Fear of Music
|Photos by Mark the Cobrasnake|
MY EYES ARE BLEEDING!
Attending SXSW is like having sex, running a marathon or smoking pot: The first time is never the best. Gaffe #1: I forgot earplugs. Austins soundmen are stone deaf, and the noise levels in the dive bars here will make your eyeballs ache. This was fine on Thursday, my first day, when I was young and the world was new. That day, it felt right to be drunk and walk the streets in a throng of teetering indie rockers, dropping into random bars to pee. One pit stop presented a full-bodied mixture of metal and punk with a melodic core that said, Were humans, too which turned out to be Helmet, shooting a documentary. Thursday also offered a winning Q&A with Robert Plant, who said hed donated to a Portland NPR station that promised never to play Stairway to Heaven. Stopped in to see my L.A. friends Tsar at the TVT Records party at the Hard Rock, where decibels matched the bands just-got-signed, arena-rock/punk-pop shock-and-awe agenda in a pleasing way: This is gonna be a great festival! I thought. Labelmates The Blue Van, from Danmark (thats Denmark to you and me), were also impressive, with Zombies-style organ, McCartneyesque bass and all kindsa harmonies. And sorry for all the nepotism, but at the Village Voice/L.A. Weekly party, a dark-haired boy-girl guitar duo with a drum machine made everyone stop and go, Whos this band? (It was the U.K.s The Kills. Watch out, Karen O: This girl is just as hot, just as bothered and shes got an ax!)
Gaffe #2: Instead of seeing Robert Plant perform, I opted for The French Kicks who made a soothing lullaby for me and another girl crashed out on an incredibly fluffy couch. This fortified me for my mission: Tegan and Sara at 1 a.m. Alas, even the wonder twins seemed SXSW-weary by then: After Walking With a Ghost Sara remarked, Thank you I think. The crowd lacked proper respect for the alien-orchid rarity of T&S: With the acoustic/electric guitar fulcrum, the sibling harmonies, the new-wave organ, the pop hooks and dark lyrics these girls have it all. By Friday afternoon, the street vibe had switched to post-debauched. At the Aussie BBQ, The Panda Band were clearly pouring out heartfelt power pop, but many festivalgoers were pooped out on the grass. I tried to watch Ben Lee, but couldnt get through a minute of his sugar-folk before a dark and cynical voice from within declared: icky sticky. While watching Radio 4, that same voice bitched: trendy bullshit. Drums from The Strokes, clothes from The Knack, songs from Gang of Four and bongos from T. Rex is there one single original thing about this band? Is this how it felt to watch the Swinging Blue Jeans in 1966?
Gaffe #3: I peaked too soon. Eventually, physical exhaustion destroys musical appreciation. I couldnt bear another Strat, but craved samba, jazz, African music anything played with animal parts. Three options: Beer, coffee or hotel bed. I chose the last, missing Ian Hunter, The Crimea, The New York Dolls, The Frames, The Mae Shi, Dios Malos, The Like and Nona Hendryx all people I would pay to see on any other night. Sometimes, youve got to say no to live music, and yes to VH1s 100 Most Metal Moments.
PAYNE IN THE SXSW
At SXSW, theres always too much choice, so I say screw the plan and wander around. A drop-in at Los Manitos got me a set by somebody called Nels Andrews and his band from El Paso. Theyre typical of a lot of heartland indie types, just real plain folkie-rock, dripping with frankness and looking like they just rolled out of bed. These particular slobs were behind even the folkie curve, where the very best of the songwriting sad sacks are messing with the form and sound a bit. Sauntered into the Cedar Street Court to catch L.A.s Anubian Lights, which is Tommy Grenas from the more psychedelic Farflung in his nuevo new wave mode. Anubian features an adequate female singer, a guitarist-bassist and a synth/vocoder/drum-machine guy, in black-and-white suits and ties, etc. The songs are perky, as required, early-80s dancey stuff, albeit with twists like the singer yelling through an electric bullhorn on a quirky 20s/R&B hybrid.
Nordic Nite at The Drink was authentic fun: The Swedes in attendance displayed much mojo circa 1973, all these vertical-striped loon pants and white belts, Frampton shags and mascara. Finlands The Crash bashed out a stream of endearing but not cloying pop songs, made memorable by colorful arrangements and sturdy melodies. Much-hyped The Ark evinced a manufactured aura, and the lead singer, with his huffy little pouts and purses and rouge, uh, he made you hate him a little bit. Crisp Status Quo riffage and anthems, however, from this band, whose Nigel Tufnellook-alike guitarist added visual splendor to their Sweet/Dolls/T. Rexstyle rock.
John Cale played La Zona Rosa to a packed house of reverent cultists and their clones, with Cale, as always, tense and wry as he set about cudgeling his songs. He grabbed his viola for the Velvets Venus in Furs, and Fear ended once again with Cale descending into madness, that shtick where he pummels his keyboard and his young, tough band gets violent. Up next, Austins own Spoon, whom Ive long resisted because of the seemingly uncritical raves theyve gotten but whose singer-guitarist, Britt Daniel, I concede, has written at least one song that completely does the job on me, called Me and the Bean, a ruff-tuff heart-tugger that makes me wanna bawl like a baby. Isis at Emos annex were like a black-metal band playing the Hawkwind songbook, and they did this eerie thing with extended passages of interval music, like youve got to travel through space a bit to get to the next song, broken into by peculiar riffs and the infrequent cookie-monster vocal. They stand out cause theyre twisting the genre, in fact presenting a kind of high-art music subtly disguised as goth/metal.
We are all-girl band from Japan dept.: At the stinkily crowded Beerland, another extremely irritating but in this case awesomely precise group called Gitogito Hustler screeched and bashed their mosquitolike punk rock and milked their theoretically charming lack of English for all the geekboys looking right up their skirts. The Music at La Zona Rosa: no discernible music as such. Way overpraised and promoted, their intense emotion-ladling in front of an MTV banner over two-generations-removed riffing and flailing was just NUMBING. The crowd whooped and hollered, but what are they gonna do, boo? Not at SXSW.
I ♥ SATAN
Forget about showcases. If you wanted to see your future favorite band at SXSW, all ya had to do was slip on party shoes and snag one of the super-insider-unofficial lists being passed around like high school slambooks. Yours truly played DJ for a day at Thursdays Heidi's Night of Beauty/Spaceland/Ticketweb do, where gals got metallic green manicures (it was St. Pattys after all) while estrogen-spiked rockers Gram Rabbit, Pony Up!, Erase Errata, and bidding-war babies Be Your Own Pet provided their own ballistic variety of beauty and the beat. The girl theme took an unexpected turn when a posse of Welsh blokes called Goldie Lookin Chain showed up in tracksuits (think the Beastie Boys meet Monty Python), rapping about Afrosheen and smoking soap bar, whatever that means. Next day, Filter and Spin mags offered battling bashes: Filters party, headlined by Kaiser Chiefs, may have seen more creative haircuts, but it couldnt beat Spins shindig, where Louis XIV, The Futureheads and The New York Dolls made for a wonderfully bizarre combo. The Dolls in daylight werent exactly a pretty sight (were they ever?), but they sounded spot-on, with a withered but commanding David Johansen chugging St. Johns Wort while crooning Pills. Bloc Party, also on the bill, lived up to its misspelled moniker, and also showed up everywhere else all week, from Vice magazines gathering (had to beg a cabbie to take me to the space out in some backwoodsy bumfuck ghetto . . . so Vice) to Urban Outfitters. Speaking of U.O., they helped turn an old storage space on Sixth into a makeshift boutique full of faux-vintage threads and rock shots by L.A. photog Piper Ferguson, while in the backyard, hottie hopefuls including Maximo Park (hooky tunes but suits are so tired, boys) and neo-glamsters SCool Girls swaggered and swayed near the port-o-potties. I passed on getting in a hot tub with Joel Gion formerly of the Brian Jonestown Massacre (who was promoting Dig!, the BJM doc) at the Spin house to pop into the Take Action party pit, where a group called Underoath almost won me over till they started talking up Jesus Christ. I wanted Satans music, man. And thats just what I got following my nose, much like Toucan Sam, to the least fashionable but most friendly powwow of the week: the High Times party, where, of course, the barbecue wasnt the only thing blazing.
GOSSIP & SHIT
Spotted cinehobbit Elijah Wood hiding in a corner at the Vice party. Lyle Lovett in comfy shoes outside the Four Seasons hotel, cowboy boots in hand. Distillers diva Brody Dalle and Stone Age king Josh Homme lovey-dovey in the lobby of the Embassy Suites. Drea De Matteo and back-again beau Shooter Jennings rushing though Austin airport. Only at a Billy Idol show would you see a guy in Chanel shades and a fur coat in Austin: a bewildered local at SXSWs opening night gig, who happened to be talking about Cleopatra Records prez Brian Perera. Im supposed to be representing these guys, and I dont know anything about them: random record-company minion ( yes, we really overheard this) at the Fader party. You rock folk all come back now, ya hear!: pilot from flight 407, from Austin to L.A.
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