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East again, much further east, a long walk along railroad tracks through some very iffy neighborhoods, and I finally find Friend Island, which is hosting a party for Hometapes, Absolutely Kosher, and Misra labels. Megafaun, the North Carolina band whose members used to be in DeYarmond Edison with Justin Vernon (now Bon Iver), are just about to play. Megafun was one of my very favorites from last year’s SXSW, and they have a new album coming out on Hometapes this summer. 

I’ve been trying to avoid seeing the same bands again this year, but in this case, it’s a whole different experience. Last year, they played on a conventional stage in a larger audience, with a much larger, louder, more electrified sound. This time, they’re set up in a gallery room a bit larger than a squash court. The audience is sitting on the floor, mostly, and it is very, very hot inside the windowless room. 

Megafaun, though, seems excited about the possibility of playing a more intimate, acoustic show, highlighting the soft, folky side of its music. The title track from their upcoming album is particularly beautiful and hushed, little flickers of banjo and guitar igniting then subsiding, the percussion made of small sounds, a tiny cymbal clapped to a larger one, jingling chains, brushes on snares. The sound is so quiet, its fragile jangle dipping in and out of range, that the drummer has to hold the bottom of the snare to clamp the buzz down. If he let it go, it would be the loudest element in the music. There are no vocals until the very end, then the softest possible harmonies around lyrics about night coming.


Another sunny afternoon, another stroll down South Congress, a wander into the Yard Dog for a beer and to see what’s up and, unexpectedly, it’s Freedy Johnston. Johnston, you might remember, dropped one beautifully wry, understated guitar pop album, one of the best of its kind ever, in This Perfect World in 1994. He’s been making records ever since, seven of them since then and one more on the way, but operates much lower on the radar screen now. His bass player is wearing a shirt that reads “Nobody gives a damn about your band,” and that, unfortunately, about sums it up.

All of which is a shame, because Johnston plays a lovely little set, first goofing during the sound check on the Who’s “Tattoo”, then the rocking “Don’t Fall In Love with a Lonely Girl”, and the e-bowed and eerie “Neon Repairman”.  Those two seem to be new ones, but Johnston dipped back into the catalogue for “This Perfect World”, and, from his recent covers album My Favorite Waste of Time , a lounge-swinging, hard-rhythmed take on “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” 

“I’ve got one more. What song do you want to hear?” asks Johnston at the end, but he already knows the answer. He and his band break out the ruefully perfect, worn, and wonderful “Bad Reputation”. A perfect world, indeed.



Across the highway again, heading east, I’m not really going to Mrs. Bea’s, but I stop in anyway. Mrs. Bea’s has a pretty amazing line-up on Saturday, maybe 20 bands, underground as hell, and half of them names I’ve circled on other showcases and missed. When I get there, the Mexican punk band Los Llamarada is playing its primitive, noise-skronked dissonance, songs that pound over and over on the same keys, same strings, same short (English) phrases. They make the Stooges sound like Mozart in comparison, unadulterated, un-modulated aggression. The guitarist is sitting on the concrete, holding his own ear against the blast of sound, howling into the mic, slamming on the strings. The girl playing keyboards, splays her fingers straight out, banging on one, maybe two, three at most notes, in the most untutored of patterns. Later, she comes to the mic, making snakey, body-bending dance moves and keening short, anguished phrases like “So sorry” and “We’re guilty” over and over again. 


I caught Freedy Johnston while looking for a beer. Now I’m hungry and I get another chance to see the Uglysuit (who had just finished when I got to the Touch & Go showcase on Friday). They’re playing at Homeslice Pizza, on the back patio, and while there is a disconnect between some bands and brilliant sunshine, no such dissonance intrudes here. That’s because the Uglysuit’s three guitar pop is tailor made for outdoor venues, as expansive and dreamy as, well, a blue-sky Saturday afternoon in Texas. Heck, they even have a song called “And We Became Sunshine”, full of layered, luminous guitar lines and breezy pop choruses that build like high cumulous clouds. There is, admittedly a slight whiff of pot-and-patchouli jamminess in the band’s extended instrumental breaks. You can see how the band’s communal hippie vibe would maybe be too laidback in certain settings… but not here, not today.



Back at Spiro’s again, where I get a second shot at Obits. 

Two years in the hatching, unnervingly different from Rick Froberg’s previous garage punk outfits like Hot Snakes or Drive Like Jehu or Rocket from the Crypt, Obits rides freight-train blues rhythms over night-time expanses, its songs driving but still, evolving slowly out of repetitive grooves, more like rough-edged Johnny Cash than punk.  Songs like “Widow of My Dreams” has a riff that backsteps down the scale, sliding off towards the horizon like a blues-dreamed hallucination of “Peter Gunn”. “Two Headed Coin” shuffles on the same lonesome train tracks, split down the middle by a roadhouse bass solo. There’s even a blues cover—the old song “Milk Cow Blues”—sped up and strobed through with punk rock surfbilly power chords. It’s not Hot Snakes, and that leaves some long-term fans cold, but it’s pretty great in its own way, anyway. 



The front room is hearteningly full for Wovenhand

Wovenhand, if you’re not familiar with it, is the solo-project-that-grew for David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower. His latest, Ten Stones, is an intensely powerful, old-testament-prophecy-crossed-with-Joy-Division-drumming, far more rock than previous outings and, indeed, as rock, in its way, as anything else that came out last year. It is a great record, my third-favorite for 2008 and almost universally overlooked. (PopMatters’ Justin Cober-Lake and I were the only people to vote for Ten Stones in this year’s Pazz & Jop, and we were both kind of bummed that no one else got on board.) 

But look, here we are at Spiro’s and there is a big crowd and a palpable sense of excitement, as this slight, blond man in an Indian headband soundchecks the eerie soundwashes, the booming drums, the reverbed vocals that characterize his sound. The crowd, too, has a real person/real fan feel to it, rather than the have-to-see-this-buzzy-band distraction of the industry-heavy showcases. “Ten dollars,” says a woman in front of me, “that’s the deal of the century.” Get that? She paid for this, and she’s glad to be here. Refreshing.

She’s right, too, because Wovenhand is stunning. Edwards is seated nearly the whole time, leaning out over his chair to growl into the mic, turning it around to lock in with his long-time drummer Ordy Garrison or commune with bass player Pascal Humbert (also ex-of 16 Horsepower). You realize, almost immediately, that Wovenhand is no longer a solo project, not anymore, because the power in the sound comes as much from Garrison’s pummeling drums, from Humberts’ thunderous bass, as from Edwards. Edwards is the visionary, spinning out gothic landscapes of galloping horses and men standing judgment, switching from guitar to mandolin, leaning into the mic for exhilarating barks and shouts. But the material is great because of the way it melds outsized rhythms with Pentecostal dread. It is overwhelming, fantastic, too much in all ways to process. I feel as if I cannot take in a single more piece of music… that mentally, physically, emotionally, I’m full to the top. 

So naturally, I pass through Major Stars on the way out. 

Major Stars

Major Stars

I’ve seen Major Stars before. Based in Boston out of the independent record store and label Twisted Village, the Major Stars have been cranking ear-melting, mind-spinning psych and rock for a couple of decades. A few years ago, they added a third guitar player and a singer, opening up their instrumental fuckery into something like hard 1960s rock. Something like it, but more open-ended, more prone to free form jams and sudden left turns. Guitarist Wayne Rogers prowls the stage restlessly, back and forth between guitar heroine Kate Biggar and singer Sandra Barrett. Biggar urges listeners to support freeform radio and local radio stores, in between songs, and you wonder what’s going to happen next year or the year when all the record stores are gone, and all the radio stations are owned by one company and Live Nation decides what bands you get to see in every city. Bleak times ahead, but for now, freakiness rules at Spiro’s.


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