Thursday was a more unpredictable and chaotic day that Wednesday for me at South by Southwest. Some of my plans didn’t pan out, some that did pan out weren’t as memorable as I had hoped, and some of my favorite moments weren’t planned at all.
Mountain Man is (why not?) three young ladies from Bennington, Vermont. However, if the number and gender of the band don’t match the name, the “mountain” part definitely belongs. Mountain Man sings a cappella (and, occasionally, light acoustic) songs in the finest tradition of old-school American folk music. Accompaniment, when it exists at all, it provided by a single acoustic guitar
Individually, each member of Mountain Man (Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath) has a memorable and impressive voice – collectively, they are phenomenal. Their haunting, warbling tones seem to leap straight off a dusty 78 rpm record or some ancient WPA recording lost deep within the Library of Congress. Their songs are filled with archaic inflections, accents, and tempos that seem impossible to belong to the modern world.
Mountain Man’s rich, melodic tunes combine elements of Appalachian, pre-electric country, and traditional Americana — heavy on storytelling, vivid imagery, and the classic themes of American folk music.
Mountain Man is a young band, both as individuals and as an ensemble (their SxSW showcase was their first time performing with a microphone) and they seemed a little unsure of themselves on the stage. Yet, their stage presence is a very warm one – casually bantering with the audience and gently inviting them closer to the stage. The crowd responded well to this strange mix of shy-yet-inviting and they gave Mountain Man their full attention.
The harmonics of the three members singing together are unquestionably beautiful, even chilling. If I had one complaint about Mountain Man, however, it is that each member’s voice is so distinctive and beautiful that I wish their arrangements would provide more opportunity for each individual’s talents to shine through.
It is perhaps ironic that an act could seem so novel by being so uncompromisingly traditional. But the emotional and vocal power of their music is undeniable and a group dedicated to keeping such ancient strains of American music alive and well is a welcome addition to the Americana scene.
Every so often, a song comes along that reminds you of why you fell in love with country music in the first place. For me, one such song was Hayes Carll’s quirky, utterly irreverent “She Left Me for Jesus” (“If I ever find Jesus … I’m kickin’ his ass”). However, since Carll did not play that song at his SxSW showcase, I will say no more about it — but that affection, and Carll’s growling list of awards and recognitions in Americana and country music, were more than enough to get me to his show at SxSW.
His performance was part of the centerpiece of a showcase hosted by the Americana Music Association and, if you need proof that country music has moved well beyond its traditional base, partly sponsored by the Utne Reader.
Taking the stage in a white long sleeve shirt, with his short beard and mop of collar-length sandy blonde hair, Carll looks more like the front man for an indie rock act than a modern day country troubadour and Americana songster. But Carll, and his backing band of banjo, pedal steel guitar, bass, guitar and drums immediately exploded into twangy, honkytonk “good times” country in the finest tradition – driven by Carll’s vocals which, at their best, are a kind of Dylan meets Hank Williams, Jr.
Carll led off with a new song, “Hard Out There” a gritty, yet tongue-in-cheek satire of life on the road. At times, the upbeat honkytonk piece ambled into spoken world territory with Carll lamenting playing in places that “Didn’t even have a mechanical bull, just a mechanical sheep … in the dressing room” or playing for a hunters who have just come out of the deer blind, brought their own beer, and keep requesting “Freebird.”
This was followed by “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” a song Carll co-wrote with Texas Country legend Ray Wylie Hubbard (What other team would pen a song referencing both mescaline and Louis L’Amour?)
Other highlights of the show include “Beaumont,” a vividly descriptive song of love, hope and loss that could put a tear in the eye of George Jones or Merle Haggard; “I Got a Gig,” an autobiographical piece that celebrates (if that is the right word) Carll’s early career playing at strip clubs and low down bars in Crystal Beach, Texas, a tiny gulf-side town on the remote Bolivar Peninsula; and “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” – a song that would seem to be logical conclusion of so many country tunes.
Carll’s backup band also turned in a stellar performancec. Standouts include the banjo player/backup vocalist (another bearded young man with Dylan-esque pipes), excellent steel pedal, and the guitar players (who, at one point launched into a memorable guitar duet).
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN
My love for Camper Van Beethoven goes back the 80s and early 90s, when their quirky signature such as “Take the Skinheads Bowling” marched across the alternative radio stations of America like a virus. I was expecting to present my review of their showcase under my “Out of the Country” section at the end of today’s blog. But, coming back to them after so many years (and with an older, more experienced and nuanced ear) I was amazed by how cleanly fit the definition of an alt-country band.
Even beyond their use of a mandolin, steel guitar, and violin-cum-fiddle, their arrangements, vocals, and heavy emphasis on narrative and story telling mark them as at least as alt-country as half the bands out there sporting the label. (And, of course, from the perspective of musical etymology, it should be noted that the term alt-country post-dates the founding of Camper Van Beethoven by at least five years). So, alt-country fans rejoice, we can claim one great underground bands of the 80s and 90s as one of our own!
As their SxSW set reminded listeners, some of their songs, such as “Sad Lover’s Waltz” should, arguably, have the “alt” removed from “alt-country.” And some others, yes, are probably better classified as alternative rock than alternative country. But there is enough common ground here for CMP readers to take notice of CVB. In every genre the explore, their SxSW was a delightful, off-beat high energy journeys through the frenetically creative minds that make up Camper Van Beethoven.
Vocalist David Lowry fully lived up to his reputation as an intelligent, charismatic yet mercurially tempered front man – engaging in witty banter with the packed-to-capacity crowd between songs; then criticizing the venue for providing shoddy sound equipment, pouring out his drink in front of him, and telling the audience not to spend a dime there.
There is a story that has to be told behind Camper Van Beethoven’s appearance at SxSW 2010. The band funded their trip to Austin by making a unique offer, in exchange for a $100 contribution to the band’s travel fund, fans could select a song to be placed in Camper Van Beethoven’s set list. In addition, before the song was played, a roller derby girl from the Santa Cruz, CA roller derby league would skate across stage holding a white placard with fan’s name on it.
Call them alt-county or alt-rock, Camper Van Beethoven is still clearly marching to the beat of their own drummer.
COUNTRY’S COUSIN: THE BLUES
In addition to country, my other true musical love is blues. This is not surprising, country and blues are spiritual, as well, as historical cousins. Before becoming mainstream, they were both the music of a poor, disaffected and predominantly rural; they share many of the same classic theme; and, while it might surprise some outsiders, country and blues musicians are often united in a kind of mutual admiration society (I have often been struck by how frequently old blues musicians will claim some of their country counterparts, especially Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams Sr., as their own). For that reason, I have given blues its own section in this blog rather than lumping it under other genres in “Out of the Country”
The Texas Eastside Kings’ set at SxSW was part of a showcase by Dialtone Records. Dialtone is a labor of love by Eddie Stout. Stout, a musician himself, is a former employee of iconic Austin label Antone’s Records and created Dialtone to benefit those Texas blues musicians who have not yet enjoyed the success and recognition that their talents and accomplishments deserve.
After Hayes Carll, it was back to the Dialtone Records Showcase for another window in America’s musical past. Hosea Hargrove has been playing the blues for over 60 years. A native of Smithville, Texas, Hargrove, who just turned 80, has joined the immortal Pinetop Perkins as Bluesman emeritus on the Austin music scene. Rock-blues virtuoso Jimmy Vaughn has dubbed Hargrove, “his favorite guitarist”.
With his weathered face, porkpie hat, and sleepy eyes that seldom seem to meet the audience, Hargrove looks the way most people expect an elder statesman of the blues to look. His soft vocals conceal a gravelly power that is well suited to the sounds of classic electric blues. On guitar, Hargrove’s movements are methodical and deliberate – embodying the minimalist economy of traditional blues guitar – and blues credo that better notes, rather than more notes, are the hallmark of a great guitarist.
Backed only by a drummer (again, the irrepressible Willie Sampson) and rhythm guitarist (the talented “Hash Brown”), Hargrove belted out a number of classic blues tunes over the course of his 50 minute set, including “Hoochie-Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters, “Mojo Hand” by Lightnin’ Hopkins, “If You’ll Be My Girl,” and Roosevelt Sykes’ “Forty-Four Blues” (In blues, songs about shooting an unfaithful spouse are still deliciously acceptable).
He also preformed a creative version of BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” transposed into the Key of G. While still obviously blues, the change in key lent the tune strange, almost surf overtones.
Hargrove’s set also highlights the remarkable ability of the blues to make anything sound dirty. Under Hargrove’s vocals, seemly innocuous lines like, “I want you to cook me breakfast” and “let me help you roll out your dough” become suggestive innuendo. By contrast, “I got a sweet little angel, and I love the way she spreads her wings” is an easy mark.
Hargrove is an amazing musician (after six decades in the business, he should be) and invariably a crowd-pleaser. He is also a living a link to America’s musical past and it is hard to watch him without experiencing a palpable sense of awe.
TEXAS EASTSIDE KINGS
Seldom is that truer than for the Texas Eastside Kings. Hailing from East Austin, ironically, in a city that views itself as the live music capital of Texas (if not American and the World), the local Austin blues scene has had trouble gaining recognition against the much better known blues scenes of Houston and Dallas – an has often been eclipsed by the blues-rock scene for which the city is known. And yet, Austin’s postwar blues scene was one of the most thriving and innovative anywhere in the country. The Texas Eastside Kings are on a mission to correct that gap in the record.
Belting out smoky R&B and blues tunes, they showcase the musical legacy of Austin’s traditional blues by brining together several of the legendary figure’s from the golden era of Austin blues. The Eastside Kings are a diverse group, including a vocalist, trumpet player, drummer and no less than three guitars.
The Kings’ set at SxSW underscored the overlap between blues and country. The classic “Sweet Sixteen,” a hit for both Big Joe Turner and BB King, about sweet love gone sour, could just as easily have come out of the Golden Era Nashville. The same is true of “You Know I Love You,” a love story on a happier note. And “The Next Time You See (Things Ain’t Gonna Be The Same)” has a very distinct “How Do You Like Me Now?” feel to it.
Front and center at the Eastside Kings’ SxSW showcase James Kuykendall (now the Reverend James Kuykendall) a veteran of Austin’s blues, and later, soul scenes. His relaxed, velvety voice led the Kings’ through multiple blues and a few R&B numbers. A musically diverse artist, Kuykendall also adds a few soul and funk flourishes and a little Texas twang to his numbers. (As a reminder that blues, too, has entered the 21st century, Kuykendall performed the entire set in a traditional looking black long coat and porkpie hat – with a Bluetooth in his ear).
The King’s melodic heavy artillery is provided by Donald “Duck” Jennings on trumpet and Henry “Bluesboy” Hubbard on guitar. Both Jennings and Hubbard are veterans of the housebands of many of East Austin’s classic blues venues. Jennings’ high profile trumpet solos and Hubbard’s more understated but beautiful and intricate guitar work underscores the Kings’ sterling blues credentials.
The strong, steady beat of self-taught drummer Willie Sampson, another Eastside blues legend, anchors the East Side Kings powerful sound.
A more recent addition to the East Side Kings, and one of the bands most distinctive members, is the young man from Japan from known simply as Mr. Moto. In genre that venerates age and pedigree, Moto has quickly made a name for himself as a talented and innovative blues guitarist to be reckoned with.
There is an irony to the East Side Kings. With their emphasis on ensemble performance, strong horn presence, and (relative) lack of reliance on guitar, these ambassadors of the golden age o Texas blues are arguably closer in style in the urban electric blues of Chicago than classic Texas electric blues sound of Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-bone Walker.
OUT OF THE COUNTRY:
With 1500 bands performing over five nights, there is some amazing (and intriguingly bizarre stuff) on offer beyond country music and its close relatives. Occasionally, I give in to temptation and sneak off to see something else.
Let me admit that I saw this band on accident. I misread my schedule and thought I was showing up to see Champaign, IL psych-rock duo Common Loon. However, as I was already at the venue, I thought I could at least stay to check these guys out.
This group of young men, with roots in both Seattle and Oklahoma, are devoted to a highly melodic, instrumental brand of rock music. Their long, flowing tunes are full of languid, drawn-out chords heavy on the reverb. The music has a consistent airy, timeless, dreamy quality – at times, seemingly more ambient than rock.
But, if you listen beneath the surface, there are some surprisingly powerful rock chords and aggressive drumming woven into Unwed Sailor’s sound and giving lie to the “ambient” label. However, even their most uptempo and clearly rock-infused numbers retain an essential surreal, dreamlike quality.
As they play, the members of Unwed Sailor sway and oscillate, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Uniformly, they have looks of deep concentration and focus on their face. The presence of audience seems almost an afterthought and that, for the band, it is the music itself that matters – something I have seen often in musicians who are truly and deeply passionate about their art.
This kind of ambient, instrumental driven rock may not be my favorite genre of music … but Unwed Sailor definitely deserves respect for excelling at what they do.
HIGHLIGTS FROM ELESWHERE AT SxSW:
- Stone Temple Pilots were joined by The Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger for a performance at the Austin Musical Hall.
- Alt-Country/Rock icons Drive By Truckers performed at Stubbs BBQ.
- Blues Guitar legend and early Jimi Hendrix mentor Guitar Shorty performed at Club Valhalla.
- Country/Rock/Latin sensations Los Lonely Boys mixed with fans outside The Spill on 6th Street for about an hour before their showcase.
- Up-and-coming rock band Midlake apparently brought the roof down their headline showcase at Buffalo Billiards.