When you see the Real Macaws you've entered a funhouse tunnel from the '70s reverberating with original tunes and the refracted echoes of Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Byrds. The band, whose members' careers stretch back to the early wave of the country-rock movement, will be performing at the Old Rock House on Friday, August 11.
The Real Macaws are Terry Jones Rogers (guitar, vocals), Scott Nienhaus (guitar, vocals), Michael 'Supe' Granda (bass, vocals) and Tim Politte (drums, vocals). Joining the band for the August 11 show will also be Steve Scorfina (guitar, vocals), best known for his work in Pavlov's Dog. They'll bring original Americana from their 2011 album Standing Alone and other projects, and they'll no doubt serve straight up a couple-three Byrds songs with all the honeyed vocal blends and jangly guitars that you remember from the record. (They do a powerhouse extended version of "Eight Miles High" that will leave you trying to find your sea legs.)
Speaking from his home in Maplewood, Terry Jones Rogers told me a little of the Southern-rock side of his life and how that connects to the band: "I grew up in Macon, Georgia. My father was a veteran Navy guy so we moved all around the country and ended up in Macon when I was about four years old. Of course there's a rich musical heritage to that town and so I was greatly influenced by all that; Otis Redding, James Brown and Little Richard had quite a presence in Macon back in their day. Then the Allman Brothers came to town in 1969 and that kind of turned everything on its head there."
Rogers played in Macon-based groups like Pound & Rogers and interacted in the music scene. "One of the things that's a slight link to the Real Macaws," he said, "is that after Gregg Allman recorded his first solo album in 1973, Dickey Betts recorded a solo album Highway Call the next year. He went back to a lot of his roots on that recording including bringing in Vassar Clements to play on that record and the tour that followed, which is when I had the opportunity to meet Vassar in those days. Years later when I ended up moving to Nashville, I was able to reconnect with Vassar around the time we were putting Real Macaws together. Vassar was part of the original lineup there in Nashville which of course is a wonderful memory and experience that we all had."
This early ensemble played venues such as the Boardwalk Café and the Station Inn in Nashville — unfortunately, they did not have a chance to record with the bluegrass jazz great Clements.
Scott Nienhaus came to the band as a recent arrival from St. Louis, where he'd performed and recorded with Acousticity. The introduction to Rogers set in motion a collaboration that has lasted ever since. Having relocated to St. Louis, Rogers & Nienhaus perform as a duo and in the tribute/heritage groups Younger Than Yesterday and 4&20, which include former Acousticity drummer Tim Politte.
Nienhaus penned a song that the Real Macaws can be expected to play called "On the Water," a finely wrought acoustic song originally performed in 1995 by Rogers & Nienhaus with Skip Battin (Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers). The song became the basis recently for a video for the Missouri Department of Conservation. The "On the Water" video is done in a Playing for Change style of musicians in the open air, in this case along the water, the camera moving from one gorgeous location to another, eight watery Missouri places in all with guests including Supe Granda, Ingrid Berry, Rusty Young (Poco) and Javier Mendoza.
Supe Granda of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils is part of legacy that helped define '70s country rock. Anyone needing a refresher on the OMD's country rock bona fides should consult their self-titled debut and It'll Shine When It Shines, which were both co-produced by Glyn Johns and David Anderle. Renowned for his work with the Stones and the Who, Glyn Johns was an old folk music lover at heart and he helped mold the multiple songwriter approach of the new, unknown Daredevils into works of lasting beauty.
A mainstay in the Dares since their founding in late '71, Granda has long been active in solo endeavors. In 2016 he released two CDs on his own Missouri Mule label: Supe & the Sandwiches' Too Pooped to Pop, a rock 'n' roll album, and Silly Grandpa's Chicken in the Yard, an album of children's music. Granda gets bookings all over Nashville to do Silly Grandpa performances for kids and says he likes the hours. He also does "Supe's On" solo performances in which he sings and plays and reads from his memoir, It Shined: The Saga of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. He is booked for one of those gigs August 12 in Columbia, MO.
Meanwhile, Steve Scorfina of Ferguson started playing in bands locally in the '60s and was in an early incarnation of REO Speedwagon. More famously he was a charter member of Pavlov's Dog, whose Pampered Menial and At the Sound of the Bell epitomize the new progressive rock that was finding a home on FM airwaves.
Today Scorfina leads the blues-rock band Soul Steel and has been collaborating with Granda. He also recently took part in a local all-star mix of "Johnny B. Goode" that featured David Sanborn and Michael McDonald and the posthumous piano playing of Johnnie Johnson; the project raised funds for an indie documentary on Johnson.
Recalling the recording of Standing Alone, Terry Jones Rogers was unequivocal about Scorfina's mastery: "When we recorded the CD, we had several guests that we brought in on that recording. Slide guitar was a big part of that record and certainly that is one of the things that Steve Scorfina does so well, so we're bringing him in to do some of that stuff as well as other guitar work. He's just such a great player and a great friend."
Bruce Olson spent his life as a reporter where the rules are "be accurate and quick and write short and snappy stories." He loved reporting but never got to tell the whole story. It was an itch that needed scratching. In 2016, after five years of research and writing, he published a brilliant two volume history, That St. Louis Thing. "This book," he says, "was the first time as a reporter I had the complete freedom to follow my nose."
In That St. Louis Thing Olson uses his reportorial and writing skills to present a 150-year arc of history. He uses the threads of blues music, civil rights and baseball to weave a broader historical tapestry that takes you from the 1800's to modern day Ferguson. Each chapter is a stand-alone piece that easily moves between past and present providing the reader with exciting digestible stories and segments of history.
Readers and music lovers got a taste of those stories at a unique event sponsored by Left Bank Books on Wednesday, July 19. Olson focused on the music angle reading from five chapters while being backed up by a group of stellar St. Louis blues musicians, Sharon and Doug Foehner, Brian Curran and Dave Robinson, that he humorously referred to as "the newly formed That St. Louis Thing Band."
Following each segment, the band would play a song directly related to the reading: from Scott Joplin to Blind Boy Fuller's "Rag, Mama, Rag" to Sharon Foehner's soulful rendition of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," to versions of Ike and Tina Turner' "Rock Me Baby" and Lonnie Johnson's "Too Late to Cry" and Mississippi John Hurt's telling of "Stagger Lee," which Olson framed with the real story of the figure.
Olson's readings showed his reporters sense for detail that provided the context for the events he read about while his prose brought them to life. For example, his interview with Tom Maloney, a well know local bluesman, puts you right in the Club Imperial with Ike and Tina Turner:
First we get the band, the band does their thing, then the band goes into this boom-da-boom-da-boom-da-boom -- the beat like galloping -- then over to the left of the stage you see the Ikettes all standing in a line -- like this engine ready to go down the tracks -- and then -- they hit it and come right up on stage all dancing and prancing -- the strobe light goes on and you almost fall over -- you don't know what's happened -- and there's these incredibly beautiful, vivacious gals with these miniskirts on -- then there comes Tina, the queen of all of them --- man it was something -- and all the clocks stopped --- time just stopped -- and you were in a zone until they were done with us. It was quite fantastic.
There were other surprises too in the readings like the story of Bob Dylan's early 1960s relationship with Lonnie Johnson and how Lonnie's tips from those years came back to change Dylan's style beginning with his 1997 "Time Out of Mind" studio album. The music and nuggets like these made for an enjoyable evening but there's much more here to enjoy in this anything but dull history.
As Olson would be quick to tell you the two volumes came from five years of research. "I started to write a blues story," he says, "but things kept popping up and kept me going. For example, thanks to help from the St. Louis Library staff, I found documents that show the local civil rights movement could trace its roots back to a reform movement led by local middle class African American and white women. They wanted to improve the sanitation in Deep Morgan where the local clubs derived 1/3 of their revenue by charging people to use their bathrooms."
It's no surprise that what started as a blues story became much more because, as Olson admits, "giving details of a setting is what a good reporter does while a good philosopher gives the details of the context." For Bruce, the music ended up providing the narrative timeline to include the local, national and international context. He claims he "didn't know it was a complete history until it was done."
St. Louis's history is all there from a chilling description of the great cyclone of 1896, city politics, the 1917 East St. Louis race riot, baseball, the World's Fair, Lindbergh, Hooverville, Mill Creek valley, the North Side and South Side, musicians, clubs and a whole lot more. Bruce says, "I wanted to paint a full picture around characters."
That St. Louis Thing is a self-published book because publishers have difficulty with an unconventional history of this nature. Some suggested Bruce write three separate more narrowly focused books. As he says, "they couldn't see it in context and how the parts interrelate with one another." But it is the context and the weaving of the stories that makes this book such an enjoyable read.
Olson says his idea in writing this book "was to do something I wanted to do -- to finish one of my stories and tell the whole story." It's a good thing he scratched that itch. That St. Louis Thing: An American story of Rhythm, Roots and Race is a love story and tribute to this city, its people, its music and its place in history. Well done, Mr. Olson, well done.
See all of Bob Baugh's photos of the reading by clicking the image below.
We may be "walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match-head," but every Friday evening in August offers St. Louis blues lovers good times and great music at the Blues at the Arch concert series. Started in 2016, the series grew out of desire by the Gateway Arch Park Foundation to draw attention to the $380 million renovation of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and its unique role as a national park that sits in the heart of a major urban area.
"The Foundation was established in 2009 to help fund and design the construction that begins at Keiner Plaza," explained Ryan McClure their Communication Director: "Now it was time to transform into a conservancy organization, much like Forest Park Forever. We wanted to do something to highlight the progress and call attention to the expanded facilities. The Arch was one trademark and our music, the blues, another."
The idea also coincided with the April 2016 opening of the National Blues Museum just a few blocks away on Washington Avenue. To curate the festival, McClure called on Dion Brown, the NBM Executive Director, and their board chair Rob Endicott and they loved the proposal. Brown saw it as "a partnership that would publicize the park and draw a diverse crowd to the site" as well as an "an opportunity for the NBM to spread its wings and be a bridge to blues community."
The result was a free three-week concert series at the Luther Ely Smith Square which sits between the Old Federal Courthouse and the Arch. The series featured local and national acts, including the National Park Service Centennial Jazz Band. They deliberately timed it to end on the final Friday in August prior to the Big Muddy Blues Festival. The partners were thrilled as the crowds doubled each week of the six band three-night series and drew more than 4,000 people.
This year they hope to draw a lot more fans to the free series with a new site and a program expanded to include ten bands every Friday night from 6 to 8:30 throughout August. The new location will be in the amphitheater by the Northgate entrance to the park, adjacent to Laclede's Landing and the Eads Bridge Metrolink station. The stage will face south with vendors' booths along the walkway on either side of the stage. The grassy location can accommodate and estimated 5,000 people.
The Gateway Arch Park Foundation and National Blues Museum want to fill the amphitheater. Their dual goals for Blues at the Arch remain raising awareness about the Arch grounds' renovation and St. Louis' thriving blues scene. To that end the National Blues Museum has curated a stellar mix of local talent and Delta blues musicians.
Ratboys isn't planning on slowing down. They've just wrapped up a short tour supporting Pet Symmetry's new album, but vocalist/guitarist Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan still have another two months on the road -- including the July 23 stop at the Duck Room -- as they travel across North America for the release of their own album, GN. It's a wonderfully charming record that blurs the lines between the twang of country and the intensity of rock, all tied together with the pensive whimsicality of Steiner's songwriting. Pet cats and feral children, sisters and Antarctic expeditions; GN manages to weave seemingly disparate fragments into a collection of powerfully personal stories.
When I talk with Steiner over the phone, she and Sagan were at home in Chicago, taking a brief respite from touring before heading out to a show in Iowa later that day. (At one point, Steiner breaks off to check out the new strings Dave had put on the bass. "How are they sounding?" she asks; to which I hear the sound of a bass being strummed in reply.) It's not hard to believe that she's the voice behind Ratboys: she speaks with the deliberation and eloquence of a seasoned writer. "It's always a fun challenge to tell a story within the confines of a song," she tells me. "You have to be economical and concise." We discuss the tour, the making of the new LP, and the genre-bending power of "post-country."
Claire Ma: How is life on the road?
Julia Steiner: It's good! I definitely wouldn't be doing this if I didn't like it. There are new experiences being added each day, even though the actual routine of touring is remarkably consistent. But it's the perfect mix for me: I really like planning and routine, but at the same time, there's lots of new adventures to be had. I'm lucky because I get to tour with Dave, who's my partner and my best friend. I can understand for certain people it'd be really difficult to tour because they're leaving their partner at home or something like that, but we're in a lucky spot where we're together all the time.
CM: Did you write the song "GM" as an ode to touring?
JS: Yes! It's one of those songs where I was excited to say some of my friends' names and put them down forever on a recording. As we keep making music, I'd like to just keep adding verses and make a Bob Dylan-esque, ten-minute long, self-indulgent folk song.
CM: Your latest album, GN, shows more of an emphasis on the narrative element of the songs, as opposed to previous releases. How did the songwriting process differ?
JS: The first time we recorded AOID, it was very spontaneous. There wasn't any deliberation about a tracklist or certain ideas or stories that we wanted to include; they were just songs we had been playing for a long time, and it felt right to do those. This time around, there was a lot more -- well, it sounds kind of lame to say "planned," but we definitely took time to think about what songs we wanted to put on there. There were certain songs that I knew I wanted to finish that didn't have lyrics or a focus. Dave and I actually went up to Michigan for a few weeks, not just to record demos but to let me write and revise the lyrics to some of the songs -- that's how "Control" and "Crying About the Planets" came about.
I really love storytelling, and in college, when I was studying English, I just soaked up as many stories as I could. Now that I'm out of that environment, I really miss that a lot. It feels good to tell stories through songwriting.
CM: Are there any authors that have really affected your own writing?
JS: I've been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut. He has this collection of short stories called Look at the Birdie which is amazing. I love his direct style and how he can be so whimsical but straightforward in one sentence.; I definitely try to write that way, too.
CM: With songs like "Molly," "Control," and "Elvis in the Freezer," there's definitely a familial bent to GN. How did your family influence this record?
JS: I really miss my family: I'm the only one here who lives in Chicago -- the rest of them are all over the place, so I don't get to see them very often. GN was kind of a way to connect with them and gesture toward them in a permanent, solid way. When I was growing up, I struggled with being able to show affection, especially to my siblings. It's not that I thought I was too cool -- it just didn't come naturally to me. This was a way for me to make up lost time and be very direct about how I feel and what my siblings and my parents mean to me. At this point, it's just a way for me to stay close to them, even when they're not there. Plus, it's fun to sing my sister's name on stage every night.
CM: 'Molly' is about your sister, right?
JS: Yeah! She did the cover drawing for the record as well. She's an amazing artist and it worked out really well. It was fun to collaborate like that -- we had never done that before. The idea was meditating --- very tranquil and serene -- but also with the rock hands.
CM: Ratboys is often labelled "post-country," which is an odd term considering you've played with acts from all over the spectrum, from math rock to Midwest emo -- basically, genres one wouldn't typically associate with country.
JS: 'Post-country' is a goofy term that I made up in college. When I was growing up, I had never really heard of these funny genres, like post-hardcore, post-rock, post-whatever; it's a strange thing to just assume that anything ever truly ends, as far as genres go. So when I was introduced to these things in college by Dave, I was, like, "Well, we kind of have a little bit of a country thing going, but it's definitely not straight country, and it's more indie than anything. Let's just lump ourselves in with some goofy post-genre." But I honestly do think there's a lot of merit to it -- you know, making music that really respects and utilizes certain impulses of traditional country music but made for indie fans and made by people people who -- speaking for myself -- grew up listening to more indie music than anything.
We play with so, so many different kinds of bands, and that's something I'm really proud of. With our music, there's a lot of versatility, and there's a lot of overlap between different crowds. The Free Throw/Sorority Noise tour definitely solidified that, even though we make music that's not the same as bands in their genre, it definitely fits; we'd meet people every night who said 'We've never heard of you, but we enjoy what you're doing,' and that was really affirming for us.
CM: Recently, I've heard "post-country" being thrown at artists like Alex G, so maybe you've coined something big here.
JS: There you go! I actually have a plan -- [laughs] I sound so arrogant for trying to take credit for this -- but when I have time, I'm going to sit down and try to come up with some analysis or literature about the term, because I really do want to explain it a bit more. Genre is so cool, and I think that'd be a fascinating way to analyze it -- like, a "Post-Country Manifesto."
CM: Do you guys have any future projects in mind?
JS: Definitely. We're actually going back to that same house in Michigan in December to demo out some new songs, and that's gonna be awesome because it's going to be all snowy and strange. And, back in May, we recorded four more songs that were B-sides for GN -- songs that we didn't really have a chance to record initially. Those are almost finished, and that'll be a little EP that'll be out on Topshelf soon. It's funny -- GN just came out, but my mind is so forward-focused at this point, so I'm excited to work on the next thing.
Since their formation, guitarist Will Sergeant has been the only regular member of Echo & the Bunnymen, a band who burst onto the indie music scene with their 1980 debut Crocodiles. From there Sergeant and vocalist Ian McCulloch would serve as the bedrock for a string of 30 singles and the classic albums, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine, Ocean Rain and their commercially successful 1987 self-titled Echo & the Bunnymen. After a brief separation the duo regrouped in the mid-nineties as Electrafixion before properly reforming Echo & the Bunnymen and releasing another string of albums, beginning with 1997's Evergreen and culminating in 2014's Meteorites. Sergeant has also created several albums of ambient-tinged instrumental psychedelic rock under the moniker of Glide.
In advance of Echo & the Bunnymen's July 22 performance alongside Violent Femmes at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Sergeant spoke to KDHX's Rob Levy via Skype from the guitarist's home in the UK. An edited version of the interview was aired on the July 12 broadcast of Juxtaposition.