A Touch of Gray

The jam-band community pulls together for one heck of a funeral

The beer was flowing foamy and brown in plastic cups. A whiff of pot smoke snaked through the thick air, a tendril teasing the nose every so often, then wafting away. The crowd was all smiles and twisting, dancing arms. The music was loud, joyous and refusing to quit.

It was the best damn funeral I've ever been to.

The crowd came to Cicero's Tuesday, April 13, to remember Nick Romanoff, guitarist for the Schwag and Jake's Leg (and the Magpies, the Mayberries and who knows how many other groups), who died in his sleep April 9 at age 46. While nothing seems to polarize music fans as much as hippie jam bands, you'd have to have lived under a Provel-sealed rock to have been in St. Louis and not brushed up against one of these groups over the past twenty-odd years. Love 'em or hate 'em, Jake's Leg and the Schwag are cultural institutions in this city. They proved they deserved the label Tuesday night at Cicero's, where the bands and their fans weathered a true loss with more aplomb and unity than I've ever seen at any funeral.

At the back of the room, Schwag business manager Rik Ebner confirmed that while Romanoff's ashes will be scattered at some later date, the Cicero's wake would be the nearest thing to a funeral for most of the people involved. He gestured to a guestbook fans were signing, next to a sign for a raffle to benefit Romanoff's family. (Proceeds from the night went to the family as well.) It was an oddly funereal object to find at a show, and I was going to talk to the woman signing the book. But then the Schwag hit the stage, and they demanded attention.

A flower-wreathed photo of Romanoff graced the stage, but that was the only clue you'd have of the event's somber origins. The band hit the ground running, playing a song everyone learned in Grateful Dead class in high school. With the band performing like they didn't know what death was, it was pretty hard not to get pulled into the nonstop rhythms and interplay.

One of the comforts of a funeral is the sense of continuity, and the hippie community has continuity in spades. Patchouli still smells like patchouli, hippie chicks still look adorable in their backless dresses and still stand in front of the stage hugging each other and doing that same dance their grandmothers did at Woodstock. The age range at Cicero's was as varied as a family Thanksgiving, from wizened Tommy Chong look-alikes to folks younger than the singers' dreadlocks. People may criticize the unchanging nature of the scene (cute hippie gals get a pass), but on a night like last Tuesday, it all made sense. Everyone who's out there getting funny haircuts and swearing allegiance to dancepunk (or whatever the new hip trend is tomorrow) might be on the cutting edge -- although why aping '80s hair metal is cooler than clinging to the '60s is beyond me. But if they died tomorrow, would the scene be able to pull together so triumphantly?

By the end of the first set, Romanoff's memorial had reached capacity, and fans eager to pay tribute were waiting to get into the showroom. I never met Nick Romanoff, but I have to think that anyone who spent his life onstage the way Romanoff did would be pleased to know his funeral was standing-room only. Who could ask for more?

B-Sides: This week is chock-full of worthy shows, so spring off the couch and get out there. On the local front, the Highway Matrons celebrate their new disc Drivebysodomycarjacktragicaffair at the Way Out Club this Friday. Driveby is a pile driver of an LP, showing these south-city favorites in fine form. Speaking of new albums, legendary hardcore band Ultraman rocks the Hi-Pointe on Saturday in anticipation of a new CD next month. On the hip-hop front, the Mixx DJ Competition at the Pageant on Saturday promises some mean scratching (for more, see Critics' Picks). And if you've ever wanted Radiohead to become a rock band again and throw some glam sheen on its sound, go check out Dropsonic at the Rocket Bar Friday. Or, if you ever wanted Radiohead to become a slightly cheesy version of their former selves, you can take in Muse at Mississippi Nights next Wednesday.

Shawn T. Bell sent me a burned CD of his band Miles of Wire, an exceptional slice of rootsy rock. Vocalist Raphael Maurice's voice sounds a little like Uncle Tupelo-era Jeff Tweedy, and it's sweetly strained, especially on the gut-bucket rock numbers. The lyrics recall alt-country grit as well, such as when Maurice sings, "You and me, baby/Got a lot of drinkin' to do." But the sounds are more '80s rock -- no, the other '80s rock, that thread that bound the Replacements to Springsteen, a thread of passion and pure rock guitar. The disc sounds so out of time that when Maurice mentions the White Stripes in a song, it comes as a jarring misstep. But overall, if this is what Miles of Wire can accomplish with a burned CD, I look forward to whatever is coming next.

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