by Roy Kasten
It's Sunday in Austin, I'm on South Congress at Jo's Coffee Shop, trying to write as the 5000th (at least) performance of the week takes place on yet another parking lot made into a venue. There's much to say about my final three days at SXSW 2014 (read about the first two days here), and only so many brain cells left to say it before my night flight back to St. Louis. So here we go. See you back in Texas in 360 days.
European disunion and other discontents. You probably didn't know there was a Norwegian Grammys and you probably didn't know that a schizophrenically attired (tie-dye to vintage cute to skater kid) band named Team Me was victorious in 2011 for "Best Pop Group of the Year." The lesson in this case is that had St. Louis' Gentleman Auction Band survived and moved to Norway, they would have been accepted as indie-pop gods. Much better was preceding band on Thursday night at the Berlin Music Week showcase, Simian Ghost, a trio replete with cool, subway-found sound samples and a blurry daze-pop delivery.
Nightmare on dulcimer street. At the Anti- Records showcase at Bungalow in the hip (if you're a bro) Rainey Street district, Saintseneca, a neo-folk pop band from Columbus, Ohio, stomped on personalized wood platforms and swapped instruments, giving every other member a chance to torture the sound man with a backpack dulcimer. With the fine album Dark Arc due out in April, Saintseneca plunged handlebar-mustache-first into one of the worst sounding and tentatively delivered sets of my SXSW 2014. It would have been unlistenable if it had actually been hearable over a wholly disinterested patio crowd.
Yahoo isn't dead yet. It isn't even drunk yet. The ample space of Brazos Hall was decked out with Flickr and Smithsonian Channel propaganda and a dozen bartenders serving complimentary wine and beer as Gary Numan channeled the black soul of Trent Reznor because Numan's own robot soul wasn't responding to pings. Not a bad trade, as Numan embraced industrialism like a lover's corpse and even made "Cars" sound more delicously depressing than in 1979. Who would want to follow such angsty noise? Probably not Blondie, but follow it it did, with an impressive if shrilly mixed set of marginal new material and unassailable hits, notably "Call Me," "Hanging on the Telephone" and "Rapture," which went straight into a cover of "Fight For Your Right to Party." Vintage Vinyl's Jim Utz might have predicted that (he was all smiles in the front row); I did not. A well-wigged Ms. Harry has no use for Spanx nor for Auto-Tune, and she can still hit the high notes on "Rapture" and still stalk a stage like a rock icon. And the band -- including Chris Stein and Clem Burke -- played with cool zest and punchy power. A clear highlight of night three.
Elton John may be on to something. Hold not the Strypes affiliation with Sir Elton against them, nor hold it in their favor. This teenage quartet, wholly infatuated with the British Invasion, can fucking play. As tight as any rock band I saw in Austin this week, the Irish kids ravaged the outdoor tent at Palm Door on Sixth, covering both "Concrete Jungle" and "Heart of the City" like they were born to, rather than born decades after the fact. Biggest discovery of the week.
Little Dragon, big voice. Yukimi Nagano may be the most charismatic front person and purest singer you've never experienced live (please comment if she's performed in St. Louis and I will be grateful for the self-loathing that missing her inspires). Though she's backed by an adventurous electronic outfit -- but with a dynamic live drummer -- Nagano is soul singer by nature, even when her vocals are looped into the electro-ether. The final song of Little Dragon's set, "Klapp Klapp," moved in so many directions at once, and yet Nagano's voice healed all the parts: "Falling apart, falling apart...."
Continue to page two.
September Girls, March boys. At the best place to get an actual full Black & Tan pint on Sixth Street, B.D. Riley's, buzz band September Girls laid the harmonies on thick, yet its almost Cure-like sound belied the Little Steven Facebook shares. Sexy, to be sure, but decent players as well -- especially the focused and nimble drummer. Preceding the girls on Friday afternoon were fellow Dubliners the Young Folk, which still has time to change its name before those weary of Mumford & Sons catch on. Choice cut: "Way Down South."
Sure, Aloe Blacc, I can do this. On Friday afternoon at the Palm Door, for one of many day parties underwritten by SXSW Official (not that I'm complaining; I have a badge), Aloe Blacc filled the outdoor stage with expert R&B and so many sing-alongs and cell-phones-up moments that I thought I was at the Pageant. Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III gave a shout out to both Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, which explained little, especially when final song "Can You Do This" turned into a Soul Train dance-line party with a whole bunch of white folk making their Vine debuts.
Sweet, sweet Lou. Though full reviews of the Lou Reed tribute at the Paramount Theatre on Friday night have been mixed, the six songs I heard were all so affecting and enjoyable that only someone more jaded than I would dwell on the miscues or dropped lyrics. Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Barone dueted warmly on "Sweet Jane" to start off a night featuring Wayne Kramer, Lucinda Williams, Suzanne Vega, Steve Wynn and Chuck Prophet, who apparently got his moment in the spotlight with a drag queen and the sax player from Spandau Ballet for the finale. Of the performances I saw, it was Garland Jeffreys who moved me the most. The old friend of Reed's (they met in college at Syracuse) recounted their shared love of doowop and then sang his vibrato-ed guts out on "I'm Waiting for My Man." Ignoring any sane chiropractor's orders, he jumped down to bring the audience to its feet for the first of many times.
Psyched for harmony. Boston quartet Quilt plays spacey, lilting folk rock ala 5th Dimension-era Byrds that might win over initially on the strength of its pretty guitars, but it's the four-part harmonies -- so simple, so finely set around the translucent melodies -- that carried me away. I left the Lou Reed show early to catch this band at Swan Dive; I couldn't be more content with that hard choice.
Honey in the young blood. Scotland breeds aging-critic friendly pop like Austin breeds traffic (the census is still out, but a local told me 500K people moved to the area last year), so one should be skeptical when another adorable duo like Honeyblood makes the blog rounds. If rhyming "sleeping late" with "procrastinate" is bit prosaic, I still believe it, and a song like "Nip It in the Bud" is instantly irresistible. On stage Stina Tweeddale turned up the Telecaster, sang with her whole diminutive self and still transmited melody and confidence and power. At the annual British Music Embassy showcase, the band suggested a minimalist Best Coast at times; thus, Honeyblood really did live up to its notices.
Needling Pitchfork, hypnotizing a church. At the altar of the Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Austin, Mark Kozelek and drummer and harmony singer Eric Pollard tested the mics to the tune of "Come O Come Emmanuel." Kozelek has played in the church before, knows what his voice can do in the space, but performed as he would anywhere and to anyone, even with the moments of genuine graciousness to the dead-silent audience and the equally genuine satirical stabs at the evening's sponsor Pitchfork. "Pitchfork is some of the best literature written today," he deadpanned. "They gave my new album a 9.2. They should have done that 10 years ago. And 9.2? Why not just give it a 10?" The voice of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon focused largely on tracks from the new album Benji including the utterly haunting song for his cousin, "Carissa," and the final dream sequence about the The Song Remains the Same. Though Kozelek's voice wandered on and off mic, his rhythm guitar playing surged relentlessly (on what seemed from my vantage a nylon-stringed classical guitar), and the words tumbled out and out and out, hypnotically, like they'd never stop. But they finally did, and I left in a trance that took the full twenty-minute walk back down to my hotel to break.
Up with people and down with Sixth Street. From the point of view of God or a Google street map satellite, Sixth Street during SXSW must look rather curious. It feels that way, this wall-to-wall, slow-motion riot waiting to happen. Police stood frozen and intimidating in a gendarmerie circle at intersections while people moved like nothing so much as prisoners around the pillar in Midnight Express, only in a wasted line, not a circle. But at 8 p.m. that specific parabola of hell was not yet ready for me, and I took in Wildflowers, a London band that has a charming country-pop sound, but, as one observer noted, it's all bit too "Up With People!" If these lads and lassies have suffered, you wouldn't know it by the perky songwriting (most notably the wretchedly cliched "Chemistry"). Still, there's probably commercial country potential here; any of the star-makers at CMT reading this blog should check them out.
Not hardly the last you'll hear of the Last Internationale. Misreading the schedule, I wound up at the outdoor stage at Stubb's hoping to see New York's glam-blues rockers the Last Internationale, before realizing that the band was playing on the indoor stage at the same venue. I caught the end of the band's set, which climaxed in singer Delila Paz leaping from the stage, stripping off her belt (why? who knows) and playing harder than 30 or so people would have predicted. A rock & roll knockout.
Invisible friends, visible soul. Outside the gorgeous, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon-designed Mexican American Cultural Center on the banks of Lady Bird Lake, some 3000 Latinos and Latinas waved the Venezuelan flag, danced and sang along to Los Amigos Invisibles, one of the finest Latin/pop/electronic bands in the world (in this gringo's opinion). This was a party, complete with Big Gulp-sized margaritas, blinding strobes and hits like "La Que Me Gusta," one of the catchiest songs of 2013 regardless of genre. Then, to close out my Saturday night and end SXSW, I returned to the heart of the festival and stood beneath a tent just a few blocks from the scene of the Wednesday night crime that took the lives of two, injured over twenty and shook the city of Austin to its core. Cody ChesnuTT was making the last of a half dozen or so appearances, his 45-year-old voice battered but not broken -- "I sound like Scooby-Doo up here," he sighed. His band, a tight quartet of drums, keys, bass and the best rhythm guitar player of the week, playing the kind of soul music I needed at that or any moment. The band started late (the sound check was tense and protracted) and the set was barely over twenty minutes in length, but when ChesnuTT chanted "No turning back!" over and over again, the crowd chanted with him and SXSW 2014 had found its coda.
Free twang, priceless place. Though the Broken Spoke, celebrating 50 years of honky tonking this November, is no longer an official SXSW venue, the musicians that played the KDHX and Twangfest day parties on Thursday and Saturday afternoons were among the very best in Austin this week. For starters: John Fullbright, Laura Cantrell, Sturgill Simpson, Della Mae and the Haden Triplets. In full disclosure, I'm a Twangfest volunteer and DJ at KDHX. In full honesty, you've never been to Austin if you've never been to the Broken Spoke. The parties drew over 1000 fans over the two days, and the final party, featuring headliner Hayes Carll, had the biggest crowd in the event's fifteen year history. Who can say if there will be fifteen more, but I'll drink another Lone Star to that.