Local-music snapshot 2000: Put this column in a time capsule.
Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill and the Tivoli Building, opened the grand Pageant ballroom, a venue just east of Skinker on Delmar that holds close to 2,000 people. It's a nearly perfect room and has already proved itself as a magnet for some of the country's top talent. A collaboration between Edwards and a company called Contemporary, owned by a bigger company called SFX, owned by the biggest company, Clear Channel, the Pageant is able to get this talent in part because of the power and influence this family of companies currently holds over the entire live-music industry. Chuck Berry christened the Pageant; also in the room that night was Johnnie Johnson, Chuck's first piano player on all those classic rock & roll hits. Toward the end of the year, Johnson sued Berry, claiming he had helped Berry pen the classic songs. It was a sad day in St. Louis music history. Johnson was the subject of a horrendous biography, Father of Rock & Roll, written by one Travis Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is the stepson of Johnson's "manager," George Turek (who referred Johnson to the lawyer who sued Berry), and the book was issued by Turek's vanity press, Thomas, Cooke. Fitzpatrick now calls himself a "rock historian." Please.
Nearby, Cicero's continues to book much live local music, bringing into the room jam bands, bluegrass bands and the occasional hip-hop or rock band. Across the street at Edwards' Blueberry Hill complex, two basement clubs bring in music. One of them, the Elvis Room, recently switched to an all-karaoke format. The Duck Room is good, booking music for the enjoyment of people ages 30-50. There will always be at least one electric guitar on that stage at all times.
When these bars close, the drunks head down to the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge, where they continue to drink until 3 a.m. Early on weekend evenings, the Delmar presents fantastic live postbop jazz, usually featuring saxophone player John Norment. Other venues around town that offer live local jazz are Troy's in Lafayette Square, Spruill's on North Jefferson Avenue, Bistro Europa on Washington Avenue and Mangia on South Grand Boulevard.
Continuing with a tour of the venue scene: The Side Door used to bring small rock bands to Midtown on Locust Street; not enough small-rock-band fans cared, so the place closed. Z, owned by the city's most popular cover band, Dr. Zhivegas, now occupies the club and restaurant. More people visited Z during its first month than the Side Door received in its entire existence. The Way Out Club moved from its Cherokee Street location to a bigger space at Jefferson and Gravois. It's great, though they need to hire a full-time sound person and get their sound up to par. Until then, the performing musicians will be frustrated. One of the former regulars of the Way Out, Fred Friction, is manning his own bar, Frederick's Music Lounge on Chippewa, which has turned into the best new rock-and-country club in the city. The place has live music five nights a week and is the hub of one of the most promising scenes in St. Louis right now. Frederick's has a bubble machine. When Fred turns it on, people laugh and try to keep the bubbles afloat.
The Hi-Pointe, Mississippi Nights, the Rocket Bar, the Firehouse, the Galaxy, Off Broadway and Three-1-Three, over in Belleville, all support local rock musicians by booking them. If you want to see a local blues band, you can go to Soulard or downtown, to BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups or a new club, the unfortunately named Beale on Broadway (St. Louis has its own blues tradition; why insult it by referencing Memphis'?). If you want punk rock, you gotta go to the Creepy Crawl.
The St. Louis dance and techno scene in the year 2000 was all right. If you want to hear a DJ, go downtown to Washington Avenue. Any number of clubs attempt to wrestle the almighty dollar from the pockets of the young and beautiful, but most seem to be only going through the motions; devoid of original ideas and therefore enthusiastic crowds, most of these clubs -- Tabu, Excape, Cheetah, Liquid, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and many other one-word-named rooms -- perpetually stand outside the door and wait rather than conjure up an original idea for a club.
The two exceptions to this unfortunate trend are Velvet and Lo; the former knows dance music and brings the best local (residents Rob Lemon and Justin King; Ken Dussold and Jeff Feller) and international talent to spin dance music -- usually progressive house and trance. Over the past year they've brought John Digweed, LTJ Bukem, Deepdish, Dave Aude, Paul Oakenfold and others; rumors of big-name talent slated for the spring are already floating about. Though Velvet's staff understandably desires to attract monied county folk to their club, they also work to bring the younger and hipper, and they deserve a round of applause for these efforts.
Lo, located at 15th Street and Washington Avenue, opened in 2000. It's a beautiful, tiny space with an Asian theme -- Chinese lanterns, a selection of teas and sakes. The sake will get you funny-drunk, and when the lanterns sway in the air while the electronic dance music is playing, you will no doubt feel very alive and happy. Wave to the DJ in the closet; he (or, occasionally, she) is pretty cramped back there.
The dance culture outside the club atmosphere thrived in 2000 but is showing signs of contraction already. The mainstream media freaked out over the rave scene this past year, and that freaked out the lemmings of the local media, which freaked out the authorities who had turned a blind eye to warehouse parties in the past. Ecstasy use at raves was the focus of all these reports, because its use has exploded over the past few years. Many blame this on raves, which is ridiculous; ecstasy is being used everywhere. It is often taken at raves, and anyone who says otherwise is telling lies. But the root problem isn't that there are dealers; it's that American society, for whatever reason, wants desperately to escape, if only for a few hours, from its own oppression, and ecstasy (apparently) provides just such an opportunity. The bad thing is that recent raves have seen fewer and fewer people dancing. Most sit around, cuddle with each other and scowl at people who accidentally step on them. It's kind of sad, and this reality threatens to turn what was once vibrant into a dark and lonely place.
It's difficult to hear hip-hop in St. Louis, mainly because, despite its popularity, it scares outsiders. Many clubs offer token hip-hop nights -- the best of 2000 was The Science, held at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room every Friday -- but the central problem is that once a hip-hop night gets crowded, residents of nearby gentrified neighborhoods often freak out and start complaining. This has happened at the Hi-Pointe on Monday nights (though, admirably, the club has continued to offer the night), and, most recently, at the great Upstairs Lounge on South Grand. They had a thriving Thursday-night hip-hop night hosted by Needles, Obi Juan and K-9, but it got too popular, and the neighborhood started to get scared of the "hip-hop crowd." There were complaints, but the blame doesn't rest solely on the neighborhood. A successful hip-hop night is a double-edged sword in St. Louis: Inside the club, there were fights. A similar thing happened at Cicero's a few years back. A few bad apples, along with the leverage the neighborhood has over the Upstairs, ruined things.
In that show's place, though, came the great Litterthugz crew (who, it must be mentioned, are friends of Radar Station). Ryan B., Doug Surreal, DJ Device, Mike 2600 and Cougar Shuttle tag-team on Thursdays now and blow shit up weekly, playing funk, hip-hop, Detroit techno, booty music and classic soul. It's one of the highlights of the St. Louis music week. Cougar Shuttle recently had his mullet cut off on local television.
On the North Side, the rap scene has thrived: Nelly hit the national big time with his album Country Grammar, which has sold 5 million copies. The crew he's a part of, the St. Lunatics, are releasing their debut on the world's biggest record label, Universal, in a few months. Some other classic cuts were released in St. Louis this past year: Out of Order's great crunk anthem "Work Som'n, Twurk Som'n," Bits n' Pieces' "The New Breed" and Just Black's infectious "Bounce Baby" were the best of the bunch. Next year, the city's rap scene could very well go nationwide -- that is, if a few of the local labels quit fiddling with illegal activities and start dealing records. There are dozens of record labels releasing rap in St. Louis.
The same can't be said for the rock community, which is struggling to come to terms with the reality that hip-hop and electronic music have taken rock's once-secure spot at the center of the music world. It's hard to say whether it's a result of ignorance or selfishness, but not one solid rock label is working to release the music of St. Louis rock bands. As a result, the scene has no center, just countless groups of friends chatting on Internet mailing lists and shaking hands with themselves, intent on staying "local bands" instead of "bands from St. Louis." None has a vision of getting big outside of this city, and if any of them do, they don't show it. The exception, Nadine, is big in Europe and will be big in America soon enough. Other good local bands -- the Julia Sets, Sexicolor, the Spiders, the Star Death, Sullen, Tomorrow's Cavemen, Lo Freq, the Ded Bugs, Rocket Park and half-a-dozen others -- will inevitably fizzle out like countless acts of the past decade if they don't figure out how to think national instead of local. St. Louis' rock scene is no better or worse than other city music scenes; the difference is ambition. The St. Louis rock doesn't seem to have much of it, save in securing the next gig at the Way Out or Hi-Pointe.
Tiny scene to watch next year: three fusion bands combining hip-hop, funk, R&B and breakbeat: Getaway Car, Jive Turkey and Five Block Shot.
Press-wise, there's not much to talk about. Noisypaper follows local music and covers the scene well but has never said one critical word about any band it covers. This is kind, but, ultimately, the happy-happy-joy-joy tone swaddles even artists the staff doesn't respect in a blanket of blandness; when they say a band is great, it's hard to know whether they really mean it or whether they just don't want to upset someone. The Riverfront Times, once locally owned, was purchased a couple of years back by a chain called the New Times. The RFT's coverage of local music has changed -- some say for the better, some say for the worse. Where once it devoted weekly space to local rock bands, it now concentrates more on news-type stuff in the music section and seems to be trying to offer more honest, less patronizing assessments of local musicians. Who knows whether they're successful or not? They're a bunch of blowhards, those fuckers in the Radar Station bunker. They don't care about the good of the city's music scene. All they want to do is giggle to themselves while they write clever things about raves and techno music. Like every other aspect of the city's music scene, Radar Station is the self-serving product of a bunch of egomaniacs.
The best thing about the city's music scene by far is Sovereign Glory, heard 8-10 p.m. Thursdays on KDHX (88.1 FM).