In a decade of attending this festival, I have not missed a night of SxSW. And, yet, Wednesday night, SxSW 2010, stands out as one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable nights of music I have ever experienced here. I heard a remarkable display of country, alt-country, rockabilly and Western swing acts – some native to Austin, some from as far away as NYC or Washington State.
Much of the country/alt-country action was at venue called the Beauty Bar-Palm Door. As a venue, it was well suited to the genre, looking something like an old barn (granted, a barn with hard wood floors) that had been pressed into last-minute service as a music venue. A hundred or so pairs of artisan and handmade cowboy boots lining the back wall dramatically enhanced the effect.
WANDA JACKSON AND GREEN CORN REVIVAL
I should really read the South by Southwest promotional materials a little more closely. Skimming through the materials, I saw that Green Corn Revival was an Oklahoma roots band doing Western Swing and Red Dirt, which was more than enough to grab my interest. I thought the fact that they had lead singer named Wanda Jackson was a cute, quirky coincidence.
No, indeed, this was THE Wanda Jackson: the Queen of Rockabilly and First Lady of Rock and Roll (as well as recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) who, over the course of a 50 year career, has made incalculable contributions to rockabilly, country and rock and roll – and is now being backed by Green Corn Revival.
Primarily known as a rockabilly and rock and roll artist, Jackson should still be of interest to CMP readers. She has more than a few country numbers on her discography. More importantly, she hails from an era when it was very clear (clearer than it is today) that country and rock are just two sides of the same coin: the era of Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and … Wanda Jackson.
Jackson emerged onto stage in full rockabilly/country glory: striking red dress, massive amounts of jewelry (that, at this stage in her career, are probably the real thing, not rhinestones), and enough hair and makeup to put an entire Republican Women’s Club to shame.
She launched into a powerful and energetic performance of one of her classic songs “Mean, Mean Man,” a rockabilly number with strong Sun Record-esque sound (Though it was not a Sun production). This morning, I listened to my 45 rpm of Jackson’s original recording of “Mean, Mean Man” just to confirm my impression that the intensity and the quality of her sound hasn’t changed since she first recorded the song in 1958!
She followed with another of her best known songs, “I Got to Know.” The tempo of “I Got to Know” swings back and forth between slow ballad-style country and up-tempo rockabilly, capturing a moment in the history of American popular music when those styles had begun to emerge as distinct genres but the separation was far from complete.
In addition to singing, Jackson also plays a very respectable country guitar. Her personal guitar is a fitting scepter for the Queen of Rockabilly: with a glossy, pastel pink lacquer.
In addition to playing music, Jackson also shared stories from her life — fascinating anecdotes providing insight into the history of American music. She talked at length about her relationship with Elvis, who Jackson briefly dated during a 1955 tour. Elvis encouraged Jackson in her move into rockabilly and she retains fond memories of The King. Her affection is embodied in a tribute album, entitled simply, “I Remember Elvis”
Her reflections on The King were capped by a down tempo but punchy rendition of “Heart Break Hotel.” The normally chatty SxSW crowd was utterly silent in appreciation during the performance and exploded into applause afterwards.
Jackson also performed her new single, a cover of Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over.” She says that this recording, “Pushed her into the 21st Century.” And, indeed, she does a very credible alt-country recording of “Shakin’.” Of course, this is Wanda Jackson and she remembers her roots – the single is also available on 45 rpm.
She clearly enjoyed interacting with the diverse and eclectic SxSW crowd, teasing one young man by asking him, “Is that a hat or hairdo?” and promising to sport a mohawk for SxSW 2011. Jackson, who has toured widely in Europe and was instrumental in the European Rockabilly revival, also welcomed all the foreigners to SxSW – adding that by “foreigners” she meant “Everyone not from Texas” (Jackson herself is a native of Oklahoma).
Green Corn Revival, hailing from Weatherford, Oklahoma, performed admirably as Jackson’s backing band, with the talent and sound to support her energetic rockabilly without ever overpowering the legend who was the main attraction. However, Green Corn Revival is a noteworthy act in its own right. Performing one song on their own before Jackson took the stage, they revealed a talent for relaxed, melodic Western swing. Both in their solo song and in backing Jackson, their guitar player (who belted out some excellent rockabilly licks) and piano player (equally at home with rollicking barrelhouse and Jerry Lew Lewis style rockabilly) especially distinguished themselves.
HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN
With a name like Hot Club of Cowtown, one might expect this band to hail from Abilene, Kansas; Fort Worth, Texas; or even Chicago. Instead, they are an Austin-based band that is becoming (or has already become) a local institution.
Nor is their reputation limited to Austin. Hot Club of Cowtown has played UK’s Glastonbury Festival, makes regular appearances on “Prairie Home Companion” and has even graced the hallowed stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry.
The three-piece combo (fiddle, guitar, and standing bass) excels at delivering high-energy Western Swing and Western Jazz, with just a hint of lounge sound that reveals their East Village, NYC roots. Strains of bluegrass, Appalachian and even European folk music also make an appearance in Hot Club of Cowtown’s sound — hinting at a wide knowledge and affection for many forms of music. At its finest, Hot Club of Cowtown’s sound is a kind of “Bob Wills meets 8 ½ Souvenirs,” supported by traditional but deeply poetic lyrics.
Their SxSW set featured Appalachian influenced country ballads, Western Swing flavored with what appeared to be Eastern European folk melodies, pure Western Swing, and traditional country among others.
The band’s arrangements tend to put the talents of fiddle player Elana James front and center. James is one of the most energetic, versatile and technically proficient fiddle players it has been my pleasure to hear in many years, and her fast and furious playing provides the energy and drive around with Hot Club of Cowtown builds its sound. At her best, James appears to be embracing her fiddle, rather than merely playing – something, previously, I had only seen in Doug Kershaw. The guitar work of Whit Smith does not have quite so many opportunities to shine, but shine it does, reflecting both significant talent and musical versatility. The deep, sonorous tones of bassist Jake Erwin put a consistently delightful power behind the ensemble.
Hot Club of Cowtown is an excellent band on disc, but they are band that needs to be seen live to be fully appreciated. All three performers have great personal energy and they are clearly enjoying themselves – their enthusiasm is highly contagious, pulling an audience ever further into the performance.
Dreadlocks, baritone saxophone, French horn, and a lime green jumpsuit may not be traditional hallmarks of country music – but there is nothing inauthentic about the country and roots sound of Brooklyn, NY’s The Woes.
Over the course of their 50 minute set, The Woes belted out a constant, and consistently noteworthy, series of George Jones-esque country ballads, Western swing, luscious and soulful R&B numbers, and Dixieland flavored big-band jazz.
Vocalist Osei Essed has a solid, sonorous voice that, in its most powerful moments, invokes the sounds of an impassioned BB King. The Woes highly visible horn section gives them a distinct sound, with dramatic flourishes from Mike Irwin on trumpet and Maria Eisen’s baritone saxophone providing The Woes with some true heavy artillery. Electric organist Cicero Jones and steel pedal guitar player Philip Sterk also turned in outstanding performances and this reviewer would have enjoyed seeing their talents highlighted even more.
While those were the obvious highpoints of the set, The Woes are an incredibly tight band where every musician pulls their weight. Bands that excel at so many different forms of roots music and Americana are rare, especially when they still put their unique stamp on every song. Brooklyn may be a long way from Austin, both geographically and culturally, but this reviewer would like to see The Woes around a lot more often.
Recipe for a country band that’s going places: start with the perfect front man, throw in a guy who can apparently master any musical instrument you place in his hands, mix with an utterly unflappable standing bassist and drummer. That, in essence, is Austin band Crooks.
One of my biggest problems with today’s country scene is the omnipresence of the faux-country look. Too many musicians appear to have just wandered in off the set of some sanitized, stylized Hollywood vision of the West. Crooks front man Josh Mazour, by contrast, appears to have sprung fully-formed from a crumbling, sepia-tone photo of the Old West: with his lanky physique, long hair, handlebar mustache, old flat-brim hat and well-worn boots. The effect is only enhanced when he opens his mouth behind the microphone — singing with a slow, powerful twang and drawl that stretches on an on like ocean waves and reminds a listener of the sound of a young Willie Nelson.
Crooks’ SxSW set was all about down-tempo country in the classic style: dominated by minor chords and full of grim imagery of love lost, loneliness, drunkenness, and murder.
Inspired instrumentation, courtesy of Sam Alberts, adds enormously to the impact of Crooks’ music. His mandolin and banjo work is excellent and Alberts is a credible vocalist in his own right. His ability to deliver powerful guitar lines, either as classic country or as rock or blues dressed up in a country suit, is an excellent example of the Austin guitar style (which defines a good guitarist as one who is able to play country, rock or blues in the style of the other two). But it is on trumpet that Alberts really shines, adding a crescendo of brassy melody to the group’s sound. His range on trumpet is admirable, sometimes playing with the old-school trumpet sound that once supported Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash and at other times adding strong Western accents a la “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Country and rock can sometimes be unkind to bassists and drummers. Often, it is difficult for them to standout – unless they do something wrong. But Andrew Van Voorhees, on drums, and Rob Bacak, Crooks’ recently added standing bassist, do a first-rate job of framing and anchoring the band’s sound.
There was one up-tempo song in Crooks’ set. It was, of course, a drinking song.
Crooks has the sound, and the look, to go far. If I was a betting man, I’d put down some money we’ll be hearing much more from them in the future.
Danny Barnes, hailing from Port Hadlock, WA, does not look like an alt-country legend. Taking the stage at SxSW, with his unkempt grayish hair and “Ghostrider” t-shirt, he had the appearance of a demented college professor. His heavily-tattooed backup band, with an assortment of strange, massive facial hair, looked hand-picked from the frontlines of cowpunk. (Apparently, not without reason, I would later learn the bassist was Jeff Pinkus, formerly of The Butthole Surfers, and Scott Jennings from Dub-Punk band Skullening).
But, when Barnes starts playing his banjo, magic happens. With ambitious and eloquent runs, Barnes must be one of the most talented banjo players on the modern country/alt-country scene. He seems to be on a mission to prove that anything a guitar can do, a banjo can do … and do better. His twangy, pleasing voice is equally versatile.
Barnes merges banjo and vocals into a fusion of eclectic, irreverent, and enjoyable alt-country tunes with titles like “Caveman Times,” “Pizza Box,” and “TSA.”
Jeff Pinkus was something of a surprise. He is, unsurprisingly, talented and versatile. But his approach to music and style of playing reminded me more of a wizened old veteran R&B session musician than the punk or alt-country aesthetics that his resume might suggest.
OUT OF THE COUNTRY:
Blogging for CMP, my focus at SxSW is, obviously, on country music and related genres. However, with more than 1500 acts at SxSW, there is an almost infinite range of music on offer at the festival. Sometimes, the temptation proves too much to resist and I have to sneak off and check out something non-country. These little gems are presented at the end of the blog, so that CMP readers can skim over them if they chose.
The first temptation was iconic UK rock band Motorhead, headlining at the Austin Music Hall. Had the venue not been located on the opposite side of downtown from the Beauty Bar-Palm Door, the lure would have been irresistible. As it was, getting to the Music Hall would have meant missing half a show getting their and half a show getting back. So, with some regret, I stayed put and missed seeing howling madman Lemmy Kilmeister in action.
HONG KONG BLOOD OPERA
Hong Kong Blood Opera, as you have no doubt guessed from the name, is a punk band out of Hermosillo, Mexico. Actually, that’s not quite the entire story. HKBO brings the all the frenetic energy, three chord guitar and screeching vocals we expect of punk, and sets it against the background of intense electronic sound effects and a synthesized base line.
HKBO is not alone in exploring this kind of punk-techno fusion, but I have never heard it done so well before.
The venue was Barbarella, a trendy new downtown club with a retro-futurist motif featuring lots of 1950s sci-fi rocket ships and banks of flat screen TVs, all showing the same stream-of-consciousness montage of grainy, black and white stock footage.
The commanding punk vocals of HKBO’s lead singer swing from desperate, to manic, to completely unhinged. The group sings mostly in English — and it is NOT language you’d want Abuela to hear. Like many punk groups, HKBO has a very positive outlook, reflected in songs like “F*ck all DJ,” and “Fill me Full of Hate.”
HKBO has a very energetic, impossible to ignore stage presence as well. Once the music starts, band members start violently jerking around on stage, like a tent revival in full swing or an outbreak of St. Vitus’s Dance – and they don’t stop until the music does. At one point, one of their two guitarists threw himself down on the ground in front of the stage and rolled around, while still playing, for several minutes. And extra points to HKBO because the drummer was wearing a “Chewbacca” t-shirt.
I am in awe of this band’s ability to make so many different sounds … and make them so loudly. HKBO is not my typical style of music, but is hard not to love any band that excels as what they do.
On the way back to Beauty Bar-Palm Door from the HKBO show, I was briefly “treated” to a reggae cover of the Ace of Bass hit, “All that She Wants (Is Another Baby).” I’m not sure that the world really needed that. But it just goes to prove that music, like nature, will expand to fit any niche.
The Howlies are a four-piece combo (2 guitars, electric bass, and drums) from Atlanta, GA. Their sound is a surprisingly harmonious blend of post-punk, new wave, and indie rock – with some surf flourishes in the guitar work and strong DIY aesthetic to the overall package (an image supported by the band name being spray-painted in black onto the bass drum).
The band even adds a few catchy pop hooks (though I suspect the band members themselves might deny this), at one point, I believe they actually harmonized their vocals.
This eclectic feel of their music is reinforced by the appearance of the band, whose members appear to be, individually, taking fashion tips from Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Keith Strickland of the B-52s, early Elvis Costello, and an amalgam of the Gallagher brothers from Oasis.
Two uniting threads through Howlies’ music are intensity and volume. The band has a knack for making even their slow songs seem fast and powerful.
The Howlies still have room to grow. Their sound has more power than discipline. Their lead singer has sa trong, slightly gravelly set of indie rock pipes – but still seems unsure of what to do with it. Nonetheless, Howlies are already an excellent listen and, if they stick together and stick with it, they have the potential to blossom into a truly extraordinary act.
HIGHLIGTS FROM ELESWHERE AT SxSW:
- Austin country act, The Mother Truckers, rocked one of Austin’s classic venues, The Continental Club.
- The London, UK-based bluegrass outfit with the memorable name The Coal Porters, performed at Opal Devine’s Freehouse.
- Iconic UK Singer-Songwriter Billy Bragg performed at Club Prague.
- CA Goth band Blessure Grave performed at the C&W club, Rusty Spurs. That alone, would have made it worth seeing.
- Susan Vega headlined a singer-songwriter showcase at historic St. David’s Church downtown.
- Rock band The Yellow Dogs and heavy metal act TarantisT, both from Tehran, Iran, reminded festival goers that, in parts of the world, rock music is still the language of rebellion – not a multi-billion dollar industry. (If anyone is interested, one Iranian rock band definitely worth checking out is 127, an innovative group that incorporates traditional melodies and jazz sensibilities into solid rock and roll, http://www.127band.com/)