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Annual Guide: The Music Issue (Riverfront Times)

Collage of three covers from the Riverfront Times' annual music issue

The Riverfront Times' music issue has been published in many forms, but the essence of the guide -- helping readers discover the amazing performers that have reignited the region's notoriety for music -- has remained steadfast year after year.

The items below are just a few of my many contributions for the music issue over the years. The annual issue features staff and picks in pop, rock, hip-hop, songwriting and more. When my schedule allows it, I've also edited and fact-checked copy for some issues. This is one of my favorite annual projects to work on because it pushes me to our fantastic musical talent.


Via Dove Via Dove has some major swagger — and well-earned swagger, at that. Equal parts Rolling Stones, Soundgarden and U2, Via Dove pushes sweaty, carnal rock & roll that occasionally veers into pure rapture. Ballads or rockers, Via Dove's songs have a fiery heartbeat — a steady hum that reminds you that these tunes are about living. That hum is all the more pronounced these days, with new band members adding an even fuller sound through keys, a gazillion guitars and all the ass-shakin' tambourine you can handle. As a bonus at the live show, vocalist Andy Shadburne evokes the late Michael Hutchence's smolder and has eye sex with seemingly every audience member, smoothly drawing you into the band's thrall. With so many genres and subgenres of music these days, straight-up rock sometimes is overlooked. Via Dove is the band that shoves it back into your face and makes you wonder how you went without it for so long.

Sleepy Kitty

As St. Louis has come to learn, Sleepy Kitty is anything but a yawn. Partners in every way, guitarist Paige Brubeck and drummer Evan Sult (himself an RFT contributor) have been entertaining the Gateway City (and the country!) with their bright, jangly noise-pop for nearly a decade, and we're still craving more. With fuzzy notes of grunge, surf and punk tempered by both indie sweetness and angst, Sleepy Kitty's tunes pack all kinds of emotions within its instrumentation, to say nothing of the duo's lyrics. Brubeck tackles gender issues, adulthood woes and even what it feels like when your van is stolen. With Cherokee Street serving as the band's home for both rehearsal and its screenprinting enterprise, we'd wager that Sleepy Kitty will have a lot more autobiographical songs in the years to come. Paws up for that!

Recommended if you like: Sleigh Bells, Belly, Dum Dum Girls

Whiskey War Festival St. Louis is blessed with a ton of great music festivals that feature huge names. Sometimes, though, the local folks are the ones who delight you the most. Started in 2012, the Whiskey War Festival has seen three increasingly stellar lineups of Midwestern talent across a number of genres, with a focus on indie, folk and the blues. Local art and food also are part of the fun, as is plenty of alcohol (natch). With all of this happening at a VFW in St. Charles County, the Whiskey War Festival feels less like a major production and more like a delightful family reunion where you can kick back with a can of Budweiser and some tunes before you play lawn darts.

Joan of Dark

Like its revolutionary French namesake, Joan of Dark is here to rescue you — from mediocre rock, that is, not from English domination. The band's four members are all veterans of of the local music community, with pedigrees from Née, Arson for Candy, the Skekses, the McGees and more, and they've been racking up the accolades for their relatively new supergroup. Formed just a little over a year ago, Joan of Dark already has become a must-see act, with songs that veer into punk, haunting pop and straight-up rock & roll. Wielding tunes as sharp as a sword, Joan of Dark deserves its local sainthood.

Recommended if you like: The Muffs, the Donnas, the Runaways, Veruca Salt

Mvstermind Einstein This is Muhammad Austin's time. Working for years in St. Louis' hip-hop scene as the solo artist Mvstermind Einstein and as part of his collective MME (which we billed last December as one of the eight acts to watch in 2014), Austin has been on fire in 2014 and is finally earning recognition and opportunities from outside of the Gateway City. Opening for rappers like Ab-Soul and playing major festivals in New York and Atlanta, Austin has been showcasing his smooth grooves and poignant lyrics that demonstrate his promise as an inventive, commercially viable artist. But his heart will never leave St. Louis — the man puts out quality videos and songs by the dozen, and his lyrical commentary on Ferguson has been eye-opening for many.

Bear Hive "Best new band." "Band to watch." Bear Hive has rightfully earned some major accolades over the past couple of years, but we can't help but consider the trio our little secret, in the best way possible. There's a magical quality to the way Chris Phillips, Joel Burton and Nate Heininger perform together — a feeling of "Damn, they're good! And they're MINE!" — that we just don't want to let go of, no matter how big they get or how many music experts notice them. These multi-instrumentalists fill albums and rooms with sonic sighs, expressive lyrics and foot-stomping riffs, echoing dreamy Death Cab for Cutie or a more earnest MGMT. Bear Hive is the band to hold in your heart now, because by next year the secret may be out, and it'll be too late. 

Mathias and the Pirates

Out on the sea, with a singular shared goal and limited resources, a ship's crew becomes family; each member syncs up to swing the oars, raise the sails, stoke the coals. So it goes with Mathias and the Pirates, whose members expertly build beats, grooves and lyrics into songs that can withstand any wave. Music scene veterans DJ LB and Grover Stewart lay down the sonic foundation along with a rotating circle of guests, while Mathias James and Ms. Vizion trade lyrics and harmonies in a rhythmic cadence that will leave you shouting "ahoy!" With equal parts funk, soul and pop, the Pirates' version of hip-hop gives every listener something to enjoy. Batten down the hatches, because we're going sailing.

Recommended if you like: Common, De La Soul, Digable Planets, the Roots

Bassamp and Dano

In its nascent days, punk thrived on throwing up its middle finger and upending established political or corporate regimes. While that certainly continues these days, the genre has also grown to embrace pop riffs and good old-fashioned fun — and nobody has more fun than Bassamp and Dano. With speedy songs filled with lyrics about beer, boobs and being a goddamn American, the party punkers bring joyous insanity to a style that otherwise can be intimidating to the uninitiated. When Bassamp and Dano lament their explosive diarrhea on stage, it's clear that everyone's welcome to the fun poop-punk party. Check out their newly released split with the Queers, "The Queers Regret Making a Record with Bassamp and Dano."

Recommended if you like: The Ramones, the Queers, Screeching Weasel, America

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