Country icon Crowell brings rock and gospel to Twangfest

Rodney Crowell and Jedd Hughes at Twangfest 18 / Photo by Barry Gilbert
Rodney Crowell and Jedd Hughes at Twangfest 18 / Photo by Barry Gilbert

By Barry Gilbert

Country music legend Rodney Crowell came to St. Louis last night (June 5, 2014) and broke out his rock and gospel show for the second night of Twangfest 18.

Backed by an excellent, sympathetic band featuring Australia’s Jedd Hughes on electric guitar, Crowell played for about 90 minutes, hitting most of his career milestones while obliterating expectations of what the show would be like.

Crowell threw his set list in the trash before the show even started, moving the topical rocker “Sex and Gasoline” to the leadoff position and saving “Stars on the Water” for later.

And for the first hour, the music did the only talking, as Crowell built momentum through a series of songs that mixed older material such as “Telephone Road” with new tunes from his “Tarpaper Sky” CD, including the ballad “Anything But Tame.”

Then came the midset surprise.

Stars on the Water,” from Crowell’s first album in 1977 and which Jimmy Buffett has been performing live for 30 years, flowed into – of all things – the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself.”

Fueled by the backup vocals of touring partner Shannon McNally and the powerful Joanne Gardner, “Respect Yourself” had the audience dancing. And Crowell, playing acoustic guitar, prowled the stage making eye contact with Hughes, joyfully grinning drummer Keio Stroud and upright-bass slapper Michael Rennie.

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Rodney Crowell continues quest for ‘timelessness’


Rodney Crowell / Photo by David McClister
Rodney Crowell / Photo by David McClister

By Barry Gilbert

Rodney Crowell, bluesman. That might sound like a contradiction coming from a veteran country music singer/songwriter, but he has said that a bluesman is inside him trying to get out – and that the bluesman hasn’t always been there.

However, Crowell, a perfectionist who’s most recent CD, “Tarpaper Sky,” continues to sit atop the American Music Association chart, is hesitant to talk too much about it.

You have to be careful … when you’re trying to tap into and learn to create from an artistic place that comes to you later on,” he said recently from his home in Tennessee. “To talk about it is tricky. To hear you quote me that way, I was thinking, hmm, am I being wise to talk about it?”

Crowell, who tore up the country charts in 1988 with five No. 1 singles from his fifth album, “Diamonds & Dirt,” acknowledges that rock musicians such as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones drew from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and that Stevie Ray Vaughan drew from Lightin’ Hopkins.

I certainly understood (the blues) from Day 1, from being 4 years old, I understood Hank Williams’ version of the blues, and it is an authentic version of the blues,” Crowell says. “I’ve certainly been trying to get instinctive about it and intuitive enough that I’m not manufacturing rehashed blues, but to intuitively find my own version of it. That’s the way I work. And to speak of it before you’ve actually achieved it is maybe not the smartest thing to do.”

I interviewed Crowell recently in advance of his show in St. Louis on June 5, 2014, when he will headline the second night of the 18th annual, four-night roots music series Twangfest. I found him to be extremely gracious and generous with his time and, as expected, very thoughtful.

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All those music lessons paid off for Judy Collins

Judy CollinsBy Barry Gilbert 

Her enormous blue-gray-green eyes were half closed, her long hair swung gently across her back and her white-stockinged ankles urged the heavy beat. Judy Collins performed for her friends at the Oakdale Muscial Theater Sunday night.”

This is the lead paragraph of a concert review I wrote for the Hartford Courant on July 16, 1968. I was 19 – it clearly reads that way to me now – and I had quite the crush on the performer.

By then, Judy Collins, a classically trained pianist, had been a teen prodigy in Denver, performing Mozart with the Denver Symphony Orchestra at age 13. She was a veteran of the folk circuit and, drawing on her training, had already expanded her palette from guitar-accompanied folk music to orchestrated pop songs, art songs and show tunes.

She had recorded the groundbreaking “In My Life” and “Wildflowers” albums in 1966 and 1967, respectively, and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” her eighth, would be released a couple of months later. It would include her own composition, “My Father,” and feature songs by writers she continued to champion: Leonard Cohen, Ian Tyson, Sandy Denny, Bob Dylan and Robin Williamson.

I interviewed Judy Collins before her concert in her green room, a small trailer behind the venue in Wallingford, Conn., sitting across from her in the cramped quarters and staring into those eyes. She was the first celebrity/artist I had ever interviewed. I was starstruck and smitten, no doubt about it. 

Collins turned 75 on May 1. She is a worldwide performer, PBS star and road warrior equally at home with large orchestras or simply with her piano and guitar. She has survived alcoholism and laser surgery to save her voice, and lived through the 1992 tragedy of losing her son to suicide. She wrote about that in bestselling books, “Singing Lessons” (1998) and “Sanity and Grace” (2003), and is an advocate for the mentally ill.

The recent “Live in Ireland” is her 50th release.

So it was a real treat to interview her again after all these years, by phone from her home in New York City in advance of her concert in Edwardsville, Ill., on May 17, 2014.

My only regret is I couldn’t see those eyes.

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The Blasters live up to their name in St. Louis

The Blasters perform in St. Louis. From left: Keith Wyatt, Phil Alvin, John Bazz and Bill Bateman / Photos by Barry Gilbert

By Barry Gilbert

The Blasters brought “American Music” back to St. Louis on Sunday night (May 11, 2014), and like the song says, “it was a howl from the desert (and) a scream from the slums,” with “the Mississippi rollin’ to the beat of the drums” just a few blocks away from the Off Broadway music club.

Phil Alvin’s stoked rhythm & rockabilly band from Downey, Calif., doesn’t make it to the Midwest very often, so it’s always a treat to see them. Unfortunately, Sunday was also Mother’s Day, and the crowd numbered only about 50. But they were largely hard-core fans, and they had their dancing shoes on.

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Aaron Neville Q&A: Doo-wop, poetry and Roy Rogers

Aaron Neville

By Barry Gilbert

You can take Aaron Neville out of New Orleans, but you can’t take New Orleans out of Aaron Neville.

Among the Neville Brothers, New Orleans’ first family of music, he’s the brother with the sweet tenor. Like so many others, he lost his home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and eventually relocated to New York City. But he says the change in residence, and the loss of his Crescent City anchor, hasn’t changed him.

“The music is always in my heart and soul, it doesn’t matter where I am,” Neville, 73, said recently from his home. “But I’m loving where I’m at, that’s a good thing. And I’m doing a lot of writing now.”

Neville laments changes in the music industry, especially the dominance of digital technology.

Yeah, that and downloading and all,” he says. “Even cars – they don’t put CD players in ’em no more. I don’t know what the format’s gonna be.”

So it’s amusing to learn that he uses that technology to write.

“I don’t use pencil and paper,” Neville says. “I write on my iPhone. So I start out writing poetry. I have a poetry book (“I Am a Song”) that’s out also, I had a limited edition. I have maybe a hundred more poems in my phone. I’ll use some of them to make songs out of, maybe another poetry book.

Neville, interviewed in advance of his Feb. 22 show at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis, is still touring behind “My True Story,” which was produced by fellow music legends Don Was and Keith Richards, who plays on all the tracks with an all-star band. It’s a collection of classic and later doo-wop songs, from “Ruby Baby” (Dion) to “Tears on My Pillow” (Little Anthony) to “Be My Baby” (the Ronettes and Phil Spector).

Neville says making the record — he went into the studio with 12 songs and ended up recording 23 — was “a labor of love” for Richards and the other players, including organist Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, guitarist Greg Leisz and drummer George Receli (Bob Dylan’s band).

And he says he’s far fromn done.

“I’ll be going back in this year with another album on Blue Note,” he says. “It’ll probably be some stuff I’m writing, and we still have stuff in the can for another doo-wop, maybe later on.”

Following is our Q&A session, edited for clarity and flow.

Q: You’re still touring behind “My True Story” and doing songs from it?

Neville: New to old and in between, whatever, you know. Stuff that nobody ever really heard, stuff that I grew up listening to, and especially in the duo shows, I can do impromptu, whatever comes into my mind.

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My favorite roots-music CDs of 2013

By Barry Gilbert

It’s that time of year when I look back and think: Man, I dropped a lot of money on music this year. Again. So here’s my Top 10 list of the best roots music of 2013. Feel free to disagree. But keep in mind, these are the one’s that stuck among the albums I heard this year, and I didn’t hear anywhere close to everything. Nobody did.

And with 18 days remaining in the year, something great might slip into the mailbox before it’s over — like today, when Jimmer Podrasky’s “The Would-Be Plans” arrived. Can’t wait to dive into this long-overdue new work by the leader of the long-defunct Rave-Ups. Who knows, I might have to revise this list.

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The Bottle Rockets lean forward into the past on 20th anniversary tour

The Bottle Rockets perform at Off Broadway in St. Louis on Dec. 7, 2013 -- (from left) John Horton, Mark Ortmann, Brian Henneman and Keith Voegele. // Photo by Angela Kelly
The Bottle Rockets perform at Off Broadway in St. Louis on Dec. 7, 2013 — (from left) John Horton, Mark Ortmann, Brian Henneman and Keith Voegele. // Photo by Angela Kelly

By Barry Gilbert

The Bottle Rockets celebrated the reissue of their first two albums plus their 20th anniversary Saturday night in St. Louis and emphasized from the first note that they would not only look back, they would lean forward. So, in a rather audacious move, the hometown band opened with a new song.

“Monday (Every Time I Turn Around)” was enthusiastically received by a full house at the Off Broadway music venue and was balanced nicely by a couple of songs that have never been recorded by the Bottle Rockets, songs that are among way-back demos included as bonus tracks in the reissue package of the band’s first two albums, “Bottle Rockets” (1993) and “The Brooklyn Side” (1994).

The band, on what frontman Brian Henneman called its “One Foot in the Future, One Foot in the Past” tour, demonstrated again the depth and range of its extraordinary catalogue. The show was one of the best I’ve ever heard the Brox play.

Henneman apparently felt the same way, posting Sunday on Facebook: “Fantastic St. Louis show last night. Maybe my favorite ever.” Later in the day, he wrote: “Saturday, we had a room full of music fans on a cold, snowy night, lovin’ every minute of what we were doin’. We were lovin’ that they were lovin’ it. I guarantee ya we appreciate things like that more than the average music fan’s average rock star does.”

Throughout the show, Henneman kept his between-song chatter, which is never unwelcome, to a minimum, choosing to match musical quality with musical quantity. Bassist Keith Voegele and drummer Mark Ortmann were in tight synch; guitarist John Horton, who joined the band with Voegele about 2006, turned in one of his best nights as a Bottle Rocket; and the interplay between Horton’s and Henneman’s guitars was thrilling.

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St. Louis’ Bottle Rockets is given its due with reissued albums

The Bottle Rockets current lineup (from left) is Keith Voegele, Mark Ortmann, Brian Henneman and John Horton.

By Barry Gilbert
Special to the Post-Dispatch

Bottle Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann proved to be clairvoyant five years ago when, on the St. Louis band’s 15th anniversary, he talked about what it takes to survive in music.

“You start dreaming big, wishing you could be the next Aerosmith, and when that doesn’t happen, many bands just collapse,” he said. “But if you’re in it for the long haul, you become a working musician and start appreciating what successes you do have. And if you’re happy with your art, then maybe, somewhere later on, it’ll find some kind of fertile ground.”

“Later on” has arrived. The band’s Chicago-based label, Bloodshot, has reissued its first two long-out-of-print albums, “Bottle Rockets” (1993) and “The Brooklyn Side” (1994), packaged as a two-disc set with 19 bonus tracks and a 40-page booklet. It may not be Aerosmith-style treatment, but it is pretty special for one of the best and most under-recognized roots-rock bands on the planet.

“People who missed us the first time around are getting a second chance with these reissues,” Ortmann said. “It gets people’s attention that we’re still around, and they’re reassessing the early part of our career.”

Frontman Brian Henneman has been doing more interviews than at any time since Atlantic Records picked up “The Brooklyn Side” from indie East Side Digital in 1994. He’s been talking with outlets ranging from Esquire and Country Music Television to blogs he’s never heard of.

“There’s a long-haul way to do it, and a very, very short-haul way,” he says. “Some of the people who blew up big for the short haul made enough money to live on the rest of their life. It’s good. (But) we got the workin’ man’s attitude toward it.”

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Lean forward into the past with the Bottle Rockets reissue CDs

The original Bottle Rockets (from left) Tom Parr, Tom V. Ray, Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann // Photo by Brad Miiller
The original Bottle Rockets (from left) Tom Parr, Tom V. Ray, Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann // Photo by Brad Miiller

By Barry Gilbert

In 1994, St. Louis’ Bottle Rockets sang about that “angry fat man on the radio (who) wants to keep his taxes way down low” in “Welfare Music,” one of the band’s finest songs. Almost 20 years later, that radio guy is, if anything, fatter and angrier, and the Bottle Rockets, thankfully, are still a working, blue-collar, roots-rock band.

Chicago’s Bloodshot Records has reissued the band’s first two out-of-print albums, the self-titled “Bottle Rockets” (1993) and its 1994 follow-up, “The Brooklyn Side.”

Fans who were present at the creation and have stuck with the band through 11 albums and its odyssey to Major Label Land and back will be familiar with this music; indeed, more than half of the original CDs’ 27 songs are in the Bottle Rockets’ concert rotation.

For relative newcomers to the band – those who came aboard with “Zoysia” (2006) and the current lineup, or may have discovered the Brox in recent years on its tours with power pop legend Marshall Crenshaw – these reissues will be an eye-opener.

But both groups will be thrilled by the package, which combines each album on a separate disc along with a total of 19 bonus tracks and a 40-page booklet full of essays and testimonials from critics and peers. Steve Earle, for example, says that when he first heard “Radar Gun” on “The Brooklyn Side,” “at least for that moment, I believed that there was hope for the future of rock and roll.”

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Iris DeMent, a perfectionist of spirit, comes to a musical crossroad

Iris DeMent // Photo by Pieta Brown

By Barry Gilbert
Special to Go! Magazine

ST. LOUIS – The saying “good things come to those who wait” epitomizes folk singer Iris DeMent as well as her fans. It took 16 years for DeMent to release her fourth studio CD, last year’s “Sing the Delta.” And that gap says volumes about DeMent and, as she put it, “my music career, if you want to call it that.”

DeMent, who performs with a full band Friday (Nov. 22, 2013) at the Sheldon Concert Hall, is a perfectionist of spirit. If her writing doesn’t move her, she won’t record it.

As the years passed after the release of “The Way I Should” in 1996, “I kept trying to write, but there was just no life to it,” DeMent says by phone from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. “And I didn’t feel like making a record that was just a bunch of songs that didn’t have life and spirit to them. … My secret fear is that I’m a lazy ass, but I don’t think that’s it, because I (put in the work).”

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