By Bart Lazar
I don’t know about Peter Townshend, but I’m kinda glad that many rock ‘n’ rollers did not die before they got old. While SXSW is typically a place to discover indie music, it has increasingly been where legends show up for a victory lap and big names show up for big “secret” shows.
As I trudged willingly from venue to venue chasing down or lucking into fifty-plus of the 2,000 bands playing in this year’s SXSW, I was struck by the sheer age range of the performers and the music involved. Rock ‘n’ roll is now a mature medium, almost sixty years old. Punk is pushing forty. The performers I saw and heard this year ranged from Max Redman, the twelve-year-old-old bassist for Residual Kid—an Austin-based grungy band (whose set list was written in crayon), all the way to seventy-two-year-old Zombies bassist Jim Rodford (who began musical life in the sixties with the Swinging Blue Jeans, and went on to form and play in Argent with his cousin, Rod Argent, and later join the Kinks from 1978 until their demise in 1996). So for me, I saw performers representing three full generations—some much younger than my children, and others almost as old as my parents!
The music itself spans a wide period, from Animals and Zombies songs first recorded in 1964 to music that won’t be released until later this year or in future years—almost fifty years.
This year, Austin’s east-side SXSW presence continued to grow, with official venues going as far east as the former brothel and flophouse Hotel Vegas, which has been turned into a compound containing four venues where three bands can perform simultaneously, and with other official and unofficial venues such as The Scoot Inn (which housed two stages and a skateboard half-pipe), The Grackle and The Gypsy, all of which boasted indoor and outdoor music spaces and great food trucks. And with some great Mexican restaurants out east, you could have your breakfast and then spend an entire day or night listening to bands without even venturing forth on the main portions of 6th Street and Red River if you chose not to—and these venues turned out to be havens for great garage, psychedelic and punk music.
A sad development was the loss of Jovita’s, a stalwart venue for roots rockers and folk/country rock in the South Congress area. Apparently, the owners of this great roadhouse and Tex/Mex restaurant had been supplementing their revenue by running an (alleged) heroin ring! Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll for some, but a real loss and betrayal for the community.
Finally, a major new development was the increased use of raffles to guarantee tickets to big-name and “secret” shows. Last year, this feature was first used for Bruce Springsteen, but this year raffles were held for Iggy Pop, Prince, Depeche Mode, Green Day, Nick Cave/Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Smashing Pumpkins, Justin Timberlake, Dave Grohl and probably a few more. Not that going to these shows is of particular importance for me, but this creates an additional stratification for the festival, since hardcore fans without badges (these are convention badges costing $625+) or even wristbands ($180) could often simply wait in line for a few hours and get in. It is an unfortunate de-democratization of the festival.
But you can only mourn so much for social and economic stratification at a festival where there is so much free stuff to be had. You could see a hip Brooklyn band play in the backyard of a winebar or a Pitchfork festival band play in the back of an Italian restaurant—with fifty people or so—for free. SXSW is also a place where you can hang out and catch up-and-coming Empty Bottle or Lincoln Hall-type bands in small venues in the afternoon for free—and if you are lucky, score free drinks and food, too. It’s also a place where you can hear bands from foreign countries like China, Chile, Cuba, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, all in one week, and again, sometimes with free food and/or drink thrown into the mix. But forget the food and drink—it is the all-you-can-eat musical buffet that keeps me coming back for more. So let’s look at some of the more memorable performances I witnessed this year.
Savages: At The Main (used to be Emo’s) and Easy Tiger. An all-girl post-punk group from London featuring sharp driving and sometimes atmospheric guitars with a ferocious lead singer Jehny Beth. She is a vocalist with incredible angst and anger (think Siouxsie Sioux and Ian Curtis). What amazed me was how much power she possessed that she channeled an immense, intense rage through her eyes, fists and upper body with an economy of motion while chanting such declarative songs as “shut up” and “don’t tell her.” It is hard to avert her glare, if only to watch the bassist bouncing around with her eyes closed or the slashing guitar chords of Gemma Thompson, who provides an angular haircut and stance as she pulverizes her chords. Savages are a band that do not even have an album out (just a single and live EP) and are exactly what to go to SXSW for—energy and a new variation on the punk form you thought you might have seen/heard before .
Follakzoid: At Holy Mountain. You would never expect a band from Santiago, Chile to be schooled on German progressive rock (or Krautrock, e.g. Kraftwerk and Can) from the 1970s. I had seen these guys at the Empty Bottle before I left and rode on the same plane to Austin as the band. It turns out that Follakzoid is led by young men whose grandparents emigrated to Chile from Germany and combine the German influence with South American aboriginal beats to layer distorted guitars on top of keyboards and slowly speed up from a drone to a repetitive pulse with higher-grade intensity. In Austin they played in total darkness so that it felt like you started driving on a dark road at night, proceeded to the Autobahn and then ended up with waves of distortion hurtling you into space. Totally an intense trip.
Bleached: At Scoot Inn outdoors, Red 7 indoors. Jangling, strummy punk guitars—a little surf lead over, a little buzz-saw Ramones rhythm guitar, sweet harmonies, catchy choruses and a sunny day. That is a lot of what SXSW is about, and a lot of what Bleached is about. Featuring Jennifer and Jessica Clavin from the beloved brash LA punk band Mika Miko, they sing songs about boyfriends (former and future it seems), traveling and the electric chair, all of which can put a smile on a face and a jump to the feet whether at two in the afternoon or eleven at night. And playing three shows a day during the festival—doing whisky shots on stage and whisky and tequila after—they did just that. After three singles, their new album comes out on April 2. Almost every one of their songs is a shimmery pop gem. I’ll play their new record on April 20 when I DJ at Club Foot and they are going on tour now (Subterranean on April 27) so go see them now while they are still in small clubs and probably not selling out.
The Allah Las: At Stages on Sixth-outdoors. If you like chilled, slowed down sixties Brit-influenced rhythm and blues and soul—this is a band for you. Like a laid-back Yardbirds (“Heart Full of Soul” played at twenty-five perhaps?), this band will never take you out of second gear, but sometimes that is just where you want to be locked into. California seems to have a few bands like this currently—The Fresh and Onlys come to mind—but I liked their vibe and attitude.
Thee Oh Sees: At Botticelli’s Restaurant and Clive Bar. Thee Oh Sees, who are the exact opposite of the Allah Las, no holding back, fast garage rock ‘n’ roll that does not stop, now regularly play packed clubs with kids (and maybe one old punk or two) thrashing about on the edge of reckless abandon. Another cool thing about SXSW is to see a band in different environments at different times. At SXSW they are a big draw, often holding down the 6pm day spot or 1am night spot and packing a good-sized (500 person) crowd. However, on Thursday afternoon they played an unpublicized gig in the backyard of an Italian restaurant. John Dwyer, the lead singer bellied up to the bar between acts (for a Stella—that was a surprise) and talked to me about bands he likes and sat down with his band for a civilized lunch. Then his band played a very typical set to an atypical crowd of about fifty people. It turned out he had had a great dinner at the restaurant last year and wanted to return the favor (and maybe have another great meal). Amazingly, the set had almost as much power and speed as their sets at Pitchfork or at the Logan Square Auditorium. The band did not mail it in for a small crowd. People were free to bounce controllably or just sit at a table and eat while one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world played for their dining or dancing pleasure.
Foxygen: This is one of the buzz bands of the year that was set to make a name for itself. At their main showcase, though, they first could not get the band set up quickly. Usually, bands take fifteen minutes—they took forty-plus—and took ten-to-fifteen minutes to figure out they had simply failed to put a plug in their keyboard all the way. Then, after their second song, lead singer Sam France started complaining that he had sang every day for the last two months and his voice was worn out. That did not go over particularly well for the crowd, some of whom groaned (poor baby!!), and one person who heckled the band—yelled out for the band to stop whining and start playing, which caused the singer to call the heckler out, saying he was pouring his heart out and to treat me like that—calling the heckler a f-ing coward and daring the guy to come on stage and say it to his face, after which he stormed off the stage and had to be brought back in by the rest of the band. When he came back, he muttered how he loved the music industry and loved the audience, but he was not to be believed—a total implosion!
So, what about their music? On record they seem to hail from the Dylan/Wilco lineage, but live they sounded more influenced by the Beatles, Kinks and It’s a Beautiful Day. However, the songs frequently and intentionally change pace mid-stream from pretty and psychedelic to clangy and jumpy—disturbing the basic framework of the song for no particular reason—which took away my relationship to the song/band.
The Zombies: For a moment I thought I was at one of those PBS fundraiser concerts where all the bands play their one or two hits, but before The Zombies (with original members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone) got to their hits, they played new stuff, and I admit it was kind of scary. During one song the guy next to me asked when the band turned into Steely Dan. On another song I thought they sounded like Chicago without the horns. But, thankfully, the end of the set came near and they played two of the three Zombies songs everyone wanted to hear (“Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There”—no “Tell Her No”) sandwiched around Argent’s classic rock anthem “Hold Your Head Up.” Argent’s keyboard playing was artful and improvisational, and in between conducting the crowd as they sang along with the songs—the unique loungy, psychedelic sound of the Zombies and the confidence-building chords and chorus of “Hold Your Head Up”—we have all heard many times, but those fifteen or so minutes were magical ones to freeze in time.
Eric Burdon: At Rolling Stone Rock Room at La Zona Rosa. Since Springsteen gave his ode to Eric and the Animals at last year’s SXSW’s keynote, he has had a renaissance and a new album. Unlike the Zombies, I very much like Eric’s new work which sticks to the rootsy blues that made him and The Animals famous. Still, hearing “Spill the Wine” and “We Gotta Get out of this Place” took me back to my first discovery of rock ‘n’ roll—when the Animals made their comeback album in 1977 doing songs like “Lonely Avenue.” It was also great to see a seventy-one-year old artist pumping his fist in the air, renewed by his own return to relevance and the new music he was feeling and able to share.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: At Stubb’s. The only “raffle show” I attended this year, Nick is a modern nocturnal lounge lizard from Australia who dares the devil to take him away or take him out for a night out on the town—either is fine with him. And this St. Nick does not mind comping the devil drinks or putting four bullets into the devil’s MF-ing head. His band lays down deep, layered bluesy tracks for him to preen, lean, jump, play stare-eyes with members of the audience and mock the ones thumbing on their mobile devices rather than staring with rapture as everyone else was. Definitely the most charismatic, stylistic and dark male performer at SXSW. He’s playing a sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre on April 1, but worth trying for a ticket.
The Specials: At Stubb’s. The other “big name” for me was the reunion of this ska band. Amazingly, Terry Hall’s wry vocals have not changed, and the band had the entire crowd swaying, skipping and pogoing from the first moment for a full hour and a half. Still an integrated band, the band’s “Doesn’t Make It Alright” remains a very strong attack on racism and support of the downtrodden masses, still powerful thirty-five years after it was first written. Dance music and politics don’t blend much better.
Bleeding Rainbow: At Valhalla. It’s amazing how a band can change its entire sound and attitude. Originally, this Philadelphia group was a two-piece guitar and keyboard/drums called Reading Rainbow (as an aside, I think this is the first SXSW in several years that I did NOT see any two-piece guitar and drum outfits like Japandroids or No Age—excepting a peek in at Chicago’s White Mystery) and played syrupy pop with the husband and wife singing the vocals simultaneously to create an awesome harmony. Seriously, check out “Wasting Time,” it is still one of my favorite songs. Now they are a four-piece band, changed their name to Bleeding Rainbow and play power punk—still with husband-and-wife harmonic vocals—except the vocals have to compete more with the music. A much different band, but still enjoyable, if a bit harsher.
Diamond Rings: At Waterloo Records. Another performer that has changed his methods is John O’Regan, who goes by the name Diamond Rings. When I originally saw him two years ago, he was a solo performer with a white pompadour and a New Order shirt who played keyboards and guitar over a synth track and sounded like early Depeche Mode. He was also somewhat shy and nervous when dancing before a crowd. Today, he still has that blonde pompadour but now wears a leather vest with spikes, and has a four-piece band so he does not have to drive the sound and he is much more confident, jumping into the crowd to sing and generally eschewing any instrument so he can strut his stuff. Great club dance music.
True Believers: An Austin all-star rock ‘n’ roll band consisting of brothers Alejandro and Javier Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham provide a roots-rock guitar army. Reunited for the first time in a couple of decades, the few people who saw them heard a great, no-BS rock ‘n’ roll show—fairly rare at SX.
Nobunny: This is a fun punk-garage band with tendencies toward Phil Spector-era Ramones and gimmicky uniforms, led by Justin Champlin a/k/a Nobunny singing—a ripped-up leather jacket and partially destroyed bunny mask which, like a child’s favorite stuffed animal, has seen better decades. The rest of the band wears denim vests and sunglasses. All wear no shirts and a no-nonsense attitude—excepting for Champlin’s wilted bunny ears, of course. These guys did the best cover songs of SXSW—a ripping version of the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”—in which the lead singer jumped into the audience to start the song and finished with a backward somersault return to the stage. They finished with a slowly building version of “Nobody But Me” where the singer lay on his back bemoaning “I don’t Know, I don’t Know” before jumping on stage and showing us how to do the Boogaloo better than anybody.
Other cool covers: the Blackout Party from San Diego doing an alt-country version of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” The Airborne Toxic Event’s medley of “Walk the Line,” “American Girl” and “Born in the USA.”
Most commonly worn band t-shirt: Black Flag—even Bleeding Rainbow’s lead singer wore one.
Coolest crowd interaction: Greer McGettrick of San Francisco’s raucous The Mallard finished her set by slam dancing in the crowd, while singing and playing guitar. Eventually, she handed her guitar to people in the crowd who played it and handed it off until one member of the audience took over and played some searing riffs to finish up the song.
Scariest moment: When Wax Idols lead singer Hether Fortune jumped into the crowd to end a frustrating set at the Gypsy Lounge, she tripped over stage equipment and ended up sprawling out on the floor. Luckily she was OK. This is a pretty darn good Echo and the Bunnymen-esqe band from Oakland that simply got burned by a terrible sound system with no vocals in the mix.
Bratty British Band of the Moment: The Palma Violets, following The Libertines with booze-infused choppy but catchy songs and ending their set by throwing their mike stands into the crowd.
Chicago Band moments: Outer Minds finishing their set with their triumphant farfisa-infused chant of “We are All Stone” to an engaged crowd at Hotel Vegas’ Volstead room. White Mystery doing their guitar and drum garage thing with a couple of go-go dancers at Metal and Lace (which was converted from Headhunters for the television show Bar Rescue).
Band that sounded most like The Cure: Girls Names. From Belfast, Ireland comes a group that has captured the early Cure sound (without any brooding) of a propulsing bass lead to get your head nodding with guitars intertwining and overlaying to get your body moving.
Band that sounded most like The Smiths: Brooklyn’s Beach Fossils.
Band that sounded most like Mazzy Star: Brooklyn’s Widowspeak.