CANNIBAL CORPSE/OBITUARY/CRYPTOPSY/ABYSMAL DAWN

(February 24, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

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It’s not often that a quality Death Metal package makes it’s way through Saint Louis, MO. With the recent influx of mall-dwelling deathcore imitations, it seems that true old school death metal has been eschewed for a watered down derivative that often relies on hokiness and over the top antics rather than the brutality and true musicianship reflected in the DM acts of yore. On the morning after a blustery February snowstorm descended upon the Midwest, four bands pulled into the Gateway City to lay waste to any notion that true Death Metal is dead and gone. This is their story.

Abysmal Dawn (Charles Elliott) (photo credit: SOPHIA ZUCKER)

Abysmal Dawn (Charles Elliott) (photo credit: SOPHIA ZUCKER)

Abysmal Dawn kicked things off with the title track to 2008’s PROGRAMMED TO CONSUME. Their signature blend of crunchy riffs and brutal blast beats bring to mind acts such as Malevolent Creation and Hate Eternal. Vocalist/guitarist/band mastermind Charles Elliott was especially impressive as he riffed his face off while simultaneously belting out Cookie Monster-esque growls in what proved to be an above par opening performance.

Cryptopsy (Chris Donaldson, Matt McGachy) (photo credit: DUSTIN ENDICOTT)

Cryptopsy (Chris Donaldson, Matt McGachy) (photo credit: DUSTIN ENDICOTT)

Next on deck for the evening were the French-Canadian tech-death marauders known as Cryptopsy. Fresh faced vocalist Matt McGachy wasted no time as he immediately whipped the crowd into a fervor amidst a blend of new and old material. The band’s drummer, Flo Mounier, had been seemingly shot out of a cannon as he rhythmically pounded out tunes such as “Crown of Horns” and “Mutant Christ.” I must say that the highlight of the set was the absence of tracks from 2008’s nausea-inducing (and not in a cool, gory, Death Metal way) deathcore outing, THE UNSPOKEN KING. Also included were two tracks from the band’s most recent EP, entitled THE BOOK OF SUFFERING, which is available digitally from all major media outlets. Closing out the set was the fan favorite “Phobophile” from 1996’s NONE SO VILE.

Obituary (Donald Tardy, 2012) (uncredited photo)

Obituary (Donald Tardy, 2012) (uncredited photo)

Naturally, a band performing songs entitled “Slowly We Rot”, “Chopped In Half” and “Bloodsoaked” must be devoid of any sense of compassion and kindness, right? WRONG! I had the chance to sit down with Obituary co-founder and drummer extrordinaire Donald “DT” Tardy before the show; he seemed more than happy to discuss a passion other than the Death Metal he’s been churning out for over 30 years: A cat rescue he co-owns with his wife. “I just got tired of seeing dead cats in my neighborhood,” he explains. “I thought, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.'” And, when prodded about his favorite horror films, DT ambivalently admitted, “Eh, I don’t really watch movies too often anymore. Sure, when I was younger, ya had, ya know, the Jasons and Freddies but, I honestly haven’t stepped into a movie theater in 15 years.” Who says all metal-heads are the same? This dude loves cats and doesn’t like horror movies… Awesome!

Obituary (Kenny Andrews) (photo credit: DUSTIN ENDICOTT)

Obituary (Kenny Andrews) (photo credit: DUSTIN ENDICOTT)

As for Obituary’s set, the Florida quintet was nothing short of spectacular. Kicking things off with the instrumental onslaught of “Redneck Stomp” (from 2005’s FROZEN IN TIME), the boys weaved their way through a blistering set of chaotic viciousness that can only be described as truly phenomenal brutality. Vocalist John Tardy menacingly stalked the stage while bassist Terry Butler (ex-Death, ex-Six Feet Under) laid down fat slabs of measured savagery. Rhythm guitarist and co-founder Trevor Peres is a bonafide riff monster, while the addition of Kenny Andrews on lead guitar brings back the high end ferocity that was absent while the band performed as a four-piece. Closing out the set with the title track to 1989’s SLOWLY WE ROT, Obituary proved once again why they are the undisputed kings of Florida Death Metal.

Cannibal Corpse (Alex Webster; George Fisher) (photo credits: DUSTIN ENDICOTT)

Cannibal Corpse (Alex Webster; George Fisher) (photo credits: DUSTIN ENDICOTT)

Batting cleanup were headliners and metal legends, Cannibal Corpse. Firing off classic after classic, CC delved deep into their extensive catalog to present gems such as “The Time To Kill Is Now,” “Pit Of Zombies” and, my personal favorite, “I Cum Blood.” George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher (whose neck is thicker than his head), took an authoritative command of the crowd as he bellowed out his distinct growl while concurrently windmilling his head at breakneck speeds. By the time the band closed out the show with “Devoured By Vermin,” from 1996’s VILE, the entire crowd had been decimated into a puddle of black T-shirts, sweat, beer and blood that somewhat resembled what used to be roughly 800 metal-heads.

Obituary (John Tardy) (photo credit: DUSTIN ENDICOTT)

Obituary (John Tardy) (photo credit: DUSTIN ENDICOTT)

Overall, the night was fantastic, with Obituary stealing the show. The droves of moshers, headbangers and leather clad vixens only proves my previously established perception that Death Metal… and metal as a whole, is fully alive and well in 2016. Special thanks to Donald Tardy for the interview.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


EPICA/MOONSPELL/STARKILL

(January 30, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

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I gotta admit, I wasn’t real sure what to expect out of Epica… I just knew that I really wanted to see legendary Portuguese Goth metallers, Moonspell, again. Serious doubts entered my mind about the whole night when it seemed as though this was going to be another one of those sparsely attended Saint Louis shows; with about 30 minutes to go before start time, the room was less than half full. However, to my utter surprise (and delight), each check over my shoulder saw the head count rise to the point that, by the time Starkill took the stage, the floor was packed. And, what a great evening of rock and roll was on hand for one and all, beginning with…

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Chicago progressive speed merchants, Starkill. The band’s prime mover, Parker Jameson, showed himself adept at both dirty and clean vocal styles, as well as impressive lead and solo guitar… he was even responsible for the prerecorded keyboard parts featured throughout the six-song set. The show highlighted Starkill’s most recent release, VIRUS OF THE MIND with three songs, including their opening salvo, “Be Dead or Die.” Odd title aside, the tune featured an intense orchestral intro from Jameson and a massive drum sound. Surprisingly, the strongest material has yet to be officially released, “Burn Your World” and “Cloudless,” from an upcoming third album (after two albums with Century Media, the band is self-releasing this one with fan funding from Indiegogo); maybe the strength of these new songs comes from the fact that guitarist Tony Keathley and bassist Shaun Andruchuk are now firmly ensconced in the fold (VIRUS OF THE MIND was pretty much finished when they were brought on board). Andruchuk is an absolute beast, prowling the stage and giving the guitars and vocals ample underpinning alongside the borderline maniacal drum-bashing of Spencer Weidner. As impressive as the rhythm section is, this group’s strength lies in the vocals (with Keathley supporting Jameson with clean counter-vocals and, in some instances, nice harmonies) and the twin lead work from the fleet-fingered guitarists, put to particularly good use on “Virus of the Mind.” What could have been a fairly unextraordinary set of Death Metal was continually lifted to unexpected heights by the clean vocals of both Parker and Tony, Spencer’s percussive expertise and the use of Parker’s keyboard and orchestral embellishments. These guys can only get better.

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell have always tended toward the dark, Gothic edges of metal. More recently, they have gone full-tilt into the Gothic sound and lyrical imagery of such bands as the Damned, True Sounds of Liberty (TSOL), Danzig (both the metal band and their punk Misfit leader) and the lugubrious funeral dirges of Type-O Negative. The band were ushered to the stage with the atmospheric, near-operatic (as in THE PHAMTOM OF… ) “La Baphomette,” the final track from their latest record, EXTINCT; as vocalist Fernando Ribeiro took to the boards, the recorded intro faded, replaced by the ponderous beats of Mike Gaspar’s drums and the massive sound of Pedro Paixao’s pipe organ for the haunting “Breathe (Until We Are No More),” the opening cut from the same album. Guitarist Ricardo Amorim and bassist Aires Pereira initially seemed to be completely buried in the mix with the nearly overwhelming volume of the pipe organ. However, the problem was soon rectified and, to paraphrase the dearly departed Lemmy, everything was louder than everything else, with Pereira’s bass adding to the rhythmic din laid down by Gaspar and Amorim’s tasty licks leading the way on Moonspell’s musical moonlight drive through the cemetery. The band seemed to kick into high gear with the title track from EXTINCT, particularly Ricardo, who delivered the first of many killer solos; they really hit their stride, however, on older tunes like the slow grind of “Awake” (from 1998’s IRRELIGIOUS album) and a pair of late set favorites from their 1995 debut, WOLFHEART (the eerie fist-pumper “Vampiria” and “Alma Mater,” which featured a very nice old-school rock solo from Amorim). Ribeiro hung around the lower registers, occasionally approximating the bone-rattling baritone of the sorely missed Peter Steele or, alternately, delivering the gutteral death-rattle of the genre – moving effortlessly between the two at the drop of a coffin lid… plus, his accent kinda reminded me of Bela Lugosi. As good as Starkill was, this was definitely the highlight of the evening for me; could the headliner hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Kicking their set off with a couple of tracks from their latest release (THE QUANTUM ENIGMA from 2014), from the get-go, it was obvious that the name of these Nederlanders’ game was speed and precision; guitarists Isaac Delahaye (the lone Belgian in the group) and Mark Jansen proved to be fleet-of-finger, while bassist Rob van der Loo and drummer Arien van Weesenbeek matched them with a wicked ferocity and keyboardist Coen Janssen added a touch of the symphonic. Of course, above all was the unbelievable mezzo-soprano voice of the lovely Simone Simons. “The Second Stone” and “The Essence of Silence” were formidable blasts of Wagnerian bombast, with mystical/metaphysical lyrics, alternating between Simons’ operatic vocals and Jansen’s harsh, throaty growl. Amidst a flurry of hair-whipping, it was obvious – much like Moonspell before them – that the band (and an appreciative audience) really started to have fun with the introduction of some fan-favorite older material, beginning with “Sensorium,” from the group’s debut release, THE PHANTOM AGONY. With “Martyr of the Free World,” Coen Janssen emerged from the shadows (and fog) engulfing stage-right’s back corner with a unique bowed keyboard, soloing and mugging for the crowd (and I still couldn’t get a decent shot of the third original member of the group, along with Simone and band founder, Mark Jansen); toward the end of the song, after basking in the much-deserved accolades of the packed room, Janssen returned to his omni-directional keyboard as Delahaye killed a lightning-quick solo.

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As you may well guess, any band with the type of near-virtuosity that each member possesses is going to solo and solo often. On “Cry For the Moon,” it was Weesenbeek’s turn, as the hard-pounding drummer delivered a powerful, tastefully short exhibit of his abilities. The song itself, another track from THE PHANTOM AGONY, built from a basic, martial rhythm to an anthemic slow-simmer to a full-blown operatic tour de force, with a Teutonic-sounding choir (via a sample or backing tape) adding a new dimension to the already forceful vocals of Simone Simons. Though Epica has been called a “Gothic Metal” band, it really isn’t until “Storm the Sorrow” that I caught anything (other than certain lyrical content) remotely Gothic in their music, with the heavy, near-industrial riffage and doom-laden piano flourishes; the fact that the upbeat vocal performance belies the nightmarish lyrics only adds to the Goth feel… a real highlight. The brutally dark vibe continued, with Mark delivering more of his intense, harsh vocals throughout the next few songs,” including “The Obsessive Devotion” and, from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Victims of Contengiency.” This darker sound also gave van der Loo a chance to shine with more complex bass lines, rather than sticking fairly close to the rhythmic patterns laid down by the drums and guitars; this complexity was best displayed on the title track to 2009’s DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE, the closing number of the main set, which also featured some very nice multi-textured keyboard work from Coen.

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unsated, the appreciative crowd refused to leave without hearing more; Epica was more than willing to oblige. With Janssen exhorting the rabid fans, he was soon joined by Weesenbeek, Delahaye and van der Loo, teasing the encore before Simons and Jansen returned for a stirring “Sancta Terra.” The band wasn’t messing around with a “one-and-done” trip back to the stage; they followed that tune with a great version of one of the stronger songs from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Unchain Utopia.” If that wasn’t enough, refusing to go gentle into that good night, the sextet finished with a thundering version of the bombastic, anthemic epic, “Consign To Oblivion.” Like last November’s Amaranthe show at Pop’s, Epica eschewed the use of any visible, onstage amplification or monitors; however, where the sound was, at best, spotty for that earlier show, here, it was near perfect. The lighting, also, was some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. So, earlier in this review, I asked the question, “Could Epica hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?” The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal, “Yes!” A great night of metal, from top to bottom.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


OLD 97S/BANDITOS

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

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It’s kinda funny how things tend to run in cycles in this business. Earlier this year, it seemed that I was in the Grove more often than not to review a show at either the Demo or Ready Room; then, for a long stretch, most of the action seemed to be taking place at Off Broadway. Now, the last three shows I’ve reviewed have been at the two Grove venues. I have no explanation or theory regarding this phenomenon… I just go where the music is. This night, the music was at the Ready Room, where twenty year veterans Old 97’s and rookie upstarts Banditos presented two very different styles of Americana for a packed house.

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

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

Improbably, Nashville’s (by way of Birmingham, Alabama) Banditos have only been a band for about five years and have been touring extensively for only the past three. Why is that improbable? Well, the six member conglomerate exhibit the sound and the easy stage presence of a much more seasoned band. Though the group features three lead singers, the spotlight seemed to shine the brightest on Mary Beth Richardson, whose sultry wail immediately brings to mind Janis Joplin, with just a bit of Tracy Nelson and Dale Krantz-Rossington (the latter’s gravelly purr comes to mind on the more ballady fare). The band’s co-founders, Stephen Pierce and Corey Parsons, are the other two vocalists, both with a buttery smooth style capable of delivering on anything from real-deal Country music to rowdy Rock ‘n’ Roll and rough-edged Southern Soul. Pierce also plays banjo, though if you’re listening and watching him pick, his playing has more of a classic Rock guitar sound; Parsons plays guitar – primarily handling the rhythm but, he also takes the occasional lead or offers up a tasty solo run. Jeffrey Salter, the other guitarist, does most of the heavy lifting, with lead and solo work; the rhythm section of Danny Vines on bass and drummer Randy Wade are rock-solid animals, providing a beefy bottom-end. Before delving into the “meat-and-taters” of their set, it should be duly noted that Banditos are, by far, the wooliest band I have ever seen; there is enough head and facial hair on display to supply toupees and wigs for the entire populace of a balding third-world country.

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

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

Musically, the group hit the stage running with “Golden Grease,” one of eight songs on display from their self-titled debut. The tune highlighted the talents of Wade and Vines, as well as some nice guitar from Salter but, when Richardson sang that first note, it was obvious to everyone that she was a force to be reckoned with. According to Parsons, that and a handful of other songs from the evening’s set have been around since nearly the beginning of the band, and those tunes have kind of taken on a life of their own, with the band tweaking them on a nightly basis to keep them interesting for the players; the group, by this point, are working as a well-oiled machine on these numbers (and, in some instances, are straining at the bit to write and record new material so certain tunes can be “retired,” at least temporarily). This night, those tunes included “Long Gone, Anyway,” “Cry Baby Cry” and “Old Ways.” Alongside those original numbers, other highlights were Corey’s cover of an old Waylon Jennings B-side, “Waymore’s Blues”; a rockin’ new tune, sung by Stephen, called “Fun All Night”; Mary Beth hitting all the right notes on a frantic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” Just like their album, Banditos live is a hard animal to nail down; they move and slide in and out of genres as easily as most of us change our clothes. “Cry Baby Cry” has a certain New Orleans flair while “Still Sober (After All These Beers),” despite the obvious Country title, is more of a surf tune with a lot of Dick Dale/Link Wray reverb-style guitar and “Waitin’” wouldn’t have sounded out of place as a June Carter/Johnny Cash duet. Some bands have success almost immediately and are gone almost before anyone even notices; Banditos is one of those groups that – like tonight’s headliners, Old 97’s – looks to have the staying power for a long career.

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

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

Amazingly enough, as much as I like their music, this was the first time that I have seen Old 97’s play live. Not that I haven’t had plenty of opportunities, they have played everywhere from Mississippi Nights (a moment of silence, please) to the Pageant; the band loves Saint Louis and Saint Louis definitely loves them. The quartet’s sound still retains a certain NO DEPRESSION-Americana vibe though, with their propensity for a harder-edged punk rock esthetic, they come across more like their contemporaries in Wilco than the shared ancestral linkage of Uncle Tupelo. On this night, they started slow and (purposefully?) a little sloppy with “Give It Time.” All four players seemed somehow distracted, particularly frontman Rhett Miller; they soon found their groove, with bassist Murry Hammond (looking very much like a younger, more dapper Phil Lesh) and drummer Philip Peeples reigning in the wandering guitarists (Miller and lead player, Ken Bethea) and tightening up the arrangements on a set that was long on material from the latest album, MOST MESSED UP, and chock full of fan favorites from the band’s catalog. By the time they got around to the third number, “King of All the World,” the band was firing on all cylinders and Rhett was back to his usual acerbic self. The new tunes – including “Wasted,” “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and “This Is the Ballad” – fared quite well, while the classics – “Big Brown Eyes,” “Niteclub,” “Murder (Or a Heart Attack” and “Over the Cliff” among them – bristled with a renewed energy that, more than once, seemed to border on some type of “angry young man” passion.

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

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

Miller, as expected, supplied the majority of the lead vocals, though Hammond lent his rather world-weary voice to a handful of tunes, including the Country stomp of “West Texas Teardrops” and the tear-drenched ballad, “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue.” As the group moved seamlessly from Country to Alternative Rock to Punk to flat out, steamrolling Rock and Roll, guitarist Bethea had a lead or a solo for every occasion, never faltering in his quest for the perfect guitar part for each song; likewise, Peeples and Hammond laid down the perfect groove, no matter what the style demanded. Rhett, though he continued to seem distracted by something at the back of the room (the monitor mix, mayhap?), tore through his songs like a man possessed, delivering the lyrics in a passionate, matter-of-fact style; he had worked up quite a sweat very early into the set, which seemed to fuel his zeal to give the crowd everything he had to offer. Much of the new material is a little… let’s just call it off-color, shall we? Miller delivered every F-bomb and every mention of booze or allusion to various body parts with a wink and a grin that had the faithful either laughing or singing along. By the time they got to the rollicking set closer, “Most Messed Up,” which ticked off all sorts of offenses, with Miller virtually screaming the refrain, “I am the most messed up mother fucker in this town,” both band and audience were ready for a breather.

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

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

After a short break, Rhett returned to the stage for a solo rendition of the ballad “Most In the Summertime” from his latest release, THE TRAVELER; the song has a nice melody lurking behind the humorous, self-deprecating lyrics and you have got to love a guy that manages to work the term “barometric pressure” into a love song. Murry rejoined Miller for a lead vocal on the old-timey Rock and Roll of “Valentine,” which reminded me of a Buddy Holly tune with the Jordanaires singing back-up (and, yeah, I know that there were only two people singing, but the analogy is still valid). Ken and Philip took up their places and the foursome charged into what may be the coolest, funniest sing-along party song of all-time, “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On.” After the quick Cowpunk of “Timebomb,” the group left the stage again; with the crowd demanding more, the lights came up, reminding me of the old showbiz axiom, “Always leave ’em wanting more.”

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

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

It is obvious – and rightly so – that Old 97’s own Saint Louis; the band, Rhett Miller in particular, may have been slightly off but, the energy and enthusiasm of the packed Ready Room audience urged them on to a riotous good set. The one-two punch of the headliners and openers, Banditos, made for one of the best nights of flat-out great music to come through the Lou. If you missed this one, you certainly missed a good one.


JENNY LEWIS/NIKKI LANE

(May 17, 2015; THE READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

Jenny Lewis set list (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis set list (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Arriving late to the venue, seeing the line outside and, later, the crowd inside, this thought kept creeping into my head: “Man… there are certainly more TROOP BEVERLY HILLS fans around than I ever thought possible.” Of course, most of the diverse crowd really had no idea what TROOP BEVERLY HILLS was (if you’re among that group, Google the title… I’ll be here when you get back), they just knew that Jenny Lewis has released some amazing music during her career, including the recent album, THE VOYAGER. I found myself in the midst of some die-hard fans who have been following Lewis’ musical career since TAKE OFFS AND LANDINGS, the 2001 debut release from Rilo Kiley; obviously in the mood for a good time and some great music, my new-found friends welcomed opener Nikki Lane as enthusiastically as they would the headliner later in the evening.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

While my first live experience with Nikki Lane had the feel of a last-minute addition to an already announced line-up (it wasn’t exactly that but, it was really close), with Nikki taking the stage in a simple tee shirt and jeans, her opening slot on this tour has the feel of a full-blown Nikki Lane show, with the singer donning an ANNIE OAKLEY (the 1950s television show, not the real thing) style red vest with white fringe, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. That first performance was top-notch but, if you have the opportunity to see Nikki live, this is the Nikki you want. The set didn’t veer too much from last year’s show at the Demo, which really didn’t bother me at all, as the band was tighter and Nikki more aptly displayed the vocal style that has garnered her comparisons to the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. And, of course, her sly sense of humor and superb songwriting skills sure don’t hurt.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Once again highlighting tunes from last year’s ALL OR NOTHIN’, Lane and her band tore through a set that included “Man Up,” “Right Time” and the title track, all the while trying to figure out why, no matter how furiously she strummed or how hard she stomped her new pedal board, her guitar seemed to be boycotting the performance (eventually, a tech came on stage to fix the problematic plug, eliciting the usual response from Nikki, a self-effacing quip:”Oh… it does work! I thought you guys just didn’t like my playing.”). Other tunes included “Walk of Shame” (the title tune of her 2011 debut album) along with some new material, planned for record number three. In a set full of highlights, the best moment came as Nikki introduced “Sleep With a Stranger,” saying that a couple of friends were celebrating their wedding anniversary and, when she asked what song they wanted to hear to mark the occasion, “they picked this one. That means that they were fucking before they knew each other, because this next song is about fucking someone you don’t know yet. If there’s anybody out there you don’t know yet, you can tell ’em it was my idea.” Nikki Lane is one fierce country wildcat and, with her band laying down a solid wall of sound behind her, she can pack more music, more downright fun into a forty minute set than most artists can muster in a two hour show. Look for Nikki this June at various festivals before she heads out in July with Social Distortion (for full tour info, go to nikkilane.com).

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

While not as in-your-face as her opening act, Jenny Lewis, nonetheless put on a spectacular – though rather low key – show. One of the ladies I’d been talking to between sets admitted that she wasn’t all that familiar with Jenny’s solo work, but was hoping that she would be dipping into her Rilo Kiley songbook. She didn’t have long to wait; after “Head Underwater,” the funky, folky opener (and the lead track on THE VOYAGER), Jenny and her band stepped back in time to deliver the sparkling pop of “Silver Lining” followed the darker groove of “The Moneymaker,” both from the group’s final album, 2007’s UNDER THE BLACKLIGHT. While the set was, for obvious reasons, heavy on material from Jenny’s latest release, the rest of the set seemed to be packed with some of the more adventurous numbers from her earlier projects, including the bluesy sonic meltdown of “The Next Messiah” and the smokey jazz of “Pretty Bird,” both from ACID TONGUE, as well as some more Rilo Kiley like the pristine alterna-pop of “Portions For Foxes” and the haunting lyricism of “With Arms Outstretched” and “A Better Son/Daughter.” Sometimes, as on the blue-eyed soul of “She’s Not Me” or the country pop of “Just One of the Guys,” Lewis’ wry sense of humor gets lost amid the shimmering vocals and superb backing.

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As much as her fans adore Jenny Lewis, seeing her live bears witness to the fact that she genuinely loves her fans. When she smiles or waves, the actions are sincere and heartfelt, giving each person in the room the feeling that this moment was intended for them alone; at one point, she took a flower from her piano and handed it to a young lady, stage right and, even if that’s something she does every single night, it felt special and rang true. When, later, she sat facing her bandmates and playfully leaned back, caressing a smitten young man, stage left, the effect was the same. Was she working the room, playing to the crowd? You bet she was! But, it was still one of the most natural, genuine things for her to do, without ever seeming calculated. She also connected with the crowd when she mentioned going for a walk in the city and finding a peach jumpsuit that she just couldn’t resist at the Goodwill store (there’s a picture of guitarist Michael Bloom modeling said garment here). There were plenty of great musical moments, as well, as Jenny has surrounded herself with a group of players who are adept at virtually any style of music. Bloom acts as musical director and lead guitarist, utilizing massive swaths of sound one minute and delivering a cutting solo the next; his guitar partner, Megan McCormick, keeps the rhythm tight, occasionally exploding for her own sonic assault. The rhythm section of keyboardist Natalie Prass, bassist Thomas Taylor and drummer Josh Adams give Lewis, McCormick and Bloom a spongy, fluid bottom-end to work over, each adding their own little flourishes to the mix. By the way, Jenny can definitely hold her own on, not only guitar, but keyboards, as well.

Jenny Lewis with Megan McCormick (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Jenny Lewis with Megan McCormick (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Other than Nikki Lane, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this show. There was a cool, laid back vibe in the club and the sound was near perfect throughout the evening. Maybe the surprise of the night was the headliner, confident in herself and her band, resplendent in her pastel jacket (with matching guitar), obviously having fun onstage. That’s certainly a great take-away from this show… plus, it’s always nice to make new friends at your job.


SWANS/XIU XIU

(June 24, 2014; THE READY ROOM; Saint Louis, MO)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

At some shows I’ve been to in recent years, particularly smaller ones, I’ve looked at the audience as much as the performers, trying to gauge people’s reactions and suss out what kind of experience they were having. When you’re dealing with a noncommercial act like Swans, the Michael Gira-led entity that inhabits one end of the post-punk spectrum, you can’t help wondering about the fans and why this kinda assaultive sonic maelstrom appeals to them. This is not to pass judgment, as I AM such a fan. It’s just… why? How can long, discordant, punishing slabs of dark drone and indecipherable lyrics be life-affirming? Do you leave such an experience in a good mood, and just say to your concert-going pals, “Man, that was great!” the way you would after a normal concert? I dunno. But I did indeed utter “That was pretty amazing” to MY companion for the night, and I did experience SOME kind of catharsis. But I’m not sure what it was. I do know I won’t forget it.

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

I wasn’t overly familiar with Swans going in; I’d heard a few bits and pieces, and read some articles about them. But never had a chance to experience their sound up close before. Warning was given via a sign on the door that the concert was going to be extremely loud (helpful hint, that!), so ear plugs were clearly in order. But actually, I’ve been to louder, even though it WAS a punishing volume throughout. Things kicked off with a bizarre half hour opening stint by an incarnation of Xiu Xiu that included only founder Jamie Stewart. I’d been looking forward to hearing some songs from Xiu Xiu’s early CDs that I happened to own, but it was not to be. Stewart sat at a synth console and delivered a piercing monolithic tone that gradually got louder and louder, and gradually added other drone elements until it evolved into a squall of noisy dark ambient matter that was alternatingly hypnotic and tedious. He never said a word and never looked up, and I wouldn’t have even known this had anything to do with the Xiu Xiu I once listened to unless I’d done some research the next day. One thing’s for sure; you don’t see this kinda thing on stage in Saint Louis very often.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

The wait for Swans was short and, it’s pretty clear when you lay eyes (and ears) on a crazed codger like Michael Gira that you’re in the presence of a twisted original. It seems almost irrelevant to mention song titles, because at a show like this, only hardcore fans would care about such a thing. Swans “tunes” are really long, really repetitive and singularly immersive; variety is not what you’re in for at a show like this. But, okay… “Frankie M” and “A Little God in My Hands” were the first two tunes. Layered gongs kicked off the former, and your ears had no choice but to instantly surrender to the onslaught. I was distracted almost immediately by a comely young woman swaying to the sound, yes, swaying to a sound that most of my friends would’ve bolted from within minutes. Heck, I thought girls liked dancing to stuff with a beat and a sing-along chorus. But damn, even the weirdest and most anti-commercial of bands gotta have their female followers, I suppose. “ …God… ” began with a slashing, repeated chord or whatever you’d call the combination of tones that kicked this one off. I was reminded of Eno’s oblique strategy card, “Repetition is a form of change,” a notion that Eno pioneered and that Swans have seemingly taken to another level. No one would be able to lose themselves in this kind of sonic overload if it was truly just one continuous, unvarying tone but, the fact is, Gira’s band conjure a gargantuan symphony of strident yet structured noisetronica that is ferociously willful and ultimately transfixing. The crowd was apparently riveted, although one girl sitting next to me was peacefully reading a paperback novel half the time, and I wondered about her temperament. I wouldn’t have been able to get through a single page of any book with this kinda music in the background.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Gira has a trademark way of holding his hands out to each side, shaking them a little, symmetrically, sometimes with eyes closed. He’s a curious figurehead with his long hair and piercing gaze, and seems genuinely appreciative that he gets to do this sort of thing. My companion and I chatted about how this sort of music can only exist and, in fact, progress, if its makers are utterly serious and committed to what they do. Not an issue at all with Swans. The cacophonous “The Apostate” was next, and it was thunderous, with atonal chord play, primal sludgy ambience and a sound that struck my ears as “Da U WOOM/ Da U WOOM!” It went on for a long, long time and, again, I couldn’t help watching the Ready Room patrons, most of whom watched with rapt attention and, a few of whom attempted to move their bodies in one way or another to this crazed sound. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of thing every day, but experiencing it live was a pretty singular experience. Something almost approaching “tonal variety” came with the song “Just A Little Boy,” which made me think of the eerie Talking Heads song, “The Overload.” Straight-up dirge-y angst, the lyrics go, “Now I sleep in the belly of woman/And I sleep in the belly of man/And I sleep in the belly of rhythm/And I sleep in the belly of love.” Maybe not manifesto territory here, but Gira is clearly saying SOMETHING, and trying to do so in the context of a long, assaultive drone makes it brave and interesting. It was actually one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the evening.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Fire trucks appeared in fromt of the Ready Room two different times, once early in the evening, and once during “Don’t Go,” when the flashing red lights got the attention of anyone near the windows (including yours truly) and made me wonder whether a fire code violation had occurred, or whether the crew outside had been tipped off about something that needed to be “watched” at this show. No doubt the attendance was amazing; the line waiting to get into the RR was thrice longer than I had been anticipating. Gira gets good publicity. Anyway, the sound slabs during this number were particularly intense, with two or three bass notes played insistently while granite chunks of guitar, percussion and keys were hurled out into the crowd with abandon. My mind wandered (and a few Shock Top drafts added splendidly to the mood), and I thought that if Gira’s story was ever made into a movie, either Michael Madsen or Guy Pearce would have to be cast as the lead. Scruffy intensity was definitely called for. The one-two climactic punch of “Bring the Sun/Black Hole Man” was sometimes evocative and haunting, sometimes poundingly nasty, with lyrics almost impossible to decipher (although I’d swear I heard the phrase “Joseph is riding” once or twice). But, hey, lyrics are not the point of a Swans song. Immersive surrender to the darkest of dark waves is more in order. And, actually, I left in admiration for the perverse, primal simplicity of what Swans have to offer. Though there is little pleasure or comfort to be had in a show like this, the catharsis is real, and the visceral release is palpable. It’s important for music to stake out EDGES to explore, places where few dare go and declare, “Okay, this is what’s out here in THIS place, check it out if you’re so inclined.” I’m grateful to have experienced that thing that Swans do, even if I’ll be scratching my head for a long time over what it means, and how that girl could’ve gotten through a good portion of her book with Swans as the background soundtrack. Each to their own in this world, truly…