At Long Last: SxSW 2012
FIRST, an apology to my readers: real life sometimes gets in the way of my music journalism. These reviews come more than two months after the fact, but I hope that being untimely in no way distracts from the enjoyment that reading brings or the great music and performers it highlights. Thank you for your patience.
South by Southwest 2012 represents my tenth or eleventh year at the festival (those early years involved some hard living and recollections are hazy) and my third year of having the pleasure of covering the event for Awaiting the Flood. In that decade, I have never had a disappointing year at South by Southwest (known as “SxSW” or just “South by” to regulars and locals). Even against that high bar, however, this year’s event was extraordinary and even inspiring. I witnessed three very different living musical legends, Jimmy Cliff, Dr. John and Billy Joe Shaver, ply their craft. Just as importantly, I encountered several lesser-known bands with truly exceptional songwriting and composition skills as well as others that didn’t so much cross genre boundaries as defy them, demolish them or hold them hostage. And I will forever remember SxSW 2012 as five days that redeemed the accordion in my eyes (but more on that later).
The Back Story: The Music Industry’s Music Festival
This year marked the 25th anniversary of what began as local musical festival organized by a couple of guys from Austin’s local alternative weekly paper and has evolved into the global music industry’s premier annual event.
Whenever I write about South by Southwest, I struggle with two things: first, to capture what makes SxSW different from other musical festivals and, second, to try to convey the sheer scope and scale of the event. The first is, arguably, easier. At its essence SxSW is the music industry’s music festival. While the event certainly encourages attendance by people from beyond the music industry, the focus of SxSW (unlike other major multi-day festivals such as Bonnaroo, Coachella or the New Orleans Jazz Fest) is on the industry, not the fans. Bands looking for labels or to catch the right ear to get their big break; labels, agents and booking agencies looking for the next big thing — these are SxSW’s bread and butter. It is, in effect, a giant trade show … with music … lots and lots of music.
Which brings us to the second point — the event’s scale and scope. Over five nights, SxSW 2012 featured more than 2,000 bands from 60 nations playing in 100 venues scattered throughout Austin’s downtown and beyond. Even those numbers don’t tell the full story. One of the most intriguing aspects of the festival in recent years is the growth of “unofficial” musical events, not formally associated with SxSW but hoping to share in its success. These include day shows hosted by record labels ranging from major to indie, by national, state or local music scenes hoping to promote their artists and even shows by specific venues, such as Athens, Georgia’s legendary 40-Watt Club. Add to this the sheer number of “unofficial” bands trekking to Austin in hopes of playing somewhere during SxSW (conventional wisdom holds there is now at least one unofficial band for ever official SxSW showcase artist) and you have a variety and cacophony unmatched by another other musical event in the world.
At its core, Awaiting the Flood is, of course, a roots and alt-country site albeit one with a very “big tent” approach. Have no fear, my coverage of SxSW contains enough roots red meat and country firewater to satisfy the most ardent purist but, at this festival, limiting yourself to a handful of genres is really missing the point. So, as always, I selected my coverage based on what was interesting, important or simply good, regardless of genre. My thanks to the ATF editors for their ongoing support of this approach.
Okay, you’ve got the picture, now on to the sound.
In a year in which my SxSW experience will be dominated by genre-crossing artists with more than a hint of eccentricity, David Liebe Hart is an auspicious beginning. Hart is a many things – musician, actor, artist, social critic and puppeteer to name just a few. Above all, he is an entertainer and, in the best sense of the term, a character – managing to stand out even in his adopted home of Los Angeles where he often performs music and puppetry outside the Hollywood Bowl and is one of the driving forces behind “The Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Program,” a public access television show that provides spiritual guidance and moral lessons for children while also being so surreal and outré that it has gained a substantial underground hipster following.
In true SxSW fashion I am running late and arrive at the venue just a Hart and his band, consisting of an electric guitarist, bassist and drummer, conclude their first song. Encountering Hart for the first time is an experience akin to eating an onion. Just when you think you’ve got him figured out you realize there is another layer to be peeled away.
Hart is as quirky a performer as his biography would suggest. He always introduces his songs and those introductions always begin with “I wrote a song about [x].” Sometimes there is more commentary. Often there is not.
He begins his next song with, “This is a song I wrote about Betty White.” The number is no more and no less than what he claims: a biographical song about White with meandering lyrics that sound like a Wikipedia article translated into stream of conscious poetry. Hart’s voice is distinctive, reminiscent of a lounge singer – but the voice a lounge singer would use to engage the audience in witty banter rather than the voice in which they would sing. As he performs, Hart has a simmering, slightly manic look in eyes. On many occasions, I have seen such an expression turn audiences off. Hart, however, makes it work for him, his intensity pulling the crowd deeper into his stories.
As he belts out his unusual lyrics and vocals (with his dramatic gestures and intense expression, Hart would also make a perfect soul music front man) a crescendo of wild, high-energy punk electric distortion rises from the band behind him. The combined effect of vocals and instrumentation is one of delightful, almost hypnotic, weirdness.
The third number of his set is prefaced with one of the most memorable introductions to a song I have ever heard, “I wrote a song called ‘No More Coffee in the Car.’ It’s a punk rock song.” And it is. Transforming his stage presence from the previous song, Hart adopts the vocal styling, posture and gestures of screaming punk rock — his screams are powerful indeed. The act of turning as mundane an event as forbidding coffee in his car into a punk rock song gets close to the heart of Hart’s singular approach to music.
This is followed by a song beginning with, “This is a song about my ex-wife who left me in 1994. And I got a song out of it because I got dumped.” The musical style of Hart’s band is as quirky as that of their singer. This song, the fourth in the set, is the first in which I can detect a true “solo,” a series of quick, raw guitar riffs between verses.
Hart introduces a later song with, “I wrote a song about the Santa Monica Pier, where I sell my portraits and about how bad business is out there because of the recession.”
Part of the joy (if also the mystification) of Hart’s music, as exemplified by “Betty White” or “No More Coffee in the Car” is the obviously sincere passion with which he sings about every day trivialities or utterly absurd topics. Of course, as with “Santa Monica Pier” sometimes the trivial isn’t so trivial. Rather, it is a vehicle for Hart to explore serious issues such as the recession through the immediate experiences of his life (and, again, there is another layer to the musical onion). A focus on the mundane often transforms Hart into a sympathetic voice of the everyman — just as his exploration of the absurd revels in nuanced social commentary. None of that means his work doesn’t come off as totally bizarre or a little bit silly, but simply there may be a method at work within the madness.
Throughout the first part of Hart’s set, the instrumentation is consistent: high volume electric strings and drums that weave back and forth between punk and rapid-fire rock that knocks at the door of punk with the occasional bust of short, powerful guitar shredding between vocals. With the eighth song of the set, however, Hart and his band throw the audience a curveball.
Introducing the number in his trademark fashion, “I wrote a song about going to high school in the Midwest,” Hart and his band launch into an oddly indie-pop intro. Suddenly, as another layer of the onion comes away, we see another side to Hart’s musicianship. Unlike the evening’s previous offerings, this number has a definite melody and clear percussion progression all of which build to a very 90s indie rock feel.
As opposed to the minimalist nature of his previous singing, his new sound is full of pitch changes and strong variations in tempo and cadence. The effect is very solid and I can’t help wonder if this is Hart’s way of telling us, “I could make music your way if I want to, but I’m doing it my way.”
The next song begins with a more earnest yet poetic introduction than his previous songs, “I wrote a song about how, when you walk with God, you never walk alone. When you walk with love, you never walk with hate. When you walk with joy, you never walk with sadness.” What follows is a song that passionately conveys Hart’s inner exploration of some of life’s weightiest issues.
Again, the number has a definable melody and harmony and, at least against the benchmark of the first half of his set, a very conventional composition. His voice is steady, singing at a relaxed tempo, varying his tone and timbre. It is a powerful, uplifting voice that would be well suited to the inspirational music the song’s theme clearly invokes. It is obvious that Hart is a true musical chameleon.
Introducing the final song of the evening, Hart tells the audience, “This song is called ‘Poison Mushroom,’ and it’s about going to summer camp at the Christian Science School. It’s a punk rock song.” If there was ever a theme more worthy of being put into a punk song, this reviewer has yet to hear of it. And it is a memorable number, combining all that is best and strangest about Hart’s music. The song is full of strange vocal stylings and exultations that move away from punk rock towards metal, even as the band’s instrumental work swerves towards prog rock.
Somewhere out in the musical ether is a triangle with points formed by the stark commentary of Jello Biafra, the silly satire of “Weird” Al Yankovic and the disturbing genius of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer. At the center of that triangle is David Liebe Hart. His is truly unconventional music. For most of his repertoire, forget anything you know about composition or lyrical conventions. At the same time, Hart is also an artistic cipher — with equal credibility, his music can be heard as an amusing novelty … or as truly inspired, if unorthodox, art rock. One gets the impression, however, that Hart is above such concerns. He loves what he does and hopes that other people do too. But, either way, he’s going to keep on doing it. After the wrap-up of the David Liebe Hart set, I was faced with a conundrum: how to get from the venue in which he performed on the east side of downtown to the west side venue of my next showcase. Fortunately, just at that moment, the god Thor intervened. Or, at least one of Austin’s plethora of pedicab drivers dressed as Thor, complete with winged helmet, shiny breastplate and massive hammer. My rescuer was Quinton Shelton, local writer, personality, pedicab driver and part time Aesir impersonator. Thanks to him, I was able to reach my destination with time to spare.
Chapel Hill’s New Town Drunks are musical vagabonds whose members have lived in New York, Texas, Mexico, Detroit and Puerto Rico prior to putting down roots in North Carolina. Many musical acts claim to defy categorization or classification but New Town Drunks are one of the few outfits that can truly claim that brass ring, having forced music journalists to coin monikers as diverse as nu-vaudeville, rock and roll cabaret and stream of consciousness folk rock to try to capture their rich, eclectic sound.
The core of the band is guitarist Roberto Cofresi and vocalist Diane Koistinen. At their SxSW showcase, New Town Drunks are rounded out by Austin-based standing bassist Tom Benton, Austin tenor saxophonist Clay Embry, keyboardist Doug Norton and drummer Miguel Urbiztondo.
New Town Drunks leads the audience into their unique sound gradually, kicking off their set with a long, delicious instrumental number that shows jazz influences with just a hint of swing (sometimes it seems to be western swing and other times not) and perhaps a dash of rumba.
With their second number of the set, “Little Eyes,” New Town Drunks reveals themselves in their full glory. The song begins with nice keyboard and guitar work from Norton and Cofresi, building to a crescendo before Koistinen comes in with a rich, full alto voice. Hers is a phenomenal voice, a perfect compliment for warm, dark, cozy venues such as the one in which their showcase is being held.
“Little Eyes” is shadowy and moody rock and roll, full of folk-rock and lounge-rock, but with hints that also call to mind Johnny Rivers “Secret Agent Man” and even the bluesy garage rock of The Animals. Koistinen’s vocals are buoyed and matched by Embry’s strong sax work. The number also features amazing keyboard work, with lead lines traded back and forth between saxophone and Norton’s keyboards.
Between songs, the band is relaxed, poking good natured fun at each other. They are clearly comfortable with being on stage and with each other, which is not the case for every band that comes through SxSW, and always refreshing to see.
Their third number leads off with a slow, sensuous sax intro. Koistinen’s vocals are introduced into the number slowly, with a whiff of Appalachian mournfulness in their strains, against a steady guitar. The trio is then joined by drums, bass and keyboard, with their collective sound capped off by the sonorous croon of the tenor saxophone. The song’s volume and energy build gradually, as the music straddles the line between folk, jazz and country. Yet it weaves together jazz and country in a manner that does not invoke western swing but, rather, carves out its own distinctive musical space.
A series of staccato jabs by percussion, string and sax marks a sudden jump upwards in the song’s tempo and volume. Guitarist Cofresi seems to especially enjoy this part of song, throwing his whole body into the notes he plays.
Koistinen’s performance adds another layer to New Town Drunks’ performance. As she dances and moves about the stage, her body becomes a physical extension of her vocals, almost a living metronome, as she languidly and gracefully sways back and forth with the beat.
Coming upon the heels of the David Liebe Hart showcase, New Town Drunks are a definite shift in gears. Three of Hart’s slice-of-life punk poems could fit comfortably in the time taken by one of New Town Drunks’ musical odysseys (this is not a judgment against either group, just a difference — each outfit’s songs are exactly as they should be).
The fourth song of the set begins with some close tandem work between Cofresi and Norton, pushing the musical envelope back to the edges of surf and garage that were hinted at in their first number, to which has now been added the flair of Latin music and Spanish guitar.
Cofresi is the true standout of this number, his Spanish guitar is careful, measured, almost tenderly plucked from his instrument. The musical interplay between Cofresi and Koistinen on this song is one of the highlights of the entire New Town Drunks showcase. The beautiful, melancholy guitar work backing rich, entrancing vocals calls to mind images of bands playing smoky hotel lounges in other times and places.
With their fifth song (which seems to be called “I’ve Only Got a Buck Seventy-Five” or possibly “Give You a Call”), New Town Drunks strike out in a new direction as keyboards belt out a soul/R&B that would not sound of out place on a late-Motown 45 rpm. Urbiztondo heightens this effect with some punchy Stax-style percussion before being joined by the entire band.
The number’s instrumentals seem to slowly and deliberately wind down into free-form jazz before breaking into full force, dominated by beautiful sax work. At this point, I am confused as to whether this is a new song or simply a continuation of the previous one. For most bands, I would have no doubt it was a new one. But the fondness of New Town Drunks for ambitious tempo changes and gradual segues in style within songs renders the issue far less clear.
Koistinen’s near-constant dramatic expressions, emotive gestures and dancing are a highlight of the number and appear to spring forth with such subconscious ease that they suggest an artist who instinctively thinks of music in terms of live performance rather than studio settings.
I also fail to catch the title of the next song, but the chorus is, “The boys don’t smile and the girls don’t drink wine.” It features funky keyboard work by Norton and enjoyable if not terribly intricate scat vocals from Cofresi before gradually transitioning back to conventional vocals by Koistinen.
Most of the songs in New Town Drunks’ set are from their upcoming album, scheduled for release around September of this year. They close the set, however, with two songs from previous records.
Sixth in the set is “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss,” a bawdy, playful song of lovemaking that dances between coy and explicit. The boldness and finesse of this number is a blend of racy, catchy and clever that would make Billie Holiday proud. Musically, the song is jazzy folk-rock with Cofresi’s fine Spanish guitar lending a distinctive flavoring. Towards the end of the number, Koistenen jumps of stage and dances in front of the crowd while keyboards, sax, guitar and drums keep the song moving forward.
New Town Drunks conclude their set with “The Bong Song,” a number with a strong honky tonk and western swing feel to it as guitar, sax and piano roll briskly along. The honky tonk/western swing aesthetic allows Benton’s standing bass to really shine on this number. Later, the band shifts to slower tempo, dialing back the volume as they move gradually into a gentle surf rock before gearing back up into a rollicking, almost rockabilly style.
It is difficult to do justice in print to how beautifully and elegantly New Town Drunks construct their songs. Both musically and lyrically, this is a band that knows how to build a song, displaying a level of both imagination and ambition almost unheard of from any corner of popular music. Fortunately, they also have the technical chops to pull off these ambitious compositions, routinely executing sudden changes in tempo and style that would destroy less talented outfits.
It seems that every music journalist who has covered New Town Drunks has taken a stab at a convoluted, improbable analogy that attempts to convey the full flavor of this very diverse and incredibly talented band. So, taking my crack at it, I would offer that a New Town Drunks show is reminiscent of Nancy Sinatra fronting The Animals for a cabaret-rock show at a small, smoky club you’ve always looked for but have never been able to find.
If you need to know how serious a band is about rock and roll, you can often learn more by looking at the instruments on stage that aren’t being played than the ones that are. As the two guitarists, electric bassist and drummer that comprise The Technicolors worked their way through sound check, I could not help but notice that, in addition to the instruments in their hands, a rack holding four electric guitars and basses was propped up against the wall while two others rested casually against an amp near the drummer the results of my informal instrumental census indicating three stringed instruments for every string player in the band. That, my friends, is rock and roll.
Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, the young musicians of The Technicolors are lead singer/guitarist Brennan Smiley, lead guitarist Mikey Fanizza, bassist Michael Nicolette and drummer Kevin Prociw. And, if The Technicolors’ music could not be called old-school rock and roll, their sound is clearly a direct descendent and worthy heir to the original pioneers of American guitar rock.
The band leads off with a joyous wall of high-energy guitar with some surprising and enjoyable power pop hooks woven into the otherwise unadulterated rock and roll, all carried forward by a driving back-beat.
The wrong look should never be held against a good band, but the right look can make watching a good band that much better – and, again, The Technicolors do their rock and roll forebearers proud, boisterously jumping around the stage as they play, Smiley and Fanizza sporting magnificently disheveled hair. Smiley has a compelling stage presence, blending the primal and the innocent in a manner that calls to mind a very young Mick Jagger.
The Techicolors’ second song begins with a crash of cymbals and snares, followed by a heavy bass line. Slower and more sonorous than their first number, the band briefly flirts with melodic rock before moving into a hammering prog rock that anchors the remainder of the song. Amazing solos by Fanizza invite comparisons to the work of Yes and Deep Purple. In contrast to many contemporary rock and roll acts, however, this band is not only about the power. During bridges, the band displays considerable finesse in their string work. Still, they are at their most delightful when exploding in a tidal wave of distortion-heavy rock and roll fury.
The Technicolors’ number-one love is clearly their strings. Compared with the intricate intensity they devote to guitar and bass, their vocals are streamlined and straight-forward. This, however, does not mean they are not impressive. Smiley has a compelling voice, intense and plaintive that, at times, almost seems to be a compelling plea to the audience.
After winding down, Smiley remarks to the audience, with more than a touch of irony, “I hope it’s not too loud for you. We want to play a little more rock and roll.”
Their third number, called “Sweet Time,” opens with an inspired introduction on guitar. In a showcase filled with memorable guitar work, this is the pinnacle — a series of fast, furious and perfect chords that could have elicited an approving nod from Jimi Hendrix. From there, the song evolves in a fashion similar to their opening number, into good non-nonsense modern rock – again laced with some power-pop hooks and the occasional tempo change.
Watching the precision of their playing on “Sweet Time” and the way the band members work together on the number, it became apparent that another thing that separates The Technicolors from many others of their ilk is that they are genuinely a tight band.
The final instrumental bridge to “Sweet Time,” is dreamy, almost ethereal, in its sound and shows some serious prog rock sensibilities – before exploding into one final break-down of serious electric and percussion mayhem.
The fourth song in their set begins with a slower tempo and more restrained volume (keeping in mind that, for The Technicolors, “slow” is only so slow and “measured” only so measured). This allows them to place more emphasis on vocals and really brings out the compelling, plaintive nature of Smiley’s voice. Their, comparatively, gentle yet meticulous string work builds gradually. Again, there is a touch of the ethereal quality evidenced on “Sweet Time,” before the band really lays into their axes. The song features some great runs by Fanizza and the effect of a guitar duet between Fanizza and Smiley late in the song is positively mesmerizing.
Their next song begins with vibrato bass entry with wild string work and a light undulation uncharacteristic of their sound thus far. The sounds come with a note of familiarity. It is not until Smiley comes in on vocals, however, that I recognize it as a cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” a classic of brooding, melancholy rock and roll.
Actually, “cover” is not a strong enough word for The Technicolors’ version. “Reimagining” is a much more accurate description. Smiley’s voice is well suited for the piece. If anything, his mournful wails and dramatic pitch changes are even more eerily engrossing than Isaak’s. Fanizza’s guitar work, complete with distortion and even echo, accentuates and deepens the role of melody in their interpretation.
In contrast with the highly minimalist aesthetic of the original version of “Wicked Game,” The Technicolors’ version is all about “more and louder” … and it works. By the final chorus of the number, this is a cover only on the loosest sense of the term, the song has transmuted into something the original never envisioned.
“To Love,” the sixth number in the set, has a distinctive indie-pop intro. By The Technicolors’ standards, the guitar work begins in a mellow and even restrained fashion, lasting all of a minute before the edge and intensity start creeping back in. Even with that edge, “To Love” retains much more of a power-pop/indie-pop feel than most of the numbers The Technicolors have served up during their set.
The final song of the evening is another hard-charging rock and roll number, delivered with more of a straight-up classic rock feel. Appropriate to that flavor, Smiley exchanges his standard axe for a beautiful 1950s National guitar, the half-century old instrument visibly worn-down around the edges. Fanizza alternates between his typical string work and picking up a pair of drumsticks and pounding out rhythms on an amplifier case or anything else that happens to be nearby. His percussion added to Prociw’s rock thunder gives the number a dominant percussion punch that is at slight contrast to the string-heavy work characterizing most of their set.
The Technicolors have a new album coming out this spring. A taste of their live performance is enough to persuade me that for young rockers (and older rockers who don’t get hung up on minor generational variations) it is sure to be a guitar-laden high-volume treat.
How rock and roll is Rosie Flores? Well, let’s put it this way: she blew out an amp before the sound check was over.
And not just rock and roll. For a quarter century the San Antonio-born and Austin-dwelling “Rockabilly Filly” has treated audiences to a guitar-slinging and roots-rockin’ mix of classic rockabilly, old school rock and roll, blues, and classic country. Along the way, she’s done more than play America’s original music — she’s helped preserve and celebrate it. Flores deserves much credit for the revival of original rockabilly queens like Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin and has earned a Peabody Award for her narration of “Whole Lotta Shakin'” a radio documentary on the history of rockabilly.
Once the problem with her amplifier was resolved, Flores and her outfit (drummer Paul Ward and bassist Brendan Ryan) launch immediately into gorgeous old-school rock and roll supplied with ample rockabilly twang. It is a moderate tempo instrumental number, well chosen to showcase Flores’s virtuosity and artistry rather than simply burying the audience under pure raw power (that comes later). She is a finesse player who, rare for a guitar hero, has mastered the art of using reverb judiciously.
Some artists’ performances are as magnificent to watch as to hear. Seeing Flores’s fingers at work on her guitar is truly witnessing a master at her craft. It is inspiring to be able to see her sublimely executed riffs and runs. She also brings a very pleasant stage presence, relaxed (if not quite casual or informal) and clearly enjoys performing.
Her second number is, “I’m a Working Girl’s Guitar,” a song full of rockabilly fire and country attitude telling the story of the triumphs and tragedies of a rock and roll life – from the guitar’s perspective. While best known for her guitar work, there is nothing amiss with Flores’s vocals high, sweet, clear tones that are every bit as feisty and fiery as her string work. The number is excellent rockabilly through and through, but her work during the song’s bridges, resting on top of an equally formidable bass line from Ryan, are especially memorable.
For the third number of the set, Flores is joined on vocals by Austin native and fellow roots artist Ruby James. The song is a tribute to Flores’s friend and musical collaborator, the noted rock and country guitarist Duane Jarvis, who died in 2009. At its core, it is a slow, Silver Age country ballad built around strong guitar instrumentation, incorporating lines originally penned by Jarvis before his death.
It is a song of sweet, sentimental reflection. Of course, it also features some unapologetically delicious guitar work. But, then again, what better way for an iconic guitarist to pay tribute to a fallen comrade?
The next song is from Flores’s upcoming album (although no release date has yet been set, but look for it on the Bloodshot label). Her showcase at SxSW marks the first time that some of the songs from the album, including this one, have been performed live.
For many reasons, the song is more Golden Age rock and roll or old school R&B than rockabilly. The foundation of the song is a slow, rolling tempo which calls to mind Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” Flores’s intense guitar picking on the number is worthy of an early master like Chuck Berry. And, as she repeats the lyrical refrain of, “If I … I … I … I could only be with you,” one hears more than a little bit of Ronnie Spector and the other frontwomen of the great “girl groups” of the 50s and 60s.
With song five (which may or may not be called “Rise above the Crowd” or possibly “If You Want Me To”) Flores and her band return to their trademark rockabilly twang. This song features some of the best vocal work of her set, dominated by long, powerful sharp notes.
This is followed by a cover of “Hot Diggity Dog” by the great Buck Owens. Flores’s rendition is well executed homage, vocals filled with Owens-esque whoops, hoots and hollers. Much credit for the success of the number belongs to Ward and Ryan for giving the supporting instrumentation a well-executed and very credible period sound — particularly the sharp, staccato backbeats of Ward’s drums.
Staccato is also a byword for the final number of her set, “Country Boy.” It is a sweet little love song that, as the title suggests, could be done as pure country as easily as rockabilly. Flores’s furious picking and rock-edged twang, however, leave no doubt about where she wants to take it. The crowd gets really worked up during this number. Flores, feeding off their enthusiasm, notches up her performance that much higher as the Rockabilly Filly and her band go out in a storm of classic rockabilly that is as glorious as it is authentic.
It happens only rarely, but every so often I experience the happy coincidence of selecting two back-to-back SxSW showcases in the same venue. After the Rosie Flores showcase, I took a few minutes to rest my feet while awaiting the evening’s next musical offering.
At a festival where two consecutive appearances are usually interpreted as a mark of great favor and three consecutive appearances are almost unheard of, Dash Rip Rock is the statistical outlier. With 27 consecutive SxSW appearances, the New Orleans roots-rock trio (with heavy emphasis on the “rock”) is far and away the uncrowned king of the festival and a true SxSW institution. This has already been a big year for these boys: in addition to their record-breaking SxSW appearance (breaking their own record, it should be emphasized), Dash Rip Rock was honored with induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame – no mean feat for a band hailing from one of America’s most storied and fertile musical grounds.
Guitarist/vocalist Bill Davis, bassist Patrick Johnson and drummer Kyle Melancon quickly breeze through sound check and get right to the down and dirty business of making music. From the first note, the band is a blur of frenzied fingers and drumsticks. This is a fast and furious approach to roots rock and rockabilly that, at times approaches a punk aesthetic (not to the extent of, say, The Jim Jones Review, but trending in that direction).
Their second song further refines the sound of their first number. It is a sonic ball of thunderous drumming, tight string work and shredding by Davis that would not be out of place in an 80s hair metal band, even as his minimalist vocal style again invokes the feel, if not the sound, of punk.
For the third song of the set, Dash Rip Rock tries out a new song on the audience, “I Ordered Your Voodoo Doll Today,” prefaced by Davis as a “love gone wrong” song. This, as it turns out, is something of an understatement. It is a fast country-rock song with some smart guitar hooks between verses. The lyrics are in an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek alt-country style, laced with comically graphic gems such as, “Every time I see you, it makes me want to cry. I grab another needle and stick it in your eye.”
The next song is an opportunity for the band to pay homage to their hometown while also displaying their roots music cred: a cover of “Baby, Please Don’t Go (Down to New Orleans).” Best known through versions by John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters, the song was first recorded by Big Joe Williams in 1935 but, even then, based upon older folk-blues stories.
In the hands of Dash Rip Rock, this blues standard is transformed into a masterwork of Southern Punk. The traditional ponderous acoustic guitar and mournful minor-key vocals are replaced by frenetic percussion, a flare of distorted guitar work and unstoppable bass line that charges the audience like an angry elephant. All of this, no doubt, leaves Big Joe Williams spinning in his grave – but whether out of agony or ecstasy, I am uncertain.
Davis also uses the song for some entertaining guitar antics. He begins by taking a second guitar in hand and using it to play the first, dragging the neck and body of the second guitar across the stings of the first, like the world’s most cumbersome electric violin.
It is hard to take my eyes off the second guitar. I have seen some memorable axes in my day, but this is certainly one of the most striking. The body appears to be covered in alligator hide, with the head of a small gator mounted near the neck. Setting this masterpiece of bayou ostentation down, he then picks up a cow skull, given to the band as a gift during a recent gig in Fort Worth, and uses the skull to play his guitar.
(Unable to resist learning more, after the show I talked to Davis about the alligator guitar. This distinctive instrument is the creation of an artist in Abita Springs, Louisiana (home of the justly famous Abita Brewery) named John Preble. To create the guitar, Preble took a Telecaster, covered it in a ceramic sheath and then carved it into the appearance of alligator hide. The gator head mounted on the body is, however, genuine. So, the tiny town of Abita Springs (population just over 2,000) makes two truly awesome things – great microbrews and alligator guitars (I can’t help wondering if these two products are somehow related). If any readers are interested in owning their own Gator Guitar, Preble’s website is GatorTar.com.)
For the fifth song of their set, I was overjoyed to see Davis put down his regular guitar and pick up the six-string reptilian creation. The distinctive sheath, it seems, has no adverse effect on its playability or sound quality. The name of the number is “Paint the Town Red.” Davis’s vocals on the song make me imagine George Thorogood’s long-lost brother from the Deep South. In fact, the entire number has a very strong Delaware Destroyers feel to it, with great shredding, a driving bass line from Johnson and some truly outstanding drumming from Melancon.
This is followed by a song from Dash Rip Rock’s next album, a Billy Joe Shaver tribute, scheduled to be released in a few months. The list of Billy Joe Shaver songs that would musically and thematically appeal to Dash Rip Rock is a lengthy one but, for their SxSW set, they pull out “Amtrak” a classic outlaw country anthem of good riddance to bad love. Dash Rip Rock’s interpretation features country-vocals and up-tempo honky tonk instrumentation, but with some distinctly non-country guitar work between choruses.
Like many great live acts, Dash Rip Rock are fond of adjusting lyrics to reflect the town and venue in which they are performing. Their modifications to “Amtrak,” however, include doing an almost total rewrite of an entire verse to reflect an Austin setting – and the crowd is clearly appreciative of the effort.
After the Billy Joe Shaver cover, the band returns to one of their original numbers, “Bad Dream,” a song which straddles the line between rockabilly and cowpunk, but with the strongly descriptive lyrical conventions of roots and county.
The next song, “Meet Me on the River,” is one of the band’s most popular tunes and begins with an uncharacteristically lengthy introduction from Davis, “Our whole career, we’ve been trying to write ‘the feel good hit of the summer.’ Because we’re from Louisiana, summer is all about being out on the lake in your boat. So, this is a getting fucked up on you boat song.”
In a band with a penchant for irony, “Meet Me on the River” is, lyrically, a straight forward number that delivers exactly what it promises. Musically it’s great southern rock with guitar to match – hovering somewhere between the string work of Skynyrd and BTO, with a subtle edge of rolling NOLA rock.
The ninth song in their set is a cover of ZZ Top’s “Thunderbird.” As with “Meet Me on the River,” this number begins with a long introduction in which Davis talks about the band’s admiration for ZZ Top and, in particular, for blues-rock guitar doyen Billy Gibbons. An anecdote about Davis’s own encounter with Gibbons ends with a reference to the fact that the ZZ Top front man is about to launch his own line of BBQ sauces.
The Dash Rip Rock take on “Thunderbird” is both enjoyable and distinctive. In the same manner as their version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” they put a distinctive stamp on the material rather than merely imitating the original. Dash Rip Rock’s “Thunderbird” pulls out the trademark heavy blues influence of the bearded threesome and replaces it with equally thunderous straight-up rockabilly. This change in style, however, does not change any of the fury or great guitar histrionics of the original.
And, if you are interested in adding a taste of Billy Gibbons to your next barbeque or cookout, check out his website.
For their next number, Dash Rip Rock reaches far back into their vault for “Endeavor,” a song from their 1991 release, Boiled Alive. Intentionally or not, this selection highlights the evolution of the band’s sound, beginning with a slow introduction that sounds more like 60s pop than rockabilly and cowpunk fury. It is a subdued number. Davis’s mellow vocals, with just a hint of Bob Dylan, float above equally mellow instrumentation. And, rather than the joyfully irreverent and off-color lyrics of alt-country or cowpunk, the song is filled with poetic musings such as, “Breathe the Southern wind and talk of who I am. Yes, since I’m a man,” that could have come from the hand of Ronnie Van Zant.
With “Leave Me Alone to My Bottle,” Dash Rip Rock moves seamlessly back to frantic rockabilly. A special shout out on this number belongs to Patrick Johnson. Rarely have I seen a bassist’s fingers move so quickly, especially when he or she is not taking a lead line (which gives some indication of what the guitar work on this song looks and sounds like).
The twelfth song of Dash Rip Rock’s set begins with another set up from Davis, “I don’t like to travel. I was in Helsinki, Finland and I wrote this song called ‘Bum Fuck Egypt.’”
This number belongs to the classic category of country songs detailing the hardships of life on the road – albeit with more blistering speed and a more international scope that most specimens of genre. It is a catchy song with some nice percussion hooks and, again, offers a slightly more mellow presentation of Davis’s voice. But, in typical Dash Rip Rock fashion, the guitar gets louder and more rocking as the song progresses.
Dash Rip Rock’s set concludes with a rapid fire, punk-informed rockabilly tune called, “Shake that Girl,” featuring memorable old-school rock lyrics and fabulous vocal work by Davis. While it would hard to call any Dash Rip Song “typical” this one is a good choice to cap the set, reflecting the signature elements of their sound and style.
For decades, Dash Rip Rock has showcased how much versatility can be packed into just a few genres. They may not have become a household name but they have a won a core of devoted followers with their piss and vinegar presentation of punk-wrapped roots rock and rockabilly. Omens are good that they are on track to break their own record with a 28th consecutive SxSW appearance in 2013.
For the final showcase of the evening, I find myself again hightailing it from one end of downtown to the other — this time with no conveniently placed deity in a pedicab to lend assistance. My final destination for the night is Headhunters, a charmingly divey venue on Austin’s charmingly divey Red River Street. The object of my quest is San Antonio’s Piñata Protest, as fine of an example of Latin Punk as one could ever hope to see. As a genre, Latin Punk is both well-established and has a lengthy pedigree but, alas, remains under-acknowledged and under-covered by English-language music journalists.
Although my travel time from the western edge of downtown means I miss about half of Piñata Protest’s showcase, what I do see makes my hurried trip well worth it. Walking into the venue, I am greeted by the blistering trumpet strains of “La Cucaracha,” rewritten as a punk song with copious drug references in the lyrics, accentuated by “toking” gestures from the band throughout the piece.
Piñata Protest is a four-piece, consisting of lead vocalist Alvaro Del Norte (who also handles accordion and trumpet duties) and three instrumentalists/backup vocalists: guitarist Matt Cazares, bassist Marcus Cazares and drummer JJ Martinez.
The band is blessed with an exceedingly enthusiastic and loyal set of fans, dubbed Piñateros and Piñateras. Halfway through the band’s set, the front half of the venue is engulfed in a healthy mosh pit complete with a crowd-surfer. And, in a crowd this keyed up, this is a brave, brave man.
In case you’re wondering, successfully turning a 19th century folk ballad such as “La Cucaracha” into punk rock takes four things: a lot imagination, at least a dash of music theory, some serious musical chops, and a giant set of cahones. Piñata Protest would seem to be equipped with all four.
For multiple reasons, instrumentation is one of the most noteworthy dimensions to this song. The trumpet adds, obviously, an unusual note to punk, but not an unfitting one. Its capacity to generate powerful notes full of loud, brazen volume fits well into the genre’s attitude and aesthetic. And, before this moment, I’ve never seen a man angrily play the accordion. But, throughout the number, there is Del Norte strong-arming his instrument into making incredible sounds, this is the first blush of my love affair with accordion at SxSW 2012. Martinez is an impressive drummer, supplying much of the raw power for the song, the rest of the outfit seeming to mainline power from his work.
I believe the second song I witnessed was introduced as the “D Song.” Again, it is serious punk rock, driven by melody on the accordion and backed by thunderous drums and ambitious string work. As Piñata Protest launches into the number, the crowd’s enthusiasm appears to elevate even more. Again, my eyes are drawn to Del Norte’s instrumental work. Handling his piano accordion like he’s choking it rather than playing it, I am amazed at how fast he can coax notes out of the instrument.
The song features an oddly melodic interlude, during which Piñata Protest dials back the pace and volume slightly, before returning to their full intensity acoustic attack. The lyrics on this song blend English and Spanish. While some of Piñata Protest’s numbers are entirely in Spanish, most, appropriately for a band hailing from San Antonio, are a well crafted blend (though, sadly, this does curtail my ability to comment on lyrics).
The next song, called “Cold Fries,” is introduced by Del Norte explaining, “This is a song about going to grandmother’s and getting drunk.” Even if nothing else about the show had panned out, that one sentence would have made being there worth it. I think it is a sentence that could only have come from a South Texas punk band.
While definitely in punk and rock and roll territory, melodically “Cold Fries” also draws upon South Texas Tejano music, especially the accordion lines. A more general Latin rock influence is reflected in its tempo and pacing. I also notice that, in those rare moments when he’s not doing obligatory punk rock “wall of volume” screaming, Del Norte’s voice can be disturbingly reminiscent of Billy Joe Armstrong.
The final song of their set is entitled “Life on the Border.” It begins with a slow intro on the accordion, the pace almost lackadaisical compared to their previous songs. But it quickly builds in tempo and volume before the rest of the band joins in on what is, unmistakably, an Irish folk melody, informed by Tejano musical traditions and performed through the lens of punk rock – adding up to venue-shaking mash-up of the Drop Kick Murphys and Intocable. Throughout the song, Del Norte lets off some of his best accordion riffs of the entire showcase (though, hell, I don’t even know if “riffs” is the appropriate term on an accordion).
In addition to great music, Piñata Protest is a significant band for several reasons (though I don’t know how punk musicians would feel about be called “significant”). The band offers a distinctive and compelling variation on punk with which many listeners will be unfamiliar — but as music’s demographics shift along with our nation’s, one they can expect to hear more often in coming years. Through their use of accordion and trumpet they push the boundaries of what punk is expected to be. And they blend a good-time vibe with serious punk rock in a way that only a few other bands, such as the previously invoked Drop Kick Murphy, manage to pull off.
ELSEWHERE AT SxSW:
* Cleveland’s Whiskey Daredevils brought their unabashed and uncompromising brand of rock ‘n’ roll and cowpunk to audiences at Soho Lounge.
*Guitar Virtuoso Ian Moore performed with The Lossy Coils at Skinny’s Ballroom.
*Multi-talented musician and artist R. Stevie Moore showcased his concept-driven version of rock at the Whiskey Room.
* Nashville rock/folk/roots/songwriting ensemble The Kopecky Family Band appeared at Beal Street Tavern.
*Southern soul rockers Thomas Wynn and the Believers blasted out the Empire Automotive Stage.
* London noise-poppers Bitches played at Headhunters while, on the east side, their titular nemesis Heartless Bastards rocked-out Club 606.
(Jon Black is an Austin-based music journalist who shares the stories of musicians and their music from country, blues, roots, rock, Cajun, zydeco, and even punk. Follow him on Twitter @BlackonBlues.)