The night before Thanksgiving is typically one of the biggest bar nights of the year, a time when people in town for the holiday meet up, swap stories and toast to their younger days. This past Thanksgiving eve, when the Feed held court at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, the room certainly felt like a high school reunion. But the trio wasn't content to coast on the good vibes — it whipped a mix of blues, jazz, soul and rock into a tempest, playing with the kind of relentless energy that is a joy to watch as well as hear.
The Feed — which is comprised of pianist/vocalist Dave Grelle, bassist/saxophonist Ben Reece and drummer Kevin Bowers — relishes being hard to pigeonhole. It's one of the few bands in town that's comfortable playing alongside indie-rock bands, groove-oriented acts or hard rockers; the group has shared the stage with the Rum Drum Ramblers, Shame Club, Earthworms and Gentleman Auction House, to name a few. More important, the Feed is an anomaly in the local rock community: It's a guitar-less band that rocks harder and smarter than many other guitar-dependent bands.
Grelle fills in the sonic blanks with his Fender Rhodes electric piano and an array of effects pedals, which allow the mellow, soulful tone of the Rhodes to bark, bite and growl. And when Reece feeds his tenor sax through his own effects unit, the trusty squeal of an electric guitar is hardly missed. The fact that the Feed delights in covering many traditional rock bands at shows — during its November Blueberry Hill set, it reworked songs by the Beatles, XTC, Sonic Youth and the Jimi Hendrix Experience — only makes the trio's full-body-contact concerts even more of a must-see.
Over drinks in a dark corner of O'Connell's Pub in mid-December, Grelle, Reece and Bowers discussed the band's origins, influences and hopes for the future. As onstage, the charmingly guileless Grelle guides the conversation, and his bandmates step up when an opening arises. It's clear that the Feed's sound is a natural extension of their interpersonal dynamics, just as much as it's something driven by their varied (and occasionally intersecting) musical tastes.
The band originally formed in 2005 after Grelle and Reece, both veterans of funk and soul outfits like the Dogtown Allstars and E.M.Grueve, wanted to step out of their roles as sidemen and try the view from center stage. As Grelle describes it, he wanted to try his hand at being a singer and lyricist.
"It came to a point where I wanted to start something new and fresh. It didn't necessarily have to be sans guitar, it was just something new," the 29-year-old says. An early five-piece incarnation of the band (with drummer Tony Barbata) failed to capture that vision. "I wanted something rock-oriented and soulful, but it got a little too smooth," Grelle says. "The in-your-face wasn't there enough. The playing was great, but it wasn't what I wanted with the whole band."
After Bowers' previous band Thos broke up in 2006, Grelle got in touch with the drummer, an acquaintance since high school, to gauge his interest in joining the group. "He showed up, we gave him a disc, and he honestly played every fucking part flawlessly — and then some," Grelle says. "The chemistry just hit off right away."
The new version of the Feed began reworking the tracks from its debut (a self-titled seven-song EP released in 2006, which was recorded with Barbata on drums) and collaborating on new songs. The diverse influences that each member brings to the band partially explain its border-jumping appeal; the men name-check glam-rockers T. Rex, jazz reedist Eric Dolphy and the improvisational trio Medeski, Martin and Wood during this interview. But along with a deep record collection comes a fair amount of formal training and musical scholarship: Both Reece and Bowers studied music in college, and both men teach music lessons as their day jobs.
Yet Grelle's love of music emerged despite formal training, not because of it.
"I took piano lessons in second grade for a very brief stint — my piano teacher was very mean, so I quit," he explains. "Then in seventh grade, I started doing drugs and listening to a bunch of Grateful Dead. One of my buddies played piano and we started playing by ear, and we'd jam out at parties and get fucked up. And then the improvisation of the Grateful Dead — it's hard once you learn music to go back and listen to some of that, but at the same time, that got me into improvisation."
The Feed also keeps its fans on their toes — not just with its onstage inventiveness, but also in regard to a new album, which will be its first released recording with Bowers on drums. The collection has been in the works for some time, and although the trio has had some preliminary talks with labels (including well-respected indies One Little Indian Records and We Are Free), it feels little pressure to hurry the proceedings.
"As far as getting something out, I would say [the record could come out by] early spring," Grelle says. "That's the whole thing with us — it's up in the air. There's no one telling us what to do, and that's how we like it. Maybe that's a good or bad thing, but when it's there, it's there. Right now, we have about sixteen or so songs recorded, at least rough stuff.
"We're not trying to sound like something — we're just writing the songs," he continues. "And if it works, it works. But with what's going on in everybody's lives professionally and personally, we'll finish it when we finish it."
Part of the uncertainty in the band stems from Grelle's contemplation about a move to Chicago. The recent dissolution of his marriage has thrown a significant kink in that plan, though the keyboardist retains a mixture of Zen stoicism and beleaguered bemusement in discussing the upheaval.
"Plans change, people change," he sighs. "Right now, everything is kind of in limbo — not with the band, but with me personally." Ever the professional, Grelle also notes the artistic possibilities that often accompany heartbreak. "Get ready for the new record, 'cause there's some pretty serious lyrics coming. I've always been a much better blues writer than anything else, so that's good." He laughs.
Even if he quits town, Reece and Bowers plan on remaining in St. Louis. But all three members note that Grelle's relocation would give the Feed a chance to stretch out in a different city. As the band considers its future, discussions about St. Louis and the possibility of achieving large-scale success while living here has been a recurring topic.
"You can say whatever you want about the scene in St. Louis, and I think there's a good talent level for sure of bands and musicians," Grelle explains, "but there's something to be said about a city that doesn't allow you to fall into a comfort zone. There's something to be said about a city where you can't sit back, where there is a fire under your ass. And maybe that's just more instilled in some people regardless of where you are. But when you're in survival mode, it brings out the best in you; it puts the fire under your ass, and you do things that even surprise yourself."
Whether that fire will come from within the band or through a move to a different city remains to be seen, but few who have seen the Feed in concert can deny that a passion for music already brightly burns.
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