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Friday, March 14, 2014

I decided it would be a good idea to get up early again and head to the convention center to see if I could catch Damon Albarn performing what I hoped would be songs from his forthcoming solo record. While I wouldn't exactly refer to the production as playing solo – Damon was accompanied by 2 other guitar players, a drummer, a 4-piece string section, and a pianist during most of the set, and a 6-piece choir during the latter half – it was great to hear Damon play songs from his new project in a fairly intimate venue to a very appreciative audience. This new music, at least in this format, is smooth and very easy to listen to, sounding pretty pastoral, honestly. The new project seems the antithesis of both Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad, And The Queen. The new songs are beautiful and when things get quieter and instruments fall away it really comes to light exactly how much Damon draws from the David Bowie sound. I'm sure that has been said by some before, but it really struck me during this set of quieter songs. This set of songs was fairly soft, but the orchestration and arrangements lent them a massive amount of power; calm, but big, power and more than a touch of dramatic splendor. When the choral group (culled from a local Austin church choir) came out to sing, Damon did a fantastic new song based around a simple ukelele groove entitled “Mr. Tembo” about a baby elephant that he had encountered while overseas in a wildlife refuge. Great stuff, and once more, I can't wait to hear this full record. Fans of Blur will surely be loving it when it is released.

I have never had a good chance to hear The Hold Steady perform live, so it was a nice treat to finally get to see the band play. I was a bit late to the wagon on this band and their sound has definitely grown on me over the years, so I thought it was fantastic that they hold together very well as a live band. The great energy that the band contains on recording is definitely extant in the live arena, and maybe even more so. The band is fun to watch, very engaging and each one appears to be having a fantastic time while the vocalist is wildly demonstrative and gesticulatory. Geek rock fans rejoice, The Hold Steady are still your heroes.

Phantogram was also playing this show so I figured I would stay around and catch a few songs. I stayed for more than that. While the band confessed they were playing a “striped down” version of their songs, I don't really see how. They had five members on stage, multiple keyboards and synth pads, guitars and sequences playing. The songs were fleshed out and sounded great, beautiful and haunting at times, raucous and danceable at others. I was not super familiar with this band previously, but they combine elements of electro and shoegaze and somehow blend it and modernize it for a sound that is all their own. Fantastic!

I headed south out of downtown to the Whip In, where the second annual South By Oskar Blues (SXOB) party was being held, and I was scheduled to play a set of my own music. I got there in time to catch Gasoline Lollipops play their set, and I'm glad that I did. Hailing from Boulder, Colorado, GasPops play a cool and dark alternative country music of the type for which the Colorado scene has long been known. It's the kind of music that when the story of one's life is made into a movie, one hopes is playing as the theme when one hops a train to carry him/her out west to meet their fateful destiny. Between the lo-fi vocals and the bowed upright bass there was little in their stompy honk to be unhappy about.

I also happily caught a set by my good friend Mike Booher and his current band of musical miscreants who masquerade under the simple moniker Booher. This line up is fun and full, creating sounds around Mike's songs that lift them above the normal ATX crowd and cause them to be more powerful and more energetic than his songs have been in a couple of years. Some of the songs recall his old band Zykos, but move the music in a forward direction, looking back for inspiration but not dwelling in the old ways. The songs were noisy and fast, filled with sound and an energy that was palpable to anyone standing in the room.

I got back downtown in time to catch a set by rockers Ringo Deathstarr, an outfit that comes from a solid point of Jesus and Mary Chain-style songwriting but imbue it with the sonic intensity and aural trickery of bands like My Bloody Valentine. This band has all the elements to be one of my favorite rock bands; gritty wall of sound from the guitar, powerful and rhythmically elegant drumming, and a distorted wash of bass guitar lines. The vocals vary from highly melodic whispers to angry, vicious screams, but not the type that grate like nails on a chalkboard. The music is overall a righteous aural assault, built of sonic shifts that incorporate lessons learned from second-wave shoegaze bands like TheBrotherKite and that ilk and tie it back firmly to the sounds bred by MBV and their contemporaries.

I was happy to catch a quick set by Ezra Furman. I have known about Furman for a few years as we have received some of his earlier albums for review here at Hybrid and I always thought he was just a small bit on the outside of my comfort zone, musically. I haven't heard his music for a few years and it seems things have changed a bit. He still writes very quirky songs and sings them with his very quirky voice, but the songs themselves have improved and become less about not being songs and more about melody and structure. His band utilized horns, shakers, and all kinds of other instruments to give each song a little life of its own. Furman carries on the quirky traditions set forth by Gordon Gano, but maybe has learned to tame things down just a bit, becoming a better, more solid songwriter in the meantime.

I have to admit I was filled with a bit of trepidation seeing The Front Bottoms play their set. I had been told by a couple of people how great they were and that they had been often compared to the incomparable Johnathon Richmond. While I don't know that I would compare them to that godfather of indie rock, I would say that overall the band reminds me of a much younger, much more playfully literate and artsy version of The Hold Steady. But that could be simply because I seen THS earlier in the day. The music is not straightforward, but is obviously well-loved by their fans, as they had many people speaking along to more than half of their songs. I say speaking along because it didn't seem to me that the band was doing much singing. I also know that they had played a number of shows previous to this one over the last few days, and this was their last of the festival; so there may have been some exhaustion coming into play as well. The band was great live, they engaged the audience very well and constantly, the audience was singing along to most of the songs, sometimes carrying the song when the vocalist just let go. There were many hilarious stories told during the set however, and the band are very good performers in their own rights, building the set with high energy tons of good fun. The band writes interesting songs, filled with clever stories, lyrics, and turns of phrase that make the atonal presentation fairly palatable. I would see them again live just to see if they were having a tired night, and I definitely would like to hear their record to see how the songs translate onto recorded media.

-David DeVoe


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