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Jason Warren's Photo I'm a volunteer music writer for KDHX.

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Concert review: Chris Knight, Cody Canada and Evan Felker swap songs and stories at Off Broadway, Friday, March 22

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There is a haze of cigarette smoke and coffee stains as the memories of a few hours ago settle in. This midnight oil burns as daylight starts to arise. The songs of Chris Knight, Cody Canada and Evan Felker are a not-so-distant memory.

At Off Broadway on Friday night, three chairs lined the stage and in those chairs three of today’s best songwriters passed the proverbial guitar around. This relay of songs conjured fantasies of times gone by, a distant past when poets with guitars would sit around the kitchen tables with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a case of beer and other substances, just to bullshit, sing, laugh and pass the guitar. The sight of Knight, Canada and Felker trade songs made that fantasy come just a little closer to reality.

Beer and whiskey flowed with rowdy abandonment as the crowd was let into a world that only songwriters and pickers usually get to see. The sound that filled Off Broadway was the pure essence of what these three songwriters are known for. They are the writers and singers of songs, songs that have been stripped naked and vulnerable to expose an undiluted emotional core.

Cody Canada took center stage where he acted as ringmaster. He opened the show with a welcome and a first song. This Oklahoma native, best known for his work with Cross Canadian Ragweed, showcased a deeper sense of song-craft, one that gets lost in his rowdy, high-velocity electric country musings. Alone with his guitar, he was clearly an artist with more to offer than country-rock ear candy. Canada’s songs became almost unrecognizable as they took on a new life that allowed room for each of his songs to resonate.

There was nervous energy for Evan Felker as he waited his turn. He showed a desire to prove to himself and to the audience that he was on par with Canada and Knight’s years of experience and craft. The leader of the Turnpike Troubadours took his place with a sound inspired by a New York folk/country tradition influenced as much by Ryan Adams as it is the folk scare of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Felker’s songs have a great pop sensibility, but they also have roots in the traditions of the south and Appalachian Mountains. The intimacy of being alone with his guitar was countered with a cocksure rock attitude that resulted in rousing versions of “Whole Damn Town,” “Every Girl” and “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead.” He led the crowd in sing-alongs with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Stag hoisted high into the air.

Sitting quietly, waiting, listening, watching was Chris Knight. He embodied the elder-statesman with songs that reached down into the heart and soul pulling at the strings of humanity. His songs expressed a loss and reverences, a feeling that no longer are you “like” a rolling stone but you have “become” a rolling stone.

As his hands touched the neck of the guitar and his voice carried out his first song, “In the Meantime,” he made you believe he had lived these songs. His voice evoked the spirit of Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Songs like “Rural Route,” “Enough Rope” and “The River’s Own” speak to the dissipating rural life that was so prominent when Woody Guthrie took to the trains to find America. The America that Guthrie saw may be gone, but Knight digs deeply into the heart of those who care to keep the dusty American roots alive.

As with any show, the crowd was ready for one more song and one more beer. After the main set, Canada, Knight and Felker returned to the stage to give the audience a musical nightcap. Knight started the encore with the title track from his most recent album, “Little Victories.” On the strength of the audience’s response Canada quickly followed up with a rousing version of the Neil Young classic “The Needle and the Damage Done.” This version seemed to set the final tone for his portion of the set, a way to say goodbye with one of the most amazing songs about love and loss.

But it was Felker that finished off the night. With harmonica in hand he launched into a rowdy version of “Long Hot Summer Day.” Canada supplied the guitar while Felker took his harmonica to the mic stand to create the rhythm of hammers and pickaxes landing to the ground. It was the spirit of the classic work songs that sent the crowd into one last frenzy.

Concert review: Yonder Mountain String Band (with the Deadly Gentlemen) jam the grass at the Pageant, Friday, March 8

Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band at the Pageant. Photo by Joe O'Toole

A haze descended over the audience as the lights rose over Yonder Mountain String Band on Friday evening at the Pageant. The night was filled with a groove that could be placed somewhere between the Grateful Dead and the classic bluegrass of Flatt and Scruggs, with country melodies and a musical muscle evident in jam-band circles. Dancers, drinks and bona-fide hippies took delight in all the sights and sounds.

The night started out the Boston’s Deadly Gentlemen, a band with musical chops that stand up with to its contemporaries. The Deadly Gentlemen features Greg Liszt on banjo, Stash Wyslouch on guitar, Mike Barnett on fiddle, Dominick Leslie on mandolin and Sam Grisman on double bass — each took a turn stepping up to the mic. At first the strength of the Deadly Gentlemen might seem to be its musicianship, but their use of vocal orchestration is key. This unconventional use of vocal harmonies involves an acrobatic bouncing of voices that blend to add emphasis on phrases, melodies and lyrical content.

The band played a mixture of originals and covers: “Let It Bleed” by the Rolling Stones and “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead. The strength of the band’s songwriting is study in diversity; from the country-esque “Moonshiner,” the almost punk-influenced “Police” (which seemed to evoke Black Flag’s “Police Story”) and the bluegrass burner of “Old Barns.” The latter skewed the Irish and Scottish influences of bluegrass for Middle Eastern phrasing that popped up every so often in the melody lines played by Mike Barnett and Dominick Leslie.

With a quick gander at the stage one would automatically assume that Yonder Mountain String Band plays typical bluegrass; after all, mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass are the band’s instruments. When the band kicked into its first song it was evident that this was more than just a bluegrass show. Yonder Mountain String Band has a sound that creates a jam-band groove with traditional string-band instrumentation that bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish and the String Cheese Incident have dabbled in; but those bands have not taken full advantage of the sounds’ power. This quartet from Nederland, Col. — made up of Jeff Austin on mandolin, Ben Kaufman on bass, Adam Aijala on guitar and Dave Johnston on banjo (each member taking turns fronting the band vocally) — brought an energy to the stage that is as reminiscent of Led Zeppelin as it is Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

The Yonder Mountain String Band blasted through two sets at the Pageant and brought the crowd to a frenzy its improvisational muscle. The night was highlighted with songs that ranged from humorous romps to the pull of lonesome heart strings. The diversity in the performance is evident in the songs. The band barreled through songs like “Half Moon Rising” and “How ‘Bout You?” which showcased a focused pop sensibility.

These songs were offset with traditional bluegrass instrumentals along with the fun Germanic romp of “Polka on a Banjo” and the seafaring bluegrass shanty of “Boatman’s Dance.” Despite the diversity of the songs stylistically each song blended perfectly to create a set that was consistent and fluid. As Yonder Mountain String Band played the atmosphere inside the Pageant was more akin to that of a house party with a friend’s band jamming in the background rather than that of a large-scale rock show complete with lights and a high performance P.A.

At the end of the night it was about the songs and the musicianship that both the Deadly Gentlemen and Yonder Mountain String Band brought to the stage. These elements created an atmosphere that primed the audience members to take themselves away from the day-to-day obstacles of life and to just have a good time with drink, dance and great music.

While the Yonder Mountain String band is rooted in traditions of acoustic music, it is the spirit of the San Francisco dance bands (the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane) that gives new life to its roots.

Concert review: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder roll through St. Louis and the Sheldon Concert Hall, Friday, February 22

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That high lonesome sound floated through the Sheldon Concert Hall Friday night as Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder took the stage.

Bluegrass, played with a spirit and energy that transcends genre, is at the heart of what Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder does. The songs and musicianship elevated the performance to something beyond expectations. This ability has made Ricky Skaggs a time-honored musician, whether he is playing straight-ahead country or his brand of Bill Monroe-inspired bluegrass.

“We are all here because of bluegrass,” with those words Skaggs and his band kicked into a powerhouse of an opening. The night was rife with the modern sound of bluegrass and tributes to those that have passed on. It was a night that was about those that laid the foundation — Monroe, Scruggs and Watson — while also being about the present and future of bluegrass. The band mixed tradition with sounds that have been coming from the jam-grass circles as well as the pop-influenced sounds of Mumford & Sons.

Since putting down his signature purple Telecaster nearly 20 years ago and rekindling his love for the mandolin, Skaggs has become one of the top bluegrass musicians, singers and songwriters, a musician who knows the traditions as well as what is happening now. He puts his unique voice to this genre just as he did over 30 years ago with his debut album “Waitin’ For the Sun to Shine.” He is a musician and songwriter that does not tire of looking forward. You can hear it in his voice, a voice that is equally at home with classics like “Uncle Pen” and “Tennessee Stud” and newer compositions like “You Can’t Hurt Ham,” “Music to My Ears” and “Can’t Shake Jesus” — all played at the Sheldon on Friday night.

The band itself is the power behind Skaggs’ incredible voice, songwriting and mandolin talent. It is the band that roots itself in tradition with inspiration from jazz — and keeping that band rooted is bassist Scott Mulvahill, a musician who adds a jazz-meets-Appalachian swing that seems to be missing in other acts.

Andy Leftwich and Cody Kilby (fiddle and guitar) are the virtuosos. They provide the instrumental voice (outside that of Skaggs mandolin) that, much as with Mulvahill, has a certain root in jazz. This was exemplified when the band kicked into the Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt song “Minor Swing.” Each of them took turns and showed that the music they play has more than the Appalachian Mountains as its base.

Justin Moses stood on the right side of the stage in a stoic manner, looking as if he were a banjo-plucking version of John Entwistle. He took his solos quietly and played banjo inspired by Earl Scruggs. A quick little smirk would come across his face when he knew that he killed a lick.

But the heart and soul of Kentucky Thunder comes from that of Eddie Faris and Paul Brewster. Faris holding down the harmonic structure on rhythm guitar as the band trades licks; he also adds that middle harmony. Brewster, in contrast, is a voice to be reckoned with. He possesses a full-bodied tenor that makes for the perfect harmonist as well as a lead vocalist. His voice has a country soul, power, and heartbreak that makes it perfect for both bluegrass and country. It was exemplified when he was given the vocal spotlight to sing the classic “Kentucky Waltz.”

The night was filled with many of the works that Skaggs and his band have been doing over the course of the past two decades. For long-time fans it was good to hear that Skaggs has not forgotten about his past — a past that includes some of the best country music submitted to tape.

Just before the encore he gave the crowd the treat of “Highway 40 Blues,” one of Skaggs’ biggest hits, and “Uncle Pen”; both songs have endured due to their roots in the traditions of country and bluegrass.

Concert review: Big Sam’s Funky Nation and the Funky Butt Brass Band join forces at the Old Rock House, Friday, February 8

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On Friday night, St. Louis got primed for Mardi Gras, courtesy of a throw-down from New Orleans’ Big Sam’s Funky Nation and St. Louis’ Funky Butt Brass Band.

Turning the Old Rock House into a purple, gold and green celebration, both bands brought the funk and turned it up for the dance floor. More importantly the night served as the annual ball for the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze, who happened to be celebrating 25 years as St. Louis’ premier Mardi Gras krewe. It was a night that made everyone from housewives, businessmen, thirty-nothings, hippies and punks move with the joy of music and celebration that can only come from New Orleans.

The tone of the night was set by the Funky Butt Brass Band. The group brought its own style of funk fused with second-line brass band and turned the Old Rock House into a rent party. The veterans grooved with their take of the New Orleans sound but really hit their stride when they channeled James Brown and his Famous Flames. It was in those moments that the band truly shined.

As Big Sam’s Funky Nation took the stage the party took off. As the band kicked into the first song, it felt like a fighter jet had taken off inside the walls of the Old Rock House. Those that were expecting a classics like “Hey Pocky A-Way” or “Jock-O-Mo” might have been disappointed; if so, the disappointment only lasted a few seconds. The band kicked in and they were there not only to make your booty shake but to give you a show.

Big Sam’s Funky Nation is led by former Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist Sammie “Big Sam” Williams. The name Big Sam is appropriate, not only for the the actual size of the man but for the sound that he and his band produce, a sound that has the power and fury of great metal and punk but consists of deep funk. Producing a groove that had everyone in a frenzy. Even if you were sitting in the back of the club there was no way that this sound could keep you from sitting still. The band was in town to party and take the crowd on a funk and rock journey, one that echoed the grooves and sounds that could only be conjured up if you were to make a hybrid of Fishbone, the P-Funk, Maceo Parker and the Ohio Players.

Topping off the evening was Funky Butt’s Aaron Chandler and Adam Hucke jumping on stage to trade licks with the Funky Nation, combining the powers of the Funky Butt Brass Band’s house-party vibe with the landing of Big Sam’s mothership. This was an ideal combination of both New Orleans heavy funk and St. Louis come to party attitude that made a perfect fit to end the night.

Concert review: Kristeen Young, CaveofswordS and Bruiser Queen rage across the Cicero’s stage, Friday, February 1

Kristeen Young at Cicero's. Photo by Colin Suchland.

The night offered a study in juxtaposition, a night with powerful voices, music and looks from three vastly different artists, as Kristeen Young, CaveofswordS and Bruiser Queen each took the stage of Cicero’s Friday evening.

Those that found themselves in the club were treated to contrasting performances — each musically diverse but holding to the same emotional content. These juxtapositions ultimately were best exemplified by headliner Kristeen Young as she moved from song to song.

There was a sparseness to the stage as Bruiser Queen launched into its first song. The St. Louis duo’s set was a study in simplicity and minimalism with the punk aesthetic of less is more. The music featured John Bonham-esque drums, take-no-prisoners guitar work (with a dash of ocean side surf) and vocals which shared the power and richness of Ann Wilson coupled with a snarling attitude that would make any guy shake in his Doc Martens.

Morgan Nusbaum and Jason Potter have taken the recent concept of the drum and guitar duo away from the blues-inspired mold of the White Stripes, the Flat Duo Jets and the Black Keys. They take the simplicity of this setting and bring together modern songwriting with touches of the past. Their sound harkens back to what makes loud guitar-based music great, but they keep themselves from falling into anything derivative.

CaveofswordS is an amalgamation of sounds and sights. The St. Louis trio seems to get its inspiration from dream pop, downtempo and the electronic sounds of groups like Depeche Mode. Sunyatta McDermott’s sultry voice seemed to swirl through the club much like the black and white video projection that wrapped around her and her bandmates, Kevin McDermott and Eric Armbruster. Backed by beats that are equal parts Portishead and A Tribe Called Quest, CaveofswordS’ music is ready made for the darker elements of human sexuality. An atmosphere and framework of guitars and bass from Kevin McDermott and Eric Armbruster not only moved the songs forward but supported Sunyatta’s voice, electronic-tones and thick beats.

Headliner Kristeen Young is a juxtaposition unto herself. Her music can be schizophrenic — in a good way. The former St. Louisian, now New Yorker, has a voice — more operatic than it is rock ‘n’ roll — that’s deservedly the focal point of her performance. Gyrating from behind the keyboard and out front for the audience, Young has the style, sound and energy that evokes a dream of a female Ian Curtis crossed with the modern-electronic glam of Lady Gaga.

Unlike Lady Gaga, however, Kristeen Young raises the bar in musicianship and vocal acrobatics. With a four-octave range that recalls goth-diva Diamanda Galas, Young shifted back and forth from the dance-oriented sounds of her latest release “V the Volcano” to solo voice and layered keyboards. The later showcased her vocal talents and a songwriting prowess of dissonance and beauty.

The fury of this female-led, three-band bill rivaled any ultra-masculine musical form. These women were not playing at any parts; rather they brought something fresh and sexual to the stage. In this study of contrasts at Cicero’s, it was clear that they are all intent on making music that means something to themselves and to their audience. As diverse as it may be, the music resonates widely.