THE HILLBENDERS: TOMMY – A BLUEGRASS OPRY

(Compass Records; 2015)

tommy

Ambition is an awesome thing. In music, it often leads to groundbreaking work or concepts, and this here album from Springfield, Missouri bluegrass band the Hillbenders is a doozy in that regard. The notion of doing a bluegrass interpretation of the Who’s legendary TOMMY album seems preposterous at first… how could the sonic intricacies and intense storyline of Pete Townsend’s magnum opus be re-interpreted in such a different genre, one as down to earth as Ozarks-style bluegrass? The fact that it works so well says a great deal about the abilities (and pure ATTITUDE) of this band – guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves, banjo player Mark Cassidy and bass player Gary Rea. Pete Townsend himself gave a thumbs-up to the record and invited the band to a show on the Who’s recent tour, doing photos with them. So yeah, this crazy project is a success. But how does it SOUND? Well, the amazing thing is that the band largely sticks to the structure of the original songs. It’s just that in place of electric guitars, Roger Daltrey’s peerless vocals and Keith Moon’s powerhouse drumming, you get, well, acoustic instruments like banjo and dobro. There are no long, jammy bluegrass workouts of the type often seen in the genre… the Hillbenders adhere to the original song structures. That is striking on tracks like the magnificent “Overture,” the carefully rendered “Amazing Journey” (which really IS amazing in this sassy, grassy rendition) and the classic “Pinball Wizard,” a rousing performance in which the band makes sure their energy matches the original, and renders the concern about whether a banjo and mandolin could possibly match what Pete did on the original absolutely moot. “Tommy, Can You Hear Me” is delivered simply and soulfully, with perfectly pleasant harmonies. “Sally Simpson” becomes a truly curious hybrid, a song that, thematically, would likely never see its ilk on another bluegrass album. I mean, this is rock and roll in its energy and pure panache. What a revelation to hear the Who’s richly layered classic rock presented in such a different manner. It says something about the universality of music and themes that the Hillbenders could pull this off so thrillingly.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad "Gravy Boat" Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)

Not everything brings the awe, though. Daltrey’s haunting “See Me, Feel Me” performance in its two appearances on the original is a work of vocal majesty that inevitably loses something in the simpler, more rustic approach taken here. Similarly, the drama and shifting elements of “Welcome” as a composition are diminished in this arrangement… maybe by this point, the sound is just getting too samey. And “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is missing an edge it badly needs. But gosh, songs like “Christmas” and especially, “Sensatiion,” are utterly inspired and perfectly performed by the Hillbenders, giving fresh life to compositions that most of us from the classic rock era know like the backs of our hands. There is something revolutionary about hearing a modest Ozark string band fearlessly take on a classic rock opera by legendary Brits, and do it with their own personalities and aesthetic intact, triumphantly. It’s a bold leap into rarified musical territory, and it proves once again that all things are possible if you’ve got courage, chops and, well, a pretty awesome source work. Here’s to the Hillbenders for TRULY “kicking out the jams” in every way.


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.


WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 2

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

It’s interesting how certain albums come to mean so much to you, the longer you are an active music fan. From 1976 to 1979, I worked at a major record store, which increased my access to all kinds of new and upcoming artists. I also began to read music magazines obsessively, so I was able to follow the music scene really attentively. Hundreds and hundreds of albums crossed my path during that time and beyond. I went to college from 1980 to 1983, and that, too, brought a ton of new artists into my life. So-called “new wave” music ruled at that time, with artists such as Elvis Costello, the English Beat, the Clash, the Cars and many more finding favor among people I hung out with, and my friend Tina Carl and I began trading and sharing and even dancing to a lot of the music at that time. There was so much stuff I loved, but the sheer volume of it probably prevented most of it from becoming INFLUENTIAL. And that is my focus here: what were the albums that actively, in a meaningful way, became an influence on my life and creative journey? So, here is part two of that list of 25, carrying us from the late 70s to the present…

14. TALKING HEADS: FEAR OF MUSIC and REMAIN IN LIGHT (tie)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

This is the second time I am cheating by calling a TIE between two albums. I pretty much HAVE to, because each of these albums by the New York new wave group fronted by David Byrne was HUGE for me. FEAR OF MUSIC came out while I worked at Record Bar, in the summer. It was an amazing piece of work, quirky as hell, rhythmically unique and heavily atmospheric. Songs like “Air,” “Cities,” “Animals,” “Drugs” and the new wave dance anthem “Life During Wartime” were like catnip for my ever-growing interest in offbeat music. And the hypnotic piece “Mind” became the unofficial breakup song for me and that girl who looked like Joni Mitchell. I loved this band, and the fact they were produced by my new hero, Brian Eno, was a bonus. But the following year, while I was attending Webster University, the incomparable REMAIN IN LIGHT came out. Influenced by African high life music, and featuring Eno again as producer and even co-writer of many of the tracks, this was just a full-on masterpiece of innovative modern rock. I absolutely went gaga over it, and “Once In A Lifetime” remains, to this day, one of the most instantly captivating weird songs ever recorded. Topping things off, MTV was becoming a going concern, showcasing this new “music video” art form to a fast-growing, interested public, and the Heads’ video for this song got huge attention. My friend Ted Moniak and I also discussed this album at length in college, and I remember him taking a long verse from the song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and writing the lyrics on a piece of paper which he posted on a door in the theatre conservatory to make a point. These were major, heady days of music listening for me, always intense, always communal. REMAIN IN LIGHT is truly one of the greatest and most interesting albums of all time, and that coincided with it being influential for me in its awesome creativity, its often dark and globally inclusive mood, and a palpable sense of ALL things truly being possible now. It made me want to learn about ethnic music, and my mind just kept opening more and more…

15. NICK DRAKE: FIVE LEAVES LEFT

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

I didn’t know anything about Nick Drake when he was alive and making music (1969-1974). It was some years later that I learned about him through my friend, Ted. The doomed British singer/songwriter, who died at the age of 24 either through suicide or an accidental drug overdose (theories differ on that), was an instantly compelling new “find” for me. Nick always sounded like he was apart from the rest of humanity, a lonesome figure who couldn’t fit in and related more to nature and quiet moments than anything else. I probably identified a little too much with this, I have to say. FIVE LEAVES LEFT was his first album, and it’s one of the best debut albums ever. I love every song on it; “Time Has Told Me,” the gorgeous “River Man,” “Cello Song” and “Fruit Tree” are just a few of the timeless, intimate songs on this album. I began performing “River Man” as a musician myself some years later; the mood of isolation combined with a deep reverence and connection to nature, was a recurring and potent theme in Nick’s music. Also, the way his career never took off (fame eluded him during his lifetime; it took a clever Volkswagen commercial using his song “Pink Moon” to catapult him to real fame after his death) and the aching solitude made me start thinking much more about the uncertainties of being an artist and the pain of being perhaps too sensitive. This is essential singer/songwriter stuff, and will likely always be one of my top 10 albums of all time.

16. BRIAN ENO: ON LAND

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

I already covered Eno’s album DISCREET MUSIC, which found him inventing a new kind of music that baffled many listeners and critics at the time. And in 1979, he basically announced ambient music as an “official” new genre with the release of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, labeled as “Ambient 1″ in his new series at the time. That album was influential, for sure, but 1982’s ON LAND was so far ahead of the game in this genre, so much farther than his own DISCREET MUSIC, in fact, that in a way, my life instantly changed right then and there. If DISCREET MUSIC had made me feel like dreams had come to life, ON LAND recreated the experience of being lost in nature, and thinking about the most private and long-gone of memories while doing so. It was a series of rather lengthy pieces with titles such as “Lizard Point,” “The Lost Day,” “Lantern Marsh” and “Unfamiliar Wind,” all of which were made in such a mysterious process that almost no recognizable instruments appeared on them. Eno had traveled deeply into new, mysterious musical territory, and in these heady days before the internet, finding albums like this and maybe, just MAYBE encountering another human being who liked it, made you part of a cult in a way. I was utterly, utterly shocked and amazed that an album like ON LAND, which vividly captured the way I felt when I was out in nature, watching birds and feeling the glorious solitude of my surroundings, could exist. I had literally never been so affected by an album before, and I went a little nuts. I started collecting every article and review of Eno I could find, even compiling a scrapbook. More significantly, I decided I had to write to Brian Eno himself and express my admiration. It was a crazy, bold impulse, but I was unstoppable; I wrote about a 25-page letter to Mister Eno telling him about how I had long dreamed of a kind of cinematic, pastoral music that would evoke landscapes and the mysteries of life, and how in awe I was that HE had single-handedly created this music. Late in 1982, one day when I was at Webster University, I was flabbergasted when Eno answered my letter. He was warmly appreciative of my enthusiasm, hand-wrote a 3-page letter to me, and shared some of his thoughts about this bold new music that was happening. We corresponded several times, and it was a highlight of my life. It’s possible that ON LAND is, in fact, the MOST influential album of my life, it depends on how you want to measure these things. But the way this album combined many of my interests, veered sharply into unknown and haunting new sonic territory and carried with it an entire new philosophy about recorded musical art, was to change the big picture for me forever. And the time I played it on my car stereo at sunrise while driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of my entire life.

17. COCTEAU TWINS: VICTORIALAND

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

Ah, the Cocteau Twins. Their fans sigh and swoon at the mere mention of this so-called “shoegaze” band (a lousy label that some critic made famous, even though none of the dreamy sounding bands saddled with that label could stand it). You’re lucky in life if you meet friends who introduce you to some new band that goes on to really affect you, a band you might not have encountered otherwise. That was the case with my first introduction to this ethereal Scottish trio. Liz Fraser, the sublimely gifted female singer who fronted the band, sang like no one else EVER, not even singing understandable lyrics until the last years of the band. Instead, fans were treated to wailing, intoning, swooping and soaring, shiver-inducing tones and unearthly vocal bursts that were uncategorizable. With her partner at the time, Robin Guthrie, who conjured one of the most recognizable and groundbreaking painterly guitar sounds to ever come along, the Cocteau Twins (joined by bassist Simon Raymonde on most of their albums) earned in instant cult following with their visionary sonic palette. Many of their albums are now considered classics, but VICTORIALAND, a largely acoustic and sparsely played recording, has some of their most singularly beautiful moments. It’s music that is not easy to describe. In many ways, it is ambient, because Liz Fraser does not sing understandable lyrics, and the overall mood, a haunted one, is what you respond to most. The music is wintery, solemn and desolately beautiful, filled with mystery and destinations unknown. Some friends and I listened to it one day while we were all sprawled out on the floor together at a party, in a totally receptive mood. There was a sense of discovery at this time in the mid 80s that was magical, and by the time the internet came along and music like this was analyzed and discussed to death by countless pundits, some of that mystery went away. But the Cocteaus’ powerful music endures (though they disbanded in the late 90s), and Robin Guthrie is now a prominent ambient musician and soundtrack composer, continuing the awesome legacy of this pioneering band.

How it influenced me: By proving that truly wondrous music could render lyrics irrelevant, by emphasizing mystery over almost everything else, by demonstrating that a female voice could power a kind of “new form of ambient,” and by partially inspiring me to start writing my first novel, a story about a girl who worshipped this band, and happens to get embroiled in a supernatural murder mystery. Not sure if the novel will get finished or not, but if it does, I am contacting Robin Guthrie to compose the score.

18. REM: AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

This Athens, Georgia band became heroic in the ’90s for their status as one of the ultimate college bands and for helping to create the very notion of what “indie rock” meant. Michael Stipe had a unique, stylish approach to vocals (in the early days he utilized a kind of beguiling mumble), and there was something about the SOUND of these guys that was able to keep growing an audience year after year. “Losing My Religion” became their most classic song, but in 1992, they released AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, an evocative song cycle about loss, change and disillusionment. Three of my favorite themes! This was an autumnal album, one that I played constantly and featured regularly on road trips with a couple of friends. It was conceptually solid, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I reacted most to the melancholy songs like “Try Not to Breathe” (a painful song about an old person’s last moments), “Sweetness Follows” (heartbreaking song, with potent cello playing, about the aftermath of a death in a family) “Nightswimming” and a personal favorite, “Find the River.” This album made me cry a few times, and I have to mention in particular that the song “Sweetness Follows,” a truly haunting piece, was something I listened to on the fateful day I found out that a close friend, and the founder of a publication I had written for, was killed in a horrible car accident coming home from Chicago. I was on the highway the same day, maybe an hour behind her, and didn’t find out ’til the next day what happened. It was a huge, tragic event. There were many upbeat REM songs, and I had fun growing with them album after album for almost 30 years. But it was their softer, more intimate songs that ultimately affected me the most. I don’t play this album that often because it brings back some painful memories, but it definitely had an impact.

19. PETE NAMLOOK: AIR 2

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

Considering that most non-aficionados consider “ambient” to be nothing more than background music, something probably with repetitive droning or tinkly keyboards and not much variety, it’s a huge surprise to discover that there’s actually a HUGE diversity of sounds and approaches in the world of ambient releases. That topic will be discussed in depth another time on this site, but I have to include a Pete Namlook album on my list because Pete, like Eno, created an entire world of ambient releases. He launched a private German record label called Fax in the early 90s, and began releasing limited-edition recordings that became collectors items fairly quickly. The releases spanned the musical spectrum from straight ambient to stuff heavy on beats to weird experimental things to jazz stylings and beyond. Fax fans were challenged by all this and discussed Pete’s work on several key websites. One of the best pairs of ambient recordings on Fax was the first two volumes in a series called AIR. These were meant to be expansive, “ethno-ambient” projects that included instrumentation far beyond mere drones and keyboards. AIR 2, in particular, was a spectacular album. It’s hard to even describe, because it constantly changes, from hypnotic travelogue soundscape (with subtle rhythms) to breezy synth to chanted middle-eastern sounding vocals to glassy, wind chimey stuff and more. “Traveling Without Moving” is the subtitle of the work overall, but it is so filled with diversity, and so enthralling to listen to while driving, that it became a personal landmark for me. I played the entire thing in my car while driving in the mountains of Colorado one evening, with some dangerous conditions happening, and it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life. This is real musical art, raising the notion of “ambient to a much, much higher level.”

How it influenced me: By creating a bold, fascinating new vision of what ambient could be, and by allowing me to lure friends and other newbies into the ambient “fold” by providing a stellar, immersive and unforgettable listening experience.

20. RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

Radiohead took the music world by storm with this album. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was said to be an epic meditation on millennial angst and the growing encroachment of technology in our lives (with the subsequent alienation we were sure to face). I was utterly enthralled with this recording; it really did achieve some sort of pinnacle of creativity for a rock album. Having always loved high, emotive male voices, Thom Yorke’s singing on stunning tracks like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Let Down,” and “Lucky” was spine-tingling, and the arrangements (and production by Nigel Goodrich) maximized the emotional impact. I listened to this one over and over; it was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece that took me back to the days of listening to Pink Floyd, Yes and the Moody Blues when I was a teen. The underlying anxiety about the future and the ups and downs that were soon to come with the pervasiveness of the internet and other technologies, were deeply ingrained in the musical aesthetic of this record.

How it influenced me: By announcing a new candidate for “Best group in the world,” showcasing powerful new songwriting and arrangements in a neo-prog rock idiom, and reminding me clearly of the power of writing music that echoed the times and tried to make people think and feel about our fate as humans.

21. THE DOMINO KINGS: LIFE AND 20

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

This is the only Missouri album on my list, and at this writing, it is out of print, sadly. The trio of guitarist Steve Newman, upright bassist Brian Capps and drummer Les Gallier, based in Springfield, play roots music that blends barroom country and early rock and roll into a snappy, lively formula that is a genuine pleasure to listen to. But that’s not why the album is on my list. It’s here because the album came out when I was an active music journalist for a publication called NOISYPAPER, and I was assigned to review a show by the Domino Kings. I met Brian Capps and struck up a friendship with him. Just a few years later, when I saw Brian in concert again, I was about to endure one of the most painful relationship breakups of my entire life, and Brian’s songs not only served as a bit of a soundtrack for this period, they made me want to dance through the heartache. The Kings were (and still ARE) crack musicians, capable of playing the kind of alcohol-fueled, lost-at-love rave-ups that patrons have been dancing to and enjoying for years. On this album, the Capps tunes “Borrow A Lie,” “Alice” (a wickedly catchy stomper about a bad, bad woman), “Don’t Be Indifferent” and “Steppin’ Out Again” all deal with the kind of women and relationships that tear a man’s soul apart. As this happened to me at the end of 2003 and the first part of 2004, I got to hear Brian Capps perform live several times, with most of these tunes in the mix. And he was kind enough to discuss relationships with me and tell me his own stories of romantic woe. Very cathartic and significant. Additionally, the Kings’ music increased my awareness that Springfield, Missouri was a center of musical vitality. Not far in my future at this point was a deep connection and involvement in that city that would affect my own music career dramatically.

22. EPHEMERA: BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

It’s funny how one little action can end up leading to something much bigger, something you couldn’t predict. By 2002, I was working at an advertising agency, getting into the groove of internet communication and browsing, and trying to learn about new music and discover new things. I had read a few things about Norwegian music, just sort of casually, and I ended up purchasing a CD called THIS IS NORWAY on impulse. It was a compilation of Norwegian pop and rock bands, and there was a track by a band called Ephemera on there. I had never heard of them, and knew nothing about them. The song, “Last Thing,” featured several female singers offering beautiful, tight vocal harmonies, and unusually crystalline keyboards and production. It stood out, and I wanted to know more about this group. Nothing by them was available in the US, but I ordered this album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE. Lordy. It so far exceeded anything I could have expected, that it’s hard to put into words. It was like realizing your eyes have been impaired for a long time, causing you to never see certain details, and then being given a pair of stunning new glasses that brighten up the entire world, with colors, details and landscapes you were never aware of appearing vividly before you. The three women of Ephemera – Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen – are singer/songwriters of peerless, diamond-pure talent. Since I have an interview with Ingerlise pending, I’ll save most of my thoughts for that piece. But I was bowled over by this magical trio from the start, and they are one of my absolute favorite musical groups in the world. On BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, tracks such as “Act,” “Air,” “Bye” and the title track are such heartbreakingly beautiful, with emotive, delicate singing and a level of purity that I had almost never heard on an American record. I love literally every song this band has recorded, and I came to the conclusion early on that they don’t really know how good they are. They are some kind of magical musical goddesses that simply do what they do, and trust that some people will like it. Ephemera opened up a new world to me, the world of Scandinavian pop music, which I would, within a year, be writing about regularly for a couple of different publications. They actually changed the way I LISTEN to music, because after absorbing the beauty of their vocals and the genius production techinques of their producer, Yngve Saetre, I could no longer respond the same way to typical American pop records. Here’s how passionately in love I am with Ephemera’s music. If there was a fire or a coming tornado, and I could only save a limited number of CDs from my collection, I’d grab an armful of ambient CDs and then use my other hand to grab my small stack of Ephemera CDs. They have been a HUGE, huge influence, and when I became a musician, I kept their intimate vocals in mind at all times as I advanced in my own career.

23. DANIELSON FAMILE: TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL' CHOPPIN' BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

I never, never found so-called “Christian groups” musically interesting; the vast majority of what I heard in that vein seemed like the most shallow, over-reverent, musically insipid crap I could imagine. Nothing against Christianity, only something against boring music. But Lord God almighty! The Danielsons changed that in a big way. It is, of course, not cool or even accurate to call them a “Christian” band. In fact, they are so weird and arty that their first label, a Christian one called Tooth and Nail, dropped them after one album. Instead, Daniel Smith, the composer and frontman for this band along with a rotating cast of family members and friends, began to attract a following from the fringes of indie rock and outsider music. Smith has a very, very high voice, and he makes it even higher by singing one of the highest falsettos in the history of pop music. It is showcased on several tracks on this amazing, visionary album. But the entire album is notable for the focused PASSION on display, the extremely original songwriting, and the sense of communal empathy that pours from the whole thing. Less important than the Christianity of the band is their deep, poignant humanity and concern for the well-being of everyone, meaning every single listener. They really don’t PREACH per se, they simply share their souls, and they do it with powerful music that ranges from Beatles to Beefheart in influence. I’ve tried to share Danielson music with various friends, and it is honestly too much for a lot of them. When Smith ascends to that remarkable falsetto and starts ranting about something in the modern world, it results in a singular, aggressively original sound that is not meant for all. But the humanity and intensity of this album is undeniably hypnotic, emotional and yes, quite beautiful. Some of their later albums, although I like all of them, are at times spotty. But TELL ANOTHER JOKE… is a masterpiece to me.

How it influenced me: By demonstrating that religious themes on an album can be musically riveting, that the subject of confessed vulnerability (one of my favorites) is worth examining, and that weirdness and focused passion are absolutely compatible bedfellows, something I have kept in mind ever since.

24. LISA GERMANO: LULLABYE FOR LIQUID PIG

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

I decided to include this one among some of the final “candidates” for this list because it was a crystal-clear example of a dark, depressing album being cathartic at a time when I was lost. The very offbeat, non-commercial style of Ms Germano is an acquired taste, but fans of originality and darker artsy/folksy stuff can find a lot to love in her work. LULLABYE… was released to little fanfare late in 2003, right as I was breaking up with a girl named Star in an unexpected manner. I went into a downward spiral for a time, and this record is about just that, a downward spiral. Although I’d found other dark, sad albums in the past to be compelling, such as stuff by Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joy Division and others, Lisa Germano really let her worst fears and sorrows hang out, and the album was willfully uncommercial. Yet it had a lot of fragile beauty on it. There were some verses, and eerie sounds (inspired by struggles with alcoholism, reportedly) on this album that could absolutely get under your skin. One verse that almost brought me to tears, was “Without you here/Without your love/The world’s just THERE/It doesn’t move me.” The songs are generally short, and Ms Germano really sounds like she is fighting off a breakdown, which oughta sound familiar to anyone who has suddenly lost their love, or found themselves on the wrong end of a battle with substance abuse. This is not a fun album, but I’ll never forget how it provided therapy and catharsis during a pretty rotten four month stretch for me.

25. In order for this list to have a sense of “completeness” for me, I have to put FILM SOUNDTRACKS

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

for the final slot. I don’t mean loose collections of songs, I mean orchestral scores. I grew up with film music and I love it, and my brother is one of the most knowledgeable film soundtrack buffs in the country; he writes a column about it. Film music has been described as the “first cousin” of ambient music; it’s generally instrumental, generally evocative and mood-setting, and able to be created in many different musical idioms. Watching movies and TV shows all my life, I have to say that I always noticed the music, and the mood-enhancing nature of movie music got deeply into my psyche. When I write songs now, there is always part of me that hopes to capture something subtly cinematic. There are tons of soundtracks in my collection, but to round out this list of influences, I will pick three different ones: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score for the classic Gregory Peck movie (with a main theme that everyone loves and remembers); DANCES WITH WOLVES, a rapturous, Western-themed score by John Barry that covers as much terrain as the epic film itself does, and NEVER CRY WOLF, by the prolific Mark Isham, whose 1983 score was one of the first ambient soundtracks ever. Isham stated in interviews that he was influenced by Brian Eno, so… it figures I could identify with his movie work!

TEN OTHER INFLUENTIAL RECORDINGS THAT MISSED OUT ON THE MAIN LIST:

NEIL YOUNG: ZUMA… THE WHO: TOMMY… MIKE OLDFIELD: OMMADAWN… XTC: ENGLISH SETTLEMENT… THE SAMPLES: NO ROOM… THE RESIDENTS: NOT AVAILABLE… PHILIP GLASS: GLASSWORKS… HAROLD BUDD AND BRIAN ENO: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR… MUM: FINALLY WE ARE NO ONE… PINK FLOYD: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION:

ROBYNN RAGLAND: MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

Although it didn’t feel right to place this on the main list of 25, I need to include Robynn Ragland’s record because, first of all, it was one of the most well-written and well-produced collections of songs by a local artist during my early years as a writer, first for NOISYPAPER, and then for PLAYBACK STL and fLUSH. Appreciating artists in Saint Louis wasn’t always easy, but Robynn made it a cinch. Her true significance for me was that we became close friends, and she really encouraged me with my own writing and creative pursuits. And in a twist that neither of us could have foreseen, when I had my surprising success with the UP IN THE AIR song, Robynn became my manager for a few years. She was singularly responsible for my spectacular trip to Japan to promote the movie, and I could hardly forget something like that!


LOU WHITNEY: A RELUCTANT FAREWELL

(A remembrance by KEVIN RENICK)

Lou Whitney (uncredited photo)

Lou Whitney (uncredited photo)

I really don’t want to write this piece. Doing so is acknowledging that the great, legendary Lou Whitney is gone, and I never wanted to even think about that day. Lou has been such a presence, such a force in sonic artistry, such an omnipresent part of the particular landscape of music I have hung out in and sometimes contributed to over the years, that he seemed immortal, indestructible. Lou has always been around since I became a serious music fan, and he’s been a common reference point for countless musicians I’ve admired. How could there be a world without Lou Whitney? But there can be, and now, sadly, there IS. Because cancer, which he’d been battling for over a year, finally got the upper hand and Lou breathed his last breath on Tuesday, October 7. Like everyone in his inner circle, I am reeling. And I will have to just do the best I can to sum up his importance to me and pay my last respects, since there won’t be a funeral. Lou chose to have his body donated to science.

Master Lou was known for many things. He played bass: tastefully, potently, memorably, anchoring any song like few others could. He wrote songs, and collaborated on many of them. He sang, in a distinctive, character-laden baritone that seemed to put wit and whimsy above any need for emotional catharsis. He produced, and not just literally as Springfield’s most heralded producer, he turned out recordings by countless artists in almost, well, RECORD time. Most of all, Lou inspired, energized, advised, mentored and guided musicians of all genres and ability levels, making them think about and focus on their musical goals in the process. He was a contextualizer and a studio armchair philosopher, and you LISTENED when Lou was talking to you.

Lou Whitney (photo credit: KRISTIE STREMEL)

Lou Whitney (photo credit: KRISTIE STREMEL)

I can smile just a little, trying to imagine Lou’s nonchalant attitude about any kind of tributes, and he’d probably fire a sarcastic zinger at me if he knew I was struggling to sum up his importance. He might say something like, “Man, just talk about the music. Don’t bore people by talking about ME!” Well, I’ll talk about the music for sure, but… Lou always downplayed his own importance, and probably spent very little time thinking about how many people loved and revered him. He was too busy recording a zillion artists and “serving the song” in the holy church of rock and roll and roots and other stuff. He was a busy guy, and the Studio in downtown Springfield, Missouri was his lair. Artists of all stripes went in and laid down their musical dreams there, and Lou made sure they sounded their very best. You can read about the countless musicians Lou recorded elsewhere. I just want to find a way to share things on a personal level right now. It’s not easy.

I first became aware of Lou Whitney in 1983 when the Morells’ infamous debut album,SHAKE AND PUSH, somehow made its way to the playlist of a friend at Webster University, where I was in my final year. I think that friend was Tina Carl. We listened to a lot of quirky music, and Tina and I tended to trade off/hip each other to whatever we discovered in the early 80s. Tina was from Joplin, and knew that there was at least some interesting music percolating in the Springfield-Joplin region. SHAKE AND PUSH was a goofy, infectious record, a kind of slow burner that eventually got a rave in ROLLING STONE. It featured the song “Red’s,” about a legendary diner in Springfield, and a version of Chuck Wayne’s “Ugly and Slouchy” that made me cackle with laughter. I developed a taste for jokey throw-away songs about this time, as long as the music itself rocked. That was never an issue for the Morells or ANY group Lou Whitney was involved in. Humor always informed the music. A few years later, a group called the Skeletons started to get some press in Saint Louis, and I don’t remember how long it took me to realize that Lou Whitney and the peerless guitarist D Clinton Thompson were at the helm of both the Morells and the Skeletons. But it was kind of a revelation; it made me wonder, who ARE these guys and why are they both in two different bands? And why is this stuff so DAMN good and entertaining? I’d ask that a lot through the years.

The Skeletons (Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, D Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown) (uncredited photo)

The Skeletons (Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, D Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown) (uncredited photo)

Cut to early 1991, when the Skeletons were the backing band for Jonathan Richman at a now-legendary Mississippi Nights show that I was lucky enough to attend (being a Richman fan). Richman was crazily entertaining and weird, a rep he had slowly built over the years, but it was that BACKING band that blew me away. The rhythm section absolutely killed (Bobby Lloyd Hicks on drums and Whitney, who played bass, were a combo that could not be beat), and the backing vocals turned this concert into something way more special than what I was expecting. I particularly remember a catchy song called “Reno,” which was about as infectious as anything I’d heard at the time, and some Skeletons classics like “Hardware” and “30 Days in the Workhouse,” brimming with high energy and choruses that stuck in your mind. I’d learn about half of what I know regarding choruses and call-and-response vocals from Lou Whitney and company, who had a knack for picking songs that featured the best of these musical elements and then TOTALLY making those songs their own. Which brings us to the REAL touchstone moment for me with the Skeletons, their version of Ronnie Self’s “Waiting For the Gin to Hit Me.” Holy crap. From their amazing third album, WAITING, this song provided one of my true hall of fame listening moments, a hysterical, spontaneous, blow you out of the water session with my friends, Ted Moniak and Jon McSweeney, one evening in the early 90s. The song was over seven minutes long and celebrated drinking, music itself, the breaking of expectations, the glory of weirdness, the art of complete surrender, and more. It’s a brilliant, brilliant track that seared itself into my consciousness, showing how fearless Lou Whitney, Donnie Thompson, Bobby Lloyd Hicks and Joe Terry could be at their best. This was the point at which “The Skeletons” became part of my new musical DNA. When I was lucky enough to catch later Skeletons shows here and there in Saint Louis, I was always amazed by two things: Their propensity for performing delightfully unexpected covers from the history of popular music (these could effortlessly range from old country standards to stuff like the Monkees and the Beach Boys), and the snappy, peerless rhythm section. Oh, and Thompson’s searing leads, too. At one of these Skeletons shows in the 90s, I’m sure I went up to Lou and complimented him on the song selection, though I don’t recall which song or what I said. But Lou appreciated my enthusiasm, and I was glad to express it in person at last. Gradually we got to know each other a little. The Skeletons released their final studio album, NOTHING TO LOSE, in 1997 and soon after seemed to mostly disappear.

But then, the Morells made a surprising comeback. At the dawn of the new century, Springfield’s Dale Wiley launched Slewfoot Records, and the Morells self-titled THE MORELLS was among the initial releases. Featuring most of the original members and a sharper, more overtly rocking sound, this was a real party album and it came out during a time when I was a music reviewer. I raved about the Morells’ latest incarnation, saw them in concert a couple of times, and could feel my adulation for both Whitney and Thompson growing in leaps and bounds. Tunes on the record like “Seven Days Without Love” (which Lou sang), “Hot Rod Baby” (one of Thompson’s finest moments) and another pair of Ronnie Self covers, “Home In My Hand” and “Hair of the Dog,” just had that killer authentic roots-rockin’ vibe that always tended to put a smile on my face. I just loved this stuff, truly. A bad mood never lasted for long if I put on something by the Morells or the Skeletons.

Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Lou Whitney, Brian Capps and D Clinton (Donnie) Thompson (publicity photo)

Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Lou Whitney, Brian Capps (in front) and D Clinton (Donnie) Thompson (publicity photo)

A curious thing happened a couple of years later. Brian Capps, of Springfield’s killer trio, The Domino Kings (whose records were produced in stellar fashion by Whitney, like almost anything else GOOD recorded in town), began doing shows in Saint Louis and beyond as “Brian Capps and the True Liars.” The band included Whitney and Thompson, and alternated drummers between Bobby Lloyd Hicks and Ron Gremp (from the Morells), depending on who was available. The singularly atmospheric Venice Cafe became a regular haunt for the True Liars for a few unforgettable years. This was a magical era in my concert-going life; I hardly ever missed a show by these guys, and they became my absolute favorite country/roots/old time rock combo of all time. With the charismatic and soulful Capps front and center and an expanded catalogue of songs that could on any night include both Skeletons and Morells tunes, these shows were just the best there was for my taste. I danced, I brought multiple friends to the shows, I got to know all the guys much better, and… the music became real THERAPY, because I was experiencing the aftermath of a painful breakup at the time, and somehow this music was the ultimate medicine. I started to learn where all these songs (the covers) came from, listened ever closer to the powerhouse playing of Lou and company, and absorbed truckloads of stellar songcraft that served as a real education. I eventually interviewed both Capps and Lou Whitney (see my piece on Lou, in conjunction with the Morells’ final release, separately, as published in PLAYBACK STL).When it came to comparing these guys to almost anyone else I knew in their genre, well, there WAS no comparison. They were the best, and they ALWAYS made me happy when they played. I will never forget racing out to the dance floor for particular songs they would tend to do; one that Lou always sang was “Nervous Breakdown” by Eddie Cochran. It was ferociously energizing, everything about it. Lou sang the shit out of that song, and the band rocked madly. The stuff great shows are made of…

Lou Whitney in the Studio (uncredited photo)

Lou Whitney in the Studio (uncredited photo)

Well, tragedy was soon to come to my own life, and for a long while, I traded writing ABOUT music for a shot at being a musician and songwriter myself. In the unlikeliest twist of fate imaginable, my song “Up In the Air” landed in director Jason Reitman’s highly promoted film starring George Clooney, and the guys, including Lou, congratulated me. I never truly felt like a PEER exactly with musicians of their calibre; after all, they’d been doing this way longer than me. But we had some different things to talk about now, and the discussions about music and shows, whenever they had time to share with me, became richer and more interesting. I always listened to whatever Lou had to say. He was a funny, irreverent guy and I never knew what he’d say. His aura was fascinating; to me, he always seemed both detached and thoroughly engaged at the same time. He could focus on the details of the performance at hand, but he was a big picture kind of guy regarding music overall. Lou always had a lot of people wanting to talk to him, and other than the time I interviewed him, I never felt right about taking too much of his time. But he made me laugh, and he always had something to share about a particular song or artist. As time went on, Lou only became more and more the “grand old wizard” of music that everyone in Springfield viewed him as. My trips to Springfield increased after 2009, due to finding that a long-lost friend lived there, so I saw shows by Brian, the Domino Kings and Lou’s Combo.com on subsequent outings. These amazing musicians became part of my extended musical family, I felt, even though I had an awful lot to prove to myself to be worthy of being around them. But trips to Springfield were magical, and I always came away with great memories and new ideas about music.

Lou Whitney onstage with Brian Capps and the True Liars, December 2006 (uncredited photo)

Lou Whitney onstage with Brian Capps and the True Liars, December 2006 (uncredited photo)

In late 2013, after growing as a musician and self-releasing what I thought was a pretty solid effort, I started thinking about working artistically with Lou and Brian Capps for the first time. I wasn’t sure how that might go, but I had a song called “Down That Endless Highway” which was in a western swing mode, and I thought it would be the perfect song to launch a project with Lou. I tried to book some time with him in early 2014, and the scheduling was difficult. I found out that Lou had health problems, and was not at the Studio as continuously as he used to be. But I didn’t know how bad things were, and I naively started planning a full album, boasting in a blog that I was going to have the great Lou Whitney produce a record for me. In April, finally, we had a session, and I could hardly contain my excitement. My friends, Rick Haegg and Bob Jones, were along to do whatever I needed, Brian brought in his gorgeous standup bass, and Lou drafted Lloyd Hicks to play drums. Things were not as well organized as they could have been and progress was slow, but Lou was patient with me and offered plenty of advice. He had me slow down the tempo of one song considerably, and conferred with Hicks on what the drums should do. We finally ended up cutting two demos, for “Down That Endless Highway” and a personally significant song called “Just Movin’ On.” Each one had a little magic, and I was thrilled to watch these masters at work, and to have my own songs just starting to get the “Lou Whitney treatment.” But Lou was not feeling so great that day, and he cut the session a little short. He promised me we’d resume next time I came down. I should’ve gone back down in May to record again, or June at the latest. I wanted to, I NEEDED to. But my money ran out, I had some terrible stress in my personal life, and I procrastinated. Bad, bad luck. Still, I returned to Springfield in early June for a Domino Kings show, and afterward, Lou told me to come by the Studio for a mix. I watched him do a simple mix of “Just Movin’ On” for me, and he talked openly about his cancer treatments. He also talked openly about music in general, about the Springfield scene, and about the importance of getting the genuine FEELING across in your songs. It was a great time, the only time I would ever be with Lou completely one on one, and I felt grateful. Lou misplaced the mix of “Down That Endless Highway,” or at least he couldn’t find it that day. But I walked out with a nice demo of the other song, and we talked about setting up a date for the next session. I hoped it would be real soon, and I told him I would call him with my calendar in hand to see what might work. Whatever I said, it was sadly going to be the last thing I would ever say to Lou Whitney. And there would be no more magic from him for my dreamed-about recording project…

Carolyne Mas, Ron Gremp, Joe Terry and Lou Whitney (uncredited photo)

Carolyne Mas, Ron Gremp, Joe Terry and Lou Whitney (uncredited photo)

Many, many artists were lucky enough to work closely with Lou and have their records produced by him. The legacy of Lou’s work is overwhelming; they weren’t kidding when they called him “the Phil Spector of the Ozarks.” When Lou passed, countless musicians posted their recollections of collaborating with him and how supportive and encouraging he was. He wanted every artist to do their best, and he wanted to absolutely do right by them. Although my project was cut prematurely short and I was terribly disappointed by that, in the context of all the music I enjoyed from Lou and the long years of seeing him at work at his craft, perhaps ending my saga by getting to record one or two songs with him myself was a fitting capper. I got to BE IN THAT STUDIO, where so many had recorded before, just one day, in Lou’s last period of activity. Maybe I am one of the last people to start a hopeful album with him, I don’t know. But despite falling short, I was deeply touched by Lou’s knowledge, his wit, his confidence and his involvement in the art of making music. There was a potent energy in the air when you were around Lou, just talking to him or listening to his stories. Other Springfield regulars are far more qualified to talk about all this than me. I was a VISITOR, an evolving artist, a friend to the bands forging my own unique path. But I loved what Lou did for music, how he recorded so many fantastic albums, how he cherished the art of individual songs, and how he kept going and going and going, past the point where it was good for his health. I danced at one final Skeletons show at the Outland Ballroom in early 2013, and Lou was still doing it, rocking it up. When the band roared through my favorite Dave Clark Five song, “Bits and Pieces,” I was in ecstasy. But when I saw that the Skeletons stopped playing their weekly shows there, I suspected something was up. Lou’s performing days were apparently over, and there weren’t going to be too many records finished now, either. Not mine, certainly.

Lou Whitney with wife Kay (uncredited photo)

Lou Whitney with wife Kay (uncredited photo)

No one is ever “ready” for a musical hero to depart, and it became clear that a lot of Lou’s friends and colleagues were just “waiting” for the day they knew was inevitable. Lou may not have dwelled on it; in fact, he was downright casual about his cancer treatments last time I spoke to him on the subject. But things were only going in one direction, and Lou arrived at his final destination on October 7. It’s a tough, tough loss. Incomprehensible, really. Lou Whitney NOT being at the Studio in Springfield, ready to guide yet more hopeful artists in their next creative project? How could that be? Such is the nature of life, though… and death. Mister Lou Whitney has left a rich legacy behind, a ton of great music for anyone wanting to discover it. I will console myself with all those vibrant, deliriously fun recordings. And I can especially console myself imagining the words of this crusty old legend if I were to dare and be depressive or pessimistic about any of this in his earshot. “Just keep on playin’, man,” I think he’d say. “Try to write songs that stick, with a chorus worth singing along to. And avoid being too pretentious, that gets in the way of a great song.” Lou’s actual words about so many aspects of music are well-preserved; there’s plenty of his wit on the web right now. But no matter what he might say to me or anyone else, the plain, enduring truth was always there in Lou’s words, the knowledge and insight he had earned over so many years, through so many incarnations and sessions. Lou was the Grand Master of the Ozarks, the historian, the overseer, the funny geezer with an answer to everything. The only thing he couldn’t answer was, “When will the story end?” We have our answer now, and it’s time to grieve. But Lou Whitney’s spirit lives on, and any musician who ever spent time around him is different because of it. There may never be another Lou, or one with his vast reach into so many genres, so many lives. But we had the ONE. Thank the Gods of music for THAT

SOME WORDS FROM OTHERS:

Lou Whitney with Kristie Stremel (photo courtesy: KRISTIE STREMEL)

Lou Whitney with Kristie Stremel (photo courtesy: KRISTIE STREMEL)

Lou made me a better player, better songwriter and a better person. There were no short cuts when we were recording… He encouraged us to know our parts so well we could cut them in one take. And if ya got something in one take… You would be greatly rewarded with a smile and a witty comment by Lou. He made you feel like your record was the most important thing in the world yet would joke that “people like music but need tires.” I made five records with Lou… I treasure every minute I spent with him. He was my mentor and friend… I’m the luckiest girl in the world for that. I plan to honor him by continuing to make the best damn records I can. – KRISTIE STREMEL

The loss of Lou Whitney weighs heavy on all who knew and loved him. Even though I’m from New York and he lived in Springfield (he called it, “the buckle of the Bible Belt”), we were intimately connected by music and humor. I think of Lou as the “Mark Twain of rock and roll” always ready with a joke or quip for any situation.

Lou grew up in the late 50s and early 60s and experienced the early days of rock and roll as a fan and a musician. He once regaled me with stories about his experiences playing bass for a black R and B band touring the Jim Crow south in the 60s. It seems that as the sole white member one of his jobs was to book the motel while the black musicians waited in the bus! We’ve come a long way. Thanks for the memories, Lou. – ANDY (ADNY) SHERNOFF

Lou made you feel right at home in the studio. He brought so much positive energy to recording. He was extremely witty, very wise, and a great musician to boot. I will always appreciate how much he cared and how encouraging he was. Lou was one of a kind. My condolences to family, friends, and the state of Missouri.- EXENE CEREVENKA

It is hard to sum up the humility, generosity, and just plain contribution to humanity that Lou Whitney’s life represents to me. In an attempt, I offer that “his contribution is not about a particular piece of work, rather it’s a celebration of his entire life’s work”. I can only speak to what I perceive as truth. Even though, this truth spans further than the 38 years that I have been on this planet. Every day I am reminded of this as I am struck by my own emotion when another person comes forward with, yet, another deeply personal story connected to my dad. Yes, I refer to him as Dad, even though it is only by marriage that he received this title. But, the degree of depth to which he accepted this title has earned him my unwavering loyalty and respect. He filled the void in some personal aspects of my life that my own father did not. In this way, I am the luckiest guy in the world: To have two dads who lived and breathed music for a living. As a matter of fact, at one time both played in a band together called Count Three (but that’s another story). I would have loved to seen that with my own eyes.

Biggest lesson learned from Lou – I learned humility. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would ask you to hold his award (if you know what I mean) On the contrary, you wouldn’t even know he received one if not for the fact that others who knew this about him would brag on his behalf (myself included). The others I am referring to are the dozens of people whose lives he touched along the way to earning whatever award it was, at the moment. That was the magic of Lou – he somehow found a way to include a person so that they felt a part of his projects to a degree that the pride you felt in his accomplishments became very personal. Love you, Lou – STONEY COTTENGIM

A QUICK SELECTION OF LOU WHITNEY CLASSICS:

RED’S. A rollicking tune from the Morells’ debut album about a famous diner that once graced west Springfield. “It’s a crazy little place where I takes my honey/I feed her real good, it don’t cost much money,” Lou sings over a classic rockabilly arrangement with strutting guitar and bass. You’ll wish you could go there right now, if only it still existed.

SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT LOVE. A quick, jaunty rocker from THE MORELLS; what a gas to hear Lou sing about the mounting stress a dude experiences as each day without a woman passes by. Lou has grit in his voice, and the electricity is palpable.

HAIR OF THE DOG. From the same record, another drinking song by Ronnie Self. Lou lived long enough to inhabit songs like this from the inside out, and there is angst underneath his delivery. A staple of both the later-period Morells and the shows Lou did with Brian Capps.

HOW COME MY DOG DON’T BARK. From THINK ABOUT IT, maybe not the Morells’ most memorable effort, but still fun. This wry and typical half-spoken-word tale of a man whose dog has apparently gotten TOO used to visits from the neighbor to see his wife is the kind of thing Lou could do better than anyone. Lou clearly had fun with such songs.

ONLY DADDY THAT’LL WALK THE LINE. From the Skeletons album WAITING, one of Lou’s absolute finest vocal performances. The Jim Alley tune is a rock and roll powerhouse with blistering guitar work, and the Skeletons pulverized it. Lou loved the song so much he performed it countless times through the years.

PLAY WITH MY MIND. Cornell Hurd wrote this. Who, you say? Well, as sung and rocked within an inch of its life by Master Lou and the Skeletons, it could’ve been written by anyone, but Lou totally makes it his own. A companion piece of sorts to the above.

WAITING FOR MY GIN TO HIT ME. Lou doesn’t sing lead on this, but as one of the Skeletons’ very finest moments, it’s a hall of fame performance by the entire band and they all deserve credit. Belongs on ANY list of the best drinking songs of all time.

COUNTRY BOYS DON’T CRY. A short and lively fiddle-laced song from the third Skeletons CD; Lou actually wrote this one. Probably took him less than an hour, but it’s a smile-inducer that lives up to its title.

 

 

MIRTH AND MERRIMENT WITH THE MORELLS (THE “BIG NOISE FROM SPRINGFIELD”)

(The following feature story was originally published in PLAYBACK STL. In 2005, Kevin interviewed Lou as he and the Morells were touring to support the new THINK ABOUT IT album.. The story appears through the courtesy of the publishers.)

The Morells (uncredited photo)

The Morells (uncredited photo)

If Missouri had a music hall of fame, there’s no doubt the Morells, one of Springfield’s merriest combos, would have been voted in by now. The high-spirited quartet have only released three albums in 23 years (including the brand-new THINK ABOUT IT), but their legacy goes much deeper. Lou Whitney, dubbed the “Phil Spector of the Ozarks” by some, is a wizardly 62-year-old veteran of the recording studio (his Springfield facility is simply called “The Studio”) and has produced dozens of albums over the past two decades. He’s also an exemplary bass player, a wryly funny storyteller and a savvy musical strategist. His partner in rhyme, D Clinton (Donnie) Thompson, is one of the best guitarists in the country not regularly appearing on “Top 100 Guitarist” lists in the national rags. Thompson’s playing is so economical, it’s easy for his abilities to be overlooked by those who expect axemen to be flashy and in your face. But his dazzling bursts of gloriously perfect tones do the six-string mighty proud. Then there’s the affable Ron Gremp, a fine drummer who also makes it look much easier than it is. Newest member Dudley Brown rounds out the quartet on keyboards, and his lively playing can be heard for the first time on the new disc. The Morells debuted in 1982 with the release of SHAKE AND PUSH, which almost immediately became a cult album. The classic song “Red’s” – a memorable bit of inspired Americana with a terrific call-and-response chorus – was an ode to a legendary drive-up hamburger joint on Route 66. Infectious, often cheerfully silly tunes such as “Ugly and Slouchy,” “King of Love” and “Eager Boy” also helped make the album a boredom-slaying delight. In the years that followed that release, Whitney and Thompson played in other configurations, the best-known of which was the Skeletons (with drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks). They served as backing musicians for an amazing variety of artists including Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, Boxcar Willie, Steve Forbert, Robbie Fulks, John Sieger & NPR’s Michael Feldman, and most recently, hometown comrade Brian Capps (joining them on the current “Big Noise From Springfield” tour). A curious project called Combo.com initiated with singer Kristy McInnis had to be aborted when she suddenly left to pursue other interests. Whitney and Thompson refashioned the tracks already recorded, cut a few more and released the second, self-titled Morells disc in 2001. It was a straight-up classic party record, with nailed-down grooves and a liberal dose of whimsy. This year, the band signed with respected roots label HighTone Records, which released the upbeat THINK ABOUT IT. We chatted with Whitney on his cell phone on the eve of the Big Noise tour, surely the biggest cross-country venture ever for these seasoned veterans. A good place to start seemed to be asking Whitney about his productive partnership through the years with Thompson.

I met Donnie pretty quickly in the early ‘70s; he was playing in a band called Spillwater Junction,” said Whitney. “Thought he was pretty good. I was in a goofy-ass combo doing top-40 stuff in bars and lounges. We needed a guitar player, so I thought I’d see if Donnie was interested. We always had a little fun together, did a variety of things. You know, when you get along with somebody, you get along!”

Whitney didn’t start out planning a career in music. In fact, things could have gone in a distinctly different direction for him had fate not stepped in. “I graduated from college and majored in real estate,” he said. “There was a large nationwide real estate firm called Stroud Realty, and they offered me a job and I took it. A year later they fired me, cause I didn’t really mesh with the type of corporate interests they were looking for. I was broke and I’d just gotten a divorce, so I just stayed there (in Springfield).”

The Morells (D Clinton Thompson, Ron Gremp, Maralie Terry, Lou Whitney)

The Morells (D Clinton Thompson, Ron Gremp, Maralie Terry, Lou Whitney)

Whitney’s first project with Thompson to garner attention was a band called the Symptoms, who played a style much closer to the New Wave music popular at the time. That didn’t last long, and pretty soon circumstances led to the creation of the Morells, with Whitney’s ex-wife Maralie along for the ride. How’d the band develop their style of offbeat, often irreverent, rootsy-tootsy party music?

An incredible fear of boredom,” laughed Whitney. “When we started playing, we used to sit around and make fun of shit – mostly how bad original songs were that bands did. We didn’t ever wanna get caught dead doing that. And there were so many good songs out there. Donnie was, still is, a fan of oddball stuff, and a lot of it demands to be performed. What we were doing was kind of ‘billy,’ if you know what I mean. Fill-in-the-blank BILLY. Party-billy. We’ve all been tested party-rock-proof positive. We cut our teeth by learning a batch of songs that nobody else was doing. And really working on the concept that if you’re tight, well-rehearsed and consistent, things’ll work out.”

Lou Whitney onstage with the Morells (uncredited photo)

Lou Whitney onstage with the Morells (uncredited photo)

In concert, the Morells are likely to pull out a bewildering variety of covers from across the roots, country and rock and roll spectrum. Their records have surprising covers, too – on the new album, we get Morellsian versions of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” Duane Eddy’s “Guitar Man,” Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Ups and Downs” (done to perfection) and a lively version of the Monkees’ “Let’s Dance On,” one of numerous Monkees tunes the boys have been known to do. “When we were on Slewfoot, Dale Wiley said ‘Hey, I’ve got a song I think you guys oughta do,’ said Whitney. “We’ve done Monkees songs in the past live but… that song, he went to the trouble to bring it down. We’d all heard it and sort of remembered it, and we learned it.”

Whitney said the band tends to look for less obvious material rather than major hits to cover, and he rarely disagrees with Thompson’s suggestions. “Donnie’s real good at picking out songs that will fit our thing. I don’t have to think about it. He thinks up a song for Dudley or a song for Rongo (Gremp), songs that we can accomplish. I’m better at talking to the press lunkheads (laughs).”

Their original tunes are a kick, too. On the new record, such numbers as “She’s Gone,” “Get What You Need” and the instrumental “Popbelly” are guaranteed to induce smiles and foot-tapping. The Morells’ aesthetic seems to be to offer slightly eclectic, no-holds-barred entertainment, with a balance of discipline and irreverence. “It’s gotta be fun,” Whitney said. “If people are out dancing and drinking, pouring beer on each other and screaming, that’s more fun than… people NOT doing that. We’re like the band next door, mainly. I don’t know, if everybody in the crowd can’t sit back and say ‘Shit, I can do that,’ then you’re not even playing rock and roll.”

The Morells (Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, Ron Gremp, D Clinton Thompson) publicity photo)

The Morells (Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, Ron Gremp, D Clinton Thompson) publicity photo)

There seems to be a spirit of unity in the Morells missing from many other bands. Hard to imagine any drunken brawls or objects being tossed at each other in the recording studio over “creative differences” with this bunch. “As far as the band, we can’t really do anything else,” said Whitney. “We HAVE to do this! I’m 62 years old, I’ve done nothing but work for myself all my life. I just wanna keep on doing it. I’m pretty lucky to have another shot, to be in a band that a record label’s taking a chance on. That doesn’t happen a lot unless you’re established. We’re not, really, except with guys like yourself with no lives. I’m being facetious. But… for people who care about having fun and listening to music that’s a little bit left of center, it’s a good thing.”

The Studio (photo credit: DAVE HOEKSTRA)

The Studio (photo credit: DAVE HOEKSTRA)

Whitney spends most of his time at the Studio, the little recording facility where he’s been helping area artists put their music to tape since 1993. The four acts on the Big Noise from Springfield tour – the Domino Kings, the Bel Airs, Brian Capps, the Morells – all have new records out produced by Whitney, and he helmed numerous projects before that. “I think the main thing that draws people in is that the rates are attractive and the air’s clean. Lodging is very reasonable. There’s only one other real studio in Springfield that’s on the street, and where all we do here is record.”

Whitney’s a hands-on producer, interested in helping the artists get the most for their money. “I’m one of those guys who can’t keep his mouth shut,” he said. “I’ll give advice to guitar players, or drummers, or singers… anyone. I work with a lot of young bands that aren’t highly skilled professionals yet, but they all wanna learn something. It boils down to a lot of stuff like where you play your strings so they sound better, or when you cut off your note. If they’re self-taught, they just haven’t gotten there yet. But… we try to make it good and tight and professional.”

One of the musicians Whitney’s helped the most is Brian Capps, formerly of the Domino Kings. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship, as Capps’ constant gigging has given Whitney, Thompson and Gremp the opportunity to play out more than they would have otherwise.

Lou Whitney onstage (uncredited photo)

Lou Whitney onstage (uncredited photo)

Playing regularly is a good thing,” said Whitney. “I’ve always tried to keep a playing face on myself when I’m in the studio. I consider myself a bass player, but I’m really a small businessman. I’m a better recording guy, though, when I’m playing. I just feel that way.” Whitney acted as both mentor and collaborator to relative youngster Capps.

I liked Brian in the Domino Kings days, you know. I love the Domino Kings, but aside from that, I really liked the songwriting that Brian did. When they split up, Brian really wanted to do something, and I encouraged him. I told him I thought he was totally capable and that there’d be a market for it. Donnie and I played on the record. We liked the feel Brian had. He’s a music-loving son of a gun. When we started playing together, I told Brian personally that even though you’re doing country stuff, the fact that you’re a young guy, a young buck with a pretty face and a nice butt, the fact that you’re playing with some codgers who go under the guise of ‘defenders of the song,’ with no resumes to enhance other than trying to make Brian look and sound good, there would be kind of a chemistry there that people would latch onto.”

Brian Capps and the True Liars (D Clinton Thompson, Brian Capps, Ron Gremp, Lou Whitney) (publicity photo)

Brian Capps and the True Liars (D Clinton Thompson, Brian Capps, Ron Gremp, Lou Whitney) (publicity photo)

Indeed that has been the case, as the band have been getting a great response wherever they go. With Capps, the Morells play as “The True Liars,” to avoid confusing audience members who might otherwise show up to see the Morells. Their incredible professionalism and rock-solid backing have helped Capps develop into one of the liveliest acts in the roots music spectrum these days.

He got a chance to stand out there…you know, it takes a lot of nerve to do that,” said Whitney. “When you’re a bass player in a band and you only sing half the songs, it’s new to you to be out there like that. It’s better if you have someone around that you can count on, that you can lean on, to pick up the slack. And we just kind of performed that function. Brian, he warmed up to it, got his feet wet and just moved right on forward with it.”

It’s doubtful there are many other musicians in the Springfield area with Whitney’s experience and broad perspective. He’s seen a lot of acts come and go and witnessed the enormous potential through the years of the Springfield area itself as a music center.

The scene in Springfield has way more to do with historic events as opposed to there being more of a talent base,” said Whitney. “There’s plenty of talent, but I don’t think it’s anymore than any place in America. What really got things going is that the OZARK JUBILEE was there – that was a live television show on ABC from 1956 through 1962. It broadcast live out of Springfield every Saturday night across the country. That was an absolutely astounding event for a town like Springfield. You can imagine, those New York guys descended on that town and they were there 26 weeks a year for years. That came out of the fact there was a radio station called KWTO that had a lot of live shows on it, Opry-type shows. And out of that sprung publishing interests, recording interests and people who made money off the music and entertainment business. People came to Springfield to try to get on the OZARK JUBILEE; they’d hitchhike into town with their guitar, thinking they could just go in and audition. It became a destination. All that helped make Springfield a thriving music scene even though a lot of the kids there don’t even know now why the hell they might have a foot up on a town like Columbia or Kansas City, for a town of its size.”

Lou Whitney at his console (uncredited photo)

Lou Whitney at his console (uncredited photo)

The Morells seem content in Springfield, and they’re all earnest, hard-working musicians. They want this thing to last. And the Morells “brand,” as Whitney referred to it, seems to be the best banner under which to peddle their lively wares. “Unless something happens, as long as it’s making progress and not moving backwards, not repeating itself or becoming a caricature, why change it?” said Whitney. “You can’t just do it to milk a cash cow, and God knows we’re not doing that.” He does hope the HighTone Records situation brings new opportunities and new fans. It’s a heady time to be a Morell, but Whitney knows nothing is guaranteed in this business.

The ultimate hope would be that people warm up to the record, and respond in a commercial manner and buy it,” he said. “And that it gets some airplay on the stations it fits on, and we could go around and play music. Make a living doing it, you know? That’s it. We don’t need to get rich. Although if we DID, that would be great…”


A BRIAN CAPPS DOUBLE-HEADER

BRIAN CAPPS AND THE PRISON KEYS/THE DOMINO KINGS

(June 27, 2014; LUTTRELL’S AUCTION BARN/PATTON ALLEY PUB, Springfield, MO)

Brian Capps (photo credit: JEREMY CHARLES)

Brian Capps (photo credit: JEREMY CHARLES)

Springfield, Missouri, is probably not the kind of town that most folks not in the know would consider a significant music center. However, in the past decade or so, the city has evolved, grown and given rise to an astonishing number of gifted musicians; you can’t throw a stone in the town without hitting some talented player. Locals tend to take their own talent for granted, and the major musicians in the city are modest and self-deprecating to a fault. Nonetheless, you can go hear some fantastic music in Springfield almost any night of the week, and any music connoisseur NOT from the town might be surprised by the number of amazing talents who reside there.

Brian Capps and the Prison Keys (Donnie Thompson, Bobbie Lloyd Hicks, Brian Capps, John Wynn) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

Brian Capps and the Prison Keys (Donnie Thompson, Bobbie Lloyd Hicks, Brian Capps, John Wynn) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

This is only one reason I head for Springfield at least a few times a year, and there is ALWAYS some concert of interest; I miss way more than I ever catch. One of my very favorite local acts is Brian Capps, a Lebanon (less than an hour to the northeast of Springfield) native who nonetheless is a regular on the Springfield circuit and plays with several different groups of musicians in town, as well as being a touring member of Branson On the Road throughout the US. The chance to see Capps play in two different configurations in one night (something a lot of dedicated local musicians seem to do down there) was too good to pass up, and so I headed down I-44 bent on losing myself in some awesome, rootsy tunefulness during a rather stressful time. Talk about the healing power of music! Up first was Brian Capps and the Prison Keys, who on the surface appear to perform traditional country music and vintage rock and roll for a predominantly older crowd (certainly the case here at Luttrell’s Auction Barn). The odd little structure, on the west side of Springfield, is literally an auction house AND music venue, where bluegrass and old-timey country artists play semi-regularly to small but enthusiastic crowds.

Brian Capps and the Prison Keys (Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

Brian Capps and the Prison Keys (Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

The Prison Keys are a quintet but were missing one member this particular night. No matter; any long-time follower of music hatched in Missouri would naturally be thrilled by the fact that two members of this assemblage were also founding members of one of the most memorable acts ever to emerge from the Ozarks – the Skeletons. Donnie Thompson is one of the finest guitarists anywhere around, and can damn near play ANYTHING, which in the Skeletons and another of his past outfits, the Morells, he sure DID. And drummer/vocalist Bobbie Lloyd Hicks is simply a brilliant, staggeringly versatile musician who has toured and played with the likes of Dave Alvin, NRBQ, Jonathan Richman, Robbie Fulks and many others too numerous to mention. Hicks adds layered quirkiness to any band he plays with, and that made a significant difference here. Fiddler John Wynn was also a vital part of the blend. Capps fronted this amiable outfit with his huge, gorgeous blue upright bass and dollops of easy humor. A fantastic singer and charismatic front man, Capps is one of the few musicians I’ve ever seen who is able to effortlessly charm listeners of all ages. Fans were treated to pleasing if sometimes low-key versions of Johnny Cash tunes (“Southwind” and “I Guess Things Happen That Way” – it’s worth stating that Capps does a stellar, respectful take on Cash that is never mere imitation but always engaging and familiar), the Marty Robbins’ classic “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)”, Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas” (shouted by request, which often happens at these shows and is always gamely agreed to by Capps and company), and Porter Wagoner’s “Woman Hungry,” which Capps humorously decried the somewhat misogynistic lyrics of.

Brian Capps and the Prison Keys (Donnie Thompson, Bobbie Lloyd Hicks, Brian Capps, John Wynn) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

Brian Capps and the Prison Keys (Donnie Thompson, Bobbie Lloyd Hicks, Brian Capps, John Wynn) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

Hicks stole the show several times by spearheading the catchy George Jones classic “Who Shot Sam,” inexplicably singing most of the Chuck Berry classic, “Memphis,” in a mocking early Dylan style (the humor of which may have escaped some of this crowd), launching into the Ventures’ “Wipe Out” with his own unique laugh, and doing a delightful version of “Honey Don’t,” the Carl Perkins tune most people became familiar with when Ringo sang it with the Beatles. As for Capps, who was always gracious and attentive to his audience, each of his turns at the mic brought a new aural pleasure: a hearty version of Don Gibson’s “Sea of Heartbreak,” the Elvis tune “You’re the Devil in Disguise,” his own original “Walk Through Walls,” and the irresistable Gene Vincent classic “Lotta Lovin’,” which in any venue but Luttrell’s likely would’ve packed the dance floor. Guitarist Thompson tended to underplay for this crowd, but had plenty of shining moments nonetheless, notably on several instrumentals and on anything where Hicks’ unique energy cajoled him into something more offbeat. It was all thoroughly entertaining, and the sound was good and volume-balanced. I shouldn’t fail to mention Wynn’s excellent fiddle work either, and a high-energy take on “Orange Blossom Special” was one of his showcase moments.

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

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

Most groups would’ve been exhausted after serving up two hours of the trad (quirked up a bit for those of us paying close attention), but in less than an hour, Capps was off to join his other regular outfit, the Domino Kings, at downtown’s Patton Alley Pub. The Kings have been around for 15 plus years, with a few different lineups, but this was the original trio and best incarnation of the band: Capps on upright bass, Steve Newman on guitar and Les Gallier on drums. All three men sing and write songs, and they are absolutely, unquivocally superb musicians. The mild conservatism of the Luttrell’s show gave way to fiery, edgy rock and hard country showmanship at this venue. You know what it’s like to hear a band who have a sound, a unique musical flavor that somehow no one else can duplicate? Well, the Domino Kings have that in spades – a punchy, danceable, ballsy brand of Americana that is loaded with character, unpredictable and physically invigorating. It’s too limiting to call them one of the best trios in Springfield; I’d say they are one of the best rockin’ trios anywhere when they are on. And they were this evening, despite the inexplicably small crowd. Guess there is just too damn much to do in Springfield on a weekend night (including the rowdy Pub Crawl contingent next door to Patton Alley).

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

The Domino Kings think about gals and relationships a lot; their own songs and their choice of covers deal with issues involving the fairer sex continuously. There is Newman’s rousing “Ballad of Katie,” a staple of their shows; Capps’ wickedly catchy “Alice,” about a girl who is “one bad piece of mean”; the Ronnie Dawson classic “Veronica” (which Newman sang the crap out of) and the laser-sharp Blasters tune “Marie, Marie,” on which Newman’s guitar was flat out incendiary. Newman makes zippy, high-energy electric guitar playing look easy; he doesn’t move that much on stage, but man oh man, the sounds coming out of his guitar certainly do. It’s clean, animated, aggressive fretwork that miraculously always manages to be musical and ear friendly, hardly ever self-indulgent, and that’s no easy trick. Even on a crazed medley that I’ve seen the Kings do many times, a bizarrely diverse sonic summation that has room for the “Jeopardy” theme, a quote from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” “Secret Agent Man” and at least a dozen other pop/rock standards from all eras, Newman exhibits awe-inspiring control and discipline, with Capps and Gallier matching him all the way. Capps has written many of the Kings’ most memorable tunes; performed this night were “Dark Side of Love,” a personal favorite, and the rockin’ “Where Your Lies Stop,” along with what I think is an unrecorded tune called “I Don’t Wanna Forget,” not sure. Capps also shone, as he always does with Johnny Cash stuff, on “Delia’s Gone.”

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

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

Gallier also deserves special praise here, not just for the tunes he sang such as “My Mind is Ramblin’” (from the band’s debut, LONESOME HIGHWAY), the snarling “Show Me” and the as yet unreleased “Would You Let Me Be Your Man” and “Some Kind of Power,” but for his laser-point timing. Gallier’s “snare ‘n’ stick” style is utterly distinctive, especially given the relatively small size of his kit; he is truly one of my favorite drummers. If Steve Newman and Brian Capps represent “two distinct types of visionaries” (thank you, Spinal Tap!), Gallier is not merely “lukewarm water,” but instead the unexpectedly zesty third element that often pushes the group into the realm of the sublime. He sings and plays with real gusto. Capps must feel very fortunate to work with no less than TWO of the most interesting singing drummers around. I’d personally put these guys up against any similar act in Nashville or the coast that I’ve heard. Each member of the DKs is a vital, perfectly matched part of a rock-solid entity that really deserve more credit than they get. But they haven’t put a record out since 2005, although a new one is reportedly in the bag. And, audiences are fickle; in that regard, Springfield doesn’t differ much from larger cities. Certainly it should be stated here that the Kings rarely have captured on record how good they are live. Their best album, LIFE PLUS 20, comes close in moments and features a handful of stellar Capps compositions and a smooth Lou Whitney production. But you have to hear these guys live to truly experience their gritty, anchored musicianship at its best. “Lonesome Highway” (a real Americana classic), a newer Newman song called (I think) “The Second Luckiest Guy in This Room”, virtually any Capps tune such as “Alice” and an instrumental called “Thrown Clear,” all have this thing about them, a revved-up, rock and roll-abilly, real-life-reflecting edginess that transcends whatever genre you want to call this stuff. Labels be damned. The Domino Kings BRING IT, baby, and it’s some of the best dancing, drinking, carousing music you can ever hope to hear. They oughta be packin’ these dang bars!

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

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

The next day, despite not feeling his best and having played for nearly five hours, Mister Capps was off to the Farmers Market in south Springfield for yet ANOTHER Domino Kings gig, an outdoor deal, one that saw rain bursts, nervous vendors, and trucks pulling up halfway through the set to load supplies, interfering with what I would expect a “musician’s mojo” to be. But yet again, the Kings rocked, for an appreciative crowd of about 15 or so that ranged from an elderly man named Harrison (whom I struck up a memorable conversation with) to a couple of young’uns dancing at a stall nearby to an attractive hottie that showed up to hear a couple of tunes, one of which she claimed her uncle co-wrote. It was all just another day’s rockin’ for Capps, one of the area’s most dedicated and talented musicians, and his extraordinary colleagues. You wanna see a musical work ethic at its finest? Try Springfield, folks. No wimps allowed.