This was supposed to be the year the recession finally melted away. Yeah, that never happened. An economy both bolstered and hamstrung by the Internet continues its glacial pace, and businesses and organizations everywhere are struggling to prove themselves to customers and fans. The music scene is no exception.
That spirit of "shut up and do something" was particularly strong in the St. Louis music community in 2011. Now more than ever, people will not spend their time or money on stagnant artists, and musicians, venue owners, promoters and organizers found ways to compel people by creativity, enterprise and social traction.
For some artists it was as simple as figuring out how to make a show a unique event. Two of the year's most successful musician residencies were Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra's series at El Leñador and So Many Dynamos' performances at Foam. Both were marked by a clear mission. In silent-film scorer Rats & People's case, it was the need for a new van in order to embark on a December tour. For the Dynamos, the residency provided a chance to test out new material (and a new member) in front of fans before holing up in a practice space and studio to record a long-awaited full-length recording.
Album-release shows are always one-time-only affairs, but some artists found ways to make theirs even more compelling. Bo and the Locomotive — whose sharp, damaged pop evolves with each passing show — and orchestral folk quintet Union Tree Review joined forces and put out their records at a single show where they also sat in on each other's sets. The Masculine Journey hosted its seven-inch release on the roof of the City Museum, where bassist Travis Morgan set a world record for "Longest Time Spent on a Ferris Wheel." It doesn't take much to stand out.
In south city a group with little more in common than a sense of camaraderie formed Tower Groove Records. Its kickoff event was a carnival at Off Broadway complete with handmade games, prizes, food and a full day of music that ranged from quietly strummed guitar to torrents of violent noise. It raised more than enough to fund TG's next effort: a compilation on vinyl comprising new recordings from all the Tower Groove bands. Longer-tenured collections of musicians found renewed vigor. The Force, for example, embarked on its first tour amid a steady output of new releases from nearly every artist on its roster.
The central challenge for every active participant in a music community is finding ways to make people care. There was no shortage of enterprising solutions found this year in St. Louis, and many of them are detailed in the pages that follow: Ryan Wasoba looks at how high-quality recordings of all sorts are changing the pejorative connotation of "sounding local." Christian Schaeffer takes note of this year's assortment of successful tribute shows and asks how they differ from the work of cover bands and what value they add for musicians and fans. And Diana Benanti traces the roots of St. Louis' status as an emerging hub for electronic dance music.
Despite the great forward momentum in St. Louis music this year, some things came to an end. STL Home Jamz, the local hip-hop showcase, was unceremoniously yanked from the airwaves on the eve of its five-year anniversary. Mike Benker left local punk mainstay the Conformists after fifteen years, and fans took the opportunity of two farewell shows to express their appreciation for his work. Glass Teeth played its final show in July, and whiz producer Phaseone moved to Brooklyn. Theodore, a singular band of weary grace and explosive muscle, quietly fell apart in November.
Challenges faced by several DIY spaces were felt most clearly in the closing of Cranky Yellow, the curio shop on Cherokee Street whose basement hosted some of the year's most memorable local shows.
Still, though, it is a particularly good time to be a music fan here. An unprecedented array of venues, including the lavishly remodeled Peabody Opera House, are working aggressively to bring big names, fast risers and high-quality veterans to Mound City. LouFest, in its second year, featured a more diverse lineup and expanded size without losing its environmental and local focus. The reunion of '90s ska-punk hero the Urge was marked by a string of sold-out shows at the Pageant. Artists such as Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three, Prince Ea, Rockwell Knuckles and the Humanoids caught or held the attention of audiences around the world and told them to pay attention to St. Louis.
The year in St. Louis music was (and is) made of thousands upon thousands of moments. It is an impossible task to capture them all in any meaningful way, but we made an attempt to find a few points from which you might draw a reasonable outline. In addition to the glimpses offered in the timeline you see here, you can find extensive coverage of all things music in 2011 at rftmusic.com. Here's hoping the next twelve months will be as memorable as the last.
The Year in St. Louis Music Timeline
1: An ordinance takes effect that bans smoking in most bars and clubs.
1: Chuck Berry collapses at his piano at a show in Chicago, and has since resumed his monthly sold-out appearances at Blueberry Hill.
13: Punk band the Haddonfields sneaks its band practice cancelation into snow-day announcements on KSDK-TV (Channel 5).
16: The volatile Ms. Lauryn Hill delivers an incredible set at the Pageant.
18 to 20: Crankfest offers a local and regional primer on experimental music.
21: Alton singer-songwriter Chris Mucci dies.
22: The Godfathers plays a St. Louis show for the first time in twenty years.
3: Producer Phaseone throws a farewell show at Sol Lounge before moving to Brooklyn.
8: Everything Went Black guitarist Shagy Kennedy dies after a two-year battle with cancer.
28: Grand Ulena drummer Danny McClain dies.
4: Firebird owner Mike Cracchiolo takes over booking at Cicero's.
15 and 16: The Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival maintains its status as the top event in the area for touring jazz musicians with a performance from the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
16: Record Store Day hits new peaks for attendance and sales at nearly every area store.
21: After a 2004 opening set at the Rocket Bar, Arcade Fire headlines the Scottrade Center.
23: Lightning Bolt plays its first St. Louis show in nearly a decade at a sold-out Luminary Center for the Arts.
6: The Heavy Anchor opens in the former Antarctica space and quickly makes a name for itself with quality local booking.
12: Wayne Coyne delivers novelty Flaming Lips recordings to Vintage Vinyl and spends five-and-a-half hours signing autographs and talking to fans.
15: A small, quickly contained fire breaks out at the Fox Theatre, causing damage to the lobby and a mechanical room on the fourth floor.
4: The RFT Music Showcase, in its second year on Washington Avenue, features an unprecedented 78 St. Louis artists.
16: Camp Zoe founder Jimmy Tebeau is indicted on charges of "maintaining a drug-involved premises." A legal battle is ongoing.
16 to 19: The first St. Louis Arts Project brings music discussions and performances to the Contemporary Art Museum and Regional Arts Commission.
17: Jumpin' Jupiter Supper Club opens in Maplewood.
18: The St. Louis Underground Music Festival (S.L.U.M. Fest) features more than 75 area emcees, DJs, B-boys and graffiti artists.
29: Cranky Yellow hosts its final show, featuring Dead Rider, the Conformists, Skarekrau Radio and Britches, before closing for good nearly two months later.
Local release highlights include new records from Sleepy Kitty, Old Lights and Magic City.
1: Old Rock House gets rid of its surcharge for minors.
1: A Chuck Berry statue is installed in the Loop.
1: Eddie Vedder, in town for a show at the Fox Theatre, joins Elvis Costello onstage for a cover of the Who's "Substitute."
9: We Are Family, a rave reunion party, brings together a scene that dissipated nearly a decade years ago.
15: Jazz singer Mae Wheeler dies.
17: U2 draws over 50,000 fans to its show at Busch Stadium.
27: St. Louis rapper Thi'sl reaches the top of the iTunes hip-hop chart 24 hours after releasing his album Beautiful Monster.
30: Glass Teeth plays its final show at the Heavy Anchor.
30: So Many Dynamos plays its last show with guitarist Griffin Kay before he moves to Boulder, Colorado.
30: R&B artist Theresa Payne wins the Budweiser Superfest Opening Act Contest, netting her $5,000 and an opening set for Jill Scott.
31: STL Home Jamz has its final show on Hot 104.1 FM before being pulled from the air by Radio One, which runs the station.
2: My Morning Jacket kicks off a tour with a sold-out show at the Pageant.
7: St. Louis native and saxophone legend David Sanborn returns for a hometown show with jazz supergroup DMS.
22: Lil' Wayne winds up in the hospital after a skateboarding injury following his show at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.
26: A federal judge orders Bow Wow to pay a St. Louis concert promoter $50,000 after two no-shows in 2009.
27 and 28: The second annual LouFest in Forest Park features headlining sets from TV on the Radio and the Hold Steady.
3: Gillian Welch plays through power outages at the Pageant.
4: Tower Groove Records hosts its debut event: a full-day carnival at Off Broadway.
8: Local blues legend Rondo Leewright dies of cardiac arrest.
9: Glen Campbell plays a final St. Louis show before retiring due to Alzheimer's disease.
10: The Urge reunion kicks off with a set at Pointfest.
11: Jon Hardy fractures two vertebrae in freak accident, causing his band to cancel all remaining 2011 shows.
9 and 10: An Under Cover Weekend celebrates its fifth year at the Firebird.
17: The New Music Circle kicks off its 52nd season.
26: Deerhoof makes its first ever St. Louis appearance at the Luminary Center for the Arts.
1: Collective the Force kicks off its first regional tour with a show at the Gramophone.
1: The newly remodeled Peabody Opera House hosts an opening gala featuring Jay Leno and Aretha Franklin.
3: Metallic hardcore band Everything Went Black signs to Prosthetic Records.
3 to 9: Cicero's publicist Kenny Snarzyk lives in the venue's window for a week to raise money for the Lift for Life music school.
15: Justin Kinkel-Schuster, formerly of Theodore, plays his first and only 2011 St. Louis show with new duo Phantom Limb.
15: Hip-Hoppers Holiday brings a full day honoring the four elements of hip-hop to the Gramophone.
30: The Masculine Journey's bassist Travis Morgan sets a Guinness World Record for "Longest Time Spent on a Ferris Wheel" in conjunction with the band's seven-inch release at the City Museum.
31: Defunct hardcore band Head For the Mountains' T-shirt featuring a zombie Obama with a bullet hole in its head gets the attention of the Secret Service after a Virginia Republican includes the image in a Halloween mailing.
1: Gwar plays at Pop's Nightclub two days before the death of guitarist Cory Smoot.
4: Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin performs an impromptu rewrite of its song "Cardinal Rules" to celebrate the team's recent World Series victory.
12: Experimental artist Eric Hall performs outdoors at the Laumeier Sculpture Park as part of a yearlong artist-in-residence program.
15: Volcanoes signs to Afternoon Records.
18: The Conformists' Mike Benker plays his final St. Louis show with the band at the Schlafly Tap Room.
1: Folk School of St. Louis celebrates its tenth anniversary with a show headlined by Pokey LaFarge and Ryan Spearman at the Sheldon Concert Hall.