Concert review: Chris Knight, Cody Canada and Evan Felker swap songs and stories at Off Broadway, Friday, March 22
There is a haze of cigarette smoke and coffee stains as the memories of a few hours ago settle in. This midnight oil burns as daylight starts to arise. The songs of Chris Knight, Cody Canada and Evan Felker are a not-so-distant memory.
At Off Broadway on Friday night, three chairs lined the stage and in those chairs three of today’s best songwriters passed the proverbial guitar around. This relay of songs conjured fantasies of times gone by, a distant past when poets with guitars would sit around the kitchen tables with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a case of beer and other substances, just to bullshit, sing, laugh and pass the guitar. The sight of Knight, Canada and Felker trade songs made that fantasy come just a little closer to reality.
Beer and whiskey flowed with rowdy abandonment as the crowd was let into a world that only songwriters and pickers usually get to see. The sound that filled Off Broadway was the pure essence of what these three songwriters are known for. They are the writers and singers of songs, songs that have been stripped naked and vulnerable to expose an undiluted emotional core.
Cody Canada took center stage where he acted as ringmaster. He opened the show with a welcome and a first song. This Oklahoma native, best known for his work with Cross Canadian Ragweed, showcased a deeper sense of song-craft, one that gets lost in his rowdy, high-velocity electric country musings. Alone with his guitar, he was clearly an artist with more to offer than country-rock ear candy. Canada’s songs became almost unrecognizable as they took on a new life that allowed room for each of his songs to resonate.
There was nervous energy for Evan Felker as he waited his turn. He showed a desire to prove to himself and to the audience that he was on par with Canada and Knight’s years of experience and craft. The leader of the Turnpike Troubadours took his place with a sound inspired by a New York folk/country tradition influenced as much by Ryan Adams as it is the folk scare of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Felker’s songs have a great pop sensibility, but they also have roots in the traditions of the south and Appalachian Mountains. The intimacy of being alone with his guitar was countered with a cocksure rock attitude that resulted in rousing versions of “Whole Damn Town,” “Every Girl” and “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead.” He led the crowd in sing-alongs with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Stag hoisted high into the air.
Sitting quietly, waiting, listening, watching was Chris Knight. He embodied the elder-statesman with songs that reached down into the heart and soul pulling at the strings of humanity. His songs expressed a loss and reverences, a feeling that no longer are you “like” a rolling stone but you have “become” a rolling stone.
As his hands touched the neck of the guitar and his voice carried out his first song, “In the Meantime,” he made you believe he had lived these songs. His voice evoked the spirit of Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Songs like “Rural Route,” “Enough Rope” and “The River’s Own” speak to the dissipating rural life that was so prominent when Woody Guthrie took to the trains to find America. The America that Guthrie saw may be gone, but Knight digs deeply into the heart of those who care to keep the dusty American roots alive.
As with any show, the crowd was ready for one more song and one more beer. After the main set, Canada, Knight and Felker returned to the stage to give the audience a musical nightcap. Knight started the encore with the title track from his most recent album, “Little Victories.” On the strength of the audience’s response Canada quickly followed up with a rousing version of the Neil Young classic “The Needle and the Damage Done.” This version seemed to set the final tone for his portion of the set, a way to say goodbye with one of the most amazing songs about love and loss.
But it was Felker that finished off the night. With harmonica in hand he launched into a rowdy version of “Long Hot Summer Day.” Canada supplied the guitar while Felker took his harmonica to the mic stand to create the rhythm of hammers and pickaxes landing to the ground. It was the spirit of the classic work songs that sent the crowd into one last frenzy.
Concert review: Robert Earl Keen (with Andrea Davidson) thrills a sold-out Off Broadway, Thursday, March 7
I often get my pre-show cocktails wrong. Mescaline, for example, was not the right choice for “West Side Story” at the Fox. Although, I must say the all-iguana Jets vs. Sharks rumble was pretty cool. But a tall beer and a whiskey back was perfect for a night with Texas songwriting raconteur Robert Earl Keen at Off Broadway on Thursday night.
While he didn’t marry Julia Roberts or front a butch Patsy Cline act like some of his contemporaries, he is mentioned in the same fine company as Townes, Nanci and Jerry Jeff when songwriting is being discussed. It was my first time seeing him but his live act is a famous mix of cowboy-bodhisattva storytelling, an oeuvre containing enough out-and-out party songs to rival Jimmy Buffett — plus a kick-ass band. Keen and his gang have been together for the best part of two decades and have been asked to record no less than six live albums. They also sold out Off Broadway just last September.
REK carries heavy mojo in the songwriting and recording industry. His last album, 2011′s “Ready for Confetti,” was produced by Nashville super producer and Dixie Chick papa, Lloyd Maines, and the list of artists that have covered Keen songs on their albums is too long to list.
Also: Keen once called the Kings of Leon “pussies” for canceling a show. Yup. I had high expectations.
A sold-out show at Off Broadway is the most sold out show you’ll likely ever see. The venue must have a very good working relationship with fire-code officials. The crowd was mixed in age, but a feeling of camaraderie permeated the room that said this probably was not the audience’s first rodeo. It felt a little like a Lone Star Dead thing.
As Joe Ely once sang, “If you’ve done it before, you’ll be doing it some more.” Joe was talking about sex though.
Andrea Davidson opened up the show and warmed the crowd with a strong, percussive solo presence. Sometimes beatboxing into an electronic delay looper and often playing harmonica to flesh out her strong guitar playing, Davidson played nine songs, singing in a rich, confident voice, and took several occasions to pump up the crowd up for REK between her songs. Davidson showed great aplomb, carrying on after breaking a string on her eighth song and getting help from backstage, in the way of another guitar, to do her final number. The audience appreciated her tenacity. Davidson also opened for Keen in September, by the way, so it just seemed like friends all around.
After a short break that seemed just long enough to take care of necessities, Keen and his band took the stage and, before playing a note, he turned to a rather famous and slightly rude picture of Johnny Cash hanging behind the bar and gave it the finger. You know the picture so, to be fair, the picture started it. To the delight of the audience, Keen yelled, “Fuck you, too, Johnny!” Then, seeming satisfied and a bit calmed by the act, he said, “I feel better about that now” and launched into the first of the 17 songs comprising the main set with three songs in two encores to follow.
Keen said early on that since they had just been at Off Broadway some few months back, they were going to try to not play all the same songs. Keen knows his crowd and the set list was masterful. It was like a slow crescendo, rising from the first song, expertly managed, mixing humor and poetry and picking along the way.
An early highlight was “Wild Wind” which Keen said he wrote on a guitar he paid way too much for. And then he said he sold the guitar with a copy of the lyrics inside. Hopefully for a lot more money still.
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: Night Beds (with Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine) awaken emotions at Off Broadway, Monday, February 11
St. Louis’ Cassie Morgan knelt before her guitar and tuned up. Her curly mane followed the slope of her shoulder and fell behind her head as she stood up and began an opening set for Nashville, Tenn. act Night Beds.
Beth Bombara — aka the Lone Pine of Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine — stood to the songwriter’s right with toms in hand and a glockenspiel that separated her from the crowd that eventually grew to over 75 people. An excited chatter percolated throughout patrons and muffled Morgan’s soft delivery. Her foreboding tales of love gone awry are crafted for more placid crowds. Unfortunately, the audience at Off Broadway appeared oblivious to Morgan’s craft and talked audibly amongst themselves.
As Morgan strummed her guitar and sang with an inflection that echoed macabre-folk icon Neko Case, Bombara displayed an impressive musicality. In addition to the glockenspiel, Bombara played a harmonium, tambourine, maraca and a crystal wine glass: She slid her finger over the glass’s rim and made a sound reminiscent of a Theremin.
The crowd’s attention may have been diverted from Morgan and the Lonely Pine due to headliner Night Beds. They resolved to silence once Winston Yellen and company came upon the stage. He sported three touring musicians, two from St. Louis. Although Yellen neglected to introduce them, it could be inferred by their reactions to the crowd’s shouts, and the number of people who flocked to them post-show, that drummer Taylor and guitarist Caleb call St. Louis home.
Yellen opened his set with “Faithful Heights,” an a cappella joint that hushed the crowd and revealed Yellen’s voice to be more mature live than recorded on “Country Sleep.” His vocals escaped the speakers with a sonic boom’s start and brick walls’ solidarity. Yellen and his compositions have a potent presence that brimmed with emotionally curated confessions. I doubt anyone would have batted an eye if he yanked the amp from underneath his lap steel guitarist, sat down and read from his diary.
Perhaps Yellen’s pinched countenance gave him the visage of Internet meme sensation Grumpy Cat, but something about Yellen clearly reeked of moodiness. He castigated an inebriated audience member who spoke to his guitar tech/brother; the aggressive tone caused a palpable tremor of discomfort through the crowd. When he walked into the audience during the band’s last number, he steered an audience member with his head in the way of domed-head pachycephalosaurs. His previous actions made me think he was gearing up to crack the guy in the face. He did, however, show several moments of joy. Once, out of the dark, he patted a patron on the shoulder and had a playful exchange with St. Louis musician Ryan Carpenter who, from the balcony, thanked Yellen graciously for coming to St. Louis.
In contrast, Yellen’s drummer had a smile plastered to his face throughout the set. He was incandescent during “Hope Springs” and embellished his movements generously, often drumming akimbo as his limbs created jangled angles. His jovial demeanor contrasted during Yellen’s melancholic set. Even when he busted his kick pedal he never ceased to be ebullient: he flung the broken bit aside with the flair of a tipsy troublemaker.
Despite the odd conflation of personalities on stage, Night Beds played an impeccable set. They played clean, and the songs’ collisions sounded like interludes rather than bridges from chorus to chorus. They played unrushed, yet Yellen’s compositions leaned into one another and created a fleet set.
The crowd chanted “One more song!” when Night Beds closed up shop. Despite their pleas, there was no encore.
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.
Concert review: Pujol (with Dad Jr. and Diarrhea Planet) punk out at Off Broadway, Sunday, January 27
St Louis’ Dad Jr. is not one for subtlety. It played a set wherein guitarists/singers Zack Sloan and Ray Kannenberg would leave stage for several songs and watch along with the crowd of 30 people. Once, Sloan bounded off the stage and flattened a bystander. He then whipped himself around like a toy helicopter in a tailspin before he stood in front of Kannenberg for the better half of the song. Kannenberg followed suit and jumped off stage for the last song.
During this chaos, crowd members moshed. One fan was knocked so hard he flew halfway across Off Broadway. He deftly managed to stay on his feet and ran back into the pit, laughing all the way.
Switching gears, Dad Jr.’s arrangements have a metal bent with a punk-rock consistence. Alternating errant, grandiose guitar solos from Sloan and Kannenberg slid over Lucz’s drums. Sloan and Kannenberg’s vocals were dichotomous in tone. When Sloan sings, “Pukin’ in the sink,” he sounds like he is. Kannenberg’s voice, in contrast, sounds fit for a punk band and matches Dad Jr.’s heavy compositions.
Both would shout indecipherable lyrics before they retreated to thrash mode. Lucz anchored the dog-whistle guitar lines by thumping the mess out of his kit. The disparity of pitch between the guitars and drums balanced the mix. Lucz’s regulated drum work thickened the band’s messy arrangements enough for consumption. Just when the music came together for the last song, Sloan dropped his pants to reveal navy-blue boxer-briefs. The burly guitarist left them at his ankles as he waddled back stage.
Diarrhea Planet has a name so ludicrous it belies its ridiculous talent. But maybe that’s the shtick: talent camouflaged by egregious choices. Members of the band soundchecked to Third Eye Blind’s “Never Let You Go” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness before they encircled the snare drum and crashed into their first song. Lead singer/guitarist Jordan “Hodan” Dickie and guitarist Evan Bird raced to see who could melt the face off a fan first with their firecracker-fast fingers.
The Nashville, Tenn. band’s four guitarists snapped, plucked and brought Guns N’ Roses-style arrangements to the modern age. Every guitarist took a turn at lead vocals. They fit all this into a set that was barely half an hour long, playing the first half in under 10 minutes. Their minute-and-35-second jams are miniature stadium anthems. Propulsive and rowdy, they could soundtrack a night of debauchery with aplomb.
Dickie introduced “Raft Nasty” off “Loose Jewels” as “The Cartoon Song” for it was featured on MTV’s animated series, “Good Vibes.” It was a marquee number for the band. With all instruments ablaze, its live sound is more idiosyncratic in person. In particular, Dickie’s guitar lines showcase know-how finesse and bassist Mike Boyle’s knack for keeping up with the four guitarists breakneck fretwork.
Concert review: The Educated Guess with the Emperor Norton Orchestra and Troubadour Dali work their magic at Off Broadway, Sunday, January 20
There is some witchcraft afoot at Off Broadway. On the outside, it has the visage of a barn. Yet, you won’t find Budweiser Clydesdales and dirt floors inside.
A balcony teeters above the floor before the stage; a bar awaits stage left, kiddie corner to the soundboard. A 15-foot-tall cranberry-colored curtain flows down as a backdrop to the stage. In short, Off Broadway will never shelter steeds.
The venue has a transformative quality wherein the place itself can be something different to everyone. A saloon, a deceptively romantic place, a haunted house — any musical act booked will be touch by this magic. They too will have the ability to become something other than a permanent or transient inhabitant of St. Louis.
For instance, months ago Tennis singer Alaina Moore, with her bounty of buttercup-yellow curls and physical buoyancy, became a cosmic pixie. When Red Mouth performed with Magic City last January, Off Broadway became a low-lit mecca for the lost and weary. Red Mouth stomped and shouted before an audience that admired his busker’s desperation.
Dressed in matching white-collared button-downs, black pants, shoes and ties, the Emperor Norton Orchestra backed a fresh-to-death Charlie Brumley. His black two-piece suit and tie combination did more than look good. It looked the part of 1970s New York City, and Brumley and company were about to play the hippest jazz club available. A set of two trombonists, trumpet players and fiddlers accompanied an electric bass, guitar, a drummer with a lot to do and a saxophonist. Brumley stood before them all with his Yamaha CP keyboard. It was a lot to grasp at once. And damn did it make some fantastic music.
Later, as my Stag sloshed around in its can, I tried to tell a friend about the sound. “If Billy Joel composed the music,” I ventured, “and Randy Newman wrote lyrics and sang, you would have what I heard tonight.” It was a total undersell. I forgot to mention Ray Charles produced it. During Brumley and band’s set, I pictured patrons sitting around the stage sipping warm brandy, wearing fox-fur shawls and smoking cigarettes as we waited for our dates to yank us off our buns and on to the dance floor.
All the music was composed by Brumley, all lyrics were written by Brumley. Well, not all the lyrics. The band’s second to last song was R Kelly’s “Remix to Ignition.” The song was reincarnated as a hip-wiggling jazz number. “Ignition” and a Brumley original, “Morning to Come,” made the best use out of the horn section. In part, “Ignition” was so unrecognizable because the horns upped the class factor beyond R Kelly’s prowess for the ribald. “Morning to Come” was played off by a time-stopping trumpet and saxophone blast. Audience members scooted before the stage, twisting from heel-to-toe with drinks in hand. Their eyes turned from Brumley to the floor, then to Off Broadway’s ceiling. All they needed were three-piece suits, shiny shoes and floor-length dresses.
Concert review and set list: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (with the Pinstripes and Bailiff) shake up Off Broadway, Sunday, December 30
Sneaking onto stage and straight into the set list without any warning, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound shook a few middle fingers at 2012 before we all shook our asses off.
JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, via Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, got it together around 2007. Since then, they’ve proven to crowd after crowd where the baton that such legends as James Brown and Booker T and the MG’s have held now resides. With a rotating cast that includes a brass section and a myriad of supporting musicians, JC Brooks, Billy Bungeroth, Kevin Marks, Andy Rosenstein and Ben Taylor successfully played snake charmer to their suddenly-not-still St. Louis fans.
After a low-key opener, “Want More” marked the start of the sweat. The title cut off the latest album, deservedly so, shows the band at its best. Everyone hits their trademark strengths: bass slinking between frets, drums pounding out the dance steps, falsetto backup vocals hitting repeat and the guitar swaying with JC’s impromptu persuasions. The set, a gift to the fans, allowed a few sneak peeks at the current roster attempting to make it to the next wax pressing. “Rouse Yourself,” one such newbie, made for a truly provocative performance. Recalling Sam Cooke’s fine discography, the track both laments a current, better-left-unsaid state of affairs, while highlighting the positive facts that we can still work with.
Prior to the Uptown Sound’s workout, Bailiff provided some introspection. Thanking the familiar faces from Chicago in the crowd — the three piece also hails from the Windy City — Bailiff brooded and impeccably slid between the songs of their euphoric set. Their melodies reigned supreme, sounding like the soundtrack to a favorite dream. “When I Leave You Will Stay,” a sing-along to wrap the set, truly deserves some radio rotation.
The Pinstripes, together since high school — nine years by drummer John Bertke’s count — proved another bright spot on a stellar Off Broadway night. With a three-piece brass section up front, the guys carved out a menacing personal manifesto; reaffirming that whatever your desire, fight, dance or love, you needn’t look any further. The rest of the set — sans even a violent gesture — created what the dedicated skankers up front already faced: an infectious, irresistible bounce.
However, this was the Uptown Sound’s night. “I Got High,” and the incredible stretch it started, served as one long collective highlight. The immaculate re-imagining of Jeff Tweedy’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” came next, before “75 Years of Art Sex” got its own re-imagining. The band effortlessly switched between Moby’s “Natural Blues” chorus — “Ain’t nobody know my troubles but god” — and a quick dip into Peggy Lee’s “Fever” before bringing it all home.
However, it was the completely unanticipated, and in-hindsight, desperately desired, cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” in which Brooks and the Uptown Sound distilled their eloquent message. Playing the cover straight, as they are rarely want to do, JC might’ve even found a dynamic enough foil in Mr. Bowie himself. Coming back out for their encore, the band flashed a few genuine smiles that rivaled the elation the crowd felt.
JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound set list:
Married for a Week
I Got High
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
I Can See Everything
75 Years of Art Sex
Let’s Dance (David Bowie cover)
Everything Will Be Fine
Baltimore Is the New Brooklyn