Concert review: Ben Folds delights a sold-out Pageant, Sunday, January 30

Ben Folds at the Pageant

Nate Burrell

It was a packed house on Sunday evening, and for those who are prone to showing up fashionably late, you may have missed the opening number. Ben Folds and his band came out promptly before the 9 o’ clock hour even struck. They hit the stage with the enthusiasm of a high school football squad breaking through the team banner, parading around the stage with their fists in the air, doing push-ups and jumping around the drum riser in tongue-in-cheek mock enthusiasm. The moment was goofy, playful and silly — themes that would resonate throughout the duration of their 2-and-a-half hour performance at the Pageant.

The crowd laughed and cheered, the antics concluding with Ben Folds shaking his butt at the audience and then repeatedly bouncing his piano stool against the keys of his Baldwin like a circus performer.

This was trademark Ben Folds: not taking himself too seriously and infusing a good dose of humor into the night. After working out a bit more of his spastic energy, Ben took a seat at the piano with his backing band in tow — a drummer, bassist, acoustic guitarist/percussionist and a keyboardist/horn player — and began what would be an often entertaining, relentlessly enthusiastic evening that spanned 20+ songs.

Things began with “Levi Johnston’s Blues” and “Doc Pomus” off the new record, Lonely Avenue. The band was tight as was to be expected with a veteran performer of Ben Fold’s caliber, though the energy that their introduction incited did seem to wane substantially with the choice of opening songs. This ebb-and-flow of energy seemed consistent throughout the evening as there were several changes in the show’s format.

The array of emotions was quite varied during the first half of the show, from the silly absurdity of the band’s cover of Ke$ha’s “Sleazy” to the heartfelt and touching performance of “Cologne”. As the show picked up pace and finally settled in, things suddenly came to a screeching halt. For 10-15 minutes—though it felt much longer—Ben Folds directed the crowd with video cameras and sing-a-long instructions for a YouTube video they produce for each of their shows.

The crowd participated and were mostly willing and enthusiastic participants, even chiding a few potential hecklers who seemed restless at the interruption.

After the prolonged delay, things kicked back in full-swing with an energetic performance of the upbeat tune “Effington.”

This energy didn’t last long, however, as the band left the stage and Ben launched into a handful of low-key solo numbers. Most of the songs were old requests of Ben Folds Five songs and were well-received by the audience. It was a strange shift in mood, though, with this start-and-stop sort of energy, which ultimately prevented the show from ever really finding one consistent flow.

After a handful of songs featuring just Ben and his piano, the band reformed and they launched right into “Annie Waits.” This was an obvious crowd favorite that gave those in attendance a chance to unleash some of their pent up excitement as much dancing ensued. The show hit a nice peak as a pleasing trio of high-energy songs followed including “Hiroshima,” “Zak and Sara,” and “You Don’t Know Me.”

It was a delightful evening for Ben Folds fanatics and the crowd seemed pleased to the end (the show ended with a two song encore of “Philosophy” and “Kate”). It was a diverse crowd on hand of all ages, though the appeal of Ben Folds to the evasive yet lucrative frat boy market was surprising.

Ben Folds brought to St. Louis a refreshing change of pace from the seriousness and brooding of much modern music, and he did so with the casual delivery of a seasoned veteran.

Concert review: Pre-ice storm triple threat with California Wives, Art Majors and Santah at the Firebird, Sunday, January 30

California Wives by Laura Gray

Laura Gray /

The calm before the storm made for an easy ride to the Firebird on Sunday night, off Olive in downtown St. Louis. The opening band, Santah, five musicians who met in Champaign, Ill., delayed its start time, hoping for more bodies to populate the venue. Eventually, the audience increased from 10 to around 50, as Santah delivered gorgeous, roaming bursts of drums, guitar, electric keys and excellent lead vocals (provided by brother Stan McConnell), tempered by equally excellent vocal backup (by sister Vivian McConnell). When I spoke with Vivian after the set, she said that one of her band’s biggest influences is Wilco. The short set included “White Noise Bed,” “No Other Women” and “Neighbors and Cousins (Are We Lovers).”

Next up, was the band Art Majors. The group hails from “just down the street,” said lead vocalist Michael Roche, who suffered from quite the head cold/flu. Despite the fact that he was sick, when the four musicians hit their stride, there was no stopping their blend of ’80s British goth influences like Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy. Drums beat like hooves as doom and gloom vocals slowed the pace and then hit a crescendo with soulful moments: the quartet strummed, pounded and located the zone. The band took me to the gallop of a Pegasus over a metropolis circa 1985 (but I’m kind of weird). Whether you’re into the Pegasus visual or not, Art Majors built their sound into a passionate, sonic peak that lifted off into soaring guitar beauty. The sound contracted and expanded, and then returned to a focused momentum. Stunning.

The headliner of the evening was California Wives (would love to know the origin of the name). Hearing songs like “Purple” and “Guilt” from the 2010 EP Affair, what becomes clear is this quartet’s skilled musicianship on keys, guitars, bass and drums. Its pop, post-punk, shoe-gazing sound blasts forth as from a tightly wound machine. I did find the vocals lacking; Jayson Kramer sounded somewhat fey and Dan Zima’s vocals, granted he too had the beginnings of a cold, did not complement the otherwise excellent music. That said, California Wives seem to be a band to watch. They plan to release a new single this winter and play SXSW in March.

Concert photos: Ben Folds at the Pageant, Sunday, January 30

Running on to the Pageant‘s stage, recklessly doing laps around the piano and various other instruments, Ben Folds had the crowd and his band jumping (literally) before he even played his first note.

After a lively first minute of welcoming the crowd with waves, poses and other animated hop-skips, Ben sat down at the Baldwin and hammered on the keys with the kind of class and taste that just makes you shake your head in appreciation. But the way he subtly built the energy and intensity of his songs was absolutely impressive. You could tell he was thrilled to be playing to the sold-out room — he was having fun, enjoying the excited energy flowing from the stage to the crowd and back, and it showed each time he did his finger dance across the ivory. Just an awesome performer. The packed house down on Delmar let him know with a booming applause after each song that he and his band are always welcome to come back to St Louis and run and jump around wildly on stage.

All photos by Nate Burrell. See more at my Flickr stream.

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Concert photos: Samantha Crain, Bobby Bare Jr. and Langhorne Slim at Off Broadway, Saturday, January 29

Three outstanding acts played to a sold-out room at Off Broadway last night. Samantha Crain started off the night with pared-down versions of her songs, accompanied only by Daniel Foulks on fiddle. The Oklahoma natives did not disappoint, and warmed the crowd up nicely for what was to come. Bobby Bare Jr. followed, upping the tempo and singing songs about his “emotions and feelings” at a rock & roll pace. By the time Langhorne Slim made it on stage, the energy in the room had risen to fever pitch. Slim’s signature swagger inspired the men to cheer and the women to swoon as he played for over an hour.

All photos by Kate McDaniel. See more at my Flickr stream.

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Album review: Charles Bradley finds a soul redemption on No Time for Dreaming

Charles Bradley - No Time For Dreaming

Charles Bradley
No Time For Dreaming

If there’s no time for dreaming then life becomes an abstract world of opportunity. Without dreams, life turns into a concrete jungle where one struggles to find the soul. From his small corner of America, Charles Bradley, at age 63, has seen the best, but just as often he’s known the worst of this struggle.

As a working-class man who, at times, could be considered a drifter of the U.S. interstate, Bradley sings about the no-collar blues of struggling to create what many of us were born with, opportunity. Born into a childhood of doubts, he joined the Job Corps to help him escape the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., which only proved to be an escape into a downward spiral of slaving as kitchen chef to survive. His chief source of happiness came from performing with a small group, which eventually disbanded due to the Vietnam War draft, and playing pick-up gigs when limited opportunities arose. After spending more than 20 years of his life floating from Brooklyn to Maine, to Canada, to Alaska, and to California, Bradley decided to return to Brooklyn where he would be discovered by Daptone Records, roughly 40 years after beginning to pursue his passion for music.

On his new studio album No Time for Dreaming, Bradley narrates a 60-year-long heartache, a painful, emotional cycle that brings down every instance of happiness. Bradley strains his raspy vocals to articulate the experiences that hurt his spirit when he revisits them in memory. But the joy of having put it all behind him shines, especially in his rich melodies, illustrated in the video single “The World (Is Going Up in Flames).”

At first listen of the album, his level of maturity is obvious in the ’60s soul sound, heavily influenced by the likes of James Brown, Bradley’s childhood idol, but also reflecting the smoother styling of Marvin Gaye. With lyrics such as “They don’t hear me cry, they don’t hear me try,” Bradley’s deepest struggles crackle, just as music did when vinyl was in its adolescent prime. A host of background singers comfort Bradley’s spirit with sensitive but sharp backing vocals.

Instrument wise, the album draws from a repertoire of percussion in the form of snare drums and cymbals, chimney piano keys, an assortment of guitars and preaching saxophones and horns courtesy of labelmate the Menahan Street Band. Those musicians provide a raw but carefully collaborated funk. Together they play up the nostalgic sound with evenly matched synergy and provide the background for the soul of the album. To sum up, on No Time for Dreaming listeners get a 40-year accumulation of blues, sorrow and pain mixed in with love and joy; the result is a blend of slow soul searching and upbeat funk.

The World (Is Going Up In Flames) by Dunham Records

New HD video from Ossie Dellimore

Another great new track from Ossie Dellimore. He’s one of the greatest artists out there.

Watch the full HD video here.

Concert review: Leon Redbone charms away the blues at the Old Rock House, Tuesday, January 25

Leon Redbone

The Old Rock House was already standing room only when I arrived on Tuesday night. Waitresses milled through low light into a host of well-dressed, mostly middle-aged folks sitting packed together at candlelit tables before the stage. And then Leon Redbone sidled with a cane up the stage steps like a ghost. Redbone’s piano man played him onstage with Anton Karas’s zither theme from The Third Man. By the time the man sat down on his stool with archaic guitar, gambler’s sunglasses, mustache and old hat all intact, he was all real.

Redbone almost immediately raised his glass of dark cocktail to the audience in keeping with his tradition of stage-drunkenness, and softened us up with some drawled wisecracks. He fiddled with his guitar throughout his musings and jokes. When he broke into song, guitar and voice, it was as if Gene Austin or Fats Waller had whispered in his ear, “C’mon, Leon.” And the songs were gorgeous. If he’s lost some of his pyrotechnical blues playing abilities over the last 4-or-so decades (which he barely has), his voice has grown richer, more textured, manifold and distinct: his rich crooning of “My Blue Heaven” warmed and enchanted the room; his drunken and debonair “Ain’t Misbehavin’” perfectly emulated some kind of wallowing brass, his voice like a well-greased hasp on some heavy, ancient door; and his near-heartbreaking ballad, “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven,” was delivered through a wry grin.

Which is likely the face he’ll wear to the end. Redbone asked his audience to slow down, come in from the gloom and flash and hurry of the world for an hour, take things at his pace. Not all the jokes are funny, but who cares? They may have not even been funny in the 1920s, but that’s why he tells them. He didn’t even feel the need to play the whole time, even sitting back and listening to his piano man play a couple of rollicking stride pieces, whistling, spidering his fingers, stomping. And though many of his songs and jokes carried a serious sentiment of aging and death, (“Will someone come up and finish this evening for me?”), he seemed resilient, a glad and goofy host of this steady tour through prewar blues, postwar Vienna and Italian opera. Everything he sang and played was rich and cared for and steeped in tradition beyond any shtick. Why would anyone question it? It sounds too good.

He ended the night with a yarn about a young Italian castrato, whom he then mimicked, and then somehow glided right into “Shine on Harvest Moon.” He bowed to the applause and catcalls and quietly exited the building through the side door. I watched him through the window, politely eluding autograph-opportunities, then disappearing around the rear of the building, probably descending into some speakeasy where Fats Waller sat dealing a hand.

R.I.P. Charlie Louvin, a voice for the ages

Charlie Louvin at Vintage Vinyl - April 2007

Charlie Louvin at Vintage Vinyl, April 2007. Photo by Jim Utz.

Sad to report that Charlie Louvin, at the age of 83, passed away early this morning, after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.

Louvin was a Country Music Hall of Famer and one of the most sublime voices in American music. After the death of his brother Ira, Louvin remained active throughout his later years, continuing to record and tour at a heady pace, and seeing some well-deserved recognition from a younger generation of fans of rock, folk and country music. He was a grand and warm gentleman, completely in love with singing and sharing his music with any audience that would listen.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlie twice: in 2007 and 2008; you may read the conversations here and here.

KDHX was honored to host the legend in the Magnolia Avenue Studios in April 2007 for an epic and very special live session on Bluegrass Breakdown.

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