From their earthy Rocky Mountain roots, Elephant Revival brought a sense of musical communion to speak justly for themselves and unify those in attendance in a well-received performance at the St. Louis Folk and Roots Festival Saturday night. Now in its fifth year, arrangers Kelly Wells and her husband Ryan Spearman dug into their past spent in Colorado to task some old friends to the headline this year's event at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Setting the tone for the evening was two-time National swing fiddle champion Katie Glassman and her partner, guitar player Greg Schochet. The Colorado-based duo, who also play together in another project, Katie Glassman and Snapshot, effortlessly picked their way through the American songbook during their 50 minute set with folk traditional numbers, songs by notable folk songwriters as well as swing jazz and Texas fiddle tunes. The set list demonstrated their wide-range of tastes and influences with "Old Grey Mare" by Norman Blake, Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," Jimmie Rodgers' "Peach Pickin' Time," and even featured a song they had never performed live before, the Mills Brothers' "You Always Hurt The One You Love." Represented were timeless styles of American music over the last 100 years, but Glassman and Schochet thoughtfully honored them rather than nostalgically pining for the past. Both performers shined on their respective instruments while winding together runs tightly. Glassman's clear voice stood out as one that could have fit into a 1930s swing band era group or a modern folk or bluegrass outfit.
In a segment seemingly flooded with folk groups focused on strong harmonies, Elephant Revival stands out as an ensemble moved not only by the social forces enveloping our everyday lives, but also the natural environment which surrounds us which we shape -- and sometimes destroy. A decade into their career, the band's stance may have come to use their music to put an emotional emphasis upon the issues they find important. One of these issues is the struggle of immigrant and refugee families as highlighted by their new song, "When I Fall." The group's value of the world around them seems to equal the effort they put into creating these intricate pieces.
On Petals, their latest fourth record, the band has expanded their sound with pedal steel from guitar and mandolin player Charlie Rose and cello from vocalist Bonnie Paine to augment the work being done by bassist Dango Rose, guitarist Daniel Rodriguez and fiddle player Bridget Law. To support the live setting, the quintet even added more percussion with a lineup addition.
The name of the new album serves as a metaphor for the fragile life of a flower that can be lost at any moment with a gust of wind or heavy rain, while some make it to the end of the season only to succumb to the eventual shrivel in autumn. These new songs give you that life-is-fragile feeling throughout and therefore resonate.
The tall, handsome Rodriguez led the group on a new song, "Home in your Heart" to begin the proceedings. Highlighted by subdued vocals from Rodriguez reminiscent of Richard Buckner and stellar fiddle work from Law, the spacey drone drew the audience in immediately. The set continued to get stronger with the gorgeous "Season Song" featuring the blended vocals of Rodriguez and Paine with musical saw work from the latter.
The music of Elephant Revival is both powerful and vulnerable with raw elements that shed light on our fragile humanity. On songs like "Remembering a Beginning," Paine's bluesy, ethereal lead vocal work blends the band's intricate instrumental elements into a cohesive structure that emphasizes the sensitivity of the songs. Paine further capitalizes on her unique voice to not only sing, but use it as a precise musical instrument adding her natural tremolo. This was evident as the main set ended with the gospel-tinged "Rogue River" which allowed the audience to clap along and sing and stretch a bit.
For the encore, the band asked Spearman out to play mandolin and used the Sheldon Concert Hall's legendary acoustics to their advantage to play off the mics at the apron of the stage for a sing-a-long of one of their older songs, "Good Graces." Before they began, Rodriguez made an effort to teach the crowd the words to sing along, but didn't fully succeed as it was hard to hear some of the words. By the end, the audience had made the effort to catch on though. A note to the band that a clear, confident voice to the audience can do wonders to help everyone in attendance onto your side with gusto.
To cap the evening, Glassman and Schochet appropriately joined for a version of "Over the River" a bluesy song that could as easily been part of the Sam Cooke repertoire over a half century earlier. The musical communion ended with solos from everyone and smiles on the faces of the St. Louis audience.
The Allah-Las are a band of sun-kissed boys, at times a little pleased with themselves, who nonetheless create beautiful pop melodies that wash over your body like so much Pacific surf. They are described, or perhaps pigeonholed, as a group of like-minded mates with shared interests in vintage California rock and have drawn comparisons to the Zombies and the Kinks. If that's their schtick, then it's working for them: a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered at Off Broadway on a rainy Friday evening to sway and sweat as the four-piece band (plus a touring keyboardist) rolled through a set blending old and new material in support of their 2016 release, Calico Review. Although the average song length was probably the classic three minutes, the mood seemed unhurried, even languid. The band treated us to an extended intro to the first song, a wordless garage rock jam that could have just been five guys in a living room warming up. When the tune changed course to become "Tell Me (What's On Your Mind)," loud applause swelled into the rafters. Vocalist/guitarist Miles Michaud broke a string, and the band played on -- more impromptu instrumentals as he made hasty repairs, this time a swinging little number complementing the clinking glass, laughter, and background noise of a crowd anxious to hear more. All fixed up, we were swept right into "Follow You Down," immediately followed by "Busman's Holiday," a ballad overlooked from 2012's Worship the Sun -- rollicking drum fills call to mind the crest and fall of waves on a beach, while guitarist Pedum Siadatian's nimble flourishes punctuate an otherwise bass-driven contemplation.
Between songs, there was little banter -- Michaud flashed a few warm smiles in appreciation of the crowd, but onstage interaction or antics were nonexistent. However, the members' own contributions to songwriting were showcased through the sharing of lead vocals. Nearly everyone got a turn at the mic, from Siadatian on "Catalina" to drummer Matthew Correia on several, including "Long Journey" during the encore, delivered with a gravelly, almost menacing sneer while double-fisting a set of maracas. Even bassist Spencer Dunham got in on the action with "200 South La Brea." The changes in song structure and styling, reflective of each member's personal touch, were subtle. Despite this general mood -- lazy harmonies, similar chord progressions with a few inventive licks, the set never felt repetitive -- a testament to some serious songwriting chops underneath that throwback LA surf label. These guys are paying homage, but with a twist.
The set picked up speed toward the end, with crowd favorite "Catamaran" and a two-song encore, during which Michaud picked up some steam, lurching up and down at his microphone, wailing away at a tambourine which he then wore as a hat on his way off the stage. As the crowd filed out to smoke and buy records by the dozens, I was struck by the dissonance between the (mostly) restrained, almost dreamlike set and the upbeat crowd. Allah-Las write songs that are almost wistful in their acknowledgment of LA's grim undercurrent, the daily shattering of dreams in a city where everyone wants to shine bright. It's a world seemingly far removed from the Cherokee Street Historic District, where the main concern of Off Broadway staff sometimes seems getting people to quit parking off President Street. Yet the timeless (that word!) melodies, a backdrop against which odes to pretty girls and lost dreams are sung, seemed to resonate with us all. With every record, Allah-Las improve musically and the sunnier their sound, the darker their lyrics. Their live show, grittier than recordings, brought out that dissonance.
A St. Louis Wilco show is always a special affair. Though based in Chicago, the band's founder/leader Jeff Tweedy grew up in Belleville, Ill. and cut his teeth playing St. Louis clubs with alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo as well as working in area record stores. He jokingly "reminded" the crowd at The Fox on Wednesday night of this fact, saying, "I'm from around here. Did you guys know that?"
Of course this was not news to most local fans, some of who were lucky enough to catch an afternoon set by the band at Euclid Records (a former employer of Tweedy) in Webster Groves in promotion of their forthcoming album, Schmilco.
Throughout Wilco's nearly two-hour show, Tweedy continued to reminisce and mention how happy he was to be back, noting that in his early days the gorgeous Fox was the "last place" he ever imagined himself playing.
After a brief instrumental opening set by Nashville guitarist William Tyler, Wilco kicked off with the first four tracks from their 2015 release, Star Wars, as strings of lights twinkled behind them. Tweedy was in perfect voice and the band sounded tighter than ever, boosted by the exceptional acoustics afforded by such a stately venue.
After working through more recent material, Wilco pulled out an early-in-the-set heavy hitter with the sublime "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," a favorite of die-hard fans. Heavy, trippy "Art of Almost" gave guitar virtuoso Nels Cline an opportunity to work his array of pedal effects in a dizzying solo as drummer Glenn Kotche pounded a tribal beat.
A mid-set trio of tunes from the album "A Ghost is Born" was another highlight. Cheery and melodic "Hummingbird" gave way to John Stirratt's familiar bass lead-in on "Handshake Drugs" before Cline again took over with his signature piercing shred melting into controlled chaos. Sprawling "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" with its rapid-fire bass and drums built slowly to a crescendo marked by a carnival of keys by Mikael Jorgensen.
Fans also delighted in early cuts like "Via Chicago" with Tweedy on acoustic guitar and songs from the band's seminal album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot including "Jesus, etc." with Cline on steel guitar; "Heavy Metal Drummer," which Tweedy noted mentions certain parts of this city (Laclede's Landing); and the upbeat and infectious "I'm the Man Who Loves You."
The band performed only two songs from Schmilco (coming out September 9) -- the already released single, "If I Ever Was a Child," a melodious, contemplative tune with gentle twang, and the unreleased "Nope." They focused instead on a truly retrospective selection of the best work from across their lengthy catalog.
Gorgeous "Impossible Germany" with its melancholy melody morphed into yet another astounding display of guitar acrobatics by Cline, his entire body convulsing as his fingers flew across the fretboard.
Wilco closed out the main set with "Late Greats," taking a brief break before returning to encore with a seven-song mini acoustic set. Grouped closely together at the front of the stage and basked in simple white light, they began with fan favorite "Misunderstood," the audience repeating the ending chant of "Nothing!" in more of a whisper than a scream.
Stirratt took the microphone to croon the twangy "Just That Simple" before Tweedy treated Uncle Tupelo fans to "We've Been Had." Yet another local nod came with a stripped-down version of "Casino Queen," which nearly always gets a performance at the band's St. Louis shows. Tweedy encouraged more sing-alongs on closers "California Stars" and "Shot in the Arm," on which Cline nimbly translated his signature shred on the steel guitar.
Throughout the evening, it was nearly impossible to keep up with the striking number and variety of guitars interchanged by the band's technicians for Tweedy, Cline and Pat Sansone. The complex layering and array of instrumentation is key to Wilco's sound and their ability to continuously explore and push the boundaries of what they've done before is what makes them one of the most consistently excellent live acts touring today.
Mostly, they never seem to be phoning it in. Though Tweedy can often come off as sarcastic and even unenthusiastic, once the band starts playing, they put their all into it, leaving the audience spent and satisfied; and Wednesday night's performance was no exception.
Photos by Dustin Winter
LouFest 2016 was not only my first LouFest ever but also my first music festival in at least a decade, and probably also the single longest stretch of time that I've spent outdoors in recent memory. Weather-wise, it was a beautiful weekend, but there was also no hiding from it -- muddy earth, a light wind, a fiery ball hovering in the heavens above. Among the elements, I was definitely out of mine. Within minutes my feet were heavy with moist, oozy mud, and several times over the weekend I came across a pair of sandals or shoes that had been left behind, stuck one in front of the other as though their former owner had been raptured.
Beset by what was, at least for me, an unprecedented range of stimuli, I sought something familiar, some traction -- solid footing upon which to dig in and get down. This is where Bruiser Queen comes in. No, I didn't just happen to stumble upon their set, and yes, I'd spoken with singer and guitarist Morgan Nusbaum ahead of time with the intention of writing about them. But what I hadn't accounted for in advance was my desire, in that initial moment, for something that simply rocked -- music that was big without being dumb, aggressive without being uninviting. Bruiser Queen's midday set delivered the kind of concentrated, uncut rock 'n' roll that is perennial in its appeal and absolutely powerful in its immediacy. The two and/or three piece unit of Nusbaum, drummer Jason Potter, and newly introduced bassist Cory Perkins make music that is fun and unfussed over. Whatever lyrics get lost in the invariable fuzz of loud live music give way to choruses that are immediately memorable. Their familiar, low-stakes song structures are classic like cocktails or the cut of certain jeans. Rather than messing with what already works, they know well enough to just do it right.
With multiple Best Rock Band wins in the Riverfront Times and almost six years of shows under their belt, Bruiser Queen are at once popular and legit. They are also an extraordinarily hard-working band -- steadily releasing new music, staying active locally, and ever expanding their touring radius, including their first West Coast trip planned for later this year. But at their first LouFest appearance, Bruiser Queen demonstrated the hard-workingness of their music itself. Like ideal hosts at a backyard barbecue who ask guests to bring only themselves, Bruiser Queen make it very easy to enjoy their music. When I asked Nusbaum what, if anything, defines a Bruiser Queen fan, she confirmed that they make music that is supposed to be fun:
Our fans come in all varieties, but the one thing in common is that they like to have a good time. They're like [makes the "rock biceps" gesture]: "Bruiser Queeeeen!" They have their arms in the air; they have a beer. That's why we have can koozies now.
The band's LouFest set traversed their entire catalogue, including songs from the LPs Swears (2012) and Sweet Static (2014), as well as the EP In Your Room (2013) and a well-received cover of "We Got the Beat" that was tipped into the middle of a new song -- refocusing the attention of casual festival-goers who might have otherwise wandered off to the bar or bathroom. These and other new songs -- including the single "Telepathic Mind," which they will be releasing on 7" vinyl in October -- found the band embracing their trademark blend of urgency and earnestness. (If you can't wait until October to see them again, they'll be playing San Loo at the end of the month.)
The highlight of their set, however, was a semi-newish song that has to date only been released as a demo, "Don't Waste Your Summer," which they've retitled "Have Fun" and rerecorded for a forthcoming full-length. As the plaintive, sad surf vibe of its opening kicked into the ne plus ultra of three-chord progressions, Nusbaum's chorus offered a not unfamiliar mantra: "Have fun before you die / Anything else is a waste of time." Day-seizingly obvious? Perhaps, especially within a genre that has historically privileged the fastness of living and the good-lookingness of corpses. Yeah, fine. But as the song swelled and softened with its alternating passages of optimism and regret, Bruiser Queen presented me with a kind of alternate map of the festival. Unlike the folded guide to the grounds given out at the entrance -- and to which I referred almost religiously throughout the weekend -- Bruiser Queen offered a kind of temporal map of the moment, replete with its own obstacles (time) and its own goals (fun). The festival, St. Louis, even the rest of summer, with its conspicuously darkening days -- all of these things are something to do, not somewhere to be.
Outside, alone, and anxiously assessing my SPF situation, having fun seemed newly doable to me.
At the end of the night, a thin layer of sweat covered the floor of Off Broadway. This past Wednesday was the second night of the Open Highway Music Festival headlined by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives with Cory Branan opening. The room hosted most facets of Americana fans, those who saw Marty from his beginnings, young country boys ready for the southern honesty of Branan and the familiar faces that move in and through the doors of Off Broadway. Whenever Stuart and his band come to town there is an excitement surrounding the show and hearing songs that cover all spectrums under the banner of country music.
Cory Branan joyfully bounced on stage with his guitar as if he were on a mission. "I'm going to start out the night with a love song, about whiskey" and with the opening notes of "Sour Mash" the audience witnessed a punk rock energy brand of modern folk that is more akin to the story telling of John Prine (with his wit and humor), the longing of Uncle Tupelo and melodies that resonate the power of Woody Guthrie. "I'm going to keep it happy for a while, it's not my forte but that's what I'm going to do." Instead of bogging himself down with introspection he was playing to his own excitement of being on the same bill as Marty Stuart. "I'm going to try and keep this moving because I want to get a good spot to see Marty." Branan ripped through a set that featured the songs "Wayward and Down," "The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis," "The Only You" and "Tall Green Grass." He was in his element; cracking jokes, telling stories and playing the songs that have, rightfully so, been give rave reviews.
It has been a while since Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives have taken a stage in St. Louis. The last time he hosted his brand of hillbilly rock was within the beautiful walls of the Sheldon Concert Hall but this time around was a treat. Brandishing the two Tele attack of Stuart and guitarist Cuzin' Kenny Vaughan with the powerful pocket tight rhythm section of Handsome Harry Stinson on drums and the newest member, bassist (and steel guitar player) Professor Chris Scruggs. The band laid down a honky tonk groove so powerful it could peel paint off the walls. It was a rare occasion that this band played such an intimate venue, outside Nashville, where one could easily touch the performers and this edition of the Open Highway Music Festival gave fans that opportunity to watch the ambassador of Country music that close.
Just to remind people of the eclecticism of the crowd make up, the band launched into a version of "I Know You Rider," a song that is associated with the Grateful Dead but it's roots trace back to Blind Lemon Jefferson. To see Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is a history lesson in Country, Folk, Blues, Rock and Roll, Gospel and Bluegrass. He has taken that history and processed it through his unique style that comes out traditional but completely fresh. The band rocked through songs like George Jones' "Old, Old House," Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," Marty Robbins' "El Paso" but of all the hits Stuart had in the 90's only "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "Tempted" found their way early into the set. This made room for the band to showcase their talents as musicians, singers and songwriters with Stuart stepping aside to let each member shine. Even though Gospel is a staple in every show during the encore we sent a little prayer up to a great icon we recently lost as the band played a high octane version of "Mama Tried" with everyone's voices lifted into the rafters.
"Hey Pokey!" Stuart said looking off to the side of the stage where St. Louis' own Pokey LaFarge was hanging out, even though he was trying his best to be somewhat inconspicuous wandering through the crowd. "They called me and asked if we wanted to play St. Louis. I said ask Pokey, this is his city, if he's ok with it, we'll play" and that moment summed up the evening. Whether it was Cory Branan pounding out his signature songs or the powerhouse that is the Fabulous Superlatives, it was a good for many to stay out past their bedtime, sweating the St. Louis humidity on a Wednesday night to see an intimate show cranked to eleven.
Photos by Monica Mileur