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.)
Eventually PBJ finished and the Pickups loaded in and did a sound check. With a sound so thick with overtones and controlled feedback, Aubert was concerned with getting things right, and it didn’t help that the pedal setup that he’ll be taking on the road this summer was still being worked on back in L.A. The makeshift replacement made amazing sounds, but it’s not the exact one he spent the past three years perfecting.
I ended up in a little corner of the studio with a few other people. Aubert and bassist/singer Nikki Monninger’s vocals were being sent directly into the control room, then relayed back into the two’s headphones, so I only heard the three new Silversun Pickups songs as instrumentals, which was a fascinating exercise and highly recommended for judging the quality and inspiration of Aubert’s song structures.
Later Aubert acknowledged that the performance was as harrowing a gig as he’s ever done — and he’s done a lot of shows. It makes sense; the Silversun Pickups have been working on this stuff for a long time, and a lot of people are really looking forward to what they have come up with. To roll into Austin on the eve of Swoon’s release (April 14, to be exact), a day before playing at Stubb’s with Metallica, is to face a certain amount of pressure.
It’s a wonderful problem to have, though, ultimately. In Austin, there were 2,000 bands that would have killed to be in Silversun’s situation. But that only makes the moment feel more crystal clear, and powerful, and, yes, nerve-racking.
The next night at the Guitar Hero show, Aubert’s trepidation had dissipated (or at least he masked it well). The result was a confident performance; the band is obviously gunning to build on the success of Carnavas by constructing big-ass rock songs, filled with adventure (relatively speaking; it’s not like they’re deconstructing anything). The crowd, though waiting for Metallica, was with the Pickups the entire way, and the result was a successful introduction to the band’s new songs. Will the Pickups top the success of their debut? We won’t know until after it’s released. But the songs are certainly there.
Metallica’s parachute gig at Stubb’s last Saturday night was raved about nonstop, and I wanted to see how they translated the big arena show they’re used to doing these days into a more intimate space, so I stuck around to check it out. But their extended sound check, and the whole idea of them gigging SXSW, started to grate on me. As I waited, I started to get pissed; the goal was to check Metallica, then head down the street to the Southern Lord showcase and compare/contrast the big sellout band with the littler ones. But my reflex told me to ditch. As I was leaving, the doormen looked at me incredulously; thousands were standing outside trying to get a glimpse, and there’s me leaving, as though I’m exiting the frickin’ Promised Land or something. That only emboldened me; are Metallica that much more worthy or deserving of my time than the other musicians?
I texted L.A. Weekly freelancer Jeff Weiss, who was at Cedar Street waiting on Grizzly Bear, as I left: “Fuckn metallica is wasting my time.”
His response: “Isn’t that what they’ve done since ’87?”
LOL and yes, I’m outta here.
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Emo’s Annex, two blocks away: the Southern Lord Records showcase, featuring Wolves in the Throne Room, Pelican, Black Cobra, It’s Casual and three other bands either on or affiliated with the Hollywood label. Southern Lord is one of the most respected and prescient metal labels in the world. Its bands, including label owners Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley’s Sunn O))) project, Japanese mantra metallurgists Boris, drone geniuses Earth, and legendary L.A. doom-metal band St. Vitus (whose early records were put out on Black Flag label SST), have pushed the genre in directions unimaginable in Metallica’s prime — which, for the record, was Master of Puppets.
They’re the real deal basically, and despite the clusterfuck a few blocks away, I glided straight into the tent, where two-piece math-metal yowlers Black Cobra, of San Francisco, were driving their sound into the skulls of a small but overjoyed crowd. Think about it: Metallica is playing down the street, and these dudes moshing seem giddy. It’s like knowing that the Beatles are playing at Hollywood Bowl but opting to go see the Dave Clark Five at Boardner’s.
Black Cobra: Loud. Fast. And best: One Gibson Les Paul, three amps behind him, and one simple but totally thumping Ludwig drum kit. No guitar racks here. No roadies swapping out bass guitars between songs. The band had 15 minutes to set up, another five for a sound check, and then they started, and the longhairs banged heads and flashed the devil horns. The pit was ferocious if tiny, but there weren’t enough people to really support any crowd surfing.
I left to see some music down the street, but on the way back to the hotel, the Southern Lord showcase was still killing at 1 a.m. Wolves in the Throne Room had finished, and the amazing instrumental band Pelican, recently signed to Southern Lord after releasing great stuff on Hydra Head, was delivering this freakish blend of metal, grunge and punk, like the Misfits mixed with Dinosaur Jr. mixed with, yes, Metallica. (Wolves in the Throne Room, Pelican and Tombs perform at the Troubadour this Friday, by the way.) It was beautiful. It was real. It was totally unpretentious. And it didn’t need bells, whistles, 45-minute sound checks or arrogance to pull off. Just, yes, the rock.