Concert review and set list: Wanda Jackson ends the party early at the Duck Room, Saturday, August 11
Wanda Jackson isn’t going to be with us forever.
It’s difficult to consider this, since Jackson performs with enthusiasm and skill rarely seen from anyone who’s been in the music business for 58 years. She hasn’t been relegated to the has-been wonderland of casino stages or Branson because she still works to create new, innovative music. She’s earned the right to play the same venues as her much younger counterparts because she can more than keep up.
Jackson’s band, Heath Haynes and the High Dollars, played a brief set of ’50s classics before ushering her onstage with the slow thunder of “Rumble.” Before a large Duck Room crowd spanning a broad age range, Jackson tore into “Riot in Cell Block #9,” peppered with her guttural growl, fierce as ever. Following with “Rock Your Baby,” it’s clear Jackson still means what she’s singing. She hasn’t turned these songs into dated caricatures. All notions of older women and sexuality vanish. She’s as vibrant as women young enough to be her granddaughters.
Were it not for her husband slipping onto the stage to bring her a mug of Throat Coat tea, it wouldn’t have been readily apparent that Jackson has been fighting a long bout with laryngitis. She apologized for having to confer with her band before songs to adjust the keys to best suit her illness-altered voice.
Before “Betcha My Heart I Love You” she said that she didn’t know if she could do the song, but she wanted to give it a shot, promising to stop if she wasn’t happy with her vocals. By the song’s yodeled finale, the seated portion of the audience awarded her near-perfect effort with a standing ovation.
Jackson popped a Ricola. While it dissolved, she talked of her 2011 collaboration with Jack White. Not many people heard what she had to say, though. The buzz of chatter that’s become ever-present at concerts was so heavy that Jackson was forced to ask the crowd to be quiet so she didn’t further strain her voice while trying to talk over the crowd.
When Wanda Jackson kindly asks you to be quiet, the proper response is to shut the hell up — unless you’re on fire or being abducted. That didn’t happen. The loud talking calmed briefly after a bit of an audience revolt against the chatters, but it didn’t last.
Can’t a conversation wait an hour while a legend shares her voice — one of the most original and distinctive in the history of rock and roll?
Despite the indignity of having to ask for the audience’s attention, Jackson continued to give her all, right down to the shimmery vibrato on “Shakin’ All Over” and the rawness of “You Know I’m No Good.” White rewrote part of the song because Jackson wasn’t comfortable with its explicit lyrics, but this hardly robbed the song of its passion. She sings it like she’s curled in a broken heap, sparingly punctuating it with her powerful growl.
When she finished the set of White-produced songs, she talked about her upcoming album, produced by Justin Townes Earle. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, because the older man behind me was engaged in an argument with a younger woman regarding who was being the most disruptive.
It was a tie.
Concert review: Rough Shop, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Kevin Gordon and John Doe put the wraps on Twangfest 16 at the Duck Room, Saturday, June 9
Despite the band’s name, its set was anything but rough. Rough Shop kept a groove that you could set your watch to and they meshed very well together, both vocally and instrumentally. Lead lines and solos rose up from the background and faded back so smoothly that the transition was barely perceptible. The vocal harmonies were wonderful regardless of who was singing. Rough Shop showed the bright and bouncy side of Americana with great aplomb.
Seattle is the last place I think of when country music is involved. Thankfully, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers added it to my list of cities with great country artists when they hit the stage after Rough Shop. Zoe herself is a fine guitarist and has a sweet, soulful voice that hearkens back to classic artists like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.
And much like those country stars, Zoe has a penchant for writing songs that tell tales of love, both true and unrequited, and surrounding herself with top-notch musicians who can propel her voice into the far corners of the venue. I was most impressed with the group’s ability to stick very close to the roots of Americana without sounding dated or rehashed. This twangy set could not have been any more country and western if had it been performed in the rowdiest honky tonk north of San Antonio — it was by far my favorite of the evening.
Appearing for his third time at Twangfest, singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon showcased the gritty side of country blues. Cranking out some of the most desperate, down-on-his-luck sounds from his amplified acoustic guitar, Gordon played songs about loss and life in general as seen from the bottom of the barrel. Being about as far from twang as you can get and still be country, some of his tunes showcased the bluesy side of rock or maybe the rocking side of blues. Playing the role of the songwriting storyteller to a T, Gordon translated his joys and sorrows into something that really spoke to the crowd. After his set, he came back out for an encore at the fans’ request.
Concert review: Ha Ha Tonka, Langhorne Slim and the Law and Kasey Anderson and the Honkies tear up Twangfest 16 at the Duck Room, Friday, June 8
At the end of the third night of Twangfest, I was surprised the building was still in one piece. Luckily for the Duck Room, the structure is made from the same hard substances that has kept so many St. Louis buildings standing for so many years — brick, old stone and concrete.
A full-blown evening of rock ‘n’ roll began promptly at 8 p.m. with a welcome from Twangfest board member and KDHX DJ Chris Bay. Kasey Anderson and the Honkies opened night three with a solid set. Anderson advised that his Pacific Northwest-based quartet brought along songs mostly culled from his 2011 record “Heart of a Dog.” After opening with “Kasey Anderson’s Dream,” the singer dryly welcomed the crowd to the show with, “Welcome to Bonnaroo.” After some witty banter, he continued by saying, “We like your city a lot. It’s a lot bigger than we thought. There are a lot of bricks.”
During the hour-plus set, Anderson stood at stage center with a laid-back attitude and a sense of cool. Wearing a Roky Erickson t-shirt, newsboy hat and jeans, the thin musician strummed a guitar borrowed from Son Volt sideman Mark Spencer and sang with the same rawness of a young Steve Earle. The band promptly ripped into “Mercy,” a song that harkens back to early ’70s blues rock made famous by the Rolling Stones or the Faces. With a opening slide guitar burst from Andrew McKeag “Sirens and Thunder” kicked in with the power of a perfect summer road trip song.
The classic rock vibe continued with “Exit Ghost” which Anderson neatly transitioned into a medley adding Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” to the end. Anderson doesn’t seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel with his music, but certainly follows in the footsteps of giants as he grabs parts here and there for his own custom sound.
Later in the set, he dedicated his new song “Some Depression” to Peter Blackstock and Kyla Fairchild, former impresarios of No Depression magazine. The song, a witty dig on the alt-country scene contains sharp references to over zealous fans including the line with roots in the local scene, “You got Tweedy and Farrar on your vanity plates driving your Prius down the lost highway.” Bringing it all back home, the set ended with a raucous version of Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues” with McKeag and Mark Spencer trading scintillating solos as Anderson sang and took a back seat to the guitar theatrics. The evening already had a great start.
As a changeover ensued, the crowd refilled their drinks, checked out the Twangfest merchandise and records from the bands and waited for the appearance of Langhorne Slim. When he appeared on stage in his black sport coat, and black hat pulled down tight, the women in the crowd, of which there were many, swooned. With his band, the Law, featuring Jeff Ratner on upright bass, Malachi DeLorenzo on drums and David Moore on keyboard and banjo, Langhorne Slim gave the evening a soulful vibe in the middle of a whole mess of rock. On record Slim can be great, but in the live setting he can be simply amazing which keeps his fans coming back time and time again. The band played a raw set that was loose and altogether tight at the same time, but much like the whirling dancers on the floor.
Concert review: The Polyphonic Spree (with New Fumes and Sweet Lee Morrow) raise all voices at the Duck Room, Friday, May 11
Down the stairs and past the bar, a screen on the Duck Room stage displayed a jerky psychedelic image resembling a collage of contorted faces.
The disco ball spun slowly in the foreground as the stage was prepared for New Fumes to perform. Leaving his position behind the merchandise table, a tall, thin, man humbly approached the stage and looped a guitar over his shoulder as he crouched behind. He carried the unassuming air of a roadie, but this was the sole member of New Fumes, a psychedelic rock and dance act on Tim DeLaughter’s Good Records label from Dallas.
“Hi, I’m Daniel,” he began, placing a goat mask atop his head. “I have a pretty brief set so if you don’t like my music don’t worry, it will be over soon.” As he began with a trippy swirl of electronic chaos he smoothly launched into a psychedelic rendition of the Star Wars theme. With equally trippy video playing on the background screen the crowd roared with approval. Continuing to paint his tapestry of electronic psychedelia, New Fumes gained the respect of many attendees who applauded as he left the stage just as humbly as he had entered.
The second performer, Sweet Lee Morrow, took the stage also as a lone member act. However, the shy and quiet nature of the previous performer was contrasted by a much more vocal and confident display of folk and pop-rock piano and guitar tunes. Moving from behind his keyboard, he kneeled as he took hold of his guitar. Placing the headstock on his finger, he offered the crowd a bonus balancing act before submitting a final set of gracious jams.
As the crowd prepared for what they hoped would be an extraordinarily uplifting time with the Polyphonic Spree a red curtain was stretched across the front of the stage. A Vaudeville-sounding tune sprinkled out from the speakers as the spotlighted disco ball spun and sent sparkled light squares across the room.
Scissors punctured the curtain from behind. The shape of a heart was cut out as the piano began to play softly. Blasting into a full-band chorus, lead singer, Tim DeLaughter, cut the curtain in half, revealing a crew of 13 people playing and singing in white robes. A single red heart adorned each robe as a symbol of the group’s message.
Horns blared over dual percussion. Keys and a cello added to the mix with four females lending vocal support to DeLaughter. By the end of the first song the band was conducting an audience-aided sing-along. Throughout the evening some sang the lyrics like gospel while others simply stood and smiled. And of course, Beatle Bob was there rocking away in the front row.
The band set included the hits “Hold Me Now” and “Light and Day,” but also offered up a smoothly transitioned set of lesser-known crowd pleasers like “Soldier Girl.” One of the major highlights of the evening was the band’s rousing cover of the Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” The band danced and grooved as DeLaughter led the show, grabbing the rafters as he leaned toward the crowd.
Following a triumphant, horn-focused finale the band took a short break before returning to gracious cheers. Playing another three songs, the Spree’s symphony entertained the packed house as they true their hands to the ceiling in celebration. As the end of the last song approached, the crowd chanted with the harmonies of the band, “All in good time, raise our voices.”
The band members slowly left the stage in pairs until all that remained was DeLaughter with his hand on the rafters extending his microphone to the choir in the crowd. Bowing in appreciation DeLaughter waved as he followed his crew exiting the stage.
There is nothing conventional about the Polyphonic Spree. Sonically they throw down with as many as 22 members simultaneously jamming, dancing and prancing about while creating layered grooves that are part gospel choir, part indie rock show and part cultish love-fest.
What appears initially to be completely chaotic is actually a well-organized machine that brings together a diverse blend of musical elements, including a choir and dense instrumentation. Since their inception, the Spree has carved a niche for themselves by bringing their musical carousel of mayhem and insanity to smaller and intimate venues.
Tim DeLaughter, who formed the band in 2000 from the ashes of his previous band Tripping Daisy embraces the chaos. Besides being a working and touring musician, DeLaughter runs his own and record store, Good Records, in Dallas.
Although they are in the midst of a spring tour, the Polyphonic Spree is not promoting a new album in the traditional sense. Instead they are again eschewing convention by releasing new songs as a series of singles first before going the traditional route of releasing a proper full album. This current tour, their first in four years, incorporates this new material into their set list.
In addition to making three albums they also have judicially placed their songs in various televisions shows and movies to maximize exposure. They have just released a new single called “What Would You Do?” and a new album is promised down the road.
I caught up with DeLaughter by email, and he shared his thoughts on the band, its live shows, a possible new record and creative process.
Rob Levy: How did the band come about?
Tim DeLaughter: I called some friends and family over. I had been writing on the piano because I was bored with guitar. We were storing the piano for a friend. I wanted a symphonic approach, and after a few improv sessions in my living room we played a 30 minute set.
How has this tour been going?
Really great. This is phase three. Tours have progressed naturally, getting better and better each show.
How do the songs on your records transfer over to a live show?
There is definitely a certain excitement and tone when playing live that can be difficult to capture in the studio. We build in many segues and space within our live set when possible. [They are] two different animals.
You are doing a Halloween show in the UK with all the songs from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” How did that come about?
We have been wanting to change it up a bit and do different things. Our agent in the UK came up with the idea. So we said yes.
What is the music scene like in Dallas right now?
There is always plenty going on. Something new, something different, eclectic.
It has been four years since the last tour. How has the band changed in that time?
We actually toured Australia a couple of years ago and have played several one off shows so it’s been a gradual evolution which is different than just being off for four years. If anything I believe we are more precise and have reached a place of full satisfaction delivery with our music live and with more purpose. Recording wise we are really exploring.
Concert review and set list: Sara Watkins (with Sarah Siskind) finds the acoustic sweet spot at the Duck Room, Thursday, April 19
To embark on a solo career after being part of a successful group for a number of years is a daunting task. Nevertheless, Sara Watkins seems to be making a smooth transition.
With her former band, Nickel Creek, firmly on hiatus, Watkins has branched out and made several musical connections in supergroups like the Works Progress Administration and performed with the Decemberists on an extensive tour last year. Clearly, she’s having a good time playing and exposing herself to a wide variety of material.
An upbeat Watkins took to the stage at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room sang, played fiddle and guitar, and fully entertained the 125 or so people that came to the basement venue to hear her. Flanked by her older brother Sean on acoustic and electric guitar and Tyler Chester on bass, percussion and guitar, Watkins, wore a simple black dress and brown leather boots. She played a wide spectrum of originals and several cover songs over her 90 minute set. Her voice, light hearted, yet strong, cut through the mix clearly as she tackled the songs easily — a well-honed performer.
While she mixed in a couple of new songs from her forthcoming album due in May, she mostly stuck to material from her first self-titled solo album and other covers. After beginning with an instrumental called, “The Foothills,” the first cover of the set was from the Everly Brothers, “You’re the One I Love,” a song that Watkins recently recorded as a duet with Fiona Apple as a 7″ single for this weekend’s Record Store Day celebration.
Watkins alternated between original songs and covers throughout the rest of the set including three of the five that ended up on her first solo record. She interpreted songwriters that ran the gamut from folk, country, pop and rock. From the gospel of the Louvin Brothers, “River of Jordan,” to the ’60s pop of Michael Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” to the her gorgeous solo rendition of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” Watkins showed that she could be counted on to handle any genre she chooses.
During the John Hartford tune, “Long Hot Summer Day,” Watkins finally let loose a bit from the restrained fiddle she’d played most of the show and dug in and let it fly to have some fun. During the few years since her first album, she has made this song her own. She pandered to the crowd a bit and encouraged them to sing along to the chorus of the song about traveling down the Illinois River. To end the main set Watkins brought out one of the new songs, “Take Up Your Spade,” the last song on the new record. Here she was confident and proud, and it ended up to be one of the strongest performances of the set.
Concert review: The Hackensaw Boys, Rum Drum Ramblers and Lydia Loveless pack a wallop at the Duck Room, Saturday, March 3
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.
Concert review: Jump Starts, the Stingrays, Tenement Ruth and the Dive Poets blend diverse talents at the Duck Room, Saturday, February 11
The pop two piece — featuring Justin Johnson on guitar and vocals and Sarah Ross on drums, maracas, and vocals — kicked off a rollicking night. Did I mention that Ross never sat down? No matter whether she was holding a maraca, keeping the beat and/or singing. Her counterpart meanwhile connected positive and negative electrons as he used his body to channel the electric emotions into acoustic melodies.
With the stage sufficiently warmed to host out-of-towners, the Stingrays from Columbia took up their instruments next. They wasted no time in upping the musical ante. With a bass player that had more pedals this side of Les Claypool and a most expressive-faced drummer, the band did not disappoint visually. Their pop verses and choruses were interspersed by Built to Spill-esque guitar solos with a little Queen sprinkled on top. The five boys played so tightly together you could probably flip to any page of their songbook and they would still be on the same letter and corresponding note.
Local mainstays Tenement Ruth followed the Stingrays. The band seared through a set of both originals and covers, including songs by the Rentals and Guns ‘n Roses. Melissa Anderson’s voice did its best to keep Dave Anderson’s frenetic lead guitar in check; he probably could have endlessly soloed for hours on end. While entertaining, Anderson seemed almost constrained having to fit within the confines of a four piece.
The Dive Poets took the stage around 11 p.m. to close out the night properly. The later night revelers easily related to lyrics detailing travails of lying, cheating, stealing and drinking. The Poets played to their faithful by sloppily pouring out emotions on stage — like whiskey drunks who sway back and forth but never seem to spill a drop.
On the floor, one dancer who resembled a rasta robot grooved on his own until others slowly got in the spirit with him. As the crowd slowly dwindled, the dancers multiplied. As is usually the case, those that stayed the latest had the most fun.