Music » Music Stories

Twang Time

The fifth annual Twangfest offers the best in alt-country (whatever that means)

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Twangfest, the four-night Americana music festival held annually in St. Louis, is practically an institution, widely hailed as the best showcase of its kind in the world. Organized entirely by a group of music-nut volunteers who met through the online alt-country newsgroup Postcard2, Twangfest draws true believers from as far away as Norway, Australia and Ireland to our fair burg, where they bowl, picnic, drink prodigious amounts of alcohol, bitch about the humidity and revel in some of the finest roots music the scene has to offer. For five years running, Twangfest has kept things fresh thanks to inspired booking and a no-repeat-performances policy; although the lineups change, there's always an interesting mix of established artists and promising next-big-things, of loyal traditionalists and genre-warping deviants. This year, the festival moves from its former home at Off Broadway to Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, where fans will flock to hear a special acoustic performance by Festus' finest, the Bottle Rockets, as well as sets by former V-roy Scott Miller, singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves and local hard-country favorites the Rockhouse Ramblers. True to its cyberspace origins, all performances are streamed over the Internet in Quicktime, allowing those unlucky souls who can't make it to St. Louis -- or those hapless hometowners who didn't get their act together in time -- to see exactly what they missed. To whet your appetite, RFT writers have chosen a few of T5's highlights, but remember that the series will surely sell out every night: Count on showing up right when the Duck Room's doors open or ordering advance tickets for the whole shebang ( -- Saller

Karen Poston
9 p.m. Friday, June 8
Singer/songwriter Karen Poston isn't widely known outside Austin, Texas (where she's lived since 1994), but that's likely to change soon with her appearance at Twangfest and the release of her first CD, Real Bad, scheduled for July. With a dozen mostly original compositions, ranging from hardcore honky-tonk rave-ups to weepy waltzes, the CD features stellar trad arrangements -- generous helpings of pedal steel, Poston's sprightly rhythm guitar, an occasional accordion or mandolin -- and harmony vocals from such alt-country luminaries as Kelly Willis and Slaid Cleaves. Poston's songs are sharply observed and often funny, with wistful references to steel guitars in Longhorn bars ("away from bald guys with ponytails"), perilous road trips and bittersweet conversations with ex-lovers ("I could loan some lonesome to you/If you're wondering who or what to cling to"). Vocally, Poston resembles a cross between Connie Smith and Merle Haggard; as a lyricist, she's one part Lucinda Williams, one part Buck Owens. Of course, when a critic strains to make such elaborate comparisons, you know you've got a true original on your hands. Find out for yourself on Friday night, when she brings the house down. -- Saller

Charlie Chesterman and the Legendary Motorbikes
10 p.m. Friday, June 8
There shouldn't be anything memorable or wonderful about another roots-rock band grounded in two guitars, bass, drums and a strict diet of Buddy Holly, Mersey Beat and Buck Owens. And there wouldn't be, without the bottomless talent of a singer and songwriter like ex-Scruffy the Cat leader Charlie Chesterman. It's rather easy now to take Scruffy's Everly Brothers-meet-the-Ramones sound for granted, but 15 years ago, only a few other cult bands -- Green on Red, the Long Ryders, the Blasters -- were fusing country, R&B and loud, hooked-up rock as well as Scruffy. Throughout the '80s, the band saturated the Beantown club circuit with epigrammatic, surreal tunes about small animals living underground and a galaxy of kisses, and banged banjos and accordions while peers such as the Lemonheads and Buffalo Tom were just banging guitars.

With the demise of Scruffy, Chesterman formed the short-lived Harmony Rockets and then his current band, the Motorbikes (featuring guitar genius Andy Pastore). Chesterman has delved deeper into American roots music and dropped the jokes, though you wouldn't know it from the corny title and artwork of his latest release. But Ham Radio has all the intangible essentials of vintage rock & roll without the nostalgic trappings: dreamy melodies, unpretentious lyrics, loud-but-twangy guitars and a generous, feckless spirit. It's been more than a decade since Chesterman has played St. Louis; his return may just be Twangfest's most exciting sleeper of all. -- Kasten

Blood Oranges
Midnight Friday, June 8
Had there been a Twangfest in 1990, the Blood Oranges wouldn't have been the obvious choice to headline it. At the time, they were regarded as a rock band that just happened to have a mandolin player and just happened to have a handful of traditional folk songs in their repertoire. The Blood Oranges' reunion became plausible in 1998, after the critical success of bassist Cheri Knight's solo album, The Northeast Kingdom, which reminded critics about her old band with Jimmy Ryan and Mark Spencer. On Corn River, in 1990, the Blood Oranges sounded like an American Fairport Convention, drawing from the traditional mountain music of the East Coast to create a rock & roll of grace and dark mystery. Rumbling Stratocasters vied with delicately plucked mandolins over a rock-solid rhythm section that lagged just behind the beat. Ryan sang tales of accepting one's fate as Knight's alto shadowed him.

The second album sold fewer copies than the first, the Blood Oranges broke up and their record company went out of business. This reunion is on a small scale, with only a handful of shows scheduled. Twangfest should be the perfect opportunity for the Blood Oranges to get the reverence they deserved 11 years ago. -- Pick

Elizabeth Cook
9 p.m. Saturday, June 9
Don't you just hate musical prodigies? Born in rural Florida, singer/songwriter Elizabeth Cook had begun performing in her parents' band by the time she was 4 years old, formed her own group by age 9 and released three singles by the time she was 11. After graduating from college, Cook moved to Nashville, where she soon landed a publishing deal, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry (a whopping 26 times!) and got signed by Atlantic, which will release her first CD later this year.

Whether she'll be a huge star this time next year or just another major-label casualty is uncertain, but Cook's talent speaks for itself. Sounding a bit like Tammy Wynette, a bit like St. Louis sweetheart Alice Spencer, Cook sings traditional hard-country songs -- no hyphens, no "alt," no apologies -- that would surely overtake the airwaves if contemporary country radio didn't suck so hard. A gifted songwriter, Cook manages to work within established idioms without sounding derivative or retro. Her best songs, such as "Demon," strike just the right balance of torch and twang; when her sturdy, vibrato-rich alto leaps into an ardent falsetto at the line "makes me feel dirty to have a demon in bed with me," you'll get goosebumps, promise. -- Saller

Ass Ponys
11 p.m. Saturday, June 9
Although the Ass Ponys are the only band ever to play Twangfest and to have had a big hit on The Point, they're neither as mainstream alternative-rock as the radio hit might imply nor as rooted in country or other forms of Americana as a Twangfest appearance would suggest. "Little Bastard" was a novelty, the brightest, bounciest, most sing-alongable song the Ass Ponys have done. (After extensive research into the RFT archives, we're fairly confident that it's also the most popular record ever made about childhood incontinence.) "Little Bastard" appeared on the band's first major-label recording, Electric Rock Music, in 1994. That album did indeed contain some elements of twang, mostly courtesy of John Erhardt, a bluegrass veteran who played guitar, slide and pedal steel. He left before the next record and was replaced by Bill Alletzhauser, a terrific guitarist with no discernible background in country music. If there's any twang to be had these days, it comes by way of vocalist/lyricist Chuck Cleaver, who works within a twisted and modernized folk-music tradition, writing songs about devil worshipers (who can't spell), grandmothers, john boats (loaded with rotting fish) and the many ways in which fate plays tricks on people. The Twangfest organizers should be commended for stretching their musical definitions far enough to include this intoxicating, uncategorizable band. -- Pick

Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics
Midnight Saturday, June 9
Although you might be tempted to hold a history of yukkety-yukking against him, Deke Dickerson isn't just the real deal -- he rewrites the whole rockabilly contract. Raised on a farm in Columbia, Mo., Dickerson first formed the garage-a-billy band the Untamed Youth and then split for California, where he formed the Dave and Deke Combo, the best West Coast hillbilly outfit since the Collins Kids. With his 1959 Mosrite double-neck guitar, he learned every turnaround, bend and break known to Joe Maphis and Merle Travis, then added his share of original head-spinning licks. As a songwriter, Dickerson rarely strayed from the poignancy of "Chrome Dome" and "Henpecked Peckerwood," but after filling his first post-Dave and Deke albums with such songs as "Lady Killin' Papa," "Poon-tang" and "You're My Cadillac," Dickerson has taken a darker, deeper look at traditional country and rockabilly, which almost always means laying bare the blues. On last year's Rhythm, Rhyme & Truth, Dickerson finally made an album as thoroughly convincing as his talent has always been. He moves stealthily through piano boogie-woogies, Sun rockabilly, Western swing, honky-tonk ballads and even some joyous doo-wop, but he never finagles the country soul. After four full nights of Twangfestivities, Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics should be the ideal finale. -- Kasten

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