Thursday, September 1, 2016

[REVIEW] Bully Crashes SLAM Underground in St. Louis

PHOTO BY JASON GONULSEN

Words by Kevin Korinek

The SLAM Underground Friday series at the St. Louis Art Museum stepped up its game last week, with the addition of Nashville-based band, Bully, a flashback grunge quartet that breathes new life into an old sound. I had heard rumors of the show being in the works for weeks but was unable to confirm until the day SLAM made the announcement. Needless to say, I was excited.

I had just watched them perform an amazing show last fall at Off Broadway to a near sold-out crowd. It was a little strange to see younger people listening to a sound that I came of age to in the mid-90s. Though I don’t go back to those records often, that sound still resonates with me.

Granted, a lot of the bands from that era weren't worth the cd’s they were laser printed on. But the sound is everything here, and Alicia Bognanno, frontwoman of Bully, knows it. She interned with Steve Albini in his all-analog studio, learning the ropes of how to make a killer sounding record. Albini, of course, founded post-hardcore bands like Big Black, and Shellac (who are playing October 30th at the Firebird) before he went on to produce some of the most notable records of that decade, working with bands like Nirvana, Jesus Lizard, and PJ Harvey, as well as more recent bands, like Cloud Nothings (one of my favorites).

And when you listen to Bully’s full-length record, Feels Like, you can hear Bognanno’s hard work that went into taking that sound and making it her own. Watching them perform for free at the St. Louis Art Museum sounded like a good way to close-out my summer of music.

While waiting in the Sculpture Hall for tickets for the first performance to be made available, an old woman sat next to me and struck up a conversation. She saw the small book I brought with me to read while waiting. The book, titled Pie School (I’ve garnered an interest in making pies lately), reminded her of some of her favorite pie recipes.

The woman’s car had gotten a flat tire in Forest Park, so she came to wait for AAA in the art museum’s luxurious air conditioning. “Are you here for the concert,” she asked. I replied that I was -- that I don’t really get out as often as I used to and tonight was my night off. “Good,” she replied, smiling. “You should do these kinds of things when you’re young. If you don’t do them, you start to forget that you liked them, and then you don’t do them anymore.”

It was a curious chinwag, not only because we talked about pie-making and music, but because I don’t normally elicit free-form conversations from total strangers -- I was glad to make her brief acquaintance. When her husband came to pick her up, she told me to have fun. I decided to take her advice.

Rock band Bully was set to take the stage in the auditorium, a perfect, unassuming venue for live music. Bognanno could be seen ducking through the crowds, trying desperately not to be recognized, but it was hard to hide, with her shock of stringy, long blonde hair standing out in the hallways. She stopped only a few times to say hello to friends before ducking into the backstage hallway.

As it turned out, the auditorium was a great spot to watch live music. Most people sat in the rows of the chairs, while others stood in the back. I took to standing at the side of the stage and had plenty of room. While the informal set-up was impressive, given that the auditorium isn’t built for this kind of music, the impression it gave was more like being an insider at a party, rather than a formal show. Bognanno and company took the stage promptly at 8. I had to leave my cocktail with the doorman, who graciously agreed to keep an eye on it until I returned (cheers to you doorman, wherever you are).

Bully made the most of a modest, 40-minute set, before taking a break to play the second, but Bognanno was all-in for every song, every crunchy, 1-5 power chord on her Fender Jaguar guitar. On songs like "Reason" and "Too Tough," I was reminded of a return to Juliana Hatfield sensibilities -- snarling, Joan Jett vocals and fuzz-laden guitar hooks. It was a sound that never really took off in a big way, but Bognanno seems poised to commandeer and bring it back to the mainstream.

While her main hit, "Trying," revved up the crowd, I was more interested in hearing tracks like "Picture" or "Milkman" -- where the rock hooks hit heaviest without being melodramatic. Bognanno tore through song after song, vocals being dragged across a gravel road. By end of the set, I wished I had gotten also gotten a ticket for the second performance. And then I remembered that this was what fun felt like.

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