Love, broken hearts, the South and, oh yeah, lots of whiskey. The classic country themes thrive in the pores of each Chris Stapleton song with only slight modernizations found in guitar-wrangling and slick, soulful grooves.
Dressed in black and hiding under a cowboy hat, Stapleton walked on stage this past Saturday as if he were walking to his regular perch at the bar. Without accompaniment, the explosive songwriter plugged in and hammered out the bluesy wash of "Might as Well Get Stoned" for an opener. Belting out the sparse chords and lyrics of the first verse solo, he established an intimate yet absolutely invigorating presence for the night.
The ass-kickin' country continued with Stapleton punishing his guitar as it screamed and pleaded on "Nobody to Blame." As he switched to acoustic, the minimalist band (bass, drums and Mrs. Stapleton on backup vocals) segued into a more introspective "Broken Halos." Calling to mind the universal and bittersweet chords and melodies of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" or Springsteen's "Atlantic City," "Broken Halo" is the kind of song you know and love before you even hear it. And on the simple marquee-lit stage, the song and sentiment seemed no less important and uplifting.
Swapping guitars like I was swapping beer cans, the country-fried set found Stapleton easy within the many facets of his music. Whether ripping blues solos ("Hard Livin'"), screaming in distress ("I Was Wrong") or serenading his wife ("Whisky and You" and "More of You"), the towering frontman made sure to include a variety of songs for "hillbillies and the hippies" alike. Songs of vulnerability ceded to ballads of sweltering frustrations as Stapleton maintained the essence that haunts the highs and lows of country music.
One of the many things that separate Stapleton from the pack is the aggressive yet fluid guitar playing. He picks out memorable melodies, hits grimace-inducing highs and even pulled the staccato one-chord buzz-saw solo. The guitarist showcased his SRV-inspired soloing via "Sometimes I Cry," "Second to Know," culminating in the extraordinary and soulful "I Was Wrong." Only his soulful screams (on par with Janis Joplin!) are as expressive as his guitar playing. Stapleton stepped out of the country comfort zone with these songs, laying down a stylish and groove-oriented sheen more akin to Otis Redding than Tim McGraw.
Such is the essence of Stapleton; used to hiding behind the veneer of songwriting credits, he encompasses as many moods as he does characters and genres. But rather than emphasizing this, or even showing awareness, he naturally jumps from Skynyrd covers to modern country classics such as "Traveler" or "Parachute" without batting an eye. But in true country fashion he concluded the night with "Tennessee Whiskey" and declared that it was indeed time to go drink some whiskey.
Opening acts Margo Price and Brent Cobb were a real treat to hear as well. Cobb presented gentle guitar arpeggios and the type of songs that make you want explore outdoors. Whereas Price livened up the crowd with energetic country tunes that wouldn't sound out of place in the sixties.
With minimal rockstar posturing or attitudes and exuding humility and professionalism, these artists exhibit a certain selflessness and humility not likely to be found at many sold-out shows.
To see all of Karl Beck's photos of the evening's performances, click on the image below.
Lovett and his Large Band played the Peabody Opera House on July 28 for a marathon 29-song set. This Large Band is a tightly orchestrated group of a dozen skilled musicians. The senior member of the Large Band's brass section -- the Muscle Shoals Horns -- is 76-year-old Harvey Thompson. At one break, Lovett questioned his veteran tenor sax player about his former collaborations. Thompson matter-of-factly reeled off the singers he's backed over the years: "Bob Dylan, Elton John, John Denver, Little Richard, B.B. King, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Cannonball Adderley and Jimi Hendrix." Among others.
Then Lovett asked Thompson's fellow sax player Brad Leali, a professor at the University of North Texas, what he thought of the future of the country based on his teaching experiences. Leali thankfully had a positive outlook, saying "I think we're in fine shape."
With that, Lovett was ready to launch into a bluegrass set of songs, this time using a stripped-down Large Band (small band?) consisting of fiddler Luke Bulla, guitarist Keith Sewell and bassist Viktor Krauss. Lovett quizzed the trio between songs, just as he had questioned the horn section earlier. He asked Sewell when he took up music (answer: age 5) and how many instruments he played. In addition to guitar, Sewell decided to learn mandolin a year ago. He must be a quick study, because he handled it well enough during this show to handle any tough Sam Bush piece.
Lovett told the audience that Krauss led a double-life, musically speaking. "You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Victor is a heavy metal guy. He looks sweet but he's a bad man." Then he asked if Krauss remembers the first rock song he ever learned. Krauss immediately answered, "Of course -- it was 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart.'" Then he plucked out the opening notes on his stand up bass to prove he could still handle a classic Yes tune.
Both Sewell and Bulla had a chance to show off their individual skills, as Lovett let them shine during solo pieces. The same was true of his bluesy backup vocalist Francine Reed.
Everything about the Large Band is large, from the four-piece Muscle Shoals Horns to Reed's booming voice to the piano -- and not a puny keyboard, but a full-size Steinway grand. Rounding out the Large Band was a pedal steel guitar.
Lovett stuck pretty closely to his hits, including "I've Been to Memphis," "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)," "She's No Lady," "Church," and "If I Had a Boat." Of the last, Lovett introduced the piece by explaining that his parents were hardworking folks who allowed him to listen to his own muse and follow his dreams. In fact, he was supposed to be studying for a history lesson years ago when he just couldn't keep his mind on homework, because he'd been messing around with a song he had in his head. Elsewhere, he has claimed that he wrote the song from a personal experience -- that he'd actually once tried to ride a pony across a pond. Whatever the case may be, the result is a song covered by a number of other performers and one that has been ranked one of the top 100 country music songs of all time.
Click below to see more photos from Lovett's performance.
Despite a sweltering July night in St. Louis, fans came out in droves to applaud the beloved Milwaukee-born Violent Femmes and Liverpool-born, new-wave greats Echo and the Bunnymen. Consisting of mostly 40-somethings with some older and younger folks peppered in, the crowd nearly filled the Hollywood Casino Ampitheatre to capacity and cheered loudly as Gordan Gano of the Femmes sang some of their favorites. His voice remains largely unchanged from that of the nasally teenager who wrote most of the songs on the Femmes' first and most popular album when he was just a graduate from high school in 1983.
Consisting of original members Gano on vocals and Brian Ritchie on acoustic bass playing with energetic gusto, along with percussionist John Sparrow mainly on snare drum with brush sticks, and a younger addition on the horns, the Violent Femmes performed in slightly oversized black T-shirts that hung limp with sweat as they kept on in colorful, upbeat tempo. Behind the tenor saxophone, guitarist Ava Mandoza, who opened the show, played backup and added some feminine flair to the otherwise all male Femmes. With the Femmes' set coming to a close, the audience sang along to "American Music" as Gano pointed intimately towards the audience and then back to himself, bringing palpable nostalgia to the joyful present.
While Femmes line-up stood steady alongside one another and sans effects, Echo and the Bunnymen took the stage in more dramatic fashion situating all the musicians toward the rear to allow singer Ian McCulloch to command the show front and center. Layered with choreographed lighting that shifted from neon blue to purple and amber, coupled with smoke both from dry ice and McCulloch's cigarette swirling into the atmosphere, Echo made for an aptly theatrical mood throughout the night. It became apparent that the days of new wave were not totally gone as the Bunnymen began their set by playing some later work indicative of their unique sound with heavy bass syncopation, husky arching vocals that echoed over dancy guitar riffs.
Deep blue lights set the pervading mood, as McCulloch crooned into the microphone and regularly took a walk between the mic stand and the band, occasionally taking a drag between verses. In fact, McCulloch insisted on keeping his fitted blazer on even as he commented at not experiencing "anything like this" and tossed bottles of cold water to grateful audience members, later encouraging a stage hand to continue tossing from an entire case of bottles. It seemed like Echo and the Bunnymen would triumph over the heat even in a blazer and tight jeans, as the members kept themselves regularly hydrated between songs.
However, after just beginning "Bring on the Dancing Horses," McCulloch held up a hand and tiredly requested into the mic, a five-minute breather before immediately exiting the stage, leaving the rest of the Bunnymen no choice but to gradually follow suit after their leader. The audience appeared unperturbed, probably under the assumption that the British band had simply underestimated the infamous humidity that continued to linger into the evening as thunder and lightning approached. As promised, a mere five minutes later Echo and the Bunnymen returned to the stage and resumed playing rich sounds of melancholy with graceful precision. That is until during "Killing Moon" when McCulloch again paused to apologize quickly to the audience and request "the tank" to be rolled out. As the band played on, their hard working frontman breathed oxygen towards the side of the stage so that he could return to the mic, vocals refreshed.
Despite these abrupt breaks, Echo and The Bunnymen continued to entertain adoring fans and concluded with one of their most well-known hits "Lips Like Sugar." Perhaps the Femmes who might be more familiar with the notorious St. Louis summer heat should've warned their tour mates from cooler shores but none the wiser, Echo and the Bunnymen prevailed to put on a memorable show for St. Louisans willing to sweat it out with them.
Click the image below to see all of Gary Eckert's photographs of the night. And if you missed it, check out Rob Levy's interview with Bunnymen guitarist, Will Sergeant.
Music has a gender gap: I'm not trying to pick any political fights here but it's a fact. Yes, the music scene isn't the boy's club it used to be -- thanks, second-wave feminists! -- but the problem still remains. For example, in a survey of ten major American music festivals, female-only artists made up only 12% of all acts, as compared to the whopping 78% of male-only artists. It's probably not a stretch to say that people notice when there aren't all that many girls on-stage -- I know I do.
It's no wonder I find the Coathangers, an Alanta-based trio composed of guitarist/vocalist Julia Kugel, drummer/vocalist Stephanie Luke, and bassist/vocalist Meredith Franco, so refreshing. It's always extremely inspiring to see other women in the spotlight -- especially with an act so unrestrainedly fun and self-confident. (Consider the closing song of the night, "Squeeki Tiki" off of 2016's Nosebleed Weekend, which features a dog toy's squeak as its instrumental hook. I never thought I'd see someone rocking a dog-toy solo, yet Luke, jumping into the crowd with toy in hand, seriously killed it. Who would've thought headbanging to a dog toy could be so fun?)
Last Thursday night's show was rounded out by the two openers. First was the Maness Brothers, a St. Louis duo whose sound is a heavy, gritty blend of blues and rock, which was not only powerful but straight-up loud -- like, loud enough for me to cave in and buy a pair of earplugs. With long hair and intimidating, all-black outfits, one look at the Brothers suggests that their music is just as intense as their aesthetic. And, boy, was I right: their latest, self-titled album is not just a harsh intersection between genres but an important lesson in ocular health -- the faint of ear need not apply. Also on the bill were The Residuels, an all-male trio hailing from Philadelphia. Their sound channels the inclinations of 70s punk (think Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys) and is a bit more accessible than The Maness Brothers. The Residuels' latest release, a single titled "You'll Cry," is a catchy rock anthem with a decidedly American twang.
After two male-only bands, it's all the more exciting to see the badass ladies of The Coathangers stride into the limelight, backdropped by a gigantic banner of their siren personas from the cover art of their latest EP, Parasite. The Coathangers' merit, however, is in no way limited to their gender; to call them a "girl band" would be a minimization of their talent, which undoubtedly stands up to the best male and mixed-gender punk acts of our day. Their sound lands somewhere between the harshness of the Ramones and the vocal flexibility of the Slits, a cool amalgam of commercialized punk and proto-riot grrrl. The Coathangers are not afraid to push the boundaries of their vocal capabilties; "Parasite," the title track off of the EP, is almost entirely screamed. (When Luke yells "Why I oughta!" at the crowd, I can almost feel the sucker punch that would probably ensue.) While "Drifter," the last track, is -- dare I say -- a slow, contemplative ballad.
What really ties The Coathangers together, however, is the irreverent humor with which they approach gender, punk, everything. Not only do they have a song called "Nestle in My Boobies," which is a hilarious (albeit on-the-nose) approach to the whole "girl band" thing, but their stage presence is that of a band whose purpose is to have fun and make music doing it. Take, for example, their live rendition of "Wipe Out," during which the phrase "You're not sorry" is passed around from person to person: I can see the musicians smiling as they repeat each other's phrases, like in a campfire song. All in all, The Coathangers are perhaps one of the few bands I've seen this summer who have actually looked like they were having fun on-stage. (You'd be surprised at how many acts overdo the 'cool persona' thing and just end up looking glum!) "We're sisters from another mister," Luke tells the audience. In their matching Pizza Head shirts, it's a statement that's easy to believe.
Click the image below to see all of Dustin Winter's photos of The Coathangers with The Residuals and The Maness Brothers at Off Broadway.
To make it simple, this year's Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago was an absolute blast filled with surprises, sincerity, and really sore feet. Like seriously I'm shocked my feet are still working and didn't just break into a million pieces. Anyways, this fest had a ton of acts I wanted to see and many of them didn't disappoint. So, much like the average person who attends Pitchfork Music Festival, I'm going to arbitrarily rank my seven favorite sets of the weekend!
My rock album of the year so far is definitely Priests' debut record Nothing Feels Natural. With that in mind, I had some fairly high expectations about this set and they were mostly met, as vocalist Katie Alice Greer brought her absolute best with vocals that sound just as good as they did on the record and a crazy amount stage presence. In general, the band's synergy was just insane, with drummer Daniele Daniele giving it her absolute all, bassist Taylor Mulitz and guitarist G.L. Jaguar (who, in my opinion, is the best guitarist in rock music today) working in tandem to near perfection giving Greer's guttural yelps the maximum backing they need. However, this ranks so low only because the crowd seemed to not be giving the response the band deserved, as I was expecting mosh pits but instead got a lot of people just swaying. Still, the band was great and if you can catch them, please do.
#6: Nicolas Jaar
In regard to electronic music, I can be fairly out of the loop and only really hit on the big artists my friends are heavily recommending to me. Of course, one of those artists is Nicolas Jaar, who released my electronic album of the year last year with the fantastic Sirens. This set only ranks so low as I ended up missing solid half of it as it was on the third day of the fest and my feet were pretty much done. However, once "Three Sides Of Nazareth" came on I knew I had to get closer up and watch the rest. The visuals behind him and on the festival's projections were trippy as hell, and watching Jaar moving around his little setup trying to make his beast of a performance work together was just awe inspiring to watch. Also, he brought a saxophone or a bass clarinet out at one point for a rendition of "The Governor" and it was awesome and badass. However, not the best saxophone moment of Pitchfork Music Festival as we'll get to that a bit later on, but still, a great set I wish I had made the entirety of.
#5: Weyes Blood
When Weyes Blood, aka California musician Natalie Mering, released her third album Front Row Seat To Earth last fall, I was absolutely blown away from first listen. Mixing together the retro pop stylings of contemporaries like Ariel Pink with the 1970s style songwriting of Joni Mitchell and Carpenters, Mering made one of the absolutely best albums of last year and turned in a killer performance at the festival. She sounds just as beautiful here as she does on record as the astonishing "Seven Words" and epic "Do You Need My Love" only gain more power live. She also closed out the set with an absolutely killer cover of CAN's "Vitamin C" which show off a powerful versatility that can hopefully keep shining throughout her career.
#4: LCD Soundsystem
Now, you might already be asking me, why are you ranking LCD Soundsystem so low? Did they not give an absolutely amazing performance? They did actually, in fact it was pretty great. However unlike the bands ranked above LCD here, they don't quite hold such a strong personal connection with me, at least not compared to the bands ranked above. I do love LCD Soundsystem though and it's still so strange that they're actually back and they've essentially been reunited for almost a year and a half now. Like most people after their legendary performance at the Madison Square Garden, I wasn't expecting them to perform, let alone release new music ever again. However, they are back and they absolutely killed as expected. Highlight of the set was definitely the surprise pit that opened up during "Movement" right in front of me that I had no idea how to react to other than "my feet still hurt a lot" and "I have to pee but this owns."
I was a late adopter to Pinegrove. I didn't properly get into them until late 2016 and their debut from that year, Cardinal, was a bit of grower on me. Once I fully wrapped my head around it, I was totally in love with it and the band and had to consume anything they had ever put out, so suffice to say I was extremely hyped for this set and it didn't disappoint. While the absence of backup vocalist/keyboardist Nandi Rose Plunkett (who was touring with Mitski under her solo project Half Waif) was very noticeable, it didn't deter from the pure emotion I felt during the set. Being in that crowd was just an extremely wholesome experience with everyone singing along with frontman Evan Stephens Hall's lyrics and yelps, just knowing that there's all these people here who feel the same way I do and find solace in this amazing band. Oh and I brought a stuffed cardinal and threw it at Hall at the end of the band's set and he caressed it on his shoulder which is the greatest moment of my life.
#2: Danny Brown
Unlike Pinegrove, Danny Brown's music is not very wholesome. It's about as emotionally cathartic, but whereas Evan Stephens Hall sings about heartbreak and maintaining friendships, Brown raps about his hard partying to cope with his rough upbringing and horrible drug addiction. However a lot of the time he's able to turn this pain into just straight up bangers which completely rocked the crowd at Pitchfork. Songs like "Monopoly" and "Pneumonia" got the crowd into an absolute frenzy with one of the wildest mosh pits I have ever been in. This energy only boosted Brown who gave it his absolute all not missing a single bar. Of course, that would have been the craziest pit I had been in this weekend had it not been for my #1....
#1: Jeff Rosenstock
Jeff Rosenstock is the best artist in punk music today. His ethos of giving away most of his musical output for free, booking all ages shows that cost $10-15 or less, and treating his fans like actual human beings with love and care is simply inspiring and artist of all genres should take note of Rosenstock. So when I found out he was playing Pitchfork this year, I was pretty shocked since that was probably the biggest booking he'd ever gotten. Something Rosenstock and his band acknowledged multiple times during the set, as in between songs Rosenstock made the crowd do the wave, crapped on the festival's sponsors, and also stated how much he was paid to play the fest (which for those wondering, it was $7500) before launching into last year's "Festival Song" off his album WORRY. While the Danny Brown pit was filthy, Rosenstock's pit was also filthy, but incredibly wholesome in singing along to Rosenstock's lyrics about the woes of depression, capitalism, and love while running 30 miles per hour at each other. To quote Stereogum's Chris DeVille: "Jeff Rosenstock's Pitchfork set today is the kind of show everyone here is gonna be bragging about seeing for the rest of our lives."