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.

Concert review: Dale Watson and the Lone Stars raise honky tonk spirits at Off Broadway, Thursday, June 14

Kate McDaniel

There was a time when country music was the music of the common folks, telling their stories of broken hearts, hard times and redemption.

The instrumentation was sparse, the level of musicianship high. It was played in small clubs and smoky honky-tonks for people to drink and dance to, the soundtrack of their lives and times, both good and bad.

The genre has mutated and morphed over the years, and today the term “country music” seems to get slapped on any act that affects a twang and sings about trucks and silos and swimming holes and such.

Fortunately, there are musicians like Dale Watson around who take a hard line about what country is and most definitely is not, and have no problem putting their music where their mouth is. Watson and his band the Lone Stars did just that at Off Broadway on Thursday night, putting on an extended performance, sans opening act, that could serve as a primer to all pop-country posers on how a real country band puts on a show.

Watson took the stage looking every inch the dapper country music star, from his silver pompadour to his leather-cuffed black duster. From the moment he strapped on his custom Tompkins guitar, Watson had the crowd’s full attention. Without fanfare he started the show with “Down Down Down Down Down,” from the “Sun Sessions” record he made last year with the Texas Two (actually Lone Stars drummer Mike Bernal and bassist Chris Crepps). Watson and the Lone Stars also previewed several new songs from the band’s upcoming release, which Watson described as a “drinking record.”

Not long into the set, Watson declared the show an all-request event, and began serving up fan favorites like “Hair of the Dog” and “Dragonfly” called out by the crowd, along with a couple of “mandatory Merle” songs, “Mama Tried” and “Silver Wings.”

Watson’s tales of Saturday night debauchery and Sunday morning penance, peopled with waitresses and truckers, lovers and liars, came alive through his mellifluous baritone, which just seemed to gain more gravitas with every shot of tequila audience members sent his way.

One element that keeps much of Watson’s music rooted in country instead of veering into rockabilly territory is the pedal steel of Don Pawlak, and his talents were on display in spades. He provided everything from plaintive wails to rapid-fire runs and lent an almost orchestral depth to the groove put down by the tight rhythm section.

The band took a brief break at one point in the show, and instead of retreating backstage, Watson spent the time shaking hands and posing for photos. Truth be told, his legendary connection with his fans was on display all night. Audience members frequently wandered, and in some cases lurched, up to the stage during the evening to make requests or just say “hey,” and Watson bantered with all of them like old friends.

After two full sets and a spirited encore that included an improvised song about Watson’s youngest daughter’s impending move to St. Louis and another Haggard fave, “Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink,” Watson finally took off his guitar and leaned it against his amp for the last time that night.

As the lights came up and I shuffled out into the night, he was still talking at the edge of the stage with his fans. Take that, Rascal Flatts.

‘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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Concert review: Southern Culture on the Skids (with Lookout Joe) throw a country rock party at Off Broadway, Thursday, May 24

Novelty acts have a limited shelf life, so Southern Culture on the Skids should have become irrelevant long ago. As the band approaches their 30th anniversary, the audiences are smaller and grayer, but no less enthusiastic. Probably because the band hasn’t lost its enthusiasm, either.

Lookout Joe, the newest side project of Brian Henneman (the Bottle Rockets, Diesel Island) opened with rocked-out takes on country classics and countrified ’60s pop. Henneman’s on lead guitar, sharing vocals with rhythm guitarist Kip Loui (also of Diesel Island) and upright bassist Richard Tralles. Their country catalog takes a rocky road, thanks to Henneman’s new Rickenbacker that gives squall to everything from George Jones’ “Tall Tall Trees” and Hank Williams Jr.’s “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.” When they take a pop turn, like the unexpected Tralles-sung “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” it’s stripped of all gloss down to bare dirty strings. The trio claims Lookout Joe is something they do just for fun, which shows. But they’re also doing a solid to their heroes with their lovingly-presented covers.

Southern Culture on the Skids took the stage with little fanfare, instead focusing on greeting friends, like former tour mate Pokey LaFarge, who made up the rather small audience, before launching into instrumental “Skull Bucket.”

Guitarist/vocalist Rick Miller and drummer Dave Hartman sported matching t-shirts from King Edward’s Chicken and Fish in Crestwood. For the uninitiated, fried chicken plays an important role in all Southern Culture on the Skids shows. Bassist/vocalist Mary Huff was dressed to kill in hot pink and white go-go girl gear and her flaming red bouffant wig, which she primped and adjusted between songs.

They didn’t hold back on the kitsch when necessary, as on big hair ode “Liquored Up and Lacquered Down.” But it’s not all kitsch. Under the old sound and alliterative hook is a tale of a woman who could have been something, but opts instead to be a young bride who drinks gin to stay thin and makes herself up like a movie star. What seems like it could be a joke aimed at big-haired white trash is a bit sad under the flawless rockabilly facade.

The band’s far more than its throwback look and innuendo-filled tunes. Fact remains that all three are top-notch musicians who’ve mastered a hybrid of niche genres — surf, rockabilly, and hints of country and punk. Miller straightforward shreds bell-clear riffs on “Voodoo Cadillac” before merging into a miniskirt-tight jam.

Any nostalgia from the band doesn’t come from their retro aesthetic, but from their own history. Miller told stories behind many of the songs, like the North Carolina bootlegger/tanning salon entrepenuer in “King of the Mountain,” and the band’s experience in filming “Strangest Ways” on a freezing beach for 1997′s “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Before “House of Bamboo” an audience member slipped Miller a note about how she took her four-month old son to see them in Raleigh many years ago.

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Album review: Justin Townes Earle moves on with ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now’ (MP3 download)

Justin Townes Earle
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
That Justin Townes Earle would begin his career in the shadow of other great songwriters was unavoidable; after all, his father is Steve Earle, and he carries the name of late Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. 
Yet despite the long shadow those two songwriters cast, the younger Earle has always forged his own path musically, a path that has typically been much more country than that of either his father or his namesake. However, on his latest record, “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” he diverges from that country road and channels a Memphis soul sound.
Earle has spoken both of the similarities between chord progressions in soul and country music, and of the fact that both musical genres have roots in the church, in gospel and worship songs. So, the move from a Nashville to a Memphis sound was a logical one for him, and the record was even recorded in a converted church. Produced by Earle and “Harlem River Blues” co-producer Skylar Wilson, it was recorded live in the studio (no overdubs), over a four-day period in Asheville, N.C. Their intention was to create a collection of songs that were both timely and timeless.
Still, Earle seems burdened by his familial connections. The record opens with “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” as he sings the first line, “Hear my father on the radio, singing ‘Take me Home again.’” A subtle horn section swells behind the singer’s vocal, underscoring the forlorn feeling that pervades the song and the record overall. The horns serve that same purpose throughout, as on “Look the Other Way,” a sad, albeit more hopeful, tune about trying to get the attention of a woman. He could be a better man for her, but she always looks the other way.
There are some upbeat songs here too, such as “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea,” but many of the songs are slower numbers; quiet tunes and hushed confessionals that offer a glimpse into a conflicted and desolate world of heartache and loneliness. The record finds a groove, however, as on “Down On the Lower East Side” with its jazzy beat, brushed snare and muted trumpet. But in spite of arrangements and the Memphis soul spirit, it never really swings until nearly the end, with the rollicking “Memphis in the Rain,” one of the best songs on the album.
Earle brings a lot of emotional weight to his lyrics, and by the end of the record it seems he’s at least worked through some of his issues as he closes the album with “Movin’ On.” With a great walking bass line and simple supporting harmonica, Earle sings, “I’m trying to move on,” and the listener feels he really means it.

“Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” is a solid effort from talented young singer-songwriter. If a record like this is the result of Earle “movin’ on” from his country and Americana roots, then it will be fascinating to see what musical direction he heads in next.

“Look the Other Way” – Justin Townes Earle

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Concert review: Willie Nelson mixes it up at the Pageant, Tuesday, April 17

Willie Nelson at the Pageant, April 17, 2012

Nate Burrell

Don’t let the oversize Texas flag hanging behind the stage or the unfortunate Toby Keith collaboration fool you. Willie Nelson is not simply a country artist.

One only had to look at the crowd that packed the Pageant last night (tax day, ironically) to hear him and his Family play to know the truth of this statement. From bankers to bikers, transexuals to tweens, Nelson’s appeal crosses, and erases, all lines of social demarcation, and his followers were out in force last night to see and hear him do his thing.

Anyone who might still have doubted Nelson’s transcendence of the “country” label after surveying the audience last night was undoubtedly convinced after he picked up his trusty guitar, Trigger, and played the first notes of the obligatory opening song “Whiskey River,” strumming with an off-kilter sense of time that took the straight-ahead rollicking tune into territory that was more be-bop than honky tonk.

Backed by a bare-bones band that included just a bassist, harmonica player, drummer and his sister Bobbie on piano, Nelson made the rounds of his huge catalog, from the outlaw country odes “Me and Paul” and “Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” to sparkling gems of pop song-craft like “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and “Crazy.” Nelson also took several songs from other artists, like Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams and made them his own. His delicate version of Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” was a particular highlight.

Willie Nelson is one of those artists who never plays a song the same way twice, and he took obvious pleasure in mixing up time signatures and phrasing, improvising his way though his songs while keeping just enough of the melody intact to remind the audience where he was coming from. Being the guy keeping time for Nelson has to be one of the toughest jobs in music, and the fact that Paul English only used a snare drum to take care of business was mind-boggling. Equally amazing was the sound that Nelson got out of Trigger, a beat-to-hell Martin N-20 classical guitar that by rights should have no business making those dulcet tones.

With his huge recorded output and proclivity for experimenting in musical genres from jazz to hip hop to reggae, though, it was a bit disappointing that the set list didn’t include some of Willie’s more esoteric offerings. The only time he really strayed from the hits was for a spare rendition of “I Never Cared For You,” from his vastly underrated late ’90s record “Teatro.”

At 78 years old (he turns 79 on April 30) with 50-plus years in the business and umpteen records under his belt, I doubt anyone would fault Willie for sticking close to the recorded versions of his songs, throwing some souvenir bandanas to the crowd and calling it a day. The fact that he continues to perform with such creativity and abandon elevates him above most of his peers, and definitely the majority of musicians out there. Just call him “artist.”

Opening act the Pernikoff Brothers played a short but tight set that featured a mighty drum sound and soaring vocal harmonies that made them sound much bigger than a trio. It can’t be easy to open for someone who’s achieved “living legend” status, but they handled the job with major aplomb.

Concert review: The Hackensaw Boys, Rum Drum Ramblers and Lydia Loveless pack a wallop at the Duck Room, Saturday, March 3

Last night’s performances by Lydia Loveless, Rum Drum Ramblers and the Hackensaw Boys at the Duck Room were undoubtedly among the best I have seen in a while.

The venue itself is an ideal place to see musicians play; the up-close-and-personal atmosphere offers a memorable experience for audience members. The venue features exposed rafters, unfinished concrete floors, no windows and low lighting with an easily approachable stage. The layout feels as though everyone is hanging out in someone’s basement with the added bonus of live music.

The pre-show crowd began to filter down the stairs while, with eager anticipation, I took in the arrangement of the stage to admire the variety of banjos, guitars, upright basses and unexpected drum set, as bluegrass and old-time country music typically does not involve drums. Also providing foresight into the evening’s talent were the six microphones lined up across the front of the stage.

Lydia Loveless opened the show with a beautiful singing voice that filled the room. Her defiant, tell-it-like-it-is lyrics are accompanied by her acoustic rhythm guitar and some upright bass played by Ben Lamb. Lamb rocked the bass, alternating between picking the strings while thrashing his long hair around, or using the bow to glide across notes for a smoother sound.

Loveless opened with “Always Lose,” and held the audience’s attention with her commanding voice through the rest of her unfortunately short set, including “Jesus Was a Wino” and ending with “Crazy.” Lydia is young but has the perspective of someone much older; her punk-country sound has limitless potential.

The next act was local band Rum Drum Ramblers. Their presence ignited the crowd and quickly boosted the energy in the room. The three-piece band wowed the audience with performances on the harmonica, washboard, upright bass, guitar and percussion. Their refreshing Delta blues musical style brought a feel of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street directly to St. Louis. It is exciting to see young talent unafraid to create this style of music and pour immense amounts of enthusiasm and soul into each song. The final song, “I Got Mine,” featured a guest appearance by St. Louis’s Pokey LaFarge. This collaboration generated a booming crowd response and was fun to watch.

And finally, the headliners from Virginia, the Hackensaw Boys: This sextet featured the usual bluegrass instruments, all played exceptionally well with flawless timing. The band performed over 20 songs without taking a break, and the momentum never slowed, in fact, it only increased as the show went on.

Each of the six band members sang either lead or harmony, and the instrumental talent was evenly distributed as well. Except for the fiddle player: He played with such animation and intensity, it was impossible to steer your attention away from the passion in his performance. Also notable was the quick and seamless handling of a broken guitar string; the rest of the band interacted with audience in a fun and personable way while also playing random beats while the string was quickly repaired.

The entire show was organized, flowed well and the music was addicting and fun with a highly responsive crowd. I cannot name a poorly-played song, but a few highlights include “Keep It Simple,” “Flora,” “Alabama Shamrock” and “Smilin’ Must Mean Something.”

In the end, the Hackensaw Boys left the crowd wanting more and deserve to have their photo on the wall at Blueberry Hill.

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