Alt-country legend in the making, Margo Price has been putting in some heavy hours traveling the long, touring road, starting out from her main thoroughfare of Nashville, TN and making stops all throughout the States, including a special stop in St. Louis at the shotgun stage of Old Rock House on October 29.
"Y'all want to hear some shit-kicking country music?!" Price screams mid-performance, her long blond hair flowing beside her shoulders. Nobody in St. Louis would say no to that and the sold-out crowd at Old Rock House answers the call.
If you haven't heard of Margo Price yet, it's really just a matter of time before you do. With the release of her acclaimed 2016 debut record, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, she's now officially part of the country nouveau roster -- Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan, Daniel Romano -- country music that is less "alt-country" and more "country the way it's supposed to be." Purists will rejoice. Pupils will recognize.
When Price and her four-piece backing band take the stage, the crowd gathers in close succession, packing the small venue, top to bottom, jockeying for a good vantage point. (Insider tip for late-comers: at the Old Rock House, it's on the first floor, at the top of the stairs next to the engineer's booth.) When she begins the solo chords of "Since You Put Me Down," the band joins in after a few bars and the jovial crowd sings in unison -- "I killed the angel on my shoulder / when you left me for another." The melody makes me homesick for lost love and I want to hear a version of this song with an upright bass, in a Southern honky-tonk. These are the new classics, ready to accompany you on the bender of a lifetime. "You all sound beautiful," she commends the crowd on their singing prowess, but she's just being nice: crowd sing-a-longs are rarely in time or key.
Price's music is made unique by her similarity to country pioneers who came before and by a superfluous singing voice that floats above antiquated western progressions, with new songs that give a gracious nod to the jukeboxes of yore -- they're as straight as a shot of Evan Williams, as sultry as an old record and a last cigarette. Her backing band makes easy work of the semi- country funk of "Tennessee Song," the 1-2 two-step of "Desperate and Depressed" and a new song titled "Paper Cowboy," which starts out as a West Texas waltz before flipping into a Nashville-style boogie. There's lots of phaser effect on the guitar, giving you that feel of entering drug-country.
Perhaps the most alluring aspect of her music is that it's executed in a way that the alternative world of country music desperately needs right now -- a strong, experienced female voice that can eclipse the echo chamber of the more polished country starlets operating today. Price easily showcases honest roots by creating songs that embody both tragedy and humor simultaneously. It's the self-deprecating, country outlaw, who is experienced enough to know trouble first-hand, but honest enough to admit she has no intention of stopping. That blurred edge is the perfect landscape for the style of songwriting that Price adheres to -- she tells a story, usually one that is reflected from her own personal life, and tips her cowboy hat to it before moving on.
Because Price has only the one album to rely on, she breaks out a few covers, breathing new life into songs like Kristofferson's "Bobby Mcgee," Cash's "Big River," and Haggard's "Red Bandana." It's enough to keep the energy of the show to a natural denouement. During her second single, "Hands of Time," she stops a few bars in to scold some front-row drunks holding a loud conversation. The crowd cheers and it's an inspiring moment to witness this talented artist not taking shit from anybody.
Price saves her first, tried and true single, "Hurtin' (on the Bottle)," for the end of the performance and the crowd goes wild. She comes across as a steady mix of Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn -- singing about jail time, lost children, jilted love -- all while keeping the necessary wit that all ne'er-do-wells know all too well. In all likelihood, this song will go down in music history as the first great drinking song of the new century, right up there with "Friends in Low Places" and "The Bottle Let Me Down." In fact, listen for it wherever drunken Karaoke singers gather. That's how legends are made.
On Saturday night, the Pageant struck me as equally too big and too small, as though I'd somehow stumbled into the hotel from The Shining or the house from House of Leaves. For Tegan and Sara, the space barely seemed to contain their energy, sound, and style. I half expected a surprise twist at the end of the show where the roof and walls pulled away to reveal that we'd been in a stadium the whole time. For the opener Torres, however, the size of the live venue seemed at odds with the almost dangerous intimacy that her recorded music requires of its listener.
To be fair, Torres is probably the artist I have recommended more often than any other in the last two years. Writing and performing as Torres, Georgia-born musician Mackenzie Scott creates songs that are beautiful without seeming precious or breakable. A sense of loss pervades her music, alternating between quiet moments -- as though whispered through a confessional -- and ragged, cinematic rock that is urgent yet thoroughly textured. Her most recent album, Sprinter (Partisan Records 2015), is stunning in its songcraft, from the driving dark pop of "New Skin" to the elegiac self-reflection of "Ferris Wheel." At the Pageant, however, her voice seemed to struggle against the sound of her band as it diffused across the stage and into the far-off heights of the mezzanine. Propelled by the sparse rhythm of a drummer who seemed practically allergic to cymbals, Torres mixed recognizable highlights like "Honey" and "Sprinter" with what felt like a lot of new material, including a synth-heavy song that appropriated Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" like it was a Halloween costume. But the louder parts of the set felt too anxious, overwhelming, and the quiet parts felt too far away to fully grasp. Torres's solo tour earlier this year -- including a show at The Firebird in January -- was perhaps better suited to her sound: up close, personal, heavy in a way that kind of crushes you.
Alternately, Tegan and Sara delivered an exuberant, expansive set that the Pageant seemed only barely able to contain. Dressed in matching outfits that combined the clingy, menacingly white jumpsuits from A Clockwork Orange with leather jackets reminiscent of the Ramones' burnout chic, sisters Tegan and Sara Quin traded songs throughout the set with a near-digital efficiency: "Sara" songs were followed by "Tegan" songs all the way down.
The band walked onto the stage to Le Tigre's synth-and-Casio cover of The Pointer Sisters's "I'm So Excited," which proved to be an impeccable choice. Throughout the evening, Tegan and Sara's essentially covered much of their own music by reconfiguring and recasting older songs in the bright, stylized synth-pop of Heartthrob (Warner Brothers 2012) and Love You to Death (Warner Brothers 2016). Like Lauren Hill's recent LouFest set, in which the acoustic energy of Miseducation underwent a space-age transformation, Tegan and Sara have retrofitted their back catalogue to catch up with their current trajectory. To wit: if we really want to crunch the numbers, Tegan and/or Sara played guitar on only three songs in the entire set.
After the initial surprise of an overly minimal "Back in Your Head," the revised versions nested neatly with newer standouts like "Closer" and "Boyfriend." The crowd still sang along with everything; to those whom their lyrics have indelibly affected, the differences in sound were as superficial as a change of clothes. Still, Tegan and Sara seemed to acknowledge their high-gloss makeover. Toward the end of the set, they thanked the audience for "letting us be the band we want to be." This sense of mutual respect and recognition was prominent throughout the night. In a series of short breaks that punctuated the set, Tegan and Sara stepped toward the middle of the stage -- literally sharing a spotlight -- to speak to the audience with what seemed like genuine appreciation. They presumably do this every night, in every city, but through their honest, joyfully awkward banter, they somehow found a way to make us love them more. From recounting a trip to the City Museum earlier that day ("Children squeeze themselves through what can only be described as sewer grates") to admitting past transgressions ("I stole a Snickers bar from a gas station while on acid when I was fifteen") to an all but requisite nod to our political moment ("Just because we're Canadian doesn't mean we're not ready for this election to be over"), Tegan and Sara were at once larger than life and as earthbound and boring as everyone else ("Let's see if we can still catch the opening monologue on SNL").
The most memorable moments of the night came out of these bits. Tegan and Sara were funny. They were fun. Their set was divided neatly into music parts and talking parts to the point that it was pretty clear they were putting on a kind of contemporary variety show. And they did it all while pushing their own music in new and celebratory directions. The night's performance was an experiment that could have easily failed if not for what appears to be an almost otherworldly confidence. They closed out the night with probably the best, totally charitable song on Love You to Death, "Stop Desire," and they did it like it was a super-easy thing to do.
At one point earlier on, a stranger whom I'd haphazardly befriended leaned over in the middle of a song and said "Write this in your review: I'm in heaven! " It seemed like a stretch, but I can't say I didn't believe her. Tegan and Sara had a similar effect on me, if not religiously than spatially. In the moment, I couldn't have imagined anything bigger.
When I listen to Mandolin Orange's newest album, Blindfaller, it makes me think of walking away from the campfire and down along the railroad tracks, with a heart full of love, toward or away from hazy trees like those on the cover in yellow-red gradient, low on the horizon. As though David Lynch led you down the hallway of one of his rustic cabins in the woods, Mandolin Orange quickly engulfs you, playing the songs you hope to hear next, like at a high-school dance, when you want to dance with the one you've had your eye on and the song finds the words you wish to say. Together Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, both multi-instrumentalists, create the fold of a simple symphony between their lyrics and their instruments. Beyond that, their songs are just down home country-good but with a broader political conscience than you might typically find even among the new alt-country.
The first time I listened to Mandolin Orange, it was so clear to me that they were masters of their instruments, playing them like they are counting pennies to make a dollar. So simple, so easy, and so skilled, it is easy to be intrigued by their playing and overlook the sentimentality of the lyrics that begin to unglue you, even if they're difficult to parse at times, which would be my one complaint. Just focusing on their harmonies is a great way to listen to their music but there is so much more. What is easy to grasp -- and what I find most enjoyable in their music -- are the wide expressions of love on Blindfaller.
Nearly every song is about a different aspect of time passing, like a sunset or a sunrise; they seem to move in circles, but like life, the effect ends up being more like cycles within a poem or a narrative. It's the kind of album you want to listen to over and over when you wish you were somewhere not in the city, witnessing the ever-changing array of seasons, thinking about some difficult things like parts of your relationships that are tough to navigate.
Together with Clint Mullican on bass, Kyle Keegan on drums, Allyn Love on pedal steel, as well as previous collaborator, Josh Oliver, on guitar, keys and vocals, Marlin and Frantz have made an album full of well-written and well-delivered songs with the air of instant classics, as Marlin hopes, the kind that others would want to cover. Their timeless playing and crafted lyrics send them well on their way to the stars. You just can't beat simplicity.
Beale Street came calling at the National Blues Museum when the Take Me to the River Band came up from Memphis October 14 and 15 loaded with music, an award winning documentary and an education program.
With a title taken from the song written by Al Green and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, the 2014 documentary Take Me to the River was a four-year effort by Director Martin Shore and a number of producers, including drummer/guitarist Cody Dickinson and Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, owner of the acclaimed Royal Studios in Memphis. In addition to paying homage to Memphis and its unique role as musical melting pot of blues, R&B, soul, jazz, rock and country, the film project also spurred an educational initiative to promote "a deeper understanding of history, culture, and the meaning of cross-generational and inter-racial collaboration."
Central to the story told in Take Me to the River are Stax and Hi Records. While Stax went bankrupt in 1975, the legacy never died and fundraising efforts to create a performing arts center and museum dedicated to its history led to the June 2000 creation of the Stax Music Academy. Interviews and historical clips provide background for a series of new recording sessions at Boo's Royal Studios in which blues legends like Bobby Rush, Bobby Blue Bland, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Clay, Booker T Jones, William Bell, Charles "Skip" Pitts, and Mavis Staples (who plays The Sheldon on November 5) paired with hip-hop stars Snoop Dog, Yo Gotti, Lil P-Nut, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy. The studio musicians and younger local players provided the smooth groove Memphis sound for the soundtrack
Boo Mitchell said the experience was "awesome" plain and simple. But, he said, getting pairings scheduled for the recording sessions was difficult and some, like BB King and Snoop Dogg, never worked out. When Snoop found out Stax legend William Bell was part of the group he told Boo, "William Bell is one of my heroes. I would love to work with him." The willingness to work and learn even among such accomplished artists is apparent. Boo cites rapper Frayser Boy: "Before TMTTR he had never worked with a live band and now he won't work without one." Several band members had been Stax Academy students in the film only a couple years ago; now they are on the road performing and teaching others.
Boo said his greatest joy was "putting the spotlight on the studio musicians" because, as his Dad used to tell him, "these are the guys you need to take care of because they are the ones that make the music." Boo's other joy is in "passing the torch" though the TMTTR educational initiative. It works in collaboration with Berklee School of Music City Music initiative providing teacher curriculum and music lessons for students in underserved communities.
As Jacqueline Dace, the Director of Internal Affairs for the National Blues Museum, reminded the sold-out room, that's what the TMTTR Band did in St. Louis earlier that day, extending the NBM's own education initiative. Thanking Boo, Willaim Bell, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy for how they worked that day with students from the Confluence Academy - Old North, Ms. Dace set the right tone for the evening's events in which all the lessons to be learned were on display in a program made up of numbers from the album, as well as selections from the Stax catalogue and the participating hip-hop performers.
Sharisse Norman, a young in-demand backup singer who's sweet voice backed many of the night's songs, got the music going with rapper, Tori, who gave a new twist to Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone."
Ashton Riker, a Stax Academy and Berklee grad, took on tunes by Stax icons Sam and Dave, Al Green, and Otis Redding. A big man with a big voice, Ashton got folks moving with "Hold On I'm Coming" and "Soul Man" and then transitioned smoothly into a rendition of "Love and Happiness." Riker's closing selections channeled Otis with Frayser Boy joining him onstage for renditions of "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" and "Try a Little Tenderness."
Hip-hop star Al Kapone, fired up everyone with the relentless energy of his song, "The Music," a tribute to Memphis music and history. It was also a tribute to what was happening on stage with the band that included the Stax Academy Director and alumni and the Hi Rhythm veterans: Boo Mitchell on keyboards, Leroy Hodge on bass and his brother Rev. Charles Hodge on the Hammond B3 organ.
Finally, the ageless William Bell showed everyone how soul should be sung with his song "I Forgot to be Your Lover" and a rousing version of "Knock on Wood" that drew back Al Kapone and Frayser Boy back onstage. The closing performance of "Take Me to the River" had everyone back on stage as the audience danced and sung along to Green's masterpiece. Truly, the National Blues Museum offered a night of joy, history and mighty fine music that, to borrow from Green, couldn't fail to "cleanse my soul and put my feet on the ground."
Everything was perfect about Marian Hill's performance at the Ready Room, October 4, 2016 -- maybe a little too perfect. Lead singer Samantha Gongol projected her movements across the room commanding the audience's attention as though they were watching a video. Gongol coordinated every song with her voice and being, nailing it time after time. Down dubby with sax and sultry vocals, with a wildly simple yet weird keyboard maybe sounds like it wouldn't work out, but it does. It doesn't hurt that the duo's production artist Jeremy Lloyd was just as in sync and synthesized.
The variety and maybe a little less precision (in a good way) came when Steve Davit entered on sax. Mostly as short solos, his playing made the crowd go nuts. Every time. It was slightly reminiscent of Morphine, maybe because they were an early band with notable saxophone featured in the slower alt-rock genre. But since Hill's sound is more electronic, the addition of the saxophone brought the compositions down a little bit in what was otherwise an overly formal structure. One highlight of the performance was when Gongol left the stage for what seemed like an impromptu jam session with Lloyd on keyboard and Davit on sax -- the result, at least, sounded less rehearsed than all of the recorded material the band has released. Otherwise, Marian Hill performed with little to no variance from the album full of electric beats and sound blending with a female vocal floating amidst the notes. I admit I was really hoping for more jamming or a closer look into the core of the band, maybe even a cover song (although I have a hard time thinking of a song they would cover, except possibly Sade.)
Of the other two bands on the bill, Shaed and VÉRITÉ, the latter was a mash up of Shiela E meets Dead Can Dance meets Flock of Seagulls. Overall, it's utterly confusing to think about how VÉRITÉ at times would sound like club music, at others slow down into what I could only describe as metrosexual rock. But to the band's credit, the crowd danced largely to VÉRITÉ, the poppiest of the three.
For me, however, it was Shaed that was the grand surprise. The band is made up of Chelsea Lee on vocals, Max Ernst and Spencer Ernst (twin brothers) on synthesizer and drums. Not knowing what to expect prior to the show, I was absolutely mesmerized. Having delved into the band since, I've enjoyed their first EP, Just Wanna See, on the strength of which they're now traveling in what appears to be their first tour. I look forward to checking them out when they come through town again.
On stage, things were pretty simple. There were vertical lights and house lights flashing different colors, and "SHAED" was printed in white caps on a black banner. Taken together the band looked slightly dressed up -- lots of elegant black, but the great energy of synthesis in their presence which, I think now, must have come from having played together for so long -- being able catching each others cues, and staying with and on top of the music. The brothers have been playing together since high school, and Chelsea Lee joined them back in 2013 when they called themselves The Walking Sticks. With that in mind, I congratulate them on their having found as great a label as Photo Finish (which they share with Marian Hill).
Looking back, maybe Shaed reminded me a bit of Fleetwood Mac or possibly Annie Lennox because of the shared simplicity of their lyrical approaches (and partially because the Lee's hair was long and flowy like Stevie Nick's). Of course, whenever you have a rocking diva female singer, with long beautiful locks and a high vocal range, it's always reminiscent of a band you already like (at least this is true for me). Whatever influences Lee may have inspired or been inspired by, she's got that kind of resonating voice that seems to come out of a cloud like a beam of light: glorious.