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Friday, Mar 20, 2009
Photos: James Edward Crittendon

Oh Susanna (aka Suzie Ungerleider) is a criminally underappreciated songwriter. Her newest effort, Short Stories, is well-named because throughout her career she’s told a variety of tales in personas ranging from wronged women to God-crazed killers.  Her robust voice cut through the Velveeta Room’s chatter, and she further set herself apart by being one of the few SXSW artists to maintain their normal stage banter despite the abbreviated playing time. Backed by drums, bass, and crackling lead guitar, her songs really came to life tonight.


 


Tagged as: oh susanna, sxsw
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Friday, Mar 20, 2009

I’ve long been of the mind that Primal Scream’s 2000 effort, XTRMNTR, was a victim of self-sabotage by the band. The disc’s first half marks some of the fiercest and most, well, primal music the band ever put down. The second half, however, faded just a touch. My cockamamie theory is that if Primal Scream had maintained that level of intensity from start to finish, it might have turned out like Monty Python’s skit about the world’s deadliest joke: Anyone who heard it would die. That effect thankfully doesn’t carry over to their live show, which was a relentless assault of rock groove. Couched at the end of the Cedar Street Courtyard, which is pretty much a wide alleyway with a bar at the back, Primal Scream hardly acted like they were trapped or cornered. After getting off to a strong start, technical difficulties brought them to a stop (with the band vamping through the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and singer Bobby Gillespie offering the crowd some thick-accented banter that needed subtitles while things got fixed). After that, they raised the intensity song by song, until they had the crowd going out of their minds by the time they got to “Swastika Eyes” and “Rocks”.


 


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Friday, Mar 20, 2009
Photos: James Edward Crittendon

This gathering celebrated the recently released Of Great and Mortal Men record, which devoted a song to each U.S. President (well, not Obama, since nothing had been written at the time of the disc’s release—but it’s out there now available for download).  Tonight, the group (consisting of members of Magnolia Summer, Southeast Engine, These United States, and others) would attempt only 27 songs. Far from the novelty nature such a project would suggest, songs like “Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus” (about Washington) and “Armed with Only Wit and the Vigor of the U.S. Navy” (about John Adams) are actually very affecting. Noting that they were playing tonight in the state associated with the 43rd President, the group announced they would next play record as part of Grant Park, Chicago’s Fourth of July celebration.


 


 


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Friday, Mar 20, 2009
Photos: Jennifer Kelly

There are tacos for breakfast on the patio at the Club DeVille, but I head straight inside for a Lone Star and a look at who’s playing. It’s Tim Easton, a veteran roots rocker with ties to Lucinda Williams (he was on tour with Williams, apparently, when he recruited his guitar player, Kenny Vaughn). Easton’s new album, Porcupine, is as much rock as country, not surprising when you realize that his new drummer, Sam Brown, used to play in New Bomb Turks. Chugging “Northbound”, about the touring life, is gritty and hard kicking and laced with singe-ing slides. Vaughn writhes like a fish on a hook as he plays, turning fast bends and pull-offs into a loose-elbowed, spastic sort of dance. And there’s real dancing, too. A couple breaks out into a spontaneous two-step, complete with turns and dips, in front of the stage. Easton tells stories during the breaks, about a pizza waitress in Athens, Georgia he admired from afar… and who might be very surprised to learn that he had written a song called “Stormy” about her. What he really wants to talk about, though, is his paintings, on view at the Yard Dog Gallery a few miles away.  “Take one of these postcards,” he says, scattering them into the audience.  “I made them myself, and I’m very proud of them.” Nice.


 


 


Tagged as: sxsw, tim easton
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Thursday, Mar 19, 2009
Photos: Jennifer Kelly
Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness


Down the street, at the Beauty Bar, I catch the very end of Fol Chen (masks, droning beats), and then wait for a while outside before Desolation Wilderness starts. It’s the K Records showcase, so no surprise that the band plays soft, coy lo-fi pop… or that they’re from Olympia, Washington. It’s an unstable combination, the nervy, wiry guitars, the flourish-y, glam-ish pop vocals, and it probably works better on a record than here, on another concrete-floored stage with heavy metal filtering in from next door. Not terrible, but not very memorable either.


 


Tara Jane O'Neil

Tara Jane O’Neil


Tara Jane O’Neil is next. She’s really the reason I’ve come. Her new album, A Ways Away, due out on K in early May, is a shimmering, golden-toned thing, full of guitar notes that hang in the air and lingering eerie slides, reminding me, a little, of Loren Mazzacane Connors. She’s playing mostly from this new album with just a drummer, and, while I think she, too, would do better in a smaller, more enclosed space, her songs are very beautiful nonetheless. I spoke to O’Neil a couple of weeks ago, and she told me that this album’s songs evolved out of live performance, rather than, as usual, her working them out alone. Still, they are quite inward looking, as is O’Neil’s performance. She has a hat pulled low, her hair spilling over the brim, so that all you can see of her face is a bit of nose and mouth, and that’s when she’s looking up. She begins, as the album begins, with “Dig In”, a slide-haunted, slow-building mist of a song, that clears only for O’Neil’s soft, strong, not-quite sweet voice. Towards the end, she beats with her fingers on the body of her guitar, looping the sound into an echoey drum-like beat, before adding the scratch of clamped guitar for another rhythmic element. A pile of tambourines is handed out to audience members, and, for such a reticent, shy performer, it is quite a communal moment, shimmering, evanescent, lovely… and you can only hear the metal bands outside a little through it.


 


Parenthetical Girls

Parenthetical Girls


Parenthetical Girls begin their complicated set-up almost immediately, hooking up Rhodes, Farfisa, drums, an artfully shattered cymbal, toy pianos, violin, xylophones, guitars, and bass, arranging stations for the band’s four instrument-switching members. Yet after all this effort, when the band starts, you can’t really focus on anyone, or anything but Parenthetical Girls’ charismatic frontman Zac Pennington. He’s the kind of rock personality that you recognize immediately, that you see, in the bar, having a drink, with more verve than most singers can muster on stage. Slight, pale, a red slash of curly hair falling over his eyes, a wide, emotion-carrying mouth and razory cheekbones, he looks like a lost boy (and a little like a lost girl). On stage, and often off it and trailing a mic cord, he marches military style, forwards and backwards, leans over the stage for the photo, all the while crooning, belting, shouting, flirting in a voice so flowery and elaborate, he might have borrowed it from Morrissey’s closet. In any other band, lovely Rachael Jensen in Mad Men-era vintage, swilling a PBR with a violin under her arm, would command attention. Here she simply fades into the background, all spotlights focused on Pennington. Parenthetical Girls have been on the road lately, with the Evangelicals, and apparently spending a lot of time playing gender bending “Marry/Fuck/Kill” games in the van. Tori Amos? Marry her. Fiona Apple? Fuck her. Regina Spektor? Kill her, says Pennington. A couple of songs later, it’s the guys’ turn, and Pennington opts for lust with Morrissey, wedded bliss with Michael Stipe, and homicide towards Lou Reed. Weirdly, you can imagine Penniman doing all that with any of them, his appeal theatrically pansexual and also weirdly vulnerable and touching. A great set, including “Young Eucharists”, “Here’s to Forgetting”, and closing with the Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark cover “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)”, Pennington urging everyone to turn his band’s Judy Garland T-shirts into this year’s No Age tee, the SXSW memento of choice.


 


 


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