Many bands earned their early bones busking on dirty streets and subway ramps. Likewise, every music fan hopes to recognize street-corner genius and brag about it later when the band ascends to big stages in big rooms. Humming House hit the Duck Room stage and the audience floor on Thursday night in a show that demonstrated the band's continuing evolution (evident in their fine new album Companion) and their busking, string-band roots.
Humming House has impressed St. Louis music fans for several years running, starting with an excellent Twangfest show in 2012. The band is comprised of four multi-instrumentalists: Justin Wade Tam, Bobby Chase, Joshua Wolak, and Benjamin Jones. For the average audience member whose musical "career" ended (gratefully) after high school, it was thrilling -- on the magic show end of the scale -- to watch these talented bandmates move seamlessly amongst keyboard, guitar, mandolin, double bass, electric guitar, harmonica, performing expertly on each instrument. Midway through the show, the mandolinist, Wolak, produced a harmonica from his back pocket and played it holderless while still playing the mandolin. Still don't know how. Don't want to know. Like I said, magic.
Humming House is also a remarkably musically flexible group, moving agilely between acoustic strings-based Americana to electrified rockers, to soulful power-pop gems. Stringing it all together is captivating frontman Justin Wade Tam and a thorough-going affection for introspective and sweetly positive lyrics. The band kicked off the show with two up-tempo, electrified cuts from its new album -- "Hope in My Head" and "Sign Me Up" -- and moved on in the same vein but switching to electrified acoustic instruments for "Freight Train," "Great Divide," and "Fly On," all from earlier albums. After a rocking, Bangles-like rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter," the band began shifting gears, moving from the Springsteen-like rocker "I Want It All" to "Wishing Well," both cuts from the new album, to Tam and his guitar on a sweet, nostalgic solo, "Find What Waits."
And that's when the band came off the stage, not for the mysterious interim between sets, a phenomenon thankfully going out of favor, but to come down amongst the people and play an un-amplified acoustic set. The crowd surged forward to better hear the band and was rewarded with the dynamics of one of those YouTube gimmicks where a disguised U2 plays at a New York City subway stop. Which is to say that if you heard the current incarnation of Humming House on a street corner and didn't immediately feel like a latterday Sam Phillips, you should just resign yourself to simpy Spotify set lists for all eternity. The crowd swayed and danced to "Tower Park" and "Gypsy Django" amongst other tunes before Humming House took the stage again and plugged in for a quick and surging final set.
An amped up belter from their early catalogue, "What Have We Got To Lose" and a cover of "Go Your Own Way," complete with a crisp, driving take on Mick Fleetwood's tribal drum sequence, drove the crowd into a final lather. The band returned to encore the title cut of their new album, "Companion," a song about reflection, appreciation, intensity, respect, everything they expect to deliver to their audiences, and unquestionably what I experienced last Thursday night.
Pixies rocked The Peabody Opera House on Saturday night for nearly two hours with no breaks and no small talk. In fact, there was no talking at all as they played an impressive thirty-five songs ranging through their six studio albums, their first mini LP from 1986, and even a Neil Young cover from a long-ago recorded B-side. Without a moment's rest they played from one song right into the next with fervor, intensity and unyielding stamina to the very end.
Three of the four original members are still with the band, including lead vocalist Black Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering. Bassist/vocalist Kim Deal left the group in 2013 and was replaced by Paz Lenchantin, formerly of A Perfect Circle, Zwan and Queens of the Stone Age. Her eerie backup vocals are a huge part of the band's iconic sound and was consistent with Deal's vocals that fans are familiar with from the first four albums. During the encore Lenchantin showcased her vocals on "All I Think About Now," where she alone sang and Francis relinquished the spotlight momentarily.
Almost every track from their biggest record, Doolittle, was played including hits like "Here Comes Your Man," Hey and crowd favorite, "Debaser," in which the crowd screamed along to the chorus, "An Chien Analusia!", lyrics that reference a short film from 1929. During "Monkey Gone to Heaven" the audience raised their hands above their heads and signaled the corresponding fingers, "If man if five, then the devil is six. If the devil is six, then God is seven." Towards the end of the set, after playing it a few songs before, was a reprise of "Wave of Mutilation," which was an unexpected and enjoyable surprise.
Pixies are known for their contrasting and alternating dynamics. At one moment the tone is sweet and light with Black Francis practically whispering into the mic. The very next beat is an intense shriek or a squeal from Santiago's guitar. Francis has been known to say that they can only play two ways, loud or quiet, no in-between. I found that the construction of the set list also followed a similar formula building tension with several energetic punk-rock songs like Broken Face followed by a softer tracks like "Silver Snail" and "Havalina," as to always keep the crowd on their toes.
With the no-nonsense feeling of the show I wasn't sure that there would be an encore. The band came forward without their instruments and waved to the crowd, then alternated sides, repeated the gesture and bowed as a group while locking arms. Then they looked at each other in a funny way as if they were questioning, "Should we do an encore tonight?" It was an obviously fake little exchange considering their guitars were being set up, but I enjoyed it. I recognize that some of the meaningfulness of an encore is taken away when it becomes tradition, but I still walk away feeling a little cheated when it doesn't happen.
Click the image below to see all of Monica's photos of the performance.
Back in 1995, when DJs/co-owners of Washington D.C.'s Eighteenth Street Lounge nightclub Eric Hilton and Rob Garza decided to turn their mutual love of a multitude of musical styles into a recording project, Thievery Corporation was officially born. Forming a collaborative of musicians and numerous vocalists around their electronic experimentations, they have released ten studio albums on their own label (Eighteenth Street Lounge Music), along with numerous compilation discs, all expertly and uniquely combining elements of acid jazz, Indian, reggae, Brazilian, trip-hop and downtempo electronica, which have collectively sold in the multiple millions worldwide.
Despite the relatively consistent touring schedule throughout their 20-plus year existence, St. Louis has, peculiarly, never been fortunate enough to have earned itself inclusion on any of their many previous tours. That finally changed this past Saturday, when the patience of the many St. Louis area Thievery Corporation fans was righteously rewarded, at long last, with the Pageant hosting their long-overdue, premier St. Louis performance.
Opening the show was the highly talented Latin-rock quartet Making Movies, who blend together cumbia, Americana and psychedelic rock. Like many of you, I first learned about them through listening to the excellent, long-running program Latin Hemispheres (late Saturday/early Sunday from 1 to 3 AM), since they receive fairly regular airplay on that show. Formed in 2009, the Kansas City-based band, which consists of two sets of brothers with family roots in both Panama and Mexico, warmed up the then-small sized crowd with a sonically diverse mixture of slower, melodic tunes and harder-edged, body-moving rockers. Their charismatic lead vocalist, Enrique Chi, liberally spoke his mind between songs regarding his dismay with our country's current leadership, and briefly held up a sign saying "we are all immigrants" during the set's final song. A drumless version of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule the World' was their set's only cover, and was also the only song sung in English. My only complaint about their set was its too-short length (approximately 30 minutes). Luckily, Making Movies will be returning back to town on October 20, opening for St. Louis's Javier Mendoza at Off Broadway -- a highly recommended show if you are even remotely a fan of Latin-infused rock.
After a short break, during which an odd yet intriguing CD of Portuguese-sung, acoustic covers of David Bowie songs was played, the moment that everyone in the now-comfortably crowded audience had been anticipating (for years, for many of us) finally occurred, at nine o'clock on the dot. For the next two solid hours, five musicians, six vocalists (three male, three female) and one deejay/electronic wizard: Garza (Hilton has not been a touring member for at least a few years) aptly and effectively demonstrated just how cohesive a very wide range of sonic elements can potentially be. Their material's multitude of styles, tempo, and intensity levels never fell into familiar territory for too long before evolving into something fresh and different, and keeping the crowd completely mesmerized (the usual annoying chatter was noticeably and enjoyably absent here) was achieved practically effortlessly.
The cast of constantly-rotating vocalists is one of the features that made this concert so unique. Each of their six singers, all top-notch in both vocal talent and stage presence, lent their own personal stylistic dynamic to their respective songs, which ranged from the sultry and seductive female-sung "Until The Morning," "Sweet Tides" and "Heaven's Gonna Burn Your Eyes" to the powerful reggae-influenced "Warning Shots" and the show's trip-hoppy opener, "Marching The Hate Machines," both sung by males. The vocalist who sung that opening track was also the only vocalist that occasionally played an instrument -- he was the sitar player on three songs, including the excellent (and my personal favorite Thievery song), "Forgotten People," which was the first of five encore selections. Another superb song that included the sitar was the well-known (partly due to its inclusion on the Garden State movie soundtrack) "Lebanese Blond." The afro-beat stylings of "The Heart's a Lonely Hunter" and the haunting "The Richest Man In Babylon," one of the few songs that featured more than one vocalist, were also stand-out selections.
Visually-speaking, the stage was minimally decorated, and the lights occasionally displayed some cool moving colorful shapes on the stage and ceiling, but they never became overused or overpowering; allowing the audience's focus to remain on the organic elements of the music. It was entertaining to occasionally fixate on the barefooted bassist, Ashish Vyas, as he circulated around much of the stage throughout the entire show, with purposeful steps that ranged between a strut and a stomp, depending on the song's intensity level, while always keeping his feet precisely in synch with the beat of the song. It was also interesting to watch Garza, in his back of the stage-center platformed deejay podium, who would often glance down onto the stage, then develop a giant grin on his face, as if he was quite pleased with the activity taking place in his kingdom.
Garza remained on his podium up until the brief break before the encores, giving the crowd a very friendly verbal greeting before introducing all of the musicians and vocalists. Wearing a very shiny metallic shirt, and still maintaining his grin, he played guitar on two of the five encore selections. Then, sadly yet inevitably, at eleven on the dot, the exactly two-hour, approximately 25-song set officially came to a close.
Enough glowing praise cannot really be fully and accurately given to this wonderful, stellar performance by Thievery Corporation, which, despite the way-too-lengthy, multiple years-long delay that preceded it, was completely well worth waiting for, as truly good things usually are.
Click below to see all of Doug Tull's photos of the night's performances at the Pageant.
The Black Lillies represent. There is no mixed message or pretense, though their moniker is an apt metaphor for their sound. Cruz Contreras, the front man and writer, moved with a quiet confidence even before the show. The band took the stage at Off Broadway and waited for Cruz to open the set. Sam Quinn, formerly of The Everybodyfields, leaned back on his bare heels and closes his hand around the neck of his bass. Cruz strode across the stage in boots, the click of each step echoing throughout the room. His grey-tipped curls poured like a halo beneath his hat. You would almost expect him to have a pistol on his hip.
Then they began. The drums, played by Bowman Townsend, came in heavy and the guitar hit the down beat slightly flanged, echoing the forward country swagger of Waylon Jennings in the late '70s. The band was energetic and never rowdy, even though at one point Cruz assured a vocal spectator that she could "cuss in here." Though the venue could have held many more people, the band played as though they either didn't notice or didn't care. Either way it didn't matter. The music mattered.
The line-up was smaller than usual, though the sound did not feel compromised. Dustin Schafer with quick licks and extended solos replaced the high mercury sound of the steel guitar found on their records. Cruz sang both parts of the songs usually performed with a female vocalist. This was a return to how he had written them, he confided after the show. And though he does miss a duet partner, he enjoys the dynamic of this all male four-piece.
Heralding the cradle of country music from which they sojourn, their songs are heavy with roots overtones and the glee of Eastern Tennessee country which borders on bluegrass at times and finds it silly to argue the difference. Four songs in, Cruz switched to an electric and the band opened into a stretch of faster beats which varied from rock, aided by Schafer's shredding, to a strong honky-tonk two-step.
They played a few of the fan favorites such as "The Fall" and "Whiskey Angel," though Cruz introduced many songs as new and yet to be recorded. The newer material is heavy with metaphor, reaching for imagery beyond traditional exegesis and with more vehemence than The Black Lillies' earlier work. It also relies heavily on the hook, often repeating it as the song fades. For these newer works, Cruz picked back up his sunburst 1952 Gibson J45 with his angular strumming pattern worn into the wood like a battle stripe. It is obvious this guitar is his songwriting standard, and his voice, always melodious and never overdone, fits well within its soft range.
They closed the night without an encore, but stepped directly into the crowd to mingle those still milling about. Excited for their new record, the band sees this tour as a method for perfecting these songs before they return to the studio. Cruz' songwriting is strong, if not as proudly confident as it was in the early records. Now it emerges with more technicality -- and more hope. They are indeed The Black Lillies -- with all the delicate grace of a blooming lily, but a blackened one, mature with worldliness and a price duly paid. And I, for one, look forward to the upcoming release.
Click the image below to see all of Tim Farmer's photos of the evening's performances.
Chances are you may not yet have heard of fresh-faced guitarist, singer and songwriter Benjamin Booker; but hopefully that is soon to change. The 28-year-old with a soulful croon that carries far more depth and longing than his age would imply has been steadily growing his audience since his self-titled debut album was released three years ago. In addition to working the festival circuit, Booker did stints on the road opening for Jack White and Courtney Barnett, putting him in front of crowds much larger than he would be accustomed to on his own.
With a sound that blends elements of hard blues, throwback soul and heavy garage rock, Booker easily appeals to a wide range of music fans. His second album, the much more polished and produced Witness, released this past June, garnered much critical acclaim and buzz, thanks in part to its topical title track featuring guest vocals by Mavis Staples. Touring in support of the album, Booker performed a brief, but delightful one-hour set on Tuesday at Old Rock House.
The late weeknight crowd was just beginning to shuffle in as opener, Brooklyn-based duo She Keeps Bees, took the stage. Vocalist/guitarist Jessica Larrabee and drummer Andy LaPlant filled the venue with their soaring psychedelic blues-rock. Larrabee's haunting and soulful vocals were reminiscent of 1960s Grace Slick at times, particularly on "Head of Steak" and "Breezy." Her tone and control are simply stunning and they proved a good match stylistically for Booker.
He finally emerged for his set around ten o'clock, accompanied by his backing band members, guitarist Matthew Zuk, bassist Mikki Itzigsohn and drummer Sam Hirschfelder. Clutching a vintage red Harmony hollow body guitar, Booker began with the sultry strut of "The Slow Drag Under," which highlighted his soft raspy vocal style. The vocals could have benefitted from a volume boost, as at times, the guitars overshadowed them, making it difficult to decipher the lyrics.
His set, though brief, highlighted a good sampling of tunes from his two albums and illustrated how deftly he can shift back and forth between throwback soul crooning and raw, heavy garage rock, sometimes all in one song, such as in "Wicked Waters." His first album is much more garage rock-focused and he stayed in that place for a few tunes, including "Have You Seen My Son" and "Chippewa," his fingers furiously shredding on his guitar.
Booker devoted a good portion of the set to songs from Witness, beginning with "Motivation" and the lovely "Believe," his eyes closed and his face wrenching with emotion as he delivered the lyrics, "I just want to believe in something / I don't care if right or wrong / I just want to believe in something / I cannot make it on my own."
Seemingly a bit shy and humble, Booker didn't banter much with the crowd, aside from a couple quiet offers of gratitude, his speaking voice much more meek than his singing voice. He sang with his eyes closed tightly most of the time, losing himself in the lyrics and emotions -- though it would have been nice in such an intimate venue to see him make eye contact and connect a bit more personally with the audience.
He brought Jessica Larrabee from She Keeps Bees to the stage to provide vocal assistance on two tunes, "Overtime" and "Witness," on which she took the part Mavis Staples sings on the recorded version. The latter's theme of anger and frustration over continued police brutality was particularly powerful in light of recent and past local events. The lyrics "See we thought that we saw that he had a gun/Thought that it looked like he started to run," particularly held gravitas, despite the relatively upbeat and melodic tune.
Groovy "Truth is Heavy" was anchored by the thump of Itzigsohn's bass, followed by rocker "Off the Ground," which had the crowd bouncing up and down. Booker kept things upbeat with raw "Violent Shiver" and "Right On You," which included an impressive guitar solo by Zuk. He then brought things down tempo to close show with soulful "Slow Coming" with Zuk on slide guitar. Booker thanked the crowd before quickly departing the stage and surprisingly not returning for an encore.
With just two albums of tunes that mostly hover around the three-to-four-minute mark, an hour-long performance doesn't seem wildly inappropriate, though the crowd certainly would have appreciated more. What Booker's set lacked in quantity, however, it certainly made up for in quality. The biggest takeaway from his work thus far is that the best is clearly yet to come. Booker is an artist who is only just beginning to come into his own and I, for one, am excited to watch him grow.