The third annual Art of Live Festival is in full swing this weekend -- featuring four nights of music spread across three local venues, combining local bands and artists with national and international touring acts. Participating venues include Old Rock House, Off Broadway and the Ready Room.
"Live concerts are unique in that there are no passive participants," says organizer Tim Weber, managing partner of the Old Rock House and ORH Concerts. "Fans, promoters, bands, security -- we actively and collectively create the experience, the art, together. That is what we are celebrating with the Art of Live Festival."
One of the last Art of Live performances to take place is the return of G. Love & Special Sauce, joined by Boston-based funk pop band Ripe, at The Ready Room on Sunday evening. A veteran touring act for more than 20 years now, G. Love & Special Sauce released their eighth studio album, Love Saves the Day in 2015, featuring the group's original lineup of G. Love (a.k.a. Garrett Dutton), upright bassist "Jimi Jazz" Prescott and drummer Jeffrey "The Houseman" Clemens playing the signature "hip-hop blues" they originated. The album featured a star-studded lineup of guest artists including Lucinda Williams, Citizen Cope, David Hildago of Los Lobos, Ozomatli, DJ Logic, Money Mark, Zach Gill and Adam Topol.
G. Love took a break from his tour stop in Minneapolis to give a quick phone interview prior to Sunday's show in St. Louis.
Amy: Love Saves the Day came out in 2015. What have you been working on since then and what are you working on now?
G. Love: With G. Love & Special Sauce we put out a lot of music in the last few years -- we put out Sugar and two EPs and then Love Saves the Day, so we're taking a minute before we put out another album; but I did work on a project last fall called Jamtown, which is a collaboration with Cisco Adler and Donovan Frankenreiter, and that came out really well so we're really excited about that. Hopefully that's going to come out in the Spring.
I also did a recording session with blues artists and my old label mate Keb' Mo' and we kind of did a little trial session to see how it would be to work together. We both enjoyed it, so I think in the spring we'll continue on that. I'd like to do a blues record of new original material. I learned a lot from recording with Keb' and our stories sort of intertwined because we both got signed the same year to the same label -- OK Records in '93, when I was 20 and he was my age now, which is 44. It was cool to link up after all those years and get in the studio together.
Right now, our band is on the road working and playing our music and that's kind of always been our life's work and mission, so we'll continue to tour. This tour for us is great for the fact that we don't have a record out. These are always fun years because there's no rules, we can play whatever we want with no pressure on ourselves, so we plan to dig a little deeper into the back catalog on some songs we haven't hit in a couple years and also play all the hits and showcase a lot of the hip-hop blues original sound. It's just about throwing a party every night -- no rules, no holds barred.
Amy: You've always been a big collaborator and Love Saves the Day has a lot of amazing guest collaborations on it. When you do that, are you writing the songs with certain people in mind to record with, or is it happen more organically?
G. Love: Most of the songs you end up writing with the people you collaborate with. For instance, on Love Saves the Day, Citizen Cope and I wrote a tune and we felt really good about it so we said, "Hey, let's cut it." A lot of times it happens like that where you're writing specifically with the person you're singing it with.
There are some other times when you'll have a bunch of tunes and think, "Oh, this one would be good if so-and-so comes in." So also on Love Saves the Day, I knew Ozomatli was coming and so I looked at the tunes and thought, "Oh, these would be good with the horns and the vibe they bring." The same with David Hidalgo from Los Lobos; we know what he's going to bring to the table -- he's going to bring this amazing guitar work -- so we want to present him with a tune he can really shine on. If you're going to have this great talent join you in studio, it's in everyone's best interest to figure out a way to make them shine.
Amy: Who have been some of your more memorable or favorite collaborators over the years?
G. Love: I did have an early collaborator with my first rapping partner, whose name was Jasper. We wrote a lot together and really influenced each other's music. He was my first great collaborator.
Then further on down the line in my career, my most famous one with Jack Johnson which kind of helped launch his career and reinvigorate my career and that collaboration continues. It's been almost 20 years that I've known Jack, and I just linked up with him on the North Shore of Hawaii where I finished my little acoustic tour last week. I had three shows out there. He ended up coming and playing half a set on all three shows and we had a blast. I said at the show that the first day we met, we went surfing and then played music and that's the same thing we did the last day we hung out together.
Then the most recent one, as I mentioned, is this Jamtown thing. I met Donovan through Jack and we've crossed paths a lot over the years and have been on each other's records and he's just great. I love him as a human and a guitar player and singer and writer. He and I had been talking about doing a "barbecue record" -- acoustic versions of our old tunes and a couple covers and originals. So I reached out to Cisco Adler, who I've worked with over the years as a writing partner and said, "Hey, would you produce Donovan and I?" So we went in and ended up writing ten of the greatest tunes I think I've ever been on in my whole career and it ended up being more of a three-man collaboration. It just kind of happened in this way, and I feel like we really have a hit record. I feel like this could be a very exciting year for us with Jamtown, so that's the collaboration I'm most excited about right now.
Amy: You've been playing your signature hip-hop blues for more than 20 years now. How have the drastic industry and technology changes over the years affected how you record and put out music?
G. Love: I think the biggest thing is that technology has changed the way that you make money through your recordings, and because the fact that you don't sell a lot of records, therefore the record label doesn't make a lot of money. There are no budgets to make records now -- there are not a lot of big record deals to get. Like I had a good record deal in the early '90s -- but you used to get like $350,000 to make a record and they'd want you to spend it all and take as long as you could to spend all that money. They wanted to have the best record. So you'd spend a lot of money and a lot of time making a record.
These days, you maybe have 10% of that budget to make a record. We make our records for a tenth of the cost in about a tenth of the time. Instead of going in and tripping on mushrooms for a week trying to capture some magical essence, I go in prepared to bring the magical essence and kick some fucking ass and do it in a week. And I feel like we make such better records now in so much less time for so much cheaper.
Recording has really been a joy because the limitations technology has brought have made us be better -- maybe not richer, but better. For a lot of the jam bands, and us included, most of them never sold a lot of records but made their living on the road and that hasn't changed. That's the beautiful thing about having leaned on your performance craft for a lot of years. The live music culture is by the people for the people and we the people want to keep jamming!
Amy: What lessons have you learned in so many years touring and recording that you would impart to your younger self just starting out?
G. Love: I think to take your time. There's always this urgency -- everything is hurry up, hurry up. What you realize after you do this for a few years is that you're basically just going around in circles. Music is not a sprint; it's a marathon. Give yourself time. You have to last a long time.
The other thing is that the business side of it is a constant learning curve because it's a constantly changing environment so you constantly need to be adjusting with it. I made so many mistakes and had so many missed opportunities. I did a lot of things right but also did a lot of stupid things. There are a lot of things you learn and a lot of things you look back on and say "should have, could have, would have," but the fact is I'm still here and my career is still more vibrant than ever. People come up to us every day and say, "I've been to ten shows" or "I've been to 50 shows," and you're just like, damn, thank you.
"Women of the Blues: A Coast to Coast Collection" took mainstage at the Scott and Dianne McGuaig Gallery in the National Blues Museum Friday, January 6 for a three-month appearance. The exhibit is a story of empowerment -- a celebration the lives of women blues artists and the photographers who have captured their images in performance.
The bevy of blues divas and photographers that came to town and St. Louisans who turned out to celebrate the opening is a tribute to the hard work of curator Lynn Orman Weiss. She said, "I never thought I would be a curator." Her game was photography and a love for the blues: "I've always had a camera. I've been in a lot of photo pits over the years and rubbed elbows or shoulders or lenses with so many photographers in so many small juke joints, festivals ad studios across the country." She talks the blues too as the host of two different weekly blues shows in Chicago on WLUW at Loyola U and WNUR at Northwester U.
The genesis of "Women of the Blues" grew from Weiss' experiences behind the lens and on air hearing the stories of women blues artists. She calls herself "a storyographer because I tell a story more than I am a fine photographer." In 2012, those experiences drove her to produce an election night show "Chicago Blues Mama's for Obama" with 12 Blues Divas onstage where they sang and shared stories. Shirley King, BB Kings daughter, was able to say "thank you Barack Obama for having my father in your living room. You're the first one to ever welcome him to the White house." Everyone involved was exhilarated and empowered. It planted the seeds for doing more that bore fruit in the run up to the 2016 Chicago Blues Fest which draws more than 500,000 fans.
The idea was to do a gallery show of women blues artists in conjunction with the 2016 Chicago Blues Fest. Firecat gallery stepped up as a home for the show. Lynn knew little about curating but she got inspiration from the Central MS Blues Society Peggy Brown and advice from life mask artist Sharon McConnel-Dickerson (featured at NBM Sept-Dec 2016). The Firecat show featured 60 photos from 15 photographers that drew crowds and rave reviews. The festival used some of the images on their jumbotron projectors and a curator for the Chicago Medical Complex asked to host the exhibit next. It was seen daily by thousands of patients, visitors and hospital staff.
By the time "Women of the Blues" made it to St. Louis it had grown to include 20 photographers and 80 images. Exhibit photographers Amanda Gresham, Peter Hurley, Terry Abrahamson and artist Carol Boss were present for the opening reception as well as local blues photographer Reed Radcliffe. Weiss worked with the St. Louis Blues Society to be sure St. Louis was represented in the show. You will find Radcliffe's photos of Sharon Foehner, Kim Massie, Renee Smith and Marsha Evans on the wall. Guests mingled at the reception while Erika Johnson and Tom Byrne provided but it wasn't long before the blues artists joined in after a short greeting by Weiss. It was a warm up of what was to come at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soup later that evening.
At BB's Laura Green with the Green McDonough Band warmed up crowd with a smoking set as the Divas began to arrive. They were ready and rarin' to go for an all-woman show and they loved what they were hearing from Green and McDonough. After the break, Aaron Griffin and Paul Niehause joined Rich McDonough as BB's all-star band to back the singers. It was a long list of blues royalty: Anne Harris, Sreamin' Rachel Cain, Jan James, Markey Blue, Renee Smith, Deitra Farr, Nellie "Tiger" Travis', Holle Thee Maxwell and Shirley King (daughter of BB King).
Anne Harris electrified the packed house with her fiddle mastery and high energy stage presence. Every other artist asked her to join them onstage. It was inclusion, mutual respect and women's power at every turn. The visitors and St. Louisans took turns on stage impressing each other and the audience. Nashville was there too, represented by Markey Blue whose powerful soulful set had the crowd moving. The artistry of McDonough, Niehause and Griffin kept up with them at every turn and drew their praises during the show and into the next day.
On Saturday afternoon NBM Director of Internal Affairs, Jacqueline Dace, moderated a curator's panel discussion that included, Lynn Orman Weiss, photographer Amanda Greasham, Anne Harris and Shirley King. They discussed the meaning of the exhibit, the breadth of the genre, the Great Migration, and how to pass the torch. Shirley King, who in her words "grew up as a juke-joint baby," spoke of the blues is universal language. She remains amazed by foreigners who cannot speak a word but they can sing a blues song word for word. She is uplifted and draws strength from working with kids through Blues in the Schools. Amanda Gresham believes that to reach young people "you need to take people to the music, touch ground, relate to music personally, and hear the stories." For her, "Every genre has a blues connection."
Anne Harris loves the exhibit: "It lifts up the gender -- it's about equality. It represents the underrepresented, a hard-working group that does it all." She also believes that there is an "unspeakable power in art that is musical and visual when combined makes people experience things on a visceral level." She wants people to be moved to be a Gandhi, King or Obama. Her words echo Weiss who says it was "passion for social justice, civil rights and the sharing of the stories" that drove her vision: "I just wanted to know about the women the legacy where they came from -- all the different stories of women of different race, different generations, different sexuality and it's all in this one show."
Lynn Orman Weiss promises to return in March for more educational and music programming at the National Blues Museum during women's history month. In the meantime, "Women of the Blues" will be playing there every day through March 31.
If the Top Album Spins list shows where many DJs agree about the year's best releases, our Top Ten lists show how much every DJ adds the collective knowledge of music shared on KDHX. Sometimes the discoveries our DJs make are belated as we dig back into the past and uncover forgotten favorites or overlooked masterpieces, and sometimes, as here, those discoveries are ahead of their time. For a year burdened with the weight of compounded losses, 2016 was strong in music. Here's over thirty DJs' takes on the ten best releases of the year. Needless to say, each easily could have listed ten or twenty more.
Back Country with Jeff Corbin
Backroads with Stacy
Bittersweet Melody with Allen
Boogie on Down with Hound Dog Brown
Bluegrass Breakdown with Walter and Willa Volz
Collector's Edition with Christian Schaeffer
Cure for Pain with Nathaniel Farrell
Down Yonder with Keith Dudding
Elevated Rhymestate with Wil Wander
Emotional Rescue with Cat Pick
Feel Like Going Home with Roy Kasten
Folks of the World with Harriet Shanas
The Freaker's Ball with DJ Swan
Gettin' Down to It with Sean Smothers
Gold Soundz with Chris Bay
Hindsight with Matt
Higher Ground with Jim Bruce
Hip City with Chris Lawyer
The Juke Joint with Doug
Juxtaposition with Rob Levy
Latin Hemispheres with Carlos G. Charles
The Mixtape with Jason
Music at Work with Curt
Music from the Hills with John Uhlemann
Musical Merry-Go-Round with Grandfather Stark
Mystery Train with Tim
Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst with Rich Reese
Positive Vibrations as by Professor Skank
Rawthentic with DJ Needles and Cleo Jones
Rhythm Highways with East Side Slim
Rocket 88 with Darren Snow
Rolling Thunder with Ryan Cain
Steam-Powered Radio with Kelly Wells
Songwriters Showcase with Ed
Sound Salvation with Steve Pick
Space Parlour with Nick Acquisto
Uncontrollable Urge with bobEE Sweet
Time Warp Radio with Mark Hyken
Universal Default with Brian
Wax Lyrical with Caron House
* indicates reissue
January can be a slow month in St. Louis. But as the fuzzy, warm glow of Christmas and New Year's fades fast and temperatures drop into the single digits, the Art of Live Festival, now in its third year, has stepped into fill the typical lull in music festivals and live shows this time of year. With over 20 bands and three different participating venues -- the Old Rock House, Off Broadway and the Ready Room -- the four-night festival aims to please the St. Louis concertgoer in need of some great live music. I caught up with Erica Durbin, the creator of the Art of Live Festival and booker for the Old Rock House, to find out more about this ambitious festival.
Doug: First, tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a talent booker?
Erica: It's kind of an interesting story actually. I went to school in St. Paul, Minnesota to study the music business. From there, I ended up getting a job in a booking agency in Chicago. I decided that I wanted to move back closer to home, and one of the agents in Chicago introduced me to Tim Weber at Mississippi Nights. I went to work there until Mississippi Nights closed down. Tim (managing partner at the Old Rock House) then decided to bring me in to work at the Old Rock House in January of 2010 when we decided to turn it into a concert venue.
Doug: What is the concept or genesis of the Art of Live Festival?
Erica: Well, this is our third year. It was kind of a joint idea. Hard to say who came up with it first but it was from a conversation that started between Tim and Brian. I spoke to Tim Weber and we figured out a creative idea for January which is a really tough month for music. We saw some other cities doing something similar during the winter, and decided we did, too. We decided to create something and turn it into a big thing that local bands and national bands would want to do. We want to celebrate St. Louis, local bands, our venues and live music. It was an easy way to do all of those things.
Doug: Did you approach all the participating venues?
Erica: We started working with Off Broadway and the Ready Room, so they already know what to expect. Those were the venues that agreed with the concept and they wanted to make January a better month than it usually is. It beats staying at home and twiddling our thumbs [laughs].
Doug: Four nights of music is ambitious. Are there any themes or pairings?
Erica: Not necessarily. We're trying to keep that vibe of up and comers, but we also wanted some headliners that we could make fit. I ended up with great headliners and good mixtures. We didn't just want to be a hip hop or funk festival. We're trying to serve a wide spectrum with good lineups. We're trying to find a solid lineup of local bands and try to avoid just making it solely about the national touring acts.
Doug: Does it fill a need or demand for more live music from local talent?
Erica: Yes, it really does. We built it around local venues and getting the right big name acts and adding St. Louis acts onto the shows.
Doug: How did you approach the other venues?
Erica: I don't remember really having to twist any arms. The venues were completely open to the concept. They agreed that if we weren't doing this, that there wouldn't be a lot going on in January.
Doug: What are your expectations for the event in terms of attendance?
Erica: We did about 2,000 folks overall last year during the entire festival. We have a couple less events this year, but we're still expecting between 1,500 and 2,000 attendees. I know that we draw a bit from Kansas City, Chicago, Memphis and a few other cities. It's quite possible that they'll stay for all of the shows. I know that some people in social media are already talking about hanging out together over the course of the festival and the weekend.
Doug: Do you feel the local music scene receives enough recognition?
Erica: I think it goes through phases. We started the event as a celebration of live music in St. Louis and live venues in general, but we also want the festival and venues to do well financially.
Doug: How did you approach your sponsors?
Erica: We approached DO314.com and they set up the concert calendar for us. They've always been a partner and they've been important in pushing our event. We finally approached Schlafly Beer for the first time this year. We finally have some history behind the festival now and it made sense to work with them.
Doug: How soon did you start booking bands?
Erica: We always start in August and send out feelers for talent. It's an ongoing process and it's not always easy.
Doug: How have you used social media to promote the festival?
Erica: It's been our primary method of promotion. The RFT (one of the sponsors/partnership) and I Went To a Show, Facebook, Twitter are mostly the ways of getting the word out. DO314 helps a lot. We are also doing some ticket giveaways. The iwenttoashow.com blog creates photos and content for the festival. We will also have a social-media guy at the Old Rock House putting videos and posts out there live the night of each show.
Doug: Are local St. Louis music media excited about this?
Erica: Yes, we always get a good response. It's a cool thing for the city and there's not a lot going on this month. It's a great focus and Kevin [C. Johnson] at the Post-Dispatch is writing about it. The goal is to support and promote St. Louis and our music. I think we've been doing a pretty good job in the last few years and we can only go up. I think we're getting more recognition each year. We do have a wristband for all those shows, so if someone comes out of town and wants to go to every show in four nights, they're covered. There's nine shows over the course of four nights, Thursday to Sunday. The G. Love & Special Sauce show is a pretty big thing and will close out the festival. Twenty bands is a lot and we think the audience will find more than enough to like.
Doug: What are some of the buzz bands or bands to watch for?
Erica: Tortoise haven't been in St. Louis in a while so I think people will be eager to see them again. The MVSTERMIND show is pretty big. He's blowing up right now in St. Louis and he's getting interest from Red Bull. It's great to have someone from St. Louis doing well and going somewhere. It's an exciting time. Hip Hop is coming back in a big way in St. Louis. We also have Smooth Hound Smith from Nashville. They Just got off touring with Dixie Chicks, so they have a name and buzz, too. The Overcoats are really cool and they're buzz-worthy and I think they have a new album coming out soon. I'm pretty excited to get them on board for the festival.
Doug: Do you find this festival turns concertgoers into new fans?
Erica: Yes, especially when someone sees a new band playing with a band they already like. We hope they become a new fan of one of the other bands on the bill and enjoy the entire festival.
In 2016, the St. Louis Blues Society's release 15 in 15 has been spun by KDHX DJs more than any other new release. The compilation album of local artists performing original material sits at the intersection of the community station dedicated to independent media and the community organization dedicated to local blues.
KDHX Music Director Nick Acquisto explained the meaningfulness of the position: "Local compilations have been on KDHX's year-end top spins list and local spins lists in the past. 15 in 15 is the first compilation to be number one, not to mention by such a large margin. It's a tremendous indicator of how many great blues artists are making notable music in St. Louis right now and how much KDHX supports and champions the blues on this station. The St. Louis Blues Society compilations are a perfect starting point for finding the best of it made right now."
Hearing the news about the KDHX's Top Spins of 2016 list, the two individuals most responsible for 15 in 15 reacted in unison: "That's awesome." Jeremy Segel-Moss, the Chair of the St. Louis Blues Society also said, "I think it's a great accolade to the continuum and depth of talent in this town. It's great to hear local blues music on a world class community station." Paul Niehaus IV, the producer and STLBS board member, echoed those sentiments: "I am happy and pleased about the award. It shows that people are enjoying it. The album is a sign of how deep and creative the well of talent is here."
15 in 15 set out to present each local artist naturally and in their best light. The enthusiastic response by the KDHX DJs suggests the Blues Society hit the mark. A group of DJs interviewed for this article often praised the Blues Society for their progress and effectiveness in recent years as a result of "the new generation bringing new energy" to the organization, especially through the efforts of Segel-Moss and Niehaus, both talented and respected musicians in their own right. To borrow from one interviewee, Niehaus' Blue Lotus Studio, "brought to life the artists' dimensions with production and engineering of such high quality that it compares with the very best." In the words of another DJ, "The STLBS compilation CDs are all the evidence anyone would need to prove the health and vitality of the organization."
The success confirmed by the release's position at the top of KDHX's Top Album Spins of 2016 (and the station's Top Local Spins) couldn't be better timed because there's more to come. This January the Blues Society will release 16 in 16, a completely new collection of acts and original material. If these quotations from KDHX DJs about 15 in 15 are any indication, the new compilation will be another invaluable document of the city's vibrant blues scene.
Art Dwyer: The move from 14 to 15 gave us all original music by local artists, and it represents the best of our city. I play them all because they are all good. I'm an old timer and it's great to hear new material from other veterans like "Let the Demons Out" from Renee Smith and "Ain't That Lovin' You" from Roland Johnson. They are as good as anyone anywhere. Then there's Miss Jubilee and Rum Drum Ramblers . . . all different but all from the same musical tree.
East Side Slim: I like two things: it had new self-written songs in different genres from fun to socially relevant and everything in between, and the material was very strong. I loved "Tampa Style" by Ron Edwards and Ethan Leinwand. It was done in the older style so convincingly and respectfully. I played "Bottlesnake Blues" many times. Renee Smith's "Let the Demons Out" is fresh material that shows what a powerhouse vocalist she is. "Reap what You Sow" by the Kingdom Brothers and "Pike's Peak" by The St. Louis Social Club are among my favorites.
Hound Dog Brown (STLBS board member): The CD is jam-packed with A grade material by contemporary local blues musicians and that makes it difficult to pick out favorites. For me, blues does not have to be too fancy or prettified. Give me some blazing bottleneck slide on a twangy resonator guitar, and a well-played piano made of wood, and I'm as happy as a clam in the sand. Two tracks on this CD which fit this description are "Bottlesnake Blues" by the duo of Nick Pence and Ethan Leinwand and "To Get Along" by the Rum Drum Ramblers.
Doug McKay: I liked 14 in 14 but 15 in 15 is much better with its original material. It exposed some artists and is a fabulous resource. I particularly liked the cuts by Marquise Knox, Aaron Griffin, Rum Drum Ramblers and Big Mike Aguirre. This gave us the opportunity to play Big Mike's his music. This was my first exposure to The Green McDonough Band and it fired me up. The Kingdom Brothers are here and they put out one of the very best albums of the year. Letter to Memphis's "Oleatha Shuffle" isn't my style but I really like it.
Tom 'Papa' Ray: The CD has sympathetic production by Paul Niehaus. He understands the implements of sound; he's a musician himself. All the performers I know have positive things to say about their experience with Paul and Blue Lotus. Every cut has merit. Marquise Knox, Renee Smith, Roland Johnson, Green McDonough and Rum Drum Ramblers all have particularly strong performances. The cuts are all different, not everyone has the same sonic profile. For example, Roland Johnson's cut sounds like a 1960s Muscle Shoals production. Not a bad thing at all.
Sunny Boy Mason: The CD is very good because all of the songs are good. The sound quality of the production is excellent. Paul Niehaus did a great job on this. While it's hard to pick favorites when the entire album is so good, if I had to pick three favorites they would be the songs by the Bottlesnakes, Rum Drum Ramblers and Miss Jubilee.
Ron Edwards (STLBS founder and chair emeritus): The purpose of the STLBS is to support and promote STL Blues music and this CD is perfectly aligned with that goal. It brought together the musical community in a cross-generational way. My song "Tampa Style" with Ethan Leinwand ties back to former generations of STL piano guitar blues duets. With its broad variety of talent and styles the CD offered something for every DJ to play. I particularly liked the Bottlesnakes really tight old-style duet, the Rum Drum Ramblers infectious number and the Green McDonough Band's "Bone to Pick." But I also liked the different styles of Roland Johnson, Marquise Knox, Renee Smith, Big Mike Aguirre and Miss Jubilee.