Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel) took the stage Thursday night, singing sad songs in a slightly raspy voice. He moved from tune to tune, worked in a Jason Molina cover -- always a good thing -- and held me spellbound throughout his set. Will told the crowd about a visit with his 98-year-old grandfather that day. "I've got a good woman to help me go to the bathroom," he'd told his grandson just before Johnson left his grandpa's house for the road. "I'm lucky as hell." This simple tale told by the singer is indicative of the entire set, a set of songs that require deep listening and attention, that rarest form of (musical) generosity. Johnson was opening for John Moreland.
Moreland's first song, "Salisaw Blue," came in with a bang. He was accompanied by another musician who played a scorching guitar solo and brash harmonica. The crowd began to move and bob to the first tune. Then, things changed. Moreland's style switched abruptly to mellower, introspective songs about the usual unrequited love, but there was something a bit slick and unconvincing about some of the tamer tunes. Moreland does best when he's performing mid- to quick-tempo songs that burn through and captivate his audience. It seemed, from time to time, that his guest musician held our attention more than Moreland himself. While the crowd put their best proverbial foot forward, Moreland's set -- alas, his latest record Big Bad Luv -- while easy on the ears, failed to really catch hold of me. Again, it's the moments in the more barn-burning tunes that seem, for this scribbler at least, to work best.
Will Johnson's earlier set is not one I would have necessarily wanted to follow as a musician. There is that. Where the honorary Monster of Folk held us captive with understatement and direct melancholy, Moreland seemed to hide at times behind a veneer of well-known tropes like whiskey bottles and broken down loves and an all-too-earnest craft. In now way do I intend to pit either musician against one another; while Johnson carried the night, Moreland's energy and efforts were not by any means wasted on most of the audience. Off Broadway was fairly crowded on the floor, the balcony taken up by bodies. They'd come primarily for Moreland, and he didn't disappoint overall, although my impression of his performance mirrored my impression of the new release.
On Big Bad Luv, we move from the opening song -- the same he opened with at the club -- to an album that seems to peter out here and there. While tunes like "Lies I Choose to Believe" carry a lot of weight and sound, I've found what's elsewhere been praised as a career-defining record to be an uneven effort. My hope was that the live show would somehow make up, as it were, for some of the musical lacunae in the work and, to a good degree, it did. Moreland had a welcoming but intense stage presence as he and his musical cohort continued through the set. I noticed nearly everyone moving again as tempos would pick up, but there was the risk, it seemed, of Moreland being overshadowed again by his companion. All in all, it was a fine evening of straight-ahead folk and rock, but it is odd when such soft and understated songs like Will Johnson's manage to overshadow the performance that most came to see.
Click below for Monica Mileur's photos of John Moreland's performance.
Last Thursday night The Cactus Blossoms, a sibling band made up of Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, graced The Stage at KDHX studios in Grand Center. Hailing from just up the Mississippi in Minneapolis, the crooning pair played for a packed house at the intimate show with many people standing in the back of the space. They sang sad songs in a classic country style that emphasizes their dreamy blue vocals. Perhaps it's the bond of brotherhood or maybe it's their extraordinary tonality, but their voices are seamless and undivided, as if one voice split in two for the benefit of harmony.
The musical duo I was most reminded of is The Everly Brothers and this similarity, less than subtle, seems very intentional. Their album, You're Dreaming brings to mind The Everly Brothers' biggest hit, "All I Have To Do is Dream". And my favorite track, "Clown Collector", made me immediately recall "Cathy's Clown," although I do prefer the clever wordplay in the modern version: "Take a look at me man, I ought to know. / I can juggle all night 'til the rooster crows. / The spirit's willing, but the flesh is weak. / When she hollers all aboard for a losing streak." That is exactly what sets The Cactus Blossoms apart from their predecessors: their tongue-in-cheek phrasing. It's that iconic retro style sound with a intellectual twist.
Their aforementioned album, You're Dreaming, was released in March of last year. It's comprised of songs recalling sadness, love and tales of the river with a Southern backdrop. As country songs often are, it's set to the speed of a broken heart and the occasional a train engine. The album was produced by upbeat rock-n-roll singer-songwriter JD McPherson, known for bringing his 1950s style music to a modern generation. McPherson's sound is a mix of Pokey LaFarge and The Black Keys with a unforgiving danceability. It's his influence that's apparent on tracks like "No More Crying the Blues," originally recorded 1959 by cousin duo Alton & Jimmy.
A highlight of the show was definitely the song, "Mississippi" -- their love of the river is one of the reasons these guys fit in so well in St. Louis. The band was recently featured on an episode of the Showtime reboot of Twin Peaks, where they played this haunting song in a bar filled with slow-dancing couples. The deep beautiful chords and gut-wrenching loneliness of the lyrics that speak of a bar on River Street fit in perfectly with tone of the show.
When introducing the song, "Queen of Them All," Jack said in a dry but playful way, "And here's our only love song where nothing bad happens to anybody," which is quite an understatement. Not only does nothing bad happen, it's one of the sweetest songs I know. It's possible that it might just be me, a single woman in her 30s, but hearing this man admitting his love in a truly open vulnerable way and specifically the line "You're the end of my scheme" is a bit of a dream in itself. Be still my heart.
Click the image below to see all of Monica Mileur's photos from the performance.
For this rock 'n' roll mama, there was no better way to close out the holiday weekend than a musical nostalgia trip to the days of my misspent youth with a band that really defined the era for me. The Cult emerged from the UK's post-punk scene, breaking big in the US in 1985 after the release of its second album, Love. The album featured 10 near-perfect tunes, ranging from gritty and heavy to dark and brooding, combining elements of punk and classic rock with a modern edge that held intense appeal to the American teenager.
The core of The Cult's sound was, and remains, the haunting vocals and charismatic presence of lead singer Ian Astbury, paired with the distinctive wail of Billy Duffy's lead guitar. The two are the band's songwriters and only original members remaining, joined currently by drummer John Tempesta (who has been with the band for more than a decade), along with touring bassist Grant Fitzpatrick and keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Damon Fox.
The Pageant was filled with a fairly decent sized crowd for a Mother's Day Sunday night -- mostly folks over 40, unsurprisingly. Entering the stage to tribal music and chanting, The Cult kicked things off with "Wildflower," the heavy first cut from their 1987 Rick Rubin-produced album Electric. Remaining true to their raw, garage rock aesthetic, the band opted for stripped-down staging with only basic lighting and no banners or graphics, save for a flower image on the bass drum head -- the cover art for their most recent album, Hidden City.
Clad in black jeans, a black t-shirt, boots and a leather jacket, eyes shielded by sunglasses, Astbury quickly proved that his powerful voice hasn't changed much with the years. Throughout the night, he seemed to waver between gratitude (repeating "Thank you, kindly" after every song) and saltiness -- pausing to razz audience members for texting during the show and not standing up enough in the balcony, remarking, "What, is that -- your fucking exercise for the year? C'mon!"
The band worked through about an hour and a half of material, the majority from their trifecta of hit '80s albums: Love, Electric and Sonic Temple, with a few newer tunes sprinkled in.
Classics "Rain" and "Love" were early crowd-pleasers. "Lil' Devil" featured a lengthy and scorching guitar solo from Duffy as Astbury danced around the stage banging a tambourine. More recent tunes including trippy "Birds of Paradise" and "Honey From a Knife," along with the dark and heavy "Gone," felt like a bit of a mid-set lull.
The band regained footing toward the end of the show with a run of hard-hitting classics that got most of the crowd on its feet, starting with "Sweet Soul Sister" and "Fire Woman," both from the "Sonic Temple" album. They closed with a pair of tunes from Love, starting with "Phoenix," one of the album's deeper tracks that highlighted Duffy's full-throttle shredding as well as a scorching drum solo by Tempesta. Nostalgia reigned during set ender "She Sells Sanctuary," the band's earliest hit and arguably one of the best rock songs of the '80s -- the crowd eating it up as they pumped fists in the air and sang along to every word.
As the rest of band exited the stage, Astbury hung back for a moment to sign an album handed to him by a fan down front. "I'm only doing this because it's a record," he said. After a quick moment, the full band returned for a powerful encore of two hits from Electric -- "Peace Dog" and "Love Removal Machine."
Though I never saw them perform during their heyday, I've had the pleasure of seeing The Cult live several times over the past 10 years, and they never disappoint. While their more recent albums haven't produced the hits they once did, Astbury and Duffy continue to write and record quality tunes and perform with nearly the same level of energy and skill they did more than 30 years ago.
If you walked into Off Broadway on Thursday night unfamiliar with Marty Stuart it might have felt like you were in the wrong place. I attend a lot of shows at Off Broadway, it's one my favorite venues in town, and if I hadn't seen Stuart there in August I would have been shocked to show up ten minutes after the doors opened and already find myself behind two rows of people closely guarding their spots. Show-goers recognized the rare opportunity to see a legend by no stretch of the definition playing one of the most intimate venues in the area. You would have a hard time discounting the relevance of a musician once noticing his mandolin has the names of Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Hank Jr., Jerry Lee Lewis and others carved into it.
Marty and his band didn't disappoint with their traditional Western-ware from head to boot. The colors on their heavily tasseled and embroidered jackets popped against the background of those red velvet curtains. Marty was dressed all in black with black embroidered flowers and a black scarf tied around his neck and black leather flared pants that laced up the sides, reminding me of his former boss and mentor, the original man in black, Johnny Cash. I love seeing a band wearing costume-ish loud outfits during performances. Having a strong visual presence really adds to the auditory experience for me.
Marty Stuart is deeply rooted in country music and has been touring since he was 12 years old and is the most talented mandolin player I have ever had the honor to witness. He has played in the bands of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash before going solo in the 1980s with a string of popular radio hits. His objective is much different now than it was during his popularity with songs like, "Tempted" and "Hillbilly Rock." The band is on a mission to preserve the soul and history of country music with Stuart being the historian. He has a story for every song and delivers them with Southern charm and at the pace of an auctioneer. One of the things I like most about Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is that every one of the members of the band can hold their own as the lead. They all take their turn at lead vocals and the rest, including Marty, take a backseat for that moment. They all showcase their variety of talents on several different instruments each. And the setlist is so well rounded with originals, old and new and a wide variety of standards and covers by folk, country and rock 'n' roll artists.
His Fabulous Superlatives is made up of "Cousin" Kenny Vaughan on lead guitar who has been one of Nashville's top session musicians since the '80s. Drummer and backup vocalist, Harry Stinson, has worked with everyone from George Jones to Peter Frampton and Elton John and is also an accomplished producer and writer. The newest member of the band has been with them since 2015, Chris Scruggs. He was the co-lead singer for BR549 before joining the band, but is also the grandson of country great, Earl Scruggs.
My favorite song of the evening was their cover of Marty Robbin's "El Paso" which Stuart boasts has 469 words and an incredibly challenging guitar part, which seems effortless for Cousin Kenny. They were asked to learn the song for a performance at the country music hall of fame and now has become a staple of their set list. For the song Stuart, Stinson and Scruggs share vocals crowded around the same mic with Stuart on mandolin and Scruggs on standup bass. They also covered Woody Gutherie's "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" with Stinson taking lead vocals and carrying a snare drum strapped around at the front of the stage, The crowd went erupted when Stinson held a note for what seemed like two minutes while walking down the stage and motioning out over the crowd. At one point Stuart is on stage alone and tells a story of the time he met the creator of the original "Orange Blossom Special", Ervin T. Rouse, and asked him what song he would want to be most remembered for and he replied, "I guess that song I wrote about that train, the special". This song is known shortly as "The Special," but also "The Fiddle Player's National Anthem," it's been recorded most notably by Johnny Cash, but also Charlie Daniels Band, Merle Haggard and even Electric Light Orchestra. Stuart lead into the song by saying, "It's been played a million times, and here's a million and one"
The band has a new album that was released on March 10, titled Way Out West, which is an ode to the American West. The music fit in seamlessly with Stuart's covers of country standards and his hits from the 80s. He described the album as a majestic, psychedelic, cinematic trip through the desert where afterwards you'll feel like you've been on Willie Nelson's tour bus for 21 days. In Way Out West he recounts the experience of taking three different colored pills with the final playful advise of, "If you go out West. It'll give you a big thrill. Don't matter how you get there. Just don't take pills." The album was was produced by Mike Campbell, Tom Petty's guitarist. Stuart explained how it might seem strange that he recorded this country album in Los Angeles instead of Nashville with the help a man known for rock 'n' roll. He said that it made perfect sense to him because Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is the greatest country music band in the world and went right into "Running Down a Dream" to prove it.
When I'm watching Marty Stuart and his band I feel like I've been taken back in time to when country music was something different. When I tell people I love country music this is what I'm talking about and I hate that I have to specify, but the term is actually pretty broad these days, especially if you see Tom Petty as country like Marty does. The subject has never changed, but the way it's delivered is ever-evolving and I'm so happy these guys are still doing it like the originals.
Click below to see all of Monica's photos from the evening.
On April 21, Loudon Wainwright III produced an (almost) one-man family show at The Sheldon Concert Hall. He kicked off the evening with a quick rumination on his relationship with his kids before launching into a spirited rendition of "Donations" -- a song that plaintively begs a non-family member to be an emergency contact and keep your remains upon death. Wainwright later told the audience they were in for "kind of a family show tonight."
Further into the set, Wainwright mused, "My dad is in the show tonight." He shared that his father wrote the longstanding column "The View from Here" for LIFE Magazine and that since his passing in 1998, "I'm getting along better with my father." Ruminations on fatherhood abounded with a performance of "Half Fist" (about his grandfather, "the first Loudon") and a spoken word performance of his one of his father's LIFE Magazine articles. Repeating patters of parenthood and childhood were woven throughout the performance that night.
Toward the middle of the show, the audience was treated to "Meet the Wainwrights!" -- a jingle for the Wainwright Family Alaskan Adventure. In 2015, Lucy Wainwright Roche (who opened the show and later accompanied Loudon on stage), organizing the family vacation tour as part of Roots on the Rails, a musical excursion that included Suzzy Roche, Sloan Wainwright, and Rufus Wainwright, in addition to Lucy and Loudon. A few songs later, Lucy returned to the stage to perform a duet about the new-comers to the Wainwright clan the "leaves and twigs of the family tree."
The penultimate songs were in honor of Loudon Wainwright's mother, including "White Winos" and "Homeless." The later is featured on his 2001 album Last Man on Earth, written after the passing of his mother. Wainwright then reminded the audience to "go home and take your meds!" and closed the main act with a rousing rendition of "My Meds" from 2012's Older Than My Old Man Now. With tongue darting and eyes glinting, Wainwright seemed to particularly relish these comedic works and performed them with gusto.
Returning to the stage with Lucy Roche Wainwright in tow, Loudon Wainwright closed the evening with two cover tunes "Love Hurts" and "At the End of a Long Lonely Day"; an apt final chapter of a confessional and emotional exploration of what it means to be a family.