SXSW Day 3 Play-by-Play

This Thing Needs An Intermission

Music Reviews SXSW
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SXSW Day 3 Play-by-Play

Today, I learned another rule of SXSW: if you have a chance to sleep late—do it! I awoke before everyone else in my hotel room, and greedily thought I had a chance to get a jump-start on the day. Silly me.

Instead, I suffered from low energy all day, and fell far short of editor Josh Jackson’s all-time record of 20 bands in one day. But you didn’t come to hear me whine about my health and the travails of old age.

Our day began at a brunch hosted by OR Records, where we heard from singer/songwriter Adam Richman. When I spied Richman, with his lip piercing, mohawk and Chuck Taylors, I knew we wouldn’t be hearing any Joni Mitchell covers.

Richman began his set plugged in onstage, but after getting shocked a few times he’d had enough and decided to stand on a chair in the middle of the room. Paste publisher Nick Purdy pushed up another chair, but Richman declared he wouldn’t use it.

I won’t insult Richman by calling him “emo” but he certainly writes from the inside out, primarily about matters of the heart. I caught a few good lyrical nuggets: “Suck it up and love me,” and “thrills and needs don’t mix.” With any luck he’ll be able to share a chunk of the devoted audience Chris Carrabba has sewn up.

It was barely noon, but the beer was already flowing at our next destination, the Paste party at Maggie Mae’s. Fortunately, my colleagues had nailed down an excellent lineup, so there was little reason to head anywhere else. I allowed the noon hour to pass, then queued up for a Fat Tire Ale.

Aqualung began the day’s performances on the Paste stage. I’m still new at the full-time music writing game, so I assumed I was unfamiliar with Aqualung’s songs. Wrong.

When Matt Hales (who is Aqualung, essentially) began singing “Easier to Lie,” I began singing along. It’s the kind of song you only have to hear once before it’s permanently embedded in your cerebral cortex. And apparently, I’d already heard it at least once.

Hales, on keys, and accompanied by a guitarist, continued through a set that included more quiet, mid-tempo songs with memorable melodies. Perhaps in an earlier era a songwriter like Hales might have occupied an office in the Brill Building cranking out hits for others. Now, he’s out to see if he can spin some gold for himself. Count me among those wishing him luck and keeping my eyes peeled for his latest.

Next up was Alexi Murdoch, and I’m afraid at this point the “schmooze effect” began to kick in. So many friends of the Paste brass came walking through the door that the singer/songwriters got short shrift. Sorry, Alexi Murdoch! Though what I heard was good, in a hushed, Red House Painters sort of way.

Then Kate York took the stage. She, too, suffered from the “schmooze effect,” but since she played with a full band she was easier to overhear. Her well-executed songs fit somewhere along the Indigo Girls/Tracy Chapman continuum with strong alto vocals against a folk-rock backdrop of electric guitar and organ.

Griffin House was next, but I didn’t hear him at all, since I was assigned to the door to check badges and the guest list. Perhaps my bosses were conducting a little initiation exercise? My most embarrassing moment was giving Earlimart a hard time about getting in before I realized who they were. D’oh!

It’s fortunate I let Earlimart in because they were next, and were my favorite performance of the afternoon. On record, with their breathy vocals, they sound uncomfortably like their late (and dearly missed) friend Elliot Smith. But live, it was a lot more edgy and direct, without forsaking the melodies and harmonies.

Glen Phillips, of Toad the Wet Sprocket and Mutual Admiration Society fame, was the penultimate performer of the day. Phillips was armed only with a guitar and his voice, so I found myself diverted into conversations at various moments. (Whose idea was it anyway to pair sensitive singer/songwriters with a room of yak-happy people? Oh yeah… hi, boss!) I was a big Toad fan, nonetheless, so I tried my best to pay attention.

From the sound of the songs, Phillips was the main reason Toad was so good. I can’t imagine he’s left many of his former fans behind with his solo material. His tenor cuts through a chatty room pretty well, I must say.

Britain’s Ed Harcourt ended the afternoon in charming fashion, accompanied by a violinist and drummer with a good case of “drum face” – grimacing each time he had to hit something. (Which was often.) Harcourt led his trio through his baroque pop originals, although like Dolour a few days before, the songs suffered a bit in the live translation.

Harcourt knows how to work a crowd though. Before leading the audience through a profane call-and-response, he introduced it by saying: “it includes a swear word, which means it’s quite cool.” Now, will some wise booking agent please put Harcourt on the road with Robyn Hitchcock? You can call it the “Monsters of Witty English Pop” tour. You could also add Andy Partridge of XTC, if he ever bothered playing live.

After a steak dinner to celebrate our party. (What a business, where a party is cause for celebration—I don’t miss my old corporate-PR life at all.) I hiked ’cross town to Cedar Street Courtyard to catch David Ryan Harris. The songwriter demonstrated a grip on his audience stronger than the capo chomping down on his guitar’s neck.

Harris, now an L.A resident and studio rat, is immensely respected by his musician peers and has had a hand in some huge records, even work for Mariah Carey. (Hey, it pays the bills.)

I’ve always wondered why he hasn’t achieved John Mayer-like levels of mainstream commercial success. You don’t suppose it’s because he’s an African-American playing singer/songwriter folk, melodic hard rock and other styles pigeonholed as “white?” Nah, couldn’t be that…

At Cedar Street, Harris introduced himself with a different name every few songs–“Hi, I’m David Allan Coe…” “Hi, I’m David Alan Grier…”—in between jaw-dropping songs arranged on-the-fly with a digital delay. Using only his acoustic guitar and the delay pedal, Harris built loops of percussion, basslines, rhythm and counterpoint, before using them to flesh out his soulful original songs.

I’ve seen this done before, but rarely so capably and effectively. With so many industry muckety-mucks trudging around Austin, I certainly hope some of them were plotting to get this guy in front of the Wal-Mart masses he deserves.

The next (and last) itinerary stop was Austin Music Hall for an evening of soul and gospel – the lineup: Amos Lee, Blind Boys of Alabama, Mavis Staples and Robert Randolph.

Austin Music Hall is a big sheet-metal barn of a building with a huge open floor, which is unfortunate because, by now, my early start had caught up with me and I was looking for a chair. (Insert your favorite “too old to rock’ n’ roll” joke here.)

I contented myself with a support post containing a convenient power outlet for my laptop. The reactions I got sitting there on the floor fell into two categories: 1. ordinary Austin concertgoers wondering what’s up with the geek; 2. publicists and marketers thinking “journalist” and bending low to hand out cards and flyers for upcoming shows.

Amos Lee was playing as I entered the building, which didn’t do anything to help my somnolence. While his performance certainly justified his “Paste Recommends” status, and the muted trumpet scored points with this ex-band geek, the laid-back vibe nearly did me in.

Fortunately, the Blind Boys, up next, brought a little more of a jolt. Still mourning the passing of original member George Scott, the septuagenarian “Boys” still rocked the house. Tenor Jimmy Carter even hopped off the stage and made a circuit through the crowd. (And I was feeling old and tired?)

My favorite song was the opener, “Do Lord,” which took me straight back to church camp in 1976. But it probably takes the Blind Boys back much further.

After the frenzy died down from the Blind Boys, Staples and her band took the stage. Unfortunately she was not in good voice this evening, straining to hit the high notes. About halfway through, she invited country vocalist Marty Stuart to the mic, and I actually preferred his vocals to hers.

For Robert Randolph I willed myself away from Home Sweet Support Post and joined the throngs in the middle of the floor. Then Randolph and his Family Band hit the stage, locked into a killer riff and kept going… and going… and going. After what felt like half an hour the song was over. Jamband fans are going to hate me for saying this, but I was reminded why I prefer Randolph’s Unclassified to his Live at Wetlands CD. On the studio recordings, the instrumental excess and epic lengths are reined in, but no such luck on live recordings or performances.

While a more energetic me might’ve found Randolph’s performance transcendent, at 1:45 a.m. my interest began to flag. I stuck around to see an open invitation for women to dance onstage and “Shake Your Hips,” resulting in about 40 takers (a security person’s nightmare!) then I shook my hips across town to bed.