I made my way across the river to the first night of Twangfest 20 headlined by James McMurtry, Wussy and the Vondrukes at Off Broadway. As the sun slowly made its decline and nestled itself behind the St. Louis skyline I made a promise to myself not to repeat the adventures of last year. When the night ended I found myself with one, maybe two, more drinks than I could handle. I slurred my words with proficiency to members of Lydia Loveless' band while my counterpart that evening disappeared on the dark streets outside Off Broadway. There is a certain magic that happens when the crew Twangfest takes over the venue that makes it hard to daintily sip a pint of beer and shot of bourbon.
It was a beautiful night on the patio, a perfect calm before the heat and humidity overtakes the city and inside St. Louis' own the Vondrukes took the stage. The body heat from the audience crept into the room and it seemed that the beginnings of summer was upon us. The band seamlessly weaved Neil Young influenced riffs, the Tex-Mex of Calexico, pure unadulterated 60s garage rock, Cowpunk and 70s funk influenced rock à la the James Gang into a cohesive set that staked out their sonic territory. The soaring trumpet Justin Ellis made me question what flavor spirit was residing in my hand. They marched through the set with a rhythm section of Jeff Griswold on bass, guitarist Jason Kettler, additional keyboards provided by Ellis and drummer James Baker. Rhythmically they navigated a range of styles and tempos leaving riff-meister Bob McKee to dig his guitar some where between the heaviness of Tony Iommi and Neil Young. A key component to the Vondrukes is the lead vocals of both Griswold and McKee that when harmonizing with Allison Williamson gave each song a little extra piece of ear candy.
The audience made their way outside for some fresh air and whatever poison they decided to indulge in. Another pint of beer and some of Kentucky’s finest was quickly paid for. I stared at each drink remembering the promise I made on that 20 minute drive across the river and in that time a wash of sound erupted from the stage as Cleveland natives Wussy made their presence known to the Twangfest crowd. A wash of sonic textures from clean angular riffs and distorted echoes bellowed over the propulsive back beat of drummer Joe Klug and the ecstatic bouncing of bassist Mark Messerly. The room started to get a bit warmer in the sea of their sonic textures and that pint of beer tasted better with every sip. The dueling vocals and guitars of Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker was a sweet and sour mix doused with John Erhardt's pedal steel and guitar which at times sounded like he dragged them through the vortex of hell and back. “I want to thank KDHX for playing our music,” announced Messerly with pure delight while the rest of the band was genuinely happy that the crowd allowed them to blast their sonic pop experiments with songs like “Teenage Wasteland,” “To the Lightening, “Halloween” and “Hello I'm a Ghost.”
It took a few moments to catch my bearings from the sonic assault of Wussy and outside, in the fresh air, my ears, almost, returned to normal. I could hear the clanking of the band getting set up and a brief sound check which was my cue, one more drink. Just one more and I would cut myself off for the night. I took my spot at the back of the venue as McMurtry and boys cranked into the first song. The sold out crowd and opening grooves from Bayou Tortous brought some Texas heat from these Austin based cats. Instead of strumming an acoustic guitar McMurtry lit up his electric guitar and laid into each song while drummer Daren Hess and bassist Cornbread gave each song a propulsion exceeding it's studio counterpart. It was just a glimpse into the midnight rambles they hold at the Continental Club in Austin.
That familiar humidity of summer from this river city crept into the club, each sip tasted a little bit better than the last but soon I forgot I even had a drink in my hand. McMurtry's cool demeanor made him appear as a musical card shark which kept the crowd in the palm of his hand and on edge for the next song. The set progressed with “Just Us Kids” to “How'm I Gonna Find You Now” where guitarist Tim Holt turned the trio into a quartet, as McMurtry would state, “He (Holt) joins us as he pleases.” Along with adding guitar counterpoint, Holt also lent a multi-instrumental prowess to the set playing accordion on songs like “Copper Canteen” and “You Got Me.” McMurtry shocked the crowd with “Choctaw Bingo” in the middle of the set, a song that has become a signature, but instead of draining the crowd of energy, the unspoken question was “What's next?” He slowed the tempo taking the stage solo for “These Things I've Come to Know,” which became a study in musical tease bringing the audience up, down and then flooring them through the encore with the title cut from his first album Too Long in the Wasteland.
The house lights went up and everyone filtered to the patio or their cars. It was the first night of McMurtry's tour and fitting that it was also the first night of Twangfest. It was a night of sonic pleasure kicked off by the Vondrukes to the auditory wash of Wussy and capped off by one of the poets of Americana, James McMurtry. Out on the patio I felt the cool breeze wash over me with the urge to have just one more. To complete the night by sitting back, looking to the sky and comprehending the musical pleasures the night held. No, I had a 20 minute drive across the river and an alarm clock set for 5 A.M.
Photos by Colin Suchland.
Akin to entering a basement party thrown by friends, The Firebird set the scene for the type of show Foreign Exchange had in store for St. Louis on Saturday night. With dark lights and neon signs on walls from local breweries, the near-capacity crowd lined every corner of the space to ensure a spot was theirs for the entire two-hour set.
Opening the show with the jazzy notes of "Milk And Honey" from their fifth and latest album, Tales From The Land of Milk And Honey -- a track that showcases the harmonies of lead vocalist/songwriter Phonte and co-lead/background singers Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden, was the perfect segue into a night of joie de vivre and tunes culled from albums of years past.
From "Milk And Honey," the group upped the tempo with "Work It To The Top," a throwback-synth-R&B dance track from their latest LP -- in which they interpolated Keith Sweat's "I Want Her," to come up with this sort of two-step mashup that the audience was really digging. The wicked thing about FE, as they're known to many fans, is that they can make a show feel like you're just hanging out with a bunch of friends at the cookout. Phonte talks shit on stage, all the while they're providing a dope soundtrack and everyone is dancing and chatting about; then he still sways folks into going over to the merch table to buy t-shirts, vinyl and CDs.
Before the show, local talent DJ Reminisce jammed everything from Junior Mafia's "Get Money" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Find a Way" to alternative newcomers like Anderson .Paak's "Heart Don't Stand a Chance" and The Internet's "Girl," onward to cuts by Jay Z, Jill Scott and Lauren Hill. After "I Want Her" and a few other tracks -- a remix of "Asking For A Friend" from their latest -- and "On a Day Like Today" from 2013's Love In Flying Colors, the group launched into a cover of Prince's "17 Days" (aka "Let The Rain Come Down") from the trifecta that is The Hits/B-Sides.
In what would've probably been the midway point in another act's show, Phonte simple proclaimed, "That was the just warmup, now we're gonna slow it down." The band then goes into softer tunes from Tales From The Land of Milk and Honey.
FE was created by Phonte (a North Carolina native) and producer Nicolay (from The Netherlands) when they pieced together their entire 2004 debut Connected from their respective homelands via instant messages and email, never once speaking over the phone or in person.
That said, the set continued on with a cover of Aaliyah's "Rock The Boat" and Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend," as well as "Happiness" from "Connected," "Better" from "Love In Flying Colors" and "All Or Nothing" from 2008's "Leave It All Behind," among others.
As a Grammy-nominated team focusing on hip-hop, sophisticated R&B and electro, it's no surprise the audience was a bridge between races and ages -- black, white, Millennials, Generation X and Y, tattooed rockers and the like, all grooving along to a group that continues to respect and break the boundaries of bringing good music to the masses.
Hard Working Americans may just be the best side project "supergroup" touring today. In between playing and recording with their regular bands, alt-country crooner/songwriter Todd Snider, standout guitarist Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood, bassist Dave Schools and drummer Duane Trucks of Widespread Panic, keyboardist Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi, and guitarist Jesse Aycock somehow have found time to rock small venues across the country, and just released their first album of mostly-original tunes, Rest in Chaos.
For a band that was assembled a mere three years ago, the members of HWA are so at ease and synchronous on stage, you'd think they'd been playing together forever. Mostly, they just seem to have a really good time -- perhaps feeling free of the demands and constraints of their larger touring bands. Schools and Trucks (playing with HWA between Widespread Panic's packed spring and summer tours) in particular appeared to be in the laid back and jovial spirit afforded by an intimate club show -- something neither gets the chance to do quite as often these days.
The venue was packed with fans as the band took the stage and opened with the dreamy "Guaranteed," with Aycock providing a trippy lap steel solo. Schools offered a funky bass intro and Snider worked the stage, vibrating and strutting with his Mick Jagger-esque physique and dance moves as they picked up the pace with their new album's first single, "Dope is Dope."
Continuing to keep things upbeat and danceable, Trucks pounded out a Bo Diddley beat for Snider's tune "Mission Accomplished." The crowd responded with a resounding, "Yeah!" as Snider wailed the lyrics: "All you really did for sure was get too high. You ever get too high?" Casal stepped forward to shred on one of his numerous impressive solos of the evening. He's easily one of the most underrated guitarists playing today. (Hopefully, due praise will soon come his way.)
After a segue teaser of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," the band launched into fan favorite "Stomp and Holler," a Hayes Carll cover that resulted in the audience doing just what the title states. Snider added some soul on his harmonica while Staehly pounded the keys.
Other set highlights included an epic performance of Frankie Miller's "Blackland Farmer," including a mid-song tease of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love," as well as another absolutely scorching guitar solo by Casal, followed by an all out jam by the entire band, with Schools thumping the bass, his eyes closed and head back in a combination of concentration and ecstasy.
Casal pulled out the slide for the swampy and thunderous "Run a Mile" as lightning began to ignite the sky and the Arch glinted just to the North of the venue's patio. The band closed out the main set with Snider's "Is This Thing Working" and left as the sweaty crowd sweaty cheered for more.
HWA quickly obliged, returning for a four-song encore, including sultry "Roman Candles," cheery "The Mountain Song" (with Casal and Schools facing off in a heavy guitar/bass jam), St. Louis-appropriate Chuck Berry cover "School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)," and show-closer "Purple Mountain Jamboree."
As strong a performance as Hard Working Americans puts on, one can only hope its members devote more time to this effort in the future (which seems a strong possibility at least for Schools and Trucks with Widespread Panic ending its extensive touring after this year). In the meantime, I, for one, will try to join their southern-fried dance party as often as possible.
To say I've been waiting more than 30 years to see British synth pop pioneer Howard Jones is an understatement. I was just 14 in 1984 when his debut album, Human's Lib, was released, including catchy single "New Song," ushering in a sound that would, in great part, define the era for many music fans around the world.
It was 30 years ago this year that Bruce Hornsby released his debut album, The Way it Is, with his original band The Range to great success and critical acclaim. The album eventually went multi-platinum and earned Hornsby the coveted "Best New Artist" Grammy Award. Now 61 and a bit grayer at the temples, he paused to reflect on this milestone at an intimate show at River City Casino on Saturday night.
In a phone interview a couple weeks prior to the show, Hornsby told me that he finds that first album "unlistenable," but knowing a lot of people really love it, he seemed to be quite at ease performing a couple classics from it, including the still gorgeous "Mandolin Rain" (with Ross Holmes accompanying on the instrument itself as Hornsby tickled the keys) and "On the Western Skyline" (on accordion).
This trip down memory lane was balanced with a focus on the now -- specifically the band's forthcoming album, Rehab Reunion, which hits shelves June 17 and is Hornsby's first studio album of new songs with The Noisemakers since 2009's Levitate. Also new is the fact that Hornsby doesn't sit at the piano on this album but leads the band on the dulcimer, which he's been infusing into his live performances and recordings increasingly over the years.
In a mini dulcimer set, Hornsby -- joined by Holmes on mandolin and drummer Sonny Emory on washboard -- introduced fans to the "bookends" of the new album: "Celestial Railroad," a tune he penned decades ago and duets with Mavis Staples, and the lovely "Over the Rise," the album opener that was recorded with backing vocals by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. He also played a nearly unrecognizable, stripped down version of his 1988 hit "Valley Road," which appears on the album as well.
In a jovial mood, Hornsby delighted the intimate room with stories, jokes and anecdotes as he worked the stage, moving between the piano and accordion. The Noisemakers, his band of many years, was in peak form, particularly guitarist Gibb Droll, who complimented Hornsby's flawless piano with a sublime solo on "Go Back to Your Woods," a re-worked version of the tune by Robbie Robertson. Ross Holmes provided a lovely extended fiddle intro to the song as well.
Organist JT Thomas added depth to Hornsby's piano and cracked up at his jokes as only a good old friend could. JT Collier's bass rounded out the sound. Hornsby likened performing with The Noisemakers to a "big party," and that's definitely the vibe they put out on stage, particularly during upbeat tunes like "Jacob's Ladder" and "Place Under the Sun."
Hornsby did an impromptu and timely performance of "Don of the Dons," a quirky tune about Donald Trump he penned a few years back for a musical, which he prefaced with a story about running into The Donald at a Knicks game and singing it for him in person. Another set highlight was "Black Muddy River," Hornsby's lovely take on the later Grateful Dead tune, which he's performed live for many years and recently recorded with Justin Vernon for the newly-released Day of the Dead tribute album put together by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National.
Hornsby and The Noisemakers capped off their two-hour set with "Dreamland," a pretty tune that he duets with Sir Elton John on the album "Halcyon Days," to a standing ovation from the crowd. As always, Hornsby proved his station as one of the most talented musicians, singers and songwriters of the past 30 years. If anything, his voice has only grown more soulful with age.