Friday, March 28, 2008

"Rock and Roll Spring Break, or My First Time at SXSW (Day 1 cont)

(Day 1 begins here)

DAY 1 (continued)
7. The Playing Favorites
As we'd often split up with our sometimes-varying band schedules, phone texting proved essential for coordinating and commenting on stuff we were all seeing. John had gone to see The Playing Favorites, and I'd had them on my schedule too, but for whatever reason Pinstripe had been ranked higher (and I wasn't quite "aware enough" at that point to do the multiple-venues-in-one-time-slot jog just yet. Remember this is only Day 1 heh). But during the course of Pinstripe's set, I started getting texts from John, the first being "The one guitarist is wearing a Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels t shirt." Now that peaked my interest because I recall TPF's sound being sort of punk-like. A punk-like guitarist sportin a GP shirt? Hmm, ok… Then a couple Pinstripe songs later I get "Dude, you have to come see these guys. They win the Spirit of the 'Mats award this year hands down." Pinstripe was ok but a band embodying both GP AND the Mats?? He knew I wouldn't be able to resist that. So I texted "Ok, ok I'm on my way."

He was right...they were great. No GP-like influences apart from the shirt, the bassist just had exquisite taste obviously, but that wasn't a problem because their riffs, fantastic harmonies, and stage banter sold me. Nicely loud and raucous, the "Spirit of the Mats" indeed. Think a harder Fountains of Wayne almost meeting Green Day. Which kind of makes sense as their members are all from similar sounding bands: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Sugarcult, The Pen Fifteen Club, Summercamp, Lag Wagon and The Rentals.

Plus, the drummer put me in mind of Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos (in that he looked liked someone's wayward uncle filling in and then kicking ass on the drums), and Bun E. Carlos is well....Bun E. Carlos. And in addition to the cool GP shirt, one of the guys was sportin Duckie Dale shoes. All of these things and their very tight sound, and I was like yup, dig 'em big. Go see them live even before you listen to them….Their recorded stuff really doesn’t do them justice and you’ll have a ball seeing them live, I promise.

Oh, and I approached the bassist wearing the GP shirt about where the HELL he found it and he said Worn Free this online site. This little bit of info will reappear later in our story, I'm happy to say...

Leaving Town-The Playing Favorites (MP3)
Indigenous-The Playing Favorites (MP3)

8. The Details
John and I had moved on to catch The Details for the 11 pm slot. It occurred to me at one point that I had a huge contingent of bands that I was really excited to see on my list from Canada. The Details were one of those. Catchy hooks and really drum-driven songs, with well-crafted lyrics that weaved a lot of the juxtaposition of yearning and the regret one sometimes feels for having that yearning. In fact, I'd probably have to cite the latter being used a bit too much...I mean, I'm from a small town too in what felt like the Canadian frozen tundra most of the time, always looking to get the hell out, and some great songs have come out of that experience... but like the old adage, a one-trick pony gets boring after a bit. But the band was young so maybe over time...

I read an article that compared them to another band I saw and loved, The Weakerthans, (which is possible especially as one of the Weakerthans plays on Draw a Distance, Draw a Border). But I found The Details sound harder.

One thing they mentioned from the stage that was interesting: more than one band they knew that was slated for SX wound up not making it because of getting denied at the border (you know those bass players are public enemy #1 here in the States). Apparently, they should have come over with the Mounties in uniform I saw scattered throughout the audience in The Details set.

The Height of Land-The Details (MP3)
Always, Always, Always, Never-The Details (clip)

9. Bo Pepper
Some other friends had set out to try to get into the REM show for the midnight hour, and though seeing a larger act like that in a small venue like Stubbs could have been cool, I figured it would be a zoo (apparently it was). And Stubbs wasn't in the vicinity for the 2 bands I wanted to hit in that same timeframe.

I caught Bo Pepper, a 4-piece band, out of London first. They had an interesting tune "Blink and You Miss It" that had caught my attention from the SXSW mp3 list. They weren't bad...but couldn't keep my attention. Great harmonies and quirky 2-minute pop songs that one could tap your foot to, but it was too B52s-from-the-early-80s for me right then. Plus the lead singer reminded me way too much of Elvira (can you say SEVERE bangs?)

Blink And You'll Miss It-Bo Pepper (MP3)

Also, I think I started to notice this earlier that evening but definitely with the lead singer of Bo Pepper-apparently REALLY. BIG. BELTS. on females is making a comeback. At least those who played in bands at SX this year. Ladies, ladies, ladies...they're called "fads" for a reason and some, like REALLY. BIG. BELTS., or these or this or this, should never be revisited.

The chick in the next band I went to didn't get that memo either.

10. The Hard Lessons
But this time, I felt pretty comfortable with how to do the whole SX thing so I decided I'd start venue-hopping so as to catch all I could in the same time slot. Bo Pepper wasn't keeping my attention so I met up with John and we headed over to see The Hard Lessons, a 3 piece band out of Detroit.

Ok, a lot of bands I saw during SX were good but not "THESE GUYS ARE FUCKING AWESOME" great. Some may have been a bit repetitive in lyrics or sounded like the band I had just seen...but I was able to find something I liked in all of them. The only thing I liked about The Hard Lessons was the intense amount of smart arsery I was going to get to invoke when writing about them.

Folks, it was like watching the characters of the musical "Hair" trying to do "MacBeth", just a total identity crisis. The SXSW MP3 that John and I heard, "See and Be Scene", suggested fun pop-music....nothing too serious, but still interesting. The band opened with something that sounded like a wanna-be Led Zeppelin cover, and the male guitarist was doing all these shite arena-rock stage moves that I despise, like speaker climbing and yelling to the crowd and stuff (did I mention this was the first song?) On the 3rd song the female lead singer/keyboardist was channeling straight-up Mellisa Ethridge, while channeling Belinda Carlyse's wardrobe circa 1983 (more big belts yup).

Ah screw it, I can't say it any better than this, AND this write up includes the phrase "cock hard Detroit rock" hahah:

The Hard Lessons have played Northwest Ohio, Detroit and Ann Arbor regularly for several years and in that time I have always missed their shows. But, I have always had friends see them and return with nascent reviews. But, after seeing them firsthand, I fear my friends were just blinded by the impressive midget drummer. The Hard Lessons, while capable of pumping out catchy crowd pleasing jams, are paint by numbers song writers.

The sound attempts to be cock hard Detroit rock, which it does, but the content is often simple and poppy. Imagine Feist’s “1234″ played by a Detroit band and you have the bulk of the Hard Lessons set: lots of counting and clapping and whimsical puns on familiar catchphrases. But, my opinion seemed of little importance to the impact The Hard Lessons have on the 100 mile radius of music I am attempting to cover. Everyone loves this band. Pitch my opinion to the pigs because The Hard Lessons are rocking its small nook in the Midwest and loving every second of it.

And good for them. But John and I decided veggie hot dogs were way better than watching dreck and took off.

Ironically a few days later when we were at the SPIN day party at Stubbs, we saw them playing a room inside that was the size of someones basement. I guess I headed to the ladies room at the wrong time because I got an eye assault of the worst kind as the male guitarist, sportin 70s shorts, decided to riff bad music with one foot up on the speaker. Thank you SPIN day party for making the booze free because Lord knows I went and drank many after that. Blech.

See and Be Scene-The Hard Lessons (MP3)

11. Centro-matic
I'd heard of Centro-matic but hadn't listened to their stuff. But I liked what I heard on the SXSW mp3 so I set them as my 1 am slot. Out of Dallas, TX, they had quite a built-in fan base for SX apparently because theirs was the first time all night I waited on-line to get in anywhere and the place was mobbed.

As for me, I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about.

I mean, ok, the harmonies were nice...think Brit pop-style harmony with fuzzy guitars and something I can only describe as a "Texas" feeling under it all. A guy who saw me writing during the show struck up a conversation and said how he was a huge Centro-matic fan, and was in from Reno, NV primarily just to catch them. His exact words about them were "They're like Ted Leo meets 2 Cow Garage." I didn't tell my new friend that they sounded more like Ted Leo on Valium who was channeling the dead members of Lynard Skynard.

Triggers and Trash Heaps-Centro-matic (MP3)

At that point, I was too tired to stand around and be uninspired so I headed back to our hotel to rest my weary bones and have a few beers with the guys and plan out the next day's festivities....

Day 1, Total Bands Seen: 10

Like I said, there are a kabillion bands that play SX and seeing all that you'd like to see can be difficult. Check out the ones not mentioned here (and thus, missed) especially around the 8 pm hour, and give them a listen...
My SXSW Schedule

Day 2 coming up....

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Rock and Roll Spring Break, or My First Time at SXSW (Day 1)

As I mentioned before, I recently returned from the yearly music portion of SXSW 2008 in Austin, TX. The plan to go had been in the works for a few years now (it isn't a cheap couple of days) but this year, I'm happy to say I finally got my ass on a plane.

As there's day parties and night performances I saw A LOT of music over the 6 days I was there. But as you'll read, it was well worth it.

So we fly into lovely Austin International, get ourselves a cab from the LONGEST CAB LINE IN THE WORLD because everyone and his mom had flown into Austin at 11:20 am CMT. I flew in with my two guy friends, Sean and John. John has been attending SX for like 12 years now, Sean, the last 3, and I was the newbie. And we were splitting a room. Potential recipe for disaster? Perhaps, but it all worked out surprisingly great. (And get your head outta the gutter mate, it would be like kissing my brother ewwww). Especially as said room ran $240 + tax a night, splitting costs 3 ways was a godsend.

John was itching to go see Matthew Ryan’s only performance at SX, a very early day show (1 pm). So we checked into the hotel, picked up our badges at the Convention Center, John took off, and Sean and I tried to get settled into the room some. I was ready to take it all in, after 3 years of false starts, I’d FINALLY MADE IT TO SX. Sean and I headed off for a quick lunch. Sure, I was missing Chip Robinson and Eric Ambel at the Guitartown party right then, but eh, I figured I’d seen Chip with the Backsliders enough in Raleigh, it was ok. And all of our mutual friends who’d attended SX with John before kept reminding me: don’t feel like you have to go non-stop like him and see every. Little. thing, he just goes and goes and rarely even stops to eat. So we settled down to some “faux-cajun” (because it wasn’t that good) and a couple of Shiner Boks each on E. 6th St. to start things off right and I could collect my geographical bearings.

After that, with band schedule and notebook in hand, I set off…

First stop: Guitartownday party
My first lesson in proper map analysis when planning your appointed SXSW venues. Mother Eagan’s is a decent bar but at 715 W. 6th St. My starting point was roughly 500 E. 6th St. And like I mentioned earlier you walk everywhere pretty much when at SX. But it was a good way to get acclimated to what was where.

Guitartown’s party happens every year though it’s not really a “sanctioned” SXSW day party (whatever that means…). This year, it was operating as a day party and benefit for musicians without insurance in the name of Drew Glackin, who knew and played with a lot of the North Carolina people there.

1. Chris Stamey
Oh man, NOT the way to start off one’s first time at SXSW. I wanted to hit the show because I knew an old friend, Matt McMichaels of the Mayflies USA was playing with Stamey awhile back. He wasn’t thank goodness because I’d feel bad saying what I’m about to say otherwise. If Chris Stamey’s band is playing right outside your door, check him out. Cause you know, he’s Chris Stamey of the dbs and excellent producer and stuff. But only do it once because this band he was with isn’t worth seeing twice or the 6 block walk it took me to get there. Think wanna-be noodle rock ala, the Grateful Dead. Blech. I didn’t even have eye candy there to keep me occupied because as I texted to Sean, “Holy crap, the average age at the Guitartown thing is like 110. Unless I can get a seat, I can’t see me staying here for long, blech!”

I didn’t get a seat.

2. Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn, and the Sparrow Quartet
Patty Hurst Shifter, friends of mine from Raleigh and always known for a solid show, were supposed to go on at 7:30 pm, so I returned to the Guitartown party around 7:00 or so. Things weren’t quite on schedule so I inadvertently caught Bela Fleck playing a sit-down set with Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet. They played some great Appalachian-style music, really amazing. But being an outdoor thing, the crowd was a bit too loud to take something like that in properly (especially when they started in with a Chinese folk ballad in the Chinese dialect. Yeah, that’s what I said too). But I always appreciate a good bit of fiddle playing so it was enjoyable.

I then ran into a bunch of the Patty Hurst Shifter guys and wives, all folks I knew from Raleigh, so I spent the rest of Bela Fleck’s set chatting (not where the band was of course heh). It was here, I found that I should have skipped the faux-cajun meal and Shiner Boks earlier and gotten myself up to see the Chip Robinson set, as Patty Hurst Shifter drummer Skillet Gilmore had sat in. If you’ve ever seen Skillet play (with PHS or with his previous band, Whiskeytown), he’s a skillful drummer who brings a big sound that always complements the melody perfectly. Drag…

3.Patty Hurst Shifter
PHS finally got on around 8:30 pm, and as I remembered, always provides a welcome wash of sound o’er me. The only problem was of course, that I could only stay for a few songs so I could make it back to meet the guys for the 9pm band we were all excited about, The Red Romance. But I knew PHS was playing SX about as much as the Ravonettes this year (that is, 9878767856 times), so I made a note to catch their full set later. And hopefully in a place with better sound (a tad muddy there I’m afraid).

4. The Red Romance
Caught up with the boys a tad late and out of breath from my 6-block race walk. But the Red Romance was well worth it. I had been looking forward to them as their mp3 had been one of the better things I’d heard. Three of the members had been in Ambulance Ltd and formed RR when Ltd broke up. Me likey…full of poppy beauty. I thought Death Cab-cum-New Order perhaps. I made a note though to go back and check out the lyrics as the mix there too was muddy (WTF SXSW venues??) The playing was tight, you could tell they’d put the time in at practice. And they had great fashion style. One thing that appeared to be a new addition (?) was a female lead guitarist. And if you like the Office, Dwight Shrute’s twin plays some mean drums.

Don't Cry-The Red Romance (MP3)

5. Longwave
I only caught like 2 songs but put it this way, they caught my attention from the street. Their lead singer has this ethereal voice backed with a hard driving sound. But more on them in a few days.

6. Pinstripe
The comparisons to New Order for this synth pop group out of Bristol UK were obvious but they were harder in terms of sound and WAY more energized than Bernard Sumner for sure. Kind of like the Cribs meets Franz Ferdinand. The lead singer struck me like Clay Aiken strikes me: how does that voice come out of the body exactly? The band was pretty thrilled with being in America and on Myspace, which is understandable for such a young band. Keep your ears open, there’s potential here.

Closest Thing to Heaven-Pinstripe (mp3)

2nd half of Day 1 tomorrow....

Slash drinks whiskey anyway....

What does Dr. Pepper want with Axel Rose? Why, what everyone wants, a new way to promote their product. The NY Post's Page Six today reports the following:

March 26, 2008 -- TIRED of a world in which Americans idolize wannabe singers, and where musicals about high school students pass as rock 'n' roll, Dr Pepper is begging Axl Rose to finally release this year his 17-years-in-the-making album, "Chinese Democracy." The soft drink company's incentive to Axl, the frontman of Guns N' Roses? If he ships the album in 2008, everyone in America - except estranged guitarists Slash and Buckethead - will receive a free can of Dr Pepper. "It took a little patience for us to perfect Dr Pepper's special mix of 23 ingredients, so we completely understand and empathize with Axl's question for the perfect album," said a company spokesperson. Dr Pepper is asking fans to lobby Axl to drop the album already.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

See a Little Light?

Over the past few days, I've been trying to find the how-to's regarding putting mp3's up on a blog. It's something I've long wanted to do and if this is to be a proper music blog, I felt it should have some sound, especially when I'm posting band interviews.

While I don't have an interview with these guys, I fell in love with this song when Showtime started using it in the commercials for their spring line-up. It's so sweet and hopeful and frankly, I was rather surprised it was released some 40 years ago because it sounds so modern and so different from their other song "Time of the Season".

So without further ado I give you...
This Will Be Our Year-The Zombies (mp3)

Monday, March 24, 2008

SXSW Recap

I'm finally getting back in the swing of "real life" after 6 days in Austin, TX at SXSW to start the writing about 6 days in Austin, TX at SXSW. My friends told me getting readjusted would take some time and they weren't kidding. What they forgot to mention was how jacked up my sleep schedule would get.

I should explain a little about Southby first for you folks who haven't been part of what my friends call "rock n roll spring break". SXSW Music is basically a conference held every year for music industry types in downtown Austin, TX in the week leading up to St. Patrick's Day (roughly). Bands submit applications to play; many are unsigned, some are already on labels but just go to play. Most all types of music has representation, from country to rap to DJs to rock. Someone (a committee I guess) decides who's playing, who isn't. In the October beforehand, badges go onsale and their price goes up incrementally as March approaches. Badges are super expensive (like $500) but worth it because folks with those can get into SXSW venues before wrist-band holders. (Wristbands are another way to get into SXSW venues. Wristbands go onsale later, there are only so many sold, and only cost about $150-200, but a badge is definitely the way to go.) The other nice thing about badges is when venues are at their capacity, they sometimes go to being "Badge Only" events, which means though badge owners may still have to stand in line and wait for someone to leave to get in, they still stand a shot. This came in very handy during the Lucero show at the pretty small Red Eyed Fly venue and during Nicole Atkins show at Pangea.

Ok, so once the schedule of bands is announced, roughly a month or so before Southby music starts, the work for a person going begins. On the schedule, each band has a blurb about them, what style of music they play, a link to their website, and if they're smart, an mp3 to download. Your task is to go through the 2000+ bands listed and pare them down by music type, then take a listen to what's left, being sure to add what you seem to like to your "schedule". After that pass through, you go back and look at who you like the best to the least in each time slot (it's important to have a few options just in case), and who's playing where.

The "where" each club a band is playing is an important thing to take into account when creating your Southby band schedule. Day or night, bands play 40 minute sets. A majority of the venues are on E. 6th Street, one long street with bars and clubs, a few obligatory 24 hour-paki stores, tattoo shops, and a "Cowboy Oriental Massage" parlour (boom chicka want waaa). There are also clubs further down on W. 6th Street (Congress Street is the dividing line between the east and west sides), and in many clubs on streets that surround and span out from 6th. During Southby, the city blocks E. 6th Street, some of the streets that intersect and cross E. 6th with lots of clubs (Red River Street, Trinity, etc), to accommodate all the pedestrian traffic. Basically, you walk. A LOT. For example: 214 E. 6th for your 8 pm band and there's a band you want to see at 8:30 but it's at 715 W. 6th, and your 9 pm band is at 217 E. 6th, you have two choices: see two songs from the 8 pm band and walk really really fast to the 8:30 venue, see 2 songs there and then walk really, really fast back, OR try to see your 8:30 choice at a day party (more on those in a minute). If a venue is far away (there are some that require a shuttle), you stand to spend more time traveling than seeing bands and that's the whole point of going.

Day parties go on from roughly 12 noon to 6 pm. Some are open to everyone with badges/wristbands like the Utne Reader party and some are invite only and held every year, like the Spin Magazine party. The invite-only ones typically have free food and drinks from whatever sponsor they got, and you get goodies like t-shirts, tote bags, etc. To get into those, you typically have to show a laminate pass for that particular party; my friends informed me that the kids with multiple laminates are typically the pretty connected ones (these laminates are attached to the same lanyard as one's SXSW badge). So while the night schedules run from 8 pm-1am/1:20 am, schedules for days can be just as jam packed. Course, it's like anything else, it can be as packed or as sparse as you want, but day parties typically fun and allow you to probably catch those band you couldn't fit in the schedule elsewhere. More than once I'd gone to day shows coffee in hand (then switched to beer of course).

All in all, if you're a music fan it's a blast. You kind of eat when you can (walk up tacos anyone?), and you stand a lot (like waiting 90 minutes for Kate Nash to go on with Billy Bragg as her special guest), and sleeping, well...like I said your sleep schedule will be sufficiently fucked for a good week after (up at 10:30 am to get to wherever by noon/1 pm, day parties, back to the hotel for a quick catnap at roughly 7, out to catch the night schedules, back to the hotel at 2 am usually, up having beers and comparing notes with friends till 4 am or 5, then off to bed for a few winks until you get up to start all over). But kids, it's all very much worth it.

I actually kept notes on the bands I caught and took a few good snaps here and there, all of which I'll be writing on here shortly. As well, I've got a rather loooong interview I did upon my return with one of the best bands we all caught and loved there, the Airborne Toxic Event. The best part of it is, most every band we caught is available on Emusic for your listening pleasure. What you don't know about Emusic?? Run fast! Go right now! :)

Friday, March 21, 2008

I'm just saying...

I read a quote recently by Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, "Poems are poems. Song lyrics are for songs." I was sort of struck by that. I guess I always thought of some song lyrics like poetry but not necessarily in a sense of a schematic structure of words, or "poetry" according to its Webster's Dictionary meaning...they are those things in a literal sense, but I see them as something broader....as emotion. It's that thing, regardless of whether you read it or hear it, where you actually feel your body chemistry alter and your heart speed up, and you find yourself holding your breath for a second more so that you don't miss anything. It's in those few last notes of Flamenco Sketches, the writing of John Donne, well-written erotic literature (oh yes I did go there heh), Ellen Burstyn's character in Requiem for a Dream, or that moment just before your lips touch on that first kiss....artistic endeavors, be it writing or music or art or movies...they're all just ways of capturing and conveying that *thing* we all feel in our heads, in our chests, in our hearts, in our guts when we somehow connect to that universal feeling of vulnerability that reminds us that "autopilot" is no way to live a life.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Interviewing on influences and writing

One thing I wanted to do with this new soapbox here is to make it more music-oriented. I thought about writing something years ago that leaned towards music from the Triangle (Chapel Hill, NC if you don't know the area), it sort of got side-tracked over time. One idea I had way back when I was doing a radio show in undergrad, as I too am a writer,was to interview artists about how they create the songs: content, crafting, and inspiration. I was also really interested in what musicians like and how they feel their favorites are infused in their own work, be it consciously or not (or how does one become influenced without becoming a cover band almost). There seems to be a fine line.

For example, I just returned from 5 days of mayhem and alcohol and music at the annual SXSW Music Conference in Austin, Texas. I saw many, many bands (I have much to report on all I saw and the bands I loved/loved not so much and pictures to post as soon I get back into the real world more) and I can't tell you how many pop/rock bands I heard where one song sounded the same as the next song of the next band, and they all sounded like a faster or slower version of Belle and Sebastian or Joy Division, with lyrics that were just blah or inane or seem like somebody was trying really hard to write in the random smattering of phrases strung together like Bob Dylan. I like to be challenged, I like to hear a song and the words weave me a story or turn a witty phrase backed by a catchy hook, or different sort of melody, or ass-shakin beat, or vocalize emotion in a way that just slays me. And that takes talent to capture.

So what I'm hoping to do, in this vein of music centerdness, is to take my radio show idea and conduct interviews with musicians/songwriters here, hopefully with a lot of the bands that knocked me out at SXSW, as well as others I already know. Keeps me entertained, teaches you and I something new maybe, and gives good groups some free publicity. We'll see how it goes. I toyed with developing like 10 questions I'd ask every person I interviewed, and that still may happen, but that seems so structured. Course, a little structure is good because me+good discussion=winding up going down those roads of tangent topics.

So stay tuned for what I think will be called How Can You Like Him? or maybe, in this day and age of Myspace and everyone having video, Seen Your Video. Or maybe just "Interview: (insert name here)". It's hard to think of a catchy title after surviving 5 days of "rock and roll spring break".