I'll admit it: I was never much of a country music person. In high school, I was one of those pretentious kids who proudly declared I listened to, 'like, literally everything but country.' You can't blame me; growing up in an immigrant household in a dense little neighborhood at the edge of Chicago, country/bluegrass/Americana was never quite the 'big thing.' Well, moving to St. Louis has provided me with something of a culture shock. Sure, the punk, indie, noise, etc. is all here, but country music holds an entirely different meaning: the city embraces it, celebrates it, and lovingly cultivates it. Thus, when approached to do a review about Daniel Romano's show at Off Broadway last Tuesday night, I thought it couldn't hurt to give it a go; if KDHX likes country so much, it can't be all bad, right?
Luckily for me, country music is in the midst of a genre-wide renaissance. Artists like Daniel Romano are redefining what it means to be a country musician, drawing upon a range musical influences outside of what would be considered orthodox — rock, punk, world, and even noise influences sneak into every hook, riff, and chorus. Country, like everything else in this age of change and reinvention, has emerged sounding a little bit different.
Just take the first opener, St. Louis's own Brainpal, for example. The deep, Southern-tinged voice of frontman Reshad Staitieh undeniably speaks to the band's classic country influences (as do all of the band members' pointy-toed, leather boots). Their songs, however, give off a dark, discordant vibe, which is only intensified by the harsh guitar lines that churn alongside Staitieh's powerful singing. The sheer intensity of the experience is decidedly a darker spin on classic country, drawing from rock and maybe even emo roots.
The second act of the night, The Strange Places, (also homegrown) is more akin to Daniel Romano, both in terms of sound —what the band themselves call "kosmic country" — and look — an aesthetic that would look right at home in the 1960s. Lead vocalist Chris Baricavic, who onstage goes by his space-cowboy pseudonym Kristo, brings just the right blend of weird Americana and classic rock as he struts, yelps, and howls. The songs themselves — surprisingly lyrical tales of witchdoctors, desert magic, and even tumbleweeds — embody the whimsical otherworldliness that 'noveau country' brings to the table.
Daniel Romano himself is the very embodiment sonic evolution. His newest album, Modern Pressure, is both a continuation of the undeniable country flavoring of his previous release, 2016's Mosey, and a reinvention of it. Modern Pressure is an album that refuses to be defined by generic archetypes; it is neither rock nor country, but something in between. The result is a sound that is as striking as Romano himself.
"He looks like a Bob Dylan impersonator," my friend whispers to me as Romano takes to the stage; indeed, in a colorful collared shirt, flared pants, and a flowery sunhat that looks like something the Queen of England would wear, he exudes the same, offbeat coolness that defined Dylan in his prime. The rest of the band, outfitted in similarly flowy clothing, look as though they've stepped straight out of the '60s; the guitarist even nonchalantly chews gum throughout the entire set, in true, vintage rebellious fashion.
The set opens with the album's titular track, "Modern Pressure." Earlier that day, he had performed the same song at a KDHX studio session: it was a stripped-down rendition, performed by just Romano and two other musicians. With just his breathy, wavering voice over the whisper of the acoustic guitar, it had seemed like a love song, sung sweetly and softly. I had expected something similar for his performance at Off Broadway, but Daniel Romano, always the sonic chameleon, shows off just how widely his talents range. "Modern Pressure" is the perfect opening — a grandiose rock anthem that channels the brashness and confidence that defines Romano's style. The evolution is surprising, not just because of the stark differences between his two sets, but because of how effortlessly he pulls it off.
The rest of the night proceeds with just as much fast-paced vigor. Even the more mellow songs, like "Roya" and "What's to Become of the Meaning of Love" are infused with new energy in a live setting; there are plenty of electric guitar solos, drum solos, yelps, and howls. Unlike in the KDHX sessions, Romano doesn't hold anything back, allowing the full breadth of his voice, piercing and powerful, to fill the room.
As Romano begins to play "When I Learned Your Name," another song he had performed at KDHX, I think of how I'm supposed to define this experience: country music's old-timey twang is definitely there, but so is rock's unadulterated energy. Listening to the sheer spirit behind his singing, though, it almost seems silly to confine Romano to the boundaries of one genre or the other. The music is here in all its glory, and that's what matters.
Click the image below to see all of Chris Malacarne's photos of the night's performances.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart has always struck me as a singularly adolescent act. Their earliest album centered around the universal experiences of growing up -- teenaged love, teenaged loss, and teenaged trysts in the school library, to name a few -- narrated with such intimate lyricism that it's almost a little uncomfortable to listen to, as if you yourself are reliving that overblown, messy breakup you went through when you were seventeen. For The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's frontman Kip Berman, however, those coming-of-age stories are growing more distant with each day. Considering this, one can imagine the questions I had as I drove to the Firebird on a balmy Saturday evening. Would the Pains still be genuine, I wondered, even after they've left their years of adolescence far behind? Or would they be reduced to a hollow act -- a band that's outgrown its own image yet awkwardly clings to the past?
As it turns out, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have handled growing up more gracefully than I could've imagined. For one, I suspect that Berman is some kind of vampire, for he looks more or less the same as he did ten years ago; in a baggy jean jacket and black jeans, he seemed as though he had just stepped out of a college coffee shop. Waiting offstage before the Pains' set, he was energetic as ever, chatting at length with fans and even doing a pretty convincing lip synch of The Promise Ring. To maintain such a high level of enthusiasm for performing after years of slogging through the indie-pop world is no small feat, yet, to Berman, it seemed to come naturally.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart were preluded by two younger but equally talented acts. First was L.A.-based Ablebody, led by Pains' own guitarist, Christoph Hocheim. The laid-back pop sensibilities made for a chilled-out set filled with groovy guitar rhythms and synth hooks that defined sophisti-pop trends of the '80s. ("They got that cool L.A. thing going on," Berman overheard one audience member saying, as he would tell us later. I definitely agree -- Ablebody is the kind of band you'd play while cruising down Mulholland Drive in your red convertible -- top down, of course.)
Before the next act, Beverly, began their set, the tropical shirt-clad guy standing next to me leaned over and excitedly whispered "This is why I'm here!." The instant their first song started, I could tell why: their sound -- a thick, noisy haze of guitar laced with the dreamy vocals of frontwoman Drew Citron -- arrested, even demanded, attention. Unlike Ablebody's mellow spin on shoegaze, Beverley provided us with an equally thoughtful but altogether harsher and more assertive sound. Citron's delivery, which reminded me of an amalgam of the Cocteau Twins and The Sonics, evoked the sounds of 90's alternative while still managing to sound fresh -- a fact that puts Beverly up there with 2017's most badass female-led bands like Hinds and Diet Cig.
The openers were a blast to listen to, but there was no doubt that everyone in the audience was waiting eagerly for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart -- some people, I learned, had even made the four-ish hour drive from Kansas City specifically for this show. Instead of opening the highly anticipated set with one of The Pains' hits, however, Berman opted for a surprisingly tender solo rendition of "Art Smock" off of 2014's Days of Abandon, dedicated to his wife. Standing alone in the blue stage lights, surrounded by unmanned instruments, Berman seemed completely vulnerable but not at all uncomfortable. This was The Pains at its most serious, but more importantly, at its most grown-up; the teenaged confusion had been shed for adult clarity.
Of course, the Pains still managed to maintain their old sense of youth. (Berman himself even joked about the band's 'angsty teen' image: a "dour dude" is what he called his stage persona.) The big hits like "Heart In Your Heartbreak" and "Young Adult Friction", as well as the infectious singles "When I Dance With You" and "Anymore" from the upcoming album The Echo of Pleasure, were performed with the gusto of a band just making its debut -- Berman nearly doubled over his guitar, the guitarist and bassist strumming furiously, the room filled with The Pains' iconic pop hooks and guitar haze.
There was a bittersweet side to the evening, however. Just as the show began, it ended with Berman alone on stage. He was hundreds of miles from home, he confessed, and missed his daughter dearly. Dedicating a moving cover of Suede's "The Living Dead" to her, he sang solemnly and sadly. It was then I realized that the ideology behind The Pains of Being Pure at Heart couldn't be restricted to adolescence nor adulthood: the love and the pain in those songs are permanent and ever-changing.
Click the image below to see Doug Tull's photos of the evening's performances.
Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel) took the stage Thursday night, singing sad songs in a slightly raspy voice. He moved from tune to tune, worked in a Jason Molina cover -- always a good thing -- and held me spellbound throughout his set. Will told the crowd about a visit with his 98-year-old grandfather that day. "I've got a good woman to help me go to the bathroom," he'd told his grandson just before Johnson left his grandpa's house for the road. "I'm lucky as hell." This simple tale told by the singer is indicative of the entire set, a set of songs that require deep listening and attention, that rarest form of (musical) generosity. Johnson was opening for John Moreland.
Moreland's first song, "Salisaw Blue," came in with a bang. He was accompanied by another musician who played a scorching guitar solo and brash harmonica. The crowd began to move and bob to the first tune. Then, things changed. Moreland's style switched abruptly to mellower, introspective songs about the usual unrequited love, but there was something a bit slick and unconvincing about some of the tamer tunes. Moreland does best when he's performing mid- to quick-tempo songs that burn through and captivate his audience. It seemed, from time to time, that his guest musician held our attention more than Moreland himself. While the crowd put their best proverbial foot forward, Moreland's set -- alas, his latest record Big Bad Luv -- while easy on the ears, failed to really catch hold of me. Again, it's the moments in the more barn-burning tunes that seem, for this scribbler at least, to work best.
Will Johnson's earlier set is not one I would have necessarily wanted to follow as a musician. There is that. Where the honorary Monster of Folk held us captive with understatement and direct melancholy, Moreland seemed to hide at times behind a veneer of well-known tropes like whiskey bottles and broken down loves and an all-too-earnest craft. In now way do I intend to pit either musician against one another; while Johnson carried the night, Moreland's energy and efforts were not by any means wasted on most of the audience. Off Broadway was fairly crowded on the floor, the balcony taken up by bodies. They'd come primarily for Moreland, and he didn't disappoint overall, although my impression of his performance mirrored my impression of the new release.
On Big Bad Luv, we move from the opening song -- the same he opened with at the club -- to an album that seems to peter out here and there. While tunes like "Lies I Choose to Believe" carry a lot of weight and sound, I've found what's elsewhere been praised as a career-defining record to be an uneven effort. My hope was that the live show would somehow make up, as it were, for some of the musical lacunae in the work and, to a good degree, it did. Moreland had a welcoming but intense stage presence as he and his musical cohort continued through the set. I noticed nearly everyone moving again as tempos would pick up, but there was the risk, it seemed, of Moreland being overshadowed again by his companion. All in all, it was a fine evening of straight-ahead folk and rock, but it is odd when such soft and understated songs like Will Johnson's manage to overshadow the performance that most came to see.
Click below for Monica Mileur's photos of John Moreland's performance.
The Reverend Horton Heat, a trio from Dallas, walks the line between several generally unrelated genres including country, punk, rockabilly, surf and swing. They're self-described "country-fed punkabilly," which may sound a little confusing, but the moment they hit the stage and start playing it all makes sense. A big red hollow-body electric guitar, upright bass, plenty of Texas twang and humorous and sometimes raunchy lyrics about ex-wives, cars and cocaine. Whatever you want to call it, it's always upbeat and an undeniably good time.
The show was opened up by rockabilly duo, Flat Duo Jets, followed by Agent Orange. The crowd was as diverse as the aforementioned genres that encapsulate The Reverend's sound. There were women dressed in pinup-girl fashion with high-wasted pants and hair in victory rolls. I saw one woman who appeared to be in her eighties sporting a REV t-shirt. And Agent Orange, a Southern California band known for loud, anti-mainstream punk rock, attracted a group of young adults that made themselves known amongst the rest of us when they started a mosh pit the second the first chord was played.
Lead singer, Jim Heath (The Rev) looks like a mix of James Hetfield and Gunnery Sgt. Hartman and is dressed in a 1950s style short-sleeve sweater and pleated trousers cuffed at the bottom. He has a million dollar smile and despite the occasional punk-rock style screaming he seems like a sweetheart. He called attention to one man in the audience by pointing out, "You're the only man here that did the 'cha cha cha' at the end of that last song and I would like to buy you a drink." He has a youthful energy that helps him fit perfectly into the eternally-teenage punk scene. While playing a really sweet riff the Reverend steps away from the microphone, moves to the edge of the stage and gazes out over the crowd with an intimidating grimace. Then just a beat later he breaks character and flashes the warmest smile you've ever seen.
Jimbo got the crowd to start clapping with an undeniable rockabilly tempo inducing involuntary 'stomp clap stomp clap stomp clap' and the boys played the title track from their last studio album, "Smell of Gasoline." Several covers were played as well including Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie." The Rev told a story about a friend he recently lost that would not approve of him playing the next song. He had tried to play this song with Lemmy Kilmister in the past and Lemmy would say, "No, I won't do it." The Rev explained to him that he's just giving the people what they want and Lemmy replied by yelling, "NEVER GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT!" The crowd went wild and the boys obliged, they are an affable crew, by playing Motörhead's "Ace of Spades."
Click the image below to see all of Monica's photos of the evening's line-up.
Last Thursday night The Cactus Blossoms, a sibling band made up of Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, graced The Stage at KDHX studios in Grand Center. Hailing from just up the Mississippi in Minneapolis, the crooning pair played for a packed house at the intimate show with many people standing in the back of the space. They sang sad songs in a classic country style that emphasizes their dreamy blue vocals. Perhaps it's the bond of brotherhood or maybe it's their extraordinary tonality, but their voices are seamless and undivided, as if one voice split in two for the benefit of harmony.
The musical duo I was most reminded of is The Everly Brothers and this similarity, less than subtle, seems very intentional. Their album, You're Dreaming brings to mind The Everly Brothers' biggest hit, "All I Have To Do is Dream". And my favorite track, "Clown Collector", made me immediately recall "Cathy's Clown," although I do prefer the clever wordplay in the modern version: "Take a look at me man, I ought to know. / I can juggle all night 'til the rooster crows. / The spirit's willing, but the flesh is weak. / When she hollers all aboard for a losing streak." That is exactly what sets The Cactus Blossoms apart from their predecessors: their tongue-in-cheek phrasing. It's that iconic retro style sound with a intellectual twist.
Their aforementioned album, You're Dreaming, was released in March of last year. It's comprised of songs recalling sadness, love and tales of the river with a Southern backdrop. As country songs often are, it's set to the speed of a broken heart and the occasional a train engine. The album was produced by upbeat rock-n-roll singer-songwriter JD McPherson, known for bringing his 1950s style music to a modern generation. McPherson's sound is a mix of Pokey LaFarge and The Black Keys with a unforgiving danceability. It's his influence that's apparent on tracks like "No More Crying the Blues," originally recorded 1959 by cousin duo Alton & Jimmy.
A highlight of the show was definitely the song, "Mississippi" -- their love of the river is one of the reasons these guys fit in so well in St. Louis. The band was recently featured on an episode of the Showtime reboot of Twin Peaks, where they played this haunting song in a bar filled with slow-dancing couples. The deep beautiful chords and gut-wrenching loneliness of the lyrics that speak of a bar on River Street fit in perfectly with tone of the show.
When introducing the song, "Queen of Them All," Jack said in a dry but playful way, "And here's our only love song where nothing bad happens to anybody," which is quite an understatement. Not only does nothing bad happen, it's one of the sweetest songs I know. It's possible that it might just be me, a single woman in her 30s, but hearing this man admitting his love in a truly open vulnerable way and specifically the line "You're the end of my scheme" is a bit of a dream in itself. Be still my heart.
Click the image below to see all of Monica Mileur's photos from the performance.