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.

The Coathangers (with The Residuels and The Maness Brothers)  at Off Broadway, July 20, 2017

Despite a sweltering July night in St. Louis, fans came out in droves to applaud the beloved Milwaukee-born Violent Femmes and Liverpool-born, new-wave greats Echo and the Bunnymen. Consisting of mostly 40-somethings with some older and younger folks peppered in, the crowd nearly filled the Hollywood Casino Ampitheatre to capacity and cheered loudly as Gordan Gano of the Femmes sang some of their favorites. His voice remains largely unchanged from that of the nasally teenager who wrote most of the songs on the Femmes' first and most popular album when he was just a graduate from high school in 1983.

Consisting of original members Gano on vocals and Brian Ritchie on acoustic bass playing with energetic gusto, along with percussionist John Sparrow mainly on snare drum with brush sticks, and a younger addition on the horns, the Violent Femmes performed in slightly oversized black T-shirts that hung limp with sweat as they kept on in colorful, upbeat tempo. Behind the tenor saxophone, guitarist Ava Mandoza, who opened the show, played backup and added some feminine flair to the otherwise all male Femmes. With the Femmes' set coming to a close, the audience sang along to "American Music" as Gano pointed intimately towards the audience and then back to himself, bringing palpable nostalgia to the joyful present. 

While Femmes line-up stood steady alongside one another and sans effects, Echo and the Bunnymen took the stage in more dramatic fashion situating all the musicians toward the rear to allow singer Ian McCulloch to command the show front and center. Layered with choreographed lighting that shifted from neon blue to purple and amber, coupled with smoke both from dry ice and McCulloch's cigarette swirling into the atmosphere, Echo made for an aptly theatrical mood throughout the night. It became apparent that the days of new wave were not totally gone as the Bunnymen began their set by playing some later work indicative of their unique sound with heavy bass syncopation, husky arching vocals that echoed over dancy guitar riffs. 

Deep blue lights set the pervading mood, as McCulloch crooned into the microphone and regularly took a walk between the mic stand and the band, occasionally taking a drag between verses. In fact, McCulloch insisted on keeping his fitted blazer on even as he commented at not experiencing "anything like this" and tossed bottles of cold water to grateful audience members, later encouraging a stage hand to continue tossing from an entire case of bottles. It seemed like Echo and the Bunnymen would triumph over the heat even in a blazer and tight jeans, as the members kept themselves regularly hydrated between songs.

However, after just beginning "Bring on the Dancing Horses," McCulloch held up a hand and tiredly requested into the mic, a five-minute breather before immediately exiting the stage, leaving the rest of the Bunnymen no choice but to gradually follow suit after their leader. The audience appeared unperturbed, probably under the assumption that the British band had simply underestimated the infamous humidity that continued to linger into the evening as thunder and lightning approached. As promised, a mere five minutes later Echo and the Bunnymen returned to the stage and resumed playing rich sounds of melancholy with graceful precision. That is until during "Killing Moon" when McCulloch again paused to apologize quickly to the audience and request "the tank" to be rolled out. As the band played on, their hard working frontman breathed oxygen towards the side of the stage so that he could return to the mic, vocals refreshed.

Despite these abrupt breaks, Echo and The Bunnymen continued to entertain adoring fans and concluded with one of their most well-known hits "Lips Like Sugar." Perhaps the Femmes who might be more familiar with the notorious St. Louis summer heat should've warned their tour mates from cooler shores but none the wiser, Echo and the Bunnymen prevailed to put on a memorable show for St. Louisans willing to sweat it out with them.

Click the image below to see all of Gary Eckert's photographs of the night. And if you missed it, check out Rob Levy's interview with Bunnymen guitarist, Will Sergeant.

Violent Femmes and Echo and the Bunnymen (with Ava Mandoza) at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, July 22, 2017

 

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit preformed at The Peabody Opera House on Wednesday night and it was fantastic. This show has been highly anticipated since the June 16 release of his sixth studio album, The Nashville Sound. Isbell, a Grammy award winning musician from a small town in northern Alabama, plays with a band of musicians who primarily hail from the Muscle Shoals area, including his wife and accomplished violinist, Amanda Shires. The pair performed as recently as March at The Peabody when Shires opened for John Prine and was accompanied by her husband. 

I've been hearing Jason Isbell's name for years. He has a significant following in my hometown of Carbondale, Illinois where long ago he played several shows at the townies' favorite dive bar, PKs. This was when Isbell was still drinking and before he married Shires. Isbell doesn't shy away from talking about his troubled past. He's sober now and the tone of his work has changed drastically over the years. Depending on the sadness of the lyrics you could guess which album the track appears on. In a new song, "Molotov," he describes those younger days: "Ride the throttle 'til the wheels come off. Burn out like a molotov in the night sky." 

Isbell first found fame as one of the lead singers for alternative country/Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers. He still performs some of their songs, much to the indulgence of the long-time fans. While playing "Decoration Day," speaking volumes of their creative relationship, Shires took the solo originally written for guitar. Throughout the evening the display of their love, and especially Isbell's adoration for his wife, is inescapable. Most notable is the huge illuminated anchor and sparrow logo suspended centrally above the band. This symbol is also shared as tattoos on the couple's arms and serves as their wedding crest. 

During a portion of the show dedicated to songs from his album Southeastern, Isbell tells a story of a time when he and Shires were in separate rooms on opposite ends of a small house writing music. It was during a time when they were still getting to know each other and he wrote this song for her. They would meet in the middle and play each other what they were working on. He said, "My wife will put up with a lot of things, but a piece of shit song isn't one of them. She's a music critic, but thankfully she liked it." There wasn't a person in the theater that didn't already know what song was to follow. The stage lights turn to three shades of blue and for the first few verses of the beautiful and profound "Cover Me Up." The lyrics in this song will never lose their weight for me and I still get chills every time I hear it. A well-deserved standing ovation accompanied.

The genre of country music has always been dominated by white men. In the timely and very necessary "White Man's World," Isbell acknowledges his inherent privilege and recognizes the inequalities he witnesses involving people of color, Native Americans, women, and specifically the unfair reality he fears his daughter will face. He then goes one step further to recollect the mistake he has made of not speaking up against injustice: "I'm a white man looking in a black man's eyes, wishing I'd never been one of the guys who pretended not to hear another white and man's joke. Oh, the times ain't forgotten."

As a lighthearted change of pace, Isbell playfully plugged his new album, The Nashville Sound, as being sold on vinyl in the lobby, as if anyone present wasn't familiar already. He says, "It's also available on compact disc, but technology is changing quickly so be sure to go buy those CDs. They sound just as good, but it's hard to carry around a lot of them so it's best to have one great album." Shires chimes in, "Like The Nashville Sound!" Not letting the joke die just yet Isbell adds, "Like I said earlier, my wife's a music critic and she loves the album."

They played the romantically haunting song "If We Were Vampires" from his new album during the encore. It's one of those songs that seems best suited for a funeral, but will likely get a lot of play at weddings. It's just as sweet as it is weighty and serves as a harsh reminder that the one you love will die and hopefully you'll be dead first as to experience the lesser of the two pains. "It's knowing that this can't go on forever. Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone. Maybe we'll get forty years together. But one days I'll be gone. Or one day you'll be gone." The collective hearts of the crowd were on the floor and the 400 Unit was just stomping them into a pulp.

For the final song of the evening the band broke out the legendary Allman Brothers' "Wipping Post" to send us off knowing without a doubt that the range of Jason Isbell is even more far-reaching than we expected. He can rock. He can make you cry. He has something to say about gender and racial inequality. And he can make you clap on the 1 and the 3. 

Click the image below to see all of Monica's photos of the concert.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the Peabody, July 12, 2017

 

To make it simple, this year's Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago was an absolute blast filled with surprises, sincerity, and really sore feet. Like seriously I'm shocked my feet are still working and didn't just break into a million pieces. Anyways, this fest had a ton of acts I wanted to see and many of them didn't disappoint. So, much like the average person who attends Pitchfork Music Festival, I'm going to arbitrarily rank my seven favorite sets of the weekend! 

#7: Priests

My rock album of the year so far is definitely Priests' debut record Nothing Feels Natural. With that in mind, I had some fairly high expectations about this set and they were mostly met, as vocalist Katie Alice Greer brought her absolute best with vocals that sound just as good as they did on the record and a crazy amount stage presence. In general, the band's synergy was just insane, with drummer Daniele Daniele giving it her absolute all, bassist Taylor Mulitz and guitarist G.L. Jaguar (who, in my opinion, is the best guitarist in rock music today) working in tandem to near perfection giving Greer's guttural yelps the maximum backing they need. However, this ranks so low only because the crowd seemed to not be giving the response the band deserved, as I was expecting mosh pits but instead got a lot of people just swaying. Still, the band was great and if you can catch them, please do. 

#6: Nicolas Jaar

In regard to electronic music, I can be fairly out of the loop and only really hit on the big artists my friends are heavily recommending to me. Of course, one of those artists is Nicolas Jaar, who released my electronic album of the year last year with the fantastic Sirens. This set only ranks so low as I ended up missing solid half of it as it was on the third day of the fest and my feet were pretty much done. However, once "Three Sides Of Nazareth" came on I knew I had to get closer up and watch the rest. The visuals behind him and on the festival's projections were trippy as hell, and watching Jaar moving around his little setup trying to make his beast of a performance work together was just awe inspiring to watch. Also, he brought a saxophone or a bass clarinet out at one point for a rendition of "The Governor" and it was awesome and badass. However, not the best saxophone moment of Pitchfork Music Festival as we'll get to that a bit later on, but still, a great set I wish I had made the entirety of. 

#5: Weyes Blood

When Weyes Blood, aka California musician Natalie Mering, released her third album Front Row Seat To Earth last fall, I was absolutely blown away from first listen. Mixing together the retro pop stylings of contemporaries like Ariel Pink with the 1970s style songwriting of Joni Mitchell and Carpenters, Mering made one of the absolutely best albums of last year and turned in a killer performance at the festival. She sounds just as beautiful here as she does on record as the astonishing "Seven Words" and epic "Do You Need My Love" only gain more power live. She also closed out the set with an absolutely killer cover of CAN's "Vitamin C" which show off a powerful versatility that can hopefully keep shining throughout her career. 

#4: LCD Soundsystem

Now, you might already be asking me, why are you ranking LCD Soundsystem so low? Did they not give an absolutely amazing performance? They did actually, in fact it was pretty great. However unlike the bands ranked above LCD here, they don't quite hold such a strong personal connection with me, at least not compared to the bands ranked above. I do love LCD Soundsystem though and it's still so strange that they're actually back and they've essentially been reunited for almost a year and a half now. Like most people after their legendary performance at the Madison Square Garden, I wasn't expecting them to perform, let alone release new music ever again. However, they are back and they absolutely killed as expected. Highlight of the set was definitely the surprise pit that opened up during "Movement" right in front of me that I had no idea how to react to other than "my feet still hurt a lot" and "I have to pee but this owns."

#3: Pinegrove

I was a late adopter to Pinegrove. I didn't properly get into them until late 2016 and their debut from that year, Cardinal, was a bit of grower on me. Once I fully wrapped my head around it, I was totally in love with it and the band and had to consume anything they had ever put out, so suffice to say I was extremely hyped for this set and it didn't disappoint. While the absence of backup vocalist/keyboardist Nandi Rose Plunkett (who was touring with Mitski under her solo project Half Waif) was very noticeable, it didn't deter from the pure emotion I felt during the set. Being in that crowd was just an extremely wholesome experience with everyone singing along with frontman Evan Stephens Hall's lyrics and yelps, just knowing that there's all these people here who feel the same way I do and find solace in this amazing band. Oh and I brought a stuffed cardinal and threw it at Hall at the end of the band's set and he caressed it on his shoulder which is the greatest moment of my life.

#2: Danny Brown 

Unlike Pinegrove, Danny Brown's music is not very wholesome. It's about as emotionally cathartic, but whereas Evan Stephens Hall sings about heartbreak and maintaining friendships, Brown raps about his hard partying to cope with his rough upbringing and horrible drug addiction. However a lot of the time he's able to turn this pain into just straight up bangers which completely rocked the crowd at Pitchfork. Songs like "Monopoly" and "Pneumonia" got the crowd into an absolute frenzy with one of the wildest mosh pits I have ever been in. This energy only boosted Brown who gave it his absolute all not missing a single bar. Of course, that would have been the craziest pit I had been in this weekend had it not been for my #1....

#1: Jeff Rosenstock

Jeff Rosenstock is the best artist in punk music today. His ethos of giving away most of his musical output for free, booking all ages shows that cost $10-15 or less, and treating his fans like actual human beings with love and care is simply inspiring and artist of all genres should take note of Rosenstock. So when I found out he was playing Pitchfork this year, I was pretty shocked since that was probably the biggest booking he'd ever gotten. Something Rosenstock and his band acknowledged multiple times during the set, as in between songs Rosenstock made the crowd do the wave, crapped on the festival's sponsors, and also stated how much he was paid to play the fest (which for those wondering, it was $7500) before launching into last year's "Festival Song" off his album WORRY. While the Danny Brown pit was filthy, Rosenstock's pit was also filthy, but incredibly wholesome in singing along to Rosenstock's lyrics about the woes of depression, capitalism, and love while running 30 miles per hour at each other. To quote Stereogum's Chris DeVille: "Jeff Rosenstock's Pitchfork set today is the kind of show everyone here is gonna be bragging about seeing for the rest of our lives." 

Besides the fact that concerts are a good time to bellow along to your favorite songs and not be judged for it, seeing a band in person often completely changes your idea of them. What with clothing, lighting, and stage banter, it's easy for artists to build up a public persona — one that is all too often wildly different from who they are off-stage or, at least, who you imagine them to be. Simply put, a concert is only half music; the other half is showbiz, baby. 

Well, that's how most bands work. And then there's Big Thief, a folk-rock act that is defined, both in sound and attitude, by complete austerity. Their latest release, Capacity, is a thoughtfully-crafted album that pastes together hauntingly intimate stories of darkness and beauty — its subtle storytelling akin to flipping through a family photo album. Paradoxically vulnerable and powerful, Capacity resists — even contradicts — the idea of the stage-persona: sincerity, not sensationalism, is what defines Big Thief.

Preceding Big Thief at the Old Rock House last Wednesday was Twain, a Brooklyn-based folk act. Composed of just Mat Davidson (whom Big Thief frontwoman Adrianne Lencker called "my favorite living songwriter") and his guitar, Twain embodies the minimalist beauty that will define the rest of the night. (This is also his last time opening for Big Thief on this tour). Despite being a solo act, he achieves a richness of sound that might normally be expected of a two or three-person set. His chord progressions and colorful guitar textures, effortlessly filling the room, hint at exceptional musicianship. Davidson, however, is concentrating on anything but the technicalities: with his eyes lowered and his expression thoughtful, he seems completely at ease despite the dozens of people in front of him. His voice — sometimes whispery, sometimes triumphant — evokes an intimacy that is rare to feel at a show as packed as this one. In fact, Twain's songwriting emanates a sense of universal wisdom that seems somehow sacred. There were songs of transient love and transient life, songs of inner peace and outer harmony. The entire experience felt a little transcendentalist, as if Henry David Thoreau himself had come back from the dead, armed with a guitar and an ear for folk music. 

Big Thief's Capacity may have some of the most powerful songwriting on any album this year, and to hear its message live is extremely moving: Lencker spins stories of trauma into something simultaneously disturbing and hypnotic, like the haunting image of a mother soaking up her child's blood with a dishrag in "Mythological Beauty" (which happens to be about a real near-death experience Lencker had as a toddler). At the Old Rock House, none of that power was lost in delivery; in fact, it's perhaps even more moving to see Lencker in the spotlight, her eyes closed, singing softly about events that most people would never in a million years talk about. In some ways, what was most jarring about seeing Big Thief live was the openness and honesty of it all. Capacity is a very personal album, filled with stories of abuse and sex, love and death, odes to friends addressed by name. Show after show, Lencker shares these stories with a roomfuls of strangers and, truly, her capacity for honesty is infinitely impressive. 

On stage, Big Thief's technical prowess also shines. Their guitar work, sometimes soft and harmonic, sometimes harsh and dissonant, adds another layer of darkness to the album. The grating cacophony at the beginning of "Shark Smile," for example, is one of those instances in which the guitar-work take the forefront. That isn't to say the band's instrumentals aren't always top notch: on the contrary, songs like "Haley" and "Pretty Things" demonstrate a subtle mastery of instrumental lyricism, where the guitar seems to sing along with Lencker's hushed vocals. In fact, some of the more upbeat songs had the entire venue dancing — a fact that I found kind of funny during "Shark Smile," considering the song is about losing a lover in a highway car-crash. In this way, Big Thief is truly remarkable: they can take even the darkest parts of life and turn them into something you can dance to or, at least, something that adds a little light to that darkness.

 Click the image below to see all of Ben Mudd's photos from the evening's performances at the Old Rock House.

Big Thief (with Twain) at the Old Rock House, July 12, 2017

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