Sharon and Doug Foehner usually can be found busking outside the museum on Saturdays. It is a tradition born of love, family and the blues, but last Friday the Fab Foehners came inside to kick off the National Blues Museum's Howlin' Fridays series on the Legends Room stage.
The Foehners moved to St. Louis in the mid 80s but the real story starts in upstate New York in 1977 when Doug was 14. As Sharon tells it: "We grew up blocks apart but didn't know each other. I knew his brother. He played drums and I wanted to jam. When we did, I met Doug." They have been jamming ever since.
Sharon's family had migrated from Macon, Ga. to work as sharecroppers. She likes to tell that her Mom went to high school with James Brown and her Auntie went to church with Little Richard. Her eclectic musical tastes were influenced by gospel blues (mom) and jazz (dad) but she also loved classical, soul and more. At the age of nine she began Suzuki lesson for bass violin. As a teen her interests shifted to rock 'n' roll, she says, "because I wanted music with a little bit more energy."
Doug's influence was his father, Gale Foehner, a well-known ragtime-jazz pianist. As Doug puts it: "He was a piano man. He tuned them, fixed them and played them in bars all over the country." Doug too got hooked on rock 'n' roll. He was a bass player and Noel Redding (Hendrix/bass) look alike in a Jimi Hendrix style band. He said, "I was hired to learn all of the Hendrix music. We did four or five years together with a list of 110 Hendrix songs and played the Bitter End in NYC." Doug's musical interests began to shift as he listened to Memphis Minnie on college stations.
In 1983 Doug's Dad moved to St. Louis where he became a regular on the music scene. In 1986, Doug, now "heavily addicted to Memphis Minnie," moved to St. Louis where he found lots of her 78s and the beginnings of a serious record collection. Gale took his son to the jazz clubs to meet his friends and hear Dixieland bands like the St. Louis Ragtimers. Having found his blues Zen, Doug became a master of the slide guitar. But, he will laugh and tell you, "I repair furniture for a living. Sharon got to make real money and play the music."
When Sharon arrived in April 1987 there were three kids and no plans for a career in music. Seeing her first local music, The Broadway Rhythm Band -- a supergroup led by Stacey Johnson with Buzz Martin on guitar, Jimmy Hines on bass, and Keith Robinson on drums -- "was mind-blowing," she says, "I stared at Hines all night." Between breaks she would talk with him and he would teach her bass lines. She marveled at how "cats here were so generous in sharing their knowledge." Jam sessions became her way to play, which is how she met the ragtime piano great James Crutchfield. One Wednesday night in 1989 she sat in on bass with his band at the Venice Café. She kept coming back and Crutchfield told her, "I can't pay you but you can jam with us." Two months later he told her the guys wanted her to join the band.
Sharon went on to blaze a musical trail through St. Louis and around the world. She formed the Urban Blues Express with Bennie Smith in 1995 where she sharpened her bass skills and learned the guitar. In 2004 she moved to the Rich McDonough band now known as Rough Grooves. She still plays with them as well as with Paul Bonn and the Bluesmen. Doug also plays locally with Raw Earth who put out a CD last May.
Music and family has been a constant in the Foehners' busy lives. Over the past decade Doug would busk with his Dad in front of the Tivoli theater on Delmar. Beulah, the oldest of their three children, continues the musical tradition as a vocalist singing a song written by Sharon, "Homeless Child," on the upcoming St. Louis Blues Society 16 for 16 CD. Of course, mom is backing her on guitar and dad is on the slide.
The Foehners' skills and love of music is apparent onstage where there is no playlist. When asked, they laughed and Sharon said, "our playlist is one complimentary key after the other." Doug agreed, "she likes to pick songs that are pleasant to the ear -- a song in the key of G and then a D or a B -- and we like to mix it up, a little blues, a little jazz."
That's the way the Happy Hour show went. Doug had the slide going with Sharon on guitar and vocals. Yes, Memphis Minnie was there with "Ain't Nothin" and "When the Sun Goes Down." So was Louis Jordan's "Is You Is or Is You Ain't" and Big Bill Broonzy's Big Bill #2. Howlin' Wolf made an appearance with "Nature" and "Howlin' for my Darlin." Son House dropped in with "Death Letter Blues." Doug's slide was flawless. One instrumental, "Maui Chimes," required some delicate harmonic fingering. You could see Sharon smiling at him across the stage as his left pinkie deftly worked its magic. Sharon's vocals were tender, emotive and soulful. You could it see on her face as she would close her eyes and lean into the mike. And, you could see Doug smiling at his playmate; they were in tune. It was a joy to be there, a real happy hour for all.
Howlin' Fridays which continues throughout November at the National Blues Museum includes a 5-7 p.m. Happy Hour show followed by a concert from 7-10 p.m. The Fab Foehners will return to play happy-hour sets on November 18 and 25. The concert lineup includes Big George Brock (11/11), Marquis Knox (11/18) and Skeet Rogers and the Inner City Blues Band (11/25).
To many, the prospect of Eric Johnson playing at the Old Rock House would mean a night of wildly shredded, electric guitar anthems, thick crowds and a welcomed ringing in the ears for hours to come. That was not the experience this past Wednesday, November 2, but few were disappointed. Touring to support his new acoustic album EJ, the Texan guitarist instead played to the sitting room environment in "An Evening of Eric Johnson Solo." Joined only by a trio of acoustic guitars and a grand style piano, Johnson shared an intimate night that resembled the comfort of a living room performance.
With only monotone, static lighting for production, the focus favored a friendly evening of music over attempting to put on a show. Irrespective of the modest climate, Johnson entered to an uproar and standing ovation before taking a seat at the right side of the stage. Without more than the simplest of introductions, he rested the guitar across his lap and began the first set with a pair of instrumental selections. They welcomed the crowd to the warm sound of his acoustic guitar and demonstrated his technical proficiency. The first was full of energy, layering harmonies atop the melody and a bassline on the low E string, while the second was a short and sweet reminder of Johnson's Texas roots.
As the set continued, new and unreleased songs mingled with some of Eric Johnson's personal favorites. The first selection from EJ was "Gift of Love," a songwriter style ballad with a simple melody to the verse. Although often stoic as he played, Johnson's face would often brighten at the close of each song, revealing his own personal enjoyment in the performance. Despite the clear delight he was experiencing, Johnson assured the crowd that he had no intention of selling his electric guitars. Near the end of the set, he revealed new piece entitled "Let a Friend Find You," a warm and comforting song that was reminiscent of Jim Croce in tone and style.
At the start of the second set, Eric Johnson began with a number of songs from the piano at the left side of the stage. He selected five songs, each with distinctive styles of their own. While they largely reflected the same endless selection of arpeggio that he exhibits on guitar, the second selection of the set let the vocals stand out with only the softest accompaniment. It was another unreleased song, named "Over the Moon," and Johnson's voice was rich with soulful tones and style, confirming his abilities as a vocalist as well as an instrumentalist.
As he returned to the guitar, Eric Johnson continued with the mastery of the strings everybody would expect. Many of the selections featured complex progressions that were rich with lead-ins and fluid arpeggio, akin to his style on the electric. Similarly, the influences came from all over the spectrum of rock, blues, western and classical guitar, but the new album and material also embraced the youthful songwriter inside. Keeping it intimate in nature, Johnson included the backstory for a few songs throughout the set, furthering the experience from the wild, rock concerts that have dominated the veteran musician's career.
After a standing ovation to end the second set, Johnson started to leave the stage, but turned before even reaching the edge. He joked about making the world's quickest return for an encore and treated the crowd to two more songs, one on guitar and the finale at the piano bench. A small group had departed their seats in favor of a view of a television with the World Series finale at the back of the bar, but the vast majority kept their attention locked until the very last note of the show, demonstrating their appreciation with another rise to their feet. While a minority of patrons expressed disappointment with the format of the show, the crowds largely treasured the experience and will always remember the evening they shared with Eric Johnson.
On Saturday night, the Pageant struck me as equally too big and too small, as though I'd somehow stumbled into the hotel from The Shining or the house from House of Leaves. For Tegan and Sara, the space barely seemed to contain their energy, sound, and style. I half expected a surprise twist at the end of the show where the roof and walls pulled away to reveal that we'd been in a stadium the whole time. For the opener Torres, however, the size of the live venue seemed at odds with the almost dangerous intimacy that her recorded music requires of its listener.
To be fair, Torres is probably the artist I have recommended more often than any other in the last two years. Writing and performing as Torres, Georgia-born musician Mackenzie Scott creates songs that are beautiful without seeming precious or breakable. A sense of loss pervades her music, alternating between quiet moments -- as though whispered through a confessional -- and ragged, cinematic rock that is urgent yet thoroughly textured. Her most recent album, Sprinter (Partisan Records 2015), is stunning in its songcraft, from the driving dark pop of "New Skin" to the elegiac self-reflection of "Ferris Wheel." At the Pageant, however, her voice seemed to struggle against the sound of her band as it diffused across the stage and into the far-off heights of the mezzanine. Propelled by the sparse rhythm of a drummer who seemed practically allergic to cymbals, Torres mixed recognizable highlights like "Honey" and "Sprinter" with what felt like a lot of new material, including a synth-heavy song that appropriated Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" like it was a Halloween costume. But the louder parts of the set felt too anxious, overwhelming, and the quiet parts felt too far away to fully grasp. Torres's solo tour earlier this year -- including a show at The Firebird in January -- was perhaps better suited to her sound: up close, personal, heavy in a way that kind of crushes you.
Alternately, Tegan and Sara delivered an exuberant, expansive set that the Pageant seemed only barely able to contain. Dressed in matching outfits that combined the clingy, menacingly white jumpsuits from A Clockwork Orange with leather jackets reminiscent of the Ramones' burnout chic, sisters Tegan and Sara Quin traded songs throughout the set with a near-digital efficiency: "Sara" songs were followed by "Tegan" songs all the way down.
The band walked onto the stage to Le Tigre's synth-and-Casio cover of The Pointer Sisters's "I'm So Excited," which proved to be an impeccable choice. Throughout the evening, Tegan and Sara's essentially covered much of their own music by reconfiguring and recasting older songs in the bright, stylized synth-pop of Heartthrob (Warner Brothers 2012) and Love You to Death (Warner Brothers 2016). Like Lauren Hill's recent LouFest set, in which the acoustic energy of Miseducation underwent a space-age transformation, Tegan and Sara have retrofitted their back catalogue to catch up with their current trajectory. To wit: if we really want to crunch the numbers, Tegan and/or Sara played guitar on only three songs in the entire set.
After the initial surprise of an overly minimal "Back in Your Head," the revised versions nested neatly with newer standouts like "Closer" and "Boyfriend." The crowd still sang along with everything; to those whom their lyrics have indelibly affected, the differences in sound were as superficial as a change of clothes. Still, Tegan and Sara seemed to acknowledge their high-gloss makeover. Toward the end of the set, they thanked the audience for "letting us be the band we want to be." This sense of mutual respect and recognition was prominent throughout the night. In a series of short breaks that punctuated the set, Tegan and Sara stepped toward the middle of the stage -- literally sharing a spotlight -- to speak to the audience with what seemed like genuine appreciation. They presumably do this every night, in every city, but through their honest, joyfully awkward banter, they somehow found a way to make us love them more. From recounting a trip to the City Museum earlier that day ("Children squeeze themselves through what can only be described as sewer grates") to admitting past transgressions ("I stole a Snickers bar from a gas station while on acid when I was fifteen") to an all but requisite nod to our political moment ("Just because we're Canadian doesn't mean we're not ready for this election to be over"), Tegan and Sara were at once larger than life and as earthbound and boring as everyone else ("Let's see if we can still catch the opening monologue on SNL").
The most memorable moments of the night came out of these bits. Tegan and Sara were funny. They were fun. Their set was divided neatly into music parts and talking parts to the point that it was pretty clear they were putting on a kind of contemporary variety show. And they did it all while pushing their own music in new and celebratory directions. The night's performance was an experiment that could have easily failed if not for what appears to be an almost otherworldly confidence. They closed out the night with probably the best, totally charitable song on Love You to Death, "Stop Desire," and they did it like it was a super-easy thing to do.
At one point earlier on, a stranger whom I'd haphazardly befriended leaned over in the middle of a song and said "Write this in your review: I'm in heaven! " It seemed like a stretch, but I can't say I didn't believe her. Tegan and Sara had a similar effect on me, if not religiously than spatially. In the moment, I couldn't have imagined anything bigger.
Alt-country legend in the making, Margo Price has been putting in some heavy hours traveling the long, touring road, starting out from her main thoroughfare of Nashville, TN and making stops all throughout the States, including a special stop in St. Louis at the shotgun stage of Old Rock House on October 29.
"Y'all want to hear some shit-kicking country music?!" Price screams mid-performance, her long blond hair flowing beside her shoulders. Nobody in St. Louis would say no to that and the sold-out crowd at Old Rock House answers the call.
If you haven't heard of Margo Price yet, it's really just a matter of time before you do. With the release of her acclaimed 2016 debut record, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, she's now officially part of the country nouveau roster -- Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan, Daniel Romano -- country music that is less "alt-country" and more "country the way it's supposed to be." Purists will rejoice. Pupils will recognize.
When Price and her four-piece backing band take the stage, the crowd gathers in close succession, packing the small venue, top to bottom, jockeying for a good vantage point. (Insider tip for late-comers: at the Old Rock House, it's on the first floor, at the top of the stairs next to the engineer's booth.) When she begins the solo chords of "Since You Put Me Down," the band joins in after a few bars and the jovial crowd sings in unison -- "I killed the angel on my shoulder / when you left me for another." The melody makes me homesick for lost love and I want to hear a version of this song with an upright bass, in a Southern honky-tonk. These are the new classics, ready to accompany you on the bender of a lifetime. "You all sound beautiful," she commends the crowd on their singing prowess, but she's just being nice: crowd sing-a-longs are rarely in time or key.
Price's music is made unique by her similarity to country pioneers who came before and by a superfluous singing voice that floats above antiquated western progressions, with new songs that give a gracious nod to the jukeboxes of yore -- they're as straight as a shot of Evan Williams, as sultry as an old record and a last cigarette. Her backing band makes easy work of the semi- country funk of "Tennessee Song," the 1-2 two-step of "Desperate and Depressed" and a new song titled "Paper Cowboy," which starts out as a West Texas waltz before flipping into a Nashville-style boogie. There's lots of phaser effect on the guitar, giving you that feel of entering drug-country.
Perhaps the most alluring aspect of her music is that it's executed in a way that the alternative world of country music desperately needs right now -- a strong, experienced female voice that can eclipse the echo chamber of the more polished country starlets operating today. Price easily showcases honest roots by creating songs that embody both tragedy and humor simultaneously. It's the self-deprecating, country outlaw, who is experienced enough to know trouble first-hand, but honest enough to admit she has no intention of stopping. That blurred edge is the perfect landscape for the style of songwriting that Price adheres to -- she tells a story, usually one that is reflected from her own personal life, and tips her cowboy hat to it before moving on.
Because Price has only the one album to rely on, she breaks out a few covers, breathing new life into songs like Kristofferson's "Bobby Mcgee," Cash's "Big River," and Haggard's "Red Bandana." It's enough to keep the energy of the show to a natural denouement. During her second single, "Hands of Time," she stops a few bars in to scold some front-row drunks holding a loud conversation. The crowd cheers and it's an inspiring moment to witness this talented artist not taking shit from anybody.
Price saves her first, tried and true single, "Hurtin' (on the Bottle)," for the end of the performance and the crowd goes wild. She comes across as a steady mix of Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn -- singing about jail time, lost children, jilted love -- all while keeping the necessary wit that all ne'er-do-wells know all too well. In all likelihood, this song will go down in music history as the first great drinking song of the new century, right up there with "Friends in Low Places" and "The Bottle Let Me Down." In fact, listen for it wherever drunken Karaoke singers gather. That's how legends are made.
Beale Street came calling at the National Blues Museum when the Take Me to the River Band came up from Memphis October 14 and 15 loaded with music, an award winning documentary and an education program.
With a title taken from the song written by Al Green and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, the 2014 documentary Take Me to the River was a four-year effort by Director Martin Shore and a number of producers, including drummer/guitarist Cody Dickinson and Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, owner of the acclaimed Royal Studios in Memphis. In addition to paying homage to Memphis and its unique role as musical melting pot of blues, R&B, soul, jazz, rock and country, the film project also spurred an educational initiative to promote "a deeper understanding of history, culture, and the meaning of cross-generational and inter-racial collaboration."
Central to the story told in Take Me to the River are Stax and Hi Records. While Stax went bankrupt in 1975, the legacy never died and fundraising efforts to create a performing arts center and museum dedicated to its history led to the June 2000 creation of the Stax Music Academy. Interviews and historical clips provide background for a series of new recording sessions at Boo's Royal Studios in which blues legends like Bobby Rush, Bobby Blue Bland, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Clay, Booker T Jones, William Bell, Charles "Skip" Pitts, and Mavis Staples (who plays The Sheldon on November 5) paired with hip-hop stars Snoop Dog, Yo Gotti, Lil P-Nut, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy. The studio musicians and younger local players provided the smooth groove Memphis sound for the soundtrack
Boo Mitchell said the experience was "awesome" plain and simple. But, he said, getting pairings scheduled for the recording sessions was difficult and some, like BB King and Snoop Dogg, never worked out. When Snoop found out Stax legend William Bell was part of the group he told Boo, "William Bell is one of my heroes. I would love to work with him." The willingness to work and learn even among such accomplished artists is apparent. Boo cites rapper Frayser Boy: "Before TMTTR he had never worked with a live band and now he won't work without one." Several band members had been Stax Academy students in the film only a couple years ago; now they are on the road performing and teaching others.
Boo said his greatest joy was "putting the spotlight on the studio musicians" because, as his Dad used to tell him, "these are the guys you need to take care of because they are the ones that make the music." Boo's other joy is in "passing the torch" though the TMTTR educational initiative. It works in collaboration with Berklee School of Music City Music initiative providing teacher curriculum and music lessons for students in underserved communities.
As Jacqueline Dace, the Director of Internal Affairs for the National Blues Museum, reminded the sold-out room, that's what the TMTTR Band did in St. Louis earlier that day, extending the NBM's own education initiative. Thanking Boo, Willaim Bell, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy for how they worked that day with students from the Confluence Academy - Old North, Ms. Dace set the right tone for the evening's events in which all the lessons to be learned were on display in a program made up of numbers from the album, as well as selections from the Stax catalogue and the participating hip-hop performers.
Sharisse Norman, a young in-demand backup singer who's sweet voice backed many of the night's songs, got the music going with rapper, Tori, who gave a new twist to Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone."
Ashton Riker, a Stax Academy and Berklee grad, took on tunes by Stax icons Sam and Dave, Al Green, and Otis Redding. A big man with a big voice, Ashton got folks moving with "Hold On I'm Coming" and "Soul Man" and then transitioned smoothly into a rendition of "Love and Happiness." Riker's closing selections channeled Otis with Frayser Boy joining him onstage for renditions of "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" and "Try a Little Tenderness."
Hip-hop star Al Kapone, fired up everyone with the relentless energy of his song, "The Music," a tribute to Memphis music and history. It was also a tribute to what was happening on stage with the band that included the Stax Academy Director and alumni and the Hi Rhythm veterans: Boo Mitchell on keyboards, Leroy Hodge on bass and his brother Rev. Charles Hodge on the Hammond B3 organ.
Finally, the ageless William Bell showed everyone how soul should be sung with his song "I Forgot to be Your Lover" and a rousing version of "Knock on Wood" that drew back Al Kapone and Frayser Boy back onstage. The closing performance of "Take Me to the River" had everyone back on stage as the audience danced and sung along to Green's masterpiece. Truly, the National Blues Museum offered a night of joy, history and mighty fine music that, to borrow from Green, couldn't fail to "cleanse my soul and put my feet on the ground."