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Twangfest adapts to stay alive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 3, 2008 - These are hard times in the world of Americana music, a genre that spans all manner of styles from folk, blues, country and bluegrass to rockabilly, alternative country and roots rock.

With CD sales plummeting across the board, the small, independent labels that specialize in Americana have been hit especially hard. An Americana radio format has never really taken off. And two magazines that wrote about the genre with depth and clarity, No Depression and Harp, have shuttered in recent months.

But don't talk any of that negative stuff around the Twang Gang, the all-volunteer staff that is about to present the 12th edition of Twangfest, a St. Louis music festival of national import that spotlights all manner of roots-based music.

"You might say that we diversified our musical portfolio," says Christopher "Kip" Loui, a Twangfest board member as well as a school teacher and a longtime St. Louis musician. "That was conscious on our part. We expanded the notion of, 'Well, what is twang?'

"Just like the New Orleans Jazzfest has a whole lot of other stuff besides jazz, Twangfest has gone into a 'big tent' kind of scenario," Loui continues. "You have stuff that's maybe not twangy, but still is in the spirit of insurgent music."

In addition to its usual cornucopia of country and alt-country, recent years have found the festival bringing such "non-twangy" acts as indie rock hero Steve Wynn, "sacred steel" guitarist Calvin Cooke and the thunderous garage-rock outfit the Dirtbombs into the mix.

Meet the bands

(Click on the band's name and go to youtube for the song listed below.)

Wednesday (the Schlafly Tap Room)

The Builders and the Butchers
"Bringing Home the Rain"
A Portland act with a gothic tinge to its twang, the formerly unplugged act now plays fully amped, the better to raise goosebmps and the hair on the back of your neck.

"Triggers and Trash Heaps"
Led by singer/songwriter Will Johnson, the Denton, TX, roots-rock outfit just released "Dual Hawks," a split double album with its more laid-back alter ego, South San Gabriel.

Chuck Prophet
"Doubter Out of Jesus"
The former Green on Red guitarist's brand of indie rock and folk borrows from other musical genres. But it's his writing that's the real attention-getter, with finely wrought characters and indelible images on display through his latest effort, "Soap and Water."

Thursday (blueberry Hill)

Deadstring Brothers
"Meet Me Down at Heavy Load"
Take the Rolling Stones' "Country Honk" and "Dead Flowers" as a leaping off point Detroit's Deadstring Brothers, whose brand of alt-country comes complete with plenty of hip-shaking swagger.

The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker
"Talkin' Bout You"
A funk and soul veteran who used to open for the likes of James Brown, Etta James and Wilson Pickett, Walker is at the top of his game fronting the Dynamites, a group of younger musicians who have taken the singer to new heights.

The Gourds
"How Will You Shine"
Though the Gourds are known for their country flavored covers of unlikely tunes like David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" and Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," mere novelty doesn't fully explain the band's appeal. They're a great band whether they choose play it down the middle of the road or head for the ditch.

Friday (the Pageant)

Miles of Wire
"Happy New Year"
St. Louis' own Miles of Wire hasn't released a new album since 2006's "Can You Feel It?" but the trio has a few new numbers up on their MySpace page.

Hayes Carll
"It's a Shame"
Rising star Carll is one of the rare alt-country artists with a major-label contract these days, having signed with Universal's Lost Highway imprint for his latest, "Trouble in Mind."

The Old 97s
With their tuneful mix of twang with power pop, the Old 97s seemed poised to take alt-country to the masses. It never quite happened for them as a band, nor for frontman Rhett Miller during his brief solo career, but they're back together and sounding energetic as ever on their latest, "Blame It on Gravity."

Saturday (off Broadway)

Caleb Travers & Big City Lights
Ryan Adams is an obvious reference point for this young St. Louisan, but the finely wrought tunes on Travers' 2007 release "Blue Weathered Dreams" suggest he's got plenty to say on his own. A talent to watch, for sure.

The Everybodyfields
Despite the unwieldy name, this Tennessee outfit plays a gorgeous mix of folk, country and bluegrass, highlighted by the intertwining harmonies of Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews.

Ha Ha Tonka
"St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor"
Give it up for Ha Ha Tonka for calling attention to local attractions like the Ozark area state park they're named after, and "Buckle of the Bible Belt," the title of their album that pretty much sums up their hometown of Springfield, MO. The latter isn't exactly a compliment in their hands, though maybe the Chamber of Commerce feels otherwise.

The Waco Brothers
"Take Me to the Fires"
It's hard to imagine that a CD could capture all the chaos and creativity of a Waco Brothers performance. The band's latest, "Waco Express: Live & Kickin' at Schubas Tavern, Chicago," comes pretty close, but there's still nothing else like seeing them live.

Doors open at 7 p.m.

This year's most notable anomaly is the Dynamites featuring Charles Walker, an R&B act explosive enough to justify its name. The band played to a sparse crowd at Harrah's Voodoo Lounge in January, but among those in attendance were several Twangfest board members, who saw an opportunity to put the band in front of a more appreciate audience at their event.

"I'm really thrilled we can bring him back for an encore performance, and maybe more people will be turned on to him this time," Loui says. "That's definitely one of my favorite picks for the festival this year."

Among the other featured acts are former Green on Red guitarist Chuck Prophet, wise-guy honky-tonk outfit the Gourds, Fast-rising roots rocker Hayes Carll, alt-country/pop band the Old 97s and the hard driving Waco Brothers, featuring former Mekons leader Jon Langford. The Wacos, incidentally, headlined the first Twangfest back in 1997.

A big part of what makes Twangfest tick is the Twang Gang, whose dedication - to say nothing of their services, which are rendered free of charge - is part of the bedrock foundation that is keeping Americana standing despite the odds.

"I have not made a nickel off of this festival in 12 years," Loui says. "That's how we set it up. It's a labor of love and occasionally a labor of frustration. We operate on a shoestring budget. But a lot of it is perseverance and being faithful to a certain vision, and at the same time not being dogmatically tied into a specific way that it has to look and sound and feel."

Some members of the board, such as Loui and his fellow musician John Wendland, booking agent Marie Arsenault, purveyor of rootsy house concerts Rick Wood, and writer Roy Kasten have been in the Twangfest fold for years. Others, such as KDHX staffers Grace Woodard and Nico Leone, and photographer and graphic artist Jason Baldwin have come along in more recent years.

Each of them brings specialized skills to the fest, but sometimes they simply do whatever is necessary at the time.

"At this point, I'm just kind of the grunt," Loui says with a laugh. "I go and hang fliers, help with the (band) selection. I'm a little more in the background these days."

This year's Twangfest is the first to be held at four venues - Wednesday at the Schlafly Tap Room, Thursday at the Duck Room, Friday at the Pageant and Saturday at Off Broadway.

"It just worked out that way logistically," says Loui, who notes that it's especially exciting for the fest to wrap up at Off Broadway, which for its first few years served as the exclusive home of Twangfest.

"The wheel's come full circle, so to speak," he says.