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Friday, March 19, 2004

Today, I got the seemingly rare chance to witness Robyn Hitchcock play an acoustic set of material. It was humbling. Hitchcock is truly a talented songwriter, as most of us well know, but he is also a gifted performer, keeping the crowd involved and interested even during his long tuning sessions. Handing out lessons on physics and rodents, as well as playing a few pretty amazing tunes. From slide work to the more traditional flatpicking, hi songs are witty and poignant, some of them even more so in an election year. "Everybody knows double-yah sucks", he sang out shortly after making some remarks about his own country's "crazy prime minister". Who knew there were politics in Hitchcock?
The evening showcases began for me at the Johnny Cash Tribute, where I had the fortune to catch Dale Watson blast thru one or two of his own songs that he had written under the influence of Cash's music, and about 10 of Johnny's songs as well. It was a showcase full of blistering Telecaster licks as Watson told his own stories about his personal experiences meeting Cash, and what the man's music meant to him and his own career. This showcase is right there with BR-549, and I can't say for sure which may have been better. They were both pieces of heaven to my ears.
Next, I made the trek across downtown in time to catch the last few songs from Kill Hannah, and this is what I have to say: Chicago knows more than blues music, folks. These kids ROCK! Underpinned by throbbing keyboard basslines and elegant in its delivery, this music smacks of the Crystal Method (using more guitars than keys, of course) and possibly a much more enjoyable Filter. Whatever these fellows grew up listening to, I can assure you most of it came from Britain, and that influence is very prominant in the music.
Jump was the band I had come to see, and they impressed me with their ability to shift instruments so readily inside of songs. Five music school graduates really can get together and craft good songs outside of a classroom, taking their knowledge of classical composition and applying it to a real world situation. It makes me feel better about university, I suppose. However adequate their music was, I was not overly impressed by either their songwriting or their performance. But if you love to listen to great college rock from the Carolinas, than this is possibly your band.
Shifting gears, I hauled back across town to stand in line for the evening's Dwight Yoakam showcase, my little guilty allowance for the year. Thankfully, the line wasn't all that bad, but the people inside certainly were. I arrived in time to take in the last couple of Flatlanders' tunes. They were impressive, and I wish I'd gotten to hear them more; the crowd here was huge, older and taller than other festival showcases, and much more interested in talking than in listening to music.
I had to suffer through a 45-minute set of Delbert McClinton while waiting for Dwight to take the stage. It was not a terribly painful experience, but neither was it a heartening one. Once again, I'm amazed at the crap people will still listen to. McClinton still plays the same old tired AAA radio white-collar blues music he's been pedaling for far more than a decade, in true Don Henley/Joe Cocker fashion. If there was anything more middle of the road, I'm pretty sure it is yellow dotted lines. His voice is as gritty as I would have expected, but I miss the days when this type of music was actually fresh and meaningful. But let me tell you that the old, fat people in attendance ate it up. Like this was their bread and water, there was dancing and singing along. I guess maybe I just don't understand people on either side of my age. Generation gap city.
Finally Dwight Yoakam got out onto stage, starting off with just him and a banjo player and then one by one, song by song bringing out the rest of the band. It was a great set, and the skinny cowboy went through quite a bit of his catalog, owing in part to two lengthy medleys he masterfully pinned together. It was an experience I'm glad I got to have despite the crowd. I'm looking forward to a new Yoakam record soon, as he is now a part of New West Records, and they are anxious to get him in studio. However good his set was, it was still no as good as it could have been for me because of the missing Pete Anderson. The younger guy playing guitar does a great job, but it just doesn't feel the same.
I decided not to try to make it anywhere else tonight and so I stuck around for Drive By Truckers. I was a bit disappointed that the only country I got from them was the quick shuffle beat, and the remainder of the music was just plain rock and roll, garagey at times and not too magical. I'd never heard them before and I'm not really inspired to pick up a record, but maybe when I've got some distance from some of this other great music, I will have the chance to check them out again.
-David DeVoe
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You know you're a truly committed fan of music when you still show up downtown at noon on Day Three of SXSW. That's love, baby. What band evoked such loyalty and commitment, you may ask? I answer: Now It's Overhead, of Athens, GA. They played at the Caucus indoor stage at the disgustingly early 1:30 pm slot to a pretty damn crowded (especially given the hour) house. And for good reason. Now It's Overhead play haunting melodies driven by guitars, keys, and samples, and frontman Andy LeMaster's voice is not unlike John Vanderslice's, although a bit higher. You can tell LeMaster's years in the studio as a producer have paid off: he KNOWS how to make good music.
The Summer Hymns, another Athens band, followed Now Its Overhead, and although I only heard two songs before I had to go to the outdoor stage, I could tell these guys have something good going on. They soundchecked with these lush choral harmonies that were present also in the songs I heard, and the music was very warm and welcoming. I would've liked to see their showcase, but unfortunately I will have to wait until they come through Austin in the future. At any rate, if you like sensitive, harmony-rich music, these guys are worth a listen.
On the outdoor stage, I saw Zykos again. Lovelovelovelovelove! After them, the Western Keys played. Western Keys are another local Austin band that include two members of Zykos and Ben Dickey from Post-Parlo Records. They sometimes have an alt-country feel to their music, due largely to the use of pedal steel, but I wouldn't necessarily classify them AS alt-country. Whatever they are, they're good, and the melodies will stick in your head once you've heard them.
Deathray Davies followed, and as I've written before, they put on a great show. Their music is very quirky and upbeat, with guitars, bass, drums, keys, theremin, and various percussion, and frontman John Dufilho writes hilarious lyrics. I never get tired of seeing them perform live, because they are always so fun and animated; they dance around and bounce off each other, smiling and laughing and entertaining the audience as much as they entertain themselves.
After Deathray I had wanted to see the Wrens or Iron and Wine, the bands that were playing the outdoor and indoor stages, respectively, but had to leave a little early to meet some friends for dinner. After dinner, I waited in line at the Parish to get in for Japanese imports Quruli. John Vanderslice's old drummer Christopher MacGuire now plays with this band, and for the first half of their set, I thought he was the only truly interesting thing about this otherwise seemingly bland pop band. It wasn't until they played the song "Race" that I realized that these guys have some real potential: the song is full of beautiful and fairly uncommon guitar and vocal trills, and those beautiful perfect minor harmonies that make a song sound ancient and eastern. After "Race," the rest of their set continued to be more interesting than the first few songs, but "Race" still remains their best song, in my opinion.
Aveo was next. I should have stayed for Aveo, but instead I was worried about showing up late to Hard Rock Café to see Jump, so I skipped them and headed next door to Hard Rock. Bad idea. Playing before Jump was this goth-glam "I wanna be a rockstar" band called Kill Hannah. I was actually really disappointed because I've heard some of their songs and had thought they sounded promising, but… COME ON! There's only so much posing a band can do before it becomes painfully obvious that they're trying just way too hard. If you want theatrics to be a part of your sound, take lessons from David Bowie, the New York Dolls, or Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, but for god's sake don't rip off Orgy! Fortunately for me, sets at the Hard Rock on Friday only lasted 20 minutes.
Unfortunately for me, sets at the Hard Rock on Friday only lasted 20 minutes. Jump (formerly Jump, Little Children), an old favorite of mine whom I've been avidly following since 1997, has only played in Austin twice before: once in 1997 at the SXSW, and once in 2001 at Six of Clubs (currently Bigsby's). When I first learned that Jump was coming to SXSW this year, they were the only band I was absolutely determined to see, so of course I wanted them to play ten times as long as a SXSW showcase would allow. The showcase was maddeningly short, but more importantly, it was maddeningly lacking in some of the things that make Jump stand out as the most underrated band deserving of glory in the history of rock music. First of all, one of Jump's most wonderful attributes is their diversity, but four out of the five songs they played were off the new album, which is a more cohesive and therefore by definition less eclectic collection. Don't get me wrong: the songs were beautiful, and I was excited to hear the new material. But people in the audience missed out on their more Irish folk songs, their rootsy, bluesy songs, their orchestral, classically-inspired songs, their fun-loving, tongue-in-cheek songs, and - perhaps the most striking - Matt Bivins' spoken word songs. Also, as with many bands at the festival, they had to be a little more subdued than usual. At a normal Jump show, the guys are all over the place, dancing and interacting with the crowd and each other, and bantering between songs. Having said all that, they were still amazing. Lead singer Jay Clifford has one of the most beautiful voices in modern music, and Ward Williams OWNS the cello, as well as the Flying V guitar. Jonathan Grey plays the upright bass like no one I've seen before or since, and Evan Bivins is not only a talented drummer, but an excellent songwriter as well. And the aforementioned Matt Bivins not only writes and sings those lovely spoken word songs, but can make any novelty instrument sexy, from accordion, to mandolin, to melodica, to harmonica, to even the tiny tin whistle. They were in true Jump form at Hard Rock, and I only wish they'd had a better opportunity to present themselves.
Almost immediately after Jump got off stage, I rushed back over to try to get back inside Parish for John Vanderslice. I waited in line for half an hour, but finally made it right as Vanderslice was taking to the stage. I love John Vanderslice. His music and songwriting makes me so happy, and this new album is, in my opinion, his best yet. It's a bit darker, with more traditional rock rhythms, and has this feeling of triumph and exhilaration that carried over into the live show, and out into the audience. So, warm fuzzies for about 45 minutes, and then back out into the streets.
At this point I couldn't decide between British Sea Power at Rock Stars or Lume at Hard Rock, but since Hard Rock was closer and there apparently was a line at Rock Stars, I went to Hard Rock. Because the showcase there had more bands packed into less time, there were actually two bands on before Lume. I didn't really pay attention to either one, but from what I heard, I wasn't impressed. However, when Lume took to the stage, I knew I'd made a good decision. My friend Joel from indierockresource.com describes them as "Nashville's answer to Ours," and I can't think of a better way to put it. The lead singer's voice had many similarities to Ours frontman Jimmy Gnecco, most notably the same register and sweet falsetto. I look forward to seeing more of this band in the future.
Another amazing day. Liking 8 out of the 9 bands you see isn't bad at all!
-Emily Strong
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