One of the strangest experiences I had at this year’s South by Southwest was watching a spastic duo called People play at Mrs. Bea’s, a dive bar in east Austin. The criminally small audience consisted mainly of middle-aged Hispanics, the bar’s regular clientele, most of whom stared at the duo in utter confusion. Mary Halvorson’s operatic vocals paid mere lip service to the dissonant chord progressions she played on her guitar, while drummer Kevin Shea turned time signatures into silly putty. Together, they sounded like a jazz-trained version of the Shaggs, a sound that’s practically the polar opposite of the Tejano that plays on the bar’s jukebox. The culture clash provoked a lot of stifled laughter.
At first, I thought that this evening’s show would be a repeat of that experience: four artists, all of whom could be lumped into the catchall “New Weird America” subgenre, playing at a different east Austin dive bar with a predominantly middle-aged Hispanic clientele. At one point, Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada, a friend of mine, walked in to buy some beer. I asked him who he was here to see; he didn’t even know the Inn was hosting a show tonight! Weird Weeds drummer Nick Hennies wasn’t fazed by the culture clash at all. Shortly after greeting me, he raved for a while about how many great shows he has seen at the Inn, Cambodian garage-rock outfit Dengue Fever being a particular highlight.
Local quintet Book of Shadows began the show with a half-hour of improvised ambience that sounded like Charalambides drowning in a swamp. Vocalist Sharon Crutcher’s howls were run through oodles of reverb and delay, meshing perfectly with the eerie drones that her husband Carlton played on his keyboard. The group’s three guitarists alternated between playing uneasy arpeggios and abusing their effects pedals, creating waves of noise that ebbed and flowed around the Crutchers with suprising smoothness. Guitarist Jonathan Horne was particularly fun to watch, thrashing away at his instrument with the intensity of an exorcist. Toward the end of the set, he abruptly stopped to wave at a friend in the audience. The smile on Horne’s face was wider and toothier than any I’d seen since moving back to Austin. When he switched from guitar to melodica, I saw a middle-aged Hispanic couple in the audience shake their heads in total exasperation.
Next up was an unannounced solo set from Zodiac Mountain a.k.a. Clay Ruby, a touring partner of headliner Wooden Wand. He played two 10-minute songs, both of which consisted of him improvising on his guitar for at least five minutes before beginning the first verse. On paper, it sounds like a recipe for tedium, but I’ve seen other artists employ a similar modus operandi to brilliant effect; Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance comes easily to mind. Unfortunately, Ruby is no Chasny: his playing was bland and his singing was flat.
The Weird Weeds saved the evening with a wonderful set. If you keep up with my writing, you already know how much I love them. They’re not just my favorite local band; they’re also one of my favorite bands of all time. They make the ugly sound beautiful; they make the random sound intentional; they make experimental noise sound like pop music. This was the 16th time I’ve seen them live, and from a purely technical standpoint, it ranked among the top three sets I’ve seen of theirs.
The songs from their latest album Weird Feelings sounded even better than their recorded counterparts. The scraping noises that vocalist Sandy Ewen eked out of her guitar gave “For You to See Me” a newfound menace; Ewen’s and Hennies’ vocal harmonies on “One-Eyed Cloud” and “Cold Medicine” sounded stronger than ever. However, the REAL highlights of their set were the new songs. On “Hold in the Light,” Aaron Russell’s fills cascaded down the neck of his guitar like waterfalls. The climax of “Lies” was a rarity: a straightforward 4/4 groove, which the band allowed to gain momentum for more than 30 seconds. “You Drive Me Crazy” was a brief, charming waltz, during which Ewen played with her guitar sitting on her chest instead of her lap.
During the extremely quiet “Ribs and Wrinkles” (which closes their debut album Hold Me), Ewen and Hennies sang the words “Can you hear me/Can you hear me play?” right after a group of people at the other end of the bar finished having a laughing fit. Anyone who frequently attends indie-rock shows should be able to appreciate the irony of that moment.
The last time I saw James Toth a.k.a. Wooden Wand was when he played Room 710 a year ago with his then-backing band, the Vanishing Voice. (The Weird Weeds opened that show too, by the way; it was the 13th time I’d seen them.) Toth and his band played a set of rollicking psychedelic jams that greatly impressed me. I bought two of their CDs that night, sound unheard, only to discover that neither of them resembled their live show in any appreciable way.
This evening, Toth brought only himself and his beautiful wife Jessica: he sang and played acoustic guitar, and Jessica contributed occasional backing vocals. I spotted many Biblical references in his lyrics: “O Babylon, great mother of harlots...,” “The first will be last...,” “Will your name appear in the book of life?” His singing occasionally took on a tremor that recalled Devendra Banhart. Fortunately, Toth is an earthier writer and stronger singer than Banhart.
I was just as impressed by Toth's performance this evening as I was by last year’s. You can’t help but like a guy who refers to his merchandise as “souvenirs.” I took another chance and bought Toth’s latest album Second Attention (which was recorded with his new outfit the Sky High Band) after the set, only to discover upon first listen that he only played one song from it at the Inn. Toth, you’ve hoodwinked me again. Come back next year; maybe the third time will be the charm!