When the social-networking Web site MySpace.com became a must-have promotional tool for bands, it signaled a sea-change in terms of musicians operating independent of the music industry. Bands could make "friends," post songs, book gigs and possibly even earn a record deal through this seemingly simple interface. Yet while MySpace seems revolutionary, the site is actually an evolution of what musicians and music fans have been doing for more than a decade: sharing a passion for music through the Internet.
The local music festival Twangfest, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, has its roots in the online community Postcard 2, a listserv for fans of country-tinged music. This genre could broadly be called Americana, though you may know it by other names: alt-country, roots-rock or insurgent country. Members of the listserv wanted an excuse to meet one another in person and celebrate the music they all loved; St. Louis was an ideal location, owing to the city's centrality and how accessible it was for most of Postcard 2's online community.
"All but one of the bands that played Twangfest I had some affiliation with Postcard 2 either a band member, or a manager who was a member of the list," remembers Amy Silvers, a member of the Twangfest board of directors (better known as the Twang Gang). "There was actually some controversy at the time about including a band that wasn't directly affiliated, out of fear that it would dilute the essence of what Twangfest was intended to be." That band was the Waco Brothers, who ended up headlining the first Twangfest and became a successful act on the alt-country label Bloodshot Records.
Transmitters vocalist-guitarist Kip Loui helped book the inaugural 'fest at Off Broadway in 1997 (and played that year as a member of Belle Star). He recalls the excitement and uncertainty of the first Twangfest. "At the time, of course, we had no idea we were founding a music festival," he says. "We were just a bunch of knucklehead musicians throwing ourselves a hootenanny in a bar. But when the smoke cleared from the Waco Brothers' set that first year and the party was over, people immediately starting asking, 'Well are we gonna do this again?'"
The answer was a resounding yes. After the success of the first Twangfest, the event grew from an informal gathering to a bona-fide regional event. It outgrew Off Broadway in 2001 and is now held over several nights at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room a nice bit of serendipity, seeing as how it's the location of the old Cicero's and a room where Uncle Tupelo played many formative shows. St. Louis, with its dubious claim as the home of these alt-country catalysts, may have been the perfect place to host the event after all. Longtime board member and festival co- booker Marie Arsenault says as much: "If it was in another city, it may not have lasted this long, since this is the birthplace of alt-country."
But other factors have contributed to Twangfest's longevity. The festival was incorporated as not-for-profit after the second year; all members of the Twang Gang work as volunteers. This is a crucial aspect of the event for Kip Loui. "No one makes a dime of personal profit off Twangfest, and that's a point of pride for me," he says. "So many commercial music festivals seemed designed to line the pockets of their creators, but that's not what we're about. The people who organize this thing do it for the love of the music and the sense of community you find at Twangfest. We've been successful despite the music industry, not because of it."
And as Twangfest has matured over the years, its directors have tried to broaden the scope and appeal of the festival. In booking acts for the past few years, the Twang Gang has begun moving away from strictly country-oriented acts to include more expressly pop, rock and garage acts. Former Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn played at Twangfest 7 in 2003, and his power-pop performance marked a move away from strictly Telecaster-and-flannel acts. And this year, Detroit's garage-minded the Dirtbombs will make their St. Louis debut as the headliner for Thursday night's show.
Still, it's hard for concertgoers and booking agents to get past the "twang" in Twangfest and the directors are keenly aware of this.
"Nobody likes the name. We were going to change it a few years ago, and we chickened out," Arsenault admits. "People are getting used to the idea that we book all kinds of music, but sometimes it's hard to get an agent or band to listen to you because they don't fit into the twangy, honky-tonk style."
The Twang Gang scored a major coup for last year's event by booking golden-throated powerhouse Neko Case for a show with the Bottle Rockets and the Drams at the Pageant. Many fans were expecting a Pageant-size gig for each subsequent year, with a marquee name like Jay Farrar, Gillian Welch or Lucinda Williams to close the weekend. But with budget concerns and artists' busy summer tour schedules, this is easier said than done.
"Our thought was we'd only go to the Pageant if we had a band big enough to fill there," Arsenault explains. "We tried to get some Pageant-worthy headliners, and it didn't work out." (Plus, it would seem that most Twangfest-goers would rather be in confined communion in the sweaty Duck Room than spread out in the cool, cavernous Pageant.)
Twangfest has made it to the ten-year mark by stretching the definition of alt-country and by staying true to its core mission: playing loud, live music for fans of loud, live music. Kip Loui says that the various tensions in planning a concert by committee, with conflicting opinions and strained schedules, hasn't always made creating each Twangfest an easy task, "but here it is, the tenth anniversary of this thing. We're either dedicated or stupidly stubborn. Probably both."
So where will Twangfest end up over the next decade? Will it host the long-fabled Uncle Tupelo reunion? Probably not, but Amy Silvers gives a succinct and admirable mission statement. "We'd like to continue down the path we've carved out over the last ten years, bringing people four nights of great music and mixing the familiar with the unknown."
Twangfest runs Wednesday through Saturday, June 7 through 10. All of the shows are held at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room (6504 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-727-4444), except for Wednesday's show, which is at the Schlafly Tap Room (2100 Locust Street; 314-241-2337). Tickets are $10 for Wednesday (available at the door only) and $18 for each Blueberry Hill show. The music starts at 8 p.m. each night. Visit www.twangfest.com or www.blueberryhill.com for more information.
Wednesday, June 7
8 p.m.: Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings
9 p.m.: The Avett Brothers
10 p.m.: The Yayhoos. While the members of the Yayhoos have a collectively impressive résumé i.e., Eric Roscoe Ambel co-founded Joan Jett's Blackhearts, and Dan Baird found fame with the Georgia Satellites together they craft some of the best bluesy, woozy roots-rock this side of the Black Crowes (or the Rolling Stones, in their heyday). The bar-band good times continue on June 20, when the quartet releases a new album, Put the Hammer Down. Annie Zaleski
Thursday, June 8
8 p.m.: The Transmitters
9 p.m.: Glossary
10 p.m.: The Deadstring Brothers
11 p.m.: The Dirtbombs. Somehow the hard-playing, hard-touring Dirtbombs have never visited St. Louis until this week, which is reason enough to check them out. With two drummers, two guitarists and one fuzzed-out bass, this Detroit band makes a glorious noise be it scattershot garage, slowed-down soul or the occasional Bee Gees cover. This un-twangy band may, somewhat ironically, be the best one on the Twangfest bill. Christian Schaeffer
Friday, June 9
8 p.m.: The Sovines (reunion)
9 p.m.: Kevin Gordon
10 p.m.: The Bottle Rockets. The Bottle Rockets will celebrate their third appearance at Twangfest with a record-release show for their latest CD, Zoysia. With its ever-changing lineup finally stabilized, the band headed to Memphis to record in the legendary Ardent Studios, where ZZ Top and Big Star recorded their best records. The mix of guitar grit and bright pop must have rubbed off on the BoRox, as Zoysia finds the band heading more toward straight rock & roll while maintaining their alt-country roots. (CS)
Saturday, June 10
8 p.m.: Mic Harrison
9 p.m.: Lucero. Vocalist Ben Nichols has a growl beyond his years, one that seems cured in a mix of cheap whiskey and handfuls of gravel. The band backs him up with ringing guitars and a mighty rhythm section, leaving the impression of a band that is worthy of your attention but never begging for it. There are a lot of established names on this year's bill, but Lucero should be one of the leading lights for the next ten years. (CS)
10 p.m.: Scott Miller and the Commonwealth
11 p.m.: BR549