By Mabel Suen
By Kris Wernowsky
By Daniel Hill
By Allison Babka
By Joseph Hess
By Allison Babka
By Joseph Hess
By Daniel Hill
Over the past 11 years, the RFT Music Awards has undergone some structural and procedural changes, not to mention a sudden -- and loudly lamented -- name change. Back in the old days, we used to calculate second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place winners, often to hilarious effect, as when Uncle Tupelo earned the dubious honor of being the third-best country band in St. Louis. (Who could blame them for including that howler on fliers?) We don't do that anymore, partly because it's a lot of trouble and partly because it's, well, kind of a backhanded compliment. In the end, we can't deny that it's a popularity contest, like all democratic elections, but there's no sense rubbing people's faces in the sordid competitive aspects when there's so much to celebrate.
It's easy to get wrapped up in the whole winner/loser drama, but for us the best thing about the Awards Formerly Known as the Slammies is the showcase phase of it, an 11-hour music marathon that amply demonstrates the fecundity of the St. Louis scene. Though we stuck them in sometimes arbitrary categories, the 50-plus acts and -- we hope! -- not-officially-sanctioned flatbed crashers and sidewalk buskers become, in the context of the showcase, something more than the sum of their multitudinous parts. It's just a slice of the local music scene, of course, but it's a big slice, one that includes all the world's major genres and more than a few of its minor ones. The RFT Music Award showcase might be just a microcosm of the St. Louis scene, but it manages to capture its surprising variety -- from the crunk-and-disorderly Da Hole 9 to the multiculti fusion of Sepantha, from the stoner sludgecore of Lo-Freq to the fey glam-pop of Tripstar, from the propulsive vibe of DJ Alexis to the disorienting sonic onslaught of the Conformists, from rockabilly to trip-hop to hip-hop to free jazz.
As a glimpse of the schedule demonstrates, it's impossible for one person to catch more than a tiny fraction of all the performances -- by sunset, five or six different acts will all be performing at any given time, in various venues scattered throughout the Loop. (And, despite what all the ads suggest, it's not just the University City Loop -- three of the participating venues are located in the city of St. Louis.) Despite the convenient proximity of the clubs, it's still not humanly possible to be in more than one place at one time. Worrying about all the great stuff you're missing is counterproductive, and plotting a strategy is an exercise in frustration. Here's our plan: We're gonna wander around aimlessly and see what happens, seek out surprises until we're so exhausted and disoriented (and, quite possibly, inebriated) that we have to plunk our asses down on a stool somewhere. For those who prefer a bit more guidance, here are the RFT music staff's capsule profiles.
Streetside Records Outdoor Stage (All Ages)
2 p.m.: On their early fliers, the Dead Celebritiesused the DC Comics insignia as their logo. That tells you what you need to know about their approach to punk rock: no arty angst or political posturing here. As the numerous comic-book/video-game references on their excellent Web site attest, the Celebs believe firmly in punk rock as junky, sarcastic fun. Sometimes, as on the song "Dead Celebrities," they crank out pounding Poison Idea-style aggression; other times they opt for more Oi!-influenced fare, as on "X-Ray Eyes." (The latter song tells an unidentified consort, "I just wanna see you in your underwear.") Gang shouts, power chords and quick tempos abound, and the sneering guitar breaks sound as if they just jumped off an early Black Flag record. If you need more explanation than that, you probably won't like the Dead Celebrities.
2:45 p.m.: The winner in the Singer/Songwriter category for the past two years, Blueberry is a performer like no other, serving up a compelling blend of punkish anger and folky idealism that's much, much more interesting than it sounds. Weirder than Ani and smarter than Jewel, Blueberry takes the singer/songwriter shtick out of the coffeehouses and into the streets, infusing the age-old guitar-strumming-troubadour routine with furious post-punk skronk. Her last solo CD, Journal of the Galaxies and Stars From St. Louis, is a wildly ambitious sonic manifesto, a strange amalgam of confessional poetry, political diatribe and metaphysical rumination. Solo or fronting her incandescent art-punk band, the Star Death, she's a force of fucking nature, a savage, rapturous, singular visionary. Ignore her at your peril.
3 p.m. If This Is Spin&ulm;al Tap director Rob Reiner ever decided to make a faux documentary on glam rock, Tripstar could stand in as stunt doubles. Despite layers of mascara, the roar of messianic guitars, sugary and soaring melodies and one of St. Louis's most instantly recognizable lead singers (Bryan Hoskins, whose piercing range makes Jeff Buckley seem like a basso profundo), the four-piece isn't nearly as slick as, say Colony, and their Pink Floyd psychedelic edge, from sometimes inscrutably impressionistic lyrics to tripped-out guitar pedal and vocal effects, separates them from other local rock-stars-in-training. "Loserville" and "State of Grace," from their most recent CD, At the Instar Motel, show what they can do with hooks, and once the band's members get over the understandable desire to be rock stars, they may grow in the direction of their genuine strengths: tersely melodic, well-harmonized pop/rock.
4 p.m.: When it comes to CORE Project, you can't tell the players without a scorecard, so here goes. On vocals, there's Stek-Wik (Stephen Stecher) and Kammasutra (Justin Maginn); C-Rock (Chris Taggart) plays guitar; and Fingaz (Nathan Hershey) handles the keyboards, T-Mills (Todd Miller) the bass. Ton'Def (Tony Barbata) is on drums, HeistBone (M. Got) on the wheels of steel. Even if the band members aren't yet household names, their collective sound -- hip-hop (performed with a live band, natch), acid jazz and funk, with lyrics on the positive tip -- is gaining notice. They've opened shows for several major touring acts and actually hit the road with Nelly and the St. Lunatics. They also sold out the initial run of their debut album, United. A follow-up, Fluid Forward Motion, is scheduled for release next month.
5 p.m.: If anything sets Earl apart from the hordes of four-piece guitar-rockers in town, it's the wailing energy of lead singer and harmonica-blower Jimmy Kennedy, who, even when he's all but begging the audience to call the The River's request lines and ask them to play his songs, comes off as sincerely angst-ridden and passionate about four-chord rock & roll. With a chugging rhythm section and gritty, Stonesy licks from Dan Niewoehner, the roots in this rock band manage to stretch past sort-of-soundalikes Blues Traveler or Uncle Tupelo to something at least as deep as Creedence or maybe the Guess Who. Their live gigs are furious enough to annihilate a Beck cover, knock over a drum kit and generally pour out enough grit and sweat to fill a hundred working-class garages.
5:45 p.m.: It's kinda scary, the relentless charm of Celia. Though still a relative newcomer, the perky singer/songwriter has captivated hordes of St. Louisans with her winsome, wide-eyed folk/pop. Her general adorableness knows no bounds: Last year, the transplanted Kansan was nominated in both the Kansas City Klammies and the St. Louis Slammies -- an unprecedented feat, as far as we know. Whether she's singing about armadillos or a lover's ringlets, whether she's emceeing a Women in Rock show or busking on the streets of Soulard, whether she's goofing around on KDHX-FM or holding court at Metropolis' The Lot, Celia melts hearts wherever she goes. Imagine a cross between Raffi and Melanie. If the thought of such a hybrid turns your stomach, well, maybe you're one of the unhappy few immune to Celia's allure. Unless you're an unmitigated crab-ass, you'll probably find yourself grinning like a moron in no time.
6 p.m.: Fans of big and shiny modern alt-rock will find much to admire in Just Add Water, a hardworking local quintet that's already garnered airplay on The River, appeared on KSDK-TV's Show Me St. Louis and attracted the attention of several major-labels. Their self-released full-length debut, 2000's The Other Side of You, and a new four-song CD/EP nicely represent singer/primary songwriter Steve Waller's crunchy power-ballads. Drummer Peter Lang, bassist John Komotos and guitarists Brian Nicoloff and Mike Steimel all hold down their duties with admirable energy and reasonable restraint. JAW has the ambition, the work ethic and the loyal fanbase (get a load of their Web site's message board if you're skeptical!) -- with a little luck, they might end up on VH1 or MTV or, at the very least, Dawson's Creek.
In the clubs (21 and over) Blueberry Hill, Duck Room
7 p.m.: Yes, Cobalt Blue will remind you of 10,000 Maniacs, in part because of Rebecca Ryan's husky, jazzy whisper of a voice, but also through the spacious groove and guitar jangle running through much of their debut CD, Work Song. But Cobalt Blue start to find themselves on the slow burn of "Wishes," a gorgeously harmonized soul song, the gospel-piano number "God Don't Say Much" and the psychedelic sensuality of "Gravity and Grace." Tim Redmond (who co-wrote most the songs with Ryan) and Sean Garcia lay down some dazzling electric guitar and keyboard licks, and the rhythm section can generate both an atmospheric groove and rock hard and tight enough to keep the sound from outright hippification. What's most intriguing about the band is the unpretentious air of experimentation in the lush but spare arrangements. Lots of shoe-staring rockers are looking for that moody, inventive sound; Cobalt Blue has found it.
8 p.m.: A member of such local funk/rock stalwarts as Blank Space and Filet of Funk, Dave Simon was a familiar fixture in the St. Louis music scene of the middle to late '80s. He returned to this town a couple years ago and has become just as familiar leading his latest group, the Ambassadors. The appealing trio consistently packs tiny bars such as Frederick's and the Black Thorn at Lemmons with impressively big crowds. Their self-titled debut CD, released about a year ago, showcases Simon's tasty melodies and rhythmic interests. Only Simon and drummer Jill Aboussie remain from the group that recorded the album. Simon and Aboussie are currently augmented by keyboardist Jon Parsons, formerly of Getaway Car and Nadine. "Our set is now featuring the material we plan to record after the new year," says Simon. "The new songs continue in our stylistic explorations while moving beyond the good-natured fun of the first record."
9 p.m.: The Rockhouse Ramblers fell into our Roots/Americana category, but unlike the other bands in that slot, they're not a hybrid. There's nothing alt or insurgent or "No Depression" about them; the Ramblers are just flat-out, straight-up hardcore country, with elements of Western swing and rockabilly. Defiantly dated, the band's sound incorporates no genre that isn't at least 40 years old. The result is authentic but never quaint. The musicians -- Kip Loui, John Horton, Dade Farrar, Gary Hunt and Danny Kathriner -- are all solid and often virtuosic, making their engaging mix of classic honky-tonk and strong originals a must-see.
10 p.m.: Andy Stoutenborough pounds hard, complex rhythmic patterns that make use of every trick in the percussive handbook. Keith Mangles lays down fat, propulsive bass lines that lock in step with the drums. Ryan Stoutenborough and Erin Fry hammer at their guitars, delivering powerhouse riffs cut with deliciously languid lead lines. Ed Sykes adds counterpoint on keyboards, holding down more thickness in the chords or splicing up the thick sound with delirious melodic runs. Ryan sings lead, and although the lyrics are mostly indiscernable, the melodies and the emotions are clear as daylight and just as welcome. All these elements add up to Dozemarypool, a young band from St. Charles that's been constantly refining its sound, growing from gig to gig over the last year into one of the most consistently beautiful, inventive rock bands we've heard.
11 p.m.: Rocket Park is a band that's tooled for the long haul. Over the past few years, they've released two full-length albums, along with a handful of cuts on compilation albums, and they've recorded demos of quite a few other songs. Ideas pour from their heads like sweat. The band's focus is the songwriting of sometime RFT contributor Brian Andrew Marek, who also plays keyboards and rhythm guitar and sings. He's a melodic fountain, able to twist familiar note combinations into new, highly hummable delights. Marek's been influenced by virtually every good idea in the rock and pop fields of the last 40 years, and these influences can turn up without warning in the middle of his songs. The other band members complement his songs quite nicely: Steve Minnis is an aggressive lead guitarist who added crunch to the band when he joined more than a year ago; Dave Harris and Eric Moore lay down powerful rhythmic foundations on bass and drums, respectively.
Blueberry Hill, Elvis Room
7:00 p.m.: The Conformists are the sound of four men yelling "I AM!" like turn signals blinking on a line of cars; each signal goes light and dark according to its own inner workings, but then all the signals synchronize and the "I AM!" becomes a deafening "WE ARE!" that flashes in perfect unison. Such moments are fleeting, and no one is more determined to capture them than the Conformists. They are relentlessly abrasive and independent, and their single-minded pursuit of something known only to them sets the Conformists apart from all other bands.
8 p.m.: The twangy intifada that is the Round-Ups has about as much to do with traditional country music as a poetry slam has to do with poetry, but that's not really the issue. Their loose, boozy take on country is no less fun and infectious for being gleefully ragged. Finding strangeness in numbers, the Round-Ups may feature as many as eight musicians at a time playing their own version of the song before them. It's not often pretty, but it's most often a gas. Lead singer Tom Herd's craggy, off-key vocals aren't a put-on -- there's genuine affection for honky-tonk in his delivery. And though the material mostly ranges from drinking hard to drinking harder, one shouldn't expect subtlety from ex-punk rockers who feature that most oxymoronic of instruments, the musical saw. As it turns out, Heather O'Shaughnessy and her bowed saw are the Round-Ups' secret weapon, lending the ornery and mean rhythmic drive -- drummer Hugh Abrahams is a powerhouse -- a thereminlike spaciness. The Grand Ole Opry, in other words, will have to wait.
9 p.m.: They look like a bunch of freaks, they act like a bunch of freaks and they sound like a bunch of freaks. They're the Electric, a welcome addition to St. Louis' rejuvenated garage-rock scene. Featuring a singer whose stage presence recalls nothing so much as the Baltimore Foot Stomper from the John Waters' film Polyester (credit goes to Vintage Vinyl's Jim Utz for that observation) and primal three- or four-chord (at most) songs, the Electric has only been playing out for a few months now but has already earned the respect of the local loud rock scene.Whether playing a Sonics cover or an Electric original, the band delivers the goods with the wild-eyed intensity that makes for a great and dangerous rock & roll show -- and a great and dangerous rock & roll band.
10 p.m.: Judging by the number of nominations these garage-pop newcomers earned from those mysterious industry insiders [Radar Station, April 10], the Fantasy Four has a dedicated fanbase. Problem is, it's hard to pigeonhole them. We stuck them in Pop, on account of their bubblegum-sticky melodies, their delirious interlocking ba-ba-ba-da harmonies and the sheer compactness of their songs, few of which exceed the three-minute mark. A good case could be made, however, for putting them in the Garage or Punk or even straight-up Rock categories: Make no mistake, this trio knows its way around a distortion pedal and -- thanks in part to that wiry fury on drums, Scooter Hermes -- they rock rather hard, albeit sweetly. Singer/guitarist Marcia Pandolfi's ardent alto trembles like a bell on her ode to a self-loathing sweetheart, "Your Mirrors Must Be Mad," a song so exquisitely sad it might make Brian Wilson jealous. Singer/bassist Karen Stephens is just as handy with a pop hook, but her songs have more of a punk edge, a hint of bile in the sucrose. Together, Pandolfi and Stephens are that rare and magical thing: a perfect songwriting team.
11 p.m.: Practically the grand old men of the scene (they've been around, like, two years), the Spidersare still destroying stages all around St. Louis with admirable frequency. Combustible Jaxon is one of the most charismatic frontmen this city has produced in quite some time, and guitarist Sleazus Christ has grown into a worthy onstage foil for him. The band proved it could back up the stage charm on record with last year's EP "It's Breakin' My Mind." Strongly influenced by garage-punk ravers such as the Dwarves and the New Bomb Turks and getting closer to matching their inspirations all the time, the Spiders should start making a splash in the national punk scene any day now.
7 p.m.: The Honkeys provided one of the highlights of last year's showcase when they pulled a sweaty and bespectacled fan from the Duck Room crowd and enticed him into leading them through a blistering version of the Misfits' "Where Eagles Dare." Who knew surf instrumentals and horror-punk went hand in hand? The Honkeys' beach-blanket riffs, punk hearts and office-drone looks make for an interesting shindig, even if the delectable dancing Saltines are no longer part of the festivities.
8 p.m.: If sounding like the Kingsmen is wrong, the Gentleman Callers don't want to be right. This long-gestating mod/garage band finally began playing shows earlier this spring, and the wait's been well worth it. Featuring members of mid-'90s punk & rollers El Gordo's Revenge, the Gentlemen Callers have given up on most of what passes for punk these days, instead looking back to about 1965 for inspiration, drawing from bands such as the Sonics, the Standells and the aforementioned Kingsmen. Punctuating songs with cheesy keyboard splashes, unnecessary "c'mon"s and gloriously simple guitar solos, the Gentlemen Callers play every show as if it's toga night at the Animal House while still allowing their punk roots to show through.
9 p.m.: DJ Alexis has been at the center of the St. Louis dance community since way before she was legally allowed to club-hop. Her parties, which stretched from the mid-'90s to the '00s and were thrown under her That Girl moniker, are legendary, some of the seminal early St. Louis raves. As a DJ, Alexis spins rich, thick vocal house, music that's jazzy and propulsive. She's also a member of the Hothouse Sessions -- Alexis on turntables, Chris Hansen on percussion and a brass section composed of trumpeter Kasimu and trumpeter/trombonist La Mar Harris -- who throw down a hard amalgam of live and recorded house music every Thursday at Rue 13 and monthly at Miso's in Clayton.
10 p.m.: No self-respecting jam band appreciates that label, and CPB, we're guessing, is no exception. Sure, it's a convenient way to ghettoize the Cicero's regulars, a way to warn concertgoers of the inevitable odor of patchouli and American Spirit cigarettes that's sure to hit them like a Mack truck should they decide to check out such a band. All the so-called jam bands favor, duh, instrumental jams -- meandering sonic explorations that might, depending on your state of mind and frame of reference, remind you of Sun Ra or Frank Zappa, of Miles Davis or the Allman Brothers, of Funkadelic or Phish. CPB might be a jam band, yeah, but that doesn't mean they're idle noodlers, throwback potheads who can't get over the loss of Jerry Garcia. If you've got them pigeonholed as granola-crunching, Birkenstock-shod latter-day Deadheads, you might be in for a surprise. This eccentric sextet features a trombone and saxophone, and it's as likely to throw down some Afro-pop à la King Sunny Ade as it is to cut loose with the obligatory white-boy-blues extendo-jams.
11 p.m.: One of those bands that never really fit in any of the standard categories, Jive Turkey is tailor-made for the Groove Band slot -- an ambiguous designation, maybe, but by far the most accurate. Drawing equally from hip-hop, rock, funk, jazz and R&B, the esoteric octet makes party music for people who don't care about artificial boundaries, genre distinctions or petty pigeonholes. Don't let the cornball name fool you: Jive Turkey takes its music seriously -- seriously enough to do it right, not so seriously that it seems pretentious. To paraphrase the immortal Dick Clark, it's got a good beat, and you can groove to it. Over the past few years, Jive Turkey has acquired a devoted fanbase and a Slammy statuette to prove it. Unfortunately for us, the band's getting ready to move to San Diego -- make sure you send them off in style.
Delmar Restaurant & Lounge
7 p.m.: It's only appropriate that the Music Awards Showcase lineup at the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge kicks off Sunday with a performance by John Norment. The tenor saxophonist par excellence is a weekly regular at the Lounge -- holding down the prime Saturday-night slot with his Allstars group for the past few years. Norment has also been a key contributor to the local jazz scene for decades, and his string of recent nominations in the Jazz category is long-overdue recognition for his efforts. With roots that go back to the Black Artists Group and the cutting-edge music of the '70s, plus plenty of work within the St. Louis R&B/blues tradition, Norment has the experience, the talent and the spirit to take an audience in any musical direction he chooses to explore. And wherever the music takes him on Sunday, it's sure to set a high standard for the musicians that follow him onstage.
8 p.m.: Mix the guitar playing of Iranian-born brothers Amir and Ali Arab, the eclectic bass style of Charlie Siefert and the New Orleans drumming approach of Drew Weiss. Then add a mix of original tunes that contain elements of Middle Eastern and Afro-Cuban musical traditions, as well as a strong dose of jazz fusion. The result is Sepantha, an Edwardsville, Ill.-based band that's created a strong impression over the past two years. Born from the breakup of the cutting-edge band Acoustic Internote, Sepantha has the same basic cross-cultural, to-hell-with-musical-barriers approach as its precursor. (No surprise, considering that Amir Arab, who writes most of the original music played by Sepantha, was the co-founder of Acoustic Internote.) Despite its diverse influences, the band definitely has an organic feel -- which may explain its presence in the Best Reggae/World category two years in a row.
9 p.m.: Inevitability is usually associated with death and taxes, but a St. Louis variation might link the Soulard Blues Band and the RFT Music Awards. Not only does SBB gain a nomination for Best Blues every year, they've copped the award eight years running. If you're a longtime fan, no one has to convince you to check out their eclectic mix of urban blues, sophisticated R&B and assorted jazz-tinged licks. But if you're not a regular at the SBB's notorious Monday-night jams at the Broadway Oyster Bar or their weekend gigs at B.B.'s and other area clubs, here's a chance to check out the group in the cozy retro-hip setting of the Delmar Lounge. On a bill that features the band in the middle of a lineup of jazz, reggae and fusion/world-music bands, it's a good bet that SBB's eclectic approach will be in full flower.
10 p.m.: Ptah Williams continues to build a reputation as one of the most interesting -- and entertaining -- jazz pianists around. No matter whether he's playing bluesy ballads on acoustic piano or ripping through high-energy, upper-octave runs on electric keyboards, Williams has proved a crowd-pleaser wherever he appears. He's toured in the backing bands of jazz stalwarts such as Lou Donaldson, worked with soul legend Fontella Bass and earned a loud standing ovation that rivaled the response given to big-name acts at last year's St. Louis Jazz Festival. His regular Wednesday-night gigs at Riddle's in the University City Loop have become hugely popular, and Williams has now added Sunday evenings at the Delmar to his schedule. This Sunday, Williams will be sharing the stage at the club with five other bands nominated in various award categories -- but you can bet he'll be doing his best to prove it's his musical stomping ground.
11 p.m.: Other locally based reggae bands may get more publicity -- and more awards -- but the Yard Squad keeps on churning out its inimitable brand of hypnotic, crowd-pleasing island sounds. Together for more than six years now, the band has built on its loyal local fanbase and now performs at clubs in college towns and major cities throughout the Midwest. The Yard Squad has also recorded on the independent Nasheed records label, backing lead singer Krucial on From Babylon to Zion. A perennial nominee, the Yard Squad just might break through one of these years and win an award. Win or lose, though, the band remains one of the most consistently pleasing reggae bands around.
Midnight: Another perennial nominee, Dave Stonewows Downbeat-savvy crowds with his rich intonation and inventive phrasing, then bludgeons them with the unhinged free-jazz Panzer onslaught so popular with the fringe element. Stone's sax is omnipresent, gracing everything from Third Lip Cabaret performances to Western Robot's only known recording to frequent Way Out Club blowouts. His greatness is a poorly kept secret, so pass it around.
6 p.m.: Julia Sets reaffirmed its love for and commitment to its indie fans by releasing a cassette version of its last album, Julia Sets Present an Alternative to Extinction this past winter. Such gestures separate rock careerists from pop ne'er-do-wells, and Julia Sets is surely on the road to ruin. Its spacey excursions to the dark side of the cardigan sound even dreamier when trailing warm clouds of analog hiss, and the occasional crackle adds a patina of gravitas to the proceedings. God bless you, you princes of the Midwest.
7 p.m.: The members of the Highway Matrons are damned lucky they wound up in a rock & roll band. There are few other fields -- pro wrestling, maybe, or Third World politics -- in which they could work that anarchic charm so well. You need to see them perform live, preferably after a few frosty Stags (for yourself and for the band), before you "get" what they do. On disc, their genius isn't always so apparent. After all, it's better to be hoisting a few and dancing rather than sitting in quiet contemplation of a song such as "Heart Full of Pus." Whichever part of the musical spectrum you think the Matrons belong on, be it country, country/rock or just plain rock & roll, you've gotta agree, there's no one on the scene remotely like them.
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.
5 p.m.: Any band whose members wear full stage makeup and bondage gear to appear on a radio broadcast is composed either of people really dedicated to what they're doing or a bunch of damn lunatics. When the band in question is the Saw Is Family, the answer is "a little from column A, a little from column B." As befits a band whose name is taken from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Saw Is Family most closely resembles weirdo Texas psych-punks the Butthole Surfers, with a similar ability to go from straight-ahead driving punk rock to spaced-out freakishness, sprinkled liberally with a druggy sense of humor. Behind the scenes for years, the band has made up for lost time by releasing two CDs of inspired weirdness in the past six months.
6 p.m.: Dan Campbell had been the frontman for two popular bands on the local emo scene, the long-lived Five Deadly Venoms and the briefer-lived Keyop. After the latter broke up, Campbell didn't have any new musical associates waiting in the wings -- not until less than a year ago, when a group of younger guys stopped in the record store where Campbell works. They needed a frontman, and they liked Campbell, a versatile singer who can croon during the quiet bits and scream like a banshee when the music gets angry. And lo, Asia Minor was born. The musicians shape intricately interlocking sounds, with guitars (played by Tom Sweet and Andy Brandmeyer) and bass (Bruce Klostermann) working carefully measured contrapuntal lines and the drums (James Amos) augmenting the other instruments with similar rhythmic variation. Graced with self-assurance and self-control -- not to mention some catchy hooks -- Asia Minor has already finished a demo that sounds like the work of a veteran band.
7 p.m.: Subscribing to the "everything louder than everyone else" philosophy, the Shame Club have been brutalizing eardrums, audiences and each other for a couple of years now, earning a reputation (and a handful of club bannings) as "that band that plays ridiculously loud all the time." It's doing the band a disservice, though, to think that volume is the only weapon in its arsenal. The churning songs can call to mind bands such as Jesus Lizard and the Birthday Party, and the cathartic nature of their live show reminds you that "emo" stands for emotional release. Timid folk should probably wait until the CD comes out -- that way, they can listen in the safety of their own homes -- but hardy temperaments in need of an aural ass-kicking should seek out the Shame Club at once.
8 p.m.: The Phonocaptors are the proud creators of one of the greatest recorded moments in St. Louis rock: Check out their two cuts on Rooster Lollipop's Axes and Snaxes compilation, wherein Jason Hutto guts his guitar during the pileup at the end of "I Can't Stand It." After a couple of years on hiatus, the Phonocaptors have resumed constructing their underground tunnel connecting 1968 Detroit proto-punk and 1976 New York garage-punk; more guitars are certain to die before their work is done.
9 p.m.: Rather than sit around and whine about the St. Louis scene, as most bands do, Not Waving but Drowning actually takes action. They've toured as hard as any of the signed bands from these parts, achieving headlining status in a number of cities. Back at home, guitarist Justin Mank promotes dozens of shows a month, fliering tirelessly. Although this hard work makes them ambitious and supportive, it's their music and intense live show that have made them successful. Singer Todd Finoch rips his guts out and hurls them at the audience while the band weaves and punches behind him, creating a dense wall of emo/punk/metal that, given a big recording budget and a cool video, could easily find a home on MTV2. And, unlike so many bands, Not Waving but Drowning would have earned it.
10 p.m.: Musical trends come and go, but there will always be a place for good old fashioned riff rock. From Black Sabbath to Fu Manchu, the face may change but the riffs remain the same, simple, even simplistic, but oh-so-right when done correctly. Add St. Louis' Lo-Freq to the long list of riff-worshipers and be glad. They're doing it right. Despite a brief hiatus last year and a lineup change, the ghostly power of rock & roll wouldn't let them go, and they returned with a renewed devotion to the almighty riff. This isn't Next Big Thing music, this is listening to "War Pigs" on 8-track with a styrofoam cooler full of Stag in the backseat, and that's just how Lo-Freq plays it.
11 p.m.: Listen, oh disheartened local bands, to the tale of the Cripplers, and be inspired. After years of beating their heads against the rock & roll wall, of frenetic live shows played to a small but rabid fanbase, the Columbia/St. Louis foursome was about to call it quits. Despite the fact that their tracks on the Landlocked and Loaded Midwest garage-band compilation pretty much smoked every other band, nobody was coming forward to put out a Cripplers full-length, and the band went ahead and played a farewell show. Shortly afterward, however, California-based Dionysus Records, a hugely respected name in the garage-band scene, stepped in to release One More for the Bad Guys, a steaming slab of Midwestern overdriven snarl and howl. The breakup was called off (although guitarist/co-vocalist Jeff King has since departed), the frenetic live shows recommenced and all was again right with the world. Viva Los Cripplers!
7 p.m.: If you haven't heard "Lemmehollaatcha" or "Urbody N Da Club Up," you haven't been listening to 100.3 The Beat. Your loss. Those songs have been ruling the airwaves and scorching area dance floors for almost a year now, and the CD they sprang from -- Da Hole 9's breakthrough debut, Out Here -- has been holding steady toward the top of local sales charts for months on end. Not since 1996, when the then-unknown St. Lunatics unleashed "Gimme What You Got," has the St. Louis hip-hop scene been so thoroughly smitten with a new act. It's a goddamned phenomenon, and it's only a matter of time before someone scores these dudes the major-label deal they so clearly deserve. Led by the impossibly charismatic Big Sexy Kool DJ Kaos (drivetime DJ on The Beat), Da Hole 9 delivers the country grammar without imitating you-know-who. See 'em now -- someday you could be watching 'em on BET.
8 p.m.: Considered by many the city's premier turntablist, DJ K-9 plays the wheels of steel like a virtuoso, cutting and scratching the stacks of wax until he's constructed something brand-new, something all his own. Anyone who scoffs at the idea that a turntable might be analogous to an actual instrument will reconsider after seeing this man in action. The regional winner in the prestigious DMC turntablism competition a few years back, K-9 is a well-respected fixture on the local hip-hop scene. Whether he's sitting in with his boys Bits N Pieces or holding court at the clubs, K-9 never fails to surprise and enchant.
9 p.m.: In this city's small but thriving underground hip-hop circles, Bits N Pieces have earned a loyal following among fans of smart, conscious rap. Although they don't get the airplay some of their more party-centric peers enjoy, they've steadily built a devoted fanbase, one that stretches from the clubs to the college circuit. Sibling MCs Cat and Jia have been performing together since they were teenagers, and early influences such as the Temptations and Smokey Robinson lend a sweetly melodic vibe to their beats. Bits N Pieces aren't snobs or purists; their mission is simply to move people. They do just that, thanks to a lot of heart and catchy tracks such as "The New Breed" -- brilliantly produced by producer DJ Crucial -- and the recently remixed 12-inch "Warriors."
10 p.m.: Altered St8s of Consciousness aren't about the bling-bling and big ol' booties. They're more likely to rap about the horrors of globalization than the pleasures of conspicuous consumption, more interested in consciousness-raising than coochie-poppin', more prone to self-questioning than self-aggrandizement. Referring to the erudite Amené, one fan told us, "He makes me want to get out my dictionary." What better praise could you bestow on a lyricist, when you stop to think about it? Amené's MC partner Lyfestile is a bit more straightforward but no less intriguing. Their latest CD, Music for B-Boys and the Women Who Love Them, was released by the Brooklyn-based indie label Sondoo. An astute, incisive blend of political commentary and clever, frequently hilarious rhyming, the seven-song disc features inspired cuts and scratches by faithful collaborator Da Fly D-EX.
11 p.m.: The undisputed king of the old-school jams, DJ Needles is a busy guy: spinning at Churchill's and Blueberry Hill, hosting his fabulous Fat Laces mix show on Q95.5 and regularly cranking out his stellar Freshmixtapes compilations. Eclectic, funky and invariably surprising, Needles' selections reveal not only his great taste but his infallible sense of how to get a party started. If Needles is spinning, you know you're gonna have fun. A refreshingly humble guy, he claims he's just a "wannabe MC," a mixer rather than a scratcher. No matter: He might not dazzle the dance-floor with his fancy pyrotechnics, but he's guaranteed to get your freak on like nobody's business.
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