The SXSW music recap, part one

>> Friday, March 25, 2011

I said yesterday I didn't know how to begin to talk about the music I saw in Austin last week. Goddamn. I still don't. There was a lot of it, most of it awesome; I don't think any of it was bad, certainly none of it was terrible.

I saw, I think, if I'm counting this up correctly, thirty-five separate artists in five days, one of whom I saw completely by mistake at a non-showcase event, and, unfortunately, she was very, very good, but I have no idea who she was. (She played guitar and sang--does that help?) I saw shows in so many different kinds of venues, which was part of the awesomeness (for those of you who haven't been): that is, I saw acts play in churches, in bars, in clubs, on rooftop patios, on a festival stage, and under tents outside, and that doesn't include the people who were performing on streetcorners throughout Austin (and no, I don't have their names, either, and no, they're not counted in the swelling total I gave you in the first sentence). The kinds of venues may seem like a trivial issue, but it isn't really--a performance has a different vibe and not just a different sound when it's being given in a church in front of a couple of hundred people, say, instead of an open park before a crowd of thousands, or in an overpacked blues dive before a crowd of more-than-the-fire-marshal-would-put-up-with.

If there's a fault in the diversity of acts I saw, it's that there are genres of shows I didn't attend at all. I never did get in to see anyone playing hip-hop or traditional jazz, for instance; Wu-Tang and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band were on my list and just didn't make the cut because there were acts I wanted to see more. I didn't make it to Duran Duran or OMD, either, whatever category of '80s nostalgia you'd like to fit them into. I never made it round to wherever it was that Moby was DJ'ing, and I didn't get in to see any trance or electronica as such, though I did see one artist who I guess could be categorized as club or dance. Nor did I manage to catch any metal. The one punk band I saw was a J-punk act and was wonderful, but like practically all Japanese bands was so eccentric that it almost defies categorization in their own category, if you know what I mean, which is why you sort of have to say "J-punk" instead of just "punk."

Whether or not I saw any jazz at all depends, actually, on how you categorize Plastic Ono Band. If you label them avant-garde or somesuch, then I guess I accidentally didn't catch any jazz at all.

Yet for all those deficiencies, I saw a lot of bands in a lot of genres.

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011:

Wednesday was a stumbling first day for me, a gawky young colt staggering about Austin, a hick right off the truck tumbling into bars and looking confusedly at my high-tech map and scheduling handheld computer what with the GPS and Internet connection. I tried to pay for a free drink at the first venue I went into and never quite recovered equilibrium at what seemed like a cardinal faux pas. And then at the end of the day, I was tired, tuckered, worn down from perambulating about an alien city and consuming too many free beers before dinner, and the hours spent grazing the firmament the previous day, so I ended up stumbling home to bed at the early hour of midnight as my head turned back into a pumpkin and the mice scurried out in a panic.

Cerdd Cymru: Welsh showcase at Latitude 30

I was a good little pretend-journo, too, with my Galaxy Tab out and taking notes--or maybe not so good if anybody was counting the Facebook posts and tweets and the fourth Newcastle. "Free Bar" could be the two best words in the English language (more mellifluous than "cellar door," even), or the two worst words depending on how you feel about them later.

I wasn't sure what I would be hearing. The Welsh band I'm most familiar with would probably be Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, who sometimes sang in Welsh, something nobody did on Wednesday.

We Are Animal were a delightfully loud indie-rock four-piece, followed by a pop musician calling himself Bright Light Bright Light, who reminded me a bit of Howard Jones, musically, and didn't do anything for me (probably because he reminded me of Howard Jones, musically). I'd rather you didn't take that as a knock--yes, I hate Howard Jones (musically; I'm sure he's perfectly fine as a person), but if you like that sort of thing, you'd probably also like BLBL.

The Last Republic, on the other hand, was very much up my alley. A kinetic five-piece, they made the small stage set up at Latitude 30 seem even smaller than it was, pounding through a tight set that reminded me a lot of The Bends-era Radiohead.

I liked or wanted to like Gallops, who closed the showcase, but they had a rough time of it. The drummer seemed to be struggling with his monitors and after struggling through a short list and switching speakers and fidgeting with things a lot, the band finally just gave up. I couldn't tell you how impossible things were up there or whether they should have just tried to blast through the problems. Anyway, what they got through was tight; very angular, mathy instrumentals that reminded me of Discipline-era King Crimson (what was that, Crimson Mk. 2, Mk. 3? 2.75?) I think they're worth checking out if you like your really analytical prog, anyway, and I hope the rest of their performances at South-By went more smoothly than the one at Latitude 30.

The House Of Songs Showcase at The Ghost Room

I hadn't heard of The House Of Songs before seeing the showcase announced on the SXSW schedule. Basically an exchange program for foreign musicians who want to come to Austin and work on music for a few months, the whole thing is a nifty idea and the showcase seemed like the sort of unique thing you're only going to see in a city with a robust music scene.

As for helpful information, assuming any of the artists who perform ever end up in your area or you see a CD on a rack or a name on the Internet music store of your choice--well, there I'm afraid I can be of less help. The House Of Songs showcase featured a revolving set of musicians performing in a variety of styles, but essentially acoustic and in a stripped-down setting; I couldn't tell you if the gorgeous Hanna Turi, who sounded a bit like a Swedish Tori Amos, always performs by herself on piano or on piano accompanied by guitar, or if that's just what she's been doing while she stays in Austin, or if that was just what she was doing for the showcase. Gudrid Hansdottir (from the Faroe Islands) also stood out, and the Kenyan gentleman, Abbi, who closed the showcase.

Courtesy of The House Of Songs Facebook page, the showcase roster consisted of:

backed at various points by:

  • Matt the Electrician
  • Troy Campbell
  • Danny Malone
  • Nathan Felix
  • Maggie Walters
  • Jon Nelson

Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Wronglers at the Victorian Room, The Driskill Hotel

Somebody official said there was room in the balcony, so maybe twenty or thirty people tromped up the steps in the back, whereupon the lot of us discovered that there was room in the balcony because unless you were actually standing at the balcony rail like all the people who were already up there were standing, you couldn't see a damned thing except the backs of the people standing at the balcony rail. The roominess, yes, was undeniable. That quality, however, had been earned by the fact that nobody wanted to be up there, and so almost all of us trudged back downstairs and returned to our positions behind columns and peering over the heads of people with unobstructed or less-obstructed views. The rationale being, I think, that if you were going to be somewhere you couldn't see, you might as well be in a blindspot close to the stage. Besides which, if I peered around the corner and stood on tiptoes, I had an adequate view of fiddlers Heidi Clare and Krista Martin. Sometimes I even managed a glimpse of banjo player Warren Hellman or Gilmore's left arm and the neck of his guitar, which (as you may know) is the part of the guitar that is played (the rest of the apparatus makes the noises).

Lines of sight or none, it was a damn fine show. But of course it would be: Jimmie Dale Gilmore is a country and bluegrass legend and a damn fine guitarist, and if you don't know that already, well, I don't know how to help you; your condition may be curable, though I'd say the prognosis is grim and you might look at your affairs one more time.

Gilmore and The Wronglers were very obviously having a good time on the stage, bantering and playing a setlist of traditional songs, including the less-murder-ballad-ey version of "In The Pines," the one describing the longest train ever seen but omitting the decapitation and mournful violence. (Your mileage will vary as to which version you might prefer, but regular readers are familiar with the way I gravitate to the ghoulish and macabre.) Tuning problems with Hellman's banjo became a gently-running in-joke and flubbed lyrics in a song late in the set were met with smiles and some self-deprecating humor from Gilmore after the band had played through the number, the solid professionalism of veteran musicians at ease with themselves and their audience. All said, it was a privilege to see the band and I look forward to the band's upcoming album, Heirloom Music, when it comes out later this year.

Herman Dune; Low, both appearing at St. David's Historic Sanctuary

These are being lumped together because I don't have much to say about the capable Herman Dune and caught his set as a prelude to seeing Low, who were on my very-short-list of acts I really, really, really wanted to see in Austin.

I've featured Low around here before; the Minnesota band often credited with inventing slowcore--I understand the band hates the label, but sometimes one word is worth a thousand others.

At any rate, if you're familiar with their brooding, haunted songs, you won't be surprised to learn that a church is an ideal place to hear them play. The wind was picking up and the lights outside the sanctuary threw the trembling shadows of trees onto the old stained glass windows while the band rattled and moaned and mourned the sorrows of the world. Alan Sparhawk's guitar threw up tall, breaking waves of sound followed by glassy stillnesses over Mimi Parker's dirge-drums, though "Monkey" came with all its sharp angles and menace. Anyway, it was a fine show in the perfect setting for the band, and though I'm personally satisfied there isn't a god, I'll concede the band drove some spirit through the audience communing in those dimly-lit pews.


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