Dollops of SXSW 2004

It’s spring in Austin, Texas. Redbuds and bluebonnets are in bloom, adding fragrance to the balmy air. By late afternoon last Saturday, however, the springtime aroma on teeming Sixth Street was usurped by hurl-inducing, hangover-produced bodily scents oozing from the salty pores of thousands of people. There were prison tats and trucker hats, pristine chicks with perfected manicures, band barkers, folksy buskers, braided beards, and days and nights filled with an infinite tape loop of recycled riffs, yawps, squelching, drum fills that rise and fall with each club you pass. By Saturday, particularly if you’re drinking, you’re baked.

But let me back up. I arrived at South By Southwest on Thursday, so I missed the Wednesday shows, including Back in Spades (whose showcase was, says one record company pal, “riddled with A&R” weasels), the Fags and Grand Rapids’ Molly, plus a Times Beach showing. The beyond-capacity Von Bondies show that night was, according to the Austin Chronicle, less than impressive: “… this Detroit quartet is far too predicated on a thoroughly worn model to make a seismic dent beyond its designated niche.”

Thursday afternoon at Beerland — a small, boozy hole just off Austin’s main drag of clubs — sported a packed house (100 or so) for the Demolition Doll Rods and the Hentchmen. When the Doll Rods tottered on stage, bedecked in skin-revealing attire worthy of some John O’Brien stripper lesson, dude necks craned at Margaret Doll Rod’s hot-pants-clad ass. Beginning with the glam stomp of “Get It On,” the Rods show was guttural, ugly, beautiful, loud, stupid, brilliant, pornographic, and, underneath the tangential, soulful. The horde, mostly the non-converted drawn by the band’s skin-happy appearance, was quickly won over. Yelps and howls accompanied the band’s gyrations and sonic churns. The spindly Danny Doll Rod leapt into the crowd headlong, staring straight down at a faceful of concrete floor, and escaped unscratched. The jackhammer 45-minute set ended in a mess of aural irritation and feedback and, finally, the Rods’ hilarious a cappella, gather-’round-the-mic take of the traditional “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

The Hentchmen were stellar on the strength of new songs and performance; the band no longer wallows in a sense of novelty and is, in short, a force to be reckoned with. Drummer Mike Latullipe’s timekeep now has a measured swing. What’s more, new songs from their forthcoming Times Beach album reveal a real songwriting foundation — intuition and study — that are actually long on hooks and staying power. The formable live presence of organist/vocalist John Szymanski and guitarist Tim Purrier — benefiting form a distortion-free PA — was filled with kidlike enthusiasm. Szymanski’s voice, as Paybacks shouter Wendy Case says, is filled with “teenage skronk.”

Detroit’s own Small Stone Records’ all-day Friday showcase at Room 710 blasted stoner rock gristle out onto the street. “This will blow any shit off the stage at the Lager,” snorted Small Stone head Scott Hamilton, between swigs of Lone Star. Hamilton moved about the club equal parts proud papa and fanboy, and well he should. His local label has — on a shoestring of hopes, prayers, promises and pennies — cobbled together a cast of internationally respected basement-weaned downtuners, including Five Horse Johnson, Halfway to Gone, Throttlerod, Dixie Witch and a host of others.

It was mid-afternoon and only the most dedicated fans of spliff dirge were present for Glasspack, whose aptly titled Bridgeburner will be out shortly. And it was bone-rattling, a Kentucky-bred brand of tuneful sludge. Barked and growled vocals, riffs on ’roids, and an unbelievably adroit drummer ripped the sparse crowd a new earhole. The trio looked Neanderthal, but was strangely cerebral. Droning guitar riffs and distorted bass formed a wall of white noise-ish distortion that became its own harmony, and it was musically persuasive — the thump doubled as the band’s own heartbeat, completely and purposely out-of-sync with those in attendance.

At set’s end, thickset singer/guitarist “Dirty” Dave Johnson showed shocking agility, hopping down to the dance floor, leaping back-first onto the 3-foot-high stage, somersaulting backward while playing the guitar — and gracefully exiting the stage, leaving his guitar to emit a low feedback hum. Drummer Brett Holsclaw erupted into a Bonhamesque drum “solo” that dissolved slowly to an end. A great rock ’n’ roll show.

Thursday night’s Blanche show — on a SXSW buzz bill that featured the Thrills, the Walkmen and Sleepy Jackson — was so crowded that the Australian film crew I entered with couldn’t get close enough to see anything other than the backs of heads. A person couldn’t get into this show without a badge, and even then it was beyond capacity midway through Blanche’s set.

A Friday afternoon Paybacks show at Casino El Camino saw a back-patio, fountain-side party crammed with 100 people — up the staircase and onto the roof. Many mouthed along to Case’s words. One new song, “Bright Side,” is one of those rare moments in time when all the planets align, a pop song as perfect as anything heard in years — a love song about temporary separation driven by a power-pop drumbeat, unironic “ah” harmonies and chunky power chords. In a just world, the tune would give Case — whose songwriting abilities are certainly advanced — a lifetime of rewards. Guitarist Danny Methric’s face sported a perpetual grin of sheer joy; and the Hentchmen rhythm section (Szymanski and Latullipe) bolted the rock ’n’ roll train to the ground in the otherwise flyaway outdoor setting. Case cheekily introduced the song “Hollywood” with a thanks to the Academy (a reference to the Oscars, which used the song in its awards telecast).

Later, at Red Eyed Fly, corny moves, the Right Hair, and major label whispers revealed that onetime Detroiters Starlight Desperation’s caldron of unction is uncooked. In other words, they blew. Hard. Some of the worst songsmithing in rock ’n’ roll history, combined with the band’s calculated delivery, thwarted any kind of rating or review. No wonder they’re signed to Capitol.

The Everyothers, featuring ex-Detroiter John Melville on drums, on the other hand, was a fitting example of what a band can do when it applies its craft and lessons learned to a template of rock ’n’ roll. The glittery pop is airtight and singsong, not a letdown at all from the band’s brilliant self-titled debut.

A show by Petoskey’s Sufjan Stevens at the Secretly Canadian/Sounds Family showcase (it was concurrent to Whirlwind Heat’s gig down the street) was at a huge billiard hall, one that might have canceled out Stevens’ graceful songs and storytelling. Yet the performance was great, airy and tentative. The slow, languid songs recalled the refined clarity of Low or Sea and Cake. The hat-sporting Stevens alternated between banjo and acoustic guitar, accompanied by Tom Eaton on trumpet and a trio of backup singers. The faith-themed tunes were so hushed that the chatter rising from the back of the house seeped into the music like an unintentional backing track. The high point was “Sister” from Stevens’ just-released fourth solo record, Seven Swans, its sonic melancholy propelled by a “da da da da” refrain that is repeated hypnotically. Stevens — a part-time member of the Danielson Famile — was astonishing in his ability to hold the attention of a large crowd with a volume that barely rose above that of conversation.

Equal Vision Records’ Saturday showcase found Detroit’s guitar-driven Bear Vs. Shark playing tunes from its debut Right Now You’re In The Best of Hands. With derivations of DC post-punk, the Circle Jerks, At the Drive In and Jawbox, the Bear Vs. Shark show hinged on mayhem, and the bored expressions on the faces of trendy hippies, indie kids, sculpted chicks and ersatz punks said so much. Nothing could impress them, even a front man who leaped from the stage to challenge the collective inertia. The lantern-jawed singer Marc Paffi’s careen and lurch alternated between Christ poses and Axl Roses (an image furthered by his sopping Guns ’n’ Roses tee) from atop the PA stack. Hell, his exceptional mouth-gape enabled full insertion of a bulb-headed, Shure SM 58 microphone, which captured every nuance of his stretched voice box (and explains much of the indecipherable warbles) while he banged on a side-of-stage keyboard.

The Ghostly International showcase at Zero Degrees, which was wall-to-wall, offered Ann Arbor’s Dykehouse, whose name in local ads was spiced with dashes (D—-house) so as not to offend anyone. The PC stamp is laughable, given that Mike Dykehouse is the man’s birth name. The show — his debut live performance with this band (which includes Metro Times lensman Doug Coombe on guitar and pedals) tore a page from the My Bloody Valentine magazine — loping melodies over effects-laden riffs and beats. Dykehouse says he loathes playing live. He’s a bedroom guy, a shut-in who prefers to write and record on his iMac. But he’s a gifted performer, and the performance was at once great and completely shambolic.

Waxwings hampered by a guitar-deficient mix and spotty harmonies. But new songs off the forthcoming album, Lets Make Our Descent, sparkled, and the crowd responded in kind.

The Singles’ well-dressed but non-intrusive set of Merseybeat/Flamin’ Groovies-inspired songs did little to enthuse a thinning post-Waxwings crowd. The exuberance of the band’s performance didn’t detract from its stringent revivalist stance.

South By Southwest attendance eclipsed last year’s by 30 percent, and reportedly sold out of wristbands early on. The detectable major label froth of years past was but a whiff; recent industry job cuts have gone lengths to make the event somehow seem less about the biz and more about the music; the event had an escapist quality.

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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