Akin to entering a basement party thrown by friends, The Firebird set the scene for the type of show Foreign Exchange had in store for St. Louis on Saturday night. With dark lights and neon signs on walls from local breweries, the near-capacity crowd lined every corner of the space to ensure a spot was theirs for the entire two-hour set.
Opening the show with the jazzy notes of "Milk And Honey" from their fifth and latest album, Tales From The Land of Milk And Honey -- a track that showcases the harmonies of lead vocalist/songwriter Phonte and co-lead/background singers Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden, was the perfect segue into a night of joie de vivre and tunes culled from albums of years past.
From "Milk And Honey," the group upped the tempo with "Work It To The Top," a throwback-synth-R&B dance track from their latest LP -- in which they interpolated Keith Sweat's "I Want Her," to come up with this sort of two-step mashup that the audience was really digging. The wicked thing about FE, as they're known to many fans, is that they can make a show feel like you're just hanging out with a bunch of friends at the cookout. Phonte talks shit on stage, all the while they're providing a dope soundtrack and everyone is dancing and chatting about; then he still sways folks into going over to the merch table to buy t-shirts, vinyl and CDs.
Before the show, local talent DJ Reminisce jammed everything from Junior Mafia's "Get Money" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Find a Way" to alternative newcomers like Anderson .Paak's "Heart Don't Stand a Chance" and The Internet's "Girl," onward to cuts by Jay Z, Jill Scott and Lauren Hill. After "I Want Her" and a few other tracks -- a remix of "Asking For A Friend" from their latest -- and "On a Day Like Today" from 2013's Love In Flying Colors, the group launched into a cover of Prince's "17 Days" (aka "Let The Rain Come Down") from the trifecta that is The Hits/B-Sides.
In what would've probably been the midway point in another act's show, Phonte simple proclaimed, "That was the just warmup, now we're gonna slow it down." The band then goes into softer tunes from Tales From The Land of Milk and Honey.
FE was created by Phonte (a North Carolina native) and producer Nicolay (from The Netherlands) when they pieced together their entire 2004 debut Connected from their respective homelands via instant messages and email, never once speaking over the phone or in person.
That said, the set continued on with a cover of Aaliyah's "Rock The Boat" and Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend," as well as "Happiness" from "Connected," "Better" from "Love In Flying Colors" and "All Or Nothing" from 2008's "Leave It All Behind," among others.
As a Grammy-nominated team focusing on hip-hop, sophisticated R&B and electro, it's no surprise the audience was a bridge between races and ages -- black, white, Millennials, Generation X and Y, tattooed rockers and the like, all grooving along to a group that continues to respect and break the boundaries of bringing good music to the masses.
To say I've been waiting more than 30 years to see British synth pop pioneer Howard Jones is an understatement. I was just 14 in 1984 when his debut album, Human's Lib, was released, including catchy single "New Song," ushering in a sound that would, in great part, define the era for many music fans around the world.
It was 30 years ago this year that Bruce Hornsby released his debut album, The Way it Is, with his original band The Range to great success and critical acclaim. The album eventually went multi-platinum and earned Hornsby the coveted "Best New Artist" Grammy Award. Now 61 and a bit grayer at the temples, he paused to reflect on this milestone at an intimate show at River City Casino on Saturday night.
In a phone interview a couple weeks prior to the show, Hornsby told me that he finds that first album "unlistenable," but knowing a lot of people really love it, he seemed to be quite at ease performing a couple classics from it, including the still gorgeous "Mandolin Rain" (with Ross Holmes accompanying on the instrument itself as Hornsby tickled the keys) and "On the Western Skyline" (on accordion).
This trip down memory lane was balanced with a focus on the now -- specifically the band's forthcoming album, Rehab Reunion, which hits shelves June 17 and is Hornsby's first studio album of new songs with The Noisemakers since 2009's Levitate. Also new is the fact that Hornsby doesn't sit at the piano on this album but leads the band on the dulcimer, which he's been infusing into his live performances and recordings increasingly over the years.
In a mini dulcimer set, Hornsby -- joined by Holmes on mandolin and drummer Sonny Emory on washboard -- introduced fans to the "bookends" of the new album: "Celestial Railroad," a tune he penned decades ago and duets with Mavis Staples, and the lovely "Over the Rise," the album opener that was recorded with backing vocals by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. He also played a nearly unrecognizable, stripped down version of his 1988 hit "Valley Road," which appears on the album as well.
In a jovial mood, Hornsby delighted the intimate room with stories, jokes and anecdotes as he worked the stage, moving between the piano and accordion. The Noisemakers, his band of many years, was in peak form, particularly guitarist Gibb Droll, who complimented Hornsby's flawless piano with a sublime solo on "Go Back to Your Woods," a re-worked version of the tune by Robbie Robertson. Ross Holmes provided a lovely extended fiddle intro to the song as well.
Organist JT Thomas added depth to Hornsby's piano and cracked up at his jokes as only a good old friend could. JT Collier's bass rounded out the sound. Hornsby likened performing with The Noisemakers to a "big party," and that's definitely the vibe they put out on stage, particularly during upbeat tunes like "Jacob's Ladder" and "Place Under the Sun."
Hornsby did an impromptu and timely performance of "Don of the Dons," a quirky tune about Donald Trump he penned a few years back for a musical, which he prefaced with a story about running into The Donald at a Knicks game and singing it for him in person. Another set highlight was "Black Muddy River," Hornsby's lovely take on the later Grateful Dead tune, which he's performed live for many years and recently recorded with Justin Vernon for the newly-released Day of the Dead tribute album put together by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National.
Hornsby and The Noisemakers capped off their two-hour set with "Dreamland," a pretty tune that he duets with Sir Elton John on the album "Halcyon Days," to a standing ovation from the crowd. As always, Hornsby proved his station as one of the most talented musicians, singers and songwriters of the past 30 years. If anything, his voice has only grown more soulful with age.
Hard Working Americans may just be the best side project "supergroup" touring today. In between playing and recording with their regular bands, alt-country crooner/songwriter Todd Snider, standout guitarist Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood, bassist Dave Schools and drummer Duane Trucks of Widespread Panic, keyboardist Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi, and guitarist Jesse Aycock somehow have found time to rock small venues across the country, and just released their first album of mostly-original tunes, Rest in Chaos.
For a band that was assembled a mere three years ago, the members of HWA are so at ease and synchronous on stage, you'd think they'd been playing together forever. Mostly, they just seem to have a really good time -- perhaps feeling free of the demands and constraints of their larger touring bands. Schools and Trucks (playing with HWA between Widespread Panic's packed spring and summer tours) in particular appeared to be in the laid back and jovial spirit afforded by an intimate club show -- something neither gets the chance to do quite as often these days.
The venue was packed with fans as the band took the stage and opened with the dreamy "Guaranteed," with Aycock providing a trippy lap steel solo. Schools offered a funky bass intro and Snider worked the stage, vibrating and strutting with his Mick Jagger-esque physique and dance moves as they picked up the pace with their new album's first single, "Dope is Dope."
Continuing to keep things upbeat and danceable, Trucks pounded out a Bo Diddley beat for Snider's tune "Mission Accomplished." The crowd responded with a resounding, "Yeah!" as Snider wailed the lyrics: "All you really did for sure was get too high. You ever get too high?" Casal stepped forward to shred on one of his numerous impressive solos of the evening. He's easily one of the most underrated guitarists playing today. (Hopefully, due praise will soon come his way.)
After a segue teaser of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," the band launched into fan favorite "Stomp and Holler," a Hayes Carll cover that resulted in the audience doing just what the title states. Snider added some soul on his harmonica while Staehly pounded the keys.
Other set highlights included an epic performance of Frankie Miller's "Blackland Farmer," including a mid-song tease of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love," as well as another absolutely scorching guitar solo by Casal, followed by an all out jam by the entire band, with Schools thumping the bass, his eyes closed and head back in a combination of concentration and ecstasy.
Casal pulled out the slide for the swampy and thunderous "Run a Mile" as lightning began to ignite the sky and the Arch glinted just to the North of the venue's patio. The band closed out the main set with Snider's "Is This Thing Working" and left as the sweaty crowd sweaty cheered for more.
HWA quickly obliged, returning for a four-song encore, including sultry "Roman Candles," cheery "The Mountain Song" (with Casal and Schools facing off in a heavy guitar/bass jam), St. Louis-appropriate Chuck Berry cover "School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)," and show-closer "Purple Mountain Jamboree."
As strong a performance as Hard Working Americans puts on, one can only hope its members devote more time to this effort in the future (which seems a strong possibility at least for Schools and Trucks with Widespread Panic ending its extensive touring after this year). In the meantime, I, for one, will try to join their southern-fried dance party as often as possible.
Having no point of reference for the instrumental music of the Ahleuchatistas before going to this show was like walking into a movie having seen no trailers and heard no spoilers. As such, I was gifted a relatively objective experience with this energized duo and found it striking and refreshing.
The inevitable conflict that arises for many of Ahleuchatistas' contemporaries in the complex and oftentimes recondite post-rock genre is the tension between the effortless ability to impress with virtuosity while simultaneously maintaining integrity and clarity of message. At what point do awe-inspiring chops overshadow the clarity of the message?
Luckily, Ahleuchatistas seemed to constantly engage in an honest dialogue with their audience. They perform stunning and dexterous feats of superb musicianship without it feeling like a talent show. Most of the songs, especially the new material from Arrebato, felt effortless and giddy as though the duo were not only the conductors of the train but also its most excited passengers.
The tightly composed, blazing fast interludes never felt over-rehearsed or contrived and gave the listener the sense of present danger, as though the looped, oscillating guitar melodies were at risk of derailing a bullet train from the tracks. Effortless and capable, even the most complicated polyrhythmic sections in odometers felt natural and familiar. This is music that hinges less on complexity and more on authenticity and efficacy of message. It's a testament to the practice of art and the art of practice.
The less structured improvised moments of the set washed over the audience in seamless conversations between guitarist Shane Parish and drummer Ryan Oslance. A bold, fearless musical story arc emerged, keeping listeners glued to the pages, anxious to hear where the narrative would transport them next.
These looping, rhythmic vignettes that Ahleuchatistas can create resemble something you may find in other ritual music throughout human history, which explains why this duo garners so many nods from the pseudo-genre of "international music influence." It's not that they're dabbling in the styles and trappings of other cultures with an appropriative eye, it's that they've undone the modern western influence of heroic riffs and stadium hooks and are comfortable creating ritualistic music that grows and blooms in a more honest, contemplative way. It speaks to a universal language of creation, and the form and rhythm of sustained practice, both in art and in life.
Ryan Oslance told us after the show in humble demeanor that he lived half of the year off the grid in the woods outside of Asheville, NC, practicing his craft. A refreshing story of sustained ritual and devotion in the digital age of pocket sized distraction and endless self-promotion.
This communion of music and daily practice is championed by Ahleuchatista's genre-bending label, International Anthem, and is gaining traction with more postmodern listeners looking to reconnect to their place in the universe without Western bravado or cultural dogma. This flag is carried by other successful Post-Western acts, such as Rob Jacobs (also on International Anthem), Wei Zhongle (which Jacobs fronts) as well as OOIOO, Rhyton and Niños du Brasil.
An exceptional artist is not only able to deftly express themselves but also reveals something to you about yourself. Some bands will ask you to labor hard for this revelation (especially in the math-rock genre), but Ahleuchatistas provide room in their music for me to have that experience. And at the mercy of their incredible skill, I could've been easily muscled out.
This was one of the finer shows I've witnessed in recent memory, and an optimistic indication of where 2720's new booking manager, Kaveh Razani, is steering the venue. This show was deftly supported by local rippers, Biggie StarDust, The Conformists and the abominable Skin Tags.