I have seen some distinctly un-fun shows: Ann Arbor, mid-eighties, Paul Westerberg snot-slinging drunk, spat on and cursed an eager crowd of Replacements fans; New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 2005, Wilco pasted wankish found-sound clips over their playing to render inert a crowd that had, only moments before, been whipped into writhing ecstasy by Buckwheat Zydeco, who finished his magnificent set with an eight-minute throw-down on the Stones' "Beast of Burden," all while playing one of the uncoolest instruments in human history.
I've also seen some incredibly fun shows, and the party that the California Honeydrops threw last Saturday night at Atomic Cowboy slipped comfortably into my top five. This is what one reads consistently in reviews of the Oakland-based band, and what I saw all around me last night: everyone dancing, beaming, hanging on the band's every chord, chatting with strangers about the music. Indeed, I didn't hear any evidence of that now-common phenomenon of people plunking down hard-fought wages for a premier show only to spend the night blabbing loudly with friends (or worse, on the phone). Just a few weeks ago at an otherwise excellent Pokey LaFarge show I saw in Fayetteville, Pokey had to call out a woman with a laugh like a dull circular saw before he could start an acoustic set. Point is, the California Honeydrops and their charismatic and enormously talented front man Lech Wierzynski are an irresistible, galvanizing force for human happiness.
It all starts with the music and musicianship. The California Honeydrops' foundation contains several layers of New Orleans musical traditions. The band kicked off the show with "Here Comes Love" and "Like This, Like That," two originals fueled by the hiccupy backbeat percussion line of New Orleans brass bands and the funky rumba stride piano style that Professor Longhair gifted to the world. Wierzynski alternated sweet vocals and ripping street style trumpet licks on each song. Later, the band stripped down to trumpet, Johnny Bones on clarinet, and Ben Malament on drums for some straight-up, Preservation Hall style New Orleans jazz. In the second set, Malament traded his drum kit for a washboard to drag "Pumpkin Pie" and a few other tunes through the Atchafalaya. California funk and R&B, and Delta blues also saturate the Honeydrops' sound. On anthemic tunes like Wilson Pickett's "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You," and belters like the Percy Mayfield classic "A River's Invitation" and Bobby Bland's "There Ain't Nothing You Can Do," keyboardist Lorenzo Loera's swirling chords and bassist Beau Bradbury's throbbing bass paved the soul road as they did on Honeydrops' originals like "Brokedown" and "Same Old, Same Old." I had a harder time discerning the provenance of some of the blues tunes, but one of them might have come from deep in the Delta blues catalogue, perhaps a Mississippi John Wollicott tune. In any case, Wierzynski's guitar picking had Alan Lomax smiling from the heavens. This is how firmly the Honeydrops' house is built upon the roots of American music.
Wierzynski and band seasoned an otherwise uplifting and rated PG show with some biting political commentary -- plenty of Atomic Cowboys running nations around the world, including ours, etc.-- and with some of the band's own raunchy blues metaphors in originals like "Bubblegum" (candy store visits) and "Sit Down On It" (needs so little explanation it's probably not a metaphor). All of it made for a truly outstanding Sunday evening delivered by a tight, talented band, and their joyful, open-hearted, ridiculously gifted band leader, Lech Wierzynski.
Your momma told you that to live a happy life, you have to surround yourself with happy people, and of course, you knew then that she was really throwing a sneaky jab at your mopey boyfriend and his fondness for The Smiths. But now you know that she was right on the broader point as well. As the first set ended last night, a nearby couple turned to us eagerly to talk about the music. They'd met (as in, for the first time) at a Honeydrops show in Chicago, followed them to Des Moines and Kansas City and STL. They were leaving tomorrow morning to catch the band in Nashville. This was clearly not the plan they set out with when they left their public accounting or financial analyst jobs (guessing, but I'm usually pretty accurate) less than a week ago, nor were these beautiful people suffering, to my eyes, from the impetuosity or biological advantages of youth. They had simply fallen in love, through and with the California Honeydrops. I totally got it.
Click the image below to see all of Ben Mudd's photos of the performance.
Black Violin blends a diversity of styles into their songs, creating a harmony not only in their music but within the people that share the experience of a Black Violin show. On Sunday night, they brought that experience to the Sheldon Concert Hall & Art Galleries.
On a relatively quiet night in Grand Center, everybody on the street seemed to be headed to the Sheldon. Shared glances revealed a mutual state of joyous anticipation, eager to experience Black Violin, the combination of Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste. Sylvester performs under the name Kev Marcus and totes a Yamaha SV-250 electric violin, an instrument that personifies the modern approach the duo brings to the stage. For more than two decades, he's been accompanied by Baptiste, who is better known as Wil B and is joined by "Tiffany," a more classically designed viola that has lead his career since childhood. Together, they blend classical strings into the world of modern hip hop, R&B and soul in a musical event that captivated fans of all generations and walks of life at the Sheldon on Sunday.
The show opened with DJ SPS and drummer Natt Stokes providing the rhythms for Kev Marcus and Wil B to take the stage in a grand fashion. After establishing the tone of the night with a musical introduction, Kev Marcus took to the microphone to address the crowd. "This is a party," he exclaimed, assuring the already entranced audience that they were free to leave their seats and dance as they pleased. This set the tone for much of the early set where both violin and viola offered a display of skill and style. Each solo was complemented by complex harmonies and Kev Marcus reclaimed the microphone at times to add some hype and rhymes of his own.
More than just a party, as the set progressed, the sounds broadened and incorporated wider range of influences. The mood changed when the drums and DJ withdrew, spotlighting Wil B and Kev Marcus on plucked strings. Even without the back line, the rhythm was lively and inspired the crowd to clap along until Natt Stokes rejoined on the drums. In a segment as soulful as it was comical, Wil B introduced "Tiffany" to the crowd and proceeded to serenade his viola with a medley of soul songs, including Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," as he plucked the strings with rhythmic chord progressions in a guitar like role. He relinquished the spotlight and Kev Marcus soon took to illustrating the benefits of an electric violin, incorporating a selection of effects to his tone with some augmenting pedals as he played.
Wil B's serenade wasn't the only instance where Black Violin broke from their three albums of original material to indulge in a medley of covers. Backed by DJ SPS's combination of vocal tracks and masterful performance on the decks, the band brought the crowd to their feet with a selection of hip-hop and funk favorites. With the room at near peak energy, they seamlessly shifted from the familiar to the opposite with a fully improvised segment. The diversity of personalities on stage mingled together into a wild groove, with highlights coming from Kev Marcus's melodic distortions, Wil B's rhythmic phrases, Natt Stokes' string of breaks and fills, and DJ SPS's scratch solo featuring spoken samples saying "Thank you" and the crowd pleasing "St. Louis."
Even though he was literally kept behind glass, Natt Stokes was never anything but a driving force on stage from the drums. With a set that offered deep, full sounding drums beneath a canopy of six cymbals of various designs and augmentations, he featured many frenzied break rhythms, tirelessly delivered throughout the night. In additional to Stokes' musical contribution, the placement of his drums in the recessed segment at the back of the stage incidentally offered a visual element as the bright lights created a pool of dancing reflections on the walls and ceiling with each strike of the cymbals.
As the set neared it's end, Black Violin demonstrated how they "put the stank on it," as Kev Marcus described it, mixing classical styles with their modern flavor, including crowd favorites like "Shaker" and a segment where DJ SPS blended a medley of remixed classical standards. They continued with "Invisible," a track that featured lyricist Pharoahe Monch on the album Stereotypes, and included his verse via the DJ mix. The final two selections were "Addiction" and "Magic," where Wil B laid down the viola to sit behind a keyboard and offer some more melodic vocals. The finale increased the energy with a continuously building groove, filling the aisles with dancers and keeping the shaking the floor with a unified bounce. At its conclusion, Black Violin left the stage to a DJ SPS selected track and a standing ovation.
Without much hesitation and even less surprise, Natt Stokes returned to the stage and promptly encouraged the crowd to continue the cheers and chants. The band returned with a three song encore, rich in hip-hop flavor and met by an audience that refused to sit. A simplified, quarter note rhythm drove the ultimate finale, hypnotizing the crowd until at last DJ SPS stopped the track with an abrupt brake on the deck and released everybody from their unified entrancement. Some tried to share their impressions as the crowds methodically spilled out onto Washington Avenue, yet most remained euphorically speechless, still absorbing the experience they had all shared.
Click the image below to see all of Karl Beck's photos from the evening's performance.
Capping off a week of tension, protests and canceled events throughout St. Louis, Father John Misty (a.k.a. Josh Tillman) brought his sharp-witted brand of psychedelic indie folk-rock to a hungry crowd at the Peabody Opera House Friday night, September 22; and they eagerly ate up every note. A divisive artist, he's been called everything from an absolute genius to a self-important asshole (the later most recently by fellow singer/songwriter Ryan Adams on Twitter). The truth may lie somewhere in between. What is unarguable, however, is that Tillman is a consummate showman whose live performance is equal parts concert and theatre.
Currently touring in support of Pure Comedy, his third album under the Father John Misty moniker, he continues to push the boundaries of genre and lyrical content to create music that is uniquely his own. On his official Facebook page, he self-describes his style as "Post-modern, Self-reflexive, Semi-Ironic Renunciation of Originality." A true poet, he carefully chooses each word and even more carefully delivers them in a crystal clear annunciation that commands one's attention.
Tillman's stage presence is nothing short of captivating, and his songs, loaded with social and personal commentary, become larger than life as he visibly pours every ounce of his emotion into them (often in an overly dramatic, yet effective manner), backed by a full and also quite talented band.
Lanky, bearded and clad in tight black jeans, a grey t-shirt and a black jacket, Tillman sauntered onstage to applause and kicked off the show by playing the first four songs from Pure Comedy in track order, beginning with its stirring title song against a large backdrop screen projecting animated versions of the album cover's intricate illustrations. From the first note, the pitch-perfect, soaring beauty of Tillman's voice and his emotional intensity was on full display as he built the song a crescendo, the band following his lead as he wove his commentary on the current state of humanity.
"Total Entertainment Forever," a sobering statement on our technology-obsessed, 24-hour entertainment culture, felt alive and relevant as Tillman preached, "When the historians find us, we'll be in our homes, plugged into our hubs, skin and bones, a frozen smile on every face." A grim picture, and yet the catchy, upbeat melody had fans rising to their feet, where they remained for the duration. Such is Tillman's brilliance as a songwriter -- forcing his audience to stare deeply in the cultural mirror while getting their toes tapping at the same time.
The nearly two-hour set provided a good retrospective, spanning all three of his albums in nearly equal parts. Set highlights included melodic "Nancy From Now On," with Tillman employing his transcendent falsetto on the chorus; trippy, beat-driven "True Affection," performed amid a blur of hot pink strobe lights; and "When You're Smiling and Astride Me," perhaps one of the most vulnerable love songs ever penned, which brought Tillman to his knees as he belted the orgasmic refrain of "Oh, oh, ohs."
Following a few minor missteps, he announced, "I have an attack of the goofs tonight," as he began the twangy "Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow." Missing a few beats, he paused a moment, chuckling, "See what I mean?" All was quickly forgiven as he built steadily from a soft croon to an angry growl, dropping once again to his knees and then lying on his back in another emotional climax.
"We're a good match tonight," he said, gesturing to the audience after.
"Bored in the USA," another scathing indictment of life in 21st century America, had the crowd chuckling and cheering as Tillman lamented, "They gave me a useless education, and a subprime loan on a craftsman home, keep my prescriptions filled, and now I can't get off, but I can kind of deal."
He ended the main set with a couple fan favorites starting with swinging "I'm Writing a Novel," the most upbeat moment of the night that had everyone dancing, followed by "I Love You, Honeybear," dripping with drama as Tillman threw down the mic for a grandiose finale.
After taking a quick break to recover, he returned, and as he's known to do, opened up the floor to a brief and somewhat chaotic audience Q&A session, answering pressing questions like, "Have you seen the new movie IT?" He hasn't, by the way, but instead shared a story of being traumatized at age eleven by a viewing of Event Horizon.
Moving on to the encore, Tillman began the beautiful and reflective "So I'm Growing Old on Magic Mountain" as drawings of purple mountains drifted behind him on the screen. He ended the evening with "Holy Shit," first standing alone in the spotlight with his acoustic guitar, then being joined by the band in a jarring explosion of sound after the second verse.
Each moment watching the spectacle that is Father John Misty was riveting -- some of the quieter ones even more so than the overly theatric ones. It's hard to imagine that even his skeptics would not become believers after bearing witness to his musical "sermon."
Opener Weyes Blood, a.k.a. singer/songwriter Natalie Mering, was less compelling in delivering her set of ethereal, electronic-tinged folk, much from her most recent album, "Front Row Seat to Earth." A single smoke machine off stage left seemed an unnecessary effect. While her vocals are strong and the accompanying instrumentation was apt, it all felt just a bit too sleepy to proceed such a dynamic performer.
Click the image below to see all of Abby Gillardi's photos of the evening's performances.
I find that being a so-called 'music person' does have one major drawback: parties are invariably ruined by the subpar music choices. ("Did someone seriously put on Iggy Azelea? What are we -- fifteen?") It's not like I want people to play Pet Sounds at the club, but it certainly would be nice to cut loose to something a little less conventional every now and then. Considering this, let me make my position clear: I love Of Montreal shows. Part concert, part psychedelic dance party, part drag show, it's like the best fever dream you've ever had.
Spawned from the famous Elephant 6 collective, Of Montreal has always had a place among the pioneers of the eccentric, and throughout their sprawling discography, they've never failed in crafting infectious, off-kilter earworms. 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer, which was reissued in May, cemented their place as indie-pop icons by merging strange and often poignant poeticism with effortlessly danceable melodies. In fact, many of frontman Kevin Barnes's songs have an autobiographical bend hidden under their glittering facade, shedding a whimsical light on issues of mental health, gender politics, and the struggles of marriage.
The night opened with Showtime Goma and Nancy Feast, aka Jen Goma of A Sunny Day in Glasgow and Kristina Lieberson of TEEN. The duo, clad in matching red and white jackets, structured their set as a scripted talk show; at one point, Goma leaned over the edge of the stage with the microphone and asked a speechless photographer in a matter-of-fact voice, "And what are your kinks?" Their music was similarly theatrical -- in fact, they choreographed every song down to the last flourish and facial expression. Based around lush synths and stripped-down vocals, their sound falls in line with the likes of Grimes or Tei Shi. One listen to "Propel," taken from Showtime Goma's Smiley Face, and the duo's talent is immediately obvious: they are capable of the vocal gymnastics and glimmering production that is bound to hit the indie mainstream.
The last time I saw Of Montreal, I was nearly overwhelmed by the satanic cloaks, two-man armadillo costume, and dancers dressed as giant vaginas (not to mention Barnes clad in nothing but lacy underwear, knee-high striped socks, and towering heels.) This time, however, I was mentally equipped to handle anything and everything that they might decide to throw at us. And boy, did I need the preparation. There were masked dancers dressed as cops and Darth Vader and Mayan-esque animal statues. There were songs about partying ("Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games)," "The Party's Crashing Us") and") and songs about Norway ("Oslo in the Summertime," "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger") and songs about mental illness ("Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse"); regardless of content, all of these songs were glitteringly, irresistibly danceable. There was jumping (oh, so much jumping) on behalf of the entire audience, and I apologize to the man behind me whose toes I frequently stepped on. There was a ton of confetti and a ton of balloons and a ton of feathers (which, in hindsight, was an awful idea, considering how easy they were to inhale). There were three costume changes for Kevin Barnes: first, a blonde, curly wig, hot pink fishnets and a glittering blue miniskirt; then, a sheer, red dress over lacy underpants; finally, a blue floral jacket and towering Marie Antoinette-esque 'do.
Of course, Of Montreal is more than just a huge party. If you take a closer look at virtually any of their songs, you'll see some rather astute and even depressing songwriting: consider "A Sentence Of Sorts in Kongsvinger," which has the lines "I spent my winter with my nose buried in a book / While trying to restructure my character/ 'cause it had become vile to its creator" over swathes of colorful synth. However, it feels a little wrong to take their lyrics so seriously. Not to sound cheesy, but Of Montreal's appeal is in celebrating the stuff you'd never celebrate otherwise -- the weird and the sad and the maddeningly mundane (like in the groovy "Gronlandic Edit," during which Barnes sings "I am satisfied / Hiding in my friend's apartment / Only leaving once a day / To buy some groceries"). At least, for the hour that Of Montreal is on stage, life seem a little more exciting.
Click the image below to see all of Dustin Winter's photos of the evening's performances.
Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have around here?
Mrs. Bob: Oh, we got both kinds. We got country and Western.
In the Bob's Country Bunker of Dale Watson's mind, the genres rockabilly and honky-tonk join Western swing and outlaw country to make up Ameripolitan music, the word Watson invented five years ago to define a branch of American roots music that he champions with a yearly awards ceremony and subsequent road tour, Dale Watson's Ameripolitan Caravan, featuring the impresario himself along with some of the contest's winners or nominees. It's a campaign with a sense of urgency; more on that later.
Last Thursday night, the Caravan made camp at Off Broadway where a Sturgill-thinned crowd ripped it up with Austin-based Watson, his band the Lonestars, rockabilly artist Celine Lee, and Jake Penrod, 2017 Ameripolitan winner in the honky tonk male artist category. Both Lee and Penrod are promoting new albums, and Watson hinted at new one of his own and played a likely title cut, "Call Me Lucky," in the last segment of a three-part show. Elbow room allowed for dancing, and a fair number of Stovall's Grove regulars were on hand to energize the room with two-stepping, jitterbugging delirium. Midway through Celine Lee's set, Watson emerged from backstage, grabbed a partner from the crowd and flashed his country dance bona fides as Ms. Lee growled and bumped her way through the Wanda Jackson classic "Fujiyama Mama."
The silver-pompadoured, tattooed Watson and his Lone Stars bookended the show, moving easily between originals ("'Flowers in Your Hair") and standards ("Crazy Arms"), swing ("That's What I Like About the South") and honky tonk ("Jambalaya"). In between songs, Watson's charmed the crowd with banter, some pre-programmed with musical winks (Watson extols the virtues of Lone Star Beer as a cure for thirst, and faltering libido) and more with authentic audience connection (props to Sugarfire BBQ, requests in the final set). All of this put the audience in the palm of a pro, not the slick variety tunneling through a set list with steely precision, but the follow me, I'll show you something kind. Touring almost 300 days a year, Watson and his band are masters of the tight musical arc that defines Ameripolitan songs: guitars quipping sweet licks, stand up bass thumping a heartbeat, pedal steel crying a silver river, and the drum kit cajoling it all along, each tune, ballad or raver, under three minutes. If you're looking for a dissertation, or a lot of foreplay, go to the symphony or a Trey Anastasio show. Need one big wet kiss, the velvet hammer of a shot of bourbon, down to your last cigarette? That's Ameripolitan.
Jake Penrod, a lanky Texan who is almost certainly the reincarnation of Ernest Tubb, commanded the second set. Squared away in a huge black ten gallon hat, black tie, wine colored jacket with black lapels, Penrod applied his sweet tenor to honky tonk treasures like Willie Nelson's "Undo the Right" and Tubb's "Thanks a Lot" and introduced the crowd to some of his own songs. I'll admit to being a complete sucker for the hokiness and punny word play in country music. Penrod won me instantly on the dopey humor in his original "Baby Steps (All Over Me)" and in the small town boy humility in his tune "The Girls Next Door in Austin." Celine Lee followed Penrod, augmenting the Lone Stars with colleagues on the electric bass and a yackety baritone sax. A Floridian with a deep affection for female rockabilly legends like Wanda Jackson and Peggy Lee, Celine Lee covered treasures like Jackson's "Rip It Up" and Johnny Cash's "Big River" and introduced us to some of her own songs like "How Can I Trust You" and "Sayonara Sucka."
Finally: Watson's Ameripolitan mission and its sense of urgency. Ten years ago, after his own unhappiness with the Nashville music scene and an amusing kerfuffle in the press around some dismissive comments that Blake Shelton made about Ray Price, Watson decided to abandon Nashville and the interminable argument about what represented real country, and to begin promoting the artists like himself who were the inheritors of the country and Western music of the '40s and '50s and the Bakersfield Sound artists like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Watson, along with higher profile colleagues like Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam, bear the torch for American country roots music connected to tradition and apprenticeship, as opposed to the cynical products of crowd sourcing and appropriation that play on contemporary country radio. It's a mission synonymous with KDHX's and worth keeping your eye on. This year's Ameripolitan Awards occur on February 13 at the Guest House at Graceland, just down the road in Memphis.
Click below to see all of Tim Farmer's photos of the evening's performances.