|I moved to St. Louis in October 2007 to work with the St. Louis County Library as an Assistant Manager. As a KDHX music writer, my musical interests lean toward the alternative side. I like poetic lyrics and singer-songwriters with spacey jams and soul-embracing honesty. I live with my husband, dog and two cats in Webster Groves.|
Concert review: Vivian Girls (with Widowspeak) play outsider songs inside the Billiken Club, Wednesday, September 14
An intimate crowd of 100 or so gathered at the Billiken Club on the campus of St. Louis University for a free show headlined by Vivian Girls. The band commanded the stage for a 90-minute set of songs old and new, including selections from their recent release “Share the Joy.”
Widowspeak, also from Brooklyn, opened with a set of strong songs and proved a good choice to proceed Vivian Girls. The band has a Mazzy Star quality of sleepy, nascent sexuality. They covered Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” with a breathy sense of being lulled as well as haunted.
Then, Vivian Girls took the stage. The mostly collegiate crowd huddled in to experience their sound. If you’ve never seen the Vivian Girls — Cassie Ramone (lead vocals/guitar), Katy Goodman (bass, percussion, vocals) and Ali Koehler (vocals, drums) — envision a mash-up of the Lennon Sisters and mid-’90s Hole, or perhaps another sister act from the Lawrence Welk Show mixed up with an all-girl band from CBGBs.
Ramone’s complex vocals radiate from the mic, somewhere between Kurt Cobain mocking Hank Williams and her own individual voice wailing a song-scream. Koehler beat the shit out of those drums, keeping their feminine triangle connected by tight, sharp rhythmic pounding. Goodman’s excellent stage presence and bass skills whipped the performance into a jam for all to thrash along to. Her strawberry blonde pony tail and Biergarten-styled top, that just covered her tatted-up upper arms, exemplified the trio’s style. Seemingly innocent, with femininity delivered with poppy hooks and toe-tapping melodies — these were just surface features. Underneath the cream surface there was a razor-blade sound, a dangerous purring and pounding.
Overall, the set demonstrated that Vivian Girls are a rare presence: feminist artists in indie rock that appeal to both men and women. The song “Take It as It Comes” started with campy dialogue between Katy and Cassie; if your mom heard the tune she’d ask you if you’d gotten into her ’50s record collection. Cassie dedicated this one to the ladies of the audience. “Lake House” was a rollicking number that smacked of vintage Courtney Love with some vigorous guitar playing.
I remember first reading about Vivian Girls in a Rolling Stone review of their self-titled debut album in 2008. I was hoping that they borrowed their name from outsider artist Henry Darger, who penned a fantasy manuscript with the vast title “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” (There’s probably a dozen or so band names in that title alone.) Darger passed away in 1973, but Vivian Girls carry on with the spirit of outsider music.
David Beeman, of St. Louis band Old Lights, likes pop hits and the fact that his band’s name is not rooted in meaning.
The Southern California native and current St. Louisan sat down with me in his Cherokee District production studio, Native Sound, to talk about Old Light’s evolution, his songwriting process and why he and his bandmates are happy to fill the current record production void in St. Louis.
Erin Chapman: Can you tell me about the origin of your band name?
David Beeman: Kristin [Dennis], who is in the band Née, likes to go on these Wikipedia trails, and basically we needed a band name and she just found it. It’s not necessarily rooted in anything. We just liked the way it sounded. Nobody in the band had anything to do with [selecting the name]. Hey Kristin, were you in the band at the time you picked our name?
Kristin Dennis: You told me that you would buy me dinner at Mangia if I gave you my band name.
David Beeman: Oh yeah, it was her band name that she found, and I told her that I would buy her dinner at Mangia if I could have it. I like that it doesn’t carry any meaning because it’s just better that way. I wouldn’t want our band name to have anything to do with who we are or what we sound like. As long as it’s not awkward, that’s all I care about.
What’s the history of the band?
I wrote songs for years on my own, basement recording type stuff. Probably six or seven years before I ever started an actual band, I recorded and played all of the instruments myself. I always wanted to start a band with my songs, I just never tried. I would show my friends all of my music, my recordings, and when my songs were cool enough people [would] want to play with me. So that was how the first version of Old Lights started.
In St. Louis it was friends of mine who liked my music enough to invest their time. People fell in and out as I was taking it more seriously. Beth [Bombara] was the first drummer in the band. No one else who was in the original lineup is in the band now. Just typical stuff: People losing interest, me losing interest, people not getting along. There’s been so many people in the band who are not in the band now. I guess the best way to say it is that it got to a point where the songs were interesting enough to the right people that now it’s a real band. Not me and a bunch of hired players. Everybody contributes creativity and plays on the record and has an equal voice. To me we sound like a rock ‘n’ roll band now. I feel as though I’ve built something, some kind of structure myself.
How does the songwriting process work for you?
For the “Like Strangers” EP, I had a bunch of songs in various states. From really noisy stuff to completed songs that I thought had most of the parts, even the lead guitar lines, piano stuff, harmony. I brought it to the band. It was a fairly normal process. They would tell me what they liked and didn’t like. They told me what they thought could be better. That’s how it worked. It was all the way from bare bones, forming structure together to other songs that were more whole.
Music before lyrics?
No. Hand in hand. For the last EP, it was sit down at piano, guitar, synthesizer and just sing a melody and sing words with those first few chords. It’s days and months of this. A specific lyric with a specific melody over specific chords that happens in about 30 seconds, and if that works then I will keep writing the song. That’s the way it works for me. It’s fairly spontaneous in the beginning because it’s a random singing of whatever, and playing whatever, and if it really sticks in my mind and I like it, if it’s pretty or catchy, then I’ll write a song — and that will be the center of the song. I’ve never been able to write lyrics before music. There are some songs where the music has come first, but it’s really difficult for me to write lyrics and the melody over a piece of music that exists, I feel like I’m doing Karaoke or something. It just feels awkward. So for me it’s always been that a song happens at the exact same time that the piece of music is happening and being made, at the exact same time as the initial lyrics are being written.
Take a break from your train of thought to find out about Nick Cowan’s show on 88.1 KDHX. Train of Thought airs Thursday night / Friday morning (depending on your lifestyle) from 3 a.m. – 5 a.m. Central.
Nick was born and raised in St. Louis. He grew up in North County, Jennings and Florissant, and moved out to Manchester with roommates in the ’90s. He also lived for a short while in the city. He’s a family man whose children are more familiar with Ozzy than Barney (he had to explain to his seven-year-old why “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” wasn’t appropriate for the Saturday morning KDHX show Musical Merry-Go-Round).
Try to follow us as we jump a train of thought — boxcar to boxcar, covering the classic rock station KSHE, how to handle intoxicated radio listeners and the realization that you don’t know as much as you thought did about music until you undergo the humbling experience of having your own radio show on KDHX.
Nick Cowan: I’ve got a blog that’s been neglected for the past two years. There’s a lot of stuff on there about bacon.
Erin Chapman: Have you ever had chocolate-covered bacon?
It’s so good. I don’t care where it comes from. It’s perfect, sweet, salty. One of the other best things in the world besides beer, and, you know, and my family.
What is your earliest memory involving the enjoyment of music?
My mom was pretty young when she had me, 19, I think. She listened to KSHE, like 1970s KSHE….
I’m not from St. Louis.
Where are you from?
De-troit. KSHE 95 was like the rock station. My mom listened to all that classic rock stuff. My first memories of enjoying music involve listening to that station. I listened to the cool heavy guitars, but then it seemed like at night the mellow stuff I remember Diana Ross for some reason and then John Lennon.
So you would listen to KSHE in the house, in the car?
It was always on. Radio was my beginning. Also a record club. There was one record I would have to defend now, I think it was Christopher Cross’s first album. My mom asked me, “Do you want this one?” I was like, all right. Gimme that Christopher Cross record.
Did you have your own record player?
Yeah, one of those little blue ones, with the little case on it. My dad always made sure I had stereos with equalizers and stuff, that helped.
Tell me about your show, Train of Thought.
This is my second show. I got my first show, which was called “It’s Late” named after the Queen song from the album News of the World. I started that in 1999 with a friend when the station first did a huge reorganization I think Bev Hacker first came on board and opened up a whole new slot of shows. I had been volunteering there for three years at that point.
Concert review: An alternative to Mardi Gras with Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea, Cotton Jones and Dots Not Feathers at the Firebird, Saturday, March 5
A crowd of 100-120 music lovers gathered at the Firebird last night and surprisingly none that I saw wore Mardi Gras wigs or costumes. This gathering came for the divergent sounds of a range of musicians, the headliner being Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea.
But before we arrive to Atkins’ goddess-like voice and rocking band, on the Firebird stage spread the sensitive repetitions of hometown folkies Dots Not Feathers, comprised of Stephen Baier, Katy Durrwachter, Ryan Meyers and Ravi Raghuram. Enthusiastically received by the swelling crowd, their electric keys, delicate harmonies, guitar, bass, soft drums, even ukulele and banjo, all swirled us into happy receivers of their perfect pitch.
Fortunate to locate a booth in the dimly lit Firebird (almost every stool and booth were taken by the large turn out), I waited for the second band to take stage. What an unexpected, pleasing sound hit me when Cotton Jones rolled into its set. You owe it to yourself to check them out; they’re amazing. Like a dish on the Food Network Show Best Thing I Ever Ate, the music from Cotton Jones hits the palate of the ear with a depth that left me drop-jawed. To hear them for the first time is to scream “Yes!” inside and then go with them on their American musical journey.
From Cumberland, Maryland, Cotton Jones is the vision of Michael Nau and Whitney McGraw, whose opposing vocals (Nau, the gruff poetic-bluesman; McGraw, the high octave, almost whispering, lovely female element) have vocal talent and passionate musicianship. As I was listening to them last night, I thought about the elements inherent within their sound and how unique it is to have those variations exist together, like the synth played by McGraw, which brings in modern aspects (a little Joy Division or New Order, but just slightly) and then is met by the barked poetry of Nau, who somehow brings it all back around to country, blues, folk, even echoes of late ’60s soul. I thought of the hot-blooded vocals of Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. Visually, McGraw presented herself on stage with oversized, trendy ’80s glasses and fashionable attire while Nau and the rest of CJ arrived in sweatshirt hoodies, contributing to the sense of opposites attracting – and working.
At times earthy and twangy, the power of Cotton Jones’ music entered through my chest and built a little a place for itself to live: the poetic details in the lyrics hit right in the center of my heart. “Somehow to Keep It Going” blew me away. “Once we were a rock rolling down a hill, now we are a hill trying to keep the rock still.” The song burst into a hallelujah moment; if I wasn’t so damn self conscious I would have raised my hands in the air to receive it like a prayer. “Come on baby,” Nau sang, “let the river roll on.” Nau’s voice came through with emotional, throaty power; I wondered if this was what is was like to see Springsteen live in the small venues in Asbury Park before his fame.
As if the 2 opening groups of minstrels weren’t enough to have my ears and heart ringing with that feeling that comes when experiencing transcendent, live music (there should be a word for that feeling: leave a comment if you have suggestions), next came the headliner from Brooklyn, NY: Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea. Originally from Neptune, NJ, Atkins cites the Shark River (technically a bay) as a major inspiration for her music. Her band is simple enough: bass, lead guitar and drums. Last night, the sound was pure rock & roll, with ’60s girl-band feel to some tunes. Atkins has been aligned in the press with the Brill Building-era, and she does show songwriting range. Her covers also have range, notably “Vitamin C,” by Can. I could hear that as a club hit.
Concert review: Pre-ice storm triple threat with California Wives, Art Majors and Santah at the Firebird, Sunday, January 30
The calm before the storm made for an easy ride to the Firebird on Sunday night, off Olive in downtown St. Louis. The opening band, Santah, five musicians who met in Champaign, Ill., delayed its start time, hoping for more bodies to populate the venue. Eventually, the audience increased from 10 to around 50, as Santah delivered gorgeous, roaming bursts of drums, guitar, electric keys and excellent lead vocals (provided by brother Stan McConnell), tempered by equally excellent vocal backup (by sister Vivian McConnell). When I spoke with Vivian after the set, she said that one of her band’s biggest influences is Wilco. The short set included “White Noise Bed,” “No Other Women” and “Neighbors and Cousins (Are We Lovers).”
Next up, was the band Art Majors. The group hails from “just down the street,” said lead vocalist Michael Roche, who suffered from quite the head cold/flu. Despite the fact that he was sick, when the four musicians hit their stride, there was no stopping their blend of ’80s British goth influences like Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy. Drums beat like hooves as doom and gloom vocals slowed the pace and then hit a crescendo with soulful moments: the quartet strummed, pounded and located the zone. The band took me to the gallop of a Pegasus over a metropolis circa 1985 (but I’m kind of weird). Whether you’re into the Pegasus visual or not, Art Majors built their sound into a passionate, sonic peak that lifted off into soaring guitar beauty. The sound contracted and expanded, and then returned to a focused momentum. Stunning.
The headliner of the evening was California Wives (would love to know the origin of the name). Hearing songs like “Purple” and “Guilt” from the 2010 EP Affair, what becomes clear is this quartet’s skilled musicianship on keys, guitars, bass and drums. Its pop, post-punk, shoe-gazing sound blasts forth as from a tightly wound machine. I did find the vocals lacking; Jayson Kramer sounded somewhat fey and Dan Zima’s vocals, granted he too had the beginnings of a cold, did not complement the otherwise excellent music. That said, California Wives seem to be a band to watch. They plan to release a new single this winter and play SXSW in March.
A 3 p.m. show on a Sunday afternoon at Off Broadway drew a pint-sized crowd of 0-7 year olds and their parents. Families arrived to participate in Ralph’s World, led by veteran, Chicago-based, singer-song writer Ralph Covert and band. Off Broadway transformed from its late night bar feel into a child-friendly establishment with a bright cloth sign behind the stage proclaiming the name of this 4-piece popular children’s band.
Grandfather Stark of KDHX’s Saturday morning show, Musical Merry-Go-Round, introduced Ralph’s World after a lesson for the uninitiated audience in how and when to applaud. As a short person, this was a great show for me because I could see the stage perfectly while sitting in the back (note to self: attend more children’s music shows). Parents and tots sat on the dance floor area near the stage until Ralph quickly got everyone to their feet.
Ralph Covert’s melodic writing style, which some may be familiar with from his work with the Bad Examples, is present within these high-spirited tunes. It should be noted that Ralph was nominated for a Grammy in 2006 for Best Children’s Album. During this show, we hopped like frogs and flew like bats and tip-toed like mice and swam at the bottom of the sea. Ralph sang a song for Beatle Bob who energetically enjoyed the performance. Ralph even dedicated a song about a caterpillar named Bob to Beatle Bob. We wiggled our fingers and reveled in the wonderful energy of Ralph and the bands’ whimsical, lively performance.
Both kids and parents bounced along to the catchy hooks. Ralph invited some of the children on to the stage to share a joke into the microphone, “What do you call a witch who lives on the beach? A sandwich.” One child spoke his joke via the duck puppet attached to his hand. The result was too cute for words.
This would not be the only time for the children to share the spotlight. Ralph spontaneously invited the children back on to the stage with their parents’ cameras and told them that the only rule is, “You must behave obnoxiously by taking ridiculously close pictures of the me and the band members.” The children were more than happy to comply, snapping nose shots and ear shots of the band members.
Not only were the children invited to take the stage, but Ralph invited parents (who were much less eager to volunteer for a moment under the spotlight). Parents assisted Ralph in forming the letters of the alphabet with their bodies, “I call this Dewey Decimal Pilates,” Ralph quipped.
At the conclusion of the hour and a half long show, Ralph and the band brought all of the children back up on the stage to pretend to be band members. Children played air instruments: guitar, drums, bass and rocked the late afternoon into a joyful musical experience to be remembered.
Concert review and setlist: Bettie Serveert serves up Dutch rock at the Duck Room, Friday, October 22
Bettie Serveert, pioneer indie-rockers from Amsterdam, played the Duck Room on Friday night to an enthusiastic crowd of around 200. Kicking off the set with probably one of their most familiar songs, “Palomine,” the 4-piece band, including Carol van Dyk on vocals and guitar, Peter Visser on lead guitar, Herman Bunskoeke on bass, and newest member, Joppe Molenaar on drums, delivered top form performances. Van Dyk’s vocals came across crystal clear and Molenaar added a vigorous, powerful element to the band. He pounded tempos both speedy and slow, as van Dyk ripped her unmistakable voice over enthralling chord progressions that climb around noise and gorgeous melodies.
Van Dyk stood center stage with short, hyper-blonde bob, in a backless top that revealed her smooth, shapely arms, black mini, black tights. She is a front woman to be compared with the likes of Debbie Harry and Tanya Donelly.
My favorite moment of the night occurred when the band spun away from “Tom Boy” into an ambient, almost jazz piece. Van Dyk then wove some lines by Liz Phair (“Divorce Song” from Exile in Guyville) between the “wa-was” of floating guitars and intermittent cymbal crashes:
That it’s harder to be friends than lovers,
and you shouldn’t try to mix the two,
cause if you do and then you’re still unhappy,
then you know that the problem is you.
Brilliant. And a nice nod to Phair, fellow “Tom Boy.”
In concert, Bettie Serveert stays close to its recorded performances. Many of the songs sound just as I remembered them from when I first encountered this band in the early ’90s. The crowd danced and huddled near to center stage, as the band rocked out number after number. They closed the night with a 2-song encore, ending with perhaps their most well know song, “Kid’s Alright.” Van Dyk said that they played this one for the crowd – and how the crowd loved them.
Concert review: Hayes Carll brings Texas swagger and poetry to a sold-out show at the Duck Room, Friday, September 10
At the Duck Room on Friday night, all it took was the first few notes of a song from Hayes Carll‘s recent album, Trouble in Mind, sung in a voice that hits like biscuits on the kitchen table, and you’re there, directly planted in Texas country swagger. A down-home, bridge-crackin’, hootenanny poet, Carll hails from the suburbs of Houston and currently lives in Austin. He’s found a home on the Americana music charts and has received acclaim, receiving the Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist this year. But enough with the props. How was the show?
If you like folk-county served up with a side of sawdust and whiskey straight, this was your night. Speaking frankly during “Hard Out Here,” Hayes delivered a stream of consciousness monologue about how his friends tease him for complaining about having the best job in the world. The three other musicians on stage — Bonnie Whitmore on bass (who opened the show with soulful murder ballads); Scott Davis on lead guitar, banjo, lap steel and organ; and Kenny Smith on drums — galloped along while Carll lamented the weariness of tour life and then delivered “Folk, Bluegrass, Country and Rock & Roll.”
The crowd at the sold-out show pushed up to the stage, singing along to “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” Tall and sleepy-eyed, Carll is an exact fit for the country-folk, singer-songwriter traditions of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. A highlight of the set, which lasted for an hour and a half, was introduced by Carll with a comment that he’s been traveling around the United States “and it seems everyone is divided into red and blue, conservative and Democrat.” He sympathizes with anyone who is single and must rule out 50 percent of the dating pool because of political persuasions. A duet with curly-haired Whitmore, whose Tennessee vocals whipped up a sassy back-and-forth, found each delivering their own political retorts (think “Jackson” by Johnny and June Carter Cash, but political). Carll said of the duet, “One voice is the Fox News watcher and the other gets their news and entertainment from MSNBC.”
Song after song, from the rocking “Little Rock” to the tender “Beaumont,” the foursome drew this listener into a dusty, country-road dream where heartache meets hard-lived miles and the faces and fast times settle into the ample room within the musician’s big heart and wide eye for poetic lyrics matched with music.
He shared stories between songs about his wife and mother helping to write a song he was struggling with and his reluctance to share songwriting credits with them, “because it’s not rock & roll to write a song with your mom.” He then second-guessed: “Maybe it is…” The last time he had played the Duck Room, “about 40 people came.” He thanked the audience for paying its hard-earned money and for coming out and supporting live, independent music. The crowd remained enthusiastic throughout the show, a mood that peaked when Carll went into one of his most well-known songs, “She Left Me for Jesus.”
All night long, Carll’s stage presence captivated, his lyrics drove straight to the heart and his music whirled on a honky tonk thrill ride. Given just the right movie, I could picture him in the leading role, or maybe writing the score. Perhaps he’ll one day get scooped up by the bright lights of Nashville or Hollywood. But it’s clear that he has enough integrity and commitment to remain true to a vision of filtering experiences through his Texas-rooted gifts. And no matter which way he goes, we are the lucky ones who get to revel in his music.