Beale Street came calling at the National Blues Museum when the Take Me to the River Band came up from Memphis October 14 and 15 loaded with music, an award winning documentary and an education program.
With a title taken from the song written by Al Green and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, the 2014 documentary Take Me to the River was a four-year effort by Director Martin Shore and a number of producers, including drummer/guitarist Cody Dickinson and Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, owner of the acclaimed Royal Studios in Memphis. In addition to paying homage to Memphis and its unique role as musical melting pot of blues, R&B, soul, jazz, rock and country, the film project also spurred an educational initiative to promote "a deeper understanding of history, culture, and the meaning of cross-generational and inter-racial collaboration."
Central to the story told in Take Me to the River are Stax and Hi Records. While Stax went bankrupt in 1975, the legacy never died and fundraising efforts to create a performing arts center and museum dedicated to its history led to the June 2000 creation of the Stax Music Academy. Interviews and historical clips provide background for a series of new recording sessions at Boo's Royal Studios in which blues legends like Bobby Rush, Bobby Blue Bland, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Clay, Booker T Jones, William Bell, Charles "Skip" Pitts, and Mavis Staples (who plays The Sheldon on November 5) paired with hip-hop stars Snoop Dog, Yo Gotti, Lil P-Nut, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy. The studio musicians and younger local players provided the smooth groove Memphis sound for the soundtrack
Boo Mitchell said the experience was "awesome" plain and simple. But, he said, getting pairings scheduled for the recording sessions was difficult and some, like BB King and Snoop Dogg, never worked out. When Snoop found out Stax legend William Bell was part of the group he told Boo, "William Bell is one of my heroes. I would love to work with him." The willingness to work and learn even among such accomplished artists is apparent. Boo cites rapper Frayser Boy: "Before TMTTR he had never worked with a live band and now he won't work without one." Several band members had been Stax Academy students in the film only a couple years ago; now they are on the road performing and teaching others.
Boo said his greatest joy was "putting the spotlight on the studio musicians" because, as his Dad used to tell him, "these are the guys you need to take care of because they are the ones that make the music." Boo's other joy is in "passing the torch" though the TMTTR educational initiative. It works in collaboration with Berklee School of Music City Music initiative providing teacher curriculum and music lessons for students in underserved communities.
As Jacqueline Dace, the Director of Internal Affairs for the National Blues Museum, reminded the sold-out room, that's what the TMTTR Band did in St. Louis earlier that day, extending the NBM's own education initiative. Thanking Boo, Willaim Bell, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy for how they worked that day with students from the Confluence Academy - Old North, Ms. Dace set the right tone for the evening's events in which all the lessons to be learned were on display in a program made up of numbers from the album, as well as selections from the Stax catalogue and the participating hip-hop performers.
Sharisse Norman, a young in-demand backup singer who's sweet voice backed many of the night's songs, got the music going with rapper, Tori, who gave a new twist to Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone."
Ashton Riker, a Stax Academy and Berklee grad, took on tunes by Stax icons Sam and Dave, Al Green, and Otis Redding. A big man with a big voice, Ashton got folks moving with "Hold On I'm Coming" and "Soul Man" and then transitioned smoothly into a rendition of "Love and Happiness." Riker's closing selections channeled Otis with Frayser Boy joining him onstage for renditions of "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" and "Try a Little Tenderness."
Hip-hop star Al Kapone, fired up everyone with the relentless energy of his song, "The Music," a tribute to Memphis music and history. It was also a tribute to what was happening on stage with the band that included the Stax Academy Director and alumni and the Hi Rhythm veterans: Boo Mitchell on keyboards, Leroy Hodge on bass and his brother Rev. Charles Hodge on the Hammond B3 organ.
Finally, the ageless William Bell showed everyone how soul should be sung with his song "I Forgot to be Your Lover" and a rousing version of "Knock on Wood" that drew back Al Kapone and Frayser Boy back onstage. The closing performance of "Take Me to the River" had everyone back on stage as the audience danced and sung along to Green's masterpiece. Truly, the National Blues Museum offered a night of joy, history and mighty fine music that, to borrow from Green, couldn't fail to "cleanse my soul and put my feet on the ground."
When I listen to Mandolin Orange's newest album, Blindfaller, it makes me think of walking away from the campfire and down along the railroad tracks, with a heart full of love, toward or away from hazy trees like those on the cover in yellow-red gradient, low on the horizon. As though David Lynch led you down the hallway of one of his rustic cabins in the woods, Mandolin Orange quickly engulfs you, playing the songs you hope to hear next, like at a high-school dance, when you want to dance with the one you've had your eye on and the song finds the words you wish to say. Together Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, both multi-instrumentalists, create the fold of a simple symphony between their lyrics and their instruments. Beyond that, their songs are just down home country-good but with a broader political conscience than you might typically find even among the new alt-country.
The first time I listened to Mandolin Orange, it was so clear to me that they were masters of their instruments, playing them like they are counting pennies to make a dollar. So simple, so easy, and so skilled, it is easy to be intrigued by their playing and overlook the sentimentality of the lyrics that begin to unglue you, even if they're difficult to parse at times, which would be my one complaint. Just focusing on their harmonies is a great way to listen to their music but there is so much more. What is easy to grasp -- and what I find most enjoyable in their music -- are the wide expressions of love on Blindfaller.
Nearly every song is about a different aspect of time passing, like a sunset or a sunrise; they seem to move in circles, but like life, the effect ends up being more like cycles within a poem or a narrative. It's the kind of album you want to listen to over and over when you wish you were somewhere not in the city, witnessing the ever-changing array of seasons, thinking about some difficult things like parts of your relationships that are tough to navigate.
Together with Clint Mullican on bass, Kyle Keegan on drums, Allyn Love on pedal steel, as well as previous collaborator, Josh Oliver, on guitar, keys and vocals, Marlin and Frantz have made an album full of well-written and well-delivered songs with the air of instant classics, as Marlin hopes, the kind that others would want to cover. Their timeless playing and crafted lyrics send them well on their way to the stars. You just can't beat simplicity.
Okay, so hang with me for a minute here. On Aesop Rock's most recent album, The Impossible Kid, the exasperatingly brilliant song "Shrunk" catalogues the rapper's thoughts on therapy -- from filling out forms to the discomfort of the waiting room to the eventual encounter with a psychologist, whose professional training and appeal to objectivity contrasts wildly with Aesop's inventive view of the world: "She said, 'When you start getting all expressive and symbolic / it's impossible to actualize an honest diagnostic.'"
This is my problem when it comes to writing concert reviews. What begins with a well-meaning attempt to document and disseminate the most salient aspects of a show ends with a kind of soul-searchingly obsessive deliberation that infests my intellectual life. Like a mom (okay, my mom) who entreats her son to "try to have fun" as he sets out for school, football practice, or a friend's house, I remind myself every time to try to write a review: Who played? Was it good? When they roll back through St. Louis, should your reader "be sure not to miss it"?
Instead, what churns inside me when I sit down to write is the something more akin to the "expressive and symbolic." I can't help but feel that I have a kind of cosmic responsibility to the show, regardless of whether it was good or bad, boring or breathtaking. If we believe that art cannot help but affect us in some way, however infinitesimal, then I cannot help myself from taking this imperative to an unnecessary extreme, like I owe it to the world to bear witness to whatever in me is changed.
I'm neither proud of this nor holding myself up as a paragon of review-writing. If anything, I feel like kind of a total tool, having already exhausted 303 words without even mentioning any of the bands. (I've also already cut out a semi-serious exegesis of the phrase "try to have fun," which was clocking it at an extra 114 words.)
What happened, though, was that last Friday night, the band Daddy Issues -- whom I'd neither heard before, nor even heard of -- became my new favorite band. It came to me verbatim, in words, "This is my new favorite band," as though I was incanting something holy. This being 2016, I also immediately tweeted it, offhandedly and without really interrogating the thought. What I realized, though, over the course of another song or two, was that Daddy Issues had somehow always been my favorite new band. But I didn't know what this meant, or why I felt this way.
Before we get to that, though, here are some of the review-type things that are apparently so hard for me to make happen. Local garage rockers Baby, Baby Dance with Me opened the show (which was at Off Broadway, which I mention in spite of my all but innate ability to withhold basic information from the reader). Baby, Baby Dance with Me's music is driven by a decidedly vintage vibe, and I expect that over time they will eventually become more than equal to the sum of their parts. For the moment, though -- or at least to me -- it felt like I was listening to someone flip through a really cool, somewhat eclectic, occasionally bizarre record collection: Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the soundtrack to The Addams Family, a little Johnny Cash, a bunch of 1960s stuff that seemed familiar without my having to put a finger on it.
Between bands, I saw two people sprawled over a couple of chairs in a corner of the mezzanine. They were lightly dozing in one another's arms, it seemed, and I envied their comfort -- the ease with which they inhabited the world, moving fluidly between states of being. (I'm straying from review-type stuff here, I know, but the moment was too beatific to go unremarked.)
The Seattle-based four-piece Tacocat headlined the show, and they are easily the best surf-infused, feminism-fueled punk band with a palindromic name since Emily's Sassy Lime. Tacocat write fun, smart songs with a wry incredulity. Like a cheerleading squad sneaking Julia Kristeva into their routine, Tacocat's sunny disposition belies the dark comedy of their lyrics, which often take aim at positions of privilege and the ignorance of those who inhabit them. "Men Explain Things to Me," for example, distills mansplaining down to its most basic bullshit: "You're in my way / Every day." Tech bros flooding into Seattle on corporate shore leave populate "I Hate the Weekend." "Time Pirate" comes down hard on anyone who doesn't know when to shut up.
The straightforwardness of Tacocat's songs is perhaps their greatest strength. After a few listens, though, it's hard not to tend to "get it," which makes their live show a study in the importance of stage banter. Introducing "You Can't Fire Me, I Quit," the band members riffed off one another to expound upon the its theme; singer Emily Nokes summarized the song's perverse, antagonistic logic of a rejected lover who pleads "take me back, so I can dump you," which bassist Bree McKenna annotated as "very mature." Although their live presence was hardly as theatrical, anarchic, or exuberant as one might expect from the visual aesthetic of their social media or album art (to say nothing of the very nearly viral video for "Crimson Wave"), their set was solid and enjoyable. It was actually cool to be reminded that when a band plays well, their music can simply be their music.
Here, though, is where the whole thing becomes a problem for me. If I can explain what I didn't like about Baby, Baby Dance with Me (overly influenced) and what I did like about Tacocat (progressive fun), then why is it so hard to simply say what was so totally flooring to me about the band in between them, Daddy Issues? Because, seriously, it's been days now that I've been thinking about this. Why has it taken so long to say? Why risk jeopardizing the very relevance of a concert review (to say nothing of straight up abusing a reader's patience) in order to continue agonizing about this; to play and replay the CD-R that I bought from them at the show (yeah, they sell burned CDs); to feel inarticulate and weird and dumb; to try to write the experience off as ineffable while at the same time literally writing about it; to have all but focused myself singularly to this task, with the exception of going to work and occasionally working my way through Luke Cage while I eat dinner; to admit to you (are you still here?) just how long this has taken to write; to almost want to apologize to the band themselves for being as moved as I was by their music?
Because honestly I'm worried that I'm wrong. Worried that they weren't as good as I think they were. If anything, on paper, it may not look like much. Daddy Issues are a three-piece band from Nashville who met during college and seem only newly out of it, if not still outright enrolled. They are young women whose music is a kind of resurrected grunge, reminding you just how much melody had been hiding in the noise of the 1990s. They sound like a cross between Nirvana and Belly, if that makes sense. Simple song structures, unflashy arrangements. Cool, you can tell, but not too cool.
The lyrics of singer/guitarist Jenna Moynihan have a kind of brutal, beautiful obviousness, but they are delivered almost dispassionately, like she is singing a police report. "I'm a creepy girl / and I'm in love with you," she intones on "Creepy Girl," one of their most striking songs: "I don't know what I'm doing / because I'm in love with you." There are a number of songs about crushes on their debut album, Can We Still Hang (Infinity Cat Recordings, 2015), which arrive at a real intimacy through their plain, un-retouched quality, as though on loan from a diary. On "Blue Haired Boy," Moynihan reveals the relatively low-stakes lengths to which she seeks attention from the other ("Blue haired boy, you better notice me / Went and dyed my hair pink"). On "Veronica," her infatuation with Winona Ryder's character in Heathers aspires to what seem like pretty reasonable goals ("We're gonna hang out / We're gonna make out").
But there's an undeniable darkness here too, articulating the converse of the crush. On "The Bruise," an unnerving presence leads to self-destructive excesses: "I took something / because you're in the room / keeping your distance / I tried to eat around the bruise." Another song, "Ugly When I Cry," achieves its stunning affect through an unrepentant clarity:
I hate girls on TV
They're much prettier than me
I have low self-esteem
It's easy to be a mess when you're debris.
This seems pretty real to me, pretty bare. Unimpeachable. And yet one finds little wisdom-beyond-their-years here or any of the "old soul" bullshit that too often refers to a friend who is more quiet than you are. Rather, this darkness is not only their darkness but everyone's darkness. It happens all the time and at every stage of your life and you can't stop it and it's really hard to talk about in all but the most obscenely direct way. I suppose I love how easy it seems for Daddy Issues to be that direct, as in they didn't need the million words to get there that I need to get here.
Musically, the guitar, bass, and drums fit perfectly by not fitting. There is a certain steadiness to their songs, forsaking the dramatic highs and lows that one might expect of the subject matter, residing instead in a more neutral middle -- the place where truth, if it exists, can usually be found. The songs usually stick to two or three chords, occupying and owning them. Above all, Daddy Issues play every song like they are playing it for the first time -- newly, with interest and curiosity, a little afraid, excited, proud, unselfconsciously, in love with what didn't exist until right now.
When I say, then, that Daddy Issues have somehow always been my new favorite band, this is what I mean: that they are once honest and expressive, bridging what could easily be an impasse; that they articulate what I (we) have surely always felt; and that their urgency, however reserved, is deeply connected to creativity as such.
Everything was perfect about Marian Hill's performance at the Ready Room, October 4, 2016 -- maybe a little too perfect. Lead singer Samantha Gongol projected her movements across the room commanding the audience's attention as though they were watching a video. Gongol coordinated every song with her voice and being, nailing it time after time. Down dubby with sax and sultry vocals, with a wildly simple yet weird keyboard maybe sounds like it wouldn't work out, but it does. It doesn't hurt that the duo's production artist Jeremy Lloyd was just as in sync and synthesized.
The variety and maybe a little less precision (in a good way) came when Steve Davit entered on sax. Mostly as short solos, his playing made the crowd go nuts. Every time. It was slightly reminiscent of Morphine, maybe because they were an early band with notable saxophone featured in the slower alt-rock genre. But since Hill's sound is more electronic, the addition of the saxophone brought the compositions down a little bit in what was otherwise an overly formal structure. One highlight of the performance was when Gongol left the stage for what seemed like an impromptu jam session with Lloyd on keyboard and Davit on sax -- the result, at least, sounded less rehearsed than all of the recorded material the band has released. Otherwise, Marian Hill performed with little to no variance from the album full of electric beats and sound blending with a female vocal floating amidst the notes. I admit I was really hoping for more jamming or a closer look into the core of the band, maybe even a cover song (although I have a hard time thinking of a song they would cover, except possibly Sade.)
Of the other two bands on the bill, Shaed and VÉRITÉ, the latter was a mash up of Shiela E meets Dead Can Dance meets Flock of Seagulls. Overall, it's utterly confusing to think about how VÉRITÉ at times would sound like club music, at others slow down into what I could only describe as metrosexual rock. But to the band's credit, the crowd danced largely to VÉRITÉ, the poppiest of the three.
For me, however, it was Shaed that was the grand surprise. The band is made up of Chelsea Lee on vocals, Max Ernst and Spencer Ernst (twin brothers) on synthesizer and drums. Not knowing what to expect prior to the show, I was absolutely mesmerized. Having delved into the band since, I've enjoyed their first EP, Just Wanna See, on the strength of which they're now traveling in what appears to be their first tour. I look forward to checking them out when they come through town again.
On stage, things were pretty simple. There were vertical lights and house lights flashing different colors, and "SHAED" was printed in white caps on a black banner. Taken together the band looked slightly dressed up -- lots of elegant black, but the great energy of synthesis in their presence which, I think now, must have come from having played together for so long -- being able catching each others cues, and staying with and on top of the music. The brothers have been playing together since high school, and Chelsea Lee joined them back in 2013 when they called themselves The Walking Sticks. With that in mind, I congratulate them on their having found as great a label as Photo Finish (which they share with Marian Hill).
Looking back, maybe Shaed reminded me a bit of Fleetwood Mac or possibly Annie Lennox because of the shared simplicity of their lyrical approaches (and partially because the Lee's hair was long and flowy like Stevie Nick's). Of course, whenever you have a rocking diva female singer, with long beautiful locks and a high vocal range, it's always reminiscent of a band you already like (at least this is true for me). Whatever influences Lee may have inspired or been inspired by, she's got that kind of resonating voice that seems to come out of a cloud like a beam of light: glorious.
Kishi Bashi (née Kaora Ishibashi) came to St. Louis years ago as part of the traveling rabble of noise and sound that is the band Of Montreal. Their shows were affairs of pageantry full of puppetry and lights and tongue-n-cheeky songs like "Just the Tip" which Kishi fronted. It's clear now, that while touring with that band, Kishi learned a trick or two about how to keep and hold a crowd (a raw steak puppet did make an appearance during the song "The Ballad of Mr. Steak" as well as confetti). His later rounds through St. Louis were solo, in which he dazzled small crowds at the Firebird and other venues with his endless loops, his clear mastery of his major instrument, the violin and his vocal range, which makes almost all of his songs un-sing-a-long-able and sometimes, unintelligible, perhaps and most likely on purpose. This Tuesday at the newly minted Delmar Hall, Kishi came with his band and his signature sound exploded as if in overdrive. While solo, we were primarily treated with the layering of effects, with a background cellist, banjoist, guitar and drums, the sounds and rhythms were in constant flux and dynamic flow.
It's fair to say that this latest tour and his album Sonderlust is a flexing of the muscles he's developed as a solo artist. Breaking down his portmanteau, "sonder," as he explained, is the "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own" joined with "well, you know...." There are a lot of esoteric and spiritual themes to his work, "M'Lover" has the sensibility of an Andrew Bird song, "In my dream, you split apart the ocean/ in a single heated motion, and we settled in agreement/With glee, our dangerous liaisons and clandestine creations were fine with me" with a picking violin loop and his vocal-harmonized bowing. A poppy keyboard kept the lyrics from feeling too treacle, but with many songs, Kishi Bashi comes dangerous close to something less new, and something more new-agey, more disco.
But his sincerity in this regard is pretty refreshing. His forays into soul and bhangra and 70s acid rock in "Who'd you kill?" isn't just playful curiosity. He seems to be able to adapt a genre to his style instead of the other way around. The best thing about the show is still his incessant loopy tinkering that produces layers of a soundscape which seems ethereal and tangible all at once. I think it's fair to say that if the audience didn't know much about Kishi Bashi before tonight, they will remember him now, and in a few short words, Kishi Bashi and the band have gone way past "just the tip" and delivered on something with promise and purpose; a sound that beggars comparison and stays with you long after you hear it.