Archive for June, 2007

Leroy Pierson—Delta blues, well done

June 27, 2007


Some people think of St. Louis as a southern city. I think of it more as a city at the top edge of the South, shaped and informed by it, but not of it. Even more so, it is shaped by the Mississippi River that flows along its eastern edge. Up that river has come some of the finest food the South in general and New Orleans in particular have to offer.

St. Louis is also the northernmost city where one can routinely hear zydeco music, both from traveling acts and local bands, again thanks to the river. Jazz came up that river too. And while it’s not as pervasive there as it once was, St. Louis had a hand in shaping this most American art form. Scott Joplin. Clark Terry. Miles Davis. Oliver Lake. They all called St. Louis home at one time or another.

And then there’s Delta blues. Born in the cotton fields of Mississippi, it too traveled up the river and found a welcome home in St. Louis. Even when it’s electrified, it hangs on to its country roots and takes you back down to the Delta. And when it comes to modern masters of Delta blues, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than St. Louis’ own Leroy Jodie Pierson.

Leroy didn’t pick up his chops from no books or DVDs. He and fellow student Bonnie Raitt [yes, she was an amazing, fiery blueswoman before she finally started to make real money with pop songs like “Something To Talk About”] studied and traveled with Delta blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell. In fact, the first time Leroy played in public was at a blues festival in Wisconsin or maybe Iowa. He had taken Fred there to play and was standing in the wings during Fred’s set. Suddenly, Fred walked over to Leroy, pulled him out onto the stage and handed him his guitar.

For years, when Leroy played the Broadway Oyster Bar in St. Louis every Saturday night [and Marion and I were there for more Saturdays than we can count], at some point in the evening, he would strap on a big red hollow-bodied electric guitar that Fred had willed him.

national_style_o_ad.jpgThese days, he mostly plays a couple of National guitars—the Style O or the ResoLectric. And where he plays them every Thursday and Friday night is BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups. Whenever we make a trip to St. Louis, we try to get there for his Friday night performance, 7:00 to 9:30. If we lived in St. Louis, we’d be there every Friday night. Yes, he’s that good.

As BB’s name implies, they also do food there. In addition to burgers and other standard bar fare, they serve up rice and beans, gumbo and other cajun delights almost as authentic as the Delta blues Leroy serves up.

leroy_album.jpgLeroy hasn’t done nearly enough recording. Rusty Nail, his most recent release, came out in the 90s. Its ten tracks are a wonderful, seamless blend of traditional tunes, songs by Fred McDowell and others and a few tracks by Leroy. Last time I checked, there were six copies available on Amazon. He has a new CD ready to go, though. Should be out later this summer. When it comes out, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in St. Louis on a Thursday or Friday night, fill up on some gumbo and amazing music at BB’s. You can thank me later.

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The Mooney Suzuki: Garage rock done right

June 13, 2007

The Mooney Suzuki: People Get Ready


One night when the Mooney Suzuki opened for the Donnas here in Chicago at Metro, I ran into the band’s lead guitarist Graham Tyler [not trying to impress you with how cool I am, that I get such access to rock bands—but rather how cool the band is, that they come out and hang out with the fans]. The second band, a girl punk group called Bratmobile, was into its third song. Which sounded like the second. Which sounded like the first.

I asked Tyler if they were going to change it up at any point. He said, “No, they’re pretty much a one-trick pony.” Then he quickly added, “So are we. But it’s a fun pony.”

I kind of saw his point: The dozen songs on People Get Ready have, shall we say, a well-defined cohesiveness of sound. But they do mix it up a bit, way more than Bratmobile, for instance. And it is definitely one fun pony.

New York-based Mooney Suzuki’s music sits firmly in the middle of one of my favorite genres: Garage rock, with music scruffier than more mainstream rock, but less angry than punk. Light on guitar solos and heavy on the distortion and attitude, stripped down and raw. The kind of swagger you wish more rock had. I do, anyway. Their live shows are huge fun, and this album comes close to capturing that energy and excitement. Some would say that they’re covering ground others have already been over. When it sounds this good, I say yeah, so what?

Catch the Mooney Suzuki live. For other dates and places where they’re playing, check out their website.

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Hippie music from… Pittsburgh?

June 6, 2007

Rusted Root: When I Woke


A couple of Saturdays ago, Marion and I were in a bar, listening to a band [no one who knows us is exactly keeling over from shock at this news]. The bar was Nick’s, on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, and the excellent cover band Big Sweaty Men was on break.

The bartender who isn’t Damien [I’m embarrassed that I don’t know his name, but since Damien always takes care of me, I just think of him as “Not Damien”] had one of his cool music mixes playing on his iPod through the bar’s sound system. Suddenly, mid-conversation, one of the tunes forced its way into my brain. Send Me on my Way, by Rusted Root.

I bought their major label debut CD, When I Woke, when it came out in’94. Marion and I fell in love with it and played it to death. We all know how that turns out, don’t we—one day we were utterly and completely sick of it. Even seeing the jewel case among our CDs would make me cringe. That is, until “Not Damien” [whose parents may have dubbed him Eric, although I wouldn’t swear to it in a court of law] played that one tune at Nick’s. Now it’s back in [if not heavy, then moderate] rotation.

Rusted Root blends the jam band rock of groups like the Grateful Dead and Phish with heavy percussion influences from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East [no drum kits here—all much more organic, even tribal stuff]. They also throw in flute and plenty of vocal harmony—all but one of the six members [four guys, two girls] sings. The result is a nice indie/alt/world music mix. Hippie music.

The 13 tracks mix it up quite a bit—musically, tempowise and lyricswise—but it all hangs together beautifully. And if the description above makes the music sound a little precious or twee, trust me, it’s not. Even though it’s mostly acoustic, this album rocks with plenty of energy and drive from the very first cut, and the lyrics deliver a satisfying mix of hope and darkness. All of which adds up to music that will get you moving and keep you listening.

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