Concert review: Return to Forever IV and Zappa Plays Zappa amaze and amuse St. Louis and the Fabulous Fox, Thursday, August 25 / Martin Philbey

Jazz fusion pioneers Return to Forever dominated the Fox Theater Thursday night after Dweezil Zappa paid tribute to his father’s contributions to the genre.

An interesting twist on the typical tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa took to the stage amid a large round of applause and leapt into the “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” from the 1974 Mothers of Invention album “Roxy and Elsewhere” after a short greeting from frontman Dweezil Zappa. Running through a varied selection of tunes from his father’s massive catalog of compositions, Dweezil and company put on a show worthy of Frank’s name and reputation for superior performances.

The band itself was amazing to behold: an eight-piece ensemble that sounded much larger than its stage footprint. They played some complex pieces of music with expert precision and hit that sweet spot that comes when a band is well-rehearsed without being over-rehearsed. Dweezil is a damn fine guitar player, shredding madly when called upon to show his skills. Joe Travers was a powerhouse behind the drums and Pete Griffin and Jamie Kime performed their bass and guitar roles masterfully. Chris Norton was a wizard behind the keys and his soulful vocals filled the entire hall when he cut loose. Ben Thomas was superb when playing the trumpet but he really stood out when singing. He captured all of the humor and sarcasm Frank’s lyrics and the Mothers’ vocals were known for.

The two that really caught my eye during the entire set were multi-instrumentalists Scheila Gonzalez on keys, saxophone, clarinet, and vocals and Billy Hulting on marimba, mallets and percussion. She put her all into every note she played or sang. Billy was just flat out jaw-dropping with the amount of work he put into his station. The marimba isn’t an easy instrument to play by itself, much less handling other percussion fills and sound effects. It was also great to see Billy and Scheila performing an interpretive dance during the intro to “Dancing Fool.”

There wasn’t really one singular highlight to the set, as the entire show was amazing from beginning to end. I think Frank would have been proud to hear his music being honored by such talented musicians, especially with Dweezil at the lead.

After a brief stage reset, jazz fusion pioneers Return to Forever came out from backstage to a standing ovation, the first of many more to come over the course of the night. Opening with “Medieval Overture” from the 1976 album “Romantic Warrior,” the long-standing core of the group Chick Corea on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Lenny White on drums kept the audience enthralled with the assistance of Jean-Luc Ponty on violin and Frank Gambale on guitar.

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LouFest preview interview: Josiah DeBoer and Louis Wall of Jumbling Towers

Jumbling Towers

Veteran St. Louis band Jumbling Towers stands out in the field of modern indie music with an eccentric brand of pop — a dynamic collision of electronics, guitar hooks, startling vocals and beats.

I recently chatted with vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Josiah DeBoer and drummer/programmer Louis Wall about their latest EP “Ramifications of an Exciting Spouse” (mixed by Justin Gerrish, who has also recorded and mixed Vampire Weekend’s “Contra”), their view on music in St. Louis and what it’s like to have two hometowns.

Matt Stuttler: You’ve garnered descriptors such as “eerie” and “off-kilter,” which usually aren’t synonymous with pop music. Do you feel that you’ve taken pop into a darker, more eccentric direction? Or do you feel that pop can incorporate dark tones?

Josiah DeBoer: That was never intentional. So, those were descriptors given us. Then at that point, we were probably slightly conscious of it and were like, “That’s cool. Yeah, this is eerie. This is dark.” I think they definitely can coexist. I don’t know if it’s the reverb combined with minor progressions with a little bit of noise in there. I assume that’s what gets the descriptor.

Jumbling Towers has a really unique vocal style. It strikes me as if you have a British accent when you sing.

JD: It was nothing intentional, again. I always wanted vocals to sound interesting. When you start a band, the thing that usually sucks the most is the vocalist. You have to find your sound. I’d rather have something interesting than something technically sound, and that’s just kind of what morphed. I guess if you can have enunciation influences, which I assume is possible, things have a better edge or flow better with our music with a little more definition. I think if I had any American drawl in words, I don’t think it would be beneficial to [our sound]. I don’t know if it’s proper singing enunciation, or if it’s more English, maybe David Bowie had something to do with that.

How long have you been playing together?

JD: Jumbling Towers started actually in Columbia [Mo.], in ’05. We just played live then. It’s been six years. Louis joined in ’08.

Louis Wall: So three years for me.

Jumbling Towers delves into some interesting genre-bending sounds. How do you find the balance between electronics/synths versus the traditional guitar/bass/drums setup?

LW: I don’t really think it’s something we consciously try to balance. I think it’s just whatever we have at the moment ends up getting used.

JD: Right now, everything’s written in the studio so we kind of record as we go. Usually it’s just a matter of what feels the most interesting at the time. That’s where Louis is doing a lot more program beat stuff.

LW: I think there’s a lot of emphasis on ethics sometimes when you’re creating music, but once you step out of that, you might as well go as far out of that as you want to go. If you’re going to be a band, it’s kind of a contractual thing with your listeners. If you create two albums that are just made with a real drum kit, a guitar and a vocal, then the third album you are pretty much telling your listeners that’s what they should expect. Once you kind of break that set of new ground rules, then you might as well just step away as far as you can.

On your newest release “Ramifications of an Exciting Spouse,” the theme of fame and the destructive pursuit of stardom show up in several of the tracks, especially the title track. What’s influenced you to deal with these issues?

JD: I think I was just looking for something a little more interesting to write about after the “Kanetown” sessions, which were about a fictitious place. I just wanted something kind of relevant. It really wasn’t over-thought, it was just kind of like “this is mildly interesting.” I also garden for a lot of super-wealthy people. I just see some things. They’re all great people by the way. I love them dearly. (Laughs)

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Concert review: Handsome Furs (with US English and Magical Beautiful) have a blast at Off Broadway, Wednesday, August 24

Handsome Furs at Off Broadway, August 25, 2011

Ben Mudd

Last night the married duo of Alexei Perry and Dan Boeckner flooded a recently remodeled Off Broadway with pre-recorded synths, raging beats and Boeckner’s signature, post-rock yelps.

Before Handsome Furs took the stage, the crowd slowly thickened as openers US English and Magical Beautiful rolled through their sets.

Magical Beautiful worked to warm the venue with surfer, dub-step beats mixed with heady, space jamming. While the Chicago quartet pleased the audience with focused hooks and lyrics, a few of their jams meandered. During the spacey lulls, the crowd stepped up to test out Off Broadway’s remodeled bar, which now stands about a third of its original venue-spanning size. One bartender said it is an improvement because “it opens up the venue, allows us to serve people quicker and get better tips.”

During Magical Beautiful’s set, Boeckner and Perry stood outside Off Broadway and shot the shit with fans and friends about alternate reality games, while smoking cigarettes and drinking water.

When Handsome Furs arrived on stage, Perry worked her ass off twisting knobs, dropping synth samples and dancing harder than most loop operators. In sequin-studded high heels she stomped against the ground with force enough to punch holes in the floor of the stage. While Handsome Furs’ set was a little short and featured a few too many pre-recorded loops, the break-neck pace of the songs on their newest record, “Sound Kapital,” more than supported the short form of the set. If the set went much longer, Alexei might have expired from exhaustion.

The crowd was floored by Perry’s stomping and gyrating, but didn’t dance as much as one ought at a beat-filled, synth-adorned, alt-rock mash-up show. Perry led the charge, which revealed how stone-still most of the crowd remained. Handsome Furs were not discouraged as they humbly thanked the audience numerous times. “Sound Kapital” may feature less guitar than ever before, but Boeckner’s occasional guitar parts rang out, as on the single “Repatriated.” These incendiary little moments gave the audience a shot in the arm and conjured Wolf Parade, Boeckner’s other project.

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Breaking: Fitz and the Tantrums to play Taste of St. Louis, September 24

Fitz and the Tantrums by Jon Gitchoff

Jon Gitchoff

Well, news to me anyway. According to Taste of St. Louis, the soul pop band is coming back to the river city this fall. The last time Fitz and friends were in town they sold out the Duck Room, right after playing live in the studios of KDHX. And they didn’t even need an electric guitar to do it.

Listen to the complete Live at KDHX session from February 12, 2011.

Thursday Morning Music News: Disaster strikes Pukkelpop, Lou Reed and Metallica join forces and Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford pass away

Lou Reed / Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO of Apple. Tim Cook is taking over.

This past Monday we lost two great American songwriters: Jerry Leiber (78) and Nick Ashford (70).

St. Louis Magazine scores a nice interview with Jeff Tweedy — and even gets him to play a new song.

Myspace wants you to forget all about Spotify and iTunes. A dying social network can dream, can’t it?

Lou Reed and Metallica are making an album together. It’s called “Lulu.”

The Numero Group isn’t afraid of Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Fitz and the Tantrums are coming back to St. Louis on September 24 for Taste of St. Louis.

Remember that Pearl Jam scavenger hunt? Probably not, but nearly 6 million updates later, Twitter does.

Paste lists 50 musicians and their youthful dream jobs.

Five are dead after violent storms hit the Pukkelpop Music Festival in Belgium.

Listen to the first new Ben Folds Five song in over a decade.

What did Buck Owens sound like at the age of 21? Find out when his earliest known recordings are released on September 27.

Score a new song by Ryan Adams, from the forthcoming “Ashes & Fire” album.

Tom Waits’ new album will be called “Bad As Me” and the first single, the title cut, is out on iTunes.

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin is streaming its Tape Club compilation.

U2 is donating $7.2 million to Irish music education.

Martin Scorcese has made a George Harrison documentary. Watch the trailer.

Toxicology results for the late Amy Winehouse indicate “no illegal substances.”

Black Sabbath is not reuniting any time soon.

NPR is streaming a new collaboration between James Blake and Bon Iver.

LouFest preview interview: David Beeman of Old Lights

Old Lights - David Beeman

Nate Burrell

David Beeman, of St. Louis band Old Lights, likes pop hits and the fact that his band’s name is not rooted in meaning.

The Southern California native and current St. Louisan sat down with me in his Cherokee District production studio, Native Sound, to talk about Old Light’s evolution, his songwriting process and why he and his bandmates are happy to fill the current record production void in St. Louis.

Erin Chapman: Can you tell me about the origin of your band name?

David Beeman: Kristin [Dennis], who is in the band Née, likes to go on these Wikipedia trails, and basically we needed a band name and she just found it. It’s not necessarily rooted in anything. We just liked the way it sounded. Nobody in the band had anything to do with [selecting the name]. Hey Kristin, were you in the band at the time you picked our name?

Kristin Dennis: You told me that you would buy me dinner at Mangia if I gave you my band name.

David Beeman: Oh yeah, it was her band name that she found, and I told her that I would buy her dinner at Mangia if I could have it. I like that it doesn’t carry any meaning because it’s just better that way. I wouldn’t want our band name to have anything to do with who we are or what we sound like. As long as it’s not awkward, that’s all I care about.

What’s the history of the band?

I wrote songs for years on my own, basement recording type stuff. Probably six or seven years before I ever started an actual band, I recorded and played all of the instruments myself. I always wanted to start a band with my songs, I just never tried. I would show my friends all of my music, my recordings, and when my songs were cool enough people [would] want to play with me. So that was how the first version of Old Lights started.

In St. Louis it was friends of mine who liked my music enough to invest their time. People fell in and out as I was taking it more seriously. Beth [Bombara] was the first drummer in the band. No one else who was in the original lineup is in the band now. Just typical stuff: People losing interest, me losing interest, people not getting along. There’s been so many people in the band who are not in the band now. I guess the best way to say it is that it got to a point where the songs were interesting enough to the right people that now it’s a real band. Not me and a bunch of hired players. Everybody contributes creativity and plays on the record and has an equal voice. To me we sound like a rock ‘n’ roll band now. I feel as though I’ve built something, some kind of structure myself.

How does the songwriting process work for you?

For the “Like Strangers” EP, I had a bunch of songs in various states. From really noisy stuff to completed songs that I thought had most of the parts, even the lead guitar lines, piano stuff, harmony. I brought it to the band. It was a fairly normal process. They would tell me what they liked and didn’t like. They told me what they thought could be better. That’s how it worked. It was all the way from bare bones, forming structure together to other songs that were more whole.

Music before lyrics?

No. Hand in hand. For the last EP, it was sit down at piano, guitar, synthesizer and just sing a melody and sing words with those first few chords. It’s days and months of this. A specific lyric with a specific melody over specific chords that happens in about 30 seconds, and if that works then I will keep writing the song. That’s the way it works for me. It’s fairly spontaneous in the beginning because it’s a random singing of whatever, and playing whatever, and if it really sticks in my mind and I like it, if it’s pretty or catchy, then I’ll write a song — and that will be the center of the song. I’ve never been able to write lyrics before music. There are some songs where the music has come first, but it’s really difficult for me to write lyrics and the melody over a piece of music that exists, I feel like I’m doing Karaoke or something. It just feels awkward. So for me it’s always been that a song happens at the exact same time that the piece of music is happening and being made, at the exact same time as the initial lyrics are being written.

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‘By unexpected encounters’ An interview with Jean-Luc Ponty

Jean-Luc Ponty

Return to Forever IV will be coming to St. Louis on Thursday, August 25, bringing its legendary jazz fusion sound to the Fox Theatre. Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean-Luc Ponty, violinist of the first rank, who is currently touring with the group.

We discussed Ponty’s discovery of jazz, his interest in world music, collaborations with Frank Zappa and much more. Zappa Plays Zappa opens for Return to Forever IV at the Fabulous Fox.

Download the interview.

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LouFest preview interview: Jenavieve Varga of Lost in the Trees

Lost in the Trees

I recently had the chance to talk with violinist Jenavieve Varga of Lost in the Trees about what it takes to make the band’s big, complex sound happen onstage and how it’s possible to reconcile a love of chamber music with an affection for rock ‘n’ roll and platform heels.

Matt Sorrell: On record, Lost in the Trees’ music is so layered and complex. What’s it like to experience your live show?

Jenavieve Varga: I feel like the record and the live show are really different. The live experience is bigger than the record. It feels like we’re projecting a wall of sound. You hear all of the different parts of the record, but it’s very nicely orchestrated. When you listen to the record, there’s some deep, dark stuff, but the shows are actually a lot of fun.

We’re very excited to be on stage every night, and we have really fun costumes and props, puppets and things. It gets to be a unique experience every night. And we have a very diverse audience — sometimes we get fraternity guys in the front row singing along, then we’ll have grandparents and children and hipsters. It’s a very wide demographic. Coming from a classical background, you hit this point where no one is coming to your concerts. Symphonies are suffering right now. With Lost in the Trees we really get to bring that to the masses, we’re making it more accessible, and that’s one of my favorite things about this band. Ari [Picker, writer/vocals] is putting in all of these great, almost quartet pieces, with strings and brass. It’s like rock ‘n’ roll classical music.

I know the classical music I enjoy most always has a theatrical element to it.

Absolutely! It’s funny when you think about classical music the way we perceive it now, in a stuffy auditorium and everybody’s quiet. If you look back into the history of classical music, a lot of it was so controversial. I mean, look at Stravinsky. People were rioting over that! It doesn’t have to be this quiet, etiquette-filled, snobbish thing. It’s about rock ‘n’ roll.

How did you get involved with the band?

I joined the band a little later on. Ari and I both went to music school at Berklee up in Boston, but we didn’t know each other. It was a rainy day and someone told me, “You have to check out this band.” I kept running into this same guy that day and he kept telling me this. So I said, “OK, OK, I’ll listen to them.” I remember skipping class that day and sitting in the park just listening to them and falling in love with the music immediately and wanting to play it. Sometimes it’s different, listening to something and playing something, but I wanted to play it and perform it and give it life.

Are there any particular types of venues you prefer to play?

What really showcases us best are theaters. Theaters lend themselves well to the drama of it, the feeling of seeing an entire production, not just going to see a band. We’ve played some pretty funny places, though. We played a biker bar one night.

You probably need to have a decent amount of room, too, since you have seven people up on stage.

You’d laugh if I showed you pictures of some of the stages we’ve squeezed on to! When we opened for Neko Case this winter, all of a sudden we got to spread out, but we’d still stand close together because we’d never had that much space. The string players, we were still kind of on top of each other. I’d whack one of them almost every night with my bow.

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