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.