It’s not often a local act gets to book great talent and perform at a music festival, but musician John Henry with his band, the Engine, accomplished both brilliantly at the recent Open Highway Music Festival at Off Broadway.
John Henry and the Engine filled the opening slot for the third night of the festival directly before Lucero front man Ben Nichols, a musician Henry clearly admires. Both had the daunting task of playing their sets prior to headlining local legends, The Bottle Rockets. As soon as the first notes started, the crowd streamed to the front of the stage; this band certainly has a loyal following. By opening with the jangly “Spinning Wheel” – which they just debuted a video for earlier this summer – they made it immediately clear why their alt-country, bluesy rock ‘n roll sound was a good fit for the festival.
One of the most appealing things about John Henry is that they transition really well between sentimental ballads like “When Your Horses Tire” or “Cut Your Anchor Free” to upbeat rockers like the sexy, harmonica laden “Lightning City Blues”. This track was the highlight of the night as drummer Nate Moran moved to center stage banging his bass drum and urging his fellow musicians into an excited fervor. The two new songs that followed, “Broken City” and “Vagabond Romance” were impressive, the latter reminding me a bit of Golden Smog or Paul Westerberg’s Grandpaboy.
As I watched some lovely girls in front of the stage sing along with dreamy eyes to “Sad Face of Yours” and “Leave This Place”, I was struck by the disparity of Henry’s gritty, raw, almost strained vocals and the clean, relaxed music the band makes look so easy and fun. It may seem like a strange combination, but if you’ve seen John Henry and the Engine live, you know it clicks and clicks well. They are doing great things for the local music scene in St. Louis and I can’t wait to see and hear more from them.