Concert review: Southern Culture on the Skids (with Lookout Joe) throw a country rock party at Off Broadway, Thursday, May 24

Novelty acts have a limited shelf life, so Southern Culture on the Skids should have become irrelevant long ago. As the band approaches their 30th anniversary, the audiences are smaller and grayer, but no less enthusiastic. Probably because the band hasn’t lost its enthusiasm, either.

Lookout Joe, the newest side project of Brian Henneman (the Bottle Rockets, Diesel Island) opened with rocked-out takes on country classics and countrified ’60s pop. Henneman’s on lead guitar, sharing vocals with rhythm guitarist Kip Loui (also of Diesel Island) and upright bassist Richard Tralles. Their country catalog takes a rocky road, thanks to Henneman’s new Rickenbacker that gives squall to everything from George Jones’ “Tall Tall Trees” and Hank Williams Jr.’s “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.” When they take a pop turn, like the unexpected Tralles-sung “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” it’s stripped of all gloss down to bare dirty strings. The trio claims Lookout Joe is something they do just for fun, which shows. But they’re also doing a solid to their heroes with their lovingly-presented covers.

Southern Culture on the Skids took the stage with little fanfare, instead focusing on greeting friends, like former tour mate Pokey LaFarge, who made up the rather small audience, before launching into instrumental “Skull Bucket.”

Guitarist/vocalist Rick Miller and drummer Dave Hartman sported matching t-shirts from King Edward’s Chicken and Fish in Crestwood. For the uninitiated, fried chicken plays an important role in all Southern Culture on the Skids shows. Bassist/vocalist Mary Huff was dressed to kill in hot pink and white go-go girl gear and her flaming red bouffant wig, which she primped and adjusted between songs.

They didn’t hold back on the kitsch when necessary, as on big hair ode “Liquored Up and Lacquered Down.” But it’s not all kitsch. Under the old sound and alliterative hook is a tale of a woman who could have been something, but opts instead to be a young bride who drinks gin to stay thin and makes herself up like a movie star. What seems like it could be a joke aimed at big-haired white trash is a bit sad under the flawless rockabilly facade.

The band’s far more than its throwback look and innuendo-filled tunes. Fact remains that all three are top-notch musicians who’ve mastered a hybrid of niche genres — surf, rockabilly, and hints of country and punk. Miller straightforward shreds bell-clear riffs on “Voodoo Cadillac” before merging into a miniskirt-tight jam.

Any nostalgia from the band doesn’t come from their retro aesthetic, but from their own history. Miller told stories behind many of the songs, like the North Carolina bootlegger/tanning salon entrepenuer in “King of the Mountain,” and the band’s experience in filming “Strangest Ways” on a freezing beach for 1997′s “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Before “House of Bamboo” an audience member slipped Miller a note about how she took her four-month old son to see them in Raleigh many years ago.

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All Aboard for Fun Times: St. Louis show highlights for 5/25-5/28

All Aboard for Fun Times Train

I’m happy to announce I’ll soon be done with the drudgery of the working world – retirement commences on July 3 (my own Independence Day, if you will).
While I should have plenty of time to opine then, the next few weeks may be another matter, as I wade through the administrative mayhem wrapping up a long career entails.
Some upcoming editions may be very succinct — this one is another matter:
Friday, May 25
I failed to notify you sooner that master jazz bassist Stanley Clarke is playing Jazz at the Bistro (3536 Washington) through Saturday.

Alas, your opportunity to be mega-gouged for food and drink to witness music at Rib America is no more; they’ve dropped us off their schedule due to poor attendance (it’s a really messed-up business model that can’t draw enough for the likes of Poison, Night Ranger, Loverboy and Molly Hatchet in our town).
Filling the gap (and messing up my commute for a few days — sure won’t miss that) is a three-day festival as part of St. Louis Bluesweek, which has moved from a September timeframe.
Stages on Chestnut between Tucker and 14th will offer numerous local and touring blues-oriented acts tonight, along with most of the day tomorrow and Sunday. Admission is free (all-ages), but no outside food or drink is permitted — other rules/prohibitions also apply.
The country, rock and more grab bag that is Box of Nerves performs at Maya Café (2726 Sutton) at 8. I don’t believe there’s a cover or age limit (although minors will have to be adult-accompanied). Smoke-free. 
Mighty Diamonds / Zion & The Lion Roots Band
2720 Cherokee  8 door/9 start   $15 (18+)  Smoke-free
The wearin’ of the green, along with red and gold, will likely be in effect tonight as Kingston’s MD, one of the most influential roots reggae vocal acts in history (and still boasting the original line-up), take the stage.

88.1 KDHX DJ Michael Kuelker gives his take on the Mighty Diamonds for the KDHX Blog.

I think it’s a safe bet that Z&TLRB play compatible sounds, and there’ll be reggae spinning before and between the acts.
A bill with various spins on the folk idiom is offered at Pop’s Blue Moon (5249 Pattison), starting at 9.
Portland’s House of Wolves (aka Rey Villalobos) offers quiet, dreamy tunes with lo-fi sounds. NYC’s Natureboy (aka Sara Kermanshahi) blends melodic folk with synth loops. I couldn’t preview Town Cars (Melinda Cooper of The Union Electric) or Little Napoleons (Matt Pace and Brien Seyle of the Rats and People).
This costs $5 (21+ and cash only – ATM available). Smoking is allowed — restricted to a back room, but often perceptible.
A night of swinging jazz sounds from Swing Set can be enjoyed in the intimate confines of the Venice Café (1903 Pestalozzi).
This will start at 9, with a $5 cover. Smoke-free.
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Concert review and photos: Stanley Clarke keeps moving forward at Jazz at the Bistro, Wednesday, May 23

Wil Wander

Grammy winner and bass legend, Stanley Clarke, returned to Jazz at the Bistro, armed with two of his best men to validate his reputation as a constant innovator in contemporary jazz.

An unusually ample crowd filled the intimate dining room of Jazz at the Bistro, bubbling with excitement as they awaited Wednesday night’s second set. Many of the patrons were still energized by the evening’s first set, laughing as they recalled their earlier taste of this potent trio, as the empty tables quickly filled.

On stage, no more than a couple yards from the front row of tables, laid Clarke’s stand-up bass on the vacant stage, as the crowd’s murmur escalated in anticipation. Finally, Jazz St. Louis’ Bob Bennett, decked in one of his trademark suits, stepped to the microphone and the buzz of the crowd fell instantly silent for the introduction, and then Stanley Clarke took the stage to a remarkable welcoming ovation.

Clarke’s prowess began as a teenager over 40 years ago, when he emerged from the Philadelphia Academy of music and began to play with many of New York City’s most notable bandleaders. He instantly built a reputation for his mastery of the acoustic bass in both traditional and more melodic lead roles. Teaming up with pianist and composer Chick Corea, Clarke was able to showcase his distinctive skill set as part of the jazz-fusion act Return to Forever, which helped cultivate the role of the bass in modern jazz music and earned him his first Grammy.

He boosted his impact on jazz by introducing the electric bass, which hadn’t yet pervaded the genre, and helped propel him to become the first bassist to headline sold-out tours, worldwide.

Since his less than humble beginning, he’s embarked on countless projects with the biggest names in jazz, such as George Duke, Jeff Beck and Jean Luc Ponty, as well as leading a bountiful selection of his own. Most recently, the Stanley Clarke Band won the 2011 Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, which included young musicians, Ruslan Sirota on keyboards, Ronald Bruner, Jr. on drums, and Japanese phenom, Hiromi Uehara, on piano. The current touring trio includes Sirota and Bruner, who have both become regular accomplices in Clarke’s recent releases, and exhibit many of the traits that earned the musician his praise.

Stanley Clarke and Ronald Bruner, Jr. at Jazz at the Bistro

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‘Songwriting is like creating a riddle and solving it’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Justin Wade Tam of Humming House

Justin Wade Tam’s fledgling Humming House is an impressive bunch. Sporting an eclectic cast of members with a wide array of folky talents from soulful vocals to mandolin righteousness, Humming House has been impressing crowds with their playful blend of Irish, Americana and country-porch stomp leading up to and since the release of the self-titled 2012 debut record.

Like the band’s polished first two videos for “Gypsy Django” and “Cold Chicago,” the record (produced by Mitch Dane and Vance Powell) showcases Humming House’s propensity for innovation and experimentation as well as thoughtful songwriting.

This year’s Twangfest (running June 6-9) will be Humming House’s St. Louis debut. Those of us that have heard the band are excited and those that haven’t don’t know what kind of an extraordinary sound awaits them. I recently interviewed lead singer/guitarist Justin Wade Tam by phone about the formation of Humming House, songwriting, the contemporary view of Nashville, musical proliferation, live covers and the production of his band’s debut record.

Will Kyle: Can you talk about the jam sessions you hosted that led up to meeting future Humming House band members?

Justin Wade Tam: You’re talking about the Irish nights. On Sunday nights, we would do this thing called “Finnegan’s Folly” on Sunday nights. The story is that my wife did her Master’s in Dublin at Trinity College. She’s sort of Ms. Ireland around here, so we decided to host jam sessions where we just played Irish pub songs and drank Jameson.

We found an old songbook of Irish pub tunes and started playing them. There’d be anywhere between six to twenty people sitting around with stringed instruments singing along.

I found this very cool for Nashville, because people here are usually very serious about music, so having a situation where anyone could pick up and play three chords or sing along is refreshing. For most music people in Nashville, it’s almost always business related. The jam sessions were more informal.

Did the sessions reach critical mass?

The Irish nights sessions lasted about four or five months. It’s how we started playing with our mandolin player. He used to play in a bluegrass band, so he was able to join right in. After that the jam sessions morphed to be more about the band.

Seems like a natural progression. In your music I’ve noticed you often engage in multiple styles of music in one song, something I don’t see very often. One can hear stylistic movement in the course of one song. Was this a conscious decision?

We just write how we write. I know that’s vague, I mean, we intentionally nod to genre, but I’ve never set out to be like, “You know what, today I’m gonna write a rock song.” No, what happens just kinda happens.

Someone once told me songwriting is like creating a riddle and solving it. I like that, because you start out, but don’t really know what’s going on, so you have to sit back and say, “Well here’s what I’ve said so far, now how do I finish this story out?”

I see that same thing happening in other forms of composition, like poetry and short-form jokes. The artist has to take stock and figure out the next step.

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Thursday morning music news: Goodbye to Robin Gibb and Donna Summer, hello to the Afghan Whigs and Metric

RIP Robin Gibb. KDHX’s Matt Champion looks back on some classic originals and cover songs of the Bee Gees.

The Guardian digs into the archives for a brilliant interview with Robert Moog.

Listen to the amazing Caetano Veloso interpret the poetry of Augusto de Campos.

You probably saw Foo Fighters with Mick Jagger on SNL, but did you see the after-party?

In contrast, an animated Carrie Brownstein isn’t so sanguine about post-show hangouts.

Your eyes do not deceive you: Morrissey is a happy guy.

The Guardian looks back at the wider pop influence of the late Donna Summer.

Apparently, Atlanta rapper Killer Mike pays a lot of attention to his reviews.

Listen to a new single from Metric.

Watch a Beale Street funeral march tribute to Donald “Duck” Dunn.

Beach House issues a statement on the whole VW ad rip-off controversy.

The Austin City Limits Festival 2012 lineup is out.

The eternal debate rages on but vinyl really does sound better.

By market share, Sony is now the biggest label in the world.

Watch Afghan Whigs’ return to form on Fallon.

Rolling Stone interviews Ad Rock and Mike D about their late compadre MCA.

You’ve been waiting, hoping, praying to the darkness for this moment: The World Goth Day Awards for 2012 are in.

And if you’re a fan of LA post-punk you’ve been waiting for this compilation.

The Flaming Lips are going after Jay-Z’s record for most shows in the most cities in 24 hours.

Learn how a great music scene transformed the city of Denton, Tx.

Enjoy some extremely rare footage of the Doors circa 1970.

RIP to a great DJ: Hal Jackson has died at age 96.

The Austin Chronicle takes a close and depressing look at streaming music royalties.

John Lennon takes Miles Davis to the hoop.

Passion Fuels Opera Theatre St. Louis’ ‘Carmen’

Widely regarded as the most popular opera of all time, Georges Bizet’s Carmen is not easy to perform or produce. The opera is a tour de force of emotions that requires a solid ensemble and a larger then life leading lady to make it connect with an audience.

Carmen is all about durability. Bizet’s 18th century masterpiece remains a potent, passionate and intense opus filled with heavy doses of hopelessness, despair, oppression, desire and vengeance. Carmen is a comic opera in four acts which features dialogue breaks interspersed in the production to move the story along.

Set in Seville, Carmen tells of the tragic downfall of Don Jose, a local soldier who abandons his childhood love after falling prey to the wiles of Carmen, a blisteringly seductive gypsy. To make things worse he abandons his post and goes to prison in order to protect Carmen. When he is freed he returns to Carmen only to find his passion spurned. Bewitched, batterred and bewildered Don Jose becomes enraged after learning that Carmen’s heart yearns for Escamillo, the most famous bullfighter in Spain. After some nasty turn of events he once again finds himself in big trouble.

Don Jose’s downfall is accelerated when he confronts Carmen in Pastia’s Bar late one evening. Their lover’s quarrel has dire consequences which become clearer as events transpire.  Tragically, Carmen receives a prophecy in Act Three which foretells that things are going to end very badly. Nonetheless she does her best to stay out of trouble.  Despite her charms, intelligence and raw toughness, Carmen cannot stop the passion, rage, jealousy and love swirling inside Don Jose. During Acts Three and Four the tension between them escalates, leading to a heartbreaking tragedy.

In addition to having the most familiar score in opera, Carmen remains popular opera because its themes of immortality, lawlessness and the plight of the working class resonates with audiences. This personal connection is just one of the reasons why Opera Theatre St. Louis’ production of Carmen is so thrilling.

Carmen opens OTSL’s 37th season while also serving as a homecoming for St. Louis native Kendall Gladen. Gladen, a stunning mezzo-soprano, has been a star on the rise for the last decade. Her return to St. Louis in the title role is nothing short of amazing. This production completely revolves around Gladen’s incredible voice and commanding presence. Her smoldering portrayal breathes new life into the opera, transforming it into the penultimate celebration of the femme fatale.

Adam Diegel is terrific (in his OTSL debut) as the doomed Don Jose. As a performer he is able to go toe to toe with Gladen. He gives Don Jose two distinct personalities and then plays off of them in an inner struggle filled with turmoil, pain and lust. His Don Jose is vulnerable yet filled with an inner rage that eventually becomes all consuming. In  making Don Jose so jilted, jostled and jaundiced Diegel adeptly balances several layered aspects of the character with precision, allowing him to give Don Jose a fresh depth and range.

Making his first appearance with Opera Theatre St. Louis since 2008 is Aleksey Bogdanov as Escamillo.  Onstage he owns the first half of Act Two. His solos are simply incredible. He vibrantly drenches Escamillo in extreme bravado and joyful boastfulness that provides enough rich detail to round out the character. Bogdanov’s onstage interaction with Gladen is dynamic. Corinne Winters is also terrific as Micaela, Don Jose’s forgotten love.

(photo courtesy of Ken Howard and OTSL)

Director Stephen Barlow has molded Carmen into a highly charged pulp noir extravaganza. This production, based on a revised translation, wows and awes before a single actor takes the stage. It opens with noir style film credits set against a black background on stage. The credits  frame this adaptation perfectly. Every director wants to leave their stamp on Carmen and Barlow’s production is no different. The opera has been lifted from the nineteenth century and transposed to Seville during Francoist Spain. Making the correlation between Bizet’s original work and film noir accentuates Barlow’s boldness and daring in staging this production.

Guided by Barlow’s steady hand, each Act in Carmen has it’s own distinct texture. Act One sets up the drama by focusing in on the tough life in Seville where vagrants, criminals and factory workers all scramble to make ends meet. Out of this daily grind comes Carmen, a fiery siren who turns heads and manipulates hearts to get what she wants. She is a woman that every man has eyes for but none can seem to possess. Acts Two and Three propel Don Jose’s fall from grace, culminating in an all out showdown in Act Four.  As each act unfolds it becomes more apparent that Barlow is building something dense and compelling.

Set and Costume Designer Paul Edwards augments this setting by adding 1940s era billboards and a fantastic nightclub set that perfectly sets the tone for the piece.  His costumes seamlessly blend gangster chic with fascist military uniforms and traditional gypsy garb. These costumes provide the perfect mix of color for emphasizing the characters and drama onstage.

Stage lighting from Christopher Akerlind bolsters the atmosphere by adding fresh dimensions to each set piece. He carefully mimics the noir lighting from films of that era for the stage, giving Carmen some additional seasoning.

Bizet’s music has always been Carmen’s calling card. Debuting conductor Carlos Itzcaray whips the St. Louis Symphony into a frenzy transforming one of operas more recognizable scores into a powerfully emotional experience as passionate as any of the action playing out on the stage above. His hands create orchestrations that convey equal amounts of exuberance and despair, leaving the audience utterly overwhelmed by the end of the evening.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ production of Carmen is the perfect showstopper for opening their new season. This provocative  new interpretation never relents in dazzling the audience visually or emotionally. Carmen fires on all cylinders because the charismatic and talented cast (led by hometown hero Kendall Gladen) deflects the sensations of desire, revenge and betrayal onto the audience, creating an utterly mesmerizing (and emotionally draining) opera that must be experienced to be understood.

Here are the performance dates and times for Carmen.

 Friday, May 25 
8:00 pm, Thursday, May 31 
8:00 pm, Friday, June 8 
8:00 pm, Sunday, June 10 7:00pm,Wednesday, June 13 
1:00 pm, Saturday, June 16 
8:00 pm, Tuesday, June 19 
8:00 pm, Saturday, June 23 
1:00 pm.

All performance s are held at the Browning Mainstage at the  Loretto-Hilton Center.

For more information visit






Album review: Screaming Females get noisy and hooky on ‘Ugly’

Screaming Females
Don Giovanni

The incendiary punkish alt-rock trio Screaming Females may contain only one female member — lead singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster — but the band’s name is not inaccurate; Paternoster herself contains multitudes.

There are moments on the band’s fifth record, “Ugly,” when her voice, singular and bleeding, and broken-glass guitar so dominate the compositions that bass and drums — provided by Michael Abbate and Jarrett Dougherty, respectively — almost become superfluous. For some folks, Paternoster’s razor-blade voice is likely all-or-nothing in its appeal. It squeals and twists in tandem with her overdriven guitar in a way that is abrasive yet seductive.

Witness “Crow’s Nest,” the sharpest demonstration of Paternoster’s skill on “Ugly.” It begins with crescendoing bass, which rises from noisy-neighbor level to floor-rattling in 20 seconds. When the rest of the trio kicks in, at full volume and attitude, you’d be forgiven for not even noticing what the bass and drums are doing. Paternoster’s vox-plus-guitar combo rides on top, and the pair together is intoxicating. Subtract either element from the equation and the song becomes either a grating, overly-emotive tome or a reupholstering of so many of J. Mascis’ guitar lines. But together, they burn.

Screaming Females is the most accomplished and notable act to come out of the New Brunswick, N.J. basement scene. Their record label, Don Giovanni, has been successfully carrying that scene’s flag far beyond northwest Jersey for some time now. For all of the stereotypes that the modifiers DIY and “basement scene” conjure, Screaming Females do a hell of a lot to make you forget that you’re supposed to be young, poor and carefree/less in order to enjoy these songs.

On “Help Me” Paternoster sings: “You make it look easy to be strong / you lift my crutch and guide me home.” While that’s definitely rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t exactly exude the self-sufficient, kiss-off attitude normally associated with DIY punk. This song and others — “It All Means Nothing,” “Rotten Apple” and the aforementioned “Crow’s Nest,” in particular — meld straight punk noise with squalling hooks that, together with the band’s fourth instrument, Paternoster’s voice, become undeniable swells of energy that cut beyond the lines of genre and stereotype.

But unless you’re sweating and thrashing about in a basement of your own volition, it’s hard to listen to guitars cranked to 10 for an hour. Screaming Females can pound and thrash as hard as anyone, but the band also knows when to downshift. The bridge on “Leave It All Up To Me,” about two thirds into the record, tears down the wall of noise, providing relief in the form of a sassy, slinky groove. The melody is completely deconstructed, only to be built back up to wrecking ball heft. Further contrast is provided by the album’s closer, “It’s Nice.” On this acoustic number, Paternoster’s knack for cutting to the quick extends well beyond punk. With deftly fingerpicked guitar, complimented by cello and violin, that voice that is most often bold and brash demonstrates subtle and trembling emotion.

“Ugly” is not without its flaws — Paternoster’s voice can become a caricature when not not used purposefully, and Abbate and Dougherty’s playing can seem uninspired — but there are enough moments of fiery punk transcendence to account for all of those sins and more.

Pan-African Notes: Sierra Leone’s Refugee Reggae All Stars Meet Mario Pascal @ 2720 on 5/30

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars @ the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2007 [with the late Idrissa 'Mallam' Bangura on bass; photo by Michael Kuelker

by Michael Kuelker

“Salone” means “Sierra Leone” in Krio, one of six languages on the new album by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Radio Salone is a thrilling tour through reggae, soukous and cross-cultural polyrhythms, as well wrought and mood-enhancing an album as I’ve heard thus far in 2012.

SLRAS’s story is by now well known among those who follow contemporary world music, a narrative that bridges from refugee camps in the wake of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war (1991-2002) to the international stage. Only Malian desert blues band Tinariwen can be included in a conversation about musical refugees who have broken through to the world renown. The band members’ lives as refugees and musicians were chronicled in a 2005 documentary which found a wide, responsive audience.  Their debut, Living Like a Refugee, followed in 2006.

And shortly, they will bring their hothouse of African music into St. Louis. SLRAS will be nine dates into a long summer tour when they perform on Wednesday, May 30 at 2720 (2720 Cherokee). Loyal Family Promotions is taking great pains to inform everyone that this is an early show, with SLRAS going on from 9 – 10:30 p.m. Mario Pascal plays at 8 p.m. and Vladimir ‘The Mad Russian’ Noskov brings his Iron Curtain Hi Fi for an hour of roots reggae vinyl starting at 7 p.m. and as much as he can get between sets.

On Saturday, May 26, Mario Pascal will be my guest on “Positive Vibrations” for music and conversation. The program will feature as much SLRAS music as the FCC will allow as well as other African reggae, classic Jamaican roots and a sprinkle of brand new tunes. “Positive Vibrations,” co-hosted by Professor Skank & the I, airs every Saturday from 9-11 p.m.. Mario will be on the mike at 9:15; later the same evening, he plays at The Pulse (2847 Cherokee).

A St. Louis-raised son of Haitian parents, Mario Pascal is a reggae/world beat artist whose original music and vision are a perfect blend for the May 30 show. He says that the May 30 event is at heart a concert about pan-African unity.

“Definitely, it’s a blessing to be a part of this show because in my opinion it brings forth the whole purpose and reasoning behind reggae music,” he told me in a telephone interview this month.

photo of Mario Pascal courtesy of Mario Pascal

“Staying with Rastafari culture in general, to me it’s a gateway to the infinite pool of African consciousness, you know what I’m saying? Reggae music is a bridgeway because it is at a riddim and a pace that everyone can feel. And through that, especially with a band like Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, it brings you into a whole nother sense of being in terms of understanding their struggle and where they came from and how they even came together to make music.

“And when they came together to make music, what is the music they chose to play? Reggae music. That’s a testament of the art form of reggae; it’s a testament to what it does as far as liberating the people in terms of mind; and it’s a testament how culture really, to me, is where the true battlefield lies. How can we liven ourselves up? It’s not through technology, it’s not through drugs, it’s through the music.”

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