Friday, March 28, 2008

SXSW Day Three - 3/14 (Night)

Friday night (Friday night already?! We just got here.) We started off at The Parish for a show billed as Portastatic, but turns out it was Mac McCaughan performing solo. Opening the show with a cover of Doug Sahm’s “At the Crossroads”, it was clear McCaughan was feeling at home when he sang the festival-savvy mantra “But you just can’t live in Texas / If you don’t have a lot of soul”. Two songs from Be Still Please (“Cheers And Applause” and non-planned set closer “Song For A Clock”) and memory-challenged “I Wanna Know Girls” from Bright Ideas were as current as the set list got, save for the new, and terrific, imagined road trip tale to “Amarillo”. Four songs from 1995’s Slow Note From A Sinking Ship plus “Impolite Cheers” rounded out the show. A fine set but I did miss the full band.

Next up (or so we thought) was a show billed as Blue Rodeo & Friends, but my advance planning bit me on the ass. The Blue Rodeo showcase had been moved from 9 to 11 pm, which I realized as soon as New York’s Ladyfingers took the stage. I don’t know if it was the emptiness of the barren venue (something called Smokin’ Music presented by Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company), but I wasn’t feeling Ladyfingers’ earnest Americana and the mc – a suited, Beatle Bob-ish, dancing-by-himself-in-a-big-empty-room, overgrown hipster was creeping me out a bit. So it was one Miller tall boy and a hasty exit.

Over to Stubb’s, where we attempted to join the cognoscenti for Brooklyn buzz band MGMT. After a few minute wait to get in (yay badges!), we took one look at the assembled multitude and pulled the first Old Guy Move of the week. Too crowded and the original X is playing six blocks away. It wasn’t even a hard decision.

X was playing the Bat Bar (a sterile 1500 capacity room at the Austin Convention Center) in a show being taped for a DirecTV broadcast. There was pretty long line of badge holders and an even longer line of wristbanders. Still, we sat down outside and decided to wait it out. Right next to us was popmeister Rhett Miller all by himself, so we went over to chat. Turns out he’s a huge Teenage Kicks fan and asked if he could be a guest contributor (kidding… he knows there no way we’d post any of his nonsense). Actually, the guy couldn’t have been nicer, was thrilled we enjoyed the earlier New West set, and said he’ll be in Philly for a non-indoor venue in July. We made him promise to come back and play an Old 97’s show in a bar, and it was at that moment it was clear who the rock star was, as an official looking woman with lots of credentials whisked him into the Bat Bar before all the flotsam and jetsam.

While I’m generally not a fan of reunion tours, the disgust level usually rises with the size of the ticket price and venue. Since X has yet to graduate playing clubs and you can still see them for about $25, this X reunion tour merits the coveted Teenage Kicks seal of approval. And for crying out loud, what’s not to love? Their Bat Bar set blasts 15 songs in less than an hour, including a whopping 11 songs from the first two records, Los Angeles and Wild Gift. Even though we have no beer (line was too long after they waited so long to let folks in), the place has no vibe (it might be a conference room during the day) and I actually might skew young in this audience, X delivers a pounding, exhilarating, rock hard set that sees none of the flab and self-congratulatory antics of most reunion cash grabs. Exene looks like the scary bag lady from the bus stop (whose off-kilter harmonies still create ragged magic), DJ Bonebrake lives up to his name, Billy Zoom’s gigantic, economical, serrating power chords should be rock and roll 101 for anyone that solos over ten seconds (all the while flashing that maniacal Jerry Lee Lewis, I just married my 13 year old cousin grin), and John Doe is quite simply, one of rock’s great leading men. In Philly on 5/22 and coming to your town soon… go.

After catching two songs at her Twangfest set yesterday, we decide to hoof it over to catch Amy Lavere’s midnight set at Opal Devine’s on the west side of town. At a crowded, outdoor stage, the boisterous Memphis soul of The Bo-Keys is just ending up… they had the dance floor filled and folks were waving their arms in the air like they just didn’t care. A short break and SXSW 2008 heartthrob Amy LaVere takes the stage. Dressed in a short, black fringe mini-skirt, the tiny LaVere is dwarfed by her stand-up bass. She coos torchy, seductive woman-done-wrong songs and her three piece band swings with ease, knowingly enticing you with batted eyelashes while regaling with tales of spouse-cide (“Killing Him”) and the housewife escapist dream “Washing Machine”. Definitely a pleasant surprise but six songs in, we gotta go. Can’t miss Lucero.

I’m so anxious to make sure we don’t get shut out of the Lucero gig at The Red Eyed Fly (great venue, great name) that I insist on jumping in a cab for the dozen or so blocks to hasten our arrival. I probably should have gone to see some trendy male/female synth-pop duo that will fill the dance floor with nubile, halter wearing coeds, but I've seen Lucero enough to know I ain't missing them if they're playing in the same town I'm in. We arrive as prior band Cloud Cult is finishing their set. Plenty of time for multiple Shiners as we stake out a prime spot right in front.

Ben Nichols is a singer with a sandpaper and Jim Beam voice that writes vein-busting mini-anthems of drinking, despair and life on the fringes, and yet still has the self-deprecating, we're not that good, aw-shucks demeanor of the guy pumping gas at the corner. His stage banter reminds me a little bit of American Music Club's Mark Eitzel, but without the self-loathing.

It's packed and sweaty (as all good club shows should be) when Lucero launches into familiar opener "That Much Further West". I can already tell this will be a marked improvement over the last Lucero show I saw, where Nichols voice was totally shot and he apologized to the half-full Troc crowd in Philadelphia: "Y'all can you say you were here at The Troc, the only Lucero show at a place we'll never play again." (Note: Five prior Lucero shows were all raucous, beer drenched swabs of ecstasy).

Prior to the second song, (a roaring "I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight"), Nichols admonishes a wobbly patron, seemingly displaced with one too many Shiners with a funny, dismissive "What's that, ginger ale?" The show is a ragged, blissful, captivating street fight of rock madness - the kids in front me polluted beyond belief but hugging each other and belting out the words to each song like it's the last show they'll ever see, the band's bemused expressions as they survey the crowd and their over-served lead singer - but every song just peals out like a kid who just dropped off his girlfriend three hours after curfew. Put these guys right there with The Hold Steady as the best show you can see in a club.

"SXSW stresses me out" Nichols says before launching into scorched earth classics like "Kiss The Bottle", "Wasted", "All Sewn Up", "Bikeriders", "Tears Don't Matter Much" and "Drink Till We're Gone". Nichols goes on to state "The rest of the band - Sober. Me - Hammered!". They finish with an aborted version of "The War" and, warts and all, they've delivered one of the best shows I've seen all week. I mean, X and Lucero in the same night... where else but SXSW?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

SXSW Day Three - 3/14 (Day)

Friday started out badly as we headed out to catch a Team Love showcase featuring my best new buddies The Felice Brothers. But either I got bad info or I can’t read but the gig we were looking for wasn’t happening (and yes, Vince, I know you think it was over on South Congress). But this gave us a chance to head over to the WXPN/Paste day party at Volume, a sharp little club with a balcony surrounding the stage. Once inside the sweltering club (I believe the outside temp topped 90… perfect for rock and roll) we say hello to homeboys and XPN staffers David Dye, Bruce Warren and Jim McGuinn. They’re busy putting on a radio show and live broadcast and we need to get some beer – it’s almost 1 pm!

First up is my old buddy from two nights ago, Lightspeed Champion. I like this dude’s moves (psych pop alt-country with crazy hat) and today’s set is much better than the Wednesday night's Antone’s gig. First of all, crowd conversation is kept to a minimum and our vantage point is superb. Today’s show includes a gorgeous cover of Weezer’s “Perfect Situation” and healthy sampling of Lightspeed Champion’s debut disc, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge. One to watch.

David Dye steps up to introduce Winnipeg, Manitoba’s favorite sons The Weakerthans and he is rocking a Teenage Kicks t-shirt, the latest in ultimate chic fashion wear. John K Samson, the Weakerthans’ singer and guiding light, writes three minute radio ready should-be-hits that remind me of Squeeze’s melodic, detailed story songs, but with less of Squeeze’s pop classicism and more of indie rock’s spit and spirit. The crowd was dominated by pasty faced, bespectacled, doe-eyed… boys? Where all da chicks at? Most of the set was taken from 2007’s Reunion Tour (highlights were “Bigfoot!”, “Civil Twilight”, “Virtue the Cat…” and especially the melancholy look back “Night Windows”) but the set closer was the heartbreaking “Left and Leaving”, which is about as good as pop music gets.

Vince headed back to the hotel for a cigar and a snooze (I’m betting he was checking email and making phone calls) and I headed to the Free Yr Radio outdoor stage on Red River to catch She and Him, a collaboration between wide-eyed actress Zooey Deschanel (you know her from Elf and boy is she cute) and indie guitar hero M. Ward. I need to mention that SXSW runs with brutal efficiency, with sets beginning right on time or within 5 or 10 minutes (a practice I highly endorse for all clubs!). As She And Him fumbled with a balky sound system, their 2:15 start floated to 2:45 and they wound up with time for only three songs, ‘cause you can’t keep Billy Bragg waiting, can you? Despite Deschanel’s nervousness and stock still, semi-terrified stage presence, the three song set (“This is Not A Test”, “Change Is Hard” and “Black Hole”) seemed to signal an emerging new talent. Deschanel’s voice is sultry, airy and playful like Jenny Lewis channeling the spirit of Patsy Cline, and M Ward is just badass.

Billy Bragg followed with a short 3 song set that included "Farm Boy" from his new album, Mr. Love And Justice, "Old Clash Fan Fight Song" recorded under his Johnny Clash alter ego and a benefit 7" for Jail Guitar Doors (dedicated to "Clash fans from 9 to 90"... I took that personally) and the rallying cry "Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards". If you like half the music written about here on Teenage Kicks, you owe it to yourself to go see Billy Bragg next time he’s in your town.

A quick walk back to the hotel to rouse Vince and head back to the Paste/Stereogum/WXPN party for Athens,GA power trio The Whigs. By this time the club is jam-packed and we head upstairs for a Shiner and better vantage point. The Whigs kicked things off with “Like A Vibration” and nothing on the record had prepared me for the Nirvana meets Crazy Horse assault of their live show. No frills, loud-louder-loudest, sweaty (did I mention it was 174 degrees in the club) rock and roll delivered with passion and classic rock poses (drummer flailing like a maniac, guitarist with legs split, etc) that we all need but rarely get. The set included several tracks from their outstanding new disc, Mission Control, with highlights “Need You Need You” and the magnificent “Right Hand on My Heart”. William Henry Harrison and Henry Clay would be proud.

Walking back to the hotel for the pre-dinner rest, we pass a bar and my buddy says “that sounds like Billy Bragg”. So we cross the street and walk into a tiny little bar and there’s some secret-handshake industry schmoozefest going on with our old pal Billy. We catch 45 seconds of “There Is A Power In A Union” and Uncle Bill leaves with this parting thought:
“Don’t Network. Organize.”

Only in Austin.

SXSW - Day Two (3/13 - Night)

Thursday night looked to be a little uneven, even if it still provided much to savor. We started at a cool little venue with the awful name Bourbon Rocks (yay Miller High Life tall boys!) and the Cincinnati band Wussy, who share at least one member (Chuck Cleaver) with the late, lamented, demented Ass Ponys. But for some reason Wussy, who sounded perfectly fine, were boring us. So we guzzled up the tall boys, cut bait, and ran.

Where to? The closest venue on our hit list was the Central Presbyterian Church, where a rare reunion performance of 60’s bubblegum kings and real-life Partridge Family inspiration The Cowsills was a-happening. It was a little bit creepy, but also a lot of fun as the surviving Cowsills (they gotta be in their 60’s) played a short set of late 60’s hits (“We Can Fly”, “Poor Baby”, the sublime “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things”) while trading sunny harmonies with wooden, stiff jokes about family and aging. For some reason they felt the need to include an awful political song - thankfully the name escapes me. Note to all artists not named Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg or Pete Seeger – don’t play your political screeds. They’re no good and we don’t want to hear them.

They also did a wonderful, reverent version of C,S,N & Y’s “Helplessly Hoping” and a spirited if slightly icky version of their biggest hit “Hair” (but skipped my favorite “Indian Lake”) as the greybeards and curious rose for a slow, creaky standing ovation. Perversely entertaining… and it got me to church.

Quickly back to Bourbon Rocks (yay Miller High Life tall boys!) and an engaging, if not spectacular, set from Austin-based alt-country stalwarts San Saba County. I loved the blend of instruments, the lead singer’s arid vocals, the drummer’s SXSWSUX t shirt, but I didn’t hear enough in the songwriting department. Probably my loss.

I decided on a whim to check out L.A. singer-songwriter Jim Bianco, who was thoroughly captivating a few weeks in an acoustic opening slot for Jeremy Fisher. Bianco’s Waits-ian growl, spooky lovelorn lyrics and rubbery mug provided a smoky mix of Fats Waller meets beatnik bop folkie cool. His off-hand, snarky stage patter puts across a wise-guy attitude while naked lyrical songs like the stalkerly “Somebody’s Gonna Get Hurt”, the restlessly horny “I’ve Got a Thing For You”, and the bawdy “Goodness Gracious” (which he requested all audience members to hoot, holler and make “strip club noises" throughout the song) are imbued with a gruff, jazzy swing that should be impossible to pull off. For some reason the addition of a full band made tonight’s show slightly less enjoyable than the acoustic show a few weeks back. More is less?

I met up with my buddy Vince at Esther’s Follies, a tiny, sit down theater that was perfect for my virgin encounter with The Asylum Street Spankers. After struggling with the venue’s sound system, the ASS decided to go completely acoustic. Their kitchen sink mix of jazz, country, vaudeville, blues, show tunes, hillbilly romps and yes, even Tuvan throat music proved delightful for about 5 or 6 songs, then became grating as their shtick started to wear thin. Towards the end of the set, I was anxious to head to the next show but still happy I’d experienced one of Austin’s most original acts.

We arrived at a beyond packed Mohawk Patio to see Jens Lekman, whose most recent disc Night Over Kortedala, has been steadily growing on me. Lekman comes on like a cross between Stephen Merritt and Jonathan Richman singing the Bacharach songbook. His mostly female backing band provided sweet stringed (violin, cello) counterpoint to Lekman’s tales of romantic heartbreak, deception and loneliness. A string fueled, rousing “The Opposite of Hallelujah” was interrupted with a perfect dj break of The Chairmen of the Board’s AM masterpiece “Give Me Just A little More Time”, complete with Pips-styled arms outstretched dancing moves by Lekman and his band. Although heavily hyped in indie world, this show was a real treat and nice surprise for me. Color me impressed.

Postscript from the Lekman show - To all you fuckers at shows that aren’t blisteringly loud: SHUT THE FUCK UP.

Back once more to Bourbon Rocks (yay Miller High Life tall boys!!) for long time favorites Bodeans, who are back out on the road supporting their ninth record, Still, which continues the fine return to form started by 2004’s Resolution. Playing a spirited selection of both old (“Idaho”, “Good Times”, “Fadeaway” and “Texas Ride Song”) and new, Beau and Sammy’s timeless Everly-inspired harmonies and bouncy pop hooks still endure, even if Sammy has morphed into some weird hybrid of Cheech, Yosemite Sam and Chong. While I felt like maybe I should be checking out some next big thing, I really wanted to see these guys. So the heck with hype… long live the Bodeans!!

Monday, March 24, 2008

SXSW - Day Two (3/13 - Afternoon)

Day two we begin to get comfortable with our surroundings (hey look, there’s Lou Reed in the lobby) and I also know (Vince doesn’t) that we’re in for a treat with the Twangfest day party at Jovita’s, a suitably skanky roadhouse with an indoor room and makeshift outdoor stage on a fenced in wooden patio. This is where the This Is American Music revue will celebrate good ol’ fashioned, bare bones American rock and roll. These bands, they believe.

Upon entering Jovita’s we are almost face to face with Amy Lavere, and believe me that is a great place to be. While waiting for the TIAM revue, two songs by Amy Lavere convinced me that a) she was quite the little bunny and b) I wanted to hear more. I have no idea what songs she did, but neither of them were “Killing Him” (thanks XPN). More on her in Friday’s recap.

This Is American Music is a loose gathering of four bands from Ohio (Two Cow Garage), Tennessee (Glossary) and the great state of Texas (The Drams and Grand Champeen). They come together to play in a Motown style revue with bands switching instruments, members and set order depending on the day and the song.

It’s a breezy, sun smoked Texas afternoon with $3 beers and the only folks that make it out to Jovita’s really want to be there, as it’s a very long walk or a ten minute cab ride. We’re old… we cabbed it. Two Cow Garage start the festivities with a rousing “The Great Gravitation Massacre”, a bluesy crawl imbued with mid-period Stones-y swagger and an irresistible “na na na na na na” chorus. I know most of you have never heard these guys, but godammit they’re trying to get you to listen. This is accessible, heart-on-your sleeve songwriting. Next up is “Skinny Legged Girl“ with special guest Grand Champeen’s Channing Lewis and his 2 (3?) year old son Calder, who proceeds to bop around with Vince Vaughn approved headphones (c’mon – I know you saw Old School). Just as airplanes and kids don’t mix, generally neither do rock and roll and kids. But the back porch ambience and family vibe of this show leads me to the conclusion that the kid is alright. TCG finish with two more rockers and like each of the day’s four bands, four songs go by in a blur and leave you desperately wanting a little more.

Next up are The Drams, grizzled road warriors from Denton, TX. Featuring former members of alt-country troublemakers Slobberbone, the Drams surprise by including exactly zero songs from their sole album, Jubilee Dive. In short order, they bash out four rough and ready tales of losers, broken hearts and broken dreams including three Slobberbone tunes (opener “Barrel Chested”, “That Is All” and “(I Can Tell) Your Love is Waning”) and a newer, unreleased call-and-response world beater “Man of Note”. Brent Best is the best songwriter you never heard of.

Pop inside for another for another Shiner and catch one song by two man punk blues band Black Diamond Heavies. They are stirring up a righteous racket and I’ll bet they’d appeal to fans of The Black Keys and The White Stripes.

Hailing from Murfreesboro, TN, Glossary are rooted in the southern fried RnB of Muscle Shoals and Stax Volt but with enough guitar scuzz to fit right in on this bill. Led by diminutive soul man Joey Kneiser, Glossary run through four songs from their latest album, The Better Angels of Our Nature (still available here as a free download), including piano soul stompin’ opener “Almsgiver”, Lowell George inspired “Only Time Will Tell”, life on the road travelogue “Blood on The Knobs” featuring gospel-esque harmonies (“still holding onto rock and roll”) and perfect set closer “Shout It From The Rooftops”, which actually lives up to that great song title. During “Only Time Will Tell” Shane from Two Cow Garage let loose some colorful language only to be admonished by Glossary’s Kelly Kneiser. He says “When I’m drinking beer, I assume everyone else is drunk”. Kelly’s response: “Drink up toddlers”.

Inside for another Shiner and David Bazan (Pedro the Lion) and his christian emo-folk for a cheery little number called “The Devil is Beating His Wife”. Time to head back outside.

Last on the bill were hometown heroes Grand Champeen, whose sparkling power pop included liberal doses of Replacements kicks and Cheap Trick hooks, sprinkled with Badfinger’s merseybeat love. Standouts included “Nice of You to Join Us” and “Wonded Eye”. Then it was most hands on deck (the Drams were out the door already to another showcase) for a rousing and suitably ragged fist-pumping “Born to Run”.

This is American Music, indeed.

Next it was mad cab ride to the west side of Sixth St. (music industry scum called it a “douche move” for us to take the cab we had called ahead for – label wanks suck) for the New West party (thanks Todd!!) at the outdoor Club de Ville. As we walk in we spot our friend Lou (who was everywhere in Austin) and hear the last minute or two of a bluesy “Hound Dog”. Now I recognize everyone's favorite guitarist Buddy Miller but not the singer. And that’s because I’m an ass. The band launches into a note perfect version of Johnny Rivers’ “Mountain of Love” and I’m thinking this guy really sounds like Johnny Rivers. At this point my buddy Vince seemingly reads my mind and says “That’s ‘cause it is Johnny Rivers.” D’OH! “Mountain of Love” morphs into a ragged “Kansas City” and back and it’s done.

A short set change and Dallas alt-country hitmakers (yeah, I know) Old 97’s saunter onstage. This being an industry schmoozefest, it’s pretty easy to get right up front. Let me tell you – Rhett Miller is ready for his Hollywood close-up. I think Vince mentions that Rhett “would even be pretty as a girl”. (Note to self – keep an eye on Vince back at the hotel).

I had pegged the Old 97’s as a band to break out of the americana sales ghetto – they’ve got the matinee idol lead singer (looks and hooks), a talented singer/bassist foil in Murry Hammond, a compact and concise guitarist (Ken Bethea) and secret weapon drummer Philip Peeples who kicks their rockers into high gear. But the last record (Drag It Up) was sluggish and too democratic. Based on today’s performance, the new record sounds like a return to form. Highlights include the sunny “No Baby I”, the sweet “She Loves The Sunset”, the propulsive “The Fool” plus “Early Morning” and “Dance With Me”, the leadoff single. I’m not sure how these guys balance the Old 97’s / Rhett solo career dilemma, but it certainly seems like they’re ready for this upcoming tour.

Older songs played include their debut recording “St. Ignatius”, “Won’t Be Home” (a highlight from 2004’s Drag It Up), the Ken Bethea lead vocal of “Coahuila” and Murry Hammond’s exuberant country swing shuffle of Too Far To Care’s “West Texas Teardrop”, a song he placed on a mix of Texas music (mostly Don Walser) he made for his young child’s birthday.

Finishing the afternoon were The Drams (again) in a set that was even better than three hours ago. They seemed a little more awake and it was family time as wives, aunts, sisters and kids danced stage left right in front of the band. Highlights were “Man of Note”, “That Is All”, “Hummalong”, “Des Moines” “Dunk You In The River” and a dedication to the late Drew Glackin with “When I’m Gone” (“Now I’m old / My dreams are not the same”). This is a rock band, plain and simple, that should have carved out a bigger piece of the music biz pie by now. They haven’t, and probably won’t, but yet it seems they are determined to carry on. And that’s a scene played out many times this week.

And that was just the afternoon.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Music Video of the Moment

There was a time when I could watch music videos eight hours a day (that time was called "1982"). And so it's refreshing to know that bands don't only continue to make them, they continue to make great ones, even if there are few places to see them anymore. This one qualifies. New Pornographers, "Myriad Harbour."

Friday, March 21, 2008

SXSW Update / March Madness

For those looking for SXSW reports, it will be at least Sunday until the next one. Spring break, work, hoops of all sorts and an under-the-weatther wife have filled up the last few days. In a few minutes, I'm heading out to Salem, VA to see my nephew play in the Division III Final Four. You can follow along here.

Go Bears! Go Hawks!

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.

Monday, March 17, 2008

SXSW Prologue - Let's Just Dance

It seems silly to write a prologue to my SXSW orgy of beer, music and beer after the fact, but I had no time before. What with getting ready to go (jeans, shorts, 5 pair socks and undies, 5 t shirts and sneaks, toothbrush & tooth paste, no razor thank you - ok maybe that didn't take too long) and figuring out who to see (I had 127 possibilities on my list - and that didn't include the day parties) plus hoop mania and actual work, just getting on the plane was a relief.

I guaran-goddamn-tee you it was worth the effort. 47 shows in 4 days. A little sunburn, a little hangover (and it was just a little), a co-pilot who didn't really get on my nerves, Philly folks everywhere we turned, our own little breakfast spot (wish I could remember the name - I only passed the joint 18 times) and weather that was almost perfect.
The above picture is The Felice Brothers and yes, I'll be spinning even more Felice yarns even if they're not too crazy about blog world. Because they crushed it live - and I wish I'd have seen them all seven times they played SXSW. But we settled for twice.
More to come!
... let's just dance.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Have your mind blown, courtesy of Teenage Kicks.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Sorry for the non-music post here but my nephew's Ursinus basketball team just came back from 19 points down to scratch out an amazing, fantastic, incredible 70-64 win to reach the Sweet Sixteen in Division III basketball. My nephew John Noonan (pictured above with teammate Keith Page) gave the Bears their first lead 60-59 on a tremendous alley oop out of bounds play. My brother writes up the action here and my one man court-rush of a son Sean (pictured above doing the patented McClatchy victory dance) also gets in on the action.

I love this game!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Rock and Roll A to Z

Years ago, Steve Rushin (then of Sports Illustrated) wrote a typically sensational piece listing history’s greatest athletes, letter by letter, from A to Z. Without shame (but with attribution) I stole the idea some time later for a riff on the University of Missouri’s greatest sports heroes. An unrepentant recidivist, I’m swiping the set-up again, this time for my all-time favorite rock and roll acts.

All right, kids, it’s time for the ABC’s, Teenage Kicks style, where I list my fave rock and rollers from A to Z. Alphabetical and (you may think) heretical, this pantheon is mine alone. Feel free to create your own. At the top, A stands for audacity, which when blended with electricity, makes rock and roll. And nothing says audacity and electricity more than AC/DC, the Aussie aces who are cordially invited to have a drink on me.

B, bluntly, is a bitch. Who could be bigger than the Beatles? Badder than Berry? Better than Bowie? Brown, James Brown – whose badass bass and beats were the building blocks for the best rock and soul.

Let’s C, the Clash was cataclysmic, but Elvis Costello has been this year’s model of consistency, creating classic after classic. Dawdling over D, thoughts drift to Ian Dury, Devo, the dB’s . . . and, oh. Dylan. Done.

Like Giants fans, I loathe the Eagles. Still, E has a little of everything, from Earth, Wind & Fire to Brian Eno and the Everly Brothers. But the award for extended excellence ( division) goes to Steve Earle. F: I love the Faces and Funkadelic, but for forty years the feminine face of funky delicacies, quite frankly, has been Aretha Franklin.

I’ve never been all that grateful for the Dead, and anyway, our greatest G-men are giants of the soul era. Al Green deftly mixed the sacred and profane, but Marvin Gaye gets the nod for making the profane sacred, elevating booty calls like “Let’s Get It On” into deeply spiritual experiences.

Looking for Hendrix in the hierarchy? Holy hoodrats, Holly! ‘Round here, H is for The Hold Steady. As for I, I’m impressed by the Impressions, and I’ve listened in excess to INXS, but it’s the Isley Brothers who make me wanna shout.

After a string of Yanks, we cross the pond to find a veritable British Empire. J is for The Jam, who cleverly updated the sound (and occasionally covered the songs) of The Kinks, my K, a band whose power chords paved the skies for Led Zeppelin, rock’s most legendary L.

M: Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Curtis Mayfield might carry the day with a lesser letter, but none led a worldwide movement like the natural mystic, Bob Marley. N: After years of watching Seinfeld, the thought of a randy Newman gives me the willies (like Nelson and Nile). And nevermind Nirvana, give me Neko, Carl Newman and the rest of the New Pornographers.

In rock and roll, O is a fairly barren landscape, save for one gleaming Oasis. P, however, is packed with possibilities, and though Presley was preternatural and the Pretenders precious, I’ll proffer a preference for Prince, whose purple precipitation provided the principal preoccupation of my post-pubescent period.

Q is no quandary – its king is Queen – but R is ridiculous, a rarefied realm where the Replacements and Ramones reside – and get routed – by the Rolling Stones. S, though, is simply Springsteen, while T is a tête-à-tête that sees Talking Heads top Television.

U: Undisputed. U2 (sorry Undertones). V: A virtual tie. Velvet Underground (sorry Van Halen). W: Wide-open, with Lucinda Williams winning by a whisker (sorry Wonder, Waits, Wilco).

X x-udes more x-cellence than you’d x-pect, from X to X-Ray Spex, but the choice is a band whose output is sheer XTC. And there’s no questioning Y. Neither youth nor middle-age was wasted on Neil Young, who reached his prime early and stayed there forever (old man, take a look at your life, there’s a lot to like there).

A single Z ends the alphabet, and a pair of them ends every record bin. Accidentally like a blogger, I almost put those Z’s here, too, until it occurred to me that someone tops ZZ: Warren Zevon. Ze end.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Felice Mania

As is my custom, I am currently obsessing over two things - Ursinus basketball (read more here) and The Felice Brothers, who release their first widely distributed cd today. Called simply The Felice Brothers, it's an imperfect mix of death folk, tinkly jazz, hillbilly hoedowns and fragile ballads dripping bad-assitude and a mixture of alternating sweet and menacing vocals. I know that sounds like it might blow, but it doesn't.

These guys are my # 1 priority to see at SXSW (see you in 9 days, Vince) and, oh yeah, did I mention I'm heading to SXSW? Cregs - call me.

Here's two more from the new disc plus a live take of Leadbelly's "Take This Hammer" from last year's Tonight At The Arizona, a low-fi barroom stomp that augers well for a chaotic live show.

Notes: My son does the greatest impression of the first five lines of "Frankie's Gun" and "Love Me Tenderly" has one of the great piano solos ever recorded, complete with brotherly love exhortations. One last thing - you can buy The Felice Brothers from Main Street Music in Manayunk - call them at 215-487-7732 and ask for Pat or Dave. OK... ask for Pat. They're happy to do mail order and the disc is in stock. Tell them Michael sent you.

Frankies Gun mp3

Love Me Tenderly mp3

Take This Hammer (Live) mp3