By Jeremy Essig
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Musicians of every size and shape write songs about life on the road. From "Faithfully" to "Turn the Page" to "Wanted Dead or Alive," artists have long explored the mental, physical and romantic trials that come with a nomadic life of entertaining people. In their eyes, it's an intense, rewarding journey — but not one for the faint of heart.
St. Louis' Open Highway Music Festival is on the second leg of its own journey. Steve Pohlman, owner of Off Broadway, and John Henry, concert promoter and namesake of local band John Henry & the Engine, cofounded the festival last August to showcase some American roots music they felt the Gateway City needed to notice. With artists such as the Bottle Rockets, Will Hoge and the Turnpike Troubadours on the bill, the festival sold out nearly each of its four nights, making a followup event a certainty.
But Henry shares that this year, he and Pohlman are taking Open Highway in a slightly different direction — one that is likely to be even more rewarding. In short, attendees will have to look hard for the Americana sound that permeated the 2012 event.
"We wanted to make it more eclectic, genre-wise," Henry says. "No restrictions."
Taking a cue from the multidimensional concerts he's attended or played, Henry says that music festivals — and concert bills in general — are becoming more diverse, crossing genres instead of lumping several like-sounding musicians together.
"Genre just is not as important. I think that heartfelt, soulful music is what people care about and are drawn to, whether it comes from a garage band or a soul band," Henry says. "The medium in which they do it is different, but the soul still comes from the same place."
"If you go to a festival like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza, you're going to have a rap artist on one stage and a singer-songwriter just across the way. It's just really good music, and that's what people care about," Henry concludes.
This year's Open Highway bill includes artists such as JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Cory Chisel and Murder by Death, guaranteeing that fans will experience folk, soul, straight-up rock & roll and everything in between. It's a musical experience designed to showcase excellent songs of all types, carefully incorporating the different ways people discover bands.
"Radio still really matters to get your music across, but now you have Spotify or Pandora that mixes music within a framework and exposes people to more. True music fans use those as springboards to purchase albums or find more artists," Henry says. "People are getting music from such a wide variety of sources, becoming more sophisticated and being completely surrounded by music. Genre boundaries just aren't as defined anymore."
Genre-bending is something that Henry and Pohlman already toy with at Off Broadway.
"This spring, we had J Roddy Walston and the Business here, and they brought a band called Pujol with them," Henry says. "He was more of a punk guy, and the Business were more earth-rock, and it totally kicked ass. You're just seeing more shows across genres, and the lines are becoming more blurred."
If Henry sounds extra passionate about this idea, it's because he is. Henry says that he, Pohlman and the rest of the Off Broadway crew try to curate events that fans will embrace and shows that musicians will appreciate playing.
"What we're doing makes me very happy, and I think the audience is going to enjoy what we've put together," Henry continues. "We feel really lucky to welcome a lot of these bands that we consider friends and that we admire."
Where will the Open Highway journey ultimately take Henry and Pohlman? Henry says that they envision the festival growing even more, adding different artists to the yearly bills and refraining from repeating any acts.
"Our first year, Open Highway was pretty close to being sold out every night, and I'm really proud of what we did," Henry says. "This year, we're very pleased with the new lineup we've put together. The goal is to keep growing bigger and establish the festival as something that people know about.
"We're not going to rush it," Henry continues. "We'll let it develop — let the festival become what it's going to become."
Henry gave us a rundown of what fans can expect from each night of Open Highway, slyly cautioning that additional surprises are in store.
Wednesday, August 7
The Wild Rovers Tour, featuring Cory Chisel, the Candles, Adriel Denae, Space Woman and special guests: "Cory Chisel is one of my favorite things I've heard in a really, really long time. It's folk rock but very soulful, with traces of Southern music and a little bit of blues. He's got one of those records I put on and two measures into it, I'm in love with it. He's bringing along a revue-style show."
Thursday, August 8
Lucero, Kentucky Knife Fight, Jesse Irwin: "Lucero's great rock & roll — such a twangy, soulful country band. Super nice people, and we're just really happy to have them here. Kentucky Knife Fight is a really cool band with unique songs, so that will be a great combination. Jesse Irwin is literally the only person I've ever met who, when I look at him, he smiles and makes me crack up. His songs are so off-the-wall hilarious, and he's such a character. That whole bill has a lot of everything."
Friday, August 9
Those Darlins, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Via Dove: "Via Dove will get everything going; they're a really exciting live band. JC Brooks has the whole new-soul thing. I think their live show is a throwback to The T.A.M.I. Show, you know? It's really, really exciting. And Those Darlins, they're a little bit different being crouched in melodic stuff, but I still think the vibe of it together will fit pretty well. It's going to be a great show."
Saturday, August 10
Murder by Death, Otis Gibbs, Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra: "What Rats & People are going to do is a really neat idea, really creative. One of the things we're trying to do is make it more eclectic, so they're going to be cool. Otis Gibbs writes great songs — really heartfelt Americana stuff. He has this podcast called Thanks for Giving a Damn, and I think it's the best thing on the Internet. He interviews really, really cool musicians, and you don't get to hear their side of the story all that often. And then Murder by Death is a really exciting, diverse band, and we're excited to have them. They'll really put a cap on the whole festival."