Friday, March 28, 2008

SxSW 2008 - Saturday, March 15 - Day 3

Saturday morning provides a slow and easy recovery, prepping for another marathon day of rock and roll. As "beer drinkers with a music problem," the only real hangover is of the sonic variety: It seems as though, for the Rogue Wave/Dr. Dog/Tapes N Tapes/Nada Surf string the night before, we had positioned ourselves a little too close to the PA's. Among the casualties: Joe, who rises from the dead and is seeking assistance in removing the 747 that he believes to be flying inside of his right ear.

Looking at my trusty schedule foldout, it is apparent that this will be no ordinary "final day" for me. In addition to other great acts, I know of no quicker way to cure what ails us than with three of my all-time favorites in the same day: Tim Easton, Jon Dee Graham, and Alejandro Escovedo. The schedule also includes Chuck Prophet, whose records I own and love, but whom I have never seen live.

After breakfast, we ease back into the music by running out to the Dog & Duck tent on West 17th for a set that would eventually morph into another Cowsills reunion. For a few songs, however, we are treated to Susan Cowsill and her own band. Susan's band now includes Indy-to-Austin transplant Aaron Stroup on guitar and current Indy resident Tad Armstrong on bass.

From the Dog & Duck, we make a quick run back to Jovita's for one of my most anticipated sets of the festival, Tim Easton. I have seen Easton, one of my favorite songwriters, a couple of times before, but always solo acoustic. For this year's festival, Easton is traveling with the Whipsaws, a killer live band from that hotbed of alt-country rock . . . Alaska?

Easton is a killer songwriter, often making you tap your toe to distract you while he drives a stake right through your heart. Reportedly, he is currently choosing from some 50+ new songs for his forthcoming record on New West, Porcupine. With the Whipsaws, he's found a band race-ready for the old or the new. As the Austin air heats up, Easton and the Whipsaws, under the reaches of a couple of beautiful sprawling live oaks, shift us past second gear and directly into full-throttle, to the pleasure of a crowd of thirty or forty on Jovita's back deck.

As with the songs from the prior records, the new songs bounce back and forth between thoughtful slow-burners and straight-ahead rockers. Though I don't believe there are any plans for a permanent association, The Whipsaws are tight and loud, the perfect match for Easton's music, and Easton appears genuinely pleased with them, maybe even inspired by their punch.

At the close of Easton's set, we trot back into the Jovita's indoor heat, seeking to stake out some territory for Chuck Prophet. Before Prophet's set, however, we take in a short set from Windy City garage rockers the Redwalls. In appearance, these guys are all Knacked out-- Bay City roller-coiffed, tight-shirted skinny lads, who look more from across-the-pond than from the Great Midwest. A strong set of guitar-driven Spoon-ish rockers comes and goes quickly.

We move to the center of the room, as Chuck Prophet and his band, which includes his wife on keys, guitar, and vocals, begin setup. Our short wait is duly rewarded. For all of the times that I have finally made it to the live show of an artist whose records I love, only to be disappointed by flesh and blood, this afternoon's experience is quite to the contrary. Chuck Prophet's songwriting typically bypasses solos and hooks in favor of picturesque soundscapes-- "mini-movies" as one of our group later refers to them. Live, however, these same songs are even more glorious-- patterned dead-on versions of their vinyl counterparts, but now tweaked and punctuated by the blistering telecaster work of their creator.

Prophet's performance is captivating-- mood-swinging from dark to light, bouncing around the stage, shooting glances and smirks at his spouse, and . . . those solos. How did I not know this guy could play guitar? Clearly, I was not the fan that I thought I was . . . or that I am now.

And, for the bonus round, as we take a closer study of the Twang Fest banner hanging behind the stage, who are those handsome fellers peeking out from behind the giant guitar pick logo, sharing a microphone? Happier times, indeed.

Prophet closes his set to the rousing cheers and screams of the afternoon Jovita's crowd, now packed in front of the stage like rock and roll sardines. The guitar-frenzy (and rock and roll marriage theme) is by no means over, however, as we are awaiting Blue Mountain, the longstanding roots rock combo fronted by (former) husband-and-wife Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt. If Stirratt's name or face seems familiar, it may be because she is twin sister of John Stirratt, who appeared in an earlier incarnation of Cary and Laurie's bands, and now plays bass for Wilco.

Our fearless leader guarantees satisfaction with Blue Mountain, a favorite of his, and his prediction is dead-on. For fifty minutes or so, Hudson and Stirrat blaze through a set of thumping bottom-heavy roadworthy American rock and roll. Hudson, whose appearance is far more "friendly guy in line at the coffee shop" than "rock guitar hero," proceeds to turn up the volume and, in close sync with his ex-wife, stalks and stomps around the stage, performing guitar gymnastics (and some "old guy" physical ones), the likes of which we had yet to see at this year's festival. Hudson is a genuine pleasure to watch, as he not only has the chops, but is clearly enjoying himself immensely, smiling, mugging, laughing, and, of course, singing. Another note to self: buy more Blue Mountain.

Drained, ears abuzz, we head back home for a brief rest before the Saturday night lineup. After re-energizing, we set out for the new location of the legendary Maria's Taco Xpress. Yes, the food is good, and yes, we are hungry, but we are headed to Maria's for an entirely different reason.

Maria's is also one of the unnofficial stage "homes" of Austin favorite son Alejandro Escovedo. Escovedo's been the source of many of my favorite rock and roll moments, both on record and off over the past six or eight years. Most recently, he's teamed with Chuck Prophet to write the songs and record the June release Real Animal, a brilliant project recalling Escovedo's rock and roll life (see link here).

Tonight, shortly after dinner, Escovedo will raise the roof at the "new" Maria's, leading his current band through songs old and new. By the time we arrive, a good hour before his set is to start, the patio tables are already long-spoken for. The place is abuzz, Escovedo's nephew is onstage with his band, and Escovedo himself is slinking through the standing-room-only crowd, exchanging pleasantries, handshakes, and hugs with old friends. I can't resist the temptation, and I chase him into the alley to say hello.

Before I can choke down a couple of local microbrews and authentic chalupas, Escovedo takes the stage with his band, to the shouts and praise reserved for local heroes. Wasting no time, the band tears into "Wasn't I Always a Friend to You," the lead track from the forthcoming release.

Escovedo's live act comes in a number of formats, from solo to acoustic duo to straight ahead rock four-piece. Tonight's flavor is the now-familiar string-quartet-meets- buzzsaw-guitar version (my personal favorite), in all of its glory. It's a seven piece, counting the cello and violin, the latter courtesy of ex-Chicagoan/ Bloomingtonite Susan Voelz, who also had a tenure with Mellencamp's band years back.

The set includes several of the songs from the new release, touching upon phases of Escovedo's career reaching back to his days with his punk bands the Nuns and the True Believers. Escovedo live standards make appearances as well, including the scorcher "Castanets," a number that Escovedo introduces by announcing he is "bringing it out of retirement."

Generous as he always is onstage, Escovedo is clearly also the bandleader, and tonight he is enjoying the interplay between the musicians, taking turns challenging each of them one-on-one. Toward the end of the set, he turns to guitarist David Pulkingham, shoots him a big grin, and a guitar duel of sorts takes off.

Escovedo finishes the set and appears to be ready to leave the stage (which he has left smoldering, of course). With the crowd on its feet, in a moment of the aforementioned generosity, Escovedo calls out to guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel in the crowd-- "Yeah, you, Eric Ambel!" Escovedo introduces Ambel to those in the band that don't know him, unstraps his Gibson SG and hands it to Roscoe, and shouts, "Go ahead and play!"

Before you can say "Glimmer Twins," the new superpowered version of the band breaks into "Beast of Burden." Now axe-free, Escovedo struts the stage Mick-style, and, in turn, the entire place rises to its feet to do likewise. Inhibitions cast aside, hundreds of "Micks" are strutting around their tables, singing along . . . "Ain't I rich enough . . . Whoo!" It's the perfect close to a perfect set.

Our group thins a bit, and we head back to the Continental Club to start the late-night segment of Day Three. Though I've come to see Jon Dee Graham, we arrive early enough to catch the end of a set from 71-year-old R&B legend bluesman Andre Williams, backed by a local band. I was warned that the Andre experience would be unique, crude, loud, and fun . . . and it was all of that.

Through the door of the Contintental we step directly into what can only be described as an outtake from the Blues Brothers movie that never made it from the cutting room floor. The entire place is on its feet, singing along with Williams, center stage, flanked by a four-piece band in suits and ties. To add to the surreal quality of the set, the far corner of each side of the stage is adorned with a go-go dancer. We step toward the front to watch the pimped-out self-proclaimed "Father of Rap" (grandfather?) sing, shout, and gyrate to such family-friendly favorites as "Bacon Fat" and "Pussy Stank (But so do Marijuana)." Art and musicianship is not the point here . . . this feels authentic, and there is a smile on every face in the crowd.

After a short break, Jon Dee Graham and his band take the stage. Within seconds, I am reminded of why Graham's sets are consistently one of the highlights of Austin excursions that are otherwise stuffed with great live music. Songwriter extraordinaire, Graham has built a catalog of original music that is surpassed only by his guitar skills. Every time I see him live I am blown away that he is relatively unknown beyond Austin. In a parallel universe, he and his pal Alejandro are national treasures, writing and executing original American art while at the top of their games.

Graham's band includes a drummer, a talented but unnecessary side guitarist (who sees a moment in the spotlight only when Graham breaks a string), and Andrew Duplantis, the bass player from Son Volt. The band is fierce and loud, and Jon Dee unleashes his usual growl, both Fender and throat. After pushing the band through an absolutely thrashing version of "Holes," from his 2006 release, Graham steps up to the microphone, beaming, and proclaims proudly (and accurately), "MY BAND SOUNDS LIKE A COUPLE OF DINOSAURS FIGHTING!"

Graham burns through the balance of the set, stopping only to inject a trademark bitter rant here and there. Though I've now seen him three or four times, I still fall slack-jawed at the level of sheer musicianship he consistently puts out. Graham doesn't show off with his strat-- he fills every song with tasteful (but smoking) solos and fills, one after another, until I feel my knees start to buckle. One of our gang gives the most on-target description of his onstage presence and sound with the observation that, "He's the only artist I know whose guitar sounds exactly like his personality. " Indeed. Angry and BAD ASS.

Though I would be satisfied to wave the white flag for this year's festival after Jon Dee, there is an opportunity to catch Tim Easton and the Whipsaws a second time at a midnight set, stamina provided. After a brief stint in a long line to see some already-forgotten band, we sneak in a less-than-memorable set from from Broken Social Scene's Jason Collett at the Parish, and we cut out for the tent behind Opal Divine's to catch Tim Easton at Midnight.

It's late, and, though the set list is relatively similar to what we heard on the Jovita's back deck this morning, the band appears more in their element. Easton again plays part-bandleader and part Whipsaws fan, absolutely raving about the band more than once between songs. The ebullience overflows four or five songs in, when Easton simply walks to the back of the stage and kneels down with a tambourine in hand, letting the Whipsaws let loose on an original. Among the fans under the tent is Lucinda Williams, standing just behind us, who shares a label with Easton (as well as a duet on his 2006 release, Ammunition). Easton closes the set with "Porcupine," the title track from the forthcoming release, and we stagger out of the tent sleepy but satisfied.

Saving our poorest exercise of judgment for very last, our greed leads us to attempt a 1:00 a.m. set back on 6th Street from Sea Wolf. We abort the mission after a partial set paralyzed by soundboard gremlins, far more notable for the soap opera surrounding the technical difficulties than the music itself.

Exhausted, we climb in the car and head home. Stick a fork in SxSW, 2008.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

SxSW 2008 - Friday, March 14 - Day Two

Day two started with a nice morning hike around Zilker Park and the surrounding area, taking in the beginning of a beautiful 80 degree Austin day. We relaxed a bit before heading out in the early afternoon to South Congress, where we strolled over to Gueros and took in a band that Brother Joe remarked, out of honesty, "sound just like Zykos." Smart man, as we were, indeed, watching Zykos, a band with which I possessed no prior familiarity whatsoever.

Crossing the street and heading behind Home Slice Pizza, we checked the schedule ("Hollerado"!) and took in AA Bondy, a cool singer-songwriter who provided just the right mellow morning introduction-- back into the world of music. After a few originals, Bondy closed with a fingerpicked folkie cover of The Boss' "I'm on Fire," with a nice touch. It's noon, the sun is shining, and we're back into beer, greasy food, a little ice cream, and music.

In the not-so-distant future, we foresee our merry band splintering, as Joe and I want to grab a taxi out to 6th Street for Lucero, one of our mutual "must sees" of the weekend. Before doing so, though, the group heads into the end of Mojo's Madness at the legendary Continental Club, where we catch Susan Cowsill in a Cowsills reunion, complete with two Cowsill brothers. The packed club erupts as the siblings, some 40 years after having a #1 hit with "Hair," absolutely nail the highly-arranged harmonies-- shinin', gleamin', streamin' flaxen waxen . . . I am overwhelmed with vivid memories of dancing around the basement as a kid, our 45 of the hit blaring from the stereo. I grab Susan after the set to blurt out this memory, and, from the conversation all around me, realize I am surrounded by a throng of 40-60 year-olds, reliving the exact same memory.

From South Congress, the group indeed splits, and Joe and I head up to see Lucero, one of our mutual "must sees" of the weekend. We get to the venue early enough to grab a couple of beers, wander in toward the stage, and catch whatever mystery band is playing the pre-Lucero set. Surprise! The return of the Black Diamond Heavies, just as loud, angry, and funky as yesterday at Jovita's.

Ears aching, we position ourselves in front of the stage between sets for Ben & Co. This is my third or fourth run at Lucero over the years, and they never disappoint. A big part of the experience is the rabid fan base, all skin-arted and crushing the stage, thrusting fists in the air and screaming every last lyric right back in Ben's face. Lucero puts on a blistering, if short, set, hitting songs from the most recent three releases. I make a note to finally commit to a road trip and see a full show from these guys soon.

Too many beers in for early afternoon, we retire for a bit, put our feet up, eat, and prepare for the evening festivities. We catch an early set on 6th Street from The Parisians, a punchy rhythm guitar/solo-free Strokes-ish affair, that hails from . . . France. A great set.

From there, we head over to the tented festivities behind the Cedar Door, where we will stay for the rest of the night. Over the course of three or four hours, we take in a stellar (and very loud) run of:

Rogue Wave

The unfortunately-named but surprisingly-good Dr. Dog . . .

Tapes N Tapes . . .

and Paste Magazine darlings and "headliners" of sorts, Nada Surf.

With that, it's two a.m., and we've spent the day with Zykos, AA Bondy, the Cowsills, Lucero, the Parisians, Rogue Wave, (a brief re-appearance of) AA Bondy, Dr. Dog, Tapes N Tapes, and Nada Surf. Not bad for a single day's work. Exhausted, we head for the crash and burn, resting up for a Saturday SxSW marathon.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hopedaddy on the Air: WFHB Morning Music Mix 3/19/08

Chris Whitley, "As Flat as the Earth," Terra Incognita
Alejandro Escovedo, "All the Young Dudes," Official Blue Rose Bootleg
British Sea Power, "Waving Flags," Do You Like Rock Music?
Bell X1, "Bad Skin Day," Flock
Grant Lee Buffalo, "Truly, Truly," Storm Hymnal
Aimee Mann, "One," Magnolia Soundtrack
Bon Iver, "Skinny Love," For Emma, Forever Ago
Jason Collett, "We All Lose One Another," Idols of Exile
James McMurtry, "Fraulein O.," Live in Aught-Three
Jeff Buckley, "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," Grace - Legacy Edition
Adrian Belew, "Oh, Daddy," Mr. Music Head
Barenaked Ladies, "Who Needs Sleep," Stunt
The Beach Boys, "Wouldn't it Be Nice," Pet Sounds
Vampire Weekend, "Cape Cod," Vampire Weekend
Nil Lara, "Fighting for My Love," Nil Lara
Billy Bragg, "The Milkman of Human Kindness," Must I Paint You a Picture
Chris Smither, "The Devil's Real," Live as I'll Ever Be
Bap Kennedy, "Unforgiven," Domestic Blues
George Harrison, "Dark Horse," Dark Horse
Bob Dylan, "I Want You," Biograph
Arthur Conley, "Sweet Soul Music," Atlantic Soul Classics
Nina Simone, "To Love Somebody," The Future is Unwritten (Soundtrack)
Ron Sexsmith, "Clown in Broad Daylight," Other Songs
Mike Doughty, "I Wrote a Song About Your Car," Golden Delicious
The Clash, "The Magnificent Seven," London Calling
Marah, "Philadelphia," Point Breeze EP
Chuck Prophet, "You Did," Age of Miracles
The Flaming Lips, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot," Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot
Jeb Loy Nichols, "Heaven Right Here," Just What Time it Is
Wilco, "Magazine Called Sunset," Yankee Hotel Foxtrot EP

Monday, March 17, 2008

SxSW 2008 - Thursday, March 13 - Day One

SxSW . . . an opportunity for bands to be seen, promoted, and signed? Perhaps not so much truth as impossibility in that concept in 2008, when somewhere in the neighborhood of 1700 (!) bands descended upon Austin, Texas for four days of live music. The town is overflowing with music, and you can hear great official and unofficial sets in every bar, club, restaurant, art gallery, taco stand, park, and alley. This year's festival offered our crew an embarrassment of riches.

This year's festival excursion, a long, long way from home, kicked off with a familiar face: Wanamaker native Otis Gibbs in an acoustic set on Jovita's back deck. It was a cool and cloudy afternoon, but our friend Otis warmed up the crowd, a crowd populated with loyal Otis fans mouthing every word, singing along with the Otis brand of lefty folk.

The afternoon heated quickly, as Otis was followed by a "supergroup" of sorts: members of SxSW favorites The Drams, Grand Champeen, and Two Cow Garage joined forces, calling themselves This Is American Music, trading instruments, licks, songwriting, and vocals for straight-ahead rock and roll that can only be described as, well . . . American music. I had a good feeling-- the first lead singer gave off a vibe strikingly similar to a guy from another little American band that I've been known to rave about from time to time. TIAM definitely got the blood pumping and the crowd moving. I have no idea if there are any plans for an official release, or if this was a one-off just for the festival.

As TIAM continued its set, much of the crowd's attention was drawn to a cute toddler, hat on head, tiny guitar in hand, hamming it up to every strum, scream, and thump coming from the stage. Before we could work up a collective "awwwww . . .", Junior wandered right onstage, where we quickly learned that one of the guitar players was, in fact, Daddy. As TIAM lit into its next blistering number, Junior, a lefty, jumped up and down and strummed his axe, right alongside Dad. With just the right level of swagger, sassiness, and stage charisma, I think we saw the future of SxSW rock and roll. We wandered inside Jovita's to see who was on the mainstage to the sounds of TIAM ripping through a respectable version of "Born to Run"-- straight-ahead, tongue nowhere near cheek.

Heading in to Jovita's now-familiar hot and sticky indoors, I grabbed a Lone Star and turned from the bar to the stage, where it appeared as though a spaceship had just landed from 1974, dropping off the hilariously scary duo Black Diamond Heavies. BDH, fronted by the bastard child of 1974 Dickey Betts and . . . Satan . . . have taken the White Stripes model in a new direction, creating a monster duo sound from a two-piece drum-and-keyboard arrangement. For about 45 minutes, BDH did their best to remove our heads and destroy our eardrums in the most lovely of ways- pumping ripping chest-thumping gritty excitement, an interplay between the screaming keyboard player and his sidekick, smashing his drums to match the keys beat-for-beat. The set ended, and we staggered back outdoors, deafer and happier.

As we left Jovita's, we enjoyed one of those only-in-Austin moments-- our man Otis, waxing poetic (if not philosophic) with a stranger holding a metal sculpture of a hand. Neither participant appeared to consider this third (fifth?) hand as anything other than normal accessorizing for an afternoon of rock and roll, or in fact paid it any attention whatsoever.
After a lunch break, we headed out to 6th Street to see a set from Akron Ohio's Joseph Arthur. Arthur put on a decent, if forgettable solo acoustic set-- an artist whose electricity in a body of highly-produced studio work (of which I am a fan) didn't seem to translate when stretched thin on on solo acoustic guitar.

We left 6th Street to rest for Thursday's Main Event: a private taping of a radio interview/live performance from R.E.M., debuting tracks from their forthcoming release, Accelerate, in the Austin City Limits studios. A couple of blocks from the studio, we encountered a TV crew interviewing Billy Bragg on the street.

Having seen ACL on PBS for years, just being in the studio was a real treat-- less seating than I expected, but a fun and close look at that same cheesy-but-cool "city" set that has been the signature backdrop of ACL guests for years.

After a short wait, R.E.M. took the stage fifteen or so feet from us, and for the next ninety minutes, we were treated to a combination radio interview/album preview/short live set, aired (and to-be-aired) on NPR stations nationwide in the coming weeks. The record, containing only a single ballad, sounds fantastic. The band (who had taped an ACL appearance for later this year) sounded very tight and rehearsed. They were joined onstage by Scott McCaughey of Minus Five and Young Fresh Fellows fame, a friend of Peter Buck and "unofficial member" of the band for some time now. The interview and live set, especially in that theatre, made for a truly unique and thrilling experience.

We grabbed a bite and we headed back down Sixth Street to secure prime real estate for one of the biggest buzz-generators of the night, if not the festival-- The Clash's Mick Jones was bringing the Stateside debut of his new band, Carbon/Silicon, to Austin. Knowing the mess of humanity that would crush into the small club in which they were scheduled for a midnight set, we headed in early.

Worried we would have to suffer an hour of the prior "mystery" band, we were assured that we would enjoy what they had to offer . . . an assurance that, it turns out, came from the lead singer of that band, Make Model. Make Model, an indie pop band from Great Britain, did not disappoint. Over the course of the next fifty minutes, as scores and scores of people mashed into the tiny barfront, this six-piece warmed up the crowd with a unique brand of drum and keyboard-driven power pop. The crowd grew, the crowd danced and jumped, and the temperature inside the club climbed at least ten or twelve degrees . . .

Anticipation for the arrival of a legend was high as Make Model closed its set, and Mick Jones by no means failed to behave like a snotty rock superstar. As the heat continued to rise in the bar and, fire codes be damned, the bouncers continued to allow a stream of festivalites through the door, the situation in front of the stage became brutal and nearly unbearable. Had we not anticipated something special from a "legend," we would have made our escape. Instead, we suffered in silence until Mick Jones and Carbon/Silicon arrived no less than 30 minutes late. Jones took the stage and, grinning a goofy ear-to-ear grin, apologized for the delay, explaining that the band was, in fact, stuck at the hotel watching its favorite television show. With such an admission, anyone other than a guy who co-fronted the Only Band That Matters would have been promptly beaten to death by the weary and hot crowd. Instead, hundreds of us stood idly by as Mick and his band (which includes the bass player from one of Mick's B.A.D. incarnations) very inoffensively bored us to tears.

Throughout the set, we "almost" left a number of times, changing our minds only when we imagined what we might later learn that we missed . . . a secret special guest? A gem of a Clash Cover? We were treated to nothing of the sort. The only "Clash" appearing in the club was, ironically, a behind-stage banner advertising the entirely-unrelated Clash Magazine.

In fact, "Should I Stay or Should I Go" was a question uttered only by us, and it became clear by the end of the set that we gave the wrong answer. It was fun to see Mick Jones up close, but, removed from the chemistry he brought to the Clash or the interesting dub-and-beatbox ideas that fueled Big Audio Dynamite, he sounded like an aging average guitar player with some mediocre songs. We weren't angry, just very, very disappointed. Surely Strummer would never have disappointed us.

We crawled home, tired, buzzed, and reeling from a day that included friends, local heroes, bands from across the pond, elbow-rubbing with bona fide American rock superstars, and sightings of Old Guard Rock Royalty. Not a bad start to the weekend.