Early yesterday morning—with groggy eyes and bags heavy with magazines, media kits and optimism—the Paste entourage made its way to the Atlanta airport, bound for Austin, Texas, and the music conference to end all music conferences: SXSW. The seven of us arrived in Houston around 11:00 a.m. and piled into a white Chevy minivan for the final three-hour leg of our journey. Having not seen much of the U.S. between the Mississippi River and the California coast, the Texas landscape was beautifully alien to me—fast-moving low-flying clouds, big skies, long flat fields of green grass, grazing cattle, live oaks, scrub and small patches of cactus, the muddy brown of the Colorado River and the occasional cluster of Palm trees that seemed strangely out of place.
We stopped at Charlie’s Hamburgers & Mexican Grill in Brookshire, Texas, along the way. The sign out front read, “More than two dozen sold.” Inside, a note on the menu board told of a $.50 price increase for items containing beef due to the recent case of mad cow disease in Canada and its effect on the market. We gladly offered our extra change to help out the meat industry, all except art director José Reyes who gave up meat for Lent. He held strong in the face of taunting and temptation by the rest of the Paste crew. (But the true test will come with all of this week’s free beer and barbecue parties.) So we feasted on piles of guacamole burgers, onion rings and tacos (vegetarian for José) and headed back out on the highway to Austin.
Just outside of town we made a pit stop and I bought a big sack of pork tamales from a man selling them out of the back of his van. They were the best I’ve ever had, and yes—just as Norah Jones recently admitted to Paste (see our April/May issue when it hits newsstands in two weeks)—I'm a foodie, too.
Austin is a beautiful city and the sun was shining as we pulled in. The architecture that stands out most is a tall, shimmering-green skyscraper, the Frost Bank building, which could’ve been transplanted straight from the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City. After dropping our luggage off at our suite at the Hampton, we headed down the block to the Austin Convention Center for press registration. Fortunately we missed yesterday afternoon’s computer crash, which delayed the process for hundreds of conference attendees.
After we picked up our requisite laminated passes, a few of us caught the end of a rock-writing panel hosted by British magazine Mojo’s Sylvie Simmons and also Jaan Uhelszki, who used to work with Lester Bangs at Creem.
Later in the evening, the Paste editorial staff stopped by restaurant/bar Threadgill’s for the annual "Hacks and Flacks" (publicists/writers) dinner. The walls were adorned with hundreds of classic, framed, black-and-white photos of music icons like Frank Zappa and Emmylou Harris. It was a fitting spot to kick things off and it was whole helluva lot of fun to put faces with names (so much communication in this business is through telephone and email), meet old friends and talk music, which is what was on everybody’s minds. Seemingly, the icebreaker questions of the night were, “So who do you work with?” followed up by, "What artists are you planning on seeing?” It almost felt like being back in college, out at a bar or a keg party and being asked, “What’s your major?” Still, after the introductions and a few pints of my new favorite Texas microbrew, Big Bark, everyone loosened up and had a great time.
But by now, I’m sure you’re ready for the meat of this update. This is about the music after all...
(Pictured top right: The Deathray Davies)
Some of us went our separate ways last night (so as to increase our ability to catch as many bands as possible). I struck out alone on a long walk down S. Congress St. to catch New Orleans band The Iguanas at The Continental Club. This was a non-SXSW event but it was worth a few extra bucks to see the bilingual, latin-flavored party-rockers strut their stuff. As I sipped on an ice-cold Lone Star and waited for the show to begin, I noticed an orange tool box sitting on top of one of the amplifiers. A sticker across the front read, “I killed a six pack, just to watch it DIE!”
Just after 10:15 the band took the stage in front of the club’s red velvet curtain and launched into a set of snaky tequila-soaked grooves, augmented by accordion, saxophone and some tight harmonies. The crowd swayed in time, hypnotized by the music’s vibrations. But as it always goes at SXSW, after 30-40 minutes it was time to move on. At this conference there are at least five bands (usually more) you want to check out every hour of every night. You can’t see ‘em all, but you try your best.
When my cab pulled into the Club Deville parking lot at five 'til 11:00, I had to wait a few minutes to get in. The place was jam packed and the fire marshal had already been by to make sure no one went in until someone came out. I made it inside and through the back to the outdoor stage just before Dallas, Texas, band The Deathray Davies began their set, nestled against the face of a 30-foot-high cliff. These indie rockers released the excellent Midnight at The Black Nail Polish Factory last year. I’ve since seen them twice and they’ve become one of my favorite bands. With six members on stage—including a keyboardist, two guitars, bass, drums and a percussionist/xylophone player—the band masterfully recreates the texture and depth of its studio recordings while adding the intensity of a hi-octane live-rock show. And to up the stakes a bit, legendary rock’n’roll superfan (and quite an astute gentleman, I might add) Beatle Bob joined The Deathray Davies mid-performance, dancing his ass off and shaking a pair of maracas. This show was the unequivocal highlight of my night. After the show I spoke briefly with Beatle Bob, who kindly gave me an annotated primer on how to make the best of SXSW. He had many nice things to say about Paste and we were all quite flattered, as Bob really knows and loves music.
I stopped over at a club called Tambaleo, ready to catch Kelley Stoltz. Unfortunately, the San Fransisco-based artist—whose densely layered psychedelic opus, Antique Glow, was in my personal top 20 albums last year—had canceled his performance. Instead, I caught about 15 minutes of a rock band called The Golden Apples, who I was neither put off nor particularly impressed by (though I do plan to check out their album when they send it). On the way out I ran into Stoltz’ buddy singer/songwriter Jesse Denatale, who I struck up conversation with after noticing his guitar-in-hand and his Iguanas jacket (he has the same booking agent as the band and is a fan). The two of us shared a cab back towards the center of town. I got out at Fox and Hound’s to catch Detroit jangle-rockers, The Volebeats, and he went on to meet friends in some hotel lobby. Denatale was nice guy, and I’ve been told by some of my colleagues that his album, Shangri-La West, is worth checking out.
After the cozy clubs I’d been at all night, Fox and Hound’s outdoor tent—setup in a beer-drenched parking lot—was not impressive. I heard the tail of end of country artist Dierks Bentley’s set. He’s toured with George Strait and will soon be hitting the road with Kenny Chesney. The guy’s a great singer, and he and his blonde-bombshell of a cowgirl-hat-clad bass player, pulled off some beautiful harmonies, but this band really represents everything I hate about mainstream Nashville country—the tired schtick and corny lyrics, the overly patriotic rants that get to the point where you wonder if it’s a gimmick, and technically proficient session players on guitar and pedal steel whose solos amount to nothing more than ’80s-metal-flashy, self-indulgent wanking.
Detroit’s Volebeats hit the stage at 1:00 a.m. to a slowly dwindling crowd. Though I was entranced by their recent album, Country Favorites, the band lacked presence and authority live. The songs—many of which are cleverly re-worked covers of everyone from ABBA to Funkasdelic—were solid, with nice melodies, tight harmonies, and well-played, reverb-drenched telecaster. But there was something missing. Perhaps I expected too much after being so impressed with the album or perhaps it was just a rare, off-night for the band. Just before the set ended I caught a cab back to the hotel (could’ve walked but I was beat). It had been a long day and I’d wtinessed some impressive and not-so-impressive performances. As my head hit the pillow, I relished the thought—Tomorrow, I get to do it all over again.
(Denatale photo by Randall McKinney)
To read Editor Josh Jacskon's Night 1 recap (Nellie Mckay, Los lonely Boys and more...), go on the the next page
Editor Josh Jackson's report
Love her or hate her (and our staff is closely divided, 4-3), Nellie McKay has dropped one of the most original debuts in some time. Seeing her live definitely cemented my vote in the love camp. Her unique spectrum of influences stretches from cabaret to hip hop. But her allure is in the quirky stories told in fractured rhyme. Wry, cynical and worldly beyond her 19-years, her rapid-fire commentary on everything from men ("Well for starters / You have started every war"), apathy ("Don't wanna think about schools in Bosnia / Don't wanna to sing about food in Somalia") and cloning ("Just day by day our DNA / 'Cause the Olson twins got nothin' on us") stings with honey-laden barbs. If you're going to fillet my gender, at least be charming about it. Nellie certainly is.
Los Lonely Boys, on the otherhand, bring less originality, but make up for it in enthusiasm, confidence and raw talent. Channeling Santana, the trio owned their hometown audience at The Austin Music Awards show at The Austin Music Hall. Those kids are rock stars.
After a few songs, though, we left the local celebrations to catch the last song from young Australian country guitar phenom Jedd Hughes. Undaunted by the small crowd, Hughes displayed an exhuberant mastery of his instrument.
Coincidentally, the next act I caught, Sandra McCracken, played a song written by her friend Hughes. She needed only a few simple chords from her and husband Derek Webb (Caedmon's Call) and some light cello from J.J. Plascencio (Sixpence None the Richer) to accompany her huge voice. After the show, publisher Nick Purdy and I were talking to McCracken when we were interrupted by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. We walked away before realizing our brush with fame.
At 1:00 AM, we caught a couple of songs from Richard Buckner and his wall of noise. Only assistant editor Jason Killingsworth enjoyed the show. I love Buckner's album but was too exhausted from a long day of music and travel to get past the jumbled sound.
And now I post this review from the media room, where 20 feet away, Little Richard is being his usual charming, hilarious self at a press conference. God bless SXSW.
Top photo: Los Lonely Boys, bottom photo: Sandra McCracken, both shot live at SXSW by José Reyes)