First, an introduction, and a confession: â€œHi, Iâ€™m John, and Iâ€™m a Southby-aholic.â€
This year marked my eighth consecutive pilgrimage to Austin, TX, for the annual South by Southwest music festival (as above, referred to by frequent attendees as Southby). Known, variously, among friends and musicians, as â€œRock â€˜nâ€™ Roll Spring Break,â€ â€œIndie-Rock Mardi Gras,â€ and â€œRock â€˜nâ€™ Roll Olympics,â€ I think I may prefer the sobriquet that occurred to me this year mid-fest: Rock â€˜nâ€™ Roll Christmas. Truly, I look forward to Southby all year, every year, counting down –depending on the time of year– the remaining months, weeks, days, and (yes, even) hours until Southby, â€œthe most wonderful time of the yearâ€ for live music junkies like myself, begins.
Imagine, if you will, some 1,300 bands, playing over five nights, on over 60 stages, in clubs, theaters, and music halls in one incredibly hospitable city. Now imagine, during the daytime, dozens of parties, thrown by record labels, clubs, magazines, and websites, which feature hundreds more bands (including bands not appearing as part of Southby-proper, as well as â€œofficiallyâ€ showcasing bands), often with free beer and free food, and you may begin to get a sense of the addictive power that this event holds.
This year, some of that â€˜ol Southby magic appeared prior to having even touched down in Austin as, while boarding my connecting flight in Memphis, who did I spy also waiting to board the plane? Why, none other than Jody Stephens, of Big Star fame. I believe I commented to my traveling companions at the time that, as omens go, this augured very well indeed for an excellent Southby.
In retrospect, given the truly off-the-charts greatness of this yearâ€™s festival, I now think of Jody Stephens as the Patron Saint of Southby â€™06. And, as if to further cement that belief, there is the fact that, having headed directly to the NX35 party (showcasing bands from North Texas) at Club DeVille immediately after picking up my badge, the first band I caught this year was The Drams — essentially the reconstituted Slobberbone– and they ended their set with a fiery cover of the Big Star classic, â€œI Am the Cosmos.â€ Fearful symmetry? You be the judge.
So, it is in the spirit of the magical vibe of this yearâ€™s festival that Iâ€™m going to focus solely on the highs (of which, among the 43 bands I saw over five days and nights, there were honestly far too many to truly do justice in a single article), and entirely ignore the lows (of which there were honestly so few that, statistically, they donâ€™t even warrant the space). In essence, for the purposes of this piece, Iâ€™d much rather spend time spreading the good word on behalf of worthy acts than share with you my caustic remarks regarding less-deserving bands. (Donâ€™t get me wrong: I wrote several such cutting remarks about a handful of bands while in Austin, but Iâ€™m choosing to not share them, for I wear my Ambassador of Goodwill â€“well, Good Music, anyway– hat today.)
On balance, the Wednesday night showcases I caught weighed in as the strongest Wednesday night lineup in my Southby experience. The second timeslot of the night revealed A Cursive Memory at the Blender Bar at the Ritz to be the one to beat for the title of Best New Band of the Night. The L.A. foursome, with their power chords and emo anthems to puberty, was shockingly good. Shockingly good for a band of any age but, considering that the median age of the band hovers somewhere between sixteen and seventeen, they were that much more impressive.
While awaiting The Plimsouls midnight set at Exodus, early â€˜90s alt-hitmakers World Party delivered an engaging set as a (mostly) acoustic trio in the timeslot prior. The Plimsouls themselves, however, were revelatory. Best known for their signature songs, â€œA Million Miles Awayâ€ and â€œOldest Story in the Worldâ€ (both of which were featured, as performed onscreen by the band, in the â€˜80s cult classic, Valley Girl), they rarely regroup to perform together. Accordingly, this night was something special to behold. Frontman Peter Case truly has one of the great voices in rock, and the power of that voice has not diminished so much as an iota, as evidenced by the barnburner of a set to which we were treated in this sweaty club. On a night of some very high highs, to paraphrase Stephen Fry, it was as if all those other bands were just Pepsi â€¦ The Plimsouls were the Real Thing.
Closing out Wednesday night, in the 1 A.M. timeslot following The Plimsouls at Eternal, was The Go! Team — the first of several U.K. buzz bands that I was to see at Southby this year. With twin drum kits, and almost every band member a multi-instrumentalist, the show came off as an act of intricately orchestrated insanity. The energy flowing back and forth between the band and their obviously devoted following was a sight to behold, and when frontwoman, Ninja, exclaimed, â€œthereâ€™s no excuse not to dance!â€, the utter truth of that statement was impossible to deny.
My Thursday kicked off just right with Lucero at the Twangfest party, held at Jovitaâ€™s in South Austin. Unnecessarily apologizing for the quality of his cigarette and whiskey-stripped vocals at this 2 P.M. performance, frontman Ben Nicholls helpfully explained, â€œthese early morning shows kinda fuck my shit up.â€ In short, any self-respecting fan of either The Drive-By Truckers or Slobberbone, should check out Lucero without delay. (Helpful hint: Theyâ€™re at The Black Cat on April 21.)
Three bands later, my Thursday evening took a turn towards the brag-worthy with the first of two such shows in a row, beginning, thanks to some seriously good looking out on the part of a friend, with my gaining entry to the ultra-coveted, invitation-only Alejandro Escovedo show at Las Manitas (widely recognized as the place for breakfast when in Austin). Escovedo, for those who are unfamiliar with his work, in addition to being a founding member of The Nuns and The True Believers, has been called â€œthe spiritual godfather of the Austin music sceneâ€ by The Austin Chronicle, and been named â€œArtist of the Decadeâ€ for the â€˜90s by No Depression. Performing today as the guitarist in his string quartet (with a violin and a pair of cellos rounding out the quartet), and augmented by keyboards and a bare-bones drum kit, Escovedo led his baroque-punk band through an eight-song set consisting of perfectly lovely, fragile and beautiful performances. Included in the set was a five-song preview of his forthcoming, John Cale-produced album, The Boxing Mirror.
Next up was a quick cab ride across town to Stubbâ€™s for a just-announced surprise show by The Beastie Boys. Having not seen the Beasties since they opened for Madonna on the â€œLike a Virginâ€ tour (and not having been at all impressed with either their antics or their â€œmusicâ€ at the time), I wondered what the odds were that theyâ€™d improved in the intervening 21 years — as many friends and critics would have me believe they have. I will admit to rolling my eyes when they opened with â€œBrass Monkeyâ€ as if it were 1985 all over again, but by the time theyâ€™d finished storming through their breakneck-paced 55-minute set (including one encore), I will also admit to the fact that I had become a believer. Incredibly, unfathomably, these clowns have indeed become master showmen.
Two hours later, Thursday nightâ€™s Best New Band made their entrance as The Divorce took the stage at Redrum. Coming across with a sound that can most easily be described as stellastarr* meets The Killers, but with a seriously muscular sound, these four guys let it rock with their powerful, and powerfully hook-laden, songs. With singer/guitarist/keyboardist Shane Barry prowling the stage all the while with confident authority, this young Seattle band is definitely one to watch.
Arriving early for Dirty Pretty Things (essentially The Libertines minus junkie poster-boy, Pete Doherty) showcase at Eternal, I find The Flaming Lips onstage playing a surprise â€œspecial guestâ€ slot. Which would normally be pretty crazy, but given the day Iâ€™m having, it almost feels par for the course â€¦ as does the fact that I think the second (of the final three) songs played is a world premiere, possibly called â€œNo Power,â€ as Wayne Coyne introduces it saying itâ€™s â€œa new song, so act like you know it.â€
Dirty Pretty Things –despite an incredibly late start, predictably resulting in an incredibly brief time onstage (22 minutes), and concluding with beefy security guards forcefully ending their set– rocked, and rocked very hard at that. Bearing almost no sonic resemblance to his previous band, Carl Baratâ€™s new gang sports a far more punk agenda, with slashing guitars, crashing drums, and manic energy to burn throughout.
Already on a roll, Thursday night was brought to a fitting finish by another Brit band, the very young and incredibly promising lads, The Capes. With chiming guitars, spot on harmony vocals, and hooks to spare, these guys come across as a great live band, made all the more noteworthy given the criminally under-populated crowd at Dirty Dog Bar for their set.
Friday begins, in a manner befitting the good fortune thus far experienced, with the â€œwas it really that easy?â€ acquisition of passes to what is always the hottest party of the week, the annual SPIN magazine bash at Stubbâ€™s.
Arriving at the party for The Cribs set, already in progress, I am immediately both overjoyed and agonized. Overjoyed, because I can pretty much instantly tell that this U.K. trio is the real deal, and they are exceeding my (high) expectations from the start; Agonized, because Iâ€™ve missed almost half their set. Fortunately, theyâ€™re playing a 1 A.M. showcase tonight, and based on what Iâ€™m hearing now â€“crunching guitars, deep grooves, and undeniable energy– Iâ€™m already prepared to sign on for the double-shot.
Following The Cribs at the SPIN party, I get my second dose of The Go! Team and, once again, they impress with the sheer joy of their performance. Alas, if the energy reflecting back to the stage from the crowd at this hipster-filled scene borders on the nonexistent (particularly as compared to their showcase performance in front of a rabid audience), the band can hardly be blamed.
What is it with hipsters and their practiced, hipper than thou, detachment? â€œIt ainâ€™t no sin to be glad youâ€™re alive,â€ as Bruce Springsteen once sang â€¦ of course, Springsteen is a perfect example of a guy who, at best, may be deemed â€œironicallyâ€ cool by hipsters (save for his Nebraska record, which somehow gets a pass and it’s cool to admit to liking…).
I mean, I understand that hipsterdom requires a carefully cultivated too cool for school ‘tude and all, but if you’re fortunate enough to have gained admittance to SPIN’s rockin’ party, and The Go! Team is onstage firing off “Bottle Rocket,” how can one NOT shake their ass? Bah.
Ok, end of rant. Sorry. Where was I?
Ah, yes, after enjoyable sets by The Stills and We Are Scientists at the SPIN party, it was off to the Convention Center for what was to be another highlight of the festival: Ray Davies, in an intimate 200-capacity room, acoustically performing seven songs from his new solo album and discussing them, Storytellers-style, between the world premiere screening of footage from a making-of-the-album documentary. I could write pages about this event alone but, in brief, what this amounted to was live performances of songs directly commenting upon and illuminating the events depicted in the documentary (including Rayâ€™s cross-country U.S. tour in the weeks immediately following the events of 9/11, and his time living and working –as well as being shot in a mugging– in pre-Katrina New Orleans), with framing comments around most of the live songs. Not to belabor the point, but this was a brilliantly orchestrated â€“and extraordinarily personal– insight into an exemplary songwriterâ€™s writing process. (Helpful hint: Though the date has yet to be officially confirmed, Pollstar lists a Ray Davies return to the 9:30 Club on 5/21.)
After that day, what could Friday nightâ€™s official showcases offer to compete? Well, immediately following the first-ever public listening party for the forthcoming Bruce Springsteen album, â€œWe Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessionsâ€ at Waterloo Records, tonightâ€™s Best New Band, Goldrush, takes the stage at Nunoâ€™s Upstairs. With traces of a Gram Parsons influence amidst power pop songs so good, and so hummable that they feel both fresh and familiar simultaneously, Goldrush has me wanting to sing along (and actually singing along) despite the fact that Iâ€™ve never heard most of the songs before. Thatâ€™s good stuff there.
Next up, and only just being edged out by Goldrush as the Best New Band of the Night, are Seattleâ€™s The Lashes. With song after song featuring hooks so sharp the band might have been better named The Hookers, The Lashes prove with authority that their perfect gem of a single, â€œSometimes the Sunâ€ was hardly a fluke. Come to think of it, one canâ€™t help but wonder, between The Lashes and The Divorce, if a vibrant new scene may be emerging in Seattle, pleasantly devoid of so much as even a trace of the grunge which defined the music of that city for a generation.
Ending the night, and positively cementing them as the Overall Best New Band I will see all week is, for the second time today, The Cribs. Not at all surprisingly, theyâ€™re even more incandescent in front of an enthusiastic –and not afraid to show it– audience, and this is certainly just such an audience. With a start-to-finish head rush of a set including their irresistible singles, â€œMirror Kissersâ€ and â€œHey, Scenesters!â€, as well as “Another Number,” a gem from their first album which, coincidentally enough, has been covered by the Overall Best New Band from last yearâ€™s Southby, Kaiser Chiefs. This an absolutely body-rocking, soul-stirring, heart-pounding performance from an incredible trio of young Brits. (Helpful hint: Theyâ€™re at D.A.R. on April 11 with Franz Ferdinand and Death Cab For Cutie, or, as I now canâ€™t help but think of the show, The Cribs, with two supporting acts who just happen to be going on after them.)
Saturdayâ€™s first major occurrence is one of those sets which is so insanely great that I am tempted to employ that hoariest of rock-crit clichÃ©s and refer to it as â€œlife-changing.â€ I speak of Billy Braggâ€™s solo electric afternoon set at the Yep Roc party at Yard Dog Folk Arts, and I fear that nothing I write will adequately express how deeply affecting this show was to experience. Truly, I was shaken to the core. Between Braggâ€™s hilarious stage banter (regarding the rise of .mp3â€™s and his just-released nine-disc box set, he said, â€œI just wanted to do something tactile before the whole shithouse went up in flamesâ€), his eloquent, impassioned speaking (particularly as regards America, and her â€œgreat potential as a healthy powerâ€) and, of course, those perfectly crafted songs (look no further than the classic, â€œGreetings to the New Brunette,â€ and the new instant-classic, â€œI Keep Faith,â€ both performed here) â€¦ I was literally trembling by the end of the set, knowing that I was privileged to have been in the presence of greatness for the duration of what is the most remarkable performance I will see all week.
Where does one go from there? Well, given that my favorite live band is performing on the same stage in just a couple of hours, one doesnâ€™t go far. This will be my third time seeing Marah play in as many days, and the set they deliver at the Yep Roc party will serve to underscore exactly why they have been my favorite live band since I first saw them (at Southby, incidentally, in 2000). In just under an hour, they blow the roof off the, um, tent under which theyâ€™re playing, and have the crowd eating out the palm of their collective hand during a set which runs the gamut from album nuggets (â€œBarstool Boysâ€), to rampaging covers (The Jamâ€™s â€œIn the Cityâ€), to brand new songs (the second-ever performance of â€œTippecanoe County Correctionalâ€), to unreleased classics (â€œReservation Girl,â€ which always brings the house down, and which I believe to have been played for the first time all year at this show). Their Southby-warm-up show at Iota was cancelled due to the D.C. water main break, but donâ€™t miss them when they return sometime in the spring, and see for yourself why they number the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Nick Hornby, and Stephen King among their ardent admirers.
Saturday was not done with me yet, however, as lurking ahead in the showcases was the band to take the title of Best New Band I was to see all week (of those I was unfamiliar with prior to the release of this yearâ€™s Southby .mp3â€™s., that is â€¦ which is to say The Cribs donâ€™t count.) Tokyoâ€™s Ellegarden are making their American debut at Southby and, if there is any justice in the world, let alone the music industry, they will be household names before much longer. Theyâ€™ve got the songs, emo-esque pop/punk with radio-ready hooks, the looks, and the chops to go all the way. Hearing their music, youâ€™d never guess they werenâ€™t American, yet given the Japanese penchant for taking that which is uniquely American (cars, TVâ€™sâ€¦) and perfecting it for mass appeal, it should come as little surprise that these kids from Tokyo have managed perfect the pop/punk style made famous on American airwaves by the likes of Green Day, Blink-182 and, most recently, Fallout Boy. If you like any of those bands, odds are youâ€™re an Ellegarden fan already …. you just donâ€™t know it yet.
The last showcase of Saturday night for me is the Swedish hard rockers, The Hellacopters, a band which, by all rights, I should loathe. I would dismiss their music as contemporary classic (cock) rock, with all that that entails â€¦ and yet â€¦ and yet â€¦ they bring it with such zeal, and with not a trace of irony, that I find myself not only incapable of resistance, but I am genuinely digging their down â€˜nâ€™ dirty rock â€˜nâ€™ roll. Particularly when they close their set with what is, quite possibly, the finest possible cover with which to end the last night of Southby-proper, introduced thusly: â€œWeâ€™ve got one more, so itâ€™s time to â€¦Kick Out the Jams, MOTHERFUCKER!!!!â€
Every one of my eight years at Southby has concluded with what I think of as the (un)Official Closing Night Ceremony â€¦ Alejandroâ€™s Sunday night show at The Continental Club. For accuracyâ€™s sake, the first year I attended Southby, this show took place at La Zona Rosa, but every year since has been at the Continental â€“ my favorite venue in all of Austin and, quite possibly, all the world.
The current issue of Austin Music, which includes their Southby preview, describes this Sunday night tradition perfectly, so Iâ€™m going to hand the mic over to them:
â€œThe only folks who donâ€™t consider this annual tradition the icing on the cake are the folks who consider this the cake. Even among Alejandroâ€™s dedicated fanbase, this Sunday after SXSW show is widely considered among the best of his performances.â€
With a rotating cast of supporting acts from year to year, this annual benefit show is billed as Alejandro Escovedo and Friends, and over the years Iâ€™ve seen the likes of Ryan Adams, Charlie Sexton, Raul Malo of The Mavericks, James McMurtry, The Dragons, and Jon Langford (of The Waco Brothers) and Sally Timms perform at this â€œSouthby survivorsâ€ show, as Jon Langford referred to it this year.
But of course, itâ€™s really all about Alejandro Escovedoâ€™s headlining set on this night and, as indicated by the Austin Music quote above, though Southby is –for all intents and purposes– over on Saturday night, it is Escovedoâ€™s set at the Continental Club which has me extending my trip by one day year after year. As always, it was the right decision again this year, with Escovedo and his band on fire in a 100-minute set, with the all-originals main set followed by a three-song encore of cover songs never before played by the band, and every one of them was hit out of the park. They were Townes Van Zandtâ€™s â€œTower Song,â€ a moving tribute to both Van Zandt and the recently deceased Jesse Taylor; â€œ35 Millimeter Dreams,â€ with special guest, Garland Jeffreys fronting the band (and with Escovedo, without a guitar for the only song of the night, on backing vocals, handclaps, and smiles), and an extended roadhouse version of â€œBeast of Burdenâ€ to bring things to a raucous conclusion. (Helpful hint: Alejandro Escovedo performs at the 9:30 Club 6/24.)
And with that, Iâ€™m off â€¦ you see, Iâ€™ve got to count the months, weeks, and days â€“but not yet hours– until SXSW 2007.
See you there?
FREE MP3’s of some of the bands in this article are available for download over on the Mudsugar MP3 Blog courtesy SXSW.