Blair Stiles's Posts
|I'm a volunteer KDHX music writer in St. Louis.|
Concert review ON AN ON, Dots Not Feathers and Royal Canoe more than pass their audition at the Demo, Monday, March 18
The Demo feels like a church’s basement. Visitors to the club enter another dimension where worship is optional since a basement avoids the light of day.
It could be a storage center, a meeting place for Girl Scouts, maybe a bootlegging outfit back in the day. Although the building it anchors is meant as Holy ground: a basement can duck that dogma.
The Demo’s size lets it behave unlike larger venues. There is a walkway from the ticket counter to the stage created by a brick wall and the very bottom of stage right’s rafters. The tunnel blinds all peripheral vision. Once out of the tunnel, when 180 degree vision has returned, there is a merch table to the right and another vendor — a woman selling lighters. Look up and left; there is the bar. Turn around and get the first look at the stage. It stands chest high with monitors placed on its edge. It can be leaned on with arms crossed and chin rested. It is probably the most comfortable front-row in St. Louis. The venue holds, maybe, 150 people.
I stood there for the last two songs of Dots Not Feather‘s opening set. They may have followed Samuel Fickle, a local singer-songwriter and forlorned lover of maligned folk, but the show felt like it started when Dots Not Feather’s shot into “There’s a Ghost.” DNF grafts afro-jazz beats onto pop melodies and Dirty Projector’s-esque hockets and three-part harmonies. Singer/guitarist Stephen Baier’s guitar parts were highlighted by the uneven mix. His parts are not fidgety, but roam at an urgent pace. With Dots Not Feathers, Baier certainly has something to say.
Benefitting from DNF’s chromatic arrangements, Royal Canoe played to an audience of 50 warmed up for a lesson in music theory. Approximately six synths were placed around the stage — at least three were stacked before keyboardist Matt Schellenberg. With the dexterity of a forest-dwelling monkey, Schellenberg navigated each individual synth portion and backing vocal opportunity with precision. The entire band, for the matter, cut like a blade tracing the bones of hydrogen’s atomic skeleton.
The myriad of tracks that dance throughout Royal Canoe’s compositions sounded enchanting. I have sparse notes from the band’s set from being completely subservient to the sound. The heady mix of afro-infused double percussion and ’90s hip-hop synth tones in bizarre time signatures left me spellbound. Topped by the sub-octave vocal cutter used by lead singer Matt Peters, the songs were multi-textural and sounded unconventionally brilliant.
ON AN ON are brave for following Royal Canoe, for the latter played a set of headlining caliber. As the main drawl, ON AN ON, played a nonchalant set of gauzy dungeon pop. Often compared to Beach House, ON AN ON,’s debut “Give In” is less prone to sleeping in the clouds. Every song was tethered to the ether by guitarist/singer Nate Eiesland’s safety-knot guitar patches. Ryne Estwing’s full-voice falsetto on “Bad Mythology” was as calculated as Eisland’s guitar parts — timed all too-well within the track and attention giving, and getting, live.
ON AN ON did not have the life-springing zest of Dots Not Feathers and Royal Canoe. Born from the fallen seeds of Scattered Trees, they induce epiphanies. Royal Canoe carried on like the conscious thought aware of its deftness. Not a hair was out of place during that set. It made ON AN ON’s set, and the night at the Demo, all the more successful, and finally conclusive.
Youth Lagoon’s second album, “Wondrous Bughouse,” captures the mercurial cerebrum of a 20-something thinker with aural examples of torturous moments in young adulthood. In lieu of conversation, Trevor Powers will exorcise his chronic anxiety by making records with vistas of psychedelic musical plains. These pathways to Powers’ mind funnel in the ambience of the Cocteau Twins and mysticism of Tangerine Dream.
Powers’ debut, 2011′s “Year in Hibernation,” is a cave of nocturnal emotions easy to absorb on a rainy day. Its minimalistic course steers from foggy pianos echoes (“Montana”) to crystalline synth jabs accompanied by supple guitar tones (“Daydream”).
In contrast, “Wondrous Bughouse” is a colorful listen appropriate for any shadow on the sundial. Anxiety and mortality are Powers’ muses on this merry go ’round spun by fear’s illusory demons. Such subjects creep up at any hour. Powers chooses to place them throughout the album in a helter-skelter, yet concise fashion.
“Wondrous Bughouse”‘s opening track, “Through Mind and Back,” rests supine in the dark night of pessimism. Its murk relaxes itself onto “Mute” the way a swimmer would churn through the Black Lagoon, weary of the creature that waits beneath. “Mute” acknowledges “Through Mind and Back” with lyrics that describe a world unseen by a worried consciousness’ filter. Powers tampers with a style that mimes a short attention span. His conscious thought deviates from subjects while it maintains the same overarching emotional tone. Powers indicates these shifts with ellipses. Found in the belly of sentences, or clamped on the tail end of his accounts, they illustrate the constant swing of an overactive mind’s pendulum.
The album’s macabre themes drown in resilient affirmations of longevity. Powers insists, “You will never die, you will never die” on “Dropla.” While the death of a loved one is a perpetual shock, the after-effects felt for miles, “Wondrous Bughouse” squelches the pain. It calls for those left to remember how simple things — a song is Powers’ example — can play and cause the mourner to recall the one he or she misses. Through the power of memory, people can achieve immortality.
The track that follows “Dropla” is an abstract sonic dimension built around a beguiling circus march. It dictates a whirlwind lack of lucidity and control when anxiety pilots a body. A terrifying hybrid of John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the sluggish drone of the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Sleep Paralysis” teeters on the edge of insanity.
Yet, “Wondrous Bughouse” has the ability to quell a soul’s turbulent waves. After the tumult of “Sleep Paralysis” — during which Powers loses his grip on his synth and plays in keys that sound like a string quartet with eyes that have become black and white swirls of what-was — comes “Raspberry Cane” and “Daisyphobia.” Both carry emotions less severe than what he explores in “Sleep Paralysis.” Powers appears to come-to-terms with what plagues him.
If “Wondrous Bughouse” is Youth Lagoon’s in-depth exploration of spiritual planes and the endurance of human life with the comprehension of mortality, then by the end of album its leader resurfaces. When Powers comes up for air, something as brief as life is worth the pursuit — no matter the turmoil it takes to achieve this realization.
Concert review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foxygen and Wampire soak the Firebird in feedback and feeling, Saturday, March 9
A line of 50 people stood before the entrance of the Firebird some time around 8:30 p.m. Steeped in the well-known buzz of “stoked,” they chatted amicably amongst themselves and fellow waiters.
The majority in line was male, clad in street variations of their work uniforms. Burnt khaki-colored jeans, patterned sweaters and shoes that took a palette cue from neon, the crowd for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s set was as attractive and vibrant as it was dense.
Once inside, the solid crowd turned its attention to Portland, Ore.’s Wampire. Had the crowd not have been so curious, they would have missed, bar none, the night’s best set. Wampire’s guitar tones sounded clean enough to be prerecorded and the guitar solos were not ostentatious, but worked seamlessly within the songs without a cacophonous or self-indulgent air. Playing heavily in its favor was the awareness Wampire had of its sound, influences and audience.
On this evening, what made Foxygen and Unknown Mortal Orchestra less engaging than Wampire was their rehashing of Woodstock-era showmanship. The incessant use of feedback, delay pedals and three-minute jams on every four-minute song was overwhelming. It’s interesting to note that UMO’s bassist, Jacob Portrait produced Wampire’s full-length debut. Wampire’s tracks are multilevel, yet stacked well enough to pull off simplicity. Had Ariel Pink surfed off Ocean Park Pier with the Z-Boys, he would have recorded the undeniably pleasant tracks off “Curiosity.”
“Hearse” demolished any hope the latter acts would have of conjuring up sets as melodious and succinct as Wampire’s. The band’s interchangeable tones, manifest on the song “Hearse,” created a maelstrom of ethereal emotions. If the dawn could be heard from miles away, it would wake the world every morning with such sounds. Suffice it to say, I will yearn for “Curiosity”‘s May release. I’m not alone: crowd members purred “WHOM-PY-HER” in Bela Lugosi’s Transylvanian drawl when the set ended. They, too, had been bitten.
Adorned in a hoodie he constructed from the alpaca he shaved prior to the show, Foxygen’s Sam France looked like Father John Misty’s camelid-obsessed baby brother. Someone should have brayed “Bah Ram Ewe.” As indicated from his get-up, France did not appear to take the set all too seriously. Point: He spoke without any self-awareness into the microphone between songs. His banter ranged from confusion “What song’s next?” to incoherent introductions, “Y’know, same story…I don’t wanna be your boyfriend….” The only guiding light came from guitarist Jonathan Rado. Whenever he spoke it was refreshing; he sounded lucid and polite.
Given the right audience, France could be electrifying. He accompanied Foxygen’s quick-draw tempo changes with enthusiasm. He sung-spoke and performed in a Dr. Frankenfurter fashion as his amp crackled every five seconds or so. Unabashed, he stole mics from bandmates, forced some to sing and carried on like it was the second night of Bonnaroo and his acid tab had just dissolved.
Concert review: Everything that rises must cohere with Samantha Crain and Indian Blanket at the Gramophone, Tuesday, February 19
The greatest foe of the musicians who played Tuesday night at the Gramophone was the slew of libations administered by the bartenders.
The onslaught of conversational lubricants gave the Gramophone a noisy bar air. With their movements circumscribed by size of the club, it seemed patrons were being ushered by their instincts to the bar. They were like bees to blossomed flowers.
As the crowd imbibed, their chatter grew and eventually drowned out opener Indian Blanket. The St. Louis outfit was difficult to hear anywhere in the bar. What could be heard of singer/guitarist Joe Andert’s vocals came across as desperate jabs that created pockets of comprehensible vocals through the crowd’s din. When Andert sang, “I can’t hear you anymore,” it felt timelier and had more perceived direction than any other sparsely audible lyric. He would get his chance to be heard when he joined Samantha Crain midway though her set for a spell. It was a lovely gesture, and Andert took the opportunity to sing beautifully and give the audience a taste of what the had opted to miss. To hear Indian Blanket play to a room that appreciated its cello and fiddle scoured-folk would be the equivalent to a daydream. Half-tactile, half-lucid dream and wholly wanted.
As suspected, the crowd piped down for Oklahoma’s Samantha Crain. She and an assembly of talented backing musicians moved around the stage during sound check with diffused smiles. Outside the solitude of a vocal booth, Crain’s music lights a fire within its own belly. Songs off her latest album, “Kid Face” are linear and have a less apparent melodic edge than when translated live. “Somewhere All the Time” ripened into a fruitful jam the moment Crain sang and the backing band bopped along to Anne Lillis’ drum work. Lillis reined in her unblemished percussion on every song. Kyle Reid’s ethereal lap steel guitar echoed Crain’s insatiable wanderlust. Each musician’s awareness of the role they were asked to play gave Crain room to be a frontwoman; she was never outshone for more than a blink of an eye.
Indeed, if the audience had closed its eyes during “Equinox” off “You (Understood)” they would have missed John Calvin Abney’s olympian bid for the 2016 Men’s Gymnastics Team. He became so enthralled behind the Wurlitzer that he, in a great show of charm and ironic athleticism, fell backwards off the stage and stayed on his feet with his seat in-hand. He looked more like a child in the throes of amusement when he came back on the stage. He peered across the stage at guitarist Kyle Reid with his eyes the size of flying saucers and his mouth wide enough to fit one of Reid’s homemade cigar box guitars. Thankfully, when everyone but Crain and Calvin left the stage for the engaged pair to perform together, his bottom was firmly planted behind the Wurlitzer.
Crain’s adept backing band was supported by Crain’s ability to let them ad lib. Wurlitzer wizard and guitarist Abney soloed on his guitar the last 10 seconds of the song with the kind of bottled energy we have come to realize in shaken soda products. Daniel Foulks, on fiddle, and Penny Hill, on bass, were mixed so well that when necessary, their instruments took precedence over Crain’s vocal delivery. It was a treat to hone in on members of Crain’s band to hear them interpret “Kid Face.” Each intrigued the listener with their obvious skill. The level of musicianship and camaraderie displayed refreshed any stale notions that live shows are an amalgamation of calculated practice. Each member, Crain included, was so content to play that they each introduced to the mix a different style of grout that made the whole cohere.
To wit, Crain gives the band a skeleton set list that rearranges like Tetris. She judges the crowd’s reactions and mood and will huddle the band up and instruct them to play a song that fits. It is up to the band to be prepared for this, and with every change, anticipate and play regardless of surprise. It is a brave way to play a show and is a conspicuous hint towards the level of excellence Crain and company have attained together.
Concert review: Night Beds (with Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine) awaken emotions at Off Broadway, Monday, February 11
St. Louis’ Cassie Morgan knelt before her guitar and tuned up. Her curly mane followed the slope of her shoulder and fell behind her head as she stood up and began an opening set for Nashville, Tenn. act Night Beds.
Beth Bombara — aka the Lone Pine of Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine — stood to the songwriter’s right with toms in hand and a glockenspiel that separated her from the crowd that eventually grew to over 75 people. An excited chatter percolated throughout patrons and muffled Morgan’s soft delivery. Her foreboding tales of love gone awry are crafted for more placid crowds. Unfortunately, the audience at Off Broadway appeared oblivious to Morgan’s craft and talked audibly amongst themselves.
As Morgan strummed her guitar and sang with an inflection that echoed macabre-folk icon Neko Case, Bombara displayed an impressive musicality. In addition to the glockenspiel, Bombara played a harmonium, tambourine, maraca and a crystal wine glass: She slid her finger over the glass’s rim and made a sound reminiscent of a Theremin.
The crowd’s attention may have been diverted from Morgan and the Lonely Pine due to headliner Night Beds. They resolved to silence once Winston Yellen and company came upon the stage. He sported three touring musicians, two from St. Louis. Although Yellen neglected to introduce them, it could be inferred by their reactions to the crowd’s shouts, and the number of people who flocked to them post-show, that drummer Taylor and guitarist Caleb call St. Louis home.
Yellen opened his set with “Faithful Heights,” an a cappella joint that hushed the crowd and revealed Yellen’s voice to be more mature live than recorded on “Country Sleep.” His vocals escaped the speakers with a sonic boom’s start and brick walls’ solidarity. Yellen and his compositions have a potent presence that brimmed with emotionally curated confessions. I doubt anyone would have batted an eye if he yanked the amp from underneath his lap steel guitarist, sat down and read from his diary.
Perhaps Yellen’s pinched countenance gave him the visage of Internet meme sensation Grumpy Cat, but something about Yellen clearly reeked of moodiness. He castigated an inebriated audience member who spoke to his guitar tech/brother; the aggressive tone caused a palpable tremor of discomfort through the crowd. When he walked into the audience during the band’s last number, he steered an audience member with his head in the way of domed-head pachycephalosaurs. His previous actions made me think he was gearing up to crack the guy in the face. He did, however, show several moments of joy. Once, out of the dark, he patted a patron on the shoulder and had a playful exchange with St. Louis musician Ryan Carpenter who, from the balcony, thanked Yellen graciously for coming to St. Louis.
In contrast, Yellen’s drummer had a smile plastered to his face throughout the set. He was incandescent during “Hope Springs” and embellished his movements generously, often drumming akimbo as his limbs created jangled angles. His jovial demeanor contrasted during Yellen’s melancholic set. Even when he busted his kick pedal he never ceased to be ebullient: he flung the broken bit aside with the flair of a tipsy troublemaker.
Despite the odd conflation of personalities on stage, Night Beds played an impeccable set. They played clean, and the songs’ collisions sounded like interludes rather than bridges from chorus to chorus. They played unrushed, yet Yellen’s compositions leaned into one another and created a fleet set.
The crowd chanted “One more song!” when Night Beds closed up shop. Despite their pleas, there was no encore.
Concert review and set list: A perfect 10 from So Many Dynamos and Née at Off Broadway, Friday, February 1
A blue haze descended over Off Broadway as an ocean-colored light collided with the milky fog of a smoke machine. On cue, New Order’s “Blue Monday” somersaulted out of the overhead speakers. Whether by serendipitous chance, or true fate, Friday night’s So Many Dynamos and Née show was destined to be flawless.
Half an hour after doors opened, Off Broadway was pressed for capacity. Droves of young St. Louisians buzzed about the venue and added an electric current of positive vibrations. They bore drinks in hand, mostly the free Schlafly provided by promoters Do314. They flitted around the venue, spoke to friends, acquaintances, people they did not know. Overheard: “It’s a St. Louis music family reunion! You can quote me!” They were treading towards boorish benevolence at a steady pace.
Mic Boshans of Née and Humdrum began the record spin. He pulled from a stack of records, eyeing his choices with care prior to greeting them with the needle. His pragmatic choices were well received. Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” was followed by instrumental numbers with rattlesnake-shimmy percussion and bass that fluttered. Clayton Kunstel of headliners So Many Dynamos would spin next. His first choice? A brilliant segue into his band’s and Née’s sense of percussion-driven electro-pop: Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You.” His propulsive choices added aural fuel to the liquor fire that brewed inside Off Broadway’s patrons. So Many Dynamo’s frontman Aaron Stovall jumped in, air drumming all the way to Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
The show marked two achievements for the two bands: 10 years of making music for So Many Dynamos and a 10″ vinyl release of the “Finches EP” for Née. Appropriately, Née opened its set with “Spiders” from the celebratory EP. With David Beeman on guitar and adorned in an industrial-strength onesie, and Boshan on percussion, Née frontwoman Kristin Dennis moved in staccato breaks between her two synths. She popped her voice off with the whizz-bang of a Bop It toy. Her herky-jerky shoulder shrugs and hand gestures caused the black fur on the coat she was wearing to shake like a live animal. For a moment, it did look as though she were wearing a bear cub on stage. A rainbow strobe emphasized her dance moves, as if mirroring her limbs with every song.
The crowd boogied like separate atoms readying the abandonment of a greater mass. They turned and twisted in every which direction, never unified but caught by their own inhibitions. One young man spent most of the set with his back to Née wriggling his body around like a wet noodle. He ceased his loose gyrations during “Absolom,” the first track from the “Hands of Thieves” release. Perhaps enraptured by the ethereal choir of voices backing Dennis, he appeared absorbed: A noodle resigned to blissed-out attention.
During “Let’s Get Drunk and Kiss,” a song the band recorded for KDHXmas 2012, an odd thing occurred: Normally eloquent friends began to spew gibberish as the night gained momentum. St. Louis natives adopted New Jersey accents. As with any good party, everyone seemed ready to abandon responsibility. Libations aplenty, we were buzzing before So Many Dynamos took the stage.
“That’s, like, seven Go-Pros taped to a mic! That’s why it is taking so long!” It was the best explanation I received for the wait between Née and So Many Dynamos’ sets. True, there were about seven microscopic videocameras duct taped to a microphone stand in front of Stovall. Regardless, 20-or-so minutes feel like a lifetime when anticipation is so high. We are spoiled by So Many Dynamos. We come to expect a hootenanny that would make Bacchus red with shame. Hence the whines during the wait time: It hurts to want to dance so much.
Concert review: Pujol (with Dad Jr. and Diarrhea Planet) punk out at Off Broadway, Sunday, January 27
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.
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.