Saturday, March 31, 2012

SXSW 2012 - Day 4 - Start Again

It's now two weeks since SXSW ended and it's time to finally wrap up the wrap-up. We saw 50 performances in 4 days, saw legends made and others fade.  (On a side note, we aim to finish our best of 2011 before the first NFL game is played. Guaranteed, my friends.) If you've been to Austin, you want to go back. If you've been to Austin twice, you start imagining a life there. I'd live out beyond South Congress, a little ways away from the mayhem. V would stay in Boston so we could still remain friends.

Highlights – The whole day. After a massive IHOP breakfast that soothed the hangover beast and obliterated the need for lunch, we set out immediately for Jovita's and Twangfest, probably the location with the best vibes of any SXSW venue (with apologies to The Mean Eyed Cat, since we didn't get there this year). Jovita's utilizes two stages- one indoor is a small, dark but homey bar/restaurant and the outdoor stage sits on a rickety porch with a wooden lattice fence on side, a stone wall behind and few tables lazily arranged on the other side. It's a couple miles out of town and has a bucolic charm a million miles away from the frantic frenzy of Sixth Street.  It's probably as close to its roots as SXSW gets these days and a must stop for any americana fan.

We arrived a little late but caught the tail end of Chuck Prophet's jam packed set, quickly moved outside to catch the massively talented Joe Pug steal the day and some tears as he debuted 4-5 songs from his new album, the wonderfully titled The Great Despiser, out April 24. I can't really put my finger on what makes Joe Pug so great (it's probably the songs, stupid), but his wit and charm enliven small tales of everyday battles that recall the Midwestern grace of fellow Chicago storytellers John Prine and Steve Goodman. Then we rushed back inside to see the always great Waco Brothers, whose "Do What I Say, Don't Do What I Do" should be an unofficial Austin anthem. No one is more comfortable in his own skin than Jon Langford. Exploding onto the stage next was star in the making JC Brooks, whose Uptown Sound is a much tighter soul revival than the insanely hyped Alabama Shakes and who acknowledged their Chicago roots with a blistering cover of local kid Jeff Tweedy's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart".  SXSW staple Glossary closed out our back porch hoedown with a scoop of soulful southern rock, and we made a promise to spend more time at Jovita's in 2014.
Next up were The Shins in a converted (Spaghetti) warehouse, whose sleek, darkened, air-conditioned setting was the antithesis of Jovita's laid back scene. But there was free beer. And that is good. After too long a wait, The Shins hit the stage with a much tougher sound than they possess on record. But while James Mercer is a top flight songwriter, his on stage charisma is negligible. Mediocre sound and a by-the-numbers performance had us making an early exit, but did I mention there was free beer. Highlight!

The night began with Justin Townes Earle at Stubb's leading a full band for the first time and his Memphis fried americana is in full bloom, as noted by half a dozen songs off his brand new Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, including the highlight "It Won't Be The Last Time", an unapologetic apology for past transgressions with no promise of better behavoir. Then quickly over to  the Cedar Street Courtyard to see another electrifying set by J Roddy Walston and The Business, followed by the amazing William Elliott Whitmore, whose gritty voice of god vocals consecrate working class spirituals for The Great Recession. His 2011 release, Field Songs, was among the year's best. After WEW, it was time to set the wayback machine to 1979, slip on a skinny tie and take a nostalgia trip with Peter Case and Paul Collins as they celebrated their power pop heyday trawling their melody rich catalog of tunes by The Nerves, The Beat and The Plimsouls. A balding, unlikable Collins and the incredibly likeable, wild-eyed gnome Peter Case blasted out a set that was better than it had any right to be. Dominated by songs from The Beat's sterling 1979 debut plus a few Case classics, their set gave a room full of aging hipsters a chance to let their hair down (so to speak) and engage in carefree shout-alongs.

The final show of my SXSW was Diamond Rugs, the likely one-off semi-super group featuring main man John McCauley of Deer Tick, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and other indie types from Black Lips, Dead Confederate and Six Finger Satellite. They played their upcoming debut straight through and reminded me of a scuzzy, Southern fried, whiskey swilling Rockpile masquerading as a Rolling Stones cover band. Yeah, it was that good. There were horn fueled stompers, balls out rockers, a psychedelic freak-out, and even the awful lounge lizard on Quaaludes misstep "Totally Lonely".  John McCauley is quickly becoming the Jack White of the indie twang set (except, you know, without White's massive commercial success) who seems either hell-bent on self destruction or cranking out a genre-defining masterpiece. I hope it's the latter.
Lowlights – Trying to order a burger (and avoid cheese) at a Mexican restaurant.  The prospect of four hours sleep. Realizing Paul Collins is still a jackass.

Moments to savor – That IHOP coke, scrambled eggs and bacon combo... manna from the gods. Joe Pug bringing up local Austin legend Harvey Thomas Young to duet on Young's "Start Again" which closes Pug's new album. The mutual affection was obvious, as the shy upstart paid tribute to a forgotten songwriter and shared a tender moment in the sun. Classy and touching. Whitmore's voice.  Steve Berlin's baritone sax. V's arrival home 2 minutes after me... didn't think he had it in him.

Goodbye Austin... see you in two years. V... hope I see you sooner.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

#9 (MA) Middle Brother - Middle Brother

Sorry about the long delay (went on vacation, got distracted, etc.). I have a good feeling that this one is going to show up close to the top of my partner's list, so I won't steal his thunder. Enjoy.

Monday, March 26, 2012

SXSW 2012 - Day 3 - KIck Out The Jams

Friday - Day 3

Highlights – Two Cow Garage’s blazing, spastic take on punk rock heartland Springsteen blew out the cobwebs from the previous night – free beer did not in any way hinder our enjoyment of this performance.  J Roddy Walston & the Business barrelhouse set at South by San Jose thrilled the near capacity crowd– this is a real piano led southern rock and roll band that owes as much to Little Richard as it does to Lynryd Skynyrd. The dB’s delighted an overstuffed room full of 80’s pop nerds with classic cuts “Big Brown Eyes”, “Love is For Lovers” and “Neverland”, but the real surprise was that the 4 or 5 new songs they previewed did not suffer by comparison, catapulting Falling Off The Sky (due June 12 on Bar/None) to the top of 2012’s most anticipated releases.  SXSW mainstays Lucero celebrated the release of their excellent new disc Women and Work with a typically bruised, battered and beery set at Bar 96.
Lowlights – Typhoon’s too cluttered sound failed to ignite at Homeslice Pizza and count me as a naysayer to the mounting hype for The Alabama Shakes, whose generic blues rock captivated the jam-packed crowd at South by San Jose, but whose set seemed short on great songs, save for the slow burn sizzler “Hold On”, an undeniable treat.     

Moments to savor – Two Cow Garage’s Micah Schnabel going stalker crazy on “Skinny Legged Girl” in the mid-day Texas sun and Lydia Loveless turning the stalker tables on “Steve Earle” an hour later.  Singing along with the dB’s as they nailed “Big Brown Eyes” and being blown away by pile of hair J Roddy on the blistering, pounding “Brave Man’s Death”.  Wayne Kramer joining fellow anarchist Ton Morello for a soul-cleansing, powerhouse version of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”, followed in short order by Morello (the “pied piper or rock”) leading the packed audience at the Swan Dive out on to Red River Street for his “Occupy SXSW” street performance of “This Land is Your Land” and “World Wide Rebel Songs”, done commando style acoustic as the local police dutifully helped out by shutting down the PA.
Also Got to See – The soul revue workout of JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound at The Yard Dog Party, the energetic, very young Chicago-bred jazz/funk/hip hop band Kids These Days as we waited for the Alabama Shakes and the well scrubbed Americana of Britain’s The Dunwells, who may appeal to all those Mumford & Sons fans that came out of nowhere to make Sigh No More such a smash.

Two Cow Garage “Skinny Legged Girl” (from Speaking in Cursive)

Lydia Loveless“Steve Earle” (from Indestructible Machine)

J Roddy Walston & The Business“Brave Man’s Death” (from J RoddyWalston & The Business)

MC5 “Kick Out The Jams” (from Kick Out The Jams)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

SXSW 2012 - Bruce and Big Star

Thursday - Day Two

Highlights – Bruce Springsteen’s keynote speech, which should be required viewing for anyone with a passing interest in rock and roll. Part history lesson and part fatherly advice, Springsteen’s passion for and grasp of rock history is unsurpassed. If you care deeply about rock and roll, carve 50 minutes out of your life and watch the whole thing here. Tom Morello’s closing set at the New West party was a revelation– we all knew he could do wonders with six strings and a whammy bar, but he’s also a charismatic and riveting band leader, with megawatt charm and movie star presence.  I loved the understated brilliance of Big Star Third performed live by Chris Stamey, Jody Stephens, Mitch Easter, Austin’s Tosca String Quartet and a few dozen others – it was a music geek’s wet dream (I am looking at you, DJ Mertter). There were loads of guest stars (M. Ward, Tommy Stinson, Peter Buck, Peter Case), but the real stars were the songs themselves.

Lowlights – TK fave Ezra Furman’s nasal whine brings to mind the skittishness of the Violent Femmes and the wide-eyed playfulness of Jonathan Richman, but his intentional on the verge of nervous breakdown, exaggerated bleat during a slowed to a crawl “Sweet Jane” was a sure-fire room clearer at the Continental Club. It may signal a new direction, as Furman appeared earlier in the week in only his socks and boxer briefs and declared “I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore. Too bad, marketing team." Get well soon, Ezra. Other lowlight – not winning the Bruce lottery (but not really since it freed up the time to go see the Big Star Third show),

Moments to savor – Getting up on stage, jumping up and down and singing along with new best bud Tom Morello during “World Wide Rebel Songs”.  During his SXSW keynote, Springsteen playing a verse and the chorus of the Animals “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and declaring after a dramatic pause “ That’s every song I’ve ever done. I’m not kidding, that’s all of ‘em.” The ageless Martin Zellar transporting me back to 1990 with a snappy take on the Gear Daddies’ “Stupid Boy”. Zellar is one of the great under-appreciated songwriters of the last 25 years. Tommy Stinson, revered ex-Mat, killing us with the Bash and Pop classic "Never Aim to Please".

Also Got to See - A superb set of Woody Guthrie songs by Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson and Colombian superstar Juanes preceding the Springsteen keynote. Lydia Loveless' badass cowpunk, Aussie Henry Wagons arch, droll set full of wit and self-deprecation to a nominal crowd in a small, upscale bar, a scorching set by Columbus' Two Cow Garage (someone please figure out a way to get these guys heard), the melodic but stiff pop punk of Cheap Girls, the vibrant traditionalism of the Punch Brothers and the wonderful Southeast Engine, whose quiet, bittersweet beauty should be all the rage with No Depression types.

SXSW 2012 - A Gathering of Vibes

To sum up the SXSW experience – we saw 50 performances over 4 days and that wasn’t nearly enough. By breaking the SXSW cardinal rule, we still (if only slightly) fretted because we still didn’t get to see another 50 – those we missed included Alejandro Escovedo, Amanda Shires, American Aquarium, Archie Powell & The Exports, Beaver Nelson,  Billy Joe Shaver,  Brendan Benson, Buxton, Cloud Nothings,  Cuff the Duke, David Mayfield Parade, Delta Spirit, Dum Dum Girls, Ed Sheeran, Erik & The Happy Thoughts,  Frank Turner, Free Energy, fun.,  Girls, Horse Feathers,  Imagine Dragons, Jack White, James McMurtry, Jimmy Cliff, Joe “King” Carrasco, John Doe,  Kelly Willis, Lee Fields & The Expressions, Lissy Trullie, Luluc, Mumford & Sons, Nada Surf, Nick Waterhouse,  Nikki Lane, Of Monsters and Men,  Ruthie Foster, Sleigh Bells,  Strange Boys, The Bellefuries,  The Gourds,  The Honeydogs,  The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Kopecky Family Band, The Lumineers,  The Staves, The War on Drugs, The Weeks, Todd Snider, Tristen and Two Gallants.

The best thing about SXSW – music is everywhere - just like Elvis. And I mean everywhere  - in pizza joints, in parking lots, on patios, in hotel lobbies, in upscale bars, in crappy dives, in houses turned venues, in an old Spaghetti Warehouse, on the street and even on top of bus cruising downtown Austin – any possible space you can cram a band, they cram a band. For you Philly folks, imagine sealing off South St and 2nd St in Old City and jamming a band into every nook and cranny available. Plus add in all the venues in Fishtown and University City, simmer with some Greek Week and Spring Break hoopla, and you start to get a feel of SXSW mania. Couple that with warm weather and a beer in your hand for 12 hours a day and you reach a state of suspended fanimation – the only buzzkill was that we had to stop to sleep and eat.  Not to mention the March Madness bonus – which featured a brutally quick exit for Michael’s Missouri Tigers but a wonderful 48 hours for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.

As I stated earlier, a SXSW cardinal rule is don’t worry about what you are not seeing. But it’s almost impossible as it seeps out of every crevice, with every 10 steps bringing a new, fleeting sound.  Two years ago, my SXSW traveling bud (let’s call him V as he either craves anonymity or is ashamed to be associated with me… probably the former) were strolling home from an afternoon party when we passed a tiny, darkened bar on San Jacinto and heard someone banging away on electric guitar that sounded a lot like Billy Bragg. And with good reason – it was Billy Bragg himself playing an industry invite-only shindig to a barely interested room of journalists and scenesters. Nothing quite that serendipitous this year, but we definitely stumbled onto a few nice surprises.  Here are some highlights and lowlights from the week:
Highlights – Even though we missed them for the Consequence of Sound day party, Brooklyn’s noise punk ravers The Men pulverized the crowd with a breathless aural assault of a thousand jackhammers. Unfortunately the vocals were a cacophonic, ear bleeding din, but the guitar blitzkrieg was blinding and exhilarating. England’s Dry the River stately, grandiose “big” music sounded like what Radiohead might sound like if they were still a rock band instead of an art project and then mated with Fleet Foxes.  Ben Kweller’s Texas pop was an afternoon delight and we ended the night with the mighty Titus Andronicus, who tore up Bar 96, validating their current King of Rock standing and nodding to their classic rock roots with an amped up cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town”. Bonus points to Bar 96 for being a block from our crash pad.
Lowlights – the generic, anthemic rock of The Apache Relay provided swells but no swell songs and Phosphorescent’s main man Matthew Houck seemed unprepared and unironically prophetic when he began his solo set by saying he “wasn’t exactly going to get this party started”. Also, after 5 minutes of whistling and fiddling about, we decided to fly the coop for (from?) Andrew Bird.
Moments to savor – Ben Kweller’s sublime “Penny on the Train Track” and Titus Andronicus’s majestic “A More Perfect Union”, still the leader in the clubhouse for song of the decade.
Also Got to See - the charming indie girl pop of Tennis, the angular Britpop of New Cassettes and the alt country lilt of husband and wife led The Mastersons.

Titus Andronicus - "A More Perfect Union" (from The Monitor)
The Men - "Candy" (from Open Your Heart)
Ben Kweller - "Penny on The Train Track" (from Ben Kweller)

Up Next... Day Two.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

# 11 (TM) - The Rural Alberta Advantage - Departing

After an avalanche of hype and well-deserved love showered on Hometowns, their minor masterpiece of a debut, The Rural Alberta Advantage returned in 2011 with a barely noticed follow-up, the even better Departing.

Finding a soft spot between the mopey bleat of Conor Oberst and the boozy, urban strum of Deer Tick, the RAA are warm and inviting like a best friend's patience, but they hold you at arm's length while they luxuriate in winter's icy loneliness. And they seem to like it. Singer Nils Edenloff's nasal stabs at breakups and breakdowns are somehow comforting, because who doesn't want the last word in a split? Especially when it's "Good Night", a woozy, elegiac album closer that leaves everything behind except the possibility of love.

The Rural Alberta Advantage - "Eye of The Tiger" (Survivor cover)

Sunday, March 04, 2012

#11 (MA) Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo

Listening to this album is like enjoying a nice Scotch. The amber glow, the slow burn, the smoke, the hazy, stray notes that reveal themselves over time. Smoke Ring for My Halo is a gentle record that implies violence, riding the line between Neil Young and Lou Reed. It's a dark record that casts off light. It's a nighttime record that can carry you to morning. In short, a gem.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

# 12 (TM) - The Head and The Heart - The Head and The Heart

The Head and The Heart are a loose-limbed collective of indie folkies whose "Sounds Like Hallelujah" sounds like Rufus Wainwright leading a midnight reverie with Mumford and Sons. The Seattle group join a growing list of young bands (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Avett Brothers, Felice Brothers) who sound like old souls blending acoustic roots music and heavenly harmonies to create nu-folk sounds that can reach across generations. Lovely.

For all you haters and Pitchfork nerds, keep pretending  tUnE-yArDs is listenable.

The Head and The Heart - "Sounds Like Hallelujah" (from The Head and The Heart)
The Head and The Heart - "Rivers and Roads" (from Fuel/Friends Chapel Sessions - 3/12/11)