The big music festival didn’t officially start until Wednesday, but it unofficially started with a bang Tuesday night — as Sleater-Kinney entertained the crowd at the SXSW Film Festival’s closing-night party … at an unlikely venue, the Guerrero Produce Warehouse. It’s walking distance from Austin’s downtown, but it was definitely in a part of town that doesn’t see as many concerts as the Sixth Street nightclub row. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to the right place, as I walked by myself down an eastern stretch of Sixth Street, past houses that look a little askew, Mexican bars and a guy rolling a tire down the sidewalk. But I was on the right track…
The Guerrero Produce Warehouse is exactly what it says. No produce was in sight, tonight, however — although I did notice that the sign on the wall about Sleater-Kinney starting its set at 10:30 was taped just above a label for: “Rodent Station No. 4.”
While everyone took advantage of the free food and beer, I drifted over to the area by the stage, which was pretty empty in the early part of the evening, and staked out a spot for photos. A guy walking by remarked, “Boy, you really must want to see this band.” No duh. Eventually, more S-K fans filtered in and soon enough, it was reasonably crowded.
The ladies of S-K were even more animated tonight than they’d been in the two shows I saw in 2005. Carrie Brownstein was really doing a lot of classic-rock guitar-hero moves — kung fu kicks, Townshend windmills, and in general, jumping around. She was smiling an awful lot — clearly having a ball.
Corin Tucker’s banshee vocals were as amazing as ever, and things got really incredible when Carrie and Corin were trading guitar licks in front of Janet Weiss’ powerhouse drumming. The songs from The Woods (my favorite record of 2005) were just as great as I expected, and the long guitar solo in “Let’s Call It Love” even took on new dimensions as Brownstein continued to experiment with it.
For their encore, S-K took audience requests for some of their older songs and also played a cover of “The Promised Land.” (They always seem to include one interesting cover in their sets.) SEE PHOTOS OF SLEATER-KINNEY… SEE THE SET LIST (which doesn’t include the encore).
On the way back to the hotel from the party, I passed a shop selling religious statues and candles, looked into the window and saw a life-sized model of a human skeleton in a white robe, one its bony fingers stretched out to greet passers-by.
I stopped at Beerland for the last set of the night — LIL’ CAP’N TRAVIS, who should really be bigger than they are. Great roots-rock, with three alternating vocalists and a damn fine pedal-steel player (doing some interesting things I’d never seen before on the instrument). A nice show, though I was fading by 2 a.m…. SEE PHOTOS OF LIL’ CAP’N TRAVIS.
The first day party that I hit is the Guitar Town/Conqueroo bash at Mother Egan’s. As I walked in, JAMES McMURTRY was playing a solo acoustic set. I haven’t kept up with his music in the last few years, but the short performance that I see here persuades me that I should. “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” is a really powerful song, probably one of the best political-protest songs of the last few years, and its stirring portrayal of Americans struggling to make it on the minimum wage (among other topics) seemed to rivet the attention of the crowd. A goose-bumps moment. (SEE PHOTO.)
Next on the lineup is TOM FREUND, whose music is totally new to me. On a few of the songs, he plays stand-up bass as he sings, which is an unusual combination in the music world. I like it… With his gruff voice and the bass-heavy arrangements, it reminds me a little of Tom Waits or Morphine (but more roots-rock than either of those). Interesting percussion and lap steel accompaniment from his backup players. (Beatle Bob shows up to dance alongside the stage as Freund is playing, my second Beatle Bob sighting of the festival — he was also at last night’s Lil’ Cap’n Travis show.) Freund closes with a cover of Buffalo Springfiel’s “For What It’s Worth.” (SEE PHOTO.)
STEVE WYNN & THE MIRACLE 3 are next. I’ve been hearing raves about this guy for the past few years, didn’t really get into his music until listening to the latest CD, tick…tick…tick. The songs have grown on me, and it’s undeniable that Wynn has a bang-up band that transforms these tunes into real rockers. (Plus, he has a cute female drummer, whose face was very expressive throughout the show…) SEE PHOTOS OF STEVE WYNN.
I left the party after that, heading over the convention center for a couple of industry talks and a performance by a local band covering classic girl group songs, THE CARROTS. (SEE PHOTO.) In the first celebrity event of SXSW,THE BEASTIE BOYS are “interviewed” by the audience. Maybe not such a good idea. The questions are OK, but the Boys often give short, sarcastic answers, leading to some awkward moments of silence and calls for “any more questions?” A moderator would have helped… Best part that I saw was just their reaction to the set with big comfy chairs:
“This is some real Actors Studio-type shit.”
I saw a little bit of the performance by I LOVE YOU BUT I’VE CHOSEN DARKNESS at Emo’s day party, and couldn’t get into it. (SEE PHOTO.)
The Velvet Spade… what a crappy venue (at least the indoor portion of it). There was a long line of people waiting to get in at the 8 p.m. starting time, thanks to the fact that the place just hosted a rock ‘n’ roll party for Texas Governor Rick Perry… which ran late. Everyone finally piles into the place, and the little room, with the “stage” just inches off the floor is crammed tight. No space for bands to store their equipment, so that’s out in front of the stage, too.
THE SUN is playing… I still haven’t gotten around to getting the CD these guys put out a few years ago, produced by Jay Bennett. Saw them open for the Flaming Lips a couple of years ago at Chicago’s Riv. They certainly have spirit and they certainly make a lot of noise. I’m not sure yet what to make of them. I like what I could hear, but at times, it seems like good songs are buried under too much feedback. By the last couple of songs, the Sun focused on more easily recognized melodies. And I like the fact that the band uses as many as two keyboards in some songs, while keeping the music in a loud-semi-punk/garage band style. At one point, a scream by the lead vocalist is so loud that I notice a couple of people in the crowd rearing back their heads as if they’ve been slapped. SEE PHOTOS OF THE SUN.
I head outside to the Velvet Spade Patio, a considerably nicer place to see a band, although it has problems with sound bleed from nearby Club DeVille. One of my best memories of previous SXSW’s is seeing the Wrens playing a day party at this patio, hearing the music of the band next door and playing along impromptu. Tonight, after catching about two songs by GOLDENBOY (SEE PHOTO.) (I liked the mp3 at swsw.com, but the duo didn’t create much of an impression on me live), I see THE REPUTATION from Chicago. The band’s a little late in setting up, but nothing too terrible. Leader Elizabeth Elmore makes a remark about the group’s previous SXSW gig being a disaster, in which a keyboard was thrown off the stage. “It’s kind of a cliffhanger to see if it’s as much of a train wreck as last year’s,” she says. Not sure what that was all about, but tonight it’s definitely not a disaster. No keyboard is present to be thrown. The Reputation plays solid guitar-driven power pop, keeping the volume pretty high at all times. I enjoyed it, although the sound wasn’t great — Elmore’s vocals were often all but inaudible. SEE PHOTOS OF THE REPUTATION.
Keeping with the Chicago theme for a while, I go over to the Lava Lounge Patio for some of the Flameshovel Records showcase. It’s a cool label putting out music by a lot of interesting bands these days. I came in as LYING IN STATES was playing. Its music is fierce with some unexpected artsy moves. I can picture some of the mainstream, er, I mean, “alternative” rock radio listeners getting into this band, but its music is smarter than most of that stuff, with a few moments that remind me of Radiohead. SEE PHOTOS OF LYING IN STATES.
While the next band, BOUND STEMS, is setting up, the stench of sewage fills the area in front of the stage. Water is pooling up through a drain in the floor. The crowd scatters, a guy tries to mop up the mess, but the odor lingers. Bound Stems soldiers on, decorating its mike stands and drum kit with foliage — a la British Sea Power. Nice touch of atmosphere for the stage show, though it’d be better without that sewer smell. Anyway, I catch just a few songs by Bound Stems, and don’t form too much of an impression. When the male and female vocalists put some passion into the chorus, it starts to take on the emotional resonance of the Arcade Fire, which is a good thing. (SEE PHOTO.)
Next stop: Emo’s. The Norwegian band SERENA MANEESH comes out, with the guitarist/singer draped in a white fringe shawl (this is a guy) and scarves hanging from the mike stand. The bass player is a tall, very Nordic-looking gal with long, white-blonde hair who has a bit of the Nico look about her. (Not the Neko look…) I had considered catching Serena Maneesh’s recent concert at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, so I was glad to get another opportunity to see them. I don’t understand a word of what they’re singing (was it English or Norwegian?), but the waves of guitar noise are fabulous, in the great tradition of My Bloody Valentine, and there’s also a hippy psychedelic vibe that reminds me of the Warlocks. Except that these Nords look like outcasts from a Viking crocheting commune. SEE PHOTOS OF SERENA MANEESH.
OF MONTREAL is next on the Emo’s stage. I’ve listened to this band’s last two albums and found myself sort of liking the music but not buying into it completely. With their Brian Eno-ish electronic dance show, they didn’t captivate me much as a live act, either, though I could see some of the people in attendance were rabid fans. And I have to admit that was a pretty impressive entrance by the (male) lead singer, who came out in a wedding dress as “Here Comes the Bride” was playing, only to have the white dress pulled off by his bandmates, revealing a bare torso and white trousers underneath. SEE PHOTOS OF OF MONTREAL.
After 15 or 20 minutes of hearing Of Montreal, I decided to skidaddle over to the Parish… Catch a few minutes downstairs by GIL MANTERA’S PARTY DREAM… not long enough to comment on the band, just long enough to snap a couple of pictures. (SEE PHOTO.) Then I go upstairs for ART BRUT, whose 2005 albumBang Bang Rock & Roll is one of the more fun recordings to come out of the recent Brit punk revival. Art Brut lived up to its potential as a live act. I’d never see lead singer Eddie Argos before, so I was in for a bit of shock as he followed the rest of the band out onto the stage. Young punk? Hardly. He comes out in a business suit, and his mustache and neatly cut hair make him look more like a character from “The Office” than someone in a punk band. He puts on a show that’s as much a comedy act as a concert, with very funny lyrics complemented by his exaggerated expressions… (including many references to the band’s name, as in the command, “Art Brut, Go!”). As the show went on, he got more sweaty and his white office shirt came untucked, revealing a bit of protruding belly. SEE PHOTOS OF ART BRUT.
THE PALM SCHOOL CHOIR, an actual choir from a local school in Austin, won an amazing gig — opening for NEIL YOUNG. Opening, that is, for the morning’s keynote “speech” by Young (really an onstage interview). The kids were charming, playing original songs written by the band teacher and accompanied by a rock band. The first song was “One Good Rock Show Can Change the World” (a line spoken by Jack Black in “High Fidelity” and quoted in the opening montage of the radio show “Sound Opinions”) — what an appropriate choice for the theme of this whole festival.
Young, along with filmmaker Jonathan Demme (who just directed the concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”), were interviewed by journalist Jan Uhleszki. On the questions about songwriting and creativity, Young took the side of those who say these things are essentially mysterious and unexplainable. “I don’t know where anything comes from,” he said. “I just totally write out of the air… I try not to think about it. The more you think about it, the worse it gets. … I’m proudest of the work when it comes fast. It just happens so fast and so easy…”
He compared creativity to a wild animal in a hole that has to be approached carefully. “If I get too close…”
Discussing the pressure to repeat the music that made him famous in the first place, Young said:
“You can’t be who you were… People want to know why you don’t make your most famous record over over. Because it’s death.”
Young said he recently turned down a concert promoter’s plan for a tour. “They wanted to call the tour ‘Neil Young’s Greatest Hits.’ That was it for them. They’re done.”
Though his latest album is acoustic, Young said he longs to play again with his louder pals in Crazy Horse. “I hear this massive, hideous, crunching noise. And I feel like I’m coming home.”
At the end of the interview, Demme plugged a couple of new bands that he likes, including Chicago’s M’s (sorry, I forget who the other band was…). And Young added, “Is Superwolf from Chicago here? It’s a devastating metal folk band.” Not sure who he meant — the “Superwolf” collaboration by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney, perhaps. Though it isn’t exactly “metal folk.”
Over lunch, I caught a few songs by OWEN (a.k.a. Mike Kinsella), playing his lovely, soul-baring quiet folk at the trade show’s day stage. This guy really deserves more of an audience. (SEE PHOTO.)
In another onstage interview, MORRISSEY spoke in the afternoon, who was just about what you would expect — funny, a little self-aggrandizing (though somehow slightly self-deprecating at the same time… how does he do that?).
Saying that he’s in a good mood lately, he explained, “There’s still a lot of beauty in the world. It’s mostly nature. … Nature calms us down.”
The question was asked, “And you have people in your life?” The sarcastic reply:
“There’s no people in my life at all, no.
Why would I need people?”
Looking back at the lyrics of the early songs he wrote with the Smiths, Morrissey said, “I was always brutally honest, and that made people uncomfortable. … I didn’t ever want to be one of the headless pack. I wanted to mean something to the people who listened.”
On his famous comments long ago about leading a life of celibacy, he said, “It’s a curse, the word is a curse. It was me for a while, but then it wasn’t me. I think everybody goes through dry spells.”
After describing the way Johnny Mars wrote the music to the Smiths songs, Morrissey insisted he was never interested in playing instruments himself. “I want simply to be naked before the world. Guitars are a cop out. It’s just a way to be busy all the time. You might as well be behind a tree.”
Morrissey also revealed that the Smiths were recently offered $5 million to play a reunion gig at the Coachella festival. Gasps from the crowd. “Is that high?” he said. “Money doesn’t come into it.” (Well, at least not for now, Morrissey. We’ll see…)
After sitting through some of the panel discussions about indie labels and breaking British buzz bands, I caught the last part of K.D. LANG’s interview. (Sorry, K.D., I just can’t do that lowercase name thing you prefer…) Lang said she sees performing great music while being openly gay as “the highest standard of subversive, progressive behavior.”
Then came KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s interview. He said the spare quality of his new album came out of the experience of performing some solo acoustic concerts. “It put a focus on the song, the lyrics. There was nothing else to hide behind.”
On recording the album with Don Was: “I’m embarrassed to say how long it took. people will say I did it with just my left hand.” How long? “A few hours,” he said, explaining that’s how long it took him to play the songs for Was, and then Was touched them up a little — but not much — after that.
Hoping that the speculation about a surprise appearance by Neil Young might turn out to be true, I went to Antones at 6:30 p.m. for the concert by Young’s former Buffalo Springfield bandmate, RICHIE FURAY. It was a decent set of old and new music, making me think Furay probably deserves more credit than he generally receives as a forerunner of the recent American and alt-country movements. But Neil did not show up. The moment when he would have come out — a moment that Furay and his band perhaps prepared for — was when Furay introduced a medley of three songs that Young wrote, but Furay sang, for Buffalo Springfield. (SEE PHOTO.)
The rest of the evening, I was peripatetic. And without planning it, I turned into a truly international night — seeing musicians from Iran, Lativa, Luxembourg, Finland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia.
I am highly interested in the culture of Iran, mostly as a result of watching many Iranian films. So I thought the appearance by a group from Tehran called 127 would be a must-see. I headed to Caribbean Lights for that show at 8 p.m. Unfortunately, I can’t say I found 127’s music all that interesting. They struck me as an Iranian band trying to sound too hard like an American band in the vein of Dave Matthews — with the addition of trombone and some occasional Persian-style melodies in the guitar solos. Not that there’s anything wrong with foreign bands trying to sound American or British — that description could apply to many of the other groups I liked during SXSW this year — but I’d have preferred hearing an Iranian band that sounded a little more … Iranian.
Making a quick exit, I went up and down the block in search of good music. GORAN GORA of Latvia was playing to a nearly empty room at Spiro’s, poor guy. I heard two of his acoustic-guitar songs (which were accompanied by a guy playing sounds from a laptop), which were pleasant … and one piano song, which was downright awkward. The chorus, though, may have explained why Gora’s audience was so sparse while other bands were drawing hipsters in droves: “I’m not from New York City/I’m from Baltic States.” (SEE PHOTO.)
I popped back for a few minutes into the patio area of Spiro’s, which was hosting a European showcase tonight. Heard a few minutes of the Luxembourger DANIEL BALTHASAR, who seemed totally uninteresting. (SEE PHOTO.) Went across the street to Room 710 and watched a few songs by INSECT SEX ACT — lacerating hard rock. Pretty intense. Maybe not exactly my thing, but this band was good at it. SEE PHOTOS OF INSECT SEX ACT.
After hearing bits of four bands in one hour, I needed some stability, so I went to the reliable Undertow Records’ showcase at Habana Calle 6 Patio (a really nice outdoor venue) and watched St. Louis’ WATERLOO play some nice Midwestern alt-country. Nothing groundbreaking, but good stuff if you like Son Volt, the Jayhawks and groups like that. SEE PHOTOS OF WATERLOO.
Continuing the global village theme, I saw THE LATEBIRDS from Finland at the Drink. Wearing plaid shirts, they played really, really nice ’60s-style pop, complete with jangly Byrds guitars, electric piano and harmonies. This seems like a band that should build at least a cult following in the U.S. among the fans of other ’60s revival groups like the Redwalls. Interestingly, the lead singer mentioned that the Latebirds would be opening for Wilco the following night at the Opry in Nashville. How the heck did they get that gig? Then he gave a shout out to former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, who was in the crowd. (I’d thought that was him standing over there…) Coomer produced the Latebirds’ new record. The band closed by asking, “Are there any Nick Lowe fans here? Any Elvis Costello fans?” and then played “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding).” Nice. SEE PHOTOS OF THE LATEBIRDS.
At 11, I went to Flamingo Cantina for the show by DR. DOG. I saw this band open for M. Ward about a year ago and was very impressed, picking up a copy of their CD, Easy Beat, which hadn’t been officially released it. It’s a very fine record, though it may suffer a little in comparison to Dr. Dog’s bang-up concerts. The fidelity on the record could be touch better, but that’s a minor quibble. The thing is, these guys from Philadelphia write really, really good songs, with interesting chord changes and clever arrangements and things like guitar lines echoing vocal lines. And it draws from great musicial traditions, including late-period Beatles (think “Don’t Let Me Down”) and the Faces. British rock with a dash of soul and classic songbook songwriting. But Dr. Dog’s onstage persona is far from the sophisticated image you might get from what I’ve just written. No band that I saw at SXSW this year was as lively as Dr. Dog, jumping around the stage (and swinging guitars and feet perilously close to me… my fault for being so close). Jumping with unrestrained joy, total abandon. Goofy, too, with a weird, smashed-up hat on one guy’s head and cheapo sunglasses on two of them. Somehow, even as they prance around the stage, nearly colliding with one another, the guys in Dr. Dog are able to pull off their songs almost note-perfect. Think of the power of a My Morning Jacket concert. At the end of the show, the fans who were obviously familiar with Dr. Dog’s music were singing along — no hollering along, at the top of the lungs: “Wake up, wake up, wake up!” Wow. What a show. SEE PHOTOS OF DR. DOG.
Back to the international stuff: a bit of the set by Montreal’s WE ARE WOLVES at Emo’s IV. They were playing aggressive keyboard rock. I wouldn’t call that kind of thing techno, exactly. More like keyboard punk. I didn’t hear enough to decide if I like it. The singer had a huge two-dimensional picture of a skull propped up above his head for a while. (SEE PHOTO.)
At Spiro’s, I walked into an impressive set of music on the patio, thinking it was the band scheduled to be playing at that time, Syd Matters, but it turned out to be Belgium’s GIRLS IN HAWAII. Terrible name. Change it at once. But keep the music. In its prettier passages, the singing and melodies reminded me of Coldplay — no, let me amend that. I hate Coldplay, so that’s a bad comparison. I think these melodies will remind some people of Coldplay, though it reminds me of Radiohead and similar bands. How’s that? But the thing that made Girls in Hawaii a little more interesting than the other groups mining this same territory is that the group also knows how to rock. The instrumental breaks reminded me more of the Pixies than Coldplay. Good thing. (SEE PHOTO.)
Playing in the front room of Spiro’s is a heavy metal band from the Netherlands called SAN ANDREAS. I could swear that one of the songs, sung in that typical Metallica-style hoarse screaming, has the chorus: “I LOVE SEINFELD!!!” Then again, maybe he’s singing something in Dutch that just sounds like that. (SEE PHOTO.) I also saw a little bit of the Yugoslavian metal band STUKA playing here… and wanted to leave as soon as I could.
I hoped to see Islands down the street at Emo’s IV, but the band was taking forever to set up, so I left before hearing a single note. They were all getting into white clothes at that point. Back at Spiro’s Patio, things were also running alarmingly behind schedule. SYD MATTERS, from Paris, was finally playing. Nice music, similar to the description I just made about Girls in Hawaii. Another group with pretty melodies and strong instrumental breaks. But the show was still going at 1:20 a.m. (20 minutes after headliner dEUS should have started). One guitar’s sound cut out. A sound person walked up onstage, and the next thing we all know, Syd Matters’ set had ended in mid-song. One of them threw down his microphone stand and yelled “Fuck you!” I presume the group was told to end its set because of the late hour, but I’m not sure. I hear that Girls in Hawaii took a long time to set up, throwing off the schedule for the rest of the bands. (SEE PHOTO.)
Now came a long, excruciating wait for dEUS to begin. This venue or the people running the European showcase obviously didn’t know what they were doing. As the hour got later and later, I could hear the guy working the sound board telling the guys on stage things like, “That microphone is coming through on Channel 15. It should be on Channel 17.” Meanwhile, the guys on stage were pulling cords in and out of sockets, trying to figure out where they should go. Tempers started flaring. Many of the people in the audience — including a sizable contingent of Europeans — were huge fans of dEUS and would wait through anything to see them. But soon the catcalls began. At least the wait gave me a chance to talk to some interesting people, including a University of Texas student from Greece who hosts a radio show called “Sonic Youth.” Commenting on American music, he said:
“I like your music, but not all of it. Like Nickelback. Why do they let that guy sing?”
Finally, the band came on at 2:20, twenty minutes after the venue was supposed to be closed for the night. I’ve heard many good things about dEUS over the years, but never bought any of their CDs. I was very impressed by the set they played — finally finishing up around 3 a.m. Aggressive music but with a good sense of dynamics and musicality. The only song I didn’t care for all that much was a pop ballad dEUS played from its new album. Too bad the technical screw-ups made this showcase such an ordeal, because a lot of the music was great. SEE PHOTOS OF dEUS.
I show up late at the convention center for the interview with CHRISSIE HYNDE, and after hearing the last part of her talk, I regret not seeing all of it.
She told the story of how she almost got married to Johnny Rotten and/or Sid Vicious as a joke. And how she almost got married to Ray Davies, getting as far as the wedding ceremony. “I think the guy just thought it was a bad idea — the guy doing the service,” she explained.
She declined to be pressed further on her love life:
“I know what you’re thinking, she had all these cool rock stars. Hey, someone had to fuck me.”
And she revealed the story of her first kiss. As a teen, she and one other white friend went to a concert at the Akron Civic Center with an almost entirely black audience. Singer Jackie Wilson pulled Hynde up on to the stage and kissed her. “I went completely fucking quiet,” Hynde remembered. “And everyone fucking hated me.”
BILLY BRAGG followed Hynde, with the most erudite (and interesting) talk I’ve ever seen by a rock musician. Bragg, who’s writing a political book, talked about the alarming rise of nationalism in England and Europe, which led into a discussion of the Clash standing up against racism, Churchill and Roosevelt signing the Atlantic Charter during World War II… and many other topics. “If I could write a fucking song about it, I would,” Bragg said, explaining his decision to write a book. “A song about the Atlanic Charter and the welfare state…” He shook his head and laughed.
On his decision to call the book “The Progressive Patriot”: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with patriotism. I think Woody Guthrie is the greatest American patriot.”
Other Bragg comments: “I think of the guitar, especially the electric guitar, as more of a percussive instrument than a melodic instrument.”
“I could play (live versions of all the songs on) my box set in two hours. I’m sure I could do it if I’m wired enough.”
On today’s “alternative” rock:
“I know the shit that ‘alternative’ is supposed to be alternative to. That ain’t alternative — that’s just heavy metal sped up.”
“I love this town. To know in your heart that Austin exists… a beacon of weirdness in a sea of redneck mediocrity.”
I had hoped to catch the Go Team at the Spin party today, but Bragg’s talk was too interesting to skip. So by the time I made it to Stubbs for the Spin party, all of the free food was gone, the Go Team had played, and WE ARE SCIENTISTS was taking the stage. Now, here’s a band that has zero interest for me. It’s hard to explain why one band imitating old punk records is annoying and others are fun, but this one’s just annoying. To me, at least. Sounds like a copy of a copy of a copy to me. I didn’t stay long. (SEE PHOTO.)
I catch a couple of songs by a fellow with what may be the festival’s most ridiculous name, GET CAPE. WEAR CAPE. FLY. He’s not bad, though — playing acoustic guitar and singing with accompaniment from a laptop and dancing around the trade show’s day stage. (SEE PHOTO.)
RAY DAVIES played an intimate acoustic mini-concert in a dim room at the convention center, interspersing a half-dozen songs with his commentary and clips from a video documentary based on footage he shot over the past several years. Davies teased us by opening with the chords to “Waterloo Sunset,” but then playing just a little snatch of that great song. (The greatest song?) He stopped, joking, “That’s the radio version.” The new songs sounded very good in this live performance. In fact, a couple of them have stuck in my head all week, even as I’ve heard a hundred other bands. A good sign. I have some reservations about Davies’ new album, Other People’s Lives, but they have more to do with the sound of the record, which is a little polished for my tastes. Stripped down to acoustic performances, the songs were even better. And I imagine they might be good in the setting of an electric concert with a full band, too.
In a Q-and-A after the performance (with almost all of the questions coming from journalists in the audience, making it seem more like a press conference), Davies said people sometimes ask him: Why bother writing new songs? “My answer is because I live,” he said. “If I can’t write, I can’t live as a complete person.”
Davies said he would like to play again with his brother Dave, who’s recovering from a stroke that affected his ability to control his hands. “I held his hand — God knows why,” Davies said, laughing.
Eventually, he said, “We’ll sit down and see if there’s any music we feel it’s relevant to do.”
BRAKES is my first official SXSW showcase gig of the night. This is one of the shows I’ve been looking forward to the most. Brakes’ 2005 album Give Blood was criminally overlooked, and the lack of hype continued at SXSW. In the arrays of critics’ choices in the two local papers today, not a single person picked this show for the 8 p.m. time slot. Hmpf. What do they know. There is a line outside, so some people (especially some visitors from Britain) are aware of how good this band is. (Of course, some of those people were undoubtedly showing up at the Blender Bar at the Ritz early because Editors were playing later.)
Brakes’ performance did not disappoint: sharp, funny and tuneful punk, with the constant presence of an acoustic guitar lending things a little bit of folkiness. Some of Brakes’ songs are so damn short… “Cheney” is a political protest song that’s all of about eight seconds. Even introducing these short numbers seemed absurd, like the final song of the show, “Comma Comma Comma Full Stop,” which received not only an intro but also an extraneous guitar lick from “Layla” — and then was over in a few seconds. Brakes make every second count. SEE PHOTOS OF BRAKES.
THE KOOKS were next in this showcase of Brit bands. They were just OK, veering a little towards jam-band-ness at times. I checked out of there. (SEE PHOTO.)
A slow-moving line had formed outside the Red Eyed Fly for the Sub Pop showcase, but just before showtime, the flood gates opened and I got in. KELLEY STOLTZ was just as amazing in person as he is on record. What a terrific songwriter. And he wasn’t the shy, retiring individual onstage that I imagined from his reputation as a reclusive musical genius. (OK, maybe I made up that part about “reclusive” in my imagination, but it seemed to fit the Brian Wilson part of his music…) Switching between keyboards and guitar, Stoltz was quite lively onstage, even sinning an odd bit of banter in the middle of a song as he encouraged the crowd to listen to the hum of the amplifiers. SEE PHOTOS OF KELLEY STOLTZ.
BAND OF HORSES followed Stoltz, another highly anticipated show. The group’s new album is excellent, and the band almost pulled it off live. Almost — there were a couple of gaffs with guitar tuning and guitar soloing, but these were forgivable mistakes for a band playing such great music. I love the way these songs are constructed, with minor-key, quieter sections that contrast with the main parts and give the rest of the songs even more power. Singer Ben Bridwell started off on a pedal steel guitar (actually, it had no pedals… so I’m not sure what to call it… just a steel guitar?), playing the instrument with broad sweeps across its strings, almost like he was playing an autoharp or zither. He later switched to a regular guitar, and then played a three-string bass (regular bass guitar with the E string missing) as part of a bass duet. Band of Horses included a cover of Otis Redding’s “Because You Got Me Chained and Bound,” not a song I would have expected, but one that fit right in.SEE PHOTOS OF BAND OF HORSES.
Though I was doubtful about getting in, I went across town to Antone’s, where SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS were playing at midnight, followed by Neko Case. I got stuck in line for a while, but luckily, I was in line right by the door, and Jones’ joyful soul-funk music was clearly audible where I was standing — and I could even see her off in the distance. Jones got the crowd dancing like crazy, and by the time I was inside, I heard people commenting in wonder that anyone is still making music like Jones.
She’s a tough act to follow, but NEKO CASE is also hard to top. Once again, I heard many people in the audience expressing their amazement at Case’s voice and performance. As much as we sometimes like keeping musical secrets to ourselves, it’s also a pleasure to see other people discovering something beautiful or great that you discovered earlier. Even if you’ve heard Case’s records, you have to see her in concert to understand how great of a singer she is. To see her singing with such control and passion, hitting high notes and loud notes seemingly with ease… it’s simply stunning. It was still stunning to me, and I’ve seen her perform maybe nine or ten times.
Her new album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is the best of the year. I hate to say that this early in the year, and I know other great records will come along in the next nine months, but Fox is perched at the top of my list right now. It’s so rich with haunting words, lovely melodies, peculiar musical touches, killer vocals and song-to-song flow. The songs sounded very good live (only minor problem: the lack of some of the instruments featured in the studio). Introducing one of the songs with gothic lyrics, Case said, “This is a scary story.” The theme of scary stories recurs throughout the new album (and her previous albums), but the truly scary thing tonight was how talented Case is. SEE PHOTOS OF NEKO CASE.
Finally, a day without much of importance happening at the convention center. And that means… more time to spend at day parties. I opted to stick around all afternoon at the Misra Records party at Red Eyed Fly. Every act was worthwhile:
SHEARWATER. I had missed seeing this band until now. What beautiful singing and strong playing. SEE PHOTOS OF SHEARWATER.
LAURA VEIRS, whose loopy folk rock is always enchanting. She used a looping pedal to construct epics out of her guitar parts and vocals — maybe even more impressive than Andrew Bird in how subtly she used the technique. SEE PHOTOS OF LAURA VEIRS.
GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS was one of my favorite discoveries last year, and Tony Dekker was back this time with a couple of musicians backing him up on banjo and brushed drums. His melodies, poetic words and soft singing are magical. SEE PHOTOS OF GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS.
THE MENDOZA LINE is a good, sometimes great band on record, but they played a ramshackle show at SXSW a few years ago. Just a bad night, I hoped. Every band has one. Today, they made up for it somewhat. The band sounded fine, but still didn’t have quite the spark that I was looking for. Not sure why Timothy Bracy barely sang at all, since he shares a lot of the lead vocals with Shannon McArdle on the records. Shannon commented on how much she enjoyed seeing Morrissey at Stubbs the other night, especially since he took off his shirt three times during the portion of the concert she saw. SEE PHOTOS OF THE MENDOZA LINE.
DR. DOG reprised its excellent show from the other night. I’ve raved enough already. At this gig, the group was more talkative, turning out to be one of the funniest of SXSW. Just who were those superfans in the crowd? People who have been following the band around? New converts? One guy had a softball signed by all but one of the Dr. Dog guys. (Band comment in a stage whisper, “He can’t write or read.”) The same guy later called out that he lives in a Dumpster across the street from the band’s house and that’s how he learned all of the songs. When he was hauled onto stage later to dance along to the climatic song, the guy enthusiastically exclaimed:
“Listen to Dr. Dog and your dreams will come true!”
CENTRO-MATIC can always be counted on for a great performance — and are a regular feature at these Misra parties. The band was as good as ever, playing rocking versions of even the slightly subdued songs from the new record. SEE PHOTOS OF CENTRO-MATIC.
The evening started with crooner RICHARD HAWLEY at Eternal. This Englishman reminds me of Nick Lowe in ballad mode. What a fine voice, and nice touch with the spare arrangements. Performers like Hawley raise the question: Why don’t people looking for some smooth “adult contemporary” music listen to something intelligent like this instead of buying the latest Barry Manilow? Different thing, I guess, but it seems like a much, much better executed version of adult music to me. SEE PHOTOS OF RICHARD HAWLEY.
I popped into Elysium’s annual Japan Night for a few songs by THE RODEO CARBURETTOR (sic). I can see there’s a big crowd (mostly locals from Austin, I think) who love seeing the whole lineup of Japanese bands every year. I’ve liked some of the Japanese bands I’ve heard over the years (Acid Mother Temple is a special favorite), but others have struck me more as novelty acts than anything I’d listen to repeatedly. The Rodeo Carburetor played decent punk rock, but the most pit was beginning to get violent, so I split. SEE PHOTOS OF THE RODEO CARBURETTOR.
The only thing I knew about RICHARD SWIFT was that he has a new record coming out on Secretly Canadian, and that’s a great label. He was playing tonight in the Secretly Canadian showcase at Emo’s Annex, and proved to be a good find. Like Kelley Stoltz or Richard Hawley, Swift plays smartly written music. Like Stoltz, Swift is a scruffy, energetic performer — not the sophisticated nightclub act he might choose to be, based on the quality of his songwriting. On the last song, Swift’s second keyboard player leaned over and played ragtime-style bits in the upper range of the keyboard while Swift continued to play his part. Pretty cool. A bunch of the other Secretly Canadian folks got onto stage and clapped and sang along to one tune. SEE PHOTOS OF RICHARD SWIFT.
Rainbow Quartz is another great label, specializing in bands that revive the sounds of the ’60s. So I figured the label’s showcase would be worth attending. As I walked in to the Blender Bar, the place was nearly empty forTHE WINNERYS. The band was good enough, but didn’t seem all that special — Spaniards trying to sound like the Beatles. SEE PHOTOS OF THE WINNERYS.
I headed down the street to Habana Calle 6 Patio for a set by Minneapolis’ THE OWLS. Nice co-ed folk rock, with the musicians literally playing musical chairs. The songs are pleasant, but I’d have to hear them more before deciding just how much I like them. SEE PHOTOS OF THE OWLS.
Back to the Blender Bar for another Rainbow Quartz act, THE JESSICA FLETCHERS from Oslo. Very good stuff, more in a garage band vein. SEE PHOTOS OF THE JESSICA FLETCHERS.
Then across town to a remote venue called Molotov Lounge for THE BROKEDOWN, a band from L.A. The group’s mp3 file at www.sxsw.com was one of the best that I heard during my insane attempt to sample all 1,000 songs. Live, the group is good, maybe not quite as great as that song, a slice of, yes, sunny California harmony pop. The band had an enthusiastic crowd, but ti seemed to be mostly the band’s friends from L.A. Too bad more SXSWer’s didn’t discover the Brokedown. SEE PHOTOS OF THE BROKEDOWN.
ROBERT POLLARD seemed like an appropriate act to cap off this year’s festival. As he noted from the stage at Antone’s:
“Now it’s time for the obligatory, end-of-SXSW, indie-rock-icon performance.”
The Guided By Voices fans were out in force, giving Pollard an enthusiastic reception as he played songs, mostly from his new solo album. The band was good. Pollard still has that leg kicks and microphone twirls down. It wasn’t exactly a GBV show, but it was still pretty damn good. SEE PHOTOS OF ROBERT POLLARD.