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Music Days 1 & 2

Kevin Pearson and Jennifer Kelly





MIKE FARRIS @ Antone’s

Mike Farris is a musical map. His area of expertise is the Mississippi Delta, but I suspect he also likes to get in his truck on occasion and dart off wherever he pleases. With a ten-piece backing band, including horns and female backing singers, Farris’ performance is the most professional I have seen so far. It’s also one of the most heartfelt. Farris sings it like he’s lived it. Perhaps he has. While his songs fall under the general umbrella of Americana (this is, after all, the Americana Association showcase), he localizes each song through a variety of instrumentation. New Orleans horns, honky-tonk Nashville piano, Memphis soul, bluesy Delta guitar licks, and Southern gospel vocals all augment his already full-bodied acoustic-based tunes. What’s most striking, though, is his music’s redemptive quality. When he sings “a change is gonna come,” you believe him. It’s fitting, then, that his latest album is entitled Salvation in Lights; even the most troubled soul would find salvation in Mike Farris’ voice. (KP)



The first big find of the festival, this Michigan songwriter fields a big band of traditional instrumentalists -- hammered dulcimer, string bass, muted trombone, and fiddle -- to add heft to his meditative songs. Sensitive ballads about lost love and forgone kisses crescendo satisfyingly into life-affirming choruses wailing with violins. “Every Wall You Own” is a flat-out rocker, every beat punctuated by the thump of a drum and the pluck of rocking bass. (JK)


WHY? @ Emo’s Outside Stage

With two drum kits onstage, it’s clear that percussion is key to this group. The band’s songs are like disjointed puzzle pieces that get thrown into the air and manage to land perfectly put together thanks to WHY?’s rhythmic glue. Part of San Francisco’s Anticon Records, the group, led by Yoni Wolf, has developed a sound that is laid back and layered, a sound that, if it has to be termed, could be called hip-hop pop. The songs themselves, lyrically at least, are vignettes, little Raymond Carver-styled slices of the darker side of life. But it’s the subtle twists and turns -- musically and lyrically -– that make WHY? such an interesting band. They keep things fresh and interesting by keeping the beats fresh and interesting, throwing samples and vibraphone into the mix. Despite their obvious musical aptitude, there’s a certain childish playfulness to their songs that in the hands of others might not meld. It’s exactly this mix, though, of seriousness musicianship and a refusal to take themselves too seriously, that has fans asking not why, but why stop? (KP)

More Why? Photos



Austin’s Ugly Beats, an organ-laced, tightly harmonized sort of early Beatles band on record, take things up a notch live. Jeanette Attaway is thrift-shop adorable in a men’s tie, go-go boots, and a miniskirt, pounding at the Ace Tone organ that sweetens and intensifies the band’s sound. In song after song, stinging snarls of guitar run headlong into spiraling swells of Hollies-esque harmony. (JK)


JON MUELLER @ The Hideout

Drummer Jon Mueller has worked with a long list of big, out-there names -- Jarboe to Asmus Tietchens to Rhys Chatham to Glenn Kotche -- but he’s all alone tonight. His set starts with the lights down and a single green spot on the drum set. Mueller is a spectral presence, a shadow above the drum kit, and when he begins, there’s a primal shiver to it; we hear drums at night, in the dark, and there’s something primitive stirring here. The drumming itself, however, is far from primitive. In fact, it’s shockingly complicated. There’s a long interval at the beginning where Mueller is playing the cymbal with one hand, a wood-block-ish instrument with the other...simple enough, right? But no, you realize, after a certain disorientation slips in, that one hand is playing in an entirely different time signature than the other, rapidly, the two beats criss-crossing over each other flawlessly. (JK)



Mueller’s back to support Melissa St. Pierre, an avant-garde pianist out of Western Massachusetts. Her instrument looks like a baby grand crossed with a synthesizer, and it sounds, at various times, like an underwater xylophone and a percussive harp. Jim Schoenecker sits in on electronics, and the interplay of loops and live improvisation is interesting. The skitter of percussion and the plinking tones of St. Pierre’s instrument dance lightly over a surface of tightly controlled loops, a sort of geometrical kaleidoscope of sounds. (JK)



A large, long-running Milwaukee collective sets up a complex matrix of wires, pedals, and electronics on stage. (It looks like black spaghetti, all the wires.) Then, they play an intricate, all-improvised brand of post-rock with lyrical liquid intervals of guitar (and key-tar!), and riveting, tumultuous climaxes. The music is clearly difficult to play, and perhaps to understand fully, but it is by no means inaccessible. In fact, it edges pretty close to fusion-y, technically accomplished rock at times, like Tortoise, but more so. (JK)


Sarah Fox | Photo by Jennifer Kelly

JOEL GUZMAN AND SARAH FOX @ Austin Television Studios

Joel Guzman has been playing the accordion since he was four years old. As a child (prodigy), he was known as “El Pequeno Gigante” or “the little giant,” and as an adult he has played with most of the big names in Texas Americana music. Sarah Fox, his wife, has also played in support of a long line of distinguished twangy and Latin types. They open with a skanky, low-riding groove, then switch up to the sweet, tightly harmonized “Sangre Azteca” from Latinology. With “Angelita”, their fedora’d guitarist breaks out a gloriously thick blues solo, bending at the knees and swaying side to side as he coaxes the music out. The final piece, “Cumbia Mundial”, is full of joy and almost Cajun sounding, Guzman’s accordion romping light-heartedly over syncopated rhythms. (JK)


THE BIG SLEEP @ Red Eyed Fly

No one is getting enough sleep here, especially me, so I wander in to check out NYC trio The Big Sleep. They are impressive, starting with an alarming, head-pounding repetitive riff, a fierce churn of guitar, bass, and drums that pummels you relentlessly. And yet, it’s sort of peaceful, as really loud music can be, putting you into some kind of shut-down state, where the storm seems to rage around you (Or maybe it’s the beer?). (JK)



These guys are having problems with the amps when I arrive, but finally sort things out and settle into their massive Jesus Mary Chain-esque groove. It’s an enveloping sound, anchored by thundery bass, pounding bass drum (the 4/4 thump thump thump thump of bass drum is becoming a motif for this festival...blame Arcade Fire?), and glistening, shivering, pedal-altered waves of guitar, with whispery vocals over top. They are fun to watch, too, the guitar player bending and swaying with the waves of sound, the bass player lumbering up and down the stage with his heavy riffs. (JK)


Spinto Band | Photo by Jennifer Kelly


More bands should play kazoos. The Spintos start with “Oh My Oh My”, a blur of feedback and discord, coalescing into undeniably sugary hooks. They are fun to watch, though, rampaging over the stage, two singers at a mic within teeth-knocking distance, cranking those exuberant harmonies. For “Brown Box”, they haul out the kazoos and every band member, from lead guitar to keyboardist, is buzzing out that silly, joyful sound. “Oh Mandy” is even more buoyant, a cotton candy-ish pleasure that’s probably not good for you, but so much fun while it’s happening. (JK)


LAURA BARRETT @ Emo’s Inside Stage

Utilizing the Kalimba (an African thumb piano) as her main instrument, along with bass pedals and the odd accompanying banjo, certainly makes Laura Barrett one of the more unique artists at this year’s festival. She also happens to be one of the sweetest. “You can come up and talk to me after the set,” she states before her final song, compounding the fact that there is no freak in her vibrant folk ditties. On stage, it looks like she could be playing Nintendo, her quick-moving thumbs rotating around the small and intricate instrument with dexterous ease. And while Barrett does sound slightly similar to Joanna Newsom, she forgoes vocal histrionics for heartfelt high notes and sensitive songwriting that makes the audience feel at ease despite the unusual instrumentation. (KP)


MODEY LEMON @ Emo’s Annex

Slow-chugging, hard-rocking, mind-altering boogie stretches taffy-like into psychedelic trance in this single-song set from the Philadelphia trio. The three of them are wearing pink Hawaiian leis for some reason, but this is no Don Ho-down. They bob and weave through squalls of pedal-squooch, Moog blasts, and surges of ’70s-style rock with elements of soul and metal and punk subsumed into a single groove. (JK)


The Mae Shi | Photo by Jennifer Kelly

THE MAE SHI @ Mohawk

Adrenalized, abbreviated guitar bursts and robot-funky, sped-up bass lines emerge from somewhere behind a wall of people, and the Mae Shi rampage on, shouting and yelping and wreaking mayhem. As I arrive, they’re unfurling a giant bed sheet over the crowd; suddenly we’re all back in Montessori School playing the parachute game under its giant canopy. Nothing like a Mae Shi set to get out of the stiff-necked, gape-eyed SXSW trance. (JK)

More Mae Shi Photos



One of the original new wavers, Paul Collins drummed with the Nerves and led the Beat through the late ’70s and early ’80s. Now, dressed like the dad he almost certainly is in sweatshirt and baseball cap, he’s still raggedy and out there as he rips into “Rock and Roll Shoes”, yelping and howling over razor-like guitar and bass. His band closes with the blast-from-the-past “Hanging on the Telephone” (originally recorded by the Nerves), nostalgia for maybe three-quarters of the crowd, just another rocker for the rest. (JK)



Forget Hanson. Kitty, Daisy, and Lewis is quite possibly the cutest band around, and most definitely the cutest at this year’s SXSW. The three siblings, all in their teens, backed by mom and pop on double bass and guitar, pummel their way through a set of songs that steal from rockabilly and skiffle, pre-1960s country, and early, Bill Haley-styled rock and roll. While Lewis (17) comes across as a young Ritchie Valens, his sisters, Kitty (14) and Daisy (19), look like Lily Allen impersonating Bettie Page. On the surface, then, there’s a certain novelty factor to the band -- the hair and clothes, the family factor -- but the fact that each of them can play (piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele, drums) and sing, indicates deep musical knowledge and strong songwriting beneath their Greased-up exterior. (KP)


TYVEK @ Mohawk

Another buzzsaw-distorted, rabid punk band, these New Yorkers are lined up symmetrically: two bass players at either end of the stage, two guitarists next from the edge, and one drummer, who has apparently left his drum throne at home. The latter spends the entire set standing, bashing the cymbals and toms from shoulder level, beating the kit like he’d like to murder it. Tyvek’s a punk band, but there’s something hypnotic about their frantic, feedback-clouded riffs, as if by playing as fast and loud and dirty as possible, they somehow hit a deeper core of drone. (JK)


EL GUINCHO @ Red Eyed Fly

While it’d be convenient to shorthand El Guincho as Spain’s answer to Panda Bear, his sample-based lunacy is far more tribal and tropical than that of his American counterpart. Sure, they share the same ability to build upon beats, sustain samples, and create tension until tracks explode, but El Guincho explores a more dance-based arc. With only a sampler, a tambourine, and a floor tom for company, he gets the most of his minimalist set-up, pounding on his rudimentary percussion with a single drum stick while looping samples with his other hand. Whenever he gets a hand free, he orchestrates the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy with the flick of a wrist. And while his tracks veer from the blissed-out and transcendental to the totally insane, they all succeed in filling the dance floor. (KP)


Eugene Mirman


I know it’s a music festival, but sometimes it’s nice to put down the instruments and riff on something else, like Google alerts and bloggers. (According to comedian Mike Birbiglia, a Google alert once informed him that he was “pudgy and awkward.”) Like bands, comedians tread upon certain well-worn topics as a lyrical crux. During this set, we hear opinions on politics, religion, and sexuality, as well as the Internet in its many aspects. The key, though -- and it’s the same for both bands and comedians -- is to keep the territory fresh, yet familiar, which these comics do with a certain acute aplomb that restores the smiles we’ve lost while waiting for countless bands to set up. (KP)



Black Joe Lewis’ soulful style employs rock and roll as much as it does Otis Redding. Backed by a seven-piece band, including a three-piece horn section, the 26-year-old Austinite is raw and unrefined. Unlike James Brown, who was such a taskmaster he’d fine band members for any minor misdemeanor, it seems as though Lewis would fine band members if they weren’t smoking on stage. Such is his ramshackle take on soul. It’s a dirty version, all grit and grime, undone ties and scuffed-up shoes. And while his voice isn’t as versatile as those of the soul singers of old, the tunes more than make up for that slight vocal weakness, which is, incidentally, often overpowered by the swirling music that surrounds it. Despite this, Lewis is a great showman, dropping to his knees James Brown style while playing his guitar and hopping from foot to foot throughout a particularly vicious solo. After a while, though, the shtick gets stuck, and Lewis needs some variation to his amalgamation of soul and rock and roll if he wants people to stick around. (KP)

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