A time-honored craft dating back to the mid-1800s, Cigar Box Guitars found great popularity during the Civil War. Using a hollow box as a resonator and a broomstick for a fretboard, these instruments quickly became the staple of jug bands and early blues composers.
Nowadays, cigar boxes are not the only items being used to create these whimsical treasures. Vendors at the festival displayed musical creations made out of cookie tins, hubcaps, iron skillets, briefcases, and the ever popular bed pan. In addition, there were a few banjos and fiddles thrown into the mix.
Enthusiasts took turns playing a variety of handcrafted instruments in a tent on the parking lot, while guitarist and cigar box guitar expert Justin Johnson played the main stage. Inside, cigar box luthiers stood in a line at the stage with their creations, waiting their turn for Johnson to check out their instrument. Taking a few minutes before he began to play, Johnson would describe the instrument's construction and features, followed with a short performance on the instrument.
Festival organizers Gary Herget and Steve Miles created the festival in 2013, along with the owner of Highway 61 Roadhouse, Bill Kunz.
For more information, visit stlouiscigarboxguitarfestival.com.
Photos by Valerie Tichacek
On hand and rocking the house was the legendary Bob Kuban and his band. Millennials who may not be familiar with Kuban can Google him and learn that he and the In-Men had a pop hit in 1966 called “The Cheater.” The song put Kuban and the In-Men on the map. The song held the #1 spot on the Billboard chart for three weeks.
Minnesota State Fair Grounds were the host of this year's Soundset Music Festival. The first set of the day was DJ TIIIIIIIIIIP with all his special guests. Allan Kingdom and Bobby Raps followed, jumping around with water flying through the air and bumping random classic rap songs. Murs & 9th Wonder provided a nice throwback and old school warm up. The sun was at it's worst at that time of day, but it was cool to see the people who were there early and supporting the artists.
Aside from the music, there was a lot going on. The center of Soundset was like a landing strip of stages and food, a ferris wheel, and even a skatepark. Skate competitions went on all day, allowing attendees to show off their skills for a small crowd and for a chance to win some money. Next to the Skatepark was a signing booth with scheduled signings with many performers. Kids were lining up every hour and missing out on some big acts just to get an autograph from their favorite artist. There was also a VIP signing area, with other performers exclusively signing autographs there as an added benefit.
The first standout act was Finding Novyon, who had energy that was undeniable. He may not have been the biggest name on the list, but the crowd responded to him as if he were the headliner. Afro had that same feeling when it came to connecting with the crowd. Other standouts were Anderson .Paak and his band, who had an electric performance with lots of insane facial expressions to illustrate the fun they were having. Prof also put on an amazing show that ended with him floating around the crowd in a giant blowup raft.
The headliners of course stole the show. Future and A$AP both had blockbuster shows with the whole festival in attendance. A sea of people caught these last few shows. Soundset really is an amazing experience to take on in just one day, but there is good reason that it is known as one of the best Hip-hop music festivals of the year.
Photos by Cory Miller.
In advance of Whoa Thunder's upcoming release of the flexi-single "Hop To It," Melinda Cooper (of Town Cars and The Union Electric) sat down for a chat with Brian McClelland and Mic Boshans about the new line-up, weird pop, and ego-cooling collaboration.
MC: Quick Whoa Thunder line-up.
Mic: So Whoa Thunder is Mic Boshans on drums. Joe Taylor on keys and back-up vocals and samples. Syrhea Conaway on bass and vocals. Dan Meehan plays guitar. Brian plays guitar and sings and writes songs. We all work collaboratively.
MC: Everybody's pals.
Brian: We're all pals, yeah.
MC: How does that feel?
Brian: It feels great -- I've never had that. This band's gone through two full line-ups. It started out with me and two girls that didn't know how to play yet, they were my friends at the time but I was trying to teach them to play instruments so it was like two non-musicians and me. My first experience was as a solo act. But this lineup, everyone's their own front-guy. They're all big names in the scene and I just lucked into this lineup. It's all people we were hanging out with anyway and we're all good friends. So it's an ideal situation with ideal musicians.
MC: It makes a big difference.
Brian: It's a huge difference, it finally became a band at that point. As soon as we got this lineup, I debuted the band. I made a record on my own but this is a whole new thing.
Mic: It's a really fun group of people to work with. Everybody has a sense of humor -- we all take our crap seriously but nobody takes themselves too seriously. It's a lot of fun making music with this crew.
Brian: And we travel well.
Mic: Yeah, yeah. Touring is a lot of fun. We haven't been out long enough to get on each others nerves yet.
Brian: Give us a week...call our booker tell 'em we're ready.
MC: Are you recording right now or do you have anything in the can?
Brian: We have a single we're going to release at the Dressy Bessy show. It's our first recording together and it's called "Hop To It." It's a flexi vinyl single -- we have it back and it's ready to go and we're ready to give it to the radio station, but we've been trying to figure out how to release it. We didn't want to steal and thunder from Andy on his Dutch Courage release. It would be kind of a dick move, right?
Mic: Did both of you just make a Whoa Thunder joke?
Brian: Well, you know what I mean. You don't want to try to throw yours on there as well.
MC: Yeah, that'd be kind of a dick move.
Brian: So we've got a single we're super excited about. We've got to put together a video now cause I do videos too. But the hardest thing to do is make a video of your own band. It really is. I can't. I'm just so blocked about it. I really want to make something great. But man, I can make videos for everybody else all day long. Just like with Middle Class Fashion; I was in that band so long and it took so long to put videos together that we only made I guess three videos in the five years I was in that band. Getting back, we have this recording we're super proud of.
Mic: I love the way it turned out. When we got the flexi test press in the mail, I was surprised by how good it sounded. It sounds as good as a record. And I'm really happy with the recording -- Matt Meyer really worked out.
Brian: Matt Meyer, yeah, he produced and recorded it for us.
Mic: It has a really different sound than the previous Whoa Thunder record because it's a full band and we put the song together collaboratively -- everybody has a voice on it. You can hear all the super voices of the band. It jives very well.
Brian: You really can, especially Joe's stuff in the instrumental bridge. There was just a slight shuffle that kind-of went along with the rest of the song, but as we started to learn it, Joe just turned it into a barroom-piano, old-fashioned barrelhouse vibe. I think it turns on a dime there and adds a whole different flavor that's distinctly Joe Taylor. And then with Mic's mad scientist vibe, yeah, the keys and the drums are %110.
Mic: I'm really happy with the drum sounds. I feel like this recording has a lot more heft to it than the previous Whoa Thunder recordings.
Brian: Well, previous Whoa Thunder recordings all started out as midi drums that I was programming. I was in love with the beats from Tegan and Sara's "So Jealous" record which almost every song is all the same beat over and over again and I love that energy -- it's propulsive that's why every song on the first Whoa Thunder is like that beat. But "Hope To It" is actually built around a beat that Mic started playing.
Mic: I forgot about that.
Brian: That's why it's distinctly Mic Boshans...
Mic: It's got a nice groove to it.
MC: So I've done basically what you're doing now going from recording all by myself, and I love the air that you get in the songs when you have other people adding into them and you can actually just sit back and see what happens.
Brian: I know, geez.
MC: Do you have a problem letting go a little bit, saying "Ok, I wrote it like this but you take it and do what your going to do."
Brian: Not really with that first album, You're Under Attack, my "record record." But at this point I'm trying not to demo demo. When I would make a demo I would make a whole arrangement with all the instruments and all the harmonies. Then I would get attached to the demo so when I would give that to the band, what came back would never quite match up with what I really wanted. So I'm not trying to have a vision vision. I'm trying to create the song...
Mic: ...and let the band flesh it out.
Brian: Yeah, I'm basically just learning how to learn how to play the entire song by myself with my guitar. Instead of even recording it on my software, I take my phone and make a video of me recording it -- just vocal and guitar -- and that's what I give the guys now.
Mic: That way it's still melody-centric and the song's still there, but we can do what we do.
Brian: I like the idea of being able to play these songs all by myself too if I needed to. I want to make sure that they're strong enough to hold up on their own with out having all the bells and whistles.
Mic: That's a good test of if a pop song's worthwhile, if it stands up on its own without all the sonic over-production behind it.
Brian: Sure, especially power-poppy type stuff, but this is a long way from power-pop.
Mic: We're getting a little more into weird pop, which I like a lot.
MC: With you on drums it's going to be weird pop.
Brian: Yeah, I love that -- it's going to be weird. He takes his time building those parts. But at the end, man, they're amazing
MC: And Joe, cabaret-trad-jazz guy...
Mic: That element is definitely there on the new track.
Brian: For sure.
Mic: I like to try to bring a voice to what I do. I'm definitely not trying to steal the show, but I want my part to matter, not just be completely incidental. So there's the thing that you can play...you can write a part that actually has a voice.
Brian: But I think also you're down to playing a pop, straight-up 4/4 beat if I needed one. If I really, really feel strong about it, you could feel good about that...
Mic: Yeah, exactly, that's a good thing about playing with a band of seasoned musicians. It's a band of grown ups and everybody's got their ego in check. I've been in bands before where that's not the case and it's difficult to get anything done when things are a lot more volatile. I'm trying not to drop any names.
Brian: Yeah, there's nothing volatile about our band.
MC: That's the thing in these situations when you're playing with people that you respect and they're actually your close friends that you'd be hanging out with anyway. There's no actual leader; there's collaboration with direction but there's no fucking ego to follow around.
Mic: And the other cool thing about it is that it's an impetus for us to hang out together.
Brian: That's is very true; it's the main reason why I want to go out of town at this point. The merits or benefits of going out of town to build an audience is dubious at best, but the great part is that it binds the band together: it's an excuse to go on vacation with your friends and it gets the band a hell of a lot tighter musically too.
Mic: And you have to stay in touch. Sometimes you could really like somebody and fall out of touch just because you don't have that thing and the music brings us together...and you can quote me on that.
MC: Oh, that's a cherry of a quote you've got there.
Mic: Did you get that? "Music keeps us together."
MC: We got it. So what else you guys want to talk about?
Brian: We're workshopping new songs week to week one at a time basically. My goal was to have an EP by the end of summer, but we're more likely to get something the fall.
Brian: It's going to be awesome. Dressy Bessy's been friends of mine for years now. I used to bring them in back in the mid-2000s. I used to do some independent booking in St. Louis. I basically started booking touring bands because I wanted to give my band at the time better gigs since I could never get opening slots for bands I wanted. Anyway, we all started doing that, right? And Dressy Bessy was one of the bands that had never played St. Louis. I was actually a big fan of Apples in Stereo and John Hill of Dressy Bessy is the guitarist in Apples in Stereo, so that's how I got there. I fell in love with them and starting bringing them to town and we became pals. And I'm super-excited to get them into Foam in a situation where they can make all the money that comes in the door. And it's such a tight room, it will pack up and become a party easy. So I've been thinking about that for a while and I'm glad it's working out this year.
Mic: I'm looking forward to kicking it with them, honestly. They're really fun people and we were fast friends when we met.
The upcoming "Hop To It" release show will be held 9pm Friday, June 10 at Foam with K.C.'s Schwervon! and Elephant Six associates Dressy Bessy.
Do-it-yourself craftiness has always been about revival. From zines, posters, patchy jackets and bleach-jobs to grow-your-own and fix-it-yourself, DIY culture means retrieving a way of doing things that one or another march of progress has made obsolete while making its replacement much more expensive. But when it comes to DIY in the music scene, the culture has also relied on the mass production of mass-production devices like cassette and CD duplicators and copy machines. We may like to forget that there was a whole era of self-released CDRs with what seems now like terribly awkward album art, but all the silly ways to do without a jewel case that self-releasers invented only further prove how much DIY has been about craft over and above the division of labor. So tapes, like CDRs, have been part of a DIY mission but with at least one big difference: the tape revival is part of a broader recommitment to analog.
Of course, the digital vs. analog debate, almost always happening around vinyl, is a conversation that can only go so long before those in favor rehearse their lines and cross their arms while everyone else smirks at the cave-dudes and dudettes getting righteous about a medium that only a self-hating neurotic would commit to in this day and age: the warmer sound (hiss and pops), the flip-it-over listening experience (but my hands are full of cookie dough), the awesome album art (not on the spines), the connection to the past (every listen destroys). Yet no matter what audiophilic rationale vinyl-lovers or cassette-enthusiasts come up with, they are drawn first and foremost to the aura the object adds to the listening experience. And the oddest thing about digital-philes who really get into audio codec comparison -- dynamic range, null tests, time smears, noise floors, etc. -- is that they talk about digital formats with a collector’s impulse. For them, it's also about an aura.
The disagreement at the heart of the analog vs. digital debate, then, isn't about sound; it's about authenticity. Both sides are after that reverent connection to a source, they're just talking about different sources. For the digital archivist, it's about source fidelity in the peaks and valleys of the audio, the fantasy of a "lossless" listening experience. For the analog collector, it's about sourcing the object itself as it passes through the network of labels, distros, consumers, vendors, represses, resales, etc. It's about a social relation that comes to hang invisibly around the product as it circulates, the unbroken real-life connection back to the scene of the band or label -- unbroken by file transfers, shares, downloads, compression, zipping, unzipping, etc. I often get notes tucked into packages sent to me by artists and labels, even vendors. I have never got anything of the sort for a Bandcamp download, surely never for a Spotify test-spin. For the analog enthusiast, the digital world is not the real world.
If the tape revival is a follow-up to the vinyl renaissance that began the return to analog for a generation raised on CDs, the biggest advantage to tapes -- which gets mentioned over and over in interviews on the subject -- is the cost. Tapes are cheap to make and cheap to buy. (Often less than half the cost of vinyl and sometimes the same price as a download alone.) From that perspective, tapes certainly have a special place in DIY. But it would be too simple to chalk up the cassette comeback to the fact that modest-means collectors want some kind of object or that modest-means musicians just want something for the merch table.
Terms like "vinyl junkie" or "tape head" also miss the point. I admit buying LPs must seem like an expensive habit to those who have become accustomed to streaming and downloading. And buying cassettes must look like a desperately trendy replacement fix. But I don't think addiction metaphors fit what's going on with the return of analog in any of its forms. I also don't think that wanting to collect something to feel closer to a scene really explains the aura of listening to a cassette or an LP -- that feeling of being closer to those who made it, more in tune with the moment in history it represents. (CDRs circulated in the same way but do not compel the same enthusiasm.) So if it's not about sound and it's not about collecting, what's left? For me, committing to analog means committing to the album. In short, listening to analog is about staying in touch with a relatively young phenomenon in popular music: a curated set of songs meant to be a musical statement of their own. The suspicion many collectors that I know harbored for the CD, which is even more true of the mp3, comes from precisely the convenience of navigating the album or, now with mp3s, the thousand-plus songs of songs in even a modest collection. The shuffle function, the ease of the skip or the repeat, the smart playlist, the if-you-liked-this-then -- every advance in the ability to navigate the album takes listeners further away from the original context of a song, not as it was in the studio, but as it helped shape the pace of a deeper listening experience. Of course, you can buy an entire album on iTunes, but that's not how the platform's made to be used. And more importantly, that's not how it's being used.
By commitment to album culture, I don't just mean the extra financial commitment (or investment) that comes from taking on a run of five-hundred before hitting the tour or shelling out the big bucks for the privilege of owning an object uniquely stretched in time and space. Admittedly, in my more self-congratulatory moments, I tell myself the extra money is going to cover some fraction of an electric bill somewhere. Just as likely it goes to pay off debt. And whatever collectors imagine -- that five, ten, fifteen years down the line some tiny-run release is going to be worth ten times what they paid for it -- the reality is that we will never sell a collection for what it's really worth.
By commitment to album culture, I also don't mean a commitment to the typical A-side/B-side breakup of tracks on cassettes and LPs, even though I admit that the non-stop, track-after-track pace of an iTunes party makes me want to climb the walls. By album culture, I mean the belief that there's a different relationship to music that comes from a commitment to the long player. I mean album culture in contrast to single culture.
It's this difference between the album and the single that explains why the return to tapes and vinyl began among smaller labels. The single is categorically mainstream; it's a track selected and set in the context of mass appeal. The single is a way of listening. It's a way of listening that shuts out discovery. A singles mindset is content with the familiar, with more of the same by a different name.
When singles take over the airwaves we get commercial radio, where the same set of twenty songs are played ad nauseam for weeks or even months. But there are some obvious justifications for the usefulness of the single besides the fact that it was a heck of a lot easier for DJs to use on air without the worry of running into the next song as you would with an LP. Sometimes the whole album just isn't that good. I'm thinking of Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow or Buffalo Springfield's first album where singles like "The White Rabbit" and "For What It's Worth" stand so far above the rest of the tracks on the album. Sometimes a single can be the first small step into the complete discography as is the case with the Steely Dan tune "Dirty Work." And sometimes a single and its flip-side are all we have of an artist. That's why there's a big difference between 45s and singles and why 45 collectors really are a different breed. They're after the truly rare and obscure recordings that maybe never made it to an LP often by artists who may never have had the chance to release anything else.
In contrast to the singles-dominated radio culture, the album format made possible a way of listening that was more attached to home audio systems and the freedom they made possible and less confined to the tunnel-vision of many commercial stations. With that reorientation, the LP enlivened a musical counter-culture that reimagined the way an album was put together and in the process re-imagined what a musical experience could be. The full-length, long player brought with it instrumental interludes, bleeds and crossfades, studio chatter, multi-part songs, live albums, and most gloriously of all, tracks that stretched for the full twenty-odd minutes of a side. Rock music started to realize the format's possibilities sometime in the late 60s. Think of the way you listen to late Beatles albums versus the grab-bag arrangements of the early albums.
Of course, the rise of the album format helped pop bands branch out into experiment as concept albums became more sophisticated than Frank Sinatra's Songs for Young Lovers or so-and-so Sings Sacred Songs and began to approach the novelistic arcs of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Moody Blues' Days of Future Past. But concept albums yielded singles that could well stand on their own. For some rock musicians, however, the shift from the 45 -- designed for the popular two-and-a-half to three-minute song -- to the long-playing record, initially designed for the long movements of classical music, meant a shift in sound as well. Bands could now document the twenty-plus minute live jams, such as Grateful Dead's "Dark Star" on Live/Dead. (There was a single version released in 1968. It isn't even three minutes long.) Before that there was the first side-long rock jam, "Revelation" on Love's Da Capo in 1966. Some bands went on to fashion themselves around such signature jams. But there were even more radical experiments going on in the studio. Can's "Yoo Doo Right," the side-length improvisational on their debut Monster Movie (1969), is said to have been edited down from six hours, i.e., edited down to what they could fit on the side of an LP. The Mothers of Invention used sound collage and tape manipulation in "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" from Freak Out in 1966, as did the Beatles' still unreleased "Carnival of Light," recorded in 1967 for an early electronic music festival.
Maybe it's a coincidence that the LP was gaining ground over the 45 at the same rock outfits were adapting jazz improvisation on one hand and incorporating synthesizers on the other. It's difficult to underestimate the influence of Ornette Coleman's thirty-eight minute long "collective improvisation" spread out over two sides of Free Jazz in 1960 or the popularization of Moog synthesizers later in the decade. (Those in the know pronounce it "mogue.") But for me, the real experimental possibilities of the form came in An Electric Storm by White Noise, released in 1969. The needle stays in the groove, the tape keeps going and sooner or later you're halfway through the first side's unpredictable cut-and-paste transitions between cosmic electronics, filmic dialog, orgiastic moans, carnival tunes, guitar solos, and pop ditties -- all of which hang improbably together. It's hard to imagine experimental music breaking into rock music without the album as a way of getting around the single. It's hard to imagine picking a play-first radio hit coming out of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. (Actually, they did release a 7" of "Pachuco Cadaver". . . in France.)
Thinking more about album culture when it comes to the analog revival helps us see how choosing and adapting to a format can become part of the creative process. In other words, those who dismiss tapes as a fad aren't thinking about how the choice of format can become part of the artistic statement. Particularly when it comes to DIY culture, the choice to go tape or go vinyl, whether intended or not, is also a political statement. Choosing to buy and sell albums after iTunes is a way of pushing back against the hit-single sound of mainstream pop music that dominates commercial radio and TV. Dismissing the tape revival as a fad is like dismissing counter-culture because it's cool: neither take seriously the political statement implicit in the choice of format. The fad isn't on the merch tables of basement shows; it's when you walk into Barnes & Noble and see pitch-corrected vocalists on LP next to a brand new reissue of Still Crazy After All these Years.
With this in mind, some of the most interesting recent cassette releases that I've encountered have a special relationship to that format: New England dark folk outfit Blood Warrior's Letter Ghost was recorded on a failing four-track so that when listening to it on cassette, there's a moment when you wonder whether it's the recording or your tape player going. Something similar happens on the newest release from Harry Talin (aka Coleman Guyon), The Exciter, where frequent use of pitch bending gives the impression of a cassette slowing down, even as a drum machine keeps the beat. Relative newcomer, Iowa-based Yves Malone's first release was a box-set homage to 80s horror-film synth. Packaged in a VHS clamshell, Malone went the extra step of inventing covers for films that never existed -- Zenith City, Abysscoteque, The Echo People. The poster art, stills, and synopses are so convincing that a couple reviewers have lamented how hard the films are to find. What makes these releases special to me is the way the format informs the tradition in which the artist is working. Other artists have made analogous statements on vinyl, such as Leyland Kirby's work as The Caretaker in which he uses manipulated samples of well-worn 78s to evoke historical distance even as his work sounds profoundly contemporary. And then there's lock-groove loops and the fabled needle-destroyers. Releases like these may be exceptional or extreme, but they offer needed reminders of the materiality of music. And in an age where more and more tunes are melting into air, we need a little hiss to bring us down out of the clouds.