Twangfest 13; June 10-13, 2009; The Pageant and the Blueberry Hill Duck Room
When I first started going to Twangfest, somewhere around number eight, there were always a few bands that I was really excited about, a few that I wanted to see and a few I hadn’t heard of but usually turned out to be OK. We missed year 12 because Bill our fearless leader had just started a new job, but honestly after number 11 it wasn’t that hard to talk me out of it. There were certainly some good sets (Graham Parker, the High Strung), but for the first time there were bands I actively hated (I hope to never be in the same room with Wussy again). This year’s line-up had a few names I wouldn’t mind seeing, but other than Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles, who I had just seen, there wasn’t anybody I was truly excited about.
So I am glad to report that the most pleasant surprise was St Louis band Theodore. An atmospheric and heady band, they enchanted me from their first note. While some thought their slow motion songs were sleepy, I found them endlessly interesting, like the Great Lake Swimmers with more instruments. Lead singer/guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuelster and their ridiculously good-looking (though not in a typical musician way) drummer stayed put while the other two members rotated around them, picking up trombone, trumpet, upright bass, accordion and harmonica seemingly randomly. It was good start to the last and easily best night of Twangfest. A night which also included the sexy but generic Stones-style rock of the Deep Vibration, an enthusiastic set from Daddy and a far less boring than usual Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit.
I had missed the first night, but it sounded like I didn’t miss much, the large and remarkable Pageant, much larger than the Duck Room, has never been my favorite venue and I have seen Alejandro many, many times. The highlight of the second night was probably Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. Frequent visitors to Madison, Big Sandy and the boys never fail to induce toe-tapping and hip-shaking from the audience. The only problem tonight was that one of the Fly-Rite boys, lead guitar player Ashley Kingman, had made a wrong turn somewhere and wasn’t there to start the set.
A surprisingly nervous Big Sandy attempted a few solo songs before he was rescued by Eilen Jewel’s guitar player Jerry Miller who sat in a few songs before Kingman arrived. Gray-haired and grizzled, Miller looked out of place with the young Jewel and her band, though he was probably the most talented member, but he seemed right at home with Sandy. By the end of the set and several shots of tequila, Sandy was his old self, infinitely charming and definitely entertaining, In between Jewel and Big Sandy was Bruce Robison, a Texas songwriter perhaps better known for being married to Kelly Willis and writing songs for the Dixie Chicks than for his own music. Seeing the extremely handsome (and surprisingly tall) musician playing songs like the tear-jerker “Travelin’ Soldier,” made popular by the Dixie Chicks, and “Wrapped,” which Willis covered, made me feel like I was in on a little-known secret.
Night three’s highlight was of course the Borgeses who charmed the Twangfest crowd right out of their socks. Sarah’s high kicks, good looks and sass are enough to win over most of any crowd, but her talented and enjoyable band left few unconverted by the end of their set. The slightly creepy Andre Williams was saved by his terrific backing band the Goldstars (featuring Dag Juhlin) who took some of the “ew” out of his troublingly lecherous songs. Tonight’s headliner, the Asylum Street Spankers, lost a lot of potential fans by insisting everyone in front of the stage sit down and be quiet to listen to their acoustic music. Twangfesters are basically a bunch of loud drunks who don’t like to be told what to do, and based on the way we all streamed out of there after only a couple songs, I guarantee the Spankers will never be invited back.
As always, the food and the company made for a good time and for once the weather didn’t try to kill us. The wildly fascinating City Museum, Ted Drew’s famous custard, Daddy’s in-store at Euclid Records, and Blackthorn Pub’s delicious pizza were actually more fun than the music.