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.
ELVIS COSTELLO is entertaining, witty and talkative. He spends the first portion of his interview complaining about all of the record-label management changes he has survived.
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.'”
But he acknowledges Zep was guilty of some excesses: “The songs got longer and longer. (During solos), I learned a few languages. I’d nip off. I had a little Berlitz course.”
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…
THE WARLOCKS, who practically tear up the place with their psychedelic jams. Whew! SEE PHOTOS OF THE WARLOCKS.
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.
MICAH P. HINSON is next, with a good set… that also fades into the SXSW blur. He’s worth pursuing, I think.SEE PHOTOS OF MICAH P. HINSON.
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.
NICOLAI DUNGER is from Sweden, but he’s definitely channeling Van Morrison during his set. Great voice. SEE PHOTOS OF NICOLAI DUNGER.
CENTRO-MATIC is one of the best rock bands playing today, and they just prove it once again.SEE PHOTOS OF CENTRO-MATIC.
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.