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PAUL MCCARTNEY

(October 21, 2015; JOE LOUIS ARENA, Detroit MI)

Paul McCartney Out There US Tour

Well, this is something like my umpteenth time seeing Sir Paul in concert and he never disappoints. I wasn’t planning on making this trip but, after speaking with my cousin, who lives in the area and has never seen McCartney, I decided, “Why not?” Not only do I get to see a favorite perform again, I also get to hang out with someone I don’t get to see very often. The experience of a McCartney show just never gets old: Sir Paul, aged 73, still has the fire and enthusiasm of someone half his age (or, maybe, a third his age) plus, his great band – Paul “Wix” Wickens on keyboards, Brian Ray on guitar and bass, Rusty Anderson on guitar and the brilliant Abe Laboriel, Junior on drums – provide all the back up he needs. Paulie, himself, plays bass, electric and acoustic guitar, piano and ukelele.

Paul McCartney (photo credit MJ KIM/copyright MPL COMMUNICATIONS LIMITED)
Paul McCartney (photo credit MJ KIM/copyright MPL COMMUNICATIONS LIMITED)

Oh… and, did I mention he also plays a ton of Beatles, some Wings, some classic solo stuff, as well as some more recent material. In fact, this time around, the set list actually included several songs I’ve never heard him play live before: “FourFiveSeconds” (the song he and Kanye West wrote, produced and appeared on for Rihanna’s ANTI album); “Hope For the Future,” which he wrote and recorded for use in a video game called DESTINY; a raw version of the Beatles’ “One After 909”; one of the first songs he wrote with John (Lennon, just in case you needed reminding), “Another Girl,” from the HELP soundtrack. He also dusted off the solo rarity, “Temporary Secretary,” an odd electronic track from MCCARTNEY II. The use of a nice, big video screen behind him and his band was great to accompany a lot of songs… “Back In the USSR” and Lady Madonna” were definitely enhanced by the visual accompaniment.

Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)
Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

It’s not just the greatest catalog of popular songs that make a Paul McCartney concert special; it’s also his interaction with the audience, his abundant energy and, at times, it actually seems that he is having a better time than the crowd. Of course, he has been doing this for over fifty years now and he is a magical stage performer. Singing along with an arena full of people to “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Band On the Run” and… well, the list just goes on and on… is still great fun. The poignant moments of “Blackbird” and “Here Today,” his tribute to John, are still heartfelt. Actually, I loved his version of Harrison’s beautiful “Something,” which started slowly with Paul on ukelele before rocking away; it is a truly great tribute to George. The big crowd was great – rowdy when it needed to rock and quiet for the more solemn songs. At his age, its hard to tell how long he can keep up this pace but, until that time comes, an evening spent with Sir Paul McCartney is always memorable.

THE END OF A BEER… STACKRIDGE TAKE THEIR FINAL BOW: THE JAMES WARREN INTERVIEW

(UPDATE BELOW)

PART ONE: THE PROCESS, HISTORICALLY

Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Jim "Crun" Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)
Stackridge, 1971 (Mike Evans, Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren and Billy Bent ) (publicity photo)

Growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, Illinois as I did, it was hard enough finding a store that stocked the popular music of the day, much less the fringe releases I preferred, by such artists as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart or Fireballet. The special order became a way of life for me, allowing me to be the only kid on my block to own the latest releases by Fanny or Osibisa or the odder-than-usual concept album, FLASH FEARLESS VERSUS THE ZORG WOMEN PARTS FIVE AND SIX; actually, I may have been the only kid on my block that wanted those albums… but, you get my point. Anyway, with all of that, the band Stackridge somehow slipped under my radar. Naturally, I was familiar with the name. After all, I could and did read a lot of music publications as a young impressionable pup (still can and do, as an old impressionable hound); it just seemed that there was always something that interested me more.

Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)
Stackridge, 2015 (Eddie John, James Warren, Andy Davis, Clare Lindley, Glenn Tommey) (publicity photo)

So, I said all of that so I could say this: I eventually did manage to get my grubby fingers on a Stackridge album – EXTRAVAGANZA, I believe – and I was hooked. I was ecstatic when England’s Angel Air Records began their painstakingly comprehensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog, along with a live album and a couple of collections peppered in among them. When I decided to get back into the review game, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was an interview with the two-headed beast that led and continue to lead Stackridge: James Warren and Andy Davis. In early 2014, I contacted their manager, supplied him with a few questions via e-mail and awaited a reply. Fast forward approximately ten months and, I am finally in receipt of answers from Mister Warren. Fast forward another couple of months and, with no reply from Mister Davis, the decision was made to move ahead with a revamped format, using James’ answers. Now, nearly a full two years since my initial request, here – so to speak – is the finished product. There are several questions and answers that allude to the 45th anniversary of the band and the chances of them recording another album of new material, as well as an extensive mention of the Korgis (the other band fronted by Andy and James) that may sound redundant, but please keep in mind that questions were posed and answers were given in 2014. Following the interview, we’re gonna delve into some of the best from both Stackridge and the Korgis, so stick around.

PART TWO: JAMES WARREN, MOSTLY

Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: The original band got together in 1969, making this your 45th anniversary. The current line-up still features both of the primary songwriters and vocalists of the various incarnations of the group. Aside from the occasional break-up or vacation from each other, to what do you attribute the longevity of Stackridge?

JAMES: I think the longevity is due to the fact that the repertoire is so stimulating and diverse. It’s great to be able to perform songs as varied as “Fish In a Glass,” “Anyone For Tennis,” “The Road To Venezuela” and “Something About the Beatles” all in the same set. I’ve never been in any other musical combination that offers anything as fun or challenging.

THE MULE: Aside from Andy Davis and yourself, who is involved in the current version of Stackridge? Are the musicians – comparatively speaking – young guns or do you all enjoy a certain advanced… uh… musical acuity. Can we get a feel of the players’ musical pedigree?

Stackridge, 2008 (Glenn Tommey) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, 2008 (Glenn Tommey) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: So, we have Glenn Tommey on keyboards – we’ve known Glenn since 1978. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but, when we met him, he was a recording engineer who worked on the first Korgis album and even sang backing vocals on “If I Had You,” a top twenty hit for the band in the UK. Clare Lindley is on violin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We only met her around seven years ago but ,she’s a veteran of the folk and classical circuit. She’s from Aberdeen, in Scotland. Eddie John is on drums and has been a very well-known and respected player on the Bristol scene since the 1980s. Clare and Eddie are in their 40s, Glenn, myself and Andy have all made it beyond 60!

THE MULE: The last album of new material, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE, was released in 2009, after a long lay-off from recording. That album featured two more original members, Michael “Mutter” Slater and Jim “Crun” Walter. How did the album come about? How was it to work with Crun and Mutter in the studio again?

JAMES: The album was produced by Chris Hughes, original drummer with Adam and the Ants and producer of Tears For Fears and we recorded it at his home studio just outside of Bath. We’d known Chris for many years and the idea was suggested at a birthday party we were all attending. Because both Crun and Mutter had full-time day jobs and Mutter had the additional problem of living about 40 miles away from Bath, at least 75% of the work was performed by Andy and I. Crun is a lovely bloke but wildly eccentric, so creating music with him is never easy-going – he continually suggested completely perverse and off-the-wall ideas that we had to try then, inevitably, discard – and Mutter hardly participated at all except to sing his songs. So, it was a very different situation to how we worked together in the 1970s.

Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Jim "Crun" Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Jim “Crun” Walter, James Warren) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: Did the Angel Air reissue program rekindle a kind of warm fuzzy spot for you regarding the group? Did it tempt you to reform some version of the band and get out on the boards and into the studio again? Have the reissues raised the public awareness of Stackridge, bringing along new fans? Or, is it just geezers like me looking to upgrade from that scratchy old vinyl?

JAMES: I think we never wanted to rule out the thought of a reformation. A handful of new fans have appeared but, to be honest, it’s essentially the “old guard” re-living their youth!

THE MULE: Can we expect to see new Stackridge music soon… or ever? If so, who will be involved in the project? Are you and Andy game to play with the “old guys” again?

JAMES: Sadly, I have to report that September 2015 will see the farewell tour of Stackridge. We’ve now pretty much exhausted the back catalogue in a live performance situation and it no longer makes any economic sense to record new material. There just isn’t sufficient demand for Stackridge music in the modern world! So, come and see us for the last time in 2015!

THE MULE: The group’s sound has always been the epitome of British “outsider” music, taking in bits of free jazz, traditional folk, Northern Soul, Beatles pop, the Incredible String Band and Frank Zappa. How have your musical tastes and influences changed over the years? When you are on holiday or have down time, what can we generally find you listening to?

Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)
Stackridge, 2012 (James Warren) (photo credit: MATTHEW REES/HAM LIFE)

JAMES: My wife, Clare, and I have sixteen year old twins, so when I do the school run in the mornings, me and the kids always listen to CD compilations of the latest top 20 hits – so I’m right up-to-date with contemporary pop! And I like a lot of it. Clean Bandit are one of my current favourites. I hate the typical middle-age attitude of only being able to appreciate the music you grew up with – I’m not sentimental about past musical eras in that way. I still adore and listen to the Beatles; don’t listen to the Incredibles any more, but THE HANGMAN’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER will always be a work of genius for me. I listen to a lot more classical and jazz these days. I’m especially fascinated by 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Ravel and Satie. One of my treasured possessions is a 22-CD box set of STRAVINSKY CONDUCTING STRAVINSKY.

THE MULE: Your fans were and are, if not legion, very loyal. What is the profile of the standard Stack-fan? Do they now tend to bring along the kiddies (or grand-kids), to introduce them to the music of their youth?

JAMES: Don’t think there is a standard profile – they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see youngsters in the audience, although there are a few. I know when I was a teenager I wouldn’t be seen dead going to a concert of music my parents were into!

THE MULE: Forty-five years in, what keeps bringing you back to Stackridge? Is it the musical intricacies, the fans or some other intangible?

JAMES: I can’t improve on the answer I gave to your first question. The Stackridge repertoire is so wonderfully diverse and challenging so it’s like a musical holiday to go out and perform that stuff.

THE MULE: Certainly, over the years – particularly the first run – you have released some great albums (FRIENDLINESS, THE MAN WITH THE BOWLER HAT) and some very memorable tunes. Do you have any favorites, individual tracks or full albums? How about least favorites? Are there some albums or tracks that you thought were great at the outset but have since come to loathe?

Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, James Warren, Micahel Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)

JAMES: The first album (STACKRIDGE) is a problem for me. I can’t listen to most of it any more. My singing is so fragile and under-confident, especially the falsetto bits and, most of the lyrics are painfully adolescent in a ridiculously self-indulgent sense. But, it was 1971 and I was only 20 so that explains a lot. I think there are some lovely tunes on FRIENDLINESS; the title track, “There Is No Refuge,” “Father Frankenstein,” “Lummy Days.” …BOWLER HAT still holds up well except for “To the Sun and Moon” (because of my singing). I think “Venezuela,” “Galloping Gaucho,” “Humiliation” and “Fundamentally Yours” are great. And “God Speed the Plough” is an absolute classic. I like almost all the tracks on EXTRAVAGANZA and MISTER MICK. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND I still love. It’s more whacky and harks back to the original Stackridge mainly due to my extensive collaboration with John Miller, an incredibly eccentric keyboard player full of brilliant unconventional ideas. Wish I hadn’t lost touch with him.

THE MULE: I think that my favorites probably mirror those of most fans: “Dora the Female Explorer,” “Slark,” “Syracuse the Elephant.” The list could go on but, for brevity’s sake, what are your memories regarding the writing and recording processes of these fan favorites? Were they kinda instant favorites or do you remember them slowly taking on a life of their own to eventually become essential?

JAMES: “Dora… ,” “Slark” and “Syracuse… ” were “first generation” Stackridge compositions. Andy and Crun had the basic ideas then we would rehearse and rehearse to hammer out the arrangements. It was tremendous fun. The FRIENDLINESS songs I contributed were pretty much already mapped-out before I introduced them to the band but, then again, with …BOWLER HAT and beyond we would work hard as a unit to make a finished track from one person’s basic idea. I think the “favourites” sounded special from the outset.

THE MULE: You are one of the few bands, aside from the Beatles, to boast a production job by Sir George Martin. What was it like to work with him? How much – before, during and after THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT – has his work been an influence to you, personally, and the band, as a whole?

Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, Cropredy Convention 2008 (James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: It was fantastic working with George. I’m happy to report he was as gentlemanly and effortlessly competent as one expected him to be. The …BOWLER HAT experience was very brief (about three weeks) but very intense. It’s a wonderful production. Even now I love and am influenced by his very simple but strong arrangement style.

THE MULE: Through the years, Andy and you have both worked on projects outside of Stackridge, both during the band’s heyday and following the original break-up. Did you use those instances – your solo album, Andy’s work on John Lennon’s IMAGINE, the Korgis, – to refresh the batteries, so to speak, or as a chance to branch out into something completely different from Stackridge? Can we expect to see something coming from either of you soon, outside of the usual Stackridge lunacy and the Korgis reunion gigs?

JAMES: Can’t speak for Andy but, our various alternative projects are, for me, both a refreshment process and an opportunity to investigate something completely different. I think Andy has been working on an album, whereas I’ve just been trying to come up with “coverable” commercial material.

THE MULE: Speaking of the Korgis, the other band that you have both been with since the beginning, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, as well. The Korgis have been called “the pop side of Stackridge.” How do you view the Korgis, in comparison to the “mother” group?

JAMES: The Korgis is a way of expressing a more distilled, “radio-friendly” type of songwriting. I’m quite excited by the prospect of performing that material live. It’ll be the first time we’ve done it and, you never know, the project might “have legs” and lead on to an interesting new path.

THE MULE: Over the years, you’ve been able to slip out of one band and into the other rather seamlessly. How much of that ability to switch gears has to do with the dynamics of and differences in the musical styles?

Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, 2008 (Rachel Hall, James Warren) (uncredited photo)

JAMES: We used to love the Kinks, the Hollies, 10CC – and it’s just easier to come up with and produce that kind of thing when it’s just the two of you, rather than having to take account of the whims and preferences of a whole band. Hence the need for the Korgis project.

THE MULE: A Korgis tour has been announced, the first in a while. Is it hard to get into a “Korgis state of mind” after such a long time off? What can fans expect to see from the Korgis as they celebrate their 35th anniversary?

JAMES: We’re about to start rehearsals, in January 2015. Basically we’ll be making the show up as we rehearse. But we’ll be aiming to provide an evening of dynamic and scintillating pure poptasticness!

THE MULE: Are there plans beyond this tour for more Korgis? A new album or more touring? Will you simply return to Stackridge to continue that group’s string of successful tours and live releases?

JAMES: As I mentioned above, we’ll be putting Stackridge to bed after September 2015. We’ll just have to see if there’s a public appetite for the Korgis. If there is, then I’m sure we’ll be inspired to record new material. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Thank you, James, for taking the time to fill us in on Stackridge, the Korgis and your plans for the future.

PART THREE: STACKRIDGE, ESSENTIALLY

When exploring adventurous music, it may be prudent to start with a “greatest hits” or “best of… ” collection. Even though most of Stackridge’s proper albums are definitely worth adding to your own personal collection, you may want to heed the above maxim and check out…

PURPLE SPACESHIPS OVER YATTON – BEST OF…

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(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2006)

The 2006 Angel Air Records release features fifteen essentials from four of the band’s first five releases (not even “Spin ‘Round the Room,” the single from EXTRAVAGANZA made the cut) and heralded in the label’s brilliant reissue program of the band’s catalog. The collection was reissued in 2008 as ANYONE FOR TENNIS?, part of Angel Air’s Sound and Vision series, coupled with a DVD of the band’s April 1, 2007 show (25 songs, the audio of which has also been released as a double CD called THE FORBIDDEN CITY… got all of that?). The only flaw with this release is the exclusion of one of Stackridge’s best known and most loved tunes, “Slark.” But, we’ll be addressing that one later. The accompanying booklet for PURPLE SPACESHIPS… features a fine essay from author Michael Heatley (as do the subsequent reissue titles), archival photos and complete lyrics. The music itself is chock full of just-left-of-center fan favorites like “Dora, the Female Explorer,” “Do the Stanley,” “Fish In a Glass,” “Syracuse the Elephant” and a rerecorded version of the title track (originally a non-album B-side to the “Slark” single), all magnificently remastered under the watchful eyes (hearful ears?) of James Warren and Andy Davis. Having listened to this impressive sampler (in one of its various forms or another), you will undoubtedly want to check out the original albums to hear the tunes in their natural habitat, so to speak. Of course, that is best accomplished by re-starting at the beginning with…

STACKRIDGE

MI0001406646

(MCA RECORDS; 1971)

In 1971, everyone wanted to be the Beatles. James, Andy and the other members of Stackridge were no different. Well… maybe they were a little different; they also wanted to be Frank Zappa… and Bob Dylan… and King Crimson… and the Incredible String Band. The quintet of progressive folkies (or is that folky progressives?) are out of the gate with what must be declared “an instant classic,” with nine tracks of mesmerizing pop and rambunctious rock, including at least four that should be required listening.

Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael "Mutter" Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)
Stackridge, 1971 (Andy Davis, James Warren, Michael “Mutter” Slater, Billy Bent, Michael Evans) (photo credit: JORGEN ANGEL)

The album kicks off with the elegant, ambitious “Grande Piano,” which features a great bass part from Warren (original bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, by the time the band began recording, had opted for a more reasonable career as a bricklayer before returning to the fold for FRIENDLINESS) and a memorable – dare I say, “grand?” – piano part from Davis. “Dora the Female Explorer” is the only song on the debut album credited to the entire band; with it’s bouncing, reeling music – highlighted by Michael Evans’ violin – and oddly engaging vocal melody, the tune has stood the test of time as well as any of the tracks from STACKRIDGE. “Dora… ” is followed by the instrumental “Essence of Porphyry,” an eight minute piece with several distinct movements, all of them quite operatic in their scope (despite the lack of lyrics). Evans’ violin is again a featured instrument, along with Michael “Mutter” Slater’s flute. The entire affair has an air of Zappa about it, the final section a prog rocker’s dream, evoking RED-era Crimson and Brian Eno’s Roxy Music. The centerpiece of the album (if not the career) is “Slark,” a fourteen plus minute “monster” that plays beautifully off the theme and melody of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and led once again by Davis’ piano, Mutter’s flute and Evans’ violin. The lyrics suggest a lonely “monster” looking for acceptance and love but, being rejected because he isn’t like everyone else. The other tunes on STACKRIDGE are all pleasant progressive folk numbers, with just enough oddball charm and sweet melodies to make the album, in its entirety, indispensable. Angel Air’s reissue apends a stomping, rousing traditional reel called “Let There Be Lids,” a B-side from an unreleased 1973 single, as well as the single version of “Slark,” to the original album.

FRIENDLINESS

MI0001994404

(MCA RECORDS; 1972)

As essential as the band’s debut is, it is, perhaps, their second release that offers the absolute best of what Stackridge aspired to be: A traditional English folk band with progressive and slightly loopy leanings. The opening track, “Lummy Days,” is rollicking, rolling sort of instrumental reel featuring some impressively heavy drumming from Billy Bent, now calling himself “Billy Sparkle.” What surely would have been a dancehall fixture in the early-to-mid 1920s, “Anyone For Tennis” shows the boys’ affinity for the oblique. At nearly nine minutes, “Syracuse the Elephant” would appear to be the band’s attempt to recreate the mini-operatic feel of the first album’s “Slark.” The tune, however, is a majestic piece of childlike progressivity, the tale of a forlorn elephant, raised in captivity and wanting nothing more than to live out his days in the company of his trainer, eating his favorite herbs.

The second side of the original album features such oddball fare as “Amazingly Agnes,” about a mule lamenting the fact that she is, in fact, a mule. That one is followed by the ballad, “Doctor Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow,” an apparent leftover from the first record, and the Beatles-esque rocker, “Keep On Clucking,” which features a killer backwards guitar solo from Crun toward the end. The final track, “Teatime,” would not sound out of place on Jethro Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY or SONGS FROM THE WOODS; it starts as a rather pastoral madrigal before erupting in frenzied progressive blues, with Evans’ flute front and center throughout. The Angel Air reissue features the bonus tracks “Everyman,” the B-side to the “Flora, the Female Explorer” single; the chaotic, occasionally dissonant “Slark” B-side, the previously alluded to “Purple Spaceship Over Yatton,” one of the single greatest progressive tracks ever put to tape; the single-only release, “Do the Stanley,” a non-dancecraze inducing stomper, and it’s accompanying B-side, the beautiful, lilting “C’est La Vie.”

THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT

MI0000126107

(MCA RECORDS; 1974)

The third Stackridge album, the intended title of which was THE ROAD TO VENEZUELA (and was renamed PINAFORE DAYS – with a very different track listing – for consumption in North America), was something of a dream come true for the sextet, as legendary (even then!) Beatles producer George Martin came on board (with engineer Geoff Emerick in tow) to lead the lads to new heights. The group was particularly disappointed with the sound quality of the first two records; along with Martin and Emerick came Sir George’s (such is his current title) state-of-the-art Air Studios in London and the sparkling, vibrant production quality and the brilliant arrangements and orchestrations that was nearly as important as the music on those highly revered Beatles sides. The difference is immediately heard, with the opening track, the poppy romp “Fundamentally Yours,” with Martin adding some well-placed piano.

As with the Beatles’ albums, Martin’s handprints are all over the remaining nine tracks of …BOWLER HAT, as well, adding piano here and there, bringing in orchestration elsewhere and generally giving the lads the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience in musical arrangements and production. The essential cuts include “Pinafore Days,” with its somehow Victorian sounding waltz and lyrics that would not seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch; released as a single in advance of the album, “The Galloping Guacho” opened side two, with a swirling calliope of carnival music that would not have been out of place on a late-period Beatles offering; the sparkling pop of “Dangerous Bacon” features a galloping drum pattern, a great guitar solo and a guest spot from Roxy Music’s sax man, Andy Mackay; a shot of Andy Davis whimsy, “The Indifferent Hedgehog,” leads into the majestically orchestrated instrumental, “God Speed the Plough,” which again highlights the flute of Mutter and violin of Mike Evans to great effect. Unfortunately, Martin’s involvement with …BOWLER HAT did not result in increased sales. Equally regrettable is the fact that the recording session seems to have included only the ten tracks featured here, as both singles from the period (the second was “Dangerous Bacon”), as well as their respective B-sides (“Fundamentally Yours” and “The Last Plimsoll”), come from the album; as a result, this is the first Angel Air reissue to not feature bonus material.

EXTRAVAGANZA

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(THE ROCKET RECORD COMPANY; 1974)

With a move to Elton John’s new vanity label and Tony Ashton (late of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and a brief stint in Family) in tow as producer, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater (Mike Evans appears briefly, performing the solo on “The Volunteer”) introduced a radically reconfigured group to the stalwart Stackridge fans. Not that there was an appreciable change in the music, although, without James Warren’s charming compositional skills, Davis and Slater tended to lean toward the more cabaret-esque side of the Stackridge spectrum; the pair also seems to have abdicated their newly-minted leadership to Rod Bowkett, the band’s new keyboardist, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the record’s ten tracks. The album opens with Bowkett’s 1920s dancehall-styled single, “Spin ‘Round the Room.” Considering the prevailing musical climate in the United Kingdom, I find it virtually incomprehensible that neither this nor the pair of …BOWLER HAT singles were radio or chart hits. It isn’t until the third track, “The Volunteer,” that we here a song from Davis, one of three co-songwriting credits on EXTRAVAGANZA. The song moves between a somber waltz and a rollicking sort of reel, one of the very few tunes that harken back to the original Stackridgian joie de vivre.

Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, 1974 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

Highbury Incident (Rainy July Morning)” follows, a jaunty little piece of Beatles-like pop written by Davis, Bowkett and Mutter, highlighted by rather Crimsonesque work (consider Ian McDonald’s work on IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING) from new woodwinds player Keith Gemmell. Side two of the original vinyl took a decidedly jazzy swerve into – cover your ears… uh… eyes, children, as I type that word that should never be typed – fusion territory with, incomprehensibly, three cuts out of four being instrumentals. Former King Crimson (there’s that name again!) bassist Gordon Haskell walked in the front door, dropping off “No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm,” the most progressive tune here (go figure, huh?), on his way out the back door, leaving the bass duties to Paul Karas, formerly of Rare Bird. The three instrumentals are adventurous but, aside from “Pocket Billiards,” sound out of place here. “Rufus T Firefly,” the side’s opening track, is mentioned here because… well… Groucho Marx! Like …BOWLER HAT, Angel Air’s reissue of EXTRAVAGANZA features no bonus material. The album isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t come off as a proper Stackridge record.

MISTER MICK

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(THE ROCKET RCORDING COMPANY; 1976)

The fifth Stackridge full-length comes with an oddly familiar history behind it: Their record company didn’t like the concept and demanded changes be made. The record started life as a concept album, following the life of a cranky old man, with Mutter adding odd bits of dialogue – written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde – to move the story along. Rocket Records sent them back to the drawing board, basically telling the boys to “lose all this talking stuff, cut these songs and, by the way, where’s the single?” The resultant product looked and sounded quite different than the original, as did the band as Andy and Mutter welcomed back Crun Walter on the bass, with Keith Gemmell the only holdover from the EXTRAVAGANZA band; the lineup was completed with drummer Peter Van Hooke and former Greensalde member Dave Lawson adding synthesizer textures. As much as Stackridge had known a bit of success on the singles chart, it must have been quite humorous to be told, “We don’t hear a single. We need a single.” Another trip to the studio and the band had a single, a sort of Caribbean (or, if you rather, psuedo-Reggae) take on the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight,” which was released several months before the MISTER MICK album. Rocket Records were immediately rewarded with a release that seemed to disappear from existence virtually before it was released due to a surging apathy for anything that could not be considered punk.

Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)
Stackridge, 2008 (Andy Davis) (uncredited photo)

The reorganized and partially rerecorded version of the album featured a sound that owed more to 10CC, than it did to any of the original Stackridge’s influences or, indeed, to any of the previous four Stackridge records. Having missed the mark (chart-wise) with the band’s Beatles cover, Rocket decided to cut their losses and open their version of MISTER MICK with “Hold Me Tight.” This version really isn’t too bad but, with the more standard progressive pop featured throughout the remaining nine cuts, sounds very much out of place. Possibly, the most adventurous piece on the album is the B-side to “Hold Me Tight,” “Breakfast With Werner Von Braun,” a holdover from the original sessions, which could best be described as a Bedouin waltz. The incongruities rear their ugly heads rather quickly, as “The Steam Radio Song” features the accompanying narrative thread (written by then-unknown children’s author, Steve Augarde and delivered by Mutter) from the original recording; as sequenced by the record company, this bit of dialogue shows up about four tracks too soon. While the official version of MISTER MICK has its flaws, there are still enough nice moments to make it listenable, including the original album’s opening track, “Hey! Good Looking” and the Beatles-esque “Fish In a Glass,” also from the original, Stackridge version of the record. The Angel Air reissue pairs the Rocket Records release with the original, rejected twelve track version, which previously saw release as THE ORIGINAL MISTER MICK in 2000. Comparisons prove there are now stunning differences between the two but, with only seven overlapping tunes, the double disc release gives you five previously unheard (or, at least, very rarely heard) tracks.

PART FOUR: THE KORGIS, COLLECTIVELY

The Korgis, Andy’s and James’ other band, like Stackridge, got the “best of” treatment from Angel Air, first with 2005’s KOLLECTION, which, like a lot of Angel Air releases showed up a little later on in a Sound and Vision version as SOMETHING ABOUT THE KORGIS (a demo called “Make a Fuss About Us” was replaced with a new version of the Stackridge tune “Something About the Beatles”). The recent release of a much different package called …BY APPOINTMENT weeds out a few of the lesser tracks from KOLLECTION and adds a few cuts from an acoustic release called – naturally – UNPLUGGED. For essential music from the Korgis, I humbly suggest…

THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT

The Korgis cover

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2015)

After the MISTER MICK debacle, Andy Davis and Mutter Slater laid Stackridge to rest. Shortly thereafter, Andy and James Warren made nice and formed the Korgis, with violinist Stuart Gordon and keyboard player Phil Harrison along for the ride. The eponymous first album was released within two years of the demise of the mother band and garnered Warren and Davis something that had alluded them throughout the seven year career of Stackridge: An actual charting single… a hit, in the form of “If I Had You.”

The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)
The Korgis (James Warren, Andy Davis) (publicity photo)

The gently rocking “If I Had You” opens …BY APPOINTMENT, sounding for all the world like a George Harrison outtake. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” follows; the languorous lead single from the second Korgis album, DUMB WAITERS, hit number five in the UK and was Top 20 in the States. The next single, the Beach Boys-lite of “If It’s Alright With You Baby,” barely nudged its way into the British charts, the last release from the group to see any such action. THE KORGIS… BY APPOINTMENT – by my calculations, the tenth compilation package from the group – features a mix of single releases and album tracks, rerecorded for this release, though a few are culled from 2005’s UNPLUGGED record; Andy and James are joined by long-time collaborator, John Baker. Highlights include the oddly appealing “True Life Confessions,” which is a bizarre combination of Mariachi horns, English pop and Caribbean percussion… truly an embracing of the “world music” vibe; a taught, tense “Lines,” from UNPLUGGED; the anthemic “One Life,” with its brilliant lead and harmony vocals, charging percussion track and massive organ leading the way.

The second half of the collection features “Mount Everest Sings the Blues,” a blast of old time rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie; a beautiful, lush remake of “Something About the Beatles,” from the late-90s Warren-led Stackridge reunion (SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND also featured original members Crun Walter on bass and Michael Evans on violin); a cool version of the Korgis’ first single, “Young ‘n’ Russian,” from UNPLUGGED; a weird, faux-jazz Andy Davis tune called “Art School Annexe.” While the final half of …BY APPOINTMENT is more easy listening than the first half, overall, this is a solid introduction to the Korgis and their music.

PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD, FINALLY

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With Stackridge calling it a career and Angel Air Records reissuing the original albums (with plenty of bonus material), now is definitely the time to jump on this band’s wagon. As mentioned above, a great starting place is the “best of” collection, PURPLE SPACESHIP OVER YATTON but, you really can’t go wrong with the group’s original run of albums (STACKRIDGE through to MISTER MICK). Other recorded highlights from the band’s reformative years include SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND (1999), THE FORBIDDEN CITY (2008’s double CD of the group’s April Fool’s Day show from the previous year) and their final album, A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE (2009). Any or all (as well as any of the Korgis collections – UNPLUGGED and …BY APPOINTMENT being personal favorites – and various James Warren and Andy Davis solo projects) are worthy of your attention.

UPDATE: Stackridge took their final bow in their hometown of Bristol on December 19, 2015. A film of that last show will be edited and released on DVD sometime in 2016. Of course, we know that – like comic book characters – rock bands never truly die and, sometime when we least expect it, Stackridge will mount another comeback. I’ll be waiting.

WISHBONE ASH; WISHBONE ASH/MATT TAUL

(September 12, 2015; September 13, 2015; THE WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville IL)

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check at the Wildey Theatre (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check at the Wildey Theatre (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

What can conceivably be better than seeing Wishbone Ash live? Why, seeing Wishbone Ash live two nights in a row, of course! Now, I loves me some Wishbone Ash but, this isn’t going to be a fan-boy rant about how great it was to see a band play the exact same show two nights in a row… because it wasn’t the same show two nights in a row. Night two at the beautiful Wildey Theatre was a recent addition to the group’s schedule and a bit of a departure from the regular ROAD WARRIORS TOUR; in the middle of the set, the band played their crowning achievement, ARGUS, from front to back… well, kinda (more on that later). This was my first Wildey experience and, I must admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The recently (2010) renovated Wildey began life in 1909 as a vaudeville theater and now serves as a live venue for music, comedy and stage plays, as well as a movie theater, showing classics from the not-too-distant past (we just missed PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE; MEAN GIRLS is upcoming). The seating capacity is somewhere around 300, give or take, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house; the sound is phenomenal. So… what am I trying to say? Well… I like this place. I really like this place! And, apparently, so do a lot of… uh… let’s call them “well established” acts, as the Wildey continues to show up on tour itineraries for Savoy Brown, Dave Mason, Gypsy and, yes, Wishbone Ash.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check (Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 sound check (Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Both nights featured a VIP ticket option (something a lot of bands are doing in an effort to keep regular ticket prices more affordable), including a meet and greet session with the band, a “sound check” with original guitarist Andy Powell offering up anecdotes from the group’s forty-six year career and answering questions from the fans. The quartet also played snippets of rarely played favorites from that long career. Unfortunately, we didn’t get into the first night’s session in time to catch anything other than a few questions; the second night, however, featured a bit of “Lady Whisky,” from the first Wishbone Ash record, and a verse and chorus from “Ballad of the Beacon,” which comes from my all-time favorite album from the group, WISHBONE FOUR. Everybody – including Andy and his boys – seemed to have a great time in this informal setting.

Wishbone Ash, night 1 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell; Andy Powell with Bob Skeat) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 1 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell; Andy Powell with Bob Skeat) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The first evening’s set began with three tunes from the latest album, 2014’s BLUE HORIZON, including the jazzy island vibe of the title track. Unlike a lot of other “classic” artists, Wishbone Ash have continually been able to introduce new material to their live sets rather than simply relying on their past achievements; of course, the fact that they continue to place a premium on producing high quality music certainly doesn’t hurt. Most of the set, naturally, was made up of songs from the first several years of the band’s existence, including a favorite from 1979’s JUST TESTING, “Helpless,” several songs from ARGUS, “Jail Bait” from the PILGRIMAGE record and a fiery (pun definitely intended) “Phoenix” from WISHBONE ASH. This Wishbone Ash is the real deal, no pale imitator of the band’s earlier incarnations; they have been together for some ten years, more than twice as long as the original group (Andy Powell, Martin Turner, Ted Turner and Steve Upton). Even adding the service time of the second version of the group (with Laurie Wisefield taking over Ted Turner’s guitar spot), this band matches both together for longevity… they know how to put on a show. In an interview before the shows, Andy commented on the “youngster” of the band, drummer Joe Crabtree, as being half his age and “kicking him up the arse,” both on stage and in the studio. Andy’s guitar-slinging partner, Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen (who physically reminded me of the sorely missed Glen Buxton), more than upholds his end of the band’s innovative dual lead sound; he can also lay down a brilliantly bluesy solo when required. Aside from Andy, bass player Bob Skeat is the longest tenured member of the group, at eighteen years and counting. He and Crabtree are a formidable rhythm section, keeping the sound tight even as they add their own flairs to the most well-known numbers from the band’s illustrious past. I should note that a collective groan went up from the crowd when Andy broke a string and had to put aside his Flying V before launching into “Phoenix.” That guitar body has become synonymous with Andy Powell and Wishbone Ash and watching the man playing something other than that guitar was sorta strange,

Matt Taul (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Matt Taul (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Night two was a different beast. The first night was broken up into two sets of roughly fifty minutes each; this night featured an opening act and one ninety minute set from the headliners. Matt Taul, of the Stubblefield Band, offered a serviceable (if rather uninspired) acoustic set, augmented by hot-shot guitarist Phil Waits, who did exhibit a bit of fire with his lead work and solos. To be fair to Taul, I think that this acoustic outing may not have been the best option as an opener for a group like Wishbone Ash. His evocative, raspy rock growl was just so out of place with the folky playing (Waits’ stellar picking notwithstanding) on display throughout the set.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Ash opened night two with the same three BLUE HORIZON tunes before introducing the tour’s only North American performance of the entire ARGUS album. Predictably, the earlier question and answer session revolved around the evening’s special event; Andy related the band’s literary influences for the seven songs on their third album (a fascination with Tolkein and Arthurian legend, as well as Martin Turner’s study of the Bible). Even though these things were obvious when ARGUS was released in 1972, hearing the stories made me listen to things a little differently… shining a new light (THE light?) on the familiar songs. After a brilliant “Time Was,” Powell led the band into “Blowin’ Free.” He didn’t realize his mistake until Skeat whispered in his ear that he had forgotten the record’s second song, “Sometime World.” Joking about his earlier rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and his advanced age, Andy set things right, in a backward kind of way. With the program back on track, Andy reminded us ALL just how old we are, by mentioning that it was time to flip the record to side two for “The King Will Come.” Aside from the lyrical themes and reliance on traditional English folk music for inspiration, the album is known for the extended instrumental sections, particularly on “Warrior,” one of the hardest rocking tunes out of the seven. Watching Andy (with his trademark Flying V, though not the famed white one he used during the band’s early years) and Muddy lock into a harmonic groove or seeing one of the pair break away for a nearly note-perfect solo, with Bob and Joe laying down a solid bottom end, was definitely a highlight of the show.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Muddy Manninen; Andy Powell and Joe Crabtree) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Having thrilled the crowd with ARGUS, the band returned to the new BLUE HORIZON album, as well as dipping into one of their more overlooked releases with the title tune from 1977’s FRONT PAGE NEWS and ending with an even better version of “Phoenix” than they played the previous evening. They returned with a pair of rarely performed numbers for an encore, “Persephone” from THERE’S THE RUB, the band’s first with Laurie Wisefield, and “Blind Eye” from the venerable debut release. “Persephone” is perhaps one of the finest ballads of the “arena rock” era and was a request from the earlier VIP session; when Powell asked the gentleman why he requested that particular tune, he said that it was the most beautiful song he’d ever heard. Andy, visibly taken aback at the pronouncement, could only say, “Wow.” When the number was over, there were more than a few members of the audience seconding that response. “Blind Eye” exhibits the earliest progressive proclivities of the band, but is also an astonishingly effective example of Wishbone Ash’s contributions to the British Blues Movement, with great harmony leads from Manninen and Powell and solos from all four members of the group.

Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell with Muddy Manninen; Bob Skeat) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)
Wishbone Ash, night 2 (Andy Powell with Muddy Manninen; Bob Skeat) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

I’d seen the band once before, in 1993, on a package tour with Uriah Heep and Nazareth (Blue Oyster Cult was a no-show) but, that version (featuring only Ted and Andy from the recently reunited original four) paled in comparison to the Wishbone Ash beast on display over these two nights in mid-September, 2015. And, while the heart pines for the chance to see the original four perform again, I don’t hear any complaints (nor do I have any) about the four guys who pulled out all the stops to give their fans the music they wanted to hear.

RASPUTINA/DANIEL KNOX

(August 9, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

The place to be.

Pretty much everybody has a bucket list. The bucket lists of people who write about music looks a whole lot different than other such lists; my list probably looks unlike anyone, anywhere, in any profession. Unfortunately, at least two-thirds of my list would require a time machine, so… what about that other third? Well, on a Sunday night in August, I was able to cross one item from my list: Rasputina live, with yours truly front and center. I have, occasionally, been disappointed after accomplishing something from my list; this one more than lived up to my expectations. The fact that the show took place at Saint Louis’ Old Rock House was a bonus.

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A second bonus was the opening act, Daniel Knox, a quirky, disheveled singer/songwriter with a pen tucked behind his left ear and a penchant for rummaging through a stack of crumpled notebook paper, looking for the lyrics to his next song. It wasn’t hard to keep track of how many songs Knox performed… you just had to follow the bouncing wads of paper. You see, as he finished one song, he would crumple the lyrics and drop the paper at his feet. Accompanying himself on electric piano and the occasional backing track or kazoo (on “You Win Some, You Tie Some”), Knox relied heavily on his new, eponymous third album, offering up the new single, “Blue Car,” a song about a near-deserted mall in his hometown (Springfield IL) called “White Oaks Mall” and a “song about my imaginary friend… my Mom wouldn’t allow him in her car, he wasn’t allowed in the house” called “David Carmichael.” Daniel’s odd, mumbling stream-of-unconsciousness intros were almost as good as the songs themselves. He introduced “Blue Car” as, “A song about time travel. I wrote it when I was ten… ten years from now.” The lyrics to another, called “Chasescene,” includes the macabre couplet “I love you in the ground/Your naked and cannot make a sound.” As stark and bleak as the studio versions tend to be, they take on a whole new creepiness with the minimal, solo approach, especially stuff like “Get To Know Your Neighbors” and “Ghostsong.” This performance was totally unexpected and very much the perfect table-setter for the headliners.

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Melora Creager may forever be linked to Nirvana as the cellist on the European leg of their IN UTERO tour (the final tour, a couple of months before Kurdt shuffled himself off this mortal coil) but, to an ever-growing fan base, for the past twenty-some years, she is the musical and visual mastermind behind Rasputina. Creager’s backward-looking, forward-thinking music and fashion-sense glorifies the forgotten women and near-apocalyptic events of history, primarily highlighting the Victorian Age; her aesthetics have been a major contributor to the rise of the Steampunk phenomenon. And, of course, her music and Rasputina fill a big hole for people who miss the anything-goes quirkiness of the mid-to-late 1960s. A quick look around the room shows that the enigmatic three-piece reaches everyone from old hippies to young alt-rock punks, all of them rapturously soaking in the sounds of the past two centuries. Melora’s current bandmates – Carpella Parvo, who also plays cello, and Luis Mojica, who adds some well-placed keyboard elements and anachronistic beat-boxing – are equally important in bringing her vision to the stage. Covering a wide range of material (from 2002’s CABIN FEVER! to the recently released UNKNOWN, as well as some cool covers), Rasputina’s set was a slow-burn affair, relying more on lyrical emotion than musical crescendos, though there were enough intense moments and interaction between the players (especially Creager and Parvo) to keep the uninitiated (including me) involved and captivated by the show.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The majority of the material came from the last three Rasputina releases, with four from 2010’s SISTER KINDERHOOK and three each from 2007’s OH PERILOUS WORLD (including the frigid set opener, “1816, the Year Without a Summer,” which name-checks Mary Shelley – the inclement weather forced her and her friends to stay indoors, where Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS during the prolonged exile – among others) and UNKNOWN. A frantic Holocaust of Giants” kicked off a trio of …KINDERHOOK tunes, followed by an operaticSweet Sister Temperance” and “Humankind, As the Sailor,” which featured Mojica’s persistent Native American percussion to great effect. An oddly appealing cover of Goldfrapp’s “Clowns” put an end to the first portion of the recital.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The three new songs made up the set’s middle section, with a tale of a famed lady-in-waiting in the Court of Queen Elizabeth, Bridget Manners,” “Indian Weed,” which allowed Melora and Carpella a bit of a break, with Luis looping the rhythm part of Creager’s cello, and a fever dream paean to Melora’s poltergeist called “Psychopathic Logic.” The latter led into a very cool take on Ray Davies’ “I Go To Sleep,” an early demo of which appeared on a “kitchen sink” compilation called GREAT AMERICAN GINGERBREAD. Other highlights of the evening – of which there were too many to tell you about – included the final SISTER KINDERHOOD number, the fragile “This, My Porcelain Life,” another historical piece called “Rats,” which recounts the time Bolivians asked the Pope to declare the vermin to be fish to alleviate starvation and featured a squalling, slide guitar-like solo from Melora and fan favorite, In Old Yellowcake,” which not only featured hauntingly visual lyrics about the vagaries of war but, rocks pretty hard, too, with a fairly awesome instrumental section with the cellos coming in with a rather dissonant sounding counterpoint before sliding into a nice harmony bit. And, of course, what Rasputina recitation would be complete without their brilliant take on Pink Floyd’s ode to broken friends, “Wish You Were Here?”

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I will admit that this was an exceedingly different show than I usually go in for but, by the end of the night, I was taken by the sheer theatricality of Melora Creager’s music and lyrics and the performance of all three members of Rasputina. Luis Mojica, in particular, comes across as a sort of super utility player, with his beat-box percussion, his use of the occasional hand drum and other percussive instruments and, naturally, the variety of instruments programmed into his simple keyboard. As in most great musical pieces, this performance proved that it isn’t only the notes played but, sometime, it’s the notes not played. Even though I can now cross Rasputina live off my bucket list, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t revisit that particular item if given the opportunity.

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.

BUNNYGRUNT/NERVOSAS/ROYAL HOLLAND/VEIL

(July 18,2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

4, 2, 1, 3, Go (photo credit: KENDALL BRUNS)
4, 2, 1, 3, Go (photo credit: KENDALL BRUNS)

I know that none of you could ever conceive of this, but… yours truly has, upon occasion, been known as the perpetrator of some fairly boneheaded moves. Perhaps one of the biggest involves the band Bunnygrunt. You see, over my twenty-plus years in this business, I have never seen (or really even heard) one of Saint Louis’ most-beloved musical acts. Why, you ask? As odd as it sounds… I didn’t particularly care for the name; yup… that’s it! I simply did not think Bunnygrunt was a name befitting a rock ‘n’ roll ensemble. After Saturday’s show at Off Broadway (my first “grunting”), I come to you, knees bent and head bowed in an abject act of contrition for being such a name-hating idjit.

Veil (Ashley) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Veil (Ashley) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The evening’s affair actually encompasses two separate and very distinct shows: Bunnygrunt and Royal Holland were originally scheduled with another act at the venue but, when the third act had to cancel, the ‘Grunt’s Matt Harnish asked a couple of punk bands, who had a house show scheduled, if they would like to join forces for the Off Broadway show. It certainly looks odd on paper but, it makes a certain amount of sense, as Ashley Hohman, from the Saint Louis group Veil, had already been penciled in as Bunnygrunt’s bassist-for-the-night.

Veil (Gabe) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Veil (Gabe) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The music of Veil is old school, a cool blend of the Damned and early Misfits. The reverb and echo sometimes got in the way of Ashley’s vocals and, somehow, managed to seep into every aspect of the performance. I mean, seriously… how do you manage to get reverb on a drum kit? Ashley’s bass and Gabe’s primal skin-beating fueled the group through a set that was, though technically short (about 20 minutes), filled to the brim with punk goodness. With Chris and Leo’s grinding, slashing guitar attack, the quartet played their latest six-song demo, MANIAC, in it’s entirety and tossed in a killer version of Patti Smith’s classic anthem, “Because the Night,” for good measure. Aside from the reverb overkill, Veil’s set was fun… a great way to kick off the night.

Royal Holland with Kendall Bruns (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Royal Holland with Kendall Bruns (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Royal Holland is a scruffy-looking, soft-spoken, unassuming sort of guy; the kind of guy you may not even give a second look, except for his piercing eyes and friendly smile. If you’ve given a listen to his music (a pair of EPs), his voice is a lilting, calming thing; the tunes range from folky solo outings to ethereal doses of poppy Americana. However, once he took the stage, the soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor was gone, replaced by a confident, snarling singer and raging guitarist; the music took on a tougher patina, pushing the songs’ boundaries into a harder rocking vein. And, yeah… he did it mostly with an acoustic guitar, a notable exception being the freak-out/rave-up of set closer, “Flamingo,” from the recently released VOLUME TWO set.

Royal Holland (Margaret Darling; Matt Retherford; Wonky Tonk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Royal Holland (Margaret Darling; Matt Retherford; Wonky Tonk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Holland’s band, all top-notch musicians and as unassuming as the singer, may appear laid back in their approach but, they matched Royal’s incendiary performance note for note. Drummer Matt Retherford and percussionist Margaret Darling (who also provides some keyboard shading to the darker songs) expertly drive the music forward without overplaying or overshadowing the tunes with flashy displays. Kendall Bruns adds just the right amount of vocal support and his rootsy ukelele accompaniment keeps the music grounded in Americana. Jasmine Poole, who goes by the odd sobriquet “Wonky Tonk,” was filling in on bass and hitting all the right notes. As animated as she is off-stage, she tended to stay just out of the reach of the stage lights, pouring everything she had into her playing. Royal and the band started their set slow, with “Shore” from the first EP, VOLUME ONE, and built the tempo and the cascading emotional moments with strikingly brilliant songs like “Statues” and “The Grave,” leading into that final release on “Flamingo.” Lyrically, musically and emotionally, this is a thinking man’s band; in those euphoric moments, when word and melody and heart transcend the boundaries of what we call music, it stirs something deep in the soul. For me, on this night, Royal Holland stirred my soul.

Nervosas (Mickey; Jeff) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Nervosas (Mickey; Jeff) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

If Veil reveled in punk’s more ghoulish, Hammer Horror side, Nervosas celebrated the early days of English punk, with equal parts Sex Pistols, Chelsea, Billy Idol’s Generation X and the Clash (with more than a touch of TSOL, Dead Kennedys and classic X thrown in for good measure); main vocalist and bass player Jeff even has Idol’s bleach blond punk cut, chiseled good looks and just the right amount of venom in his voice. The slash and burn attack of guitarist and second vocalist Mickey gives the tunes an air of chaos, punctuated by her backing vocals… more of a manic howl than anything else. As Nervosas’ sound occasionally threatens to uncoil, the group’s third member, Nick, manages to hold everything together with a thunderous – and surprisingly supple – approach to his drumming.

Nervosas (Nick) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Nervosas (Nick) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Seven of the set’s nine tunes came from the brand-spanking-new self-titled release from Dirtnap Records, which is more nuanced than the trio’s previous recordings. Even so, the buzzsaw guitars, pummeling drum attack and Jeff’s Ian Curtis wail on such graveyard ballads as “Night Room,” Quarantine” and “Arcadia” tended to tear at the jugular. Nervosas’ set proved to be as visceral an experience as that of Royal Holland but, where that seared the soul, this was more like a punch to the solar plexus… just like any punk band worth their salt should deliver. I look forward to each evolutionary advancement on future Nervosas records; I likewise look forward to more scorching, unapologetically balls-out live sets.

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman, Eric Von Damage, Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman, Eric Von Damage, Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

And so, it was on to the headliners: Saint Louis’ mighty Bunnygrunt, feting the release of their first album in six years, VOLUME FOUROpening with the high impact couplet of “Big Fake Out” (the first track from 1998’s JEN-FI album) and “South Kingshighway Bubblegum Factory” (from 2009’s MATT HARNISH AND OTHER DELIGHTS), the modified trio (figurehead and de facto leader Matt Harnish, drummer Eric Von Damage and Karen Reid’s more-than-capable semi-permanant fill-in, Ashley Hohman) joked and played their way through a set that was long on songs from the new record, while still offering the fans a good dose of the songs they’ve come to love over the band’s twnety-plus year career. The house was rockin’, with the crowd singing along, holding a running conversation with Harnish between tunes and giggling like school girls at the stories and commentary from the stage. And, of course, who could not have a good time hearing bent little pop ditties like “Transportation Pants” (from the group’s first full-length, ACTION PANTS, which eventually devolved into the trashy, thrashy “1000% Not Creepy”), “Young Abe Lincoln” andChunt Bump?”

Bunnygrunt (Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Bunnygrunt (Matt Harnish) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Von Damage and Hohman kept things tight but bouncy rhythmically, allowing Harnish the luxury of doing just about anything that came to mind melodically, including the occasional guitar freak-out, as on the Kinks’ “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” which morphed into “Led It Out,” a tune from the new record that‘s more than a nod and a wink to the dirigibly renamed New Yardbirds and their poppier predecessors. On “Frankie Is a Killer,” the bass and drums rolled and crashed underneath Matt’s dire warnings to protect your loved ones; the song, delivered wrapped in a pretty, jangly pop bow, featured a guitar solo that paid homage to the Saint Louis sound created by Johnnie and Chuck, lo, those many years ago. Ashley handled the vocals on the rambunctious “Still Chooglin’ (After All These Beers),” a number that’s equal parts Creedence Clearwater Revival swampy pop and early Stooges mayhem. “Don’t Forget Who Your Friends Are” turned into a purposefully sloppy train wreck, with a messed up kinda guitar solo that led to a full stop in the proceedings before charging back into the chorus.

Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman; Eric Von Damage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Bunnygrunt (Ashley Hohman; Eric Von Damage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Matt, Eric and Ashley showed off their rock ‘n’ roll chops from the get-go and, seeking to please the rabid crowd, pulled out every trick they had in their magician’s hat of musical stage magic, ensuring that everyone – from the long time, diehard fans to the newcomers like me – would long look back on this night with the fondest of memories. Now, who could possibly ask for more than that?

BETH BOMBARA/LOOT ROCK GANG/RIVER KITTENS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWANGFEST 19: CRACKER/MARAH/GRACE BASEMENT

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

TWANGFEST 19 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
TWANGFEST 19 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A STORY TO BE TOLD: THE PATRICK TOURVILLE INTERVIEW

AN INTRODUCTION

Jerry Jeff Walker and Patrick Tourville, 2011 (uncredited photo)
Jerry Jeff Walker and Patrick Tourville, 2011 (uncredited photo)

This is the story of two men – two visionaries – and how their lives have intersected, not only with each other but, also with those of us who can appreciate people who are unafraid to “buck the system” for a principle they believe in. Both are steadfast and unwavering in their commitment to doing the right thing and making things better.

The first, an upstate New Yorker named Ronald Crosby, became Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966, embarking on a fifty year (and counting) career of musical and personal highs and lows that can only be described as “legendary.” During his early busking days, Walker landed in a New Orleans jail cell with a down-on-his-luck drunken tap dancer known as Bojangles; Jerry Jeff turned the experience into one of the most recognized songs of the last half-century, “Mister Bojangles.” That experience and that song has colored Jerry Jeff’s career ever since. However, it was the decision to make Austin, Texas his home base that thrust Walker into the forefront of the outlaw country movement, along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Ray Benson’s Asleep At the Wheel. Suddenly, the wayward troubadour found himself on the major label treadmill, cranking out an album (or two) a year for MCA and, later, Elektra, throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. During this time, an angel named Susan came into his life, grounding and stabilizing the wild life Walker had led for most of his adult life. As the grind of being a major label recording artist began to take its toll, Jerry Jeff, with Susan’s blessing, walked away from the insanity in 1982. In 1986, Jerry Jeff and Susan Walker formed Tried and True Music, an independent label dedicated to releasing new music from Jerry Jeff, on their own terms. Always being a man who believed in causes and, looking for a way to give back, the couple eventually founded the Tried and True Foundation, which is a reflection of their commitment to the fostering of young musicians’ talents.

Jerry Jeff Walker onstage (uncredited photo)
Jerry Jeff Walker onstage (uncredited photo)

Those final few sentences lead us, quite naturally, to the second visionary: Filmmaker Patrick Tourville. Patrick was introduced to the music of Jerry Jeff Walker through his first MCA Records album and that record’s lead track, “Hill Country Rain.” A couple decades later, with Patrick already a well-respected commercial director, he was contacted by a large telecom conglomerate to produce a spot to sell their company to the Texas audience; as Tourville pitched his concepts to a room of suits, he found that he had a divided audience – half of the Board loved the idea, the other half weren’t completely sold. Eventually, the company’s president (an old friend of Patrick’s) suggested Patrick approach Jerry Jeff and ask him to appear in the commercial. Tourville contacted Susan (who has been Jerry Jeff’s manager for quite some time) with the proposal; when it came time to talk money, Patrick said that he knew the company had set aside a certain amount of funding to go to Walker; Susan countered with, “I think they have this to offer, so let’s meet in the middle and be finished.” From that short phone conversation, a friendship and a true kinship of hearts and minds developed. As Patrick became more involved with societal and political issues, he began seeking out projects that would truly uplift, rather than simply promote. The real Jerry Jeff Walker story is much deeper than a simple retelling of the career of a sometimes out-of-control singer/songwriter; at the heart of Jerry Jeff’s tale is a story of redemption and salvation, a story of a man wanting to do better and, above all else, a love story. These are the things that brought a well-respected filmmaker named Patrick Tourville to direct OK BUCKAROOS. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and fleshed out via several phone conversations with Patrick. But, first…

A REVIEW: OK BUCKAROOS

(PUBLIK PICTURES/TRIED AND TRUE MUSIC (121 minutes; Unrated); 2014)

JJWALKER POSTER 250MG WEB

OK BUCKAROOS is a straight-forward biographical sketch of one of the founding engineers of what has become known as “Outlaw Country,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Director Patrick Tourville, thankfully, doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on some of Jerry Jeff’s more widely publicized proclivities, highlighting the under-publicized family man and champion of the underdog aspects of his life that make him a much more interesting and uplifting subject... I mean, if you wanna see a musician self-explode, you can catch that any night of the week on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or VH1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC. Along the way, however, we do get to see some of those wild stage performances and antics that Walker was so famous for, through archival footage from his Gonzo heyday. Through interviews with Jerry Jeff and his wife of 41 years, Susan, as well as friends and fellow musicians, we get a true vision of the creative and influential mark that Walker has left on popular American music.

Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson on the set of THE TEXAS CONNECTION, 1992 (publicity photo)
Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson on the set of THE TEXAS CONNECTION, 1992 (publicity photo)

Interspersed with those manic snippets (and later, more laid back, elder statesman performances) of Jerry Jeff onstage, with friends such as Bob Livingstone and Gary P Nunn and the Lost Gonzo Band or with legends like Willie Nelson, are also intimate solo acoustic performances – reminiscences, really – from the man himself, giving new depth and insight into the song and the songwriter. Archival interviews with Walker, Guy Clark, Jimmy Buffett and Kris Kristofferson and new musings and stories from singer/songwriters influenced by Jerry Jeff like Todd Snider and Bruce Robison and from old friends like Ray Wylie Hubbard (who wrote that song about the “Redneck Mother”). The eagle-eyed will recognize David Bromberg, iconic Austin musician Joe Ely and others among the mass of humanity onstage with Jerry Jeff and, variably, the Interchangeable Dance Band or the Lost Gonzo Band from some of those early live clips.

Patrick Tourville with Ray Wylie Hubbard (publicity still)
Patrick Tourville with Ray Wylie Hubbard (publicity still)

Patrick Tourville has gone above and beyond with OK BUCKAROOS, digging deep and hitting the right nerves to bring out the story and the man behind some of the greatest American music written in the past fifty-plus years. Being a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker since my brother played RIDIN’ HIGH for me back in 1975, this film has certainly given me a new appreciation for his music and for who he has become over those passing years. OK BUCKAROOS should be required viewing for anyone interested in music or a career in music; the film offers valuable life and business lessons from a man who has looked at life from the bottom of the pile and from the top of the heap. As a cautionary tale or as a redemptive love story, the documentary works on enough levels to keep even non-fans interested. By the way, there are several bonus music-only videos (“Mister Bojangles,” “Hill Country Rain” and others), from live shows in 1982 and 2009… they’re great additions to the package. OK BUCKAROOS is available here and at all the usual locations.

AN INTERVIEW

Patrick Tourville (publicity photo)
Patrick Tourville (publicity photo)

THE MULE: Patrick, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about the Jerry Jeff Walker documentary, OK BUCKAROOS. Despite some moderate successes in the ’70s, Jerry Jeff Walker isn’t exactly a household name. So, how did you come to direct and co-write a documentary about the man? What initially drew you to the project?

PATRICK: I won’t guess at your age, but assume your location. If you were “of age” in the early seventies and living in Texas, Jerry Jeff was huge. So, my household included Jerry Jeff, along with my Rolling Stones and my sister’s Beatles; so, it’s one of those “you had to be there” stories. However, something “household wise” was happening or all the fat cats from LA would not have descended on the Austin scene, en masse.

I was lucky. There are two songs that are seminal in my early (transistor) radio experience: “ …Satisfaction” and “Hill Country Rain.”

THE MULE: While Jerry Jeff certainly isn’t a recluse, he is a man who doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself. How was he convinced that his was a story that needed to be told? And, equally as important, how did you convince him that you were the person to tell that story?

PATRICK: Susan… PERIOD! I had done some commercial work with the Walkers years earlier. Then, I found myself with five cameras and a crane on July 4th, 2009, at Dell Diamond for a Kellie Pickler show. JJ was on that stage and I kept rolling. The rest is history… Thanks to Susan for trusting me with the family… LOL.

Patrick Tourville with Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker, 2011 (uncredited photo)
Patrick Tourville with Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker, 2011 (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: As you researched your subject and interviewed him, his family, his friends and bandmates, were you surprised by anything you learned or by anything you were told?

PATRICK: Yes… what a truly decent, loving and hard core family man he is. And, with his incredible wife, Susan, they beat the rock and roll odds… they are still together. Do you know how cool that is?!!!

THE MULE: He’s very much a “songwriter’s songwriter,” as exemplified by the number of great songwriters who appear in OK BUCKAROOS, extolling his virtues. After filming the documentary, what insights into, not only Jerry Jeff’s music, but his psyche, as well, did you glean from the experience? In your opinion, what do you think makes him and, really, all great troubadours tick?

PATRICK: When I interviewed Bruce Robison for the film, off camera he told me that without Susan, JJ would still be playing in a bus station for tips. I related the story to JJ and his response was, “He is right and I would have no problem with that.” Need I say more?

Jerry Jeff Walker, circa mid-1970s (photo credit: SCOTT NEWTON)
Jerry Jeff Walker, circa mid-1970s (photo credit: SCOTT NEWTON)

THE MULE: At any time, did you find yourself second guessing your decision to make OK BUCKAROOS? If so, why and what kept you going?

PATRICK: OMG… Yes! It was the rear end of the process that did me in… the business, the licensing, the marketing. For all filmmakers out there: Do not take refuge in the creative process… find rest in the creative process, but don’t expect that bliss to translate into commercial success.

THE MULE: Let’s delve into your history and background a bit. How did you get into the movie and documentary game?

PATRICK: Go to my website, publikpictures.com. It’s all there.

THE MULE: OK BUCKAROOS is your first feature. What advice can you give to first time documentarians or film-makers in general?

PATRICK: Do your film with enough passion to sustain what will be huge waves of opposition to your “dream.” I think it’s called a tsunami… LOL… of questioning, doubt and otherwise negative influence on your story.

OK BUCKAROOS executive producers Beau Ross and Daniel Trube with Patrick Tourville (uncredited photo)
OK BUCKAROOS executive producers Beau Ross and Daniel Trube with Patrick Tourville (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Do you prefer to work on documentaries like this or would you like to try your hand at a more traditional scripted movie? Are there any other people that you would be interested in helming a documentary about?

PATRICK: Good question. Yes and yes. Film-making came to me as an inspiration very young. I won my first national film award at age seventeen and got some money from PBS to remake it. I think everybody at that age wants to make the Great American Movie, which is, you know… America. It was worth it, though. Ultimately, I became a very successful commercial director, made a lot of money, doing what I do, from a craft standpoint but… at the same time, evolved emotionally, spiritually and politically and, the more that I looked at my successful commercial work, the more I realized it was about real stories, it was about real people as opposed to displaying shrimp on a grill or milk being poured on a peach or Tide being poured into a washing machine. So, when I decided to leave the marketing world, documentaries just felt like a natural thing to do; I just wanted to talk about stories… That’s not to say that I would not – given the right circumstances – engage in a narrative feature and all that entails but, right now, I’m very comfortable in a documentary format. I mean, a narrative? I would still be tempted to cut to archive footage.

The last part of the question is… For whatever reason, I have a rich history in music. I did a lot of music videos with those early southern California rockers… a lot of those guys are friends of mine: Jackson Browne and Little Feat and Joe Walsh. So, music just seems to keep following me around and, so, would I want to do another music documentary? Yeah… Maybe. Based on the experience with Jerry Jeff, I’d rather do some other socially important or politically important things. I am in sort of a holding pattern, developing a film on Eugene McDaniels, who was a black pop artist in the late ’60s who performed a song called “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.” He became this sort of pop icon, as a black man with a huge white female audience. Long story short, by the time the ’60s had ended, he was a full-blown radical and had written a song called “Compared To What” that Les McCann recorded; it’s a Vietnam… sort of an anti-Vietnam rant. He passed away, unexpectedly, a few years ago. Eugene is considered by many – including the Roots’ Questlove – to be the Godfather of Hip-Hop… his was a soulful spirit that went from light to dark and found his way back to the light. So, we’re working with maybe developing a film there. That embraces both things. It’s a music thing, it’s a political thing. I’m also working on a project that will take me to Senegal to explore the Hip-Hop scene there so, I guess I’m stuck with music. That’s the bottom line… I’m stuck with music.

I was a big fan of Godard – Jean-Luc Godard – who sort of pushed that envelop to its limit in terms of authorship and aesthetics and, basically, said, “you don’t need to put your name on the film, you just need to help change the world.” I’m sorta stuck in that.

Patrick Tourville, Jerry Jeff Walker and OK BUCKAROOS executive producer Marty Garvin (publicity still)
Patrick Tourville, Jerry Jeff Walker and OK BUCKAROOS executive producer Marty Garvin (publicity still)

THE MULE: When can we expect to see finished product for these projects?

PATRICK: I don’t know about finished product. Eugene McDaniels is on the back burner; Senegal and its music scene is on the front burner. I’m supposed to leave for West Africa on the 22nd of this month (May) for ten days… I don’t know, man. What can I say? Here’s the answer to that: If you’re doing this stuff, you never know. You never know when you can expect finished product. You know it’s a year from now… if then. That’s the problem with making a documentary. I do believe in the written word; I do not approach anything without scripting. Obviously, with a documentary, the script gets written at the final edit, in terms of something that you would turn in as a script; but, you have to start with writers, you have to start with a structure, you have to start with three acts and, you have to define those acts and you have to determine what scenes are relevant and salient to those acts. You have to figure out classic Greek storytelling. But, as you get into it and you research it and, then, you’ve got people telling you what you should do, ’cause they heard things… it evolves. But, at the end of the day, if you wrote the written word right, you’ll be happy to see that it’s pretty close to what you originally wrote down.

It doesn’t always happen that way, but if you don’t go in with a preconceived notion, you’re in trouble… you’re in big trouble. You have to have scaffolding in place, you have to have a structure in place, you have to know… I’ll tell you what, you don’t shoot anything unless you know what the log line is; you gotta know in the elevator pitch what this is about. So, as you’re discovering and you’re getting influenced and you have people telling you, “What about this? What about that?,” you’ve got that structure to fall back on. You’ve got to have that. That’s my most important recommendation to any… ANY filmmaker. You know, cinema verite, I get it… you’re gonna follow someone around for three years or four years… that’s cool but, if you’re trying to do a narrative piece, via the documentary platform, don’t think that you don’t have to have something written down before you turn on the cameras.

THE MULE: Thanks for spending a little bit of time with the Mule. And, thanks for telling Jerry Jeff Walker’s story.

DANIEL LANOIS/ROCCO DELUCA

(May 5, 2015; THE DUCK ROOM at BLUEBERRY HILL, Saint Louis MO)

Daniel Lanois with Jim Wilson and Kyle Crane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Daniel Lanois with Jim Wilson and Kyle Crane (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

For a guy who’s NOT a household name, Canadian musician/producer Daniel Lanois has sure had a huge impact on modern music. He engineered some of Brian Eno’s early ambient recordings, collaborated on Eno’s 1983 masterpiece APOLLO and some later works, co-produced U2 with Eno on seminal albums like THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE, THE JOSHUA TREE, ACHTUNG BABY and more, did peerless auteur-style producing duties for albums by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and others, and released some terrific, pleasant solo recordings of his own, among them ACADIE, FOR THE BEAUTY OF WYNONA, BELLADONNA and his brand-new FLESH AND MACHINE. Lanois is a gentle, philosophical musical visionary who seems utterly tuned in to the deepest aspects of artistic intent and maximum creative impact. His show at the Duck Room was surprising in the dynamic range of what was performed and the sharp-edged clarity of the sound.

Rocco DeLuca (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Rocco DeLuca (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The audience was first treated to a handful of songs by opener Rocco DeLuca, who has a soft voice of incandescent, emotive clarity, double the impact of similar intonation by, say, Bon Iver. “You sing like a bird, Rocco,” Lanois told him early on, in an apt compliment. The sound crew were clearly on their game right from the start, and this made every tune stand out, from the loud to the more gentle numbers.

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Lanois delivered both about equally, with a major tribal aspect to the rhythmic foundation that had the audience really riveted. “Sioux Lookout,” a track from the new album, was introduced as a piece “about the balance with nature,” as Lanois explained the challenges and daunting experiences faced by the indigenous Canadian tribes he has so clearly been influenced by both musically and philosophically. And a beautiful instrumental piece was introduced with the comment “I wrote this song when I saw the empty eyes of a native compadre.” Lanois is adept at both instrumentals and “conventional” songs with vocals, and the show was divided roughly equally that way. A rousing, aggressive piece called “The Burning Spear” was put together “like a punk thing,” the artist told us, and indeed, it rocked and tranced the crowd out in delerious fashion. But then Lanois would turn around and do a tender song like “I Love You,” from 2003’s SHINE, which featured simple lyrics that expressed that sentiment unpretentiously, something he said that more songs need to do. Also performed from that album: “JJ Leaves L.A.,” one of several tunes showcasing Lanois on his “trusted friend,” the steel guitar. It’s definitely a signature element of his sound. And he did one of his best-known songs “The Maker” from ACADIE, drawing a tremendous response from a crowd that kept growing throughout the show, it seemed. Lanois was effusive with his praise for the audience and their enthusiastic reactions to the material. A highlight was the communal “Congregate,” which featured Rocco again on strong vocals, and which inspired a short commentary by Lanois about the value of gathering for special, magical moments in life. The crowd ate these moments up.

Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Daniel Lanois (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Worthy of special praise were the vocal harmonies by Lanois and “mighty” Jim Wilson (his bass player and sideman for over a decade). Wilson is a consummate musician who has sung and played guitar in another revered band called Mother Superior who have performed and recorded as Henry Rollins’ backing band. Lanois clearly has the utmost respect for Wilson judging from their amiable musical partnership and back and forth comments, and Wilson, all smiles at the show, obviously feels the same way. From the hypnotic rhythmic elements all night (courtesy of Kyle Crane), to the well-paced variety, soothing instrumental passages, and the affable warmth of master Lanois himself, this was a truly delightful, pleasing show all around. Lanois is something of a rare gem in the music industry, a guy whose actions and enthusiasm ripple throughout different genres, with lasting impact. One hopes he will return to St. Louis again before too long, and judging by the enthusiastic response tonight, that’s more than likely.