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.
Wednesday night's show at The Pageant marked a big milestone for St. Louis native Angel Olsen, and she seemed to understand that as well as anyone. After several sold-out smaller club appearances, Olsen graduated to The Pageant, and the hometown-girl-done-good stepped up her game for the occasion.
Entering the stage to an ethereal, instrumental rendition of her hit song "Intern," Olsen was artfully coifed and clad in a black evening gown. Her five-piece backing band (including two members of Mount Moriah) wore matching blue suits with bolo ties. Olsen immediately launched into a spirited version of her tune "You'll Never Be Mine," from her latest album, My Woman; then, going into the fuzzed-out classic "Hi-Five" from 2014's Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Returning to her latest album to round out the first set with "Give It Up."
Following this three-song introduction, Olsen took a moment to address the crowd and comment on the news-heavy week. She apologized, "We didn't learn a Tom Petty song," but took a moment to thank her friends and family in the audience before treating the crowd to a rocking version of "Shut Up Kiss Me."
The crowd was a bit rowdy with many shouted requests (including a man who insisted on yelling repeatedly for Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"). With a sly grin, Olsen responded, "I have a request -- bring me a shot of tequila!" Her fans obliged, and the show continued on with the more subdued tunes "Lights Out" and "Acrobat."
Before closing out with a two-song encore, Olsen took the time to say, "I'm just happy in general and grateful to come back to St. Louis." She closed the evening out with a peppy "Night-night!"
Doing double-duty at the show were Mount Moriah's Heather McEntire (lead singer, providing back-up vocals and percussion during the main act) and Jenks Miller on guitar. Before donning blue suits as Angel Olsen's backing band, the North Carolina-natives arrived on stage denim-clad and brought forth rousing renditions of their better-known singles "Calvander," "Cardinal Cross," and "Precita." In addition, the band performed some covers with timely themes: "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," a jazz standard popularized by Nina Simone, and Neil Young's "Revolution Blues."
Click the image below to see all of Dustin Winter's photos of the evening's performances.
As I was leaving the house to go to the Ready Room, my roommate asked me "What band are you going to see?"
"Deerhoof," I replied.
"So, like, what kind of music do they do?"
"Um...well... they're kind of indie rock, but, it's definitely a bit more on the experimental side, but they have a heavy dose of pop going on, but also some of their instrumentation could be considered punk, maybe even noise, but..."
I could go on, but you get the point. Unlike 90% of other bands that are advertised as "multi-genre" or "undefinable" or "completely unique," Deerhoof actually delivers. Throughout their fourteen studio albums, they've deftly walked the line between the avant-garde and the effortlessly enjoyable, combining sugary pop with noisy punk and charmingly nonsensical lyrics in English, Japanese, and even Catalan. Considering such hits as "Kafe Mania!," an ode to coffee which features the chorus "Cappuccino/ Macchiato/ Affogato/ Cortado," it's easy to see why Deerhoof is easily one of the most likeable bands around.
Mountain Moves, their latest record, was released in September and joins the recent wave of protest albums created in defiance of the Trump administration. Compared to earlier releases, it's unusually coherent without betraying their signature brand of bold, oddball experimentation. Songs like "Your Dystopic Creation Doesn't Fear You," and "Come Down Here & Say That" give the album a firm sense of purpose without sacrificing any amount of fun; in an era defined by fear, fun can be the most powerful form of rebellion.
The night opens with Lily & Horn Horse, the experimental-jazz-meets-synth project of vocalist Lily Konisberg and tuba player/vocalist Matt Norman. Bright bursts of brass layered over stuttering synth creates a sound that feels entirely foreign albeit kind of pleasant, and the vocal work definitely does a lot to catch listeners off-guard; while Konisberg is pretty in line with other soft, breathy female vocalists (think gobbinjr or Frankie Cosmos), it is Norman's hollow, unexpressive bass voice (basically, imagine if an Easter Island statue could sing) that makes me do a mental double-take. The duo is also surprisingly self-conscious, with little bits of odd, choreographed dances and borderline awkward stage banter. Their music, though, definitely holds its own.
Following them is New York's Christina Schneider's Genius Grant, with Schneider herself provides the vocals. Her smooth, crooning voice cuts through the band's looping guitar riffs and heavy 'one-two-one-two' drum beat. Fuzzy and march-like in their steadiness, Christina Schneider's Genius Grant was consistent to the point of monotony, with no noticeable song progression or memorable vocal/instrumental moments; I imagine that their sound would be more than appropriate for staring out the window in deep contemplation.
According to Wikipedia, Deerhoof's live shows are defined by "minimal gear, maximal volume, and surrealist banter," and I guess there's no better way to put it. Unlike those artsy-fartsy experimental bands with coordinated costumes and entire dance numbers, Deerhoof's aesthetic is completely un-contrived; the band members could easily be in their day clothes. There's nothing ordinary about their performance, though. Bassist and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki motions deliberately with her hands like a camp counselor leading a song; guitarist Ed Rodriguez could be easily mistaken as a thrash metal musician as he whips around his waist-length hair; drummer Greg Saunier is dripping with sweat by the time the second song is over. Simply put, Deerhoof doesn't hold back. This definitely applies to their music, too, as old hits like "Paradise Girls" and "Breakup Songs" are played with a raucous, punk abandon that one would expect from a relatively young band, not one that's been around for 23 years. In fact, seeing Deerhoof live definitely solidified my confidence in their punk/noise capabilities, as their sound, live, is surprisingly hard and aggressive. Mountain Moves tracks like "I Will Spite Survive" and "Come Down Here & Say That" sound way more defiant in person albeit with the same energetic zest as all their other songs. At the end of the day, it takes a lot of courage to write an album denouncing one of the world's most powerful entities, but it takes way more courage to have fun doing so.
Vocalist and guitarist Seth Avett, one half of the Avett Brothers namesake, made his way to the stage, back facing the audience, jumping awkwardly. It was a cross between nervousness and an attempt to pump up his audience of thousands last Friday night at Chaifetz Arena. When he and his bandmates hit the stage, the crowd stood in unison, matching his energy.
The evening with the Avett Brothers began with the the ominous cello riffs of Joe Kwon, on the track, "Satan Pulls the Strings." Not to be outdone, Tania Elizabeth on violin, shredded several of the fine horsehairs of her bow. They wisped in the air like the melodies themselves.
Shortly into the set, the band left the stage leaving only Bob Crawford on standup bass, Seth Avett on acoustic guitar and Scott Avett on banjo, to perform a stripped down rendition of Shame. The crowd sang along, overpowering the trio's harmonies in a way that only thousands of voices echoing in an arena can.
The full band returned to the stage with "Ain't No Man," a song that emphasizes electric bass, drums, tambourine, and vocals. By now the pattern of fast song followed by slow song, had emerged and the crowd happily surfed along the sound waves. Seth jumped off the stage, ran up the stairs to the upper deck, giving high fives as he passed, and stopped for a selfie or two, then returned to the stage all before the end of the song. The impression that I first mistook for nervous energy, was changed with their perfected stage presence. This tour, following the their 2016 release True Sadness, is the band's thirteenth.
Then Seth and Scott performed a series of songs as a duo. A string of slow songs where again, the crowd participated. When the band returned they danced in step while they performed a waltz, appearing to have as much fun or even more so than the audience. At the close of the evening, Joe Kwon dressed Tania Elizabeth in his hat and glasses and they imitated the others playing.
ENCORE: The crowd waited patiently with their cellphone flashlights held over their head, one or two vintage cigarettes lighter adding to the ambiance. A collectively manufactured starlight sky filled the arena. They returned to the stage to appease the fans but more importantly to pay homage to Tom Petty. When the iconic harmonica and drum beat intro to "You Don't Know How it Feels," began the crowd cheered, priming their vocal chords to sing along.
They wrapped up the evening with "Talk on Indolence" and "No Hard Feelings." Then Seth introduced his sister Bonnie and said how lucky he was to have her playing piano and singing with them on tour for a few shows. (We were the lucky ones, Seth.)
The Avett Brothers can't be defined in a single genre of music. Banjo, stand-up bass, harmonica and fiddle could be categorized as bluegrass but that does not account for the cello, the rock riffs performed on electric guitar, and the all inclusive piano. The Avett Brothers are multi-instrumentalist, who play capital 'M' music with influences from Americana, bluegrass and rock, who harmonize to poetic lyrics. They really are something special to witness.
Click the image below to see all of Colin Suchland's photos of the performance.
I have seen some distinctly un-fun shows: Ann Arbor, mid-eighties, Paul Westerberg snot-slinging drunk, spat on and cursed an eager crowd of Replacements fans; New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 2005, Wilco pasted wankish found-sound clips over their playing to render inert a crowd that had, only moments before, been whipped into writhing ecstasy by Buckwheat Zydeco, who finished his magnificent set with an eight-minute throw-down on the Stones' "Beast of Burden," all while playing one of the uncoolest instruments in human history.
I've also seen some incredibly fun shows, and the party that the California Honeydrops threw last Saturday night at Atomic Cowboy slipped comfortably into my top five. This is what one reads consistently in reviews of the Oakland-based band, and what I saw all around me last night: everyone dancing, beaming, hanging on the band's every chord, chatting with strangers about the music. Indeed, I didn't hear any evidence of that now-common phenomenon of people plunking down hard-fought wages for a premier show only to spend the night blabbing loudly with friends (or worse, on the phone). Just a few weeks ago at an otherwise excellent Pokey LaFarge show I saw in Fayetteville, Pokey had to call out a woman with a laugh like a dull circular saw before he could start an acoustic set. Point is, the California Honeydrops and their charismatic and enormously talented front man Lech Wierzynski are an irresistible, galvanizing force for human happiness.
It all starts with the music and musicianship. The California Honeydrops' foundation contains several layers of New Orleans musical traditions. The band kicked off the show with "Here Comes Love" and "Like This, Like That," two originals fueled by the hiccupy backbeat percussion line of New Orleans brass bands and the funky rumba stride piano style that Professor Longhair gifted to the world. Wierzynski alternated sweet vocals and ripping street style trumpet licks on each song. Later, the band stripped down to trumpet, Johnny Bones on clarinet, and Ben Malament on drums for some straight-up, Preservation Hall style New Orleans jazz. In the second set, Malament traded his drum kit for a washboard to drag "Pumpkin Pie" and a few other tunes through the Atchafalaya. California funk and R&B, and Delta blues also saturate the Honeydrops' sound. On anthemic tunes like Wilson Pickett's "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You," and belters like the Percy Mayfield classic "A River's Invitation" and Bobby Bland's "There Ain't Nothing You Can Do," keyboardist Lorenzo Loera's swirling chords and bassist Beau Bradbury's throbbing bass paved the soul road as they did on Honeydrops' originals like "Brokedown" and "Same Old, Same Old." I had a harder time discerning the provenance of some of the blues tunes, but one of them might have come from deep in the Delta blues catalogue, perhaps a Mississippi John Wollicott tune. In any case, Wierzynski's guitar picking had Alan Lomax smiling from the heavens. This is how firmly the Honeydrops' house is built upon the roots of American music.
Wierzynski and band seasoned an otherwise uplifting and rated PG show with some biting political commentary -- plenty of Atomic Cowboys running nations around the world, including ours, etc.-- and with some of the band's own raunchy blues metaphors in originals like "Bubblegum" (candy store visits) and "Sit Down On It" (needs so little explanation it's probably not a metaphor). All of it made for a truly outstanding Sunday evening delivered by a tight, talented band, and their joyful, open-hearted, ridiculously gifted band leader, Lech Wierzynski.
Your momma told you that to live a happy life, you have to surround yourself with happy people, and of course, you knew then that she was really throwing a sneaky jab at your mopey boyfriend and his fondness for The Smiths. But now you know that she was right on the broader point as well. As the first set ended last night, a nearby couple turned to us eagerly to talk about the music. They'd met (as in, for the first time) at a Honeydrops show in Chicago, followed them to Des Moines and Kansas City and STL. They were leaving tomorrow morning to catch the band in Nashville. This was clearly not the plan they set out with when they left their public accounting or financial analyst jobs (guessing, but I'm usually pretty accurate) less than a week ago, nor were these beautiful people suffering, to my eyes, from the impetuosity or biological advantages of youth. They had simply fallen in love, through and with the California Honeydrops. I totally got it.
Click the image below to see all of Ben Mudd's photos of the performance.