Ebb tide

When most folks think of cabaret, I expect the image that comes to mind is that of a single performer backed up by a piano, possibly augmented with bass or percussion.  That’s certainly the most common arrangement but, as singer (and visual artist) Dionna Raedeke and guitarist Mike Krysl will be demonstrating this Friday, it’s by no means the only one.

A relatively new addition to the St. Louis cabaret scene, Ms. Raedeke has garnered raves for her singing and musical taste.  “Dionna is one of my new favorite singers,” says actor, singer and teacher Jason Graae. “Her voice has such a haunting beauty and it comes directly from her soul.”  New York-based singer, songwriter and music director Rick Jensen—who accompanied Ms. Raedeke for her 2011 show Sight – Sound—agrees, describing her as a “vocally compelling and consistently original in her performance.”

For her new show, titled Ebb and Flow, Ms. Raedeke has put together an evening in which the sound will be acoustic, the mood mellow, and the song choices rather different from the Great American Songbook standards that are so often associated with cabaret.  Expect 70s rock, contemporary singer/songwriters, and even some new tunes.  Ms. Raedeke, with a nod to her visual artist side (and with tongue somewhat in cheek), describes the evening as a “carefully curated” one that features “everything from Pink Floyd to PINK.”

Expect arrangements that will make you re-think familiar songs as well.  An inventive musician who lists influences as diverse as Robin Trower, Django Reinhardt and Leonard Bernstein, Mike Krysl has often impressed me with both the ingenuity and virtuosity of his inventive and original takes on rock and pop standards.  I remember being particularly blown away by what he and singer Shauna Sconce did with some of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at their recently concluded monthly sessions at The Wine Press.

“Mike Krysl’s sound is taut, deep and brilliantly soulful,” says local cabaret artist Katie McGrath. “Dionna’s voice is plaintive, joyous and straight-arrow true. My favorite musician with my favorite singer. And the angels smile.”  As someone who has been both a critic and performer on the local cabaret scene for many years and who has had the pleasure of seeing both Ms. Raedeke and Mr. Krysl in action, I heartily concur.

The one and only performance of Ebb and Flow is this Friday, August 9th, at 8 PM at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive at the intersection of Skinker and Wydown.  A not-for-profit music venue, performance space and art gallery, The Chapel has played host to a number of cabaret shows over the last few years.  It’s an attractive, unconventional space in a quiet residential neighborhood that provides its services free to local musicians as part of its mission to support the arts in St. Louis.  I think that’s pretty admirable and worth supporting.

Tickets, which are available at the door and at ebbandflow.brownpapertickets.com (along with some free sample music tracks), are $20 and include two free drinks.  Parking is free as well.  Come on down Friday and smile with the angels.

Concert review ON AN ON, Dots Not Feathers and Royal Canoe more than pass their audition at the Demo, Monday, March 18

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The Demo feels like a church’s basement. Visitors to the club enter another dimension where worship is optional since a basement avoids the light of day.

It could be a storage center, a meeting place for Girl Scouts, maybe a bootlegging outfit back in the day. Although the building it anchors is meant as Holy ground: a basement can duck that dogma.

The Demo’s size lets it behave unlike larger venues. There is a walkway from the ticket counter to the stage created by a brick wall and the very bottom of stage right’s rafters. The tunnel blinds all peripheral vision. Once out of the tunnel, when 180 degree vision has returned, there is a merch table to the right and another vendor — a woman selling lighters. Look up and left; there is the bar. Turn around and get the first look at the stage. It stands chest high with monitors placed on its edge. It can be leaned on with arms crossed and chin rested. It is probably the most comfortable front-row in St. Louis. The venue holds, maybe, 150 people.

I stood there for the last two songs of Dots Not Feather‘s opening set. They may have followed Samuel Fickle, a local singer-songwriter and forlorned lover of maligned folk, but the show felt like it started when Dots Not Feather’s shot into “There’s a Ghost.” DNF grafts afro-jazz beats onto pop melodies and Dirty Projector’s-esque hockets and three-part harmonies. Singer/guitarist Stephen Baier’s guitar parts were highlighted by the uneven mix. His parts are not fidgety, but roam at an urgent pace. With Dots Not Feathers, Baier certainly has something to say.

Benefitting from DNF’s chromatic arrangements, Royal Canoe played to an audience of 50 warmed up for a lesson in music theory. Approximately six synths were placed around the stage — at least three were stacked before keyboardist Matt Schellenberg. With the dexterity of a forest-dwelling monkey, Schellenberg navigated each individual synth portion and backing vocal opportunity with precision. The entire band, for the matter, cut like a blade tracing the bones of hydrogen’s atomic skeleton.

The myriad of tracks that dance throughout Royal Canoe’s compositions sounded enchanting. I have sparse notes from the band’s set from being completely subservient to the sound. The heady mix of afro-infused double percussion and ’90s hip-hop synth tones in bizarre time signatures left me spellbound. Topped by the sub-octave vocal cutter used by lead singer Matt Peters, the songs were multi-textural and sounded unconventionally brilliant.

ON AN ON are brave for following Royal Canoe, for the latter played a set of headlining caliber. As the main drawl, ON AN ON, played a nonchalant set of gauzy dungeon pop. Often compared to Beach House, ON AN ON,’s debut “Give In” is less prone to sleeping in the clouds. Every song was tethered to the ether by guitarist/singer Nate Eiesland’s safety-knot guitar patches. Ryne Estwing’s full-voice falsetto on “Bad Mythology” was as calculated as Eisland’s guitar parts — timed all too-well within the track and attention giving, and getting, live.

ON AN ON did not have the life-springing zest of Dots Not Feathers and Royal Canoe. Born from the fallen seeds of Scattered Trees, they induce epiphanies. Royal Canoe carried on like the conscious thought aware of its deftness. Not a hair was out of place during that set. It made ON AN ON’s set, and the night at the Demo, all the more successful, and finally conclusive.

Concert review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foxygen and Wampire soak the Firebird in feedback and feeling, Saturday, March 9

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A line of 50 people stood before the entrance of the Firebird some time around 8:30 p.m. Steeped in the well-known buzz of “stoked,” they chatted amicably amongst themselves and fellow waiters.

The majority in line was male, clad in street variations of their work uniforms. Burnt khaki-colored jeans, patterned sweaters and shoes that took a palette cue from neon, the crowd for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s set was as attractive and vibrant as it was dense.

Once inside, the solid crowd turned its attention to Portland, Ore.’s Wampire. Had the crowd not have been so curious, they would have missed, bar none, the night’s best set. Wampire’s guitar tones sounded clean enough to be prerecorded and the guitar solos were not ostentatious, but worked seamlessly within the songs without a cacophonous or self-indulgent air. Playing heavily in its favor was the awareness Wampire had of its sound, influences and audience.

On this evening, what made Foxygen and Unknown Mortal Orchestra less engaging than Wampire was their rehashing of Woodstock-era showmanship. The incessant use of feedback, delay pedals and three-minute jams on every four-minute song was overwhelming. It’s interesting to note that UMO’s bassist, Jacob Portrait produced Wampire’s full-length debut. Wampire’s tracks are multilevel, yet stacked well enough to pull off simplicity. Had Ariel Pink surfed off Ocean Park Pier with the Z-Boys, he would have recorded the undeniably pleasant tracks off “Curiosity.”

“Hearse” demolished any hope the latter acts would have of conjuring up sets as melodious and succinct as Wampire’s. The band’s interchangeable tones, manifest on the song “Hearse,” created a maelstrom of ethereal emotions. If the dawn could be heard from miles away, it would wake the world every morning with such sounds. Suffice it to say, I will yearn for “Curiosity”‘s May release. I’m not alone: crowd members purred “WHOM-PY-HER” in Bela Lugosi’s Transylvanian drawl when the set ended. They, too, had been bitten.

Adorned in a hoodie he constructed from the alpaca he shaved prior to the show, Foxygen’s Sam France looked like Father John Misty’s camelid-obsessed baby brother. Someone should have brayed “Bah Ram Ewe.” As indicated from his get-up, France did not appear to take the set all too seriously. Point: He spoke without any self-awareness into the microphone between songs. His banter ranged from confusion “What song’s next?” to incoherent introductions, “Y’know, same story…I don’t wanna be your boyfriend….” The only guiding light came from guitarist Jonathan Rado. Whenever he spoke it was refreshing; he sounded lucid and polite.

Given the right audience, France could be electrifying. He accompanied Foxygen’s quick-draw tempo changes with enthusiasm. He sung-spoke and performed in a Dr. Frankenfurter fashion as his amp crackled every five seconds or so. Unabashed, he stole mics from bandmates, forced some to sing and carried on like it was the second night of Bonnaroo and his acid tab had just dissolved.

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Concert review and set list: Bloc Party (with IO Echo) storms back to St. Louis and the Pageant, Saturday, January 19

Bloc Party at the Pageant. Photo by Nate Burrell.

Kele Okereke, the frontman of Bloc Party, has a rock-star swagger about him, a presence unlike most of his peers. At one point during the band’s show at the Pageant on Saturday night, he just stood at the front of the stage, smirking, and the crowd burst into applause simply because he is who he is.

Bloc Party drifted away a bit after the release of its third album, “Intimacy,” in 2008. The album was relatively well received, but the band made it clear after it came out that it felt no pressure or obligation to record a new album in the near future. The band members went their separate ways, most notably with Okereke releasing a solo album in June 2010, and it seemed like Bloc Party was done for good. In August 2012 though, “Four” was released. It wasn’t their best, but its boldness and new sound showed that Bloc Party still had a fire left in them.

IO Echo, a four-piece from Los Angeles, opened for Bloc Party’s first show in St. Louis since 2007. Frontwoman Ioanna Gika led her band onstage at around 8 p.m., wearing a cloak patterned with what looked like palm trees and horses. She was bookended by a bassist and guitarist who had almost identical shaggy, brown hair. Behind her was a drummer who, quite honestly, I didn’t see much of because the cloak blocked most of my line of sight. They played a 30-minute set of murky goth rock that evoked Blondie covering Bat for Lashes.

Bloc Party’s stage setup was nothing more than four colored squares that resembled an Ellsworth Kelly painting mounted on a glowing blue and grey curtain. At around 9:15 p.m., lights started flashing and a few minutes later, the boys from Liverpool appeared. The two best fashion choices came from Okereke, who sported a white Smiths shirt and Matt Tong, who chose to drum wearing just jean shorts, glasses and sneakers.

The first quarter of the set was a bit slow, and besides old favorite “Hunting for Witches,” didn’t really get the crowd going. For the first five songs or so, Okereke spent a bit too much time alternating between swigs from his flask and his water bottle. During the lengthy breaks between songs though, I did notice some unexpected details: Okereke chewed gum; he’s incredibly muscular; and guitarist Russell Lissack had over a dozen pedals lined up in front of him.

Excitement kicked in right around “Banquet” and “Coliseum,” the ninth and tenth songs. Okereke finally settled on a guitar (he had used four different ones to play the first seven songs) and let loose. “We’re just starting to start,” he said at this point. “Hold on.”

“Coliseum” sounded especially good, with a twangy backing guitar and more soulful tone to the lyrics than some of other more raw, alt-punk cuts. “Octopus,” which ended what Okereke called the “first half of the show,” also stood stood out. Okereke put down his guitar, grabbed onto his microphone and turned on a new sass in his voice and motions.

Bloc Party then left the stage — for what could be described as an intermission — and came thundering back with seven more songs. Okereke talked a bit about St. Louis, including the Delmar Ice Festival that had taken place earlier in the day. “We don’t have that,” bassist Gordon Moakes chimed in. “We’ve just got rain. Rain festival.”

“Ares,” the first song of the first encore, was one of the best of the night. The whole night had a bit of a riot-like fire to it, but nothing sounded more like a protest than when the whole crowd joined Okereke to chant “War, war, war, war, I want to declare a war!”

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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 Front Bottoms and Cheap Girls (with We Should Leave This Tree) keep it fresh at the Firebird, Thursday, November 8

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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.”

Concert review: At the Luminary Center for the Arts, the Sea and Cake (with Matthew Friedberger) proves it has nothing to prove, Sunday, October 28

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Under dim yellow lights an expectant yet sedate crowd stood waiting. Cans of cold beer and cups of hot tea were set carefully aside as the quartet quietly took the stage and the audience came closer. After a quick and humble hello, the Sea and Cake began to play.

Since the release of its first album in 1994, this jazz-influenced indie-rock group made up of Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt, John McEntire and Eric Claridge has been assembling intricate and, at times, surprisingly heavy compositions for their devoted fans.

The Luminary Center for the Arts provided the stage for this stop on a tour in support of the band’s latest release, “Runner.” Prekop’s airy vocals bled into the music, giving the impression that they were meant to complement it, rather than dominate. Prewitt chimed in at different times and even provided the lead vocals on a few songs, but his main contribution was on guitar. McEntire, also of the band Tortoise, mastered the drums and Doug McCombs filled in for Eric Claridge on bass.

For the first few songs, the four stood calmly on stage, playing oh so seriously. Breaks between songs were silent, devoid of banter with the crowd or introductions of band members. The backdrop was a blank, gray movie screen. Blue lights focused on the four as they played, unwavering.

All of this stark, blank seriousness made the music even more vibrant, interesting and engaging. Almost from the very beginning I had the urge to close my eyes to listen so I could better absorb all the layers and nuance. During the middle of the set, Prekop strummed quickly to produce a metallic ping, ping, ping that sounded like rain drops. Prewitt made the sound of waves during another song and while the rest of the band maintained their staid presence, he suddenly jumped to life as if he was one of those child’s toys where pressing the bottom loosens the string that connects the limbs to the body perched on top, making the arms and legs wilt and contort. McEntire’s skill on his wood-paneled drum kit was highlighted during the last song which had a very Radiohead-like quality to it, incorporating synthesizer and pre-recorded sounds with more organic, spontaneous instrumentation.

After insistent and urgent clapping and cheering from the audience, the band came back out and played a few more. Throughout the show, the lyrics were difficult to discern which could have been intentional, but the sound in the room could have been the culprit. It was similarly difficult to hear the lyrics of opener Matthew Friedberger, one half of the duo known as the Fiery Furnaces. Friedberger came on stage and shared that he wanted to tell us a 40-minute ghost story. And tell us he did, though I’m not certain I understood it.

True to his word, he performed for 40 minutes, without a break, during which time he shot back and forth between two keyboards, making stops in between to talk or sing his tale.

The Sea and Cake — its name inspired by a song called “The C in Cake” by Gastr del Sol — was a pleasure to experience. There was a confidence and certainty conveyed in the music that made me feel like I was in the presence of skilled and passionate musicians. They simply enjoy making music with nothing to prove — because after releasing eight albums and performing shows like this one, there’s no need to prove anything.

Concert review and set list: At the Pageant, Sleigh Bells make music for zombie cheerleaders marching into battle, Sunday, October 28

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I wear my sunglasses at night, so I can see the Sleigh Bells stage without risking blindness. What more would you expect from a band with amplifiers stacked to the ceiling than a strobe-lit show jarring enough to induce epileptic seizure?

But it was all worth it, because Sleigh Bells’ thunderous return to St. Louis on Sunday night at the Pageant was rightly met with adulation (and a devil horns headband tossed onto the stage).

Sleigh Bells’ stage aesthetic is driven by its purpose: to play earsplitting hardcore guitar with an equally booming backing track. Enter the two 20-foot stacks of Marshalls, which were not just there for decoration, as several at the bar were speculating. Following opening act AraabMuzik, a DJ with formidable technical skills (actually scratching records instead of mashing playlists), Sleigh Bells’ guitarist Derek Miller, plus one, and his sugary-voiced singer Alexis Krauss triumphantly took the stage amid the crush of “Demons.”

The momentum kept going with “Crown on the Ground” and “True Shred Guitar,” essentially odes to thrashing, banging and stomping as hard as you can. Krauss wriggled out of her spiked leather jacket, skipping back and forth across the stage much like a deranged ex-cheerleader, as Miller and his touring guitarist stalked from side to side ripping as much sound as humanly possible from their instruments. Krauss dedicated the crowd favorite “Comeback Kid” to those of us who saw Sleigh Bells in Columbia, Mo. a few months ago, and those who stuck with the band after they blew the sound system early in a set at the Firebird in 2010.

While the Pageant is clearly better equipped to handle the Sleigh Bells’ sonic tour de force, there was a certain intimacy that was lost on that big stage. Part of Sleigh Bells’ appeal is the connection with the audience: The band is enjoying the show as much as its fans, and onstage Krauss frequently calls to or singles out members of the crowd.

During “Rill Rill” she crowd surfed as a stagehand anxiously hovered onstage, untwisting her microphone cord and helping her back to the stage almost as quickly as she’d left it. Then, because they had started late and needed to make curfew, they skipped the break and delved headfirst into an encore that included “Never Say Die” and “A/B Machines.”

Behind-the-scenes confusion there may have been, but the rhythmic crunch and energy of a Sleigh Bells show is hard to top. Most songs clock in at three minutes or under, lending a frenzied, drive-by feeling to its live performances: the shows are over before you know what’s hit you.

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