Great expectations, laid low, for St. Louis bands

Jan 5, 2000 at 4:00 am
The most interesting local musical events in St. Louis 1999 were not those that happened but those that were supposed to happen but fell flat.

To wit: None of the bands signed in the major-label frenzy of a few years ago hit the big-time. Radio Iodine got dropped (and then promptly broke up); Colony got dropped (and promptly got better); Stir played a few gigs here and there, remained signed to Capitol but produced no follow-up; the Bottle Rockets released a consistent but ultimately disappointing country-rock record that owed more to ZZ Top than Lynyrd Skynyrd; Son Volt released a consistent, though ultimately languorous, third record.

The Urge were supposed to be bigger than God right now, and they still are, but only in St. Louis. This year, like last, their annual homecoming was at Mississippi Nights, a frenzied four-night run (just like last year). A few years ago at this time, we were expecting their 1999 blowout to be at the Kiel Center. Alas, it wasn't.

Actually, the two most exciting St. Louis-esque releases were from those who split a few years ago, formed a band elsewhere and sent us a thank-you note: Wilco's breathtaking Summerteeth and the Barkers' Burn Your Piano.

In short, the big bands remained pretty big, the little bands remained small, and the "breakout" bands for the new year, Mesh and Die Symphony, are on deck waiting for their chance to sign to a major label, produce a record, dive a million dollars in debt and then get dropped.

It's all so predictable. It's like the St. Louis rock community has been on the set of Groundhog Day since about '95.

Same goes for the hip-hop community, with the sole exception being that none of the artists have even had a chance at the big time. The promise of last year -- that it was just a matter of time before something happened to put the city on the map -- seems to have fizzled. The hip-hop nights are still there, the same place and time as last year. The DJs are still fantastic, as are the emcees. But there's no organization, no concerted effort to make something magical happen. No phone calls to our office publicizing a monstrous city hip-hop blowout (actually, no phone calls from the hip-hop community at all, though a lot of "yeah, I'll call you" promises).

No organization. No sense of adventure.

Of course, the bland modern-rock community is a sitting duck, and deep down buried was some magical music. Sullen was, hands down, the best thing about St. Louis rock music last year, and we waxed poetic about them nonstop in these pages. The Phonocaptors blew away the entirety of the Way Out Club all year long (and, apparently, news of their demise was greatly exaggerated). Same goes, actually, for the entirety of the Way Out/Rooster Lollipop contingency, the only collective in town that seems to understand that there is no competition in the city, only potential cooperation. Phut -- two guitars, drums and adrenaline -- were by far the most accomplished/adventuresome group in St. Louis. Here's hoping they'll stick around. Puerto Muerto didn't. The husband/wife duo was only in town long enough to tease us into thinking they might actually set up camp here. Their cabaret-folk was pure heaven, but they took it to Chicago. (They still come down here all the time, though. See them.)

But the good bands, like the bad, all live in St. Louis, a fantastic place to be except if you're a musician with a desire to get noticed by the world at large. It's not exactly Hype Central these days. No big labels have their eye on the city. No trends are born here. No record labels exist here.

The last sentence bears repeating, because it's the problem.

No record labels exist here. At least, no record labels that understand the music business, that understand how to magnify a tiny scene and present it as a monstrous movement. Aside from a few stabs at it, the city has always lacked record labels, and until that piece of the puzzle is snapped into place, St. Louis will always be the place to learn how to be in a band until you move somewhere else to make it big.

It's a massive part of the overall equation, all the more frustrating because we've got the other factors locked: a radio station (KDHX) that will support adventuresome music (in the past year they've transformed themselves from a potentially wonderful radio station into a nearly perfect community-radio station, one with eyes wide open to new music and personality); a professional distributor, Blue Sky, that can get the music out into the local stores; a fan base that truly cares about St. Louis music and wants it to succeed; a plethora of clubs devoted to supporting local music.

There's just no visionary label willing to take a chance, make an investment and learn about what it takes to create a buzz. Sure, there are vanity labels galore; they invest their money in their own band, press 1,000 copies and sell them at local stores and after their shows, but that's all they do. No one involved in the music scene with sharp ears, knowledge and a passion for creating a great record label exists in the city -- nor has the city ever really had such a person.

Until a few record labels set up camp in the city, St. Louis musicians are sealed to one of two fates: signing to a big label that will screw them in the end or languishing in the city, getting frustrated and eventually moving to a town with a few good record labels.

And the city will forever be a second-rate music town, known as the place that musicians abandon so that they can make it big. And how can you blame them?

CALL FOR TAPES: Waltz into Deep Grooves sometime and you'll note the case with a ton of DJ mix tapes, all by local jocks. "Radar Station" wants a piece of that action, as we're beginning to feature more local DJs in these pages. If you're a DJ -- be it a bedroom wannabe or a Cheetah regular -- and want some "serious" appraisal of your art within this column, we encourage you to send 'em to us at the address below.

Send all local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to Radar Station, The Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130. E-mail: [email protected].