The SXSW music recap, part four

>> Monday, April 04, 2011

I think this post actually brings me to the end of my SXSW blogging. Hm. Surprises me a bit, that. I imagine some of you will be grateful, though.

Although I didn't leave Austin until Monday, Saturday was, in some respects, my last day at South-By. It was the last day I went to any shows, the last day for panels and speakers, and Sunday was a personal wind-down day, a day for walking around a bit and retiring early because my flight out required me to be up by four a.m.

But I don't think that was why Saturday became, perhaps, my fullest day there. I think it was that by this point I'd fully acclimated to the environment, was fully participatory, if that makes sense. I knew my way around a bit--if I was going to see a place on E. 6th Street, I had a rough sense of where 6th was and where it divided between East and West. I had a sense of where things were spatially related to the hotel and the Convention Center. I knew what to expect in queues, I felt a sense of being connected to what was going on. If I'm able to get back out there next year or in 2013--and I so want to get back out there as soon as I can--I think I will be prepared to just slide into a groove and ride it.

Saturday, anyway, was a good day.




Kitten, Scars On 45, The Republic Tigers and The Joy Formidable performing at the Chop Shop/Atlantic Records Party, Brush Square Park

After an awesome panel about Blind Willie Johnson, I had lunch on the street and went across the way to where I knew I could find The Joy Formidable, who were one of my more essential bands to see. I was early. I was way early. I was, as it would happen, the beginning of the line that would queue up until they opened the fence around a park that was basically just an open lot of grass and dirt with a tree in it, with a tent erected over a stage at one end and a few tables along with two tables that would serve as the free bar for the event. I could have gone somewhere else and seen an alternate universe of other acts, I wanted to see The Joy Formidable.

Kitten opened the set, a fierce four-piece fronted by a feisty kid who bounces around stage in her stocking feet; and I mean "kid," the oldest member of the band is an ancient twenty-two and from looking at the band's SXSW bio it appears Chloe Chaidez is fifteen, so she was basically playing a venue I don't believe she could have gotten into otherwise. But they rocked, and that would be what's important, no? It was a tight, ferocious set that belied the band's youth (honestly--I'm actually a little shocked to be doing token research for this post to discover these weren't college kids tearing through their numbers).

Scars On 45, on the other hand.... I am trying, after attending one of those panels at South-By, to be generally positive, but Scars didn't do a thing for me. It's not for a lack of ability, it was just a sense that this was the sort of indie balladry that I've heard a lot of, the kind of thing that might show up in a movie about hipsters in love who have to work on opposite sides of the country, and during a montage where they're standing in windows looking at reflections of themselves and pining for their faraway love, a Scars On 45 song will play in the background as the scenes cut back and forth, oh, the pining. And then there's a misunderstanding about a plane ticket, or he calls her while her ex-boyfriend has dropped by for something completely mundane and sexless and he misunderstands, or she finds a drunk e-mail he thought he deleted, and there's jealousy followed by more pining followed by reconciliation, credits.

Which, if you like, you probably would have loved. I wandered a bit and wished the beer line was short enough to justify getting back into. This possibly says I'm a terrible person lacking in judgment more than it says anything about Scars. I concede this. In my defense, let me just say: I didn't place any phone calls during their set.

Kansas City's The Republic Tigers got my interest back and held it pretty quickly, though I find myself without any notes as to why, honestly. I liked them. I may post a clip from one of their performances later this week so you can judge for yourselves.

I've already posted a clip from Wales' The Joy Formidable recently, and I won't belabor the point: they are ferociously loud and attack their songs with such exultant exuberance that the band's name ultimately seems less another-cute-turn-of-phrase band name and more of a simple and direct mission statement. They are just so damn good if you like walls of guitar noise over a deliciously pounding rhythm section, if you just want to feel the noise, as the song goes--the dense, melodic noise. And lead guitarist Ritzy Bryan solved the mystery of the piñata guitar that kept getting carted back and forth and hidden badly behind amps between set changes by smashing the bright resplendent thing to bits at the end of The Formidable's set, which doesn't have much to do with anything but did seal the awesomeness with a kiss, just so you know.

Haley Bonar, Sharon Van Etten; Central Presbyterian Church

I think I missed the first half of Haley Bonar's set; she wasn't someone I was familiar with, I was there early to see Sharon Van Etten, following. Getting there early may have been pointless, since nobody else did (it seemed) and I found myself giving up my seat as people asked me if I minded sliding down, leading me to eventually grumble--out loud, I regret--"So much for showing up early."

I am so sorry to the poor woman I did that too. I'm sure you and your boyfriend are very nice people who normally arrive to events on time.

Ms. Bonar reminded me of Bluebird-era Emmylou Harris: a bit of a country inflection, but not-so-much, and not really falling into what I'd call alt-country (see also) so much as, I dunno, alt-folk, maybe. A lovely voice and a sweetly laid-back, yearning vibe, and I found myself pulling out the BlackBerry to send my mom a note that she might want to look for Ms. Bonar's work sometime.

Van Etten is promoting last year's Epic, one of last year's albums that you should probably own if you haven't picked it up already. She seemed a little hoarse but still delivered a beautiful set that ended with her singing the achingly-good "Love More" solo, accompanying herself on harmonium. I wouldn't have minded seeing her twice, actually, though I had to sacrifice her earlier showcase at Swan Dive on Wednesday.

I've previously done a whole post on Ms. Van Etten performing "Don't Do It" here, which is worth a look if you haven't, or another one if you have. Epic really is a damn fine album.

Brandi Emma, The Damnwells; The Tap Room At Six

Before I found The Tap Room, I went into another venue at more-or-less the same location and heard a swell singer on a rooftop. If I knew who she was, I'd tell you, but sadly I have no idea and I'm not even absolutely sure of where I was.

Descending underground when I realized my mistake, I caught Brandi Emma's set at the time The Damnwells were scheduled and then a woefully short set from The Damnwells themselves.

I was also hit on, sort of, by a drunk townie who was probably less interested in me than in the fact I had a badge and she'd passed the point of alcohol-enhanced bravery in her bluff to gain entry to arrive in that state of vague, shapeless paranoia that everybody was going to notice that she wasn't, strictly speaking, supposed to be there. I'm not being self-effacing, by the way: setting aside the question--and I'm not trolling, so please don't answer it--of whether or not I'm cute, this poor lass was simply too inebriated to know whether I was or not; when she leaned into my shoulder I'm afraid it suggested flirtatious near-intimacy less than it evoked a sailor clinging to a mainmast in heavy seas under a black lightning-strewn sky. And then she stumbled off for another ill-advised glass and I never saw her again; perhaps some shark in the crowd noticed her short dress or perhaps she made it to the restroom and was indisposed therein.

All this while, Brandi Emma was performing. She seemed nice.

I don't know if it's fair to say The Damnwells are reminiscent of late '70s or early '80s rock or if it's better to say they evoke that era; they're not a band that sounds like Cheap Trick, say, but they do suggest that same knowing, snarky-but-not-mean, crowd pleasing-but-not-compromising spirit that I associate with Cheap Trick in their prime. They don't sound the least bit like Journey, either, but again evoke those big catchy hooks and open sound--and again there's that sort of knowing twinkle in the sound, which isn't necessarily '70s at all (I wouldn't say Journey was a band that heard of, much less appreciated, irony).

One of my favorite Damnwells tracks--it's an old one they didn't play in the set I saw--is a song called "I've Got You" that shamelessly steals lines from about a dozen power ballads: I mean it flat-out-ballsily lifts lines from the soundtrack of a Gen Xer's life and cheekily drops them in. And it shouldn't work but it completely does. Like I said, they didn't play the song in the set I saw, but it sort of perfectly sums up the spirit of the band's sound.

They didn't play much, getting through only a small handful of songs before the powers-that-be decided things were too far behind schedule and things needed to zip along. The audience clamored for one more song but we didn't get it--lead singer Alex Dezen apologetically said, "I don't think that's how it works"; well, it worked for The Dears, but that's just how it goes. The short set was solid, anyway, and I'd like to hear the rest of the new album, and I would've been happy to hear more songs that night.

mi-gu, Plastic Ono Band; Elysium

So Yoko Ono was one a.m. Sunday. I went back to Elysium and effectively finished my festival there, searching for the bartender who'd managed to successfully make a bourbon old-fashioned with orange juice the previous evening and got him to repeat the trick. And I also had a glass of Crystal Skull on the rocks to toast the festival (a couple of years ago a good friend very generously procured a bottle for me that ended up being opened with friends to toast surviving a near-death experience; toasting a good big-life-event with the same seemed apt for a couple of reasons).

All of the acts playing that last night were connected, one way or another, to the current incarnation of Plastic Ono Band. I'm not sure the best way to describe mi-gu's jazzy playing around except to say it was pretty damn cool.

And I'm going to say something that could be surprising: Plastic Ono Band was pretty damn cool.

Okay, here's the thing: I don't know the last time I actually heard Plastic Ono Band's Yoko-dominated stuff, or if I have. The John Lennon-led John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is an unbelievably good album, one of the best of any of the post-Beatles solo albums. There's a sort of meme bouncing around that the Yoko stuff is just senseless screeching or somesuch.

But the avant-garde has a way of becoming mainstream, given enough time. Ono performed old cuts that, frankly, sounded like they would have fit in just fine on the second disc of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma or Atom Heart Mother or The Alan Parsons Project's I, Robot. (I don't know that the Floyd were influenced by the contemporary work being generated by Ono--rather, Ono and the Floyd were probably drawing from the same well.) And Ono's new stuff sounded like it could have gone along with, say for instance, some of Wilco's noise-jams on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born or Sky Blue Sky; which may not be coincidental--I was crushed to discover when I arrived at Elysium that I'd missed a set featuring Wilco's Nels Cline, an awesomely brilliant guitar player, and elated to find him taking the stage with Plastic Ono Band as a current member/participant.

See, and I like early Pink Floyd and late Wilco, even when their stuff doesn't work and just spirals out of control and ends up being an interesting failure. I enjoyed Yoko Ono's work Sunday morning at Elysium. I won't say she was doing stuff that anyone would dig, or that you should rush out and buy every Ono Band record you can find. This is the whole thing with experimental music, right, that some experiments don't cohere but may nonetheless be interesting if you grok any of what the artist is trying to do.

Sometimes experiments are beyond failure. I'm more than halfway convinced that Lou Reed's infamous Metal Machine Music really was a prank played upon his audience and his record label. Then again, dude married Laurie Anderson--maybe he was being sincere. But I didn't think anything that the Ono Band played would be anything that I would call a failure, interesting or otherwise.

I dug it, I'm saying.

When the lights came up, most of the audience left but some people milled about, perhaps to let the doors clear or maybe in case Ono came back out. Which she did; she and her son, Sean Lennon, backed by another member of the Ono Band, came out and did a couple more songs for us. It was a sweet, touching moment, and a privilege to be present for. She didn't have to come back, the show was over, but she and Sean wanted to, and that's maybe the greatest thing a performer can offer: themselves.

It was the perfect high note to close South-By on.




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