Hard Working Americans may just be the best side project "supergroup" touring today. In between playing and recording with their regular bands, alt-country crooner/songwriter Todd Snider, standout guitarist Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood, bassist Dave Schools and drummer Duane Trucks of Widespread Panic, keyboardist Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi, and guitarist Jesse Aycock somehow have found time to rock small venues across the country, and just released their first album of mostly-original tunes, Rest in Chaos.
For a band that was assembled a mere three years ago, the members of HWA are so at ease and synchronous on stage, you'd think they'd been playing together forever. Mostly, they just seem to have a really good time -- perhaps feeling free of the demands and constraints of their larger touring bands. Schools and Trucks (playing with HWA between Widespread Panic's packed spring and summer tours) in particular appeared to be in the laid back and jovial spirit afforded by an intimate club show -- something neither gets the chance to do quite as often these days.
The venue was packed with fans as the band took the stage and opened with the dreamy "Guaranteed," with Aycock providing a trippy lap steel solo. Schools offered a funky bass intro and Snider worked the stage, vibrating and strutting with his Mick Jagger-esque physique and dance moves as they picked up the pace with their new album's first single, "Dope is Dope."
Continuing to keep things upbeat and danceable, Trucks pounded out a Bo Diddley beat for Snider's tune "Mission Accomplished." The crowd responded with a resounding, "Yeah!" as Snider wailed the lyrics: "All you really did for sure was get too high. You ever get too high?" Casal stepped forward to shred on one of his numerous impressive solos of the evening. He's easily one of the most underrated guitarists playing today. (Hopefully, due praise will soon come his way.)
After a segue teaser of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," the band launched into fan favorite "Stomp and Holler," a Hayes Carll cover that resulted in the audience doing just what the title states. Snider added some soul on his harmonica while Staehly pounded the keys.
Other set highlights included an epic performance of Frankie Miller's "Blackland Farmer," including a mid-song tease of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love," as well as another absolutely scorching guitar solo by Casal, followed by an all out jam by the entire band, with Schools thumping the bass, his eyes closed and head back in a combination of concentration and ecstasy.
Casal pulled out the slide for the swampy and thunderous "Run a Mile" as lightning began to ignite the sky and the Arch glinted just to the North of the venue's patio. The band closed out the main set with Snider's "Is This Thing Working" and left as the sweaty crowd sweaty cheered for more.
HWA quickly obliged, returning for a four-song encore, including sultry "Roman Candles," cheery "The Mountain Song" (with Casal and Schools facing off in a heavy guitar/bass jam), St. Louis-appropriate Chuck Berry cover "School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)," and show-closer "Purple Mountain Jamboree."
As strong a performance as Hard Working Americans puts on, one can only hope its members devote more time to this effort in the future (which seems a strong possibility at least for Schools and Trucks with Widespread Panic ending its extensive touring after this year). In the meantime, I, for one, will try to join their southern-fried dance party as often as possible.
It was 30 years ago this year that Bruce Hornsby released his debut album, The Way it Is, with his original band The Range to great success and critical acclaim. The album eventually went multi-platinum and earned Hornsby the coveted "Best New Artist" Grammy Award. Now 61 and a bit grayer at the temples, he paused to reflect on this milestone at an intimate show at River City Casino on Saturday night.
In a phone interview a couple weeks prior to the show, Hornsby told me that he finds that first album "unlistenable," but knowing a lot of people really love it, he seemed to be quite at ease performing a couple classics from it, including the still gorgeous "Mandolin Rain" (with Ross Holmes accompanying on the instrument itself as Hornsby tickled the keys) and "On the Western Skyline" (on accordion).
This trip down memory lane was balanced with a focus on the now -- specifically the band's forthcoming album, Rehab Reunion, which hits shelves June 17 and is Hornsby's first studio album of new songs with The Noisemakers since 2009's Levitate. Also new is the fact that Hornsby doesn't sit at the piano on this album but leads the band on the dulcimer, which he's been infusing into his live performances and recordings increasingly over the years.
In a mini dulcimer set, Hornsby -- joined by Holmes on mandolin and drummer Sonny Emory on washboard -- introduced fans to the "bookends" of the new album: "Celestial Railroad," a tune he penned decades ago and duets with Mavis Staples, and the lovely "Over the Rise," the album opener that was recorded with backing vocals by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. He also played a nearly unrecognizable, stripped down version of his 1988 hit "Valley Road," which appears on the album as well.
In a jovial mood, Hornsby delighted the intimate room with stories, jokes and anecdotes as he worked the stage, moving between the piano and accordion. The Noisemakers, his band of many years, was in peak form, particularly guitarist Gibb Droll, who complimented Hornsby's flawless piano with a sublime solo on "Go Back to Your Woods," a re-worked version of the tune by Robbie Robertson. Ross Holmes provided a lovely extended fiddle intro to the song as well.
Organist JT Thomas added depth to Hornsby's piano and cracked up at his jokes as only a good old friend could. JT Collier's bass rounded out the sound. Hornsby likened performing with The Noisemakers to a "big party," and that's definitely the vibe they put out on stage, particularly during upbeat tunes like "Jacob's Ladder" and "Place Under the Sun."
Hornsby did an impromptu and timely performance of "Don of the Dons," a quirky tune about Donald Trump he penned a few years back for a musical, which he prefaced with a story about running into The Donald at a Knicks game and singing it for him in person. Another set highlight was "Black Muddy River," Hornsby's lovely take on the later Grateful Dead tune, which he's performed live for many years and recently recorded with Justin Vernon for the newly-released Day of the Dead tribute album put together by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National.
Hornsby and The Noisemakers capped off their two-hour set with "Dreamland," a pretty tune that he duets with Sir Elton John on the album "Halcyon Days," to a standing ovation from the crowd. As always, Hornsby proved his station as one of the most talented musicians, singers and songwriters of the past 30 years. If anything, his voice has only grown more soulful with age.
If you participated in the nationwide festivities of Record Store Day this year, you may have caught local vinyl-slinger turned rock n' roll singer Miss Molly Simms performing on stage at Euclid Records. She released a 4-song EP titled Borrowed or Sold, just in time for the upbeat holiday that celebrates all things wax.
With her last album, One Way Ticket, receiving high marks from local music critics, the new EP is a continuation of her mix and match genre, a blended composite of rock and blues, with a punk-like snarl to boot. Her lyricism shines through in songs like "Let Me Down," with searching lines like "I've been looking for the real thing / but I know this ain't where it's found" -- all built around a galloping drum beat and a garage rock mindset. Simms has always kind of remained in the gutter -- writing about bad men, looking for love and whiskey -- but has always kept her sights on the stars, regularly playing hotspots all over St. Louis and making a name for herself.
She's backed on the EP by Jamey Almond on bass and Zagk Gibbons on guitar, drums and keys (who also recorded the album) -- the pair make for a steady rhythm section, but it's saxophonist Zac Minor who adds catchy brass hooks that pair well with Molly's Social Distortion-inflected register. The entire EP is classic Simms but somehow an evolution of what she's become known for -- great rock hooks and a boisterous sound that's sure to please fans of every genre.
Having no point of reference for the instrumental music of the Ahleuchatistas before going to this show was like walking into a movie having seen no trailers and heard no spoilers. As such, I was gifted a relatively objective experience with this energized duo and found it striking and refreshing.
The inevitable conflict that arises for many of Ahleuchatistas' contemporaries in the complex and oftentimes recondite post-rock genre is the tension between the effortless ability to impress with virtuosity while simultaneously maintaining integrity and clarity of message. At what point do awe-inspiring chops overshadow the clarity of the message?
Luckily, Ahleuchatistas seemed to constantly engage in an honest dialogue with their audience. They perform stunning and dexterous feats of superb musicianship without it feeling like a talent show. Most of the songs, especially the new material from Arrebato, felt effortless and giddy as though the duo were not only the conductors of the train but also its most excited passengers.
The tightly composed, blazing fast interludes never felt over-rehearsed or contrived and gave the listener the sense of present danger, as though the looped, oscillating guitar melodies were at risk of derailing a bullet train from the tracks. Effortless and capable, even the most complicated polyrhythmic sections in odometers felt natural and familiar. This is music that hinges less on complexity and more on authenticity and efficacy of message. It's a testament to the practice of art and the art of practice.
The less structured improvised moments of the set washed over the audience in seamless conversations between guitarist Shane Parish and drummer Ryan Oslance. A bold, fearless musical story arc emerged, keeping listeners glued to the pages, anxious to hear where the narrative would transport them next.
These looping, rhythmic vignettes that Ahleuchatistas can create resemble something you may find in other ritual music throughout human history, which explains why this duo garners so many nods from the pseudo-genre of "international music influence." It's not that they're dabbling in the styles and trappings of other cultures with an appropriative eye, it's that they've undone the modern western influence of heroic riffs and stadium hooks and are comfortable creating ritualistic music that grows and blooms in a more honest, contemplative way. It speaks to a universal language of creation, and the form and rhythm of sustained practice, both in art and in life.
Ryan Oslance told us after the show in humble demeanor that he lived half of the year off the grid in the woods outside of Asheville, NC, practicing his craft. A refreshing story of sustained ritual and devotion in the digital age of pocket sized distraction and endless self-promotion.
This communion of music and daily practice is championed by Ahleuchatista's genre-bending label, International Anthem, and is gaining traction with more postmodern listeners looking to reconnect to their place in the universe without Western bravado or cultural dogma. This flag is carried by other successful Post-Western acts, such as Rob Jacobs (also on International Anthem), Wei Zhongle (which Jacobs fronts) as well as OOIOO, Rhyton and Niños du Brasil.
An exceptional artist is not only able to deftly express themselves but also reveals something to you about yourself. Some bands will ask you to labor hard for this revelation (especially in the math-rock genre), but Ahleuchatistas provide room in their music for me to have that experience. And at the mercy of their incredible skill, I could've been easily muscled out.
This was one of the finer shows I've witnessed in recent memory, and an optimistic indication of where 2720's new booking manager, Kaveh Razani, is steering the venue. This show was deftly supported by local rippers, Biggie StarDust, The Conformists and the abominable Skin Tags.
It's hard not to fall a little in love with live music. Live music implicates and makes present a necessary sense of touch. All of the elements are there, seductive at a thoroughly formal level. Hands cradle instruments; fingers seek and press upon carefully considered triggers of sound. There are lips and ears -- embodied inputs and outputs to which we otherwise allow only the most intimate physical access. Live voice is the proximity of mouth to mic, alternately smiling, singing, or spitting into its mesh. The volume is overwhelming. It follows you to the bathroom or bar, and sound hangs on in your ears afterward, lingering like a scent, fading only over time.
On Friday, Cherokee St. arts incubator the Luminary hosted a sold-out performance by the atmospheric, enthralling, and deeply intelligent band Foxing, who returned to their home of St. Louis with tourmates O'Brother, Tancred, and Adjy. And in short, I loved it.
Not exactly analogous to a one-night stand, the love in live music comes in often unavoidable phases that come together as the whole story only after the night's over. Anticipation: the line that winds around the building before the show, as chillier-than-expected April wind creeps into your collar. Frustration: having someone too tall in front of you. Anxiety: worrying that you are too tall for whoever is behind you. Nagging: the unsatisfiable need for more vocals in the monitor, for which bands have yet to find a cool way to ask. The needs of the other: the merch that they entreat you to buy. Obligation: the merch that you do buy, enabling another day on the road. Dissatisfaction: the just okay third opener, whom you could have done without. Platitudes: Foxing singer Conor Murphy's thankful parting words to the crowd, that St. Louis is "the greatest city in the world." And finally, at least in my case, the compulsion to overshare the experience, to tell everyone, to want the world to know.
The show opened with the communicable youthfulness of North Carolina six-piece Adjy. Like a too-good student who emails the professor for advance access to the syllabus, Adjy were earnest, admirable, and awkward. The slow build of many songs eventually became anthemic and full, with soaring lead vocals bolstered by the interjection of supporting shouts. Then, during one song's extended middle lull, several of the members pulled paperback books from among their instruments and began to read, at once performing and affirming their romantic sensibilities. It was cute, although I imagine that they will one day look back on this gesture with a bit of blushing.
Adjy was followed by Tancred, whose recently released album Out of the Garden finds songwriter Jess Abbott expanding the intimate, almost secretive scope of her earlier work. With an eager and uncompromising fearlessness, Abbott's songwriting examines the variable effects of attraction, uncertainty, and strength. Her new songs simply ask to be turned up a little louder. Traversing sounds and textures of the 1990s, Out of the Garden offers welcome echoes of Veruca Salt, Nirvana, Weezer, and That Dog, among countless other points of departure. Abbott opened with a timely dedication to Kesha, "who needs it right now," before launching into the song "Pens," in which aggressively catchy guitars ratify the ominous confidence of the chorus ("I'm insanely healthy in my head / It's crazy how stable I am"). Throughout the focused set, Abbott delivered her lyrics with a subtle smile and almost victorious confidence -- the joy, it seemed, of someone who can transmute darkness into something big, beautiful, and fun.
Tancred was followed by the Atlanta five-piece O'Brother, whose heavy, moody music is what you might listen to after your high school football team just got crushed in the district semifinals. Throughout their set, it was hard not to feel an impatience for Foxing, to whom the night truly belonged. Their indefatigable touring schedule had brought them to this triumphant homecoming in St. Louis, surrounded by a capacity crowd that would, by the band's own onstage admission, doubtlessly impress the parents and girlfriends who were also in attendance. Before and between songs, Murphy and the other four members of Foxing frequently thanked their hometown for its support, and the crowd responded with the kind of protective, resolute enthusiasm that St. Louisans confer upon their perceived cultural patrimony, from pizza to parishes to professional sports.
Foxing opened with "The Medic" and "The Magdalene," two tracks that easily accommodate a roaring voice of an audience who they knew would will sing the words right back to them. Later moments were intense in other ways, as ethereal textures and complex sonic densities gave the audience more to inhabit, but less to hold on to. Spanning songs from 2014's breakthrough album The Albatross and their more recent Dealer, Foxing performed with cohesion and conviction that contrasts powerfully with their lyrics, which often convey a deeply felt ambivalence, indecision, and longing. They finished the night with a stretched-out version of "Rory," which builds on the early stabs of a single piano key to the powerful, unresolved appeal: "Why don't you love me back?"
If live music is at all like love, then we did.