All too often, St. Louis is overlooked by touring musicians from near and far, leaving the music fan limited in their options as their favorites drift by at a distance. For the dedicated, this can sometimes mean a short road trip and a weekend away, but when the Parisian electro-swing septet Caravan Palace came to Chicago last Saturday, the excitement of a packed house spilled across the globe in a live-streaming event. House of Blues Chicago was a welcoming host to this all-ages event.

The experience began with the venue itself, nestled in the shadow of Chicago's famous Marina Towers. The doors opened even before the early 6:30 time printed on the tickets, but the line of eager young fans, dressed in an array of retro fashions that occasionally glanced off the desired swing era chic, stretched down N. Dearborn St. nearly to the river and was bustling in excitement. Despite the franchise tag, the building had a classically formal design, dressed in velvet and wood molding and surrounded by art in many forms. High above the floor, the room extended with two balconies, graced with traditional opera boxes on either side and a wide mural depicting religious unity across the top of the stage. While the performance would be shared with the world, the character of the venue belonged only to the ticket holders.

Chicago's Inverse Universe had the honor of opening the show. The duo of Tyler Thompson and Adam Stephens mixed live drums and guitar with sample driven production. Largely focused on creating music deeper than two musicians can offer live, they delivered a groovable final product that was well received by the young crowd. They built their set well, increasing the energy as they progressed and received a particularly explosive reception to a track that blended samples of Dr. Dre and Marvin Gaye.

Anticipation climaxed between acts as the venue's playlist of jazz tunes suddenly dropped and the stage went black. The familiar sound of Caravan Palace's "Comics" and the introductory sample loop slowly filled the air, until light exposed the band at the first drop of the beat. The stage offered ample open space at the center, accommodating a variety of active instrumentalists, vocalists and even dancing as the night moved on. At the back right of the stage, Mighty Mezz and his arsenal of DJ equipment stood atop a low platform, fronted by a large neon light shaped like "<I°_°I>," the visual title to their 2015 album, referred to as "Robot Face." The rest of the instruments surrounded the stage in a squared off horseshoe, and the team of multi-instrumentalists would do their share of running from point to point.

Looking to ignite the crowd early, they moved quickly to "Lone Digger," the most popular track from the new album, and vocalist Colotis Zoé's first chance to shine. Principally the center of attention, Zoé made a number of wardrobe changes throughout the set, coordinated with a well-polished stage show. Her vocals ranged from swingy jazz in the likes of Billie and Ella to fast and frantic hip-hop rhymes and she displayed the persona to match. Late in the set, a little burlesque flavor entered the show as she teased other bandmates from a stool and enticed the crowd with little swings of the hip that made her skirt pop up in back. "Tattoos," another popular track finished the set, culminating with Zoé and Mighty Mezz showing off their swing dancing skills.

Caravan Palace's distinctive electro-swing style sounds like it could have been simply created using samples and DJ techniques but, in fact, is created by a team of musicians with talents across many instruments. Chapi was often at the forefront with the clarinet and baritone sax, never more prominently than the driving sax riff of "Wonderland," and boasting the ability to be nimble on his feet as well as across the keys of the clumsy horn. He was often joined in the open stage by Hugues Peyen, whose contributions included the violin and picking up the microphone for a number of rapid-fire scat sessions. 

Peyen also joined the barrage of synthesizers at the left of the stage. This area was Charles Delaporte's home and playground for the show, offering not only synthesizers but also a stand-up style, electric contrabass that drove many of the jazzier moments of the set. Arnaud Vial played a similar role on the guitar and a computer based instrument of his own at the right of the stage. The crème de la crème of this backline team was Paul-Marie Barbier who managed to gain the spotlight with his instrumental prowess alone. Often running around every section of the stage, he was the sole provider of the piano and keyboard, as well as an electric vibraphone where he offered a few solos during the show.

The set featured a majority of their most recent releases but didn't neglect their earlier work by any measure and included a cover of Lead Belly's "Black Betty," prompting the crowd to sing along with the chorus. While not often singing, the crowd was regularly prompted to clap along and to jump for the most exciting moments, a request that thoroughly shook the floors of the entire building. They concluded with a two-song encore, opening with "Star Scat," from their 2008 eponymous release that featured Mighty Mezz using autotune to create a deeply funky scat riff before "Brotherswing," a song released on the same album concluded in a danceable fashion.

While the venue holds 1,000 and was nearly full, Yahoo Music offered a live stream of the show on loop for the next 24 hours, available and promoted to a much larger crowd. Quick glances to the stream showed a production equal to the performance in its excellence. While nothing can replace the live experience, even fans stuck in St. Louis were able to enjoy the French band for the excitement of their U.S. tour. Blending yesterday's big band swing with today's technology and urban styles, Caravan Palace creates an unmatched performance to be enjoyed in whatever means available.

Setlist: Comics, Lone Digger, Suzy, Midnight, Wonderland, Clash, Je m'amuse, 12 Juin 3049, Wonda, Black Betty, Jolie Coquine, Aftermath, Tattoos / Encore: Star Scat, Brotherswing


Photo by Wil Wander. 

 

As I paid for an upon-arrival beer at the Ready Room last Saturday night, the bartender looked at me for an extra second or as he sought to determine whether I was someone whom he recognized or, more precariously, whether I was someone whom he should recognize. (Spoiler alert: I was neither.)

Him: "Hey, do I, uh, are you in a band?"

Me: "I wish! Those guys are cool."

Him: "Yeah, I guess."

We were both right. People in bands are sometimes kind of cool, and then they are also sometimes just whatever; in this respect, people in bands are exactly like people in anything.

What people in bands do well, though, is projecting confidence of one sort or the other. With my own image misinterpreted in the truth-obscuringly dim lights of the bar, I ruminated on how music takes on its human forms. Who literally embodies the making of music and how we can tell. To be fair, I may have appeared at least a little band-possible that night--black T-shirt, professionally concealable tattoos, visible sleep deprivation. I'm pretty sure, though, that difference between me and people in bands is more than just a shared inattention to formalwear and healthy habits. People in bands make music--nightly, loudly--and I, on the other hand, spend a lot time alone with a computer. For example, you can be sure that I'd already fact-checked the grammatical tic by which the adjective "Formidable" follows the noun "Joy" in the name of the band that I'd come to see that night. (Spoiler art: postpositive adjective.)

The opening band, Drowners , not only looked likeguys who are in a band, but also attained a near-pinnacle of look itself--effortless, uncaring, confident, cool. (To an almost profound lack of surprise, I later learned that singer Matthew Hitt is also a professional model.) If I resembled these guys at all, it was in t-shirt color only, but at least they sounded good live. Almost too good, actually. I couldn't help but feel that this New York-based five-piece lacked a certain damage--that unaffectable out-of-placeless wherein even the most seemingly banal actions take on desperate stakes. Damage, in other words, is the constant state of near-failure that no amount of practice or experience can ever console. Drowners, on the other hand, had a magnetic cool reminiscent of The Strokes, both sound-wise and style-wise. Their sound straddled an insouciant 1960s and a retro-futurist 1980s with enviable ease; the problem was that they didn't even seem to even have to try.

The Joy Formidable pulled off much more with much less. Over the span of four albums, this Welsh trio have established an almost cinematic sonic vocabulary that is at once audacious and vulnerable. Their stadium aspirations are grounded in an emotional urgency, and their pop-sensible songwriting antagonizes conventions of structure and sustainability. Loud, long, and occasionally obvious, The Joy Formidable transpose the ordinary subject matter of songs--the inscrutability of the other, the inscrutability of the self--into something larger than everyday life. On stage, they carried that burden with little room for mistakes. Led by singer and guitarist Rhiannon "Ritzy" Bryan, the trio featured no additional guest players but pursued a stripped down self-reliance. The headphone-ready textures, synths, and strings that prop up their records were either rebuilt into the riffs or jettisoned altogether, as though traveling light is the best way to sound heavy. (Drummer Matt Thomas did have a gong, but he used it judiciously.)

Their set alternated between focused songs that are almost aggressively enjoyable ("Cradle," "I Don't Want to See You Like This") and meandering, lost-sounding tracks ("Silent Treatment," "The Last Thing on My Mind"). In both cases, though, the band performed with force and life. Too polished to be considered improvisational, one sensed instead that The Joy Formidable are profoundly open to one another--listening and responding, playing and being playful. As an encore, Bryan and bassist/pianist Rhydian Dafydd stepped down from the stage for an unplugged version of "The Brook" from their most recent record, Hitch. The otherwise okay song came alive in this context as the encircling audience self-silenced: "You're here with me / Alive with me / A glowing heart that blinds the tired game." We listened carefully as they sang without the safety of volume, and there, on the floor, the band could have easily been mistaken for one of us--not the other way around.

 

Click below to see the full set of photos by Dustin Winter. 

The Joy Formidable (with Drowners) at The Ready Room 6/11/16

 

When you overhear a dad say to an acquaintance "This is my son's first concert" and the guy responds, "This is a great show to call your first," and then the kid flashes a huge smile, you know you're in for a good night.

With a sold-out, all ages crowd packed into the Pageant on Wednesday night, New York City-based newcomer Solo Woods had his work cut out for him. As the opener Woods introduced a handful of original tunes and mostly got the audience to interact upon command but only truly recovered by adding "Burnin And Lootin'" by Bob Marley and The Wailers into his 45-minute set.

With a five-piece band and backing vocalist Brittni Jessie, Leon Bridges hit the stage and brought visuals to the record-hop stories my mom used to tell me as a kid. The after-school dances, usually held in school gyms, were the place to be in the 60s if you had any ounce of cool; the place to get down to James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Aretha Franklin.

Sporting his signature dapper style of a blazer, button-down and slacks, the Texas native has been sort of a savior to classic soul in the last year. Having released his acclaimed debut Coming Home in 2015 -- for his hour-long set of 50s doo-wop and 60s soul, Bridges took everyone back in time to a moment when soul music was smooth and guys wore suits and ties just cause.

The singer moved with an ease and excitement that only studying the greats could create. Performing crowd favorites, including "Better Man," "Brown Skin Girl" and "Lisa Sawyer," to which many couples slow-dragged to, the 26-year old songwriter included new songs, all which are available on the deluxe version of Coming Home.

Stating early on, "This is my first time in St. Louis and I'm having a good old time," Bridges sang about his love for an uptown girl on "Daisy Mae" and simply having "Mississippi Kisses" down in New Orleans, a song that really got the audience moving and shaking.

Picking up his guitar one of only two times during the night to perform the minimalist "River" and to tackle Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" with surprise guest and St. Louis fave Pokey LaFarge, it's safe to say good times were had by all. By the end of the night, the entire crowd was chanting "Leon, Leon, Leon." 

 

Photos by Monica Mileur.

Click here to see the complete collection of photos.

 

An excited Roy Kasten, DJ of KDHX's Wednesday morning show Feel Like Going Home, jumped on the Twangfest stage goading the crowd to make more noise before the return of Alejandro Escovedo. "Twenty years ago, can you imagine this started in a ditch out by the airport!" The night held a sense of wonder, revelry and excitement for the sold out crowd as the 20th Twangfest drew to a close. This past Saturday night saw festival veterans the Sovines, the Waco Brothers and Escovedo return to St. Louis. Summer finally arrived with it's heat and humidity inside the walls of Off Broadway making it the perfect way to end the festivals long, strange and continuing trip. It was another night of musical joy that brought these three veterans back whom played the stage over the years.

When asked how many people attend the inaugural night, from the stage, Sovines guitarist Matt Benz raised his hand enthusiastically. There was an electricity flowing through the crowd as the band took the stage. This electrical current sparked an energy inside the band to celebrate their career along with this festival. Twenty years later these boys from Columbus, Ohio came back and were ready to play as if it were 1997. The first notes of this tough as nails, hard hitting classic-rock influenced country outfit kicked the party into gear. Singer, rhythm guitarist and saxophonist Bob Starker wailed each song with a rough twang that meant business. His voice, along with sax tone, is not that of a smooth country crooner but a blue-collar rocker ready for a fist fight after a few too many. Drummer Pete English and bassist Ed Mann held a deep and heavy pocket driving the songs hard whether it was played at trucker speed pace or a New Jersey R&B bar band groove à la South Side Johnny and Asbury Dukes. Benz, with his Telecaster and Gibson SG, dug into each lead and riff elevated by the energy of the band and audience. "We might be 19 years older and 10 years slower," Mann proclaimed, but even those years did not seem to slow this quartet down.

In his tan cowboy hat, black shirt and boots, John Langford roamed Off Broadway throughout the beginning of the night casually taking in what Twangfest has become since the Waco Brothers played the first year of the festival. They brought the filth and the fury of their punk rock legacy mixed with a love of American honky tonk. The room exploded with the bands opener "See Willy Fly By," and the bands intensity never let up. It was working-class rock 'n' roll with the spirit of punk rock, which Langford embodies from being apart of the original British punk movement as member of the Mekons.

As the Mekons began to expand their sound, they became students of British folk and American country music these elements, along with a take no prisoners attitude is crucial to the Waco Brothers sound. Bassist Alan Doughty played the Off Broadway stage with an energy compared to an ADHD Paul Simonon but always grooving deep in the songs. Drummer Joe Camarillo drove the band, elevating each song with a power that makes their studio recordings sound tame. Langford, guitarist Dean Schlabowske and mandolinist Tracey Dear took turns providing lead vocals. The British accent of both Langford and Dear draws comparisons to Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash, whom the band is compared and with good reason being that the Waco Brothers still maintain the punk ethos. "Plenty Tough -- Union Made" and "Had Enough" are two songs where the British influence, live, is prevalent, while Schlabowske brings an American edge with his vocals, much closer to Americana traditions.

The band ran the gamut of songs from their catalog only to increase the emotion with the Bobby Fuller Four classic (as done by the Clash) "I Fought the Law" and T. Rex's "20th Century Boy." "I don't even know how much longer we can play," Langford said before seeing one of the crew say they had time for one more and with that one last song the band launched into "Folsom Prison Blues." The Waco Brothers expunged most of the characteristics of the Johnny Cash original other than melody and chords. They blasted with punk rock abandon that made Social Distortions version of "Ring of Fire" tame and ready for a yacht-rock compilation.

The crowd was now dripping in sweat and gasping for air from the Waco Brothers and St. Louis' heat and humidity. There were secret rumblings on how Alejandro Escovedo was going to compare to the filth and the fury they had just witnessed. Instead of trying to out power the Waco Brothers, Escovedo and his band took the stage creating a deep and sensual atmosphere with the song "Baby's Got New Plans." His voice along with the sparse and growing arrangement took the crowd to a new musical realm. They continued to build that sensuality and intensity that wrapped the audience softly but firmly in his hands through the song "Bottom of the World." The mood then shifted with the opening notes of "Sally Was a Cop." There was a heaviness to the air now that pinned the audience and held them ready to explode with excitement. Escovedo directed each member of the band in solos pushing them to go deeper with more intensity. Snarky Puppy guitarist Chris McQueen pushed his playing from melodic to noise that the rest of the band built on before cellist Brian Standefer was cued to take over. Once Standefer reached a climax Escovedo wailing feedback pushed the band. Drummer Scott Laningham, bassist Daniel Durham and keyboardist Sean Giddings propelled Escovedo and the others deeper in the song. It was this point that Escovedo and the band conquered the stage. "I received some good news before coming here," he said, talking about his battle with Hepatitis C, a disease that crippled him for a number of years. "I was able to get on a new drug and I received word that I have a clean bill of health." As if celebrating 20 years of festival was not enough, the crowd also celebrated a man's music they love and the fact he conquered his health issues. The band then went into the song "Arizona" which documents his struggles up until writing and recording The Boxing Mirror.

"Come on, Alejandro Escovedo!" Roy Kasten, yelling into the mic, waved his hands in the air to make the crowd scream louder, "That's not loud enough!" At the end of the night the audience was in for a few more surprises than they had expected. During the encore Escovedo and the band covered Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep" after which he welcomed a surprise guest to the stage. Last year saw the reunion of Nadine at Twangfest, a band whose roots in St. Louis run deep and their music is still a staple on the KDHX dial. "I would like to welcome a good friend of mind," Escovedo said, "Jimmy Griffin." Griffin was the guitarist for Nadine along with his own group the Incurables. It is unclear how much this was masterminded by Twangfest originators, John Wendland and Roy Kasten, or by Escovedo himself, but for those in St. Louis to see one of our own join Escovedo and his band for a version of Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" was a perfect way to send off the 20th anniversary of this festival.

 

Photos by Colin Suchland.

Click here to see the complete collection of photos.

 

I made my way across the river to the first night of Twangfest 20 headlined by James McMurtry, Wussy and the Vondrukes at Off Broadway. As the sun slowly made its decline and nestled itself behind the St. Louis skyline I made a promise to myself not to repeat the adventures of last year. When the night ended I found myself with one, maybe two, more drinks than I could handle. I slurred my words with proficiency to members of Lydia Loveless' band while my counterpart that evening disappeared on the dark streets outside Off Broadway. There is a certain magic that happens when the crew Twangfest takes over the venue that makes it hard to daintily sip a pint of beer and shot of bourbon.

It was a beautiful night on the patio, a perfect calm before the heat and humidity overtakes the city and inside St. Louis' own the Vondrukes took the stage. The body heat from the audience crept into the room and it seemed that the beginnings of summer was upon us. The band seamlessly weaved Neil Young influenced riffs, the Tex-Mex of Calexico, pure unadulterated 60s garage rock, Cowpunk and 70s funk influenced rock à la the James Gang into a cohesive set that staked out their sonic territory. The soaring trumpet Justin Ellis made me question what flavor spirit was residing in my hand. They marched through the set with a rhythm section of Jeff Griswold on bass, guitarist Jason Kettler, additional keyboards provided by Ellis and drummer James Baker. Rhythmically they navigated a range of styles and tempos leaving riff-meister Bob McKee to dig his guitar some where between the heaviness of Tony Iommi and Neil Young. A key component to the Vondrukes is the lead vocals of both Griswold and McKee that when harmonizing with Allison Williamson gave each song a little extra piece of ear candy.

The audience made their way outside for some fresh air and whatever poison they decided to indulge in. Another pint of beer and some of Kentucky’s finest was quickly paid for. I stared at each drink remembering the promise I made on that 20 minute drive across the river and in that time a wash of sound erupted from the stage as Cleveland natives Wussy made their presence known to the Twangfest crowd. A wash of sonic textures from clean angular riffs and distorted echoes bellowed over the propulsive back beat of drummer Joe Klug and the ecstatic bouncing of bassist Mark Messerly. The room started to get a bit warmer in the sea of their sonic textures and that pint of beer tasted better with every sip. The dueling vocals and guitars of Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker was a sweet and sour mix doused with John Erhardt's pedal steel and guitar which at times sounded like he dragged them through the vortex of hell and back. “I want to thank KDHX for playing our music,” announced Messerly with pure delight while the rest of the band was genuinely happy that the crowd allowed them to blast their sonic pop experiments with songs like “Teenage Wasteland,” “To the Lightening, “Halloween” and “Hello I'm a Ghost.”

It took a few moments to catch my bearings from the sonic assault of Wussy and outside, in the fresh air, my ears, almost, returned to normal. I could hear the clanking of the band getting set up and a brief sound check which was my cue, one more drink. Just one more and I would cut myself off for the night. I took my spot at the back of the venue as McMurtry and boys cranked into the first song. The sold out crowd and opening grooves from Bayou Tortous brought some Texas heat from these Austin based cats. Instead of strumming an acoustic guitar McMurtry lit up his electric guitar and laid into each song while drummer Daren Hess and bassist Cornbread gave each song a propulsion exceeding it's studio counterpart. It was just a glimpse into the midnight rambles they hold at the Continental Club in Austin.

That familiar humidity of summer from this river city crept into the club, each sip tasted a little bit better than the last but soon I forgot I even had a drink in my hand. McMurtry's cool demeanor made him appear as a musical card shark which kept the crowd in the palm of his hand and on edge for the next song. The set progressed with “Just Us Kids” to “How'm I Gonna Find You Now” where guitarist Tim Holt turned the trio into a quartet, as McMurtry would state, “He (Holt) joins us as he pleases.” Along with adding guitar counterpoint, Holt also lent a multi-instrumental prowess to the set playing accordion on songs like “Copper Canteen” and “You Got Me.” McMurtry shocked the crowd with “Choctaw Bingo” in the middle of the set, a song that has become a signature, but instead of draining the crowd of energy, the unspoken question was “What's next?” He slowed the tempo taking the stage solo for “These Things I've Come to Know,” which became a study in musical tease bringing the audience up, down and then flooring them through the encore with the title cut from his first album Too Long in the Wasteland.

The house lights went up and everyone filtered to the patio or their cars. It was the first night of McMurtry's tour and fitting that it was also the first night of Twangfest. It was a night of sonic pleasure kicked off by the Vondrukes to the auditory wash of Wussy and capped off by one of the poets of Americana, James McMurtry. Out on the patio I felt the cool breeze wash over me with the urge to have just one more. To complete the night by sitting back, looking to the sky and comprehending the musical pleasures the night held. No, I had a 20 minute drive across the river and an alarm clock set for 5 A.M.

Photos by Colin Suchland.

Click here to see the complete collection of photos.

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