- PRESS PHOTO VIA ARTIST BANDCAMP
In the promotional literature, Grace Basement is referred to as Kevin Buckley's "side project." It's an apt enough designation; Buckley spends most of his professional life, and makes most of his money, playing traditional Irish music. He's held down the Monday night slot at McGurk's, that Soulard godhead of Irish music and fare, for longer than he can readily recall, and he routinely plays trad-music sessions and shows at home and abroad.
"This is just what it is; it's literally something I do on the side," Buckley says of Grace Basement. "I also feel like I've got so many other things going on too that it's honestly hard to say it's number one. Even though in certain ways it is a priority, artistically or whatever."
But "side project" hardly gives the proper due to Grace Basement, his rootsy rock band that has just released its fourth album, the provocatively titled Mississippi Nights. The combination of Buckley's many gifts — an inviting and occasionally yearning voice, control of simple and direct rock & roll dynamics, an intrinsic understanding of guitar-driven song craft from the Beatles to Sonic Youth — has helped make Grace Basement one of the most consistently accomplished bands in town. In other words: What Buckley does on the side is better than many, many people's main gigs.
What began as a solo studio project has morphed into a few incarnations over the past decade and has comfortably settled into a nuanced, harmonically sophisticated rock band. Along with drummer Jill Aboussie, bassist Greg Lamb and relatively new addition Marc Schneider on guitar, Buckley leads Grace Basement back into the realm of electric guitar-driven music after 2013's acoustic, folk-oriented Wheel Within a Wheel. He says his inspiration for Mississippi Nights was to create "a super-local record," one named after the late, much-lamented rock club formerly located on the Landing.
"I wanted to make, in my mind, what typifies St. Louis rock & roll," Buckley says. "That's where the title came from — of course the club, I saw so many great shows there. I thought it was an apt symbol."
That symbol, Buckley says, speaks to "a romance behind everything" on many of these songs, a cycle of idealization, actualization and disintegration that permeates not just love but art, music and even the rock & roll venues of our youth.
The shuffling, insistent "Summertime is Coming" best displays Grace Basement's knack for wrapping something bittersweet in a shiny pop coating — a soaring melody that places hopeful expectations against the inertia of everyday reality.
Later, Buckley takes liberty with another name that carries well-known implications in the St. Louis music community. It may be happenstance that "Maybellene" was released within a year of Chuck Berry's death, but Grace Basement's version owes little to Chuck's motorvatin' original; this one is a slow, syrupy blues track buoyed by whirring organ, a three-piece saxophone section and Aboussie's backing vocals.
Buckley says the connection to Berry wasn't intentional: "It's one of those writing devices — just start with a woman's name," he says with a laugh.
Buckley says that "Maybellene," like several songs here, dates back to the same sessions that produced many of the tracks on his last, folk-tinted album. He and his friend, the New Orleans-based musician Joe Kile, still occasionally challenge each other to write a new song a day for 21 days. What comes out day after day is often a stylistic hodge-podge, and that has left more than enough grist for the next few records.
"I've been playing the long game with Wheel Within a Wheel, this record, and then the next one, whatever happens with that," Buckley says. "I was kind of writing these songs and thought it would be cool to do an acoustic, stripped-down, kind of poppy record, and then do a rock & roll one, and then do a crazy one — like a more eclectic, White Album-y, They Might Be Giants thing."
He also has plans for a true solo record in the future, one that is more acoustic and meant for the immediacy of live performance. That may be an odd designation coming from the leader and sole continual member of this band — would it be a side project of a side project? — but the experience of self-recording this new record has Buckley thinking of how to peel back.
"It's more a performance thing and a spatial thing — something that is performed and listened to in a more intimate situation," he says. "Mississippi Nights is very much a studio record, even though it's a little raw. After I got done with it, [I realized] I need to do things a little differently. I think I wasted a lot of time on it.
"You can really second-guess yourself making these records — how do I stop that?" Buckley asks. "That shit's gotta be done live."