KICKS–NEW AND OLD–FULL OF MAGIC AND LOSS

KICKS–NEW AND OLD–FULL OF MAGIC AND LOSS

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;   http://mikaeladavis.bandcamp.com/

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. https://www.austincommunityfoundation.org.

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  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFOOk7m64Pc

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) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKMxflK_dok.  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  http://sandiegotroubadour.com/2013/05/scribe-of-the-tribe-the-ballad-of-paul-williams/ 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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2013–BEST PERFORMANCES–OLD, NEWISH AND NEW

This year I can’t say I saw so many amazing performances that merit separate old and new posts (but see my Televison post).   Not that this was a horrible year for performances, but I have always been a tough grader.   There were several tremendous individual and cumulative moments, like sweating virtually head to toe at several Thee Oh Sees shows in San Francisco, Austin (including the best show ever put on in the backyard of an Italian restaurant!), seeing Savages blow away unfamiliar crowds at the SPIN party at SXSW and at Pitchfork and not take any shit from some drunken asshole at an evening show–instead responding up with the song–don’t let the f___kers get you down.

Here are some performance highlights of 2013 not in any particular order.

JULIE RUIN  -Fun Fun Fun Fest.  I’m disappointed to say that I missed Kathleen Hanna’s first two acts, as the lead singer for Bikini Kill and leader of the Riotgirl movement (check out The Punk Singer documentary for what I missed).   But Kathleen has beaten Lyme disease and created a feminist dance band with Kathi Wilcox and others in the Julie Ruin.  Think Polystyrene leads the B-52s.   Wisecracking about how she was interviewing for a tech job in Austin, Hanna looked more like she was auditioning for the lead in Hairspray in shimmying in a leotard.  Really a pleasant surprise, a band that has something to say and says it in a fun way.

Follakzoid: Empty Bottle/SXSW.   Hypnotic pulsing energy from Santiago, Chile.  Sons of German immigrants, this band was reared on German progressive rock (or Krautrock, e.g. Kraftwerk and Can) from the 1970s.  Whether playing in total darkness or with Xmas lighting they combine the German influence with South American aboriginal beats to layer distorted guitars on top of keyboards and slowly speed up from a drone to a Autobahn repetitive pulse with higher-grade intensity.  While they are known in the indie/psych world, Follakzoid could probably succeed in the trance dance circuit too raising the stakes from highway and ending up with waves of distortion hurtling you into space. Totally an intense trip.

Follakzoid Lighting Up the Empty Bottle

Follakzoid Lighting Up the Empty Bottle

NEGATIVE SCANNER (Owl, Cole’s, Burlington, Whistler, Empty Bottle).   Look no further than this new Chicago post punk band for short, sharp, furious songs that get your head nodding and feet bouncing.   With influences ranging from Siouxsie and the Banshees to the Sex Pistols to bands I have probably never heard, lead singer Rebecca Flores howls while the rest of the band buzzsaws away at electric transmission wires.  Next year at this time, please check “best of” music lists and you may well find this their first album (not released yet) there.

PARQUET COURTS (Pitchfork).   Brooklyn brash and bratty band with simple, fast chords and comic book vocals (Stoned and Starving). The lead singes sing together, often simultaneously, with a bit of cacophony like Times New Viking, but also as sense of urgency like the Gang of Four and joy and whimsy like Jonathan Richman. One thing that is often difficult to understand is how much work it takes to sound so disorganized–and it really shows on stage, where precision and organization actually reigns. My daughter and I thought that this band would be just as fun in performing as is their recorded music, but the performance was a bit lacking–though the music wins out and is still fun and pulsing.

SAVAGES  (The Main (used to be Emo’s), Easy Tiger, Lincoln Hall, Pitchfork)   This is a band that you could tell would hit it moderately big and fast. An all-girl post-punk group from London featuring sharp driving and sometimes atmospheric guitars with a ferocious lead singer Jehny Beth. She is a vocalist with incredible angst and anger (think a male Ian Curtis). What amazed me was how much power she possessed that she channeled an immense, intense rage through her eyes, fists and upper body with an economy of motion while chanting such declarative songs as “shut up” and “don’t tell her.” It is hard to avert her glare, if only to watch the bassist bouncing around with her eyes closed or the slashing guitar chords of Gemma Thompson, who provides an angular haircut and stance as she pulverizes her chords. I saw them first when they did not even have an album out but delivered with energy and a new variation on the punk form I thought I had seen many times before–but the intensity, anger and seriousness, all made it seem so fresh.

Jehnny  Beth of Savages Making a Point

Jehnny Beth of Savages Making a Point

BARE MUTANTS (Logan Square Street Festival): My other favorite Chicago band, featuring Jared Gummere of The Ponys. While every song is reminiscent of The Velvet Underground (Heroin or Waiting for My Man) or the Jesus and Mary Chain–you could do much worse than sound like those bands, and once in a while there seems to be a little Rolling Stones Dead Flowers thrown in for good measure. The slow, tension building repetitive guitars provide shimmering noise with feedback and echo distorting deep and depressed (though not that dark) vocals.

HUNTERS–(Subterranean, This Brooklyn band (who has recently moved to Philadelphia because it is less costly than Williamsburg) is my opening band winner of the year has the hard rockin riffs and hard ass vocals of bands like the Runaways, Donnas and Sahara Hotnights down in a good way. A little, punk, a little glam, a little heavy metal, a little electro-thrash

NEWISH

THEE OH SEES– (Independent-San Francisco, SXSW, Empty Bottle, FFFest) Probably one of the saddest music notes is that Thee Oh Sees is going on hiatus. But, it makes sense that after 5 years of driving the highest intensity and fastest moving train along the tracks, some break was required. Frankly, I am not sure if I saw them 6, 7 or more times this year, but the energy which Jon Dwyer and his crew bring to bear will be missed. Really, if I could just add one Thee Oh Sees show a week to my workout regimen I would be set. It will be hard to replace the breakneck speed paced Nuggets-garage-psych riffs of this San Francisco treat, which never seemed to get too old for me–even though I pretty much knew what songs were coming. The shows this year encompassed a surprisingly dispassionate home town crowd, the awesome and almost peaceful show in the backyard of Botticelli’s Italian restaurant, two very sweaty weeknights at the Empty Bottle and a great outdoor festival show in Austin where there was non-stop crowd surfing and jumping chaos.  Here is a really good video of the Botticelli’s show.  There must have been 40 people there, but one person recorded it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcXlAfPwbSE.  This shows you that whether they are playing to 40, 400 or 4,000+ they give it their all.P1000957

BLEACHED (Subterranean, Hotel Vegas, FFFest– Although their debut album came out just this year, it seems like I have known them forever.The Clavin sisters–once and future punks from the same Smell collective club as No Age, play their sunny day jangly, driving, power pop gems about driving and boyfriends past, present, future and dead–with a Damned or Misfits cover thrown in just to remind the crowd they have cred. Their music is both perfect for an afternoon in the warm sun or a cold dive bar after midnight which is not an easy thing.

NO AGE (Schubas, FFFest) This LA two piece punk band bashed their way into hearts and souls with percussive noise and catchy riffs which sometimes lead and sometimes need to be mined through the layers of distortion. They can cram almost their entire catalog into a fiery 45 minute set.

KURT VILE–(Lincoln Hall, Mohawk) A stoner groove is the best way I can describe the laid back feeling provided by the Violators roots rock guitar jams. Whether indoors or outdoors, there is such a thick layer to his sound that carries you to and through the haze.

Deer Hunter (Metro, FFFest).  While this band seems to cover multiple genres, the best two for me are the harmonic dance noise and krautrock space jams that are both part of Nothing Ever Happened and Desire Lines.    Inspired by Television they delivered the best show of theirs at FFFest–delaying the show to decode Television’s riffs and throwing them in the middle of songs.P1010424

OLD

MISSION OF BURMA (Riotfest). Having seen this band several times over 30+ years I can say that I have never heard a more uncompromising band or one that plays with such relentless intensity (at least one that I can listen to).  The power and propulsion of this Boston original post punk band were enough for me to throw in the towel on the rest of the day at Riotfest–why hear anything more?
JOHNNY MARR (FFFest)- Ever the mod-British hipster with a magenta velvet sportcoat (with metal buttons pinned to the lapel, of course),  skinny tie, skinny jeans and an I’ve probably been drinking and I don’t give a _____attitude.   His solo stuff  like Upstart is pretty good, but just hearing him do “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” made my day.

Yes.  I am Johnny Marr

Yes. I am Johnny Marr

Fleshtones (Fitzgerald’s)-Another band I have seen perform for more then 30 years.  Still garage, fun and rock and roll, with a lot of showmanship.    While in major arenas, bands use satellite stages to get close to the crowd, in this episode, Peter Zeremba the lead singer, followed by Keith Streng, the lead guitarist–leaped onto small rickety tables trusting the crowd, if not the tables to make sure they survived–and we held them up–limiting the dancing but increasing the drama.

Zombies –If there was a “real old” category, I suppose Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent and Jim Rodford (probably the oldest performer I saw this year at 72) would win, since they comprise 3/4 of the current Zombies.  Though most of their set was comprised of Steely  Dan sounding mellow rock, when they got down to the Zombies/Argent hits of She’s Not There, Hold Your Head Up and Time of the Season, it was a 15 minute time warp better than anything that PBS can deliver and brought back memories to when my mama rocked me in the cradle.–Rod Argent’s keyboard playing is still very strong and the vocals were right there–not bad for almost 50 years on.

Let that be my wish for all of us!

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I’VE BEEN WAITING MY WHOLE LIFE TO SEE TELEVISION–BRADFORD COX (OF DEER HUNTER) SAID THAT

 P1010401

I saw Television last on its comeback tour in 2007. For some reason it felt much different for me this time. It could be any one of a variety of reasons—-I went on a pilgrimage to Austin to Fun Fun Fun Fest to see them; they were playing so few dates; they were clearly going to play songs from Marquee Moon instead of pushing new product; I am getting older, Tom Verlaine is older–his back is bowed bit; I just finished Richard Hell’s memoir (and Patti Smith’s memoir a year or so ago)–whatever the lame self-centered rationale, it was an emotional, almost religious experience for me.
The funny thing, though, was I found no kindred spirits up near the front of the stage–which was filled with kids getting ready for Deerhunter and then MIA. One kid, when he saw TV take the stage remarked that he had never seen somebody that old before, and yes, I became “that guy” who shushed some kids who were loudly discussing where they were going to get bombed later that night by saying “Guys” dismissively. Didn’t they know that they could tell both their parents and children the history they were witnessing. That this was the band that started off CBGB’s by asking Hilly Kristal if they could be the house band for his new club? That its first bassist, Richard Hell, is often considered the founder of punk fashion, but that he quit the band and was replaced by Fred Smith of Blondie? That this was not a punk band of three chords, but a band with punk attitude and lyrics that played lyrical, lengthy, dramatic interwoven art rock, jazzy chord progressions?
And what about that history? Tom Verlaine smoked a cigarette and, always a perfectionist, had the sound people switch the bass from his left to his right and the co-lead guitar the reverse, taking away a critical and valuable 5 minutes from the set. Dressed in a black button down work jacket/shirt on top of black pants and over a black and gold t-shirt–he definitely looked every one of his 63 years with close cropped hair that was 80% silver and receded except for a rectangular peninsula bisecting his forehead and certainly not looking like the elegiac waif of the Marquee Moon Mapplethorpe cover photo.
Starting with Venus, it was apparent that Jimmy Rip would be the dominant guitarist, clearly searing each note with precision, but at the same time he carefully watched and listened to Verlaine’s guitar –typically after a journey involving intertwining chiming riffs–sometimes filling gaps between verses, sometimes bending around each other’s chord changes, the fluttering butterfly riffs of Marquee Moon, the piercing paced squealing of Little Johnny Jewel and eventually building and building on top of each other into explosive staccato terse jazz-infused harmonic jams, with Rip laying the foundation for Verlaine to take off improvisationally before not so gently landing back to earth with each song’s clanging harmony and dramatically closing off each number. Fred Smith on bass and Billy Ficca on drums, helped decades melt away by maintaining a beat that was a similacrum of 1977, giving the guitars room to explore.
Verlaine’s voice was a more muted warbly squawk with slightly less depth than his youthful plaintive wails–but still held its own–though the simplicity of the lyrics of Little Johnny Jewel (he’s so cool) and slow build up gave the kids something to laugh and bark about. Nevertheless, the stinging call and response guitar work was actually superior to the original pre-Marquee Moon single from 1975. He was surprised to hear a smattering of people chanting along to “Prove It”- which finally indicated to me that there were a few of me in the crowd.
Sadly, the festival schedule gave TV only about 45 minutes, and with the length and improvisation of the song they could only play 6–Venus (I fell into arms of Venus De Milo), 1880 or so (the lead track from the Television comeback album), Little Johnny Jewel, Prove It, Elevation and Marquee Moon (a full 12 minute version). I wish they had time for more, like See No Evil.
Perhaps the best tribute to how great the band and performance was came from Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt of Deerhunter. These guys are no guitar slouches themselves. As their quick soundcheck, they broke into a redux of Marquee Moon, then Bradford asked the crowd to wait because he was trying to figure something out. While many people thought Deerhunter were having technical issues, he was actually trying to decode some of Television’s chord changes and he and Lockett proceeded to intersperse Televison-esque homage riffs into its extended jam on Nothing Ever Happened and in other songs-it was one of the best Deerhunter shows I have ever seen.
And, yes–Bradford Cox said it was an honor for him to share the stage with Television, and he did say that he had been waiting his whole life to see TelevisionTV at FFF Fest.

Then,–I had the privilege of abandoning part of my family and accompanying my daughter on Saturday of Thanksgiving Weekend and make another pilgrimage due to the miracle that is Rough Trade’s performance space in hipster central Williamsburg. I was slightly closer this time–3 people from the stage. The sound was pristine. Verlaine felt more comfortable playing unknown material (at least to me), spending more time on atmospheric–a full 90 + minutes. Verlaine noted that Jimmmy Rip is the “new” member of the band–kind of funny, since it has been several years already. They took more time on Marquee Moon’s scales, with Verlaine slowly walking upstream developing tension before starting all over again. They closed with a noisy cover of Psychotic Reaction–doing the first break (after it goes like this) with machine gun fast noise–letting loose like Verlaine rarely does and after the second break with gentle harmonics–the full range of musical (e)motion.

Rough Trade

Rough Trade

My next post will cover the other highlights of 2013.

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The top 12 performances by “new” bands in 2012

Since music is such a mature medium it is hard to tell whether everything old is new again. But music can’t change time, and whatever influences modern bands have, it is nice to there are still bands that music that is fun danceable and new.

1. THEE OH SEES. SXSW, Pitchfork, Empty Bottle, Logan Square Auditorium. OK. I admit it, I am addicted. I saw them 6 times, twice on three days, but there is a boundless sweaty energy to the revved up engine that is Thee Oh Sees. Jon Bryan and his crew don’t mess around with any of their slow songs live unless they actually play them at 45. Instead, they use their 45-80 minutes to blow the roof off of any joint they are in, causing some of the politist and happiest sweaty brownian motion dancing crowds I have ever been proud to be a part of. Frenzy is the most appropriate adjective I can come up with. I just wish I could see them every week–I would lose 10 pounds. (just think bom-bom-bom bom-bom-ba-da-da bom-bom-bom bom-bom-ba da-da da-da and speeeeeed it uuuuup). Whew.

2. DUM DUM GIRLS. Cubby Bear. While Dee-Dee’s crew’s records have veered towards Pretenders territory (which is not that bad), live she pounds whiskey and she and her black-clad band cool-ly channels 50 years of girl group and post-punk pop into 3 minute new wave symphonies of Phil Spector influence and Richard Gottherer formation. chiming guitars, fuzz guitar, fast drums, harmonies, songs about jail, catchy choruses, songs about futility and being a burn out, cover song (Smiths, Pale Saints, Sonny and Cher) –they push all the buttons with one gem after another of slick, shimmery dark pop confection. Shocking that they were not even the headliner! But after these girls, you really don’t want to hear anything else in a night.

3. WIDOWSPEAK. Empty Bottle. Another non-headliner–twice. This Brooklyn based band of Northwesterners is the epitome of Williamsburgh grungy dreamy pop. Best compared to Mazzy Starr, they lay down soft and sometimes surfy riffs with Molly Hamilton’s sultry, ethereal voice–changing pace and tone in the middle of words-lilting and lofting around, on top, over and around the music that can either flow hynotically at one pace or morph into clanging or sitar-like Indian rhythms. Definitely not a dance band, but a band to dream and coast to. Their second album is out soon so look out for them.

4. THE BLACK RYDER. This is an Australian band that formerly was 1/2 of The Morning After Girls and has relocated to Los Angeles and released one album of driving psychedelic music. Think swirling guitars, dark and slow or dark and driving, but no matter what you get darkness some lofty vocals and a heavy portion of thick distortion.

5. DUCHESS SAYS (Cobra Lounge). I once described Annie-Claude Deschênes the lead singer of Duchess Says as a combination between Iggy Pop and Linda Blair (you know, The Exorcist) and I am still standing by that statement. Annie is a confrontationalist, engaging and challenging members of her audience by singing in their faces, having them gather around in a circle around her while she radiates her energy and attention from person to person in the group. But there is music that underlies this out of her mind performance–pulsing electro pop that provides a high energy groove that allows the crowd to loosen up and Annie to prance and dance. I don’t love their recorded stuff, but live they are not to be missed.

6. HOLLOWS (The Burlington). A mod Summer fun band, Hollows (remember, no “The”) combined bouncy, catchy farfisa orga underlying surfy guitars, Blondie-esque vocals with multi-layerered girl group harmonies. Unfortunately, the band broke up, but luckily they left us with the Vulture album for you to play with the top down next Summer, or while imagining next Summer- a real pop gem.

7. LOTUS PLAZA (Pitchfork). If you like the dreamy psychedelic side of Deer Hunter then you are already familiar with this music–since this is the band led by Lockett Pundt from that band. They perform driving soundscapes that take the long lost and abandoned side roads to take you to a destination rather than the modern superhighway. Take the exit ramp, slow down, look around and the journey is pleasant and memorable.

8. BLEACHED . When the Clavin sisters from punk outfit Mika Miko joined together to make music I would never have expected them to perform strummy, catchy ditties infused by bands like Fleetwod Mac, The Beach Boys and The Chiffons. Once I heard them and identified their influences, I would have never expected me to like them. But sure enough, their chunky guitar raves, and sugary, whiney vocals are memorable and enjoyable.

9. WILD FLAG (Pitchfork/Metro). One of the highlights of my year was hearing three chords, the short sharp da, da, daaah sliced savagely from Carrie Brownstein’s guitar which told me the band was opening their set with a cover of Television’s See No Evil. Simultaneously, an homage to the swirling guitar interplay of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and a mission statement for the band—that dual lead guitars can work. In Wild Flag’s second year of touring, they graduated from small halls to larger stages (and unfortunately too many fans of Carrie) and venues with a slight dropoff of their ability to sustain a high level of power. But when Brownstein violently windmills or stabs her guitar and snarls or Janet Weiss’ propulsive drum fills take over a song and obviate the need for a bass there is still a lot of angst
and magic to entertain and energize.

10. SECRET COLOURS (Subterranean, Pulaski Park). This Geneva, Illinois based psych band wears its influences like The Warlocks, The Morning After Girls, Asteroid #4 and The Black Angels, but as younger generation musicians are somehow less laid back and add a little bit of speed to the shoegazer haze–I’m thinking like Booker T and the MGS, but with a guitar army. Not too shabby.

11. THE RAVEONETTES . Surf and chainsaw guitar, ethereal vocals, played out over synth drums, this formerly Swedish duo that now resides in LA and Brooklyn has been combining 60s pop (like the Dum Dum Girls, their records are produced by septegenarian semi-legend Richard Gottherer) with millennial shredding noise for good measure.

12. JAPANDROIDS. Another graduate from clubs to big venues and festivals have earned their success as a result of incessant touring and a pretty darn good second (third if you count their compilation of singles) album–these two guys from Vancouver still bring the goods live, combining punk energy, Tom Petty beats and frat metal power chords and sing along choruses (oh and yeah come to mind), there is no reason not to throw your fist in the air and shout along.

Honorable Mention: Prince Rama–engaging band that combines yoga and Cirque De Soleil dance routines with Ravi Shankar inspired trance beats. Not sure there is musical talent, but they perform. Zoe Keating–creates intricate layered symphonies from looping her cello.

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2012– The 12 Best of the Old

More than any recent year, it seeme like 2012 brought around more old groups then ever, including many either reunited or back for one more (last?) tour. And I am not talking about PBS-backed reunions either (although I am waiting to be asked to host the punk-reunion fundraiser). These included the 50s and 60s–the Fugs, the Standells, the Who and Zombies, from the 70s- Strawbs, the Dbs and Graham Parker and the Rumour just to name a few. Mature bands mean mature audiences and many times this year I felt like I was if not one of the younger people in the audience, I was at least below the median age–which is kind of a trip.

1. MISSION OF BURMA–Lincoln Hall. Not surprisingly, the best of the old performances I experienced this year was from a band that reunited around 10 years ago and has not wallowed in nostalgia for a minute. In fact for the first time in my memory, the band eschewed its only pseudo hit (that’s when I reach for my) Revolver–which Moby sold many more than MOB. MOB is perhaps the most non-melodic intense and challenging band that I can handle and love, with post punk rock angst and power mixed with propulsing chord changes and barking vocals. But the power and energy that come from Clint Conley’s lead bass and Roger Miller’s thrashing guitar is still infective and consuming.

2. ELVIS COSTELLO–Riotfest. I had pretty much written off Elvis by 1992, and I viewed his set as a bridge between Jesus (and Mary Chain) and the Messiah (Iggy). But Elvis took the Riotfest vibe and theme seriously. Starting with Lipstick Vogue, Elvis locked and loaded playing sole, lead guitar that chimed well with piano which really carried in an outdoor setting, Elvis made it clear that ballad would not be on the menu. He won me over by focusing on his first three albums, you could see a hint of his early angry young man as he shot off one hit after another-I don’t want to go to Chelsea, Pump it Up and Radio Radio-each of which would undoubtedly be a highlight nugget of any of his current shows. But, he did not stop there going back to his friend Nick Lowe for Heart of the City and finishing with one of the greatest pop songs ever written, Nick’s sad and life affirming, chiming and chilling (What’s so Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding–overall an amazing and surprising delivery from Elvis.

3. PAUL COLLINS/PETER CASE. The Jackalope. Aristotle definitely understood rock and roll, because the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. Exhibit 1 the short lived re-combination of Paul Collins and Peter Case. After playing together in the Nerves in 1974 and creating the song “Hangin on the Telephone” later popularized by Blondie, Peter Case formed The Plimsouls (A Million Miles Away) and Paul Collins The Beat (Rock and Roll Girl) and each has had lengthy solo careers. Reunited it was power pop heaven. Alternating between the greatest hits (or hit, as the case may be) and deep repertoires of three bands and two solo careers, the entire club was dancing up and down with big smiles on their faces. Unfortunately, the pairing was too good to last. By the time the tour hit Chicago the following week, Paul Collins was already off the tour-so much for heaven.

4. SHONEN KNIFE Empty Bottle and Bell House. Speaking of smiling faces, there is nothing that can put a smile on anyone’s face than this Japanese pop punk trio’s performance. Whether doing a Ramones, Monkees or Carpenters cover or their own original songs about banana chips, or their psychedelic life, for more than 30 years Naoko Yamano and her bandmates have played catchy and dancey pop punks songs that simply engage and entertain.

5. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND. Solo Speech/Performance at SXSW, Moody Theatre, Wrigley Field. I know, I know. Everyone knows that Bruce is one of the most prolific and powerful performers and his band are no slouches either. They have set the highest standard for more than 30 years and deliver EVERY NIGHT. Even when he is pushing his new and mostly inferior product, he sells the music earnestly and gives it his all. Two moments stand out. In the rain at Wrigley Field, Bruce did not run and hide or stay in some safe place under cover. Instead, he kicked the band into Waiting for a Sunny Day, went out into the rain and did a searing guitar solo on his knees and defied the elements. And in his keynote speech at SXSW his solo, acoustic, talking version of The Animals “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” (written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVSoilSuXO4 and acknowledgment of how the Animals, Clash and Sex Pistols inspired him was a moving, tearjerking, highlight of the year.

6. IGGY POP and THE STOOGES – Riotfest. Iggy’s ripped and torn body should be declared a national historic site. At age 65, it is truly amazing to perceive his high energy performance. Continuing to confront audiences and society and general, he urged the crowd to bum rush the stage and danced and sang in a group of adoring fans, a la Chuck Berry. The Stooges have weathered the loss of Ron Asheton and still grind out a rockin blues-infused groove that provides a firm foundation for Iggy to fly around from.

7. GRAHAM PARKER AND THE RUMOUR. Park West. Reuniting after a 30 year absence, my ranking has a little bit of sentimentality to it. Seeing Martin Belmont and Brinsley Schwartz trading soulful and seething riffs made up for some pretty week new material. Always a pub rather than pop or punk rock band, their versions of Fool’s Gold, Soul Shoes, Discovering Japan and Hey Lord Don’t Ask Me Questions stood up particularly well.

8. THE WHO. While I can’t say I was thrilled by the band, and sometimes I wish they just left well enough alone, or followed their own “My Generaton” edict, it was definitely good, and maybe important to be reminded of the guitar prowess of Peter Townsend, who clearly was the greatest influence on two of my favorite guitarists-Paul Weller and Carrie Brownstein. They did loving tributes to Keith Moon and John Entwistle including playing an entire song with John’s bass–which made me think it would have been a nice touch for Bruce to have done the same thing with Clarence–more of a performing tribute rather than a highlight film. While Roger Daltrey can’t sing too many high notes anymore, and can’t keep his shirt buttoned he still has a soldier-like presence anchoring the band.

9. THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN. Sometimes you have to find the glass half full. The Ried brothers are capable of greatness, with their chiming and distortive songs as well as some pretty horrifying mush as they butchered their own beautiful Taste of Cindy. I don’t think I have ever attended performances that were so internally inconsistent. However, when the brothers are in synch and not feuding, and the guitars in tune, the harmony, distortion and driving psychedelic guitars wash over you like in “Blues from a Gun” and “Reverence”,the bass lines pulse through and move you and Jim Ried’s deep and dark vocals can take you to another place.

10. THE DBS -Hideout. Another reunited 80s band, this time from North Carolina, with earthy, rockin rhythm and blues, combining jangling intersecting guitars and farfisa keyboards. Their song “That Time is Gone” which they opened with, is probably one of the best recordings from a band that has not recorded in 25 years. Check it out. http://www.thedbsonline.net/ Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple are another pop pair to make Aristotle proud.

11. TAV FALCO. Reggies. This Memphis crooner is one of the last purveyors of psychobilly, kitchy messy blues based garage rock. Partially a musicologist, partially an artist and partially a ringmaster of sorts, Tav’s music is perpetually 2 am at a dark nightclub.

12. OLMARA PORTUANDO. Nacional Hotel. My daughters and I were lucky to accidentally catch a revue with this 82 year old Cuban performer who became well known in the US because of the Buena Vista Socia Club. Even at her advanced age, she is charismatic, lighting up the stage with her presence. She also really can stir up a crowd, tossing musical instruments to the crowd and getting half the crowd to follow her in a train.

Honorable Mention: Jonathan Richman–still fun and emotional. Buddy Guy–still an electric blues treasure.

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TEARS, SWEAT AND ROCK AND ROLL AND OTHER ANOMALIES OF SXSW

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.

Frankie Rose

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.

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Ancient and Complacent?–Not These Performers

One thing about a maturing media like rock and roll is the aging of the artists (and the crowd–don’t remind me).   Seeing an artist many times over a period of years really provides great opportunities to compare the quality and energy of a performance.   Here are some thoughts and observations on some bands that I have recently seen who have each been performing for at least 30 years.

The Psychedelic Furs

Richard Butler loves, not hates.   He twirls 360 degrees but not hurls.   He still swings his arm snaps, his fingers and smiles like he did in 1981 when I first saw him.    Still engaging and beatific, he embraces his fans.   Not quite like the first years where the audience was a bunch of “fools” and the P-furs were full of angst.  While this has been the mantra for the band for the last decade or more–for the first time I can recall the band eschewed playing anything from its first album.  As long as the Psych Furs play with saxophone whiz Mars Williams there is always enough bravado to go with the dance music and Richard Butler’s gleaming presence.  He can’t connect as an angry young man anymore as when I first saw him (in 1981?), nevertheless, he can deliver a song like “All of This and Nothing” cataloging the debris of a vacated apartment and the memories of a terminated relationship with appropriate pangs of bitterness and regret.   There is still a lot of emotion to deliver to his audience–and love for it, that keeps his performance comfortable but strong.

Bryan Ferry

When I first saw Roxy Music in 1978, I had never seen anyone with such a magic quality as Bryan Ferry.   Long, lean and handsome-when he leaned to the left, women swooned to the left.  When he leaned to the right, women swooned to the right.  When he danced–everyone danced, and Roxy Music combined glam, prog rock and a little bit of synthetic dance.   Today, Bryan Ferry is still one of the best (if not the best) interpreter of other people’s music.  Whether its “Let’s Stick Together,”  “Like A Hurricane”(with vicious guitar licks from Chris Spedding one of our great British guitarists), ‘I Put A Spell on You”, “Hold On, I’m Coming”, “Jealous Guy” or numerous Dylan songs, he shows respect for the original while amping up the rhythm or emotion as appropriate.   Bryan still dresses in style, stays cool and surrounds himself with a Roxy-esque array of diversions and young talent, two female back up singers, a female sax and keyboard player (I missed Andy Mackay or he should have picked up Mars Williams), two guitarists–one young and one the 63 year old Spedding, keyboard/percussion, bass and drums together with  live   performance footage on psych/soul designs on a back screen.   While mired with a bad sound mix for much of the night, Ferry managed to keep the show together, until the sound issues were resolved at a break.  Part of his reserved style let him save his energy for a thunderous Editions of You combined with his obligatory Love is the Drug to leave the crowd dancing and hungry.

Ray Davies

It was 37 years ago (scary) that I first saw Ray, during the Kinks self-indulgent Preservation stage.   One thing about him is that he has never stopped being a ham, self-indulgent, innovative and an amazing songwriter.   Even though he has had health difficulties Ray is still exuberant and energetic.   Old songs of his like “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” which was written when he was 21, carry on new meaning to a rock and roller at 67 in the Autumn of his years, and his song to his brother Dave “A Long Way From Home” is no longer a song of jealousy and caution but of distance and regret.  One thing you have to hand to old Ray is that while he knows how to deliver the goods with his hits, he also can re-invent himself and his songs–not as much as Dylan, but with enough newness to keep things current.  His duets with Bill Shanley can countrify a song back to Muswell Hill or come close to his See My Friends sitar sound.   His great back up band LA’s The 88 (who sent Ray a demo to be his band) are throwback to Ready Steady Go and other 60’s shows–happy to be where they are.   , his work creating chorale-choir versions of Kink songs deserves some respect  (though, frankly I am glad I missed his shows with the choir which were on the East Coast).  Which I think counts for Ray too, as he prances and shimmies (and leaps, after changing into sneakers after the first part’s leather boots) very well thank you very much.   My only serious criticism of Ray is that I wish he wouldn’t edit verses out of his own song.   I personally would rather hear fewer complete songs than more incomplete songs.   But with a repertoire like Ray’s, he really wants to mine it–and he comes up with relics like his mid-career Misfits and I guess I can’t blame him that much.

The Mekons

A thick lilting two-step like a cool breeze, accordian, violin and zaz–aligned, sometimes with the haunting voice of Sally Timms layered on top, like on Learning to Live, the Mekons are enjoyable to watch, listen and sway to.   Sway  is short of bounce, dance, pogo or thrash.   But being comfortable in their sound is not the worst thing in the world.  Just getting the whole band together  couple of years has got to be a chore.  I have to admit, though, that a certain spark seemed lacking.   to me.   To say a show is enjoyable would typically be a compliment but for The Mekons, who always seem to bring power, passion and humor to every show–mere enjoyment can be a slight letdown.   Jon Langford’s power chords and angst were lost in the complacency.    Orpheus–a song of almost unbounded  energy–as well as lust and poetry- was is a cut below the power and meaning that they have wielded in the past and hope they can regain in the future.  Yet, as grumpy as I can be, I can’t deny the aerial beauty of Sally Timms’ voice, sailing through clouds of Learning to Live over trippy accordian and violin.  Maybe that is maturity.

Shonen Knife

Here is something I wrote in 2005 after seeing Shonen Knife for the first time (yes, I was late to the game) when I saw them and Guitar Wolf simultaneously and tried to decide which band best represented the Ramones. 

 “This three piece power combo from Japan was much more like the Ramones than Guitar Wolf. Shonen Knife had the punk chords, driving drums and fun feel of the early Ramones (far better than the Rezillos). While Naoko does not speak too much English she was able to say “I would like to play my favorite Ramones song” do one final encore of their favorite Ramones song “I Wanna Be Sedated” at 2:30 am, after the bar had closed.”

Now, in Shonen Knife’s 30th year anniversary,  they are touring to support their new Osaka Ramones–Ramones cover album.  But what was best about SK’s show was that they did not even mention it.  For 90 minutes or so, the girls from Osaka played their simple and happy songs from Naoki’s career (the other two are not original).  Each song included smiles and posings from the band, usually fists in the air.  Whether the song was “I Like Cats” or “Anime Phenomenon” (about Japanese comic book characters), it really doesn’t matter that much because SK are really about the fun and freedom that rock and roll provides–which is exactly what the Ramones delivered while they were here.  So, after a full set of fun jangly punk/power pop, it was a check and raise to the audience that the band came back and did a 5 song, mini-set encore of Ramones songs (Blitzkrieg Bop, Rock and Roll High School, The KKK Took My Baby Away, Beat on the Brat and Pinhead).  The crowd went crazy into real happy and friendly/frenzied brownian motion pogoing–really a celebration of everything there is and was of non-intellectualized rock and roll-yay (gabba gabba)!

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