By Barry Gilbert
Special to the St. Louis Beacon
(Published here on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013)
For some bands, the tour highway doesn’t run through St. Louis. The Open Highway Music Festival is trying to put the city on the maps of more musicians.
John Henry of the St. Louis band John Henry and the Engine, and Steve Pohlman of the Off Broadway nightclub on Lemp Avenue came up with the idea for the festival last year, and they initially planned to focus on a fairly narrow genre of music. But by the time the curtain went up on the first of three nights of music last fall, their scope had widened.
For this year’s second edition, which runs for four nights beginning Wednesday ((Aug 7)) at Off Broadway, it’s wider still, and no better example can be found than the bill for Friday night: J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound, a soul and R&B show band that recalls the stage shows of James Brown and Otis Redding; and Those Darlins, a trio of women from Kentucky who mix country, rock and punk into a high-energy stew.
“Initially, we were going to focus on the genre of music called Texas country and red dirt music, because there’s this whole subgenre of country that isn’t in the Top 40 that my band and I were touring with,” Henry says. “And everywhere we went, there were really big crowds, but they were never, or rarely, coming to St. Louis.
“So we decided to put all those bands together and have a three-day festival. But as we were planning it, we decided to make it more open – hence the name Open Highway. Last year, we happened to do more Americana and rock bands, and this year we tried to make it even more diverse with all types of genres. And in the future, we’re looking to expand it even more.”
The Open Highway festival will feature 14 acts over four nights, all but X of them national touring acts. In addition to Those Darlins and Brooks, the major names will include singer/songwriter Cory Chisel of Nashville; Memphis, Tenn., rockers Lucero; Bloomington, Ind.,-based Western-Gothic rockers Murder By Death; and blue-collar folk singer Otis Gibbs.
Henry, 30, who has been booking shows for Pohlman at Off Broadway since the beginning of the year, says artists such as Brooks and Those Darlins may be different in terms of genre, but not in other ways.
“I feel like more and more in music, people are more open-minded to genres and putting things together that may not actually fit together as long as the bands have soul – soul not just being soul music,” he says. “People want to see something that’s real, and I think it matters less and less exactly what type (the music is) or what way its being presented, as long as it’s something people can sense is real.”
It won’t get much more real than with a wonderfully named St. Louis group: the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra. Once a traditional band, it now concentrates on performing live, original scores to accompany the screening of silent films. Among its live scoring credits are Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed,” Serge Eisentein’s “Strike” and Buster Keaton’s “The Ballooniatic,” the latter of which was performed last year as an opening act for singer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks as the Luminary Center for the Arts.
Rats and People is “something a little bit unique that we thought would be neat with the festival,” Henry says. At press time, it was not known which film would be shown.
Perhaps the biggest name in lineup is Lucero, a veteran band with nine studio albums to its credit and a very loyal fan base. Henry says being able to land Lucero helped attract other bands.
“Any time you’re doing an independent festival, you always want to lock in a big band, you want to be able to say, hey, this is who is headlining the festival and we’d love to have your band, too,” Henry says. “Just being able to get Lucero in that particular time frame was something we had to work through logistically.
“But to be honest, a lot of this stuff came together very well because we knew and had strong relationships with the bands.”
Open Highway Music Festival
WHEN / 7:30 p.m. Wednesday Aug. 7 through Saturday Aug. 10
WHERE / Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue
HOW MUCH / $15-$23; four-night pass, $40
MORE INFO / 314-773-3363; ticketweb.com
Wednesday, Aug. 7
The Wild Rovers Tour featuring:
Thursday, Aug. 8
Kentucky Knife Fight
Friday, Aug. 9
JC Brooks and The Uptown Soundtrack
Saturday, Aug. 10
Murder By Death
Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra