March 28, 2011
South By South West Festival 2011
Wednesday afternoon presented an opportunity to have a listen to the much-vaunted Vaccines, of particular interest to me since their drummer used to play in my daughter’s band. This was the first of ten shows in three days for them, and their Home Counties take on the Ramones went down a storm. Unfortunately, their white skinny jeans bring to mind Razorlight, and it’s worth remembering that they, too, were a sxsw “buzz band” just a few years ago. At the moment there’s certainly more style than substance in the Vaccines, but it’s early days.
There was a San Francisco showcase going on round the corner in the Red Eyed Fly, which was a good opportunity to check out the excellent Spinto Band, the happening Dodos and wait in vain for Mark Eitzel, the reason I was actually there. There was no explanation for a completely different (and useless) band going on when he was due, while Mark sat and watched in bemusement. This encounter would have to wait.
A trip to Maria’s Taco Express is always obligatory. Lovely food and a laid back family atmosphere made an ideal setting for the cheerful jazz of the Jitterbug Vipers, alias veteran guitarist Slim Ritchie and singer-songwriter Sarah Sharp.
Then followed a failed attempt to get into Stubbs to see James Blake (just out of curiosity really). It’s a shame that it’s now impossible to get into the big shows if you aren’t willing to queue for hours and forego everything else. I wasn’t willing, not even for Foo Fighters or (gulp) Duran Duran, so it was off to the Black and Tan Bar for the aural smash and grab raid that is Edmonton’s Hot Panda. Not a million miles from Barry Adamson-era XTC, they are young, quirky and pure fun.
Sixth Street was hotting up and a couple of wildly crushed shows followed in quick succession. I’ve always loved The Dears, and a gremlin-bedevilled Murray Lightburn was on fire as he celebrated his fortieth birthday in the familiar prog rock maelstrom. Just next door, on a stage she obviously considered a little small for her, was Ellie Goulding, of whom massive posters and projections were all over town. It’s always kind of exciting to see a big star in a place the size of a postage stamp, but it’s hard to see quite what the point of her is. She’s like Kylie with a worse hairstyle.
After all that craziness, calm needed to be restored, and that was provided by the beautifully soothing music of Vetiver in St David’s Church. So soothing, in fact, that I dropped off in the pews.
Thursday started in a way which is very typical of sxsw. Being intrigued to see Yuck, I walked many miles and then stood in an immobile queue for an hour while, presumably, the band played inside. Then it was a four-mile hike to the opposite end of town to my next scheduled show, but it was worth the sore feet. She Keeps Bees is a fantastic soulful power duo like a reversed-out White Stripes. In their element in the quaint vinyl treasure trove of End Of An Ear, the only sad thing for them is the current prevalence of bands with Bees in their names. A delicious (free) beer in the sunny courtyard next door and it was time for a truly wonderful band from Portland called Dolorean. Yearning songs and an understated presence made for a beautiful atmosphere.
Not far away is one of the best “secret” sxsw daytime venues, Home Slice Pizza. As the sun blazed down, the running order in cheerful disarray, we grooved to the lilting melodies of Great Lake Swimmers and simply swooned as Mark Eitzel and Marc Capelle ran through some American Music Club classics, minus poor Vudi, who was stuck in traffic and arrived (cool as a cucumber of course) just as they finished.
The Strokes were playing at Lady Bird Lake and a mini-riot was breaking out as I arrived and the barricades were being breached. Despite their being mere dots on the horizon and the sound that of a distant tannoy, their snappy simplicity and style still shone through. Now, one has to suffer for one’s pleasure and I have particularly suffered over the years at Cedar Street Courtyard in an effort to get close to much-admired bands. My weakness for The Bangles (and never having seen them) meant I was willing to endure the torture of standing though categorically two of the worst support bands in world history to be in the front row. Was it worth it? It surely was, as they blasted through a greatest hits set, still looking like teenagers although they must be approaching fifty. “Eternal Flame” was positively tear-inducing and they climaxed with an inspired segueway of “Walk Like An Egyptian” and The Who’s “Magic Bus”.
Friday began in a similarly frustrating way as Thursday. Julian Dawson was reading from his excellent new book on the life of Nicky Hopkins at Waterloo Records. Outside, the Dum Dum Girls were performing (great, by the way), so I had to leave before Julian started, as I had at date at the Yard Dog Gallery on South Congress, scene of all the best boozy day parties. Strutting her stuff was Exene Cervenka (previously of the band X), her punk attitude being enthusiastically applied to her clever, melodic songs, with vocal support from Cindy Wassermann of Dead Rock West and some gorgeous psychedelic pedal steel from Maggie Bjorklund. You wouldn’t want to tangle with Exene.
In a dramatic change of atmosphere that was to be typical of the day, we found ourselves next in the plushy but almost empty Convention Center ballroom, where the sparky Caitlin Rose was clearly spooked by the formal atmosphere. Great pedal steel here too, from Spencer Cullum Jr, and fabulous Steve Cropper style guitar from the impossibly youthful Jeremy Fetzer.
It was back to the most primeval down and dirty rock and roll as we joined the mischievous Jesse Malin in the tiny Aquarium Bar on Sixth. Jesse and the St Mark’s Social duly laid waste to the place, with Jesse prancing along the bar, then getting everyone to lie on the floor before finishing with a singalong “Instant Karma”. He’s like a naughty New York schoolboy intent on causing trouble, which he certainly does.
Every visit to Austin requires an hour or two to be spent on the 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Hotel, a sanctuary of peace and quiet amidst the mayhem. It was a bit too quiet for She Keeps Bees (so good, we saw them twice) who, like Caitlin Rose, couldn’t quite cope with the reverential atmosphere. It was eminently more suited to This Is The Kit (one man down on account of a refused visa). Their folky music suited the environment, although, on account of the venue’s inaccessibility, they were performing largely to their friends.
A final desperate and unsuccessful attempt to see Yuck later, we ended up with Lucinda Williams in the brand new Moody Theater. She’s a country-rock legend and her band consists of the slickest musos in the business, with massively impressive dual lead guitars. Unfortunately, though, with her Dusty Springfield panda eyes and her super-professional but largely immobile stage presence, it was an impressive rather than an emotional experience.
Saturday at sxsw has a tradition that I’d like to tell you about in a bit more detail. It’s the day of the Mojo barbecue at the Mean Eyed Cat. Because the venue is so far off the beaten track, it tends to be sparsely attended despite the stellar nature of the line-up. This gives it a real feel of occasion, a genuine privilege to be able to attend. Me, I’m always transfixed by Phil Alexander, Mojo’s editor, who not only compères the show but also makes copious notes. As an enthusiastic admirer of his writing, it’s all I can do to prevent myself from sidling up and trying to squint at what he’s writing, so as to get a sneak preview of the review in next month’s magazine.
Nicely fuelled by Margaritas and quiche from the Six Shooter Records brunch, we experienced an unbelievable sequence of contrasting acts, all of them brilliant in their way: garage punk crossed with Little Richard from the blindingly good Jim Jones Revue, pastoral melodies from Erland and the Carnival, Louisiana swamp-folk from Hurray For The Riff Raff and acoustic storytelling from the beatific Josh T. Pearson, the man with the kind eyes. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard his extraordinary cover of Boney M’s “Rivers Of Babylon”.
The weekend was completed by some true American music. At Antones, Joe Ely and his ultra-slick band did the trick (ahem, we’ll draw a veil over Hansen). At Jax Bar, Eilen Jewell was as charming as ever, sending me home to the cold UK with a warm heart.
Take a look at Oliver’s sxsw videos by going to You Tube and selecting oliver794