On the final day of South By Southwest, March 15, 2014, I arrived at Hotel Vegas in late afternoon and stayed throughout the night for the Burger Records showcase. Here are my photos — click on these links to jump ahead — of Burnt Ones, AJ Davila, Coathangers, Fletcher C. Johnson, the Bad Lovers, the Yolks, Gap Dream, Gal Pals, Bad Sports, Shocked Minds, Cosmonauts, Warm Soda and Habibi.
My photos from daytime shows during the fifth day of South By Southwest, March 15, 2014, including — click on these links to jump ahead — WatchOut!, Sivu, Protomartyr and the Melodic. (I have a separate gallery for another band I saw this afternoon, Ex Hex.)
Ex Hex is a new band on the Sub Pop label starring Mary Timony of Helium and Wild Flag, Fire Tapes bassist Betsy Wright and the Aquarium drummer Laura Harris. They played several times at South By Southwest; I saw their gig on Saturday afternoon, March 15, 2014, during Brooklyn Vegan’s party at Red 7. Wright in particular seemed to having a blast onstage, frequently coming over toward Timony to face off with her, one rocker to another. (You can hear Ex Hex’s song “Hot and Cold” here on Soundcloud.)
My photos from the fourth night of South By Southwest, March 14, 2014, including — click on these links to jump ahead — EMA, the Shilohs, Connections, Death By Unga Bunga, Nive Nielsen & the Deer Children, Gulp and Songs of Water.
My photos from the Bloodshot Records party during South By Southwest, March 14, 2014, at the Yard Dog art gallery, including: the Deslondes, Robbie Fulks, Rosie Flores, Bobby Bare Jr., Luke Winslow King with Esther Rose, and Ha Ha Tonka. (I have a separate gallery of Lydia Loveless photos from the same party.)
The Launderettes, an all-female rock band from Oslo, Norway, who have been together since 1999, played the final time slot of the night at B.D. Riley’s on March 13, 2014, at South By Southwest — and it was one of the most fun shows I saw all week. The Launderettes play songs in the style of 1960s girl groups, occasionally dipping back into 1950s styles or evoking later punk-era bands like the B-52s and throwing in a few Theremin solos. A good way to acquaint yourself with this group is the best-of collection Fluff ‘n’ Fold, which came out in 2007 on Steven Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Record Co. label.
The Australian rock band Dog Trumpet has been together since 1990, and its two key members — brothers Peter O’Doherty and Reg Mombassa (aka Chris O’Doherty) — have been playing even longer than that. They were members of another Australian band, Mental as Anything, which formed in Sydney in 1976. And yet, somehow Dog Trumpet had escaped my attention until now. And the band had never played in the U.S. until a visit to Austin, Texas, last week for South By Southwest.
I saw Dog Trumpet play a gig at B.D. Riley’s on the third day of SXSW, and the group’s songs immediately hooked me. Something about the way the brothers sing reminds me of the Faces, especially Ronnie Lane’s songs. They also came across as talented musicians who know how to play guitar solos in the classic rock style. And if I had any doubt, how could I not like a band with a song about the Kinks?
I liked Dog Trumpet enough that I decided to buy a copy of the band’s double CD from 2013, Medicated Spirits, and sure enough, it sounds terrific. Now, I’ll have to dig deeper into the Dog Trumpet discography. And hope that these guys decide to visit our shores again sometime soon.
(A note on these photos: Can you tell I was struggling to overcome the terrible, i.e., heavily red, lighting at B.D. Riley’s?)
In 2007, I caught a SXSW set by the Japanese band Mothercoat, which sticks in my memory for being so frantic and strange. As far as I know, the group hasn’t really broken through to audiences in the U.S., but I’m heartened by the fact that they’re still at it seven years later. Mothercoat was back in Austin last week for another round of SXSW appearances, including a set that I saw early in the afternoon on the International Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center. Once again, these musicians showed that they have great technical skills and a peculiar intensity. The twitchy music reminded me of Radiohead, Talking Heads and math rock, and the group even gave a shout-out to Michael Jackson.
One of the best groups I saw at SXSW this year was a South Korean band called Jambinai, which uses some traditional Korean instruments, along with electric guitar, bass and drums, creating a dramatic combination of Asian music with heavy metal and the orchestral sweep of ensembles like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Jambinai’s great 2012 album Differance is available at Amazon.
Here are a short video and several photos I took of Jambinai’s performance on March 12, 2014, at SXSW’s International Day Stage:
My photos of St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) on March 12, 2014, at South By Southwest — including a couple shots of her during an interview at the Austin Convention Center and at a concert later that night at Stubbs.
My photos from Tuesday, March 11, the first day of South By Southwest, including: Neil Young, Shelby Earl, Mozes and the Firstborn, Mister and Mississippi, Landlady, Those Howlings, Quiet Company, GHXST and Together Pangea.
This was the year people died at South By Southwest.
The sprawling, raucous, nebulous combination of a trade show, academic conference, rock festival and backyard barbecue went silent for a minute on Thursday night. I happened to be at a bar called Holy Mountain, waiting for a band from Glasgow called Honeyblood to play on the “backyard” stage, when a 20-something woman in a green SXSW shirt stepped up to the microphone and asked, somewhat meekly, for quiet. She had an announcement to make.
It took a minute for the usual bar chatter to subside, but fairly soon, everyone paid heed to the chorus of shushing. And then the woman at the mic asked us all to be silent for a moment of reflection about those who were killed and injured the night before, by an allegedly intoxicated motorist who has been charged with murder. The silence was not complete, of course — sounds floated into the room from the city around us — but for a tent in the middle of a rock festival, the hush seemed remarkable. A full minute or more elapsed.
And then, glancing at her watch and exchanging a look with another SXSW volunteer, the young woman thanked us. People returned to their conversations and drank their beers. The two young Scottish lasses who make up the band Honeyblood took the stage and began pounding out their scrappy songs. The moment had passed. The music went on. But I think it’s safe to say that the tragic events of the week remained on the minds of many people throughout the rest of SXSW. (The SXSW Cares Fund is accepting donations to help people affected by the tragic events of March 13.)
As David Carr and Manny Fernandez wrote in The New York Times, the tragedy “crystallized a question floating around the edges of the festival for years: Has South by Southwest become too big and too rowdy, and has it lost the original spirit of what it intended to be?” Based on everything I’ve read so far about Thursday night’s terrible incident, I don’t believe it’s fair to hold SXSW itself or Austin officials responsible for what happened. Anywhere large crowds gather, it’s always possible that that someone will create havoc. There’s only so much authorities can do to prevent crimes and accidents.
And yet, it’s true that downtown Austin’s main east-west drag, Sixth Street, which is closed off to motor vehicles, gets alarmingly crowded every night of the festival. Unlike Lollapalooza, Pitchfork and other music festivals where audience members need to a ticket to enter a fenced-in area, SXSW unfolds at nearly 100 nightclubs and other venues spread out in and around downtown Austin, without any wall to keep out anyone.
That’s part of what makes it so great, but it also makes it an attraction for people who just want to party in the middle of the street. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, but it can result in dangerous crowding, rowdy behavior and many near collisions involving pedestrians, bicyclists, cars and Austin’s increasingly plentiful pedicabs. In the midst of this chaos, people like me are rushing from one music venue to another to see short concerts by the thousands of bands SXSW has imported into Austin for the week. It’s a wonder more people don’t get hurt.
At one point on Friday night, en route to catch a band from Greenland, I approached Sixth Street, looking for the entrance to Esther’s Follies. Several people came running recklessly around the corner. At first, I thought it was just a few revelers goofing around, but as I turned onto Sixth, I saw dozens of people were scrambling down the street. A man held his arm protectively in front of me and gestured for me to stand against the wall. I asked, “What’s going on?” A man passing by told me, “There was a huge brawl in the middle of the street.” We both looked up the street to the area where the action seemed to be happening. The noise subsided and the wave of people stopped rippling. “Oh,” the man said, “it looks like it’s over now.” It turned out to be just a passing moment of panic in the midst of the Sixth Street scene. [Update: This video on the Total Frat Move website, titled “Guy Nonchalantly Eats Pizza In Middle Of Chaotic Brawl At SXSW,” might be the same incident. Either that, or yet another brawl during SXSW.]
So, is SXSW too big? Perhaps, but I don’t see how it’ll ever shrink. As annoying as the sprawl can be, it’s also what makes SXSW special. The week of SXSW offers far more than just the official music, interactive and interactive conference. Countless unofficial parties and concerts are happening in just about every nook and cranny of Austin. The whole city feels alive with music and its legendary weirdness. It all adds up to an impossibly long list of entertainment options.
Think of SXSW this way: At a festival like Pitchfork, with three stages, you can see around 50 percent of the musical performances if you attend for the whole weekend. Lollapalooza has several stages, so you’ll probably see something like 10 percent of all the performances. How about SXSW? At any given time during the week, close to 100 official concerts are happening, plus dozens of unofficial shows. Now, many bands play multiple gigs, which does make it easier to catch them at some point during the week. But in the end, you’ll see only a fraction of 1 percent of everything that happened.
As a result, SXSW is an event where your experience may be utterly different from someone else’s.
For someone focusing on the big names, this was the year Lady Gaga ruled SXSW, delivering the keynote speech and faux-puking during her concert. And, according to another New York Times article, this was the year that “South by Southwest Festival Starts to Feel Corporate.” (“Starts?” you may be thinking… Austin Bloggy Limits has a good response to that review and some of the other SXSW press coverage.)
I really don’t care about Lady Gaga (or Keith Urban or Pitbull or Justin Bieber), so I avoided all of that folderol. This was my first visit to SXSW since 2008, and for me, this was a chance to see a lot of bands I haven’t seen before. I ended up watching full sets by 62 musical acts, plus portions of another eight shows. The vast majority of these bands and singers were completely new to me. In most cases, I’d listened to a song or two by these artists when I was trying to decide what to see.
And in most cases, these bands delivered some really good and even great performances. Stipulating that my SXSW was different from everyone else’s, for me this was the year that guitars and garage rock were stronger than ever. On the final night at Hotel Vegas, located over on an increasingly popular stretch of East Sixth Street, the young fans moshed like mad and tossed beers as bands like Dirty Fences and Bad Sports bashed out their songs.
I didn’t deliberately set out to see a lot of bands led by women, but the ladies dominated the stages this year, from the hard-rocking country singer Lydia Loveless (who wedged her guitar neck between her legs at one point) to St. Vincent, who moved like a wind-up doll in a bloodstained dress. Compared with those theatrics, Laura Cantrell and the Haden Triplets each gave low-key performances, and yet their vocals were among the most beautiful things I heard all week.
I did try to see as many artists from distant places as I could, including musicians from the Netherlands, South Korea, Uruguay and other countries. The Norwegian bands Death By Unga Bunga and the Launderettes topped almost everyone else with their sense of fun showmanship. The Japanese band Mothercoat, which I saw at SXSW in 2007, impressed me all over again with its jumpy, tricky art rock. And South Korea’s Jambinai gave me goose bumps with the powerful, almost orchestral sweep of its compositions, which blended traditional Korean instruments with elements of heavy metal.
Some bands traveled a long way to perform in front of just a few people — how disappointing that must be — while hundreds of people lined up elsewhere to see bigger-name and more-hyped artists. But you could sense how gratified and pleased musicians from distant shores felt when they roused even a small crowd with their music. The Australian band Dog Trumpet, which formed all the way back in 1990, had never performed in the U.S. until now, but it didn’t take long for these veteran roots-rockers to win over new fans — including me — with their instantly catchy songs.
My other favorites of the week included Ex Hex, Smacksoft, the Blind Shake, Burnt Ones, Cosmonauts, Warm Soda and Connections, a young group from Columbus, Ohio, that sounds so, so much like Guided By Voices in its prime. On the first night of SXSW, I stopped to watch the Dutch band Mozes and the Firstborn just because I liked the sound of their music coming from Bar 96 as I was walking past. At the end of the night, I spotted some of the guys from that band in the audience at another gig, by the excellent California group Together Pangea, moshing like true fans.
In spite of last week’s tragedy outside the Mohawk, SXSW 2014 was fun and even inspiring. So many people, speaking in all sorts of accents and languages, gathered in one weird place to make and hear music.
A list of all the bands I saw at SXSW is below. A separate blog post compiles some of my tweets from throughout SXSW. And what about photos? Well, I took more than 29,000 over the five days of music, and I’ve barely had a chance to look through all those pictures to choose the best ones. My plan is to take my time and post a number of galleries in the coming weeks. Stay tuned…
TUESDAY, MARCH 11
Neil Young SXSW interview
Shelby Earl (Seattle) at Javelina
Mozes and the Firstborn (Eindhoven, Netherlands) at Bar 96
Mister and Mississippi (Utrechet, Netherlands) at Bar 96
Landlady (Brooklyn) Trinity Hall @ Old School
*The Sour Notes (Austin) at Cheer Up Charlie’s
Those Howlings (Austin) at Cheer Up Charlie’s
*Quiet Company (Austin) at The Main II
GHXST (Brooklyn) at Lit Lounge
*banks (Los Angeles) at Haven
Together Pangea (Los Angeles) at Haven
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12
LosPetitFellas (Bogota, Colombia) at the Radio Day Stage
Mothercoat (Japan) at the International Day Stage
Jarvis Cocker lecture
St. Vincent SXSW interview
Jambinai (Seoul, South Korea) at the International Day Stage
R. Ring (Dayton, Ohio) at the Sub Pop Licensing Party at North Door
Birth of Joy (Amsterdam) at BD Riley’s
Señor Faraón (Montevideo, Uruguay) at Speakeasy
The Haden Triplets (Los Angeles) at St. David’s Sanctuary
Lyenn (Brussels) at Stephen F’s Bar
St. Vincent (New York) at Stubb’s
Damon Albarn (London) at Stubb’s
THURSDAY, MARCH 13
Gary Numan SXSW Interview
“Warehouse: Songs and Stories” songwriting panel with Bob Mould,Steve Wynn, Britt Daniel, Matthew Caws and Jeremy Messersmith
Rebel Cats (Mexico City) at the International Day Stage
Air Traffic Controller (Boston) at Berklee’s Party
Elizabeth & the Catapult (Brooklyn) at Berklee’s Party
Tereu Tereu (Washington) at the DC vs. the World Party at New Movement Theater
The Blind Shake (Minneapolis) at the DC vs. the World Party at New Movement Theater
Dog Trumpet (Sydney) at BD Riley’s
Smacksoft (Seoul, South Korea) at Icenhauer’s
Arc Iris (Providence, R.I.) at Bungalow
*Alika & Nueva Alianza Buenos Aires, Argentina) at Vulcan Gas Company
Utopians (Buenos Aires, Argentina) at Vulcan Gas Company
Laura Cantrell (New York) at the 18th Floor at the Hilton Gardens
Honeyblood (Glasgow) at Holy Mountain Backyard
The Launderettes (Oslo, Norway) at BD Riley’s
FRIDAY, MARCH 14
The Deslondes (New Orleans) at the Bloodshot Party at Yard Dog
Robbie Fulks (Chicago) at the Bloodshot Party at Yard Dog
Rosie Flores (Austin) at the Bloodshot Party at Yard Dog
Bobby Bare Jr. (Nashville) at the Bloodshot Party at Yard Dog
Luke Winslow King with Esther Rose (New Orleans) at the Bloodshot Party at Yard Dog
Ha Ha Tonka (Springfield, Mo.) at the Bloodshot Party at Yard Dog
Lydia Loveless (Coshtocton, Ohio) at the Bloodshot Party at Yard Dog
EMA (Portland, Ore.) at Central Presbyterian Church
The Shilohs, (Vancouver, B.C.) at Maggie Mae’s
Connections (Columbus, Ohio) at Lamberts
Death By Unga Bunga (Oslo, Norway) at Icenhauer’s
Nive Nielsen & the Deer Children (Nuuk, Greenland) at Esther’s Follies
Gulp (Cardiff, Wales) at the Hideout
Songs of Water (Greensboro, N.C.) at the Hideout
SATURDAY, MARCH 15
WatchOut! (Santiago, Chile) at the International Day Stage
Sivu (Cambridge, England) at the International Day Stage
*The Griswolds (Sydney) at the Aussie BBQ
Protomartyr (Detroit) at Beerland
Ex Hex (Washington, D.C.) at the Brooklyn Vegan Party at Red 7
The Melodic (London) at the Flat Stock Stage
*Ditch Witch (Austin) at Burgermania at Hotel Vegas
Burnt Ones (San Francisco) at Burgermania at Hotel Vegas @ Volstead
*AJ Davila (San Juan, Puerto Rico) at Burgermania at Hotel Vegas
Coathangers (Atlanta) at Burgermania at Hotel Vegas @ Volstead
Fletcher C. Johnson (Brooklyn) at Burgermania at Hotel Vegas
The Bad Lovers (Austin) at Hotel Vegas
The Yolks (Chicago) at Hotel Vegas @ Volstead
Gap Dream (Akron, Ohio) at Hotel Vegas
Gal Pals (Austin) at Hotel Vegas
Bad Sports (Austin/Dallas) at Hotel Vegas
Shocked Minds (Brooklyn) at Hotel Vegas
Cosmonauts (Fullerton, Calif.) at Hotel Vegas
Warm Soda (San Francisco) at Hotel Vegas
*Dirty Fences (Brooklyn) at Hotel Vegas @ Volstead
Habibi (New York) at Hotel Vegas @ Volstead
*Mozes and the Firstborn (Eindhoven, Netherlands) at Hotel Vegas
Selections from my tweets at South By Southwest 2014. (Follow me at @robertloerzel.)
TUESDAY, MARCH 11
2:37 p.m. Landed in Austin #sxsw
2:52 p.m. I think those are grackles I hear. #austin #sxsw
3:11 p.m. Saw some actual longhorns grazing along the interstate. #SXSW #austin
5:33 p.m. Neil Young at #SXSW: “I’m running for president.” (Laughter) “I’m Canadian. No. That’ll never happen. That’s a joke.”
5:56 p.m. Neil Young at #SXSW: “I always thought the ‘loudness war’ was something that was going to be really fun.”
5:57 p.m. Neil Young at #SXSW, on computer speakers: “Why don’t they make some computers that have balls?”
6:31 p.m. Overheard at #SXSW: “Jesus is white people’s fan fiction.”
7:21 p.m. My first Google Glass spotting #SXSW
7:26 p.m. The rickshaws/pedicabs are out in force. #SXSW
7:45 p.m. Starting off the #sxsw music with Shelby Earl (who sounds great) at Javelina. Not sure about the rest of the night.
8:16 p.m. Totally random stop at Bar 96, which has Dutch bands all night. I am liking this one (Mozes and the Firstborn) a lot. Catchy, 60s-ish. #sxsw
8:44 p.m. I’d consider going to a venue with a power strip near the stage for cellphone charging. #sxsw
8:46 p.m. I’m sticking with the Dutch bands for now. Next up is the curiously named Mister and Mississippi, which I had on my “to see” list. #SXSW
11:20 p.m. Asian dude in a mosh pit wearing 3-D glasses: check #sxsw
11:36 p.m. This was a #sxsw first for me: a venue where the doorman didn’t know the name of the venue (the confusing “Trinity Hall @ Old School”)
1:30 a.m. Spotted at #SXSW: Chick in a black dress wearing a GoPro on her head.
1:56 p.m. Finishing my #SXSW night with a raging set by Together Pangea. Mosh pit is hopping.
2:03 a.m. I saw a Dutch musician, his shirt torn from the mosh pit, take off one of his shoes and sing into it. #SXSW
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12
10:08 a.m. SXSW band bio: “their DNA is undeniably rock and roll.”
10:58 a.m. Starting off my #SXSW day with an 11 a.m. set by a band from Bogota called LosPetitFellas … because … why not?
11:00 a.m. The Japanese band mothercoat, which impressed me several years back with an insanely intense show, plays at noon at the Convention Center.
11:13 a.m. There are 11 people here to see the band from Bogota, in a room that could hold more than 1,000. #sxsw
11:20 a.m. An annoying thing about photographing people on Austin Convention Center stages: ad logos in the background for Penzoil, Deloitte etc. #SXSW
12:53 p.m. Attending a lecture by professor Jarvis Cocker #SXSW
12:58 p.m. “Oh, I *hate* that noise,” Jarvis Cocker says — as his Apple makes that volume-adjusting “bloop.” #SXSW
2:29 p.m. St. Vincent, describing her early recordings: “It was a little more ‘jazz hands.’” #SXSW
2:53 p.m. St. Vincent on singing about sex: “It’s not being done to me. I’m in control of this. I’m a human being with sexual faculties.” #SXSW
3:27 p.m. Holy crap, this South Korean band Jambinai is incredible. Traditional Korean instruments plus heavy metal. #SXSW
5:12 p.m. No sign of Murray Hewitt at this New Zealand #SXSW party.
5:14 p.m. But there is dude wearing a black robe. #SXSW
6:06 p.m. This is where the action’s really at. #SXSW
6:47 p.m. Up next for me at #SXSW is more Dutch rock: Pride of Joy, from Amsterdam, playing at B.D. Riley’s
8:10 p.m. Beautiful performance by Uruguayan singer-guitarist Senor Faraon, marred by sound bleed from the back room of the venue (Speakeasy). #SXSW
8:37 p.m. Someone just asked me, “Are you Hector?” #SXSW
8:40 p.m. St. Louis hip-hop act Doorway is rapping through the windows of a truck driving down Congress. #SXSW
11:26 p.m. After seeing a lot of bands no one has heard of, I am finshing the night at Stubbs with St. Vincent and Damon Albarn. #SXSW
2:55 a.m. At 2 a.m. I left Stubbs, a block and a half south of the hit-and-run scene. This was the view down the street.
THURSDAY, MARCH 13
10:05 a.m. I think this is because of the songs that bands tend to put on Soundcloud, but a lot of SXSW bands have cover tunes as their preview tracks.
10:06 a.m. Back to tweeting about the music at SXSW, I guess. Last night’s tragedy certainly casts a pall over things.
10:22 a.m. Bad planning by someone last night at Stubbs. Damon Albarn was supposed to play 12:30-2 a.m., but didn’t start until 1:20…
10:22 a.m. … And even then, there were sound problems. Needed more setup time after St. Vincent’s set. She played a little long (but was awesome).
11:14 a.m. Gary Numan: “I’ve met Bryan Ferry twice — both times in toilets, doing different TV shows.” #SXSW
11:15 a.m. Gary Numan: “If I’m recording a song and I think, ‘That would sound good on radio,’ I erase it.” #SXSW
11:42 a.m. Gary Numan says he has Asperger’s, which made it difficult to deal with stardom circa 1980: “I just wanted to make it go away.” #SXSW
12:52 p.m. Bob Mould doing an impromptu solo acoustic “Hardly Getting Over It” at the songwriting panel discussion #SXSW
1:31 p.m. Bob Mould, picking up the acoustic guitar at the songwriting panel: “If I hit this hard, will it be OK?” #SXSW
10:37 p.m. Rickshaw traffic jam at 6th and Neches. #SXSW
12:02 a.m. #SXSW pauses for a moment of silence. (At least it did at this venue.)
12:54 a.m. Walking in the alley because the street is too crowded. #SXSW
12:58 a.m. I didn’t plan this, but 8 of 12 bands I saw at #SXSW today had female lead singers.
1:15 a.m. I saw bands at #SXSW today from Mexico, Australia, South Korea, Argentina, Scotland and Norway.
1:17 a.m. Checking it off on my #SXSW bingo card: Hot Norwegian blonde playing Theremin.
FRIDAY, MARCH 14
10:52 a.m. Instead of attending Lady Gaga’s #sxsw keynote, I am at my hotel trying to figure out what I should see today.
11:13 a.m. “Drawing inspiration from bands like Weezer, Talking Heads, and the entire Tom Petty catalog, the band is pure songwriting excellence.” (Another SXSW band bio)
12:24 p.m. I think I’ll be safe from being puked on by Lady Gaga if I hang out here this afternoon.
12:36 p.m. Though I’m trying to focus on seeing musicians at #SXSW I haven’t seen before, I’m about to watch Robbie Fulks for the jillionth time.
1:05 p.m. Robbie Fulks, pointing out Rosie Flores in the Yard Dog crowd: “I’m only calling out famous people. The rest of you can go to hell.” #SXSW
5:54 p.m. “We hope you’ve enjoyed our Neko Case tribute set… We’re ‘Little Neko Case,’” Lydia Loveless said. (They were actually her songs.) #SXSW
6:27 p.m. My close-up view of a Blind Shake guitarist’s foot yesterday.
6:30 p.m. And yeah, my camera got pretty close to Luke Winslow King’s guitar today. #sxsw
6:31 p.m. And yes, I was standing awfully close to Lydia Loveless at Yard Dog. She didn’t seem to mind. #SXSW
7:03 p.m. Randomly hearing Roky Erickson singing as you walk down the street. #SXSW
7:31 p.m. I’m sitting in a pew at the Church of Pitchfork. #SXSW
7:43 p.m. I hope Central Presbyterian Church sounds better for Angel Olsen than it does for EMA. Horrible mix, way too much bass. #SXSW
8:13 p.m. Audience pro tip: Worst time to try engaging musicians in conversation is when they have 30 minutes to play. #SXSW
8:45 p.m. Was that Debbie Harry strolling down 4th Street? #SXSW
8:50 p.m. Oh, look. More people waiting in lines. #SXSW
9:09 p.m. If you like GBV, you will like this Columbus, Ohio, band I’m watching now at Lambert’s: Connections #SXSW
9:54 p.m. I’ve walked 30 blocks in the last 80 minutes, just so I could see Connections AND Death by Unga Bunga. #sxswworkout
10:33 p.m. “We’re from Norway. Or is it Sweden? Nah, it’s Norway.” — lead singer of Death by Unga Bunga #SXSW
10:58 p.m. Big brawl in the middle of 6th Street. People running. … Now the havoc seems to be subsiding. #SXSW
SATURDAY, MARCH 15
10:57 a.m. Last night’s random #SXSW find: I quite enjoyed the set by Gulp, a band from Cardiff that includes Guto Pryce of Super Furry Animals… with a great frontwoman, Lindsey Leven.
11:02 a.m. OK, let’s get this thing stated: Seeing Chilean garage rockers WatchOut! at the International Day Stage. (They were just in Chicago.) #sxsw
11:03 a.m. I am the only person in the audience right now for this set, which was supposed to start at 11. Sound check still in progress. #SXSW
11:04 a.m. Audience is up to 3 people. #sxsw
11:20 a.m. The audience is up to 7 people. WatchOut! is sounding great… No mosh pit, unfortunately.
11:21 a.m. Too early to mosh?
11:42 a.m. About 25 people in the room by the end of WatchOut!’s set. #sxsw
11:45 a.m. I think I’ll hang out at the International Day Stage to see the next act, Sivu, from Cambridge, UK… #SXSW
11:46 a.m. … and then maybe I’ll go to the @brooklynvegan #sxsw party at Red 7 for a while…
11:50 a.m. The #sxsw website has some pretty basic navigational problems. Like: Uh… where is that page I was just looking at?
11:56 a.m. I’m thinking that Hotel Vegas is the place to be tonight. #sxsw
11:56 a.m. I haven’t been over there yet.
12:21 p.m. Enjoying the lovely, wistful songs of English singer-songwriter Sivu at the International Day Stage. #sxsw
1:21 p.m. Pro-gun-rights group marching down Sixth Street #SXSW
1:52 p.m. I just saw a fierce set by Protomartyr in the dim confines of Beerland. #SXSW
2:01 p.m. Dude in a patriot outfit walking down 7th Street. #SXSW
4:11 p.m. We’re in the home stretch here… #SXSW
5:50 p.m. I guess this is where I’ll be the rest of the day (and night). Hotel Vegas. #SXSW
10:09 p.m. That was quite a mosh pit for Bad Sports. #SXSW
10:10 p.m. I asked Shocked Minds’ guitarist if they’re going to play “Kalamazoo” (one of my favorite songs of 2013), and he said, “Oh, yeah.” #SXSW
1:39 a.m. March 16 “Someone just unplugged me.” –Guy singing Johnny Cash songs in the food truck court on East Sixth, after his power is cut off. #SXSW
1:45 a.m. There’s a crowd in the Chevron parking lot and a man with a megaphone. #SXSW
1:49 a.m. The Doritos “Bold Stage” is quiet. #SXSW
1:51 a.m. A guy yells, “Want some weed?” at passing cars. #SXSW
2:01 a.m. Heading back to my hotel even though I COULD’VE SEEN ONE MORE BAND. Thus ends my #SXSW.
2:24 a.m. Keith Urban tweeted, “Keep Austin weird.”
See my SXSW recap. … Photo galleries are coming!
I’m at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas — the first time I’ve gone since 2008. It’s good to be back. The first thing I did this afternoon after picking up my badge was to hear Neil Young talking about his new Pono audio system. It’s a quixotic quest for him to introduce a whole new system for playing music, but his heart is definitely in this project, and his talk turned out to be more than the informercial I had feared it would be. He spent the first 20 minutes or so pacing the stage by himself, talking about his lifetime of listening experiences. Here are a couple of photos:
I tweeted a few of Young’s more memorable comments:
“I’m running for president.” (Laughter) “I’m Canadian. No. That’ll never happen. That’s a joke.”
“I always thought the ‘loudness war’ was something that was going to be really fun.”
It’s a March tradition at the Hideout: On the Saturday before the SXSW festival begins in Austin, the club hosts an all-day benefit concert featuring many of the Chicago bands that are heading down to Texas, raising some money to help them cover their travel costs. (They’re not actually getting paid for playing those gigs at SXSW — imagine that.) The lineup was strong this past Saturday (Feb. 9), and I managed to catch the first seven hours of the shindig before I finally bailed — not because the later bands were any less worthy, but just to get some rest.
The afternoon got started with a terrific set by Twin Peaks, a group of guys barely out of high school. I’d noticed them featured in Loud Loop Press’ recent list of 13 local bands to watch in 2013, and the song “Sunken” on their bandcamp page further piqued my interest. They more than lived up to my expectations, bashing out a bunch of catchy songs with some surprisingly Beach Boys-esque harmonies and Television-esque guitar leads.
Judson Claiborne performed lead singer-songwriter Chris Salveter’s folk rock with a muscular, roots-rock vibe, offering an intriguing preview of the group’s forthcoming record, We Have Not Doors You Need Not Keys.
The Congregation filled the stage with brassy, old-fashioned soul music, with occasional blasts of Who-style guitar and drums as a bonus; the group closed with an unexpected cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
Scott Lucas & the Married Men followed with perhaps the most intense performance of the day, culminating with a searing version of “There Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down),” filled with some stunning guitar playing by Mr. Lucas.
The Waco Brothers were billed to play next, but it was actually a combination of the Wacos and another group led by Jon Langford, Skull Orchard. As Langford explained, a couple of the usual Waco members were unavailable to play; I presume he was joking when he explained that Tracey Dear was indisposed because of chafing he’d become afflicted with after a nudist adventure in the jungles of Costa Rica. Langford called tonight’s band, which featured Jim Elkington, “Waco Orchard,” and they played a fun set, finishing with Langford throwing his guitar into the arms of drummer Joe Camarillo for the last chord.
For a complete change of pace, Frontier played droning, ominous music in nearly complete darkness, other than a few bright beams of light. It should’ve been louder.
And then the Summer Girlfriends played their sunny girl group tunes, sounding tighter than they did the last time I’d seen them, with at least one brand new song in the set.
There was plenty more ahead — Mahogany, Outer Minds, The Hood Internet — but that was as far as I made it. Good luck to all of these bands at SXSW!
My diary and photo galleries from the 2009 South By Southwest Music Conference are now complete. Here’s a list of what’s in the various diary entries. (I marked my favorite acts of the festival with asterisks.)
SXSW Diary Part 1: March 17 — Angie Mattson, Bang Bang Eche, Eddy Highway, Loxsly
SXSW Diary Part 3: March 18 — Hyperpotamus, Natalia Lafourcade, *The Marching Band, The Whispertown2000, The Phenomenal Handclap Band, Beast, *Sprengjuhöllin, Johnny Goudie and the Little Champions, *Loch Lomond, Grant Hart, *Mark David Ashworth, Mumford & Sons, Los Fancy Free
SXSW Diary Part 5: March 19 — Jump Back Jake, Abalone Dots, Justin Townes Earle, Esser, *Graham Coxon, Jay Jay Pistolet, All Tiny Creatures, *Bam Bam, The Wailing Wall, Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, The Vivian Girls, Artefacts For Space Travel, Flower Travellin’ Band, Abe Vigoda, The Wrens
SXSW Diary Part 6: March 19 — Talking with one of the Wrens, *The Lost Brothers, Cut Off Your Hands, Wildbirds and Peacedrums, *The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Woods, Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, The Tallest Man on Earth, Echo and the Bunnymen, Nacho Vegas, *Mythical Beast, The Howlies, Fanfarlo, School of Seven Bells, The Golden Dogs, Devo, *Magic Lantern
SXSW Diary Part 7: March 20 — Edie Sedgwick, Head of Skulls, *Hey Marseilles, The Heavenly States, Girls, Delta Spirit, *Fanfarlo, Lemonade, Peelander-Z, *Camera Obscura, Electric Touch, Parachutes, White Lies, Razorlight, *PJ Harvey and John Parish, The Telepathic Butterflies, White Swan Black Swan, The Evaporators, The Black Box Revelation, Division Minuscula
For SXSW pictures, see the index in my photo galleries.
Edie Sedgwick, a transvestite singer who has adopted the stage name of an actress who was in Andy Warhol films, was on my list of acts to see at SXSW. Sedgwick (a.k.a. Justin Moyer of Washington, D.C., a founding member of Dischord bands El Guapo and Antelope), has a really cool track called “Edie Sedgwick II” — carrying on that odd tradition of bands with song titles similar to the band name.
The sxsw Web site has an interesting story about how Moyer developed his latest musical persona after suffering from epileptic seizures. He played a short set around noon at the Radio Room, with some hilarious stage banter (see my tweet above), playing up the incongruities of being a man with a mustache in a blond wig and slinky dress. He grabbed an audience member’s cell phone or camera, lifted up his dress and … well, it looked like he was going to stick the cell phone into the top of his nylon stockings, but I’m not sure if he actually went that far. The music was pretty good, but alas, he did not play that song I was waiting to hear.
I also caught a song by Head of Skulls, which was playing a set out on the Radio Room patio, overlapping with the show by Edie Sedgwick. I didn’t even realize this was a Chicago band until I recognized the bassist as Allison, a bartender at the Empty Bottle. (She’s identified on the Head of Skulls myspace page simply as “The Witch.”) The music was hard rock of the pulverizing punk/metal variety.
12:16 p.m.: I came to the Seattle sxsw [party] for the free food & discovered a cool band, Hey Marseilles. Sounds like Decemberists.
Another group I hadn’t heard of. They weren’t even an official SXSW band this year. But Hey Marseilles made a big impression on me, with some tuneful songs featuring the full complement of assorted instruments that are becoming typical these days in large indie-rock ensembles: tuba, accordion, horns, extra bass drums. They reminded me a lot of the Decemberists, although Hey Marseilles’ singer, Matt Bishop, is lot less mannered in his vocal style than Colin Meloy.
12:48 p.m.: Heavenly States are rocking the convention center cafe. OK, now here is a band I saw and enjoyed, but I can barely remember at this point. Nothing against the Heavenly States — I do think they were quite good — but it’s all becoming a blur. Here’s their song “Lost in the Light.”
1:39 p.m.: Watching a band at sxsw called Girls… which is 4 guys. Singer’s got a classic whine/sneer kinda voice.
SXSW had a band this year called Girls, and another band called The Girls. That’s not to mention Girl in a Coma, Girls in Trouble, Po’ Girl or Garotas Suecas, a Brazilian band whose name means “Swedish Girls.” Plus, there were seven groups with names beginning with the word “Golden,” seven “Hot” bands, five “Magic” acts and four “Crystal” bands. Bears remain popular, too — the festival included Bear Hands, Bearsuit and Angry Vs. the Bear.
Girls and The Girls both had good songs posted on www.sxsw.com, but the one that keeps running through my head is “Lust for Life” by the San Francisco band Girls. (That’s not to be confused with the Iggy Pop song of the same title. Are you still with me here?!?) Girls played this afternoon at the Hot Freaks party at Club Deville, and singer-guitarist Christopher Owens spent the whole show hiding his face behind his long blond hair, leaning down into the microphone and singing catchy songs in the vein of those melodic quasi-punk power-pop tunes once performed by the likes of Wreckless Eric and the Only Ones. Owens does has the classic rock whine and emotional pining of an outsider.
2:19 p.m.: Watching Delta Spirit at the Q magazine party playing a song they wrote this morning.
Delta Spirit put out one of my favorite records last year — well, actually, the record first came out in 2007, but then Rounder Records gave it a wider release in 2008. Now, it’s coming out in the U.K., too. It was nice to hear the band do a new song, and the old ones sounded as strong as ever. They were the only American band playing at the party for Q, a British music magazine.
3:16 p.m.: Seeing Fanfarlo 2nd time in 2 days. A band worth seeing many times. Did I mention that the Fanfarlo gig the previous night was almost impossible to photograph because of the dim lighting in that church? Well, this show at the Q party at the Parish was actually lit with a whole variety of colors, and the sound was excellent, and the band got to play a reasonable amount of time. At last, I feel like I’ve seen a real Fanfarlo gig.
I headed up to the Mohawk for the Hot Freaks party — mostly to see Camera Obscura. But first, I saw the last part of a set by Lemonade, which seemed like pretty solid electronic rock. And then came an outdoor set by the goofballs in Peelander-Z, who call themselves “the Japanese Action Comic Punk Band.” I’m sure this would have been fun to photograph if I could have gotten anywhere near the stage. Listening to Peelander-Z without seeing the guys in their outlandish costumes wasn’t quite as fun. And gosh, what a bizarre lineup, putting this band on the same stage just before the lilting, pretty music of Camera Obscura.
Twitter, 4:44 p.m.: Peelander-Z was on the same stage before Camera Obscura at this sxsw party, w/ painfully loud techno music in between. Bring on the twee Scots, already!
It was a real pleasure to see Camera Obscura, whose 2006 record Let’s Get Out of This Country has stuck with me as an album I return to often. Singer Tracyanne Campbell sounded beautiful as the band played some of my favorite songs from that record as well as tracks from the forthcoming CD My Maudlin Career.
5:43 p.m.: I am in position to photograph PJ Harvey. Now I’ve just got to make it through the next 4 bands.
OK, so I was being paranoid, but I really did not want to miss an opportunity to see PJ Harvey and to photograph her for the first time. She was scheduled to play with John Parish at 10 p.m. at Stubbs — in the midst of a mostly awful lineup. Before Harvey and Parish played, the scheduled bands were Electric Touch, Parachutes, White Lies and Razorlight. And after they played, the same stage would feature the Indigo Girls and Third Eye Blind. I guess this is the sort of thing that happens when an idiosyncratic artist like Harvey is still on a big label, Island, featuring a lot of considerably more mainstream acts. I was worried some of these bands would draw a big crowd and I would get shut out of the photo pit, so I showed up bright and early and stood through four bands I would have rather missed.
Electric Touch was a bunch of pretty boys making ridiculous poses as they played their completely generic pop music. They looked like actors who’d studied how to become rock musicians by watching bad 1980s MTV clips but without learning anything about the music itself. I could barely stand to watch this set.
Twitter, 6:11 p.m.: First band of the night at sxsw: Electric Touch. These guys are from Austin?!? They seem way more Hollywood, in a bad way. (The lead singer had a British accent, but SXSW identified them as an Austin band. I don’t care to waste any of my time finding out anything more about this group.) 7:01 p.m.: 2nd band of night at sxsw: Parachute. Bland fodder for TV. Marginally less stomach-turning than last band.
The third band, White Lies, was one that actually showed some promise. But they seemed like a corporate record label’s idea of what a “cutting edge” band should sound like. Maybe Interpol fans will like it. White Lies almost broke through all the posing and slick surfaces with the last two songs of their set, almost showing a little spontaneity.
8:34 p.m.: Eighty minutes of Razorlight is all that stands between me and PJ Harvey now… So to speak.
I did not have a very positive impression of Razorlight before this show, based on the little I’d heard. Actually, after the soul-sucking simulacrum of music I’d witnessed earlier in the evening, Razorlight did not seem so bad — just bland. And they didn’t play 80 minutes, more like an hour. By the time they finished, I was in line for the PJ Harvey and John Parish photo pit.
10:31 p.m.: Polly Jean Harvey is as unreal as ever. Great to see her again after such a long absence.
I’ve seen PJ Harvey three times before this, and she never fails to wow me as a live performer or as an artist who always stays on her own eccentric path. She has not played many concerts in the U.S. in the last several years, so this one was a must-see, one of only three American shows she has scheduled so far to promote the new album she recorded with Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By. This was not a typical PJ Harvey solo concert, if there is such a thing, since she did not play any songs from her solo records. Rather, she and Parish stuck with tracks from their new album as well as a couple from the album they recorded together in 1996, Dance Hall at Louse Point.
These records are billed as collaborations where Harvey and Parish are equal partners, but the focus is clearly on Harvey. Parish seems to like it that way, playing guitar alongside her without drawing much attention to himself. How could he compete anyway? Harvey looked as resplendent as ever, wearing a white dress with a bit of a straitjacket look to it.
Some of the songs were moody, almost eerie, and Harvey radiated a strange sense of calm as she intoned the words. Other songs had the loud, stomping quality of Harvey’s early, more punk records. In the 1996 song “Taut,” she pleaded “Jesus save me!” And the new song “Leaving California,” her voice soared way up the scale to beautiful melodic peaks. The set crashed to a climactic end with the new song, “Pig Will Not.” Over loud guitar chords, Harvey wailed, “I will not! I will not! I will not!”
It was another terrific performance by Harvey, although I would preferred to see it somewhere other than Stubbs, where half of the audience seemed to be chatting away as they waited for the Indigo Girls or whatever. And it was teasingly short, just about an hour. Still, it was a great plus to get the chance to shoot some pictures of Polly Jean up-close.
…And, after creating that photo gallery, I posted six additional pictures of PJ Harvey on my flickr stream.
Everything else was bound to seem anticlimactic for me after that. It was simply time to head back out into the streets of Austin, searching for more bands. Maybe I should have gone to see the Monotonix for their SXSW-closing show, which surely would have been thrilling, but I felt like using my final hours to find some new music.
11:06 p.m.: Winnipeg’s Telepathic Butterflies are raving it up with some psychedelic garage rock.
This was part of the showcase at B.D. Riley’s by Rainbow Quartz records, which has some of the best ’60s-style psychedelic and garage-rock bands going these days. The Telepathic Butterflies played a solid set of songs with ringing guitar lines that sounded like the Byrds.
12:06 a.m.: Relaxing in a hotel lobby while NZ folk duo White Swan Black Swan plays. sxsw is almost over. One … more … show…
Now, this was a weird act. A man and woman from Auckland doing semi-humorous folk songs. Sounds like the Flight of the Conchords? Well, it wasn’t that funny. Seemed almost like an act you’d see in a hotel lounge somewhere. Wait a minute, I did see them in a hotel lounge (the Victorian Room at the Driskill). White Swan Black Swan was not great, but I found them fairly charming at times, and I really appreciate the fact that you can see a group like this at SXSW. There’s no way in hell they’d ever get booked at Lollapalooza.
Even though I said “one … more … show” on my tweet, I ended up squeezing pieces of three concerts into my final hour of SXSW.
1:10 a.m.: I’m watching a masked man sing about a butter knife – Vancouver’s Evaporators. … Hmmm, well, that was sort of interesting, but a little too much shtick for me just now.
1:45 a.m.: Hopping around in my last hour of sxsw: Belgium’s Black Box Revelation, Mexico’s Division Minuscula. The Black Box Revelation was a guitar-and-drums duo that reminded me of the Black Keys, though maybe a bit more punk than that band.
I headed across the street to see the last few songs by Division Minuscula, who played some impressive guitar licks. At 2 a.m., the set ends, and for some reason, the house stereo at the Habana Bar Backyard begins blaring Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
2:05 a.m.: The end.
Twitter, 11:07 a.m.: I told 1 of the Wrens: Can’t wait for your new CD. His reply: “Neither can we. You got any songs?”
More on that story: The morning after seeing the Wrens play at Prague, I’m in a crowded elevator at the Hilton. The elevator stops at a floor below mine, and the doors open to reveal the four members of the Wrens standing there. There isn’t enough room for all of them to get on, but Kevin Whelan jumps inside, leaving behind his bandmates. “Well, that’s it,” I say to him. “I guess your band’s broken up.” Whelan, who was smiling and acting as if I were an old buddy of his, laughs. I tell him I enjoyed the Wrens show last night
And then comes that exchange I Twittered about above. I add: “You played a couple of news songs last night, didn’t you?” Whelan says: “Yeah. We were just messing around.” Whatever he says, the band is recording a new CD — finally!
11:45 a.m.: Watching the Lost Brothers. These guys are like a young Irish Everly Bros. Fab voices.
This was over at the Full Irish Breakfast party at B.D. Riley’s. This Liverpool-based Irish duo (according to their sxsw bio, “Mark Mccausland and Oisin leech.- otherwise known as bark and bosh”) sing in sweet harmony. I couldn’t help thinking of the Everly Brothers as I watched them, though their music is on the folkier end of the Everly spectrum. I liked this performance so much that I bought the Lost Brothers’ CD Trails of the Lonely (Parts I & III) from one of the guys as soon as they’d finished singing. The following night, I would run into the Lost Brothers in the audience at another gig. They’d had a fair amount to drink by that point, and when I asked one of them, “You guys aren’t really brothers, are you?” he said, “Sure we are!!!” Here’s the Lost Brothers song “Angry at the Sun.”
I spent the afternoon zipping around to various parties. Over at the SPIN magazine party at Stubbs, New Zealand’s Cut Off Your Hands were sounding loud and aggressive on the Stubbs stage. Not really my thing. When it comes to noisy Kiwis this year, I preferred Bang! Bang! Eche!
Wildbirds and Peacedrums, a duo from Gothenberg, Sweden, was playing in the Sweden Goes SXSW at Habana Calle 6. I enjoyed this group’s album from last year, Heartcore, which has an unusual mix of atmospheric textures and hard-hitting rhythms. They were an interesting band to see live, with nothing other than drums and vocals. Mariam Wallentin has a brassy voice, and she seemed at times to be throwing it up against the clattering drum patterns from her partner, Andreas Werliin, while adding in some of her own percussion. I’m looking forward to hearing the new album by Wildbirds and Peacedrums, The Snake. Here’s the Wildbirds and Peacedrums song “Doubt/Hope.”
Twitter, 2:04 p.m.: Pains of Being Pure at Heart is playing at a day party. Sounds stronger than the record, very catchy.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are one of the indie-rock bands with the most buzz right now. They played at Schubas in Chicago not long ago. Not realizing how much hype they were getting, I failed to get a ticket ahead of time and discovered that night that they’d sold out the show. At SXSW, the Pains seemed to be playing everywhere. I caught them at a party hosted by Pitchfork at Emo’s Jr. Skeptics are calling the Pains “this year’s Vampire Weekend,” to which I say: “No!!!” While I thought Vampire Weekend was last year’s vastly overrated buzz band, the Pains sound nothing like that group.
And while I don’t think the debut CD by the Pains is a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, it is pretty enjoyable. And the band was even better as a live out, cranking up the fuzzy feedback and playing those songs with more energy. It’s loud, with a touch of that shoegazer sound, and quite melodic, too. Here’s the Pains of Being Pure at Heart song “Come Saturday.”
2:35 p.m.: Band called Woods sounds like Canned Heat + psychedelic tape effects.
Not being too familiar with Woods, I wasn’t sure what to expect at this show, which was in Emo’s main room. I checked out their myspace page and loved the songs I heard, but those ones have a female vocalist. And it’s obvious that singer isn’t part of Woods’ current incarnation, which is all-male. One member of Woods knelt on the stage, taking cassette tapes in and out of a machine and singing background vocals into what looked like headphones, adding a layer of weird effects while the rest of the band played jammy roots rock that sounded like something out of the late ’60s or early ’70s.
The group describes its music as: “lysergic & infectiously bent acidfolk pop grooving with motorik percussion, cracked fuzz, unique vocal gush, and burning psych jams… plus enough sweet hooks to get yr next freakout party moving right.” That’s as good of a description as I could come up with, though I’m not sure when my “next freakout party” is going to happen.
3:59 p.m.: Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band: looks like a barbershop quartet, sounds like Modest Mouse.
Playing on the most mundane-looking stage at SXSW, the Convention Center’s café, the members of Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band looked around and asked, “What is this place?” (Or words to that effect.) They then ripped through three or so songs with a lot of passion and energy. And yes, they were wearing matching vests. They did look like they were about to harmonize to some songs from the 1890s or something, but their sound is nothing like their look. The Seattle group’s debut CD is on the Dead Oceans label.
I also saw the tail end of the cafe performance by Dublin’s One Day International before Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band took the stage, but not enough to form much of an opinion.
4:19 p.m.: The Tallest Man On Earth is not *that* tall. Pretty good folk rock by a guy from Sweden. This was another show at the café. The Tallest Man, a.k.a. Kristian Mattson, performed his solo acoustic songs with an intense look on his face. He really seemed to mean what he was singing.
4:56 p.m.: Taking a break from all the new music for eighties flashback Echo & Bunnymen at SPIN party.
Back to Stubbs for the end of the SPIN party. I hadn’t seen Echo and the Bunnymen in more than 20 years. They sounded as good as ever, playing a greatest-hits set with songs including “The Cutter” and “The Killing Moon” alongside a few newer tunes, which fit in pretty well with the classics.
The main thing that attracted me to the next party, Sounds of Spain, was the promise of free paella and sangria. I hoped to hear some good music, too, but the singer playing while everyone descended on the food table, the preposterously named Nacho Vegas, sounded to me like a Spaniard trying to sound like a generic American rock musician.
Twitter, 7:13 p.m.: I’m witnessing a weird pagan ritual, also known as Kansas City band Mythical Beast. Apocalyptic, man.
This was one of my favorite finds of SXSW. I love the fact that weird music like is happening in places all over America, cities like Kansas City, and not just the places that have a reputation for being hip. Wearing a flowing, glittery gold dress, vocalist Corinne belted out her songs with dramatic concentration and booming power, pounding on a big kettle drum with fuzzy-tipped mallets, while guitarists Jeremiah and Aaron played moody riffs that sounded like fragments of a hard-rock band removed from the rest of the band. Corinne’s singing was very impressive, reminding me at times of Grace Slick, P.J. Harvey, Carla Bozulich and Nico. Mythical Beast records on the Language of Stone label run by Greg Weeks of the freaky, psychedelic, folk-rock band Espers, and I can see why Weeks would be interested in Mythical Beast. Here’s the Mythical Beast song “Cycle Circle.”
8:17 p.m.: Watching the Howlies stomping to some garage rock. Pretty good, but they could scuzz it up more.
I had high hopes for the Howlies after hearing their song “Chimera” — a cool ’60s-style garage-rock track. The band was decent as a live act, sounding like an oldies cover band except for the fact that their songs are original, but I was hoping for a little bit more.
9:43 p.m.: London’s brilliant Fanfarlo is rocking an Austin church. Sounds sublime!
This was one of the SXSW shows I was anticipating the most. I saw Fanfarlo last year in a gig at the Wave Rooftop that was marred by delays and technical malfunctions, and ever since then, I had enjoyed listening to the free CD the band handed out of its songs from EP’s released only in Britain. Now, Fanfarlo was playing at Central Presbyterian Church. I liked the idea of seeing this six-piece ensemble, which has strings, horns and extra drums in addition to the usual rock-band lineup, in a church. Alas, the set got off to a bad start with some jarring bass feedback permeating the first song.
The sound got better as the set went on, eventually leading me to Twitter that it sounded “sublime.” A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but the songs were great, in any case. The set was far too short for me, but I was able to buy a copy of Fanfarlo’s forthcoming debut CD, Reservoir, at the merch table, and I would get a chance to see Fanfarlo again the next day. Fanfarlo sounds a bit like the Arcade Fire and performs its music with a similar sense of celebration and instrument-swapping. Lead singer Simon Balthazar’s voice reminds me of David Byrne’s. Here’s the Fanfarlo song “Harold T. Wilkins, Or How to Wait for a Very Long Time.”
School of Seven Bells seemed to be getting a fair amount of attention at this year’s SXSW. I caught the trio on the Radio Room Patio and enjoyed what I heard. This is Benjamin Curtis of the Secret Machines (a band I never cared for all that much) playing guitar and drum machines while Italian twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (from the band On-Air Library!) join their voices together. They have that lovely sort of harmony that only seems to come out of sibling voices. Here’s the School of Seven Bells song “Half Asleep.” (Hey, why didn’t I Twitter anything about this band?)
Twitter, 11:13 p.m.: O Canada, you keep sending up such good bands. Toronto’s Golden Dogs are storming through some great power pop.
I realize now that the Golden Dogs have played at SXSW for the past four years, and I’ve accumulated four songs by this Toronto band in my iTunes library. But I did not see them until now. What drew me was a cool song called “Lester.” The band sounded great live, something like late ’60s or early ’70s power pop, with alternating male and female vocals. A bit of the New Pornographers, perhaps. On their last song of the night, the Golden Dogs made a smooth segue into the classic guitar chords and drums of the Beatles’ “The End.” (Someone in the crowd shouted, “Punk rock!” at that moment, somewhat incongruously.)
11:54 p.m.: Now it’s time for a little live Devo. … 12:40 a.m.: After 5 songs in orange safety vests, Devo donned those red flower pot hats. “Whip It.”
The reunited original members of Devo looked older, but just as nerdy. Wearing those Devo outfits as they played songs from “Whip It” to their cover of “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” they really looked like utility repairmen out on the job. I noticed several geeky fans wearing those red flower-pot hats, er, “energy domes,” which were for sale at the merch counter for $30. Good times.
I ended the night at the Hideout, the same little theater where I’d begun the evening watching Mythical Beast. The last band of the showcase there was Magic Lantern from Long Beach, Calif. When I was preparing for SXSW by listening to the thousand-plus mp3s posted at www.sxsw.com, I noticed that the Magic Lantern track, “At the Mountains of Madness,” was the longest one in the bunch, clocking in at 14 minutes and 51 seconds. While I skipped through some of the other songs after hearing 30 seconds, I listened to all of this one — a heavy psychedelic jam. The band was great live, too, playing thunderous riffs with a mesmerizing sense of repetition.
I started out the day with a panel discussion at the Austin Convention Center called “Indie Labels Keep the Faith,” caught a few minutes of British singer-songwriter Paul Marshall playing in the café, then went across the street to the Memphis barbecue in Brush Square Park. Jump Back Jake was playing bar-band rock as I stood in line for food. Nothing got my attention until a guest star was announced.
Twitter, 1:15 p.m.: Just saw Jody Stephens of Big Star drumming while I was scooping up free baked beans at Memphis music party.
Back to the Convention Center café, I saw another song by Loch Lomond then watched a Swedish country-music quartet. 1:53 p.m.: Abalone Dots: 4 Swedish gals harmonizing, sounds a bit like Alison Krauss.
This group’s sound is probably too traditional or mainstream to appeal much to indie-rockers, but I think they’ll be a hit with Americana lovers. They were giving out copies of their CD, Traveler, which I’ve enjoyed listening to since then. It’s out in Sweden on RCA/Sony/BMG, but Abalone Dots apparently don’t have a U.S. record label. Here’s their song “Craighead County Sky.”
I spent the next 90 minutes at the SXSW keynote address by Quincy Jones, which I wrote about in a separate diary entry. Afterward, I caught a few songs by Justin Townes Earle in the café. I’ll include the standard mention of this singer’s pedigree — yes, he is Steve Earle’s son — before going on to say he’s a really good singer-songwriter in his own right. If anything, he seems to be more firmly rooted in traditional folk and country music than his dad. Even his drawling banter sounded like something you might have heard on a Nashville stage way back when.
Over at Brush Square Park, Esser was playing at the Transgressive Party. This is the stage name of Ben Esser, a young Brit with a pompadour hairdo who was wearing a black jacket covered with shiny buttons. Unfamiliar with Esser’s music, I heard something that sounded like dance pop with a bit of punk thrown in. Esser was given to making extravagant gestures as he performed.
The real reason I was in the tent, however, was to see the next act, which I twittered about a short time later. 5:54 p.m.: Graham Coxon (ex-Blur) is playing solo acoustic in a tent. Impressive finger picking, some nice new songs.
It was just Coxon and an acoustic guitar, and I believe every song he played was from his forthcoming album, The Spinning Top. Song titles were: “Sarah’s Army,” “This House,” “In the Morning,” “Brave the Storm” and “Dead Bees.” It was a strong collection of songs, with some very fast and deft guitar playing.
Coxon seemed a little nervous or ill at ease at a few moments — maybe because of a slight problem with his guitar’s sound going out for a few seconds — but it was a really nice performance, and now I’m looking forward to that new record. Coxon said he was wearing larger sunglasses than he had the day before, when a sound man told him that his other glasses were causing microphone feedback — something Coxon has never heard before in all his years of performing.
On his Twitter feed, Coxon noted, “wearing the biggest specs i can find. just am [sic] experiment…” Earlier in the day, Coxon twittered: “sxsw rolls inexerably on. the dead litter the gutters and verges. theres bits of brain on the brogues. i walk thru the smokin scape to victory!”
This year, I was staying at a hotel, the Hilton, that had its own musical stage, and so I managed to see English folk-rocker Jay Jay Pistolet performing in the lobby while grabbing a quick bite to eat. Pistolet’s voice sounded great, and he seemed like a crooner in the style of recent Nick Lowe records. And then, it was back out onto the streets of Austin for the nighttime showcases…
Twitter, 7:29 p.m.: Watching All Tiny Creatures: guys from Milwaukee who sound more like ‘7Os German rock. Cool repetitive grooves. As I watched this show at the Habana Bar, I started to think I’d seen this band before, but then I realized I was thinking of another group from Milwaukee, Collections of Colonies of Bees, which includes one of the same musicians, Thomas Wincek. All Tiny Creatures put on a cool performance of instrumental pieces featuring Philip Glass-style minimalism, looping keyboard parts and driving percussion. It reminded me of Krautrock bands such as Neu. Here’s the All Tiny Creatures track “To All Tiny Creatures.”
8:22 p.m.: Awesome rocking set by Bam Bam from Monterrey, Mexico! One of the fest’s best so far.
This set at B.D. Riley’s was one of the SXSW shows I had been looking forward to the most. I missed Bam Bam last year at SXSW, but then when I went back later on and listened to some of the mp3s from 2008 SXSW bands, I really started to dig the Bam Bam song “Hi-Q.” I played it when I was a guest on WBEZ’s Radio M show last summer. Bam Bam’s EP is available for free download at the Nene Records site.
So now was my chance to see this group live after blowing a similar opportunity last year. Bam Bam delivered! I love the energy of the group’s songs, with a strong mix of male and female vocals. (If this set had any flaw, it was a need for the singing to be mixed higher.) Female singer Luxor pounded away on a drum as she sang, giving the songs an extra kick. On Bam Bam’s myspace page, where it lists the members and what they play, a note adds: “and we all sing and dance like fishes.” I’m not sure what fishes dance like, but Bam Bam rocked the house. According to the bio Bam Bam supplied to SXSW, the group is “now locked up in an old pesticide warehouse,” working on a new record.
I headed over to Speakeasy next to see The Wailing Wall. I liked the songs I’d heard by this New York group on myspace. Live, the mix of guitar, viola, keyboards and drums sounded pretty good, but the songs did not make much of an impression on me. Worth hearing again.
I stopped into the Parish long enough to catch a couple of songs by Thao With the Get Down Stay Down. This group, led by Thao Nguyen, seemed to be getting some buzz. I didn’t hear enough to really say what I think. This song by Thao, “Bag of Hammers,” is interesting.
10:32 p.m.: Vivian Girls were pretty good but then they seemed to run out of songs and did a repeat.
A change in the schedule at Aces Lounge allowed me to squeeze in most of the Vivian Girls set there — although I’d vowed never to step foot in the place again after seeing Grant Hart on that stage behind the bar. The Vivian Girls did their thing pretty well, playing primitive rock with a cool attitude, though they did seem a bit short on material.
I stopped into another venue I’ve really come to dislike, Wave Rooftop, for a set by Artefacts For Space Travel. Trying to recall what this group sounds like, the name made me think it was going to be psychedelic space rock. And their bio on the SXSW site notes, “Time-out magazine have called us ‘Weirdo Lo-fi Psyche rock.'” As it turned out, the Artefacts sounds something like the melodic punk-pop of bands such as the Arctic Monkeys but with more of the reverbs and effects you’d expect in psychedelic music. They sounded good live. Here’s their song “Recoup.”
11:27 p.m.: Old Japanese prog rockers Flower Travellin’ Band are playing. That’s one weird-looking guitar.
Actually, that wasn’t a guitar I was looking at when I Twittered thus. It was a sitarla, an instrument that has six strings like a guitar but an extra wide neck extending past the high “E” string, allowing for more string bending. I decided to see Flower Travellin’ Band after reading that it was the reunion of an early ’70s prog-rock group from Japan that hadn’t played together in 35 years. I didn’t know the songs, but I could see and hear how talented these guys are — there were some amazing guitar solos and piercing vocals. The music reminded me of classic rock by Deep Purple and Santana. It was strange seeing this band with an audience of devoted fans, who were super excited at the chance to see Flower Travellin’ Band for the first time so many years after their records came out.
12:24 a.m.: This band is called Abe Vigoda but they’re all wearing Judy Garland T-shirts.
I rather liked the one song I’d heard by the Los Angeles punk band Abe Vigoda, “Don’t Lie”, but I had a little trouble connecting with the band’s music when I heard it live. It was a noisy set, and I think if I’d known the songs beforehand, I might have enjoyed it.
I capped off the night with a show by the Wrens, an old favorite of mine, at the basement venue called Prague. Unfortunately, the place was so crowded that I couldn’t get anywhere near the stage. When the Wrens finally began, the first song was so quiet that it was hard to tell from the back of the room whether they were performing or doing sound check. But when the chords of “Everyone Choose Sides” rang out, it felt like an electric charge running through the crowd. What followed was a typically great Wrens performance, though the SXSW schedule required the show to be shorter than I would have liked.
Twitter, 2:07 a.m.: Wrens rocked at the end of the night, played a couple of new songs. … 2:32 a.m.: Wrens: “We’ve got 10 minutes and we’re going to play 33 songs, so no clapping.” (They actually only played 2 songs after that.)
Here’s what I said on Twitter on Thursday afternoon (March 19). 3:45 p.m.: Quincy Jones may still be going on at next year’s sxsw. Amazing guy but I had to leave after 1 1/2 hours … 4:09 p.m.: I meant to say “Quincy Jones’ speech,” in case anyone thinks he was playing music. There was a piano on stage, but he hadn’t touched it yet.
Yes, SXSW keynote speaker Quincy Jones did talk for a long time. He was scheduled to speak for an hour and 15 minutes. I left at the 90-minute mark. I later saw in the local press that he ended up talking for two and a half hours. I hated to walk out while a living legend was speaking, but I had other places to go.
Jones reminisced about growing up in Chicago and Seattle and working with the biggest names in music, including Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. It was fascinating at times, and I always cherish the opportunity to spend some time listening to someone of Jones’ stature in person, but he did ramble a bit.
A few choice quotes from Jones:
“When you get over the hill, that’s when you really pick up speed … The bad news is … sex after 90 is like shooting pool in the middle of the road.” (Jones, who is 76, says that what’s heard, at least.)
“I’ve been called the ghetto Gump. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
On the most important musical innovation he’s witnessed in his lifetime: “Without the electric bass, there’d be no rock ‘n’ roll … and there’d be no Motown.”
On Frank Sinatra: “He loved you and respected you, or he would roll over you backwards in a Mack truck. No in between.”
On how to tell if a musician’s “got it”: “You can tell if they’ve got it if you recognize them in the first 20 seconds of their record.”
On jazz: “It’s the balance between soul and science.”
“Anyone who says they know how to sell 50 million records is lying and smoking Kool-Aid.”
I started the day at the café stage in the Austin Convention Center, where Hyperpotamus from Madrid was using looping pedals to create layered, a cappella music, including an elaborate cover of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields.”
He was followed by one of the Mexican acts I wanted to catch at sxsw… Twitter, 12:51 p.m.: Watching Natalia Lafourcade: nice Mexican folk rock w/touch of tropicalia. She started with a cover of “Blackbird” (what is this, a Beatles tribute stage?) and continued with some cool original songs.
1:22 p.m.: Sweden’s Marching Band playing bright melodic pop. Definitely worth seeing.
This was one of the bands I’d wanted to see at SXSW. I enjoyed their tuneful record from last year, Spark Large, and they did not disappoint as a live act. Here’s their song “Make No Plans.”
I went down the street to Red-Eyed Fly, where I impatiently waited for a late-starting gig by the Whispertown 2000. The best part: hearing the two female vocalists sing Gillian Welch’s “Miss Ohio” during the sound check. Once the band actually started playing, it seemed like pretty good country rock, but I couldn’t get too excited over it.
I skipped that scene and went back to Emo’s Annex, where I caught a decent show by Brooklyn’s the Phenomenal Handclap Band, two female singers performing dance rock without a lot of the usual electronic sounds that come with dance music. I later saw someone else on Twitter calling this band “unreal.” Hmmm, well, they were fun enough, and they had some good dance grooves, but they’ve got a long way to go before I’d call them unreal.
Twitter, 2:57 p.m.: Taking a break from music to see Jarvis Cocker gab on “Saying the Unsayable.” … Jarvis Cocker was brilliant. Guy could be a pop-music prof… (See Part 2 of my diary for a separate write-up about Cocker’s lecture.)
6:27 p.m.: Montreal’s Beast was intriguing: Shirley Bassey-style vox, hip-hop + rock.
I’m not sure this band, which was playing at the Canadian Blast Barbecue at Brush Square Park, was really my thing, but I liked it for what it was. The vocalist, Betty Bonifassi, sang on the soundtrack for the great French animated film The Triplets of Belleville, and now she’s based in Montreal along with the other members of Beast, which is spearheaded by drummer/composer Jean-Phi Goncalves. She really puts a lot of muscle and passion into her singing. I also heard a couple of songs by Mother Mother when I first walked into the party. And afterward, I caught just a couple of songs by Beach House at another party.
I started the evening by walking all the way over to the west end of the SXSW scene, the tent behind Opal Divine’s Freehouse, where the Icelandic band Sprengjuhöllin was getting ready to play. This was one of the acts I was anticipating the most, since I really like the mix of pop, folk and psychedelia on the group’s self-titled album, which I discovered through e-music. Plus, this is one of those bands from a distant (and bankrupt) land that may or may not show up again on these shores anytime soon. The band was still playing when I sent a tweet in past tense — 8:39 p.m.: Sprengjuhöllin was really great. And they have that weird Icelandic sense of humor. They really did deliver everything I was hoping.
In addition to playing excellent music, Sprengjuhöllin had some of the most entertaining stage banter I heard all week. The people of Iceland do seem to have an odd sense of humor. Near the end of the show, one of the guys in Sprengjuhöllin said, “We’re going to play a few more numbers.” Another member of the band interjected, “We mean mathematical numbers, not songs.” We also received a lesson in Icelandic pronunciation, as one of the musicians broke down Sprengjuhöllin syllable by syllable and led the audience in a chant of his band’s name. Here’s the Sprengjuhöllin song “Worry Till Spring.”
9:38 p.m.: My first Melodica sighting of this year’s sxsw: Johnny Goudie.
I didn’t see that one coming. I was keeping an eye open for Melodicas, wondering if those little keyboards you blow into had fallen out of fashion yet in the world of indie rock. Apparently not. But Goudie, who was playing with his backup band, the Little Champions, seemed like an unlikely Melodica guy. He’s a little too adult contemporary for such a twee instrument. I liked the song I’d heard by Goudie, “Battlescar,” but the rest of the songs I heard during his live performance at the Tap at 6 were a little too mundane for my tastes. He’s got a good voice, though.
10:34 p.m.: Loch Lomond is doing a nice set of folk rock: 7 players, violas & such, soft harmonies.
This was one of many large ensembles playing at SXSW this year. I like these groups with lots of fiddles, horns and drumming in addition to the traditional rock instruments. In the case of Loch Lomond, from Portland, Ore., the sound is more toward the mellow folk-rock end of the spectrum. This was beautiful music I plan to listen to more in the future. Here’s the Loch Lomond song “Blue Lead Fences.”
11:02 p.m.: Ugh. A venue where the bar is between the stage and audience: Aces Lounge. Not good. … 11:17 p.m.: Yes, Aces is a horrible venue but worth visiting just now to see Grant Hart.
This was a chance to finally see former Hüsker Dü member Grant Hart, who has been a lot less visible in the music world than his ex-bandmate Bob Mould. Playing alone with an electric guitar in the middle of this hideous bar, as bartenders rang up orders at his feet, Hart performed strong versions of some of his best songs from Hüsker Dü, including “No Promise Have I Made,” “Don’t Want to Know If You’re Lonely” and “Green Eyes” as well as his solo song “2541.” In between songs, Hart tossed out some bitter, sarcastic comments, criticizing BMI, sympathizing with Austinites who have to put up with SXSW and suggesting that the audience should build a bonfire in the middle of Sixth Street.
12:57 a.m.: Mark David Ashworth just played beautiful acoustic music at Austin’s Hideout.
This singer-songwriter from San Francisco (a former Austin resident) has a terrific voice and good songs. I really enjoyed his performance, which I put on my list after hearing his songs at www.myspace.com/markdavidashworth.
2:12 a.m.: Finished the night w/Mumford & Sons, lively bunch of Brit folkies, then a bit of Mexico City’s Los Fancy Free, who seemed a bit nuts.
Mumford & Sons are from London, but they are stepped in the sounds of acoustic American music. As one of the remarked during Wednesday’s show at Friends, “We’re not saying we can play bluegrass better than you, but it’s fun to play.” The jetlagged band was missing its keyboard player (some sort of travel delay), and playing without having slept in 23 hours, but it still sounded sprightly and melodic. And it wasn’t a pure imitation of American folk and country music — I also picked up an English drinking-hall songs vibe.
& Sons finished a little after 1:30 a.m., which gave me enough to time to wander off in search of another band finishing up. I ended up watching a few songs by Los Fancy Free from Mexico City at the Habana Bar Backyard. The band was putting on a very lively show of psychedelic punk rock, prompting a small but enthusiastic crowd to shout “¡Otra!” (Although I did not get to hear it on this occasion, this is the same band that does a 10-minute “psych-out” version of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.” You can hear that on myspace.)
This was a real kick, seeing former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker give a full-blown lecture on the art of lyric writing along with a PowerPoint presentation and video clips of songs of performers ranging from the Kingsmen to Leonard Cohen. This guy could be a pop-music professor. He was witty and insightful, even when he was making somewhat obvious points, such as when he presented his musical formula: “Music + Lyrics + Performance = Dynamite!”
What was the first song that had a big impact on the young Cocker, making him realize that song lyrics could make you see pictures in your mind? I wouldn’t have guessed this one, but it was Gordon Lightfoot’s “If I Could Read Your Mind.” Cocker played that song and then sat down with an acoustic guitar to play the first song he ever wrote, a silly ditty from 1978:
Got a baby only one thing wrong
She quotes Shakespeare all day long
Said baby why you ignoring me?
She said “To be or not to be”
Shakespeare Rock, Shakespeare Roll
Shakespeare Rock, Shakespeare Roll
Finishing the tune, Cocker asked sarcastically, “Very touching, isn’t it?”
Cocker told about an argument he’d had with Noel Gallagher of Oasis, who insisted that the lyrics to the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” are utterly meaningless. Cocker, on the other hand, says the lyrics do have meaning, as well as some subtle internal rhyming schemes. The nonsense is a meaning in itself, he said — “a refusal to play the game, to engage in the charade.”
Should songs rhyme? For the most part, Cocker said yes. But he warned aspiring lyricists against becoming “rhyme-whores.” As an example of what can happen when you try too hard to come up with a rhyme, Cocker performed a hilarious karaoke version of the Des’ree song “Life,” which was voted the worst lyric of all time in a BBC poll. The song’s most egregious rhymes are the following: “I don’t want to see a ghost/It’s the sight I fear the most/I’d rather have a piece of toast.”
Another example of a bad rhyme, according to Cocker, is the ABC song “That Was Then,” which includes this couplet: “Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble, help yourself to another piece of apple crumble.” But then Cocker talked about how he loves a similar sort of reference in Nick Cave’s “Abbatoir Blues”:
Everything’s dissolving, babe, according to plan
The sky is on fire, the dead are heaped across the land
I went to bed last night and my moral code got jammed
I woke up this morning with a Frappucino in my hand
“What is it,” Cocker asked, “that distinguishes Nick Cave’s Frappucino from [ABC singer] Martin Fry’s apple crumble or Des’ree’s toast?” Cocker pointed out that Cave put the Frapuccino in the middle of a line, instead of sticking it at the end. It’s not part of the rhyming scheme, so it’s clear that Cave deliberately chose to include this iced coffee drink in his lyrics. He wasn’t throwing it in there just because he needed a rhyme. “There is no whiff of desperation in his Frapuccino,” Cocker explained.
Are song lyrics poetry? Despite many similarities between the two forms, Cocker said no. As an example, he played an acoustic version of the Pulp song “Babies,” pointing out an important element of the lyrics that would just look silly on the page — “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”
After playing clips of some songs he loves and admires — Dory Previn’s “The Lady With the Braid,” Scott Walker’s “Plastic Palace People,” Hot Chocolate’s “Emma,” the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and the Fall’s “Wings,” among others — Cocker took apart the lyrics to “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt. “Attacking this song is like shooting fish in a barrel, but I’m going to do it anyway,” he said.
As Cocker pointed out, one of the big flaws in Blunt’s lyrics is the way he describes seeing a woman with another man in the first verse, announcing, “I’ve got a plan.” But then he never says what exactly his plan to win over this woman is. Blunt concludes: “It’s time to face the truth, I will never be with you.” Cocker responds: “Can you believe it? There was no plan. It was a LIE!”
Cocker concluded this entertaining lecture/show/performance with one more acoustic performance, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s song “Tonight Will Be Fine.” And then he noted that the magic of good song lyrics is that “the personal becomes universal.”
The text of Cocker’s lecture and some questions he answered at a previous appearance at the Brighton Festival in England, along with some of the video clips he used, are up at http://www.acrylicafternoons.com/jarvisonsong.html
Twitter, 12:29 p.m.: I’ve arrived in Austin. Absolutely beautiful weather. Rode on the same plane with some guys wearing lots of hair gel and spotted pants. (That turned out to be Angry Vs. the Bear, a band from Essex, England.)
The music portion of SXSW does not officially start until Wednesday, so on Tuesday I spent a relaxing afternoon wandering around downtown Austin.
4:01 p.m.: First grackle spotting of this visit to Austin. First of many, I’m sure. (Downtown Austin sometimes seems to be overrun with these birds.)
4:57 p.m.: Some pretty good street music: The Ferocious Few. A bit like Steve Earle.
5:16 p.m.: Just visited Austin’s Museum of the Weird. Saw 2-headed chickens, calves. Jackalope. Texas Bigfoot. (This place, at the rear of the Lucky Lizard gift shop, is a pretty cool tribute to the dime museums that were popular more than a century ago.)
5:29 p.m.: New sxsw venue Zone Perfect: Yellowest room ever? 5:43 p.m.: … It’s a venue and a gallery. And it has its own brand of nutrition bar. Seems like a bit much. Angie Mattson was singing smooth singer-songwriter music when I stopped inside this odd Zone Perfect venue, which felt like an annoying corporate contrivance or some sort of thought-control experiment. As Mattson paused between songs, the venue’s young female staffers shouted “Zone Perfect!” like cheerleaders. That was my signal to vamoose.
After dinner at Serrano’s with some of the fine folks I’ve met through the Postcard From Hell mailing list, I headed off in search of a few of the bands on my “to see” list.
9:45 p.m.: NZ punkers Bang! Bang! Eche! very energetic. I almost got clobbered by singer jumping off stage. That was no exaggeration. These very young-looking lads from New Zealand played loud, energetic dance-punk and jumped all over the place at Friends. Neither I nor my camera were injured in the collision. I enjoyed this set and I’ll be checking out more music by Bang! Bang! Eche!. The songs seemed fairly smart beneath all the racket. Here’s their track “4 to the Floor.”
12:11 a.m.: Finished my night in Austin at Music Gym co-op. Loxsly played a good set of slightly psychedelic art rock, a bit like Midlake. Now, this was a strange venue — a building and tent near the Interstate that local bands apparently use as a rehearsal space. I got the feeling that I’d crashed a small party where everyone in the small audience was a friend of someone on stage. The first band I saw, Eddy Highway, was a little generic but I sensed some good songwriting. The next band was Loxsly, which I’d wanted to see after hearing the song “As the Constellation’s Arms Uncurled.” This Austin group played some nice music with artsy keyboard and guitar textures. They seem to have great potential.
All of my SXSW photos (well, all of the pictures that I liked and decided to post, not all 11,132 shots that I took) are now up in the photo galleries. Review/blog report coming later.
My photos from the first 2 days of SXSW are up now in the galleries and most are also on my flickr page. More coming later, along with my reviews.
Well, SXSW 2009 is over. I have many photos to edit and a lot of notes to sift through. The full report is coming in the next few days, maybe by tomorrow. In the meantime, here are my photos from last night’s show by PJ Harvey and John Parish.
You can also look at my Twitter feed for some brief comments I made along the way.
Some photos from Tuesday in Austin — the day before SXSW music officially begins — are up in my photo galleries at http://www.undergroundbee.com/2009/03/17austin/index.htm, including bands Bang Bang Eche, Loxsly, Angie Mattson and Eddy Highway … as well as a peek inside the Museum of the Weird.
For anyone seeking ideas on what bands to see at SXSW, I’ve posted my schedule — or rather, my list of possible things to see. This includes official showcases, day parties (some of them invite-only, some of them free and open to the public) and a few conference events, all arranged chronologically. My picks for the best possibilities are marked with asterisks, but just about anything on this list has a good chance of being good.
I posted it as a text file at: http://www.undergroundbee.com/2009sxswsched.txt.
I’ll soon be on my way to Austin, Texas, for my annual trek to the South By Southwest Music Conference. After listening to more than 1,000 mp3’s posted at www.sxsw.com (well, I listened to at least a little bit of each song, skipping past the ones I obviously wasn’t going to like) as well as visiting many of the myspace pages for bands without any posted mp3, I narrowed down the list to … a mere 450 bands I want to see! Well, that’s going to be impossible, obviously. But I hope to see maybe a tenth of those groups and follow up on some of the other bands by getting their CDs or seeing them later in Chicago. It’s a good way to get an overview of what’s happening in music this year.
Don’t expect extensive reports here on my blog this week. I may post a few quick reports, but most of the reviews and photos will be coming next week once the whole hectic thing is over. I plan to send updates to my Twitter page, which also go to my Facebook page. I may also post some photos on flickr.
I haven’t had a chance to post reviews of a couple of noteworthy concerts I saw over the past weekend, but maybe soon. Human Highway put on a really nice show of harmony-laden ’60s-style pop Saturday night at the Empty Bottle, and back at the same venue on Sunday night, the Handsome Furs were awesome — very fun and lively. My Handsome Furs pictures are up in the photo galleries.
I started out the final day of SXSW at the SX Seattle Party, over at the Palm Door, a cool room I’d never seen before. THROW ME THE STATUE played a strong set of tunes from its debut album Moonbeams, which recently came out on Secretly Canadian. I interviewed the band’s singer-songwriter, Scott Reitherman, for the February issue of Paste magazine. It’s a really good record, but the one thing I was wondering about was how it would translate in concert. Throw Me the Statue started out as a one-man home-recording project, with Reitherman playing almost everything, but now he’s formed an actual band. It was an unqualified success at this show, with a loose, hard-rocking sound that didn’t obscure the lively, smart nature of Reitherman’s songs. PHOTOS / Download “About to Walk.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon at the French Legation Museum, where the Press Here publicity firm was hosting a “garden party” with a stellar lineup. The first act I caught was NOAH AND THE WHALE, whom I had seen a little bit the other night. Seeing them a second time confirmed my sense that this is a band to watch, with some nice folk influences outside of the usual kind of folk you hear in rock. Lead singer Charlie Fink recounted running into Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. He was amused by the fact that Gibbons carries around a stack of photographs of himself, to hand out to autograph seekers. English singer-songwriter LAURA MARLING sang harmony vocals with Noah and the Whale, and then she played a set of her own. Marling performs with an oddly blank expression and little obvious emotion, but her songs were pretty. PHOTOS
I’m not sure what to make of LIGHTSPEED CHAMPION, aka Dev Hynes, who played next. I do like his debut album better than the music of his old band, Test Icicles (which his press material accurately describes as “aggro-punk/electro-noise thrashings”), but so far, the songs aren’t really sticking with me. In concert, Hynes played his songs with an acoustic guitar, giving them a bit of a folk-pop flavor, but with a meandering quality that sounded more like Stephen Malkmus. It wasn’t bad, but I felt ready for the set to end by the time it did. PHOTOS
Next up was another great set by SONS AND DAUGHTERS (PHOTOS), followed by J MASCIS bending strings and shaking his acoustic guitar with impressive force. (I had the unusual vantage point of watching Mascis over the top of his amplifier, which was facing toward him, with the tubes on the back facing out toward me and the audience.) PHOTOS
The next set was a rare opportunity to hear THURSTON MOORE AND THE NEW WAVE BANDITS play songs from Moore’s excellent 2007 solo album, Trees Outside the Academy. Like the album, this performance showed how strong Moore’s songwriting and guitar playing are even when you turn down the feedback and put it in more of an acoustic format. His band included Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, guitarist Chris Brokaw, violinist Samara Lubelski and bassist Matt Heyner, and Moore showed a good-natured sense of humor as the band set up and he dealt with a drooping microphone stand. He jokingly did an impression of Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmeister, singing up into the mike – “We’re doing this one Lemmy-style.” And he introduced the band as “Bromance,” defining the term as two dudes who really like each other. PHOTOS
I’m a huge fan of M. Ward, so I was looking forward to seeing and hearing his collaboration with actress Zooey Deschanel in the band SHE & HIM, who were next on the Garden Party bill. Deschanel’s good looks and movie-starlet status drew a lot of attention at SXSW. I hadn’t yet heard their album when I saw the show on Saturday, and I came away with the impression that the ballads were a little too simple or sleepy while the more retro-rock numbers featuring more prominent guitar licks from Ward were cool. Deschanel has a good voice, with a crystal-clear tone, not much in the way of vibrato. Now that I’ve listened to She & Him’s Vol. 1 a grand total of one time, I like what I’ve heard. Deschanel’s understated music with Ward reminded me of Dusty Springfield’s classics. It remains to be seen whether this album will merely be a pleasant diversion or something that grows on me with repeated listens, but I’m sure I will be listening. PHOTOS
A singer about as far away from Zooey Deschanel as you can imagine is the legendary JANDEK, who released dozens of homemade recordings in obscurity and built a cult reputation as one of rock’s most reclusive eccentrics. He has played a few concerts in the last few years, but my first time seeing him was this SXSW gig at Central Presbyterian Church, part of a showcase for Signal to Noise, a magazine where I’m a contributor. Standing at an angle from the audience, Jandek took his position in front of a music stand, a tall, thin figure dressed in a dark suit and hat. A group of several musicians (who were apparently given only vague instructions about what to play) built an amorphous and improvised swell of banjo, pedal steel, violin, guitar, drums, upright bass and female backup vocals to accompany Jandek’s singing, which drifted along in quasi-country dirges. I did not realize until after the concert was over that the drummer, who was wearing a straw hat and occasionally using fly swatters for drumsticks, was none other than Will Johnson, the lead singer of Centro-matic. At the end, when the audience gave Jandek a resounding round of applause, he continued facing away from the crowd and after pausing for a moment, disappeared. I walked outside, thinking I might try to see an M. Ward show down the street, only to see that the line was long, and walked back to Central Presbyterian for the next show. While I was out on the street, I overheard a guy talking about the Jandek show he had just witnessed. “That was amazing,” he told his friends. “There were parts where it was like I was on mushrooms.” PHOTOS
The next set at Central Presbyterian was by CHRISTINA CARTER & SHAWN DAVID McMILLEN. Earlier in the day, Thurston Moore had dedicated a song to Carter, an old friend of his who is best known as the singer for Charalambides, and sure enough, Moore and some of his bandmates were in a balcony at the church now, watching Carter play with McMillen. I find Carter’s music mesmerizing, though I can imagine that many listeners would be impatient with its slowly drifting melodies. There’s a stillness at the heart of her music, which I could feel very strongly at this performance, probably the best one I saw Saturday night. But while I normally associate stillness with peace, I also feel something unsettling in Carter’s quiet musical meditations. PHOTOS
I spent the next hour wandering in search of something. I ended up for a time at the Soho Lounge, where the Get Hip showcase featured a lineup of garage bands. I liked the energy of the two bands I saw, MONDO TOPLESS and THE UGLYBEATS, and under other circumstances, I might have stuck around to hear more. PHOTOS Back on the quest, I stopped into the Dirty Dog Bar to see NEVA DINOVA, a band on the Saddle Creek label. Unfortunately, the two or three songs I heard seemed pretty generic (not a quality I normally associate with Saddle Creek) and possibly even boring.
So I ended up in the final part of the hour over at the Park the Van/Daytrotter showcase at Emo’s Annex. I stayed put for the rest of the night, noticing how the last three bands, THE TEETH, THE SPINTO BAND and DR. DOG, all shared a similar sense of joy and energy. All three bands had a tendency to cartwheel around on the stage during their shows. I’m not so familiar with the music of The Teeth, but their performance was pretty impressive. The Spinto Band’s album never really clicked with me, but they have a few outstanding songs, and their set was very lively. PHOTOS OF THE THE TEETH AND THE SPINTO BAND.
Dr. Dog have been one of my favorite live bands since I saw them open for M. Ward a few years ago at Schubas, and they were my top band of SXSW 2006. I still don’t think they’ve released a studio recording that reaches their full potential, but their records are filled with some wonderful songs featuring sophisticated harmonies and chord changes that remind me of late-period Beatles as well as the Faces and Beach Boys. In concert, the band raves it up by cavorting across the stage, but it never loses sight of the little melodic subtleties that make its songs so attractive. Bassist Toby Leaman seemed distracted or even angry at some problems with hearing his monitor, but he never let that get in the way of putting on a smashing performance. The members of Delta Spirit joined them onstage for the clarion call of the final song, “Wake Up.” Singing a song with that title at the end of the night (and end of the festival) may sound paradoxical, but I couldn’t think of a more apt way to end the week. PHOTOS
OK, that wraps up my SXSW recaps – though I’ll probably have some other random thoughts trickling out of my brain. And I do plan to follow up on some of the bands I saw or heard about.
For me, Friday started with a noontime show by MAGIC BULLETS, which I just happened to walk into at the Red Eyed Fly while killing time before the Spin party down the street. The band, from San Francisco, was pretty entertaining, with the gangly lead singer jumping around the stage with unabashedly geeky moves. PHOTOS
The Spin party at Stubb’s had a strong lineup – except for those first two bands. I won’t dwell long on how much I hated SWITCHES and BEN JELEN, other than saying both acts seemed like complete musical dreck as far as I could hear. The free food and beer alleviated my pain somewhat. The rest of the afternoon was excellent, starting with THE WHIGS, whom I’ve written about here before. The Whigs whipped through their songs with all of their usual vigor and closed with “Half a World Away,” a quieter, keyboard-based song that reveals their ’60s influences clearer than the loud rock numbers. Good show. PHOTOS
THE RAVEONETTES followed, playing their trademark feedback-drenched chilly pop. I like the Raveonettes pretty well, but they aren’t the most dynamic band onstage. They do a decent job of duplicating the records, but they don’t elevate the music to a higher level. At least, that’s my experience after seeing them twice. It was nice to actually see them in bright light this time, aiding my photographic efforts, though they are really a band meant for the darkness. PHOTOS
VAMPIRE WEEKEND are one of the buzz bands of the moment. I guess I should have seen them back when they were playing a small venue like Schubas in December, before they landed on the cover of Spin magazine with the headline “THE YEAR’S BEST NEW BAND…ALREADY!?” The answer to that question is clearly no, in my opinion. It’s not that I don’t like Vampire Weekend, but they’re merely a good band getting hype more fitting for a great band. I enjoyed their set at the Spin party, but it just confirmed my feelings from the record. Vampire Weekend is doing some interesting things, taking African-style guitar figures and incorporating them into pop music. That’s not a completely original idea, of course, but it’s refreshing to hear these influences emerging in a new indie-rock band – expanding the palette, so to speak. But Vampire Weekend does not exactly make exciting music. It comes out pleasant, but a little bland. Young musicians often deliver the most impassioned and creative performances, but in this case, these guys seem a little too young and inexperienced to make everything that they could out of this music. There’s just not enough roughness or passion in it. Give them time, and they may eventually become a great band, if the hype doesn’t kill them first. PHOTOS
The Spin party closed with a searing set by L.A. punk-rockers X, who played their classic tunes at full blast and never let up. These oldsters showed the youngsters how it should be done. PHOTOS
PAUL METZGER started the evening at Spiro’s with a mesmerizing set of his experimental banjo music, bowing and plucking a banjo with 12 strings plus who knows how many drone strings. It was unusual and enticing music, and there was something surreal about watching Metzger play while bathed in green light, with sunlight and sidewalk noise coming in from the door just a few feet away. Download “Bright Red Stone.”
KELLEY STOLTZ took the stage after Metzger, playing a terrific set of songs from his superb new Sub Pop album, Circular Sounds, plus at least one older track. Stoltz draws on a lot of influences (Syd Barrett, Kinks, Beach Boys, Thunderclap Newman, to name a few) but puts them together in a style that’s distinctly his own. The songs rocked live, and Stolz demonstrated a sharp sense of humor in his between-song comments. The set (which could have gone on much longer with any protest from me) closed with a Velvet Underground/Feelies-style rave-up. This was another one of my favorite SXSW shows. PHOTOS
The Creekside EMC, a room at the Hilton Garden Inn, was the location for one of the strangest shows I saw at last year’s SXSW (Brute Force and Daughter of Force), and I got a weird feeling as I entered the room again. There were no chairs set up this time, just high tables decorated with candles. It felt more like some corporate meet-and-greet than a SXSW show. Despite the odd atmosphere, the room hosted a good show by the Brooklyn folk-rock duo KAISERCARTEL. Courtney Kaiser and Benjamin Cartel switched instruments a few times, with Kaiser handling most of the guitar and Cartel spending most of the set behind drums. Their music felt honest and direct, a little bit like Ida at times. I was thinking that the show was merely pretty good until they got to “Season Song”, the lovely song I’d heard on sxsw.com. And then the two of them closed their set with one of the entire festival’s most remarkable moments. They walked out into the crowd and serenaded us with their last song, unamplified, approaching individual audience members (including me) and looking straight into our eyes as they sang. Other musicians have done this sort of thing before, but there was something so intimate about the way KaiserCartel pulled it off that I felt myself on the verge of crying. PHOTOS
Back at Spiro’s, EVANGELISTA was taking the stage. I admit that I really didn’t do my homework in investigating what I was about to witness. I had merely heard the song “Evangelista I” on sxsw.com and liked it, thinking it reminded me of God Speed You, Black Emperor or Silver Mt. Zion. As it happens, musicians from those bands have played with Evangelista, though I’m not sure who all of the players were at the Spiro’s show. All that really mattered was the woman in the middle of the stage, Carla Bozulich, former member of The Geraldine Fibbers. (Nels Cline used to be her guitarist before he joined Wilco.) The show by Evangelista was more of performance art piece than a rock concert, including Bozulich singing into some sort of toy microphone, Bozulich jumping up and down a lot, and the cellist using his instrument as a drum. There were some good songs, too, but I feel like I did not get the full picture of what Evangelista is capable of. The way Bozulich introduced the last piece was telling: “This is out last thing that is like a song.” PHOTOS
Like the Ruby Suns on Thursday, England’s FANFARLO suffered through difficult conditions Friday night at the Wave Rooftop, earning another medal for performing well in a bad situation. I was drawn to this show by the song “Fire Escape”, and there was a lot of positive buzz in the crowd when I showed up. Some people who had seen Fanfarlo playing at a party earlier in the day said they were one of the festival’s best bands. But at this moment, the band could not get its keyboard to work. It may have been their own equipment failing, or maybe the venue’s, but in any case, the show got started 15 minutes late in a short time slot, and then the band gamely decided to play whatever it could despite the lack of a crucial instrument. It did not help that one of the sound guys continued fiddling with the keyboard throughout most of the set. The lead singer wryly remarked, “We’re getting your keyboard fixed while we’re playing, which is a little like getting your car fixed while you’re driving.” And so the set was a little rough, but thankfully, Fanfarlo’s keyboardist also plays violin. I liked what I heard, and the band was nice enough to hand out free copies of a CD featuring their recordings to date – EPs available only in Britain, I believe. I’ve had a chance to listen to the CD several times since, and it’s growing on me. I don’t know that Fanfarlo is doing anything especially groundbreaking with its music, but it’s great stuff, very melodic and upbeat. And I get the impression that the songs would really take off in concert – if the equipment is working. PHOTOS
A little while later, FLEET FOXES played over at the Sub Pop showcase at Bourbon Rocks. The group’s most distinguishing feature is the four-part harmony vocals. I wouldn’t confuse Fleet Foxes with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but they have a similar theory at work behind the way their songs are arranged. It was nice, and I suspect this is a group that I’m going to like. PHOTOS
I ended the night at the Light Bar, a peculiar venue that seems more like part of the Austin singles scene than a SXSW showcase. Anyway, a cool band from Athens, Georgia, KING OF PRUSSIA, was playing at the back of the room, with violin and female harmonies giving the songs a bright sound that reminded me a bit of Headlights. The band’s own description compares King of Prussia to The Who, Magnetic Fields, Belle & Sebastian and The Lilys. I’ll have to reserve judgment on how valid those comparisons are, but I look forward to hearing more. PHOTOS / Download “Misadventures of the Campaign Kids.”
In between the Lou Reed and Steve Reich interviews at SXSW, I stopped by the day stage, hoping to catch a set by the Barcelona band Les Aus, whose mp3 file on sxsw.com attracted my attention. As it happened, Les Aus was running late because of travel delays, so MAZONI, another one of Spain’s Catalan-language musicians, substituted for the group. He gave a decent solo performance, including a Catalan translation of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” playing electric guitar in a style that was more reminiscent of indie rock than Spanish guitar. PHOTOS
Later in the afternoon, I arrived at the Rhapsody party at the Mohawk Patio in time to hear a few songs by CUT COPY through the fence while I was waiting to get in. Not my cup of tea. The reason I was there was to see SONS AND DAUGHTERS for the first time. I love this Scottish band’s records, and they did not disappoint as a live act. There’s so much tension in every song, with an almost perfect combination of guitar, bass and drums with female and male vocals playing off each other rather than trying to blend together. Vivacious singer Adele Bethel is clearly the star of the show, but all four of these Sons and Daughters make vital contributions to the band’s raw sound. There’s just a smidgen of rockabilly and country (an influence reflected in guitarist Scott Paterson’s pompadour haircut) and a bit of X. In the middle of their song, “Johnny Cash,” the band dropped in a bit of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Sons and Daughters were not a discovery for me at SXSW this year, since I was already familiar with their recordings, but they were probably my favorite band. I caught them again on Saturday at the Press Here Garden Party. PHOTOS
Latitude 30 hosted UK-themed parties all week long, including a show Thursday afternoon featuring New Music From Wales. CATE LE BON sang some nice acoustic songs, including a couple in the Welsh language. And then came THE VICTORIAN ENGLISH GENTLEMENS CLUB, who really kicked out some striking post-punk rock tunes. And, from my viewpoint at least, the female two-thirds of this co-ed trio were pretty hot, which didn’t hurt. The drummer was in a fancy pink dress, hiking the skirt up as she straddled her legs around her bass drum. The bassist had a stunned look on her face much of the time, as if her own pounding bass notes were knocking her out. And, oh yeah, there’s a guy in the band, too, singing and playing guitar. I hadn’t heard anything other than a myspace track from this band before seeing the show, but I’m definitely interested now. PHOTOS
From Wales to New Zealand… The New Zealand Music Commission was hosting a barbecue at Brush Square Park. PIG OUT played some intriguing electronic dance music – intriguing, for me, because of the actual drumming – but I didn’t hear enough to decide what I thought. And then came one of the most disappointing moments of the week, the show by THE RUBY SUNS. The disappointment had nothing to do with this band, which has a wonderful new album, Sea Lion, out on the Sub Pop label. The music from the Japan tent next door was blaring so loud that it was hard to hear the Ruby Suns, even standing right next to the stage. The party was running late, the Ruby Suns didn’t get much time to play, and the delicate layers of their sunny pop were buried under all of the din. I did hear enough to know that I like this band, and I’m looking forward to seeing them give a proper show March 28 at Schubas in Chicago. If nothing else, the Ruby Suns deserve a medal for putting on a serviceable concert under very trying circumstances. PHOTOS
HORSE + DONKEY kicked off Thursday evening at B.D. Riley’s with some cool, drony garage rock anchored by melodic, repeating bass lines. It reminded me of their fellow Austonians, the Black Angels. PHOTOS / Download “dot dot.”
Walking down Sixth Street, I stopped at Friends long enough to hear a few songs by NOAH AND THE WHALE, a folkie band led by London’s Charlie Fink. I later caught a full set by the band, at Saturday’s Press Here party, and I found their music to be pretty charming. PHOTOS / Download “2 Bodies, 1 Heart.”
I purposely avoided seeing Chicago bands at SXSW this time, thinking I have plenty of opportunities to see them in Chicago, so why see them in Austin? But I happened upon a show by EZRA FURMAN AND THE HARPOONS at Spiro’s and caught most of their set. Furman was wearing a yellow T-shirt with the slogan “I DID IT FOR THE MONEY” and singing his impassioned folk-rock with full-on fervor. I chatted a bit with Furman’s manager, Mitch Marlow, who told me that Furman had played “Heroin” and “New Age” that afternoon at the Fader Fort’s Lou Reed tribute. Reed himself was at the event, and he snapped some photos of Furman as Furman was performing. PHOTOS That Spanish band, Les Aus, was scheduled to play down the street at the Red Eyed Fly, so I stopped in there but discovered that the schedule had changed. VERACRUZ was playing, and I have to say the band didn’t do much for me. The post-punk guitar sound wasn’t bad, but the vocals were mediocre.
One of the musicians I hoped to see at SXSW was Bon Iver, aka singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, whose new album, For Emma, Forever Ago, is top-notch folk rock (think acoustic Big Star rather than Nick Drake), but I kept missing him. (Oh, well, at least I can see him April 10 at Lakeshore Theatre in Chicago.) While I missed Bon Iver, I did see MEGAFAUN, which includes Vernon’s former bandmates in DeYarmond Edison. I’d heard these guys described as a sort of avant-garde jazz versions of bluegrass. Now, what’s that going to be like? The description turned out to be more accurate than I’d expected. Sure enough, Megafaun plays songs with a strong vein of old-time folk running through them, but they also break out into some bizarre, atonal instrumental breaks. That doesn’t sound like it would work, but it did. They reminded me a bit of Califone, Akron/Family and the more experimental moments of Wilco. But what really won me over were Megafaun’s sing-along choruses, which sounded so old-fashioned that I’m thinking Stephen Foster and Civil War-era music might be the big influence here. The guys in Megafaun stormed up into the crowd from the darkened stage at the Hideout and roused the crowd to join in song – one of my highlights from all week. PHOTOS
NORTHAMPTON WOOLS, an experimental duo consisting of Thurston Moore and Bill Nace, followed Megafaun at the Hideout. This is the sort of music that involves a lot of scraping and tweaking of guitar strings, building from tinkly noise to a wall of feedback. The droning was almost too much to take after a while, but it was certainly intriguing to see these two guitarists experimenting with their instruments without any constraints. PHOTOS
I ended the night back where I began, B.D. Riley’s, with another drony garage-rock band, DARKER MY LOVE. I didn’t realize until later that some of the players in this San Francisco group had played in the past with The Fall. They put on a strong show, a perfect bookend to the earlier set by Horse + Donkey. PHOTOS / Download “Summer Is Here.”
The bleary-eyed SXSW masses (or least the badge holders) dragged themselves from their hotel rooms bright and early Thursday morning to receive words of wisdom from none other than LOU REED, this year’s keynote speaker. Before he took the stage, we heard some interesting music, including a piece by Steve Reich, who would be speaking later in the day, performed by the SOLI CHAMBER ENSEMBLE. It was good morning music, though I wonder how many of the SXSW regulars would like this kind of stuff?
Anyway… Reed came out and spent about ninety minutes taking questions from producer Hal Willner. Like most SXSW keynote speakers, Reed had an ulterior commercial motive for appearing – in his case, the need to promote his new film of the album Berlin being performed in concert. True to his reputation, Reed was somewhat surly. A cell phone in the audience rings. Reed: “What is that? Jesus.”
Asked about the influence that Andy Warhol and other visual artists had on his songwriting, Reed says Warhol’s style inspired its musical equivalent in the Velvet Underground – “repeating a line over and over.”
Can music change the world? “It could change an individual and make them feel not alone in their belief.”
On the subject matter that the Velvet Underground covered with its lyrics: “It was an empty continent.”
On how to write songs: “I never understood how they get written … I don’t even know why it works.”
On his strengths: “I have a B.A. in dope but a Ph.D. in soul … The thing I’ve got is instinct. Thinking won’t get me where I want to go. It’ll get me to the store where it’s sold.”
On deteriorating audio standards, due to the popularity of mp3s: “People have got to demand a high standard … Or the other thing is to say, ‘You’re being elitist. Only people with money can afford the good sound, so fuck you.’”
Reed’s favorite movie of late: The Bourne Ultimatum.
Reed’s favorite new bands: Melt Banana, Holy Fuck (“Or is it Holy Shit?” he says), Dr. Dog, Joan As Policewoman. “One of the things you look for in a young group is that energy, and I just love it.”
On record labels asking musicians to sign over their publishing rights: “They are always going to say they want the publishing, and you are always going to say no.”
OK, so I’m a little behind on writing about SXSW 2008. That was, like, last week, wasn’t it? I’m finally caught up on editing my photos. As I file this, pictures are uploading.
You can see a complete directory to all of the various galleries of photos I shot at SXSW 2008, at: www.undergroundbee.com/photos.htm#sxsw2008
Or just follow the links below to the band or musician you’re looking for.
The Hard Lessons
Portugal The Man
Birds of Wales
Beasts and Superbeasts
Okkervil River with Roky Erickson
Sons and Daughters
Cate Le Bon
The Victorian English Gentlemen’s Club
Horse + Donkey
Noah and the Whale
The Life and Times
Ezra Furman and the Harpoons
Darker My Love
King of Prussia
Throw Me The Statue
Thurston Moore and the New Wave Bandits
She & Him
Christina Carter & Shawn David McMillen
The Spinto Band
I started out the day around noon at the Red Eyed Fly for THE EXPLORERS CLUB from Charleston, S.C. Now, there are bands that try to sound a little bit like the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson or Pet Sounds, but these guys go all out. I’ve heard their new record, coming out in May on Dead Oceans, the new label affiliated with Secretly Canadian, and it sounds exactly like the Beach Boys back in their mid-1960s hey day. And sure enough, that’s what Explorers Club sounded like in concert, too. The group leans a little more towards the early Beach Boys period than the later orchestral-pop stuff. I wonder whether the world really needs a group that mimics the Beach Boys so closely, but I can’t deny that it was a lot of fun seeing these guys, and I am enjoying the CD, too. They closed with a cover of “Johnny B. Goode.” Download “Do You Love Me?”
The mp3 of “Esperanca” on the sxsw.com site from Brazilian singer CURUMIN was one of my favorite discoveries. Just judging from this one track, this singer (aka Luciano Nakata Albuquerque) has the potential to become the next big thing out of Brazil. His afternoon set in the Emo’s Annex tent was a little disappointing, however. Accompanied by an electronics/keyboard player and a bass/keyboard player, Curumin stayed behind him drum kit and sang from there (a miniature four-string guitar was sitting at the front of the stage, and I assume he planned to come up and play that later, but the set was truncated and he never got the chance). I think he tried to hard to get the audience to participate by signing a Portuguese phrase when he should have just concentrated on delivering the goods. The audience was mildly interested but still in that early-afternoon phase where people aren’t ready yet to dance or clap and sing along to a foreign musician they’ve never heard before. Anyway, this short set didn’t amount to much, but I’m really looking forward to hearing more from Curumin.
I didn’t really have anywhere to go after Curumin, so I just stayed in the tent and watched the next band, FRIGHTENED RABBIT, about whom I knew nothing. This Scottish band turned out to be really good, with some very strong and impassioned rock. (Interesting, they had a three guitars and drums lineup, with one of the guitarists doubling on keyboards, but no bass. I think.) The one studio song I’ve heard by Frightened Rabbit isn’t as good as the live show, but this is another one to watch for sure.
Next, I saw A.A. BONDY, who was playing a solo acoustic set on the porch behind Creekside Lounge. Very Dylanesque, Bondy played some excellent folk songs that really drew me in with their strong melodies and lyrics. His song at sxsw.com, “American Hearts,” was one of the tracks that grabbed my attention. Bondy also dealt with a loud and drunken (but good-natured) audience member fairly well, responding with subdued humor. At one point, the boisterous guy yelled out, “If there’s a vote in South By Southwest, vote for this guy. He seems true!” That’s pretty perceptive for a drunk guy.
I rushed over to the Convention Center to see AKRON/FAMILY on the Day Stage, showing up in time to catch the last several gloomy, doomy minutes of the previous band, A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS. Man, those guys were LOUD, especially for a show on the Day Stage, which is a very corporate-looking room with a lunch counter. The band ended its set with a shredding guitar solo and I spotted a few disgruntled people in the room walking away with their hands over their ears. I liked it. I also liked Akron/Family, whom I’ve never seen previously, despite the fact they’ve been around for a while. Despite being way off on the fringes of what’s considered mainstream music, they had a very winning sense of humor on stage, and I think they made some new fans. It was a great mix of meditative bird-call soundscapes, a goofy song supposedly directed at children about a silly bear, experimental noise, and freak folk, with a focus on audience participation. “Sing this note,” they told the crowd, trying to get a drone note going. “You can sing it ironically if you want. … This is a lot more women than we’re using to having at our shows. It’s usually a lot of men with beards.” (Download “Phenomena.”)
I hesitated before going to the VAN MORRISON show at 7 p.m. at La Zona Rosa, mostly because I knew it would be jam-packed. And I do try to avoid spending too much of my SXSW watching musical acts I’ve already seen. But hey, it is Van Morrison, after all, and nothing else of note was happening at 7, so why not? There was a long line to get in, but as the Mendoza Line once said in a song title, the line moved quickly. I was at the outside edge of a huge photographers’ pit, struggling to get close enough for a shot during the first three songs (when picture taking was allowed). Luckily, it was bright enough that I was able to see Morrison fairly well through my telephoto lens, and I got a few decent shots. I stayed for the first half hour of this show and liked what I saw and heard. It was nice seeing Morrison at fairly close range after the disappointment of watching him a couple of years ago at the United Center. His voice sounded great, amazingly close to the way it sounded on his old records. He occasionally rears back a little and opens his mouth wide at the side (sort of like Dick Cheney, I hate to say, but I can’t think of another comparison to make for that look). And despite his reputation for being a little sullen, Morrison seemed to be in good spirits, smiling and chuckling at a few points. He played sax at times, and then he even took out a ukulele and played that wee instrument to great effect on a couple of songs. He seemed to be focusing on material from his recent recordings, but I assume he probably played some of the crowd-pleasing classics later in the night.
Maybe I was foolish to rush out of the Van Morrison show and walk quickly across town in search of new music, but I felt that urge to discover something. My next stop was the Wave Rooftop, where BIRDS OF WALES was playing. (Like so many bands these days, this one is from a place other than the one in its name – Toronto.) I loved the Birds of Wales song, “Cinderella (Has Nothing On You),” but unfortunately, the whole band did not make it to SXSW. The drummer’s wife just had a baby and the band is getting ready for a European tour, so Birds of Wales singer-guitarist Morgan Ross (who is apparently of Welsh descent) did the gig as a solo acoustic show. Without the band playing behind him, the songs were a little on the dull side. I still have hopes that Birds of Wales is better as a full band, and I’ll be listening to the CD to find out… I stayed at the Wave for the next band, BEASTS AND SUPERBEASTS from Victoria, British Columbia. This was their first performance outside of Canada, and you’ll get some idea of this band’s standing from their opening remarks: “So, we’re looking for a label and a distributor and a manager … and a band.” The set up was a female singer on keyboards and Melodica, a guy on vocals and guitar, and another guy on keyboards. The sound is naïve, a little amateurish and somewhat precious folk or chamber pop. I thought the show, which was sparsely attended, was pretty good, though some other people left midway through the set, clearly uninterested. As the crowd got even smaller, Beasts and Superbeasts played the nice tune I’d heard on sxsw.com, “If I Was A House,” and the set closed with another strong song.
Now, what is a band from Copenhagen doing playing klezmer music? (Or something resembling klezmer or Gypsy music, at least.) That’s what I was wondering as I stopped into the Mexican restaurant Rio and caught most of the show by AFENGINN, which featured a tall Nordic dude with long dreadlocks on mandolin leaping around a lot as he played and sang, but clarinet, violin, bass and drums. After one song, the singer remarked, “This is how it is in Denmark. You should come.” Several people were dancing to Afenginn’s catchy, bouncy music, and it seemed that even some of the people who were at Rio for a Mexican meal instead of SXSW were getting into it. “This is our first time in Texas,” the singer said at one point. “So I figured we would do this introduction in the beautiful key of A.” (Huh?) Afenginn should be a big hit on the world-music scene. And as much as I had liked Beasts and Superbeasts in the previous time slot, Afenginn reminded me: THIS is how excited you should feel when you’re playing or hearing music.
One of the more intriguing songs posted at sxsw.com was “Sorry We Took All Yr Money” by SCARY MANSION from Brooklyn. This gig at the Hideout turned out to be one of my favorite shows of SXSW. The lead singer, Leah Hayes, plays one of those tiny little strumsticks – which I’ve always thought of as a toy version of the guitar – but cranked up the feedback and volume during solos. And while she reminded me a little bit of Marissa Nadler or a goth folkie, she had a kick-ass rhythm section playing behind her (and a sister who joined her on harmony vocals for a few songs). Definitely a group to watch.
During all my years of going to SXSW, I’ve never attended the Austin Music Awards. Somehow, I pictured a sit-down awards ceremony, which sounds rather dull compared to all of the other things going on. But this year, one of the honorees was ROKY ERICKSON, and he was playing with OKKERVIL RIVER as his backup band. I couldn’t miss that. I showed up as GARY CLARK JR. was playing, then caught about 15 or 20 minutes of awards being doled out, including Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top handing a plaque to Erickson. Then came Okkervil playing three of their own songs with all of their trademark intensity, followed by Erickson playing three of his classic tunes backed by Okkervil. Erickson looked and sounded great, and the combination with Okkervil was perfect.
I stopped for just a few minutes at Copa, where a techno band from Bogota, Columbia, called MONARETA was playing – two guys with bicycle wheels on their heads. It seemed potentially interesting, and what I heard was pretty good, but I wasn’t in the mood for dance music just then, so I scooted over to Friends and caught the last several songs by roots-rockers SOUTHEAST ENGINE. Their music seemed OK, but didn’t leave much of an impression on me amid everything else. I’ll give them another chance, though.
The main reason I was at Friends was to see the last act of the night, CENTRO-MATIC, one of my old favorites. They hammered through some of their best songs (not playing much from their forthcoming album), and closed with a great cover of “Save It For Later.” Well, I missed out on seeing the English Beat, who were playing at SXSW this year, but at least I heard someone do this song.
South By Southwest was a fabulous experience for me once again. As always, I missed some of the bands I wanted to see, I heard about other noteworthy bands too late, and I went through the usual hectic insanity of running around all over downtown Austin trying to see as much stuff as possible. I think I saved myself from some of the typical sleep deprivation by putting off most of my writing and photo editing until the whole thing was over. I know, in the world of instant blogging, there is a premium on posting reviews and pictures as quickly as possible, but every minute I spent working on the blog would have been a minute I could have spent watching another concert (or getting just a little bit of sleep). Anyway, after listening to 700-some mp3s plus numerous myspace sites in preparation for SXSW, and after four and a half days of live-music immersion, I’m finally ready to look back at it all… (PHOTOS are coming soon, too, but first I’m going to do some writing.)
TUESDAY, MARCH 11
The music portion of SXSW did not officially begin until Wednesday, but I was in town on Tuesday night and caught a few live bands. Playing at Emo’s, THE HARD LESSONS did not impress me too much. A little too classic-rock radio for my tastes. In the smaller room next door, THE HANDS were putting on a pretty decent show. They sounded good when they were rocking out to twin guitar lines during the epic solos, perhaps going for a bit of My Morning Jacket kind of vibe. The songs themselves didn’t strike me as all that original, but I think The Hands are worth a listen. Down the street, Beerland was hosting the THIS IS AMERICAN MUSIC tour, and I stopped in to see solid (but too short) sets by GLOSSARY and GRAND CHAMPEEN. And then I was back down the street at Emo’s one last time for PORTUGAL. THE MAN. As much I’d like to support a band from my home state of Alaska (how many bands are there from Alaska, anyway?), I can’t say I enjoyed Portugal. The Man very much. Too jam-band for me.
In the meantime, look for my first installment of reporting at the Pioneer Press Web site.
And I quickly went through the 4,000-some photos I’ve shot and picked out a few, posting them at flickr.
Briefly, some of the best bands I’ve seen so far are Sons and Daughters, Frightened Rabbit, Megafaun, Scary Mansion, Horse + Donkey, A.A. Bondy, Darker My Love, the Victorian English Gentlemen’s Club, Okkervil River with Roky Erikson… I’m sure I’m forgetting something. OK, that’s all for now…
SATURDAY, MARCH 17
THE TRUCKS at Snocap day party – One of the hyped bands of the moment, The Trucks came off as a gimmicky novelty, but they were fairly fun to watch. What’s with the deliberately ugly look for that one chick with the missing tooth? That’s part of the shtick, I guess. www.thetrucks.net – PHOTOS OF THE TRUCKS
CALLA at Snocap day party – I sort of like Calla’s records, but they never seem to rise above the level of pretty good. I keep waiting for a big breakout chorus or guitar solo, but it never comes. I felt the same way about the live show. www.callamusic.com – PHOTOS OF CALLA
BERMUDA TRIANGLE at Platform day party – I plead another case of SXSW amnesia. They’re from Norway. There’s a girl who sings. There’s a guy who sings, too. I think I liked it. www.myspace.com/norwegianbermuda – PHOTOS OF BERMUDA TRIANGLE
THE SILENT YEARS at Habana Calle 6 Annex day party – I didn’t know anything about this group, but I was blown away by the energy. Will definitely seek them out. www.thesilentyears.com – PHOTOS OF THE SILENT YEARS
BANG GANG at Habana Calle 6 Annex day party – The mp3 by this group from Iceland caught my attention. In concert, they were odd, in a “Sprockets” sort of way. The lead singer, Bardi Johansson, delivered SXSW’s most stilted and strange stage banter, urging audience members to take part in an Icelandic party game of spitting on one another’s shoulders. At one point, he remarked (seemingly as a sort of complaint about SXSW): “Too much notes. Everybody’s jumping on the stage and playing too much notes. I think I’ve never seen anybody running around and jumping in my life.” Another comment: “The music sucks, but you have to be on drugs to know it.” And before playing “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Locomotion,” he announced: “We’re going to play an old American standard which you probably don’t like.” The songs featured a peculiar stop-and-start energy, and Bang Gang came off as a highly promising band, but their set was pretty darn short – just four songs or so. And then they were off.
Bang Gang also had one of the most absurd press releases this year on the SXSW Web site, including this description of Johansson: “He outfits as a producer, a fashion designer, director, musician, singer and composer. In Milan he has a full size statue, in Iceland he is the dark prince who walks the nights alone and in France he is hailed as the next Phil Spector. He depicts the musical side of fashion house Emporio Armani, cosmetics brand Yves Rocher and car make Citroën in there television ads. A renaissance man in the most true form he is obsessive, narcissistic, hung-over, mad and romantic. Oceanic and limitless, his songs sound much too real and much too beautiful. Bardi Johannson is an anomaly that blends together Rock’n’Roll and sadness to create a sound that bellows through your body like a misremembered dream and for that he makes us stop in the name of love.” www.banggang.net (Incidentally, there was another band at SXSW this year called Bang Bang Gang.) – PHOTOS OF BANG GANG
IRINA BJORKLUNDE was playing in the Habana Calle 6 Annex as part of a tribute to Nick Drake as I walked out of the Bang Gang gig. She was playing the saw, an instrument you don’t hear often enough, and she did a lovely Drake song. (Sorry, I’m terrible with his song titles, so I don’t recall which one.) www.irinabjorklund.com – PHOTOS OF IRINA BJORKLUNDE
THOM HELL at Platform day party – I caught a couple of songs by this Americana singer from Norway – well, I guess it isn’t correct to call it Americana if you’re from Norway, but that’s what it sounded like to me. Pretty good stuff, enough to make me want to hear more, but I was in a hurry. Marit Larsen, who was next on the Platform party schedule, was playing in Hell’s backup band, and a couple of Larsen fans in the crowd held up a sign declaring that she’s an addictive drug. – PHOTOS OF THOM HELL
BUZZCOCKS at Snocap day party – During my foray over to see Bang Gang, I missed Apollo Sunshine at the Snocap party, which was reportedly one of the highlights. The Buzzcocks were an excellent way to end the party, though. The Buzzcocks are the Buzzcocks; what more can you say? Those short, punchy songs still stand up amazingly well, and the band was as fun and energetic as ever. I was standing near Steve Diggles when he spat on the speakers, where the glob of saliva remained for the rest of the concert. www.buzzcocks.com – PHOTOS OF BUZZCOCKS
LEE “SCRATCH” PERRY on the SXSW Live stage – This was a rare chance to see one of the legends of reggae and dub music. I’m far from an expert on his music, but I enjoyed it, especially his jabs at the current political situation. A short, wizened guy, he was dressed in an outfit that was glittering with all of the shiny objects that had been pasted and sewed onto it. – PHOTOS OF LEE “SCRATCH” PERRY
WAX FANG at Mohawk Patio – Another band with an mp3 that attracted my attention. And they were playing at the showcase for KEXP, one of my favorite stations to hear on the Web. Wax Fang opened its set with a delicate little piece of guitar playing and singing by the vocalist, with the bassist and drummer patiently watching. And then, in the middle of that song, the rhythm section erupted into a dramatic blast of noise. The pattern repeated with other Wax Fang songs – tunes with an indie-pop sensibility melded with arena rock bombast. The band is from Louisville, Ky., so of course, I thought of My Morning Jacket. The guitarist even played a couple of wailing Theremin solos. www.waxfang.com – PHOTOS OF WAX FANG
BRUTE FORCE AND DAUGHTER OF FORCE at Creekside EMC – I was hoping to see Field Music in this time slot, but the line was long and didn’t seem to be moving, so I bailed on that show. I’d heard a quirky piano song called “Space Mission” by Brute Force and Daughter of Force, which sounded sort of like a demo for the Only Ones, but didn’t know what to expect. This was the strangest thing I saw all week. It felt like I’d stepped out of SXSW into some alternate universe. The act turned out to be an older guy with bushy eyebrows calling himself Brute Force playing piano and singing, with his twenty-something daughter on vocals. They did odd novelty tunes about sandwiches and space travel. It was hard not to get the impression that this was just some guy who played weird songs for his family and somehow persuaded his slightly embarrassed daughter to get up on the stage with him for a lounge act. As I learned later from reading about Brute Force on the SXSW Web site, he used to be a member of the Tokens and he originally recorded some of these songs for Apple Records in the late 1960s (the Beatles were among his fans). It was a refreshing change from everything else. Peculiar but charming. brutesforce.com – PHOTOS OF BRUTE FORCE AND DAUGHTER OF FORCE
ASTEROID #4 at Latitude 30 – Now here’s a band that lives reverb and darkness. The lights were barely on at all as Asteroid #4 played (it was hell to photograph, though I did dig the atmosphere it created) and they never turned off those echoing effects. It was a terrific space-rock jam, complete with a Rain Parade cover. As Asteroid #4 finished, the band announced, “Thanks. We’re the Black Angels.” www.asteroid4.com – PHOTOS OF ASTEROID #4
THE BLACK HOLLIES (with guest appearance by THE DANSETTES) at Uncle Flirty’s Loft – A good ‘60s-style rock band… Other than that, I don’t remember much. www.theblackhollies.com – PHOTOS OF THE BLACK HOLLIES /PHOTOS OF THE DANSETTES
OX at the Ale House – This alt-country band from British Columbia does a great cover of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” and that’s what was playing as I walked in the door. Most of their other songs seem to be about cars, including one about the El Camino. It was all pretty good, though it’s fairly typical stuff as far as alt-country bands go, nothing earth-shattering. www.oxmusic.ws – PHOTOS OF OX
THE WHIGS at Blender Bar at the Ritz – I showed up early at this venue to see the Saints in the last time slot. As I walked in, DANIEL JOHNSTON AND THE NIGHTMARES were finishing their set. The last half of the last song (all that I heard) seemed more confident and Modern Lovers-ish than the shaky solo concert I saw by Johnston a couple of years ago. I didn’t know much about the Whigs other than the mp3 I’d heard, but the group had a lot of young female fans in attendance, who sang along with many of the words. They put on a very good show, and something about them reminded me of other bands from their hometown, Athens, Ga. www.thewhigs.com – PHOTOS OF THE WHIGS
THE SAINTS at Blender Bar at the Ritz – These Australian punks were back for a reunion show, which I saw at the same time I could have been watching the Stooges over at Stubbs (but that would have required a long wait in line and no guarantee of getting in). The Saints song I know best, “Stranded,” sounded great. The rest of the set was good, too, but I was starting to lose it by this point; I could feel myself falling asleep even as I stood there. It was a fine concert, though the Saints did not seem to have the same level of excitement as some other bands from that era. www.saintsmusic.com – PHOTOS OF THE SAINTS
CLICK HERE FOR A GUIDE TO ALL OF MY SXSW 2007 PHOTOS.
READ MY OTHER SXSW 2007 BLOG ENTRIES:
FRIDAY, MARCH 16
ANDREW WINTON at Australian Barbecue day party – I heard just a couple of songs by Winton as I took advantage of the free food. It sounded a little too much like mellow pop for my tastes, though the guitar-playing was good. www.andrewwinton.com
THE BUZZCOCKS on the SXSW Live stage – I know it’s considered cool for punk rockers to play short sets, but this concert was ridiculously short. I walked in a few minutes after it started (on a new stage at the Austin Convention Center, where concerts were broadcast for Direct TV) and caught only two and a half songs. Sounded good, though. (See March 17 for my second Buzzcocks experience of SXSW.) www.buzzcocks.com
SOMEONE STILL LOVES YOU, BORIS YELTSIN at the Day Stage Cafe – I liked the record by this band last year, and they came off well in this short acoustic concert, playing strummy guitar songs that were more than a little catchy. And one of them executed a perfect stage dive, which was amusing and ridiculous given the room they were playing it. No damage to the guy’s guitar. www.morawk.com/sslyby – PHOTOS OF SOMEONE STILL LOVES YOU BORIS YELTSIN
BLACK LIPS at Club DeVille day party – Energetic garage rock. Even when they count off the beat at the beginning of a song, the “1, 2, 3” sounds a little punk. One of the guitarists threw up a little food in the middle of one song and kept playing. www.myspace.com/theblacklips – PHOTOS OF BLACK LIPS
WALTER MEEGO at Club DeVille day party – This Chicago band played electronic pop music overlaid with loud and sometimes atonal guitar lines. The group arrived in Austin for a gig early Thursday afternoon, after playing the night before at Chicago’s Metro nightclub. “It’s a wild ride,” lead singer Justin Sconza told me later. “I got up at 5 in the morning, flew here, and played right away. It just doesn’t stop.” www.waltermeego.com – PHOTOS OF WALTER MEEGO
IGGY POP AND THE STOOGES interview at Austin Convention Center – I walked in a little late (too late to get any photos), but heard most of this fascinating and funny interview. It was just weird to hear Iggy talking with Ron and Scott Asheton about the days when they all lived in a house together (the “fun house” that inspired the album title), a bunch of utopian outcasts. At one point, when they were discussing the food they used to make at the house, Pop noted, “Waffles are good.”
Asked how the Stooges got publicity, Pop recounted: “There was something called 16 magazine, and it was run by a very horny lady. They sent me to her apartment to see if we hit it off.” After a pause, he added, “And I was on the cover.” (Audience laughter.) “It was professionalism only.”
Pop said the song “No Fun” was inspired by a combination of the “no, no, no” in the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and the “fun, fun, fun” attitude of the Beach Boys, with the structure of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”
He said his stage antics were inspired by the dancing he saw in Chicago clubs when he was gigging as a blues drummer. “I had never seen such raw sexuality than I saw in the blues dancing,” he said, adding that he was also inspired by Big Bird.
YOU AM I at Habana Calle 6 Annex day party – I keep hearing raves about this Australian band, which recently got a U.S. deal with Yep Roc. When I’ve heard their recordings, I though they were pretty good punk garage-rock, but it didn’t blow me away. I walked into the middle of this show and saw a few songs by You Am I. The energy and antics of the live concert was pretty amazing. I’ll definitely have to dig deeper into You Am I. youami.com.au – PHOTOS OF YOU AM I
NELLIE McKAY at Exodus – This show got started late, and it was uncomfortably crowded in front of the stage. (It was also way too dark for proper photography.) When McKay came out at last, she brought some books of sheet music with her, and sat down at the piano, with all of the informality of someone trying out jazz standards at a friend’s house. It was a charming performance, though a little erratic at times. She closed with a medley of several songs she has recorded about cats and dogs, drawing the biggest audience response of the night. www.nelliemckay.com – PHOTOS OF NELLIE McKAY
DANNY SAUL at the Hideout – This English singer-songwriter played some excellent acoustic guitar, including instrumental passages of epic length. His singing was OK, though nothing remarkable, but his dark songs were intriguing. He seems like a talent worth watching. dannysaul.com – PHOTOS OF DANNY SAUL
AMY WINEHOUSE at La Zona Rosa – Perhaps the one emerging musician at this year’s SXSW who who seems destined for actual commercial stardom. This English soul singer who wouldn’t look out of place alongside Christine Aguilera or Lady Sovereign, but she sounds more like a throwback to the Motown and Stax records of the 1960s. Backed by the talented Dap-Kings, Winehouse showed off a powerful voice Thursday night, as she danced teasingly, reaching down to pull up her low-slung blue jeans. She drank from a rum and coke even as she sang about going into rehab, and closed with a cover of a Zutons song. www.amywinehouse.co.uk – PHOTOS OF AMY WINEHOUSE
BEDROOM WALLS at Club One 15 – One of the main instruments in this band’s lineup is the glockenspiel, so you knew it was going to be a little twee, but the lead singer/guitarist was pretty energetic as he leapt out the stage. I liked this, though I have a partial case of SXSW amnesia about the details. www.bedroomwalls.com – PHOTOS OF BEDROOM WALLS
INSTITUTO MEXICANO DE SONIDO at The Rio – This was a group that intrigued me even though I had only one snippet of an mp3, some 27 seconds, to go on. It was enough to clue me in on the fact that the “Mexican Institute of Sound” (as they’re known in English) samples interesting old records. The duo was also lively on stage, wearing furry tails. I approach techno music and hip-hop with a little skepticism – it takes something special to win me over. And this band was special. www.myspace.com/institutomexicanodelsonido – PHOTOS OF INSTITUTO MEXICANO DE SONIDO
THE WOGGLES at Habana Calle 6 – Wearing uniforms of the sort once worn by Paul Revere and the Raiders and similar 1960s bands, the Woggles played one of the liveliest shows this year at SXSW. The blend of ‘60s garage rock and ‘70s punk was nothing groundbreaking, but man, it was fun. www.thewoggles.com – PHOTOS OF THE WOGGLES
CLICK HERE FOR A GUIDE TO ALL OF MY SXSW 2007 PHOTOS.
READ MY OTHER SXSW 2007 BLOG ENTRIES:
THURSDAY, MARCH 15
MARIT LARSEN at the Day Stage Cafe – This cute, little folkie from Norway was my first concert of the day. Her music seemed charming on first listen, though I’ll have to hear it more to see if it has staying power. She has some potential to attract alt-country and bluegrass fans in the U.S. – PHOTOS OF MARIT LARSEN
THE STORYS at the Day Stage Cafe – This band from Wales performed some rather bland acoustic pop music that was too adult contemporary for my tastes. Inoffensive but instantly forgettable. www.thestorys.co.uk – PHOTOS OF THE STORYS
FIONN REGAN at the Day Stage Cafe – Fionn Regan put out a good record last year, one of the import CDs I purchased in my year-end shopping frenzy. He impressed me even more in person than he does on record. His delicate finger-style guitar playing was lovely, and so was his voice, and his pensive, sensitive songs seemed ready for a bigger audience. – PHOTOS OF FIONN REGAN
HEADLIGHTS at Flamingo Cantina day party – I talked with the members of Headlights a couple of years ago for a short article, but to be honest, I don’t remember much about their music from that time. It seemed like good but somewhat typical indie pop. The Champaign band sounded damn good this year at SXSW, perhaps a sign of growth (or maybe I just overlooked how good they were before). Like many bands at SXSW 2007, Headlights had a bit of a Broken Social Scene or Arcade Fire vibe, playing multilayered tunes that take on a frenzied emotional intensity during live performances. I liked Headlights a lot. www.headlightsmusic.com – PHOTOS OF HEADLIGHTS
TALLY HALL at Bourbon Rocks day party – I went to this party, hosted by Found Magazine, in the hope of seeing Okkervil River, but the schedule had changed and I arrived just after Okkervil finished playing. The beer was free, so I stuck around for most of the show by Tally Hall, a bunch of nerdy-looking guys in white shirts and ties who played songs reminiscent of Queen, Oingo Boingo and, um, Gentle Giant? I heard some interesting harmonies and musical patterns, fairly sophisticated stuff, though it was all a bit too 1970s kitschy for my tastes. www.tallyhall.com – PHOTOS OF TALLY HALL
THE PIPETTES at Flamingo Cantina day party – One of the most hyped acts at SXSW. Do they deserve the hype? Well, at least they look great. And I thought they sounded pretty good, too. There’s nothing wrong with reviving the 1960s girl group sound and adding some saucy contemporary UK attitude to the lyrics. I haven’t heard their record yet, and I wonder if it has much staying power, but would I see them again in concert? Heck, yeah. ) www.thepipettes.co.uk – PHOTOS OF THE PIPETTES
(One of them mentioned seeing THE DANSETTES the night before, another girl-group revival band. The Dansettes sound great, and I wish I’d seen them beyond the one song they performed with the Black Hollies on Saturday. I wonder how the Dansettes will stack up against the Pipettes? www.thedansettes.com)
ATTIC JAM at La Zona Rosa – I kept wavering on whether to attend this show. Hosted by RACHEL FULLER, who happens to be Pete Townshend’s girlfriend, it was sure to feature an appearance by Townshend, plus some “special guests.” How long would the line be? How much would Townshend actually play? I decided I had to see at least some of it, and I was able to get in fairly easily (it’s a big venue), though I got kicked out of the photo pit. Townshend opened the show with a solo acoustic performance of the Quadrophenia song “Drowned,” which made it more than worthwhile. He was followed by WILLY MASON, who played a few songs, with Townshend playing along on at least one. MIKA, who is big in Britain right now, played a couple of piano ballads, including a cover of “Everybody’s Talkin’” with Townshend joining in a little. Fuller played some of her own piano music, which was pleasant enough but unremarkable. Then came JOE PURDY, doing more soft acoustic music. None of this was bad, exactly, but given the fact that it was a showcase featuring the guitarist for one of the most explosive bands in rock history, it was all a little bit on the boring side. Martha Wainwright was scheduled to come up soon, and I don’t care much for her music, so I decided to head out, even though there was a promise of more Townshend music at the end of the three-hour time slot. (I later read that he came back for a couple of songs.) The concept of these “Attic Jams” is OK, but I’d rather see a full Townshend concert or maybe a Townshend jam with some of the more interesting musicians at SXSW. Imagine if he’d played with Iggy Pop – or Daniel Johnston? Now, that would have been memorable. – PHOTOS OF THE ATTIC JAM with PETE TOWNSHEND, RACHEL FULLER, WILLY MASON and JOE PURDY
I ended up spending the rest of the night at Mohawk and Mohawk Patio, which were hosting the showcase for the Secretly Canadian label. Somehow, because of scheduling changes and confusion, I missed one of the Secretly Canadian bands that I wanted to see the most, the Besnard Lakes, but at least they’re coming to Chicago soon.
DIRTY PROJECTORS at Mohawk – This was a weird one, avant-garde rock with a little math rock thrown into the mix? There were some complex guitar melodies and vocal harmonies, all played with a fair amount of emotional intensity. It’s not the sort of music you can fully absorb right away, so I’m not sure how much I liked it. Challenging, and potentially very good. myspace.com/dirtyprojectors – PHOTOS OF DIRTY PROJECTORS
I LOVE YOU BUT I’VE CHOSEN DARKNESS at Mohawk Patio – I’ve never really gotten into this band, but their music (sounding a lot like the Smiths, as my brother remarked) sounded pretty good this time. I left midway through their show to run indoors and catch… www.chosendarkness.com – PHOTOS OF I LOVE YOU BUT I’VE CHOSEN DARKNESS
FRIDA HYVÖNEN is one of the most interesting new talents to emerge out of Sweden, and I had the pleasure to interview her for the March/April issue of Punk Planet magazine, but I’d missed her two concerts in Chicago. Her piano playing is a little simple, but it suits her songs well enough. The lyrics are starkly personal at times, strange at others. She even played a quirky little song about Shanghai. She exudes her singular personality in concert, and was pretty animated for a piano player, leaning back in odd ways. “I think I love you,” she told the audience, and after a pause: “I know, that’s a cheap shot.” She’s beautiful, too, with the looks of a Swedish movie star. www.fridahyvonen.com – PHOTOS OF FRIDA HYVÖNEN
BISHOP ALLEN – Alas, I have to say that Bishop Allen is one of several bands I saw at SXSW that made only a fleeting impression and then disappeared from my brain. I liked them. I can’t remember what they sound like. I promise to listen again. bishopallen.com – PHOTOS OF BISHOP ALLEN
RICHARD SWIFT is a talented singer-songwriter who switches between piano and guitar. He strikes me as the indie-rock kin of Rufus Wainwright and Edward Harcourt. He makes some of the funniest faces while he plays. His closing song was the catchy “Atlantic Ocean,” featuring backup singing through a Vocoder, giving it an ELO feeling. www.richardswift.us – PHOTOS OF RICHARD SWIFT
While all of that was going on outside, I caught snatches of Catfish Haven and the excellent Chicago rocker DAVID VANDERVELDE in Mohawk’s crowded indoor venue. www.davidvandervelde.com LADYHAWK, who played next in the same room, is an excellent band, but I’ve seen them a few times, so I wasn’t going out of my way to see them again at SXSW. Watching them through the opening in the bar, it was hard not to get excited. (Britt Daniel of Spoon was standing next to me, watching, too.) As the band completed it set, I worked my way into the room. This was one of the most enthusiastic crowd responses I saw at SXSW. After the Ladyhawk guys finished flailing around on the stage, the crowd chanted, “One more song! One more song!” Ladyhawk came back for another tune, though it’s unusual for SXSW acts to do encores unless they’re the last band of the night. Ladyhawk’s record is good, but the music really comes alive in concert, as the band pounds away at those riffs with an abandon that resembles My Morning Jacket’s live shows. A couple of people who had wandered into the bar, unsure of which band was playing, said, “Who are these guys?” www.ladyhawkladyhawk.com – PHOTOS OF LADYHAWK
I caught a few songs as OKKERVIL RIVER began playing outside, then went back inside for EVANGELICALS, a group from Norman, Okla. (Okkervil is great, one of the best live bands around, but I was motivated by the desire to hear something new.) I’ve had trouble figuring out exactly what kind of music Evangelicals plays; their record is diverse, strong and hard to categorize. Evangelicals decorated Mohawk’s small stage with the silvery leaves of fake plants and some green tubes containing electric lights. Lead singer/guitarist Josh Jones was wearing just one shoe, and he had nylon stocking on underneath his torn jeans. The searing set climaxed with the trashing of the drum kit and the smashing of a guitar. Jones held the broken remains of his guitar aloft, and someone yelled, “Encore! Play that thing!” myspace.com/evangelicals It was too late for an encore, but I caught another two songs by Okkervil River out on the patio before heading back to the hotel. – PHOTOS OF OKKERVIL RIVER /PHOTOS OF EVANGELICALS
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WEDNESDAY, MARCH 14
How in the hell can you prepare for the overwhelming sensory overload that is South By Southwest? The first year I came to Austin for SXSW (2002), I pretty much winged it, looking at the music schedule each day and deciding who to see that night. I was only dimly aware of all the day parties offering up additional chances to see all of those bands. Eventually, I realized advance research was necessary. You see a lot of people down here carrying around folded sheets of paper with their spreadsheets and charts listing possible musical acts to see each hour of each day.
I threw my own list together rather hastily and only noticed belatedly some of the major names playing at SXSW. Donovan played earlier tonight?!? Oops! A couple of weeks before my trip to Austin, I downloaded the SXSW Web site’s bit torrent of 700-some songs by musicians playing at the festival. And with just a couple of days to spare, I managed to listen to at least some of each song and assign a star rating in iTunes. I ended up with about 200 four-star or five-star songs. Mind you, most of these are bands or singers I know little or nothing about. So I’ve got my list of when those bands are playing, plus the more famous ones. Plus the uncertainties about who’s playing at day parties and which conference events will be worth attending. And then, it doesn’t hurt to listen to the buzz or read the Austin papers each morning to see what they recommend for that night’s shows.
The bottom line is that hundreds of bands are playing every hour, so whatever you end up seeing, you are missing a cornucopia of other music, much of it good to great.
Can you hear my head exploding?
My advice for SXSW-goers: Just don’t get too hung up on the fact that you won’t see everything. You’ll see SOMEthing, and it will be cool.
Compared to the grungy environment at most SXSW day parties, the “Day Stage” in the Austin Convention Center is positively antiseptic and generic. It lacks character, but it’s actually a nice little spot to sit down and hear some good music away from all the craziness. I started out my day here, catching the first three bands.
SATURDAY LOOKS GOOD TO ME, a Michigan band on Champaign’s Polyvinyl label (identified in the SXSW booklet as a Portland, Ore., band for some reason – have they moved?), kicked things off with some pretty good indie pop. Writing this a couple of days after the fact, Saturday’s sound hasn’t really stuck in my head, but I liked it. The lead singer had a nicely casual air in his singer and his stage banter, introducing one song: “This song is about people.” www.slgtm.com
THE GRAY KID’s hip-hop leaned toward soul and R&B. This kid performed his set with the typical rapper’s moves, prowling around the stage with a handheld mike. He jumped out onto a chair in the audience, and he looked at the sedate crowd with an imploring expression that said, “What’s the matter? Why won’t you dance?” At one point, he leaned down and looked at the string of lights at the front of the stage shaped like little bluebirds and tried to pick one of them up, saying, “Pretty little bird.” There was something raw about the Gray Kid that I liked. He really poured everything into his vocals. He isn’t a great singer, just a good one, but he was so unafraid of making a fool of himself that he came off as a fairly appealing figure. Now, if he just had a backup band instead of prerecorded tracks. graykid.com
SAY HI TO YOUR MOM’s songs did not leave a big impression on me, but their sound was strong – melodic, bright keyboard lines on top of crunchy guitar chords and a steady, propulsive drumbeat. www.sayhitoyourmom.com
I left the Convention Center for my first day party of the day, one of my most anticipated bands this year, THE DAGONS. Apparently, I was one of the few people anticipating them because virtually no one showed up for the Dagons’ show at Creekside Lounge (a little bar, not to be confused with Creekside Lounge EMC at the Hilton Gardens Hotel). I was one of about six people watching, including the band’s manager, as this duo played. It was a very good set, well worth catching, and I hope the Dagons got a bigger crowd for their evening showcase. It’s strong, punk-influenced pop rock, with female vocals, a guitar-drums duo that reminds me at times of Sleater-Kinney (though the Dagons don’t play with a tenth of Sleater-Kinney’s sense of abandon). It doesn’t hurt that singer-guitarist Karie Jacobson is a beautiful woman, and she was elegantly attired in a black dress for this performance, smiling often as I circled around her with my camera. www.dagons.net – PHOTOS OF THE DAGONS.
It’s cool to run into musicians I’ve interviewed at some point, giving me an excuse to say hi. Back at the Convention Center, I encountered Sally Timms, Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes and Megan of the Last Town Chorus, all within about five minutes.
LIONS IN THE STREET, one of the bands I liked on mp3, was playing at the Canadian barbecue across the street, where the food was free. Lions sound an awful lot like Exile-era Stones, maybe too much so, with a little bit of Allman Brothers in their guitar solos. They’re a fun band, and I predict they’ll do well with the Americana and classic-rock crowds. www.lionsinthestreet.com – PHOTOS OF LIONS IN THE STREET.
Next up on the stage was one of my old favorites and a SXSW perennial, who introduced himself: “Hello, I’m ROBYN HITCHCOCK, and I’m from the ’60s.” After explaining why he was inserting his cable into the “orifice” of his guitar, he said, “The first song anyone played in the 1960s was this,” by way of introducing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Hitchcock then brought legendary producer JOE BOYD up onto the stage and turned his set into a quasi-interview, asking Boyd to read bits of his book, with Hitchock playing songs referred to in the text. Boyd read his recollection of the famous Dylan performance at the Newport Folk Festival. It’s interesting to note that after Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax sent Boyd to the sound board to turn down Dylan’s volume, it was Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary who insisted on keeping the music loud. The message Yarrow sent back to his fellow folkies via Boyd was a raised middle finger. Anyway, Dylan’s acoustic encore that day was “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” so Hitchcock followed up Boyd’s story by playing the latter song. After a story from Boyd about producing the Incredible String Band, Hitchcock played “Chinese White.” Recalling his own 1960s, Hitchcock said, “I was just 14, working out how to levitate.” He noted that his own initial experiences with drugs in the late 1960s were more than just the pursuit of a high. “To me,” Hitchcock said, “it seemed like more of a sacramental thing … It was a religious experience. It wasn’t just trying to get loaded.” www.robynhitchcock.com – PHOTOS OF ROBYN HITCHCOCK with JOE BOYD.
Over at the Emo’s day party, I caught two Chicago bands, CATFISH HAVEN and THE SMOKING POPES. Now, I would argue against seeing any Chicago bands while I’m in Austin, just because I can see those bands just about anytime in my hometown. But part of my justification for coming to SXSW is writing about the conference for Chicago-area newspapers, including Pioneer Press, the Daily Southtown and the Elgin Courier News, and for those papers, a big part of the story is what local bands are at SXSW. So I do make an effort to see at least a few of the Chicago bands vying for attention at SXSW. I’ve seen Catfish Haven several times as a trio, and I always thought they needed to expand their sound a little, so it was nice to see them playing down here with an additional guitarist and two backup singers. (They’ve been playing with similar expanded lineups at other recent concerts, including last year’s Lollapalooza, but I missed those shows.) It helped the soulful sound come alive, and people at the front of the crowd were dancing wildly. – PHOTOS OF CATFISH HAVEN.
The Smoking Popes are a band I missed out on the first time around, but now that they’re reunited, I can see what the fuss was all about. Their straightforward pop-punk sounded sturdy and tuneful at this gig. www.smokingpopes.net – PHOTOS OF THE SMOKING POPES.
I couldn’t stick around for the whole Popes set, because it was time for…
PETE TOWNSHEND interview at the Hilton – It was fascinating to see Townshend answering questions, even if he did occasionally wander off-topic and his scheme for a Web site called “The Method” was just baffling. The site is supposedly going to create pieces of music individually suited to each person who types in his or her key data… sounds to me like a vague utopian concept. “It could be terrible,” Townshend acknowledged.
And is it revisionist history for Townshend to say that the 1960s generation in England wasn’t actually angry – that they just wanted more information about what was happening in the post-war world? “It was not anger,” he said. “It looked like anger, but it was frustration and a demand for honest answers.” Townshend said he doesn’t think angry guitar-smashing is “valid anymore.”
Like every SXSW keynote speaker in recent years, Townshend had something to say about the sorry state of the music industry. He said an exec with a major label recently summed up the industry’s situation by telling him, “Rome is burning.” Townshend advised younger musicians to work outside the old corporate system. “If you’re a new band today, don’t fuck with it, don’t bother,” he said. – PHOTOS OF PETE TOWNSHEND
BAT FOR LASHES at Dirty Dog – I was the one and only critic who voted for Bat For Lashes in the Pazz & Jop poll fort last year’s album. The fact that her/its album was available only as a U.K. import might explain that. Bat For Lashes is the stage name of Natasha Khan, an Englishwoman of Pakistani descent, though she had a full band at SXSW – an all-female, all-face-painted band. Bat For Lashes’ moody, enchanting music reminds me of P.J. Harvey and My Brightest Diamond. It was several songs before I noticed that she was performing without any drums; the tunes were so rhythmically on that drums were largely unnecessary. Khan jingled chimes for atmospheric effect and pounded a large pole on the stage for the beat of one song. She played an unexpected cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and made it sound like her own. This was a mesmerizing performance (perhaps more mesmerizing for me than others since I was already familiar with the music), and I have high expectations for Bat For Lashes’ future. www.batforlashes.co.uk – PHOTOS OF BAT FOR LASHES
FERNANDO at Room 710 – The music I’ve heard by Fernando was indie rock with a full band, but he was playing solo acoustic at SXSW, including some Spanish songs as well as new tunes that will be on his next record. I found it fairly pleasant, but I wasn’t that familiar with the material. www.fernandoviciconte.com – PHOTOS OF FERNANDO
THE PANDA BAND at Red 7 – One of four bands at this year’s SXSW with the word “panda” in their names, these Aussies played a decent set of typical indie rock, but it didn’t really grab me. www.thepandaband.com – PHOTOS OF THE PANDA BAND
LONEY, DEAR at Emo’s IV – The Swedish singer-songwriter who goes by the unwieldy and frequently misspelled name Loney, Dear seemed to be everywhere at SXSW this year, playing a bunch of parties. His art-folk is mellow yet epic, and his album Loney, Noir is quickly becoming one of my 2007 favorites. The songs sounded great in concert, making this one of my SXSW highlights. loneydear.com – PHOTOS OF LONEY, DEAR
THE 1900s at Habana Calle 6 – I’ve seen the 1900s often enough in Chicago, so I might have skipped this show if I weren’t writing about it for The Daily Southtown, but I won’t complain – it’s always a kick to see these folks. Guitarist-singer Edward Anderson looked a little nervous as the group started playing, but soon enough he was letting loose on some fierce guitar solos. Singers Jeanine O’Toole and Caroline Donovan swayed and shook to the group’s ‘60s-style pop. As the 1900s finished playing, one member of the enthusiastic audience yelled, “You guys rock!” The 1900s have just finished recording their first full-length album, and they’re contemplating whether to stay on the Champaign label Polyvinyl or seek a bigger deal, O’Toole told me in a recent interview, adding that she’d be happy to stay with Polyvinyl, a small label with artistic integrity. “It sounds like a record,” O’Toole said of the new album. “It’s not just a collection of songs. I like listening to records that have that feeling. It’s still pop music, with some psychedelic rock feeling to it.” www.the-1900s.com – PHOTOS OF THE 1900s
MOTHERCOAT at Latitude 30 – This was one of those great SXSW moments when you walk into a club, not knowing what to expect. Mothercoat was on my list of potential bands to see based on the mp3 I’d heard, but I couldn’t remember what it sounded like and I didn’t even know where the band was from. Walking into Latitude 30 mid-set, I saw this Japanese band going nuts on the stage – especially the lead singer/guitarist, who contorted his face as he leaned down into his mike, leapt out into the audience, ran over to the bar, got up onto the stage and watched a little TV with a maniacal expression. Mothercoat combined the odd intensity of Japanese avant-garde groups like Boredoms with a more melodic pop sensibility. While I was watching Mothercoat, they reminded me a little bit of Garbage. Now that I’ve heard more of their recordings, I’d say there’s a Radiohead influence. The crowd loved Mothercoat, and there was a rush for the merch table as soon as the band finished playing. I gave the lead singer my business card and he stared at it as if it were some alien object. www.mothercoat.com – PHOTOS OF MOTHERCOAT
DAYLIGHT FOR THE BIRDS at Latitude 30 – These guys played energetic indie rock, but they had a tough act to follow. After Mothercoat, they seemed a little bland. – PHOTOS OF DAYLIGHT FOR THE BIRDS
THE WOMBATS at Friends – After Daylight ended its set fairly early, there was enough time to cram one more concert into the 1-2 a.m. hour, and I managed to catch a good 30 or more minutes by the Wombats. Like so many bands from England these days, the Wombats draw on 1980s new wave for their inspiration. Midway through their set, I realized they sounded a bit like the dancier side of The Cure; they also played a song with lyrics about listening to Joy Division. They were a very likeable bunch of lads, and their music was pretty catchy, so I won’t be surprised if they do well. I noticed an older couple in the middle of the crowd singing along to the lyrics, which seemed a little odd. It turned out to be the drummer’s parents, who had made the trip from Liverpool. Just one instance at this year’s SXSW of parents watching their indie-rock kids.
THE WOMBATS at Friends – After Daylight ended its set fairly early, there was enough time to cram one more concert into the 1-2 a.m. hour, and I managed to catch a good 30 or more minutes by the Wombats. Like so many bands from England these days, the Wombats draw on 1980s new wave for their inspiration. Midway through their set, I realized they sounded a bit like the dancier side of The Cure; they also played a song with lyrics about listening to Joy Division. They were a very likeable bunch of lads, and their music was pretty catchy, so I won’t be surprised if they do well. I noticed an older couple in the middle of the crowd singing along to the lyrics, which seemed a little odd. It turned out to be the drummer’s parents, who had made the trip from Liverpool. Just one instance at this year’s SXSW of parents watching their indie-rock kids. www.thewombats.co.uk – PHOTOS OF THE WOMBATS
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It’s always nice to get into Austin a day before all of the real SXSW music fun starts. Nothing was happening last night of the magnitude of 2006’s Sleater-Kinney concert, but it was still a chance to catch a few bands before the beginning of the official festivities. I stopped into Beerland and enjoyed the opening set by Michael Dean Damron (formerly of I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the Room, now playing… either solo or with a new band name – I’m not totally sure). Damron looks like a refugee from Molly Hatchet or some other 1970s hard-rock outfit, and he sings rootsy Southern-style rock, not that far off from the Drive-By Truckers and bands like that. He has a great sense of humor, introducing one song as being about the most evil person who ever lived – Andy Gibb.
Columbus, Ohio’s Two Cow Garage were up next at Beerland, playing a typical set of their loud and slightly twangy bar-band rock, and they were joined by Tim Easton for a few songs, which made for an unexpectedly cool combination of their sounds. Great energy.
Before calling it a night, I caught some of the show by Quien es BOOM! at Emo’s. At least, that’s who I think it was, assuming that they were sticking to their original schedule. I couldn’t really make out what the dude from this band was saying on the stage. Sounded pretty good, though, interesting indie pop. One of the musicians apologized for boring the audience, but I didn’t think it was boring. The crowd was just a little sparse and lethargic.
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The big music festival didn’t officially start until Wednesday, but it unofficially started with a bang Tuesday night — as Sleater-Kinney entertained the crowd at the SXSW Film Festival’s closing-night party … at an unlikely venue, the Guerrero Produce Warehouse. It’s walking distance from Austin’s downtown, but it was definitely in a part of town that doesn’t see as many concerts as the Sixth Street nightclub row. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to the right place, as I walked by myself down an eastern stretch of Sixth Street, past houses that look a little askew, Mexican bars and a guy rolling a tire down the sidewalk. But I was on the right track…
The Guerrero Produce Warehouse is exactly what it says. No produce was in sight, tonight, however — although I did notice that the sign on the wall about Sleater-Kinney starting its set at 10:30 was taped just above a label for: “Rodent Station No. 4.”
While everyone took advantage of the free food and beer, I drifted over to the area by the stage, which was pretty empty in the early part of the evening, and staked out a spot for photos. A guy walking by remarked, “Boy, you really must want to see this band.” No duh. Eventually, more S-K fans filtered in and soon enough, it was reasonably crowded.
The ladies of S-K were even more animated tonight than they’d been in the two shows I saw in 2005. Carrie Brownstein was really doing a lot of classic-rock guitar-hero moves — kung fu kicks, Townshend windmills, and in general, jumping around. She was smiling an awful lot — clearly having a ball.
Corin Tucker’s banshee vocals were as amazing as ever, and things got really incredible when Carrie and Corin were trading guitar licks in front of Janet Weiss’ powerhouse drumming. The songs from The Woods (my favorite record of 2005) were just as great as I expected, and the long guitar solo in “Let’s Call It Love” even took on new dimensions as Brownstein continued to experiment with it.
For their encore, S-K took audience requests for some of their older songs and also played a cover of “The Promised Land.” (They always seem to include one interesting cover in their sets.) SEE PHOTOS OF SLEATER-KINNEY… SEE THE SET LIST (which doesn’t include the encore).
On the way back to the hotel from the party, I passed a shop selling religious statues and candles, looked into the window and saw a life-sized model of a human skeleton in a white robe, one its bony fingers stretched out to greet passers-by.
I stopped at Beerland for the last set of the night — LIL’ CAP’N TRAVIS, who should really be bigger than they are. Great roots-rock, with three alternating vocalists and a damn fine pedal-steel player (doing some interesting things I’d never seen before on the instrument). A nice show, though I was fading by 2 a.m…. SEE PHOTOS OF LIL’ CAP’N TRAVIS.
The first day party that I hit is the Guitar Town/Conqueroo bash at Mother Egan’s. As I walked in, JAMES McMURTRY was playing a solo acoustic set. I haven’t kept up with his music in the last few years, but the short performance that I see here persuades me that I should. “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” is a really powerful song, probably one of the best political-protest songs of the last few years, and its stirring portrayal of Americans struggling to make it on the minimum wage (among other topics) seemed to rivet the attention of the crowd. A goose-bumps moment. (SEE PHOTO.)
Next on the lineup is TOM FREUND, whose music is totally new to me. On a few of the songs, he plays stand-up bass as he sings, which is an unusual combination in the music world. I like it… With his gruff voice and the bass-heavy arrangements, it reminds me a little of Tom Waits or Morphine (but more roots-rock than either of those). Interesting percussion and lap steel accompaniment from his backup players. (Beatle Bob shows up to dance alongside the stage as Freund is playing, my second Beatle Bob sighting of the festival — he was also at last night’s Lil’ Cap’n Travis show.) Freund closes with a cover of Buffalo Springfiel’s “For What It’s Worth.” (SEE PHOTO.)
STEVE WYNN & THE MIRACLE 3 are next. I’ve been hearing raves about this guy for the past few years, didn’t really get into his music until listening to the latest CD, tick…tick…tick. The songs have grown on me, and it’s undeniable that Wynn has a bang-up band that transforms these tunes into real rockers. (Plus, he has a cute female drummer, whose face was very expressive throughout the show…) SEE PHOTOS OF STEVE WYNN.
I left the party after that, heading over the convention center for a couple of industry talks and a performance by a local band covering classic girl group songs, THE CARROTS. (SEE PHOTO.) In the first celebrity event of SXSW,THE BEASTIE BOYS are “interviewed” by the audience. Maybe not such a good idea. The questions are OK, but the Boys often give short, sarcastic answers, leading to some awkward moments of silence and calls for “any more questions?” A moderator would have helped… Best part that I saw was just their reaction to the set with big comfy chairs:
“This is some real Actors Studio-type shit.”
I saw a little bit of the performance by I LOVE YOU BUT I’VE CHOSEN DARKNESS at Emo’s day party, and couldn’t get into it. (SEE PHOTO.)
The Velvet Spade… what a crappy venue (at least the indoor portion of it). There was a long line of people waiting to get in at the 8 p.m. starting time, thanks to the fact that the place just hosted a rock ‘n’ roll party for Texas Governor Rick Perry… which ran late. Everyone finally piles into the place, and the little room, with the “stage” just inches off the floor is crammed tight. No space for bands to store their equipment, so that’s out in front of the stage, too.
THE SUN is playing… I still haven’t gotten around to getting the CD these guys put out a few years ago, produced by Jay Bennett. Saw them open for the Flaming Lips a couple of years ago at Chicago’s Riv. They certainly have spirit and they certainly make a lot of noise. I’m not sure yet what to make of them. I like what I could hear, but at times, it seems like good songs are buried under too much feedback. By the last couple of songs, the Sun focused on more easily recognized melodies. And I like the fact that the band uses as many as two keyboards in some songs, while keeping the music in a loud-semi-punk/garage band style. At one point, a scream by the lead vocalist is so loud that I notice a couple of people in the crowd rearing back their heads as if they’ve been slapped. SEE PHOTOS OF THE SUN.
I head outside to the Velvet Spade Patio, a considerably nicer place to see a band, although it has problems with sound bleed from nearby Club DeVille. One of my best memories of previous SXSW’s is seeing the Wrens playing a day party at this patio, hearing the music of the band next door and playing along impromptu. Tonight, after catching about two songs by GOLDENBOY (SEE PHOTO.) (I liked the mp3 at swsw.com, but the duo didn’t create much of an impression on me live), I see THE REPUTATION from Chicago. The band’s a little late in setting up, but nothing too terrible. Leader Elizabeth Elmore makes a remark about the group’s previous SXSW gig being a disaster, in which a keyboard was thrown off the stage. “It’s kind of a cliffhanger to see if it’s as much of a train wreck as last year’s,” she says. Not sure what that was all about, but tonight it’s definitely not a disaster. No keyboard is present to be thrown. The Reputation plays solid guitar-driven power pop, keeping the volume pretty high at all times. I enjoyed it, although the sound wasn’t great — Elmore’s vocals were often all but inaudible. SEE PHOTOS OF THE REPUTATION.
Keeping with the Chicago theme for a while, I go over to the Lava Lounge Patio for some of the Flameshovel Records showcase. It’s a cool label putting out music by a lot of interesting bands these days. I came in as LYING IN STATES was playing. Its music is fierce with some unexpected artsy moves. I can picture some of the mainstream, er, I mean, “alternative” rock radio listeners getting into this band, but its music is smarter than most of that stuff, with a few moments that remind me of Radiohead. SEE PHOTOS OF LYING IN STATES.
While the next band, BOUND STEMS, is setting up, the stench of sewage fills the area in front of the stage. Water is pooling up through a drain in the floor. The crowd scatters, a guy tries to mop up the mess, but the odor lingers. Bound Stems soldiers on, decorating its mike stands and drum kit with foliage — a la British Sea Power. Nice touch of atmosphere for the stage show, though it’d be better without that sewer smell. Anyway, I catch just a few songs by Bound Stems, and don’t form too much of an impression. When the male and female vocalists put some passion into the chorus, it starts to take on the emotional resonance of the Arcade Fire, which is a good thing. (SEE PHOTO.)
Next stop: Emo’s. The Norwegian band SERENA MANEESH comes out, with the guitarist/singer draped in a white fringe shawl (this is a guy) and scarves hanging from the mike stand. The bass player is a tall, very Nordic-looking gal with long, white-blonde hair who has a bit of the Nico look about her. (Not the Neko look…) I had considered catching Serena Maneesh’s recent concert at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, so I was glad to get another opportunity to see them. I don’t understand a word of what they’re singing (was it English or Norwegian?), but the waves of guitar noise are fabulous, in the great tradition of My Bloody Valentine, and there’s also a hippy psychedelic vibe that reminds me of the Warlocks. Except that these Nords look like outcasts from a Viking crocheting commune. SEE PHOTOS OF SERENA MANEESH.
OF MONTREAL is next on the Emo’s stage. I’ve listened to this band’s last two albums and found myself sort of liking the music but not buying into it completely. With their Brian Eno-ish electronic dance show, they didn’t captivate me much as a live act, either, though I could see some of the people in attendance were rabid fans. And I have to admit that was a pretty impressive entrance by the (male) lead singer, who came out in a wedding dress as “Here Comes the Bride” was playing, only to have the white dress pulled off by his bandmates, revealing a bare torso and white trousers underneath. SEE PHOTOS OF OF MONTREAL.
After 15 or 20 minutes of hearing Of Montreal, I decided to skidaddle over to the Parish… Catch a few minutes downstairs by GIL MANTERA’S PARTY DREAM… not long enough to comment on the band, just long enough to snap a couple of pictures. (SEE PHOTO.) Then I go upstairs for ART BRUT, whose 2005 albumBang Bang Rock & Roll is one of the more fun recordings to come out of the recent Brit punk revival. Art Brut lived up to its potential as a live act. I’d never see lead singer Eddie Argos before, so I was in for a bit of shock as he followed the rest of the band out onto the stage. Young punk? Hardly. He comes out in a business suit, and his mustache and neatly cut hair make him look more like a character from “The Office” than someone in a punk band. He puts on a show that’s as much a comedy act as a concert, with very funny lyrics complemented by his exaggerated expressions… (including many references to the band’s name, as in the command, “Art Brut, Go!”). As the show went on, he got more sweaty and his white office shirt came untucked, revealing a bit of protruding belly. SEE PHOTOS OF ART BRUT.
THE PALM SCHOOL CHOIR, an actual choir from a local school in Austin, won an amazing gig — opening for NEIL YOUNG. Opening, that is, for the morning’s keynote “speech” by Young (really an onstage interview). The kids were charming, playing original songs written by the band teacher and accompanied by a rock band. The first song was “One Good Rock Show Can Change the World” (a line spoken by Jack Black in “High Fidelity” and quoted in the opening montage of the radio show “Sound Opinions”) — what an appropriate choice for the theme of this whole festival.
Young, along with filmmaker Jonathan Demme (who just directed the concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”), were interviewed by journalist Jan Uhleszki. On the questions about songwriting and creativity, Young took the side of those who say these things are essentially mysterious and unexplainable. “I don’t know where anything comes from,” he said. “I just totally write out of the air… I try not to think about it. The more you think about it, the worse it gets. … I’m proudest of the work when it comes fast. It just happens so fast and so easy…”
He compared creativity to a wild animal in a hole that has to be approached carefully. “If I get too close…”
Discussing the pressure to repeat the music that made him famous in the first place, Young said:
“You can’t be who you were… People want to know why you don’t make your most famous record over over. Because it’s death.”
Young said he recently turned down a concert promoter’s plan for a tour. “They wanted to call the tour ‘Neil Young’s Greatest Hits.’ That was it for them. They’re done.”
Though his latest album is acoustic, Young said he longs to play again with his louder pals in Crazy Horse. “I hear this massive, hideous, crunching noise. And I feel like I’m coming home.”
At the end of the interview, Demme plugged a couple of new bands that he likes, including Chicago’s M’s (sorry, I forget who the other band was…). And Young added, “Is Superwolf from Chicago here? It’s a devastating metal folk band.” Not sure who he meant — the “Superwolf” collaboration by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney, perhaps. Though it isn’t exactly “metal folk.”
Over lunch, I caught a few songs by OWEN (a.k.a. Mike Kinsella), playing his lovely, soul-baring quiet folk at the trade show’s day stage. This guy really deserves more of an audience. (SEE PHOTO.)
In another onstage interview, MORRISSEY spoke in the afternoon, who was just about what you would expect — funny, a little self-aggrandizing (though somehow slightly self-deprecating at the same time… how does he do that?).
Saying that he’s in a good mood lately, he explained, “There’s still a lot of beauty in the world. It’s mostly nature. … Nature calms us down.”
The question was asked, “And you have people in your life?” The sarcastic reply:
“There’s no people in my life at all, no.
Why would I need people?”
Looking back at the lyrics of the early songs he wrote with the Smiths, Morrissey said, “I was always brutally honest, and that made people uncomfortable. … I didn’t ever want to be one of the headless pack. I wanted to mean something to the people who listened.”
On his famous comments long ago about leading a life of celibacy, he said, “It’s a curse, the word is a curse. It was me for a while, but then it wasn’t me. I think everybody goes through dry spells.”
After describing the way Johnny Mars wrote the music to the Smiths songs, Morrissey insisted he was never interested in playing instruments himself. “I want simply to be naked before the world. Guitars are a cop out. It’s just a way to be busy all the time. You might as well be behind a tree.”
Morrissey also revealed that the Smiths were recently offered $5 million to play a reunion gig at the Coachella festival. Gasps from the crowd. “Is that high?” he said. “Money doesn’t come into it.” (Well, at least not for now, Morrissey. We’ll see…)
After sitting through some of the panel discussions about indie labels and breaking British buzz bands, I caught the last part of K.D. LANG’s interview. (Sorry, K.D., I just can’t do that lowercase name thing you prefer…) Lang said she sees performing great music while being openly gay as “the highest standard of subversive, progressive behavior.”
Then came KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s interview. He said the spare quality of his new album came out of the experience of performing some solo acoustic concerts. “It put a focus on the song, the lyrics. There was nothing else to hide behind.”
On recording the album with Don Was: “I’m embarrassed to say how long it took. people will say I did it with just my left hand.” How long? “A few hours,” he said, explaining that’s how long it took him to play the songs for Was, and then Was touched them up a little — but not much — after that.
Hoping that the speculation about a surprise appearance by Neil Young might turn out to be true, I went to Antones at 6:30 p.m. for the concert by Young’s former Buffalo Springfield bandmate, RICHIE FURAY. It was a decent set of old and new music, making me think Furay probably deserves more credit than he generally receives as a forerunner of the recent American and alt-country movements. But Neil did not show up. The moment when he would have come out — a moment that Furay and his band perhaps prepared for — was when Furay introduced a medley of three songs that Young wrote, but Furay sang, for Buffalo Springfield. (SEE PHOTO.)
The rest of the evening, I was peripatetic. And without planning it, I turned into a truly international night — seeing musicians from Iran, Lativa, Luxembourg, Finland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia.
I am highly interested in the culture of Iran, mostly as a result of watching many Iranian films. So I thought the appearance by a group from Tehran called 127 would be a must-see. I headed to Caribbean Lights for that show at 8 p.m. Unfortunately, I can’t say I found 127’s music all that interesting. They struck me as an Iranian band trying to sound too hard like an American band in the vein of Dave Matthews — with the addition of trombone and some occasional Persian-style melodies in the guitar solos. Not that there’s anything wrong with foreign bands trying to sound American or British — that description could apply to many of the other groups I liked during SXSW this year — but I’d have preferred hearing an Iranian band that sounded a little more … Iranian.
Making a quick exit, I went up and down the block in search of good music. GORAN GORA of Latvia was playing to a nearly empty room at Spiro’s, poor guy. I heard two of his acoustic-guitar songs (which were accompanied by a guy playing sounds from a laptop), which were pleasant … and one piano song, which was downright awkward. The chorus, though, may have explained why Gora’s audience was so sparse while other bands were drawing hipsters in droves: “I’m not from New York City/I’m from Baltic States.” (SEE PHOTO.)
I popped back for a few minutes into the patio area of Spiro’s, which was hosting a European showcase tonight. Heard a few minutes of the Luxembourger DANIEL BALTHASAR, who seemed totally uninteresting. (SEE PHOTO.) Went across the street to Room 710 and watched a few songs by INSECT SEX ACT — lacerating hard rock. Pretty intense. Maybe not exactly my thing, but this band was good at it. SEE PHOTOS OF INSECT SEX ACT.
After hearing bits of four bands in one hour, I needed some stability, so I went to the reliable Undertow Records’ showcase at Habana Calle 6 Patio (a really nice outdoor venue) and watched St. Louis’ WATERLOO play some nice Midwestern alt-country. Nothing groundbreaking, but good stuff if you like Son Volt, the Jayhawks and groups like that. SEE PHOTOS OF WATERLOO.
Continuing the global village theme, I saw THE LATEBIRDS from Finland at the Drink. Wearing plaid shirts, they played really, really nice ’60s-style pop, complete with jangly Byrds guitars, electric piano and harmonies. This seems like a band that should build at least a cult following in the U.S. among the fans of other ’60s revival groups like the Redwalls. Interestingly, the lead singer mentioned that the Latebirds would be opening for Wilco the following night at the Opry in Nashville. How the heck did they get that gig? Then he gave a shout out to former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, who was in the crowd. (I’d thought that was him standing over there…) Coomer produced the Latebirds’ new record. The band closed by asking, “Are there any Nick Lowe fans here? Any Elvis Costello fans?” and then played “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding).” Nice. SEE PHOTOS OF THE LATEBIRDS.
At 11, I went to Flamingo Cantina for the show by DR. DOG. I saw this band open for M. Ward about a year ago and was very impressed, picking up a copy of their CD, Easy Beat, which hadn’t been officially released it. It’s a very fine record, though it may suffer a little in comparison to Dr. Dog’s bang-up concerts. The fidelity on the record could be touch better, but that’s a minor quibble. The thing is, these guys from Philadelphia write really, really good songs, with interesting chord changes and clever arrangements and things like guitar lines echoing vocal lines. And it draws from great musicial traditions, including late-period Beatles (think “Don’t Let Me Down”) and the Faces. British rock with a dash of soul and classic songbook songwriting. But Dr. Dog’s onstage persona is far from the sophisticated image you might get from what I’ve just written. No band that I saw at SXSW this year was as lively as Dr. Dog, jumping around the stage (and swinging guitars and feet perilously close to me… my fault for being so close). Jumping with unrestrained joy, total abandon. Goofy, too, with a weird, smashed-up hat on one guy’s head and cheapo sunglasses on two of them. Somehow, even as they prance around the stage, nearly colliding with one another, the guys in Dr. Dog are able to pull off their songs almost note-perfect. Think of the power of a My Morning Jacket concert. At the end of the show, the fans who were obviously familiar with Dr. Dog’s music were singing along — no hollering along, at the top of the lungs: “Wake up, wake up, wake up!” Wow. What a show. SEE PHOTOS OF DR. DOG.
Back to the international stuff: a bit of the set by Montreal’s WE ARE WOLVES at Emo’s IV. They were playing aggressive keyboard rock. I wouldn’t call that kind of thing techno, exactly. More like keyboard punk. I didn’t hear enough to decide if I like it. The singer had a huge two-dimensional picture of a skull propped up above his head for a while. (SEE PHOTO.)
At Spiro’s, I walked into an impressive set of music on the patio, thinking it was the band scheduled to be playing at that time, Syd Matters, but it turned out to be Belgium’s GIRLS IN HAWAII. Terrible name. Change it at once. But keep the music. In its prettier passages, the singing and melodies reminded me of Coldplay — no, let me amend that. I hate Coldplay, so that’s a bad comparison. I think these melodies will remind some people of Coldplay, though it reminds me of Radiohead and similar bands. How’s that? But the thing that made Girls in Hawaii a little more interesting than the other groups mining this same territory is that the group also knows how to rock. The instrumental breaks reminded me more of the Pixies than Coldplay. Good thing. (SEE PHOTO.)
Playing in the front room of Spiro’s is a heavy metal band from the Netherlands called SAN ANDREAS. I could swear that one of the songs, sung in that typical Metallica-style hoarse screaming, has the chorus: “I LOVE SEINFELD!!!” Then again, maybe he’s singing something in Dutch that just sounds like that. (SEE PHOTO.) I also saw a little bit of the Yugoslavian metal band STUKA playing here… and wanted to leave as soon as I could.
I hoped to see Islands down the street at Emo’s IV, but the band was taking forever to set up, so I left before hearing a single note. They were all getting into white clothes at that point. Back at Spiro’s Patio, things were also running alarmingly behind schedule. SYD MATTERS, from Paris, was finally playing. Nice music, similar to the description I just made about Girls in Hawaii. Another group with pretty melodies and strong instrumental breaks. But the show was still going at 1:20 a.m. (20 minutes after headliner dEUS should have started). One guitar’s sound cut out. A sound person walked up onstage, and the next thing we all know, Syd Matters’ set had ended in mid-song. One of them threw down his microphone stand and yelled “Fuck you!” I presume the group was told to end its set because of the late hour, but I’m not sure. I hear that Girls in Hawaii took a long time to set up, throwing off the schedule for the rest of the bands. (SEE PHOTO.)
Now came a long, excruciating wait for dEUS to begin. This venue or the people running the European showcase obviously didn’t know what they were doing. As the hour got later and later, I could hear the guy working the sound board telling the guys on stage things like, “That microphone is coming through on Channel 15. It should be on Channel 17.” Meanwhile, the guys on stage were pulling cords in and out of sockets, trying to figure out where they should go. Tempers started flaring. Many of the people in the audience — including a sizable contingent of Europeans — were huge fans of dEUS and would wait through anything to see them. But soon the catcalls began. At least the wait gave me a chance to talk to some interesting people, including a University of Texas student from Greece who hosts a radio show called “Sonic Youth.” Commenting on American music, he said:
“I like your music, but not all of it. Like Nickelback. Why do they let that guy sing?”
Finally, the band came on at 2:20, twenty minutes after the venue was supposed to be closed for the night. I’ve heard many good things about dEUS over the years, but never bought any of their CDs. I was very impressed by the set they played — finally finishing up around 3 a.m. Aggressive music but with a good sense of dynamics and musicality. The only song I didn’t care for all that much was a pop ballad dEUS played from its new album. Too bad the technical screw-ups made this showcase such an ordeal, because a lot of the music was great. SEE PHOTOS OF dEUS.
I show up late at the convention center for the interview with CHRISSIE HYNDE, and after hearing the last part of her talk, I regret not seeing all of it.
She told the story of how she almost got married to Johnny Rotten and/or Sid Vicious as a joke. And how she almost got married to Ray Davies, getting as far as the wedding ceremony. “I think the guy just thought it was a bad idea — the guy doing the service,” she explained.
She declined to be pressed further on her love life:
“I know what you’re thinking, she had all these cool rock stars. Hey, someone had to fuck me.”
And she revealed the story of her first kiss. As a teen, she and one other white friend went to a concert at the Akron Civic Center with an almost entirely black audience. Singer Jackie Wilson pulled Hynde up on to the stage and kissed her. “I went completely fucking quiet,” Hynde remembered. “And everyone fucking hated me.”
BILLY BRAGG followed Hynde, with the most erudite (and interesting) talk I’ve ever seen by a rock musician. Bragg, who’s writing a political book, talked about the alarming rise of nationalism in England and Europe, which led into a discussion of the Clash standing up against racism, Churchill and Roosevelt signing the Atlantic Charter during World War II… and many other topics. “If I could write a fucking song about it, I would,” Bragg said, explaining his decision to write a book. “A song about the Atlanic Charter and the welfare state…” He shook his head and laughed.
On his decision to call the book “The Progressive Patriot”: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with patriotism. I think Woody Guthrie is the greatest American patriot.”
Other Bragg comments: “I think of the guitar, especially the electric guitar, as more of a percussive instrument than a melodic instrument.”
“I could play (live versions of all the songs on) my box set in two hours. I’m sure I could do it if I’m wired enough.”
On today’s “alternative” rock:
“I know the shit that ‘alternative’ is supposed to be alternative to. That ain’t alternative — that’s just heavy metal sped up.”
“I love this town. To know in your heart that Austin exists… a beacon of weirdness in a sea of redneck mediocrity.”
I had hoped to catch the Go Team at the Spin party today, but Bragg’s talk was too interesting to skip. So by the time I made it to Stubbs for the Spin party, all of the free food was gone, the Go Team had played, and WE ARE SCIENTISTS was taking the stage. Now, here’s a band that has zero interest for me. It’s hard to explain why one band imitating old punk records is annoying and others are fun, but this one’s just annoying. To me, at least. Sounds like a copy of a copy of a copy to me. I didn’t stay long. (SEE PHOTO.)
I catch a couple of songs by a fellow with what may be the festival’s most ridiculous name, GET CAPE. WEAR CAPE. FLY. He’s not bad, though — playing acoustic guitar and singing with accompaniment from a laptop and dancing around the trade show’s day stage. (SEE PHOTO.)
RAY DAVIES played an intimate acoustic mini-concert in a dim room at the convention center, interspersing a half-dozen songs with his commentary and clips from a video documentary based on footage he shot over the past several years. Davies teased us by opening with the chords to “Waterloo Sunset,” but then playing just a little snatch of that great song. (The greatest song?) He stopped, joking, “That’s the radio version.” The new songs sounded very good in this live performance. In fact, a couple of them have stuck in my head all week, even as I’ve heard a hundred other bands. A good sign. I have some reservations about Davies’ new album, Other People’s Lives, but they have more to do with the sound of the record, which is a little polished for my tastes. Stripped down to acoustic performances, the songs were even better. And I imagine they might be good in the setting of an electric concert with a full band, too.
In a Q-and-A after the performance (with almost all of the questions coming from journalists in the audience, making it seem more like a press conference), Davies said people sometimes ask him: Why bother writing new songs? “My answer is because I live,” he said. “If I can’t write, I can’t live as a complete person.”
Davies said he would like to play again with his brother Dave, who’s recovering from a stroke that affected his ability to control his hands. “I held his hand — God knows why,” Davies said, laughing.
Eventually, he said, “We’ll sit down and see if there’s any music we feel it’s relevant to do.”
BRAKES is my first official SXSW showcase gig of the night. This is one of the shows I’ve been looking forward to the most. Brakes’ 2005 album Give Blood was criminally overlooked, and the lack of hype continued at SXSW. In the arrays of critics’ choices in the two local papers today, not a single person picked this show for the 8 p.m. time slot. Hmpf. What do they know. There is a line outside, so some people (especially some visitors from Britain) are aware of how good this band is. (Of course, some of those people were undoubtedly showing up at the Blender Bar at the Ritz early because Editors were playing later.)
Brakes’ performance did not disappoint: sharp, funny and tuneful punk, with the constant presence of an acoustic guitar lending things a little bit of folkiness. Some of Brakes’ songs are so damn short… “Cheney” is a political protest song that’s all of about eight seconds. Even introducing these short numbers seemed absurd, like the final song of the show, “Comma Comma Comma Full Stop,” which received not only an intro but also an extraneous guitar lick from “Layla” — and then was over in a few seconds. Brakes make every second count. SEE PHOTOS OF BRAKES.
THE KOOKS were next in this showcase of Brit bands. They were just OK, veering a little towards jam-band-ness at times. I checked out of there. (SEE PHOTO.)
A slow-moving line had formed outside the Red Eyed Fly for the Sub Pop showcase, but just before showtime, the flood gates opened and I got in. KELLEY STOLTZ was just as amazing in person as he is on record. What a terrific songwriter. And he wasn’t the shy, retiring individual onstage that I imagined from his reputation as a reclusive musical genius. (OK, maybe I made up that part about “reclusive” in my imagination, but it seemed to fit the Brian Wilson part of his music…) Switching between keyboards and guitar, Stoltz was quite lively onstage, even sinning an odd bit of banter in the middle of a song as he encouraged the crowd to listen to the hum of the amplifiers. SEE PHOTOS OF KELLEY STOLTZ.
BAND OF HORSES followed Stoltz, another highly anticipated show. The group’s new album is excellent, and the band almost pulled it off live. Almost — there were a couple of gaffs with guitar tuning and guitar soloing, but these were forgivable mistakes for a band playing such great music. I love the way these songs are constructed, with minor-key, quieter sections that contrast with the main parts and give the rest of the songs even more power. Singer Ben Bridwell started off on a pedal steel guitar (actually, it had no pedals… so I’m not sure what to call it… just a steel guitar?), playing the instrument with broad sweeps across its strings, almost like he was playing an autoharp or zither. He later switched to a regular guitar, and then played a three-string bass (regular bass guitar with the E string missing) as part of a bass duet. Band of Horses included a cover of Otis Redding’s “Because You Got Me Chained and Bound,” not a song I would have expected, but one that fit right in.SEE PHOTOS OF BAND OF HORSES.
Though I was doubtful about getting in, I went across town to Antone’s, where SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS were playing at midnight, followed by Neko Case. I got stuck in line for a while, but luckily, I was in line right by the door, and Jones’ joyful soul-funk music was clearly audible where I was standing — and I could even see her off in the distance. Jones got the crowd dancing like crazy, and by the time I was inside, I heard people commenting in wonder that anyone is still making music like Jones.
She’s a tough act to follow, but NEKO CASE is also hard to top. Once again, I heard many people in the audience expressing their amazement at Case’s voice and performance. As much as we sometimes like keeping musical secrets to ourselves, it’s also a pleasure to see other people discovering something beautiful or great that you discovered earlier. Even if you’ve heard Case’s records, you have to see her in concert to understand how great of a singer she is. To see her singing with such control and passion, hitting high notes and loud notes seemingly with ease… it’s simply stunning. It was still stunning to me, and I’ve seen her perform maybe nine or ten times.
Her new album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is the best of the year. I hate to say that this early in the year, and I know other great records will come along in the next nine months, but Fox is perched at the top of my list right now. It’s so rich with haunting words, lovely melodies, peculiar musical touches, killer vocals and song-to-song flow. The songs sounded very good live (only minor problem: the lack of some of the instruments featured in the studio). Introducing one of the songs with gothic lyrics, Case said, “This is a scary story.” The theme of scary stories recurs throughout the new album (and her previous albums), but the truly scary thing tonight was how talented Case is. SEE PHOTOS OF NEKO CASE.
Finally, a day without much of importance happening at the convention center. And that means… more time to spend at day parties. I opted to stick around all afternoon at the Misra Records party at Red Eyed Fly. Every act was worthwhile:
SHEARWATER. I had missed seeing this band until now. What beautiful singing and strong playing. SEE PHOTOS OF SHEARWATER.
LAURA VEIRS, whose loopy folk rock is always enchanting. She used a looping pedal to construct epics out of her guitar parts and vocals — maybe even more impressive than Andrew Bird in how subtly she used the technique. SEE PHOTOS OF LAURA VEIRS.
GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS was one of my favorite discoveries last year, and Tony Dekker was back this time with a couple of musicians backing him up on banjo and brushed drums. His melodies, poetic words and soft singing are magical. SEE PHOTOS OF GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS.
THE MENDOZA LINE is a good, sometimes great band on record, but they played a ramshackle show at SXSW a few years ago. Just a bad night, I hoped. Every band has one. Today, they made up for it somewhat. The band sounded fine, but still didn’t have quite the spark that I was looking for. Not sure why Timothy Bracy barely sang at all, since he shares a lot of the lead vocals with Shannon McArdle on the records. Shannon commented on how much she enjoyed seeing Morrissey at Stubbs the other night, especially since he took off his shirt three times during the portion of the concert she saw. SEE PHOTOS OF THE MENDOZA LINE.
DR. DOG reprised its excellent show from the other night. I’ve raved enough already. At this gig, the group was more talkative, turning out to be one of the funniest of SXSW. Just who were those superfans in the crowd? People who have been following the band around? New converts? One guy had a softball signed by all but one of the Dr. Dog guys. (Band comment in a stage whisper, “He can’t write or read.”) The same guy later called out that he lives in a Dumpster across the street from the band’s house and that’s how he learned all of the songs. When he was hauled onto stage later to dance along to the climatic song, the guy enthusiastically exclaimed:
“Listen to Dr. Dog and your dreams will come true!”
CENTRO-MATIC can always be counted on for a great performance — and are a regular feature at these Misra parties. The band was as good as ever, playing rocking versions of even the slightly subdued songs from the new record. SEE PHOTOS OF CENTRO-MATIC.
The evening started with crooner RICHARD HAWLEY at Eternal. This Englishman reminds me of Nick Lowe in ballad mode. What a fine voice, and nice touch with the spare arrangements. Performers like Hawley raise the question: Why don’t people looking for some smooth “adult contemporary” music listen to something intelligent like this instead of buying the latest Barry Manilow? Different thing, I guess, but it seems like a much, much better executed version of adult music to me. SEE PHOTOS OF RICHARD HAWLEY.
I popped into Elysium’s annual Japan Night for a few songs by THE RODEO CARBURETTOR (sic). I can see there’s a big crowd (mostly locals from Austin, I think) who love seeing the whole lineup of Japanese bands every year. I’ve liked some of the Japanese bands I’ve heard over the years (Acid Mother Temple is a special favorite), but others have struck me more as novelty acts than anything I’d listen to repeatedly. The Rodeo Carburetor played decent punk rock, but the most pit was beginning to get violent, so I split. SEE PHOTOS OF THE RODEO CARBURETTOR.
The only thing I knew about RICHARD SWIFT was that he has a new record coming out on Secretly Canadian, and that’s a great label. He was playing tonight in the Secretly Canadian showcase at Emo’s Annex, and proved to be a good find. Like Kelley Stoltz or Richard Hawley, Swift plays smartly written music. Like Stoltz, Swift is a scruffy, energetic performer — not the sophisticated nightclub act he might choose to be, based on the quality of his songwriting. On the last song, Swift’s second keyboard player leaned over and played ragtime-style bits in the upper range of the keyboard while Swift continued to play his part. Pretty cool. A bunch of the other Secretly Canadian folks got onto stage and clapped and sang along to one tune. SEE PHOTOS OF RICHARD SWIFT.
Rainbow Quartz is another great label, specializing in bands that revive the sounds of the ’60s. So I figured the label’s showcase would be worth attending. As I walked in to the Blender Bar, the place was nearly empty forTHE WINNERYS. The band was good enough, but didn’t seem all that special — Spaniards trying to sound like the Beatles. SEE PHOTOS OF THE WINNERYS.
I headed down the street to Habana Calle 6 Patio for a set by Minneapolis’ THE OWLS. Nice co-ed folk rock, with the musicians literally playing musical chairs. The songs are pleasant, but I’d have to hear them more before deciding just how much I like them. SEE PHOTOS OF THE OWLS.
Back to the Blender Bar for another Rainbow Quartz act, THE JESSICA FLETCHERS from Oslo. Very good stuff, more in a garage band vein. SEE PHOTOS OF THE JESSICA FLETCHERS.
Then across town to a remote venue called Molotov Lounge for THE BROKEDOWN, a band from L.A. The group’s mp3 file at www.sxsw.com was one of the best that I heard during my insane attempt to sample all 1,000 songs. Live, the group is good, maybe not quite as great as that song, a slice of, yes, sunny California harmony pop. The band had an enthusiastic crowd, but ti seemed to be mostly the band’s friends from L.A. Too bad more SXSWer’s didn’t discover the Brokedown. SEE PHOTOS OF THE BROKEDOWN.
ROBERT POLLARD seemed like an appropriate act to cap off this year’s festival. As he noted from the stage at Antone’s:
“Now it’s time for the obligatory, end-of-SXSW, indie-rock-icon performance.”
The Guided By Voices fans were out in force, giving Pollard an enthusiastic reception as he played songs, mostly from his new solo album. The band was good. Pollard still has that leg kicks and microphone twirls down. It wasn’t exactly a GBV show, but it was still pretty damn good. SEE PHOTOS OF ROBERT POLLARD.
A journal of Robert Loerzel’s experiences at South By Southwest in Austin. (Click here to see my coverage for Pioneer Press.)
TUESDAY, MARCH 16 — The music part of the South By Southwest Conference hasn’t started yet, but there’s plenty happening in Austin already. I catch an excellent documentary showing at the SXSW festival, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” which chronicles the story of the highly idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and his battles with mental illness. Johnston’s music is certainly an acquired taste (and I’m only about halfway there toward acquiring it), and it’s hard not to wonder how much attention he would have received without the accompanying story of his having manic depression.
You don’t have to be a fan, however, to appreciate this film, which pulls together some amazing audio tape, film and photos documenting many of the key moments from Johnston’s life. Although the subject matter is completely different, this documentary belongs in a category with “Capturing the Friedmans.” Both draw on extensive home movies or audio recordings to tell a story that wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if the filmmakers had to rely entirely on talking-head interviews. That being said, it’s unfortunate that “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” doesn’t include more interviews with Johnston himself.
Johnston was in the Paramount Theatre for the screening, but he ducked out of the building before the filmmakers got a chance to invite him up onto the stage during the question-and-answer session that followed the movie. They did bring up the woman whom Johnston had a crush on years ago, who has inspired most of his songs. Surprisingly, she did not act too freaked out.
The film fit one of the recurring themes this year at SXSW: Artists who have struggled with mental illness or similar issues. In addition to the film on Johnston and several musical performances by Johnston, the festival featured an appearance by Brian Wilson, the return of Wreckless Eric and a panel discussion and musical performances related to Roky Erikson and the 13th Floor Elevators.
As far as music on Tuesday, the place to be is Beerland, where Two Cow Garage and Richmond Fontaine open for Grand Champeen – who pull off a rousing rendition of the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away.” Only three bands? It’s just an appetizer for the banquet of music that lies ahead.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16 — The most interesting events today at the conference center (where folks like me, the so-called “badge-wearing weasels,” hang out) are a panel discussion on indie records and an onstage interview with Elvis Costello.
At the indie panel, Nan Warshaw of Bloodshot Records says the label rarely signs anyone based on a demo tape. “The way we find the majority of out bands is word of mouth from people we trust,” she says. And it’s essential that a musical act shows its commitment to touring. Warshaw and her cohorts at the label usually wait for a performer to show up in Chicago, rather than scouting around the country for bands.
Warshaw bemoaned the loss of many independent record stores around the country, while Jeff Price of SpinART said the trend toward selling songs by download gives small record labels a new advantage —they won’t have to worry so much about unsold CDs being shipped back to them from retailers.
Asked about the difference between his current band, the Imposters, and the very similar Attractions, he says the group is different because of all the experience the musicians gained in projects outside of their work with Costello. And of course, the band has a different bass player. Prefacing his comments by saying he does not plan to insult Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, Costello goes on to say, “He simply can’t play a groove.” As Costello explains it, Thomas is a good melodic bassist in the tradition of Paul McCartney, but was never really part of the Attractions’ “rhythm section,” with Costello’s guitar taking the groove role that the bass would normally play.
Asked about the books that have been written about him (and without his cooperation), Costello reveals that he’s working on a book of his own, which should be out next year. He hints that it will be an unconventional memoir in the vein of Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles Vol. 1.”
Costello answers a question about his famous performance of “Radio Radio” on “Saturday Night Live.” Did he really pull a fast one on NBC by playing the song against the network’s wishes, or was Lorne Michaels really in on the joke? Costello does not directly answer, but he repeats something Bill Murray told him: “Don’t let Lorne tell you he was in on the joke. He was behind the camera giving you the finger.”
And for someone who has released a ton of albums (and reissued versions of those albums, and special editions of the reissues…), Costello surprisingly says the important thing is playing live, not making records: “It’s always about playing … Records are just a souvenir. Live music is where it’s at.”
ROBYN HITCHCOCK — Right off the bat, I break my self-imposed SXSW rule: See bands you haven’t seen before. Sopping into the Vibe, where Micah P. Hinson is supposed to be playing, I see nothing happening. It’s already 8 p.m., and no one’s even setting up equipment on the stage. In fact, someone’s taking equipment off the stage. Impatiently, I head down the street to Emo’s to see someone I’ve seen many times before, the great Robyn Hitchcock. (On the way in, I catch just a minute or so of a singer named TONY TEARDROP. Not bad…) Hitchcock was just what you’d expect. He seems to settled into a good stage of his career, not too concerned about big-label success, still weird but not quite so self-consciously arty. And he’s a mighty fine performer as a singer with an acoustic guitar. Somehow, Hitchcock is one of the few people with multiple SXSW showcase time slots (another being Daniel Johnston). Hitchcock jokes, “I’m doing over 400 gigs here.” And he also makes light of his current status in the music world as he takes a swig from a bottle of water: “This is what it looks like when a cult figure has his water. Don’t confuse it with the way a living legend drinks his water. When Brian Wilson drinks his water, pay close attention to his technique.” www.robynhitchcock.com
JENNIFER GENTLE — This is not a girl, it’s a band from Italy, and they play next on the Emo’s stage. Judging from his vocals as well as his haircut, the lead singer has paid close attention to those early Pink Floyd records featuring Syd Barrett. The band, which was recently singed by Sub Pop, is interesting, playing gentle pyschedelia as well as a few excellent jams — I like the keyboard player literally pounding his fists on his instrument. Some of the quirkier tunes verged on being annoying, in that sing-songy, herky-jerky psychedelic kind of way, though I’d personally say it was a good kind of annoying.SEE PHOTOS OF JENNIFER GENTLE.
GRIS GRIS — Highly appropriate as a followup to Jennifer Gentle, this Oakland band was playing down the street at Club DeVille. After the opening minute of noise, I think, “Uh oh, this could be some idiotic art-school wankery ahead,” but it turns out to be a quite invigorating performance of freakout psychedelia. (There’s a fine line between the two, and don’t ask me to define it just now.) SEE PHOTOS OF GRIS GRIS.
MIDLAKE — I love these guys from Denton, Texas, and I can’t understand why they haven’t received more attention, especially from all of the people who like Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips and Grandaddy. A packed house is ready to hear them tonight, however, at the bar called Friends. Unfortunately, the two-keyboard band has trouble setting up its equipment on the small stage. At one point, a band member asks for help on programming a keyboard, apparently on loan from the previous band. Midlake ditches its plan to show slides during the concert and finally gets started 10 or 15 minutes late. Despite all these problems, Midlake’s live show lives up to the promise of the recordings. It’s particularly great to hear those lively drum parts driving along these weirdly sinister and whimsical songs. At least some of the audience is familiar with the songs, which is a good sign — maybe Midlake’s not quite as unknown as I’d thought. Midlake closes with “Kingfish Pies,” a great tune, and the lyrics of the final chorus almost give me chills. SEE PHOTOS OF MIDLAKE.
BURNING BRIGHT — I head over to the Hard Rock Café to check out this band mostly because they’re local to my newspaper’s coverage area, hailing from the suburbs of Chicago. The sets here are running late, and so I see a little bit of the previous band, DELEGATE… not enough to really say much about them, though. Burning Bright finally gets started, and I can see these guys are not exactly my cup of tea, but they have the punk-pop thing down cold, so they do have the potential to make it. Nice energy onstage, too.
MONO — Next stop is the Eternal nightclub, where this Japanese trio wows the audience with its slowly building instrumental epics. A perfect sendoff as the clock strikes 2 and everyone heads back to their hotels. SEE PHOTOS OF MONO.
THURSDAY, MARCH 17 — Gotta get up early to see MAVIS STAPLES performing the 10 a.m. slot over at the covention center, the SXSW equivalent of church services. She gives an excellent performance, accompanied just by Marty Stuart on acoustic guitar and mandolin. Her mini show is a prelude to the keynote appearance by…
ROBERT PLANT — Do we really need to sit through an infomercial offering a hagiography of Plant and heavy promotion of his new album? Ugh… But once that’s over and Plant accepts the Led Zeppelin lifetime-achivement Grammy that he failed to pick up at the Grammys show, Plant turns out to be quite interesting and charming during the onstage interview. (What exactly does it mean for an interview to be the “keynote speech,” anyway?)
Portraying himself as someone who has constantly pushed forward by trying out new musical ideas, Plant says, “I don’t think popular music can ever stand still, and it can’t be left up to new musicians to push it forward.”
Plant throws a bit of an insult at his hard-rock contemporaries from the 1970s, saying he always thought of Led Zeppelin as being more intelligent than groups such as Black Sabbath. In the end, though, Zep gets lumped together with all of those bands, Plant says in a despairing tone: “You end up in the same pile with ‘Paranoid.'”
Plant laughs at the part he played in injecting Nordic and Celtic imagery —and Tolkien themes —into rock music. Now that Viking hordes are an icon of hard rock, he says: “They’re all coming over the horizon in longboats. It’s not my fault!”
Calling for more diversity on radio, he says, “I hate the idea of the jukebox being the mass acceptance of four or five songs.”
Asked about the charges that Zeppelin ripped off some of its songs from blues musicians, Plant says it’s just the blues tradition of taking earlier riffs and doing something new with them. He cites the Black Keys as a current band he likes that is doing the same thing. “It’s quite vital to hear that. It’s very good… There’s no end to plagiarism, really.”
APOSTLE OF HUSTLE — I pop out of the convention center and head over to one of the many day parties going on. (SEE PHOTOS OF APOSTLE OF HUSTLE.) Apostles of Hustle, one of the Canadian bands that shares members with Broken Social Scene, is on the stage at Emo’s Jr. They’re very energetic, with horns, cowbell and even a flamenco dancer supplementing their songs. I am digging it quite a bit as a live show, though I’ll need to hear the studio recordings to decide how good the songs are. After taking the vocals on one song, the trumpet player jumps off the stage and leaves the room. That’s because he needs to head over to the other Emo’s stage, where he is playing with…
STARS — Another Canadian band, obviously, and one I’m not that familiar with. When I see a concert by a group whose music I don’t know, it’s rare that I notice much about the lyrics (assuming I can even make them out), but a couple of songs by Stars have striking words that penetrate through all the normal din and stick in my mind. I like these guys an awful lot, and will definitely be checking out their recordings. Not to be too obvious, but they remind me a bit of the Fire Arcade. Like many of the bands playing this year at SXSW, Stars and Apostle of Hustle have musicians trading off on vocals and various instruments. That seems to be another theme this year: Big ensembles with horns, xylophones, bells and melodica… usually from Brooklyn or Toronto. SEE PHOTOS OF STARS.
DR. DOG — As I walk out through the Emo’s Jr. room, I catch just a minute of Dr. Dog, but I can say from previous experience that this is a band to watch. Their CD Easy Beat is shaping up as an early 2005 favorite for me.
THE REDWALLS — Another band I’m seeing because of the local angle (they’re from Deerfield, Illinois), but this is one I’d love to see in any case. Yes, they are derivative of the early Beatles and other ’60s music, but I can’t say I really care if it’s derivative or not. They play it with such passion and conviction, and they’re so damn good at it. While I am this Advanced Alternative Media party, I catch a couple of other acts, though I can’t say I’m sure who they are. Willy Mason… I think? Memo to aspiring rock stars: Tell the crowd who you are. (Yes, yes, I know I should be taking better notes.) SEE PHOTOS OF THE REDWALLS.
13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS — Running late, I head back to the convention center for the end of the panel discussion on the 13th Floor Elevators, especially notable because Roky Erikson is taking part. By the time I arrive, it’s time for audience questions, and no one in the audience seems to have any questions. A few people get up to offer their fond memories of the Elevators. After a few minutes of this, I decide to head across the street for…
JAPAN BASH — This party is a good chance to catch a couple of the bands playing at the Japan Nite showcases. I can’t say I’m super-impressed, though. NOODLES and TITAN GO KING’S both strike me as the sort of so-so bands that wouldn’t attract any attention at all without the novelty of seeing cute Japanese girls playing punk. And so I move on…
JON LANGFORD — The singer with the Mekons, Waco Brothers and countless other punk and country bands gives a performance of his new multimedia show, “Executioner’s Last Songs,” a combination of music with monologues about his life, the histories of punk and alt-country, the story of the Mekons and his activism against the death penalty. Sally Timms and a violinist back Langford on the songs, while a screen shows collages of his artwork and film footage. Langford’s always been a funny raconteur at Mekons and Wacos shows, so it’s no surprise he could pull off a show like this one, which he plans to do at a few museums around the country this year, possibly including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It’s entertaining to hear his spiels, always on that humorous cusp between low-brow punk attitude and high-brow intellectual content. This feels more like a dress rehearsal than the final show, with Langford stumbling a number of times as he reads from a script. (Of course, he just makes light of his stumbling… including the funniest bit of the whole night, when everyone cracks up over a line about bears nibbling on Langford’s testicles.)
“The secret of the Mekons’ success was our lack of success,” Langford says.
And he recalls what Lester Bangs said when he was stunned by the Mekons’ self-deprecation: “That’s a totally revolutionary concept —a band that doesn’t even like itself.”
ADEM — This British folk singer seems like a good way to start the official SXSW showcase portion of the evening. Though he’s often mentioned in the same breath as Americans Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, his music doesn’t seem as quirky as theirs (and not nearly as annoying, if you ask me). He gives an impressive performance, despite the distraction of bar noise and rumblings of a band from next door. (Or is that construction equipment?)
AMPOP — Without any must-see acts in the 9 p.m. hour, I take a chance on a random choice, this band from Iceland without a U.S. record label. And they turn out to be quite impressive, with melodies that sound a little like Radiohead, though the overall sound of the band has a different feel. They’re pleasantly modest as they introduce themselves, as if they’re not sure what to expect on this trek far from their homeland. As they finish their set, it’s clear they’ve won over some fans. A few people go up to the stage and ask the members of AMPOP if they have any CDs for sale. SEE PHOTOS OF AMPOP.
MARTHA WAINWRIGHT —As a fan of Rufus Wainwright as well as his father, Loudon, I was interested to see what Rufus’ sister is up to musically. But her performance isn’t exciting me. I’m not ready to write her off —any member of the Wainwright-McGarrigle family is bound to have some musical talent —but her songs sound pretty generic as I hear them for the first time at this performance. Maybe if I knew the tunes better, or heard them with more interesting arrangements, they’d do more for me, but at the moment, she’s just not catching my interest. I watch about half the set and leave, hoping to get into the 11 p.m. show by Sri Lankan-English rapper….
M.I.A. — Unfortunately, the line for badge-holders to get into this show at Elysium is a block long. I debate whether to try, and end up standing in line for almost an hour. I should just bail out, but once I’ve waited for a while, I feel committed to getting in. Besides, I want to see LCD Soundsystem at the same venue at 1 a.m. I finally get in, just a few minutes before M.I.A. finishes her set. I don’t hear enough to say what the big deal is… She’s obviously attracting some attention, though. I was intrigued when I read a profile of her in the New Yorker a few months ago.
HOT CHIP — More misfortune… this time because I am inside the venue. I sit through a set by this band just so I can see LCD Soundsystem. Deliberately projecting the image of nerds, these guys playing on a series of five or six keyboards set up across the stage. Very little about their music interests me, and I find myself sitting over in a corner, dozing off. I wake up to find my badge missing… a potential disaster… and figure out that it must have come off when I lifted my camera over my head to get a picture of M.I.A. The staff at Elysium is a great help, though. Someone gave the missing badge to one of the bouncers, and they retrieve it for me. Phew!
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM lives up to the hype. A great, great show of dance music played by a true live band (more cowbell!) with intense vocals. In spite of the live feel of the music, singer James Murphy jokes at one point, “We’re one of the bands you read about that all of the rock bands make fun of, because we’re a slave to the technology.” Murphy is pretty funny in an acerbic way when he talks to the crowd between songs. The audience dances up a storm. Best show I’ve seen so far at SXSW. SEE PHOTOS OF LCD SOUNDSYSTEM.
FRIDAY, MARCH 18 — MAVIS STAPLES gives an onstage interview at the convention center, talking about her plans to release the final recordings by her late father, Pops Staples. I’ve heard a rough mix of those recordings, and I can report that they’re excellent. The sooner that album comes out, the better.
Commenting on the criticisms over the years about mixing gospel music with the blues, Staples says her father would say, “The devil ain’t got no music. All music is God’s music.”
BRIAN WILSON — The Beach Boys legend makes a rare public-speaking appearance as part of a panel discussion about the recording of theSmile album.Ironically, Wilson barely cracks a smile himself… at least during the first part of the event. He looks distinctly uncomfortable as he trudges onto the stage with the other panelists, who include Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks.
The rest of the people on the panel — filmmakers, journalists, experts on the Beach Boys — are fine, but no one in the room really wants to hear them talk. We’re just there for Wilson and Parks. Wilson gives abrupt answers to most of the questions, acting almost like he’s cutting off discussion about the ways he doesn’t want to discuss… or maybe that’s just the way he talks. On some questions, he doesn’t show much sense of reflection or deep thought. Asked several times why he finally decided to release Smile in 2004, he simply says that his wife told him it would be a good time to release it. That’s it. No reflection on how his feelings about the project changed.
Parks, on the other hand, says, “I abhorred any thought of Smile for 38 years. It was just a very painful thought for me.”
One of Wilson’s stranger revelations (maybe he has said this before — I don’t know) is that he cannot hear music in his head. Two people ask him how he takes the musical ideas he hears in his head and writes them down or records them. Both times he gives a similar answer: “I did not hear it my head. I cannot hear it in my head. I have to go into the studio to hear it.”
Asked about revisiting the traumatic “Fire” song, Wilson sounds nonchalant: “It felt a little scary, but it was good to get back into it.”
Wilson says he wouldn’t have been able to finish Smile without a piece of technology that was unavailable to the Beach Boys in the 1960s: Pro Tools. “It made it easier to sequence.”
What music is Wilson listening to these days? “I still listen to Nat ‘King Cole now and then. I listen to Phil Spector. I listen to the Beatles. And that’s about it.”
What does he think of the Beach Boys album Smiley Smile, which was salvaged out of the first Smilesessions? “Smiley Smile was a pleasant hashish marijuana album.”
Asked about his late brothers Carl and Dennis: “If they were alive, they’d be thrilled to death to listen to it (Smile) … I miss their voices very much.”
Parks says he came up with the title “Surf’s Up” to encourage Dennis Wilson, who was upset by people mocking the Beach Boys’ image as surfers. “It was that positive image that I thought we should respect,” Park says, adding, “The rest is just about the decay of modern civilization.”
During the time for audience questions, I can’t resist the chance to ask Brian Wilson something, so I get up and ask him to comment about the band he currently works with. “I used to work with the Beach Boys’ musicians,” he says. “I used to work with Phil Spector’s musicians. I found a band that’s better than both of them put together.”
THE FUTUREHEADS are playing their lively art punk at the Spin magazine party at Stubb’s when I show up. I’ve seen them recently, so I didn’t feel much need to catch their performances here, but I’m glad to see they appear to be wowing the crowd. What a great version of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” they do.
BLOC PARTY is up next at the Spin party. I’m not sure yet if they have the songs to live up to the hype that’s been building for them, but they do put on a hell of a show. Yet another band showing the influence of late ’70s and early ’80s music like the Gang of Four and the Cure, but Bloc Party seems to have its own take. SEE PHOTOS OF BLOC PARTY.
NEW YORK DOLLS finish up the party. Sure, only two original members are on the stage, but it’s damn fun seeing David Johanson, Sylvain Sylvain and the new recruits showing how things were done back in… (gasp) 1973. SEE PHOTOS OF NEW YORK DOLLS.
PICASTRO starts off the showcase at Friends for the Polyvinyl label (based in good old Champaign, Illinois). The Toronto group plays melancholy, drony acoustic music, with a violin giving it the feeling of avant-garde chamber music. I have a feeling many people will find Picastro a tad boring, but connoisseurs of low-key (myself included) may be mesmerized. SEE PHOTOS OF PICASTRO.
IDA, another ensemble from Brooklyn featuring weird instruments (an miniature old-fashioned pump organ and bells), follows Picastro at the Polyvinyl showcase. They’re subdued, too, but their sound is more varied. Some lovely, lovely melodies and harmonies, a bit reminiscent of Low. This is a band to watch. SEE PHOTOS OF IDA.
GREY DELISLE — You’ve gotta like a gal singer in a shiny red dress strumming an autoharp, and a mandolin player using the instrument to play loud electric solos. And then to put icing on the cake, the talented DeLisle does an Americana cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (well, the first part of the Queen song, the part before it gets really silly). Her Graceful Ghost album was a highlight of last year; I’m looking forward to her new one. SEE PHOTOS OF GREY DELISLE.
Given the long line for the Go! Team and Dogs Die in Hot Cars, I opt to go to Exodus for…
DIOS MALOS would be the one band that Brian Wilson would see tonight, if he were actually out on the town. Wilson’s nowhere in sight, of course, but the spirit of his music hovers over the group as it plays its catchy songs at the Blender Bar at the Ritz. Listening to the CD by Dios (as the band was called before Ronnie James Dio forced them to change the name), I noticed the nice harmonies and melodies but I failed to appreciate the group’s ability to play solos that take the songs to cathartic climaxes. Very cool. SEE PHOTOS OF DIOS MALOS.
Seeing another long line, this time for Guitar Wolf, I choose to see…
THE CAPITOL YEARS. Another band obviously influenced by the ’60s. By the end of the set, the band is going wild with Pete Townshend-style windmill moves on the guitar and roaring like the late ’60s Who. SEE PHOTOS OF THE CAPITOL YEARS.
Just enough time is left in the 1 a.m. time slot for me to catch a song by Copenhagen’s Blue Van (very lively), a few minutes of jamming by Isis, and a good, long chunk of the show by…
SHONEN KNIFE. I’m way behind on this group, pretty much ignoring their music for years. Once again, I think the Japanese novelty factor might account for some of the band’s fame, but they do seem quite a bit of fun, and they’re good musicians to boot. SEE PHOTOS OF SHONEN KNIFE.
SATURDAY, MARCH 20 — Many day parties to choose from, but the one with a truly solid lineup is the Misra/Overcoat shindig at Red Eyed Fly, so that’s where I camp out for the afternoon
THE ZINCS — I see a few songs by this group (just one guy, actually)… which seem pretty good but quickly disappear into the blur of my memory.
PHOSPHORESCENT… yet another big ensemble with horns and such. Quite good stuff. Reminds me a bit of Bright Eyes, but not the whiny acoustic songs —the bigger moments when Bright Eyes music bursts out with horn solos. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Phosphorescent. SEE PHOTOS OF PHOSPHORESCENT.
GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS are one of the main reasons I’m at this party. Their self-titled album, released a while back in Canada, is coming out next month on Misra, and I’ve been listening to it quite a bit. This is quiet folk music with crickets chirping in the background, haunting melodies and words sung softly, so softly. It’s in a similar vein to Iron and Wine, though personally I prefer these songs. The set this afternoon is short, but the music’s just a powerful in a quiet live show as it is on the record. The performances at SXSW were the first concerts by Great Lake Swimmers (mostly singer Tony Dekker) in the U.S. SEE PHOTOS OF GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS.
THE FRAMES finish up the party. I still haven’t gotten a handle on exactly what the Frames are all about. I really like them at some moments, don’t quite get them at other moments. But this is a fun show, closing their U.S. tour. They play covers of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” When Nicolai Dunger joins them onstage for that song, he gets his Van tunes a bit mixed up and starts singing, “Turn up the radio… when you’re going into the mystic!” Urged on by the audience to play an encore, the Frames comply with an a cappella version of local hero Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town.” And that tune surfaces several times in my head over the course of the night.SEE PHOTOS OF THE FRAMES.
THE LAST TOWN CHORUS, from Brooklyn, starts out the night with a cool set of hauntingly beautiful acoustic tunes dominated by the rather fetching singer Megan Hickey’s lap guitar solos. A couple of interesting covers: David Bowie’s “Modern Love” and a song by Gillian Welch (sorry, I know the song, just can’t remember the title right now). This is another folk-rock group with strong potential. SEE PHOTOS OF THE LAST TOWN CHORUS.
NIC ARMSTRONG & THE THIEVES —The name sounds like a singer and a backup band, but surprisingly, everyone in this group gets a turn at lead vocals. Great bluesy British pop in the style of early Stones and Animals classics. The band’s very lively, with the drummer vaulting over his kit a couple of kits to tap his sticks all over the place. The guitarist steps onto his monitor at one point… narrowly avoiding a fall just because I happen to have my hand on the monitor. My beer bottle crashes to the floor and smashes to pieces. At several points, I nearly get hit in the head with the guitar. (Insert gratitutious comment about rock ‘n’ roll here including the word “Dude.”) SEE PHOTOS OF NIC ARMSTRONG & THE THIEVES.
THE SILENT LEAGUE —Another big ensemble… Yes, another melodica is spotted at this concert. I can’t really get into this band, although I did like the mp3 sample posted at the SXSW site. And that song sounds good in concert… so I won’t write them off just yet. They’re a decent band, just not that exciting yet.As the show ends, someone up in the balcony dumps a crapload of glitter on my head… which ends up inside my shirt, underpants, etc. Not sure if this was part of the show or just moronic action by a drunk person. In any case, I skidaddle out of there. SEE PHOTOS OF THE SILENT LEAGUE.
CONTROLLER.CONTROLLER —A really nice surprise, a band that I knew nothing about, this Toronto group really rocked the Eternal nightclub with its guitar-based dance music (Gang of Four rearing its head again). The band members were almost out of control with their constant dancing throughout the show. SEE PHOTOS OF CONTROLLER.CONTROLLER.
THE NIGHTINGALES —I’d heard that Jon Langford recommended seeing this band, an older British punk group that entirely escaped my attention until now. Unlike the more kinetic bands at SXSW (controller.controller, Bloc Party), the Nightingales just stand there and play their instruments, but their music is simply propulsive. Catchy, too, with a narrow drive that reminds me a little of Wire. But enough of these comparisons and categorizations. Let’s just introduce the Nightingales with the words of lead singer Robert Lloyd: “We’re the Nightingales from England. Make of this what you will.” SEE PHOTOS OF NIGHTINGALES.
DANIEL JOHNSTON plays next at Maggie Mae’s. As I said, an acquired taste. Should we cut him some slack because of the challenges he faces or judge him like any other musician? I do like his voice and some of his melodies. The words are interesting at times, though fairly bland when he tries to write straightforward love songs. His sense of rhythm on guitar and piano is not so good… or is it hearing some weird rhythm that the rest of us don’t get? In any case, it was nice to see Johnston playing in Austin and receiving a hearty round of applause.
After Johnston finished, enough time remained to catch a fairly long stretch of music by…
BRAZILIAN GIRLS, another hyped band… though the hype didn’t seem particularly frenzied in Austin. None of them are Brazilian, and there’s only one girl in the bunch. This is intelligent and catchy dance music, something I could definitely get into. And it doesn’t hurt that the band has a sexy singer, Sabina Sciubba, who is wearing an outfit tonight that would make Bjork proud.
And so SXSW ends. A ton of great music, though I know I missed a lot, too.