The story of the Bottoms Up Blues Gang is the story of the cooperative environment that exists among St. Louis blues musicians.
They might be the hardest working band in St. Louis today. At the very least, they’re the most persistent, hanging around the local blues scene until they’ve become an accepted part of the landscape. After only two and a half years, Kari Liston and Jeremy Segel-Moss—collectively known as the Bottoms Up Blues Gang—have played over 500 shows together and will release their second CD April 4. If you’re a blues fan, you’ve probably already heard about the event—the Gang is notorious for self-promotion, hanging flyers at every venue, handing out leaflets during their set breaks, and working their way onto KDHX’s blues programs to plug their next event. With all the attention they manage to garner for themselves, why are we bothering to give them some free press? Because they might just deserve it.
Don’t get me wrong—the Bottoms Up Blues Gang is not the best blues band working in St. Louis today; I wouldn’t even put them in my top five. The thing is, they wouldn’t put themselves in the top five either, and that’s part of what’s interesting about this little two-person band (harmonica player Adam Andrews, who appeared on the group’s first album, is no longer a permanent band member, although he still makes guest appearances and plays on one track on the new album). They’re a working band, making their living from the money they earn playing four to five gigs a week, but they still consider themselves apprentices to the St. Louis blues greats who work the local bar scene.
The story of the Bottoms Up Blues Gang is the story of the cooperative environment that exists among St. Louis blues musicians. It’s also the story of two people who, without any prior experience or background, are making a run at a dream.
The story begins almost three years ago when harmonica player Eric McSpadden and guitarist Brian Curran started playing Thursday nights together at the Beale on Broadway downtown. The gig became a gathering place for other area musicians; every week the show was a little different, with a rotating cast of people sitting in. Liston, a high school classmate of Brian Curran, had just returned from Milwaukee and began coming to the Beale to hear to her old friend. It was there she met Segel-Moss, a blues fanatic who haunted the three blues joints on the strip of Broadway just south of highway 40. Neither had been in a band before, and Segel-Moss had never played guitar in public. The two, along with Andrews, became friends, united by a love for the music and an admiration for McSpadden and Curran.
Liston could sing—her bluesy voice is enough to send chills down your spine the first time you hear it—and she started singing a song or two at those Thursday night shows. She and Curran decided to team up for a once-a-week gig at the Duck Club in St. Charles. Meanwhile, Segel-Moss was still working on his guitar skills, taking lessons from anyone he could find, including Curran. One Wednesday night at the Venice Café, Curran called Segel-Moss out of the crowd, inviting him to sit onstage and play for the first time. On the very first song, a nervous Segel-Moss broke a guitar string.
It was a rough start, but Segel-Moss wasn’t deterred. He’d found the place he wanted to be: onstage, playing the blues. When Curran couldn’t make one of the Duck Club shows, Liston asked Segel-Moss to fill in. For three weeks, Segel-Moss and Liston rehearsed, learning over 30 songs for that first gig. It was a success, and the Bottoms Up Blues Gang was born.
Today, hundreds of gigs later, the band is booked four to five nights a week. While Liston and Segel-Moss are the heart of the band, other musicians sit in almost every night, their brains picked for tips and technique advice. The two are both fast learners, though, as the new album proves.
The Bottoms Up Blues Gang released their first CD, South Broadway Blues, after only a year together. The album was a solid first effort, but it was still a first effort, an exercise for the band as much as an album for the listener. Their second release, aptly titled Second Set, is much more, a mature album that showcases how far the band has come. Composed of 13 songs—6 of them originals (half written by Segel-Moss, half by Liston)—the album was recorded at three separate locations with the help of 12 special guests. How did the Gang manage to get some of the greatest musicians playing in St. Louis today to appear on their album? Segel-Moss simply says, “We asked them.”
And that’s the beauty of the St. Louis blues scene—young, up-and-coming artists can ask established pros like Brian Casserly (St. Louis Social Club, Coronet Chop Suey), Bennie Smith (Bennie Smith and the Urban Blues Express), and Keith Doder (Keith Doder and the Blue City Band) to record with them. The result is a polished album filled with unexpected surprises, such as a remake of the Ani DiFranco song “Back Around,” with Casserly on trumpet and trombone. Among the originals, Segel-Moss’s “Can’t Help But Love You,” recorded acoustically at the Dogtown Studio, stands out for its simple yet rollicking take on an old blues theme: the cheating, lying lover. As on South Broadway Blues, Matt Murdick (St. Louis Social Club, Rich McDonough Blues Band) lends his sparkling piano play to a number of songs, including Liston’s “12 Lives.”
The CD will be rolled out at a release party on Sunday, April 4, from 6 to 9 p.m. at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups (700 S. Broadway). And then what? The band members still describe themselves as “babies” in the world of blues. “We’re in school right now,” Segel-Moss says. They plan to be patient, to continue to learn from their mentors even as they play shows both in and out of town. They recently traveled to Columbia and Kansas City and have gigs booked in both Seattle and New Orleans for later in the year. The goal is fairly modest—they don’t plan on touring the world, just on making a living doing something they love. We should all be so lucky.