Concert review: The Educated Guess with the Emperor Norton Orchestra and Troubadour Dali work their magic at Off Broadway, Sunday, January 20
There is some witchcraft afoot at Off Broadway. On the outside, it has the visage of a barn. Yet, you won’t find Budweiser Clydesdales and dirt floors inside.
A balcony teeters above the floor before the stage; a bar awaits stage left, kiddie corner to the soundboard. A 15-foot-tall cranberry-colored curtain flows down as a backdrop to the stage. In short, Off Broadway will never shelter steeds.
The venue has a transformative quality wherein the place itself can be something different to everyone. A saloon, a deceptively romantic place, a haunted house — any musical act booked will be touch by this magic. They too will have the ability to become something other than a permanent or transient inhabitant of St. Louis.
For instance, months ago Tennis singer Alaina Moore, with her bounty of buttercup-yellow curls and physical buoyancy, became a cosmic pixie. When Red Mouth performed with Magic City last January, Off Broadway became a low-lit mecca for the lost and weary. Red Mouth stomped and shouted before an audience that admired his busker’s desperation.
Dressed in matching white-collared button-downs, black pants, shoes and ties, the Emperor Norton Orchestra backed a fresh-to-death Charlie Brumley. His black two-piece suit and tie combination did more than look good. It looked the part of 1970s New York City, and Brumley and company were about to play the hippest jazz club available. A set of two trombonists, trumpet players and fiddlers accompanied an electric bass, guitar, a drummer with a lot to do and a saxophonist. Brumley stood before them all with his Yamaha CP keyboard. It was a lot to grasp at once. And damn did it make some fantastic music.
Later, as my Stag sloshed around in its can, I tried to tell a friend about the sound. “If Billy Joel composed the music,” I ventured, “and Randy Newman wrote lyrics and sang, you would have what I heard tonight.” It was a total undersell. I forgot to mention Ray Charles produced it. During Brumley and band’s set, I pictured patrons sitting around the stage sipping warm brandy, wearing fox-fur shawls and smoking cigarettes as we waited for our dates to yank us off our buns and on to the dance floor.
All the music was composed by Brumley, all lyrics were written by Brumley. Well, not all the lyrics. The band’s second to last song was R Kelly’s “Remix to Ignition.” The song was reincarnated as a hip-wiggling jazz number. “Ignition” and a Brumley original, “Morning to Come,” made the best use out of the horn section. In part, “Ignition” was so unrecognizable because the horns upped the class factor beyond R Kelly’s prowess for the ribald. “Morning to Come” was played off by a time-stopping trumpet and saxophone blast. Audience members scooted before the stage, twisting from heel-to-toe with drinks in hand. Their eyes turned from Brumley to the floor, then to Off Broadway’s ceiling. All they needed were three-piece suits, shiny shoes and floor-length dresses.
If Brumley and company took us to New York City, Troubadour Dali put us on a plane pointed towards 1960s Haight-Ashbury. The legendary intersection in San Francisco appeared on the horizon when Troubadour Dali leaned into an instrumental break four songs into its set.
Dusted with tracks from 2011′s “Let’s Make It Right,” the band’s set felt conditioned. Singer and guitarist Ben Hinn sings with his eyes closed; his head bobs peacefully like an apple suspended in water, waiting to be plucked from the basin by human jaws. At times drummer Drew Bailey is audible above Hinn, doubling the vocals. He does not so much harmonize, as he emotes without consciousness. To find Bailey solo on an open mic night is a rare treat. Please try it.
Troubadour Dali’s aesthetics are changing. Still psychedelic, but as the songs have aged, they seem to have left behind the trippy mysticism of yore and capitalized on a western heritage. They must have made a pit stop in New Mexico and passed on the peyote, opting to stargaze. The guitar on “Pale Glow” now has a slower roll. Whatever the reason, the new sound became an enabler for the audience’s immersion in Troubadour Dali’s set.
As Timothy Leary’s mantra for the 1960s’ counterculture goes, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” The same can be said for a Troubadour Dali show. The bass lines from song-to-song coalesce and collide with each other — with just a push as Hinn’s vocals skim over the music. The crowd, vocal for Brumley’s set, were more languid for Troubadour Dali. The majority rested on one leg; their heads drifted from either side of their body.
When the band pulled the plug, the mood was summarized by one listener’s exclamation, “Wait. What? They’re done already? No. How did that happen? I was so lost in that.”