When I first set foot on the street for any given night of South by Southwest, I never know what exactly the evening has in store for me. Sure, I have a list of bands I want to see, but that’s not the same thing as knowing what to expect. Friday night of SxSW 2011, as I walked towards downtown Austin from our parking space (located somewhere, I believe in southern Oklahoma) with my houseguest, camerawoman and sounding board, Nicole, I experienced that delicious sensation, which I always associate with SxSW, that the night, musically, could contain anything. As it turned out, it was an evening full of hard-edged acts, great punk and punk-influenced bands, memorable street performances — and a few things that defy easy description.
SHILPA RAY AND HER HAPPY HOOKERS
Brooklyn’s Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers are unquestionably the world’s best punk band featuring a harmonium (a bellows-operated keyboard instrument, which reached the peak of its popularity in the 19th century, and that sounds rather like an accordion’s pretentious uncle). Since they are probably also the world’s only punk band featuring a harmonium, however, it’s better to say that are delightfully talented high-energy punk outfit that gives a truly memorable live show.
Ray has enormously engaging stage presence, waves of intensity radiating off of her outwards into the audience, her face often a distorted mask of manic energy. While her vocals occasionally segue into sassy spoken work or fits of Screamo fury, Ray’s voice is best characterized as a mix of the grit and gravel expected of a punk singer that can also deliver a more atypical velvety smoothness. In fact, she sounds like nothing so much as a female Jim Morrison with a hint of a young Patti Smith … often delivered with the onstage fury of Jerry Lee Lewis.
The Morrison comparison is poignant one. Collectively, the sound of Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hooks is a pendulum swinging between The Doors and the sound of a circa 1980 East Coast underground punk club. Addictive power percussion is supplied courtesy of drummer John Adamski. Bassist Nick Hundley and guitarist Andrew Bailey deliver a smart, boisterous sound that is equally fluent with both edges of the band’s sound and add occasional moments invoking indie or space rock.
Many punk performers seem unable to disengage between from their “in your face and mad at the world” persona between songs – which, while sometimes an enjoyable bit of theatre, can also become a little tiresome. One of the most endearing elements of Ray is her pleasant, unpretentious and very genuine demeanor as she interacts with the audience between songs – a stark contrast to her often aggressive, high-impact performance style. Similarly, for a band that is often so hard-edged, the Happy Hookers unabashedly and unselfconsciously enjoy themselves on stage. It’s rare to see a band with this much grounding in classic punk whose members will smile on stage.
The harmonium, sadly and ironically, was my only tangible disappointment with the band. It is employed frequently and certainly adds to their strong, full sound. But, for most of the show, it remains just one more part of their instrumental ensemble. Shipla Ray and Her Happy Hookers are far too talented and enjoyable to need a “hook” to get attention — but, it seems to me, that if you are going to include an obscure 19th century instrument in a punk band … it might as well be put front and center as often as possible. That is very much a minor thing, harmonium or no harmonium, Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers are one of the most enjoyable and innovative punk acts I have seen in a very long time.
THE YIDDISH COWBOYS
I will freely admit that, for as long as I have been attending SxSW, a unique, humorous or just plain bizarre band name can be enough to draw to my to a show, regardless of other factors. So, when I see The Yiddish Cowboys on the Thursday schedule, I immediately pencil them in for the 9:00 slot. This, as it turns out is fortuitous, in addition to good music, I discovered a valuable SxSW survival tip.
In addition to a plethora of bars, dance clubs and outdoor stages, SxSW perennial venues include two historic downtown Austin churches, St. David’s Episcopal and Central Presbyterian. Not surprisingly, these venues typically showcase more polished, well-heeled and quieter acts than typical SxSW fare. Yiddish Cowboys were performing at St. David’s and, in a decade of SxSW adventures, this was the first time I had ventured into either Church (which probably says more about me than it does about the venues).
In stark contrast to most SxSW venues, the churches offer clean restrooms, comfortable places to sit and powerful air conditioning. St. David’s also features good food and even beer — which for a church in Texas (even Austin) seems, well, miraculous. So, the next time you need an island of sanity in your SxSW experience, my advice is to make for one of these two, um, sanctuaries.
The Austin-based Yiddish Cowboys play traditional Yiddish klezmer and klezmer-inspired music with an occasional Texas twist. The Cowboys are Michael Drapkin on clarinet and vocals, Zheyna Rock on vocals, guitar, accordion and (what I believe was) balalaika, Rob Jewett on standing bass and Wayne Duncan on drums. They are attired mostly in smart street clothes (and one deliciously gaudy western shirt) with a liberal sprinkling of cowboy hats. Their songs are contemporary renditions of traditional Klezmer, as well as European-rooted folk music more generally.
On of their most memorable pieces is “Misirlou,” a traditional Greek song that is most widely known from the surf-rock infused cover by Dick Dale included in the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack. Amazingly, sans the slack surf guitar, the Yiddish Cowboy’s much more traditional rendition doesn’t really feel all that different from the well known cover … retaining a wild latent energy. The slow, powerful tones of clarinet really highlight the song’s exotic origins as does the intricate and intense balalaika work.
Another standout in Yiddish Cowboys’ set is “Moscow Nights.” Although the original only dates from 1955, it is so strongly rooted in traditional Russian folk music that it is often included, with little objection from purists, among more period appropriate selections. The Yiddish Cowboys’ version of “Moscow Nights” adds a swanky, lounge music sound that blends compellingly into its original roots. Instrumentally, it is one of the Cowboy’s most memorable numbers, the work of Drapkin on Clarinet and Rock on accordion call to mind images of smoky European bars from another decade. Jewett adds some power to the number with powerful bass work. More than anything else, the number is carried by Rock’s smooth, cool vocal work.
Their final number, “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be (Yiddish) Cowboys,” is one of their most memorable. Obviously based on the country classic first recorded by Ed Bruce but now indelibly associated with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the Yiddish Cowboy’s tongue-in-cheek version adjusts the lyrics to poke gentle fun at some of the stereotypes of their Yiddish roots. Consider the chorus:
“Mamas, don’t let your sons become Yiddish Cowboys.
Why don’t they ever heed their mothers, be
Doctors and lawyers just like their big brothers?
Mamas, don’t let your sons become Yiddish Cowboys.
They should be at home, not living alone. Home with the ones they love.”
Granted, it is not the most musically tight or inspiring version of this country classic ever performed, but that’s not really the point. It is highly amusing and the band takes obvious pleasure in a number that blends together both strands of their moniker.
With a name as distinctive as “Yiddish Cowboys,” it’s hard not to wish this band would build further on the idea behind “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be (Yiddish) Cowboys” and delve into exploring of a true klezmer/country fusion. Between a common emphasis on minor chords and scales, similarity in instrumentation and (within reason) shared thematic elements, there would seem to be enough overlap between these two genres to make a fusion workable. I don’t know if the world needs “Klezmer & Western” music … but it would certainly make things more interesting.
Gram Rabbit hails from the lonely, Mojave Desert community of Joshua Tree, California. Something about the stark, lonely windswept places of the world, whether it’s the high plains of Texas or the deserts of California, seems to breed great (and highly idiosyncratic) musicians – and Gram Rabbit fits well into that tradition.
Gram Rabbit’s music is reminiscent of fellow Cali rockers No Doubt — if their sound had was rooted in prog rock rather than 1990s alt-rock. The No Doubt analogy is further strengthened by vocalist/keyboardist Jesika von Rabbit, whose Suicide Girl pin-up appearance and sharp ethereal voice invoke Gwyn Stefani from her pre-pop and 100% rocker days. Rabbit, however, marks the beginning rather than the end of Gram Rabbit’s gifted and distinctive lineup.
Vocalist and bassist Todd Rutherford adds another talented and unique set of pipes to the band, with a range and vocal versatility that calls to mind Rusted Root’s Michael Glabicki. Guitarist Ethan Allen, clad in all black and wearing a wide-brim cowboy hat, looks one part Johnny Cash and one part Stevie Ray Vaughn. His string work, however, emphasizes indie rock, progressive rock, psychedelic and even (during the band’s occasional slow bridges or transitions) ambient influences. Whether furiously up-tempo or slower and more sonorous, Allen’s guitar is tight, commanding and magnificent.
Drummer Hayden Scott helps center Gram Rabbit’s sound around his hard, fast indie-rock beats.
Bands face a variety of tradeoffs when making decisions about their sound. Acts that blend a range of influences with a high-energy, high volume sound often pay a price when it comes to tightness and precision. Gram Rabbit, by contrast, retains an amazing tightness throughout their show, suggesting either considerable inherent talent, extensive practice or both.
While the band’s showcase was consistently delightful, a few numbers were especially noteworthy. “Hyena,” laden with vocal effects invoking the eponymous animal, begins and is driven forward by deliciously grinding guitar work by Allan, high profile and almost hypnotic bass lines by Rutherford and also showcases some of Rabbit and Rutherford’s best duet work.
If “Off with Your Head” leans a bit more towards alt-pop than the rest of Gram Rabbit’s typically edgier oeuvre, it can be forgiven in what is one of the band’s most memorable and hook-laden numbers. It is also the song where the similarities between von Rabbit and “Tragic Kingdom” era Gwyn Stefani are most apparent: with von Rabbit belting out delightful sweet-yet-sharp vocals as she bounces around stage radiating energy. And if “Off With Your Head” sounds too upbeat and poppy to be a Gram Rabbit song, just take a minute to listen the lyrics.
During their final number, which I believe was “Candy Flip” (In the dark venue, your reviewer admits his notes got a little out of order), the band was joined onstage by giant rabbit (well, to be accurate, someone in a rabbit costume). Watching a giant white rabbit dance and gyrate around stage as the band plays on, the latent surreal and psychedelic quality inherent in Gram Rabbit’s music becomes front and center. Most bands couldn’t pull something like that off without distracting from the must or injecting an unwanted cheese factor into the performance.
Gram Rabbit pulls it off with panache – adding to rather than distracting from the overall impact of their powerful drumming, great electronic effects and wailing vocals. “Of course there’s a person in a bunny suit on stage,” I can’t help but think, “Why wouldn’t there be? Why wasn’t it here before?”
If 60 years of rock and roll have taught us nothing else, they have taught us that a band that can successfully pull off putting someone in a bunny suit on stage – they can probably accomplish anything they want.
RETURN OF THE STREET BANDS
After Gram Rabbit, it was time to hoof it, again, all the way across downtown to Momo’s, where the previous night we had previously been wowed by the West African/rock and roll fusion of Khaira Arby. This evening, the attraction was roots rock/blues rock powerhouses The North Mississippi Allstars. Upon reaching the venue, we found a line that stretched out the door, down the sidewalk and around the corner of the building – even longer than the line for Those Darlins had been. We could hear the heavy duty sounds of the Allstar’s jam band approach to roots rock blasting out of the club door — but not with the kind of sound quality that would allow me to credibly report on their performance (too say nothing of not being able to actually see them). After the line had not moved appreciably in fifteen minutes we, reluctantly, decided to call it quits and move back in the direction of our next show.
On the corner of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue, we encountered a large crowd gathered around a trio of Marimbas belting out a medley of traditional, world music and contemporary sounds. I admit that, prior to SxSW 2011, the Marimba was not an instrument to which I had given a great deal thought – basically considering it a big, exotic xylophone. My experiences with Columbian group Herencia de Timbuqi on Thursday night had given me cause to examine the instrument in a new light … perceptions that were further reinforced by this trio performing under streetlight.
The marimba’s ability to serve multiple roles in a band was something I begun to notice during Herencia di Timbuqi’s performance. But watching three of them at once really underscored that versatility. The central marimba player hammered our fast-paced melodious lead lines on his instruments. His companions, playing the same instrument, supplied equally compelling harmony and bass lines as well as percussion effects. It is fascinating to watch a single type of instrument filling niches that, in a conventional rock band, would typical require guitar, electric bass and drums. I have worked hard trying to indentify this band but, thus far, without success.
Further down Congress Avenue, we find ourselves engulfed in a flurry of brass and percussion sound as we encounter another street band worth of attention, Best Best Best Friends. The band (who I will henceforth refer to as BBBF, mostly so my spell checker with stop going crazy every time I try to type “best” three times in a row) play dirty street brass — and play it very well. “Dirty,” in this context, is not a reference to their content but, rather, to a certain rough-hewn energy and scrappy improvisational style in their sound. This Austin-based septet roar out marching band music, New Orleans style jazz and Dixieland – delivered with edges of rock, funk and blues.
As we begin watching, BBBF’s performance is accompanied by a dazzling group of street dancers who, based on their frequent chanting of “Who Dat,” I assume are from New Orleans. Their raw, wild moves compliment BBBF’s music so well that, at first, I assume the two groups are associated. But, when dancers finally move off down the street, it becomes clear that it was simply one of those delightful and spontaneous concoctions that the sheer concentration of talent at SxSW sometimes produces.
As any serious music fan knows, in the 21st century. great music in any genre can come from anywhere. Nevertheless, it would unrealistic to say that certain regions don’t have a certain knack for producing great artists in a particular style or genre. In my experience, the best dirty street brass, unsurprisingly, still comes out of New Orleans. BBBF is, however, easily the best non-New Orleans street brass I have ever heard and could easily hold their own against most of their Big Easy peers.
BBBF’s vocals, often a weak spot in the genre, are as deliciously gravely and passionate, sometimes bordering on percussive shouts — and is equally tight as their brass. Instrumentally, their trumpet work is especially compelling, bringing a swanky blues sound to Louis Armstrong style chops that let them get the most of their outdoor performance space.
Just as we are about to tear ourselves away and move onto the next show, BFFF breaks into the full brassy glory of Dixieland’s most iconic song — “When the Saints Go Marching In,” as they begin to march eastward down Sixth Street. Who in their right mind wouldn’t have followed along for that?
DESCARTES A KANT
When you’re a musical journalist who dabbles in philosophy, you can’t really say “no” to a band named Descartes a Kant. This band, out of Guadalajara, Mexico specializes in high volume punk delivered with techno influences — delivered via a demented stage show that is much performance art as musical performance.
I arrive at the large open air stage a little after Descartes a Kant’s showcase has already begun and am immediately greeted with a powerful extended drum solo — before keyboard and strings invade with a sound that is one part punk, one part speed metal and one part evil circus music. The band’s three women are attired in red satin party dresses; the three men in black suits, top hats and red bowtie. All six sport white makeup in the fashion of some demented harlequin or psychotic mime out of nightmare.
There next song begins with a 1980s power rock guitar solo before moving into progressive punk laced with electronic effects and sampling. The women’s stage performance during this number is includes Supremes-style stage moves and synchronized gestures that really drive home the impression that Descartes a Kant’s live performance is as much theatre as music. It also sets up a beautiful contrast between these motifs associated with more lighthearted genres and the dark manic energy that drives Descartes a Kant’s sound.
Another memorable number in the set invokes a similar juxtaposition as band members don paper birthday party hats and make generous uses of upbeat-sounding samples for a song laced with speed metal, frenetic keyboard playing and dissonant minor chords
Watching Descartes a Kant on stage is both incredibly enjoyable and delightfully disturbing. This is definitely a band that is at its finest during a live show. That having been said, even apart from the onstage theatre, they are an impressive musical group.
Their discordant, sometimes a-melodic “wall of noise” approach to progressive punk is not one with universal appeal — but it is flawlessly executed. And, unlike many other bands in the progressive punk genre, Descartes a Kant’s frequent explosions of hyperkinetic volume are, musically, quite tight and masterful.
On a final coda to Descartes a Kant, I have heard that the band had a rough night the following evening as they were played a second showcase at venue Mi Casa Cantina. It needs to be noted that all my information is second hand but, if I understand correctly, the venue managements got upset because a few people were moshing (it’s a punk band, what did they expect?). Later, when, as part of their stage show, Descartes a Kant tossed out glitter and sprayed shaving cream – the venue pulled the plug on the show and expelled everyone, performers and audience, from the venue. If anyone from Descartes a Kant is reading this, I hope this experience won’t sour you on Austin or SxSW.
THE JIM JONES REVUE
For the final show of the evening, I was sorely tempted to relive my 1980s childhood by checking out the Men Without Hats reunion show. Ultimately, however, I was seduced by the sound and fury of the Jim Jones Revue from London, UK. The location for the show is Emo’s, a much loved (and delightfully seedy) club on the corner of Sixth Street and Red River Avenue. Despite the name, for many years, Emo’s has been the heart and soul of Austin’s punk scene.
For a music journalist, the challenges posed by The Jim Jones Revue are twofold: first, doing justice to their unique approach to music; second, getting all the way through reviewing a band whose lead singer is (really) named Jim Jones without making any of the obvious jokes.
This striking five-piece, comprised of two guitars, electric bass, key board and drums, looks like your archetypical rockabilly band … with just a touch of glam (mostly on Jones himself). Their music is roots rock and rockabilly stripped down to its bare essentials … and rebuilt in the style of hardcore and punk. In fact, The Jim Jones Revue sounds like nothing so much as the bastard love children of Jerry Lee Lewis and Henry Rollins.
As such, two of the key concepts behind this band are “energy” and “volume.” From first guitar note to the last symbol crash, the members of the band are a constant blur of motions as they thrash and jump around the stage – even the keyboardist and drummer. Guitars, bass and keyboard deliver a steady onslaught of irresistible, grinding rockabilly – sped up and with the volume turned way past 11. The screaming volleys of Jim Jones’s vocals and explosive percussion of drummer Nick Jones, in turn, are grounded in an aesthetic that is more punk or hardcore.
When the band blows out an amplifier on their second song, my biggest surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner.
For lyrics and subject matter, however, the Revue cleaves closely to their rockabilly roots. Songs like the delightfully brazen “Shoot First,” histrionic “High Horse,” and rollickingly demented “Elemental,” gloriously dark “Rock and Roll Psychosis,” and moody “Killin’ Spree” are all in the tradition of classic rockabilly and roots rock — delivered with an added edge of irony and darkness. A special favorite of the crowd at Emo’s, delivered in a slightly more conventional rockabilly fashion is “Texas 512,” a song about Austin.
In addition to the power of Jones’ wild, captivating vocals, the Revue is packed with talented musicians. Drummer Jones packs more energy and heart into one song than most drummers can do in three. It is amazing that guitarist Rupert Orton and bassist Gavin Jay deliver such impressive precision in their playing, especially considering their constant motion. And the tour de force rockabilly and barrel house keyboard work of Andrew Higley may mark him as one of the most talented keyboardists I have ever seen. In fact, the only thing making me wish The Revue would occasionally dial back the volume just a little bit is my desire to pay more attention to Higley’s playing.
At the end of the day, The Jim Jones Revue is undeniably roots and rockabilly in the classic style – and blisteringly excellent roots and rockabilly. It is, however, a classic sound that has been rebuilt and re-imagined for a generation raised on a harder edged fare. And in that successful reincarnation is more than a hint of both genius and madness. When it comes to The Jim Jones Revue, this writer has definitely drunk the Kool-Aid.
ELSEWHERE AT SxSW:
* Denton, TX-based pop-punk Grammy nominees Bowling for Soup performed a concert on the shores of Lady Bird Lake (the name Austinites insist on giving to the portion of the Colorado River running through downtown).
* Country powerhouse Terry Clark showcased at Stephen F’s Bar in the historic Driskill Hotel.
* Perennially popular Japan Night at Elysium brought together some of that nation’s best (and occasionally most inexplicable) rock, pop, punk and funk – all commendably committed to proving the show must go on in spite of the recent disaster.
* The Lost Highway/BMI showcase at The Moody Theatre brought together talent as diverse as Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Hayes Carll, Robert Earl Keen and Lucinda Williams.
* You could dance (if you want to) to the Men Without Hats reunion show at Club de Ville.
* Austin’s roots-rockin’ Mother Truckers trucked through The Continental Club.
* Philadelphia, PA punk favorites, Reading Rainbow, rocked Antones.
* Critically acclaimed hard rockers, TaranistT (out of Tehran, Iran) showed that, in some places, rock is still the voice of revolution.
* Punk/indie/trash rock legend Texas Terri Bomb and The Hot Things (now based in Berlin) brought her unforgettable live show to Karma Lounge.
* Italian rockers Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! brought all four exclamation points to their high volume performance at BD Riley’s.