Jeff Rosenstock has a unique spotlight on him right now. With former bands The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!, Rosenstock evaded the music industry as much as possible by self-releasing all his own material for free, playing cheap all-ages shows, and generally playing by the DIY rulebook to near perfection. But now as a solo act, Rosenstock's career has never seen grander heights with multiple releases on the popular independent label SideOneDummy records (including last year's WORRY.), sold out shows throughout the country, and most recently, a set at the Pitchfork Music Festival back in July.
If you read my previous article on the festival, you'll know that Rosenstock's set was my favorite one of the entire weekend. Despite being in the massive Union Park, Rosenstock and his band made me feel like I was at the greatest, crappiest basement venue I've ever been to. You could feel the electricity in that crowd as they hanged onto every word and note from Rosenstock and his band. But we're not going to be talking about Pitchfork Music Festival again as recently, Rosenstock stopped by Blueberry Hill's Duck Room with Laura Stephenson and local opener Thor Axe.
To briefly describe Thor Axe's set, I'll illustrate it as a question: what if the band that made the Power Rangers theme song was an actual band? If that sounds awesome to you, you'll probably love Thor Axe -- however, I wasn't as impressed. While all the members of the band are technically competent, I didn't really get any kind of emotional response out of their music, and if you're on a bill with Laura Stevenson and Jeff Rosenstock, that's not good. Maybe at a different show I'd enjoy this act more, but it didn't really set the night up correctly.
On the other hand though, Stevenson is the perfect lead-in for Rosenstock as not only do her punk tunes about depression match Rosenstock's overall vibe, two members from Rosenstock's band, bassist John Domenici and drummer Kevin Higuchi, also play as Stevenson's backing band providing an amazing rhythm section to Stevenson's guitar and vocal work. Sadly though, compared to when I saw her back in July at Chicago's Beat Kitchen, the Duck Room crowd wasn't quite into her as I could hear plenty of people talking through her set. It wasn't really until Rosenstock came out and backed up on guitar for a few songs with Stevenson that the crowd quieted down, which is a little depressing. Despite this, Stevenson gave her all for another great set (and another reminder that I really gotta dig into her discography).
Finally, Rosenstock and the rest of his band came out for their set and kicked things off with WORRY. opener "We Begged 2 Explode." While it starts off slow, it's intensity builds up and up setting the tone perfectly for the rest of the night. This leads right into "Pash Rash", the second song on WORRY. which much like "Explode" starts off slow with an acoustic guitar, but quickly kicks into high gear with the full band moving the pit into a frenzy. It can't be stated enough how much control Rosenstock has over his crowd as he can easily move the crowd into hysteria just as easily as he can trigger an existential crisis.
And he continued this throughout with various cuts from WORRY. and his previous album We Cool? which are some of the best documents about depression, existentialism, friendship, love, and how terrible capitalism is. Rosenstock was incredibly humble and caring throughout the night, making sure the crowd was safe, thanking various venues throughout St. Louis for booking and supporting him over the years, giving love to his band members and more. Specifically, he gave a lot of love to Dan Potthast, the band's keyboardist/guitarist whose hometown is St. Louis. During the encore, Rosenstock and his band gave the floor to Potthast to play a song with his original band, MU330, which he formed in St. Louis.
If this review doesn't already make it obvious enough, if you get the chance to see Jeff Rosenstock, go for it. He's been one of the nicest and hardest working people in punk music in the past one or two decades who simply loves his fans on a passionate and genuine level. His songs simultaneously make me want to lie on the floor and weep but also run around in the streets screaming every lyric. It's already hard enough for an artist to make me want to do both of those things separately, so for someone to do those things to me at the same time? It's insane. He's one of my favorite musicians currently and if he isn't one of yours, go fix that immediately as you're missing out on a future legend.
Forget the Twitter attacks on The Strokes, forget blogs about what blue jeans make one's butt look best. Forget the coziness with and eventual covers of Taylor Swift's 1989, which actually has Adams making a few good renditions of some of her tunes. Forget the claims on the part of Julian Casablancas that Ryan doled out heroin to the band, which set The Strokes back quite a bit. Forget the decade-or-so-old bitchy phone call to Jim Rogatis demanding that Ryan Adams be above criticism. And there's much more you're going to have to forget in order to simply watch Ryan and Co. put on another phenomenal show which they absolutely did last Tuesday at the Pageant.
Adams opened with a few tunes from his latest album, Prisoner. This statement could be non-true, given that Adams is as unstoppably prolific as Robert Pollard, both artists putting out albums the way the rest of us measure the amount of showers we may have taken. The first song, "Do You Still Love Me?" could be a calling-out to his ex-wife, an estranged lover, what have you. The jangling and bright mid-tempo guitars feature Mr. Adams asking the question we've all asked after a breakup or life-shattering schism between A & B. Prisoner, like so many of Ryan's albums, finds this listener more and more open to what it is he's doing, making, singing. It's cool to preemptively write off such a public figure and performer like Adams, given a laundry list of public faux pas, but when he moved into "Give Me Something Good," I was utterly won over. Homeboy's got pipes and plays the guitar and he knows he's still got it. The crowd -- I think music is somewhat measured democratically -- was extremely attentive to each lick, note, song, and Adams for the most part just thanked them and moved on to song after song that held the majority spellbound. I only wished the band and the mix had been louder, and I mean this as a compliment to all of them. I was in a mood, right after the first song, to be annihilated by a wall of the band and that voice we all have grown to love.
From "To Be Young..." to the close of the show, we were treated to a great sampling of "alt-country," "indie rock," and what Adams has always done best, "rock 'n' roll." Simply put, he visibly and sonically puts everything he has into his shows. This wasn't my first proverbial rodeo with Ryan's performances, given I have travelled to Nashville and other places in the past to see him. I will only add that this was my favorite performance out of a slew of concerts of his, and perhaps his recently found sobriety has something to do with this. I don't know. I do know that my friend and I both went in very skeptically and came out with huge grins and ears not ringing quite hard enough. Forget all of this and go back through his catalog of great albums of which there are many. Ryan Adams picked so many tunes from such a wide, deep and lifelong devotion to his craft, that there is nothing to find fault in him other than what he's probably thought himself. I loved last Tuesday, though Wednesday came hard at 6 a.m. It was worth it, well worth it, and the memories of Adams' performance were paying me double the next morning.
Click the image below for Dustin Winter's photos of Rhyan adams and opener Jillian Jaqueline.
Lovett and his Large Band played the Peabody Opera House on July 28 for a marathon 29-song set. This Large Band is a tightly orchestrated group of a dozen skilled musicians. The senior member of the Large Band's brass section -- the Muscle Shoals Horns -- is 76-year-old Harvey Thompson. At one break, Lovett questioned his veteran tenor sax player about his former collaborations. Thompson matter-of-factly reeled off the singers he's backed over the years: "Bob Dylan, Elton John, John Denver, Little Richard, B.B. King, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Cannonball Adderley and Jimi Hendrix." Among others.
Then Lovett asked Thompson's fellow sax player Brad Leali, a professor at the University of North Texas, what he thought of the future of the country based on his teaching experiences. Leali thankfully had a positive outlook, saying "I think we're in fine shape."
With that, Lovett was ready to launch into a bluegrass set of songs, this time using a stripped-down Large Band (small band?) consisting of fiddler Luke Bulla, guitarist Keith Sewell and bassist Viktor Krauss. Lovett quizzed the trio between songs, just as he had questioned the horn section earlier. He asked Sewell when he took up music (answer: age 5) and how many instruments he played. In addition to guitar, Sewell decided to learn mandolin a year ago. He must be a quick study, because he handled it well enough during this show to handle any tough Sam Bush piece.
Lovett told the audience that Krauss led a double-life, musically speaking. "You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Victor is a heavy metal guy. He looks sweet but he's a bad man." Then he asked if Krauss remembers the first rock song he ever learned. Krauss immediately answered, "Of course -- it was 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart.'" Then he plucked out the opening notes on his stand up bass to prove he could still handle a classic Yes tune.
Both Sewell and Bulla had a chance to show off their individual skills, as Lovett let them shine during solo pieces. The same was true of his bluesy backup vocalist Francine Reed.
Everything about the Large Band is large, from the four-piece Muscle Shoals Horns to Reed's booming voice to the piano -- and not a puny keyboard, but a full-size Steinway grand. Rounding out the Large Band was a pedal steel guitar.
Lovett stuck pretty closely to his hits, including "I've Been to Memphis," "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)," "She's No Lady," "Church," and "If I Had a Boat." Of the last, Lovett introduced the piece by explaining that his parents were hardworking folks who allowed him to listen to his own muse and follow his dreams. In fact, he was supposed to be studying for a history lesson years ago when he just couldn't keep his mind on homework, because he'd been messing around with a song he had in his head. Elsewhere, he has claimed that he wrote the song from a personal experience -- that he'd actually once tried to ride a pony across a pond. Whatever the case may be, the result is a song covered by a number of other performers and one that has been ranked one of the top 100 country music songs of all time.
Click below to see more photos from Lovett's performance.
Love, broken hearts, the South and, oh yeah, lots of whiskey. The classic country themes thrive in the pores of each Chris Stapleton song with only slight modernizations found in guitar-wrangling and slick, soulful grooves.
Dressed in black and hiding under a cowboy hat, Stapleton walked on stage this past Saturday as if he were walking to his regular perch at the bar. Without accompaniment, the explosive songwriter plugged in and hammered out the bluesy wash of "Might as Well Get Stoned" for an opener. Belting out the sparse chords and lyrics of the first verse solo, he established an intimate yet absolutely invigorating presence for the night.
The ass-kickin' country continued with Stapleton punishing his guitar as it screamed and pleaded on "Nobody to Blame." As he switched to acoustic, the minimalist band (bass, drums and Mrs. Stapleton on backup vocals) segued into a more introspective "Broken Halos." Calling to mind the universal and bittersweet chords and melodies of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" or Springsteen's "Atlantic City," "Broken Halo" is the kind of song you know and love before you even hear it. And on the simple marquee-lit stage, the song and sentiment seemed no less important and uplifting.
Swapping guitars like I was swapping beer cans, the country-fried set found Stapleton easy within the many facets of his music. Whether ripping blues solos ("Hard Livin'"), screaming in distress ("I Was Wrong") or serenading his wife ("Whisky and You" and "More of You"), the towering frontman made sure to include a variety of songs for "hillbillies and the hippies" alike. Songs of vulnerability ceded to ballads of sweltering frustrations as Stapleton maintained the essence that haunts the highs and lows of country music.
One of the many things that separate Stapleton from the pack is the aggressive yet fluid guitar playing. He picks out memorable melodies, hits grimace-inducing highs and even pulled the staccato one-chord buzz-saw solo. The guitarist showcased his SRV-inspired soloing via "Sometimes I Cry," "Second to Know," culminating in the extraordinary and soulful "I Was Wrong." Only his soulful screams (on par with Janis Joplin!) are as expressive as his guitar playing. Stapleton stepped out of the country comfort zone with these songs, laying down a stylish and groove-oriented sheen more akin to Otis Redding than Tim McGraw.
Such is the essence of Stapleton; used to hiding behind the veneer of songwriting credits, he encompasses as many moods as he does characters and genres. But rather than emphasizing this, or even showing awareness, he naturally jumps from Skynyrd covers to modern country classics such as "Traveler" or "Parachute" without batting an eye. But in true country fashion he concluded the night with "Tennessee Whiskey" and declared that it was indeed time to go drink some whiskey.
Opening acts Margo Price and Brent Cobb were a real treat to hear as well. Cobb presented gentle guitar arpeggios and the type of songs that make you want explore outdoors. Whereas Price livened up the crowd with energetic country tunes that wouldn't sound out of place in the sixties.
With minimal rockstar posturing or attitudes and exuding humility and professionalism, these artists exhibit a certain selflessness and humility not likely to be found at many sold-out shows.
To see all of Karl Beck's photos of the evening's performances, click on the image below.
Music has a gender gap: I'm not trying to pick any political fights here but it's a fact. Yes, the music scene isn't the boy's club it used to be -- thanks, second-wave feminists! -- but the problem still remains. For example, in a survey of ten major American music festivals, female-only artists made up only 12% of all acts, as compared to the whopping 78% of male-only artists. It's probably not a stretch to say that people notice when there aren't all that many girls on-stage -- I know I do.
It's no wonder I find the Coathangers, an Alanta-based trio composed of guitarist/vocalist Julia Kugel, drummer/vocalist Stephanie Luke, and bassist/vocalist Meredith Franco, so refreshing. It's always extremely inspiring to see other women in the spotlight -- especially with an act so unrestrainedly fun and self-confident. (Consider the closing song of the night, "Squeeki Tiki" off of 2016's Nosebleed Weekend, which features a dog toy's squeak as its instrumental hook. I never thought I'd see someone rocking a dog-toy solo, yet Luke, jumping into the crowd with toy in hand, seriously killed it. Who would've thought headbanging to a dog toy could be so fun?)
Last Thursday night's show was rounded out by the two openers. First was the Maness Brothers, a St. Louis duo whose sound is a heavy, gritty blend of blues and rock, which was not only powerful but straight-up loud -- like, loud enough for me to cave in and buy a pair of earplugs. With long hair and intimidating, all-black outfits, one look at the Brothers suggests that their music is just as intense as their aesthetic. And, boy, was I right: their latest, self-titled album is not just a harsh intersection between genres but an important lesson in ocular health -- the faint of ear need not apply. Also on the bill were The Residuels, an all-male trio hailing from Philadelphia. Their sound channels the inclinations of 70s punk (think Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys) and is a bit more accessible than The Maness Brothers. The Residuels' latest release, a single titled "You'll Cry," is a catchy rock anthem with a decidedly American twang.
After two male-only bands, it's all the more exciting to see the badass ladies of The Coathangers stride into the limelight, backdropped by a gigantic banner of their siren personas from the cover art of their latest EP, Parasite. The Coathangers' merit, however, is in no way limited to their gender; to call them a "girl band" would be a minimization of their talent, which undoubtedly stands up to the best male and mixed-gender punk acts of our day. Their sound lands somewhere between the harshness of the Ramones and the vocal flexibility of the Slits, a cool amalgam of commercialized punk and proto-riot grrrl. The Coathangers are not afraid to push the boundaries of their vocal capabilties; "Parasite," the title track off of the EP, is almost entirely screamed. (When Luke yells "Why I oughta!" at the crowd, I can almost feel the sucker punch that would probably ensue.) While "Drifter," the last track, is -- dare I say -- a slow, contemplative ballad.
What really ties The Coathangers together, however, is the irreverent humor with which they approach gender, punk, everything. Not only do they have a song called "Nestle in My Boobies," which is a hilarious (albeit on-the-nose) approach to the whole "girl band" thing, but their stage presence is that of a band whose purpose is to have fun and make music doing it. Take, for example, their live rendition of "Wipe Out," during which the phrase "You're not sorry" is passed around from person to person: I can see the musicians smiling as they repeat each other's phrases, like in a campfire song. All in all, The Coathangers are perhaps one of the few bands I've seen this summer who have actually looked like they were having fun on-stage. (You'd be surprised at how many acts overdo the 'cool persona' thing and just end up looking glum!) "We're sisters from another mister," Luke tells the audience. In their matching Pizza Head shirts, it's a statement that's easy to believe.
Click the image below to see all of Dustin Winter's photos of The Coathangers with The Residuals and The Maness Brothers at Off Broadway.