THIS STORY WAS PUBLISHED IN THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH ON JUNE 10, 2013, BUT WAS SEVERELY TRIMMED. THIS IS THE UNTRIMMED VERSION.
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.
St. Louis’ Bottle Rockets put the power into Marshall Crenshaw’s legendary power-pop Saturday night to close the most successful edition of Twangfest in the 17-year run of the roots-rock festival.
Night 4 of the KDHX-sponsored festival featured a generous portion of accessible alt-country, rock and power pop, first from opening act Dolly Varden, then for an hourlong set by the Bottle Rockets and finally a 90-minute set by Crenshaw, backed by the Bottle Rockets.
The show at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room was sold out, the third sell-out of the four night festival and the first three-night sell-out in its history.
It’s a rare night when a music fan can see Texas-swing legends Asleep at the Wheel in an intimate venue, but that happened Friday at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room on the third night of Twangfest 17.
And the Wheel found a well primed crowd, taking the stage after a knockout set by singer Eilen Jewell and her fine band, featuring guitarist Jerry Miller.
The seven-member Asleep at the Wheel, founded in 1970 and still led by singer-guitarist Ray Benson, has always been a force onstage, and the latest incarnation continues the tradition. Blasting through 23 songs in nearly 90 minutes, the band crossed genres from Western swing and boogie woogie to blues, rockabilly and country.
If Joe Pug had started out in the ’70s, some mainstream record company or fired-up rock critic surely would have hung a “new Dylan” tag around his neck. Unfair as such a label might be in any era – check back with us in 50 years, or even 25, Joe – his songs are worthy of such hyperbole. And live on a stage is the place to hear them.
Pug headlined the second night of the KDHX-sponsored Twangfest 17 on Thursday, capping a four-act bill that sadly drew only half a house to Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room after a sold-out opening night Wednesday at Plush (Friday and Saturday night at the Duck Room are sold out, too).
Ray Wylie Hubbard performs at Plush on Twangfest 17 opening night. PHOTOS BY BARRY GILBERT
By Barry Gilbert
“I’m gonna share some of my opinions with you tonight,” singer-songwriter Todd Snider warned the Twangfest 17 opening night crowd, “not because I think you should hear them … but because they rhyme.”
The wisecrack, offered with the same stoner drawl and twinkling eye as Snider uses in his songs, also applied to Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Texas troubadour who preceded Snider on the bill Monday night at Plush in midtown St. Louis. But where Snider is laid back and nuanced under a funky hat adorned by a flower, a folk singer at his core, the scruffy Hubbard is an in-your-face chronicler of life in the margins, all snarling rock ‘n’ roll and country blues.
Twangfest’s move to Plush from its traditional opening night venue, Schlafly’s Tap Room, was a success by any measure. The festival, supported by primary sponsor KDHX (881. FM), sold out the room with fans of each artist – the billing order easily could have been reversed – and sing-alongs were happening even when not requested by the artist.
Rockers took over the stage for the third night of Twangfest 16 at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room on Friday, and they were greeted by a sellout crowd, the largest in recent memory.
As the hour crept past midnight, the audience remained strong, active and loud for Ha Ha Tonka. And the Ozark band once again delivered a smashing set of music that mixes an indie rock vibe, Midwestern sincerity and Southern mysticism that no other band can match.
Ha Ha Tonka had to be on its game, because it followed co-headliner Langhorne Slim (the two acts are touring together), who brings boyish charm and energetic angst to a deepening catalog of rich music.
Opening was Kasey Anderson and the Honkies from Portland, Ore., a straight-ahead, four-man group of three-chord rockers fronted by Anderson, who connected to the crowd right away. His St. Louis references were delivered with self-aware irony: He knew he was pandering, so did the crowd, and both parties enjoyed it.
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.
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.”