Concert review: Bo and the Locomotive and Union Tree Review double CD release party, with Pretty Little Empire and Oil Boom at the Firebird, Saturday, July 30

Bo and the Locomotive at the Firebird, July 30, 2011

Abby Gillardi

High fives and raised drinks abounded at the Firebird on Saturday night. The occasion for the celebratory conduct was the dual album release show for St. Louis indie rock bands, Bo and the Locomotive and Union Tree Review.

It was my first time seeing the two groups, but from the looks of things both had brought a following of devoted fans and friends to party with them.

A few of those friends included fellow St. Louis indie rock band Pretty Little Empire. Right off the bat the four-piece demonstrated that every member had solid singing abilities as they harmonized before collapsing into a maelstrom of drumming and strumming. The vibe had the makings of both a spirited hoedown and an energetic punk show, with lead vocalist Justin Johnson’s acoustic guitar anchoring each song. Lead guitarist William Godfred’s tricked-out Telecaster arbitrarily sent the band into space orbit grabbing the attention of the restless early crowd. As the set came to a close, Pretty Little Empire’s charisma seemed to peak — on “You Can’t Have It All” Johnson’s vocals swayed between pleading and maniacal while he attempted to strum an out of body experience.

“We come from an area that is also brick,” stated Oil Boom vocalist Brian Whitten. Two songs deep into the set (and even more drinks deep into the night), Whitten and his band from Dallas seemed less indie rock and more dive-bar rock. Of all the bands on the ticket, Oil Boom was the loudest, with multi-instrumentalist Sam Wade’s arsenal of effect pedals warping his keyboard at opportune times. Whitten, who looked like he had come straight from a casual Friday at the office, made for an animated front man, batting at imaginary fires on his button down’s sleeves and karate kicking the air at the conclusion of songs. His piercing vocals recalled both classic horror movie monsters and Billy Idol. The rambunctious set from Oil Boom was a good contrast to the more emotionally driven music of the other bands.

As the bar television played the action classic, “Break Point,” Bo Bulawsky launched into his set with the Locomotive. Bulawsky’s stage presence was reserved, yet he playfully interacted with the audience with an endearing force. During his first song, Bulawsky entered the crowd to sing a verse with the excitement for the release of his debut album “On My Way” apparent.

With the occasional prop of his glasses, Bulawksy dipped and dived with his guitar through his set; his nasally vocals seemed most salient to the performance. Many lyrics like “I left the forest to be with tourists” drew cheers from the audience and even more drinks were raised to Bulawsky’s delight.

Members of the Union Tree Review joined Bulawksy for his last song, but only after giving Bulawksy a pie to the face. Through the remnants of whipped cream, Bulawsky turned the Firebird into a dance party with a rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” featuring background dancing from the Union Tree. Bulawsky quickly segued into his “real” last song, which seemed all the more grand with two bands backing the elated singer. He walked off the stage on cloud nine.

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Concert review: Rock ‘n’ roll still alive and kicking with the Safes, Thee Fine Lines and Roundheels at the Firebird, Friday, July 29

The Safes

The Safes sound like they are ready to revive rock ‘n’ roll with their relentless punk sound — and they did just that last night at the Firebird.

Visiting from Chicago the band played this one-off show for an apparently big fan’s birthday party at the St. Louis club. And a good birthday it must have been. Everyone was moving, dancing and having a fine time. The Safes have just a couple of releases under their belt but a massive number of songs — the kind of songs that would make the Minutemen proud.

The opening acts aided the evening with high-quality, nervy indie rock. St. louis band Roundheels took the stage first, and although I’m not sure whether to compare them to Iggy and the Stooges or the Libertines, they ravaged through a energetic set complete with a howler on vocals (who’s only instrumentation was a megaphone with which he had quite a bit of fun) and loud, gnarly solos that would make Ron Asheton wail on air guitar.

But it was the second band, Thee Fine Lines from Springfield, Mo., who tore the joint up. With their chanting vocals and jerky rhythms they sounded as if hipsters hijacked the Descendents, or vice versa. You know it’s a raw rock show when the bassist has to keep a frequently sliding kick drum in place on stage.

After the show I had the pleasure to chat with these guys and they had mentioned that their only citable influence would be the notorious song “Louie, Louie,” and that most of their songs are some sort of variation of that garage rocker. This is especially true with “She’s Long Gone”; the rhythm is clearly lifted from that standard.

In between sets DJ Ryan Snowden spun the wax and got the crowd all worked up with CBGB classics, setting the mood for all the garage rock bands. And of course only a song by the Damned could be a decent segue for the Safes. A relentlessly rambunctious garage band, their set was an aural assault with little idle chatter between songs (except for maybe a few sales pitches and pointing out “the guy from Bunnygrunt”).

But about half way through the set brothers Frankie and Patrick O’Malley (Patrick Mangan holds down the low-end duties) swapped spots on drums and guitar and vocals. I’m convinced they are twins. Identical twins. Impossible to tell apart. The switch up threw my OCD tendencies askew. But nonetheless the band continued to rock (and sounded the same if not better after the switch).

The Safes have a Fonzy-vibe to them: The music, although modern, conjures up images of hotrods, chicks with big hair and cigarettes rolled up in sleeves. But I think that’s all intentional. After all they have a sound that will never go out of vogue.

It’s always a moot argument when claiming rock ‘n’ roll is dead, or that music today is awful. It’s bands like the Safes and Thee Fine Lines that will never allow rock ‘n’ roll to grow old and weary.

Concert review: William Elliott Whitmore sows seeds of revolution at Off Broadway, Thursday, July 28

William Elliott Whitmore at Off Broadway, July 28, 2011

Will Kyle

Last night William Elliott Whitmore sweat, drank and impressed a room full of tattooed fans at St. Louis’ Off Broadway.

Strawfoot, back from a long hiatus and sporting brand new personnel, save Reverend Marcus and his stand-up bass player, opened for the troubadour from Lee County, Iowa. The crowd swayed along with Strawfoot’s new sound, which now rings closer to DeVotchKa than ever before.

Whitmore arrived back at Off Broadway halfway through Stawfoot’s set after taking a walk, as is his custom before shows. He greeted fans at the door with a smile and strode to the bar for a whiskey. He seemed to remember most every fan. As soon as he hit the venue, he talked to anyone and everyone, asking how families and lives were. His husky voice rang full of care as he listened intently to each answer. Many ordered Whitmore plastic cups full of Jameson and placed them at his feet.

After quickly tuning up, Whitmore adjusted his hat, took another drink of whiskey and began “Lift My Jug.” Every hand that held a drink was raised as the moonlit, alcohol-laced chorus gave purpose to the night’s consumption. “Diggin’ My Grave” elicited deafening cheers as soon as the verse about Iowa dirt arrived. On “Hell or High Water,” Whitmore grabbed his guitar and begged for familial toasts with his thick, graveled voice: “Gather round friends and neighbors, who make your living off labor, and share with me this little time.” The audience pushed in on the humble singer as the love and heat swelled.

“Don’t Need It,” from Whitmore’s newest record, “Field Songs,” released on July 12, 2011, bounced along as the singer pounded a kick drum with his left foot. His fingers strode over the guitar as his mouth offered up stalwart and resolute loneliness. The river, a recurring theme in Whitmore’s music, was featured in a verse that called up the now typical flooding that Iowa experiences almost yearly. After “Who Stole the Soul” Whitmore invited people up to the stage to alleviate crowding, with the jocular caveat, “As long as no one touches me or my shit!” He took a slug of Schlafly, praised Missouri beer and strummed into “Field Song.”

“Lee County Flood,” “There Is Hope for You,” and “Hard Times” stirred the audience both onstage and off into an awed, booze-filled delirium as the audience sang along with nearly every word. Whitmore pointed at a friend in the audience as he told the churning crowd they shouldn’t worry about the debt ceiling because it is “made up.”

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Concert review: Sade (with John Legend) makes a compelling soul statement at the Scottrade Center, Thursday, July 28

Sade at Scottrade Center, July 28, 2011

Travis Crosby

Scottrade Center‘s first floor was a jammed and buzzing scene before John Legend took the stage last night. It was also just weird.

There: a beerman studded with Blues hockey emblems calling out his fare; next to him: a man in a white robe and sunglasses looking exactly like Isaac Hayes in his prime. Parents with their kids next to unbelievably gussied-up people on hot dates. An old man waving the concert programs as if they were a hockey roster. Pretzels and Bud Light and garlic cheese fries and lots of dreadlocks. But then, Sade.

It was clear, even as John Legend played, that everyone was there for Sade. People cheered Mr. Legend, even catcalled at some of his commercialized vocal riffing, but once he introduced his band and himself, exiting the stage, and an image of Sade appeared on the screens hanging on either side of the stage, there was an audible inhale that sucked through the crowd.

I don’t mean to write Mr. Legend off. He warmed up the crowd, made me forget about how really unsexy and devoid-of-mood the place was. Everything was obvious, he spoon-fed his music. Even as he rallied the crowd to clap or to “get up and dance with me,” his act sagged with the soak of a crisp, highly-commercial agenda. His voice is undeniably strong and even sometimes surprising, but, like most singers of his caliber today, it’s too clean. The whole performance had no edge to it, which was made keenly obvious when he performed a Vegas’d up version of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy.” Eh.

Sade’s set was different. She emerged from a ramp under the stage to the sound of guns and explosions, her band ascending behind her on platforms, mid-groove in “Soldier of Love.” The crowd howled as she saluted each section of the stadium, and then her voice came through. Maybe it was just some great coincidence of where I was sitting and angle and luck, but the sound was great — and not just by Scottrade standards. The jag and clip of the guitars, the electronic snap of the drums, the synth-roar swarming, and Sade right up front.

Her voice is still great; maybe better with age. It sounds even reedier, more textured than ever, but can still blow through any of her songs’ most pyrotechnic/acrobatic moments.

She was all bravura and class and even when the set dragged a bit during a string of low-tempo, mood songs, Sade’s voice kept me in it. There is nothing plain or less-than-compelling about her singing, even when stage effects, weirdly British stage theatrics, and song after song drilling out the power of love or sadness in the lack of it threaten the music.

These conceptual theatrics often missed their mark or just sort of baffled me. A see-through curtain would drop on all sides of the stage, on which projections would create a live double-exposure –the band played through “Kiss of Life” and “Cherish the Day” while speeding down a country road or floating through a cityscape — and undermine the music. Between pseudo-Super 8 footage of the band, a hokey Raymond Chandleresque intro to “Smooth Operator,” and Sade singing alone onstage over pre-recorded strings while a huge burning sun rises and sets behind her, the night had its clichés.

But, for all the gloss and production, the band was genuinely into it. They were right with her, smiling at the crowd who’d been waiting for them for so long. “Is It A Crime” was the high point of the night: a nearly 10-minute-long showcase for the band’s stop-and-start exactness and Sade’s lush, soulful singing. She and her saxophonist/guitarist, Stuart Matthewman (her Bobby Keys, her Clarence Clemons) wrung the song out for all it’s worth. I’ve never seen so many people dancing and yelling before. It was like a homecoming for Sade.

Album review: John Hiatt continues his bluesy streak on ‘Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns’

John Hiatt
“Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns”
New West

John Hiatt makes it look so easy. Just write a few great songs and then release a new record every couple of years. No problem. Except it’s not always that easy.

Hiatt’s commercial success as a solo artist has never quite equaled his reputation as a songwriter. Then again, perhaps that’s not so bad, when everyone from Clapton and Dylan to Iggy Pop and Three Dog Night have covered his songs. In a more perfect world, Hiatt would be known for more than just penning hits for other artists. But still, it’s a nice thing when one’s songs can get out there and provide a living on their own.

On the heels of 2010′s “The Open Road,” the album “Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns” is Hiatt’s 20th solo record. With a career spanning nearly 40 years, the sound of this record will be instantly familiar to any longtime Hiatt fan. That’s not to say these songs are just more of the same. Though Hiatt wanders the territory that he and his listeners have known well, he also leads the listener down a few new roads.

The record opens with “Damn This Town,” a mournful elegy to a fallen town and everything one would leave behind. And while the rest of the songs that follow do not wallow in that mire of despair quite as much as this one, the song helps set the tone of the record — it’s a snapshot of life, of the good and the bad in hard times.

On “Til I Get My Lovin’ Back,” Hiatt longs for a lost love, but there’s more than heartbreak to be found here, as he turns right around with “I Love That Girl,” an upbeat love song that is one of the best tracks on the album. And songs like “Detroit Made” find Hiatt at his rocking, raucous best. This song is a prime example of the blue-collar barroom rocker that Hiatt does so well. It is also the only new song Hiatt performed, solo acoustic, when appearing at the Fox with Lyle Lovett earlier this year. While things get a bit heavy-handed on the closing track, “When New York Had Her Heart Broke,” a song about September 11, the record ultimately balances bluesy rockers, upbeat ballads and pensive reflections on life and a hard-travelled road.

Recorded in Nashville and produced by Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, the Black Crowes), the record features Kenneth Blevins on drums, Doug Lancio on guitar and mandolin and Patrick O’Hearn on bass. “Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns” will be released August 2, 2011 and the first single, “Damn This Town,” is currently available to stream online.

Concert review: A punk-rock extravaganza at the Firebird with the Smoking Popes, the Livers and Black For a Second, Wednesday, July 27

The Smoking Popes

Although they were never ignored, or forgotten about, the Smoking Popes are one of those bands that managed to slip under the radar yet still amass a devoted fan base.

After releasing a string of albums in the ’90s, the Smoking Popes split, leaving behind a smoldering heap of punk rock classics. Much to the excitement of fans, the Popes reunited in 2005 and have been at it since, releasing a couple albums including this year’s “This Is Just a Test.” On Wednesday night the band brought its veteran, punk-rocking show to the Firebird.

Openers Black For a Second brought on the hyper-punk, not unlike that of the Descendents (or the Smoking Popes) and got the evening off to a rambunctious start. Vocalist and guitarist Joey Jordan has some mean robotic dance moves and an especially raspy holler. St. Louis’ favorite duo, the Livers, brought the house down with their speedy punk rock comedy show. Highly entertaining (maybe even intriguing) the Livers multi-media show provides for a new approach to what can be considered a band.

At about 10:30 p.m. the Smoking Popes took the stage, three brothers (shaved heads must run in the family) and a veteran drummer, the Popes sounded as if they had not missed a beat since their first album, 1993′s “Get Fired.” The band kicked off with a couple of tracks from their mid-’90s releases (“Grab Your Heart and Run” and “Rubella”) and introduced some tracks off their latest album (“Wish We Were,” “How Dangerous” and “Punk Band”). The Popes filled our little hearts with joy as leadman Josh Caterer crooned (we’ll get to that!), “We’re not going out, I just wish we were.”

Much has been said about the Smoking Popes’ sound and the way Josh Caterer’s vocals echo Frank Sinatra and Morrissey, but I have found the defining description. The Smoking Popes sound like the Misfits (circa 1982) fronted by a happier, less depressing Morrissey. There it is. My work here is done. But aside from drawing comparisons, the band does do something the Smiths could never do. They rock. We’ve come to expect a little less when a reunited band comes through town, but the Popes sound so damn good. They’re energetic, passionate and they even do the punky jump thing.

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Thursday Morning Music News: Pablo Dylan raps, the Roots record and Bill Morrissey, Dan Peek and Amy Winehouse pass away.

Amy Winehouse in black and white

Indie record labels Saddle Creek and Fool’s Gold have opened brick and mortar stores. This is not why Borders folded.

The best tributes to Amy Winehouse, who died at the age of 27 on July 23, were by Randall Roberts, Bill Wyman and M.I.A. The latter, composed hers in the form of a song, “27″ (and did so back in December), currently at over 270K plays on SoundCloud.

The Guardian reports on the last days of the late neo-soul artist.

In the studio to record a followup to “Rock Steady,” No Doubt has enlisted Diplo and Major Lazer.

It’s been four years since Feist released “The Reminder.” Her followup will be called “Metals.”

Bill Morrissey, longtime friend of and collaborator with Greg Brown, and a master of American folk music, died at the age of 59.

Dan Peek, founding member of the band America, passed away at the age of 60 at his home in Farmington, Mo.

Watch a video of Bon Iver covering Björk. And here are some photos of Bon Iver Day in Milwaukee.

If you’re expecting a new addition to your family, think twice before social networking photos of the bundle of joy au naturel. Facebook recently banned (and then unbanned) the cover to Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”

Get more “Nevermind” 20th anniversary reissue crack at Spin.

Superb Peruvian singer Susana Baca has become her homeland’s first black government minister.

Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros released the solo album “Alexander” earlier this year. Download a track from it, featuring the RZA.

Pablo Dylan, grandson to Bob, has launched his rap career.

Some excellent Live at KDHX sessions this week. Yellowbirds, So Many Dynamos, Mountain Man, Magic City and Scattered Trees all hit the Magnolia Avenue Studios. Explore and listen.

A to Z has the week in St. Louis concert announcements. Notable dates include Garage A Trois, Mates of States and Yuck.

The Roots’ 13th album will be called “Undun.” Recording commences.

You may not have noticed but Spotify has added a “personalized” artist radio button.

Consequence of Sound has details on the “Pearl Jam Twenty” book, flick and soundtrack.

Stereogum has released a tribute album to the Strokes’ “Is This It.” The download is gratis.

The last time Cee Lo Green was in St. Louis he brought members of Goodie Mob with him. Now a reunion album, “We Sell Drugs Too,” is set for a fall release.

A.V. Club has now become a festival. This is not an Onion headline. Or maybe it is.

The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy is getting into the kiddie market — with an adventure book. Get ready for bedtime and read a few chapters. has legs. The music sharing and streaming site is now licensed by ASCAP.

Under the Radar has a stream of star-spangled benefit album “Live From Nowhere Near You: Volume Two.”

There will be another, yes another, box set with unreleased recordings by Hank Williams.

Concert review: The Dear Hunter (with the Felix Culpa, O’Brother and Kay Kay and his Weathered Underground) play loud, proud and proggy at the Firebird, Tuesday, July 26

The Dear Hunter by Dan Gillan / Dan Gillan

Sure, it’s been done before. Cursive’s done it. Panic! At the Disco did it. The emo concept album, that is. But few bands are quite as ambitious as the Dear Hunter.

Although they just released a massive grab bag of a concept album based off each visible color (it’s more of a “greatest hits” album composed of selections from the nine “color EPs”), the Dear Hunter is better known for their “Acts I-III” storyline. And on Tuesday night, they reached back for some of those bizarre and fantastic songs that sounded as if they were taken out of a Tim Burton film, as well as christening new songs. And yes, the songs are based off the electromagnetic color spectrum. Who would have it any other way?

From the Chicago area, The Felix Culpa opened the show with some incredible double timing on the drums and psychotic vocal breakdowns. O’Brother from Atlanta came on next and droned through a dropped-D sludgefest. They definitely left an impression, if not with their music, then with the intense head banging. And mad props to one of the three guitarists who seemed to be a J Mascis clone from the hair and glasses to the Jazzmaster guitar.

At about this time, I think I was officially metal-ed out. My eardrums were numb and the angst was bubbling to the surface again when Seattle’s Kay Kay and his Weathered Underground took the stage. Kay Kay seemed to be a good bridge between the metal of the two opening acts and Dear Hunter’s grown-up emo rock. Chilled out grooves, greasy guitar solos and songs that your girlfriend will sing along to, Kay Kay got the people moving and grooving.

After nearly two hours of music the Dear Hunter took the small stage (the Firebird is a cozy little joint, and I think it’s an unwritten rule that you have to drink 24-ounce PBRs). It was refreshing to see each of the bands set up their own equipment and sound check. And that is just what Dear Hunter did. No grand entrance. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” did not come belting out the sound system. The band just tuned up and went at it.

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