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.)