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Encore: A year of living retro leads to new musical adventures

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2013 - At some point in the process, I knew that taking a year to write about primarily retro aspects of local music culture would either send me further down that rabbit hole, or embarrass me into re-dedicating myself to new sounds and experiences. To stimulate the latter effect, I decided to come up with a game, of sorts, a self-challenge.

At bare minimum, I decided to attend one show a month that wouldn’t be on my normal rounds. That could mean catching a show at a brand new venue, hearing music that’s not my normal cup of tea, or simply putting myself into a slightly awkward situation; say, easily being the oldest person in the room, or clearly wearing an outfit not in keeping with the uniform of the venue. Since games are fun, I’ve not only found the framing device of a monthly event to be freeing, it’s prodded me to already start beating the goal. What follow are some status reports since I began in December.

And, mind you, if you’re reading this, you should consider the same challenge. You really should.

Brown Recluse Alpha, Toe Ring, Spiritual Recess, Marble, Judith Pancake and (DJ) Ghost Ice

William Kerr Foundation, 21 O’Fallon St.; Wednesday, Dec. 5

Noise/experimental shows can take place in all types of unconventional venues, so I wasn’t completely shocked that this multi-act bill was being held a LEED-certified building known more for hosting retreats and conferences than music. On the northern edge of Downtown, the Kerr Foundation’s an interesting building in the center of a frontier of sorts; there’s not much active in the immediate vicinity and the lighting of the area reflects that. Arriving at a nearly-pitch-dark facility after the start of the night’s sets, things just got more curious as the evening clicked along.

The acts were set up throughout a large room, using a series of portable, folding tables. The artists eschewed traditional instrumentation in lieu of loopers, phasers, midi units and countless other bits of technical gadgetry. Having walked in moments after an act had ended, I was left to walk among the 30, or so, attendees, glancing at the gear but, mostly, checking out the zines table. Because this night wasn’t just about bringing together acts from around the country, it was also giving an opportunity for several local zine-makers to offer new works. I picked up a copy of “Seance” by Erika Wardlaw, ready to spend the $2 and assuming that I’d somehow slipped the night’s $7 suggested cover. (Truly, this idea briefly crossed my mind: I thought that I looked so uncomfortable and square that my night’s fee was being waived.)

But just as the next act began, Mister Ben S., publisher of the zine “Freezer Burn,” found me and tapped the $7, plus the two bills for the zine. Having scored a free Stag beer from the community fridge (and knowing that some of the acts had gas money to contend with), it all seemed a good consumer deal, really.

Mind you, I have no idea how to describe what I heard and, to be honest, I’m not sure I could properly ID the artist I caught playing live. As vivid as can be, a month on are: The couple-dozen young people, their brows furrowed and their faces serious; the intense, black-and-white projections of video and film on the walls; and the all-consuming darkness outside. The sounds that night? Um, gosh.

At some point I’ll take the Noise/Experimental 101 course at a community college. It’ll be time well spent. Until then ... it’s the experience that counts!

The Schwag’s Holiday Show

2720 Cherokee; Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012

Here’s a slightly comfortable truth: After decades of annoyance, then further years of ambivalence, I now fully respect the Grateful Dead and what it meant to whole generations of music fans and concert-goers. On a given Saturday night, I can lock into an hour, or two, of “Deader than Ever” on KDHX, something that wouldn’t have happened even a decade ago. And reading about the days of the band’s late ‘60s reign in the Haight is always fun; those cats knew how to party.

In 2008, I wrote a feature for St. Louis Magazine on The Schwag, who (along with Jake’s Leg) is one of the two, primary carriers of the Dead’s torch in St. Louis’ concert clubs. (http://www.stlmag.com/St-Louis-Magazine/March-2008/The-Music-Never-Stopped/) For most weeks over several months, I headed down to Off Broadway, where the band was holding a weekly residency, filling the room with a set of young, enthusiastic fans. While I never had a bad time, I also didn’t come away filled with the religion; maybe I’d waited too long for some type of conversion to really kick in, despite having plenty of friends who “get” the Dead’s appeals, purely and thoroughly, and are happy to let me hear about them.

On a recent weekend, with no responsibilities pulling at me, I found myself motoring down Cherokee in search of a good time. Out in front of the venue 2720 Cherokee was a simple sign, “The Schwag, $10.” Nothing more, nothing less was needed. I turned the ship around, found a parking spot on Jefferson, paid my cover, ordered a drink from one of the Grigaitis sisters, then immediately texted my friend Laurie Anne, who knows this scene well and, as life would have it, was already on the way to the show.

Finding her a few minutes later, I got to enjoy the night in a way that was more than my usual, Dead-fan sightseeing. We explored some of the vast 2720 space, including the graffiti-dappled smoking patio, which was filled to an almost-comical density with between-set smokers. She greeted and embraced every third person, giving me the low-down on some and hinting at good stories about others. There was also time to actually catch the band. Eventually, we found a space just to the side of the stage, where The Schwag cooked through the final set of the evening, the dance floor moving like a rambunctious, smiling amoeba.

At some point, I asked her what a certain track was called. “It’s ‘Terrapin Station,’” she said, somehow without pitying me. “It’s sort of their rock opera.”

It’s a seriously famous title of one of the defining Dead tracks, really. Despite that, it’s a suite of music that didn’t ring a bell for me. Oh, my. Having had a lot of fun, I’m sure I’ll catch the Schwag again soon. And on that night, I’ll once again have no idea what the jams are or what track from the playlist is going to bring the biggest cheers. I’ll be back in my personal echo chamber of Dead near-ignorance. Strangely, I’ll find that an enjoyable, even blissful place to be. Rock on, my freestylin’ brothers and sisters. And don’t mind me.

Bruiser Queen, Baby Ghosts, JR Rudd, Langen Neubacher & The Defeated County

Ye Ole Haunt, 1319 St. Louis Ave., Saturday, Jan. 5

After multiple hours of “Portlandia” and “Firefly,” a decision had to be made last Saturday, truly and decisively. Either stay in on a Saturday night, essentially waving the white flag over the weekend; or summon up some energy, catching a show that was getting live, play-by-play love from friends on Facebook. Finding inspiration, I chose to rally, hitting a new venue in Old North St. Louis, Ye Ole Haunt.

Opened in October, the venue is said to be, yes, haunted. And the look of the place reflects an otherworldly theme, with life-size horror figures dotting the room, gothic art on the walls and scare films playing on the television. Though only booking live music on Saturday nights for the moment, the room is offering a needed location for live music in a corner of our city that hasn’t had an original, rock’n’roll venue in a bit. Though it’s not a big room, for shows of a certain size, it obviously has potential to be a fun, funky outlet for attending gigs.

Sadly, by the time we rolled in, the friends who’d been singing the praises of Baby Ghosts (from Salt Lake City) had walked out, heading back to their ONSL home. The opening acts were also past tense, leaving Baby Ghosts and Bruiser Queen as the balance of the night’s entertainment. Ordering a couple PBR tall boys, we hoisted the room’s most-popular beer choice, while subtly bringing up the room’s age, from 28.1 to 28.6. Cool.

The two-boy, two-girl Baby Ghosts played for about another 20 minutes, with a clutch of dancers breaking a sweat at the lip of the stage. Selling their CD, “Let’s Hang Out Together, Okay?” afterwards, priced at only $5 a throw, the band even kicked in a free button. Living up to its self-description as a “four-piece, co-ed, fun, happy, good time rock’n’roll band,” Baby Ghosts made the trip worthwhile, even as they were playing to a modest audience for the quarter-share of a $3 cover charge. Young people in a van, spreading their music in little increments, Baby Ghosts wins major points for keeping the indie rock tradition alive.

As does Bruiser Queen, the local group that organized the night and brought Baby Ghosts to town. I knew they’d play a good set and they did. They proved again that they don’t mind breaking in a new space, putting bands up and generally helping promote the touring dreams of an outta town act. The good vibes they engender in the wider scene were apparent at the Haunt. Despite all the horror motifs around, there was a lotta love in the room, one that’ll hopefully stick around for a good while.

In short, it’s often so worth leaving the house.

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