UPSTAIRS UNDERGROUND: What started as a series of zoning violations has evolved into the best series of DJ spins in the city. The Upstairs Lounge, 3131 S. Grand, is prohibited by law from hosting live bands (though a few years ago they got busted for doing just that), but the Man can't stop them from using DJs and spinning records, and as a result manager Tu Tran and bartender Billy Holley have been booking DJs in the space five nights a week. The music runs from Britpop to hip-hop, from house to drum & bass and downtempo, all spun by some of the best mixmasters in town.
The Upstairs isn't a dance club. No dancing allowed (stupid zoning law), though it'd be interesting to find out where the dance police draw the line between tapping a foot and gently shaking your butt and "dancing"). But that's fine, because the space is so intimate and comfortable that a bunch of sweaty dancers would disrupt the relaxed vibe. No cover charge, either. Yep: stupid zoning law (great for us customers, though it sucks for the club and DJs)
Despite all of these ridiculous legal hoops, DJs are lining up to spin -- showing, says Tu, "that they really just like playing up here and that they're passionate about it."
The freedom the club gives the DJs is the main reason for this excitement, says Holley. "There's an underground element to it, even though we're on the second floor," he says. "They can spin what they want to spin. When they work at bigger places, there's a bit more pressure to play more mainstream music. And that's a comment that I've heard from almost everybody en masse: They like being able to do more underground stuff, and they want to make sure that it stays that way." Plus, adds Tu, "It's a lot more intimate than a dance club."
A glimpse at the DJs who are active at the club is proof of the niche the club is filling: Monday is Britpop night, with DJ Two Stroke and DJ Firestarter. Tuesdays, several DJs alternate, Deep Grooves manager Ken Dussold, Don Tinsley and Steve-O among them. John Herrington of the Midwest Avengers and the Freedom Culture Coalition book Thursday's hip-hop night (often with K-Nine and O.B. Juan spinning); Phil Decker and the Bionic crew work Fridays, alternating with Zach Wagner, who spins down-tempo "Ultra Lounge" stuff. Saturdays, the 84 Glide guys spin. The combination covers a lot of ground in this new international DJ culture.
This group of DJs comprises some of the most creative mixers in town. Says Holley, "We're now getting approached by people who want to book national DJs in here. First of all, we don't have the budget for that. And second, there's no reason to bring in talent when there's already lots of it here. We can't even book everybody who wants to play here locally." (RR)
MIND THE GAP: Now that the Gap has moved beyond the famous freeze-frame "Khakis Swing" commercial, the company seems to be trying to fashion a spot for listeners of every conceivable style of music. Here are a few that we can't wait to see:
No Depression khaki
Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute khaki
East Coast vs. West Coast khaki
WIDOWS' PEAK: Half the bands that break up because of "artistic differences" in fact break up because their members can't stand one another, or because the guitarist is shagging more groupies than the lead singer -- unacceptable -- or some equally unartistic reason.
So when bands actually do liquidate because of creative/artistic divergences, we still tend to harbor some doubt about their motivation. St. Louis band Three Merry Widows broke up in 1992 after the release of one record, Which Dreamed It?, but unlike most breakup sob stories, the Widows remained friends and performed on each other's bills afterwards, a great end to a frustrating story.
The simple fact that two bands comprising many of the ex-members of Three Merry Widows are performing on the same bill is ample proof that artistic considerations, and not personalities, caused the Widows' demise, but the paths the musicians have taken since the breakup is more telling.
After performing with the wonderful trad-country band the Geyer Street Sheiks, Widows singer Alice Spencer hightailed it to Austin, Texas, where she formed the Barkers with husband Will Walden. The result of that union is the brand-new Barkers CD Burn Your Piano, which contains Spencer's sparkling voice, both alone and harmonizing with Walden's Texas twang. The two also complement each other on their respective instruments: Will plays guitar, Alice the organ. The result is a swirling stunner. Spencer's voice has never sounded stronger -- hard to fathom, but true -- and the two have constructed rootsy songs with a personality that more than supports it. Last year's Barkers gig at the Duck Room was a blast, loose and free, as the Barkers highlighted the fresh songs that make their way onto Burn Your Piano.
Tinhorn consists of three other members of the Widows -- Sean Garcia, Charles Shipman and Matt Albert. They've been gigging around town since '96, and their music treads closer toward flat-out rock, mixing the ethereal textures of Yo La Tengo with a strong backbone of tension. Stirred in with the guitar, bass and drum is a dose of Farfisa and Mellotron, and unlike most one-trick ponies out there in the rock world, Tinhorn understands dynamics and variety and has discarded the oft-boring aggression in favor of subtler, more confusing emotions. They even mix in a remarkable quasi-surf song, the freaky "Insomnia." Their debut full-length is called Adios-Exactly-Goodbye and will be coming out on the Rooster Lollipop label. Props also to Mike Martin at the Broom Factory for a killer production job -- the CD sounds exquisite -- that makes Tinhorn's strong songs glisten.
The Barkers and Tinhorn celebrate their new releases at the Duck Room on Friday, April 30. (RR)
MADLY DEBUT: Vocalist Jeanne Trevor has been a mainstay on the St. Louis music scene since she first began singing in Gaslight Square nightspots in the '60s. Remarkably, despite her well-deserved reputation as one of the most talented and versatile singers in the area, Trevor has never had the opportunity to showcase her skills on a recording -- until now. Love You Madly, featuring Trevor backed by a fine quartet of musicians (tenor-saxman Willie Akins, pianist Simon Rowe, bassist Willem von Hombracht, drummer Montez Coleman) has just been released on the Catalyst label. Friday, April 30, Trevor and those same musicians will be featured in a CD-release performance at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Love You Madly, recorded in December at Echo Park Studios in Bloomington, Ind., focuses primarily on Trevor's ability as a jazz singer but also underscores her wide-ranging repertoire. She touches on classic jazz numbers such as "Sleeping Bee," "What a Difference a Day Made" and "Work Song," and she even dips into some Brazilian bossa nova sounds on "Anna" (featuring Trevor singing the lyrics in Portuguese). She showcases her ability to rework a standard with a wistful version of "When the World Was Young" and proves she can belt out the blues with a hot rendition of "Early in the Morning." There's even a touch of gospel, thanks to a soulful version of "Give Me Jesus."
"I guess most people think of me as a jazz vocalist, but I like to call myself a modern American singer," Trevor says. "So when I had the opportunity to do this recording, I really wanted to present a varied collection of songs -- ones that would appeal to young, old and in-between listeners."
Trevor is pleased with the quality of her long-overdue debut, and she should be. The sound quality is crisp and clean, and there's clearly a strong rapport between Trevor and the musicians. Trevor sounds as if she's primed for an excellent performance on Friday: "We'll be performing most all of the songs on the CD," she says. "And Willie and the other musicians will have several feature numbers as well. It's going to be fun." (TP)
JUNGLE BOOGIE: You're probably sick of hearing about the 100th anniversary of Duke Ellington's birth, but before you disregard the Duke because he was making big-band music before you were born and you just can't relate, slap yourself, scrape up some money and drop it on one of the greatest jazz records ever made, his Money Jungle.
Recorded in 1962, long after bebop had pushed big band into the oldies bin, the intimate recording proved once and for all that the Duke didn't need an army of musicians to make a statement; all he needed was a piano, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. Money Jungle is a rock-solid tripod of a record, with the performers carrying equal amounts of weight and each providing all his personality and stretching to meet the others in the middle. The record swings when it wants ("Wig Wise" is a little piece of heaven), is soft and supple at moments ("African Flower" is a gentle kiss of a piano composition), and contains the single best version of Ellington's ubiquitous "Caravan" ever put to wax. If you wanna know a good place to start with a jazz collection, or just want proof of the power of Duke, Money Jungle's where it's at. (RR)
Contributors: Daniel Durchholz, Terry Perkins, Randall Roberts