Lost in Austin
I’m not from Kansas City, nor have I ever been there. I’ll admit that I’ve never even considered visiting, if you press me on the issue. No reason, really, other than that I don’t eat barbecue (I’m a vegetarian), the pro basketball team left years ago (to Sacramento — that’s gotta sting) and I already live in one landlocked city in a red state (Dallas).
So when it comes to the Kansas City area — specifically, the bands from there — I am pretty much a blank slate: Here I am now; entertain me. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why I was assigned to cover the KC contingent at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was already going and the Pitch‘s music guys were indisposed. Whatever the reason, I was on the KC beat. Which was kind of a lonely place to be. Not only did I not know much about the Kansas City music scene before heading to Austin; neither did anyone I knew. The standard response when I mentioned that I was going to see the Golden Republic on Saturday night at Antone’s: “Huh. They’re from Kansas City? That’s weird.”
Yet somehow, during much of the time I spent in Austin, I was surrounded by people from Kansas City, and I don’t mean musicians. My best friend’s wife is from Kansas City, and she was there, along with her best friend, her best friend’s sister, her cousin and another friend, all of whom live or have lived recently in Kansas City. That worked out in my favor more than a few times, especially when it came to Doris Henson.
I missed the band’s set early Wednesday night at the Velvet Spade Patio because I was waiting in line at the convention center to pick up the badge that would (theoretically) get me into all of the SXSW-affiliated shows. I waited an hour; as it turns out, I got off easy. Some people had to wait two hours or longer, including the guy who sent me this text message: “The last time I waited this long was on a bread line in the Ukraine.” The line choking the hallway at the convention center was like the war we’re in right now in Iraq: It seemed like it would be no big deal at first, then grew more and more protracted and ended up costing more than a few lives. At least it felt that way when the older bald guy behind me began extolling the virtues of has-been guitarist Ronnie Montrose.
Missing Doris Henson’s early Friday-afternoon set at Trophy’s Bar and Grill was all my fault. Because it wasn’t a SXSW venue and was a bit off the beaten path, Trophy’s was pretty much impossible for me to find. That’s a shame, because once I got back to Dallas and checked out the band’s Web site, I realized I’d totally missed out. But one of the KC crew (Marisa Bode, my best friend’s wife’s best friend’s sister) totally did not. She has more aptitude for directions, apparently.
“It was a great show, decent turnout and very enjoyable,” Bode says. “I have probably seen every single one of their shows, minus just a few, since the inception of the band. And I can say from that standpoint that they played consistent to every show I have attended, but this time with a little something special.”
Good thing, too, because the Trophy’s gig brought out some important industry types, including folks from the band’s booker, Kork Agency, who were otherwise occupied running their own showcase (with Enon and Magnolia Electric Co.) when the group played Wednesday night.
I was able to pull it together to see a tag-team bill capping off Friday night at Habana Calle 6: A. Graham and the Moment Band and Ghosty. Couldn’t miss this time — the ad hoc venue (I’d bet the restaurant doesn’t host more than a handful of shows the other 361 days of the year) was next door to my hotel. Because it was somewhat removed from most of the action on Sixth Street, where the bulk of the showcases were —and, let’s be honest, neither band was getting much buzz — there was no line to get in and no reason to jockey for position once inside. It was actually kind of refreshing; many of the other venues featured double-digit wait times and rugby scrums inside.
The music was refreshing as well. If we’re still being honest, I’ll admit that I didn’t think much of Andy Graham’s band when it was setting up. “Looks like an average bar band,” I wrote in my notebook. But the songs were better than I would have imagined, the kind of gritty pop that should be more widely loved but unfortunately isn’t. “The heart of rock is alive and beating in Austin,” Graham said between songs, and it was tough to disagree. Of course, the crowd was so small, I could have convened the lot of them to debate the point. But Graham still had a good time in Austin, even if, as he says, “the food and drinks were more memorable than the music.”
“We got to meet our label guys [Sonic Unyon Records] for the first time,” Graham says. “We had to go to the convention center, and we shook hands with some distributor guy who had a bad dye job. The label told us we had to tour more — help them help us. It felt like Jerry Maguire or something. They said they liked our new record but agreed to let us make it better. So that’s good news. Our show was OK. It was sweaty, and the guys seemed to have fun. Strangers came up to us and said they liked us. We sold some CDs. A promotions guy from Detroit came up to me and gave me crap for not playing a song, ‘Liberty Hall,’ but he really liked the set. Good to know some stranger knows the tunes.”
There were even more strangers when Ghosty took the stage. Maybe that was because singer-guitarist Andrew Connor and the band attempted to siphon off some of the overflow from the interminable line outside The Parish for the Matador Records showcase. “It was like, ‘Hey, if you like this kind of stuff, you might like our band, and you’ll actually have a good place to stand,'” Connor says.
He was right on both counts. The outside stage filled up, but it was still comfortable. And Ghosty would have wowed anyone who came over from the Matador show. With pretty harmonies and a muscular rhythm section, the band proved its mettle from the first song, when Connor sang, Sleeping’s a mistake, accompanied only by jangly guitar and moody keyboard, then backed up his promise when the rest of the band filled in behind him.
The next night, the Golden Republic had no problem getting people to come to its set. The band was sandwiched between festival faves Ed Harcourt and Phoenix and played to a packed house that didn’t thin out at all while it was onstage. It didn’t give anyone a reason to leave, either, playing the kind of set (mostly culled from its debut disc for Astralwerks) that could give it headliner status next year. At any rate, the group won’t have to hustle like A. Graham and the Moment Band, Doris Henson and Ghosty will next time around. But Connor, for one, is fine with that. Now that he’s been here once, he has a game plan for next time.
“The only thing we’ll absolutely try to do in the future is play multiple shows — daytime parties in addition to the night showcase,” Connor says. “We had a good time slot, but there was some pretty stiff competition.” And there was: Spoon, Of Montreal and Calexico, among others.
“Ghosty had high hopes for SXSW, but we also knew it wasn’t going to be the Disneyland happy ending we all secretly want,” he continues. “Seems like Franz Ferdinand, Trail of Dead, Bloc Party, et cetera go into these events with publicists in full force, so that kind of hype is obviously still beyond Ghosty’s reach. We’ve come pretty far for a truly independent band. We did as much schmoozing as we could with representatives from record labels that seem desirable to us, but we were not disappointed when we didn’t get whisked away in the RCA private jet or whatever.”
Maybe next year.