mikeherr's Posts

mikeherr's Photo I'm a St. Louis native and volunteer music writer for KDHX. I like listening to music, reading about music, and writing about music. But mostly I like listening to music. Follow my blog for CD reviews, show previews, and other musical musings.

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Concert review: A quadraphonic rock experience with Acid Baby Jesus, HellShovel, Little Big Bangs and Demonlover at the Heavy Anchor, Friday, March 1


If there’s a musical touchstone that links Acid Baby Jesus, HellShovel, Little Big Bangs and Demonlover, it’s American psychedelic music — kinda.

Each band has its own special relationship and secret handshake with that sound though. Another thing links them: they’re all really confident, good bands.

With typical who-gives-a-fuck bravado and youthful ebullience, Little Big Bangs bursted into the first songs of the night at the Heavy Anchor with an audience of about five people. The Big Bangs members write some really good songs, but watch them play live and you get to experience something unique and contradictory: they fuck up pretty often, yet they give the impression that they’ve been around forever. It’s a jangly swagger that lives in great rock bands — there are no mistakes, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. Lucy Doughtery and Ryan Macias and Eric Boschen all yelled lyrics over one another, a guitar launched into a song prematurely, an amp went out, who cares. When these guys looked unsure, they still smiled, most of the time looking at drummer Drew Gowran (the rock solid core of their live show) to hold it down, which he does. And they do.

HellShovel played next, and it was a nice switch from the full-on fuzz and spit of the Big Bangs to this quieter, drugged-out sound from Montreal. It was the best set of the night. Through their command of dynamics, HellShovel’s songs and ideas got through to the crowd (and by now, it was a crowd) most successfully, like an electric current. Each song was fairly predictable in structure — something like double-lead riff-intro, verse, chorus, riff-bridge, verse, chorus, done — but this may have lent to the crowd’s big, lovey response.

Like a million great bands that don’t deserve it, HellShovel is frequently lumped into the garage-rock genre, but they share way more blood with Moby Grape than the 13th Floor Elevators. Each song is propelled by truly great riffwork, Jeff Clark’s vocals are right on, and Bloodshot Bill’s drums are great in that they just showcase how great Dox Grillo’s and Clark’s riffwork is.

Greece’s Acid Baby Jesus delivered the biggest, rocking sound of the night, but something about it all was kinda unremarkable. Their songs limbed out from singer Noda’s cool, trebly vocals and the bassist’s solid grooving lines. After the reigned-in sound of HellShovel, Acid Baby Jesus’s frayed-edge songs felt a little lost in the echo chamber that is the Heavy Anchor. That said, people loved it and danced their asses off. I was glad to see St. Louis warm up the room so well for these faraway dudes.

Demonlover, the phenomenon, played next — the only band of the night to neglect the tall stage for the floor. Something separates Demonlover from the other bands that played this evening (and pretty much from any band I’ve ever seen) that I can only explain as the band’s constant action toward redefining band-music and what a “band” is. Add to this Demonlover’s weird, perfect sense of timing as St. Louis audiences are ready for something completely fresh and strange.

Enter Andy Lashier, the sneakily overpowering personality/philosopher behind the band, omni-melodic-instrumentalist wizard JJ Hamon, and the sheer exuberant drum-power of Sam Meyer. The sound is spread way out, allowing great strange territory to open up for Lashier’s more detached Rick Danko-esque vocal explorations (in English, French, yelling, whatever). This, and the unstoppable drumming, are really the only constant sonic elements song-to-song, show-to-show. Last night the band released its first recorded material, a full-length cassette tape, but no one should be surprised if nothing they played live sounds like what’s on the tape.

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Concert review: Willie Akins and the Montez Coleman Group define the sound of St. Louis at Jazz at the Bistro, Saturday, February 23

Montez Coleman. Photo by Esther Cidoncha.

The “late” set at Jazz at the Bistro starts at 9:30 p.m., about the time other jazz clubs are getting ready to open.

The Bistro does call itself a listening room — not a club — a place where besides a few aspiring players and Webster jazz students, the listeners are what the jazz demographic has become over the years: people interested in what they call culture, dressed on the conservative side, listening quietly, one glass of red deep, and sometimes a little tired.

And there’s Willie Akins, one of the greatest active tenor players of his generation, sitting wide and stately in a small chair onstage, his eyes deep and distant. He and the band surrounding him represent all that is real and good in St. Louis jazz — no-bullshit, solid stuff, rooted in the blues.

It’s a multi-generational and undeniably great band made up of elite, St. louis-grown (though not all-born) players: co-leader and drummer Montez Coleman, bassist Bob DeBoo (who you can see every Friday night playing at Mangia with the Dave Stone Trio), vibraphonist Peter Schlamb, and guitarist Eric Slaughter. With Akins blowing the sole horn in the group, the sound is spaced-out and dynamic, not so different from the musical effect of a trio.

This spacing also allowed each member ample room to open up and find the grooves in their solos. They started with a busy Victor Feldman tune (didn’t catch the name) that Schlamb carried with his brainy, more-is-more approach to the vibes — angular showers of notes punctuated by weird rests and sudden chordal counter-melodies. The crowd got into it.

Next, the group shifted fluidly into a funky Yusef Lateef tune called “Nubian Lady.” Coleman settled way deep in the backbeat, sometimes stretching the straightforward 4/4 groove to its extreme limits and driving it home with lightning handwork. Here, it became clear that the rhythmic chops of Coleman and DeBoo were at least as important to each tune as Akins’ solid swing. Slaughter, who’s made a name for himself playing with Bobby Womack and the O’Jays as much as in jazz, complemented this and every tune of the night was his jabby rhythmic riffwork.

On Errol Garner’s ballad, “Dreaming Over You,” Mr. Akins found his best solo of the night. Akins seems to favor the roominess of more straightforward compositions for soloing, which allow his dry, bluesy tone to resonate, his strong harmonic ideas to take shape even over Schlamb’s sometimes meandering vibes-accompaniment. I could finally confirm the critics’ comparisons of Akins to Coltrane in that he is a comfortable master-balladeer. Coleman and Schlamb put down there sticks, allowing DeBoo’s tender, tune-closing solo to hang soulful over the room.

During the last few tunes, Montez Coleman invited various buddies onstage to sit in, including an incredible, ambidextrous, 15-year-old drummer named Christian McGhee. What the set lost in momentum, it gained in making the room more friendly and loose.

All the players, foremost Mr. Akins, are humble men and great teachers, perhaps the two most valuable and respected aspects of great jazzmen: the elite who welcome everyone onstage, no room for stuffiness.

Concert review: Swans (with A Hawk and a Hacksaw) descend on the Firebird, Tuesday, October 23


The line at the door of the Firebird snaked through the parking lot. This was the first sign. Then — the smiles, the excitement, no one worrying about not getting in — a sense of fate in the air.

Then, everyone making it inside for the Swans show, beering up, eyeing the crag of instruments looming, knocking around dreams and rumors of set lists (“Christoph Hahn just had a smoke with us, said, ‘We’ll do ze title track, zen an old one, zen a new one — one hour 45 minutes, exact. . . .’”), something began happening onstage.

The sound of Jeremy Barnes’ hammered dulcimer sucked all other sound from the room, sounding like myriad rattle-cage voices quivering through amps. Immediately, opening band A Hawk and a Hacksaw established the tone of the night: power through sincerity and space. Barnes and violinist Heather Trost play it straight — even their virtuoso finger-work and ascending solos in 11/8 come across humbly — but because of their lack of embellishment, and the solid energy of their music, I fully immersed myself in the sound.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw takes most of its cues from many Eastern European folk traditions, weaving a set of traditional songs and originals seamlessly. Their dance numbers featuring accordion and violin created a soaring feeling at times, and their ballads pushed away the walls of the room. Barnes and Trost had a fine sense of dynamics and tone — their instruments came through the amps angelic instead of distorted. Trost wove her voice through with vulnerability, but not overwrought emotion.

Swans’ six members appeared quietly, like ghosts out of a forest. After a roar from the crowd, a ubiquitous hum grew out of the amps onstage. Michael Gira swayed like a crazy lion, letting his band heap up the inertial textures of their music. Then, he sang, “To be kind, to be kind, to be kind, to be kind. . . .” His voice would command everything for the next two hours.

As the ambient swell continued to build, Gira sang, “To be lost in the sound of this rooooooom.” This was his purpose: forget what you’ve heard, forget the emotional and physical shit you’ve brought to the show, forget what Swans was long ago because if you’re here, it’ll only benefit you to experience here. When the song erupted into sustained one-chord bursts, repeated for nearly four minutes, it seemed Gira was hammering this point home.

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Concert review: The Black Angels descend on the Old Rock House, Thursday, August 2

flickr.com/photos/guuskrol/4338748592 / Guus Krol

Small miracles happen sometimes. Or, in the case of the Black Angels, good things make sense at the right time.

What did you miss if you weren’t at the Old Rock House Thursday night? Not only another solid, grooving Black Angels set, but a band that is undoubtedly in command. It’s almost as if their many stalwart fans are just excited to be watching the one band out of a million that listened to “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” and then actually made it. But for all the comparisons it draws from critics and influences it wears on its sleeves, the Black Angels come through sounding fresh and huge and harmonious. Yes, drone can be harmony.

The performance at the Old Rock House on Thursday night was purely musical, without gimmick or innuendo — even the modest light display seemed incidental. Any sex or personality or swagger you required seethed through the music, purring and shrieking in dirge and shuffle — the heads of the musicians downcast or stolidly looking out at some obscure point ahead. No between-song banter, no sluggish feedback stunts or meandering solos. Business, business, business. But not business as in square — the band was here to play.

When Christian Bland played the first opiate notes of “Young Men Dead,” a quiver went through the crowd. Stephanie Bailey (looking tough and stoned the whole show) set up the monstrous backbeat groove, the cradle for Rishi Dhir’s elastic low-end bass. Alex Maas’s trebly, doped-out croon haunted the packed house even as it would in an Austin basement. His slight smile during “Doves” was perhaps the most any of them gave away throughout the show. Everything was on and the band knew it.

The set ended with the hypnotic drone-funk of “Dee-Ree-Shee,” the best tune of the night. This was The Black Angels at the height of its power, and probably, popularity — selling out bigger and bigger venues, its albums consistently well-received and bought like crazy, its fan base ageless and cool. The band will never be the Rolling Stones, selling out sports stadiums around the world, franchising itself into capitalist ubiquity. Now, more than ever, people support artists who keep doing good work on a modest scale — Arcade Fire me no Arcade Fires.

So, when Rishi Dhir, cross-legged, cradling the twang-chiming sitar in his lap, kept playing beyond the end of “Dee-Ree-Shee” and the band left the stage, I saw something interesting happening. On one level, you could call it normal dramatics; but Dhir’s playing was no novelty act — it was gorgeous and strange, perfectly bridging the 4/4 of rock, blues, raga, still droning by the pulse of the dissipating song.

It was an attempt to keep the audience on edge, to show that the Angels’ music is still mysterious, and the musicians will still do things exactly the way they want. The Black Angels do not compromise — even set in the gloss and polish of the Old Rock House, the band sounded menacing and tough. More importantly, timeless.

‘What am I not hearing?’ An interview with Greg Saunier of Deerhoof


en.wikipedia.org / Simon Fernandez

After playing its first show in St. Louis this past September, Deerhoof was on its way again up to New York state. A few days later, I got a chance to call and talk to founding member of Deerhoof and consistently ecstatic, creative force-of-nature drummer, Greg Saunier, about a shared favorite album, Tony Williams, making music with the greatest living Congolese musicians and the current state of American music.

Mike Herr: After a long summer and spring abroad, is it good to be back in America?

Greg Saunier: Well, no because I’m just seeing everybody put away their summer clothes basically, which I completely missed. The only summer clothes I saw was us playing to like thousands of people wearing raincoats and holding umbrellas and standing in the mud, you know, over in Europe. I’ll never get summer 2011 back again. It’s very sad.

Yeah it is kinda sad. You can imagine what it was like though.

[Laughs] Imagination only takes me so far.

I saw you the other night in St. Louis, it was great.

Oh, thank you for coming!

Actually, I was the dude with the “On the Corner” t-shirt on, if you remember that.

Oh yeah! [laughs] Miles Davis. … It was a funny coincidence. I always bring my iPod, and I’ve made a special playlist that’s always playing at our shows between the bands. And I’ve got “Black Satin” on there, which is one of the songs on “On the Corner,” and it’s so funny that you walked over with that shirt on.

I felt like a big dork.

Well, you should’ve felt authorized! You should’ve felt vindicated. You should’ve felt pumped up.

I did feel validated.

Miles … Many times we’ve tried to, you know, we’ve just taken the music of Miles Davis in that period — from “Bitches Brew” ’til maybe “Get Up With It,” that sort of stretch in the early to mid-’70s — and like if we’re working on an album or something, we’ll play it back to back with that, and just be like, “What’s wrong with ours?” and just try to make it sound more and more like that.

And actually, it was Nels Cline, currently of Wilco, who first noticed that. And he thought that we were gonna, maybe not get sued, but he thought everybody in the universe was gonna be pointing it out. There’s this clapping part in one of our new songs, called “I Did Crimes For You,” that’s almost a complete, direct rip-off of the clapping part in “Black Satin,” which is on “On the Corner.” It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s very close. It’s this really awkward-sounding, fast clap thing. The band sounds like it’s at the other end of some cavern like the Fillmore or something like that, but then for some reason there’s these weird clapping things right in your ear, and it’s just the most bizarre overdub.

And there’s no way in the world you can imagine Miles Davis having bothered to be the one to go do this clapping overdub. It’s like Teo Macero, the producer, or Paul Buckmaster, who did the string arrangements or something. No, there are no strings, I don’t know what he did on that thing. I guess he was just helping produce it and add a bunch of weird sounds.

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Concert review: St. Vincent and the art of restraint at the Old Rock House, Thursday, October 6

St. Vincent at the Old Rock House, October 6, 2011

Kate McDaniel

After Welsh songstress, Cate Le Bon‘s, ethereal opening set of songs, the crowd slowly set in on the stage, waiting anxiously. The crowd had a crush on Annie Clark, like anybody does who’s ever heard her, seen her perform.

After a warm, seeping version of “Cruel” to start the show off, she even mentioned that she recognized most people from the last time she played St. Louis. It’s the nature of her relationship with her fans: some ambiguous haze of stalker and stalked, but the stalked is in full, graceful control. She’s always had a verbal and lyrical sureness and clarity, an uncanny sense of line and melody, an ear for jagging sounds; she’s also beautiful, but with the release of her new album, “Strange Mercy,” and her performance last night, Ms. Clark has perfected a dimension of sexiness as well.

As usual, Clark is endlessly tweaking the arrangements of her songs, the size and shape of her band. Last night, in the intimate dark and oscillating blues of the Old Rock House, St. Vincent was stripped down to two synthesizer players (one playing a Moog), a drummer (half his set digital, two sets of hi-hats), and Clark’s vocals, guitar and pedals.

For all the words that are thrown at her playing and the band’s sound as a whole — wild, shredding, wailing, etc. — it’s rarely acknowledge how incredibly controlled, paced, tasteful it is. Clark has cited Steely Dan as one of her favorite bands and chief musical influences, and you can hear this in the gnashing funk and chatter of her guitar lines and how clearly her ideas come through in the crispness of the music.

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Concert review: Bon Iver (with Kathleen Edwards) reshapes sound at the Pageant, Sunday, September 11

Bon Iver at the Pageant, September 11, 2011

Nate Burrell

The Pageant was filled. This has happened before, but probably not quite like this. There was this current humming through the blood and words of the crowd and the musicians that suggested this night was something special.

Maybe you can chalk up the feeling to Bon Iver‘s first appearance in St. Louis since 2008; maybe this was the crowd’s response to the new, self-titled album; maybe Justin Vernon is just soaring — could this be the high point of his career? — and people are aching to be in the slipstream.

On a night like this, the opener has to be solid, unquestionable, almost taken for granted — and Kathleen Edwards roused the crowd just right. More than an opener, she wasn’t merely setting the stage or the sonic immersion people just take for granted before the act they paid for — Edwards played her songs intently, reining and releasing her voice flawlessly while her two sidemen added subtle guitar work and wind-through-wheat voices.

The crowd loved her, especially when Edwards introduced songs, singled audience members out, wrought her personableness in one of the biggest rooms, on one of the tallest stages in St. Louis. Despite the strength of her voice, her songs slipped too easily into the typical modern country/western mode of snow on trees, creaking cabin walls, desolation, loneliness. For its brisk clarity, Edward’s voice began to sound generic within her redundant phrasing song after song (stretching the last syllables of lines into a higher harmony over the pulsing strum of guitar).

Watching and listening to her and the two guitarists was like experiencing the culmination, the vanishing point of this kind of music. Can it really go further or get better? They muddled their prairie sounds and steel and thrum together about as well as anyone I’d ever heard, but it wasn’t exhilarating; it felt too familiar. The crowd’s response was hugely generous though. Her last song got me though, a sensitive and outstanding cover of the Flaming Lips’s “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” Even if Edward’s song-crafting doesn’t really do it for me, she undeniably knows how to ring it out live.

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Concert review: On the musical midway of the Tower Groove Records Carnival, Off Broadway, Sunday, September 4

Beth Bombara at Tower Groove Records Carnival, September 4, 2011

Roy Kasten

A sense of timing is imperative to the success of launching a record label, playing a good show and throwing a party.

It was gorgeous, hinting at Fall weather Sunday, and if you walked through faux-stone entrance to the yard at Off Broadway, it might feel like you were crashing a family reunion. It’d have to be a family that loved booze, music, games and — well, everyone else in the family. The Tower Groove Records collective put on an authentic South City carnival complete with home-prepared BBQ, St. Louis themed games, kissing booth, mawkish calliope music, Fred Friction dressed like a clown and Larry Bulawsky of Magic City slurring “Step right up…” into a baby megaphone. But this carnival also functioned as a showcase of and fundraiser for many of St. Louis’ best, working bands, aka the Tower Groove collective.

Inevitably, and relevantly, the event and the collective itself have been compared to St. Louis musicians’ past collective efforts, especially the Rooster Lollipop collective and its long-gone “Axes and Snackses” showcase. Hosted by the Way Out Club, that party also had games, a kissing booth and a bunch of bands playing that had come together to support each other and to make something edgy, lasting and important in St. Louis music. That was over a decade ago, and it didn’t work out for reasons those involved could explain much better than I.

One critique of Rooster Lollipop though was that many of the bands sounded similar, shared the same musical sensibility and aesthetic. However, the 20 or so bands that played the Tower Groove carnival dotted the musical style spectrum — most do not even fit into a genre. Also, there was no rigid sense of rank or entitlement among the bands despite the huge variance of recognition, age and length of career among them.

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