Austin is a big town for a small town, especially so during SXSW, with probably more than 50,000 additional people heading into town. This year, my “its so crowded” lament is that I told the cab driver from the airport to drop me as close to the hotel as he thought he could without getting into bumper to bumper traffic, and he dropped me more than 5 blocks from the hotel—which I really didn’t mind as I got to see the new southeast Rainey street scene which is made up of bars built from homes and food trucks and is more laid back than 6th street. It can be a total zoo—like 6th street is every night with four lanes of intersecting human traffic dodging each other as they try to drunkenly get somewhere, but the fact that it has houses somehow makes things cozy.
Don’t get me wrong, Austin during SXSW can still be pretty intimate too. You can still see hundreds of quality bands for free during the day, or at night for $15 or less with little or no crowds, and sometimes free drinks and food too. I think every band I saw other than Springsteen, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Thee Oh Sees met that free by day or cheap by night criteria. You can also see a lot of people you know—if you know what they look like. For example, while waiting on a very short cab line at the airport, who should walk up literally behind me but my brother! You could sit next to Jon Langford and Chuck Prophet on a bench outside of Jovita’s, or you could walk past musicians you are going to see or have seen on the street or at the bar before or after their shows and even buy them drinks. And, most importantly, you can see bands from all over the world you might not have the chance to see otherwise, and in smallish and small venues. To me that is why I keep coming back for more.
This year had the most cases (at least 4) where a band cancelled or was way too late for its show. The gear for Ramesh of Voxtrot for example, arrived over an hour late so I missed him. Other situations worked out for the best—you got to roll with it or roll with the punches depending on whether you are an Oasis or Warren Zevon fan. This is also the year of more democracy—many day parties—like Ray-Bans-boo, I missed one of Bleached’s shows because I was waiting on line did not give advantages to badge wearers. That’s ok with me actually. But if you were a Bruce fan, that badge got you to see his keynote speech, in which he played “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” solo (make sure you watch it, starting at minute 23 on http://www.npr.org/2012/03/16/148778665/bruce-springsteens-sxsw-2012-keynote-speech although I recommend the whole thing). He also admitted to “theft” of the opening riff from “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” turning it into “Badlands”. I have to admit that I welled up at least twice watching Bruce—when he acknowledged how much The Animals meant to him in being working class and rough and tumble (though he did not give credit to Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the husband and wife team that wrote the song, On Broadway, Kicks!, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and many others and Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico who wrote “It’s My Life”) and during his concert when he acknowledged the loss of Clarence and Danny Federici after a “Roll Call” of the band, he chanted “Who are we missing” (repeated in his James Brown-minister voice) and “If we are here, and you are here, they are here.” Moving. Also Bruce surprisingly gave credit to The Sex Pistols who he acknowledged were feared, which was much different than shocking, which was easier. I would have thought The Clash were a stronger influence, but the fact that he told us that punk influenced Darkness is big news in and of itself. Also, it was great to hear his recognition of Curtis Mayfield in the afternoon and then the “Move on Up” riff at the end of E Street Shuffle in the evening.
Which brings me to Thee Oh Sees, who have truly absorbed many of the same influences as Bruce and are delivering it for another generation (and me) in a different way. It seems like Thee Oh Sees have absorbed every rhythm, beat and riff from 60s Rock R&B, like Land of 1000 Dances and Do You Love Me, added another layer of drum beats and squealing guitar, doubled the speed and jacked the intensity up to 11. What that gives you is the most energetic and truly enjoyable rock and roll dance music around today that takes you just to the point of frenzy but not quite out of control excitement and awe. I hope Bruce checks them out.
Due to a scheduling error (the band apparently forgot), they were late for their appearance at the Carson Daly showcase, so they ended up playing 2 sets, at 10pm and 1am. The first show was in front of an audience that was not “theirs.” They did a great show, and Carson Daly joined them to play drums for the last song and everyone was happy. At 1am, the audience–at least the ones in the front–were all super Thee Oh Sees fans and there was a lot of friendly slam dancing in the mosh pit, where everyone (who all seemed to be at least 20 years younger than me) looked out for each other (e.g. reminding me to take my glasses off before the show started) and had fun. The only way to gauge the high energy level is that I think I sweated the second most I ever have at any concert within memory.
Another band who owes a lot to the 60’s is Bleached, who mash up 40 years of rock and roll girl group music. I am a HUGE fan of the LA punk band Mika Miko (who I first saw at SXSW in 07), and I was as almost as sad when they broke up in 09 as when Sleater-Kinney broke up to—but not as sad as when the Mets traded Tom Seaver—you have to keep things in perspective. Bleached features sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin who were both in Mika Miko. I was actually afraid to see them at SXSW because I did not think I would like them because Bleached is way different than Mika Miko. Together the Clavins have put together something much tamer than punk in terms of sound–a jangly, skiffley, riff-based sunny band. Luckily, their great harmonies reminded me of The Chiffons if backed by The Vivian Girls, their chiming guitars reminded me of The Searchers–if they were female and played faster or even, and at one moment in time the whole package sounded like–dare I say it Fleetwood Mac (on their single Searching for the Past—which is definitely a kind of “can’t get it out of my head” little pop masterpiece). However I analogize them, the result is the same. Here is a band to get your feet moving and your face smiling for permanent Summer fun. You can either tap your toes and sway to their records, or see them live where their music has additional urgency and bouncy drive—from sway to swagger.
Urgency is a calling card of The Jesus and Mary Chain—or at least it was their calling card during their reign from 1985-1994. Phil Spector’s wall of sound meets The Ramones in a feedback infused shimmering ode to drugs and/or lust (always hard to differentiate). In one of their first shows in 3 years—when they were not good—the Ried brothers delivered a show with the greatest variation in quality I have probably ever seen (though there was a Wilco show at the Vic where Jeff Tweedy got pissed at the sound and audience—but he may have stopped trying). Once Jim Ried shook off his vocal cobwebs, he delivered deep and strong vocals in Blues From A Gun—after telling his brother to stop and tune up—which was key to the driving guitar sound. They also meshed and William played awesome surf/chiming guitar on Happy When it Rains. Unfortunately the feedback got out of control for Just Like Honey, really butchering a beautiful song. Only Never Understand me which is supposed to be layered in feedback and Reverence stood out in the last few songs. Yet, despite the inconsistency, Blues From a Gun is one of only a few songs which are in auto-play in my mind, along with Think of You by Bleached.
Luck and timing plays a role in a lot of what I experience at SXSW. People and friends and those within the extensive mailing list of this tome often ask me how I come across new music, both generally and at SXSW. My usual response is through just going and seeing live music and taking recommendations from people, and sometimes due to pure luck. In the case of The Black Ryder from Australia it was a little of all of the above. My daughter Rachel recommended a few bands to me, including one that was playing outside of Red Eyed Fly at the Noise Pop showcase (free). So I had two good markers for a band—Noise Pop and Rachel. Now, in order to get to the back of Red Eyed Fly you have to walk through the club where another band was playing. As I walked through I stopped in my tracks as I heard a haunting layered, shimmering shoe gaze sound from a band all dressed in black. As I texted my friend Miguel, with whom we encountered The Morning After Girls a few years ago, it sounded like this band combined with The drone of LA’s The Warlocks—but with some female vocals that really provide a melodic counterpoint that really rose above the chiming, repetitive, swirl of guitars.. Only in writing this report did I realize that the two main people in the band were in The Morning After Girls. So if I really had done my research I would have wanted to see this band. Luckily, I was able to see them again during a Saturday night show, which was the highlight of my last night.
Another lucky move led me to Chair Lift, a hypnotic dance band from Brooklyn. They have a charismatic, swirling lead singer and combine 80s synth dance. When they play slow, they sound like The Human League led by Delores O’Brien of the Cranberries. When they pick it up a bit they sound more like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Although I would have preferred to see them late in the evening than at 4 pm.
That is one of the anomalies of SXSW. There is a day and a night. The day is pretty much free ranging and there are hundreds of different places to go hear music from 12-6 for free, with no badges required—though badges can help. For Chair Lift, the line was real long, so I walked into the venue next door and talked my way through the gate into the Empire Automotive converted gas station. I saw Chair Lift again at Stubbs—a much bigger venue—at the Spin party and realized that Chair Lift is definitely a club band and you want to be close.
When I first started going to SX the days and nights were distinct, so you could go back to your hotel and crash from 6-8, but now the day parties put on their headliners at 6 or even 7 and there are some good evening showcases that start at 7:30 or 8 which can make for an exhausting day with no break.
Late night luck hit me on Friday night. Walking down 6th Street sometimes you just hear music coming from a bar. This year, stumbling home disappointed after hearing the Cloud Nothings, I heard really good music wafting out of the Easy Tiger Patio, an outdoor venue and went down and heard Girl in a Coma, a great three piece girl group from San Antonio playing Smiths infused rhythm with punky vocals, a great way to finish the night.
At night there are so many bands competing against each other in the 1:00 am slot (and sometimes even with a badge hard to get in) that you just have to see some of them in the day time. Shout Out Out Out Out is one of my favorite dance bands. They are from Edmonton, Canada so they don’t get out our way too much. They were playing Headhunters, one of the smallest clubs in Austin, and their three keyboards and two drums filled up half the club so everyone was right on top of the band dancing their butts off to tough synth pop in the afternoon. Somehow it seemed more natural than Girl Talk at the time—and it was. Their songs subtly talk about bad choices one can make and how in the end its your friends that will f____ you over—but in such a happy, dancy context. This is kinda disco, yes—but with a conscience. But definitely better at 2 am than 2 pm.
Another afternoon treasure was Paul Collins/Peter Case. These guys have a lot of footnotes of rock and roll to them in their almost 40 years of rock and roll. As part of the Nervs in 1974 they wrote and recorded “Hangin on the Telephone” which became a huge hit for Blondie. In 1979, Paul Collins formed the band The Beat—whose incredible debut album was a major force in starting a whole genre of power pop. The band ultimately became the Paul Collins Beat because there was an English ska band called The Beat—which became the English Beat (as a trademark lawyer of course I love that). Peter Case sang The Plimsouls song A Million Miles Away which featured heavily in the 1983 film Valley Girl.
Well each of these excellent guitarists and singer/songwriters has had their own career—Peter Case having a lot more success than Paul Collins as a folk rock musician. However, 2012 counts as the year these guys got together to do a tour and it is like seeing a greatest hits show of three or four bands. These are big time artists wearing their sunglasses in the daylight and having a lot of fun, enjoying singing backup or playing rhythm when the other sings lead. It was hard not to keep from smiling the entire show. Catch em if you can coz it is a match made in power pop heaven and could be a one time only deal. I think I will see them again on Sunday!
While those guys had 40 years of experience, it is a rare and pleasurable treat to see a band that has more than 50 years experience. The Standells may have been the only band at SXSW to match that criteria. Featuring 69 year old Larry Tamblyn, the band ran that has been referred to as “the godfathers of punk” went through some new songs which were pretty good attacking the 1% before getting down to some great garage classics like Good Guys Don’t Wear White, Hey Joe and the rock and roll classic Dirty Water—Tamblyn’s voice amazingly sounded dead on. An unforgettable rock and roll experience that too few people attended.
In addition to seeing oldtimers playing garage rock, I was happy to see the Fungi Girls. This is a band of high schoolers (so a 50 year difference from The Standells!) from Denton, Texas who totally sound like The Seeds with their relentless garage rock. They had a 7:30 slot so they attracted a few people, many of whom were planning to go elsewhere and could not believe the band was so young . Their initial derisive comments turned to respect and awe as these three high school kids sizzled and slammed their fuzzed out Nuggets tunes.
Another great psych/garage band is Secret Colours. They are recent college graduates from a western suburb of Chicago, and I was lucky to see them a few times near home, but wanted to support their SXSW debut. They played DB Riley’s which is a problematical venue because it is almost as good to listen to a band from the street as from within the bar. This band has tremendous guitar interplay and droning guitars reminiscent of the Black Angels, Morning After Girsl and Asteroid #4 with quite a bit of the Yardbirds thrown in for great measure.
I had similar positive feelings about Young Prisms, a low-fi psych band from San Francisco. I luckily ran into them because the played ahead of Bleached at an Impose Magazine party at the Longbranch Inn, a new venue for me on the east side of Austin. They had a very atmospheric sound.
The best foreign band I saw was Rebuilding the Rights of Statues who I had last seen at SXSW in 2007. The band has not changed that much, with its post punk Gang of Four/B-52s sharp and bouncy. Hua Dong the lead guitarist and singer still does not look at the audience too much, preferring to look across at bassist Liu Min. On some songs he recorded and looped his guitar, which created a superior sound. Unfortunately, they played at 7:30 at the Converse showcase so they had a very small crowd.
You really can’t go to Austin without seeing Alejandro Escovedo–it is kinda like going to New York and not seeing the Flatiron Building, no matter how many times you see him there is always something new and newly rediscovered to admire. This year he had a lot of excitement, with Bruce Springsteen joining him during his Wednesday night one show and half of REM with him at his Sunday night Continental gig During his community show at the San Jose hotel he gets to pull out all the stops, with a full band, horns and back-up singers. My comments are strangely similar to last year. His best current song is still Chelsea Hotel 78 with a great chorus “It makes no sense, it makes perfect sense” but I was able to think more about that song, how Alejandro’s band The Nuns had opened for The Sex Pistols at Winterland, how Alejandro lived in the Chelsea Hotel when Sid and Nancy moved in, and how he saw Sid get taken away by the cops, and how those experiences inform the song and chorus.
In the one degree of separation world, Chuck Prophet co-writes a lot of songs with Alejandro every couple of years Chuck comes to SXSW, and in his own words, playing in the smallish Tex-Mex restaurant/roadhouse Jovita’s is his favorite place to play. Chuck is an incredible guitar player who mixes his rootsy rock and roll with a lot of soul power. He also has a great sense of rock history. He opened with a cover of Alex Chilton’s Bangkok, that and We Gotta Get Out of This Place were the best covers I heard. Chuck also played Always a Friend which I have heard Alejandro do many times but never Chuck.
There were a couple of disappointing shows.
has been in the Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and the Dum Dum Girls–all great live bands–she has not cobbled together enough to carry the torch. Her band is dressed in black (check), the guitar players are jangly (check), she has girls in the band (check), they sing great harmonies (check). However, the combination appears to be slightly less than the sum of the parts, which means she is great as part of a team, but not as the leader of the team (talk to Carmelo Anthony about that). I look forward to hearing her again with stronger collaborators or material.
Last year, I saw Cloud Nothings and I thought they were the best of the bunch of power pop or punky pop bands that I saw. This year, they have morphed into an anger driven hard rock semi-punk/metal band bearing no resemblance to what I heard last year. They have become very popular, but seem to have lost touch with melody. On punk with pop and hard rock tones I prefer Vancouver’s Japandroids. This guitar and drums duo always plays with passion and power. I only caught pieces of two sets, but the energy and fast power chords were still there and I look forward to their new album in June.
I was excited to see Titus Andronicus open for Jesus and Mary Chain. They have a snotty pop punk vibe (which is right up my alley!), but after listening to Bruce Springsteen, it almost seemed like they were a parody band playing punked up versions or retorts to his songs. I’ll give them another chance.
So what about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band? To quote the man himself ““Learn how to bring it live and then do it night after night. Your audience will remember you.” And he and his band practices what he preaches so that no doubt is one of the best live performers there is. And he preached extremely well–it was impressive to see him and his big band in a 2,500 seat hall (although Alejandro’s big band was not too shabby either–I would love to see David Pulkingham play with Steve Van Zandt and/or Nils Lofgrin sometime.) Some of the new material from Wrecking Ball is a little weak, with the exceptions of We Take Care of Our Own and Wrecking Ball which are pretty triumphant, deep sounding, powerful and even meaningful–they combined great with Badlands. The highlight of what I saw was definitely The Ghost of Tom Joad, when Tom Morello played extremely electric, searing and auteuristic guitar solo. Clarence’s nephew and the rest of the horns held up really well, and it was very intimate and exciting each time the horns came down and played up front, particularly during the E Street Shuffle.
I have to admit that it simply was too hard for me to listen to the sax solo of Thunder Road-one of my favorite songs.