HEY! Everybody! I am back in Illinois. Westerly, RI was fantastically productive, but I came back to Chicagoland for MOONRUNNERS! Were you there? You should’ve been there.
Held at Reggie’s Rock Club, Moonrunners II slayed the hell outta the south side. Dreads. Beat-up boots. Patched jackets. Punks. Pin-up queens. The button-down sort. All manner of folks congregated to dance, booze, and enthuse over underground country. Born from the musical fervor of Jahshie P., lead singer of Last False Hope and founder of Outlaw Radio Chicago, Moonrunners has become the Midwestern festival fix for those waiting out the year for Farm and Muddy Roots.
Here’s a rundown of what I got to see. It wasn’t everything, but it was a helluva lot.
Moonrunners Music Festival Day 1: Friday, April 25, 2014
Joey Henry’s Dirty Sunshine Club – 2 p.m. Music Joint Stage
Joey Henry opened up Moonrunners II on the Music Joint stage. When he isn’t kicking out a ruckus with the Calamity Cubes, Henry’s setting you down in a chair close to his heart and shining a light through the grit that’s got you down. He’s one man with a banjo and goodwill for the world around him. I’ve seen hardasses cry in public and link arms with strangers to sway to his songs. I know I’ve teared up.
You don’t even really have control over the stories you tell. Sometimes you don’t want to tell them, but you know that it’s medicine. Music is medicine.
I admire a man who believes music and storytelling to be a necessary prescription for this fever called Living.
Random sidenote: Let’s put this out front – Joey Henry, and all of the bands about to be mentioned, are fucking good folks. Hard workin’ folks. Musicians who build community by arriving early and sticking around late to watch other bands play, rather than hitting out after their own set is over. Moonrunners is the kinda fest that if you open up a smidge and smile at someone, if you step outside for a smoke and say hi to whoever else is on the porch, you’re going to make friends. You’re going to be invited to more shows. I used to be an in-and-out of shows kinda person. I kept my head down. I danced by myself. I was shy. And then…I started saying hello to people and…holy shit…they said hello back.
So if your shy, just say hi. Ten to one, you’ll get a new friend outta the deal. If it’s me, you’ll get a dancing partner, too.
Lou Shields – 2:50 p.m. Music Joint Stage
Lou Shields. Lou Shields. Lou Shields.
::stares into mirror in dim, candle-lit bathroom::
Lou Shields. Lou Shields. Lou Shields.
::incense wafts past mirror::
::coughs at smokey reflection::
I thought maybe if I chanted Lou Shields’ name in a mysteriouso manner he might appear to play me sweet tunes. Like Beetlejuice or the Candyman, but with skate deck stomping boards and hobo-skull guitars instead of undead perversion and vengeance.
I love Lou Shields. He is one of the most attentive, interesting fellas I’ve ever met. And, dude wears a hat well.
He’s armed with the only skeletal, steampunk guitar I’ve ever seen and a range of eclectic cigar box guitars. Not to mention, he’s got a miniature washboard attached to a skate deck and a variety of other percussive, homemade stomping boards and buckets. His deep blues warble is reminiscent of pre-war jug bands, plaintive, yet playful. He’s got a Sunday afternoon, storytelling voice.
Lou Shields is a one man band. A photographer. An artist. And a fucking nice guy. He killed it.
Six Gun Britt – 3:15 p.m. Rock Club Stage
Humor and heartbreak, all in one. You want songs about putting up with drinking? Murder and cheating? Six Gun Britt has all of it and then a lakeful of livin’ more.
Hands down, she had two of my favorite songs all weekend…
1. OK…this is going to sound ridiculous, but she played a song about big dicks and I was like YES. Because it was hilarious and sad and also, shit man, why not? WHY NOT? Why shouldn’t women talk as ardently candid as men? And really, she might have only sang this song at the Office after party on Sunday…but it was a song that made me think HOLY SHIT, this woman is a helluva writer and presence…because really, what makes good writing? Honesty. Throwing it all out there. And writing about a dude you dated with a big dick who left you lonely – it took guts to sing that to a room of mostly men.
2. Doubling up on good writing, the song “Six Bullets” was probably my favorite song all weekend.
LOVE THIS SONG. Here. Listen to it. Am I right? I’M RIGHT! Melancholy, cinematic gorgeousness. “I can handle your drinking and all your falling down. I can deal with your crazy thinking, but I can’t take you running around.” … “One bullet’s in the air, one bullet’s in a tree, three bullets in your heart, and one bullet’s left for me.” GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
She did the best thing a musician can do to me, she made me want to write. I am totally gonna snag her “Six Bullets” structure and write a story in six parts each according to the bullet that comes out of a gun. Fucking brilliant. Loved her.
Nellie Wilson – 3:45 p.m Rock Club Stage
Nellie Wilson is known for raucous sexuality in her songwriting. But really, she’s more than that. A lot more than that. Not that I need more than that (Some of my favorite songs are guileless getting it on odes). I’m just saying, her lyrics cover everything from gutting a man for attempted assault (“You better let go cause I carry a butterfly knife. You better let go cause I’m not afraid to take a man’s life…and I know three ways to cut you for days. Up, down, repeatedly.”) to your future not giving what you expected (“Well, I went to college for seven years, and now I’m just a waitress, slingin’ beers”). From letdown loving to a letdown society, Nellie Wilson gives it to you straight with clever lyrics and a clear voice
The Tosspints – 4:35 p.m. Rock Club Stage
OK, so The Tosspints were straight up punk. Or folk rock. I’m not sure. They’re listed as Celtic punk with influences like Dropkick Murphys at Reverb. I didn’t hear as much of Celctic-edge, but I did enjoy the hell outta them. “Pirate’s Life” was a standout song. You got a three piece – guitar, bass, and drums – with brothers on the stringed instruments. In their best moments, they made me want to swing an arm around someone’s shoulder and sing along to songs I didn’t know.
Pearls Mahone – 5:15 p.m. Rock Club Stage
You may be thinking, this all sounds fine and good, but WHERE IS ALL THE GODDAMN DANCING? I know. I KNOW! I was thinking that same thing. The past two years, Moonrunners’ has had a laidback opening, usually featuring one-man-bands or leisurely paced songsters up front. Which is cool, but thank Eris, by the time Pearls Mahone took the stage I was ready for something louder and faster. (Which makes the above Tosspints sound not loud or fast…which they were, but not very danceable.)
Chicago’s own honky tonk angel, Pearls Mahone brought out the early evening western swing, setting off a two-stepping frenzy. Or it looked like a frenzy to me. When you’re part of a flailing dance tornado, the whole room spins. With the vocal power of Wanda Jackson and frank lyrical content as dirty as it was crooning (Singing on six packs and cigarettes as often as Patsy Cline-esque blue-without-you tunes), Pearls Mahone made Reggie’s feel like the gorgeously shit, neon-lit cowboy bar of my dreams.
Lone Wolf OMB – 5:45 p.m. Music Joint Stage
You know that dude of indeterminate age that alternately stands outside of the liquor store and bus stop? He asks for a dollar, or at least, you think he did, but you can’t tell because his voice is this ancient, feral, mossy mumble? That dude isn’t Lone Wolf OMB, but they have the same voice. Seriously. Lone Wolf OMB sounds like someone dug him outta a seven-decade Mississippi grave, smacked the dirt off his back, revivified his throat with whiskey, then threw quarters at his feet to get him singing.
Needless to say, I shook my ass to his banjo, harmonica, bass drum blues.
Highlonesome – 6:10 p.m. Rock Club Stage
The last time I saw Highlonesome, it was opening for Joseph Huber and Last False Hope at Taps Pub. They had a striding, turbulent sound that did me well. I only got to catch a glimpse of their mountainbilly at Moonrunners. You want a band that can wreck it fast or slow, Highlonesome are your guys.
The Hooten Hallers – 7 p.m. Rock Club Stage
Fucking awesome. As usual.
I mean, do I have to elaborate? Ok. I will. Because if you haven’t heard of The Hooten Hallers, I want to induce in you the deep need to go to a show. Not a want. An assquake need. I would rather shit my pants on a time travel first date with young Christopher Walken, than miss a Hooten Hallers show. Who the fuck knew a tuba was goddamn sexy? Well, it is. The Hooten Hallers are a three-piece, vaudevillian, hillbilly blues band and, Jesus wept, if watchin’ THIS doesn’t make you want to join the party, you might be dead inside.
The Calamity Cubes – 7:55 p.m. Rock Club Stage
The Calamity Cubes are a goddamn gorgeous, high-energy three-piece with a captivating lyrical vulnerability. From murder ballads to skateboard songs, these dudes do no wrong. I mean, the song “Delia Rose” is damn near perfection, and “Kite” – geez, I just sit there with it on repeat.
…but not far into the Cubes’ set…I realized that I was missing someone.
Major pause in the action.
Sometimes…friends get sick in alleys and all you can do is be there. Which means missing a few bands. To quote the League, “So what?” You know someone is a good friend, a freakin phenomenal, badass human being when you would rather watch them puke on a cement column than see the rest of the Calamity Cubes or the one-time reunion of Cletus Got Shot.
::raises a cup of tea in tribute::
To friends that are inspiring and unfailingly loving. May you all have at least one in your life.
::pauses to sip Iron Goddess of Mercy tea::
::reflects on the remainder of the night::
…remember how I said Lou Shields was one of the most attentive, nice dudes on the planet? Well, he also knows how to drive stick. Which I don’t. And he was sober. Which not many people were by late Friday night. So Lou Shields helped me move my friend’s car to a non-towable parking spot.
What have we learned about Lou Shields? He is fucking awesome. Buy his merch. See him live.
And for more on the Calamity Cubes, check out my 2013 Muddy Roots review.
Possessed by Paul James – 10 p.m. Rock Club Stage
Who loves Possessed by Paul James? EVERYBODY! Or they should. His last album, There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely, was solidly in my top three albums of 2013.
Up front, I’m gonna say, shit man, I wish he closed out one of the nights of the fest. Not that I had a problem with any of the headliners. I mean, Goddamn Gallows and Scott H. Biram are AWESOME. But it just felt like Possessed by Paul James was rushed. But maybe I am being picky. I’m like, “Heaven, why can’t you be just a bit more heaveny?”
Back to HOW? HOW DO YOU DO THAT? Meaning, Possessed by Paul James writes lyrics I almost immediately memorize and performs in a manner that connects every damn person in the room. Konrad Wert (the man behind Possessed by Paul James) believes, “In the recording studio, that’s a great way to present the music. But in a live show, in an interaction…whatever’s gonna come is gonna come. For me, that’s the purest pleasure of playing music: It’s almost a conversation, with a listener and a musician.” Armed with a banjo, a guitar, and a fiddle, Possessed by Paul James brought a bravado of heart and reflection to a dark bar. Miss going to church for the hymn singing? Check out a Possessed by Paul James show. All of the power and the glory is there.
The Goddamn Gallows – 11:15 p.m. Rock Club Stage
The Goddamn Gallows are the Grand Guignol gutter gypsies of weirdo country…maybe with slightly less blood splattering. They play complex, amoral, psycho-roots and HOLY SHIT, you should see them live.
Were I to write a short story with the feel of the Goddam Gallows, it’d probably be a mix of Crimes in Southern Indiana, Twin Peaks, and Six String Samurai. Hobos, hell, pickled punks, dissident road dogs, decrepit saloons, dark carnivals…this is the shit that springs to mind when listening to the GD Gallows.
Here’s what I want from a live show: I want to feel like I got something more than if I listened to an album in my car. I don’t care if that’s patter, a faster, harder sound, or the theatrical stakes raised. The Goddamn Gallows do all of that. Are you a pit person? I’m not. I like to dance, not bash into folks. Except for at a Gallows show. THESE BEASTS CHANGE YOU. Briefly. Which is what good music can do…make you feel indestructible and important.
Lead singer Mikey Classic‘s handsome visage melts into piratical eyebrows and a vicious maw. TV’s Avery throws himself, his washboard, and his accordion across the stage and the crowd. Fishgutzzz thumps a steady standup bass line while playing foil to Avery miming everything from drug use to jerking off. Baby Genius is as likely to bring the drums into the crowd as he is to sing hardcore cover songs and Joseph Perreze plays the banjo (sometimes blindfolded) faster than a rocket could outrun the end of the world.
AND they have a new album, The Maker.
Here’s the stuff that I didn’t get a chance to see on Friday:
Coondog and the Stumpjumpers
Adam Lee Band
Note from seeing him before Moonrunners: Geez, dude’s got a golden voice. You want a Johnny Cash crooner who respects oldschool country, but brings modern energy? BOOM. Here he is.
Ten Foot Polecats
Cletus Got Shot
Molly Gene One Whoaman Band
Note from seeing her before Moonrunners: OH MY GOD, I LOVE HER! See her. SEE HER! She is the embodiment of raucous, blues fury. BUY ALL THE MERCH! But definitely see her live. Woman could whoop a blind man to sight with the might of that yowl.
As for Moonrunners Day 2? Check back in a coupla days.