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Soul Music


(October 14, 2018; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

Celebrity deaths are not new and I tend to ponder such passings for only a short time before moving on. Exceptions, of course, do happen. The first that really – make that REALLY – affected me was the plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s entourage. Groucho Marx, a couple of months earlier, was big but… the deaths and the devastation to the entire Skynyrd band shook me. Others – Glen Buxton, Rick Nelson, Johnnie Johnson, Johnny Cash, David Bowie – all had profound affects on me, as did the untimely deaths of three musicians I had considered friends: God Lives Underwater vocalist David Reilly, and drummers Dustin Hengst and John “Beatz” Holohan of Damone and Bayside, respectively. With all of these (and a few others), my personal feeling of loss was palpable. All of them pale, however, to the majestic hole left by the departure of Prince Rogers Nelson in April, 2016. He always seemed to be so relatable. Not just to me or his legions of fans, but to those outside of his music’s scope, as well. Heck, even my Dad sat through and liked PURPLE RAIN. So, this was an evening that I knew I must be a part of. I was not disappointed!


The show was delivered in two parts, as the project’s curator, the Roots’ Questlove, announced (via a recorded introduction). The first would highlight “deep cuts,” while the second half would feature the hits. The deep cuts came mostly from the movie UNDER THE CHERRY MOON. While the material – “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” “I Wonder U,” “New Position,” among them – are fairly unknown to me, as I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, but having been arranged and orchestrated by Clare Fischer, they, seemingly, were no-brainers for this show. In a brilliant move, Quest had approached Fischer’s son, Brent, as he had worked with his father on several Prince projects. The first half also featured fairly different takes on songs like “Controversy” and the 1999 album cuts “Automatic” and “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” Complete surprises were the unreleased compositions “It Ain’t Over ‘til the Fat Lady Sings” and “All My Dreams,” leftovers from the UNDER THE CHERRY MOON sessions. More than twenty minutes into the show, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first song that I really recognized straight off. I certainly don’t mean to slight the talented band accompanying the orchestra; however, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first time that one of the group stepped forward for any type of sustained exposure as electric violinist Ginny Luke delivered a brilliant solo. For the first time, “1999” got some folks on their feet, shaking off the staid, almost sterile orchestra feel of the evening. Miss Luke, likewise, was on her feet, delivering the first minimal vocals of the evening, as well as a bit of booty shakin’ of her own. Bassist CJ Alexander, drummer Skeeter, electronic percussionist Titus Johnson and a still unidentified guitarist, steadfast all night long, seemed energized by the crowd, pushing into new heights of rocking funkiness. If this first half dealt us a somewhat laid-back take on the Prince legacy until the end, that ending certainly did bode well for part two.


Totally eschewing that “stay in your seat, this is an orchestra” stuff, as “Let’s Go Crazy” kicked off part two, the front of the stage was crashed by a slew of hearty revellers. A Prince-worthy solo by Luke ended the number. “When Doves Cry” turned into a massive sing-along, with the Fabulous Fox crowd raising their voices as one. It was, for me, the first truly moving moment of the evening, though certainly not the last. As Ginny Luke became more involved with the crowd, I mentally noted that she had turned into quite the show-stopper. “Little Red Corvette” sounded like it was made to be played in this orchestrated fashion. Mister Alexander delivered an absolutely amazing bass solo and the guitarist (does ANYBODY know this guy’s name?) definitely proved his funky mettle. The inherent funkiness of His Royal Purpleness continued on a cool version of “Kiss.” Though an odd choice (in my opinion) of “Starfish and Coffee” kinda slowed things down at just the right time before spilling into a majestic “Take Me With U.” A snippet of “Irresistible Bitch” followed before morphing into “Raspberry Beret.” The symphony took over for an incredible interlude that led into… the Revolution doing “Purple Rain?” Yes, at this point, the live band sat out and let the legendary moment from PURPLE RAIN speak for itself. Though we had been seeing images and visual cues of Prince all night, his voice literally (and, yes, I have used that word properly) sent a chill down my spine, put a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye. In fact, there were several audience members wiping away the tears during this one. The orchestra continued to accompany as Prince’s solo hit. It is, without any doubt in my head, one of the greatest, most soulful guitar workouts in the history of rock, funk, soul or any other genre of music. As the live band joined in, the already overwhelming emotions merely intensified. It was a brilliant finish to an absolutely stunning show! But, wait… after most of the musicians had quit the stage, the video screens came alive again, with the Man himself delivering those familiar words: “I ain’t done yet. Chalk one up for the Kid!” As Prince and the Revolution launched into “Baby I’m a Star” before the band and orchestra joined in amidst an insane light show. While the tune and the presentation was cool, it almost seemed anti-climactic after the stirring “Purple Rain.” My thanks go to Questlove and the Prince Trust for bringing this vision to life and for the band, conductor James Olmstead and the local musicians of the orchestra for an unforgettable evening celebrating the one, the only Prince.




SOUTHERN BLOOD is a fitting last release for the star-crossed survivor, Gregg Allman. Allman was quite ill and he knew that this would be his last record, a final goodbye to his fans, a love letter to family and friends. As his son, Devon, writes in the liner notes. “What you hold in your hands is our father’s last statement. He wanted to leave you a most poignant, soulful and deep parting gift as he left us all.” The album is filled with great tunes – most of them covers – done in that inimitable Allman style, with that whiskey voice and Southern growl, maybe a little weaker due to his failing health but unmistakable, nonetheless. That style made him a true rock legend, alongside his brother, Duane, and their prototype for Southern Rock and Blues, the Allman Brothers Band. His band – Steve Potts and Marc Quinones on drums and percussion, Ronald Johnson on bass, Peter Levin on keyboards, a horn section of Jay Collins, Marc Franklin and Art Edmaiston and musical director Scott Sharrard on guitar – offer just the right tone and backing for such an important project.


The covers range from Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” and Willie Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live” to Bob Dylan’s, “Going Going Gone” and Lowell George’s “Willin’,” songs that leave the listener with a bitter-sweet feeling, as they all – in one way or another – deal with endings and loss and loneliness. One of the most powerful songs on SOUTHERN BLOOD is the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” as Gregg sings “I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And dream me a dream of my own.” What an emotional, draining song, with a mournful pedal steel part provided by Greg Leisz. Jackson Browne guests on his own “Song For Adam,” possibly the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful lament as, according to producer Don Was, “Gregg always loved this song because it reminded him of his brother, Duane. When he gets to the line ‘Still it seems that he stopped singing in the middle of his song,’ you can here him choke up and falter.” Was says that they never got to finish the song’s last two lines and feels that it was a “poetic way for him to make his exit.” Definitely a fitting end to a storied career and a final album.


Like David Bowie before him, Gregg Allman knew this would be his final statement and he put everything – his heart, his soul – into it. It will stand as a great, lasting testament to Gregg and his phenomenal legacy. His life and his legacy can best be summed up in the record’s opening cut, an original called “My Only True Friend.” If these lyrics don’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing will: “Keep me in your heart/Keep your soul on the mend,” “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul/When I’m gone,” “I can’t bear to think this might be the end” and “Still on and on I run/It feels like home is just around the bend/I got so much left to give/But I’m running out of time, my friend.” Rest well, friend. Enjoy that reunion with Duane and Barry.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(HIGH MOON RECORDS/RSO RECORDS; reissue 2015, original release 1974)


Love’s seventh official album, REEL-TO-REAL, was seven years removed from the classic psychedelia of the brilliant FOREVER CHANGES and, seemingly, light years away musically. Arthur Lee had steered the Love boat (sorry… couldn’t resist the bad pun) solo since the original group disintegrated due to in-fighting and drug abuse after FOREVER CHANGES and, while each subsequent album featured a song or two that evoked the first three records, Lee had a tendency to ramble without Love’s other songwriter and vocalist, Bryan MacLean, taking at least some of the creative load off. After four years (and four albums) with Elektra and two records for Blue Thumb in 1969 and 1970, Arthur put the Love name to bed and recorded the hard-rocking solo record, VINDICATOR. In 1973, Lee put together a new Love and recorded an album called BLACK BEAUTY; unfortunately, the label, Buffalo Records, went belly-up before the record could be released (a remastered version of BLACK BEAUTY finally saw release through Half Moon Records in 2013). Invigorated by the sound of the new Love, Arthur Lee began work on what would become REEL-TO-REAL, released on RSO Records in 1974. Now, following the success of BLACK BEAUTY, High Moon has released a deluxe reissue of that 1974 record, complete with 12 bonus tracks of outtakes, demos and alternate versions. “But,” you ask, “was it worth it?” The short answer is, “Yes. Yes, it was.”

Love (Melvan Whittington, Robert Rozelle, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)
Love (Melvan Whittington, Robert Rozelle, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

The album kicks off with “Time Is Like a River,” a signal call that this Love is gonna be a funkier proposition than the band’s late ’60s heyday. The song is highlighted by a soulful Arthur Lee vocal with Motown-style female backing vocals. The number also features a galloping drum track from Joey Blocker and great, funky horns; for those jonesing for a touch of the old guard, the psychedelic dual leads and solos – provided by the tandem of Melvan Whittington and John Sterling – more than fit the bill. “Stop the Music” is kind of an old Rhythm and Blues stroll, with some cool slide work from Sterling, a nice, hard rocking solo and a honkin’ bit of harp from Lee. The surprising use of tuba adds a slight New Orleans Jazz flavor, while Arthur does his best Otis Redding. Love channels Stevie and Earth Wind and Fire on “Who Are You?,” with Philip Bailey-like falsetto vocals and a lot of Wonder-ous clavinet effects from Bobby Lyle. “Good Old Fashion Dream” is a great Southern Soul rocker. Almost as a contrast, Lee’s vocals are raspy and urgent, with Sherwood Akuna’s spongy bass line holding the groove together throughout. The acoustic Blues of “Which Witch Is Which” features a few elements of electric rock and roll, most noticeably an awesome backward guitar by guest Harvey Mandel. “With a Little Energy” is a total James Brown funk workout, with the rhythm section of Blocker and Robert Rozelle propelling the tune forward. Arthur’s vocals have a distinct Sly Stone vibe here.

Love (Arthur Lee) (photo credit: MICHAEL PUTLAND)
Love (Arthur Lee) (photo credit: MICHAEL PUTLAND)

What was originally the first cut on Side Two of the 1974 record, “Singing Cowboy” is probably the closest in feel to the original Love’s sound. Sterling’s slide and Blocker’s heavy drums once again shine. The next track had more of an organic beginning, with Akuna, Blocker and Whittington messing with the rhythm in the studio and Lee joining in with some lyrics; “Man, let’s record that,” said Lee. Producer Skip Taylor rolled tape and “Be Thankful For What You Got” was born. Though it isn’t my favorite song on the record, it does feature a funky, rather Caribbean groove; unfortunately, the bass and some faux orchestra parts push it into a proto-Disco sound. “You Said You Would” was one of the more controversial songs as it was being recorded. The chorus of “You said you would/You said you would/Now you’re gone” features gunshot before the last line; everybody but Arthur thought that using the sound effect throughout the tune was… well, overkill, but he wouldn’t budge and that’s how the number was released. The song itself is a return to the poppy psychedelic sound of early Love, with snarky lyrics from Lee, giving it a John Lennon or Harry Nilsson vibe. Hendrixian in scope, if not in execution, “Busted Feet” is a throbbing, pulsating hard rocker. Arthur’s vocals sound urgent and strained to his limits. It’s a cool, welcome departure from the general feel of the album. A ragged acoustic Blues, “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” closes the album proper, reminding me somehow of early, folky Dylan. A nice song and a great way to end a record.

Love (Robert Rozelle, Melvan Whittington, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)
Love (Robert Rozelle, Melvan Whittington, Arthur Lee, Joe Blocker) (photo credit: HERBERT W WORTHINGTON)

This nicely packaged reissue clocks in at a hefty 72 minutes plus. The original album was an economical 33 minutes, which means there are nearly forty minutes of extras here… it ain’t all essential but… well, there ya go. The outtakes are pretty cool to hear and the rehearsal stuff is fun… I just kinda think that including a live show from that era woulda been a better choice. Having said that, the first outtake, “Do It Yourself,” is interesting on a couple of different fronts: The shuffling rhythm, funky horns and country-fried psychedelic guitar gives the song the feel of a hard rock version of Earth Wind and Fire; the aforementioned guitar parts are quite reminiscent of the band’s then-label mate, Eric Clapton, a sound and tone and style that, apparently, Arthur Lee loathed. “I Gotta Remember” is a straight on rocker, with Lee’s lyrics and vocals putting one in mind of Jimi. It has a sort of circular arrangement and could have been the hit that RSO label president Bill Oakes was looking for from Love; instead, the song remained unreleased at the time. More Hendrix-like lyrics inform “Someday,” a nifty little Sly and the Family Stone work out with minimal, rather simple instrumentation that focuses more on the basic groove than anything else. “You Gotta Feel It” is a Fats Domino New Orleans stroll with nice guitar and a solid Lee vocal over a rolling, popping bass line. I like the basic premise of the number but, at 3:38, it goes on about two minutes too long.

Love (John Sterling, Sherwood Akuna,  Joe Blocker, Arthur Lee, Herman McCormick, Melvan Whittington) (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)
Love (John Sterling, Sherwood Akuna, Joe Blocker, Arthur Lee, Herman McCormick, Melvan Whittington) (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

The alternate versions of “With a Little Energy” and an electric “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” as well as the single mix of “You Said You Would,” are just okay. The alternate “Busted Feet” is nearly two minutes longer than the version released in 1974, with extended breaks, more vocal histrionics and a wicked, heavy guitar solo. “Stop the Music” uses Arthur’s slightly off-key guitar line as the lead and removes the horns, tuba and harmonica. Lee does a bit of vocal scatting in place of the harmonica. The extended length comes from some pretty funny studio banter. Perhaps the alternate take that differs most from the original album version is “Singing Cowboy.” This version features a faster tempo, as well as a more urgent and upfront slide guitar; there’s also an unhinged wah-infused solo toward the end. The studio rehearsals (more of a warm-up or, in some cases, just goofing around while Lee decided what he wanted to do during a particular session) are nice additions. “Graveyard Hop” is a weird snippet of “Jailhouse Rock,” with reworked lyrics. The piece sounds really ragged and cool. Maybe the most intriguing bonus cut is the band rehearsing the FOREVER CHANGES outtake, “Wonder People (I Do Wonder).” Even though it kind of sounds like an unfinished San Francisco hippie ballad, it does show that Arthur was a bit more receptive to returning to those songs… at least, in the confines of a recording studio. The song actually features a solid guitar solo, even if Lee’s vocals weren’t much more than incoherent scatting. Overall, the re-release of this woefully ignored album is well worth the price of admission and, spotty though it is, holds up really well.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wear the Educated Guess home!

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

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

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

The Educated Guess (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The Educated Guess (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.