ACCESS AND EXCESS- THE RISE OF EAST AUSTIN AT SXSW 2009


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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