Billboard staffers criss-cross Austin, Texas' South by Southwest music festival in search of old favorites and new discoveries. In the third installment of a daily diary, Barry A. Jeckell, Todd Marten
Austin, Texas' annual South by Southwest (SXSW) event is a music festival and media conference offering industry panels and presentations, as well as more than 1,000 artists performing in 50 venues over the course four days (March 16-19). Billboard's Barry A. Jeckell, Todd Martens and Melinda Newman are in the Lone Star State capital taking in the sights and sounds and will file a daily diary detailing their encounters.
My Friday (March 18) at South By Southwest was based on seeing one band: The Go! Team. A few hundred others, unfortunately, had the same idea, as the line to see the band was nearly a block long. But even after waiting nearly 80 minutes to get in, the Go! Team proved to be more than worth the wait.
The retro-flavored seven piece was like the musical embodiment of a junior high pep rally, with lead singer Ninja acting as a rapper/singer/cheerleader. Directing the crowd through a number of call-and-response chants, Ninja was commandingly hyper, shouting the group's often self-referential lyrics over '70-era soul keyboards and dual percussionists. Live, the band put the emphasis on its rock elements, with the guitars turning the group into an amped-up Jackson 5. If there are any qualms, it's that the act's set took place in a cavernous pool hall, which put the rhythm and guitars at the front and drowned out some of the R&B keyboard flourishes.
Going into SXSW, sources said the Go! Team had nearly closed a deal to bring its debut, "Thunder, Lightening, Strike," released last year on London-based indie Memphis Industries, to the United States. Judging by the turn out in Austin, and the crowd's prodding for an encore, the group will likely find itself with a few more interested parties on these shores.
Earlier in the evening, Matador showcased its newest act, the Double. The New York-based trio offers fractured art rock that's built on wayward guitar experimentation and '60s garage rock keyboards. The non-descript vocals tend to get lost in the mix, especially when a wall of feedback rises to push the instruments in opposite direction. The drumming, however, is the key here, and the tom-tom beats barrel their way to the forefront to trail the guitar lines. The arrangements give a nod to Matador's past and present, as the Double represents Pavement's cut-and-paste melodicism filtered through the abrasiveness of Pretty Girls Make Graves.
Those still needing an art-pop fix would be better served by hunting down Chicago's Head Of Femur. Vocalist Mick Elsener bears a slight aural resemblance to Conor Oberst (Head Of Femur drummer Matt Focht regularly performs with Oberst's Bright Eyes), and his warbling vocals provide the perfect accompaniment for the group's schizophrenic orchestrations. The eight-piece veers its power-pop through keyboard/violin excursions, and isn't afraid to drop all guitars and let the horn section supply a brief fiesta. A new album is due this spring on spinART.
A pair of keyboard/electronic heavy adult pop acts provided the bookends to the night. Aqualung got things started early with a keyboard/guitar mix that's destined for mainstream acceptance. With the soft vocals of Matt Hales and heartfelt lyrics, Aqualung should hold instant appeal to fans of David Gray and John Mayer, but the duo's arrangements are far more sophisticated that either of the aforementioned artists. Instead of taking the wishy-washy way out, Aqualung will unexpectedly cut its two instruments in and around one another, and Hales has a tendency to bleed a falsetto into a guitar squeal.
Later in the evening, L'Altra performed as a trio in a far more intimate set, and took things three or four steps further than Aqualung. Songs are built slowly, with principles Joe Costa and Lindsay Anderson letting their instruments deliberately envelop one another. A guitar melody is stretched to its absolute thinnest, while keyboard atmospheres add a mournful tone. The beats skitter with a digital sheen, and sometimes even resemble the sound of broken glass. These are elegant, tension-filled arrangements, with the orchestrations coming off like the inner dialogue during an awkward silence by two torn lovers.
The recently reformed New York Dolls performed two shows on Friday, one after midnight and one in the early evening as part of the Spin party. The Futureheads, Bloc Party and Louis XIV were also on the bill, but there was no mistaking that the show belonged to the New York Dolls. With only two surviving members -- vocalist David Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvian -- it would be easy to be a cynic and easier to argue that the band on stage at SXSW was the New York Dolls in name only. Yet even so, the group proved to be a better New York Dolls cover band than wannabes Louis XIV, tackling the well-known songs – "Personality Crisis," "Looking for a Kiss," "Puss N'Boots" -- with enough vigor and proficiency to easily win the crowd.
-- Todd Martens
The day starts with BMI's Acoustic Brunch, sponsored by Billboard. In addition to some kicking grub, the midday taste treat features an inviting selection of singer/songwriters. They all perform admirably before a packed lawn at the Four Seasons Hotel, but the standouts are brunch opener KT Tunstall, signed to EMI for the U.S.; Cary Brothers, who's coming off his success on the "Garden State" soundtrack, Aware Records artist Mat Kearney, who seems to have grown by leaps and bounds since I saw him a day earlier when he must have been having an off day, and Irishman Mark Geary, fresh off a tour with the Frames and headed for Australia on Saturday.
All in all, it's a great way to start the day with more than two hours of solid music from artists all of whom I'm excited to follow and watch develop.
Next it's to the Capitol Records party at the Velvet Spade. We arrive as Morningwood is prepping to go on. More astonishing to me than the band's raw-edged hard rock (after the morning of acoustic music) is the fact that no group had snared that name before. We fixate on that for awhile, but then are drawn back to the lead singer, Chantal, as she's chanting "Tits" and grabbing her own and "Ass," and doing the same over and over. It's oddly compelling in a trainwreck kind of way. The New York band's label debut, produced by Gil Norton, comes out in August.
We stay for a few songs from Sweden's Shout Out Louds, whose music can best be described as the Cure on uppers. It's peppy and fun, but doesn't really take hold.
We leave that party and decide to just drift into clubs. First stop is Beerland, where female punk band the Winks are giving it their best shot, but their attitude overshadows their musical aptitude. Their small but mighty following doesn't seem to mind.
I plan to hit a few more clubs, but instead feel an overwhelming urge to go back to the hotel and chill for a few minutes before heading out to dinner. What a happy coincidence that turns into. In the lobby, I run into Van Dyke Parks and his wife Sally; they're returning from the Brian Wilson "Smile" panel at the convention center. Parks, who wrote the lyrics for the project, which finally came out last year after more than 30 years, is that rare raconteur that makes you want to hang onto his every syllable because his word choice is so precise and lyrical. We hang out for an hour exchanging tales, but mainly I'm just enchanted by his storytelling prowess.
After dinner, which, sadly, involves a story about a cockroach crawling out of my napkin, I decide music is probably a safer bet for me than food.
We start with Los Angeles singer/songwriter Jenni Alpert, whom we believe is no direct relation to Herb Alpert, but who knows. She had run into my friend, the head of a major label, at a club the night before and asked him, not knowing whom he works for, to come to her show. Impressed by his chutzpah, he says sure, if he likes the music. She hands him a CD, he actually listens to it and really enjoys her voice. Sadly, the live show doesn't live up the album. Her voice is indeed lovely, but she has no game. But she's still someone he'll watch. I wonder if she even knows what chance possibly passed her by.
From there, we head to Co-op Bar to see Long-View, a new band on Columbia from Manchester, England, whose album debut came out March 15. The four-piece has a great jangly pop sensibility but have a roughhewn edge that makes the group standout. Tailor-made for MTV2, but with mainstream potential. Sweet harmonies soften some of the rough spots in a way that's very pleasing. A nice surprise.
We continue on the British bandwagon and head over to Buffalo Billiards, where the slate is an all U.K. lineup. First act we catch is James Blunt, a British singer/songwriter, who secured his deal with Atlantic while still in the army. There's a lot of promise there and his pleasant voice is appealing. The album is already out in the U.K. and hits stateside in late spring/early summer.
The real appeal at the club is the Go! Team, who are being scouted by virtually every major label. The feeding frenzy is intense and with good reason. The co-ed group, whose members hail from London and Brighton, deliver fun peppy songs that you can dance to, but also have bite. Lead singer/rapper Chloe is a star, who works the crowd like a seasoned pro. She has the audience waving its collective arms in the air like they just don't care on such self starters as "Get It Together," "Bottle Rocket" and "Lady Flash." The A&R swarm continues with a victor coming shortly.
We close the night with Dogs Die In Hot Cars. The Scottish group confidently opens the set with its current single, "I Love You Cause I Have To," which recalls XTC. Propulsive drumming and clever lyrics drive the set, which starts at full blast and doesn't dim.
Sadly, it's another day without any barbeque. But we know we're going to remedy that on Saturday.
-- Melinda Newman
Waking after about five hours of sleep to get some work done before setting off for the day finds me in better shape than expected. After spending a while "rockin' the laptop," as a fellow journalist dubbed it this morning, I head off to the sublime Magnolia Cafe (motto: "Sorry, We're Open!") for some breakfast with John Butler, the namesake leader of Australia's John Butler Trio. With the end of a six-week promotional tour behind his just-released Lava set "Sunrise Over Sea" nearing, the affable musician is looking forward to getting home for in time to celebrate his 30th birthday with his family.
But despite his present road weariness, Butler's passion for developing his career in the United States is evident. "I wouldn't want to jump right in front of 3,000 people," he says, referring to the typical crowd his band draws Down Under, where he is a well-known talent. "We didn't do that there and it wouldn't make sense to do that here. I expect to work to earn the support of American audiences."
A culmination of diverse influences reinterpreted into an original sound, the Trio's music inspires a passionate following, which I expect will grow sizably when he returns to the United States for a full-scale outing later this year.
From breakfast, I head to BMI's Acoustic Brunch, which is being co-sponsored by Billboard. As dozens of music industry folks mixed and mingled under the warm sun, the stage of singer/songwriters offered the perfect musical start to the day. Highlights for me included Irish singer/songwriter Mark Geary, legend Tony Joe White and the delightful Amy Smith.
My hopes of catching Doves this afternoon are dashed when the band cancels its headlining set at a Capitol Records party at the Velvet Spade due to the illness of lead singer Jimi Goodwin. The band's presence is so strong that the gathering had drawn a sizeable amount of SXSW attendees who had seen the band headline La Zona Rosa the night before. Nonetheless, the party offered strong performances from New York's bratty Morningwood and Stockholm's Shout Out Louds.
The opening of the latter's set nearly sent me to the door, with a lethargic shoegazing drone that proved trying, but once amping up its delivery for its far better, edgier '80s-referencing modern rock, the band won me over, and a sizeable group of revelers to boot.
Afterward, frontman Adam (no last names, please) told me that the notoriety his countrymen in the Hives have found here in the United States has been something of a boon to fellow Scandinavian acts. "I guess you need one big band to show the way, and although we don't sound like the Hives or anything, it's good for the country," he said. "But I still think there are so many good bands there that haven't been recognized yet."
With the Doves a no-show, I headed across the street to the Spin party at Stubb's just in time to see headliners the New York Dolls take the stage. The band ripped through a slate of vintage favorites as David Johansen returned to a persona first seen decades ago. Despite years of wear on the seminal rocker and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, their delivery was solid and their attitude was pure Bowery.
"This is the Spin party," Johansen, attempting to schmooze the sponsor and acknowledge the festival. "This is like the Vanity Fair of, whatever this f***ing thing is." Hey, I said it was an attempt.
Running into friends netted me a place at a fantastic dinner table where we toyed with the idea of spreading a rumor around town that comedian Jeff Foxworthy had died in a hot air ballooning accident, but decided better of it and instead plotted out an evening of music.
A cell phone call derailed my goal of catching Long-View at Co-Op, but nonetheless netted a posse on its way to hear the Kills at Emo's. Happenstance put us inside to see the end of Detroit kitch farmers Blanche, who are an acquired taste, although one worth cultivating.
With an ear-splitting aural assault, the Kills kept us rapt. Singer/guitarist W (Alison Mosshart) was sexy, brooding and entirely compelling, while guitarist Hotel (Jamie Hince), whose riffs recalled early Gang Of Four, wore a steely stare that was unnerving. Though the pair seemed a tad melodramatic as they screeched and stalked each other onstage, they have to be praised for provoking an emotional reaction from the audience through the music and performance.
As I'm never in Wales and Mike Peters is only in the United States every so often, I couldn't pass up a chance to see him over at Elysium. Joined by an exited colleague, the Alarm frontman doled out an impassioned acoustic set of favorites from across the band's catalog to a crowd that happily grew throughout the performance.
Completely switching gears, I saw some of Austin-based Charanga Cakewalk, which had an audience dancing to its Latin rhythms at the Cedar Street Courtyard, then it was on to let Matador's Pretty Girls Make Graves close out the night at the Parish with a bang -- or so I thought.
Tip: When exhausted, answering your cell phone at 2 a.m. is a bad idea. Somehow I let myself be roped into a SXSW tradition and returned to Magnolia Cafe for another gingerbread pancake despite having scored a slice of pizza on 6th St. This cadre's ringleader had to endure grumbling during the half-hour wee hours wait for a table and the subsequent eye-bleeding meal, but predicted we would nonetheless thank him later.
Let's just say that the jury's was still out on that point when I finally slumped into bed sometime after 4 a.m.
-- Barry A. Jeckell