Whether those words are a Grace Slick gospel rendition of a Neil Diamond song, a modern interpretation of a venerated Dolly Parton cover or those of a modern-day Patsy Cline, or just "silver cans and bronze colored dirt" is not what matters. It was apparent after nearly five hours of music last night that the words don't make the music and the words don't make the musician.
This is not to suggest that words don't matter at all -- the back of the house "MORE TWANG" heckler who elicited a pointed but hilarious rebuke from Joe mid-show ("More twang? No twang here. Fuck that -- no fucking twang. Come see me and I'll give you a refund after the show!") -- those words mattered. Because "freebird" is bad enough, but c'mon dude, you aren't going to coin your own three-decade phenomenon. Just shut up.
But no, generally, it's not the words that matter with music. Me, I'm always trying to squeeze out some literary analysis from a concert or suss out some philosophical nugget from a set list. But any good music reviewer will likely tell you that there is something in the tone; the magic is in the tempo and the timbre. But I went to school to study James Joyce, so while I can pontificate at length about "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's," my third-grade piano lessons didn't get me much beyond "that sounds nice" or "I don't like that."
So these words, "words are just words," struck me last night, listening to four equally strong bands with very distinct aesthetics and varying degrees of "twang," and desperately trying to think about a good theory or theme or thesis, when I finally realized that it is not what they are saying that makes us gather close around the stage, swaying to and fro. It's the music. It is the sound, not just the lyrics, which is why we will gladly sing along while bands "doo-dum" and "dah-de-dah" and probably why American bands are karaoke hits overseas. Deep, I know.
So what exactly is "it" then? I usually want a vocalist who can blow off the roof off, some non-standard instrument (say, like a ukulele or tiny toy piano), and then that indescribable musical quality that makes us want to rock out.
The opener last night -- St. Louis locals Scarlet Tanager -- nailed those requirements. While recorded they sound straight-up pop (even evoking Kate Nash, if her accent was less British and her guitar was more Americana), but live, there is nothing flimsy or superficial about Scarlet Tanager. Lead singer Susan Logsdon's voice is hardly cutesy, notwithstanding having recently been dubbed "St. Louis' Most Adorable New Band," but rather is booming and rich with just enough raspiness to keep them grounded and earthy. Her husband Michael is something of a renaissance musician, swapping guitar for trumpet for tiny toy piano (that's right, they nailed it!), while filling in with his own equally powerful vocals.
And it wasn't their vocals driving the show, it was this other indescribable stuff, because actually, most choruses consisted of some form of "oh oh oh." In fact, my frantically-scribbled review notes devolved into a series of up/down arrows to try to distinguish which "ohs" went with which song. (It's a finely nuanced difference on paper between Tumbleweed's "ah ah ah ah ah" and the "oh oh oh ah oh" of Stay in the Lines.)
But that's my point -- the lyrics "bum bah bumpa bumpa bum!" from their song "Bum Bum Bum" are hardly genius. But brilliant indeed are the harmonizing ohs and group clapping, not to mention the sometimes Americana-twangy / sometimes surfer-cool electric guitar, and the alternating clickity-clack drumstick percussion and snare-heavy drum kit -- oh, and the tiny toy piano! (Oh!).
Scarlet Tanager may have a touch of the indie rocker and may look like a page torn out of Rock-A-Billy 101, but those words, on the whole, I assure you, are inapt. Scarlet Tanager, "you [made] me change [my] mind."
Next in the Twangfest queue last night was another family group led by Jayson and Sarah Benn. But unlike Scarlet Tanager's grown-up childhood bedtime song about "baby bunting," Shivering Timbers are not merely child-inspired but rather full-bore child-infused, featuring 5-year-old Suzi Benn on tiny toy piano (oh!), hand bells and tambourine. And though similarly performing re-birthed fairy tales, those of Shivering Timbers are not so much Grimm grown up, but more like Grimm gone grim.
"Macabre" and "foreboding" are two adjectives they've evoked -- those words are not ill-suited; Ms. Benn could be singing about fluffy clouds and they would seem dark and stormy. Her voice is haunting a la Jefferson Airplane and big and bad enough to scare the devil out of you even more than the Reverend Al Green himself while preaching to his Memphis congregation at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, "People! I'm maaaaad at you!" That's right, when Sarah Benn wields her upright bass and wails about the "baaaaaaaad notions that profouuund me!" to the reverb of her husband's electric guitar and the unstoppable train of the drums while their kid flails around like the best of holy rollers, I guarantee you will find yourself writhing on the floor, being saved or healed or converted or whatever this mistress of the night wants to do to you.
Listening to Shivering Timbers is like being trapped in a wind tunnel of persistent driving instrumentals, barely able to breathe, and above this fray we can only be raised up, terrifyingly, by Ms. Benn's apocalyptic warble: "Don't be scared / Don't be scared / Don't be scared / 'Cause I'll be there with you." Indeed! I may play your songs on repeat, Shivering Timbers, but shiver-me-timbers I'm not buying your words!
It is hard to imagine who could follow that crescendo, but enter stage right Motel Mirrors, a new group project for Twangfest-host favorites Amy LaVere, John Paul Keith, and Shawn Zorn -- they took center stage and quickly cleared any lingering shadows. Although there were threads of similarities woven through the night, Ms. LaVere's flourishing of the upright bass was nothing like her predecessor -- swap gold lame mini-dress for dark jeans and swap dark tones for classic twang. (Hey "more twang" dude -- did you miss this?)
Once described as "the honky-tonk angel to end all honky-tonk angels," Amy LaVere's brand of "twang" is a beautiful pastiche of classic Americana, modern Southern rock, a touch of blues, soul and country/western, but together with her new cohorts, these three really blow up a stage like you can't imagine.
Finally, we get to the headliner Joe Pug, the last of the featured acts. Although he didn't take stage until around 11:30 p.m., his late-night slot is in no way a reflection on his position. On the contrary, not only was Mr. Pug the lucky recipient of an influx of new concert-attendees, many of whom had heard him sing on numerous occasions (the general consensus being that, lucky us, last night was his best show to date), but also obviously the object of many female fans' devotion, if the crowd pressed up to the stage was any indication.
And Mr. Pug is also the singular inspiration for my "reading" of this concert and arguably the unifying force in this cacophony of disparate twangs.
Perhaps it doesn't make sense to give so much credence to an out-of-context phrase, "words are just words," especially a reading that is likely not at all what Mr. Pug means when he sings these lyrics from one of his more famous songs, "Call It What You Will," and surely a strained if not troubled analysis of words uttered by someone who studied playwriting in college, someone who has been lauded as one of the top songwriters of all time (as a better music reviewer than me aptly stated: "Unless your surname is Dylan, Waits, Ritter or Prine, you could face-palm yourself to death trying to pen songs half as inspired as the 10 tracks on Joe Pug's debut full-length album"), and someone who has likened himself to the love child of poet Walt Whitman and lyricist Bob Dylan... but don't forget we're not worried about the words here.
It's the music that matters here, right Joe? It must be, because even those of us that haven't yet achieved level 10 of devotee status and do not know by heart all of his brilliant statements nevertheless pushed up close to the stage, swaying to and fro, feeling love and sadness and joy and irritation and awe -- awe for his sound, respect for his ability to pound his guitar while making his harmonica scream, reverence for his total capacity to rock out.
That's right, it's the music that matters here. You taught us that, Joe Pug. That's why you bantered with the crowd not about your penning process but about your instruments -- "We're tuning because we give a shit. We don't tune in Kansas City or in Omaha! We fucking tune in St. Louis!" Why do you tune in the STL, Joe Pug? Oh yeah -- because words are just words. MORE MUSIC, Joe Pug, more music.
After a glorious 70-plus minutes of Joe Pug and nearly five unbelievable hours of 21st century twang, I think most of us were speechless. Rightfully so. But we left Blueberry Hill silent but content with Joe Pug's parting wisdom in mind -- "speak plainly. . . / there's nothing to understand."
Joe Pug set list:
Nation of Heat
I Do My Father's Drugs
Silver Harps and Violins
How Good You Are
Deep Dark Wells
The Great Despiser
Not So sure
Pair of Shadows (new song)
One of Many
Call It What You Will
Speak Plainly Diana