IN A BATTLE OF TITANS, ART BEATS COMMERCE IN A SHOOTOUT @ SXSW 2015


“To Hell With Poverty,” the Gang of Four tells us, “we’ll get drunk on cheap wine.” In 1981, when the song was first recorded, the literal context was king in that Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister for 2 years in the UK and poverty ruled.   Fast forward to Austin, Texas, 2015.   The air is thick with irony.   The problem with the post-punk anti- capitalism ethos in this context is that the band is playing at SXSW on a stage adorned with the logos of dozens of global megabrands, drinking moderately expensive (and definitely overpriced) beer, funded by tens of thousands of trade show attendees, each of whom (or their employers) shelling out thousands of dollars to attend. The Gang of Four is down to one original member, touring to support a new album attempting, at least in part, to generate cash. So much for the poverty. A lot has changed. Society is different today. The music industry is different. Andy Gill is different (but still stoicly awesome). I’m different. Even cheap wine is different.    Yet just like the song, SXSW has got its political and socio-economic incongruities, but it is entertainment–it has an irresistible proto-disco beat you can dance to.

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What does Andy Gill stand for?

So there lies the context and conflict for the annual death match between art, entertainment and commerce that keeps me coming back year after year for my own death march of music.

I have written about the musical smorgasbord of SX and how merely choosing one band, or doing one thing, conceivably x’s you out of the potential opportunity to see at least a hundred of other bands, pretty much any time between 12 noon and 2 am.   And that is just the stuff you find out about. In all this ruckus and the sea of Joy Division t-shirts, connecting the dots in Austin is increasingly difficult. Venues have expanded geographically in all directions so that a 20-30 minute walk won’t do it like it used to. The East Austin neighborhood is continuing to expand and get gentrified when as little as five years ago some parts were pretty darn sketchy. Also, every house on Rainey Street is a reasonably substantial venue or party bar, such that the notorious main part of 6th Street, though still overcrowded, has coincidentally become less and less relevant.

Because of the geographic challenges a day of rain, and, ok, I hurt my ankle playing basketball so racing all over town did not seem as fun, I made a strategic cultural decision–sometimes I just stayed in one place or area and let the music come to me. It’s sort of like that cocktail party strategy–do you work the room or stay in one place?

Stay in place works best at Hotel Vegas, with 4 separate stages and great showcase and party curators and is also next to other good Eastside venues like Gypsy Lounge   The right showcase sponsor can help you find new music in a sea of unfamiliar names. The right booking agency, record company or blog (e.g. Flower or Windish of Chicago, Panache, Burger Records or Brooklyn Vegan) put on solid showcases and day parties. Smaller specialty publications, record companies or record stores also provide good points of reference. She Shreds magazine for example, can clue you into girl guitar bands and had several showcases, including a party at someone’s mom’s house out in N.E. Austin— you really had to be careful not to stand on the vegetables!

Once you make a decision–even if it is not to decide, serendipity works too, and I always plan for it. It is still exciting to hear music coming out of a window or door and then running in to hear what is going on.   This year I was walking down East 6th Street at around 3 pm on Wednesday going from the Gypsy Lounge (Death Valley Girls and Ice Age) to see Alex Maas one of the guitarists in the Black Angels do a solo acoustic set at the Levitation showcase when I heard hazy, chiming guitars bashing their way out of Hotel Vegas and caught my ear.   I ran in to hear Austin girl band Kay Odyessy perform to a handful of people.

Not only were Kay Odyssey a great sunny day psych girl guitar band, but they had the original indie aesthetic. At the end of their set they had “tease” CDs to give away in advance of their first album, each one was handwritten with the band’s information and designed in black magic marker.   It’s a three song CD I would love to recommend if it were available, but something should be out later this year.

Other than the crowds, the only thing I really have a beef about are selfie sticks. I totally understand why festivals are banning them. In the mosh pit at The Damned some dude pulled one out and it was definitely a safety risk. No one wants to get impaled in mid-thrash.

This year in addition to Austin bands, I heard groups from Mali, Korea, Japan, Australia, Spain, Denmark, Canada, and yes even Chicago.

And, despite the big money and brands out there, all of the bands reviewed in this article (except The Damned, I think) could be seen for free without a badge or wristband!

So what about the bands? Out of the 50 + I saw, I enjoyed aspects of almost all of them. Here are some random categories.

SUNNY DAY BANDS (in addition to Kay Odyssey)

Alvvays (Mohawk)

With lazy, hazy lilting female vocals over a light Jesus and Mary Chain haze this Toronto group provides a soundtrack for the Summer.   Their “Marry Me Archie” is one of the catchiest and best songs of 2014.

Best Coast (Palm Door)

Bethany Cosentino’s LA sun drenched songs are another Summer staple. Live her band features a three guitar army adding power to some songs that sound a bit too sugary in their recorded form.   Her new work appears to have more of a psychedelic feel.

GARAGE

Death Valley Girls (Gypsy Lounge)

The Cramps meet Runaways with raunchy power chords, a biker vibe, dual lead female vocals and dueling guitars from this LA band. They just released their first album Summertime and are definitely worth checking out.

Twin Peaks (Waterloo Records)

Don’t mistake them for a David Lynch loving group of brooders.   After playing together since high school, these fuzz-tone hard garage rockers are more Black Lips than black high heels, creating chaotic energy in every performance.   Drummer Connor Brodner has that, its me vs. the drums explosive intensity, while the rolling stoner riffs keep flowing from the guitars.

Twin Peaks

The Shivas (Mohawk Indoor)

If you are looking for great riffs, from soul to garage or british invasion blues, this Portland-based three piece mines that 50s/60s classic territory–think Link Wray, The Sonics, Yardbirds for a psychedelic freak out you can shake your tail feather to–think shivers not shivas!

DANCE

Public Service Broadcasting (Latitude 30)

This UK two piece combines Kraftwerk-esque droning and pulsing autobahn electronica with live drums and, surprisingly, banjo. Visual effects are an outstanding add to the aural as they time their music to British war and space race videos.   It makes for great dance music to (no pun intended) space out to.

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Prince Rama (Container Bar)

These two sisters currently from Brooklyn claim to channel ghosts and perform exorcisms within their music and dance routines.   But , what really matters is that they dish out middle east infused trance dance combining EDM, guitar and drums for the aerobics class of your life (or afterlife).

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Lust for Youth (Volstead Room at Hotel Vegas)

If Depeche Mode and New Order are cup of tea, then add a little reverb noise and this Swedish synth dark wave Euro(nu)disco band is for you.   Make sure to wear your black sunglasses for full effect.

PUNK/POSTPUNK (Dance for some)

Gang of Four (Day Stage)

Though they are down to one original member, and their new material is a little bit new romantic for my taste, Andy Gill is still one of the greatest guitarists of any era, and is certainly the most stoic post punk guitarist.   The original songs are bass-led and bass-laden dance numbers shattered by staccato rifle burst and searing guitar courtesy of Mr. Gill.   Even as the Gang of One they are worth listening to–especially live.

The Damned (Mohawk outdoors)

Reuniting for a victory lap associated with the release of the documentary “The Damned: Don’t’You Wish That We Were Dead”, unfortunately the band was undercut by rented equipment and probably a lack of practice.   Captain Sensible looked as outlandish as usual in fur coat, beret and yellow sunglasses, but again demonstrated his deft, slashy guitar work on hits “Wait for the Blackout” and “Smash it Up.”   Dave Vanian was dressed in his mortician outfit but his vibe did not meet his look, and other than a couple of songs, the band was unable to build upon its legacy.

Metz (Mohawk Outdoor)

This three piece from Toronto appeared before the Damned and proved to be a hard act to follow.   Furious, intense and relentless punk (but not hardcore).   If you have angst to get rid of this is your band.

Rat Fist (BD Riley’s)

Winner of the worst band name, but not to be ignored are No Age’s guitarist Randy Randall and Pissed Jeans drummer’s Sean McGuinness’ side project.   Sludgy, surfy hard rocking punk chords flow from Randy without all noise and effects in No Age.   Brings me back to the first wave of LA punk–Agent Orange, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, etc.

OUTSTANDING OTHER

The Zombies (Stubbs)

If you combine the ages of original keyboardist Rod Argent and singer Colin Blunstone with bass player Jim Rodford (not original, but apparently, he auditioned for the job, did not get it and ended up being bass player for Argent and The Kinks), you get 212, and they have been together for over 50 years.   When I saw them a few years ago they sounded like lame Steely Dan, but in a tribute to their craft, the band has improved substantially by touring and recording in the interim. Rod Argent showed his artistic excellence by pulling off two of the best keyboard solos I have seen in a long time on Time of the Season and She’s Not There. Whatever age you are, those hits and Tell Her No are soulful, groovy, butt rocking tunes that can set you free.

The Lemons (Beerland)

These happy go lucky troubadours combine hootenanny boy/girl harmonies of Greenwich Village folk heroes like Peter Paul & Mary and The Washington Squares with singsong pop rhythms and simple, every day lyrics like Jonathan Richman. The combination creates sweet sonic nuggets. Like a half minute song bite about a trip to the ice cream shop that catches one sunshine smiley moment so well, they played it again.   If you are too old for Mr. Rogers, just put on your sunglasses, grab a cool drink, and sing sha la la background vocals so you can be a Lemon too.

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Songhoy Blues (Hotel Vegas Patio)

Mali is known as the home of the blues in Africa, but unfortunately, the country is currently a sea of unrest. Fighting adversity, this group formed in 2012, and combines traditional jump beat rhythms with Hendrix electric riffs and Booker T & the MGs rhythm, blues boogie –a lively unique sounding combination worthy of more attention.

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