Concert review: Americana and rock burn on at Twangfest 16 at the Duck Room, with Kelly Hogan, Wussy, Deano & the Purvs and Pretty Little Empire, Thursday, June 7
For night two, Twangfest moved to the Duck Room — a rightful home, since the basement that was once Cicero’s birthed so many punk-influenced country bands whose legacies were loud and clear last night.
St. Louis’ Pretty Little Empire started the night, playing like they were the headliners with beautifully-rendered vocal harmonies often followed by breakneck punk guitar barrages. Singer/guitarist Justin Johnson shakes with a building energy on every songs. The band introduced a new song they haven’t recorded — they’re in the studio making the follow-up to last year’s “Reasons and Rooms.” The song sticks with the band’s formula, a relationship dirge rooted in a heavy, plodding beat topped with sparkling guitars.
Deano & the Purvs collides members of Chicago’s Waco Brothers with Austin’s Meat Purveyors. As Deano described the band, “a Taco Bell menu list” from the other bands, which leaves a loose band that plays honky tonks where the grass is blue. Bill Anderson’s whiskey-lit lead guitar could burn the whole place to the ground.
Dean Schlabowske and Jo Walston trade vocal duties, swinging from lovelorn to drunk to down-right homicidal in a whirlwind of country punk. They’re not a polished act, and they wouldn’t work so well if they were. Walston rifled through a pile of lyric sheets, which Deano dubbed her “steampunk teleprompter.” While her vocals sometimes veered off-key and hot, they create an emotional rawness. If Liz Phair had gone country in 1991, this is what she would have sounded like. She’s at her strongest when she can’t find her lyric sheet to “Dead Wrong” but plows through with her sharpest performance of the night, and when trading spitfire verses with Deano on their “bastardized” punked-up take on Bill Monroe’s “Little Red Shoes.”
All this raucousness is rooted by Joe Camarillo on drums and Alan Doughty on bass. The former’s steadfast and thorough. The latter is a whirling dervish, playing bass at lead guitar strength. All the elements implode into traditional country covered in heat blisters.
Three songs into their set Wussy‘s singer/guitarist Chuck Cleaver apologized for his behavior at previous St. Louis shows, which were often fueled by free shots of Jaegermeister. For all his tales of the debauchery of his Ass Ponys days and current crankiness, at one point claiming his beer tasted like “baby piss,” Cleaver’s vocals reveal emotional depth. He’s a tender fellow, his lonesome angst as evident in his quietness on “Grand Champion Steer” as co-singer Lisa Walker’s is in her high-reaching warble.
The Cincinnati quintet went from shades of John Doe and Exene Cervenka in their heyday (“Pulverized”) to jammy My Morning Jacket-style fuzzed psych guitar and falsetto vocals (“Pizza King”). Regardless of the style, Wussy weaves the set list together with the constant of Cleaver and Walker’s pop harmonies, particularly amid the guitar destruction of “Airborne” with its do-do-do refrain over fierce feedback. In “Muscle Cars” Walker lead Cleaver in a call-and-response chorus that rises, suddenly dropping to a soft landing instead of the soaring climax predicted by the frenetic beat and insistent, rising urgency while Cleaver and Walker beg to be pulled under.
With time to spare Wussy went off the set list for the throbbing “Rigor Mortis.” The harmonies grew discordant amidst the riot of guitar feedback chaos, the sweet harmonies morphing into a storm of howls by song’s end.
It’s hard to believe Cleaver when he claimed the band’s not used to being called back for an encore. “People are usually happy when we’re going,” he said. Considering the throng of audience crowded at the front of the stage and the frenzy of energy, Cleaver might have crossed the false modesty line, which is preferable to his past of getting into fights with audience members.
Headliner Kelly Hogan took the stage with little fanfare, carrying her utilitarian backpack, a notebook covered in radio station and KISS stickers, a battered tambourine, and a screw-top bottle of wine plastered with a label-maker sticker bearing her name. “Hold on while I get my situation in order,” she told the audience. Diva? No way.
But then Hogan opened her mouth — in this case on the Andrew Bird/Jack Pendarvis composition, “We Can’t Have Nice Things” — and out came effortless perfection. Standing near the stage, it almost seems the sound is coming from elsewhere. Pitch-perfect with no arm-flailing, chest-beating fanfare or effort, she evokes the smirking hurt of the lyrics while encouraging her new touring band to harmonize with her.
Hogan’s set comprised her new album, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain,” a collection of songs written by artists she’s worked with over the years. Not everything made the final cut, including Jeff Tweedy’s “Open Mind.” It’s a shame, because she takes Tweedy’s quiet tune and fills it with robust richness. Harmonizing with keyboardist Scott Ligon (of NRBQ) wasn’t necessary, as Hogan can carry this and any other song on the broad spectrum of her own skills. But the harmonies are delicious candy sprinkled over an already delectable cake.
For Robbie Fulks’ “Whenever You’re Out of My Sight” Hogan requested guitarist Jim Elkington for “that fondue pot sound. This is ‘Playboy After Dark.’” The ’70s-tinged song with its gentle, smooth acoustic guitar could be loungy cheese, but in Hogan’s hands, it’s buttery soul. Hogan described the sound as “Waiting for a flight in the most fucked up airport in the world.”
Ligon jibes so well with Hogan’s stage presence. During his organ-styled solo on “Pass on By” Hogan revels in his zeal. The band doesn’t feel like a new creation; they’ve been playing together off-and-on for years. They walk the wire between technical tightness and creative looseness. All members, including Joe Camarillo on drums and KC McDonough on bass, keep their eyes on Hogan for cues as she veers from the setlist, especially during M. Ward’s “Daddy’s Little Girl,” being rewarded with swigs from her personal wine bottle.
Before “Golden” Hogan tells how she wrote the song for her friend/employer Neko Case because “Neko was having a shit day.” It’s a joyous song of love and admiration, brimming with Hogan’s unabashed affection for her friend with Elkington including some Neko-esque guitar twang.
And so went Hogan’s entire set, well past midnight, never losing her effortless feel or her sense of humor. During the ode to insomnia, “Slumber Sympathy,” the remaining crowd fell into a sleepy sway into the dark of Vic Chesnutt’s “Ways of the World.” Hogan shattered any dozing with the song’s closing primal scream. Once alert, she instructed the audience to play “fist trumpet — it’s not as dirty as it sounds,” on “Sugar Bowl,” which ended with her blowing into her fist to make a mock trumpet.
The rest of the set — “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain,” “The Green Willow Valley,” “Sleeper Awake” and “Plant White Rose” — didn’t wane with the late hour, and neither did Hogan’s voice or spirit. The band, which she dubbed Kelly Hogan’s Ladybeard, concluded with the Jon Langford-penned earworm, “Haunted.” Despite Hogan’s new album only being released two days prior, the crowd burst into sing-along as if they’d known the song for years.
Hogan returned with Ligon on acoustic guitar for an encore that opened with the Magnetic Fields’ “Papa Was a Rodeo.” She warmed the audience in advance that she wanted them to take the last chorus, and they didn’t disappoint. Hogan stood back while we sang, soft and quiet before she erupted in applause for the moment of connectedness.
McDonough returned for three-part harmony on Free Design’s “Kites are Fun,” full of heartfelt kitsch before bringing out the rest of the band to close a night of interesting, diverse voices covering the breadth of Americana.