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Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 20
9/2/04 Open mic night, Frederick’s. I got there as some guy with a guitar was singing a Moody Blues song (maybe “Knights In White Satin”?). I think he did some clever revised lyrics, but I didn’t get it. I was about to leave, but Bob Reuter (tonight’s host) recommended that I stick around to hear this odd duo called The Vague Conundrums…I’m glad I did. One guy plays this bluesy heavy-metal riffage (kinda refreshing among a sea of sensitive singer-songwriters) on an electric guitar. The lack of a rhythm section kept things from getting too muddy. The lead singer is this dude in a sleeveless t-shirt who looks like he could be on his way from the construction site to a Molly Hatchet concert. He dramatically delivers grand vocal pronouncements with all the appropriately theatrical gestures…but wait- there’s a slight smirk on his face that makes me think he’s not taking any of this too seriously. His lyrics confirm this penchant for the playful- one song was all about fire safety. With Jim Morrison-like bravado he would emote lyrics like “No smoke was detected…”, “It became a flame/who’s to blame?” and “invest in a battery”. Fun stuff.
9/2/04 Marah, Off Broadway. The band had been playing for about ten minutes when I got there. This was the third time I’ve seen them in five months, so this show was less an eye-opening epiphany and more of the usual good time. All of the elements we know and love about them were out in force- they rocked out in that hard-working style that offers glimpses of Springsteen, The Stones and the Faces. They did that one song that always reminds me of Uncle Tupelo’s “Graveyard Shift”. The banjo has disappeared from their bag of tricks, but the lap steel still rings loud and clear. The two brothers (Serge and Dave) took their customary perches on everything from the bar to a tower of speakers to the tabletops up front. Less rambling, spoken monologue than before. The crowd was much bigger than last April- lots of people and lots of beer.
9/3/04 Meat Purveyors, Frederick’s. Roughshop opened with their now-familiar cover of Talking Heads’ “Heaven”; Andy’s vocals (and electric guitar playing) get more confident each time. Nate’s piano was pretty expressive on this one, too. I was impressed with the way John and Anne’s voices mixed on the newer “Final Wild Son” (not the Long Ryders’ song)- it’s hard to describe something I heard a couple of nights ago, but I remember it having a cool, soulful groove, maybe like Dusty Springfield. They continue to tweak with arrangements of their older material such as “Flesh And Blood”, “That’s What I Like About You” (maybe wrong title?) and, most notably, “Fences”. The latter was done up in a slower, more moody style, Andy’s atmospheric dobro setting the tone.
The Meat Purveyors drew an ideal number of people tonight- the place was crowded, but not uncomfortably so. Just about every aspect of this Austin four-piece is an ideal match for Frederick’s- they’re a little bit bluegrass, a little bit country, and more than a little sassy and irreverent.
Steve P. accurately pointed out that what gets people interested in these guys is their cover versions of familiar pop songs. After the initial “yuck, yuck” of recognizing bluegrass-ized versions of such pop hits as Abba’s “S.O.S.”, Fleetwood Mac’s “Monday Morning”, or The Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On?”, it’s a pleasant surprise that these guys actually make these songs work in their reworked forms. Nick Lowe’s “Without Love” and Ronnie Milsap’s “Daydreams About Night Things” were less of a stretch for Jo Walston (lead vocals) and band (guitar, mandolin & stand-up bass) to translate into their style, and came across convincingly, as well.
With four albums to draw from, they now have a large enough back catalog of songs to cherry-pick a good handful of catchy and clever originals (all written by guitarist Bill Anderson) to go along with the covers. Hard living and loving are recurring themes in songs like “TMP Smackdown”, “More A Man”, “Hey Little Sister”, “How Can I Be So Thirsty Today (when I had so much to drink last night)”, “Go Out Smokin” and “Little White Pills”.
We were observing that a handful of guys (and even a woman or two) rivaled Steve Pick for tallest person in the bar tonight, just as the band, coincidentally, played “Tall Boy”. Not surprisingly, this Austin band dedicated a song to our friend Mike Blake- Ratt’s “Round And Round”. The encore featured their ballad version of “Like A Virgin”.
9/4/04 Gatemouth Brown, Big Muddy Music Festival, Laclede’s Landing. By the time we walked over from the ball park (a 5-1 Cardinals win), Gatemouth had been playing for ten minutes or so. The good part about a free outdoor music festival is…well, it’s free. The bad part is that unless you get there early and park your lawn chair front and center, you end up standing back near the periphery where a big crowd of drunks is as likely to be talking about the office picnic as listening to the music- they don’t have to care about the music- it’s free.
From our marginally enjoyable spot in the back, we heard Gatemouth and band play a fairly eclectic set, ranging from blues to country to Cajun. The sax and piano players proved able co-lead players to Gatemouth’s lead guitar and Cajun-style fiddling. Often an older blues legend will be accompanied by some young turk on second guitar who does the lion’s share of the leads…not tonight; the guitar leads were all Gatemouth, all the time. His singing voice remains rich and pleasing, even in his late seventies. Tonight they did that old standard, “Unchained Melody”, starting off in a slow, dreamy vein similar in tone to “Sleepwalk”, but at some pre-arranged point, some imaginary switch was thrown, and the whole band kicked into “reggae” mode, accentuating the rhythm and catching a groove- this big outdoor-fest crowd ate it up.
Toward the end of this set, things got more enjoyable when we found a little grass…to sit on, closer to the stage where the sound and view were much better. St. Louis blues legend Bennie Smith pulled up a stool and a guitar and joined the band on Gatemouth’s classic instrumental “Okie Dokie Stomp”, to end the show.
9/7/04 Jon Dee Graham, Frederick’s. I caught the last couple of songs by Matt Ahearn- a relatively monochromatic voice doing a sometimes sing/sometimes talk thing over acoustic guitar. Clever lyrics. I think a significant portion of this crowd of 30 or 40 people (on a Tuesday night) were his friends/fans.
Jon Dee Graham (backed by bass and drums) played a couple of sets here just two months ago; tonight they only played one, mostly highlighting their brand new CD, “The Great Battle”- “Twilight”, “Majesty Of Love” and “Lonesome Valley” stood out, in particular. The usual good time, but not much new to add to what I said about the 7/2/04 show (Waits-like vocals, impressive leads). In the encore, he honored my request for “Sleep Enough to Dream”, keeping the arrangement less busy than last time.
9/8/04 Gillian Welch, Mississippi Nights. The Old Crow Medicine Show opened. These four guys from Nashville (stand-up bass, banjo, guitar & fiddle) do to old-time string band music what BR5-49 does to 50s style honky tonk music- these young guys play quickly and cleanly with exuberance and enthusiasm. David Rawlings joined them on second guitar and banjo. Three different and distinctive (all in a higher range) vocalists kept things varied and interesting. They did an obscure Bob Dylan song, “Rock Me Mama” (so Roy tells me), adding their own verses. Certain purists may have a problem with the “popularization” of this genre, via hopped-up tempos and isolated soloing…but such nay-sayers weren’t in evidence tonight- the packed house seemed to be right there with the band on the slower ballads as well as their revved up material, including that old traditional song about cocaine. Their onstage banter often referenced baseball- the band was introduced as “Kevin Hernandez (sic), Bruce Sutter, Willie McGee and Darrell Porter”. Subtract points for getting the Cardinals world championship year wrong (it was 1982, not 1983).
So when Gillian Welch, opened with “I Want To Sing that Rock And Roll”, the line “cause everybody’s been makin’ a shout, so big and loud its been drownin’ me out”, seemed to be a reference to the ruckus created by her opening act. She then preceded to do the most up-tempo set I’ve seen her do. In addition to trademark quiet and somber songs like “Annabelle”, “Everything Is Free”, “By The Mark” and “No One Knows My Name”, she managed to perk things up in places- David Rawlings’ animated and expressive playing (along with accompanying body language) borders on overly flashy, but always seems to work in the context of any given song. In no particular order, they also did “Elvis Presley Blues”, “Wrecking Ball” and “Look At Miss Ohio”. As a tribute to the late St. Louisan, John Hartford, she covered “In Tall Buildings”, a sad and beautiful waltz about making compromises and working for the man. The song now carries an additional somber connotation in this post 9/11 climate.
After a short break, their second set opened with “My First Lover”, Welch’s banjo plunking along like Neil Young’s in “For The Turnstiles”. Speaking of Neil, the spare verse/intense lead guitar format of “Revelator” reminded me of “Cowgirl In The Sand”. Later, Gillian gave David the opportunity to sing a song of his choosing…he came up with Springsteen’s “Racing In The Streets”, rendered in waltz time. Rawling’s voice sounds just like Loudon Wainwright’s (think “Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road”). The dark murder ballad, “Caleb Meyer” ended their set.
They brought all four guys from OCMS back up for the encore- The Band’s “The Weight” was given a full-blown treatment; each verse was sung by a different singer and each lead player got a turn to solo. They ended with “John Henry”, spliced into the melody of the Kershaws’ “Cajun Stripper” (or something very close), to end on a romping, stomping high note.
9/9/04 Emmylou Harris, The Sheldon. We arrived about halfway through Buddy Miller‘s opening set; he was singing Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis”. I found the volume of the vocals in the house mix to be on the loud side (relative to his solo guitar accompaniment), and somewhat at odds with the modest, understated quality of Miller’s voice. This technical shortcoming was not an obstacle to being blown away when Emmylou came out to add backing vocals to the chorus of Miller’s simple reading of The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee”…haunting lyrics over an especially distinctive melody. I got goose bumps. He also had the good taste to cover Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, but once again, I was wishing I could tweak the volume of the vocals down a bit.
I’ve been a huge fan of Emmylou Harris since sometime in the seventies, so it’s just about impossible for me not to enjoy hearing her sing. Having said that, a few things were less than ideal about her set tonight. First of all, this was my third night out in a row and I had absorbed a lot of music in the last 48 hours. Last night’s Gillian Welch/David Rawlings show featured a similar (in many respects, not all) format to tonight’s Emmylou/Buddy M. pairing. Plus, having seen Emmylou perform for maybe the sixth time in the last three years made things less fresh and special than had there been more time between shows.
The good news is that even under these circumstances, hearing her come out onstage and sing “Songbird” immediately reminded me of what made me such a big fan to begin with- her clear and expressive voice hit that spot and all was fine, if familiar. She presented a broad assortment of material from the old days (“Easy From Now On”, “Love Hurts”), as well as her more recent recordings (Lanois’ “Blackhawk”, Dylan’s “Every Grain Of Sand”, Lucinda’s “Sweet Old World”, Gillian’s “Orphan Girl”). Her rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho And Lefty” might still be my favorite song she does...haunting lyrics over an especially distinctive melody.
Keeping the instrumentation spare, she actually did a handful of songs without the assistance of Buddy Miller’s guitar. Her skills with picking patterns are surprisingly proficient. For most of the set, Miller’s leads (on guitars and mandolin) were as impressive and appropriate as ever, although an annoying static buzz could be heard, on and off, throughout the set.
She pulled out a couple of surprise covers tonight. The Louvins’ “There’s a Higher Power” found Emmylou stomping out the rhythm in her cowgirl boots, while Dylan’s “Oh Sister” revisited the song she laid down backing vocals onto thirty years ago. She gave endearing spoken introductions to originals about her father (“Bang The Drum Slowly”) and Johnny Cash/June Carter.
The first song of the encore was John Lennon’s “Imagine”; Emmylou’s ability to express a weary sadness while simultaneously holding out a glimmer of hope serves this classic well. This melody is one for the ages, although I have, at times, found Lennon’s lyrics to be delusionally naïve- “lose your possessions and we’ll all live in peace”. But tonight, the line “…and no religion too…” seemed to hit at the heart of much of the today’s troubles brought on by religious extremists in all corners of the world. Things ended on a less heavy note- the uptempo “Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” sent everyone home happy.
9/15/04 Wilco, The Fox Theatre. I had decided to pass on this show, but when my buddy Dave called to say he was unable to sell his tickets, I quickly picked up Angela and drove down to The Fox. When we walked in, Wilco had been playing for about half an hour- “Handshake Drugs” was the first song we heard. Jeff Tweedy and five other guys (b, d, g, g, k & k/g) were getting all hypnotic and droney over this fairly straightforward, groove-based song.
Accompanying the music was a series of movie images projected onto an elaborately set up screen, maybe 30’ by 20’, right behind the band. A different short piece accompanied each song. Most were black & white, fairly abstract and formatted symmetrically about a vertical axis, like a Rorschach test in motion. I wonder if this stuff was shot by the same guy who made that black and white movie about Wilco.
There’s been a bunch of chatter about the evolution of this band and their sound, so I’ll forego the big picture summation and just focus on what I saw/heard tonight. Jeff’s voice has a somewhat different, but still recognizable, character to it now. The new guitar player (Nels Cline) would often go off on some ragged, jags, most extremely on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”. That’s the one that bubbles along like Brian Eno covering The Meat Puppets’ “Up On The Sun” for a full ten minutes, while dissonant shards of “European Son” guitar veer in and out of the mix. The film images during this song were high-contrast, big, black spiders. Jeff added a few edgy leads himself at times and the (not so) new drummer (Glen Kotche) played in a noticeably inventive way.
Other songs that stood out were “At Least That’s What You Said” (with it’s quiet/loud pattern), “War On War” (upbeat and melodic, not to mention the timely message), “Jesus, Etc.” (a moody, yet familiar song whose bridge(?) made Dave mention Tom Petty) and “I’m The Man That Loves You”. Encore number one featured the funky pop song “Casino Queen”. Back when Wilco released this song, they were still clearly in that “alternative-country” camp and this song struck me as an update of Gram Parsons’ “Ooh, Las Vegas”. Jeff dedicated this one to his dad.
The second encore was a slower, acoustic affair. He introduced an obscure cover by a guy whose name I can’t remember…something about, “don’t be so _______ (afraid, sorry, etc.)”. Warm and heartening versions of “The Lonely One” and “New Madrid” closed things out in a mellow manner. Jeff walked off waving, as the band remained onstage for a shimmering fade out.
9/15/04 Relapse, Fredrick’s. When I showed up after the Wilco show, there was Tony working the door, four guys on stage, two guys seated at a table, Trish and Dana behind the bar and Fred on my side of the bar…it’s always nice to have Fred on your side.
This Michigan four-piece (B, G, D & V) do a tough, punk(ish) rock thing with little regard for who, if anyone, is listening. (They apparently played for a handful of people in Columbia last night, while Wilco packed ‘em in across the street.) The lead singer belted out with a slight brit-punk sneer and the guitar player’s chops were convincing, if not amazing. Near the end of their set, the rhythm section had a seat at a table while the singer sang Oasis’ “Wonderwall”, accompanied only by guitar. The comparison doesn’t extend to the music, but these guys are traveling lean and mean in a way that the guys in Wilco did (in other bands) way back when. After they played, they collected their cash (barely double digits, I’m guessing) and pointed their van towards Iowa.
9/16/04 Bob Weir & Ratdog, The Pageant. Recently, my friend Michele and I discovered that we both used to go see The Grateful Dead back in the seventies and early eighties and were actually at some of the same shows twenty five years ago- yow (on many levels). So when free tickets became available to see singer/guitarist Bob Weir’s current band, we said, “what the hell?”. The Grateful Dead are about as much of a lightning rod band as I can think of; there are those who really like ‘em, and those who really don’t. What follows is a description that will reveal, to an embarrassing degree, my knowledge on this subject. This little forum is called my “concert diary”, so I won’t hold back.
When Bob was in the Grateful Dead, his solo records and side projects (Kingfish, The Midnites) were much more straight-up rock, pop and/or blues, and didn’t really sound like his main band. So I was a bit surprised that this time around, he’s put together a band that pretty much recreates all of The Dead’s trademark elements: the bass player lopes along in an animated manner, the guitar player flutters like Jerry (on both acoustic and electric) and the piano player tinkles like Keith…give the people what they want. A saxophone player added some rich tones to the mix…I think that replicates a later incarnation of The Dead that I missed.
So the whole experience was like stepping back into my college days. There was a mix of old hippies and younger kids in the crowd. The smell of marijuana (I wanna say Patchulli, but I didn’t actually smell any) and the sight of hippie chicks doing that twirl dance accompanied the murky low end/ fluttery high end ramblings of songs like “Dark Star”, “Estimated Prophet” and “Althea”. Since singing was never Mr. Garcia’s strong suit, Bob had no trouble taking over on the songs Jerry used to sing. Less convincing was the way Bob and band handled Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”. When sung by The Grateful Dead’s Pigpen, this song was much more true to the bluesy, down and dirty feel of the original; tonight’s version sounded more smooth and California casual. The first set ended with a loose jam evolving into the conclusion of “Jack Straw” (apparently, they opened with this one). This song is one of my favorite Bob songs- there are moments of synchronized punch as the final verse is delivered.
We moved up closer for the second set, which featured a couple of songs I first heard by Bob Dylan- “Pretty Peggy O” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. They also included “hits” from the early records. “Friend Of The Devil” was done up in their latter-period ballad form (as opposed to the more upbeat folk-rock anthem it once was) and “Uncle John’s Band” was spliced in between the rumbling passages of “The Other One” (this song packs an atypical amount of urgency and intensity- it was my favorite of the evening). The encore featured one of The Grateful Dead’s best known songs, “Touch Of Grey”, which I’m less a fan of.
This fun little field trip was topped off by a walk through the Metrolink parking lot, which had been temporarily transformed into an odd bazaar of hippies selling trinkets, intoxicants and veggie burritos. I left with the image of some misguided soul driving his SUV through the fence of the parking lot and into the bushes, before running away from the car and being wrestled to the ground by police.
9/1/704David Grisman, The Pageant. After being out late the last couple of nights, it was a nice change of pace to find The Pageant less crowded and the music more tranquil tonight. It felt good to sit back and hear this acoustic, instrumental quintet- mandolin, stand up bass, guitar, flute(!) and an impressive multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, mandolin & percussion).
You’ll probably find Grisman’s records in the folk/bluegrass section of the store, but tonight’s show contained elements of jazz, swing, pop standards, Irish reels and ragtime as well. Personal highlights of the first set were Nat Cole’s “Nature Boy” and the original, “Dawg’s Waltz”.
Evan and I found seats up in the balcony for the second set as the band got a bit more adventurous. While continuing to freely switch genres (Miles Davis to Flamenco, with a few stops in between), certain players would exit the stage to leave isolated combinations of instruments- most notably DG on mandolin, paired with peppy percussion. At times I found the flute to be a bit on the precious side…things aren’t likely to get too down and dirty when there’s a flute chirping along. Evan pointed out that the flute did serve a purpose as it provided sustain in places; all of the other instruments relied on discreet plucks to release individual notes, while the flute was capable of filling things in with a continuous, sustained tone…shit you learn sitting with a composer’s kid.
We made it back down to the floor for the encore- a rollicking version of “Shady Grove” in which the entire band got pumped up as Grisman actually sang- I didn’t know he did this. The instrumentation drifted into a moment of discordant free-jazz, before returning to the tune at hand. Are those the same dancing hippie girls that were here last night?
9/17/04 “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (a St. Louis tribute to Chuck Berry) CD Release Party, The Pageant. By the time we arrived a bit after eight, Fred Friction was onstage slapping the silverware along with Waterloo, who had apparently already done their version of Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go”- too bad, because I really like the combination of subdued vocals and hypnotic instrumentation that they apply to this song. As much as I like the dreamy burn that typifies Waterloo’s sound, it’s not exactly party music, and this is a party, dammit…I was wishing I could save this set for another evening at Frederick’s and substitute a more lively band into this tribute to the father of rock and roll. The guys seemed to be having fun playing on the big stage with the fog machine rolling. At this point, The Pageant was about as sparse as I’ve ever seen it- the entire dance floor was vacant.
Next came The Tripdaddys, who rose to the occasion with a spirited set consisting almost entirely of Chuck Berry songs: “Nadine”, “Maybelline”, “Carol”, “School Days” and “Johnny B. Goode” (introduced as the national anthem of rock and roll) convinced everyone of Chuck’s influence on these guys. They got assists from John Horton (guitar on “Talking ‘bout You”) and Al Swacker (vocals on “Livin’ In The U.S.A.” and another one). If “Psychobilly” connotes the ghoulish camp of bands like The Cramps, then the term doesn’t apply to these guys- I’d place ‘em at the more gritty, manic end of the rockabilly spectrum. This was just what this event called for- the dance floor filled up nicely during their set. They ended with 2 or 3 originals including “As Long As It Rocks”.
Next up was The Bottlerockets…having witnessed how successful these guys were at intensively focusing on the material of a single songwriter (Doug Sahm, on their “Songs Of Sahm” CD), I was halfway hoping they had worked up a similar batch of Chuck covers for tonight’s show. But I guess that’s a pretty tall order, for a one-off gig. What we got was another pleasing set of the band’s most notable songs; “I Fell Down”, “Baggage Claim” and “Man Of Constant Anxiety” from their latest CD, and “I’ll Be Comin’ Around”, “$1,000 Car”, “Indianapolis”, “Hey Moon”, “Lost What I Had”, “Gravity Fails”, “Get Down River” (John Horton on lap steel) and “Radar Gun” all came in rapid fire with all of the exhilarating two-guitar interplay we’ve come to expect since John joined the band. I’d be interested to hear what John has to say about this, but it seems that his leads have moved away from the rootsy twang he once dispensed in The Rockhouse Ramblers and Mike Ireland And Holler, and have taken on more of a soaring, rock star quality…not at all a bad thing. This was most evident on “Kerosene”; the emotion once expressed via steel guitar now gets conveyed ala Neil Young or Mike Campbell. By the way, on their Chuck cover, “Come On”, Brian sings with an ease comparable to that of the original recording.
After The Bottlerockets finished their set, they became the backing band, as Jay Farrar took the stage to do “Why Should We End This Way?”. This song from Chuck’s earlier, bluesy days lends itself well to Jay’s moody, understated style. Exit Jay, enter Fontella Bass, who walked onstage with a natural grace that just demands your attention and respect…she sure got it from The Bottlerockets, who clearly showed what an honor it was to playing with her. With Ms. Bass on keyboards and the band falling in behind, her soulful, half-speed version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” blew the place away. I don’t know how old she is, or how often she sings, but she’s still got it. How many baseball geeks are taken aback by Chuck’s line “two-three the count, nobody on…”? (sorry, I’m one of ‘em). Things continued to be joyous as we got treated to Fontella’s greatest hit- “Rescue Me”, with the whole audience providing backing vocals. Ironically, the one-song encore to tonight’s show was not a Chuck Berry song, but Doug Sahm’s “She’s About A Mover”, featuring Jay Farrar on rhythm guitar, Brian Henneman on vocals, and the rest of The Bottlerockets filling things out.