By George Sells
It’s a Sunday evening and the group Cherokee Moon has just taken the stage at the Handlebar in St. Louis’ Grove neighborhood. Getting here was a challenge in many ways, but the most pressing issue is the fact that singer Hal Pascale had her car stolen a few days earlier. Nearly everything she owned was inside.
“I lost everything,” she said of the incident. “NeNe of [fellow local band] Mammoth Piano actually lent me this dress so that I wouldn’t be in the same clothes I’ve been wearing for the last few days. So yeah, it’s not even rock bottom. It’s actually just awesome because I have this amazing, amazing project. That’s why I wake up.”
It’s why she wakes up. That, in a nutshell, describes the kind of dedication it takes to fuel a local band and a local music scene. That scene was on full display here as the Riverfront Times’ annual Showcase STL took place across the weekend. Ten venues hosted more than 100 acts, all curated to paint a sort of picture. This, according to organizer Joseph Hess, is a snapshot of the right-now in St. Louis music.
“We consider it to be a full-scale music festival,” he says of the event, which is home to aspiring soon-to-be music stars, rather than the big names that normally anchor these sorts of events. Only one out of town national act was part of the festivities. Guided By Voices anchored the Sunday acts on the large outdoor stage behind the Atomic Cowboy.
Leading up to that point, St. Louis acts of every stripe imaginable played the stages. Someone passing through for a couple of hours that night could have caught the folk/roots sound of Cherokee Moon, a hip hop feel with Mathias and the Pirates, a more country/rock beat from the High Fashion Kings, high volume heavy metal from Railhazer, and some full on electronic courtesy of Cave of Swords.
Sunyatta McDermott of Cave of Swords sees that small window of this large festival as a microcosm of what the St. Louis music scene is.
“Every time you think you have a handle on what the music scene in St. Louis is, there’s a whole universe you haven’t explored yet, so I’m constantly amazed at the quality and diversity of music in St. Louis.”
Despite battling some unusually high temperatures, the festival saw some good-sized crowds moving through. For some of the bands here, that’s a little unusual. That’s something organizers describe as an ongoing challenge for local bands.
“The amount of quality artists really outweighs the show-going population,” Hess said. In St. Louis you really have a lot of top level talent playing to empty rooms every night.”
He believes the many comparatively undiscovered gems floating about St. Louis’ music community should be viewed as an opportunity by fans.
“If you’re here and you’re not seeing local music every week, you only have to dig a little bit to find something that people in Chicago or New York would pay $40 a night to see, and you can probably see it for ten dollars, five dollars, sometimes free.”
Some in the audience were making this discovery first hand. Ehi Oribhabor, sitting with friends at a table in the Atomic Cowboy’s courtyard, said he doesn’t get out to live shows all that often. Showcase STL was proving to be an eye-opener.
“I feel pretty cultured right now. I’ve definitely heard lots of different kind of genres of music as well, which I think accounts for the different kinds of people,” he said as he scanned the crowd. “I think my favorite thing is seeing people from all different walks of life, kind of clustered together in one place.”
The question that looms here is that of growth. Over the decades, cities from Athens, to Austin, to Seattle and beyond have passed around the label of “the place to find what’s hot” in American music. Hess says St. Louis is already there when it comes to blues. Meanwhile, he is almost shockingly confident that the Gateway City can and will grab that distinction more broadly.
“I don’t know what it will take, but I can tell you with complete confidence that St. Louis will be that city,” he said. “If you’re talking about something on the mainstream level, I think St. Louis is on the cusp of that, and I think that that could happen at any time now, where the rest of the world wants to know what’s in the water here.”
It’s a great vote of confidence, but until those stars align, the musicians working these stages say they’ll keep leaning on each other, even when the crowds are small, or someone needs to borrow an outfit.
“Everyone’s really passionate,” Pascale said of the community of musicians. “And one of my favorite things about this scene is they’re so supportive. They want to track your growth and they believe in you and they’re there for you supporting the shows and the progress. But they’re also constantly reminding you not to take yourself too seriously.”