Grain Belt Rock Review – Off Broadway (St. Louis, MO)
Since Uncle Tupelo split and moved on, and The Bottle Rockets left town to tour about 366 days a year, the question has been nagging: Is the community that spawned these seminal bands still vital? By the end of the Grain Belt Rock Review, a two-night celebration of Midwestern twang-rock, a few hundred people would have answered yes. Still, few would deny the stress those two bands’ success has put on the local musicians trying to carve out an identity in their wake. The Grain Belt Review galvanized the local scene and offered eight bands a chance to step forward and give it a shot.
Of the four bands who played Saturday night (One Fell Swoop, the New Patrons of Husbandry, Stillwater and Sourpatch), it was the opening acts who seized the opportunity.
Slightly rough around the edges, and appearing a tad nervous, One Fell Swoop featured a sweet blend of acoustic guitar, pianos, harmonica and fiddles that was a gentle nod to traditional folk and bluegrass. As they fleshed out their smart tunes about abandoned love, emotional fences and chihuahuas, they tried on different styles, from blues to country to jazz-inflected pop, all of which fit comfortably with vocalist/keyboardist Cheryl Stryker’s bluesy tenor providing an emotional center. By the last song, it was clear One Fell Swoop isn’t afraid to push boundaries in the interest of finding an original voice.
Sounding tighter and fuller, but smaller in scope, than the band before them, the New Patrons of Husbandry provided some of the evening’s most exciting moments. Taking the stage quickly (true to the communal spirit of the event, all four bands shared stage gear throughout the evening), the Patrons kicked into the aptly titled “Something More” and never looked back.
Guitarist/vocalist Jeff Swift has crafted a rich and wholly original sound with the help of some gifted players, including guitarist John Horton, who was something of a fixture throughout the event, sitting in with several bands both nights. Mary Dee Brown’s sure touch on the fiddle was more than just texture; at times it seemed central to the band’s momentum. Vocalist Jennifer Stuckenshnieder’s delivery often energized the band, though at times her technique overshadowed emotion. The songs were more engaging when Swift handled the vocals. On a transcendent version of “Dreaming”, the evening’s best song, he was accompanied by drummer Sean Anglin’s fluid harmonies. And on “Great Buffalo”, Swift and Stuckenshnieder joined forces to bring the set to full throttle and establish the New Patrons as the band to watch.
Which was surprising, since that expectation originally seemed to rest on Stillwater or Sourpatch.
Stillwater’s blend of power pop and twangcore stood in contrast to the richer sounds of the opening acts. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Chris Grabau started their set with a stirring solo reading of “Train 109” with only his electric guitar, harmonica and plaintive voice. The other two-thirds of Stillwater then took the stage and sustained the momentum into the next four or five numbers. When bassist John O’Brien and drummer Michael Rose locked, they presented a formidable rhythm section, and Grabau’s stark, emotive lyrics found a place to make sense, particularly on “Michael’s Demons”.
But just as often, the band would submit themselves to the tempo shifts and rhythm stops that were Uncle Tupelo’s trademark. As a result, they lost their balance; their high-energy set lost steam and plateaued halfway in. Stillwater’s passion is undeniable, if they shed their skin and learn to let it flow, the effect could be devastating.
As the final act of the night, Sourpatch walked onstage with a little baggage: They’ve been tagged as both St. Louis’ brightest hope to carry on the country-rock legacy, and as Uncle Tupelo soundalikes.
Judging by tonight’s performance, the former is possible but premature, and the latter is a label too simple and demeaning for such a talented band. But it’s also understandable — at times, it was hard not to be jarred by their Tupelo-reminiscent sound. Then again, it was just as easy to be charmed. Sounding tight, soulful and intensely resonant, Sourpatch connected easily with the audience through superbly crafted songs, infectious harmonies and just the right guitar growl.
From the jangly “Straight Peace” to the drawl of “Machines”, the band outlined their mission as ambitious songwriters. But “Lead The Way”, penned by bassist Todd Snitzer, was the standout song. Catchy and haunting at once, it also found the band reinventing its sound; the result was more convincing and proprietary than anything up to that point. Ironically, the closest they came to doing this again was on an animated cover of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”.
If Stillwater and Sourpatch were inspired by the successes of past local bands, they may also be burdened by them. They played this show as though they can’t wait to lose those constraints. But the real excitement was in watching One Fell Swoop and New Patrons of Husbandry emerge with their unique visions intact. And that’s reason enough to anticipate next year’s Grain Belt Rock Review.