Tuesday, March 18, 2008

SXSW - Day One (3/12)

I love kids. Truly I do. But not on airplanes... and not right behind me. My SXSW journey begins with a bunch of little rug rats screeching like they're on a roller coaster as my plane lifts off from cold, dank Philadelphia headed for the land of Mickey, Orlando,FL. In Orlando, a dreadlocked, tattooed metalhead (Slayer t-shirt) sits right in front of me and we're off to the land of 4 B's - bars, bands, beer and Bar-B-Q. For the first time ever, I am actually using my ipod somewhere other than the car. As we cross into Louisiana, I hear the unmistakable soft piano roll that opens David Johansen's "Frenchette". He's not playing SXSW (if only!) but the song's mantra of "let's just dance" beckons a week for the ages. For not only will I be dancing (if you can call un-rhythmically rocking back and forth or jumping up and down dancing) to a bucketful of bands for the next four days, I'm also praying that my beloved St. Joe Hawks can somehow squeeze into The Big Dance by winning the A-10 tournament or somehow drugging the selection committee to forget the soul-crushing losses to Holy Cross, Duquesne, LaSalle and St. Louis. But I'd gladly suffer a first round Hawk loss to lowly Fordham if my nephew's incredible run with his Ursinus hoop squad could continue and they were able to scratch out two more victories this week to advance to the Division III basketball tournament next weekend in Salem, VA.

Did I mention the ability to combine basketball, music and beer in my favorite city in the world is the trifecta I've been dreaming of since 1995? I didn't? Consider it mentioned.

Step off the plane and immediately walk outside - it's 77 and there's a pristine, cloudless sky. Oh yeah - Austin, TX... just like I remembered it. My running buddy for the week Vince arrives in short order and we catch our shuttle, check in and head for the convention center to pick up our badges. Oh yeah, the badges. These things are 3x+ the cost of festival wristbands and worth every penny. If you ever consider SXSW, spring for the badge or enjoy waiting in line all night to not see the bands you flew across the country to see.

First up, Mother Egan's on west Sixth Street for the Guitartown day party. We just missed an acoustic set from the Backsliders' Chip Robinson and Eric Ambel (damn!), but I quickly realize I can't possibly see every one I want to. Blue Mountain is on stage - Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirrat, another ex-couple who still come together for the rock, have rounded out a bit in the thirteen years since I last saw them at Philly's J.C. Dobbs, a truly great rock and roll shithole. Unfortunately the mix at Mother Egan's is a pile of sludge for their set, rendering Cary's southern-fried tales and Laurie's harmonies a big old wet turd. A couple quick beers (Shiner! Shiner!) and I know I need food.

It takes us about 30 seconds to size up Hut's Hamburgers as the perfect first meal. It's a swell dump and it's got hoops on TV (mental note - if Hawks make A-10 final, this could be the joint). We chat up our neighbor at the bar and he's made a day trip from Dallas with his 5 year old to see the Octopus Project later that night. I know instinctively that the Octopus Project, a group I have never heard of, are a god-awful jam band (I am judging this book by its cover) and momentarily mull a call to the authorities to report child abuse. Then I remember the time I took my kid to see Fountains of Wayne and he had to sit through Rachel Yamagata.

Now it's 7:00 and we're four blocks away from La Zona Rosa and I get a text (the first of over 100 texts I'll get this week - that's more texts than I had received in my entire life) from my friend Rain and she and her husband are in there. Now Van wasn't on my SXSW radar, but we're a four minute walk from the venue. I assume it'll be mobbed but what the hell, it's Van. We mosey over, past a line of 500 wristband schmoes and get into the 25 person badge holder line and in 5 minutes we're in. FUCKING A - BADGES RULE!!! The SXSW badge is like fast pass at Disneyworld, it's spectacularly essential and engenders several fist bumps throughout the week.

While seeing Van in such an intimate setting should have been a moment to savor, he seemed to be mailing it in. The songs from the new Keep It Simple seemed plodding and uninspired, but he did set pulses racing with the boozer's lament "There Stands The Glass". There was some scatting, the sound was perfect, the band top notch but I wished Van had wanted to be there as much I did.

We hightailed it back to Mother Egan's to catch the last song and a half by The Silos (the full song was a spirited "The Only Love" from When The Telephone Rings.) Damn. Would have liked to hear more Silos but at least I got the feeling Walter Salas Humara (one of the true gentlemen of rock and roll) was at least as happy to be there as I was. (Note: this day party is a benefit for the late Drew Glackin, bass player for The Silos and many others. He will be remembered a few times this week.) Next up was a game and lively Patty Hurst Shifter but unfortunately they were also buried under awful sound. We skipped out early to catch Bruce Robison at Pangea, the absolute worst club in all of Austin. Perfectly attired muscle head bouncers, $6.00 beers, and no real place to put a stage. It had all the smells and accouterments of a trendy dance club that it most certainly is 51 weeks of the year.

But Bruce Robison, hit country songwriter, husband to Kelly Willis (jealous!) and brother to Texas rocker Charlie, gave a sweet, fiddle-flecked performance that included country hits "Wrapped" (George Strait) and "Angry All The Time" (Tim McGraw & Faith Hill). The sound was perfect... the room was not. By the way, there was a line of 100-150 wristbanders waiting to get in when we got there and the room was only 1/4 to 1/3 full. That blows. Did I mention that club sucks?
By the way, I really wanted to see Jeremy Fisher at 9 (Bruce Robison's slot) but he was over on the far east side of Sixth St and we spent most of the night on the west side. Sorry Jeremy - we'll see you in Philly on April 25th.

Next up was Lightspeed Champion at the legendary Antone's - well kind of. Can someone tell me when Antone's moved from the cool room they had up near UT to their new home on West Fifth? I dig Dev Hynes' alt-country psychedelia but Antone's was a bit too crowded and the room's layout is imbalanced. Hynes was certainly happy and self-proclaimedly nervous to be at SXSW. His acoustic guitar, fiddle and guest female harmonies set-up was earnest and pleasant if not a little light on songs. One to watch... but in a better suited room. Very cool lid, though.
Next up was 2007 crush Romantica at the tiny Touche on East Sixth. Ben Kyle's Ireland via Minneapolis tenor is reminiscent of a slightly more serious, less rocking version of Rhett Miller's solo stuff. Highlights included sweeping family tree anthem "National Side" and the lovely "I Need You Tonight".
Back over to the dreaded Pangea to make sure I get in for The Felice Brothers, my # 1 must-see at SXSW. No line and we're in just as Blue Mountain takes the stage. That's the vagaries of the ever-changing SXSW schedule - two Blue Mountain sets in one day and no Jeremy Fisher. This time the old Blue Mountain comes to life (while the club sucks, their sound is good) and the band from this afternoon has now morphed back into the alt-country studs I remember. They bopped through a nine song set that included the breakneck back porch jump "Jimmy Carter" and the twang-fried "Myrna Lee". Welcome back, boys... and girl.

Up till now I was thinking it was an OK first day - 6.5 to 7 on a scale of ten. That rating would soon change as The Felice Brothers edgily stormed the stage after posing for a Rolling Stone (drummer Simon Felice's Borat shtick included calling RS "world famous blog" and adding "we love to be in all blogs" but his sneer certainly said otherwise - sorry Simon) photo op and careened into backwoods hoedown "Where'd You Get the Liquor". These guys come off like an unholy mix of The Pogues, Los Lobos, The Band and not a little bit scary dash of the dudes from Deliverance. But holy shit do they tear up the stage like it's the last gig they'll ever play. They seem aggravated (turns out they are - they're pissed they're booked into this shitty club) and energized and soon they got some of the stool sitters up and rocking). Three brothers, three lead singers - main singer Ian's scratchy croak brings to mind Dylan and Prine, keyboard/accordion specialist James has a deep, earthy growl and secret weapon/band sparkplug/drummer Simone has a soulful croon that thrills and surprises. The brothers even bash out two new songs - the spastic "Run Chicken Run" and the so-called true adventures of their 58 year old girlfriend for a night, "Colleen, the Cincinnati queen" in "White Limousine". There's also the sorrowful boxing tale "The Ballad of Lou The Welterweight", the death romance-gone-wrong stomp of "Whiskey in My Whiskey" and the firecracker murder rave-up show closer "Frankie's Gun". If The Felice Brothers come to your town, go see them... or else. They might just kick your ass.


jayhonk said...

I don't mean to be negative -- who me?-- but you really should learn how to use a simple image resizing software program. (Instead of just sticking some randomly sized picture into one of those squares and letting the html stretch it or cram it as needed.) I suggest IrfanView. I've been using it for years. http://www.download.com/IrfanView/3000-2192_4-10021962.html?tag=lst-1

O, the SXSW reports...
Rock on.

Mr. Curiosity said...

I eat Hut's all the time. =)