At Guided by Voices’ most recent Austin show, front man Robert Pollard interrupted “Secret Star” with the following diatribe:
“F**k South by Southwest. The committee gets a whole bunch of money to break bands, but do the bands see any of it? No. You pay them money to break your band, but you don’t get any of it back and you don’t even get your big break. SXSW won’t let us play at their showcases, but f**k ‘em. We don’t need them anyway. We’ve already broken.”
Judging from the whoops and hollers that came from the audience in support of this rant, Pollard’s not alone in his hatred. Every year around SXSW time, an ever-growing group of people voice their complaints about how expensive, elitist, and pointless the festival is. Although these complaints aren’t without merit, I still can’t help but get excited once March rolls around. Sure, the wristbands are expensive, but if you love live music as much as I do, $105 (this year’s price) was a bargain for seeing at least 30 different acts, many of whom wouldn’t stop through Austin that frequently if it weren’t for SXSW. Almost every one of these acts plays at least one free day show during the festival, so you can catch them at SXSW even IF you can’t afford a wristband. Last but not least, if you plan ahead and get to the venues early enough, you can get into the venues even before the industry snobs do! Although SXSW 2004 overall wasn’t as cool as last year’s (that’s not saying much, though --- after all, THE SWIRLIES played last year), it still was the perfect way to spend my spring break. I had to pinch pennies to get into most of the shows and still have money left for dinner, but God truly is a provider!
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 17th
On Wednesday night, I hit up Maggie Mae’s for the Devil in the Woods showcase. The first band on the bill was a Californian quintet named Loquat. They played competent yet indistinct indie-pop songs with the occasional synthesizer flourish. Every once in a while the front woman and the lead guitarist would engage in some slightly jazzy or dissonant interplay to liven the songs up, but otherwise there wasn’t much that distinguished Loquat from the thousands of other bands playing competent yet indistinct indie-pop songs with the occasional synthesizer flourish. I will say, though, that the front woman has a nice voice, like Chrissie Hynde with more range or a less nasal Gwen Stefani. Her voice was tremulous, but she had control over it and sung some pretty complicated melodies with it. Plus, she delivered amusing stage banter about the bassist’s obsession with Japan (the country, not the band).
I had been looking forward to seeing the next band, Minmae, play live ever since I was a high school student, saving up my lunch money to buy records from the Black Bean and Placenta Tape Club. Over what’s coming pretty close to a decade, Minmae auteur Sean Brooks has veered from no-fi noise experiments to introspective indie-pop. It’s almost as if Flying Saucer Attack and Death Cab for Cutie had a bipolar love child together. Both sides of Sean’s musical personality were on display when his current three-piece incarnation of Minmae took the stage. They began with three songs from their recent mini-album True Love, and filled the rest of their set with newer songs. Two of the new songs sounded jazzy and haphazard, like mellow Pavement. The other two were rollicking numbers that drenched three-chord riffs in feedback, noise, and delay. The last song even sported some Hendrix-style histrionics, with Brooks humping his amplifier until it coaxed out the orgasmic screeches he wanted. Sean’s singing, normally shaky on record, was surprisingly steady and sonorous, especially considering that he complained about not being able to hear himself through the monitors. The only complaint I have about the set is that Minmae's drummer thinks he's Keith Moon and he isn't. The guy played his fills WAY too fast, and it's a miracle that Sean and his bassist managed to stay in sync with him during the faster songs. The best part of the set was the end, when DB (singer/guitarist from the And/Ors, and former Minmae drummer) ran on stage to give Sean a big bear hug. Apparently, the two hadn’t seen each other for years, and the grins that such an unexpected reunion put on their faces were very heartwarming sights to behold.
Then, Californian trio Frank Jordan came on stage and OWNED me. I remember seeing members of the band at a SXSW three years ago, passing copies of their CD Enemies to anyone who didn’t have their hands full. Their eagerness made them obtrusive and annoying, so people took the CDs just to make them shut up, with no intention of actually listening to them. Lots of copies of Enemies ended up in the used bins of local record stores within the next couple of weeks (mine included). After seeing them play live at this showcase, I now understand why they were so eager to promote their music, and I spent the whole set kicking myself for not giving them a chance the first time around. Picture what Shudder to Think would sound like if Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood were their guitarist and Damon Che of Don Caballero were their drummer. The singer/guitarist had an unbelievable range, and his guitar parts were so busy that I couldn’t fathom how he managed to maintain his coordination and pitch. The drummer played so forcefully and skillfully that he accidentally knocked his cymbal down during one song and NO ONE COULD TELL THE DIFFERENCE. They’ve basically cornered the market on “prog-pop,” with tricky changes coalescing into indelible hooks at least once every song. If mainstream rock radio were half as adventurous as it was ten years ago, Frank Jordan would be on MTV right now. If Shudder to Think’s “X-French Tee Shirt” could garner heavy rotation on the channel in the mid-90s, why can’t ANY Frank Jordan song do that now? Basically, this band was the best thing I’ve seen at this year’s SXSW…and that’s COUNTING Mission of Burma! I left the DIW showcase after Frank Jordan played because I didn’t think the bands that came on after them would be able to equal (let alone outdo) them, and I wanted to see the Dirty Projectors play at the Hideout.
The Dirty Projectors is just Dave Longstreth, a young (for some reason, I think he’s around my age) guy from Connecticut who might be the 21st century update of the Microphones’ Phil Elvrum. Since Phil seems to be undergoing some kind of artistic meltdown, it’s nice to have someone else who can fill the void. Dave has musical attention deficit disorder, but he also has the talent and musicianship to justify it. His gloriously unhinged voice sounds like a prepubescent David Byrne in the middle of a seizure. The melodies he writes seem like they’d be too complicated for him to sing, but he handles the yodels, octave leaps, and obtuse chord changes with aplomb. His set at the Hideout consisted of himself, an acoustic guitar, a laptop, and the projection screen behind him. He alternated between solo acoustic renditions of songs from The Glad Fact, his most well-known album, and new laptop-based material that he composed for his upcoming fourth album. Supposedly, it’s a concept album imaging Don Henley as the missing third Longstreth brother (Dave’s brother James did the animations projected behind him), and tracing his life shortly before he moved to California and joined the Eagles. I highly doubt that Dave was being serious when he said that, though. The laptop-based compositions were his weirdest yet. It was as if he wrote solid pop songs, removed everything but his voice from the original mixes, cut up and rearranged all the instruments (mainly a string quartet, a women’s choir, and an assortment of bells), and put some booming hip-hop style beats underneath. You couldn’t tell what the chord progressions of the songs were until Dave started singing, and when Dave sang, he lurched and leaped around the stage like a man getting severely beaten up. However, his solo acoustic songs were rendered while sitting down and were as calm as his computer songs were spastic. Either way, the music was awesome.
I stayed at the Hideout to watch another act, the local free jazz duo of Walter Daniels (harmonica/clarinet) and Wade Early (drums). You guys all know that I have a very broad taste in music, but their set was easily the most trying thing I had to sit through during this year’s SXSW. The duo operated in two modes. There were the free improvisation pieces, which sounded like a cat being thrown down the stairs into a pile of kitchen cutlery. Then, there were the renditions of various blues, gospel, and punk songs, which were marginally better. However, after a while the improvised pieces started to sound the same, and shortly thereafter the actual “songs” got monotonous as well. Plus, the stage banter that Walter gave was absolutely intolerable. He had a stereotypical “middle-aged jazzbo hipster” voice. He said “yeah” a lot really breathily and slowly, and he referred to the improvised pieces as “free blow.” I just think that he secretly wanted to pretend to be Miles Davis and speak in jive. Whenever he said, “Yeah, we’re gonna do some free blow for you now,” I couldn’t help but think of cocaine. Wade’s wife danced along to the music, and she managed to beat Dave in the “have-a-seizure-to-the-rhythm” sweepstakes. Unfortunately, she was the only one who seemed to enjoy the performance. The rest of the duo’s friends looked like they were just there to provide moral support. It just all seemed really insular, pretentious, and boring.
THURSDAY, MARCH 18
My show-going activities began early when I drove to the Lucky Lounge at 3 p.m. for the free Kill Rock Stars/Fanatic promotion showcase. I missed the opening band, the Monolith, but made it just in time to see John Wilkes Booze. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, though, because the only creative thing about this Indiana sextet is their name. They basically sound like the Make-Up in the middle of a nervous breakdown. The instrumental lineup consisted of drums, bass, two guitars, and Farfisa, with one of the guitarists occasionally switching from his main instrument to the saxophone. The music was an unsuccessful attempt at pentatonic garage-funk with a ceaselessly spastic vocalist doing his best prepubescent Iggy Pop imitation. I say vocalist because not a single word of his was actually SUNG, but instead shouted as if someone was pinching his balls with pliers. He jumped around the stage, knocking microphone stands down and getting all of the cords tangled up. He jumped off of the stage and onto the tables in the standing area, kicking audience members’ drinks off and leaving a mess of broken glass all over the floor. He then climbed under the tables and rolled around in the broken glass, surprisingly drawing no blood. However, I can’t help but think that all of these shenanigans were employed as distractions from otherwise boring music.
Unlike John Wilkes Booze, the next band had a terrible name and great music. Who in the world thought that HEAD OF FEMUR would be a good name for a rock band? Anyway, this Chicago sextet has received a little bit of hype from what sounds like an impressive pedigree to anyone but me, featuring members of Bright Eyes, Lullaby for the Working Class, and Mayday (all of whom I don’t really care for). Fortunately, Head of Femur have better vocal chops than Bright Eyes (although that really isn’t saying much) and stronger songwriting skills then Lullaby or Mayday. The main singer’s voice sounded like the Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz with a higher range. Come to think of it, I think Head of Femur could be best described as “early Counting Crows played at Boyracer speed.” The velocity and energy with which the band played their complex pop songs was amazing. They hopped around the stage like they had taken one too many yellow-jackets, but it didn’t come at the expense of sonic details like vocal harmonies and instrumental fills. One member was a particular jack of all trades, switching from drums to piano to violin with equal skill on all three. Not every member of the band is a convincing singer/songwriter; the second drummer doesn’t have the greatest voice, and the songs he sang sounded a bit like second-rate Elton John. Nonetheless, even most second-rate Elton John songs have a hook, and Head of Femur NEVER came up short in that department. I hope this band becomes more than a mere footnote in the Omaha scene.
KRS troubadour Jeff Hanson came on next with nothing but his acoustic guitar and his voice…and WHAT A VOICE IT WAS! If I had heard his music before seeing him play live, I would have sworn that it was a girl’s voice, or a tape of a guy’s voice sped-up to Alvin and the Chipmunks speed. It’s an extremely high and beautiful voice, made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s his real voice. He doesn’t sing in a falsetto or struggle to get the notes out; he is an honest-to-goodness soprano who can belt out the high notes in full voice, and his voice was just as high when he talked in between songs. He reminded me of Elliott Smith, both in his melancholy lyrics and his finger-picked guitar playing (and as overused as this comparison might be for other critics, I don’t use it often, and this time it really DOES make sense). His songs aren’t as sophisticated as Smith’s yet, but a couple of albums from now they will be.
The fourth act was local trio Volcano, I’m Still Excited! As many times as I saw their name appear on Austin bills over the last year, I never took the initiative to check them out because I erroneously lumped them in all of the other interchangeable local indie-rock bands. When I heard that they got signed to Polyvinyl, I took notice and thought to myself, “Wow, they might actually be good!” It makes me feel like a snobby hipster to admit it, but none of you can tell me that brand names don’t get your attention. Well, their self-titled debut album proved me right, and their live set only confirmed it. They’re a guitar-Casio-drums trio that sounds like the Cars updated for the “emo” set. Simple drumming, choppy guitar, and intentionally cheesy synthesizer lines back unceasingly lovelorn lyrics, often sung in surprisingly intricate three-part harmonies. The drummer throws spastic free-jazz tantrums, often plays standing up, and occasionally holds up hand-drawn yellow cardboard signs with words like “trust,” “hope,” and “faith” written on them. Come to think of it, the whole band had an element of showmanship that many similar-sounding bands don’t even bother to maintain. Their songs are great, but the showmanship might have been what truly caught Polyvinyl’s attention. The funniest part of the set was the choreographed routine at the beginning of “Trunk of My Car,” in which all three members played their instruments in slow motion.
I had been looking forward to seeing The Decemberists for a while, and judging from how quickly the Lucky Lounge filled up while they set up their equipment, I wasn’t alone in this anticipation. On record, the Decemberists are extremely precious and frilly. Singer/guitarist Colin Meloy sings in a pinched, nasal voice that resembles an effeminate Jeff Mangum, and writes historically influenced narratives about legionnaires, gymnasts, and mothers who turn to prostitution to make ends meet. The Decemberists’ (mostly acoustic) music sounds as if a bunch of Civil War-era troubadours took a time machine to the 1970s to record their songs. I wondered how well this sound would translate live. The band eased my fears the minute that they launched into the second song of their set: “The Soldiering Life,” a highlight of their sophomore release Her Majesty. The band managed to recreate their studio sound perfectly, and the added volume gave the band the extra oomph it needed in order to captivate in a live setting. The set was divided fairly equally between the band’s two proper albums. They did a long vamp in the middle of set closer “The Chimbley Sweep,” during which Colin Meloy played a bunch of intentionally bad classic-rock-style guitar solos that clashed with the otherwise jaunty music. Shenanigans like this betrayed the band’s sense of humor, which is almost all but absent on their recordings.
After catching a quick bite to eat at the seafood restaurant the Boiling Pot, I walked with some of my friends to La Zona Rosa for the Matador showcase. We got there a bit late, which meant that I missed the opening band, Seachange. I was looking forward to seeing them, so I was disappointed about that. I made my way to the front to catch the next band, Preston School of Industry. For those of you who don’t know, PSOI is the new band of Spiral Stairs, who is an ex-guitarist of one of my favorite bands ever, Pavement. Yes, Spiral’s indie pedigree is OFF THE CHAIN, but it doesn’t matter much because his sophomore album Monsoon kinda sucks. There are three songs on it that I like, but the rest of the album consists of repetitive, badly sung alt/country dirges. To PSOI’s credit, many of the songs on Monsoon sound better live, but that only partially compensates for the fact that they’re not as good as the songs on PSOI’s debut All This Sounds Gas, let alone Spiral’s Pavement songs. Also, no matter how great his backing band is, he still can’t play a decent guitar solo to save his life. His pedal steel player constantly upstaged him in the axe-slinging department. Last but not least, he responded to audience requests with nothing more than a curt “no” before launching into each song. I’d have thought that he’d be flattered that people were requesting All This Sounds Gas songs instead of his Pavement material, but NOOO…Spiral wanted to cop a Lou Reed attitude. However, the guest trumpeter Spiral brought on stage for two of the songs was a VERY nice touch, and the better songs on Monsoon give me a reason not to completely give up on him yet.
At first, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Seattle quintet Pretty Girls Make Graves, not because I didn’t like their music (I do), but because I usually reserve my SXSW experiences for previously unfamiliar bands. The last time I saw them live was at Emo’s, where they suffered from a sound mix that buried the vocals and rhythm guitar. Since that show, they’ve replaced their rhythm guitarist, and the improved sound mix at La Zona Rosa enabled new guitarist Seth to show off his skills and impress the audience. Before, the instrumental spotlight belonged to guitarist/keyboardist Jay, who crammed each song with so many incredible not-quite-solos that the rhythm guitar had no CHOICE but to take a back seat. Now, though, PGMG have two virtuoso guitarists who play off of each other like Television on uppers. All four instrumentalists in the band are busy players, so singer Andrea wisely stays out of the music’s way and sings comparatively uncomplicated melodies. She doesn’t get many opportunities to show off her range in these songs, but her stage presence compensates for it. The whole band’s got their rock moves down pat. Andrea reaches for the sky, Seth and Jay strut around the stage wielding their low-slung guitars like weapons, and the drummer never ignores an opportunity to wave his sticks in the air. Highlights of their set included “The Grandmother Wolf,” “All Medicated Geniuses,” and a danceable untitled new song that betrayed a very strong Gang of Four influence.
The next set I witnessed was nothing short of a historical event for anyone who gives a fifth of a crap about indie-rock (and chances are that if you’re reading this, THIS MEANS YOU). The headliner of the Matador showcase was none other than the recently reformed Boston punk quartet Mission of Burma. They released around two albums’ worth of material in the early 1980s, only to break up just as they were gaining momentum due to singer/guitarist Roger Miller’s growing tinnitus. Since then, it seems that every person who bought a Mission of Burma record started a band, and the band’s songs have been covered by artists as famous as R.E.M. and Moby. Thus, when MOB decided to reunite a couple of years ago for a series of sporadic shows, they garnered more attention than they ever did from their first go-round. Judging from the way the stage was set up, the band took great pains to preserve what is left of Miller’s hearing. Drummer Peter Prescott had plastic walls surrounding his kit. Miller wore a huge headset and played with his amplifier in front of him instead of behind him. I pitied the kid who had to stand right in front of his Marshall amp during their set. Bassist Clint Conley had a wide grin across his face the whole time. He’s probably the band member with the least to prove, especially after making a name for himself two years ago with his own great band Consonant. Tape manipulator Martin Swope was replaced by super-producer Bob Weston (who is second only to Steve Albini as King of the Whopping Drum Sounds), and his real-time manipulations of the signals that came through the soundboard formed harsh, grinding loops that kept our ears buzzing in between songs.
It’s amazing that after a 19-year hiatus, Mission of Burma can get back together and still sound EXACTLY like they did in the 1980s. Miller and Prescott had a bit more trouble staying in sync with each other due to the stage setup, but it wasn’t enough to make the songs sound sloppy. I’m probably the only one in the crowd who noticed it anyway. The band’s recordings always sounded as if the songs were a hair away from falling apart, but they never did, and the live set followed suit. Clint held everything together with his steady playing. Miller switched between slashing power chords and effects-driven string-strangling that made his instrument sound like an air-raid siren. I completely understand how the band’s earlier live performances could do such damage to his hearing. Of course, they played almost all of the classics that they’re known for: highlights included “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” “This Is Not a Photograph,” “Academy Fight Song,” and “Fame and Fortune.” However, the REAL revelations were the new songs, all of which are scheduled to appear on the band’s long-awaited album On Off On. The new songs were even more abrasive than their earlier stuff, and in some cases, they were even better. The band came back on stage for two encores. During one of them, they invited songstress Penelope Houston on stage to sing a bunch of raucous punk covers. Burma’s set was second only to Frank Jordan’s in my list of SXSW 2004 highlights.
FRIDAY, MARCH 19
Friday was undoubtedly the most exciting day of the week. I began my afternoon by heading straight to the 33 Degrees record store to see Canadian quartet Frog Eyes play a free in-store performance. They were, hands down, the most out-there band I’ve seen at this year’s SXSW. Vocalist Carey Mercer strummed his guitar so furiously that I thought he would pop all of its strings before the show’s end (he didn’t), and sang in a voice that fused the operatic fervor of Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart and the tremulous lisping of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. One minute, he hollered like an angry carnival barker, the next minute he leaped into a banshee falsetto that didn’t even sound like it came from the same person. Even between songs, Mercer looked as if he was permanently caught in a state of panic. His band mates gently berated him for taking too long to tune his guitar, or plugging the wrong cords into his instruments and pedals. The stage banter was so sarcastic that if you didn’t see the smiles on their faces, you’d think the members of the band hated each other. Drummer Melanie Campbell played basic rhythms on a kit that looked as if it were composed partially of scrap metal. The keyboard player seemed to have his instrument set permanently on the “merry-go-round” setting, and he looked and dressed like an uptight accountant. The bass player was so nonchalant that I can’t remember what he looked like for the life of me. Overall, the band sounded like a fusion of the surrealistic tantrums of Captain Beefheart with the sugary piano-driven pop of Quasi. Mercer’s voice plants the band firmly into the “acquired taste” category, but his songs are good enough to make Frog Eyes a taste worth acquiring. Their set had a low point, though. They invited Daniel Bejar of Destroyer up, and they served as Bejar’s backing band for two Destroyer songs. Bejar’s a decent songwriter, but his voice is extremely nasal and refuses to commit to a pitch. His off-key caterwauling sounded like an injured dog crying for help, and Frog Eyes left lots of wide open space in the music so that you couldn’t tune his voice out even if you tried.
Next up was Sufjan Stevens, one of my must-see picks for this year’s SXSW. Over the last year, he’s released two wonderful albums. 2003’s Michigan was an exquisitely orchestrated tribute to his home state, but 2004’s Seven Swans is even better. It’s the first explicitly Christian rock album I’ve heard in YEARS that manages to maintain its artistic quality without diluting his message or alienating non-Christian listeners. The fact that Swans is actually a collection of comparatively stripped-down out-takes from Michigan is bewildering, because NONE of the songs sound like second-rate castoffs. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to make it to 33 Degrees on time because he got held up at the airport. When he finally got here, there was less than 15 minutes left in his time slot. The fact that the store was still packed with people patiently waiting for him says a lot about how much hype his music has received. Nonetheless, he more than lived up to the hype. Armed with nothing but a banjo and a friend of his on trumpet, Sufjan sang and played three highlights from Seven Swans. Unfortunately, he wasn’t allowed to play longer, but he had made enough of an impression with those three songs to make the wait worthwhile.
After Sufjan’s set, I drove across town to the Caucus Club to see The Wrens play. Half of Austin seemed to have the same idea as me, though, so I stood on a line that stretched halfway around the block, full of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the band’s set. No one was happier about this turnout then the Wrens themselves. The last time they played Austin during SXSW was in 1996, and they weren’t even invited. The show took place in a bowling alley, and they didn’t even get paid for it. Thus, the reception they received at the Caucus Club was sweet justice for a band that’s been through a lot over the last seven years. The biography on their web site explains their trials more succinctly than I ever could, so I urge you to check it out. I do believe that the attention that the Wrens are currently receiving is partially driven by a desire to redress past wrongs. No one wants to be part of the generation that ignores another Van Gogh, but is their latest album The Meadowlands REALLY one of the “60 best records of the last 10 years,” as Magnet put it? No, but it’s still a wonderful record, a collection of loose, literate, and catchy rock songs that suggest what Pavement would sound like if they were middle-aged men working crappy day jobs.
The Wrens played a fun set that gave me a glimpse of what it might have felt like for people to watch the Replacements live at their peak. I say this because, by all means, the set should have sucked. The vocals were occasionally painfully off, the bass player did more jumping around than actual playing, and sometimes you couldn’t tell the difference between the improvised songs and the pre-written ones. I will admit, though, that the second improvised song in their set was a stroke of genius. The band built it off of the overheard sounds of another band at a nearby club. It completely ROCKED and was one of my favorite moments of this year’s SXSW. Any band that can improvise a great song out of almost nothing has GOT to have something going for them. The band’s enthusiasm more than compensated for their sloppy playing, and the crowd jumped and sang along to Meadowlands highlights like “Happy,” “Faster Gun,” and “Everyone Chooses Sides” just as raucously as the band did. When you write songs as good as the Wrens’, it would take a lot to screw them up, and the band wasn’t THAT sloppy. Each member of the band went out of his way to thank the audience personally for coming out to see them, betraying a gratitude that can only come from way too many years of being ignored. It’s always nice to see a good band finally getting its due.
In all the years that I’ve been to South by Southwest, I don’t think that I’d ever been to a showcase in which I honestly enjoyed EVERY SINGLE BAND…until I went to the showcase that Touch and Go held two Fridays ago at Exodus. Yes, Exodus is the same club where Ozomatli got pepper-sprayed by overzealous cops for having a conga line outside the club, but fortunately nothing crazy happened at THIS showcase. Anyway, the first group to take the stage was CocoRosie, two sisters who recorded an entire album by themselves in an apartment in Paris last spring. This album, La Maison de Mon Rêve, is unlike anything I’ve heard in a very long time, and their set definitely followed suit. Sierra sang in an opera-trained voice, played classical guitar, and occasionally played a droning organ. Bianca manipulated all kinds of toy instruments and sang in a pinched yet pretty whine that was as close to Billie Holiday as I’ve ever heard a white woman get. Both of their voices take getting used to, not because they aren’t easy on the ears (well, Bianca’s voice might be irritating to some people), but simply because you don’t hear those kinds of voices much in mainstream OR underground music. They also had a drummer with them, but she didn’t even play half the time, and what rhythms she did play were barely perceptible. The songs took any number of directions. One minute, they sounded like a classically-trained Cat Power, the next they immersed themselves in Nico’s ominous grandeur, and at other times they had a strange fusion of blues and hip-hop going on. The sisters sat side by side. They didn’t move much, but when they did, it was slow and sensuous, as if the music was making love to them. They’ve got an unclassifiable sound, they’re great singers and musicians, and they’re very easy on the eyes (I now have a GIGANTOR crush on Bianca). What’s not to like??!?
The second act was P.W. Long, a Dallas dude who’s been doing the White Stripes blues-duo shtick for a while, with better musicianship (Long can actually sing and his drummer can actually play) and a much less stringent dress code. Long plugged his guitar into two separate amps, one sitting at each side of the stage, producing one of the most trebly and abrasive rackets I’ve ever heard in a live setting. His voice sounded like a more muscular version of Varnaline’s Anders Parker, and his slide playing was absolutely lethal. The only complaint I had about his set (other than the tinnitus that it produced) was that the songs started to get samey after a while. Then again, I don’t have as much of a tolerance for bluesy garage-rock as most people, so if you play that style of music you’d have to be incredibly diverse to keep my attention after 20 minutes.
I was especially eager to see the third band, Silkworm. They don’t tour often because all three of them have serious day jobs (I think the drummer’s actually a corporate lawyer). I’ve been listening to their music for the past eight years, but every chance I’ve had to see them live was taken from me either by prior obligations or the lack of money. Their music has been the soundtrack to many a one-man mosh pit staged in my bedroom. They’re one of many bands that have taken the Mission of Burma blueprint (angular blue-collar punk rock by men who can almost sing) and crafted their own legacy out of it. One thing they’ve added to the blueprint is serious guitar chops: on promising new songs and familiar old gems like “Don’t Make Plans This Friday” from 1996’s Firewater (arguably Silkworm’s masterpiece), Andy Cohen let out rapid streams of notes that elicited bursts of applause from the crowd, which is a rare feat in a town so crowded with wannabe guitar heroes. Tim Midgett still boasts the best bass sound ever. One reviewer compared his bass playing to “a man thumbing a hot cable wire,” and I couldn’t possibly come up with a better description. When he switched to baritone guitar for songs like “Plain” (from 2000’s Lifestyle), his playing sounded even grimier. You couldn’t hear occasional fourth member Matt Kadane’s keyboard AT ALL, but that’s okay. He got his turn to shine later on in the showcase.
By far, the most hyped band at the Touch and Go SXSW showcase was Brooklyn trio TV on the Radio, and deservedly so. Last year’s Young Liars EP and this year’s Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes LP are documents of a band that have stumbled upon a distinctive sound at an alarmingly quick rate. Icy loop-driven atmospheres, blurry shoegaze guitars, and freewheeling gospel-trained vocals come together to make a noise that suggests a black Peter Gabriel fronting a less histrionic Xiu Xiu. I am sure that at least 75% of the packed crowd at Exodus came specifically to see how the trio (two vocalists and a programmer, all of whom sing and two of which play guitar) would recreate their studio recordings live. However, we all got something much better than that. We got a full-on five-piece ROCK BAND, with the core members augmented by a dreadlocked rhythm section. The drummer stayed in the pocket while the bassist conjured up the best distorted tone I’ve heard since seeing the Electro Group live. The lead guitarist ran his instrument through so much distortion and reverb that he sounded like a human whirlwind. It was nothing short of a miracle that vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone managed to sound BETTER live than they do on the album. The last thing that I expected TV on the Radio to do was rock and/or make me dance, but they did both and gave one of the best performances I’ve seen at this year’s SXSW. (This would make TV on the Radio the third best highlight.)
Dallas sextet The New Year couldn’t help but be a comedown after such an intense set, but I (and the rest of the crowd) loved them anyway. The New Year is the “new” (I put that word in quotes because even though they’ve only released one album, they’ve been around for three years) band of brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, who used to front a band called Bedhead. Bedhead were known for playing slow, morose songs that sounded like they were played by a power trio even though the band had five members. The New Year have the same sound, but with a slightly sprightlier tempo and weirder time signatures. The Kadane brothers’ voices still operate in two modes: whisper and mumble. Even with FOUR guitarists, the music doesn’t sound cluttered. Usually two of the guitarists play the same chords while the other two play single-note harmonies with each other. The intricacy of the guitars is still the biggest selling point of the Kadane brothers’ music. The set was split evenly between the best songs from their debut Newness Ends and even better new songs. The fourth guitarist had a lot of amplifier trouble during the set, but that’s the only thing that kept the New Year’s set from being technically flawless.
The final band on the showcase, Calexico, was the one that I was least familiar with beforehand. I knew that the main members of the band (Joey Burns and John Convertino) were also in proudly burnt-out roots-rock combo Giant Sand, but I didn’t know much else. Now that I’ve actually seen Calexico live, I can now say with complete information that THEY RULE. Their music is a smooth blend of baroque pop, country, jazz, and Tex-Mex. During their set, they pulled off both a Love cover and a series of traditional mariachi songs (with the help of a friend of theirs from Tucson who actually sings mariachi music professionally). Singer/guitarist Burns oozed a calmness and command that I can only describe as “I’ve-got-this-martini-in-my-hand-and-I-can-pull-any-woman-in-this-club-if-I-wanted-to.” The closest analogue I can think of would be the late Mark Sandman of Morphine. Burns has a sweet voice, knows the right fills to play on his guitar at any possible point, and gets into his music on stage without any self-consciousness. It also helps that he leads a very tight band. Drummer Convertino is what Max Weinberg would sound like if he had any sort of restraint. Every time Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela rushed to the microphones with their trumpets, they ushered the music in new levels of crunk. There was an upright bassist and a pedal steel player, but they spent more time holding the songs together than actually showboating. (However, I may be saying this because I just couldn’t hear the pedal steel very well.) A double-bill of these guys and Grupo Fantasma would OWN YOU --- I promise.
SATURDAY, MARCH 20
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any bands this evening because I had to drive to Houston to play a show of my own. I am not just an observer of the scene; I am also a PARTICIPANT! However, if someone could tell me how Dizzee Rascal’s and Cheer-Accident’s sets went, I would greatly appreciate it.