In a decade of SxSW adventures, I have never encountered a night as cold as Saturday. To call it “unseasonable” does not begin to do it justice. The mercury dropped to 37 degrees, accented by a biting wind howling through the streets of downtown Austin. It would have been a great night for indoor shows — unfortunately, that’s not where most of the country/alt-country action was. Consequently, I spent a lot of time shivering, trying to get out of the wind, and hoping that my hand wasn’t shaking so badly that my notes would be illegible. On the up side, there was some great schadenfreude watching the bands and music industry people in from out of town, who had packed for a typical Austin Spring and were obviously even colder than I was.
As I try to put the finishing touches on my reviews from Day Four, it occurs to me that, over the course of four days, I witnessed more than 24 hours of music and have reported on 28 individual acts. SxSW is the music journalists’ equivalent of a marathon — and there is such a thing as a writer’s fatigue. As I sit here, writing reviews on this last collection of acts, I find the same phrases and adjectives emerging from my mind again and again. Although I try to grab new ones, increasingly, they are just not coming. I hope readers will be gentle if today’s blog is somewhat lacking in fresh, crisp verbiage.
This young lady out of Atlanta has been rapidly making a name for herself as a rising country vocalist in the contemporary Nashville mold. Her idols include Reba and Dolly Parton – and their inspiration is clearly reflected in Nicole’s musical style, song selection and even her “classy country girl” Music City look.
The first thing you notice about Nicole is that she has a great voice: powerful, full-bodied tones that fill the room. Her vocals are those of a throaty Shania Twain or Mary Chapin Carpenter. However, the best analogy for Nicole’s voice is a female Garth Brooks: delivering pleasing twang and distinctive pitch-breaks at key moments in her songs. Nicole’s vocals remain more powerful than disciplined (However, as my frequent readers are not doubt aware, this an observation I tend to make about any vocalist younger than, say, 65).
Her SxSW showcase had several highpoints. “I Still Believe in Love” is an archetypical piece about perseverance and moving forward after a broken heart that seems readymade to appeal to 16 year-old country fans everywhere. “Ain’t Your Baby,” an upcoming single release by Nicole, is a feisty “country kiss-off” number. She also performed her signature cover of “Hungry Eyes,” the song by pop music guru Eric Carmen that was popularized by the movie “Dirty Dancing.” Nicole is the first artist to rerecord “Hungary Eyes,” adding her throaty twang, some country kick, and a magnificent extended country-rock guitar solo, courtesy of her lead guitarist, that surely left Eric Carmen spinning in his grave (Wait, Eric Carmen’s not dead? Still.) As a young artist, Nicole is fortunate to have such a solid and talented collection of her musicians at her back. Several of them, most notably the guitarist, are clearly capable of fronting their own acts.
Nicole clearly enjoys being on the stage, she delights in throwing the occasional sultry look at the crowd and in sinewy, feline movements behind the microphone. All this comes off well. Occasionally, however, her expressions and movements feel a little too well rehearsed, as if she is already practicing for the CMT video. More generally, her performance sometimes suffers from an overly-polished feel. This would not be worth mentioning in an artist that had nothing else to offer – but in the midst of her choruses and the rousing crescendos of her songs, Nicole forgets about practicing for video and loses herself in the emotion of her songs. And this is precisely she gets off her best, most genuine sounds. Again, this could be said of a lot of younger artists but, when Nicole just focuses on the music and the emotion, the rest takes care of itself.
Musically, at this stage in her career, Nicole isn’t breaking any new ground. But her voice is a beautiful exploration of the contemporary Nashville sound. She has the voice, power, look and style that could put her on that path to being a future Music City diva.
THRIFT STORE COWBOYS
Something about the desolate, windswept plains of the Texas Panhandle must breed musical creativity. Individuals like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison came in off the plains and changed American music for ever. I’m not saying Lubbock’s Thrift Store Cowboys are in the same pantheon as Buddy and Roy, but they are pioneers of a compelling fusion of alt-country and melodic rock.
The seven-piece combo generates a dark, rich, sonorous sound built on slow, smooth minor chords. Clint Miller’s prominent electric bass line is almost hypnotic. Even Thrift Store Cowboys’ pedal steel, under the ministrations of Todd Pertll, produces tones that seem more ambient than twangy. The fast-paced, high-volume intricate drumming of percussionist Kris Killingsworth lends the band’s sound a harder edge when needed.
Yet, underneath the melodic rock sound, is a dark, lyrically narrative imagery that is more alt-western than alt-country – songs of life inn Lubbock and love and loss on the Texas plains. And, here and there, a raw country chord or two joins its more polished melodic rock cousins. Occasional explosions of Amanda Shires’ fast, furious violin work also help Thrift Store Cowboys put at least one foot in country territory. Shires’ voice also shines on harmony and can inject a note of twang into the band in their more straightforward C & W moments.
Lead vocalist Daniel Fluitt packs a strange intensity behind his otherwise smooth alt-country voice. This intensity is clearly visible in his performance – eyes that never seem to blink and stare right though the audience, sweat pouring from his forehead (At one point, I swear I saw a vain throbbing in his temple).
Thrift Store Cowboys’ fusion of melodic rock and alt-country/alt-western will not be for everyone. However, as the audience at their SxSW showcase proves, it also has its devoted admirers. It is certainly innovative. This reviewer would even go so far to as to call it groundbreaking and pushing towards the creation of an entirely new genre. I look forward to seeing how they develop in the future.
There is always a temptation for music writers to dress up their descriptions of bands in impressive sounding compound-genre descriptions and long strings of pretty adjectives. Sometimes that temptation needs to be resisted. The Rustlanders play good old fashioned country rock … and play it very well.
And the five-member band from State College, PA, looks every inch of the country rock band they are, pumping out high energy numbers like they’re rocking a 1980s honkytonk. Their slower songs edge towards pure country, but still retain a punchy drive that speaks of country rock.
Electric guitar player Jason Tutwiler pumps out some long, dazzling solos: full of bite and presence, occasionally veering towards classic rock. John Rattie is another stand out, lending rollicking strains of electric organ to the Rustlander’s songs.
Amidst the sound and fury of good-time country rock, some of the most impressive features of the band are harder to notice. Rustlander’s songs are distinctively well written and arranged – suggesting either professional study or one hell of an innate talent. Musically, they are very tight group, well disciplined in spite of their enormous energy, with a sound that is polished yet not overproduced – and something of an anomaly in a genre that, while always long on heart, is often short on finesse.
WHITEY MORGAN AND THE 78’S
Whitey Morgan and The 78’s hail from Detroit, Michigan (well, Flint, Michigan, if you want to get technical). The Motor City may not be a traditional heartland of country music, but it is definitely someplace where folks know a thing or two about being down and out. The silent factories of the 21st century Rust Belt are proving to be just as fertile ground for country music as the boll weevil South 80 years before it – and Whitey Morgan owns one of its most commanding voices.
Whitey Morgan (real name, Eric Allen, but let’s stick with Whitey Morgan) and his band play down and dirty gutbucket country music. His vocals sound like Waylon Jennings stealing the songbooks of Hank Williams Jr. and Jerry Reed. The 78s sound like a craggy, street-smart honkytonk house band and would be worth a listen even without Morgan’s towering presence. Leroy Biltz and Benny James pound out impressive old-school country guitar. Tamineh Gueramy is almost frenetic on fiddle. While the prominent, driven bass work of Jeremy Mackinder and the aggressive beat of drummer Mike Popovich help give The 78s their energetic sound.
At times, every member of the band, Morgan included, seems to be going full throttle and full volume all at once. For most bands, that would be a recipe for a distracting cacophony. Somehow, Whitey Morgan and The 78’s manage to pull it off in an audible tidal wave of country glory.
With lyrics like “Turn up the bottle, bartender, and turn up the Jones,” “Woke up this morning and realized I didn’t sleep at all,” and “leavin’ little girls that hate to see me go,” Morgan’s songs are the finest traditions of down and out, low-down country made flesh.
Many of his stories also have fascinating back stories behind them. “Crazy” was a song originally written for Waylon Jennings that found its way into Morgan’s hands when Jennings died before he recorded it. Given the undeniable Jennings-esque quality of Morgan’s vocals, it couldn’t have found a better home.
“Where Do You Want It” was a song written by the great Dale Watson, and gifted to Whitey Morgan and The 78s, dealing with instantly legendary 2007 Billy Joe Shaver shooting.
Like the great country artists of yore, Morgan also manages to impart a little wisdom through his music. For example, reminding the audience that, “memories cost a lot when you don’t take the time to make them.”
There is absolutely nothing warm and fuzzy about Whitey Morgan and The 78s. Morgan’s stage presence is powerful, intimidating, maybe even a little menacing – and you get the impression he likes it that way. But there is also an irresistible magnetism to the man, the band, and the music that are breathing such tremendous new life into classic country.
Out of San Antonio Texas, four-piece Snowbyrd plays Texas music at its finest: one part rock, one part country, one part blues – and all backbeat and fury.
And yet, the band also packs more than a few intriguing and surprises. There is no doubt that guitarist Scott Lutz plays a mean Lone Star State axe, in both its in country and rock incarnations. But, when he sits down at the keyboards, it is with a funk/soul twist that could have come from straight from Stax Records. Drummer Manuel Diosdado Castillo attacks his drum kit with a hunger and a meticulous mania that that suggests experience with more percussion-intensive forms of music. Lead vocalist Chris Dor Lutz has a distinctive vocal style that harkens back to the early days of classic rock … or even late oldies (I might get my ass kicked for saying this, but there moments when I was reminded of The Monkees).
Snowbyrd’s set list is a blend of up tempo music and more relaxed tunes that mosey off the stage, keeping the audience engaged by preventing any one sound from becoming too familiar. At any speed, they retain the archetypical Texas country-rock-blues blend. Lyrically, they are a mix of country-style narrative and abstract lyrics more typical of rock, with a slight emphasis on the former. Snowbyrd also has a casual, easy-going demeanor and penchant for audience interaction that plays well in a small venue.
Fans of faux-heavy metal band Spinal Tap may be interested to know that Snowbyrd apparently labors under a similar curse – but striking its bassists rather than drummers. In four years, Spinal Tap, excuse me, Snowbyrd, has been through no less than 13 bassists. The curse has struck in a variety of guises, including “broken marriages, multiple lost jobs, motorcycle crashes, and mental breakdowns.” Their current bassist, listed on their web page as Dale Johnson (though it may have changed since then) was excellent, with a rich, full sound — but did, indeed, seem to have a restrained and somewhat worried expression on his face.
I wish Snowbyrd good luck for the future. Especially the bass player, he may need it.
THE WACO BROTHERS
Based out of Chicago, the members of The Waco Brothers have resumes as diverse as British punk band Merkons, 90s alt-rock act Jesus Jones, and seminal industrial-metal outfit KMFDM. All this adds up to a bizarre yet irresistible mishmash of working-class British punk (several members hail from the UK) and alt-country. The overall effect is something approximating (but not exactly) smart, irreverent three-chord rockabilly.
Between songs, the Waco Brothers treated the SxSW crowd to a steady stream of off color, self-deprecating humor and witty, occasionally obscure banter (A reference to Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the man who through a shoe at George W. Bush in 2008, was lost on much of the audience).
Tremendous energy, a penchant for on-stage antics, and unique performance hooks make The Waco Brothers a band that needs to be experienced live in order to be fully appreciated. Occasional verses of group vocals, with the whole band standing at the microphone, singing in unison, look more Motown than cowpunk. When striking chords in unison, the Brothers’ string section often thrusts their instruments forward in together – again, a decidedly old-school flourish. Occasionally, they even kick out over the stage, boots down toward the audience — a la Johnny Cash (only a group as obviously good-natured and self-effacing as The Waco Brothers could have pulled off Cash’s iconic maneuver in that venue without getting strung up). Add to all of this a constant barrage of bizarre gestures and deliberately goofy expressions, and you have a band that is almost as fun to watch as to listen to.
The Waco Brothers set at SxSW was consistently as boisterous as it was enjoyable, but there were definite standout moments:
Standing apparent from typical rockabilly and alt-country fare, was the number “Plenty Tuff, Union Made,” a musically remarkable anthem to the labor movement in the best traditions of first wave British punk — with a rockabilly twist. Front man Jon Langford introduced the number by saying, “Seems like unions should be making a comeback right about now” (probably the only time those words will ever been spoken in a mainstay of American rockabilly like the Red Eyed Fly Club).
Their final song of the evening was a riotous cover of the classic, “I Fought the Law” (originally recorded by The Crickets, made famous by Bobby Fuller and covered by everyone from The Clash, to the Dead Kennedy’s, to Green Day. While I try to avoid using Wikipedia as a source, I can’t help but notice that it lists almost 40 recorded covers of the song).
The Waco Brothers’ version of “I Fought the Law” ties together all the most delightful threads of their live shows: a deliciously overpowering rockabilly-punk sound, visible energy, and amusing stage antics. I never would have dreamed that a song about a Southern chain gang required a chorus of demented British voices to truly do it justice.
HA HA TONKA
Springfield, MO four-piece Ha Ha Tonka delves deeply into the music and lyrics of a sound that could be called Mountain Rock: delivering fast-paced, kinetic rock swollen with alt-country lyrics and vocals and shadowed by Ozark music in the same way the mountains themselves shadow Springfield. At their best, they are a kind of Old 97s meet the Oakridge Boys (with a dash of REM) speaking with the voice of a new generation.
One of the most obvious mountain music influences on Ha Ha Tonka is a fondness for four part harmony in their vocals. These harmonies are one of the key elements helping the band carve out their distinct sound – alien yet beautiful tones from another world inserted into the milieu of contemporary rock and alt-country.
The geographic, cultural and historic influences of their home also inform Ha Ha Tonka’s lyrics. They are strong on narrative and storytelling, exploring the complexities, contradictions, and surprises of life in the Mountain South – sometimes with marked cynicism, at other times with a vision of hope.
Ha Ha Tonka’s mountain and country sound is all the more remarkable considering that much of the genre’s traditional instrumentation (such as pedal steel, mandolin, standing bass, and banjo) is minimized or absent. Instead, the band manages to pull these sounds out of the guitar and bass driven arrangements of rock and roll. And they do rock, with vivid, wired-on-espresso tempo string work and vocals.
The band’s fast pace allowed Ha Ha Tonka to fit ten songs into a standard SxSW 50 minute set (outside of a few punk acts, a genre famous to the point of parody for its short songs, this reviewer has never seen that record equaled). Ha Ha Tonka also has either a strong local following in Austin or brought many of their fans with them from Missouri, with the crowd wildly applauding at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of Ha Ha Tonka’s songs. After their SxSW showcase, it’s a safe bet they have more than few new fans as well.
OUT OF THE COUNTRY:
With 1500 bands performing, there is some amazing (and compellingly bizarre stuff) on offer beyond country music and its close relatives. Occasionally, I give in to temptation and sneak off to see something else:
RETURN OF THE STREET BANDS
Not every band that comes to Austin during SxSW has an official SxSW showcase, or even necessarily a regular venue at all. Hundreds on non-SxSW bands show up to play day shows and non-SxSW venues. Other bands simply set up on the street, play to anyone who will listen, sell a bit swag, and hope that their gamble pays off when the right people stop to check them out.
I think of these as “The Street Bands,” and they are an ever-present part of backdrop of South by Southwest. Many, perhaps most, of these bands come from Austin itself. Many others hail from elsewhere in Texas or surrounding states. But some have come surprising distances. In my decade of pounding the pavement at SxSW, street bands I’ve meet include a jug band from Manhattan (yes, really), a traditional music combo from Brazil, and a Swedish guitarist who just wanted to share his ethereal, frantic guitar licks with anyone who cared to stop for a few minutes.
With an already over-full schedule of SxSW showcases, I am seldom able to give the street bands very careful attention, but among the combos I witnessed in passing this year were such classics as:
- Two guitars and bass
- Guitar and accordion
- Standing bass, guitar and banjo (this one was quite decent and I wish I had the time to give them a legitimate listen).
- Three guitars and vocals
- Guitar and violin
- Guitar, turntable and vocals
- Acoustic guitar, electric base and drums (with a crowd of 50 or 60 people around them, they may have been worth checking out if I had the time to give).
- An a cappella choral group singing classic metal songs (this definitely warranted stopping for a few minutes). I have to say, a few songs, notably Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark” and “Holy Diver” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” translated disturbingly well into a choral arrangement.
Nor was all of the interesting color on the streets of SxSW provided by bands. First, a bit of back story: the weekend prior to SxSW, I had driven up to Dallas for a wedding. About halfway between Dallas and Austin, I passed two young men with gigantic backpacks walking southbound along the side of the interstate. They didn’t look like hitchhikers, they seemed quite happy to be walking and one of them was carrying an enormous American flag. “Huh, that’s different,” I thought to myself and kept on driving.
Thursday night at SxSW, striding down Sixth Street on my way between venues, I passed two young men with enormous backpacks and an American flag. I stopped. “This is a weird question,” I began, “but, last Friday, were you two walking down I-35 somewhere around Waco?”
As it turns out, they were the same people. Not only that, they had walked all the way from New York City to Austin for SxSW. The young men are Matt Perdie and Mike Jacob. Perdie had undertaken his journey as a way to draw attention to what he sees as the dangers of big government. My inclusion of his tale is not necessarily intended as an endorsement of his views, but it is simply too epic and weird not to mention. Again, not necessarily an endorsement, but if someone is going to walk 1,800 miles to make a point they feel strongly about, the least I can do is pass along his website (Yes, of course he has a website.) www.perdie.com.
Of all the street acts I saw at SxSW 2010, only two really stood out as deserving further description.
The first was all the more memorable because it was obviously spontaneous and unplanned. On Thursday night, leaving the Hayes Carll show at Austin’s legendary club Antone’s, I passed a man belting out some awfully fancy, impressive percussion using nothing more than a pair of drumsticks, an upturned bucket, and a copper tea kettle. This, alone, would be worth mentioning. But, across the street, on the third floor of a parking garage was a group of teenagers with snare drums, who would repeat whatever the bucket-and-kettle drummer had played and add to it. The bucket and kettle drummer would the then repeat what the teenagers had done and a few more bars of his own. This strange, spontaneous blend of Southern “call and response” music and rock-style “drum off” was as memorable as it was as impressive … a more than sufficient to warrant a delay in reaching my next venue.
BLACK TOP DEMON
The only other street band that really grabbed me wasn’t really a street band at all – but rather an official SxSW showcase band performing on the street. Or, rather, part of an SxSW showcase band. Yes, there’s a story here.
Walking down Red River Street on Thursday night, I passed a young man playing electric guitar and bass drum. I fully intended to walk right on by, making only a brief note in my “streets bands I observed” list … when I was stopped my tracks by thunderous vocals of “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom” from the chorus of John Lee Hooker’s classic blues tune of the same name. Not only was the voice powerful and deep, but it rang with great passion and the strong yet velvety tones of a young Elvis Presley.
The singer was Joe Ty, front man of the Aberdeen, WA, blues/classic rock outfit Black Top Demon. Built like a brick, the strong-jawed Ty has a good-natured, almost boyish face that looks surreal delivering the vocals of a world-weary veteran bluesman — but deliver them he does. While Ty is good guitarist in both the blues the classic rock genres, as a vocalist he is a true standout. His voice is at its most striking when singing pure blues … and his impression of Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett is uncanny to the point of being slightly disturbing – with sounds as deep and wide as the Mississippi, punctuated by Burnett’s trademark feral howls and growls. If I had merely heard Ty, rather than seen him, I would have have thought I was listening a Howlin’ Wolf recording.
In addition to excellent covers of electric blues standards, Black Top Highway performs a number of original songs with titles like “Guns and Moonshine,” “Backseat Angel,” “The Rev,” and “Joker Smile.” Their original work has a strong classic rock component to it, but retains a lot of blues guitar work and even a little country aesthetic in the lyrics.
I describe Ty as the front man for Black Top Demon. For the purposes of SxSW, however, Joe Ty, was Black Top Demon. As he relayed between songs, the rest of the band never made it to Austin from Aberdeen, having been arrested in a decommissioned police car along the way. Ty’s only support was the band’s roadie, who had flown down from Washington on his own.
Obviously, there has to be a great story here, a classic moment of music on the road –worthy of Johnny Cash, Leadbelly or Arlo Guthrie. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to get the full story — I was hoping to get a detailed account out of Ty during a Saturday show by Black Top Demon, but ended up missing it due to conflicting engagements.
This incident is also one reason I think Black Top Demon belongs under the pantheon of blues rather than rock and roll. Having most of your band arrested in a decommissioned police car is classic blues. By contrast, any outfit where the roadie travels by air while the musicians ride in a beat-up old car clearly has a lot to learn about rock and roll.
A group with this kind of story is clearly living the blues in a way that few contemporary acts are, whatever their ethnicity or origins. If the band can keep out of serious trouble (let’s face it, measured against the bar set many blues, country or rock legends, having your band arrested on the way to a gig is a minor, colorful incident) they may yet become an emerging force with which to be reckoned on the blues and blues/rock scene.
HIGHLIGTS FROM ELESWHERE AT SxSW:
- SxSW musicians held an impromptu tribute to Alex Chilton, former front man of Memphis rock band Big Star, who passed away Wednesday. Performing at the tribute were Chilton’s former band mates (already slated to appear at SxSW) as well as John Doe, REM’s Mike Mills, Chuck Prophet, Evan Dando, and the Watson Twins, among others.
- Eclectic Tulsa, OK ,country-rock act, The Paul Benjaman Band rocked West Sixth Street venue Opal Divine’s.
- Also at Opal Divines, Wichita, KS’s Moreland and Arbuckle, performed a solid blues/roots set.
- Americana outfit Pope County Bootleggers performed at Congress Avenue club The Hideout.
- Pop-Punk legends Bowling For Soup (out of Denton, TX), always a popular act in Austin, raised the roof at the Cedar Door.
- Providence, RI band “White Mice” brought their distinctive dark, dystopian version of speed metal/hardcore to Club 1808 – dressed in their trademark “medical experiment gone awry” white mice costumes – looking like the unholy collaborative effort of Clive Baker, GWAR, and Francisco de Goya. .
- 1960’s Texas pop act and favorite of the cognoscenti, Kenny and the Kasuals, played at the equally venerable Continental Club.
- New Wine, veterans of the Fillmore-era San Francisco psychedelia scene, performed at the Dirty Dog Bar.
- Israeli world-music legends Balkan Beat Box played to a packed-beyond-capacity crowd.
- Singer-Songwriter Macy Gray headlined a showcase at The Phoenix.
- Signature “Weedmetal” band Weedeater performed for a heavily-tattooed and pierced but slightly blurry-eye and genial crowd at venue Encore.
So, there it is: four days, 28 bands seen, and about 1472 not seen. If reviewing SxSW is music writer hell, just being there is music writer heaven. The following week, I always feel a little bit let down and begin, pathetically, counting the days until next year.
But SxSW 2010 was a great year, one of my favorite to date. I feel privileged to have seen so many different faces of the past, present and future of country, alt-country, blues and roots music. I hope that those of you who have followed me through my reviews have been amused, entertained, and guided to some new music you will enjoy.
Jon Black, Austin, TX.