Grievous Angels – Cicero’s (St. Louis, MO)
By the time you read this, Cicero’s will be closed. At first glance, it could be any indie bar — a gloomy, cement-lined shoebox, rank with Bud, tobacco, and stale water; what little panache it had was derived from a patchwork of band stickers and posters covering walls and ceiling beams, and a warning on a door at the back of the stage: THIS DOOR MUST REMAINED CLOSED WHILE BANDS PLAY.
But it’s not just any bar. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, under the guidance of Mark Benson, Cicero’s became a haven for roots-rock, with hometown and regional favorites such as Uncle Tupelo, the Starkweathers, Enormous Richard, and Kamikaze Cowboy flourishing in the din. The acoustics were as pristine as an underground nuclear test, but it was a place where a band could take chances, drink a little more, and sweat a little harder. Once, the Bottle Rockets billed themselves as the Festus Chainsaw Massacre, donned grotesque masks, dared the audience to “dance with the Chicken Man,” and annihilated “Albuquerque” for 15 minutes. It’s doubtful Brian Henneman could remember the night if he wanted to.
Bought out by neighboring bar Blueberry Hill, Cicero’s will reopen in a new building. Mike Blake, who currently books bands and serves Jagermeister in test tubes, summed up (with bit of wink) the bar’s beliefs: “We bring rock to the people. That’s our motto. For 10 years, seven nights a week. What other bar has that kind of record?”
Arriving here on a cold, rainy Thursday, and nearly outnumbering the audience, Arizona band the Grievous Angels played their last show in the cellar. Thursdays are make-or-break, and are a good measure of a band’s character: The ten people in the audience may be with you, but everyone knows it’s a bust.
Some bands just ignore the vacuum. The Angels smiled, drank and played till it didn’t matter any more. They barreled through the originals on their Bloodshot Records debut EP, anchored by Jon Rauhouse’s vivid pedal steel melodies. The band is tight, which becomes clear when they swap leads on “Going Once, Going Twice”, punctuating the stop-time shuffle with every refrain. And lead singer Russell Sepulveda knows how to bring the band to a brief hush on songs such as “Where Sinners Go”, so that the most telling lyrics — “Go back to the place where the bars never close” — ring clear.
Sepulveda’s writing offers a clever sinner’s spin on venerable honky-tonk themes; as a result, the songs hit harder in the environs of a bar. And his singing is stronger live. On this night he was relaxed, and his phrasing discarded the twangy hiccups and forced accents that has sometimes limited the band’s studio work. When he sang “Wine Women and Wrong”, his voice was just barely and pleasantly edged with a yodel. Of the new songs (part of an upcoming spring release, though the band declined to hazard a title or even a producer), “Scandal of the Century” had the strongest hook and showed that betrayal is a theme far from growing old.
After playing for a little over an hour, the Angels wandered off stage, but they were coaxed back for an encore, Webb Pierce’s “In the Jailhouse Now”, which revealed one last pleasure. When lead guitarist Dan Henzerling and bassist Mickey Ferrell sing behind Sepulveda, they emphasize what might eventually set this band apart: sweet, steady, uniquely layered harmonies, matched with buoyant, bottom-dollar rhythms.
And though the Pierce tune is one of the band’s favorite covers, the jailhouse imagery was an appropriate final word for a night tinged with closure. “We drove 20 hours to get here,” Sepulveda said, already feeling nostalgic. “There’s nowhere else to play between here and Arizona.”