April 01, 2004

SXSW 2004: MIKE MADDEN'S REPORT CARD

The 2004 South By Southwest music festival is in the books; more than 1,000 acts pulled out all the stops and gave audiences more than enough to crow about. Some never hit stride and failed to connect; others made it seem as if their entire goal was to annoy and bother the masses. Since SXSW seems to be the spring-break season for the music business, it's time to reveal the grades given to select 2004 performers.

* The Forty-Fives -- An absolute show stealer during Yep Roc Records' Thursday night festivities at the Continental Club. The Atlanta-based quartet whipped the crowd into a frenzy with its mixture of soul and garage rock -- perfectly sloppy and just the type of band SXSW audiences have come to the festival to find.

Highlight: The charged-up cover of Sam Cooke's "Shake" that marked the midpoint of the set, delivered with tons of gusto that would have made a believer out of the most ardent cynic.

Grade: A+

* Marah -- SXSW's short sets seemed to pose a bit of a challenge for the Philadelphia-based band, which has a June release date slated for its Yep Roc Records debut. Cramming all of its instrumentation, banter and stage antics into 45 minutes seemed a bit daunting on paper; however, Marah proved during its Saturday afternoon show closer at The Yard Dog Folk Art Gallery just why it may be the logical predecessors to the E Street Band throne. Marah used its time wisely and left the crowd wanting more once its set came to a sweaty finish. By the time the band was done, Marah had blended its differing musical styles (folk, blues, funk, Brit pop, soul) to create quite a musical stew.

Highlight: Reinventing the already great "Round Eye Blues" by taking it from a reflective ballad into a certifiable anthem, thanks in no small part to the strong slide guitar and driving drumbeat that augmented the performance.

Grade: A

* Bobby Bare Jr. and the Young Criminals Starvation League -- Another band that seemed to leave fans wanting more after its eight-song set Friday night at the Cedar Street Courtyard. The combination of pulsating drums, swirling guitars and carnival-like synth was strange at first listen, especially when matched with Bare's croaky vocals, but once the sounds melded, it was hard not to get wrapped up in the intensity of the musicians.

Highlight: "Flat Chested Girl from Maynardville" was perhaps the single best live song of the festival. This tune runs the gamut of songcraft -- from soft and peaceful, to clever and charming, then to chaos before it stops.

Grade: A

* The Mavericks: Always a popular band amongst those who buck the traditions of contemporary country music, The Mavericks held a very interesting spot Saturday at Stubb's -- right after the newsworthy Ozomatli. They could've lost much of the masses who were just there to be seen. However, as all the greats do, The Mavericks held the crowd in the palm of their hands for the duration of their set, the majority of which was extracted from its latest, self-titled release. The album continues in the tradition of the band's body of work -- a mixture of traditional country, Latin and rockabilly with the unique strength of vocalist Raul Malo out front.

Highlight: The set opener, "Dance the Night Away," a bouncy, feel-good number that had the youngish Ozo holdovers bopping right along with the graying Mavericks' crowd.

Grade: B+

* Brent Best: Much to my surprise, and I'm sure the surprise of many other Slobberbone fans, there was no full band performance this year -- the first time in seven years. Luckily, lead singer and principal songwriter Brent Best pulled out his acoustic guitar and harmonica for a Friday night showcase at Bigsby's. Accompanied by Centro-Matic's Scott Danborn on keyboards for a few numbers, Best stripped his band's songs down to the core and proved what an affecting songwriter he is. Without the usual Southern grunge arrangement that Slobberbone lends to its songs, the lyrics are left out there to be re-evaluated, and they seem to hold deeper philosophies on life, love and more
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Highlight: A brilliant reworking of "Write Me Off" (from 2002's Slippage) that took the song from a blatant, defined kiss-off to an almost therapeutic venting of relationship realities.

Grade: B

* Petty Booka: First off, let me just say that it was never my intention to attend this show, let alone wait more than an hour on line to get in. Saturday night usually is SXSW's most crowded, and waiting on line for acts that you want to see is expected. This brings me to Elysium. While waiting to get in for Dramarama's 1 a.m. slot, I heard such nice things about Petty Booka -- these two cute Japanese girls who play ukuleles and sing covers. They learned English phonetically and now go on world tours, and to quote a native of Austin, "It's just precious." Sorry to say, but after waiting so long to finally get into the club, what I saw wasn't very precious at all. It's just two girls with ukuleles singing cover songs -- oh yeah, and they're dressed up like cowgirls. That's it. But the saddest part was that the place was packed, and some people who didn't get in until the very end were really bummed out that they missed the majority of the set. Hey, only in Austin.

Highlight: The reaction the girls received when they finished up their final song. Judging from the crowd's hoots and hollers, you'd think Willie Nelson was backing them up.

Grade: D

* Harvey Sid Fisher: The best part of SXSW is the general vibe of Austin. Of course, it's the self-proclaimed live music capital of the United States, but add to that the way musicians come into the festival and aren't worried about sales figures or the demise of the industry. They just want to play their sets and check out other acts. The worst part of SXSW is evident if you've ever seen Harvey Sid Fisher. This guy, along with his singing partner, a woman with a Federal Express envelope who holds her lyrics, gives off the impression that maybe Austin has too many musicians. Fisher performed Saturday during an afternoon event in the parking lot of The Dog and Duck, nearly bringing the festival to a screeching halt. Fisher, along with his Fed Ex toting partner, performed a song called "Battle of the Sexes" that was possibly one of the worst experiences of my life. It was a musical argument between a wife and her cheating husband. He followed up with one of his trademarks, a song about the astrological sign Taurus, and it was true musical torture.

Highlight: The act before Fisher, Norway's Jessica Fletchers, is a great psychedelic pop band with super-catchy tunes. Also noteworthy was the band that followed Fisher, Philadelphia's Bigger Lovers, a great power-pop quartet with great hooks and even better harmonies.

Grade: F

So, there you have it -- a snapshot of this year's SXSW music festival. Thank you to the city of Austin for its hospitality, and thanks to the labels, magazines, organizations and venues for your continuing support of independent music. Most of all, thanks to the bands for the music and the good times.

-- By Mike Madden

Posted by medleyville at April 1, 2004 04:34 PM
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