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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concert review: Robert Earl Keen (with Andrea Davidson) thrills a sold-out Off Broadway, Thursday, March 7

Robert Earl Keen at Off Broadway. Photo by Corey Woodruff.

I often get my pre-show cocktails wrong. Mescaline, for example, was not the right choice for “West Side Story” at the Fox. Although, I must say the all-iguana Jets vs. Sharks rumble was pretty cool. But a tall beer and a whiskey back was perfect for a night with Texas songwriting raconteur Robert Earl Keen at Off Broadway on Thursday night.

While he didn’t marry Julia Roberts or front a butch Patsy Cline act like some of his contemporaries, he is mentioned in the same fine company as Townes, Nanci and Jerry Jeff when songwriting is being discussed. It was my first time seeing him but his live act is a famous mix of cowboy-bodhisattva storytelling, an oeuvre containing enough out-and-out party songs to rival Jimmy Buffett — plus a kick-ass band. Keen and his gang have been together for the best part of two decades and have been asked to record no less than six live albums. They also sold out Off Broadway just last September.

REK carries heavy mojo in the songwriting and recording industry. His last album, 2011′s “Ready for Confetti,” was produced by Nashville super producer and Dixie Chick papa, Lloyd Maines, and the list of artists that have covered Keen songs on their albums is too long to list.

Also: Keen once called the Kings of Leon “pussies” for canceling a show. Yup. I had high expectations.

A sold-out show at Off Broadway is the most sold out show you’ll likely ever see. The venue must have a very good working relationship with fire-code officials. The crowd was mixed in age, but a feeling of camaraderie permeated the room that said this probably was not the audience’s first rodeo. It felt a little like a Lone Star Dead thing.

As Joe Ely once sang, “If you’ve done it before, you’ll be doing it some more.” Joe was talking about sex though.

Andrea Davidson opened up the show and warmed the crowd with a strong, percussive solo presence. Sometimes beatboxing into an electronic delay looper and often playing harmonica to flesh out her strong guitar playing, Davidson played nine songs, singing in a rich, confident voice, and took several occasions to pump up the crowd up for REK between her songs. Davidson showed great aplomb, carrying on after breaking a string on her eighth song and getting help from backstage, in the way of another guitar, to do her final number. The audience appreciated her tenacity. Davidson also opened for Keen in September, by the way, so it just seemed like friends all around.

After a short break that seemed just long enough to take care of necessities, Keen and his band took the stage and, before playing a note, he turned to a rather famous and slightly rude picture of Johnny Cash hanging behind the bar and gave it the finger. You know the picture so, to be fair, the picture started it. To the delight of the audience, Keen yelled, “Fuck you, too, Johnny!” Then, seeming satisfied and a bit calmed by the act, he said, “I feel better about that now” and launched into the first of the 17 songs comprising the main set with three songs in two encores to follow.

Keen said early on that since they had just been at Off Broadway some few months back, they were going to try to not play all the same songs. Keen knows his crowd and the set list was masterful. It was like a slow crescendo, rising from the first song, expertly managed, mixing humor and poetry and picking along the way.

An early highlight was “Wild Wind” which Keen said he wrote on a guitar he paid way too much for. And then he said he sold the guitar with a copy of the lyrics inside. Hopefully for a lot more money still.

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Concert review: Everything that rises must cohere with Samantha Crain and Indian Blanket at the Gramophone, Tuesday, February 19

Samantha Crain at the Gramophone. Photo by Kate McDaniel.

The greatest foe of the musicians who played Tuesday night at the Gramophone was the slew of libations administered by the bartenders.

The onslaught of conversational lubricants gave the Gramophone a noisy bar air. With their movements circumscribed by size of the club, it seemed patrons were being ushered by their instincts to the bar. They were like bees to blossomed flowers.

As the crowd imbibed, their chatter grew and eventually drowned out opener Indian Blanket. The St. Louis outfit was difficult to hear anywhere in the bar. What could be heard of singer/guitarist Joe Andert’s vocals came across as desperate jabs that created pockets of comprehensible vocals through the crowd’s din. When Andert sang, “I can’t hear you anymore,” it felt timelier and had more perceived direction than any other sparsely audible lyric. He would get his chance to be heard when he joined Samantha Crain midway though her set for a spell. It was a lovely gesture, and Andert took the opportunity to sing beautifully and give the audience a taste of what the had opted to miss. To hear Indian Blanket play to a room that appreciated its cello and fiddle scoured-folk would be the equivalent to a daydream. Half-tactile, half-lucid dream and wholly wanted.

As suspected, the crowd piped down for Oklahoma’s Samantha Crain. She and an assembly of talented backing musicians moved around the stage during sound check with diffused smiles. Outside the solitude of a vocal booth, Crain’s music lights a fire within its own belly. Songs off her latest album, “Kid Face” are linear and have a less apparent melodic edge than when translated live. “Somewhere All the Time” ripened into a fruitful jam the moment Crain sang and the backing band bopped along to Anne Lillis’ drum work. Lillis reined in her unblemished percussion on every song. Kyle Reid’s ethereal lap steel guitar echoed Crain’s insatiable wanderlust. Each musician’s awareness of the role they were asked to play gave Crain room to be a frontwoman; she was never outshone for more than a blink of an eye.

Indeed, if the audience had closed its eyes during “Equinox” off “You (Understood)” they would have missed John Calvin Abney’s olympian bid for the 2016 Men’s Gymnastics Team. He became so enthralled behind the Wurlitzer that he, in a great show of charm and ironic athleticism, fell backwards off the stage and stayed on his feet with his seat in-hand. He looked more like a child in the throes of amusement when he came back on the stage. He peered across the stage at guitarist Kyle Reid with his eyes the size of flying saucers and his mouth wide enough to fit one of Reid’s homemade cigar box guitars. Thankfully, when everyone but Crain and Calvin left the stage for the engaged pair to perform together, his bottom was firmly planted behind the Wurlitzer.

Crain’s adept backing band was supported by Crain’s ability to let them ad lib. Wurlitzer wizard and guitarist Abney soloed on his guitar the last 10 seconds of the song with the kind of bottled energy we have come to realize in shaken soda products. Daniel Foulks, on fiddle, and Penny Hill, on bass, were mixed so well that when necessary, their instruments took precedence over Crain’s vocal delivery. It was a treat to hone in on members of Crain’s band to hear them interpret “Kid Face.” Each intrigued the listener with their obvious skill. The level of musicianship and camaraderie displayed refreshed any stale notions that live shows are an amalgamation of calculated practice. Each member, Crain included, was so content to play that they each introduced to the mix a different style of grout that made the whole cohere.

To wit, Crain gives the band a skeleton set list that rearranges like Tetris. She judges the crowd’s reactions and mood and will huddle the band up and instruct them to play a song that fits. It is up to the band to be prepared for this, and with every change, anticipate and play regardless of surprise. It is a brave way to play a show and is a conspicuous hint towards the level of excellence Crain and company have attained together.

Concert review and set lists: Tea Leaf Green and Tumbleweed Wanderers blossom at the Firebird, Thursday, February 14

Tea Leaf Green at Firebird. Photo by Wil Wander.

On Valentine’s Day in St. Louis, a Galactic show at the Pageant offered competition for music fans’ affections, but Tea Leaf Green still drew a healthy crowd of loyal supporters and date-nighters to the Firebird.

The attire ranged from jeans and Grateful Dead t-shirts to sport jackets and sweaters and even included a few party dresses and finer hats as the diversity of the crowd reflected the diversity of sounds on stage. Whether looking to rock, jam, groove or just dance, the show was sure to deliver.

Tumbleweed Wanderers opened the evening and complemented the headliners’ style well. Based just across the bay from Tea Leaf Green’s San Francisco home, the Oakland ensemble blends the sounds of soul, folk and rock into an eclectic groove. Dressed with a disregard for uniformity, each member of the five man group offered their own flavor to the mix through an assortment of instruments. With three vocalists, each song offered its own style and opportunities for deeper harmonies.

The band’s set featured a selection of original compositions based in the roots of jam style music, and was capped off with a soulful cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” Still relatively new to the scene, the band and its set provided a good foundation for concert jams and studio albums, but the confidence to experiment and explore seemed to lack at times while the solos often proved that each musician was more than capable of doing so. It would be great to see these guys again in a couple years as they will likely blossom and reach the level of groups like the headliners.

As the set break let-up, the crowd quickly began to vie for position at the front of the stage and had filled in quite densely. Josh Clark stepped to the mic and began with a simple, Simpsons inspired introduction, “We’re Tea Leaf Green and we choo-choo choose you.” By the end of the opening song and jam session, the entire crowd had gathered tightly in front of the stage, leaving all of the other sections of the venue eerily empty. The total number of fans may have been just off their pull last summer, but it felt like a full house to everyone in the pit.

Without releasing any new material, Tea Leaf Green tours extensively with a different feel and sound in each show so that even the most dedicated fan never has the same concert experience twice, even if they were to repeat songs. This show had a different feel from the last as they opened with many of their high energy tunes before exploring the other depths of their sound mid-set and building back to a few favorites at the end.

While each and every member of the band is worthy of praise and attention, it was the bands cohesion that stood out. Josh Clark and Trevor Garrod often started the songs with their individual vocal styles, but the jams highlighted everyone, even during the solos. For those unfamiliar with Tea Leaf Green, one of the most distinctive aspects of the act is the drumming duo of McMillan and Scott Rager who demonstrate the bands cohesion with every rhythm, neither ever dominating with rhythms over accents. As veterans, they’ve become a prototypical assembly of musicians and a role model to others in the scene.

Often it was the break-down segments and introductions that stood out in the set, but perhaps the most distinctive moment was a two song segment featuring an acoustic trio set-up. Reed Mathis and Josh Clark put down their electric bass and guitar for the organic alternatives, while Garrod picked up a banjo and joined the others center stage. The three played and sang huddled around a single microphone as they played “Stick to the Shadows” and “I Believe,” which pulled the slowly spreading crowd back to the front again.

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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

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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: American Aquarium (with Hymn River Suite and Blackwater ’64) rock the twang at Cicero’s, Thursday, February 7

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Maybe it was the whiskey I wasn’t drinking messing with my head, but American Aquarium sounded too big for a room the size of Cicero’s.

When frontman BJ Barham introduced the Raleigh, N.C. band before playing “Katherine Belle,” all I could think was that it felt stadium-size huge despite the room not being particularly open. They were every bit as tight as on recording, but with an added oomph from the air vibrating around me.

A few hours prior, Alton, Ill.’s trio Hymn River Suite had started things out — two acoustic guitars and three voices melding together for a set of twangy country songs and covers — poking fun at themselves as they vied for the attention of the people chatting by the bar. “Grace, Peace, and Whiskey” stood out in their set, as well as the “totally hipster, pop-country cover” of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks” in all its foot-stomping glory.

Things got louder when Blackwater ’64 took the stage with their take on twangy rock. Pleading attempts to get people to move closer to the stage were somewhat effective, but chatter provided the backbeat for almost every song of the evening. The din proved annoying during quieter, slower songs — when the drummer and bassist took a break, the thrum of voices near the bar almost overshadowed Ben Martsolf’s crooning during “Westbound.”

American Aquarium’s set started off loudly and seamlessly — the transition between “Ain’t Going to the Bar Tonight” and “Saturday Nights” was so smooth that the crowd didn’t even get a chance to applaud. That proved to be a turning point in the set, after which almost every song received its own introduction, which ranged from Barham explaining that he’s a “terrible waiter and worse bartender” before “Casualties” to a rant about his ex before “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.”

“It’s only been 5 years. I’m not bitter,” he explained, before singing over a weeping pedal-steel guitar; the tenderness of the first half of the song belied his venom.

After explaining they weren’t going to do the whole encore thing, the rockers played the title track off their latest record, “Burn.Flicker.Die.” Ending with a polite, “Y’all have a safe night,” the five men left the stage to mingle with the crowd.

Album review: Kris Kristofferson may be ‘Feeling Mortal’ but he still has superb songs to sing

Kris Kristofferson
“Feeling Mortal”
KK Records

Many songwriters lead storied lives, no doubt, but few are as successful and iconic as Kris Kristofferson.

It’s a cliché to say, “Seen it all, done it all,” but one gets the impression that the Country Music Hall of Famer has, in fact, done just that. A boxer, Rhodes scholar and military officer, not to mention an actor and singer-songwriter, Kristofferson has found success in a variety of vocations.

His notoriety as a songwriter allowed him to launch a career as a performer, and he began recording his own songs, releasing his first album in 1970. However, success as an actor came more readily than as a singer and he appeared in many films throughout the 1970s and beyond.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that Kristofferson is perhaps better known to the public as an actor, as a songwriter he has been an influential force in country songwriting. His songs are both personal and reflective, yet strike a chord with a variety of people in all walks of life. His latest album is no exception; it is the work of a man at peace with both his demons and his legacy.

“Feeling Mortal” is Kristofferson’s first album of new material in four years and also his first independent release on his own KK Records label. It is the third record in a trilogy, produced by veteran producer Don Was, that began with “This Old Road” (2006) and “Closer to the Bone” (2009).

“Wide awake and feeling mortal/At this moment of the dream,” he sings on the opening line of the title track, a song which finds the singer facing his own mortality; reluctantly perhaps, but with gratitude and without regret. At the forefront of this record is Kristofferson’s weathered voice, no longer the voice of a young man of course, but still strong, with a gentle grace and a hard-won wisdom.

The musicianship is excellent throughout; a fine band backs the veteran performer and also features Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, lending vocals and violin. The record consists of 10 songs, all penned by Kristofferson, with the exception of the old 1970 song “My Heart Was the Last One to Know” co-written with Shel Silverstein. Originally recorded by Connie Smith, the tune is a simple and beautiful country classic.

“Stairway to the Bottom” is another vintage piece, a rerecording of a song that originally appeared on “Spooky Lady’s Sideshow” in 1974. But “Bread for the Body” and “You Don’t Tell Me What to Do” are among the most enjoyable on the record, the former a song of realization about what’s important in life and the latter an ode to freedom and an independence of spirit.

And I will go on making music
and whiskey
and love for as long
as the spirit inside me
says you don’t tell me what to do.

If the songs on “Feeling Mortal” are any indication, it looks like Kristofferson will be doing just that for a few more years.

Concert review: Deadstring Brothers (with the Dock Ellis Band and the Bengsons) provide some soul, some country and something completely different at Plush, Friday, February 1

Deadstring Brothers at Plush. Photo by Mike Gualdoni.

“This is gonna be awesome when the guitar gets plugged back in!” Abigail Bengson shouted with a smile on her face during a slight hiccup during the Bengsons‘ set.

Despite this minor setback, they put on an incredible set at Plush on Friday. While the venue never quite had to worry about reaching the maximum occupancy limit, that didn’t stop a trio of traveling bands — including the Dock Ellis Band and headliners Deadstring Brothers — from putting on a show.

Those who did attend the Plush festivities were treated to two opening bands with a touch of twang and a charming performance style. The first 50 patrons were also treated to a free Stag beer that would be eventually added to the newly christened wall of Stags growing on the right side of the main bar.

The headliners hailing from Detroit capped off the night with some slick slide guitar that would leave any exile excited to be alive. Deadstring Brothers played their hour-long set with a less than commanding stage presence, but with their Mick Jagger-esque vocals and early ’70s Rolling Stones sound, there was no need to be showy.

The five-piece band brought the willing from their seats to the front of the stage with its alternative country feel. The patrons seemed to enjoy a little bit of spinning and sliding on the dance floor. The Brothers played the night out with a song dedicated to bassist Jeff Cullum’s future ex-wife, the room thanked California for her wine — not to mention St. Louis for its Stag — and the show came to an end.

Before Deadstring Brothers took the stage, the Dock Ellis Band seized its moment. The St. Louis country band made it apparent why Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton had been playing on the PA system throughout the night, and brought to the stage the classic sound of old country mixed with a bit of off-color comedy. Tunes such as “Get That Pregnant Woman Another Beer” and “Dumpster Baby” had the onlookers cautiously cutting up as they tossed their empties into the Stag bin.

While the two main bands might have had more local notoriety, the act that truly stole the show was a lesser-known folk duo from New York City. Shaun and Abigail Bengson met one day years ago playing in a pickup band and found themselves getting married two weeks later. As the Bengsons, they’ve been playing, teaching and learning together ever since.

After a brief technical issue when the guitar was accidentally unplugged at the beginning of the show, the couple didn’t miss a beat as they continued to entertain the crowd. They brought an incredibly fun and delightful performance to the stage as they excitedly jumped around during songs and shared swigs of water out of a gallon jug between them.

Their chemistry and genuine enjoyment of their art shined as they shared smiling glances to the sound of simple guitar chords and solo drum beats played behind their lyrics of life, love and the pursuit of music. The Bengsons’ lighthearted melodies provided a rare type of energy that enchanted the audience and reminded those present in the room that true love still exists in the world.

On top of touring and making music, the Bengsons are currently weaving together a rock opera called “Hundred Days,” which tells the story of two lovers who know that their time together is limited, and they’ve promised themselves to live their 100 days like an entire lifetime together. “Hundred Days” is set to be completed early 2014.

The evening at Plush was filled with a wide variety of entertainment that marked another successful night of music in St. Louis — and a successful night for the Stag wall.

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