SXSW Update - Day 3

Wayne Coyne, John Vanderslice, Drive-By Truckers

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SXSW Update - Day 3

It took me a little longer to get going yesterday (as I kindly spent my morning writing an extra-long wrap-up for all of you). But when art director José Reyes and I made it to the panel featuring Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips (pictured right, with band), it made up for anything I’d missed during the day. Of all the things I’ve seen at the festival, the hour Wayne spent conversing with the 100 or so of us in that conference room was the most rewarding.

Wayne Coyne has this presence about him, and I don’t mean star power. I am now convinced he’s the Buddha of rock music. You hear people talk about an artist being down-to-earth. This panel changed my personal standard for what that means. It wasn’t Wayne Coyne, rock guru, handing down pearls of wisdom from on high. He spoke from the heart, like a conversation with one of your older brother’s good friends, who you’ve known for years. Now, he’s still crazy Wayne, the man who pours fake blood all over his clean, white suit every night at shows. And no, Wayne says, he doesn’t do it for some kind of catharsis. He just thinks the image is exciting. At least it’ll get your attention if the furry animal suits don’t work. Wayne got the idea from a picture he saw of Miles Davis after the jazz legend had been hit over the head by a police officer. There was this splatter of blood on his suit and when Wayne saw the image it just stuck in his head.

Wayne and the Flaming Lips’ art isn’t always about some larger statement. It’s about the members of the group being themselves (which often means following their whimsical ideas) it’s about being happy, and—in their own way—trying to make their audience happy. I don’t understand these people, says Wayne, who play in a band with people they hate for so many years, just because they want to be successful. What kind of life is that? And, in response to an audience members’ question, Wayne launches into a lengthy speech about the dangers of drugs and the terrible addictions he’s seen people go through in his life. Drugs don’t make you creative, he says, later adding, If I’m going to ask my family to allow me to do the things I do, and to follow all of these ideas I have, I can’t be on drugs all the time.

The Flaming Lips frontman also recounted tales of his younger days in Oklahoma, going to see the bands he loved at little clubs in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, clubs where he learned it was okay if your band only played for ten people. I saw my favorite bands, says Wayne, and realized they occasionally played for crowds of a few hundred people, but a lot of the time they didn’t. I thought, hey, I can do this.

It was frustrating at times for Wayne going to see punk bands in the early days. He was a bit of a freak, with long scraggly hair. The skinheads would say, what are you doing here? I’m here to listen to the music, is that okay with you, Wayne would reply. He said that with Flaming Lips, he never wanted the audience to want to be just like the band. It was important that everyone be themselves, feel welcome and enjoy the show.

If only I had a transcript of everything Wayne said, I would just post that instead of writing. Wayne Coyne, whether consciously or unconsciously, emphasized that he’s just a person, not the same as everyone else, but no better, no more important. When people hear Flaming Lips, they shouldn’t be in awe of the greatness of the band members, they should instead be in awe of our collective human potential.

José and I left the Austin Convention Center newly inspired by the words of Wayne Coyne, but still hungry, as we had missed lunch. We stopped for a few slices of pizza on the strip, then walked over to the capitol building to take in the beautiful architecture, and finally caught a bus down S. Congress to Jo’s Coffee to see country legend Billy Joe Shaver. It was a nice change from many of the club crowds I’d seen so far. Families with babies in strollers and grandma in-tow ate hot dogs fresh off a grill that wasn’t far from the outdoor stage. It took on the feel of a county fair, which suited Billy Joe Shaver perfectly. He was born in Texas I learned, in a town not far from Waco. The son of migrant workers, he saw his share of hard times in life and you can tell how much he loves to play music, how much he appreciates doing what he’s doing. But he also has the swagger of a man who knows he’s earned it. As he strums a pint-sized acoustic guitar and drawls away on songs like “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Honky Tonk Heroes,” tufts of silvery hair poke out from under his black cowboy hat. Even the less-than-spectacular sound system can’t dampen the crowd’s spirit. We sing along, relishing the chance to experience this country treasure. As it seems this is shaping up to be the motivational/self-help update of the week, we can wrap up the Billy Joe section with the following lyric, “I’m just an old chunk of coal / but I’m gonna be a diamond some day.”

All Night Radio—whose album Spirit Stereo Frequency is my favorite so far this year—was playing at The Blender Bar at The Ritz at 9:00 P.M. Upon arrival, I went to talk to guitarist Dave Scher, but he was frantically rushing around the stage with a panicked look on his face, fiddling with his equipment. This struck me as odd, since he’s one of the most laid back people I’ve ever interviewed (see “The Chemistry of Cowboy Robots,” a lengthy feature on Dave’s old band Beachwood Sparks, and also look for a scrapbook piece on All Night Radio in the April/May issue of Paste). Dave steps on one of his pedals and hellacious high-pitched feedback immediately engulfs the room. He drops to the ground and twists some knobs to end the cacophony. Then he tests the mic, and shakes his head. I notice the monitors aren’t working.

If any of you have ever played in a band, you know that a show without monitors in a cavernous, high-ceilinged room is like target practice blindfolded in the dark. But All Night Radio pushes on. As the band begins its set of layered, psychedelic indie pop, it becomes apparent that this show isn’t going to be an easy one for them to get through. With only three people on stage (bass, drums and guitar) trying to recreate the complexities of Spirit Stereo Frequency, the band has to not only be playing and singing, but constantly dialing in sampled sounds (which is much more difficult if you can't clearly hear what you're playing).

Jimi Hey, who is one of the most exciting drummers to watch today—spastic and inspired, pounding away at his sparkly silver drum kit—also has a laptop next to him that he’s using to add sounds. The band’s songs are great, but Dave and Jimi seem to have been sucked into the blackhole bands often experience when everything starts to go wrong on stage. Jimi is trying to sing a harmony part and the shoddy microphone stand won’t hold in place. It sinks down, too far away to be of any use. I figure that perhaps the reason the sound isn’t great is because I’m in front of the PA system. So I back up right next to the soundboard and, unbelievably, it sounds worse. All of the beautiful subtleties of the band’s music are lost in the mix. After the set, I speak with Dave briefly and then catch a cab over to Mother Egan’s Irish Pub for Old Crow Medicine Show.

Fiddle player, frontman and multi-instrumentalist Ketch Secor is behind the outdoor stage, tuning up his guitar, when I introduce myself. We’d spoke on the phone before, but had never met in person. Fresh off a few dates with Gillian Welch, he says there’s a possibility his band might be added to the tour Paste recently learned of that features Welch, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, David Rawlings and Buddy and Julie Miller.

The members of Old Crow Medicine Show gather at the front of the stage in proper stringband fashion. The crowd is a rowdy one and when the music starts everyone erupts into wild cheers. People are dancing arm-in-arm; it’s quite a party—probably akin to the atmosphere of an early 20th century hoe-down. This isn’t bland, sit-in-a-chair-and-quietly-mouth-the-words- but-not-too-loud-so-as-to-disturb-your-neighbor uppity folk music. This is music to spill your beer to. In its heyday, it was party music and Old Crow won’t let you forget it. With the rabid fiddle playing and the dangerously close proximity of upright bassist Morgan Jahnig, the only thing I worried about during the show was whether Secor would accidentally skewer his bandmate's head with the fiddle bow.

Next, I caught the second half of John Vanderslice’s performance at The Parish. This club is one of the best as far as sound quality and atmosphere goes, but damn if it didn’t feel like a sauna in there. “This SXSW thing is pretty overwhelming,” Vanderslice says between songs from his new album Cellar Door. “It’s like when you take a bunch of acid and realize it’s a lot stronger than you thought it was—whoa, I’ve got 12 more hours of this?” I hadn’t had much exposure to Vanderslice before and I was really impressed by the set. He’s an artist I’d like to check out in greater detail—sit down with his albums and really absorb them.

Pictured at top: All night Radio's Dave Scher onstage at The Blender Bar at The Ritz, other photos from Old Crow Medicine Show's performance at Mother Egan's Irish Pub (photos by José Reyes)

José and I popped by the elegant Driskill Hotel, grabbed a bite to eat at the bistro by the lobby and then took our first pedicab ride (a bike with a cart behind it) over to La Zona Rosa for Drive-By Truckers. The venue was much bigger than I expected and packed to the gills. I don’t know how this town supports so many venues. Perhaps it’s the 50,000-plus students at University of Texas at Austin.

Dwight Yoakam was nearing the end of his set as we came in, but he was still rockin’ that Bakersfield sound as hard as he could. He was my favorite country artist from the ’80s and tonight he sounds as good as (if not better) than ever.

Before the Truckers went on, we worked our way to the front of the room. José had never seen the band before and I wanted him to get the full experience—frontman Patterson Hood towering overhead with his toothy, shit-eatin’ grin, three guitars blaring recklessly in your face while you’re splashed with Jack Daniels as the band takes sloppy swigs straight from the bottle. When it’s done right, rock ’n’ roll ain’t pretty. But it’s one hell of a good time. I’ve seen Drive-By Truckers about seven or eight times in the past year, and they always deliver—consistently one of the best live acts around.

Hood can barely be heard over the screaming crowd as he introduces the first song, the down-and-dirty “Lookout Mountain.” The band ratchets up even more intensity, following with the epic “Sink Hole” from last year’s Decoration Day, my personal choice for best album of 2003. When the Truckers are firing on all cylinders, they can go toe-to-toe with any rock band I’ve ever seen. But its not all balls-to-the-wall rawk. Right now, I can’t think of anyone who writes a better ballad than guitarist Jason Isbell. And, though it wasn’t performed last night, Mike Cooley’s sparse acoustic number, “Sound Better in The Song,” is one of the most affecting tunes I’ve ever heard.

One hitch—in an otherwise flawless performance—came when Cooley started getting electrocuted every time he touched his microphone. As he sang one of his songs he did everything he could to convey what the problem was—pointing, shouting, waving his arms—but apparently the sound crew was not getting the transmission. Between songs, in sheer frustration, Cooley yelled at them, “I don’t mean to be a f---ing primadonna but you’ve been doing this for 48 hours and you still haven’t got it figured out?” Finally the problem is fixed and the show goes on. Hood introduces his song “The Living Bubba” by telling the story of an Atlanta musician named Gregory Dean Smalley, who died of AIDS a few years back. Even though he was terribly sick, Smalley played over 100 shows the year he died. The band was inspired by Smalley’s determination to spend his last days doing what he loved best. (For more on Gregory Dean Smalley, see Hood's story "The Living Bubba")

In typical fashion, the Truckers closed the show with the anthemic “Let There Be Rock,” a tribute to arena rock highlighting artists like AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. But the song could almost be a theme for valiant losers everywhere. Hood never did get to see Lynyrd Skynyrd, as he sings on the chorus, but what can you do? Instead, he caught tons of other lesser bands that came in their wake, made the best of it, and still had a blast. Things don’t always go as we plan and, at times, it might even seem like we’re destined to fail. But even when facing these obstacles we can still push onward, like Gregory Dean Smalley—and if we don’t see Lynyrd Skynyrd at least we've got Molly Hatchet, with .38 Special and the Johnny Van Zant Band.

Quotes of The Day:

“I used to do it all night. Now it takes me all night to do it.”

-64-year-old Billy Joe Shaver

“She was barefoot and I was pregnant.”

-Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell, introducing his wife, new Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker

top two photos: Dwight Yoakam live at La Zona Rosa, other photos: Drive-By Truckers at La Zona Rosa (all photos by José Reyes)