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by Jennifer Kelly

21 Mar 2009

Late start this Friday, first struggling through another 13 band write-ups, then a shower and a long wait for the bus into town. South Congress is crawling with cars and people when I get there, almost as crowded as the main 6th street area… though a little older and with more real people mixed in. SXSJ (South by San Jose) is going on in a parking lot next to Jo’s Coffee, with crafts, a big solar panel display (which may or may not be powering the stage), food and, naturally, a bunch of bands. I see Wild Beasts setting up and pull out my camera. The batteries are dead. I have not brought any extras. 

You can buy lots of things on South Congress, cowboy boots and lattes, primitive art and gourmet sandwiches… but it is very hard to buy batteries there. I walk up towards the Yard Dog and see nothing but boutiques, not a drug store or hardware store in sight.  Which is why there are no photos of the Bloodshot party at the Yard Dog, where the Meat Purveyors are playing. Or of Wild Beasts, who are improbably baroque and decadent in the brilliant sunlight of a tie-dyed block party… think Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert and you’re about halfway there.  Wild Beasts’ Limbo Panto, out late last year on Domino, is a flowery, theatrical, falsetto’d indulgence, all exaggerated gestures and swooning flourishes. The band is in the midst of the stylized excess of “Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants” when I pull in from the Yard Dog, Hayden Thorpe’s high tenor swooping clear out onto the street, irresistibly elaborate, over-the-top and English eccentric. Strange world, where you can buy Limbo Panto at one stand, hippie patchouli and batik at the one next to it, and where music as arch and ironic and urbanely over-the-top can be played in a parking lot with the sun beating down. 

My camera batteries are still dead, but I am recharged.

 

by Jennifer Kelly

21 Mar 2009

Akron/Family

Akron/Family

Decisions, decisions… up to the very last minute, I can’t make up my mind whether I want to spend the night with Sub Pop (Obits, Red Red Meat, BBQ) or the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Ocean folks (Julie Doiron, Akron Family, BLK JKS). I’ve told people I’m going to the Mohawk for Secretly Canadian but I still pause for a minute in front of the long line at Radio Room and think about that fantastic Bunny Gets Paid reissue and sigh. Life is full of hard choices, and SXSW is full of life. 

Richard Swift

Richard Swift

I end up at the Mohawk in time for Richard Swift, whose fourth solo full-length The Atlantic Ocean will be out on Secretly Canadian in April. Swift has a big funky band in tow, two guitars, bass, drums and himself on keyboards, and the sound bounces and bounds, good times to the core, with flashes of jazz, blues, doo-wop funk, and jam-band exuberance. (I write down “Nice, but a little Phish-y.”) Things turn soulful with the piano blues and soft, falsetto’d harmonies of “Lady Luck”, a silky, no-guitars venture into Motown territory.

 

Mount St. Helens Vietnam Band

Mount St. Helens Vietnam Band

Inside, Mount St. Helens Vietnam Band is donned matching flowered vests for its jittery pop set. This is sort of interesting—the band’s main singer, Benjamin Verdoes, is married to percussion/keyboarder Traci Eggleston-Verdoes and the drummer, Marshall Verdoes, is their adopted son. So, heads up all you bands out there with drummer problems: Just adopt one. The family connection, plus the matching outfits, gives the whole enterprise a vaguely Von Trapp Family Singers vibe, but it evaporates like Alpine dew as soon as the band gets going. This is nervy, sunny, jittery punk pop, pushed frantically for speed, then interspersed with lyrical, melodic intervals. 

Julie Doiron

Julie Doiron

By the time Julie Doiron sets up, a pipe in the Mohawk’s ceiling has started to drip steadily, creating that difficult combination of water and electrical equipment. “It’s just water,” the venue’s guy assures her, after someone raised the question of sewage, but water is bad enough. Doiron’s a little rattled. She’s just changed a guitar string on a stool near the bar (with two Japanese teenagers videotaping the whole event), and now she thinks her guitar is “brutally out of tune.” She’s just like her music, though, fresh, natural, unpretentious, and so clearly a really nice person who doesn’t like to make trouble. She apologizes during nearly every song break, which isn’t necessary at all, she sounds fine, better than fine actually, in the full-rock mode of I Can Wonder What You’ve Done with Your Day

The new album, out last month, is kind of a love letter to Fred Squire, her new romantic and musical partner, who is sitting at the drum kit behind her. “I was not built for this kind of lo-oo-oo-ve,” Doiron breathes into the mic, her voice unembellished with any kind of reverb or effect, but she is clearly happy and flourishing, looking to Squire for reassurance when anything goes even slightly wrong (and, even better, getting it). Her set includes lots from the new album, “Glad to Be Alive”, “Heavy Snow”, and others, and she gradually gets comfortable. For “Consolation Prize”, one of the album’s heaviest, most guitar-centric cuts, she says, “We’re going to try this,” then, “You know how it is when you’re recording and you write a song really quickly and it turns out great and then you don’t practice it?” Probably no one else in the audience “knows” any of this, but we nod, and the song sounds fine, Doiron’s soft singing in contrast to rackety, aggressive guitar chords, the rough and the smooth, the sweet and the bitter together. Her last song, she says, is from 2004’s Goodnight Nobody—and noticeably less upbeat than recent material. But she makes it rock and at the end she turns around to Squire and flashes him a big squinty smile… drips, broken strings, and all, she’s happy at last and in love.

 

Phosphorescen

Phosphorescent

Just a glimpse of Matthew Houck’s Phosphorescent from the balcony of the massively crowded outdoor stage, as he croons high and haunting tunes from his Willie Nelson tribute. The air on the patio is fine and soft, and he sounds great, but maybe it’s time to get a better spot for the next band?

 

Foreign Born

Foreign Born

That would be Foreign Born, out of San Francisco, a huge band, setting up racks of drums, keyboards, congas, guitars, and a bass on the stage inside. Sunny, high energy, vaguely tropical indie rock is the thing here, with shaken percussion all round, a syncopated, calypso low-end and island warmth and clarity in the guitars. Fun stuff, but not quite over the top into great.

 

If I were smarter, I would have left Foreign Born early to try to get a spot for BLK JKS, the super-hot township-reggae-art-fusion collective out of Johannesburg, South Africa. As it is, I’m way in the back, barely able to see, and only catch the frenzied, bass-thudding, hip-hop-punk-noise “Shark Attack”, with hundreds of bouncing, bobbing bodies between me and the stage. 

 

Akron/Family

Akron/Family

Wising up, I stay in place for Akron/Family, one of my favorites since their soft-spoken self-titled, through their collaboration with Angels of Light and on to the latter day collective jazz-funk-rock-improv overload of upcoming Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free. The flag from the cover of that album, with a tie-dyed whorl where the stars should be, hangs briefly over the SXSW banner, but someone moves it. Artistic expression is okay, as it turns out, as long as it doesn’t block a sponsor’s logo. Foreigner, of all bands, is playing in the bumper music, and Seth and Miles strike a series of goofy guitar-hero poses, as the set-up finishes. 

Let’s just say this up front: Akron/Family killed. They were the best show of the night—edging even a reunited Dinosaur Jr. and flat out demolishing everyone else. No breaks between songs, no real differentiation between songs, no pauses, no banter, just one continuous freakout that touched the highlights of their new record, easily their best, without slavishly replicating it. A bit of “River”, an exhilarating chant of “Higher Higher”, the percussion-mad long intro to “Everyone’s Guilty”, the plaintive campfire sing-along about hard years gone and better ones ahead—it was all there, all mixed and spliced and conjured into something else again, something living and breathing and dancing its ass away. (Mine is smaller today, I checked.) Do you know that feeling you get sometimes, that “I’m so glad I’m still alive so I can still go to shows and be blown away?” feeling? I was overcome by that feeling. It felt good.

 

J. Mascis

J. Mascis

I go upstairs to get some air, and I see Kyle from Witch and Feathers, and suddenly it clicks that the “secret guest” has to be Dinosaur Jr. “Is J playing?” I ask him, and he says yes, and so I go back downstairs to start getting a good spot. It’s pretty strange, but I’m wearing a shirt from a show in Northampton in 2006 where both Mascis and Barlow played sets separately, and even did a couple of songs together in a short reincarnation of Deep Wound. But I’ve never seen Dinosaur play, so that’s exciting. And then first Barlow, then Mascis wander onto stage and everybody knows, and all the sudden everyone is high fiving each other just for being there… it’s that kind of feeling.  And rightly so, what a band, what a show. 

More than 20 years on from their SST days in Western Mass, the three of them put on a searing, thundering performance, with songs from last year’s Beyond, but also “Sludgefeast” and “Tarpit” from You’re Living All Over Me, “Feel the Pain” from Without a Sound, “Freak Scene” from Bug, and “Out There” from Where You Been. Barlow is in full head-banging mode, stalking the stage and bouncing up and down with his bass, sensitive Sebadoh-guy subsumed in punk rock aggression. Mascis doesn’t do guitar face or poses, doesn’t move much at all in fact, except for his fingers, sliding up and down the fretboard, spinning high spiraling solos that lift you up and out of the turmoil.  It’s a freakily volatile, exciting combination, the guitar bravado in the midst of the hard rush of punk, as monumental now as in the mid-1980s, and maybe more familiar but not in the least safe or tired. The Bishop Allen guys are slamming side to side in front of the stage. The members of Women push right up to the front after their set is over. One guy surfs the crowd. Everyone’s out of control, grinning stupid grins at their luck in being there.

 

 

by Andrew Gilstrap

21 Mar 2009

Dressed casually, not in their trademark suits, the Avetts delivered a far more relaxed and playful set than their NPR Showcase set the night before. Today, they went deeper into their catalog for songs that emphasized their ragged harmonies (such as the back-and-forth banter of “Distraction #74). Like the previous night, they also played two new (but different) songs. Given the chance to be more rambunctious, the Avett Brothers delivered a highly satisfying set.

 

 

by Bill Gibron

20 Mar 2009

Imagine Manhattan with the post-modern existential quips removed and fart jokes added. Visualize an ‘80s or ‘90s sweet as sugar RomCom with all the subtlety sliced out and lots of references to vaginas and penises ‘inserted’. The current state of the big screen guy/gal laugh-a-thon is an unusual amalgamation of gross out scatology and deep seeded emotional connections. Characters in these films - especially those made and influenced by the Apatow-cracy - balance their etiquette between mannered and mean, their dialogue just dripping with things that wouldn’t have been said in proper society several years ago, let alone thought about in those situations. Still, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Role Models made lots of money for clued in studios. This doesn’t make the latest installment in the silly subgenre (the just released I Love You, Man) a classic - just conventional.

After an eight month romance, struggling real estate agent Peter Klavin is ready to marry the girl of his dreams, boutique owner Zooey. The only problem is, our hero doesn’t have any real guy friends. He’s so sensitive and giving that he seems to generate more gal pals than anything else. Hoping to find a potential best man, Pete seeks advice from his family, especially his gay brother Robbie. It doesn’t work out. Then, one day, Peter runs into an “investment consultant” named Sydney Fife. After a couple of man-dates, they hit it off. Soon, the two are inseparable, sharing their love of rock and roll and all things Rush. At first, Zooey appreciates Peter’s new companion. But as the wedding grows closer, the couple starts to experience some doubts - fears fostered in no small part by Sydney’s arrested slacker adolescent influence on Pete. 

If I Love You, Man didn’t have it’s “in your face” sense of humor, if it didn’t star the rising duo of Paul Rudd and Jason Segal, if it didn’t draw directly on the proto-Fight Club concerns of rudderless American males undermined by catty, controlling women, it would simply be a collection of sloppy sex jokes. There’d be the occasional nod to dog excrement, a fascinating turn by a self-deprecating Lou Ferrigno, and enough Geddy Lee love to make even today’s Tom Sawyer get really, really high. Yet what’s clear about John Hamburg’s trend following entertainment is that it feels forced together, as if a smart, sunny couples comedy was injected with a copy of Jokes from the John. It works - there are some big bellylaughs here - and the emotions are always in the right place. But unlike previous amalgamations of the crass and the clever, this all feels a tad recycled.

Maybe it’s the strict adherence to type. Rudd is once again reduced to scrotum-less man-girl, his inner Robert Bly baffled by a lifetime as a weak-willed wuss. When he meets the testosterone fueled Segal, sloppy to the point of implied stink and fully free spirited, we get the Odd Couple combination immediately. Soon, it’s a series of sack cracks, curse words, and instances of projectile vomiting. It has to be said that Rudd and Segal are so good here that they could nap during several scenes and we’d snicker to ourselves. They are matched well by Rashida Jones as Zooey and Jamie Presley as her best pal, Denise. What doesn’t work are calculated characters like Jon Favreau’s dense dickhead Barry, and Sarah Burns overly desperate Hailey. They seem lifted from a Farrelly Brothers screenplay that never got off the Apple Powerbook page.

Hamburg is also no help, reducing his movie to a series of sequences that fail to fully add up to some manner of dramatic or comic drive. Individual moments zip by wonderfully, as when Segal stands up for Rudd to none other than the TV Hulk himself, and it’s nice to see Andy Samberg as the straightest gay man in the history of cinema. But I Love You, Man can’t leave well enough alone. It wants to be both conventional and eccentric at the same time. Samberg’s alternative lifestyle may never wind up the butt of many jokes, but that doesn’t mean that former State member Thomas Lennon doesn’t milk his mincing suitor for all its worth. Indeed, for every outside the box conceit, Hamburg runs right back to Apatow-logy 101. It gets so bad that you keep waiting for Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, or Jay Baruchel to show up and start riffing.

Yet because of the chemistry between the leads, the genuine sense of companionship and caring they feel for each other, we ignore most of the mediocrity and savor the scenes that soar. Rudd is rapidly become the best thing about these films, a never fail fulcrum of funny business and farce. While he’s not as good as he was in Role Models, he’s very redeemable. Segel also continues to surprise, going more for the John Candy sympathy vote than your usual immature manchild in a torn sweatshirt and stained cargo shorts strategy. His hurt puppy face and off center lips betray a vulnerability that Sydney rarely shows to the outside world. It’s just too bad the rest of I Love You, Man wasn’t so dimensional. For every telling exchange between Peter and Zooey or our two terrific leads, there’s a pointless argument between Favreau and Presley that culminates in, as one character puts it, “sloppy make-up sex.” Ew.

Indeed, if I Love You, Man demonstrates anything, it’s that the entire bro-mance comedy category is already starting to show its age. After a four year run (beginning with The 40 Year Old Virgin), we’re starting to see the cracks in the vaunted veneer. One assumes that the man who started it all still has some juice left in his conceptual caboose, and with Rudd, Segel et.al. still doing outstanding work, they can definitely carry a future project or two. But I Love You, Man makes it very clear that you just can’t cram two divergent ideas together and make them succeed. Instead, you have to get the balance exactly right. In this case, thanks to the actors involved, the scales are out of whack, but we can still appreciate the disparity. 

by Andrew Gilstrap

20 Mar 2009

The Wrens may take the prize for the most unexpected show of the day, maybe even the whole festival. I haven’t heard every Wrens song, but many of the ones I have heard are dreamy and deliberate. Not today. Today was for a healthy dose of punk spirit.  Bassist/vocalist Kevin Whelan was all over the place, exhorting the crowd to clap along, handing his banged-to-hell and duct-taped bass to crowd members, and jumping off of speakers. There was even some crowd teasing: “We’re going to play a couple of new ones. This does not mean you can go to the bathroom, get a soda, make out, whatever.” Nothing Whelan did could hide the band’s obvious skill, though, even if this was the most unexpectedly aggressive show of the day.

 

 

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