Chicago-based progressive jam band Umphrey’s McGee returned to St. Louis for a three-night New Year’s run (Thurs., Fri. and Sat.) at the Pageant (events welcomed by KDHX). I caught night two with a packed house starting the party early.
Umphrey’s has steadily grown in popularity both regionally and nationally over the more than 13 years since its first shows at Notre Dame. In the past five years, in particular, the band seems to have really come into its own, both in the studio and on the stage. Touring in support of its latest studio album, “Death By Stereo” (a solid effort), Umphrey’s McGee clearly has achieved a new level of respect, nearly selling out all three shows.
By 9 p.m. on Thursday night, before the show even began, the revelry was in full-force inside the Pageant, the air thick with fog from dry ice machines onstage. Suddenly, bright red and yellow beams of light cut like knives through the fog, creating a space-age, dreamlike scene as lead vocalist/guitarist Brendan Bayless, guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger, bassist Ryan Stasik and keyboardist Joel Cummins made their way to the front of the stage and drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag took their seats behind the massive drum kits. They launched into heavy improvisational jam “Jazz Odyssey” to start the show (or perhaps to continue where they left off the night before).
The last time I saw Umphrey’s McGee at the Pageant, about four years ago, I don’t think the upper balcony was even close to full — but last night, every inch of the venue was hot, sweaty and rockin’. Umphrey’s have closely followed the “jam band formula” of success, touring relentlessly (more than 100 shows per year), allowing taping and making every one of their shows since 2006 available for download from their own live site. The formula has worked for them – their previous album, 2009′s highly experimental “Mantis” managed to debut at #62 on the Billboard charts with no commercial radio play or major publicity appearances.
In its live incarnation, Umphrey’s McGee may take some of the more traditional jam band fans by surprise, though. This isn’t lighthearted hippie music. Umphrey’s can be extremely heavy at times, and its experimentation borders more on the side of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention than a band like Phish.
As 2011 was coming to a close, we asked KDHX DJs to tell us what three songs they would want everyone to hear at the greatest party they could imagine. While we couldn’t find every track (go figure) submitted, we came up with this hour-long variety show. The happy factor starts high, dips in the middle, and comes back strong to end with a kiss. Cheers!
- M.I.A. – Paper Planes from Rob Levy
- The Chambers Brothers – Time Has Come Today from Keith Dudding
- Johnny Socko – Vinnie’s Hooch from Nick Cowan
- The Hold Steady – Party Pit from Roy Kasten
- George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic – Not Just Knee Deep (Reprise) from Christopher Lawyer
- Ramones – Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio from Keith Dudding
- Charlie Robison – New Year’s Day from Ed Becker
- Josh Ritter – Empty Hearts from Chris Bay
- Slaid Cleaves – New Year’s Day from Ed Becker
- Ween – It’s Gonna Be A Long Night from Nick Cowan
- New Order – Blue Monday from Rob Levy
- MGMT – Kids from Rob Levy
- The Walkmen – In the New Year from Chris Bay
- Joe Strummer – All In A Day from Keith Dudding
- Sy Smith – Drop That from Wil Wander
- The National – All The Wine from Chris Bay
- Booker T. & The MG’s – Can’t Be Still from Christopher Lawyer
- Strange Fruit Project – Good Times from Wil Wander
- Michael Franti & Spearhead – Hey Now Now from Wil Wander
- The Clash – The Magnificent Seven from Christopher Lawyer
- Luis Aviles – I’ll Be A Happy Man from Roy Kasten
- Wanda Jackson – Rip It Up from Roy Kasten
- Johnny Otis – Happy New Year Baby from Rich Bartag
Concert review: Rocking, drinking and being merry with Murder by Death, Royal Smokestacks and Strawfoot at Off Broadway, Thursday, December 29
The rigors of touring are not for the faint of heart. The time away from home and loved ones is difficult enough, and when added to bad food, cold dressing rooms and bandmate farts in the van, those endless miles can wreak havoc on one’s soul.
With this in mind, it’s a good idea to develop a set of rules to keep you sane. These rules vary from band to band, but probably at the top of the Ten Commandments of Touring are the following:
Rule #1: Never underestimate the power of a good drinking song.
Rule #2: Especially in St. Louis.
Last night’s Murder by Death show at Off Broadway proved our city’s commitment to the finer art of drinking and appreciation of those who write songs on the topic. St. Louis is a place where the crowd howls at mention of whiskey, and neither Murder by Death nor their openers, local bands Royal Smokestacks and Strawfoot, could disappoint.
Royal Smokestacks played a moody neo-Americana, the kind of music we can’t just call “rock” anymore but it still fits the bill. Their set was mellow, with occasional outbursts of rockabilly vocals, ska inflection, and a swinging cover of “Wooly Bully.” While I found them to be enjoyable enough, like Van Morrison songs, Royal Smokestacks was pleasant but mostly uninteresting to a sober listener (ahem, me).
A shining example of what happens when the kids aren’t satisfied with just one style, Strawfoot opened their set like gypsy punk hooligans and closed it in a dizzying finale of “Churchyard Cough,” a drinking song given credibility, I guess, with an affected Irish accent and fiddle. If this seems like ADD, then it’s the best possible kind because it afforded the presence of accordion, harmonica, violin, mandolin and an upright bass. It could be that I’m just a sucker for skilled dilettantism, but I thought that Strawfoot played a giddily deranged mess of a set, riling up the crowd for a headliner they were clearly thrilled to support.
Strawfoot’s drinking hymns were all well and good, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Murder by Death’s opener, “Kentucky Bourbon.” It takes a certain kind of confidence to open with a drinking song, I think, and guitarist/vocalist Adam Turla’s polished baritone paired with Sarah Balliet’s mournful cello were, like the song’s namesake, smooth and stoic enough to pull it off.
Murder by Death’s second song, the gruesomely funny “You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shavin’ With a Knife),” was indicative of the style the band has adopted since releasing their first truly country-influenced album, “Red of Tooth and Claw” in 2008. Balliet’s cello kept a gothic beat alongside Dagan Thogerson’s hop-step percussion, and the avant-garde result could fit into the background of a Tom Waits project.
On New Year’s Eve, Professor Skank will have a Best of 2011, reggae style, on “Positive Vibrations” from 9-11 p.m. Also, Aaron Kamm and the One Drops will play at Broadway Oyster Bar and Mario Pascal will be at Rowan Community Center.
The Wailers Band will be at the Old Rock House on Tuesday Jan. 3rd.
On Positive Vibes Saturday January 7th, Michael Kuelker will have a nyahbinghi-based program of classics and rarities.
And Zion and the Lion Roots Band will headline a benefit concert for Zambia on Saturday January 14th on the campus of Lewis and Clark Community College.
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, the Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney pissed off half of Canada when he posited that while the band would most certainly want to be remembered as more “awesome” like Led Zeppelin, it was also possible that they were more “annoying” like Rush.
“It’s all relative,” according to Carney, although he conceded that he could be entirely wrong:
“I don’t know — what’s the difference between Rush and Led Zeppelin, other than the fact that one band is awesome and one is really annoying? Maybe we’re like Led Zeppelin — but maybe we’re Rush. Everything is relative. The worst thing that can happen is for you to think that you’re Led Zeppelin, but it turns out you’re Loverboy.”
While I can’t hear any of the feared Loverboy influence in the Black Keys’ new album, “El Camino,” I do hear a hard rock tribute to Zeppelin sprinkled with a few possibly unintentional hints to Canada’s prog rock kings. The album’s leading track, the single “Lonely Boy,” begins with a riff on Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and swirls into crunchy guitars supplemented by electronic bursts and a female-heavy chorus of “I got a love that keeps me waiting.”
The electro-pop and breathy-sweet female voices are a continuing theme throughout the album and elevate “El Camino” above the Keys’ previous records that, while impressive in their consistency, seemed more drawn from drinking cheap beer in stadium parking lots (Blackmore, Thorogood, Seger) than the more glamorous denizens of rock history (Bolan, Johansen, Reed). This expansion in taste is partly influenced by producer Danger Mouse and makes “El Camino” a sexier and more upbeat album than its predecessors, something Carney and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach acknowledged during a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. Even the more stripped-down “Little Black Submarines” contributes to this mood, as it not only switches to a grinding clamor midway through the song, but is also preceded by “Gold on the Ceiling,” a sweaty, raunchy, good-time single driven by handclaps and Moog.
That the most listenable tracks on “El Camino” are the result of the band’s maturation is a statement about the steps they’ve taken; however, their growth has not come by leaps and bounds. Other songs, such as “Run Right Back” and “Money Maker” could have appeared on any of the band’s previous albums (though perhaps most fittingly on 2010′s blues-heavy album “Brothers”). The former describes an addictive sort of woman, the veiled misogyny of the lyrics poorly disguised as sincere yearning. The latter features Auerbach’s wail echoing above a scuzzy 4-chord progression and sloppy, cymbal-heavy drums, all of which fade to a psychedelic pedal effect in the bridge. Both are archetypal American rock songs done in the style mastered by the Black Keys early on.
“El Camino” is an either-or album — you can choose the old Black Keys or the new Black Keys, but the few missteps are the result of trying to combine the two. One example of this is “Stop Stop,” an incongruous and misguided mix of Auerbach’s falsetto, Carney’s quick-stutter drums, staid guitar whine, and is that xylophone? It’s confusing, frilly, and I’m not sure if this was an effort to be more ambitious or remain safe, but it feels like a leftover that should have been discarded for a more defined track.
Following and redeeming “Stop Stop” is “Nova Baby,” a shining example of the confidence required to pull off a new and expanded sound. This is what the band should be doing on every track, because it’s where their true strength lies. The Keys are best at building on the new retro sound they helped to create, one that is more strut than swagger, funky blues bursting through the haze of psychedelia and the birth of heavy metal. The Keys have a lot of material from which to draw, and their ability to create from it all on “El Camino” is something they haven’t done so skillfully since 2004′s “Rubber Factory.”
The closing track on “El Camino” is “Mind Eraser,” which concludes with the lyric “Don’t let it be over.” While this brings to mind a clever mixtape artist (although maybe not so much a clever platinum-selling rock band), it’s still an effective farewell shot for what is ultimately a smart record by a band that could have remained among the dying chords of a by-now old-news rock revival, but chose instead to keep listening, keep learning and to build on what made them good while acknowledging that the ones who came before them — and that includes Rush — could have been better.
Here’s my roundup of favorite country sounds of 2011. Enjoy!
The Carper Family – “Back When” (Self-released)
Three gals from Austin create a sophomore release mixing great covers and original tunes with wonderful three-part harmonies. Brennen Leigh adds mandolin and guitar, and the steel guitar and dobro of the great Cindy Cashdollar round out this fine release.
Cow Bop – “Too Hick for the Room” (B-4MAN)
Bruce Forman, Pinto Pammy and friends serve up another helping of jazz and swing tunes with great arrangements. Bruce’s guitar work is stellar.
Amber Digby & Midnight Flyer – “Live at Swiss Alp Hall” (Heart of Texas)
There’s nothing quite like a live honky tonk album, and Amber Digby delivers the goods, recorded at a historic Texas dance hall. Midnight Flyer features her uncle, steel guitar Hall of Famer Dicky Overbey, while HOT label mate and duet partner Justin Trevino lends his voice to the evening.
The Five and Dimers – “Quarter of a Tank” (Five and Dimers)
A relatively new band from the East Side, the Five and Dimers feature lead singer and chief songwriter Matt Taul, along with fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass and drums, with occasional pedal steel worked in. A strong debut release.
Merle Haggard – “Working in Tennessee” (Vanguard)
He’s mellowed somewhat — like an aged Tennessee whiskey — but his output still amazes me. His marvelous songwriting continues to impress and his voice sounds as vibrant as 30 years ago. There’s even a reworked version of his hit, “Working Man Blues” with fellow country icon Willie Nelson. Long live the Hag!
Thursday morning music news: Music trends take heat, Van Halen hits the road and Sam Rivers and Jim ‘Motorhead’ Sherwood pass on
Lady Gaga will be dropping the big New Year’s ball in New York.
The Woody Guthrie Archive has a new home in Tulsa.
Stereogum looks back on all the bands we lost this year, even if we didn’t know they existed in the first place.
Alina Simone explains her name change.
Van Halen will tour in 2012.
Headphones ruled in 2011.
The Guardian rounds up its top music stories of the year.
Spin may not be the best authority on such matters, but its list of 2011′s best experimental albums is neat.
Guess what? Phil Spector really hated Christmas.
A conductor explains what a conductor does.
How well is Spotify doing in the U.S.? This well.
Wired explains how your Android phone is an electronic music machine.
RIP Jim Sherwood of the original Mothers of Invention.
The NPR staff picks the best music books of 2011.
Jeffrey Goho is really sorry about starting that whole Jon Bon Jovi is dead rumor.
The Quietus scores an interview with the Mekons.
The Miami New Times hates these music trends.
Speaking of music trends: Pop music and profanity.
Breaking: Musicians said a lot of silly stuff this year.
Axl Rose complains about corporate radio to Pop & Hiss.
Jazz great Sam Rivers has died at the age of 88.
Members of Yes and Genesis form supergroup called
PETA names Janet Jackson “Grinch of the Year.”
The last weeknight edition for 2011:
Wednesday, December 28
Dock Ellis Band / Lonesome Cowboy Ryan and His Dried-up Teardrops / Arson for Candy
El Leñador 3124 Cherokee 10-1 $5 (21+ only) Smoke-free
It’s a twang-centric line-up for the final Stag Nite of 2011. Classic C&W covers and hilarious originals from DEB. LCRaHD-uT are the South City Three (without Pokey LaFarge), dishing out some old-school honky-tonk. AfC are two ladies who split their time between here and Austin (Jennifer Roques has now moved back here full-time, I believe), entertaining both sites with a blend of country, blues, and folk, with very tasty vocals.
$1 cans of Stag until midnight, and good food until you’re told the kitchen is closed.
Thursday, December 29
Murder by Death / Royal Smokestacks / Strawfoot
Off Broadway 3509 Lemp 9-12 $12 advance/15 door (+2 under 21) Smoke-free
The year is about to exhale one last time, so it’s appropriate to have a show filled with songs of death and despair, I suppose.
Bloomington, Ind.’s MbD deal in the Gothicana sound that blends folk and rock with frequently-dark lyrical themes. 88.1 KDHX DJ Chris Bay offers a perspective on them for the RFT. RS are fronted by Pat Eagan (Monads), and offer a energetic style of folk-ish rock. S also offer up darkly-themed songs, but with a more bluegrass-tinged sound.
DinoFight! / Spot-Ons / Jedi Nighties / Langen Neubacher
The Heavy Anchor 5226 Gravois 9-12 $5 (21+ only) Smoke-free
This is another Girlfight show, with all or mostly-female acts featured. A fun, primal mix of punk/surf/rock from DF! I haven’t heard S-O. Blues-y rock from JN. Solo folk from LN.
Your humble servant,