Concert review: Blueprint drafts a night of innovative hip-hop at the Firebird, Thursday, November 29

Blueprint at the Firebird. Photo by Wil Wander.

The Deleted Scenes tour joined up with Indyground Entertainment‘s Always Support Locals series to serve the crowd at the Firebird a night of innovative and original hip-hop.

Local acts Scrub and Mathias & the Pirates opened the night, followed by Buffalo emcee Mad Dukez with producer and MPC phenom Fresh Kils, and was wrapped up by Rhymesayers’ veteran Blueprint, headlining the show. Each act included elements of live production along with potent lyrical flows, a true delight for the fan of modern, independent hip-hop.

The Always Support Locals series is a monthly highlight of Missouri’s expanding hip-hop scene, well established in Kansas City, but relatively new to St. Louis. November’s installment featured Scrub kicking things off. His act included mostly funk-based production, jammed out with Rob Bass on a vintage Rhodes, and fast paced, clever lyrics, poking fun at society and mainstream culture. He was followed by emerging act Mathias & the Pirates that featured former Earthworms’ emcee Mathias with former Grea Tones vocalist and emcee Ms. Vizion, joined by Grover Stewart on the drumset. They performed with all the flair you’d expect from these budding local legends, despite Ms. Vizion’s terribly coarse throat and a minor technical issue. The set included their lead single “South City Livin’,” and a couple chill grooved tracks to balance the performance.

After the local segment, Blueprint‘s Deleted Scenes tour continued the night with Mad Dukez and Fresh Kils. Relatively unknown outside the New York state underground scene, this Buffalo-based emcee is no stranger to the microphone. He crafted his set to build from what he called “small songs” to the “big ones,” bringing up the intensity and energy as the set progressed. He was teamed up with MPC based producer Fresh Kils, half of Canadian production-DJ duo, the Extremities. Already well known for intelligently juggled beats and samples, he didn’t fail to impress with combinations of speed, timing, and dexterity, all with an amusingly light stage presence. After building to their current single “Monsters,” they both demonstrated their immense skill and precision in a quickly accelerating piece, and Fresh Kils rounded out the set with his award-winning “Price Is Right” routine.

Blueprint concluded the night with another well crafted line-up of tracks from across his deep and expanding discography. He’s touring to support his most recent release, “Deleted Scenes,” but the Columbus native tactfully offered only a taste of the new tracks, using his experience as veteran performer to manicure his set to offer something simultaneously novel and familiar. He was joined by DJ Rare Groove, who has accompanied Blueprint on many tours before.

The set started with a low-key, down tempo piece that included a drawn out instrumental segment and clearly punctuated lyrics. He continued to demonstrate his ability to come hard to the microphone with passion and meticulous articulation without the use of traditional, crowd-pleasing bangers. That is certainly not to say he didn’t have any more energetic songs. He used the largely instrumental track “Body Moving” from the new album to add a bit more liveliness to the set, including the first appearance of his small keytar that has become a popular element in his performances. As the set closed, he added the humorous “Neighborhood Weed Man” to lighten the mood, and finished off the crowd with the highly danceable “Fly Away,” from his prized 2011 release, “Adventures in Counter Culture.”

Despite competition from underground moguls, the People Under the Stairs, the Firebird was filled with St. Louis’ dedicated hip-hop fans. In a testament to the quality of all of the performers, the headliners didn’t retreat to the comfort of the green room and remained engaged with the music on-stage, and even the smokers’ porch was notably sparse. From the drop of the first beat, this was a thoroughly impressive and enjoyable night of music.

‘We’re in the throes of a new folk revival’ An interview with Ryan Spearman

Sara Finke

Ryan Spearman is many things in many musical moods, but all his roles show a passion for setting the spark of innovation to the good tinder of tradition.

A singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, band leader, solo artist and teacher, Spearman was born and raised in St. Peters, Mo. and after a stint in Colorado with the band High on the Hog, he’s continued to make his home and his music in St. Louis.

When Spearman and Pokey LaFarge take the stage at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Friday, November 30 for the Folk School Grand Celebration, they’ll be doing what comes naturally — making music the old-time way – and while they’ll make it look easy, it most certainly isn’t. It takes years of hard work to play country, blues, folk and swing as well as they do.

I met Spearman for coffee to get a preview of the Sheldon show and to catch up on his current musical endeavors.

Roy Kasten: When did you first meet Pokey?

Ryan Spearman: The first time I met Pokey was when I moved back into the city about four years ago. I had just come back from Colorado and I had been living out in the country in Herman [Mo.] for two years. I’d been hearing about Pokey but hadn’t seen him. I caught him at BB’s, and a mutual friend introduced us. Pokey knew who I was, he knew my history. Our musical paths had been crossing for a while. He’d seen my band [High on the Hog] before.

After that I’d see him every once in a while and we’d talk about our mutual musical histories, but we’d never played together until last year at the Sheldon for the 10 year anniversary for the Folk School.

The idea was to get the two of us to just play together. We’d been talking about. I thought it would be fun and people would enjoy it. With Pokey being so busy we don’t get to practice much. He’ll come to town and we’ll spend six hours and then he’ll be gone. This year we’ve had one eight-hour session so far.

Did you feel like you had a shared base of musical knowledge? Did you know the same tunes?

Yeah. What Pokey does on stage and what I do on stage, it seems disparate to the average listener, but we both have similar musical histories, what we’re into and the different types of music we play. That’s the other reason we wanted to get together. Pokey will do stuff that I play and I’ll do more what he plays. Last year we had him on the mandolin. Our interests are similar and our experience with country blues and old time music, and then Pokey’s recent obsession with country swing — I had just been getting into the same kind of stuff in Colorado.

At this point, it’s a perverse challenge, to see if we can put together a set and make it interesting, and make it sound good.

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Thursday morning music news: Wyman and Taylor turn back the clock, Low turns to Jeff Tweedy and Austin Peralta, Martin Fay and Earl Carroll pass on

You know that lottery thing? Something about a cool half billion? Here’s what you can spend it on. Or this.

Bill and Mick (the other one) are back.

Doo-wop great Earl (Speedo) Carroll has passed away at the age of 75.

“Rage Against the Machine XX” gets remastered and Revolver shares it.

God save LargeHearted Boy and his massive master list of 2012 Year-End Music Lists.

Have a very metal Christmas.

Have a very Bonnie Prince Billy Christmas.

Pianist Austin Peralta, a collaborator with Flying Lotus, has died at the age of 22.

When does sampling become plagiarism? Study the case of Araabmuzik and decide for yourself.

Richard Marx has just become the most hilarious drunk musician tweeter ever.

Behold the fruitiest music list ever.

How does one “lose” a Jimi Hendrix album anyway?

What are the rarest UK releases? The Guardian (UK, natch) finds out.

Remember that time Suzanne Somers met Wire on the Late Show? Dangerous Minds does.

Is Spotify ripping off artists? Is the music biz? David Macias of Thirty Tigers runs the actual numbers and mounts a partial defense.

The Record interviews Spencer Manio, not exactly a household name, but one influential dude.

Martin Fay, founding fiddler for the Chieftains, has died at age 76.

Daily Swarm indulges in a good old-fashioned turkey shoot.

Spike Lee made a documentary about Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Watch.

Low turns 20 and throws a party with Jeff Tweedy. OK, maybe not a party, but still.

The New Yorker resurrects the Grateful Dead. OK, maybe not a resurrection, but still.

In other birthday news, MIDI turns 30. The BBC looks back on the most important musical invention since the lipstick pickup.

Shuggie Otis returns. Watch.

Massive Attack mashes up its influences. Listen.

Talk of the Nation chats with Dolly Parton about her new, dreamy book.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Push That Sky Away.”

Signs of the apocalypse #666: Forbes has a music blog.

Once seen, they cannot be unseen.

The things they still carry: ‘Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Vol. 1′

“Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Vol. 1″ will make you proud to be, too — of being American and a Missourian.

Initiated by the Missouri Humanities Council and the Warriors Arts Alliance, the anthology consists of literature collected from all over America, edited by Susan Swartwout and published by Southeast Missouri State University Press. This collection of narratives and poetry is written by living men and women who have served in the military, taking us into the heart of the matter of our wars.

Yes, our wars, wars we civilians may try to deny — I’m thinking of Vietnam and other recent unpopular wars — and yet which belong to us all as Americans, wars we must own, must invite into our minds, so as to heal and unify as a nation. If, as Franz Kafka wrote, a book should be “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” “Proud to Be…” has both mighty heft and a fine edge.

The collection recalls the best of American war writing. There’s a loud echo of Randall Jarrell’s famous “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” in Jonah E. Krause’s “53 Alpha,” wherein we ride with the ensconced gunner atop the truck grinding through Baghdad.

Like the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” Nick Carraway, who returns to the Midwest from World War I feeling like it is “the ragged edge of the universe,” in “Proud to Be…” the Vietnam vet, of Jay Harden’s “Between Wives,” speaks to us decades after his war, carrying yet the unmistakable “heavy boots” of spirit: “Now I live in my pajamas, a solitary recluse in my house in the company of familiar, buckling depression and a cold computer screen.” Conversely, the anthology also features great humor and the warmth of camaraderie.

The young soldier of “The Red Badge of Courage,” who shakes his fist at the indifferent sun, is reborn in the stargazing soldiers of Levi Bollinger’s “Distant Seitz”: “But we, under the arc of those trajectories,/stare above at the same smattering of/heavenly beauties in divine parade/that has smiled lightly down on millennia/of Mesopotamian bloodshed.”

Here, too, in “Proud to Be…” grows another branch of the tradition of American war literature, the feminine voice, the modern role of woman, who must negotiate additional and different terms of military service. Lauren K. Johnson’s “The Soldier’s Two-Step” details the woman’s “Dancing between two worlds; her/partner the cold barrel of a/gun, music the hollow tones of war and hollow, cheerful voices on/the phone. This is the melody of loneliness.”

Many of the contributions to this anthology seek to depict the chasm between civilian and military life, to show the great divide and perhaps to shorten the distance between these two worlds. In the detailing of loneliness, loss, incomprehension, filth and alienation of war, such narrative and verse shock us into some measure of understanding, perhaps budding profound awareness, of what our men and women went through and must face when they come home.

“Proud to Be…” opens us to experience war in personal ways rarely delivered through expected media channels. It is a vital first volume, one that makes me not only proud to be an American, but a Missouri-American.

Join a host of veteran writers as they read their work from “Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors” at the anthology’s release event hosted by the St. Louis Poetry Center at the Focal Point on Tuesday, November 27 at 7:30 pm.

Concert review: Japandroids go and go and go at the Firebird (with Swearin’), Tuesday, November 20

Japandroids at the Firebird. Photo by Louis Kwok.

It always impresses me just how loud and complete some two-piece bands can sound. The Black Keys, the White Stripes and the Kills are the first that come to mind, but after Tuesday night at the Firebird I might have to put a new pair at the top of that list: Japandroids.

Playing to a sold-out crowd, the Vancouver duo of Brian King and David Prowse ripped through an hour-and-a-half-long tour de force. The set hit full on, so much so that the fast pace sometimes made the lyrics and mid-song dialogue about hockey and touring and a bunch of other things seem rushed or jumbled. With spot-on guitar and drumming coming from two guys with incomparable energy, the jumble didn’t really matter though.

Philadelphia’s Swearin’ opened with a set that was, for lack of a better word, average. Maybe it was overwhelmed by Japandroids power and presence, or maybe their scrappy punk rock really did just lack that “it” factor. My favorite member to watch was bassist Keith Spencer, who wore a “Yoko Ono” shirt and reminded me of Jason Schwartzman, awkwardly lurking in the back corner of the stage. The set, while relatively flat, had good pacing with lots of quick songs and little time wasted. It had to be. How else would Swearin’ have been able to play 17 songs as openers?

Between sets, there was a lot of movement in the crowd. Some of the older members of the audience went for drinks (at the end of the night, the floor was a sea of empty PBR cans) while others pushed their way closer to the stage. I overheard two teenage boys who moved their way to the front. “Is this going to turn into a mosh pit?” one asked. “I hope so!” responded the other.

After doing their own sound check, Japandroids took the stage at around 10:15 p.m. King, incredibly hip with a floppy head of hair and an animated face, began picking at his Fender, while Prowse warmed up on the drums. Their introduction progressed, until it suddenly stopped. “I broke my pedal,” Prowse said. “It actually snapped in half.” With how hard he drummed for the rest of the night, I’m surprised he didn’t snap the replacement, too.

After opening with a few songs from the newest album, “Celebration Rock,” King let us know that since it had been so long since Japandroids had been in St. Louis, they’d play an extra long set with a few older songs. In addition to a few from their first full length, “Post-Nothing” — including a scrappy rendition of “The Boys are Leaving Town” early on and triumphant version one of my favorite songs, “Wet Hair” (I still have the line, “Let’s get to France / So we can French kiss some French girls,” stuck in my head) — the band played a handful of cuts off their first two self-released EPs.

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Concert review: The Supersuckers (with Fat Tramp Food Stamp and Ded Bugs) raise a little hell at the Firebird, Saturday, November 17 / Sean Birmingham

With dark sunglasses, a darker 10-gallon, a couple of Guy Fawkes-inspired beards and plenty of “rock ‘n’ roll about rock,” the Supersuckers reasserted their self-declared title of “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world” at the Firebird.

After manning his merch booth most of the night, Eddie Spaghetti, the leader of the group, took his rightful spot front and center of the stage, insisting everyone “Gather ’round, we’re here to rock the house.”

Sure enough, the leather and denim of the crowd quickly took over the monopoly that the canvas-shoed had enjoyed amongst the front few rows, as the Supersuckers launched into a trademark high-octane set. “Rock Your Ass” provided one of ample opportunities for “Metal” Marty, playing one of three on-stage Les Pauls, to launch into a solo invoking the frenetic tone of Allen Collins. When presented with birthday present offers, Marty, since they were obviously providing the rock ‘n’ roll, requested the first two of the timeless yet constantly updated “wine, women and song” indulgence — albeit in a manner befit to a group named after a porn trope.

Eddie’s cowboy hat resembled devil horns the more the night went on, as it became clear that the Supersuckers would provide the theme music for nights of debauchery. The crowd understood it similarly, as the band’s simultaneous raising of signature gold-top guitars marked the escorting out for a few of the more rambunctious fans. “Pretty Fucked Up,” an excellent but tidy setlist staple, and “Supersucker Drive-By Blues,” a reminder built to ease the listener back into normalcy, served as high points.

Fat Tramp Food Stamp proved promising as soon as Chum, the overalls-wearing lead singer, brought his own bongos to the stage. Shortly thereafter, the bassist, Brandon Shrum, turned out to be the most proficient R&B player in the building while the backup vocalist picked up at least four different instruments. Regardless, the crowd swayed appropriately to the endearing tone as Chum reassured that “she plays whatever (she kindly) feels like.” Expecting to hear straight-forward country alt-rock, one instead gets a nuanced band that hangs in the head like a wisp of smoke in the air.

Ded Bugs, taking the stage as if they just finished a marathon session of “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” was backed by dive-bombs, distortion and a love of feedback. Playing songs with titles like “Who Will Save Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Ded Bugs collectively showed an utter abundance of talent, yet never allowed anything to be as important as being loud. Even better, the three non-drummers, when trading off vocal duties, slightly traded styles, and the band fluctuated from the heyday of CGBG’s to strip club baroque with each song.

Concert review: The Urge (with Murder City Players and Disturbing the Peace) gets more than hectic at the Pageant, Friday, November 16

Steve Ewing of the Urge. Courtesy of

On its first show of three, the Urge sold out the Pageant and provided a wild evening of ska-punk, reggae, sweat and booze.

Disturbing the Peace opened promptly and rocked the audience hard with the night’s most metal set. “Mission” featured wall-of-sound guitar distortion. Rob Tweedie offered a set of pipes that sounded like Brandon Boyd from Incubus. “Hyperballad” rose from post-rock ashes and blew up with keys and a quirky self-reliant metaphor.

From the balcony of the Pageant, I watched the old-school, reggae-infused Murder City Players. The band consisted of a saxophonist, trombonist, trumpeter, keyboardist, bassist, drummer, guitarist and two vocalists.

The dual vocals provided a nice dollop of energy which complemented the instrumental skanking. Mark Condelliere (aka Tony Rome) appeared about halfway through the group’s set to assist black-hatted Prince Phillip. Both men danced and cheered at the swaying crowd, happy to set the stage for the Urge with reggae tunes ranging between covers and originals.

Soon, after an introduction by Cardinals third baseman David Freese, lead-vocalist Steve Ewing appeared on stage with the rest of the Urge as the crowd chanted some unintelligible call to arms. Karl Grable’s triumphant bass glinted under the house lights.

“Take Away” from 1996′s “Receiving the Gift of Flavor” sparked the Urge’s set as the packed mosh pit undulated. The song dripped with Grable’s wandering bass, Matt Kwiatkowski’s trombone and Bill Reither’s saxophonist. The Urge galloped around the stage during the song’s break downs, jumping wildly, pushing the mosh pit up toward maximum riot-swirl. “Don’t Ask Why” was full of angsty power rock that chilled-out during the horn-lead verses.

Ewing’s vocals remained crisp throughout “Brainless,” which featured a Gravity Kills-style, stabbing, “siren” guitar part. On the OG track “Going to the Liquor Store” from 1992′s “Magically Delicious,” the crowd lit-up singing the chorus along with Ewing, reveling in the idea of getting majorly hammered and fucking shit up.

Ewing introduced “Hollywood Ending,” a new song, which is planned to appear on the Urge’s next record. The song played frenetic with a tight chorus that mirrored much of the Urge’s work on 2000′s “Too Much Stereo,” which gave me the impression that the Urge plans to pick up right where it left off before its demise in 2001.

“Say a Prayer” from “Too Much Stereo” opened with vocals and guitar then morphed into a dubbed-out, existentialist, religion study complete with “Hey’s” from Ewing and tight drumming from John Pessoni. “Dirty Rat” brought the show to total punk rage. The pit swirled, a couple kids got knocked out, the cops ejected the sweaty perps and the show continued, the Urge not missing a beat, pushing the crowd toward frenzy despite the dangerous spin of the pit.

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Concert review and set list: Banjos, bones and the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Friday, November 16

If you have never seen the Carolina Chocolate Drops live, you must immediately fill up your biggest thermos with tar-black coffee, get in the car and follow them to Indianapolis for their gig on Saturday.

Otherwise how will you know that Dom Flemons kicks his legs in the air when all that pickin’ and stompin’ gets him too excited to sit still? Or that the clackety-clack noise keeping time is genuine cow bone? You’ll hear the harmonies and the finger picking, but you won’t see the flat footing, jigging, back somersaulting, and hat tricking. You won’t get to help out by shouting the “hi ho!” on songs like “Sourwood Mountain.” You won’t feel the warmth of the band members, each of whom appears both to take the art of performance very seriously, while sincerely enjoying themselves, each other, and the audience.

The Sheldon was packed — a grayer, more suspendered, more impressively bearded crowd that I normally see at shows, but it was obvious everyone who was there knew the history and the material backwards and forwards. For instance, I’m surprised how many people sang along to every word on “Cornbread and Butterbeans.” (Maybe a little less surprised on the Woody Guthrie number, “Goin’ Down the Road, Ain’t Gonna Take This No More”). And since it’s St. Louis, I know everyone loves a good song or two about public intoxication, especially when it involves “Old Corn Liquor” (which I regret to inform you that I have tasted, and I am pretty sure my stomach lining has not been the same since).

One member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops introduced every single one of their songs with reverence. Most were traditional roots or folk tunes, although “Country Girl” is an original written by Rhiannon Giddons. Each one of the musicians is well versed in the ethnomusicology of African-American roots, music you have undoubtedly heard interpreted by old-timey folk and country singers. For instance: Were you aware that the banjo is an African instrument? Did you know that the last Gaelic speaking church in North Carolina (where the majority of Gaelic-speaking Scots emigrated in the 17th and 18th centuries) was a black church? Did you realize a minstrel banjo was strung with guts?

Speaking of minstrel: While introducing “The Briggs Banjo Instructor,” Giddons announced that the band was taking the audience back to 1855 — “Just musically speaking,” she acknowledged ruefully. The minstrel banjo (of course she has one) is a fretless instrument stretched with goat hide and strung with the aforementioned guts. It sounds like a regular banjo, but a little deeper. White musicians began noticing this instrument around the 1840s, learned to play it, and it eventually became an integral part of the minstrel show. This song was also the first of the night to feature Flemons and Hubby Jenkins on cow bones. Holding two bones in each hand and clacking them together rapidly, the two hammed it up onstage while Giddons picked out “The Briggs Banjo Instructor” on her genuine, goat-hide minstrel banjo.

Flemons knew his crowd, and made several references to St. Louis institutions that swelled hometown pride. “This was recorded by my friend Pokey LaFarge,” said Flemons by way of introducing “In the Jailhouse Now,” during which he also improvised, “I was down at the Royale, but I’m in the jailhouse now.” It’s easy to see the connection between the South City Three and Carolina Chocolate Drops — for one, both Flemons and Mr. LaFarge have voices made for a 1930s phonograph. Flemons also informed us that he’d purchased his favorite porkpie hat in St. Louis many years ago, and kindly tipped his current porkpie hat to “100 more years of the Sheldon.”

There were a couple of standouts on a night of many standout songs, and one was cellist Leyla McCalla singing and playing banjo on an old Haitian song called “Rose Marie.” It was all in Haitian Creole, but McCalla explained that the gist of the song was about a woman who falls in love with a flaky musician. (Who hasn’t?) This gorgeous, lilting little number saw the Drops rocking back and forth, Caribbean style — down from the mountain and onto the beach at night, where you could fairly see women with flowers in their dark hair swaying in the breeze.

Giddons’ take on two Scottish highlands songs, sung in Gaelic, enthralled the crowd. I looked around during these numbers and saw almost every face completely rapt, every pair of eyes trained on the stage. Both were two types of Scottish country dance songs, the first a strathspey in somber 4/4 time stripped down only to Giddons’ voice and a draw of the bow across the cello strings. The second, a reel, started out faster and got faster still, with Flemons beating a bass drum to keep time and Jenkins going wild on the bones as Giddons breathlessly wrapped her Carolina drawl around the words in a beautiful language no one knew. “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” the folk rendering of the Blu Cantrell song, seemed especially to resonate with the female half of the audience, which Giddons acknowledged, laughingly, as she introduced the song as one about revenge to much whooping and cheering.

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