It's easy to be cynical about the time-warp mentality that often seems to permeate the St. Louis music scene, the sense that its bands are too stuck in the past to ever succeed in today's hype-driven marketplace. But despite this perception of musty antiquity, one can say that the younger artists making noise around town certainly respect music history and the talents of their elders.
And it's not just because fans can head to BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups, or Beale on Broadway, and see wizened blues guitarists play marathon sets or the fact that Chuck Berry still plays monthly at the Duck Room. Venture into south-city bars, and one can hear the specter of scratchy 78-RPM records and swampy delta-picking filtered through the lens of raucous punk or rockabilly, bedroom folk and even roots-rock. Talented musical obscurities and legends alike are lovingly given their due by locals, always with passion and earnest enthusiasm.
One of these old-time-reverent musicians is 25-year-old Casey Reid, an easygoing old soul with a pierced lip, a penchant for black coffee and a gravelly croak that at first might seem at odds with his chin-length hair and casual-punk attire. But Reid creates what might be best described as junkyard blues, tunes incorporating equal amounts of biting acoustic-folk and humid Mississippi blues. (Think the music crafted by the roster of the record label Fat Possum, a favorite of his.) In concert and on disc, his music is as spiritually eloquent as a gospel revival although during two separate conversations that took place over coffee at Cummel's Café, Reid is hesitant to reveal too much.
"I don't have myself figured out too much, so it's hard for me to talk about myself," he says at one point. "I don't have this lofty vision that I can let you in on," he adds later. But this reticence merely reflects his laid-back approach to music, which is refreshingly free of overanalysis.
"I have not set any goals for myself," Reid said during a winter interview. "I've just been playing and trying to enjoy it. Just this whole approach to it of having no expectations has been kind of great for me. I just know that I want to do music and keep playing it. I just love working with people, playing with different people and stuff too."
The St. Louis native first started turning heads seriously in town last fall, after Bill Streeter posted a performance video of Reid on his Web site, lofistl.com. In true lo-fi spirit, at that time Reid didn't even have a Web site (although he's now found at myspace.com/caseyreid), and the existence of many of his shows spread via word-of-mouth.
But as the frequency of Reid's concerts has increased he's often seen sharing stages with the 7 Shot Screamers and others at the Creepy Crawl, the Way Out Club and Magee's and with the recent release of his debut album, Cephalclog, his profile around town has increased accordingly.
While his music first and foremost dominates, concertgoers might also notice that Reid uses a wheelchair. He's paralyzed from the waist down, as a result of a van accident in 2000 that occurred when he was on his way to a snowboarding excursion in Colorado. The vehicle he was riding in hit some ice and rolled over, throwing him out the window. (Thankfully, he doesn't remember the wreck at all.) Not surprisingly, he says the accident changed his outlook on things "100 percent. It was a mindtrip, you know? Because everything's different now. But it's a perspective I've come to appreciate."
But Reid also says that he "wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now" had it not been for the accident. While he took guitar lessons in junior high and was fond of the underground metal scene in high school he had long hair, was into "sloppy grindcore" and even had a band named Ruin that played parties and such it's only been in the past five years or so that he's started having a "connection" with his guitar beyond its capacity to bash out metal power chords.
"I wasn't planning on pursuing that [music] at all," Reid says. "Not really. I always thought it was going to be a side hobby. After my accident I wasn't really doing much. I was just kind of this kid in my basement with a four-track machine. I just fell in love with my acoustic guitar."
Citing an abundance of free time, Reid says he's amassed 25 90-minute cassette tapes full of music ("Most of it's really dumb, I mean, granted," he says modestly) a cache that's reminiscent of the type of early, primitive recordings done by Beck, whom Reid admires greatly. But this DIY aesthetic also informs Cephalclog, which he recorded in five sessions at Penny Studios (a facility near the Budweiser brewery) with Mike Tomko, Eric Enger and Chris Baricevic as co-producers.
The album captures Reid's shambling acoustic celebrations, in the form of galloping, barnstorming twang ("Paranoia") or multi-layered rhythmic and harmonic explosions ("Oh, Sweet Beacon"). His frequent backing band the Rockin' Robins (a.k.a. upright-bassist Chris Powers and cellist Chelsea VandeDrynk) earns star billing, and for good reason the majestic cello that minces through the waltz "Let Us Sing" and functions as a deeper counterpart to Reid's falsetto on "Into the Woods" is one of Cephalclog's best qualities.
Furthermore, Reid attributes much of the ragtag, homemade sound of Cephalclog to his many collaborators who, appropriately, are credited as "the Junketeers" in the album's liner notes. These merry musicians include members of the Vultures, 7 Shot Screamers and Johnny O & the Jerks; the instrumental color they contribute to Cephalclog includes saloon-style piano, banjo, "hubcap washboard," sitar, "scrap metal drums" and melodica. (Johnny O's drummer is Baricevic, who runs Reid's label, Big Muddy, and was responsible for finding much of the found-object percussion on the album.)
"I love community music, just people coming together and just rocking out," Reid says. "That was the most fun thing for me, just getting everyone together, and even not know[ing] what's going on and it turning out all right because half the time, I don't know what's going on." He laughs.
"Just me, myself with my guitar, doesn't embody how the album turned out," he continues. "I'm so grateful that all these guys played with me. We never even get together and practice. We've gotten together a couple times. When we do, we'll just play a song and I'll be like, 'OK, so...cool?' We just end up hanging out. All the other times it's just at shows, just jamming."
Reid's CD release party at Vintage Vinyl in late June certainly reflected this carefree mentality; in fact, the performance felt like watching Emmett Otter's jug band come to life. Various Junketeers surrounded a sunglasses-wearing Reid and added harmonica, upright bass, vocals, percussion and whatever else suited the songs in the moment whether it was a Reid original or the Danzig cover he's fond of playing live. Reid's closed eyes, rubbery facial expressions and own deliberate, rhythmic body movements from pounded-out beats on the body of his acoustic guitar to ferocious shoulder shakes clearly showed how immersed he was in his music.
It's a performance like this that makes it difficult to pigeonhole Reid or truly describe his sound. Does he resemble a more concise Magnolia Electric Co.? Is he a rougher Damien Jurado? An accessible Tom Waits? All of the above? Perhaps. But of course, ask Reid to describe his tunes, and he'll decline out of deference thereby letting his music speak for itself.
"I've always kind of avoided that, because I never know how to do it, you know? I don't know," he laughs. "I just play acoustic, kind of blues, rock & roll stuff. And that's not even what it is. I need help figuring that out."
9 p.m. Friday, July 7. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $5 to $7. 314-773-3363.