SXSW 2002: Live from Austin

First Appeared at The Music Box, April 2002, Volume 9, #4

Written by T.J. Simon

gif

This past March, I had the distinct pleasure of representing The Music Box at the 2002 South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. SXSW is such a massive event with so much happening at once that it would take a team of journalists to give it a comprehensive overview. As such, I decided to write a piece that could be used by readers as a guide, of sorts, so that future excursions to SXSW would prove most fruitful. I tried to write the kind of piece that I wished I had read before heading down to Austin. More importantly, I wanted to write a piece that may turn you on to some of the amazing musical acts that played the festival. If there’s no chance you’ll ever attend SXSW, at least skip down to the end where I review the 25 most memorable bands that I saw in showcase concerts.

SXSW Music: What’s the Deal?

SXSW began in 1987 as a conference for music industry professionals to wheel and deal in the friendly town of Austin. As bands and singers flocked to the convention to kiss the rings and play for their would-be masters, fans came, too. There are really two things happening at once at SXSW (three, if you count public drunkenness): a music conference at the convention center and a music festival happening everywhere.

The music conference at the Austin Convention Center takes place Wednesday through Saturday during SXSW music week, but the trade show with exhibitor’s hall and acoustic day stage are only open Thursday through Saturday. This is really an event for music industry people — executives and artists alike — to schmooze while attending workshops and panels geared towards professional development in an industry that has been, at times, quite unprofessional. The conference can be a bit of a snooze for fans unless you are fascinated by topics such as, “Indie Label Opportunities,” “The A&R-Artist Relationship,” or “Running a Dom Perignon PR Campaign on a Miller Lite Budget.”

Many music fans come to Austin expecting SXSW to be modeled after music festivals they have attended elsewhere, such as The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival or Milwaukee Summerfest, wherein stages are set up in a large park or fairgrounds allowing for free wandering from act to act. Instead, SXSW works off the model implemented by movie festivals, such as Sundance, where local venues — bars, mostly — are booked for the event in order to showcase bands predominantly during the evening hours. During SXSW 2002, about 700 musical acts played over 1,000 shows on about 50 separate stages scattered throughout the city. Moreover, bars that were not part of the official proceedings hosted local and national bands to play for the 10,000 conference attendees converging in Austin that week. Other artists set up their own makeshift stages on street corners and in alleys hoping to attract attention, sell homemade CDs, and maybe get discovered.

SXSW features music from all genres: country, rock, pop, hip-hop, blues, zydeco, folk, punk, world, and anything else imaginable. But don’t expect to see any artists breaking off from their stadium tours to play the festival. For the most part, the music at SXSW comes from acts needing exposure to the music industry to further their fledgling or journeyman careers.

You might think that populating a music festival with industry types — critics, lawyers, scouts, promoters, and label executives — might produce a sterile, distinctly un-rock-n-roll vibe at shows. As it turned out, the opposite was true — at least at SXSW. The reason people gravitate to a career in the music industry is because they are, first and foremost, music fans. For most of these folks, it’s not about the money, it’s about the tunes. In fact, I spoke to many industry types at SXSW, and they don’t make all that much money.

Nevertheless, the sole purpose of SXSW is marketing, and there’s a whole lot of it going on over the course of the event. Attendees are given a tote bag full of sampler CDs, industry trade publications, fliers, inserts, and knick-knacks. Every time you turned around in Austin, starving musicians were handing out four-song demos to anyone who might be able to rescue them from garage band or coffeehouse obscurity. Often, the CDs were accompanied by marketing gimmicks. One likable singer-songwriter from NYC (Brooke Fox) included a cigarette lighter within the shrink wrap of her disc. Another artist attached his album and contact info to Do Not Disturb signs and hung them on the doorknobs of sleeping record executives at The Four Seasons Hotel. Odd, perhaps, but it’s all about standing out from the rest, and while the music has to be good to derive any real attention, the gimmicks can at least serve to get you noticed.

All About the Benjamins

Attendees at SXSW have several choices regarding their payment options. A $525 pass to the SXSW Conference gets you into the trade show and any SXSW music venue without a cover charge (subject to venue capacity). The pass is a bit cheaper if you buy early, and it’s only available through the SXSW website. There is also a Platinum Pass for $775 that includes all the privileges of the conference pass plus a foot massage from Courtney Love. Actually, I was unable to get a straight answer exactly what the benefits were for the extra $250, and I heard nobody lamenting the fact that they couldn’t do something for lack of a platinum pass.

The cheaper option is to forego the trade show altogether and purchase one of 4,000 wristbands sold in Austin for $85 (the price decreases as the week progresses). In theory, the wristbands will admit the purchaser to the same nighttime shows as the badge-wearing conference crowd. The trick is that wristbands are only sold in Austin on a walk-up basis and can’t be purchased on the phone, on the Web, or reserved in advance. Additionally, fans who don’t want to purchase a convention pass or wristband can dole out the greenbacks for cover charges on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Even if you have no interest in the happenings at the convention center, it may be worth your money to get a trade show pass. Admission to the popular shows was a bit of a caste system: passholders were admitted before wristbanders, with cash carriers coming in last. On Friday night, a line formed to see New York punkers Mooney Suzuki at Emo’s, and the passholders were admitted as room became available. Meanwhile wristbanders waited outside on Sixth Street until the passholders were all inside. This should only matter to you if there are specific acts that you absolutely must see. For every venue with a line outside, there were a dozen others that were half full and waiting for your business — just like any other concert in any other city.

Big Menu, Overwhelming Choices

Even the cockiest walking encyclopedia of music couldn’t hope to be familiar with all the musical artists playing a particular timeslot on any given night. Some choices were easy — never pass up an opportunity to see country singer-songwriter Charlie Robison playing a Saturday evening show along the banks of the Colorado River. However, for every one of those easy picks, you are forced to choose from obscure bands from far-off lands playing gigs at the same time on opposite sides of the city. Fortunately, there are a plethora of resources available to SXSW attendees to help navigate the minefield of good, bad, and ugly bands.

The first stop in charting your course should be the incredibly helpful SXSW website which, weeks before the festival, posts a complete schedule of bands, times, venues, and helpful maps. Never heard of Jukebox Junkies? No problem. Just point and click on the SXSW website and you can listen to (or download) the single Sentimental Tattoo. The SXSW website not only indexes performing musicians, but conference attendees are listed by name, city, employer, and a host of other demographics. You can even look up the hotels of conference guests in case you wanted to pay a late night visit to Isaac Hayes’ hotel room and raid his mini-bar.

Another valuable tool for festival music fans is the free weekly newspaper The Austin Chronicle. The paper has an omnibus SXSW edition and also publishes daily updates during the festival. For every night of SXSW, the chronicle’s music critics provide lists of their “picks and sleepers” with capsule reviews of what to expect. For an out-of-towner, this proved to be a tremendously helpful resource.

During the week of SXSW, several music venues not involved with the event organize into an ad-hoc festival of sorts known as South-by-So-What. Talented local and national acts such as Bill Kirchen, Chris Gaffney, and Lonesome Bob played gigs under the South-by-So-What umbrella in 2002. Because these shows are separate and apart from the doings at SXSW, expect to pay a modest cover charge.

Memphis has Beale Street, New Orleans has Bourbon Street, and Austin has Sixth Street as the center of the action. Bars, restaurants, and concert venues stretch for about seven blocks and comprise about 80% of the SXSW stages. The whole thing is very walk-able, and if you should care to venture to any shows off the beaten path (and you should), cabs are plentiful. You can even hire a bicycle pedicab for the full rickshaw experience. So, save yourself a couple bucks, and forego the rental car. Parking is a bear and the evening closures of Sixth Street make negotiating the festival by automobile a fool’s errand.

One of the best things about SXSW is the mass quantity of bands playing in a relatively short period of time. Each artist begins at the top of the hour and plays one 40-minute set. The next act is strumming its opening chords on the same stage 20 minutes later for the subsequent piece of the showcase. Those 20-minute gaps provide plenty of time to get across town to the next show on your must-see list, giving you maximum bang for your hard-rockin’ buck. The downside to this approach is that with only 20 minutes to break down the old band and set up the new one, there is rarely enough time for a proper soundcheck. The very talented They Might Be Giants reportedly played a good bit of the Wednesday night show at La Zona Rosa without audible vocals. Also, the sound was so abysmal at the show featuring Knoxville power popsters Superdrag that the band walked off The Red Room stage after four songs; it was a crying shame — I had seen them recently in Chicago, and they were quite good.

Finally, before you embark on the SXSW music crawl, be sure to bring a valid form of identification. The liquor-serving venues will aggressively check your I.D. even if you look older than Keith Richards. Austin bouncers are paid to card, not to think.

Party On, Dude

To maximize the SXSW benefit, attendees must adopt the hours of shift workers. Most of the showcases begin at 8 p.m., and the last band leaves the stage about 2 a.m. Odds are good that you’ll go for a stroll down Sixth Street among the stumbling wounded to grab a slice of greasy pizza, and be back in your hotel shortly after 3 a.m. That is, unless you go to one of the many invite-only parties that happen each night at the more secluded clubs. The 2002 hardest invite to obtain was the Spin Magazine party on Saturday night/Sunday morning.

When you finally awaken, you can head over to Ballroom B of the convention to hear Robbie Robertson reminisce about The Band’s swan song album The Last Waltz, or you can hit one of the many day parties sponsored by labels, media, clubs, or professional trade associations. I attended two different parties on consecutive days held in an empty lot behind a cool folk art gallery called The Yard Dog. One of the parties was hosted by Chicago’s finest music venue Schubas Tavern and the other was hosted by America’s finest insurgent country label Bloodshot Records.

The empty lot behind The Yard Dog is covered in straw (smokers beware!), and a modest stage and makeshift sound system were set up for the entertainment. Along the alley at the end of the backyard was a tent where our gracious hosts provided free eats and beer at these unpublicized — but well attended — events. Of course it helps that the same institutions tend to sponsor the same parties every year. Such was the case with both the Schuba’s and Bloodshot events. The gallery inside is a cool little place exhibiting and selling music-themed folk art including many original paintings by Mekons/Waco Brothers frontman Jon Langford, who was present at both bashes, mingling with the crowd as well as performing. In fact, the musical acts at both Yard Dog backyard barbecues were top notch. Among the performers were The Yayhoos, Bottle Rockets, Josh Rouse, and The Sadies.

I also crashed an evening reception hosted by The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) — the folks who bring us the annual Grammy Awards. There was no live music, but there was free food. The most interesting part of this cocktail hour was the speech by NARAS president Michael Greene. You may remember Greene from his controversial address at this year’s awards ceremony at which he referred to unsanctioned MP3 file sharing as “pervasive, out of control, and criminal.” His tone was softened at Austin’s Driskill Hotel Ballroom where he chose to focus on the opportunities presented to recording artists in this brave new digital world.

When Greene and NARAS aren’t busy fighting a losing battle against music fans, they are working to establish a retirement home for uninsured, destitute recording artists who are unable to care for themselves after a lifetime of making the world hum along to their songs. For this, both Greene and NARAS should be commended. The Driskill Hotel is to be commended for those little crab cakes served during Greene’s speech.

Funniest Band Names at SXSW 2002

These bands deserve recording contracts based solely upon the cleverness of their monikers:

1. Onward Crispin Glover

2. Peglegasus

3. Genitallica

4. Pornstore Janitor

5. Alabama Thunderpussy

6. Z.Z. Tom

Exploring the Bandscape

During the five nights and four days I spent cruising the live music venues in Austin, I probably saw more than 40 different acts perform. Here are some of the most memorable in the approximate order that I saw them:

 

Bill Kirchen
The Broken Spoke
March 12, 2002

Within 30 minutes of my plane touching down, I found myself in an off-the-beaten-path country music tavern known as The Broken Spoke to see a concert by America’s finest living honky-tonk guitarist, Bill Kirchen. You may remember him as the lead guitarist for the original Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen (Hot Rod Lincoln) and later as ax-for-hire behind Nick Lowe on the albums Party of One and The Impossible Bird.

The Broken Spoke was an authentic Texas roadhouse, or at least authentic enough to fool my tourist eyes. Many members of the sparse audience were wearing boots and cowboy hats, a not-so-subtle reminder that I was really in Texas. The only people who wear cowboy hats in Chicago are posers and trick-or-treating children. And there’s no parking on the dance floor at The Broken Spoke unless you want to get mowed over by several two-steppin’ couples wearing string ties and dancing in a circle like a hillbilly whirlpool. The uber-friendly barmaids were tripping all over themselves — positively gushing — to welcome me to Austin. They clearly loved their town, and they were proud to share it with an overdressed Yankee stranger.

As always, Kirchen was phenomenal. He tore through his own catalog of honky-tonk, truck driving numbers including Nitro Express and Tombstone Every Mile as well as several of Cody’s old singles Hot Rod Lincoln and Seeds and Stems. He focused on some of the better numbers from his 2001 release Tied to the Wheel, including the title track and the apocalyptic Truck Stop at the End of the World while showing off his virtuosity on his ancient Fender telecaster guitar. The best part of the show, however, was when Kirchen set down his guitar, picked up a slide trombone, and performed Bob Wills’ classic Milk Cow Blues while marching through the audience.

Purchase Tied to the Wheel: Barnes & Noble

 

The Killdares
B.D. Riley’s
March 13, 2002

B.D. Riley’s is a Sixth Street Irish pub located in an Austin landmark building built in 1874. The structure was originally a saloon called Jacoby’s remembered by old timers for tasting occasions when the breweries made the spirits available to the common citizens. Keeping the tradition alive — at least, in a sense — the front of the current bar is open to pedestrians to enjoy the music without entering the establishment for a pint.

The Killdares is a Celtic rock band with a huge local following in the Texas metroplex of Dallas-Fort Worth. The group reportedly played a tent gig in Dallas the week before SXSW when the temperature dropped to a rare ten degrees. That didn’t stop the loyal fans — who, in a recent Dallas newspaper poll, had dubbed The Killdares as the best local band — from packing the tent and partying the night away. Consequently, B.D. Riley’s was full of Dallas fans as well as those coming to see what the hype was all about.

The Killdares’ sound balances alternative guitar rock with Celtic fire, provided largely by Irish fiddler Linda Reiph. Drummer Tim Smith adequately handled the lion’s share of the vocals. The group rocked through a 40-minute set sounding like a mixture between the ’80s Scottish new wave band Big Country and a Celtic version of The Ramones. The musicianship was so good and so intense that a massive crowd formed on the street outside the tavern and blocked pedestrian traffic — amazingly, with absolutely no complaints.

The Killdares’ new album Live (starstarstar ½), does a fine job of capturing the raw energy that the band exudes in concert. On the other hand, last year’s studio release A Place to Stand (starstar ½) focuses more on songwriting and sounds like the kind of thing you’d hear at a renaissance fair rather than a rock show. In any case, see this band live, and you’ll be bouncing up and down until your calves are sore.

 

The Hissyfits
Red Eyed Fly
March 13, 2002

Does the idea of a band that combines the sounds of The Go-Go’s and The Strokes sound good to you? Me neither, but somehow the New York City-based group The Hissyfits makes it work. Shrieking guitars, pounding drums, and rockin’ viola (go figure) provide the backdrop for little girl harmonies over a New York sneer. Black leather, fishnet stockings, tattoos, and smeared eye shadow set the scene for this hard-driving set that recalled the sound of Veruca Salt. These four ladies are the kind of girls that your mama warned you about.

The Hissyfits set the room on fire as it ripped through girly punk rock songs from last year’s likable Letters from Frank (starstarstar ½). Lead singer and guitarist Princess evidently has fired her band since the album’s release because the current members of The Hissyfits — Hallie Bullet (Bass/Vocals), Ren (Viola/Vocals), and Sivan (Drums) — are nowhere to be found on the disc. It didn’t seem to matter, though, since the show was superb.

 

Josh Ritter / SxSW 2002

Josh Ritter
Schuba’s Fifth Annual SXSW Roundup
The Yard Dog Gallery
March 14, 2002

The annual party behind the Yard Dog Gallery kicked off with a stunning solo performance by young singer-songwriter Josh Ritter who hails from Moscow (that’s Idaho, comrade) and is currently based out of Boston. Although he professed his nervousness, Ritter impressed the crowd with his alt-country, acoustic mini-set of songs from his recently released Golden Age of Radio.

The highlight of the set was Me and Jiggs, a song about asking a girl to the prom by painting her invitation on the town’s water tower. Evidently, Moscow didn’t have enough girls to go around, and Ritter had to share his date with a buddy. He also showed his lyrical skills in the song Kathleen as he sang, “All the other girls here are stars/You are the Northern Lights.” Keep your eyes on this guy — he’s going places. Or at least he won’t have too much trouble getting a date.

 

Danny Black / SxSW 2002

Danny Black’s Healthy White Baby
Schuba’s Fifth Annual SXSW Roundup
The Yard Dog Gallery
March 14, 2002

Danny Black used to sing and play with his sister Gina in the punky, alt-country outfit The Blacks. He has recently formed his own trio — Danny Black’s Healthy White Baby — to play original compositions of country-tinged roots-rock. The band’s performance at this party was solid, tight, and fundamentally good, without ever being showy.

I was able to get my hands on a great three-track E.P. (more of a demo, actually) that left me wanting more. I talked to a female member of Black’s small entourage about the possibility of a full-length CD later this year, and she was non-committal but hopeful.

 

Cash Audio
Schuba’s Fifth Annual SXSW Roundup
The Yard Dog Gallery
March 14, 2002

Traveling all the way to Austin to see Chicago bands that play practically in my back yard was a bit like going to Thailand and eating at McDonalds. That said, I always wanted to hear the duo known as Cash Audio in a live setting. The band received some unwanted national attention when they used to be known as Cash Money. Rolling Stone ran a funny piece contrasting the instrumental rocking blues duo with thug rappers Cash Money Millionaires. The hip-hoppers didn’t find the name similarity very funny and threatened court action to make the Chicago group change the name. Thus Cash Audio was born. The live set at the Yard Dog sounded great and did not suffer a bit for lack of a bass player.

Purchase The Orange Sessions: Barnes & Noble

 

The Frames
Schuba’s Fifth Annual SXSW Roundup
The Yard Dog Gallery
March 14, 2002

From the moment I arrived at the party, the Dublin, Ireland power-pop collective known as The Frames had quite the buzz surrounding them. I was embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about them before the show, yet they were certainly the most pleasant surprise of the day.

Lead singer Glen Hansard had a versatile voice that could alternate between a husky bellow and a falsetto wail. Within the body of the tightly constructed rock songs, the band tucked snippets of other tunes — kind of like live sampling — including Kool and The Gang’s Celebrate and the children’s rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The group has released four albums, yet only the latest two (For the Birds and the enjoyable Dance the Devil [starstarstar]) seem to be in print in the U.S. The highlight, however, was Beautiful Widow, a tune that appears on neither of the aforementioned discs. If you get a chance to see The Frames in concert, you won’t be disappointed.

Purchase For the Birds: Barnes & Noble

 

Kelly Hogan
SXSW Trade Show Acoustic Day Stage
Austin Convention Center
March 14, 2002

Kelly Hogan / SxSW 2002

Kelly Hogan is an Atlanta native who made a name for herself as lead singer for the bands The Jody Grind and Rock-A-Teens. After moving to Chicago to pursue a solo career, she released two albums for Bloodshot Records — 2000’s Beneath the Country Underdog and 2001’s Because It Feels Good. She can also be found providing a classy touch to other artists’ works, backing up everyone from John Wesley Harding to Drive-By Truckers.

Hogan has one of the richest, prettiest voices in music today (rivaled only by her labelmate Neko Case), and she was joined on the afternoon convention stage by two of Chicago’s most accomplished musicians — guitarist Andy Hopkins and violinist Andrew Bird. Hogan described her latest release as an album full of “make-out music,” and that seems about right. Her set began with the mournful, The First Thing about Blue as Bird plucked his fiddle strings and whistled over the bridge. She also performed Papa Was a Rodeo (a touching Magnetic Fields’ song about a 55-year romance) and So Hard Living Without You (the saddest song ever penned by Randy Newman). When Hogan sang the number she wrote with Hopkins (No, Bobby Don’t) she made you want to forget that you were trapped in a convention center on a beautiful Austin afternoon.

Purchase Beneath the Country Underdog: Barnes & Noble

Purchase Because It Feels Good: Barnes & Noble

 

Sing-Sing
Buffalo Billiards
March 14, 2002

Hats off to this venue located upstairs from a large pool hall. The room had a feel of a large hunting lodge or mountain town meeting hall with polished wood furnishings, a lofted ceiling, and Native American silhouette art on the walls. Music venue architects would do well to take a note from Austin’s Buffalo Billiards.

And female-fronted rock bands would do well to study the incredible Sing-Sing, a Brit band featuring the vocals of Lisa O’Neill (Mad Professor) and the musicianship of Emma Anderson (Lush). The music is sultry, synth-rock played with a live drummer synching to pre-recorded drum loops — a growing trend that will upset purists, but produces a richer, more driving rhythmic percussion experience. Although Sing-Sing is a relatively new band, the group’s sound was tight and flawless. O’Neill and Anderson have very pretty, feminine voices that blend together like a chorus of angels on songs like Command. The band’s debut release Joy of Sing-Sing is currently only available in the U.S. as an import. When this group gets its distribution together, watch for the shooting stars.

Purchase Joy of Sing-Sing: Barnes & Noble

 

Riddlin’ Kids
La Zona Rosa
March 14, 2002

The SXSW music guide described this Austin band as “Genre: Punk,” which was a bit of a stretch. The music sounded quite a bit like alterna-teen radio rock that passes for punk in the subdivisions and cul-de-sacs of middle America. That said, the music was easily as good as Third Eye Blind, Green Day, The Ataris or any other band that might accompany algebra homework. The album is due on June 2, 2002 and will feature a souped-up cover of R.E.M.'s apocalyptic It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine). Go ahead and buy the disc for your favorite nephew. The kids are alright.

In the Riddlin’ Kids trivia department, the band had a song on the limited-edition bonus disc to the Orange County movie soundtrack, and the original name of the band was The Ritalin Kids. The moniker changed after the pharmaceutical manufacturer threatened to sue. The moral: Don’t Pfuck with Pfizer.

Purchase Orange County Soundtrack: Barnes & Noble

 

Quarashi
La Zona Rosa
March 14, 2002

You like the rap, yes? You like the rock, yes? You like the music of Iceland, yes? From the land of Bjork comes Quarashi, the Icelandic hip-hop phenomenon that dropped science during a crowded 40-minute, prime time set at SXSW. The group consists of a live drummer, keyboardist, guitarist, DJ on the wheels of steel, and three MCs busting rhymes in English. Songs from the forthcoming album Jinx featured raps about being boys in the Reykjavik hood (Stick ’Em Up) over well chosen beats and samples.

Quarashi’s rappers were able to carry a tune during the sing-song choruses, and the live musicians had a good handle on their respective instruments. The demeanor of the performers seemed to be free of the faux thuggery that plagues the genre in the U.S. Watching this group rock the mic was almost enough to make me rethink my previously-held opinion that rap-rock was a very, very bad idea. Almost.

Purchase Jinx: Barnes & Noble

 

Caitlin Cary
Antone’s
March 14, 2002

Whenever the defunct band Whiskeytown is mentioned, folks immediately comment on the ability and charisma of the band’s lead singer Ryan Adams. The other half of Whiskeytown’s talent was singer/fiddler Caitlin Cary who is finally ready to establish her own identity as a solo artist. Cary hails from Raleigh, North Carolina, and her voice is reminiscent of an alt-country Natalie Merchant. I discovered her show quite by accident after I escaped a bar up the street to get away from a punk band that made my head hurt.

Cary’s talented band at this showcase featured a large cast with as many as four guitarists at a time forming an Americana wall of sound behind her vocals and fiddle. Most of the songs she performed appear on her new album While You Weren’t Looking, which recycles some of the material from her five-song E.P. Waltzie. This is an artist with immeasurable talent and performance ability who should have a long solo-career shelf life.

Purchase While You Weren't Looking: Barnes & Noble

 

Drive-By Truckers
Antone’s
March 14, 2002

In the wake of the successful concept album Southern Rock Opera, Drive-By Truckers played the featured slot in one of Austin’s most popular venues. Lead singer Patterson Hood looked as country as a chicken coop in his flannel shirt and John Deere hat. His band ripped through a rockin’ set that focused on the material from the group’s latest album, including Ronnie and Neil, which tells the story of the fabled and often misunderstood relationship between Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie van Zandt and Neil Young — a feud that manifested itself in the songs Southern Man and Sweet Home Alabama. Hood also tipped his hat to his own youth as an arena rock fan in the funny, Let There Be Rock, invoking memories of seeing AC/DC, Molly Hatchet, and .38 Special in their prime.

Drive-By Truckers' musicianship was unparalleled in this show. The power chords and arena rock histrionics fit like a glove over Hood’s scratchy vocals as he explored the misunderstood southern mythology during Southern Thing and Heathens. The band is currently riding a tide of critical and commercial success and will go back into the studio in April in an attempt to capitalize on this momentum.

Purchase Southern Rock Opera: Barnes & Noble

 

Wendy Debias & Kent VanDerKolk
BMI Acoustic Brunch
Four Seasons Hotel
March 15, 2002

Wendy Debias / Kent VanDerKolk - SxSW 2002

The BMI brunch was a perfect opportunity to see talented singer-songwriters in a beautiful setting along the banks of the Colorado River, while enjoying fancy, free eats and fresh-squeezed juice from the Four Seasons Hotel. Following sets by Holly Williams (daughter of Hank Jr.) and Jenny Bruce (granddaughter of Lenny) was an amazing mini-set by an unsigned singer-songwriter named Wendy Debias. She was accompanied solely by guitarist Kent VanDerKolk, whose day job is with techno-rockers Kings and Planets.

Debias began her set with Alive in Stereo, on which she demonstrated her amazing soprano. Think Nelly Furtado meets Jewel with intelligent, poignant lyrics. The diminutive Debias had a voice that soared beyond her size and hot-pink hair — hard to lose her in a crowd! — and she mesmerized the brunchers with the songs I’m Sorry Baby and Pop Suicide. Her guitar playing was reminiscent of Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mason Jennings, and VanDerKolk’s accompaniment was muted and subtle — thankfully so, given that he was in a position where he could have easily overplayed and spoiled the vibe.

After Debias closed her set with the melt-in-your-ears folk of Don’t Tell Me You’re Right, it was amusing to watch the throngs of business-card wielding record executives vault the breakfast tables to mob her before her guitar was in its case. This year she is an unsigned Chicago folk singer; by SXSW 2003, she could be the next big thing.

 

Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez
BMI Acoustic Brunch
Four Seasons Hotel
March 15, 2002

You are probably unfamiliar with the name Chip Taylor, but you certainly know the songs he has written, most notably Wild Thing (recorded by The Troggs) and Angel of the Morning (recorded by Juice Newton and more recently, Shaggy ). After receiving an award from BMI (the world’s largest songwriting/publishing corporation) for selling six million units of Angel of the Morning, Taylor played a set of his hits accompanied by talented fiddle player and vocalist Carrie Rodriguez. They also previewed songs from Rodriguez’s forthcoming solo album that will, of course, include tunes penned by Taylor. Her voice was a dead ringer for Australian country star Kasey Chambers.

I’ve never been a lover of either version of Angel of the Morning, but when Taylor performed his acoustic, countrified rendition, the sadness of the lyrics and perfection of the songcraft tore through my heart. He closed with Wild Thing, the other song that has paid the bills over the years. Taylor’s versions of both songs appear on his aptly named 1996 release Hit Man.

Purchase Black & Blue America: Barnes & Noble

Purchase Let's Leave This Town: Barnes & Noble

 

Bottle Rockets
Bloodshot Records Backyard BBQ
The Yard Dog Gallery
March 15, 2002

Bottle Rockets / SxSW 2002

Bottle Rockets fans have been dying for new material since the band’s 1999 release Brand New Year. For those who don’t know, the Festus, Missouri ensemble plays a kind of Southern Rock rarely heard today — intelligent and witty while anchored in superb musical compositions. Much like those of Drive-By Truckers, the songs of the Bottle Rockets don’t falsely romanticize life in a small town. In the five albums of original material the band has released since 1993, there has not been a single disappointing moment. Inexplicably, the group has bounced around between independent releases and major labels seemingly unable to find a home.

The wait ended in February 2002 with the release of Songs of Sahm (starstar) on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records. Oddly enough, the album is a tribute to the late alt-country pioneer Doug Sahm, whose career spanned over four decades in bands such as Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados. Sahm died in 1999, and during his life, he penned dozens of good songs including She’s About a Mover and Lawd, I'm Just a Country Boy in the Great Big Freaky City, both of which were covered by Bottle Rockets on this release. Here’s the problem: Brian Henneman, the brains behind Bottle Rockets, is a better songwriter than Sahm. Fans are dying for another Bottle Rockets album, yet they were given a collection of covers by an influential, if lesser, artist.

Bottle Rockets played a short set of Sahm’s songs at the crowded Bloodshot party behind The Yard Dog Gallery. These included selections from the tribute album including Be Real, Mendocino, and She’s About a Mover. Seeing the group play again was like catching up with old friends, but hearing some actual Bottle Rockets’ songs would have made the day perfect.

Purchase Songs of Sahm: Barnes & Noble

 

Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise
Stubb’s BBQ
March 15, 2002

Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise / SxSW 2002

Forget everything you think you know about what a 51-year-old, blind, Alabama born, African-American singer might sound like. Robert Bradley is not a blues singer. He sings soulful, jamming, classic-sounding rock ’n‘ roll. More often than not, his music sounds like Peter Gabriel or Randy Newman, and at times he reminded me of Ray Charles (a cop out — I’m stereotyping). The band’s terrific recent CD New Ground (starstarstar ½) was the last disc I heard before leaving for Austin, and after that first listen, I knew I had to check out the live show.

Stubb’s BBQ is an Austin institution with a giant lot in the back for live music events. Bradley was led out onto center stage by an assistant, handed a microphone, and his five support musicians (on guitars, keyboard, and drums) launched into Ride My Wave from the new disc. Bradley’s charisma and talent mesmerized the audience of long-time fans and new converts. During Baby from his Time to Discover album, Bradley fell to his knees and shrieked like James Brown.

Forty minutes wasn’t enough time for Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise to play every good song from New Ground. For example, the album’s best track Exist for Love went untouched. He did, however, close with the tune that filled his collection plate when Bradley was a Detroit street musician, the patriotic Born in America. He wrote the song in 1979 during the Iranian hostage crisis, and if the U.S. should ever need another case of triage patriotism, the nation should turn to Bradley’s homage before that god-awful Lee Greenwood track. Great CD. Great concert. Check out Robert Bradley and be surprised.

Purchase New Ground: Barnes & Noble

 

Mason Jennings
Pecan Street Ale House
March 15, 2002

Mason Jennings is an extremely talented Minneapolis singer-songwriter with a unique sound. Comparisons to Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Jonathan Richman fall short of describing a Mason Jennings recording or performance. His love songs are likable and earnest, and his rockers are fresh and exciting. On his first two albums (Mason Jennings [starstarstarstar] and Birds Flying Away [starstarstar]), listeners got a glimpse of a major talent with a volcano of good songs bubbling in his head. His SXSW gig was in anticipation of his forthcoming release Century Spring.

Jennings sounds equally as good alone with a guitar as he does with an accompanying band. For this Austin show, he was supported by a bass player and drummer who paced him on a set of mellow, easy-going tunes, spanning his three releases and his unrecorded (as of yet) material. California and Butterfly were the stand-out numbers he performed from his self-titled debut, and Ballad of My One True Love was a solid representation of his second release. The acoustic pop tunes from the new album, including Living in the Moment, let the audience know that Jennings will certainly be, at the very least, a three-time winner.

Purchase Century Spring: Barnes & Noble

Purchase Mason Jennings: Barnes & Noble

Elbow
Element
March 15, 2002

The U.K. techno-rock scene was well-represented by Elbow, who closed the SXSW British Showcase at Austin’s swanky nightclub Element. Elbow had the best stage show of the forty-something acts I saw during the festival. Coordinated strobe lights, weird images projected on the screen behind the band, and music similar to The Beta Band made this loud, rocking performance something I’ll remember for years (perhaps because my ears are still ringing).

The music recalled many of the U.K. bands who’ve broken through to the U.S. market over the past few years. Comparisons to Oasis or Bush would be warranted — if those bands rocked a whole lot harder. Elbow’s guitar playing was superb, and the drum beats filled the room as the live drummer synched to the pre-recorded drum loops. The vocals were a bit dark sounding for my taste. Others have compared Elbow to Radiohead, and that seems pretty accurate. I haven’t heard the debut album Asleep in the Back, but I can certainly vouch for the live show.

Purchase Asleep in the Back: Barnes & Noble

 

Jukebox Junkies
ASCAP Showcase
Momo’s
March 16, 2002

I first discovered the band Jukebox Junkies when I was surfing the SXSW website. The sampler song that was available for free (Sentimental Tattoo) made me excited enough to want to catch the group at a show. In concert, the band played likable, acoustic rock ‘n’ roll, and its songs sounded quite a bit like the material from Pete Yorn’s recent Musicforthemorningafter — one of 2001’s best. The highlight of Jukebox Junkies’ set was the catchy Over and Over. I was unable to speak to the band, but I was able to interview Jukebox Junkies’ Certified Public Accountant Jennifer (a Music Box exclusive, no doubt!).

Jennifer explained that Jukebox Junkies is the Los Angeles musical outlet of singer-songwriter Mark Dauer and that the band I saw at SXSW was really just Dauer and a borrowed rhythm section. He is a medical doctor and used to play with a band called Five Easy Pieces. He also performed on the Pete Yorn album, which explains the similarities. The full Jukebox Junkies line-up includes Rami Jaffee (from Jakob Dylan’s band The Wallflowers) on organ. And, yes, Jennifer explained, being a rock ‘n’ roll CPA is about the coolest job in accounting. It certainly beats shredding documents for Enron.

I was able to listen to Jukebox Junkies’ only album, Choose Your Fix (starstarstarstar), and it really is an exceptional recording. The disc’s songs are full of a rich stew of instrumentation, including lap steel, banjo, accordion, violin, and keyboards. Here, the band sounds a lot more like Wilco than Pete Yorn. No complaints. Check it out.

 

Sheila Nicholls
ASCAP Showcase
Momo’s
March 16, 2002

Sheila Nicholls / SxSW 2002

The buzz artist at this suppertime SXSW showcase was clearly Sheila Nicholls, a Colchester, England-born singer-songwriter currently based in Los Angeles who was recently signed to Hollywood Records. You may recall that she had a song (Fallen for You) on the High Fidelity soundtrack that attracted some critical attention to her debut CD Brief Strop. Before her set began, she mingled with the crowd at Momo’s, looking attractive under her rainbow-colored dreadlocks.

Nicholls performed her short set behind a piano joined by an acoustic guitarist, drummer, and stand-up bass player. Her music was slow to mid-tempo soft rock with strong, smooth vocals and intelligent lyrics. Not a touch of British accent was discernable during the live set. She reminded listeners of a stripped down Fiona Apple minus the bizarre behavior. The only criticism was that the songs chosen by Nicholls could have used a tempo change. To the newcomer’s ear, the tunes all sounded pretty similar.

I’ve heard several tracks from her forthcoming album Wake (starstarstar ½), and on the disc, she mixes things up a bit more. There, her music recalls Aimee Mann (on How Strong) and Portishead (on Bread and Water) — albeit with a thicker, British-accented lilt not heard in her live performance. Overall, both the recording and the concert were breaths of fresh air, showing that the big labels can ferret out talent among the vast number of singer-songwriters scrounging to make a living.

Purchase Brief Strop: Barnes & Noble

 

The Derailers
Austin Music Hall
March 16, 2002

For all the beautiful and ornate music venues that Austin had to offer, I was looking forward to seeing the Austin Music Hall. The annual Austin Music Awards are hosted there each year on the night before SXSW officially opens. Imagine my disappointment to discover that the Austin Music Hall is actually a soulless airplane hanger of a building with an interior built to resemble a large suburban high school gymnasium. Nevertheless, seeing The Derailers at SXSW had special significance as the band’s September 11, 2001 Chicago stop on the tour was abruptly, but understandably, cancelled.

The Derailers took the stage in traditional garb — that is colorful country suits with sparkling ties, which made them look like country pimps. The set was a cool and soulful mixture of instrumental rockabilly classics and playful originals, heavily weighted toward the group’s 2001 release Here Come The Derailers (starstarstar ½). The highlights of the evening were the Jim Lauderdale-penned All The Rage in Paris and the original Bar Exam (one guess as to which kind of bar the song is about…). The country swing dancers on the perimeter of the hall were also a sight to see.

Purchase Here Come The Derailers: Barnes & Noble

 

Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash
The Broken Spoke
March 16, 2002

Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash / SxSW 2002

The only breakthrough alt-country band from San Diego is the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, and the group’s album Walk Alone (starstarstar ½) contains several moments of brilliance, making the cab ride to The Broken Spoke a worthwhile investment. Mark Stuart, the bastard-in-charge of the band, utilized his amazing baritone voice and added a country yodel in songs such as Spanish Eyes and Texas Sun, unquestionably the strongest track from the album.

The main complaint about Bastard Songs of Johnny Cash in concert is that the band was too slick. Country music, particularly when heard in a Texas roadhouse, is best when it’s a little rough around the edges, and these dudes were smooth as a baby’s bottom. The only deviation from the note-for-note renditions of songs from Walk Alone was in the concluding Interstate Cannonball, which featured a smokin’ guitar solo.

Purchase Walk Alone: Barnes & Noble

 

Cowboy Mouth
Austin Music Hall
March 16, 2002

I discovered Cowboy Mouth a few years ago when the New Orleans band played a benefit concert on a crowded, grassy knoll at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. It was quite possibly one of the most amazing shows I had ever seen. The giraffes and bears were jumping up and down and dancing in their nature-like environments. The band’s gimmick is the drummer Fred LaBlanc, who sits front and center on a jacked-up drum kit and works a crowd like nobody’s business.

At the Austin show, the four band members rotated lead vocal duties through a 70-minute set of solid Cowboy Mouth, country and rock, fan favorites. LaBlanc is so good, so energetic, and so charismatic that his bandmates’ songs felt a bit like soft-rock intermission numbers. LaBlanc beats the drums with arms flailing like a Tasmanian devil and has a booming vibrato voice that could fill the massive hall without a microphone. He used to be the drummer for Dash Rip Rock, and he resembles actor Michael Keaton on steroids. The best numbers were the opening How Do You Tell Someone? and the traditional closing Jenny Says, wherein LaBlanc whipped the audience into a frenzy like a tent-show revival preacher.

Purchase All You Need Is Live: Barnes & Noble

 

Charlie Robison
Town Lake Stage at Auditorium Shores
March 16, 2002

Town Lake Stage at Auditorium Shores is a fantastic place to see a concert. Austin’s modest, but pretty, skyline frames the egg-shaped bandshell in a wide-open park along the shores of Town Lake. It took some legwork and investigation to determine that Town Lake is actually the Lower Colorado River — the same body of water that formed the Grand Canyon. The river was dammed by Texans who understood that water was a precious commodity that you don’t let get away when it snakes through your town. The crowd was mostly locals for this free SXSW music week event — lots of families with kids who had just spent two hours doing crazy, spazzo dances to the Zydeco music of Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie and local Austin heroes The Gourds.

Charlie Robison was the headliner on this chilly Austin evening, and the crowd was excited for a rowdy good time. Robison hails from Bandera, Texas and his brother Bruce is an acclaimed country singer-songwriter who was playing across town at the same time. The Brothers Robison are beloved in Texas, and they are both married to country performers whose careers eclipse that of the men — Charlie is married to Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, and Bruce wedded the talented Kelly Willis.

Charlie Robison is one of the funniest men in mainstream country music. His last two albums (Step Right Up [starstarstarstar] and Life of the Party [starstarstar ½]) are full of witty, lyrically irreverent, honky-tonk country songs, and his live show was no different. The centerpiece of his set was his nursery-rhyme parody Bar Light, Bar Bright, his ode to ugly women You’re Not the Best, and his Irish double-crossing boxer song John O’Reilly. The fan favorite, however, was clearly My Hometown, and the people of Austin sang along with every word, just as they have for the past 15 years that Robison has played the SXSW music festival. Look for Robison’s live concert album sometime this summer.

Purchase Step Right Up: Barnes & Noble

 

Austin: The Best City Ever?

It is amazing that a city with only 650,000 people can support a music scene as vibrant and varied as Austin’s is. There’s a whole lot to love about this Texas state capital. Besides being the home of the University of Texas and Dell Computers, Austin is also the home of thousands of harmless bats living under the Congress Street Bridge. I was told that during the free summer concerts at Auditorium Shores, the bats come out en masse and dance high in the air while the music plays for the people. The Congress Street bats have become so famous that Neiman Marcus sells an Austin-themed glass snow-globe. When you shake the globe, bats — not snow — dance among the miniaturized buildings.

Undoubtedly Austin’s greatest asset is the warmth and laid-back thoughtfulness of its citizens. There’s not a mean hillbilly among them. They are hip, kind, unflappable, and seem to be in a perpetual good mood. If pressed, they may gripe about the traffic and the increasing cost of living — just like all residents of a secret paradise whose cover has been blown.

During my last evening in town, I walked among the locals at the Auditorium Shores outdoor venue. Between sets of live music, a recorded song blasted over the loudspeakers from Texas homeboy Lyle Lovett. The lyrics were, “That’s right, you’re not from Texas/That’s right your not from Texas…but Texas wants you anyway!” The people of Austin don’t just live this sentiment — they positively ooze it with every fiber of their being.

gif

Copyright © 2002 The Music Box