Heart of the Midwest: Money for Guns’ 21st Century Life

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“When Pierre started this city
He set the streets just for you and me
But he never could have had all this in mind
And if you‚Äôve got the time, I‚Äôve got the time….”

“I’m Your Mark,” (Will Saulsbery)

From his early days in the Frustrated Bachelors, through his days doing dirty work as a substitute high school teacher, to his current work in St. Louis’ Money for Guns, Will Saulsbery, the band’s principal writer and lead singer, has never yearned to get the hell out. As a nearly lifelong Missourian (like Will), I can testify that that is, in fact, a yearning one hears¬†frequently, particularly from artistic types. I can definitely understand such a yearning; often, particularly when my mind drifts to our state’s legislature, I feel the state name should be spelled “M-I-S-E-R-Y.” What I like about Saulsbery and his band is that,¬†in their music and words, they capture fairly vividly what it’s like to live here, without condescending, which, for all our growing resemblance to dubious states that shall remain nameless, would be¬†a dick move.

Paradoxically, though, part of what makes one a Missourian is the desire to escape, however temporary that desire might burn. The album begins with “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty”‘s¬†persona lost in a dream of New Orleans (are the referenced “gutter punks” from the dream, or on St. Louis streets?), and ends with a drawn-out, dope-sprung dream of El Dorado, in which a lover uncomfortably comforts his junkie paramour with the likely-doomed idea of cutting and running from St. Louis’ radiating gateway. It’s hard not to notice, though, the telling, unifying details that evince an admirable rootedness: of interstates out of Kansas, of hawks’ eyes, of trains (three references, not sure if one is a MetroLink), of the founding father Pierre Laclede, of cold-eyed live burials, and of straight-out declarations like “I can‚Äôt wait to see St. Louis again”–without its “TV or the gunmen.” I wonder if all of this is all that Missourian, or if it’s U.S.A. circa 2015. I think it’s Missouri. “The Catholic kids drowning this town” of “I’m Your Mark”–which, by the way, lead into another suggestion of leaving–might be the tip-off.

I don’t trust labels as far as music goes. They usually sell the creators short. 21st century Missouri seems most¬†known for Nelly, Tech9 (sp?) and, vaguely, Americana. The former two rappers couldn’t be more different, though they are underrated in how of this place they are; the latter genre has to stretch a little to incorporate The Ben Miller Band, whatever Mark Bilyeu’s up to, Kentucky Knife Fight, and¬†this group of ne’er-do-wells–just to name a few¬†I know well. Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbia all have their bohemias, but, from my experience, they don’t seem rooted in this place. What feels Missourian about Money for Guns is the touches of Americana, especially¬†Dr. Todd Jones-Farrand’s mandolin, which doesn’t always do the usual things (check out his runs and comping on the at-times-punk-jazzy “Red High Heels”!), without the abandoning of a straight-ahead Midwestern kid’s love of straight-ahead rock and roll. Epitomizing this strategy (that seems like a cynical word, and I do not mean it that way) are the album’s two lead cuts, the title track, and the flat-out beauty quoted twice already, “I’m Your Mark.” I wouldn’t call a daringly extended piano-fueled coda “Americana”; I’d call it guts and growth. And vocals are sure enough music, as well; Saulsbery’s tenor has matured considerably¬†from¬†American Trash, where at times he seemed to be trying to catch the elusive (but fading) tail of Conor Oberst’s hyper-emotive star. On 21st Century Life, he’s content to let the natural tears (rhymes with “bears”) in his singing convey the matters of his Midwestern heart. I find that Kyle Kelley’s baritone changes of pace need a little work, a little nuance. But I don’t remember him taking verses or leads on the debut, so perhaps all he needs is time.

I really like this album. I can tell you from three listens that “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty” (the production of which shows up the rest of the album a shade), “Red High Heels,” and, especially, “I’m Your Mark”–a definition of the heart of the Midwest if anything I’ve heard is–are worthy of your downloading if you are just wanting to tire-kick or dip your toe in the Money for Guns pool. I would lay down a Jackson that the album will grow a layer of intensity performed live, so look for them in your town. And, thinking about the band’s (and the, um, auteur‘s) future, I will also wager that the opening out of this record into the wild¬†air of the state’s streets, highways, and rails, from¬†American Waste‘s dank and dangerous club interiors, indicates creative minds focused on more than just the song at hand. That is the sign of artistic endurance, folks.

Good to My Earhole: Bo Dollis, Jr., and The Wild Magnolias’ A NEW KIND OF FUNK

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Technically, this record is a 2013 release (it came out last September), but, if’n I get a chance to vote in any record polls in 2014, it’s sure to be in my Top 10. My decision will be justified: it’s on a tiny New Orleans label (One More Time), it’s distributed by CDBaby, it features no mega-stars, it arrived with no hoopla (when I bought my copy at Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans, the very well-seasoned owner¬†couldn’t even get excited about it when I asked about it), and, well, it’s out of New Orleans, the still-fabulous music scene of which may be back in the public eye thanks to Treme¬†but still gets very, very little critical love and mainstream coverage. So: we may as well call it a 2014 release.

Now that I’ve expended a paragraph on a barely-necessary justification…some background. Dollis is the son of one of the most legendary big chiefs in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, the chief, in fact, who sang lead on the 1970 45 “Handa Wanda,” the first commercially released Indian chant. That single was the first of three significant such releases of the decade, the others being long-players released by two competing tribes,¬†The Wild Magnolias¬†(1974) and The Wild Tchoupitoulas¬†(1976). If you’ve never heard ’em, they feature some of the straight-on greasiest funk of their time, with P-Funk,¬†riot-era Sly, and JB its only¬†equal. Each record features only traditional Indian chants, with only two overlaps, and those so differently arranged you might not notice; these chants deserve your attention, because their subtext is defiance, bravery, and endurance, themes that at this point in America’s racial history¬†have gained deeper, more painful, and more inspiring resonance.¬†Each record features a different famous force of funk: on¬†Magnolias, the great guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who might pre-date JB in his history with the style; on¬†Tchoupitoulas, the quirky and inventive Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste. Each record features a local-legend producer: the ’74 record, Willie “Thank You, John” Turbington, the ’76 record Valhalla-bound songwriter/pianist/arranger Allen Toussaint. Each record, my friends, is a stone classic. Unfortunately, as far as your average music consumer is concerned, that would seem to be the end of Mardi Gras Indian music on record. However, there has been a steady stream of these records released across the last three decades, from further releases by Dollis, Sr., and his¬†Wild Magnolias as well as¬†the Golden Eagles tribe in the ’80s (they¬†received a smidgen of roots-music ink) to the extremely obscure but excellent 1997 Flaming Arrows’ Here Come the Indians! and¬†the vaguely 21st-century set of tracks laid down by the Hundred & One Runners on the tiny Mardi Gras Records’ 2012¬†Best of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. Like Western swing, this little subgenre seldom fails to deliver pleasure, delightful camaraderie, and the urge to get the hell up and dance.

Which finally brings us to the release in question.¬†In view of both the general lack of consumer and critical attention given to Mardi Gras Indian music and the historical evolution of the subgenre, the record is¬†a very significant one. Bo, Jr. and his producer Joe Gelini have achieved a rare trick: usually, when an artist or producer tries to “rock up” a non-rock genre, the result is a tasteless, unsubtle, desperate aural brew¬†that disappoints everyone involved, specifically including listeners; here, the frequent dabs and splashes of guitar crunch, supplied by St. Louisan Mike Zito and Brothers’ son Devon Allman, are nicely accompanied by deftly mixed and soulfully played dobro, fiddle, piano, and horns (none familiar aspects of the subgenre), as well as the usual funky percussion and tambourine. The intelligence and touch behind¬†the conception, playing, and production, best exemplified by the Dollis’ opening “We Come to Rumble,” makes A New Kind of Funk the best chance yet for Mardi Gras Indian music to jump off the island of esoterica onto the mainland of Americana. That is, if the project had more commercial and media support behind it–a guy can dream. Also, Dollis’ decision¬†to weave in his own originals and Indian-style covers of classic New Orleans jazz (“Tootie Ma,” “Little Liza Jane”), r&b (“Hey Now, Baby” featuring fine Professor Longhair-style piano from Tom Worrell), and soul (a not-entirely-successful “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky”) with traditional battle cries like “Fire Water Big Chief Got Plenty” and “Hell Out the Way” pays off big in two ways, appealing honestly to outside fans as well as expertly connecting four Crescent City musical traditions–and helping to keep the music in a state of evolution.

A New Kind of Funk is¬†an exciting, spirited, and various set that deserves much more attention than it likely will get, and it comes at a time when the tribes are struggling to keep that ever-infernal “younger generation” interested in their¬†rich history of exuberant and stylish¬†resistance. If the kids followed that history¬†back to mid-1800s Congo Square, where it started, they might just discover it is the wellspring of their music. And, oldsters, you might find it’s also the wellspring of yours. If you do buy this album, and like it, please please please go right on ahead (or back, I should say) to The Wild Magnolias and The Wild Tchoupitoulas. You will feel the fire of a sound that’s kept folks off their knees for a long, long time.