April 01, 2004

SXSW 2004: GEORGE HENN'S NOTABLES

Wednesday, March 17

A drummer would seem essential for any buzz-worthy band from garage-rock haven Detroit. Not so with the Deadstring Brothers, who have a vacant drummer's stool at the moment but didn't let that stop them from impressing at the Times Beach Records party at Red Eyed Fly. Stripped down to a pair of guitars, a tambourine and some occasional help from friends on pedal steel, the band displayed a rootsy swagger plucked straight from The Rolling Stones circa Beggars Banquet on "27 Hours."

A band with a new drummer arrangement that's working just fine is Seattle's Boss Martians. Thousands of his peers may have bolted this bustling college town to cut loose during spring break, but just-19-year-old Anthony Burasco kept busy behind the drum kit for the power-pop perfectionists, who played four shows in four days around Austin in support of the group's fine release from last fall, The Set Up. During the Martians' showcase at the Jackalope, sweat-soaked singer-guitarist Evan Foster's super-spirited performance helped the band triumph over a suspect sound system that kept cutting out his vocals.

Perhaps the evening's previous act, Detroit's Back In Spades, inflicted too much damage to the equipment. Its powerful 35-minute post-punk assault, highlighted by singer-guitarist Stephen Palmer and lead guitarist Jackson Smith (son of singer Patti Smith and the late MC5-er Fred Smith) weaving searing licks into the mix, made it hard to believe the quartet had been at it for just eight months.

Soon to continue work on its forthcoming Brent Best-produced CD, Columbus, Ohio's Two Cow Garage accompanied the Slobberbone front man to close out the Guitartown party on the packed front deck at Opal Divine's Freehouse. Best and the band traded off on one another's songs, and the barrage of rave-ups -- including the rollicking Slobberbone nugget "Haze of Drink" and a romp through Neil Young's "F***n' Up" -- at times recalled the ragged glory of late-'80s Soul Asylum.

Also look for a new record from The Fags in the near future; bassist Tim Patalan says the Detroit trio has an album ready to go, with the label yet to be determined. Headlining in the 1 a.m. slot at Vibe, The Fags smoked through their edgy brand of power-pop, and one-time Sponge drummer Jimmy Paluzzi was an absolute menace on the skins. It was way more fun that you'd expect from three guys in suits.

John Popper's profile has slimmed over the last few years, but you couldn't tell by the number of festival-goers who flocked to the Blues Traveler singer as he hung out at The Drink on Sixth Street. Unfortunately, the steady flow of fans posing for pictures with Popper seemed to draw attention away from the polished radio-ready rock of the band Shurman.

Thursday, March 18

I wonder if bands hate earning Beatles comparisons more than rock critics do drawing them. The scruffy young lads in The Redwalls left me no choice during their head-turning early afternoon performance at Schuba's Round-Up party outside Yard Dog gallery. The Chicago quartet, which recently signed with Capitol Records, has two guitarists and a bassist (with what appeared to be a vintage Hofner bass, a la Paul McCartney) who trade off on vocals, and the band touches upon the sunnier R&B side of the Fab Four quite well. Lyrically, the Redwalls throw in plenty of "little girls" and "whoooos," as well as simple choruses (such as "If you don't wanna go to school/It's alright!") that stick to the brain like gum to a sneaker. By the time bassist Justin Baren introduced their current CD's title track, "Universal Blues," by saying, "It's a good song, because we wrote it," it was hard to argue with him.

Minutes later, just outside the other end of Yard Dog's property, came an unscheduled performance -- on a flatbed truck idling in the street. The local band Grady -- featuring Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton -- was barnstorming through town to get the word out about its gig that evening. As promotional stunts go, it wasn't quite the Rolling Stones on their flatbed jaunt in New York City in '75, but Grady earned points for creativity, anyway.

Several blocks away at the Twangfest party at Jovita's restaurant, Slaid Cleaves and his band were running a bit late for their 4 p.m. show. Chicago's Dolly Varden benefitted by getting a longer set, and late-comers like me benefitted by being turned on to the earnest and twangy tunes of husband-and-wife team Stephen Dawson and Diane Christiansen.

Cleaves and his band followed with a set heavy with songs from his brand-new release, Wishbones. On the back-to-back renderings of "Horseshoe Lounge" and "Drinking Days," the Austin-based storyteller proved most poignant when detailing the misery that comes when heartache and booze are intertwined.

Can having fine taste in cover songs backfire? I caught The Bigger Lovers twice during the festival, and while their sugary pop interplay was impressive, I came away each time humming The Only Ones' "You've Got to Pay." If only the Philadelphia foursome hadn't nailed it so well live, as well as on its new record, This Affair Never Happened -- And Here Are Eleven Songs About It.

The Bigger Lovers were part of the Yep Roc Records showcase at the Continental Club, where their final two label mates of the night, The Forty-Fives and Southern Culture on the Skids, brought the house down. The Forty-Fives turned in a typical steamroller of a set, made up mostly of tracks from the Atlanta garage combo's upcoming release, but the real revelation was that manic organist Trey Tidwell has been further unleashed to add more backing vocals.

Curfew, what curfew? S.C.O.T.S. capped its five-night stand at Continental by rocking the packed-to-the-gills club until 2:30 a.m., at least 15 minutes past conventional closing time in Austin. The long encore began with "Liquored Up and Lacquered Down," featuring guitarist (and apparent road manager) Ed Crawford -- formerly of the seminal 1980s band fIREHOSE -- handling trumpet duties.

Friday, March 19

Graham Parker has recorded for so many labels over the last four decades, he can be forgiven for losing track of them, as he did at the Bloodshot Records BBQ when he introduced the song "Force Of Nature" as something "from the BMG era" (it actually appeared on a release on indie Razor And Tie -- but who's counting, besides pesky journalists). With Bloodshot, he would seem to have found the right home for his new disc, Your Country. Accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Tom Freund, Parker offered a country-fied version of "Crawling From the Wreckage," and scored with the new track "Cruel Lips." On the latter, Parker posed a question the acid-tongued singer has probably heard a few times himself: "What does it take to shut your cruel, cruel lips?" At age 53, and many record deals down the line, Parker's are still flapping away.

Allen Hill, the tireless leader of The Allen Oldies Band, added a new twist to the band's three-hour plus, goofball performance outside Rue's Antiques on South Congress Avenue -- audience members were welcome to pose for a Kodak moment with Hill, resplendent as always in his tuxedo and jogging shoes. Susan Cowsill was among the dozens who took him up on the offer, while other lurkers, such as Eric Ambel (Yayhoos, Steve Earle) and Mojo Nixon, dropped by for a taste of the oldies love-in but were content to stay off camera.

Austin's Moonlight Towers have mastered mid-tempo, melodic pop, and clearly owe a sonic debt to Big Star. So imagine the band's disappointment when it went from being included on the bill with Big Star at spacious Austin Music Hall to being moved to the opening slot on a lineup of lesser-known bands at a nearly barren parking lot. Moonlight Towers made it an eventful night anyway, even if it was only for the 50 or so people who showed up early. Taking advantage of the huge, high stage and clear sound system at this makeshift venue adjacent to the bar Fox and the Hound, the band showed versatility in moving from the upbeat "Sixteen" to the lovelorn ballad "If We Make It To the Light," ending with -- what else? -- Big Star's "September Gurls."

An equally fitting cover tune capped American Minor's set at the Hard Rock Cafe -- a faithful version of Mountain's "Mississippi Queen." It came as little surprise; with the West Virginia quintet's bell bottoms, frizzy mops of hair and Southern rock grooves (not to mention Marshall amp stacks set at an eardrum-rattling volume), it was as if the '70s never ended.

Jonny Polonsky and his band had the misfortune of showcasing at Agave, which was possibly the worst-suited festival venue. The stage, sitting alongside the bar, faced sideways to the left of the club's door, and the PA rested about a third of the way deep into the crowd. So, those who opted to get close to the stage were practically standing in the venue's entrance way and could not hear Polonsky's vocals, which were projecting to the other end of the bar. No wonder Polonsky -- employing a heavier, hard-rock bent on tunes from his forthcoming third release, The Power of Sound -- at one point climbed onto the bar to play a solo (drawing the sound man's ire), if only to get a glimpse of the portion of the audience that was taking in the show at a ridiculous angle.

Saturday, March 20

What's the more improbable experience at a music festival: witnessing a performance by actress Minnie Driver, or finding yourself standing next to Screech from the TV show Saved By The Bell? (OK, I can't be sure it was actually the former gawky child actor, and I was not inclined to ask the guy, "Are you Dustin Diamond?" If you're off the mark, it's not the most flattering question.) Appearing at the Trampoline Records/Blender/Billboard party at the Ritz, Driver proved she could indeed carry a tune, and her soulful, husky voice showed promise, even if she didn't look entirely comfortable on stage; she basically stood in place for all five songs, but then again, it was only her second gig. On first listen, the material -- typical light adult-contemporary fare -- didn't knock me out, but her "homage" to Bruce Springsteen, a piano-driven rendition of "Hungry Heart," was a winner.

The real highlight of this party was the flawless set by the London-via-Los Angeles band Minibar. The smooth, warm vocals of Simon Petty, who looks remarkably like a young Robyn Hitchcock, glistened while the acoustic and slide guitars and gave the infectious roots pop a slight country feel. A bit later, Trampoline's three label heads -- singers Pete Yorn and Marc Dauer, and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffe -- suggested how record company execs could better earn their keep as record sales sag -- they were all onstage at once (with Yorn on drums) for the set by the Dauer-led Jukebox Junkies. Yorn followed by leading many of the day's performers through a half-hour set to wrap things up. Yorn included a couple of his better known songs, including "Life on a Chain," but most encouraging was a new country-rock offering called "Good Advice," which was catchier than anything on his, well, forgettable 2003 release, Day I Forgot.

On a humid day on the patio outside Casino El Camino, The Greenhornes made for some cool afternoon listening. Recently reduced to a power trio (or quartet, if you count the unknown tambourine player keeping time in the crowd), the Cincinnati band spun out some blues-tinged mod sounds but made sure to rock it up enough on the tracks "Good Times" and "Can't Stand It."

The folks at SXSW do a credible job of grouping similarly sounding acts for the evening showcases. But unless organizers thought Dramarama translated into "overhyped Japanese band," it was puzzling that the recently reformed L.A.-by-way-of-New Jersey rockers had to follow five acts from the Far East.

In a way, it was fitting -- the music biz never did seem to know quite what to do with Dramarama during the band's first incarnation, and the group split in 1994 without a mainstream breakthrough -- although there was the cult hit "Anything, Anything (I'll Give You)," which still finds regular airplay in sectors of alt-rock radio. Nearly 20 years after that song's release, Dramarama -- featuring original members John Easdale, Mark Englert and Peter Wood -- found itself in the same position as it did then: seeking a record deal, armed only with an arsenal of killer tunes.

The band's signature song was the obligatory finale tonight, but by then the band had already showed that its blistering guitar work and Easdale's fervent delivery were as powerful as ever. To that end, the new composition "Everybody Dies," a sanguine anthem about being resigned to mortality (and the title track of the band's yet-to-be released full-length album), signaled that a decade later, Dramarama lives again.

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at April 1, 2004 04:37 PM
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