It's always amazing to come across a St. Louisan who has yet to attend a production by the Black Rep. We're talking about a theater company that began as artistic director Ron Himes' penniless pipe dream back in 1976 and is now the largest African-American professional troupe in the country, people! Right here in Mound City! Whether performing at the Grandel Theater in Grand Center or at other venues, whether doing dramas or musicals, the Black Rep invariably stages rich, show-stopping performances. Last season's production of Dreamgirls was a case in point: overwhelmingly heart-rending without being sappy or oversimplified. Mad-fabulous costumery and set design only contributed to the fun. (The Black Rep's talent is even more admirable considering that some of its members work full-time jobs in addition to producing shows.) Coming this season are William Shakespeare's Othello and August Wilson's Radio Golf, among other plays that theater addicts and dabblers alike would do well to add to their calendars.
Once upon a demo, Kevin Buckley planned to release his twangy power-pop solo recordings under the moniker the Harmony Band. But with the summer 2007 release of New Sense, the 27-year-old stepped out in town as Grace Basement and in the process established himself as one of the most versatile performers in town. Like a less-rootsy Wilco, Fountains of Wayne sans shtick or a hi-fi Kinks, Sense is nostalgic but not trite, familiar without being derivative. Vibrant fiddle countermelodies dart through "Orphan Annie & the Dump Truck," organ simmers on the tear-jerking "Santa Fe" and the lush wistfulness of Crowded House echoes through "Caught." And did we mention that Buckley played every single well-orchestrated note that's every instrument, folks on Sense? Even more impressive, Buckley penned all of these songs in between playing traditional Irish music on the fiddle his first specialty at places such as McGurk's in Soulard. And heck, even those outside of the Lou are starting to notice Buckley's talent: He rated a mention in the liner notes of Challengers, the new album by Canadian power-pop collective the New Pornographers because he recorded St. Louis harpist (and a member of Grace Basement's live incarnation) Eileen Gannon for the album. Now that's some powerful pop.
Dana Loesch, who pens the "Mamalogues" column on stltoday.com, picks up where Anna Quindlen left off in her tales of young motherhood, substituting Quindlen's sap for a heavy helping of sass. A twentysomething stay-at-home blogger/mother of two young sons, Loesch says she writes to keep herself "off the bottle." Great thing is, reading her feels like a conversation exchanged over a couple of barstools. No didacticism, no euphemisms just straight and hilarious shots of life, in all its muckiness, begging to be chugged from the Post-Dispatch Web site. "Mamalogues" used to appear in the Post's print version, too. But Loesch's tell-all style was deemed a little too honest for the geezers who've come to dominate the daily-newspaper demo, and the editors yanked the column from the paper last December after only a six-month run. If a weekly hit of "Mamalogues" ain't enough, get your fix at Loesch's blog, mamalogues.com.
All right he ain't exactly a band, and he ain't terribly old, neither. But Tom Hall has made the rounds at enough local bars and as the featured guitarist in enough bands to make him an ambassador of acoustic blues music (we'll wait a few years to give Hall the "living legend" tag). And while Hall may have many more years ahead of him, the music he plays certainly qualifies as old, though to hear the singer and guitarist play is a reminder that the spirit of the blues lives on through its practitioners. Hall's resonant, weathered voice is a perfect fit for his percussive style of picking, and his mastery of Delta blues has made him a mainstay at bars like B.B.'s Jazz, Blues & Soups, Iron Barley and Dressel's. Earlier this year several local musicians and club owners banded together to buy a replacement for Hall's beloved 1932 National steel guitar, which was stolen out of his truck. It was a fitting tribute to one of St. Louis' most consistently remarkable performers. We hope this honor is, too.
Susannah Cahalan wasn't your average aspiring journalist when she snagged her ticket on the Fame Express on the pages of the January 21, 2007, New York Post underneath the headline "I Am Still Too Scared to Tell My Mom and Dad, Kidnap' Creep Admits." The then-Washington University senior had previously scored bylines in the Post and the New York Times when she scooped the entire nation by scoring two exclusive interviews with alleged Kirkwood kidnapper/perv Michael Devlin. Devlin's attorneys proceeded to demonize Cahalan, claiming she acquired access to their client under false pretenses, but the Post staunchly defended its cub freelancer, providing a meta-narrative that made national headlines for several days. Cahalan herself refused to talk to the press an ironic denouement to one of the winter's most climactic media stories.
Even though relations are the best they've been in many years, the different factions of the local music scene can still be like oil and water, hesitating to mix unless forcibly thrown together. But at new-kid-on-the-venue-block the Bluebird, none of this cliquey baggage applies. South-city lifers, Soulard frat boys (and the sorority squads who love them), college students, bored county kids, hipsters and members of various bands flock to the just-west-of-downtown club attached to the legendary eatery Beffa's simply to see good music. The uninitiated might scoff that the space looks too much like a VFW hall or church community center (although the thrift-store couches are mad comfy), but the care taken with the Bluebird's amenities makes up for cosmetic shortcomings. In particular, there's consistently good sound, plenty of safe parking and insanely strong drinks, thanks to a jovial bartender with a heavy pouring hand. Even better: For any marquee touring band that comes through town, one or two locals (at least) are guaranteed the chance to open. It all adds up to a club that's refreshingly free of drama and scene history, a place that's helping the local music community develop and grow by focusing on what's really important: music.
Twenty-eight-year-old reporter Tom Weber wakes at 3:30 a.m. Monday through Friday to spew excellence over the public radio airwaves via the local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, KWMU (90.7 FM). The New Lenox, Illinois, native debuted in St. Louis five years ago and is proving himself an up-and-coming Bob Edwards/Steve Inskeep by regularly freelancing pieces for NPR's Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. Weber says his favorite story ever featured an interview with primatologist Jane Campion, a.k.a. "The Chimpanzee Lady." The young broadcaster's other claim to fame: He once ate a four-pound hamburger at a truck stop outside Chicago and consequently has his picture decking the "eatery's" wall, an achievement that led him to run three marathons. Weber is now training for a fourth. "I've got to keep my radio figure," he says. Gotta love a journalist who doesn't take himself too seriously. Among Weber's other idiosyncrasies: He eschews television news, surfing the Internet, and coffee. Yes, that's the lad's natural high you hear at 6 a.m.
OK, so that weave atop his pate is not Jim Hayes' actual hair. But then, toupées are a time-honored tradition in television, with famed sports anchor Howard Cosell and weatherman Willard Scott just a few of many broadcasters who've worn a rug before the camera. That said, Hayes' hairpiece is looking especially fitting these days. In past seasons the FSN Midwest reporter (and the host of Cardinals pregame shows), has favored a brown-hued wig that clashed with his graying sides and made him look disturbingly like Paulie Walnuts of Sopranos fame. This season Hayes has toned things down, sporting a salt-and-pepper top that better complements what nature supplied. The drapes match the carpet, as it were and the whole package looks fabulous.
Tedium, tunelessness, embarrassment even the best open mics in town can't avoid valleys of musical despair. Blame it on the form or on out-sourced, mass-produced acoustic guitars. But Café Soul, the once-a-month throwdown at the Lucas School House, offers more peaks than pits, more groove than grunge, more panache than posturing. With a killer house band, DJ Needles on the between-sets spins and charismatic emcee Mocha Latte, the nights move fast, the performers rap and wail, and the packed house, mostly made up of African Americans between 21 and 51, only sits politely when told to do so. For the most part, they cheer on covers of Beyoncé, funky originals or political poems that put the typical open-mic navel probes in their white-bread place.
Is it just us, or do you get the feeling that a certain KMOV-TV (Channel 4) News 4 This Morning team member looks in the mirror every day and says to herself, "This is the year I win the RFT's Best Hair on a Local TV Personality (Female)'"? Dream on, babe. To get a load of this year's best hair, one need only tune in to Channel 4 at a more reasonable hour. Yessiree, Vickie Newton's hair is a perpetual masterpiece-waiting-to-happen. This versatile head of hair can go from pure business to business casual to "did I just get my grope on in the news van?" and still look terrif. Yep, stick it on top of her genuine smile and pair it with her charmingly genuine personality and you've got the whole package.
Although So Many Dynamos recently recorded their third album with Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla, the well-respected studio producer/engineer had almost-embarrassingly glowing praise for the quartet's 2006 sophomore effort, Flashlights. "It's an album in the way that nobody makes albums anymore," Walla says. "It's cohesive and the writing is really good. All the through-lines both melodically and lyrically are really strong." Not to mention hard-to-categorize: Recorded by local expert Chris Deckard at Radio Penny studios, Flashlights mashes together disparate styles with glee, making it nearly impossible to reduce the band's sound to one genre. (Close approximations might include surrealistic metal-punk, danceable prog-rock or intricately arranged math-rock.) Most important, the hooks on Flashlights worm into your ears like a rabid tick, making the album compulsively listenable even after many spins. "There are so many technically minded bands that are so obtuse and antisocial," Walla says. "The records they make don't want to be your friend, necessarily. But the Dynamos are really exceptional at making technical, bizarre music that's still somehow really inviting. The hippie-aura energy around the record it wants you to like it."