April 01, 2005

SXSW 2005: GEORGE HENN'S NOTABLES

Sights, sounds and scrutiny from SXSW '05

* Wednesday, March 16

The Guitartown party has become a reliable fail-safe starting point for unofficial/daytime festival events, and this year was no exception, as a solid throng crowded along the deck on an unseasonably chilly afternoon at Mother Egan's to enjoy the solid lineup.

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The Silos (above) took the stage around 4 p.m. and churned out a gripping half-hour set that was a testament to just how powerful the trio is in a live setting. "The First Move," from the band's current disc, When The Telephone Rings, was one of a few newer tunes by singer/guitarist Walter Salas-Humara's that were delivered with much more vigor live, while the cover of Jonathan Richman's "I'm Straight" found bassist Drew Glackin screaming out the chorus in crazed fashion, which should have been enough to shake away any jet lag among the festival-goers.

The Silos' set was so good, not even the presence of the ubiquitous Beatle Bob could spoil it. The mop-haired, dancing pest hastily put down his food and scurried to the front of the stage, recklessly bumping into others in the audience along the way, to position himself in the front row as the Silos began playing.

So began a full five days of annoyances from Beatle Boob, er, Bob, who later in the week was spotted knocking over beer bottles as he flailed his arms about and invading a tight photographers' space at another evening showcase. Chances seem slim that this guy will be reined in at future festivals; one SXSW staffer was spotted posing for a picture with him, cementing Bob's celebrity status among music fans who have somehow not yet found him to be an obstacle.

As one might guess, the 8 p.m. slot on Wednesday -- the festival's first official time slot -- is full of under-the-radar acts. Edmonton roots-rock fixture Old Reliable, opening a night of Canadian acts at Exodus, showed it certainly deserves a closer listen in the States. On its most accessible tunes, the band, which this month will release its fourth album, The Burning Truth, melds warm, everyman storytelling a la Nick Lowe with the melodic folk touch of Son Volt.

Singer/guitarist Eddie Baranek sure seemed to be having the time of his life, never a bad quality from a front man, as The Sights won a healthy number of converts among the filing-in crowd at Stubb's. The Detroit garage trio turned in a hard-hitting set made up largely of material from its upcoming third and self-titled disc before an appreciative crowd that included the band's label head, former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha.

Baranek -- making no secret that his performance was fueled by booze as well as adrenaline, swilling from a bottle and even sharing a drink with a band mate at one point -- gestured frequently and whirled around the stage like a man possessed. He didn’t shy away from clichés, either, even if it meant dropping to his knees to accentuate a guitar solo. In one of the set's mellower moments, "Scratch My Name in Sin," heavy with riffs and blasts of organ, seemed a candidate to become The Sights’ arena-rock anthem to suit the front man's gesticulations.

Maybe it was the size of the venue, or all the chattering fans awaiting Elvis Costello's performance to follow, but Tift Merritt and her band failed to project the down-home sweetness of her Grammy-nominated record Tambourine. Merritt's soft voice seemed swallowed up in the expansive La Zona Rosa, and the crowd's growing restlessness couldn't have helped. Her band sure sounded flat, too. And where on Earth were the backing vocals that make the title track one of Tambourine's standout tracks?

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A couple blocks away at Tambaleo, a stylish, smallish club that is one of the more remote festival venues, Austin's own The Real Heroes (above) delivered the goods in their headlining set. The quintet's glam-inspired pop sound recalled everyone from David Bowie to Queen to The Fixx, but these guys have the charisma to pull it off better than most. They also have the songs, too, as was evident right from the opening surge of the ultra-catchy "Elise, Elise." It's no wonder their self-released album Greetings From Russia landed on local critics' Top 10 lists for 2004.

* Thursday, March 17

TVT Records offered up a handful of its young rock acts at an afternoon bash at Hard Rock Cafe, with mixed results. Arkansas guitar-poppers The Kicks displayed a more muscular (but still promising) sound than on their debut from a year ago, Hello Hong Kong .

Oliver Black, on the other hand, came off as generic, screaming punkers in need of polishing. Impressions elsewhere: TSAR showed potential with its meaty choruses; Denmark retro-rockers The Blue Van unleashed a raucous, loose, but most of all fun burst of a five-song set that suggested the group is a must-see live act; and road-weary headliners Ambulance Ltd, having toured relentlessly for the past year behind their tuneful debut disc, looked downright tired of the songs -- and each other.

It's got to be rare when ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan is not the biggest British rock star in the Lucky Lounge for his weekly happy-hour gig. On this day, he wasn't even the most famous Ian in the club. Ian Hunter, in town for an outdoor performance with his band the next night at Auditorium Shores, took in the set, relatively obscured by the shadows alongside the bar (although even in the dark it's not hard to spot those tinted wraparound shades). He roared his approval of a tender rendition of the Faces classic "Glad and Sorry" by McLagan and the Bump Band.

The U.K.'s 22-20s were a revelation on an otherwise lackluster Thursday night with their opening set at Stubb's. The quartet of young 20-somethings proved adept beyond their years, melding soulful R&B with garage elements on standout tracks like "Such a Fool" and "Baby Brings Bad News," the latter showing off vocalist/guitarist Martin Tremble’s impressive pipes. The band's debut disc hits stores this month, and radio programmers who have embraced Jet have no excuse not to add "Devil in Me" to their play lists.

Among the acts on this night that would have been better left avoided: Hockey Night, a band boasting an ill-advised mix of Pavement's off-the-mark snarkiness and unfortunate jam band sensibilities (Hey fellas, you're from Minnesota -- stop watching hockey and get some Replacements records); and The Things, a bewildering Irish punk band with an Elvis Presley wannabe front man (Neilo Moore) wearing too much white makeup and black lipstick, perhaps to disguise his band's lack of talent.

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A quick take on the Champaign, Ill., band The Living Blue (above), having missed the beginning of their set: Great energy, and an even greater dead ringer for Brian Jones on guitar. But being that the quartet is starting over with a new name (the group was formerly The Blackouts) and label (Chicago indie Minty Fresh), it might be time for a new approach, namely some variation on their neo-psychedelia to distinguish one tune from the next.

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Seattle punk-pop trio Visqueen (above) engaged in what is an unfortunate rite of SXSW: a bitter, public battle with the soundboard operator. Feedback and other undesirable noises threatened to mar the set, but the band plunged ahead through high-powered ditties like "Vaxxine" and "Mrs. Elder" and made it an enjoyable night, at least for those not onstage. At set's end, flustered singer/guitarist Rachel Flotard offered an oddly sarcastic peace offering into the microphone: "Hey sound guy, let's f***." Somehow, this earned Visqueen a two-song encore, which meant drummer Ben Hooker and bassist Ronnie Barnett, who were already outside the venue, had to climb back in through the front window and onto the stage from Sixth Street.

* Friday, March 18

If coming to a music festival to be bored to tears is yor idea of fun, then the Paste magazine party at Maggie Mae's was the place for you -- at least the early portion, as the monotonous British brooder known as Aqualung turned in a lifeless lunchtime set.

Thankfully, bands with actual guitars were plugged in a bit later in the afternoon at venues all over the Sixth Street area. Lil' Cap'n Travis kicked things off at the Glurp Records party at Red Eyed Fly with its earnest brand of indie twang, mining familiar subject matter on songs about the bottle and broken hearts, but darn if that pedal steel didn't make them sound fresh.

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Around the corner at Casino El Camino, hometown trio of brothers Amplified Heat (above) suggested what might have been had fellow Texans Los Lonely Boys opted to cop sleazier blues influences rather than their benign brand of Stevie Ray Vaughan knock-offs. The brothers Ortiz churned out a delightfully ragged blues-rock cocktail that's somewhere between Cream and early ZZ Top. Singer/guitarist Jim Ortiz’s shredding solo helped make "Wicked Man" a show-stopper late in the set.

Robbie Fulks flirted with disaster at least twice during his stellar set at Tambaleo. For one, he and his band offered "Country-er Than Thou," a send-up of country music fans -- which might have gone over better if the evening were not being sponsored by the alt-country magazine No Depression. Fulks also tossed in a strangely compelling cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," giving it a Texas-style swing. (The lyric, "But the kid is not my son," was also a reminder of a time when mentioning Jackson and somebody's son in the same breath did not warrant a punch line.) As usual, Fulks' wise-assed, sometimes dark humor won out -- there sure is something disconcerting about a packed crowd smiling and singing along to a chorus of "She took a lot pills and died."

Colin Herring stated his case as a young singer/songwriter to watch -- once he loosened up a bit during his set a B.D. Riley's. He looked down at his feet a lot and had a visibly sweaty brow, but midway through the set he and his band turned things up a notch by nailing the aw-shucks twang of "Heaven Never Works Out for Me," followed by the ragged rock of "Back of Your Mind." Heck, it can't help but calm the nerves when you have a sizeable cheering section from Fort Worth cramming the front of the bar, and you can throw it to your dad (in this case, BenRoi Herring) for a pedal steel solo.

The New York Dolls played to a half-full house for their headlining slot at Stubb's (though they did pack them in for their appearance on the same stage earlier in the day at the invite-only Spin magazine party). Surviving members David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain (does that make them "living Dolls"?) and their four new band mates did a credible job on "Looking for a Kiss," "Pills" and "Trash," but soon the strangeness of the reunion began to permeate the proceedings. A superfluous cover of "Piece of My Heart" -- apparently performed because Janis Joplin, who scored a hit with it four decades ago, was from Texas -- halted the early momentum.

There were dedications to deceased Dolls Arthur Kane and Johnny Thunders within the first half hour, underscoring the reconstituted group's nostalgia act value. During band introductions, the bassist oddly went unnamed. And even Johansen's preamble to a new Dolls tune, "Punishing World," came off awkwardly. "We're here ostensibly to get a deal, so we have to do some new songs," the former Buster Poindexter grumbled. Sorry, David, but as many of the other thousand or so acts in town could have told you, cranking out a tune that's under 30 years old should not be a chore if you're looking for a record contract.

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Festival fixture Mary Lou Lord (above) seemed to be quite shocked as she passed her usual busking spot across from the Driskill Hotel on Sixth at about 10 p.m., only to find it occupied. A dueling accordion duo was seated there performing instead. Not to worry: Lord set up shop later in the evening in her traditional spot, accepting requests -- and tips -- from passers-by.

* Saturday, March 19

The Yep Roc Records/Harp magazine party outside Yard Dog art gallery somehow seemed to benefit from the heavy downpour late in the afternoon. If nothing else, the cloudburst gave the droning Dolorean and surf-lite practitioners Laika and the Cosmonauts a captive audience of sorts that took refuge under the tent and overhang behind the building.

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Earlier, Boston's Jake Brennan and The Confidence Men (above) impressed during their 30-minute slot. Their debut LP, Love and Bombs, was 2004's best Elvis Costello record. Brennan and his band seem poised to follow it up with even better things, judging by the new offering "She's Walking Away," one of the set's highlights. Brennan and the band showed they have plenty of groove to go with their guitar-pop charm, closing with a spirited cover of "First I Look At the Purse," a song that fellow Bostonians the J. Geils Band made one of its live staples.

Members of Houston's Allen Oldies Band, renowned among SXSW regulars for their annual three-hour plus Friday afternoon performances on a South Congress Avenue street corner, proved that their musical chops go beyond covering bubblegum nuggets: They backed Texas country/soul legend Roy Head to close out Mojo Nixon's afternoon bash at the Continental Club. It was hard to tell who was enjoying it more, the band members who chanted for Head in between songs, or Head himself, who was so touched by the applause he made sure to squeeze in a few walks offstage only to be quickly called back again and again, before predictably wrapping it up with his staple, "Treat Her Right."

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You might have a hard time convincing some Austin-ites that Radio Nationals (above) are from Seattle and not the Lone Star State. The roots-rock quartet sure seemed suited for Texas, and not just because two of the four members sported cowboy hats during their well-received showcase at Opal Divine's Freehouse. "Backseat Queen," featuring a Slobberbone-esque start-stop arrangement was an engaging, guitar-drenched stomp, while "Reverend Jim" soared with elegant slide work by Aaron Taylor.

The Nationals may have scored the most points with the audience with their inspired version of Austin mainstay Alejandro Escovedo's "Five Hearts Breaking." As they work on the follow-up to 2003's Place You Call Home, look for them to back Cracker's Johnny Hickman (with whom they also performed the night before) on a West Coast tour this spring.

For every SXSW full-on success story -- say, an act playing before a sizeable, enthusiastic crowd of converts -- there's a scenario like the one experienced by The Martinets, who were relegated to one of the festival's more lifeless, out-of-the way venues: the makeshift stage at the Lava Lounge patio. Undeterred by the hip-hop music blaring from inside an adjacent club -- the door to which was no more than 10 feet from the stage -- the New York garage foursome bowled over the few dozen or so in the audience with a searing set. The ever-emotive Eamonn Bowles led the band through rollicking call-and-response numbers like "I Won't Follow" and a scorching rendition (thanks to guitarist Daniel Rey) of the MC5’s "Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)." If these guys are invited back after releasing their forthcoming disc, Comeback Tour, here's hoping they are rewarded with a better venue.

Dwight Twilley's set at Vibe was a time warp of sorts. The semi-legendary power popster, whose low public profile since the mid-'80s has rivaled that of Max Headroom, not only was backed by one-time Dwight Twilley Band members Bill Pitcock IV (guitar) and Jerry Naifeh (drums), but also old girlfriend Susan Cowsill on backing vocals. Encompassing a handful of old standards and some offerings from his latest, 47 Moons, the set had its moments, but was bit too reserved. That said, Twilley and Cowsill's voices meshed well on the punchy "Baby Girl," and the 1984 hit "Girls" was a fun recollection of Twilley's brief MTV heyday. In a questionable move, Twilley shunned the electric guitar for the acoustic on his 1975 breakthrough, "I'm on Fire," and it did lack a little spark.

* Sunday, March 20

Any discovery on this day, when the circus largely leaves town save for a handful of live shows, is a bonus. Austin singer/songwriter Grub Dog (yes, that's the name he answers to) proved to be just that as he and his band the Modestos performed for a light crowd plundering the CD racks at Cheapo Discs. Grub said he was originally supposed to be joined by Caitlin Cary, who had to bow out, but he made sure to do a song by her old band anyway – a rocked-up Rolling Stones-esque version of Whiskeytown's "Dancing with the Women at the Bar." Grub's good taste in covers doesn’t end there; he was handing out demo CDs featuring a punkish take on the Replacements' drown-in-your-beer anthem, "Here Comes a Regular." But originals like lovable-loser tale "Another Mistake" were what really made this one of the more refreshing performances of the week.

Erstwhile Lazy Cowgirls leader Pat Todd played a handful of shows during SXSW with his new backing band the Rank Outsiders, and he made it clear he still relishes every moment on stage. Late in the afternoon before a sparse crowd at Beerland, Todd performed with a preacher's fervor, and frequently planted himself at the foot of the stage to get as close as possible to the congregation. As evidenced by song titles like "Where Is She Now?" and "As the Years Go Rolling By," Todd still takes a reflective view with his brand of cowpunk, and drove home the point by delivering the obscure Bob Dylan ballad "I'll Remember You" at a Ramones-like pace.

Perhaps in a bit of payback for having to endure an unbearable sound mix the year before, Austin's The Ugly Beats were back to play DJ Sue's '60s-themed Fuzz Club party at Beerland in the evening. This time there were no apparent sound problems, and the Austin mod rockers fared better as they pounded out selections from their recent disc, Bring on the Beats, for an appreciative crowd of revelers who were not quite ready to drop the curtain on another year at SXSW.

Alas, another festival is in the books, and on the cab ride back to my hotel, the driver is educating me on how the city apparently waives noise-level restrictions at its music venues for the duration of the festival. Starting tomorrow, he tells me, it will be back to normal, which means "sound Nazis running around with machines to measure decibel meters."

After four straight years attending this event, this is the first time it has dawned on me that the festival ends all too soon for some of the locals, too -- even if it means their ears ring a little more this time of year.

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at April 1, 2005 09:28 PM
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