It seems to be an American phenomenon, one that transcends region and strikes right at the heart of mainstream mediocrity. Throwing a large-scale civic Independence Day celebration and want to book some music? Apparently there are rules for its success: Look backward, not forward. Accentuate nostalgia, not adventure. Go for the lowest common denominator and ignore any music with the potential to upset even the most conservative member of your audience.
Welcome to democracy in action: The main stage at Fair St. Louis, this year featuring the stars of yesterday, a few one-hit wonders and a couple of middle-of-the-road country acts: Ray Charles, Neal McCoy, .38 Special, the Four Tops, Terri Clark, KC and the Sunshine Band. It boggles the mind. In the last six years, fairgoers have been treated to the following: Foreigner, Tom Jones, the Doobie Brothers, Joe Walsh, Hootie and the Blowfish, the Little River Band, Tracy Byrd, Dionne Warwick. Ugh. And despite the truth that many of these acts have had a decent song or two, they're all -- how to put it? -- has-beens.
The above list comprises the duds from a larger pool of past performers, of course, but they're expensive duds, and those of us who love adventure in our music can't help but shudder. Even those not totally mediocre are still somewhat uninspiring, considering what's going on in music right now: Tony Bennett, Little Feat, Ringo Starr, Chaka Khan, Bernadette Peters. Admittedly there have been a few aces (we're thinking it's luck): the Neville Brothers, Dolly Parton, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and this year's best, Ray Charles. But mediocrity rules the Fair St. Louis main stage -- this year more than ever -- and all we wanna know is why.
"It's certainly a complex task," says Fair director Rich Meyers. "There's a lot of things that need to be balanced. One is, obviously we want to pick entertainers who are going to be appropriate for the family orientation that the fair has. There are some folks that are just plain inappropriate because of that. We have a couple of demographic groups that we always look to fill. We always want to have a country act. And we always want to have an act that will be appealing to the urban audience. We want to pick up at least one act from each of those categories. We tend to do an old-time rock & roll group, because that's real appealing to a certain demographic. The reason why it's old-time is because it fits in with the family orientation."
Hence the spinelessness of each year's roster. In the world of rock, urban and country music, there are artists with edge -- usually the most interesting artistically -- and those who pander. The Fair opts for the panderers, those not deemed "inappropriate" for a family setting. What, exactly, is inappropriate? Artists who use foul language, says Meyers, or who are deemed "risque." He continues: "We try to avoid those. And there are some people who, by reputation, even though their acts aren't risque or obscene, maybe they've had run-ins with the law or whatever, and we don't think those are appropriate folks to put up in front of the stage, either."
This is probably why -- even though the fair hopes to appeal to "urban" families -- no rap or hip-hop artist has ever appeared on the stage. And the reputation clause perhaps explains why the most obvious Fair St. Louis performer, Chuck Berry, has never performed (to say nothing of Ike Turner).
But given all that, one can't help but notice that, for the most part, the rosters each year seem a bit, well, stodgy and uptight; each constraint the organizers place on the music serves to lop off another limb of adventure, until what fairgoers end up with is a group of artists who have passed both the accessibility and the "family values" tests. Meyers also says that they've learned to gear the music to appeal to a family's parents rather than their children (alas, no Britney this year). "We've done things in the past where we've brought in a group that was really appealing for the teenagers, and what happens is, the parents come down, drop the kids off; the kids come to the concert and 30 minutes after the concert, nobody's on the fairgrounds. So we have to appeal to the parents so they'll want to come and stay."
He also acknowledges the lack of music that appeals to the segment of society stuck in the middle -- too old to attend with their family, too young to have kids: "We know that we don't have acts that are going to be real big for young singles, so what we've tried to do this year is, we've established a city-sound stage, and we have nine local bands -- Javier Mendoza, Vargas Swing, Sarah Cloud and folks like that, because we do want to have something for everybody" (though the local roster, too, lacks any edge whatsoever).
As for the annual nostalgia trip the fair takes its visitors on, Meyer says it's inevitable, given one over-riding constraint: "That's really a function of affordability, and the people on the top of the charts now are asking a whole lot more than we can afford. Every once in a while, we're real lucky. We got Sheryl Crow a few years ago. But getting someone at their peak is very expensive."
So those of us interested in seeing edge, in seeing the risque and unafraid to hear a cuss word every now and then, are the losers in the equation and must settle for cheese.
But we can always head over to the Miller Music Blast on Laclede's Landing, which tosses us a bone every now and again, featuring some of the city's best local rock talent. A few years back, the great Waco Brothers set the Landing on fire (as have Los Straitjackets, Steve Forbert, the Radiators and Todd Snider), and every year local promoter Patrick Hagan books a sturdy lineup of the harder stuff for us "young singles." This year's lineup includes, among others, local artists Colony, Nadine, Getaway Car and the Rockhouse Ramblers. National acts slated to appear are Cowboy Mouth, Nine Days, Sister Hazel and Mojo Nixon.
Send local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to "Radar Station," c/o The Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130; or firstname.lastname@example.org.