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  Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 28

Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 28

4/5/05 Dale Watson, The Voodoo Lounge. Roy picked me up in his recently acquired ’66 VW bug and we rattled along highway 70 out to the flood plains. The most memorable aspect of tonight’s show was the venue- it’s this swanky bar located in the heart of Harrah’s Casino out by UMB Bank Pavillion…Fear And Loathing In Earth City.

I was told that the stage was above the bar, but I didn’t really understand until I saw it. Imagine a high-ceilinged room, twice the size of Fitz’s Root Beer place…put the bar at Blueberry Hill along one side of it...Ok, now look at that back wall of the bar…above all those whiskey bottles, about where the big stuffed fish hangs is the edge of the stage, which is recessed back from that wall. So the band is about nine feet above the floor level and well back from the crowd. Way up there, the band looks like some kind of animatronic display, like Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree- quite the contrast to seeing Dale’s band squeezed into a corner of Ginny’s Little Longhorn (the tiny Austin honky tonk where a wooden fence keeps the crowd from bumping against the steel guitar). Behind the band is a video screen featuring a flaming country belt buckle motif and the words "Dale Watson" in that old-west font. Two adjoining walls have huge video screens with a live feed of the band onstage, but with an odd monochromatic sepia-tone cast to it, making these moving images look like archival film footage from the sixties. A handful of TVs at the bar kept us abreast of the Cardinal game and the NCAA women’s final. Sensory overload, anyone?

So the visuals are somewhat amusing, but the acoustics of this place are just downright confounding. The speakers are mounted at the ceiling, aimed down so that the sound bounces off of the hardwood floor as well as a glass wall at the back of the room…kinda disappointing considering how much money they must have spent on this room. The room looked to be at about half of its capacity, attendance-wise. I’m guessing about half of the crowd was there specifically to see Dale and the other half had just stumbled upon this bar while out gambling on a Tuesday night (there was no cover charge).

So, about the music…Dale & band (b, d, steel, fiddle & DW on guitar & vocals) took all of this in good humor (I think they were well paid for their 75 minute set). All of the familiar lead breaks sweetened up covers like "Fox On The Run" and "Ring Of Fire" as well as originals(?) like "Flat Tire" and one that borrowed the steel guitar tag from Gary Stewart’s "Drinkin’ Thing". Going with the spirit of the evening, they ended their set with the old Elvis hit "Viva, Las Vegas".

4/6/05 The Grackles, Frederick’s. I missed most of the opening set by Megahurts…they sounded fun through the walls of the back room of Frederick’s. By the time I made it back to the bar, they were finishing the last song of a relatively brief set. Three women (d, g & g /v) with a guy behind the drums. Karen sings (& presumably writes)…the one song that I heard was catchy, snappy and sassy. It didn’t sound exactly like Dressy Bessy, but that might be the closest reference point I can come up with. I wanna hear more sometime.

I did get to hear the entire set by The Grackles. This three piece from Chicago is fronted by a guy who looks like a cross between Bob Mould and John Belushi. A few bars into their first song, these guys are reminding me (& a couple of other people) of Husker Du, audibly, as well as visually. OK, their songs weren’t as infectious/furious and the instrumentation (b, d, g) wasn’t as balls-out exhilarating as HD (they set the bar ridiculously high within the pop/punk sub-genre, IMO), but it was clearly in that vein. One song, in particular, sounded like "Chartered Trips". I liked them pretty much, especially the first few songs…"hey, one of your favorite bands is one of my favorite bands". As the set wore on, it became apparent that they front-loaded the set with their most memorable songs (smart move, actually), so I was less thrilled with the last few songs.

4/7/05 Steve Earle, The Pageant. When we got there, there were only a handful of people standing on the dance floor for the opening set by Allison Moorer. Dressed in cowgirl boots, a pretty skirt and a Rolling Stones T-shirt, she strummed an acoustic guitar and plied her appealing voice to songs like "Looking For A Soft Place To Fall" and "Alabama Song". The latter seems to be patterned after Dylan’s "Girl From The North Country". Both were evocative without being overly sentimental.

The last time Steve Earle played St. Louis was in the weeks leading up to America’s invasion of Iraq. Well, it’s a couple of years later, and he’s back, with as much to be politically active about as ever. Steve & band opened with "The Revolution Starts Now" (the title track of his current album)…the strength of their conviction could be heard in the muscle they put into their playing. He’s always all over the place in terms of presentation (folk, bluegrass, Irish, country)- he touched on many of these styles tonight, but what mostly stood out was the rock. Lead guitarist Eric Ambel lit up whichever of his multiple axes he picked up. Songs (from the more recent records) like "Ashes To Ashes", "Amerika V 6.0" and "Transcendental Blues" typified this tough thing they were up to tonight.

Interspersed among the hard-hitting material were an assortment of songs from all styles and points in his career…"Harlan Man" found Steve playing a simple, but up-tempo mandolin, while touching on an organized labor theme. "F The CC" (Fuck The FCC) provided a playground on which Steve could loudly revel in forbidden words and subjects. "Jerusalem" shed an optimistic (not to mention melodic) light on the troubles of the Middle East. Just because "What’s A Simple Man To Do?" and "Conspiracy Theory" remind me of Doug Sahm and Beck, respectively, do I have to mention it every time I hear them? Apparently. "Condi, Condi" was a playful limbo number, imploring our uptight secretary of state to loosen up and let her inner beauty shine…kind of a reversal of the stereotypical "seductive black man/uptight white woman" thing. Allison Moorer came back out to add enticing duet vocals on "I Remember You" and "You’re Still Standing There"- the latter is one of my all-time favorite SE songs…first time I’ve ever heard it live. "Christmastime In Washington" provided a quiet, reflective and politically relevant moment toward the end of the set.

The long and diverse trip that we were led on came full circle when the band lit into the familiar intro to The Beatles’ "Revolution". The band tore this song up in a blissful, hard pop style…a nice link to pop music’s role in troubled times. The end of this song flowed seamlessly into the revisited "The Revolution Starts Now"

Encore #1: the obligatory "Guitar Town", Jay Farrar’s "Windfall" and a joyful take on The Stones’ "Sweet Virginia"- country, bluesy, irreverent and fun all at once.

Encore #2: The Bottlerockets’ "I’ll Be Comin’ Around" and The Chambers Brothers’ "Time"- more ringing guitars and revolutionary lyrics.

4/11/05 Okkervil River, The Way Out Club. I got my first beer right as the last song by Waterloo was winding down. A good crowd (maybe 60 people) was out on a Monday night. Okkervil River went on just before midnight. These guys strike me as crazy cousins of fellow Texans Centro-matic…accomplished musicians presenting a quirky vision to a small, but cult-like following.

Six guys freely switch instruments all around- bass, drums, guitars, steel guitar, melotron, trumpet and keyboards all figure into the sound. Much has been written about frontman Will Sheff’s lyrics, but tonight wasn’t the time to check ‘em out. He’s got an irreverent, fun-loving outlook and delivers his words with an honest, somewhat dopey tone that at times, was reminiscent of The Old 97’s Rhett Miller.

Also like Centro-matic, the tempo and intensity varied from song to song- moody/broody one minute and upbeat and exhilarating the next. The analogy carries over to my enthusiasm for this band, as well- I’d say I like ‘em, while a number of my musician friends outright love ‘em. For the encore, Sheff came out and did one solo acoustic ballad before being joined by the full band for one last rocker.

4/15/05 Milton Mapes, Frederick’s. This was another one of those cozy Twangfest-sponsored shows. John & Marie had a bunch of people (including both of tonight’s bands) over for a cookout before the show. Both bands have been on tour together for around eight shows, with Milton Mapes always opening for Grand Champeen, but tonight at the club owner’s request, MM was headlining.

There was a good crowd (not quite a sellout) as Grand Champeen did a typical, hard set. Three vocalists, two guitars. Originals included the ragged "Rest Of The Night" and the Kinks-y "Bottle Glass". They slowed things down considerably with Neil Young’s "Motion Pictures"…I gotta say I thought it worked better hearing them do this sleepy gem at 4AM on their back porch a couple of years ago than it did in a rowdy, crowded bar. They brought us right back to Friday night with The Only Ones’ "Another Girl, Another Planet". That song is one for the ages- if you’re not jumping up and down when this one’s playing, someone better check your pulse. Thin Lizzy’s "Cowboy Song" worked in much the same spirit as when The Replacements would cover trashy classic rock songs.

Shortly after Milton Mapes (a band, not a guy) began their headlining set, it became apparent that they really are better suited to open for Grand Champeen than follow them. Rather than kick out the jams, start to finish, these five guys (b, d, g, g & v/g) from Austin do the same kind of dreamy, slow burn thing that local bands Waterloo and Magnolia Summer do. The tempos are on the slower side and the vocals are delivered in a warm and gentle tone. Against this atmospheric backdrop, intense guitar leads weave in and mingle among themselves… just when I would feel a bit lulled, some form of instrumental eruption would jolt me back to full attention. The overall flow of the set mirrored the general pattern of each individual song- start slow and murky, and evolve into something searing and shimmering. Some of the guys from Grand Champeen joined in on Neil Young’s "Words" as the set wound down. The lull I experienced early on was long forgotten.

Nancy was kind enough to take the boys over for a sleepover at a friend’s house, so the after-hours party was held at our house. People stayed late and eventually both bands found all manner of beds, couches and carpets to crash on. I finally got to return the favor of late night hospitality to Fred Friction…we sat around the fire out back until well past sunrise.

4/17/05 Clem Snide, The Duck Room. Langhorn Slim opened with this oddball, self-conscious singer/songwriter stuff. Wearing a doofy (bowler?) hat and a sport jacket that was three or four sizes too small for him, every element of what he did seemed to shout, "Hey, see how weird I am?" He probably spent as much time talking between songs as he did actually playing his relatively forgettable "real life" laments. Remember "The Gong Show"- that TV talent show that pre-dated "American Idol" by 30 years? When an act was especially painful, any judge could walk up and bang on a giant gong to make the performer immediately stop, thereby putting the audience out of its misery. Well, if this were that, I’d be banging that gong like Carl fuckin’ Palmer. This guy overstayed his welcome on the stage to the point that Clem Snide’s frontman (Eef Barzalay) walked up to the foot of the stage and blew smoke on him, non-stop. When Slim didn’t take this hint, Eef went onstage and told the guy wrap it up. Given that the Duck Room has to close by midnight on Sundays, his lengthy set took away from the amount of time the remaining bands had. Fucker.

Bobby Bare, Jr. played next. When he’s limited to a shorter set (like at SXSW last month or in an opening slot tonight), he pretty much gets right about the business of doing his "hits". Backed by a powerful drummer and guitar player, he once again opened with "I’ll Be Around", followed soon after by "Girl From Maynardville". Just about every song was played much harder than what I heard in Austin. A new one- "Mayonnaise Brain" was written about (& sounded like) My Morning Jacket. They ended with "Valentine"- a song that has just recently become one of favorite BBJ songs- I love the crisp melodic bounce and hard lyrical pauses in it.

In front of a half-full house, Clem Snide came out on stage all decked out in matching white tuxedos. For as many memorable songs as this band has recorded (many requests were shouted throughout the set), they boldly opened with an unreleased, unfamiliar one, making good on the "I love the unknown" ethic this band is know for. As has come to be expected, their melodic songs were delivered in a way that was so eccentric that it might be hard for the uninitiated to appreciate just how smart and catchy this stuff is- in order to appreciate it, you kinda have to buy into frontman Eef Barzalay’s quirky, off-kilter singing that often shifts into speaking (and back again).

In this brief set, they did about a 50/50 mix of stuff from their current "The End Of Love" CD: "Fill Me With Your Light", "German Hip-Hop", "Jews For Jesus Blues" (melodically beautiful and lyrically irreverent- "now that I’m found, I miss being lost") & the title track and older material: "Long Lost Twin", "Exercise" (somehow, Pete Fitzpatrick’s bowed banjo imparted a Stephan Grapelli vibe) and "Joan Jett Of Arc" (a slower one that wryly tosses in clever references from the heyday of MTV).

They managed to pack a lot into their encore. Eef came out and delivered the wide-eyed spoken lyrics to "Mike Kalinsky" as Pete Fitzpatrick played a muted French horn from the back of the room (over by the elevator). Fitzpatrick made his way on stage and pummeled the drums until the drumsticks were splinters as the song/story reached its resolution. The rest of the band came back out for the quirky (that word, again) samba, "Something Beautiful". They even snuck in a surprising country-rock cover- Doug Sahm’s "Give Back The Key To My Heart". They made this one a duet, with Pete F. singing the second verse, bringing to mind Uncle Tupelo’s version. As the fully lit house lights told us all to get going, Eef thanked Langhorn Slim for his opening filibuster before the whole band ripped through "You’re Not As Weird As You’d Like Me To Think".

4/19/05 Spouse, Frederick’s. Languid opened. This local 4 piece struck me as a harder 10,000 Maniacs, mostly because of Rebecca Ryan’s vocal register and phrasing. The lead guitar (Josh) often did the slurry/blurry thing…sometimes the electronic effects made sounds not normally associated with a guitar.

Tonight’s headliner was Spouse. Three guys from Massachusetts who do what could only be characterized as "indie rock". The frontman/guitarist/singer sings in that earnest, heartfelt rasp along the lines of Jeff Tweedy (to cite a well-known example) or Mark Stephens (less so). Someone recently told me that if you’re in a mid-level indie-rock band with an exceptional drummer, you might as well kiss the dude goodbye, because the next rung up is lacking in that department. Well, if that’s true, Spouse’s drummer is about to move from single A to triple A- he’s notably on top of things. Eventually, I began to tire of the sameness of the voice of the one singer and the song structures. They ended with an encore that included Til Tuesday’s "Voices Carry".

4/20/05 Steve Winwood, The Pageant. As usual, I got there slightly late. This show was sold out, but not uncomfortably so. The collective age of the crowd was older than any show I’ve been to in quite a while. When tickets cost so much, it’s understandable that only devoted fans are in the house. Having showed up with a free ticket, I felt like I was in the minority, being more curious than rabidly enthusiastic. I liked the Traffic and Blind Faith records I had back in the seventies, but hadn’t really kept up with Winwood’s output since.

So attribute it to my level of familiarity, or a change in SW’s songwriting sensibilities, but I pretty consistently liked all of the stuff from long ago, while most of the newer, less familiar songs struck me as forgettable mid-tempo, groove-based shuffles. The players (d, g, sax/flute, bongo/conga & SW on keez & guitar) were all accomplished musicians. At various points the extended groove offered hints of Steely Dan, Santana, The Doobie Brothers and The Grateful Dead. On the newer songs (one might have been called "Take It As It Comes"), they weren’t always holding my interest. With a few notable exceptions, the guitar player mostly stuck to a post-disco "wicka-wicka" rhythm thing while the drummer would give an occasional swipe across a row of chimes, imparting a cheesy, pseudo-mystical vibe.

The first set featured a few memorable moments- "Can’t Find My Way Home" came as a pleasant, reflective surprise, striking a chord with all of the old hippies in the house. "Glad" (the sax was especially inspired and inspiring on this instrumental) and "Freedom Rider" from the "John Barleycorn Must Die" album left people smiling at the intermission.

The second set highlighted a couple of hits from his more recent solo career. "Higher Love" and "Back In The High Life Again" probably got the biggest crowd response. I wasn’t as wild about these songs, but there sure were a lot of 40 and 50- something year old white folks shaking it on the dance floor. Winwood played mandolin on a more quiet song, before ending the set with "Dear Mr. Fantasy". Mostly known for his keyboard playing, Winwood can still rip it up on an electric guitar- nothing tentative about this one. This was by far the most out-there and exhilarating moment of the evening.

Encore number one was the long-anticipated "Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys". Between impressive instrumental side trips they brought things down to the simple piano figure (right word?) that this song is based on- it sounded like it could easily segue into "Rikki Don’t Lose That Number". A slower, newer song opened encore number two. Things ended with the most uptempo (and probably oldest) song of the evening- "Gimme Some Lovin". Winwood’s lively, surging keyboard carried this one...the crowd was on their feet and giving the love right back. It’s always fun to see people momentarily taken away by the music. Remember the scene in "High Fidelity" when the Jack Black character acknowledges that "You Can’t Always Get What You Want" loses some cred for being featured in "The Big Chill"? Does the same apply to this classic from the baby boomer generation?

4/23/05 Cobra Verde, The Gear Box. My first time at this relatively new venue; this place has a 3AM license and intends to keep its clientele there for as much of that time as possible. When I arrived at around 11:30, the first of three bands was about halfway through its set- Water Between Continents is the latest project by Nick Rudd (formerly of Blown and Turning Curious). Accompanied only by a drummer, Rudd played an evolving series of electric guitar passages that ebbed and flowed, rose and collapsed. As is often the case, I tried to put my finger on what these instrumental movements reminded me of…Blind Idiot God? Dennison/Kimball Trio?...maybe Husker Du’s "Reoccurring Dreams". I eventually gave up, and just enjoyed.

Most of this crowd of maybe 60 or 70 people was here to hear the second act. (If you already know the story, pardon this brief history lesson). The core songwriting duo of Prisonshake (Robert Griffin and Doug Enkler) started the band in Cleveland in the late eighties. In the early nineties, they both moved to St. Louis and picked up a new rhythm section. This incarnation played around town sporadically until early 2000. This was their first show since then…lots of familiar faces from back in the day (as well as Robert and Marla’s 9 year old daughter) were on hand for the occasion- not much time for a proper catching up session; that’ll have to happen some other time. It turns out that there were a few hard-core fans who came all the way from both coasts just to witness this show.

The band (b, d, g & g) went on right around midnight, ripping into some of their badass, gritty guitar-based rock. The sound was tough, yet tuneful even through a P.A. that was a few clicks TOO LOUD…the soundman explained that the drum sound in the room is so loud, even unamplified, that the only way the guitars can compete is to turn them up to eleven. The second guitar (Joe Thebeau’s first gig with the band) filled things in nicely, allowing Robert to go off on the occasional blaring lead. Patrick Hawley was characteristically emphatic and crisp on drums. The high cymbal placement made me think of Keith Moon. Steve Scariano sounded as smooth as he looked, striking the stance and laying into the melodic low end.

Since Robert sang the opener, lead singer Doug Enkler waited until the second song to take the stage. When he did, he poured it on, singing with conviction and authority. Whenever a singer is onstage without an instrument, he’s just out there…consciously or otherwise, he has to do something with his body while he sings. Doug manages to come up with a set of moves that are spontaneous, expressive and fun; he’s obviously enthused, but isn’t taking things too seriously (much like his animated conversational expressions, actually).

My familiarity with their songs is limited; the only songs I recognized by name were "Kick Up Your Heels" (aint it the truth) and "Fuck Your Self Esteem". The fans from California were front and center, singing along to every song...Doug made a trip into the crowd to mess with them some. Toward the end of the set, the band did one impressive original by Joe.

When Prisonshake’s set was over, it felt like that was just the right amount of music (they were always good about keeping their sets from getting too long and losing focus). It was around 1AM by now, and this crowd of friends would have been happy to just enjoy the afterglow and talk among themselves over one last beer. But there was a whole ‘nother band (and a pretty good one, at that) that was about to take us into the wee hours. Cobra Verde (the band who backed Robert Pollard in the latter incarnation of Guided By Voices) have a decent amount of name recognition, but I’m guessing that their inclusion on tonight’s bill contributed virtually no additional attendance…not a rap on their music; I’m just sayin’.

Their M.O. was quite similar to that of Prisonshake- a four piece doing the hard, tough pop thing behind a confident frontman who delivers the goods with a figurative (and literal) swagger. If somebody saw this show shortly after a GBV set, they might conclude that’s just what those Ohio bands do. Those who stuck around stayed entertained until around 2:30AM.

4/26/05 The Gourds, The Voodoo Lounge. Another clash of cultures out at Harrah’s Casino…this time it’s this oddball hillbilly band from Austin (and the fifty or so fans who came specifically to see them) thrown into this extreme setting (I gave this room a long description in my 4/05/05 Dale Watson entry). A bunch of us stood out on the floor, just as we would at any other live music venue from Frederick’s to The Pageant…but there were three or four couples who were totally unfamiliar with The Gourds who seemed to take exception with us occupying their dance floor…they managed to find a little space off to the side to do their synchronized boot-scootin’ thing; bless their hearts.

In spite of the alien landscape, the band rose to the task of putting on an entertaining show for those of us who were paying attention. They opened with the up-tempo "El Paso", Max’s lap steel leading the way. With seven albums and three different singer/songwriters, they have a wide range of material to draw from- everything from the loose "front porch" sounding "Magnolia" to the Stonesy "Hellhounds" to the romping, stomping "Ants On The Melon". In addition to their usual assortment of acoustic instruments (guitars, mandolin, accordion, dobro, fiddle) they have recently added electric guitar (Kevin) and keyboards (Claude), further diversifying their live sound. A few scattered titles I’m remembering the day after: "Jorge", "Cracklin’s" and "Blood Of The Ram" (the latter two the only songs from their current CD). Max sang an inspiring rendition of Billy Joe Shaver’s "Omaha". The quiet and haunting "Steeple Full Of Swallows" was done up with spare banjo, accordion and electric guitar…my personal highlight of tonight’s show.

For better or worse, their playful, rollicking cover of Snoop Dogg’s "Gin And Juice" has become their runaway "greatest hit". In spite of having dozens of worthwhile originals, they’ve become somewhat obliged to crank this one out night after night. The extended ringing mandolin in this, their most "famous" song, has contributed to some people writing off The Gourds as yet another of those jammy, acoustic-leaning hippie bands. I came to appreciate them first as some kind of rural cousin of The Band- three unique voices over textured layers of acoustic instruments and accordion; but I could see how if "Gin and Juice" was all you knew of them, one might have a different impression. While executing the obligatory, the band manages to keep themselves amused by splicing other left-field covers into the middle of this song. Tonight’s mid-song excerpts included Waylon’s "Just A Good Ol’ Boy" (Dukes Of Hazard theme?) and AC/DC’s "If You Want Blood"- I didn’t recognize the latter, but a few of my buddies were singing right along, before the fun and furious conclusion of G & J.

Since the band was being put up right there in the casino hotel, they were in no particular hurry to get going after the show; they pretty much bellied up to the bar at the base of the stage and spent a good, long time catching up with their fans. Nice guys, them Gourds.

4/27/05 Healthy White Baby, Frederick’s. This Chicago three piece (does their name come from "Raising Arizona"?) consists of Danny (ex-The Blacks) on guitar and vocals and Laurie (ex-Blue Mountain) on bass. With a drummer in tow, these guys do nothing like the theatrical/occasional German cabaret/sexual schtick that The Blacks used to do (several years before The Dresden Dolls ran with it). Danny plies his fat guitar (maybe a Gretsch?) to this cool, somewhat dark pop/rock that is instantly smile-inducing. Laurie’s bass playing is nothing like the laid-back country-rock she played in Blue Mountain. One song had a campy, yet catchy "Little Red Riding Hood" feel to it. Tempos varied quite a bit, keeping the thirty or so people on hand interested all the way to the end of their set.

   

 

 

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