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Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 35
11/12/05 Jason Ringenberg, House Concert. Jason & The Scorchers became my favorite band right around the time I first saw them at the old, half-sized Mississippi Nights in 1984. By now it’s an old story, but they were one of the first bands to combine country music and punk rock, drawing from the best of each. If you had told me back then that one day Jason would be playing in my house, I wouldn’t have believed it…but somehow, that’s what happened.
(Sorry this is so long, but it was a big deal in my world.) In the twenty years since I first saw him, Jason released a few more albums with The Scorchers before becoming a dad and doing three solo albums. Most recently he’s invented a kid-friendly alter-ego, Farmer Jason, who does quite well singing to the pre-K set (and their parents). His trip to St. Louis this weekend included a Farmer Jason set during the day and a Jason Ringenberg show at our house that night. Well, I’ll be…
Between fifty and sixty people showed up: a mix of familiar (two of whom I actually met at that 1984 show) and new faces (about a dozen people who learned about the show via Jason’s website…they somehow felt like part of an extended family). Decked out in a shiny western shirt, cowboy boots and hat, Jason got off to a raucous start with the upbeat and none-too-serious "Honky Tonk Maniac From Mars", setting the tone for the evening. Accompanied by just his acoustic guitar (no buzzsaw backing band tonight), JR still has that convincing country tenor and hops around with great passion. He’s got a distinctive way of flailing his legs from the knees down, allowing his boot to come down hard on the beat. The scuffs on our floor are a lasting souvenir of the evening.
"A mix of familiar and new" would also describe tonight’s song selection. The words and song structure of Guadalcanal Diary’s "Trails Of Tears" pack in a lot of cryptic drama and Jason was up to the task of delivering. He remains quite the showman- all of the magnetic stage presence that he displayed back in the day is still there, if modified for the more modest, down-to-earth way he’s living now. Throughout, he drew the intimate "crowd" in with charming between-song stories and introductions.
Jason’s solo acoustic treatment of "Harvest Moon" was one of the highlights of the first set. He followed it up with another JATS classic, "Hot Nights In Georgia"…in this one he managed to splice in snippets of "The End Of The World (as we know it)" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues". "Bible And A Gun" combined memorable lyrics and melody with Jason’s vulnerable phrasing. It’s probably my favorite song from his solo albums. He lightened things up with "Guitar Pickin’ Chicken" from his Farmer Jason CD and ended the first set with Merle Haggard’s "Rainbow Stew". The break between sets was a nice chance to catch up with a few people in this house full of friends and liked-minded strangers. Jason hung out and talked to his old friends from Illinois, momentarily back to wearing his flannel shirt and baseball cap.
Once back in his stagewear, Jason jump-started his second set with a mini-block of songs from the Scorchers’ days: Leon Payne’s "Lost Highway", "Shop It Around" and Dylan’s "Absolutely Sweet Marie" all worked well in the stripped-down but spirited way he did them up. "Going Nowhere" and "Punk Rock Skunk" fast forwarded things back to more recent Jason and Farmer Jason songs, respectively. When he asked for any requests, I offered up "Help, There’s A Fire", which he immediately granted, yelping out with great fervor. Now clearly in the home stretch, he busted out one of his best-known songs, "Broken Whiskey Glass". It opens all quiet and introspective, before jumping into gear and rocking righteously, even solo style…clearly my high point of the evening.
His last song had a long spoken intro (recounting an experience with an overly zealous Swedish woman) before ending with The Carpenters’ "Top Of The World" refitted with clever lyrics about Wal-Mart. If I witnessed a total stranger doing this at some open mic night, I probably wouldn’t have had much patience for it, but Jason occupies a certain spot in the hearts of all those here tonight, so he gets a pass.
A two-song encore assured that things ended on a high note… everyone remained standing as he walked back into the room already playing and singing "Lonesome Valley". After a brief encounter with the ceiling fan, he hopped up onto our kitchen counter, continuing to play and sing as he jumped back down and made a big loop around the first floor, re-emerging from a side room and making his way back to the microphone to sing "I Wanna Be Sedated". Everyone went home happy; some later than others. A handful of people hung out for a good long while just taking it all in. Eventually it was just me and my buddy Dave sitting by the fire out back until way late.
Nancy and I somehow managed to wake up when Jason did and had a little breakfast chat before he hit the road around 9AM. He’s a really easy-going guy who’s as interested in what you’re up to as he is talking about what’s going on with him. We talked about doing it again sometime.
11/16/05 Bettye LaVette, BB’s. Just a few days ago, I was totally unfamiliar with this veteran blues singer, but on recommendation of my buddy John, I bought her most recent CD and made it down to BB’s tonight. So here goes a shoot-from-the-hip description, given my limited familiarity:
The place was packed, but our crew had a table right up front. LaVette’s backing band (B, D, G & K) came out first and preheated the room. This aint no snooze blues- every player was first-rate; the guitar player, in particular, crisply and confidently displayed a range of techniques without ever showing off.
After convincing us of their credentials, the band stopped long enough for the guitar player, in true live blues band fashion, to announce the entrance of Ms. Bettye LaVette. At age sixty (she looks to be in her forties) she still has the ability to convey a range of emotions…she could belt out the sassy ones like Tina Turner or Janis Joplin or get more measured and reflective ala Ann Peebles. These reference points might serve to give an impression to someone who hasn’t heard BL sing, but anyone who has knows that her abilities are no less bona fide than the R & B heavyweights she might get compared to. Beyond the power of her voice, she also has a commanding stage presence; she’s got the moves and engages the audience mightily (especially if you’re standing at the foot of the stage and she’s staring into your eyes).
Her current CD features all covers of songs written by women. Lucinda Williams’ "Joy" was done up especially funky…the guitar player carried things with some kind of hybrid of a picking pattern and that "wicka-wicka" light strum thing (here’s where my lack of technical knowledge comes through). Joan Armatrading’s "Down To Zero" gave us a slower, soulful moment early on.
Somewhere in the middle of the set, she announced that she was coming down with a cold and opted to sing a slower ballad while sitting Indian-style on the stage…she nailed the sadness and confusion of "Just Say So" to breathtaking perfection while an acoustic guitar provided just the right amount of subtle backdrop. Throughout, the band provided unique approaches to each song. "Sleep To Dream", with its tag line, "I’ve got my own hell to raise" left a lasting impression.
The set lasted just over an hour (quality over quantity tonight). The final song was set up by each band member, one by one, walking offstage, leaving LaVette on her own to deliver Sinead O’Connor’s "I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got" a capella, sending the audience into stunned silence. Yowza.
11/18/05 The New Lou Reeds, Frederick’s. I showed up late and caught about half of their set. This three-piece from NYC does simple, ragged punk-ish rock. There might have been thirty people on hand when the bass player hopped up onto that table rail to ham it up like a big-time rock star while tonight’s opening band (The Locked Sound?) joyously danced around at his feet like drunken fools. It was pretty chilly out when the band was all packed up…they asked Fred if it was OK for them to spend the night out in their van in Fred’s parking lot. Life in the minors aint easy.
11/19/05 El Cheapo Tricko, McGee’s. Rick: "Some of my friends are going to go hear a Cheap Trick cover band at McGees’, so I think I’ll go, too. Nancy: "If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do that, too?" I arrived just as they were ending their first set with "Magical Mystery Tour" (you know, a Cheap Trick cover band). I heard all of the second set, which opened with "Surrender". Not being the aficionado that my buddies are, the only other song I recognized in this set was "If You Want My Love". The lead singer looked kinda like Wayne’s friend Garth in his big blonde wig and glasses. The other guitar player wore a hat and bowtie that made him look like Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos. For whatever reason, there was just one bartender working tonight, so I spent most of the set standing line waiting to get a beer. Business 101: never impede the ability of your customers to give you money.
11/19/05 Matt Grimm and The Red Smear, Frederick’s. I got to the bar in time to hear the last few songs by this Iowa City four-piece. Matt’s voice wasn’t as high and nasal as I remembered it. The only song I recognized was a hard and hooky cover of The Smithereens’ "Wall Of Sleep"… feel the burn. They’re driving back to Iowa City tonight, leaving the bar at 2AM.
12/3/05 Drag The River, The Red Sea. The place was pretty crowded; maybe 50 or so people; (Two Cow Garage was tonight’s headliner) when I got there about twenty minutes into the set by these guys from Colorado. I remember liking isolated songs on the one DTR CD I have, but nothing really grabbed me tonight. The songs weren’t especially memorable or hooky, so what we were left with was that boom-tap country-rock drum, some twangy leads (on both electric and steel guitars) and a raspy, monotone lead singer (who once sang for the pop/punk band All BTW). Instead of sticking around for 2CG, I headed over to…
12/3/05 Waterloo, Frederick’s. I missed a brief bit of excitement when Mark Ray’s brother (in the audience) fainted and hit the floor during the opening set by The Wormwood Scrubs, but I did manage to hear almost all of Waterloo’s set.
Remember back in the seventies when someone would remark that the joint he was puffing on didn’t seem to be having any effect, and the "host" would say, "It’s creeper, man"…and slowly but surely, an intense buzz proceeded to creep up and grab hold? That’s kind of what Waterloo’s music does. A typical song starts off gentle and unassuming, and I’m not exactly blown away. Mark Ray’s monochromatic vocals and gentle delivery aren’t going to get anybody up on the dance floor, but somewhere along the way, the sound manages to build in intensity and morph into something searing and shimmering, two electric guitars leading the way. They ended with an energized cover of a New Order song. Fred and I ended up going over to the Two Cow Garage after-party at John and Marie’s place and stayed out way too late.
12/10/05 Mound City Music Festival, The Pageant. This was the second annual MCMF, put together to benefit an assortment of worthy causes. Even though Son Volt (tonight’s headliners) had played this same room just six weeks ago and tonight’s ticket price was $30/$35 DOS, I figured the money was going to a good cause and the show was well worth supporting…apparently not everybody felt the same way.
Local singer/songwriter Brandy Johnson had already come and gone from the stage when we showed up a little before 8PM. The Pageant was as sparse as I’ve ever seen it; the tables were about half-occupied and a mere handful of people were standing on the dance floor as Andrew Duplantis played a solo acoustic set. Joe Pernice was a late scratch from tonight’s lineup, so Son Volt’s bassist stepped in with a set of songs that reminded me (and a few others) of Alejandro Escovedo, both in the character of Duplantis’ voice as well as the mannered, somewhat dramatic structure of his songs. Near the end of his set, he saluted the fortieth anniversary of The Sound Of Music by delivering a pretty true reading of "Edelweiss". This would have come across just fine in a more intimate setting (like The Duck Room), but things felt really out of scale: a relatively unknown singer/songwriter up on a big stage in front of a light crowd didn’t get this "fest" off to a very festive start.
This awkward vibe carried right over into the solo acoustic set by Vic Chesnutt. He’s one eccentric dude, all perched in his wheelchair sporting his furry pill-box hat and croaking out his quirky stream-of-conscious lyrics over simple, but warm acoustic guitar. I still consider Chesnutt’s earlier material some of the most oddly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, but I haven’t always followed his changes over the years. So while this guy’s music is an acquired taste to begin with, the uninitiated must have been at a total loss when Vic opened with an extended dirge- "You’ve Got One Friend" (?). The askew, rambling lyrics were absurd enough to elicit scattered laughter. So the stark, haunting quality I used to enjoy in Chesnutt’s music gave way to comedy tonight. At this point things had become so uncomfortable that all you could do was laugh. For what it’s worth, the sound quality was excellent tonight. I still really like the sound of Vic’s voice even if his more recent melodies don’t especially grab me. Toward the end of his set, he covered that Petula Clark hit, "Downtown", imparting his own peculiar, downbeat spin on it. He ended with an original whose lyrics (approximately) explained how he didn’t go for the hype of Christmas (or religion, in general), but he did enjoy the company of a special friend. It was actually pretty positive and life-affirming.
While tonight’s audience wasn’t so much about quantity (I’m guessing the place was about half full at around 400 people), it was a quality crowd. Patterson Hood (frontman for the Drive-By-Truckers) received a warm reception, getting lots of song requests throughout his set. Hood takes his acoustic guitar picking cues from Neil Young (think "Needle & The Damage Done"). I’m not the hard-core DBT fan that some folks are, so I’m no good at song titles; I remember "Uncle Disney", as well as the one about the day G. G. Allin came to town and the one about John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima. Without the usual guitar army behind him, Hood relied much more on his considerable abilities as a lyrical storyteller; his raspy southern accent conveys a vibe that is equal parts wide-eyed wonder and shit-eating grin.
So now that a string of four consecutive solo singer/songwriters has whipped this fest into a frenzy (?), it’s time for the headline act. Jay Farrar had to be disappointed by tonight’s light attendance, but he’s a professional who has played in similar circumstances before (the worst thing a musician could do is take it out on the fans who actually made the effort to come hear him play). Jay came out onstage and started things off with solo acoustic readings of "Bandages And Scars" and "Gramaphone"…nice "alternate versions" of songs that rock hard on Son Volt’s current Okemah… CD. This acoustic mini-set ended with the old Uncle Tupelo classic "Still Be Around", one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums. It was one of Jay’s first acoustic expressions of that world-weary melancholy that Uncle Tupelo initially conveyed via thunderous electric guitars. Jay’s loud and lonesome harmonica blasts accentuated the sense of disillusion…"alcohol doesn’t have much that matters to say"…clearly one of tonight’s high points.
At this point, the remaining four members of Son Volt joined Jay onstage and took things out of solo acoustic territory in a hurry. The current SV lineup gets harder and tighter very time I see them. Newcomer Chris Frame’s guitar leads seem more integral to the songs and Jay’s not afraid to jump in with a jarring lead or two, himself. I had previously thought that the eastern, sitar-like sound on "Medication" was achieved by some electronic effect, but now I’m thinking it’s an alternate tuning thing. Rather than run through the set list, suffice to say they got around to almost every song from Okemah as well as scattered stops throughout the Son Volt/Jay solo catalog. My day-after memory comes up with: "Damn Shame", "Drown", "Medicine Hat", "Caryatid Easy" and "Windfall" (what, no "Tear-stained Eye"?) and "Barstow". They ended with the punchy "Afterglow 61" pouring everything they had into it. Blame it on the smallish crowd size or the duration of tonight’s proceedings, but the audience response was less than thunderous when they left the stage. I felt compelled to clap for all I was worth for as long as I could, just to compensate for the lack of volume. Eventually, we got the predictable all-star jam, which basically consisted of Patterson Hood playing guitar along with Son Volt while Vic Chesnutt threw in a few scattered vocals on Blue Oyster Cult’s "Godzilla". It was fun, irreverent and over relatively quickly.