Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Monday I got Friday on my mind

SXSW rolls on and the days gets longer and the nights shorter (or is it the other way around?) Friday began as a sprint and finished up as a forced march but I wouldn't have it any other way. After one last glimpse at the trade show (slim pickings this year -- I only landed two pens and how many damn key chains can one person use?) it was on to Stubb's and the Spin party. Having gotten my start writing for the underground press I always liked SXSW for the fact that it was sponsored by the nation's alternative publications, but the end of print journalism is bearing right down on us and as much as I hate it it's nice to know it was fun while it lasted. The SXSW bag had a copy of the soon to be disappeared No Depression magazine and with Harp going down as well there may soon come a time when there will be no place you can read a 10,000 word piece on Death Cab for Cutie without a single Vivian Stanshall reference in it. Well he's gone too (dammit) and soon so will the rest of us but what is making me write this way? Could it be that relentless Texas sun, those vultures hovering over me? Oh, those are just those talking talking heads again telling everyone how exciting and fabulous it all is. Time for a plate of brisket, then a retreat to South Austin, where a seat at the bar in the cool, cool Continental Club waits for me and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is buying the Tecate. Oh yeah, I didn't stick around the Spin party for this year's buzz band, Vampire Weekend, but nobody had anything good to say about them (could they be history even before the release of their debut album?) so I am happy with the decision to beat the heat in the Continental crypt. And, as it turns out, watching the cream of New Orleans music in action (at least at first), the coming-into-his-own Glen David Andrews, who is catching up to cousin Trombone Shorty and already past cousin James Andrews, the great songwriter Paul Sanchez and New Orleans' newest queen of song, Susan Cowsill, whose magnificent voice won her Female Vocalist of the year award at OffBeat's Best of the Beat awards, and when you can beat out Irma Thomas for such an honor you ain't just whistling "Dixie." Susan sang her own stuff then was joined by her older brothers for a Cowsills reunion (one of several during SXSW) to sing "Hair," a delight hard to categorize, especially to hear New Orleans' queen of song recapitulate her six-year-old comic cameo singing "spaghetti!" Demonstrating that even great progamming has its limitations some execrable group followed, a band so bad they must be related to Ray Nagin or managed by a Jazzfest organizer in order to have been included on the bill. Thankfully I have blanked this awful group's name from my memory and replaced it with the gleaming vision of an icy cold Tecate, which was still coming across the bar gratis at this point. No less a dignitary than Augie Meyers had joined me at said bar, although Augie was drinking tequila. Augie was in good spirits condemning the internet as the anti-Christ, telling political jokes and congratulating his son Clay for having the sense to get out of the music business. Thankfully Augie himself was less inclined to take that route, having set himself up pretty well in his beloved San Antonio with the occasional foray here and there to play that amazing Vox Continental organ sound. And of course, accordion. When I told him I'd been hanging with Billy Gibbons Augie said "Billy told me that 'Hey Baby Que Paso' is the national anthem of Texas!" Apparently they've met. We raised a toast to the recently departed Rocky Morales, tenor god of the San Antonio horns, and Augie updated me on the whereabouts of Joe "King" Carrasco, who is living and working in Mexico. "I got a call from Joe saying 'Come on down, I have 500 fifty dollar gigs!'," Augie related. "I told him 'Get me one $500 gig and I'll be there'." Augie was playing later that night at Jovita's with the Krayolas.
The Iguanas were up next to play the Continental's happy hour and the latest configuration of this great group had it Tex-Mex R&B chops down. It wasn't even dark and the night was already in full, full swing.
After a visit to the annual SXSW party thrown by Cory Moore at his restoration museum for priceless antique cars, the South Austin Speed Shop, it was on to Jovita's for the Krayolas, the San Antonio-based britpop band that took over where the Sir Douglas Quintet left off. One of Doug Sahm's greatest albums, a tribute to San Antonio's west side, was titled The Return of Doug Saldana, an iconic title. Though Krayolas leaders Hector and David Saldana were obviously not on Doug's mind when he made that classic, they are keeping the name alive. This reunion, with Augie sitting in on organ, was jaw droppingly amazing, all the bright, melodic power of Britpop combined with the twang, fuzz and sustain of Texas rock & roll played by a two guitar quartet. In addition to their own outstanding originals (check out Best Riffs Only on Box records) the Krayolas own the distinction of being the only live band I've heard play both Beatles and Dave Clark Five songs in the same set (the Radiators have done Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers in the same set which is also pretty amazing).
The Krayolas were so great that Shawn Sahm and the Tex-Mex Experience, good as they were, could not reach the same intensity level in the following set. No shame there because the Krayolas are my new favorite band.
I tempted fate by returning to the Continental for the playout of the Ponderosa Stomp showcase. Though I caught a good portion of Michael Hurtt and the Haunted Hearts' set, Kenny and the Kasuals were a disappointing finale, one of the very few times the Stomp has let me down. But I was satisfied and walked back over the hill to South Lamar with the strains of the Krayolas rocking my mind.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

You're gonna miss me baby

Sometimes the events with the fewest people at SXSW are the most fun.

Thursday's noon showcase at the Park across from the Convention

Center (nicknamed Concentration Moon) did not draw many contestants

but provided more than a few delights. Hosted by New York's Bowery

Poetry Club, the gig offered attendees the chance to hear scruffy

young poets deliver gnarled observations about the New Jersey turnpike

in between some exhilarating music, especially by the outstanding

young band Fireflys, who closed their set with the dance

anthem "It's a Party."
That song could have been the theme for the week because behind every

club door, inside every parking lot, behind every chain link fence

somebody was having a party, showcase or music blast all over town. I

made my way over to the New West party but didn't stay long as the

music was less inspiring than it has been in the past and I didn't

recognize as many people as usual. South Austin beckoned. Up and down

South Congress there was one wild time after another. Hard to beat

the all day party at Yard Dog, the great art and curio shop with

bands in the back yard and free beer under the blistering hot Texas

sun. Toward the end of the day Black Joe Lewis played a transcendent

set at Yard Dog, which as usual was wall to wall people in the

backyard spilling out into the alleyway up and down the street. Lewis

is a young blues player with a great voice and an instinct for Texas

blues guitar. Working with a San Antonio-style horn section Lewis

plied his way through blues warhorses like a seasoned veteran. It's

great to see a new generation of Texas bluesmen (Gary Clark is

another) carrying the torch for this great music.
Speaking of Lewis and Clark, they were joined on the SXSW Austin

Chronicle Music cover by a real pioneer, Roky Erickson, and that same

day Roky was at the bottom of the hill at Threadgill's hosting his

ice cream social. At the end of Roky's set the crowd went wild as the

red bearded Billy Gibbons strapped on a guitar to join Roky for the

last four tunes of his set, including "Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed

Dog)" and an incredible version of "You're Gonna Miss Me," songs

Gibbons knew from Roky's days leading the legendary Texas psychedelic

rockers 13th Floor Elevators.
"I told 'em I'd do it if they ley me play the electric gong solo,"

joked Gibbons, who fit into Roky's tightly-knit band like he'd been

playing with him all his life. It was really interesting to hear

Gibbons back up a harmonic line, play a fill or just accent a single

note and recognize that unmistakable tone from a million Z Z Top

records. At the finale Gibbons finally cut loose after playing the

respectful backing musician, unleashing a fearsome solo that ended

with him playing with only his left hand as he let the neck slide

down through his fingers in a showcase move.
"I've idolized Roky all my life," Gibbons later explained. "When he

was 19 I was a 16 year old following his every move. As far as his

singing goes, it's like him and Little Richard, forget the rest. When

you have a voice like that you don't realize how you're doing it, it

just comes naturally."
Gibbons was in such high spirits that he jammed again later that

night upstairs at the Continental with the Mike Flanigin B3 trio, playing Albert Collins-style blues licks while Flanigin played his B3 and Chris Layton sat in on drums. It's good to see Gibbons hanging and playing in different settings. Could it be that this Texas guitar giant is paving the way for a solo project?

Monday, March 24, 2008

What goes up must come down

My experiences with SXSW have taught me not to expect too much and always ready to be surprised. In my first years at the festival I made a ridiculous effort to see everything, which is of course impossible. I developed a kind of holographic analysis of bands – listen to 15 seconds and project the entire sound of the group from the information at hand. In the case of strictly formatted genre musicians, which at this point make up well over 90 percent of the music content of SXSW, this method can be very useful at tossing out the truly incompetent and those who are there on adrenalin alone. Keys like – are the players in tune, does the rhythm section play as a unit, is anybody listening to other members of the band – are immediately apparent. If a band shows any penchant for melodic invention, harmonic architecture or individual personality it merits further consideration and I’ve found a lot of favorites, from the Duckhills to OK Go, using this method.
There are many disappointments, most of them relating to bands I didn’t get to see, like Little Village the year I thought it would be too crowded, or Van Morrison this year, because I just didn’t make it over to La Zona Rosa in time for the show. This is the problem with scheduling at SXSW. You can sit down and map out your strategy of what you’re going to see until you’re blue in the face but your chances of getting to fulfill all of your tightly scheduled wishes go down the drain with that extra-long set, chance encounter with an old friend, distraction of a million possible varieties, transportation snafu or simple fatigue.
The greatest disappointments are the shows you make it to expecting something special that don’t live up to what you had hoped for. This year’s performance by Bonnie Bramlett at Pangea earns five stars in the disappointment department. I’ve been at some bad clubs at SXSW, but this one was the worst. I mean, Pangea is so bad it makes me wish there was some kind of official Department of Club Control formed to close places just for sucking. The fact that people were forced to stand outside for half an hour waiting to get into this place just to be herded like cattle into the back with no sightline so a handful of people sitting on couches in front of the stage could act like swells is enough to make me want to … well, go someplace else, or actually in this case to call it a night and try again the next day. Bramlett’s new album, Beautiful, produced by southern soul veteran Johnny Sandlin with a superb backing group of veteran R&B sessioneers, is Bramlett’s best solo effort and a cinch to make a lot of people’s Top 10 lists this year. The whole band was on hand for this showcase, which generated tremendous interest based on the extensive lines in front of the club. But the acoustics in Pangea were so bad Bonnie might as well have been Britney Spears. Couldn’t see her and what was coming through that echoing sound system was incoherent. I mean, maybe if you were in the VIP section you could hear the stage sound. What a joke.
On the other hand I thought the hotel bar at the Hilton Garden Inn was going to be a terrible venue and it turned out to be great – spacious, good sight lines, decent sound. I saw a terrific set from Jeremy Fisher there. Fisher is a talented young singer songwriter who has found more in life to write about than unrequited love, clearly doesn’t aspire to be Justin Timberlake and has a voice that makes you care about listening to what he has to say. Which makes him stand out among his peers in the young singer songwriter business.
This was the night when I wandered back and forth on Sixth Street without hearing anything special while I watched the heavily made up talking heads on every corner screech about how “exciting” everything was and how “fabulous” SXSW is. Yep, SXSW can be just as exciting as MTV’s most glamorous fashion show.
But that’s what I get for hanging around Sixth Street and going to places like Pangea. It’s not like I don’t know where the real fun in Austin is. It wouldn’t be long before I got back into the swing of things.

Correction: In the last post I wrote that Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters played at the Continental. Don’t know why I wrote that down because I was certainly aware of being in Antone’s and having a dancing good time. I would be getting to the Continental soon enough.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Glaswegian bluesmen and Guitar Town brit-pop

In the early days of SXSW the convention hit Austin like a flash
flood. One day the town would be enjoying a relaxing spring day, the
next it would be overrun with frenzied record industry moguls on the
make. It was similar to what still happens in New Orleans when the
population of the city suddenly doubles on the first day of the Jazz
and Heritage Festival. But Austin has grown tremendously since SXSW
began and since the festival expanded to include the film and now
interactive portions everything is already humming by the time the
music festival starts.
As the years go by the crowds appear to be more and more
impersonal. One of the striking things about visiting Austin was
always how friendly most people you met were, but as the crowds of
attendees have grown most of them have begun to treat each other like
commuters on the New York subway system. But not all of them. There
is some kind of magic at work in Austin that allows you to meet
people, and make lifelong friends, in the unlikliest of
circumstances. With the festival as crowded as it is you might not
see close friends at any point, yet somehow I always seem to meet new
people who I end up standing next to at event after event. This
year's version of the unlikely new friend is Dave Arcari, a dark
haired, Bunyanesque figure with an impenetrable Glaswegian accent. I
had a hard time understanding Arcari, whose ready smile and
two-drinks-at-a-time conviviality made nonverbal communication easy
enough, but his merry partner Margaret proved an able conversational
go-between. Margaret provided me with an album, Come With Me... which
proved Arcari to be an excellent National steel finger picking and
slide guitarist playing unaccompanied blues in a style heavily
influenced by Skip James and Robert Johnson filtered through a post
punk sensibility. Oddly, his deep, gravel-throated singing is in a
perfectly articulated American southern idiom. Go figure.
I first ran into Arcari at the BMI kickoff party at Stubb's, always a
lot of fun if only for the chance of getting your first succulent
slabs of that tasty brisket. This year's show featured an unfortunate
performance by Kaki King, who should fire the advisor who convinced
her she should start singing, and the remarkable Mike Farris, whose
uncanny voice is nothing less than a gift from the heavens. Farris
does contemporary arrangements of gospel classics such as "Can't No
Grave Hold My Body Down." It's an old trope successfully negotiated
over the years by the likes of Joe Cocker, but Farris is something
very special -- he really inhabits this material, and is certain to
join in at the highest level of the current neo-soul movement.
From there I made my way to the Hole in the Wall for a peek at one of
my favorite SXSW events, Mike Hall's Swollen Circus. This year the
event was dedicated to the late Drew Glacken of the Silos and many
other adventures, a swell guy and sorely missed. Several of the
people who'd played at Glacken's tribute concert at Southpaw in
Brooklyn were on hand. And of course who do I run into but Dave
Arcari carrying a pint of beer in each hand and smiling broadly.
"Aargh yeergh aargh arrgh yer right, eh?" he said in greeting. I raised my glass in return.
Earlier in the day I was on line to register for my credential,
fumbling around for my ID, when I pulled out a car I had picked up
from somewhere advertising Billy Bob Thornton's backup band, the
"Hey, that's me," said the guy standing next to me at the
registration desk, pointing at the card. It was indeed Mike Butler, one of the Boxmasters, who was accompanied by bandmate J.D. Andrew. They were playing a run through of material from their upcoming album with Billy Bob that night at the Continental. By the time I got there the band was just about to go on and the place was packed. Having heard Billy Bob's earlier records I was completely unprepared for what I was about to hear. This was a no-holds-barred twangfest, five guitars rocketing along in perfect synchronicity, their cleverly arranged parts all interlocking in soaring sonic architecture. Nobody played more than an eight bar solo at a time yet every one of them was blazing away, playing fills, doubled solos and harmony parts with searing intensity. Billy Bob was the eye of the hurricane, standing in place, chain smoking and smiling as he gestured at audience members while he delivered his half sung, half spoken vocals with utter Dean Martin-like confidence. Thornton is a skilled writer with killer new material like the anthem "Shit List" and he spins terrific anecdotes between songs. "I wrote this song around the time my ex-girl friend told me to give up drinking," began one story, which ended up poorly for the girl friend when Billy Bob decided the compromise solution was to take up smoking pot.
The most surprising moments of the set, though, were awesome arrangements of British Invasion classics from the Beatles and The Who (would you believe Mott the Hoople?). The great Stephen Bruton came up on stage (as if five guitarists weren't enough) to help out on an apocalyptic version of "The Kids Are Allright," the greatest arrangement of this song I've ever heard. At the end all the guitarists were windmilling their way through the opening chords from "Baba O'Riley." Mayhem, Austin, style.
Oh yeah, right. Sitting at the edge of the balcony was Billy Bob's good buddy Billy Gibbons, who came onstage midset just to tell the crowd how much he was enjoying the show. Later that night, Gibbons, Thornton the Boxmasters and various friends closed the bar at the Four Seasons and then some, a celebration that spilled over into the lobby well after closing time. Billy Gibbons was just warming up, though, as we will see in our next chapter of the SXSW 2008 saga.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Back to SXSW

I've attended nearly every renewal of SXSW going back to the very beginning, when I covered the nascent event for United Press International on my way back home to Brooklyn from the Grammy awards. Since then I've seen a bunch of jobs come and go and moved my tack to New Orleans for what has been a pretty mind boggling life experience there, but SXSW has been a constant touchstone throughout even as the city of Austin itself has gone through dramatic changes. Not to mention the music industry. At the earliest SXSW events I always looked forward to going home and listening to all the new bands who'd handed me cassette tapes of their work. Ponty Bone, Daniel Johnston, the True Believers, Brave Combo, Joe King Carrasco, Killer Bees, what a wealth of great tapes I always got. After a few years bands started handing out CDS, then organizations began really flogging those CD samplers.

The experiences of going to various events such as MIDEM and the Montreal Jazz Festival (if I never attend another Grammy it will be too soon) all have certain charms but aren't compelling enough to look forward to year after year. On the other hand SXSW never, ever disappoints and would be difficult to pass up any year. I no longer even care about who is listed in the lineup of bands before I attend because I know I will stumble across something unexpected that delights me. It has happened every year, often in non SXSW showcases or local bars. At this point the bustle of downtown and desperate industry networking sessions are the least interesting part of the event for me. But the people themselves continue to give me a reason to keep going. Every year I tend to stay further away from downtown to the point where I have become a denizen of south Austin. Instances of transcendence inordinantly cluster around the Continental, Yard Dog, Jovitas and Maria's Taco.

This year's SXSW had an even larger surprise quotient prepared for me than usual. I arrived in town two days before the music festival began and my host, local manager Gretchen Barber, had to hit the mall to shop for a computer. I'm not a shopper but I have been known to hold up my end of a barstool conversation and before I knew what happened I was drinking beer at the bar of the California Pizza Kitchen with Billy Gibbons, who was on hiatus from his endless ZZ Top world tour. Gibbons is a legendary conversationalist and as the beer tab added up (thanks Billy!) the subjects ranged from guitars to Apple computers, guys who write computer virus worms, space aliens, the Illuminati Trilogy, language, cigarettes (prompted by a visit from the Native American smokes perveyors, who fixed Billy up), vintage cars and the sound compression on MP3s.

Gibbons had been shopping for special shoes to wear through airport metal detectors that day, and while waiting to pay for them he spotted two skateboard-toting tweens giving him the eye as if to say 'That's that guy from You Tube.' Billy turns to the kids and says gruffly "What are you punks doing here?" They tell him they're waiting for their buddy to get off work. Noting the white i-Pod earbuds they're both wearing Billy asks "Watcha got there?"

"I've got 4,000," says the first kid.

"I've got 6,000," says the second kid, "but our friend had 15,000! We're fixin' to trade some with him."

Billy asks "You get those from CDs?"

The kid looks at Billy. Maybe he's being cute, maybe not, but he says "What's that?"