South by Southwest Music 2005: A Field Journal
Friday, March 18 -- From the overhyped beats of Bloc Party and M.I.A. to the Southwestern pleasures of Calexico and Los Super Seven and back to the unjustly unheralded Hot Young Priest, our crew covers the highs and lows of SXSW 2005.
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MUSIC: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4
FILM: Day 1 | Days 2 & 3 | Days 4 & 5 | Day 6
Friday, March 18 - Day 3
Friday afternoon I got exactly what I expected (and wanted) from the Merge and Barsuk party. I showed up just in time for Crooked Fingers, who are supporting their smart new release Dignity and Shame. Live, they aren't that exciting, but their strong songs matched the day's mood, with people sitting outside in the sand and grass and just relaxing in the middle of a hectic week. Lots of artists from the labels were there, mingling with their fans and hanging out.
Jesse Sykes (without all of her band) followed Crooked Fingers, and I was hoping to be more excited by her than I'd been in the past. Her music was lovely but unassertive and she could have been a soporific except her lyrics have too much edge to allow that too happen. The Long Winters followed in what was a bit of a reunion show (we were told to consider it their "Central Park"). The duo seems like a mismatch onstage, until they start performing. While they mostly performed well (aside from a few blown lyrics), their stage banter was terrible, dragging down the show's momentum, and they generally acted with a lack of interest in what they were doing, bordering between careless fun and off-putting unprofessionalism.
M. Ward closed the show, and live he performs more like a guitarist than a vocalist. He hand his band were tight and fun, and his show-ending version of "Sad, Sad Song" was the perfect way to send the afternoon into evening.
Shout Out Louds
SHOUT OUT LOUDS � 9.00pm, Stubb's
I was ready to shout out loud, all right, but I don't think the band wanted to hear what I had to say. That this Swedish group was included in SXSW seems indicative that indie rock is still trying to find its new identity in 2005. Shout Out Louds combine the already tired '80s redux of last year, a little of the quirky pop that made 2003 such a great year, and a smidgeon of the '70s garage rock movement of 2002. Oh, and the Cure. If ever there was a singer trying to channel Robert Smith, it's the frontman of Shout Out Louds. Unfortunately, Smith's songwriting was not carried over in replication, so the audience was treated to cheap imitation sullied further by a lackadaisical performance.
BLOC PARTY � 10.00pm, Stubb's
Much has been made of Bloc Party and their '80s-derivative dance rock. Even among PopMatters writers, no one can seem to agree if this band is good or great. Judging by the sold out venue, I'd say just about every festival attendee wanted to find out the answer. You do have to give Bloc Party credit for sounding authentic, unlike most of the artists who have exploded in the last year. They don't try so hard to please, so the gimmick factor is low. Add to that a challenging urgency that's not immediately palatable, and you're left with a band that doesn't give anything away for free. That's right, fickle masses; your attention spans have to work a little. As for the show, I was impressed with the bare bones punk style with which they laid it down. There were no outfits, no choreography, and no cheese; it also sounded pretty damn great. For all of this, I will agree that Bloc Party is one of the better bands out there currently garnering the media's attention. But let's be honest here. Just because we're in a bit of a musical drought doesn't mean we should give more credit than is necessary, even if the artist in question is one of the best of the pack. Is Bloc Party an amazing revelation? God, no. Are they even the best at what they do? For my money, a much better version of the same show went down 24 hours earlier at The Nein's much under-hyped showcase across the street.
THE KILLS � 10.00pm, Emo's
Having never heard the Kills before, I walked in mid-set and was simply blown away. Immediately, this dark, menacing duo reminded me of Iggy's violent intensity, and like Mr. Osterberg, the Kills give me the impression that their art is a life-and-death matter, serious as a heart attack. Other antecedents that come to mind: Suicide's brutal minimalism and Velvet Underground's hypnotic drone. The band is composed of vocalist/guitarist W, a smashingly gorgeous femme fatale from Florida, and guitarist/vocalist Hotel, a sharp, wiry Brit whose instrumental skills bring the words "savage" and "feral" to mind. Backing them up were some smartly-programmed drum machines, spitting out beats that were forceful but not so overwhelming as to be annoying. Plus, W and Hotel looked utterly sexy together.
THE RAVEONETTES � 11.00pm, Emo's Outside Stage
I saw the Raveonettes perform just under two years ago before I even knew who they were. The performance blew me away, so imagine my dismay when I bought Chain Gang of Love and found it completely lackluster save for a couple of songs. Where was that loud wall of guitars? Where was the energy? The Jesus and Mary Chain copping was so blatant that I couldn't believe that this Danish couple was receiving so much praise. I thus entered Emo's ready to wield the critical hammer, and damn it if I didn't fall completely head over heels for the band again. If you've only heard the Raveonettes on CD and pondered exactly what "that great love sound" is supposed to be, the answer is a great live sound. It's the knock-you-on-your-ass guitar distortion that finally beefs up those infectious, if not too terribly original, vocal hooks. It's the hard-hitting drumming that seemed so lost in production on record that immediately reduced me to a dancing fool Friday night. The Raveonettes, while a duo, have had the good sense to tour with a full band. I just hope that the resulting big rock sound has been captured this time on their forthcoming release because another JAMC rehash disguised as 60s dream pop will be an even bigger letdown the second time.
The Raveonettes have a good stage presence, and I'm fond of their influences, but ultimately, I got bored towards the end of their set. In sound and look, they strongly resemble Sonic Youth without seeming like an absolute carbon copy of that band. Their sound also successfully incorporates some elements of more melodic pop, such as the classic work of Phil Spector and the Beach Boys. And, lead guitarist Manoj Ramdas has great rock star energy. For me, however, their lack of breadth outweighed these positive qualities: each of their songs sounds too much like the others for me to find them truly entertaining.
The New York Dolls
THE NEW YORK DOLLS � 12.30am, Stubb's
The New York Dolls, back after a hiatus of decades, are basically a one-trick pony, but it's a trick they do very well. This band is legendary for good reason: their glam, supercharged update on the Stones' blues-rock helped lay the cornerstone for punk as much as the work of the Stooges, the MC5, and Velvet Underground did. And, the Dolls' shows at the Mercer Arts Center in the early '70s were just about the only thing that kept underground New York rock alive between the demise of Velvet Underground and the rise of CBGBs. Most of the band, including the legendary guitarist Johnny Thunders, is dead and gone, but vocalist David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain can still play quite well and have done a great job of re-creating the band's vital sound. The Dolls ripped through many of their classics, covered Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory", and paid tribute to one-time Austin resident Janis Joplin with "Piece of My Heart". Interestingly, Johansen said the band is looking for a record deal, and they played two new songs, one of which, "We're All in Love", was quite catchy. No matter what new material they record, the Dolls are unlikely to again find themselves on the cutting edge, but hearing them perform, it was great to be reminded of the substantial contributions they've already made to music.
CALEXICO � 1.00am, Antone's
The SXSW gods finally smiled down upon me, and smiled widely they did. I was one of the last few let into Antone's, just two songs into Calexico's set. I was greeted by the uplifting flamenco horns and the smooth strumming of acoustic guitars. What I think I like most about Calexico is that their music seems to exist in this beautiful void. Yes, there are the Latin influences, but it's not really Latin music. It can be highly energetic, especially in a live setting, but calling Calexico a rock band seems inaccurate. Alt-country? Sure, you'll catch a glimpse. There is even that hint of '60s Nuggets pop going on, but it too is pretty subtle. I suppose the ingredients don't really matter as long as they get it right, which they have so far. Calling Calexico's appeal widespread feels like understatement; we're talking about a seriously diversified audience here. Hippies and hipsters came together, as did the old and young of all races and sexes. It was a virtual utopia up in this mother. The only thing missing was Neko Case.
(cue angelic singing from the Heavens)
And then, there she was on stage, and I had no idea she was even in town. I turned to jelly as the "slightly hammered", always adorable Neko took the audience through two Calexico-backed tunes. It was almost worth the price of the wristband alone. What finally sealed the deal was when Nicolai Dunger, Neko and others joined Calexico again a few songs later for an awe-inspiring "Alone Again Or". Sometimes, you just get lucky. Tonight, it was finally my turn.
BLOWFLY � 1.00am, Emo's
Blowfly is a 60 year-old, X-rated rapper/R&B singer from Miami who is so dirty he makes his friends and descendents 2 Live Crew look like The Christian Coalition. In reality, Blowfly is also Clarence Reid, a major figure of Miami R&B who played a key role in the development of K.C. & the Sunshine Band, had a Top 10 hit in 1969, and co-wrote the smashes "Clean Up Woman" for Betty Wright and "Rockin' Chair" for Gwen McRae. Apparently, as Clarence Reid, Blowfly once also served as a minister, but watching this performance, that's hard to believe. There weren't that many people in Emo's to see Blowfly, but no matter, he tore the roof off. He clearly meant to shock, and he succeeded with flying colors. His white drummer repeatedly used the N-word, presumably at Blowfly's request. He came out in a sequined jumpsuit with a cape and a mask, accompanied by two scantily-dressed, white go-go girls, who were often joined on stage by male and female audience members. Blowfly, who specializes in filthy covers of well-known hits, dedicated a song to R. Kelly called "I Believe My Dick Can Fly". Other highlights: "Pussy Hell" and "Booty Bus". A popular bumper-sticker slogan here in Austin is "Keep Austin Weird". With Blowfly in town, I don't think anyone needs to worry about that.
While my afternoon was predictable, my evening was anything but. Having heard rumors that the Arcade Fire were going to be the special guest at a certain show that night, I decided to take my chances. But before we even got to the guests, I had my first surprise of the night: the Rogers Sisters were really good. I had only heard a few of their tracks before, so even though I knew they played with energy, I had no idea that they would be so explosive. The screaming, bass-punching, and rowdiness never failed.
Then my second surprise: no Arcade Fire. Instead, we were told the Total were coming out, but that's not who it was. Instead Guitar Wolf came out, initially flaunting the style -- hair-combing, spitting, drinking, greaser-looks -- over the substance. Then the band went insane. For 35 or 40 minutes, they didn't stop, mixing noise and punk and rock at a high volume while rolling on the floor, machine-gunning the crowd with a guitar, knocking things over and throwing mic stands.
Toward the end of the set, the guitarist literally pulled someone up on stage and handed the fan a guitar. It turned out to be 23-year-old Josh Jones, who's a guitarist in Norman, Oklahoma's Evangelicals, and who was in town to do sound for another act. Upon receiving the guitar, he immediately started jamming, until he was grabbed and told to wait for the count-in, at which point he began rolling on the floor and playing a crazy solo. Guitar Wolf led him through jumps and all kinds of motions (and showing dismay at his fretboard-tapping). He handed the guitar back, and GW went even more insane, with a leap from a Marshall Stack and stage-wide chaos. The mix of wild-playing, posturing, and stage antics made for a show that left the crowd speechless.
Radio 4 came on next, and were better than I expected. They were very tight, and rockish, showing their no-wave influence. The second percussionist stole the show, breaking drum sticks, throwing tambourines to the audience and finally breaking down a solo during the last number, "Dance to the Underground".
Then the DJ played the Arcade Fire between sets, but by now I had no disappointment with missing them.
Robyn Hitchcock accompanied himself on electric guitar (his acoustic was broken), and the guy from the Long Winters and Harvey Danger joined him. After the evening's first three acts, Hitchcock was a bit of a drop in energy level, but he captivated the crowd with his smart lyrics and general magnetism. He's the only performer I've seen who's made tuning interesting (tuning to riffs rather than notes, and leading immediately into song from it).
The the other veteran: John Cale, who was far heavier than I had expected, and at least as good as I had hoped. Unfortunately, he had technical problems throughout, and the soundman had to spend more time on stage than he (or any of us) would have liked. He closed with a rendition of "Perfect" that matched its name.
Then Spoon, who you're just supposed to see in Austin. I had heard their live show's amazing, but last night I just didn't get what the fuss was about. They have incredible songs, but they weren't adventurous enough on stage. At times, they took risks and were exciting, but mostly they just did solid live versions of their albums. With songs that good, the show wasn't bad, but it made it hard to see why people are so in love with their live show.
Still my ears hurt but the night has left me very happy.