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Scott Allen's Photo I'm a music lover and music blogger in St. Louis. Read more of my writing at my Blogspot.

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Concert review and set lists: Carrie Newcomer’s folk (with Jenna Lindbo) ebbs and flows through the Sheldon Concert Hall, Friday, January 18

facebook.com/CarrieNewcomer

Spiritualism comes in many forms. For Carrie Newcomer her brand began with her Quaker upbringing, continued with her education and culminated in her powerful songwriting.

On tour to support her new compilation “Kindred Spirits,” Newcomer has been playing shows in St. Louis for nearly 20 years. Last night her longtime followers came out to hear her perform on the wood-lined stage at the acoustically beautiful Sheldon Concert Hall. Even having performed here before Newcomer extolled the virtues of the venue: “The Sheldon is my favorite theater in the country.” Whether it was pandering or the truth, everyone agrees the room is magical.

The 54-year old Newcomer brings a soulful voice and strong songwriting chops to her music. With lyrics influenced by writers, poets, academics and her surroundings, she demonstrates her skill as a true storyteller. Accompanied by pianist Gary Walters, an accomplished jazz and classical musician, Newcomer warmly entertained the crowd — filled with teachers, activists and local non-profit organization workers — with her original music and sly, humorous asides.

She began her 100-minute set with an upbeat strummer “Ghost Train,” one of the few songs in the show not on the new compilation. Her song “I Believe” followed with its convictions about everyday life. The line, “There’s a place in heaven for those who teach in public school” received a rousing applause from the educators in attendance.

Before beginning “Geode” she gave the audience a lesson in geology as she discussed the glaciers and their impact on the state of Indiana. She advised, “They are as common as corn, but yet they are a miracle.” At times the room felt full of a new-age mysticism, and during other moments humor and life’s trials and tribulations took the spotlight.

Newcomer continued with a new song, “Work of our Hands,” which she said is right out of her notebook about a large group of her friends getting together and canning last fall and her memories of her grandmother. This song along with many others employed an intricate capo system that she uses on her guitar; at one point she asked for more light on stage so she could see the frets. Another new song, “The Speed of Soul,” began as thoughts she had about a Native-American saying, “We should never travel faster in a day than our soul can keep up,” and ended with time spent in a corner booth at a truck stop in Kansas. Inspiration comes from everywhere for the prolific songwriter.

As the set ebbed and flowed, the songs were fast and upbeat and also slow and melancholy. Mid-set, before she played “If Not Now,” she joked that everyone in the audience was thinking, “This is a folk show — I hope she does a sing-along,” which got the audience laughing and looking to their friends and neighbors. But the best line of the night was when she advised, “The one rule in a folk sing-along is volume over accuracy.”

While most of her songs fall into the category of folk or country, the upbeat “Breathe in, Breathe Out” comes as close to the singer-songwriter rock of the early ’70s. Next she gave way to Walters as he took a solo turn on an instrumental jazzy composition that could work well as part of a score to a movie. She followed his turn with the nostalgic “I’ll Go Too,” a song she revealed is about her dad.

At the end she brought humor back with her song about animal groupings, “A Crash of Rhinoceros,” and finished with a spiritual number that seemed to sum up the evening, “The Gathering of Spirits.”

To finish the night Newcomer brought out opener Jenna Lindbo to help her on an encore of “Air and Smoke.” As tangible as music is in its physical form, it only occupies the air and space for so long. Newcomer went one step further last night; she inhabited the mind, body and soul as well. The true mark of a strong and dynamic performer.

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Concert review: Kasey Anderson and the Honkies (with Miles of Wire and the Dive Poets) cast a wide rock ‘n’ roll net at Off Broadway, Monday, July 30

Kasey Anderson at Off Broadway. St. Louis. July 30, 2012.

Kasey Anderson at Off Broadway. Photo by Roy Kasten.

Rock ‘n’ roll, in its many forms, remains the quintessential melting pot of music. Musicians from all different genres have given color to the various incarnations over the years. At the heart of the genre is still a blend of country and blues that gives rock ‘n’ roll its very soul.

At Off Broadway on Monday night and playing a rare performance, St. Louis-based quartet Miles of Wire took the stage about 8:15 p.m. for an enjoyable set of original material that was firmly rooted in alt-country, but grabbed undertones from indie rock.

Discussing the band with others around the room, I learned that Miles of Wire hasn’t played out much in the past five or six years. After hearing the 30-minute set, I surmised that if the Replacements and the Minutemen colored the country of Uncle Tupelo, then Pavement and Superchunk meant the same to this group.

Next on the bill were the Dive Poets. Their 45-minute set showed why they are one of the most solid original bands working in the St. Louis scene. The sextet played an upbeat set of roots rock that meshed nicely between both bands.

The lead guitar work of Karl Eggers and the keys of Christian Schaeffer color the strong harmonies provided by rhythm guitarist Eric Sargent and Anna Drexelius, who also shines on viola, while bassist Jeff York and drummer Renato Durante hold down the bottom end. Their sound allows all those who like any form of rock ‘n’ roll to join in and dance or just tap a foot in time.

Kasey Anderson and the Honkies returned to St. Louis just over seven weeks after playing a solid opening performance for night three of Twangfest 16. In the interim period they have supported the Counting Crows — who recorded Anderson’s “Like Teenage Gravity” for their new covers record “Underwater Sunshine” — on their summer tour.

Last night, instead of playing the opening slot, Anderson and the Honkies — Andrew McKeag on lead guitar, Mike Musburger on drums, Ty Bailie on keys and Will Moore on bass — were the headliner and seemed quite at ease with the slot. The band played a laid-back, easy-going set of both original and cover songs. Anderson talked and cracked wise a bit more than he did back in June.

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Concert review: Ha Ha Tonka, Langhorne Slim and the Law and Kasey Anderson and the Honkies tear up Twangfest 16 at the Duck Room, Friday, June 8

Ha Ha Tonka at Twangfest 16. June 8, 2012. St. Louis

Ha Ha Tonka at Twangfest 16. Photo by Jarred Gastreich.

At the end of the third night of Twangfest, I was surprised the building was still in one piece. Luckily for the Duck Room, the structure is made from the same hard substances that has kept so many St. Louis buildings standing for so many years — brick, old stone and concrete.

A full-blown evening of rock ‘n’ roll began promptly at 8 p.m. with a welcome from Twangfest board member and KDHX DJ Chris Bay. Kasey Anderson and the Honkies opened night three with a solid set. Anderson advised that his Pacific Northwest-based quartet brought along songs mostly culled from his 2011 record “Heart of a Dog.” After opening with “Kasey Anderson’s Dream,” the singer dryly welcomed the crowd to the show with, “Welcome to Bonnaroo.” After some witty banter, he continued by saying, “We like your city a lot. It’s a lot bigger than we thought. There are a lot of bricks.”

During the hour-plus set, Anderson stood at stage center with a laid-back attitude and a sense of cool. Wearing a Roky Erickson t-shirt, newsboy hat and jeans, the thin musician strummed a guitar borrowed from Son Volt sideman Mark Spencer and sang with the same rawness of a young Steve Earle. The band promptly ripped into “Mercy,” a song that harkens back to early ’70s blues rock made famous by the Rolling Stones or the Faces. With a opening slide guitar burst from Andrew McKeag “Sirens and Thunder” kicked in with the power of a perfect summer road trip song. 

The classic rock vibe continued with “Exit Ghost” which Anderson neatly transitioned into a medley adding Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” to the end. Anderson doesn’t seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel with his music, but certainly follows in the footsteps of giants as he grabs parts here and there for his own custom sound.

Later in the set, he dedicated his new song “Some Depression” to Peter Blackstock and Kyla Fairchild, former impresarios of No Depression magazine. The song, a witty dig on the alt-country scene contains sharp references to over zealous fans including the line with roots in the local scene, “You got Tweedy and Farrar on your vanity plates driving your Prius down the lost highway.” Bringing it all back home, the set ended with a raucous version of Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues” with McKeag and Mark Spencer trading scintillating solos as Anderson sang and took a back seat to the guitar theatrics. The evening already had a great start.

As a changeover ensued, the crowd refilled their drinks, checked out the Twangfest merchandise and records from the bands and waited for the appearance of Langhorne Slim. When he appeared on stage in his black sport coat, and black hat pulled down tight, the women in the crowd, of which there were many, swooned. With his band, the Law, featuring Jeff Ratner on upright bass, Malachi DeLorenzo on drums and David Moore on keyboard and banjo, Langhorne Slim gave the evening a soulful vibe in the middle of a whole mess of rock. On record Slim can be great, but in the live setting he can be simply amazing which keeps his fans coming back time and time again. The band played a raw set that was loose and altogether tight at the same time, but much like the whirling dancers on the floor.

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‘You have to be true to the songs’ A pre-Twangfest interview with John Doe

theejohndoe.com / Autumn de Wilde

Since embarking down the road of his solo career over 20 years ago, John Doe has strived to make his own mark on the roots music he grew up listening to on the radio and at his parents’ parties.

If leading seminal punk band X wasn’t enough, Doe’s recent collaborative efforts with fellow songwriter Jill Sobule and a covers record with the Sadies as a backing band demonstrates his desire to stay abreast of what younger generations of artists have to offer.

Doe spoke to me via phone from his home in California recently about his music, his thoughts on the current economy and how he stays upbeat as a 58-year-old in the music business.

John Doe headlines the final night of Twangfest 16 on Saturday, June 9 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room.

Scott Allen: You were born in the Midwest, in Decatur, Ill. originally, moved around the Midwest and went to college in Baltimore. How did you get from there to LA? How did that all work out?

John Doe: I got there through Texas…

[Laughs] Like everybody else right?

Right. I only spent six months in Decatur so … I can’t really say I come from there. I did live in Wisconsin, but I don’t know if that’s considered the Midwest anyway. I had been to New York in ’74-’75, and it was really clear that the new music scene, the punk rock scene, was pretty well established in New York and I was tired of Wisconsin, sick of the Midwest sick of the, I don’t know, the attitude. So then I went to LA and loved it. And there was stuff going on there too.

Kind of like getting your feet wet, bringing that attitude to that scene but without the entrenchment of all the people that were already there and doing that, I’m assuming.

I think the LA scene was about a year behind the NY scene so it wasn’t as established. And I think I identified with the LA scene a lot more. There was more humor, there was more playfulness, it was more open. People were a little bit freer, just like the west is.

Without having the cliquishness or the established friendships?

Oh there were plenty of cliques! It just wasn’t as calcified. You know it wasn’t as mean. The east coast scene was just really fuckin’ mean … more than what we saw which was a little bit later. In LA there was a great sense of cooperation and camaraderie because it was hard to get people to let us play in places, so we had to all work together.

I have noticed that with your relationships with say Dave Alvin, the Blasters, or other bands like Los Lobos or whatever. It does seem that there was a lot of camaraderie between all the different bands. It wasn’t us against you it was more like “we’re trying to bring everybody up.”

We had record companies and public images to fight against. Not the bands, but what people thought about and the ideas people had had about punk rock and not really knowing what the hell they were talking about. We had misconceptions we had to fight
against.

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‘Try to be true to the experience’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Kevin Gordon

kg.kevingordon.net

If you were cooking up a dish of Kevin Gordon‘s music you’d start with a solid base of rock ‘n’ roll, and then add in various complimentary ingredients of country, folk and blues.

Fans of the country and rhythm and blues records of Memphis and Nashville of the ’50s or songwriters like Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen and even the Hold Steady will find something enjoyable in his deep, soulful music and poetic lyrics.

I spoke to Gordon via phone the afternoon before he was going to take his teenage son to see Jack White perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. When he’s not on the road, Gordon runs an art gallery and retains his chops playing every Wednesday at the Family Wash, a bar a couple of blocks down the street from his East Nashville home.

Kevin Gordon performs with a full band at Twangfest 16 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on Saturday, June 9.

Scott Allen: So, you grew up in Louisiana, correct?

Kevin Gordon: Yes, that’s right.

Which artists influenced your music when you were growing up? What stuck out for you?

Everybody goes through those changes when they grow up, but I was always interested in roots music, I guess. When I was a little kid my parents would have these parties and I heard a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and things like that. I had a bit of an Elvis fixation a few years later. I guess through Elvis Presley I first heard Jimmy Reed songs and things like that he would cover. In high school, I was a skateboarder and through that I got turned on to punk music. I was into the bigger bands really — the Clash, the Ramones and X. Definitely X was a huge influence.

I would imagine that it would be hard to get some of the records from the lesser-known groups in Louisiana — if you’re into punk especially back then without the Internet. Today you know everything. It might not always be right or correct, but you know it.

[Laughs] That’s right! To see any of those bands we would have to carpool to New Orleans or to Dallas. Sometimes to Jackson, Mississippi which was a little closer. It was an adventure to go. My pals and I went to see the Ramones twice in New Orleans and X at a club in ’83 which was incredible. The Dead Kennedys which was really something. Through that I kinda came back to roots music in a way….

The Ramones covered a lot of ’60s underground and garage rock and hits like Chris Montez. They harkened back to that even though it was a darker image of that music. In many of the interviews I’ve read you mention that you have your Master’s in poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I am more curious in what took you in that direction.

I started playing guitar when I was a junior in high school and almost immediately started trying to write songs, so I was in bands when I was writing my first attempts at songs. I was also heavily into poetry which I got into in junior high. My stepdad was my ninth grade English teacher, a great reader that turned me onto a lot of stuff. I was writing what is loosely described as poetry, which was an emotional outlet for me for the usual adolescent complaints.

My folks had split a few years earlier and I was dealing with that emotional mess. I just kept on doing it. I was lucky enough in college to have a writing professor who knew something about what was going on now in American literature or world literature, for that matter. This was the first time I had ever seen a literary magazine that was current. This was my third year in college. So, he was a great teacher and really helped me with my work.

When it came to my senior year he encouraged me to apply to some graduate writing programs. That year we also had a visiting writer who was on the faculty at Iowa then, who has gone on to be a writing superstar, a MacArthur fellow. She read through some of my work while she was there and encouraged me to apply to Iowa, so I did. Slacker that I was I let all the other deadlines pass for the other programs. I guess I’m lucky because I got in.

When I did get accepted, I took that as a sign as that’s what I was going to be doing for the next two years. I had gotten a B.A. in English, but had not gotten a teaching certificate. That was the last thing I wasted to do was teach. It’s probably still the last thing I want to do. [Laughs] I taught the first semester we moved to Nashville as a way of paying the rent. There were moments that I will never forget. I was teaching at a vocational college where nobody was interested in hearing about poetry or anything other than getting their degrees so they could get a job. I say that with great sympathy. I had a good time trying to turn those folks on to Theodore Roethke and Victor Hugo.

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Concert review: Ray Wylie Hubbard deals a royal blues flush at the Old Rock House, Saturday, April 28

Ray Wylie Hubbard at the Old Rock House in St. Louis, April 28, 2012

Roy Kasten

St. Louis music fans showed true dedication last night as heavy rain, hail, lightning and damaging winds couldn’t keep a solid crowd away from the Old Rock House to see legendary Texas-based singer and songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard.

On a night when a tent outside a bar in downtown St. Louis left one dead and 17 injured and tennis-ball-sized hail broke windshields across the region, Hubbard rained down a mix of country, folk and blues to warm up a mostly middle-aged audience, still wet and cold from the storm.

Unfortunately the severe weather kept me from arriving on time for the early 7 p.m. start. Why so early you ask? The venue had scheduled another event immediately following this KDHX-welcomed concert; one that incorporated a back drop of black and neon-green decorative snakes wrapped with what looked like metal dryer vents that extended from the stage to a light rig above. It was upon that backdrop that Hubbard — dressed in a long-sleeved black t-shirt over blue jeans with a stocking cap pulled down tight — took the stage in front of a large group loyal fans packing the venue to about three-quarters full.

On tour to support his new album “The Grifter’s Hymnal,” the prolific Oklahoma-born songwriter’s 11th album in the last 20 years, Hubbard performed several new songs including “Henhouse” (a tune he co-wrote with Hayes Carll), “Red Badge of Courage” (a dedication to troops in Afghanistan who listened to his music on recon missions) and “Count My Blessings” (a track inspired by fellow songwriter Slaid Cleaves’ “One Good Year”). With honest lyrics that speak to the hard-working American, Hubbard’s weathered voice gave credence to the stories and lyrical imagery he painted throughout his 40-plus years in music. Upon hearing his songs, one need not question that he’s lived through some hard times yet continued to persevere.

Throughout the 97-minute set, Hubbard switched between acoustic and electric guitar as he played a country and blues mix that had the audience moving and grooving. He would add flourishes of slide guitar and sometimes just keep the beat going with his thumb plucking the open strings. Accompanied onstage by the solid drumming of Rick Richards, Hubbard was in a relaxed, easygoing mood and seemed to have a great time interacting with the crowd. Richards — a spectacular timekeeper with a great bass drum foot and a simple set of snare, floor tom, bass drum and tambourine — provided a solid backbone while Hubbard sang, spun yarns and entertained.

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Concert review and set list: Sara Watkins (with Sarah Siskind) finds the acoustic sweet spot at the Duck Room, Thursday, April 19

Louis Kwok

To embark on a solo career after being part of a successful group for a number of years is a daunting task. Nevertheless, Sara Watkins seems to be making a smooth transition.

With her former band, Nickel Creek, firmly on hiatus, Watkins has branched out and made several musical connections in supergroups like the Works Progress Administration and performed with the Decemberists on an extensive tour last year. Clearly, she’s having a good time playing and exposing herself to a wide variety of material.

An upbeat Watkins took to the stage at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room sang, played fiddle and guitar, and fully entertained the 125 or so people that came to the basement venue to hear her. Flanked by her older brother Sean on acoustic and electric guitar and Tyler Chester on bass, percussion and guitar, Watkins, wore a simple black dress and brown leather boots. She played a wide spectrum of originals and several cover songs over her 90 minute set. Her voice, light hearted, yet strong, cut through the mix clearly as she tackled the songs easily — a well-honed performer.

While she mixed in a couple of new songs from her forthcoming album due in May, she mostly stuck to material from her first self-titled solo album and other covers. After beginning with an instrumental called, “The Foothills,” the first cover of the set was from the Everly Brothers, “You’re the One I Love,” a song that Watkins recently recorded as a duet with Fiona Apple as a 7″ single for this weekend’s Record Store Day celebration.

Watkins alternated between original songs and covers throughout the rest of the set including three of the five that ended up on her first solo record. She interpreted songwriters that ran the gamut from folk, country, pop and rock. From the gospel of the Louvin Brothers, “River of Jordan,” to the ’60s pop of Michael Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” to the her gorgeous solo rendition of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” Watkins showed that she could be counted on to handle any genre she chooses.

During the John Hartford tune, “Long Hot Summer Day,” Watkins finally let loose a bit from the restrained fiddle she’d played most of the show and dug in and let it fly to have some fun. During the few years since her first album, she has made this song her own. She pandered to the crowd a bit and encouraged them to sing along to the chorus of the song about traveling down the Illinois River. To end the main set Watkins brought out one of the new songs, “Take Up Your Spade,” the last song on the new record. Here she was confident and proud, and it ended up to be one of the strongest performances of the set.

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Concert review and set list: Mission of Burma (with the Conformists) makes the impossible possible at the Firebird, Wednesday, April 4

facebook.com/BurmaBoston / Chris Gersbeck

It could have happened in any dimly-lit bar or club over the past 33 years. Mission of Burma, the iconic post-punk power trio from Boston, could have played any number of venues that have come and gone in St. Louis, but they didn’t. In that sense, their show at the Firebird last night was indeed historic.

An anxious yet subdued crowd dressed in dark colors filled the venue to see a band that was long on many insiders’ bucket lists. Mission of Burma — featuring guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott with help from Bob Weston on sound and tape loops — exhibited a professional demeanor from which many younger bands could learn. There was little banter from the stage throughout their 120-minute set bursting with songs than spanned their career. Though each member is firmly in their 50s, there was not an ounce of pure energy left at home. This is no phoned in oldies act. The band, who took a 19-year hiatus to reform nearly 10 years ago, is just as relevant now as they were over 30 years ago with plenty of creativity left for their later years.

I found it interesting, in this age of D.I.Y. promotion, that Mission of Burma sold no merch at the show. Yet, if you weren’t in the know about the band and its influence by now there was not going to be any easy introduction. That’s not the way punk rock works, my friends. Near the end of the set Miller advised the audience, “If you buy records we’ll have a new one in July.” He continued in a wry tone, “We’ve tried to pace ourselves — five albums in 35 years.”

During the show the set list bounced from new songs from the yet to be released “Unsound” to tracks from their initial period as a band from 1979-1983 like “Mica” and “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate.” In between the group mixed in highlights from its later period after reuniting for the 2004 album, “ONoffON,” and added others from “The Obliterati” and “The Sound the Speed the Light.” The group efficiently moved through songs in a timely fashion without fuss or fanfare.

Due to his issues with tinnitus over the years, Miller had his Marshall amplifier placed at the front edge of the stage rather than parked behind him to the side of the drums. This exacerbated the decibel level in the room further and left the vocals from all three members a bit hard to hear. With his long hair it was hard to tell if Miller had any of his trademark ear protection in place. With my ear plugs firmly in place, I stood in the back of the room near Weston, who manned the sound board, trying to imagine what the wail coming from Miller’s rig must have sounded like to the fans up front.

With a sense of history and not contrived irony, the band ended their main set with a one-two punch of their first single “Max Ernst” and “Academy Fight Song.” The latter had the crowd singing the lyrics back at Miller loudly over the din resonating from the stage. After the song Conley thanked the crowd for coming — “This was a lot of fun” –and the band headed for the dressing room.

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