By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
7:45 p.m.: The former frontwoman of Drift -- and, before that, of Bella Wolf -- Brandy Johnson is finally striking out on her own. She's still got a band, and it's every bit as good as any of her previous lineups, but by naming it after herself for the first time, she finally seems to be accepting her natural role as leader. Her newest CD, Wishing/Well, is her most ambitious effort to date, a densely textured tapestry of moody folk/rock and soaring alterna-pop that's pretty but never cloying, accessible but never hackneyed. With her warm, throaty alto and bittersweet melodic sensibilities, Johnson has always been an engaging performer. Now she's coming into her own as an arranger and songwriter, with unexpected twists and an edgier sound. Never fear, gentle Brandy fans: She's not gonna weird you out with some Yoko-like keening or random blasts of feedback. When Johnson surprises you, it'll be so subtle, so pleasant, that you might not even notice at first. She doesn't bludgeon, she insinuates -- and therein lies her power.
8 p.m.: Fronted by Al Swacker, the charming host of KDHX-FM's Greaser's Lunchbox and the former leader of the Loaded 45s, the CrazyBeats play driving, blistering '50s-inspired rock & roll in the hallowed tradition of Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent. No, this hard-hitting but sprightly four-piece isn't breaking any new ground, but the ground it does cover is still plenty rich, yielding sweaty epiphany on sweaty epiphany. Swacker yelps and howls like a man possessed, his bandmates spur him on with twangy licks and frenzied pounding -- in short, all the elements add up to Dionysian release. It's a predictable formula but one that hasn't lost its primitive magic, half a century later -- thanks in part to true believers such as the CrazyBeats.
9 p.m.: The Fred of Fred's Variety Group is not spoonster and bar-hound extraordinaire Fred Friction but Fred Boettcher, the original owner of Frederick's Music Lounge, piano-bar crooner and, in his day, frontman for his own variety ensemble. When Mark Stephens and Sunyatta Marshall, along with stand-up-bass player Sherman Sherman, took the name, they tapped into the rough-edged swing of the legendary Fred Sr. but ultimately created a weird blur of folk, blues and rock with no real equal in St. Louis -- if only because such gutbucket guitar tone, sweetly clashing harmonies and eerie, soulful songs (especially "Slow Car" and "Waiting for a Fall," both written by Sherman) can neither be bought nor learned in a woodshed or basement. Marshall's torchy, cabaret-styled singing, as well as her guitar playing, have improved greatly over two years of steady gigging -- she can sing the tar out of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" -- and the trio hasn't quite jelled so much that they've lost the deliriously charming accident of their sound.
10 p.m.: It's not every band whose members are of the opinion that their last record sounded "too good." But that was the idea behind Nadine's "unmastering" of their widely acclaimed album Lit Up from the Inside, which the group also resequenced and repackaged. Why deconstruct a straight-up classic of moody, experimental Americana? Who knows? But whatever it is that this group -- guitarists Adam Reichmann and Steve Rauner, bassist Ann Tkatch and new drummer Merv Schrock -- is up to, we're listening. Of late, the group has finished recording a new album, Strange Seasons, with indie-rock producer Matt Pence (Centro-matic): Look for a summer release. They also sidled up to the recording industry a bit by performing at this year's SXSW Music Conference in Austin, Texas, and placed a song, "Without a Reply" in the MTV original movie about Matthew Shepard, Anatomy of a Murder. All in all, a good year for a great band.
11 p.m.: Are the 7 Shot Screamers the best rockabilly band in town? That's for you, the voters, to decide, but they're certainly the most punk. They play fast and loud, largely sticking to the high-energy stuff and staying away from the cornball balladry that too many neobillies attempt but can't manage. The Screamers are just about the youngest scene veterans you'll find. They got into rock young and stuck with it, and they've earned a poise that belies their youth, so nobody cares anymore that Gene Vincent would be old enough to be their grandfather. What's more, they've got ambition: They're just back from recording with ex-Rockat Levi Dexter out in glamorous Hollywood. The 7 Shot Screamers have the look of a band that's ready to go places, and, along with the Trip Daddys, they're making a name for St. Louis in the international greaser community.
Midnight: Their name hints at their leftist political leanings, but the Red Squares are as concerned with the politics of boy-meets-girl as much as they worry about supply-side economics. They hark back to a time when Britain was still relevant in punk, blending the Merseybeat sound and O-level politics but never passing up the opportunity for a good snog (and they even call the next day -- they're that morally correct!). Not just punk with a heart, this is punk with a soul.