There's a little game I play with myself every year at South By Southwest, where I try to see more bands than I did the previous year. A couple of years ago I broke the magical 50 mark and have been unable to match it since. This year, I managed to take in 35 acts over four sleepless nights and three bleary-eyed days ... and with a mangled left toe even.
The law of averages dictates that, given the sheer number of acts being witnessed, there are going to be at least a few stinkers, and there were. But I can honestly say that the 2005 installment ranks among the top three of the 10 consecutive SXSW festivals I've been to. And that fact, in some ways, made choosing the best bands and artists I saw both a pleasure and a bitch. Here we go.
What do you get when you cross Waylon Jennings and Jessi Coulter, and simmer the mix in bong water? You get Shooter Jennings, bona fide country music royalty. Shooter's got his old man's outlaw streak, but he's less about pure outlaw country than he is about Southern rock. On record—Let's Put the O Back in Country (Universal South)—Jennings and band sound like Molly Hatchet fronted by Joe Walsh with occasional guest appearances by Uncle Tupelo before Tweedy and Farrar wanted to kill each other. Live, they sound like Ted Nugent being set on fire by The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. Just buy the record already!
I can't think of a better way to end another year of SXSW than standing in the mud at Stubb's Barbecue amphitheater at 1 a.m. on Sunday watching Joe Ely and Rick Trevino jam with Charlie Sexton, Calexico and a bunch of legendary Austin session players while legendary Tejano singer Ruben Ramos stokes the fires with his holy voice. Can you?
Here's a guy I never thought I'd actually get to see in my lifetime, being that his band, The Blue Nile, rarely toured during their heyday, choosing instead to make occasional on-off appearances, mostly in the United Kingdom. But here he was, the voice, guitarist and composer behind one of the most enigmatic bands of the past two decades, on stage in Austin backed by a reserved acoustic guitarist and singing Blue Nile chestnuts from Hats and A Walk Across Rooftops, along with a few tunes from Peace at Last and some new material. Freaking amazing. At some point, my heart involuntarily split open under the weight of Buchanan's folkish voice and breathtaking lyricism. It has yet to heal.
You knew it was coming. Long one of my favorite local bands (and the list ain't that long), Oktober People plowed through a stunner of a set at the theater-like Hideout club. A little nervousness and a couple of minor hiccups aside, the band did Burque proud and raised more than a few eyebrows in the packed room. Nice job, guys!
One of several "Holy Shit!" moments took place on Thursday afternoon at Emo's Jr. while waiting for American Analog Set to take the stage in the main room. It came courtesy of Los Angeles-based rock organ trio The Sights, whose Doors-meet-Ike & Tina sound was nothing short of jaw dropping. Consisting of Hammond B-3 (and bass synth), guitar and drums, The Sights tore Motown a new one, while rocking the Iggy out of every thrift store stooge in the room. Damn!
I'm the first to admit that when Uncle Tupelo went splitsville, I jumped headlong into the Jeff Tweedy/Wilco camp, preferring his sappy little love songs to Jay Farrar's Midwestern philosophic ramblings. But that was then. Wilco started to lose me on Summer Teeth (although Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a masterpiece), and kicking Jay Bennett out of the band was pretty much the final straw. Saturday night at Stubb's, however, Farrar and his brand new Son Volt lineup had me at the first verse of "Drown" and never let go. Better live than I ever imagined.
He sings pretty little songs about pretty little things without sounding the least bit cheesy or insincere. On Thursday afternoon at Emo's Annex, he did it all without the help of his band, who, Mallman claimed, were all sick. Even so, his acoustic set was invigorating and a nice escape from drunk idiots drinking green beer at every club on Sixth Street. Oh, and it's not even noon. Happy St. Patrick's Day!
In its seventh year, FXFY is what you might call the SXSW anti-festival. Like SXSW, live music and free Lone Star beer are indeed elements of FXFY, but you don't need a badge or wristband, it all happens at one location—in this case, a cool little gallery on the outskirts of downtown Austin across from an abandoned power plant and 20 yards off busy railroad tracks. Saturday afternoon, I took the opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of SXSW and see one of my all-time favorite Austin bands, Pong (ex-Ed Hall, Pocket Fishermen). Their new record, Bubble City (Realistic Records), will knock any classic new wave junkie on his or her skinny ass. Still, there's no substitute for seeing this band live.
Much as I can't stand most "Xtreme" guitarists anymore—Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, etc.—I could listen to a killer drummer play all day. And drummers don't get much more killer than former Smashing Pumpkins/Zwan skinsmaster Jimmy Chamberlin. Yeah, the band and self-titled debut record are both set up as sort of a wank-fest for Chamberlin to showcase his prowess and finesse behind the drum kit, but he's so freaking good that no one should care. Jazz-fusion with scattered hard rock moments, and even a couple of pretty ballads make up the record that all drummers should buy this year.
In addition to official SXSW showcases by Oktober People and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, a healthy handful of Burque bands made the trek to Austin as part of showcases hosted by local labels Little Kiss and Detach Records. Despite some technical difficulties that wouldn't go away, Love Overdose prevailed at the Detach showcase. The Mindy Set followed, confident and tighter than ever. FOMA made a fine showing at the Little Kiss showcase, followed by Shine Cherries, featuring honorary Burque resident Johnny Cassidy on keyboards and vocals, and Ryan Martino on drums. Nels Andrews, as usual, stole the show. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for Jasper Brown's set due to my aforementioned mangled toe, but I suspect he did us all proud.