DAY ONE: THE BUZZ ABOUT “SOUTH BY”
For one week each year Austin, Texas becomes the global capital of the music industry. In its 25 year existence, the annual South by Southwest Music Festival (“SxSW” or simply “South by” to the initiated) has emerged as the industry’s most important “trade show”.
Over the course of five nights nearly 2,000 bands perform in 80 venues scattered throughout Austin’s downtown. For these bands, SxSW is a vital tool to gain exposure and promote themselves to potential agents, labels, and managers. For labels and management companies, the festival is an equally important opportunity to scout the world’s musical talent for “the next big thing.” And it truly is the world’s music talent that is on display, the performers at SxSW represent every genre imaginable (as well as some that aren’t) and come not just from established musical powerhouses like the US, UK, Japan, and Mexico -– but from China, Greenland and, literally, Timbuktu.
My coverage of SxSW 2010 for Awaiting the Flood concentrated on the genres with which this site is most closely associated: country, alt-country, roots blues and so on. This year, with the blessings of Awaiting the Flood’s editorial staff, I wanted to put the spotlight on the mindboggling stylistic and geographic diversity of the musicians at the festival. Yes, you will find plenty of roots, county and alt-country in this year’s coverage, especially on the first day — but you will also find Latin Punk, alternative marching bands and K & W (Klezmer and Western) music … as well as the final public appearance by one of the most seminal figures in Delta blues.
As always, SxSW 2011 was a irresistible buffet of the good, the bad and the just plain weird. I hope you enjoy your guided tour.
BRENT AMAKER AND THE RODEO
Though their sound speaks of lonesome prairies and run-down southern honkytonks, Brent Amaker and the Rodeo actually hang their hats in Seattle, Washington. While the belle of the Pacific Northwest is, perhaps, not a traditional breeding ground for great country music — Seattle has a reputation for producing musicians who excel at any genre to which they put their minds. This energetic country outfit, my first band of SxSW 2011, are a case in point.
Looking smart in black jeans, black button-down shirts, string ties and, of course, black hats, Brent Amaker and the Rodeo appear to have arrived in 2011 straight from the golden era of western swing. Though, if you look closely, you will find a few ironic, contemporary flourishes such as a bassist in sunglasses and an acoustic guitarist donning a Lone Ranger mask.
Musically, the combo’s music tends in the direction of up-tempo classic honkytonk country with a strong western flare. The first thing you notice about their sound, however, (because it is simply impossible to ignore) is front man Brent Amaker’s vocals. With a voice that brings together the style of Johnny Cash, the resonant bass pitch of Oakridge Boy Richard Sterban and sheer intensity of Percy Sledge -– Amaker is the hydrogen bomb of country vocalists. His voice permeates the band’s sound (and, indeed, the entire venue) to the point that I wonder if a microphone is really necessary.
The preeminence of Amaker’s vocals, however, in no way downplays the talent of the band’s other members. The rest of The Rodeo roster (two electric guitars, one amplified acoustic, electric bass, and drums) is filled with talented musicians who are clearly well versed in country and roots music. At the their SxSW showcase, the energetic solos of lead guitarist Tiny Dancer, driving bass lines of Sugar McGuinn and ambitious percussion of Bryan Crawford were consistent standouts.
The Rodeo’s songs are on the short side, managing to fit an impressive 12 tunes into a 50 minute set, and possess a frenetic chord structure that is simple without being simplistic. In this, their composition style invokes punk as much as country/alt-country. Make no mistake, however, their sound oozes classic country and western swing. The same is true of their lyrics, celebrating traditional themes of country in songs with titles such as “Tequila, Cerveza,” “Hammer Hits the Nail,” “Break My Broken Heart,” “The Man in Charge,” “and the simultaneously dark yet uplifting “Doomed.”
The classic honkytonk aura of the Rodeo’s performance at SxSW performance is enhanced by presence of Seattle burlesque artist Bunny Monroe — who lends a delicious bit of spice to the band’s stage show with tastefully salacious burlesque performances backing (or perhaps fronting) several numbers.
If there is a weakness to The Rodeo’s performance at SxSW, it is that the inexorable power of Amaker’s voice sometimes overshadows the rest of the band — instrumentation as well as vocals. It should be noted, of course, that this is a sound-mixing issue rather than a musical one (and is, for example, absent in the band’s recorded material) and should not count against the band. Indeed, the novelty of such a challenge only further underscores the distinctness of this band and their remarkable lead vocalist.
The most surprising item in the Rodeo’s set list is a cover of “Pocket Calculator” by seminal German electronica/space rock band Kraftwerk. The Rodeo conjures the appropriate electronic beeps and whistles using innovative guitar work while Crawford simulates the clicks and clacks of old-fashioned calculator keys by playing on his drum rims. Not abandoning their country sound completely, The Rodeo creates a quirky alt-country version of “Pocket Calculator” that invokes the Texas Playboys covering Devo.
One of the great sources of vitality and innovation for country and alt-country in recent years is the music coming out of non-traditional sources such as New York City, Detroit and Seattle. With an innovative approach to tradition as well as Amaker’s epic voice, The Rodeo is a force to watch and we should expect even more great music from them in the future.
Wagons is an alt-country band out of Melbourne, Australia — another nation with the rich frontier traditions, rugged landscapes and cultural diversity that seem to inspire great country and roots music. For Wagons, however, “alt-country” isn’t so much a label as a center of gravity — the point in space around which their blend of 80s power country and arena rock guitar work, growly vocals, addictive pop-hooks, and narrative and often self-depreciating lyrics all revolve.
At home, Wagons draws upon a vast troupe of performers to create live shows that seem as much stage shows or performance art as a band. Their contingent at SxSW, however, is limited to a core of vocalist, twin electric guitars and drum kit. This may have given Wagons a more conventional appearance but, even as four-piece, there is nothing conventional about this band.
Eponymous front man Henry Wagons looks like he should be standing in front of a power pop combo or indie rock outfit, not one of Australia’s most shining contributions to country music in many years. His memorable vocals wrap gravely growls around velvety undertones — all punctuated by howls, shouts, humming and on-stage gymnastics.
The band’s instrumentals are dominated by long bridges and breakdowns atypical for country music. But they are also filled with great gutbucket guitar playing reminiscent of power country with just a hint of The Doors — all driven forward by rolling, high-energy percussion work.
One aspect of Wagons’ live show that is both undeniably traditional and singularly enjoyable is Henry Wagons’ habit of introducing each number and the providing audience a bit of background on each song before it is played. In one memorable example, their song ““I Blew It” is prefaced with, “Here is a song about what a fuck-up I am.” (And, when you get right down to it, isn’t that the underlying sentiment of most country songs?)
Another welcome bit of country music tradition in their performance is an admirable ability to work the crowd and draw them in with witty banter. And, if that banter occasionally pokes a little bit of fun at audience members, it is no worse than what the band good naturedly points at themselves.
Wagons is not alt-country music for everybody but, at the end of the day, it is definitely alt-country. For those seeking a truly fresh and energetic interpretation of the genre, it would be challenging to find a stronger (and more enjoyable) candidate.
I first heard Baskery at SxSW in 2009, before I began covering country and related genres at the festival in a professional capacity. I was delighted to discover that this band was returning in 2011, so that I would have to opportunity to write about what I believe is one of highest-caliber country and roots acts active anywhere in the world today.
Baskery is Greta, Stella and Sunniva Bondesson, three sisters from Stockholm, Sweden. Collectively, their sound is evocative of the Dixie Chicks, but with more alt and a little country, supplemented with a healthy dose of folk, gutbucket blues, and little ass-kicking southern rock. Each member of the trio is a formidable musician in her own right, providing a solid foundation for the collective musical imaginings.
Guitar work (both electric and amplified acoustic) and lead vocals on most songs are provided by Sunniva. Her powerful voice brings to mind a cocktail of one part Natalie Maines and one part Mary Chapin Carpenter — with just a dash of Shania Twain. But reducing her voice to a simple formula masks the powerful bite and enormous stylistic range of her work – which also includes powerful soul, blues and rock (at moments reminding me a female George Thorogood). The same strength and versatility is visible in Sunniva’s guitar work. It is variously subtle or intense but always crystal clear and precise. Watching the confidence reflected in her stage presence and the deftness with which the young lady handles her guitars, I feel like I’m watching someone who has been playing Texas dancehalls for 30 years.
Baskery’s omnipresent banjo, which delivers most of their lead lines, is the province of Greta. Her guitar work is as much fierce slide blues as country. Close your eyes and you’d swear you were listening to an aged and world-weary Mississippi bluesman – not a young girl from Sweden. Using a very simple, stripped-down pedal drum kit, Greta is also responsible for Baskery’s often furious percussion.
The band’s lineup is completed by Stella on standing bass. Her sonorous virtuous bass notes provide the perfect anchor Baskery’s songs, both slow and fast. Stella’s performance still is every bit as intense as her sisters’. Unlike Greta and Sunniva, who direct their intensity out towards the audience, Stella’s focus is inwards. On slower songs, she appear to be in a trance as she plays – every ounce of energy and concentration on pulling the perfect notes out of her instruments. And, when the tempo picks up, she practically appears to be dancing with her bass.
If Baskery’s members are remarkable musicians as individuals — they are truly formidable as a trio. And, if their musical talent is remarkable, their skills in arrangement and composition are positively prodigal. Baskery songs are well written and intricately arranged. One of the most distinctive elements to their songwriting and arranging is the frequent use of dramatic and sometimes quite rapid shifts in tempo, pitch, and volume that are atypical of country but also represent brilliant songwriting.
The diverse elements of Baskery’s performance, sound and style can combine to produce everything from melodic folk-tinged traditional country to edgy, almost cocky, rockabilly. Playing in Austin, however, Baskery knows their audience and puts their blues work front at center for SxSW and giving Greta’s deep-delta banjo runs free-reign to wow the audience.
Sometimes bands comprised of young women who are easy on the eye (which, in truth, describes Baskery) seem to generate buzz largely because they are comprised of young women who are easy on the eye. Baskery, however, are asking for no favors or special treatment – nor do they need to do so. This band can stand secure as the source of some of the most beautifully crafted and irresistibly executed country music being written today by artists of any age, origin, or performance style.”
I was enormously excited when I saw The Refreshments on the schedule for SxSW this year. As some readers have no doubt guessed, I was thinking of the 1990s Arizona-based Southwest Rock/Alt Country combo of that name — which produced the cult hit “Banditos” and later morphed into Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers (best known as the source of the theme song for “King of the Hill).
I was initially disappointed to learn that these Refreshments are not those Refreshments but, rather, a roots rock band from Gävle, Sweden. Listening to some of their tracks, however, my excitement again began to build as I was treated to roots rock with a purity and authenticity seldom heard today. Intrigued, I decided to see their showcase.
The Refreshments look, well, middle-aged (by which I mean the same age or slightly younger than your reviewer) — but in that finely-seasoned and slightly rough-around-the-edges way that we expect a good roots rock band to look: well garnished with embroidered rockabilly shirts, string ties and haircuts either conspicuously long or conspicuously short. The Refreshments’ lineup is also well-geared for a roots rock sound, with electric guitar, tenor sax, drums, keyboards, and lead vocalist/bassist spread across the stage.
Contemporary roots rock bands face a difficult balancing act between originality and authenticity. Many groups rely heavily on cover songs or have a style that is clearly derivative. Others, in attempting to avoid those pitfalls, stray beyond the borders of the sound to which they strive to remain faithful. The Refreshments walk that line as well as any band I have seen, creating original music and lyrics that are in complete fidelity to the conventions of roots rock. Listening to them, it is easy to believe you are in 1959.
A key component of The Refreshments’ success in striking that balance is the cocktail of musicians within the band. Each of their members is clearly well-honed in the fundamentals of roots rock. At the same time, each artist also seems to excel in differing aspects of the genre. Together, they create roots rock that is simultaneously unique and authentic.
Singer Joakim Arnell has smooth tenor pipes with the energy to keep the crowd’s attention and the versatility to work across a range of roots rock styles. Just as importantly, Arnell appears to truly enjoy himself on stage — radiating a warm, engaging vibe to which the audience readily responds.
Lead guitarist Jonas Göransson appears to be at least as much medium as musician, channeling Chuck Berry (yes, I know Chuck Berry is still alive) for much of The Refreshment’s set. This delightful, unexpected, Berry-esque quality carried over from Göransson’s music style to his stage presence and even posture.
Pianist Johan Blohm is an exciting and energetic pianist in the style of Armand St. Martin and supplies much The Refreshments “Big Easy” sound. The songs that put Blohm’s keyboards front and center are some of the most high-energy and memorable in the set.
Saxophonist Micke Finell brings heavy duty brass artillery to the band. At times, The Refreshments sound tricked-out with an entire horn section — not just a single saxophone. There was a time in the early history of rock and roll when the saxophone was relied upon as heavily as the electric guitar for providing lead lines. This almost lost tradition is omitted even by many otherwise authentic roots rockers. But is has clearly not been forgotten by Finell and The Refreshments.
Drums inevitably seem to the most challenging instrument to get completely authentic in a period-genre performance. Though I don’t know why this should be the case, it is a rare roots band indeed where a few contemporary sounds don’t creep into the percussion. This, however, is not a problem for The Refreshments’ Mats Forsberg, whose percussion work invariably seems to spring directly from a Sun Records studio session.
Another limitation of many contemporary roots rock bands is an apparently self-imposed limitation to one particular style of roots. The Refreshments, in contrast, segue with delightful ease from early rockabilly (ala Duane Eddy or Joe Clay) to Sun Records standards to Fats Domino-esque Big Easy boogie-woogie.
Songs titles like “’55 Ford,” “Cadillac Rock,” and “Shy Guy” hint at another delightful aspect of the band: they remain faithful not only the subject matter dear to the heart of roots rockers but even to the vocabulary, cadence, and structure of the lyrics.
So, while I did not get to hear “Banditos” performed live at SxSW — I did get to enjoy some great music played in the fine traditions of rock and roll’s golden age. There is an all too common perception that, as a genre, roots rock is somehow less challenging or even less truly artistic because it embraces the rules and conventions of a large body of preexisting material. I would argue, however, that precisely the opposite is true (in much the same way that it is more difficult to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter than a free verse poem). Remaining authentic while sounding fresh and original is an eternal challenge for the world’s roots rockers. If any band is meeting those challenges better than the Refreshments, I don’t know of them.
CHICKASAW MUDD PUPPIES
I have a weakness for Athens, Georgia bands. It amazes me that a town of such modest size (115,000 people, give or take) has consistently been a crucible for remarkable music across a wide range of genres. Over the decades, the Athens music scene has nurtured talents as diverse as those of R.E.M., The B-52s, Pylon, Drive by Truckers, Widespread Panic and Neutral Milk Hotel.
The Chickasaw Mudd Puppies are a too-often overlooked link in that chain of musical innovators from Athens. Often dubbed “alt-country,” that description is not exactly wrong but fails to do justice to the Mudd Puppies’ unique mish-mash of deep Southern roots music and hard-driving rock and punk. “Swamp Rock,” another commonly offered moniker for the band, is closer to the mark – perhaps “Swamp Punk” would be better still.
Just watching the Mudd Puppies set up for their showcase is enough to let the audience know they are about to witness something unusual. A wooden riser, roughly 3’ x 3’, with numerous wires emerging from one side, is carefully placed on stage. On top of that is placed an old-school rocking chair. The wooden riser servers as amplified stomp board (invention of which is generally credited to the Mudd Puppies) and the rocking chair serves as the perch for front man Brant Slay during much of the performance. Electric guitarist Ben Reynolds completes the Puppies original two-man lineup. They have since been joined by longtime friend Alan Cowart, adding a more conventional percussion sound on his drum set.
From the beginning, it is clear that the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies’ version of roots music is not that of delicate folk, haunting Appalachian or melodic Americana. It is gutsy, high-impact (and, above all, loud) smash-up of swamp music and electric blues with the aesthetic of the hard-edged rock and roll.
Slay’s vocals are out of another era, dominated by a sharp-edged twang that could cut steel and punctuated by wild cries, whoops, and hollers. On those rare occasions when he dials back the intensity a bit, he has the measured gravel of an experienced bluesman. His vocal work is accompanied by chair rocking and foot stomping on the amplified stomp board, lending the old-school “back porch music” feel of a Smithsonian Folkways recording. Slay supplies additional percussion using traditional ready-made objects such as washboard and cowbell.
The Mudd Puppies’ guitar work is dominated by strong, hard and wildly undulating riffs. Reynolds’ string work displays both great technical ability and a wide fluency in musical styles. While the center of gravity for his guitar playing is located somewhere near Southern Rock, it often segues into blues rock and punk with occasional moments that call to mind funk or R&B.
The entire Mudd Puppies package is driven forward by Cowart’s high-energy percussion. His style is more contemporary than that of the band’s other two members, contrasting deliciously with Slay’s improvised roots percussion and contributing a sharp modern edge to their sound.
As their set progresses, it becomes as easy to hear the Mudd Puppies as a rock/punk band paying homage to the sounds of American roots music as it is to hear them as a hard-edged roots country act. In this, there is an element of genius, as there is to any band that can be read in two ways — especially when, like the Mudd Puppies, that sound is well poised to pull in fans from each direction and leave both groups well satisfied.
Only under exceptional circumstances will I see the same band twice at SxSW, but Austin-based alt-country outfit Crooks is an exceptional band. In a very short time, Crooks has become a sensation on Austin’s country and alt-country scene, bringing a savvy alt-country aesthetic and intricately arranged songs to lyrics deeply rooted in the essence of country songwriting.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Josh Mazour is a picture-perfect front man for an alt-country band devoted to the traditional imagery of country and western music: On stage, Mazour resembles a young Willie Nelson (with a sonorous, twangy voice to match) who just road in off the south Texas desert.
A musician who has mastered a single instrument is an asset for any band. In Sam Alberts, Crooks is blessed with a truly prodigal musician who excels at any instrument placed in his hands — giving Crooks’ instrumentation a range and power that a much larger band would envy. His talents are most prominently displayed on trumpet, where his powerful flourishes add a distinct Marty Robbins-esque southwestern feel to Crooks’ alt-country sound. While less visually conspicuous than his trumpet work, Alberts’ skills on guitar, trumpet, mandolin, banjo, harmonica and piano are no less formidable.
Crooks bass lines are supplied Andrew Van Voorhees, whom band mates speculate, “was probably born with a standing bass in his hands.” His solid, unflappable rockabilly-tinged bass provides an anchor to the band’s sound that is both energetic and traditional.
Much of the “alt” in Crooks alt-country is provided by drummer Rob Bacak. A relative late-comer to country music, much of Bacak’s musical experience is in harder genres. This shows through in a percussion style that provides Crooks a more aggressive edge and heavier punch than that packed by most country or alt-country bands.
Crooks leads their set with “My First [Gun].” This song is not only the first one that Crooks wrote, it also encapsulates what the band is all about — a dark, minimalist piece full of minor chords that tells a grim story blending alt-country existential angst with a classic country tale of blood and guts revenge.
Their set is full of strong original pieces that highlight Crooks’ musical and lyrical skills. “Eighteen Wheels,” a song about escaping problems and strongly tied to imagery of South Texas, begins with a remarkable guitar solo by Alberts that originates in territory that is almost space rock and evolves into blistering alt-country. Showcasing the influence of the great Townes Van Zandt on Crooks’ songwriting is “Downtown,” a slow, mournful country-folk tune that is elegantly counterpoised with powerful percussion. “Downtown” begins with a mood of brooding melancholy, and gradually winds its way into absolute despair. “One Way to Live” is a frank, dark and tongue-in-cheek look at life on the road for a young country band. Finally, “Bar Stool” is a rollicking, roadhouse drinking anthem that is invariably a crowd pleaser.
Crooks recently released an EP, Lonesome, Rowdy and Restless. After South by Southwest, however, Crooks plans to go into the studio and begin recording their second full length album. Many of the songs that will be included on that album, however, are already in their live show set list — making their SxSW showcase an exciting opportunity to “preview” the album. It is clear that, lyrically, this will be an album revolving around one of the eternal themes of country music: working class blues. Their new material is dominated by songs about working, hating your work and hoping for better work.
Musically, the new material doesn’t abandon Crook’s core sound, with its gritty roadhouse flair and strong southwestern influence. It does, however, expand on that core – there is more roots influence in the new material, with increasing attention brought to Alberts’ skill on banjo. Vocals are also more elaborate, with a greater emphasis on harmony. Crooks songs have always been great for listening but their new material is great for singing along with and listening.
In the year since I first saw them at SxSW, this band has come a very long way in their sound, popular recognition and critical acclaim. At this rate, and with a new album under their belt, Crooks may well be the next big thing to come out of Austin to radios and record stores near you.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM ELSEWHERE AT SxSW
* Performing at Stubb’s amphitheatre, Duran Duran proved that, three decades later, they can still pack them in and knock them out.
* Austin’s icons of western swing, Hot Club of Cowtown, showcased material from their latest album — a tribute to the great Bob Wills.
* South Korean indie/psychedelic rockers Galaxy Express wowed audiences at the Easy Tiger.
* Ubeda, Spain duo Guadalupe Plata proved you don’t have to be from the US to play great blues rock.
* Faroe Islands-based folk singer Gudrid Hansdottir brought her Dolly Parton-esque (think “Jolene” not “Nine to Five”) to the Hilton Garden Inn.
* The Ryan Michaels Band showcased their Springsteen-esque reimagining of indie rock at The Marq.
* Hard rockers Queens of the Stone Age rocked venue La Zona Rosa.
* Blues guitar icon (and Jimi Hendrix mentor) Guitar Shorty took his high energy live show to Club Speakeasy.