At the end of the night, a thin layer of sweat covered the floor of Off Broadway. This past Wednesday was the second night of the Open Highway Music Festival headlined by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives with Cory Branan opening. The room hosted most facets of Americana fans, those who saw Marty from his beginnings, young country boys ready for the southern honesty of Branan and the familiar faces that move in and through the doors of Off Broadway. Whenever Stuart and his band come to town there is an excitement surrounding the show and hearing songs that cover all spectrums under the banner of country music.
Cory Branan joyfully bounced on stage with his guitar as if he were on a mission. "I'm going to start out the night with a love song, about whiskey" and with the opening notes of "Sour Mash" the audience witnessed a punk rock energy brand of modern folk that is more akin to the story telling of John Prine (with his wit and humor), the longing of Uncle Tupelo and melodies that resonate the power of Woody Guthrie. "I'm going to keep it happy for a while, it's not my forte but that's what I'm going to do." Instead of bogging himself down with introspection he was playing to his own excitement of being on the same bill as Marty Stuart. "I'm going to try and keep this moving because I want to get a good spot to see Marty." Branan ripped through a set that featured the songs "Wayward and Down," "The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis," "The Only You" and "Tall Green Grass." He was in his element; cracking jokes, telling stories and playing the songs that have, rightfully so, been give rave reviews.
It has been a while since Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives have taken a stage in St. Louis. The last time he hosted his brand of hillbilly rock was within the beautiful walls of the Sheldon Concert Hall but this time around was a treat. Brandishing the two Tele attack of Stuart and guitarist Cuzin' Kenny Vaughan with the powerful pocket tight rhythm section of Handsome Harry Stinson on drums and the newest member, bassist (and steel guitar player) Professor Chris Scruggs. The band laid down a honky tonk groove so powerful it could peel paint off the walls. It was a rare occasion that this band played such an intimate venue, outside Nashville, where one could easily touch the performers and this edition of the Open Highway Music Festival gave fans that opportunity to watch the ambassador of Country music that close.
Just to remind people of the eclecticism of the crowd make up, the band launched into a version of "I Know You Rider," a song that is associated with the Grateful Dead but it's roots trace back to Blind Lemon Jefferson. To see Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is a history lesson in Country, Folk, Blues, Rock and Roll, Gospel and Bluegrass. He has taken that history and processed it through his unique style that comes out traditional but completely fresh. The band rocked through songs like George Jones' "Old, Old House," Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," Marty Robbins' "El Paso" but of all the hits Stuart had in the 90's only "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "Tempted" found their way early into the set. This made room for the band to showcase their talents as musicians, singers and songwriters with Stuart stepping aside to let each member shine. Even though Gospel is a staple in every show during the encore we sent a little prayer up to a great icon we recently lost as the band played a high octane version of "Mama Tried" with everyone's voices lifted into the rafters.
"Hey Pokey!" Stuart said looking off to the side of the stage where St. Louis' own Pokey LaFarge was hanging out, even though he was trying his best to be somewhat inconspicuous wandering through the crowd. "They called me and asked if we wanted to play St. Louis. I said ask Pokey, this is his city, if he's ok with it, we'll play" and that moment summed up the evening. Whether it was Cory Branan pounding out his signature songs or the powerhouse that is the Fabulous Superlatives, it was a good for many to stay out past their bedtime, sweating the St. Louis humidity on a Wednesday night to see an intimate show cranked to eleven.
Photos by Monica Mileur
Dolly Parton's "Pure & Simple" concert on Saturday night started with a three piece ensemble welcoming her to the stage with an a cappella rendition of "Hello Dolly." The singing stopped shortly after she appeared center stage, looking like an angelic rainbow-tasseled and glitter-clad cowgirl.
The 70 year old country music legend was nothing less than a powerhouse. Her warm, approachable energy was immediately clear during the first song, as she complemented someone in the front row on their choice of handbag. It is very easy to believe that performing is what she was born to do. Her voice was powerful and is almost completely unchanged by time. Between songs she walked us through the story of her life, starting with her meager beginnings growing up in the Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee with eleven siblings all under the roof of a one-room cabin. Her playful story-telling is as captivating as her singing, and the mastery of nine different instruments that she played throughout the evening.
Although Scottrade is nowhere near the size of a small venue, it had a certain intimacy about it. The set design was very clean and minimalistic. There were no complex light shows, explosions, jumbo screens or projected graphics. There were only five sheer white curtains draped from the ceiling. The only visual spectacle on stage was Dolly herself. She explained that her signature look mimics the "town trollop" that she idolized as a little girl. Her grandfather, a pentecostal preacher, encouraged her to dress more modestly and to wear less makeup. He asked her, "Don't you want to go to heaven?" Dolly replied, "Yeah, but do I have to look like hell to get there?"
The show was definitely a trip down memory lane for the slightly less than inter-generational crowd, with Parton playing only two songs from the tour's namesake album that will be released on August 19. Although most of the crowd was old enough to recognize the Benny Hill theme she played on a tiny rhinestone-studded saxophone, there was defiantly an observable diversity in the audience. There were grandmas bouncing around like teenage girls, grown men in full Dolly costume, and fans of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds singing along to every word; who else but Dolly could bring together such a crowd? She has the ability to create space for all to unite through music, without labels or judgement, so it wasn't surprising to see many different demographics represented.
Parton spoke briefly about the presidential election in a lighthearted manner saying that whoever wins will need a great deal of prayer. She joked that she had considered running herself and that she's got the hair for it, "It's huuuuuuge!"
If you missed out and didn't see Dolly at the Scottrade Center, don't worry. With 43 albums to her credit, and 12 headlining tours including this one, (which was her biggest in 25 years with over 60 dates in the US and Canada,) this Queen of Country shows no signs of slowing down. Undoubtedly, she will continue to perform, will inspire fans new and old, and will unapologetically be Dolly for years to come.
Photos by Monica Mileur
"Pure & Simple"
"Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That?"
"My Tennessee Mountain Home"
"Coat of Many Colors"
"Smokey Mountain Memories"
"Rocky Top"/"Yakety Sax"
"Banks of the Ohio"
Medley: "American Pie"/"If I Had a Hammer"/"Blowin' in the Wind"/"Dust in the Wind"/"The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down"
"I'll Fly Away"
"Baby I'm Burning"/"Girl On Fire"
"Outside Your Door"
"The Grass is Blue"
"Those Memories of You"
"Do I Ever Cross Your Mind"
"Here You Come Again"
"Two Doors Down"
"Islands in the Stream"
"9 to 5"
"I'll Always Love You"
"Hello God"/"He's Alive"
The Stage at KDHX was the perfect intimate foil for Kevin Gordon and his band when they took the stage Friday. It was an unseasonably cool July night as a cold front moved into St. Louis and inside, the venue planned for a typical humid night but the mix of hot coffee, cold beer and bourbon from the Magnolia Cafe retained the city's typical summer atmosphere. Gordon has been through St. Louis a number of times with his swampy songwriting and troubadour style consisting of his songs, a vintage Gibson hollow body and a Fender amp, this time he brought a few friends that made the room sweat. The venues intimate nature led to a night that was more of a family reunion or a living room show which created a looseness that fit his Louisiana upbringing. Gordon has spent the past 20 years living in East Nashville but it is evident that his formative years in Monroe, Louisiana left a lasting impression evident on his new album Long Time Gone.
Gordon and his band casually came to the stage signaling a laid back night that was fun for everyone. The entrance of drummer Paul Griffith coming through the wrong door truly set the mood: "Ladies and gentleman, Paul Griffith on drums. We are glad he could make it, he had to do some special exercises and we are glad he could get those done," said Gordon. Sitting down a behind the kit the band launched into "Burning the Church House Down." Griffith, a fellow Louisiana native, laid back into the groove matching Gordon's guitar and songs. Guitarist Joe McMahan, originally from New Haven, Missouri, laid into a solo that was equal parts Nashville smooth and blues cool. The dichotomy between Gordon and McMahan's guitar playing was on display with Gordon attacking the guitar with visceral intent. "Tearing it Down" McMahan took that heart-on-his-sleeve style and let loose a barrage of stream-of-consciousness flurry of reverb drenched notes.
"We picked this guy up off the side of the road," said Gordon. "Actually it is a pleasure to have him here to night, it has been a while since we played with him. He just finished playing with Webb Wilder, on bass, Tom Comet." Comet served as both locking in the groove with Griffith, giving a solid grounding for Gordon and McMahan, and acting as adjunct music director. Gordon looking over at Comet's notes to see what song was next, sometimes Gordon switching it up mid-set.
Before intermission Gordon decided to make a last minute change, "Just because we are going to Illinois tomorrow, or tonight, this song seems appropriate," then the band launched into a raucous version of "Illinois 5AM." This left the audience ready for the second set but also gave them a chance to breathe, chat and shower Gordon and his band with compliments. The intimacy of the Stage was the reason both artist and audience shared a few drinks and hung out like they were at a backyard BBQ, the only thing missing was the humidity and someone's uncle manning the grill.
Once the band came back, they were a little looser and ready to play. Opening the second set with "Casino Road" Griffith laid down a Louisiana shuffle with Comet falling deep in the pocket leaving Gordon and McMahan to explore the song from a lyrical and musical stand point. This vibe would carry through the set in songs like "Church on Time" and "Gloryland." The latter of the two Gordon said, "Unfortunately it is just as relevant now as when I wrote it." Instead of taking the song to a dark place of sorrow when performed solo the band of Comet, McMahan and Griffith played a version that extracted an anger and disbelief of the world around us. That intensity continued as they surprised the audience with a rockabilly rendition of Hank Williams "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," which segued perfectly into "Good Rocking Tonight." "That was my attempt to pay tribute to the great Scotty Moore who just passed away," announced Gordon.
"Colfax" from the album Gloryland has become one of Gordon's most ambitious and emblematic songs that recounts a different time and place. It is the story of being a member of a Southern high school marching band led by an African American director, Mr. Minifield, and his stoic confrontation with members of the Ku Klux Klan who appear in protest to the band director's position. The song contains Gordon's sense of humor but played, as an ensemble, the band takes on the character of Mr. Minifield as he keeps marching:
Looking straight ahead
Like there was somewhere better
He was going
But this was the only goddamned way to get there.
The band feverishly took on the bravery of the character pushing the audience into a hypnotic trance in which we all have find courage in the face of adversity and keep marching through some of the bullshit life throws our way.
After a romp through "24 Diamonds" and "One I Love" to lighten the mood and leave the audience on an upswing, Gordon and band left the stage. In true customary fashion the audience wanted one more song. Being that this was a laid back night Gordon seemed surprised and a bit unprepared to come back. "We weren't really prepared for another song," Gordon mused bewilderedly and asked for a suggestion. A few voice chimed in when some called out for "Deuce and a Quarter." "Alright, let's do that. This song was cut by Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana for the album All the Kings Men. It is out of print but you can search for it on YouTube. You'll find my version, their version and one that is a different song, not mine, just take my word for it." They launched in the country rocker that typified the looseness of the night. Those that came out of the Friday before the Fourth of July were treated to a great American songwriter with a great band having fun and playing a few songs.
Here is where I got in trouble on Saturday. I was standing at the back wall of the Firebird, briskly tapping out some thoughts in the Notes app of my phone. As a too-frequent brilliant-idea-forgetter, I tend to take a lot of notes. Id relocated to this particular spot in the club so that no one in the audience would be behind me, andfor reasons that will seem almost exasperatingly prescient in a momentId actually even dimmed the brightness of my phones display before the show.
Here is what I was writing when I got in trouble on Saturday, basically verbatim:
Plague Vendor singer. Stage moves (what else to call them: surely he doesnt move like this in real life?). A not un-mesmerizing combination of Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, and Kathleen Hanna. (Im pretty sure I just saw him do the splits.) Or maybe its more like Mick Jagger plus Glenn Danzig. Does KC+MJack+KH=MJag+GD? Compared to this singerviolently lean, attractively all over placeeveryone else in the world looks just a little more like Dave Attell by comparison.
Are these the most brilliant notes ever? Probably not. Did I bang all of this out with my thumbs in response to a performance that I was actually enjoying, even though Plagues Vendors music itself doesnt totally do it for me? You betcha. Is this how I actually write? Yes, unfortunately.
Here is what I was not doing when I got in trouble on Saturday. During one song, the singer of Plague Vendor, Brandon Blaine, had coaxed the audience into crouching low to the floor as the music got quieter. I had not personally crouched, however, assuming that this interaction was optional. This was the point at which point Blaine called out from the stage: Whos that guy with the cell phone? What are you doing? Dont you know where you are? It was me. I gave a little wave of my phone to him, screen-side, and crouched down, eager to know where this knee-bendingly important group adventure was headed. Then the music kicked back in, and Blaine jumped off the stagelooking a little like the Nike Air Jordan logoand the rest of us stood up again.
Here is what I was writing when I got in trouble for the second time, also basically verbatim:
We all crouched down to the floor and then got back up. It felt like when youre at your aunts second wedding, and the house band is playing Otis Days Shout and brings everyone down to the floor for getting a little bit softer now, etc. Not sure what we just gained by this, collectively. And plus I just got in trouble.
So yes, even after the initial admonishment, Id continued to use my phone to take notes, for which Blaine called me out again after the song ended: That guy is back on his phone? Really?! Theres no Pokemon here, bro! (Full disclosure: he may not have actually said bro at the end, but it just kind of felt that way to meeither way, an antagonizingly masculine inflection for sure.) I waved my phone at him again in recognition, which I assumed was our thing now.
Before I got in trouble, Id written a note that said: Mike Patton. That Blaine reminded me, if only even fractionally, of the charismatic genius weirdo behind Faith No More seemed like a pretty generous comparison to which I could give a little more consideration once I got home with my notes. After I got in trouble, though, I wrote: Donald Trump. That Blaine sought to prescribe a single, monolithic way for the audience to experience his short time on stage seemed unnecessarily authoritarian. That he was unwilling to tolerate an averted gaze or a potentially divided attention seemed kind of needy. That he used his position of power to specifically call out and chastise a single audience member made him seem at least a little like a bully.
I would love to be able to take back and disavow all of the nice things Id initially written about Blaine, but thats not how notes work. Notes accumulate and compound, adding up. Notes dont want you to erase them, but rather to let them reveal.
Before the whole thing with Plague Vendor, here is what Id written about local favorites Bruiser Queen, who opened the show. These notes, for which I did not get in trouble, are also transcribed here pretty much verbatim, because I want to call attention to the spirit of inclusivity that I had been feeling up to that point:
BQ remind me of a band playing at a high school dance in a mainstream '80s movie. In those scenes, you get the sense of that band is, like, the best band in that school, well-liked by the widest possible assortment of tastemakers, burnouts, mathletes, and weirdos. They are for everyone.
The already very good Bruiser Queen just keep getting better, and their set had several great new songs and absolutely no filler. I had been really having a good time.
After the whole thing with Plague Vendor, who played second, we finally got to see White Lung. Tearing through tracks from Sorry, Deep Fantasy, and Paradise, frontwoman Mish Barber-Way navigated rock-and-roll theatricality and hardcore ethos, diminishing the need for a difference between the two. Guitarist Kenneth William inhabited the upper registers of his instrument with a restless accuracy, creating an urgent architecture of cascading notes. Drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou played unimpeachably, at once stead and fast.
White Lungs set drew largely from their newest record, Paradise (Domino, 2016), which is one of the strongest and most unexpectedly listenable albums of the year. Embracing both an expanded sonic scope and a calculated de-escalation of the throat-shedding vocals of their earlier work, Paradise adapts White Lungs energy to new ends. Their anger and aggression has become more beautiful now, precise, verging on perfect, as though they have learned that scathing incision is best made with a scalpel, not a kitchen knife.
I didnt take many notes during White Lungs set, despite wanting to. Maybe I was worried that getting back on my phone would seem like a kind of vaguely political positiona low-level civil disobedience, when in fact I actually consider it a high-level crutch. Maybe I started to worry less about memory, and more about the moment. Maybe Plague Vendor won. Or maybe I just did what I wantednotes or not. Im tempted to posit the latter; White Lung is uncommonly empowering.
Without my notes, though, what I maybe remember most is that after this all-ages show, I was standing in the merch line behind a girl and her companion, who may have been her older brother or her youngish dad. The girls nascent edginess was offset by her age-appropriate braces, and I got the sense that this show was a big deal to her. Behind the table, Mish Barber-Way from White Lung was chatting with fans, taking shirts out of boxes, recommending sizes. (This one might run kinda bigyou definitely need the Small.) The girl was nervous about meeting Barber-Way, which she explained to her companion. I think I heard her say kind of my hero (with which I kind of agree, personally). At the front of the line, the girl and the singer spoke for a minute, and after some initial gushing, Barber-Way came out from behind the table to pose for a photo, taken by the companion with his phone. When it was my turn, I bought a black White Lung t-shirt without saying muchnewly committed, at least for the moment, to going unnoticed.
Disclaimer: I don't run down touring musicians who work their heart out and perform live in front of hundreds of people, so take the title with a grain of salt. It was a "mixed" concert because the Jayhawks themselves are a mixed and varied crew. First of all, they are hard to describe usually falling somewhere in between "alt-county" to "pop-folk." Also, they have been around since the 80s but have taken long hiatuses between records and tours, so it's hard to say they've been consistent. Finally, there are some songs you will just love ("Blue," "Let the Critics Wonder," "Two Angels")--songs that evoke some of the best of Dylan, Neil Young and Wilco--then there are a whole bunch of songs that are, well, not as notable or lovable.
One thing that you can say about the Jayhawks is their outsized influence on the scene. Since they began touring and playing live they've been a favorite of record shops and independent radio stations. They are credited with strongly influencing Uncle Tupelo and others. They also have a modest fan base who seem to be perfectly in line with their evolving sound. Last night's Pageant performance had a dance floor and people swaying and moving but the concert was set up for seats and clearly geared towards the causal listener. I did test my feet to the beat when they let loose with guitars and harmonica, seemingly off-script and jammy on a few great numbers. I wish there had been more of it, although my date and I danced through many songs, there were some that left us tapping our feet and hoping for more.
Although I found the show a bit of a mixed bag, I have to say I really like the recent album, Paging Mr. Proust, partially because it is so different from their previous releases. On a recent interview promoting the album, Gary Louris (guitar and vocals) speaks as if to preemptively handle critical attacks that the Jayhawks have abandoned their signature sound for something more poppy, "There are things on the record that are shockingly not what people think of the Jayhawks but they are." The album is good. It's experimental, a bit grungy, and yes, definitely more of a pop approach. Definitely worth putting on the Sunday morning Spotify list, buying in vinyl or downloading for your collection.
This review for what it's worth, wouldn't be complete without a huge shoutout to Folk Uke, Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson, who opened for the Jayhawks. Not to be confused with Garfunkel and Oates, this duo nonetheless takes a very similar approach with very funny results: "I gave a BJ to a DJ, (and now I'm a radio star)" and their latest runaway hit, courtesy of Netflix's Orange Is The New Black, "Motherfucker got fucked up ('cause he got in the way)," a song that forms into a giant ear worm that basically makes you chuckle all day long.
Photos by John Taylor