People always ask me what bands I am looking forward to seeing at SXSW.  While there are  always a few, and I spend a lot of time analyzing shows like many of my friends analyze NCAA brackets, but, for me, what I am REALLY looking forward to is the unexpected experience.

One of my favorite songs of all time is The Cramps’ “New Kind of Kick”.  Though the song is about drugs, I look at it as experiential—I’m looking, and looking and looking for, some “new kind of kick” whether sober or impaired that will make me feel different, or the same in a different way.[1]  Those kind of kicks are not impossible to find, but are admittedly rare and by definition, you can’t just make them happen.  You just sort of have to set the wheels in motion and you never know what will happen once you put yourself into drive.   That is probably the best explanation in this moment as to why I do go back and back for more.

The last few years, it seems the best chance of expecting the unexpected is to walk out East on 6th Street.  East Austin has turned over the years from a rough and semi-dangerous, walk on the wild side  area to a really laid back and cool place to walk, eat and hang out.   But it is nothing like Logan Square, Williamsburg or other hipster havens.  There are places like the Hotel Vegas, which for SXSW becomes 4 venues in one, empty lots full of food trucks like the East Side filling station and more and more condo projects (oh well, nothings perfect).

On a misty late Saturday morning/early afternoon, my daughter and I just went to walk E. Austin with no particular place to go.  The purpose was solely to show it to her the neighborhood as she had seen South Congress and its upscale galleries and coffee shops (including the new Toms-brand store) and the utter chaos of the main 6th Street area.  We came upon the Brooklyn Country Cantina party at Licha’s Country Cantina– which is basically a big old house with front and back yard.  On the front porch was Mikaela Davis, a young harpist from Rochester, New York, with her band.  Since the front porch was pretty small, Mikaela, her harp and her guitar/sitar player were on the porch, while her drummer/percussionist played from the ground.

While harp is not particularly the first instrument that comes to your mind for a rock band, Mikaela plays a pretty aggressive harp with strength and beauty that supports her ethereal voice and a dream pop sound, a little dreamier when it was sitar and not guitar.  Being outdoors probably helped the sound, with birds chirping and even the wave sound provided by passing cars creating waves to support her light psych-dream peaceful Sunday afternoon music–#BeachHouse;

It just made us stop our walk and hang out by the fence to watch for a half hour or so.  Though there was music I enjoyed much more, I don’t think I enjoyed a musical moment more.   And when someone asks me next year what band I am looking forward to see, I will probably hesitate a moment and then mention a couple of bands, and say (again with apologies to The Cramps) that I’m really looking for “something I ain’t had before.”

In addition to looking for new things, I try to remember other things that are important even while chasing after music.

I know the intersection of 9th and Red River very well.   There are at least two, huge orange and white barricades designed to keep traffic off of Red River-which is a pedestrian only zone for several blocks all SXSW.    I have seen dozens of memorable shows at Mohawk- from the Dum Dum Girls, Broken Bells, Japandroids, Kurt Vile–it’s one of Austin’s best venues.  And the line to get into the venue is often pretty long and even stinking badges can’t always beat the system.   On March 12, I headed up Red River–which is blocked off to traffic to see if I could catch X, but the line was too long, so I moved on. About an hour later a 21 year old drunk driver drove through two barricades on Red River and into one of the lines outside Mohawk, sending dozens of people sprawling (and killing 3 people so far).  Many of the injured have been released from the hospital and I pray that they all have a speedy recovery.   Some of you may have read my report a few years ago when another crazy driver sideswiped a bunch of cars and just missed seriously harming people and how several people, including me, took to the street to protect the injured, call 911 and control traffic at 6th and Congress until the police got there. I don’t want to write about these incidents. Let there not be any more. But I am comforted by my friends and family members who texted and called to make sure that I was ok, and  there is a 501(c)(3) that has set up a fund for the victims.

All right, but WHAT ABOUT THE BANDS?  There were, not surprisingly, some really memorable performances as well as unique experiences.  But first in no particular order, some bands.

Cheetah Chrome (Sailor Jerry-Party–the place to get free tattoos).

With punk’s pioneers getting  on in years, it was a treat to see the former Dead Boy and Rocket From the Tombs guitarist (played by Rupert Gint in the CBGB movie) living, breathing, looking like a character in Sons of Anarchy and dishing out hard power chords. Leading a Dead Boys cover band, he played songs from his recently released first (at 59 years old) solo album containing songs he recorded from 1996-2010, and all of them we strong straight ahead power rock.  But the payoff  was when he lit into the opening chords of Sonic Reducer.   Definitely one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written(don’t just trust me, it is listed as one of the 660 songs that shaped rock and roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum curatorial staff and a number of rock critics and historians).   With Cheetah singing (instead of late Dead Boys singer Stiv Bators) the song still delivered on its ____ the world attitude.

 Eternal Summers (Cheer Up Charlies)

This Roanoke, Virginia trio has got all the power-pop-punk hooks you could ever want.  Early Cure–check, Undertones–check, Pylon-check.  One chiming guitar, ironic, high powered but not screaming, firm female vocals that never get out of control thanks to a driving-pummeling backbeat duo.  Perfect music to dance to at an afternoon street fair or a late night club. P1010503 

No Joy (Maggie Mae’s)

This is a shimmering noisy sometimes driving shoedaze band from Montreal.  The band members spend half their time with their hair hanging over their heads, but they deliver waves of  atmospheric, complex, thick, wall of  sound running from moody Cure, to Sonic Youth to My Bloody Valentine and into the stratosphere.

Coachwhips (Pitchfork Party at French Legation Museum)

Anyone that has read this before knows that I love Thee Oh Sees and find them to be one of the best live bands around today.  This was Jon Dwyer’s band before joining Thee Oh Sees, and with that band on hiatus, he reformed Coachwhips who last performed as an entity in 2005.  This is raw, stripped down, raunchy rock and roll three piece–fast 2 or 3 chord noisy guitar chops, simple trap drums and a pulsing Casio keyboard, think of the Batman theme song but faster,  jumpier, choppier and edgier and other-good-ers— and adding Jon’s distorted vocals for 1-2 minute nod or jump up and down nuggets of frenzy.  The band set  up in front of the stage so it could be surrounded by and on the level of the crowd (or because its sound was so simple it did not need monitors).   The last song “peanut butter and jelly” had a very memorable chorus.  Jon sang “peanut butter” with the crowd shouted “jelly.”   Too bad Norman Rockwell was no around to memorialize the scene.P1010479

The Cosmonauts(Hotel Vegas)

This four year old Orange County band combines the driving shoegaze psychelic drone of The Black Angels and slower zombie stalk of The Warlocks with a little bit of psychobilly Gun Club with rinse and repeat shambly and somewhat raunchy swirls of guitars (in the great song “Wear Your Hair Like a Weapon”). With two singers alternating vocals on songs, and switching tempos the band can sound like two bands, but both of them are pretty darn good.

Those Darlings (Cheer Up Charlies)

This is a twangy southern-tinged power rock trio from Tennessee–think a hyped up Everly Sisters.   They win the award for best cover song I heard as SX other than at the Lou Reed thing. Their version of Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot caught the haunting freedom and amped up the ringing guitar anger of the original

Public Service Broadcasting (Gypsy)

Here is the one for dance band fans.  PSB is a two piece electronic group from the UK that combines samples of old public information films around drums, electronics, keyboard, guitar and banjo interjects.  The music is often more chiming and driving than EDM, but the unique combination of World War II words and images with today’s music and a danceable beat makes me want to see them at 1 am or later next time.

Steve Wynn and Miracle Three (Yarddog)

Steve Wynn has been around for a while, and is probably best known for his work with The Dream Syndicate which started in 1982 but is just now doing its 30th anniversary tour for some reason. SW and the Miracle Three provides some of the best guitar interplay of any rock and roll band around today.  Featuring alternating lead guitar riffs with Jason Victor, they can really wreck the place.   If you like any kind of rock and roll–look no further than their driving anthem Amphetamine (this is not from this year but is great quality)  Playing in the backyard of the Yarddog[2] at Steve’s own curated party–the guitar sound slams off the brick walls of the buildings it is not for the squeamish but an awesome performance every time.

Dum Dum Girls (Mellow Johnnies-KEXP)

Dee Dee can perform some of the best dark but chimy pop hook songs, and working with Richard Gotterher (73 years old) who wrote My Boyfriend’s Back, performed and wrote I Want Candy and produced bands from Blondie to the Go Go’s to The Raveonettes you can understand how her repertoire can range the gamut from bad-ass Rolling Stones to the romantic Smiths and beyond with flair and meaning.   Lately, her work has included a lot of ballad and new wave work very reminiscent of The Pretenders–not that that is all bad.  Live though, whatever she and her band performs is injected with incredible drama and power.    Even though it was 12 noon (or maybe because it WAS 12 noon) it was  great emotional performance–especially when she sang. “I Got Nothing” the day after the crash, it was simple, poignant and meaningful (I fell nothing. I got nothing left to say from this day on.) but hopeful (I don’t to fade, I just want to shine).  

Cindy Lee Berryhill (Esther’s Follies)

Cindy Lee grew up in San Diego and was one of the leaders of the East Village anti-folk movement of the late 80s ( a loose group that included Beck and Michelle Shocked).  Check out her “Who’s Gonna Save the World”.  In the 90’s she started a garage orchestra and married Paul Williams one of the first and greatest rock critics, and founder of Crawdaddy magazine. See among other things Unfortunately, Paul took ill after a bicycle incident in 1995 and she took many years off to be a mother, wife and caretaker.  Paul sadly passed away this past Fall and Cindy Lee has gotten back with her garage orchestra.  This performing group was most notable for the varied instruments, and she wins the award for must unusual instrumentation, which included cello, vibraphone, xylophone and a percussionist that played shipping box and water heater cover (take that Tom Waits)!  Although she focused on new material, she opened with a haunting, bluesy edition of “Radio Astronomy” from her last released album in 1994.  She played at a small comedy venue that was unfortunately not that well attended, although that was another unique SXSW experience–she played at a free show to 15-30 people and you did not need a badge or anything.  The next night she played the sold out Lou Reed benefit with approximately 1,300 people attending and cheering her.  Her new material clearly shows her dealing with some of the tragic issues that she has dealt with over the last decade and more, as well as wry observations about the world.   I look forward to her new beginnings.

Lou Reed Tribute

Any kind of event that featured 27 different performances from 27 different groups of musicians was bound to have its highs and lows, but Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Barone had their (rock and roll) hearts in the right place when the put together a memorial tribute to Lou Reed.  What I took from the event was how soulful his music really was, even if was often coated with street punk anger, clouded by drug addiction or encased in noise.  Garland Jeffreys, who went to Syracuse University with LR when he was just a Jewish punk kid from Long Island, focused on LR’s love of doo wop and proceeded to belt out a James Brownesque “Waiting for My Man”

The show also featured a NY late 70s all star group featuring the music historian and Patti Smith accompanist Lenny Kaye on guitar (with Tony Shanahan bassist of the current Patti Smith Group), together  with Ivan Julian (of Richard Hell and the Voidoids) also on guitar and backed by one of rock and roll’s best and most travelled drummers, Clem Burke of Blondie and numerous other bands.  They nailed Sweet Jane as well as formed the backbone for many of the song in what clearly appeared to be a labor of love for them all.  

Another amazing soulful surprise was the reformed new romantic band Spandau Ballet’s version of Satellite of Love.   SB’s lead singer Tony Hadley is charismatic and angular  like Bryan Ferry and explained their musical connection with Reed went through David Bowie–which would make a great rock family tree diagram.  But most importantly, they found the essence of Reed’s song and blew it into a sad and magical romantic dance tune.

Searing roots rock showed its face with Bobbie Bare’s driving rendition of   Oh! Sweet Nothin’ and Wayne Kramer (co-founder of the MC 5’s) who delivered a Warren Zevon-esque version of Kill Your Sons; Chuck Prophet delivering his positive love for music on Rock and Roll Heart and Cheetah Chrome hard rocking Romeo Had Juliet.

NY garage punk reared its head with The Fleshtones, running throughout the stage and the theatre (though they did not have their usual mobile guitars) providing a garage-pop invigorating  hootenanny singalong version Real Good Time Together.

Steve Wynn and Jason Victor created a guitar army joining forces with Lenny Kaye and Ivan Julian to absolutely shred out a full 17 minute version of Sister Ray that depending on who you are could equally send one to euphoria or the medicine cabinet–or both.

Alejandro Escovedo’s sometimes regular string section of Susan Voelz on violin and Brian Standifer on cello, added searing punctuation to many of the songs, particularly, Alejandro’s own talk/rap of Street Hassle.   Which helped Alejandro did himself out of the doghouse for totally (in his own words) f-ing  up on Waves of Fear and creating one of the few lowlights of the 3+ hour event.

And rock and roll royalty paid a visit in the form of  Sean Lennon, who delivered a strong (and another soulful) version of What Goes On, showing a lot of his dad in him, as well as his own singing and guitar skills.

I did not know Lou Reed (though I imagined playing pinball next to him once at the Broadway Arcade), and I would not be presumptuous like Richard Barone to declare that Lou Reed would have liked the tribute, but there were , lengthy pleasurable grooves, a few lulls, pings of excitement, electric tension, drama and surprises, moments of chaos, grandeur, sadness, togetherness, magic, some new kind of kicks and ultimately beautiful sadness–a bit like SXSW, rock and roll and life. 



[1] And, of course, I could cite to contrary authority- Paul Revere & the Raiders “Kicks” another of my favorite songs No, you don’t need kicks To help you face the world each day.  That road goes nowhere I’m gonna help you find yourself another way.

[2] The Yarddog is another unique SXSW experience because as a results of the roots rock type of music played there it often becomes a location frequented by (ahem) some of the older crowd. As my daughter said with a bit of mocking irony–“Dad, you are definitely one the younger people here”. I’ll never feel that way at The Burlington or Bottle.

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