Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Bands @ Return of the Byrne: Stillwater

Return of the Byrne: A St. Louis Fundraiser for Burn Your Bookes at the Schalfly Tap Room is only a few days away. (Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m.)

In the lead up to the gig, we'll have a look at the bands who'll be playing
. Today it's Stillwater.

* * * * *

Fuck you, Cameron Crowe.

When you decided to swipe the name Stillwater for the band that your younger self follows in Almost Famous, you relegated one of the best St. Louis bands of the mid-1990s to wander in the white noise of the interwebs.

But I come today to resurrect St. Louis' Stillwater in collective memory, if only for a brief moment, before that white noise of the interwebs and Hollywood washes over it again. Let's call it a brief "Howdy" to the universe...

All three members of Stillwater are still making music. Guitarist/vocalist/principal songwriter Chris Grabau has fronted the critically acclaimed Magnolia Summer through three terrific albums -- Levers and Pulleys, From Driveways' Lost View and Lines from the Frame. (He also picked up a long-overdue nod as "Best Songwriter" in the 2009 Riverfront Times music poll.) Bassist John "Obie" O'Brien plays out with the Jenny Kavanaugh Band. Drummer Mike Rose has the sticks in Leadville -- which will also play at Return of the Byrne.

But the music they made as Stillwater deserves remembering. Their two CDs -- Full Throttle Day and State Line -- featured a combination of ringing clarity and sonic muscularity that was novel in St. Louis alt-country circles. And in live performance, Stillwater could tear it up.

What they've done since argues that Stillwater was a great launching pad for its trio of members. But the thing that stands out for me personally with Stillwater is the good feeling that the band induces in me even to this day. The overwhelming power of the band's music was always juxtaposed with a lyrical vulnerability and fragility. There's a tenderness to the band that's hard to articulate, and with which I identified as a writer and a fan.

The mid-1990s were in some ways a difficult time at Richard Byrne Inc. Often, when I think back to that era, I remember a lot of frustration with my own life and creative pursuits. I remember pointless feuds and wasted energies. The great times I had in that era were also suffused with sadness, even self-pity. I felt exploited where I worked (wait, I was exploited where I worked), blocked as a creative writer, and in some ways spinning my wheels.

But when I put on State Line this past weekend and let it wash over me as I wrote, the disc brought back all the wonders of that era and the happiness I felt at many moments. I remembered so clearly standing in bright sunshine with a microbrew at some outdoor festival or another, nodding along to "Porchlight" or "Legacy Song." Watching people even drunker than I was reel along to "Howdy." Calling out for "Handlebar" until Grabau would cave.

But more than that, when I think about Stillwater I remember the great friendship I had with Chris, Obie and Mike. The pranks, the talk of great plans, and the knowledge that even if music couldn't always change your life, it was there to console, cajole and make you smile.

The exercise of previewing the bands for Return of the Byrne has reminded me that whatever I thought or still think about myself in that era, or how much I regret some of my own failings back then, I had really wonderful friends and heard some really wonderful music. And even helped some of it along in my way.

I am delighted that Stillwater is reforming for this gig. And that along with all the other bands, we're going to put ourselves in a very happy place on Thursday night at the Schlafly Tap Room.

(Stillwater promo shot, 1995ish? From left: Mike Rose, Chris Grabau, John "Obie" O'Brien)

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