For me, the Riverfront Times' annual Summer Guide is the true kick-off for warmer weather and happier thoughts. Granted, we start working on the issue in March, so it's not like we're applying SPF 100 and tank tops just yet. But after months of darkness and parkas, we know that the sunshine finally is on its way.
Like the newspaper's Best of St. Louis issue, the Summer Guide steers readers toward experiences that staff members and contributors feel are must-do highlights in the region. The guide often has a theme, but the overarching narrative year after year is simply that St. Louis is freaking awesome.
Bylines for some of the shorter Summer Guide capsules typically aren't shown, but editors can verify that these items are mine.
From "50 Things You Haven't Done in St. Louis -- But Should"
1. Jump, jive and wail at the Lindy Hop
Forget those swing dance lessons you took in 1998 after seeing a Gap commercial. Today, Lindy Hop St. Louis can teach you the steps, the history and the music of one of America's great dance styles. No partner? No problem! You'll be paired up in group lessons, and you'll have the chance to show off your moves during regular events and special shindigs with live music. Classes are mostly held at Grand Center's Grandel Theatre. www.lindyhopstlouis.org
8. Ask for a miracle at the shrine of St. Joseph
You might not actually get your own special miracle, but you'll at least be in the presence of one. The beautiful landmark church at 11th and Biddle in downtown St. Louis is where factory worker Ignatius Strecker was purportedly cured of a potentially fatal injury after touching a blessed relic belonging to future saint Peter Claver. The 1864 incident later became the first Vatican-certified miracle west of the Mississippi River. 1220 N. 11th Street, 314-231-9407; www.shrineofstjoseph.org/miracle.html
18. Marvel at the Cotton Belt Freight Depot's new mural
A century after playing a key role in the cotton trade, the Cotton Belt Freight Depot just east of downtown is a vacant shell of itself. Heading west over the Stan Musial Bridge and peering at the slender building below, however, you'd never realize it. Thanks to some enterprising artists, drivers can enjoy the recent "Migrate" mural, with its incredible color and soaring birds, even as you contemplate what the structure meant to our region's history. 1400 North 1st Street
19. Get a taste of show biz at a STL Up Late taping
Sure, everybody wants to be in the audience for The Tonight Show, but that's allllllll the way in New York City. Luckily, St. Louis has its own late-night comedy talk show that lets you be on TEEVEE. As an audience member for STL Up Late, you can laugh along with sketches and get groovy with musicians while professional-grade cameras beam your smiling face out to the metro area. Ticket prices vary, but you'll want to book in advance. www.stluplate.com
20. Spy on the "Floozie in the Jacuzzi"
Normally, we wouldn't advocate becoming a "peeping Tom," but we have a feeling that Saint Louis University's famous bathing beauty won't mind. A statue from the reign of controversial former university president Lawrence Biondi, the "floozie," as the students call her, actually is a stunning work called "The Bather," a nude nymph resting in a small pool. You can glimpse her among a circle of pine trees on campus just southeast of Grand and Lindell boulevards.
27. Fly through the air at Bumbershoot Aerial Arts
The trapeze artists and tightrope walkers always get the loudest applause at the circus. Wouldn't it be great to have some of that glory for yourself? With a few lessons in the aerial arts at Bumbershoot, you'll be swinging from the rafters just like Pink during her arena tours. And as you dangle from those silks, you'll also benefit from the most amazing upper-body workout you've ever had. 2200 Gravois Avenue, 314-669-5754; www.thebumbershoot.com
28. Visit a Frank Lloyd Wright House
Did you know that there are only five Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Missouri? The revered architect who famously built a home over a Pennsylvania waterfall also designed less extraordinary houses for middle-class Missourians, and you can actually tour one at Ebsworth Park in Kirkwood. This home for regular joes is as impressive as you'd expect from Wright; with its sharp angles and reciprocal geometric forms, the house shows the imprint of a master. Tours are $10; reservations required. 120 N. Ballas Road, Kirkwood; 314-822-8359; www.ebsworthpark.org
33. Buy some unmentionables at STL Style — and mention them
When you've got a heart-on for St. Louis and your city pride is swelling uncontrollably, there's only one thing you can do: snatch up some undies at STL Style. The Cherokee Street mainstay is known for its irreverent t-shirts about St. Louis neighborhoods, but it's also your go-to spot for knickers that say "The Original Busch" featuring our landmark stadium right over the, ahem, appropriate body part. 3159 Cherokee Street, 314-898-0001; www.stl-style.com
42. Jazz it up at the Saxquest Saxophone Museum
Saxquest has been helping musicians choose and care for their instruments since 2000, but casual sax fans or folks just picking up reeds might not know about the Cherokee Street store's other treasure: its amazing museum on the second floor. Owner Mark Overton, who has been a featured instrument appraiser at Antique Roadshow events, has an impressive collection of rare saxophones, vintage photos and historical recordings that will make every music lover's heart sing. Admission is free. 2114 Cherokee Street, 314-664-1234; www.saxquest.com
For Curiosity Seekers, Drive East to Greenville
Greenville, Illinois, is a hotbed of weird activity. Just ask anybody who's felt the sting of the town's spanking machine.
No, the hamlet with the quaint downtown isn't the cornerstone of the region's S&M community (alas?), but it certainly has one of the nation's most interesting cheap thrills in the DeMoulin Museum (110 West Main Street; 618-664-4115). If the DeMoulin name sounds familiar, that's because it's currently the largest and oldest manufacturer of marching band uniforms in the world. But the same company that makes sequin jumpsuits used to be known for products that were a lot stranger, and it only takes a 45-minute drive due east from St. Louis to experience the weirdness.
As it turns out, long before bands were playing "Tequila" at halftime, the DeMoulin family was pranking members of fraternal orders with trick furniture and fake goats. In the 1800s, exclusive societies were a big deal, and longtime members played jokes on the noobs to test their devotion. The three DeMoulin brothers, experts in different trades, created some of the nation's most elaborate, bizarre and celebrated initiation devices.
The DeMoulin Museum has collected a large number of these rare, odd contraptions. Curator John Goldsmith leads curious souls through the tiny free museum, showing off both band fashions of yesteryear and amusing frat pranks with a twinkle in his eye. Visitors can touch (and even try out) many of the strange items, and Goldsmith takes every opportunity to create "gotcha!" moments, with a guillotine blade that drops precariously over a victim's neck and a chair that collapses to the floor. If you've ever wondered about the origin of those hand buzzers at Spencer's Gifts, look no further than the DeMoulin. And when Goldsmith asks you to bend over on a platform, do it, but only if your ass doesn't mind a little stinging.
The highlight of the museum is the goat — several goats, in fact. The goat machine is a board made up to look like a real animal and can be attached to long handles, a rickshaw setup, a hamster-type wheel or other variants. Back in the day, a blindfolded initiate would sit on the "animal" while senior members carried him and the contraption around or pushed him like they would a wheelbarrow, apparently to great comedic effect. These days, truly old goats are quite rare, but the DeMoulin Museum has several in varying condition, creepy peeling wool faces and all.
A museum visit could take 30 minutes to an hour or more, depending on your level of interest in fraternity hijinks. Afterwards, you'll want to drive ten minutes south to Marcoot Jersey Creamery (526 Dudleyville Road, 618-664-1110), a cheese haven the entire family can enjoy. The Marcoots are a legacy farming family with dairy roots dating back to the 1800s, and sisters Amy and Beth Marcoot now run the business. They're well-known in the region for their superior havarti, gouda and cheese curds, among other artisan treats.
Visitors can tour the farm and meet the Jersey calves that will grow up to produce milk for the cheese. These babies are as adorable as they are useful. Hang around and you may even get to glance outside the barn to see a farmhand shepherding hundreds of adult cows from one pasture to another. Stampede!
From there, visitors can wander into the milk parlor for an explanation of the milking process and a glimpse at the machines that gently squeeze the good stuff from the bovines. After that, it's into the creamery, where large windows showcase the cheese-making process. Depending on the tour type, the Marcoots might bring out a few tasty samples.
No visit to a creamery is complete without a walk inside the country store. Buy Marcoot cheeses along with the farm's own beef and pork, local beverages and onesies declaring your baby to be a "future cheesemonger." Don't leave without a few scoops of ice cream.
A tour is bound to leave you famished, so refuel with down-home cooking at Blue Springs Cafe (3505 George Street, Highland; 618-654-5788) on your way back to St. Louis. Blue Springs serves up absurdly large portions of fried chicken, catfish or chicken and dumplings, often for under $10. Vegetarians aren't left out of the fun; the veggie burger and several sides — including the creamiest mashed potatoes we've ever had — are meat-free. Make sure to save room for dessert, because as the billboards on I-70 attest, Blue Springs is known for its delicious "foot-high pies." Bring your cash or check, because this place doesn't take credit cards.
The Ultimate St. Louis Band Summer Mixtape
Music and summertime are forever intertwined, capturing the joys of the present and, years later, invoking sweet memories. We've all got a song that instantly takes us back to watching Dad burn hot dogs on the grill, gossiping poolside with our best friend or making out with Joey Miller in the backseat of his mom's Oldsmobile.
St. Louis has plenty of bands that create the kind of music that will bring the summer of 2014 flooding back to you years from now. From empowering rock anthems to sexy R&B jams to relaxing folk ditties, Gateway City musicians do it all.
Below, check out our St. Louis summer playlist with songs that are perfect for speeding down I-55 or taking a siesta under a tree in Forest Park.
The Blind Eyes, "With a Bang"
Sure, the Blind Eyes called it quits earlier this year, but the band's music lives on. For seven years the pop-rock quartet developed a reputation for excellent songwriting and catchy riffs, garnering it plenty of notice from publications around the country. Though there are plenty of Blind Eyes tunes that capture summer's essence, "With a Bang" is the one that would best fit into a quick-cut movie montage of college friends having one final, wild, late-May night before going separate ways after graduation.
Jeremiah Johnson Band, "Sweet Young Thang"
Much like summer itself, there's something about a good blues tune that makes us want to shed clothing. And while the Jeremiah Johnson Band is rightfully lauded for its quieter, twangy take on the genre, we get more excited when the group performs songs that induce shoulder rolling and body thrusting. With its spark-filled guitar riffs, seductive horns and yearning lyrics, "Sweet Young Thang" is exactly what we need to find our summer groove.
Magnolia Summer, "Yesterday Was a Blur"
We swear that Chris Grabau's songwriting ability is constantly turned up to eleven. As Magnolia Summer, Grabau and friends are old hands at drawing up evocative tunes that build emotion through storytelling and layered instrumentation. We're totally down with that, but we also appreciate when the band just rocks the eff out. That's what we get with "Yesterday Was a Blur" — a straightforward, guitar-driven song with a title that describes what we tell ourselves many a hazy summer morning.
Kid Scientist, "Murder on the Dance Floor"
Summer is the season for parties -- the kind that start when you're hanging out with your best friend, who calls another friend over, who turns up the house speakers, which attracts fun-loving neighbors who invite their friends, who bring over cases of booze left over from a recent barbecue. Before you know it, you've got an adult Can't Hardly Wait situation happening, and that's the absolute perfect time to crank up Kid Scientist's sweaty dance tune.
Coultrain, "Streams & Rivers"
For many people, reggae is the definitive musical undercurrent of summer, with the beat evoking undulating hips, salty breezes and whiffs of a certain plant life. In "Streams & Rivers" Coultrain doesn't step fully into this genre, smartly choosing instead to pull its sunny, peaceful vibe and layer it with elements of R&B and pop. And that voice! Songwriter/vocalist Aaron Michael Frison gives the sun a run for its money when it comes to making us melt.
Tilts, "Hot for Pizza"
We've already talked about how music is linked to nostalgia, but what happens when a new song is soaked in juices of the past? That, friends, is when you discover the Inception of the music world. "Hot for Pizza" is a great example of the phenomenon, mixing elements of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" with Arctic Monkeys' "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" into Tilts' own cool summer cocktail.
Grace Basement, "The Way to Be"
Sometimes the best music moments are the ones you create for yourself. A song doesn't always have to be about what the lyrics say or what the band intended. One's interpretation depends heavily on personal experience and observations. That's how we feel with "The Way to Be," one of our favorite Grace Basement songs to listen to while kicking back with an iced tea, our feet propped up on the porch railing as we reflect on life's treasures and pitfalls. Tip: Listen to the tune in the evening, when the crickets add to the song's peacefulness.
And here's an old screenshot of a 2013 Summer Guide story that no longer is available in the digital archives. #Sadface.
Read about more fantastic experiences in St. Louis in the annual "Best of St. Louis" issue.