As per usual, The Spin's Wednesday-morning flight down to Austin for South by Southwest was a who's who of Nashville rockdom, with representatives from Grimey's and The Basement, Mercy Lounge, We Own This Town, Serpents and Snakes and more amid the mob of Austin-bound, tune-craving travelers. We made it to Austin without too much trouble, managing to secure our press credentials at the convention center with only about half an hour's worth of hassle, and started our long weekend with a bit of soul music at Shangri-La.
We got to Shangri-La just after the start of longtime sultan of soul Lee Fields' set. He and his backing band, The Expressions, were precisely what we needed to start off our SXSW: deeply expressive, authentic soul music, with a crack horn section, a completely remarkable bass player/band leader, and pitch-perfect, anguished soul shouting from Mr. Fields. Inside, NO (yes, NO) was playing their pensive brand of indie rock. NO sounded a bit like The National, only a bit less compelling. But after having our pants, socks and everything else blown away by Fields and his Expressions (have we not mentioned that we were completely nude at this point?), we needed a little more than baritone vocals and a post-punky rhythm section to keep us rapt.
But hey, ask and ye shall receive. A pal of The Spin's has been singing the praises of Nick Waterhouse for the past few weeks, and out back at Shangri-La, we were lucky enough to catch every second of Waterhouse's performance with his backing band, The Tarots. Sure, Waterhouse is a young, white dude from California, but his wide-open garage-soul grooves are no less authentic than Fields' had been. Apparently, Waterhouse's first LP drops in May, and we'll be watching for that. Back inside, The Allah-Las — who Waterhouse has apparently worked with a bit — were doing their thing on the garagiest side of the soul spectrum. They were laid-back and psychedelic, like they probably really dig The Troggs and The Seeds and The Sonics — rad. Unknown Mortal Orchestra's set, however, was something of a train wreck. We like busy, far-out psych pop, but it was hard to make out much of anything over the feedback and the heavily distorted bass. UMO played three-and-a-half songs and basically blew off their set with a sort of stoner apathy.
We also made it over to the IODA day party at Red Eye Fly to decompress to the sounds of the self-proclaimed "semi-legendary Wedding Present." The Wedding Present is basically The Smiths without all the annoying parts. That is, if The Smiths had jettisoned the boner-killing preciousness and rocked hard, fast and loud. The speed-addled, indie-pop, C-86 gods still have the hooks, the jangle and all the dandy melodrama to cloak heartbreak in a unisex Slanket of gallows humor and dry Brit-wit, but they're not too tender to crank up the distortion and pin the pedal to the metal when it comes to the tempos.
That evening, we headed to Beauty Bar for Panache Booking's showcase — some familiar Nashville faces with a smattering of non-Music City talent. Natural Child led off with their swampy blues punk, their road-vetted, gritty riffs and doubled vocal melodies a sweaty, stoner-friendly pleasure as always. Wes Traylor probably has our favorite bass tone of any Nashvillian, and Natural Child is basically as much a comedy act as a rock band — what with their face-pulling and intentional cross-talk banter.
Then Turbo Fruits jump-kicked and wailed their way through a set of scuzzy psych-garage, bringing out the ladies from Habibi for backing vocals on "Mama's Mad Cos I Fried My Brain." We labeled the Fruits' latest tunes "sickadelic" — wildly energetic and full of bluesy cock-rock riffs. Beauty Bar was at capacity by this point, as an enthused crowd of Nashvillians and non-Nashvillians alike crowded the back lot. I'd say the Fruits are fine Music City ambassadors, pretty boys and practiced entertainers as they are.
We'd wanted to catch the ladies of Bleached (featuring Jessica and Jennifer Clavin, formerly of Mika Miko) at their recent appearance with The Black Belles at The End. We missed that, but were pleased to see that their sunshine-poppy vocal harmonies and up-tempo garage-rock arrangements are better live than we'd anticipated — at least a bit like The Go-Go's.
PUJOL made it hard to differentiate the Nashvillians from the rest of the crowd, as scores of fans crowded the stage and sang along with their literate, brainy vocals. Oh, the dichotomy of thoughtful lyrics and coarse, punk-rock sonics! Drummer Stewart Copeland was locked in, racing flawlessly through brutal, rapid-fire beats, with frontman Daniel Pujol setting up each song with a bit of backstory. "I talk as long as I want, baby," he responded after a "Play another song!" taunt.
Football made for some decent jokes — "Wanna go watch some Football?" etc. — but we skipped a couple songs in order to grab some breakfast tacos. Then it was time for Thee Oh Sees, who are probably one of the country's finest touring live bands right now. It's a wild, double-drummered, mic-swallowing, relentless, surfy, feverish, rafter-scaling, punk-rock experience, with frontman John Dwyer barking at you like a psychedelic, punk-rock drill sergeant and cycling through riffs and shout-along choruses. Our inner overprotective au pair told us we were about to witness a spinal injury at the sight of Oh Sees auxiliary drummer and part-time guitarist Lars Finberg shimmying up the flimsy poles that held the up the stage during the set-ending "Dead Energy."
Honestly, if you're a fan of rock 'n' roll music and The Boss is on your confirmed agenda, it's difficult to be anything but thoroughly psyched. The Spin woke up Thursday morning to find that we'd all won the lottery to see Bruce Springsteen that night at The W Hotel's Moody Theater. As far as the rest of the day was concerned, it was all just Bruce's undercard.
And that undercard even included an early afternoon appearance from The Boss himself, who — arriving 20 or 30 minutes late to one of the convention center's exhibition halls — delivered SXSW's keynote speech before a crowd of a couple thousand. The speech was an honest-to-God inspiring, bon mot-riddled, foul-mouthed hour-plus account of his life as a rock 'n' roll, R&B, country, hip-hop, punk and folk fan.
Later that day, we found ourselves amid the familiar décor of The Stage for one of Paste's showcases. Despite their name, Rubblebucket was not, in fact, a Blueshammer-y, classic-rock cover band that plays most of its gigs at a crawfish restaurant. As a matter of fact, they were rather good, with sax-playing frontwoman Annakalmia Traver leading them through a set of world-infused, dense dance pop. They were like Yeasayer in that eclectic-Brooklynite sort of way, but with more sugary vocal melodies, and they marched around the crowd at the end of their set while a pair of gigantic robot puppets made out with one another.
As much as we'd like to enjoy the rootsy, alt-country indie rock of Blitzen Trapper, The Spin personally has a difficult time getting enthused for most mellow alt-country. Anyway, they were really tight with exceptional vocal harmonies. Outside, Maps and Atlases were doing their really intricate and brainy indie-rock thing — loads of finger-tapping and hammer-ons and syncopation and a great number of things we don't know the technical terms for (ask a Berklee grad).
But we could only catch 15 minutes of Maps, because inside, our personal hero Doug Martsch and his now 20-years-reigning outfit of indie-rock originators, Built to Spill, were set to decimate us. Lucky us, they played Keep It Like a Secret's "Time Trap," not to mention There's Nothing Wrong With Love's "Distopian Dream Girl" and another fistful of '90s classics, with true-to-form three-part guitar hooks and Martch's Neil Young-gone-college-rock lead vocals. To be honest, we would have been perfectly happy to hear more new material, and while Martsch is known for his rather stoic delivery, no fanboy or fangirl in the room could have possibly been disappointed.
Despite the focused, impassioned performance Springsteen and his now-augmented-to-16-piece (which featured the late, great Clarence Clemons' nephew Jake Clemons standing in on sax) E Street Band delivered of the new songs, those were far from the show's highlights. Same even goes for old, ever-rousing warhorses like "Badlands" and "Thunder Road." No, it was the encore set that featured surprise guest appearances from Jimmy Cliff (who the E Streeters backed through sky-reaching renditions of "The Harder They Come," "Time Will Tell" and a stirring "Many Rivers to Cross") and The Animals' Eric Burdon (who took to the mic and delivered a brilliantly spiteful "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"). The pinch-self emotional moments reached their apex during a penultimate "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," midway through which a moment of musical silence for Clemons caused the audience to erupt in deafening, heavens-reaching howls of applause cued by the famous "... and The Big Man joined the band" line. The night's final holy-shit highlight came when Springsteen called up Escovedo, Joe Ely, Tom Morello, Garland Jeffreys, The Low Anthem and Arcade Fire's Win Butler and Regine Chassagne to join the band in a stadium-sized campfire sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land" in honor of what would have been Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday.
Teetering on the brink of black-out drunk, we ambled down the swanky steps of the hotel, managing to meet and we think somehow offend Joe Ely (if only we could remember what we said!) and executed a successful one-eyed stumble up to The Belmont to catch The Jesus and Mary Chain's one and only appearance at the festival.
We could barely see the band from beneath the glare of neon lights and haze of rock fog that engulfed them, not to mention our own blurred vision. Also, The JAMC is so not a band to see while drunk. "Head On," "Sidewalking," "Snake Driver," "Just Like Honey" — the band note-perfectly played one great song after another, but in our state it all sounded too fast and looked too slow. Also, our lucky-but-tardy entrance meant that, instead of having an opportunity to get up front and pogo along with the legitimate fans, we were stuck in the back with all the chatty, fratty Hollywood types. And truth be told, the only reason we stuck it out before sleepwalking back to the hotel was to say we went the distance with it.
"Whoopi Goldberg is giving a birthing seminar inside." "Yeah, and Topanga from Boy Meets World is in there, too." This is how rumors get started. Friday afternoon, as we wandered down Fifth in a desperate attempt to find some music worth seeing, a pair of jokers shouted false promises at passersby, likely in an attempt just to amuse themselves.
We'd started our Friday by catching our old pal Tristen and her band — known sometimes as The Ringers — at Cedar Street Courtyard. At this point, we're extremely familiar with Tristen's songs — both the folk-pop gems from last year's Charlatans at the Garden Gate and her newer, as-yet-unreleased dance-pop numbers about intellectual integrity and so forth. At least, we think that's what these songs are about. Maybe we're overthinking it at this point. Regardless, new southpaw drummer Jamie Dick is a fine player, and Tristen's crew is sounding road-tested and Austin-approved.
And then it was back into the fray all by our lonesome, hoping to catch Mississippi's Bass Drum of Death at Peckerheads. No BDOD, but we did hear the last couple of songs from literate, socially conscious rapper Brother Ali. He's a brainy rapper, and we respect brainy rappers. But after a couple of tunes from Bear Hands — dancy post-punk that was somewhat catchy, if a bit derivative — and seeing a Peckerheads employee fish the mat out of a clogged urinal with his bare hands (not Bear Hands), we felt compelled to find someplace else to be.
And then we fortuitously stumbled across a show that really grabbed us. We spotted Nashvillians Cy Barkley and Sean "To the Wall" Thompson on the sidewalk in front of Beerland, where they were watching Denton, Texas, band Wiccans annihilate everyone in earshot with their brutal, totally authentic hardcore punk. Their frontman swung from the iron bars of Beerland's patio fence, jumping to the sidewalk, knocking over a motor scooter and hopping right back up again. Nothing like a bit of death-defying, aggro-but-happy hardcore to mend the wounded spirit.
We decided to spend most of the evening at the Merge Records showcase at Frank, where Hospitality lived up to their name, greeting us warmly with their sweet, friendly, bouncy indie pop. It was all dreamy guitars and vocal melodies backed by a totally adroit rhythm section — seriously, one of the best drummers we saw all week, with smooth transitions and loads of finesse.
Eleanor Friedberger's solo material is straight-ahead, writerly fair — certainly more straight-ahead than her experimental output with her brother Matthew under the moniker The Fiery Furnaces. She played without a backing band, and her finger-picked, emotionally revelatory love songs were verbose and lyrically unique. But by set's end, we found ourselves literally lulled to sleep in a corner. The Love Language perked our shit up, however, as they blew wildly through their lilting, sunshiny, '60s pop-inspired tunes. Just a touch sloppy, punctuated with friendly bits of banter, and vigorously performed, despite mild equipment problems.
Crooked Fingers — the alt-country-imbued project of Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann — were mellow, folky and reflective. The tunes didn't really seem to adhere to alt-country's genre-defining characteristics by design — they just kind of come out a little country-like, and a little Lambchoppy in bits. Masters of driving '90s power pop Imperial Teen certainly filled the room with a bit more energy — they make the sort of shimmering, ELO-inspired rock tunes that we probably should have listened to more of in high school.
Now, we could have hung around for a set from legendary Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould, but his contemporaries Dinosaur Jr. were just about to play many, many blocks away at Bar 96. Anyway, it's sacrilege to speak ill of Dino Jr., right? Well, no worries. In the mob at Bar 96, we found representatives of excellent (and at least partially Dino Jr.-inspired) Nashville rock acts Glossary and The Features, all of whom appeared to be "fucking stoked," as they say. Dino frontman J. Mascis' blown-out noodling issued from three full amplifier stacks, drowning out every other sound within a square mile. Like a grunge jellyfish, Mascis' stringy, silver, wizardly mane swayed and billowed with each booming transition, his rhythm section barreling through career-spanning college-rock gems, ending each song with slackerly banter, bits of tuning and random noodling. No dope-smoking, longhaired alterna-dude (or babe) could have possibly been disappointed.
Saturday was, of course, St. Patrick's Day, and the sea of inebriated, green-clad street-roamers wouldn't let us forget it. We got back to our roots and saw how our Nashvillian local-rock faves were faring by hightailing it over to Beerland to catch Diarrhea Planet's 1 p.m. set at the Get Bent bash. That's pretty damn early to muster the youthful vigor an always-spirited DP performance demands, but we knocked back a couple cold ones and nodded along approvingly as the band worked to warm up the cold crowd. By set's end all 40 or 50 won-over festivalgoers were crowding the front of the stage, bopping along to the band's life-affirming party-punk anthems.
A short hop, skip and jump around the corner and we were at a party hosted by Athens, Ga.'s 40 Watt Club, which had set up a sort of pop-up club — complete with a stage flanked by LED screens — in time to catch Diamond Rugs, a supergroup that features members of Black Lips, Deer Tick, Dead Confederate, Six Finger Satellite and Los Lobos (yeah, Los Lobos) and calls Nashville home. Have you heard of them yet? Well, their swaggering, pontoon-ready Southern pop-rock fuckin' rules. Basically, the sprawling, scruffy ensemble is like a contemporary Southern answer to Rockpile. One of our favorite discoveries of South by.
Then we checked Dead Confederate's sludgy, grungy, down sort of Southern rock for a bit before heading back to Beerland for Memphis' Ex-Cult (formerly Sex Cult), who were playing post-punk that sounded like hyped-up Television Personalities. It was a little bit far-out, and full of melodically entwined guitars and just a few subtle pop and New Wave touches.
Back at 40 Watt, Ponderosa was playing big, anthemic, arena-ready, U2- and Radiohead-cribbing rock, constantly milking anticipation and build-ups. Our old hometown hero Jonny Corndawg was just about to do his thing at the 40 Watt's side stage. It's hard to think of Corndawg's material as novelty, comedic trad country when it features such a remarkably gifted backing band (from Josh Hedley on fiddle to Spencer Cullum Jr. on steel and everyone in between). But it still remains as hilarious as the first time we heard it — a feel-good, mirthful hoedown, and clearly a delight for the many folks who hadn't heard JC before.
We managed to catch Bass Drum of Death back at the Get Bent showcase, and their Mississippi garage rock — now a three-piece, but still no bassist — was fast and loose, but well played in the dingy, End-like setting of Beerland. Then it was the front patio for Texas' own Bad Sports, who play a relentlessly up-tempo, Ramones-y style of punk rock.
The Spin & Co. then scurried south by foot and painfully slow pedicab to catch Nashville's Tristen and Madi Diaz at some sort of oyster-themed soiree at Hotel St. Cecilia. But this was a crowd that seemed more interested in hobnobbing and eating free oysters than hearing live music. Anyway, Rooney Mara, several members of Arcade Fire and, allegedly, Terrence Malick were in the crowd, and free booze and oysters were indeed had by all.
But we couldn't spend our whole evening soaking in the good life — or basking in the goods of someone else's good life, rather — as we needed to head back north for the Serpents and Snakes showcase at Lucky Thirteen. You see, Serpents and Snakes is the imprint launched by Kings of Leon, and the bill featured a lot of Nashville talent. We missed opening sets by Snowden and Turbo Fruits — though we did hear a bit of the Fruits' psychedelic rock 'n' roll while waiting to slip in the back. Nashvillians The Kingston Springs make tight alterna-rock with bluesy riffs and slick lead vocals, and their tireless onslaught certainly seemed to go over well before a sloppy-drunk and increasingly weary crowd.
We remained in the VIP area overlooking the stage for fellow Nashvillians The Weeks, who had some diversity in their tunes, with a bit of gospel organ over hard-rock and pop arrangements. Moreover, they were clearly excited to be there and to be a new part of the Serpents clan. Apache Relay was up next, though we must be honest: When listening to Apache, we've always heard more Mellencamp/Bruce-influenced Bruce influence than actual Bruce influence.
As far as the evening's headliners went, we will never stop going to bat for The Features. Why? Because The Features will never stop climbing onstage to deliver pitch-perfect, poppy indie rock with guts and electrifying performances from each member. Even when half the room appears to be too inebriated to recognize the combination of technical proficiency and smart, pop-savvy songwriting they're in the presence of, The Features will still play like it's their last set ever.
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