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.


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Imagine seeing a Grammy-nominated noise punk band from LA, with 50 or so other people, in  the backyard behind a book store, for free, with free beer, Celis White, to boot.

How about seeing a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer with his American invasion all star pop band, in the parking lot of a record store that only sells records, for free.

Maybe you might find it weird or cool to stand waiting to watch a great rock and roll front man and biggest influences of punk rock bands with his style and swagger and realize you are standing next to members of one of the best punk pop bands (who you just saw the night before, albeit as part of a “new” band that formed in 1984), have a conversation with them and learn that they are about to see one of the band that they say influenced their sound,  and then they offer to buy you a drink.

Or waiting in line to see one band with the members of a  band you saw the night before.

What about running into one of your favorite guitarists/performers waiting on line to see a NY buzz band and talking to her about how the club isn’t letting people in because the cops are checking the place out.

With apologies to Cindy Adams—only in Austin, only at SXSW. 

This year it seems like I saw a lot of U.S. bands and a lot of bands that played some form of garage or r and b infused rock, tempered by a bit of indie punk, drone/psychedelia and dance music for good measure.

Here are the 17 acts I think I liked the most this year (at least 13 of which could have been seen for free (no badge or wristband required) in the order that I saw them (not in order of preference).

1.         Wavves- This is a two piece guitar and drum outfit from San Diego.  While recently bluesish-rock bands like White Stripes, Black Keys and Deadboy & the Elephantmen have been the rage—Wavves are pure power pop and punk, kind of like the Subways and the Buzzcocks, catchy, jangly and fast.   In the weird world of SXSW I saw them 3 times in a day and a half.   I became worried about the lead singer’s voice, and  started to comment about how the singer was wearing the same shirt he had worn the day before—when I realized I was too!

2.         Shout Out Out Out Out.  I really liked this dance band from Edmonton, Canada when I saw them for one song last year.  So this year I sought them out and saw them both in the day time and at night—I had to see them at 1:30 am with people flying all over the place.  It is impossible to stand still to this bouncy pounding energetic group comprised of four keyboard players and two drummers.  They are more disco than Depeche Mode, but when they segue from playing keyboards to four basses and two drums they sound like New Order at their danciest.  Much more fun than a techno club, but just as good a workout.  Plus there is the benefit of some of the angst driven songs such as the cautionary tale of “In the end it’s your friends that will ___ you over” The only negative to this band is the sometimes excessive use of synthesized voice.

3.  Roky Erickson and the Black Angels-  Roky Erickson was the lead singer and guitarist of Austin’s famous 60’s psychedelic group 13th Floor Elevators.  His life took a tragic turn in the late 60’s after being busted for drugs and being committed to a mental institution.  After a long period of mental illness and the loving and fundraising of his brother, Roky snapped out of it a couple of years ago and has been able to perform live.  Here at the Austin Music Awards, backed by Austin’s current psych powerhouse The Black Angels, the droning guitar army they put together in a short set was memorable culminating with You’re Gonna Miss Me, for which the Black Angels’ lead singer learned the musical jug parts.

4.         Vivian Girls.  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.

5.         School of Seven Bells.  A hypnotic dance (almost trance) band also from Brooklyn, with two twin sisters providing airy harmonies over a slow pulsing, soothing, swaying beat with layered atmospheric guitar from a guy who was in the Secret Machines but looks like a space disco version of Tom Cruise and just  hint of Eastern mystery.  Pretty unique and engaging.

6.         No Age- is an amazingly loud, raw, powerful and somehow engaging band from LA.  I really did not know what to expect the first time, and what I got was a lot of feedback followed by all out attacking drums and harmonic guitar.  A 15 minute set , way short, even by SXSW standards they were DONE—before half the people on line could even get in.  But they were so intriguing I saw them again.   There is something funny about SXSW though.  Their “official” showcase was before over 500 people who waited on line a long time to see them and either missed half or all of the set.  Maybe the band was showing disdain for the “badge people” but the second time I saw them was with a few dozen people in the back of a funky bookstore.  What impressed me was that after a couple of songs, the drummer called out for the “craziest people” to move forward so that he could get rid of all the photographers in the first row.  Next entailed the most serious slamdancing I had seen and felt in some time. I think they played better, with less feedback and more melody—but still way the noisiest band I have seen this year.

7.         Blue Aeroplanes.  Since No Age was done with its 8:00 set by 8:15, I was able to catch another 8:00 show (unheard of for SXSW, and usually the 8:00 bands are not that great—a big change this year) recommended to me by someone we were waiting on line with. I didn’t know anything about this band except that they were from England and were post-punk.  It turned out they had an incredible revved up sound, with great guitar players and a tremendous 50+ year old drummer.  They laid down a thick guitar interplay groove and dared the lead singer to sing on top of them, which only a great band really can do—ones like that I can recall (and I am not comparing the sound, but the quality of the interplay) are Iggy and the Stooges and maybe the New York Dolls.   Overall, one of the most pleasant surprises.

8.         Crystil Stilts—This is a very hot NY band that lays down bass lines from Joy Division has a lead singer that marches like Ian Curtis and tries to sound like him, but the guitar riffs (and hence the songs) are a bit more lush and lighter than their Manchester idol’s, which may mean they intend to be more velvet underground or Jesus and Mary —all r a reason to be cheerful about this attempting to be somber band even though the singer kind of looked like he should have been a  University of Texas frat party.  But ultimately, among all the  pseudo hipsters and real hipsters, a bona fide legend Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, hung out  right next to me and seemed to like them.  So I won’t trust my judgment but I will trust Carrie’s.

9.         That Petrol Emotion.   This is good guitar driven band whose guitarist and bassist are the O’Neill brothers originally in The Undertones—who helped form this band in 1984.  The sound is not like the Undertones–more power chord rock than power pop.

10.       Chesterfield Kings-  Steve Van Zandt of the E Street band really honored this band from Rochester by saying they singlehandedly kept garage rock alive—the Fleshtones may have something to challenge Steve there, but these grungy rockers, with a cross-dressing lead singer running into the crowd and throwing stuff around are fun and great Rolling Stonish rock and roll.

11.       The Sonics—Ironically, this band Miami Steve called the first garage band.  Re-formed after 40 years, this oldtimer group played with a ton of vim and vigor.  One of the hardest shows to get in, they were a thrill to watch. First, they were excited to be playing, they apologized for starting late, and then told us to grab on to your girl because we are going to blow the roof off this place—and they did.  Playing “hits” like strychnine and she’s the witch-they sounded like a brand new 60’s influenced band—except it WAS the 60’s band.   Included in the set was a searing rendition of Louie Louie, one song I never thought I would want to hear again—I just shook my head with a stunned smile on my face.

12.       The New York Dolls—Where are all the new bands you say?  I’m not sure if I care if all the old bands play like the New York Dolls and the Sonics.   Whatever Buster Poindexter or Harry Smiths grenades you want to lob at David Johansen (which I used to do)—go ahead.  But facts is facts—there is probably no other performer that influenced Joey Ramone the way Johansen did, and there are very few frontmen that can belt it the way he can.  And at 59, he could be a future blues-infused rock saviour for years to come.  Oh yeah, so it was weird to stand there waiting for the Dolls to start and noticed That Petrol Emotion next to me.  Overcoming my shyness, I told them they did a great show the night before and talked about their influences (the Dolls and the Nuggets album—Volume I of which had the 13th Floor Elevators and Volume II of which had the Sonics).

13.       Magic Christian.    A welcome repeat of last year, except this year I saw them in a parking lot of a record store with about 20 people at 2:00 in the afternoon (ironically, the night before, it was impossible to get in to see them at Little Steven’s evening showcase—go figure).  A supergroup” made up of old musicians, including Cyril Jordan the lead guitarist of The Flamin’ Groovies—from San Francisco, Eddie Munoz of The Plimsouls and rock and roll hall of famer Clem Burke of Blondie.  What a refreshing band.  They can sound like  British invasion group—reading my mind and doing the Dave Clark Five’s “Anyway You Want It” as well as their hook-laden original songs.  Clad in black, in sunglasses, in 80 degree heat, facing the sun, in a parking lot, before 20 people, they still delivered a strong set (giving us what Clem Burke said—our money’s worth—it was free!), this was the show I felt compelled to buy a CD, just to give them something to show for the gig—but these guys really are doing it for the love of rock n’ roll and it totally shows.

14.       Mika Miko—Opened for No Age behind the book store, and what a thrill!  Totally raw chiming, chaotic, short, sharp, punky guitars with two female lead singers shouting back and forth at each other.   It made me think they were Riotgrrls from the Northwest and not LA.  The coolest thing was that one of the microphones was a phone (gimmicky, but cute) so that they could act like the singers were talking to each other.  Seeing them and No Age back to back made me wonder why everyone is so obsessed with NY music.  It just makes me want to be the old guy hanging out at The Smell in LA to see what bands will come out of there next.

15.       The Warlocks—OK—Another strange thing about Austin and SXSW is how the geography shifts.  While shows center around 6th Street, South Congress and the Warehouse District, there have always been some (all unofficial) shows on the East side (my favorites being a Yahoo party with Echo and the Bunnymen, the Subways and KT Tunstall), which can be a long (and a little scary) walk or longish cab ride from 6th Street proper.  This year the East side exploded, with some official venues as well as many substantial parties and events (including shows at book stores and record stores noted above).  But probably the coolest venue was Club 1808, which is in kind of a bad neighborhood.  It has a very narrow bar, slightly wider than a pool table, and when a band sets up in the back, it is hard to walk without navigating around the band.  An amazing place to see the Warlocks, playing their simple, layered pulsing, staccato, psychedelic drones—a sound that is so enveloping at times it can really carry you away.  All I can say is that if you want to legally blow your mind away, forget Radiohead and spend some time with The Warlocks, the Black Angels and the Asteroid #4 (who sadly skipped this year’s SXSW at the last minute).

16.       PJ. Harvey.  I really never “got” PJ Harvey.   Dressed in a beautiful and literal straitjacket and wearing a white plume, she seemed a strange transition for those waiting to see Razorlight, The Indigo Girls and Third Eye Blind.  But she won over most of the crowd with her high pitched chants and the soft, but powerful arrangements of her accompanist John Parish (with whom they amazingly quieted the crowd at Stubbs when doing a ukulele song—really) . But, I have to say that she performs her music—whatever it may be—with total intensity and is a tremendous performer—a la Bryan Ferry and Elvis—you just don’t want to miss an expression change or shift of the head. I’m still not sure her recorded work will do it for me—but see her live.

17.       Voxtrot.   Another guilty pleasure. When I saw them at Pitchfork a few years back I thought—oh well, yet another Smiths-influenced band—and yes these Austin kids have that wry, self-satisfied sadness down pat.  But besides the fact that my oldest daughter loves the band and that it was one of their first shows in a long time may have made 2 years may have made a difference, but there is joy and exuberance to Ramesh Srivastava and his crew as they pogo to their own pop that is not seen among the too cool to have fun crowd and the band seemed to have  have as good a time or better than the crowd, even with technical problems forcing them to play one song twice and give up.

As with most years, there were excursions or surprises to see bands  from Norway –  The Cocktail Slippers—a girl group walking the line between The Go-Gos and Sahara Hotnights; that I could have easily included above; Denmark—The Asteroid Galaxy Tour—kind of a funky sound, Edie Brickellish?—Buzz bands that did not quite cut it.  Cut Off Your Hands—New Zealand’s answer to the Arctic Monkeys, or Crocodiles—who, when they were on were the best Jesus and Mary Chain band I saw (I praise from me), but sort of lost it at some point during their short set—may be worth another shot.  Disappointment from a great group—this year, unfortunately Echo and the Bunnymen—Ian McCollough either did not care or did not have his voice at his first show and may have been saving it up for his big money Spin party gig.  I gave him, Will Sargent and his rent-a-bunnymen were certainly a lot stronger and more on keyunder the public eye—which wiped some of the bad taste out of my memory, and some rock and roll history—watching Roy Head sing “Treat Her Right” backed by the Bo Keys with Ben Cauley a member of  Otis Redding’s back-up band who survived the plane crash that took Otis Redding’s life in 1967, session musician Skip Pitts who played guitar on the Theme from Shaft, and Paul Senegal, who was Clifton Chenier’s long-time guitarist—hello-Chicago Blues Festival!; and some one-hit wonders, catching just one song each of Alejandro Escovedo (doing She’s About a Mover with Shawn Sahm and his dad’s compadres) and John Wesley Harding (doing a great version of “How I Got From the Bottom to the Top of the Bottom”)—but for the first time I saw but did not hear Jon Langford—I owe him a beer.

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An all you can eat buffet.  You probably know how that is.   Say, for example, at one of those Brazilian steakhouses.  You are tempted by the huge salad bar–it is sooooo inviting, the salad, pasta, cheese—all of it is great, exceptional even, but you know that by eating some of that great food you will end up having to skip something else—perhaps even some of the steak you have been craving for.—that is music at SXSW.  With over 1,600 official bands and over 81 official venues, plus hundreds of unofficial venues, with music from around 11:00 am to 4:00 am there is simply too much music for one person to consume.  So no matter what you do, there will be scheduling conflicts–and you know that when you choose to see one band at a particular time and place, you are giving up on the opportunity to do hundreds of other things.  But-as my friend Miguel reported John Doe as saying when Direct TV asked X to replay a song–you “just have to roll with it.” 

That is why it is actually exhilarating and humbling to make daily choices which often times are not followed, or change depending on whether you can get in, how crowded the place is, whether the band is good and whether everything is on schedule—among other things.    Even the band members understand the difficulties.  John Doe of X, at one of the most anticipated shows of the festival, thanked the crowd for coming, saying that “we know you have the chance to see many other bands, so we appreciate your choosing to spend your time with us.  Chuck Prophet said essentially the same thing that afternoon during one of his 4 unofficial shows on Saturday (most bands play multiple shows, and some bands, like the Raveonettes, played 12 shows in 4 days).  And, despite the fact that there are 12,000 registered badgeholders and 12,500 or so wristband bearers swarming around Austin, the music is amazingly accessible and egalitarian at times. 

Yes, a badge can save you a 20-30 minute wait, and sometimes you can’t get in without one, and sometimes you need an invite AND a badge (thanks to a friend I got into the Playboy party this yearbut there were tremendous day parties where the same top notch talent plays for free, and sometimes there is even free beer to boot.  Industrious people review web sites, check the newspapers and keep their eyes and ears open to put together a great music schedule without having to invest big money.  This year more than half of my favorite shows were at locations where no badge was required.

But there is also the fun and challenge of taking an hour or two and just randomly walking down Sixth Street, listening to bands through the windows or doors, or just walking into a venue and giving a band a song or two to show its stuff.  One night I went into about 6 venues in rapid fire, and saw a good straight ahead rock band from Boston, a jangly vaguely Neil Youngish band, some hip hop and a punk/emo/electronic band from England called The Reason, who played two punk songs, then switched to electronica—at which time the entire band ran into the audience for some geeky Beavis and Butthead-type slam dancing—not my thing, but cool to experience, and I seemed to have more “experiences” this year than in others.   

I saw shows in two of the most unusual places.   The first was at a house party with a keg in the back.  Kind of like a college party, except that you have a national act as your entertainment. Imagine, for example, the White Stripes in a living room.   Well Dax Riggs is not Jack White, but he is close.  He sells out 400-500 seat clubs in NY, plays with Modest Mouse’s drummer and they are a two instrument raw blues-rock onslaught.  Here, he was in the living room of a mansion with 20-30 people watching—but a great show is not defined by the location or the number of people who show up.

Imagine, for example, seeing the Pretenders in the back lot of a restaurant that is under construction and isn’t even open yet.  .  Well, the Beangrowers who are a band from Malta I first saw at SXSW 3 years ago, played in the vacant backyard of a restaurant/gallery that had not yet opened yet on a street that even a cab driver could not find..  There was a freshly built stage in the back, a couple of lanterns thrown over the branches of a large tree and 10-20 chairs.   I grabbed a beer from someone’s cooler—hoping that it was ok.   Hearing melodic pulsing pop as the moon shined overhead, the band played its first gig in the U.S. in a while before a couple of dozen friends of the bands that were playing that night.    The quality of music is not defined by the notoriety of a location or the size of a crowd.

OK so I should stop with the experiences what was so great this year (not in order of preference)

1.  Sons and Daughters—This is a band from Scotland that combines garage rock and punk into a powerful, fun sound. During a day show they played pulsing droning beats and slow dance numbers, while at night they turned it up to a more danceable speed.   Adele Bethel the lead singer wore a powder blue Patti Smith t-shirt dress and glammy make-up, while Scott Peterson features a rockabilly “do” which shows some of their varied influences.  It is always hard to describe music without reference to other bands, but it often does the bands on both sides of the comparisons disservice—but think jagged guitars, primal drums and Siouxsee and the Banshees (in their better, poppier songs) or X Ray Spex rocking howl or even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs but a little bit faster.  

2.   British Sea Power—This is a band that plays thick, layered (violin over guitar and keyboards), melodic power pop.  Almost every song is a rave up, and almost every song is danceable, listenable and strong.   I guess I would put them in the Echo & the Bunnymen (after the first album)-genre—but not quite as poppy and lush as let’s say Duran Duran.

3.   Magic Christian—A “supergroup” made up of old musicians, including Cyril Jordan the lead guitarist of The Flamin’ Groovies—from San Francisco, Eddie Munoz of The Plimsouls and Clem Burke of Blondie.  Playing an extremely small club, with the stage in the window, these old pros put on a supercharged psychedelic rhythm and blues rave-up.  It sounded like I was listening to the Nuggets compilation, with The Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction ringing through.  They did one of the best covers— Dave Clark Five’s “Anyway You Want It” as a tribute to Mike Smith, the lead singer who recently passed away just days before joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Flamin’ Groovies’ hit “Shake Some Action.”   There was literally, “magic” in the air as no one, including me, or the band, wanted to leave at the end of the show—everyone wanted to try and soak up and maintain the energy in that room.    I was lucky to just happen to walk by where they were playing while I was doing a random walk in and out of venues for an hour and a half journey.

4. The Raveonettes—The music business has changed a lot, so I don’t know if there are any “break-out” bands anymore, but if there were-it would be this band from Norway with their smoky-feedback laden Jesus and Mary chain-pop sound.    Their technique and live performances have much improved over the last couple of years    Originally, they performed as a two piece with a drum/bass machine.   Finally, they added a drummer to their live show, which allows the lead pair to focus on their chiming guitars and they also have seemed to add surf guitar to their retro repertoire.

   5.      Times New Viking—A band from Columbus that is seemingly named after a font with a twist—and they play that way-twisting genres with extremely short, sharp, punkish songs—one minute or so each—which are all riff and no chorus.   High energy, high efficiency, never boring and perfect for 30-40 minute showcases!

6.   X—This was a major re-formation band of the festival—31 years after they formed to become the leading light of the Los Angeles punk scene.  The thrashing rockabilly-tinged  speed guitar of Billy Zoom (smiling the entire time)  got everyone moving so that it got a bit rough in the mosh pit, and Exene Cervenka’s and John Doe’s howling harmonies   Going past the typical SXSW 40 minute showcase, X did a full hour show with a 3 song encore including their vicious sped up cover of The Doors Soul Kitchen—definitely the sweatiest show I went to, and not too bad at all for a bunch of 50-somethingish punks.

7.    The Donnas- Sure rock and roll can be serious art, but The Donnas are one of the most fun bands around, and after being the rock and roll business for over 10 years, their talent has getting up there with their attitude and style.   But for the most part The Donnas are about in your face rock and roll with the guitarist and durmmer shaking their bleached blond hair in time with the music.   Their cover of Paul Collins’ Don’ Wait Up for Me was .

8.   Shout Out Out Outs (I think that is all the “outs”-but there may be more—This Punk/techno duo from Edmonton, Alberta Canada would be a good choice for any party you might be having-I saw them at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and they sounded as good or better than anything I heard Moby spin at the Playboy party at 2:00 in the morning.     Put them totally on your next dance mix. 

9. The Stems—  Another band that sounds like they came straight from The Nuggets Collection—this time from Australia, this time sounding like the Standells’ Dirty Water or the early Rolling Stones. 

10. Paul Collins Beat—One of my highlights from last year, and I could probably say the exact same thing he did last year, except last year he had not played in the states in 7 years, and this year it was clear that he had a bit more time working with his band from Spain.   Power high energy pop, from this singer songwriter.  In the ironic cover version department, he did a great version of Hangin on the Telephone—which is actually a song he wrote that Blondie recorded, and The Donnas covered his song “Don’t Wait Up.” 

11.       The Beangrowers—Another highlight from SXSW a few years ago, this is a band from Malta that sounds like it could come from Ohio.  You may have heard the key riff from one of their songs in a Ban deodorant commercial.  Strong, simple catchy new wavish sound with ethereal guitars and vocals.    Their new album and first in the U.S. should be out very soon and has a couple of catchy songs, including “Love Can Do You No Harm”.

Strangest band—The Monotonix are a band from Israel that views performance as far beyond music.   The band set up their drum kit and instruments on the grass in front of the Vice stage, and then the lead singer mimed everyone to come forward and sit right next to the band.  Then he went up to one of the several police officers at the stage and gave him a big hug.  Then the band started and all hell broke lose.  He grabbed beers and water and poured them on himself, then on members of the audience and ran crazed through the crowd while yelping along to his bandmates’ pretty basic metal music.   During their short set, he had beers poured on him, dumped a canful of garbage on the drummer, who did not miss a beat.  The coolest thing they did was separate the bass drum from the drum set move it into the middle of the audience (after threatening to throw it around), and then the guitar player played it.  The most fun though was watching the bemused looks of the police officers surrounding the show and the most fear was that the show would end in blood and/or arrests (which luckily did not happen). 

Disappointmennts–  The Wedding Present showed up with no drummer ( a bad sign). Syd Straw, on the eve of releasing her first new album in over a decade after withdrawing to Vermont to, among other things, take care of ailing family, played with a band she admitted to putting together on the spur of the moment and not rehearsing and no drummer (definitely a bad sign).    Yo La Tengo played in the Austin Music Hall, which remarkably was recently built has terrible, cavernous sound. 

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One good (and potentially bad) thing about SXSW is that it is different.  Choosing a music path through several days of thousands of bands at hundreds of venues virtually ensures (or insures) that one person’s experience will not be like anyone else’s and that one year’s experience will not be like another year’s.   A key difference this year related to venues both good and bad.

 First, there were many more day parties and events that were open to the general public. Because of all the day parties, it was much harder to decide where to go, and I was less likely to go to randomly wander and come across something cool by accident.   The best thing about the day parties is that it makes the whole event more egalitarian.  Anyone, whether buying a badge, wristband or nothing could get into shows by many great bands.  I think 20% of the bands I saw this year were at shows like this.  So, if you don’t feel like paying $350 (badge) (and, as Sally Timms said, she was not sure that “she had gotten her $350 of fun yet”)or $200 (wristband) don’t think that SXSW is not for you. 

One of the GREAT new venues was the Austin City Limits studio.  KEXP-FM of Seattle (why can’t Chicago have a music-based public radio station?) had live broadcasts of some of the top bands from the pristeen studio where Austin City Limits is filmed.  What a total treat it was to sit in that studio and watch and listen to The Ponys and The Stooges.   Ironically, these were pretty easy for non-badge holders to get into.  

On the negative side was that some of the traditional places where you can get free beer or free food (the Yarddog Gallery in particular) were totally mobbed so that it was very difficult to see/hear some of the bands. In fact, the Yarddog had some police trouble because of the crowds, which delayed or even threatened to cancel the parties.   This year the Austin Music Hall was under construction so, for the first time SXSW turned the conference facility into a night music venue.  Two venues (or big room) was for Direct TV live broadcasts—it had great bands, but the sound was poor and it had an obnoxious “host” who kept trying to keep the crowd cheering.  One venue was the “replacement” for the Austin Music Hall and was a bit better, as long as you were right in front of the stage and listening mostly off of the monitors.

Here, in no particular order are some of the high points.

Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (Spiro’s Showcase- Elysium)

This was a very intense three piece band from Mainland China.  The band leader, the lead singer and lead guitarist (all one person) refused to face the audience, instead choosing to look at the bass player, chanting and engaging in call and response vocals reminiscent of the B-52s a la Planet Claire on a couple of songs or Pylon.  But this band clearly is not a novelty and has a very hard edge with choruses like “hang the police.” Of course the Chinese have shown themselves to be extremely capable of reproducing the world’s products, so it should be not too surprising that they can replicate quality music.  However, it is, in my view, difficult imitate emotion and this band really felt it.  At the end of the set, the band did an ironic, but awesome cover of the Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods- which took the house down.  One major critic questioned the choice of songs (why should a band from China cover the Gang of Four?).  Well far be it from me to say, but end of set or encore covers have always been a way for bands to pay homage to groups they admire.  The Celibate Rifles’ cover of “Walking Barefoot” and  Patti Smith’s cover of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” are particularly memorable concert moments to me (I wrote a paper in college about covers and how they can confirm or reject the content and/or context of a song so don’t get me started).   While I have not been to China, I think the choice of song could relate to the commoditization of sex in the current, “modern” Chinese culture, some ironic twist on the  name of the band, or the band just loves the song period.   This band should have an album out in May and the promo version is pretty darn good.  As far as performances go, I am not sure whether I caught them on a good night or they caught me on a good night, but theirs was a strong, surprising and satisfying performance.

The Asteroid #4

This melodic droning guitar army from Philadelphia was the better of the two similar bands (see Black Angels below).  They have an extremely thick sound (if that is physically possible). The layering of very few chords creates a powerful harmony sound that carries you away with, dare I say it, dream-like psychedelic soundscapes.    They have a great sense of humor, too.  At the end of their set, the lead singer announced “Thank You, we’re the Black Angels”—which was one of the four funniest things I heard in SXSW.  The other two were this guy at the Australian music party and barbecue who clearly had crashed in order to get the free food, saying that the band/song (The Hoodoo Gurus) sounded like 
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking by The Beatles (was I at a music festival)?  The third was by Michelle Shocked sitting at a couch waiting for her showcase to start saying to the person next to her “Are you from Texas, I grew up in East Texas,” and shortly thereafter Sally Timms, when faced with her band not showing up, saying “I haven’t had my $350 of fun yet.”  Another digression, sorry. 

The Stooges (KEXP and Stubbs)

            I was really in my Missouri mode for the Stooges, all ready to diss them as a waste of time.  But Iggy and his guys proved it to me.  They are not an oldies act , but a powerful rock and roll force.  While perhaps trite to say, Iggy Pop convinced me that he is one of the most dynamic lead singers-shaking his booty as well as Shakira, trollin’ the stage and chanting his simple back alley vocals like himself and all with the gleeful smile that he is putting something over on the world, the smile that Jon Lydon borrowed from him.  It was really a treat to see him up close and personal at the KEXP studio, and then see the band at full throttle at Stubbs.

Contrary to what was reported by many critics, there was not a huge line for  The Stooges at Stubbs—if you timed it right.  True, it was probably the best attended show of SXSW, but I think we got there a little more than an hour before and still watched half of Spoon’s set (who I still don’t understand why they are so popular, they are a very mellow, pop band and saw but was not impressed with them last year, too). 

Ponys (KEXP live broadcast and Mohawk party). 

The Ponys again proved that they are one of the best live bands today, not just the best Chicago band.  Showing that they could deliver noisy garage rock in the pristine environment of the Austin City Limits studio audience sitting soberly on cushy chairs and in the concrete outdoor Spring break afternoon chaos of the patio of Mohawk.   The fervent, yet melodic and jagged guitar interplay of Jared and Brian can be downright Televison-esque at times, yet they stay on track with their strong rhythm section.  Sometimes they remind me of a slightly more poppy Sonic Youth, and their new album even seems to have a little bit of Fleshtones, Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychedelic Furs, Wedding Present (every band this year seemed to sound like the Wedding Present for one song—it must be me) and even a portion of a riff from The Guess Who’s “NoTime” thrown in—all pretty good references in my book.  At Mohawk they were able to rock out with more feedback than on the radio.  They were so loud that a friend of mine listened from a block away and thought they were great—and he saved the $3 cover.   They will be touring a lot this year, because, as Brian said on the radio “we’re broke” so go see them.

Paul Collins Beat. (Habana Calle Patio) 

This guy had a band called The Nerves (with Peter Case) in 1977 and  the Beat shortly thereafter.    The Beat delivered one of the power pop classic albums in 1979 which is worth having in your collection, although his best known “work” is probably “Hangin on the Telephone” which Blondie covered, and  next-best known for  forcing England’s Beat to change its name to The English Beat.  He had fallen from obscurity to marginal non-entity status (although, somehow, my brother struck up communication with him over the Internet, buying old product from him—so he was still “in the business”), living and recording in Spain but has somehow re-emerged if only for SXSW.   Paul said he had not performed live (maybe in the U.S.) in about 7 years. Joined by a group of pretty young Spanish musicians who did real credible jobs on his songs.  This balding late middle aged man (him, not me) was the epitome of post punk power (as opposed to progressive) pop.  Like custard for the ears, happiness reigned outside the Cuban restaurant by the river as the crowd danced to simple guitar-driven jangly songs like “Rock and Roll Girl” and “Don’t Wait Up for Me”.  The crowd was so into it that they he Black Angels are  slow, repetitive, droning and dark, all of which makes for a great wwfought extremely hard and received an encore-unusual for SXSW.

The Hush Sound (Emo’s)

While on the subject of pop, another band that can instantly give you a sugar rush is this fairly new band from Chicago.  My daughter loves this band, and despite the fact that they were discovered by Panic at the Disco and Fall Out Boy I really like them.  With chiming lead loungey  (think The Rain, The Park and Other Things) or honky tonk electric piano and true harmonic vocals, leading a lush, shiny, sometimes folky, sometimes semi-psychedelic guitars, it is impossible not to bob your head and smile.   A great band to start off SXSW with at 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon.  And if you like them already, check out The Salteens.

The Bravery (La Zona Rosa)

I don’t know why I went to see them, but I’m glad I did.  When they played Lollapalooza two years ago, they were a buzz band and I was not that impressed (both the Killers and Kaiser Chiefs kicked their butts).  But an outdoor venue is clearly not the place for this new wave band that looks like The Strokes and sounds like the Cure, the Alarm and/or U2.   Their music has a pulsing, sometimes disco/sometimes marching dance-beat that is pretty infectious despite some pretty inane lyrics and pretension.  At the Village Voice media party they played a full set including their new and old albums—one advantage of paid/sponsored shows, rather than showcases, sometimes it takes more time to establish a rhythm.  The new music seems to be the slower, more hypnotic variety that I like more, but the older songs are good, dance club hits I might have listened to in 1979, except back then they might have used a electronic drum machine and a Casio.

Black Angels (Red Eyed Fly)

These guys are a really great, droning psychedelic, repetitive Led Zeppelin-ish (think Houses of the Holy) band with extremely dark lyrics.  So why should you like them?  Well, their repetitive slow, layered powerful chords drag you into their grips and hold you and rock you for five minutes or so, kind of like the slightly drunk buzz that you wish could be extended by an espresso martini or vodka and Red Bull.  Even at 5:00 in the afternoon you could feel the haze if not see it.

Reykjavik!  (Uncle Flitty’s)

One of the best things about SXSW is the ability to see bands from foreign countries that you may not otherwise see.  Such shows are hit and miss, and I was very lucky to have hit with the rollicking collective band from Iceland.   Playing with a pulsing beat and speedy guitars, and one of the three best frontman I saw, that is not bad.  They did a pretty good cover of Bowie’s changes, but I think the performance was better than the music, with all the members of the band coming into the small crown, jumping on and off of the monitors and fighting with each other. As fun to watch as to listen to.

Buick McKane (“Austin Music Hall” Ballroom in Convention Center”)

One of the guaranteed highlights of going to Austin is seeing Alejandro Escovedo, perform.  But, since I saw him and Chuck Prophet right before heading south, I really was not as enthused about seeing him so much.  And, for the last couple of years, he has been around enough that I sometimes take him for granted. Luckily we chose to see Buick McKane, a Alejandro-rock and roll “legendary, Austin” side project he had not played with for a while which was featured Thursday night as part of an “Alejandro and friends” night.  Despite the huge hall which was not even 10% filled it was really exciting to just see him have fun, just letting loose on his guitar. Their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” was nice too.   As a side note, any person I have ever introduced to Alejandro Escovedo loves his music in a different way, so see him live.

Buzzcocks—(Snocap party). I guess I leave the Buzzcocks for last because I knew they were a sure thing.  But, how can you resist free barbeque from The Ironworks, free beer and The Buzzcocks.  With songs clocking in at 2 minutes, the Buzzcocks can almost play their full set at a showcase.  Pete Shelly wore a white polkadot shirt in the afternoon in a tent and smiled the whole time, playing virtually their entire greatest hits collection of  power pop punks, pulling out all of the stops in their 45 minute set.  Anyone into punk aerobics have got to love this band. ,

Moments of Pleasure

Running from place to place means you have to miss parts of sets, it’s a half full/half empty kind of thing where you need not to get too bummed if you miss something good, but be thankful you saw/heard what you did.   The same song, played twice in different ways, were highlights.  A drunk Jon Langford, combining the members of two different bands he plays with, did a searing version of his song “Sentimental Marching Song” closing the Wednesday party at Yarddog, while his comrade in arms did a very ethereal almost a cappella version of the same song near the beginning of her showcase when Langford and band did not show up on time.  The Finnish singer Marit Bergman sounded like Diana Ross and had a great band—her set was marred by cross over noise from downstairs, but anyone liking Motown should check her out. The Woggles delivered a totally rockin 60’s set at side yard at Champs bar. The River City Tanlines from Memphis played great bare bones rock and punk.  The Japanese bands’ showcase was too crowded to stay in this year, but it was a great gimmick to see the bands in between sets marching up and down 6th Street with banners promoting their show!


Luckily, not many—but I was pretty bummed when Donovan opened his mouth to sing.  He played at an incredible church, with awesome sound, but, though I am not Mr. tone sensitive  I am afraid to say that he seemed to have lost his voice.  He played every one of his classic songs, yet I could not bear to stay.    Marnie Stern was hyped by the New York Times, and I was hopeful, when she showed up with her iPod to back her, that she might be this year’s KT Tunstall.  But her music was not exciting and her guitar play was not complex as represented. Not bad, just not to exciting.

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Ready for pontification?  While Austin was crowded this year, contrary to media reports, it was not so crowded that you had to line up at 8:00 to see buzz bands like the Arctic Monkeys.  I got in at 10:45—without any wait for a show that went on at 12:00.  I just had to sit through some really bad band, unlike previous years when some of the “warm-up bands” (e.g. Preston School of Industry for Mission of Burma, The Beangrowers for Love Tractor or The Thermals for Sleater-Kinney, turned out to be highlights—one of the cool things about the festival format). Whether it was worth waiting for is another question answered  below after a bit more pontification. 

It is clear that part of the mallification of America is that SXSW, originally an outsider’s festival for independents has become an insider’s festival, complete with an increasingly extensive array of invitation only parties.  Luckily, I have some friends and instincts that can get me into some of these parties.  But, some of the best times I had and music I saw/heard resulted from roaming around record stores, galleries and bars that had shows which were free to the entire general public, no convention badge or wristband required (of the 17 bands I mention below, at least half of them had at least one show that was free to the public).   You might be surprised to know that there are people who come to Austin from so far as England to hear music and did not buy any passes at all, just going to free events.  Contrast that to the Yahoo and Blender parties that had free drinks, gifts and (Yahoo) free barbecue.  Another great party had an open bar and good tex-mex, but required a pass or invitation.  But Yard Dog Gallery (Bloodshot, Schuba’s and YepRoc) all had free music and beer for the masses—although the St. Patrick’s Day crowd at YardDog was clearly there more for free Pabst than for music, which hurt the Bloodshot party a bit.

Unlike prior years, I am having a hard time actually ranking the best bands I saw/heard.  I think there are two groups, bands I really liked and bands I liked, and it is hard to distinguish within the groups.

Tier One

The Morning After Girls (Blender Bar)- This is a band from Australia, who I am listing first because I had not heard them or heard of them before, and after hearing them, I bought their CD.   That qualifies them as a “find.”.  Their main qualification is that they are the best slow Jesus and Mary Chain-type band since Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (who, ironically, they have been opening for in the U.S.) went roots-rock and the Warlocks found their stash.  Great psychedelic and chiming, cycling, mirroring rhythm guitars—all dressed in black with black-dyed hair—they just needed a fog machine.  Their first CD is pretty good too.

Steve Wynn and The Miracle Three (Dog and Duck Pub)– Those of you that know me, may know that I am not big on superlatives.  However, they are simply one of the best live  bands out there.  While the band played 7 gigs during the week, I only saw one short set at a free party for Pop Culture Press, and they really gave it their all. Forget what I have to say, this is what Steve says about the gig on his blog “The Pop Culture Press party was our last gig of the festival and-pacing be damned-we turned out a punk rock wild one that felt like the moment that you slip on a banana peel but never hit the ground. Or something like that.”  I agree.   Don’t trust the recorded music.  If they come to your town-GO.

The Subways (Guerrero Produce Market-Yahoo Party)- My winner for the “it” band from the UK (over Arctic Monkeys, Art Brut and Dirty Pretty Things—although I did not see The Editors).   I saw them at 1:00 pm and they  had tons of energy and really rocked.  Who cares if their music is played on “OC”  I did not hold it against them—experiencing is believing.   Very good guitar playing, powerful drums, pogoing bass–danceable power pop and a lot of fun.  What more do you want from rock and roll anyhow.  See them at a small venue, though.  Not sure how they will do at Lollapalooza.

Echo & The Bunnymen (Guerrero Produce Market – Blender Party) – I really didn’t think they would be that good.   A few years ago I saw them with the Psychedelic Furs and they simply did not have the punch of 25 years ago, and Ian McCollough had clearly lost his voice—its back!  Ian did not have a cigarette until the last song of his set and has lost a lot of weight.  Maybe it was the fact that I raced to the show almost direct from the airport at 1:00 after throwing my bags on my hotel bed.   Starting with Lips Like Sugar, finishing with Crocodiles, Ian, Will and whoever they have now powered through Rescue and Villiers Terrace, they even made their self-described disco hits sound great.  The newer material is definitely not as good, and inserting pieces of Roadhouse Blues and Walk on the Wild Side detracted a bit from the show.  Also, Ian refused to play “Do It Clean,” so you know they are trying to clean up their act.  But their songs are the ones that are still ringing in my head after a week.

Pony’s  (Yard Dog) – They played a great set at the Schuba’s party (another general public one), yelping vocals, great guitar interplay.  They sounded much stronger than opening for Sleater-Kinney last year.  Definitely a great rock and roll/ garage band to make Chicago proud.  Another free show.

Billy Bragg (Cedar Street Courtyard):  It was great to see Billy up close and personal on St. Patrick’s Day and without a backing band, playing a hit packed music set.  He had spouted politics on stage at the conference for an hour and a half earlier in the day and would not waste too much time on commentary, though he did provide his optimistic spin on the present state of America, and that he knew that the real America was not running the country, reminding us that his country made a few mistakes when it once was a super power.   After closing with New England, he encored by bringing on the Klezmatics to back him and playing a Woody Guthrie song—still fighting fascism with everyone putting fists in the air[1]!

Tier Two

Serena-Manesh (Victory Grill) –  A very strange band from Norway.  Lots of noise and feedback with ethereal vocals.  I saw them around 1:00 pm and wished I would have seen them at If you like Sigur Ros, I think you will like them even though this band is a bit different, and in my mind may be better.  I think their album comes out in May.   Set ended with both guitarists playing their guitars against their monitors

KT Tunstall (Guerrero Produce) – She is a really great “girl with guitar” performer.  Adding to her guitar is a tape loop machine.  Before many of her songs she creates a beat on her guitar, claps or sings something and it becomes the backing track for her performance—neat.  But above all that she provides a great deal of warmth and energy and a little danceability.

Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Army (Some Cathedral) – .   Eight guitarists driving out the same repetitive, pulsing chords and sometimes trading off each other, backed by strong bass and drums.   This was not Philip Glass, and not for the squeamish.  Chatham started a while ago, and Glenn Branca, another avant garde composer who writes music for a guitar army/orchestra is one of his disciples. The band had some star value with Thurston Moore joining the group for one of the songs (ahem, I mean pieces), but the feeling came from the unit and not one member.  The wave of sound had a hypnotic, meditative quality.  Again, not for everybody, but I liked the performance.

Jon Langford/Waco Brothers  (Opal Divine/Bourbon Rocks) –  One of the hardest working musicians in Austin (along with Steve Wynn and Steve Goulding), played three gigs in the course of 7 hours.   His Langford/Ships and Pilots set was very strong, and his songwriting and guitar playing both clear and caustic, but not quite as raucous as I would have liked. His Waco Brother set was raucous to the max (and featured the third time Beatle Bob was at a gig I was at, so I must have been in some of the right places), but they still are just a wee bit country for me. Their Harder They Come cover with Garland Jeffreys, was a great ending to Saturday night at the conference.

Arctic Monkeys (La Zona Rosa) – They were pretty good-not worth all the hype, but pretty good. Alex Turner, the lead singer very clearly is feeling the pressure and/or his liquor. He kicked all the press away, and leered around the stage wearing a hooded sweatshirt—like a combination of Rocky and Jon Lydon.   The rest of the band was fairly mundane.  I liked the fact that they played their hit, early with no fanfare and have the attitude that they can do better.   At the same time, the band could just crash and burn.

Peel  (Behind some stores) – At the bottom end of the food chain, this strange group with no record and only “a piece of paper” of a mailing list, played some very quirky keyboard laced pop in the backyard of a clothing store showcase for Waterloo records, where the free beer was one keg.  The lead guitarist smacked his head on the tent post and kept playing, the drummer really had to go to the bathroom, and zoomed after the set, but their music mixed keyboards and guitars really nicely, creating some good vibes, reminiscent of a combination of Stereolab and Granddaddy.  Maybe they will release a record sometime.

Art Brut (Victory Grill)– Camp act, which if it gets more material could ultimately be very good.  Their “We Formed a Band” song is kind of cute, and the lead singer has Mark Edward Smith’s ranting down pretty well, albeit a little more coherent, but the novelty gets kind of  tiresome after a while, as if The Fall did “I Know What Boys Like.”  If and when this band has more material and has something to say in the future, they will be worth a longer listen.

Honorable Mention

Deadboy & Elephantman (Stubbs)– One good surprise while waiting for the Noisettes, who were disappointing.  This is another two piece guitar band, a la White Stripes and Black Keys, except they do not use a color in their name.     They seemed a bit more progressive and jumpy than either of the duos, but had some power.

Ellegarden – Elysium and Outdoor Japan showcase-  Another good surprise.  The cool thing about this band is that they were 4 Japanese power pop punks who sounded great, and are about to release an English-speaking album.  I heard them as I was exiting a cab to go to my hotel and they drew me to go to their showcase.   After the song was over, the lead singer apologized for being nervous because it was the first song they had played in the U.S. They have sold over 700,000 cds in Japan, and it is easy to tell why—they sound a little like Green Day (meant to be a compliment).

Horn of Happiness (End of an Ear Record Store) and Persephone’s Bees  These are two keyboard featured bands.   Horn of Happiness is from Bloomington, Indiana and has some very catchy, funky riffs, and is danceable even without a guitar.  The Bees are almost like a cabaret act with a Russian female vocalist and some well-placed fuzz guitar.

Effigies – Chicago’s finest punk outfit still going at it full tilt in their 40s and 50s.  Makes  a smile on your face and gets your elbows sharp and swinging.  My only regret is I left before they did Mob Clash –one of the best 78-82 punk songs.


Luckily, not many—but one was a double whammy.  The Dirty Pretty Things were hyped but sounded like an amped skiffle band.  What made it even worse was the line to wait in was the longest faced  because of an unannounced Flaming Lips show.  While I was initially intrigued by the opportunity, after  I  heard a few Flaming Lips’ songs (although I hesitate to call them songs), I still can’t understand what people, especially critics, see in them.  I asked two critics I met what they liked about the Lips, and they said the group was different, kind of campy and a novelty.   Well, I can deal with campy, novelty acts (see Art Brut, above).  Also, I used to see They Might Be Giants in the late 80s when they were doing a Wednesday residency at the Knitting Factory, and loved them—but the Lips were totally intolerable, and now that I have seen them, I have the right to criticize them a little.  Luckily, I was able to quickly run into a nearby bar and have the experience sonicly erased.

[1] Among many ironies is that just two days before I was speaking at the Forbes (the self-proclaimed “Capitalist Tool”) Corporate Security Conference—talk about burning the candle at both ends, politically that is.

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I started this blog in 2010. I had been writing review of SXSW for several years and sending them out two a very small audience. Since we have missed SXSW for a couple of years, it seems to make some warped sense to look back a few years and at least remind myself about how I listened, liked and wrote. Here goes–with a couple of comments.

SXSW 2005  TOP 10

After reading some “professional” critics’ reviews of SXSW, and getting some inquiries from friends of mine, I thought it might be of some value to share my views on SXSW this year.

The two best things about SXSW are luck and surprise, and I think each person’s experiences will differ simply because of the infinite number of permutations of day parties, showcases and other music one person can see/hear.  Expectations (especially of great bands doing new material) are usually incredibly high and hard to meet.  And, since the key to happiness is sometimes low expectations, the surprise of a very good or great band when one is not expected is a treasure. and expectation.  Some high expectation bands just cannot meet the memory (Love Tractor, Rezillos, Raveonettes, though Sleater-Kinney almost met extremely high expectations), while the spread between low expectation and above average performance by new bands (especially those you stumble upon)  with new sounds are sometimes more memorable—especially if your ego tells you, you’ve made a “discovery”—well let’s get on with it:

1..        Shonen Knife- Elysium.   I was really surprised how great this band was.  In fact, they were originally my second choice Japanese-punk band of the night.  I first endured a long wait to see Guitar Wolf who played next door and received much more buzz.  However, after 15 minutes, it was clear that Guitar Wolf had the leather jacket and sunglasses look of the Ramones, but  played much more heavy-metal chords.   So I checked out Shonen Knife.  All the  teeny-bopper, bubble gum punk descriptions of the band are only partially true.  This three piece power combo from Japan was much more like the Ramones than Guitar Wolf.   Shonen Knife had the punk chords, driving drums and fun feel of the early Ramones (far better than the Rezillos).  While Naoko does not speak too much English she was able to say “I would like to play my favorite Ramones song” do one final encore of their favorite Ramones song “I Wanna Be Sedated” at 2:30 am, after the bar had closed.   

2.         Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three. – Martha Egan’s.   What could be better than watching live music (and drinking a beer) on Wednesday afternoon at 5:00?  Listening to Steve Wynn’s torrid riffs and awesome guitar harmony.  This is another band I had never seen before, but they were probably the tightest band of the weekend.  I kind of scoffed at first when one of the Austin critics said that Steve Wynn was probably the best band playing SXSW this year.  I’m not scoffing now. [Check out an incredible version of Amphetamine from the KEXP archives on FB!]

3.         The Beangrowers.  Lava Lounge Patio.  This is a band from Malta from all places, but it could have come from Athens, GA in 1979.    With a bass-driven sound and a very strong female vocal, for a moment I thought I was listening to Pylon.  Maybe it was because I was waiting for Love Tractor to play (see honorable mentions below), but maybe it was because they actually sounded that way.  I bought their last album and it was also very good (a new one is supposed to be out soon)—but not as good as they were live.   [Totally forgot about this show and this band. One of the weirdest locations ever for a show–the parking lot of a closed down restaurant!]

4.         Alejandro Escovedo (w/ John Cale) Austin Music Hall and Town Lake Stage.   Amazingly, Alejandro was the only artist I saw more than once this year (as opposed to multiple performances by Jon Langford, John Wesley Harding, Preston School of Industry and Robyn Hitchcock last year).  He looked great played 5 songs with John Cale at the Austin Music Awards, including Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah—which is still ringing through my head 6 days later.  Then, on Friday night, the band played at sunset at the Town Lake Auditorium—the outdoors provided an optimal setting for the ethereal orchestra (w/2 cellos and a violin), highlights including his slow cover of the Gun Club’s Sex Beat (though I would prefer he cover She’s Like Heroin to Me).

5.         Salteens.  Sake on Sixth.  The fact that I heard this band on the street late Thursday night (after a slightly disappointing Chris Stamey) might have had an influence in the rankings.  This was a surprisingly good Vancouver, Canada pop band, with very strong vocal harmonies, guitars, trombone and whiny singing. Kinda Smiths, kinda Only Ones. [Still love this band!]

6.         Sleater-Kinney.  Emo’s. The only band I camped out for all weekend for fear of not getting in, S-K was great as usual and worth it.  I was worried that their new material may be too metallic and disappointing—but it proved to be untrue, and they played a couple of earlier songs to keep the fans at Emo’s happy.  This is still one of the best live bands around with Carrie  kicks, Corin’s howls, and Janet’s pounding drums.

7.         The Living Blue.  Latitude 30.  Who’d of thought that raw, powerful punk/pop  could come from a band from Champaign, Illinois?   Sometimes reminded me of the best of the more powerful Oasis songs, but then, for some reason many of the bands I saw this year reminded me of Oasis.

8,         By Divine Right.  Yard Dog Gallery backyard. Another Canadian band with another quirky and a bit whiny lead singer and great guitars.

9.         Thermals.  Emo’s. A sub-pop band that is getting a lot of buzz for their hotel-room recorded punk rock.  They deserve it.

10.       Jon Langford and the Sexy.  Continental Club.   One of, I think, only 3 of his official iterations at SXSW, when he rocks and engages in only limited tomfoolery, he is still, in my book-one of the best. 

Honorable Mention

David Lowery/John Hickman(Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker acoustic).   Jovita’s. Played at the Sugar Hill Records showcase party at Jovita’s with no other band.  Very strong guitar and lyrics and a great interpretation of an Ike Reilly’s “Duty Free.”   The owner of Jovita’s is very nice, too.  His wife loaned me her Swiss Army Knife to fix my glasses.

AMPOP.  Latitude 30. This band from Iceland sounded like some of  Oasis’s better “light” songs.

Raveonettes.  Antone’s.   While they are a very good band, they lose points from me because they remind me of how great the Jesus and Mary Chain was, and the Raveonettes best songs are clear imitations.  They also lose points because their set was shortened by a power outage and they refused to fight the venue to do one or two more songs.

Steve Malkmus.  The Parish.  Preston School of Industry was one of my 2004 SXSW highlights, and Malkmus’s stuff sounds a little lighter than PSI.   Very good, though. Would have been better in a smaller place.

Nightingales.  Maggie Mae’s.  This reunited Manchester band couldn’t figure out if they were once The Fall or the Gang of Four, but one or two of their songs were very powerful—they just could not sustain.

Love Tractor.  Lava Lounge:  I may be penalizing them for not being who they used to be (who is anyway?) and not playing any instrumentals.  The vocals were haunting and melded well with the music, but not the distinguished and driving sound they used to have (at least they did not  play their Party Train cover).


Luckily not many.   French Kicks had a lot of buzz, but did not deliver, as did Guitar Wolf.  The Rezillos seemed dated and simply did not have the kind of talent of other reunited punks like the Sex Pistols or the Buzzcocks.  

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Destroying Something Beautiful: The Autopsy of a Punk Cover Song–An Interview with Nick “Animal” Culmer of The Anti-Nowhere League

Off and on since 1982 I have thought about the role of rock and roll/punk covers of songs and how they can change the form and/or meaning of the song.  One of my favorite cover songs of all time is The Streets of London.    Originally written by English folk singer Ralph McTell, it is a beautiful and haunting song about walking through the Streets of observing and relating the sadness (and beauty) of old age and poverty as it may relate to troubles and relationships of someone younger (a child or a potential lover?).

Have you seen the old man in the closed down market.
Kicking up papers with his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride and held loosely at his side.
Yesterday’s papers, telling yesterday’s news.

[Chorus] So how can you tell me that you’re lonely,
and say for you the sun don’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the Streets of London,
I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.

Have you seen the old girl who walks the Streets of London.
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?
She’s not time for talkin’
she just keeps on walkin’
Carrying her home in two carrier bags.


In the all night café at a quarter past eleven.
Same old man sitting there on his own.
Looking at the world over the rim of his tea cup.
And each tea lasts an hour and he wanders home alone.

Have you seen the old man outside the seaman’s mission,
Memory fading with the meal ribbons that he wears?
And in our winter city
the rain cries a little pity.
For one more forgotten her and a works that doesn’t care.

So how can you tell me that you’re lonely.
And say for you the sun don’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the Streets of London, I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.

Beauty and sadness co-exist in “Streets of London”  Does the song serve as a somber pseudo-pep talk to feel a bit better about themselves in light of the plight of others?

Less than a decade later, the Anti-Nowhere League  flipped the switch on the meaning of the song by, among other sings making the music burn and changing the lyrics, including converting  “I’ll show something that will make you change your mind,” to “I’ll show you something that will  make you really sick.”  By doing so, the League transformed the song from reflection to angry disapprobation of society.     Looking at old, poor, forgotten people shouldn’t cheer anyone up—all the images conjure up is decay, and disdain for the political, social and economic system that created the situation.

I interviewed Nick “Animal” Culmer, the leader of the Anti-Nowhere League about the  creation of the League’s cover song and how he reacted when Metallica covered the League’s own punk anthem “So What?”

OP1:  What made you choose Streets of London as a song to cover?

Animal:  I chose ‘Streets of London’ as a cover because I wanted to destroy something musical that people loved….but this was the late seventies\early eighties and Punk’s byword was ‘destroy’ but in truth I grew up listening to all styles of music…..I started with Reggae and as I grew so did my music knowledge and ‘Folk’ music played a part so in truth I wanted to cover ‘Streets of London’ because I loved the song and seeing the ANWL were just starting out we played the song with a bad attitude cutting it down to fit with our guitar work.

OP1:  What impact does the change in the music alone contribute to the effect you and the band were trying to achieve.

Animal:  As young(ish) punks we were disillusioned with everything and the words of the original song was meant to be sad but we took it to another level with 2 fingers up…..a ‘welcome to my world of shite’…although back then we thought the song would fizzle out within a year it has proved us all wrong, it still preaches despair at me but with a smile on it’s face, goes to show a good song is timeless however you change it around.

OP1.  Did you think about who the song is intended for (for Ralph McTell, it seemed to be sad, lonely person)–was it the same for you?

Animal: As all punk bands we thought we would be well dead and gone in a couple of years so there was no amazing future plan, only your last show you play dictates how long you have in this business.

OP1:   You changed the lyrics of the chorus– to “I’ll show you something that will make you really sick” from “I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind”   What, if anything was that intended to say?

Animal:  Ralph [McTell] I think was writing a sad song which cut deep and made you think….we turned it on its’ head and made you ‘not think’ but drink!!!…..but that was always the punk attitude then….fuck ’em.

OP1:   Who were you trying to tell something to?  The listener, the government, the person in Mr. McTell’s song,  Mr. McTell?

Animal:  To me it [the song] meant ‘despair’….there is nothing we can do about the way this over crowded world was heading so let’s just stick our fingers up and tell the world ‘go fuck ya self’ I will not droan [sic] on about politics but the small man will always be ‘fodder’ for the money men even if it means destroying the whole planet just so they can get fat.

OP1.  What were you  trying to tell them.Nothing really…we were just starting out in the music business and could not play our instruments very well….he was obviously a professional muso so there wasn’t much you could say to him….especially when deep down you always liked his music and of course I couldn’t tell him that!!.

OP1.  Do you think Mr. McTell’s and your version of the song are still relevant today, and if so how?

Animal:  I think his version will always be relevant….but our version?….at a punk gig rammed with sweat and beer and crazy guys’…yes….three and a half minutes of ‘fuck ’em all’…but after the show?…..they probably will not remember their own names let alone the song they were shouting!

OP1: Metallica covered a song you co-wrote So What.  What was/is your and the band’s reaction to that?

Funny really…as a punk band we were always in trouble with that song….mothers demonstrating outside our shows and police shutting our shows down…as we all know there is no money in punk so we could never fight the legal shite that song brought to us….Scotland yard took the records, we were banned from everywhere and ‘branded’ as foul mouth yobbos…..but then….a few years later one of the biggest bands in the world cover it with all their financial backing and the song suddenly becomes a great rock song!!…..the English tax system welcomed it with open arms and I will not grumble because Metallica has always been good to me and of course the money is well appreciated and I do get to play the song with them now and again……putting my small punk song onto a massive stage is always a buzz.

OP1:  Do you think Metallica’s version changed in any way the meaning of the song, either through the sound, lyrics or total performance?  If so, how?

Animal:  They are the biggest metal band in the world it is obviously going to sound different than us….we play our song with a four piece band usually in shit holes over a shit PA and they play the song with a five piece band in  Continue reading

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It’s kind of like déjà vu all over again to look at the opening paragraph from my last year’s review and see the following:

       Reflecting on a year (let next year not be yet another one) marked by terrorism and  racial tension, it is sometimes hard to divert focus from the dark side of the force and concentrate on the things that have made this a very good year.   A family gathering.  Helping a person in need.  Hanging out in the sun or having a great meal with great wine and a great friend.   Letting it all hang out on the dance floor–are all reasons to be cheerful.

Just substitute the malady de jour/annee and we would be good to go–those that we have lost and that which we got (or are born) to lose.[1]    But nothing is actually advanced through maudlin isolationism or depressed alcoholism (though that sometimes does the trick) –we , of course, have to live and do the best that we can to protect each other in this mosh pit.    Things were probably pretty bad in 1944, we were in the throes of World War II, yet the lyrics of Johnny Mercer seem applicable today:

You got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive E-lim-i-nate the negative And latch on to the affirmative Don’t mess with mister in between

You got to spread joy up to the maximum Bring gloom down to the minimum

Or, as Joey Ramone sang it best you can go either way–“Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” or “What a Wonderful World.”

Or, finally, as Sir Raymond Douglas Davies said:

One day, we’ll be free, We won’t care, just you wait and see. Til that day can be, Don’t let it get you down. [2]

So rather than see, that the world is too much for me, I am going to celebrate those that led me to trek to great shows with ten people to tens of thousands in venues ranging from a contact-high DIY apartment in the sky to the smallest live venue, in the smallest town in the smallest state  of the United States to festivals in the mud and desert which all make me ready to turn up the volume on 2017.


GLENN BRANCA ENSEMBLE (Roulette, Brooklyn)

Glenn Branca is an avant garde composer, creating “symphonies” played by electric guitar armies utilizing heavy volume, repetition and alternative tunings .   I was lucky enough to fly into NY and learn he was performing the world premiere of his piece The Light (For David) and was able to get tickets despite the fact he was also featured in the NY Times that day–who says culture is inaccessible in NYC.  What other show offers (and strongly recommends) free ear plugs?   While the piece started in the jackhammer range that made me feel I was a member of the squeamish, his 4 guitar, bass and drums combo quickly migrated to cascading, wall of pulsing sound blasts of high intensity and harmonic power.    Branca acknowledges that his material is challenging, yet he delivers a type of all-encompassing layered hypnotic sound you can imagine hearing, but it is rarely delivered the way Branca and his team does it.

PONY’S (Empty Bottle).

It is hard to believe it was 6 years between Pony’s shows in Chicago, and we have to thank the publication of the Empty Bottle book for the reunion, and what a reunion it was. The driving harmonic guitar combinations of Jared Gummere  and Brian Case (now Disappears’ head honcho) were as strong as ever.

NEGATIVE SCANNER (as best as I can recall, Bric-a-Brac records, Empty Bottle, Café Rectum and Hideout).

I know I am a broken record, but if you had 20-30 minutes to spend on a live performance of any band today (and I don’t mean a Chicago Band) you could not get more bang for your buck-period. Slashing guitar, howling vocals–whether you live in an 80’s world or today NS will haunt and propel you.   Luckily they are back doing gigs early this year (January 7 at Chop Shop and January 14 at Schuba’s to start).

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Milwaukee).bruce

One anthemic homage to the individual spirit fighting against this thing we call life, after another, for three plus hours per night for 38+ years (!) this guy remains, pound for pound and note for note remains the undisputed heavyweight champion of the rock and roll performance world.

THEE OH SEES (Thalia Hall, Empty Bottle).theeohsees

Give Jon Dwyer another 28 years and he may eclipse Bruce for the sheer energy he can transmit to an audience.     He can still deliver a grungy garage-infused frenzy that sends your body smashing into others and you sweat glands to overload.  Even with only one drummer, the Empty Bottle show was one of the sweatiest for me ever (and, ask anyone who plays basketball with me–I sweat).

PRINCE RAMA (Schuba’s ).princerama

Beamed in from another planet sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson are on a mission to hypnotize their audience into dance through sound and vision. What other band wears Mona Lisa tights and has its own aesthetic philosophy!  www.   Their current genre meld involves  Xtreme Dance, and that is ok with me–can’t wait for what’s next.

NIGHT BEATS (Beat Kitchen).

I really have to thank the bartenders at the Matchbox for introducing me to this psychedelic/R&B/garage band from Seattle. Following more than 30 years behind their progenitors like The Sonics, since 2009 the Night Beats have swirled their fuzzy guitars over stomping march bass and drums to nod and bob your head forward in stoner groove bliss.


This rag tag bunch of slackers are kind of the West Coast’s answer to Parquet Courts. Droney, pulsating and churning garage rock also since 2009. Their Summer release A-OK was one of the better lps of the year and adds some hip hoppy vibe to the psych and up tempo velvet underground sheen.  Live is where you can explore or lose your way within the shimmer and jive.

CHARLES BRADLEY (Thalia Hall and Space).

So much emotion– joy, pain and love lost and found–exude from this 67 year old soul singer and is transmitted to the audience   His cover of Black Sabbath’ s Changes, demotes the original and serves as a moving tribute to his mother.   He is fighting stomach cancer right now, so we hope and pray that his music can heal him and that he is back at it in 2017 (he is scheduled to play Bottlerocket in Napa over Memorial Day weekend–so that bodes well).

MEKONS (Hideout)mekons2016

For their last two tours over the last 18 months the Mekons have relocated the chemistry that helped to create the rowdy hard/alt country/punk revival in the mid 80’s.   Melding guitar, accordion, violin, team vocals and perhaps the greatest (if perhaps the only) saz playing you may ever hear, Jon Langford and company create thick harmonic and chaotic waltzes, dirges, and all out attacks to have fun while we make fun of the system–one of my candidates for an inauguration party.

TELEVISION (9:30 Club, DC)


Tom Verlaine sound bending

Speaking of harmony, there is nothing so intricate and beautiful to me as the intertwining guitars of Tom Verlaine and his cohort Jimmy Rip (the “new” member of the band since 2007), switching seamlessly from lead to rhythm providing rock that is much more “arty” than “punky”- laying down an aggressive, staccato dueling riffs, then ultimately deconstructing it into a free rock/jazz jam that at times can range from space to noise to flamenco creating notes that don’t quite seem possible, and back to the riff, with TV’s plaintive, cynical, vocals stopping in every once in a while.   These are songs you can get lost in or live within.


Non-judgmental person that I am, it is unusual for me to be a fan of what amounts to be a cover band. But I will make an exception for Peter Hook and the Light who create a band that does New Order songs as good and danceable as New Order and provide the simulacrum of the Joy Division which never made it to the US because of Ian Curtis’ legendary suicide.  Hooky was the original bassist of both bands and each night he and his crew replicate both bands, playing sets of one band’s music “opening” for the other band.   On the night of the first World Series game at Wrigley Field in 71 years, I faced a difficult choice–but crossed the street to the Metro and voted with my ears and feet.



The self-description “bi bilingual political dance sax punk party from Providence” just about says it all.   But Victoria Ruiz says a lot more, and in your face.  I’ll take them as my number 1 inauguration party headliner.   Whether it is keeping government away from a person’s body, attacking slumlords, supporting the legacy of Malcolm X or just telling the world

or any person that “Today we must scream at the top of our lungs that we are brown, we are smart.” Or

(translated from Spanish)

We want to choose to decide We must choose how you want to live Complain and fight to force and stop crying And no one takes advantage of you

Here’s to the force of this band–may it be with you, and may you move with and be moved by them to your soulful core.

DIET CIG (SXSW/Wicker Park Fest)dietcig

Take a personal emo-girl and guitar and mash it with danceable pop punk and you have a bit of what this duo from New Paltz, New York have to offer. Alex Luciano is 5’3” just turned 21, has a pixie like quality, and admittedly plays only a handful of chords. Her songs can start out innocently, but break out into a frenzy with her playing guitar and singing while doing kicks, spins, and crowd surfing.  All you want to do is smile, dance and yell with her to kick butt.s.

GUNS N’ ROSES (Coachella)

If my theory is true that the net enjoyment of an experience is equal to the net/difference between your level of expectation and level of what was ultimately delivered by the performance , GNR probably had the highest score of the year.   Due in part to the fact that my expectations were extremely low, and only went to see them because I was there, they were headlining and I was really curious about how bad they would be so I could “stick a fork in them” and have the evidence to support it.  Boy was I wrong–the surprise factor was that the band knocked it out of the park/desert.  Starting slow, Slash really took over the performance by turning out classic riff after riff–both his and others rock and roll history–a few songs in, a nasty (in a good way) cover of Live and Let Die made me stop, look and listen that there  was actually something special going on here.   The hard rock was balanced by a sentimental, flamenco solo of Wish You Were Here, and semi-acoustic intro to You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory (sung by Duff)  for Prince, a punk cover of the Damned’s “New Rose” (which coincidentally, the Damned had played 2 hours earlier–something I had not seen before at a festival a cover of a song the original band also played!)  with electrifying sound and  powerstances.   Axl Rose may have even benefitted from the fact that he being confined to a motorized chair, as he was forced to focus solely on what he could convey with his voice, and couldn’t prance or fight with Slash for power/control of the stage.  In the end the set showed that popularity be damned and GNR should command rock and roll respect.

FEAR OF MEN (SXSW and Schuba’s)

Swirling and hypnotic guitars and ethereal vocals get to me, and Jessica Weiss and Dan Falvey continue to deliver on both fronts. Their 2016 sophomore album Fall Forever is a dreamy classic.   Live Jessica sets an example for the audience by alternatively presenting and letting go of her lilting songs.

JOY FORMIDABLE (Lollapalooza)

This Welsh trio has really invested five years of touring into developing the anthemic power chords ideal for a festival show. But their show does not rest solely on sound as their politics and positive statements about self-worth are front forward.   Songs involving issues like defeating your inner demons and personal freedom allow you to rise above yourself on guitar and synth waves.  Yet, like Billy Bragg, this band seems to know more about US politics then we know and aren’t ashamed to address the issues.   At Lolla, they made a strong point against political apathy, using the Brexit vote as evidence that sitting on our hands would bring about the wrong result for us too, pleading “You can’t let that mop head get into office.”  Unfortunately, the band has proved to be as prescient as they are entertaining.

SLEATER-KINNEY (Riotfest)sk2016

I am not objective when it comes to Sleater-Kinney, but I was definitely nervous about whether and how S-K could deliver a short, meaningful festival gig set. But like a geothermal power plant, the band was able to condense their innate power into a furious 16 song 55 minute set without substantial compromise or pause.   Doubts dismissed.


King Khan and the Shrines deliver a groovy mixture of garage rock, psychedelia and soul. Fronting an 8 piece band with three horns,  King (Arish Ahmad) Khan an Canadian-born Indian living in Germany is a visual as well as aural sensation,  changing vibes from Thirteenth Floor Elevators to James Brown and costumes from a fur boa-vest to a gold lame cape with both his belly and buttcheeks-showing!   In addition to the music, there is often a message with songs influenced by the Black Panther party, Screaming Jay Hawkins and Muhammed Ali, among others.   But, ultimately, it is the rollicking rave ups, bouncing back up band, honking horns and r&b revue that create the excitement to carry a festival day.

KING SUNNY ADE AND THE AFRICAN BEATS (Millennium Park)kingsunnyade

While on the subject of royalty, this 70 year old Nigerian world music star regally fronts his legion of percussive performers. He was one of the first African artists to combine native “talking drums” with electric and pedal steel guitars.    His call and response vocals and pounding rhythms underlay and overlay the staccato/spasmatic guitar riffs he rips to create a juju music with one of the fastest paces I know.  No offense to Paul Simon, but if that is your only point of reference or exposure to this style of music you need to add a quadruple espresso, exercise with a power plate on high or microdose to have a better understanding of what you are missing.  It is virtually impossible to say seated, and once you stand good luck keeping up or keeping your cool.

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM (Coachella/Lolla)

Channeling a mélange of funk, punk, soul, new wave, R&B and anything else that can get you to shake your fanny, this band demonstrates that a live band can still put forth  some of the best dance music around.  James Murphy and his crew do not hide,  but pay homage to their influences and celebrate them, and included an uplifting cover of Heroes, which was one of the best covers of the year.

SPECIALS (Riotfest/Concord)

While there may be some sorts of ska revivals now and in the future, I am not sure if there will ever be ambassadors for the music, brand and social and racial equality as exemplified by this bunch that originated in Coventry in 1977.   Though members have unfortunately passed or moved away,  the look remains mod and rude boy, the sound is alternatively danceable ska and e and the slower  rock steady, the vocals and lyrics are wry, cynical and withdrawn.  Songs like Doesn’t Make it Alright still strike at the lack of heart of fascism while Nite Klub remains the pinnacle yin/yang love/indictment of the dance club night life.  The combination is still infectious.

HAELOS (Lolla/SXSW)haelos

Chill, understated, ethereal, lilting/pulsing/swaying trip hop. Haelos is the London based dreamy electronica band you want to listen to while relaxing on a red leather couch sipping champagne or a Sazerac at the end of a long night.   So why are they good at a festival, in the daytime?  It definitely is not quite the same, but a long day at a festival can’t be non-stop high energy, so a soothing sonic intermezzo can really cleanse the palette and the mood.   Also entrancing music, whatever the time and place…..


Frenzied chaos from this dual vocal party band from Dallas, Texas is exactly the unique spark that makes live music the greatest form of entertainment.   A sonic and visual shotgun marriage, two sorority  femme fetalles chant and howl together at the audience or each other while a derelict trio of long haired guys grind out a grungy dance punk reminding me of notables like Pylon, Mika Miko and Explode into Colors.

© 2016-7 Bart A. Lazar.


[1] Ah the classic philosophical conundrum between the Boss and Johnny Thunders as to whether we are Born to Run or Born to Lose.   See also–John Steinbeck, East of Eden and the meaning of the work Timshel in the Torah/Bible.

[2] Yes. Neil Young fans are going–don’t let it bring you down, it’s only castles burning, just find someone who’s turning and you will come around” but I digress from my digression.

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There is a reason why events unnerve anyone.  At SXSW everyone can find a different story.    And that story plays out differently with every choice you make.   Imagine: when you choose to eat at one restaurant you are turning down hundreds, if not thousands of deserving establishments in your fair city—at SX when you affirmatively head down one of many diverging roads to see a band, you are implicitly (but not knowingly) rejecting at least hundreds of other potentially deserving bands–each of whom you can hear groan when they learn they were not let in your tourney–at least on that day or that evening.  Simultaneously, you have created a path where anything could still happen–just be ready.

I am not a fatalist, I believe in luck and that an individual’s actions can increase the likelihood luck will migrate towards you.    Yet neither you nor an event’s organizers can account for something as unnerving as a tornado/severe thunderstorm such that even a behemoth like SX can be forced to head for cover.   On Friday night, this happened, forcing the closing of many outdoor venues and cancellation of many shows, including probably one I thought I was headed for.   Instead of cashing in and choosing NCAA > SX or some other show I grabbed an umbrella and stormed towards the alley entrance to Barracuda outdoor to find the gate shut.   So I decided to check out the Barracuda indoor entrance, even though it is usually a second and different venue at night, and was fortunate to learn the venue had  pivoted by choosing to combine two showcases into one by moving the outdoor showcases indoors–taping off an area in the middle of the floor as the “outdoor” stage.

By converting floor space into a stage, the Barracuda “backyard” showcase suddenly was transformed,  into the indie roots of SXSW, an intensely personal diy space with virtually no sound check, no monitors to speak of, an unmiked drum set and the band performing “in the trapezoid” face to face with themselves and/or the audience.   For Providence punks GymShorts, this eliminated stage diving–the lead singer/guitarist simply sang directly at, and moshed with guitar and the crowd.  Los Angeles’ Death Valley Girls (after a team huddle) chose an alignment where the lead singer and guitarists played and sang directly across from, at  and to the drummer–which created intimacy within the band as well as with those watching.   It imbued a stormy, blah kind of night full of long into a reaffirmation of what SXSW is all about–raw, new music, connection with performers and just a tinge of nervousness about what might happen next.   And that made all the difference.

OK, so what about the bands?

downtownDowntown Boys (Hole in the Wall) —  There is enough to write a whole separate article about Victoria Ruiz and her crew from Providence (how did that get to be a punk epicenter?).  They are a  fiery combination of anti-racist and pro-people diatribes served with a side of thick sax/guitar pulse activating both the body and mind to betterment.   The commentary/intros are as important, meaningful and entertaining as the songs, challenging  what right the Texas lawmakers or US Supreme Court have to tell people what they can or can’t do with their bodies, the importance of words and context, the meaning of Malcolm X, the evils of slumlords, and how Bruce Springsteen uses more punk words in his songs like “fire,” “burn” and “desire” than most “punk” bands.   In fact, even though many compare Downtown Boys to X Ray Spex because they are a punk band with a key saxophone player, Victoria pronounced that her band is closer to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band!

Party Static (Volstead Room) — A chaotic, beautiful mess of a good time from Dallas, featuring two female vocalists who alternatively sing together and then AT each other with almost an accusatory nature reminiscent of Mika Miko.  They dance and bump into each other while roaming freeform  on top of a pulsing, driving backbeat and black and decker scuzzy guitars.

Fear of Men (Sidewinder)–The ethereal floating vocals of Jessica Weiss combine with the swirly guitar rhythms of Dan Falvey and intentionally off the beaten path drums to provide a haunting pop tableau.  About to release their second album, this Brighton group is focusing more on creating space for vocals, eschewing  hypnotic guitar interplay for dream time.


Thee Oh Sees (Hotel Vegas-Outside).  Now in their 17th year at SX, John Dwyer and his psychotic garage rock express train about to go off the rails are one of my SX traditions of a decade or more!.   Basically playing in residence each day, either heading the afternoon at 6 pm or the evening at 1 am, they even started their She Shreds’ set early so they could play a longer set!   After changing the band completely last year (not necessarily for the best) John has re-adopted a double drum line up which allows a stronger and faster backbeat for his frenzied revved up Nuggets-infused raves.


Haelos — (Space 2420-what used to be the backyard of Urban Outfitters) –A chill, kind of trip hop band from London that provides a shimmering, moody sound track for what the start or more likely is the end of a late night clubbing session.   Repetitive boy/girl vocals, electronica and percussion with some Edge guitar and  interspersed recorded historical voices to make you sway–lull your head, shoulders, and ultimately your hips, into submission.

cosmonautsCosmonauts — (Hotel Vegas Bar) These slackers from Santa Cruz are kind of the west coast version of Parquet Courts, able to outstone the Rolling Stones (think of an amped up Gimme Shelter).

Future Punx (Sidecar)–   Talking Heads and Devo are mashed together and brought to a new generation by Brooklyn (you tell me if they are hip or geek) sters.

charlesbradleyCharles Bradley  & His Extraordinaires (Stubb’s) — His escape from the Brooklyn projects is tracked in a 2012 documentary and now at 67, this soul singer is starting to hit the height of his popularity, using a full horn section to help him channel the energy of James Brown and the uplifting spirit of Al Green.    that can force you to shake your tail as he On “Changes” (a Black Sabbath cover) from his upcoming release, he slowly but forcefully preaches with bonechilling elegiac sadness about his mother’s passing.  He shows the breadth of human emotion with one voice and an earthy horn section.

Diet Cig (Hole in the Wall)  –A two piece drum and guitar group form New Paltz, New York, combines adolescent Liz Phair themes with early Wavves emotional power punk, punctuated by Alex Luciano’s whirling dervish kicks and leaps in between verses.  Infectious.


Death Valley Girls  -(Barricuda–on the floor)-   Not letting the whole stage on the floor thing get them down, this LA band charged into their Cramp-infused insistent bloozy guitar grind and fluesy vocals including their song “No Reason” (from which I lifted the title of this piece).

oscarOscar (Space 2420)– You wouldn’t expect a tall Brit wearing a Disney-character jacket could deliver deep dark vocals and lush harmonies.  But when this English popstar gets revved up his music gets , dare I say, Smiths-like.

The Foreign Resort (Tiniest Bar in Texas)–Post punk dark wave dance music lives on in this band from Copenhagen, Denmark.  Propulsive early Cure lead bass guitars and automatic drums support roaring and chiming guitars and plaintive vocals about how “everybody is empty now” or how “you are my downfall.”  Depression can be so uplifiting!

Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression (ACL Moody Theatre).  I admit to being a late adopter of Iggy, but he certainly is one of the Seven World Wonders at this point.  A buzzsaw of energy, punching, kicking, preening, waving, daring the audience to come down an f__k him, stage diving–he is literally, figuratively and bodily busting at the seams to keep doing something.   Maybe that is the point: like his mentor that he is gonna go out fighting on his own terms.   But despite or maybe because of his electrifying persona, the sound of the new material from Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age did not quite do it for me–a bit too slick and not enough of the Iggy primal nature in the sound as in the performance and the feel.

People are always asking about how crowded SX has become after so many years and what impact that has.  The impact is significant.   Certain places, like Hotel Vegas, with, essentially 4 venues with 2 or 3 bands playing at once have now been “discovered” so that you need to get there early or wait in line or both.  And, you have to make a more considered decision if you leave, because you might not get back in.  Also, many day parties have become democratized, so that badges do not give you priority as often as they used to (another reason why badges are less relevant now).   Sometimes that means trying new or retrying old venues. For example, when downtown and east side got too crowded, I headed for the drag–by the University of Texas, where many of the same groups were playing to much smaller crowds.  I escaped there a few years ago and saw Wild Flag,  Times New Viking and an early version of Cloud Nothings in one of the best curated showcases, so it was time for a return visit!

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Reflecting on a year marked by terrorism and racial tension, it is sometimes hard to divert focus from the dark side of the force and concentrate on the things that have made this a very good year. A family gathering. Helping a person in need. Hanging out in the sun or having a great meal with great wine and a great friend. Letting it all hang out on the dance floor–are all reasons to be cheerful.
When I look back on a year of music performance I can still see and feel excitement, hope and renewal (with a bit of anger) from both the stage and the audience. I don’t know about you, but there seemed to be more and more people at big shows having huge conversations during the band. Hello–aren’t we here to see/hear this show?! But, take a couple of steps away and you (that’s the royal “you”–me) can still be the one swaying, pogoing, dancing, thrashing and hopefully enjoying the pleasure of the individual and collective connection with the music. experience. Getting to know and bounce off your neighbor while enjoying the music and also making sure that the people around you are ok. A knowing nod of the head and smile. Girls (or shorter people) to the front! Thank goodness that with all the ideals shedding around us–some conscientiousness is still there!
While festivals can seem to dominate a year–and the performances at Riotfest, Pitchfork and even Lolla–thankfully delivered great and surprising (though again often literally, sonically and figuratively muddy) moments, the most indelible etchings in my brain come from intimacy and surprise.

Seeing the best punk bands from Chicago and Providence at a literally and figuratively underground diy music space in an unfinished basement in Pilsen. Walking up and asking the band members where to buy beer (a Hispanic market nearby), entering what might have been in earlier decades a shooting gallery, then tromping carefully downstairs to the basement–watch your head! Then to get blown away by two of the best new bands in the country (while continuing to watch your head-no pogoing!)–beats virtually all the big time corporate stuff.

The power of the Internet, happenstance, and a crowdfunding contribution brought a dark wave band from Copenhagen, Denmark to my living room (after I made them dinner) for an intimate show before they headed to the Burlington. Morten, the drummer used a snare drum and covered his luggage with a tablecloth to make an atmospheric sound, and I felt compelled in the moment to break out some percussion so the four person audience could participate.

Johnny Thunders probably said it best–“You can’t put your arms around a memory” –but I guess like surviving statesmen Mick and Keith, I’ll try (tra, tra, tra, tra, try that is)–at least this time to bearhug bits of my year.
Here are some of the memorable performances I was able to encounter by plan or luck in 2015.

SLEATER-KINNEY (Spokane, Boise, Milwaukee, Chicago (Riviera and Pitchfork) and Brooklyn (2) February- December).

There is 4 dimensional excitement born from experiencing something new. Which is why I headed to Spokane and Boise to see Sleater-Kinney do their first shows after a nine year hiatus. During that time Carrie Brownstein became an NPR icon, a TV celeb and an American Express commercial feature as well as performing in the great garage band Wild Flag. Janet F’ing Weiss played with Steve Malkmus as well as Wild Flag, and Corin Tucker had her own band and raised her two kids. The density of expectation about what the resumption of Sleater-Kinney would bring was paralyzing. What I found in all 7 shows was a band that was hungry, furious and excited to play to a new generation of fans as well as its long term followers. This was anything but a greatest hit tour to cash in. Corin has not lost any of her brilliant howling voice, and Carrie and Corin’s guitars continue to smash and play off and around each other while leaving space while Janet remains one of rock ad roll’s fiercest drummers. Their only concession to age or success is bringing on a fourth member to play guitars, keyboards and some drum–which makes the rest of the bands’ job easier but sometimes clutters the sound. They can have fun, too, finishing the year with covers of the Ramones’ Merry Xmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) while featuring a menorah on stage, and Rock Lobster, with Fred Armisen playing Fred Schneider. Most importantly, S-K’s new songs are fearless, filled with Clash-infused quick reggae, Gang of Four angular slashing, challenges to individual relationships and society but most importantly, presenting in lyrics and performance the joy of banding to play rock and roll together-again.

ALGIERS (Schubas, June 15).

An amazing genre mashing band from Atlanta and London that combines gospel, work songs, Motown, claps and post-punk . The music is assertive, restless, and yet ready to explode. Lead singer Franklin James Fisher channels the soulfulness of Curtis Mayfield and the Temptations with a somber, soulful yearning that matches the strain on his face, reflecting on past and present racial struggles. Seeing them on the night the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup created a haunting, surreal dichotomy of the range of euphoria, struggle and the violence both can bring to fruition.

PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED (Concord Music Hall, November 18).

Sometimes I wish I had the power to clue a younger, dance-oriented crowd to hear a progenitor band. In the case of Public Image Limited–they probably played the best dance set I heard all year. The psychedelic saz played by Lu Edmonds overlaying a pulsing thick-chest banging dub bass propelled the crowd into a trance making this the dance show of the year, while Johnny Lydon (Rotten) –looking like an escapee from a chain gain for the sunburnt obese chanted club classics like This is Not a Love Song and rants on society like Religion.

FOLLAKZOID (Empty Bottle, May 13).

Hard to believe that the most trans-euro krautrock band around comes from Santiago, Chile. But coming from German parents and being raised on Can and Kraftwerk, the dark, pulsating psychedelic droning does not stop with each mindblowing 10 minute song. Coincidentally, and not that you can’t trust me, but I was talking to a Williamsburg blogger at the great bar Sycamore in what, by day is a flower shop in Ditmas Park. He saw more than 160 shows this year and said his favorite was Follakzoid!

WIDOWSPEAK (Chop Shop/First Ward, October 13).

Ethereal waves flow from Molly Hamilton’s voice and Robert Earl Thomas’ guitar. You want to sway and follow along with them as they walk through dark forests to find that space of sunlight the tall pines cannot block or cross the river gurgling just over the rocks or to a small waterfall. Some light and sometimes edgy surf or atmospheric guitar, some Mazzy Starr-esque vocals and you have the zen you have been looking for.

NELS CLINE (Constellation February 21).

Better known today as guitarist for Wilco, Nels Cline has a world wide reputation as an avante garde/noise musician. This cool performance group included the incredible cellist Fred Lonborg-Holm, drummers Mike Reed (who deserves a standing “o” for bringing back Hungry Brain) and Wilco’s Glenn Kotchke. As hard as it is to explain most music in words, the atonal staccato chaos with harmony and symmetry when you least expect it can be appreciated even by an old punk like me–even though it is not in my “sweetspot.” The most unusual piece de resistance was artist Norton Wisdom who created temporary pieces throughout the show inspired by the music. That’s something more bands might try, it adds another visual dimension to performance and perception.

NEGATIVE SCANNER (Cole’s, Empty Bottle, Mt. Happy, probably somewhere else I can’t remember)

Chicago’s best live band continues to put on thirty minute shows of propulsive frenzy of energy. The short, sharp and cutting chords and bellowing vocals of Rebecca Valeriano-Flores go straight from the gut and in your face, but it is the collective force of the entire group’s sound that makes you want to bounce and jump some cars. They put out its first record this year–check it out!

GANG OF FOUR (Park West March 13, Thalia Hall)

While Andy Gill is the only remaining original member of the band–he can pretty much carry the essence of the sound such that it does not seem like a simulacrum. I’m no gun enthusiast, but I’ll let Andy play his searing submachine gun blasts over the chugging, churning bass engine that provides the dual sensation of frenetic dance fever and brain piercing needles. With his new band of youngsters they could re-release To Hell With Poverty and probably have a dance hit.

An aside. Actually, one of my best moments of the year-dj-wise–was playing To Hell With Poverty at a private party sponsored by a very large software company. With a bunch of blue shirts in the crowd, and after having been told by the “party planner” in a fake British accent “I really like what your going to play, except the punk” -I stuck it to them just a bit with To Hell With Poverty and The Bush Tetras– Too Many Creeps!

MPV (Cole’s, January 29)

This grungy, rock and roll trio gives you the kind of sound you’d expect from Detroit. Bluesy, hard, grinding riffs. Lead singer and guitarist Elise McCoy combines a Joan Jett attitude, sunglasses, headbanger hair and sultry and savage vocals which distinguish them from the pack. One of the best opening bands of the year.

MEKONS (Square Roots Fest, Hideout July 11-12)

Exemplifying very quickly that the Mekons considered this year’s Chicago shows to be seriously important. Sally Timms announced that anyone interested in on-stage banter could purchase a CD of banter from the merch booth–which was true! Over the last decades that (pseudo husband and wife business) banter between her and her fellow UK escapee and Chicago resident Jon Langford was humorous, but often detracted from the music. Dispensing with the conversation meant that the Mekons launched into some of their best and strongest songs without any time outs, segueing their honky tonk punk songs–merging guitars, saz (Lu again!) violin and, accordion to create a driving alt-punky/country-ish sound to put on their best show in more than a decade, grab on to their legacy and show that they are not ready to be put out to pasture.

THE FOREIGN RESORT (My house and The Burlington, October 19)

Channeling new wave bands like The Cure, Simple Minds, New Order, U2 and The Bravery, this trio from Copenhagen synthesizes it all to create something meaningful and new. Alternatively plaintive or insurgent vocals from Mikkel Jakobsen ride the dark wave with emotional takes on excess, loneliness and relationships. They’ll be back in Chicago in March on their way to SXSW.

WIRE (Thalia Hall, June 12)

For some reason, I have never been that into Wire. Even though many of the bands that I admire consider them to be a major influence. As part of their 3 day Drill Festival, they opened for themselves as The Fly and put on a fast, raw, scathing, staccato guitar fest that put me into believer mode.

JULIE RUIN – Pitchfork

Back on the road after cancelling a tour due to her recurring Lyme Disease the Original Riotgrrl Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) played on a side stage–which was kind of ironic since her Sleater-Kinney students were the headliners–but who really cares. Kathleen struts her stuff–ranging from Polystrene/X Ray Spex punk to sultry soul, without losing her sense of humor or political bent.kathleen

IGGY POP– Riotfest

Iggy is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. At 68, he is still totally ripped–in muscularity and music (and who knows, probably mentally), but is one of the most charismatic performers in music of any day. Pulling out the stops, his leather jacket was off almost immediately–giving a no bs onslaught of No Fun, I Wanna Be Your Dog, The Passenger and Lust for Life–right off the bat. He could have stopped right there and given one of the best shows of the year-but he kept kicking butt–as I hope we all will be able to do.




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