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Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 16
5/21/04 The Paladins, Café Boogaloo, Hermosa Beach, CA. If I told you I heard a band in a bar while on vacation at the beach, you might think I was wasting away in Margaritaville…but for whatever reason, I was lucky enough to find this semi-legendary Southern California rockabilly band playing two blocks from our hotel. With Nancy and the boys crashed out, I slipped over to the bar; there really is “no smoking” in these California bars and the clientele was considerably more fit and tan than your typical St. Louis venue.
The Paladins are a three-piece (hollowbody electric guitar, stand-up bass and drums) that provide a grittier take on what The Stray Cats once did- “revival” isn’t a word that gets used in describing their sound…it’s like rockabilly never went away in the first place. David Gonzalez (g) & Thomas Yearsley (b) both contribute lead vocals. They were highlighting songs from their current CD, but managed to do three from the debut LP from around 1988: “Right Now”, “Daddy Yar” and “Slow Down”. Their hopped up treatment of George Jones’ “Rain Keeps a Fallin” made it sound more like a Buddy Holly song. Not knowing anyone in this bar, I left after the first set.
6/3/04 Todd Rundgren and The Liars, The Pageant. Family stuff caused me to get there late. This was another case of me knowing virtually nothing about a musician who enjoys a cult status in certain corners. The first thing that struck me was the strange stage layout- each member of Todd’s backing band (left to right: d, b, g & k) was set up inside of one of five free-standing hi-tech gazebos outfitted with Christmas lights and colored spotlights. Everyone on stage was decked out in pimp-like clothing, Mr. R leading the way in his slacks, silk shirt, coat and tie- all bright orange.
The instrumentation (oh yeah, the music) struck me as unspectacular mid-tempo shuffles like what I remember of the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers, leaving Todd’s voice to carry the melody. Exaggerated vocal nuances and hand gestures lent a “Vegas lounge singer on acid” feel to the whole affair. An older-looking crowd (than at your typical rock show) was right there with him, many singing along. The lyrics were largely unintelligible through the P.A..
For one song, guitar and bass were dropped in favor of second and third keyboards. During the home stretch, Todd left the stage for around five minutes while the band got all jazzy- the keyboard player got adventurous in an enjoyable way while the (5-string) bass player reminded me of Stanley Clarke. Todd eventually returned to the stage and picked up a telecaster and laid on some heroic leads. He ended the set with a song (something like “Hole In My Head”) that had a rollicking piano-driven “Louie, Louie” romp to it. The encore featured “Hello, It’s Me” (the only song I recognized tonight). It struck me as slower, less melodic and more campy than the original recording. I’d be interested in hearing what someone more familiar with his music had to say about this show.
6/5/04 Mike Ireland & Holler, Frederick’s. This was another one of those shows promoted by our Twangfest group, so I showed up early and semi-nervously waited for this sparse crowd to get bigger…eventually about 60 people filled the place up pretty well.
Tommy Womack opened with a solo set, highlighting his ability to paint vivid, character-rich lyrical pictures- songs about high school jocks (“Skinny & Small”), fine young things (“Sweet Hitchhiker”) and fine older things (“Vickie Smith”) all came across clearly and convincingly through the new speakers at Frederick’s. “Sheila’s On The Road Right Now” stood out as one of his catchier songs. He lent a nice acoustic blues treatment to a couple of songs, as well.
A major part of Tommy’s performances is his charming, personable stage presence. He modestly shares these songs that he “just made up”…Since Ronald Reagan died today, Tommy dusted off a song he wrote a while ago, revising the lyrics to rhyme “…he had the mind of a baby cow” with “I’ll take him over what we’ve got right now…”…followed by applause. “A Little Bit Of Sex” and “I Don’t Have A Gun” even found a few people singing along. Also pleasing was Tommy’s personal homage, “The Replacements”- over a simply strummed guitar, he delivered this extended spoken testimonial to one of our favorite bands…”when they were bad, they were horrible…but when they were good- God got up to dance”. Tonight’s headline band got up and accompanied Tommy on a couple of upbeat songs, including Dylan’s “Isis”, to close out the set.
Given enough beer and a push toward the stage, I got up and said “blah, blah, blah” about Twangfest before I threw a t-shirt into the crowd and let Roy do the actual introduction of Mike Ireland and Holler. They opened with “House of Secrets”, a song that has a classic 60’s style spooky shuffle akin to “Ode To Billie Joe”. Mike has a real plaintive hillbilly tenor that is nothing if not honest. He has, apparently, lived a lot of the themes (love, loss, etc.) that permeate songs like “Headed For A Fall”, “Right Back Where I Started” and “Close Enough To Break Each Other’s Hearts”.
The band has changed from the days when St. Louisans John Horton (lead guitar) and Spencer Marquard (drums) were backing Mike…the steel player from Rex Hobart’s Misery Boys was along tonight, sweetening the mix. The lead guitar player would switch from telecaster to mandolin for certain songs, and Mike’s longtime cohort, Dan, played rhythm guitar and added tight harmony vocals. Later in the set, they did Roger Miller’s “In A World So Full Of Love”, as well as Mike’s more upbeat and cheerful “Sweet Sweetheart”. Tommy Womack was awakened from a backstage nap and found his way onstage to sing and play harmonica on the last song or two.
6/9/04 Twangfest Wednesday, The Tap Room. This was my first year as a member of the group that puts on this annual festival of roots/rock/country music. My biggest concern was that working on or worrying about certain aspects of this show would detract from my ability to just stand back and enjoy the music. My job tonight was “stage manager”- mostly I just had to greet the bands as they arrived and get them familiar with where things were. Every musician I had contact with all weekend was appreciative and pleasant (no prima donnas here), so my job was actually enjoyable.
Anna Fermin’s Trigger Gospel was the opening band. Anna is about five months pregnant and sang while seated in a chair. The sound of her voice was approximately in the Maria McKee range. The three-piece band (Trigger Gospel) played louder and harder than on their CDs. The guitar leads recalled The Eagles and Albert Lee at different points. They covered “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”, which sounds like something from a musical, and ended with a country-rocker that reminded me of “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight”.
Next Danny Barnes played a forty-five minute set of eccentric, eclectic solo instrumentation. A founding member of the oddball Austin duo/trio The Bad Livers, he’s most known for his banjo playing- he’s technically accomplished enough to step onstage with just about any bluegrass band around, but applies his talent to a quirky vision that somehow blenderizes the high-speed precision of Leo Kottke, the offbeat aesthetic of Eugene Chadborne and the backwoods vernacular of Howard Finster. After his first song, he switched from banjo to acoustic guitar and delivered a deconstructed/reconstructed take on “Cannonball Rag” (or maybe it was “Panhandle Rag”…one of them “Rags”); frequently taking great liberties with the melody line, yet somehow always returning to it. About half the time, he added vocals, alternating between singing, talking and some Roger Miller style scatting.
Then it was time for me to get up onstage and introduce Frog Holler. They’re six nice guys from Burks County, PA. They play folk-tinged rock, heavy on the guitars (dobro audible in places, banjo- not so much) with tempos mostly set to “mid”. Their most distinctive asset is lead singer Darren Schlappich’s warm and winning voice, which wasn’t always enough to keep me interested, as the relatively even tempo and texture of the overall sound (and somewhat muddy house sound) began to lull me. Other people told me this was their favorite set of the evening, so they obviously appeal to some folks. I thought their folk-rock reading of The Lemonheads’ “My Drug Buddy” could benefit from a fiddle, but was my favorite moment of their set, nonetheless. This is the first year Twangfest has shifted from five to four bands per night- one major plus to this change is that each band now gets the time to do an encore- the sad ballad, “Least Most Wanted” is a good vehicle for Darren’s vulnerable southern accent (they must be from southern Pennsylvania) and my favorite original of tonight’s set.
The earthy folk-rock tone that had been collectively constructed by tonight’s first three acts instantly evaporated when The Redwalls took the stage. They’re four kids (late teens, I think) from suburban Chicago, all hopped up on Red Bull and Beatles records. That big empty floor space between the stage and the tables filled with standing/dancing people as these guys ran through a set of mostly originals that sounded like 60’s British pop. Early Beatles (think “You Can’t Do That” or “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”) would be a place to start in describing their sound. The baby-faced kid playing the Beatle bass is one of three lead vocalists. The rhythm guitar player had a very Lennon-like voice. The influence of Bob Dylan’s early ventures into pop music found it’s way into the mix as well.
Their latest CD is new to me, so “Speed Racer” is the only original I can tell you they did tonight- there were obviously more. If there was even an iota of “twang” in what they did tonight, it was their cover of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”, refreshingly perkier than the hundreds of country-rock versions we’ve heard over the years. Their encore was another Stones cover- “Live With Me”. There were probably some folks who are not so keen on the genre shift of tonight’s closing act, but I couldn’t see them from the crowd up front.
6/10/04 Twangfest Thursday, The Duck Room. Adrienne Young and Little Sadie opened tonight’s show with an enjoyable, if somewhat wholesome, set of folk/bluegrass. Ms. Young sang her tuneful original songs and played banjo, backed by acoustic guitar, stand up bass and snare drum. The picking was clean and the sound was especially clear. The place was packed early, with a few people singing along. Her opening song ended with a band-encouraged clap-along, setting a “hearty hoedown” tone to the proceedings. These song titles might give you an idea of the overall vibe of her set: “Plow To The End Of The Row”, “Jump The Broom”, “Conestoga”, “Home Remedy” and “Sadie’s Song”.
Next Cary Hudson delivered a set that was as nasty as the previous set was wholesome…backed by bass and drums, he laid on some raucous blues-based boogie. I liked it OK, but relative to the heights his music once took me to (in his former band, Blue Mountain) I’d have to say it was a step down. Songs like “High Heeled Sneakers”, “The Phoenix”, “Indianola”, “By Your Side” and “Sweet Mary Jane” (titles may not be exact) all give Cary plenty of room to rev up his considerable guitar skills, which at times reminded me of Jimi Hendrix…but I liked it better when those skills were applied to the more melodic songs of a few years ago. His encore was “I’m A Nasty Man”, featuring some explicit lyrics and appropriately nasty guitar.
After a brief break, The Handsome Family set up on stage- Brett, Rennie and the laptop computer that generates their rhythm track (having evolved from an actual human drummer to a simple drum machine to this over the years). Rennie now plays a “stick bass” as well as autoharp, and has added banjo and one of those hand-held blow-in keyboard deals to her arsenal of instruments. She now sings a couple of the songs- her singing on “Down, Down, Down” always annoys me like fingernails on a chalkboard. Fortunately, Brett does most of the singing; his deadpan baritone adds ironic gravity to the often askew lyrics (all written by Rennie). I remember a handful of songs grabbing me and drawing me in- “Song Of 1,000 Toads”, “In A Hole”, “Sad Milkman”, “Amelia Earhart…” and the creepy murder ballad, “Arlene” especially hit that spot. At other times though, tempos became somewhat plodding and the melodies less memorable. There was a contingent of hard-core HF fans up front hanging on every line, as well as a bunch of less enthusiastic people amassed at the bar yakking among themselves. I found myself literally (and figuratively) between these groups.
Now for the headline act…in a typical display of showmanship, Philadelphia’s Marah took the stage as the P.A. played the theme song to “The Sopranos”. They didn’t have the time for the full depth and breadth of the ass-whoopin’ they laid on us a couple of months ago at Off Broadway, but still managed to get tonight’s full house jumping with an even, uptempo set, heavy on the guitars…Dave Bielenko even executed one of those trademark guitar solos while perched on a teetering tabletop. For whatever reason, no banjos tonight, but the lap steel player provided a component of “twang”, nonetheless. Drummer John Wurster (on loan from Superchunk) added major spark, as well. Through the blur of all that was going on, I was able to remember a few songs they did: “Faraway You” (a dead ringer of an homage to those early Bruce records and my personal favorite), “It’s Only Money, Tyrone”, “Round Eye Blues” and “The Catfisherman”.
6/11/04 Twangfest Friday. As if there wasn’t enough music to take in during four nights of Twangfest, I stopped over at Saratoga Lanes on Friday afternoon to check out the Twangpin party. About fifty people were bowling to the sounds of The Patsy Declines- they’re a pickup band consisting of some of the regular Twangfest attendees. Nothing too serious here- everyone playing and listening had fun with covers like “Sweet Virginia”, “Strychnine”, “I Fall To Pieces”, “Squeeze Box”, “Fortunate Son”, “Marie, Marie” and so on. Back home for a little family time, then over to the Duck Room…
Opening tonight’s show at The Duck Room was Grey Delisle. Backed by her husband, Murry Hammond (bassist of The Old 97s) on acoustic guitar, and Marvin Etzioni on mandolin, she opened with “Jewel Of Abilene”. She sings in a pure and warm voice that at various points reminded me of Carlene Carter, Mary Lou Lord and Dolly Parton. She writes songs that have an old-timey feel to them. (I guess playing an autoharp goes a long way to achieving this). My favorite song she did was “Blue State Of Mind”, a catchy, upbeat song that featured Grey and Murry singing in unison throughout, while the mandolin player switched over to drums. Song titles may not be right, but she also did “You’re Still Gone & I’m Still Blue”, “Sharecroppin’ Man” and “If You Want It, God’s Got It”. The encore was a quiet acoustic song that had virtually the same melody and tempo as “Wayfaring Stranger”, accentuated by some surprisingly intense and urgent electric mandolin.
Aside from one couple on the open dance floor, The Duck Room was packed as the 9PM act, Jim Stringer & The Austin Music Band took the stage. This four-piece from Austin (hence the name) did a countrified version of Joni Mitchell’s “Raised On Robbery” that took me a minute or two to recognize and an uptempo (presumably) original, “I’ll Be Missing You” that allowed Stringer’s guitar leads to shine. The drummer was the ever-present, ever-lovely Lisa Pankratz, making yet another Twangfest appearance…a bunch of us have a crush on her. After a few songs, the AMB became the backing band for Susanna Van Tassel. The only song that stands out in my memory is one with the spunky refrain, “I’m not lookin’ for Mr. Right, I’m lookin’ for Mr. Right Now”.
Next was Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub. Burch writes and plays this odd, distant-sounding music that sounds like long lost country songs from the forties or fifties. He conveys these songs in an equally gentle and dreamy voice that recalls “Nashville Skyline”-era Dylan. Backed only by a drummer and bass player (who made things more punched up than on CD), Burch was able to make his acoustic guitar work as the only lead instrument, with intricate runs and chunky riffs. My favorite song was “Sparks Fly”, with it’s distinctive, hummable melody. He also did “Like Railroad Steel” (from his latest CD) as well as covers by Hank Williams (“Half As Much”) and Neil Diamond (coulda been someone else). There were a couple of lulls in my interest and a time or two when I missed an additional lead instrument, but the highs definitely outweighed the lows.
The headline act of the twangiest night of Twangfest 8 was Robbie Fulks. When it comes to current artists drawing from traditional honky tonk and C & W, Fulks is one of my favorites. He and band (b, d & g) opened with “Cry, Cry, Cry” making it sound as vengeful as Johnny Cash’s lyrics. His easygoing, unpretentious stage presence goes a long way to winning the crowd over…and his killer songwriting doesn’t hurt, either. Whether it’s traditional country (“I’d Be Lonesome”, “Nickels and Dimes”, “The Buck Starts Here” and “Can’t Win For Losing You”), more pop-oriented originals (“Mad At A Girl”, “Let’s Live Together” and “Let’s Kill Saturday Night”…I got to leave my post at the merch table to dance around to the latter) or oddball cover interpretations (Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” & a solo acoustic encore of Cher’s “Believe”), he always manages to put a big grin on my face. No “Fuck This Town” or “Roots Rock Weirdos” tonight, but a new song, “Countrier Than Thou” offered more of Fulks’ commentary on the state of his chosen sub-genre. Encore #2 was “Cigarette State”, reminding us all what a great flatpicker Robbie is, as well.
6/12/04 Twangclips, Frederick’s. I made a rare daylight visit to Fred’s to catch the first hour or so of this marathon of vintage music film footage (lovingly curated by Barry Mazor)- this year Barry abandoned (forewent?) the chronological format and shuffled the clips, freely hopping between songs by Porter & Dolly, The Animals, Kitty Wells, Bobby Bare, Bobby Bare Jr., Whiskeytown and so on. I had lots of Saturday errands to do, so I kept telling myself I’d leave after one more song …but the intro to each subsequent song grabbed me and kept me there longer than I had planned. Footage of a solo performance of Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waitin’ For A Train” circa 1975 was especially moving. People were raving about the following hours that I missed out on as well.
Back over to The Duck Room for TF night 4…in previous years, most of the early timeslots were occupied by (reserved for?) bands containing members of the Twangfest organizing committee. But this year there was only one such band- Columbus, Ohio’s The Whilers, featuring Matt Benz (ex-The Sovines) on lead guitar. They’re a snappy four-piece band (not so much on the twang) that reminded me a bit of The Plimsouls, right down to the Peter Case-like voice of frontman Justin Lute. Lute introduced one original from his solo CD that “received a good review in No Depression”…a comment that got a good laugh from those of us whose major beef with that magazine is it’s lack of negative (constructive or otherwise) criticism. The covers they did tonight (“Burned”, “Shake Some Action” and “Connection”) fit well with the tone and feel of their originals. Although most people seemed to enjoy this band just fine, my buddy Matt was extremely despondent about how lousy his guitar playing was tonight- go figure.
Next up was another Columbus band, Two Cow Garage, giving us another 45 minutes of what they do- hard-hitting, grungified country-rock as defined by Uncle Tupelo and perpetuated by bands like Slobberbone. They opened tonight with their manager on second guitar and a friend from Georgia on pedal steel. At times, the steel was intricate and impressive, at other times, inaudible. These three guys in their mid-twenties (Shane turned 26 tonight) are super friendly, easy-going and genuinely appreciative of: tonight’s audience, Twangfest, St. Louis and Fredrick’s Music Lounge, in particular…so I ended up smiling and having a good time, even if I didn’t find their music new or especially noteworthy. It’s not just that they make music patterned after what came before; I like other bands who obviously do just that (Robbie Fulks last night, for one), but the actual songs just don’t blow me away. They had a good crowd jumping around, so they’ve got their share of fans. Once again, they did grungy covers of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” and Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up”…I enjoyed both the first few times I heard ‘em, but I think the crowd (and probably the band) would benefit from a fresh batch of covers.
Things continued twanglessly along as The Bigger Lovers jump started their set with a couple of perky originals from their current CD- “You, You, You” and “Blowtorch” set the tone for a set that might be more appropriate at something called “Popfest”. One of their singers has a nasal/nerdy /smart-ass vocal delivery kinda like Chris Stamey or that guy from The Magnolias. One guitar player switched over to keyboards a few times and a more obscure song by The Who (the Entwhistle-sung “My Wife”) was sung by the drummer. Just to clarify, they introduced “I Wanna Destroy You” by saying, “This is not an Uncle Tupelo cover”.
Closing out Twangfest 8 was Grand Champeen- I would gladly go hear these guys any day of the week, but they seem to be made for Saturday night. Both guitars were blaring loud and joyously as they shuffled the deck, mixing their own catchy songs (“The Good Slot” & “Roll Of The Night”) with a handful of fun covers (The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing”, Mott’s “All The Young Dudes” and Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song”). GC’s sound often gets compared to that of early Soul Asylum, so it wasn’t a huge stretch when they covered “Cartoon”, a song from that period when SA was writing catchier pop songs but still played with punk-inspired abandon. As you might guess, this whole set went by with a healthy dose of playful irreverence. Three different guys sang lead at times, and were joined by The Bigger Lovers’ drummer on one song and 2CG’s bass player on another. The original “Fakin’ It” held it’s own alongside all of these fun covers as the traditional crowd-surfing Twangfest finale took place. (This phenomenon always strikes me as contrived and unspontaneous, but didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the music). They ended with a hard-rocking (duh!) version of Motorhead’s “Ace Of Spades”.
After closing down The Duck Room, about fifty people (including tonight’s bands) adjourned to the hotel where we drank beer and talked until around daybreak. On my 6AM drive home, I somehow got hijacked by the sweet soul music on KDHX and the bright sky in the east and ended up taking highway 70 downtown, where I wearily walked around the arch grounds and the river bank before heading home.