Concert review and set list: Dave Holland captains a captivating quintet at Jazz at the Bistro, Wednesday, January 30

Dave Holland at Jazz at the Bistro. Photo by Wil Wander.

Despite a half-empty room, the chatter filled Jazz at the Bistro with an energy thick enough to feel as patrons moved slowly to their seats.

Those that had stayed from the first set made proclamations and promises of transcendental experiences to each new face that entered the room. It was obvious that an authentic legend and master was in the building. Dave Holland would soon prove his reputation as both a musician and band leader by directing this quintessential quintet.

Holland emerged to the world of jazz in no subtle manner as he was a stable member of Miles Davis’ band for the span of five years and nine albums including the eminent “Bitches Brew.” He’s performed and recorded with many of the other great names in jazz throughout his career and began to lead his own bands when he was just 25. Now, with over 40 years of experience in his role, Holland leads a truly superior quintet that has settled down in St. Louis for a four-night stay.

Even before the music started, the presence of a vibraphone and marimba at the side of the stage suggested an escape from a standard arrangement. Steve Nelson, a band leader and composer himself, manned these giant, chromatic percussion instruments with athleticism. While he featured the vibraphone, he would seamlessly turn 180 degrees for a quick, single bar riff on the marimba before turning back, and often shuffled his feet to reach the highest and lowest bars. His solo during “Cosmosis” featured fluid streams of cascading riffs as he bounced with the rhythms, but it was his dexterity with the mallets that truly stood out as magnificent, seemingly able to hit four octaves simultaneously to create vibrantly dynamic chords.

As the set continued, Robin Eubanks stood out among the quintet, often taking the lead melodies and the widest selection of solos. They were all well merited as he handled his trombone with both finesse and agility, milking the slide for drawn out, slurred segments and even matching the speed of a drum-roll with a frenzy of tongue taps not often found in the bass register. He worked very well with Mark Turner on the saxophones, who stands in for Chris Potter on this tour. The two didn’t behave like a horn section, but rather played off each other and the band much like a piano duet. They would bounce riffs back and forth, and at times would seem to finish each others’ phrases and even improvise in syncopation.

The backline of the quintet was composed of Holland on his short bodied, double bass and Nate Smith on drums. Holland proves to be one of the more modest band leaders touring today. Showing his experience and wisdom, he rarely took a solo or assumed an attention grabbing style, but he was always playing something that fit the song beautifully while continually defying expectations. Smith filled a similar role, often locked on with other members of the band, accentuating the rhythms perfectly with well selected tones from the drumset and a high-energy style.

As a quintet, they meshed with a well established familiarity with each other and the song selections, which were largely cheerful in mood throughout the set. While Dave Holland may be the master, every bit of the show was a group effort. Every musician’s part was necessary to create the sound and the flow of each piece, which further demonstrated Holland’s prowess as a leader. He remains a treasure in the world of jazz and a role model to all who play a note.

Set list (including composer):

Looking Up (Eubanks)
Cosmosis (Holland)
The Sum of All Parts (Eubanks)
Go Fly a Kite (Nelson)
The Eyes Have It (Holland)

Concert review: Soul Asylum (with Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts) rocks away the past at the Old Rock House, Wednesday, January 30

Despite a few bumps in the road, Soul Asylum had a great start to its 2013 tour Wednesday night at the Old Rock House.

Opening the festivities was Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts. I had not heard the band before, but as soon as the vocal harmonies kicked in during show starter “Baby Blue” I knew that this was going to be a set for the record books. These guys can harmonize like the Beatles in their prime, giving me chills on more than one occasion.

Daniel James McMahon has the voice of an angel and his guitar sounds just as heavenly. Andrew Scarpaci made his bass lines seem effortless while Adam Plamann held down the keys and played some of great-sounding clarinet runs. The real star was Micky Rosenquist, one of the most dynamic drummers I’ve ever seen. He was playing anything and everything with whatever was in hand — mallets, mallet handles, even bashing the cymbals with his tambourine. His control over the drums was astounding, going from delicate cymbal flicks to wall-shaking thuds and all points in-between.

Miles Nielsen’s guitar playing isn’t as flamboyant and flashy as his father, Cheap Trick guitar-slinger Rick Nielsen, but it’s beautiful in its subtlety. His voice is a warm, rich tenor — well suited for the music he performs. Whether it’s an Americana-soaked ballad or a pop-rocker, the Rusted Hearts have a familiar and comforting tone about their music, not unlike Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers or “Hollywood Town Hall” era Jayhawks.

The highlight of the evening was the last song of their set, “The Best I Can,” a tune sung a cappella in four-part harmony. There was silence in the crowd once they started and thunderous applause when they were finished. I’m glad to have caught this set and will be back as often as can when I see them come through town.

As Soul Asylum took the stage, Dave Pirner walked up to his guitar with a smile. Clad in ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors, he looked as if he hadn’t aged a day since the peak of “Grave Dancer’s Union.” Unfortunately, those memories of the early ’90s disappeared quickly once the band ripped into “Somebody to Shove.”

The sound for Miles Nielsen was about as good as I’ve heard at the Old Rock House, but something had to have changed between sets. Dave’s vocals were nearly inaudible (a problem for the entire set) and Justin Sharbono’s guitar sounded great but was way too loud, drowning out Dave’s playing as well as bassist Winston Roye and even drummer Michael Bland, who was pounding away at his kit like a man possessed.

This was the first night of their tour, so some issues are to be expected. Aside from the sound issues, my only complaint is that the band sounded stiff and somewhat lackluster while playing the classic songs like “Somebody to Shove,” “Black Gold,” and “Misery.” The only exception to that was when they played “Without a Trace,” which was dedicated to former bassist Karl Mueller, who died from throat cancer in 2005.

Despite my overall complaints, the show struck me as a net positive. What I was able to hear of the band’s new stuff sounded absolutely fantastic. Soul Asylum was visibly more comfortable and energetic while playing, with smiles being flashed all over the stage. When Dave’s voice cut through the mix, he sounded just like he did back in the “Grave Dancer’s Union” era.

I was especially glad to see that the band played more new songs than old ones. Soul Asylum is not the same group that recorded those songs, and it’s not trying to be. It was clear to me that the musicians enjoy what they’re doing; focusing on the past would not have made for a good rock show.

Thursday morning music news: Kendrick Lamar smokes SNL, Josh Ritter previews his new beast and Leroy ‘Sugarfoot’ Banner passes on

Blackberry 10 has a Creative Director and her name is not Don Draper.

Congrats to Euclid Records NOLA for making Flavorwire’s list of most beautiful record stores in the world.

Johnny Cash. Stampified.

RIP Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, frontman for the Ohio Players.

Dirty Projectors cover Usher. Watch.

Lance Armstrong is a creep, a weirdo and mashed-up.

We’ve been told the album is dead. Is the single next?

Cockroaches, however, will enjoy their cassettes long after we’re gone.

Josh Ritter is leaking all heck out of “The Beast in Its Tracks.”

Songwriting guru John Braheny has passed away at the age of 74.

Pitchfork has the scoop on the forthcoming Depeche Mode album.

The future of the iPod nano is in your DNA.

LouFest has a new logo and a new month.

Steve Earle is back with one new album and two new books.

Over 30,000 mourners march through the streets of Santa Maria, Brazil, where a nightclub fire took the lives of 231 people.

Sixteen years later, MMMBop is still catchy as hell.

Mixmag has details on the forthcoming MGMT album.

Apparently Björk has a purely “educational” Kickstarter.

I just couldn’t stop myself: Cat album covers, real vs. not so real.

The horrifying story of Kombo Kolombia.

Kendrick Lamar killed it on SNL.

Meet Professor Socks (aka Andrew Bird), the next superstar of kids music.

Concert review and set list: Getting crazy with Sum 41, Hunter Valentine and Iamdynamite at Pop’s, Tuesday, January 29

Beelining for the microphone, Deryck Whibley of Sum 41 quickly set up shop with one mission: to “get the crazy motherfuckers crazier.” An hour later, drenched in not-wholly personal sweat and suffering a few kicks to the head, the mofos had taken the plunge.

Up first at Pop’s in Sauget, Ill., Hunter Valentine, an all-girl group from Ontario, took its cues from the leather-clad groups before them, letting pick-slides and quick syncopated drum breakdowns dominate the set. The start-and-stop hair metal kicked off the night at Pop’s fittingly, including getting the crowdsurfing going immediately. Kiyomi McCloskey’s indelible simultaneous snarling and singing impressed.

Iamdynamite was accompanied to the stage by Willie Wonka’s ingenious poetry. Via audio clip, Gene Wilder uttered the immaculate “And they’re certainly not showing, any signs of slowing” to cue the duo. Immediately following, the pair broke into excellent single “Where Will We Go.” The song, a blast of energy, rather honestly exemplifies the band’s sound — I highly recommend popping a Dramamine and checking out the video.

The next song lifted the “ooh’s” from “Maneater” and exposed a possible debt to Hall & Oates. Not ones to take themselves too seriously — the band name’s a Nietzsche nod — the guys broke into a light-jazz interlude. Responding in kind, the crowd put a teen in pajamas up to crowdsurf along. Celebrating his birthday in a Vintage Vinyl t-shirt, Chris Philips, the drummer, even got an impromptu “Happy Birthday” out of the crowd.

Arriving to intense anticipation, Sum 41 instantly had the entirety of Pop’s jumping to “The Hell Song.” Deryck Whibley, who couldn’t wipe the smile off his face all night, actually handpicked about a half dozen or so fans — step right up whoever wore their Sum 41 t-shirt to the show — to watch from onstage. It must have been an incredible experience to stand just a few feet from Steveo32′s drum kit, but none of the fortunate fans had the nerve to stage dive. Luckily, Mr. Phillips, clearly not close to being done celebrating his birthday, got up and crowd-surfed back to the stage.

The set consisted of Whibley’s prowess at the front of the stage, a given once one looks at the band’s touring habits. Regularly performing over 300 nights a year for some 17 years helps in the expertise department. Flanked by his co-founder Steve Jocz and longtime bandmate “Cone” McCauslin, Whibley kept the mass of fans bouncing, screaming and moshing. The crowd — generally looking like extras from the “Fat Lip” video, just older and more regularly showered — couldn’t get enough. Daring the pit to push it further, Deryck stated, “Motherfuckers love the fast shit, then let’s stay with the fast shit!”

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Concert review: Pujol (with Dad Jr. and Diarrhea Planet) punk out at Off Broadway, Sunday, January 27

Pujol. / Nicole Kibert

Off Broadway‘s amber glow illuminated the back of Dad Jr. guitarist Zack Sloan’s blue-jean vest. It read in four-inch tall black marker, “Get Fucked.”

St Louis’ Dad Jr. is not one for subtlety. It played a set wherein guitarists/singers Zack Sloan and Ray Kannenberg would leave stage for several songs and watch along with the crowd of 30 people. Once, Sloan bounded off the stage and flattened a bystander. He then whipped himself around like a toy helicopter in a tailspin before he stood in front of Kannenberg for the better half of the song. Kannenberg followed suit and jumped off stage for the last song.

During this chaos, crowd members moshed. One fan was knocked so hard he flew halfway across Off Broadway. He deftly managed to stay on his feet and ran back into the pit, laughing all the way.

Switching gears, Dad Jr.’s arrangements have a metal bent with a punk-rock consistence. Alternating errant, grandiose guitar solos from Sloan and Kannenberg slid over Lucz’s drums. Sloan and Kannenberg’s vocals were dichotomous in tone. When Sloan sings, “Pukin’ in the sink,” he sounds like he is. Kannenberg’s voice, in contrast, sounds fit for a punk band and matches Dad Jr.’s heavy compositions.

Both would shout indecipherable lyrics before they retreated to thrash mode. Lucz anchored the dog-whistle guitar lines by thumping the mess out of his kit. The disparity of pitch between the guitars and drums balanced the mix. Lucz’s regulated drum work thickened the band’s messy arrangements enough for consumption. Just when the music came together for the last song, Sloan dropped his pants to reveal navy-blue boxer-briefs. The burly guitarist left them at his ankles as he waddled back stage.

Diarrhea Planet has a name so ludicrous it belies its ridiculous talent. But maybe that’s the shtick: talent camouflaged by egregious choices. Members of the band soundchecked to Third Eye Blind’s “Never Let You Go” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness before they encircled the snare drum and crashed into their first song. Lead singer/guitarist Jordan “Hodan” Dickie and guitarist Evan Bird raced to see who could melt the face off a fan first with their firecracker-fast fingers.

The Nashville, Tenn. band’s four guitarists snapped, plucked and brought Guns N’ Roses-style arrangements to the modern age. Every guitarist took a turn at lead vocals. They fit all this into a set that was barely half an hour long, playing the first half in under 10 minutes. Their minute-and-35-second jams are miniature stadium anthems. Propulsive and rowdy, they could soundtrack a night of debauchery with aplomb.

Dickie introduced “Raft Nasty” off “Loose Jewels” as “The Cartoon Song” for it was featured on MTV’s animated series, “Good Vibes.” It was a marquee number for the band. With all instruments ablaze, its live sound is more idiosyncratic in person. In particular, Dickie’s guitar lines showcase know-how finesse and bassist Mike Boyle’s knack for keeping up with the four guitarists breakneck fretwork.

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Concert review: Railroad Earth (with WhiteWater Ramble) brings warm Americana sounds to the Pageant, Saturday, January 26

“I look up at blue sky of perfect lost purity and feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me.” An influential passage from “October in the Railroad Earth,” written by Jack Kerouac, sums up the exultant vibe of Saturday night’s Railroad Earth show at the Pageant.

Folks from a variety of walks of life slowly filed into the Pageant with a contagious excitement for the entertainment to come. White collars, blue collars, old hippies and young hippies filled the venue with that certain pleasant energy that you can only find at a good folk show; where the small town ways of old take hold and everybody knows everybody and a new friend is just a glance away. Tall cans of PBR were raised in toast of life, stories and laughter were shared, and the outside world was forgotten for just a little while.

WhiteWater Ramble warmed up the crowd with a slew of stringed instruments and a drummer who kept a solid beat under the watchful eye of a giant psychedelic owl perched in the darkness on the wall behind them. The Colorado-based bluegrass band put on a lively show that sent much of the pit spinning into a swing dancing frenzy, taking them on a journey through extended jam sessions that included an intense battle of a pair fiddlers and a country-style guitar solo that could only be described as “epic” by the younger hippies and “totally awesome” by the older hippies.

Ramble’s powerful finish slowly built up like a locomotive and exploded into a good-old fashion hoedown. Upright bassist, Howard Montgomery, finished his final bars somehow standing atop his instrument, strumming away in a display that much of the audience, judging by the hoots and hollers, had likely never seen before. WhiteWater Ramble band took its final bows and received a boisterous applause, marking the end of the first act.

A concert intermission is always an interesting time to survey the crowd, especially after a set as powerful as one that had just transpired. People wandered around aimlessly, momentarily dazed and confused after the complete sensory overload was turned off like a light switch; the crowd finally realized that it needed to kill 30 minutes before their next dose of decibels. Some went off to procure more ale, others went to check on the Blues game, others reflected on the musical phenomena that had just taken place.

One group sat down in a circle in the middle of the pit with a cocktail placed on top of an illuminated cell phone, creating an almost campfire-like effect; an orange glow poured out from the glass and red stirring straw flames shot out from the top and made for a great way to pass the time waiting for the headliner.

Suddenly the lights dimmed, the fog machines raged and the air became a little more festive. An explosive roar of the crowd greeted the boys from New Jersey, Railroad Earth, as they took the stage. The Americana sound of some 27 collective strings — strung across a mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, violin and an upright base — accompanied imaginative lyrics and superb falsetto harmonies that reverberated throughout the now fully-packed Pageant.

The psychedelic owl came to life in an incredible multicolor light show that had the mural shifting hues endlessly; the display provided an incredible stage show along with the music. Andy Goessling’s banjo skills stood out the most amongst the lineup of gifted musicians, with fingers of fury plucking away woes and worries as the six-piece band merged individual talents. Railroad Earth’s songs ranged from a smooth, gentle sound that had the audience swaying, to ferocious newgrass melodies that energized fans; we could feel it from the bottom of our souls.

The sounds kept the audience moving and cheering late into the night until the final song was played, and the good thing came to an end. The audience members left that night with smiles on their faces and a great buzz from the show.

Concert review: Mac Lethal joins local MCs Trak Masta Tom, Baytron and Farout for a hip-hop throwdown at 2720 Cherokee on Friday, January 25

Mac Lethal at 2720 Cherokee. Photo by Amy Burger.

The crowd was sweaty (and drunk) and the beats were thumping at artsy-grungy venue 2720 Cherokee last night as Kansas City-based, YouTube-sensation rapper Mac Lethal (aka David McCleary Sheldon) followed three local, rising hip-hop artists with an hour set of his rapid-fire rhymes.

A long-time lover of rap and hip-hop, I have a soft spot for nerdy white-boy rappers (hey, I grew up on the Beastie Boys), so when I first discovered Mac Lethal, I was instantly smitten. The 32-year old has been generating buzz in his hometown scene for years, but rose to quick fame when he began posting his raps on YouTube, particularly one in which he speed-raps over Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” while cooking pancakes in his kitchen (it now has more than 27 million views). I first saw Mac Lethal on actual TV, when he appeared last year on the pilot episode of AMC’s advertising-industry reality competition show “The Pitch,” when winning agency McKinney commissioned him to write a rap about Subway breakfast sandwiches.

Watching his YouTube videos and listening to his albums, one quickly realizes what sets Mac Lethal apart from many others in the genre: his subject matter. While much of today’s rap and hip-hop content still revolves around gangsta images of guns, drugs, violence and degrading women, Mac Lethal focuses on more cerebral topics like stupid people arguing on the Internet, misusing “you’re” vs. “your,” and his latest tirade against the gay-bashing, funeral-protesting Westboro Baptist Church. He balances the heavier stuff with a good dose of intelligent humor.

Admittedly, I haven’t been to many rap shows, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the evening, which promised Mac Lethal headlining at midnight, preceded by three locally-grown MCs: Trak Masta Tom, Baytron and Farout. I pictured something like the battle scenes from “8-Mile,” but in reality, the scene was more like a snapshot from some weird ’90s rave. Scrawny white boys sporting glow-stick gloves, hats and necklaces writhed around the dance floor creating a schizophrenic light show as drunken young hipster girls spilled beer and hung off of their necks.

We arrived just as first act Trak Masta Tom was finishing up and in time to catch a great set from Alton, Ill. rapper Baytron (aka Matt Beatty). To put it simply, this guy is good. Backed by a variety of samples and beats from his laptop, he pumped up the crowd with his deft skills and well-composed raps. Baytron has a rich and powerful tone to his voice reminiscent of some of the great old-school rap stars like Grandmaster Flash, Ice-T and Kurtis Blow.

Next up was St. Louis-native Farout (aka Eric Farlow). Admitting that he was missing his usual backing by DJ Mahf and had to rely on his iPod, Farout seemed a bit off his game, starting then stopping a couple of songs after botching lyrics. By mid-set, he got into his groove, though and continued to get the crowd moving and ready for the main event.

At midnight, with little fanfare, Mac Lethal made his way to the stage, backed by fellow Kansas City MC Alvie Nelson and another St. Louis native, Patric Brown providing the beats. The dance floor was suddenly packed, everyone waving their hands in the air as he began spitting his raps furiously. Mac Lethal is a study in “don’t judge a book by its cover.” The balding, slightly paunchy Irish kid with glasses doesn’t necessarily look the part of a badass MC, but when he gets going, he raps faster and with more precision than just about anyone I’ve heard. But don’t compare him to Eminem (he’s disparaged that notion in interviews and song lyrics). There’s really not a lot of similarity other than both being white and rapping really fast. Mac has a style all his own and he may well be rap’s next big star.

He packed his hour set with a variety of songs from his albums and YouTube videos, focusing on upbeat crowd-pleasers like “Calm Down, Baby,” “Jihad!” and “War Drum,” as well as tunes from his most recent album, 2011′s “Irish Goodbye,” including “Aviator” and “Jake + Olive,” a sweet song about his grandparents’ undying love. “Black Widow Spider,” an ex-girlfriend revenge song with a catchy harmonica hook sample, afforded another highlight.

About mid-set, he introduced the song that rocketed him to YouTube fame, the pancake rap, saying “Everyone says I sold out when I made this song, but I disagree. I think the lyrics on this song are great.” Brown beatboxed while Mac impressed the room with his lightning-speed delivery. He gave the YouTube fans another treat with the aforementioned Westboro Baptist Church bashing-rap, “Oh My God.”

It’s difficult for me to review a rap show – I can’t wax poetic about transcendent guitar solos or keyboard riffs or vocal harmonies. So when all of that is stripped away, it’s clear what it’s really about: the beats and the lyrics. Rap is poetry – a verbal expression of self, set to rhythm – and Mac Lethal has the skills of a poet laureate, carefully observing and absorbing the world around him, turning it into art and spitting it back at us with a vengeance and a smile.

Concert review: Punch Brothers (with Anais Mitchell) knock out the Sheldon Concert Hall with brilliant musicianship, Friday, January 25

“This is kind of one of our favorite rooms in the whole country,” said Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny as he looked into the sold-out crowd that lined the rows of the Sheldon Concert Hall for this KDHX-presented show.

This evening marked my first visit to the Sheldon; the venue struck me as a little surreal. I overhead a man behind me saying it reminded him of his college biology lecture hall, which is probably pretty accurate (though most lecture halls aren’t this acoustically clear or have such a handsome stage). The building that houses the concert hall also has an art gallery, as well as a gift shop and a ballroom where weddings and other events take place. It’s not your typical concert venue. But then again, Punch Brothers aren’t your typical band.

Cheerful chatter and excited remarks echoed throughout the theater, but as soon as first artist Anais Mitchell opened her mouth, the talkative crowd turned completely silent. Mitchell, accompanied by just an acoustic guitar on stage, played a powerful, fiery 35-minute set that featured a few songs from her 2010 folk-opera “Hadestown,” some from her soon-to-be released album “Child Ballads,” and one that she said she could barely remember because of how old it was. She told a few cute stories, like thinking St. Louis was on the border of Kansas because of the Tom Waits’ lyric, “I broke down in East St. Louis, on the Kansas City line,” but for the most part let her music do the talking.

The simple backing guitar of the songs made it easy to pay attention to the lyrics, which was especially nice because of how beautiful the words were. “Come September” and an untitled new song, probably from “Child Ballads,” had a great snarl and passion in the vocals, but also a sweetness to them. “When I think of my freedom, I feel so lonely,” she sang in the new song. “And when I feel lonely, I want you to hold me, hold me in your arms.”

Punch Brothers took to their favorite stage shortly after, dressed in classic three-piece suits, all with matching, beaten-up leather shoes.

Each member of the band has his own distinct playing style. Guitarist Chris Eldridge stands perfectly still for the most part and looks almost like a marionette who can only move his fingers across his strings. Gabe Witcher rocks back and forth while he fiddles, Noam Pikelny does a sort of glide step with his banjo and Paul Kowert stands wrapped around his bass, almost like he’s hugging it. And then of course there’s Chris Thile, the mandolin-playing, Jude Law lookalike whose animated kicks and electrified shakes seemed more like something you’d see in a punk band than a traditional bluegrass quintet.

They started with “Movement and Location” from 2011′s “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” but quickly broke into a five-minute long jam session, complete with solos from most of the band. While one member showed off his talent, the rest of the band watched in admiration.

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