Concert review ON AN ON, Dots Not Feathers and Royal Canoe more than pass their audition at the Demo, Monday, March 18
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
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.
Concert review: A quadraphonic rock experience with Acid Baby Jesus, HellShovel, Little Big Bangs and Demonlover at the Heavy Anchor, Friday, March 1
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.
Concert review: Willie Akins and the Montez Coleman Group define the sound of St. Louis at Jazz at the Bistro, Saturday, February 23
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
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.
The month starts with a bang — and a chill!
Friday is overloaded (Saturday’s quite busy, as well), with cited-rarely-of-late venues Cicero’s and Plush back in the mix:
Friday, February 1
Kristeen Young / Bruiser Queen / CaveofswordS
Cicero’s 6691 Delmar 8 door/8:30 start $10 (17-up) Smoke-free
Former local and long-time NYC resident Kristeen Young is a captivating performer of dramatic, highly emotional songs.
High-energy pop-punk sounds from Bruiser Queen.
A blend of techno and trippy sounds from CaveofswordS.
Deadstring Brothers / Dock Ellis Band / The Bengsons
Plush 3224 Locust 8 door/9 start $8 (18+) Smoke-free
Nashville’s Deadstring Brothers (now singer/songwriter Kurt Marschke and an ever-changing band of players) offer a blend of country, rock and blues that evokes the early ’70s Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons.
Dock Ellis Band offer classic country covers and similarly styled, witty originals.
NYC’s the Bengsons are a Vaudevillian folk duo I didn’t get to preview.
Marleyfest 9 with Murder City Players and guests
Blueberry Hill Duck Room 6504 Delmar 8 door/9 start $20 (21+ only) Smoke-free
Warm your frigid body with some Caribbean vibes as our town’s reggae/ska institution Murder City Players lay down riddems for Prince Philip, Tony Rome, and several guest singers in their annual tribute to Rasta Man #1 Bob Marley.
So Many Dynamos mark a decade together making sophisticated pop-ish rock with a show at Off Broadway (3509 Lemp).
Openers Née have reason to celebrate, as well: the electro-pop act is releasing an EP tonight.
Door at 8/show at 9, with a $10 cover (3 more for 20-under – all-ages). Smoke-free.
Also on the celebration front, Firebird (2706 Olive) marks their 4th anniversary with four rock acts – Volcanos, the Breaks, the Brainstems and Roundheels.
Door at 8/show at 9, with a $5 cover (3 more for 18-20). Smoke-free.
Richard the Lionhearted / Blank Range / Boreal Hills
The Heavy Anchor 5226 Gravois 9 start $5 (21+ only) Smoke-free
Columbia, Mo.’s Richard the Lionhearted offers a blend of trippy and garage sounds.
Blank Range is a Nashville rock band; didn’t get to hear them.
Chicago’s Boreal Hills are a guitar/drums duo into heavy, blues-tinged rock.
Concert review: Mac Lethal joins local MCs Trak Masta Tom, Baytron and Farout for a hip-hop throwdown at 2720 Cherokee on Friday, January 25
The crowd was sweaty (and drunk) and the beats were thumping at artsy-grungy venue 2720 Cherokee last night as Kansas City-based, YouTube-sensation rapper Mac Lethal (aka David McCleary Sheldon) followed three local, rising hip-hop artists with an hour set of his rapid-fire rhymes.
A long-time lover of rap and hip-hop, I have a soft spot for nerdy white-boy rappers (hey, I grew up on the Beastie Boys), so when I first discovered Mac Lethal, I was instantly smitten. The 32-year old has been generating buzz in his hometown scene for years, but rose to quick fame when he began posting his raps on YouTube, particularly one in which he speed-raps over Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” while cooking pancakes in his kitchen (it now has more than 27 million views). I first saw Mac Lethal on actual TV, when he appeared last year on the pilot episode of AMC’s advertising-industry reality competition show “The Pitch,” when winning agency McKinney commissioned him to write a rap about Subway breakfast sandwiches.
Watching his YouTube videos and listening to his albums, one quickly realizes what sets Mac Lethal apart from many others in the genre: his subject matter. While much of today’s rap and hip-hop content still revolves around gangsta images of guns, drugs, violence and degrading women, Mac Lethal focuses on more cerebral topics like stupid people arguing on the Internet, misusing “you’re” vs. “your,” and his latest tirade against the gay-bashing, funeral-protesting Westboro Baptist Church. He balances the heavier stuff with a good dose of intelligent humor.
Admittedly, I haven’t been to many rap shows, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the evening, which promised Mac Lethal headlining at midnight, preceded by three locally-grown MCs: Trak Masta Tom, Baytron and Farout. I pictured something like the battle scenes from “8-Mile,” but in reality, the scene was more like a snapshot from some weird ’90s rave. Scrawny white boys sporting glow-stick gloves, hats and necklaces writhed around the dance floor creating a schizophrenic light show as drunken young hipster girls spilled beer and hung off of their necks.
We arrived just as first act Trak Masta Tom was finishing up and in time to catch a great set from Alton, Ill. rapper Baytron (aka Matt Beatty). To put it simply, this guy is good. Backed by a variety of samples and beats from his laptop, he pumped up the crowd with his deft skills and well-composed raps. Baytron has a rich and powerful tone to his voice reminiscent of some of the great old-school rap stars like Grandmaster Flash, Ice-T and Kurtis Blow.
Next up was St. Louis-native Farout (aka Eric Farlow). Admitting that he was missing his usual backing by DJ Mahf and had to rely on his iPod, Farout seemed a bit off his game, starting then stopping a couple of songs after botching lyrics. By mid-set, he got into his groove, though and continued to get the crowd moving and ready for the main event.
At midnight, with little fanfare, Mac Lethal made his way to the stage, backed by fellow Kansas City MC Alvie Nelson and another St. Louis native, Patric Brown providing the beats. The dance floor was suddenly packed, everyone waving their hands in the air as he began spitting his raps furiously. Mac Lethal is a study in “don’t judge a book by its cover.” The balding, slightly paunchy Irish kid with glasses doesn’t necessarily look the part of a badass MC, but when he gets going, he raps faster and with more precision than just about anyone I’ve heard. But don’t compare him to Eminem (he’s disparaged that notion in interviews and song lyrics). There’s really not a lot of similarity other than both being white and rapping really fast. Mac has a style all his own and he may well be rap’s next big star.
He packed his hour set with a variety of songs from his albums and YouTube videos, focusing on upbeat crowd-pleasers like “Calm Down, Baby,” “Jihad!” and “War Drum,” as well as tunes from his most recent album, 2011′s “Irish Goodbye,” including “Aviator” and “Jake + Olive,” a sweet song about his grandparents’ undying love. “Black Widow Spider,” an ex-girlfriend revenge song with a catchy harmonica hook sample, afforded another highlight.
About mid-set, he introduced the song that rocketed him to YouTube fame, the pancake rap, saying “Everyone says I sold out when I made this song, but I disagree. I think the lyrics on this song are great.” Brown beatboxed while Mac impressed the room with his lightning-speed delivery. He gave the YouTube fans another treat with the aforementioned Westboro Baptist Church bashing-rap, “Oh My God.”
It’s difficult for me to review a rap show – I can’t wax poetic about transcendent guitar solos or keyboard riffs or vocal harmonies. So when all of that is stripped away, it’s clear what it’s really about: the beats and the lyrics. Rap is poetry – a verbal expression of self, set to rhythm – and Mac Lethal has the skills of a poet laureate, carefully observing and absorbing the world around him, turning it into art and spitting it back at us with a vengeance and a smile.
Concert review and set list: Free Energy (with Bo and the Locomotive) unleashes an old-school dance party on the Old Rock House, Thursday, January 24
The crowd, decked out in glow bracelets and necklaces, patiently waited through locals Bo and the Locomotive‘s opening set, bobbing their heads to songs new and old alike. At one point lead singer Bo Bulawsky quipped that they were about to play another new song, “Not that you would know the difference or care” before launching into a song peppered with vibrant, happy notes from the synth pushing away any possible bitterness. The band finished its set with “On My Way,” the drummer and guitarist switching instruments.
But the majority of the crowd was there for Philadelphia-based rock ‘n’ roll outfit Free Energy, who recently self-released their second full-length record, “Love Sign.” Some in the crowd (and band) looked like they had walked off the set of some “Dazed and Confused” sequel. But considering the musicians’ sound, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. When they joked at one point that the next song was going to be a cover of “Freebird.” Had they actually played it, only the guitar solo would have sounded out of place in their set.
Free Energy’s sound is infectious. From the first notes of “Backscratcher” the crowd was on its feet and moving, and by the time vocalist Paul Sprangers shimmied and sang “I’m alive and the night is young,” it was clear the crowd was on the same page; the floor of the room quickly becoming a dance floor.
And with a constant theme of “tonight” and “dancing” in Free Energy’s songs, it was fitting that Sprangers enthusiastically noted that “It’s a Thursday night dance party in St. Louis. I feel it.”
The good feelings never left the room. Even when “Dream City” took a slower, more pensive turn, the mood was quickly brightened up with a peppy chanting of “na na na na” making it easy to forget that the recording contains a saxophone — it didn’t feel like anything was missing.
Following the loud, thumping of “Bang Pop” the band called for ’80s high-school dance lights and slowed things down for “Dance All Night.” The show ended with a two-song encore of “Young Hearts” and “Dark Trance,” the punch of the line “Will you ever have enough?” lingering in the air as the band thanked the audience and walked off stage.
Free Energy set list:
Something in Common
Dance All Night
Girls Want Rock