SXSW Update - Day 2

BR549, Trailer Bride, Pedro the Lion

Music Reviews SXSW
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SXSW Update - Day 2

Around 2:00 p.m., art director José Reyes and I walked down to Club Deville (site of Wed.’s Deathray Davies show) on Red River Street and met up with most of the Paste armada. Los Angeles-based record label New West was hosting an acoustic showcase complete with free tacos and beer. I’m really getting used to this by now and may have trouble returning to “normal” society on Monday (as there are no free tacos and beer in “normal” society). The atmosphere was casual at the indoor/outdoor venue and the crowd of writers, publicists, artists and fans moved freely around, chatting it up or listening to the music.

While I ate, I chilled with Beatle Bob some more, and even invited him to send us some pitches if he wanted to write for us. The man is a true celebrity in these circles—every band knows him; he’s become a music legend and having him at your show offers a certain degree of validation. It’s like he’s the fans’ Ambassador to Rock ’n’ Roll.

The Old 97’s played a rollicking set, keeping the energy nearly as high as if it were an electric show. They closed with “Time Bomb.” Tim Easton, who followed, was backed by an able band and came off like a modern-day Kris Kristofferson. His writing has great depth to it, especially lyrically. The politically conscious artist had been based in Athens, Ga. but when I ran into him later in the afternoon he said, “I’ve relocated to Ohio, since it’s an election year.”

“Swing state?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. “We’ve been doing a sort of Rock The Vote thing, on a smaller scale. We’ve registered 1,000 voters.”

Easton continued, saying the effort has been non-partisan. “If everyone votes [as opposed to half the people eligible] and the results differ from my preference but reflect the voice of the people, then I can support that.”

Next, the legendary Flatlanders—that’s Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock—took the stage, performing a solid set of Americana. Toward the end, I ran into Rolling Stone editor David Fricke and Nick West (editor of a cool little UK music publication called Bucketful of Brains. We talked for a few minutes—West gave me a copy of his magazine and Fricke told me he was still vacillating on what shows to see later in the night.

As the Drive-By Truckers geared up for their acoustic set, the crowd started massing. With drummer Brad Morgan using brushes on a fat-sounding snare and new bassist Shonna Tucker holding down the bottom, the band took its three-guitar onslaught to a new format. These guys just don’t know how to not rock. It’s unbelievable. You think, “Oh, a nice acoustic set.” But then you hear it and it’s raunchy, dirty-south rock’n’roll just the same. Not that they can’t pull off a beautiful ballad—Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell excel at the form—but even the slower, more thoughtful numbers have this punk ethos that filters through. Slobberbone frontman Brent Best sat in for half the set, cranking through classic Truckers tunes like “Lookout Mountain” and “Sink Hole,” and a cover of The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.” And Isbell—wearing dark shades, a Pabst Blue Ribbon baseball jersey and a white cowboy hat—led everyone through a moving new tune about The Band’s Richard Manuel and Rick Danko (“Richard Manuel is dead,” he sings hauntingly on the chorus).

This band is true to its roots… and not just when it comes to the music. Everyone else at this New West party is drinking pints of IPA and Pilsner, but not the Truckers. Somewhere they have their own secret stash of PBR.

pictured top (L-R): Jason Isbell and Patterson Hood jam while Beatle Bob (pictured below) dances wildly at the New West party at Club Deville (photos by José Reyes)

After the party, the Paste crew walked back toward the hotel, stopping for dinner at Noodle-ism (editor Josh Jackson and publisher Nick Purdy’s favorite stop from last year’s conference) for some Japanese food.

To lead off the night, I caught an Americana Music Association-sponsored show—Nashville band BR549—at legendary Austin venue Antone’s. This was the best place to see a show so far. A long hall with high ceilings, brick walls and a crystal-clear sound system, it was the perfect venue for this twangy group, who kicked through its blend of classic country, greasy rockabilly and jailhouse swing. The lineup was comprised of two guitars, upright bass, drums and a smokin’ multi-instrumentalist whose furious fiddle and deep bag of pedal-steel chops took center stage on quite a few tunes. Stage right is a permanent reminder of this town’s blues roots—a 12-foot-high portrait of Stevie Ray Vaughn, with his back turned, guitar slung over shoulder as if ready for a wild-west showdown. Some of that Vaughn magic permeates this town, and it seems, now-and-again, that some bands can tap into it while they’re here.

BR549’s frontman, Chuck Mead, introduces the other guitarist as “The Jedi Knight of Rockabilly, Chris Scruggs!” In his Buddy Holly glasses, Scruggs kicks into one of the few numbers he sings. During the set, the band plays syrupy, heartbroken ballads, Western-swing tunes, upbeat shuffles and beboppin’ throwdowns Hank Williams, Buck Owens, George Jones, Bob Wills and Carl Perkins would’ve been proud of. In fact, if you wanted to fill a time capsule with the music of only one group, whose sound spans country-music history from 1940-1980, BR549 wouldn’t be a bad pick. They know their roots and are tight as a band can get without losing its mojo.

I popped in two doors down at the Lucky Lounge, not knowing who was on the bill. It was quite a hip little bar, with strange configurations of bulbous orange lights tacked up to the wall and multi-colored lamps hanging from the ceiling. The loud, chatty and considerably younger crowd was quite a contrast from Antone’s. I asked a guy by the bar who was playing and what they sounded like.

“They’re a local band called Wide Awake,” he said. “They sound, I don’t know, kind of like a Matchbox 20-type band. They’re really great. They won like 5 awards at the Austin Music Awards.”

Though I’m not a huge fan of Rob Thomas and the Matchbox boys, I decided to stick around and give Wide Awake a listen. After taking what seemed like forever to setup, the band skittered up to the stage, plugged in their instruments and launched into a mainstream, top 40, lite-rock anthem that had all the pretty University of Texas ladies swooning and me bolting for the door. I don’t know if it was the bad sound, the cheddar-cheese lyrics, mediocre musicianship or when the singer grabbed at his broken heart, squeezing his chest in pseudo-romantic agony as if to say, “I’m the sensitive type of rock ’n’ roll guy, you can take me home with you, I promise I only want to talk.” To borrow a phrase from my colleague, Paste reviews editor Jason Killingsworth—“Pop Corn.” A perfect term to describe this band’s sound. But to be fair, I only saw one song, and that’s what I’m basing my opinion on.

Next door at the Red Fez, I happened on a very cool discovery. Local organic hip-hop/neo-soul group KJV had me dancing, and—with my less-than-impressive white-man’s groove—that says a lot. I had a bit of an epiphany at this show. I figured out a use for all of those talented-yet unlistenable jam-funk bands that vamp on virtually indistinguishable texture and tonal color variations for 15 minutes at a time (i.e. Medeski Martin & Wood and Vida Blue)—become a backing band for a rapper with some serious lyrical chops and things swill start getting pretty damn interesting. KJV’s “King” James N. Kinney, was an excellent frontman, had some serious skill on the mic and was a solid vocal improviser, whether freestylin’ or letting out James Brown-style shouts. And speaking of James Brown, every time the band would break it down for a funky instrumental segment, Kinney got-on-up with some serious dance moves a la The Godfather of Soul but with a hint of Michael Jackson. The band had great energy and stage presence that was enhanced by the dim-lit ambience and Spanish-style décor of the bar. Behind the stage there were hexagonal metal outlines, creating what looked like a giant honeycomb. Over the raised booths along the wall were arches, from which hung ornate metal lamps. While Antone’s was the best venue sound-wise, this was the best low-key bar I’ve seen in Austin.

(pictured top right: Bloodshot Records artists Trailer Bride)

At 11:00 p.m., I hauled it down W. 6th St. to the lumbering brown beerhouse, Opal Divine’s, to catch Bloodshot recording artists, Trailer Bride. I had initially planned to do a “power hour” on E. 6th St. (the city’s main drag) and catch a few songs each from Josh Rouse, Grant Lee Phillips, Mindy Smith, The Thrills and The Autumn Defense, but I became so entranced with Trailer Bride’s performance that I never made it.

Trailer Bride plays dark, heavy country that creeps up behind you and crawls inside your soul. There’s something beautifully detached about singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle’s vocal delivery that envelops you—like a mournful tractor beam you can’t escape, but are happy to submit to. As I try my best to assess the band, I’m overwhelmed by the vibe of the music. That creepy feeling you got back in 8th grade, the first time you heard Jim Morrison sing “The End”—that’s the feeling I’m talking about, only with Trailer Bride it's more affecting, more sincere. To say the band sounds like Misfits meets Hank Williams and 16 Horse Power would be a good start, but you can’t just leave it at that. It goes deeper.

On stage, Swingle is wearing a black Jim Beam ball cap, picking away at her scuffed-up honeyburst Les Paul. After a few songs she switches to a red Danelectro for some dirty-ass slide guitar. Bassist Daryl White uses a bow on his upright, creating a dark blanket of sound. Swingle pulls out a singing saw for the title track from the band’s extremely well-done album Hope Is A Thing With Feathers (2003). Having played New Orleans club Tipitina’s on Wed. night, the band took the SXSW stage fresh off a ten-hour drive. But their exhaustion only accentuated songs like “Hope is A Thing With Feathers.” Based on an Emily Dickinson poem of the same name, it’s one of the most haunting songs I’ve ever heard.

After the show, I said hello to Swingle and guitarist Bryon Settle, wished them well and hailed a cab to the opposite end of 6th St. I did manage to catch The Autumn Defense’s last song. And as much as I dug Trailer bride, I kicked myself for missing most of this show. The band—a side project of Wilco bassist John Stirrat and new Wilco guitarist Pat Sansone (pictured right)—featured Stirrat on guitar and vocals and was rocking in high gear under a full-on light show at The Vibe’s semi-outdoor stage. After the show, I briefly met Stirrat and Sansone, who were featured in Paste’s Scrapbook section in this year’s Feb./Mar. issue.

At Coyote Ugly saloon, based on the groundbreaking feature film of the same name (I hate when writers blatantly point out their use of sarcasm, but just to save anyone who missed the joke a few dollars on a video rental—I’M ONLY JOKING), I saw part of Allison Moorer’s soulful set of Americana. Moorer’s got a strong, beautiful voice and she let it show last night. Her band provided a solid backdrop as she led them through her well-crafted songs. The problem at this venue—besides the hokey, big-breasted-bartenders-dance-on-the- bar-just-like-in-the-movie-so-you-can’t-get-drinks-for-ten-minutes-at-a-time schtick—is that there’s no stage, so if you’re 5’ 7” like me, you can’t see the performers. After the show, I ran into Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell and his wife, new Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker. Both are session veterans from Muscle Shoals, Ala. and have added a lot of depth to the Drive-By Truckers since joining, especially through Isbell’s songwriting. The band’s three-man songwriting rotation (Isbell, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood) is to rock ’n’ roll what the Atlanta Braves pitching staff of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz was to Major League Baseball in the 1990s. Shonna, Jason, New West publicist Traci Thomas, Truckers crew member Brian Spett and I all toasted the night, sucking down some tasty shots of Patrón before we headed our separate ways—the four of them to meet some friends and see The Stills at Emo’s Main Room and myself to The Parish for Pedro the Lion.

This was an anticipated event for the Paste crew, and I met up with everyone as the show began. It was the first time I’d seen Dave Bazan live and the show was captivating and lyrically astounding. With his voice and guitar supported only by a drummer and some samples, the sound was strangely full. Editor Josh Jackson told me after the show that Bazan was in rare form, speaking very little between songs and letting the music take center stage. The duo cranked through two six-song segments with only a short break for questions (a Pedro the Lion tradition) in between. The set list skewed heavily toward the album It’s Hard to Find a Friend. Jackson also said it was cool to hear “Big Trucks,” which was the lead track on the first PasteMusic Sampler.

Weary from another full day, Jackson, publisher Nick Purdy and myself stopped at a Gyro joint on the strip and headed back to the hotel. Two days down. Two to go.

Quote of the day(Thursday):

You know what sucks about a power outage? It doesn’t kill the spotlight.

-member of Grey DeLisle's band after a blown fuse made the sound cut out at her band’s SXSW performance, leaving them all frozen under the lights.

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