Alice Merrill's Posts

Alice Merrill's Photo I'm a volunteer KDHX music writer and music lover in St. Louis.

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Concert review: Cults (with Writer and Guards) come into their own, and then some, at the Firebird, Wednesday, August 3

Cults at the Firebird, August 3, 2011

Jarred Gastreich

Retro indie-pop band Cults has come a long way since its sparsely attended performance at the Luminary a year ago.

Last July, 21-year old sweethearts Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion hadn’t even an EP under their belts before they made their St. Louis debut on a wing, a prayer and a dose of blog buzz surrounding three songs released via their Bandcamp page.

Only their third ever headlining gig at that point, the brief set had been fraught with technical difficulties. Despite the hiccups, Follin’s talent shone through and indicated that this would be a band to watch in the coming year. Luckily, my intuition proved right as Cults defied all expectations at the Firebird on Wednesday.

When I arrived, the line to get in wrapped around the building, though doors had been open for some time. The first opening band could be heard beginning its set as we waited in the heat. Ticket-takers worked at breakneck pace to usher scores of fans inside. San Diego’s Writer, consisting of fraternal duo Andy and James Ralph, warmed the crowd up with their particular brand of fuzzy, dirty and heartfelt indie rock. Writer lacked a bass player but relied on heavy employment of floor toms, the sound further supplemented by a couple tambourines and gratuitous distortion. The brothers wrapped up the set with an endearing duet and were met with enthusiastic applause from the crowd.

Next up was Guards, a band which shares DNA with Cults — both literally and musically. Lead vocalist and guitarist Richie Follin is the older brother of Madeline Follin, and until this spring had played in Cults. The crowd yelled and clapped as the band set up onstage, prompting Follin to clarify, “We’re not Cults…they’re up next.” The confusion would be understandable, as Richie and his Omnichord-playing girlfriend, Caroline Polachek of Chairlift, bear striking resemblance to Madeline and Brian. The hollers still didn’t cease — the crowd hadn’t just come for Cults, but for the up-and-coming openers, as well.

Guards’ soundcheck elicited a chuckle from me: One by one, each member sounded as if they were descending quickly into a deep well as the sound guys piled on the reverb. Due in part to the gratuitous use of this retro-pop trope, I had expected from them the same kind of blissed-out neu-wop (if you’ll pardon the neologism) offered up by their recent EP, but the collective hastily proved to be capable of producing a much harder sound than their record. They bounced effortlessly between high-energy romps like “Wake The Dead” to the Viking Moses-esque “Long Time” and back again to the unexpectedly explosive cover of M.I.A.’s “Born Free.”

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Concert review: Cold Cave gets noisy but Austra steals the show at the Firebird, Monday, August 1

Austra by Phil King

Phil King /

When I set out to cover one band only to have my heart stolen by the opening act, it’s hard not to feel a certain measure of guilt. Alas, this is exactly the predicament in which I found myself Monday night as Austra captivated before Cold Cave‘s performance at the Firebird. Is this betrayal or discovery?
“Cult following” is a term I hear applied pretty loosely to the fans of underground or indie bands, but never has it been a more apt designation for the black-clad followers of Cold Cave. The crowd was of slightly non-standard composition for the Firebird on this night as women swelled the ranks of skulking, cross-armed boys to see the two synth-heavy, exceptionally danceable bands. The fashion-consciousness of the audience members seemed a degree higher than usual, and I’d even wager the Firebird held the highest hip haircut per capita of any bar, club or venue in the city Monday night.
Whoops and hollers sounded as Austra took the stage, its triad of female singers casually emerging a full minute after bassist Dorian Wolf and drummer Maya Postepski started in on “Darken Her Horse.” Lead singer Katie Stelmanis was flanked by two gorgeous brunettes, her vocal accompaniment while on tour. A comparison to the three Sirens, those dangerously enchanting mythical women, was not a difficult one to make. Stelmanis’ voice is undoubtedly that of a former opera singer: enormous, clear and finished with an effortless vibrato. The chanteuse combined Florence Welch’s power, Kate Bush’s flair for the dramatic and Fever Ray’s idiosyncrasies to great affect throughout the set. The band’s overall sound recalls the twitchily danceable electronic stylings of the Knife with the gothic air of Zola Jesus.
The show hit fever pitch with “Lose It,” a crowd favorite off the band’s recent debut album, “Feel It Break.” Stelmanis stepped up her theatrics, thrusting her torso towards the crowd and moving her arms in the manner of a show magician attempting to levitate a body. Her backup singers conjure the fluttering operatics of Snow White as she sings into the wishing well, beckoning her prince (or in this case, seducing the audience). The whole of Austra’s set was at once tethered to the low end by bass guitar and copiuous kick-drum dance-beats while Stelmanis’ impeccable range soared high with shimmering synth accompaniment.
Following this tough act were the headliners, Cold Cave. Perhaps hitching their horse to last year’s industrial, occult-tinged “witch house” fad as to the new wave legacy of New Order and others, this is a band that often allowed itself to retread and be subsumed by the sounds of dark predecessors as opposed to covering significant new ground. 
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Concert review: The sweetest punk mayhem with Fucked Up and Jeff the Brotherhood at the Firebird, Friday, July 1

Fucked Up

anthemic (an-the-mik)
(of a song) like an anthem in being rousing or uplifting.
See also: F*cked Up at the Firebird on Friday, July 1, 2011.

F*cked Up and Jeff the Brotherhood could not have picked a better St. Louis venue than the Firebird for their show Friday night.

The venue is beloved by garage and punk acts — or any band on the wilder side of things — for being permissive about band antics. Garage-punk hooligans Black Lips, for instance, have deemed it one of their favorites for being able to get away with shenanigans they might not elsewhere, as the staff only intervenes if concertgoers are in true danger of being hurt.

Warming up the venue was Jeff the Brotherhood, a pair of real-life, basement-bred brothers who have been finally gaining some well-deserved notoriety since their recent release, We Are The Champions. Jake (on guitar and vocals) and Jamin have brought their brand of Nashville garage-psych to St. Louis about four times in the past two years, two of those times as a headliner. Though the crowd was tepid at first and unfamiliar with the music (most having come to see F*cked Up), it only took until the end of the aptly-titled “Shredder” to win them over. By the second song, heads were bopping and loud whoops of support signaled their success.

The screaming jet-plane effects of a flanger guitar pedal were persistent throughout the set, though perhaps utilized most gratuitously during the fast-paced, feel-good jam “I’m a Freak,” during which Jake meandered into the crowd for a solo. All the while, little bro Jamin chugged along tirelessly and frenetically on drums, flapping his shaggy mop of hair all too reminiscent of Animal from The Muppet Show. The second half of the set was comprised mostly of new songs, carried primarily by a grungy, ’90s vibe, perhaps most accurately described as the best of Weezer’s snot-nosed pop hooks covered in a thick grime à la Kurt Cobain. Overall, Jeff’s set was a roaring success, and much more powerful and energetic than its last lackluster appearance at the Gargoyle in the spring.

Never having seen F*cked Up in concert before (despite being regaled by tales of its highly-rated live shows), I was a little confused when the band took the stage to set up. I had been expecting the members of a hardcore band that plays shows with punk vets OFF! and the Descendents to look, I don’t know, a little less clean-cut. Collared shirts, heads full of hair, and clean-shaven baby faces were soon mitigated by the emergence of frontman Damian Abraham, aka Pink Eyes, aka Father Damian. Bald, large and tattooed, his profile was more in line with what I’d been told to expect from the band.

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Concert review: The Antlers and Little Scream win over the Firebird, Friday, June 10

The Antlers

In what proved to be a dark respite from the incessant sunshine of St. Louis summer, the Antlers delivered their brand of sepulchral pop to a packed house at the Firebird on Friday.

Since the band had been touring their new album Burst Apart for a month, their performance was not met with the lack of enthusiasm often proffered by crowds confronted with unfamiliar material. Burst had already proven itself as a more-than-worthy follow-up album to 2009’s highly celebrated Hospice, and the rave reviews it has garnered from respected music blogs accounted for the huge turnout. Friday’s performance revealed just how far the Antlers had come from leadman Pete Silberman’s solo bedroom project, as it relied on a more interesting musical collaboration between band members than required by Hospice’s essentially concept-dependent singer-songwriter material.

Indie newcomers Little Scream warmed up the crowd, which had already reached holding capacity by the time they’d taken the stage. Lead singer Laurel Sprenglemeyer carried the set with her relentless energy and a breathy warble reminiscent of both St. Vincent and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, though the overall performance was stylistically schizophrenic. The band ricocheted between the snarling and guitar-driven to the plaintive and spare at breakneck pace, pausing only briefly for glib stage banter. Endearingly, Sprenglemeyer honored Judy Garland’s 89th birthday with a cover of “The Rainbow Connection,” which incited a small-scale barroom sing-along. If the Firebird served beer in frosty mugs, all would have been held sloshing aloft.

The Antlers set the tone for a perfectly timed 90-minute set with “Parentheses,” a selection emblematic of the OK Computer-era Radiohead influence pervasive in the band’s new material. It was immediately apparent that Darby Cicci, encircled by about five keyboards, would be very busy shaping the electro-tinged atmosphere integral to nearly every track on Burst Apart. Next up was a druggy and meandering reworking of “Kettering,” built slow on the foundation of Silberman’s mournful, ethereal falsetto to a crashing climax courtesy of drummer Michael Lerner.

The soft, brooding “Hounds” and spacious encore-pick “Corsicana” bore the distinct post-rock influence of bands like Mogwai and Sigur Rós, but peacefully coexisted alongside more eclectic or uptempo experiments. The Freudian dream-diary jam of “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” shook the crowd from shoegazing revelry for a brief dance interlude before the band slowed “Bear” down to a tinkering lullaby. Dolorous doo-wop number “Putting The Dog To Sleep” was a fitting conclusion to the main set, and proved an unexpected personal favorite of the night.

Just as heart-rending as anything from Hospice, picks like “Rolled Together” and “No Widows” achieved an otherworldly quality, Silberman seemingly possessed by the spirit of Jeff Buckley. Perhaps more striking than the ever-present drones, loops and glitches was a newfound sultriness the band assumed when performing new material: indeed, the woeful moans coupled with Silberman’s bedroom eyes created the impression of a man intent on seducing a roomful of people. If the raucous applause that followed the conclusion of the encore was any indication, he had succeeded.

Concert review: Here We Go Magic with We Are Warm and AroarA conjure up euphoric rock at the Firebird, Saturday, May 7

Here We Go Magic

The oft-repeated theme of Here We Go Magic is one of creating something beautiful despite seemingly limited circumstances, Saturday’s show at the Firebird being no exception. The fledgling Brooklyn band formed a mere two years ago when progenitor Luke Temple was invited to tour with Grizzly Bear, and have since garnered glowing praise from the likes of Thom Yorke and Sufjan Stevens for their outstanding live performances.

Due to the venue’s unusually low stage, opening bands are usually subjected to what I’ve come to call the “Ring of Firebird,” a strange phenomenon where the crowd refuses to stand beyond an imaginary line drawn about six feet from the platform. It can be painfully awkward to transgress this invisible boundary, but a brave few began to inch closer once We Are Warm were several songs deep in their set. The local indie rockers seemed to have drawn in a respectable crowd on their own merit, and I heard not an insignificant amount of attendees confessing to never having heard of the headliners before. In unusual form for any first-of-two-openers, We Are Warm were met with so much enthusiasm that they even played a one-song encore at the crowd’s behest.

Next up was AroarA, a well-dressed Canadian duo consisting of Andrew Whiteman (of Broken Social Scene and Apostle of Hustle) and his wife, Ariel Engle. Though not lacking for ingenuity, Engle’s brazenly beautiful voice combined with Whiteman’s classical guitar was not enough to sustain the audience for more than a couple songs. The Ring of Firebird reasserted itself as patrons gradually slipped towards the bar. AroarA suffered most at the hands of their unwieldy, pre-recorded backing tracks, the presence of which transformed the set into a sort of avant-garde karaoke.

Here We Go Magic finally took to the stage at 11:11 p.m. The ensemble started out with “Hibernation,” an energetic piece replete with flouncy bass and lush, layered backing vocals courtesy of bassist Jennifer Turner. As the band’s usual keyboardist Kristina Lieberson is absent from the tour, Engle and Whiteman of AroarA joined onstage to help fill out the sound. Whiteman took to the keys beginning with “Surprise,” but struggled to integrate himself into the band’s effortless, tight energy. Despite the hiccup, “Collector” invigorated the crowd and set all to dancing with abandon, performers included. As drummer Peter Hale made little effort to conceal his delight at the newfound energy, Turner skipped across the stage for a twee harmony with Engle.

Following the first-ever live performance of the meandering “Hands in the Sky” came the incontrovertible crowd favorite of the night, “Only Pieces.” The song started out with tranquil but steady drumbeat as guitarist Michael Bloch provided hushed and soothing vocals. Unlike the studio version, the song did not fade away here but rather continued to build to a percussive explosion, the bands’ voices joined by a joyful chorus from the audience. There was not a still body in the house as a newly barefoot Turner bounced from foot to foot onstage.

Here We Go Magic certainly did not disappoint, despite Turner’s admission after the show that the band’s performances had been “hit or miss” as they toured without a keyboardist. Though the set lasted barely an hour due to a midnight curfew, not a soul could remain bitter in the wake of such euphoria.

Concert review: Tobacco gets weird and wild at Off Broadway, Friday, May 6

Tobacco (aka Tom Fec)

I will readily admit that I had my doubts about Friday night’s show at Off Broadway. Tobacco — moog-minded frontman of Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tom Fec — immediately struck me as a poor fit for the Lemp Ave. mainstay, which tends to shy away from experimental or electronic artists in favor of Midwestern rock and acoustic acts catering to the 30-something set.

At first, the show seemed doomed to poor attendance (at least by Friday night standards): a small cluster of older patrons huddled by the bar, while a few high school students congregated by the water-cooler. A pair of be-Dockered dads — undoubtedly the begrudging chaperones of the giggling teenagers — peered down apprehensively from their seats in the balcony. Their relative calm belied their ignorance of what was to come.

When it was time for the opener to take the stage, things were looking up. Smokers filed in from the patio as Beans, of Anti-Pop Consortium fame, rapped in a rapid stream-of-consciousness style over tracks from his laptop. Though it was apparent the audience was unfamiliar with his music, the minimal-yet-bone-rattling beats paired with the rapper’s unstoppable flow turned heads at the bar. Before long, the crowd was rapt and drawn from the bar to dance or nod along enthusiastically. The crooked cadence and spitfire rhymes even incited hollers and chants of “Beans!” at several points in the set, and an a capella encore of sorts was well-received.

The venue had become exponentially more crowded in the refractory time between performances, effectively disproving my theory that Off Broadway couldn’t swing a weirder booking. A man donning a chicken suit joined the crowd, casually awaiting Tobacco’s performance. Fec’s personal setup — a laptop combined with a series of mysterious knobs and cables — was augmented by BMSR collaborators Maux Boyle on analogue synth and ski-mask-donning d.kyler on drums. However, the ensemble’s fourth member the true show-stopper Friday night: a video projector at center stage.

Nearly eclipsing the acrid bass and abrasive beats that comprise Tobacco’s signature sound were bizarre ’80s videos (complete with heavy tape distortion) of ladies chewing bubblegum, campy zombie film clips, golf-course ninjas, Japanese poodle aerobics, and old women eating ice cream – all somehow complementing the harsh music Tobacco is known for. After a few songs, Fec strapped on a guitar and vocalized through a talkbox, signaling a shift in tone from campy, catchy retro-futurism to nigh-demonic mania. The mostly lighthearted video clips gave way suddenly to jarring strobe-lights, which in turn gave way to…pterodactyl porn? I think back anxiously to the unwitting fathers in the balcony.

The remainder of the set oscillated between more laid-back, Moog-heavy numbers (including an unexpected performance of “Twin of Myself,” a BMSR favorite), the driving panic of songs like “Constellation Dirtbike Head” and the muddy psychosis embodied by “Sweatmother.” Through this exercise in controlled sensory overload, Tobacco deftly avoided the monotony of mere on-stage knob-jockeying and laptop-hunching. The unexpected addition of live percussion lent the show a much-needed energy, though the warped video truly clinched the performance. Disgruntled dads aside, Tobacco’s success Friday night provides hope that we’ll be seeing more eccentric bookings in Off Broadway’s future.