Twangfest 12 wrapup

The Waco Brothers
The Waco Brothers perform at Twangfest

The following post is an unedited version of my report for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which ran in a shorter form on Monday, June 9, 2008.

June 15, 2008

By Barry Gilbert

The Waco Brothers, an irreverent band of post-punk, country-leaning Brits from Chicago, and Ha Ha Tonka, young tradition-minded rockers from the Ozarks, closed out the four-night Twangfest 12 in style Saturday [June 7, 2008] at Off Broadway.

St. Louis’ not-for-profit, roots music festival came full circle with the Wacos, who inaugurated the series at Off Broadway in 1997.

Review of Day 1: Chuck Prophet, Centro-Matic, the Butchers and the Builders
Review of Day 2: The Gourds, the Dynamites featuring Charles Walker, the Deadstring Brothers
Review of Day 3: The Old 97’s, Hayes Carll, Miles of Wire, I Love Math
Review of Day 4: The Waco Brothers, Ha Ha Tonka, the everybodyfields, Caleb Travers

Clad in a variety of black Western shirts, the Wacos played for an hour and 45 minutes and tore through 20 songs, a set list that would have been longer if not for the Wacos’ nonstop onstage banter that ranged from British sexual practices to U.S. politics, with numerous checkpoints in between.

Jon Langford, a graduate of the roots-punk Mekons and a mainstay of Chicago’s country music movement since he settled there 16 years ago, led the Wacos through punk-fueled songs about President George W. Bush (“Cowboy in Flames”), Hiroshima and history (“Hell’s Roof”) the “Death of Country Music,” and the blue-collar ethic (“Plenty Tough Union Made”).

Ha Ha Tonka’s 45-minute set was remarkable in its range. Front man Brian Roberts, bassist Lucas Long, keyboardist-guitarist Brett Anderson and drummer Lennon Bone played loud, and they played tough. But they were equally adept at playing soft and with nuance – plus, they can all sing.

The big Off Broadway crowd exploded after they stepped up for an a capella version of the traditional folk ballad “Hangman,” their solid four-part harmonies filling the bar.

Opening was the Everybodyfields from Johnson City, Tenn., and St. Louis Country singer Caleb Travers.

Twangfest 12 also scored earlier in the week with its other headliners:

Chuck Prophet, Wednesday at the Tap Room: The San Francisco singer-songwriter and his Mission Express played a solid set of soul-tinged rock and power pop. His interplay with second guitarist James Deprato was a highlight of the set.

The Gourds and the Dynamites, Thursday at Blueberry Hill: Veteran soul singer Charles Walker, backed by Nashville’s Dynamites, took Twangfest off the front porch and uptown for an exciting set of funk, blues and soul. Texas’ Gourds closed the night with a laid-back stew of folk, country and Cajun rhythms.

The Old 97’s, Friday at the Pageant: This was the big show of the week, and the Dallas rockers delivered an electric two-hour set featuring the inexhaustible charm of front man Rhett Miller. Houston country singer Hayes Carll gave the festival a much-needed injection of twang in his supporting role.

Elsewhere in the Twangfest notebook:

Missing in action: The women. As the festival has broadened its definition of twang, the ranks of female artists has dwindled. Last year’s lineup included Elizabeth Cook, Carrie Rodriguez, and strong front women in Blue Mountain, Dolly Varden and Wussy. This year: only Masha Marjieh of the Deadstring Brothers and Jill Andrews of the Everybodyfields, plus sax player Hope Clayburn of the Dynamites. What’s up with that?

Missing in action, part 2: Traditional country music and bluegrass. From a majority of country acts, this year’s festival boasted only Carll and Travers, the Everybodyfields, perhaps the Gourds, and the Builders and the Butchers. The closest Twangfest 12 came to traditional country was George Jones piped over the PA before the Old 97’s set at the Pageant.

Diversity: Charles Walker. Say it again: Charles Walker. The veteran soul man thrilled Thursday at the Duck Room, providing a solid link to the blues side of roots music. If Twangfest is to continue to be a big tent, it needs more of the vital contributions made by African-Americans to American music.

Around the dial: It was said many times from the stage, but most if not all of this year’s performers can be heard on St. Louis radio in only one place: KDHX (88.1 FM). The not-for-profit, volunteer Twangfest is sponsored by that treasure of a station, and all proceeds after paying for the musicians go to keeping it on the air.

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