It's a quiet Wednesday night at the Ready Room. I'm in the bathroom reading graffiti on the stall walls, killing time while I wait for the show to start. I didn't have time to go home after work, I'm solo tonight, and I'm not much of a drinker, so bathroom graffiti's the best I can come up with pregame-wise. It's pretty good, but a quick read, so it's not long before I mosey on back to the bar and order my one drink of the evening. I sip slowly and wait.
I'm still sipping at the bar when Porter Ray starts his set, and I don't exactly run to the stage the minute he comes on. Porter Ray is new to me, and my plan is to wait patiently for him to entice me into the next room. It doesn't take long at all. It's probably about half-way through his second song when I make the long journey from the bar stool to the wall stool around the corner, and there I pause to jot down my first impressions.
He's visually intriguing with a colorful scarf draped over his head, slim-fitting jacket and drop crotch shorts. His lanky limbs and energetic stage presence jive perfectly with a fast-paced delivery of impressively wordy (and therefore sometimes hard to decipher) phrases. As I move closer and try to make out a word or two, I'm struck by the emotional and intellectual depth of his lyrics. Genuine feeling and insight shine through Porter Ray's intelligently crafted rhymes.
Unfortunately, these luminous threads are too often lost in a rather dull tapestry of stereotypical hip hop tropes: bragging about sexual conquests, objectification of women unconvincingly disguised as adoration, and near-obsessive references to designer brands and expensive cars. During these digressions, Porter Ray reminds me of the "horny" and "greedy" mainstream rappers that Shabazz Palaces will gripe about later in the evening. Still, I'm impressed. There's room for fine-tuning, but Porter Ray is a talented lyricist with plenty of technical skill and an appealing bardish style.
In stark contrast to Porter Ray's youthful energy and eager-to-please persona, Shabazz Palaces are the epitome of middle-age cool: measured, detached, effortlessly eccentric, and age-appropriately disapproving of popular culture. The duo walk past the audience and onto the stage while a booming Wizard-of-Oz-esque voice leads us in prayer, "Our Father, who art on Wall Street..." From the beginning, it's understood that the audience has gathered here tonight to worship, not to be entertained. The set covers their full discography, from Black Up to Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, and flows seamlessly over a persistent thudding of electronic beats that keep the audience physically and mentally tethered to the performance.
Tendai Maraire's drumming is the star of the live show (the duo's synchronized choreography at the beginning of "Youlogy" and Ishmael Butler's stiff granddad-style swaying throughout are close runners-up). Maraire's versatile and agile rhythms build beautifully on heavy foundational beats, and serve as a line of human connection in an otherwise intentionally distant performance.
Shabazz Palaces' audience engagement techniques are powerful, verging on subversive. Guided by their hypnotic combination of rhythm, lyrics and idiosyncratic "dancing," I engage in an array of involuntary and uncharacteristic behaviors. I dance (not a thing I do), I close my eyes and contemplate cultural appropriation (I do this, but not in public), I stare up into Butler's grinning face and smile stupidly without a coherent thought in my head, all according to their whim.
The highlight of my night comes when I snap out of my trance and go take a break at the wall stools. As I turn from the stage, Porter Ray grabs my attention at the back of the room, smiling and dancing perhaps even more energetically than he did during his own set. I watch him in what I hope is a non-creepy way, and create an imaginary relationship between the two acts in my mind. Shabazz Palaces plays the role of critical-yet-supportive father figures, and Porter Ray, the kid who simultaneously knows it all and desperately strives for the elders' wisdom and approval.
Click the image below to see all of Doug Tull's photos of the evening's performances.
The tribute shows honoring St. Louis legends Albert King and Tommy Bankhead at the National Blues Museum were perfect opening acts for the days of the 22nd annual Big Muddy Blues Festival at Laclede's Landing. The Legends Room was full of blues fans for the early afternoon shows. Organized by BB's owner John May for the St. Louis Blues Society, the shows offered array musicians who knew and played with King and Bankhead.
The Saturday show for Albert King featured a band comprised of musicians were alumni of his bands over the years. The group, led by drummer Kenny Rice (61-65), featured Vince Martin (68) on guitar, Oliver Johnson (75-81) on trumpet and trombone, Vince Sala (79-80) on sax, Frank Dunbar (79-83) on bass and Eric Marshall on the keyboards. Vocalist Barbara Carr also put in a surprise appearance for a powerful finish to the show.
The Sunday tribute for Tommy Bankhead was another all-star cast of local musicians many of whom came up in the 70's and 80's and helped revitalize the St. Louis blues scene. The opening band included: John May (bass), Eric McSpadden (harmonica/vocals), Billy Barnett (guitar/fiddle/vocals), Rich McDonough (guitar), and Aaron Griffin (drums/guitar/vocals. Other musicians joining in during the show included Kyle Yardley (harmonica/vocals/drums), JJ Johnson (vocals/drums), Chris Taylor (harmonica), Kay Lobster (vocals), and Bob Case (vocals).
Albert King: A New Generation of Blues
Albert King had the Delta in his blood but his music took the blues in a new direction. He was a part of a 1950s generation of St. Louis musicians that included Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry and Ike Turner that changed the world music. His original style of playing is cited as a major influence on Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Mike Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
The electric guitar, which he played left handed and held upside down, was the lead instrument with a tone and intensity that set the bar for those that followed. He became one of the early blues artists to break the color barrier while crossing over into soul and rock. When Bill Graham first heard Albert in 1967 at Ike Turner's Manhattan Club in East St. Louis he booked him for the first of many appearances at his Fillmore West and East.
King was also noted for being rough on his musicians. He went through a lot of them through the years. But Kenny Rice, who started with King when he was 16, says as tough as he was, "He was like a father to me and the band looked out for me like I was their son." He said King had the reputation because "he was always seeking perfection in his music and was never satisfied but he also had a kind heart."
Ridin' the Bus
King worked hard and played hard. He loved to gamble. That was how Vince Martin joined the band in 1968 at the age of 15. His older brother, Colbert, was one of Albert's gambling buddies. As Vince tells it, King lost a big bet with his brother who told King, "I don't want your money just put my brother in your band." Martin, Frank Dunbar, Oliver Johnson and Gus Thornton are part of a long list of talented St. Louis musicians who toured the U.S. in King's beloved bus.
Oliver Johnson like Gus Thornton had two stints with King. He tells how "Albert got me back on the bus by saving me from a terrible situation." After playing with King a move west to Motown ended up in personal troubles and a job in a Bay area donut shop. One day a big bus pulls up outside the shop and in walks Albert with a laughing Frank Dunbar. Johnson says, "It was a scene from The Blues Brothers. I'm in my apron and Albert walks up and says, 'so makin' donuts...if you thinkin' you'd like to come back....'" A plane ticket to Texas came the next day and when Johnson got on the bus Albert said, "No, Oliver, I don't need more donuts."
Gus Thornton hooked up with Albert in 1977 via his friendship with Oliver Johnson and his work with the The Young Disciples, a legendary East St. Louis youth music project that spawned many a career. Riding the bus led to jam sessions and a friendship with Stevie Ray Vaughn and multiple albums with King and Vaughn in the '80s. Outside the music Gus credits King with teaching him about the business side when he made him his road manager.
Sitting in the Tribute audience was a pleasure. From "Watermelon Man" and "I'll Play the Blues for You" to "The Sky is Cryin'" and "Hold It" you would swear this group had just gotten off the bus from the last gig. While the Albert King Band may have had a big revolving cast the quality and innovation in his music and the talent of his musicians stand in tribute to his legacy.
Tommy Bankhead: Making Music and Breaking Barriers
Tommy Bankhead was seventeen when he came to St. Louis in 1949 after having had a chance to work with his uncle Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy II and Bobby Bland in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Memphis. After hearing about the music scene here from a member of Ike Turner's band he got an invitation to play at Ned Love's on the East Side club. Over the next fifty years he would become and anchor of the local blues scene.
The early years were spent playing in the many clubs on the East Side and North Side clubs that also characterized the racial divide in the city. By the late '70s the blues scene had the blues. Gaslight Square was long gone and the club scenes on the North Side and East Side were struggling. At the same time there were stirrings to the south of the Delmar dividing line along South Broadway and in Soulard. As new clubs opened careers were revived and a new generation began to play.
A young generation of white musicians like Keith Doder had crossed the color barriers to learn and play with black bluesmen like Tommy Bankhead. Both were always open and encouraging of other young musicians often inviting them onstage to jam. Bankhead became the first black musician to take his electric blues style south of Market to the Broadway Oyster Bar and Mike and Mins in Soulard. It turned into a seventeen-year gig.
His band at the time was the Blues Eldorado's with Ben Wells on drums, Thurman McCain on bass and Doder on harp. As Ben Wells tells it he recruited Bankhead to his band after watching him freelance around town: "I told him he was good. People love you. You need a regular band of your own -- let's go." Ben was moved to tears when a frail looking 82-year-old Kay Lobster took the stage. It only took a few moments before Lobster was off his stool, a mic in one hand and his cane in the air belting out the blues.
Thurman McCain said his more than twenty years with Bankhead "was all good": "Tommy was so friendly and we got to play all the clubs and colleges." Other talented musicians would join in along the way like Larry Griffin who gave up teaching in Texas in the mid '80s to pursue the blues in St. Louis. He ended up playing with Bankhead four nights a week from 1985-87. He said, "Tommy was the nicest guy in the world, a real mentor, always pushing up what he was playing and he was the sharpest dresser in town."
St. Louis Style
Bankhead's style, as characterized by That St. Louis Thing author Bruce Olson, was "easy blues with a sweet voice and a gentle, old school guitar." Eric McSpadden, who opened the show with "Wait Do Time," "Stop Breakin' Down" and "Blow Wind," played with Tommy his last four years. He said his approach to the blues "was really laid back -- playing and singing seemed so easy for him." JJ Johnson followed Eric at the mic for "Same Thing," "Play the Blues," "Killin' Floor" and "Mojo Workin'" before taking over on drums.
Bankhead did not record a lot during his life. Wells says he had to push him to do the 45 "Making Love Is Good for You" and "Gamblin' Blues" and his first album in 1983, Please Mr. Foreman. He said the reluctance came from a fear of being ripped off. Bankhead himself in an interview tells how he got sued over an early recording. He would only record two more albums late in life, Message to St. Louis, released in 2000 and Please Accept My Love, recorded three months before his death on Dec. 16, 2000.
John May who organized the tributes and played with Tommy opened the show promising music that would show off the St. Louis style Bankhead helped to create. He told how important Bankhead was to the revival of the blues with his music and his personality. "There are two things that characterized Tommy Bankhead," May said, "One was he would always rather talk with you than to you and the other was his favorite saying, 'Makin love is good for you.'"
John returned to this theme at the close of the show reminding people that "in this time of Ferguson, anger and bullshit we need this music to bring us together." So it was fitting to have Bob Case, another one of musicians who helped revitalize the scene close the show with his song "St. Louis is My Home." You know Tommy was smiling. He wouldn't have had it any other way.
To see more of Bob Baugh's photos of the tribute performances, click the image below.
Alejandro Rose-Garcia, a.k.a. Shakey Graves, is a scratchy-throated and often cowboy-hatted troubadour by way of Austin, Texas. Last Wednesday, a soggy evening couldn't keep a throng of whooping and hollering St. Louis revelers from piling into Delmar Hall for his sold-out performance -- a third of which was just Mr. S. Graves singing his guts out with nothing but a six-string and a kick drum. This one-man show is what he's famous for and perhaps the best reason to see him live (although Shakey Graves + band is also a damn good time).
David Ramirez, another singing Texan who's gone it alone on the road for years, kicked the evening off with a set of his introspective folk. He's been commended for being brave enough to write and sing about deeply personal things like family, his feelings, and heartbreak--but this is a traveling singer-songwriter's bread and butter. Ramirez is interesting because his lyrics are personal, yes, but also straightforward where others obfuscate behind stories or characters. Having grown up a Southern Baptist myself, I was tickled by Ramirez's take on "Communion": "Drinking out of little plastic cups / They told me it was wine / But it was really just grape juice."
Then Rose-Garcia took the stage by himself, a lone behatted figure, standing amidst as-yet unused instruments, looking for all the world like the rambling gentleman from Texas he either plays or simply is, Shakey Graves. The man himself is short in stature and an undeniable charmer. His wisecracking onstage persona is belied by the content of much of his material -- songs of lust, heartbreak, unrequited love give way to murder, ghosts, and all manner of devilry. He began with "Word of Mouth," a song I've only heard from one of his earlier live recordings, but apparently one that everyone knew. It's a gentle little ditty, punctuated by his heel against a drum and zils, gradually building into a full-throated allegory about drugs, success, and guns, at the end of which the Devil himself appears to offer some advice.
The full band didn't join him until he'd played several songs by himself and talked a while, easygoing and picking at his guitar the whole time, seeming for just a moment like he must have a decade ago, unknown yet with a certain something, a throwback to an earlier era. Although he's clearly at home as a solo artist, he and his band know each other like the back of their hands. It's trust of the sort that can only come from logging many hours on the road together, an instinct earned after late nights and bleary mornings in towns where you don't know anyone. The set was a well-oiled machine, a tour through his old stuff, his old stuff just released on vinyl for the first time, his critically acclaimed and best-known material from And The War Came ("Dearly Departed" was clearly a fan favorite, with the crowd filling in for Esme Patterson on the "oooh-ooohs"), and new stuff from his February pay-what-you-can release, The Man From Taured.
The highlight of the three-song encore was a Bruce Springsteen cover, where Rose-Garcia was joined by Ramirez in a twangified version of "Darkness on the Edge of Town." I would have never pegged Shakey Graves, or at least the Shakey Graves crowd, as a fan of the Boss. But who isn't? The similarities between the down-and-out characters of a Springsteen song and the whiskey-soaked, Tex-Mex spirit world that Shakey Graves has created for his are no more apparent than in this tune. "I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town." With that, the gentleman from Texas shouldered his guitar and walked off the stage.
Click the image below to see all of Karl Beck's photos of David Ramirez and Shakey Graves at Delmar Hall.
This year LouFest moved to The Muny parking lot from its original home -- the central fields of Forest Park -- due to construction. The new space gave the festival a decidedly different feel and flavor. Organizers played up a carnival feeling on the site with a Ferris wheel, hot air balloon, and quadruple-decker lounge (dubbed "Cabanaland"). Market Square, LouFest's offering of local makers selling wares, was set up in the style of a midway with a ceiling a parasols, while the new Fizz & Folly section of the festival was a salute to the birth of the cocktail party (begun in St. Louis in 1917).
While headliners Cage the Elephant and Snoop Dogg may have been a draw for the large crowds, it was the duck walk down memory lane that stole the show with the Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry tribute concert. The band was comprised of acclaimed local musicians including Big Mike Aguirre, David Grelle, Kevin Bowers, Andy Coco, and the Funky Butt Brass Band horn section with a who's who of talent dropping in to pay their respects. First up was St. Louis's own Pokey LaFarge who handed in twang-tinged renditions of "Maybellene" and "Teenage Wedding."
Special guest Valarie June took the stage with a retro-soul versions "I Want to Be Your Driver" and "Memphis," literally letting her hair down and dancing to beat the band. David Grelle of The Feed on keyboard and Cory Henry on organ were standouts with dueling solos that lent a funky feel to the festivities. The Funky Butt Brass Band horn section of Ben Reese, Aaron Chandler, and Adam Hucke brought the heat with blazing interpretations of the Chuck Berry classics. Also joining in the party were Britt and Alex of Spoon, Huey Lewis (with a scorching harmonica), members of Cage the Elephant, and Charles Berry, Jr. with Charles Berry III.
The performance at Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry that brought down the house was that of Captain Kirk Douglas (The Roots). His renditions of "Reelin' and Rockin'" and "Roll Over Beethoven" were the apex of the tribute concert and got the crowd in a frenzy.
Earlier in the day, Huey Lewis & the News had a similar effect, whipping up a dance party on the parking lot that served as the Enterprise Stage field. The band members were decked out in suits with Huey Lewis giving a SoCal vibe in his jeans and button-down shirt. They came out strong with the "Heart of Rock 'n' Roll," giving a special St. Louis shoutout among the other cities of the lyrics and drawing a roar from the crowd. They didn't let up from there and kept the tempo up with a slew of other hits, including "If This Is It," "New Drug," "Step by Step," and "Power of Love." Lewis thanked the audience for coming out to hear songs about past escapades and shouted, "Let's make this a night to remember!"
LouFest also featured some fresh faces and new tunes with Middle Kids out of Sydney, Australia. They're a female-fronted four-piece rock outfit with their first full-length album on the way, and Middle Kids took the opportunity to showcase that new music to an enthusiast young audience.
Taking the stage right before sunset, Spoon presented a mix of singles from their latest album "Hot Thoughts" and popular favorites from the past. The crowd seemed particularly primed to hear "I Turn My Camera On" from the band's classic Gimme Fiction album. Lead singer Britt Daniel obliged, slinking around the stage in a black denim outfit with a large silver longhorn belt buckle.
Earlier in the day, those able to bounce between Hippo Campus and Jonny P enjoyed a delightful mix of indie pop and neo-soul, respectively. Hip hop artists Mvstermind and Mathias & the Pirates entertained the early crowds. Mathias & the Pirates were a particular standout, performing rousing renditions of past singles "Brettanomyces" and "The Panic Button." The former featured special guest star 18 and Counting (Stan Chisholm) who thanked the crowd for getting up early to catch the set. Included in that set were also some new music from a forthcoming album due out this December.
Whether there for the old or the new, LouFest Day 1 delivered a satisfying mix.
To see Dustin Winter's photos from the first day, click on the image below.
The New Pornographers have been around for as long as I've been alive, yet somehow our paths didn't cross until earlier this year with the announcement of their seventh album, Whiteout Conditions. Hell, I even crossed paths with member Dan Bejar's solo project Destroyer before figuring out that the New Pornographers were a thing. However, I'm well in the loop now with the band's long history, which showed in the best way possible seeing them live last weekend at Delmar Hall.
Before I get into into the New Pornographers' set, let's talk about their opener, Ought. Ought are one of my favorite bands working today and in my opinion, the best band out of this most recent post-punk revival. I had already seen them live previously at a small show at the now-defunct Demo and they were just as tight now as they were then as their set, despite some technical issues, kicked the show off perfectly.
They opened with a brand new song which right away had me swaying, as this was one of three new tracks from their upcoming third album (which is currently in the works). Compared to their previous two albums, the new songs are less dissonant than their work on Sun Coming Down, but not quite as peppy as More Than Any Other Day, and overall, see the band finding a unique identity as despite my love for those two albums mentioned, they do drown in their influences occasionally (most notably The Fall and Talking Heads). However with these new tracks, there's definitely something special happening here that I'm excited to see expanded on in the studio.
The rest of the set was a mix of songs from their first two albums that sounded great, but had some technical issues throughout on Darcy's end as there were some bits of feedback during one of the songs and solid portion of the set his vocals were tuned down too low. Being right in the front it didn't quite affect my experience too much, but for people in the back I can imagine those technical issues hindered their experience more. Still, the band pulled off a great set as it almost felt like a passing of the torch from some of indie rock's most notable veterans to some of the best indie rock has to offer today.
About 20 minutes after Ought's set ended, the stage changes were complete for the New Pornographers. The venue's lights went dark again and two light setups emitting from the band's keyboard stands on opposite sides of the stage flipped on, as A.C. Newman and company walked on and kicked their set off with "Moves," the opening track off their 2010 album Together and a perfect way to get things going.
Then they went through songs old and new, including "High Ticket Attractions," off their latest Whiteout Conditions, "The Laws Have Changed" off Electric Version and "Sing Me Spanish Techno" off Twin Cinema. It should be noted that missing in action from this show were two of the band's most notable members, Neko Case and Dan Bejar. Case wasn't able to play this leg of the tour due to personal projects (with violinist and singer Simi Stone, who's toured with the band for two years, essentially taking her place). And for Bejar, he was also missing from Whiteout Conditions as he was hard at work on a new Destroyer record (the recently announced ken).
Now these missing members might seem like setbacks on the surface, but you wouldn't be able to tell from the band's set as they glided through some of their greatest hits like "Champions of Red Wine" and deep cuts like "Testament to Youth in Verse" with no issue. This is a band that's been around for a while and has every step of their show down to a tee without it coming off as robotic. The band's personal brand of power pop still sounds as lively and as passionate as ever, even with the band showing their age.
After ending off their set with "Mass Romantic" from their debut of the same name, the band came back out for an encore to play the title track from Brill Bruisers and "The Bleeding Heart Show" from Twin Cinema. Overall, the band played a great set that struck ground between their newer, more synth driven style, to their older, more indie rock roots. For most bands who somehow make it two decades into their career, it's easy to get lazy and just play what you know, but the New Pornographers aren't that quick to doze off, as it seems the band will always be finding new sounds to complete their always evolving power pop perfection puzzle.
Click below to see all of Ben Mudd's photos of Ought and the New Pornographers at Delmar Hall.