Jon Black, our resident musicologist and damn fine writer, attended this year’s South by Southwest music fest in Austin and has been sharing his unique and learned observations with us over the past month. He’s covered a big chunk of the musical spectrum from country, Irish rock, Tennessee garage rock, worldbeat, punk, street music, Texas klezmer … the list goes on and on. If you missed the previous reviews, read them here: Day One – Day Two – Day Three.
This is his fourth and final installment. Enjoy! [Editor]
Saturday, March 19 was the final night of SxSW 2011. It was also, as many of you may recall, the night of the Supermoon — a full moon coinciding with the moon’s closet approach to Earth. While such ideas always have a ring of the Medieval to me, my friends who work in medicine, law enforcement or social services tend to insist that, yes, the full moon really does bring out the crazies. So it was not surprising that certain sources put forth the idea that the Supermoon was going to be a gateway to pandemonium.
While my general skepticism remains intact, it is also hard to argue that the final night of SxSW 2011 featured more chaos, disorder and madness (and I don’t mean the 1980s ska band) than I remember in a decade of attending SxSW. In the evening’s most dramatic example, fans angry about being unable to get in to a show by Toronto rock duo Death From Above 1979 tore down a perimeter fence at venue and crashed the show — requiring a mounted detachment of the Austin Police Department to step in and restore order. Fortunately (for my sanity) or unfortunately (for bringing you exciting coverage) my schedule for the evening kept me well clear of most such incidents.
BLACK TOP DEMON
My first review for the final night of SxSW 2011 actually begins a year ago. On Thursday night of SxSW 2010, after the last showcase had ended, I was wandering down Red River Avenue towards my car with the sounds of Hayes Carll still ringing in my ears. I passed by a young man playing guitar and bass drum on the sidewalk. At SxSW that is hardly an exceptional event and I might have kept on walking but, before I was out of earshot, he burst into John Lee Hooker’s “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom” delivered with the voice of a blues master. I immediately turned around and was enthralled by a series of beautiful blues covers and excellent original material performed in a classic rock/blues fusion.
This young man was Joe Ty, the front man for Olympia, Washington’s Black Top Demon, which had earned a showcase at SxSW 2010. There was, however, a problem. Ty was the only member of Black Top Demon who had made it to the festival. In an incident the decisively established the band’s blues credentials, the rest of Black Top Demon had been arrested on their way to Austin while traveling in a decommissioned police car.
So it is with considerable delight that I notice Black Top Demon on the schedule for Saturday night of this year’s festival. If Ty was such a striking solo act, I can only image what Black Top Demon must sound like in its full glory?
The venue for the Black Top Demon show is BD Riley’s, a fixture in Austin’s minor galaxy of Irish and “Irish-ish” pubs — lending the showcase a small, intimate feel that leaves me unsure about how well it will mix with Black Top Demon’s blues thunder. As it turns out, however, my fears are unfounded. The venue works perfectly with Black Top Demon’s unpretentious “come as you are … we did” performance style.
For their 2011 showcase, the band puts more of their original material into the lineup than I had witnessed in 2010. While the blues junkie in me is, admittedly, a little disappointed — it is also an excellent opportunity to see what Black Top Demon is really about.
Front man Ty has an intriguing and complex stage presence – a physically imposing man graced with an earnestly pleasant face and disposition. He is also a solid, enjoyable guitarist both classic rock and blues styles. But it is as a vocalist that Ty is a truly formidable artist. At his finest, Ty’s blues vocals are those of Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnet. I don’t mean that in a “they are reminiscent of Burnet” sort of way, but rather in a “if you close your eyes, you think Howlin’ Wolf is back from the dead — run, it’s a zombie bluesman” sort of way. For Black Top Demon’s original material, Ty packs his voice with the edge of a veteran ‘80s garage rocker.
Also impressive is drummer Ian Pearson, who brings enormous passion to his drum work as well as a talent for blending the roots and garage rock threads in the band’s sound style into a single percussion style.
Black Top Demon may not be highly innovative or breaking new musical ground. That does not, however, seem to be their goal. What they do, they do delightfully – and delightfully well — taking the pedigree of American blues and roots rock, the wild energy of garage and 80s rock and adding their own irresistible stamp to the mixture. And, while there is little that is explicitly country in their sound or material, there may be a certain country attitude to Black Top Demon (for further information, I invite you to check out their featured video at http://www.myspace.com/blacktopdemon/videos).
Three things can be said with certainty said about Bajzel: he is from Poland, he is a carbon-based life form and he plays music. Beyond that, things get fuzzy.
As we walk into the Parish Underground for his showcase, the one-man band (whose moniker translates roughly as “big mess”) was shredding on the most extensively modded guitar I have ever seen — with a virtual forest of effects pedals at this feet.
I few witnessed few artists whose sound is so challenging to truly encapsulate. At its core, it is dissonant guitar-driven space rock that invokes a fusion of Deep Purple and Kraftwerk … spiced with Hendrix-style histrionics and the manic energy of Primus. His music is also a celebration of electronic special effects. The thick cloud of distortion, echo and reverb orbiting his guitar work are just the beginning. Bajzel unlocks potential on the guitar of which most artists never dream. Mixed in with this idiosyncratic style is the odd nod to popular music, such as incorporating the opening guitar strains of Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” into an otherwise unrelated number.
And, in between his music experimentation and elaborate sound effects, Bajzel packs in enough just enough straight-up guitar rock to show he has the chops to be great conventional guitarist … if he wanted to
His voice, at is core, seems more conventional that his string work – pipes that would be well suited to power pop or Europop. But Bajzel puts the same discordant and highly experimental twist on his vocals as he does his instrumental and effects work.
For a reviewer raised in the ‘80s, there is also a of “Doctor Demento Show” feel to Bajzel’s music. Though, of course, unlike humor and parody-driven artists on the Dr. Demento roster, Bajzel’s musical experiments are in earnest and, at the core, he is a far more sophisticated performer than most Demento artists.
On his final song of the showcase, Bajzel bursts of the stage and begins running around the audience. It takes a second to notice that his guitar work and vocals are still blaring from the main stage — having set his guitar cum special effects studio on live loop. That simultaneously inspired and iconoclastic act seems to embody Bajzel’s performance style and approach to music.
Bajzel is not one of those bold (albeit often unlistenable) visionaries seeking to redefine our understanding of music. He is, however, utterly devoted to exploring and developing an intensely personal and idiosyncratic sound. It is a sound that seems unlikely to find lasting mass-market appeal, but some connoisseurs and music theorists will no doubt find immense artistic and intellectual stimulation by traveling along with him on his journey.
It is an unspoken convention of music journalism that any coverage of a blues musician must begin with a nearly Homeric biographical introduction. In the case of Bobby Rush, such and introduction is well warranted — for Rush is a veteran bluesman in the classic mold. Born in Homer, Louisiana in 1935, Rush’s earliest musical escapades were with the diddly-bow … an improvised single-string instrument that is almost ubiquitous in the lore of great Delta blues musicians. Rush later became a friend and protégé of the great Elmore James. His career as a front man began to take off in the 1970s … and his powerful voice and inspired harmonica work have made him a fixture on America’s blues scene ever since. Today, Rush resides in one of the great meccas of American roots music, Jackson, Mississippi.
Rush, arguably the highest profile blues musician on the 2011 SxSW roster, performed to capacity crowd at the Hilton Garden. Every aspect of Rush’s music and performance is delightful but his most irresistible gift is rich beautiful Delta Voice. His vocals and lyrics are also in the classic Delta style — more spoken word than singing and utilizing the traditional A, A, B lyrical scheme of blues. But Rush is also a commanding instrumentalist, with soaring, melodious harmonica work fueled by a seemingly inexhaustible lung capacity. His vocals and harmonica are accented with a little bit of home-grown percussion provided by Rush’s fancy-footwork stomping.
Rush’s songs at the showcase include a mixture of traditional blues material repackaged with a distinctive Bobby Rush stamp as well as original material. Much of Rush’s original songs pack a noticeable soul or even funk spin onto a base of Delta blues. In whatever style, Rush is a true master of blues lyrical and storytelling conventions. To cite one of my favorite examples, few lyrical devices are as archetypically blues as “the automobile as sexual metaphor” (this device, of course, has often been adopted by country and rock – though seldom so delightfully or so explicitly in blues) and Rush uses it beautifully. Consider:
“Baby, I can’t drive your automobile.
Baby, I just can’t drive your automobile
You got a cute little car, but you got too many drivers behind the wheel.”
The most remarkable part of the showcase, however, occurred after Rush’s final song had been played. In attendance at the show was Joe Willie “Pinetop Perkins.” The 97 year-old Perkins is arguably the greatest blues pianist who has ever lived and a rare direct connection to the first generation of great Delta bluesmen. The professional association between Perkins and Rush stretches back more than sixty years. When the master of ceremonies expressed his appreciation for Perkins’ attendance, Perkins looked at Rush and said, “I love you, little brother.”
Pinetop Perkins passed away at his home in Austin on the Monday following the showcase. Looking back at his remark to Rush, it is impossible not to feel that I was witnessed a passing of the torch in America’s musical history. (NY Times obituary of Perkins.)
Of all the major genres represented at SxSW, jazz is the one on which I have spent the least time. Sure, I’ve seen a few shows here and there over the years: some old-school New Orleans style bands, a lounge act or two as well as the occasional avant garde ensemble hailing from some distant city such as Paris, St. Petersburg or Tokyo. But it has never been a major focus of my SxSW outings. As part of my attempt to capture the full diversity of SxSW in these reviews, however, the time had come for a serious exploration of jazz at SxSW.
Our destination was The Elephant Room, the festival’s perennial jazz stage and, for the rest of the year, one of the city’s premier jazz venues. Rarely are a venue and genre mated so perfectly. Located in the basement of an early 20th century office building, the dark, warm space is decorated in a fashion that is one party swanky, one part quirky. The intimate, smallish stage is located at the far end of the venue. Close to the stage, tightly packed tables and chairs encourage intense contemplation of the music – further away, they are invitation to hushed conversation on weighty matters against a backdrop of ambient musical sounds. Unlike many jazz clubs, the Elephant Room’s bar is stocked to welcome all comers – from hearty microbrews to an excellent wine selection to cocktails that are as well mixed as they are potent.
We arrived just in time for a showcase by Elias Haslanger and his ensemble. This young Austin musician is one of the rising stars of the sometimes underappreciated Texas jazz scene. Blowing a smoothly masterful tenor sax, Haslanger invites comparisons to a contemporary John Coltrane. His sound is modern enough to have cerebral as well as emotional appeal, but not so progressive, experimental or avant garde as to leave non-cognoscenti (which, when it comes to jazz, certainly includes your reviewer) without a musical leg to stand on.
If it is Haslanger’s sax that allows the ensemble to soar, it is the standing base that roots the band – steady, unstoppable notes that are beautiful in their simplicity. The space between sax and bass is filled with excellent jazz percussion (with the occasional mandatory bit of syncopation) as well as brassy accents and flourishes provided by a small horn section. The overall effect is a most pleasing one, with every musical space in the ensemble’s sound credibly filled – each musician pursuing his own music agenda while blending into a tight and compelling whole.
Ensemble or no, however, it is Haslanger’s sax that is the superstar within their sound. His long, dazzling sax runs display an emotional versatility that is as impressive as his technical versatility – calling forth a dizzying array of emotions and images with his instrument.
While jazz is not one of the genres about which I am most passionate, one things that has always inspired me about the genre is the relationship between jazz musicians and their instruments. While, in other genres, a mystical, transcendent bond between instrumentalist and instrument is worthy of comment … in jazz it is de rigueur. Watching Haslanger play, he and his tenor sax appear to undergo a kind of fusion – no longer a man and a machine — but a single, sublime organism where the whole is greater than the sum of parts.
GRAHAM REYNOLDS AND THE GOLDEN ARM TRIO
Perhaps it was the lure of the smooth, smart jazz as a refuge against the Supermoon craziness outside, perhaps it was the cozy ambiance of the venue, perhaps it was the bartender’s knack for mixing super strong Cuba Libres, perhaps it was something else entirely but, whatever my original plans, I was easily seduced into staying at The Elephant Room for the next jazz act.
Taking the stage was Graham Reynolds and the Golden Arm Trio. Another Austin-based jazz ensemble, Golden Arm has received significant exposure in a variety of media. Bandleader Reynolds was responsible for the score of the 2006 Richard Linklater film “A Scanner Darkly.” He also has a number of other film, theatre and dance credits, in addition to multiple albums (including three as part of Golden Arm Trio).
Reynolds plays piano and, as a jazz pianist, is both intellectually stimulating and energizing. The trio is rounded out with a drum kit and standing base. Strongly anchored in jazz and never straying to far from those conventions, the music of the Gold Arm Trio also reveals comfort with a range of other musical styles Much of their SxSW set was taken from their 2011 album “Duke,” an inspired, high energy tribute to (but not simply an imitation of) the great Duke Ellington — including some of The Duke’s most popularly loved and critically celebrated numbers.
Reynolds, increasing animated behind his piano, is a delight to watch – long, wild hair shaking and flailing around him, his expression blending the seriousness of a scholar with the intensity of an Old Testament prophet. His piano work is versatile and displays an easy self-assurance in any tempo or dynamic.
His virtuoso keyboard work is joined by a standing bass that is as melodious as it is minimalist and some really excellent, tight drum work. The Golden Arm Trio is not free jazz or avant guard jazz. There is a formal structure here (which, admittedly suits the sometimes conventional tastes of this reviewer just fine) — and it reveals a gift for strong, inspired composition.
As the last sounds of the Golden Arm Trio fade into the warm ambiance of the Elephant Room, I realize that another South by Southwest has come to an end. This moment always brings ambivalent feelings for me – sadness that I will have wait another year before having the opportunity to experience so much music in one place but also a sense of relief that I will finally be able to get some sleep and, just maybe, see the sun again.
Walking back to our car, however, it is hard not to step slowly. We linger a moment to savor every street band just a little bit – prolonging the SxSW experience as long as possible. SxSW 2011 was memorable for many reasons but, especially, because this was the first time in many years I have thrown myself wholeheartedly into its mind-boggling diversity with such wild abandon … attempting to provide just a sample of the full range of the good, the bad and the ugly on display every year at SxSW. I hope you enjoyed the ride.
ELSEWHERE AT SxSW
* Birds of a feather flocked together as the lineup at club Black and Tan included Brooklyn rockers Yellowbirds and Brighton, UK’s Ice Black Birds.
* A tribute to seminal Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson at the Continental Club included artists Steve James, Malford Milligan, Guy Forsythe, Gurf Morlix and John Dee Graham.
* The Bloodshot Records showcase at The Red-Eyed Fly featured some great country, alt-country and roots-tinged talent including Whitey Morgan and the 78s, Ha Ha Tonka and The Waco Brothers.
* High energy bluegrass combo The Boxcar Bandits through down some toe-tappin’ reels at the Hilton Garden.
* The Lone Star Music Magazine showcase at Antone’s brought together talents as diverse as blues maestra Carolyn Wonderland, alt-country founding father Joe Ely and one-time boy band sensation Hanson all grown up.
* 90s alt-rock sensation Marcy Playground rocked the 512 Rooftop.
* The Parlotones, one of South Africa’s premier rock bands, raised the roof at The Dirty Dog Bar.
* NYC’s punk/performance art band Peelander-Z (previously from Japan and, originally, as per the band’s biography, from Planet Peelander) brought their irresistibly demented and eccentric live show to a capacity crowd at Headhunters.
* Iconic rocker Liz Phair played Austin’s Moody Theatre.
* Country acts Terri Clark and The Trishas played Momo’s.