The walls of John D. McGurk's front room are covered with framed photos of musicians who have played on its stage -- men and women armed with guitars, fiddles, bodhran drums and Uilleann pipes, musicians who have kept Irish folk music alive and well in St. Louis. Kevin Buckley is playing his fiddle on this narrow stage directly below a framed photo of himself in slightly younger days; the same benevolent intensity is evident in his eyes both in photograph and in person.
The Irish Brigade, the Minnesota-based duo of Mike Wallace and Joe Smith that performs a few month-long stints at the Soulard pub each year, is holding court on this uncrowded Wednesday night. Buckley sits in with them regularly, and tonight the trio works through "Down by the Salley Gardens" before launching into a full-throated take on the Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road" (McCartney is an Irish surname, after all).
Buckley says little and sings less; he's an apt sideman in this modest setting, and when the band moves away from sing-alongs and Pogues covers to instrumental jigs and reels, Buckley shines. His skills on the fiddle have given him prominence in the Irish folk world, and alongside fellow St. Louisan Ian Walsh, Buckley plays traditional folk tunes at McGurk's every Monday night.
But between sets, the 35-year-old Buckley discussed his other musical persona: that of the singer and songwriter behind Grace Basement, the ever-evolving folk/rock band that showcases his singing and songwriting skills. The band's last LP Wheel Within a Wheel was named the best local album of 2013 by this publication, but Buckley's Irish folk gigs -- his livelihood -- have kept the group from local stages.
Grace Basement is set to reintroduce itself with a different kind of residency than Buckley's weekly Irish gigs. Each Tuesday this month, Buckley and a rotating cast of musicians will be holding court at Foam, the cafe/bar/venue on the corner of Cherokee and Jefferson. A different local band will join them each week, and that opening band's genre will influence Grace Basement's line-up and approach; indie rock one week, folk and country the next, and so on.
Buckley conceived the month-long residency as a way to kick the rust off his old songs while premiering new tracks from a forthcoming record. "I haven't been too active with Grace Basement recently, because I've been too busy working and playing gigs," he says. "But we started messing around with some recording a few months ago. Jill Aboussie [drums] and Greg Lamb [bass] were coming over a lot, and I had these songs all written. They were getting on me, Greg especially: 'Let's play some fucking shows!' So, very impulsively, I contacted Mic [Boshans, owner/booker of Foam] about doing something different and fun as opposed to just booking a show."
Pairing with a different type of band each week is a way for Grace Basement to stretch itself, even while showcasing its versatility. "It was nice to structure it slightly, for my brain. The first show [with indie rock band American Wrestlers] will be kind of a standard show; it will cover the gamut. Half all-new shit, half old stuff. For the second week with Bryan Ranney, that's gonna be all folky, country songs," says Buckley. He'll be joined by pedal steel player John Higgins and pianist Tim Sullivan for that performance. "That'll be almost a completely different sound, but still all Grace Basement songs." Sets from rock band Old Souls Revival on May 19 as well as jazz sextet Animal Children on May 26 will round out the month.
This genre-bending approach to Grace Basement's catalogue is in keeping with Buckley's method of making records. Each of his three releases has featured different players and sounds: His debut, New Sense, was a self-recorded snapshot of well-crafted bedroom pop; Gunmetal Gray bristled with life thanks to a rangy, clangorous backing band; and Wheel Within a Wheel was almost entirely acoustic, a gentle folk record that found a newly married Buckley at his most mature, both as a songwriter and an arranger. He hopes to have his fourth album out in time for the fall, and it promises to continue the band's evolution.
"For me, it's gotta be something different each time in some way," explains Buckley. "I've probably been playing with this line-up the longest of any of them. I'll end up playing a lot of instruments, but I want to settle down on the line-up a little bit. I've been trying to figure out what I've wanted all these years, and part of it is just chilling out."
These shows, and the new record, will reunite Buckley with Marc Schneider, a St. Louis native who has recently returned after years of living in New York. The two played in their first band, Ashtray, together as teenagers, and Schneider will fill in on guitar and vocals in this line-up.
Of this incarnation, says Buckley, "It's very much a guitar band. It's like guitar rock; my idealized version of KSHE 95 that does not actually exist."
For local music fans, the residency is a chance to see one of the city's best bands shift and mutate from week to week. For Buckley, though, the goal is pretty simple: work out some new songs and play shows again after a long break.
"I'm hoping by the end of it all, I hope to have a better idea of what the band is sounding like. All the other songwriting stuff aside, the only way to get good at something is to do it a lot. I don't think we were playing enough shows -- I know the band agreed -- and we were talking about how to get better. You just need to play more," said Buckley.
"And it's fun, obviously. It's a joy to do it."
Grace Basement's May residency kicks off this week at Foam (3359 South Jefferson Avenue). All shows at 7:30 p.m.
May 5: American Wrestlers (indie rock) May 12: Bryan Ranney (folk) May 19: Old Souls Revival (rock) May 26: Animal Children (jazz)