Words and Photos by Bradley Darby
After a show scheduled for February was cancelled just days after being announced, Split Lip Rayfield vowed they would be coming back to St. Louis later this year. Their last trip through the Gateway to the West was in May of 2010 opening for Reverend Horton Heat, also at the Old Rock House. I was a little disappointed to have to wait another 9 months to see these guys in STL again. I must say, the wait was well worth it, as the rescheduled show also featured Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Mountain Sprout on the bill.
Throughout the day the Old Rock House sent ample warning to folks planning to attend the show that tickets wouldn’t last. They were certainly correct, as the show was announced as sold out just after 9pm, right as Mountain Sprout was finishing up the first set of the evening. There was also a wedding reception going on in the upstairs lounge, which made the crowd on the main level overwhelming, but when it was announced the show had sold out they opened the balcony and the crowd spread out to make it tolerable.
The highly energetic hillbilly music machine that is Mountain Sprout took the stage just after 8pm to begin the night. The crowd was already packing in and the Arkansas quintet worked and swayed their way through a 40ish minute set with some of the finest beards this side of the Mississippi. Banjo picker/vocalist Grayson Van Sickle sings lyrics of alcohol, smoking reefer, and turkey buzzards while his supporting cast of Blayne Thiebaud, Adam Waggs, and Daniel Redmond melt faces with their chosen instruments, fiddle, guitar and stand up bass respectively. The set contained one of my favorites, “Dry County” which was prefaced by Van Sickle telling us about parts of Arkansas where you cant buy beer…. but assured us that “where we live you can even buy beer on Sundays, and that’s why we live there!” They ended the set with the always popular, “Screw The Government” and definitely did their job warming up the now sold out crowd. Word has it there is a December return to STL in the works, possibly at The Shanti in Soulard. Make it a point to check that out.
Just after 9PM, it was time for the Legendary Shack Shakers to get to business. Now, to be honest with you I knew nothing about this band, outside of the album Swampblood that I had purchased based solely on the album cover a while back. I really really enjoyed that album and had been looking forward to seeing this group almost as much as Split Lip Rayfield…… and they certainly did not disappoint!
Col. J.D. Wilkes and the boys have been hailed by some, like Hank III, as “the best damn front man and band in America.” Jello Biafra, of Dead Kennedys fame, has called Wilkes “the last great Rock and Roll front man.” The Colonel was just that, a true front man. He was all over the stage throughout the set and exuded a punk rock attitude… sometimes strumming the banjo and sometimes singing or screaming his words through a harmonica mic while running around the stage like a maniac without a shirt on. When the time came for Wilkes to introduce us to the rest of the Shack Shakers, he addressed the crowd as “Ladies and gentlemen, whores and whore mongers” and proceeded to inform us that bassist Mark Robertson was the “King of the Lemon Party”….. if you don’t know what that is, you are better off. (ADULT CONTENT: If you really wanna know, Google: LemonParty.org but remember I warned you!) Brett Whitacre beats the drums and former Tomahawk member, and friend of Mike Patton, Duane Denison shredded faces with his guitar. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers collectively provided an intense hour long set with songs ranging from rockabilly to psycho bluegrass to punk country all in a matter of minutes. It was truly an experience, and one I will never miss…. I already look forward to my next night spent with the Shack Shakers, and you should start making plans to get your opportunity as well.
After a brief hiatus it was time for Lawrence, Kansas’ Split Lip Rayfield to take their turn after two very solid opening acts had prepared the capacity crowd. They started the night off with “Flat Black Rag” from their 1998 self titled debut album, a short but great one to get the crowd pumped up on some fast paced, get your body moving bluegrass. Jeff Eaton provided the rhythm throughout the evening with the Stitchgiver, a bass fashioned out of the gas tank from a 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis, a piece of hickory, and some weed whacker string that causes him to re-tape his fingers after damn near each song. A short while later they went into their rendition of George Jones’ “Easy Street” followed by “Moving to Virginia” and the always popular “Redneck Tailgate Dream.” Wayne Gottstine plays the mandolin and take the role of lead vocals on many songs, including “Never Make It Home”, which also features a mean kazoo solo by Eaton.
After a few new songs from a new album that is set to be released sometime in 2012, banjo player / guitarist for the time being Eric Mardis dedicated tonights show, just like every SLR show, to Kirk Rundstrom, former Split Lip Rayfield guitarist that died in 2007 after battling cancer, and asked the crowd to “Raise a glass for Kirk.” There is actually a documentary film being shown on limited screens nationwide about the final tour with Rundstrom called Never Make It Home: Kirk Rundstroms Final Tour. They then slowed it down with “I’ll Be Around” the title track from the 2008 album, followed by one of my personal favorites “The River”, also from that album. The final song of the set was Jeff Eaton’s “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?”, a crazy fast song that features Eaton growling barely coherent lyrics into the mic. After walking off the stage, they came back out rather fast and said they had one more for us…. no big surprise to hear the crowd sing along, “Used To Call Me Baby” from Never Make It Home, released in 2001. When the song was done, Split Lip quickly huddled and then told us “we love playing for you guys, thank you so much you guys were great to play for” and as the crowd continued to go nuts they started their final song of the night, “Outlaw.”, which only seemed to leave the crowd pumped up and wanting even more.
On the same night in St. Louis, two bands that typically would draw crowds away from each other played only 10 minutes apart, and both bands were able to fill the house. Split Lip Rayfield was officially a sold out show, and Chicago progressive bluegrass band, and another favorite live band of mine, Cornmeal played at 2720 Cherokee to a few hundred people as well. I can attest to the Split Lip show being one of the better SLR shows I have had the pleasure of seeing over the last few years, a count that is somewhere around the ten mark by now thanks to music festivals. I am sure Cornmeal brought the house down as well, I just hope next time they are booked on the same bill or separate nights. Keep the great shows coming St. Louis!!!