Concert review and set list: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (with the Pinstripes and Bailiff) shake up Off Broadway, Sunday, December 30

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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
Want More
Rouse Yourself
Baaadnews
Ordinary
River
I Got High
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
I Can See Everything
75 Years of Art Sex
Control
Let’s Dance (David Bowie cover)

Encore:
Everything Will Be Fine
Baltimore Is the New Brooklyn

Cabaret preview: Women Under the Influence

"Women Under the Influence": L-R: Carol Schmidt, Michlle Isam, Debbie Schuster, and Katie McGrath

Ask most folks what kind of music they associate with cabaret and you’ll likely get some mix of “great American songbook” and “show tunes”. No surprise there; the Golden Age of American songwriting is, in fact, well represented on the small stage. Tim Schall’s entertaining and informative “Rodgers and Hart Songbook” from a couple weeks ago was a classic example.

But the cabaret tent is a big one, and in just the past year here in St. Louis alone we’ve had shows based on such diverse sources as contemporary country (Jeff Wright’s Southern Roots), 1950s and ‘60s TV themes (Ken Haller’s The TV Show), and turn-of-the-last-century vaudeville (my own Just a Song at Twilight).

I bring all this up because last night (Monday, November 12) I had the pleasure of sitting in on a rehearsal by a new quartet, Women Under the Influence (three of the members of which I’ve worked with on stage in the past), that also takes its inspiration from performers whose work is not particularly well represented on the cabaret scene: the girl groups and soul sisters of the 1960s. Pop and R&B classics like “Met Him on a Sunday,” “He’s So Fine,” “Come See About Me,” and “He’s a Rebel” make up most of the set list, but there are also a few nods to contemporary stars like Adele (“Rumor Has It”), Rhiana (“Take a Bow”), and even Dolly Parton (“Jolene”).

This isn’t just a nostalgia trip, though. The essence of cabaret is the way in which the artist puts his or her own stamp on the music and makes it into something new. The members of WUI—Carol Schmidt and Michele Isam of “Jasmine” fame, along with local cabaret stars Debbie Schuster and Katie McGrath—are well-established performers with their own unique styles. Carol is pianist and music director for the show, with Michele filling in on other instruments (percussion and harmonica at the rehearsal I attended). They’re making all of those tunes their own—with tight vocal harmonies and even a bit of swingin’ ’60s choreography—and, in classic cabaret style, telling a story in the process.

By artfully arranging the songs, WUI’s show moves from the first crush, through true love, down into betrayal and back up into independence. It’s could be the story of one woman or of late 20th century women in general. It might even be a little of both. WUI are creating a space for ambiguity there, and ambiguity is where art lives.

The Women Under the Influence show is being produced by singer Robert Breig’s Mariposa Artists (the increase in local cabaret producers is a positive trend I may address in a future post) and will be presented this Saturday, November 17th, at 8 PM in the Showroom at Joe Buck’s Restaurant at 10th and Clark downtown. The space, I’m told, seats around 120 in a very “night clubby” ambience. And, of course, the bar and restaurant are there for your dining and drinking needs.

Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/281908. There’s even a good cause involved; a portion of the evening’s proceeds will be donated to Places For People, whose mission is “[t]o provide innovative and effective mental health services to people in need while creating a system of care that promotes personal recovery.”

It’s just another reminder that there’s a lot more to the cabaret scene than one might suppose. It’s why I love going to cabaret shows; you never know when you’re going to encounter something new and surprising. And who doesn’t like a good surprise?

‘It all starts with a groove’ An interview with Charles Walker and Bill Elder of the Dynamites

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International and inter-generational, Nashville band the Dynamites, featuring veteran singer Charles Walker, delivers funk and soul originals with a bang.

Frontman Charles Walker began his singing career in Nashville in the late ’50s. The following decade, he moved to New York City and opened for soul and R&B giants including James Brown, Etta James and Jackie Wilson. Walker performed solo and also led several bands including Little Charles & the Sidewinders, a group that, despite its star quality, received little attention compared to its contemporaries.

After returning to his hometown and performing for the Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit “Night Train To Nashville,” Walker caught the ear of songwriter Bill Elder. Together they formed the Dynamites, a modern band exploring new avenues of funk and soul in front of fans across the globe. On September 20, the group will perform in St. Louis as part of KDHX’s Thursdays at the Intersection in Grand Center.

I had the pleasure of chatting with both Walker and Elder before their return to St. Louis.

Francisco Fisher: You took a hiatus from music in the ’80s and into the ’90s. Then you found out people in England were listening to the Sidewinders, and you performed there. What was that like?

Charles Walker: I was really on the verge of pulling in and giving it up…. So, when I heard about the Sidewinders’ stuff being played a lot, and Southern soul a lot too, it gave me another kind of inspiration to get back into the music again. It was quite a good feeling, I guess, just being back in it.

What were some of your other inspirations to get back into music? I read that you heard about Sharon Jones and others who were becoming popular for playing a similar kind of music.

It’s true, I heard of them. A lot of the black people like Sharon Jones and a few other groups that were doing some of the old soul stuff, funk and soul. So I decided, well, that’s what I’ve come up on, so I need to get my step back into it, too. And that’s what happened. It took me a minute or two, but it happened.

How does your experience with the Dynamites compare to your previous experience with the Sidewinders?

The Dynamites is the same kind of thing. The Sidewinders was mostly just a sped-up soul band. The Dynamites is more of a funk-and-soul band, and actually, [Bill Elder's] idea was to do the deep funk. So I saw the work come out of that, and we got [the Dynamites] just doing mostly soul now, because that’s really what’s happening. Soul music is really coming back. I don’t know if it’s going to be a main genre, but you can hear it in all kinds of music now.

Can you tell me about the new album?

We just finished it about a month ago, and it’s going to be released in Europe first. The songs are a little bit more to what I do than “Burn It Down” and “”Kaboom!”.” “”Kaboom!”" was more like me kind of fitting in and trying to work it out with that funk thing. But this new album is more of a soul album.

Is this more of a collaboration than before?

Yeah, mainly the collaboration thing is that Bill wrote almost all the songs. I wrote one song on that album and we’re doing one of the Sidewinders’ songs.

Which one?

“Please Open The Door”…. We recut it and it’s more like a stage version. I do it onstage with the Dynamites anyhow. As a matter of fact, we do quite a lot of the Sidewinders’ songs in our show.

Would you like to do a live album with the Dynamites?

Yeah, I would. You can generate a whole different thing as a live performance than four walls and a booth somewhere. The live thing is definitely a lot more inspirational. You can do a lot of things. Our show with the Dynamites is put together in that way that it could be recorded live because our stuff is put together pretty well.

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Concert review: AJ & the Jiggawatts electrify Lola, Friday, July 20

facebook.com/pages/AJ-The-Jiggawatts/272935182739687 / Eric Wedgworth

Only a bolt of lightning could have generated the energy brought by Nashville’s AJ & the Jiggawatts.

The strutting, hip-shaking antics and powerful sounds of front man AJ Eason, along with his fellow G.E.D. Soul Records cohorts, struck downtown St. Louis at around 10:40 p.m. Friday night, sending a shock through the crowd that had everyone’s flux capacitors in full swing.

Andrew Muller delivered chunky guitar licks with Tim Hawkins on bass, D. Singleton on drums and Pablo Ahogado on keys. The G.E.D. website refers to the group, which is the Nashville label’s most recent project, as “rock ‘n’ soul,” and the ensemble has the upbeat riffs to cover both bases.

Members of AJ & the Jiggawatts shuffle among other G.E.D. acts including Sky Hi, Magic in Threes, the Coolin’ System and DeRobert & the Half-Truths — all cohesive groups with diverse catalogues. With chops developed in one band or another, it’s no surprise that whenever these guys get together, an audience ends up on its feet.

Singer AJ Eason, who was born and raised in Memphis, said he was glad to be is St. Louis. “St. Louis is like Memphis with more lotion,” he quipped. Not once did the muscular, tattooed vocalist take off his sunglasses throughout the set filled with heavy-hitting jams including “Don’t Mess With Me,” “Pimp Decisions,” and an ode to booze, “Brown Bottle Fever.” He did take a break from the microphone to pick up a tambourine and also to sit at a pair of congas for a couple of songs including the encore. And of course there were those Nelly lyrics that he worked into the set as if it were part of the band’s normal routine.

Horn players can be heard on some of AJ & the Jiggawatts’ recordings, but there were no brass or reeds on the stage Friday night. This absence wasn’t a problem, however, as the grittier, stripped-down sound of the Jiggawatts along with AJ’s heavily-reverbed vocals are what make them stand apart from the other acts on the G.E.D. label. And they might even sound better live than they do on record — which is to say they sound amazing.

Funky jams played all throughout the night as DJ Hal Greens, who organized the event, led into AJ & the Jiggawatts’ performance and DJ Needles of 88.1 KDHX’s “Rawthentic” followed. Fans at Lola were granted a night of incredible soul music, and they didn’t even need a time machine to get there.

Concert review and set list: Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagen wow crowd as the Dukes of September at the Fabulous Fox, Wednesday, June 20

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The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue kicked off its summer tour last night at the Fox, reviving the sounds of 1970s AM radio created by the group’s three principals, Boz Scaggs, Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) and hometowner Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers).

The trio played in a music-in-the-round style, each singer drawing from their sizable catalogs while adding some key covers that inspired them early in their careers.

The large and talented backing band took the stage and set the night’s tone launching into James Brown’s “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul.” The three titans of the night entered the stage to a standing ovation.

Fagen took the reins as emcee of the night, which was ironic given his struggles with stage fright early in his career. McDonald was placed at center stage but didn’t have as much crowd interaction as I would have expected. Fagen, however, did a great job engaging the crowd and moving the show along.

After McDonald sang backup on the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady,” Fagen introduced the Ferguson, Mo.-native and the crowd went nuts. McDonald’s first song on lead vocals was the horntastic Arthur Conley song, “Sweet Soul Music.”

McDonald boasts a long history of providing enthusiastic backing vocals dating back to his days with Steely Dan. But when this U-City Walk of Fame inductee is singing lead, it makes you feel like you’re drinking the expensive wine.

Next up was McDonald’s smooth groove, “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near).” McDonald, 60, labored through the high notes, yet it was still surreal to watch him sing this live. With the impossibly-elevated notes the song requires, the 1982 Michael McDonald perhaps set the bar too high for his future self. No matter though. Like many of his songs, McDonald had plenty of real estate to ad-lib and pull off many surprises.

McDonald’s powerful voice blew fans’ hair and drinks back like a 1979 Maxell ad, but Scaggs was the sleeper hit of this night.

Whether he was singing Muddy Waters’ “Same Thing” blues or his own “Lowdown,” Scaggs enraptured the crowd and shockingly garnered more and bigger standing ovations than McDonald. Overall, his steady voice has held up the best among the three, and he let his rootsy musical tastes do the talking.

The tour’s professional backing band deserves a shout out, made up of guitar extraordinaire Jon Herington, two female background singers, three horn players, a funky bass player (Freddie Washington) and a top notch drummer (Shannon Forrest). An extra keyboard player joined a full-frontal piano assault with McDonald on another keyboard and Fagen on a baby grand. Scaggs rounded out the group on guitar.

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Album review: Justin Townes Earle moves on with ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now’ (MP3 download)

Justin Townes Earle
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Bloodshot
 
That Justin Townes Earle would begin his career in the shadow of other great songwriters was unavoidable; after all, his father is Steve Earle, and he carries the name of late Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. 
 
Yet despite the long shadow those two songwriters cast, the younger Earle has always forged his own path musically, a path that has typically been much more country than that of either his father or his namesake. However, on his latest record, “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” he diverges from that country road and channels a Memphis soul sound.
 
Earle has spoken both of the similarities between chord progressions in soul and country music, and of the fact that both musical genres have roots in the church, in gospel and worship songs. So, the move from a Nashville to a Memphis sound was a logical one for him, and the record was even recorded in a converted church. Produced by Earle and “Harlem River Blues” co-producer Skylar Wilson, it was recorded live in the studio (no overdubs), over a four-day period in Asheville, N.C. Their intention was to create a collection of songs that were both timely and timeless.
 
Still, Earle seems burdened by his familial connections. The record opens with “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” as he sings the first line, “Hear my father on the radio, singing ‘Take me Home again.’” A subtle horn section swells behind the singer’s vocal, underscoring the forlorn feeling that pervades the song and the record overall. The horns serve that same purpose throughout, as on “Look the Other Way,” a sad, albeit more hopeful, tune about trying to get the attention of a woman. He could be a better man for her, but she always looks the other way.
 
There are some upbeat songs here too, such as “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea,” but many of the songs are slower numbers; quiet tunes and hushed confessionals that offer a glimpse into a conflicted and desolate world of heartache and loneliness. The record finds a groove, however, as on “Down On the Lower East Side” with its jazzy beat, brushed snare and muted trumpet. But in spite of arrangements and the Memphis soul spirit, it never really swings until nearly the end, with the rollicking “Memphis in the Rain,” one of the best songs on the album.
 
Earle brings a lot of emotional weight to his lyrics, and by the end of the record it seems he’s at least worked through some of his issues as he closes the album with “Movin’ On.” With a great walking bass line and simple supporting harmonica, Earle sings, “I’m trying to move on,” and the listener feels he really means it.

“Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” is a solid effort from talented young singer-songwriter. If a record like this is the result of Earle “movin’ on” from his country and Americana roots, then it will be fascinating to see what musical direction he heads in next.

“Look the Other Way” – Justin Townes Earle

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Concert review: The Gramophone doubles down on funk with T Bird and the Breaks and the Diplomats of Solid Sound, Sunday, April 15

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As a heavy rain fell on St. Louis, two bands showered fans at the Gramophone with punchy, Memphis-style grooves at a KDHX-welcomed event.

T Bird and the Breaks, from Austin, opened the night, their first-ever appearance in the Gateway City. The stripped-down ensemble of guitar, bass, drums and sax backed up singer/front man Tim Crane, a.k.a. T Bird, who was in full persona with his fedora, aviator sunglasses and dance moves that ranged from a stationary strut to a sort of bob ‘n’ weave.

Unlike fellow Austin native Black Joe Lewis, who approaches soul music with a heavier blues edge, T Bird’s stage presence and vocal style lends more of an old-school hip-hop flair to the genre. For example, for an encore the band played “Dancehall Freakin,” the title track of its latest EP, which features call-and-response rapping over funky riffs that brings Beastie Boys to mind. The group had reinforced this association earlier in the set by launching into a convincing cover of “Root Down.”

T Bird and the Breaks does dabble in several different styles, proof of which was evident in Sunday night’s glittery interpretation of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” and a much more literal cover of Aloe Blacc’s “I Need a Dollar.” And of course the originals including “Take Time” and “Stand Up” from the 2009 album “Learn About It” are prime examples of how soulful the group can get, even without the full horn section and female backup singers on the record.

However, the group’s recent touring partners, the Diplomats of Solid Sound, from Iowa City, lent their soulful singers Sarah Cram and Kathy Ruestow to back up T Bird during “The Clap Hands Song.” This was the experience fans of “Learn About It” expected to hear, and it was a high point in the set.

The low point of the night had nothing to do with the music. The weather kept the turnout small, and it seemed like there were more hecklers in the audience than fans. Nonetheless, the band played its collective heart out, and hopefully it will meet a more deserving reception the next time around.

The Diplomats of Solid Sound, while also playing to a sparse crowd, did not hold back on the energy either. This is a well-seasoned group that has recorded for more than a decade and has played in St. Louis several times before. Members quickly took the stage and set up their instruments including a big, boxy Hammond B-3 organ that lends the throwback sound reminiscent of the MGs. Also present was a baritone sax, guitar, drums and, at center, Cram and Ruestow on vocals.

The leading ladies, known as the Diplomettes, ascended onto the stage as the band played a song from their extensive catalog, “Intercontinental Git.” Their voices were consistently clear in each song, including during the spelled-out lyrics of “B-O-O-G-A-L-O-O” and the back-and-forth opening dialogue leading into “Fascination,” the first of two encores. The harmonies and showmanship (finger snaps, glamour poses, lovely outfits) the singers brought evoked comparisons with the Supremes and the Ikettes. The surprisingly full sound of the band’s select instruments (no bass, only one horn) filled the venue with upbeat and entrancing riffs.

The night in all was a satisfying combination of T Bird and the Breaks’ young and edgy interpretation of funk and soul with the more classic style of the Diplomats of Solid Sound. Nothing could have provided a more stark contrast with the chilly, gloomy weather outside than the scorching sounds and vibrant presence that each band offered. I recommend keeping an eye on the radar for the next time either of these bands storm through St. Louis.

Album review: Lucero gets deep into Memphis soul with ‘Women & Work’

Lucero
“Women & Work”
ATO

With their latest studio record, “Women & Work,” the alt-country rockers known as Lucero have managed to harness fully the music of their hometown to make their most Memphis-sounding record yet.

The album, their second consecutive project recorded at Ardent Studios with producer Ted Hutt, presents the musicians at their polished best. In an interview last fall singer Ben Nichols told me that the group had “stumbled” into their last record “1372 Overton Park.” Here, the prior experience the band received recording at the historic studio completes the transition from a country band with punk roots to a rock outfit brimming with soul.

The title track begins with Rick Steff (piano/organ) providing rock ‘n’ roll boogie-woogie piano and some Chuck Berry-style guitar that harkens back to all those songs recorded across town at Sun Studios more than a half century ago. Yet, Nichols’ lyrics bring the song back to a modern punk-rock reality with the line, “The women and the work and the booze in between. Got ya puking in the aisles and smashing TVs.”

Newer styles, not previously found in Lucero’s repertoire, further enhance the quality of these songs. Though filled with elaborate instrumentation and warmth, the band still retains a raw feel. For example, “Juniper” is a bluesy stomp whereas the band goes full-on soul for “Who You Waiting On?” complete with a Booker T.-esque B-3 organ from Steff. Not just content to add horns to the sound with Memphis professionals Jim Spake and Scott Thompson, the outstanding background vocals from “the Ho-Moans” — aka Susan Marshall and Reba Russell — offer further proof that Lucero is comfortable with the Memphis sound.

Nichols’ songwriting continues a theme to incorporate chasing love, pining for lost loves and the ever present references to having some cocktails. Not until the album closer, “Go Easy,” do the lyrics feature a protagonist that has the girl, but even then it’s tenuous as the opening line indicates, “Hold on, darling hold on. A storm is coming on. I’ll keep you safe.” With the background vocals, mournful horns and piano included, this track takes on a deep spiritual quality.

Lucero manages to slip back into their old sound for “I Can’t Stand To Leave You” and “When I Was Young,” songs with picked guitar chords and pedal-steel flourishes that could easily find a home on the band’s previous albums “That Much Farther West” or “Nobody’s Darlings.”

Steff’s boogie-woogie piano returns for “Like Lightning,” the most upbeat track on the album — a sure barn-burner in a live setting. Nichols belts his signature raspy vocals as he sings about chasing after the girl he’s head-over-heels for: “She’s got a kiss like a thunderbolt. Electric lips that shock me to the bone.”

Die hard fans of “1372 Overton Park” may lament the ratio of rockers to weepers, but what the band gave up in fury only earned them depth with a sound that suits their experience level. Like a new tattoo, they now wear the sound of their hometown proudly.

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