Stubb's BBQ is one of my favorite Austin live music venues. Not many of the bands I like play there when they come into town, but the staff is nice, the food is good, and the sound is always superb. While eating a chopped beef sandwich in the lounge, I saw Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) of the Preston School of Industry walk down the stairs. I shouted "SPIRAL!!!" at the top of my lungs, instantly outing myself as a complete dork in front of the entire restaurant. Scott responded with an awkward smile and continued on his way.
Pavement provided the soundtrack to many of the most intense moments of my teenage years. They (along with GBV) helped expose me to the "lo-fi" movement that gave me the impetus to make my own music. Pavement had a gift for melody that made even their weirdest songs easy to sing along to. They brought intelligence and irony to their music; their lyrics were filled with clever puns and historical allusions. Most of all, they taught me the importance of spontaneity. Sometimes the crack of one's voice, a flubbed note, or a lopsided rhythm is the best way to remind the listener that YES, there are actual humans making this music...a reminder that's especially necessary in this age of ProTools and pitch correctors. Granted, sometimes this tendency got the better of them; I still can't listen to their fourth album, "Brighten the Corners," very much because of front man Stephen Malkmus' consistently tuneless singing. However, for the majority of their career, Pavement were a band so talented that they didn't even *need* to put effort or polish into their music; the songs spoke for themselves. When Pavement officially broke up two years ago, I was initially bummed. However, both Stephen and Scott's new bands (the Jicks and PSOI, respectively) show promise, so Pavement fans will get the best of both worlds in the long run.
Local band Canoe kicked things off with a very humorous set. The singer/organist introduced himself as "Richard Nixon." All three (male) members were adorned in one-piece women's dresses, and when they pulled down their tops, they had the words "CANOE FOR YOU" written on their chests. In the middle of the set, one of the band's friends jumped up on stage to tell a story about his brother, "Officer Ro-Ro." Thirty-five years ago, he and Ro-Ro were watching "An Officer and a Gentleman," when Ro-Ro walked out of the room to get some popcorn. Ro-Ro never returned with the popcorn; that was the last time the two brothers saw each other. Yeah, I know that the story makes NO sense, but I'm just recounting what the guy said...and yes, he WAS drunk. As the narrator burst into crocodile tears, a guy dressed in a Navy outfit with a patch on his eye, presumably Ro-Ro, hopped on stage. The two brothers then led Canoe in a rendition of "Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong." It was totally surreal and hilarious.
Fortunately, Canoe spent more time playing music than playing pranks. They specialize in bouncy power-pop tunes that depend on lots of give-and-take between distorted keyboards and distorted guitars. I guess that Quasi, Grandaddy, and Mates of State could be considered kindred spirits, but Canoe's songs aren't as dynamic as any of those groups'. I complain a lot about bands having too many songs in the same key; THIS band switched keys often, but had too many songs in the same tempo. At times, I wondered if their drummer could play more than one beat. It turns out that he can, but dynamic shifts were very few and very far between. I would see these guys live again, but I hope they write a couple more distinctive songs before deciding to release a CD.
David Dondero, a California singer/songwriter, was next on the bill. His set didn't get off to a very auspicious start. His drummer used nothing but a tom-tom, a snare, a hi-hat, and a cymbal, sporting a definite Moe Tucker influence. Unfortunately, one of the reasons why I can't get into the Velvet Underground that much is because of the weakness of its rhythm section; it didn't work for them and it SURE doesn't work for Dondero. The fact that neither he nor his bass player knew how to tune their guitars made matters much worse. The first few songs were typical "I'm a troubadour on the lonesome highway" fare: things a guy with a thesaurus and too many Dylan records would write after learning three or four chords on his guitar. The only thing that Dondero had going for him was his reedy, tremulous crooning. By the fourth song, though, Dondero had figured out how to tune his guitar, and the songs experienced a DRAMATIC increase in quality. He sang about long-distance relationships, serial-killer preachers, kind strangers, and differences in regional slang with an ingratiating candor. His bass player doubled on pedal steel, and his reverb-drenched fills made everything sound fuller and sweeter. By the end of his set, the audience (including myself) had been fully converted. We even managed to coax him back on stage for another song. I can't remember the last time an opening act was asked back for an encore!
Obviously, Pavement fans want to know whether Scott's band is better than Stephen's, or vice versa; at this point, I'd have to say that it's a draw. Scott's still not as good a singer, lyricist, or guitarist as Stephen, though he is becoming more and more confident in all three of these roles. There's a more pronounced country influence in PSOI's songs, which is perfect for Scott's limited, nasal voice. However, Scott's songs are much closer to the spirit of early, classic Pavement. Scott's also much more eager to share the spotlight with his new band mates than Stephen is. Whereas when the Jicks play live, the other members just play idly along as Stephen shreds on his guitar; PSOI work together as an ensemble, sending songs like "Your Time to Change," "Take a Stand," and "Time Out for Fun" into long, noisy, psychedelic jams that are as fun to watch as they are to listen to. PSOI also sports a tighter rhythm section than the Jicks; in stage presence AND in musicianship, Scott's drummer is basically a blond reincarnation of Keith Moon. At any moment, the guy looked like he would leap off of his drum kit and keep playing while in mid-air. Whereas Stephen still oozes as much smarm and distance from his audience as he did in Pavement, Scott seems to enjoy himself a lot more on stage. He pointed the microphone to the audience, leading chants of "P-S-O-I!" like some kind of hip-hop hype man. At this point, Scott's in the same position that George Harrison was in the early '70s; after being reduced to second banana in a popular, influential band, Scott finally gets to show off the stockpile of amazing tunes that his old band never got to call its own. Trust me, there's a reason why PSOI's debut album is called "All This Sounds Gas." Although Stubb's wasn't as packed as the Mercury was when the Jicks played there, I'm sure that with a set this good, Spiral Stairs' comeuppance will come sooner than we think...