As JJ Grey told the story on Thursday night at The Pageant, the seeds of the Southern Soul Assembly concept were sowed as he was en route to Wal-Mart one day near his home in North Florida. He recalled, "My manager called me up and said, you've been talking about doing this songwriters tour for a while. What if we got Anders Osborne to do it?' I said, 'Yeah!' And then he said, 'What if we got Luther Dickinson?' and I said, 'Hell yeah!' And then he said 'What if I got Marc Broussard?' and I was like, 'If you get all those guys, it's on!'"
So it was as the collective billed as "Southern Soul Assembly: Southern Songwriters in the Round" took the stage, sitting on stools in a semi-circle and taking turns baring their musical souls for two full hours. These four seasoned musicians are so ideally suited to each other; it's a wonder they haven't gathered in this formation until recent years -- though their bands have shared tour bills and festival dates in the past. Osborne and Dickinson's band, North Mississippi Allstars, even collaborated on an album and tour in 2015 under the moniker NMO.
The format of Southern Soul Assembly, with each artist moving down the line and taking a turn in the spotlight to perform one of their songs accompanied by the others, worked well to provide a diverse sampling of tunes and share their individual strengths. Broussard took the first pass, lending his soulful voice to a cover of Frankie Miller's "Baton Rouge," as Dickinson and Grey backed him up on the bass and harmonica respectively.
Grey then took his first turn and dove in headfirst with a stripped down version of "Lochloosa," his quintessential ode to his Florida roots, with Dickinson plucking on mandolin. Without the backing of his full band, Mofro, Grey's voice absolutely soared as the song built to its crescendo, his eyes closed and his face fraught with emotion, before ending to fervent applause.
Osborne treated fans to a soft, introspective new song called "Tomorrow is Another Day" from his forthcoming album. He gently plucked his acoustic guitar, leaving the bulk of expression to his voice and poetic lyrics, "Why am I human / I feel more like a tree / Here in my own skin / I can't be who I want to be."
Finally, it was Dickinson's turn to highlight his hill country blues with the somber and heavy song he wrote about watching the horror of Hurricane Katrina titled "Highwater (Soldier)," as Grey helped out on harmonica and Broussard kept a beat on maracas and a homemade cardboard box "drum." Though he may be the weakest vocalist of the group, he makes up for it with his instrumental proficiency, deftly rotating between electric guitar, bass, mandolin and even a homemade two-string coffee can guitar.
The foursome continued in this format for several more rounds, all of them digging a bit deeper on each turn. Osborne earned the evening's first standing ovation, channeling early Van Morrison with the soulful "Coming Down." As he rocked back and forth, clutching his guitar and pouring his heart out, Dickinson provided support on the mandolin. When the audience rose, Osborne was taken aback and got choked up, pausing in gratitude to wipe the tears from his eyes.
Dickinson brought out a special local guest, the esteemed Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, to lend his heavenly voice to gospel classic "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)" as Grey kept a soft beat on the tambourine. Dickinson slipped in a quick Chuck Berry riff toward the end in a nod to the St. Louis legend's recent passing.
Fans of Grey were moved by his performance of another favorite, "Brighter Days," singing along at the end. Osborne provided another transcendent moment with a furious acoustic guitar solo during "Peace." Broussard, Grey and Osborne joined forces with Dickinson to close out the main set with gospel-influenced North Mississippi Allstars tune "Up Over Yonder."
An encore mini-set allowed for one more round. This time, Osborne took the first turn, pausing to crank up his amp for the down and dirty blues groove of "Move Back to Mississippi." Dickinson backed him up on slide guitar, briefly striding to the front of the stage to take a Chuck Berry stance in one more moment of tribute.
Dickinson then continued to show his slide mastery on a song he penned for friends and others in the military, "Mojo Mojo," working some dreamy solos with an echo pedal effect as Osborne supported on rhythm guitar.
Broussard got vulnerable with the lovely ode to an ex, "Let me Leave While I Can," proving again his astounding vocal and songwriting talents. Grey then officially capped off the night with another stirring and spiritual number, "The Sun is Shining Down," standing to deliver the lyrics like a Sunday Sermon as he sang, "Glory, glory, Hallelujah; I'm alive and I'm feeling fine."
By stripping things down to their voices and basic instrumentation, these four tremendous artists provided what felt like a rare and special opportunity to experience some of these great songs in their purest forms with the highest level of emotional connection. Opening themselves up in this way reminded us, if only for a couple of hours, of the simple joy and beauty that can still exist in today's crazy and complicated world.
Rise & Scream, a brand new politically-inspired art and musical festival, made its debut last Saturday night at 2720 Cherokee. A benefit for the International Institute — a fantastic local organization which helps immigrants adjust to the country and the St. Louis area — the event included music on two stages as well as art installations.
The show was organized by Vincent Saletto, who described the genesis of the festival as a direct response to the nomination and subsequent election of Donald Trump among whose campaign promises were plans to build a border wall between the US and Mexico and to ban Muslims from entering the US. Feeling compelled to take action locally in opposition to Trump's policy plans, Saletto decided to organize an event. Signs of the Trump Resistance included Vincent's "RESISTL" T-shirt and the decidedly anti-Trump artworks on display.
A not-that-cold Saturday evening had Cherokee Street buzzing with St. Louis' coolest young crowd. Signs outside the show invited people to stop in to see 19 bands for the $10, with all of the proceeds going to the International Institute. Inside, 2720 Cherokee was put to excellent use with music stages upstairs and downstairs. The upper level had a laid-back vibe as attendees chatted, looked at art displays, and checked out the view over Cherokee. Video games were also available at the "barcade" area aka RKDE. Downstairs at the main stage was a more typical concert setup. Both stages had great views for everyone.
Running from 3pm until 1am, the line-up was expansive. Vincent described the booking as basically a collection of his favorite local bands, not to mention his own band called Giant Monsters on the Horizon.
While I was there, I caught a number of highlights: Final Veil created a unique combination by pairing a drum-and-electric guitar arrangement with belly dancers. Five-piece rock band Town Cars got the crowd moving upstairs with catchy rock songs. Precog was one of the few out-of-town bands, visiting from Nashville. After taking the stage with a rather dark and imposing presence, the band produced surprisingly melodic, vocally driven synth-rock. Giant Monsters on the Horizon, described by Vincent's wife as "spooky spooky stompy stompy," filled the lower level with industrial, yet intricate, electronica that provided an appropriate soundtrack for the Trumpocalypse.
The last set of the evening I was able to catch was electro-pop, darkwave outfit CaveofswordS. They created a wonderfully layered sound with smooth, dreamy vocals floating above keyboard and bass. I wish I could have stayed for Hylidae and Seashine who followed into the later hours.
Look for Rise & Scream 2018. In the meantime, the International Institute will doubtlessly put the funds raised at the event to noble use.
Click below to see Karl's photos of a number of acts in the event, including CaveofswordS, Town Cars, PreCog, Suzie Cue, Giant Monsters on the Horizon and others.
The night opened with Lubbock-born singer and violinist Amanda Shires, who has become a staple in the Nashville music scene. She was accompanied on guitar by her husband Jason Isbell, who played The Peabody last February to a nearly sold-out audience. Shires voice, sweet and little with a distinct tremulous quality, complimented her fiddle playing nicely. In between songs, she told stories of times that she's played with John Prine in St. Louis over the years, which revealed the singer's light-hearted side. Once at the Touhill she got him to wear a sock monkey onesie on stage, which was so distracting that it affected her performance, although she still offered him $50 to wear it again tonight. Before "Mineral Wells" she explained that she's obligated to play the song because it's the only one of hers that Prine likes. After observing his demeanor and playfulness throughout the evening I still doubt that statement is true, but I'm sure he said it. During the instrumental breaks in each song Shires walked toward her husband and they looked into each others eyes while playing. The harmony of their interactions reinforces the unisonous melodies of their music. For their last song Isbell joined her on vocals for Warren Zevon's, "Mutineer," a beautiful song also covered by Bob Dylan. By the time Shires introduced the headliner as, "Our hero and yours too, John Prine," the room had already been warmed by his presence.
John Prine is a legend and one of the most influential songwriters of his generation with a massive catalog that boasts a wide variety of genres and themes. His songs are poetry that evokes real emotions from his audience. Some make you burst with laughter, like "Your Flag Decal Won't Get you into Heaven Anymore." Some cause uncontrollable dancing-in-your-seat, toe-tapping and singing along like "Grandpa was a Carpenter." And some lyrics cut deep and cause chills once the reality settles in, like "Sam Stone," which was the most demanded of the night.
The crowd last Friday was energetic to say the least, as if every person in attendance was the president of a chapter of the John Prine fan club. It was incredible to witness such love and admiration for an artist who has relatively flown under the radar for most of their career. After every song a handful of people in the crowd would yell out requests of their favorite songs. At one point Prine gave in with good humor, "Well, I better play this one next, cause it sounds like that guy is double parked."
At the halfway point of the show Prine welcomed special guest vocalist Iris DeMent to the stage for three songs they recorded together in 1999 for the duets album In Spite of Ourselves including the renowned title track, as well as their single "Who's Gonna Take the Garbage Out?" from John's 2016 duets album For Better, Or Worse. DeMent has an unmistakably charming, sunny voice that is reminiscent of Loretta Lynn with just the right amount of twang. Her delivery paired with Prine's gravelly voice makes for especially delightful contrast and their set was certainly a highlight of the concert. And of course the crowd was sure to join in on the line, "There's no Riviera, in Festus, Missour-ah" from the song "(We're Not) The Jet Set" originally recorded by George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Prine introduced his song, "Hello in There" by talking about his grandparents. He spent a lot of time with them as a child and said he had such an affinity for the elderly that he hoped to grow up someday to be one himself, which made the crowd laugh before he went on to deliver that most heartbreaking, honest and inescapable of songs from his first album. As he sang another from that 1971 debut, "Sam Stone," about a drug-addicted veteran who squanders his life and money then overdoses on heroin, his solitary delivery was gradually accompanied by a standup bass which snuck in with low long chords in the background. Despite the gritty reality of such songs, Prine managed to keep the overall feeling of the evening fun and lively, a testament to his range and honesty.
For the last few songs Prine welcomed Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell back to the stage for the upbeat rockabilly tune "Dim Lights, Big Smoke," which he recorded with Shires for In Spite of Ourselves. After almost everyone in the ensemble had a vocal or instrumental solo they ended the show with "Paradise," another classic from his self-title debut, which recalls his home in Kentucky that was practically destroyed by strip mining. I don't think the irony was lost on anyone when they heard the chorus "Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away" reverberate through the concert hall named after that exact coal company.
Set List: "Love, Love, Love," "Glory Of True Love," "Long Monday," "Taking a Walk," "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore," "Quiet Man," "Six O'clock News," "Souvenirs," "Grandpa Was a Carpenter," "Hello in There," "Who's Gonna Take the Garbage Out" (w/ Iris Dement), "We're Not The Jet Set" (w/ Iris Dement), "We Could" (w/ Iris Dement), "In Spite Of Ourselves" (w/ Iris Dement), "Angel from Montgomery," "It's a Big Old Goofy World," "Fish and Whistle," "Sam Stone," "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" (w/ Amanda Shires), "Storm Windows" (w/ Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell), "Bear Creek Blues" (w/ Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell), "Paradise" (w/ Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell).
Band: Jason Wilbur (guitar); Pat McLaughlin (mandolin); Kenneth Blevins (drums); Dave Jacques (bass)
Click the image below to see all of Monica Mileur's photos from the evening's performances.
When the "Great Migration Tour: Celebrating the Sounds of Mississippi, Chicago and St. Louis" hit the Legends Room stage at the National Blues Museum, it brought Black History Month to life. The concerts of February 24 and 25 performed by renowned blues artist and educator, Fernando Jones, Marquise "The Prodigy" Knox and 2016 Grammy award nominee Vasti Jackson paid tribute to the Delta blues while capturing its present day musical evolution.
The roots of the blues will always be tied to a system that enslaved and transported more than 12 million West Africans to the Americas. As Vasti Jackson told the Friday night audience, "It's the same boat, different ports, the same cultural and musical traditions that became the blues here influenced the reggae, samba, and conga beats of other countries." The soul and culture of a people that created the Delta Blues would evolve and be popularized by the Great Migration.
The migration of more than 6 million African Americans between 1900-1970 from the rural south to northern and western urban areas has been called the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history. NBM Internal Affairs Director, Jacqueline Dace, cites discrimination and poverty as the drivers: "After Reconstruction and with the establishment of Jim Crow Laws, blacks found themselves in an environment that was not only detrimental to their economic advances, it was also detrimental to their lives."
The shift was dramatic. African American population outside the south rose from 10 percent in 1910 to 50 percent in 1970. In that same period, African Americans rose from 6.4 percent of the St. Louis population to 40.9 percent. The two big migratory waves (1900-1930 and 1940-1970) coincide with the two waves of urbanization of blues music.
Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy urbanized the sound while women like STL's Victoria Spivey popularized the blues by dominating the 1920s record charts during the first wave. Male migrants led the second wave as Muddy Waters electrified the sound and fellow artists like Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and St. Louis' Henry Townsend, Oliver Sain and others crafted their versions of the blues. The artists of the Great Migration Tour reflect this history.
Fernando Jones, the son of parents with Mississippi roots, grew up on Chicago's south side, learned to play guitar at the age of four and has been in the business for more than 30 years. He is often called the "Renaissance Man" because of his extensive resume that includes: performer, producer, writer, artist, film, and education. His education efforts run from kids to college.
New generation bluesman and STL native, Marquise Knox, who says, "the blues was passed to me through the blood," has family ties to Grenada, Miss. and Big George Brock (Mississippi migrant) and Bennie Smith. Brock, Smith, Henry Townsend and B.B. King all helped school Knox in the blues.
Vasti Jackson, born into a family of fiddle, harp and guitar players, never left Mississippi and now resides in Hattiesburg. He is a highly sought after performer and producer with 40 years of professional experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of music and blues history. He says his recent Grammy loss was still a win because he was on stage with his friend Bobby Rush when he won for Porcupine Meat. Jackson, who helped make that album, laughs and says, "I couldn't lose. I was competing against myself."
Jackson, Jones, and Henry Townsend's son, Alonzo, were part of a Saturday discussion panel moderated by Jacqueline Dace. In discussing the evolution and future of the blues Fernando Jones said the situation is "unhealthy because the blues genre has failed to grow ... the Grammys only recognizes two categories." All agreed that too many bands play from a limited old catalogue and Townsend noted that often the giants like his father "didn't want to do anything to change the style." Jackson said it was also about labeling and promoters "locked into the imagery of old black men and bad old days."
The need for variety, younger players and people in the industry were key issues. Fernando Jones believes to connect to kids "you have to make it free, accessible and mobile. . . rent a bus, provide lesson plans for teachers." He has been living these words for 27 years with his Blues Kids Foundation and Fernando Jones' Blues Camp International for kids 12-18 which is free. The National Blues Museum will host a June 15-17 camp.
Alonzo Townsend believes he is a "torchbearer for the blues and his father's legacy, but my job is to interpret for a new generation." He does that through the Blues in the Schools Program that has reached over 5,000 young people. He wants to kids to play and instrument or find something that inspires them so that they can have a skill "that no one can ever take away from you."
Vasti Jackson want kids to see the opportunities in "the strategic alliance of industries in music -- set design, construction, lighting, sound engineers, computer programming, technology, food, catering, promotion." Townsend agreed and says he uses his own story as an example for kids: "I'm not a stage musician, but I was interested in the service side of the business promotion, management and food service."
The late February shows spoke to the issues raised in the discussion panel.
Fernando Jones, a man of slick suits and clean licks, opened with a "Oil and Water" from his Synesthesia album. The extended song, which opens with some slick guitar driven modern blues, puts the evolution of the blues on display as it takes on a jazzy edge in extended riffs with six string bassist of Felton Crews. There was more of the same to be found through his set and closing number "Just When I."
Marquise Knox played a set that showcased the new and paid homage to the old. He opened with his show stopping powerful voice and guitar riffs for the first few numbers. Then the harmonica came out for some extended work that spoke to more traditional blues. The Delta was fully on stage when Knox changed keys brought out the slide guitar and sat down for some traditional blues. His close, "I'm a Bluesman" brought us back to the present and the crowd to its feet.
Vasti Jackson opened with a resonator guitar and selections from his Grammy nominated traditional blues album, The Soul of Jimmy Rodgers. He mixed his artistry with history telling us, "I'm not a blues museum, I'm a blues man" and why the music needs to evolve. He showed the audience what he meant as he shifted to his searing electric guitar, tearing through the audience, and bringing the house down as he channeled Prince on his rendition of Purple Rain.
To be fair, I wasn't expecting to see young, dreamboat Jonathan Richman circa 1974, but when you go to a show to see an objective legend — the once-frontman of the Modern Lovers, the guy who transformed countless lame teens into fervent punk rockers — you expect someone larger than life. But when Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins walked onstage at Off Broadway last Friday night, looking almost small under the white lights, I was reminded that Jonathan Richman is only mortal.
And so he was, though that turned out to be his greatest charm. There was something very personable about Richman's stage persona, like watching a friend onstage. In fact, I felt the need to sort of hunch behind the tall guy in front of me while typing notes into my phone (oh, the rare blessings of being 5'1"), not because I didn't want to be yelled at but, weirdly, because I didn't want Jonathan Richman to think his performance was uninteresting.
Richman was, in all respects, a one man show — sometimes crooning behind the microphone, sometimes stepping to the edge of the stage as if to say, "Come closer, there's no need to fear," sometimes picking up maracas or sleigh bells and dancing (which involved a lot of shimmying and hip-gyrating and was strangely hypnotic, kind of like watching your weird uncle get down). And though his looks might have aged, Richman seemed to be in a state of unblinking lucidity that only one-in-a-million artists could ever hope to achieve. (I say unblinking because Richman literally did not blink, or at least not as much as a normal man should. He had a way of staring into a fixed point in the crowd during guitar solos that was equal parts unnerving and impressive.)
At this point, I would be remiss to mention that the breadth Richman's technique is really imperceptible until you see him play a live set. Almost every song featured an instrumental break, which is, in my opinion, where Richman might've shone the brightest. Chord progressions in "My Baby Love Love Loves Me" become the bickering voices of lovers (which Richman compliments with a mock-angry face); the high-pitched guitar slides in "That Summer Feeling" are followed by an explanatory "Mosquito." And the audience actually laughed, which I've never seen happen during an instrumental piece and which truly demonstrates the interpretive depth of Richman's guitar-playing: the guitar was another voice altogether.
But what really made Richman's performance — and his entire musical persona — so darn enjoyable was the wide-eyed easiness it all. If you've heard any of Richman's recordings, you know that his voice is breezy and laissez-faire and borderline conversational at times. This quality was even more obvious on stage, where he would often slip out of singing to make a little quip — or, in the case of "Old World," a two-minute story about baseball pitcher Walter Johnson that he had heard from Bill Klem. Some of Richman's songs are simply sweet in a way that makes couples pull each other close, like the show's encore "Not so Much to be Loved as to Love." Others were considerably more lighthearted like "People Are Disgusting," which details humanity's more nasty habits ("Wipe the toilet seat down! A maid has to clean this!"). Overall, it's hard to articulate the sheer likability of a punk legend who can stop mid-sentence to tell the audience, with a laugh, "I'm just making shit up" (as he indeed did during a cover of King Harvest's "Dancing in the Moonlight").
At his heart, I think Richman is a genuine person in a way that many big stars aren't. Yes, he's an immensely, immensely talented singer/songwriter/guitarist/etc., but there's no pretension behind his performance, no overt demands for respect nor reverence, nothing but the desire to contort and cavort and "move with the moon and the tide," per "These Bodies that Came to Cavort." And the audience was with him the entire way, dancing and laughing with the enthusiasm that can only come from years of devotion to Richman and his work. One man near me even knew every single word to every single song — not just in English, but in Italian, too.
About halfway through the song from last year's Ishkode! Ishkode! called "Outside O'Duffy's," the stage lights went out, plunging the entire venue into darkness. "Wow! That was good, too — just different," Richman said cheerily when they came back on a few seconds later. There was no doubt in my mind that he meant it. Rain or shine, lights on or lights off, Jonathan Richman will be there with a song.
Click the image below to see all of Gary Eckert's photos of the evening.