Radar Station

Grandpa's Ghost baffles New York listeners.

A few months back, nearly out of the blue, NYC weekly the Village Voice featured Pocahontas, Ill., unsung heroes Grandpa's Ghost in its pages, offering a rundown of the band's output and detailing a recent gig in that city, one in which the audience, carrying expectations that the Ghost would be offering their brand of Neil Young/No Depression rawk, wandered away in midset, mostly baffled. Wrote the Voice's Jon Fine: "Weighted by expectations of what a band playing a country bar should sound like, those who split didn't notice one of America's best bands standing in front of them. They weren't aware -- though you could hardly blame them -- of an obscure outfit's evolution from slightly off genre-players to first-rate musical oddballs."

High praise coming from the Voice, even if the publication makes such declarations on a weekly basis and has tagged countless lame-ass bands with similar recognition. Still, the mere fact that a band from Pocahontas got so much space in the New York rag is worthy of mention. That Fine hit the nail on the head is a bonus: Grandpa's Ghost is indeed one of the best rock bands going these days, as the recent release Il Bacio confirms.

Over the course of their four releases, Grandpa's Ghost has shifted from a countryesque version of Dinosaur Jr. to a nearly formless freakshow feedback juggernaut. Maybe it's because they're shut-ins now: Until a few years ago, they often played in St. Louis. But they've only played the city once in the past year-and-a-half, a confusing and disorienting gig at the Side Door in July '99 that probably resembled the stunt they pulled in the Big Apple: lots of feedback, lots of keyboard and noise fiddling and guitarist/vocalist Ben Hanna droning and strumming on his guitar. It was as though the thread that held them to rock structure had finally snapped; what remained seemed to float in a sort of netherworld. At times the gig was insufferable, but, like clockwork, just when you were going to give up on it, the band would lock into some sort of something that made total sense and you were glad for the pain, because it made the pleasure so much nicer.

The band celebrates -- finally -- the release of Il Bacio with a performance at the Way Out Club on Saturday, Oct. 21. Grandpa's Ghost has definitely evolved, and though we have no idea what kind of show the band is going to offer, it'll be worth your time.

Pilgrim's crossing: On Saturday in Detroit, St. Louis resident James Wafer and the legendary gospel harmony group of which he was a member, the Pilgrim Travelers, will be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, joining a virtual who's- who of the genre, including Bessie Smith, James Cleveland, the Fairfield Four, Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Caesar.

Though the Pilgrim Travelers didn't originate in St. Louis -- they started in Houston and then relocated to Los Angeles in the early '50s -- Wafer moved to St. Louis in 1970 and has lived here ever since. He succeeded Lou Rawls as the Travelers' lead vocalist and remained with the group from 1957-70. Modeling themselves after the legendary Soul Stirrers, the Travelers -- along with the Fairfield Four, the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys -- created blissful, heavenly harmonies and developed a style that exerted a profound influence on the rise of doo-wop (which, in turn, influenced everything from the Beatles to Grandmaster Flash).

"What we was known for," says Wafer, "was a "walking rhythm' group -- a lot of close harmony. At that time, we had no (instrumentation). It was all vocal, up until the late '50s. Then we picked up music. We would do a lot of close harmony, and we made our time and our rhythm with our feet and slapped our hips. That was our trademark. As a matter of fact, a lot of times when we made our recordings, they'd put a microphone on the floor so they could pick up that beat we made with our feet."

Although other lead vocalists of the time, including Rawls and Sam Cooke, left their gospel groups in order to cross over into the pop mainstream, Wafer wasn't interested in following that path: "I never considered that, actually. My root was gospel, and I never considered crossing over. A lot of them did -- Sam Cooke, Johnny Taylor, Jackie Davis, they all crossed over. But I never considered it. I guess I was a little too rooted in Christ."

Cruise control: Jessica Butler an albatross? Well, no, never. She's usually more like a peacock up there onstage, so dynamic that often, unwillingly (and, sure, willingly), her voice/saxophone/magnetism diverts attention from nearly everything else.

Now that Butler has left Getaway Car (and the city itself -- she has relocated to Paris, where she's studying) and the band has forged on without her, one thing has become perfectly clear: Although Butler lit up the stage and augmented the band's sound, without her, Getaway Car has finally found its footing.

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