Monday, March 30, 2009

Songs, Sun, and Lone Star Beer: SXSW 2009, Day 1

From what I understand, there aren't many over-the-top parties/events that typically take place at SXSW on the first day (Wednesday). So it was decided that my travel mates and I would forgo that wretched early-morning trek to Baltimore's lovely airport and leave a little later, thus getting us in a little later. Of course the one year this happens is the year that all that changes and there's tons of great things happening on Wednesday during the day (Jarvis Cocker, I'm looking at you). This, I think, is a good thing and I'm looking forward to folks utilizing that day better in the coming years. I know we learned our lesson for sure.

The boys raced on ahead of me to catch M. Ward at Radio Room, and though I was only a few minutes behind them, the difference of a few minutes doubled the length of the Radio Room line-when I arrived, it was ginormous. But it was just as well, I don't do frazzled and bugged out calmly, which I was from the trip. So I said screw this and got my badge (anyone else notice a lighter than usual goodie bag this year? Oh shite economy, up yours), my photo pass, and my composure. Once arranged and back in order, I headed out to kick things off with a known quantity of awesomeness for the 8 pm hour, Calfornia's Rademacher.

*8-9 pm:
1) Rademacher
I was really looking forward to this band as I'd heard so many wonderful things about them from the Silver Lake, CA crew for so long, and their mp3 garnered high marks in my book. But upon my arrival at The Independent, located over the hill and far away, I found they'd canceled. Seriously bummed me out because a) I had to miss such a well regarded group from those whose opinions I trust, and b) The Independent is well, over the hill and far away. Grr...

Give a Listen: Believe-Rademacher

2) Pink Nasty
I had one backup for the 8 pm slot and it was a band whose mp3 I'd kinda liked last year but not been able to see. Ms. Pink (or Ms. Nasty?) and her band was....interesting, but basic indie girl pop.

Her quips to the audience were funny enough and the band was good but I wasn't feeling it. Maybe it was the venue (18th floor of a hotel with chairs and waiters running about) that made me feel like I was at a wedding reception. But more so, I was just bummed about about the Rademacher thing so the poor girl didn't stand a chance with moi.

(More photos from the show here)

Give a Listen: Mold the Gold-Pink Nasty

*9-10 pm:
After missing M Ward earlier, I thought I’d run up and catch his 9 PM show at the Central Presbyterian Church. Upon my arrival I found this:

(What you can't see is the winding crowd of four lanes up at the top of those stairs and down the other side)

This church has, apparently, fabulous acoustics (obviously, it’s a church), but is really really tiny. And given the popularity of M Ward this year with his release of the lovely Hold Time, I shouldn’t have assumed this would be an easy in. In fact, as I walked through the crowd, I heard someone remark that people had been lined up for this show as early as 7 pm. From the looks of the line, I’d say they weren't lying.

3) Come On Gang!
I'd ranked all of my choices this year with letter grades (always the school dork), and both of my other 9 pm choices had "B+" rankings. So I flipped a coin and started with Scotland's Come On Gang!

A three-piece with a female drummer/lead singer, I'd originally had them pgged as a more uptempo derivative of Camera Obscura. And there was some of that, but then they also went off on tangents of sudden shoegazy guitar fuzziness and a cowbell (interesting yet a bit jarring as these both came out of nowhere on their fourth song of the set). But this band had energy onstage (which, if you've ever seen Camera Obscura onstage you know is not the case) so major props for that. In fact, the bass and guitar players were jumping and bobbing around so much that the speaker sets were bouncing with them. Long story short, Come On Gang! is peppy Britpop with decent hooks (especially "Both Ends Early").

The only downside for this show, which is a common downside often at SX because of the propensity to use just about anyplace as a venue, is that the mix was oftentimes quirky, making sounds not really as crisp. I think this left me with just a "feel" for the band but not a great indication of their proper sound.

(More photos from the show here)

Give a Listen: Wheels-Come On Gang!

4) Rotary Downs
My other 9 pm band, Rotary Downs, was at this place called Ace’s Lounge where, I kid you not, the bar wraps around the base of the stage so a band plays above/in back of the bartenders and the bar. (Think the bar owners have stock in an earplug company or something?)

Rotary Downs was a good size band (five members) and I remember thinking their indie rock sound seemed to have undertones of David Bowie from the Thin White Duke soul era. Complete with horns and synth and a kickin backbeat, they paired this with a xylophone and slide guitar, which together, made for a different sound for a band these days. Later on, I found out that this was a band out of New Orleans so horns, size, soul...ahhhh, it all made sense.

In the end, the Downs won my 9 pm slot. It helped that they had a xylophone/tambourinist who was super animated, leaping and jumping around and generally rocking out. And the lead singer's voice reminded me of both David Bowie and J. Mascius depending on the song (see "Sing Like the Sun" and "Feast in Squalor" respectively), so instant points there. The Come On Gang! mp3 ranked higher before seeing the two bands live, but after doing so, I think I found Rotary Downs better. I mean I like Bowie, and love a good slide guitar, so their combo was a sure thing to my ears. Plus, that "Feast in Squalor" song is so catchy, I think I've played it about a billion times since my return home.

(More photos from the show here)

Give a Listen: A Feast in Squalor-Rotary Downs

*10-11 pm:
5) Cotton Jones
The 10:00 hour had me running behind already as I got caught up in a great conversation after Rotary Downs with the head of Reap and Sow, a really cool music distribution company out of San Francisco, so I hit the closest location on my list and caught Cotton Jones. Cotton Jones and company are from Cumberland, MD and based on their mp3, play this neat blend of folk and soul with a splash of gospel, backed by an alt-country band and a Hammond b3 organ.

This seemed to be the year of bands with multiple members (Cotton Jones's had six for instance, Rotary Downs had five)....and technical difficulties. Amps, chords, equipment overall seem to be problematic for roughly one out of every four bands I saw. And as this pushed back their start times, and I had multiple bands I wanted to catch in every time slot, I needed something really compelling to make me stick around. Cotton Jones was pretty accurate to my initial thoughts on them (alt-country straight-up with a soul back), and they were ok...but I think they're one of those bands that's good on record but not overly compelling live.

(More photos from the show here)

Give a Listen: Blood Red Sentimental Blues-Cotton Joe

6) Vetiver
Emo's Jr. isn't a small venue, but Vetiver had it packed. In fact, it was the first line I stood in all night. When comparing band choices with my travel mates earlier, they told me how big of a buzz there was about this group in indie circles (and here I just liked the mp3). Definitely seemed to be the case.

The first thing I noticed was how much the lead singer reminded me of Jakob Dylan looks-wise. And how his lip curls remind me of Sheryl Crow in that "All I Wanna Do" video. But in terms of music it was lovely...there's a calm quietness to it, much the way it is on a breezy summer twilight. It had decidedly folk-strains to it, ala the Jerry Garcia Band or Cat Stevens, but with an indie twinge. For me, at least, I think theirs is music for a certain mood, not something I could listen to all the time. Or maybe I could and I just got burnt out on anything of the Jerry Band genre from waaaay too many Grateful Dead shows in my youth, heh.

Oh, and if you're a fan, they announced that they're releasing a single titled "Wishing Well" next month.

(More photos from the show here)

Give a Listen: Everyday-Vetiver

*11-12 pm:
7) Avett Brothers
I first saw these guys at the Monolith Festival in September, as as I'd said then, this 3-4 piece (the cellist only seems to play sometimes) makes this one disarming amalgam of rock and bluegrass.

(The Avett Brothers crowd at Stubbs)

Another instance of a band with technical difficulties and starting late. And I've never been in such a tightly packed photo pit before; I think every person photographing at SX was in there. But these guys put on such an energized and amazing show, any frustrations anyone brought in with them soon melted away. They're such consummate musicians and make this music that's both gentle and delicate, but also perfect for "punk pogoing." As Bob Bollen of NPR said on the broadcast, "When was the last time you saw a banjo player pogo?" Indeed. It's a truly lovely and unique dichotomy.

Part of this is the type of songs they do, but it's also them as performers. They always engage the crowd in ways that make places as big as Stubbs or Red Rocks seem as small as a backyard, and it always feels genuine.

They ended with a beautiful song that I've discovered since is the (probable) title track for their record coming this summer, called "I and Love and You." It was one of those tracks they do that packs a wallop and yet, is as tender and vulnerable as a lullaby. This track, plus "Laundry Room" if it's included, will make for a record that will end up on everyone's best of lists for 2009, without a doubt.

(See the rest of the show photos here)

Give a Listen: NPR streamed this show live which you can listen to here

Give a Listen: Last Song to Jenny-Avett Brothers (Live)

*12-1 am:
The midnight hour brought three bands I was going to try to fit in: Red Cortez, Viva Voce, and Dash Rip Rock. I'd seen Red Cortez when they were The Weather Underground but not in this new incarnation, Viva Voce only from the positive ravings of others, and Dash a bunch of times already, so I wasn't sure where to start. I figured I'd definitely end with Dash though because they're always good for a rollicking good time, and I needed something fun and uplifting at this point, as I was starting to lag. So in the spirit of logical locationing, the plan was Voce->Cortez->Dash.

8) Viva Voce
Viva Voce was interesting, fuzzy shoegaze for the new millenium if you will, picking up where My Bloody Valentine left off. With both male and female lead vocalists, Voce has that great sound of ethereality paired with crunchy guitar sounds that blissfully chop on one's ear drums.

(See the rest of the photos from their show here)

Give a Listen: Drown Them Out-Viva Voce

With trying to pack three bands into 40 minutes, I wasn't going to stay for more than a few songs. But as one is wont to do at SX, I wound up running into a photographer friend (the great DDE whose work you might know if you read MOKB where he's the staff photog), the Delta Spirit guys just loading in for their 1 am set (seems their trailer had caught fire earlier in the day and they were running mighty behind), and Harley Pretchel-Cortez, lead singer/guitarist for Red Cortez. (Seems his venue was running over an hour behind so Red Cortez was not playing this midnight hour.) But that still left one more before the clock struck "12:40 am"....

9) Dash Rip Rock
I first caught Dash Rip Rock’s blend of punk and cajun music at the Music Midtown Festival in Atlanta years ago. They were a site for sore eyes then (in the very best way possible), and though lineup changes and other random hiccups, lead singer/guitarist Bill Davies can still bring “it” like it’s not been “brought-un.”

Davies and DRR will make you smile much like the Avett Brothers, but unlike the Avett’s, DRR is about the colliding spirits of Country Dick Montana, Aaron Neville, and Johnny Rotten, of Johnny Ramone and Jerry Lee Lewis with a side of Helen Reddy. DRR is music played by kick-ass musicians (you try playing slide guitar with a shot glass), and just plain fun-I mean, how could one hear a version of Helen Reddy's "Delta Dawn" all punked up and moving at the speed of sound, and not chuckle just a little?

(See the rest of the photos from their show here)

Give a Listen: Locked Inside a Liquor Store-Dash Rip Rock

*1-2 am:
10) Seabird
The 1 am goal was to hit the venue Wave for Seabird, a band out of Ohio, then wind up the night back at Radio Room, where I’d left Viva Voce, with Delta Spirit. Seabird was running behind (shocking for this evening it seemed) so I thought I’d dash down the street and maybe see things in reverse order. But Radio Room’s line was ridiculous (and they didn’t honor a previous hand stamp like every other damn venue in Austin grr), and a conversation with the doorman made it pretty clear no one was leaving so no one new was getting in. Ah, but this is why one keeps options for the SX schedule.

So I headed back to catch the end of Seabird, only....1:20 am, and they still hadn’t started. Sleep was rapidly knocking on my eyelids but I managed to hang in there. After all, the beauty of SX is seeing bands you might not get to catch otherwise. Plus I was really struck by the lead singers big but melodious voice on their mp3, “Let Me Go On." Sometimes being stubborn works I guess (heh).

Fronted by two brothers, a bass player that makes his own guitars, and a new kick-ass drummer, Seabird do a neat type of heart-torn indie rock that’s very piano-centric. And the lead singer's voice does hold up live, it is not Memorex.

One interesting note: The lead singer made mention of the state of the music business and getting a song on a tv show, which is great as long as it doesn’t get cancelled. What I found out later is that they speak from experience as they did the title track for that tv show “Pushing Daisies” that just got cancelled.

I can't say they're the most animated act live-well, sans the drummer-but they are a band you go to see to appreciate for the music, not for the stage act.

(See the rest of the photos here)

Whew, 10 bands in six hours... So it was off to kick off the shoes, hang with the boys, and compare our day schedules for Day 2 over a few beers and a few laughs.

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