Imagine going to a friend's house for dinner and musical entertainment. When you pull up, you see people on the porch with drinks in hand. They greet you with smiles and return to their laughter. Inside, the main room has been filled with chairs and a line is beginning to form before the dining room, where the smells of dinner waft out slowly to draw you in. At the head of the line stands a robust and jocular host who greets everyone he recognizes with warmth and humor and everyone new first with curiosity, and then warmth and humor. The food is plentiful and delicious, and table service brings drinks and dessert as you sink into a repast of hometown comfort food. Then, after making a new friend or two, you wander back to the living room for an evening of music and enjoyment. Most of us have experienced something similar to this and can recollect it with fondness. Perhaps it is still talked about when you rejoin those friends who shared the moment with you. Years from now, you can all have a good laugh in the nostalgia of a night well spent. Now multiply your friend's dinner party of a dozen or so to well over 150. And that, my friends, is The Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, Missouri.

The stage was set in a corner of the room between the bar and concierge desk, lit by clear, blue, honeycomb lights. The amps and a spare guitar bordered a worn area rug which really tied the room together, man. Everyone filled into the first rows of soft chairs; theater seats were set up behind those and lined the balcony above. Steve Earle came out in typical bad boy fashion: wordless. He plugged in his acoustic Martin M-38 with an embroidered sugar skull strap, hit the low E for a sense of sound and began strumming. He wore a black vest over a T-shirt, jeans that had seen much of the road across the US, and a stare that had seen ever farther.

After a few measures, he said, "I think it is important to sing this song as much as possible," and started into a gravel-toned sing-a-long of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." After a brief pause where he almost smiled, he performed the next few songs without introduction, leaning one into the next with hardly a key change. His songwriting has always been strong, and he sang a few he was known for, dominating the 4/4 time with rambling quick narrative of outlaws and the hard killing floor blues of Southern Gothic imagery. Then stopped to breathe in the space of the venue.

It was then he opened up. Wildwood had billed the night as an intimate evening with Steve Earle, and, trained as I am in the musical lore of Nashville, I was eager to see a softer side of this late-outlaw who came to prominence with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. But soft is not what he offered. Neither did he remain in the hard-shell he had toured within during the '70s and '80s. Rather, he was honest. Not encumbered by the expectations of the Dukes, his usual backing band, Earle was free to tell stories and reminisce.

Halfway through the show, Earle switched to a mandolin he claimed to have won from a divorce and played, "Copperhead Road," which had been called for by the audience. The following number he picked back up his Martin and sang one for, "What's her name, wherever the hell she is." Departing from perspective rather than subject matter, Earle's later songwriting is a reminiscence about his days and ways of his younger self. The early songs are filled with tight riffs and hooks about chasing the devil. These later ones, "typical of a 52 year old," he claimed, center more on chasing the devil away.

Travis-picking through a typical I, V, VII progression in B, he spoke fondly of what it was like to learn from Townes, and how no one could ever match him. He then gave tribute to his late friend with a rendition of "Rex's Blues," which does not appear on the album of Van Zandt covers Earle released in 2009.

By the end of the night, Earle was joking with the audience, telling stories of his son and his many wives. Then after a brief encore and a break off-stage (which at The Wildwood is upstairs), Earle hung out at the bar to greet the lingering fans and take innumerable pictures. He was warm and friendly, offering anecdotes to any listening and would graciously engage whoever was near in ardent conversation.

While I have seen innumerable shows in my life, this was different than most. It was more intimate. There was little remove from the artist, and you felt included in both the music and the appreciation felt by everyone else. That is because of the Wildwood experience. In that space most describe as having a "living room feel," artists can leave their stage persona behind and relate their stories on a more personal level.  

Bob Bell, the warm fellow greeting everyone as they entered for dinner, runs the Lodge with his family who came of age just across the street. it was Bob's father, Paul Bell, who bought the former resort hotel built for Missouri's nouveau riche of yesteryear in hopes it would keep his family together there in Steelville. And his dream is a gift to us all. The Wildwood is not only a venue. It is an experience. The building is an L of old hotel rooms with metal, mortise, bit keys and no TVs. The hallways seem to come straight out of a Coen Brothers thriller, and porches wrap around both sides of the building. There are thirty-mile views off the back porch, which is lined with rocking chairs and retro decorations that have aged with the space. 

This reprieve from the bustle of daily life is a touch over an hour from St. Louis and yet a world away. The opulence of days of yore feels as Bob hopes it would, just like coming home. It is with this perspective he greets his guests as family and encourages them to enjoy the space as he has grown up doing. Here one can enjoy great food, better company, and a concert which enlivens as much as it connects one to the music. The Wildwood Springs Lodge creates a experience of togetherness. Together with family new and old, friends silver and gold, and a space to truly witness the skill and message troubadours like Steve Earle have been capturing in song for eons. It is like going back into a memory, only anew.  

And I, for one, can't wait to return.

A packed crowd of 694 fans crowded into the intimate confines of the Ready Room Wednesday, October 18, to enjoy Ontario, Canada's sextet The Strumbellas' brand of catchy sing-along, hooky choruses, country-pop alt stylings, and warm Canadian humor. The crowd, including families with small children in tow, were treated to 17 songs and two encores -- "Diane" and "Home Sweet Home" -- and kept the crowd swaying, dancing, singing and yelling at the top of their lungs in glee until the final note dissipated. Strangely, Wednesday was also the day of the death of the Canadian musical hero, Gord Downie, of the Canadian institution, The Tragically Hip, so the night had an air of heaviness.

The Strumbellas launched into "Wars," a tune that showcases the Strumbellas' blend of countrified, folky alternative pop. The audience danced, jumped up and down, and sang along with vocalist and front man Simon Ward's wonderful wordplay and catchy choruses.  

Ward, was in constant motion -- running back and forth on the stage, leading the crowd in acoustic, bare-bones sing along acapella breaks. At one point, he hung from the monitors and staging and gave the audience a Bono moment of intimacy and connection. The audience stomped and clapped in ecstasy to their other anthem "We Don't Know," from last year's album Hope. The stage was dimly lit and adorned with umbrella lights. The mood was cozy, homespun and folksy. Their fun-filled and emotive set included other numbers such as the sunny pop gem "Young and Wild," "In This Life," the slow honky-tonk Nashville-tinged tune "The Hired Band," and more.

Violinist, vocalist, and keyboardist Isabel "Izzy" Ritchie was also in constant motion and adding sweetness to the bitterness and light to the darkness. The rest of the band, including drummer Jeremy Drury, lead guitarist Jon Hembrey, bassist Darryl James, and keyboardist David Ritter, all served the song and provided sweet backup and harmony vocals to many of the night's stellar renditions.

The band closed with their hit 2016 single "Spirits." Massive airplay, placement in commercials, and massive popularity on platforms like Pandora and Facebook have made The Strumbellas a well-known commodity and familiar musical friend. Ward and band seemed to bask in the warmth of a crowd singing their anthem back at the top of their lungs.

In a world of synthetic bands, pyrotechnics, and gimmicks, The Strumbellas deliver an organic, heartfelt, and earnest experience that's a rare thing in our virtual world of fast food and empty encounters. For an hour plus, the audience was at home, joyous, and left the troubles of the cruel world outside; where they belong.

The opening act, Strafford Vermont's Noah Kahan and band, were a complementary pairing and were well-received by the packed audience. Kahan, a young troubadour of a tender 20-years-old, and his crack band of talented musicians played a compact set of tunes including his new single "Hurt Somebody" and his debut single "Young Blood." Fans of Jack Johnson and John Mayer will welcome Kahan's songs to their playlists.  

Click below to see more of Doug Tull's photos of the performances.

The Strumbellas (with Noah Kahan) at the Ready Room, October 18, 2017

 

Pixies rocked The Peabody Opera House on Saturday night for nearly two hours with no breaks and no small talk. In fact, there was no talking at all as they played an impressive thirty-five songs ranging through their six studio albums, their first mini LP from 1986, and even a Neil Young cover from a long-ago recorded B-side. Without a moment's rest they played from one song right into the next with fervor, intensity and unyielding stamina to the very end. 

Three of the four original members are still with the band, including lead vocalist Black Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering. Bassist/vocalist Kim Deal left the group in 2013 and was replaced by Paz Lenchantin, formerly of A Perfect Circle, Zwan and Queens of the Stone Age. Her eerie backup vocals are a huge part of the band's iconic sound and was consistent with Deal's vocals that fans are familiar with from the first four albums. During the encore Lenchantin showcased her vocals on "All I Think About Now," where she alone sang and Francis relinquished the spotlight momentarily.  

Almost every track from their biggest record, Doolittle, was played including hits like "Here Comes Your Man," Hey and crowd favorite, "Debaser," in which the crowd screamed along to the chorus, "An Chien Analusia!", lyrics that reference a short film from 1929. During "Monkey Gone to Heaven" the audience raised their hands above their heads and signaled the corresponding fingers, "If man if five, then the devil is six. If the devil is six, then God is seven." Towards the end of the set, after playing it a few songs before, was a reprise of "Wave of Mutilation," which was an unexpected and enjoyable surprise. 

Pixies are known for their contrasting and alternating dynamics. At one moment the tone is sweet and light with Black Francis practically whispering into the mic. The very next beat is an intense shriek or a squeal from Santiago's guitar. Francis has been known to say that they can only play two ways, loud or quiet, no in-between. I found that the construction of the set list also followed a similar formula building tension with several energetic punk-rock songs like Broken Face followed by a softer tracks like "Silver Snail" and "Havalina," as to always keep the crowd on their toes.  

With the no-nonsense feeling of the show I wasn't sure that there would be an encore. The band came forward without their instruments and waved to the crowd, then alternated sides, repeated the gesture and bowed as a group while locking arms. Then they looked at each other in a funny way as if they were questioning, "Should we do an encore tonight?" It was an obviously fake little exchange considering their guitars were being set up, but I enjoyed it. I recognize that some of the meaningfulness of an encore is taken away when it becomes tradition, but I still walk away feeling a little cheated when it doesn't happen. 

Click the image below to see all of Monica's photos of the performance.

The Pixies at Peabody Opera House, October 14, 2017

 

Many bands earned their early bones busking on dirty streets and subway ramps. Likewise, every music fan hopes to recognize street-corner genius and brag about it later when the band ascends to big stages in big rooms. Humming House hit the Duck Room stage and the audience floor on Thursday night in a show that demonstrated the band's continuing evolution (evident in their fine new album Companion) and their busking, string-band roots.  

Humming House has impressed St. Louis music fans for several years running, starting with an excellent Twangfest show in 2012. The band is comprised of four multi-instrumentalists:  Justin Wade Tam, Bobby Chase, Joshua Wolak, and Benjamin Jones.  For the average audience member whose musical "career" ended (gratefully) after high school, it was thrilling -- on the magic show end of the scale -- to watch these talented bandmates move seamlessly amongst keyboard, guitar, mandolin, double bass, electric guitar, harmonica, performing expertly on each instrument. Midway through the show, the mandolinist, Wolak, produced a harmonica from his back pocket and played it holderless while still playing the mandolin.  Still don't know how. Don't want to know. Like I said, magic.  

Humming House is also a remarkably musically flexible group, moving agilely between acoustic strings-based Americana to electrified rockers, to soulful power-pop gems. Stringing it all together is captivating frontman Justin Wade Tam and a thorough-going affection for introspective and sweetly positive lyrics. The band kicked off the show with two up-tempo, electrified cuts from its new album -- "Hope in My Head" and "Sign Me Up" -- and moved on in the same vein but switching to electrified acoustic instruments for "Freight Train," "Great Divide," and "Fly On," all from earlier albums. After a rocking, Bangles-like rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter," the band began shifting gears, moving from the Springsteen-like rocker "I Want It All" to "Wishing Well," both cuts from the new album, to Tam and his guitar on a sweet, nostalgic solo, "Find What Waits." 

And that's when the band came off the stage, not for the mysterious interim between sets, a phenomenon thankfully going out of favor, but to come down amongst the people and play an un-amplified acoustic set. The crowd surged forward to better hear the band and was rewarded with the dynamics of one of those YouTube gimmicks where a disguised U2 plays at a New York City subway stop. Which is to say that if you heard the current incarnation of Humming House on a street corner and didn't immediately feel like a latterday Sam Phillips, you should just resign yourself to simpy Spotify set lists for all eternity. The crowd swayed and danced to "Tower Park" and "Gypsy Django" amongst other tunes before Humming House took the stage again and plugged in for a quick and surging final set.

An amped up belter from their early catalogue, "What Have We Got To Lose" and a cover of "Go Your Own Way," complete with a crisp, driving take on Mick Fleetwood's tribal drum sequence, drove the crowd into a final lather. The band returned to encore the title cut of their new album, "Companion," a song about reflection, appreciation, intensity, respect, everything they expect to deliver to their audiences, and unquestionably what I experienced last Thursday night.  

The Black Lillies represent. There is no mixed message or pretense, though their moniker is an apt metaphor for their sound. Cruz Contreras, the front man and writer, moved with a quiet confidence even before the show. The band took the stage at Off Broadway and waited for Cruz to open the set. Sam Quinn, formerly of The Everybodyfields, leaned back on his bare heels and closes his hand around the neck of his bass. Cruz strode across the stage in boots, the click of each step echoing throughout the room. His grey-tipped curls poured like a halo beneath his hat. You would almost expect him to have a pistol on his hip.

Then they began. The drums, played by Bowman Townsend, came in heavy and the guitar hit the down beat slightly flanged, echoing the forward country swagger of Waylon Jennings in the late '70s. The band was energetic and never rowdy, even though at one point Cruz assured a vocal spectator that she could "cuss in here." Though the venue could have held many more people, the band played as though they either didn't notice or didn't care. Either way it didn't matter. The music mattered. 

The line-up was smaller than usual, though the sound did not feel compromised. Dustin Schafer with quick licks and extended solos replaced the high mercury sound of the steel guitar found on their records. Cruz sang both parts of the songs usually performed with a female vocalist. This was a return to how he had written them, he confided after the show. And though he does miss a duet partner, he enjoys the dynamic of this all male four-piece.

Heralding the cradle of country music from which they sojourn, their songs are heavy with roots overtones and the glee of Eastern Tennessee country which borders on bluegrass at times and finds it silly to argue the difference. Four songs in, Cruz switched to an electric and the band opened into a stretch of faster beats which varied from rock, aided by Schafer's shredding, to a strong honky-tonk two-step. 

They played a few of the fan favorites such as "The Fall" and "Whiskey Angel," though Cruz introduced many songs as new and yet to be recorded. The newer material is heavy with metaphor, reaching for imagery beyond traditional exegesis and with more vehemence than The Black Lillies' earlier work. It also relies heavily on the hook, often repeating it as the song fades. For these newer works, Cruz picked back up his sunburst 1952 Gibson J45 with his angular strumming pattern worn into the wood like a battle stripe. It is obvious this guitar is his songwriting standard, and his voice, always melodious and never overdone, fits well within its soft range.

They closed the night without an encore, but stepped directly into the crowd to mingle those still milling about. Excited for their new record, the band sees this tour as a method for perfecting these songs before they return to the studio. Cruz' songwriting is strong, if not as proudly confident as it was in the early records. Now it emerges with more technicality -- and more hope. They are indeed The Black Lillies -- with all the delicate grace of a blooming lily, but a blackened one, mature with worldliness and a price duly paid. And I, for one, look forward to the upcoming release.

Click the image below to see all of Tim Farmer's photos of the evening's performances.

The Black Lillies (with Jenny Roques) at Off Broadway, October 12, 2017

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