesome stuff. And it’s a delight that “Saturday Night is New Year’s Eve,” a song I’ve heard in several versions, really hits its stride with the Domino Kings doing it up proud here; the energy feels right, which wasn’t quite the case in at least one prior version.

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

Some songs on this album feel LIVE all the way, Gallier’s “Would You Let Me Be Your Man” being perhaps the best example, and Capps’ “I Don’t Want to Forget” close behind. There is no muss, no fuss overall. Spontaneity and pure GRIT dominate the atmosphere, and Whitney clearly was not interested in polishing anything too much in the studio. LIFE AND 20 may have been a bigger, more attentive production, but there is a raw feel to the proceedings here that serves the sound of the Domino Kings quite well. This is a fun, energetic platter. The concluding instrumental, “Thrown Clear” is a zippy little energy burst that puts the topping on the freewheelin’ atmosphere displayed throughout the recording. They can play fast, these guys, and this song shows it, although the whole album moves at a brisk tempo… no filler at all. It is worth stating clearly that Newman, Gallier and Capps are all veterans at the art of traditional, rootsy American songcraft, with the ability to construct hooky tunes in a familiar musical milieu around simple, often wryly humorous but always universal lyrics about man’s favorite pastime (which doesn’t always produce the desired romantic results). If there’s an art to pairing upbeat arrangements with sometimes sad or restless themes, these guys have mastered it. The music of this band soundtracks a simpler world: Where men chase after women, women decide whether they want to be caught or not, bars are always at least half full, and musicians gigging in the corner always know at least half the greatest Country and Rock and Roll songs ever written and are skilled at getting the patrons out on the dance floor, ready for another shot after that. This world is reassuring, timeless and full of promise and enthusiasm. Just like this kick-ass trio themselves.

(Not available in stores but you can order the Domino Kings recording by sending check or money order made out to “Domino Kings” for $10, to Domino Kings, c/o Brian Capps, PO Box 612, Lebanon, MO 65536)


THE APRIL FOOLS: THIRD; MICHAEL OWENS: THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY

(BLACKBERRY WAY RECORDS; 2019)

In the past, whenever I got bogged down with too many records to listen to and review, I would lump a lot of like-minded releases (straight-ahead rock, Jazz, Country, compilations,,, whatever) together, giving each a nice little paragraph (or more, depending on how many I had to write about… I remember doing something like fourteen Punk records in the course of one review) about each. I still do that occasionally, when it makes sense to do so; this one is a no-brainer: Michael Owens produced both releases, Fools Brian Drake and Terri Owens do some backing vocals on THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY, both records were released by Michael’s Blackberry Way Records on the same day. It really wasn’t my intention to review them together, but the final piece seemed to fall into place when the Owens record showed up at my door in the same package as THIRD. The die, as the saying goes, was cast.

THE APRIL FOOLS (Scott Hreha, Brad McLemore, Terri Owens, Brian Drake, Ben Kaplan) (photo credit: ERIN DRAKE)

The April Fools’ third release (thus the name of the record) features a retooled band, having lost guitarist Clay Williams, whom, I assume, has gone on to greener pastures. Williams was replaced by two musicians, guitarists Brad McLemore and the aforementioned Terri Owens. The result made the original quartet’s tight sound even tighter as a quintet. This is borne out on the opening track, “Bell of Stone,” a sort of updated psychedelic Americana. Vocalist Brian Drake has a rather world-weary rasp that is immediately the crowning glory of this song and album, somewhere between Bob Seger and a young Levon Helm. The guitars (by McLemore, Owens and Drake) seem to shimmer and there’s an undeniable sting and bite to the solo. Ben Kaplan offers up some solid drumming and an insistent, melodic bass line by Scott Hreha gives the whole thing a certain buoyancy that is not unappealing. “Long Shadows” is a tune that reminds me of both the Band (musically) and the Dead (vocally). It’s a slow ballady sort of thing that highlights the group’s four part harmonies. The piece borders on overstaying its welcome, but seems to end at just the right moment. Graham Gouldman’s (by way of the Hollies) “Bus Stop” is a shimmering piece of Pop history that gets a fairly faithful retelling here. The guitars may be a bit more urgent and Terri Owens’ mandolin adds a new flavor, weaving in and out of the mix, just under Drake’s pleasantly gruff delivery. For some reason, the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” comes to mind listening to “Shaky Ground.” Could be the wah-wah guitar and utterly haze-inducing solo; maybe it’s the swirling vocals that are brilliantly scattershot, alternately overlapping each other, then complimenting the rest with a great harmony part. Owens is a lady that certainly knows how to write a great ‘60s acid burn of a tune! “If I Can’t Make Her Happy” is sort of a throwback to those star-crossed tragic lover songs from the late ‘50s, all gussied up with a new millenial sheen, and highlighted by some really pretty guitar work and backing vocals.

The Fools put a nice gloss on Dylan’s classic “My Back Pages.” This version features finely understated vocals and a Byrdsian approach to the instrumentation that has always worked so well on the Zim’s music. There’s more of the brilliant guitar solos that we’ve come to expect from this band, with the rhythm section highlighting their ample abilities with a great Hreha bass line and a solid backbeat and fills from Kaplan on drums. Terri Owens takes on the vocal duties for “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast,” a slow-burning rocker written by Julie Anne Miller (originally recorded for the BUDDY AND JULIE MILLER album in 2001 by, well… Buddy and Julie Miller). The track features killer guitar throughout, as another awesome solo rides the cut into the fade. “Summer Sun (Redux)” has a slightly psychedelic Blues groove, a distinct highlight of this remake from the Fools’ first album. I know I’m sounding like a broken record by this time but… again, great guitar, both straight and effects-laden. Scott’s rumbling bass, Ben’s spot-on drumming and an idling organ part from guest Glenn Manske (of which we’ll hear more later) add to the lazy feel of the song, the musical equivalence of the lethargic feeling brought on by the summer sun. Closing out the record is “15 Minutes.” It’s a Country-flavored tune that features a brilliant bass part that could very easily have appeared on an album by the Jam or Elvis (the important one, not the dead fat guy). With a dobro and Terri’s mandolin filtering through the swampy miasma of the instrumentation, the drums offer a lot to enjoy just under the current. The backing vocals are a nice counter to Brian’s gruff voice. As an introduction to what’s happening in the Minneapolis music scene today, you can definitely do worse than the April Fools’ THIRD.

MICHAEL OWENS (photo credit: LARRY HUTCHINSON)

Cementing the connection between the Minneapolis of the Replacements, Prince and Husker Du is producer/recording studio owner/record company owner/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist (and probably another string of slash marks that I’m missing) Michael Owens. Owens’ latest record, THE RIGHT KIND OF CRAZY, is fourteen tracks (and one bonus cut from a reunited Fingerprints, Michael’s late ‘70s band) that is as varied as the scene that spawned that first major wave of the “Minneapolis sound,” as well as Michael’s own Blackberry Way Studio and the record company that shares that name. The first track, “Comic Book Creep,” features some awesome boogie with a little bit of woogie thrown in for good measure. Owens has a pleasing, better than average voice; there’s some very nice guitar leads and solo from guest artist Curtiss A and Owens himself and excellent piano from Glenn Manske, who plays a major role on this record. “A Song For You” switches gears from a rockin’ Blues to a slow, tragic type of girl group sort of song that features strong backing vocals (as such songs require) from Robert Langhorst and Terri Owens. Also on display is an echoey, reverb-drenched solo and another strong piano part from Glenn. Sounding very much like vintage Monkees, “60 Cycle Rumble” sees Michael delivering an over-the-top vocal performance that reminds me of a younger, still-alive Wolfman Jack. Manske’s organ and outstanding guitar work from Owens make the Pre-Fab Four comparison even more relevant. As the name implies, “Used Blues” is a slow Blues that falls somewhere between Stevie Ray and Michael Buble on the Blues authenticity scale. Owens former Fingerprints bandmate, Robb Henry, offers up some solid lead work and a soulful solo. “Without Sin” sounds a little like “Minnesota boy does the Eagles” during the intro.Thankfully, it morphs into another slow-burn number with a strong Bill Grenke bassline. I kept waiting for a child’s voice to say “Mommy, where’s Daddy?” during the breaks leading into the guitar solos and, of course, anything that elicits memories of the Coopers ranks very high on my list. However, the cut, at more than seven minutes, does tend to drag on; thankfully, though, it doesn’t overstay its welcome by much. Up next is “Old Man Joad,” a kind of jangly Byrds-cum-Tom-Petty thing, only without the jangle. Continuing a nice little theme here, the number features some nifty lead and backing vocals, more solid bass from Grenke and a killer guitar melody throughout. In a different time, this one coulda been a hit at AOR, Adult Contemporary or Country radio. Unfortunately, as radio has become ever more genre-centric, it’s unlikely that today’s programmers could figure out what to do with such a great song! “Chase the Rain” is yet another slow tune with some nice guitar. Grenke continues to impress on bass as does Manske with some more great organ work. I guess the title comes from the sounds of falling rain at the beginning and end of the track.

“Falling” is not a cover of the Tom Petty song; this one has more of an Alternative Celtic feel to it (if that makes any kind of sense). The Celtic vibe is enhanced with Manske adding strings and flutes to his solid piano playing, while Kevin Glynn (another refugee from Fingerprints) adds a little added thump to Owens’ programmed drums with some live tom toms. The vocals blend into the hazy mist of the musical backdrop, leaving the listener with a gooey warm feeling somewhere around the heart. A short little ditty called “Over the Moon” follows. With a jaunty, bouncy feel, it’s simply a fun love song, evoking the feeling the name conjures in one’s mind. Gifted with one of the best song titles ever, “Just Got Over Being Hungover,” has a melody that puts me in mind of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help.” The cut is loaded with an abundance of honky-tonk piano, organ accents and lots of guitars doing guitary things. “You Can’t Get In” is a frantic little piece of Swamp Punk, with Glynn offering some percussive help while a weird Replacements vibe permeates the whole 1:48. Some cool backwards guitar and massive riffage courtesy of Robb Henry informs “High Price Shoes,” a Beatlesy piece of Pop fluff. Not surprisingly, the piece features more heavy lifting from Glenn on organ and Bill on bass. All of the above makes this one a current album favorite. “Hole In Your Pocket” is another tune that sounds vaguely familiar (Minnesota’s favorite sons, Bob Dylan meets Prince maybe?), with a tinkling piano coda and a vocal mostly buried in the mix to good effect. The sing-songy partially spoken lead vocals definitely gives rise to Dylan comparisons. The lyrical coda, “I know there’s magic out there,” isn’t indicative of this song, but… if the lyrics fit, right? There’s a slight echo on the vocals on “The Last Thing,” adding a bit of a dreamy feel to another strong offering.Again, the cut features strong organ, bass and guitar leads and solo; the backing vocals are nice, as well, with Brian Drake joining Robert Langhorst and Terri Owens for this one. A bonus track, “14 South 5th Street Blues,” features four fifths of Fingerprints (bassist Steve Fjelstad was missing from the recording/performance with Michael taking over those duties). The song, featured in the documentary, JAY’S LONGHORN, is an ode to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Minneapolis scene’s venue of choice, the title derived from the address of the legendary club. Besides Owens on bass and guitar, the other featured Fingerprints are lead vocalist Mark Throne, the previously introduced Robb Henry on lead guitar and Kevin Glynn moving to an ancillary percussionist role due to Owens’ very organic-sounding drum programming. The quartet are augmented by former Figures guitarist Jeff Waryan on slide, Chris Osgood of the Suicide Commandos on additional lead guitar, the legendary Curtiss A on harmonica and the by-now ubiquitous Glenn Marske on piano. The rollicking paean to past triumphs is a fitting close to solid release from a man who should be a household name outside of the relatively small Minneapolis region.


NO VALENTINE: KNOCK KNOCK

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2019)


The should-be-signed-immediately New York trio, No Valentine, live by the old Punk credo of “Loud, Fast Rules!” Their latest release, an EP called KNOCK KNOCK, features five songs clocking in at an impressive thirteen minutes. The group is fronted by songwriting force, guitar-slinger and powerhouse vocalist Cindy Pack; Pack is quite ably supported by the rhythm section of Laura Sativa (who has played bass with legendary punks Sylvain Sylvain and Jayne County) and versatile sticksman Mike Linn.

NO VALENTINE (Cindy Pack, Mike Linn, Laura Sativa) (uncredited photo)

Things are off to an ominous start with “Down Down,” a tune so dense that you could caulk an entire house with the riffs alone. Guitar, bass and drums all meld together in a thick soup of awesomeness, while Cindy relays a spiraling mental anguish, climaxing with this final verse: “Sometime I feel like a walking train wreck/An epidemic, a viral agent/A bad narcotic/A hopeless neurotic/But mostly, I just feel psychotic.” Even the backing vocals sound somehow wounded. “Barnyard Apocalypse” sounds brighter, a rollicking type of Rock ‘n’ Roll, kinda like Unknown Hinson or Reverend Horton Heat on a bender. Still, the lyrics belie the jaunty feel of the music, with such poetic gems as, “Hallelujah, motherfuckers/Pass the mashed potatoes.” Ms Pack is apparently on a mission to prove that she is the manifest destiny queen of snotty punk music; she gets my vote! Yeah, I know that with a monarchy, you ascend to the throne (or take it in a most brutal fashion); she still has my full support. Sounding very much like a shorter version of “Halo of Flies,” the classic Alice Cooper track, “You’re Sick” grinds, grooves and hisses along ‘til the charging beast simply comes to a sudden end, as if felled by a shot from a master huntsman. The number – undoubtedly my favorite here – is the longest on the EP, coming in at an economical 3:52, besting its predecessor by a full second.

NO VALENTINE (Cindy Pack, Mike Linn, Laura Sativa) (uncredited photo)

Lemon Pie” features a spry bassline, some nimble drumming and a wickedly fuzzed-out guitar delivering a decidedly whacked approximation of a classic Country tune. If you listen closely, you can even hear Cindy’s sly vocal twang, offered, as usual, with her tongue firmly implanted in her cheek. It’s probably the most upbeat song you’re ever gonna hear from No Valentine but, it in no way sounds out of place nestled amongst the harder, punkier fare on display with KNOCK KNOCK. “Detour” is a meaty slice of early ‘70s proto-punk heaviness, sort of a bookend of dismay and misery with the opener, “Down Down.” Still looking for answers on a trip to nowhere, Pack intones her dilemma with lines like, “Ran out of gas/Ran out of oil/Can’t pay the tax/Can’t pay the toll/And now I’m stuck in the slow lane of life/And I can’t get over.” All I can say is, “And who hasn’t been there?” All in all, KNOCK KNOCK is one of the best indie releases I’ve had the pleasure of listening to in quite some time. I just wish there was more to it! Full-length, anyone? Until then, KNOCK KNOCK and No Valentine’s three previous EPs can be acquired through the group’s website or Bandcamp page.


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

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

rev_hinson_nashville_lg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


OLD 97S/BANDITOS

(October 29, 2015; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

DSCN2610

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.

Banditos (Stephen Pierce; Mary Beth Richardson; Corey Parsons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Banditos (Stephen Pierce; Mary Beth Richardson; Corey Parsons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Danny Vines) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Danny Vines) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Old 97's (Rhett Miller; Murry Hammond) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Rhett Miller; Murry Hammond) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Old 97's (Murry Hammond; Philip Peeples) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Murry Hammond; Philip Peeples) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

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.

Old 97's (Philip Peeples; Ken Bethea) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Philip Peeples; Ken Bethea) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

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.”

Old 97's (Ken Bethea; Rhett Miller) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Ken Bethea; Rhett Miller) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

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.


BIRDCLOUD/MOUNTAIN SPROUT/BLAINE CARTWRIGHT AND EARL CRIM

(October 22, 2015; THE DEMO, Saint Louis MO)

The Door Between

Arriving early at the venue, as I generally do, I found Blaine Cartwright and Earl Crim sound-checking inside, Mountain Sprout sleeping outside in their van and Birdcloud still about a half hour out. These early arrivals allow me to work out any kinks or missed communications between the artists, their publicist and myself; they also allow me to grab a bite to eat or a cup of coffee, explore various cultural sites or enjoy the local fauna. Catching a show at the Demo (or the Ready Room, just two doors down) means a visit (or two) to Music Record Shop, one of many actual RECORD repositories that are cropping up across this great land, conveniently situated between the two venues, with a door opening into the Demo; I’m sure that Dan, the guy behind the counter is getting really tired of seeing me wander in and out continually, though I do enjoy our discussions about old Soul, Funk and Jazz records. For a great cup of coffee and, maybe, a scone, it’s across the street to Rise Coffee House. I told you all of this to, first, let you know that there is plenty to do and to see if you take the time to get to a show early and, second, to let you know that, when I asked about parking for the Demo, Sara, the Rise barista was very excited that someone else actually understood what Birdcloud was all about; it seems that her friends either stare blankly at her or cock their head like a puppy that doesn’t know what the heck she’s talking about (come to think of it, I get those looks when I talk about some of the music I like, too). Anyway, I think I can confidently announce that she, her friends and I all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves this Thursday evening in the Grove. Well… mostly. To wit:

Blaine Cartwright; Eric Crim (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Blaine Cartwright; Eric Crim (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As a general rule, twenty-something hipsters are mostly okay, at most, a mere annoyance; however, if you get more than, say, three in a confined scenario (like a small club), they can often become intolerable. Such was the case on this evening. I was speaking with an older couple with whom I became acquainted sometime during the excursions related in the previous paragraph; while we weren’t hugging the wall, we were sitting against it when the first group of hipsters came in, making a beeline for the bar before taking up a spot that actually forced the couple and myself to shift our location. Mind you, now… there were maybe ten people in the place, counting the three of us geezers and the bar staff but, these loud, obnoxious people just had to be where we were. Things went downhill from there, as I’ll continue to relate throughout the course of this review. So, anyway, there was a Hank song playing on the in-house system (I’m thinkin’ it was either “Hey Good Lookin’” or “Cold Cold Heart” but, it has been a few days) as Cartwright and Crim took the stage; the in-house was cut as they sat themselves down at opposite ends of the stage, eliciting this comment from Blaine: “There’s a special place in Hell for people who interrupt a Hank Senior song. Guess we’ll be seein’ ya’ll there.” After a few nervous giggles from the hipsters (both gentlemen are imposing, burly biker types… at least, on the outside), the duo dove into a bawdy, rowdy, funny set of beer-drenched rockin’ country blues, including more than a few reworked numbers from the Nashville Pussy (Cartwright’s day job) songbook (“Lazy Jesus” and “You Give Drugs a Bad Name”), as well as several Nine Pound Hammer (a group both of the guys dabble in upon occasion) tunes, including the delicately titled “Mama’s Doin’ Meth Again.” The older folks had a good time; the hipsters were confused (which seemed to bring a grin to Cartwright’s face) and, in some instances, total jackasses; Eric and Blaine shrugged it all off with a muttered comment about how hard they’d been working to get kicked off of this tour. At the end of their set (they played about half-an-hour because they couldn’t remember anymore songs they could play as a duo), though, everyone seemed happy with what they had heard (or what they had played).

Mountain Sprout (Blayne Thiebaud; Grayson Klauber) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Mountain Sprout (Blayne Thiebaud; Grayson Klauber) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As the hipsters became more numerous and more intoxicated, they became louder and more obnoxious, one rather tall gentleman going above and beyond the call of duty on this night: Between sets, I generally relax by sitting on the edge of the stage (old knees, tired back… you know, you’ve been there), usually with my arms folded – not because I’m not having fun or am trying to look tough or whatever; I have a bum shoulder to go along with all of my other bum parts and, for whatever reason, it’s just more comfortable for me with arms folded. Anyway, the hipster – after spending a few seconds trying to stare me down – apparently thought the sight of me in repose was worth a jab or two; when I replied, amiably enough, he told me that my voice was wrong for my head. When I answered him in my “Howie Mandel as Bobby” voice, he seemed content and wandered away; we had not heard the last from our drunken hipster friend, however. Having unfolded my arms, I stood up, faced the stage and got ready for… Mountain Sprout? Yup… they just felt like switching things up and going on before Birdcloud. Okay… cool. The Arkansas-based hillbilly rollers performed as an economical three-piece tonight, with lead singer and banjo picker Grayson Klauber keeping things sprightly with his song intros and random asides, all the while laying down some of the evilest picking I’ve heard this side of Hogscraper; Blayne Thiebaud set aside his walking stick (he mentioned missing some dates to recover from an unspecified injury and/or surgery), rosined up his bow and proceeded to fiddle about; bassist Nathan McReynolds kept things thumping with a rhythmic bottom-end that allowed the other two to debauch as they saw fit, and… debauch they did!

Mountain Sprout (Nathan McReynolds; Grayson Klauber) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Mountain Sprout (Nathan McReynolds; Grayson Klauber) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With Thiebaud and McReynolds looking like escaped lunatics from Bray Wyatt’s backwoods family tree (wrestling fans will understand the comparison), Klauber wove tales of money, drugs, family dysfunction and sex, defiling the English language at every turn, much to the delight of everyone who was even halfway paying attention. Set highlights included – but were definitely not limited to – “Dry Counties” and the accompanying intro about fleeing from such places, where the purchase of alcoholic beverages is illegal; “Whiskey Church of the Green Bud”; “Blue Marble,” which is… uh… the meaning of life or something of equal importance; the shout-along anthem of free-thinking, tax-paying Americans everywhere, “Screw the Government”; and, of course, the band’s raison d’etre, “Money, Pussy and Drugs,” because, sometime, you have one to get the other in the hopes that she has more of at least one of the other two. Our inebriated friend returned to the front of the stage, performing a kind of modified version of the old HEE HAW stomp, making friends and losing them just as quickly, as his carefree dance style led to him careening into several people, knocking at least to beers out of unsuspecting hands; each time he was made aware that he wasn’t welcome, he would dance his way back to the bar, reappearing periodically to upset someone else. It should be noted that, by this time, his two companions had also tired of his shenanigans and had fairly well given up on trying to corral him.

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green; Jasmin Kaset) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green; Jasmin Kaset) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With his submersion into the ever-growing crowd, I had virtually forgotten the snockered hipster as the floor in front of the stage began to fill up with a more palatable group of people, including the Rise barista and her friends, for Birdcloud’s set. It would appear that switching spots with Mountain Sprout was a brilliant idea; with the Sprout’s wholly politically incorrect set as lead in, the crowd was definitely ready for the Murfreesboro, Tennessee duo‘s brand of Country smut. It would be easy for the uninitiated to dismiss the songs of Birdcloud as crude, rude attempts at comedy but, funny though they are, the tunes tend to have a deeper meaning, delving into subjects generally deemed taboo, especially for a pair of “genteel girls” from the South: Sexuality, racial tensions, interracial relationships, religion and spirituality are all fair game, with lead singer and madolin player Mackenzie Green and guitarist Jasmin Kaset taking a couple of steps over the line to get their points across. Taking the stage to shouts of “Show us your butts!,” the ladies opened their set with an obvious crowd favorite, “Fuck You Cop,” which, amazingly enough touches on police harassment, as well as utilizing your sexuality to your best advantage; the irreverent track obviously struck a lot of the right nerves. One of the nerves struck apparently belonged to our increasingly more belligerent hipster drunk, who was continually rebuffed by a crowd that was having way too much fun to put up with his attempts to force his way to the front of the stage. By the time Jasmin and Mackenzie kicked into the prophetically titled “Damn Dumb,” the boob had had enough of other people not letting him do what he wanted to do; I don’t know what – musta been some innate inner radar – led me to look over my shoulder but, as I turned, I saw the guy look at his empty beer can, look at the stage, look at his empty beer can and… heave it at the stage. Thankfully, no one was hit by the projectile as it landed on the stage right in front of me, though it did come close to hitting the young lady to my left. The song ended and Mackenzie, justifiably angry, said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Hey! No one throws shit at our stage! Either get him out of here or we’ll find someone else who won’t be so nice about it!” A cheer erupted as the hipster’s humiliated friends hustled him out of the venue and Birdcloud got down to business once more.

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green and Jasmin Kaset) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green and Jasmin Kaset) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Running through a set that included enough politically incorrect lyrics and imagery to make Jenna Jameson blush and the ACLU’s collective heads explode, Green and Kaset played coy with the audience (and each other), with a wink and a grin and a middle finger that was rigid and stiff (Zappa fans will understand that one) aimed right at the heart of corporate Country music and small minded humans everywhere. Whether those small minded humans included members of the duo’s family or are just indicative of small town America in general, the defiantly anthemic “I Like Black Guys” was hilariously on-point. Other pokes in the eye of respectability included “Ice Balls,” “Warshin’ My Big Ol’ Pussy” and “Do What I Want,” which had the ladies mimicking big-time Country and Rock stars, as Mackenzie reached around Jasmin from behind to play a solo on the latter’s guitar; the act, naturally, turned into a bit – an indictment, if you will, of the excesses of stardom – as Green began to crawl up and over, wrapping her legs around Kaset before they fell to the stage, laughing. An unexpected diversion from the set list was “Cool Christmas,” the new single, which goes from delicate and sweet to raging punk screams and back again. The encore, “Saving Myself For Jesus,” according to some, borders on sacrilege, though the message rings all-too true: Jasmin and Mackenzie relate all of the nasty, violent sexual acts that a young girl would be okay with, but… “My hymen belongs to Jesus” and “You’ll be so glad that we waited.” The couple of guys who had been yelling to see the ladies’ posteriors finally got their wish… kinda. With Jasmin on her knees, Mackenzie began to pull down her shorts, revealing… a harmonica harness placed just about so high; the giggles almost got the better of the two as Kaset began playing a solo. The song ended, once again, with the pair on the floor, laughing.

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green and Jasmin Kaset) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Birdcloud (Mackenzie Green and Jasmin Kaset) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Honestly, this type of music isn’t for everybody; if you or your rainbow-colored unicorn are easily offended, stay away… don’t be so serious, have a little fun and have a laugh at your own expense. It does the body good. Oh, and by the way, the twenty-something hipsters were – by-and-large – pretty cool, except for a few self-important ideologues and one drunken lout (who was still standing outside the venue with a bewildered look on his face after the show). If you missed this one, everybody is coming back relatively soon: Birdcloud is opening for Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room on November 20th; Mountain Sprout are headlining a show at Off Broadway on December 12th; and, Blaine Cartwright is back with Nashville Pussy, opening for Reverend Horton Heat, at the Ready Room on February 6th.


THE HILLBENDERS

(August 1, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

Enter Ye Here (photo credit DARREN TRACY)

What a weird and amazing weekend this was! Friday night saw me at Pop’s for the crushing metal frenzy of Coal Chamber, Fear Factory and others; Saturday was my introduction to a venue (Old Rock House) and a bluegrass band (the Hillbenders), both of which more than lived up to their hype. With former Mississippi Nights (a moment of silence, please) booker and manager Tim Weber at the helm of the House, I knew that the sound and the experience would be exceptional. Granted, there is a different feel, a different ambiance in the House compared to the grittier vibe of the Nights, but that could just be because of the wine-sipping crowd of aging hipsters (I may be aging but, I’ve never been accused of being a hipster). Once the music started, however, the place came alive… not as raucous as one of those nights on the Landing, but fun, nonetheless.

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The five-piece Hillbenders, hailing from Springfield MO, are not bluegrass traditionalists, though they do doff their collective caps in acknowledgment to the heroes and legends of the past; the band also has their feet firmly planted in their own rock and roll roots. By using “traditional” bluegrass instrumentation, vocal harmonies and arrangements, the Hillbenders (mandolin player Nolan Lawrence, banjo player Mark Cassidy, guitarist Jim Rea, his cousin, bassist Gary Rea, and dobro player Chad “Gravyboat” Graves… the only thing missing is a fiddle) are creating a niche genre that bluegrass, rock, even country purists can all enjoy, finding common ground in an otherwise contentious musical climate.

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Jim Rea) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Jim Rea) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Old Rock House show, advertised as “an evening with the Hillbenders,” promoting their new album – a reworking of the Who’s classic rock opera, TOMMY, subtitled “A BLUEGRASS OPRY” here – began with a nearly hour-long set of originals spiced with several well-chosen traditional and unconventional covers, effectively meaning that the band acted as their own opening act. With Lawrence taking the majority of the lead vocals (though Jim also took his fair share of leads), the group tore through the catchy “Radio” and the Swiftian (as in Taylor… forgive me for evoking such a name, oh vengeful gods of music) “Done Wrong Love Song,” as well as such other originals as the Gothic murder tune “Red Stains” and the dreamy “Spinning In Circles,” as everyone joined in on harmony. While each musician took leads or solos, it was the histrionics and majestic facial foliage of Graves and the brilliant banjo playing (and good looks) of Cassidy that became focal points, particularly with their fiery interaction on a wicked cover of the Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep.” Other notable covers included a faithful “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” the Flatt and Scruggs classic from 1951, and a hauntingly beautiful take on the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” Though the dance floor remained – for the most part – incomprehensibly empty, there were a few couples tripping the light fantastic, one gentleman who was merely tripping (take that as you will) and one unafraid, totally adorable little girl (maybe four or five years old) who took to the floor, melting the hearts of everyone around her.

What a cutie! The Hillbenders' fans come in all shapes and sizes. (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

What a cutie! The Hillbenders’ fans come in all shapes and sizes. (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A ten minute break turned into close to a half hour wait before the band, rested and sporting fresh duds, took the stage for TOMMY. I had yet to hear the new record, so I wasn’t exactly sure how this one was gonna shake out. However, from the first notes of the opening “Overture,” I was completely sold on this concept. Not because of any kind of kitsch or PICKIN’ ON… approach to what is, arguably, Pete Townshend’s first great work but, rather, because the Hillbenders are very serious about this project, which serves not only as tribute or homage, but as a superb re-imagining, as well. Again, Nolan, as “narrator,” handled the majority of lead vocals, though – with a number of songs that were specifically written in the voices of several of the story’s characters – there were opportunities for all five ‘Benders to take a lead or two. While the group played the original TOMMY album in its entirety, the holes in Townshend’s plot demanded a bit of clarification; Jim Rea filled in those dark areas with spoken expositions, moving the story along nicely. Likewise, Rea’s acoustic guitar gave a note of authenticity, as much of the Who’s original featured layers of acoustic rhythm and lead guitar, with either John Entwistle’s bass or the occasional electric guitar solo offering depth and power to the music. Nolan’s nimble mandolin work managed to weave its way into and through the arrangements, playing parts that were originally written for guitar or piano, even punctuating certain parts with a percussive flair. As with the earlier set, most of the heavy lifting was done by Mark and Chad, with Gary carrying Entwistle’s beefy bass lines throughout on his upright (an estimable feat, to be sure).

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Like the original 1969 offering from the Who, the Hillbenders’ live version of TOMMY was ripe with highlights, including the trippy “Amazing Journey,” and forceful instrumental, Sparks,” one of the best one-two punches in rock and roll history. “Sparks,” in particular, allowed each of the musicians to flex their solo muscles. “Eyesight To the Blind,” by the second Blues legend to use the name Sonny By Williamson, fit in nicely and worked as a powerful introduction to the seductress/prostitute/dealer “Acid Queen” later in the narrative. John Entwistle’s two songwriting contributions introduced us to Tommy’s mischievous “Cousin Kevin” and, in “Fiddle About,” his wicked Uncle Ernie, both performed with a sort of sick glee. Of course, the one song that just about everybody knows – even those who don’t like rock music or the Who – is “Pinball Wizard,” with its refrain of “That deaf, dumb and blind boy/Sure plays a mean pinball.” The acoustic lead guitar and the two-note bass punctuations made it an adventurous commodity for a group like the ‘Benders but, like everything else, they made it their own and breathed new life into a classic.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As the lead character moved into self-realization and became a messiah to the masses of disenfranchised youth, the music started to take on a brighter feel, beginning with the wistful, wishful “Tommy Can You Here Me,” with its haunting harmony vocals provided by all five Hillbenders. The narcissistically upbeat “Sensation” eventually led to the celebratory tune “I’m Free,” visiting the home of “Sally Simpson” as she sneaks out to get a glimpse of her idol. As Sally attempts to touch Tommy, she is brutally asked to leave the stage by a pushy police officer, hitting her cheek on a chair; naturally, as she received sixteen stitches to close the wound, her father made sure she understood that that’s what happens when you disobey your parents. Keith Moon’s “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” was as loopy and loony as the mad drummer himself, with Cassidy, Graves and Jim Rea, in particular, furiously bending strings to approximate the whirling, kaleidoscopic frenzy of the original. Tommy’s followers have wised up, shouting “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” with the sudden realization that his family and corporate handlers had used them for dupes, leading to their former messiah seeking their guidance.

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

There have been plenty of versions of TOMMY – most headed up, in some fashion, by the Who – but, this performance by the Hillbenders may be most honest, unaffected take I’ve heard since the original. The group doesn’t play it at every show on their current tour and if you are lucky enough to be in a town where they are playing it, you owe it to yourself to be there. Before the show, I joked that it would be cool if the Hillbenders would do an encore of Who tunes, like “Substitute,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “I’m a Boy.” We didn’t exactly get that but, we did get a suitably creepy version of “I Can See For Miles,” with Mark Cassidy taking the lead vocals. Mark’s monotone delivery and piercing stare struck just the right chord for the tune and was a great way to end one of the best nights of music that I’ve ever had the privilege to attend.


BETH BOMBARA/LOOT ROCK GANG/RIVER KITTENS

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

Window Time With Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Window Time With Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Words truly cannot express how much I like seeing a show at Off Broadway. Since I started reviewing live music again, I have found myself at this venue more often than not and I am totally enamored of the look, the sound, the staff and the overall vibe of the club. Of course, the fact that they are currently booking some of the most interesting shows in town doesn’t hurt; so I was more than willing to make another visit for Beth Bombara’s record release show.

River Kittens (Mattie Schell, Martha Mehring, Allie Vogler) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

River Kittens (Mattie Schell, Martha Mehring, Allie Vogler) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

River Kittens are an old-school Country Western vocal group; think the Carter Family… Mother Maybelle with Helen, Anita and June huddled around a single microphone. Or, maybe, a more accurate approximation would be Dolly, Emmylou and Linda, a la their TRIO album… only bawdier. The ladies mixed some well chosen covers (Wayne Raney and Lonnie Glosson’s 1949 classic ode to the “love bug,” “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” and Aretha’s slinky, funky “Baby I Love You” from 1967) in with solid originals like set opener “Trouble,” “On My Way” and set closer “Praise Be.” The bulk of the leads were taken by Martha Mehring, though multi-instrumentalist Allie Vogler and mandolin player Mattie Schell added the occasional lead part to the group’s magnificent harmonies. There-in lies the strength of these Kittens: Three strong voices blending together beautifully.

River Kittens (Mattie Schell; Martha Mehring; Allie Vogler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

River Kittens (Mattie Schell; Martha Mehring; Allie Vogler) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

If it wasn’t obvious before, it became quite evident that Mehring was the “Mama” Kitten with her intro to “Dressing On the Side.” She mentioned that she wasn’t in a very good mood because she’d had a bad day at her other job, as a waitress, and then went through a litany of weird demands and rude comments she’d heard and little (or nothing) in the way of tips from the customers at the little cafe where she works. At the end of her hilarious tirade, she seemed contrite, finishing with, “So, if you were one of those customers… you look familiar, sir. Fuck you and please come again!” An old pal, Tim Gebauer, told me that River Kittens were the real deal; now, I’m here to tell you that he was spot on with his assessment… River Kittens are definitely the real deal! If you have a chance to see them, don’t pass it up; you will be thoroughly entertained.

The Loot Rock Gang (Stephen Inman; Kevin O'Conner; Little Rachel) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Loot Rock Gang (Stephen Inman; Kevin O’Conner; Little Rachel) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Loot Rock Gang followed with their rootsy Hot Jazz vibe – spiced with liberal doses of true Saint Louis Blues. The melting pot of musical styles was the perfect compliment to both River Kittens’ opening shot and Beth Bombara’s celebratory closing set. The playful vocals of the husband and wife team of Mat Wilson and Little Rachel set the feel of the music; Mat’s acoustic resonator guitar, Stephen Inman’s upright bass and the baritone of guest sax blower Kevin O’Conner (on loan from the Seven Shot Screamers, where he mans the drum throne) filled in some of the bright spots. Starting with the band’s mission statement, “Loot Rock Boogie,” Rachel was an always-smiling dervish of kinetic energy; she wore me out just watching her. She has one of those voices that leaves me thinking that she should be performing in an Old West saloon, which easily compliments Wilson’s smooth-as-silk delivery.

The Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Gang’s set was heavy on material from the recent THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING release – and… can you blame them? From front to back, it’s full of great originals from Mat, including the fun, countrified boogie of “My Gal Friday,” the joyous title cut (which saw Mat really cut loose on guitar) and the twin anthems to their hometown, “Bank Despair” (“a song about a certain river around here”) and “Love For My City.” Sprinkled amongst the originals were such gems as Blind Blake (real name: Alphonso Higgs) and His Royal Calypsos’ 1952 song, “The Goombay Rock” and the 1920s novelty hit “Kansas City Kitty,” performed with the same aplomb as Wilson’s tunes. As a nearly-last-minute replacement, O’Conner should definitely receive a mention for his spot-on performance, offering up great renditions of Kellie Everett’s wailing, bleating bari parts. As with River Kittens, a great time was had by all.

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara is the Saint Louis music scene’s tiny secret weapon; she has a folk singer’s head and a rocker’s heart… her lyrics are definitely as heartfelt as any songwriter’s and I would pit her guitar work and vocal prowess (imagine Joan Baez, Brandy Johnson and Linda Ronstadt meeting up at the back of Aretha Franklin’s throat for a good ol’ fashioned hoedown) against just about any roots rock or Americana performer out there. Congregating for a release party for her new, self-titled album (which featured prominently in the evening’s set list… nine of the ten songs made up the bulk of the fifteen tune set list), the eager Off Broadway crowd humbled Beth with their enthusiastic welcome and accepting reaction to the new material. She is – rightfully – proud of the new record and the songs she and husband Kit Hamon have written. She told the Mule in a recent interview, “This album was definitely the first time I really sat down, focused and said, ‘Okay, I’m really gonna do this and I’m gonna do it in a certain amount of time’ and, really, just try to give myself deadlines, which I’d never done before… Some people might think that’s kind of counter-intuitive for creativity but, I think it can be a really good thing.” And, to these ears that enforced schedule worked; this new work ethic forced Beth, Kit and her band to up their already considerable game. “Yeah. I feel like it did… well, for one, it made me kind of take writing a little more seriously than I had before, taking myself more seriously as a writer.”

Beth Bombara with Kit Hamon (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara with Kit Hamon (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

You can call what Beth does “singer/songwriter,” Americana, Rock and Roll or any other term you can think of but, it was apparent, from the opening strains of “Found Your Way,” that she is the consummate musician and performer, a great storyteller and an amazing guitar player. Hers is a style and tone that demands your attention as much as the songs and the vocals. “I’ve played a lot of different guitars and a lot of different amps over the years but, I would attribute a lot of the tone to Kit. He’s actually built all of my guitar amps… he’s done a lot to build a couple different ones for different uses, whatever kind of song we’re trying to record. I’d say that a lot of that his fault.” As for the guitar in question, the one used most often for this show, Beth says, “That guitar, I’ve probably have had for a year, a year and a half. I’ve been playing it out at gigs a lot… even solo gigs and it seems to work pretty well, using that most of the time and then bringing out the acoustic guitar to balance it out a little bit. That seems to work good for the sound.” The solos range from pretty, melodic interludes to squalling, Neil Youngian blasts of feedback and sustain, each as memorable as the last for the passion and pure joy Bomabara displays, at times taken with the energy of the moment, others with the beauty of the melody and the lyric.

Beth Bombara (Karl Eggers; Corey Woodruff; JJ Hamon) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara (Karl Eggers; Corey Woodruff; JJ Hamon) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Beth’s bright, powerful vocals and her incredible backing band come to the fore on songs like the slow Blues burn of “Right My Wrongs,” one of four tunes performed this night taken from 2013’s RAISE YOUR FLAG EP. Kit’s upright bass work adds a supple bounce to whatever tune they’re playing; whether playing the banjo or offering rhythm guitar support, Karl Eggers gives the music an additional layer that’s so subtle, you may not notice but, I guarantee that you would notice if it wasn’t there; Corey Woodruff’s drumming and percussion are impressively rock-steady, proving that a drummer doesn’t have to be particularly flashy to make a musical impression; Kit’s brother, JJ, is the group’s equivalent of a baseball team’s super utility player – a guy you can plug in anywhere and he can get the job done – playing mandolin, lap steel, some guitar (on “In My Head,” from the new record) and the occasional trombone.

Beth Bombara (Kit Hamon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara (Kit Hamon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

One of the many highlights of the evening was “Long Dark Hallelujah,” performed by Beth and Kit alone; Hamon’s backing vocals add just the right plaintive tone to the song, a Woody Guthrie-like lyric that wonders aloud how far this country can fall and if we can find our way back to the promises it holds for its citizens and its immigrants. Lyrically, “Promised Land” has an “us-against-the-world” vibe and could well be the sequel to “Long Dark Hallelujah.” JJ’s trombone features on a few tunes, the best example being “In the Water.” A cover of the quirky Cake tune (but then, aren’t they all?), “Jesus Wrote a Blank Check,” slips comfortably into the set list. The set proper ended with Beth, solo, on “Greet the Day,” a number that she says, “almost didn’t make it on the album with lyrics. We recorded an instrumental version just in case I didn’t have time to finish writing lyrics. And so, it really came down to the last day we were recording vocals in the studio and I was trying to finish lyrics for this song and, I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to get done!’ They said, ‘Well, you have one hour to do it.” The story hearkens back to tales of Brian Wilson being told he needed one more song for the next Beach Boys album and Brian disappearing for fifteen minutes and returning with another pop masterpiece.

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Beth Bombara (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening ended with Beth and her band, joined by the Loot Rock Gang and River Kittens, in a circle on the floor, delivering the grand finale… no lights, no microphones. An absolutely stirring moment… even if I was too far away to make out what they were playing. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that this was a special night of music from three very different artists, each keeping the Saint Louis music scene and its rich history alive for new generations of dreamers and performers.


TWANGFEST 19: CRACKER/MARAH/GRACE BASEMENT

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

TWANGFEST 19 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

TWANGFEST 19 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BANDITOS: BANDITOS

(BLOODSHOT RECORDS; 2015)

BS231_Banditos_Cover_1500_1

The debut album from Banditos, a sextet of like-minded musicians, all with disparate musical backgrounds, is everything that you would expect from a Nashville band – by way of Birmingham Alabama – and… nothing like anything you would ever expect to hear from a Nashville band. The group is somewhat of a throwback, with three distinct lead singers (founding members Corey Parsons and Stephen Pierce, as well as church-trained vixen Mary Beth Richardson) delivering on styles ranging from Rock and Roll, Gospel and Country to Soul, Rhythm and Blues and Jazz. Regardless of the musical style, the group’s hard-charging approach makes everything seem effortless and, ultimately, uniquely its own.

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Corey Parsons; Mary Beth Richardson; Stephen Pierce; Danny Vines) (photo credit: ALBERT KUHNE)

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Corey Parsons; Mary Beth Richardson; Stephen Pierce; Danny Vines) (photo credit: ALBERT KUHNE)

The record starts off with “The Breeze,” which has a sloppy New York Dolls/Lords of the New Church kinda sound with a Stiv Bator (or Johnny Thunders) vocal wail (from Pierce?). Cool, persistent keyboards (piano from Micah Hulscher; Farfisa from Mitch Jones) and beautifully ragtag guitar and banjo feature throughout. “Waitin’” is a disjointed Tennessee stomp with Mary Beth’s Dolly-Parton-on-helium vocals (mull that one over for a tad, folks). Pierce adds a more traditional banjo this time and Randy Wade’s shuffling drumbeat definitely gives the tune a distinct hillbilly vibe. A snotty, jazzy piece of Americana, “Golden Grease” is a slow-cooking number with a dirty guitar sound that somehow reminds me of Aerosmith. A nasty (and uncredited) harmonica part seems all but wasted, only coming to the fore for the final 30 seconds of the tune. “No Good” is a wicked Memphis Soul barn-burner with Richardson proving her mettle as one of the great Blues belters of the Rock era, purring like a kitten one minute, growling like a lioness the next. Parsons and Jeffrey Salter offer two very different guitar solos toward the end of the cut and Stephen’s displaced-sounding banjo lends a touch of the surreal to the proceedings. Corey and Mary Beth share leads and harmonies on “Ain’t It Hard,” a haunting almost-waltz with an oddly appealing melody line. Closing out the first half of the album, “Still Sober (After All These Beers)” is kind of a hybrid dose of jangly, late ’50s/early ’60s rock and roll and a Saturday night hillbilly stomp.

A Country-Jazz type of thing, “Long Gone, Anyway” is new-era Texas Swing siphoned through classic Hot Jazz. Richardson’s vocals have a certain period charm, as do Hulscher’s ragtime piano and Danny Vines’ upright bass. Mary Beth provides the solos…on kazoo. “Old Ways” is a bluesy type of torch song, a la Tracy Nelson or Maggie Bell. The players, though tasty throughout, ascribe to the “less is more” theory of musicality here, allowing Richardson’s commanding voice to shine. So, how do I describe the next cut, “Can’t Get Away?” There’s a Link Wray-like ultra-reverb on the guitar and the song itself sounds like a dirty tin-pan-alley-meets-David-Bowie kinda weird Carl Perkins Rockabilly thing… ponder that description for a while, huh? “Blue Mosey #2” is a Country stroll, with awesome interplay between Pierce’s banjo, Salter’s twangy guitar and Dan Fernandez’s pedal steel. As the title implies, the song is a heart-broken lament, Parson’s smooth vocal drawl somehow reminding me of the great Rick Nelson. There’s more critical name-checking with “Cry Baby Cry,” a great slice of rock and roll, with a cool little shuffle-break from Stephen, Randy and Danny (once more on the upright). Imagine Bill Haley with Johnnie Johnson on piano, LaVern Baker vamping on background vocals and… I don’t know… maybe Marty McFly on guitar. “Preachin’ To the Choir” is a perfect example of saving the best for last. It’s a spooky bit of Americana, highlighted by suitably strained (nearly strangled) vocals and atmospheric guitar and pedal steel. There’s also an eerie, plodding banjo that adds to the creepiness. Most of these songs have been in Bandito’s live repertoire for a few years… after jelling as a band during that time, I am stoked to see what they can come up with for their sophomore release.