More Than Two Decades in, the El Monstero Experience Is Bigger Than Ever

St. Louis' definitive Pink Floyd tribute act will kick off its annual holiday residency tonight

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click to enlarge El Monstero always does it big. - KENNY BAHR
KENNY BAHR
El Monstero always does it big.

It’s the holiday season in St. Louis, which means a month filled with musical Brasstravaganzas, Phillipaloozas and Hanukkah Hullabaloos. But no year-end tradition quite compares to El Monstero’s December residency at the Pageant. A supergroup of veteran St. Louis musicians, the band has been staging its popular Pink Floyd tribute concerts since 1999. Now in its 23rd year, the El Monstero experience is bigger than ever — and for thousands of devotees, an essential winter ritual on Delmar Boulevard.

El Monstero has, to be sure, pulled off a remarkable feat: It’s not often that a local cover band sells out seven consecutive nights in a 2,000-seat venue, let alone year after year.

Founding bassist Kevin Gagnepain tells the RFT that, when the project started, he could not have imagined the behemoth it would become. “We thought it might be just a one-night thing and that would be it,” Gagnepain says. After all, the act sprang from a side-project of Stir, the alt-rock trio of Gagnepain, singer/guitarist Andy Schmidt and drummer Brad Booker, homegrown favorites that saw some major-label success in the ‘90s.

To stay busy between tours, Stir, joined by leather-larynxed singer Mark Thomas Quinn, wore ornate Mardi Gras masks onstage in an all-covers band cheekily billed as El Monstero Y Los Masked Avengers (under the wryly phony premise that Stir’s record label, Capitol, prohibited the band from performing as “Stir” unless on an official tour). The incognito outfit specialized in rock classics, including the entirety of side two of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, a well-received segment that eventually expanded into a full night of Pink Floyd covers at Mississippi Nights.

That original show is dwarfed by the El Monstero spectacle of today. The band has grown to eleven official members alongside dozens of actors, aerialists, pole-dancers, and other musical guests, surrounded by a technical team that executes the show’s elaborate sound-and-video dazzle and effects-heavy production. Beyond the winter run, the band now fills Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre each summer, complete with massive pyrotechnics and a strategically-timed helicopter that buzzes the crowd mid-show.

And what of that strange name? Gagnepain admits that “El Monstero” (they dropped the rest of the name years ago) is an odd name for the act since the moniker has nothing to do with Pink Floyd.

“However, we sort of reverse-engineered the connection to a lyric from [Pink Floyd’s] ‘Have a Cigar,’ Gagnepain says. “That line — ‘It could be a monster if we pull together as a team’ — really fits the spirit of the band and our fans.”

Theresa Solsten is one such fan. A Webster Groves hairstylist, Solsten has seen El Monstero over 50 times, attending multiple shows each holiday run dating back to 2002. Even though Solsten lives locally, she often stays at the Moonrise Hotel, next door to the Pageant, on nights before El Monstero shows to enhance the experience and to make it easier to line up early. According to Solsten, her fandom of El Monstero has even eclipsed that of Pink Floyd.

“For me, the holidays are unthinkable without it,” she says. “I am not exaggerating when I say that El Monstero shows are sacred to me.”

When asked to explain the project’s precipitous popularity, Gagnepain says, “It’s been completely organic. It’s really the fans’ show. They keep spreading the word, and the more people that show up, the more production we are able to provide.”

Key lineup additions over the years, including guitar wizard Jimmy Griffin (King of the Hill, the Incurables), sly-slapping drummer John Pessoni (the Urge, Joe Dirt) and piano ace Jake Elking (Buz, Asbury Park) also helped boost the band.

“In the beginning, the audience was mostly Stir and Pink Floyd fans,” Gagnepain remembers. “Then some Jimmy Griffin fans came on board. Then some Urge fans. It’s all these groups intertwined that has made this thing what it is today.”

Griffin, who embodies the prototypical ‘80s-metal guitar hero and whose goth-pimp cameo on “Have a Cigar” was a highlight of early El Monstero shows, had recently formed the Led Zeppelin tribute band Celebration Day with Quinn and Pessoni when he was asked to replace the departing Schmidt. Since then, Griffin has also formed local tributes to the Rolling Stones (Street Fighting Band), Tom Petty (the Hard Promises) and David Bowie (Ashes to Stardust), establishing St. Louis as an unparalleled city for tribute-band experiences.

“El Monstero can be thanked for that or blamed for that, depending on how you feel about it,” Gagnepain jokes.

El Monstero’s members (rounded out by guitarist Bryan Greene, saxophonist Dave Farver, keyboardist Bill Reiter and backup vocalists Ermine Cannon, Tandra Williams and Kristin Johnson) pride themselves on meticulous recreations of Pink Floyd’s original recordings, playing comprehensive setlists that appeal to both casual fans and hardcore Floydheads.

“There are the hits that we play every year,” Griffin says. “But we get weirder with the older stuff. This year we’re playing a song we haven’t done in ten years and one that we’ve never played before.”

Even when the band unearths a deep Floyd obscurity, Griffin says, “I can see 20 or 30 people who know every word of these rare songs. That’s why those guys keep coming back to see us.”

Gagnepain says that a unique El Monstero experience each year is key to keeping things fresh for both the band and the audience, pointing out that this year the band is playing at least one song from each of Pink Floyd’s first 14 albums, an El Monstero first. Each year also features a different theme that informs everything from the poster art to the stage design. This year’s theme: the Da Vinci drawing Vitruvian Man, which emphasizes the connections between man and nature and, according to Gagnepain, “parallels the interconnectedness between the band and the fans over the years. It’s been a symbiotic relationship from the beginning.”

It all adds up to a formula that has fans passing on the tradition to a new generation.

“We are now at the point where people whose parents brought them to El Monstero shows when they were kids have grown up and are now bringing their own children,” Griffin notes. Even Covid did not stop the show, despite a couple of years that saw scaled-down versions. “This year, everything is back,” says Gagnepain. “It’s going to be the full El Monstero experience.”

Whatever the variables, Griffin promises a powerful evening.

“It’s always an event,” he says. “People know that they’re going to be getting something special. The whole package — the music, the visuals, the crowd, the tradition — makes it something that we can’t wait to give to people.”

El Monstero will perform each night at the Pageant from December 16 to 18, December 21 to 23, and on December 30. For tickets and more information, visit thepageant.com.

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About The Author

Steve Leftridge

Steve Leftridge is The Midnight Backslider. Therefore, he is a writer, emcee and musician. He lives in Webster Groves where he teaches high schoolers and lives with his two kids and spouse-equivalent.
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