Reflecting on St. Paul and the Broken Bones

I had low expectations for the North Liberty Blues & BBQ festival, which hints at the unmentioned “brews” in the space of the ampersand. In part this is due to my opinion of North Liberty as a cookie cutter town, the perfect setting for Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier” from OK Computer to serve as a constant background soundtrack. As I wound down Zeller onto Jones and saw a panoply of suburban architecture sprouting up before the fields, my suspicions seemed confirmed. Getting out of the car in the middle of the vast parking area, I walked toward the brightly colored bouncy slide and was overwhelmed by the aroma of cooked meat (which, as a vegetarian, still never fails to smell good). Looking out into the sparsely shaded field and to the sun blazing, it seemed like a bad idea that would be made worse.

I walked past the food vendors, noticing the long lines that seemed to be moving swiftly enough to keep hungry festival-goers from any sort of mutiny. Everyone was smiling — which seems like it should be a cliché about North Liberty’s niceness, even if it isn’t true. I found my way to the entrance, and then floated around in the shade of one of the tents provided. It was quite nice — especially because Kevin B.F. Burt was playing in that tent. Although it made conversation difficult, it was perfect. It’s sometimes easy to forget how talented Burt is due to his ubiquity in eastern Iowa, but in the context of the Blues & BBQ, his talent with the guitar and the harmonica was quite clear.

The other opening acts were fine, playing blues music in a way that allowed the power of the formula to shine through individual solos. I love the blues, but only made the long trek to North Liberty for one reason: St. Paul & the Broken Bones. I’d seen them play the Mill and at Hinterlands, and was beyond excited for the opportunity to see them again — for free.

By the time the band entered, presaging lead vocalist Paul Janeway’s perfectly executed dramatic entrance with beautiful instrumentation, the sun had set. The sky was a perfect shade that would rest between Imperial Navy and Indigo in any self-respecting box of Crayolas. The white tent next to the stage offset this color perfectly, a luminous contrast point beneath a crescent moon. A few stars were there for context, but the texture of the dark blue, enabled by some trick of the clouds, made the absence of stars worthwhile.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones -- photo by Tyler Garcia
St. Paul and the Broken Bones — photo by Tyler Garcia

The true star, though, was Janeway. The Broken Bones are an incredible band — the horns, the guitars, the keys, the drums are impeccable and talented — but Janeway performs at another level. As he had the first times I’d seen him, he exploded onto the stage in a full suit and dazzling white shoes covered with sequins. His suits, one quickly discovers, are almost instantly drenched in sweat (although this show was far cooler than the others had been), because, once the microphone is in his hand, Janeway soars.

Janeway is the antithesis of the kind of person one would expect to see on The Bachelor. He’s short, bald and portly. But he moves with the grace of a trained dancer, spinning and strutting across the stage. During instrument solos he suddenly will strike some sort of statuesque form — the perfect form. Each step has the appearance of weightlessness, as though one of Rilke’s angels or Kierkegaard’s Knights of Infinite Resignation were deigning to alight upon the earth. Each step is beautiful, and helps transform Janeway into raw sex appeal — an appeal that resonates deep within everyone in the audience, in spite of his physique and being drenched in sweat. In fact, it’s after seeing him move his body — balding, sweating, suited — with such seemingly effortless grace that I felt it unnecessary to watch Madonna ever again. His body becomes the focal point of everyone — and Janeway feeds off the focus of the crowd. When he is overcome by a song, as tends to occur during “Broken Bones and Pocket Change,” he’ll throw his body to the floor of the stage and inch his way across it, holding up only one hand as a testament to the spirit of music that guides him. The microphone is a powerful prop throughout the show, jumping from one hand to the next in a quick motion, or being put onto the stand — only to be torn from it, as Janeway feels the needs to sing even more.

The only thing that could possibly vie for the audience’s attention is Janeway’s voice, and the voice is a marvel. I have listened to many live male vocalists, but I never have heard a voice with such power, such passion, such precision and such range. He can hold notes with rough edges and then soar tenderly over the band in a flawless falsetto. His voice can bump and jump from one octave to the next and back again, a worthy companion to his body in space. The voice can shade with subtlety, then blast forth with heartbroken abandon, and move back to a small location between notes within the phrasing of a particular word. His voice is an unstoppable force that no audience member can contain — although no audience member ever would ever dream of asking this of him. His voice and body work in tandem to physically express the diverse range of instruments on the stage, as though he were the rod that collected the entirety of the band’s energy and transferred it to us, his fans on the ground.

Because Janeway’s talent causes him to outshine even those denizens of the heavens, it’s easy to forget the band until Janeway points them out. And once one hears, one understands the soul of the song; the soft jazz tones that slide out from the trombone like smoke from a cigarette left unattended in a nightclub. The baritone saxophone provides the sound of soul, deep and smooth. The guitar work, featured during different of the encore numbers, is flawless, but in an exciting rather than a boring way. The musicians are clearly well-versed in the origins of soul, bringing it to life creatively. One senses nothing derivative, or anything that seems to emulate one or two acts in particular. They’re not a “revival” act; instead, they use traditional songs as the only vehicle possible for sustaining the truths they’ve experienced.

Part of that truth is contextualized by Janeway’s experience with Christianity. From the beginning of the set, when he told the crowd he would “take them to church,” to the end of the first set when he announced that he’d been singing songs in church since he was four years of age, the religious dimension of St. Paul and the Broken Bones (including, of course, the name) was clear. In some ways, Janeway’s explicit mention was superfluous. When he sang about sanctification, the audience was already drawn into the holy as we sat in the grass and chairs, as we stood in the crowd, hands waving in the air in a way reminiscent of Charismatic Christian and traditional Black services. There was no mockery: it was the spirit of what Christians call god, translated into a secular BBQ festival. We were in a church built of the world, of nature, consisting of the community around us. The blast of the horns, the guitars and drums, the voice sailing and floating all around this backdrop concretized the space. As he sang, the power built impossibly long and loud until the instruments took over, in a moment of actualized grace.

Most festivals I have been to take place either in cities or in natural amphitheaters. The choice of Centennial Park, which I’d originally despised, was perfect as the sky went to a blackness that seemed, in its infinite expanse, to be the only space capable of containing the band’s energy. There was no boundary to the horizon, as the grassy vastness is set slightly on a rise. No trees. No buildings. No mountains. And the sense of the infinite graced St. Paul and the Broken Bones, whose power participated with it and was communicated to us, the congregation, below.

The encore was riveting. They moved from a “church song” to a cover of the Beatles’ “She’s so Heavy,” to a final song that kept coming to a close, Janeway replacing the microphone, only to rip it off and start singing again, the band keeping pace. He’d lie on the floor, overcome, only to leap up and start pouring his heart out to the audience once again. The band played faster, and he kept up, and the intensity brought a mighty crescendo to the night, a crescendo of triumph and joy, earned by having introduced us to a more capacious vision of how we can live our lives. It wasn’t a Christian concert — I’ve been to several of those in my life — but it was a concert where I could clearly feel the presence and majesty and dignity of what others have called god in the past.

I left the show with a heart that had been broken but exposed to how big it needed to grow. The band, in that space, showed the smallness of my normal operating assumptions about life and music, and dared me toward the infinite range of power that’s possible. They transformed ache and pain with a grace that makes it beautiful, visceral, powerful. It was the third time I’d seen the band, but it was the best of their performances and an absolute present. It was for free, a true and real gift offered by North Liberty. I think differently of the town, now, although I imagine that St. Paul and the Broken Bones gave far more than they’d even expected possible.