LouFest 2016 was not only my first LouFest ever but also my first music festival in at least a decade, and probably also the single longest stretch of time that I've spent outdoors in recent memory. Weather-wise, it was a beautiful weekend, but there was also no hiding from it -- muddy earth, a light wind, a fiery ball hovering in the heavens above. Among the elements, I was definitely out of mine. Within minutes my feet were heavy with moist, oozy mud, and several times over the weekend I came across a pair of sandals or shoes that had been left behind, stuck one in front of the other as though their former owner had been raptured.
Beset by what was, at least for me, an unprecedented range of stimuli, I sought something familiar, some traction -- solid footing upon which to dig in and get down. This is where Bruiser Queen comes in. No, I didn't just happen to stumble upon their set, and yes, I'd spoken with singer and guitarist Morgan Nusbaum ahead of time with the intention of writing about them. But what I hadn't accounted for in advance was my desire, in that initial moment, for something that simply rocked -- music that was big without being dumb, aggressive without being uninviting. Bruiser Queen's midday set delivered the kind of concentrated, uncut rock 'n' roll that is perennial in its appeal and absolutely powerful in its immediacy. The two and/or three piece unit of Nusbaum, drummer Jason Potter, and newly introduced bassist Cory Perkins make music that is fun and unfussed over. Whatever lyrics get lost in the invariable fuzz of loud live music give way to choruses that are immediately memorable. Their familiar, low-stakes song structures are classic like cocktails or the cut of certain jeans. Rather than messing with what already works, they know well enough to just do it right.
With multiple Best Rock Band wins in the Riverfront Times and almost six years of shows under their belt, Bruiser Queen are at once popular and legit. They are also an extraordinarily hard-working band -- steadily releasing new music, staying active locally, and ever expanding their touring radius, including their first West Coast trip planned for later this year. But at their first LouFest appearance, Bruiser Queen demonstrated the hard-workingness of their music itself. Like ideal hosts at a backyard barbecue who ask guests to bring only themselves, Bruiser Queen make it very easy to enjoy their music. When I asked Nusbaum what, if anything, defines a Bruiser Queen fan, she confirmed that they make music that is supposed to be fun:
Our fans come in all varieties, but the one thing in common is that they like to have a good time. They're like [makes the "rock biceps" gesture]: "Bruiser Queeeeen!" They have their arms in the air; they have a beer. That's why we have can koozies now.
The band's LouFest set traversed their entire catalogue, including songs from the LPs Swears (2012) and Sweet Static (2014), as well as the EP In Your Room (2013) and a well-received cover of "We Got the Beat" that was tipped into the middle of a new song -- refocusing the attention of casual festival-goers who might have otherwise wandered off to the bar or bathroom. These and other new songs -- including the single "Telepathic Mind," which they will be releasing on 7" vinyl in October -- found the band embracing their trademark blend of urgency and earnestness. (If you can't wait until October to see them again, they'll be playing San Loo at the end of the month.)
The highlight of their set, however, was a semi-newish song that has to date only been released as a demo, "Don't Waste Your Summer," which they've retitled "Have Fun" and rerecorded for a forthcoming full-length. As the plaintive, sad surf vibe of its opening kicked into the ne plus ultra of three-chord progressions, Nusbaum's chorus offered a not unfamiliar mantra: "Have fun before you die / Anything else is a waste of time." Day-seizingly obvious? Perhaps, especially within a genre that has historically privileged the fastness of living and the good-lookingness of corpses. Yeah, fine. But as the song swelled and softened with its alternating passages of optimism and regret, Bruiser Queen presented me with a kind of alternate map of the festival. Unlike the folded guide to the grounds given out at the entrance -- and to which I referred almost religiously throughout the weekend -- Bruiser Queen offered a kind of temporal map of the moment, replete with its own obstacles (time) and its own goals (fun). The festival, St. Louis, even the rest of summer, with its conspicuously darkening days -- all of these things are something to do, not somewhere to be.
Outside, alone, and anxiously assessing my SPF situation, having fun seemed newly doable to me.
A St. Louis Wilco show is always a special affair. Though based in Chicago, the band's founder/leader Jeff Tweedy grew up in Belleville, Ill. and cut his teeth playing St. Louis clubs with alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo as well as working in area record stores. He jokingly "reminded" the crowd at The Fox on Wednesday night of this fact, saying, "I'm from around here. Did you guys know that?"
Of course this was not news to most local fans, some of who were lucky enough to catch an afternoon set by the band at Euclid Records (a former employer of Tweedy) in Webster Groves in promotion of their forthcoming album, Schmilco.
Throughout Wilco's nearly two-hour show, Tweedy continued to reminisce and mention how happy he was to be back, noting that in his early days the gorgeous Fox was the "last place" he ever imagined himself playing.
After a brief instrumental opening set by Nashville guitarist William Tyler, Wilco kicked off with the first four tracks from their 2015 release, Star Wars, as strings of lights twinkled behind them. Tweedy was in perfect voice and the band sounded tighter than ever, boosted by the exceptional acoustics afforded by such a stately venue.
After working through more recent material, Wilco pulled out an early-in-the-set heavy hitter with the sublime "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," a favorite of die-hard fans. Heavy, trippy "Art of Almost" gave guitar virtuoso Nels Cline an opportunity to work his array of pedal effects in a dizzying solo as drummer Glenn Kotche pounded a tribal beat.
A mid-set trio of tunes from the album "A Ghost is Born" was another highlight. Cheery and melodic "Hummingbird" gave way to John Stirratt's familiar bass lead-in on "Handshake Drugs" before Cline again took over with his signature piercing shred melting into controlled chaos. Sprawling "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" with its rapid-fire bass and drums built slowly to a crescendo marked by a carnival of keys by Mikael Jorgensen.
Fans also delighted in early cuts like "Via Chicago" with Tweedy on acoustic guitar and songs from the band's seminal album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot including "Jesus, etc." with Cline on steel guitar; "Heavy Metal Drummer," which Tweedy noted mentions certain parts of this city (Laclede's Landing); and the upbeat and infectious "I'm the Man Who Loves You."
The band performed only two songs from Schmilco (coming out September 9) -- the already released single, "If I Ever Was a Child," a melodious, contemplative tune with gentle twang, and the unreleased "Nope." They focused instead on a truly retrospective selection of the best work from across their lengthy catalog.
Gorgeous "Impossible Germany" with its melancholy melody morphed into yet another astounding display of guitar acrobatics by Cline, his entire body convulsing as his fingers flew across the fretboard.
Wilco closed out the main set with "Late Greats," taking a brief break before returning to encore with a seven-song mini acoustic set. Grouped closely together at the front of the stage and basked in simple white light, they began with fan favorite "Misunderstood," the audience repeating the ending chant of "Nothing!" in more of a whisper than a scream.
Stirratt took the microphone to croon the twangy "Just That Simple" before Tweedy treated Uncle Tupelo fans to "We've Been Had." Yet another local nod came with a stripped-down version of "Casino Queen," which nearly always gets a performance at the band's St. Louis shows. Tweedy encouraged more sing-alongs on closers "California Stars" and "Shot in the Arm," on which Cline nimbly translated his signature shred on the steel guitar.
Throughout the evening, it was nearly impossible to keep up with the striking number and variety of guitars interchanged by the band's technicians for Tweedy, Cline and Pat Sansone. The complex layering and array of instrumentation is key to Wilco's sound and their ability to continuously explore and push the boundaries of what they've done before is what makes them one of the most consistently excellent live acts touring today.
Mostly, they never seem to be phoning it in. Though Tweedy can often come off as sarcastic and even unenthusiastic, once the band starts playing, they put their all into it, leaving the audience spent and satisfied; and Wednesday night's performance was no exception.
Photos by Dustin Winter
Dolly Parton's "Pure & Simple" concert on Saturday night started with a three piece ensemble welcoming her to the stage with an a cappella rendition of "Hello Dolly." The singing stopped shortly after she appeared center stage, looking like an angelic rainbow-tasseled and glitter-clad cowgirl.
The 70 year old country music legend was nothing less than a powerhouse. Her warm, approachable energy was immediately clear during the first song, as she complemented someone in the front row on their choice of handbag. It is very easy to believe that performing is what she was born to do. Her voice was powerful and is almost completely unchanged by time. Between songs she walked us through the story of her life, starting with her meager beginnings growing up in the Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee with eleven siblings all under the roof of a one-room cabin. Her playful story-telling is as captivating as her singing, and the mastery of nine different instruments that she played throughout the evening.
Although Scottrade is nowhere near the size of a small venue, it had a certain intimacy about it. The set design was very clean and minimalistic. There were no complex light shows, explosions, jumbo screens or projected graphics. There were only five sheer white curtains draped from the ceiling. The only visual spectacle on stage was Dolly herself. She explained that her signature look mimics the "town trollop" that she idolized as a little girl. Her grandfather, a pentecostal preacher, encouraged her to dress more modestly and to wear less makeup. He asked her, "Don't you want to go to heaven?" Dolly replied, "Yeah, but do I have to look like hell to get there?"
The show was definitely a trip down memory lane for the slightly less than inter-generational crowd, with Parton playing only two songs from the tour's namesake album that will be released on August 19. Although most of the crowd was old enough to recognize the Benny Hill theme she played on a tiny rhinestone-studded saxophone, there was defiantly an observable diversity in the audience. There were grandmas bouncing around like teenage girls, grown men in full Dolly costume, and fans of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds singing along to every word; who else but Dolly could bring together such a crowd? She has the ability to create space for all to unite through music, without labels or judgement, so it wasn't surprising to see many different demographics represented.
Parton spoke briefly about the presidential election in a lighthearted manner saying that whoever wins will need a great deal of prayer. She joked that she had considered running herself and that she's got the hair for it, "It's huuuuuuge!"
If you missed out and didn't see Dolly at the Scottrade Center, don't worry. With 43 albums to her credit, and 12 headlining tours including this one, (which was her biggest in 25 years with over 60 dates in the US and Canada,) this Queen of Country shows no signs of slowing down. Undoubtedly, she will continue to perform, will inspire fans new and old, and will unapologetically be Dolly for years to come.
Photos by Monica Mileur
"Pure & Simple"
"Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That?"
"My Tennessee Mountain Home"
"Coat of Many Colors"
"Smokey Mountain Memories"
"Rocky Top"/"Yakety Sax"
"Banks of the Ohio"
Medley: "American Pie"/"If I Had a Hammer"/"Blowin' in the Wind"/"Dust in the Wind"/"The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down"
"I'll Fly Away"
"Baby I'm Burning"/"Girl On Fire"
"Outside Your Door"
"The Grass is Blue"
"Those Memories of You"
"Do I Ever Cross Your Mind"
"Here You Come Again"
"Two Doors Down"
"Islands in the Stream"
"9 to 5"
"I'll Always Love You"
"Hello God"/"He's Alive"
At the end of the night, a thin layer of sweat covered the floor of Off Broadway. This past Wednesday was the second night of the Open Highway Music Festival headlined by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives with Cory Branan opening. The room hosted most facets of Americana fans, those who saw Marty from his beginnings, young country boys ready for the southern honesty of Branan and the familiar faces that move in and through the doors of Off Broadway. Whenever Stuart and his band come to town there is an excitement surrounding the show and hearing songs that cover all spectrums under the banner of country music.
Cory Branan joyfully bounced on stage with his guitar as if he were on a mission. "I'm going to start out the night with a love song, about whiskey" and with the opening notes of "Sour Mash" the audience witnessed a punk rock energy brand of modern folk that is more akin to the story telling of John Prine (with his wit and humor), the longing of Uncle Tupelo and melodies that resonate the power of Woody Guthrie. "I'm going to keep it happy for a while, it's not my forte but that's what I'm going to do." Instead of bogging himself down with introspection he was playing to his own excitement of being on the same bill as Marty Stuart. "I'm going to try and keep this moving because I want to get a good spot to see Marty." Branan ripped through a set that featured the songs "Wayward and Down," "The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis," "The Only You" and "Tall Green Grass." He was in his element; cracking jokes, telling stories and playing the songs that have, rightfully so, been give rave reviews.
It has been a while since Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives have taken a stage in St. Louis. The last time he hosted his brand of hillbilly rock was within the beautiful walls of the Sheldon Concert Hall but this time around was a treat. Brandishing the two Tele attack of Stuart and guitarist Cuzin' Kenny Vaughan with the powerful pocket tight rhythm section of Handsome Harry Stinson on drums and the newest member, bassist (and steel guitar player) Professor Chris Scruggs. The band laid down a honky tonk groove so powerful it could peel paint off the walls. It was a rare occasion that this band played such an intimate venue, outside Nashville, where one could easily touch the performers and this edition of the Open Highway Music Festival gave fans that opportunity to watch the ambassador of Country music that close.
Just to remind people of the eclecticism of the crowd make up, the band launched into a version of "I Know You Rider," a song that is associated with the Grateful Dead but it's roots trace back to Blind Lemon Jefferson. To see Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is a history lesson in Country, Folk, Blues, Rock and Roll, Gospel and Bluegrass. He has taken that history and processed it through his unique style that comes out traditional but completely fresh. The band rocked through songs like George Jones' "Old, Old House," Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," Marty Robbins' "El Paso" but of all the hits Stuart had in the 90's only "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "Tempted" found their way early into the set. This made room for the band to showcase their talents as musicians, singers and songwriters with Stuart stepping aside to let each member shine. Even though Gospel is a staple in every show during the encore we sent a little prayer up to a great icon we recently lost as the band played a high octane version of "Mama Tried" with everyone's voices lifted into the rafters.
"Hey Pokey!" Stuart said looking off to the side of the stage where St. Louis' own Pokey LaFarge was hanging out, even though he was trying his best to be somewhat inconspicuous wandering through the crowd. "They called me and asked if we wanted to play St. Louis. I said ask Pokey, this is his city, if he's ok with it, we'll play" and that moment summed up the evening. Whether it was Cory Branan pounding out his signature songs or the powerhouse that is the Fabulous Superlatives, it was a good for many to stay out past their bedtime, sweating the St. Louis humidity on a Wednesday night to see an intimate show cranked to eleven.
Photos by Monica Mileur
Here is where I got in trouble on Saturday. I was standing at the back wall of the Firebird, briskly tapping out some thoughts in the Notes app of my phone. As a too-frequent brilliant-idea-forgetter, I tend to take a lot of notes. I’d relocated to this particular spot in the club so that no one in the audience would be behind me, and—for reasons that will seem almost exasperatingly prescient in a moment—I’d actually even dimmed the brightness of my phone’s display before the show.
Here is what I was writing when I got in trouble on Saturday, basically verbatim:
Plague Vendor singer. Stage moves (what else to call them: surely he doesn’t move like this in real life?). A not un-mesmerizing combination of Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, and Kathleen Hanna. (I’m pretty sure I just saw him do the splits.) Or maybe it’s more like Mick Jagger plus Glenn Danzig. Does KC+MJack+KH=MJag+GD? Compared to this singer—violently lean, attractively all over place—everyone else in the world looks just a little more like Dave Attell by comparison.
Are these the most brilliant notes ever? Probably not. Did I bang all of this out with my thumbs in response to a performance that I was actually enjoying, even though Plague’s Vendor’s music itself doesn’t totally do it for me? You betcha. Is this how I actually write? Yes, unfortunately.
Here is what I was not doing when I got in trouble on Saturday. During one song, the singer of Plague Vendor, Brandon Blaine, had coaxed the audience into crouching low to the floor as the music got quieter. I had not personally crouched, however, assuming that this interaction was optional. This was the point at which point Blaine called out from the stage: “Who’s that guy with the cell phone? What are you doing? Don’t you know where you are?” It was me. I gave a little wave of my phone to him, screen-side, and crouched down, eager to know where this knee-bendingly important group adventure was headed. Then the music kicked back in, and Blaine jumped off the stage—looking a little like the Nike Air Jordan logo—and the rest of us stood up again.
Here is what I was writing when I got in trouble for the second time, also basically verbatim:
We all crouched down to the floor and then got back up. It felt like when you’re at your aunt’s second wedding, and the house band is playing Otis Day’s “Shout” and brings everyone down to the floor for “getting a little bit softer now, etc.” Not sure what we just gained by this, collectively. And plus I just got in trouble.
So yes, even after the initial admonishment, I’d continued to use my phone to take notes, for which Blaine called me out again after the song ended: “That guy is back on his phone? Really?! There’s no Pokemon here, bro!” (Full disclosure: he may not have actually said “bro” at the end, but it just kind of felt that way to me—either way, an antagonizingly masculine inflection for sure.) I waved my phone at him again in recognition, which I assumed was our “thing” now.
Before I got in trouble, I’d written a note that said: Mike Patton. That Blaine reminded me, if only even fractionally, of the charismatic genius weirdo behind Faith No More seemed like a pretty generous comparison to which I could give a little more consideration once I got home with my notes. After I got in trouble, though, I wrote: Donald Trump. That Blaine sought to prescribe a single, monolithic way for the audience to experience his short time on stage seemed unnecessarily authoritarian. That he was unwilling to tolerate an averted gaze or a potentially divided attention seemed kind of needy. That he used his position of power to specifically call out and chastise a single audience member made him seem at least a little like a bully.
I would love to be able to take back and disavow all of the nice things I’d initially written about Blaine, but that’s not how notes work. Notes accumulate and compound, adding up. Notes don’t want you to erase them, but rather to let them reveal.
Before the whole thing with Plague Vendor, here is what I’d written about local favorites Bruiser Queen, who opened the show. These notes, for which I did not get in trouble, are also transcribed here pretty much verbatim, because I want to call attention to the spirit of inclusivity that I had been feeling up to that point:
BQ remind me of a band playing at a high school dance in a mainstream '80s movie. In those scenes, you get the sense of that band is, like, the best band in that school, well-liked by the widest possible assortment of tastemakers, burnouts, mathletes, and weirdos. They are for everyone.
The already very good Bruiser Queen just keep getting better, and their set had several great new songs and absolutely no filler. I had been really having a good time.
After the whole thing with Plague Vendor, who played second, we finally got to see White Lung. Tearing through tracks from Sorry, Deep Fantasy, and Paradise, frontwoman Mish Barber-Way navigated rock-and-roll theatricality and hardcore ethos, diminishing the need for a difference between the two. Guitarist Kenneth William inhabited the upper registers of his instrument with a restless accuracy, creating an urgent architecture of cascading notes. Drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou played unimpeachably, at once stead and fast.
White Lung’s set drew largely from their newest record, Paradise (Domino, 2016), which is one of the strongest and most unexpectedly listenable albums of the year. Embracing both an expanded sonic scope and a calculated de-escalation of the throat-shedding vocals of their earlier work, Paradise adapts White Lung’s energy to new ends. Their anger and aggression has become more beautiful now, precise, verging on perfect, as though they have learned that scathing incision is best made with a scalpel, not a kitchen knife.
I didn’t take many notes during White Lung’s set, despite wanting to. Maybe I was worried that getting back on my phone would seem like a kind of vaguely political position—a low-level civil disobedience, when in fact I actually consider it a high-level crutch. Maybe I started to worry less about memory, and more about the moment. Maybe Plague Vendor won. Or maybe I just did what I wanted—notes or not. I’m tempted to posit the latter; White Lung is uncommonly empowering.
Without my notes, though, what I maybe remember most is that after this all-ages show, I was standing in the merch line behind a girl and her companion, who may have been her older brother or her youngish dad. The girl’s nascent edginess was offset by her age-appropriate braces, and I got the sense that this show was a big deal to her. Behind the table, Mish Barber-Way from White Lung was chatting with fans, taking shirts out of boxes, recommending sizes. (“This one might run kinda big—you definitely need the Small.”) The girl was nervous about meeting Barber-Way, which she explained to her companion. I think I heard her say “kind of my hero” (with which I kind of agree, personally). At the front of the line, the girl and the singer spoke for a minute, and after some initial gushing, Barber-Way came out from behind the table to pose for a photo, taken by the companion with his phone. When it was my turn, I bought a black White Lung t-shirt without saying much—newly committed, at least for the moment, to going unnoticed.