We are this beat
Louisville music’s finest events and people, 1990-2010*
Yes, Brian McMahan, there was a crystal ball. Inside it? Thousands who revere these post-rock pioneers. In August 1990, drummer Britt Walford, McMahan, bassist Todd Brashear and David Pajo began work on their second album, Spiderland. Producer Brian Paulson captured greatness at Chicago’s River North Records, cementing the quartet’s legacy and further strengthening Midwestern tendons that connected the two scenes. Compositionally, Slint dished out subtlety (“Breadcrumb Trail”), crunchy suspense (“Nosferatu Man”) and ferocious payoffs (“Washer,” “Good Morning, Captain”). In the years that followed, album and band took on a prophetic aura, inspiring latter-day saints like Rodan, Rachel’s and Shipping News as worldwide critical acclaim pooled. In 2005, the reunion fans longed for (sans Brashear, who used royalties to open Wild & Woolly Video) finally happened, and it couldn’t be more perfect: a sold-out Brown Theater show, complete with heckling, while McMahan, knowing his audience all too well, lovingly dished it right back: “Don’t wear yourselves out.” No danger of that.
Twenty years ago, Tim Krekel was already through with multiple stabs at the national limelight. That includes both of his stints playing alongside Jimmy Buffett (they look great together on “Saturday Night Live,” working around Buffett’s broken leg) and a debut album that didn’t get much attention because the once-mighty Capricorn label was folding. In his last two decades, Krekel always had something going on. But it wasn’t always a big project — unless you look at how he related to the music scene in our region, in which case it was “all” one big project.
The list of those he mentored or befriended is long, and his musical knowledge was exceeded only by his grace, suffused with energy and grit. A rock ’n’ roll natural blessed with the best of pop instincts, Krekel wrote songs that were often picked up and recorded by country artists, and so he might be called to Nashville or further away — but then he’d return to his hometown and instantly revert to his unassuming ways. He led the Groovebillys and Tim Krekel Orchestra, and you missed out if you didn’t see him onstage (see the DVD “Live Music”). Upon his death last June, his wake evolved into a New Orleans-style street parade to be remembered for years.
Looks fade but charm hasn’t for the former Blue Angels. This year, Louisville’s “boy” band commemorated 50 years with a new biography and celebratory show at the Vernon. In the ’60s, high school tri-state proms booked them religiously, and they went on to share stages with Jay & the Americans, the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell and Bo Diddley. “For us, it really is our fans, period,” says current member Leon Middleton. “We all enjoy doing what we’re doing. I don’t know that there is a next step.”
Playa alone would be enough to put Static on the list. Their Def Jam debut, Cheers 2 U, was an excellent slice of ’90s R&B. Factor in his career as a songwriter — early days ghostwriting and co-producing with Timbaland and Jodeci’s DeVante Swing, Ginuwine’s “Pony,” multiple Aaliyah hits and Li’l Wayne’s “Lollipop” — and he is an undisputed force who enhanced radio playlists worldwide. Static’s untimely death arrived at the height of his influence, to say nothing of his nearly completed solo album, still slated for an undetermined release, and it dealt a serious blow to Louisville hip-hop and its attention nationally. Or did it? A posthumous Grammy for “Lollipop” is Static’s most fitting eulogy, while former Playa comrades Digital Black and Smoke E. Digglera keep his light burning in their solo careers.
To the world, Steve Ferguson was a founder and prime mover of New Rhythm & Blues Quartet’s paradoxical sound. He was also the first to leave the band. Then old friends started calling, and in the ’90s, Ferguson traded solos with Clapton on a Johnnie Johnson album. It quickly dawned on people that Ferguson might be capable of a lot more than hanging around his hometown waiting for another NRBQ reunion show. That’s when Mama U-Seapa arrived, its voodoo talismans highlighting the décor and a funky version of boogie-woogie leading the serpentine charge. Ferguson’s Midwest Creole Ensemble balled their own way, making a live album at Air Devil’s Inn. In 2006, Ferguson’s career came full circle when he and ex-NRBQ bandmate Terry Adams reunited to release a disc under the name Louisville Sluggers. A couple years ago, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the NRBQ family stepped up again, this time playing “Flat-Foot Flewzy” in a tribute concert he was too ill to attend.
To call Kinghorse hardcore is to tie them to that genre’s first wave — The Descendents, Fugazi, Sonic Youth — when strength derived from variety, not ad nauseum octave chords and fashionable skater pants. Metal drummers should study Kevin Brownstein’s herd-on-two-feet intro to “Clayfist,” as well as Sean Garrison’s defiant command, Motherfucker, open this cage!, an example of writhing insanity. The guitar chops of Mark Abromavage might’ve gestated during Malignant Growth in the ’80s, but his tasteful solo on “Lay Down and Die” and punk(ish) figures on “Greatest Gift” demanded respect. Every single hard rock band in town, not to mention 93.1 WTFX, could absorb the ’horse’s self-titled Caroline record. It’s the only way they’ll change their playbook.
Save Quicksand, no post-hardcore group matured faster than Rob Pennington, Duncan Barlow, Chad Castetter and the bassists and drummers that came and left Endpoint. If The Spirits Are Willing was an awkward first step, In a Time of Hate honed in on hardcore’s brutality and sing-along catch. Incorrectly branded as straight edge, they ran that stoplight on 1992’s Catharsis, when their subject matter made the EP harder to pin down and impossible to ignore. More than one woman chastised (and applauded) Pennington for his stand against rape (“Days After”); the album featured an acoustic instrumental, and sold-out audiences left in tears. After Taste drove nails deeper into post-hardcore’s coffin as the band adopted more sophisticated dynamics, thanks to drummer Kyle Crabtree and bassist-guitarist Pat McClimans’ less robotic groove. The Last Record remains their best: universal commentaries on the human condition, flashes of country (Jeff Tucker’s slide on “Brown County”), D.C. noise (“Strings”) and an appropriate cover shot of Rob and Duncan hanging carefree in the Grand Canyon, smiling against earth’s wide-open backdrop.
My Morning Jacket
How do we love them? A few of the ways: Whatever you want to call their music now, My Morning Jacket has left behind questions of why their alt-country sounds funny. It’s great to have a Louisville act be not only a recognized creative powerhouse, but also an outfit people all over the world look to with anticipation and thrilling uncertainty. Anyone intimidated by sophomore slumps has got to consider how these guys’ abilities grew exponentially to make a showcase of a second record.
They’ve survived a lineup change significant enough to register on the Richter scale. And it all (eventually) led to Johnny Quaid having a fine follow-up project and joining cousin Jim James in running a new record label that’s got some muscle and an eye for local talent. They’ve become such a source of reliable, high-quality tunes, it appears Pitchfork seeks reviewers who’ll score ’em low.
When Evil Urges came out, they shared the experience with the community many times over. On the debut date of the disc, they weren’t drinking with publicists and industry suits in New York or L.A. Instead, they played at ear X-tacy, then returned two months later with the biggest Waterfront Park concert Louisville’s ever seen. And then they made their next release a live record of performances from both of those shows, and titled it so everyone knew it was a celebration of home.
Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn weren’t the only babies to cash in on “Swingers.” Debuting in Doug Lyman’s ode to rebound relationships and camper sex was Love Jones. Barry Thomas, a music consultant in the film, along with Chris Hawpe, Stuart Johnson, Ben Daughtrey and Jonathan Palmer, effectively launched “cocktail nation” in 1990. Their contemporaries — Squirrel Nut Zippers, Combustible Edison and the overrated Big Bad Voodoo Daddy — had audiences jumping, jiving and wailing for half a decade, but it’s LJ that avoided flash-firing its future: Their closer-to-the-industry move to L.A. proved fruitful if for no other reason than their opening slot for Tool at the Church of Scientology. New album is in progress.
Big Yee Haw! Shannon Lawson grabbed local stages in a way that made you know he was on a ride. Eventually he’d go solo to Nashville and endure creative tussles with the country establishment. But Louisville is where he grew by leaps and bounds along with, and because of, who shared the stage with him. When the Galoots started in ’93, the sound was steeped in bluegrass. It wasn’t nu-grass or any other revivalist style, though, as Lawson could be restlessly intuitive and musically encyclopedic. The range of covers (“Let’s Get It On,” “Whipping Post”) clued you into the quartet’s breadth, as did listening to Mike Schroeder. In subsequent years, he’d serve as concert master of the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra and preside over the Classical Mandolin Society of America. Their self-released discs are out of print, but after an Oaks Eve show with Steve Cooley (banjo) and Larry Raley (bass, vocals), more material is likely.
Not a lot of people go around humming his tunes, but those who do are all around the world. He seems to have an enviable record for getting a personal vision onto disc, and in this halcyon age of indie films, he can count on a flow of producers and directors pulling him into a variety of projects. He’s a character like no other. In fact, he’s a troupe of characters, each eloquent in his own way about being understood, but often that comes with thorniness and honest (and curious) emotions. Many of Oldham’s great, idiosyncratic swipes at story-songs have connections to fables, biblical tales and historical legend, but they typically pass through an Appalachian folk filter and come out something else. Just when you’ve taken his depth for granted, his gruff, oddball humor makes an entrance.
Originally from Western Kentucky, Nappy brought the entire country’s attention to Louisville and the rest of the state with “Awnaw” and “Po’ Folks.” Major labels weren’t looking at Kentucky for hip-hop before Nappy came on the scene. 2003’s Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz was the right sound at the right time: a perfect mix of pure spit ability and deep-fried country swagger. As Outkast boarded their plane to diamond sales, Nappy rode their hay wagon to platinum, earning nominations for two Grammys and two American Music Awards. After their second album on Atlantic, group and label parted company, and Nappy formed its own label. Pursuit of Nappyness arrives in June, followed by the pairing of Skinny DeVille and Fishscales as 40 Akerz.
Louisville rap’s first flirtation with Billboard. Their 1991 song “Godfather” hit No. 9 on the singles’ chart, and “Gangsta Walk” is a classic, spawning two music videos drawn from a massive Louisville Gardens concert. The production is vintage early ’90s, fitting in with early Ice Cube or Geto Boys while remaining fresh. They fell as fast as they rose, their history immortalized on YouTube, where their songs have received thousands of hits. A 2004 Louisville Music News article chronicles their story: the nationwide success of “Godfather,” reaching No. 1 on highly influential KMEL, legal troubles and DJ Bam’s attempted return in the short-lived group Dirty 38.
Oh what J.K. McKnight has made happen over the last few years. The Forecastle Festival keeps growing in spite of revolving venues, the constant threat weather holds over a large outdoor gig featuring artists and electrical cables, and the frequent conflicting needs of the three feet of its stool (music, art, activism). Now in its ninth year, Forecastle is such a brand that even “Halfway to Forecastle” has a reliable spot on fans’ calendars. McKnight was 21 when he enlisted volunteers to set up at Tyler Park. The modest crowd wanted an encore. Those wishes were granted, and by mid-decade, logistical demands and audience-experience possibilities were escalating on twin tracks, ergo multiple stages and national sponsors. In a couple of months, the fest returns, this time to Waterfront Park with Widespread Panic, always-more-than-retro Devo and The Flaming Lips. This has become one of the best opportunities for three days that’ll dazzle the senses and open your mind. Just don’t get sunburned.
Ricky Feather has such a classic, gutbucket bellow that you have to wonder what caustic substances dripped down his throat to so twist the human voice. He and drummer Brian Burkett started in the late ’80s, but 1992’s Bone, Hair & Hide shook people and made them like it. They took rockabilly, dark quirks of Southern gothic, a pinch of surf music and sacrificed it on a primitive altar to R&B’s carnal idols. But unlike kindred souls, Bodeco didn’t truck with bringing in horns or trying to stretch, maybe because this was never a trio at heart. Once they defined their sound, it was hard to imagine them without Gary Stillwell’s percussion simultaneously muddying and reinforcing drumbeats, or without two guitars playing close enough to be shadows of each other. With Exile on Main Street just re-released, Bodeco seems more than ever like a psychobilly version of the Stones from that era, but the “Hip Shake” you must download is the one on which Feather sings.
ear X-tacy, Underground Sounds, Better Days West
A fact worth repeating: These are the last three independent record stores left in town selling new music. They give local artists a place to sell their music, even in an age where that 800-pound gorilla called iTunes threatens to kill them off. Ben Jones’ Better Days West in Lyles Mall opened in 1995 and has been a godsend to West End hip-hop heads, carrying hip-hop, R&B, blues and jazz titles largely ignored by many retailers. ear X-tacy in-stores continue to reel in prominent artists for free in-store shows, and it looks like John Timmons will celebrate the store’s official 25th anniversary in August. Intangibles? In spades: Without Samuel Fitzgerald, Tanisha Johnson and Dwight Johnson at ear X-tacy, few would know the treasures of mid-to-late ’90s indie hip-hop, and although you might wear their T-shirts, you’re not a true Grateful Dead fan until you’ve conversed, at length, with Underground Sounds owner Craig Rich.
Enough about that SPIN quote, please. Searcy’s post-Squirrel Bait endeavors with Big Wheel and Starbilly (“Unmistakable Tick” is vastly underrated) brought about crossover shows with all-ages crowds and opened up more than a few kids’ eyes to Louisville’s skewed tendencies in the pop realm. We wish his material hadn’t gotten slicker, but it’s hard to deny his vocal power on “Overcome And Underwhelmed” and “Sleep.”
The only woman who neither looked like nor wanted to be Faith Hill on “Nashville Star” is the one worth remembering. It’s hard to want fame when you’re already a virtuoso. She’s well known to Muzik Mafia, has collaborated with Peter Searcy, Shannon Lawson, Steve Cooley and others. Now on a British tour, the frequent collaborator is long overdue for a follow-up album. Plus, how many accordion players do you know?
We like to think there’s some divine meaning that WFPK began the same year (1954) as rock ’n’ roll, though their definitions of rock would change a few years later when it began broadcasting an independent-minded, wide range of music. That happened when the three local public radio stations came up with the ahead-of-its-time idea to share some of the business load but let each take on broadcast specialties. As part of the Public Radio Partnership, and with individual talents like Dan Reed, Laura Shine, Matt Anthony and many others, this station has become a national leader in programming quality and diversity. The Triple-A (adult album alternative) format is the largest tentpole, and FPK keeps listeners entertained and informed while keeping this musical genre sharply honed. Locating the studios a few steps from the Palace was a stroke of genius, as people in the South Fourth Street cafés often stare and guess the names of musicians who stroll to a post-soundcheck to say “Hi,” or even give an impromptu performance. Their Waterfront Wednesdays are a phenomenal catch of well-selected local and national rosters, free of charge and under the stars. It’s a surprise this station has to do membership drives at all.
U of L Jazz Week
As much as LEO emphasizes the indie, the alt and the “weird,” due respect belongs to the devotees of bebop, improv and other jazz who permeate this town. Michael Tracy and the rest of the folks in U of L’s Jazz Studies department know who they’re speaking to, and they rope in blockbuster talent to instruct students and floor spectators. Even casual jazzheads listen in awe of Dave Brubeck, Toots Thielemans and the consistent flow of artists/students from Brazil and Russia that make Jazz Week one of four primary outlets — VAMP’s weekly clinic at Nachbar, WorldFest and WFPK’s “Jazz Journeys” show being the other three — to put world music in a less marginalized context. Jazz Week is one class where the professor’s “book” is worth reading.
Quick: Guess which artist Neko Case took to Europe? Ms. Irwin, a gritty, country siren, kinda shucked off direct Freakwater associations when she went to Asheville, N.C., to record 2002’s Cut Yourself A Switch with old time/bluegrass producers Aaron Price and Bill Reynolds. The result is gentle and engaging. Technically, Freakwater, Irwin’s collab with Janet Beveridge Bean, predates Uncle Tupelo, who is widely considered originators of alt-country. Though we haven’t heard her solo for a minute — and she knows, because we bug her about it from time to time — she teases us relentlessly by backing up pals Joe Manning on Clever Bird, and Brett Eugene Ralph on Kentucky Chrome Revue’s self-titled disc. We’re waiting on you, sunshine.
Summer Jam 1997 (Hot 104.3)
The short-lived Hot 104 station hosted an incredible daylong festival in 1997 that featured the red-hot Cash Money set — Li’l Wayne, Juvenile and crew, pre-national takeover, though they were already running the South and Midwest. A near-riot ensued midway through Cash Money’s headlining performance, sending Wayne and company hightailing it for the bus while hundreds of fans mobbed about.
Throughout 1997-1998 and beyond, Code Red held down the backpack set with casual sets around town, each inevitably falling into some pretty exciting (and smoky) ciphers. That Code Red was (and is) a rap group was secondary to the camaraderie and spirit of friendship that was built at these parties.
In what can easily be termed a renaissance age for Louisville hip-hop, there is an endless supply of talented emcees and producers in the ’Ville right now. From the much-lauded (in these pages, if nothing else) Scanners crew of Dr. Gonzo and Nacirema to Skyscraper Stereo, T. McAfee, Fonz, D. Mawl, JaLin Roze, Kenzo, Louis Keyz and others, independence seems to be the unifying cry of all these acts, in that they are unconcerned with the pursuit of a major label and superstardom. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, so long as great music continues to be made, success is already here.
Before Forecastle took over, Initial Records’ Andy Rich and his staff had a lock on the kids. Launched at the old Brewery/Thunderdome, Krazy Fest programmed its lineup with post-punk: Hot Water Music, Thursday, Boy Sets Fire and Elliott. It’s easy to wonder how far Krazy Fest would’ve gone had Warped Tour not materialized, but we’ll never really know. Thanks to Great White’s horrifying Rhode Island club fire, insurance premiums skyrocketed, as did artist guarantees.
Now more than ever, the phrase “music journalist” is a term of inclusion. Beginning with Louisville Hardcore and 37 Flood, the list of scribes renovating the city’s echo chamber has grown: The Decibel Tolls now has a full-timer here, as well as Backseat Sandbar, Buzzgrinder and We Listen For You. They’re a discerning bunch, passionate in opinion but ever mindful of hometown rumblings, while keeping us “old school” ink wretches on our toes.
If you’re not holding a release in your paws from one of these labels — Noise Pollution, Initial, Self Destruct, Louisville Lip, Slamdek, Auxiliary, Karate Body, Label X, Temporary Residence or Three Little Girls Recordings — you have work to do.
*In no particular order