Wednesday March 17
The first thing I noticed about Austin was the birds. As I trudged with luggage in hand through the deserted residential streets on the north side of town, I was bombarded by a weird avian symphony of whistles, buzzes, warbles, tremolos, and other unlikely cartoon cacophony. The birds owned the darkness, flocking from tree to tree by the dozens, setting up shop outside my rented bedroom window, squawking me awake during my first long, humid Texas night. I had never heard noises so strange and so natural.
Thursday March 18
Of course Austin is bursting with sounds strange and natural. After all this the home of South by Southwest, one of the biggest, baddest, broadest music festivals in the world. Four days, 1200-plus bands, more than 60 venues spread across the city. When the plane hit the runway the night before, 15 minutes into the 11 p.m. Plastilina Mosh set I was hoping to see, I swallowed the bitter fact that there was no possibility of completely satisfying my gnawing musical appetite. A glance at the festival schedule the next morning confirmed my anxiety: all the showcases, the real meat of the SXSW musical component, run between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. Do the math and you find that's a total of 24 hours of music, split between more than a thousand bands, equaling sets just 40 minutes long. I quickly learned the Austin ethos: nonstop quantity in hopes of quality, a total musical binge. This left no time to screw around and little more to eat or sleep. SXSW runs on a steady mainline of Lone Star beer, shots of Jameson, and a host of other stimulants that keep the motors running night and day. It wasn't always pretty but it was intermittently educational and consistently a hell of a good time.
So I missed Little Richard's 10 a.m. keynote address; unfortunate but I'd get a good fill of his tutti frutti later that night. I officially kicked off the festival with an afternoon set at archetypal Austin dive Red Eyed Fly, a tin-roofed shack that stank evocatively like a beer-soaked ashtray. On the backyard stage Calexico's dusty, eclectic ramble turned out to be the perfect introduction to the Grand Ole Austin experience. Lead vocalist/guitarist Joey Burns steered his band like a vintage Cadillac down a dark desert highway, careening across a vivid landscape of Tex-Mex dub jazz and hungover honky-tonk lounge. Upright bass, lap steel, and accordion provide that high plains texture, and the horns on anthem like tunes such as "El Picaro" play like a toad-licking spaghetti western soundtrack. After Calexico closed with some moody melodica and xylophone, working the chorus of Manu Chao's Latin-dub lament "Desaparecido" into one of their haunting originals, I stepped out into the dusky evening ready to dive into Austin.
Joey Burns of Calexico
Despite a silly name, acoustic folk-pop quintet The Duhks (that's "The Ducks" spelled in the band's native Winnepeggian, I guess) came highly recommended, and they certainly had the crowd moving. Lead singer Jessee's arresting voice exuded smooth soul and Scott Senior's Afro-Cuban percussion added much-needed oomph, but even with precise harmonies and giddy fiddle their sound lacked low-end momentum and was somewhat undercooked.
During SXSW Austin becomes a Mecca for the entire music indie-stry. In an almost Burning Mannish way, everyone's involved. Guaranteed, homie at the bar next to you is a musician, publicist, manager, promoter, journalist, label flack, techie, something, somehow. And we're all looking for the freebies, handouts, and underground underdogs together, so a competitive camaraderie inspires intense small talk and faux-friendly one-upmanship between total strangers. There're also some honest-to-goodness music lovers just looking to gorge like ticks on the back of this lumbering musical behemoth, and these share their passions openly and earnestly. One of the bigger buzz bands that Thursday was Telefon Tel Aviv, and the mysterious New Orleans electrojazz collective drew a huge crowd to Elysium. With my all-important festival badge I got to cruise past the wristbanded throng waiting outside straight into the music. Far more organic than I expected, TTA laid lush Rhodes melodies over sparse sequenced crackles and murmuring bass lines. Something like Wish You Were Human, their sound was a dense Floydian wash undulating like a deep ocean wave that never finds shore.
Their stage was in constant flux: a woman breathed sultry vocals over a stuttering beat, swapping with a male vocalist hitting some deep soul tones; layers of spiraling flute and droning guitar spun in and out, and band leaders Joshua Eustis and Charles Cooper manned the sequencers and mixers like backlit dwarves mining digital gold. If you're looking for standard build-climax-release structure, these alchemistic musings won't catch your ear, but for the more experimentally inclined this is a band to look into.
Kermit Ruffins & Henry Butler
Over at the Cedar Street Courtyard Kermit Ruffins and Henry Butler jooked out a blissfully funky version of August Msarugwa's South African anthem "Skokiaan," a classic made famous by Louis Armstrong. Kermit, Henry, and the Basin Street label carry the Big Easy's party-jazz legacy into fresh terrain with young entertainers playing in the old time tradition.
Speaking of old time tradition, let's talk Little Richard. I stalked into the Austin Music Hall not knowing what to expect from Richard Penniman, errant son of a Macon, GA preacher man, other than oldies radio staples like "Lucille" and "Good Golly Miss Molly." Turns out his self-proclaimed "architect of rock 'n' roll" status is no idle boast; he has every right to be an egomaniac about his influence. They say Justin Timberlake cops Michael Jackson's falsetto-soul strut and Outkast's Andre3000 owes a big dept to Prince. Truth is none of those prima donnas would exist if it weren't for Little Richard. He took rock 'n' roll from its white appropriators back into the black idiom 50 years ago, inventing the flamboyant rock star archetype in the process. Over 70 years old, he still kills it on barrelhouse piano; "Gimme some Jerry Lee Lewis on the right hand," he instructed the sound man, tickling the keys, "and some Muddy Waters on the left." And his huge band—two horns, two guitars, two drums, bass—filled in the vocal gaps he missed. Of course he played all his hits, but also threw in some interesting covers like Hank Williams' funky "Jambalaya" and Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." Loud, raunchy, and frenetic, this didn't seem like my parent's R&B, even though it most definitely was.
I ended the night satisfyingly full circle; back at the Red Eyed Fly for the second half of The Slip. Through years of restless touring and recording, this Boston trio has evolved from a jazz-funk crowd pleaser to truly challenging, incessantly inventive pot-stirrer. From the hickabilly swing of "Poor Boy" to the introspective balladry of "Sometimes True to Nothing" to the feedback 'n' breakbeat swan dive into ambience they left us with, there isn't much they can't do. Here's a great example of SXSW synchronicity: just as Calexico's sundown ghost town jazz wholly embodied the sound of Austin, The Slip takes all the colors of the jam scene and weave them into a unified, brilliant banner we can all raise up proudly overhead.
Marc Friedman of The Slip
Friday March 19
Few things will get your day going like a conversation with Wayne Coyne. Since this is a music review I won't get too deep into the panel discussion I attended with The Flaming Lips' eccentric visionary; if you're familiar with his music a few quotes from Wayne will sum up the hour-and-a-half session:
"I'm not above weirdness for weirdness' sake."
"If I'm brave it's probably because I don't know how dangerous it is."
"We're a cross between The Butthole Surfers and Tony Bennett," said directly to the audience, showing off his gray silk suit. "I mean, look at me."
Suffice to say that Wayne's your average, every day ingenious artistic freak. He was surprisingly down to earth and very articulate—even nonchalant—about his work. "I don't know what it means," he explained of the startling blood-dousing bit of recent Flaming Lips shows. "It's just another thing I do for you guys."
Several hours later, over at the fairgrounds-like Lake Amphitheater Stage, Joss Stone showed a full-throttle throat a la Mary J. Blige and sassy, diva-like stage presence. Stone delivered the White Stripes cover "Fell in Love with a Boy," played on her top-selling album with The Roots as her backing band, with a worldly swagger that belied her age. At just 16 years old, she's already getting play on MTV (though she far outshines most of the station's made-for-TV tripe) and is just coming to grips with her own skyrocketing potential. The capacity crowd was totally entranced by her covers of soul standards and pieces written by contemporary London crooners. Her clipped Cockney speaking voice was ironically incongruous with her bluesy Motown mama vocals, making for interesting between-song banter, where, like Ani D, her charming, nervous girlishness gushed to the fore. Clearly this young woman can run the show with other people's material, but the question facing Stone is if she can pull off her own self-penned songs with equal moxie.
I headed back to Sixth Street, SXSW Ground Zero. Sixth is lined with clubs, bars, and restaurants, all of which host music during the festival. Add in the actual fulltime venues and you've got more than 30 music spots on a four-block strip. It's a head-spinning stretch, with more kinds of music spilling into the night air than you'll hear anywhere else, save JazzFest. Tonight, even with my swank-ass badge, I got shut out of a couple gigs and was forced to improvise. Luckily I ended up at Friends and witnessed the most brazen rock 'n' roll moment of the whole weekend.
If Benevento & Russo met Jon Spencer at a Dutch discotheque the musical result might sound something like zZz. Pronounced like a long, soft J, zZz made an unholy racket so explosive it actually had some jaded indie-stry flacks shaking a leg. The thing about a lot of these Austin audiences; the crowds tend towards the lame. Every show had the same audience dynamic: ten people in front of the stage actually watching, 100 people in the back of the room oblivious to the music. It was like that almost everywhere, but this tiny, packed club was floored by the psycho duo on stage: beefy drummer Björn Ottenheim sweating and barking into the mic while skinny, leather jacketed Daan Schinkel cut loose on a vintage organ. An old, wood-cabinet monster with a '60s garage-soul wail, the organ gave zZz a mad psychedelic intensity—angular, grungy, overly reverbed Question Mark and the Mysterians "96 Tears" on more acid. Matched with pounding, over-miked drums, zZz was a thrilling discovery, made even better when Schinkel stood on his stool and played the ancient organ with his feet, then kicked the whole rig over and lunged into the crowd while Ottenheim trounced through his kit and stormed offstage with a raucous crash. Hellyeah! Clearly they've studied rock 'n' roll theatrics in the Netherlands.
Björn Ottenheim of zZz
Two doors down at Bd Riley's, Northern Ireland's The Amazing Pilots had me riveted with "All My Wasted Days," a gorgeous, bittersweet, midtempo gem that waltzes and reels with an unforgettable chorus and lush electro-acoustic arrangement. The song's an instant classic but unfortunately the sound in this bar-cum-venue was so overbearing I couldn't enjoy it. I got blown out of the room, thrilled but frustrated.
By now everyone knows The Polyphonic Spree and their sprawling pop-rock symphonics. If you haven't listened to their debut The Beginning Stages Of... you've probably heard the ecstatic "Reach for the Sun" diluted by TV commercials or movie soundtracks. None of that prepared me for the unabashed, overwhelming gestalt this massive collective brought to the outdoor stage behind Stubbs. With a nine-member chorus, full horn and string sections, harp, theremin, and percussion, and all members dressed in colorful robes, these musical missionaries can easily come off as a freakish cult, and maybe that's exactly what they are. As Spree mastermind Tim DeLaughter—head back, hands grasping at the heavens—belted out lyrics like "Hope has come, you are safe/And it makes me cry/Because I'm on my way," it was hard not to feel I was being preached to. But if music is a religion, this was the gospel, the First Church of Rock 'n' Roll, with the emphasis on the revelatory Power of Pop. With an uncanny, undeniable sense of drama, the Spree made willing believers of even the most cynical, who kept the band going past curfew with a massive, rapturous rendition of the Blues Image's psych-soul classic "Mystery Ship" with its poignant lyrics:
The Polyphonic Spree
Ride, captain ride
Upon your mystery ship
Be amazed at the friends
You have here on your trip
Ride captain ride
Upon your mystery ship
On your way to a world
That others might have missed
It was a truly golden, wondrous musical moment, and I get goose bumps just thinking back to it. Call me mushy but the Spree can save your mortal soul.
Saturday March 20
I caught the end of Ozomatli's set at Stubb's BBQ, but the band's star was already on the rise from a headline-grabbing incident that occurred during their Wednesday show. Continuing the tradition they began almost ten years ago, that night Ozo bounded out of the venue onto Sixth Street, where the cops quickly arrived and notified band manager Amy Romero that playing on the street past 2 a.m. is against Austin city law. When the cops began crowding the band, percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi inadvertently bumped one in the head with his drum, and the cop in turn showered Yamaguchi with pepper spray. A melee ensued, the crowd was sprayed en masse, and Yamaguchi, Romero, and bassist Wildog Abers were hauled off to jail. A mere two days later, t-shirts reading "Free the Ozo Three" were appearing all over town, and the band—with the three out on bail—were sporting them onstage at Stubbs'. What a break when getting arrested makes for a killer merch op. Though the band is demanding the charges be dropped, the matter is still unresolved and Yamaguchi faces felony charges, which could potentially see him spending ten years in a Texas prison.
Ozomatli on Sixth Street
Handsome Boy Modeling School would've been a complete bust if it weren't for one ace in the hole. Comprised of Prince Paul on vocals and Dan "the Automator" Nakamura on production and turntables, Handsome Boy was mostly an inside joke that kept most of the crowd on the outside. I had a feeling something special might happen, though, and I was right. Towards the end of their flaccid set the pair, sporting suits, stogies, and snifters of cognac as their Handsome Boy alter-egos Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Merriwether, brought out one of the most talented, slept-on MCs of all time, Dres of the Black Sheep. It's been a long time since Dres came with any fresh material, but here he busted out some brand new flow and also delivered crowd favorites "Flavor of the Month" and "The Choice is Yours." The nonplussed indie throng had no concept of the heaviness of the situation, but for the hip-hop faithful (including yours truly) it was a peak moment.
Dres with Handsome Boy Modeling School
When I arrived at the band I thought was Michael Penn's, they were rolling through a wistful set of vaudevillian folk pop. While the lead guitarist crooned clever lyrics in a syrupy voice, the backing vocalists provided rhythm with handclaps, tambourine, and bell. It was all wrapped around interesting, quirky song structure, and as their set closed, I was surprised to discover the band was actually The Honeydogs. When Penn did finally take the stage, accompanied by only a second acoustic guitarist, his downtempo troubadoring was pretty anticlimactic, the sparse two-man arrangement rendering his typically warm and intimate songs bare and cold. I took off knowing full well that I was about to enter a totally different musical realm.
Yes, the JamBase Showcase at The Vibe was a gut-busting good time. The house was packed as Umphrey's McGee finished up their set of aggressive math rock to serious applause. The Umphrey's boys are damn tight, thankfully, because as loud and complex as their music is any sloppiness would quickly unwind its tension. They kept the rock rolling even as a meltdown seemed imminent, and the crowd ate up every note.
After a short break, headliners Hairy Apes BMX took the stage and genre spliced through an inspired array of dance-happy theatrics. Latin lounge, swing, hip-hop, jazz, and heavy metal all got the BMX treatment, as mondo showman Mike Dillon sweated up a storm on vibraphone, tabla, and other percussion. Bassist JJ Richards worked the low end on the chantable "$100," while E. Clarke Wyatt's keys lead the psychedelic conga line of "Situboquita Fuera." Hairy Apes are one of the most original and infectious bands on the scene right now—how many other groups are lead by their vibes-playing percussionist? Their song writing is twisted and clever, progressive and concise while allowing for plenty of room to explore.
Hairy Apes BMX
After the music I spilled out into the sultry night air, thrilled and exhausted. It felt great to be on the festival comedown, swollen with musical memories, surrounded by friends brought in from the storm by the JamBase show. There was plenty to say and even more to hear about; since everyone's sure they saw all the best music throughout the weekend. One thing was unanimous: If anyone out there is developing human cloning technology, please get in touch. If I've ever wished I could be in more than one place at one time, it was at SXSW. Take it from Tim Delaughter and The Gospel According to Spree: "You gotta be good/You gotta be strong/You gotta be 2,000 places at once."
Words and Images by: Jonathan Zwickel
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