Word by: Sarah Hagerman
This scene is the scene to be seen in
Not that the scene is what we'd be seen with
– The Indelicates "Sixteen"
The locals won't go downtown. Every overheard conversation includes the phrases "the band I manage" or "the band I'm in" or "my soon-to-be-formed electronic side project." 6th Street is crammed with boozed-up hipsters, record execs stumbling in brand new cowboy boots and live music junkies like myself who live for the thrill of new discoveries and the chance to see some of our old favorites play intimate venues. Despite not having a coveted press pass, I managed to acquire some "flashbulb moments," in the words of Lester Bangs, and broaden my musical geography in my new home city.
Wednesday March 12
Dumb and Deaf at the Blind Pig
After a soulful set by neo-beatniks the Weather Underground, I was hopeful that Mink would similarly provide a substantial musical project. Alas, that was not to be. Unless you have somehow just discovered The Strokes, there is nothing exciting about Mink. A few years ago they would have doubtlessly been lumped in with the other New York scene bands, but today they seem like a nostalgia act from a scene that was retro to begin with. At least frontman Neal Carlson has the rock star persona down like he's been studying it since grade school - jumping on the drum kit, kicking over his mic and encouraging an audience member (who must have had his share of the $4 Lone Stars) to help him tear down a silver sequined star hanging next to the stage. This tacky decoration incident was perhaps the most memorable moment of Mink's set. The poor fan that attempted unsuccessfully to tear it down, upon realizing his failure, proceeded to jump off the roof next door and back onto the patio, careening into a table. I was standing about three feet away, preparing to call 911, but he jumped up and kept rocking with no visible signs of brain damage. About two minutes later, he was kicked out by the Blind Pig staff. Mink bring enthusiasm to the table, and the excitement of possibly being an extra in the next episode of Jackass, but that's about it.
Ah, c'est la SXSW.
Next act, guitarist and drummer duo called Middle Class Rut, started off sounding a bit like, ugh, Dashboard Confessional if Chris Carrabba had decided to listen to Rage Against the Machine, read Howard Zinn and grow a set of balls. But, as their set picked up, guitarist Zack Lopez began producing an impressively layered and LOUD sound. As his Perry Farrell-esque wail shook the speakers, drummer Sean Stockham pounded out furiously fast, dense beats, leaving you rubbed raw, salty sweat dripping into your eyes. It was enough to convince me that I should buy earplugs for the rest of the week.
Thursday March 13
The best way to get your ass kicked twice in one night
In a just world My Morning Jacket would be headlining arenas worldwide. We fans just remain lucky that they have somehow still managed to stay everyone's barely kept secret, floating just below the surface of huge. As evidence of this, the new Austin Music Hall wasn't quite full of those about to rock. Nevertheless, MMJ eloquently tore their way through a blistering set of classics like "Run Thru," "Mahgeetah" and the never-fails-to-make-me-cry-into-my-beer "Golden." The new material, for which Jim James has developed quite the disco siren wail, was slightly weird and very wonderful. The first time I saw MMJ was a sparsely attended show during the summer at Burlington, Vermont's Higher Ground back when I was in college. They brought just as much passion and power to that show as they did at the Music Hall, and indeed every show I've seen them play. MMJ is the rare band that can floor you with their beauty AND destroy you with their brutality, sometimes all in the same song. It left my face aching from a blissed-out grin.
My Morning Jacket would be hard to top for pure rawk power, but Back Door Slam ran close behind. I only got to catch the second half of their set at Opal Divine's Freehouse as I was floating back from the Music Hall on my MMJ high. Earlier that evening, our friends from London treated us to drinks and their musings on the sad state of the current British music industry. The crop of newly hyped British bands could care less about their musical roots – Zeppelin, Cream, The Clash, The Stones. They're more worried about what they'll wear at their NME photo shoot. The lack of musical integrity is enough to make John Peel turn in his grave. What a relief to see the Isle of Man's Back Door Slam, who unashamedly embrace their rock & roll heritage. Wailing guitars, crunchy hooks and bluesy songwriting chops put them on my must-see list for Bonnaroo. This is how classic sounds. Somewhere, in that great radio booth in the sky, John Peel is smiling.
Friday March 14
Aw mama, can this really be the end?
To be stuck inside of Opal Divine's with the Memphis blues again?
Opal's was the host to the Memphis Music Foundation's bash. To no great surprise, all bands featured were from Memphis, except for the North Mississippi Allstars, who closed out the night. Quite a sampler of what's going down in M-town was served up in the tent. By the time I had finished my shaker of margarita I managed to catch the quirky alt-country act Snowglobe, whose foot-tapping, psychedelic-tinged nuggets stood in stark contrast to the grungy rock-and-stare mire of next act, Third Man. I could have done with more unexpected musical plot twists with the latter, although their ominous sound could easily soundtrack a chase through a Vienna sewer.
Following Third Man was funk/soul super group The Bo-Keys. Their ranks include former members of the Blues Brothers and Isaac Hayes' backing bands, as well as Scott Bomar, who composed the music for Black Snake Moan and Hustle & Flow. They got the tent moving, and even the hipsters were shaking in their skinny jeans. C'mon, what kind of coldhearted bastard doesn't love the "Theme From Shaft?" Guest vocalist Harvey "I Wrote 'Disco Lady'" Scales came out for a few songs, and made pimpin' seem easy as he managed to get a few ladies onstage to show off some freaky dance moves. Solid gold get-drunk-and-move-that-ass music.
The highlight of the evening was Amy LaVere. Like Nellie McKay served up southern fried, she's a mess of brown curls with a slamming upright bass and a Dolly Parton lilt. Pass the grits and whiskey and get ready for tales of spurned lovers and strange women twisted with self-deprecating humor. In a world overpopulated by singer-songwriters, she is truly an original. And LaVere knows how to pick her company. Unassuming backing guitarist Steven Selvidge had shades of Jack White, sounding like two guitars at once. When Luther Dickinson came out to join them for the last song he was visibly impressed.
The staff at Opal's kept joking that, "No, the North Mississippi Allstars are not playing here tonight," while the line outside grew longer as the evening wore on. The Allstars always know how to pack a tent and turn it into a Southern rock revival. Luther's guitar rolled with a dance hall thump in the aptly-titled "Shake," while he sang with uplifting soul in a gorgeous "Mean Ol' Wind Died Down" or made room for screaming acid rock jam break downs. I always have a damn good time when I see this band. Last time they came through Austin I saw them for free at Waterloo Records. Complimenting neck-craningly tall bassist Chris Chew on his Red Sox hat after the show, he said, "You know me, I like to cause a ruckus." NMA certainly brought the ruckus to SXSW.
Saturday March 15
Declarations of Independents
I-35 divides hip downtown Austin from the rough and tumble east side. Tucked amongst taquarias with bars on the windows and the occasional muttering crackhead, the lovely oasis of the French Legation Museum played host to the Garden Party co-sponsored by JamBase. As a teenager, shuffling through the halls of my high school in Chucks and pink streaked hair, I would have freaked to know that I was going to see both Thurston Moore and J Mascis in one afternoon. Ten years older and only slightly wiser, my reaction was much the same. Any band labeled "indie" - a tag tossed around left and right to the point of meaninglessness - owes their very existence to these two pioneers and the musical projects they have forged.
As I worked on my sunburn with the help of $1 PBRs, I watched the absolutely brilliant Mascis solo set, fine consolation for me missing all of the Witch sets over the course of the festival. Hiding behind his miles of silver hair and huge glasses, Mascis coaxed his acoustic into electric territory, loading on the feedback and distortion. The set peaked with a looping jam that growled and glowed.
Passing the stage from one indie legend to another, Thurston Moore and the New Wave Bandits, who Moore jokingly introduced as "Bromance," were the comic relief after the intensity of Mascis. Blazing through material off Moore's Trees Outside the Academy and waving off numerous technical problems with unfazed humor, there was a lighter-than-air minimalism that pervaded the whole set. The music wasn't the only thing floating by the end – a lethal combination of sun and cheap beer took care of that for me. I gave in as I felt the promise of substantial food and artificially cool air beckoning me back to the safe side of I-35 and the collective noise of the industry powering up for the last night of SXSW. As Mascis sings on "Get Me," "Every dream is shot by daylight." Stumbling back towards downtown, I felt like pinching myself more than a few times.
Luckily I regrouped in time to catch The Indelicates' set at the Tex-Mex restaurant turned-venue, The Rio. Combining ferociously dry humor, post-punk aggression and pop sheen into a cohesive mix, they managed to be deeply rooted in English culture while providing a sly commentary that resonates beyond that small island. I have been a fan of this band for a while, and I would strongly advocate, that after almost two years of living in London, they are by far one of the more exciting English bands currently slogging their way through the pubs and the grime. Opener was a cover of Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law" (one of my favorite guilty pleasures) that segued nicely into the ripping "Fun Is For the Feeble Minded." Contrast these with bouncy numbers such as "Sixteen," which has an insanely catchy chorus that stays in your head long after the music fades, and the Pulp-y "Julia, We Don't Live in the Sixties," and it's apparent that they are carrying the torch of literate rock. And you have to give props to any band that would title a song "Waiting For Pete Doherty To Die," which elicited audible guffaws from my fellow journos in the audience. Lead singers Julia and Simon Indelicate, who rock the show on keyboards and guitars respectively, have a sparkling chemistry and raw power that commands the stage. Surrounded by the possessed guitar of Alastair Clayton, the coolly confident bass of Kate Newbury and the punching drums of Ed van Beinum, The Indelicates are a band whose break will be big when it comes. They slayed their showcase set, leaving a trail of nacho crumbs and empty margarita glasses in their wake.
Later that night, I sat watching Eric Bibb passionately channel Robert Johnson on a leather couch of the Smoking Room. Exhausted, exhilarated and thinking back over my first SXSW, I flipped through a schedule I found on the bathroom floor of The Rio. An overwhelming amount of names are shoved into that schedule. Most will never be heard from again, at least not in any "Cover of the Rolling Stone" sense. But, behind each one of them is that crazy hope that they will be the next R.E.M., the next Sonic Youth, the next Dinosaur Jr. or My Morning Jacket - music created by the weird and the geeky, searching for understanding and receptive ears in the humid Texas night.
Check out lots of music from SXSW 2008 at www.largeheartedboy.com...
JamBase | Deep In The Heart
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