Picture this: it is the tail end of Kevin Morby's show at Off Broadway on a cool Wendesday night. After treating the audience to the full Morby experience, from raucous guitar riffs to pensive ballads, Morby is starting his final solo, "Beautiful Strangers," a quiet, emotional meditation on the 2015 Paris terror attack, the Pulse Nightclub shooting, and the death of Freddie Gray. It is a song, in short, about love in the face of chaos and adversity.
At this point, three beefy-looking guys start taunting a drunk man who is enjoying the music a little too enthusiastically. Another man standing nearby, who is with his girlfriend and mother, tells the hecklers to shut up. The hecklers leap up in a rage. "What the [bleep] did you just say to me?" one of them says, swaggering antagonizingly and shoving the man. The man's girlfriend tries to step in and gets shoved, too, and the heckler is swiftly kicked out of the venue. (Keep in mind this is all going on while Kevin Morby stands onstage, singing.) The two remaining meatheads start cursing out the man's mother -- a little old lady whose expression betrays less anger and more plain shock -- and blaming her for starting the fight. The trio tries to ignore the abuse, but it proves to be too much, and they leave before Morby reaches the encore.
You can't make up this kind of irony, folks. What a perverse world we live in, where you can cuss out someone's mother and somehow still feel entitled to hear a song about rediscovering love and beauty in the world (as Morby does on "Dorothy," the final song of the night). I don't think I will ever forget that scene: two hulking dudes spewing obscenities at a little old lady as Kevin Morby sings sweetly in the background, "Carry onward like some songbird, beautiful stranger."
In spite of the unnecessary drama, the night's performance is definitely one that inspires good vibes (or, at least, it ought to). In a blue denim jacket emblazoned with white music notes, Kevin Morby encapsulates the flair of every self-respecting rock-n-roller. As cliché as it sounds, he is rather hard to define; his songwriting is introspective and crafted with poetic care, evidence of his folksier sensibilities, but his sound is surprisingly assertive, almost Dylan-esque in its classic rock flavors. Morby's latest record, City Music, stands out for its raucousness in comparison to earlier releases. The title track demonstrates a mathy knack for guitar rhythms and harmonies; live, this translates into a dazzling jam session complete with daring tempo changes and a few well-deserved head bangs from Morby and backing guitarist Meg Duffy. "1234" may well be the closest he will ever get to writing a dance number, with a near frantic pace that all but forces you to get on your feet. Even "Crybaby," with its depressingly frank lyrics ("I never was someone that I liked/ I never was someone that you know/ Now the tears pull through my eyes/ And the trouble fell like a snow"), somehow becomes cathartic when heard through the roar of Morby's guitar-work.
On a more subdued note, Kevin Morby also revisits old hits like "Parade" from 2014's Still Life, which captures the poignancy of death in a slow, jangly piano ballad à la Billy Joel's "Piano Man." During these songs, the talent behind Morby's songwriting shines; he has a way of appealing to something very time-honored in his writing, as he evokes the well-worn images of winding rivers and smoky nights that define the 'American gothic.' The last verse of "Harlem River" might've been taken straight from a Springsteen song: "And ride on that easy rider/ Flow like that Harlem River."
"Beautiful Strangers" would have been the perfect conclusion, especially given the tumultuous times in which we, as a collective race, stand. But instead, it becomes a demonstration of the hypocrisy of mankind; we're more than willing to listen to a song about people who have died at the hands of hate and nod our heads as if we understand, but we'll go and beat the crap out of the first person that crosses us. There's a huge problem here, and, frankly, it's a disturbing one -- I just wish that listening to Kevin Morby would be enough to solve it.
I'd had "Life on Mars" rolling through my head all day. I found myself humming it in the shower, while packing my lunch, as I walked to my car, standing in line outside the Pageant in a light drizzle -- any time my mind had the space to relax a bit, the song revealed itself. For months, I'd been looking forward to A) seeing Seu Jorge and B) seeing him play a set of Bowie songs. These two events seemed equally unlikely -- that the legendary Brazilian musician and actor would grace our fair city and tour this body of work specifically. Apparently my subconscious could no longer contain its excitement.
Seu Jorge admittedly was no Bowie superfan to begin. He knew of only two songs -- "I'm Afraid of Americans" and "Let's Dance," thanks to "my man" Niles Rodgers. He confessed: "I am a black man from Brazil. We don't listen to rock 'n' roll." But Wes Anderson had a vision, and Seu Jorge learned quickly to reimagine the unfamiliar sound with a samba flair -- a breezy, relaxed, casual sound that turns the obstinate "Changes" into something more resigned, more que-sera-sera, and depicts most tracks as a folksier, more Hunky Dory version of their former selves. Fitting, then, the black-light blue stage lights that initially cast him as a shadowy silhouette quickly switched with the opening chords to "Ziggy Stardust" to reveal a seaside setting, complete with wooden crates, netting, lanterns, and tea lights, his face now glowing from below, a spotlight beaming an oceanic full moon on the curtain behind him.
For me, the strumming singer/songwriter genre is unfamiliar territory. With few exceptions, I generally gravitate towards guitar with plenty of fuzz, reverb, and attitude, where incoherent vocals are as good as another instrumental track, an occasional line of lyrics peeking through. Even then, it's safe to assume that I'm making up the words I want to hear. For the longest time, I swore Johnny Yen in "Lust for Life" was doing another striptease to "Luther Vand-ross / and the Sex Machine." Seemed reasonable enough to me...
So while acoustic and lyrics-centered is not my normal scene, the familiar sounds of Bowie tunes I know so well, the lyrics now indecipherable to my English-speaking ear, center all the attention on Seu Jorge's incredibly expressive voice, ranging from deep Barry White bass-baritone to soprano accents, alternately drawing richness and weight from some invisible well at the back of his throat or hueing his high notes with rasp and buoyancy. His gripping take on "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" opened with mind-bogglingly low notes (think Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar) and concluded with a bright, warm refrain of 'Wonderful!/Give me your hands!'
When he finally played "Life on Mars," he dedicated it to Bowie as well as his own father, who we learned passed away three days after Bowie. As he played the quintessential anthem of disillusionment and existential wonder, a single piece of confetti slowly flitted down from the rafters, a remnant of some magical evening past, illuminated for a fleeting moment as it passed through a sharp beam of stage light. It was the perfect tribute to our beloved Earthling and all others who have departed this world for unknown dimensions. And this timeline offered some insight as to why, thirteen years after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was released, Seu Jorge is touring his Bowie-rendered, Portuguese contributions to the brilliant soundtrack. After the passing of these two monumental figures in his life, he felt compelled to pay tribute in the most appropriate way he knew: strumming away in his Team Zissou track suit and red beanie on what director Wes Anderson saw as the "classics".
As he walked offstage at the end of the set, there was little wonder whether there would be an encore, as a video screen branded with the SANYO logo slowly unfurled. The screen eventually displayed snippets from the film, interspersed with Bowie's smoldering bi-colored stare. We were treated to another round of "Rebel Rebel" and what Seu Jorge informed us was his favorite -- a moving, heart-wrenching performance of "Quicksand." I found myself with a new tune stuck in my head for days to come, my subconscious seemingly satisfied and holding onto that magical evening.
It's a quiet Wednesday night at the Ready Room. I'm in the bathroom reading graffiti on the stall walls, killing time while I wait for the show to start. I didn't have time to go home after work, I'm solo tonight, and I'm not much of a drinker, so bathroom graffiti's the best I can come up with pregame-wise. It's pretty good, but a quick read, so it's not long before I mosey on back to the bar and order my one drink of the evening. I sip slowly and wait.
I'm still sipping at the bar when Porter Ray starts his set, and I don't exactly run to the stage the minute he comes on. Porter Ray is new to me, and my plan is to wait patiently for him to entice me into the next room. It doesn't take long at all. It's probably about half-way through his second song when I make the long journey from the bar stool to the wall stool around the corner, and there I pause to jot down my first impressions.
He's visually intriguing with a colorful scarf draped over his head, slim-fitting jacket and drop crotch shorts. His lanky limbs and energetic stage presence jive perfectly with a fast-paced delivery of impressively wordy (and therefore sometimes hard to decipher) phrases. As I move closer and try to make out a word or two, I'm struck by the emotional and intellectual depth of his lyrics. Genuine feeling and insight shine through Porter Ray's intelligently crafted rhymes.
Unfortunately, these luminous threads are too often lost in a rather dull tapestry of stereotypical hip hop tropes: bragging about sexual conquests, objectification of women unconvincingly disguised as adoration, and near-obsessive references to designer brands and expensive cars. During these digressions, Porter Ray reminds me of the "horny" and "greedy" mainstream rappers that Shabazz Palaces will gripe about later in the evening. Still, I'm impressed. There's room for fine-tuning, but Porter Ray is a talented lyricist with plenty of technical skill and an appealing bardish style.
In stark contrast to Porter Ray's youthful energy and eager-to-please persona, Shabazz Palaces are the epitome of middle-age cool: measured, detached, effortlessly eccentric, and age-appropriately disapproving of popular culture. The duo walk past the audience and onto the stage while a booming Wizard-of-Oz-esque voice leads us in prayer, "Our Father, who art on Wall Street..." From the beginning, it's understood that the audience has gathered here tonight to worship, not to be entertained. The set covers their full discography, from Black Up to Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, and flows seamlessly over a persistent thudding of electronic beats that keep the audience physically and mentally tethered to the performance.
Tendai Maraire's drumming is the star of the live show (the duo's synchronized choreography at the beginning of "Youlogy" and Ishmael Butler's stiff granddad-style swaying throughout are close runners-up). Maraire's versatile and agile rhythms build beautifully on heavy foundational beats, and serve as a line of human connection in an otherwise intentionally distant performance.
Shabazz Palaces' audience engagement techniques are powerful, verging on subversive. Guided by their hypnotic combination of rhythm, lyrics and idiosyncratic "dancing," I engage in an array of involuntary and uncharacteristic behaviors. I dance (not a thing I do), I close my eyes and contemplate cultural appropriation (I do this, but not in public), I stare up into Butler's grinning face and smile stupidly without a coherent thought in my head, all according to their whim.
The highlight of my night comes when I snap out of my trance and go take a break at the wall stools. As I turn from the stage, Porter Ray grabs my attention at the back of the room, smiling and dancing perhaps even more energetically than he did during his own set. I watch him in what I hope is a non-creepy way, and create an imaginary relationship between the two acts in my mind. Shabazz Palaces plays the role of critical-yet-supportive father figures, and Porter Ray, the kid who simultaneously knows it all and desperately strives for the elders' wisdom and approval.
Click the image below to see all of Doug Tull's photos of the evening's performances.
I arrive at the Muny upper grounds to be greeted by the blithe thump thump thump of distant bass and the sight of hallmark music festival chaos: the uproariously drunk college freshmen taking swigs of lukewarm vodka smuggled in through empty sunscreen bottles, the girls clad in the latest Urban Outfitters catalogue prowling about for the most Instagram-worthy photoshoot location, the groups of bearded dudes with tiny buns ensconced in clouds of weed smoke, the big-bellied men wearing "Sex, Love, & Cardinals Baseball" T-shirts. The weather is warm and breezy, with not a cloud in the great blue sky. A biplane makes lazy circles overhead, pulling a banner for Stella Rose wine ("America's Favorite!").
There is a crowd of people camped dutifully in front of the stage in wait for Noname, many of whom look like New York art kids with their boxy Swedish backpacks and tinted sunglasses. When Noname takes to the stage, everyone goes wild, but she herself is charmingly modest, greeting the crowd with a wave and a mild "Hello, everybody." On the record, Telefone relies on groovy synths and crisp production, but the live band translates those sounds into something altogether closer to the R&B traditions from which Noname's sound is inspired; Noname is one of those artists that definitely sounds better live. The set opens with "Sunny Duet," a sweet and lighthearted meditation on love that feels like the sonic epitome of a warm day ("We can dance a little, if you'd like to/ My vagabonds is a lonely road, a celebrated haiku/ Contemporary overzealous, think I really like you.") She merges the boundaries between rap and spoken word poetry (hearkening back to Noname's roots as a slam poet in Chicago -- the very scene where she would meet future collaborator Chance the Rapper), combining personal memories of her upbringing in Chicago with profound insights into race, poverty, addiction, and life itself. In spite of its lighthearted sound, though, Telefone conveys a grave political message: "St. Louis taught me death could be your neighbor, stay away," she sings on "Shadow Man," the last song of the set. "Don't take the family for granted, better days await."
As the sun sets over LouFest, I scurry across the festival ground to catch Run the Jewels; the crowd is already immense as the rap duo Killer Mike and El-P take to the stage, and I can only catch glimpses of duo Killer Mike and El-P amongst the sea of jumping people in front of me. It's a known fact that their fans are some of the most passionate around; the guys in RTJ t-shirts next to me belt the entire set word-for-word with just as much ferocity as the duo onstage. With their trademark gun-and-fist logo displayed intimidatingly over the stage, Run the Jewels's stage presence is as intense as their sound. Most of the set is from last year's release, Run the Jewels 3, which holds back no rhetorical punches: "Born black, that's dead on arrival," Killer Mike raps frankly on the set's opening song, "Talk to Me." The dynamic between the two rappers marks them as one of hip-hop's greatest duos; on stage, it is clear that they are more than comfortable getting in each other's' faces. They unflinchingly use their racial differences (FYI: Killer Mike is black, and El-P is white) to leverage their political points: in "Don't Get Captured," Killer Mike takes on the voice of impoverished African Americans while El-P speaks as a white police officer, taunting "The more we act wrong the more we are right / And who exactly gon' stop what we got?" The duo even takes a minute during their set to establish proper moshing decorum, asking the audience to kindly pick up their friends when they fall and not to drunkenly harass girls (the latter which is met by a round of appreciative cheers). It isn't all serious business, though, as Run the Jewels performs crowd-pleasers like "Legend Has It," the main single off of RTJ3, and "Nobody Speak" from DJ Shadow's The Mountain Will Fall (which is perhaps the single most clever piece of writing I've ever encountered. Consider: "I am crack/ I ain't lyin', kick a lion in his crack.") The set is made even more memorable by the fact that Run the Jewels' DJ Trackstar is a St. Louis native and a graduate of Washington University (which happens to be the author's school too).
As night falls over LouFest, the weekend wraps up with headliner Weezer at the Bud Light stage, which sits at the base of a particularly steep hill that offers everyone has a pretty clear view of Rivers Cuomo and his band. Uncannily enough, Cuomo seems unchanged since 1994 -- that is to say, he looks like some normal guy who just happened to wander on stage. Weezer is one of those weirdly universal bands that most people have dabbled in, as evident from the enthusiasm of everyone around me -- frat dudes, art girls, and beer-bellied dads alike; in fact, it's kind of hilarious to see everyone embracing Cuomo's dorky white-boy malaise so wholeheartedly. The strangest thing about Weezer may be that their more inaccessible albums seem to resonate the most: people have no problem singing the (absolutely ludicrous) chorus to "Undone -- The Sweater Song" from the blue album, but Cuomo's more recent attempts at churning out more radio hits, like "Thank God For Girls" from 2016's white album, seem to have fallen a little short of his prior glory. (I could write a dissertation on the great and tragic downfall of Weezer, but that's another story for another day.) Cuomo himself doesn't say anything notable during the set, although he and the band do do a weird, half-hearted cover of Outkast's "Hey Ya." All complaints aside, though, Weezer does bring out the best of LouFest; during the encore of "Buddy Holly," the audience becomes the real star of the show, bellowing out the lyrics with plenty of rockstar gusto.
To see all of Karl Beck's photos of the second day of the festival, click the image below.
The tribute shows honoring St. Louis legends Albert King and Tommy Bankhead at the National Blues Museum were perfect opening acts for the days of the 22nd annual Big Muddy Blues Festival at Laclede's Landing. The Legends Room was full of blues fans for the early afternoon shows. Organized by BB's owner John May for the St. Louis Blues Society, the shows offered array musicians who knew and played with King and Bankhead.
The Saturday show for Albert King featured a band comprised of musicians were alumni of his bands over the years. The group, led by drummer Kenny Rice (61-65), featured Vince Martin (68) on guitar, Oliver Johnson (75-81) on trumpet and trombone, Vince Sala (79-80) on sax, Frank Dunbar (79-83) on bass and Eric Marshall on the keyboards. Vocalist Barbara Carr also put in a surprise appearance for a powerful finish to the show.
The Sunday tribute for Tommy Bankhead was another all-star cast of local musicians many of whom came up in the 70's and 80's and helped revitalize the St. Louis blues scene. The opening band included: John May (bass), Eric McSpadden (harmonica/vocals), Billy Barnett (guitar/fiddle/vocals), Rich McDonough (guitar), and Aaron Griffin (drums/guitar/vocals. Other musicians joining in during the show included Kyle Yardley (harmonica/vocals/drums), JJ Johnson (vocals/drums), Chris Taylor (harmonica), Kay Lobster (vocals), and Bob Case (vocals).
Albert King: A New Generation of Blues
Albert King had the Delta in his blood but his music took the blues in a new direction. He was a part of a 1950s generation of St. Louis musicians that included Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry and Ike Turner that changed the world music. His original style of playing is cited as a major influence on Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Mike Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
The electric guitar, which he played left handed and held upside down, was the lead instrument with a tone and intensity that set the bar for those that followed. He became one of the early blues artists to break the color barrier while crossing over into soul and rock. When Bill Graham first heard Albert in 1967 at Ike Turner's Manhattan Club in East St. Louis he booked him for the first of many appearances at his Fillmore West and East.
King was also noted for being rough on his musicians. He went through a lot of them through the years. But Kenny Rice, who started with King when he was 16, says as tough as he was, "He was like a father to me and the band looked out for me like I was their son." He said King had the reputation because "he was always seeking perfection in his music and was never satisfied but he also had a kind heart."
Ridin' the Bus
King worked hard and played hard. He loved to gamble. That was how Vince Martin joined the band in 1968 at the age of 15. His older brother, Colbert, was one of Albert's gambling buddies. As Vince tells it, King lost a big bet with his brother who told King, "I don't want your money just put my brother in your band." Martin, Frank Dunbar, Oliver Johnson and Gus Thornton are part of a long list of talented St. Louis musicians who toured the U.S. in King's beloved bus.
Oliver Johnson like Gus Thornton had two stints with King. He tells how "Albert got me back on the bus by saving me from a terrible situation." After playing with King a move west to Motown ended up in personal troubles and a job in a Bay area donut shop. One day a big bus pulls up outside the shop and in walks Albert with a laughing Frank Dunbar. Johnson says, "It was a scene from The Blues Brothers. I'm in my apron and Albert walks up and says, 'so makin' donuts...if you thinkin' you'd like to come back....'" A plane ticket to Texas came the next day and when Johnson got on the bus Albert said, "No, Oliver, I don't need more donuts."
Gus Thornton hooked up with Albert in 1977 via his friendship with Oliver Johnson and his work with the The Young Disciples, a legendary East St. Louis youth music project that spawned many a career. Riding the bus led to jam sessions and a friendship with Stevie Ray Vaughn and multiple albums with King and Vaughn in the '80s. Outside the music Gus credits King with teaching him about the business side when he made him his road manager.
Sitting in the Tribute audience was a pleasure. From "Watermelon Man" and "I'll Play the Blues for You" to "The Sky is Cryin'" and "Hold It" you would swear this group had just gotten off the bus from the last gig. While the Albert King Band may have had a big revolving cast the quality and innovation in his music and the talent of his musicians stand in tribute to his legacy.
Tommy Bankhead: Making Music and Breaking Barriers
Tommy Bankhead was seventeen when he came to St. Louis in 1949 after having had a chance to work with his uncle Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy II and Bobby Bland in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Memphis. After hearing about the music scene here from a member of Ike Turner's band he got an invitation to play at Ned Love's on the East Side club. Over the next fifty years he would become and anchor of the local blues scene.
The early years were spent playing in the many clubs on the East Side and North Side clubs that also characterized the racial divide in the city. By the late '70s the blues scene had the blues. Gaslight Square was long gone and the club scenes on the North Side and East Side were struggling. At the same time there were stirrings to the south of the Delmar dividing line along South Broadway and in Soulard. As new clubs opened careers were revived and a new generation began to play.
A young generation of white musicians like Keith Doder had crossed the color barriers to learn and play with black bluesmen like Tommy Bankhead. Both were always open and encouraging of other young musicians often inviting them onstage to jam. Bankhead became the first black musician to take his electric blues style south of Market to the Broadway Oyster Bar and Mike and Mins in Soulard. It turned into a seventeen-year gig.
His band at the time was the Blues Eldorado's with Ben Wells on drums, Thurman McCain on bass and Doder on harp. As Ben Wells tells it he recruited Bankhead to his band after watching him freelance around town: "I told him he was good. People love you. You need a regular band of your own -- let's go." Ben was moved to tears when a frail looking 82-year-old Kay Lobster took the stage. It only took a few moments before Lobster was off his stool, a mic in one hand and his cane in the air belting out the blues.
Thurman McCain said his more than twenty years with Bankhead "was all good": "Tommy was so friendly and we got to play all the clubs and colleges." Other talented musicians would join in along the way like Larry Griffin who gave up teaching in Texas in the mid '80s to pursue the blues in St. Louis. He ended up playing with Bankhead four nights a week from 1985-87. He said, "Tommy was the nicest guy in the world, a real mentor, always pushing up what he was playing and he was the sharpest dresser in town."
St. Louis Style
Bankhead's style, as characterized by That St. Louis Thing author Bruce Olson, was "easy blues with a sweet voice and a gentle, old school guitar." Eric McSpadden, who opened the show with "Wait Do Time," "Stop Breakin' Down" and "Blow Wind," played with Tommy his last four years. He said his approach to the blues "was really laid back -- playing and singing seemed so easy for him." JJ Johnson followed Eric at the mic for "Same Thing," "Play the Blues," "Killin' Floor" and "Mojo Workin'" before taking over on drums.
Bankhead did not record a lot during his life. Wells says he had to push him to do the 45 "Making Love Is Good for You" and "Gamblin' Blues" and his first album in 1983, Please Mr. Foreman. He said the reluctance came from a fear of being ripped off. Bankhead himself in an interview tells how he got sued over an early recording. He would only record two more albums late in life, Message to St. Louis, released in 2000 and Please Accept My Love, recorded three months before his death on Dec. 16, 2000.
John May who organized the tributes and played with Tommy opened the show promising music that would show off the St. Louis style Bankhead helped to create. He told how important Bankhead was to the revival of the blues with his music and his personality. "There are two things that characterized Tommy Bankhead," May said, "One was he would always rather talk with you than to you and the other was his favorite saying, 'Makin love is good for you.'"
John returned to this theme at the close of the show reminding people that "in this time of Ferguson, anger and bullshit we need this music to bring us together." So it was fitting to have Bob Case, another one of musicians who helped revitalize the scene close the show with his song "St. Louis is My Home." You know Tommy was smiling. He wouldn't have had it any other way.
To see more of Bob Baugh's photos of the tribute performances, click the image below.