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Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 29
6/8/05 Twangfest Wednesday, The Tap Room. The two hour opening reception that typically precedes the music on the opening night of Twangfest was dedicated to the memory of Dan Bentele, a big fan and friend of the festival who passed away unexpectedly last February. In other years, attendance starts off slow on the opening night of Twangfest, but there was a good crowd early tonight. Dan’s brother, Doug got up and gave a heartfelt remembrance of Dan before Fred Friction took over the mic…since all three of tonight’s bands (all from Austin, BTW) have played his club a number of times, it made sense that Fred MC tonight’s proceedings.
It’s always a challenge for the opening band to get this room full of talkers to shut up and listen- When Milton Mapes opened with a characteristically gentle and dreamy song, I was thinking this isn’t exactly the way to segue out of a meet & greet cocktail party. Their set did the proverbial slow-burn, shimmering in places, eventually erupting into instrumental agitation here and there; very much in the same vein as local label-mates Waterloo and Magnolia Summer. “The Only Sound That Matters” and “When The Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted” were the two songs that stood out to these ears. With so many rabid music fans around this weekend, you could pretty much find strong opinions on just about every act all weekend long. The prevailing take was that this was some pretty slow, moody stuff, but a couple of my friends were in awe of the subtle shimmer.
Act number two was Jon Dee Graham. Backed by the same rhythm section he brought to Frederick’s last fall, he let his gravelly voice and glowing leads carry things. There were some high points and occasional lulls; my personal highlights were “Lonesome Valley” and Nillson’s “Everybody’s Talkin”. His one-song encore was “Volver”, the one that sounds like “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” (or vice versa). This was my favorite set of the evening.
The Meat Purveyors don’t impact me like they did when I was hearing them for the first few times. They still do that rompin’, stompin’, sassy, bluegrassy thing. Irreverent but unironic covers (Abba’s “SOS”, VU’s “What Goes On?”, Rank & File’s “Amanda Ruth” tonight) were interspersed among their clever originals. Big mama Jo Walston belts out lyrics like “How can I be so thirsty today when I had so much to drink last night?” and “I’m more a man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever get”. The sound was a bit muddy at the start, but got better a few songs into the set. A few other songs I remember: “TMP Smackdown”, “Car Crash”, “In The Middle Of Nowhere” and “Hey Little Sister”. The big crowd (the biggest ever for a TF Wednesday) was eating it up; a bunch of hippie-types were doing some of that hippie dancing. (The terrorists hate our freedom.) The encore included Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” (it gets a lot of yucks, but is actually delivered in a straightfaced, heartfelt manner) and “I’ll Go Out Smokin” (which they did, BTW).
The evening was fun, start to finish. If I had anything resembling a gripe, it would be that the lineup was a bit on the safe side. All of the bands have played St. Louis a few times (even recently) and a good turnout was pretty much guaranteed, even if the music didn’t take us anywhere we haven’t already been.
6/9/05 Twangfest Thursday, The Duck Room. The evening started around 6PM with a bunch of us loading in all of our Twangfest stuff (banners, merch, etc.) in a huge downpour. Once inside The Duck Room (which had taken on a bit of rain water, as well), The Supersuckers were up on stage doing their sound check- a loud, crisp, exhilarating version of “Rock And Roll Records” that stopped me in my tracks…never mind hanging the damn banners, my attention has been diverted.
There was already a pretty big crowd by 8PM when Roughshop took the stage. Since they’re from St. Louis, I see them all the time, but it was nice to see them get a chance to be heard by a bigger crowd. All of the things I’ve come to take for granted- three different vocalist/songwriters, varied instrumentation and genres kept things interesting for the uninitiated, as well. Andy sang Talking Heads’ “Heaven” (nice honky tonk piano by Nate), John sang “I’m Your Man” and Anne sang “Final Wild Son” and Michael Freidman’s “Everything You Love”.
Next up was Richmond Fontaine. Frontman Willy Vlautin sings with a plaintive tenor that convinces us that for all the shit he’s been through, he has somehow emerged weary, but positive. This is probably the strongest asset of this Portland four-piece. The instrumentation varied from that slower, brooding textural stuff to the brand of grungy, punchy country-rock that initially had some people writing these guys off as Uncle Tupelo wannabees. A lot my friends were blown away by this set, while I only felt that way a time or two, notably during “1968” and “Post To Wire”.
The last two bands of the evening were actually separate personalities of the same band. The country incarnation of The Supersuckers opened with a string of country covers (“Cocaine Blues” & “Little Ol’ Wine Drinker Me”…are you catching a substance abuse theme here?) and originals (“Creepy Jackalope” & “Roadworn & Weary”). “Sleepy Vampire” was my personal favorite of this set; it begins with a clean, clear acoustic guitar before building into a hard, dark country rocker. My buddy Steve Scariano jokingly compares them to The Beat Farmers, and he’s not too far off on that one- they present some driven, good-time country-rock with more than a little bit of camp/schtick. Not everyone has the same level of appreciation for such stuff, but I’m a fan. Frontman Eddie Spaghetti conducts things with a healthy dose of badass bravado, and the band delivers some tough chops to back it up.
Eventually, ES swapped his acoustic guitar for his cool (Gibson) electric bass, and the rock portion of the set was on; little to no twang here…much more like the punk band they were ten years ago. They ripped through “Good Luck” from their 1992 “Smoke Of Hell” CD, as well as another righteous version of the aforementioned “Rock And Roll Records”. Sharp, searing leads were traded back and forth between the Les Paul guy and the Telecaster guy. By now this dense crowd pressed to the front of the stage was one big happy pogoing family, save for one overly enthusiastic guy who was trying to get a more aggressive mosh thing going. A few people up front did a good job of insulating this guy’s impact from the rest of the crowd (without getting confrontational) as the band, appropriately enough, romped its way through “Pretty Fucked Up”. It was all good. This cathartic climax felt like it should have ended the whole festival- game, set, match…but it’s still only Thursday night.
6/9/05 Twangfest Friday, The Duck Room. Another night, another procession of roots-related acts. Once again, there was a good crowd early.
Matt Grimm And The Red Smear play snappy pop/rock. Certain elements of what this former frontman of NYC’s Hangdogs (who now lives in Iowa) does reminded me of Steve Earle- he’s a bit chubby and sings in a slightly nasal register that isn’t instantly accessible. And like SE, his catchy songs incorporate some left-leaning politics that he’s more than willing to expound upon between songs. “Kill The Poor” (not The Dead Kennedys’ song) typified his upbeat, sarcastic songwriting style. He preemptively pointed out that his treatment of Woody Guthrie’s “Do-Re-Mi” was similar to the way Dave Alvin does it. He rendered “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane” as a peppy pop song. Other than segueing into a brief white guy rap thing (what was he thinking?), the only other objection I had was that his music doesn’t really fit with the more roots-oriented acts that would follow him onstage tonight. I like that Twangfest presents a wide range of American music, but I like the idea of each night being somewhat thematically cohesive.
Act two was Nora O’Connor. This one got a real pretty voice…well suited for the tuneful but twisted covers she chose to do: Tom Waits’ “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again” and The Handsome Family’s “Drunk By Noon”. She played acoustic guitar, accompanied by a stand-up bass and a relatively simple steel guitar. Her delicate vocals and this spare instrumentation allowed a little space for some crowd chatter to waft in from the periphery. It’s becoming apparent that there is a certain sub-sector of this Twangfest crowd that has less patience for acts that are more quiet and subtle.
Next up was Moot Davis And The Cool Deal, but first we had to find them. They were notably absent from the green room, and having never seen them, I couldn’t pick them out of this crowd of rockabilly-types. Eventually, John W. has to go up on stage and announce for the band to please report to the stage, which they did, almost immediately with little impact on the overall schedule. Moot mines that vintage honky tonk territory that spawned the likes of Charlie Walker, Johnny Horton and (early) George Jones. He sings in a twangy, convincing voice, but what really stood out was the lead guitar playing of Pete Anderson. His “guitar voice” is as distinctive as any lead singer’s. It’s the same one we fell in love with on those first few Dwight Yoakam records. Remember “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “Honky Tonk Man”? Pete was adding similar punctuation to Moot’s songs tonight.
Some people had an authenticity issue with Moot…“This New Jersey boy’s just acting”. I didn’t have a problem with it. Let’s face it- whether it’s Moot, Dwight (who has faced similar criticism), The Derailers or whoever, anyone singing honk tonk music in 2005 is emulating an archetype. These days, even people from Tennessee don’t sound like this, unless they too, are consciously adhering to a template that was established a generation (or two) ago. Songs that stood out from his only CD were “Thanks For Breakin’ My Heart” and “Nothin”. George Jones’ “Why Baby Why?” and a couple by Johnny Cash (“Big River” and “Wide Open Raod”) worked well with Moot’s voice and Pete’s guitar. In the encore, Moot sang Johnny Horton’s “One Woman Man”. I’ve always been amused by the lyrics in this one: “I’ll never love another, even if I can…” Apparently, it’s not enough to make this promise in cases where loving another is not possible.
Tonight’s headliner on this the “twangiest” night of Twangfest 9 was Big Sandy And His Fly-Rite Boys. They fit the period piece profile even more than Moot. Playing vintage instruments and wearing sporty jackets, this bunch (g, d, stand-up bass & steel) drew from a number of styles of yesteryear: rockabilly, swing jazz and country and western. Big Sandy is a big teddy bear of a guy who sings in a sweet, easy voice along the lines of early Elvis.
Things got to be a bit of a blur toward the end…I ended up having more fun once my official responsibilities were over and I could take the badge from around my neck and just enjoy the music. A couple of songs I’m remembering the next day are “Yama Yama Pretty Mama” and “Jumpin’ From 6 To 6”. So far, Twangfest is three for three; all three nights have been well attended and everyone has had lots of fun. Now we just have to cross our fingers for tomorrow’s big show at The Pageant…
6/11/05 Twangfest Saturday, The Pageant. Twangfest grew in scale over the last few nights from around 250 people at The Tap Room on Wednesday, to slightly more on Thursday and Friday at The Duck Room to the larger, less intimate confines of The Pageant for tonight’s finale. Being part of the crew that puts this event on, I was a bit concerned how this show would draw. As things happened, there was a pretty good crowd even at 8PM when The Townsmen went on. They’re a four-piece from Columbus who do warm, hooky country rock. Two competent vocalists sing in earnest tones. Their original “Travel On” stood out, as did their cover of REM’s “Green Grow The Rushes”.
Brent Best And The Drams is basically Best’s old band, Slobberbone, plus a keyboard player and a new bass player. I didn’t recognize any of the songs, so I’m presuming BB has been busy writing a whole bunch of new stuff, with a markedly less alt. country sound than before. It was mostly pop-leaning rock (with the requisite guitar and keyboard leads) that grabbed me a time or two, but mostly seemed to just sit there. Yeah, I’m getting a tone, a tempo and a texture, now how about a melody? As was the case at other points this weekend, other folks were crazy about what I cared less for (and vice versa).
The room was pleasantly packed (around 700 people, with the balcony closed) when The Bottle Rockets went on around 10:15. We know ‘em, we love ‘em, we’ve seen ‘em dozens of times…so much so that sometimes their sets, while enjoyable enough, aren’t always especially noteworthy. Tonight’s set was especially noteworthy. It looks like they’ve finally settled on a new bass player (Keith Voegele, formerly of The Phonocaptors), and the dude has given the band a shot in the arm. He comes from a more punk/garage background and the songs have a tougher, tighter feel to ‘em. John Horton’s guitar playing continues to develop in the “rock” department. He and Brian got into a few of those Young/Sampedro moments tonight. They ran through a bunch of old favorites like “Gravity Fails”, “Gotta Get Up”, “Slo Tom’s”, “24 Hours A Day”, “I’ll Be Comin’ Around”, “Indianapolis” and “$1,000 Car”, as well as three new songs: “Happy Anniversary”(?), “SUV”(?) and one that used a similar lick to George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (which in turn, is a ripoff of “He’s So Fine”). “Welfare Music” took on a character similar to “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” tonight. Playing to the strengths of the new bass player, they punched and crunched their way through Neil Young’s “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)” to end their set. This is as big and enthusiastic of a crowd as I’ve seen these guys play in front of. In terms of pacing and energy, they probably should have been tonight’s headliner. When Brian asked what song people wanted to hear for the one-song encore, shouts for “Kerosene” were accommodated.
Backed by drums, stand-up bass (ex-Bottlerocket Tom Ray), a guitar player and multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, Neko Case came out and projected her rich voice out into this big room. She’s a very powerful vocalist, but the overall tone was a bit even and subdued, especially on the heels of the throw-down The Bottle Rockets had just unleashed. Being surrounded by friends and beer aplenty, I still managed to have a fine time. Originals included “If You Knew”, “The Tigers Have Spoken”, “Dressmaker” and “I Wish I Was The Moon”. She covered “Wayfaring Stranger” and my personal favorite of the set, Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain”.
After helping load out all of our Twangfest merchandise and banners, we adjourned to the airport hotel for the customary party...beer, talk, drunks in the pool, drunks run out of the pool by security, more beer, more talk…home a bit after sunrise.
6/15/05 American Ambulance, Frederick’s. The Homewreckers opened. This local four piece does competent enough indie-sounding rock. Dudes with day jobs playing in front of a handful of people. The lead singer’s voice is kinda mid-range and average. The bass player was more interesting than most. They covered Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, with all of the requisite guitar workout. They ended likewise with “Down By The River”.
American Ambulance is a four piece from NYC that play tough guitar pop with country leanings, not too far from, say, The Long Ryders. I didn’t get it as it was going by, but one original was about John Ashcroft. They covered Merle (“I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”) and Johnny (“Big River”), both with twangy lead guitar.
6/17/05 Polarized Mind, Frederick’s. I stopped in to say “Hi” and caught one song by Polarized Mind in the process. A girl on guitar and a guy on keyboards doing something kinda eighties sounding (think Soft Cell). Very atypical for Frederick’s. But I was on my way over to…
6/17/05 Johnny Dowd, Off Broadway. I heard the last couple of songs by Southern Trespass. I think this local band contains a few members of The Roundups. They got ‘em a guitar army onstage…three of ‘em to be exact and they do some variation on the southern/Skynyrd southern rock thing. The lead singer’s vocals were low in the mix and distorted to the point that I couldn’t hear a word he sang. The instrumentation was pretty forgettable.
Johnny Dowd and band took the stage right around midnight and gave us some more of that murky, moody stuff he’s known for. The instrumentation was especially quirky and unique- drums, keyboards (the guy looks like Richard Manuel but does an accomplished, yet unorthodox thing more like Garth Hudson) and JD on lead (electric) guitar and vocals. They opened with their twisted, off-kilter cover of “Johnny B. Goode”.
Dowd’s lyrics are almost always dark and disturbing. He reads them from sheets on a music stand and delivers them in a tone that is more spoken than sung. A lot of people don’t have much patience for what he does, but I liked it. They did a few songs from his current “Cemetery Shoes” CD as well as a Thelonious Monk cover that worked well with the band’s “out there” style. He asked the crowd what they wanted hear in the encore. When I hollered out “John Deere Yeller”, he flipped to the appropriate page in his lyric sheets, and gave it a ragged reading that made the CD version sound polished. Damn.
6/20/05 The Hold Steady, The Hi-Pointe. In the late seventies, my sister enlisted the help of me and my brother to dress up as clowns for some promotional event out in front of the Baskin Robbins where she worked. (Bear with me on this one). We wore face paint and juggled rubber balls back and forth; my brother even rode around on a unicycle. At some point, some kid (maybe five or six years old) said to me, “Hey, you’re not a real clown, you’re just a man with paint on his face”…as if real clowns were born that way and didn’t have to resort to makeup.
Well, at some point tonight, I felt like saying to the band, “Hey, these aren’t real songs, you just laid down some classic-sounding riffs and then played some shimmering/soaring leads over top of them”. Roy’s preview feature in the RFT explained how these five Midwesterners (b, d, g, k & v) draw from the same kind of dumb-but-fun classic rock that made the Replacements appealing…I got that, but what kept me from hearing “songs” was the fact that lead singer Craig Finn delivers his dark, confessional rants in a more spoken drone (similar in tone to David Lowry of Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker), instead of actually singing...after all, aren’t songs supposed to be sung? The net effect struck me as similar to what I remember of The Suburbs (also from Minneapolis; I’ll have to go back and see how those records sound now).
The encore opened with more spoken lyrics…accompanied only by keyboards, Finn delivered an homage to music geeks everywhere, “Certain songs, they get scratched into our souls”. I think everyone in the house would concur. The full band came back out one last time and cut loose on what proved to be the most catchy and thrilling moment of the evening. Finn actually sang and I felt like I finally heard a “song”, and a pretty damn good one at that.
7/21/05 Jeff & Vida, Frederick’s. Tonight I was playing host to my 22 year old niece and her friend Carly who are on a big driving trip across the country. Before they hit another one of those big music festivals, I thought I’d take them to hear something a bit more intimate at my home away from home.
We descended the stairs to the hard and loud sounds of Ninth…they’re a four piece (b, d, g & v) from Norway. That’s a long way to travel to be the opening band in front of twenty people, but what the hell? (The terrorists hate our freedom.) They came well equipped- the guitar player played one of those double-necked guitars and the bass player played a five-string bass with a huge Marshall stack behind them. They were very loud, but didn’t strike me as anything special, so we found our way to the outdoor courtyard where I introduced my guests to a few friends. How often does the summer solstice coincide with a full moon?…on a clear night, no less. Even from out back we could still hear the band well enough to pick up on some kind of eighties new wave thing in the lead singer’s voice.
Beatle Bob got up on stage and gave one of his long-winded/historical context intros as Jeff and Vida went on close to midnight; our little crew had a table right in front of the stage. Vida sings most of the lead vocals with a rich southern drawl and plays acoustic guitar while Jeff sings (mostly harmonies with a few leads) and alternates between banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Their bass player was not with them this time around, but this duo format seemed to suit this intimate setting just fine. For whatever reason, I preferred the guitar/guitar songs best tonight. They no longer sing together into that deluxe single microphone (ala vintage bluegrass singers), but they’re still sticklers for sound quality- Vida took a trip out into the room to suggest a few tweaks to Dana running sound. In addition to originals from their two CDs (including “Blessed But Not Favored” and the one about a bloody motorcycle crash), they covered The Stanley Brothers, The Delmore Brothers (“Pan American Boogie”) and Bill Monroe (“Uncle Pen”). My out of town guests got the full Frederick’s experience: bubbles blew, the deer head danced, Beatle bobbed and silverware was slapped onstage.
6/22/05 Kevin Gordon, Frederick’s. Frederick’s was pretty crowded (and hot) early on…maybe sixty or seventy people out on a Wednesday night. I heard most of the opening set by Tim Easton. His old band from twelve or so years ago (The Haynes Boys) was a grungy rock band, with a slight country twang. What he’s up to these days is a more spare, solo acoustic blues thing…picking patterns in that Mississippi John Hurt style accompany his raspy but warm voice. Kevin Buckley (from St. Louis’ Palookaville) played fiddle on about half of the songs, filling things in nicely. Toward the end of his set, Easton played one song with a slide. He sang “Special 20” in his encore. The sound was notably clear all night long…if the soundman is drunk, does he make things sound better for all of the drunk listeners? After a brief intermission out back, it was time to squeeze back inside for act two.
Tim Easton probably has more name recognition than Kevin Gordon, but KG had a full band with him, so it made more sense for them to go on last. They’re a four-piece from Nashville with blues leanings (I’m told this is an east Nashville thing)…a bar band personified. They could catch a Credence-style groove and choogle with it. The two guitars interplayed well at times…Joe McMahan rocked harder than when he was accompanying Jennfier Nicely on this stage last month. For as much as I liked the groove and the instrumentation, the actual melodies didn’t contain the kind of memorable hooks that would have me humming the songs the next day. KG’s modest vocals reminded me of Butch Hancock and/or Steve Young. The encore opened with a ballad and ended with a joyous, anthemic rocker…always good to leave on a high note.
6/23/05 Jonathan Richman, The Duck Room. No opening act tonight…I caught the last couple of songs of the first set; the Duck Room was maybe half full. The prevailing tone of set two was set by the opening song- “My Baby Love Love Loves Me” (right title?). With only his acoustic guitar and a modest, but mighty drummer, he did this strummy, (quasi) Flamenco-sounding thing. His guitar playing got a bit “out there” a time or two. My buddy Dan left when JR did a song he had already done once tonight (this for a second time, no less)…either I missed the part of the first set where he first did these songs, or the repeats were camouflaged by a sameness of tone and tempo that permeated most of the second set.
At this point in his career, Jonathan is something of a legendary figure; he gets a lot of mileage out of his dopey-but-charming, self-deprecating persona. I’m not sure that the set he turned in tonight would win over anyone who wasn’t already a fan. I only recognized a few songs tonight: “Dancing In The Lesbian Bar” (Falmenco meets disco), “Pablo Picasso” (the lyrics are now delivered in an odd kind of shorthand where certain words are omitted) and “Vampire Girl” (typically dry and dopey; this one rocked more than the rest). Known for his heart-on-his-sleeve sincerity, Jojo held court out in front of the stage after the show, shaking hands and posing for pictures.
6/24/05 Brian Capps, Webster Groves Gazebo. In spite of the ninety degree heat, we took the whole family to this early evening outdoor show; McDonald’s for the kids, music for the grownups. Backed by The True Liars (AKA The Morells: Lou, Donnie and Rongo), Capps played for well over an hour, doing a few originals (“Spoken Like A True Liar” stood out) and a ton of fun covers. Capps’ deep, easy voice smoothly conveyed a Buddy Holly/James Intveld casual confidence. A real small-town vibe prevailed…lots of people had packed a picnic dinner and some guy came up onstage between songs and told us all about the specials some of the local businesses were running. A few highlights from the band included “Dark As A Dungeon” (Donnie added reggae-sounding wicka-wicka guitar), “Sea Of Heartbreak”, “I Still Miss Someone”, “Crazy Arms” (Lou provided a nice walking bassline on this one) and “Rocket 88”.
6/24/05 Diesel Island, Frederick’s. The usual good time…not much new to add to whatever I’ve said about them a bunch of times before. I heard all of the second set: “Southern Nights”, “Poke Salad Annie”, “Think I’ll Just Sit Here & Drink”, “Louisiana Saturday Night”, “Third Rate Romance”, “I Can Help”, etc. Kip handed the acoustic guitar over to Brian’s friend Steve, who sang a handful of songs: “Folsom Prison Blues” “Roll Another Number” (this ragged Neil Young gem somehow rhymes(?) the words “ignition” and “hood ornament”), “Headin’ For The Ditch” (introduced as the best ever Bottle Rockets/Chicken Truck song…I won’t dispute that), and “You Never Even Call Me By My Name”. My wife claims “Good Hearted Woman (In Love With A Good Timin’ Man)” to be her theme song. As if to prove her right, I stayed out shooting pool with Fred until well past sunrise.