For 13 years, the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music and Media Conference has accorded the South revenge on an industry controlled by the East and West Coasts. Hundreds of international bands, record execs, publicists, and music fans gather in sunny (except this year) Austin, Texas, for five days of waiting in lines to get into shows. It’s a fair barometer for what is happening in the industry and what audiences likely will be exposed to musically in the coming months.
This year’s festival, held March 15 through 19, may have benefited the South most, but it wasn’t all that bad for those in the Midwest. Six acts from around KC (Lawrence and Manhattan included) were accepted to the prestigious shindig out of some 75 who applied. To put the region’s six selections in perspective, a fellow music editor at a Cleveland weekly newspaper divulged that only a single act had been chosen from his city. Cleveland is a larger market — and one that boasts the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
With so much live music to behold, three PitchWeekly journalists (J.J. Hensley, Jon Niccum, and Jeff Brown) split the coverage of how the hometown bands fared 643 miles to the south. — Jon Niccum
Mike Ireland and HollerWhen you come from a town where people always have something negative to say about the music scene, it makes you worry a bit when musicians from said town take their shows on the road — to a camp of music scenesters and insiders no less.
Some of these worries started to fade on the opening night of South By Southwest when I stumbled on the members of a band formerly from Lawrence, The Playthings, taking the stage to provide backing vocals for Harvey Sid Fisher. (For those without the cable mainline running through their veins, Fisher is the lounge singer whose musical interpretations of astrological signs are aired on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.) Tim Brown and Jenny Hart proved to be the perfect match for Fisher’s hilariously scathing take on love and the stars, and the crowd, mostly there to see Pong, ate it up. But The Playthings moved away from the KC area to pursue their musical dreams, so there were still plenty of questions to be answered.
Luckily that answer would appear over the next few days, and not in the form of a generic saccharine rock band but in the kind of real, gritty music that takes you back to a time when South By Southwest referred to a cross-country tour itinerary to be traveled by pickup truck, not an industry schmooze fest. Country boy Mike Ireland and his band, Holler, said as much when they started their Friday night set at the Ritz Lounge by proclaiming this the first show with a new lineup and promising to have some kinks to work out. Thing is, whatever kinks were there got covered up nicely by new keyboardist Mike Deming, whose deft touch around the ivory played like laughter in Holler’s rollicking jams and provided some sublime serenity on Ireland’s mournful ballads. With new band members John Horton and Spencer Marquart, many of the songs were also new, though there were some off Learning How to Live and even a few covers, including a particularly poignant version of a Charlie Rich classic.
Ireland may have done too much explaining between songs, but after his lengthy hiatus, he felt like he had lots of ‘splaining to do. Besides, anyone who could afford Ireland these few words between songs found himself in the middle of an emotional set from a group whose material can sound flat without feeling. Tonight, however, with the bass-playin’ Ireland and his drummer slapping away in perfect time to the guitarists’ Clapton-on-Cale drawl, there was plenty of emotional baggage brought on stage — it’s just too bad for the next act, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, that Ireland and Holler took it all with them. — J.J. Hensley
Split Lip RayfieldAs good as Mike Ireland and Holler were on Friday night, there was no way the group could outdo the work of Split Lip Rayfield from the night before, but few acts in Austin this weekend could. There was a time during Split Lip’s Thursday night set at Saengerrunde Hall (it has a bowling alley, but it was closed when we got there) when you could look around the nearly packed house and see everyone wearing the same sort of awestruck expression that spells the near end for Carol Anne in Poltergeist. It sort of makes sense, considering the four players in Split Lip move their fingers about as fast as that mesmerizing TV fuzz. But these weren’t girls between the ages of 6 and 11 being scared into silence; it was leather-skin industry types with 30,000 minute-a-month phone plans being played into submission.
And submit they did. After the initial shock wore off (halfway through the night’s opener, “John”) and first-timers could firmly establish the number of strings on that ’65 Chevy gas tank bass (it’s only one), the players sped up and the joint turned into some sort of urban hoedown, complete with enough kissing cousins, square dancing strangers, and rebel yells to film an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. All that is sort of fitting because the old Hall could have passed for a souped-up Boar’s Nest, but unlike any of the country stars caught in Boss Hawg’s speed trap, and almost any other band at South By Southwest, Split Lip Rayfield got called back to the stage for an encore. That feat is unheard of for an act that’s not the closer — at least that’s what I thought until it happened to Split Lip again the next day at Bloodshot Records Back Yard BBQ, and all the worries were over. — J.J. Hensley
Ultimate FakebookAlthough venues whose names are a play on words have always rubbed me the wrong way (remember Jamaican Me Krazee?), Austin’s Buffalo Billiards ended up being the perfect host for Ultimate Fakebook on Thursday, March 16. The Manhattan, Kan., trio that recently signed with Columbia Records benefited from a real stage — quite the luxury compared with SXSW’s more prevalent claustrophobia-inducing dens that put audience members in the laps of band members even if they’re looking for the exit.
A long line at the entrance seemed to bode well for the band, although that was partially because the fire marshals were persecuting the club. But upstairs in the rustic, red-beamed venue (roughly two-thirds the size of KC’s roomy Beaumont Club), Ultimate Fakebook filled a slot between the Welsh group Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and punk legends The Figgs. Ironically, the large stage was enjoyed by one of the festival’s smallest bands, bearing in mind it was rare to find a trio anywhere in Austin. In the post-Nirvana phase of the early ’90s, trios were as abundant as Shiner Bock bottles, but in today’s era of metal quintets and extraneous posses, the sight of Ultimate Fakebook made some wonder whether half the members had missed the bus.
Luckily, if there is a local act who can fill a stage, it is UFB. The band hammered out a nine-song set that was high on energy and short on filler. The group didn’t waste any time saving its gems for an encore; the second song played was “Far, Far Away,” the George Lucas-inspired single from the band’s debut, Electric Kissing Parties. Singer Bill McShane’s voice perpetually flirted with falsetto, especially on tunes such as “She Don’t Even Know My Name” and “Little Apple Girl,” in which the band inserted a Green Acres-like ending. The group debuted a new song, “Forever Forever,” a steamrolling pop juggernaut in 6/8 time, before closing with its hits from the recent This Will Be Laughing Week: “Tell Me What You Want” (a 2000 Klammies nominee for Song of the Year) and the choppy anthem “Soaked in Cinnamon.”
If anything hindered the performance, it was the mix. While the overall quality was aggressive and thick, drummer Eric Melin’s snare overpowered everything (especially Nick Colby’s bass) for the show’s first half. One of the hardest hitters in the local scene, Melin was the least of the band members in need of a boost from the P.A.
Although McShane was bathed in a blue spotlight the entire show, he gave the crowd anything but the blues. With his right hand flashing the pointy devil sign with the frequency of an evil traffic cop, the frontman seemed to be sharing an inside joke with the first two rows of the crowd.
McShane and his bandmates were certainly a thrill-provider for one notable audience member: Janeane Garofalo. The comedian/actress, lately seen in the film Mystery Men and as a David Letterman fill-in host, is known for past monologue bits about Weezer and the Old 97’s. Maybe she was simply scoping out new material.
“I heard they (UFB) were great, so I came here,” Garofalo told me during a postconcert grilling. “Nobody usually cares what I think about bands. What should I say? They were loud and fun. I was not disappointed. A great time was had by all.” — Jon Niccum
HadacolFriday night saw Hadacol taking the stage at the Speakeasy, a swanky club based on Al Capone’s Roaring Twenties escapades, featuring a velvet-roped entrance in a crusty, dank alley for authenticity. It truly was one of the nicest bars in town, all dark wood, comfortable seats, and mood-lit charm, and it was where Hadacol’s label, Checkered Past, held court all night, featuring six bands signed to the up-and-coming record company.
A top-notch live quartet from KC, Hadacol understands the politics of performance (one of the reasons they were the Pitch-sponsored entry to the festival) and really sells its shuffling roots material quite passionately. The dimly lit venue was packed with martini-swilling, swing-dancing, appreciative fans who were lucky enough to hear the band unveil five new songs, in addition to such favorites as the midtempo crusher “Big Tornado” — a fitting pick considering three twisters had touched down outside of Austin the day before.
Brothers Greg and Fred Wickham harmonized like only those sharing a bloodline could and traded off guitar duties, with Fred comfortably handling the electric leads. When Greg switched to electric piano shortly into the set, his vamping was all but wasted, as the soundman neglected to make the instrument audible until just before he switched back to acoustic guitar. Luckily, his bouncing-while-seated enthusiasm was enough of a visual treat to forgive the error.
As the band worked up a sweat roots-rocking the night away, the merchandise stand in the back of the room had many a visitor picking up the band’s brilliant release, Better Than This, and inquiring about the next one. — Jeff Brown
Jeff BlackThe St. Patrick’s Day revelers were notched up past the point of sobriety by the time Jeff Black took the main stage of the Copper Tank at 1 a.m. on Saturday. In this instance the liquor bred camaraderie, as frat guys and club kids mingled rather comfortably, staking out equal footing with the throng of SXSW industry oddballs and regular Austin slackers. Maybe it wasn’t the ideal time slot for Kansas City-based artist Black to try to win the attention of new fans, but the strength of quality songwriting is not easily ignored.
Unlike the last high-profile show Black played in his hometown, the ’98 Klammies, the Austin gig had him eschewing the solo guitar-and-piano approach and instead being joined by a drummer, bassist, and lead guitarist. Even so, Black made his accompanying trio wait while the intro number consisted of just his vocals and acoustic guitar. By the second tune, the collective began to turn in a surprisingly punchy (and loud) performance.
With his rugged, honest voice, Black confirmed himself as one of the festival’s stronger singers. In fact, when the front speakers cut out on the fourth song, only the instruments seemed to lose volume. Black’s confident voice carried just fine solely from the monitors.
Maybe Black’s lack of an easy-to-peg style is what has prevented his band from greater success despite his record deal with the Arista Austin label. In the past, his kind of material was termed “singer-songwriter,” but in today’s radio nomenclature that doesn’t explain anything. His songs aren’t country enough for Nashville, not rock enough for alternative, and not pop enough for soundtracks. It wouldn’t surprise one to someday find out Black’s tunes had been covered by more famous artists. Simply put, he writes sincere, resonant songs that go well with beer, wine, or mixed drinks.
Clad appropriately in black, the singer talked to the audience sparingly. “If I can give you some unsolicited advice: Never work for your girlfriend’s dad,” he said. Hopefully, the embittered comment wasn’t prompted by his sweetheart’s father’s being a record executive, for if anyone has demonstrated himself worthy of major label backing, it is Black. — Jon Niccum
Rex Hobart and the Misery BoysUnspooling an aching set of fresh numbers destined to be immortalized on a record later this month, Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys appeared Thursday night at Saengerrunde Hall, a beautiful old dance hall a stone’s throw away from the state capitol building and adjacent to the Sholtz beer garden and BBQ restaurant — a fitting location for the Misery Boys actually, because nothing mends a broken heart as well as cold beer and warm BBQ. Hobart even unveiled a new number called “I’m Not Drunk Enough to Say I Love You,” which fit quite perfectly with the unintentional theme. The Misery Boys threw down a solid batch of tunes to possibly two-step away the pains of love, if one doesn’t find himself in a 12-step program first.
The newer material sounded wonderful, even a bit upbeat in places, and the tear-stained oldies were as weepy and beautiful as usual. Hobart’s twangy update of the Bakersfield and Texas Swing sounds successfully kept the ever-growing crowd’s members riveted to the spot in front of the stage, if they weren’t already dancing instead. In fact, Hobart provided a couples-only assortment of tunes, with most songs ideal for a western slow dance circa 1940s.
Hobart, and the youthful quartet backing him, paid tribute to fellow Bloodshot labelmate Kirk Rundstrom (guitarist for Split Lip Rayfield) by ending the performance with a cover of “Wicked Savior” off Rundstrom’s self-titled solo record. The mournful ballad ensured that the band departed with the emphasis more on mood than mania. For being one of Bloodshot’s more recent signings, Hobart and the Misery Boys cast a mighty large honky-tonking shadow in Austin that night.