SXSW | 03.21.09 | Austin, TX - Day 4

Words & Images by: Sarah Hagerman

Dirty Sweet

Dirty Sweet :: SXSW :: 03.21.09
The challenge for bands playing SXSW is that they often have a truncated amount of time to show an audience what they can do. Playing tweener sets at Stubb's (indoors), San Diego's Dirty Sweet had a few 20-minute slots with which to win over the room, and they owned every second of that stage time - I was sold by the end of their first song! Ryan Koontz gives you everything you need in a frontman, his commanding vocals matched by his shimmying and shaking across the stage. This band rips, with a born-in-a-garage sound and an effortless Sunset Strip strut that also appreciates the rootsy side of the street (see JamBase's review of their debut for more). Most importantly, they have a damn good time up there, with their faces beaming as they assault you with a balls-to-the-walls approach. Just a fan-freaking-tastic rock band, keep on eye on them. Hot, sexy stuff baby!

PJ Harvey and John Parish
Stubb's (outdoor) was packed, the air heavy with barely contained anticipation, breaking in screams the moment PJ Harvey strode on stage. Personally, I've been waiting for a long time to see Harvey, and part of me had given up hope that that would ever happen, as she doesn't tour much these days. In her white ball gown and matching headpiece, John Parish and her backing band suited up in style around her, she looked regal and ready to kill. She and Parish have been long-time collaborators, and the symbiosis shows. Some of the latest material recalls the vicious bites of earlier Harvey work, while other pieces have more ambient whirls, dissolving into banjo rolls and hypnotic guitar wanderings, courtesy of Parish. They create a captivating atmosphere that cracks open at the seams to reveal huge chasms and haunting vistas. Harvey's writing is a force of nature unto itself, and she delivers words with a ferociously howling stage presence, throwing them down and ripping their guts out - part Patti Smith, part Kali - and then shivering your spine with an otherworldly soprano wail. A new song called "Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen," stormed with its martial intensity while more atmospheric numbers such as "Leaving California" swirled in a galaxy of sound. Besides the new songs, they played a ripping "Taut" and "Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drain Pool" from the duo's earlier Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996). Frightening, captivating, otherworldly, Harvey is a goddess who rules her own universe, a being larger than life impossible to pin down or box up. A musical innovator and an uncompromising artist, she's no doubt a source of inspiration to many who played shows this weekend. Closing song, another newbie called "Pig Will Not" was a kick in the skull, as Harvey declared with burning force, "I! Will! Not!" over screaming guitars. Then, the storm subsided and we were left to funnel out into the night to chase down the last few hours of SXSW. I feel like one lucky writer to have been there to witness that thunder.

Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle
SXSW :: 03.21.09
When your dad is Steve Earle and you're named after Townes Van Zandt, your musical career will come with a certain amount of expectations. Justin Townes Earle is carrying a compelling and unique voice in the Americana singer-songwriter tradition, and this night at the Red-Eyed Fly he showed us why he is - as the Canadian gentlemen standing next to me said so well - an "uncanny throwback." Earle's music crackles with a vintage soul, pumping with pre-war folk, back porch blues and honky-tonk. There's such honest flesh and blood in it, an immediacy that compels you to listen with fresh ears, and lyrical styles that pin you down with their honest phrasing. He and sidekick, mando, banjo and harmonica player Coury Younts - who was looking a little worse for wear. Earle kept teasing him saying, "He had a big night last night. Didn't wake up 'til 9:00 this evening" - had the room enraptured. This was a warm, inviting show with stunners like "My Mother's Eyes," where he reflects on his background, floored us, while jumpy drivers like "South Georgia Sugar Babe," about, "a white trash girl from Georgia," got the floorboards creaking. Earle has a laid-back vibrancy onstage, as he smiled and sneered his way through tales of love gone wrong and winding trains, his ardent eyes scanning the crowd. There's just something about him that draws you in on a hook. When the set was over, we cheered for one more song. Our wishes were granted and Earle came out to play solo on a swinging version of "Hesitation Blues," leaving me with a grin I couldn't wipe off my face if I'd tried. Pure joy.


Monotonix :: SXSW :: 03.21.09
My SXSW ended with an ass. Ami Shelev, singer of Tel Aviv three-piece Monotonix's ass to be precise, as he stood above the crowd on stage at the Mohawk and shook what god gave him. These cats put on an insanely exciting show, and the cameras were out in force at this one. Freaky, vicious garage rock, their music kind of reminds me of early Stooges, if Iggy Pop and co. downed a case of Robitussin and then drove around lighting people's lawns on fire in their down time. The drumming was dense and tribal and the guitar notes strewn and stretched in wild directions. The band threw themselves around like ragdolls, scaling everything in sight, sailing through the crowd and playing down on the floor, kicking down the proverbial barriers between performers and audience. Shelev hung from the scaffolding, threw drinks every which way, held up a trashcan like Donkey Kong ready to throw a barrel and made everyone sit down and "Shut the fuck up!" at one point. Drummer Haggai Fershtman's kit was deconstructed, and then he played it in the crowd as audience members held up the pieces. When the curfew hit, they ran out into the street, Shelev revving the cheering crowd while the band drummed. I was thinking about this show today as my SXSW hangover subsides, and the big difference between Monotonix and many other bands with a rep for putting on crazy shows is that this isn't so much a show to sit back and watch as much as it is punk philosophy in action, something you are thrown into as much as the band. To put on an entertaining show is one thing, but to take it to the crowd, take it to the streets and really kick the shit out of your songs, your equipment and yourself is something else altogether. That is fucking punk!

Bonus Props: Papa Mali's Hoodoo Blues & BBQ

Papa Mali & Cyril Neville :: SXSW :: 03.21.09
Papa Mali always knows how to party, and at Kenny Dorham's Backyard on the east side of Austin he worked his magic in a tight, raucous set that had the hippies spinning across the grass in some of the best dancing I saw all weekend. Joined by guests who hopped on and off, including Cyril Neville (who did a great take on Allen Toussaint's classic "Fortune Teller") and the powder keg sax playing of Topaz, Papa Mali's show was a real throw down. Plus, the proceeds from the BBQ, which had a great lineup of music going all day, were all going to help Diverse Arts, a local Austin organization that preserves and promotes the multi-cultural arts scene. Big props to Papa Mali for all the good work he's done for the local scene and his fellow musicians, especially those who resettled in Austin from NOLA after Hurricane Katrina. This is the supportive community music in action creates.


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