By next year LouFest will have joined SXSW, Coachella, Bumbershoot and Bonnaroo as one of this country’s premier music festivals. Well, probably not, but this year’s inaugural two-day LouFest was still pretty damn good. None of the logistical or wallet-emptying nightmares usually associated with an outdoor festival reared their soul-sucking heads; instead, the festival offered outstanding sound, an eco-friendly vibe, a free water refilling station (donations accepted), reasonably priced food (including Obama favorite Pi Pizzeria), a cool festival store sponsored by Euclid Records and a kid-friendly section with a rock-climbing wall. By most festival’s standards, the band list was equally impressive. We hope you enjoy Spectrum Culture’s review of LouFest 2010.
Saturday, August 28
The Bottle Rockets just might be the most popular local musical act in St. Louis; certainly they’re among the most tenured. They played with an infant Uncle Tupelo back in the day, building up a loyal fan base; more recently they jerked the curtain for Lucinda Williams – a hall-of-famer among the city’s cowboy hat and boots-wearing South County contingent – and received as much applause as she did. So it was fitting that they started the festival with a rollicking set of twangy Americana, a genre that would be well represented over both days. Plenty of people turned up early to hear Brian Henneman’s countrified vocals and the band’s instrumental jams.
Stephaniesid hails from Asheville, North Carolina. And it’s pronounced “Stephanie’s id.” Apparently they had no time for an apostrophe and a space. Provocative, animated and maybe even a little bit batty, vocalist Stephanie Morgan remained chatty and spastic throughout the band’s performance, theatrically gyrating and otherwise being just plain zany. Sporting a rat’s nest hair style, she variously cooed and shouted her way through mostly up-tempo original songs and a cover of “Life in a Northern Town,” but the slowed down “Drinking at a Party” may have been the set’s most singularly heartfelt moment.
So Many Dynamos
So Many Dynamos has a palindrome for a name and a lead singer who wears too-tight jean shorts. Baby Gramps would be proud of one of these facts. The Edwardsville, Illinois band was apparently supported by everyone they’d ever met before, as even vocalist Aaron Stovall commented that the band probably knew most of the audience on a first-name basis. Though their set wasn’t spectacular and an early technical difficulty killed the pace a little bit, the band’s synth-heavy sound and obvious energy mostly offset the songs’ occasional derivativeness. Besides, they were already playing to the converted, and in such cases such deficiencies are quickly forgiven.
A local musician who formed the band Nadine while a student at Washington University, Adam Reichmann has a wounded, full-of-feeling voice that is absolutely perfect for his strand of Americana. Backed by a group called the Ghosts of Electricity, Reichmann’s earnest, mature performance was a nice shift from So Many Dynamos’ frenetic youthfulness and again showed why Reichmann deserves a following beyond St. Louis’ borders. Thankfully, he wasn’t wearing jean shorts.
Shouldn’t Titus Andronicus have received a better time slot? They essentially got the old folk’s early bird special, and plenty of people could be seen grazing as the band ripped through songs from both of their LPs. A shame, really, as in a live setting Titus Andronicus is an absolute beast. Plenty of fans still packed the pit – though one tattooed mother was seen quickly escorting her young son out after Patrick Stickles aired a few F-bomb grievances that no doubt could be heard throughout tranquil Forest Park – while the band provided what was arguably the day’s top performance. In between his various twitches and yelped vocals, Stickles described the band as “all kinds of crazy” from traveling straight from Toledo for this show. If this is how the band operates on too little sleep, here’s hoping they stay good and tired for a long time.
A catfight broke out when Lucero played Off Broadway in 2009; the combatants would get the heave-ho and Lucero would continue with its scratchy brand of country-rock. The LouFest crowd was more docile this time, but unfortunately singer Ben Nichols was in a bad way: the band took the stage a few minutes late, and after the first song the singer commented how it was “one song down, no pukin’.” Later he mentioned how he was also “pukin’ out of both ends.” Nichols could be seen guzzling water prior to the set, so one has to assume that it was true illness – not a bout of the band’s infamous pre-gig boozing – that did Nichols in. After gamely making a go of it for around 30 minutes, the band called it quits, Nichols promising to return in the future and sincerely apologizing to the sympathetic crowd, trucker hats hung low in disappointment, as he headed for a “date with an IV.”
The Airborne Toxic Event
Following a waylaid Ben Nichols, LouFest marked the first St. Louis appearance for the Airborne Toxic Event. Though Mikel Jollett described the show as “really fucking intimidating,” the band never appeared tentative, their various acts of overt showmanship – a guitar vs. fiddle showdown and a jump off a drum riser primarily – falling just short of being over the top. Several new songs received their first live airing, while the rest of the set was sprinkled with songs from the group’s self-titled debut LP. Cover versions of Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube” and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” were inventive and unexpected.
Built To Spill
Built To Spill has never been the most captivating live band, but by now Doug Martsch and co. have the routine down: virtuoso guitar playing, thin but emotive vocals and lengthy instrumentals that, while they aren’t much for the eyes, are a sweet treat to the ears. “Twin Falls” received a rare outing – for St. Louis at least, as the band hadn’t played the song in at least their last three stops here – while old standbys like “In the Morning” and “Car” were mixed in with recent songs like “Hindsight.” Though the group’s setlist didn’t take into account the extra time they’d been given as one of the festival’s marquee names – as Martsch somewhat sheepishly admitted – the band of course had plenty of material from which to draw. A furious version of “You Were Right” in this “bonus time” soon followed.
Broken Social Scene
Was anyone surprised that Broken Social Scene’s day one closing set was part musical performance, part revival and part spectacle? The band pushed the festival’s sound system to its limits and it sometimes struggled to adequately project the band’s wall of sound, but the wheels stayed on well enough. Kevin Drew did a half-gainer while trying to jump from the stage to the crowd during “Texico Bitches;” later the band would end the night with an unexpected encore. Yet for all the band’s musical bluster and frequent exhortations for audience participation, to these ears it was on an understated track like “Cause = Time” where Broken Social Scene was at their most effective. The first night of LouFest ended in a storm of beautiful musical chaos.
Sunday, August 29
Sunday started with a gospel performance from local singer Kim Massie, who with her God talk tried to cleanse the stage that Titus Andronicus desecrated the day before. Massie showed her formidable vocal range on a lengthy set-opening version of “Amazing Grace,” while the old standard “When the Saints Go Marching In” and several other religiously-themed songs followed. A few cover songs, including “The Greatest Love of All” – yes, the bombastic song made famous by Whitney Houston – and the Oleta Adams-popularized “Get Here” were performed reverentially, even if they did feel a little out of place when compared to the overtly religious songs that dominated the setlist.
Another local band, Magnolia Summer is fronted by Chris Grabau, whose Lines from the Frame is one of the better indie albums most people have never heard. LouFest would serve up a healthy dose of Americana throughout this second day, but Magnolia Summer’s style was easily among the most approachable and melodic. Many songs, including some from that standout album, incorporated both pedal steel and a spot-on brass band, with Grabau’s vocals usually more assured and full-bodied than they tend to be on record.
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Hailing from the Piedmont area of North Carolina, the trio Carolina Chocolate Drops may have been the day’s most unique act. Banjo, guitar, fiddle, a jug and kazoo were all utilized as the band played bluegrass versions of traditional songs “Over There” and “Old Corn Liquor,” Johnny Cash’s “Jackson,” a snippet of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘em Up Style (Ooops!),” sung by Rhiannon Giddens with verve and no small amount of mocking sneer. The band interspersed these songs with interesting musical history lessons and at least one heartfelt piece of social commentary. And, oh yeah, singer Dom Flemons – looking like he just stepped out of O Brother, Where Art Thou? – also played calf bones as an instrument.
Gentleman Auction House
Eric Enger fronts local band Gentleman Auction House, whose heavy volume and start-stop rhythms came as a bit of a shock after Carolina Chocolate Drops’ acoustic, sometimes academic, bluegrass. Though unknown on a national stage, it was actually surprising to see just how many local fans knew the songs word for bloody word. “New Moon” – no discernable relation to that vampire nonsense – was just one of many songs that the throng knew by heart.
Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons
Early in his set Cory Chisel described his music as “sad songs in the sunshine,” and he wasn’t joking. Easily the folksiest performance of the entire festival, Chisel and his backing band, the Wandering Sons, spent their almost-hour playing mostly depressing songs about people leading miserable lives and dealing with even more miserable shit. Case in point was “Tennessee,” a song that quieted much of the crowd and was among the festival’s most moving moments. There was some levity despite the serious subject matter; in response to the heat and humidity that was awful enough but not unbearable, Chisel joked that the band had been “drinking coffee and liquor all day.”
One can only wonder what someone unfamiliar with Fruit Bats thinks of Eric Johnson’s voice. High-pitched and completely unconventional, it was the most distinctive feature of the Portland, Oregon band’s performance, which marked the final night of its current tour. The band’s set was heavy on long, long instrumental diversions, with several songs being stretched out far more than their album counterparts. The band sounded fantastic throughout, especially on “Tegucigalpa,” even if these excursions sometimes became a little tedious. Johnson rounded out the set with a bare-bones solo performance of “Singing Joy to the World.”
Dressed in his customary dark jeans and black shirt like the true badass he is, Alejandro Escovedo absolutely rode rough-shod over his setlist. Though some ballads were included – if a “Best of LouFest” CD is in the works, “Down in the Bowery” should be included – Escovedo primarily stuck to the wizened punk/rock bravado with which he’s usually associated, offering up stellar, piss-off versions of “Castanets (I Like Her Better When She Walks Away),” “Tender Heart,” “Always a Friend” and “This Bed is Getting Crowded.” A pity the man couldn’t have played longer; another hour or two (or more) of Escovedo songs still might not have been enough.
He may have been born in nearby Belleville, Illinois, but St. Louis will always claim Jeff Tweedy as a native son. As the crowd waited for him to take the stage, Tweedy stories circulated like so many tall tales. One guy used to jam with Uncle Tupelo. Another pounded shots with Tweedy in the Pageant parking lot years ago. Another guy got soused with Tweedy at Blueberry Hill in the late 1990s. After the opening “Sunken Treasure,” Tweedy peppered his acoustic set with songs with local references, including a fairly rare outing for “New Madrid” – folks in this city still remember Iben Browning and the day off school he got many of us – as well as a joke about an outstanding tab at Uncle Tupelo training ground Cicero’s. The crowd was easily the most calm and respectful I’ve seen at anything Wilco-related, which helped put the attention squarely on Tweedy’s voice and lyrics. Alas, one specific former Uncle Tupelo member didn’t appear, and those still holding out for a Tweedy-Farrar reconciliation will have to keep waiting.
She & Him
Though Jeff Tweedy might have been a more appropriate closing act given LouFest’s heavy local flavor, She & Him nevertheless ended the festival in style, playing to a much younger and, it must be said, more obnoxious and ill-mannered crowd. Certain voices sound better in an outdoor setting at night, and Zooey Deschanel’s is clearly one, as her buoyant, reverb-soaked singing suited the nighttime atmosphere well. M. Ward was mostly relegated to the role of sideman, though he did step out to sing Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and his own “Magic Trick.” The night classily ended with a nod to St. Louis, as Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was performed with sincerity and admiration. It would indeed be difficult to script a more fitting way to end this year’s LouFest.
by Eric Dennis and Marcus David
[Photos: Marcus David]