By Melinda Cooper
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When the social-networking Web site MySpace.com became a must-have promotional tool for bands, it signaled a sea-change in terms of musicians operating independent of the music industry. Bands could make "friends," post songs, book gigs and possibly even earn a record deal through this seemingly simple interface. Yet while MySpace seems revolutionary, the site is actually an evolution of what musicians and music fans have been doing for more than a decade: sharing a passion for music through the Internet.
The local music festival Twangfest, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, has its roots in the online community Postcard 2, a listserv for fans of country-tinged music. This genre could broadly be called Americana, though you may know it by other names: alt-country, roots-rock or insurgent country. Members of the listserv wanted an excuse to meet one another in person and celebrate the music they all loved; St. Louis was an ideal location, owing to the city's centrality and how accessible it was for most of Postcard 2's online community.
"All but one of the bands that played Twangfest I had some affiliation with Postcard 2 either a band member, or a manager who was a member of the list," remembers Amy Silvers, a member of the Twangfest board of directors (better known as the Twang Gang). "There was actually some controversy at the time about including a band that wasn't directly affiliated, out of fear that it would dilute the essence of what Twangfest was intended to be." That band was the Waco Brothers, who ended up headlining the first Twangfest and became a successful act on the alt-country label Bloodshot Records.
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Transmitters vocalist-guitarist Kip Loui helped book the inaugural 'fest at Off Broadway in 1997 (and played that year as a member of Belle Star). He recalls the excitement and uncertainty of the first Twangfest. "At the time, of course, we had no idea we were founding a music festival," he says. "We were just a bunch of knucklehead musicians throwing ourselves a hootenanny in a bar. But when the smoke cleared from the Waco Brothers' set that first year and the party was over, people immediately starting asking, 'Well are we gonna do this again?'"
The answer was a resounding yes. After the success of the first Twangfest, the event grew from an informal gathering to a bona-fide regional event. It outgrew Off Broadway in 2001 and is now held over several nights at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room a nice bit of serendipity, seeing as how it's the location of the old Cicero's and a room where Uncle Tupelo played many formative shows. St. Louis, with its dubious claim as the home of these alt-country catalysts, may have been the perfect place to host the event after all. Longtime board member and festival co- booker Marie Arsenault says as much: "If it was in another city, it may not have lasted this long, since this is the birthplace of alt-country."
But other factors have contributed to Twangfest's longevity. The festival was incorporated as not-for-profit after the second year; all members of the Twang Gang work as volunteers. This is a crucial aspect of the event for Kip Loui. "No one makes a dime of personal profit off Twangfest, and that's a point of pride for me," he says. "So many commercial music festivals seemed designed to line the pockets of their creators, but that's not what we're about. The people who organize this thing do it for the love of the music and the sense of community you find at Twangfest. We've been successful despite the music industry, not because of it."
And as Twangfest has matured over the years, its directors have tried to broaden the scope and appeal of the festival. In booking acts for the past few years, the Twang Gang has begun moving away from strictly country-oriented acts to include more expressly pop, rock and garage acts. Former Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn played at Twangfest 7 in 2003, and his power-pop performance marked a move away from strictly Telecaster-and-flannel acts. And this year, Detroit's garage-minded the Dirtbombs will make their St. Louis debut as the headliner for Thursday night's show.
Still, it's hard for concertgoers and booking agents to get past the "twang" in Twangfest and the directors are keenly aware of this.
"Nobody likes the name. We were going to change it a few years ago, and we chickened out," Arsenault admits. "People are getting used to the idea that we book all kinds of music, but sometimes it's hard to get an agent or band to listen to you because they don't fit into the twangy, honky-tonk style."
The Twang Gang scored a major coup for last year's event by booking golden-throated powerhouse Neko Case for a show with the Bottle Rockets and the Drams at the Pageant. Many fans were expecting a Pageant-size gig for each subsequent year, with a marquee name like Jay Farrar, Gillian Welch or Lucinda Williams to close the weekend. But with budget concerns and artists' busy summer tour schedules, this is easier said than done.
"Our thought was we'd only go to the Pageant if we had a band big enough to fill there," Arsenault explains. "We tried to get some Pageant-worthy headliners, and it didn't work out." (Plus, it would seem that most Twangfest-goers would rather be in confined communion in the sweaty Duck Room than spread out in the cool, cavernous Pageant.)