To be fair, I wasn't expecting to see young, dreamboat Jonathan Richman circa 1974, but when you go to a show to see an objective legend the once-frontman of the Modern Lovers, the guy who transformed countless lame teens into fervent punk rockers you expect someone larger than life. But when Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins walked onstage at Off Broadway last Friday night, looking almost small under the white lights, I was reminded that Jonathan Richman is only mortal.
And so he was, though that turned out to be his greatest charm. There was something very personable about Richman's stage persona, like watching a friend onstage. In fact, I felt the need to sort of hunch behind the tall guy in front of me while typing notes into my phone (oh, the rare blessings of being 5'1"), not because I didn't want to be yelled at but, weirdly, because I didn't want Jonathan Richman to think his performance was uninteresting.
Richman was, in all respects, a one man show sometimes crooning behind the microphone, sometimes stepping to the edge of the stage as if to say, "Come closer, there's no need to fear," sometimes picking up maracas or sleigh bells and dancing (which involved a lot of shimmying and hip-gyrating and was strangely hypnotic, kind of like watching your weird uncle get down). And though his looks might have aged, Richman seemed to be in a state of unblinking lucidity that only one-in-a-million artists could ever hope to achieve. (I say unblinking because Richman literally did not blink, or at least not as much as a normal man should. He had a way of staring into a fixed point in the crowd during guitar solos that was equal parts unnerving and impressive.)
At this point, I would be remiss to mention that the breadth Richman's technique is really imperceptible until you see him play a live set. Almost every song featured an instrumental break, which is, in my opinion, where Richman might've shone the brightest. Chord progressions in "My Baby Love Love Loves Me" become the bickering voices of lovers (which Richman compliments with a mock-angry face); the high-pitched guitar slides in "That Summer Feeling" are followed by an explanatory "Mosquito." And the audience actually laughed, which I've never seen happen during an instrumental piece and which truly demonstrates the interpretive depth of Richman's guitar-playing: the guitar was another voice altogether.
But what really made Richman's performance and his entire musical persona so darn enjoyable was the wide-eyed easiness it all. If you've heard any of Richman's recordings, you know that his voice is breezy and laissez-faire and borderline conversational at times. This quality was even more obvious on stage, where he would often slip out of singing to make a little quip or, in the case of "Old World," a two-minute story about baseball pitcher Walter Johnson that he had heard from Bill Klem. Some of Richman's songs are simply sweet in a way that makes couples pull each other close, like the show's encore "Not so Much to be Loved as to Love." Others were considerably more lighthearted like "People Are Disgusting," which details humanity's more nasty habits ("Wipe the toilet seat down! A maid has to clean this!"). Overall, it's hard to articulate the sheer likability of a punk legend who can stop mid-sentence to tell the audience, with a laugh, "I'm just making shit up" (as he indeed did during a cover of King Harvest's "Dancing in the Moonlight").
At his heart, I think Richman is a genuine person in a way that many big stars aren't. Yes, he's an immensely, immensely talented singer/songwriter/guitarist/etc., but there's no pretension behind his performance, no overt demands for respect nor reverence, nothing but the desire to contort and cavort and "move with the moon and the tide," per "These Bodies that Came to Cavort." And the audience was with him the entire way, dancing and laughing with the enthusiasm that can only come from years of devotion to Richman and his work. One man near me even knew every single word to every single song not just in English, but in Italian, too.
About halfway through the song from last year's Ishkode! Ishkode! called "Outside O'Duffy's," the stage lights went out, plunging the entire venue into darkness. "Wow! That was good, too just different," Richman said cheerily when they came back on a few seconds later. There was no doubt in my mind that he meant it. Rain or shine, lights on or lights off, Jonathan Richman will be there with a song.
Click the image below to see all of Gary Eckert's photos of the evening.
I have finally seen Diarrhea Planet. I have finally seen the band that is supposed to restore my faith in rock 'n' roll (according to BuzzFeed). I have witnessed the four-guitar juggernaut that's regularly played St. Louis, including last year's LouFest. I have experienced firsthand the splatters of beer from cans held aloft while a merry band of men in tight jeans, fairly beside themselves with excitement, turned the entire floor of Delmar Hall into a mosh pit for 60 full minutes last Friday.
To be honest, I was not at all certain that Diarrhea Planet was capable of matching St. Louis's beloved Bruiser Queen, who shimmied through a loud, fast "best of" set. Who knew two people were capable of making such a racket? I'm no stranger to BQ shows, but Morgan Nussbaum's impressive pipes were in especially fine shape on Friday night, effortlessly filling every corner of the room and probably the parking lot, too. Love for the fans and pride in our city's fine microbrews was in the air. Did I mention 4Hands was celebrating its fifth birthday and everyone may have been feeling a little soppy? "We've got the best food, the best beer" (indicating 4Hands Citywide banner) "and the best music," crowed drummer Jason Potter, during a mid-set shout-out to the enthusiastic hometown crowd. BQ exited the stage after bringing down the rafters with "Old Man Winter," and if that had been the show, I would not have complained. But then...
Diarrhea Planet came out, an unassuming band of fresh-faced twenty-somethings in T-shirts. And from the moment they shouldered their guitars, a blistering, blinding, rapid-fire tower of noise was rained down upon my head. How to describe, if you haven't heard them? Clearly, they were influenced by heavy metal, but there is also a seemingly un-cheeky appreciation for '90s pop-punk. Like Butthole Surfers and Rage Against the Machine (except a-political), they are a sort of post-hardcore, "alternative" metal. I never thought I would favorably compare someone to Blink 182, but there is something there, too, albeit with way more guitars. Like any punks worth their salt -- that is, anyone influenced by the Descendants -- the drumming is fast and muscular and the shouted vocals pushed to the respective limits of each singer's highest register until they fray. Lyrically, Diarrhea Planet manage to be smart but a little ignorant at the same time. (There is a song called "Ghost with a Boner." Also, the band's name is Diarrhea Planet.) You could headbang a mullet to this stuff, but it's almost more conducive to pogoing. The guys themselves seem rowdy but nice, flattered by the adoring crowd in front of them who sang along with old and new material alike. They took onstage selfies -- good-naturedly snapping pano after pano as fans handed over their phones -- and they were generous with the high-fives.
Diarrhea Planet had been originally scheduled to play the 4Hands birthday party in January, but an ice storm (did we actually have ice?) pushed the show up to March. "This is the first show we've played in 2017," singer-guitarist-all-around-thrasher Jordan Smith announced. (Smith also introduced most of the set with, "You might not know this one, it's old...," but everyone did know it and sang along.) Despite some good-natured bantering between songs -- the first digression had to do with some confusion as to which direction St. Louis is from Nashville, the band's hometown -- there was not really a pause from the opening assault of "Lite Dream" to the last, a convincing cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade." The slowest things got was during "Platinum Girls," which is sort of a love song (although it's more about wanting to be your "20 times a night guy" than actual feelings, if you get my drift). On stage, the band's sound is huge. They are definitely an act to catch live if, like me, you are one of the three people in St. Louis who have not seen them yet. Much has been made of the four guitars, and the wall of sound on a live stage is massive yet never overpowered the rhythm section. And despite projecting a somewhat unwashed slacker vibe, each of the guys can shred. This is some professional-grade, arena-worthy rock, everyone.
To wit: that Rage cover. I imagine it's fairly difficult to fill Tom Morello's shoes but Smith did it, and as singer Evan Bird (who must have been trying to lose his voice) launched into the last chorus, there was a gunshot-loud crack that dumped a bunch of confetti and streamers on the crowd. Everyone went bananas. Everyone went home happy. Faith in rock 'n' roll was duly restored.
It may have been Mardi Gras, but a different kind of party unfolded inside Delmar Hall Tuesday night as Shovels & Rope, the South Carolina-based husband and wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, treated a packed venue of fans to an impressive set spanning material from their nearly a decade recording together.
Both multi-instrumentalists and vocalists, Trent and Hearst swap turns on guitar, drums, piano and keyboard, blending their voices in perfect harmony. Their most recent album, 2016's Little Seeds, the third under the official Shovels & Rope moniker, is their most polished and personal to date, a reflection of troubling times as well as their own family highs and lows.
It's difficult to slap a single genre label on Shovels & Rope's music. At its base, it's "a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll" as well as a little bit folk, Americana and blues. According to the description on the band's own Facebook page, "Whatever it is, it's both pretty and loud and tells a good story."
Opening for the duo at Delmar Hall was Tulsa-based singer-songwriter John Moreland on acoustic guitar, joined by John Calvin Abney on electric guitar and harmonica for a lovely, if not mellow set of solidly written original tunes. Moreland's soulful, gritty voice punctuated songs like "Oh Julia," which had a Springsteen feel. The lovely "Cherokee" showed his vulnerable side.
Shovels & Rope then took the stage and wasted no time getting raucous with "I Know," the first cut from Little Seeds, with Trent on guitar and Hearst on drums, donning matching black sparkling Western wear. The couple growled into a shared microphone, Hearst's mane of long, red hair quaking as she pounded the drums, blending raw garage rock rhythms with her throaty twang, echoing country legends like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.
Shovels & Rope's set highlighted numerous tracks from Little Seeds, as well as much of their earlier work. An a cappella moment during "The Last Hawk" illustrated just how harmonious they are -- a fact that makes the lack of additional band members a non-issue.
Following "The Last Hawk," the shy Trent addressed the audience for the first time, mentioning the "crazy year" that was 2016. In addition to a dizzying political climate and releasing their third album, the couple celebrated what is undoubtedly their biggest milestone: the birth of their daughter, Louisiana Jean. Trent recounted all of the worries that went through his mind leading up to her arrival in introducing the quirky ode to parental anxiety, "Johnny Come Outside."
After a quick gear switch with Hearst taking guitar and Trent taking his turn on drums and harmonica, they treated fans to one of their earliest numbers, foot-stomper "Gasoline." Trent prefaced lovely, folk-driven "Save the World," by stating, "We are eternal optimists in these crazy times. We believe in the ripple effect. One act of kindness can follow another," assuring fans that, "We trust you." The duo followed that ray of hope with a pair of decidedly heavier and darker tunes, "Botched Execution" and fuzzy, "Evil" with Trent trading off on both keyboard and electric guitar with equal precision.
A sublime, acoustic "San Andreas Fault Line Blues" prompted a fan in front of the stage to pierce the silence that followed by loudly shouting, "Thank you for making yourselves emotionally available!"
This caused a surprised Trent to pause and reply, "Well, that is the best compliment we've received all tour."
Hearst then jumped in, joking, "I wonder if this is what people really mean back home when they yell, 'Freebird," at our shows," to laughter from the crowd.
Emotions continued to flow during S&R's stunning cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Johnny 99" with Hearst on the piano, taking it to a slower tempo. The duo recorded the version as a single in 2013. Fans went crazy over the band's seminal tune, "Birmingham," particularly as Hearst paused to punctuate the lyrics that inspired their moniker, "Making something out of nothing with a scratcher and our hope; with two old guitars like a shovel and a rope."
That would have been a fine note on which to end, but they continued, Trent picking up and gently plucking the mandolin as Hearst relayed an appropriate Fat Tuesday tale about a trip they took to Mardi Gras in New Orleans for a friend's riverside costumed wedding, inspiring the dulcet and melodic "St. Anne's Parade."
They followed with rock ode "Hail, Hail," as Trent appropriately shredded the guitar; and with that, they ended the show with a handshake and a bow.
The duo of course returned after a brief break to oblige an encore, Hearst joking, "We're just going to introduce the band real quick," before slaying with "Buffalo Nickel" another gritty cut from Little Seeds, as animated skeletons danced above them on a backdrop of strung together wooden pallets. They ended where they began, so to speak, playing the first song they ever wrote together, the sweet and simple "Boxcar" with Trent on mandolin and harmonica and Hearst on acoustic guitar.
The way these two fill a room with such rich, textured sound is more impressive than many bands with more than twice the number of players. Their chemistry is of a nature that can only be exhibited by two people who share in every aspect of their lives, and that emotional connection is on full display in each note they play and word they sing. One can't help but root for them as both a band and a couple. Yet, as much as any success they achieve is well-deserved, part of me selfishly wishes they wouldn't get any more popular so they can continue to perform in smaller, more intimate venues like Delmar Hall, where fans can most fully experience their essence.
Click the image below to see all of Monica Mileur's photographs from the evening.
Mirah took the stage at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room with no new album to sell (her latest, Changing Light came out three years back). She shares with the audience that tonight's show kicks off a week-long Missouri residency that will also feature performances at an organic farm and the True/False Film Fest. In honor of the occasion, Mirah made and wore a T-shirt featuring a photo of her father's college band which was based out of Kirksville, Missouri.
Maia Macdonald (aka Kid in the Attic), following her opening set, joined Mirah as the rhythm section, alternating between bass and keys, in addition to providing backing vocals. The duo had an easy rapport and beautifully melded musical styles which truly blossomed in their performance of "Hallelujah," a track original featured on the Thao + Mirah duets album (featuring Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down). During "Recommendation," the penultimate song of the set, Mirah and Macdonald shared the keyboard and mic for the most pop-leaninng and raucous performance of the night.
Mirah let her admiration for fellow artists show with praise for Macdonald's opening set and a follow-up round of applause for musicians Cassie Morgan and Melinda Cooper who kicked-off the evening. She brightly exclaimed to the adoring audience, "We're having our own kind of Women's March up on the stage tonight. I know you're with us!" She even made a pitch for the audience to return to the Duck Room the following night to see "one of [her] best friends," Tift Merritt.
The set heavily featured songs from Mirah's 2014 album Changing Light, beginning with "24th St" and continuing through "After the Gold Rush," "Turned the Heat Off," "LC," and "Radiomind." Mirah shared the story of writing "LC" with her sister in homage to Leonard Cohen. She also shared a new song "Sundial," the title track to an EP that is due out in June. An earthy, folky track, "Sundial" is written from the perspective of plants observing human behavior. Mirah chose to write the song from a plant's point-of-view because, "We wouldn't actually exist without them."
Toward the end of the set, Mirah performed "No Guns No Guns," a song she wrote for the "30 Days, 30 Songs" project. The audience was encouraged to vent their frustrations about the current political climate with Mirah proclaiming, "You guys just get to scream for eight bars!" As the audience gathered their coats, their thoughts, and their friends at the end of the concert, the energy of the room felt markedly lighter.
Click the image below to see all of Abby Gillardi's photos from the eventing's performances at the Duck Room.
Craig Finn is the main talking head from longtime rock gods The Hold Steady. While THS takes a brief hiatus between performing, Finn has finished and a new solo record, We All Want The Same Things, which will be released on March 24. It's a mosaic of storied lyrics and gorgeous instrumentation that reveals true to life characters in troubling times. He's currently on tour opening for power-rock duo Japandroids, who are also promoting a new record. Here, Finn discusses the differences between his solo work and The Hold Steady and his passion for reading between the lines.
Kevin: Whats changed for you on this new album?
Craig: The big thing for me is whats stayed the same. In some ways, I made the record this time in part with that same crew, so in some ways its like a band making a second record together communication was easy, we had our own shorthand and knew how to talk to each other. That said, we invited a lot more people into the room this time. There's a piano player, there's a lot of horns so it ends up being a lot more musical record in a lot of ways, it helped us to branch out into a lot of different elements.
K: How do you go about finding the people you want to bring into that process?
C: We found people we really loved and trusted and got them into the room to see what would happen for the most part. The producer and I would go over the songs first, whether we were hearing horns or piano or keyboard, and then invite those musicians to play and explain what we were thinking, but we would also give them room to play around and see what they would bring. I think thats really exciting for me at this point.
K: Youve got a pretty solid solo career happening. Is this one of your best achievements so far?
C: I think its one of the best recs I've ever made. Youre always excited about the new stuff of course, but I think its really helped me to grow as a songwriter and a performer. There are a couple of songs on the new record, one in particular, "God in Chicago," thats a real spoken-word kind of song. Ive always been a talky singer, but I just loved being able to do something that was spoken word or a story. There were a lot of good characters on this record, a lot of good sketches of people that really resonate with me and I hope it will with other people. I think its my strongest solo record.
K: Have you developed a preference for performing with The Hold Steady versus performing solo?
C: It never feels awkward but I think it feels challenging. I've done a few shows just by myself and those are really hard, but I think if you get good at them, youre gonna get better whether you're with a band or not. Everything is just a challenge and trying to conquer it in some way.
K: Yeah, but now its all on you, right?
C: When you get up to touring, you may be with a band Hold Steady has been around for 14 years, everyone can take care of themselves but with solo work, your leadership is more necessary with a show like this. Your names on the marquis but you gotta make sure everyones being taken care of.
K: Does that leadership role come natural to you?
C: Its a natural role I felt in The Hold Steady, but I think maybe Ive gotten more sensitive to others in that process. I dont think that comes easy for a lot of rock 'n' roll people, but you gotta step up and make people feel like there's someone driving the ship
K: Where do you draw your inspiration from when writing lyrics?
C: They kind of come from everything. Its reading a lot, listening to people while riding the subway, but a lot of its books and just thinking that way and having a mind thats always thinking of stories. Some of it comes from your own life and what happens around you and some of it comes from the daily newspaper.
K: Theres a long tradition of writers dabbling in music. Do you feel like that sometimes? Like youre really a poet or writer moonlighting as a musician?
C: Ive never really dug poetry without music, but I do think of myself more as a lyricist, because in The Hold Steady thats my focus, but its the stories that are always very important to me Ive always liked reading fiction.
K: What does a Craig Finn bookshelf look like?
C: Im always reading something Ive got a big stack at home that Im always working through and people are always giving me recommendations. John Darnielles book Universal Harvester, Ill probably read George Saunders' new book. Right now Im reading Michael Lewis The Undoing Project. Its about how we make decisions and how our minds work. Id still like to try and write a novel myself but Im not even close.
K: What do you think it would be about?
C: Its hard to know. It would probably be about realistic, unremarkable people thats what my songs are about. Thats what this new record is about. People who dont start out wealthy or famous but people who are just trying to get by and what that looks like in this world. I feel like people can relate to that.
Craig Finn & the Uptown Controllers open for Japandroids at the Ready Room on Sunday, March 5.