Listening Post

UPSTAIRS UNDERGROUND: What started as a series of zoning violations has evolved into the best series of DJ spins in the city. The Upstairs Lounge, 3131 S. Grand, is prohibited by law from hosting live bands (though a few years ago they got busted for doing just that), but the Man can't stop them from using DJs and spinning records, and as a result manager Tu Tran and bartender Billy Holley have been booking DJs in the space five nights a week. The music runs from Britpop to hip-hop, from house to drum & bass and downtempo, all spun by some of the best mixmasters in town.

The Upstairs isn't a dance club. No dancing allowed (stupid zoning law), though it'd be interesting to find out where the dance police draw the line between tapping a foot and gently shaking your butt and "dancing"). But that's fine, because the space is so intimate and comfortable that a bunch of sweaty dancers would disrupt the relaxed vibe. No cover charge, either. Yep: stupid zoning law (great for us customers, though it sucks for the club and DJs)

Despite all of these ridiculous legal hoops, DJs are lining up to spin -- showing, says Tu, "that they really just like playing up here and that they're passionate about it."

The freedom the club gives the DJs is the main reason for this excitement, says Holley. "There's an underground element to it, even though we're on the second floor," he says. "They can spin what they want to spin. When they work at bigger places, there's a bit more pressure to play more mainstream music. And that's a comment that I've heard from almost everybody en masse: They like being able to do more underground stuff, and they want to make sure that it stays that way." Plus, adds Tu, "It's a lot more intimate than a dance club."

A glimpse at the DJs who are active at the club is proof of the niche the club is filling: Monday is Britpop night, with DJ Two Stroke and DJ Firestarter. Tuesdays, several DJs alternate, Deep Grooves manager Ken Dussold, Don Tinsley and Steve-O among them. John Herrington of the Midwest Avengers and the Freedom Culture Coalition book Thursday's hip-hop night (often with K-Nine and O.B. Juan spinning); Phil Decker and the Bionic crew work Fridays, alternating with Zach Wagner, who spins down-tempo "Ultra Lounge" stuff. Saturdays, the 84 Glide guys spin. The combination covers a lot of ground in this new international DJ culture.

This group of DJs comprises some of the most creative mixers in town. Says Holley, "We're now getting approached by people who want to book national DJs in here. First of all, we don't have the budget for that. And second, there's no reason to bring in talent when there's already lots of it here. We can't even book everybody who wants to play here locally." (RR)

MIND THE GAP: Now that the Gap has moved beyond the famous freeze-frame "Khakis Swing" commercial, the company seems to be trying to fashion a spot for listeners of every conceivable style of music. Here are a few that we can't wait to see:

Lo-fi khaki
Ambient khaki
No Depression khaki
Conjunto khaki
Klezmer khaki
Riot-grrrl khaki
Free-jazz khaki
Qawwali khaki
Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute khaki
East Coast vs. West Coast khaki
Death-metal khaki

WIDOWS' PEAK: Half the bands that break up because of "artistic differences" in fact break up because their members can't stand one another, or because the guitarist is shagging more groupies than the lead singer -- unacceptable -- or some equally unartistic reason.

So when bands actually do liquidate because of creative/artistic divergences, we still tend to harbor some doubt about their motivation. St. Louis band Three Merry Widows broke up in 1992 after the release of one record, Which Dreamed It?, but unlike most breakup sob stories, the Widows remained friends and performed on each other's bills afterwards, a great end to a frustrating story.

The simple fact that two bands comprising many of the ex-members of Three Merry Widows are performing on the same bill is ample proof that artistic considerations, and not personalities, caused the Widows' demise, but the paths the musicians have taken since the breakup is more telling.

After performing with the wonderful trad-country band the Geyer Street Sheiks, Widows singer Alice Spencer hightailed it to Austin, Texas, where she formed the Barkers with husband Will Walden. The result of that union is the brand-new Barkers CD Burn Your Piano, which contains Spencer's sparkling voice, both alone and harmonizing with Walden's Texas twang. The two also complement each other on their respective instruments: Will plays guitar, Alice the organ. The result is a swirling stunner. Spencer's voice has never sounded stronger -- hard to fathom, but true -- and the two have constructed rootsy songs with a personality that more than supports it. Last year's Barkers gig at the Duck Room was a blast, loose and free, as the Barkers highlighted the fresh songs that make their way onto Burn Your Piano.

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