DAY TWO: OUT OF THE COUNTRY — Irish Rock and Roll — Classic Punk — Balkan Gypsy Rock Cabaret — Afro-Columbian World Funk Fusion — Alternative Marching Band — Tennessee Garage Rock — West African Traditional Folk/Blues/Rock
On the second night of South by Southwest 2011, I gained an asset I have never had in my previous years of SxSW coverage: a sidekick (or maybe I was the sidekick, I don’t know). I was joined by friend Nicole, visiting Austin from Western Massachusetts for the festival and to soak up a little Texas culture (Austin style). She bravely volunteered to accompany me and serve as camerawoman, sounding board, and general reality check on what was or was not worth sticking around to hear. So a special thanks to her for the rest of my SxSW 2011 reviews.
Day two of SxSW 2011 falls on March 17, which, of course, is St. Patrick’s Day. With that in mind, it felt appropriate to include at least one band from Ireland in my line-up for the evening line up. Checking my schedule, I found eight options, including everything from singer-songwriter to rock to experimental music. After a brief bit of research into each one, rock and roll outfit Ham SandwicH (note the visual play on the band’s name with the second capital “h” at the end), hailing from County Meath and currently based out of Dublin, seemed to be most my cup of tea (or Guinness).
Their set began with an unusual announcement from male vocalist/guitarist Podge McNamee. Their female vocalist, Niamh Farrell, had experienced problems with her flights and was unable to arrive in Austin in time for the showcase. Apparently feeling that twin male and female vocals were essential to their sound, the band decided to substitute their tour manager, Amy (I didn’t catch the last name) for Farrell. If I understand correctly, Amy had only sung publicly three times previously, and never with Ham SandwicH.
The band was going to be in for an interesting night. It is hard to imagine a more adverse condition for a group making their debut at a major musical festival. Nevertheless, Ham SandwicH plus Amy presses bravely forward, with the audience watching in rapt attention, certain we are about to see either a tour de force — or a train wreck.
Ham SandwicH plays smart, quirky rock and roll with colorful threads of alternative and indie rock woven throughout their. That not uncommon formula is spiced up with quirky harmonics, long instrumental bridges that occasionally travel into the realm of melodic rock as well as few sounds that seem to draw upon traditional Irish music.
Knowing the back story behind the showcase, however, it is impossible not to focus attention on the vocals. Amy’s solo vocals are solid, at times even superb, singing with an exacting, smooth and feathery soprano. McNamee’s solo vocals are an equally wonderful airy alt-rock-tinged tenor. It is in their duets that things get a little rocky. The key to successful vocal ensemble work is not talent but, rather, familiarity. Unable to anticipate what the other will do, there is a tension and hesitation (albeit totally understandable) in the duets leading to the occasional late note or sour harmony.
Beyond vocals, Ham SandwicH has two talented instrumentalists in their guitarist, known simply as Darcy, and drummer Ollie Murphy. Darcy excels at indie rock string work: smooth, sonorous and highly visible. Murphy, continuing a trend in the bands I have seen in many at SxSW this year, packs a heavier punch into his percussion than the band’s overall musical style might lead me to expect.
As the set continues, Amy’s confidence clearly builds. Her stage presence grows more assertive and she puts more power behind her pipes – at times even pulling out a few growls a la Bonnie Tyler. The remarkable thing is not that Ham SandwhicH’s duet vocals are strained at first (that is to be expected) but that, by the second half of the set, McNamee and Amy have already begun to build a rapport. While still less than seamless, there is a audible increase in the confidence and quality of their duet work within the band’s final numbers, something that only gifted musicians could have achieved so quickly.
Music fans love a “come from behind” underdog story as much as anyone else and, truthfully, probably more than most. There is no doubt this audience feels it has witnessed just such a triumph. Faced with an incredibly challenging situation, Ham SandwhicH went ahead and gave it their all – and turned in performance that was credible, worthy and enjoyable.
Out of the perennial punk crucible of Los Angeles, OFF! is a relatively new punk band. They are not, however, new musicians. Each member of this quartet has deep roots in the storied history of punk or other genres. Vocalist Keith Morris comes from seminal punk outfits Black Flag and Circle Jerks. Guitarist Dimitri Coats also supplies electric artillery to hard rockers Burning Brides. Bassist Steven McDonald plays in the hard-edged Redd Cross (long time Black Flag associates). The combo’s wild percussion is provided courtesy of Mario Rubalcaba, whose resume includes Earthless, Hot Snakes and Rocket from the Crypt. Unsurprisingly, this repurposing of some America’s most formidable punk and hard rock talent into a new combo has generated considerable excitement among fans, fellow musicians and critics alike.
Of all the acts with which this band’s members have been associated, OFF! most closely resembles Black Flag. They possess the same trademark unrestrained anger in their sound, intimidating hyperkinetic energy and wild stage histrionics. At the same time, the hard rook roots of Coats and McDonald come through in string work that, while, aggressive and loud, is more measured and intricate than that of classic punk. The effect is a fusion, albeit one in which punk is clearly the dominant partner, that truly lives up to the descriptor “punk rock.”
Fortunately (for the band) or unfortunately (for me), OFF!’s showcase proved enormously popular. Club de Ville, one of the larger SxSW venues, was already packed by the time we arrived at the show. As a result, we were unable to get close enough to the stage to get a good view of the performance or near enough to the speakers to truly experience the band’s energy. I enjoy punk, but it is not one of the genres about which I am most passionate. Without being able to fully immerse myself in the visuals or sound, even great punk sometimes resembles a group of angry guys thrashing around on stage. I very much want to see OFF! again when I can experience them properly. But, watching them from the very back of the Club de Ville crowd, these icons of punk looking like angry ants, I just wasn’t feeling the love. So Nicole and I decided to wander off from OFF! in search of something else.
Not everything worth watching during South by Southwest is part of an official showcase. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bands and artists who are not on the official schedule make the pilgrimage to Austin during the week of SxSW. Many of them play gigs, some quite well attended, at venues unaffiliated with the festival. Others simply set up on the streets downtown and start playing, hoping that somebody (anybody) will pay attention. There is a lot of chaff in the latter group but they have also been the source of some of my favorite SxSW encounters.
As we walked down Sixth Street plotting our next move, our attention was drawn by a large ensemble playing the wild and haunting strains of Balkan folk music and clad in attire that was one part Vaudeville and one part Mad Max.
This, it turns out, was Wino Vino, an ensemble of modern day musical gypsies who crossed paths in Austin (I admit slight embarrassment at not having been previously familiar with such a delightfully eccentric and eclectic band based in my hometown). The band describes themselves as “Vaudeville Gypsy Rock Cabaret” — and, in truth, it would be difficult to improve upon that label. Their street performance on Thursday night included a trumpet, fiddle, clarinet, accordion, tabla (traditional Egyptian drum), bass drum and washboard — and I’m not positive I didn’t miss one or two performers in the delightful chaos of their performance.
Musically, Wino Vino is anchored in the traditional music of Eastern Europe and the Balkans (sometimes colloquially but erroneously referred to as “Gypsy music”). That core serves as the stock in a musical goulash that includes cabaret and vaudeville stage aesthetics, rock and roll energy, and a dash of American roots. Drawing on Old World music traditions, clarinet and trumpet drive Wino Vino’s lead lines — but there is something undeniably rock and roll in the assertiveness of their use. Clarinetist Roy Coon (whose wardrobe choices may have left the audience seeing more of his non-musical talents than they might wish) uses his horn with same strength and undeniable self-confidence of any rock and roll axe slinger. The Reverend Flint Fancy, on drums and washboard, is another standout. Her percussion style reflects techniques as diverse as North Africa and the American South.
The tragedy of SxSW street bands (the good ones, anyway) is that they are usually encountered on the way somewhere else – meaning there is never as much time to give them as I might wish. Fortunately, in the case of Wino Vino, they are local and I look forward to seeing them again when I can give them the time and attention they so richly deserve.
HERENCIA DE TIMBUQI
In an event on the scale of SxSW, sometimes there are errors in the schedule. Nicole and I showed up at “cabaret” stage at Club Speakeasy expecting to see Spain’s masters of funk, Telefunken. Upon reaching the venue, however, Telefunken was nowhere to found … only a lonely DJ spinning records for a half-full (or half-empty bar). As we tried to formulate a Plan B, our discussions were frequently overshadowed by boisterous strains of world music – and a highly energized audience – from Speakeasy’s main stage. Investigating further, we encountered Herencia de Timbuqi, a Columbian group that would turn out to be one of my favorite unplanned encounters of the year.
The band’s name translates as “Inheritance of Timbuqi.” The latter is a city on Columbia’s Pacific coast where many residents are of African ancestry. It is a name that, in three simple words, truly captures the band’s soul. Herencia de Timbuqi was formed by Columbians of African descent dedicated to rediscovering their musical roots, fusing it with traditional South American music, adding elements of urban jazz, timba (Afro-Cuban Salsa) and rock and roll.
This fusion of musical styles and cultural traditions is reflected in large size of their onstage ensemble as well as the range of performers and instrumentation. Herencia de Timbuqi includes at least two primary vocalists, keyboards, electric guitar, bass, trumpet, and tenor sax as well as percussion provided both by conventional drum kit and a variety of traditional African and Latin instruments, including congas and bombos. All of this is arranged around a massive marimba that dominates the band’s stage setup like some carnivorous Pleistocene xylophone.
Their marimba is one of the most instructing instruments to watch in action. The band utilizes the marimba in a fashion similar to electric bass in a rock and roll band. Like bass, the marimba blurs the line between a tonal and a percussion instrument — enabling both instruments to provide strong, steady tones that serve as musical anchors for a band.
For lead melody, Herencia de Timbuqi draws heavily on their horn section. Their songs are dominated by elaborate Latin trumpet melodies and soaring sax crescendos. But, every time I think I’ve got them pegged squarely in the World Music camp, the band throws in some sizzling guitar work that would bring down the roof in any American rock club. Their talented keyboardist puts another music stamp on the band — much of his work spun with a healthy does of funk.
The vocalists, however, may be the real superstars of Herencia. There strong, melodious voices are alchemical synthesis of the band’s various musical traditions into something unique and unforgettable. Joyous and intensely energetic performers who are always smiling, they quickly infect the audience with their enthusiasm and excitement.
Even at is most intense and boisterous, Herencia de Tambuqi is relaxing and joyous music that begs the audience to dance. In their sound are elements that could be compared to Ruben Blades, The Kumbia Kings, or Buena Vista Social Club. Each of those comparisons, however, fails to embody range of musical cultures that Herencia de Timbuqi not only masters but smoothly blends. This is world music in the truest and most appropriate sense of the word.
As band, Herencia de Timbuqi is already well known in their native Columbia. There international recognition, however, appears to quickly catching up. In 2010, they became the first Columbian act ever to appear at the celebrated Montreux Jazz Festival. Their appearance at SxSW is part of their first ever U.S. tour and the band is already earning rave reviews. In a globalized world where conventional genre boundaries are increasingly blurred, it is hard not to look at a band like Herencia de Timbuqi and feel you are looking at the future face of music in the 21st century.
MARCH FORTH MARCHING BAND
Making our way through the crowded downtown streets to the next venue, our progress was disrupted by a vast horde of musicians and performers advancing down the middle of Sixth Street – moving people out of the way and, often as not, pulling them along the ever thickening throng of their mobile audience. This traveling carnival of sound and sights was Portland, Oregon’s March Forth Marching Band. There have been alternative marching bands at SxSW before, both as showcase artists and street bands. But this year, they seemed omnipresent on the streets of Austin.
For those of you who may not be familiar with alternative marching bands, think back to the marching bands you knew in high school and college, keep the large drum and horn section but forget everyone else you thought you knew. Throw in a little electric guitar, bass and some non-traditional instrumentation. Add uniforms that are one part marching band, one part cabaret and one part zombie movie. Spice with dancers, stilt-walkers, jugglers or even fire spinners. Shake it all together and you have an eccentric mobile musical carnival playing an eclectic mish-mash of marching band music, jazz, cabaret and alt-rock with a jam band performance style – that, in essence, is an alternative marching band.
The March Forth Marching Band is a good introduction to genre – at once typical in composition and sound (if anything about such an self-consciously chaotic genre can be said to be “typical”) as well as one the musically tighter and more ambitious examples of an alternative marching band.
March Forth advance down Sixth Street behind a solid wall of swinging old-school brass noise backed by energetic marching band percussion and funky bass … audible long before they were visible. Once in full view, their SxSW contingent appears to number a little more than two dozen – a dozen each of horns and percussionists number, with the remainder comprised of electric strings playing on portable amps. Around these musicians swirl a small galaxy of dancers and some of the most talented stilt-walkers I have ever seen.
This traveling acoustic circus has drawn a larger audience than can be found at most official SxSW showcases. It is, in fact, the largest audience I have ever seen for a street performance at SxSW — all the more impressive considering their crowd has to move along with the band in order to keep up. While perhaps not a genre near and dear to me, there is something undeniably irresistible in the music. Pulled into the orbit of their raucous musical chaos, we walk along and enjoy the cacophony and chaos for several minutes before tearing ourselves away.
No review of country and its associated genres at SxSW would be complete without covering Those Darlins, whose 2011 showcase marks a rare and significant third appearance at the festival. Since bursting on the country music scene four year ago, the Murphreesboro, Tennessee quartet has become a veritable sensation. In their still blossoming career, Jessi, Kelley, and Nikki Darlin (all of whom pull triple duty on guitar, bass and vocals ) and drummer Linwood Regensberg have drawn both rave reviews and legions of fans (many of whom, it should be noted, hail from beyond country’s traditional demographics). Their success stems from both their sound and their image. Those Darlins’ music is a bombastic and genre-crossing hybrid of brash punk and high-energy garage rock – with deep roots in traditional country. There image and stage presence is a distinctively brazen, ironic “bad girl” approach to country – re-imagined and flawlessly executed for a new generation of fans.
Their strengths and their popularity are both much on display at their SxSW 2011 showcase. The venue, The Swan Dive, is not a small space. But, by the time we arrive at the warehouse-like venue on Red River Street, it is already packed to legal capacity and we must wait in line for several minutes before we can get in. Inside, we discover a venue that is packed wall to wall with wildly excited fans. Those Darlins’ large following at the festival and the obvious enthusiasm of their fans is objectively manifested in a 30-degree temperature difference between the sweltering venue inside and the mild, balmy Austin evening outside.
We are immediately immersed in Those Darlins’ trademark irresistible tsunami of noise that pulls audiences in and sweeps them away: a rocking, rolling, twanging tapestry of country, cowpunk, and screaming garage rock. This showcase, I notice some great electronic effects punctuating their music which I do not remember from previous Those Darlins shows. And, I don’t know if it is a difference in sound mixing or an actual change in Those Darlins’ performance style, but I am much more aware of their bass lines than I have been in the past. Every bit as intense and furious as their guitar work, their bass playing possesses a smooth, powerful momentum with more overt country flavor than their other instrumentation.
Those Darlins’ second album, “Screws Get Loose,” dropped on March 29th. Fortunately, the band plays tracks from the album during their SxSW show, providing a peek at what is likely to be one of 2011’s hottest releases. Based on the “Screws Get Loose” tracks performed at SxSW, the new album marks a stylistic evolution for the band. Those Darlins seem to be moving away from the pure country core of their previous work towards a fuller exploration of the Southern garage rock and cowpunk aspects of their sound. At the same time, strains of pure punk, power pop hooks, indie rock, western noir and even upbeat post-punk make an appearance within their sound. Thematically, however, the new material seems rooted in the same hard-partying, hard-living, questionable decision making, “If Hank Williams Sr. had been a Millennial” milieu that has help propel Those Darlins to fame.
In four years, Those Darlins have come very far by taking a distinct sound and image and mastering it completely. With their new album, they appear to be branching out to a more diverse and nuanced (but, have no fear, still very loud) sound. This is, of course, a band whose members are young, and it will be interesting to watch them continue to grow and evolve.
KHAIRA ARBY AND HER BAND
After Those Darlins, it was time for a fifteen minute power walk to Momo’s, a venue on the extreme Western edge of downtown, for the final show of the evening — Khaira Arby and Her Band. Arby and her ensemble hail from the ancient city of Timbuktu in the West African nation of Mali. To the best of my knowledge, I had never before seen a band, of any kind, from Mali and I wasn’t sure what I expected – but this was not it.
Khaira Arby and her band are usually classified as “world music,” a genre that has become so broad as to convey almost no useful information — other than that the performers and/or their musical style probably hail from regions beyond North America or Western Europe. What this band actually plays is a fusion of West African traditional music and good old-fashioned rock and roll, bridged by a little jazz and blues.
And they have the appearance to match. Arby is donned in a beautiful white robe, embroidered with golden threads and beautiful pieces of West African jewelry. Her backing musicians wear traditional robes, scarves and headgear of the culture while wielding gorgeous electric guitars and bass.
Apparently, the rule that drummers must dress differently than the rest of the band is truly a universal one. The traditional robes of Arby’s drummer, Mahalmadane Traoré are supplemented by a baseball cap and distinctive glasses.
There is no doubt that Arby is the band’s front woman. The ensemble’s sound is built around her powerful, full-bodied and distinctively-accented alto. A singer who can produce strong, dynamic vocals in two languages is usually considered worthy of note. Arby’s belts out of her energetic vocals in Berber Arabic, Bambara, Songhai and Tamashek.
Her backup band includes two incredibly gifted guitarists, M’Barka Dembelé and Abdramane Touré. In addition to their musical talents, both are engaging performers who are enjoyable to watch on stage. While both highly skilled, they bring differing strengths to the band. Dembelé’s natural inclination seems to be towards smooth, polished jazz guitar work. Touré, in contrast, relishes rock and roll guitar, taking obvious pleasure in his dramatic riffs and high impact solos.
The mixture of traditional styles with rock melodies and western with non-western harmonies, all backed by contemporary electric instrumentation, represents a truly unique brand of music. Although, in a case of musical convergent evolution, it occasionally strays into territory oddly similar to Chicago electric blues – being sung in the languages of West Africa.
Musically, one of the most interesting moments of the performance was a bit of “call and response” — with a contemporary twist. Call and Response is common element in African traditional music (as well as genres, such as acoustic Delta blues and Southern gospel, which have African roots) in which a vocalist sings or speaks a line which is then repeated by the rest of the band or the audience. In one of their songs, Arby begins a call which is responded to which Touré responds on his guitar. It is a truly powerful musical moment fusing the world’s oldest and newest musical traditions.
Arby’s material stems from many different sources and covers many different themes. It includes West African work songs, traditional Islamic prayers set to music, celebrating her culture and community through song, and even addressing contemporary social issues. At the end of her set, Arby, speaking in French through a translator, reminds the audience that, “Music knows no borders.” Few acts demonstrate the truth of that as powerfully (or as beautifully) as Kharia Arby and her band.
ELSEWHERE AT SxSW
* The Americana Music Association’s showcase at Austin’s iconic Antone’s featured performances by Band of Heathens, Abigail Washburn, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robinson, Emmylou Harris, and the Old 97s.
* 80s supergroup The Bangles reunited for a performance at The Cedar Door.
* NYC’s Cults showcased their appealing blend of sugary pop sound and dark, sinister lyrics.
* Pioneering Latin electronica outfit Estados Altrados performed at Speakeasy.
* Rock legend Sir Bob Geldof performed at Austin’s Moody Theatre.
* … so did Athens, GA jam band legend Widespread Panic.
* Former Bauhaus front man and musical Renaissance Man Peter Murphy performed at subterranean venue The Ale House.
* Blues Traveler frontman John Popper performed with his alt-country project, The Duskray Troubadours.
* Nive Nielsen and The Deer Children, from Nuuk, Greenland, added another note of geographic diversity to the festival.
* Southern rockers the North Mississippi All Stars played to a packed crowd at Stubbs BBQ.
* In an amusing bit of serendipity, the lineup at Red Eyed Fly included both Spokane, Washington’s Globes and Chicago’s Maps & Atlases.
* There was a Sasquatch sighting at club Barbarella on Red River (The Sasquatch in question, however, was the LA rock outfit of the same name – not the famous cryptid)
* Lubbock’s alt-western virtuosos, Thrift Store Cowboys, performed at the Hilton Garden.
* Wu Tang Clan reunion rocked (or rapped) the Austin Music Hall (Viva Shaolin!).
* … so did DJ Low Down Loretta Brown (DJ/hip-hop alter-ego of Grammy winner Erykah Badu)