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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mark - thanks for making me feel like I was there! Great seeing you briefly in Indy - Scott G