SXSW Day 2 Play-by-Play

Music Reviews SXSW
SXSW Day 2 Play-by-Play

The rookie was learning, and by SXSW Day Two he began to hit his stride.

Rule one, learned yesterday: allow for serendipity.

Rule two, learned today: when there’s a hot act playing a small room, arrive for the previous performance if you want to have any hope of getting in.

That would be the Kaiser Chiefs, my only disappointment of the day. But I’ll get to that in a minute. After clearing the cobwebs with bottled water, quarts of coffee and breakfast masquerading as lunch (or was it lunch masquerading as breakfast?) my day started with the rare privilege of attending a taping of Austin City Limits, the legendary PBS show filmed at KRLU on the University of Texas campus. Alas, the artist I’d been most looking forward to seeing—Ray LaMontagne—fell ill and had to cancel his appearance. So the taping was solely devoted to Austin’s own Spoon.

The ACL studio was actually much smaller than it appears on television, where it seems to roll on forever. (In fact, some viewers have been fooled into thinking the show is filmed outdoors.) The taping itself felt rather antiseptic. Spoon frontman Britt Daniel said it best when the band took the stage—“You people are always so polite.”

As a former keyboardist, I have a soft spot for bands who employ ivory-ticklers on a full-time basis. And while Spoon will never be mistaken for the latest Ben Folds project, the band’s piano grooves give it a distinctiveness. That said, I was hoping to be bowled over, and I just wasn’t. Spoon rocked competently and the vocals were spot-on, but the band is lacking in the killer hook department. One of its older songs, “The Way We Get By,” was close to a contender, but I didn’t hear it from the ACL stage. Of course, I left before the set ended. (SXSW rule three: staying to the very end of a band’s set is rarely a sensible course of action. Time’s a-wastin’.)

The next stop was a party at Cedar Street Courtyard. My reward for hopping on a city bus to trek all the way back into downtown from UT was Sweden’s The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. I’m a newbie to TSOOL, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But once I saw them—if fictional band Stillwater from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous needed an opening band, these guys would be prime candidates.

Surprisingly for a Swedish band, the lead singer wasn’t a rail-thin blonde but a beefy, bearded guy who looked like a long-lost member of Molly Hatchet. The music was anthemic arena rock (Paste editor Josh Jackson astutely pointed out the Who vibe). And I was now two-for-two seeing keyboardists gainfully employed—some tasty, Ray Manzarek-style organ lines were pumped out as part of TSOOL’s towering wall of sound.

A quick hoof across town took us to the New West Records party and Buddy Miller, who was for all intents and purposes putting on a gospel concert in a tent behind Club DeVille. As I arrived he was playing The Louvin Brothers’ “There’s A Higher Power.” “All My Tears,” the song Buddy’s wife Julie wrote when their friend Mark Heard died, was a highlight, as was the Heard-penned, set-closing, “Worry Too Much,” which can be found on Miller’s latest, Universal United House of Prayer.

Miller is one of the most consistent performers I’ve ever seen. I’m sure he has bad nights, but I’ve never witnessed one of them. You can always expect gut-wrenching soulfulness, jaw-dropping fretwork and a tight rhythm section at his shows, even if it’s different players each time out.

The next stop on the night’s loose itinerary was the Hotel Café—a venue for L.A.’s best up-and-coming singer-songwriters. I heard a few songs from Tom McRae (accompanied by cellist), and then Rachel Yamagata took the stage. It’s a sad fact that the parade of oh-so-earnest songsmiths, with their acoustic guitars and capos in hand, sometimes bores me. It can be impeccably tasteful, well-crafted and well-sung and still put me to sleep. So anything to shake things up is welcome and appreciated. Fortunately, individuality has been the hallmark of the troubadours I’ve encountered here. Yamagata was a perfect example. She isn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve and let the emotions in her songs take over. And she isn’t afraid to scream.

(photo at top: Husky Rescue’s Reeta-Leena Korhola)

After a quick dinner, I popped into Antone’s to catch The Duhks, a dynamic folk combo from Winnipeg, Canada. Alas, I only caught one song, but it was a good one. Like Buddy Miller, The Duhks were operating in gospel mode, belting out the traditional “True Religion” with the lyrics, “who’s gonna make up my dyin’ bed, when I die, when I die?” (That’s track six on their highly recommended self-titled, Sugar Hill debut, by the way.)

The Duhks have the instrumentation of a traditional folk act – banjo, fiddle, guitar and percussion – but they execute with rock energy and rhythmic verve. I definitely plan on catching more than one song the next time around. The only reason I was able to see the one song was my magical, line-escaping SXSW badge. I feel for the folks with wristbands, but when it counts, I appreciate the Power of the Pass.

But this Power failed me just moments later, after a hike to La Zona Rosa to catch Leeds, U.K.’s Kaiser Chiefs. Also known as buzz band of the moment, it was impossible to get in. Even the badge line stretched around the block.

Fortunately the New Orleans Music Showcase picked the right stage for its event. I could hear the sounds of Crescent City funk echoing across Republic Park from the tent behind Fox and Hounds and quickly decided to bail on the Kaiser Chiefs line to check out Cajun keyboardist Jon Cleary instead. Cleary and his amazing band, that is. It was a typical New Orleans multicultural affair, with a five-string bassist laying down thick grooves, locked tight with the best drummer I’ve encountered here. (And that’s saying something.) A crackerjack guitarist and second keyboardist rounded out the wrecking crew.

I’m guilty as anyone about getting hooked on left-of-center rock that relies on a twisted concept to get over. But every now and then, it’s awfully nice to forget all that and hear a bunch of first-class professional musicians just turn it loose. As Cleary sang—“Gentlemen gotta do their thing.”

The next victim was Robyn Hitchcock, who played approximately 246 times at SXSW. I exaggerate. But, seriously, the fellow is everywhere. Hitchcock was playing an odd upstairs space this time, the Balcony Bar at the Ritz. It’s basically the balcony of a mid-sized theater, blocked off and used mostly for films, except during SXSW, when acoustic performers like Hitchcock are forced to compete with pounding bands below.

I’m interested in Hitchcock as much for his wit as for his songs, and he didn’t disappoint, introducing “Let This Hen Out!” by saying, “This is a about a tribe of people in England long ago. [piercing howl, pause] They died of feedback.” Later Hitch embarked on a rambling story about a 1970s Clint Eastwood movie that somehow diverged into a bit about roosters with their legs duct-taped together. (Don’t ask.) He hopped to demonstrate, then declaimed: “…and you’re thinking, ‘Lou Barlow would have done it more gracefully.’”

I ventured a few doors down to Exodus for Scotland’s Trashcan Sinatras, a band I’ve enjoyed since my college days. (I own their debut on cassette. Whoa.) With eminently tasteful, chiming guitar and an aesthetic akin to The Sundays, this will never be a band that tears off the roof in concert. Still, I’ve always appreciated hearing laid-back, atmospheric music executed live.

My penultimate stop of the evening was Latitude 30 for Finland’s Husky Rescue, playing its first U.S. show. Hardly anyone in the States has heard of these folks yet—Minty Fresh, their American label, just signed them in January. But mark my words, if these Finns are committed to stateside success, the sky is the limit. The Huskies are a cinematic, dreamy pop band, with haunting, echo-laden lap-steel lines laid over electronic loops and lounge grooves. Fans of the Cowboy Junkies, Beth Orton and The Cardigans—here’s your favorite new band. I was turned on to Husky Rescue by randomly listening to an advance copy of the band’s CD, but it certainly doesn’t hurt its cause that smart, talented lead vocalist Reeta-Leena Korhola is the very picture of blonde, Scandinavian beauty.

I chose Manchester, U.K.’s I Am Kloot at Habana Calle 30 to end the evening. At least from the performance I saw, the band plays a combination of song-driven acoustic folk and Britpop in the vein of the Manic Street Preachers. “This is our fourth gig today,” said I Am Kloot’s lead singer. “I’m with you, but I’m in a strange place, maybe off to the side.”

At 2 a.m., after a full day of music, I’m sure most of the room could relate.

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