Crenshaw, Bottle Rockets close a packed Twangfest


By Barry Gilbert

Singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, backed by the muscle of St. Louis’ Bottle Rockets, on Saturday night (June 8, 2013) brought a sweat-drenched end to Twangfest, one of the most successful editions in the festival’s 17-year run.

Among the 13 acts that performed last week, three – Crenshaw, Asleep at the Wheel and Ray Wylie Hubbard – are bonafide music legends, and two more – Joe Pug and Todd Snider – may earn that status someday.

In addition, the four-night celebration of American roots music sold out three of the four shows (one at Plush and two at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room), and set a record with fans buying 70 four-night passes. The festival ran smoothly, and even the technical gremlins took a year off.

On Saturday night at the Duck Room, the Bottle Rockets put the power into Crenshaw’s power pop, backing Crenshaw after a set of their own to end a 10-day tour together.

Crenshaw’s intricate and beautiful melodies take on serious grit over the bedrock rhythms laid down by Bottle Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann and bassist Keith Voegele, and the powerful guitar work of Brian Henneman and John Horton. Set highlights included the classic Crenshaw songs “Cynical Girl,” “Someday Someway,” “Mary Anne” and “Something’s Gonna Happen.”

A surprise second encore provided special treats, including Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” – “I had to do it, folks,” Crenshaw said from the stage where Berry still performs once a month, and Crenshaw singing lead on “one of my favorite Bottle Rockets songs” – “Kit Kat Clock.”

Asleep at the Wheel, the veteran Texas-swing band still going strong after 30 years with Ray Benson at the controls, headlined Friday night. Booking the Wheel was a special coup for Twangfest because it is rare to see this band in a venue as intimate as the Duck Room, which holds only 350 people legally.

Benson and the band’s two other lead singers, fiddler Jason Roberts and guitarist Elizabeth McQueen, led the seven-member powerhouse through an encyclopedia of American music, from cowboy songs (“Don’t Fence Me In”) to boogie woogie (“House of Blue Lights”) to blues (“St. Louis Blues”) to, of course, Western swing (“Miles of Texas”).

Every song boasted three-, four- or five-part harmonies and bristled with powerful solos by guitarist Benson, fiddler Roberts, pianist Dan Walton and pedal steel-sax man Eddie Roberts.

Ray Wylie Hubbard, as iconic a Texas troubadour as there is, delivered a snarling set of rock ‘n’ roll country blues Wednesday night at Plush. Hubbard is a chronicler of life in the margins, including his own: He is 66, but his career didn’t really start until the early ’90s after a 20-year battle with alcohol.

Hubbard’s set included “Snake Farm”; the new, autobiographical “Mother Blues”; and the rarely performed “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” his ’70s-era cowboy hippie anthem that put Jerry Jeff Walker on the musical map.

Hubbard’s performance was in support of legend-in-waiting, headliner Todd Snider, who is riding a career wave that few could have predicted when “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” became a word-of-mouth hit as a hidden track on his debut 1994 CD, “Songs for the Daily Planet.”

In solo shows at venues such as the Sheldon, Snider is met with rapt attention as he tells his stories. At Plush, Snider, all drawling nuance under a funky hat adorned by a flower, had young women (and most everyone else) raising their glasses and singing and dancing along to his sardonic and witty tales of coping with life in the modern world.

Tuesday’s headliner at the Duck Room was Joe Pug, a young singer-songwriter who might have been tagged with the “new Dylan” label had he debuted in the ’70s – he’s that good.

Pug, whose music is topical, angry and spiritual, alternated between angsty poet and the genial guy on the next barstool between songs, and his imagery and wordplay kept him in command of the room. “How Good You Are,” for example, grabbed with the topsy-turvy introduction “I was born into a circus/ but I ran away to join a home,” and Pug stalked the stage with eyes closed during “Nobody’s Man,” repeating the chorus “I’d rather be nobody’s man than somebody’s child.”

Other memorable acts included the torchy and sassy singer Eilen Jewell; Motel Mirrors, featuring singer-songwriters Amy Lavere and John Paul Keith; the exciting Shivering Timbers, featuring Sarah and Jason Benn and their daughter Suzi, 5, on toy piano; and Chicago’s Dolly Varden.

Local bands acquitting themselves well in opening roles included Stickley & Canan, Scarlet Tanager and the Half Knots.

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