By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The first official night of South by Southwest music, you’d think, would be kind of a pacesetter, a warm-up night. But no, even if you arrive late and think you’re going to do some stretching and calisthenics, grab an easy dinner before really cooking it on Thursday, something calls you from beyond, and his name is Kid Congo Powers.
Kid Congo Powers: One of the great L.A. guitarists, whose playing helped to define the Gun Club, transformed the sound of the Cramps when he joined them for two of their best albums (Psychedelic Jungle and Smell of Female), and went on to become an integral member of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds.
Perusing the schedule that night in between two unmemorable bands, we stumbled across Kid Congo’s name, and boom, within moments we were at Imo’s Jr., 10 feet from the stage just as he was ready to go on. Kid Congo, who just released a new record on the L.A. label In the Red Records out of Highland Park, looked fantastic — lithe and smiley as ever, with a thin Ron Mael mustache and an ageless face that seems to grow more handsome with each passing year (kinda like Charlie Watts).
Congo, who now lives in Washington, D.C., had a wonderful stage presence — some Hollywood genius should give him his own variety show — as he tossed off swampy, bluesy riff-rock that hit a sweet spot in our Cramps/Gun Club–loving heart. And just when we started missing them, Powers tossed out that magical “Sex Beat” riff, and away we went, moving with the guitarist and his compact three-piece backing band, the Pink Monkey Birds, as they delivered the Gun Club classic. And, then, lo, Powers lets loose with the Club’s best song, “For the Love of Ivy.” “You look just like an Elvis from hell,” he sang, “my heart is broken, so I’m going to hell,” and as he moved through the loud-soft-loud-soft roller coaster, the crowd started dancing.
Then the Kid acknowledged the recent death of former bandmate Lux Interior, and thanked the late lead singer for contributing the words “I’m Cramped” to the English lexicon. The band then spilled the song out, this primal burst, a thin grin on Powers’ face as he sang out of the side of his mouth like a cartoon character, the riff lubricating the crowd.
For bands at South by Southwest, there’s a lot of sitting around involved. Yes, there’s hustling, and unloading and reloading the van, and dealing with sound dudes on short notice when everybody’s feeling a little grumpy and running on four hours of half-sleep. But then you get to the place you’re supposed to be, in this instance a little makeshift recording studio outside Austin, and once there, you wait. And wait. And not only that, you wait for Peter, Bjorn and John, who are inside the studio recording their Daytrotter session.
Daytrotter, you might know, is the great MP3 site based in Rock Island, Illinois, one of the Quad Cities that sits on the Illinois/Iowa border on either side of the Mississippi. Over the past three years the site has become a sort of Peel Sessions of the Midwest. It was founded by Sean Moeller in his recording studio; the producer/engineer started inviting touring bands coming to and from Chicago and St. Louis to swing by and record a few songs. The idea snowballed, and a session in Rock Island soon became a coveted line on a rising band’s résumé.
This year Daytrotter set up a studio on the outskirts of town to record bands and then offer the songs as downloads on the site. Proof of its current stature, the list of artists who recorded last week includes the Hold Steady, Richard Swift, Tricky, Avett Brothers, J. Tillman of Fleet Foxes, the Strange Boys and Daniel Johnston.
I was invited along to watch the Silversun Pickups record their session last Friday. They were there to play a few songs from their eagerly anticipated Swoon, three years in the making after the critical and commercial success of 2006’s Carnavas. The band’s also been on a performing hiatus, waiting to debut the live version of those songs, thick with guitarist/singer/songwriter Brian Aubert’s symphonically distorted texture; the Daytrotter session was among the first performances of some of these songs live, and because this was supposed to be recorded, the band was understandably a tad nervous.
The Daytrotter studio was at the back end of a gravel yard with a few picnic tables, a fire pit and an endless supply of really nice wine. From the outside, the room looked more like a shack than a studio. Inside, Peter, Bjorn and John were recording their session, and took longer than expected. So the Pickups sat around shooting the shit, getting antsy and drinking wine. Surely Aubert was thinking about the songs he was getting ready to play, or about their gig the next night, opening for Metallica at Stubb’s for Guitar Hero. (For the record, both bands are managed by Q-Prime Entertainment, hence the kinda non-sequiturish nature of the double bill.)