Black Music Matters Festival

The twang revolution takes off

Off Broadway, St. Louis, June 12-13, 1997

By Eric Zehnbauer

ST. LOUIS - From out of the plains, from both coasts, from all points of the compass they came, all to meet here

Like the ominous dark clouds of the approaching thunderstorms that descended on the Off Broadway nightclub on Friday, the 13th of June, these bands of desperados, brandishing cold steel (guitar strings), joined by hundreds of followers, came ready to wreak havoc on the musical world, under the banner of Twangfest 1997.

By the time they were through, there was no doubt that "twang" (aka alternative country, insurgent country, Americana, etc.) is definitely a musical force to be reckoned with.

Spawned by an Internet mailing list devoted to such music, nearly all bands playing included members of the mailing list, and about half of the full-house crowd each night consisted of list members. They came from all over, from as far away as Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Hoboken, N.J.

Ten bands performed over two nights, covering the spectrum of Americana music, from high-powered honky-tonk and "rig rock" sounds to pure acoustic bluegrass to coffeehouse folk music.

Friday, June 13th

Friday started off slow. Opening the festivities was local singer/songwriter Roy Kasten, backed up by the Sons of Perdition (Joe on guitar and mandolin, Mark on fiddle and mandolin). His set of folk music amply displayed his considerable songwriting talents. The picturesque tapestries his lyrics wove were stunning, drawing the listeners in. His delivery was another matter. As a singer, well, let's just say he's a great songwriter; a darn good acoustic finger-picker as well. However, vocals are not Kasten's strong point. Flat and monotonal, and delivered in a near whisper all too often, the listener who really wanted to hear what Kasten had to say had to strain to do so.

Chicagoan Edith Frost then performed a set of acoustic country music in the old-time traditional country/gospel style. Again, a set of very soft music without much fluctuation in style. Although her music was very faithful to the style it represented, there really wasn't much need for a drummer or electric guitarist. After this set and the one which preceded it, the need for an energy boost was readily apparent.

Fortunately, the next band up was local favorite Belle Starr. Although they opened with a haunting a capella lament, once Kip Loui immediately segued into a "1,2,3,4" countdown, blast off was imminent.

Belle Starr tore through a set of foot-stomping country rock. They were even joined on one tune by fellow artist (and Saturday night performer) Buddy Woodward, of the Ghost Rockets. Standout numbers were "Red Rose of Texas" featuring the lovely vocals of Lynne Reif (she's one of the best female singers in this town), a rocking cover of Gillian Welch's "Tear My Stillhouse Down," and the aptly named, hook-laden set closer, "Hook, Line, & Sinker."

As tight as Belle Starr's set was, it was just a warm-up for the act that really stole the show Friday evening, the Columbus, Ohio-based Sovines. Consisting of Bob Starker (aka Sovine Bob) on lead vocals and guitar, Matthew Benz on guitar, Ed Mann on bass and Pete English on drums, these rig-rocking maniacs plowed through their set like an 80,000 lb. semi coming off a steep grade with no brakes.

The Sovines played a great mix of originals and classic covers, including "Cocaine Blues," "White Freightliner Blues," and "Truck Drivin' Man." The only people not wide awake and fired up by the end of this set had to have already been dead. If these guys don't have a recording contract offer soon, then there's no justice in the musical world.

The Chicago-based band Gasoline had the unenviable task of following. Though they couldn't match the hell-for-leather performance of the Sovines, they kept the crowd rockin' 'til closing time, playing a solid set of the type of music most people think of when they hear the term "alt-country." The term nearly always brings up references to the seminal band (also from the St. Louis area) Uncle Tupelo, and Gasoline at times did sound reminiscent of UT, particularly on "Joe McCarthy's Ghost." Gasoline also displayed a wealth of vocal talent, sharing vocal duties among three of the band's four members, Dave Purcell (rhythm guitar), Jeff Daniel (lead guitar), and Gordon Anderson (bass). Don Ackerman played drums as well as banjo.

Saturday, June 14th

San Francisco's Cash Hollow started Saturday night's affair with an acoustic folk music set. Consisting of vocalist Gayle Salomon and guitarist Armon Kasmai, this duet succeeded where others had previously stumbled. Clear, strong, and emotion-filled, without ever souding overreaching or too powerful, Salomon has a great voice, perfectly complemented by the polished guitar picking of Kasmai.

Although their originals were certainly noteworthy, the standout song of the set was a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson's "No Bright Lights Tonight."

Next up was a band that was widely agreed to be one of the most pleasant surprises of Twangfest: One Riot One Ranger, from Columbus, Ohio.

The five-man, all acoustic band played some of the finest authentic bluegrass and gospel music, accentuated by glorious four-part harmonies on several numbers. Mark Wyatt, on accordion and bass, provided the lead vocals on most numbers, but vocal contributions were also made by Pete Remenyi (who played dobro and harmonica), guitarist Mark Gaskill, and fiddler/mandolinist Chaz Williams, who also happens to be the group's primary songwriter. Carl Yaffey played banjo and bass.

Numerous songs stand out, including "Hello City Limits," the gospel tune "It Must Be Heaven," and a cover of the Delmore Brothers's "Blues, Stay Away." This was a great piece of country blues featuring stellar work from Remenyi on blues harp. The set closer, the gospel song "Working on a Building," featured Wyatt doing his best fire-and-brimstone evangelist impersonation; it was a hoot! Between this band and the previous night's Sovines, Columbus has a lot of good music to be proud of.

If the Sovines were an earthquake that hit the stage Friday night, then the next band up on Saturday night, Fear and Whiskey, was a major aftershock.

Who could've guessed that wild man Junior Barnard, singer and guitar slinger extraordinaire, consumer of prodigious amounts of whiskey, is by day a mild-mannered college professor?

Yet, Barnard and banmates Matt Patterson (rhythm guitar, vocals), Gary Alshason (bass), and Bret Dillingham (drums, vocals) ripped it up with a set of fiery, rockabilly & honky-tonking music. A bit of surf music influence was also apparent in Junior's Telecaster playing. Outstanding crying-in-your-beer tunes included "Burnin' Teardrops" and "Lost & Gone Astray". The pride of Lawrence, Kansas also excelled at covering classics such as the Byrds's "You're Still On My Mind" and Faron Young's "(Your Old) Used to Be." In a display of how wide-ranging the tastes of the alt-country crowd are, the same audience members who were enthusiastic about the soft folk sounds of Cash Hollow and the bluegrass of 1R1R were cheering wildly for Fear & Whiskey's considerably faster and louder style.

The Ghost Rockets, out of Hoboken, N.J., they played an eclectic set of country rock featuring many different influences as well as different instrumentation, including banjo, fiddle and some especially tasty pedal steel work. Buddy Woodward didn't slow down one bit, despite having a leg in a cast all weekend.

For the final act of the weekend, the big guns were pulled out in the form of The Waco Brothers. Led by expatriate Briton and sometime Mekon Jon Langford, these guys weren't so much a band as an amphetamine and pure grain alcohol-induced fever dream. Although labelled as "insurgent country," there was barely a trace of country music going on, other than the fact that they had a steel player and a mandolinist (Tracy Dear, the "finest living Englishman," according to Langford).

Rather, they stayed true to their punk roots and flat out rocked! Expending more energy than all of the other Twangfest bands put together, they whipped the crowd into a frenzy as they whipped through songs from their two albums, "Cowboy in Flames" and "To the Last Dead Cowboy," and a few well-selected covers. Stage diving and body surfing soon ensued. The crowd of folk, bluegrass, and country music lovers was tranformed into a wild moshpit. As closing time came, the Wacos asked the proprietor if they could play one more. After getting the nod, they promptly proceeded to be their rule-breaking, irreverent selves and played three more tunes, including the most high-powered version of George Jones' "White Lightnin'" ever heard.

Final Notes

Although it has just barely ended, talks are already under way regarding planning another Twangfest for 1998. Agreement was unanimous that this inaugural Twangfest was a success, and the hopes are to make this a regular annual event. Location hasn't been decided, but it may become an annual St. Louis tradition.

A compilation tape, Edges From the Postcard, featuring many of the Twangfest bands along with several others, was made in an attempt to help defray the costs of putting on this festival. An excellent limited-run sampler which was very well received, it was agreed to make more copies available.

Editor's Note: Country Standard Time was a sponsor of Twangfest