Robin Wheeler's Posts

Robin Wheeler's Photo I'm a volunteer KDHX music writer in St. Louis.

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‘I feel filled up again’ An interview with Joe Pug

October 27 and 28, 2012 on the eve of Superstorm Sandy and in the shadow of the the construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan, Joe Pug took the stage at Pace University to thank the man who created his job — Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora asked Pug’s friend and frequent tour mate Justin Townes Earle to curate two nights of music from the current generation who are working in her father’s spirit. Earle invited Pug, the Low Anthem and Deer Tick’s John McCauley to represent the continuation of Guthrie’s singer-songwriter legacy, punctuated with Guthrie biographer Joe Klein reading passages from his beloved “Woody Guthrie: A Life.”

While most of the audience bought tickets to see Earle, the murmurings after the shows focused on Pug’s impassioned performances. I kept hearing Pug’s name attached to variations of “I’d never heard of him before tonight, but he was incredible!”

Not that Pug didn’t have a fan base prior to the show. Justin’s troubadour papa, Steve Earle, brought Pug to his son’s attention, forging a pair of kindred songwriting spirits that includes shared tours and stories getting Woody Guthrie-themed, rib-cage tattoos in western Australia.

Playing solo for both New York shows, the Austin resident spat out fiery takes of his social commentary — “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” “Nation of Heat” and “The Great Despiser.” While most Guthrie tributes end with a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land,” the new generation did it their way, joining voices on Earle’s joyful and ominous “Harlem River Blues” with enough power to make getting covered with dirty water seem like a good idea and not a harbinger of disaster to come.

Pug took time from his tour schedule a few weeks prior to the New York City shows to discuss Guthrie’s legacy, songwriting, giving it away and what we can expect from him at Off Broadway on Monday, November 12.

Robin Wheeler: I want to talk to you about your upcoming St. Louis show, but I’m really interested in the two upcoming “In the Spirit of Woody Guthrie” shows you’re doing with Justin Townes Earle in New York at the end of October. How did you get involved in this, what will you be doing and what are your thoughts on the whole thing?

Joe Pug: I got involved in it through Justin’s invitation. He’s always been a huge advocate for my music and he’s really given me a hand up in a lot of ways. I first did a tour with him about three years ago where we did two months straight together on the road. We toured in Australia together. This is just the latest example of Justin helping me out, and helping me be a part of something that’s very special. He invited me to this, and I just talked to him about it in more detail at Hardly Strictly [Bluegrass Festival]. Basically, he’s invited other artists who … not only … to say we owe a huge debt to Woody doesn’t even describe it. He invented what our job is. It’s just a way for us to come and explore that lineage, explore that influence and pay tribute to him in his centennial year.

What has Guthrie’s influence been on you, besides creating your job?

I think Woody was the first person in American popular culture to complete a synthesis, which is very common now and we take it for granted. A synthesis of someone who is — in the most high-minded and esoteric ways possible — an artist, but also in some of the most pragmatic and basic ways, an entertainer. Again, we really take that for granted. Not only with singer-songwriters who are made to come on like your Bob Dylan or Steve Earle — the social parts. He was that, but this was also someone who was taking old songwriting tropes and putting them in an entertaining package. This was a guy who could keep a room spellbound. That’s mastery. It’s a mastery that he did for the first time in American popular culture.

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Concert review and set list: The Whigs wig out at the Firebird, Tuesday, October 30

On Tuesday night the Whigs‘ frontman Parker Gispert came out kicking before a sparse but engaged audience at the Firebird. Literally kicking.

During show opener “Already Young” he flailed around the stage, kicking one long leg to the side as the song spun into a tight and dense climax complete with all the fast strumming, feedback and thunder drums the Athens, Ga. trio could produce. This might come off as arena rock gimmicks from any other band, but it’s authentic for the Whigs. With their amalgamation of every era of rock, the shenanigans fit the music in a night low on banter and bullshit.

With “Waiting,” from the band’s new album “Enjoy the Company,” the Whigs delved into the hooky bass and beats that make girls dance right through another giant finish.

The band sampled from its four-album catalog, including “Technology” from the 2005 debut. Brimming with crunchy guitar and howled vocals underscored with smart lyrics and a simple, solid beat, this sound would have filled the room in 1993. It’s not that the Whigs sound dated; it’s just that straight-forward rock like this has been a rarity for the past two decades since J Mascs perfected melodic noise.

New single “Staying Alive” veers into older territory, marrying ’70s Southern rock and funk escalating into a giant, mid-song jam sustained to the bursting point before ending with a quiet mantra from Gispert: “Staying alive. Staying alive. Staying alive.”

Despite the strength of such new songs, the tunes from 2008′s breakout album, “Mission Control,” still bring the most excitement from band and audience. The Whigs kept the album’s opening tracks, “Like a Vibration” and “Production City” paired. And why shouldn’t they? The high energy, volume and uniqueness of the songs remains one of the best album sequences of the past few years. Live, they bring the audience in, bouncing in unison. New track “Couple of Kids” slipped before a return to “Mission Control’s “Right Hand on My Heart,” a stacked feedback jam that rattled concrete, sounding exactly like what it was — the beginning of the end.

“Dying” started as a barren dirge with harmonies from Gispert and bassist Timothy Deaux, again turning chaotic and repeated: “Someone better come speed up your heart ’cause it’s dying.” With the message made, the dirge got frantic, grounded by Julian Dorio’s kick drum while the guitar and bass whirled into a frenzy that didn’t pause until set closer “Need You Need You” slammed shut.

For the encore the Whigs ditched the frenzy for beachy new song “Gospel.” Filled with pop guitar hooks, clever lyrics and catchy phrasing, the song picks up where “Mission Control” left off. A bit of sweetness before closing with anthemic “In the Dark,” which opened with a blast of feedback, sustained by a rolling rhythm eventually joined by the guitar and bass into one last, post-midnight explosion of destructed noise.

Set list:

Already Young
Rock and Roll Forever
Black Lotus
Staying Alive
Nothing Is Easy
Like a Vibration
Production City
Couple of Kids
Right Hand on My Heart
Half the World Away
Need You Need You

In the Dark

Concert review: The Corin Tucker Band has its cake and rocks it too at the Firebird, Thursday, October 4

Corin Tucker at the Firebird. Photo by Kate McDaniel.

It was nothing but good news for the Corin Tucker Band, playing for a small but enthusiastic crowd at the Firebird. Opening song “No Bad News Tonight” from the new album “Kill My Blues” set the tone for a night of gimmick-free rock ‘n’ roll fused with tight pop-punk and straight-up guitar rock.

“We’ve come to your town to talk about allergies,” guitarist and keyboardist Seth Lorinczi joked after Tucker mentioned having some allergy issues. Not that they showed in her vocal performance. Tucker sounded better than ever, less shrill shrieking but just as intense as in Sleater-Kinney’s heyday. Musically, her current band — featuring the rhythm section of Sara Lund and Mike Clark — forgoes the dissonance in favor of a more melodic, guitar-driven sound brimming with hooks and riffs.

“Half a World Away” from 2010′s “1,000 Miles” got a dose of funk from high-toned drums and funk bass that seamlessly flowed into the new “Groundhog Day,” “Blood, Bones, and Sand” and “Riley.” Under the funk they’re all pure rock. And more fans of such straight-forward, uncluttered music should have been present.

Tucker’s voice hinted at her old feral howl on “I Don’t Wanna Go,” tempered with a quiet desperation. Her voice has evolved, no longer purely a force of anger. While the anger’s still there in the occasional shrieks, Tucker’s range covers more emotional territory with quiet and bright tones.

Towards the end of the set, Tucker apologized that the band was trying a new set list and things had been a bit bumpy. It wasn’t necessary. Had she not mentioned the set list, the show easily could have passed as slightly improvised and musically tight. This isn’t music that needs to be orchestrated; it benefits from a bit of wiggle room and the interaction of the band members as they work their way through what songs to play and when to play them.

The band ramped up the end of the set with the new album’s title track, a distortion-free guitar onslaught that hinted at ’90s-style slow-fast-slow without sounding like a throwback. Lund went straight into a railroad beat for “Neskowin,” adding solid rhythmic backing vocals to ground Tucker’s high-flying yelps. They ended the 13-song set with Lund playing a human pulse on “Doubt,” then leaving the stage with the night’s one drone of guitar feedback.

They returned with a candle-topped caked, singing “Happy Birthday” to Clark over the feedback’s hum. When Tucker announced that there would be two more songs and free cake at the merch booth, the crowd chanted, “Songs then cake! Songs then cake!”

First sign that it’s a good show: More music takes priority over free cake.

Despite audience requests for Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” the band opted for a high-energy cover of Blondie’s “Atomic” before wrapping up with Tucker commanding everyone to dance.

And then there was cake.

Concert review and set list: Will Johnson and Anders Parker contain multitudes at Off Broadway, Saturday, September 29

Will Johnson and Anders Parker at Off Broadway. Photo by Roy Kasten.

Coming off the release of “New Multitudes,” their Woody Guthrie tribute album with Jay Farrar and Yim Yames, Will Johnson and Anders Parker had played casual but tight sets in living rooms and alternative spaces without P.A. systems for seventeen straight nights before Saturday’s performance to a small but dedicated audience at Off Broadway.

Johnson and Parker began together with Parker’s take on Guthrie’s “Fly High,” the sweetness of his tenor harmonizing with Johnson’s more gruff, lower register. The song set a subtle tone for the two-hour show where Parker’s sweet and keening vocals covered themes of height and flight, while Johnson burrowed deep into loss and desperation.

After two songs, the guys engaged in a round of Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who would take the solo shift. Parker won the choice, telling Johnson, “You drove all day. Go take a nap,” sending Johnson into the crowd.

On record, Parker often goes into ambient, avant-garde, quiet noise full of loops and pedals. Translating that to one voice and an acoustic guitar should illicit some skepticism, which Parker destroys with his first solo performance, “Gulf of Mexico”. He abandons the trippy original where his vocals are a whisper under ambiance. Keeping his voice crystalline and delicate, he replaces the noise with warm and gentle acoustic guitar that highlights his lyrics and the strength of his voice.

Parker shared stories from the road, particularly of being inspired to write “An Epic Life” after seeing the homework assignment of seven-year-old “fucking badass” Cortez Cole after a living room show. The kid inspired high-reaching sweet vocals rooted by hard-strummed rhythms.

Parker nurses a broad spectrum of sounds from a simple acoustic guitar, sometimes all at once. During “Tell it to the Dust,” it chirps, jangles, and dips into thumping bass, sometimes all at once. It mirrors his voice, which slips from a deep whisper to keening in “Second Skin.” He goes solemnly quiet for “Horses Running Over the Hills.”

He ended his set with a new song he’s road-testing that ended with a guitar solo too structured and intricate to be a noodling jam. Parker veers into virtuoso territory, creating a single-instrument soundscape that’s imaginative without sacrificing its roots in melody and rhythm. He’s telling a story without saying a word.

Parker waves Johnson back to the stage and the two duet on Parker’s “Old L.A.” and Johnson’s “Chorine, My Sheba Queen” from “New Multitudes.” Staying true to the styles they’ve established for their set, Parker’s romantic optimism gets balanced by Johnson’s dark whispered longing. They go low and haunted, segueing into Johnson’s solo set.

Johnson could have filled his set with tracks from his new album, “Scorpion.” They flow from the same dark river as “Chorine,” especially set opener “Bloodkin Push (Forget the Ones).” He produces a deep tremble from his guitar to match the depth of his husky voice. He’s less rooted in melody and rhythm, going for ethereal and chaotic.

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‘The highest musical honor I’ve been lucky to experience’ An interview with Will Johnson

Photo by Matt Pence.

Will Johnson‘s never been stingy with his art. From his work with Centro-matic, South San Gabriel and Monsters of Folk, to producing and playing on albums by other artists, to painting portraits of baseball players, “prolific” barely describes the Missouri-born artist.

This year he’s been even more visible. First he released and toured with New Multitudes, the Woody Guthrie tribute project that also includes Jay Farrar, Yim Yames and Anders Parker. Six months later, he’s back on the road with Parker in support of his new solo album, “Scorpion.” He’ll be playing songs from both albums, and much more, with Parker at Off Broadway on September 29.

I talked to Johnson the morning after the tour’s opening show in Mobile, Ala. He was once again busy with an endeavor that will keep him on the road; we chatted from a waiting room while he was having the tour van’s oil changed.

Robin Wheeler: How did “Scorpion” and “New Multitudes” influence each other?

Will Johnson: The “Scorpion” record was predominantly written in the studio. It was a real front-of-the-brain exercise over the course of five days. With the exception of three songs, my bandmate from Centro-matic, Matt Pence, and I worked for five days, just trying to really capture this certain chapter in our musical lives.

The difference would be that the the “Scorpion” stuff was my own material and my own lyrics, and the Woody thing was something I’d never done, which is write music to someone else’s lyrics. However, the similarities between the two would be that the songwriting structures and the songs themselves came together very quickly — in an almost automatic way.

It’s a little hard to explain, but the timing was just right. The weather was right. Something as simple as the weather can influence something like that for me. That was the case in both of those particular records. All those recordings were around for a long time before we got a chance to release them. It took a good number of years to get the Woody record to a place where we were ready to show it to the world. And it took a little while after recording ["Scorpion"], though I recorded it really fast, I put it on the shelf for a few years just because there were some other releases to make room for and I didn’t want it to encroach upon the breath that those releases need to breathe, and the touring and all that stuff.

Can you tell me what it was like for you to go through the Guthrie archives and have the experience of adding music to his words?

It’s incredibly humbling. It really re-calibrated me in a lot of ways. To say it’s an honor sounds flimsy, but it is the highest musical honor I’ve been lucky to experience. To have a glimpse at Woody’s writings and notes, and math problems in the margins, and his drive until the very end of his life, when it was evident that his faculties were fading. His handwriting was so shaky toward the end, but that voice — that fire that burned within him — really burned until the very end. You can see physical evidence by looking over those pages he wrote at any and all costs. He wrote until the very end. To see evidence of that — we hear about it when we research Woody Guthrie — but to have an opportunity to look over those pages made it even more intense and real, to get a feel for the kind of energy and fortitude that he possessed until his last day. That inevitably carried over to making the recordings, without a doubt.

What kind of shift did you have to make in your songwriting to work with his lyrics?

Starting from the start, Jay Farrar sent me 17 pages of lyrics in a mailer. When I opened them up I went up to my little apartment, and I was looking at them on the walk. Then I got to my apartment, spread them out and really looked at them. This is going to sound kind of cryptic, but I waited for those songs to kind of jump out. I think they speak for themselves in such a powerful manner, just looking over the written word. It’s very realistic to hear music in your head when you’re looking at lyrics. When I was looking over those lyrics I was really looking closely for that, seeing if one or two or three would start singing back at me, if I could hear the cadence and hear the tempo, the velocity for lack of a better word.

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Concert review and set list: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott keeps going and going and going at the Old Rock House, Thursday, August 23

When 81-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott took the stage, alone, to a small Listening Room Series crowd at the Old Rock House, the room fell so deeply silent we might have heard the creaking of the old folkie’s bones.

Or we would have, had Elliott not been laying out his photography rules. “Flash cuts between my two brain cells,” he said, before offering to pose nude in the parking lot after the show.

These aren’t the ramblings of a fading old man; Ramblin’ Jack could outwit us all with his circular tales that seem to veer off path but somehow, always, come back to his point. He straddles the line between truth and hyperbole, sometimes going into blatantly absurd territory. For example: His former tour manager was a car-driving, husky-Australian shepherd mix named Shep, who once drove so slow that Ramblin’ Jack had to play a scheduled Denver concert over a pay phone in Nebraska. Hearing Elliott explain the situation, it seems plausible.

Stranger things have happened in Elliott’s storied life. The Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish surgeon ran away from home as a teen to be a rodeo bronc rider, took up guitar, became a fixture at Woody Guthrie’s house and spent years introducing Bob Dylan as his son. With a biography like that, driving dogs don’t seem so questionable.

Ramblin’ Jack got his name not for his travels — although they were and are plentiful — but because of his storytelling prowess, evidenced at last night’s show. In two hours he only played 10 songs, sandwiched between tales of travels, friends and an incredible lifetime highlighting the 20th century American experience.

He told tales of his friends who brought the songs to him, including many stories of Guthrie: how a young busking Elliott pursued Guthrie through a near-fatal bout of appendicitis, to their 1954 cross-country drive, to Elliott becoming, “a walkin’, talkin’ Woody Guthrie jukebox.”

He told of meeting his long-time banjo player Derroll Adams, who he paints as a near-caveman genius who educated him in cowboy music, a story intercepted by a tale of floating the Mississippi River with actor Will Geer (“Grandpa Walton”) as he spouted faux Shakespeare. He dedicated the songs to his long-dead friends.

Musically, Elliott remains simple and pure. His age shows in his voice in small bursts, exasperated by a cold he fought with tumblers of Jameson, neat. Cold aside, he still has the strong warble that influenced Dylan’s vocal style. When necessary Elliott powered through his few vocal constraints with sheer emotional force of will, making the doggy snuff of “Old Shep” heart-wrenching instead of sentimental, and the bitter growl of lost love ballad “The South Coast” sinister and dark.

Elliott downplays his substantial influence on Bob Dylan, saying that Dylan was forced to start writing songs when he realized Elliott was already the Woody Guthrie “jukebox.” He jokes that he’s still waiting for a Dylanographer to interpret things his protegee has said, and told of having to access Dylan via a mutual friend at one of Bob’s shows.

He ended the show with a story of being trapped in a cabin during a blizzard with a friend, firewood, a freezer full of venison, a bottle of Cutty Sark and a Dylan record. He passed the time learning to play “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Upon emerging from the storm, he hit an open mic night with Dylan in the audience. When Elliott played the opening notes, he reports that Dylan stood and said, “I relinquish it to you, Jack.”

Elliott helped Dylan develop his storytelling, his pained voice, his emotive acoustic guitar. Ramblin’ Jack’s the rightful owner of the song; we wouldn’t have it without him and his ramblings that keep on going.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott set list:

San Francisco Bay Blues
How Long Blues (Ledbelly cover)
The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird
Old Shep
The South Coast
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Bob Dylan cover)
Talking Sailor Blues (Woody Guthrie cover)
Anytime (Eddy Arnold cover)
Hard Travelin’ (Woody Guthrie cover)
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (Bob Dylan cover)

Concert review and set list: Wanda Jackson ends the party early at the Duck Room, Saturday, August 11

Wanda Jackson at the Duck Room. St. Louis. August 11, 2012.

Caroline Philippone

Wanda Jackson isn’t going to be with us forever.

It’s difficult to consider this, since Jackson performs with enthusiasm and skill rarely seen from anyone who’s been in the music business for 58 years. She hasn’t been relegated to the has-been wonderland of casino stages or Branson because she still works to create new, innovative music. She’s earned the right to play the same venues as her much younger counterparts because she can more than keep up.

Jackson’s band, Heath Haynes and the High Dollars, played a brief set of ’50s classics before ushering her onstage with the slow thunder of “Rumble.” Before a large Duck Room crowd spanning a broad age range, Jackson tore into “Riot in Cell Block #9,” peppered with her guttural growl, fierce as ever. Following with “Rock Your Baby,” it’s clear Jackson still means what she’s singing. She hasn’t turned these songs into dated caricatures. All notions of older women and sexuality vanish. She’s as vibrant as women young enough to be her granddaughters.

Were it not for her husband slipping onto the stage to bring her a mug of Throat Coat tea, it wouldn’t have been readily apparent that Jackson has been fighting a long bout with laryngitis. She apologized for having to confer with her band before songs to adjust the keys to best suit her illness-altered voice.

Before “Betcha My Heart I Love You” she said that she didn’t know if she could do the song, but she wanted to give it a shot, promising to stop if she wasn’t happy with her vocals. By the song’s yodeled finale, the seated portion of the audience awarded her near-perfect effort with a standing ovation.

Jackson popped a Ricola. While it dissolved, she talked of her 2011 collaboration with Jack White. Not many people heard what she had to say, though. The buzz of chatter that’s become ever-present at concerts was so heavy that Jackson was forced to ask the crowd to be quiet so she didn’t further strain her voice while trying to talk over the crowd.

When Wanda Jackson kindly asks you to be quiet, the proper response is to shut the hell up — unless you’re on fire or being abducted. That didn’t happen. The loud talking calmed briefly after a bit of an audience revolt against the chatters, but it didn’t last.

Can’t a conversation wait an hour while a legend shares her voice — one of the most original and distinctive in the history of rock and roll?

Apparently not.

Despite the indignity of having to ask for the audience’s attention, Jackson continued to give her all, right down to the shimmery vibrato on “Shakin’ All Over” and the rawness of “You Know I’m No Good.” White rewrote part of the song because Jackson wasn’t comfortable with its explicit lyrics, but this hardly robbed the song of its passion. She sings it like she’s curled in a broken heap, sparingly punctuating it with her powerful growl.

When she finished the set of White-produced songs, she talked about her upcoming album, produced by Justin Townes Earle. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, because the older man behind me was engaged in an argument with a younger woman regarding who was being the most disruptive.

It was a tie.

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Concert review and set lists: My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses tear through Peabody Opera House, Wednesday, August 8

My Morning Jacket at Peabody Opera House. August 8, 2012. St. Louis

My Morning Jacket at Peabody Opera House. Photo by Kate McDaniel

After a summer of playing amphitheaters and festivals, My Morning Jacket and openers Band of Horses took their act inside for St. Louis, bringing an onslaught of guitars to the delicate acoustics of Peabody Opera House.

South Carolina’s Band of Horses command a large audience of their own and merit every minute of the one-hour opening set. Their big, dreamy sound — littered with organ, harmonica and steel guitar — is a natural accompaniment to My Morning Jacket’s balance of ethereal density. During “Infinite Arms” they went low enough on the register to rumble the gut. New track “Slow Cruel Hand” is more melodic and straightforward, harkening the ’70 heyday of the singer-songwriter.

Even though their new album “Mirage Rock” will be released next month, Band of Horses only indulged in one other new track, “Everything’s Gonna be Undone” — a loud, folky-harmonized sing-along that pairs well with “Older.”

Guitar problems during “The Great Salt Lake” didn’t slow the band. Vocalist/guitarist Ben Bridwell powered through several guitar changes with good humor and tenacity. Instead of succumbing to the unpredictable perils of playing live, Bridwell and band went with the flow, using the imperfections to kick off a soaring, bombastic ending.

There are perks to seeing My Morning Jacket outside. Their music lends itself to views of bright starry skies and warm breezes for wafting herbal aromas. But if they’re going to be inside, they need to be at a venue like the Peabody. Contained in the acoustically-perfect walls of an opera house, the band’s sound expands and soars. It’s not just loud; it’s enveloping, all-encompassing and palatable in the deepest pit of the torso.

The band built to the point of takeover through “Master Plan” and “It Beats 4 U’ before “Circuital,” when frontman Jim James started playing to the crowd, encouraging them to join his church by reaching out to the masses with his acoustic guitar, an instrument not expected to bring an explosion of white light and controlled noise.

After the blast, the band returned to the tight rhythmic confines of “Outta My System.” With such a charismatic frontman and the ever-present threat of Carl Broemel and James’ guitar attacks, sometimes MMJ’s rhythm section gets lost in the noise. Fact is, drummer Patrick Hallahan, bassist Tom Blankenship and keyboardist Bo Koster are what keep the band from swirling into the jam band abyss. By staying solid and grounded, often in simple three-quarter time, they provide strength and balance to the often otherworldliness happening with the guitars and vocals. With the tight and steady beat, James and Broemel are free to dip into the loose noodling of “Rollin’ Back.”

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