Hooray for Seattle’s United State of Electronica (U.S.E.). If it weren't for the all-out bootyshakin’, fist-pumping jolt of energy the group provided, my first day at SXSW would've been a surprising near-bust.
Unlike my colleagues, I mapped out my entire day ahead of time and decided to keep my blinders on. No matter what you do, you’ll always be missing something amazing; it’s the nature of this fest.
My day started with a duo performance by Cracker’s David Lowery and Johnny Hickman in a tent across from Emo’s. Maybe this dates me a little, but when I wasn’t looking Lowery seems to have gone from brash, snotty upstart to elder statesman. Both models are fine with me. In the end it’s all about the songs, which are great and still stand up after all these years. Lowery and Hickman threaded their way through some of the best of the Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven catalogs, with “All Her Favorite Fruit” and “Eurotrash Girl” standing out as highlights.
One thing I like about Lowery is that he doesn’t shy away from his past work. Of course, I hate seeing veteran artists reduced to jukeboxes, but there’s a balance here. When I’m reminded, as I was here, of the strength of his early songwriting, it makes it easier to warm up to more recent efforts. Which is wise, considering Camper Van Beethoven’s comeback release, New Roman Times, easily stands alongside the rest of the band’s canon.
In the evening I stuck to my plan, with the exception of missing Robyn Hitchcock due to an overabundance of good conversation and some excellent adult beverages at dinner.
So my night began at Emo’s main room with the psychedelic freakouts of Jennifer Gentle. Hearing JG’s lead singer Marco Fasolo reminded me of the memorable Stephen Malkmus lyric: “What about the voice of Geddy Lee / How did it get so high? / When he talks does he sound like an ordinary guy?”
Yesirreebob. JG’s lead singer has a strange, high-pitched vocal instrument—naturally, perfectly suited to the band’s Syd Barrett re-animations. Just add reverb, and lots of it. I did find myself curious to know what the band would sound like without their wah-wah pedals and Farfisa organ. Re-creating a Piper At The Gates Of Dawn sound onstage is a hell of a lot of fun, and quite entertaining, but it’s not the stuff of long musical careers. Even XTC’s psychedelic alter-ego, Dukes of Stratosphear, lasted only one album and an EP.
Next, it was a cab across town to Fox and Hounds, where The Damnations were playing on an (unfortunate) outdoor stage behind the building. Did I mention it was cold? Pity the poor beer sellers, having to reach into buckets of ice to hand out cans of Lone Star and Shiner Bock.
The Damnations have a rep as one of twang-rock’s finest, and they certainly were bringing it, even if the shivering crowd wasn’t helping. There were great two-part female harmonies, a tight rhythm section, solid musicianship and plenty of versatility, with deft switching between banjo, Fender Telecaster and piano. Austin loves these hometown heroes and they’ll probably have a local audience as long as they want to keep it going.
Then it was back to East Sixth Street, where I narrowly missed the preteen indie pop of Smoosh at Maggie May’s. So I crossed the street to Friends, where I was treated to a 25-minute soundcheck by atmospheric rock sensation Midlake (named by several colleagues as one of 2004’s 20 Best). Alas, the long setup and late start wasn’t much help—the band sounded distant, muffled, poorly mixed and anemic. After three songs I’d had enough, and I retraced my steps back to Maggie May’s for Seattle’s Dolour,
Dolour is basically pop songwriter Shane Tutmarc and whoever ends up on stage with him. So the band seems the key to whether a Dolour performance gets the crowd nodding their heads or scratching them. Unfortunately, in packing for the fest, Tutmarc must have forgotten to put a bass player in his suitcase. The band was a three-piece with Tutmarc on keys, a guitarist (whose name I didn’t catch) and U.S.E.’s John e. Rock capably thwacking the skins.
The performance wasn’t technically bad, but without the bottom end that makes it sound like a “real band” it wasn’t nearly as engaging as it should’ve been. And the sound was overwhelmingly midrange-dominated. The dwindling crowd reflected this. Since Dolour records are huge, colorful affairs with horns, strings and lush arrangements (Tutmarc has his Brian Wilson tendencies, for sure) I was disappointed, and could not stop thinking, “I’d skipped Elvis Costello for this?”
Between sets, it was almost 1 a.m., and I was falling asleep. I retreated to a stool in the back of the room, ardently hoping for U.S.E. (pictured at top) to give me a second wind. And my hopes were not in vain. Performing in front of their trademark five-foot high “U.S.E.” logo, this Seattle party-rock seven-piece had even my repressed white booty shaking.
The thing that draws in the crowd at U.S.E. shows is that the party is happening just as much onstage as in the audience. The two female vocalists vamped and cooed, the keyboard/vocoder player—in his sparkly pants and tight, ripped shirt—brought “Velvet Goldmine” glam vibes and the two guitarist/vocalists exhorted the crowd to sing along and pump fists in the air.
At the same time, the rhythm section was quietly doing the heavy lifting. Both the bassist and drummer were (barely noticeable) pictures of head-down concentration, making sure the groove stayed tight.
The crowd responded so enthusiastically that the band must’ve felt it was in its native Emerald City. I was right there with ’em—"Belltown? Capitol Hill? Queen Anne? WE LOVE IT! WE LOVE IT! WE LOVE IT!"