2006 Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago International Film Festival is over, but many of the films that showed at the festival will be coming back soon on screens big and small. Here are my reviews of what I saw.

TAXIDERMIA

Hungarian director György Pálfi made a startling debut with his film “Hukkle,” and now he has proven it was no fluke. His newest movie, “Taxidermia,” which obviously has a much bigger budget, shows that he’s a major talent. “Taxidermia” floored me. That being said, this is one of those movies that has to come with a “not for all tastes” warning sticker. Oh, yeah, let’s add a “not for the faint of heart” label. And while we’re at it: “Stay away from this movie if you cannot stand the sight of vomit.”

OK, now that we’ve winnowed down the potential audience to a few brave souls, it seems a good fit for the midnight cult movie circuit. It’s a film with eye-popping visual power and a twisted view of the world.

Like “Hukkle,” “Taxidermia” has a visceral feel as it shows close-ups of everything from naked breasts to the guts of animals. Even as the film plunges deep into demented fantasies, the images give it a tactile sensation, as if you could reach out and touch those shapes.

Both of Pálfi’s films have had a black sense of humor – and a sense of observational wit, as if some alien anthropologists watching the human race are chuckling at our absurdities. But while “Hukkle” contained no dialogue (that’s right – it was essentially a silent film as far as the spoken word goes, but it conveyed its story through images and sound), “Taxidermia” has plenty.

The movie spans three generations of the same warped family, covering much of Hungary’s history throughout the 20th century, though it’s too weird to be called a historical epic. (It may be a little “Tin Drum”-like at times.) The first part of the film concerns a sex-obsessed lieutenant at a rural outpost who peeps on the local ladies, ⭐️ | Best Buy | ☀☀☀ Where Can You Buy Doxycycline Paste ☀☀☀. Find Latest Medication For This pill Now! Where Can You Buy Viagra Buy Viagra Online and Order Cheap Viagra Prescription with Guaranteed lowest prices. Our drug store presents high quality pills. http://aartisurfactants.com/?alo=Prednisone-Prescription-Strength. Find Lioresal Baclofen 10 Mg Precio baclofen rezeptfrei online kaufen click is there a generic for baclofen we have lost?rsquo; but he knows http://emilygaston.com/?page_name=cibadrex 🆑 : 24/7 Phone Support, The Best Online Pharmacy. HealthLive - best choice. Low pricing, discounts, flawless customer support Cheap ayurslim himalaya Cheap Cialis In Canada First of all, erythromycin generic cost cost of ayurslim in india he overly focused on the central nervous http://vjeronauk.org/?rez=Buy-Brand-Viagra-Online-Canada it all started after i downloaded facebookrsquo;s new messenger app to my iphone priligy na recept donde puedo comprar see url - no prescription needed, order Sildenafil (viagra) with discount 15% - low prices for all ED pills, support 245, To Buy Viagra Uk | FREE SHIPPING 🔥 |. Your health is important. ☀☀☀ http://hickorygrovetriathlon.com/?mapl=Viagra-To-Buy ☀☀☀,What You are Looking Best pill?. Buy Now » Is It Legal To Buy Cialis Online y ya a los tres kilmetros ya empiezo a tener sensaciones de mareo, con mucho calor, y sudores muy fros, contrastes de calor y fro source Online with Discounts from TOP Online pharmacy. Purchase Elavil No prescription required. Credit cards accepted. Fast and safe worldwide shipping.  spews flames from his penis when he masturbates, has his pecker pecked by a rooster and fantasizes about having sex with his commanding officer’s fat wife – even as he is actually, um, making love with the slaughtered remains of a pig. Or is he?

He is killed for his transgressions. A son is born, with a pig’s tail. The movie cuts ahead to that boy’s future as a speed-eating champion. Eating contests and the subsequent vomit-a-thonsdominate the fat middle of “Taxidermia,” a satire of the Soviet era.

The last third of “Taxidermia” brings the family ahead another generation, as the eating champion’s son becomes a skinny taxidermist. After that, things get even weirder, but I won’t reveal anymore. (Except to include this photo link.)

In a synopsis, the filmmakers say: “Past exists only in memories … And why cannot it be true? Why could not the world be like this? Why cannot the fertile human imagination toy with the facts of history, personal fates, details of lifestyles? Maybe this is the common border of things really happened and truth.”

“Taxidermia” has a number of scenes that are gruesome, sickening and disturbing. It’s also very funny, and some of the cinematic flourishes are reminiscent of the elaborate screen trickery in “Delicatessan” and other films by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

And while I can’t say I would really want to watch “Taxidermia” over and over, there is something to be said for art that brings you face to face with those things we think of as grotesque – when they’re just a fact of life. OK, I may be stretching with that point, since this is hardly a realistic film, but if we consider it all right to eat meat, then why not take a closer look at what the animal looks like when it’s being chopped to pieces and pulled apart?

“Taxidermia” has a fantastic Flash Web site, with a highly creative design:http://www.taxidermia.hu/

SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY

An earlier film I saw by this movie’s Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Tropical Malady,” was one of the most peculiar films of the last few years. It was hard to figure out exactly what the director was trying to say with “Tropical Malady,” but its odd juxtapositions and some of its surreal images stuck in my mind. With “Syndromes and a Century,” Weerasethakul is playing around with our minds once again. According to a synopsis, the film is supposedly about the director’s parents, who were doctors. But it’s far from being a straightforward memoir. Rather, it’s a series of vignettes, many told with realistic and natural humor. A rural hospital in the first half of the film is followed by an urban hospital in the second half, with many of the same scenes being acted out again – with similar but slightly different dialogue. This creates many moments of déjà vu. And then, at the end, “Syndromes and a Century” drifts off into a beautiful but almost abstract sequence, including a long shot of an air vent blowing steam. I don’t know what it all meant, but I found it mesmerizing, one of the best films I saw at the fest.

COMEDY OF POWER

Claude Chabrol is back with another thriller that isn’t really a thriller. Some of Chabrol’s films are a little dull, while others hit their mark, including the chilling “La Ceremonie.” He films stories that might have appealed to Hitchcock, but more often than not, films them in a matter-of-fact, almost flat style. This one was no exception. It was rather talky, and by the standards of American legal thrillers, it would probably be considered dull. And yet it really held my attention. Isabelle Huppert is great, as is usually the case (though this role was not quite as peculiar as some of her best performances). As a judge investigating corporate corruption, she is stubbornly determined.

CANDY

This Australian film is well acted and it’s a fairly well told story, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was worthwhile to sit through another movie about people addicted to drugs. I don’t know that I really found any insights into drug addiction that I haven’t seen in countless other films and stories. This isn’t bad, but nothing to get too excited about. The lead actress, Abbie Cornish, is breathtakingly beautiful and sexy … almost to the point where it distracted me from her fine performance. (OK, OK, I like her, all right?) Heath Ledger also gives a strong performance, and Geoffrey Rush is good in a supporting role.

DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT

I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to watch another movie following a woman as she tries to go through with a terrorist plot to blow herself up. (See Santosh Sivan’s film “The Terrorist,” from 1999.) But this was tense and quite effective. It’s clearly filmed on a low budget, but that doesn’t matter, because the filmmakers make excellent use of their limited resources. The terrorist plot is left vague. Who are these people, and why are they sending this young woman to explode herself in Times Square? It doesn’t really matter. The woman seems stoic, though she begins to crack. Is she just a mixed-up young woman who wants to commit suicide, someone who ended up with the wrong people? That’s one possible way of reading the story. Luisa Williams’ performance as the would-be bomber is restrained, almost deadpan at times, but it feels real.

INVISIBLE WAVES

This is sort of a multicultural, international film, teaming up Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang with Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano,  Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Thai screenwriter Prabda Yoon. And many of the characters speak in broken English, seemingly as a way to communicate across Asian cultures. (Or maybe just to make the movie more marketable in the U.S.) While it’s described as a thriller, it’s much more existential and abstract than that. Or maybe it’s just confusing. It sort of drifts along without the driving plot that crime movies usually have. It has its moments, but I found it a little lacking. There are some precious moments of humor involving a low-rent cruise ship.

VITUS

A charming Swiss movie about a child prodigy on piano, which won a decent round of applause at the screening I attended. It’s a heartwarming movie, just quirky enough in places to keep things interesting. It’s the first movie I’ve ever seen that was in Swiss German, with subtitles in English as well as standard German. I remember enough German from college that I was trying to read the German subtitles and figure out how they related to what was being said, which was a little distracting.

FIREWORKS WEDNESDAY

This Iranian film won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Hugo, and it’s a worthy winner. Here’s an oversimplified plot summary: A woman who’s about to get married witnesses some other people in marriages that have gone bad. The story unfolds in a way that’s complex yet never confusing, and like the best of Iranian films, it feels like an honest and realistic portrait of the way people relate to one another.

STREET THIEF

This is a tricky one to describe in much detail because of the underlying question of whether it’s an actual documentary or a mockumentary. It’s fairly compelling, and even after you think you’ve figured it out, it keeps on raising questions. And for once, a movie made in Chicago looks like it was made in Chicago. “Street Thief” captures the city’s side streets better than any Hollywood film.

Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond at the Riv

As much as I liked the 2005 Sufjan Stevens album Illinois — and as much as I enjoyed the concert I saw by him last year at Metro — I had trouble working up much enthusiasm for seeing him this week. Maybe it was because his new album of Illinois outtakes, The Avalanche, is tepid. But he’s undeniably a talented guy, probably a genius at arranging strings and incorporating them into pop music, so this was certainly a worthwhile concert. The cheerleaders from last year were gone, but there was still a sense of spectacle. The 15 musicians backing up Sufjan wore butterfly wings, while Stevens had big bird wings (and wore a feathery bird mask over the top of his head for the opening two instrumental songs). It was postively Peter Gabriel-esque (in a 1972 Genesis sort of way, that is). And then there was that little rooster figure that was sitting on a stool near Stevens throughout the show, which he claimed they’d stolen from a Perkins restaurant earlier on the tour.

This concert focused less on the Illinois songs, but those were the ones that won the biggest applause here in the Prairie State. As I did at last year’s Sufjan concert, I sensed something amazing happening with the music scene. It’s so encouraging to see thousands of young people getting excited and enthusiastic about sophisticated orchestral folk music. I don’t think the worshipful Sufjan cult will necessarily result in a lot of other artists making similar music, but I hope it signals a new willingness to embrace music with unconventional arrangements and musical sophistication that goes beyond the Blink-182’s of the world.

SEE PHOTOS OF SUFJAN STEVENS.

I’m probably one of the few people at this concert who was there mostly to see the opening act, My Brightest Diamond, but I’m hoping this wonderful artist (aka Shara Worden) will soon be attracting a lot more fans of her own. The debut album by My Brightest Diamond (both the name of her band and her stage name), Bring Me the Workhorse, is one of 2006’s most outstanding albums, full of haunting, intimate and intelligent songs blending a deep knowledge of classical music and opera with punk attitude. I had the great privilege to meet with Shara Worden before the concert tonight and interview her for a forthcoming article, and her performance did not disappoint — except for the fact that it was so short, just six songs. She’ll be back at Schubas on Nov. 11, though she apparently won’t have the string section that she was able to borrow from Sufjan Stevens at this show. In any case, don’t miss her the next time she’s in town.

SEE PHOTOS OF MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND.

Chicago World Music Festival

I neglected the festival this year — a shame. It’s an exciting way to sample music from around the world. But I did make it to the closing-night open house of free performances at the Chicago Cultural Center on Sept. 21. I walked in just in time to catch the last 15 minutes of Debashish Bhattacharya, which was the best thing I heard all night. At first, I thought he was playing sitar or a similar Indian instrument, but then I read the program notes and realized it was actually a slide guitar sitting in his lap — albeit a modified guitar with added drone strings. This guy was just incredible, and I can honestly say he “rocked.” He might just win over Western rock fans who never got the whole Ravi Shankar thing.

After a late start (due to musical equipment getting delayed at the airport), Italian singer Carmen Consoli. Her voice impressed me, but her songs were just fair. At moments, her folk-pop arrangements reminded me in a good way of the great Lhasa, but there was a tinge of Europop to it that bugged me. Still, she was good enough that I’d give her another shot.

The Alaev Family sounded intriguing, but the concert hall where they were playing was too crowded to enter, so I went instead to the cafe show by Aza — a couple of Moroccan guys who have settled in California and hooked up there with three American musicians. This was quite nice, hypnotic desert groove music, a little like Tinariwen.

Cat Power at the Vic

SEPTEMBER 13, CHICAGO

This was one of those Cat Power concerts. OK, not a total train wreck like some of the ones I’ve read about. But it certainly had more than its share of awkward moments when the train almost derailed.

I’ve never seen her before, though I’ve heard about her aborting songs and entire concerts. The reports were that she had her shit together for this tour.

The backup group playing behind her, the Memphis Rhythm Band, is great, and she seemed at ease playing the role of front-woman. Man, she has some odd dance moves. She was perched on stiletto heels — and though she took off and put on her shoes several times over the course of the night, even when she was barefoot, she seemed to be poised on her toes like she might fall over at any moment. She made swimming motions with her hands, danced Irish-style jigs, did whatever move seemed to pop into her head. Most of the time, this was charming, though it was disconcerting when she continued moving around like a kook even during a pensive ballad like “Where Is My Love?”

Midway through the show, the band left the stage and Chan Marshall played a solo set, mostly at the piano. She does have a great voice, which came though whether she had the whole band or just herself for accompaniment. But the solo set dragged with meandering songs and rambling talk (including her discussions of “Arrested Development” and Sandra Bernhard). Somewhere in there, she did a haunting cover of “The House of the Rising Sun,” though it devolved after a few minutes.

When the band came back, the concert regained its momentum, with covers of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” (a fine version, but that too got lost when Marshall couldn’t remember the lyrics).

The concert seemed to be ending. Marshall and some of the other musicians (including her backup singers) joined hands and did some impromptu a cappella bit. They took their bows … and then Marshall decided to go over to the piano for another solo set, warning, “This is going to bore you.” The performances that followed were fine, but they really felt poorly timed. She reached for her guitar, then changed her mind, saying, “I gotta go, I gotta go.” She won some concert-ending applause, but then remained on the stage and started talking about her hair. People got quiet to hear what she was saying, then she walked off and the house lights came up within seconds. End of show.

Marshall blamed her odd behavior on drinking too much coffee, and also explained, “Sorry. I’m so stupid because I’m happy, that’s all.”

Waiting a few minutes later on the el platform, I overheard a woman who’d been at the concert angrily telling her date, “She just crapped on the audience.” I wouldn’t go nearly that far, but I know what she meant.

For better or worse, Marshall performs a lot of unscripted moments. Overall, the concert was worth seeing for a number of good musical moments, but man, it would have been better with some editing.

Hideout/Touch & Go Block Party, Day Three

It was a gray and rainy day, rather cool for this time of year, so it was hard for me to get motivated to show up early for the block party. I managed to get there in time for Tara Jane O’Neil, whose solo guitar songs sounded promising to me; I’ll have to hear more. Of the other bands today, Seam, the Black Heart Procession and Pinback were pretty good, though nothing really blew me away. Brick Layer Cake — with his stilted rhythms on guitar and largely tuneless singing — turned off some listeners, but I found it pretty funny. Not something I’m likely to listen to much, but worth seeing at least once. CocoRosie was the strangest act of the day, if not the whole festival, with harp, operatic singing and African rapping all blended together in a surreal stew. Not for all tastes, but fascinating.

I’d seen Calexico twice in the last few months, so I wasn’t all that eager to see their fest-closing set — but they reminded me again how good they are. In fact, because the sound was better, this struck me as a much-improved set from their performance at Lollapalooza. And it was a fine way to wrap up the block party.

SEE PHOTOS.

Hideout/Touch & Go Block Party, Day Two

An assembled mass of old punk fans, predominantly dressed in black, with short-cropped hair, is gathered in the parking lot where the city of Chicago normally keeps its garbage trucks. I hear clusters of people speaking in German or Japanese. The faithful have gathered to hear reunions and long-awaited shows by some of the, um, “seminal” bands that shaped post-punk’s sound. As Steve Albini notes during the evening set by Big Black, a lot of people talk about the history of punk as if it skipped straight from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana. Well, this day was all about what came in between.

I showed up in time to see and hear a galvanizing performance by The Ex, a long-running band out of the Netherlands I’ve only discovered recently. Then came pulverizing punk by Killdozer, a collaboration between Jon Langford of the Mekons and Kat of the Ex (a phenomenal drummer who is bringing out some interesting sides of Langford’s guitar playing) and the cheeky Didjits. P.W. Long’s solo acoustic music didn’t impress me much, and neither did Negative Approach, one of the first bands signed to Touch & Go lo so many years ago. They struck me as pretty straightforward punk, nothing all that interesting (god, that lead singer knows how to sneer, though). As I stood in the photo pit, I felt something hit me lightly on the shoulder. I looked down. It was a toothbrush, thrown in my direction by someone in the crowd.

Another Mekon was up next, Sally Timms, doing those fractured and odd arrangements that have characterized her music of late. It’s an acquired taste, but I’m starting to acquire it. (Too bad the entire Mekons crew wasn’t available to play at the block party — to me, they are one of the seminal Touch & Go bands.)

Scratch Acid played a chaotic, incredibly energetic set, featuring the famous antics of singer David Yow. He’s been compared to Iggy Pop, and I can see why (though Iggy looks a lot better with his shirt off). At one point, Yow leapt into the photo pit and grabbed Touch & Go owner Corey Rusk. I was a couple of feet away, not sure exactly what was happening. I snapped some pictures, including one of Rusk apparently biting Yow on the hand. A playful bite, I take it.

Man … or Astroman? had the coolest set of the festival. (Actually, they had just about the only “set” that went beyond a basic set-up.) TV monitors, spiral yellow tubes, space-age junk… you get the idea. The mostly instrumental space surf guitar music was fun, if nothing super special.

The biggest event of the day for most people was probably the brief reunion of Big Black’s original lineup. As promised, it was short, with just four songs. The Big Black show began with Albini tossing some lit firecrackers onto the stage, which scared back us photographers as they popped (I felt a spark or two hit me, but have no injuries to report). At one point Albini remarked that the audience could probably pick up on the fact that they weren’t thrilled to be doing it — but that they were willing to do it for the sake of Touch & Go. (Gee, thanks for the enthusiasm.) The Big Black set was followed by a strong show by Albini’s current band, Shellac.

SEE PHOTOS.

Oakley Hall at Metro

Oakley Hall impressed me when I saw them in January 2005 at the Empty Bottle (opening for the Constantines), but their first album, which I purchased at the show that night, was a bit of a disappointment. A decent start for the group, but a little too lo-fi. The new Oakley Hall albumGypsum Strings is a marked improvement (I’ve yet to pick up the record the band released earlier in 2006, Second Guessing, but it’s now on my “must” list), and the band sounds even better in concert. I hear a lot of Fairport Convention and Richard and Linda Thompson in their music, mostly because vocalist Rachel Cox sings in that even-toned English folk style — and because the repeating chords have some of that dirge quality you hear in Fairport. It’s a fascinating variation of the music that guitarist/singer/keyboardist Pat Sullivan did when he was in Oneida. Oakley Hall takes those folk elements and then really cranks up the guitar riffs and oscillating keyboard chords. Sullivan’s just an OK vocalist, so it’s a good thing that the wonderful Cox is taking over more of the singing duties. SEE PHOTOS OF OAKLEY HALL AT METRO.

Oakley Hall’s set list:

M. Ward at Metro

For anyone who has the impression that M. Ward performs sleepy, quiet music (an impression you could easily get from some of his records), this performance definitely proved otherwise. Ward played electric guitar, not acoustic, almost all night, until the first encore. And he had two — two! — drummers. Ward and his band rocked, with Ward taking some wonderful guitar solos. It’s not just the solos that make his playing special, it all of the subtle finger picking he employs throughout his songs. But when he’s playing with a full band, he doesn’t hog the spotlight, often delegating some of the guitar lines to the other players, allowing him to sing verses without touching the strings, or to step over to his electric piano.

Ward tends to crouch down, doing sort of a low-key version of Chuck Berry’s duck walk as he skulks across the stage with his guitar. And his microphones are set low so that Ward has to lean down into them, scrunching his face as he sings in his husky voice. His face looks calm as he plays a solo, though, his fingers flying with amazing ease.

As Ward and his band came out, a recording of Daniel Johnston’s original version of “To Go Home,” the second track on Ward’s new album, was playing. With Ward pounding the chords on the piano and those two drum kits clattering with a joyful sound, his band took over the song.

While there were a few folky moments, Ward emphasized the rock side of his repertoire. After closing the main set with “Big Boat,” Ward returned to the stage alone for an acoustic encore. In “I’ll Be Yr Bird,” he changed the words to “I’m not Vic Chestnutt, I’m no Bob Mould.”

The set list on the stage listed another Daniel Johnston song, “The Story of an Artist,” as the final song of the night, but when Ward and band came back for a second encore, they instead chose to play the song that may be Ward’s most memorable anthem, “Vincent O’Brien,” and it was the finest live version of it I’ve heard.

This was also surely one of the best concerts I’ve seen this year.

M. WARD SET LIST
To Go Home
Four Hours in Washington
Right in the Head
Magic Trick
Chinese Translation
Requiem
Undertaker
Post-War
Poison Cup
Emperor (instrumental)
Flaming Heart
Regeneration #1
Neptune’s Nest
Helicopter
Poor Boy, Minor Key
Big Boat

FIRST ENCORE
Duet for Guitars #3 (this may have begun with Rag)
I’ll Be Yr Bird
Paul’s Song
Lullaby & Exile

SECOND ENCORE
Vincent O’Brien

SEE PHOTOS OF M. WARD AT METRO.

Hideout/Touch & Go Block Party, Day One

With the addition of the Touch & Go 25th anniversary theme, the Hideout’s annual Block Party has become a bigger affair than ever before. All three days sold out in advance? Wow. Well, I guess there are many fans of ’80s and ’90s punk-rock flocking to this event to relive their old glory days. I have to admit there are a lot of bands on the lineup that I don’t know all that well — in many cases, I knew these bands more by their reputation than their music. So I feel inadequate to the task of giving a really well-informed critique of their performances, but I was eager to see and hear what I’ve been missing.

As it all got under way, Hideout head honcho Tim Tuten thanked the city for allowing the Hideout to use the parking lot next to Wabansia, where garbage trucks are normally parked. He said the city workers had been cleaning up and preparing the area for the festival for the past couple of weeks — and a couple of the guys had asked him if Twisted Sister would be reuniting for the party. Yeah, he told them, they’re playing at 8 o’clock on Saturday. As always at the Hideout’s block parties, it’s strange but somehow fitting to see that hulking Department of Fleet Management building behind the stage, with old brick factories ringing the rest of the site. An industrial setting for Chicago rock music.

Friday night got off to a good start, with the Shipping News. I didn’t care much for the dance music of Supersystem, but the next set by Girls Vs. Boys was strong. I would have liked to stick around for Ted Leo and !!!, but I also had a ticket to see M. Ward and Oakley Hall at Metro (a must-see for me), so I headed uptown at 8 p.m.

SEE PHOTOS FROM DAY ONE OF THE HIDEOUT BLOCK PARTY.

Tom Waits road trip

TOM WAITS
AUGUST 9, 2006
AUDITORIUM THEATRE, CHICAGO

I’m not in the habit of following around musicians or seeing concerts two nights in a row by the same band. But one of my regrets is seeing Tom Waits only once in 1999 – when he played two nights in a row at the Chicago Theatre. I mean, this guy (one of my all-time favorite singer-songwriters) doesn’t come around all that often. The last time he’d performed in Chicago before those shows was 1987. The concert I did see still sticks in my memory as one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, even though I was stuck way up in the nosebleed balcony, peering down at the distant figure of Waits as he pounded his feet on a stomp box.

What a disappointment back in 2003 when Waits never got around to playing any U.S. shows during his tour for Real Gone. So when he announced he was playing a short tour with a peculiar itinerary – Atlanta, Asheville, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Chicago, Detroit and Akron – I jumped at the chance to see a few of these shows. Chicago, of course, but also Detroit and Akron. Despite some Ticketmaster snafus – and despite the fact that all of these concerts sold out within a few minutes – it wasn’t too hard to get tickets.

I had an excellent seat for the show at Chicago’s gorgeous, old Auditorium Theatre (thanks to the record label publicists), and my anticipation was running high as I waited for Waits. The most noticeable thing about the set-up on the stage was the array of megaphones, horns (bicycle horns?) and a cone-shaped gramophone speaker, neatly stacked in front of a percussion set. I counted eight of these various horns sitting there in the spotlight, enough for an emergency alert or political rally.

The lights went down, and then a very simple but effective bit of lighting created a dramatic, almost surreal entrance for the band. Lights at floor level cast high shadows of the musicians as they walked, one by one, through an opening in the curtain. With all of the musicians onstage except Waits, they began playing the opening chords of “Make It Rain.”

Then, finally, at last, another shadow appeared. A headless figure? A scarecrow? Frankenstein’s monster? There was Tom Waits, with his arms extended out and his hands making claw gestures, looking like tree branches. The applause went manic. And then he lifted his head at last – wearing a hat, of course. And the eerie shadow was complete.


(Photographed in Atlanta)

Waits emerged through the curtain and greeted us all with that same claw, both arms sticking out stiffly. Dressed in gray, except for a little dash of red in the brim of his hat, he looked lean and weathered. Like a character from one of his songs or stories, a guy who used to sleep under the el tracks and hold up liquor stores, a guy who’s found success but still dresses a little like the seedy figure he used to be. How much of Waits’ look – how much of his vocal style, his mannerisms, his jokes, his lyrics, his bizarre musical arrangements – how much of it is an act, a gimmick, shtick? The people who don’t “get” Waits look at it all as some weird act, but even if it is an act, it’s a brilliant one. And underneath all of that, there’s a lot of genius – heartfelt genius.

Even in the flesh and blood, Waits seemed supernatural. Twitchily gesturing, Waits looked as if every hoarse note emerging from his throat required maximum exertion – the cords in his neck and the muscles in his face bulged with strain. And what notes they were. Of course, skeptics will tell you that Waits can’t sing to save his life – or that his gravelly vocals are a gimmick. His singing is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but he once again showed that he’s a master at what he does, barking like a dog with a bad case of the blues and howling high notes like a forlorn feline. I’d forgotten just how physical of a performer Waits is. He really looked like he was giving it his all on the stage at the Auditorium Theatre. I started to worry this guy might collapse from exhaustion if he didn’t take a break.

I noticed at least three distinct vocal styles that Waits used, all three of them rough and bumpy, but each in its own distinct way.

First and foremost was that deep-throated holler, the gospel singer from hell, a little bit of Louis Armstrong and Captain Beefheart. This is the Tom Waits voice that a friend of mine once compared to Scooby-Doo. Ouch. I can see what she meant, but, hey, I love it.

The second voice is actually the more cartoony one – less booming, more constricted, that funny little grouchy voice Waits shifts into, sometimes with sudden and unexpected speed in the middle of a verse. It’s similar to his “talking” voice – assuming that he actually talks in real life the way he talks onstage.

And then there’s the falsetto, Waits’ secret weapon. Despite his reputation for singing deep notes, Waits can hit the high notes, too, with a strangled falsetto that’s as mournful and desperate as anything you’ve ever heard.

I expected to hear a fair amount of music from Waits’ last album, Real Gone, and sure enough, he opened with two of that record’s songs, “Make It Rain” and “Hoist That Rag.” The Auditorium Theatre concert would include six Real Gone tracks in all. It’s not my favorite Waits album by a long shot, though I do like it quite a bit, and the songs sounded strong in concert. For the most part, the live versions did not have as much clatter and noise as the studio recordings, which were based around Waits’ mouth percussion. Waits’ voice sounded powerful on “Make It Rain,” and “Trampled Rose” was magnificent with Waits’ repeating wordless whine blending into the band’s riff.

Stripped down a little bit, the Real Gone songs sounded more like blues songs. And juxtaposed with a few of Waits’ compositions of the 1970s – the period when his musical arrangements were not nearly as weird as those from Swordfishtrombones and later records – the songs didn’t sound all that radically different. Early songs played at this concert included “Till the Money Runs Out” (which began with a bit of Muddy Waters’ “Who’s Been Talking”) and “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard.”

Waits’ band for this tour was good, maybe not quite as exciting as it could have been. His son, Casey, played drums well enough. Longtime Waits sideman Larry Taylor was great on the upright bass. Guitarist Duke Robillard was not as distinctive as, say, Marc Ribot, but his spiky blues solos fit the music well. And Bent Clausen, playing vibes, percussion and banjo, added most of the colors to the musical mix. My only complaint is I could have used a little more of those colors – a few of the unusual instruments that make cameos on Waits’ records. Calliope, anyone?

After “Hoist That Rag,” Waits played the Swordfishtrombones classic “Shore Leave.” The original was largely a spoken-word number, but Waits was really singing those lines with melody this time. The first of several lines at this concert referring to Illinois won applause from the Chicago crowd: “And I wondered how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair could look down on Illinois and find you there.” The chorus – if you can call it that; it’s only two words, after all – brought out that trademark Waits falsetto.

Next came a couple of songs from Blood Money, “God’s Away on Business,” which had Waits cupping his hands around his mouth for that simulated megaphone sound, and the wistful “All the World Is Green,” in which he seemed to be shaking his entire head to create vibrato.

In between those tunes, he spoke at length for the first time all night, commenting on the disappearance of the Cows on Parade public art project since the last time he’d visited Chicago. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “What happened to the cows? Was there a board meeting I wasn’t informed about? … It’s business, it’s business, I know, but I like the cows.”

After “Falling Down” – a somewhat obscure track from the concert album Big Time – Waits went over to the piano. He played just two songs at the piano this night. I wanted more, but the two that we got were great. Typical of the way he starts off his piano sets, Waits doodled at the keyboard while telling some jokes and stories.

“When I first came to Chicago, I stayed at Belmont and Sheffield – under the el.” He said he stayed at the Wilbrandt Hotel. “The lady behind the counter was the mother of the Marlboro Man.” Waits noted the how disappointed he is when the colorful places he recalls from years ago have become generic and gentrified. “Now you say, ‘9th and Hennepin’ to someone in Minneapolis, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, my wife got some sandals there.’ Sandals? I got shot there.” He reminisced about being caught in “the middle of a pimp war” between 11-year-old pimps – too young to use guns, they threw silverware at each other. “I know it sounds like I made that up, but it’s true.”

And with that, Waits plunked out the discordant chords of “Tango Till They’re Sore,” a lovely example of one of his “grand weepers.”

Before launching into another song, Waits said he’d been told to visit “a little joint on Clark Street” called Wiener Circle. “The great thing about it is you’ll be treated badly.” He said the woman at the hot dog joint called him “dick wad” and “shit bag” on his first visit, but was all nice and sweet when he returned the next day – so he had her fired.

Then came “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” an oldie, from 1976’s Small Change, another classic song, which almost brought tears to my eyes.

The piano was put away (with Waits miming as if he were pushing it), and back to the avant-garde blues. Casey Waits and Clausen grabbed microphones and acted as human beat boxes for “Eyeball Kid” – with Waits holding a big magnifying lens up to his face for part of the song. Waits finally got around to playing guitar for “Way Down in the Hole,” and then on “Don’t Go Into That Barn,” he used a megaphone for the first and only time. The crowd chanted along with the “Yes, sir” line in that song.

“What’s He Building in There” is one song from The Mule Variations that originally struck me as a little too stereotypical of Waits’ macabre spoken-word bits, but it comes alive in concert, with the emphasis changing from the mysterious neighbor to the narrator himself. And this performance of the song ended with a lovely bit of whistling from Waits.

“Murder in the Red Barn” was transformed into a fairly standard-sounding blues song for this tour, a little disappointing though it’s still a fine song. One of Waits’ last songs this night was a new one (slated to come out on the Orphans box set) called “Lie to Me.” It fit in well with theReal Gone tracks.

For his first encore, Waits played acoustic guitar for the first time all night, bringing a gentle touch to “Day After Tomorrow,” a song that closes Real Gone with lyrics about a soldier’s letter home. Applause broke out as Waits sang: “You can’t deny the other side don’t want to die anymore than we do. What I’m trying to say is, don’t they pray to the same god that we do? And tell me, how does God choose? Whose prayers does he refuse?”

Waits came back for one more encore, closing with the wistful “Time” on acoustic guitar. I was really, really glad to hear that one. It’s one of the songs that first got me interested in Waits, back when Rain Dogs was a new album. And then, even though the crowd made an unholy racket of clapping and foot stomping, Waits was really gone.

TOM WAITS
AUGUST 11, 2006
DETROIT OPERA HOUSE

It just seemed like a bus would be the appropriate mode of transportation for following Tom Waits was, so I booked trips to Detroit, Cleveland and Akron via Megabus and Greyhound, arriving in the Motor City without incident. Boy, downtown Detroit is really pretty quiet on a Friday afternoon. The only streets with any noticeable traffic were in front of the casino. Anyway, the Detroit Opera House was another lovely venue for Waits, with a similar grandeur to the Auditorium in Chicago where he’d played two nights earlier.

Was it worth seeing him again? Definitely. He played nine songs in Detroit that he hadn’t touched in Chicago. The crowd was even more boisterous, and there was more banter from Waits. When a few people were insistent about yelling out song requests, Waits told them to write down their measurements and hand them to the ushers. “I’m having hard-shell cases made, for each one of you,” he said. In response to one of the requests (I didn’t catch the song title), Waits demurred, saying “No, that’s old shit,” then noted that some old songs hold up well and others don’t.

For his piano interlude, he played “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” (when he started playing one of the verses he’d already done, he remarked, “We’ve already been through this material”), “Invitation to the Blues” and “House Where Nobody Lives.”

Waits made some surprising song choices, including “Lost at the Bottom of the World” and “It Rains on Me.” Though the latter song is hardly a familiar one, Waits got the crowd singing along with its chorus. At another point, he urged the crowd to stop clapping along to a song, since people weren’t really clapping to the beat.

He stopped the show with a true show-stopper, the Bone Machine track “Goin’ Out West,” with its boastful chorus: “I look good without a shirt on!”

TOM WAITS
AUGUST 13, 2006
AKRON CIVIC THEATRE

The Akron Civic Theatre looks like a small-town movie theater from the street, but looks are deceiving. That’s just the façade for the long entrance, which leads back to a beautiful and fairly large auditorium set back from the street. It’s ornate to the extreme, a little reminiscent of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, though it has considerably more glitter. “Before it was a theater, it was a barbershop,” Waits said.

Waits’ set list at this concert was a combination of his repertoire from the last two concerts I’d seen, with just one new addition, “Clap Hands.”

He said he’d visited the Goodyear blimp factory because blimps had always appeared in the sky during major moments of his life. “The first time I robbed a gas station, a blimp went by. The first time I killed an endangered species, a blimp went by.” And he said he was staying at the Taft Hotel. He recommended staying at hotels named after presidents – but not at hotels named “Hotel President.” (Actually, I wonder if Waits was really staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland, since I happened to see Robillard walking into that hotel the night before.)

Waits told the story again about Wiener Circle, saying it was a restaurant at the last city where he’d been (actually, it was a couple of cities ago).

Although the stage had the same stack of megaphones, Waits never used them in Detroit or Akron.

Although Waits had scheduled another late-night concert the same night at the House of Blues in Cleveland (which I did not get a ticket for), he did not especially seem to be in a hurry to leave Akron, playing a concert of the same length as the Chicago and Detroit shows.

As I had suspected, the House of Blues show that I missed turned out to be the slightly more unusual one of the night, including 11 songs that I hadn’t heard in the previous three concerts. But I’m happy to report that I witnessed three excellent performances by this musical legend.

For more about these concerts, including audience comments, visit the excellent Waits fan bloghttp://eyeballkid.blogspot.com/

What, you’re probably asking, no photos from the Tom Waits concerts? Sorry, photography was not allowed at the three Waits concerts I saw, and rather than dealing with the hassle of trying to get a photo pass I decided to focus on the musical experience. The photos I have posted here are what I was able to find from other photographers at www.flickr.com. And that image at left is by Jesse Dylan from the sheet music book for Blood Money.

CHICAGO SET LIST
Make It Rain
Hoist That Rag
Shore Leave
God’s Away On Business
All the World Is Green
Falling Down
Tango Till They’re Sore
Tom Traubert’s Blues
Eyeball Kid
Down in the Hole
Don’t Go Into That Barn
Shake It
Trampled Rose
What’s He Building in There
Who’s Been Talking / Till The Money Runs Out
Murder in the Red Barn
Lie to Me
Get Behind the Mule
ENCORE 1
Day After Tomorrow
Singapore
ENCORE 2
Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard
Time

 

DETROIT SET LIST
Make It Rain
God’s Away on Business
Shore Leave
Way Down in the Hole
Dead and Lovely
Falling Down
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis
Invitation to the Blues
House Where Nobody Lives
Eyeball Kid
Who’s Been Talking/’Till The Money Runs Out
Circus
Trampled Rose
Lost at the Bottom of the World
Sins of the Father
Shake It
ENCORE 1 
Murder in the Red Barn
Get Behind the Mule
It Rains on Me
ENCORE 2
Day After Tomorrow
Goin’ Out West

 

AKRON SET LIST
Make It Rain
Hoist That Rag
Shore Leave
Dead and Lovely
God’s Away on Business
Falling Down
Tango Til They’re Sore
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis
Tom Traubert’s Blues
Til the Money Runs Out
Whats He Building in There
Eyeball Kid
Murder in the Red Barn
Trampled Rose
Lost at the Bottom of the World
Who’s Been Talking/’Till The Money Runs Out
Shake It
ENCORE 1
Day After Tomorrow
Lie To Me
Get Behind The Mule
ENCORE 2
Clap Hands
Sins Of The Father / Wade in the Water

 

CLEVELAND SET LIST
(according tohttp://eyeballkid.blogspot.com/)
Goin’ Out West
219 (My Baby’s Leaving on the)
Way Down in the Hole
November
\Blue Valentine
Big Black Mariah
On the Nickel
Cemetery Polka
\I Wish I Was in New Orleans
Johnsburg, Illinois
Metropolitan Glide
Heartattack and Vine / Spoonful
Make it Rain
Circus
Singapore
It Rains on Me
ENCORE 1 
Don’t Go Into that Barn
Ramblin’ Man
ENCORE 2 
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Buzz Fledderjohn

Lollapalooza 2006

PRE-LOLLAPALOOZA PARTY
AUGUST 3, 2006

GNARLS BARKLEY at the House of Blues — Thanks to an invite from someone at Spin magazine, I was lucky enough to get into this pre-Lollapalooza private gig by one of the festival’s most anticipated bands. Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere album is certainly one of the year’s best – and if you think it’s hip-hop, think again. These guys may have their roots in that genre, but they’re exploring other roots here. For its tour, the duo of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green has been expanded into a 13-piece big band, including three backup singers and four string players.

For this gig, they come out dressed as a diner’s chefs, cooks, bus boys and waitresses. For their entrance music, the band plays Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” A minute into the show, Cee-Lo cracks, “Any Gnarls Barkley fans here? Sorry, they couldn’t make it here tonight, so we’re going to cover some of their songs. We’re the Sam Cookes. Get it?”

The St. Elsewhere songs sound very good live (though the sound mix leaves the strings inaudible on all but a few tunes), and the band throws in an odd mix of covers. Of course, there’s the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone,” which is on the album, but the group also plays the Greenhorne’s “There’s an End” and the Doors’ “Who Scared You?” – neither of them a song that many people in the audience would recognize without help from Cee-Lo. He introduces both songs as examples of Gnarls Barkley’s broad taste in music.

His banter also includes some raunchy bits – like encouraging the women in attendance to bare their breasts. “If you feel the impulse to pull those titties out, do it.”

Hearing the hit “Crazy” being performed live at this show (with an intro on strings) is a spine-tingling moment. Yeah, I know I should be jaded by now by this kind of thing. How big of a deal is it really, to hear a band playing a hit song? But still… When you know it’s a great song, and you hear it live for the first time, and everyone in the room is really into it, it’s still such a cool experience. And with “Crazy,” the room goes crazy, people waving their arms in the air, one woman climbing on top of some guy’s shoulders. And the song, with Cee-Lo’s soulful falsetto, just soars.

Thank God this year’s Lollapalooza isn’t going to be as hot as last year’s, but it’s still time to slather on some sun block. I show up in time to catch only the last song by MIDLAKE. I liked the band’s first album a lot and have been meaning to check out the new one. The little bit that I hear sounds good.

On the other hand, just a few minutes of BLUE OCTOBER is enough to convince me that I should head to the other end of the park. Yuck.

I see most of the set by HUSKY RESCUE at one of the small stages, which have some nice shade. These Finns play some pleasant pop music. It didn’t wow me (other than the charming looks and sweet voice of singer Reeta Corhola), but I liked it enough that I’ll listen to more. Introducing the song “Summertime Cowboy,” Corhola remarks, “The whole purpose of this American tour is finding me a real cowboy.”

The descriptions of CURSIVE sounded interesting, and the fact that this band uses horns does make it a little more interesting than the typical pop-punk band of today. But I still didn’t find much about it that was engaging during the few songs I heard. So I took another long trek past Buckingham Fountain (at least the long walks across the Lollapalooza grounds were scenic) and listened to the last half of the set by AQUALUNG. Pretty enjoyable Brit-pop ballads.

EELS were up next on the Bud Light stage at the north end of the park. I’ve liked but not loved the two Eels albums I’ve heard (the last two), but they were pretty darn impressive – and odd – in concert. First comes this dude with a headband, Fu Manchu beard and a black T-shirt labeled “Security.” People cheer as he walks out – obviously familiar with the shtick that’s about to happen. He ain’t no security guard – he’s part of the show. Then comes the band, most of them wearing green fatigues, with lead singer e in pilot goggles. The first few songs rock pretty hard, then e switches to keyboards and let things get just a little more mellow. The security dude utters some bizarre non sequitors in a stern voice. “Are you enjoying this? My condolences. I have to go break one of my fingers now. I’ll be back in a minute.” Later, pointing at an audience member: “Is that cocktail sauce?!?” Upon orders from e, the guy goes into the crowd once to give people high-fives, then later to spray whip cream in their mouths. At least, that’s what I think it was. Eels closes with two passionately played covers: a dead-on version of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You,” and the Sinatra standard “That’s Life.”

I tried to get back to the south field in time for some photos of THE EDITORS, but by the time I got there, they’d already finished their third song and the photographers had been kicked out of the photo pit. (Like many concerts and festivals, Lollapalooza set a rule that the photographers can shoot only during the first three songs.) I stick around for about half of the performance. Seems OK, though the Editors obviously have a Joy Division fixation.

Back north for RYAN ADAMS. I’ve heard so much about his performances (the tirades and erratic shows), but never seen him before. Today, he and his band are definitely in a jamming mode. It occurs to me that he’s sounding a lot like the Grateful Dead – not being a Deadhead, I don’t realize that he’s actually doing three Dead covers. He also plays a nice version of “Hickory Wind,” and at least one Ryan Adams song that I recognize, “Cold Roses.” It’s a good show, though you have to wonder why he’d use this golden opportunity to showcase his music for a bunch of Dead cover tunes. Just another example of how mercurial he is, I guess. At one point, he goes on a rant about how Chicago doesn’t allow eggs to be served after 11 a.m. Huh? When he paused, his bassist made a remark about how the audience was there to hear his music, and Adams quipped, “Trust me – they’re not hear to here the music. They’re hear to see the freakout.” Just then, he noticed a helicopter in the sky and said, “Aw shit – the egg police!” Finally, launching into a song, he said, “Phew! That one’s over. That last bit, that wasn’t a song. It was just me making an ass of myself.”

I heard only a few songs by IRON & WINE, which sounded nice. I like Iron & Wine’s records, but the unremitting mellowness of it all gets to me after a while. With a band, the songs seemed a little more lively. And it is undoubtedly cool to see a large group of fans getting into a performance of such delicate music. Unfortunately, the setup at Lollapalooza this year, while not as prone to sound bleed as last year’s, did have some problems. The stage where Iron & Wine was playing (the Adidas-Champs stage, better known the rest of the year as the Petrillo Bandshell) was too close to the Playstation Stage, and several quiet acts were booked next to louder acts. In the case of Iron & Wine, noise from Lady Sovereign intruded on his soft folk.

I decided to head early to THE RACONTEURS, knowing that the photo pit will be jammed with photographers. It is fun getting an up-close look at the performers, but sometimes, there are just too many people in these pits, all angling for the best spot and struggling to get shots around the video camera handlers and the high stages. Sure enough, the Raconteurs pit is a madhouse. The band appears to be having a lot of fun onstage, like their old pals goofing around. At one point, Jack White and Brendan Benson push each other just after singing together into the same mike. Now, I wish I had been able to stick around for more of this concert (I end up missing the Raconteurs playing a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”), but I’ve got to get in place for the Sleater-Kinney show back on the north end of the park. As I walk north, I can hear the sound of MY MORNING JACKET booming all the way across Buckingham Fountain. They sound as great as always, and I wouldn’t have missed seeing them – except for the fact that I’d seen them recently and they were up against the Raconteurs.

SLEATER-KINNEY was one of the bands I was anticipating the most at Lollapalooza. I really got into this group after their last album, The Woods, came out, though I had liked them before. I saw them for the first time in 2005, and this was my fourth Sleater-Kinney concert. I was crestfallen when I heard recently that the trio was going on “indefinite hiatus.” I do hope that just means they’re taking some time off and will be back, but this Lollapalooza gig might end up being one of their last. While My Morning Jacket is still playing at the other end of the field, the gals of Sleater-Kinney come out for a few minutes to do a sound check, and the photographers snap a few pictures. I overhear one photog saying, “I’ve got what I need. What difference will it make when they come out? They’ll just have the lights on them, and they’re just going to stand there. I’ve already got photos of that. Let’s go see the Violent Femmes. Maybe they’ll do ‘Blister in the Sun.’” I tell him that Sleater-Kinney isn’t just going to stand there, but he doesn’t sound convinced. Whatever…

The performance is strong, though maybe not quite as raucous as Sleater-Kinney’s SXSW gig earlier this year. Maybe I’m feeling my own bittersweet feelings about seeing the band for what may be the last time, but I sense more emotion on the stage than usual. Especially with Corin Tucker, who looks at times like she is going to start crying as she hits some of the high notes. She always has a little bit of that look in her, but I sense it more tonight. There’s one strange moment when Tucker points (maybe at a sound man, maybe at Carrie Brownstein, and exchanges what looks like some testy words off-mike), but then she seems like she’s her old self after that. After playing blistering versions of most tracks from The Woods, Sleater-Kinney closes with “Turn It On.”

The rest of the night’s anti-climatic. I stick around Butler Field long enough to hear several songs by DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE. I realize I’ve been a little too harsh on this band since seeing them at last year’s Lollapalooza. Their music is actually all right. I just feel like it’s overrated, or that they’re getting more than their share of popularity compared to other indie-rock bands. But I do enjoy hearing their tunes tonight. Then I catch the last half of WEEN. I have to admit I don’t know much about this band, other than by reputation. What I hear is interesting and quirky.

SEE PHOTOS OF HUSKY RESCUE, CURSIVE, EELS, RYAN ADAMS, IRON & WINE, THE RACONTEURS & SLEATER-KINNEY.

I’m not even sure who the winner of the “Last Band Standing” contest is, but it’s sort of amusing to see them playing in front of a big empty field at 11:45 a.m. and exhorting a few hundred people: “Come on, Lollapalooza, make some noise!”

The early bands today include RAINER MARIA, playing solid and tuneful rock, and LIVING THINGS, very stylish guys with rock-star attitude playing decent but not especially original glam-garage-rock. (They’re one of the two bands that I see Perry Farrell introduce as his “favorite new band” – the other being Gnarls Barkley.) I overhear the woman in BE YOUR OWN PET telling the audience, “I just threw up … It tasted like watermelon.”

THE GO! TEAM puts on a fabulous show in the early afternoon, with the singer Ninja putting on an amazing display of cheerleading-style calisthenics in the 90-degree sun. They’re just as fun as I remember them being last year at Metro, and a few non-album songs sound good. My only regret right now is missing the show by FEIST at the other end of the park.

BUILT TO SPILL makes great albums, with guitar licks that seem almost like architectural structures, with one riff piled perfectly on top of another. The one time I saw Built to Spill in concert (a few years back at Metro), I was a little disappointed. It was OK, but the band seemed a little listless. Maybe it was just my visual perception of the group, because I could see again today that Built to Spill isn’t all that exciting to watch. The music was excellent, though, and Doug Martsch was a little more animated than the rest of the guys. With his gray-streaked beard, he’s looking pretty old. Overall, they look like a bunch of grizzled mountain men. The band makes some cracks about all of the corporate sponsorship on display at Lollapalooza, with Martsch saying, “We would still be playing music even if Bud Light hadn’t brought us here.” Someone in the crowd shouts back, “You wouldn’t get a paycheck!”

CALEXICO is another reliable band, and they put on exactly the sort of show I’ve come to expect. A nice surprise is Nicolai Dunger coming out for guest vocals on the Love song “Alone Again Or,” which Calexico dedicates to the late Arthur Lee.

On the way south, I overhear a couple songs by WOLFMOTHER – a group whose appeal escapes me. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath retreads, as far as I can tell. Too much Spinal Tap for my tastes.

Though I’d love to see SONIC YOUTH, I go to GNARLS BARKLEY – yeah, I’d just seen them on Thursday, but I am covering Lollapalooza for some newspapers, and I figure Gnarls has more news value. Staying true to their vow to wear different costumes each time they perform, they’re dressed this time as tennis players. The set list and Cee-Lo’s banter are pretty similar to the House of Blues show. Being farther back for most of the show, I don’t find it quite as enthralling as Gnarls’ club performance, but it’s still pretty great. They should save “Crazy” for their last song, but sticking it 15 minutes before the end of the set, they send a multitude of fans streaming the other direction.

I’d never seen THE SMOKING POPES back in the day, so it was cool to see the reunited band playing its tuneful pop-punk here. A couple of new songs, which will be on a forthcoming album, sounded strong, very similar to the classic Popes music.

THE FLAMING LIPS turn out to be the highlight of the festival for me. This is in spite of the fact that I was disappointed by the previous two Lips concerts I’d seen, and I’m not a huge fan of the Lips’ new album. Sometimes, the group’s circus-like spectacle seems like too much of a gimmick, but fun gimmickry fit in perfectly with the festival atmosphere here. With gals in green alien masks and guys in Santa Claus suits cavorting on the stage, singer Wayne Coyne inserted himself into a large plastic bubble and walked out on top of the audience. (Beforehand, he’d asked the audience to pretend that he’d descended from the sky and that they hadn’t just seen him getting into the balloon on stage. “I apologize in advance if I step on your head.”) Returning to the stage and firing off confetti, Coyne urged the gathered Lips fans to sing loud enough to stop traffic on Lake Shore Drive, hoping the noise might somehow bring peace to the Middle East. “I wish singing could stop people from killing each other,” he remarked. The sing-along may not have achieved peace, but it did create a surreal spectacle: tens of thousands of people waving their arms and singing along to “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Maybe it was my vantage point up front – seeing the antics of the first three songs unfolding right above my head was amazing – but it all seemed so joyous that I couldn’t help smiling. Oddly, I see that some of the other critics in attendance (Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune and Jon Pareles of The New York Times were underwhelmed by the Lips’ performance). A short while later, I overheard a guy on a cell phone telling a friend, “The Flaming Lips were out of control!” That guy was right.

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS are an excellent band, but I’ve seen them twice recently, so I didn’t make a special effort to see them, other than hearing them on the way to KANYE WEST. Although I think West is overrated, I did get somewhat excited about seeing him, especially after giving another listen this morning to Late Registration and remembering how many interesting tracks it has. As a mini-orchestra of female string players, wearing masks over their eyes slinky black dresses, took the stage amid puffs of fog, the crowd was eager for West to make a dramatic entrance. Unfortunately, when he arrived and launched into his rapping, it was barely audible to the fans standing any distance from the stage, and some audience members chanted, “Turn it up!” Apparently trying to correct the problem, West left the stage for three momentum-killing silences between songs. I heard people yelling, “Come on!” and “What’s going on?” West eventually went on a tirade about how terrible the sound was at his hometown gig, threatening that “Changes will be made.” (Huh?)

Whenever West finally got around to playing his songs, it sounded strong and the crowd really got into it. But the show itself lacked the quick pacing necessary for a good concert. Too many speeches, not enough music. All that being said, I could see this was a special moment for many of the fans. Lupe Fiasco, Common and Twista all made guest appearances. And I started to get really sick of hearing musicians saying, “Chi-Town! Make some noise!”

SEE PHOTOS OF RAINER MARIA, THE LIVING THINGS, THE GO! TEAM, BUILT TO SPILL, CALEXICO, GNARLS BARKLEY, THE SMOKING POPES, THE FLAMING LIPS & KANYE WEST.

I’d seen an announcement at the media tent that PATTI SMITH would be making a “surprise” appearance today at 12:45 p.m. at the Kidzaplooza area. (!) So I showed up in time for that, catching PERRY FARRELL & PETER DI STEFANO performing several songs for the kids. Then Smith came out, noting that she was born in Chicago. “My dad’s name was Grant, and he used to tell me he owned Grant Park. So, Daddy, here I am in Grant Park.” But Smith seemed ill-prepared. In an awkward moment, she began playing her song “Grateful,” but only after a few false starts and forgotten chords. “That just goes to show you that any asshole can play guitar,” she said, oblivious or uncaring about the fact that she was supposedly playing to an audience of kids. (Actually, the adults seemed to outnumber the tykes.) For her third and last song, Smith played “Qana,” which she said she’d just written the day before about the Israeli attack on the Lebanon village of Qana. The dirge-like song – a moving protest piece, even though it sounds a little too much like any number of other Patti Smith tunes – includes the repeated line, “The dead lay in strange shapes.” Smith told the crowd, “While we are celebrating our children, think how we would feel if 27 of them were blown away by bombs.” I wonder if any of the children at the Kidzapalooza stage asked their parents later, “Who was that scary lady?” (“Qana” can be downloaded here.)

THE HOLD STEADY were as great as usual, stoking my anticipation of their new record, coming out in October. “This is easily the most fun we’ve ever had before 3 in the afternoon,” singer Craig Finn said.

NICKEL CREEK has struck me as a little bland in the past, but the bluegrass trio definitely has virtuosity to spare. They performed a nice set on the north end of the park, with the nearby trees creating the perfect pastoral setting. They played covers of Radiohead’s “Nice Dream” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” As the group noted, this may have been a Lollapalooza first – three consecutive acts featuring fiddle (THE FRAMES preceded Nickel Creek, and ANDREW BIRD followed).

Bird was as impressive as always, and it was interesting to hear several songs from his forthcoming album. Unfortunately, the sound sucked, with way too much bass.

THE SHINS were next. When did these guys become such stars? I guess it’s because their music was on “The OC” or something, but jeez, I remember hearing about the first Shins album, Oh, Inverted World, when it was a pretty darn obscure indie album few people knew about. These guys deserve all the adoration. Their songs are smartly constructed and incredibly catchy. The band played a few new tracks from the third album, which they’re still working on, and they sounded very promising, with a little bit of Byrds guitar in one of the songs. Glenn Mercer is looking a lot like Kevin Spacey now that he’s shaved his beard. For some reason, they were all wearing military-style green shirts. As one of them explained, “We’re wearing these shirts because we like them. They’re green and uncomfortable.” (Someone else mentioned to me later that the sound at the Shins was too low and people in the back couldn’t hear, but from what I experienced, it sounded fine near the front and back in the middle of the field.)

WILCO and QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE were playing in the same time slot. And while I’ve really seen Wilco plenty of times and would have personally preferred checking out QOTSA for a change, seeing the hometown band seemed like the thing to do. It wasn’t the best Wilco performance I’ve ever seen – it seemed like Wilco toned down the stranger or more extreme parts of its repertoire for the festival audience – it was still quite good. The set included four new songs. The guitar solo on “Impossible Germany” was really, really good, and I liked the chunky riff in “Let’s Fight.” Jeff Tweedy is looking pretty hirsute these days, and his straw hat made him look like a character from the 19th century. Seeing the big crowd singing along with “Jesus etc.” was one of those nice “we are the world” moments.

BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE was a lot more fun on stage than on record, with members of the big collective coming and going. For most bands, the following statement would be no big deal: “We’ve got the whole band for you tonight – the whole band.” But for Broken Social Scene, getting everyone together is something of an accomplishment. The show gave me a chance to see at least a little bit of Feist. This band had an enviable time slot, playing at the north end of Hutchinson Field as tens of thousands of RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS fans filed in. I hope some of the people unfamiliar with Broken Social Scene’s music took notice.

I’m not a big fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so I wasn’t especially looking forward to their performance, but I was duly impressed with their musicianship and energy. And the weird covers or snippets of covers: the Clash’s “London Calling,” Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.”

While I certainly don’t agree with Perry Farrell’s introduction of the Peppers as “the greatest band on the planet today,” I also think Jim DeRogatis of the Sun-Times was a little harsh on them, calling them “boneheads.” They did seem to inspire boneheaded behavior in the audience, though, as people pushed and shoved their way forward. I did not get there in time for a spot in the crowded photo pit, and I ended up watching most of the concert from the media tent up on a nearby hill. From there, I could see an almost constant stream of fans being escorted out, either because they’re jumped over the barricade or been pushed.

It was an unpleasant way to end a pleasant festival. So what was Lollapalooza all about this year? It wasn’t as cutting-edge as the Intonation and Pitchfork fests, and it’s questionable how much of the music qualifies as “alternative.” Alternative to most mainstream pop, yes. But Kanye West and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are too popular to truly count as alternative. Some of the schedule conflicts were maddening, and it was a long walk from one end of the park to the other. But as long as you didn’t get hung up on having to see everything, it was a damn nice time with some fine musical performances.

SEE PHOTOS OF PATTI SMITH, THE HOLD STEADY, NICKEL CREEK, ANDREW BIRD, THE SHINS, WILCO & BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE.

Intonation Fest 2006

SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM INTONATION FEST DAY 1.

If you stepped back a bit from the stages this weekend at the Intonation Music Festival in Chicago and watched the crowd, it was a little like witnessing a social-science experiment in progress.

The festival in Union Park almost seemed designed to answer these questions: Who will show up if you schedule hip-hop rappers right next to heavy-metal headbangers? And what will fans of teen-friendly indie-pop music like the Stills make of experimental Japanese noise music by the Boredoms?

As the Intonation Fest set a new standard for eclectic programming, it did seem at times like the crowd was baffled by the sudden shifts in musical style. And although programmers hoped the hip-hop acts would attract a more racially diverse crowd, the Intonation audience turned out to be the mostly young and mostly white audience that shows up at most indie-rock concerts – with a slightly higher percentage of African-Americans, at least during the sets by Ghostface and Dead Prez.

There was some head scratching out on the lawn, especially when the Boredoms were drumming nonstop for 45 minutes with incoherent screaming as the only vocals – a great performance, but one that must have seemed strange for those unfamiliar with the group.

But by the time the festival wrapped up Sunday night, it was hard not to feel good about this show of musical diversity. Maybe everyone didn’t get everything, but enough people with open minds discovered new music to make Intonation a success.

ERASE ERRATA – I arrived early Saturday, just in time to hear this all-female San Francisco trio play its jagged art-punk. Sort of reminded me of the B-52s, but less shticky. In the first of many marijuana references I would hear during the festival (not to mention the ever-present odor), the singer remarked, “If any of you guys have any grass, I’ll be, like, waiting around out here.”

90 DAY MEN – I missed these guys during their first go-around, so it’s nice to get a chance to hear them play again. They’re introduced as “the freakiest band in Chicago.” I’m not sure who really deserves that title, probably not 90 Day Men, but the group’s music proves to be fairly interesting art rock, with a lot of Nord Electro keyboard. I jot the following thought in my notepad: “Punk rock reacted against Pink Floyd in the late ’70s and gradually became … Pink Floyd.”

DEVIN THE DUDE – This Houston hip-hop guy’s music wasn’t bad, but his crude sexual come-ons were just annoying after a while. I’m not sure the mostly white indie-rock crowd was really the right audience for songs about wanting to stick his dick into any available orifice. “There’s got to be a few horny women out there,” he said at one point, trying to get the crowd more interested. And after his DJ made sounds ejaculation-simulating sound effects, Devin said, “All you fellows out there excuse me for just a minute. I’ve got to do something for the ladies now.” He then did a short bit of the James Taylor song “I’m Your Handyman” (OK, that was sort of funny) before lapsing back into the songs about his dick.

JOSE GONZALEZ – In one of the most shocking contrasts of the fest, the next act was the Argentine/Swedish singer-guitarist Jose Gonzalez, the quietest and gentlest performer of the whole weekend. His technique on the guitar is impressive, as are his soft vocals. Sounds like Nick Drake, though one wonders if his music springs just as much out of Argentine or classical guitar traditions.

CHROMEO – More shtick, this time funk shtick. One of the guys in this band spent most of the show with a tube in his mouth, making that robotic Vocoder sound. That’s entertaining for all of about 5 seconds. During a short technical breakdown, one of the Chromeo guys tried to keep the crowd entertained with some banter, but his dance-related jokes went over the heads of most people there (me included). “I guess indie kids don’t juke that much. You do this,” he said, pumping his fist in the air lamely. Later, Chromeo did an abbreviated cover of that awful song by the Outfield, “Your Love,” with the singer commenting, “I did it because I felt like it.” And at the end of its set, Chromeo’s guys complimented the crowd for being so “gangsta.” “Chicago’s a gangsta town.”

HIGH ON FIRE – I expected this band to play stoner rock, but it really sounded more like heavy metal to me. The distinction might get lost on some people, and I’m not always sure I can tell the difference. The music was loud and intense. Not really my kind of thing, but High on Fire seemed to be pretty good at what it does. Like just about every other band, High on Fire made some remarks designed to win applause from the Windy City audience: “I know this is a bit of a metal town.”

THE STILLS – The new album by this Canadian band is quite nice. Nothing groundbreaking, but the songs and performances are strong, and in concert, the Stills were considerably livelier than I expected. Good show.

ROKY ERICKSON – The most historic moment of the whole fest was the performance by Roky Erickson, former leader of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Erickson spent much of the past few decades coping with mental illness, recovering recently with care from his brother. He hadn’t played a concert outside of his home state of Texas in many years. And with his sad, squinty eyes and pale complexion, Erickson had the look of someone who doesn’t go outdoors very often. But when we sang and played guitar Saturday, he sounded absolutely confident. His chunky, fuzz-drenched guitar riffs were a garage-rock variation on the blues. And when he opened his mouth for the “Oh, yeah!” holler that begins the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ best-known song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” it felt like the impassioned voice of the young man who’d sung it 40 years ago was coming out of that older man’s body. Roky got a huge round of applause and came back for a two-song encore. Nice to see this guy getting that kind of appreciation.

THE BOREDOMS – Three drummers sitting in a circle, playing almost nonstop for 45 minutes. Another guy jumping up and down and screaming incoherently, making wonky sounds on his keyboard. OK, this is not everyone’s thing, but I thought it was brilliant.

GHOSTFACE – This is another hip-hop act that just didn’t connect with me. Too much of the performance consisted of calling out “Wu – Tang – Clan!” and similar shtick. By the way… the emcees on Saturday were a highly annoying bunch of shock-jock-style comedians, including one jerk dressed up like a baby in a diaper. The crowd reaction was hostile, and as these emcees were trying to introduce Ghostface, someone in the audience yelled out, “Ghostface, bust those guys!”

LADY SOVEREIGN – My, she’s tiny, a little wisp of a girl. Her sassy attitude and tongue-twisting words were entertaining.

THE STREETS – Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, is one of the most creative and entertaining hip-hop artists right now, that I’m aware of (and I admit there’s a lot I’m not aware of). His records are both amusing and musically interesting. The live show was not quite as good (it lacked some of the musical sophistication of the studio recordings), but he’s a funny guy with an entertaining stage presence. He honed in on some girl in the front of the audience, pretended to be wooing her – even singing a little of the Arctic Monkeys’ “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.” Then, being very English, he turns around and apologizes to the girl’s boyfriend for hitting on her. In another bit of shtick (yeah, I know I criticized other acts for being shticky; this was good shtick), Skinner urged the crowd to crouch down then jump up. “I want to thank you so much for going low.” In his encore, he threw in a line or two from Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.”

SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM INTONATION FEST DAY 2.

I showed up a little later today, sorry to have missed the Tyrades, Bill Dolan, Panthers, Constantines, Rhymfest and Annie. Lupe Fiasco was finishing up just as I arrived. What little I heard of his hip-hop sounded pretty good.

THE SWORD – The bad emcees from yesterday were gone, replaced by comedian Neil Hamburger. He was annoying and crude, but in a way that was almost performance art, which made it more tolerable. He introduced this Austin band as “the Screaming Mimis” before correcting himself. This was another band on the borderline between metal and stoner rock. I liked it, because there was more melody and some touches of Black Sabbath and ’70s rock. At one point, the singer introduced a song by saying, “We just made a video for this next song. I am happy to report there was only one spear wound.” I’m not sure if he was joking.

BLUE CHEER – I know this band more by reputation than its music. Their cover of “Summertime Blues” is cool, of course. And they were once named the world’s loudest rock band. (Somehow, I doubt that decibel readings were taken at enough concerts to know for sure who’s loudest.) And I hear that they brought along their stacks of Marshall amps when they played on “American Bandstand,” even though they had to lip-synch, like every other act on that show. They hadn’t played in Chicago since 1970 or 1971, when they spent the night in jail after the concert on marijuana charges (or that’s how the story was told onstage, at least). “The last time we were here, they threw us in jail,” singer-bassist Dickie Peterson said. “At least this time, we’ll go to jail together.” Well, if you say so… These guys looked old, but still like Hell’s Angels. Peterson had a shock of straw-colored hair and a devilish beard, and he was wearing a beaded vest over an orange shirt. His voice was pretty hoarse. The performance seemed just OK to me, nothing too fiery, more sludgy than anything. “Summertimes Blues” sounded pretty good, though, with more interesting guitar soloing. Introducing the song “Parchment Farm,” Peterson noted that it was originally a jazz song by Mose Allison. “I think Mose dies every time he hears this version, but he probably likes the paycheck.” Peterson’s banter about peace and love was amusing, and he promised, “We ain’t gonna stop till we die.”

JON BRION – Luring Brion to perform at Intonation wasn’t quite as much of a coup as booking Roky Erickson, but it was still a rare chance to see this Los Angeles studio whiz playing outside of his home state. Brion has built a cult following with his weekly shows in L.A., where he uses tape loops to construct multilayered songs, switching from drums to keyboards to guitar and vocals. While he played a few songs simply standing in front of the microphone with a guitar and singing, Brion also constructed a few of his pop symphonies for the Intonation audience. Most impressively, the songs actually rocked, with some intense guitar solos by Brion. Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker joined Brion for a couple of songs, playing on a wee piano, barely bigger than Schroeder’s. In addition to his original songs, Brion played covers of Zombies, Beatles and Kinks tunes. (I apparently missed his encore of “Waterloo Sunset,” with Wilco’s Glenn Kotche coming out to play with him. Thinking his set was over, I’d gone over to the other stage for Robert Pollard, and I didn’t even hear this. Greg Kot wrote about it in the Tribune today. Oh, well…)

ROBERT POLLARD – Not much different from Guided By Voices, solo Robert Pollard still sings lot of obscure songs drawn from his immense repertoire, chugs alcohol, twirls his microphone and makes karate kicks. The current band (including, among other, Tommy Keene and Jason Narducy) is quite good, and the songs included newer solo tracks as well as the GBV classic “Game of Pricks.” The only shortcoming was that some of the songs went on a bit long, with extra choruses and solos. All that fat was missing from those short, sharp GBV songs in the days of old.

DEAD PREZ – Definitely the most political of the hip-hop acts I saw at Intonation. These guys were very hard-hitting with lyrics about kicking in the door of the White House, among other things. Kicking off a song about schools not teaching black kids what they need to know, Dead Prez sang the chorus of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” asking the crowd, “Who knows about Pink Floyd?” Asking the crowd to raise its fists for black power, they noted that much of the crowd was white. “That white first gotta stand for black power.” As galvanizing as Dead Prez could be, the concert got bogged down in too many political speeches between the songs, including an appearance by Fred Hampton Jr. to call for a street to be designated in honor of his father, the late Black Panthers leader, even if “Gangsta Daley” doesn’t allow it. (Funny… the guys in Chromeo used the term “gangsta” as a compliment the day before…)

BLOC PARTY brought the festival to a fitting end, with a dance-worthy set of tunes. I rather liked this band when I saw them at the SXSW 2005 Spin party, but then their CD never really connected with me. They’ve got a good sound, but they just don’t vary it that much from song to song. Seeing the band live again, though, made me appreciate them all over. A song from the forthcoming album sounded promising. It was long ­– almost like a multipart suite.

SXSW 2006

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!”

The band’s rejoinder: “This is coming from a guy who lives in a Dumpster across the street from my house.” SEE PHOTOS OF DR. DOG… SEE DR. DOG’S SET LIST.

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.