Somewhere amidst the dizzying fun, 12 hour music listening days and nights, breakfast tacos, sun and hanging out in record stores, vacant lots, parking lots and coffee trailer parks there are people living their lives, and (please forgive me for not just heading straight to the music) I think I was moved the most by the sight of two young adults unsuccessfully trying to stop/divert traffic on Northbound Congress and 6th Street in order to protect pedestrians that had been hit by a speeding hit and run driver, who I saw clip several parked cars and nearly miss 30 or so people crossing the street before taking the pedestrians. They were facing substantial resistance, so even though I had more bands to see, I stopped, ran over, stood in front of a van with them and started working with a couple of other people to stand in the face of traffic and block the road in order to force and direct cars travelling Northbound to turn left on 6th . We also kept the cars going Southbound from hitting those cars, and kept the pedestrians in various stages of inebriation from messing it up even further. Ultimately, after 10-15 minutes of confrontations and conversations (why did it take the police and ambulance so long?) with drivers and walkers, and after guiding the EMS ambulance and police vehicles through traffic (no “thank you’s by the way), and having a strange conversation with a Southbound driver who was excited that I was stopping traffic because “nothing exciting ever happens in this town(?), I yielded my position to the police and went forth into the night looking for the next, last or reunited big thing.
Yet there is nothing wrong with having fun, and this year I had the luck of hitting a hot streak, deciding on Saturday to only see bands that I had never seen before arriving in Austin on Wednesday. A day like that can really restore your faith.
Here are the bands that I liked the most this year, not necessarily in a particular order..
1. Beaches. This is a 5 piece girl band from Australia that play pulsing psychedelic and surf guitar, loud, driven and droney. Vocals lovers will not be too taken with them as they seem to just be adding a variety of spacious vocals, and the lyrics are pretty simple, like Pylon, but their sound is pervasive and hard to get out of your head. At times they sound like Warlocks , Echo and the Bunnymen or the Velvet Underground. This was the only new band I liked so much I made a point of going to see them again. I was just lucky to see them as I had not heard of them before, and just decided to see something new 10 minutes before and headed for the Girls Rock Austin showcase they were playing at. I’m not the only one, as the LA Times music critic called them his find of SXSW.
2. The Right Ons. A Spanish straight ahead rhythm and blues/garage rock band that sounds a lot like the early Rolling Stones. They sing in English and caused a total storm. Every person in the band was active, bouncing around the stage and rushing up to their mikes for vocals, which was more amazing because they were performing for the seventh time in 4 days. Yet, they had so much energy! I saw them outside of the GingerMan at the Austin Chronicle’s day party It was 40 degrees outside(after three awesome warm days) but everyone danced up a storm—and no one left, and no one had more fun than that crowd. They even through out logoed tambourines to the crowd—which every one played—another nice touch. They have a new album coming out on Q Division records, a small Boston-based label, and I would look for it.
3. Duchess Says. From Montreal, it stars a female lead singer that is a combination of Iggy Pop and Linda Blair, possessed by rock and roll while she challenges the audience (and some challenge her back or dance with her) to the back beat of her electro punk band, alternatively quivering literally quivering, rolling her eyes and then staring into member’s of the audiences eyes to the Stooges like groove, and making them worry what she would do next. On one song she made everyone lie down on the floor, while she walked between us; on another she made everyone leave the room and go to a balcony, having one member slap the hands of the people she was sending out to exile (including me). Probably the most exciting and unnerving band I saw.
4. Everybody Is in the French Resistance……Now. Kind of a concept band from Eddie Argos of Art Brut, who remains one of the best front men today. He combines humor and style (I still think he combines Bryan Ferry and Mark Smith) in a way that not many current singers have accomplished. Each song is a pop rant which has its own story and is a reply to another famous rock and roll song from artists such as Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Michael Jackson and , Bob Dylan or others. I’m not sure if they should be seen twice—BUT SEE THEM ONCE!
5. Warpaint. This an awesome band from Los Angeles that plays very intricate, textured, building, beautiful, slowish, textured, guitar driven songs with haunting atmospheric vocals. I was lucky to see them last year open for School of Seven Bells and liked them much more than the headliner. After playing their EP to death, I retired it, but it is clear that a year on the road has improved this band even more and I can’t wait for their debut full length piece on Rough Trade. I know I am a name dropper but Jon Pareles liked them too and featured them in his New York Times review—but I saw them first!
6. Fan Farlo. This is a total “buzz” band from UK. At their best they sound kinda like Arcade Fire with David Byrne on vocals—which is really not too bad, a very thick, pulsing but slightly whiny sound punctuated by vocals that were a little too soothing at times as well as a variety of instruments creating a pleasant orchestral pulse. They were mired by a picky sound guy who spent 15 of the bands precious 40 minutes on an excessive soundcheck, so I did not get to see everything they may have to offer, but very promising.
7. Dum Dum Girls. Another female band from Los Angeles, but with a sound that is darker than say The Vivian Girls (who are more jangly). They led off with a slow, dirgy, buzzy slow cover of Play with Fire by The Rolling Stones which was almost unrecognizable (there were no nods of recognition or sing alongs) but beautiful. After that almost anything they could do would sound more poppy—and it was—fun, harmonic, danceable, but a bit darker.
8. The Zeros—This was the reunion gig of the “Mexican Ramones,” from California in 1975 and led by Javier Escovedo (younger brother of Alejandro, who I went to see right after!). After thanking Southwest Airlines for f-ing up his guitar, Javier got in gear. While I think there were only 2 of the original 4 members, the band still rocked strong, loud and pretty fast. Not quite the Ramones (I think Shonen Knife comes closest these days) it was great to see and hear power chords and punk.
9. Demolished Thoughts—Sometimes strange combinations take place as SX. My favorite, frankly was seeing John Wesley Harding, Robyn Hitchcock and Ken Stringfellow play an impromptu show in the back of a Mexican restaurant five years ago. However, back to punk and now, Demolished Thoughts is/was a possibly one-time collaboration of Andrew WK a very popular young punk/howler with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and J. Mascias of Dinosaur Jr. on guitar. However, apparently, Andrew WK did not show up at the last minute and they pulled one of the guitarists from F-d Up out of the crowd to sing and he did a pretty good job barking lyrics from a notebook like a slam poet as Moore and Mascias played Dead Kennedys-type chainsaw guitars and hard core riffs behind him. When I first heard them, I literally paused, turned and almost walked away in semi-repulsion, but giving them a second listen took me into the crowd and back 30+ years—in a good way.
10. Explode Into Colors—Another throwback, but this time from younger folks. This band from Portland has a drummer, percussionist, six string bass and saxophone and plays a funky, beat first post-punk sound reminiscent of ESG.
11. Broken Bells—Speaking of groovy music, this band pairs Danger Mouse and James Mercer, the lead singer from the Shins. This much talked about pairing created some very pretty music truly combining the light harmony of the Shins with a soulful rhythm track that fit very well outdoors on warm-sunny afternoon. The second prettiest band sound I liked.
12. Zoe Keating – The prettiest sound I liked (and really so unlike me) was probably the most unusual. Zoe Keating is a cellist. I guess she plays kind of avant-garde classical music. She lays down a track by bowing, strumming, plucking and/or beating her cello, records it and then plays over her backing track. I think they are called “pieces” in her type of music. Playing in the acoustically perfect Central Presbyterian Church, her repetitive sound seems somewhere between Philip Glass and Glenn Branca and she can really take you away on a five minute journey. She brought an unexpected period of peace, thought, beauty and grace to the chaos outside.
13. The Blue Aeroplanes—I really should not write about them too much, but they were part of several of the kind of unusual experiences I come to expect (but never know when it’s coming) every year and what brings me back. Certainly, this is first and foremost a very good band, with churning guitars playing under and over Gerald Langley the lead singer—whose brother is the drummer. First, this band had the largest age differential between any members, with a 20 year old bassist and a late 50s early 60s-ish drummer. Among the notable experiences were first, Gerald asked me where the free beer was at Cheapo’s; second seeing them in the back of Cheapo’s records with a crowd of about 15 lucky people. Third, the next night on the way to see Ray Davies, I told my brother, hey it is not even 9:30, we may be able to walk in and see a couple of songs from the Blue Aeroplanes—it’s on the way–my brother agreed and we walked in just as the band was finishing its set. The drummer had broken his bass drum and they weren’t going to play another—yet they decided to, got permission from sound control and broke into a searing version of Tom Verlaine’s “Breakin In My Heart” (if you don’t know it get Tom Verlaine’s first solo album-please-money back guarantee)—which made my night. Fourth, the next day I was walking on the East side of Austin between outdoor parties and walking along the path was—Gerald Langley–. As we passed on the path, I held up my hand and gave him a high five (also very uncharacteristic of me) and said “Breakin In My Heart” was awesome last night (all those degrees I have earned pay off when I need to say something profound) and then we talked for a while.
14. Ray Davies. Even though I had seen him 4 days before there was something about seeing Ray at SXSW, imagining that somewhere in the crowd were dozens of performers who he had influenced. In recognition of his star power, Ray was given a 90 minute slot, and despite and other than his “I’m Throwing Out the Set List Tonight” comment he played the exact same set he had done (minus 1 ½ songs but with the same off the cuff remarks) the previous time. Nonetheless, Ray is one of the greatest songwriters of our time and his songbook is immense, including his songs featured in television (I’m Not Like Everybody Else on The Sopranos) to movies (A Well Respected Man in Juno) to his number one hits- You Really Got Me to Lola and dedicating Till the End of the Day to Alex Chilton. By playing for 60 minutes with another guitarist and then freeing himself from guitar duties and rocking out for 30 minutes with the LA band The 88 backing, he was able to show us how meaningful his songs can be but how much better they can bere with a band—hopefully the phone will ring and the Kinks will be back one more time as rumored.
15. Rockin Rhythm and Blues Bands—Bellrays and Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers. These too bands were similar in genre, but both exciting in different ways. While the Bellrays lead singer sounded like Tina Turner and Tami Terrell with a fast Motown back beat, Shilpa Ray combined the more guttural soulful singing Janis Joplin and Patti Smith—both solid.
16. Garage/Party Bands from Boston—Both Muck and the Mires and the Downbeat 5 are throwback fun, rock and roll bands, the Downbeat 5 has a better guitar player but Muck and the Mires are more overall energy and fun—but no Right Ons.
17. Kick-A bands with Just Guitar and Drums who are not The Black Keys. No Age and The Japandroids both play crushing, noisy and often harmonic punky rock. I have always liked No Age better, but this LA band’s newer stuff has more thrash/noise and maybe less hidden harmony than their older stuff—though their show at 1:00 am on Saturday night still provoked some serious slam dancing. But their crowd was noticeably smaller than last year. Japandroids are kind of a conundrum, their sound is powerful, but the band always introduces themselves in “happy talk” like Matt and Kim—“Hi I’m Brian and this is Dave, we’re Japandroids from Vancouver, Washington” but they really thrash out the songs and now maybe have more hooks than No Age. I was actually surprised seeing them back-to-back that I might actually be leaning towards Japandroids this year—(my expectation/delivery theory again at play) but that can change back again-please compare for yourself.
18. Love of Diagrams. This is a power punk pop three piece from Australia that was reminiscent of some of the best stuff of the Subways with more professionalism and more restraint. The bass player co-lead singer is also in Beaches. The main lead singer and lead guitarist was excellent. Add a little showmanship and they could be a great and fun band.
19. Billy Bragg. Why is it that this English singer-songwriter always seems to know more about US politics than any US citizen I know? Sometimes I think I enjoy listening him to speak, more than play but he can generate more angst and power from his solo guitar and lyrics (“is there more to a sitting Parliament than sitting on their ass”) than most multi-member bands dream of. This year he rolled out his Jail Guitar Doors band project which donates guitars to jails and performed solely for inmates at a local jail.
20. SoCow An Irish band, which is apparently more of a one man show from a guy named Brian Kelly who has done solo projects for a decade or so. This band played jangly and bouncy pop-punk—I guess I was reminded of the Fratellis—when the Fratellis are good.
21. Vivian Girls. This is what I wrote last year. All I can say differently this year is they are vastly improved musicians and sound a lot more X-like and really could just about shed the lo-fi moniker.
[Last year: This is a three girl Brooklyn-buzz band that plays, low-fi, jangly, clangly, simple, slightly off harmony but totally fun songs. Not many SXSW bands are good in the afternoon and they said they were totally off—but ultimately, they are light and summery-reminding me of everything from Boston’s 80’s band Salem 66, X (with 3 Exenes), or a brash, angular, slower Bangles. The bass player has the best tattoos, including one of an ice cream milkshake.]
22. Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys—it is not Austin without Alejandro, and in Austin he can afford to have a larger band. Here he eschewed violin and cello and went for a 4 piece horn section and 3 background singers. Even with all the back up, it was most moving to hear him perform Sister Lost Soul, a song written by Alejandro and Chuck Prophet as an ode to all the brothers and sisters they have lost to the other world almost a cappella. He dedicated it to Alex Chilton and brought tears to my eyes (the only other song to do that was Postcard From London by Ray Davies which appears to be about a postcard he received from his ex-wife Chrissie Hynde when he was laid up in a hospital in New Orleans recovering from getting shot in a robbery attempt). Alejandro’s new work is very good, and hearing his songs with a horn section was particularly a rare treat.
This year, of the bands noted above, all of them could be seen for free (except for Zoe Keating and Ray Davies) no wristbands or badges required. All you needed to do was find them and get there in time. The badges certainly reduce waiting time.
Disappointments included Viv Albertine of the Slits talking more about dating and being a MILF than playing consumable music; Cymbals Eat Guitars—I gave them another chance after Pitchfork but even indoors I did not really care for their Rod Stewart-ish vocals over chaotic instrumentals; Liars—maybe it was the sound, (Club DeVille was particularly bad this year) but in their loud, messy pseudo punk I did not really hear anything to like.
Of the more than 43 bands that I saw as SXSW (or “South By” as I am told I should be calling it) this year, The best day may have been Saturday, I started at 12:15 with Shilpa Ray at the Mog showcase and ended around 2:00 am after seeing Abe Vigoda and No Age. In between, I saw Dum Dum Girls, Demolished Thoughts and Broken Bells at Mog, Love of Diagrams and Beaches at the Australian BBQ, grabbed a fish taco on my way to GingerMan where I watched Bluebonnets (with Kathy Valentine of the Go Gos and Clem Burke of Blondie), Downbeat 5, Muck and the Mires and Right Ons-and also caught Northern Iowa’s upset of Kansas, took a short break, watched a couple of songs of the Waco Brothers (seeing Jon Langford is another SXSW requirement/tradition), ate at a “real world” restaurant, Eddie V’s and decided to go out again. 14 hours , 14 bands—13 of them good! Now that is life affirming.