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.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (with Ablebody and Beverly) at the Firebird, June 25, 2017

 

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.

The Reverend Horton Heat (with Agent Orange and Flat Duo Jets) at the Ready Room, June 15, 2017

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.

The Cactus Blossoms at The Stage at KDHX, June 1, 2017

 

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.

John Moreland at Off Broadway, June 1, 2017

 

If you walked into Off Broadway on Thursday night unfamiliar with Marty Stuart it might have felt like you were in the wrong place. I attend a lot of shows at Off Broadway, it's one my favorite venues in town, and if I hadn't seen Stuart there in August I would have been shocked to show up ten minutes after the doors opened and already find myself behind two rows of people closely guarding their spots. Show-goers recognized the rare opportunity to see a legend by no stretch of the definition playing one of the most intimate venues in the area. You would have a hard time discounting the relevance of a musician once noticing his mandolin has the names of Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Hank Jr., Jerry Lee Lewis and others carved into it. 

Marty and his band didn't disappoint with their traditional Western-ware from head to boot. The colors on their heavily tasseled and embroidered jackets popped against the background of those red velvet curtains. Marty was dressed all in black with black embroidered flowers and a black scarf tied around his neck and black leather flared pants that laced up the sides, reminding me of his former boss and mentor, the original man in black, Johnny Cash. I love seeing a band wearing costume-ish loud outfits during performances. Having a strong visual presence really adds to the auditory experience for me.

Marty Stuart is deeply rooted in country music and has been touring since he was 12 years old and is the most talented mandolin player I have ever had the honor to witness. He has played in the bands of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash before going solo in the 1980s with a string of popular radio hits. His objective is much different now than it was during his popularity with songs like, "Tempted" and "Hillbilly Rock." The band is on a mission to preserve the soul and history of country music with Stuart being the historian. He has a story for every song and delivers them with Southern charm and at the pace of an auctioneer. One of the things I like most about Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is that every one of the members of the band can hold their own as the lead. They all take their turn at lead vocals and the rest, including Marty, take a backseat for that moment. They all showcase their variety of talents on several different instruments each. And the setlist is so well rounded with originals, old and new and a wide variety of standards and covers by folk, country and rock 'n' roll artists. 

His Fabulous Superlatives is made up of "Cousin" Kenny Vaughan on lead guitar who has been one of Nashville's top session musicians since the '80s. Drummer and backup vocalist, Harry Stinson, has worked with everyone from George Jones to Peter Frampton and Elton John and is also an accomplished producer and writer. The newest member of the band has been with them since 2015, Chris Scruggs. He was the co-lead singer for BR549 before joining the band, but is also the grandson of country great, Earl Scruggs. 

My favorite song of the evening was their cover of Marty Robbin's "El Paso" which Stuart boasts has 469 words and an incredibly challenging guitar part, which seems effortless for Cousin Kenny. They were asked to learn the song for a performance at the country music hall of fame and now has become a staple of their set list. For the song Stuart, Stinson and Scruggs share vocals crowded around the same mic with Stuart on mandolin and Scruggs on standup bass. They also covered Woody Gutherie's "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" with Stinson taking lead vocals and carrying a snare drum strapped around at the front of the stage, The crowd went erupted when Stinson held a note for what seemed like two minutes while walking down the stage and motioning out over the crowd. At one point Stuart is on stage alone and tells a story of the time he met the creator of the original "Orange Blossom Special", Ervin T. Rouse, and asked him what song he would want to be most remembered for and he replied, "I guess that song I wrote about that train, the special". This song is known shortly as "The Special," but also "The Fiddle Player's National Anthem," it's been recorded most notably by Johnny Cash, but also Charlie Daniels Band, Merle Haggard and even Electric Light Orchestra. Stuart lead into the song by saying, "It's been played a million times, and here's a million and one"

The band has a new album that was released on March 10, titled Way Out West, which is an ode to the American West. The music fit in seamlessly with Stuart's covers of country standards and his hits from the 80s. He described the album as a majestic, psychedelic, cinematic trip through the desert where afterwards you'll feel like you've been on Willie Nelson's tour bus for 21 days. In Way Out West he recounts the experience of taking three different colored pills with the final playful advise of, "If you go out West. It'll give you a big thrill. Don't matter how you get there. Just don't take pills." The album was was produced by Mike Campbell, Tom Petty's guitarist. Stuart explained how it might seem strange that he recorded this country album in Los Angeles instead of Nashville with the help a man known for rock 'n' roll. He said that it made perfect sense to him because Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is the greatest country music band in the world and went right into "Running Down a Dream" to prove it. 

When I'm watching Marty Stuart and his band I feel like I've been taken back in time to when country music was something different. When I tell people I love country music this is what I'm talking about and I hate that I have to specify, but the term is actually pretty broad these days, especially if you see Tom Petty as country like Marty does. The subject has never changed, but the way it's delivered is ever-evolving and I'm so happy these guys are still doing it like the originals. 

 Click below to see all of Monica's photos from the evening.

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives (with Sean McConnell) at Off Broadway, May 11, 2017

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