By Jack L. Pier
This was the fifth year in a row my friends and I went on our annual SXSW Road Trip to Austin, attending Texas’s biggest music event. Eight of us got together after last year’s trip and decided to do it right this time. We rented a two bedroom house on South 3rd Street. Five of us holed up there, and three more back at the hotel we usually rent, we were ready for anything. The house was our home base as it was within walking distance of South Congress, home of some great venues, and a nice part of town. About two miles south of 6th Street, it doesn’t look far on the map, but watch out – those hills can be treacherous! You have to wear comfortable shoes when you’re in search of that “perfect” show.
It’s good to do some research and have a game plan, but if things don’t work out you have to go with the flow and find an alternative. My friends and I learned a long time ago not to get our hopes up, but at the same time, to just – go for it! We pick our shows, get there early, get in line and cross our fingers. Since our musical tastes differ, we can cover multiple gigs and text each other how they’re panning out. I won’t bore you with too many details, but let’s start from the beginning…
Day 1, Thursday, March 14th – After years of spending most of our time near 6th street, it was time to venture out and try a new part of town. South Congress is open to traffic, so it’s got a different vibe. Pedestrians were patiently moving up and down the sidewalks, waiting at crosswalks; some of them with dogs, others with three-wheeled baby strollers.
Our first stop, Güero’s Taco Bar, was a great start to the day. I had three of the best tacos I’ve ever had while listening to Leopold and his Fiction, who are led by Detroit native Daniel James. He plays lead guitar and sings vocals. At first glance, he seems reminiscent of Freddy Mercury, with suspenders and a mustache. But the sound he’s after is more Iggy Pop meets Motown.
The next performance I caught was a band called The Royalty, originally from El Paso, Texas and headed up by lead singer: Nicole Boudreau. She’s got a soulful voice and sings 60’s and 70’s style songs with a modern twist. Somewhat of a Petula Clark/Amy Winehouse mix, I found her very refreshing. Formed in 2005, they came out with their first EP in 2008, followed by their first LP in 2010 (also titled “The Royalty”). In May of 2012 they released their latest effort: “Lovers”.
We then moved up South Congress and headed to Boticelli’s restaurant where we heard three bands, the first two of which were local Austin bands. Picture a very nice Italian restaurant with a small patio, then having that space filled with a crazy SXSW crowd and very loud music. The first performance was by The Laughing. They played alternative rock that had some interesting synthesizer sounds and clever song structures. I believe one of the band members, who works there part time, knew the other two acts and was instrumental in putting the afternoon’s festivities together. Lucky for us!
Why were we lucky? Because two of the bands we had researched and were looking forward to seeing, were up next and we were right there out front, up-close. There’s nothing alternative, new wave or experimental about Amplified Heat … in fact their website notes them as “100% Rock & Roll”. They pound out raw energy that’s bass heavy and Hendrix guitar driven… with a little Stevie Ray and ZZ Top thrown in for good measure. A power trio consisting of the three Ortiz brothers: Jim (Guitar), Chris (Drums) and Gian (Bass); you can tell these cats have been playing together for awhile. Also based out of Austin, they grew up in Houston listening to Z-107’s classic rock station.
On this beautiful sunny afternoon, I was able to capture two songs from their performance on video: “Anasuya” and “The Gunny”. I see a great future for this band, as few have a handle on the genre like they do. They’re keeping Texas Rock and Roll alive. Their sound is partially achieved by use of all analog gear, a trait shared by the next band up, which they referred to as their “brother band”… a term of endearment, no doubt.
That leads me to Thee Oh Sees from San Francisco, California. This turned out to be my favorite performance of SXSW 2013. The sound they generate is difficult to describe. Lead singer and guitarist John Dwyer conducts the band with precision timing while mixing crazy analog effects, falsetto harmonies and a playful “Woop!” that really gets the crowd going. Dwyer was in a few bands in the mid-90’s, but began his own experiments around 1997, eventually resulting in the 2003 debut album simply titled “1”. The band has gone through a lot of changes over the years, including their name and various lineups. It wasn’t until 2008, after drummer Mike Shoun joined the group, that the band started perfecting their current style. Instead of playing a traditional four string, or even five string bass, Petey Dammit uses a regular six string guitar setup to sound like a bass guitar. Well placed keyboards and background vocals by Brigid Dawson fill out the sound nicely. Sometimes described as garage, punk or psychedelic… I also hear a surfer music influence, and I’m not talking the Beach Boys here! What’s interesting is how their live performance differs so much from their studio work. For instance, the third track on their last record (Putrifiers II) is called: “So Nice”, and it’s a slow tempo, dreamy song that’s kind of catchy. Then, when you hear them play it live, it makes you want to jump up and down and dive into the mosh pit (which people did, venue permitting). Here’s another example of why it’s important to see a band live.
Despite all the changes, or perhaps because of them, they’ve remained a very prolific band with a loyal following. All together I count at least a dozen studio albums, eight EPs and eleven 7” records. Their latest record, “The Floating Coffin” was released April 16th and is already generating buzz. I’m looking forward to getting to know this band and their full library; but it’s their next live performance I’m really keen on seeing…
Day 2, Friday, March 15th – The next day, we ventured back to the Continental Club on Congress and caught Luella and the Sun, which turned out to be another of my top 3 picks. From Nashville, Tennessee, this is one of the most original acts I’ve seen in a long time. Singer, Melissa Mathes has such stage presence and confidence that you can’t help getting drawn in to her gritty-smooth vocals and cool vibe. Notwithstanding the differences in genre, she’s the best female vocalist to hit the scene since Sarah Jaffe a few years ago. The band’s guitarist, Joe McMahan, compliments her sound like few guitarists can. In this performance, he played some really old guitar riffs to classic blues compositions and somehow made them seem very new. Their rhythm section, consisting of Jon Radford on drums and Adam Bednarik on bass, is tight. They work with McMahan’s guitar sparingly, allowing the “air” a vocalist like this needs.
Later that night, we ventured into 6th Street and caught the third of my top 3 picks: Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown at Shakespeare’s Pub. His live performance at Shakespeare’s Pub included second guitarist Graham Whitford (Google “Aerosmith”), who seamlessly complemented him throughout the show. If his own aspirations don’t take him elsewhere, they could make a very good team. The rhythm section was very tight and the band as a whole worked well together. Despite his young age, Bryant has all the moves of a seasoned rock star… working the stage and engaging the crowd up close and personal.
Born in Honey Grove, TX in 1991, this child prodigy has been deemed the next guitar legend to carry the torch for rhythm and blues. Recently featured in a film about legendary music photographer, Robert Knight; “Rock Prophecies” provides great insight into how Tyler got into music and where he hopes to take it. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who just turned old enough to drink. When you see the film, you see a kid with a lot of confidence who seems to have a good head on his shoulders. It’s going to be fun watching his career blossom…
Day 3, Saturday, March 16th – On this, our last day of the trip, I made a commitment to a local promoter: Dallas Distortion Music, AKA “DDM”, and ventured out to a place … let’s say, a bit off the beaten track, called “Wardenclyffe”. Off Springdale Road, it’s described as a “homegrown outlet for local and visiting artists, musicians, and creators of every ilk”. It’s an eclectic place, to say the least, and the room is pretty small… but that’s kind of the beauty of it. They also had a stage outside in the back, which would come alive between sets.
I came to see a band that was in from Vancouver, BC called: Lié (pronounced “Lee Aye”). Their performance was high-energy, modern garage punk and was very raw. This is exemplary of DDM’s Evan Henry and Matthew Vickers, who seem to have the pulse of today’s modern punk and electronic music scene. After talking the girls into an encore, they were kind enough to stick around for an interview. Brittany plays bass and Ashlee plays guitar – they both sing, and Kati J plays the drums. Every band has to start somewhere and I think these ladies are on the right track.
Next, we were off to Rainey Street where we grabbed a Gyro and headed to the Bungalow, where we saw another performance by Luella and the Sun. This was an early evening, outdoor show and there was a nice breeze in the air. The band had more time to play at this venue, the mood was easy and I felt fortunate to see them a second time. Joe McMahan’s guitar just seemed to get better and better as the evening went on. Melissa Mathes’ looked particularly striking in a white dress and heels – it was hard to keep your eyes off her. In stark contrast to this angelic first impression is her clever, and provocative lyrics. I think my favorite song is: “I was Born into Shit”, which mixes blues and a little bit of hip-hop like I’ve never heard before. Another favorite is “Ditch Rider”… which just makes you want to shuffle, slow back and forth. It’s great to hear the blues again… and to hear a modern twist that breathes new life into it? It doesn’t get much better.
Day 4, Sunday, March 17th – 2013 was a good year for SXSW. The keynote speaker was Dave Grohl, who we listened to during breakfast on the patio, via podcast. His unique perspective on music was truly inspirational. He talked about the early days and how Edgar Winter turned him on to Rock and Roll. Eating at Benihana, compliments of A&R reps that never really had a chance at signing them. How Kurt wanted Nirvana to change the world… and then did. And finally, how he picked up the pieces and continues to carry the torch today. Somehow, Dave’s become the ambassador of Rock, and I think it’s well deserved. Few can speak from where he’s been and have lived to tell about it; and he’s done so very eloquently, I might add.
My friends and I really took a liking to Austin’s South Congress neighborhood this year, which as I mentioned seems to cater to a more mature crowd; and Rainey Street, which offers some of the hustle and bustle of 6th Street, but with a fraternity row type of charm that’s unassuming. We got to see artists from all over the world, on both small and large stages. We waited at merch booths, paid our compliments, bought records and posters and got autographs. Last year’s Gary Clark Jr. is this year’s Tyler Bryant… Luella and the Sun shined down on us… and Thee Oh Sees showed us something to see! This year’s road trip had to be one of our best. Considering the great music, comfortable accommodations and the fact we didn’t have to bail anyone out… I don’t think we could have asked for much more.