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.
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.
Coming off the duo's debut album, Swear I'm Good At This, Diet Cig are one of the biggest breakout bands of 2017 and the defining sound of the breakout genre they call "slop pop." Alex Luciano (guitar/vox) and Noah Bowman (drums) met at a show that Bowman was playing in at New Paltz, NY. Then Luciano's offer to make a music video for Bowman ended up turning them into one of the most exciting acts in indie music today. Before their show Friday, June 2 at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, I had a chance to talk to Alex and Noah about festivals, adulthood, and the precision skills needed to properly pack a van.
Matt:: So you're at Bled Fest and from social media I see you've just finished a show.
Alex: Yeah, it was a really fun set, the festival is really cool.
Matt:: Youre in Michigan right now?
Alex: Howell, Michigan at an old high school, I think. It's pretty wild.
Matt:: Is it an actual festival or a DIY kind of festival?
Noah: Its kind of like a hybrid, somewhere in the middle -- it has real sound systems and everything and theres many stages but were spread out through the building.
Alex: Like we just played a stage in the big cafeteria. Theres other stages in classrooms and other rooms. Its run by real production companies and its very organized, just smaller than a typical festival.
Matt:: That seems simultaneously really cool and "Oh my god, Im back here -- I thought I was able to leave this place so long ago."
Noah: Yeah! It kinda feels like when we walked because its just a bunch of kids since its an all age thing. It feels like youre in some 2000s music video.
Alex: Theres pop-punk in the background and kids in the hallway. Theres lockers and everyones hanging out and its really weird. So definitely music-video vibes.
Matt:: That didnt come to mind but as you said that I thought, "How did I not get that right away?!"
Noah: [laughs] We just had a beer.
Matt:: I have a couple of questions for you guys if youre ready to answer them.
Alex & Noah: Sure!
Matt:: So my first question is that I feel like recently there's been this huge wave of young songwriters essentially writing about their transition into adulthood that I think your band is definitely part of with the album title Swear Im Good At This. Being a part of this generation, I feel like were being forced to grow up but we dont quite know how to because it feels like we werent properly taught. So I guess my question is how has this transition into adulthood affected your outlook on life and in turn, your songwriting.
Alex: I mean I'm only 21 and so as I was writing these songs I was kinda in that transition like youre saying. All of my songs are really very honest and about experiences that I've had. Because of that, I think this kind of transition into adulthood that I've been going through has really affected the songs. Honestly, when I write songs I take situations that have happened to me and different things that have happened in my life and kind of take them and reclaim them in a way -- turn them into something that I can be proud of and excited to share with people. So I think a lot of the hard things and the shitty things that have gone on in my life that I feel like Im inclined to write songs about have been these transitional periods and not knowing where I fit in the world or with anyone else. I think those feelings are really intense for a lot of people who are going through that phase and I definitely felt them and just decided to own them and be like, "This is real and this is my life, and I'm gonna turn this into something Im excited to play and share and that I'm proud of."
Matt:: So this next one is a bit of a small question but one I wish others would ask more often. Since you have been touring for two or three years now, how down is your unpacking and packing method for the van?
Noah: Oh, let me tell you that is my favorite thing and I appreciate that you asked that question because no one ever cares about that part and I live for the pack and the unpack -- Im not even being sarcastic, I love it! I think we have it down to a science.
Alex: Oh yeah, it's like Tetris.
Noah: It is. It's like Tetris and our van Ive kinda built out to fit our needs, so we have a bed in our van too and a lock chamber for all of our stuff.
Alex: There's only one way it all fits.
Noah: Yeah, theres really only one way it all fits and I know it and our tour manager Nate knows it, and if you put something in the wrong place youre fucked.
Alex: Hey, this time I know something, okay? So interesting enough, on this tour we added a whole big speaker cab and we were like, "How is this all gonna fit?" We had it down perfectly before and funny enough, the first time I help figure out the Tetris move to pack the van, we pack the giant cabinet and have extra space.
Noah: Yeah, she nailed it.
Alex: So I was pretty proud of that.
Noah: Yeah, that was good.
Alex: But thats really kind of Noahs territory and his pride and joy on tour.
Noah: I'm such a neat freak and like to have things just organized so I love that part of the day.
Matt:: I'm glad you appreciated the question. Actually, there's a video out there that A.V. Club did where Pinegrove and Into It. Over It. compete to see who can pack their van the fastest.
Alex: Oh my god, we should do that! We would freaking win against anybody.
Noah: I'd do it in like what, 45 seconds? No?
Alex: I don't know about that.
Noah: No, but that's a fun thing I didnt even know that they did that.
Alex: I'll have to look that up, I like that.
Matt:: Speaking of vans and driving, what's been some of your favorite music to listen to on this tour?
Noah: I've been driving a lot and as lame as it is I just don't put any music on because everyone sleeps and I usually drive in the morning. But if I am going to throw something on, I really like that Pinegrove record, their newest one, and today I threw on some throwbacks. I listened to Local Natives, that first record they did, Gorilla Manor, that's a good one.
Alex: You listened to Jimmy Eat Worlds Bleed American like every day.
Noah: Yeah, that's a really good record.
Alex: I have some newer bands that I love like Sylvan Esso and some other ones but I feel like we're just sick of all the songs we listen to constantly, so I've been trying to throw it back to some '70s jams. The other day we had a really good time listening to "September" [Earth, Wind and Fire] and "December, 1963" [The Four Seasons].
Matt:: So what are you excited to do in St. Louis?
Alex: City Museum! We want to go and play in a ball pit really bad. Weve heard from friends that this is the only thing that we have to do when were there and thats all I want to do.
Matt:: I agree, City Museum, you gotta go.
Alex: Yeah, that's our goal. We didnt get to go last time and we really want to so catch us in the ball pit!
The life of William Christopher Handy, the Father of the Blues, is a tale long overdue to be told. After a ten-year effort, acclaimed Emmy-winning filmmaker Joanne Fish is ready to tell it on June 25, at a private event at the MX theater on Washington Avenue. Billed as "A St. Louis Celebration," it will be the first showing of Mr. Handy's Blues.
The St. Louis show honors this city's central role in the Handy story. As Fish explains it: "St. Louis was his crossroads moment either to go home and teach or be a vagabond musician. It was his spiritual moment. St. Louis is the soul of the Handy story, Memphis the heart."
It was in 1894 when a 20-year-old Handy found himself broke, starving and sleeping on the cobblestones beneath the Eads Bridge. He never forgot the pain and despair of those desperate times, nor the blues lament he heard from a woman stumbling down the street: "Ma man's got a heart like a rock cast in de sea." Twenty years later it became a key line in "The St. Louis Blues," one of the most recorded songs in history.
The St. Louis showing is also a thank you to all the local individuals and musicians who helped her along the way. One of those is the local co-producer Dr. Rosalind Norman, a long time educator, black theater advocate and business consultant. She shared Fish's vision of showing Handy's "economic empowerment, optimism, and his rising above the challenge of Jim Crow violence." "It is an important message for St. Louis after Ferguson," Norman says. "It is an opportunity to see a person of color in spite of racism and poverty rise above it and become an international icon."
Fish's interest in Handy began while working in Nashville for TNT and doing a documentary on the "Queen of Rockabilly," Wanda Jackson. Wanting to learn more about those musical roots and a fortuitous 2007 film festival trip to Florence Alabama, Handy's 1873 birthplace, led her to the W.C. Handy museum. "I learned so much, so many cool things," she says. She was also shocked to learn there were no documentaries about this towering figure of twentieth-century music. Joanne was hooked, and the journey began.
There are two stories embedded in Mr. Handy's Blues. According to Fish, one "is a tale of family conflict, racial tensions and redemption, his love of music and his talent for transforming the oral traditions of his African American countrymen into a unique and commercial musical genre, namely the blues."
The other is the story of a successful African American businessman who, with his partner Harry Pace, created the first black-owned music publishing company in 1912 and moved it to Tin Pan Alley in the heart of Broadway in 1918. A century later the Handy Brothers Music Company is still in business. His songs "St. Louis Blues," "The Memphis Blues," "Beale Street Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues" and many more are considered masterpieces in both the blues and jazz worlds.
W.C. Handy's arrival in New York also coincides with the early years of the Great Migration and the start of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a black businessman, a living example of what Marcus Garvey preached in Harlem about starting black owned businesses. He co-wrote song lyrics with Langston Hughes and organized the first blues performance in New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1928. Handy also wrote and was musical director for the first blues movie, St. Louis Blues, starring Bessie Smith and an all African American cast. (The film can be seen daily at the National Blues Museum.)
Handy was also a musicologist. Long before Alan Lomax took to the Delta with his recording machine, W.C. Handy and Abbe Niles wrote Blues: An Anthology (1926) which was illustrated by renowned Mexican illustrator Miguel Covarrubias and is considered the most famous blues collection in history. Two more important historical texts followed in the 1930s, Negro Authors and Composers of the United States in 1935 and W.C. Handy's Collection of Negro Spirituals in 1938.
The filmmaker uses W.C. Handy to tell his own story himself by using film clips, recordings and his 1941 autobiography Father of the Blues. She also brings the film to life with interviews with family members, historians and musicians like Bobby Rush, Taj Mahal and a 16-year-old Matt "Rattlesnake" Lesch playing a Handy song. Other St. Louis musicians appearing in the film include Miss Jubilee, Kim Massie, Kasimu Taylor, Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes, The Voodoo Blues Band and Race Simmons and the School of Rock Band.
The film and celebration have been supported locally by the Catherine Manley Gaylord Foundation, Cherry Red Productions, and STLBlues.net. The co-presenters for the event are The St. Louis Black Radio Hall of Fame, National Blues Museum, and the St. Louis Blues Society.
Mr. Handy's Blues has been accepted at a number of upcoming festivals in the summer and fall, including July dates at both the Macon Film Festival and at the W.C. Handy Musical Festival in Handy's hometown of Florence, Alabama. Watch for additional festival announcements. Discussions are also underway with several networks for a national broadcast of the film, as well as talks for the republishing of Handy's autobiography which paints a candid portrait of the violence of the Jim Crow era and an African-American musician trying to make it in society. The journey has been a long one for Joanne Fish and her Labor of Love production company but with the making of Mr. Handy's Blues she can take pride in her important contribution to African-American and musical history.
Warren Haynes is easily one of the hardest working musicians in the business. At certain points in his long and successful career, the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter has been known to perform in three or four different bands at a time, from the Allman Brothers Band to The Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends, to his own Warren Haynes Band and, of course, as the anchor of Gov't Mule, which he co-founded more than 20 years ago.
Fully focused on the later at present, Haynes and Gov't Mule are set to release their tenth studio album (and first in four years), aptly titled Revolution Come... Revolution Go, on June 9 on Fantasy Records. The band, which features Haynes on lead vocals and guitar; original drummer Matt Abts; Danny Louis on keyboards, guitar, and backing vocals; and Jorgen Carlsson on bass, makes a stop at The Pageant on Monday, May 22.
Via phone from the road, Haynes chatted a bit about the new album, which the band began recording on Election Day in Austin, Texas.
"We were setting up and preparing to record, and the first day is always a little boring and tedious, so occasionally we would get a break and glance at the TV news," he says. "Like the rest of the world, we were pretty convinced that Trump was not going to win. I think even he and his supporters were convinced of that. It just kind of changed our perspective on things."
Though a handful of the songs including the title track are somewhat political in nature, Haynes says they were already written by Election Day, so the outcome didn't necessarily affect the songs themselves so much as the recording process.
"For me, I guess it just forced me to put my head down and focus on the music. I didn't read the paper or watch the news for two weeks. I just concerned myself with making music."
The final product is as strong and diverse as any album the band has made -- expanding on its signature heavy blues-rock sound, anchored by Haynes' soulful vocals, familiar guitar tone and strong songwriting that touches on the dark aspects of our current political climate balanced with messages of hope, unity and personal introspection. The title song provides a sort of musical and thematic centerpiece.
"It's very long and goes through a lot of changes and musical directions. The lyric for it was definitely inspired by what was going on," notes Haynes. "I think a lot of us kind of predicted what's starting to unravel now and at least predicted that the divide would get bigger and bigger. Some of the songs are kind of taking a humorous glance at it, but it's serious business. But we're a rock 'n' roll band. It's about the music first and foremost."
The music speaks clearly, particularly heavy-hitters like "Stone Cold Rage" and "Pressure Under Fire," the later of which Haynes worked on with legendary producer Don Was, along with the more soulful and inspiring "Dreams & Songs." Though they have performed together, most recently on The Last Waltz 40 Tour, this is the first time the two collaborated in the studio.
"Don and I have become really close friends the last four or five years. We first met when we did the Red, White and Blues performance at the White House for the Obama Administration," says Haynes. "Don was there with Mick Jagger and we hung out and became friends. He's just so fun and easy to work with and such a pro. He adds a wonderful vibe to the overall thing and has great suggestions, but is just really good at getting the best out of people and creating a nice mood."
Guitar legend Jimmie Vaughan makes a guest appearance on the blues-heavy track "Burning Point." Vaughan lives in Austin where the band recorded, so Haynes says it just made sense to invite him to contribute. "You can hear my guitar in the right side and Jimmy's guitar in the left side and they're very conversational. Our styles are so different, but I think that's one of the things I really love about his playing -- it's extremely unique. I've been a fan for a long time and we've been friends for a long time, but this is the first time we've actually recorded together."
One of the lighter songs on the album, "Traveling Tune," is a sweet and melodic ode to the road and the shows and all of the people the band has met along the way. Haynes pays respects to "those who didn't make it through life's challenges," singing "We've got to keep on rising, singing in their honor."
Over the past several months, he's personally experienced the loss of two notable fellow musicians with whom he shared a bond and a stage with over the years -- Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks and, more recently, Col. Bruce Hampton. Haynes and Trucks toured the world and played thousands of shows together in the Allman Brothers Band.
"He was one of a kind as a musician and a human being," Haynes says. "He was very passionate about everything that he did and it was a tremendous shock to all of us when and how he passed. It's a huge loss. He was kind of part of this dying breed where I'm not sure musicians like him are going to continue to be put on this Earth."
Haynes was actually on stage with Col. Bruce Hampton when he collapsed and died earlier this month at his own 70th birthday celebration in Atlanta, a shocking moment for all who were present.
Says Haynes, "He was one of those people that it was important to pay attention to what was going on when you were around him because there were little lessons to be learned all the time -- most of them cloaked in humor and craziness -- but you always walked away enlightened when you hung out with the Colonel. I was blessed to know him and he was a wonderful human being who influenced so many musicians. I guess in a bizarre way, I was honored to be on stage with him when he passed. It was the most extreme, surreal moment probably of my life. I don't know anyone who can say they've had that happen to them and we were all devastated; but in the light of day, what a beautiful send off for him."
Though Haynes has put out several successful solo records, most recently 2015's Ashes & Dust featuring Railroad Earth, he's remaining focused on Gov't Mule for the foreseeable future, he says. "I have enjoyed all of the stuff I'm doing, but Gov't Mule is really kind of the home base. When we reconvene, all my attention goes there for quite a period of time."
Gov't Mule appears at The Pageant on Monday, May 22 at 8 p.m.