It's been a rough few weeks in America with the country strongly divided and wracked with tension. If "music heals the soul," as they say, the ever-soulful JJ Grey & Mofro provided the perfect medicine to lift pre-holiday spirits at their packed Thanksgiving Eve show at the Pageant.

Historically a huge night for going out in St. Louis, the venue was already filling nicely as opener Parker Millsap took the stage. The roots rock singer/songwriter proved a well-matched pairing for Grey with his own uniquely soulful voice and blues-infused Americana style. He's even more impressive when you consider he's a mere 23 years old. With assistance from bassist (and childhood friend) Michael Rose, drummer Patrick Ryan and the incredible Daniel Foulks on violin, Millsap delivered a sold set that ranged from country twang to Zeppelin-esque rock and roll, never devoid of emotion.

As JJ Grey and Mofro stepped out, the crowd had swelled to near capacity and all seemed ready for some musical healing. The band got warmed up with an early tune, "Six Ways from Sunday" from its quintessential 2004 album, Lochloosa, featuring a funky mid-song keyboard solo from Eric Brigmond. Grey then dug into his classic soul side for "A Woman," delivering some Otis Redding-inspired crooning as Marcus Parsley and Dennis Marion replied with blaring trumpets.

Upbeat but message-heavy "Every Minute" seemed an appropriate choice as Grey emotionally belted the lyrics, "Evil deeds that we do / Screamin' from the headlines / Can't stop to read or to watch / Cause I ain't got the patience or time / To live a life of despair / To live by another man’s word / It's always been in your hands / To live a life you want while you're here."

Fan favorite "Brighter Days" brought out more of Grey's gruff and soulful vocal styling, with the audience providing assistance on the ending na, na, nas. A mid-set performance of "Lochloosa," the classic ode to Grey's North Florida roots, had him break out the harmonica backed by Brigmond's churched-up organ.

The band kept things mostly on the funkier side for the second half of the show with swampy, Southern foot stompers like "Dirtfloorcracker," "Country Ghetto," early Mofro tune "How Junior Got His Head Put Out," and the perfect pre-Thanksgiving celebration of Southern cooking, "Ho Cake." Grey preached the "gospel" of cornbread, fried chicken, sweet potato pie and collard greens before being joined by St. Louis' own Tom “Papa” Ray on harmonica. Todd Smallie, also a native of St. Louis, kept the bass funky.

Set-ender "I Believe (In Everything)" was a strong reminder of why JJ Grey & Mofro are such a joyous band to see live. While he doesn't shy away from the pain and struggles of life, Grey always brings things around to a place of positivity and gratitude that makes him one of the most honest and inspiring performers today. The audience, too, felt this gratitude and eagerly reflected it back on him.

After briefly taking leave of the stage for a break, Grey returned for an encore and to properly introduce the band, including Brigmond, Smallie, Marion and Parsley, as well as drummer Craig Barnett and new guitarist Zach Gilbert, who replaced Andrew Trube after he departed the band earlier this year. They treated the crowd to two more recent tunes -- the title tracks from the band's last two albums, "This River" and "Ol' Glory."

The nearly two-hour set still didn't feel quite long enough, and fans lingered after the band left the stage, perhaps trying to hold on just a few moments longer to the feelings of warmth and unity the band put forth before heading back out into the chilly night air.

Setlist: Six Ways From Sunday, A Woman, Every Minute, Brighter Days, What You're Looking For, Lochloosa, Dirtfloorcracker, Country Ghetto, The Sweetest Thing, How Junior Got His Head Put Out, Blackwater, Orange Blossoms,  Ho Cake (with Tom "Papa" Ray on harmonica), I Believe (In Everything). Encore: This River, Ol' Glory.

Click below to see more photos of Monica Mileur's photos of JJ Grey and Parker Milsap.

JJ Grey & Mofro (with Parker Millsap) at the Pageant, Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Another grey day in the cubical. No excitement. No Wonder. No stimulation. The bland, beige walls that could be lifted by a finger crush the soul like a ten ton brick, all while the world continues to spiral into insanity during the most pathetic excuse for a presidential race. I knew if I wasn't careful, my pineal gland would quickly shrivel away into sawdust under the relentless trauma. Luckily, my father bestowed unto me a great wisdom in my youth that would help preserve me through these dark days. The power of prog rock.

I was two weeks into an unprecedented Yes binge, exercising my mind with one of the greatest rock group of all times while I completed the mostly mindless work. Listening to the old favorites, as well as exploring uncharted territory, I expanded my appreciation for the pure talent and collective brilliance of the band. Front man Jon Anderson's otherworldly songwriting and heavenly vocals, Steve Howe's imaginative guitar skills, Rick Wakeman's larger than life keyboard and of course, Chris Squire's powerful bass lines. Isolated they were great, but together they were able to create some of the greatest art mankind has achieved, at moments even seemingly able to touch heaven. I delved into their long, diverse career unlike any other band.

As I absorbed a lifetime's worth of music once, then once again, I gradually grew saddened that I would never be able to see these masters perform. In my time I've managed to check off practically all of the titans of the golden age of the 60s-70s I cared to see. But as time goes on and 2016 continues to claim more and more of those titans, I knew I was born just too late to see the music that was so dear to me live. Last I heard, Jon was suffering from an illness that required a sinus operation which undoubtedly would threaten his delicate, yet powerful singing voice. But, in a curious effort to maintain the illusion of busyness in the cubical, I threw out a harmless search to see any news on the band on the ole internet. My heart jumped out of my chest and my eyes raced across the page in disbelief as they read, "Jon Anderson and the Holy Trinity of Yes Launching Tour." My excitement was multiplied uncontrollably when I noticed the article was posted just two days ago. I rocketed the mouse across the screen and pounded the keyboard to find the tour dates -- so fast and hard that the poor Macintosh couldn't keep up. I nearly wept in joy at what I found. They would be coming back once again to St. Louis, just right up the street at the Fabulous Fox Theater. In a matter of minutes, the hopeless and impossible became a reality.

"You don't know what this means..."

Jon Anderson had recovered from his ailment, and because Howe and drummer Alan White were busy touring with a different vocalist, keyboardist and bassist under the name 'Yes,' he gathered Rick Wakeman of olde and guitarist Trevor Rabin from their 80s-90's days for a World Wide tour starting in October under the name ARW. While I respect Howe as undeniable and essential part of the band, Jon was absolutely its soul, and a Yes without Jon was no Yes at all. Fans across the country and around the world would soon be seeing this 'Holy Trinity' together on stage for the first time in over a quarter of a century. All we had to do was wait a little longer -- and time seemed to stretching out a bit more each day.

"We want to try and take it to another level. But we're certainly not taking away all of the elements and the sound that the songs made." -- Rick Wakeman for Ultimate Classic Rock

Four months of fighting futility in the cubical and surviving agonizing election cycle insanity later, the day had finally come. Orange was officially the new black. Donald Trump had been elected the President of the United States, and the country was more polarized than ever. A seemingly doomed scenario faced us all as our grip loosened on the collective sanity, spinning faster and faster by the day. But for one night it didn't matter. Tonight was the night of the impossible concert. Jon Anderson was coming to town and bringing with him his music. The biggest opponent to ugly times is beauty, and I kept my compass locked towards the five story Fox sign and the beauty to come on the other side of those walls. Sitting in the cube with heavy bags under my eyes after a late night watching the race to the White House, I snuck out of the open cell early to acquire my press pass--and see how far I could take it.

I arrived just in time to collect my credentials and fade into the back of the meet and greet line; a pleasant surprise. The right place at the right time, as usual. My adrenaline rushed in excitement for a chance to meet the group. I never thought I'd see this concert, let alone meet some of the talent behind Yes. I've had a message in my head and heart for some time now for Jon; a sincere and utter appreciation on behalf of myself, my father and the World for the love and beauty he and the talent of Yes has bestowed upon us. How much of a positive influence it has been in my life, and how it continues to help me through the ugly times of life. There have been a great few who have contributed so much to this world, all of which are worthy of appreciation, but Jon and the rest are the ones throughout history that I personally wished to thank in person. Art is surely just as important to humanity as anything else. I eagerly waited in line behind the crowded few that had paid dearly for this privilege, twenty years younger than anybody else there with my camera bag. Not exactly hidden.

"I should have brought a CD to sign!" -- Yes fan

After some time of admiring the ornamental beauty of the theater's lobby, the old hippies had made it through the line and retrieved their VIP tote bags. It was the young hippy's turn to see if he could get in. The first lady I dealt with called over a manager, who then called over another manager, who then called over another lady. The typical progression. Someone had to give eventually. After going through the ranks, hopes were dashed as I was denied entry into the meet and greet. The old press pass trick that had worked so well for me so many times before had failed me. Maybe I'm getting old. It seemed I wasn't going to get that chance to relay my message but I couldn't complain. I was seeing Yes tonight.

"I think we're going backwards with this election, man." -- street hustler

Night had fallen on the Fox and the Lou was coming to life. Cars flooded the streets under the sparkling lights of Grand Avenue as the hectic workday drew to a close. The excited usher waving to the traffic in front of the theater made you feel like you were back in a different time. A simpler time without cellphones, nonstop internet and orange presidents. It was a pleasant way to set the mood as the line gradually formed outside the venue. The clock continued to spin back into the past with each step as the you wandered through and marveled at the Wonder of the old, majestically decorated movie palace. For the next few hours, what would happen on the inside of this grand concert hall would be completely separate from the outside world. A much needed break for the hippies and rock enthusiasts, young and old.

After some time of great anticipation, and following an introduction by Sweetmeat and the KSHE crew kicking off their 49th birthday bash, the months of waiting was finally over. Joined by drummer Louis Molino III and bassist Lee Pomeroy, Rabin and Wakeman made their way to the stage to a roar from the crowd. Rabin sporting a vintage militaristic style garb and Wakeman wearing his iconic flowing wizard robes. They greeted each other with a hug and huge grins, both seemingly excited and thankful to be playing on the stage together again. Their powerful guitar and keyboard opening played for a few moments before Jon finally made his way out and greeted the crowd with a youthful smile. And they began to perform their hearts out.

"The best religion is love!" -- Jon Anderson

Silhouetted by simple colors projected on curved canvas arching behind them in layers, the Trinity played a healthy selection from throughout their extensive catalogue. A nice blend of their lengthy early tracks they are renowned for with some of their more poppy tracks -- luckily for me it was more of the former. Anderson admitted he was fighting a cold, but after his voice warmed up on the first songs, his range was undisturbed. His high notes were clean and smooth, and his performance did not disappoint. Wakeman gave a commanding performance in all regards, surrounded by his mighty rig of keyboards. Some equipment from the 70s, others not even on the market yet. Most notable was his solo during "Awaken" in which he summoned a soul shaking church organ that absolutely moved every person in the room. Rabin gave the fans of the 80s Yes the powerful guitar rifts and shredding solos they were hungry for, but he also delivered on Howe's arrangements impressively. All in all, their essence remained, and each song maintained their greatness, with little live-on-stage nuances that made the show all the more special. During their touching nod to the late great Chris Squire, I was reminded of what my father once said about their music in relation to the peers of their time. "They always stayed positive." Yes is one of the most positive words out there, and the band's lyrics and vibe for the most part over the years reflected that positivity. And with recent studies from actually prove benefits of positive energy and personality, it was a welcome change from the outside world.

"People say, 'Why do you write these lyrics like that?' Because that's what happened. It just happens, you don't think about it too much." -- Jon Anderson

The goose bumps and emotions came in waves as the songs kept coming. The creeping bass line of "Long Distance Runaround," the powerful crescendo of "Heart of the Sunrise," the iconic lick from "Owner of a Lonely Heart," the heartwarming harmonies of "I've Seen All Good People." One after another. It was magical. With the first few bars of "And You and I," hearts began yearning for their second half. Wakeman's whimsical wisps on the keyboard and Jon's gentle voice were absolutely on point along with the rest of the group. My eyes welled with tears at the sights and sensations I was experiencing. Thinking about my love beside me. Thinking about my father, who would have been here if he weren't stricken with the ALS. But he got to see Yes in his and their youth, and now it was my turn. In that moment, embraced by the warmth of the familiarity and love of the very same music he and I have heard all of these years, I felt his presence.

The unforgettable night went on until the predictable yet very welcome encore of Roundabout. Before we knew it, two and a half hours had blown by and we were left with a memory and a heavy afterglow of something wonderful. The smiles smattered across peoples faces -- some from pure positivity, some from something else -- proved the undeniable feeling of togetherness was shared by all. I was incredibly thankful for the experience and I'm sure I wasn't the only one.

There was an old BBC program produced in the early 70s featuring Yes when they were in their youth. They were in their prime, and so was humanity. While creating what by some could be considered some of the greatest music of all time, Jon humbly admitted in an interview his excitement to see the music to come in the future. If the music of the love generation was so fantastic then, it was only going to get more fantastical in the future. As it should have. Sadly, as consciousness and creativity were continuously crushed over the decades to come, his prediction never quite came to fruition. The high water mark the Good Doctor spoke of was all too real. Jon's message of love and positivity gradually faded in time as we've grown more and more apart, culminating in the divide we find ourselves in today. We have all the technological toys to distract us, though. Posting to everybody how great our lives are, while we advance ourselves up our own asses until we reach the singularity. Growing away from our natural state of being and more distant from each other. From humanity. From Love. Instead, we are filling those voids with the dead echoes of a digital realm.

But if Yes can teach you anything, it's that you can't snuff out the fire of love. "They" may have bottled it up to try and sell it back to us in commercials, in iPhones, in cars -- but we can take it back if we want to. Love is the only answer; hate is the root of cancer. Don't surround yourself with yourself. See all the good people, and be one yourself. The only way out of this world of hate and corruption is a collective, conscious effort from the bottom up. The media got us into this mess, and we have to recognize that and wise up to it. We have to remember who we really are. Just because something is hopeless and impossible, doesn't mean it isn't possible. We just have to say, Yes.

Dedicated to my Dad

 

 

Sharon and Doug Foehner usually can be found busking outside the museum on Saturdays. It is a tradition born of love, family and the blues, but last Friday the Fab Foehners came inside to kick off the National Blues Museum's Howlin' Fridays series on the Legends Room stage.

The Foehners moved to St. Louis in the mid 80s but the real story starts in upstate New York in 1977 when Doug was 14. As Sharon tells it: "We grew up blocks apart but didn't know each other. I knew his brother. He played drums and I wanted to jam. When we did, I met Doug." They have been jamming ever since.

Sharon's family had migrated from Macon, Ga. to work as sharecroppers. She likes to tell that her Mom went to high school with James Brown and her Auntie went to church with Little Richard. Her eclectic musical tastes were influenced by gospel blues (mom) and jazz (dad) but she also loved classical, soul and more. At the age of nine she began Suzuki lesson for bass violin. As a teen her interests shifted to rock 'n' roll, she says, "because I wanted music with a little bit more energy."

Doug's influence was his father, Gale Foehner, a well-known ragtime-jazz pianist. As Doug puts it: "He was a piano man. He tuned them, fixed them and played them in bars all over the country." Doug too got hooked on rock 'n' roll. He was a bass player and Noel Redding (Hendrix/bass) look alike in a Jimi Hendrix style band. He said, "I was hired to learn all of the Hendrix music. We did four or five years together with a list of 110 Hendrix songs and played the Bitter End in NYC." Doug's musical interests began to shift as he listened to Memphis Minnie on college stations.

In 1983 Doug's Dad moved to St. Louis where he became a regular on the music scene. In 1986, Doug, now "heavily addicted to Memphis Minnie," moved to St. Louis where he found lots of her 78s and the beginnings of a serious record collection. Gale took his son to the jazz clubs to meet his friends and hear Dixieland bands like the St. Louis Ragtimers. Having found his blues Zen, Doug became a master of the slide guitar. But, he will laugh and tell you, "I repair furniture for a living. Sharon got to make real money and play the music."

When Sharon arrived in April 1987 there were three kids and no plans for a career in music. Seeing her first local music, The Broadway Rhythm Band -- a supergroup led by Stacey Johnson with Buzz Martin on guitar, Jimmy Hines on bass, and Keith Robinson on drums -- "was mind-blowing," she says, "I stared at Hines all night." Between breaks she would talk with him and he would teach her bass lines. She marveled at how "cats here were so generous in sharing their knowledge." Jam sessions became her way to play, which is how she met the ragtime piano great James Crutchfield. One Wednesday night in 1989 she sat in on bass with his band at the Venice Café. She kept coming back and Crutchfield told her, "I can't pay you but you can jam with us." Two months later he told her the guys wanted her to join the band.

Sharon went on to blaze a musical trail through St. Louis and around the world. She formed the Urban Blues Express with Bennie Smith in 1995 where she sharpened her bass skills and learned the guitar. In 2004 she moved to the Rich McDonough band now known as Rough Grooves. She still plays with them as well as with Paul Bonn and the Bluesmen. Doug also plays locally with Raw Earth who put out a CD last May.

Music and family has been a constant in the Foehners' busy lives. Over the past decade Doug would busk with his Dad in front of the Tivoli theater on Delmar. Beulah, the oldest of their three children, continues the musical tradition as a vocalist singing a song written by Sharon, "Homeless Child," on the upcoming St. Louis Blues Society 16 for 16 CD. Of course, mom is backing her on guitar and dad is on the slide.

The Foehners' skills and love of music is apparent onstage where there is no playlist. When asked, they laughed and Sharon said, "our playlist is one complimentary key after the other." Doug agreed, "she likes to pick songs that are pleasant to the ear -- a song in the key of G and then a D or a B -- and we like to mix it up, a little blues, a little jazz."

That's the way the Happy Hour show went. Doug had the slide going with Sharon on guitar and vocals. Yes, Memphis Minnie was there with "Ain't Nothin" and "When the Sun Goes Down." So was Louis Jordan's "Is You Is or Is You Ain't" and Big Bill Broonzy's Big Bill #2. Howlin' Wolf made an appearance with "Nature" and "Howlin' for my Darlin." Son House dropped in with "Death Letter Blues." Doug's slide was flawless. One instrumental, "Maui Chimes," required some delicate harmonic fingering. You could see Sharon smiling at him across the stage as his left pinkie deftly worked its magic. Sharon's vocals were tender, emotive and soulful. You could it see on her face as she would close her eyes and lean into the mike. And, you could see Doug smiling at his playmate; they were in tune. It was a joy to be there, a real happy hour for all.

Howlin' Fridays which continues throughout November at the National Blues Museum includes a 5-7 p.m. Happy Hour show followed by a concert from 7-10 p.m. The Fab Foehners will return to play happy-hour sets on November 18 and 25. The concert lineup includes Big George Brock (11/11), Marquis Knox (11/18) and Skeet Rogers and the Inner City Blues Band (11/25).

Click below to see more of Bob Baugh's photos of the Fab Foehners at the National Blues Museum.

The Fab Foehners at the National Blues Museum's Howlin' Friday series, November 4, 2016

 

If you wanted to go out and have some fun in 1920s-era St. Louis, then the decade-old St. Louis Zoo was a good option. A decadent lunch could be found at Crown Candy Kitchen. Alas, booze was not an option.

Save for speakeasies, liquor was not available during the dry 13 years of Prohibition. That didn't prevent St. Louisans from dancing the night away. The soundtrack largely consisted of music of the Jazz Age. The toe-tapping, head-bopping, swinging style helped Americans forget their problems.

Nowadays, the Zoo and Crown Candy Kitchen are still around. Swing music has survived too. One group of accomplished musicians is helping bring the sound to a new audience: the Sidney Street Shakers, an 11-piece band dedicated to preserving the unique Jazz Age sound.

On November 3, the Shakers played to a packed house at The Stage at KDHX for a special occasion: the release of their long-awaited Laugh My Weary Blues Away. The 15-track CD features songs that put St. Louis on the jazz map nearly a century ago, like the "Market Street Stomp," "East St. Louis Stomp," and "Ozark Mountain Blues." But the Shakers' CD has other St. Louis roots as well, having been recorded at Native Sound on Cherokee Street and released on Big Muddy Records.

The Shakers performed many of the songs from the album at The Stage, including the complex "Soap Suds," written by Jelly Roll Morton. The St. Louis Levee Band back in the mid-1920s often played the song.

Shakers' sax player Kellie Everett produced Laugh My Weary Blues Away, which also features some standout area musicians, including TJ Müller on trumpet and the incomparable Chloe Feoranzo on clarinet. Before the November 3 performance, Feoranzo spoke with me about the project.

"It's been a long time coming," Feoranzo said. "Kellie has been working so hard on the project, and we're really excited to do it."

Mary Anne Schulte, the Shakers' pianist, also gave the CD her stamp of approval. "It's really good -- I haven't listened to it much, because I don't like to hear myself play, but today I was practicing to it, and I love it!" Shulte said.

Before the Shakers began, master of ceremonies and local jazz historian Kevin Belford offered comments about the significance of St. Louis in the history of jazz.

"St. Louis was known as a creative innovator," Belford said. "Our city had already established itself as the home of American pop. American music started in the hipper cities around the world and St. Louis was one of them."

The famous jazz riff doo-wacka-doo, doo-wacka-doo-wacka-doo also originated in St. Louis, Belford said. It was this heritage and history of music that first drew Kellie Everett to develop the Shaker's CD. As Belford explained, "Kellie Everett contacted me. She'd been cataloging the music of St. Louis forensically; she was reverse-engineering it with old 78s. We met and we all discussed it and great songs of St. Louis that sold well nationally. They were unique to St. Louis."

Much of that sound has been overlooked by music history, Belford said. The Sidney Street Shakers have set out to change that.

To see all of Bill Motchan's photos from the release party, click below.

The Sidney Street Shakers at the Stage at KDHX, November 3, 2016

 

To many, the prospect of Eric Johnson playing at the Old Rock House would mean a night of wildly shredded, electric guitar anthems, thick crowds and a welcomed ringing in the ears for hours to come. That was not the experience this past Wednesday, November 2, but few were disappointed. Touring to support his new acoustic album EJ, the Texan guitarist instead played to the sitting room environment in "An Evening of Eric Johnson Solo." Joined only by a trio of acoustic guitars and a grand style piano, Johnson shared an intimate night that resembled the comfort of a living room performance.  

With only monotone, static lighting for production, the focus favored a friendly evening of music over attempting to put on a show. Irrespective of the modest climate, Johnson entered to an uproar and standing ovation before taking a seat at the right side of the stage. Without more than the simplest of introductions, he rested the guitar across his lap and began the first set with a pair of instrumental selections. They welcomed the crowd to the warm sound of his acoustic guitar and demonstrated his technical proficiency. The first was full of energy, layering harmonies atop the melody and a bassline on the low E string, while the second was a short and sweet reminder of Johnson's Texas roots. 

As the set continued, new and unreleased songs mingled with some of Eric Johnson's personal favorites. The first selection from EJ was "Gift of Love," a songwriter style ballad with a simple melody to the verse. Although often stoic as he played, Johnson's face would often brighten at the close of each song, revealing his own personal enjoyment in the performance. Despite the clear delight he was experiencing, Johnson assured the crowd that he had no intention of selling his electric guitars. Near the end of the set, he revealed new piece entitled "Let a Friend Find You," a warm and comforting song that was reminiscent of Jim Croce in tone and style.

At the start of the second set, Eric Johnson began with a number of songs from the piano at the left side of the stage. He selected five songs, each with distinctive styles of their own. While they largely reflected the same endless selection of arpeggio that he exhibits on guitar, the second selection of the set let the vocals stand out with only the softest accompaniment. It was another unreleased song, named "Over the Moon," and Johnson's voice was rich with soulful tones and style, confirming his abilities as a vocalist as well as an instrumentalist.

As he returned to the guitar, Eric Johnson continued with the mastery of the strings everybody would expect. Many of the selections featured complex progressions that were rich with lead-ins and fluid arpeggio, akin to his style on the electric. Similarly, the influences came from all over the spectrum of rock, blues, western and classical guitar, but the new album and material also embraced the youthful songwriter inside. Keeping it intimate in nature, Johnson included the backstory for a few songs throughout the set, furthering the experience from the wild, rock concerts that have dominated the veteran musician's career.

After a standing ovation to end the second set, Johnson started to leave the stage, but turned before even reaching the edge. He joked about making the world's quickest return for an encore and treated the crowd to two more songs, one on guitar and the finale at the piano bench. A small group had departed their seats in favor of a view of a television with the World Series finale at the back of the bar, but the vast majority kept their attention locked until the very last note of the show, demonstrating their appreciation with another rise to their feet. While a minority of patrons expressed disappointment with the format of the show, the crowds largely treasured the experience and will always remember the evening they shared with Eric Johnson.

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