Concert review: Helio Sequence (with Shabazz Palaces and Adult Fur) sketches a dreamy sound at the Firebird, Wednesday, January 30

Helio Sequence at the Firebird. Photo by Nate Burrell.

Helio Sequence led the ethereal charge Wednesday night at the Firebird with their signature weapon: free-flowing, ambient rock.

Adult Fur opened the show with a personal brand of ambience, letting a computer virtually take the place of a performance. While the duo on stage largely moseyed about it, the crowd managed less movement — save for the guy in the corner who showed up to rave. Regardless, the set revolved around continuously hitting a mind-expanding melody.

Ironically enough, when the guy next to me pointed out the viability of sampling the music, Adult Fur brought up a couple friends to rap. Side note: Tef Poe and Rockwell Knuckles, a couple worthy local emcees, consistently enlist Adult Fur for his production abilities.

Unfortunately the capable couple of rappers on-stage never got a proper introduction. Still, the (seemingly) off-the-cuff raps brought an effective balance to the melodic spectrum and admirable production work.

Shabazz Palaces came next, delving eclectic R&B and rap infused with a kind of tribal sound. Rocking sunglasses that covered half a face each, the duo got straight to work. Bits of the crowd, appreciative throughout, even started letting a few hips sway. The adherence to minimalist beats allowed the vocals, and therefore the messages, to be the focal point of the set. Fans of early ’90s hip-hop should recognize lead vocals man, Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler. Once-upon-a-time front man for Digable Planets, Butterfly now excels at a much harder-hitting sound than the ’90s radio staple “Cool Like That.” The crowd agreed, hitting a raucous high point of the night as the set came to a close.

With little fanfare, Helio Sequence got right to stage and ready to perform. Coincidentally enough, in spite of the band’s having been together for approximately 14 years — better yet, they reportedly met in middle school — this marked the Sequence’s first headlining gig.

The band got deep into a groove and never really let up. Slapback and reverb drenched just about every signal coming out of the sound system as Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel pressed further into their soundscape journey. The band’s sound exists somewhere between Explosions in the Sky and M83′s synthed-out tracks.

All-in-all, the duo impressed: Any given song could transform into the next song, melody or, at one point, a thoroughly appreciated harmonica bit. The transitions made for an effortless sound.

Geographer (with ON AN ON and the Sun and the Sea) maps out worlds of sound at the Firebird, Tuesday, January 22 / Victoria Smith

The Sun and the Sea, a five-piece, emo-influenced synth band, opened the night at the Firebird with a short set of tunes which included “Waves” and “Valiant” from 2012′s “Vega.” “Valiant” came off as drippy, with the droll emotional sentiment, “You are the one, what am I to do?”

“Almost Home” pulsed with wall-of-sound, careening guitars and an interesting ambient element. I wondered at the three guitarists all blaring the same three chords during “One by One” and grew bewildered by the redundancy. The Sun and the Sea quit the stage after a tune that sounded like Cold Play mashed up with the Script, sadly awash in poorly harmonized falsetto work.

Chicago/Minneapolis-based ON AN ON (formed by members of Scattered Trees) appeared on stage for a messy, drawn out sound check. Vocalist and synth player Alissa Ricci looked unhappy with her vocal mix and soon let the Firebird’s sound operator know it. I felt bad for the guy; Ricci’s eyes glinted with the fire of frustration; a lipstick-smeared toothpick dangled from her lips.

Lead singer and guitarist Nate Eiesland strummed into “The Hunter” from “Give In” (due out in late January). Eiesland sang into a de-tuned/robotic secondary microphone duct-taped to his main microphone. This may have been responsible for Ricci’s initial sound frustration. Still, the song featured excellent background “Ahh-ahhs” from both Ricci and bassist/singer Ryne Estwing.

“War Is Gone” provided 10 tons of effect-based bells and whistles and a Mario Kart twinkle, but still managed to seem a tad lifeless. During “All the Horses,” the band projected a Burton-esque nightmare spiral on the back wall of the Firebird that distracted from the song’s manic dynamics.

ON AN ON rolled out a cover of Hot Chip’s “Boy From School,” which jived with its original music, but also seemed to overshadow it. The group concluded with the excellent “Ghosts” and “Every Song,” which along with “The Hunter,” stood tall as the evening’s high points, inhabiting a set that in the end felt a bit unfocused, but was nonetheless satisfying.

Geographer‘s Michael Deni strode on stage wearing a puffy, black designer jacket with his signature, unkempt hair flopping near the venue’s ceiling. Cello and synth player Nathan Blaz readied a myriad of blinking machines posited at his feet. Drummer Brian Ostreicher cracked his knuckles and slipped on a pair of headphones that would provide the backing samples for the evening’s tunes.

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Concert review: A sometimes weird, sometimes wonderful night with Tristen, Local H and Rollercoaster Club at the Firebird, Saturday, January 19

After an inebriated fan hollered, “We love you, Tristen!” the Nashville, Tenn. resident deftly avoided being inundated with drunken proclamations of love by returning the fan’s adoration with, “All right, everybody hug their neighbor! C’mon!”

Tristen would proceed to have interactions like this throughout the night.

There was a pocket of legitimately drunk patrons situated stage front. They seemed to appear just before Tristen Gaspadarek walked on stage, thus missing opening band Rollercoaster Club‘s tepid set. The St. Louis natives sounded out of place in the Firebird‘s basement-like atmosphere. The FM-lite acoustic arrangements did little to pull patrons from their seats, and Adam Henrichs’ mellow stage demeanor caused his vocals to sound eked out. Their set would have been better suited for a coffeehouse open mic, somewhere patrons could sit Indian style, surrounded by cups of steaming black coffee, and await their turn to take a stab at spoken word.

Local H‘s Scott Lucas had an easier time corralling the audience. To be fair, he has been performing for over 25 years, ample time for him to feel comfortable enough that his onstage behavior would evoke the impulsiveness found when one is home alone. I must mention he wore a navy blue sweatshirt with a black and white French Bulldog illustration ironed to the chest. I was seized with sweater envy, and, more importantly, felt clued in to Lucas’ psyche. His first words were, “Hi. Hello. I’m Scott Lucas and I am very clever,” followed by a cover of “Last Caress” by the Misfits. He appeared a little deranged at that point. How many grown men wear sweaters with lapdogs emblazoned on the front and sing about killing babies?

During “All the Kids Are Right,” a Local H song/audience request, a girl walked in with some hair appliance attached to her cranium that gave her the look of a disco Predator. A dozen individual tubes of pastel shades of blue, green and phosphorescent white projected from her skull. As she bounced around the Firebird, her tendrils shook back and forth like organ-pipe coral in a sea storm.

After she appeared and disappeared into the Firebird’s tables near the bar, Lucas called out the couple sitting to my left. If you ever want to be scared for your life, cradle a notebook in your lap while conspicuously writing about everything within a 50-foot radius, then listen as the principal subject castigates a couple on the cusp of necking. I waited for him to call me out, and thankfully it never came. Instead, Lucas said twice to the lovers, “Hey. How are you? You. There. TO MY LEFT.” When they finally came to, he told them to enjoy the steak.

Tristen’s headlining set was permeated with appreciable flubs and charm. For every mistake she made — and I hesitate to call them “mistakes” as her reactions worked so well in her favor — she cursed audibly, shook her head at no one but herself and slunk towards her band while she rolled her shoulders forward under the weight of embarrassment.

Opening song “Red Lava Flows” was initially hampered by a forgotten vocal pedal. After taking up her guitar, she sang the first note with an off-key howl, hissed the word “Shit!” with a smile on her face and stomped out her mistake with one swift movement of her heel. She would later begin “Heart and Hope to Die” by singing into a mic-less stand.

On “Heart and Hope To Die” she demanded, “Show me how your mama and daddy made you,” Blithe and vulgar, she sang it accordingly. Her sweet rasp entered the voice in coo form, a suggestion, then morphed into persistent declaration, leaving her suitor with no choice. She abandoned both guitar and keyboard (which she played on “Frozen” and “Winter Night”) for “The Anti-Baby,” her set’s eighth song. The mid-tempo number had a troll-like momentum, with Tristen condemning codependency. It was the song Tristen was prepared to inhabit. She sounded detached in previous songs, even during “Frozen,” which buzzed with impulse and featured a drum pad and synthesizer; still, she never seemed to get into it.

While the song played, Tristen danced: She would keep her feet planted, slightly bent at the knees, but without moving her legs, and then do the running man with the upper half of her body. She moved like an elderly boxer, all the while with an enormous grin on her face and singing to her touring guitarist, drummer and bassist. Her guitarist danced with her and their movements appeared romantically, not platonically inspired. When she did move the lower half of her body, it was in a series of off-kilter pirouettes. She turned on her heels 180 degrees while making a waltz motion in the shape of a circle. When she finished the song, she exclaimed, “Music is fun!”

Her three-song encore would end with “Doomsday.” Having been alone for the first two songs, and after saying goodnight twice, she called her band up to the stage. The Firebird cut the overhead music. Tristen and company began “Doomsday” by playing the chorus to Young MC’s “Bust a Move.” Fun, indeed.

Concert review: Local H (with Animal Empty) almost starts a holiday riot at the Firebird, Friday, December 21

Animal Empty opened the raucous evening at the Firebird with a gothic set of tunes helmed by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Ali Ruby. The four-piece band slid from heavy post-rock verses to jams that featured a light Latin influence, which Ruby accentuated with nice trumpet work.

“Goodbye” grew from an acoustic jangle to a lilting confession from the raspy-throated Ruby. Drummer Mike Craft flooded the room with well-timed floor-tom rolls. The song deftly mixed the sounds of Our Lady Peace, “Ugly Organ-era”-Cursive and modern post-rock female vocal elements.

“The Flood (Sensual Centaur)” scaled with a tight, near-math-rock drum rhythm. Alec Frisch’s guitar rang layered with the perfect level of distortion, while next to him, Aaron Cajilig bobbed along on bass, as Ruby breathed the song’s chorus like an incantation.

After Animal Empty left the stage, Local H‘s mastermind, Scott Lucas, appeared strumming immediately into “Waves” from 2012′s “Hallelujah! I’m a Bum.” The song built on a wall-of-sound guitar drone with dreamy vocals, which Lucas sang as he quickly plugged in the bass pickup on his modified guitar. Amazing that such a small thing allows Local H to remain a duo.

Local H’s other member, drummer Brian St. Clair, sat on the other side of the stage with a double-stack amp pointing directly at him and his drum set. He adjusted his gloves and sweatbands, took a drink of whiskey and charged to life as Lucas cranked into “Cold Manor.” Weezer contrails mingled with up-beat pop-rock, Lucas subverting both with his snarky, judgmental style.

As a form of punctuation, Lucas spit on the floor kicking out the chords to “Bound to the Floor” from 1996′s “As Good As Dead.” The crowd screamed the lyrics back at Lucas, “Born to be down…” I reveled in the ’90s glory of the tune, which back then, taught me the word “copacetic,” and now conjures memories of plastic beer cups and mud sailing through the air of some long-lost PointFest.

The social commentary that Lucas builds into Local H’s stood strong. “They Saved Reagan’s Brain” featured Lucas howling catchy “o-o-o’s” then singing, “There is no use running with the Chinese coming and I don’t want to see this world burn no more.” The still pertinent, “All the Kids are Right,” from 1998′s “Pack Up the Cats,” sparkled with its sage lyrics, “All the kids they hold a grudge, their minds are logged onto the net.”

“Everyone Alive” from “What Ever Happened To P.J. Soles?” hammered hard with Foo Fighters overtones and call/response from the audience. “Night Flight To Paris,” shaded toward grunge-metal, while “Feed a Fever” rocked with a barroom swagger, similar to something the Hold Steady might attempt.

“Another February” stood-out as an excellent angry punk-balled, offering massive guitar and drum drops. “Hands on the Bible” from “Here Comes the Zoo,” shuffled and accentuated the fact that the world didn’t end in 2012.

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Concert review: Blueprint drafts a night of innovative hip-hop at the Firebird, Thursday, November 29

Blueprint at the Firebird. Photo by Wil Wander.

The Deleted Scenes tour joined up with Indyground Entertainment‘s Always Support Locals series to serve the crowd at the Firebird a night of innovative and original hip-hop.

Local acts Scrub and Mathias & the Pirates opened the night, followed by Buffalo emcee Mad Dukez with producer and MPC phenom Fresh Kils, and was wrapped up by Rhymesayers’ veteran Blueprint, headlining the show. Each act included elements of live production along with potent lyrical flows, a true delight for the fan of modern, independent hip-hop.

The Always Support Locals series is a monthly highlight of Missouri’s expanding hip-hop scene, well established in Kansas City, but relatively new to St. Louis. November’s installment featured Scrub kicking things off. His act included mostly funk-based production, jammed out with Rob Bass on a vintage Rhodes, and fast paced, clever lyrics, poking fun at society and mainstream culture. He was followed by emerging act Mathias & the Pirates that featured former Earthworms’ emcee Mathias with former Grea Tones vocalist and emcee Ms. Vizion, joined by Grover Stewart on the drumset. They performed with all the flair you’d expect from these budding local legends, despite Ms. Vizion’s terribly coarse throat and a minor technical issue. The set included their lead single “South City Livin’,” and a couple chill grooved tracks to balance the performance.

After the local segment, Blueprint‘s Deleted Scenes tour continued the night with Mad Dukez and Fresh Kils. Relatively unknown outside the New York state underground scene, this Buffalo-based emcee is no stranger to the microphone. He crafted his set to build from what he called “small songs” to the “big ones,” bringing up the intensity and energy as the set progressed. He was teamed up with MPC based producer Fresh Kils, half of Canadian production-DJ duo, the Extremities. Already well known for intelligently juggled beats and samples, he didn’t fail to impress with combinations of speed, timing, and dexterity, all with an amusingly light stage presence. After building to their current single “Monsters,” they both demonstrated their immense skill and precision in a quickly accelerating piece, and Fresh Kils rounded out the set with his award-winning “Price Is Right” routine.

Blueprint concluded the night with another well crafted line-up of tracks from across his deep and expanding discography. He’s touring to support his most recent release, “Deleted Scenes,” but the Columbus native tactfully offered only a taste of the new tracks, using his experience as veteran performer to manicure his set to offer something simultaneously novel and familiar. He was joined by DJ Rare Groove, who has accompanied Blueprint on many tours before.

The set started with a low-key, down tempo piece that included a drawn out instrumental segment and clearly punctuated lyrics. He continued to demonstrate his ability to come hard to the microphone with passion and meticulous articulation without the use of traditional, crowd-pleasing bangers. That is certainly not to say he didn’t have any more energetic songs. He used the largely instrumental track “Body Moving” from the new album to add a bit more liveliness to the set, including the first appearance of his small keytar that has become a popular element in his performances. As the set closed, he added the humorous “Neighborhood Weed Man” to lighten the mood, and finished off the crowd with the highly danceable “Fly Away,” from his prized 2011 release, “Adventures in Counter Culture.”

Despite competition from underground moguls, the People Under the Stairs, the Firebird was filled with St. Louis’ dedicated hip-hop fans. In a testament to the quality of all of the performers, the headliners didn’t retreat to the comfort of the green room and remained engaged with the music on-stage, and even the smokers’ porch was notably sparse. From the drop of the first beat, this was a thoroughly impressive and enjoyable night of music.

Concert review: Japandroids go and go and go at the Firebird (with Swearin’), Tuesday, November 20

Japandroids at the Firebird. Photo by Louis Kwok.

It always impresses me just how loud and complete some two-piece bands can sound. The Black Keys, the White Stripes and the Kills are the first that come to mind, but after Tuesday night at the Firebird I might have to put a new pair at the top of that list: Japandroids.

Playing to a sold-out crowd, the Vancouver duo of Brian King and David Prowse ripped through an hour-and-a-half-long tour de force. The set hit full on, so much so that the fast pace sometimes made the lyrics and mid-song dialogue about hockey and touring and a bunch of other things seem rushed or jumbled. With spot-on guitar and drumming coming from two guys with incomparable energy, the jumble didn’t really matter though.

Philadelphia’s Swearin’ opened with a set that was, for lack of a better word, average. Maybe it was overwhelmed by Japandroids power and presence, or maybe their scrappy punk rock really did just lack that “it” factor. My favorite member to watch was bassist Keith Spencer, who wore a “Yoko Ono” shirt and reminded me of Jason Schwartzman, awkwardly lurking in the back corner of the stage. The set, while relatively flat, had good pacing with lots of quick songs and little time wasted. It had to be. How else would Swearin’ have been able to play 17 songs as openers?

Between sets, there was a lot of movement in the crowd. Some of the older members of the audience went for drinks (at the end of the night, the floor was a sea of empty PBR cans) while others pushed their way closer to the stage. I overheard two teenage boys who moved their way to the front. “Is this going to turn into a mosh pit?” one asked. “I hope so!” responded the other.

After doing their own sound check, Japandroids took the stage at around 10:15 p.m. King, incredibly hip with a floppy head of hair and an animated face, began picking at his Fender, while Prowse warmed up on the drums. Their introduction progressed, until it suddenly stopped. “I broke my pedal,” Prowse said. “It actually snapped in half.” With how hard he drummed for the rest of the night, I’m surprised he didn’t snap the replacement, too.

After opening with a few songs from the newest album, “Celebration Rock,” King let us know that since it had been so long since Japandroids had been in St. Louis, they’d play an extra long set with a few older songs. In addition to a few from their first full length, “Post-Nothing” — including a scrappy rendition of “The Boys are Leaving Town” early on and triumphant version one of my favorite songs, “Wet Hair” (I still have the line, “Let’s get to France / So we can French kiss some French girls,” stuck in my head) — the band played a handful of cuts off their first two self-released EPs.

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Concert review: The Supersuckers (with Fat Tramp Food Stamp and Ded Bugs) raise a little hell at the Firebird, Saturday, November 17 / Sean Birmingham

With dark sunglasses, a darker 10-gallon, a couple of Guy Fawkes-inspired beards and plenty of “rock ‘n’ roll about rock,” the Supersuckers reasserted their self-declared title of “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world” at the Firebird.

After manning his merch booth most of the night, Eddie Spaghetti, the leader of the group, took his rightful spot front and center of the stage, insisting everyone “Gather ’round, we’re here to rock the house.”

Sure enough, the leather and denim of the crowd quickly took over the monopoly that the canvas-shoed had enjoyed amongst the front few rows, as the Supersuckers launched into a trademark high-octane set. “Rock Your Ass” provided one of ample opportunities for “Metal” Marty, playing one of three on-stage Les Pauls, to launch into a solo invoking the frenetic tone of Allen Collins. When presented with birthday present offers, Marty, since they were obviously providing the rock ‘n’ roll, requested the first two of the timeless yet constantly updated “wine, women and song” indulgence — albeit in a manner befit to a group named after a porn trope.

Eddie’s cowboy hat resembled devil horns the more the night went on, as it became clear that the Supersuckers would provide the theme music for nights of debauchery. The crowd understood it similarly, as the band’s simultaneous raising of signature gold-top guitars marked the escorting out for a few of the more rambunctious fans. “Pretty Fucked Up,” an excellent but tidy setlist staple, and “Supersucker Drive-By Blues,” a reminder built to ease the listener back into normalcy, served as high points.

Fat Tramp Food Stamp proved promising as soon as Chum, the overalls-wearing lead singer, brought his own bongos to the stage. Shortly thereafter, the bassist, Brandon Shrum, turned out to be the most proficient R&B player in the building while the backup vocalist picked up at least four different instruments. Regardless, the crowd swayed appropriately to the endearing tone as Chum reassured that “she plays whatever (she kindly) feels like.” Expecting to hear straight-forward country alt-rock, one instead gets a nuanced band that hangs in the head like a wisp of smoke in the air.

Ded Bugs, taking the stage as if they just finished a marathon session of “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” was backed by dive-bombs, distortion and a love of feedback. Playing songs with titles like “Who Will Save Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Ded Bugs collectively showed an utter abundance of talent, yet never allowed anything to be as important as being loud. Even better, the three non-drummers, when trading off vocal duties, slightly traded styles, and the band fluctuated from the heyday of CGBG’s to strip club baroque with each song.

Concert review: The Front Bottoms and Cheap Girls (with We Should Leave This Tree) keep it fresh at the Firebird, Thursday, November 8 / Brian Reilly

Drawing an ample crowd — looking younger than the Rolling Stones “Voodoo Lounge”-era pinball machine against the Firebird‘s wall — the Front Bottoms, Cheap Girls and We Should Leave This Tree all blurred the imaginary lines between maturity, talent and fresh faces.

We Should Leave This Tree, a teenaged five-piece out of Belleville, Ill., simultaneously leaked their youth through lyrics exploring the irrationality inherent in young relationships and showed off more maturity in pop sensibilities than those with years of know-how. “Losing My Place,” a high point of the set, started off like a Fueled by Ramen ballad, before getting into its haunting danceability, and continued vacillating, an impressive layering of the band’s personal styles.

Arriving in flannel, no frills and never straying from the philosophy, Cheap Girls came out with a palate to cleanse and nothing to prove. While looking slightly road-weary — the guys have toured relentlessly since 2008, touching Europe twice and rounding the U.S. circuit numerous times — Cheap Girls lacked none of the studio chops that allowed them to make such a living in the first place. The guys sped through their set that would seamlessly fit into any ’90s alternative-rock radio station playlist, all the while proving how banter-averse a band can be. For better, not for worse, even the Macarena that broke out in the back would not be commented on by the Brothers Graham.

Coming out to a crowd of fans who find solace in the high school references and advice in the college-level whimsy of the lyrics, rather than approach the bar, the Front Bottoms established not only their acute precision in developing a fan base, but the infinitely more important kinetic current that earned them an audience to begin with.

Literally, the most movement of the night occurred as the band hit its set-list stride, with a PG mosh pit and some in-unison handicapping. The band, loving it, countered all night, laughing through a line here or there before eventually telling the entire crowd to join them onstage for what became a closing chorus.

High points of the set list included “The Beers,” a head-nodding celebration of how far Brian once went just for a girl (“I’ll remember that summer, as the summer I was taking steroids”), a timely ode (Happy Thanksgiving break college students!) to finally getting with the girl you never got with during high school, and a song built on one of “The Graduate”‘s metaphors for the fleeting comfort we find in between identities, “Swimming Pool.”

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