Concert review: Caveman (with Computer Magic) brings the east coast to the no coast for a night of electro pop at the Old Rock House, Friday, March 8

Caveman at the Old Rock House. Photo by Mike Gualdoni.

The Old Rock House seemed calm towards the beginning of the night, with just enough people to fill the outer booths of the lower level. As the night went on, however, the venue slowly filled up for the two bands that brought their indie New York sounds to St. Louis.

The night kicked off with an experimental electronic band that provided an almost vintage sci-fi movie vibe to the venue. Usually a four-piece band, Computer Magic played as a duo made up of Danielle Johnson on vocals and keyboard with Ignacio Rivas Bixio playing drums in place of the usual Chris Egan, who unfortunately had to miss the tour after an allergic reaction to hot dogs. The two artists combined created a sound of modern electro pop with just enough of a touch of the ’80s era that would have had the dance floor in motion if the set was a little later and the blood alcohol content of the crowd was a tad higher.

Computer Magic made for an enjoyable warmer to start things up. Johnson stood behind her keyboard, Boss pedal and Macbook system composing the dreamy, toe-tapping tunes as Bixio beat the drums equipped with his bold white headphones on his head and tall white russian by his side, half full by the end of the set. After breaking down their set up and refilling their drinks, they joined the audience in the waiting game for the headliners.

After a little bit of down time, Caveman suddenly occupied the stage. The five piece from Brooklyn was performing for the first time in St. Louis, and the now packed venue gave the musicians a warm riverboat welcome as their synth heavy sounds filled the room. Caveman front man Matthew Iwanusa playfully caught a drumstick bounced off the ground and yelled into the crowd, “We don’t only play music!” Their carefree stage presence matched the chill, sometimes soothing, sometimes haunting east-coast indie rock sounds that poured out from their instruments. Guitarist James Carbonetti and bassist Jeff Berrall were very much a team, feeding off each other’s energy as they created the framework of the music along with keyboardist Sam Hopkins and drummer Stefan Marolachakis.

The band’s talent truly shined when Iwanusa set down his white guitar with the body bearing a bucking Cowboy for a pair of drumsticks. The double drum songs brought about a new level of intensity, with beats so powerful that the drum sticks were used upside down to prevent breakage. This element of the show was most apparent during the incredible play through of the song, “Easy Water,” as the hypnotic bass and commanding tribal drums, combined with the droning lyrics, took the crowd out of its element and lulled them collectively into a trancelike state that most people can only acquire by the use of less than legal substances and chemicals. It was truly a pivotal moment of the show.

If you didn’t know it before the concert, Caveman was sure to make it known that its newest album is just around the corner, being released on April 2. With the impressive debut, “Coco Beware,” behind them, time will tell if the new, self-titled album can continue to improve upon its new-wave sound, or fall to the fate of mediocrity that so many bands succumb to after a debut hit record.

Caveman left the audience wanting more as they left the stage and ventured out into the Friday night and a following off day in St. Louis, hopefully to enjoy some of the finer things this city has to offer like Cherokee Street or toasted raviolis. The two NYC bands marked St. Louis as their midway point from New York to Texas, eventually landing and performing in South by Southwest. That is, however, if they can make it through their upcoming gig at the Hi Ho Lounge in New Orleans without losing any more band members to Bourbon Street or hot dog allergies.

Concert review: The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band (with Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart) gained supporters for his revolution at the Old Rock House on Thursday, March 7

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Gathering up its generals for an all-out assault on the ears of the masses, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band added Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart to the ranks of the Big Damn Blues Revolution.

Taking the stage at the Old Rock House clad in camouflage pants and a black and white plaid shirt, Grammy award-winning blues master Alvin Youngblood Hart quickly tuned his resonator guitar and poured out his soul. Playing in the fingerpicking style of Charley Patton and Son House, Hart translates his life experiences into music and becomes the song rather than playing it.

Hart played a 45 minute set of his own tunes and a few Charley Patton covers, switching between his resonator guitar, a 12-string acoustic, and what looked like a Danelectro ’56 Pro between songs. His slide runs over the strings with the ease and precision that only comes with time and love. I don’t know if he was using any pedals to color his tone, but the low end was thick and greasy while the high end was razor sharp, which is just about as good as you can get for playing electric blues.

The first time I realized exactly what people meant by ‘feeling the blues’ was when I saw John Hammond, Jr. open for David Lindley a few years back. Hart’s set brought back that same understanding, that it is something to be felt, not just heard. I was taken aback enough that when I approached him after the show, all I could say was “Thank you” over and over again. I’m sure he thinks I’m a bit soft in the head, but it was his playing that put me in that condition.

Jimbo Mathus was the next on the bill accompanied by his band the Tri-State Coalition. Probably best known as the guitarist for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus left his swing style behind for the blues in the late ’90s and hasn’t looked back since. His stage persona reminded me of a mix between Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors and St. Louis’ favorite murder balladeer, Fred Friction.
Mathus’s set consisted of 45 minutes of tracks from his new album “White Buffalo” and a few older cuts, along with a few Charley Patton tunes. The Tri-County Coalition is a quartet consisting of Matt Pierce on the Telecaster, Terrence Bishop playing bass, Eric Carlton on keyboards and accordion and Ryan Rogers on the drums.

Musically, the band was spot on the entire night. I especially noticed that Terrance Bishop was playing sparse bass lines while the rest of the band was in full swing, which complimented the songs worlds more than if he’d been playing a hundred notes a minute. Matt Pierce was no slouch either. I still don’t know how he was making some of those pedal steel licks come out of his Telecaster without stomping on a mess of pedals.

Mathus himself is no slouch on the guitar, playing with the same fingerstyle technique as Hart and Peyton. His songs were full of tongue-in-cheek humor and a hint of sadness, which was often overshadowed by the mid-tempo pace the band was keeping. The harder rocking “White Buffalo” was a notable change in pace, one that I would have liked to have seen in some of the other songs. While they sound great at a jogging pace, there was some serious power on stage when they cranked it up a notch.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band was the next up, bounding on stage as the crowd roared with excitement. The Rev grabbed his resonator guitar and flashed his ear to ear grin to the crowd before ripping into the first song of the evening.

Reverend Peyton is one of those guitar players who is so masterful at his craft that you really have no concept of how difficult the style in which he plays really is. After a few songs, he stopped to explain that he plays country blues or rural blues, which is a dying art “because it’s hard to do.” He explained further, stating that in country blues the thumb of the picking hand plays the bass while the fingers play the lead and melody parts. To give an example that everyone would understand, he then proceeded to play both the bass and lead horn parts of Henry Mancini’s theme to the T.V. show “Peter Gunn” at the same time. Peyton is known for “showing off” as he calls it, and whether it is the display tonight or his playing “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle” at the same time, it is something that needs to be seen to be believed.

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Concert review: The Royal Southern Brotherhood deals a rock ‘n’ blues royal flush at the Old Rock House, Sunday, February 17

Jerry Moran Native Orleanian LLC

Outside the windows that illuminate stage left of the Old Rock House, a train rolled forward with slow determination over the dark Mississippi to a destination unknown. The Arch rose up in the background as the Royal Southern Brotherhood took the stage and the crowd gave them a warm, enthusiastic welcome.

Before the quartet started, the crowd pledged, “I solemnly swear to spread the word that St. Louis rocks the blues.” We were now anointed into the brotherhood and ready to enjoy the talents of Devon Allman (guitar, vocals), Cyril Neville (vocals, percussion), Yonrico Scott (drums), Charlie Wooten (bass) and Mike Zito (guitar, vocals). Labeled as a “super group,” Royal Southern Brotherhood is built on the individual talents of each of these formidable artists, not simply the history their famous names carry. And while they each claim different places as their homes, local roots were strong on that stage, too.

Mike Zito is from St. Louis and rightfully proud of it. Before the music started, Zito took a picture of the crowd and told us repeatedly that it was great to be home. He also revealed to us that Devon Allman, son of Greg Allman, has roots in St. Charles so they “must be doing something right up there” he said, to laughter from the crowd.

The crowd exuded appreciation, awe and even a little selfish ownership. The show started with “Fired Up,” the second track from the band’s self-titled release. On this uptempo, upbeat rock song the percussion really shined under the masterful hands of Neville. The Caribbean vibe made it feel like you were seeing them at a summer music festival, if you could successfully suspend February’s cold reality.

Neville’s inner showman came out during “Moonlight over the Mississippi.” He was the consummate bluesman as he sang from the gut about getting back to his woman. Charlie Wooten’s bass took over and the deep, round plunk, plunk of the notes gave sound to each footstep along the banks of the river. The group did several covers, including “Melissa.” Zito and Allman’s guitars came together and harmonized so beautifully during this song that you almost wished they would unplug and play quietly for awhile.

Zito and Allman took turns on vocals. Allman opened the show with his band, also comprised of several local talents and really warmed up the crowd. In his opening set, he gave the audience a taste of the Southern rock sound that’s in his DNA. While Allman’s voice is forceful, yet smooth, Zito’s is rougher around the edges. Those edges make his voice interesting and a nice foil to Allman’s.

Two Grammy winners stood on the stage, and Yonrico Scott was one of them (Neville, the other). During a break, each band member did a solo and left the stage to Scott who really gave us all he had. He played with a mischievous grin on his face, like he was having the best time in the world and didn’t ever want to stop. His beats called out to the crowd and we called back. It was just one of many examples of the sincere connection between these performers and their audience. If there was one theme that united this performance, it was that feeling of happiness and joy. It hung in the air, from the first song in the opening set to the last note of the night.

As Cyril Neville told us, “I’m feeling the love, St. Louis.”

Concert review and set list: Cellist Ben Sollee (with Justin Paul Lewis) fights off stereotypes at the Old Rock House on Saturday, February 16

Ben Sollee at the Old Rock House. Photo by Ben Mudd.

When most people think of the cello, they think of classical music or symphonies. Ben Sollee breaks those stereotypes and brings his instrument to a whole new level.

Show opener Justin Paul Lewis crept up onto the Old Rock House stage and began his solo-acoustic set without warning. Lewis’ take on the singer-songwriter genre was drastically different from what I’m used to hearing. He treats the guitar as a percussion instrument, producing shucking beats and heavily muted chords with his finger-style technique.

Lewis treats his vocals as another form of instrumentation, delivering his stories with a mumbled rhythm as if he were talking in his sleep and describing his dreams in real-time. The only comparison I can really draw is that he sounds like Tom Waits without the ravages of whisky and poor life choices warping his vocal cords. He spent the majority of his set hunched over his guitar, bobbing around and crooning while playing and whistling the horn lines his trumpeter, who was not with him at this show, usually added to his set.

Lewis’ motions were as mesmerizing as the songs themselves, almost a performance art piece in and of themselves. He got the crowd involved with the show by clapping the beat to a funky slow jam of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” before bringing Ben Sollee up on stage for a great performance of “Salt” from his most recent recording “Rinse, Repeat, Rewind.”

Ben Sollee was the next up, sharing the stage with drummer Jordon Ellis. I had not heard anything that he had performed before the show and opted to check him out based on a recommendation from singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, who occasionally raves about him on Twitter.

Sollee is a classically trained cellist that often forgoes the usual classical song structure to breathe new life into an old instrument. That was apparent from the first tune, which consisted of bowing and plucking a rhythm that would be equally at home on a New Order album. Every song seemed to shift in style from synth-pop to jazz to R&B and hip-hop grooves thrown in for good measure. Although there was a broad array of styles in play, the transitions were smooth as silk and nothing seemed out of place.

Over the course of the show, Sollee primarily kept to his cello with a change to octave mandolin for a couple of tracks halfway through the set. His vocals seemed to have a heavy lean toward the singing-storyteller style of Paul Simon, the words sung with a warm tenor that exuded wisdom beyond his years. When he was really getting into the groove Sollee would start to yelp and shout with joy, reminding me of the shouts that accompany “Better Git It in Your Soul” from the Charles Mingus album “Mingus Ah Um.”

There was also a strong jazz influence in the drumming of Jordon Ellis, who has more beats than Schrute Farms. He was running from hip-hop grooves to jazz riffs and filling the air with sounds that accented Sollee’s cello runs without stepping over or falling behind the beat.

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Concert review: Carrie Rodriguez shares a little heart and soul at the Old Rock House on the eve of Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, February 13

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There is nothing quite like the emotion that pours out of a singer-songwriter when she’s plying her trade. Carrie Rodriguez filled the room with love of her songs and her audience Wednesday night at the Old Rock House.

Before the show began, guitarist Luke Jacobs threw some old-time tunes on the record player that was set up at stage right, setting the mood as he moved slowly and deliberately around the stage making sure that the instruments were tuned up and ready to go.

Carrie Rodriguez took the stage without much fanfare, smiling from ear to ear as she grabbed her fiddle and said hello to the crowd. Without wasting any time, Luke grabbed his guitar and started strumming the chords to the first tune of the evening.

The pair ran through a bit of Carrie’s recorded output, from a very powerful “Seven Angels on a Bicycle” and “She Ain’t Me,” to a handful of tracks from her latest album “Give Me All You Got.” There were a pair of covers in the mix as well, a fantastic duet of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and an encore of “La Puñalada Trapera,” a staple of her mariachi singing great-aunt, Ava Garza.

This was one of the best sounding shows I’ve seen at the Old Rock House. Josh was running the board and did a fantastic job of capturing the power of Carrie’s voice and the subtle nuances of her fiddle playing. Luke’s acoustic guitar was about as perfectly balanced tonally as you can get and his electric had an overdriven fuzz with tone as thick as a baby’s arm.

Carrie was in excellent form, her fiddle expressing mournful cries and exuberant joy often in the same song. She also played a little guitar and plucked out a few songs on her Epiphone Mandobird, which I covet almost as much as Quintron’s Rhodes/Hammond combo. Vocally she has a strong country flavor, along the lines of Zoe Muth or Carrie Underwood. The passion that she puts into her lyrics translates into her singing, giving her an edge above most female country vocalists that you hear on most of the corporate stations.

Carrie and Luke have been playing together for a long time, something that was obvious in their performance. They weave their solo parts in and out of the framework of the songs with precision, each one complimenting the other’s parts without competing or fighting for dominance. They are comfortable with the songs but don’t come off as stale or over-rehearsed.

The between song banter was also enjoyable, none of it forced and all of it given with an ear-to-ear grin. It is obvious that Carrie loves what she does and appreciates her fans, something that translates into everything about her performances. Luke’s story of how the tour poster was created was both comical and a reminder of why you should never make deals after a night of drinking.

Oddly enough, the last time Carrie Rodriguez came through St. Louis was two years ago almost to the day. She was on the Acoustic Café tour sharing the stage with Erin McKeown, Tania Elizabeth and Mary Gauthier. I reviewed that show as well, my biggest complaint of that night being that the individual sets were too short.

Now that I have seen Carrie play a full set by herself, I can say that my instincts were right. Although it took two years for her to return, the same fire and passion still burns in her voice and fiddle.

Concert review: Big Sam’s Funky Nation and the Funky Butt Brass Band join forces at the Old Rock House, Friday, February 8

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On Friday night, St. Louis got primed for Mardi Gras, courtesy of a throw-down from New Orleans’ Big Sam’s Funky Nation and St. Louis’ Funky Butt Brass Band.

Turning the Old Rock House into a purple, gold and green celebration, both bands brought the funk and turned it up for the dance floor. More importantly the night served as the annual ball for the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze, who happened to be celebrating 25 years as St. Louis’ premier Mardi Gras krewe. It was a night that made everyone from housewives, businessmen, thirty-nothings, hippies and punks move with the joy of music and celebration that can only come from New Orleans.

The tone of the night was set by the Funky Butt Brass Band. The group brought its own style of funk fused with second-line brass band and turned the Old Rock House into a rent party. The veterans grooved with their take of the New Orleans sound but really hit their stride when they channeled James Brown and his Famous Flames. It was in those moments that the band truly shined.

As Big Sam’s Funky Nation took the stage the party took off. As the band kicked into the first song, it felt like a fighter jet had taken off inside the walls of the Old Rock House. Those that were expecting a classics like “Hey Pocky A-Way” or “Jock-O-Mo” might have been disappointed; if so, the disappointment only lasted a few seconds. The band kicked in and they were there not only to make your booty shake but to give you a show.

Big Sam’s Funky Nation is led by former Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist Sammie “Big Sam” Williams. The name Big Sam is appropriate, not only for the the actual size of the man but for the sound that he and his band produce, a sound that has the power and fury of great metal and punk but consists of deep funk. Producing a groove that had everyone in a frenzy. Even if you were sitting in the back of the club there was no way that this sound could keep you from sitting still. The band was in town to party and take the crowd on a funk and rock journey, one that echoed the grooves and sounds that could only be conjured up if you were to make a hybrid of Fishbone, the P-Funk, Maceo Parker and the Ohio Players.

Topping off the evening was Funky Butt’s Aaron Chandler and Adam Hucke jumping on stage to trade licks with the Funky Nation, combining the powers of the Funky Butt Brass Band’s house-party vibe with the landing of Big Sam’s mothership. This was an ideal combination of both New Orleans heavy funk and St. Louis come to party attitude that made a perfect fit to end the night.

Concert review: Soul Asylum (with Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts) rocks away the past at the Old Rock House, Wednesday, January 30

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Despite a few bumps in the road, Soul Asylum had a great start to its 2013 tour Wednesday night at the Old Rock House.

Opening the festivities was Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts. I had not heard the band before, but as soon as the vocal harmonies kicked in during show starter “Baby Blue” I knew that this was going to be a set for the record books. These guys can harmonize like the Beatles in their prime, giving me chills on more than one occasion.

Daniel James McMahon has the voice of an angel and his guitar sounds just as heavenly. Andrew Scarpaci made his bass lines seem effortless while Adam Plamann held down the keys and played some of great-sounding clarinet runs. The real star was Micky Rosenquist, one of the most dynamic drummers I’ve ever seen. He was playing anything and everything with whatever was in hand — mallets, mallet handles, even bashing the cymbals with his tambourine. His control over the drums was astounding, going from delicate cymbal flicks to wall-shaking thuds and all points in-between.

Miles Nielsen’s guitar playing isn’t as flamboyant and flashy as his father, Cheap Trick guitar-slinger Rick Nielsen, but it’s beautiful in its subtlety. His voice is a warm, rich tenor — well suited for the music he performs. Whether it’s an Americana-soaked ballad or a pop-rocker, the Rusted Hearts have a familiar and comforting tone about their music, not unlike Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers or “Hollywood Town Hall” era Jayhawks.

The highlight of the evening was the last song of their set, “The Best I Can,” a tune sung a cappella in four-part harmony. There was silence in the crowd once they started and thunderous applause when they were finished. I’m glad to have caught this set and will be back as often as can when I see them come through town.

As Soul Asylum took the stage, Dave Pirner walked up to his guitar with a smile. Clad in ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors, he looked as if he hadn’t aged a day since the peak of “Grave Dancer’s Union.” Unfortunately, those memories of the early ’90s disappeared quickly once the band ripped into “Somebody to Shove.”

The sound for Miles Nielsen was about as good as I’ve heard at the Old Rock House, but something had to have changed between sets. Dave’s vocals were nearly inaudible (a problem for the entire set) and Justin Sharbono’s guitar sounded great but was way too loud, drowning out Dave’s playing as well as bassist Winston Roye and even drummer Michael Bland, who was pounding away at his kit like a man possessed.

This was the first night of their tour, so some issues are to be expected. Aside from the sound issues, my only complaint is that the band sounded stiff and somewhat lackluster while playing the classic songs like “Somebody to Shove,” “Black Gold,” and “Misery.” The only exception to that was when they played “Without a Trace,” which was dedicated to former bassist Karl Mueller, who died from throat cancer in 2005.

Despite my overall complaints, the show struck me as a net positive. What I was able to hear of the band’s new stuff sounded absolutely fantastic. Soul Asylum was visibly more comfortable and energetic while playing, with smiles being flashed all over the stage. When Dave’s voice cut through the mix, he sounded just like he did back in the “Grave Dancer’s Union” era.

I was especially glad to see that the band played more new songs than old ones. Soul Asylum is not the same group that recorded those songs, and it’s not trying to be. It was clear to me that the musicians enjoy what they’re doing; focusing on the past would not have made for a good rock show.

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

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The Old Rock House was glowing as Free Energy took the stage on Friday night. Really, truly glowing.

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:

Backscratcher
Electric Fever
Free Energy
Dream City
Something in Common
Street Survivor
Hey Tonight
Bang Pop
Dance All Night
Girls Want Rock
Hope Child
Young Hearts
Dark Trance

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