Making sense out of this sprawling, liberating four-day music binge isn't easy. It's a nonprofit event, but the bands all get paid. It's run by volunteers, but they seem to know what they're doing. It's a celebration of American roots music, but purists never attend. Good thing. Otherwise, a pick-up cover band called the Bowling Stones wouldn't be playing the Friday afternoon tournament at Saratoga Lanes, and Twangfest wouldn't be the funnest, friendliest music party our city has ever known. This brief guide won't tell you everything you need to know, but it will show you the ropes.
Twangclips: Barry Mazor, a senior editor at No Depression magazine, seems to own evidence of virtually every time a musician has performed in front of a camera. If he doesn't own it, he's probably heard of it and is on his way to tracking it down. One of the absolute highlights of each Twangfest in recent years has been Mazor's assemblage of extraordinarily rare footage of performances by titans of country, rock, blues, gospel and a few other surprises. Hank Williams may not play at Twangfest, especially now that he's been dead some 52 years, but he just might emerge from Mazor's magic lantern. Don't miss this free screening at 1 p.m. Saturday at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood.
Dancing: Here's a news flash: People in St. Louis don't dance. Like most reports, that's a half-truth, barely even applicable to the indie-rock hipsters who seem to get all the press. Twangfest may be one of the more friendly, free-wheeling music events in the nation, but the festival has no time for shoe-gazers. Neither do Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, LA-based swing-cum-rockabilly-cum-honky-tonk musicians who used to make St. Louis a regular touring destination but have been missing in action of late. Friday night Sandy and the Boys are back, and they're joined at the Duck Room by hard country crooner Moot Davis (featuring the illustrious Pete Anderson on guitar) and the bluegrassy folk-rock of Nora O'Connor. Count on enough spinning and two-stepping to send Beatle Bob scurrying for the early bus home.
The Supersuckers: Is this the world's best country-rock band or the best Satanic speed-metal band? With two sets on Thursday, Eddie Spaghetti and his Seattle biker ensemble stand a chance at being both. They'll cover Don Gibson, Lionel Ritchie and OutKast, swagger and sneer and grin like playground bullies, and play louder than God at the Hollywood Bowl. Admire the gallery of tattoos on 'Suckers' hardcore fans, and stand back when the thrashing begins.
The Bottle Rockets: In the past year, three men have held down the bass position for the Bottle Rockets. The latest, Keith Voegele, is also a member of St. Louis' Phonocaptors, and he'll be making his debut performance with these shape-shifting, roots-rocking masters when the Bottle Rockets take the penultimate spot at the Pageant Saturday night. The constants, of course, are the perceptive songwriting by everybody in the band, the rock-solid rhythms of drummer Mark Ortmann and the guitar blasts of Brian Henneman. When John Horton joined on second guitar last year, the Rockets only got better.
In-store performances: You can get sneak previews of some Twangfest acts for free at Euclid Records and Vintage Vinyl. The Meat Purveyors -- one of the most entertaining outfits in the U.S. -- bring twanged-up versions of disparate cover material (Fleetwood Mac, Bill Monroe, Ratt) and catchy originals to Euclid Records at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Nora O'Connor, who put on a gosh-darn-it-you-shoulda-been-there display of energy, vivacity and musicality at Off Broadway a couple months back, plays at Vintage Vinyl at 6 p.m. Friday.
Rough Shop: Don't let the relative newness of this St. Louis band fool you: These guys are grizzled veterans of the St. Louis scene, with members hailing from One Fell Swoop and Nadine, among other groups. More important, they have assembled just about the finest selection of original material (and the occasional unusual cover song) that you can hear in this town. Three top-flight vocalists and multiple stringed instrumentalists, a dynamic and creative keyboard player, and a powerhouse rhythm section make Rough Shop a true Twangfest sleeper pick.
Undertow Records Party: Look at the roster of this label and scratch your head. Jay Bennett, Dolly Varden, South San Gabriel, the Red Walls: Is this really a St. Louis based record label? It is, and some of the strongest acts from its roster will be playing a free, all-ages show at the Bottleworks on Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Adam Reichmann (formerly of Nadine), Waterloo, Steve Dawson (of Dolly Varden), Glossary and a special appearance by Diesel Island compete with Twangclips, but you can easily shuffle back and forth between events.
Neko Case: She's only the hottest, cockiest, most overpowering singer to ever appear at Twangfest. So fear her, perhaps, but don't hate her for her talent. Those who know only Case's New Pornographer indie-rock persona are missing a devastating country stylist, a voice that's timeless just because it makes time disappear. Her solo studio work has never fully captured that force, but last year's live album, The Tigers Have Spoken, with its far-ranging, smart and obscure covers, comes as close to the true Neko as this Saturday night finale surely will.
Sleep: This is something we recommend you do a lot of before Twangfest starts, as downtime is scarce. Doctors recommend an average of eight hours per night, of course, but you'll want to cut down to less than four on the festival days, so you need to charge your batteries beforehand. After-hours pool diving at the Twangfest Hotel (location and details readily available from a tipsy, off-duty volunteer) isn't recommended, but come Saturday, it might be just the wake-up trick you'll need.