"It's the Twang. It's also the Fest." So goes this year's slogan. The twang gang left out one minor detail, though: Twangfest is also the sex.
Like the music Twangfest celebrates -- honky-tonk, rockabilly, bluegrass and gut-check roots rock -- this four-day soire has been as responsible for breaking up homes as it has for bringing lovers together. If you've ever attended one of the June festivals, you've felt the love -- love for the kind of sweaty sets, sweet harmonies, heart-tested songs and abiding soul-to-soul connection that country-influenced music inspires. But maybe it wasn't eros you were feeling after all; maybe it was all just pheromones flooding through the hot licks, the close dancing and the annealing high of musical intimacy. Like some chemical attractions, Twangfest might have fizzled out long ago. The move to nonprofit status, the work of unpaid organizers, the obsession of roots fans and the vitality of the alternative-country genre have kept the festival spiraling on through seven years. Twangfest has even outlasted the Internet discussion group, Postcard2, that sired the very first gathering. Any geek factor has long been wiped out by unfettered passion.
Country music is popular music, and popular music didn't get that way without sex appeal. This year's Twangfest has lusty energy in spades.
Saturday's closer, Scott Miller and the Commonwealth, has been known to send thirtysomething chicks into squealing mania; Thursday's sleeper pick, Joy Lynn White, could melt the coldest heart; and Friday's amazing lineup features the swoon-inducing voices of the Gibson Brothers and Dale Watson. If all that's not enough to tempt you, Twangfest VII also spotlights three of St. Louis' best bands: the soon-to-break-wide-open Nadine, the savvy and snazzy Rockhouse Ramblers and Bob Reuter's roaring acoustic ensemble, Palookaville.
On Saturday afternoon at Frederick's Music Lounge, No Depression contributing editor Barry Mazor will host a free four-hour video show called TwangClips, featuring rare, obscure and essential footage of rockers doing twang and twangers doing rock. There's a bowling tournament on Friday afternoon, record-store performances throughout the week, a Webcast and hotel-room jam sessions till dawn.
The party officially kicks off on Wednesday at the Schlafly Tap Room with Jason Ringenberg, Diesel Island and Dolly Varden leaders Diane Christiansen and Steve Dawson. Get your tickets early; there's no telling how quickly the love will start to swell. Members of the RFT music staff have chosen a few acts to highlight; their recommendations follow. For more details and a complete schedule, see www.twangfest.org. -- Kasten
Thursday, Duck Room, Blueberry Hill, 11 p.m.
In the 1980s, Steve Wynn led the Dream Syndicate (not the Dream Academy, dammit!), the flagship band for the so-called Paisley Underground in Los Angeles. That band's first single, "When You Smile," is a stone classic of feedback-drenched drone, equal parts Velvet Underground and Crazy Horse, and the blistering debut album, Days of Wine and Roses, lived up to the single's promise. The Dream Syndicate's story, though, is all too familiar -- lineup changes, a major-label morass, critical acclaim and no sales. By the time Wynn pulled the plug in 1989, no one really noticed.
Wynn's solo career hasn't attracted much attention, either; he's largely ignored by everyone, from record buyers to big-time critics. But he's crafted a solid body of work on his own, with sporadic moments of brilliance and the late-stage masterpiece Here Come the Miracles in 2001. He's toyed with out-and-out pop, he's done acoustic semifolk albums (1994's Fluorescent, with guest spots by John Wesley Harding and Victoria Williams) that highlight his gift for narrative songs driven by troubled characters on the edge of disaster and he's even recorded with Thalia Zedek and the Boston band Come (1996's Melting in the Dark), giving him more muscle than he'd had since the early-'80s configuration of the Dream Syndicate. But the double album Here Come the Miracles was still an unexpected treasure, maybe his best work since The Days of Wine and Roses, combining the dark story-songs with a landscape of swirling guitars that evoked the desert Southwest better than anything since the Meat Puppets. Add in the pungent garage-rockers "Southern California Line" and "Smash Myself to Bits," and Steve Wynn's back.
A few critics recognized the record (it was ranked 93rd on the Village Voice's "Pazz and Jop" poll), but few people outside the cult of fans he built up twenty years ago actually heard it or saw him on his most recent tour. That's a shame, because Wynn is as terrific a performer as he is a songwriter, and right in front of the stage is the best place to catch the feedback. -- Everett
Bobby Bare Jr.
Thursday, Duck Room, midnight
When a relatively well-informed country-music aficionado sees the name Bobby Bare, two words instantly come to mind: old Nashville. After all, the senior Bare scored a whopping 56 Top 40 country hits back in the Tennessee town's Grand Ole heyday.
But every brilliant innovator has his fair share of sorry imitators. Pretenders to the hayseed throne (e.g., half the population of Branson, Missouri) began co-opting the Nashville sound, albeit within their pathetically sterile parameters. Hence, with the spotlight refracted, Nashville begins to seem more organic, spawning a diverse live-music scene with as much bang as twang. Such is the Nashville of Bobby Bare Jr.'s youth.
"You really can buy an AC/DC record in Nashville," says a sleepy Bare by phone from his Music City abode. "It's not just people walking out of the store with Conway Twitty and Minnie Pearl records. I really did see the Replacements at eighteen in Nashville. It just blows [people's] minds sometimes to think that there's music other than country in Nashville."
Of course, Bare did his fair share of mind-blowing in the '90s with his band, Bare Jr., creating a sort of country-fried slash-and-burn rock, the perfect soundtrack against which you might torch a Rebel flag using the last drop of Jack Daniel's as lighter fluid. By comparison, the junior Bare's latest solo offering, Young Criminals' Starvation League, is slow, traditional, pretty and spare. Its stronger tracks, such as "Stay in Texas," feature clean, reedlike vocal harmonies from Carey Kotsionis that stand in delicious contrast to Bare's unique gravelly drawl.
Twangfest fans can expect the unexpected from Bare when he's in town, but they can count on a relatively faithful cover of the Smiths' "What Difference Does It Make," which makes an appearance as track seven on Starvation League. "[Smiths guitarist] Johnny Marr used a whole lot of Nashville guitar licks over the years, so I think it's fair for Nashville to do a Johnny Marr song," Bare explains.
Hell, Bare even leaves room in the Nashville pantheon for one Lionel Richie. "He stuck so closely to Kenny Rogers," says Bare of the mustachioed chameleon. "He is an Alabama boy. He is as Alabama as Hank Williams." Evidently this ain't your daddy's Old South. -- Seely
Saturday, Duck Room, 11 p.m.
What's most remarkable about Tim Easton isn't his cache of hummable melodies, smart line upon smart line or delicate, inventive arrangements. It's the overall sense of fulfillment -- of a promise, the one he threw down on his previous, and very fine, albums Special 20 and The Truth About Us. Raised in Akron, Ohio, Easton is more than just another nicotine-and-tar-voiced singer/songwriter. What sends him ahead of the scruffy pack is his imagination, as restless as it is true to the craft of songwriting.
"I've seen your imagination miles above the halfway station/Always working, always making something for the pile/Then you set it all on fire." So begins the beginning of Break Your Mother's Heart, his latest record on New West. If more than a few of his alternative-country peers seem convinced that the key to success is trading in acoustic guitars for Moogs or Marshalls, Easton seems to know that there's no substitute for a true song, and all the loud and gaudy dressing of samplers and hipster studios won't redeem a phony rhyme. "Saving some mystery for a gold-shackled bed," he sings on the stripped and scarred closer, "True Ways." "Love would last forever if we'd only stayed interested." He sounds as if the killing truth he's found might render all else irrelevant -- even the pulsing wound he might be confusing with love. "Throwing sympathy wrapped tight with malice/We're so damaged our kisses turn careless." Sound Dylanesque? Indeed, but Easton is one of the few young songwriters today who genuinely merit the comparison.
Easton's last appearance in St. Louis found him opening for the Jayhawks at Mississippi Nights. With just a guitar and harmonica, he owned the stage and won over a skeptical crowd. No surprise, really, because he cut his teeth busking in Europe and plays his flat-top guitar with a driving, lyrical clarity. If you want to hear just how far a good song can go -- and with a band, his songs will only travel further -- make sure you're at the Duck Room for Easton's set. -- Kasten