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Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 27
South By Southwest 2005, Austin, TX. Another year, another marathon weekend of hearing live music. I’ll try to keep the description of each act brief since there were so many:
3/17/05 SXSW Thursday. The incestuous social coincidences began today when the guy sitting in the seat next to me on the plane was on his way to play guitar at the same party I was heading to. His bass player picked us up at the airport and took us to…
Twangfest Party, Jovita’s. I heard the last couple of songs by Richmond Fontaine. Sleepy vocals over some dreamy electric instrumentation. Then my new friend Kurt got up to play guitar with Thad Cockrell and Caitlin Cary. Rounding out the band were a drummer, bassist and Rich Gilbert on pedal steel (the same guy who added that weary/dreamy steel to Uncle Tupelo’s "Whiskey Bottle" a long time ago). Thad and Caitlin did almost all new originals from their soon-to-be-released duets album. This pair did some of that call/response thing on the verses and harmonized on the choruses. My next-day memory isn’t coming up with any of the clever wordplay they worked into these songs other than something about, "I wish we cared enough to fight about it once in a while". Thad played acoustic guitar and Caitlin added some of her sad fiddle fills.
Steve Wynn (backed by The Miracle Three) opened his set with a slower song that placed more emphasis on the vocals/lyrics…I liked it OK, but the band was just taxiing to the runway on this one. Once everyone was strapped in, the second song marked the takeoff into that zone…the rhythm section got into that sinister sounding hypnotic/narcotic groove while Wynn traded exhilarating leads with guitar player #2. Things roared along in this mode as they shredded through songs like "That’s What You Always Say", "Amphetamine" and their one-song encore- the Dream Syndicate (Wynn’s old band) classic "Days Of Wine And Roses". Yowza.
A few minutes later, The Bottlerockets had the same task Bobby Bare, Jr. was faced with a couple of Twangfests ago- how do you follow up the ass-whoopin’ that Steve Wynn just laid on everyone? They gave us a fine, if familiar, sampling from all points in their history- opening with the reluctant road anthem, "Indianapolis". We got some of that impressive lead trading between Brian and John, but not to the degree I’ve witnessed at other times…or does the lingering aftertaste of the previous set by The Miracle Three affect my impression? "Kit Kat Clock" had a nice bounce to it that fueled the party atmosphere of this incredibly packed Mexican restaurant, but a few of the slow-to-mid tempo songs ("Get Down River" and "Cartoon Wisdom") held the energy level in check at times. Toward the end of their set, "I’ll Be Comin’ Around" perked things back up. As it turns out, this was the last performance in the band for bassist Robert Kearns- he’s apparently signed on with one of those big Nashville hat acts. Appropriately, Kearns took over the lead vocals on their last song- a cover of Doug Sahm’s "I’m Not That Kat Anymore".
By the time Calexico took the stage, the entire building was packed with wall-to-wall people, with another hundred or more people listening through the open windows out back. These guys (Joey, John and whomever they are currently playing with) have a real unique and diverse thing going. In addition to the standard bass, guitar and drums, the more unusual instruments (pedal steel, vibraphone and mariachi horns) carried things in wildly different directions- everything from guitar-based rock (ZZ Top’s "Heard It On The X") to moody spaghetti western instrumentals to that perky barrio rock that Los lobos sometimes trades in. Their cover of Love’s "Alone Again Or" nicely displays their ability to drink up ideas and influences and imaginatively reassemble them. Somehow, I got roped in to carrying the tip jar through this impossibly dense crowd to help KDHX cover the cost of the band- everyone was appreciative and generous. The one-song encore was a fun cover of The Minutemen song, "Corona"…a playful mix of punk, country and Latino influences. I saw lots of big smiles as everyone filed out of the depressurized building.
After a brief Bar-B-Q break, I wandered around Sixth Street some, catching a nice moment from this home-grown country/folk/string band playing out on the sidewalk. Usually, I’m briskly on my way to some showcase, but I was stopped in my tracks by the sweet, wide-eyed character of this three piece (stand-up bass, spare percussion and a woman on guitar and vocals). They’re called The Juanita Family…I made an impulse purchase of their CD.
Continuing in wandering mode, I found my way to the outdoor elevated deck at The Velvet Spade where Die Princess Die was playing. This four-piece (b,d,g & g) plays all-out furious cacophonous punk rock along the lines of Drive Like Jehu. Remember Husker Du’s cover of "Helter Skelter"? It’s kinda like that.
Then I met my buddies over at Room 710 for a set by Austin’s Grand Champeen. Their sound draws from those spirited, less-than-precise bands like Thin Lizzy, (early) Soul Asylum and The Replacements. All original material tonight; although some of their originals have a catchy, familiar-sounding ring to them. Three different guys write and sing in this band. "Bottle Glass" (sung by guitarist Michael Crow) stood out. Their set ended with the loud and vigorous "The Good Slot".
Next, it’s around the corner to Exodus to hear Clem Snide. They (specifically frontman Eef Barzalay) have a quirky, nerdy, clever, yet catchy vision that is not for all tastes, but given the number of live music options around town tonight, it’s safe to say that the dense crowd in this place was sympathetic to the cause. In my world, Barzalay is to singing what Emo Phillips is to stand-up comedy. I find the substance of what he’s got to say (lyrically and musically) so compelling and on-target that I’m willing to put up with the eccentric, whiney delivery. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to turn any of my friends onto this band, but it’s one of my faves.
The entire band (b, d, g & Eef on vocals & left-handed guitar) came out in white tuxedos, each with a unique animal embroidery on the back. They mostly played stuff from their current "The End Of Love" CD: "The Sound Of German Hip Hop", "Jews For Jesus Blues" and the title track all have pleasing melodies, oddly nuanced instrumentation (how ‘bout that bowed banjo?) and words that make me think/smile. "Exercise" was one of the few older songs they did…somewhere in there, they did a slower, reflective rendition of the VU’s "I Found A Reason". It fit nicely alongside Eef’s "heart-on-the-sleeve" originals.
After this set, I popped out onto Sixth Street and found Mary Lou Lord set up at her usual spot playing and singing. She obliged my annual request for Matt Keating’s "That Kind Of Girl". I then headed back to south Austin…
I hopped out of a cab right around 1AM to find that there was not a line out the door at The Continental Club. I walked in right as John Doe & band went on stage. His current batch of songs tend to be in that slow-to-mid tempo range, leaving JD to carry things with his vocals. I liked it OK, but I gotta say that the new stuff didn’t come close to grabbing me in the same way that the songs he wrote as a member of X did. That became evident when he did "White Girl"…there’s an urgency and intensity in this one that just isn’t there on the newer material. As if hearing that song wasn’t enough on its own, Exene Cervenka hopped up on stage and sang alongside her former bandmate. My second favorite song of this set was, you guessed it, another X song, "Poor Girl". We got a brief encore that included "Cyrano DeBerger’s Back" and "Money (that’s what I want)", both delivered with punch.
3/18/05 SXSW Friday. Having been almost overwhelmed by so many bands yesterday, I wasn’t so keen on jumping back into another all-day music marathon. After a leisurely breakfast and a swim at the Y, I found my way to Maria’s Taco’s on south Lamar for a 2PM set by Thad Cockrell and Caitlin Cary. In this cool outdoor courtyard, they delivered another fine set, slightly different than yesterday’s. One of the duets they do contains (approximately) the lines "I don’t want to make it better/I just want to make it over". They also did Caitlin’s "Thick Walls Down" and Buck’s "Together Again". When I talked to Kurt yesterday on the plane, he was explaining how he had learned all of Thad’s new songs from recordings he’d been sent and hadn’t played them with the band yet- it was interesting to see how well he had learned his parts and jumped right into the flow of things. After they played, I caught a ride with Brian and Lisa over to…
The Bloodshot Records Party, Yard Dog Gallery. Same as it ever was- I had fun talking to a few friends there, but the place was uncomfortably crowded and the sound quality was atrocious. I left after about half of one song by The Meat Purveyors. I eventually wound up in the parking lot of Jo’s Coffee to hear Dale Watson and band. Dale’s character-rich voice (think Merle) and tough Telecaster led the way and the band (d, b, fiddle & steel) applied their trademark hard, honky-tonk feel. They gave a slight nod to bluegrass on "Fox On The Run" and the fiddle player gave another song a lively Cajun vibe.
In the early evening I made it over to Auditorium Shores (the big outdoor stage) in time to catch a little bit of Alejandro Escovedo. There were several thousand people standing out in the field in front of the stage. This was the first time I had seen him since his well-documented bout with hepatitis C. Tonight, Alejandro brought his large band configuration- violin, cello, double-bass, bass drums and three guitars. I only heard the last couple of songs. At times, his dramatic presentation bordered on being overwrought; at others, I was right there with him, loving it.
Ian Hunter (& band) closed things out on this big stage. I’m relatively new to his music (only ten or fifteen years)- I wasn’t a fan back in the day. He still has the look and the voice. He’s got some young guy on lead guitar who can do all of the requisite heroics, releasing rapid-fire volleys of piercing notes that served Hunter’s glorious arena-rock thing well. Another sideman alternated between guitar and mandolin. Fairly early on, he did "I Wish I Was Your Mother"- Jeff correctly predicted that Alejandro would come out to add backing vocals on this one…when IH sang that question/line in the final verse, "is there a happy ending?", Al responded with a comically spoken, "I don’t think so". Needless to say, the mandolin rang righteously on this one. That instrumental melody line (as opposed to the melody the verse or chorus are sung to) is just drop-dead gorgeous. I’m still humming it a few times a day. The only other songs I recognized were "Michael Picasso" (a touching dedication to Mick Ronson), "Saturday Gigs" and of course, "All The Young Dudes". A friend who knows more about these things tells me he did quite a few songs from "Rant" and "Strings Attached".
For the home stretch of the evening, I opted to check out the lineup at Antone’s. Even this far from home, there seem to be enough familiar faces around…as I was standing in line to get into the club, my buddy John Wendland showed up. Once inside, we found a spot relatively close to the stage where we took in a number of bands and Shiner Bocks.
The first act we saw was Nicolai Dunger. Backed by pretty straightforward instrumentation (b,d,g & k), this Swedish singer/songwriter (he does both in English, BTW) pretty quickly had a bunch of us thinking "Van Morrison". The similarities were uncanny on many levels- he’s a bit on the heavy side with a haircut similar to Van circa "The Last Waltz" and was dressed in that semi-formal, button-up shirt/sportcoat combo…but more notably, his vocal delivery (and even the melodic/rhythmic passages within each song) mirrored certain nuances of Van the Man. Just for the hell of it, I Googled "Sweden’s Van Morrison" and got a handful of hits, all describing Mr. Dunger. All in all, I felt the guy was pushing this all a little too much- the mannered, emotive phrasing a bit too melodramatic. At least I can now associate a sound with a name I’ve seen in print for quite a while. Between sets, we ended up talking to a couple of Germans (one wearing a Twangfest t-shirt). They had very much enthusiasm for the roots-rock.
Next up was Jolie Holland, who has come to be known as much for her solo career as for her efforts in Vancouver’s The Be Good Tanyas. In both settings, her music has a slow, dark feel to it- spare instrumentation (fiddle, guitar & drum) backing her odd voice that somehow straddles the line between cozy and spooky. About halfway through their dirgey opening song, I was a bit concerned how the next 45 minutes would go. If my buddy Mark were here, he’d be making jokes about patchouli oil right about now. In some more intimate setting (maybe some coffee house or around a campfire) this stuff might come off better, but it’s Friday night in a bar full of drinkers (most of whom had come to hear other bands)…throw in a few moments of audio difficulties and things weren’t going well at all. I was tempted to pull that trick where an audience member (impersonating someone official) goes up to the stage, points to his watch and gives the "five more minutes" signal. One nice thing about this showcase format is that you never have to wait too long for things to change.
The Frames are another of those bands I’ve heard of, but never heard, so here goes… They started off with a slower song whose plodding electric guitars and atmospheric violin reminded me of The Dirty Three…I was once again worried how the new 45 minutes might go. But, as the set progressed, the guitars (all three of ‘em) built up an intensity and things were much more Friday night. The lead singer’s vocals were delivered in that dramatic U2 style. By the end of the set, the guitars had built things to a frenzy.
Band #4 and beer #4 arrived simultaneously right around 1AM. I like what Calexico does well enough that I’m not complaining that things weren’t appreciably different from the set they did at the party yesterday (seems like two or three days ago). The steel guitar, mariachi horns and vibraphone once again piled on the layers. They freely hopped from that murky "rattlesnakes on ether" mode into peppy border pop with a few stylistic stops along the way. Their mariachi-ized version of "Alone Again Or" has emerged as their "greatest hit"- they’re onto something here. The band apparently likes it as much as we do- toward the end of their set, they brought a host of guest vocalists out to do this Arthur Lee classic one more time- Nicolai Dunger, Neko Case and Susan Cowsill all had their chance to join in the all-star love-fest. The final song of the night was one that touched a similar spot to Los Lobos’ perky cover of "Jockey Full Of Bourbon".
3/19/05 SXSW Saturday. After a nice Tex-Mex breakfast, I got dropped off at the country music marathon at The Texacali Grill. Cornell Hurd fronts the house band for this annual event, with sidemen galore: fiddles, guitars, steel, bass and the lovely Lisa Pankratz on drums. An older gentleman stood out on a couple of hopped-up saxophone solos. I heard about an hour’s worth of hard-core honky-tonk as guest vocalists came and went. "Crazy Arms" and "Heart Over Mind" stood out, as did a silly original called "She’s In Love With The Washboard Player" (right title?) which contained the line, "tiny ribs for her pleasure". This song featured the owner of The Texacali on washboard. The sound quality of the P.A. system was notably clear.
I ended up taking another good, long break from the afternoon of music and at some point found myself holed up on someone’s front porch during a hailstorm. About a half hour into it, the sun came shining through the pouring rain. It was pretty cool.
When Andrew dropped me off at the outdoor courtyard at Threadgill’s, they had just begun to remove the soggy tarps from the soundboard and merch table so they could resume Roky Erickson’s Psychedelic Ice Cream Social. First up after the rain was San Francisco’s Gris Gris- four younger guys (b,d,g & k) who carry the flame of that psychedelic garage/nuggets movement. Their swirling feedback, trippy guitar and distorted vocals made me think of stuff like "Incense, Peppermints", Quicksilver Messenger Service and early Country Joe & The Fish. Kinda cool that some current practitioners of this sub-genre were asked to open up for one of the masters.
Then came a three-song set by Michelle Shocked. Backed only by her bass player, she opened with "When I Grow Up". Her voice hasn’t changed much over the (seventeen?) years since she recorded this song. By song #2, her request for a drummer out of the crowd yielded a guy who played with The Thirteenth Floor Elevators back in the sixties- he looks to be in his sixties now…sporting a black cowboy hat, he jumped right in, adding a smooth shuffle as Ms. Shocked ended her set with "If Love Was A Train". They even pulled off that heavy-momentum ending that emulates a train slowing to a stop.
By now everyone had forgotten about the rain delay and was eagerly waiting for the main event. A local DJ introduced The Explosives as the band that backed Roky in the eighties…this three piece did a couple of songs that let you know that they were on the same page as RE.
Then it was time…as soon as Roky Erickson took the stage, he had the whole place in his hands. All of the lawn chair people rose to their feet as the unmistakable guitar intro to "Starry Eyes" came ringing through the P.A. Just about every SXSW I’ve been to has had one shining moment that stands out as my personal undisputed highlight of the festival…hold your calls, we have a winner. Roky’s voice was a bit limited at the high end, but that song is just so damn catchy, positive and romantic that I (and everyone as far as the eye could see) was just grinning ear-to-ear. If I was a puppy, my tail would be wagging like windshield wipers on "high". I was practically crying with joy. Part of this is admittedly tied into the deep admiration we all have for Roky’s whole body of work and knowing that the last few years have been rough for this guy…but here he is, still able to reach down and deliver. The second song was "The Beast"- it’s a slower straightforward Texas blues song, like you might hear on a record by Doug Sahm or Delbert McClinton…except for the wonderfully weird electric leads being traded back and forth. The finale of this all-too-brief set was "Two-Headed Dog", a song that’s about as wild and psychotic/psychedelic as anything you’d care to hear. The whole place went nuts; most folks were singing along.
Fortunately, I was forewarned that Roky was only going to do a couple of songs, so I was grateful to hear three. That was it- game, set, match. The crowd of smiling faces dispersed, me to meet up with Greg and Sue Ellen for shrimp enchiladas. We then adjourned to the jukebox at The Horseshoe Lounge for a couple of beers before they dropped me off on Sixth Street.
I was kind of at a loss for where to go next; there were a few recommended bands in isolated venues and timeslots, but there was only one club where I knew I would know people, so I opted for the Bloodshot Records showcase at The Parish- five solid, if familiar acts:
The Meat Purveyors were once again sassy and bluegrassy as they gave us upbeat covers of Fleetwood Mac’s "Monday Morning" and VU’s "What Goes On?" as well as their catchy and clever original, "How Can I Be So Thirsty Today (when I had so much to drink last night)?".
Devil In A Woodpile seems to be much the same as when I saw them five years ago- stand-up bass (ex-Bottlerocket Tom Ray), slide guitar and a guy on washboard/harmonica/clarinet/vocals do a loose, old-timey thing. The vocals move about in the same general territory that Leon Redbone occupies. My next-day memory thinks that they did "Good Morning Little School Girl", but I could be wrong.
The only act that I was unfamiliar with tonight was Jim and Jenny & the Pinetops. Their supple and subtle touch on vocals (through one central, high-quality mic) and traditional instruments was largely lost on this big and boisterous crowd, myself included. Even a shift to electric instruments midway through was not enough to make the loud crowd take much notice.
Bobby Bare, Jr. was the set-up man tonight. Backed by only drums and guitar, he opened with a more reflective version of "I’ll Be Around". The guitar leads that arose from the brief pauses in this one were reminiscent of what Slim Dunlap did in The Replacements’ "Can’t Hardly Wait". Instrumentation switched around some…BBJ moved from bass to guitar at one point and at another, a second guitar player joined the mix. The only other song I recognized was "Flat-chested Girl From Maynardville"…I was always more a fan of the melody than the lyrics.
Tonight’s closer was The Waco Brothers. I know ‘em, I love ‘em, I’ve seen ‘em a dozen times…drums, demonic electric bass, two guitars and barely audible mandolin. My general fatigue contributed to feeling literally tired as their set played itself out. The rollicking, romping punch with which they delivered virtually every song eventually sounded monotonous ("monotonous punch" -oxymoron?). The meat of their set included a handful of newer, less familiar songs as well as the tried and true "Do What I Say".
A string of exceptional covers managed to snap me out of my lull: Johnny Cash’s "Big River" (w/ Rosie Flores on guest vocals), Lonesome Bob’s "Do You Think About Me?" and Neil Young’s "Revolution Blues" ended their set (and my SXSW 2005) with an ass-whoopin’. Just to make sure we were down for the count, The Wacos came out for a one-song encore- "I Fought The Law" sounded virtually the same as The Clash’s 1979 (?) version.
3/23/05 The Good Griefs, Frederick’s. I finally heard this band I’ve heard of for a while. Scattered observations about this local trio: Larry’s guitar (some variation of a Telecaster) is fluid; sometimes he flirts with surf instrumental forms. Maggie is the most symmetrical drummer I’ve ever witnessed- most of the time, her left hand is making the same motion as her right, hitting a drum or symbol positioned directly across from another. In all my years of watching bands play, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this kind of thing before. I’ve been a fan of Anne Tkach’s bass playing for a while now; the fun she has onstage in contagious- it’s almost impossible for me not to smile when she’s playing. They ended with an unusually bouncy cover of Leon Payne’s "Psycho", Larry on vocals. This being a school night, I didn’t stick around to hear Dead Weight; maybe next time.