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

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: The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band (with Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart) gained supporters for his revolution at the Old Rock House on Thursday, March 7

Gathering up its generals for an all-out assault on the ears of the masses, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band added Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart to the ranks of the Big Damn Blues Revolution.

Taking the stage at the Old Rock House clad in camouflage pants and a black and white plaid shirt, Grammy award-winning blues master Alvin Youngblood Hart quickly tuned his resonator guitar and poured out his soul. Playing in the fingerpicking style of Charley Patton and Son House, Hart translates his life experiences into music and becomes the song rather than playing it.

Hart played a 45 minute set of his own tunes and a few Charley Patton covers, switching between his resonator guitar, a 12-string acoustic, and what looked like a Danelectro ’56 Pro between songs. His slide runs over the strings with the ease and precision that only comes with time and love. I don’t know if he was using any pedals to color his tone, but the low end was thick and greasy while the high end was razor sharp, which is just about as good as you can get for playing electric blues.

The first time I realized exactly what people meant by ‘feeling the blues’ was when I saw John Hammond, Jr. open for David Lindley a few years back. Hart’s set brought back that same understanding, that it is something to be felt, not just heard. I was taken aback enough that when I approached him after the show, all I could say was “Thank you” over and over again. I’m sure he thinks I’m a bit soft in the head, but it was his playing that put me in that condition.

Jimbo Mathus was the next on the bill accompanied by his band the Tri-State Coalition. Probably best known as the guitarist for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus left his swing style behind for the blues in the late ’90s and hasn’t looked back since. His stage persona reminded me of a mix between Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors and St. Louis’ favorite murder balladeer, Fred Friction.
Mathus’s set consisted of 45 minutes of tracks from his new album “White Buffalo” and a few older cuts, along with a few Charley Patton tunes. The Tri-County Coalition is a quartet consisting of Matt Pierce on the Telecaster, Terrence Bishop playing bass, Eric Carlton on keyboards and accordion and Ryan Rogers on the drums.

Musically, the band was spot on the entire night. I especially noticed that Terrance Bishop was playing sparse bass lines while the rest of the band was in full swing, which complimented the songs worlds more than if he’d been playing a hundred notes a minute. Matt Pierce was no slouch either. I still don’t know how he was making some of those pedal steel licks come out of his Telecaster without stomping on a mess of pedals.

Mathus himself is no slouch on the guitar, playing with the same fingerstyle technique as Hart and Peyton. His songs were full of tongue-in-cheek humor and a hint of sadness, which was often overshadowed by the mid-tempo pace the band was keeping. The harder rocking “White Buffalo” was a notable change in pace, one that I would have liked to have seen in some of the other songs. While they sound great at a jogging pace, there was some serious power on stage when they cranked it up a notch.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band was the next up, bounding on stage as the crowd roared with excitement. The Rev grabbed his resonator guitar and flashed his ear to ear grin to the crowd before ripping into the first song of the evening.

Reverend Peyton is one of those guitar players who is so masterful at his craft that you really have no concept of how difficult the style in which he plays really is. After a few songs, he stopped to explain that he plays country blues or rural blues, which is a dying art “because it’s hard to do.” He explained further, stating that in country blues the thumb of the picking hand plays the bass while the fingers play the lead and melody parts. To give an example that everyone would understand, he then proceeded to play both the bass and lead horn parts of Henry Mancini’s theme to the T.V. show “Peter Gunn” at the same time. Peyton is known for “showing off” as he calls it, and whether it is the display tonight or his playing “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle” at the same time, it is something that needs to be seen to be believed.

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Concert review: Imagine Dragons (with Atlas Genius and Nico Vega) ride the waves of success at the Pageant, Wednesday, March 6

If you’re not familiar with Imagine Dragons, then you probably don’t listen to commercial radio or have a 16-year-old child.

Each year a few bands burst into alternative-rock stardom (think the Black Keys, Young the Giant and Phoenix in 2011, for example) and Imagine Dragons were one of those bands in 2012. There’s a relatively routine pattern, where a band makes music for a while to little notice, a catchy single gets on the radio, they headline a tour around the world, and maybe even include a sold-out stop at the Pageant, and so on. Playing the Pageant, or other venues of its size, seems to be right around the tipping point where a band can either keep ruling the alt-rock world (as the Black Keys are doing), fade away for a while and build anticipation for a new record (as Phoenix are doing) or just kind of disappear all together (as Young the Giant did).

The catchy Imagine Dragons song you’d hear on the radio is “It’s Time,” a throttling arena rock jam full of claps and drum kicks. They have a few others that are gaining traction, notably a song called “Demons,” about overcoming hardships in a relationship and another called “Radioactive,” about realizing your place in the bigger world.

Before Imagine Dragons could perform for the packed house, however, Nico Vega and Atlas Genius did their best to warm up the crowd.

Nico Vega, a quartet from Los Angeles, lined the stage with gasoline barrels that vocalist Aja Volkman spent much of the set standing on — barefoot I might add. The band came close to achieving the grungy, Kills-esque sound you could tell it wanted, but seemed to be missing the chemistry and fire that makes punk work. Atlas Genius, all the way from Australia, played a polished, 40-minute set. The sound was straightforward and clean and caught the attention of the crowd, especially during its final and best-known song, “Trojans.”

Imagine Dragons, with only one full length album, a 40-minute-long tour de force called “Night Visions,” were a bit limited on what they could play. They started with some of their lesser-known songs, which sounded pretty rough. A friend who calls Imagine Dragons one of his two favorite bands leaned over to me about 10 minutes into the set and whispered, “They sound a lot better on the album.” I could not agree more. The balance seemed off, the drumming sounded clunky and the sound as a whole didn’t recreate the vocal-driven, arena rock of “Night Visions.”

Trees with spotlights hanging from them, almost like beehives, and two massive bass drums filled the stage. One of the drums, probably about five feet in diameter, stood just about as tall or taller (stand included) than each of the band members who played it.

For the first half of the set, my favorite moments came when the entire band wasn’t involved. During a song called “Thirty Lives” vocalist Dan Reynolds, bathed in blues and whites from the beehive lights behind him, sang with just a guitar to accompany him. Later, Ben McKee channeled his inner Les Claypool for a bass solo. It wasn’t until “Rocks,” a bonus track from the album, that I really appreciated the band as a whole.

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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

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 and set list: Umphrey’s McGee (with the Mike Dillon Band) jam all night long at the Pageant, Saturday, February 9

Umphrey's McGee at the Pageant. Photo by Caroline Philippone.

Celebrating its 15th year together, Umphrey’s McGee (with the Mike Dillon Band) got the crowd at the Pageant moving and grooving with a great set of progressive rock-steeped jamming.

Opening the show was New Orleans vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon with his band, which consists of Carly Meyers on trombone, Adam Gertner on the drums and Cliff Hines on bass synth. To call the set energetic would be a disservice to the band. The crowd was moving nonstop from the opening barrage of vibraphone notes to the end of the last tune, primarily because the quartet played the set straight through without taking more than a few seconds’ break between tunes.

Mike Dillon is one of those performers that almost becomes one with the music. There isn’t a single moment that he isn’t acting like a mad scientist creating sounds from his vibraphone, abusing the percussion setup at his side, or dropping to the floor to make his tabla sound like an army of drummers.

The rest of the band gives just as good as Mike does. Adam beats his kit like a man possessed, almost to the point of losing his glasses. When Carly isn’t making some of the most brash trombone sounds I’ve ever heard, she’s matching Mike note for note on the xylophone or running through the crowd blowing a whistle and dancing with the audience. Cliff plays a bass synth using his guitar as a controller, which is a unique sight in and of itself. There were a few times when he was pushing enough bass through the PA speakers that it felt like they turned on the air conditioning.

The group ran through a collection of tunes from Dillon’s past projects Billy Goat and Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle as well as songs from their most recent album. Often bizarre and always energetic, this group is nothing but smiles and laughter from start to finish. They come across as a group of friends having fun; there didn’t appear to be any work going on while they were plying their trade.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should let you know that I have become friends with the group since I reviewed this band back in September of 2012 when it opened for Marco Benevento. In fact, my band opened for Adam and Carly’s funk band Yojimbo last month. Since my view of the performance may be biased, I had a control subject to compare my observations. I brought a friend to the show who always ends up punching me in the arm when she really gets into the music. The Mike Dillon Band’s 45-minute set was a five-puncher, which is one of the larger beatings I’ve taken in the name of music writing.

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Concert review: Pujol (with Dad Jr. and Diarrhea Planet) punk out at Off Broadway, Sunday, January 27

Pujol. / Nicole Kibert

Off Broadway‘s amber glow illuminated the back of Dad Jr. guitarist Zack Sloan’s blue-jean vest. It read in four-inch tall black marker, “Get Fucked.”

St Louis’ Dad Jr. is not one for subtlety. It played a set wherein guitarists/singers Zack Sloan and Ray Kannenberg would leave stage for several songs and watch along with the crowd of 30 people. Once, Sloan bounded off the stage and flattened a bystander. He then whipped himself around like a toy helicopter in a tailspin before he stood in front of Kannenberg for the better half of the song. Kannenberg followed suit and jumped off stage for the last song.

During this chaos, crowd members moshed. One fan was knocked so hard he flew halfway across Off Broadway. He deftly managed to stay on his feet and ran back into the pit, laughing all the way.

Switching gears, Dad Jr.’s arrangements have a metal bent with a punk-rock consistence. Alternating errant, grandiose guitar solos from Sloan and Kannenberg slid over Lucz’s drums. Sloan and Kannenberg’s vocals were dichotomous in tone. When Sloan sings, “Pukin’ in the sink,” he sounds like he is. Kannenberg’s voice, in contrast, sounds fit for a punk band and matches Dad Jr.’s heavy compositions.

Both would shout indecipherable lyrics before they retreated to thrash mode. Lucz anchored the dog-whistle guitar lines by thumping the mess out of his kit. The disparity of pitch between the guitars and drums balanced the mix. Lucz’s regulated drum work thickened the band’s messy arrangements enough for consumption. Just when the music came together for the last song, Sloan dropped his pants to reveal navy-blue boxer-briefs. The burly guitarist left them at his ankles as he waddled back stage.

Diarrhea Planet has a name so ludicrous it belies its ridiculous talent. But maybe that’s the shtick: talent camouflaged by egregious choices. Members of the band soundchecked to Third Eye Blind’s “Never Let You Go” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness before they encircled the snare drum and crashed into their first song. Lead singer/guitarist Jordan “Hodan” Dickie and guitarist Evan Bird raced to see who could melt the face off a fan first with their firecracker-fast fingers.

The Nashville, Tenn. band’s four guitarists snapped, plucked and brought Guns N’ Roses-style arrangements to the modern age. Every guitarist took a turn at lead vocals. They fit all this into a set that was barely half an hour long, playing the first half in under 10 minutes. Their minute-and-35-second jams are miniature stadium anthems. Propulsive and rowdy, they could soundtrack a night of debauchery with aplomb.

Dickie introduced “Raft Nasty” off “Loose Jewels” as “The Cartoon Song” for it was featured on MTV’s animated series, “Good Vibes.” It was a marquee number for the band. With all instruments ablaze, its live sound is more idiosyncratic in person. In particular, Dickie’s guitar lines showcase know-how finesse and bassist Mike Boyle’s knack for keeping up with the four guitarists breakneck fretwork.

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Concert review and set list: Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three (with Colonel Ford) rock back the clock at Off Broadway, Friday, September 28

Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three. Photo by Kate McDaniel.

A strong scent of PBR and hair pomade filled Off Broadway this Friday night in late September as a packed house of St. Louisans showed a side that time will not allow us to forget.

Hometown heroes Colonel Ford and Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three brought that old-timey feeling via a show that spanned over 80 years of music — connecting the past, the present and the future.

Opener Colonel Ford took stage studded in cowboy boots and blue jeans and provided the excited crowd with an hour’s worth of well-done, clean-cut country music. Armed with two guitars, an upright bass and drums, the band delivered a fine mixture of covers and originals. These country connoisseurs sifted their way through timeless tunes done by the likes of Buck Owens and Charlie Feathers and gave all in attendance an especially beautiful four minutes with a cover of the great country standard, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke.”

Throughout the hour the band sent the crowd swaying and foot tapping into a sense of longing nostalgia that turned the venue into a hazy, smoke-filled honky tonk somewhere down in Texas. Colonel Ford came in and did what all great openers do — play great music and warm the crowd for the night’s main event. Their Hank Williams-era songs with a honky-tonk approach proved to be just what Off Broadway needed to start the night off right.

Between the break a feeling of restlessness and excitement began to move throughout the sold-out crowd. The venue became a collection of sounds: glasses clanked in the back, George Jones played over the speakers and countless murmurs and chatter dedicated to the iconic young men set to take stage any moment.

Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three walked coolly on stage to the soundtrack of screams and cheers that only a hometown crowd could offer. After a quick soundcheck and introduction, Pokey and the boys got down to business, starting their set with a Fred Rose dance number entitled, “The Devil Ain’t Lazy.”

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Concert review: Off Broadway’s Ween tribute takes concertgoers to ‘Chocolate Town’ to bask in the glory of Boognish, Friday, August 3

The band Ween made a career of poking at genres from every angle, stretching parody into marvelously-real, uplifting art.

The duo of Dean and Gene Ween flawlessly used experimentation and genre-play to often absurd and humorous effect. Funk, reggae, rock, psychedelia, ’70s rock, modern rock, jazz and more — they did it all while lightly poking fun at the style they mimic like chameleons.

Amazingly, Ween songs never feel like “humor songs.” No Weird Al schlock here, no, the tunes are a universe of niches as vast as modern music itself. Distilling what Ween is (or isn’t) proves impossible, for they are the sum of everything and nothing, an odd reflection of music, modernity and the pained human condition.

Ween dealt fans a collective blow when, on May 29 2012, they announced their retirement to allow Aaron Freeman (Gene) to pursue his solo career. Off Broadway‘s “Taste the Waste: A Tribute to Ween” show — featuring St. Louis artists the Feed, Dock Ellis, Cree Rider Family Band, Picture Day, Fattback, False Moves and Sean Allen Canan — was an immediate and very welcome effect of the news. Simply, the show rocked.

Picture Day’s “Stay Forever” found the song’s creep-stalker vibe intact. “Happy Colored Marbles” made me trippy with fuzzed psychedelic leanings. Unlike the recorded version, the song slipped into a delirious jam that conjured Hendrix.

“Awesome Sound” was greeted by the audience shouting, “Mah!” and “Fuck!” like a house of wild ducks. “Dr. Rock” was campy and speed driven with distorted guitar and the shouted chorus, “Dr. Rock!” “Freedom of ’76′s” vocals were perfectly emulated and the wet-jazz guitar effect tightly dialed. The entire presentation proved to be a major highlight of the night.

Between each band’s short set the audience adjourned to smoke on Off Broadway’s back porch. The big outdoor space held the large crowd well and it was a pleasure to float among all the Ween-heads.

Dock Ellis Band skewed into Ween’s country territory with “Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain.” The five piece emulated the song’s lap-steel guitar and keys with poise. “Put the Coke on My Dick” was a distorted throw back with wah wah effects and plenty of hilarious innuendos both subtle and not. “Piss Up A Rope” may be the best misogynistic, poor-me, cowboy song of all time. Doc Ellis even nailed the song’s screeching closing solo. “Stoker Ace” finished Dock Ellis’ set with No Doze-fueled, highway rock.

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