When the "Great Migration Tour: Celebrating the Sounds of Mississippi, Chicago and St. Louis" hit the Legends Room stage at the National Blues Museum, it brought Black History Month to life. The concerts of February 24 and 25 performed by renowned blues artist and educator, Fernando Jones, Marquise "The Prodigy" Knox and 2016 Grammy award nominee Vasti Jackson paid tribute to the Delta blues while capturing its present day musical evolution.
The roots of the blues will always be tied to a system that enslaved and transported more than 12 million West Africans to the Americas. As Vasti Jackson told the Friday night audience, "It's the same boat, different ports, the same cultural and musical traditions that became the blues here influenced the reggae, samba, and conga beats of other countries." The soul and culture of a people that created the Delta Blues would evolve and be popularized by the Great Migration.
The migration of more than 6 million African Americans between 1900-1970 from the rural south to northern and western urban areas has been called the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history. NBM Internal Affairs Director, Jacqueline Dace, cites discrimination and poverty as the drivers: "After Reconstruction and with the establishment of Jim Crow Laws, blacks found themselves in an environment that was not only detrimental to their economic advances, it was also detrimental to their lives."
The shift was dramatic. African American population outside the south rose from 10 percent in 1910 to 50 percent in 1970. In that same period, African Americans rose from 6.4 percent of the St. Louis population to 40.9 percent. The two big migratory waves (1900-1930 and 1940-1970) coincide with the two waves of urbanization of blues music.
Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy urbanized the sound while women like STL's Victoria Spivey popularized the blues by dominating the 1920s record charts during the first wave. Male migrants led the second wave as Muddy Waters electrified the sound and fellow artists like Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and St. Louis' Henry Townsend, Oliver Sain and others crafted their versions of the blues. The artists of the Great Migration Tour reflect this history.
Fernando Jones, the son of parents with Mississippi roots, grew up on Chicago's south side, learned to play guitar at the age of four and has been in the business for more than 30 years. He is often called the "Renaissance Man" because of his extensive resume that includes: performer, producer, writer, artist, film, and education. His education efforts run from kids to college.
New generation bluesman and STL native, Marquise Knox, who says, "the blues was passed to me through the blood," has family ties to Grenada, Miss. and Big George Brock (Mississippi migrant) and Bennie Smith. Brock, Smith, Henry Townsend and B.B. King all helped school Knox in the blues.
Vasti Jackson, born into a family of fiddle, harp and guitar players, never left Mississippi and now resides in Hattiesburg. He is a highly sought after performer and producer with 40 years of professional experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of music and blues history. He says his recent Grammy loss was still a win because he was on stage with his friend Bobby Rush when he won for Porcupine Meat. Jackson, who helped make that album, laughs and says, "I couldn't lose. I was competing against myself."
Jackson, Jones, and Henry Townsend's son, Alonzo, were part of a Saturday discussion panel moderated by Jacqueline Dace. In discussing the evolution and future of the blues Fernando Jones said the situation is "unhealthy because the blues genre has failed to grow ... the Grammys only recognizes two categories." All agreed that too many bands play from a limited old catalogue and Townsend noted that often the giants like his father "didn't want to do anything to change the style." Jackson said it was also about labeling and promoters "locked into the imagery of old black men and bad old days."
The need for variety, younger players and people in the industry were key issues. Fernando Jones believes to connect to kids "you have to make it free, accessible and mobile. . . rent a bus, provide lesson plans for teachers." He has been living these words for 27 years with his Blues Kids Foundation and Fernando Jones' Blues Camp International for kids 12-18 which is free. The National Blues Museum will host a June 15-17 camp.
Alonzo Townsend believes he is a "torchbearer for the blues and his father's legacy, but my job is to interpret for a new generation." He does that through the Blues in the Schools Program that has reached over 5,000 young people. He wants to kids to play and instrument or find something that inspires them so that they can have a skill "that no one can ever take away from you."
Vasti Jackson want kids to see the opportunities in "the strategic alliance of industries in music -- set design, construction, lighting, sound engineers, computer programming, technology, food, catering, promotion." Townsend agreed and says he uses his own story as an example for kids: "I'm not a stage musician, but I was interested in the service side of the business promotion, management and food service."
The late February shows spoke to the issues raised in the discussion panel.
Fernando Jones, a man of slick suits and clean licks, opened with a "Oil and Water" from his Synesthesia album. The extended song, which opens with some slick guitar driven modern blues, puts the evolution of the blues on display as it takes on a jazzy edge in extended riffs with six string bassist of Felton Crews. There was more of the same to be found through his set and closing number "Just When I."
Marquise Knox played a set that showcased the new and paid homage to the old. He opened with his show stopping powerful voice and guitar riffs for the first few numbers. Then the harmonica came out for some extended work that spoke to more traditional blues. The Delta was fully on stage when Knox changed keys brought out the slide guitar and sat down for some traditional blues. His close, "I'm a Bluesman" brought us back to the present and the crowd to its feet.
Vasti Jackson opened with a resonator guitar and selections from his Grammy nominated traditional blues album, The Soul of Jimmy Rodgers. He mixed his artistry with history telling us, "I'm not a blues museum, I'm a blues man" and why the music needs to evolve. He showed the audience what he meant as he shifted to his searing electric guitar, tearing through the audience, and bringing the house down as he channeled Prince on his rendition of Purple Rain.
The night opened with Lubbock-born singer and violinist Amanda Shires, who has become a staple in the Nashville music scene. She was accompanied on guitar by her husband Jason Isbell, who played The Peabody last February to a nearly sold-out audience. Shires voice, sweet and little with a distinct tremulous quality, complimented her fiddle playing nicely. In between songs, she told stories of times that she's played with John Prine in St. Louis over the years, which revealed the singer's light-hearted side. Once at the Touhill she got him to wear a sock monkey onesie on stage, which was so distracting that it affected her performance, although she still offered him $50 to wear it again tonight. Before "Mineral Wells" she explained that she's obligated to play the song because it's the only one of hers that Prine likes. After observing his demeanor and playfulness throughout the evening I still doubt that statement is true, but I'm sure he said it. During the instrumental breaks in each song Shires walked toward her husband and they looked into each others eyes while playing. The harmony of their interactions reinforces the unisonous melodies of their music. For their last song Isbell joined her on vocals for Warren Zevon's, "Mutineer," a beautiful song also covered by Bob Dylan. By the time Shires introduced the headliner as, "Our hero and yours too, John Prine," the room had already been warmed by his presence.
John Prine is a legend and one of the most influential songwriters of his generation with a massive catalog that boasts a wide variety of genres and themes. His songs are poetry that evokes real emotions from his audience. Some make you burst with laughter, like "Your Flag Decal Won't Get you into Heaven Anymore." Some cause uncontrollable dancing-in-your-seat, toe-tapping and singing along like "Grandpa was a Carpenter." And some lyrics cut deep and cause chills once the reality settles in, like "Sam Stone," which was the most demanded of the night.
The crowd last Friday was energetic to say the least, as if every person in attendance was the president of a chapter of the John Prine fan club. It was incredible to witness such love and admiration for an artist who has relatively flown under the radar for most of their career. After every song a handful of people in the crowd would yell out requests of their favorite songs. At one point Prine gave in with good humor, "Well, I better play this one next, cause it sounds like that guy is double parked."
At the halfway point of the show Prine welcomed special guest vocalist Iris DeMent to the stage for three songs they recorded together in 1999 for the duets album In Spite of Ourselves including the renowned title track, as well as their single "Who's Gonna Take the Garbage Out?" from John's 2016 duets album For Better, Or Worse. DeMent has an unmistakably charming, sunny voice that is reminiscent of Loretta Lynn with just the right amount of twang. Her delivery paired with Prine's gravelly voice makes for especially delightful contrast and their set was certainly a highlight of the concert. And of course the crowd was sure to join in on the line, "There's no Riviera, in Festus, Missour-ah" from the song "(We're Not) The Jet Set" originally recorded by George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Prine introduced his song, "Hello in There" by talking about his grandparents. He spent a lot of time with them as a child and said he had such an affinity for the elderly that he hoped to grow up someday to be one himself, which made the crowd laugh before he went on to deliver that most heartbreaking, honest and inescapable of songs from his first album. As he sang another from that 1971 debut, "Sam Stone," about a drug-addicted veteran who squanders his life and money then overdoses on heroin, his solitary delivery was gradually accompanied by a standup bass which snuck in with low long chords in the background. Despite the gritty reality of such songs, Prine managed to keep the overall feeling of the evening fun and lively, a testament to his range and honesty.
For the last few songs Prine welcomed Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell back to the stage for the upbeat rockabilly tune "Dim Lights, Big Smoke," which he recorded with Shires for In Spite of Ourselves. After almost everyone in the ensemble had a vocal or instrumental solo they ended the show with "Paradise," another classic from his self-title debut, which recalls his home in Kentucky that was practically destroyed by strip mining. I don't think the irony was lost on anyone when they heard the chorus "Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away" reverberate through the concert hall named after that exact coal company.
Set List: "Love, Love, Love," "Glory Of True Love," "Long Monday," "Taking a Walk," "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore," "Quiet Man," "Six O'clock News," "Souvenirs," "Grandpa Was a Carpenter," "Hello in There," "Who's Gonna Take the Garbage Out" (w/ Iris Dement), "We're Not The Jet Set" (w/ Iris Dement), "We Could" (w/ Iris Dement), "In Spite Of Ourselves" (w/ Iris Dement), "Angel from Montgomery," "It's a Big Old Goofy World," "Fish and Whistle," "Sam Stone," "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" (w/ Amanda Shires), "Storm Windows" (w/ Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell), "Bear Creek Blues" (w/ Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell), "Paradise" (w/ Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell).
Band: Jason Wilbur (guitar); Pat McLaughlin (mandolin); Kenneth Blevins (drums); Dave Jacques (bass)
Click the image below to see all of Monica Mileur's photos from the evening's performances.
I have finally seen Diarrhea Planet. I have finally seen the band that is supposed to restore my faith in rock 'n' roll (according to BuzzFeed). I have witnessed the four-guitar juggernaut that's regularly played St. Louis, including last year's LouFest. I have experienced firsthand the splatters of beer from cans held aloft while a merry band of men in tight jeans, fairly beside themselves with excitement, turned the entire floor of Delmar Hall into a mosh pit for 60 full minutes last Friday.
To be honest, I was not at all certain that Diarrhea Planet was capable of matching St. Louis's beloved Bruiser Queen, who shimmied through a loud, fast "best of" set. Who knew two people were capable of making such a racket? I'm no stranger to BQ shows, but Morgan Nussbaum's impressive pipes were in especially fine shape on Friday night, effortlessly filling every corner of the room and probably the parking lot, too. Love for the fans and pride in our city's fine microbrews was in the air. Did I mention 4Hands was celebrating its fifth birthday and everyone may have been feeling a little soppy? "We've got the best food, the best beer" (indicating 4Hands Citywide banner) "and the best music," crowed drummer Jason Potter, during a mid-set shout-out to the enthusiastic hometown crowd. BQ exited the stage after bringing down the rafters with "Old Man Winter," and if that had been the show, I would not have complained. But then...
Diarrhea Planet came out, an unassuming band of fresh-faced twenty-somethings in T-shirts. And from the moment they shouldered their guitars, a blistering, blinding, rapid-fire tower of noise was rained down upon my head. How to describe, if you haven't heard them? Clearly, they were influenced by heavy metal, but there is also a seemingly un-cheeky appreciation for '90s pop-punk. Like Butthole Surfers and Rage Against the Machine (except a-political), they are a sort of post-hardcore, "alternative" metal. I never thought I would favorably compare someone to Blink 182, but there is something there, too, albeit with way more guitars. Like any punks worth their salt -- that is, anyone influenced by the Descendants -- the drumming is fast and muscular and the shouted vocals pushed to the respective limits of each singer's highest register until they fray. Lyrically, Diarrhea Planet manage to be smart but a little ignorant at the same time. (There is a song called "Ghost with a Boner." Also, the band's name is Diarrhea Planet.) You could headbang a mullet to this stuff, but it's almost more conducive to pogoing. The guys themselves seem rowdy but nice, flattered by the adoring crowd in front of them who sang along with old and new material alike. They took onstage selfies -- good-naturedly snapping pano after pano as fans handed over their phones -- and they were generous with the high-fives.
Diarrhea Planet had been originally scheduled to play the 4Hands birthday party in January, but an ice storm (did we actually have ice?) pushed the show up to March. "This is the first show we've played in 2017," singer-guitarist-all-around-thrasher Jordan Smith announced. (Smith also introduced most of the set with, "You might not know this one, it's old...," but everyone did know it and sang along.) Despite some good-natured bantering between songs -- the first digression had to do with some confusion as to which direction St. Louis is from Nashville, the band's hometown -- there was not really a pause from the opening assault of "Lite Dream" to the last, a convincing cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade." The slowest things got was during "Platinum Girls," which is sort of a love song (although it's more about wanting to be your "20 times a night guy" than actual feelings, if you get my drift). On stage, the band's sound is huge. They are definitely an act to catch live if, like me, you are one of the three people in St. Louis who have not seen them yet. Much has been made of the four guitars, and the wall of sound on a live stage is massive yet never overpowered the rhythm section. And despite projecting a somewhat unwashed slacker vibe, each of the guys can shred. This is some professional-grade, arena-worthy rock, everyone.
To wit: that Rage cover. I imagine it's fairly difficult to fill Tom Morello's shoes but Smith did it, and as singer Evan Bird (who must have been trying to lose his voice) launched into the last chorus, there was a gunshot-loud crack that dumped a bunch of confetti and streamers on the crowd. Everyone went bananas. Everyone went home happy. Faith in rock 'n' roll was duly restored.
To be fair, I wasn't expecting to see young, dreamboat Jonathan Richman circa 1974, but when you go to a show to see an objective legend — the once-frontman of the Modern Lovers, the guy who transformed countless lame teens into fervent punk rockers — you expect someone larger than life. But when Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins walked onstage at Off Broadway last Friday night, looking almost small under the white lights, I was reminded that Jonathan Richman is only mortal.
And so he was, though that turned out to be his greatest charm. There was something very personable about Richman's stage persona, like watching a friend onstage. In fact, I felt the need to sort of hunch behind the tall guy in front of me while typing notes into my phone (oh, the rare blessings of being 5'1"), not because I didn't want to be yelled at but, weirdly, because I didn't want Jonathan Richman to think his performance was uninteresting.
Richman was, in all respects, a one man show — sometimes crooning behind the microphone, sometimes stepping to the edge of the stage as if to say, "Come closer, there's no need to fear," sometimes picking up maracas or sleigh bells and dancing (which involved a lot of shimmying and hip-gyrating and was strangely hypnotic, kind of like watching your weird uncle get down). And though his looks might have aged, Richman seemed to be in a state of unblinking lucidity that only one-in-a-million artists could ever hope to achieve. (I say unblinking because Richman literally did not blink, or at least not as much as a normal man should. He had a way of staring into a fixed point in the crowd during guitar solos that was equal parts unnerving and impressive.)
At this point, I would be remiss to mention that the breadth Richman's technique is really imperceptible until you see him play a live set. Almost every song featured an instrumental break, which is, in my opinion, where Richman might've shone the brightest. Chord progressions in "My Baby Love Love Loves Me" become the bickering voices of lovers (which Richman compliments with a mock-angry face); the high-pitched guitar slides in "That Summer Feeling" are followed by an explanatory "Mosquito." And the audience actually laughed, which I've never seen happen during an instrumental piece and which truly demonstrates the interpretive depth of Richman's guitar-playing: the guitar was another voice altogether.
But what really made Richman's performance — and his entire musical persona — so darn enjoyable was the wide-eyed easiness it all. If you've heard any of Richman's recordings, you know that his voice is breezy and laissez-faire and borderline conversational at times. This quality was even more obvious on stage, where he would often slip out of singing to make a little quip — or, in the case of "Old World," a two-minute story about baseball pitcher Walter Johnson that he had heard from Bill Klem. Some of Richman's songs are simply sweet in a way that makes couples pull each other close, like the show's encore "Not so Much to be Loved as to Love." Others were considerably more lighthearted like "People Are Disgusting," which details humanity's more nasty habits ("Wipe the toilet seat down! A maid has to clean this!"). Overall, it's hard to articulate the sheer likability of a punk legend who can stop mid-sentence to tell the audience, with a laugh, "I'm just making shit up" (as he indeed did during a cover of King Harvest's "Dancing in the Moonlight").
At his heart, I think Richman is a genuine person in a way that many big stars aren't. Yes, he's an immensely, immensely talented singer/songwriter/guitarist/etc., but there's no pretension behind his performance, no overt demands for respect nor reverence, nothing but the desire to contort and cavort and "move with the moon and the tide," per "These Bodies that Came to Cavort." And the audience was with him the entire way, dancing and laughing with the enthusiasm that can only come from years of devotion to Richman and his work. One man near me even knew every single word to every single song — not just in English, but in Italian, too.
About halfway through the song from last year's Ishkode! Ishkode! called "Outside O'Duffy's," the stage lights went out, plunging the entire venue into darkness. "Wow! That was good, too — just different," Richman said cheerily when they came back on a few seconds later. There was no doubt in my mind that he meant it. Rain or shine, lights on or lights off, Jonathan Richman will be there with a song.
Click the image below to see all of Gary Eckert's photos of the evening.
Mirah took the stage at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room with no new album to sell (her latest, Changing Light came out three years back). She shares with the audience that tonight's show kicks off a week-long Missouri residency that will also feature performances at an organic farm and the True/False Film Fest. In honor of the occasion, Mirah made and wore a T-shirt featuring a photo of her father's college band which was based out of Kirksville, Missouri.
Maia Macdonald (aka Kid in the Attic), following her opening set, joined Mirah as the rhythm section, alternating between bass and keys, in addition to providing backing vocals. The duo had an easy rapport and beautifully melded musical styles which truly blossomed in their performance of "Hallelujah," a track original featured on the Thao + Mirah duets album (featuring Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down). During "Recommendation," the penultimate song of the set, Mirah and Macdonald shared the keyboard and mic for the most pop-leaninng and raucous performance of the night.
Mirah let her admiration for fellow artists show with praise for Macdonald's opening set and a follow-up round of applause for musicians Cassie Morgan and Melinda Cooper who kicked-off the evening. She brightly exclaimed to the adoring audience, "We're having our own kind of Women's March up on the stage tonight. I know you're with us!" She even made a pitch for the audience to return to the Duck Room the following night to see "one of [her] best friends," Tift Merritt.
The set heavily featured songs from Mirah's 2014 album Changing Light, beginning with "24th St" and continuing through "After the Gold Rush," "Turned the Heat Off," "LC," and "Radiomind." Mirah shared the story of writing "LC" with her sister in homage to Leonard Cohen. She also shared a new song "Sundial," the title track to an EP that is due out in June. An earthy, folky track, "Sundial" is written from the perspective of plants observing human behavior. Mirah chose to write the song from a plant's point-of-view because, "We wouldn't actually exist without them."
Toward the end of the set, Mirah performed "No Guns No Guns," a song she wrote for the "30 Days, 30 Songs" project. The audience was encouraged to vent their frustrations about the current political climate with Mirah proclaiming, "You guys just get to scream for eight bars!" As the audience gathered their coats, their thoughts, and their friends at the end of the concert, the energy of the room felt markedly lighter.
Click the image below to see all of Abby Gillardi's photos from the eventing's performances at the Duck Room.