Friday, March 26, 2010

SXSW Adventures 2010 (part 3)

The home stretch for SXSW began on Friday with another tip from Pigeon O’Brien – this time, it was Jimmy LaFave, another local singer/songwriter/guitarist and a favorite of Pigeon’s, performing at the Red House Records showcase at Mother Egan’s Irish Pub. Josh stayed behind till the evening, but Levi was free so we started the day without him. Jimmy’s set was low key, subdued, and very twangy. His sound made for some really interesting and original Dylan covers (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”), and worked especially well on his set closing rendition of John Waite’s big ‘80s hit “Missing You.”

It was the middle of the day, and after a set like Jimmy’s, it only seemed appropriate to kick it up a notch with a quick stop at Hoek’s for some Death Metal Pizza. Actual toppings on my slice were cheese, olives, sausage and sliced jalapeƱos, and true to the place’s theme, I was welcomed by a sweet blast of Slayer’s “Hate Worldwide” as I placed my order. I had one guy on my left enthusiastically talking up his death metal band, due to play inside that evening, and the guy who was about to give me window service rudely proclaiming “I’ll get to you when I get a chance!” when I asked if it would be better for me to wait in the line that was leading inside. I laughed it off, since the ‘tude was in perfect sync with the music, and he did stay true to his word and actually didn’t make me wait long at all. And the pizza was good. Can’t go wrong with jalapeƱos.

From there, Levi showed me the pedestrian paths that took us from the edge of downtown by the riverside over to Auditorium Shores. It was a roundabout route, and perfect in length for taking in the natural elements of Austin that you won’t find anywhere on 6th Street. There were folks canoing in the river, bicyclists all around, colorful plants and mounds of large turtles – more than I’ve ever seen clustered together outside of a pet store. I grew up near a pond that had some tiny little snappers, but they were very elusive and didn’t care to be seen much. These big guys in Austin were practically showing off.

By the time we made it to the bicycle valet at Auditorium Shores, the gates were just opening – perfect timing. We found a good spot at the edge of the general admission area, passed on the selection of Stetson hats, and invited gawkers with some huge 2-foot tall “margaritas” – if there was alcohol in there, it wasn’t evident.

The Ray Johnston Band, from Dallas, opened with some really cheesy songs about cougars and texting. At least the sax player sounded good. The less said about everything else in the set, the better.

Next up was Cracker – looking and sounding a little haggard these days, but no worse for wear and tear. The new songs sounded just as solid as the old ones, and leave it to those wise asses to open their set with their best known hit (“Low”) rather than saving it for last. Nice one. Glad to know they're still kickin’ around.

I had heard of the BoDeans, but their set at Auditorium Shores was actually the first time I had paid any attention to them. One song in their set sounded vaguely familiar, but other than that, their mix of rock, Tex Mex, country and folk left me thinking that maybe the guys in Los Lonely Boys were fans. It wasn’t totally my cup of tea, but they gave off a good vibe and they did exactly what a good opening band should do – they got the crowd riled up for the big headliners.

And those big headliners were the biggest draw for me at SXSW – Cheap Trick. I hadn’t seen them perform live since 2004, and lamented every year I missed them. Even with Bun E. Carlos ceding his drum duties to Rick Nielson’s son Dax (who’s far from a slouch and does Bun E. proud), this set more than made up for CT’s refusal to play in San Francisco since the day I moved there. From spotlighting half of their new album, The Latest (Rick reminded us that it's "the number one 8-track in the world!" and he's right - nobody else bothered to release an album in the 8-track format in 2009), to playing exactly half of my favorite CT album (their 1977 debut, Cheap Trick), the band showed more vigor than I remembered they had. They made Auditorium Shores feel like Glastonbury or Coachella, only far more laid back and comfortable than I imagine either of those two places would have been.

Rick also made a point of acknowledging Alex Chilton, who had died unexpectedly two days earlier. Cheap Trick’s cover of Big Star’s Alex Chilton-penned “In The Street” was used as the theme for "That ‘70s Show" and not only raised both band’s profiles, but also became another Cheap Trick concert favorite in the process. So Rick, who by the sound of his voice was clearly moved by the loss of Alex, dedicated “Sleep Forever,” “Heaven Tonight,” and of course “In The Street” to Alex. By the end of the set though, they were in classic Cheap Trick party mode, ending with an encore that included “He’s a Whore,” “Dream Police” and “Gonna Raise Hell.” I’d say it was the best Cheap Trick show I’ve seen since 1998, and I’ve seen them about 15 or 16 times at this point.

But it didn’t stop there. Levi, Josh and I headed straight towards yet another event after Cheap Trick’s set ended around 9:45 or so. We ended up at a party celebrating the birthday and the CD release of a beatboxing electronica artist by the name of Maestro over at a co-op near the UT campus. It was a slow-building event filled with beer, dancing, and people putting things into their bodies that made them act a bit shady. But it was a load of fun, enough to keep us awake till an hour I hadn’t witnessed with my eyes open probably since that night I didn’t sleep while waiting for the Super Shuttle to cart me off to my European flight last August.

Had the temperature in Austin not dipped down into the 30s on Saturday, I would have returned to Auditorium Shores to catch She & Him. It was freezing, and nobody wanted to venture outside in that weather, not even me. By Sunday, it was comfortable enough for a stroll outside again, but most out-of-towners were at the airport or hitting the road to return home, leaving Austin a little quieter and less lively, or as Levi put it, “more like how it really is.”

Cheap Trick's set list - Auditorium Shores, Austin, TX, 3/19/10

Hello There
Elo Kiddies
Welcome To The World
I Want You To Want Me
These Days
Wrong All Along
Sleep Forever
Heaven Tonight
In The Street
Taxman, Mr. Thief
The Ballad of TV Violence (I'm Not The Only Boy)
Oh Candy
Miss Tomorrow
Sick Man of Europe
Closer, The Ballad of Burt and Linda

The Flame
Dream Police
He's a Whore
Gonna Raise Hell
Goodnight Now

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SXSW Adventures 2010 (part 2)

My third day in Austin turned out to be the busiest day of the week, and the first in which Josh joined me for some shows.

Thanks to Pigeon O’Brien, a passionate Austin-based publicist who is not only a friend of Popdose but also one of the funniest people on Twitter, I was tipped to an event she organized at the West 6th Street location of Opal Divine's. She assembled a lineup of local roots and Americana musicians she represents, for the brief period I was there, I got to hear short sets by Betty Soo and Dustin Welch. I also finally met Pigeon in person for the first time. She was so happy to have one of her tweeps in attendance that she even gave me an on-stage shout out, which brought a big smile to my face. Those kinds of things never get old. She was just as cool in person as her online persona led me to believe, and hearing the artists she represents perform live gave me a more vivid feel for what local Americana artists in Texas are all about.

While my heartstrings weren’t being tugged particularly hard by the music at Opal Divine's, the music was well presented and made me feel at home. Basically, there are a couple more artists I feel compelled to check out now, namely the two in the showcase I missed that I wanted to see most – Steve Poltz and Walt Wilkins. That was probably the biggest impact the show had on me, though the proverbial bouncy ball alternately led me and followed me to a couple other places, as you’ll see in a bit.

When Josh and I left Opal Divine's, our intention was to catch a set by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings at the Mohawk. Unfortunately, they had already finished their set before we got there. On the upside though, we caught an intense, raucous, loud and droney headlining set by an Austin band called the Black Angels. Josh really took to them, and I’m ready to hear how their studio recordings compare to their live sound. They had me transfixed. Always a good sign.

After some roadside pizza and some time to relax, I headed back downtown, this time alone. I hadn’t purchased a badge or a wristband, having missed my early bird opportunities and then ultimately deciding that I’d rather just wing it anyway. Not having that special fancy pass was ultimately what doomed my attempt to check out Damien Marley and Nas at Emo’s at the last minute. But no matter, Louisville’s Wax Fang sounded pretty tight when I saw them instead over at Valhalla. The song I heard outside the venue that drew me in wasn’t topped by what I heard inside, so I’m not sure what happened there. But I wouldn’t be upset if I saw them again opening for a band like the Twilight Singers or Queens of the Stone Age. I’d have to hear more to get a better sense of what I was really witnessing.

Heading back outside again, I grabbed a BBQ brisket sandwich and witnessed a one-man band (bass drum, hi hat, guitar and vocals) covering John Lee Hooker and Buddy Holly tunes, among others in that old time blues and ‘50s rock n’ roll genre, albeit with some punk-ish energy. Dude was pretty damned entertaining, though I unfortunately didn’t catch his name.

After heading back to Josh’s, I managed to drag him out again to catch the final act playing at the Continental Club, a guy by the name of Ian Moore who appears to call both Seattle and Austin home. He had what seemed like a pretty balanced mix of rock, blues and country that sounded perfectly at home after 1am in Texas bar – nothing earth shattering, but perfect for the occasion and I’m pretty certain everyone in attendance was happy with what they heard. The best part for me was when the evening coincidentally came full circle when Dustin Welch, who I had seen earlier in the day at Opal Divine’s, took the stage as a guest towards the end of Ian’s set. And then, outside the venue, Josh and I ended up talking with a local who casually informed us that Frosty would be playing the next night. I asked him, "do you mean the Frosty, the one who drummed for Lee Michaels in the late '60s?" Yup, that Frosty. Unfortunately, his set clashed with the one show I wanted to see most while in Austin, but at least now I know where to look for him when I'm ready to catch up on all things Lee Michaels, something I've been meaning to do ever since I moved to California.

Actually, what was even better than all of this was being able to grab some pizza at Home Slice well after Ian Moore’s set had concluded. It was probably some amount of time after 2 in the morning, and the Home Slice parking lot on South Congress was abuzz as if it was New York City on any given night. After several beers and many miles walked to catch all sorts of music I had never heard before, a slice of margherita really hit the spot. This could have easily been the peak of the week, but that would actually happen the next night.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

SXSW Adventures 2010 (part 1)

It seems absurd on the surface, but I actually made the trip to SXSW as a means of relaxation. Looking at the various schedules of conferences, films and live music events was anything but relaxing, and figuring out exactly how I was going to navigate this behemoth of a festival ended up stressing me out all over again.

I had planned on spending the day before my flight assembling a matrix of events I’d like to see so I’d have an easy to reference road map of what interested me, thus narrowing down the infinite options to a manageable handful or three.

Yeah, right.

My focus was on anything but filtering all the information I had stumbled upon, so in the end I simply marked up a printout of a spreadsheet of unofficial events, referred back to the official SXSW web site when I could, and winged all the rest. Though I missed a few shows I would have liked to have attended (not to mention any and all films that looked interesting to me – maybe next time), approaching SXSW with a loose idea of what I’d like to see and an “anything goes” attitude for everything in between seemed to be exactly what the week called for. And being that I was staying with my friend Josh the whole week, keeping things loose made sense in that regard too. It allowed us a balance between going out and chilling out that might not have been as easy to get into had I ended up sharing a hotel with hardcore festival goers.

I considered the hotel option, but that only would have worked if this was a work trip. I made no plans to cover this festival in any way, and even though this post kind of does that, it kind of doesn’t either. As you’re about to see, my view from the ground is pretty modest in terms of following the pulse of the festival compared to other accounts you’ll read.

Tuesday the 16th was the day I arrived, and rather than head straight into the action, I started off the week away from the fray, with a guitar in my hand. After Josh and I rendezvoused with our friends Nate and Levi for some dinner, we headed back to Levi’s place for a little jamming. We mostly stuck to simple two chord progressions, with Nate setting the tone on an electric keyboard, Levi fleshing out the sound on piano, and Josh switching between another electric keyboard and sharing the piano with Levi. I stuck to acoustic guitar, picking out melodies, scales and progressions to complement the hypnotic minor chords flowing all around me. This went on for a good long while, though I couldn’t really say how long. Time stood still I suppose. Suffice to say, it was a great little session that left me feeling higher than any recreational substance might have achieved. I really couldn’t have imagined a better start to the week.

While Josh took care of some business during the day on Wednesday, I got my first taste of the many completely free daytime shows that were happening all week. First stop was at the Red Eyed Fly, where I ran into all three of the Happy Hollows during and after an awesome set by The Henry Clay People on the Red Eyed Fly’s outside stage. The Henry Clay People are an L.A. band whose name has been dropped around me numerous times, and it's funny that it took a trip to Austin for me to finally see them. They had that fire in their belly, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be seeing them again on the west coast.

Of course I knew the Happy Hollows would be at the Red Eyed Fly (it was the first of eight shows they played in Austin that week), so I made a point of being there to show some support and congratulate them on all the success they’ve had so far (most recently, they had a brief cameo appearance the previous night on ABC’s Parenthood). But before their set (which was typically awesome, no need for me to gush any more than I already do), the Austin band Brazos played a short but impressive set on the inside stage. They’re a trio, like many of the indie rock bands playing the festival, and though I don’t remember many specifics about their set, I can say that for a trio, they had an intriguing mix of subdued vibes and semi-confident energy. I’d see them again for sure.

Not taking notes didn’t serve me well for the last band I saw at the Red Eyed Fly before meeting back up with Josh, but I was moved in a very positive direction by the lead singer’s pronouncement of death to that terrible old feeling called fear. His invective encouraged me to stab that invisible beast a few more times in the heart, and as you’d imagine, a good rest would be needed after such a purging. And that’s just what the rest of the night had in store – chilling out, talking, resting and relaxing. There would be a ton more to come.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A quick Parlour to Parlour alumni update

With the annual SXSW extravaganza about to let loose down in Austin, Texas, I'm slowly but surely learning of various appearances that several Parlour to Parlour alumni will be making next week. Among them are:

  • Leopold and his Fiction (March 16 at Art Disaster No. 10 and March 18 at the Beauty Bar.)
  • The Happy Hollows (EIGHT different appearances, check their MySpace. No excuse to miss them if you plan on attending SXSW this year.)
  • Correatown (She's got four different dates, check her MySpace.)
  • The New Up (Playing at the Texas Rock Fest on March 20, which is not part of SXSW, but it's the same city and same week, so I'm counting it.)

And in upcoming album release news, it appears that two Parlour to Parlour alumni have worked on their third albums with the help of a common reputable producer/mixer. Leopold and his Fiction are releasing an advance single from their forthcoming third album, and The Brother Kite (who have played SXSW in the past, but will not be there this year) have finished and titled their third album (which they are calling Isolation) and are streaming a few tracks on their web site. Who produced the Leopold record? Who mixed the Brother Kite's record? It's also the same guy who has worked with two artists I've listened to quite a bit over the last 12 months, Vetiver and Devendra Banhart. His name is Thom Monahan.

Finally, I've heard the Brother Kite's Isolation, and I can confidently say it's a subtle yet stunning evolution in their sound, one I've been hoping would happen for the past four years. Not only that, Patrick Boutwell's songs keep getting better, and I've already got a couple of favorites that are earning plenty of repeat play on my iPod. Only problem is the band doesn't have a label to distribute the record. They've been free agents since leaving Clairecords, so until someone picks them up, y'all are going to have to wait to hear this 12-song masterpiece. Any takers?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

One Word Makes All the Difference

Back in 2008, Brian Wilson released his brilliant follow-up to SMiLE, a song cycle he called That Lucky Old Sun. In the last verse of the last song on the album, "Southern California," there's a lyric that continues to jog the "sick humor" area in my brain to this day:

Surfers in the West
The sun ran into the sea
As we headed home
We drove into a movie

Our brains have this habit of filling in the blanks, anticipating what logic tells us could or should come next. In the case of this particular lyric, my brain, for whatever strange reason, believed when I first listened to this song that the last word in this lyric wasn't going to be "movie." No, not at all. Had Brian's vocal suddenly cut out after the indefinite article and left me to sing the rest, not knowing how he was going to finish the lyric, this is how it would have come out of my mouth:

Surfers in the West
The sun ran into the sea
As we headed home
We drove into a tree

Suddenly, the entire song has a different tone.

Here's Brian performing "Southern California" live at Abbey Road in 2008. It's an abridged performance (he skipped the second verse and the bridge), but the important verse is still there. Somehow I doubt he'd ever adopt my version.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Welcome to the Dance

Writing letters back and forth to friends - not just simple functional emails - sometimes will jog my brain into realizations or, at the very least, finding a way to articulate realizations I've felt but not yet verbalized. This bit from a letter-via-email I sent today, stemming from a friend's advice to take two months to stop analyzing things that have gone awry for me, is one that I thought would be worth sharing.

When I went to my swing dance lesson on Tuesday, I kept fretting over not getting my foot movements right. I mouthed "shit!" to myself, and the female instructor saw me do it. She was looking at my feet from across the room the entire time, and so she looked back up at me and mouthed "you're OK" and gave the thumbs up.

Later in the lesson, after being corrected a few times by the male instructor while I was dancing with my partner, he came back to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "Mike, forget everything I just told you. Just dance how you feel. You've already got it all up in your head, so just go for it." It was a timely echo of what you had said, and it does make sense in a way – it's hard to allow yourself to gradually ease what you've learned into practice if you don't stop studying for a little while. Even my mother had told me that, back when she was working on her master's – "studying too much can be just as bad as not studying enough." I just hadn't yet encountered a situation in real life where I felt it held true for me. Now I have.

...and I was going to end with a profoundly related music video right about now, but the song I was looking for isn't represented anywhere on the 'net as an embeddable video (at least that I could find). Paul McCartney's "Dance Tonight" isn't related to anything I just wrote, other than having the word "dance" in the title and lyrics, but what the hell. This is a damn cool video, one I hadn't seen till today, that totally enhances the song. It's what a good video should do. Dig those ghosts and the nerve-wracked postman as Paul keeps his cool throughout. The ending is the payoff - it's a party I would have loved to attend.