The Redcoats Are Coming! The British Invasion of SXSW '06
Ellis spends four days in Austin looking for the finest exports from Tony Blair's Cool Britannia. In lieu of monkeys, magic numbers, and Moz, his search yields Casio-pop, California harmonies, and communal sing-along epics.
My, how it's grown! Entering its 20th year, the South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) hosted by the fine city of Austin, Texas has grown from a small industry showcase into a vast and sprawling international music (and film) phenomenon. Though Austin still provides a solid representation of its consistently eclectic local music culture, and US acts in general constitute the bulk of the bands, noticeable in recent years has been a geographical broadening of the SXSW tent. Particular beneficiaries of this inclusive trend have been the British. A hundred-plus UK acts graced the stages, floors, and sometimes streets of Austin this year, in venues inside and out, large, medium, and small.
Intrigued by the lengthy list of British fare scheduled, I set about the business of investigating some small slices of what was on offer, side-stepping the buzzed-up heavyweights (Morrissey, Arctic Monkeys, the Magic Numbers), and gravitating to the (mostly) young acts currently putting the pep in the Albion's pop scene. What I discovered was an eclectic array of sounds, styles, and images emanating from all regions and outposts of the nation. My conclusion was that the state of the rock component of Tony Blair's Cool Britannia is currently alive, kicking, and primed for exportation.
Wednesday, March 15th
Armed with my (un)trusty wristband and enough beer money to last the long and winding rocky roads ahead, I donned my British correspondent cap and headed into the Austin night. Largely ignorant of many of the new crop of Brit-based bands listed, I adopted the trial-and-error approach, heading for venues with short(er) lines and bands with inviting names. Such a scientific approach is hardly fool-proof but it can lead you to some interesting and unexpected discoveries some of them pleasant. Such was the case at my first port-of-call, the Parish, where I discovered the Research, a diamond-in-the-rough three-piece who instantly captured my heart with their blend of coy innocence and cheeky amateurism. Hailing from Wakefield, Yorkshire (also home to the buzzier the Cribs), the Research did not quite present the scholarly earnest brand of rock that their name had suggested (so much for my band-name theory). Instead, they offered a charming set of three-minute Casio-based pop nuggets that evoked the elemental hooks of fellow Yorkshire predecessors, the Human League, as well as the disarming lo-fi wit of Jilted John and Spizz Energi.
Built around front man Russell's dry vocal delivery and keyboard poundings, the Research implicitly undercut the pretensions of much contemporary American pop-rock with their blissful simplicity and unassuming melodies. No melodramatic Killers theatrics here; no Bravery romantic bluster; just the catchiest templates of the pop form that would warm the cockles of Brian Wilson's heart should the Research's three-part harmonies ever reach his California retreat. The bite that should propel the band beyond the confines of home-recording obscurity is to be found in the sly, slightly contrived sense-of-humor that lights up their stage show and ignites their quirky lyrics. The songs' standard tales of boy-girl bliss and breakup are couched within the conventional lures of romance ("I love to see you smile / The way you used to smile"), but are then followed with expectation-stripping deconstructions ("I love you but I'm scared I'll fuck it up"). Each is delivered with the same large doses of syrup and bubblegum, courtesy of the high-pitched back-up vocals of sidekicks Sarah and Georgia. Discovering at my first stop what turned out to be my fave act of the festival was fortuitous, though it set the bar of my expectations rather high for the entertainment thereon.
My next stop, at the Jackalope, provided yet another rough-hewed gem, though of a markedly different shape, size, and texture. The Rebel is a London-based bunch of nutters who produce bizarre art-folk under layers of weird sonic wonders. Fronted by B.R. Wallers, a geek-type outfitted in army fatigues, shirt 'n' tie, cowboy hat, and coke-bottle glasses, the Rebel is a graduate of the British anti-image academy that has produced such iconic mavericks as Mark E. Smith and John Cooper Clarke. Wallers led his "Cuckoo's Nest" cast of crazies through songs about burritos and bombs in Iraq (that's in the same song!); another included a shopping list of complaints, one pitched at past PM Maggie Thatcher for taking their (non-medicinal) drugs away (not a new song, I would guess). Watching Wallers marry his jagged guitar lines to his lyrical meanderings reminded me of a less cogent Robin Hitchcock, though he also had me imagining what Syd Barrett might sound like if he ever left his mother's house and somehow landed back on stage with an electric guitar in his hand. I suspect the result would not be a million miles from the Rebel's madcap adventures.
Thursday, March 16th
Still a little shell-shocked and a might confused by the previous night's strange offerings, I entered Day Two by wiping the slate clean with a traditional pre-Patty's day breakfast (i.e., Guinness) at B.D. Riley's Irish Pub. It so happened that four of Ireland's upcoming acts were also playing an early 10.30 a.m. to midday shift there. Kicking things off were the Guggenheim Grotto, a Waterboys-esque group that woke up the natives with their inoffensive folk-pop ballads. The dreadlocked Duke Special followed with his brand of Rufus Wainwright-style camp epics pounded out via articulate piano patterns and a soaring soul vocal. His song "I Could Go to London" was particularly memorable. Last up were the Amazing Pilots from Coleraine, N. Ireland. Their set of Frames-type soul rock was tight and melodic, with hooks a-plenty. Showcasing some songs from their album, Hello My Captor, the Amazing Pilots sent me off into the noon-day sun with an Irish lilt in my step (must have been the Guinness) and a great bunch of songs in my head.
Free beer, barbeque, and Billy Bragg, all brought to you by the BBC, sounded like the choice next move to me. I had not seen Bragg since the days he performed free shows for the "Red Ken"-led Greater London Council back in the mid-'80s, when he and the G.L.C. were busy fighting the privatization processes of the Thatcher regime. I figured that today he would no doubt grace us with some of his newer material and was thus shocked and rather thrilled when he announced at the end of his classic opener, "The Milkman of Human Kindness", that he couldn't talk between songs (that was the shock) because he had to squeeze his entire first album into his 15-minute time slot. The thrill involved the nostalgic ride he then took us on as he rocked his way with note-perfect passion through his 1983 classic debut, Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy.
Listening to those songs again, as they fluctuated with natural ease between the personal and the political, was hair-raising stuff and made one realize what a national treasure B.B. has been over the last 23 years. When he ventured into "Lovers Town Revisited" 10 minutes into the set, the collective crowd was visibly moved by the song's detailed account of the sad and sordid in English youth street-life. As the Streets and Arctic Monkeys provide the current anthems of British working-class "ladd" culture, this song served as a reminder of how Bragg had once voiced their earthy sentiments with equally candid social realism and rather more humanity.
Wrapping up the album set in 17 minutes, Bragg was clearly bursting to share a thing or two with the crowd. It turned out that his social concern of the day was the international success of one James Blunt, author of that bloody awful "You're Beautiful" song. "I'm glad to be here, if only to show you that not all British singer-songwriters sound like James Blunt," Billy quipped with venom. Dishing the dirt on his fellow military-vet compatriot, Bragg informed us how, besides himself, Blunt was the only other tank driver ever to perform on Top of the Pops. Unlike himself, though, Blunt had been an officer, not a trooper. "You can tell by the haircut," he added.
Having connected some dots to the past, I set back to my primary mission of tracking the new blood of British rock. The Dirty Dog Bar played host to an eclectic collection of bands that evening, with the striking Carina Round up first representing Birmingham. Blessed with great vocal pipes as well as beauty, Round's set was sadly marred by myriad sound problems, as well as an overly busy backing band that rather overwhelmed the Carmel-like jazzy-rock nuances of her voice. The frustrations of the situation seemed to boil over as the set degenerated into various states of confusion, punctuated by Carina's periodic F-bomb outbursts and somewhat snotty banter. On her Glen Ballard-produced album, Slow Motion Addict, her natural vocal gifts are more readily apparent, and her emotional ballads should see her star soon on the rise.
Cardiff's People in Planes took the stage later, delighting the assembled with their brand of non-stop U2-esque rock anthems. Their flailing hair and flying limbs stage show often compensated for their sometimes one-dimensional tonal attack, though their closer, "If You Talk Too Much (My Head Will Explode)", suggests that with some more quality chorus hooks their stadium-rock ambitions may yet be fulfilled.
Poor organizational skills by the Billboard promoters (or whoever was responsible) left South London's the Capes with only 10 minutes to set up and about 15 minutes of playing time. This was a shame because these boys have all the ingredients to follow in the footsteps of current pop darlings like the Kaiser Chiefs and the Killers. Their marriage of (very) early XTC with the jagged alt-pop maneuvers of the Futureheads connects the Capes to the past and present of post-punk British pop. Songs like "Supergirls" are both Super Furry and Supergrassy, as bleep-electronics color in around solid guitar riffs and creative coalitions of vocal harmonies.
Though clearly a little flustered by their rushed set, singer Kris Barratt and guitarist Nick Cresswell were kind enough to respond to some of my mindless inquiries at the end of the night. They told me of the vibrant London circuit right now, spearheaded by fellow art (school) popsters Bloc Party, but how a scene as such had not coalesced. Looking to provoke some Hard Copy reactions, I asked them to comment upon the current Arctic Monkeys phenomenon, to which Nick diplomatically responded with, "No comment". Undeterred, and with my eye on provoking a new Beatles/Stones, Oasis/Blur battleground, I lied, "So I hear those Bloc Party guys think you're a right bunch of wankers." Refusing to bite, the boys politely sent me off into the wee small hours of Friday morning with my tail between my legs and the hooks of their songs firmly secured in my memory banks. Keep an eye out for the Capes' forthcoming album, Hello, which boasts a collection of bright and bushy-tailed songs that will have you whistling while you work or play.
Friday, March 17th
Discouraged by the waiting line that spanned blocks for the Kooks show, I decided to get my evening's pop sustenance from Snow Patrol at the large-capacity Stubbs venue. Unfortunately, the line there was even longer. Plan C led me to avoid the madding crowd and head to a hole-in-the-wall back-alley boozer called the Pecan Street Ale House. An intimate punk dive with stone walls, I thought I'd pay tribute to St. Patrick with a pint or two and a set from London-Irish Flogging Molly wannabees, the Neck, who were scheduled to close the night after a set from the ubiquitous "Special Guests". Lo and behold, it turned out that the "S.G.s" were none other than the pride of Rhyl, Wales, the band that helped teach U2 the art of rock megalomania, the 20-year veterans who brought us "68 Guns": The Alarm! With not a "flock of" hair out of place two decades later, Mike Peters led his band of ageing warriors through a raucous set of classically earnest and eternally-cheesy anthems. Sometimes one has to surrender to the cause, and the Alarm reminded me that beyond the hipper-than-thou ironists of modern alternative rock there will always be a spine-tingling place for the excesses and self-indulgent "battle cries" of the likes of the Alarm.
Saturday, March 18th
After enjoying a day-time second helping of the Research (whose songs had been living with me since Wednesday night) at the hospitable Moonshine bar, I stopped in at the Eternal for their coveted Manchester night. First up was a bright pop-rock band called Polytechnic, who I had been meaning to track down all week. However, though their songs on disc are undeniably engaging (more Buzzcocks-Manchester than Joy Division-Manchester), their Eternal set did not do them justice. Their sound man seemed more intent on tapping into the band's inner Happy Mondays than in showcasing their melody-driven tunes. Drowning all vocals and guitar subtleties beneath a bass-heavy burden, Polytechnic suffered when they could and should have shined.
Cognizant that time was running out and the final hours awaited, I cut a hasty retreat to Friends a block down to catch the fantastic metal-popsters Damone, who, unfortunately, exist beyond the parameters of this piece by virtue of coming from Boston, Massachusetts. However, if America persists in not accepting this Weezer-meets-AC/DC act into its hearts and charts, I am sure the British would be more than happy to adopt these adorable stray rockers and make them the stars they should surely be. But I digress...
Maggie Mae's provided my next destination, where the Duke Spirit and Mystery Jets were representing variant strains of London rock. The former boasted a Nico look-alike singer and a cadre of pretty boys providing the back-up rock wall-of-sound. Despite their collective good looks, though, a generic blandness pervaded the Duke Spirit's set such that I was not the only onlooker checking his watch for the up-next act. This came in the form of the Mystery Jets, who proceeded to breathe an up-beat affirmative air through the entire club (or was that the marijuana?). Mining the Brit-hippy terrain of Polyphonic Spree, the Jets rallied their adoring fan-base with a series of communal sing-along epics. Multiple permutations of guitar, keyboards, and drum patterns weaved webs of intrigue into their inventive song structures, all delivered with the delight and enthusiasm of a bunch of kids (and a 70-something guitar player!) who clearly enjoyed what they were doing. Hot off a European tour with Arctic Monkeys, look out for Mystery Jets to take their fun-filled workouts like "You Can't Fool Me Dennis" to the next level.
As has become my tradition at SXSW, I wrapped up the festival courtesy of lefty country-rock legends Waco Brothers. Fronted by the Mekons' Jon Langford, the Wacos hitch his patented Yorkshire wit to a wagon filled with rousing spirit-raising rockers that evoke the Clash had they taken a more country & western route. The pride of Bloodshot Records as always entertained their assembled disciples (of mostly 30- and 40-somethings) with a ragged but authentic set of (sometimes subversive) anthems, offering temporary escapist respite from the corporate trappings that have come to ultimately define and quietly underpin the recent SXSW festivals.
Sunday, March 19th
As if to symbolically represent the British presence in Austin, the skies opened up on Sunday morning and for the entire 12-hour drive back to my Kansas home-base it never let up. However, as my friend Dave and I sang merrily along to the up-beat songs on our newly acquired Research and Capes discs, it became clear that the ever-miserable weather in the UK was likewise having little effect in dampening the sprightly spirits and pop thrills that currently define the state of new British pop music.