Various Artists – Twangfest (St. Louis, MO)
“Drive carefully tonight,” Jason Ringenberg said on the opening night of the seventh annual Twangfest. “You don’t want to accidentally run over an alt-country legend.”
Ringenberg needn’t have worried. The vast majority of artists taking part this year were there not because they were necessarily legendary, and not even really because they fit the slippery definition of whatever alt-country is, but because they’re making music worth hearing right now.
Ringenberg himself is somewhat legendary, having mixed punk rock energy with honky-tonk traditionalism way back in the early ’80s. But he was there on the strength of his excellent recent album, All Over Creation, and his solo set liberally mixed new stuff with classics from the days of Jason & the Scorchers.
The other performer with a pedigree stretching back to the golden age of college radio was Steve Wynn, whose Thursday night set sent the audience into rock ‘n’ roll hysteria. Wynn played a couple classics from his glory days in the Dream Syndicate, but mostly, he tore up the place with new material played harder, faster, louder, and tighter than anybody else at the festival.
Faced with the difficult task of following Wynn, Bobby Bare Jr. lived up to his showbiz roots and rocked almost as hard. Bare’s cocksure demeanor could have been off-putting if he weren’t so obviously talented and in love with the power of rock ‘n’ roll and country music. His daddy taught him to value songwriting basics, while punk rock taught him to play as if his life depended on it; on this night, his music charmed, soothed, infuriated, caressed, and kicked ass.
St. Louis band Nadine has learned a similar lesson, as evidenced by their star-making performance Saturday night. These guys have been around for a few years, with seemingly constant lineup changes making it difficult to keep up with their status. But from the opening chords, Nadine looked and sounded like a band fully aware of its power. These songs probably started as country-influenced folkish ditties; now, they are devastating, harrowing, emotionally compact paroxysms of guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, fueled by Adam Reichmann’s aching, yearning, triumphant vocals.
There was also more traditional twang, especially the exquisite bluegrass of the Gibson Brothers, who played Friday night. Eric and Leigh Gibson have mastered the kind of harmonies only siblings can achieve, with precision phrasing and delightful blurring of parts. The Gibsons commend attention not for their talents as pickers, but for their vocals and their arrangements of solid and memorable material. Their originals settled neatly alongside covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 4”, Tom T. Hall’s “Don’t Forget The Coffee, Billy Joe,” and The Band’s “Ophelia”.
Texas honky-tonker Dale Watson followed, hammering the audience over the head with a masterful set of old-school country. Watson draws most of his inspiration from Merle Haggard, with side helpings of George Jones, Bob Wills, Waylon Jennings and other barroom jukebox staples. It’s a toss-up which is his strongest weapon — his smooth vocal croon, his stinging lead guitar, his classic-styled songwriting, or his crack backing band, the Lonestars.
Also recalling the way country music used to sound was Wednesday’s opening night headliner, Diesel Island, a relatively new St. Louis act featuring some familiar faces. Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann of the Bottle Rockets have teamed with local veterans Kip Loui and John Horton to mine the neglected repertoire of 1970s country gems. Pulling out all the stops on Waylon, Willie, Paycheck, Haggard and more, these guys just may be the most fun bar band in the country today.
Another local band, Palookaville (led by singer-songwriter Bob Reuter), delivered a roaring, adrenaline-fueled blast of excitement, punctuated by a thrilling cover of Son House’s “Death Letter”. Richard Ferreira filtered late-’70s R&B-inflected Van Morrison arrangements through a Nashville lens with an impeccable band. Joy Lynn White used most of Ferreira’s musicians for a set of traditional country with enough contemporary grit to carry on the culture rather than emulate it. Canadians the Brothers Cosmoline played extraordinarily tight, groove-based honky-tonk with memorable, riveting songs. St. Louis’ Rockhouse Ramblers (featuring the aforementioned Loui and Horton) revved up their twin-guitar attack, challenging the right and left halves of the honky-tonk brain.
Unclassifiable but terrific were Steve Dawson & Diane Christiansen, the husband-wife duo at the heart of Chicago band Dolly Varden, who sang beautifully with emotional clarity; New Orleans’ Jeff & Vida Band, a bluegrass-influenced group with a bluesiness at its core and a powerful stage presence; New York singer-songwriter Neil Cleary, with Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer accompanying him on a set of scintillating pop material; Tim Easton, standing at the intersection where pop hooks, blues structure, folk purity, jazz chords, and Dylan-styled vocals meet to discuss who’s first to cross at the light; and Scott Miller & the Commonwealth, who rocked hard with a set of well-constructed originals but were never more emotionally resonant than when they took on the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”.
Twangfest has a much greater scope than just the four nights of live music; an afternoon of bowling and legendary after-hours hotel parties have been a part of the proceedings for years. This year a new event was added as No Depression contributing editor Barry Mazor hosted “Twangclips,” a four-hour presentation of rare video footage. Here was actual film of Bob Wills dancing while exhorting his Texas Playboy musicians; Hank Williams standing a full head taller than his Grand Ol’ Opry cohorts; Buddy Holly appearing on Arthur Murray’s Dance Party; Bob Dylan mystifying Steve Allen with “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”; Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris dominating a stage together; Creedence Clearwater Revival rocking magnificently, then standing in the wings watching the incomparable Booker T. & the MG’s.
Yes, the scope of twang’s meaning was stretched pretty far here, too. But, looking at the delighted faces of those in the audience, whether watching the screen or the stage, it was clear nobody was worried much about definitions. The meaning of Twangfest was in the pleasure inherent in all that music.