By Barry Gilbert


Sunday, June 10, 2007
Published online at

Mike Gent (left) and Pete Donnelly of the Figgs headline the final night
of Twangfest 11.
| Barry Gilbert
Twangfest met St. Louis’ electricity needs, at least for Saturday night, harnessing the energy of three very different rock ‘n’ roll bands plus the emotional power of a country-folk singer to close out the 11th edition of the city’s roots-music festival.

Mike Gent and the Figgs, who had backed up Graham Parker the night before, headlined Saturday’s show at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room and lived up to their introduction as one of the world’s best live bands.

They also met the challenge of following to the stage St. Louis favorite Chuck Cleaver and his hot band Wussy, featuring singer-songwriter Lisa Walker.

How the Figgs could be that good and remain only a cult favorite after 20 years is a mystery. Formed in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., they have eight albums under their own banner plus three more with Parker.

Guitarist Gent, bassist Pete Donnelly and drummer Pete Hayes may be known as a power pop trio, but that label is best turned around to put the emphasis where it belongs: The Figgs are a pop power trio.

The Figgs ride the blistering guitar of Gent, whose playing incorporates a myriad of influences but sounds like nobody else. With Gent and Donnelly sharing lead vocals, the band split its set between old favorites and tracks from their most recent CD, “Follow Jean Through the Sea,” scoring early with the title cut, “Jumping Again” and “Hobble Skirt in Erie.”

Then it was into the catalogue for songs, as Gent put it, “from the 1900’s”: the Kinks-ish “Simon & Simone,” the ballad “Please Hold On” and the raucous “Gonna Get Out,” featuring a fiery bass solo from Donnelly. Other winners included the Stonesy “Back to Being,” and “City Loft Home.”

Wussy, from Cincinnati, started off almost too strong, overpowering Walker’s vocals. But the band quickly settled into a powerful groove over the drumming of Dawn Burman and the bass of Mark Messerly, who also chipped in on keyboards, harmonica and xylophone.

You knew Wussy would be aggressive when Burman broke a drumstick on the first downbeat of the set – and the same happened later to Messerly playing xylophone.

The relatively new band played several tunes from its only CD, “Funeral Dress” (2005), including “Conversation Lags” and the title song, as well as road-tested songs that will be on a new Wussy CD in August. One of those, “The Sun Giant Says Hey,” featured Messerly playing a melodic riff on the high strings of the bass that ordinarily would be done on guitar.

Chuck Cleaver, Dawn Burman and Lisa Walker of Wussy. | Barry Gilbert
Cleaver, whose twisted and beloved ex-band the Ass Ponys played Twangfest in 2001, turned his plaintive voice to the fine song “Airborne” (“why the world goes round is hard to say”) and the ballad “Don’t Leave Just Now.” A highlight for Walker was the stark “Yellow Cotton Dress.”

Most surprising cover of the night went to Wussy as well: Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog.”


Slaid Cleaves.
| Barry Gilbert
The classy Cleaves, also a 2001 Twangfest veteran, played with stellar support from Michael Connors on acoustic guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and mandolin, and Ivan Brown on electric bass.

Two songs into his set – “Drinkin’ Days” and his classic country weeper “Horseshoe Lounge” – Cleaves also unleashed the festival’s best line, without a trace of bitterness or irony:

“I was talking to my mother today, and she asked me how my little music career was going. I said, ‘Mom – I’m opening for Wussy tonight!’ ”

Cleaves, who drew one of the biggest crowds of the evening, wove a spell with his gentle character studies of lovers and losers, including “Last of the V-8s,” “Broke Down,” “

The centerpiece of Cleaves’ set was two songs that served as eulogies for friends. Don Walser, a Western-swing legend who died in September, was remembered in the yodel-rich “Rolling Stone From Texas,” from Cleaves’ covers CD “Unsung.”

Wishbones” and the down-and-outer’s prayer for “One Good Year.”

The second was the epic horseracing saga “Quick As Dreams,” written for Helen Luther, the widow of old-time jockey Tommy Luther whom Cleaves read about in Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Seabiscuit.” Cleaves and band turned off their amps and stepped away from their microphones for the piece, focusing attention on the lyrics.  
Opening the night was the High Strung, a trio of childhood pals from Detroit who unleashed an attack of garage rock meets power pop so aggressive that they were in danger of racing ahead of themselves.

Highlights of the set by singer-guitarist Josh Malerman, drummer Derek Berk and bassist Chad Stocker included “Maybe You’re Coming Down With It”; the ballad “N/C”; “Anything Goes,” featuring the inventive Stocker on an impressive bass solo; and “Rimbaud/Rambo” – a song about “the only two options” in one man’s life.

Malerman’s near-falsetto voice is a different but effective instrument, and he and Stocker harmonize well.

They just need to ease the pedal off the metal now and then and take a breath.

Josh Malerman (left), Derek Berk and Chad Stocker of the High Strung. | Barry Gilbert