As I blog about last night’s SxSW shows, it is 43 degrees, windy, gray and rainy outside. Forty-three degrees? I thought this was supposed to be Texas! I’m thinking I’m going to cover lots of indoor shows tonight.
I spent much of time on Friday night up and down Red River Street, which runs perpendicular to Austin’s Sixth Street near the highway. Red River is darker, dirtier and seedier than its better known cousin. But it is also home to some of the best and edgiest music venues in Austin – the place to go to hear anything from country to rockabilly to punk to Goth.
TRAMPLED BY TURTLES
With a name providing us of a valuable reminder of the dangers posed by turtles, Trampled by Turtles is a five-piece bluegrass combo from Deluth, MN … offering amplified mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and two guitars (with a bass drum up there somewhere, providing the beat). The young men of Trampled by Turtles were attired in everything from thick flannel encased in denim overalls to tee-shirts and jeans. This turns out to be more than just a personal preference, it is an insight into the band itself.
Trampled by Turtles is arguably two bands sharing the same members and instruments: one delivering smart, suave alt-country, the other delving into fast and furious classic bluegrass. The band seems to consciously alternate between styles from one song to the next. It could be called a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation … except that each incarnation is equally musically impressive and pleasing to the ear.
The Turtles’ lead singer changes from one version of the band to another. One singer providing a smooth, polished, almost pop-music alt-country vocals … the other with a rough, powerful set of pipes perfect for bluegrass. Even lyrical style alternates between the abstract, first-person style of alt-country and descriptive, third-person narrative imagery of traditional music.
Trampled by Turtles’ instrumental fire is dominated by their mandolin, fiddle and, to a lesser extent, banjo. Ryan Young is yet another very talented fiddle player active in the world today – his ambitious, melodious fiddle work consistently drew cheers of appreciation from the crowd. Erik Berry is equally talented on mandolin – and is a true delight to watch in action. Before Trampled by Turtles, I had never seen the classic “Heavy metal guitar solo grimace” on a mandolin player before, but there was Barry, shredding away on the mandolin like he was Yngwie Malmsteen. Berry is also intriguing to watch on the alt-country numbers, playing the mandolin in the fashion of electric guitar.
The band’s brand of bluegrass also lays bare the Celtic roots of traditional American music in a way that should give their work a crossover appeal to fans of Celtic folk music as well.
Turtles’ banjo player Dave Carroll was not quite as front-and-center in their arrangemets. With a limited drum kit, the banjo spent much of the time filling out the rhythm section (extra points for historical accuracy, though it is seldom used that way any more, providing rhythm for traveling combos that didn’t have the money or space for drums was one of the instruments original purposes). However, occasionally, Carroll has his moment to shine: delivering rapid fire, passionate banjo runs. Nor should this be construed as a slight against the talents of guitarist Dave Simonette and bassist Tim Saxhaug – unfortunately, bluegrass just provides these instruments with fewer moments in the Sun.
While the two sides of Trampled by Turtles are distinctive and unmistakable, the division is not 100% complete. There is more than a hint of traditional bluegrass power and melancholy in the alt-country. While the arrangements of bluegrass keep an element of cosmopolitan alt-country aesthetic.
Trampled by Turtles has a new album coming out in April. But don’t let the album keep you from seeing them in person. I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase “this is a band you have to see live” in connection with bluegrass before – but Turtle’s idiosyncratic style and period bursts of Dionysian musical fury on stage make this a hootenanny hoedown not to be missed.
Another band with an atypical name for country and its associated genres, Glossary hails from Murfreesboro, Tennessee – at the heart of a region known for powerful and deeply moving music. The five member band features two guitars, bass, drums and two vocalist (you may notice that adds up to six, one vocalist also plays guitar).
Glossary is first and foremost a rock band (and a high energy rock band, at that). You have only to watch them stage, guitarists striding, bobbing and weaving as they play, to realize this is a band that looks more to LA than Nashville. But the Glossary offers more than enough to hold the attention of many CMP readers: there are clear southern rock and country influences on the guitar work and vocals and some of the band’s slower numbers travel very close to alt-country territory, with a smoldering, smoky unmistakably country sound. Even the singers’ voices seem to pick up a twang different from their more rock influenced numbers.
But it is in Glossary’s lyrical style that their Southern credentials are most clearly visible: full of rich, vivid, sometimes painful imagery and, even in their rock songs, a clear talent for storytelling. Like Faulkner, the stories and images of Glossary’s art spring unmistakably from the American South. Glossary’s bassist sings one song he wrote based on his experiences growing up in northwest Arkansas — it’s hard to get more roots than that!). Another song, off their new album, Feral Fire, treats the unmistakably Southern theme of trying to get a good Christian girl to sleep with you.
Glossary walks, and sometimes flouts, the line between rock and roll and southern-rock infused alt-country. That may not be every CMP reader’s cup of tea, but their music will no doubt find a warm spot in the heart of many other readers.
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
The one act from my Friday night at SxSW who should need no introduction to most CMP readers is Justin Townes Earle. Justin Townes Earle is, of course, the son of country legend Steve Earle and has earned a reputation as a force in his own right on the country, folk, and singer-songwriter scenes.
Country music dynasties have become almost cliché. But, even if the world had never heard of Steve Earle, it’s hard to imagine Justin Earle anywhere except the stages of the America’s honkytonks and country bars. Taking the stage at SxSW in a checked jacket and horn-rim glasses, he seemed to be channeling the stars of rockabilly and country’s golden age.
Earle doesn’t have the rock and alt-country influence shown by many heirs of country dynasties – his passion is clearly on old school country songs of the lovin’, leavin’, drinkin’ and cryin’ variety. However, this time, there was a much stronger influence on folk than I had seen at previous Earle Shows. “They Killed John Henry,” an Earl favorite, was placed front and center. Earl also played with a smaller band than I had seen previously, accompanied only by fiddler Josh Hedley and standing bassist Bryn Davies.
His second song was “Halfway to Jackson,” a riding-the-rails country-folk song in the classic tradition. Hedley’s fiddle does a passable impressible of a train whistle and this song is where the fiddler gets off some of this richest, fullest sounds. Earle really gets into the song, clearly relishing the change to make the sound of a hissing train and even, in his excitement, abandoning his trademark easy-going twang a few times, instead singing with a throaty growl.
Earle then performed a rendition of “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going,” which he dedicated to Woody Guthrie. Unsurprisingly, this was another number with a strong folk component. Earle, again, was enjoying the stage and having fun belting out the song’s staccato lyrics.
On the fourth song of his set, Earle finally exploded into honkytonk country with a rousing rendition of “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome?” The change of pace was accompanied by an enthusiastic roar from the crowd. In addition to Earle’s energetic vocals, the instrumentation on this number was incredible. Davies pulled some truly wonderful, solid notes out of her bass. Hedley, changed up his style and suddenly sounded like he was fiddling for Willie Nelson.
Another high point of Earle’s set was “Mama’s Eyes,” a sweet, highly sentimental number he wrote for (who else?) his Mother. Earle always performs this number with great passion and obvious emotional investment. Though, again, I feel like I detected a little more folk and a little less country in his approach to this familiar tune.
His set also included “Hard Livin’,” his best known Western swing number, as well as his first stab at a gospel number, “Midnight at the Movies” (dedicated to Jack Keroauc) a smoky-sounding country number, the title track off his latest album, and “Walk Out” another punchy Western swing number.
Whenever an entire onstage ensemble gets billed under the name of a single individual, there can be an unfortunate tendency to downplay the role of the other musicians. That would be a crime in this case. Josh Hedley is a remarkable fiddle player, with the confidence and poise to understand it is more important to play well than to play fast. While this set made it abundantly clear that he can match anyone out their for fast and furious finger and bow work – his emphasis is first and foremost on producing clear, beautiful notes. Bryn Davis is a delight to listen to and to watch, she throws her entire body into playing slap bass – at times appearing to be dancing with, rather than playing, her instrument.
One on the most impressive aspects of Earle’s performance is his demeanor. He is either one hell of an actor or one of the most irresistible stage personas to come along in many years. Earl has the ability, typically only credited to Elvis and a select group of others, to make each member of the audience he is singing only to them. And, with his boyish smile and “aw, shucks” folksy persona, you get the feeling he’s still slightly amazed that so many people come out to hear him play. I, on the other hand, am not surprised.
I have a stranding rule at SxSW: if a band hasn’t grabbed me after three songs, I leave and find something else. This is one time I’m glad I didn’t follow my own rule. Deer Tick is a rock band out of Providence, RI. In a short time, Deer Tick has built a reputation for incredible live shows and rock and roll shot-through with elements of gut-bucket roots music.
I freely admit that, initially, I was unimpressed. Vocalist John McCauley seemed to relishing his role as ironic, iconoclastic GenX front man a little bit too much (to the detriment of the music) and was clearly deeply in his cups. And I certainly didn’t see the country/southern rock/roots connection. So far, thus far the most country part of their show had been the sound check … followed by songs that, yeah, maybe had a few rootsy guitar chords. I felt a bit like the band was just phoning it in and not giving the audience any clue what they were about.
I was looking at my schedule, contemplating leaving when, with no warning or hint of what was to come, the band exploded into Chuck Berry’s “Oh Maybelline.” In an instant, their guitar/supporting vocalist Ian O’Neil morphed from a twenty-something post-college slacker into a 50 year-old, whiskey-voiced roots rocker held aloft by savagely beautiful Delta rock chords from the rest of the band. Suddenly the semi-pompadour on his head looked a lot less silly.
As O’Neil and the rest of the band rocked onward, McCauley produced a harmonica and started blowing some truly inspired blues harp. (McCauley really should quit his night job and devote himself full time to the harmonica – the world has way more good vocalists and good guitarists than good harp-blowers).
For the first time since they had taken the stage, I felt like I was really seeing Deer Tick. It wasn’t just an issue of playing my kind of music – when they launched into “Maybelline,” for the first time that night, the band really came together, moving in the same direction with a common purpose.
“Maybelline” was followed by another Delta Rock tune, this one voiced by McCauley, strongly influenced, both musically and lyrically, by Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good.” Its effect on me was not as powerful as the previous number, but it was still solid, impressive roots music.
The rest of the Deer Tick’s continued in the similar vein – a wall of irresistible rock and roll, visibly steaming with Delta and roots flavor. They deviated only slightly for “Baltimore Blues No. 1,” a slower, smokier tune with descriptive lyrics, sonorous tones, and some memorable bass playing.
As Deer Tick neared the end of set, McCauley announced that, as a tribute to SxSW, there were going to finish up with a Texas song and they hoped the audience wouldn’t mind a Yankee band ruining some good Texas music. As he donned a pair of plastic shades, the band dived into ZZ Top’s immortal “Cheap Sunglasses.” McCauley then channeled Billy Gibbons as he delivered some breathtaking blues-rock vocals. Supporting the singer, the band put an interesting though credible spin on the song, performing it as straight rock or even hard rock — contrasting nicely with McCauley’s Texas blues rock delivery.
Those “Yankee Boys” play Texas Rock just fine – and they’re most welcome to do so down here anytime they want. What this reviewer wants to know is, if Delta/Texas Rock is clearly what the band is good at … and clearly what really energizes them, why don’t they do more of it? They should quit screwing around with this other stuff — and embrace their obvious talents as the new prophets of Delta Rock.
WHITE GHOST SHIVERS
I spend more time debating about whether to put this review under “country” or “other stuff.” Many bands are eclectic, but few are so uniquely eclectic as Austin’s White Ghost Shivers. If one label fits them better than any other, it’s jazz – but it is jazz of the oldest kind, in its traditional southern and songster guises. Throw in heavy elements of vaudeville, hillbilly country, and hokum – into a potpourri of American popular music’s oldest traditions, I think the case is made for including it in the main body of my reviews.
The six piece outfit includes violin-cum-fiddle, banjo, mandolin, standing bass, clarinet, ukulele, jug and stranger items. Eccentric, slightly silly turn-of-the-last-century Vaudeville-style costumes are an essential element of the White Ghost Shivers performances. And they are performances in the fullest sense of the term: musical numbers are accompanied by witty, in-character banter between songs. To all of this is added an almost Pythonesque element of the absurd and the surreal. The overall effect is more of that of an ongoing musical circus than a band in the conventional sense.
Violin, ukulele and fiddle are the most common sources of lead melody for the White Ghost Shivers. (Their SxSW showcase represents the only time this reviewer has even seen a room full of drunken concert-goers wildly applauding a clarinet solo.) Standing bass and banjo help provide the driving, madcap rhythm that is omnipresent in the band’s songs. Vocals alternate between more convention singing and vaudeville-style banter and barking (what today would be called “spoken word.”)
Despite the highly traditional nature of their musical influences and appearances, White Ghost Shivers do not necessary make good family fair. They delight in inserting the irreverent, the tawdry, and the downright scandalous into their music, highlighted at their SxSW set through numbers like “Cocaine Done Killed My Baby Dead” and “Everybody’s Talking About My Baby” (Whether or not it is the same Baby being referred to in both songs is unclear).
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.
On Wednesday night at SxSW, a young man Japanese man with spiky “Flock of Seagulls” hair pressed a white flier into my hands. On one side were Japanese characters on the other, I assumed was the English translation (or something like a translation), here is a verbatim transcript:
“THE GEEKS: we are the only very cool bands in the world. In February 2008, THE GEEKS were rebearded newly. It is space’s best group of 4 men. The guitar sound that seems to be totally a machine gun. Base sound much as a tank. Synthesizer such as a ray gun. A drum such as the great disaster, And a voice to carry through heart. However, arrogant styles always cause neighboring criticism with unstable the mind and selfishness. In other words GEEKS are yokozunas. Therefore all people hear what we say well, and please do a right act. But, I do not understand English very well. GEEKS ICHIBANG !!”
Now, who can argue with that? I have always had a weakness for bands who go the extra mile to promote their shows or fans who care enough to talk-up their favorite bands. I decided that I would go see The Geeks, playing Friday night at Club Valhalla, it would certainly be a chance of pace from my heavy diet of country, alt-country and Western swing at the festival so far. (Though, I admit I had some doubts about the “authenticity” of The Geeks’ flier. The American fondness for “Enrgirsh” is no doubt well known in Japan and their flier seemed a little too perfect. Also, note that, whatever the vocabulary, the English sentence structure in the flier is consistently correct. This is a point I will come back to.)
The Geeks played Club Valhalla, a friendly little dive on Red River Street that typically hosts loud, violent music in a variety of styles. I arrived about halfway through their first number to find Valhalla packed to capacity with enthusiastic fans wildly dancing and screaming.
If you have never seen a Japanese Rock show, forget everything you know about rock music. Actually, no, forget everything you know. Full Stop. The all-male Geeks are actually fairly understated by the standards of the genre (certainly, they are no Peelander-Z). The guitarist and bassist appear in heavy black eyeliner: guitarist a metrosexual pretty boy, the bassist sporting a 2-tone Robert Smith hairdo and scraggly beard. The keyboard player had a David Bowie style new wave mullet and 80s style sunglasses. Their drummer appeared, well, normal. Guitarist, bass and keyboard players all share credit (or perhaps blame) for the groups vocals.
The Geeks sound is difficult to describe: a classic 80s metal sound with some elements of punk and mini-goth grafted on for good measure. If you imagine Van Halen raiding The Cure’s wardrobe and then trying to play Newfound Glory, you get a decent approximation of their look and feel. The guitar and bass is uniformly fast and furious, manic three-chord punk-style playing punctuated by frequent 80s-style heavy metal guitar histrionics. Their vocals are in the vein of energetic, up tempo, excitable hard rock.
Their performance is the embodiment of chaos. I was not, and still am not, sure who was supposed to the band’s front man. The bassist was frequently engaging in the kind of musical and personal silliness typical for a lead guitarist (so was the guitarist) meaning that the keyboard was often providing the bass line. Further confusing the picture, the keyboardist would occasionally pick up his own guitar, jamming with his band mates, all three of them, apparently, totally convinced that they were the one playing lead strings.
Throughout all of this, the drummer remained totally serious and unperturbed, which was, perhaps, the funniest thing of all. But seriousness may be necessary, at times his powerful beats are the only thing keeping the band even vaguely on track.
The Geeks may, or may not, rely strongly on cover songs. Articulation is not their strongest area and there were several points at which I was, technically, unsure whether they were singing in English or Japanese.
Amidst the chaos, cacophony and clowning of The Geeks, it easy to miss something: they are actually a very good band. The three front men are all very talented with their instruments and, somehow, all the independent string and keyboard work comes together in amazingly tight package. Their instrumentation has a compelling power that many more “serious” bands would envy. The lyrics, or even language, of their vocals may ambiguous but clearly convey an emotional intensity that an audience responds to.
And, I was right about their English being far better than the flier would suggest. At one point, the guitarist announces that they are going to play “an original song they wrote just for you” as the band launched into a cover of Green Day’s “Basket Case.” The lead singer delivered the first few lines in perfectly fluent, articulate English (at least as fluent as Billy Joe Armstrong, anyway) before slipping back into his Long Duc Dong routine.
A night with The Geeks may do nothing for one’s sanity but it does underscore one point: if you can’t have fun at a Japanese rock show, you are, medically, dead.
HIGHLIGTS FROM ELESWHERE AT SxSW:
- John Doe (former front man of seminal punk band X, turned alt-country guru) played a VIP show at the Beauty Bar-Palm Door.
- Exene Cervenka (also formally of punk band X, also turned alt-country) performed at the Cedar Street Courtyard.
- Iconoclastic alt-country veteran Buddy Miller also played Cedar Street Courtyard.
- Austin Americana Icon John Dee Graham played a show at Momo’s, continuing his comeback after a near-fatal auto accident in 2008.
- Cheap Trick is still rocking after all these years,
- So are the BoDeans (after even more years),
- Ditto Smokey Robinson,
- and Jimmy Vaughn.
- Club Valhalla brought together rock bands from Israel, the UK, Croatia, Japan, France, and Siberia together under one roof (No word on whether a cover of “We Are the World” was recorded.
- Minneapolis rock outfit “Gay Witch Abortion” played Soho Lounge, while their members tried to think of another controversial buzzword to add to the band’s name.
- Many people showed up to hear Italian rock band “Sh*t! Tiger! Sh*t! Sh*t!” for the name alone.
- Philadelphia punk band “Reading Rainbow” played a stellar show at Club Mohawk and ruined childhood, reading, and Levar Burton for their new fans.