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.

Spring Forward

Jerome Elliott

Palm Springs-based cabaret artist Jerome Elliott is making his St. Louis solo cabaret debut this Saturday (June 29) at 8 PM at the Chapel with “My Favorite Springs,” produced by Mariposa Artists. But Mr. Elliott’s relationship with St. Louis goes back several years. He sees St. Louis, in fact, as “the birthplace of my work in cabaret” due to his participation in the St. Louis Cabaret Conference in 2007.

“Prior to the 2007 workshop,” he said in an email interview, “I had done a couple of cabaret shows in Palm Springs, going by instinct only. The first St. Louis year propelled me to dig deeper into the craft and led me to the Yale Conference in 2008. In turn, the Yale Conference made me want to investigate even more, which brought me back to St. Louis in 2009. Since then I’ve created five original shows that I have performed in Palm Springs, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. I would not have accomplished that without the work I did in St. Louis.”

Mr. Elliott also appreciates the vitality of the St. Louis cabaret scene. “I look at the St. Louis cabaret community,” he notes, “as a model for keeping this art form moving forward. As a direct result of the annual workshops, you have created a very supportive and nurturing environment for cabaret. Through social media, I’ve kept up with many of the friends I met during my two visits and I admire how many of you have continued to study and grow. I am amazed at the breadth and frequency of cabaret activity that goes on in St. Louis.” Indeed, he asked Katie McGrath (of Women Under the Influence) to do an opening set for his show here precisely “because she exemplifies what I like to call the Spirit of St. Louis.”

Based on an earlier Palm Springs show, “My Favorite Springs” pays homage both to the season spring and to the famous hot springs of his hometown in the California desert. The eclectic song list spans eight decades and includes works by Noel Coward, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hart, Harry Chapin, William Finn, Amanda McBroom, Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Marzullo, Mark Campbell and Jerry Herman. There’s even a number (Coachella Valley Blues) with lyrics by Mr. Elliott himself.

Music director and pianist for the show is Jasmine co-founder and Webster University faculty member Carol Schmidt, whose work is frequently scene on local cabaret stages. Carol is also the music director for The Cabaret Project’s monthly open mic series at Tavern of Fine Arts

Mixing a rich baritone with a sly wit, Elliott has received accolades for his performances in New York (The Duplex), Los Angeles (M Bar), Seattle (Julia’s and Egan’s), as well as at many cabaret venues in the Palm Springs area. His work in Southern California music and theater has garnered seven nominations for the Desert Theatre League’s annual Desert Star Awards.

Mr. Elliot, though, says he thinks of himself primarily as “an actor who sings” rather than a singer per se. “I’ve learned that one of my natural abilities is story-telling. I like to give myself leeway to improvise within the patter. I love to write patter and a good third of my show consists of talk.”

“My Favorite Springs” bounces on to the stage at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive in Clayton, on Saturday, June 29, at 8 PM. As its name implies, The Chapel is a converted chapel that now serves as both a performing arts venue and a gallery space, which makes for a very friendly and mellow vibe.  For more information: brownpapertickets.com; look for event 365191.

A league of their own

The view from the stage

If the rest of the League of American Orchestras conference here goes as well as the special St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert they saw tonight did, it will certainly be a week to remember. Maestro David Robertson conducted a very full program (two and one-half hours with intermission) that showed off the orchestra’s versatility: arias and overtures by Mozart and Wagner (with powerful performances by bass-baritone Eric Owens) along with Sibelius’s 7th symphony (which still sounds strikingly original nearly 90 years later) and John Adams’s flashy but (to my ears) rather empty “Doctor Atomic” symphony.

There was heroic work by the brass and percussion in the Adams and fine playing all around.  The string sound in the Sibelius was particularly striking.

After a week in Fort Worth for the Cliburn Competition and another week in Boston for the Boston Early Music Festival, it was nice to settle back with the home town band at Powell Hall—even if I am more aware of its acoustic shortcomings as a result of my travels over the last twelve months.  It’s still a lovely space and, to quote a Tom Lehrer lyric, “what the hell, it’s home.”

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: Kentucky Knife Fight (with Pretty Little Empire and the Ladybirds) release new album to a packed house at Off Broadway on Saturday, March 2

Kentucky Knife Fight at Off Broadway. Photo by Ben Mudd.

First, let us get the obvious out the way: I love Kentucky Knife Fight and I’m not the only one. The St. Louis band receives plenty of press from local media and beyond, so why do we need another Kentucky Knife Fight concert review?

Well, it is because the band fucking rocks, as does its new record, “Hush Hush,” which was released this Saturday to an Off Broadway packed with adoring fans, family, whiskey swillers, balcony perchers, PBR tippers, hipsters and bar-rock aficionados. Lead singer Jason Holler and company performed at top form; it could not have been a better night to be a Kentucky Knife Fight fan.

St. Louis’ Pretty Little Empire opened the evening promptly and brought a set of tunes that warmed the crowd as more fans trickled in pairs and threes. Soon, the floor at Off Broadway was obscured, with people standing shoulder to shoulder, watching the flush-faced lead singer/acoustic guitarist Justin Johnson as he belted out the shimmering melancholy of his well-crafted tunes.

During “You Can’t Have It All,” from 2010′s “Reason and Rooms,” lead guitarist William Godfred pulled glowing tones from his distorted guitar, which created a glimmering bed of melody to complement Johnson’s David Byrne-influenced singing.

“All I Know” burst at the seams thanks to the tight drumming of Evan O’Neal and Godfred’s scoping guitar-sparkle. During the chorus, Johnson sang, “‘Cause I know what it’s like to feel alone,” just before a huge cymbal crash and wall of sound from the rest of the band. Pretty Little Empire left the stage after a quality set that pleased the hometown crowd.

The Ladybirds, which could be referred to as Kentucky Knife Fight’s Louisville, Ky. sister band, took the stage after Pretty Little Empire and rocked a set that included elements such as the glittering sequins of lead singer Sarah Teeple’s flowing mini dress, a tiny tambourine, a tattered jean jacket, a gold-sparkle bass, a leather jacket, a shirtless Brett Holsclaw on drums, mutton chops on dual keyboards and enough traditional-greaser-punk-rock-doo-wop to rocket regional pomade stock prices into the stratosphere.

With the exception of a few slow numbers, which Teeple dedicated to “all the dirty birdies” in the crowd, The Ladybird’s set was relentless, raucous and energetic. The five-piece band crashed through “Lights Out,” “Shimmy Shimmy Dang,” “She’s Alright,” Billy, Billy, Billy,” and “Hum De Dum” as head-banging, jiving and swing-dancing fans struggled to keep up. The band’s stamina was as impressive as their rocking late-night-diner-style tunes.

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Concert review: A quadraphonic rock experience with Acid Baby Jesus, HellShovel, Little Big Bangs and Demonlover at the Heavy Anchor, Friday, March 1

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If there’s a musical touchstone that links Acid Baby Jesus, HellShovel, Little Big Bangs and Demonlover, it’s American psychedelic music — kinda.

Each band has its own special relationship and secret handshake with that sound though. Another thing links them: they’re all really confident, good bands.

With typical who-gives-a-fuck bravado and youthful ebullience, Little Big Bangs bursted into the first songs of the night at the Heavy Anchor with an audience of about five people. The Big Bangs members write some really good songs, but watch them play live and you get to experience something unique and contradictory: they fuck up pretty often, yet they give the impression that they’ve been around forever. It’s a jangly swagger that lives in great rock bands — there are no mistakes, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. Lucy Doughtery and Ryan Macias and Eric Boschen all yelled lyrics over one another, a guitar launched into a song prematurely, an amp went out, who cares. When these guys looked unsure, they still smiled, most of the time looking at drummer Drew Gowran (the rock solid core of their live show) to hold it down, which he does. And they do.

HellShovel played next, and it was a nice switch from the full-on fuzz and spit of the Big Bangs to this quieter, drugged-out sound from Montreal. It was the best set of the night. Through their command of dynamics, HellShovel’s songs and ideas got through to the crowd (and by now, it was a crowd) most successfully, like an electric current. Each song was fairly predictable in structure — something like double-lead riff-intro, verse, chorus, riff-bridge, verse, chorus, done — but this may have lent to the crowd’s big, lovey response.

Like a million great bands that don’t deserve it, HellShovel is frequently lumped into the garage-rock genre, but they share way more blood with Moby Grape than the 13th Floor Elevators. Each song is propelled by truly great riffwork, Jeff Clark’s vocals are right on, and Bloodshot Bill’s drums are great in that they just showcase how great Dox Grillo’s and Clark’s riffwork is.

Greece’s Acid Baby Jesus delivered the biggest, rocking sound of the night, but something about it all was kinda unremarkable. Their songs limbed out from singer Noda’s cool, trebly vocals and the bassist’s solid grooving lines. After the reigned-in sound of HellShovel, Acid Baby Jesus’s frayed-edge songs felt a little lost in the echo chamber that is the Heavy Anchor. That said, people loved it and danced their asses off. I was glad to see St. Louis warm up the room so well for these faraway dudes.

Demonlover, the phenomenon, played next — the only band of the night to neglect the tall stage for the floor. Something separates Demonlover from the other bands that played this evening (and pretty much from any band I’ve ever seen) that I can only explain as the band’s constant action toward redefining band-music and what a “band” is. Add to this Demonlover’s weird, perfect sense of timing as St. Louis audiences are ready for something completely fresh and strange.

Enter Andy Lashier, the sneakily overpowering personality/philosopher behind the band, omni-melodic-instrumentalist wizard JJ Hamon, and the sheer exuberant drum-power of Sam Meyer. The sound is spread way out, allowing great strange territory to open up for Lashier’s more detached Rick Danko-esque vocal explorations (in English, French, yelling, whatever). This, and the unstoppable drumming, are really the only constant sonic elements song-to-song, show-to-show. Last night the band released its first recorded material, a full-length cassette tape, but no one should be surprised if nothing they played live sounds like what’s on the tape.

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Concert review: Willie Akins and the Montez Coleman Group define the sound of St. Louis at Jazz at the Bistro, Saturday, February 23

Montez Coleman. Photo by Esther Cidoncha.

The “late” set at Jazz at the Bistro starts at 9:30 p.m., about the time other jazz clubs are getting ready to open.

The Bistro does call itself a listening room — not a club — a place where besides a few aspiring players and Webster jazz students, the listeners are what the jazz demographic has become over the years: people interested in what they call culture, dressed on the conservative side, listening quietly, one glass of red deep, and sometimes a little tired.

And there’s Willie Akins, one of the greatest active tenor players of his generation, sitting wide and stately in a small chair onstage, his eyes deep and distant. He and the band surrounding him represent all that is real and good in St. Louis jazz — no-bullshit, solid stuff, rooted in the blues.

It’s a multi-generational and undeniably great band made up of elite, St. louis-grown (though not all-born) players: co-leader and drummer Montez Coleman, bassist Bob DeBoo (who you can see every Friday night playing at Mangia with the Dave Stone Trio), vibraphonist Peter Schlamb, and guitarist Eric Slaughter. With Akins blowing the sole horn in the group, the sound is spaced-out and dynamic, not so different from the musical effect of a trio.

This spacing also allowed each member ample room to open up and find the grooves in their solos. They started with a busy Victor Feldman tune (didn’t catch the name) that Schlamb carried with his brainy, more-is-more approach to the vibes — angular showers of notes punctuated by weird rests and sudden chordal counter-melodies. The crowd got into it.

Next, the group shifted fluidly into a funky Yusef Lateef tune called “Nubian Lady.” Coleman settled way deep in the backbeat, sometimes stretching the straightforward 4/4 groove to its extreme limits and driving it home with lightning handwork. Here, it became clear that the rhythmic chops of Coleman and DeBoo were at least as important to each tune as Akins’ solid swing. Slaughter, who’s made a name for himself playing with Bobby Womack and the O’Jays as much as in jazz, complemented this and every tune of the night was his jabby rhythmic riffwork.

On Errol Garner’s ballad, “Dreaming Over You,” Mr. Akins found his best solo of the night. Akins seems to favor the roominess of more straightforward compositions for soloing, which allow his dry, bluesy tone to resonate, his strong harmonic ideas to take shape even over Schlamb’s sometimes meandering vibes-accompaniment. I could finally confirm the critics’ comparisons of Akins to Coltrane in that he is a comfortable master-balladeer. Coleman and Schlamb put down there sticks, allowing DeBoo’s tender, tune-closing solo to hang soulful over the room.

During the last few tunes, Montez Coleman invited various buddies onstage to sit in, including an incredible, ambidextrous, 15-year-old drummer named Christian McGhee. What the set lost in momentum, it gained in making the room more friendly and loose.

All the players, foremost Mr. Akins, are humble men and great teachers, perhaps the two most valuable and respected aspects of great jazzmen: the elite who welcome everyone onstage, no room for stuffiness.

Concert review and set list: A perfect 10 from So Many Dynamos and Née at Off Broadway, Friday, February 1

So Many Dynamos at Off Broadway. Photo by Nate Burrell

A blue haze descended over Off Broadway as an ocean-colored light collided with the milky fog of a smoke machine. On cue, New Order’s “Blue Monday” somersaulted out of the overhead speakers. Whether by serendipitous chance, or true fate, Friday night’s So Many Dynamos and Née show was destined to be flawless.

Half an hour after doors opened, Off Broadway was pressed for capacity. Droves of young St. Louisians buzzed about the venue and added an electric current of positive vibrations. They bore drinks in hand, mostly the free Schlafly provided by promoters Do314. They flitted around the venue, spoke to friends, acquaintances, people they did not know. Overheard: “It’s a St. Louis music family reunion! You can quote me!” They were treading towards boorish benevolence at a steady pace.

Mic Boshans of Née and Humdrum began the record spin. He pulled from a stack of records, eyeing his choices with care prior to greeting them with the needle. His pragmatic choices were well received. Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” was followed by instrumental numbers with rattlesnake-shimmy percussion and bass that fluttered. Clayton Kunstel of headliners So Many Dynamos would spin next. His first choice? A brilliant segue into his band’s and Née’s sense of percussion-driven electro-pop: Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You.” His propulsive choices added aural fuel to the liquor fire that brewed inside Off Broadway’s patrons. So Many Dynamo’s frontman Aaron Stovall jumped in, air drumming all the way to Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”

The show marked two achievements for the two bands: 10 years of making music for So Many Dynamos and a 10″ vinyl release of the “Finches EP” for Née. Appropriately, Née opened its set with “Spiders” from the celebratory EP. With David Beeman on guitar and adorned in an industrial-strength onesie, and Boshan on percussion, Née frontwoman Kristin Dennis moved in staccato breaks between her two synths. She popped her voice off with the whizz-bang of a Bop It toy. Her herky-jerky shoulder shrugs and hand gestures caused the black fur on the coat she was wearing to shake like a live animal. For a moment, it did look as though she were wearing a bear cub on stage. A rainbow strobe emphasized her dance moves, as if mirroring her limbs with every song.

The crowd boogied like separate atoms readying the abandonment of a greater mass. They turned and twisted in every which direction, never unified but caught by their own inhibitions. One young man spent most of the set with his back to Née wriggling his body around like a wet noodle. He ceased his loose gyrations during “Absolom,” the first track from the “Hands of Thieves” release. Perhaps enraptured by the ethereal choir of voices backing Dennis, he appeared absorbed: A noodle resigned to blissed-out attention.

During “Let’s Get Drunk and Kiss,” a song the band recorded for KDHXmas 2012, an odd thing occurred: Normally eloquent friends began to spew gibberish as the night gained momentum. St. Louis natives adopted New Jersey accents. As with any good party, everyone seemed ready to abandon responsibility. Libations aplenty, we were buzzing before So Many Dynamos took the stage.

“That’s, like, seven Go-Pros taped to a mic! That’s why it is taking so long!” It was the best explanation I received for the wait between Née and So Many Dynamos’ sets. True, there were about seven microscopic videocameras duct taped to a microphone stand in front of Stovall. Regardless, 20-or-so minutes feel like a lifetime when anticipation is so high. We are spoiled by So Many Dynamos. We come to expect a hootenanny that would make Bacchus red with shame. Hence the whines during the wait time: It hurts to want to dance so much.

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