Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Rock and Roll Spring Break," or My First Time at SXSW (Day 3 cont)

(Day 3 begins here)

DAY 3 (continued)

7. Portastatic
Portastatic is the prolific side project of Mac McCaughan, whom you may also know as one of the main guys in Superchunk. I'd heard of him from that but more so because my dear friend Margaret White, fiddle-player extraordinaire and all around great dame, played fiddle for them over the years (and Cat Power...and The Comas...and 66489685 other bands). Margaret said she wasn't playing SX this year but that Mac was playing an acoustic set and to go check him out, which I did as the first slot of the Merge Records showcase at the Parish.

Now, I'd heard of Portastatic but not *heard* them, and I was pleased to find the same great quirky pop lyrics of love and yearning that permeate so many of Superchunk's songs. McCaughan started out with a Doug Sahm cover that I think is called "Live in Texas Anymore" (I think). Which was a weird kismit as I was finishing up the book Learning How to Die, a book about Wilco and the band that led up to Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, which is how I first heard of Sahm because he played and sang on one of my most favorite Tupelo songs, Give Back the Key to My Heart. (WHEW, that was a long sentence.) So in addition to writing great stuff, I had to give big props to Mac for having stellar choice in covers.

It's tough work I think to command a large room with an acoustic guitar, but McCaughan did it beautifully. Later on I picked up a few Portastatic cds and found it was a full band. Of the two, I think I liked the acoustic more...something about stripped down music with fab lyrics that just gets me...but that's just me. But if like Superchunk but none of the fuzzy guitars, or just dig something acoustic that's smart lyrically with edgy pop sensibilities, I highly recommend checking Portastatic out.

Download: Getting Saved-Portastatic.mp3 (MP3)

8. Driving By Night
In trying to learn from my previous mistakes due to misjudging the distance in between venues, I tried to make the next three bands in the general vicinity of each other (my mama didn't raise a dumb girl you know...). I ran late leaving the Parish after Portastatic so I was only able to catch a few songs from Driving by Night. I really liked their submitted mp3, and they're out of Belfast so you know, the cute Irish boy factor which is always a plus. What came to mind upon hearing the lead singer was a more ethereal version of Julian Casablancas of the Strokes. Song wise, and you'll prolly be like, "Are you high?" but think Arcade Fire meets Big Country....no really. Now, I've never seen Arcade Fire, Big Country, or the Strokes live, and I'm pretty sure I've heard that Julian Casablancas just stands around on stage, but that's more animated than DBN was....But hopefully they're a young band so maybe that will change. But the music, of that I liked what I heard.

Download: Fears of Men-Driving by Night (MP3)

9. Mario Matteoli
While the boys were off seeing Chris Mills, I decided to go check out this guy whose mp3 I loved, Mario Matteoli. I knew nothing about him so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was, in a word, rather shocked but not in a bad way: the mp3 was quiet; at Lambert’s, he was playing with a full band doing a bluesy stomp….think Professor Longhair meets Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street, with a trombone and a kick ass drummer (no offense Skillet heh). I’d read later on Matteoli's website that he often plays solo or with a band called The Weary Boys, so I’m guessing that's who I was seeing. (Although based on this photo here, the band at Lamberts had other members so who the hell knows…Matteoli’s an Austin local, so maybe he just grabbed a bunch of folks and said, “Let’s play”….) I’d book this guy for my backyard in July and throw a party, or use his music for a long drive up US 1 in California, it just sounds like summer to me. Matteoli’s lyrics are reminiscent of Ryan Adams-full of guitar-driving melancholy and observations from a bar stool perch. Of course I can’t put my hands on it, but they did an incredible song that I think was called, “You Follow Yours/I’ll Follow Mine.”

The one downside to the performance was that the space upstairs at Lamberts was small. Matteoli’s electric guitar player was fond of shredding solos, which, while showing his talent, did nothing for the ear drums in a place that small. Much like bag pipes, some things should be done over a hill and far away.

Download: United Nations - Mario Matteoli (MP3)

10. Watershed
John, Sean, and I reunited for Watershed at this scary little place called “Wave” (aquatics-themed, it’s layout was like a long bowling alley. It also had an upstairs and for some reason, they chose to place the band right next to the stairway for a nice clogging of people trying to get upstairs to see a different band).

Watershed is a great bar band with tons of energy and very catchy songs. My first thoughts were that they had a cool straight-ahead rock sound in the tradition of Cheap Trick meets Dash Rip Rock. Much like Dash, these guys are funny as hell onstage while rocking the place (the lead singer goofing on Paul Stanley of Kiss was worth the price of admission alone). This band has been around awhile, still making fans outside of the Midwest one show at a time I’m sure, but they’re really, really good at it, and really, really talented musicians.

Later, I discovered my ears were dead on in my initial assessment: their Midwest sound is because, like Cheap Trick, they are out of the Midwest (Cleveland, OH), and Dash Rip Rock, another band of road dogs, have long played many shows with them over the years. In fact, I got talking with the lead singer afterwards and when I mentioned I’d never heard Watershed before but how I immediately though of Dash, he damn near fell over in shock, and was super-psyched to hear it. He’d said DRR are basically their big brothers and mentors, and Bill Davis, DRR leader, really helped them along over the years, so the comparison was awesome to hear.

What was it Bono said in that movie, “Rattle and Hum,” “All I need is my red guitar, the three cords and the truth”? That’s these guys in a nutshell (minus the Bono-pomposity of course.)

Download: Obvious-Watershed (MP3)

11. Nicole Adkins
I made it a point to see Nicole Adkins because a friend whose taste I respect saw her in Boston and raved, raved, raved. She wasn't really what I expected; I guess I was thinking she would be more bluesy ala Marcia Ball....but Adkins is all driving pop. She reminded me of an early Chrissie Hynde for some reason...maybe it was the bangs...but her voice is like syrup, smooth and sweet, and goes over you like lapping waves. There is a rather interesting quality to her voice and then it hit me: She's like a female Jeff Buckley.

Overall, I enjoyed her, and her band was great (although the mix for the lead guitar was WAY too jarring...jarring like dogs nearby were howling jarring). The show was crowded so Adkins' name is definitely out there. Rather odd venue for a rock show though...couches...bottle service....weird. And I was really glad I had sprung for a badge versus a wrist band once I saw the line (and at one point, this guy in the wristband line was complaining how "wristbands should have some merit" as badges got to go in first, and should the place be at capacity, wristband holders may not get in at all. Sure badges are expensive but for the three things a wristband holder gets shut out of, there's a bunch they get into as well, which is pretty good considering they paid $150 and we paid $600. And even with a badge, I got shut out of Nada Surf AND missed the first four Lucero songs, so you just gotta roll with it I guess).

Download: Party’s Over–Nicole Adkins (MP3)

12. Somebody Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin seems to play DC so much that I thought they were from here (and yet, I'd never seen them previously). But I'd heard they were decent so I decided to finally catch them halfway across the country. They started late, and I had a date with Lucero in 20 minutes, so I only got to catch a couple of songs, but I dug them...which is saying a lot because they were playing in Habanna Calle’s basement, the Bermuda Triangle for band vocals. Yeltsin's members looks like they’re 12 but they rock like they’re 40, especially the drummer. These guys are guitar-driven power pop with really good hooks.

Boris Yeltsin also played the Paste/Stereogum showcase at Volume earlier in the day (where I saw The Weakerthans and part of The Whigs set). That's where I had intended on seeing Boris Yeltsin but remember how I told you how the depths of hell were cooler than Volume that day? Yeah, so thankfully they played someplace else. (However, NPR endured the heat and produced a copy of Yeltsin's Paste/Stereogum show here).

Download: Glue Girls--Somebody Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (MP3)

13. Lucero
For the first time all trip, I got stuck in a line waiting outside a venue due to overcrowding, even though I had a badge. John and Sean had ditched any 9:30 act to go to Red Eye Fly early for just this reason. While I could hear some of the songs from the outside, it was KILLING me because for one reason or another, I’d always missed DC Lucero dates.

Lucero cites their influences as The Pogues, Springsteen, and The Replacements, among others...so the perfect band for me essentially, as those are three of my all-time favorites (remind me to tell you about the time I got to slow dance with Westerberg). Plus, lead singer Ben Nichols is hot as hell, which always helps, and has a songwriting style similar to Paul Westerberg. His vocal style well...imagine Tom Waits gargling with razors before going onstage, that’s about what Nichols sounds like.

Apparently, Lucero also shares a hard drinkin lifestyle like the Westerberg and the 'Mats too. That’s why I laughed when I ran across this quote recently: “Lucero….is the sound of the Replacements, 20 years later, a little more sober, and from Memphis instead of Minneapolis.” I think "slightly more sober" is up for interpretation, or the author of said quote has never seen Lucero's live show. At the Red Eye Fly show, Nichols was barely standing and admittedly obliterated...and this wasn’t the worst shape my friends had seen the band in (though usually it's the members falling down, not Nichols). I was really enjoying the show and slacking a bit on note taking, but John captured some essential quotes from the stage and the overall essence perfectly, so I'll defer to his take:

I’ve been a fan of Lucero for some time now (having first seen them at South-by a few years back), and while I’ve seen them in various states of inebriation, I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Ben Nichols, their fearless leader, utterly bombed onstage. Until this night, that is.

It’s funny ‘cause Nichols walked into the club right behind me and, upon recognizing him, I took the opportunity to ask if they might be adding a D.C. date to their Spring tour And while the answer was “not in the spring, but probably summer,” it was the rest of the conversation that proved most prophetic. Nichols went on to say that they’d played a party early in the afternoon and “that was a mistake, ‘cause we’ve been drinking since 1 … so we’ll try to be good.” I countered that there seemed to be little cause for concern given the various states of drunkenness in which I’d seen the band play –and acquit themselves admirably– in the past. Nichols appreciated the encouragement, but clearly seemed less certain of their abilities on this particular night.

Upon taking the stage a short while later, the first words Nichols uttered were, “SXSW stresses me the fuck out…goddamn.” Then the set took off like a rocket with an opening threesome including “That Much Further West,” “I Can Get us Out of Here Tonight,” and their scorching take on Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle.” Three songs later, following a raucous performance of “Tonight Ain’t Gonna be Good,” Nichols explained to the crowd, “I’m way too drunk to play this … let’s play something easy.” In response to a shouted request for “All Sewn Up,” Nichols agreed, “that’s cool,” but following a somewhat shambling version, he quipped, “we need to play an easier one, don’t we?”

A few songs later in the set, an honest-to-god mosh pit broke out during “Tears Don’t Matter Much,” which was, admittedly, extremely cool to see at a Lucero show. Following that always-cathartic song was “Drink ‘Til We’re Gone,” after which Nichols helpfully explained, “this is what I play like drunk. Rest of my band? Sober. Me? Hammered.”

Nichols went on to apologize, saying that if there were any representatives of influential record labels present, it was all his fault. At which point, one wag in the crowd shouted out, “if you play ‘The War,’ I’ll sign you!” By now, the rest of the band had packed it in, but Nichols was still strapped and, with a wry grin, launched into a solo electric version of the requested song. And he even made it through two full verses before packing it in himself, explaining, “it’d be worse if I played the rest of it … I’m done. I like Austin, but … this is tough on me.”

And that concluded the highlight of my Friday night. If you’re wondering how such a sloppy, damn-the-torpedoes drunken performance could be the highlight of a night filled with (other) great bands performing soberly and without any handicap … well, have I mentioned that the Replacements are my all-time favorite band?

Afterwards, I spoke to the lead guitarist briefly, and told him how I was going to review this first show of mine for my site, to which he began to apologize profusely about how bad it was. I said, "No, no, really, it was fantastic, I'm a huge 'Mats fan.." and before I could finish my sentence he said, "Oh thank god," which cracked me up.

Here is a rough interview with Nichols the next day with the kids from Muzzle of Bees

Long story short: Do not miss these guys if you ever get the chance to see them live if you love music in any way, shape, or form. The show may go off the rails, but I promise you, you'll enjoy every minute of it.

Download: Kiss the Bottle--Lucero (MP3)
Download: Tears Don’t Matter Much--Lucero (MP3)

Day 3, Total Bands Seen: 13

Day 4 coming up...

SXSW, Day 1/Part 1
SXSW, Day 1/Part 2
SXSW, Day 2/Part 1
SXSW, Day 2/Part 2
SXSW, Day 3/Part 1

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