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.

1 comment:

cjohnson22463 said...

Nice words on the Black Diamond Heavies. Great band. They're at the Deep Blues Festival this July along with 44 other punk blues bands.