Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SXSW in the rear view mirror

With Pamela Des Barres
I was invited by ace Austin promoter Roggie Baer to come down to SXSW to sign copies of Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band at the Austin Convention Center. I was happy to do it; Amy came (she did some research at the amazing Harry Ransom Center at UT) and we explored Austin for the first time. I was interviewed about Sweat in front of cacti by Kimberly Austin for Rock Book Show, and I shared my book-signing table with Pamela Des Barres, who was as sweet and friendly as she was popular. I asked her if she's used to the leering and curious stares of the guys who walk past her. "I'm near-sighted," she told me quietly, gesturing at her glasses on the table in front of her. "If I take my glasses off, I can't see the stares. Otherwise..." She trailed off as another fan came up. "I can't tell you what it means to meet you," the fan gushed. "And wait until my boyfriend finds out!"

Ivan Julian
I'm not a music journalist by trade. My several days at SXSW this year weren't badge- or wristband-aided. Mostly an observer, I dug the scope and vibe of the festival, and the efficiency of the organizing (water coolers and hand sanitizing stations everywhere, each event I attended well-run and on-time), though anxiety was all around. The sense of hustle-or-die was in the air—mostly at the Convention Center—and the sight of hundreds of band fliers, business cards, bills, website posters, etc, was mildly depressing. The "I signed a record deal at SXSW" moment is cliched, but the need-to-be-seen dynamic at the festival is nonetheless intense, and is ratcheted up each year, or so I'm told. Up on Sixth Street, the epicenter of live music, the vibe was much happier, and looser, music pouring out of every other bar, venue doors and windows open, vehicular traffic prohibited, alcohol flowing. Truly festive.

The Fleshtones
I caught several acts while I was in town. At the Rajiworld showcase at the great Continental Club on South Congress I missed Richard Barone, but Ivan Julian tore it up with his band, peppering his set with some Richie Hell classics. Edgy and taut, Julian was as as wired and manic wrapped-in-cool as I thought he'd be, his late-70s street vibe and jagged but melodic songs propelled with a young sensibility and a band that, though disparate in ages, came together really well. Steve Poltz was a talking-song singer, a goofy guy with a beat-up acoustic guitar who spun funny narratives (usually revolving around sex and embarrassment, or a combo of the two) backed with a really tight band, including an unreal drummer who jazzily played everything near him, from his drum rims to the metal Continental sign on the curtain behind him to Poltz's belt buckle and jeans zipper (you had to be there). The headlining Fleshtones' set was a bit of a mess, unfortunately; Keith Streng's wireless gear crapped out on him, and he was tethered to a cord all night, kind of like unfairly leashing a dog who just wants to run in the yard and have fun. The band never quite recovered from momentum-killing guitar snafus, the errant feedback, a shortened set given the late start, and a hoarse Peter Zaremba over-compensating, spending "The Dreg" miming snorting coke off of his Farfisa to the delight of patrons nearby. A sloppy set, but not in the good way.

Peter Buck (with Baseball Project)
I wasn't disappointed, because that afternoon I'd watched the Fleshtones wow a packed crowd at Ginger Man at Fourth and Lavaca, an afternoon Industry Of Music showcase hosted by Blurt Magazine in absurdly bright and hot Texas sun. I arrived a little late—unfortunately missing the Bellrays—and Streng and Ken Fox were already up on picnic tables, riffing and grinning through a tight, ridiculously fun set that had everyone smiling and a little wide-eyed.

Afterward I hung a bit with Streng and Peter Buck in the cooling shade inside, then saw Steve Wynn (an under-appreciated songwriter) and his band the Miracle 3 play a solid, muscular set of passionate, desperate songs. Great stuff. Buck played a song with them, and then returned with Baseball Project, Wynn's and Scott McCaughey's band devoted to baseball, goofily but earnestly singing songs about Pete Rose, steroids, and Bill Buckner. I loved Baseball Project because I love baseball and rock and roll, but the songs were sturdy and hook-filled, any too-cute/obsessive qualities shamed by good songwriting. The afternoon at Ginger Man had a fantastic feel to it: old friends among the bands warmly hanging out and playing for an appreciative, well-oiled crowd under a high sun.


Walking up and down Sixth Street, you can find the music pouring out of venues to be overwhelming, a hipster sensory overload, but the sheer volume, in decibels and foot traffic, is part of the fun.  If you're not paying attention you miss stuff like this:


An acoustic band from Alaska busking on the street. An old-school, upright washtub-and-broom handle string bass acoustic duo playing in the sun of an open-door venue. Tacos and beer brats all around. Bliss, really.


The coolest moment of SXSW was an unexpected one, as is often the case. On Saturday, our last full day in Austin, starting to feel a bit of festival burn, Amy and I hopped on a bus to north Austin to catch Twangfest at the Spider House. Staggering in the sun, we went from stage to stage, inside little clubs and outside to back-patios, but no Twangfest. (It turns out that I had the wrong venue; the sets were happening below the river off of Southern Congress at Jovita's near where we'd just eaten lunch.) Oh well. We grabbed a bus back down to our hotel, then decided to head over to Hole In The Wall, a great-looking dive bar on Guadalupe that we'd walked past a night or so earlier. It was five-ish in the afternoon, a band was wrapping up in the front room, and we headed to the back, where we hoped it'd be a bit quieter. As funny as it sounds, I was a little surprised that it was virtually impossible to find a quiet bar in town. Anyway, we loved the historic place. Stylized 1950s-slash-punk stencils on the walls, a great (though unplugged) jukebox, front and back doors open letting in breezes, and Austin Amber drafts in our hands. We were winding down the trip, and it felt like a perfect, unassuming, friendly bar to be in. A minute or so of sipping and chatting, and a band starts setting up on a stage in our end of the bar. I was a little irritated (and tired) but it is SXSW and, what the hell, we had a good view and good beers. The band was a trio, kids who looked to be pushing 21 (as was the case with the drummer, we learned after the set, when the guitarist happily announced that it was the drummer's last under-21 gig!!). They looked like my students, and gave off an earnest English Lit-major vibe.

Best of all, they were good. The singer played an electric acoustic, the bass player was shy, the bushy-haired drummer was a maniac—but they controlled their wide dynamics very well, and sang earnest songs with memorable melodies, occasional awful, grinning harmonies, and precise arrangements that felt loose and limber. Two of the musicians' moms were there, singing along, mildly dancing, taking photos. There were maybe a dozen of us there watching the brief set. Festival-weary with my defenses lowered, I found their little performance—one of hundreds of others by hundreds of bands that week—confident but humble, sweet but energetic, nerdily swaggering at time. In short, memorable, touching, even moving. They were just a little band of Austin kids playing in a back room at a campus bar, invisible in the blinding rays of buzz bands and established artists and label reps and bloggers and journalists who were nowhere near their little gig. We loved them.

Their name is Marmalade. I think. [Correction: Marmalakes.  See comment below.] I have no idea if I—or you—will ever hear from them again.


The Dilemma said...

Nice account of Twangfest. I caught the Baseball Project/Steve Winn et al. at the Yard Dog on Saturady, and loved it. I wrote about it here: http://bit.ly/eM9z2K

Joe Bonomo said...

Great post! That'll be a def re-read. Wish I'd been able to check out Yard Dog--next time. Langford did the cover to my Jerry Lee Lewis book and I've always wanted to see his work in the proper venue. And yeah, you perfectly caught the band/fan-friendly vibe at the afternoon shows. And Buck was cool.

Maybe we'll run into each other next year.

-- chase said...

I think the band you saw was probably Marmalakes. I'm a Hole in the Wall fan myself; it's an Austin classic.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, Chase. Yeah, Marmalakes. Good stuff: http://marmalakes.com/