On Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1976, The Band gathered at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom to end their 16-year career with a show that would be more than just a farewell show. As Robbie Robertson said, "We wanted it to be more than a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration." Their farewell party guests included Van Morrison, The Staples Singers, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan. Two years later Martin Scorsese released performance and interview footage from that night as The Last Waltz, setting the standard for concert films and music documentaries.
The concert's fortieth anniversary's is being marked with a special edition release of the concert album and film. In January an all-star lineup led by Warren Haynes and including Michael McDonald, Don Was, and John Medeski among others will be taking "The Last Waltz 40" on the road.
But for St. Louis brothers Mark and John Moynihan (a.k.a. Johnny Vegas), The Last Waltz is worthy of a celebration every Thanksgiving, and they've been hosting their own tribute show for ten years. Each year they tweak the lineup, the set list, and find ways to build on what The Band originally created.
In April, 2006 the brothers hosted a tribute to The Band for Mark's birthday. "It was the weekend Bob Dylan was playing two shows, so we lied and told everyone he was going to be there," said Mark. "That was our first gimmick."
That Thanksgiving, they did it again and haven't missed a year since. This year's show at The Ready Room (4195 Manchester) features Mark's band Racketbox, along with The Stag Night All Stars, a collection of musicians who were regulars at Johnny's weekly Stag Night events. They include The Red Headed Strangers, Old Capitol, Sadie Hawkins Day, Old Souls Revival, Alligator Wine, The Scandaleros, The King of France (John Joern of Fattback), Rev. Whiskey Richard, horns by Funky Butt Brass Band and, as the Moynihans call them, "the usual gang of idiots." It's not unusual for the night to end with over forty musicians on the stage.
For the Moynihans, The Last Waltz had an impact during childhoods full of Beatles 8-tracks, an uncle's reel-to-reel tapes on quad stereo, and the required dose of KSHE before they moved on to The Grateful Dead when they got tired of "Carry On My Wayward Son."
Mark says he first remembers seeing the documentary on VHS sometime in the late 70s on VHS: "It blew me away. I cherished that tape."
"I remember when MTV started up and they'd use clips from the movie," Johnny adds, "like 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.' That's when I noticed who they were."
Conversation with the Moynihan brothers winds around musical heroes, how many have died, how Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm from The Band went too soon, what became of the group after The Last Waltz -- an evening of three people who have been deeply affected by an iconic band captured on film at a pivotal moment, even though it didn't capture them at their best.
For Mark, "Rock of Ages [The Band's 1972 live album] is a superior performance. They were really on top of their game." This year Mark and Johnny will attempt to recreate some of the sound of that earlier album with the help of the Funky Butt Brass Band in addition to Randy Reece of the Zydeco Crawdaddies who's been the regular horn player since the start of the event. As Mark tells it, "Randy showed up at The Shanti and we asked if he'd like to play horns for us at the first tribute. He's done it ever since."
The horn section keeps growing, and they're getting closer to Allen Toussaint's original horn arrangements. "Last year Adam [Hucke] and Aaron [Chandler] from Funky Butt showed up right before the show. We gave them the song list, wrote down the chords, and they just rocked out," Johnny says. "Yeah, they knew all the songs already," Mark adds.
As far as tributes, you won't see anyone dressed in a leisure suit à la Van Morrison as in the film. The Moynihans have never wanted this to be a costume party or a musical replica. "We encourage everybody to interpret the songs however they want," Johnny says. "They can get weird. We don't want carbon copies."
"You can't sing like those guys," Mark explains, "The mismatch of different styles they had, you can't recreate that."
Even though it's a tribute to a specific musical event, the Moynihans have never adhered to the track list of the documentary or album, preferring instead to delve deeper. "They got onto me at rehearsal the other night about the flow of the show," Mark tells, "asking if it was really right. But if we tried to play The Last Waltz it would fucking suck. We tried it one time and it was a mess. There's so much other stuff. It's more of a tribute to The Last Waltz and to The Band. We do almost all of the songs, but there are some great songs they didn't play that night. A whole other show's worth."
When Old Capitol joined the line-up five years ago, they brought "Atlantic City" from Jericho, The Band's 1993 album recorded without original member Robbie Robertson and after the death of Richard Manuel. "We tried to do it once or twice and it sucked," Mark confesses. "Thank God Old Capitol came along!"
They started the 2014 show with a full Dylan set. "That was too much music. We had to scrap that," Mark goes on to say. "I loved it. It was killer. When I say too much music, I mean we just don't have enough time. We could do six hours, easily but it's generally a four-hour show."
"These days," Johnny says, "we work harder at pumping new blood into it." To that end, "Racketbox is adding at least one new song this year -- 'The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show' -- and somebody's doing 'Chest Fever,' which we've never had before, and 'Live is a Carnival'. We did another one we took a stab at, and it was a swing and a miss."
The show brings out a the extended Moynihan family and lots of familiar faces, people who don't make it out as often anymore because of age, parenthood, or sobriety. It's grown into its own holiday gathering, as much tradition as the food on the table the next day. It's grown deep roots in the fundamental connection between people and music. As Mark says, "We've lived and breathed this music for so much of our lives." And it shows in the best way possible.
KDHX and the St. Louis Blues Society are two of the cosponsors of the 15th annual Baby Blues Showcase that will be held at BB's on November 27. I sat down to talk with its organizer, Jeremy Segel-Moss, a founding member of the Bottoms Up Blues Gang and chairperson of the Blues Society.
Bob Baugh: What was the genesis of the Baby Blues Showcase?
Jeremy Segel-Moss: Fifteen years ago started playing music with the Bottom Up Blues Gang. At the time (2001) all the old blues masters Oliver Sain, Bennie Smith James Crutchfied, Johnnie Johnson, Tommy Bankhead were still thriving at BB's and other clubs -- BB's was our church, our temple. The music was and is remarkable. It was always busy and there was no way a bunch of white kids who were new could get a gig there. My organizing brain said if we could find a night . . . and it turned out the Sunday after Thanksgiving was open. The owners, John May and Mark O'Shaughnessy, were gracious enough to let us try. It worked. We packed the room.
BB: What were your goals with the Showcase?
JSM: Our first goal was to play at BB's and to give other young musicians the same chance. Our rules are that musicians must be under 30 or the band median age under 30 and they had to have a level of professionality. We also want a mix of styles. After five years my own band aged out, but it didn't take away the responsibility to have a moment each year where young blues artists have a place to play.
BB: What are some of your fondest memories of the past 15 years?
JSM: Having Marquise Knox do one of his first big shows when he was 14. Finding Aaron Griffin (son of Larry Griffin, one of St. Louis' pillars of blues) who was just beginning to emerge and having Pokey LaFarge before he broke big. Marquise's first show was one of the most memorable. He pulled a "Big George" (Brock) heading off the stage, he came down the stairs, took off his shirt and danced his way out of the room. It was like "Wow!" And there was the time the U City Jazz band played. There were a lot of kids. They had a chance to set foot in BB's and play. It's a place where you will see pictures of all the greats on the wall and a young musician can see that they are part of the river and can be a part of a community. What is most memorable every year is the crowd. They go crazy. The kids pick up on the magic and it makes the music is better. It just makes me smile.
BB: What are the challenges in organizing the Showcase?
JSM: It's always evolving. Al Holliday and Paul Neihaus age out after this year. Some years are easier and some you need to look farther and be more creative. Sometimes you run into individual musicians with talent but they aren't in a group. Then there is the issue of race. These shows tend to be more white than black. Finding young black musicians like Marquise to carry on the tradition is difficult. Blues are not prevalent in that age group. That becomes a real frustration because blues comes from Black heritage. I believe everyone can have the blues, feel the blues, even play the blues but making sure it does not get whitewashed is really important to me. There are young folk who play blues music who are black but they're not on the scene. They play in church but they are not looking for a music career. We keep working at it. That is a constant for me. I try to do my best every year.
BB: What can you tell us about this year's lineup?
JSM: For the 15th anniversary we want a solid well-rounded show. We will start with the St. Louis School of Rock. Jordan Heimburger is really good with those kids and they bring a rockin' good show. Marquise Knox and Aaron Griffin are two of our mainstays and most talented young musicians. I'm excited they want to continue play the show. We don't pay very well but musicians here are willing give back to the community. We are also excited to have Al Holliday and the East Side Rhythm Band. The Blues Society submitted his record to the International Blues competition for best self-produced album. Nick Pence and Friends represents that Rum Drum Ramblers, Ethan Leinwand, kind of music. He's played in multiple bands with unique sounds. These are musicians that blur the lines between blues, rock, boogie, R&B and soul. This is Paul Neihaus's last year. He plays lots of instruments and is one of the go to side musicians in the industry. He gives back to the community too. His Blue Lotus Studio is the home for the production of the STL Blues Society 16 for 16 compilation which is due out in January.
BB: Any final thoughts?
JSM: I'm happy with annual event and that the city shows up and supports it. You get people like Alonzo Townsend, this year's MC, who is able to vocalize things to his own age group. He's out there with such a message of positivity. He started co-hosting five to six years ago and learned the tools. We also try to pay back with fundraising for "Play It Forward," an organization that networks with all music teachers in the city and provides instruments to students whose families can't afford to buy them. We also collect food to help feed some people. This is one night a year young musicians get to get together and be celebrated by the community. The whole thing goes into making a better St. Louis. Come on down and join us on November 27.
It was 45 years ago this autumn that a group of skinny, hairy, hippie musicians convened at a funky little nightclub in Springfield, Missouri called the New Bijou Theatre. It was a songwriters collective at the time rather than a band on a mission. But on the strength of the songs, a heady blend of country, Americana, rock and pop, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils found themselves recording in London just 18 months later with uber-producer Glyn Johns (The Who, Rolling Stones, Beatles) and enjoying a fruitful association with A&M Records that lasted the rest of the 70s.
Two of the original Daredevils -- Randle Chowning and Larry Lee -- along with Ozark bluegrass veteran David Wilson perform at the Focal Point on Friday, November 11. The set is a mix of choice cuts from their Daredevil days and more recent material that Chowning and Lee have composed and recorded together under the name Beyond Reach. The trio is nearing the conclusion of a three-month run of acoustic shows in the Midwest. Multi-instrumentalist Wilson, who has recorded and toured nationally with the Undergrass Boys and Radio Flyer, provides many of the solo dynamics as Chowning and Lee sing their timeless songs.
In an interview with me last year, Randle Chowning reflected on "If You Wanna Get to Heaven," the Dares' first hit. The song was composed by Steve Cash and John Dillon but true to the communal spirit of the band, lead vocals were handed over to Chowning. In the spring of 1974, the country-rocker about getting to heaven by raising hell was all over FM radio.
"There's always a chance, any given chance at any time that with the right song you can knife right through what is going on. That is an exciting thing. Because you see it come out of nowhere," said Chowning.
"It's like watching a little bird being hatched and it flies off and it's pretty incredible -- 'Jackie Blue' and 'If You Wanna Get to Heaven' and some other songs we got radio airplay on -- to see them go from nowhere, to first learn them and figure them out and contribute a part to them, to see that go through the recording process and then actually go out and be heard by people all over the country. It's an incredible process to watch something go from zero."
"Jackie Blue," from the Dares' sophomore album, rocketed up the charts in early 1975. Larry Lee's sumptuous and soulful croon about a melancholy woman ("everyday in your indigo eyes I see the sun set but I don't see it rise") was matched with Chowning's memorable slide guitar and an entrancing rhythm.
After a decade in the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Lee moved to Nashville, Tennessee and enjoyed success as a songwriter and producer. In the mid-1980s, he toured with Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band playing acoustic guitar and singing background vocals, and during this time he began collaborating with fellow Coral Reefer Josh Leo. The two went on to work on numerous projects together in in Nashville in the 1980s and 90s. Lee produced albums for Alabama, Juice Newton, Restless Heart, Earl Thomas Conley, Jon Goin, the Remingtons and others. He returned to the Ozarks in the mid-2000s, working with Chowning in Beyond Reach and self-producing the albums Twigs and Buds on Branches under his full name Larry Michael Lee.
Lee sings about half of the numbers in the trio's live set including "Within Without," "Spaceship Orion" and "You Know Like I Know" as well as the riveting, meditative "You Don't Need It" from Beyond Reach.
Commercially, though, nothing in Lee's career has compared to the impact of "Jackie Blue." The song is in the rarefied Million-Air club with BMI certifying over one million airplays by 1985.
"Here's the thing," said Lee by telephone, "I didn't put any more forethought as far as being commercial into 'Jackie Blue' as I have anything I've ever done. It had a hook and normally, accessible singles have that hook about it. And we were at the right place at the right time, or that song was going out to the right place at the right time."
Lee isn't often seen in concert. But for the first two decades of his career, he was on the road regularly. This year marks 50 years since a memorable tour with Lewie & the 7 Days for whom Lee played drums. The band had cut a couple of Northern soul singles for the Springfield-based Skipper label and were a hot ticket.
Lee recalled, "Between what would have been my freshman year and my sophomore year, Si Siman, a local music publisher, promoter and our mentor, asked us if we wanted to go on a USO tour. We thought, hell yeah, anything to get us out of town. Si then contacted the State Department and the USO, probably sending them a press kit along with one of the records we'd done for Si's Skipper Records label. The State Department ended up picked us to go, of all places, to Vietnam.
"So off we went in the summer of 1966 for a three week tour of military outposts in South Vietnam. We were flown around in C-130's and helicopters to the un-godliest hellholes I'd ever seen, where we'd set up our gear and play songs like the Impressions' 'Woman's Got Soul' and James Brown's 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag.' We played to all these guys who were mostly around my age and who constantly told me all they wanted to do was just to make it back home. The last place they took us was to perform at a field hospital. It was horrible. I saw guys my age with no arms, no legs, heads wrapped up in bandages to the point you couldn't even see their eyes. Almost every one of them said, 'Man, do whatever you have to do not come back here.'
"I hadn't yet enrolled in my sophomore year, and as soon as I got back from that USO tour, I had an induction notice to go get my physical. It was the time of the draft and after just getting back from Vietnam and talking to everybody over there, I told myself I wasn't going to take a chance with what the draft and the Army might give me, and instead I would rather join some other military service for four years and stay the hell away from there. So I ended up joining the Navy in the fall 1966 for a four years stint away from my family, my girlfriend and my band."
Randle Chowning's career has been a winding, looping affair as well. He left the Daredevils in 1976, cut a solo record and, though he was busy songwriting and publishing, he dropped off the discographical map for many years. Since the mid-2000s Chowning has collaborated with Larry Lee in Beyond Reach, yielding two CDs and an EP; additionally, he's released self-produced work under his own name, as RC & the Keys and, most recently, as Ozark Joe.
Chowning calls Ozark Joe his "mountain folk" persona and has released Bottle Tree (2015) and Dancing on Cobwebs (2016). He memorably struck that musical vein in the Daredevils with songs like "Leatherwood," which appeared on The Car Over the Lake Album (1975).
Leatherwood is a place name, explained Chowning, a few miles from his childhood home of Mountain View, Missouri, and it's also a botanical name.
"Leatherwood is a shrub or wild plant. It's not a tree. It's a low-growing shrub that grows in the valleys of the Ozarks. It was used by the Indians to weave baskets and stuff, so it's a real supple type of bark. I'm not sure that if I went out in the forest that I could say, oh that's one right there. I have an idea of what it looks like; it's not terribly common, but Indians made baskets out of leatherwood. You can strip the bark and use it to weave.
"The Leatherwood that I'm talking about is a creek that runs into the Jack's Fork and the Jack's Fork runs into the Current down on the National Scenic Riverways and around Mountain View and Eminence, which is where I'm originally from. We used to deer hunt down there. My father and my uncles took me down there every fall, and there was a Leatherwood Creek in that area. If you look on the maps, you'll find the name. It's a name that you will find that will pop up in the mountainous areas. You'll find it in Arkansas; there's a Leatherwood Lake right outside of Eureka Springs.
"That was the inspiration for the song. It's a very different kind of country song; it's I guess you could say an avant-garde country song in a way. I was working on that before I put the Daredevils together."
In addition to "Leatherwood," Chowning wrote and sang other cherished songs in the Daredevils canon such as "Country Girl" and "Road to Glory," all of which the trio can be expected to perform at the Focal Point.
Daredevils fans will especially appreciate the wistful "My Old Band" from Beyond Reach's self-titled 2005 album in which Chowning sings,
Though we went our separate ways
A part of me forever stays
And I still miss 'em to a man
My old band
We're still there if you're radio's on
On the air with the same old songs
We had the keys in our hands
My old band
St. Louis' own Brothers Lazaroff have addressed sociopolitical topics before in their music; but their seventh studio and first self-professed concept album, Dangerous Times, has a more urgent tone, taking a cue from the current state of American politics.
Coming from a decidedly darker place, brothers David and Jeff Lazaroff say Dangerous Times is their "response to the bigotry and fear-mongering" coming out of the 2016 Presidential election -- particularly from the mouth of Republican candidate Donald Trump. They don't go so far as to name names in the album's tunes -- though they don't really have to.
"Listen, there's disappointment on all levels as far as Hillary and past administrations' connections to the military industrial complex. That's all very true and very valid," says guitarist/vocalist Jeff Lazaroff. "She's a centrist, no doubt about it; but she is just along the lines of where change goes gradually, where he is a total call out from strongman authoritarianism, using fear and manipulation and dividing people along those lines as we've seen of color, gender, religion."
The brothers express these feelings most pointedly on the album's title track within its first lyrics, "It's dangerous times that we are living in / I'm crawling out of my skin / fear takes center stage once again / ripping us apart from within." Even the guitar riffs that follow are somewhat foreboding.
Though they didn't set out to make a concept album driven by a central theme, it just developed that way naturally, the brothers say.
"We were together on a family vacation last year and the real thing that hit us was when the Muslim ban was announced," says Jeff. "At first it just started off ridiculous and what we thought was a joke; but then, when it started having fascist overtones is what started us having inspiration into some of the tunes we were messing with lyrically."
That said, it's not all gloom and doom. Dark themes and lyrics are matched with upbeat, even jovial instrumentation, such as on "Don't Look Now," where David's dreamy pedal steel and Nate Carpenter's bouncy piano make a tale of fascism somehow danceable. As the album progresses, the tunes move to a more hopeful place, felt most heartily in the declaration song "Gonna Be Okay," providing some reassurance.
"I don't think it was intentional; but we definitely did discover that in this record the songs did fall into two camps," says Jeff. "You had the songs that were just appalled by the fascism and bigotry and hatred and just saying, 'Don't ignore this, look at exactly what it is for what it is;' and then there's this other camp that was almost like, 'Okay, now look away from it and there's a higher level of consciousness that overcomes that stuff and it's more powerful -- that hopefulness."
In addition to band regulars including Carpenter, drummer Grover Stewart, bassist Teddy Brookins and violinist/sound designer Mark Hochberg, the brothers brought in their cousin and mentor, Stuart Rosenberg, from Chicago to play his Mandocaster electric mandolin on the album, resulting in a rich and layered psychedelic rock sound infused with a rootsy twang. Rosenberg also joined the core band for its recent CD-release show at the Tick Tock Tavern, playing to a full house of fans and friends.
With a steady local show schedule, Brothers Lazaroff has built a strong and loyal fan base over the years, playing regular gigs at various clubs, as well as their popular annual Hanukkah Hullabaloo performances each December. (This year the performance will take place at Joe's Cafe on December 10.) Jeff and David's Jewish heritage figured heavily into processing their feelings about the bigotry displayed in the Trump campaign that inspired some of the album's more pointedly political songs.
"We had family members deeply involved in the World War II effort and we have an uncle who was an orphan out of Poland who was adopted by a great aunt of ours, and then our synagogue has tons of holocaust survivors; so you're constantly hearing that lesson of how a community was scapegoated," says Jeff.
Adds David, "More than anything, no one expected it to happen in Germany. It took 20 years to build that movement, where all of the sudden it was okay to do that and to exterminate people -- and that took just two years. So, the idea that 'this can't happen here,' that's what they thought in Germany."
In the end, they choose to focus on the positive, letting their feelings speak loudest through their music, noting, "We offer up these songs, our attempt to process the insanity and call on love."
No matter what the outcome of this controversial election, Dangerous Times is an album that's certain to remain relevant for years to come -- as both a snapshot of 2016 America and an example of fine musicianship from one of St. Louis' most beloved bands.
St. Louis-based, Missouri-born Jack Grelle will hold his record release show for Got Dressed Up to Get Let Down at Off Broadway, November 5th at 8 p.m. with openers the River Kittens, Kristo, and Strange Places. Got Dressed Up to Get Let Down is Grelle's second album on Big Muddy Records. It's an emotionally dynamic work with contributions from the South City Three (Pokey LaFarge), John Horton (The Bottle Rockets) and Chris Baricevic. Grelle's arrangements, including pedal steel, piano, fiddle and harmonica, have a 70s honky-tonk feel -- think Willie Nelson -- but what's truly remarkable about Grelle's songs is the lingering strength of the lyrics: "I learned to accept that I make my own fate. / It might not be easy no, it might not feel right, / but at the end of the day, it's the struggle that I fight." Long after you've turned off the record, the ghosts on the album still follow you around, escorted by a haunting steel guitar. "Birthday Cards" conveys his love for his departed grandmother, while the title cut revolves around the date who never arrives. Then there's lost love ("New Mexico"), an absent older brother ("Takin' After Me"), and Mike Brown ("Changes Never Made"). In Grelle's own words, the album "documents learning how to be a good partner in a relationship; how to be accountable and acknowledge your own flaws; how to reconcile traveling as a privileged American in foreign countries with tumultuous histories of colonialism; how to be a white male ally in a segregated city and in the struggle for freedom for oppressed communities; and how to cope with loosing a grandmother who was the matriarch, the glue that held the family together."