Annah Bender's Posts

Annah Bender's Photo I like music, tattoos and bikes. By day I'm a social worker and lackadaisical blogger. St. Louis is my favorite place to see shows.

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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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Concert review and set list: Stephin Merritt, 29 love songs and the strange power of the Magnetic Fields at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Wednesday, November 14

The Magnetic Fields have amassed an army of loyal followers, and each one of us appreciates them for a different aspect of their eclectic catalogue.

And there is something in a Magnetic Fields record for everyone: Their music pulls from synth-pop, electronica, indie rock, country; their colorful cast of characters plays every kind of instrument/noisemaker known to humankind (and perhaps some that aren’t); and the gender-bending couplets devised by mastermind Stephin Merritt playfully or painfully tug at one’s heartstrings.

The Sheldon — a concert setting at once intimate and formal — underscored the band’s deceptively unembellished sound. At times the only sounds coming from the stage were a voice and a kazoo, or the gentle pluck of a guitar string. The hushed crowd and crystal-clear stage lights seemed occasionally to dazzle Mr. Merritt, whose first words to the crowd were, “It’s really bright in here.” Pianist and longtime friend Claudia Gonson agreed, and then followed up with, “I’ve been eavesdropping on you. You’re all very good-looking — must be all the outdoor activity.” (“Is she mistaking this for Colorado?” the man to my left whispered, giving me a case of the church giggles.)

Opening with “I Die,” a waltzy ode to beautiful, oblivious youth from 2004′s concept record “I,” we were marched steadily through the Fields’ 20-plus year repertoire of songs about marriage, drag queens and, yes, unfortunate barnyard animals (“A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off”). All songs clocked in well under two minutes and the majority were delivered in the key of A minor. Merritt, Gonson, and banjoist Shirley Simms shared vocal duties, but of the five people on stage (Gonson on piano, Simms on ukulele, John Woo on acoustic guitar [with slide!], Sam Davol on cello, and Merritt in front of a platform of sound-making devices that included a toy keyboard and a synthesizer) only Merritt and Gonson addressed the crowd — often making semi-snide observations about the order of the set list or the fact that Simms and Woo kept needing to tune their instruments. Their good-natured banter, coupled with the piquant lyrics of much the Magnetic Fields’ material, kept the crowd laughing almost as much as applauding.

Gonson and Simms’ voices were clear as bells, and Merritt’s trademark resonant super-bass was as deadpan in speech as it sounds on a record. Before “Smoke and Mirrors,” the band brought out 14-year-old songstress Gal Musette, the opening act and a French speaker who donated her skills to the spoken-word, call-and-response bridge of the song. (Unfortunately I understood only the English-singing part of the bridge. But it seemed like she knew what she was talking about.) “Here’s our little friend,” announced Gonson by way of introduction, eliciting this admonishment from Merritt: “In the South, I believe ‘little friend’ refers to ‘significant other’.”

The repartee between Merritt and Gonson, his friend since high school, left me time between songs to wonder any number of things: such as, “What is that instrument he’s playing, the one where he blows into something and it makes the keyboard play?” (Answer: melodica). Also: “If Oscar Wilde had been a college student in the early nineties, would he and Stephin Merritt have been frenemies?” Gonson’s cajoling humanizes the famously gruff Merritt, and their rapid-fire exchanges — between Merritt’s sips of wine — was as entertaining as the music.

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Concert review and set list: At the Pageant, Sleigh Bells make music for zombie cheerleaders marching into battle, Sunday, October 28

I wear my sunglasses at night, so I can see the Sleigh Bells stage without risking blindness. What more would you expect from a band with amplifiers stacked to the ceiling than a strobe-lit show jarring enough to induce epileptic seizure?

But it was all worth it, because Sleigh Bells’ thunderous return to St. Louis on Sunday night at the Pageant was rightly met with adulation (and a devil horns headband tossed onto the stage).

Sleigh Bells’ stage aesthetic is driven by its purpose: to play earsplitting hardcore guitar with an equally booming backing track. Enter the two 20-foot stacks of Marshalls, which were not just there for decoration, as several at the bar were speculating. Following opening act AraabMuzik, a DJ with formidable technical skills (actually scratching records instead of mashing playlists), Sleigh Bells’ guitarist Derek Miller, plus one, and his sugary-voiced singer Alexis Krauss triumphantly took the stage amid the crush of “Demons.”

The momentum kept going with “Crown on the Ground” and “True Shred Guitar,” essentially odes to thrashing, banging and stomping as hard as you can. Krauss wriggled out of her spiked leather jacket, skipping back and forth across the stage much like a deranged ex-cheerleader, as Miller and his touring guitarist stalked from side to side ripping as much sound as humanly possible from their instruments. Krauss dedicated the crowd favorite “Comeback Kid” to those of us who saw Sleigh Bells in Columbia, Mo. a few months ago, and those who stuck with the band after they blew the sound system early in a set at the Firebird in 2010.

While the Pageant is clearly better equipped to handle the Sleigh Bells’ sonic tour de force, there was a certain intimacy that was lost on that big stage. Part of Sleigh Bells’ appeal is the connection with the audience: The band is enjoying the show as much as its fans, and onstage Krauss frequently calls to or singles out members of the crowd.

During “Rill Rill” she crowd surfed as a stagehand anxiously hovered onstage, untwisting her microphone cord and helping her back to the stage almost as quickly as she’d left it. Then, because they had started late and needed to make curfew, they skipped the break and delved headfirst into an encore that included “Never Say Die” and “A/B Machines.”

Behind-the-scenes confusion there may have been, but the rhythmic crunch and energy of a Sleigh Bells show is hard to top. Most songs clock in at three minutes or under, lending a frenzied, drive-by feeling to its live performances: the shows are over before you know what’s hit you.

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Concert review: The Raveonettes hold capacity crowd spellbound at the Firebird, Friday, September 28

The Raveonettes at the Firebird. Photo by Nate Burrell.

If the Raveonettes were an insect, they would be a spindly black widow spider in a cloudy forest.

You would be so mesmerized by the spider’s delicately spun web that you would not notice as it wound around and around you, wrapping your body in layers of sticky mesh until, dazed as if waking from a strange dream, you would find yourself ensnared and about to be consumed whole.

Through a haze of machine-generated fog so thick you could choke on it, the eerie duo (plus a touring drummer) piled on the dark, the inky-black and the gloom, punctuated at times by jangly, Cramps-esque rockabilly riffs and drum line beats. On Friday night the Firebird was coated in distortion, and the two touring drummers squared off to deliver a thick wall of sound that you could almost swallow.

The band’s set was heavy on material from its two most recent records, “Observator” and the aptly-titled “Raven in the Grave” — two releases that have chronicled guitarist Sune Rose Wagner’s life with a major depressive disorder. While the Raveonettes have always made music fit for a teen vampire soap opera, the mood and lyrical content of most of their new material is especially riddled with angst.

“Recharge and Revolt,” the set opener, saw the duo fully embracing the inner Cure that all self-respecting bands who dress mostly in black surely possess. “I don’t wanna be young and cold,” Wagner sang plaintively during the (also) aptly-titled “Young and Cold.” There was one “from the vaults” as Sharin Foo introduced it: “Attack of the Ghost Riders,” which generated near hysteria.

However, much of the night felt like a comedown, although the amplifiers were none the worse for wear — less of a gentle descent and more like a blistering hangover, with enough strobe lights to induce a seizure.

“Dead Sound” proved an exception, a love song for people wearing thick eyeliner, as was the be-boppy “Aly, Walk with Me” (delivered during the encore). The band kept banter to a minimum, one or two polite “thank you”s and the occasional side consultation in Danish. “Secret Danish language,” Foo explained. (Foo is Christina Aguilera’s counterpart on Denmark’s version of the TV show “The Voice,” by the way, proving once again that Denmark’s version of everything is way cooler than ours.)

An inter-generational crowd, some there to see opening act Melody’s Echo Chamber and others old enough to have purchased a Jesus and Mary Chain record when records didn’t come with an MP3 download, chattered and swilled during the set, but were completely mesmerized by “Dead Sound” and exultant over “Love in a Trashcan.”

For continuing to evolve through a fog of personal difficulties and after basically establishing the imitable fuzzed-out girl group sonic zeitgeist of recent years, the Raveonettes get five pentagram-shaped stars.

Concert review: Tennis serves up sparkling dream pop at Off Broadway, Thursday, September 27

Tennis at Off Broadway. Photo by Ben Mudd.

“I don’t know what I’m doing up here,” giggled Tennis‘ Alaina Moore behind a shock of Pantene-commercial hair, after an effusive thank you to old friends and opening act Making Movies.

But it sure didn’t seem that way. Wispy of stature, Moore softly swayed in time to guitarist/husband Patrick Riley’s gentle surf guitar, spreading her pitch-perfect lullaby soprano like butter over the similarly swaying, enraptured, tipsy masses at Off Broadway. This after Tennis had broken into a set of shimmering indie pop, led off by “It All Feels the Same” and a mix of the old (“South Carolina”) the new (a yet-to-be-recorded song) the borrowed (“Guiding Light,” a Television cover) and the blue (“Robin”).

The boys in the band solemnly played their instruments while Moore occasionally addressed the crowd in her meltingly smooth teen-dream croon—a-speaking voice that’s just as pleasing as her singing one, practically made for bedtime story-reading. Everything she says is delivered liltingly, soft but not shy; perfect for the sunny-but-serious dream pop for which the Denver band is (rightfully) becoming well known. Riley’s lo-fi guitar sound, ranging from the twangy (“Vegas”) to the twinkly (“Deep in the Woods”) complements Moore’s sugarcoated soprano and church-choir piano.

The band seemed genuinely happy with their warm reception: “You guys have been awesome spectators, thank you for making our night special.” One lucky lady had “Petition” dedicated to her, prefaced this way by Moore: “This song is for the girl in the bathroom who said she felt like she was dressed for a Taylor Swift concert.” (Better than being dressed for a Lady Gaga concert?)

As Tennis worked its way through most of its latest record, “Young and Old,” neither the crowd nor the band seemed quite ready to quit by curtain draw time. “Is it OK if we just play a few more?” Moore sweetly offered, before drummer James Barone kicked into the jumpy “High Road” before the sound guys could say no. Who could refuse her, anyway?

Concert review: School of Seven Bells (with Stagnant Pools) light up the Luminary with eerie, ethereal soundscapes, Tuesday, August 28

Siblings: we love them, we hate them, but it turns out they make pretty great bands. Stagnant Pools, a brotherly duo fresh out of a van from Bloomington, Ind. kicked things off in the Luminary Center for the Arts‘ wide, dark basement gallery on Tuesday evening. The boys are signed to Polyvinyl and already generating a decent amount of buzz (from the likes of Paste and, yes, Pitchfork) for their drone-heavy noise pop. Lots of noise, in fact, from just one guitar and a drum machine. They have obviously listened to a lot of Joy Division, and I think we’ll be hearing much more of them during the months to come.

I was curious to see how School of Seven Bells would sound with only one Deheza sister (Claudia, vocalist and synth player, left the band before 2012′s “GHOSTORY” was recorded). But I didn’t have to wonder, because someone who looks very much like Claudia — and thus very much like her twin Alley, the lead vocalist — took the stage a little after 9 p.m. on a muggy Tuesday night, along with Benjamin Curtis (formerly of Secret Machines, and one-half the creative force behind SVIIB).

A group of willowy, unassuming Brooklynites, each dressed to some degree in tight black apparel, SVIIB kept it classy — no between-song banter other than a few sincere “thank you”s. But these Bells left my ears ringing. Opening with “Windstorm,” from their critically acclaimed 2010 release Disconnect from Desire, a few dozen attendees shrugged off their shyness, inching toward the light of the stage to “swing their weight around.” Live, the band sounds louder, harder, and — for lack of a better description — much more layered, deeper and complex than recordings allow. A young band, their catalog isn’t extensive, but plenty of old and new material wound seamlessly the speakers: “Iamundernodisguise,” a sparse, synth-heavy, spooky little number from their first record, “Alpinisms,” against “Low Times” and “The Night” off their latest. “GHOSTORY,” released a few months ago, is a concept album told through the eyes of a girl named Lafaye who falls into and out of ambient, weird love — not unlike the type of love you’d imagine Alley or Benjamin have experienced.

Of course, that is pure conjecture on my part, an attempt to reconcile the enigmatic duo’s art with their lives. Perhaps it’s because School of Seven Bells has a knack for slyly cloaking dusky, almost malevolent lyrics — “Is this the way you thought it would be/ Do you feel the same, without me darling? You have my arms/ You have my legs…. Devour me, devour me” (from “The Night”) — in torrents of shimmering, luminescent dream-pop and Alley Deheza’s liquid contralto. It’s a shade too heavy for shoegaze, but mysteriously vague, gentler than the pummeling electronic drumbeats of contemporaries like Phantogram and M83 (with whom SVIIB has toured). Behind the musicians, simple stage decorations: two giant Venn diagram-shaped set pieces, bedazzled with lights that pulsed, twinkled, or raced through all colors of the rainbow in time with staccato drums or Claudia’s cloudy synthesizer. “We recorded some new material a few weeks ago, and we didn’t know what to do with it, so, um, it’s for sale at the merch table,” announced Benjamin by way of cautious self-promotion.

And then, in an unexpected burst of bravado, “But it’s pretty fucking good, so you should probably buy it.” Agreed.

Festival review: LouFest 2012 Day 2: Lost and found and happy in a flood of rain and music, Sunday, August 26

The Flaming Lips at LouFest. St. Louis. August 26, 2012.

The Flaming Lips at LouFest. Photo by Nate Burrell.

I am still finding pieces of confetti in my hair and clothes as I type this, remnants of a wet and wild weekend at LouFest 2012 in Forest Park.

“We’re going to have a collective, cosmic orgasm!” promised Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, firing wave after wave of rainbow sprinkles at us during their headlining set. But before this surreal cosmic embrace, there were many others who took the stage, gallantly defying Mother Nature to blast our eardrums with high-powered rock, folk and soul.

The Pernikoff Brothers, a local folk-rock outfit, started things off nice and easy on Day 2 in Forest Park. The ladies of THEESatisfaction, resplendent of Afro and wriggling in all the right places, warned, “Whatever you do, don’t funk with my groove,” amid a snaky little bass line and pulsing, robotic drum beat — the sound would pair nicely with neon sneakers and a boombox hoisted over your shoulder. These college friends know their way around a rollerskate jam and make a kind of futuristic funk, layered over equally space-age raps. A little Q-Tip, a lot Janelle Monáe.

Next up we got more Missouri, this time a representative from the wild (South)west, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. The hometown welcome was extended by proxy to the Springfield quartet, who showed some love for our side of the state (“Cardinal Rules”) and, from the looks of it, coaxed a few fans up Interstate 44 just to see the show (as evidenced by a circle of tireless dancers, who screamed and waved a handmade sign throughout the entire performance).

“I’ll see you at Wild Nothing!” signed off John Robert Cardwell (vocalist/guitarist/occasional drummer), and no sooner had SSLYBY exited Blue Stage left than began a mad dash for the Orange Stage, where the dreamy pop of Wild Nothing cascaded over the crowd like so much misty, twinkling starlight. The creative force behind Wild Nothing, Jack Tatum, is as young and fresh-faced as they come, so it’s almost hard to believe he’s two records into a promising career and already commanding such admiration from a crush of sweaty Fest-ies (and Fest-ettes, especially) — albeit diffident, shoegazing admiration.

As Wild Nothing’s twinkled from the speakers, kids in Spotify ray-bans traipsed back across the field in time for Cults, a band whose star burned bright and early but hasn’t dimmed at all since their major-label debut last summer. Reinforced by a second guitarist, keyboardist and drummer, the film school couple Madeline Folin and Brian Oblivion (surely some of the coolest names you could have, as rock stars!) whipped through favorites like “Oh My God” and “Go Outside,” as well as a Leonard Cohen cover (“One of our favorite artists,” stated Brian, solemnly) in a dazzling set that clocked in shy of 40 minutes. Red and pouty of lip, Madeline thanked us for dancing and demurely sipped water between heartrending slow-dance numbers — the girl has pipes.

They had to rush off to catch a flight — or was it because Wayne Coyne had just been sighted in the press tent next to their stage, and they wanted to catch him? Regardless, the Coyne apparition faded from view in a blur of curly hair and feathered collar, while Dawes, the second band of brothers of the day, took the stage next. Their blend of folk and bluegrass, coupled with shiny guitar work and soaring, hymn-like choruses (“When My Time Comes”) draws comparisons to still other brothers (the Avett) as well as Fleet Foxes. As venues go, a wooded glen in the mountains would have been ideal, but a meadow in beautiful Forest Park, underneath an overcast sky, suited Dawes just fine. I look forward to hearing more from the band in the years to come.

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Festival review: LouFest 2012 Day 1: Phantogram stole our hearts, Son Volt drowned us with country-fried guitars and Girl Talk split our skulls in a feverish dance party, Saturday, August 25

Jay Farrar of Son Volt at LouFest 2012. Photo by Kate McDaniel.

Of all the days the weather vane could have picked to end Missouri’s historic drought, August 25, the first day of LouFest, was not the one I would have chosen.

Still, it was impossible to dampen the spirit of revelry in Forest Park in St. Louis while rain pelted us sideways and the cracked, hard earth turned to mush beneath our feet. The afternoon hours, with the notable exceptions of local faves (and babes) Sleepy Kitty and young Brits Little Barrie, were packed with rootsy, interstate-ready Americana.

King Tuff’s gritty take on psychedelia translated surprisingly well from a dimly-lit club to a humid afternoon. “We would like to thank Lou for having us to his Fest,” announced Kyle Thomas, the creative force behind a quartet of guys cinched into tight jeans, before tearing into a set full of fuzzy slacker anthems—the stuff rock ‘n’ roll is made of.

Cotton Mather, back together after a decade-long hiatus, followed on their heels with straight-up, high-powered pop-rock. Three men dressed as Schlafly bottles, apparently there to remind us that we could be drinking Summer Lager as we munched vegan nachos on blankets, weaved in and out of the crowd, their bottle-capped hats bouncing along in time to “40 Watt Solution.” Cotton Mather seemed genuinely happy to be on the road playing together again; light-footed frontman Robert Harrison skipped and grapevined across the stage, in a manner of which the band’s Puritan namesake would have surely disapproved. And the sprinkles began.

Little Barrie took the stage amid thick, gathering storm clouds, charging into a punk-inflected set with a nod to the Strokes here and some nice cyclical riffs there. The London trio was doubtlessly more accustomed to inclement weather than we heat-stroked St. Louisans, most of whom were sent scurrying under merch tents for cover as the rain began in earnest, playing right through the much-needed (but ill-timed!) downpour.

“Drown,” appropriately named and timed, and one of the best-known tunes of Son Volt’s substantial alt-country catalog, coaxed festival-goers out from under their plastic ponchos to toe-tap and two-step. Jay Farrar’s harmonica reached all four corners of the park during several barnhouse rockers, but they also kept it cool with a few quieter folk ballads — classic Son Volt, and perfectly suited for a lazy afternoon slipping into dusk.

The band’s monitors were still buzzing as the youngest and most tattooed chunk of LouFest-ies tripped over to the Blue Stage for a hotly-anticipated appearance by Phantogram. It was only the second time the New York-based indie darlings have been to St. Louis, and they seemed overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and the feverish adoration contained within — “We’re definitely coming back!” promised lead vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel, following a set full of throat-constricting bass and forceful, danceable electronica-rock. (Rocktronica?) The duo (plus a drummer for the road) pairs Euro-pop and bass lines you feel in your stomach with Sarah’s sugary soprano—what Sleigh Bells wants to be when they grow up.

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