Photos: Jennifer Kelly
Micachu and the Shapes at Mrs. Bea’s
It’s a hot afternoon, sun beating down on the concrete behind Mrs. Bea’s bar on 6th Street, east of the Highway. Todd P., the NYC promoter, has a very strong bill of female and partly female acts, starting with Anni Rossi, a classically trained violist recently signed to 4AD. Rossi, performing with a drummer, plays a percussive, twitchy kind of fiddle, eliciting as many clicks and scratches and blurts from her instrument as sustained tones. Still when she pulls the bow against the strings, she pulls hard. It’s a rough, scraping sound, but also a bit of baroque. Her singing, by contrast, has a folk-ish lilt, lifting in airy slides and pouring in spurts through the interstices in violin, like Suzanne Vega accompanied by bits of a Bach cantata. Her own songs turn metaphors about beekeepers in the Himalayas and glaciers into allegories above life and love, but she is not above the common touch. Mid-set she is singing something about “I see lies in the eyes of a stranger,” banging on the strings with the flat of her bow, and unless she told you, which she does, you would never know it was an Ace of Base cover.
Forever, out of Portland, pulls up in the van less than an hour before their set, having driven 36 hours straight from the West Coast and, along the way, rescued TacocaT, playing later on the bill, whose van has broken down in Phoenix. They are goofy tired, slaphappy really, but that’s rock ‘n’ roll. A blistering fast, freight-train drum beat begins their set, a mix of riot grrrl, cow punk, and rockabilly, the heavy-set singer trading harmonies with her equally substantial bass player. Every so often the guitar player whips out a Chuck Berry-ish, old-time rocker solo, and the drummer keeps a ferocious pace, even though one particularly rapid snare/kick-drum pattern eludes him the first time through—he shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, and gets it right the second time.
One of the oddest—and most fascinating—bands on this bill comes next with Micachu and the Shapes. Mica Levi, slight, shorthaired, ear-ringed and androgynous, tunes a toy orange guitar, wired with red cables to extreme volume. A drummer with a conventional kit and a keyboard player set up on the tarmac next to her. Levi, who has just released Jewelry on Rough Trade, is apparently heavily influenced by Harry Patch’s home-constructed instruments and fascination with microtones. Her music stutters and lurches over off-kilter, off-timed beats, sing-song-y blurts of melody couched in rickety constructions of rhythm. I write down “ESG via Yoko Ono” and “Devo” in my notebook, but that’s not quite right, there’s a bit of early punk and experimental music, but also a fair amount of hip-hop spliced in as well. For “Lips”, Levi switches to a more conventional guitar, but slips her airline boarding pass (I think) under the strings for a strangled, jittery tone. For “Hardcore”, the keyboard girl gets the orange guitar—using her hotel keycard (again, I think) for a pick—and she and Levi face each other, inches away, singing “ah, ah, ah” at each other. It’s a strange and lovely moment, awkward rhythms and off-tuned melodies coalescing into the real-est, purest kind of human contact. This was genius stuff, hard to grasp and not really suited for hot patios and beery afternoons, but I’d like to hear more, a lot more.
TacocatT, from Seattle, is pure fun, the band’s day-glo orange-haired singer, Emily, in constant motion, bouncing, swiveling, pounding a tambourine. They are mostly girls (Eric, the lone guy, plays guitar), so all kinds of topics that simply do not come up in boy punk—wearing leotards, urinary tract infections, and buying too-small jeans—are fair game. There’s a Mats cover (“Beer for Breakfast”) and one from Bikini Kill, and also a song about getting high on the lip of a volcano. Emily introduces “Ex-Con Mom” as a song about how drummer Leelah’s mom got over prison, and hands the mic to her blonde, Daniel-Johnston-shirted drummer. Super fun stuff.
I’ve been liking the Coathangers’ Scramble all month (it’s out April 7 on Suicide Squeeze), so they were maybe the main reason I’d crossed six lanes of highway to get to Mrs. Beas. Out of Atlanta, this all-woman foursome, makes a jittery, estrogen-infused post-punk that will remind you of Delta 5 and ESG at its most austere and Pylon and the B-52 when it gets pop. “Stop Stomp Stomping’”, which they play first, is a little bit of both, a rickety keyboard line threaded through all girl chants and shouts. There’s a pink-haired troll doll enshrined on one amp, striking the perfect balance between cute and ugly. Much like the band, whose most acidic putdowns are embedded in party-ready beats and snagged with hooks. “I just want to tell you / I’m going to break your fucking face,” sings Julia Kugel, playfully, jokingly, but I’d get out of her way, if I were you.
After the Coathangers, I’m off to Beerland for the Can’t Stop the Bleeding showcase. Eat Skull, the noise pop band from Portland, is first, hawking its thrashy, trashy, echo-encased, fuzz-busted sound. They start with “Beach Brains”, a manic dive through punk turbulence glazed with black-ice sheen. “Stick to the Formula” with its “ay, ay, ay” shouts is even more urgent and, somehow, more pop, its melody locatable under masses of fuzzy sound. Rob Enborn, who sings, is the least stolid member of the band, his eyes rolling up, hands clutching, body spasming as he shout-sings. Unlike in other bands, though, he stays back on the stage (and back in the mix). The bass player, Scott Simmons, is front and center, picking fast and loud and heavy low-end, and even the guitarist, who never makes eye contact, is closer to the front than Enborn. It’s a metaphor, maybe, for the way that Eat Skull communicates, burying its song structured, melodic impulses behind a wall of inchoate sound, forcing you to reach back to find the heart of its music.
Then I’m over at Red 7, wandering around aimlessly, looking at people’s badges, trying to find a place to sit (forget it, SXSW is all about standing), wondering whether I know any of the people around me by email. I catch the very end of Xrabit + DMG$ (pronounced “Damaged Goods”), a Texan dual MC outfit with a new album out on Big Dada. It’s a frenetic, hectic set, shirtless Trak Bully dropping to the floor, pounding the beat with his hands held high, dancing chest to chest with the people in the audience, then leaping up to the stage again, as Cool Dundee, the other MC, urges him on. Fantastic energy… I wish I’d seen more, but I get there just as it finishes.
Back to Beerland for Turbofruits, which is Jonas Stein and John Eatherly from Be Your Own Pet, plus bass player Max Peebles. They start with “Volcano”, my personal favorite, with its heavy Sabbath-y riff and accelerating punk-crazed energy. Peebles, who is wearing a Motorhead shirt, injects a bit of hard classic rock into the band’s sound… it’s far less spazz-punk and more straight ahead rock than Be Your Own Pet. He also supplies most of the visual interest, not as frantic as Jemima Pearl certainly, but trying a respectable number of lunches, jump kicks, windmills, and other rock star moves in an otherwise fairly static performance.
Last year, you had to see the Homosexuals at SXSW, because this Clash-era, art-damaged, unjustly forgotten band hadn’t played in 30-plus years and maybe never would again. Well, surprise, they’re back, or rather he’s back, Mr. Bruno Wizard, the singer backed by a band that he insists is better than the old late 1970s edition. They are, quite good, and Wizard is in great form, stalking the stage like a caged tiger, making various observations on life and love and sex and drugs (he is, apparently, living clean now), and performing the wonderfully jittery, oddly structured, manically intense material from the Homosexuals’ brief flowering—“Hearts in Exile”, “My Night Out”, and “News from Nairobi” among them. He dedicates one song to his original bass player, now dead 30 years, his throat slit on the street, Wizard says, “Just because he was Asian.” Linking that, somehow, to departed president W. and new president Obama, he is restless, non-linear, sparking with intelligence… just like his songs. What the hell, if he stays this on, I’d see him next year, too.
By this point, I’m getting dizzy from not eating, so I take off for a bite. When I come back, Endless Boogie is playing inside, but it’s full, so I just hear them from a distance. But this is okay, because Ty Segall is setting up outside. Segall’s self-titled has been on heavy play at my house for months, and if it were not a late-last year release, would be a shoo-in for top ten 2009. On the record, and in shows up to now, Segall’s been a one-man phenomenon, taking his fractured, frantic, rockabilly-garage-punk to the people with one hand on a guitar, one foot on the bass drum and a mic. For this appearance, though, the San Francisco native has an actual band, a drummer, and a bass player. His show is still pretty stripped down, however, from the staccato-strummed, string-busting, cave-echoing “Drag” to the rockabilly rave-up of “Pretty Baby (You’re So Ugly)” to the eerie haunted narcotic spookiness of “Watching You”. By the time he finishes, with new single “It”, there’s a crowd gathered on the sidewalk, and why not? It’s the best thing I’ve seen all day.