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Radar Station

Grandpa's Ghost baffles New York listeners.


A few months back, nearly out of the blue, NYC weekly the Village Voice featured Pocahontas, Ill., unsung heroes Grandpa's Ghost in its pages, offering a rundown of the band's output and detailing a recent gig in that city, one in which the audience, carrying expectations that the Ghost would be offering their brand of Neil Young/No Depression rawk, wandered away in midset, mostly baffled. Wrote the Voice's Jon Fine: "Weighted by expectations of what a band playing a country bar should sound like, those who split didn't notice one of America's best bands standing in front of them. They weren't aware -- though you could hardly blame them -- of an obscure outfit's evolution from slightly off genre-players to first-rate musical oddballs."

High praise coming from the Voice, even if the publication makes such declarations on a weekly basis and has tagged countless lame-ass bands with similar recognition. Still, the mere fact that a band from Pocahontas got so much space in the New York rag is worthy of mention. That Fine hit the nail on the head is a bonus: Grandpa's Ghost is indeed one of the best rock bands going these days, as the recent release Il Bacio confirms.

Over the course of their four releases, Grandpa's Ghost has shifted from a countryesque version of Dinosaur Jr. to a nearly formless freakshow feedback juggernaut. Maybe it's because they're shut-ins now: Until a few years ago, they often played in St. Louis. But they've only played the city once in the past year-and-a-half, a confusing and disorienting gig at the Side Door in July '99 that probably resembled the stunt they pulled in the Big Apple: lots of feedback, lots of keyboard and noise fiddling and guitarist/vocalist Ben Hanna droning and strumming on his guitar. It was as though the thread that held them to rock structure had finally snapped; what remained seemed to float in a sort of netherworld. At times the gig was insufferable, but, like clockwork, just when you were going to give up on it, the band would lock into some sort of something that made total sense and you were glad for the pain, because it made the pleasure so much nicer.

The band celebrates -- finally -- the release of Il Bacio with a performance at the Way Out Club on Saturday, Oct. 21. Grandpa's Ghost has definitely evolved, and though we have no idea what kind of show the band is going to offer, it'll be worth your time.

Pilgrim's crossing: On Saturday in Detroit, St. Louis resident James Wafer and the legendary gospel harmony group of which he was a member, the Pilgrim Travelers, will be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, joining a virtual who's- who of the genre, including Bessie Smith, James Cleveland, the Fairfield Four, Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Caesar.

Though the Pilgrim Travelers didn't originate in St. Louis -- they started in Houston and then relocated to Los Angeles in the early '50s -- Wafer moved to St. Louis in 1970 and has lived here ever since. He succeeded Lou Rawls as the Travelers' lead vocalist and remained with the group from 1957-70. Modeling themselves after the legendary Soul Stirrers, the Travelers -- along with the Fairfield Four, the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys -- created blissful, heavenly harmonies and developed a style that exerted a profound influence on the rise of doo-wop (which, in turn, influenced everything from the Beatles to Grandmaster Flash).

"What we was known for," says Wafer, "was a "walking rhythm' group -- a lot of close harmony. At that time, we had no (instrumentation). It was all vocal, up until the late '50s. Then we picked up music. We would do a lot of close harmony, and we made our time and our rhythm with our feet and slapped our hips. That was our trademark. As a matter of fact, a lot of times when we made our recordings, they'd put a microphone on the floor so they could pick up that beat we made with our feet."

Although other lead vocalists of the time, including Rawls and Sam Cooke, left their gospel groups in order to cross over into the pop mainstream, Wafer wasn't interested in following that path: "I never considered that, actually. My root was gospel, and I never considered crossing over. A lot of them did -- Sam Cooke, Johnny Taylor, Jackie Davis, they all crossed over. But I never considered it. I guess I was a little too rooted in Christ."

Cruise control: Jessica Butler an albatross? Well, no, never. She's usually more like a peacock up there onstage, so dynamic that often, unwillingly (and, sure, willingly), her voice/saxophone/magnetism diverts attention from nearly everything else.

Now that Butler has left Getaway Car (and the city itself -- she has relocated to Paris, where she's studying) and the band has forged on without her, one thing has become perfectly clear: Although Butler lit up the stage and augmented the band's sound, without her, Getaway Car has finally found its footing.

Seeing Getaway Car sans Butler for the first time, at the Hi-Pointe, we realized that Butler's impressive power had distracted the band from their true intention: creating heavy-duty modern funk and rhythm & blues, music that not only honors the past but acknowledges the present: drum & bass, acid jazz, trip-hop, breakbeat and all things electronic. The music they played with Butler and her saxophone worked, but it never jelled in the way the group's sound has without her. In hindsight, she seems to have been a diversion, a wonderful concession. But it's obvious that the rest of the band had other ideas regarding Getaway Car's potential.

Getaway Car with Butler seemed a case of too many cooks spoiling the soup, and now that she's in France, the band's vision has been clarified. Getaway Car's core -- Donald Williams on bass, Jay Summers on guitar, Dan Gleason on drums and John Parsons on keyboards -- has been augmented with Eric Fritz, who provides scratching and samples. The result is a quintet moving in a single forward-thinking direction. Those of you who dig the idea of a new fusion of funk, electronic dance music, Northern soul, rock and jazz take note: Getaway Car understands.

Marching songs: The weirdest song we've received in the last few weeks is nearly unlistenable. It's the first song on Andrew Patrick's How Are You My Gums Are Bleeding, called "See the World." What a freakshow. In a crackly falsetto, Patrick -- who used to be in punk band ScrewHandy -- recites, "I'm gonna see the world ..." and the listener overflows with hope and joy for him. But then he finishes the line: "... disappoint me." Quickly we're shattered. He then funnels his voice through a big-time distortion pedal (it sounds as if he shoved his mic down into his throat) for a voice solo, and it all works quite well. The rest of Gums Are Bleeding moves from hard-rock numbers to shut-in Syd Barrett wanderings -- Patrick seems in these songs to be at least a little bit unstable -- and the end product is successful because of his desire to experiment. Yeah, there are a load of duds within, but there's some great outsider stuff, too.

The Conformists have released their debut 45, and it confirms that they're so much more than your typical punk band -- rather than relying on standard, long-rotted formats and sentiments, they stretch and wandes. We're not going to discuss "Hatch It," because Paul Friswold captured the song's essence perfectly in these pages a while back. "Black Dahlia," though, is fair game -- and the better of the two cuts. When vocalist Mike Benker mutters, "I'm alone, I'm alone," you can tell he means it, and when he cries, "You don't have to close your eyes when you die," you first wonder what the hell he's talking about and then realize that it doesn't matter, that the thought is scary enough without your trying to decipher it. Tastefully -- if that word belongs in a mention of the Conformists -- produced by Chris Deckard at Penny Studios, the end of the song -- joy of joys! -- is a locked groove, a warbled tone that goes on and on and on and on.

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