The Samples

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It’s unquestionably Sean Kelly’s voice, melodies, and onstage presence that fuels this band and keeps the audience at rapt attention.

BLUEBERRY HILL’S THE DUCK ROOM, ST. LOUIS (OCT. 31)

Sean Kelly has to be one of the most centered and determined musicians I’ve ever seen. The Samples' frontman—blessed with a strong, soaring voice and an unerring ear for melody—has weathered numerous lineup changes, shaky dealings with record labels, and the kind of exasperating career obstacles that would have stymied or sucked the energy out of many other performers. Yet Kelly has always managed to bounce back and keep making fresh music with a positive attitude that belies the struggles he’s seen. He’s a singular lesson in the power of positive thinking and adapting to change.

The Samples’ recent Halloween performance at the Duck Room seemed indicative of a real career resurgence for Kelly and company. After a few tumultuous years that saw the departure of some long-time members of the band, Kelly took the stage looking spiffier than ever and sporting a new beard, and proceeded to deliver a thoroughly pleasant, energizing set that clearly showed the Samples have entered a new era. The audience was quickly treated to a batch of Samples classics, including “Little Silver Ring,” “We All Move On,” “Feel Us Shaking,” and a stirring, letter-perfect take of “When It’s Raining” that thrilled the crowd. When Kelly’s voice is matched as well to melody and lyrics as it is here, he has few peers in the reggae-flavored pop-rock genre.

Several new songs from the upcoming new disc Rehearsing for Life were performed, including “My Guitar,” which was heavy on the lively keyboards, and the more melancholy “Sad World” (“What a sad world/No one has the answers…”). The songwriting sounded as solid as ever, and there’s already quite an advance buzz for the new album. But naturally the audience responded most boisterously to the more familiar songs, such as the crowd-pleasing “Did You Ever Look So Nice” and the environmental-themed “World of Machines,” which is fairly poignant. So is the bittersweet tune “As Tears Fall,” which Kelly dedicated to his late mother (he usually mentions her once or twice at every show). Kelly’s voice was much stronger this time overall than at the last Samples show I caught; there was also a bit less bantering with the audience (although he did his usual shooting pictures of audience members with his trusty digital camera) in favor of more disciplined musicianship. Kelly seems to have really settled down, now that the Samples look to be on track professionally and legally. And though all the other band members had great moments, it’s unquestionably Kelly’s voice, melodies, and onstage presence that fuels this band and keeps the audience at rapt attention.

St. Louis blues trio Impala Deluxe opened the show and kicked considerable booty with their raw, high-powered elemental riffing. David G. Kalz is a ferociously talented guitar player, and he fired off more than a few searing leads. Highlights included “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” an awesome rocker that Kalz said the band “tried to get Chrysler to buy from us” (its driving rhythm and subject matter made the reasons for that pretty obvious), a cool take on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (which then segued into “Ring of Fire”), an Allman Brothers instrumental, and Kalz’s amazing black and white axe. Not many costumes in the audience this Halloween, but lots of musical tricks and treats on stage.

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