Caution Horse – Trust the man with the star
Everyone knows about The Arch, but most people don’t realize St. Louis has a Walk of Fame. In U City, the neighborhood around Washington University, the sidewalks are decorated with large bronze stars naming important cultural figures who have ties to St. Louis. Actress Betty Grable, fastballer Bob Gibson and conductor Leonard Slatkin all show up underfoot. But there’s one musician’s star on Delmar Avenue that holds special meaning to the members of local band Caution Horse.
During this year’s Midwest Regional Music Fest, the band drew a big crowd, and seated in the audience — tapping his chest along to the driving beat — was Chuck Berry. Following the set, Berry autographed the band’s mailing list. Berry isn’t the only one taking notice of this young quartet. Formed in 1994, Caution Horse has opened for Wilco and Blue Mountain, and their track “P.M.” is one of the standout cuts on Out of the Gate Again, a recent compilation of St. Louis roots-rock bands.
Caution Horse’s music is a mixture of blues, ’70s country-rock and straight-up pop. The interplay of Matt Marcinkowski’s vocals and the muscular riffs of guitarist Dave Anderson punctuates the music with dynamic shifts between tension and resolution. The lock-step playing of Michael Herrmann (bass) and John Lindner (drums) provides a strong foundation for Marcinkowski’s clever lyrics and Anderson’s tasteful solos.
During a recent gig at Chicago’s Lounge Ax, Caution Horse charmed the small but responsive crowd with a striking set of originals. On songs such as “Bathe in Fire” and “Epiphany”, the combo made fine use of a soft/loud, pause/crash technique that peppered the infectious melodies. While Marcinkowski and Anderson stood at the front of the stage, bassist Herrmann hung back, close to Lindner’s drum kit. The rhythm section was reminiscent of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, in both their stage manner and their tight synchronization. During “Rawfeed”, Anderson (who is also a guitar instructor) demonstrated the proper and restrained use of the whammy bar.
Last spring, Caution Horse holed up in Chicago’s Uber Studio to record 13 tracks, which were co-produced by the band and Jeff Tweedy. The Wilco frontman had a very hands-off approach with the young band; Marcinkowski says, “The biggest contribution Jeff made was to say, ‘Believe in what you hear and what you want to put down.'” The band would record during the day, and in the evening Tweedy would stop by the studio to make aesthetic and technical suggestions. Marcinkowski likened Tweedy’s involvement to “Dad coming in to check your homework.”
The result is an impressive six-song demo. The tape kicks off with “Terra Cotta”, a tune that showcases the band’s individual talents. Herrmann’s deep-groove bass line, Lindner’s whipcrack cymbals, and Anderson’s economical solos mesh gracefully to create an organic whole. Marcinkowski’s intriguing lyrics make this a kind of Tom Petty-meets-Lawrence Ferlinghetti number: “Now all the honey’s gone, and the West is worn mild/All the pearls spill out on the terra cotta tile/Though the wind, it rates your hair a five/The mud is freshly impressed, and it knows that you’re alive.”
One of the band’s other studio efforts is a self-produced, swingin’ version of Cowboy Copas’ “Hangman’s Boogie”. This track will appear on Straight Outta Boone County, an upcoming Bloodshot Records tribute to artists who appeared on the Boone County Jamboree, a Cincinnati radio program of the 1940s and ’50s.
The Cowboy Copas track shows the band’s respect for yesterday’s country pioneers, but Caution Horse’s musical influences include a variety of artists, including Lead Belly and the Pixies. And what about the band’s name? Anderson laughs and Marcinkowski gives a cryptic response: “Check the Bible.”
The band performs regularly throughout the Midwest, but the musicians’ day jobs have made it impossible to tour extensively so far. For now, one of their key goals is to sell enough T-shirts to pay for gas to the next gig. But one day, these guys might have their own bronze star on Delmar Avenue.