Album review: Chris Smither proves the blues are priceless on ‘Hundred Dollar Valentine’

Chris Smither
“Hundred Dollar Valentine”
Signature Sounds

As I listen to this new collection, which is just as good as anything Chris Smither has done in his career if not better, I can’t help wondering why he isn’t better known.

In 2006 Smither released the glorious “Leave the Light On,” with a title track that feels like an instant classic (though, in a real head-scratcher, Rolling Stone chose another track, “Diplomacy,” for their list of top 100 songs of the year). Smither has got star quality, magnetic presence and A-list chops — and he can write songs like, well, “Leave the Light On.” Again, it’s one of those songs that simply should have a larger life than it does.

That gap between quality and a larger visibility is one of the things that Smither himself touches on from time to time, including last year in a piece he wrote for the New York Times Business Section “Frequent Flyer” series titled “The Drawbacks of Modest Celebrity.” There he recalls that he’s been recognized a few times, once as Sam Sheppard and another as a friend’s landlord.

He touches on his relative obscurity a bit on “Hundred Dollar Valentine” when he sings “it ain’t what it is that’s such a sin/It’s what might have been.” As I put that down here, it looks like nothing on the page, but when Smither sings it with his bluesman’s growl, it sounds so utterly authentic and true that you ache right along with him. It just hurts.

There’s reason for that. Smither’s career — and I think this is something that he’d say, too — hasn’t followed the arc that it might have under better circumstances. He’s a blues singer, so lost opportunities and regret all come with the territory. But unlike Bruce Springsteen who sings about blue collars from a mansion, Smither knows intimately of what he speaks. Louis Armstrong once said of swing that “If you don’t feel it, you’ll never know it,” and that’s something that could as aptly be said of blues music. Chris Smither feels it, and he knows it. He’s had good times, though the hard times have had a disproportional representation in his life.

So there’s all of that, but as an entity to itself, this album is just outrageously good. Smither handles the material with such ease, such cool, that it’s simply riveting. His guitar playing is outstanding — Bonnie Raitt has called Smither “my Eric Clapton” — not through shredding, but through the way he states the rhythm.

He uses the guitar like a tool, the steady rhythm of his thumb pick marking seconds as they pass inexorably by. It’s a study in Travis picking, and an absolutely perfect accompaniment to the material on tracks like “What They Say” and “Make Room For Me.” The arrangements are varied and unique, thanks to long-time collaborator David Goodrich, using feet, tympani, violin, cello in addition to more typical blues sounds, such as the soulful harmonica of Jimmy Fitting.

While Smither has had a decades-long career, this album is the first he’s released that doesn’t include any covers. It’s hard to tell, as everything here is so indelibly authentic that each song sounds as old as Moses (though that’s wonderfully broken at times by lyrics like “I had a lighter in my carry-on/but the airline took it away”). There isn’t a misstep, though we wouldn’t expect one. Smither is just that good.

I realize reviewers aren’t supposed to drool, so I’ll stop now. But good lord this is an utterly compelling album. Only saying.

Concert review: The Victor Wooten Band delivers virtuoso set at the Old Rock House, Thursday, July 5

Krystal Peterson and Victor Wooten at the Old Rock House in St. Louis. July 5, 2012.

Krystal Peterson and Victor Wooten at the Old Rock House. Photo by Wil Wander.

Victor Wooten assembled a squad of some of his favorite musicians and brought his new line-up to an eager St. Louis crowd, bristling with excitement over a night that featured new music with a dash of past favorites.

The Old Rock House was packed early, and patrons began to vie for angle at the stage or simply settle for a good view of the closed-circuit televisions as even the standing room had evaporated before the first note. 
Music lovers often find themselves in debates as they try to rank their favorites at each instrument, and Wooten often causes a stir. Considered the greatest bassist by a small but loyal minority, Victor Wooten is held in regard with some of the other greats of jazz and beyond. While initially recognized as a founding member of Béla Fleck’s supergroup, the Flecktones, the ambitious bassist has proved his significance with five studio albums of his own and a number of collaborations, including S.M.V., a group that united him with fellow bass deities, Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller. Wooten is currently touring to promote a double-release, due out in the fall, featuring “Words & Tones,” mixing his compositions with a choice selection of female vocalists, and its counterpart, “Sword & Stone,” which adapts the songs with fully-instrumental versions.
The music started before the band made its entrance, as the soft sounds of orchestral strings quieted the bustling crowd. After a few serene, mood-setting minutes of a recorded composition, reminiscent of a lighthearted film score, Wooten lead his troop to the stage, and hushed the uproar of applause by picking up a bow to join in. Layers of contemplative, spoken-word sound clips danced in the air, stirring the attentions and thoughts of the fans below, slowly building in crescendo until broken by the soft, jazz-filled voice of Krystal Peterson. 
Peterson, a young, petite blonde with sizable tattoos peeking out the shoulders of her black dress, handled the vocals for many of the new songs, and highlighted a group of veteran talent. From the first number, the arrangement garnered special attention in composition alone. The stage featured two drum sets at either end, facing each other, and a line of four bassists, including Wooten, but the back of the stage had instruments scattered around like a dumped toy chest.
The frontman handled a variety of basses, electric and stand-up, with a cello mixed in late in the show, while the rest of the band proved to be just as versatile. The drums at the far left were manned by J.D. Blair, who added vocals and even played some bass himself in the show, and is promoting a new album of his own. The line of other bassists included Anthony Wellington, who added guitar in the rare instances it was used, Dave Welsch, who also manned the laptop and played a stunning trumpet, and Steve Bailey, department head at Berklee School of Music, who threw in a dash of trombone as well. The final spot on stage went to drummer Derico Watson, a skilled stickman with quick feet on the pedals.
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Concert review: The Dirt Daubers and the Rum Drum Ramblers throw down country blues at the Old Rock House, Tuesday, June 19

St. Louis’ own Rum Drum Ramblers — featuring Joey Glynn on bass and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Koenig, both of Pokey LaFarge’s South City Three — appeared early Tuesday night before a mostly-empty Old Rock House.

Lead singer and guitarist Mat Wilson exploded into “Jack and Tom,” as Glynn thumped away on his bass, his thick chops framing a smile.

Koenig fitted himself with his magic washboard for “Mean Scene,” the title track from the Ramblers’ most recent record. Wilson slid up the neck of his guitar to create hi-pitched squeaks that accented the clicks, dings and scrapes from Koenig’s board. Wilson’s vocals were clean and crisp and appropriately bluesy, almost like a Tom Sawyer-era river-city troubadour doing his best G Love impression. “Nothing New” showcased Koenig scatting with a tinny effect applied to his microphone. Koenig then unleashed a slick harmonica solo before a transition back into scatting.

As the show progressed, the Rum Drum Ramblers invited a baritone saxophonist on stage to help with “Sure Sign.” The long bass notes filled out the tune and mingled with Glynn’s bass adding notes of exhilaration.

Next, the Ramblers invited Kansas City’s Little Rachel up for two songs, “New Ms. Rhythm in Town” and “Each Day,” both originals by Rachel, the vibe more big band meets soul than the Rum Drum Ramblers’ usual style. The Rum Drum Ramblers finished out with “Bumblebees” and “I Got Mine” which had the legendary (and well-known St. Louisan) Daniel whirling in pure dancing ecstasy like an outed black swan.

The Dirt Daubers, a trio from Paducah, Ky., appeared with Koenig supporting on drums and fiddle. After a few searing, barn-burner tracks, the Dirt Daubers — with speed to be seen to believe — offered up an old Dock Boggs tune, “Sugar Baby,” covered on the band’s self-titled 2009 record. Jessica Wilkes played her mandolin with skill and grace, while lead singer and banjo player J.D. Wilkes sang in his best sectarian country-preacher voice. The man’s presence is oddly reminiscent of an Americanized version of Flogging Molly’s Dave King.

Jessica took over singing on “Be Not Afraid” from “Wake Up, Sinners.” J.D. shuffled along on his harmonica and, during the most frenetic parts, threw his free hand up to give the audience a rousing taste of “Jazz hands.”

The traditional folk song “Cindy” stood tall as a pleasure and a surprise. I love that the Rum Drum Ramblers and the Dirt Daubers both offered a few traditional songs to keep the retrospective angle as much alive as each of the band’s forward progress, and to pay tribute to their roots. Yes, the revival is happening — not enough of this in American music these days.

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88.1 KDHX DJ Spotlight: Josh Weinstein of All Soul, No Borders

Photo by Roy Kasten

“All Soul, No Borders” is weekly proof of why Josh Weinstein is sometimes described as a musical holy man and shaman.

Every Sunday, 10 p.m.-midnight Central, Josh plays what I would describe as a record, historical or otherwise, of what great musicians were saying from many places, at many times, and from many perspectives. This results in what could be described as very much like getting a soul recharge for the low, low price of paying attention. Josh has honed the skill of finding the commonalities between what musicians are saying; as a result, there isn’t a single genre, era or time that could be associated with what is played on his show.

If you listen, Josh will play it — where “it” is something you needed to hear.

In this email exchange he and I discussed the finer points of programming music on KDHX and why music makes life worth living.

Jared Corgan: Would you say that you first approach your show’s music analytically then aesthetically or some other method? How does that work?

Josh Weinstein: No, I do not analyze the music first. Just as I don’t initially approach a beautiful sunset analytically. I take it in as it is. I let it affect me how it will. I try not to bring any expectations to it. That’s a good way for me to experience what it is and what it does to me on different levels. Of course, there’s an intellectual level, too. That’s a different state of listening for me.

How long have you been a volunteer with KDHX and how much of that time have you been a DJ?

I have been a volunteer at KDHX since the spring or summer of 2000. I became a DJ in the fall of that year.

How would you describe yourself as a person outside of the role of DJ?

Here’s someone else’s description of myself on and off air: “Hey you know that I truly meant the things I said about you on the show — I think you are a musical holy man and I feel I learn just being around you and picking up on what spills off — as a human being you are just as flawed as the rest of us but as a musical shaman I really believe you might even be able to heal.” (recent email from KDHX DJ Bob Reuter.)

So, let’s just go with “flawed.”

What do you want your audience to take away or get from your shows?

Firstly, I’m grateful that there is an audience. This reinforces my belief that there is a need here for The Music. What I want is for this need to be satisfied. I hope that it does for you what it does for me. Has your ear ever been so thirsty that you cupped and aimed it at a source to get as much in as possible? That happens to me sometimes. I’ll try to really get inside the sound of a ride cymbal, for example. I just noticed it again yesterday at an outdoor concert at Laumeier Sculpture Park. I was listening to Thollem McDonas, Arrington de Dionyso, and Eric Hall and I realized I had my hand around my outer ear and my head cocked to the side. Then I visualized/experienced my ear as a deep void being filled with the sound waves. This felt so good. It was like a metaphysical itch being scratched. Or my brain being massaged. I want to rub your brain.

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‘Whatever that magical thing is’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Langhorne Slim

Kate McDaniel

Langhorne Slim has friends with crooked tails, guitars for sale on eBay and a burning desire for music and traveling.

On a rainy Brooklyn afternoon, Langhorne Slim stepped into a nearby shop to receive a perfectly-timed phone call from here in St. Louis. I was the phone call; he was the affable musician. We spoke about his raw rock ‘n’ roll and folk sounds, his new album “The Way We Move” and the comfort he feels on the road. Langhorne will venture to St. Louis to play Twangfest 16 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on Friday, June 8.

Joe Roberts: How are you? How’s it going?

Langhorne Slim: I’m good, man. I just came into this little shop here to get out of the rain. Hopefully you can hear me all right. But, I’m doing really well.

You’re on the road right now, is that right?

We got a house show tonight in Brooklyn. And then we leave for Boston tomorrow, which is the official start of our tour.

It seems like you’re on the road a lot. Do you ever catch a break?

Yeah! In fact, I’m just coming off of one right now that is way too long, about a month and a half of a break. Yeah, we tour all the time because I think it’s the way to get music out there, and also it’s just, I feel a lot more at home on the road, and inspired and free when I’m traveling and playing. So it’s a huge part of the lifestyle that I really enjoy.

When you do get a break, what do you do during that time?

Write music. See friends. I had a girlfriend for five years, so I’d spend time with her. I don’t have her anymore, so I don’t spend time with her. But, I’ve been traveling and I’m working on new songs. Just getting ready for the album to finally come out, you know.

It’s a crazy process. You just spend a bunch of time writing new songs and you record them to a record and then you got to wait five to six months for the actual record to come out. So I’m just really, really excited for this thing to finally get out there and to get back out on the road.

How do you think all of the touring has changed you as a person and as a musician?

I don’t know! I’m 31, I’ve been doing it for ten years. So, it’s pretty much most of my entire adult life. It’s just a natural thing for me to do. It was never a conscious thought. I never sat down and thought, “This is what I’m gonna do.” It was just a burning desire to write and perform and to travel with it.

I guess I never even realized that all bands didn’t travel as much. It’s only occurred to me when other people say, “You guys particularly travel a lot.” I’m sure it’s changed me as a person, I just wouldn’t know how. I think I’m just a person that is suited for that kind of lifestyle.

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‘You have to embrace the now’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Pokey LaFarge

Nate Burrell

From roaming the country to touring the world, Pokey LaFarge never forgets his roots. They run deep.

His penchant for the early 20th century transcends fedoras and suspenders; it inspires original music and frames his sense of self. LaFarge doesn’t claim to be a revivalist, but instead a preservationist — his mission is to continue a tradition of distinctly American culture.

Along with his group, the South City Three, LaFarge has met recent success including a European tour, a working relationship with Jack White and an in-progress album collaboration with Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. His current release, “Middle of Everywhere,” is an upbeat ride down a dusty road that showcases LaFarge and the South City Three in all of their old-time glory. The group joins the Twangfest lineup (presented by 88.1 KDHX) for the first time, appearing at the Schlafly Tap Room on June 6.

The following excerpt is from a phone interview that took place as LaFarge waited for a plane to New York City. He reflects on the importance of travel, personal identity and good beer.

Francisco Fisher: Travel has been a theme in your music. What was it like to travel around as a busker and a hitchhiker, and what is it like now?

Pokey LaFarge: Traveling around hitchhiking was certainly not a preferred means of travel. I had to do it because I was forced to, because I didn’t have any other way to get around at one time. But it started out growing up, not necessarily romanticizing the idea, but reading a lot of mid-20th century literature like the Beat writers, specifically Kerouac, and reading Steinbeck from an early time. It was really wanting to be ensconced in a different side of American culture that was never really popularized.

It’s a romantic side of the American culture, specifically train-hopping and the hitchhiking. The riverboat culture and the train culture — nobody else has that. That’s a pure Americana thing. I think that along with the music I was listening to at a very young age, I was like, man, I’ve got to get out there and get to the core of this country and, in the mean time, search what’s at the heart of me, to go out there and take a journey. And that’s what hitchhiking was.

That was early on. And then of course the beginning of my traveling solo about five years ago, I was driving around in a car and sleeping in my car. And then with the boys, that’s been about three and a half years in a van, and we were sleeping in the van for about the first year and a half. I’m proud to say that we’re making a good living now, and we don’t have to sleep in the van anymore.

But traveling has always been something that’s come along with the territory. If you want to go out to see the world, or if you want to spread your music out there around the world, you have to travel to do it. It’s something you learn to embrace, and it becomes what you know. It becomes an art form, traveling, in it’s own right. But a lot of my songs are about traveling, because you write about what you know.

The way I travel now, flying and driving, just allows me to make a living and get more rest, to attempt to be more healthy and to spend more time at home. I have family all over the world, but the core of my family has and always will be Illinois and the Midwest, the middle of the heart of it all.

The name of the new album is “Middle of Everywhere.” What does that title mean to you?

Going back to the Midwest thing, we’re right here in the middle of the country. But at the same time, we’re always traveling, so I’m always in between one place and another, always in the middle of some place, always in between somewhere.

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Festival review: Rockin’ and rollin’ on the river at the Beale Street Music Festival, May 5 and 6

Buddy Guy at Beale Street Music Festival. Photo by Joanna Kleine.

Thousands of music fans made their way to the “land of the delta blues” last weekend for the annual Beale Street Music Festival. This was my fifth time attending the long-running fest, part of the city’s month-long Memphis in May celebration in Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi River.

The violent storms and flooding of the past two years were replaced this year with sweltering heat and humidity, having fans wallowing in sweat instead of mud. The temperatures weren’t the only thing that was hot, however — the lineup was pretty amazing too. Unfortunately, we had to miss the opening night of the festival, which included heavy-hitters like guitar legend Johnny Winter, jam kings My Morning Jacket and indie diva Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine.

Arriving Saturday afternoon, we made it to the Bud Light Stage just in time to see our own hometown heroes Son Volt bring a little slice of the ‘Lou to Memphis. A decent crowd of Farrar loyalists gathered up close as the band took the stage — Jay looking a bit like Johnny Cash, clad all in black with thick sideburns. The band fought some loud feedback as they began, but it was quickly rectified as they eased into “Down to the Wire” from the band’s most recent album, “American Central Dust,” the twang of Mark Spencer’s pedal steel guitar cutting through the thick, humid air.

Son Volt played for just over an hour, turning out a comprehensive set spanning its catalog of material, including a suite of songs from the acclaimed debut album “Trace” to the delight of old school fans. A set highlight was the gorgeous “Highways and Cigarettes” from 2007′s “The Search,” featuring Spencer’s pedal steel married with Gary Hunt’s mandolin and Farrar’s haunting vocals. Farrar humored Uncle Tupelo fans by closing out with the classic “Chickamauga.”

In Memphis, music and BBQ go hand in hand, and the festival offers many options for local fare. We opted to singe our taste buds with some of Uncle Lou’s Famous Sweet and Spicy fried chicken, licking the fiery sauce from our fingers as blues legend Buddy Guy tore up the Orion Stage behind us. At 76 years old, Guy can still shred on the guitar and work the stage like the pro he is — even coming down into the crowd to play for a bit to the delight of fans. In addition to his own classics, he played inspired covers of “Fever” (appropriate considering the heat) and Cream’s “Strange Brew.”

Next we headed back to the Bud Light stage to check out ’80s Brit rockers the Cult. Lead singer Ian Astbury looked out of place in the sweltering Memphis sun in a thick black jacket and jeans, two fluffy foxtails dangling from his belt. His voice sounded relatively unchanged and guitarist Billy Duffy proved he is still worthy as well on classics like “Fire Woman,” “Wild Flower,” “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Love Removal Machine.” A few tunes from the band’s brand new album, “Choice of Weapon,” seemed to fall flat with the audience, however, including the dark “Lucifer.” Having grown up on the Cult, it was fun to hear some of these songs played live again, but overall, they seemed to be trying a bit too hard to at times to relive their glory days.

With the sun finally setting and the full “super moon” rising above the trees, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals took to the stage. I admit, I’d never seen Potter before, though many have told me how great she is live. She indeed lived up to the hype. Alternating on the guitar and keys, tossing her long, blonde hair around as she belted out songs like her hit “Paris (Ooh La La),” Potter and her band proved they can hold down a festival crowd of thousands in addition to the smaller venues they play more frequently.

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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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