The Black Lillies represent. There is no mixed message or pretense, though their moniker is an apt metaphor for their sound. Cruz Contreras, the front man and writer, moved with a quiet confidence even before the show. The band took the stage at Off Broadway and waited for Cruz to open the set. Sam Quinn, formerly of The Everybodyfields, leaned back on his bare heels and closes his hand around the neck of his bass. Cruz strode across the stage in boots, the click of each step echoing throughout the room. His grey-tipped curls poured like a halo beneath his hat. You would almost expect him to have a pistol on his hip.

Then they began. The drums, played by Bowman Townsend, came in heavy and the guitar hit the down beat slightly flanged, echoing the forward country swagger of Waylon Jennings in the late '70s. The band was energetic and never rowdy, even though at one point Cruz assured a vocal spectator that she could "cuss in here." Though the venue could have held many more people, the band played as though they either didn't notice or didn't care. Either way it didn't matter. The music mattered. 

The line-up was smaller than usual, though the sound did not feel compromised. Dustin Schafer with quick licks and extended solos replaced the high mercury sound of the steel guitar found on their records. Cruz sang both parts of the songs usually performed with a female vocalist. This was a return to how he had written them, he confided after the show. And though he does miss a duet partner, he enjoys the dynamic of this all male four-piece.

Heralding the cradle of country music from which they sojourn, their songs are heavy with roots overtones and the glee of Eastern Tennessee country which borders on bluegrass at times and finds it silly to argue the difference. Four songs in, Cruz switched to an electric and the band opened into a stretch of faster beats which varied from rock, aided by Schafer's shredding, to a strong honky-tonk two-step. 

They played a few of the fan favorites such as "The Fall" and "Whiskey Angel," though Cruz introduced many songs as new and yet to be recorded. The newer material is heavy with metaphor, reaching for imagery beyond traditional exegesis and with more vehemence than The Black Lillies' earlier work. It also relies heavily on the hook, often repeating it as the song fades. For these newer works, Cruz picked back up his sunburst 1952 Gibson J45 with his angular strumming pattern worn into the wood like a battle stripe. It is obvious this guitar is his songwriting standard, and his voice, always melodious and never overdone, fits well within its soft range.

They closed the night without an encore, but stepped directly into the crowd to mingle those still milling about. Excited for their new record, the band sees this tour as a method for perfecting these songs before they return to the studio. Cruz' songwriting is strong, if not as proudly confident as it was in the early records. Now it emerges with more technicality -- and more hope. They are indeed The Black Lillies -- with all the delicate grace of a blooming lily, but a blackened one, mature with worldliness and a price duly paid. And I, for one, look forward to the upcoming release.

Click the image below to see all of Tim Farmer's photos of the evening's performances.

The Black Lillies (with Jenny Roques) at Off Broadway, October 12, 2017

 

Back in 1995, when DJs/co-owners of Washington D.C.'s Eighteenth Street Lounge nightclub Eric Hilton and Rob Garza decided to turn their mutual love of a multitude of musical styles into a recording project, Thievery Corporation was officially born. Forming a collaborative of musicians and numerous vocalists around their electronic experimentations, they have released ten studio albums on their own label (Eighteenth Street Lounge Music), along with numerous compilation discs, all expertly and uniquely combining elements of acid jazz, Indian, reggae, Brazilian, trip-hop and downtempo electronica, which have collectively sold in the multiple millions worldwide.

Despite the relatively consistent touring schedule throughout their 20-plus year existence, St. Louis has, peculiarly, never been fortunate enough to have earned itself inclusion on any of their many previous tours. That finally changed this past Saturday, when the patience of the many St. Louis area Thievery Corporation fans was righteously rewarded, at long last, with the Pageant hosting their long-overdue, premier St. Louis performance.

Opening the show was the highly talented Latin-rock quartet Making Movies, who blend together cumbia, Americana and psychedelic rock. Like many of you, I first learned about them through listening to the excellent, long-running program Latin Hemispheres (late Saturday/early Sunday from 1 to 3 AM), since they receive fairly regular airplay on that show. Formed in 2009, the Kansas City-based band, which consists of two sets of brothers with family roots in both Panama and Mexico, warmed up the then-small sized crowd with a sonically diverse mixture of slower, melodic tunes and harder-edged, body-moving rockers. Their charismatic lead vocalist, Enrique Chi, liberally spoke his mind between songs regarding his dismay with our country's current leadership, and briefly held up a sign saying "we are all immigrants" during the set's final song. A drumless version of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule the World' was their set's only cover, and was also the only song sung in English. My only complaint about their set was its too-short length (approximately 30 minutes). Luckily, Making Movies will be returning back to town on October 20, opening for St. Louis's Javier Mendoza at Off Broadway -- a highly recommended show if you are even remotely a fan of Latin-infused rock.

After a short break, during which an odd yet intriguing CD of Portuguese-sung, acoustic covers of David Bowie songs was played, the moment that everyone in the now-comfortably crowded audience had been anticipating (for years, for many of us) finally occurred, at nine o'clock on the dot. For the next two solid hours, five musicians, six vocalists (three male, three female) and one deejay/electronic wizard: Garza (Hilton has not been a touring member for at least a few years) aptly and effectively demonstrated just how cohesive a very wide range of sonic elements can potentially be. Their material's multitude of styles, tempo, and intensity levels never fell into familiar territory for too long before evolving into something fresh and different, and keeping the crowd completely mesmerized (the usual annoying chatter was noticeably and enjoyably absent here) was achieved practically effortlessly.

The cast of constantly-rotating vocalists is one of the features that made this concert so unique. Each of their six singers, all top-notch in both vocal talent and stage presence, lent their own personal stylistic dynamic to their respective songs, which ranged from the sultry and seductive female-sung "Until The Morning," "Sweet Tides" and "Heaven's Gonna Burn Your Eyes" to the powerful reggae-influenced "Warning Shots" and the show's trip-hoppy opener, "Marching The Hate Machines," both sung by males. The vocalist who sung that opening track was also the only vocalist that occasionally played an instrument -- he was the sitar player on three songs, including the excellent (and my personal favorite Thievery song), "Forgotten People," which was the first of five encore selections. Another superb song that included the sitar was the well-known (partly due to its inclusion on the Garden State movie soundtrack) "Lebanese Blond." The afro-beat stylings of "The Heart's a Lonely Hunter" and the haunting "The Richest Man In Babylon," one of the few songs that featured more than one vocalist, were also stand-out selections.

Visually-speaking, the stage was minimally decorated, and the lights occasionally displayed some cool moving colorful shapes on the stage and ceiling, but they never became overused or overpowering; allowing the audience's focus to remain on the organic elements of the music. It was entertaining to occasionally fixate on the barefooted bassist, Ashish Vyas, as he circulated around much of the stage throughout the entire show, with purposeful steps that ranged between a strut and a stomp, depending on the song's intensity level, while always keeping his feet precisely in synch with the beat of the song. It was also interesting to watch Garza, in his back of the stage-center platformed deejay podium, who would often glance down onto the stage, then develop a giant grin on his face, as if he was quite pleased with the activity taking place in his kingdom.

Garza remained on his podium up until the brief break before the encores, giving the crowd a very friendly verbal greeting before introducing all of the musicians and vocalists. Wearing a very shiny metallic shirt, and still maintaining his grin, he played guitar on two of the five encore selections. Then, sadly yet inevitably, at eleven on the dot, the exactly two-hour, approximately 25-song set officially came to a close.

Enough glowing praise cannot really be fully and accurately given to this wonderful, stellar performance by Thievery Corporation, which, despite the way-too-lengthy, multiple years-long delay that preceded it, was completely well worth waiting for, as truly good things usually are.  

Click below to see all of Doug Tull's photos of the night's performances at the Pageant.

Thievery Corporation (with Making Movies) at the Pageant, October 7, 2017

 

Let's just get this part out of the way. If you ever have a chance to see a favorite band at the Sheldon Concert Hall, go. If you've never had the pleasure, stop cheating yourself. Among the great musicians who have played this intimate, acoustically perfect space, it's compared routinely to Carnegie Hall. Both HoneyHoney and their opener Korey Dane were enamored by their own sound this Sunday and they had every right to be.

Korey's talent is only matched by his adorability. Most of the Sheldon's savvy crowd no doubt had the same thought I did, please let me run my hands through his curly hair just once. He's got a big voice when he's singing then counter-intuitively he slips into shy LA guy mode when addressing the audience, inviting you to lean in. As he played, he clearly enjoyed himself more and more with every song, peaking at "Lovesick in a Hotel Wildfire" which features Korey at his best -- infectious, poppy, honest, catchy as hell. One of the highlights came after his set, when he stepped in with HoneyHoney and supplied spot on vocals and a rockabilly guitar for his own "You'll Be Had" with Suzanne Santo playing banjo and adding her sultry alto, Korey Dane reached something close to perfection.

What to say about HoneyHoney? The power duo behind the band, Benjamin Jaffe and musician/model/actress Suzanne Santo seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. They met at a costume party in LA, they signed a record deal with Kiefer Sutherland, they toured with Hayes Karll (the guy who won everything this year at the Austin Music Awards), and now they are the house band for a sitcom on TBS. They've been called a band whose time has come and that was back in 2012. While they compliment each other perfectly, they each have successful solo careers, so it's no wonder that this fantastic band is just under the radar. They are too busy working to get famous! But Santo is changing that, her recent release Ruby Red is a tour de force. Her voice is like their namesake, a dollop of honey (available at the merch stand) on a sweet southern corn cake. Jaffe doesn't upstage her partially because I think it may physically impossible. She's the kind of person you find yourself staring at with no shame. I believe they call it magnetism, so whether she's plucking at the banjo or playing the violin, you are basking in the glow of her overwhelming talent.

Want to know a bit more about Suzanne? How about her lyrics from the song "Thin Line": "'Cause I want whiskey when I'm sick / And a man when I'm well / But it's nice to have them both sometimes / When I feel like raising hell."

What I like about this band, and Santo in particular, is their showmanship. They are working a room when they perform. Say what you will about LA performers, but they play every gig like it might be their big break. Fortunately for us, this isn't a story about a band that makes it big and then goes their own way. Far from it, Ben and Suzanne are part of a growing group of super-talented bad ass musicians in the LA scene that can basically succeed at whatever they do. Early in their set, Santo reminisced about a show back in 2012 at the Sheldon when they opened for Hayes Karll and their audience gifted them a standing ovation. They didn't have to ask for it this time either. The adoring crowd rose to their feet no less than three times.

Click below to see all of Tim Farmer's photos of the evening's performances.  

HoneyHoney (with Korey Dane) at The Sheldon, October 8, 2017

 

Chances are you may not yet have heard of fresh-faced guitarist, singer and songwriter Benjamin Booker; but hopefully that is soon to change. The 28-year-old with a soulful croon that carries far more depth and longing than his age would imply has been steadily growing his audience since his self-titled debut album was released three years ago. In addition to working the festival circuit, Booker did stints on the road opening for Jack White and Courtney Barnett, putting him in front of crowds much larger than he would be accustomed to on his own. 

With a sound that blends elements of hard blues, throwback soul and heavy garage rock, Booker easily appeals to a wide range of music fans. His second album, the much more polished and produced Witness, released this past June, garnered much critical acclaim and buzz, thanks in part to its topical title track featuring guest vocals by Mavis Staples. Touring in support of the album, Booker performed a brief, but delightful one-hour set on Tuesday at Old Rock House.

The late weeknight crowd was just beginning to shuffle in as opener, Brooklyn-based duo She Keeps Bees, took the stage. Vocalist/guitarist Jessica Larrabee and drummer Andy LaPlant filled the venue with their soaring psychedelic blues-rock. Larrabee's haunting and soulful vocals were reminiscent of 1960s Grace Slick at times, particularly on "Head of Steak" and "Breezy." Her tone and control are simply stunning and they proved a good match stylistically for Booker. 

He finally emerged for his set around ten o'clock, accompanied by his backing band members, guitarist Matthew Zuk, bassist Mikki Itzigsohn and drummer Sam Hirschfelder. Clutching a vintage red Harmony hollow body guitar, Booker began with the sultry strut of "The Slow Drag Under," which highlighted his soft raspy vocal style. The vocals could have benefitted from a volume boost, as at times, the guitars overshadowed them, making it difficult to decipher the lyrics. 

His set, though brief, highlighted a good sampling of tunes from his two albums and illustrated how deftly he can shift back and forth between throwback soul crooning and raw, heavy garage rock, sometimes all in one song, such as in "Wicked Waters." His first album is much more garage rock-focused and he stayed in that place for a few tunes, including "Have You Seen My Son" and "Chippewa," his fingers furiously shredding on his guitar.

Booker devoted a good portion of the set to songs from Witness, beginning with "Motivation" and the lovely "Believe," his eyes closed and his face wrenching with emotion as he delivered the lyrics, "I just want to believe in something / I don't care if right or wrong / I just want to believe in something / I cannot make it on my own."

Seemingly a bit shy and humble, Booker didn't banter much with the crowd, aside from a couple quiet offers of gratitude, his speaking voice much more meek than his singing voice. He sang with his eyes closed tightly most of the time, losing himself in the lyrics and emotions -- though it would have been nice in such an intimate venue to see him make eye contact and connect a bit more personally with the audience. 

He brought Jessica Larrabee from She Keeps Bees to the stage to provide vocal assistance on two tunes, "Overtime" and "Witness," on which she took the part Mavis Staples sings on the recorded version. The latter's theme of anger and frustration over continued police brutality was particularly powerful in light of recent and past local events. The lyrics "See we thought that we saw that he had a gun/Thought that it looked like he started to run," particularly held gravitas, despite the relatively upbeat and melodic tune.

Groovy "Truth is Heavy" was anchored by the thump of Itzigsohn's bass, followed by rocker "Off the Ground," which had the crowd bouncing up and down. Booker kept things upbeat with raw "Violent Shiver" and "Right On You," which included an impressive guitar solo by Zuk. He then brought things down tempo to close show with soulful "Slow Coming" with Zuk on slide guitar. Booker thanked the crowd before quickly departing the stage and surprisingly not returning for an encore. 

With just two albums of tunes that mostly hover around the three-to-four-minute mark, an hour-long performance doesn't seem wildly inappropriate, though the crowd certainly would have appreciated more. What Booker's set lacked in quantity, however, it certainly made up for in quality. The biggest takeaway from his work thus far is that the best is clearly yet to come. Booker is an artist who is only just beginning to come into his own and I, for one, am excited to watch him grow.

 

There are very few things in this world that will get me to stay out past midnight on a Friday night. The Cedric Burnside Project at the Broadway Oyster Bar just happens to be one of them. Cedric Burnside is one of the few blues musicians I listen to that is still alive, and thus one of the few that I actually have the chance to hear live. The night is perfect for the Oyster Bar's open-air stage and seating, and I'm leaning against a tree, digging my toes into the oyster shells at my feet and feeling surprisingly good for someone who's pretty sure she's getting stood up. 

I hadn't payed much attention to who the opening act was, and I'm kind of surprised when I see who take the stage. There's a guy with a saxophone, two men in tie-dyed shirts -- one with a bass guitar and no shoes and one at the drums -- and in the middle of the stage is the blonde-dreadlocked and stocking-footed Kris Lager. Turns out, they're called the Kris Lager Band. 

With every song centering on some shamelessly groovy feel-good refrain like "If you want it, I got love" and "feels so good just to be alive," the Kris Lager Band is a Mary Poppins bag of good-time tricks and surprisingly listenable instrumentals. From call-and-response breakdowns, to saxophone solos with tambourine accompaniment, to soul clapping (turns out you can't not smile when you're soul clapping) every minute of the act is designed to generate as many smiles and closed-eye full-body sways as possible.

Although it feels a little gimmicky at times, the band's solid grooves and inventive soloing reassure me that they are serious musicians (even as Lager breaks into giggles mid-verse). That said, I can't really see myself listening to them beyond this performance. They're talented, creative and a lot of fun, but I imagine most of their appeal would be lost on a recording.

Soon enough, it's time for The Cedric Burnside Project takes the stage. The band consists of Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayers, both of whom grew up in the Mississippi Hill Country and have been a part of the Hill Country Blues scene since childhood.

The first half of the set features Burnside alone with the mic and an acoustic guitar, recalling the earliest blues patriarchs. Burnside's solo performance emphasizes traditional blues guitar and simple lyrics about love and loss that need no adornment beyond the roughhewn emotionality of Burnsides voice. Personally, I'm more drawn this sort of old-time blues, and would have been perfectly happy to listen to Burnside solo all night. 

But innovation and evolution with the times is as much a part of blues tradition as hard times and bending strings, and the Cedric Bursnide Project use the second half of the set to highlight these elements. This shift in focus is personified as Burnside -- the jeans-and-tee-shirt embodiment of blues's humble origins -- sets down his acoustic guitar and sinks back behind his drum kit, and Trenton Ayers -- swagged out in fringe vest and wide-brimmed hat -- struts to stage front, electric guitar swinging at his hip. 

It's immediately clear that the duo's contrasting styles go beyond fashion sense. In almost everything he does, rhythmically and vocally, Burnside stays firmly rooted in Hill Country Blues tradition, whereas Ayers seems much more comfortable with genre bending grooves and solos that stray far into funk and soul territory. This contrast builds a satisfying tension between Burnside's forceful, one-directional drumming and Ayers's playful meandering across various blues-adjacent styles. Though consistently pulling in opposing directions, the two are careful not to overpower each other or to drag the audience too far down either path, and the result is a comfortingly familiar, yet exciting and unpredictable sound.

As the night progresses, the audience's attention drifts from the stage, and the Cedric Burnside Project plays on as the volume of bar-side conversations increases. It's still a great night to be sitting outside with friends, and though it's no longer the focus of the evening, the music remains a key element of the Friday Night atmosphere, even as I finish my last drink, say goodbye to my date (who did show up eventually) and head back to my car.

Click on the image below to see all of Chris Malacarne's photos of the evening's performances at the Broadway Oyster Bar.

Cedric Burnside Project (with the Kris Lager Band) at Broadway Oyster Bar, October 6, 2017

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