Bayou crooner Marc Broussard kicked off a tour in support of his recently released ninth studio album, Easy to Love, at Old Rock House last Thursday night to a full crowd. The Carencro, Louisiana native has developed a loyal fan base over the past 15 years for his extraordinary vocal abilities and his songwriting style, which blends a variety of influences from throwback soul and R&B to funk, blues and pop, with a nod to his Southern roots. 

Joined by his small but powerful backing band including guitarist Joe Stark, drummer Chad Gilmore and bassist DJ Raymond, Broussard treated fans to an hour-and-a-half set that spanned a good portion of his catalog, starting with the lovely "Leave a Light On," the first song from his new album, harmonizing sweetly with Stark and Raymond.

He featured only a few of the new album's songs in his set, including sultry "Anybody Out There," "Baton Rouge" and ballad "Easy to Love," which he noted was penned by Stark years ago, though only recently recorded. The rest of the show was a nice mix of some of his best originals and well-known covers. 

Highlights included the vintage soul-inspired "Lucky," which had a Stevie Wonder vibe anchored by Broussard's soaring vocals and Raymond's bass; "Home," which featured a stunning acapella intro with Broussard, Stark and Raymond once again in glorious harmony; and "Lonely Night in Georgia," a simply perfect tune from Broussard's second album that captures his voice at its soulful best.

Mid-set, Broussard and the band unleashed a funky trio that got the dance floor crowd moving, starting with groovy "Try Me," one of his early tunes, building into a scorching guitar solo by Stark. This led directly into a cover of The Meters' "Fire on the Bayou" before morphing into Al Green's "Love and Happiness," with Broussard pushing into his falsetto and getting the audience singing along to the chorus.

The rest of the band took brief break while Broussard remained on stage for a mini-acoustic set of some of his more emotional and vulnerable songs including "Another Night Alone" and "Let Me Leave." He then played a pair of very personal tunes about his two sons. Achingly beautiful "Gavin's Song," written for his oldest, had Broussard wiping away tears as he delivered the lyrics, "I wish we were together / I wish I was home / I wish there were nights / where I was never alone. / I know I've said it / but I'll say it once again / I wish I could be there / but I can't."

He followed this with the more playful "Gibby's Song," written for his younger son with "a smile so bright it lights up the night sky."

The band returned to deliver a few fan favorites from Broussard's acclaimed 2004 major label debut, Carencro, beginning with the up-tempo hit "Rocksteady." Raymond's funky bass lit up "Come Around," another Stevie Wonder-inspired number, teasing James Brown's "Sex Machine" and Parliament's "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" before moving into a cover of The Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing," which got many a booty shaking on the dance floor.

They closed the main set with the fierce rhythm of "Home" as the crowd belted along, singing, "This Greyhound is Delta bound," before ending with a thunderous guitar jam, Broussard wailing at the top of his lungs.

After the final drum beat, Broussard laughed and remarked, "This is usually the part where we walk off stage to the dressing room and pretend we're not coming back for a minutes; but since there's no dressing room back here, we're just gonna play on through." 

The band treated fans to one last tune, Broussard's inspired cover of Solomon Burke classic "Cry to Me," before exiting out the side door into the night.

Broussard, as usual, did not disappoint, proving his consistently impressive vocals and the depth and soul of his songwriting. It's always a treat to see him in an intimate venue that allows him to connect with his audience on an emotional level as he does so well. 

Opener singer/songwriter Jamie Kent aptly warmed up the crowd with his hearty smile and twangy roots rock, as well as a delightfully funky cover of Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

 

It is simultaneously surreal and exciting to witness greatness -- and not greatness that has ardently sought their space in the limelight, but greatness that the light gravitates toward regardless. Such is the experience of watching Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck serenade the evening with their banjos. Undoubtedly the King and Queen of the banjo, as they have been called before, they don't seek after their crowns, though it is clear the weight leaves them unbowed.

The Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center was past capacity to see the couple. Ushers and last minute fans stood at the back of the auditorium scanning in vain for a seat. Then the room darkened and the banjo royalty approached the spotlight. Their thrones were not but a set of soft chairs, a pair of microphones and six banjos. The couple each had a banjo strapped to them as they entered. Washburn began with a quick lilting solo played in her traditional claw-hammer style. After a few measures she closed her eyes, inched toward the mic and began to sing. Then Fleck began quick harmonies which broke into a response melody. The duo did not split into rhythm and lead as many would, but played alternate melodies, complementary and speaking to one another reminiscent of Bach's adagios. But this would be merely the first of an evening of Fleck displaying his classical background.

Their second piece strung together four different songs ranging from a dueling banjo-esque repartee to more traditional classical. All the while Washburn watches Fleck for signals to change melody, key, and movement. Their communication is as flawless as their finger-picking. Together they loop through crescendo and melody, in tune and in step. They even tap their feet in unison. Four songs in, Washburn switched to a fretless banjo which shortens the resonance of the already truncated banjo pluck. Fleck also changed his instrument to a cello banjo where the deeper bass could carry through Washburn's quick notes.

At first thought, an evening of exclusive banjos could seem beset with limitations and verge on redundancy. After all, the typical Venn diagram of those who seek after long banjo bluegrass tunes and those who play them are closer to a single orb than not. But with Fleck's virtuoso and Washburn's upfront charm and undeniable passion, this seems like an antiquated and absurd notion. One did not have to be schooled in banjo skill, bluegrass, old-time music, or classical to be washed fully in awe at their skill, comfort, and sound.

In the middle of the first set, Washburn, in her twin blonde braids, stands to show the crowd her new dress. It is a thin, dark blue, country maid dress. The style of which one could imagine on Mother Maybelle Carter, though Washburn's has finely wrought netting around her neck, midriff, and a frill at the hem. This becomes a metaphor for the evening. Washburn and Fleck bring old Appalachia into the present then lace it in the finesse of a wide musical education. Combining Fleck's awe-inspiring musicality with Washburn's haunting voice which jumps octaves like a yodeler and can hold a high-lonesome as well as Hank Williams Sr., the couple shows what is truly possible when the old world meets the new amidst comfortable twang of a host of banjos.

This frankness and sheer joy seen on stage does not leave them once they are finished for the night. Playing The Sheldon was also the release of their newest album, Echo in the Valley. Washburn describes the new record as their joint attempt to harness "the beautiful when you can see the goodness of the world." They look for the hidden good in things and create the opportunities for goodness around them, donating the proceeds from the sale of their album to the charity Kids for Cancer. They do this when they can, Fleck confides after the show. It's their way of giving back, he says. After all, he feels blessed to have a livelihood where he can travel with his partner and their son and make the music they love. Just as we are blessed to have them here in St. Louis, and in the world.

A packed crowd of 694 fans crowded into the intimate confines of the Ready Room Wednesday, October 18, to enjoy Ontario, Canada's sextet The Strumbellas' brand of catchy sing-along, hooky choruses, country-pop alt stylings, and warm Canadian humor. The crowd, including families with small children in tow, were treated to 17 songs and two encores -- "Diane" and "Home Sweet Home" -- and kept the crowd swaying, dancing, singing and yelling at the top of their lungs in glee until the final note dissipated. Strangely, Wednesday was also the day of the death of the Canadian musical hero, Gord Downie, of the Canadian institution, The Tragically Hip, so the night had an air of heaviness.

The Strumbellas launched into "Wars," a tune that showcases the Strumbellas' blend of countrified, folky alternative pop. The audience danced, jumped up and down, and sang along with vocalist and front man Simon Ward's wonderful wordplay and catchy choruses.  

Ward, was in constant motion -- running back and forth on the stage, leading the crowd in acoustic, bare-bones sing along acapella breaks. At one point, he hung from the monitors and staging and gave the audience a Bono moment of intimacy and connection. The audience stomped and clapped in ecstasy to their other anthem "We Don't Know," from last year's album Hope. The stage was dimly lit and adorned with umbrella lights. The mood was cozy, homespun and folksy. Their fun-filled and emotive set included other numbers such as the sunny pop gem "Young and Wild," "In This Life," the slow honky-tonk Nashville-tinged tune "The Hired Band," and more.

Violinist, vocalist, and keyboardist Isabel "Izzy" Ritchie was also in constant motion and adding sweetness to the bitterness and light to the darkness. The rest of the band, including drummer Jeremy Drury, lead guitarist Jon Hembrey, bassist Darryl James, and keyboardist David Ritter, all served the song and provided sweet backup and harmony vocals to many of the night's stellar renditions.

The band closed with their hit 2016 single "Spirits." Massive airplay, placement in commercials, and massive popularity on platforms like Pandora and Facebook have made The Strumbellas a well-known commodity and familiar musical friend. Ward and band seemed to bask in the warmth of a crowd singing their anthem back at the top of their lungs.

In a world of synthetic bands, pyrotechnics, and gimmicks, The Strumbellas deliver an organic, heartfelt, and earnest experience that's a rare thing in our virtual world of fast food and empty encounters. For an hour plus, the audience was at home, joyous, and left the troubles of the cruel world outside; where they belong.

The opening act, Strafford Vermont's Noah Kahan and band, were a complementary pairing and were well-received by the packed audience. Kahan, a young troubadour of a tender 20-years-old, and his crack band of talented musicians played a compact set of tunes including his new single "Hurt Somebody" and his debut single "Young Blood." Fans of Jack Johnson and John Mayer will welcome Kahan's songs to their playlists.  

Click below to see more of Doug Tull's photos of the performances.

The Strumbellas (with Noah Kahan) at the Ready Room, October 18, 2017

 

Imagine going to a friend's house for dinner and musical entertainment. When you pull up, you see people on the porch with drinks in hand. They greet you with smiles and return to their laughter. Inside, the main room has been filled with chairs and a line is beginning to form before the dining room, where the smells of dinner waft out slowly to draw you in. At the head of the line stands a robust and jocular host who greets everyone he recognizes with warmth and humor and everyone new first with curiosity, and then warmth and humor. The food is plentiful and delicious, and table service brings drinks and dessert as you sink into a repast of hometown comfort food. Then, after making a new friend or two, you wander back to the living room for an evening of music and enjoyment. Most of us have experienced something similar to this and can recollect it with fondness. Perhaps it is still talked about when you rejoin those friends who shared the moment with you. Years from now, you can all have a good laugh in the nostalgia of a night well spent. Now multiply your friend's dinner party of a dozen or so to well over 150. And that, my friends, is The Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, Missouri.

The stage was set in a corner of the room between the bar and concierge desk, lit by clear, blue, honeycomb lights. The amps and a spare guitar bordered a worn area rug which really tied the room together, man. Everyone filled into the first rows of soft chairs; theater seats were set up behind those and lined the balcony above. Steve Earle came out in typical bad boy fashion: wordless. He plugged in his acoustic Martin M-38 with an embroidered sugar skull strap, hit the low E for a sense of sound and began strumming. He wore a black vest over a T-shirt, jeans that had seen much of the road across the US, and a stare that had seen ever farther.

After a few measures, he said, "I think it is important to sing this song as much as possible," and started into a gravel-toned sing-a-long of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." After a brief pause where he almost smiled, he performed the next few songs without introduction, leaning one into the next with hardly a key change. His songwriting has always been strong, and he sang a few he was known for, dominating the 4/4 time with rambling quick narrative of outlaws and the hard killing floor blues of Southern Gothic imagery. Then stopped to breathe in the space of the venue.

It was then he opened up. Wildwood had billed the night as an intimate evening with Steve Earle, and, trained as I am in the musical lore of Nashville, I was eager to see a softer side of this late-outlaw who came to prominence with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. But soft is not what he offered. Neither did he remain in the hard-shell he had toured within during the '70s and '80s. Rather, he was honest. Not encumbered by the expectations of the Dukes, his usual backing band, Earle was free to tell stories and reminisce.

Halfway through the show, Earle switched to a mandolin he claimed to have won from a divorce and played, "Copperhead Road," which had been called for by the audience. The following number he picked back up his Martin and sang one for, "What's her name, wherever the hell she is." Departing from perspective rather than subject matter, Earle's later songwriting is a reminiscence about his days and ways of his younger self. The early songs are filled with tight riffs and hooks about chasing the devil. These later ones, "typical of a 52 year old," he claimed, center more on chasing the devil away.

Travis-picking through a typical I, V, VII progression in B, he spoke fondly of what it was like to learn from Townes, and how no one could ever match him. He then gave tribute to his late friend with a rendition of "Rex's Blues," which does not appear on the album of Van Zandt covers Earle released in 2009.

By the end of the night, Earle was joking with the audience, telling stories of his son and his many wives. Then after a brief encore and a break off-stage (which at The Wildwood is upstairs), Earle hung out at the bar to greet the lingering fans and take innumerable pictures. He was warm and friendly, offering anecdotes to any listening and would graciously engage whoever was near in ardent conversation.

While I have seen innumerable shows in my life, this was different than most. It was more intimate. There was little remove from the artist, and you felt included in both the music and the appreciation felt by everyone else. That is because of the Wildwood experience. In that space most describe as having a "living room feel," artists can leave their stage persona behind and relate their stories on a more personal level.  

Bob Bell, the warm fellow greeting everyone as they entered for dinner, runs the Lodge with his family who came of age just across the street. it was Bob's father, Paul Bell, who bought the former resort hotel built for Missouri's nouveau riche of yesteryear in hopes it would keep his family together there in Steelville. And his dream is a gift to us all. The Wildwood is not only a venue. It is an experience. The building is an L of old hotel rooms with metal, mortise, bit keys and no TVs. The hallways seem to come straight out of a Coen Brothers thriller, and porches wrap around both sides of the building. There are thirty-mile views off the back porch, which is lined with rocking chairs and retro decorations that have aged with the space. 

This reprieve from the bustle of daily life is a touch over an hour from St. Louis and yet a world away. The opulence of days of yore feels as Bob hopes it would, just like coming home. It is with this perspective he greets his guests as family and encourages them to enjoy the space as he has grown up doing. Here one can enjoy great food, better company, and a concert which enlivens as much as it connects one to the music. The Wildwood Springs Lodge creates a experience of togetherness. Together with family new and old, friends silver and gold, and a space to truly witness the skill and message troubadours like Steve Earle have been capturing in song for eons. It is like going back into a memory, only anew.  

And I, for one, can't wait to return.

 

Many bands earned their early bones busking on dirty streets and subway ramps. Likewise, every music fan hopes to recognize street-corner genius and brag about it later when the band ascends to big stages in big rooms. Humming House hit the Duck Room stage and the audience floor on Thursday night in a show that demonstrated the band's continuing evolution (evident in their fine new album Companion) and their busking, string-band roots.  

Humming House has impressed St. Louis music fans for several years running, starting with an excellent Twangfest show in 2012. The band is comprised of four multi-instrumentalists:  Justin Wade Tam, Bobby Chase, Joshua Wolak, and Benjamin Jones.  For the average audience member whose musical "career" ended (gratefully) after high school, it was thrilling -- on the magic show end of the scale -- to watch these talented bandmates move seamlessly amongst keyboard, guitar, mandolin, double bass, electric guitar, harmonica, performing expertly on each instrument. Midway through the show, the mandolinist, Wolak, produced a harmonica from his back pocket and played it holderless while still playing the mandolin.  Still don't know how. Don't want to know. Like I said, magic.  

Humming House is also a remarkably musically flexible group, moving agilely between acoustic strings-based Americana to electrified rockers, to soulful power-pop gems. Stringing it all together is captivating frontman Justin Wade Tam and a thorough-going affection for introspective and sweetly positive lyrics. The band kicked off the show with two up-tempo, electrified cuts from its new album -- "Hope in My Head" and "Sign Me Up" -- and moved on in the same vein but switching to electrified acoustic instruments for "Freight Train," "Great Divide," and "Fly On," all from earlier albums. After a rocking, Bangles-like rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter," the band began shifting gears, moving from the Springsteen-like rocker "I Want It All" to "Wishing Well," both cuts from the new album, to Tam and his guitar on a sweet, nostalgic solo, "Find What Waits." 

And that's when the band came off the stage, not for the mysterious interim between sets, a phenomenon thankfully going out of favor, but to come down amongst the people and play an un-amplified acoustic set. The crowd surged forward to better hear the band and was rewarded with the dynamics of one of those YouTube gimmicks where a disguised U2 plays at a New York City subway stop. Which is to say that if you heard the current incarnation of Humming House on a street corner and didn't immediately feel like a latterday Sam Phillips, you should just resign yourself to simpy Spotify set lists for all eternity. The crowd swayed and danced to "Tower Park" and "Gypsy Django" amongst other tunes before Humming House took the stage again and plugged in for a quick and surging final set.

An amped up belter from their early catalogue, "What Have We Got To Lose" and a cover of "Go Your Own Way," complete with a crisp, driving take on Mick Fleetwood's tribal drum sequence, drove the crowd into a final lather. The band returned to encore the title cut of their new album, "Companion," a song about reflection, appreciation, intensity, respect, everything they expect to deliver to their audiences, and unquestionably what I experienced last Thursday night.  

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