If you’re lucky, at some point over multiple days or multiple stages at a music festival, some act will open your eyes and knock you over.
The first two nights of KDHX-sponsored Twangfest 16 have featured great music by artists who have met or exceeded expectations, based on either reputation or past performance: Kelly Hogan, Pokey LaFarge and Wussy, at the top of the list. But the band that has obliterated expectations is Humming House, which played Wednesday night after local opener Prairie Rehab and in support of hometowners LaFarge and his old-timey South City Three.
Nashville, Tenn.-based Humming House is made up of five seemingly disparate parts: Celtic-music fan and singer/songwriter Justin Wade Tam, soul singer Kristen Rogers, classically trained fiddler and college professor Mike Butera, bluegrass mandolinist Joshua Wolak and classical composer/bassist Ben Jones.
Together, they are … what? Irish jam band? Bluegrass porch stompers? Acoustic rockers? R&B interpreters? Yes, all of the above.
This retro but modern take on classic Memphis soul – the grit of Otis Redding, the groove of the MGs, the brass of the Memphis Horns – was just a joy to hear. And I couldn’t help thinking how much poorer we are for the corporatization and lack of adventure in modern radio, as the Bo-Keys reminded me of the days when you could snap on an AM radio and hear Aretha and the Animals, and Sinatra and the Stones, and keep up with the Joneses, Booker T and George. (Repeat after me, St. Louis: Thank God for KDHX 88.1 FM.)
The Bo-Keys have been together as a recording unit for only a decade, but some of the members of this interracial and intergenerational band go back to the glory days of Memphis soul. Co-founder Charles “Skip” Pitts played the signature guitar parts on Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” and the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.” Drummer Howard Grimes kept the beat at Hi Records during the heyday of Al Green and can be heard on his great single “Love and Happiness.”
The band performed all three songs last night, with Pitts growling through Hayes’ part and the terrific singer Percy Wiggins standing in for Green and Ronald Isley.
Dave Alvin has become one of America’s greatest songwriters and guitar players. His early work with the punk-fueled R&B/rockabilly band the Blasters has matured into an adventurous exploration of American roots music encompassing folk, country and the blues.
His story and love songs are rooted in real people, ordinary working people facing personal and societal challenges yet somehow hanging on to a sliver of hope. Among his best: “Fourth of July,” “King of California,” “Ashgrove” and the new “Gary, Indiana 1959,” plus exquisite co-writes with Tom Russell on “Haley’s Comet,” “California Snow” and “Out in California.”
I interviewed Alvin for a Post-Dispatch story on June 14, 2011. I reached him on a tour stop in Asheville, N.C., about 11 o’clock in the morning — early for a working musician — and he apologized for not being totally awake. Here is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.
We began by talking about Chris Gaffney, a fine singer-songwriter and accordion player and Alvin’s best friend who died of liver cancer at age 57 on April 17, 2008. Gaffney recorded with his own band as well as the great Hacienda Brothers, and he was a member of Alvin’s Guilty Men.
I told Dave I bought my first Gaffney album, “Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts,” in 1989 based only on the title and band name and became a fan instantly. I talked to Gaffney a couple of times at Alvin shows, and enjoyed the conversations.
Gaffney’s death hit Alvin hard.
DA: I could go on for hours. He was my best friend. He got all my jokes.
BG: Yeah, that is the mark of a best friend, isn’t it.
DA: That is the mark of a best friend (laughing).
BG: And if they don’t, they just pretend they do.
DA: He never pretended. He would let me know, on a scale of 1 to 10, how good the jokes were.
BG: “Two Lucky Bums” (on “Eleven Eleven”) of course is a duet with Chris. You had originally offered that as a download. And it’s that version I assume that’s on the CD.
DA: Yeah. I cut a couple of other songs for the record, and when I was piecing things together it kind of made sense to put it on and hold a couple of other things. … That just kind of summed everything up.
BG: There is a subtext of mortality on the new CD. Is that the influence of Chris’ passing, or is it bigger than that?
The Cardinals may have dropped out of first place in the NL Central on Sunday, but on Saturday night they led the majors in song as the Baseball Project hit it out of Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room to close out Twangfest 15 in St. Louis.
Veteran rockers Steve Wynn, Mike Mills, Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon, wearing their twin passions for music and baseball like a uniform, tore through 14 tracks from their two CDs as the Baseball Project. And for extra innings, they connected on songs from some of Wynn, McCaughey and Mills’ other bands: Dream Syndicate, the Minus 5 and R.E.M., respectively.
Twangfest, which became Flood Fest on Friday night when storms outside caused floor drains inside the Duck Room to back up and leave an inch or so of stinky water underfoot, was threatened again Saturday when water started rising just about showtime. But the Blueberry Hill crew dealt with it quickly, and opening act Marah went on just a bit more than a half-hour late.
(Thanks to recording fiend Jeff Regan for an mp3 of “Wet Vac.”)
Friday night’s thunder and light show again flummoxed University City’s storm and sanitary systems. As drains backed up and the tide rose across the floor of Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, I remembered that Nora O’Connor had the perfect song for the occasion in her catalogue: her cover of Tom Waits’ “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again.”
It wasn’t needed, because she and the rest of the crowd on the third night of Twangfest 15 listened in delight as headliner Robbie Fulks riffed twice on improvised songs.
As fans in sandals and flip flops sloshed in an inch or so of stinky water, Fulks and O’Connor battled a wet vac droning what Fulks judged to be middle-E and inspired what we’ll call “Wet Vac”:
“While the water came into the club/ the wet vac worked very hard./ Twangfest would not be ruined by the water/ so we diverted it into someone’s back yard./ While the rain in St. Louis couldn’t stop the Twangfest when they brought the wet vac out/And to the sound of the wet vac E/ all the (unintelligible) got to scream and shout/ (shouting) WET VAC … WET VAC … WET VAC … wet vac.”
Later, Fulks improvised the more involved “The Duck Room’s Goin’ Down.”
The wait was more than worth it. Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis dazzled in a rare performance together Thursday night, their songs simultaneously reaching out to the head, the heart and the gut.
Headlining the second night of Twangfest 15 at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, Mr. and Mrs. Robison, backed by Will Dupuy on bass and Geoff Queen on pedal steel and guitar, offered 20 tunes over an hour and 20 minutes.
The set list mined the catalogues of each to good effect. But what made the night extra special was a handful of new duets that the couple unveiled, hinting of a career merger after about two decades of individual success.
It’s simply criminal that their mixture of country, pop and folk isn’t played on radio here, with the notable exception of Twangfest sponsor KDHX (88.1 FM). From the opening notes of “Sweet Sundown” to the closing masterpiece “Angry All the Time,” Robison and Willis displayed the honesty and simplicity that makes great songwriting.
“Doesn’t anyone care about truth anymore?” roots rocker Hayes Carll asked Wednesday night at the Pageant, then answered his own question: “Maybe that’s what songs are for.”
That lyric, from the wonderfully titled “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” closed out Carll’s encore and the opening night of Twangfest 15 at the Pageant, and a lot of what came before it from Carll and Elizabeth Cook had a lot to do with truth, broken hearts and, yes, bad livers.
Both artists are veterans of St. Louis’ roots music festival. Cook was making her third visit, Carll his second. But Carll’s represented a huge career leap from three years ago, when he opened for the Old 97’s at the same venue.
This time, fronting a full band led by guitarist Scott Davis, Carll was talkative, funny and charming, both in song and between them. He played 10 of the 12 songs from his new CD “KAMG YOYO,” military slang for “kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own.”
Carll and band brought out the CD’s stunning musical variety, from the rock of “Stomp and Holler” to the Irish-folk of “Bottle in My Hand” to the classic country sound of “Chances Are.”
Michael “Supe” Granda, St. Louis native and bassist for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, has added a new series of gigs to his parallel solo career: “Supe’s On: An Evening of Songs, Stories & Serious Silliness.” The show, which debuts this weekend in St. Louis, features Supe singing songs from his Daredevils and solo catalogues, and telling stories drawn from his book on the band.
We had a very enjoyable chat last week, and my story from that interview appeared in Go! magazine (EDIT: The link is apparently permanently broken; ) in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Also, here are some links to some earlier Supe/Daredevils stories
For fans of the Daredevils, Supe and the Sandwiches, Supe de Jour and the Garbonzos, here’s the interview Q&A, edited a bit for length and clarity.
BG: I see by your area code that you’re still down in Nashville.
Supe: I’ve been in Nashville 19 years. Almost as long as I lived in Springfield. I love it down here. I got access to the greatest musicians in the world. For a musician and writer, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.
“You Don’t Know Your Mind”
Out of the Past/Rhonda Sue Records
**** (out of five)
By Barry Gilbert
Pianist David Egan, who stepped out of the songwriter/sidemen shadows four years ago at the age of 54, is back with his sophomore release, a tasty stew of New Orleans sounds called “You Don’t Know Your Mind.”
Egan conjures up the likes of Doctor John, Professor Longhair and Huey “Piano” Smith over 11 tracks of blues, R&B, rock and roll, zydeco and even some cool 1 a.m. lounge music. He is once again aided by producer/guitarist Joe McMahan, a St. Louis favorite after visits with, among others, Kevin Gordon, who also gives Egan a hand.
Standout tracks include the sultry “If It Is What It Is (It’s Love)” with Jennifer Nicely; “Proud Dog,” in which Egan writes a manifesto for survivors (“well the cat gets nine and you only got one/so you better just have a little doggone fun”); and the funny and touching “Small Fry,” in which Egan sings a love song to his “darling son” — and “blue-eyed beast.”
Egan paid his dues, writing for Joe Cocker and Percy Sledge, and playing in bands such as Lil’ Band o’ Gold with Cajun guitarist C.C. Adcock. Now it’s Egan’s time, and he’s making the most of it.