Music Reviews
Riverfront Times Showcase STL. Photo by Doug Tull.

Earthlings, I have been sent to the Grove to report on the happenings at the 2019 Riverfront Times Showcase STL. The much-beloved, homegrown music festival boasts its biggest, most riotous year to date.

Before pedaling up to Manchester Avenue, I set about clearing my mind of any and all expectations about what the day — and more broadly, the state of the St. Louis music scene — might hold. It has been a few years since I attended a Showcase, you see, and I hadn’t even heard of half the bands featured. I was itching for a new discovery, although there were a few big names I felt that I just couldn’t miss (the incomparable Kim Massie, live and in person! the return of Sleepy Kitty!) and some old timers that, for one reason or another, I have not been able to catch in person (Agile One, Glued, Alexis Tucci).

Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult of Sleepy Kitty. Photo by Doug Tull.

Having figuratively performed a smudging ritual on my brain, adjusted the appropriate chakras and scrolled through any and all of the artists’ Bandcamp pages that I could find, I zipped up my fanny pack and headed to the Grove as soon as the clouds parted on Saturday afternoon. Sadly, my Friday night plans did not leave room for the kickoff party, so I’ll just have to imagine its awesomeness. I’m imagining that it was a great time, because the Manchester strip was still pretty subdued when I arrived.

Granted, there had been a heavy downpour, so event staff were scrambling to rearrange schedules and hustle artists to indoor venues while industrial fans and the sunshine went to work de-soaking everything. After all, no one wants to be electrocuted. The result of this was not chaos exactly (although I’m sure it must have felt that way to the folks behind the scenes); there simply weren’t that many people out at 2 pm to see the first couple of acts. CORRECTION: Unless you found yourself at the Bootleg, where the youth of School of Rock Ballwin and Kirkwood kicked some truth to an audience of beaming parents and nervously giggling kids from the suburbs, the latter thrilled to be hanging out in a dim bar where bleary-eyed adults with tattoos and Maxi Glamour, our bejeweled, be-gowned and otherwise bedecked Showcase STL host, were availing themselves of the $5 Jack and Coke special.

School of Rock Kirkwood features a ragtag assortment of high schoolers whose facility with their instruments is impressive – it’s straight up MC5-style, garage rock, efficiently dispatched to your ears quickly and furiously. One young man with baby dreads let forth a scorching guitar solo, backed by a nice tight beat from the rhythm section, that had me wishing I had learned to play guitar when I was a teenager instead of sulking around the woods of Jefferson County drinking Boone’s Farm. And after that, an Elton John cover; it was Pride Month, of course. Great job, kids!

From across the street, I heard the strains of Lizzo and knew that I needed to get over to the Handlebar, where Justin Ra was preparing for his set on the patio. Mr. Ra, a hard-working local musician, was also performing with the band, We Are Warm, a mere hour after his own set. And here was the first lesson of the day: St. Louis is chock full of weirdos who support each other, often by playing in each other’s totally different-sounding bands. What does Justin Ra sound like? I’m really not sure, and I stayed for almost his entire set, which consisted of the following instruments: a guitar, a keyboard, a djembe, various pedals and a didgeridoo. The lyrical subject matter was modern. “This song is called, ‘I’m a Mess’!” he chirped at one point. Yet the drum and four-foot, moaning didgeridoo lent an ancient rhythm to the synthesized beeps and boops. Moody space jams grounded in the primal earth — that’s Justin Ra.

Inside Firecracker Pizza, St. Villagers offered up some brisk power pop, while back at the Bootleg, The Only Sound growled and rumbled the rafters. Overheard: The Only Sound lead singer asking the crowd, “We got ten more minutes, what you wanna do? Hey everybody, take your shirt off!” A woman standing behind me obliged. Next I tried to find Sloopy McCoy at the Parlor’s outdoor patio, but was informed that the first act was still an hour away. Inside, the Parlor was packed with what appeared to be either a retirement party or a 30th wedding anniversary luncheon for a family from Chesterfield. White-haired men in khaki shorts were hurling skee balls around while wives and daughters tended to aluminum trays of coleslaw and chicken wings. The incongruity of these two scenes, if I had to put my finger on it, got to the core of City versus County living – striking me as an intractable divide to bridge, as I wandered around Manchester, suddenly thinking dark, emo thoughts.

Speaking of emo, the interior of the Tiki Bar was filled to the rafters with earnest balladry from Brian McClelland’s No Thunder (Get it? Not Whoa Thunder, because that’s the whole band). I hydrated myself, then kept moving – up to catch Jesus Christ Supercar, if only because I liked their name. What I found was a group of guys wearing sunglasses and jean jackets with the sleeves rolled up, sounding like the second coming of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists one minute and a psychobilly freakout the next. I couldn’t tell whether the members of Jesus Christ Supercar took themselves very seriously or not seriously at all — I’m thinking the latter, because this is, after all, St. Louis. Say what you will about our terrible drivers and provolone cheese, at least we’re humble!

Jesus Christ Supercar. Photo by Doug Tull.

For ear-splintering exuberance, I suggest Lobby Boxer. The local noise-punks were matched in ferocious good humor only by the fist-pumping crowd crammed into the Gramophone, blocking all points of egress. I quickly realized that I hadn’t eaten and dipped into Gezellig to try a Blueberry Sour and a slice of vegan pizza, which was very thoughtfully sent out to me with a side of crushed red pepper and nutritional yeast. While wolfing down my very late lunch, I caught part of Stephanie Stewart – or rather Stephanie Stewart and two middle-aged men, one playing banjo and the other guitar. The crowd was a little older, politely smiling and tapping their toes with each strum. They didn’t look like diehard folk music fans (more like the type who bought the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack and left it at that), but I was struck with my second epiphany of the day.

I’ll lay it on you now: the music scene in St. Louis is eclectic and multigenerational. A few doors down, Lobby Boxer was violating all kinds of noise ordinances. Yet here I sat, calmly swigging craft beer and watching a group of musicians – just as passionate about their craft as the hairiest, funkiest-armpit smelling miscreant down at the Gramophone – strum sweet tunes that embody the phrase “easy listening.” The fact that all these different artists were sharing the same bill struck me as a wonderful thing, a feat that a lot of music festivals are supposed to accomplish but don’t actually achieve, made all the more impressive by the fact that all of the artists are homegrown. It’s a festival for us, by us. We have a lot of talent, grit and soul stuffed into these 13 square miles and 90 municipalities (or whatever it is). I made a very late New Year’s resolution to see a local band or artist I’ve never heard of every month. You should join me. (Is this where I introduce a hashtag?) 

I headed back to the Parlor, where the Chesterfield retirement party was still in full swing amidst a stream of Cherokee Street twenty-somethings who had clearly just woken up, grabbed their vape pens and moseyed up to see their friends play. And there I found them – my favorite discovery of the day, Kids! I’m clearly late to this party, judging by the preponderance of sweaty youth jiggling along to this normcore-ish three piece. Endearingly, two of the band members pointed out their moms in the crowd, and sure enough, a lady behind me was relentlessly snapping pictures of the drummer with her pearly iPhone. This was back-to-basics garage rock with a thrift-store punk attitude and just enough odd shrieks, vocal trills and bursts of power chords to keep you guessing about what was coming next. “WE ARE KIDS!” the guitarist yelled as the crowd dispersed. And then a clarifying follow-up: “Not the kind you have, like, out of your body.”

Then I wandered into the Atomic Cowboy Pavilion and my expectations were upended once again. Sorry, Scout is a hard rock band comprised of three instrumentalists with very serious chops and a full-throated vocalist with just the right amount of gravel in the voice. The crowd appeared to be a hard-partying one, wearing lots of black, and included a man dressed up like the devil. More whiplash as I moved straight from Sorry, Scout to Karen Choi – a gentle singer-songwriter playing an intimate, unhurried set despite the meat locker temperatures at the Butcher Block. Bounce House, consisting of a lone redhead, her bass and a drum machine, sampled unknown-to-me speeches and film clips while plucking her bass strings and half-yelping, half-singing whip smart lyrics into the microphone. 

That’s when I had another realization: women were ROCKING this festival. Female and nonbinary musicians were killing it in every corner of the Grove, whether they were the main attraction, one of several members of a band or (a la Bounce House) simply living their own supremely strange truth. They were rockers, crooners, singer-songwriters, rappers, DJs and dancers. So the future is female!

Midwest Avengers. Photo by Doug Tull.

The crowds were pouring in now and I had to move quickly: Nibiru, ethereal synthesizer in use; Little Cowboy, upbeat rock for a group of boys in polo shirts and topsiders; Frankie DoWop, sultry soul music (and more evidence that the future is female); Midwest Avengers, formidably talented hip hop with a rock and roll swagger; Banana Clips, grungy surf-inflected punk with a female vocalist possessing some serious pipes. Sleepy Kitty, local darlings who have been dormant for months since lead singer and guitarist Paige Brubeck went on the vocal equivalent of bed rest, were warmly received at the Ready Room. They hustled through a couple of old songs, then launched into all new material – with three new band members to boot. The main attraction is still Ms. Brubeck, but the band’s sound was deepened, filled out, by the additional guitar and backing vocals.

I hustled back to the Atomic Cowboy Pavilion midway through Sleepy Kitty’s set to find an uproarious crowd anxiously awaiting homegrown hero, Tonina. “QUEEN!!!” hollered somebody behind me. Everyone was in a great mood. Everyone was transfixed. There were good-natured people of many ages, races and gender expressions. And it was beautiful that the music had brought us all together. But if you think people went wild for Tonina, then you obviously haven’t been to (the now shuttered) Beale on Broadway to see Kim Massie, who turned in an equally enthralling performance.

Kim Massie. Photo by Doug Tull.

It was after dark now, and folks were getting a little rowdy – but in a good-natured way (although I did witness a girl-on-girl scuffle over what appeared to be a Super Soaker). Whoops and hollers followed me down the street as I ducked in and out of noisy clubs, each packed to the gills with revelers. Shana B is the hardest working woman in St. Louis show business; Mammoth Piano played it low key; and Agile One got everyone out on the Handlebar dance floor. And then, earthlings, it was time to hop on my bike and race home to relieve the babysitter. I was bummed to miss Lion’s Daughter and Alexis Tucci. But according to my late New Year’s resolution, I have a lot of catching up on local bands to do. So they are on my list, as is everybody else who got short shrift.

Since Saturday night, I have been trying to come up with something profound to share about this experience – what it says about our city; what is means for the local scene now and in the future. If I could distill the pearls of clarity I experienced during my walkabout, including not only the music but the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of the festival, I would come up with something you would see as you head west on Manchester toward Tower Grove Avenue. In the midst of the rapid gentrification haphazardly churning up the neighborhood, a boarded-up building splattered with graffiti bears this axiom: “What’s gone is done and what’s over is past grief.”

There has been a fair amount of grief in the local news lately (but then, there always is). It strikes me that a festival showcasing the deep well of talent and ingenuity flowing through our potholed streets is as good a way as any to remind us how special this town really is. I’ve lived in many other places. Yet I made my home here in part because of you DIY weirdos, you basement-dwelling punks dressed in your Salvation Army finest, you hard-working party people with a dozen side hustles to support your dreams. Cheers to you. Cheers to the artists in our steadily evolving scene, cheers to the event staff who kept the Stag flowing, and cheers to those who came out to support local music.

Up and coming jazz artist, Tonina. Photo by Doug Tull.

Beloved R & B singer, Theresa Payne. Photo by Doug Tull.

Old-school hip hop group, The Illphonics. Photo by Doug Tull.

St. Louis ska masters, Boomtown United. Photo by Doug Tull.

Garage rocker, Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals. Photo by Doug Tull.Indie band, Jr. Clooney. Photo by Doug Tull.

Hip hop collective, Mathias and the Pirates. Photo by Doug Tull.

Hip hop live band, Looprat. Photo by Doug Tull.

For more images, visit the station's Flickr page


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