Notes From Middle America is contributor By Danny R. Phillips monthly column. You can read past installments here.
St. Joseph, Missouri. Good God, there just doesn’t seem to be much worthwhile in this poor, forgotten north-central Missouri river town. Our town (eighth largest in the state) began life as a trading post, the Black Snake Trade Post to be exact, by the trapper and trader extraordinaire Joseph Robidoux.
Since its founding in the late 1800s, St. Joe has grown to be both famous and infamous, joyfully remembered and sadly forgotten. She has been a hometown for the famous: Walter Cronkite, soap opera legend Ruth Warrick, The Pony Express, Aunt Jemima, Goetz Beer, Seitz Hot Dogs and jazz great Coleman Hawkins. It has also been a place of famous final breaths, most notably that of legendary Old West outlaw Jesse James.
But I digress. This is a column about music, not a history lesson, so perhaps I should step away from the blackboard, turn off my overhead projector and get down to discussing the music that is rising up from Old Man Robidoux’s bosom.
St. Joe does not stand prominently on the musical landscape; besides the late great Mr. Hawkins, the only other musicians of note are Steve Walsh and Jeff Lux of 70s rock(?) band Kansas. Fucking Kansas? Holy Moses, the prospects of this being a decent article are slipping away. The interesting facts are falling through my fingers like sand.
But wait, there are the new ones, the young pups, the voices with giant amps playing the local bars every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, the saving grace of St. Joe’s music scene. If there is anything you can say about the “scene” here, it's that it is at the very least diverse. We have jam bands, noise punks, ska types, country acts, metal, Christian, screamo, cover bands out the wazoo, rap, alterna-rockers, neo-country, etc.
Now, I’m not saying that all the bands are good; far from it, and in reality, no city's scene is 100 percent good bands. But we won’t let a few bad apples spoil the bunch, will we? There are many bands in St. Joe that fall into the bad/terrible category, but I will not give out their names here for fear of reprisals down the road. Let’s just say for a galaxy this small, the scene has quite a few self-perceived “stars.” There is a very thin line between confidence and a massive ego. Now, let’s get this show on the road, shall we?
The genre of the jam band is not typically music that I listen to or even vaguely enjoy. Phish is a mess of a noodling band that I wish would’ve stayed retired to some hippie’s dreams; though they do have a couple good tunes, The Dead are one of the most overrated bands in all of recorded history. That said, St. Joe is home to The Waystation, a jam band in the traditional sense but not in the truest sense. Sure, they draw from the hippie gene pool (The Allmans, Widespread Panic, The Dead) but they’ve turned their backs on the long, meandering solos in exchange for tight, multi-instrumental quality rock tunes. Think Nick Cave fronting a bastard child of Midnight Oil, Santana and Gang of Four. Todd Long and Co. are breaking new ground for the Bonnaroo set; they’re definitely worth seeing even if you don’t wear tye-dye and live for 20-minute versions of a four-minute song.
The Waystation - "Fox Trot" live at The Studio, Kansas City, Mo.
Next come the noise-punks. There is only one band that falls under this heading that is worth the energy it takes to type this: Holy Mother Exhaust (points for uniqueness of name) unapologetically hump the ghosts of Nirvana, The Pixies and Fugazi to create a racket that is unlike anything this frontier town has ever seen. Containing members of two area bands, Alice and The Rogers, Bobby Floyd, Marc Darnell and Keith Jensen have a manic energy that project HME bigger than a trio. In due time, the crash they make together should and will get them noticed outside of the great Midwest.
[Holy Mother Exhaust]
Holy Mother Exhaust - Live at The Rendezvous
There are many bands here in St. Joe that love the sound of my early nineties college days but I am keeping the list to a mere three.
The Rogers. They are the top dogs when it comes to Alterna-rock here. The Rogers blend originality with the sacred sounds of Television, Smashing Pumpkins, The Talking Heads and The Breeders to forge a music that is completely their own. As the band plays expertly written originals, front man Marc Darnell works the stage like David Byrne having a Grand Maul Seizure. Their live shows are wildly entertaining and bring out the sometime lazy St. Joe populous in droves when the band sees fit to come out of their self-imposed hiding. Craziness for all.
The Belt Highway. Named for the main thoroughfare through St. Joe, this band is made up of Peter Shapiro, Luis Farias, Bryan Corbin and Kyle Lohman (Kyle is a hold over from Peter’s band from The Great Northern). The Belt Highway’s music borrows from every single band that came blasting from my dorm room’s Frankenstein stereo set up back in the 90s. The Belt Highway give me basically the same feeling that my favorite old concert T-shirt does: warmth, familiarity, good memories and the wish that I could hear the music again.
[The Belt Highway]
Pompous Pilot. An orgy of sound that falls between the cracks in the Earth left by The Stone Roses, Hum and Uncle Tupelo. This three-piece make a noise that is blistering as well as melodic. A ungodly noise that, for once, is pleasing and complete. Live, they will most likely blow out their amps and your eardrums while sending you home happy that you now have tinnitus.
Now that I’ve gotten all of that out of the way, I’m going to lump country, balladry and singer-songwriter all in one group.
Bigg Hans. A longtime poet (known to his mother as Hans Bremer) has turned troubadour. He's said, “I tell people that I learned to write a song from William Butler Yeats and write poetry from Neil Young.” Hans’ songs call back the old train songs, the hard-luck Depression era rags, bluegrass roots and classic country. It all comes together well, with every original and cover tune on his album, The Ballad of Ned Hurt, ringing truer than ever in these uncertain times.
Eyelit. The young husband and wife team of Austin and Dansare Marks create a calming tone that brings peace even to my soul. The ease at which Austin plays the most complicated chords is astounding -- he sites influences such as James Taylor, Coldplay and Dave Matthews, and they all show. To be wholly honest though, the true show in Eyelit is Dansare’s voice. The last time I heard a voice this hauntingly beautiful in person was during Sinead O’Connor’s set at Lollapalooza’s Kansas City stop in 1995. Dansare’s vocal ability is otherworldly; it has a grace, control, a peace and power that very few vocalists will ever master, let alone at just 20 years old.
Steel Wool Mill. This band takes the old-timey sound made popular by Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie and the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? movie soundtrack and give it a twist. They update the “mountain music” while keeping it true to the roots. It's a bare-bones sound that is relaxing and exceptional.
[Steel Wool Mill]
Now, I’ll finish this installment of Notes From Middle America with a couple of St. Joe’s finest cover bands.
First, The Ramey Memo. This band is fuckin’ hilarious. To be fair, Tyson Bottoroff, Raye Lynn and Garner are not technically a true cover band. Though they do play a lot of covers (their interpretations of Nirvana’s “Love Buzz” and Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” are two of the best covers I’ve ever heard), they also rely on their own material to make a statement -- though sometimes the statement is more like a punch line. Their 2006 self-released debut, 300 Voices at King Hill Pub, may have not-so-serious subject matter in its original songs ("I Took a Tom Cruise on the Billy Ocean," "Sonic Radiation Dildo Warfare," "Brownies in the Key of Death Metal"), The Ramey Memo are seriously musicians; when it comes down to it, their set is always one of the best on the bill.
The Ramey Memo - "Melt Your Face"
Blue Oyster Culture Club. Sadly, this cover band is probably the biggest draw for live music in the city. They play mostly 1980s music and the crowds eat it up. It’s a sad state of affairs in the music world if the band that pulls the most people away from their TVs is a cover band, albeit a very good one.
So, if you’re ever near St. Joe on a Saturday night with nothing to do, go to one of the bars on Felix Street and check out some live music. You could very likely hear a quality rendition of “Come On Eileen” or some blistering original number you can’t quite get out of your head.
You may hate what you hear with every last fiber of your being, but then again, the exact opposite could happen. Such is music. Not everything is for everyone, but there is something for everyone.
If you happen to be from in or around our fair city, please pay attention to my words: St. Joe could show you how to have a good time, how to appreciate live music again, how to turn off Grey’s Anatomy and get off your God damned couch. Stranger things have happened in this town of ground-breakers, innovators and outlaws.