Matt Champion's Posts

Matt Champion's Photo When not listening to music or writing, I can usually be found bowling, reading, or operating my amateur radio station in my spare time.

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Concert review: The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band (with Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart) gained supporters for his revolution at the Old Rock House on Thursday, March 7

Gathering up its generals for an all-out assault on the ears of the masses, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band added Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart to the ranks of the Big Damn Blues Revolution.

Taking the stage at the Old Rock House clad in camouflage pants and a black and white plaid shirt, Grammy award-winning blues master Alvin Youngblood Hart quickly tuned his resonator guitar and poured out his soul. Playing in the fingerpicking style of Charley Patton and Son House, Hart translates his life experiences into music and becomes the song rather than playing it.

Hart played a 45 minute set of his own tunes and a few Charley Patton covers, switching between his resonator guitar, a 12-string acoustic, and what looked like a Danelectro ’56 Pro between songs. His slide runs over the strings with the ease and precision that only comes with time and love. I don’t know if he was using any pedals to color his tone, but the low end was thick and greasy while the high end was razor sharp, which is just about as good as you can get for playing electric blues.

The first time I realized exactly what people meant by ‘feeling the blues’ was when I saw John Hammond, Jr. open for David Lindley a few years back. Hart’s set brought back that same understanding, that it is something to be felt, not just heard. I was taken aback enough that when I approached him after the show, all I could say was “Thank you” over and over again. I’m sure he thinks I’m a bit soft in the head, but it was his playing that put me in that condition.

Jimbo Mathus was the next on the bill accompanied by his band the Tri-State Coalition. Probably best known as the guitarist for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus left his swing style behind for the blues in the late ’90s and hasn’t looked back since. His stage persona reminded me of a mix between Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors and St. Louis’ favorite murder balladeer, Fred Friction.
Mathus’s set consisted of 45 minutes of tracks from his new album “White Buffalo” and a few older cuts, along with a few Charley Patton tunes. The Tri-County Coalition is a quartet consisting of Matt Pierce on the Telecaster, Terrence Bishop playing bass, Eric Carlton on keyboards and accordion and Ryan Rogers on the drums.

Musically, the band was spot on the entire night. I especially noticed that Terrance Bishop was playing sparse bass lines while the rest of the band was in full swing, which complimented the songs worlds more than if he’d been playing a hundred notes a minute. Matt Pierce was no slouch either. I still don’t know how he was making some of those pedal steel licks come out of his Telecaster without stomping on a mess of pedals.

Mathus himself is no slouch on the guitar, playing with the same fingerstyle technique as Hart and Peyton. His songs were full of tongue-in-cheek humor and a hint of sadness, which was often overshadowed by the mid-tempo pace the band was keeping. The harder rocking “White Buffalo” was a notable change in pace, one that I would have liked to have seen in some of the other songs. While they sound great at a jogging pace, there was some serious power on stage when they cranked it up a notch.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band was the next up, bounding on stage as the crowd roared with excitement. The Rev grabbed his resonator guitar and flashed his ear to ear grin to the crowd before ripping into the first song of the evening.

Reverend Peyton is one of those guitar players who is so masterful at his craft that you really have no concept of how difficult the style in which he plays really is. After a few songs, he stopped to explain that he plays country blues or rural blues, which is a dying art “because it’s hard to do.” He explained further, stating that in country blues the thumb of the picking hand plays the bass while the fingers play the lead and melody parts. To give an example that everyone would understand, he then proceeded to play both the bass and lead horn parts of Henry Mancini’s theme to the T.V. show “Peter Gunn” at the same time. Peyton is known for “showing off” as he calls it, and whether it is the display tonight or his playing “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle” at the same time, it is something that needs to be seen to be believed.

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Concert review: Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (with Cross Examination, ThorHammer, and the Basement) thrash and bash at the Firebird on Wednesday, February 20

Ponce de Leon may not have found the fountain of youth, but hardcore-thrash crossover band Dirty Rotten Imbeciles proved that spending 30 years in the thrash zone is the next best thing.

The Basement opened the night at the Firebird with a 30 minute set of pop-punk that aimed for Rancid but ended up at Green Day. The vocals were in the Tim Armstrong/Lars Frederiksen wheelhouse; they weren’t half bad. The guitar sounded great and their rhythm section propelled the songs along fairly well.

The set was not without problems. I don’t know if they were having an off night, but there seemed to be a lot of issues with forgotten lyrics and songs abruptly ending in trainwrecks. There were enough clunky endings that D.R.I. bassist Harald Oimoen shouted some advice from the merch booth in the form of “Work on your endings, guys!”

My main complaint was that the whole “punk” schtick was not coming across the way I think the band thought it was. Being a punk is more than buying some Manic Panic and a denim vest and saying “fuck” every other word. I don’t remember Dez Cadena or Glenn Danzig explain away forgotten lyrics or sloppy endings by saying “I forgot the lyrics. So what? This is punk rock.” If you have to tell someone that you’re a punk, you aren’t a punk.

I know I’m coming across a bit harsh here, but my point is this: Don’t try to mimic other bands or copy styles. Find your own thing and do it. There is nothing more punk than making your own path, so blaze that trail instead of trying to copy someone else. The effort is well worth the payoff in the long run.

Next to hit the stage was ThorHammer, and hit the stage they did. ThorHammer is one of those bands I want to hate because they play lightning-fast, complex riffs so effortlessly that I feel like a lesser primate when I pick up my guitar. However, once the riffer madness starts, I can’t help but love what I’m hearing.

The band’s entire set was loud heavy riffs and wailing leads underpinned by a rhythm section well-versed in laying down slabs of rock. Everyone was playing double-time without hiding sloppy playing behind mountains of distortion or overly high volume. They almost sounded like an over-caffeinated Exodus.

When I lived in New Jersey, I had this neighbor with a Pomeranian that would chase the neighborhood cats all over the street yelping and growling. That dog was a bad ass and was nothing to mess with, much like the vocals that were being shouted out over the music. The vocals were perfectly matched to the music and sounded great. The drummer looked like Gandalf beating the hell out of his kit, and there is nothing more suited to metal than a wizard, right?

While I was doing some research after the show, I read that this was the last show with this lineup and that two members were leaving. This was my first time seeing ThorHammer, and I sincerely hope they find new members to fill the vacant spots. Their set tonight was a prime example of how good metal should be played.

Cross Examination only played a total of about 20 minutes, but they were the most fun 20 minutes of the entire evening. The last thing I expected to see was an act that seemed more grindcore than thrash and didn’t apologize for a damn second of it. The music reminded me a little of Discordance Axis, without the douchebag pompousness. The liner notes from DA’s Jouhou album made me want to punch them in the throat. Cross Examination’s vibe made me want to buy them beer.

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Concert review and set list: Cellist Ben Sollee (with Justin Paul Lewis) fights off stereotypes at the Old Rock House on Saturday, February 16

Ben Sollee at the Old Rock House. Photo by Ben Mudd.

When most people think of the cello, they think of classical music or symphonies. Ben Sollee breaks those stereotypes and brings his instrument to a whole new level.

Show opener Justin Paul Lewis crept up onto the Old Rock House stage and began his solo-acoustic set without warning. Lewis’ take on the singer-songwriter genre was drastically different from what I’m used to hearing. He treats the guitar as a percussion instrument, producing shucking beats and heavily muted chords with his finger-style technique.

Lewis treats his vocals as another form of instrumentation, delivering his stories with a mumbled rhythm as if he were talking in his sleep and describing his dreams in real-time. The only comparison I can really draw is that he sounds like Tom Waits without the ravages of whisky and poor life choices warping his vocal cords. He spent the majority of his set hunched over his guitar, bobbing around and crooning while playing and whistling the horn lines his trumpeter, who was not with him at this show, usually added to his set.

Lewis’ motions were as mesmerizing as the songs themselves, almost a performance art piece in and of themselves. He got the crowd involved with the show by clapping the beat to a funky slow jam of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” before bringing Ben Sollee up on stage for a great performance of “Salt” from his most recent recording “Rinse, Repeat, Rewind.”

Ben Sollee was the next up, sharing the stage with drummer Jordon Ellis. I had not heard anything that he had performed before the show and opted to check him out based on a recommendation from singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, who occasionally raves about him on Twitter.

Sollee is a classically trained cellist that often forgoes the usual classical song structure to breathe new life into an old instrument. That was apparent from the first tune, which consisted of bowing and plucking a rhythm that would be equally at home on a New Order album. Every song seemed to shift in style from synth-pop to jazz to R&B and hip-hop grooves thrown in for good measure. Although there was a broad array of styles in play, the transitions were smooth as silk and nothing seemed out of place.

Over the course of the show, Sollee primarily kept to his cello with a change to octave mandolin for a couple of tracks halfway through the set. His vocals seemed to have a heavy lean toward the singing-storyteller style of Paul Simon, the words sung with a warm tenor that exuded wisdom beyond his years. When he was really getting into the groove Sollee would start to yelp and shout with joy, reminding me of the shouts that accompany “Better Git It in Your Soul” from the Charles Mingus album “Mingus Ah Um.”

There was also a strong jazz influence in the drumming of Jordon Ellis, who has more beats than Schrute Farms. He was running from hip-hop grooves to jazz riffs and filling the air with sounds that accented Sollee’s cello runs without stepping over or falling behind the beat.

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Concert review: Carrie Rodriguez shares a little heart and soul at the Old Rock House on the eve of Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, February 13

There is nothing quite like the emotion that pours out of a singer-songwriter when she’s plying her trade. Carrie Rodriguez filled the room with love of her songs and her audience Wednesday night at the Old Rock House.

Before the show began, guitarist Luke Jacobs threw some old-time tunes on the record player that was set up at stage right, setting the mood as he moved slowly and deliberately around the stage making sure that the instruments were tuned up and ready to go.

Carrie Rodriguez took the stage without much fanfare, smiling from ear to ear as she grabbed her fiddle and said hello to the crowd. Without wasting any time, Luke grabbed his guitar and started strumming the chords to the first tune of the evening.

The pair ran through a bit of Carrie’s recorded output, from a very powerful “Seven Angels on a Bicycle” and “She Ain’t Me,” to a handful of tracks from her latest album “Give Me All You Got.” There were a pair of covers in the mix as well, a fantastic duet of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and an encore of “La Puñalada Trapera,” a staple of her mariachi singing great-aunt, Ava Garza.

This was one of the best sounding shows I’ve seen at the Old Rock House. Josh was running the board and did a fantastic job of capturing the power of Carrie’s voice and the subtle nuances of her fiddle playing. Luke’s acoustic guitar was about as perfectly balanced tonally as you can get and his electric had an overdriven fuzz with tone as thick as a baby’s arm.

Carrie was in excellent form, her fiddle expressing mournful cries and exuberant joy often in the same song. She also played a little guitar and plucked out a few songs on her Epiphone Mandobird, which I covet almost as much as Quintron’s Rhodes/Hammond combo. Vocally she has a strong country flavor, along the lines of Zoe Muth or Carrie Underwood. The passion that she puts into her lyrics translates into her singing, giving her an edge above most female country vocalists that you hear on most of the corporate stations.

Carrie and Luke have been playing together for a long time, something that was obvious in their performance. They weave their solo parts in and out of the framework of the songs with precision, each one complimenting the other’s parts without competing or fighting for dominance. They are comfortable with the songs but don’t come off as stale or over-rehearsed.

The between song banter was also enjoyable, none of it forced and all of it given with an ear-to-ear grin. It is obvious that Carrie loves what she does and appreciates her fans, something that translates into everything about her performances. Luke’s story of how the tour poster was created was both comical and a reminder of why you should never make deals after a night of drinking.

Oddly enough, the last time Carrie Rodriguez came through St. Louis was two years ago almost to the day. She was on the Acoustic Café tour sharing the stage with Erin McKeown, Tania Elizabeth and Mary Gauthier. I reviewed that show as well, my biggest complaint of that night being that the individual sets were too short.

Now that I have seen Carrie play a full set by herself, I can say that my instincts were right. Although it took two years for her to return, the same fire and passion still burns in her voice and fiddle.

Concert review and set list: Umphrey’s McGee (with the Mike Dillon Band) jam all night long at the Pageant, Saturday, February 9

Umphrey's McGee at the Pageant. Photo by Caroline Philippone.

Celebrating its 15th year together, Umphrey’s McGee (with the Mike Dillon Band) got the crowd at the Pageant moving and grooving with a great set of progressive rock-steeped jamming.

Opening the show was New Orleans vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon with his band, which consists of Carly Meyers on trombone, Adam Gertner on the drums and Cliff Hines on bass synth. To call the set energetic would be a disservice to the band. The crowd was moving nonstop from the opening barrage of vibraphone notes to the end of the last tune, primarily because the quartet played the set straight through without taking more than a few seconds’ break between tunes.

Mike Dillon is one of those performers that almost becomes one with the music. There isn’t a single moment that he isn’t acting like a mad scientist creating sounds from his vibraphone, abusing the percussion setup at his side, or dropping to the floor to make his tabla sound like an army of drummers.

The rest of the band gives just as good as Mike does. Adam beats his kit like a man possessed, almost to the point of losing his glasses. When Carly isn’t making some of the most brash trombone sounds I’ve ever heard, she’s matching Mike note for note on the xylophone or running through the crowd blowing a whistle and dancing with the audience. Cliff plays a bass synth using his guitar as a controller, which is a unique sight in and of itself. There were a few times when he was pushing enough bass through the PA speakers that it felt like they turned on the air conditioning.

The group ran through a collection of tunes from Dillon’s past projects Billy Goat and Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle as well as songs from their most recent album. Often bizarre and always energetic, this group is nothing but smiles and laughter from start to finish. They come across as a group of friends having fun; there didn’t appear to be any work going on while they were plying their trade.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should let you know that I have become friends with the group since I reviewed this band back in September of 2012 when it opened for Marco Benevento. In fact, my band opened for Adam and Carly’s funk band Yojimbo last month. Since my view of the performance may be biased, I had a control subject to compare my observations. I brought a friend to the show who always ends up punching me in the arm when she really gets into the music. The Mike Dillon Band’s 45-minute set was a five-puncher, which is one of the larger beatings I’ve taken in the name of music writing.

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Concert review: Soul Asylum (with Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts) rocks away the past at the Old Rock House, Wednesday, January 30

Despite a few bumps in the road, Soul Asylum had a great start to its 2013 tour Wednesday night at the Old Rock House.

Opening the festivities was Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts. I had not heard the band before, but as soon as the vocal harmonies kicked in during show starter “Baby Blue” I knew that this was going to be a set for the record books. These guys can harmonize like the Beatles in their prime, giving me chills on more than one occasion.

Daniel James McMahon has the voice of an angel and his guitar sounds just as heavenly. Andrew Scarpaci made his bass lines seem effortless while Adam Plamann held down the keys and played some of great-sounding clarinet runs. The real star was Micky Rosenquist, one of the most dynamic drummers I’ve ever seen. He was playing anything and everything with whatever was in hand — mallets, mallet handles, even bashing the cymbals with his tambourine. His control over the drums was astounding, going from delicate cymbal flicks to wall-shaking thuds and all points in-between.

Miles Nielsen’s guitar playing isn’t as flamboyant and flashy as his father, Cheap Trick guitar-slinger Rick Nielsen, but it’s beautiful in its subtlety. His voice is a warm, rich tenor — well suited for the music he performs. Whether it’s an Americana-soaked ballad or a pop-rocker, the Rusted Hearts have a familiar and comforting tone about their music, not unlike Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers or “Hollywood Town Hall” era Jayhawks.

The highlight of the evening was the last song of their set, “The Best I Can,” a tune sung a cappella in four-part harmony. There was silence in the crowd once they started and thunderous applause when they were finished. I’m glad to have caught this set and will be back as often as can when I see them come through town.

As Soul Asylum took the stage, Dave Pirner walked up to his guitar with a smile. Clad in ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors, he looked as if he hadn’t aged a day since the peak of “Grave Dancer’s Union.” Unfortunately, those memories of the early ’90s disappeared quickly once the band ripped into “Somebody to Shove.”

The sound for Miles Nielsen was about as good as I’ve heard at the Old Rock House, but something had to have changed between sets. Dave’s vocals were nearly inaudible (a problem for the entire set) and Justin Sharbono’s guitar sounded great but was way too loud, drowning out Dave’s playing as well as bassist Winston Roye and even drummer Michael Bland, who was pounding away at his kit like a man possessed.

This was the first night of their tour, so some issues are to be expected. Aside from the sound issues, my only complaint is that the band sounded stiff and somewhat lackluster while playing the classic songs like “Somebody to Shove,” “Black Gold,” and “Misery.” The only exception to that was when they played “Without a Trace,” which was dedicated to former bassist Karl Mueller, who died from throat cancer in 2005.

Despite my overall complaints, the show struck me as a net positive. What I was able to hear of the band’s new stuff sounded absolutely fantastic. Soul Asylum was visibly more comfortable and energetic while playing, with smiles being flashed all over the stage. When Dave’s voice cut through the mix, he sounded just like he did back in the “Grave Dancer’s Union” era.

I was especially glad to see that the band played more new songs than old ones. Soul Asylum is not the same group that recorded those songs, and it’s not trying to be. It was clear to me that the musicians enjoy what they’re doing; focusing on the past would not have made for a good rock show.

My journey into new music at 88.1 KDHX

Nate Burrell

This past June marked my second year as a music writer for KDHX. I had just moved back to the St. Louis area from New Jersey and found myself listening to 88.1 KDHX more and more often.

Part of the reason I gravitated to the left side of the dial was because I didn’t want to hear the same 20 songs all day. The other, more important part was that I could tune in at any hour of the day and hear something I’d never heard before. Whether I liked what I heard or not, it was expanding my horizons little by little.

Over these past two years the work I’ve done for the station has helped me grow as a writer, a music lover and a person. I’ve met and befriended some of the greatest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to interact with, both volunteers and the community that we serve.

When I look back at the profound changes I’ve experienced through my work for the station, the one that stands out the most is that I take more risks in my musical life. When I began writing concert reviews for the station, I didn’t know who most of the bands on the concert calendar were. Instead of doing research, I decided to take a more hands-off approach and just pick from the review opportunities that came via email.

That all changed one night when I won some tickets elsewhere on the Internet and asked if I could review the show since I was going to be there anyway. I got the green light and showed up with notebook in hand to document the evening. That show was one of the most powerful, positive experiences in my life. Ultimate Fakebook (who I had heard a total of one song from before that night) was playing one of four reunion shows with the Dead Girls (from Lawrence, Kan.), the Highway Companion and the Orbz at the Firebird midway through December.

I still can’t put my finger on exactly what the source of that magic could have been. Maybe it was the fact that the opening acts were huge fans of Ultimate Fakebook and put that passion into their performances. It may have been the fact that the bands loved what they were doing and it showed. Maybe it was that everyone was singing along with UFB while they were rocking the place to the ground, each song becoming my new favorite track.

Whatever it was, it made a huge, indelible mark on my mind. I’d never before seen a crowd so in love with the acts and the acts returning the feeling in abundance. I’d heard people talk about transcendent experiences brought about by music, but had never experienced one myself until then.

For those of you still reading, I’m about to make my point.

None of this would have come about had it not been for KDHX. I would not have been exposed to the progressive bluegrass of Punch Brothers, the raw honesty of the Rural Alberta Advantage or the focused power pop of the aforementioned Ultimate Fakebook had it not been for that short announcement I’d heard while cruising down Highway 30 and decided to put my name into the volunteer hat.

This is my challenge to you, dear reader: Throw caution to the wind and seek out something that might be a little out of character for you. Turn to 88.1 KDHX at a time you usually don’t listen and see if something grabs you. Make a mix CD of the great songs you’ve discovered here and give it to a friend who is still stuck in the commercial stations. Flip through the concert calendar and go see a band based on its name. Catch a touring act on a Sunday or a Tuesday night when no one shows up at the venues. Skip that Extra Value Meal at lunch and use that $7 to catch a show of local acts at what could become your new favorite watering hole.

Even better, hit the volunteer page at and throw your own name in the hat or support the station with donation during its membership drive. No matter your skill level or income level, there is something you can do to better yourself, the station and the community at large.

Matt Champion is a Senior Music Writer at KDHX. Read more of his reviews, interviews and features.

Concert review: Astronautilus (with Robb Steele and Farout) talks baseball, dodges bottles at the Firebird, Tuesday, October 2

An act can gauge its fan base by a weeknight show. If Tuesday night’s crowd at the Firebird says anything, it says that Astronautilus has a loyal following here in St. Louis.

Opening the show was local act Robb Steele, three MCs and one DJ who know how to rock the mic right. They’ve opened a few other shows that I’ve reviewed and have been great performers every time. Pete, Marty and Bryan obviously love what they do and it shows.

They spent time between songs bantering with the crowd and each other, explicitly pointing out when Pete’s age-related eyesight issues caused them to skip a song or two on the set list. They were joined by DJ Innovation (a.k.a. DJ Irrigation, the man who controls the flow) who cut and scratched while the guys stalked the stage, spitting out their lyrics. Fans of old school rap should be kicking themselves for missing this fun, high-energy set.

Farout was the next act to hit the stage with Steddy P providing the beats. Another local act, Farout stomped across the stage with a speedy delivery that made Mr. McFeely seem slow. A few times he was rapping faster than Ninja from Die Antwoord without slurring his words or using other forms of trickery. One thing I noticed after the first song is that he is constantly rhyming, enough so that he doesn’t appear to breathe. He delivered line after line after line without appearing to stop and catch his breath.

Farout delivered his lyrics with a sense of seriousness, which aided some of the humorous aspects of his songs, which name-dropped a diverse array of characters from the Mars rover to “Family Matters” dad Carl Winslow. Steddy P occasionally chimed in on vocals, but spent most of the set standing behind the gear table laughing at Farout’s rhymes, rapping along with him or making gestures as if he was re-creating the lyrics in some kind of sign language. Farout put on a strong performance and kept the crowd’s energy level up for the headlining act.

Minneapolis native Astronautilus took the stage with his touring band of Oscar Romero on guitar and Mo Blunts on drums. He thanked everyone for coming out on a Tuesday night and gave a response to all the messages of “I can’t make it tonight, I have to work tomorrow” that he received on via social media: “Unless you have a kid, quit your job.” He spent a lot of time talking baseball, which makes me wonder if baseball is something that caucasian rappers all have in common. Buck 65 also spent a lot of time on the subject when they were in town and former 3rd Bass rhyme slinger Prime Minister Pete Nice quit the music business to become a baseball historian.

The band sounded fantastic playing with the pre-recorded bass lines that Astronautilus usually raps over. Every song was sung, screamed or rapped with a great amount of emotion and conviction, the kind of emotion that can’t be faked. This is the 10th year that Astronautilus has been touring, but he had the kind of enthusiasm that you see from someone just setting out on his career.

Astronautilus played both old and new stuff, including “Thomas Jefferson” and “Contrails.” Although he’s no Tegan Quin, Oscar Romero handled the backing vocals on the latter track very well. One of the more fun parts of the night was when Astronautilus did a freestyle rap on topics (Chipper Jones’ last season, multiverse theory, the New York Yankees, Todd Akin, Neptune and Doctor Who) that the audience suggested. He also debuted a new song that hasn’t been titled yet, after requesting that the fans not record it or post it online.

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