Carolina Chocolate Drops
Showcases, Shows and Sets: Performances Persist No Matter What
As for the musical performances themselves, some were the expected solid sets that helped sustain brand power—in industry speak, that is—while others lived up burgeoning hype while more still petered away like balloons less their loads of viral marketing bluster. By Saturday night, it was clear that the entire event had taken its toll on all participants. Instead of embodying the growing energy of the biggest five-day music biz festival, artists, press, and local hosts were on their last legs—and in some cases at their wits ends.
Over the last three years I received several recommendations to check out the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African American trio from Durham, NC. After finally seeing them Wednesday, I was ashamed it had taken me so long. Three poly-instrumentalists playing styles of traditional African American music on banjos, fiddles, dobros and bones (yes, you’ve heard of playing spoons; now check out bones) and even reviving the dances that go with them: they were absolutely fantastic. Their vocal and string styles were unlike any I’ve ever heard (and I’ve listened to a good chunk of the Library of Congress/Rounder Records recordings by Alan Lomax). On some songs they seemed to be able to make traditional African American folk music as cool as contemporary R&B. For example their cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” was brilliant.
Later that night I saw Wanda Jackson, also dubbed the Queen of Rockabilly. Songs like “Let’s Have a Party” are as immortal as Elvis’s “Hound Dog”. I was feeling humbled and a little afraid of seeing the Queen at SXSW at her age, as I usually am when seeing such pioneers. I just can’t bear the thought of sympathy for a legend. Thus I was thrilled to find Ms. Jackson downright chipper, funny and flirty, if a bit verbose between songs. She still possesses that inimitable rowdy, hillbilly yawp. Like most SXSW sets hers was short at about five songs, though she did chatter a lot between songs. At one point she asked a psychobilly cat if his quiff was a wig or a hat. Much of the time she reminisced about touring with Elvis, bragging how she was once better known than he (about two months). The stage and sound at the Beauty Bar annex, like other SXSW shows, naturally left a lot to be desired. Wanda joked about the pillar in the middle of the stage and whether she should stand to its left or right.
Also Wednesday was the PopMatters showcase at the Paradise. The acoustic set by Chicago singer-songwriter Joe Pug stylistically reminded me of Springsteen’s “The River” at times and of Ryan Adams at others. Unfortunately, it being St. Patrick’s Day made it difficult to make out all his lyrics. Later, the cleverly named Pretty Good Dance Moves pulled off an interesting electronic set with dueling synths accompanied by the warm vocals of a hipster hottie.
My favorite electronic performance of that day (and perhaps of the entire week with the exception of some songs I caught by Holy Fuck on Saturday) came from unsigned Brooklyn band Tigercity. Their insanely catchy disco kept reminding me of what would happen if you applied the brakes to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”. At other times, I was convinced I’d heard some Bee Gees citations. Overall the group presented a fascinating mining of ‘70s disco and funky new wave guitars and synths (a la The Talking Heads without Byrne’s quirky vocals). I would be very surprised if this band is not exalted quickly the indie tastemakers that be.
Thursday was solid without yielding any major discoveries. In the afternoon I started at the Insound showcase at Club Deville. Much buzzed about Surfer Blood was just ending as I arrived (it was great for the one minute that it lasted). The Vivian Girls played next. This girl trio was much more Breeders, Helium and Tigertrap than Donnas or Runaways. Their nice, melodic guitar rock lacked attitude, though, the only traces of which were channeled via the cute bassist’s tattoos and shaggy bangs. Next I caught Small Black. Though competent, they didn’t leave much of an impression. All the marketing tie-ins I’d been hearing about over at the panels were in full-force though: Miller tallboys were being served all you could drink for three bucks, Saucony was giving away shoes and squirt guns, and iPods were constantly raffled.
One of my favorite lineups overall was Thursday night at the Prague, a rock ‘n’ roll blowout bill that consisted of superstar throwbacks from the CBGB golden age: the New York Dolls and Dead Boys in a new supergroup, Batusis, followed by London’s Jim Jones Revue, and the raucous royalty of soul-punk, The Bellrays. Batusis was great, especially the last four songs that were mainly Dead Boys and Dolls’ classics like “Trash”. Still, they lacked the energy of the Bellrays or Jim Jones Revue. Anyone who has any respect for the rock ‘n’ roll tradition associated with the wild keyboards of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Sonics, has been talking about JJR this last year. Jim Jones, formerly of Thee Hypnotics, has succeeded in forming a group that is at once virtuosic high octane ragtime, Jerry Lee Lewis and the MC5. Their recorded album is great; the live performance is even better. Afterwards felt akin to a runner’s high.
Another SXSW highlight was Roky Erickson along with Okkervil River Friday afternoon at Threadgill’s BBQ. The original member of cult group 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson’s equally known for nearly three decades of suffering mental illness, receiving shock treatment and believing he was an alien. Now he was backed by the impressive Austin indie folk rock group Okkervil River. They played a number of songs from their album True Love Cast Out All Evil , an assortment of songs from across Erickson’s career, chosen and produced by Okkervil River. Erickson came off as a weathered but angelic soldier-of-a-man, standing with arms out at his sides as if daring demons to strike, a peaceful smile beaming from his cool eyes. Many of the songs were slower ballads but they also rocked out, like on “Two-headed Dog” and his garage classic “You’re Going to Miss Me”. Ironically, in his husky-throated sixties Erickson’s music is now more moving than ever.
The reconstruction of another legend, the Texas Tornados, was not nearly as positive. About half of the original band is still intact, including the great conjunto accordionist Flaco Jimenez, but the late legendary front man Doug Sahm is replaced by his son Shawn. Also the vocals of the irreplaceable Freddy Fender were substituted by a unknown Garth Brooks-like hombre who, despite his good intentions, could not live up to the role.