This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
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SXSW 2013 opens with names big and small
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's like Comic Con, but without anything cool."
That early review of South by Southwest came from one of the multitude of hipsters strutting through the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday — the final day of SXSW Interactive and the first day of SXSW Music. This annual conference and festival in the Texas capital has grown into a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 8; the music blares on through March 17.
The relative coolness of what lies ahead remains to be seen, but it's already shaping up to be a typical mix of fresh-faced new bands — the showcasing of which was SXSW's original mission when it began in 1987 — and big-name celebs.
In the latter category, Depeche Mode, Green Day and Dave Grohl's Sound City Players (an assembly of Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Rick Nielsen, Corey Taylor and many more) have booked big performances this week. Other formidable names — Iggy & the Stooges, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — also are among the thousands of artists vying for attention from journalists, record labels and digital media.
The rumor mill, though, is buzzing about two other megastars: Prince and Justin Timberlake. Both taut pop-R&B legends have been floated as possible surprise showcases during SXSW. The Prince gig is just a rumor, with an unnamed source suggesting that His Purpleness will perform with a 22-piece band Saturday night at the cavernous La Zona Rosa club.
Timberlake — whose new album, "The 20/20 Experience," is out Tuesday (read my review) — is scheduled all week on TV's "Lat Night With Jimmy Fallon," but the Austinist site has pieced together clues toward JT's own possible Saturday night show.
Watch this blog for my own reports. My docket includes the big and the small, from seeing how Green Day emerges from their personal crisis to checking out up-and-comers like Foxygen and Lianne La Havas. I'll also be sniffing out the home-cooking that always pervades SXSW, from Chicago's Wild Belle and Chief Keef to the premiere of the blues documentary "Born in Chicago." Stay tuned!
SXSW: Long live Shoes, long live Camper Van Beethoven
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2013 6:32 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Janice Greenberg actually teared up a bit at the Camper Van Beethoven show.
The 46-year-old mother of two from Sonoma County, Calif., stumbled into the Jr. club Wednesday afternoon, squinting from the bright-to-black transition and her jaw hanging down. The band was running through its well-known 1980s indie-rock standard, "Take the Skinheads Bowling" — but it was, Greenberg discovered to her considerable dismay, their last song.
"I had no idea that they ... are they even ... I didn't know they were here!" she said, close to a wail. "I love Camper!"
Camper eased onto the stage Wednesday afternoon and played a 10-song, career-spanning set that was plenty to justify their status as indie-rock grandfathers. What was extraordinary, though — and somehow I always forget this till I'm faced with it — was the skill of the five players. CVB's music can get complicated, not in a convoluted art-rock sense but in a self-taught virtuoso sense. While singer David Lowery wheezes and whines his weird, grumpy-ol'-stoner tales, you've got Jonathan Segel (elegant on violin, especially during "Sad Lover's Waltz," but also adding swooping third guitar to the new "Too High for the Love-In") and Greg Lisher (braiding melodies and countermelodies throughout like a pro). New songs like "Northern California Girls" — from the recently released new album, "La Costa Perdida" — were refreshing live, while old surprises like "Seven Languages" still packed a punch.
The best part, though, was when Greenberg got the good news: Camper's playing again two hours later, at 7 p.m. right next door at El Sol y La Luna, 600 E 6th St. I'd quote her reaction, but she was off like a shot to secure her spot.
Trusty ol' Shoes
Another legacy act inaugurated SXSW 2013 Wednesday afternoon with a show that was, at least historically, slightly more momentous. Beloved power-pop band Shoes — the lions of Zion, Ill. — played their first concert outside the Chicago area in 18 years.
Shoes, an occasional underground delight since appearing in 1975, reunited last year to record "Ignition," their first new album since 1994. Early Wednesday afternoon, at an annual showcase organized by Chicago native publicist Cary Baker (who shepherded the dB's into their comeback at the same place last year), singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, brother John Murphy on bass and drummer John Richardson blasted through their own career-spanning set.
Shoes is one of those bands with a consistency that's more than a little frightening. I was bobbing my head through most of "Say It Like You Mean It" before I remembered it was one of the new ones.
No one at SXSW has just one gig anymore: Shoes' play again (their official showcase) at 11 p.m. Friday at Maggie Mae's Gibson Room, 512 Trinity St.
SXSW: 'Born in Chicago' explores '60s blues hand-off
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 1:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — A day after it was announced as a featured documentary at next month's annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, "Born in Chicago" had its world premiere here at SXSW on Wednesday afternoon.
The film, directed by John Anderson, chronicles the history and tall tales from the generation of young, affluent white kids who gathered in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s, learning to play the blues from the men who had honed the music on their own. Narration by Marshall Chess (son and nephew of the Chess Records founders) mixes into interviews with Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg (who co-produced the film) and excellent footage of the late Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. On the other side are snatches of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus interviews with Sam Lay and the great Hubert Sumlin.
"Born in Chicago" makes Bloomfield, a wealthy Jewish guitar virtuoso (a fact he presents in a funny bit of old footage), appear something of a valiant crusader for crossing the mid-century racial divide, bearing his instrument. Goldberg relates a templated tale of him and Bloomfield venturing into the South Side one night to sit in with Howlin' Wolf — and the hush that came over the club when two white boys walked in. All that's missing is the record-scratching clip from the Dexter Lake Club in "Animal House."
The film's problematic thesis, though, seems to be that this particular appropriation wasn't like all the other black cultural exploitations by white musicians — because Muddy and Wolf and the gang were apparently so thrilled to be noticed, appreciated and revered by these upper-middle class dilettantes. Chess himself drives the point home about "these white kids treating 'em like stars," and Goldberg assures us that "people recognized the respect we had for their music." Musselwhite — himself the subject of a current generational rediscovery thanks to his recent collaboration with Ben Harper — insists, "These guys ... were so flattered we knew who they were." Just because the original bluesmen welcomed their exploiters, however, does not mean they weren't exploited.
Even Jack White mentions what a "shame" it is that it takes white people to "legitimize" something like this, apparently never stopping to consider that the music previously had been perfectly legitimate for black people. So only when white people — a bunch of Brits, no less, once the Stones showed up at Chess — stamp their approval does a music become 2 legit 2 quit? Same song, umpteenth verse.
Steve Miller probably sums up the reality of the situation better than anyone in the film: "Everybody talks about it like, oh, these white kids. We were competing with Howlin' Wolf for gigs. ... It was business."
Catch "Born in Chicago" at the CIMM fest in Chicago, April 18-21. Four-day passes are on sale now.
SXSW: Chicago's Wild Belle ready for summer
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:15 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW originally was created to showcase music that was new, fresh, creative. Wild Belle returned to the festival Wednesday night boasting all three.
The Chicago-area, brother-sister duo of Elliot and Natalie Bergman kicked off the Wednesday showcases with a packed house at the roomy upstairs Haven club, with lines of eager badge-holders and fans stretching in two directions down the block. Leaning heavily on their new album, "Isles" — released Tuesday on major label Columbia — the Bergmans and their band bounced effortlessly through their reggae-driven pop. It was music for the Austin weather: warm, breezy and revitalizing. That they performed a song about being "bundled up like chickadees" in Chicago seemed almost to taunt the folks back home.
Natalie is a Kittenish creature — capitalized because, while her vocals certainly purr, she sings with a throaty, Eartha Kitt allure. She performs with a sultry confidence belying the fact that "Isles" is the band's debut. Elliot, though, is crucial to the band's unique sound. Puttering about among keyboards, a baritone saxophone and various gizmos, like a thumb piano with an electric pickup attached, he looks like Lazlo Hollyfield and underpins the music with a similarly silent mad genius. Wild Belle's sound is relaxed, summery and always keeps just left of what one might expect them to go. One of those moments where you wish this wasn't a mere 40-minute SXSW showcase.
SXSW: The return of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 8:39 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Really, no hoots and cheers when Natalie Maines, covering Pink Floyd's "Mother," sang the song's line about running for president?
Maines, the singer for country's Dixie Chicks, returned to the spotlight in a Wednesday night showcase at the Austin City Limits Live theater during SXSW. Once the flashpoint for debate after disparaging President George W. Bush (telling a London audience in 2003, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas"), the Lubbock native was back in Austin a decade later to unveil the new Natalie. Performing the entirety of her new album, "Mother" — her solo debut since the Dixie Chicks went on hiatus in 2007 — Maines appeared stolid and confident.
In fact, in the beginning the set lacked much energy at all, plodding through midtempo numbers without much fanfare or enthusiasm. The Pink Floyd cover — a dark choice, but played capably and arranged for arenas — is part of the reason this is being touted as a "rock" record, and eventually more of her trademark feistiness backed up that perspective. Politics are still foregrounded: "I put this on the album because it reminds me of the West Memphis Three," she said by way of introducing Dan Wilson's "Free Life." But then — backed as she was Ben Harper and his Innocent Criminals band (Harper co-produced Maines' new album) — she put down her own guitar and launched into Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell," unleashing a pent-up Belinda Carlisle kind of frenzy while rooted at the mike. Suddenly the near faux-hawk hairdo was making sense.
"Mother" is due May 7. Incidentally, as Maines pointed out, Patty Griffin also has a new album out the same day.
SXSW: Dave Grohl talks Chicago, inspires the aspiring
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2013 2:08 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Dave Grohl stepped to the podium Thursday morning to deliver the keynote address at SXSW 2013, rolled up his sleeves, tucked his hair behind his ears — and put on reading glasses.
The move spoke not only to rock's AARP eligibility but to the paternal tone of his address. Largely an autobiography of a lifetime spent pursuing some measure of independence in his music, Grohl's speech aimed not at the media and industry crowding the Austin Convention Center ballroom but at any indie-rock kids who might hear him.
"There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice," he dispensed. "It's your voice. Cherish it, respect it, challenge it ... Everyone's blessed with at least that."
In Austin to hype his new documentary, "Sound City: Real to Reel," Grohl barely mentioned it, largely trying to inspire with his speech rather than merely shill for his flick.
The Foo Fighters leader and former Nirvana drummer began his hourlong talk with the moment of his birth, but wrapped it up by stating hope that his own two daughters will find their own way in the world. His remarks retraced that wayfinding, beginning with a K-tel record. His sister bought it in 1975, and it contained Edgar Winter's instrumental "Frankenstein," which he proceeded to scat for the audience. Hearing the tune was a life-changing moment, he said, adding, "It was the riff. I gave it all up for a f---in' riff."
Much of his tale he has told before, including the other pivotal musical moments he experienced during summer family visits in the Chicago area. He described (somehow) getting into the Cubby Bear to hear local punk legends Naked Raygun ("The most ferocious noise! Bodies were flying everywhere ... piss and puke. I was in heaven!") and making the pilgrimage to Wax Trax! Records to begin stocking up on the requisite punk catalog.
Grohl demonstrated the crude multitracking technique he came up with as a teen. With one tape machine, he recorded a few bars of a guitar riff. He placed that tape into another player and played it back, while recording some drum beats on the body of his guitar. Voila — the new recording contained both sounds!
Grohl's rewind was full of life-changing moments — a political punk show in Washington, D.C., a single question ("Have you heard of Nirvana?"), the death of Kurt Cobain.
"When Kurt died, I was lost. I was numb. The music that I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me. I had no voice. I put away my drums. I turned off the radio. I couldn't bear to hear someone else singing about their own pain or happiness."
He re-emerged with a self-made album, which he labeled the Foo Fighters, which became — as once described by Pitchfork, a media outlet he disparaged midway through his speech — "his generation's answer to Tom Petty — a consistent hit machine pumping out working-class rock."
Grohl's talk about Grohl was a bit thin after recent SXSW keynotes — Bruce Springsteen's rousing music history lesson last year, Bob Geldof's still-poignant pleas for rock's social conscience in 2011 — but it contained nuggets of self-awareness and inspiration for aspiring contemporary musicians.
Repeating a mantra about finding one's individual voice, he confessed, "F--- guilty pleasure! How about just pleasure? ... I can truthfully say out loud that 'Gangnam Style' is one of my favorite f---ing songs of the past year."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players is a temporary supergroup featuring Grohl, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Nielsen and many more. They perform an anticipated showcase later tonight.
SXSW shows off Chicago hip-hop
By Thomas Conner March 15, 2013 9:26 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Late Thursday night, an official showcase of more Chicago rappers — including King Louie, Lil Durk, Lil Mouse, GLC, Katie Got Bandz — stocked the upstairs Club 119 in the shadow of the Texas capitol. MCs and DJs ringed the club's small stage, waiting to be tagged in like pro wrestlers. Vic Spencer worked the crowd, followed by the dynamic and engaging YP, who boasted of his East Side roots and led the crowd chanting the title of "Insane" (alas, no Rockie Fresh cameo). Chance the Rapper was here, too, working his own forceful rhythms despite the tempo of his soothing, soulful tracks. Chance dances like a boxer on stage, and his rhymes (even when not talking about "tabs of acid" in "Brain Cells") get pretty wild and surreal.
And lest you've fallen prey to the notion that all Chicago hip-hop is bleak and violent, Chance shouted with notable ferocity: "Make some noise if you love your mama!"
SXSW: Dave Grohl's Sound City Players rock long
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 10:08 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "It's gonna be a long f---in' night," Dave Grohl promised at the start of his Thursday set with his live musical collage, the Sound City Players. Then the supergroup — Grohl on bass with his Foo Fighters, led by omnipresent hard-rock maestro Alain Johannes — kicked off a song that found Johannes pleading, "I hope it won't be long."
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players are a hodge-podge of recognizable names spanning three generations, a promotional ploy for Grohl's new documentary ("Sound City: Real To Reel," about the legendary Los Angeles recording studio) and its accompanying soundtrack. The group features Grohl and his band with Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Lee Ving (Fear), Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine), Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), Johannes (Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures) and bassist Krist Novoselic (Nirvana).
They've performed a handful of shows since early January in New York, Los Angeles and London. Grohl said at the beginning of Thursday's SXSW concert outdoors at Stubb's BBQ that this one would "probably" be their last. "So we're gonna make it extra long, extra special."
Long we got — close to three-and-a-half hours — and special, too. The result was a rollicking rock and roll revue. Springfield came on for "I've Done Everything for You" and, of course, "Jessie's Girl." Taylor and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins sang Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" and "Surrender," with Grohl on drums and Nielsen on guitar. Fogerty closed the show with Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, including "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising" and trading verses with Grohl on "Fortunate Son." Through it all, Grohl stayed on stage playing with everyone's mini-set (switching between guitar, bass and drums), beaming with obvious glee at having assembled this temporary clubhouse.
Grohl's first guest, however, was the most transformative. After half a dozen songs bashed out with Johannes, Nicks stepped to the mic and proved to be more than up to the task of leading a bashing hard rock band.
She and Grohl pointed at each other as they sang the chorus of "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" (see, Grohl is his generation's Tom Petty!), and Nicks performed Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" with the band and "Landslide" with Grohl alone on guitar. She sang excellent new song from the "Sound City" soundtrack, "You Can't Fix This" -- graceful and tuneful, with a leaning, weaving riff more akin to Waddy Wachtel than Lindsey Buckingham. Swinging her ribboned tambourine and wearing shades, Nicks was in great voice and moving with an ease I've not seen on stage in a long time, particularly when the band began a surreal, clanging opening séance to "Gold Dust Woman," as Nicks waved her scarf with her back to the audience and conjured her old witchy self. With the Foo Fighters cranked to 11, Nicks wailed and howled and raised the dead, holding her own with the muscled band all the way through the cacophonous conclusion.
Forget Grohl's "Sirvana" work with Paul McCartney -- let's have some Fleetwood Fighters!
(Since a couple of people have asked: According to Pee Wee Herman himself via Twitter, the photo on the bass drum head was of Pee Wee, David Lee Roth and Rodney Dangerfield.)
SXSW: Flaming Lips bring 'Yoshimi,' 'The Terror'
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2013 11:23 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "The new record is probably going to freak some people out," said Wayne Coyne. "It is, on purpose, not a hopeful record."
He's talking about "The Terror," the Flaming Lips' new nine-track album due in late April, and as he does it's easy for him to get a little heavy.
"There are things we have to face as human beings, truths we must explore," Coyne says. "'The Terror' is a certain kind of terror, an uncanny sort of break in nature or your own life. It's not an insane, monster terror. It's the terror of realizing that love isn't the magic bullet. We all wake up with dread of the unknown. It's not about fear of dying, but about the fact that we just don't know what's going to happen anywhere, anytime."
We were sitting in a makeshift green room, a tent in a parking garage behind the venue where the Flaming Lips would perform later Thursday night. Not that parking garage. During SXSW '97 nearly 2,000 people crammed into the second level of a downtown garage to hear Coyne's Car Radio Orchestra, an experiment involving 28 vehicles. Coyne gave each driver a pre-mixed cassette and instructed them to press play and blare the music on cue. Soon, soothing synthesizer parts were swelling from various auto systems, with surreal samples and female orgasm sounds. It was an experiment; one car blew a fuse.
"The cops nearly shut us down," Coyne recalled.
Thursday night the Flaming Lips played a more intimate showcase — no confetti, no costumes, thankfully no big plastic ball — performing the whole of their 2002 album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." The show was packed — so much so there was still a line down the block when it was over.
Friday night, though, they'll be unveiling the new music in a free show at the Auditorium Shores amphitheater here.
"We keep saying this is the most depressing but life-affirming music we've ever done," Coyne said.
Coyne is also in town this week to promote a film, "A Year in the Life of Wayne's Phone," which had its world premiere Wednesday night at SXSW. The film is a collage of clips Coyne shot with his iPhone.
"I didn't do this on purpose," Coyne said. "I take so many videos, and my computer guy is always having to empty them off my computer to make room. One day he said, 'We should a movie of these.'"
Since Coyne shot nearly all the videos in vertical portrait mode rather than the usual horizontal scale, the film features three clips lined up, each running simultaneously. The clips range from interviews, shots of friends (look for Yoko Ono and Rivers Cuomo!), cute animals, the USB skull and Coyne crowdsurfing. The viewer's attention is directed by bringing up the audio on a certain clip, but it's still a disorienting challenge to take it all in.
SXSW: Green Day roars back to life
By Thomas Conner March 16, 2013 11:31 am
AUSTIN, Texas — In the middle of “Stay the Night,” Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong paused at the microphone, stared at the crowd for a moment and sighed, “Ah, welcome back!”
A turnabout of words. No doubt he was happy to see us — a crowd not even close to capacity at the Austin City Limits Live theater, but certainly a welcoming one. This was Green Day’s return to action after Armstrong’s profane meltdown last September at a festival in Las Vegas, complete with tantrum and smashed guitar. Days later, the band announced Armstrong was seeking treatment for substance abuse and a slate of arena dates was postponed.
Friday night at SXSW, though, Armstrong couldn’t have looked more refreshed, reinvigorated and grateful.
After the welcoming comment, he let the crowd sing for moment while he sat on the edge of the drum riser, first gazing back at us with some measure of incredulity, then sitting for a spell with his head in his hands.
There’s a lot of that in a Green Day show nowadays — the poor band vamping, sometimes for quite a long time, while Armstrong wrangles the crowd. He’s a professional motivator, certainly, and obsessed with airborne limbs (“Get your hands up! This ain’t no caf, motherf—ers!”). Thankfully, the band — Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, drummer Tr Cool and their criminally unsung “fourth member,” guitarist Jason White — was plenty exciting without the constant demands for shouts, singalongs and waving arms.
In 24 songs over two hours, Green Day ripped through its catalog, reaching back to the early ’90s and slotting in some requisite newbies from this winter’s album trilogy (“Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tr!”). The hit parade marched along — “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” the excellent “Know Your Enemy” — including some songs that now wear an extra patina of irony, given Armstrong’s recent troubles, such as “Burnout” and “Basket Case.”
Only once did Armstrong allude to his recent woes. During “Stop When the Red Lights Flash,” he had directed the band and the audience into a quiet moment and crouched into the microphone to kick off a climactic explosion — but just before he could whisper to a scream, a roadie darted over and replaced the wireless mic right in front of Armstrong’s mouth. The singer barely missed a beat but couldn’t help chuckle a bit. “And I wasn’t even on drugs,” he quipped.
But while the on-stage comeback was encouraging, SXSW finds Green Day at a possibly crucial juncture. The band also debuted not one but two new documentaries during this festival: “Broadway Idiot,” about the transformation of the 2004 “American Idiot” album into a hit musical, and “Cuatro!” chronicling the making of the recent trilogy.
Each album in that trilogy is, with remarkable consistency, terrible. (I reviewed “Uno!” but couldn’t find the heart to kvetch further about the other two.) So here they are with projects that look backward and forward. If the way forward is merely “Cinco!” then even though the band played the ACL theater like an arena, it may want to prepare itself for such smaller venues. The stoked fire in their bellies on display Friday night either will spark their previously impressive creativity within such a rigid genre, or it simply will warm their evenings as a very entertaining legacy act at the casinos and cruises of the future.
Green Day reboots its postponed tour starting March 28 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
SXSW: The rebirth of Detroit punk trio Death
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2013 12:21 PM
Black musicians did a lot of great things in Detroit in the '60s and '70s. Rock and roll — much less anything that would later be called punk — wasn't always one of them. At SXSW this year, though, a band was on display that defies that notion: Death, a fraternal trio and a rare group that can justly support the claim "best band you've never heard."
Death was born in the east Detroit home of the Hackney family. Brothers Dannis, Bobby and David, like so many boomer-era musicians, started playing in the early 1970s as the Rock Fire Funk Express. But after witnessing concerts by the Who and fellow Detroiter Alice Cooper, the brothers threw their lot with their city's other musical heroes, punk-rock icons like the MC5 and Iggy Pop. The Hackney brothers then began writing taut, propulsive rock 'n' roll — truly great stuff — which, until a slightly miraculous rediscovery a few years ago, was heard by practically no one.
The story of the band's derailed promise and eventual obscurity is told ably in a documentary screening at SXSW, "A Band Called Death." Blessed with a rich tale, director-producer Jeff Howlett basically leans back and lets the golden plot points unfold one after another.
Opening with gushing praise from the likes of Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and — was that Elijah Wood?! — "A Band Called Death" charts the emergence of this family band and the, for the times, unusual shift from R&B to rock and roll.
"Then the Who came to town," Dannis Hackney says, pausing to emphasize some unspoken gravitas of that moment, "and when I saw Alice Cooper, all bets were off. I said, 'If we ain't playing this, then we ain't gonna be having no fun.'"
Singer David Hackney, however, sought to express through the band's new music his own complex cosmology, which included some positive notions about the rebirth and transformation potential in death. Thus, he insisted on the name.
That made Death pretty much dead on arrival.
The band's first producer in Detroit, former Stax musician Don Davis, recalls in the film telling the band: "Have you lost your mind? Nobody is going to buy a song from a group called D-E-A-T-H," spelling out what apparently was still an uncomfortable moniker.
The trio's music caught the ear of hitmaker Clive Davis, who was ready to sign the band to Arista — as long as they changed the name. David refused to budge, insisting (with definitely punkish integrity) that the sacrifice would be a slippery slope. Bobby Hackney, in an earlier interview, recalled, "He said, 'If they make us change our name, then every little thing they see in us they're gonna wanna change — the music, the style, the concept. Once we change that name, we belong to them. Once we give in to that, Death is, well, dead.'"
Credibility intact, Death still died. They did, however, manage to secure the master recordings of what was to be the debut Death album. Attempts to release songs independently failed, and the brothers relocated to Vermont and formed a reggae band. David Hackney died in 2000, after insisting that his brothers hold on to those masters, saying, "One day the world's gonna come looking for this."
Amazingly, that's exactly what happened.
Biafra, a rabid record collector, bought a box of singles several years ago: Death's lone indie 45, "Politicians in My Eyes." He mentioned it in an interview. The writer posted the single online as an mp3. Word began spreading of its awesomeness.
Then the rediscovery came full circle. Bobby Hackney Jr. — clearly still dazed and amazed by this as he relates the story in the film — hears the song, likes it, and has no idea it's his dad until he goes as far as to Google some background. He calls home: "Dad, why didn't you tell me??!!"
This is 2008, and the following year momentum has built enough that Chicago-based label Drag City assists the Hackney brothers in restoring those old masters and finally releasing the debut Death album, titled "...For All the World to See." Another compilation of early demos followed.
This week at SXSW, in addition to the documentary screenings, two bands played showcases: Death, featuring surviving brothers Dannis and Bobby with two extra players, and Rough Francis, a deadly new generation featuring Bobby Hackney Jr., Julian Hackney and Urian Hackney.
Even better: Death will live again on a new record, titled "Relief," in the works now.
SXSW: Justin Timberlake, Prince, Smashing Pumpkins
By Thomas Conner March 17, 2013 9:06 am
The final night of SXSW featured two big legacy acts. OK, from a Chicago perspective it was three.
Justin Timberlake, making good on rumors, blew into town after a week on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” to play an intimate club gig. Here’s a star who will fill Chicago’s Soldier Field this summer, but here in Austin he played the 800-capacity Coppertank Events Center.
(Mind you, this show was only partly about music. Timberlake, now a beer spokesman, was here to promote the newly renovated MySpace web site, of which he’s a major investor, in a concert sponsored by Chevrolet.) Timberlake, backed by a 16-piece band, played for an hour. This writer did not gain admission — I just reviewed his record, and we’ll have plenty of chances to discuss JT further all year long — but there are good reviews here, here and here.
Across town, Prince played the larger club La Zona Rosa, leading a 22-piece band and performing more covers than his own songs. The nearly three-hour show — in which Prince never played guitar (fail) — did bring something to SXSW that is often hard to find: lots of R&B and funk.
"They called our people and said they wanted some funk in Austin,” said Prince, before belting out the last bars of a gentle rendition of “Purple Rain.” At least this show sounds like it was better than his previous Chicago fiascoes.
You won’t see a lot of photos from the Prince show online today, however. Notoriously prickly about photos at his shows, Prince banned all cameras. Even simply using a cell phone got some fans tossed — a biting irony, given that the concert was thrown by Samsung Galaxy and promoters worked the crowd beforehand offering customers fresh phone batteries or device test-drives. But intrepid Chicago photographer Michael Jackson (yup, his real name), shooting for the Sun-Times, landed the image above.
In other news: Today is Billy Corgan’s birthday — happy 46th! — an occasion the Chicago rocker rang in at midnight on stage at SXSW. The Smashing Pumpkins, still busy and ahead of a new world tour, played a set mixed with hits (“Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight”) and newer songs from the excellent “Oceania” album, even a cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Review here, or see the detailed run-down on the Twitter feed from Hipsters United.
SXSW: Wanderings, discoveries, random notes
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2013 12:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — If it's Sunday, that means my notes are full of jottings about a dozen other bands I saw and haven't written about yet in the mad rush that is SXSW. Deep breath, here's a wrap-up of the other tunes worth mentioning ...
Best brand-spanking-new band
CHVRCHES, barely a year old, impressed with a strong batch of electronic pop at several showcases, including a Friday day stage. The Scottish trio's debut album isn't due until September, but singer-synth players Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty bear all the hallmarks of a forceful, creative unit with a single mind — perhaps the meaning of the beautiful current single, "The Mother We Share." Their newness is evident in the fact that they still have a ways to go before making their knob-twiddling something to watch on stage, but the songs are there. I haven't heard synth-driven pop this tight and tuneful since Robyn showed up.
Most hopeful feeling at end of showcase
No one really seems to have demanded this reunion of Chicago's Fall Out Boy, but the band's Friday night showcase — back at SXSW after eight years — at least showed off enough energy and chutzpah to suggest that the comeback is genuinely inspired. Their fans certainly remain adoring, singing along with practically every word that fell from singer Patrick Stump's lips, maybe even his stage banter. The 45-minute slot kept to singles old ("Sugar, We're Going Down," "Dance, Dance") and new ("My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark [Light 'Em Up]"). Stump flexed his own R&B muscles in a recent solo outing, and the new FOB is highlighting that strength. Even the cover of "Beat It" sounded more sincere and natural than one might expect. Definitely whetted the appetite for the new record.
Best stumbled-upon showcase
Field Report, a band led by Christopher Porterfield. Two bits of trivia: First, Field Report is an anagram of Porterfield. Second, Porterfield started out a decade ago in DeYarmond Edison, the band Justin Vernon fronted before creating Bon Iver. On his own, Porterfield is much warmer and far rootsier. At a Saturday SXSW showcase, his six-man band — plenty of plaid shirts and trucker hats, neither of which seemed to be worn with much hipster irony — delivers supple, textural Americana that fit right in with the venue's sponsorship by a home-improvement cable channel (as if his music was in itself an answer to the advertising banners hung around the bar, asking, "What does home mean to you?"). Singing well-written songs about New Mexico and a "bible school choir," Porterfield guided the band up and down various crescendos to achieve maximum emotional impact, all the while maintaining an appropriately pensive expression. "Is everyone drinking enough water?" he asked between songs. Bassist Travis Whitty chided him: "Concerned dad up here." Aw shucks.
Best return on investment in buzz
New York quartet Parquet Courts entered the festival with considerable, though understandably hesitant, buzz. The band's proper debut album, "Light Up Gold," out in January, is a complex chart of steady rhythms, snaking words and clean but often jarring guitars. It's not an album that immediately broadcasts "great stage show!" On stage Saturday night, the band lazed into action, blurring the line between hasty SXSW sound check and actual opening song. Driven by the rhythm section — featuring bassist Sean Yeaton, who spends the show contributing occasional backing vocals with hilariously distended tongue, like a punk Loudon Wainwright III — guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown were free to work at their own pace and inspiration, pulsing their instruments to propel the song or torturing them a bit. The momentum of the Strokes, the late-night "Stoned and Starving" haze of the Dandy Warhols, plus occasional Sonic Youth squall. Adds up to a good time.
Best personal thrill with very little note-taking
A longtime Robyn Hitchcock fan, I wasn't going to miss perennial SXSW performer Robyn Hitchcock's early Saturday show, particularly since it was celebrating his 60th birthday (complete with tarantula-topped cake and red wine, which Hitchcock referred to as "lady petrol"). The British legend was supported by a number of pals — Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5), Bill Rieflin (R.E.M., Ministry, tons), Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn) — and for a moment, with Kelly Hogan on stage and Jon Langford in the wings, it seemed the band might turn into Robyn Hitchcock & the Chicagoans. Langford never materialized on stage with Hitchcock, though. Nor did R.E.M.'s Mike Mills (grinning, looking more content than I've seen him in years), who was at the bar and had played bass behind Stringfellow as the opening act. Nonetheless, Hitchcock told his usual bizarre stories and sang an impressively wide variety of songs — newish ones (the beautiful "Dismal City"), old ones ("Queen Elvis," "Ole Tarantula," "Alright, Yeah") and covers ("Tangled Up in Blue," "Don't Let Me Down") — as well as rapping a bit about the new pope.
Best delayed reaction
Lord Huron was highly recommended to me by friends at last year's SXSW, but I missed their showcase at a cramped little club. Fast forward one year and on Wednesday night they were filling the spacious ACL Live theater, ahead of Natalie Maines' comeback set, with some enchanting folksy harmonies and rhythms. Those harmonies have earned them far too many Fleet Foxes comparisons — and they're sometimes a bit thinner and wispier than that — but when those rhythms crank up they come alive. "Time to Run" does just that, and every band member is armed with some percussion instrument — a shaker, maracas, singer and bandleader Ben Schneider with a small snare. Good tunes when they get up and go.
Best hangover showcase
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell played NPR's Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center. It was Friday morning, and the soft-spoken angel that is Emmylou strolled out in her boots — cue the Janis Ian song — and quipped that everyone here deserved a merit badge just for navigating through the festival. She meant the confusion and enormity of SXSW, but when she and Crowell played Kris Kristopherson's "Chase the Feeling" ("And you got loaded again / Ain't you handsome when you're high") many vacant-eyed attendees were nodding with understanding, not rhythm.
Worst showcase logistics
Foxygen was due to play a half hour set Wednesday night at the Hype Hotel, which they started a half hour late. (Out of all the shows I saw this week, two started on time. That's my main complaint about SXSW's rampant growth. They're starting to lose control of their production.) Foxygen is a great, brassy band that sounds superb on their latest record, "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic," but that interesting sound was completely swallowed up in the ramshackle venue that was the Hype Hotel, an empty commercial cavern hemmed in with sound-eating drywall that appeared to have been nailed up this month. Bummer.
Pitchfork Music Festival 2012
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival kicks off with new features
By Thomas Conner on July 13, 2012 3:45 PM
The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival got off to a delayed start Friday afternoon due to passing storms. Gates opened 30 minutes later and music was delayed 10 minutes while crews pumped some flash-flooded spots.
First up is the organic drone of Lower Dens and the spunkier rock of Outer Minds. Through Sunday night, 47 bands will perform on three stages in Chicago's Union Park, featuring mostly indie subgenres of rock, pop, electronic and hip-hop.
With a daily capacity of 18,000 fans — Friday is nearly full, Saturday is sold out, Sunday is filling up — the annual music fest is exactly one-fifth the size of Lollapalooza's daily crowd of 90,000.
That does not mean it wields just 20 percent of the impact.
Showcasing rising stars and cutting-edge sounds, the Pitchfork event — derived from its namesake online music magazine, Pitchfork.com, the arbiter of what's playing in hipster headphones the world round — often assist in culling the field, even determining who steps up to the larger fests, such as Lolla, Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Situated squarely in this West Loop park, Pitchfork's schedule and layout are easy to manage and maneuver. It's a fan-friendly and usually Chicago-friendly experience. Ticket prices stayed level this year ($45 each day, $110 for three-day passes), so it's a great bargain.
New elements to the experience this year include on-site lockers for fans to stash belongings, a ride-sharing program and increased bicycle parking. Among the vendor booths and markets, such as the CHIRP Record Fair, is the new BookFort, sponsored by local publisher Featherproof and Poetry magazine, featuring books for sale and a schedule of readings and discussions throughout the weekend from writers ranging from Tim Kinsella to Cynthia Plaster Caster.
Also, for those not attending the festival, Pitchfork 2012 is streaming online for the first time via youtube.com/pitchforktv.
Pitchfork Day 1: Chicago's Willis Earl Beal amazes
By Thomas Conner on July 13, 2012 11:50 PM
Chicago's Willis Earl Beal delivered the first jaw-dropping set of this year's Pitchfork Music Festival. Preceded by a growing legend that's threatened to overshadow his actual talent — discovered as a visual artist and busker, Beal has been trumpeted as an eccentric wunderkind in Found magazine and in the Chicago Reader — he strutted onto the festival's smaller secondary stage as if he were headlining the United Center. He then unleashed a voice that would've filled eight United Centers.
Warming up with some head-turning a cappella gospel evoking Calvary, Beal started a reel-to-reel tape rolling — his only accompaniment at first — and began singing over tinny clangs, dobro slides and bass beats. But "singing" seems a flaccid verb for what Beal actually accomplishes. Projecting a massive, versatile voice that hollers and howls, grates and growls, the 27-year-old Beal's bellowing evokes the oldest bluesmen and the fiercest young rappers. It's a voice that swings wide, high and low — often from guttural yawps to fluttery falsetto within a single line. He's Screamin' Jay Hawkins, then he's Curtis Mayfield.
Beal's acclaimed debut album, "Acousmatic Sorcery," is mostly lo-fi and delicate. His show is raw and loud. Twirling slowly, falling down, wrapping himself in a black cape — his moody performance is dramatic and occasionally histrionic. It wears slightly thin, too, particularly during the stomping six-minute dirges, but it's unquestionably a singular talent.
"You've been very patient watching me up here being self-indulgent," Beal said near the end. The pleasure was ours.
Pitchfork Day 1: Rain, rain, we came to play
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:03 AM
With its afternoon opening delayed slightly by a brief but heavy storm, Pitchfork's first day was deluged by a second downpour just before 6 p.m. The music didn't stop, though. Pitchfork organizers kept things relatively on schedule, and most fans seemed energized by the cooling rain.
More wet weather is forecast into the weekend, with a 40 percent chance of more storms Saturday.
Pitchfork's daily capacity of 18,000 fans wasn't quite sold out Friday, and the roomy field even during headliners suggested many fans with weekend passes stayed home due to the weather.
After A$AP Rocky's crew defied the evening downpour, skies cleared quickly and — save for a few muddy spots and puddles — Friday night went off without a hitch.
"I think the sun is coming out," said Japandroids' Brian King as his duo's set got under way. "Everything's gonna be all right."
Pitchfork Day 1: Outer Minds, Olivia Tremor Control
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:25 AM
Friday's music at Pitchfork opened direct from the wayback machine.
The first band on stage, Chicago's Outer Minds, drenched the soggy park with shimmering '60s psychedelic boogie. Singer-guitarist Zach Medearis, Vox organist Mary McKane and tambourine-confetti queen Gina Lira harmonize like the Mamas & the Papas, but the music is eight-cylinder garage-rock — much wilder and reckless on stage than on record.
Medearis' Alex Chilton (Box Tops-era) bark and snaky Will Sergeant guitar lines literally vibrate in front of drummer Brian Costello's rolling fills and thundering drops. During "Until You're Dead," Costello was on his feet, pounding his toms like a musical Thor. Right on.
They were immediately followed on one of the main stages by the paisley sounds of the Olivia Tremor Control, a product of the Elephant 6 collective in the 1990s, re-formed in recent years (along with the reappearance of Jeff Mangum) with charter members Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart. Their sunny '60s pop faced down Friday's looming clouds and included numerous horns.
Pitchfork Day 1: A$AP Rocky vs. Big K.R.I.T.
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 12:34 AM
Two rising hip-hop scrappers nearly went head-to-head on the two main stages Friday night.
First, A$AP Rocky hit the Red stage — or at least his mob did. Rocky showed up during the fourth song and proceeded to throw his ADD rhymes at the crowd just before the second storm hit. Rain didn't stop the Harlem rapper, but with his frenetic flow, urban angst and stage-diving antics, little probably could. Championed by Drake and collaborating with Danny Brown, his 2011 debut "Live Love A$AP" caught enough mainstream attention to earn a major-label reissue this year. That was mainly for the slo-mo flow of hits like "Peso" and "Purple Swag." Friday, Rocky was so hyped-up his follow-up, coming in September, might be called "Live Wire."
Better was Big K.R.I.T., a slow burner from Mississippi who took to the Green stage in a Bulls cap and kept telling the crowd he wanted to "slow things down." With beats significantly more soulful than Rocky's, K.R.I.T. (King Remembered in Time) eased everyone through a scorching, satisfying set. His full-length debut, "Live from the Underground," mixes up the soul (and blues, he samples B.B. King) with anti-crunk hip-hop full of — like his Friday set — frequent reminders that K.R.I.T. is just "country people."
Pitchfork Day 1: Feist, Japandroids, Dirty Projectors
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 1:26 AM
The two guys who make up Japandroids have a knack for multiplying humanity. First, guitarist Brian King (pictured) and drummer David Prowse generate enough raucous sound for a full quartet and then some. Secondly, they draw a crowd — one of the biggest I've ever seen at Pitchfork's smaller stage under the trees.
Taking the Blue stage as the rain receded, King took responsibility. "We brought the Vancouver weather with us," he said. Because of the weather delays, their set was trimmed. "So I'm not gonna talk after this. We're just gonna cram in as many songs as we can. ... It's Friday night! Let's have some fun!"
Here are two guys definitely not sorry for party rocking. Playing several bashers from their latest album, "Celebration Rock," they filled the small space with spirited, punkish New Wave jams that electrified the large crowd — like they did at Pitchfork back in 2008 — and could have held down one of the main stages with atomic aplomb.
On the flip side, Dirty Projectors began their main stage set shortly after Japandroids, offering highly quirky, jazzy chamber-pop that might have been more rewarding on a smaller, more intimate stage.
A regular at Chicago outdoor festivals (Pitchfork in 2008, Downtown Sound in 2009, Lollapalooza 2010), Dirty Projectors just released "Swing Lo Magellan," a slightly more straightforward batch of songs, though that's not saying much for these herky-jerky composers. Opening the set with "Magellan" songs, Dirty Projectors presented a cool, jazzy front, mixing in prog-rock breaks and dubby bass into fractured tempos and occasionally glitchy sounds. Dave Longstreth is charismatic and creative, but he's no singer. Well into the set, the grooves began knitting together more seamlessly, and the songs that spotlighted the harmonies of the group's three women — as on the stunning "Beautiful Mother" — reminded me how much I used to love the Roches.
Closing out Friday's main stage was Feist, the not-so-feisty Canadian who became a darling of indie-pop years ago with a little song called "1,2,3,4," a song that wound up everywhere from iPod commercials to "Sesame Street." And she didn't play it.
What Feist did instead was put on the show she clearly intended to put on — a patient rendering of her songs, old and new, with a decidedly earthy, rootsy palette. She even had (speaking of the Roches' harmonies) the female trio Mountain Man singing backup and wrapped in baggy, monk-like robes. Mixing new songs, from last fall's "Metals," and spacious reinterpretations of a few old ones ("Mushaboom"), Feist and her band slowly prodded her catalog. Rhythms palpitated like Native American songs, and the set started off like a bit of a wet blanket. Chatter online and on-site leading up to this set questioned whether Feist was a headliner-worthy act. As she plodded along like Jackson Browne's sister, the naysayers were winning.
Eventually, though, she cranked things up to festival level, grinding into her guitar hard enough to remind us she began her musical life in a punk band. "My Moon My Man" featured some six-string squall before its big, booming finish, and midway through the rocking backbeat of "I Feel It All" she had the whole crowd back. This ebbed and flowed, swelling again during "Comfort Me" and concluding with a self-satisfied grin.
Pitchfork Day 2: 'Embrace the mud!'
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 6:50 PM
PHOTO BY ME
After Friday's soggy opening, the second day of the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park received another soaking early in the afternoon. But a little rain failed to dampen the spirits of the sold-out crowd.
Festival organizers acted quickly to manage the puddles and mud patches, laying down clay and plastic decking, and pumping where necessary.
As one festivalgoer said, though, leading several around her in a chant: "Embrace the mud!"
Pitchfork Day 2: Flying Lotus, Wild Flag
By Thomas Conner on July 14, 2012 11:52 PM
Pitchfork's blessing and its curse can be the diversity of its programming. Saturday's schedule was proof of these extremes — a broadly inconsistent day — but sometimes the swing between extremes really crackle, as it did Saturday afternoon with two divergent but equally exciting sets.
First, California DJ Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison, pictured) quickly dispatched all who doubted that one man and a turntable deck could hold down one of Pitchfork's main stages. An odd booking, perhaps, but in the glare of post-rain sun, his charisma and cheer — not to mention a wise selection of tracks for his target audience (Kanye West & Jay-Z, Odd Future, Erykah Badu and more were in his fluid mixes) — were infectious. When he tweaked the Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic," the crowd — already pogoing in the slop — went berserk. When his time was up, he kept spinning and few argued.
Follow that postmodern party with a purely old-school guitar band. The inimitable Wild Flag continued knitting a '60s psych-rock thread that started on Friday with Outer Minds and Olivia Tremor Control.
But this supergroup quartet (members from Sleater-Kinney, Minders, Helium) see-sawed between more classic, concise pop-rock (closing with "Romance" from their highly acclaimed, self-titled debut) and stunning, feedback-drenched guitar workouts ("Glass Tambourine"), as well as taking turns between songs led by singer-guitarist Mary Timony and those led by Carrie Brownstein.
As if to highlight their roots as a two-guitar band, they opened with Television's "See No Evil," then unveiled a couple of new songs. Their back-and-forth in the climactic swirl of "Glass Tambourine" was athletic. Same for "Racehorse," which they ended by weaving squalls of feedback for several minutes, concluding with Brownstein — in an image I'll long remember — her hair frazzled and in her eyes, holding her aquamarine guitar by the bottom high over her head, with one hand, her other on her hip, as the feedback rolled and rolled. Triumphant.
A bonus of every Wild Flag show is watching Rebecca Cole dance behind her keyboards. Very Peanut-characterish, very endearing.
Pitchfork's known more for experimental and electronic acts, so it was nice to hear some rawk.
Pitchfork Day 2: Sleigh Bells and a mixed bag
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 12:40 AM
Saturday was a day of mixed reviews. The weather: dreadful at first, delightful by nightfall. Mobile service: some hilarious tweets, though several of them were delivered two hours late. The video screen: beautifully clear this year, even though its images always seemed brighter and sunnier than reality.
Music, too. Sleigh Bells, for starters. Their reign of terror on the evening main stage alternated between hard-hitting and plain silly.
Pumped-up cheerleader Alexis Krauss, guitarist-producer Derek Miller and a second guitarist, Jason Boyer, put on a spirited track show, leaping and posing to a backing of tinny beats and high-EQ noise. Even in the wide-open park space for Pitchfork — where they also played in 2010 — the sound was claustrophobic. Opening with their now-signature high-EQ guitar assault, they dished music that at times aped Billy Squier ("Demons"), Roxette ("Born to Lose") and a Jamaican Jesus & Mary Chain cover band ("End of the Line"). Give Krauss props for filling in the holes with buoyant stage prancing and fierce orders for everyone to cheer, and give the crowd props for obeying. "I'm coming to get you, Chicago!" she cried as she dove into the audience. She makes a racket, but she makes it look like a blast.
Chromatics were playing for five minutes before I realized that the innocuous synth-pop I was hearing was not the piped PA music. Danny Brown's pinched, nasally, Nipsey Russell rapping was funny but flat, like his usually wild hair that the Detroit MC hid underneath a ballcap. London's Hot Chip filled the good-time, dance-party slot last year ably designed by Cut Copy, but did so by playing a batch of uptempo dance-pop that all sounds exactly the same, even their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere." They sounded like everyband.
Pitchfork Day 2: Grimes, Godspeed You! Black Emperor
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 1:17 AM
Saturday's Pitchfork headliners both seemed like mixed bags — especially to the hundreds of people who stuck with them for two songs and then bolted (I've never seen such an exodus on a Saturday night at Pitchfork) — but each earned their keep in drastically different ways.
On the main stage, the mysterious and expansive Godspeed You! Black Emperor confounded the curious and exalted the faithful. Reunited after a seven-year hiatus, the nine-member Montreal collective (last here in March 2011, just after reuniting) demonstrated why they are both revered and ignored, building a typical set that was all dynamics but little depth.
What GY!BE does is build tension — and build it, and build it. This is a band whose debut album had three songs on it, each averaging 17 minutes in length. Their opener Saturday night, as the field had cooled and the crowd loosened up, began with a musical murmur, a sound that could have been a sound check, could have been a tuning. Then a single violin note. Some static footage began (the video screen between the stages went dark for this, the better to force concentration on GY!BE's nonsense imagery behind them), drums began thumping, then an undulating hum. They sustained this intoned intimidation for 13 minutes, basically around a single note. You wondered if they even knew where they were, or cared.
From there, the set throbbed and threatened — morphing through Turkish violins and Middle Eastern chimes, unnerving drums that thundered and rattled, and occasional wafts of melody, like half-remembered folk tunes or hymns (I know I heard "Amazing Grace" in there). This was symphonic music as it would be crafted by, say, Crazy Horse.
A wordless wonder was a bold choice for a festival headliner, though only the faithful seemed to appreciate the audience with their Olympian legends. Unlike Explosions in the Sky, for instance, GY!BE never seem truly comfortable on — or even aware of — stage. Saturday's performance, however, launches a 17-date tour through the summer.
Meanwhile, another act proved far bigger than Pitchfork's small Blue stage. Vancouver native Grimes (Claire Boucher) took a break from her current participation in the Full Flex Express Tour with Skrillex, Diplo and others to drop in on Pitchfork and draw a massive crowd under the trees. Like GY!BE, she bewildered as many as she entranced — there was a similar mass exodus from her crowd, too, after a couple of songs — and seemed to be dancing to a different performance than the one we were hearing.
Despite purring and cooing through soft, skittering ballads and glitchy, gauzy pop fragments, Grimes whipped herself around as if she were spitting out block rockin' beats. Plus, in addition to her DJ (who didn't seem to unburden Grimes of her own considerable knob-twiddling efforts), Grimes was joined onstage by two dancers, of the "Solid Gold" variety. Whereas GY!BE is all structure and time, Grimes chucks structure for sound. Not only does she employ her own, trademark baby-doll voice to its full extent, she adds infantile vox humana to the synthesized mix. The result is often creepy, unsettling and occasionally bewitching. She knows how to craft a hook, but she casts them into strange, murky waters.
Pitchfork Day 3: the Electromusical Energy Visualizer
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 5:54 PM
Mind you, this is the Pitchfork Music Festival, not another World's Columbian Exposition. Nonetheless, in one corner of Chicago's Union Park during this weekend's annual indie-rock fest, there was a contraption called the Electromusical Energy Visualizer.
Fans enter one of its four booths (sponsored by online service eMusic), don headphones and place one hand on an electric sensor. They then listen to snippets of four songs, each by one of the bands on this year's Pitchfork schedule.
At the end of each song sample, a photo is snapped. Like an amusement park ride, you exit the booth and receive your photo set — each shot overlaid with a color from the spectrum allegedly corresponding to your "musical aura" while listening to the song.
Yes, it's a 21st-century mood ring.
My session seemed accurate enough: Lower Dens (light yellow, mildly happy), Beach House (bright yellow, very happy, see photo at left), Iceage (goofy expression on my face, but no mood response) and A$AP Rocky (no mood response).
Pitchfork Day 3: The wooden letters
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2012 7:08 PM
Fans who visited the Blue stage this weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival took a moment or two to decipher Matthew Hoffman's plywood sculpture (above).
In letters 8-feet tall and spanning 80 feet atop the park's west fence, Hoffman spelled out, "THESE MOMENTS."
It's part of some on-site art installations in collaboration with Chicago-based Johalla Projects.
Watch a time-lapse video of the installation here, and see more of Hoffman's work here.
Pitchfork Day 3: Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, more
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 12:08 AM
The only thing that made Sunday afternoon's block of garage rock at Pitchfork 2012 more scorching and thrilling was the camaraderie between two of the acts.
"Hey, Ty Segall!" John Dwyer shouted from Pitchfork's smaller Blue stage. "Can you hear us?"
Dwyer leads Thee Oh Sees, the prolific Bay Area pysch-rock band (four albums in three years) with the ever-evolving name (OCS, the O.C.'s, the Ohsees). Sunday his band started a half hour before the like-minded Segall on the larger Red stage, and Dwyer knew a lot of fans were torn by the scheduling — and planning to bolt. "Don't go," he pleaded limply. "Stay!"
While both White Mystery redheads watched and pumped devil horns in the air behind the stacks, Thee Oh Sees plowed through a set of rich, textured psychedelic garage. Dwyer and his mates threw their heads hard back and forth as they ground out relentless riffs, and Dwyer yelped and hiccupped. The first song bore down for eight glorious minutes, bashing and scraping like early '90s-era Flaming Lips scoring a post-apocalyptic road movie. Hanging tight to their garage aesthetic, they still sashayed through slower, ambling boogies and several moody freakouts. Segall definitely heard them.
In fact, he tried to repay the favor. Midway through his own set, Segall led the crowd on a count of three to shout, "Dwyer!" Then he noticed that Dwyer had already finished and was standing to the side of Segall's stage. "Holy sh—!" he blurted. Then, with the same utter joy he played his stunning set, he shouted, "Yeah!"
Segall, an even more prolific California garage primitivist (11 albums since 2008), was Pitchfork 2012's great revelation.
Where was the mud Sunday? Not in the field, but in Segall's amps. Thick, peaty sonic mud, tuned for flinging. Opening with peals of feedback squall, Segall and his band — featuring the battering Emily Rose Epstein on drums and equally aggressive guitarist Charles Moothart — blasted through a set of rollicking rock and roll as true to form but just as texturally diverse as Thee Oh Sees. Where Dwyer's band is slightly more cerebral with their clay, Segall is all physical — grabbing handfuls, lurching to and fro, torturing the desired sounds out of his instrument by flexing and twisting every part of his body, not mere hands and fingers. Garage stomps and banshee wails, jangly bits and cooing harmonies, screeching jet engines and screams of bloody murder — hell, not only did he throw in a cover of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," he turned in some credible blues-rock ("You Make the Sun Fry," a great title for Sunday's heat).
He even made something out of the stage-diving cliché by jumping in and steering the surf — pointing in the direction he wanted to go, out toward the sound booth and back to the stage. The crowd conveyed him just so while the band vamped. When he hit the stage again, he picked up his guitar and kept going. A golden god.
These sets were bookended by other unabashed guitar rockers at a festival sometimes known more for knob-twiddlers and shoegazers. Milk Music, a longhair bar band from Olympia, Wash., played dedicated '90s grunge and whipped their hair around without irony. The Men, a Brooklyn quartet with a Southern rock fixation, tempered their own thrash with slide guitar, harmonica and forays into stoner jams.
Pitchfork Day 3: Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 12:35 AM
Straight outta Compton, rapper Kendrick Lamar earned a huge crowd at Pitchfork's smaller Blue stage on Sunday. Were they all drawn by Lamar's hard-as-nails flow? Not quite.
Lady Gaga was there to see him.
You read that right. Lamar, you see, keeps excellent company.
He's not a newbie, either. He started his career as K. Dot, making three mixtapes under that name. Now rechristened, Lamar has Snoop Dogg singing his praises and Dr. Dre signing him to his label. (Lamar even has allegedly contributed to "Detox," Dre's now-legendary third album that's been in the works for 11 years.) Pitchfork fans can appreciate that he recently performed a concert with Best Coast.
The Lady and Lamar somehow became friends, and Gaga tweeted about him last week ("What a sweetie calling me this morning to see how I'm doin"). In a move smacking of marketing machinations, Gaga swung through Chicago to play tastemaker.
During Lamar's set, Gaga danced on the side of the small stage under the trees, surrounded by her entourage (which included a beefy fellow waving photographers away). Twitter nearly burst into flames with anticipation of her joining him on stage, but the pairing didn't happen.
Which left us Lamar by himself. Frankly, that's a bit of a letdown. Hitting the stage 15 minutes late, Lamar spent much of his set freestyling — impressively, with an appealing and gravelly street-preacher flow, but he seemed to be doing it most often because his lame, distracted DJ wasn't backing him up. "Hol' Up" is an easygoing reflection built atop some chill Herb Alpert-like horn samples, but after that we got a ride on the cliché train. Leers about sex and alcohol, demands for noise-making and hand-waving, comparisons of himself to Martin Luther King Jr. — by the end of Lamar's set, Lady Gaga would have been a comparable injection of humility.
But she just leaned on the railing, in a black bustier and some heavy jewels. All dressed up, and she didn't go anywhere.
Pitchfork Day 3: Vampire Weekend, Beach House, the Field
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2012 1:33 AM
The 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival concluded Sunday night with three final acts touching on each strength this locally produced marquee has demonstrated over the years: dependable college rock (Vampire Weekend), noodling electronic mood music (Beach House) and a curious, tucked away experimental surprise (The Field).
Three days down, 47 acts on three stages, Pitchfork 2012 was a mixed bag — more mixed than usual, really — with a full-capacity sell-out only on Saturday.
Beach House — sigh. First off, I know. They're dreamy. If I never see a tweet or have it explained to me about their "dreamy" sound, it'll be too soon. But it's often a thin line between dreamy and dull.
When the drug lobby eventually succeeds in making everything legal and taxable, Beach House will be in great demand to provide music for Quaaludes commercials. Depending on your point of view, the plodding pretenses of Victoria Legrand (pictured) and Alex Scally (plus a mallet-loving drummer) either made for that perfect Pitchfork evening gazing into the twilight or a dreary, dark buzzkill. I expected the former but concluded the latter.
Legrand's sandy, deliberate voice pulsated in and out of the washed-out mix, while she and Scally hung back deep on the stage. (If you weren't positioned within a 45-degree cone from center stage, you could barely see them. Ironically, the cameramen were usually in the way, too.) Balancing light and dark tones within their Cocteau Twins echoes, the duo — in a better slot than their 2010 Pitchfork appearance — hummed and thrummed, mixing woozy sounds with delicate brushes and beats. But none of it had enough hooks to keep me from drifting away.
Which I'm glad I did, because I found the Field. A pseudonym for Swedish "minimal techno" artist Alex Willner, the Field on Sunday featured Willner joined by a drummer and bassist. Take the sustained tension of Saturday night's Godspeed You! Black Emperor, swap the bombast for some Tangerine Dream, and you've got the basics for this super-subtle patchwork of rhythm and sound that closed out Pitchfork's Blue stage.
Willner laid down a simple beat and began building dynamics above and below it — so lightly, carefully, applying the kind of noises you can't quite discern, the kind of insistent hums you search the house all over trying to locate. But it was cool, refreshing, and he kept layering the sounds and amping up the rhythm until the small crowd was dancing without most being aware of how or when they'd started. A study in electronic grace.
Now, to the Sunday night main-stage headliner: Vampire Weekend.
You hipsters and your inevitable backlashes. The preppy thing, the "Upper Wide Side Soweto" tag, the premature Spin acclaim, the bassist's relation to Scott Baio — I get it, Vampire Weekend is painted with easy targets. But on paper this band's world-beat/college-rock cocktail is much more affected than has been proven on record, and usually on stage (occasional cardigans notwithstanding). Hipsters love to employ the worn-out Paul Simon comparisons as a weapon. But you could do a helluva lot worse than having influences of such a rich songwriter and producer, particularly from his "Graceland" zenith. As has been argued before, Simon's legacy is overdue for indie-rock mining.
That said, Vampire Weekend missed an opportunity Sunday night to reintroduce themselves. Actually, the problem was that they didn't introduce anything new. "Contra," their last album, came out two and a half years ago; they've been laboring over the follow-up ever since, which they report is about 80 percent finished. From all that work, though, only one new song showed up Sunday. The rest of the set list was, well, drawn from the same well as their March 2010 concert in Chicago and their previous Pitchfork appearance as the hot new thing in 2008.
"It's been a long time since we played shows," singer Ezra Koenig told Sunday's ecstatic crowd. He repeated the caveat later, a few songs before his voice seemed to go (he sounded pretty out-of-practice on "I Stand Corrected").
The catalog is still bustling, spry and fun, especially with Sunday's concerted oomph, driven by the powerful drumming of Chris Tomson. But the new song — a stomping beat, a woven melody — and a satiny new reading of "Horchata" were the only fresh digs. Not that many seemed to mind. A screaming, dancing crowd hung on every tilt of Koenig's guitar and sang along to the whole bit. Still, to task, chaps! Finish that record!
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
This SXSW post is not brought to you by an Austin homeless person
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2012 6:09 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true — the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.
SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.
But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion — which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight. As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.
So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.
They gathered 13 people from a local homeless shelter, gave them mobile 4G Wi-Fi devices and sent them into the throng. Each volunteer wore a T-shirt saying, "I'm [Homeless Person's Name], a 4G Hotspot."
Many have found the campaign insensitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"
The company paid the homeless workers $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York. They also were able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
When you log on to one of the Homeless Hot Spots sites, customers are introduced to the person providing the connection and are invited to make a donation. A statement on the page reads: "Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."
Saneel Radia, the BBH Labs director who oversaw the project, told the New York Times the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers.
Other might want to get in on the action, though. My cab driver from the airport said, "Hell, they can load up my cab and I'll drive around with a hundred hotspots, long as I can keep the meter running."
SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.
More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.
Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.
Tuesday night, as the Interactive sessions died down, the music showcases revved up. Last year was the first time music showcases started backing into the Tuesday of SXSW week, and there were more this year.
Chief among them was the return of Philly singer-rapper Santigold, acclaimed upon her 2008 debut and not heard from much since. Now she's out hyping her upcoming sophomore set, "Master of My Make-Believe," due May 1.
This being Austin, there was also a crowded fete for the loveable and quirky Daniel Johnston, a beloved area singer-songwriter.
The music programming starts in earnest today and continues through the weekend, with Bruce Springsteen giving the keynote address midday Thursday and performing later that night with the E Street Band, which launches its next tour this weekend.
Got a SiriusXM radio or a friend who does? The SiriusXMU channel is airing SXSW broadcasts all week, including the Friday night outdoor concert by the Shins.
SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 5:06 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes — but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals — and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far — Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song — slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa — like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare — leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.
SXSW: Little Steven on TV, Broadway, Springsteen tour
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 8:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.
A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")
"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."
Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.
Following his turn as a gangster in the HBO series "The Sopranos," Van Zandt is again playing a mobster -- this time in a series produced for Norwegian television, "Lilyhammer." The show was recently picked up by Netflix as the streaming service's first original programming.
"I was in Norway producing one of my bands there, the Cocktail Slippers [an all-girl rock band from Oslo]," Van Zandt said, "and these writers came and pitched this to me. I wasn't planning on playing a mobster again, but it's such a great idea. ... The Norwegians have gone crazy for it because they love America and rock and roll. They love the spirit of individualism, which is a bit of a contradiction for them and their community-based government. My character is someone who doesn't follow the rules, and they're very used to following the rules. Someone like me being a little naughty is exotic to them."
After the SXSW show, the E Street Band kicks off its tour this weekend. The band performed last Friday at New York's Apollo Theater, debuting the five-man horn section that replaces late saxophone legend Clarence Clemons on tour.
"We'll be featuring our soul music roots more on this tour," Van Zandt said. "And, you know, this year is a celebration of Woody Guthrie [the centennial of his birth]. Quite a bit of Bruce's music is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. ... It just never ceases to amaze me how Bruce continues to write in a way that is vital and very much of the moment. It always keeps us from even thinking about becoming a nostalgia band, because every tour is a whole new everything."
Springsteen is delivering the SXSW keynote address Thursday at noon. His latest solo album, "Wrecking Ball," was just released, and it debuted at No. 1 this week.
SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 11:48 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did — until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase — the first of eight gigs he has here this week — was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but — sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps — the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state — Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
SXSW: Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, the great R. Stevie Moore
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 9:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.
Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.
Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."
"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."
• • •
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten played a demure set Wednesday night at Stubb's. Getting off to a late start, Van Etten plodded through several songs from her attention-getting 2010 debut, "Epic," and her new follow-up, "Tramp." I still don't quite get the slobbering reverence for her work. No doubt, it's encouraging to hear someone with a voice this lovely treading the well-worn road of dissonant strumming and oblique, soul-bearing poetry blazed by fellow New Jersey-raised Patti Smith. Most of the songs merely wear that path down deeper, though, warbling over organ and cymbal-shy drums until they reach big crescendos that stumble to clumsy halts. They're awfully passionate dirges for someone who seems so chipper and cheery during her brief stage banter.
• • •
Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire and his red-hot New York rap crew continued their SXSW gigs Wednesday night at MI Annex on Sixth Street, and the crowd didn't want them to leave. "eXquire! eXquire!" they chanted, begging for one more freestyle, to no avail. MMeX is a weird, Wu-Tang-like mob of half a dozen rappers, and the group's namesake is a hulking, slurring nutjob with percolating flow. Wednesday night, he was spewing syllables so fast and without stopping that he began to slouch and collapse. At the climactic moment, he shot up as his mates punctuated the verse, shouting, "Breathe!" Huzzah!
• • •
Since the early 1970s, "singer"-songwriter R. Stevie Moore has been producing song after song after song — countless hours of tape — documenting the weird and wonderful corners of his mind. As the Trouser Press record guides have stated for years, "'Unsung hero' only touches on the injustice of obscurity for this wry, heartfelt artist whose limber genius." But he meandered into the SXSW spotlight this week for a few showcases, including a typically bewildering set of songs Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the SXSW trade show.
"Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?" Moore sang in a seemingly off-the-cuff ditty about the preponderance of big-name bookings at this year's festival, which was born in the late '80s as a haven for spotlighting up-and-coming talent. "If I had to choose between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat."
A large fella, in shades and with a wild Santa Claus-white beard and hair fluttering every which way, Moore plunked out his crafty lyrics and bent tunes on acoustic guitar. From his bottomless repository of material, he plucked a remarkable cache of quirky love songs, such as "Traded My Heart for Your Parts" and, uh, "I Wanna Hit You" (which he punctuated with, "Pow! To the moon, Alice!"). Looking at him, a deranged Wilford Brimley gargling his notes and strumming herky-jerky chords, the song "Goodbye Piano" took on new resonance: "You're so out of tune / I assume you're dead."
SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.
The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.
"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.
"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued — and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."
"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.
Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.
"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it — there's just doing it."
Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him — from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.
He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."
He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."
Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.
"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.
In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.
"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."
• • •
The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.
Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."
A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.
Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives — thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more — from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.
Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.
"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody — we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."
For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see woody100.com.
Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 10:32 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.
The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert — featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens — musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.
Stamey — also appearing several times at SXSW this week with the reunited dB's (see below) — has made these "Third" gigs into something of a pet project, performing them a few times ahead of the festival. But Thursday's gig, back in something of an emotional center for the band and its fans, resonated with obvious love from the musicians, especially a smiling Stamey, who never sang but acted as bandleader.
Mixing up the album's various sequences, the show opened with M. Ward on piano meandering through Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," an outtake from "Third." Players and singers then started cycling behind the microphone. British pub band the Dunwells delivered "Take Care" with Irish balladry and an accordion. The Mayflies' Matt McMichaels lead a steady "Jesus Christ." Auer, who had joined a revived lineup of Big Star, drove slowly through "Black Car," fueled by the string quartet.
Standouts included Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, redeeming himself with a solid version of "Nightime." Watching him in his skinny plaid suit and hipster hat, one could almost forget he now slums in the reconstituted Guns N' Roses. Peter Case, once a svelte New Wave rocker in the Plimsouls, appeared shaggy and bearded and did his best Van Morrison impression through "Stroke It Noel" (Stamey's smile was a thousand watts through that one). Sansone's "You Can't Have Me" was powerful even without the wailing saxophone and the two drum solos from Stephens.
Stephens himself stepped out from behind the kit to sang a couple of songs, including a string-laden "Blue Moon" beautifully arranged with a Pachelbel's Canon sway.
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills originally was scheduled to be on stage for the show, but he canceled due to illness. The former band's guitarist, Buck, appeared instead. He merely lurked in the background for two songs, the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and "You Can't Have Me."
The show closed with "Thank You Friends," featuring most of the cast back on stage, like a traditional "This Land Is Your Land" folk finale.
The Big Star concert followed a screening of a documentary, still in progress, called "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" from director Drew DeNicola.
• • •
Stamey's a busy boy at SXSW 2012. In addition to corralling that large cast of players for the Big Star tribute, he's got his own showcase on Saturday, plus he and the reunited dB's are scheduled six times here this week.
Wednesday afternoon was their first showcase, on the Dogwood patio on West Sixth Street. Featuring originals Stamey, singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby, plus acclaimed Southern producer and artist Mitch Easter on bass, this latest revival of the beloved '80s power-pop group is hawking a new album, "Falling Off the Sky," due in June.
They utilized their showcase to show off many of the new tracks — as jangly and tuneful as ever. Holsapple insists the new album is "a great summertime record," and as he sang the new "World to Cry," a wind-blown tree in the courtyard approved by showering the tightly packed audience with new buds.
It's not all sunshine and tanlines. Another new song jangled over a martial rhythm and lyrics of lament and paralysis. Stamey remarked, "On my tombstone, I want, 'He wrote one great riff.'" Then he added, "Plus a lot of depressing songs." He then ripped a scary, dissonant solo from the heart of "Happenstance," which the band balanced with the gentle waves of melody in "Love Is for Lovers."
Their official showcase is tonight.
• • •
Fast forward to the 21st century: Power-pop rocker Brendan Benson was back on stage as a solo act Thursday night. Jack White's partner in the Raconteurs, Benson funnels most of his melodic talents into his solo albums. He has yet to make a bad one, and his next, "What Kind of World," is due in April on his new independent label Readymade.
His Thursday showcase wasn't as flawless as his records. Stringy-haired and a little adrift, Benson charged gamely through some new songs, though one had to be abandoned after the first verse; he tried to restart it, but flubbed something again and moved on into a duo of the Raconteurs' "Hands" and his own "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" (in which he laments, "Why does it always happen...?").
SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.
Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano — one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."
Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound — lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."
The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."
Briefly, anyway — her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles — (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" — is scheduled for a June release.
SXSW hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 5:51 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.
With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory — she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.
K. Flay's sharpest weapon, though, is her fast-talking tongue. Her words-per-minute reached the red line almost every time. One song began with a slow, easygoing beat (no drummer), as she started rapping along. The beat kept modulating, faster and faster, and for three or four minutes she kept slinging syllables without a single flub or nonsense gibberish. Who knows what she wound up saying? But given the rest of her wisecracking, hard-hearted material -- all that's out thus far is an EP, "Eyes Shut," available free on her web site -- it's worth hearing at any speed.
• • •
Idle Warship — a new collaboration between acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli and Philly soul singer Res — released an album last fall that was mostly great, a fizzy mix of hip-hop, R&B and rock with just the right balance between all three. The group's SXSW showcases were highly anticipated — but, alas, their Friday afternoon show was ho-hum.
Backed by a live quartet, Kweli and Res ping-ponged their vocal duties and spent an inordinate amount of time asking the crowd for cheers instead of earning them. Kweli turned the word "soul" in one song into a falsetto, drawn-out "Soul Train" nod, but the music, which is buoyant and bouncy on record, lurched and lagged live. Even the synth underpinning of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" in the song "Steady," which eventually morphed into the whole band singing the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," failed to brighten the desperate energy on stage. The term "rap-rock" has certain negative connotations; this isn't really rap-rock, but it's close. A 21st-century Digable Planets, unfortunately, they ain't.
• • •
In one sense, I'd like to thank the sound engineers who had difficulty getting things in gear for the Robert Glasper Experiment showcase late Thursday night at the Elephant Room. Without their delay, some room in the tiny, dank club might not have opened up and I'd have missed the whole show standing on queue. The sound was substandard even when the show got under way, but those who made it in heard enough to justify the hype that brought us there.
Glasper is a hip-hop wunderkind. Glasper is a jazz juggernaut. A pianist, a Texas native, he seems to be knitting a new kind of fusion. A set that opens with Coltrane (sax player Casey Benjamin is pretty wicked, see video below) and nearly winds up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might only turn the head of zeitgeist interpreters like Brad Mehldau, but Glasper's quartet followed their open-minded explorations through the jazz tones, hip-hop beats and raucous rock with more ferocity than irony. His latest album, "Black Radio" (Blue Note), does the same thing and features guests like Mos Def and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco.
Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.
Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."
"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.
But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW — all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows — record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."
Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.
How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.
Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.
Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra — and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 — to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."
As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd — primarily SXSW badge-holders inside — to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" — carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") — and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."
Lack of a PA didn't stop him — not when you have the "human microphone."
"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"
He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.
He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"
Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.
SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 11:55 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this — "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" — that you take a little more seriously.
The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.
Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.
Creating a sound way bigger than the sum of its basic quartet lineup, this is indie-pop with bright colors, effervescent arrangements and, most importantly, real swing. Underneath the big, fat, chiming guitar chords and singer-guitarist Amber Papini's conversational patter is usually a firm beat, certainly a supple groove thanks to left-handed bassist Brian Betancourt. They could probably go toe-to-toe with most dance-rockers from the first wave (Franz Ferdinand, etc.), but they'd also have a calming effect on them. "The Right Profession," from this year's self-titled debut, certainly moves, and "Friends of Friends" enjoys a groovy dance break, but other songs sometimes noodle, sometimes vamp, sometimes slip into a positively Pink Floyd reverie.
• • •
If Steely Dan worked to sound like the actual future, rather than Donald Fagen's nostalgic 1950s Worlds Fair perspective on it, they might sound something like Brooklyn's Ava Luna. A thrilling, lurching, bewildering, surprising frenzy of genre-splicing, this sextet's Friday night return to SXSW at the Iron Bear club rocked and grooved and glitched.
Driven by rhythms that stutter and fray, Ava Luna's 21st-century rock 'n' soul is humanized by no-nonsense vocals. Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass bring seriousness and sass, when called for, but it's singer-guitarist Carlos Hernandez that embodies the band's schizophrenic joy. Playing with an ADD tic justifying lyrics like, "If I could focus," Hernandez sings like a less-somnambulant James Blake — all heady methol and melancholy. It's headbanging dubstep, it's postmodern soul, full of sound and fury, and when some feedback began ebbing and flowing between songs — hey, some of us thought it was just part of the band's space-age sound.
• • •
Chicago's Joe Pug sounds like a native down here in Texas. Biting his lip, chewing his accent, flashing his winsome smile or sometimes wincing with emotion, Pug is the picture of down-home earnestness.
Squeezing in just five songs for the Folk Alliance showcase on Saturday at Threadgill's, Pug played a handful of thoughtful country-folk tunes from his second album, "The Great Despiser," due next month. That's after he broke a guitar string — on the first strum of the first chord in the first song -- which was surprising given how tender and delicate most of the material is, augmented here with only an occasional electric guitarist and a stand-up bassist. But the new album features guests such as the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, so it's gonna roll. To close, Pug was joined by Austin music legend Harvey Thomas Young for his song, previously covered by Pug, "Start Again."
SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 4:54 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.
At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.
"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."
"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."
Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.
"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.
Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.
Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.
"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.
"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."
He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.
Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.
"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."
Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece — the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.
In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.
SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2012 12:14 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:
• • •
The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question — "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" — but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?
It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.
Earlier in the year, I suggested 2012 might have a more worldly sound, including more K-pop. Already in the United States, South Korean idol Kim Hyun-a has attracted media attention, and when K-pop acts tour this country it's not just their music that turns American heads.
"People often are stopping because of how many people show up" to these concerts, said Flowsion Shekar, founder of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog.
David Zedeck, a booking agent at Creative Artists Agency, said he's selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues with K-pop, even in interior cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver. The group Girls Generation announced via Twitter that they would premiering a new video at a New York Best Buy. "We had 1,500 kids show up on a school day — from a tweet," he marveled. "This is bigger than anyone thinks it is."
Other prominent K-pop acts include Bigbang, JYP, the Wonder Girls and SMTown.
"Even though it comes from Korea, it's not of or for Korea anymore," said Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal ("It wasn't my idea," he said sheepishly of his column's name). "It's become a world music. There are more people who don't understand Korean listening to K-pop than in Korea."
Yang predicted K-pop could develop in America one of two ways: It could become like Latin music, a cultural identifier for Asian-American communities, or it could establish itself as a platform like hip-hop, inviting collaboration and eventual evolution into something larger.
Some of the latter already is happening. Kanye West previously worked with the trio JYJ (rapping on the single "Ayyy Girl") and has said he plans to do more with the group. Snoop Dogg recently appeared on a track by Girls Generation, and DJ Swizz Beatz says he's hoping to help bring K-pop acts like Bigbang (currently atop the K-pop charts, No. 1 and 2) to America.
• • •
In addition to performing his own and Woody Guthrie's song immediately before Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at SXSW 2012 — one of his first English-language performances — Colombian singer Juanes has been making multiple appearances at the festival all week. He discussed his upcoming May album, "Juanes MTV Unplugged," during a Friday panel session, then performed during the Latin rock showcase later that night.
In an AP interview, he celebrated the cultural smorgasbord that is SXSW: "It's such a great opportunity to interact together and exchange culture. I just feel the world now and the world is absolutely sick, you know, so I just see music and culture and art in general as a great idea to change at least our own environment and just connect people to the music. You can just go and walk around the street and you can see bands from I don't know, wherever, and they can sing in Chinese if you want. You just have the opportunity to connect with somebody else you didn't know, and that's good."
• • •
The sheer volume of music at SXSW makes random discoveries possible, probable and the payoff is often good. Thursday night I stopped for stir-fry at one of Austin's better food trucks downtown near Fifth and Brazos. On the corner a trio of Austrian vagabonds was playing to anyone who'd stop and listen. They're called Bensh, and they don't sound like a sidewalk band. Good-spirited pop with flourishes of electronics and gypsy bounce, Bensh's fluid, well-crafted pop caused me to scribble a seemingly bizarre list of comparisons in my notebook: Luka Bloom, Deathray, Syd Barrett, Animal Collective, the Monochrome Set. Much spunkier live than on record, Bensh still made a great impulse download that was perfectly dreamy in the earbuds during a pedicab ride home.
• • •
A showcase of musicians from Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Consul, ran all day Friday in a downtown park. I caught an acoustic set by Noa Margalit, from the rock band the Car Sitters. Listening to her stoic personal songs, you'd never guess how energetic the Car Sitters usually are. Tel Aviv's Margalit — breathy, barefoot, bar-chording the heck out of her guitar — played things close to the vest, at least sonically. Lyrically, she was raging about politics and quality of life, lamenting (or marveling?) that "it doesn't take much to survive."
Later, J. Viewz, aka Grammy-nominated and Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan, let loose some throbbing beats with a soulful vocalist and great live drums.
By Thomas Conner
© The Washington Post
Rapper and actor Common is usually cool as a cucumber, but in 2006, he got a little nervous. He was working with Black Eyed Peas member and in-demand music producer Will.I.Am on a song for a movie soundtrack, and Will had assembled the tracks using liberal samples from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“So this was serious, you know? Now I’m collaborating with Dr. King,” Common says. “Ain’t no playing around now. Not only do I have to be good, I can’t let down Martin Luther King.”
The fact that Common speaks of King in the present tense is telling of the personal and conversational flow to the rhymes he applied to the song “A Dream” (from the soundtrack to “Freedom Writers”). “In between the . . . hustle and the schemes / I put together pieces of a dream / I still have one,” he coolly and reverently raps before King’s voice returns to the mix.
Lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking hip-hop has always mentioned King this much — and this reverently. Since Common’s posthumous collaboration with King, MCs have been all over MLK. Sometimes it’s 50 Cent just citing his name, but others have equated King’s dream with the election of the nation’s first black president (rapper Jay-Z: “Now that that’s that, let’s talk about the future / We have just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther”).
Even Common was at it again a few months ago. At the White House (an invitation that caused apoplexy among certain pundits over the rapper’s controversial song about a cop killer), he performed a song from his album due in November, “The Dreamer, the Believer,” using more of King’s dream speech between verses.
But it wasn’t always like this.
“King was invisible in the early days” of hip-hop, says Michael Hill, a professor at the University of Iowa who researches racial identity and African American literature. “He wasn’t ‘sampled’ widely, even though his speeches were readily available. . . . He just wasn’t making his way into hip-hop songs. But that changed as agitation for a Martin Luther King holiday began in the 1980s.”
Stevie Wonder cited King in his cheery 1981 R&B song “Happy Birthday” (“There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration”). The federal holiday for King’s mid-January birthday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and the first holiday was observed in 1986 — but some states hesitated, which prompted Public Enemy’s scathing attack in “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (“The whole state’s racist / Why want a holiday? / [Expletive] it, ’cause I wanna”).
King’s voice was introduced, years before hip-hop, by an iconic DJ, Joe Gibson, known as “Jack the Rapper.” Throughout the late 1980s and the ’90s, though, the most frequent civil rights icon cited by Public Enemy and other rappers was Malcolm X.
“Once they bring out Malcolm X, King goes away again for 15 to 20 years,” Hill says. “That Public Enemy sample [of] Malcolm — ‘Too black, too strong!’ [in ‘Bring the Noise’] — it’s one of the most iconic samples in hip-hop. They patented Malcolm X as the voice that should be associated with this particular hard-edged framework, connecting the music with the notion of militancy.”
• • •
King’s absence makes sense to some. “The philosophy of nonviolent protest or redemptive suffering runs counter to the confrontational tone of so much hip-hop,” says Adam Bradley, co-editor of the groundbreaking Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press). “More than that, the Martin Luther King vision is harder to fit into a slogan than Malcolm’s. For Malcolm, you have ‘by any means necessary,’ catchphrases that capture, albeit imperfectly, his vision. With King, the closest we come is ‘I have a dream.’ It’s not surprising that’s one of the most prominent ways he appears in hip-hop.”
Even Common, for all of his use of King’s iconic speech, agrees. “Malcolm just represents more of the . . . the fire of hip-hop,” he said.
Not that it has to be one or the other. MCs in hip-hop frequently drop both names into the same song, often among a torrent of proper names.
“The main uses for name-dropping in hip-hop are as a simile,” Bradley says. “ ‘I’m like this person.’ Or occasional self-aggrandizement. Lil Wayne has this song [‘Playing With Fire’] where he says, ‘Assassinate me, (expletive) / ’cause I’m doing the same [expletive] that Martin Luther King did.’ That’s arguable,” Bradley says, then chuckles.
How serious are rappers when they link themselves so directly to a potent or polarizing figure?
For someone like Lil Wayne, Bradley says, “King’s name gives him the sound he wants to use. . . . It has little of the reverence,” Bradley says. “It’s delivered with a knowing sense that its audacity may resist the comparison, and through that it will nonetheless achieve the desired effect, which is to cast himself the giant.”
Sometimes the name-dropping, though, is didactic, often from artists who style themselves as socially conscious or political. King’s name is often employed as a means of teaching history to young people. Chuck D once famously referred to hip-hop as “the black CNN,” and even in today’s hyper-informational online culture, some MCs still take that role seriously.
Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, known for recently calling President Obama, on TV, “the biggest terrorist,” believes names are talismans, that dropping them will create ripples in the pond.
“It’s really a triumph anytime some rapper mentions his name,” Fiasco says of King. “The hope is that you say his name and some street dude in a car at a strip club smoking weed, that something triggers in him to go, ‘Now who is that guy and what did he do?’ ” Fiasco adds, “The names still carry weight in my world. Sneaking them in is very important.”
• • •
For Fiasco, there’s little sneaking going on. He opens his non-album track “BMF (Building Minds Faster)” announcing, “I think I’m Malcolm X, Martin Luther / add a King, add a Junior,” then proceeds through a list of figures he wants you to know about — “I’m Tupac, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Marcus Garvey . . . I’m Rev. Run . . . I’m T-Pain” — between his various critiques of social and foreign policy.
“I don’t even really break down who those guys were in the ‘BMF’ freestyle,” Fiasco says. “The names carry their own weight. Keeping them alive is all we need to do. It’s all we can do.”
Common understands this default duty of hip-hop — “Rap music in the hood plays the fatherly role,” he raps in “A Dream” — but when he was writing his rhymes to accompany King’s speech, the experience wasn’t so objective. It was personal.
His first verse describes every kind of darkness — gunshots fire from “sounds of blackness,” he’s followed by “dark clouds” and in his struggle to better himself, he says, “I just want some of your sun.” By the second verse, he’s turned introspective, speaking words as a letter to himself, telling “my story” about “tryna make it from a gangsta to a godlier role.” King’s dream becomes his own, though he initially worries he “ain’t using it for the right thing.”
“A lot of the struggle or fight that Dr. Martin Luther King was talking about was more for unity and about the rights of human beings,” Common says. “The character I took on in that song, you know, he says that fight exists in me. . . . I believe the change begins with you. You hear President Barack Obama speak and say, man, our work is just beginning. Well, our work is my work. We’ve got to take responsibility for the work. In the end, Martin’s dream starts with having a dream yourself — and then working to realize it, wherever and whoever you are.”
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Good morning, grandma!
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 1:13 PM
Lollapalooza 2011 opened with this ringing, backhanded endorsement from Jenn Wasner of the band Wye Oak: "I love Lollapalooza because it's the one festival even my grandparents know what it is."
Such cross-generational branding succeeded in selling out a record capacity this year. Over the weekend, 90,000 fans will attend each day of Lollapalooza. That makes this three-day concert event in Chicago's Grant Park one of the country's biggest, with Coachella's daily attendance around 75,000 and Bonnaroo's more than 100,000.
Thousands were already on hand Friday morning for the festival's opening sets, which included Baltimore duo Wye Oak and their Southern gothic shoegaze. Wasner, however, struggled to get going against a bad guitar pedal that eventually forced her to stop mid-song and apologize.
"There seems to be a ghost in it or something," she said as drummer Andy Stack looked on helplessly. "This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
She eventually salvaged her gear and the set, completing the song "Plains" to gracious applause from several hundred devoted early fans.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Vaccines, Naked & Famous
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 2:41 PM
Lollapalooza opened Friday morning with an announcement about more Lollapaloozing to be had worldwide next year — the festival will return to Chile (March 31-April 1) and add a new event in Sao Paulo, Brazil (April 7-8) — and then quickly moved to Britain as the Vaccines christened this year's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field.
Supporting their super-hyped debut, "What Did You Expect From the Vaccines," the Vaccines turned over the same well-tilled ground — lots of post-punk revival with tons of reverb and Strokesy confidence — but sounded fresher and cockier than they do on record. Singer Justin Young comes on quickly with a Dylanesque whine over his band's retro Walkmen grind, advocating for emotional destruction in "Blow It Up" and a quickie in "Post-Breakup Sex." The band's heap of influences seeped deeper than expected, too; for "Wetsuit" guitarist Freddie Cowan and the rhythm section chugged along simply like the Crickets, and Young encouraged dancing, saying, "This is one you can dance to. You're at a rock and roll show, remember." Anything to help clear away some of the band's studied self-consciousness.
When the Naked & Famous started playing at the other end of the south field, one fan shouted, and seemed sincere, "Oh, yay, another British accent!" That would be the buoyant Alisa Xayalith, leader of the festival's first '80s-inspired offering. Full of humming synths and buzzing guitars, all propped up by hard drums and loops, this New Zealand quintet took its time whipping up a melodious melodrama. "All of This" and "Punching in a Dream" opened the set establishing the template: Gothy pretension but irresistible tunes, sometimes building up one and tearing down the other. (They, too, suffered some equipment-related pauses on the same stage that dogged Wye Oak's earlier set. "Just fixing some broken sh—," Xayalith assured during a long break.) I'll call them Katrina & the Darkwaves.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Foster the People
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 7:31 PM
Friday afternoon turned out to be fine concert weather, with high clouds dulling the sun's edge and a cool lake breeze occasionally refreshing weary fans. But don't tell Mark Foster, hapless leader of L.A.'s Foster the People, whose crisp white dress shirt was transparent with sweat by the band's third song.
Foster the People are brand new, riding a slick slacker single from last year that landed them on one of Lollapalooza's biggest stage this year. They're still exploring who they are as a band, and they played the day's most eclectic set — evolving from dreamy, keyboard-laden grooves to ill-advised R&B to throwaway love ditties and, near the end, a straight cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." Foster is an odd duck, singing in his pinched nasal voice and occasionally leaping over to mash piano keys or pound the drums (as he did during "Call It What You Want"). Sometimes he was ridiculous, his shoulders jerking up and down as he whined his New Radicals funk-lite; other times he was gloriously unhinged, cackling like a madman near the end of the set when Foster the People suddenly turned into a garage band (or Joe "King" Carrasco). I the end they returned to what they thus far do best, laying down supple, sleepy grooves for that aforementioned single, "Pumped Up Kicks." Most of the crowd was pumped up and sang along.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: A Perfect Circle
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 7:33 PM
You've never heard John Lennon's "Imagine" delivered with such quivering earnestness as warped vocalist Maynard James Keenan gives it. In fact, you've likely never heard the song turned on its head in quite this manner, imbued with minor piano chords and a martial rhythm — twisted from its hopeful, thoughtful origins into a surprisingly dystopian sneer.
Such is the heavy gloom of A Perfect Circle, a supergroup playing Lollapalooza's main stage after being reactivated from a seven-year hiatus.
With no new music to present, this patient, pummeling band — led by Keenan from Tool, and now featuring former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha — drew from the band's brief period of activity, and a lot from 2004's "Emotive." That album was mostly covers and was not widely acclaimed. Their take on Depeche Mode's "People Are People," for instance, is so thundering and morose as to be largely unrecognizable. There's something to be said for making a song your own.
Because where Keenan's Tool goes for the gnarled composition, A Perfect Circle succeeds in creating a somber, dour mood, simmering with restrained fury, which Keenan unleashed perfectly during "Pet," roaring and growling from his isolated perch in the back of the stage (he does like to lurk) and whacking a tambourine on a staff to punctuate his demands: "Go back to sleep!" The song ended with angelic, chiming guitar, smoothing out the scene.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Chicago's Kids These Days
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 9:45 PM
If you looked around Lollapalooza just after 4 p.m. Friday and wondered where all the teenagers had gone, a large crowd of them were crammed in front of the BMI stage watching fellow Chicago teens Kids These Days.
Easily one of the best shows I saw all Friday, Kids These Days is an eight-piece group comprised of 18- and 19-year-olds, half of them from Whitney Young High School. Mixing up blues, hip-hop, funk, rock, jazz and most other genres except electronic (but give them time), KTD has come up through the ranks during the last two years. They started selling out small clubs, then filled Metro, played a buzzworthy showcase at South by Southwest last March, and now here they are at Lollapalooza. The meteoric local rise, based on the sheer energy of their performances and a pretty potent musical cocktail, should have drawn the attention of any music industry moguls present.
Friday, though, was a hometown celebration.
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
KTD charged on stage with enough energy for the rest of the day's lineup. Rapper Vic Mensa lead the charge, biting off rhymes with a clenched jaw and leaping around the small stage pumping up the crowd, salted as it was with adoring friends, family and classmates. Fans were crowd surfing almost immediately, and Mensa and others tried their hand at stage diving.
Mensa has no fear of Lollapalooza-related injuries. He tried to attend the festival last year — by sneaking in. He jumped a fence near the Metra tracks, but brushed against an electrical transformer. He not only took several thousand volts through his left arm, he fell 30 feet to the pavement and spent three days in the hospital. "I almost f—-in' died trying to sneak in here last year," Mensa told the crowd. "This is way better."
The unfettered mashing up of genres KTD pulls off is truly heady. They mix together everything great about Chicago's musical roots. Guitarist Liam Cunningham will lay down a blues riff, the horns will pop in with some kind of syncopated ska, the rhythm section backs it up with some slinky rock-soul, all the while Mensa is bounding around like Tigger the Creator. With remarkable compositional and performance skill, they blended "Summertime" into James Brown's "Man's World," threaded by Mensa's rhymes ("You're like a blood transplant and you're just my type"). Their repertoire of classics is broad, though: the horn section snuck in the riff from Radiohead's "Creep."
Effervescent, exciting stuff. The results are positively funkadelic. This band could open for Ozomatli as easily as Steely Dan. KTD has an EP out now, "Hard Times," available on iTunes. A full-length is in the works.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Chatting with OK Go
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 12:37 AM
You've seen their viral music videos online, and so apparently has the president.
OK Go, the treadmmills-to-Pilobolus YouTube favorites, performed at Barack Obama's 50th birthday bash this week at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom. Two days later they were playing to Lollapalooza.
We caught a few minutes with OK Go singer Damian Kulash backstage at Grant Park on Friday to talk about his Marilyn Monroe impression:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Muse, Girl Talk
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 12:44 AM
Who was the main headliner Friday night? If you're over 30, you probably thought it was Coldplay. But the biggest stage at Lollapalooza with room for the biggest crowd is on Hutchison Field in the south end of the park, and that's not where Coldplay performed. The bigger stage and crowd went to Muse.
That older demographic has been asking me for weeks, "Who the hell is Muse?" But this wailing trio has been around for 17 years, longer than Coldplay — long enough that at festivals later this month in their native Britain they'll be performing one of their "classic" albums in its entirety — and they sold out London's Wembley Stadium before most Yanks had heard of them. Muse has developed a fiercely loyal following around the world of largely younger fans less familiar with the glam- and prog-rock they ape so ably. The band's appearance last year on the latest "Twilight" movie soundtrack put them over the top in the United States.
As if to ingratiate themselves, singer-guitarist Matthew Bellamy slipped in several nods to Americana during the band's nearly two-hour show, threading our National Anthem early in the set and transitioning with "House of the Rising Sun" later. This was between the band's relentless assault of slightly anachronistic, theatrical pomp on the order of everyone from Queen to Def Leppard. This is a band of unrepentant Big Rawk dorks, unafraid to wallow in the hoariest clichés — and they inspire such moments in their fans. Half the people around me were air guitaring throughout the set with wide smiles, reveling in the gift of a summer concert festival moment — a free pass for acting silly and letting loose. Songs such as "Resistance" and "United States of Eurasia," along with all the "1984"-meets-"Tron" visuals on stage, are as shallow as most primetime TV (and by hour two, most Muse sounds the same) but the crowd at Hutchinson Field cheered religiously for every hollow agit-pop couplet ("Rise up and take the power back / It's time that the fat cats had a heart attack") and punishing riff all the way to the encore.
Meanwhile, the real action Friday night was in the newly expanded Perry's tent. The festival's annual DJ stage expanded this year to house 15,000 ravers (that's one big tent, lemme tell ya), and Girl Talk overflowed the capacity.
A Chicago favorite, Girl Talk, a k a 29-year-old Pittsburgh biologist Gregg Gillis, returned to Lollapalooza after three years with a much bigger show featuring his wild, live mix of pop music samples. Gillis makes music out of splicing others' together into new creations, and watching him trigger his samples in real time is like seeing a truly mad scientist at work. Dozens of fans from the crowd joined him on stage, throwing streamers, toilet paper and confetti around Gillis as he folded rap into '80s pop and '90s R&B into indie-rock. He snips the "hey ho" out of the Ramones and the "ay ay ay ay" out of Vampire Weekend for use as rhythmic props for Big Boi and General Public. His catholic tastes make for some of the best cross-generational jamming ever, and it certainly got every one of nearly 20,000 people hopping.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Grouplove, Ximena Sarinana, more
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 2:21 PM
It's cool and lovely at Lollapalooza — but that's because a fair amount of rain fell overnight. The clouds remain, which is great, but there's a 50-50 chance of more precip. Hutchinson Field is muddy, oddly everywhere except the perpetually dusty baseball diamonds. Some hay has been spread around in the worst areas, but the coverage is pretty poor. If you're packing up now, include a cheap poncho and don't wear the good shoes.
"I can't believe I wore flip-flops," lamented Carrie Berenstein, 22, of Aurora, as she tip-toed her way across the muddy grass. "I'm going to be a disaster. I'm already a disaster."
Saturday opened with a worldly vibe on many stages. "We're from Los Angeles," said a member of Grouplove by way of introduction — noteworthy only because of his thick British accent. Grouplove came together at an artists retreat on the island of Crete and reconvened back in America, fusing a worldly sensibility with otherwise rootsy Americana. The quintet delighted through "Don't Say Oh Well," strumming guitars and one ukulele (for pure sound, not gimmick!).
All Mexico's Ximena Sarinana had to say during her set was "This song is all in Spanish" or "Viva Mexico!" and the small crowd gathered for her noon Saturday set at the BMI side stage cheered and whooped. Several waved Mexican flags. Sarinana, 25, a popular telenovela actress south of the border, is going for a breakout with her self-titled sophomore album, which is really great. For her early afternoon set at Lollapalooza, silhouetted against the lake with flying geese as an occasional backdrop, Sarinana performed a handful of new songs as well as a few from her 2008 debut, the misleadingly titled "Mediocre."
Playing electric piano at center stage, she eased into the big drums and cinematic refrain of "Normal" before electronically layering her vocals, and later bopped through her bouncy new pop single, "Different," and the seductive groove of "Echo Park." "This is the first festival I've played in America," she said. As impressed as I am with the album, I have to say her set suffered from a sense of unease and occasionally shrill vocals, as if she hasn't quite mastered the challenges of moving and singing at the same time. The crowd, however, demanded an encore, and she obliged by finally knocking us out with her fine voice — singing the sad, bluesy title track to "Mediocre" alone at her keyboard, working every dynamic smoothly and powerfully. Every nationality was cheering then.
On the main south stage, Cincinnati's Walk the Moon leapt joyously through its set of world music dance-rock, heavy on the beats and smeared with very Bow Wow Wow warpaint. Mixing beard-rock harmonies and spirited, switched-up beats, they worked through their own "Lisa Baby," about a "dancing queen," and by the end of the set were covering Bowie's "Let's Dance."
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Big Audio Dynamite
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 4:02 PM
In our interview before the band's Lollapalooza debut, former Clash guitarist Mick Jones said the world had not, indeed, been clamoring for a reunion of his post-Clash band, Big Audio Dynamite — but they haven't minded it, either.
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
This unlikely but potent collaboration between Jones and filmmaker Don Letts started in 1984 and took the world grooves the Clash had begun to explore, pushing them further while also working open-mindedly with sound samples and video visuals. If that sounds pioneering, go figure - from yesterday's MTV to today's YouTube — it might have been. Because B.A.D. sounded very fresh, and very good, during their Saturday afternoon concert here.
What sounded a wee bit gimmicky in the mid-'80s — the film dialogue samples, the sound effects (ricocheting bullets and wailing sirens), the synthesized beats — are now perfectly natural to contemporary ears. I'd forgotten what a Wild West fixation these Brits had, still on display: They opened with whistling western movie music, and shouted "Rawhide!" after Jones' ADD guitar solo in "B.A.D."
The other reason people might not mind the return of B.A.D. is because the band's socially conscious songs, written during the Reagan and Bush administrations, alas, still speak to economic inequality and class conflict. Saturday they sounded positively prescient, singing, "Nation's economy's on a downward slide / On the best course of action no one can decide." That's from 1985. But they also debuted a new song, "Rob Peter, Pay Paul," which Jones introduced this way: "Our current global financial meltdown is explained in three and a half minutes." Sample lyric: "Where is the justice? What happened to the law?"
It was a surprisingly jangly song for this, the band that finds a groove and works it - usually for much longer than three and a half minutes. The opening "Medicine Show" (on which drummer Greg Roberts wasted no time attacking his cowbell), "A Party" (featuring Letts breaking out from behind the keys and deliver some fiery toasting), the closing "Rush" - these are songs with eternal grooves, lasting five minutes or more. They milked the signature riff of "The Bottom Line," teasing it like they were making a live 12-inch mix.
What will come of it? Jones and Letts said they don't know yet. Maybe a new album - they did play the new song, which is one more than most reunited bands manage (ahem, the Police) - but certainly more reissues.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Cee Lo Green, Local Natives
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 7:43 PM
I had tweeted earlier in the day Saturday that I'd like to hear less "thank you" and more "f—- you" at Lollapalooza. So many bands had been taking to the stages and voicing their unbounded gratitude — thanking everyone for being there and thanking Lollapalooza for having them, profusely — that it started to feel like rock was really dead, after all. Where's the sneer, the challenge, the middle finger?
Cee Lo Green tried to say something about that, and literally. Appearing on stage wearing football shoulder pads bearing long chrome spikes and hanging chains, Green juiced the crowd by demanding that we shout "f—- yeah!" It was an opening salvo in a long tease leading up to the one song the massive crowd in Hutchinson Field wanted to hear. In the meantime, however, we listened to Green shout and growl — for most songs, his trademark smooth husk was gone, even intentionally distorted (and he's a judge on "The Voice," no less) — through a speedy set of his rock-soul songs and a few unexpected covers, from the Violent Femmes to Billy Idol. Green seemed to suffer from technical issues, as well, stopping and starting songs, such as his "Crazy" hit with Gnarls Barkley, haphazardly.
One of his early records was "Cee Lo Green Is a Soul Machine," but Saturday night's hard riffs and black leather meant to portray a rock machine. And nothing says rock and roll like "F—- You," which Green finally got around to at the end of his cumbersome, mostly uninspired hourlong set.
Preceding Mr. Green was one of those fawning, thankful bands. Orange County's Local Natives were clearly thrilled to have graduated from last year's Pitchfork Music Festival to this year's Lollapalooza. "This is the biggest crowd we've played to by far," said singer Kelcey Ayer. "This is insane!" It was a joyous, not fearful, exclamation, fitting with the band's sweet temperament. All tight SoCal harmonies and heaving, unaffected guitars, Local Natives moved through a set of rhythmic charmers from their own "Shape Shifter," built on piano chord crescendos, and a cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Sign." The Sony stage seemed like it might be too big for them, but they held it. Fleet and foxy.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Ximena Sarinana
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 8:00 PM
After her Saturday afternoon set at Lollapalooza, we got to chat with Mexican actress-singer Ximena Sarinana, whose self-titled sophomore album I adore ...
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Eminem, Skylar Grey
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 1:28 AM
Arcade Fire beat Eminem to Lollapalooza (they headlined here last year) and snatched the top Grammy from him in February. But it's still been Mr. Mathers' year. Taylor Swift, after all, isn't covering Arcade Fire in concert this summer, and if Facebook is any arbiter of cultural presence, it was announced this week that Eminem has overtaken Lady Gaga as the most "liked" living person on the social media site.
For fans new and old, Eminem took to Lollapalooza's main stage Saturday night and encapsulated his entire career into one sizzling 90-minute set. Featuring two noteworthy guests — and assisted midway by an old partner, Ryan "Royce da 5'9" " Montgomery — the Detroit rapper launched a consistent barrage of recognizable tunes and furious rhymes into the largest crowd ever assembled at the annual concert festival in Chicago's Grant Park.
Performing nearly the exact set he delivered in June at the Bonnaroo festival, Eminem — who so rarely tours these days — dished hits one after another, sometimes in abbreviated form, reaching all the way back to "The Slim Shady LP." Prowling the stage in a hoodie, Em proved deft as ever with his famously furious rhymes (misogynistic and homophobic as they sometimes are), spitting out "No Love" and "The Way I Am" with such tenacity and urgency you wouldn't think there was a decade between them.
Midway through the set, though, it was easy to forget Eminem is a rapper as we entered the hot chorus portion of the evening, signaled by the guest appearance of Bruno Mars. The omnipresent tunesmith sang a trademark melody for the chorus of "Lighters," a new single from Bad Meets Evil, a revived collaboration between Eminem and Royce that delivered a new EP in June. This continued through "Airplanes II," "Space Bound" and several other tracks more song than rap. By the time we reached "Love the Way You Lie," we expected Skylar Grey — who co-wrote the song and who performed on Lollapalooza's BMI stage earlier in the day — to take the Rihanna part. No dice. She did, however, appear to sing her part in "I Need a Doctor."
"Lighters" was the song that softened the immensity of the audience in Hutchinson Field. This was a crowd one could officially refer to as ginormous. With a record sell-out this year of 90,000 each day, it looked as if at least 80,000 of them were waving hands and jumping up and down in the mud for Eminem. Even he seemed impressed, guffawing, "Holy sh—, there's a lot of people here." But in between Em's fuzzy-wuzzy raps in that song, Mars sang about "a sky full of lighters" at the same time he witnessed one. Tens of thousands of people in a field holding lighters — real lighters, much more than cell phones for a change — was a breathtaking sight.
Eminem has made much of his recovery, even making it the title of last year's "comeback" album. A video intro to the concert plays up the post-addiction story, and Saturday night — after asking fans, "How many people here get f—-ed up to the "Recovery" album? ... What kinda crazy backwards-ass sh—is that?" — he even managed to turn it into sketch comedy. In what he played as a personal moment, Eminem asked the crowd if we minded him relapsing tonight, taking a drink. He produced a bottle. Veteran hype man Kon Artis played the other side, "You sure you wanna do this? You know you get crazy when you drink." Eminem slowly put the bottle to his lips and drank. Liquid then began streaming from various holes in the special shirt he was wearing, as if he were a Warner Bros. cartoon character enjoying a beverage after a gun fight. What is this, "Hip-Hop With Benny Hill"?
He also used the shtick to validate — or explain away — the quirky, juvenile sound of his early hits. A medley of "My Name Is"/"The Real Slim Shady"/"Without Me" sounds potentially hilarious cast against Em's grave current image as a newly sober but still angry young man, but he introduced it by framing it in context with his addiction: "This is the stuff I was making when I was drunk."
Skylar Grey's own midafternoon performance on a side stage established that she belongs on the sidelines. Sassing around the stage in a flailing shirt and bikini top, Grey tried to play the tough, bad girl but hit the mark closer to Alannah Myles than, say, Gwen Stefani. Backed by too many meathead rap-rock grooves and peppered with too many clumsy exhortations for the sizable crowd to either dance or fight each other, most of the songs from Grey's forthcoming album, "Invinsible" (sic) seemed a dime a dozen despite her obvious vocal talent. She opened "Weirdo" with the refrain from Radiohead's "Creep" and sermonized about celebrating the world's oddballs, and it just sounded like a cheap grab at Lady Gaga's limelight. Here's to more "featuring Skylar Grey" and less solo Skylar Grey.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Titus Andronicus, Imelda May
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 3:37 PM
Lollapalooza opened to a humid, rain-soaked Sunday with the defiant punk-Celtic squalls of New Jersey's Titus Andronicus.
As Big Audio Dynamite was the day before, Titus Andronicus proved to be the day's most socially relevant voice, crowing its resigned and occasionally paranoid lyrics about a U.S. of A. that's a shell of its former self. Their influences may be British punk and Irish pub rock, but their outlook is very American — even in the fans, who shouted "U-S-A!" several times, especially when singer-guitarist Patrick Stickles soloed so hard the U.S. flag tied to the end of his guitar actually waved in the light afternoon breeze. Lamenting in his choking yawps how "after 10,000 years it's still us against them" and that we continually squander "the value our forefathers gave you," Stickles' nervously darting eyes eventually always bring it back home to the harder, more personal questions: "Is there a soul on this earth who isn't too frightened to move?"
Titus Andronicus is still supporting the album, last year's phenomenal "The Monitor," that they were at last year's Pitchfork Music Festival, and the set hasn't changed much. Still, it's great to hear Stickles shouting a hundred times during "No Future, Pt. 3," ringing over Grant Park, "You will always be a loser!" — changing it up just once to "You will always Lollapalooza!" The band goes for Springsteen bombast (even name-checking him during "The Battle of Hampton Road") but balances its uber-American influences — "Forever" is '50s rock so classic all it lacks is a Chuck Berry duckwalk — with those from Emerald Isle pubs. "Four Score and Seven" may allude to Lincoln, but the music is pure craic. It even had young guys with their arms around one another's shoulders, swaying and singing along.
The flip side of that came immediately after, when Dublin's Imelda May started her set across Hutchinson Field with a forceful thwack of her bassist's upright. Speaking between songs in a brogue so thick it was difficult to understand, this Irish lass served up a set of pure retro rockabilly. She gave props to a song she's "dreamed of playing here because it was recorded right here in Chicago at the wonderful Chess studios," Howlin' Wolf's "Poor Boy." Ultimately, though, this was music too slick, and with too much shtick, to leave a deep impression in Sunday's mud. Then again, she did continue the festival's emergent '80s theme by covering "Tainted Love." Whatever.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: The Cars
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 7:56 PM
Capping a noticeable 1980s vibe running throughout this year's festival, the Cars played a typically solid but staid set Sunday afternoon — much like their May set at the Riviera, just outdoors. Opening with their classic "Let the Good Times Roll," the most sedate party anthem ever, the reunited quartet (sans original singer-bassist Ben Orr, who died in 2000) see-sawed between MTV-era hits — "My Best Friend's Girl," "You Might Think," "Magic," "Let's Go," etc. — and tracks from their new album, "Move Like This." As usual, Ric Ocasek hardly moved, and the set glided along with great songs but zero showmanship. "I like the nightlife, baby," Ocasek sang as he squinted into the late afternoon sun.
Before their set, we sat down with guitarist Elliott Easton and drummer David Robinson to discuss how the band got back together ...
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: The rain, Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2011 1:29 AM
Lollapalooza ended Sunday in the mud and muck from two short but powerful rain storms that drenched Chicago's Grant Park — and the record 90,000 fans assembled there for the final day of the annual music festival — and gave many fans a night of rock and roll they won't soon forget.
Hannah Frudden was at the Perry's rave tent when the first wave of rain came Sunday evening. "It was the best 30 minutes of my life!" said the 19-year-old Northwestern student, exuberant despite being covered head to toe in mud. As she stood along a sidewalk near the main Lollapalooza stages, every other passer-by noticed her condition and gave her high-fives and hugs.
Jesse Warmling, 39, in from Dallas, surrendered gladly to the downpour, which lasted about half an hour and only slightly delayed Sunday's concert schedule on the final evening of this three-day music festival in Chicago's Grant Park. "We haven't seen rain for months in Texas," Warmling said. "I'll take it any way and anywhere."
When British band Arctic Monkeys took the main stage at 6:30 p.m., a half hour delay, the rain had nearly stopped — and a rainbow framed the stage. "We're gonna push through this," singer Alex Turner said. The band rushed through an abbreviated set, but at least included the song "She's Thunderstorms," from their newest album, dedicating it "to Mother Nature."
The rain returned a couple of hours later, early in the Foo Fighters headlining set, but Dave Grohl scared it away.
Always eager to play, the Foo Fighters — the band started 16 years ago by former Nirvana member Grohl — started their set promptly at 8 p.m., their first notes crescendoing as the final notes from Explosions in the Sky faded out across the field. They slammed into "Bridges Burning," from the band's acclaimed new album "Wasting Light," and hurried into "Rope" as dark clouds amassed again in the northwest. By the time they launched into "My Hero," their fourth song, the floodgates had opened once again. Torrents drowned the throng and produced a perfect rock and roll moment. That feeling when the rain starts falling, and you're getting drenched, and you decide, "F—- it, we're not running for cover" — that's a rock and roll moment.
"I don't give a f—- if it's raining," Grohl declared after the band had noodled cautiously through the song's ending, backing away from the rain that came at them from an sharp angle. If they had the slightest notion of cutting off the performance, the crowd had no intention of letting them. When you and tens of thousands of others are in the middle of Hutchinson Field, ankle-deep in mud and no hope of escape, you've made your rock and roll decision. The crowd kept the song going, singing loudly even as Grohl and the band dropped out momentarily. Soon he was singing "Arlandria," in which the line, "Shame, shame, go away / come again some other day," easily sounded like a chant against the weather.
Grohl started and ended the set sounding a little hoarse — perhaps because of the three-hour special show the Foo Fighters had played Saturday night for a thousand fans at Chicago's Metro. His energy, however, was not dampened. Always bug-eyed and ferocious onstage, Grohl on Sunday was whipping his wet hair around wildly as he ground away at his guitar, leaping and growling and shouting. He caressed the softer dynamics, too, stitching "Skin and Bones" together so lightly the song barely held together but benefited from accordion backing. He thanked the crowd for sticking with him and sang "Times Like These" by himself, celebrating the special moment.
Of course, Grohl related once again his tale of seeing his first rock show at the Cubby Bear (the band was Naked Raygun) — his age tends to change when he tells this story, Sunday night he was younger, 13 — and how it "changed my life." He then added that the first Lollapalooza 20 years ago had a similar impact. He beckoned Lolla founder Perry Farrell to come on stage, which he did — quickly, running on and off like a mischievous imp.
Chicago police: 'We don't work as bouncers' at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2011 2:28 PM
Has everyone dried out and washed up?
The day after a rainy, muddy conclusion to Lollapalooza 2011 — read our full report — the Chicago Police Dept. has released a range of arrests during the three-day weekend concert festival in Grant Park.
As we've reported, last year's individual fence jumpers turned into this year's online-organized flash mobs — large groups of fans who gather and overwhelm a section of fence, using strength in numbers to insure better penetration and unpaid admission. Some groups were as large as 200-300 people.
But Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy on Monday told the Sun-Times' Rummana Hussain that only a total of 20 to 30 people were arrested during the three-day Lollapalooza festivities.
While McCarthy said gate crashing at Lollapalooza is not "acceptable," he said officers assigned to the private event are not "bouncers."
"We're there to provide for the public safety," he said. "We don't work as bouncers for admission purposes."
The actual bouncers are the folks employed by Safety Service Systems (S3). They're the blue T-shirts seen here apprehending some other gate-crashers.
In the YouTube video below — one of several posted during the weekend, purportedly showing various groups of young people storming fences at the festival —one such mob coalesces near a vulnerable section of fence, rushes it (as you can see in the slo-mo, they had a plank to help them ramp up the chain-link) and streams inside the festival's perimeter. Near the end, two police paddy wagons arrive, but as the poster of the video writes: "Two paddy wagons came, but no one was actually taken away. It seemed like if you were under 17 years old they let you go , after searching you. 18 years old and up seemed to get tickets."
Pitchfork Music Festival 2011
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Q&A with Hodgy Beats from MellowHype, Odd Future
By Thomas Conner on July 12, 2011 1:00 PM
Hodgy Beats and Left Brain, members of hotly debated rap group Odd Future — appearing Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park — also work together under the name MellowHype. The duo's self-released 2010 album "Blackendwhite" was reissued this week by Fat Possum Records with extra tracks, and a new album, "Numbers," is expected later this year.
We caught up with Hodgy Beats last week following Odd Future's performance at the T in the Park festival in Scotland, the last of a string of dates for the group across Europe. When we weren't rehashing the controversy about the group's violent lyrics, there was other stuff to talk about ...
Q: How have the shows been in Europe this month?
Hodgy Beats: Europe is pretty wild, yo. The festival shows have been very, very intense. The crowds are really in love with Odd Future. Musically, people out here are more into it.
Q: How did you and Left Brain meet?
HB: We've known each other, sh—, probably since the second semester of 10th grade. So, 2007-ish.
Q: What clicked between you?
HB: I was just waiting for someone else to come along to make music with.
Q: You work together as MellowHype; within Odd Future, do you also work as a unit?
HB: We work together and with other people. He makes a lot of beats. Left Brain drops a beat and it's, there you go.
Q: With up to 10 people onstage at Odd Future gigs, how do you keep it from getting too confusing?
HB: Before shows we remind each other, hey, everybody's excited and into it and everybody wants to be on stage, but let's try to keep it minimal. It's three people max at all times. That doesn't work out all the time.
Q: What should we expect at this show?
HB: A bunch of niggers rocking the f—- out.
Q: Will there be some MellowHype shows in the future?
HB: Actually, there will be. When "Numbers" comes out, we'll do our own tours.
Q: How will they differ from the whole group's shows?
HB: It'll be more personal, more hands-on. We'll actually pull a different crowd.
Q: Why do you think that?
HB: We're just different, dude. We're just different.
Q: Is there going to be an Odd Future album?
(Someone in the background then shouted "No, tell him no, Hodgy!" and laughed.)
Q: Who's that?
HB: That's my counselor.
Q: How was it lying in a coffin full of snakes for the "64" video?
HB: It was crazy. Actually, it was cool. I never thought I'd be doing something like that.
Q: That video has some dark imagery. How much of that is your idea and how much is the vision of the director (Matt Alonzo)?
HB: It's all my decision. It just looks cool. It's not dark to me.
Q: You and Left Brain are cranking out a lot of music. What inspires you to be so creative and so fast?
HB: It's just what we do. It's a living. We're getting paid for it now, not that it matters. But music is our passion and our joy. We enjoy doing it, that's why we make a lot of it.
Q: "Not that it matters"? You could take or leave the money?
HB: I'd still be doing it, trying to get where I am, with or without someone's money.
Q: You have plans for a solo album, too?
HB: Yeah, called "Damien." There's no set date or any stress on it.
Odd Future's strange present: Local advocates seek to balance lyrics of rape, violence, homophobia
By Thomas Conner on July 12, 2011 1:30 PM
I'm not a f—-in' role model
I'm a 19-year-old f—-ing emotional roller coaster with pipe dreams
These motherf—-ers think I'm supposed to live up to something?
— Tyler the Creator in "Goblin"
They've been called "the future of the music business" for their freewheeling, Internet-based approach to recording and distribution. They've also been called "inexcusable," "reprehensible" and "dangerous" for lyrics that are frequently violent, misogynist, anti-gay and anti-police. They're called OFWGKTA (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), and they're a large, young hip-hop collective that's become one of the most divisive topics in music.
Odd Future, scheduled to perform July 17 at the annual Pitchfork Music Festival, has turned heads with some of the freshest sounds in hip-hop, heard mostly in tracks given away free online and on myriad solo projects by the group's members. (Odd Future, a sprawling bunch with 10 regular members, like a baby Wu-Tang Clan, performs together live but has only assembled tracks for two mixtapes.) Their songs are wildly aggressive and boundlessly creative, the wordplay crazy-clever and surprisingly sharp.
But it's those rhymes — peppered as they are with rape, kidnapping, murder and torture fantasies, blasphemy, homophobia, you name it — that's fixated the press and helped elevate this cult rap collective to the level of a Billboard magazine cover in March and last month's in-depth New Yorker feature, and it's the casual, matter-of-fact delivery of them that makes parents and activists apoplectic.
— "Kill people, burn sh—, f—- school / Odd Future here to steer you to what the f—-'s cool / F—- rules, skate life, rape, write, repeat twice" ("Pidgeons")
— In the song "Splatter," Odd Future's biggest breakout star Tyler the Creator boasts of having sex with "your teen daughter ... always against her will" followed by the same with "this grandmother named Jill."
— In "French" a business plan is hatched that, for some reason, includes a sexual act with the Virgin Mary.
Hodgy Beats, at 20 he and Tyler are the oldest of the mostly teenage group, spoke to the Sun-Times last week from a tour stop in London. As he and other members have maintained, Odd Future's lyrics, he said, are preposterous artistic expressions rather than reportage or incitement to action.
"Nothing is really serious," the laconic rapper said. "It's just like all the things in our music. It's in the atmosphere, it's in the world, and it's in our lyrics. ... I think it's funny that people flip out about sh— like that."
For some, it's not enough to write off songs that mention rape and murder to being humorous or simply "not serious." Several Chicago advocates for gay and women's rights in recent weeks promised to protest before the group's afternoon performance at Chicago's Union Park. But the festival announced Thursday that local organizations, including Between Friends and Rape Victim Advocates, will have "an onsite presence at the festival" in the form of an informational booth in the park.
"When we didn't have a booth at the festival, we were going to stand at the entrance to the Pitchfork festival and hand out 6,000 fans that have messages on them — one side lists resources for women who might be involved in domestic violence or a violent relationship, the other side a message about violence against women," says Kathy Doherty, executive director of Between Friends, a 25-year-old domestic violence agency. "Now we have a booth and can still give out the fans as well as information there. ... It's not a protest, it's an awareness-raising event."
Odd Future certainly isn't the first music act to terrify the predominately white media with tales of violence and gore, nor will they be the last. The once-hot controversies of N.W.A., Ice-T, 2 Live Crew, even Eminem are now so distant in pop cultural memory as to seem quaint. These Odd Future kids count the social pathologies of the Geto Boys (late-'80s pioneers of a subgenre called "horrorcore") among their inspirations, as well as shock-rock groups from Black Sabbath to Slipknot.
"When I was 15, my tape collection consisted of Geto Boys, N.W.A., 2 Live Crew," Mike Reed, a local music promoter and musician who co-owns the Pitchfork festival and oversees its booking, wrote in an e-mail to the Sun-Times. "At the time I thought it to be fun. I'm 37 now and have the maturity to see how silly it is/was. I'm not really offended by Odd Future, but can see why people are.
"I think the factor that they are so young is also very shocking for most white media members. Not sure how much this is an issue in more African-American music press."
In May, a writer for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, another organization denouncing the group, said youth is no excuse: "Tyler has said in interviews that he is not homophobic, yet his Twitter feed and rhymes are rampant with anti-gay slurs and references. His defense that 'people take things too seriously' or that he's 'just a kid' is inexcusable."
Hodgy Beats, born Gerard Damien Long (not in Chicago, as many online rumors suggest) and raised in New Jersey, answered our questions (more Q&A here) in few words and fragments, clearly young, inexperienced and more comfortable slinging rhymes than speaking to the media. "It's hard being interviewed," he muttered. "I don't like being asked a lot of questions." Reacting to the flurry of attention the group has received, he said, "The media is stupid. Niggers should ignore it." He paused, perhaps considering the context of his statement, and added, "I'm honestly not mad at the media. They help sell records, I guess."
He chalked up the gross-out element of the songs to boyish competition and bravado in the recording studio. "Sometimes it's us seeing who comes up with the sickest sh—, the most disgusting thing they can throw in," he said.
Hodgy Beats and another Odd Future member, Left Brain, also work together under the name MellowHype. The duo's self-released 2010 album "Blackendwhite" will be reissued July 12 by Fat Possum Records with extra tracks, and a new album, "Numbers," is expected later this year.
Asked what's the coolest musical sound the duo created for "Numbers," Hodgy Beats said, "A bitch moaning. We got some sounds like a bunch of whores just moaning. It's the most perfect sound you could use. It's crazy. Imagine bobbing your head to bitches moaning. That's what 'Numbers' sounds like."
Near the end of our conversation, Hodgy Beats attempted to explain Odd Future's lyrics in the context of street slang and evolving language. "There's gays running around and sh—, but when you call someone a faggot people think you're talking about a gay person," he said. When I asked for clarification as to how else he might define and employ the word "faggot," the phone went dead. We either lost the overseas connection or he hung up.
Odd Future has one female member, Syd Tha Kid, a lesbian who also seems baffled by any controversy around the group's lyrics. "People just choose to be offended by stuff," she told Billboard. "If they are, then that sucks and I'm sorry, but they don't have to keep listening. Words are words. They don't act out what they say, they just say it."
In an MTV interview, Syd tha Kid recalled a confrontation with her father, who said that her involvement in Odd Future was "slapping a lot of other females in the face." She replied, "That's what I do. I slap bitches, Dad."
The group's members have not made news for any actual violent acts. Tyler the Creator, a k a Tyler Okonma, was arrested in May in Los Angeles on a charge disturbing the peace, then quickly released. Frank Ocean, the group's R&B crooner and most likely crossover star, ranted online in April about being arrested in L.A. for unspecified charges.
Odd Future concert tickets have sold well in recent months as their live shows remain popular. (Though last weekend, the group's set at Scotland's T in the Park festival ended approximately 20 minutes early when fans began throwing bottles at them.) In March, Billboard reported that the group's actual record sales have been "modest," though Tyler the Creator's second solo album, "Goblin," debuted at No. 5 on the magazine's albums chart in mid-May based on first-week sales of 45,000.
Doherty at Between Friends says she simply wants her group's message to have the chance to compete with Odd Future's at the festival. "We certainly believe in free speech, and with that in mind Odd Future has the right to sing and use the lyrics they do. But the rest of us in Chicago have the right to balance that point of view with powerful messages of our own about violence again women," she says.
"We work with kids in schools who often get caught up in lyrics but don't think about what they say. So when we talk about that, then they begin to realize that other people using derogatory language — calling women and girls 'bitches' and language against gays and lesbians — can be presented as fun and not serious, but it really has a domino effect ... and doesn't send the right message about how we like to see people talk about each other."
• NPR: "Why You Should Listen to the Rap Group Odd Future, Even Though It's Hard"
• Village Voice: "On Odd Future, Rape and Murder, and Why We Sometimes Like the Things That Repel Us"
• New Yorker: long-read about Odd Future and the whereabouts of Earl Sweatshirt and their follow-up
• Complex: More on the mystery of Earl Sweatshirt here and here
• Irish Times: Last week's Tyler the Creator interview
• Pitchfork: Hodgy Beats interview from June
PITCHFORK MUSIC FESTIVAL
• 3-10 p.m. July 15, noon-10 p.m. July 16-17
• Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph
• Three-day passes are sold out. Individual tickets for July 17 are sold out, but remain for July 15 and 16: $45, (866) 777-8932, pitchforkmusicfestival.com.
Pitchfork Music Festival opens: Gatekeeper, EMA, early-bird fans
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2011 5:52 PM
Oh, is this the way they say the future's meant to feel,
Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?
— Jarvis Cocker
The first band scheduled to play the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival was, of course, Gatekeeper. The electronic duo kicked off just after, of course, the gates opened at 3 p.m. sharp for this seventh annual indie-rock-and-more event at Union Park in Chicago's West Loop.
Nearly 50 bands will perform on three stages here in Union Park during the next three days, and more than 50,000 fans are expected to attend. Tickets (surprisingly) remain for tonight's acts and Saturday's bill. Sunday is sold out.
The first kids through the gate Friday afternoon began sprinting toward the main stage. The park was virtually empty; why in such a hurry? "If I didn't get a spot up close for Animal Collective, then the night would be a complete disaster," said Jimmy Chang, 17, from his blanket near the lip of the Green Stage. "I am NOT MOVING!"
P4k2011's first sounds were very yin and yang. As Gatekeeper's light, blissful tunes fluttered over the trees, EMA (Erika M. Anderson) squinted into the hazy afternoon sun and began grinding out some dark, menacing music. Supported by a guitarist, her little sister on drums and Leif Shackelford on violin and keyboards, Anderson, 28, took her sweet time building up some twisting, twisted alt-rock. Flipping her bleached bangs in and out of her eyes, Anderson seemed to struggle to restrain herself — at one point joking about "breaking things" but keeping a cool head as she lead her band through these slow, brooding songs.
"I wish that every time he touched me he left a mark," she snarled in "Marked," a song that began with Shackelford strumming his violin like a ukulele. Elsewhere, Shackelford sawed at that poor thing like John Cale on his Velvet Underground cello. The band frequently collapsed into VU-like noise breaks, on the foreboding "Butterfly Knife" and again (with two violins now!) on "Breakfast," but without the drone. Anderson gurgles and groans like a Patti Smith hopeful, but she's got more panache. "I did not bring the whiskey on stage," she said. "I don't know why."
Pitchfork Music Festival: James Blake interview and set
By Thomas Conner on July 15, 2011 8:00 PM | No Comments | No TrackBacks
We caught just a few minutes to sit down with soft-spoken London dubstep musician James Blake before his performance this evening at the Pitchfork Music Festival:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Fey young Londoner James Blake not only proved himself, following his curious debut album released in February, he proved to be the night's most transcendent performance.
Influenced by American R&B — and vocally often a dead ringer for Aaron Neville — the 22-year-old Blake made cold beats and fragmented samples come alive Friday evening on the festival's smallest stage under the trees. Seemingly shy behind his keyboard, Blake played and set both graceful and grandiose, reaching surprising heights often with just two or three ingredients.
In the interview before the show, I asked Blake if he felt confident as a singer. His firm affirmative belies the amount of heavy, thickening effects he heaps on his vocals, which alternately slunk around his melody soulfully or swelled above the clipped dubstep beats laid down by both a programmer and a tenacious live drummer. Dub is not a genre that warms easily, but Blake's spectral approach — transmitting his vocals from the ether, often introducing songs with churchy organ and haunting the arrangements with ghostly piano — brings spirit to it and even results in some very human moments. "CMYK" builds on a cheerful, eager rhythm, humming snyths and two R&B samples fractured beyond recognition (they're rhythmic elements, they're not supposed to be understood) — plus another very effect-drenched vocal howl from Blake — and eventually bursts into a jubilant, hopping dancefloor rhythm that had the packed crowd under the tress really jumping. Surprising and superb.
Pitchfork Music Festival: tUnE-yArDs, Animal Collective
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:00 AM
The intrepid Merrill Garbus, the central figure of tUnE-yArDs, won for best soundcheck of the day. Portents of what was to come, Garbus called out various wails and "day-oh's" into the microphone, which then looped back through the speakers in endless arrays to make a choir of one. The crowd gathered at the small Blue Stage cheered wildly, and the show hadn't even begun yet.
Garbus' proper set leapt to life with "Party Can (Do You Want to Live?)" on the strength of those looped vocals, a lynchpin of the tUnE-yArDs' engaging, exciting set. Singing, re-singing and playing her own abbreviated drum kit, Garbus, her face streaked with colorful war paint, wailed and cooed and hollered through a set bristling with punkish spirit — at least in the defiant creativity of the electronically enhanced arrangements, amended here and there by two saxophone players — and bracing composition, from the "wah-ooh-wah" vocal round and bleating jazz climax of "Gangsta" to the occasional instances of barking and guitar scraping.
Each song found dissonance and harmony tugging at war, never finding an easy truce but always a workable and tuneful solution. By "Powa," another track from this year's "W H O K I L L" album, Garbus was singing more naturally — and soulfully — her powerful pipes stretching out a bit as more than mere fodder for the sequencers. The tech never diluted the songs, the songs never lost their spirit of celebration and joy. "You're a wonderful sight to see out there," she said, catching her breath. "You're a massive bundle of love." Back at ya, m'dear.
Animal Collective closed out the night, making a God-awful racket of their unfocused, rambling electronic jams. On a stage full of flashing lights and papery backdrops, the individual members of the band — longtime friends and collaborators Avey Tare (David Porter), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Deakin (Josh Dibb) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) — were lost as they cranked out a lot of music fans hadn't yet heard, since the band's last album was 2009's "Merriweather Post Pavilion" and they've since been working on film scores and other projects.
Industrial clanking, monotonous rhythms and lengthy, noodling transitions between songs made for a noisy, messy performance. Only a few moments came close to gelling — a frenetic calypso waltz early in the show with wild static noises sliding up and down the scale, and an easygoing "A Long Time Ago" — but most of the music was scattered. I know the Guggenheim has bestowed some overvalued art-rock cred on them, but while their drifting, shiftless sounds may constitute art it doesn't constitute a good time.
"Were you here for Panda Bear last year?" asked the woman next to me. Alas, yes I was. She joined me in rolling eyes. "My friend and I were rolling on the ground in the fetal position begging God to make it stop." Lather, rinse, repeat.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Battles interview and set
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:11 AM
A chat with the members of Battles (about two of the three's Chicago days) shortly after their Friday evening show:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Somewhere between the knob twiddlers and the hardcore rockers is Battles, a New York trio (down from a quartet) whose members are not averse to describing their music as "math rock." Their cacophony was established so quickly and loudly that it interfered with the sometimes more delicate music of tUnE-yArDs clear across the park.
Mixing loops and ferocious live drumming from former Helmet basher John Stanier, Battles ably re-crated the tunes from their new and acclaimed "Gloss Drop"; that album employed various vocalists, none of whom were on stage Friday evening, though a few showed up on video screens. Sometimes the crushing beats reverberated across the park like the live/looped signal sent by the aliens in "Contact," with former Chicago guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka working sometimes together, sometimes at cross-purposes on, under and around them.
There were moments the music was both punishing and pretty, a strange but exciting experience.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Guided by Voices and Neko Case
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 12:14 AM
Stubbornly prolific band Guided by Voices returned to Chicago for the fest, still going with its reunited "classic" '93-'96 lineup last seen here at the Riviera Theatre last October (the band's "final" show was New Year's Eve 2004 at Chicago's Metro). But the longer this rascally band trundles on, the more fun they get. Lead singer Robert Pollard is growing into his natural curmudgeoness, and Friday evening's set was 45 minutes of pure kicky, catchy rock.
Pollard took the stage with a confident "1, 2, 3, kick it!" and opened with "Echos Myron," joined by Neko Case singing harmony and shaking a tambourine. Clutching a tequila bottle ("He's probably pretty hammered," one fan noted mid-set) and dangling a cigarette, Pollard and his jittery leg led the band — with the rip-roaring twin-guitar attack of Tobin Sprout and Charles Mitchell — careening through an oldies but very good set. It was the kind of rock and roll that actually sounds bettered by the off-key, absurdist warblings and occasional feedback from the PA. Not much was going to slow these guys down.
Alt-country queen Case seemed in a relaxed, cozy mood Friday night, playing a set of mostly ballads and slow belters. You know, the stuff that best showcases That Voice — songs like "The Pharaohs" with its long, patient phrases about being "your blue, blue baby," or her tiger empathy in "People Got a Lot of Nerve." With accordion, banjo and frequent brushes on the drums, Case commanded a steady set and reminded Chicagoans how much we miss her being a resident.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Cold Cave on a hot day
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 4:42 PM
One thing I never thought I'd get at a Cold Cave show: a sunburn.
There was the New York darkwave trio, all pale and wrapped in black leather (pleather?), defiant in the fierce Saturday afternoon sun early on day two of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. I would have welcomed an environmental catastrophe that would've blacked out the sun and plunged these moody bastards into the dark where they belong, but the contrast emboldened their presentation.
At heart, Cold Wave takes mid-'80s synth pop (New Order, OMD) and moves it forward — just beyond the reach of nostalgia. Their most successful tactic for doing so: scratching it up, getting it dirty, just around the edges. Nearly every song started with a wall of harsh sound — a piercing electronic whine, blaring white noise, glitchy static — from which would suddenly spring bouncy, flouncy keyboards, courtesy Dominick Fernow (Prurient from Madison, Wis.), and pounding beats. Before launching into "I've Seen the Future and It's No Place for Me," singer Wesley Eisold simply hissed into the microphone at length, satisfying a compulsion to begin every song with amelodic clatter of some sort. Like Cold Cave's album, "Cherish the Light Years," it was noise vs. melody, brashness vs. shyness, a singer using the word "outside" a lot when he probably didn't intend it so literally today.
Eisold hangs on the microphone and pouts (very Ian McCulloch), blurts out in his tuneless baritone (very Peter Murphy), sometimes pulling the neck of his T-shirt off his shoulder to show off his ink; during "Confetti," he pointed to a large "23" on his left shoulder. Meanwhile, Fernow could barely contain himself behind his decks, occasionally breaking free during a loop to dance about the stage with the most inspiring and embarrassing moves.
Pitchfork Music Festival: No Age, Off!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 6:11 PM
Los Angeles drum-and-guitar duo No Age bashed out punkish songs on Saturday's Red Stage in a set that just got more chaotic as it went. Drummer Dean Spunt is also the duo's singer, and watching him flail at his kit and still try to keep his mouth on the mike is entertainment alone. Meanwhile, guitarist Randy Randall ping-ponged back and forth on the stage, nearly toppling over during oldie "Neck Escaper."
Throughout the No Age set, water — and water bottles (empty, the ones I saw, thank goodness) — flew everywhere, in impressive fountains shooting straight up from the crowd or in thrown spray. Later, at the Blue Stage, Keith Morris of the punk band Off! advised his similarly inclined crowd: "Don't throw stuff around! That's not cool. DRINK the water. Stay hydrated."
After an opening homily — in which Morris warned, in the understatement of the day, "We're gonna bring a different flavor to the party today" — Morris and his band, a supergroup offshoot of the Circle Jerks, bashed out a ferocious set of hardcore and speed metal. Rare was the song that passed the two-minute mark, propelled down the fast lane by riffy guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) and bassist Steven Shane McDonald (Redd Kross). The particular flavor added by Morris was his occasional off-the-cuff homilies ("F—- people" from a guy who actually seems so nice ...) and unearthly caterwauling.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Dismemberment Plan, Twin Shadow
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 8:17 PM
I'm not sure I've ever seen Travis Morrison this giddy.
Always a self-satisfied performer — and a wicked-nerdy dancer — Morrison's shows at the helm of the still-reunited Dismemberment Plan are never stiff, but Saturday he seemed exceptionally loose and free-spirited. We last saw D-Plan in February at the Metro; the band ceased activity in 2003 but reunited late last year to tour in support of a classy vinyl reissue of their 1999 masterpiece "Emergency & I." The tour finished, this was the only remaining show on the band's books. It's last? Again?
Maybe that's why Morrison was riding high even as he squinted into the late-day sun. The band certainly sounded crisp — throughout this tour they've been sharper than ever, with bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley strutting as one of rock's sharpest rhythm sections — and dished out more wordy, jerky faves, still heavy on the "Emergency & I" tracks. In the outdoor summer heat, they hilariously started into their most anthemic song, "The Ice of Boston," a tale of cold New Year's Eve loneliness that in concert traditionally finds Morrison inviting fans to join him on stage during the song. "No, you can't come up on stage," Morrison said Saturday, noting the impossibility of crowd access to the festival stage, "and, frankly, I'm relieved. I don't need the microphone in the teeth, as usual."
After a troubled and delayed sound check — a frequent occurrence all day today on the Blue Stage — Twin Shadow finally got under way, playing its lush, moody 1980s-inspired pop.
George Lewis Jr., the Domincan-born, Florida-raised, motorcycle-loving enigma leading this group, is a born crooner and plays guitar as if he learned it directly from Hall & Oates records. The '80s shtick laid on pretty heavily, though, and sometimes — unlike the records — leaned more toward hotel-lounge Spandau Ballet than anything justifying the band's acclaim thus far. Lewis announced that the band's fifth song, the title track to the new album, "Forget," would be their last, so perhaps the sound check delay robbed them of the momentum of a full set.
Pitchfork Music Festival: DJ Shadow, Fleet Foxes
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2011 11:02 PM
It's pretty funny watching a field full of people all staring at the same thing — nothing.
DJ Shadow, the highly influential mixmaster Josh Davis, performed his turntable set from inside a large white globe. On the Red Stage on Saturday evening sat the globe, with various psychedelic projections hitting its surface (not the full array he's given to other crowds in the dark, however), and inside — allegedly, at first — was Davis, knitting together his breakbeats and samples. The crowd cheered, and stared at the white globe. On a video screen to the east, cameras within the sphere showed Davis hard at work spinning his tables, toggling switches, cradling headphones to one ear and syncing up the next sound, beat or piece of music.
His mixes are exciting, no doubt — the thumping bass must have vibrated windows in Lakeview — pushing funk, rock, slow jams, jazz, ambient music, whatever works through the stacks. But the gimmick was a strange gambit in a penultimate slot before nearly 20,000 people. Midway through the show, the back hemisphere of the globe spins around, revealing an opening and showing Davis to the crowd for the rest of the set. (A good thing, too, otherwise you couldn't help but wonder if Davis wasn't lying on a beach in Brazil, sending just the globe, a reel-to-reel of the music and that synced video out on tour.) The fourth DJ Shadow record in 15 years, "The Less You Know, the Better," will be out this fall, and here's hoping we next see him indoors and in the dark.
The transition from DJ Shadow's club atmosphere to the sweet, earthy folk of Saturday night headliner Fleet Foxes was a radical shift, emblematic of the catholic tastes of Pitchfork fans ...
Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold joked early in his band's set about playing the Pitchfork festival three years ago, saying it was "super fun" and they followed rapper Dizzee Rascal, who handed off the set by saying, "F—- that folk sh—!" Pecknold chuckled, then straightened up. "I hope he'll be making a return appearance, too," he said.
The fact that Fleet Foxes not only returned to Pitchfork this year but held down the Saturday night headliner slot — mightily successfully — says much about how they've come along as a band. When they played here in 2008, they were still linked musically and lyrically to the "Blue Ridge Mountains," but the follow-up — the dense and tightly woven "Helplessness Blues" — is more worldly, with a greater diversity (and proficiency) of instruments. That mass of music, as opposed to just a set of pretty harmonies, made for a rich and rewarding set that employed mostly acoustic instruments for repeated crescendos and thundering.
Those trademark harmonies were a lynchpin to the show, of course, but now the band frames them within each song — using them to open a song ("Drops in the River") or to spotlight a heartfelt moment in the middle (the breathtaking pause in "Bedouin Dress"). But even the signature vocal rounds of "White Winter Hymnal" gave away the band's newfound confidence as players — of acoustic guitars, mandolins, upright bass, some organ — as well as singers; the song on Saturday stepped out with a stride not heard before, a new eagerness to strum harder and chug faster and get where it was going — which was, of course, a similarly urgent "Ragged Wood." In "The Protector," they again started softly, carefully, with their traditional and subtly churchy singing, but by the time Pecknold sang, "You run with the devil," they'd clearly abandoned their hymnal for the excitement of that ragged wood. Hallelujah.
Want more Pitchfork fest? Fly to Paris this fall
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 7:00 AM
Lollapalooza expanded internationally this year, launching Lollapalooza Chile in April. Now Chicago's own Pitchfork Music Festival has announced it's also going abroad.
Pichfork Music Festival Paris will premiere Oct. 28 and 29 in that city's Parc de la Villette. The lineup thus far includes Bon Iver — who not only plays Oct. 29 but also selects the other bands on the bill — as well as Wild Beasts, Cut Copy, Kathleen Edwards and more.
Tickets are 79.90 Euros (roughly $115), available via digitick.com.
Pitchfork has previously collaborated on performances at Britain's All Tomorrow's Parties festival and the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The heat is on
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 8:00 AM
Beginning Sunday, a mass of hot air arrives in Chicago — and we don't mean all the pundits debating the worth of Odd Future.
It's going to be hot, hot, hot — the start of possibly the biggest heat wave here since 2006. The National Weather Service calls the impending heat "massive."
The forecast highs on Sunday are in the mid- to low-90s, but with humidity the heat index will make it feel near or over 100 degrees.
The heat will be around all week, but right now we care about Sunday in Union Park (and other festivals around town).
At the Pitchfork Music Festival ...
— There is at least one CTA cooling bus on the grounds, parked at the end of Flatstock, and if needed, there will be an additional cooling bus at Ashland and Washington.
— The first 6,000 attendees through the gate each day will get a free bottle of water.
— On Saturday, the festival hooked up some free water fountains, the better for you to keep your water bottle filled. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Another rock writer and festival veteran taught me a nifty trick for these things: a wet washcloth in a Ziploc bag. Add a little cool water here and there, wring it out, wipe your face, neck, arms. Or, as one of the Pitchfork publicists was doing Saturday, simply wear it on your head.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Odd Future
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 2:42 PM
For controversial rap group Odd Future, Sunday afternoon at the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival began with a little damage control.
Less than an hour before taking the stage in Chicago's Union Park, members of the group delivered boxes of cupcakes to the anti-violence organizations on site — the same organizations manning booths and handing out paper fans containing domestic violence resource information specifically to counter what they saw as dangerous expressions of hate, violence and homophobia in Odd Future's music.
"They took some of the fans, too," said Amanda Wapiennik with Family Shelter Service. "One of them said, 'See we're nice.' I said, 'We never said you weren't.' ... That's exactly the kind of dialogue and exchange we're looking for."
It was nice while it lasted.
Odd Future's set, at the height of Sunday's swelter, was rife with the usual foul language and appalling exhortations to violence and misogyny — lots of "smack you, bitch," "f—- the police," "f—-in' ho," happy tales of "punches to the stomach" and advice to "shoot that f—-in' nigga, aim for the head," and I lost count of the number of times someone shouted "f—-in' bitch!" — even while they gave lip service to opposing voices. Group leader and breakout solo star Tyler the Creator, his left leg in a cast for a broken foot, said, "A big shout out to the domestic violence groups out here." This came as the echo of the latest "f—-in' bitch!" died away and right before the next song, "I Got a Gun (You Better Run)."
Shock tactics simply are in the young group's DNA and their 15-song set was thick with the confrontation that's caused such a fuss all year around their mostly free online recordings and raucous live shows. Problem is, the shock and awe is all they brought. Odd Future knows how to engage a crowd with nasty talk, stage diving (even Tyler, in his cast) and the mystical bond between crowd and performer created by the middle finger, but musically the 45-minute set was a very average hip-hop show. (Big Boi, on this same stage and nearly same slot last year, brought so much more.)
Members Left Brain and Hodgy Beats opened the show, dishing up a song from their reissued MellowHype album "Blackendwhite." DJ Syd Tha Kid provided most of the beats and musical backing, thin as it usually was; Odd Future's recordings sound much more inventive. At times, five members were prancing back and forth at the lip of the stage or diving over it. The whole thing was like watching a "Chinese fire drill," but the often monotonous beats and hate speech was more like listening to Oi! (a punk subgenre) without guitars.
In the end, though, Odd Future wanted us to know, as they repeated over and over, that they don't care what you, me or anyone thinks of them. Before launching into "Pidgeons," with its refrain of "Kill people, burn sh—, f—- school," Tyler dedicated "this beautiful song to everyone who don't like me, every protestor ... everyone writing a faggot-ass review of this show." There was extra, unprintable advice for the latter, even though reviews like this one and other articles about the group's controversy are likely the chief reason Odd Future has seen a spike in sales. Even Hodgy Beats, a member of Odd Future and half of MellowHype, in our interview last week, admitted: "I'm honestly not mad at the media. They help sell records, I guess."
But of all the hot air, the most absurd thing the group shouted during that song may have been this: "I'm radical! I'm f—-in' radical!" There's really nothing radical about their potty mouths and juvenile gross-out humor. If anything, it's old.
If Odd Future's doing anything noteworthy, it's forcing another occasional re-evaluation of language. I've seen much high-minded discussion of how Odd Future is determined to soften if not break down the sharpness of certain language and how they cleverly define their particular audience with prescient knowledge of who will get the joke and who won't. I think this ascribes way too much forethought to teenage kids who are cranking out hip-hop with incredible speed and spontaneity, but that doesn't mean they're not achieving a result. If there's anything academic in Odd Future, it's the simple fact that they're a bellwether to a generation that's absorbed some slightly different cultural standards, mainly from video games (which sell nearly four times as much as music) — many of them violent and all of them, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, freely available to all ages — that does not necessarily see the same gravity in words or depictions of rape, murder and violence.
At the end of my chat with Hodgy Beats he said, "There's gays running around and sh—, but when you call someone a faggot people think you're talking about a gay person." It could be simply a matter for the linguists. Faggot used to mean a bundle of sticks, a meatball, and in today's slang it's still a common pejorative for a gay man. But what does it mean to the youth of Odd Future? By the time I asked for clarification as to how else he might define and employ the word "faggot," he'd hung up.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Yuck, How to Dress Well, Kurt Vile
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 10:48 PM
London quartet Yuck has been one of the biggest hypes this year — the lines to see each of several showcases last spring at SXSW were long and futile — and while they couldn't hope to live up to it, their '90s Shoegaze Fanclub shtick is growing on me.
Curly-haired Daniel Blumberg plays guitar and sings with a permanent crick in his neck, often stooped as he grinds out Lush swells on guitar. His longtime mate and fellow guitarist Max Bloom fills whatever spaces Blumberg doesn't — he added a great slide solo to "Suicide Policeman" — and the parts make for a pleasant whole. They were more laid back Sunday, swinging between the riffy fun of "The Wall" and a few songs so easygoing and with melodies so loping I half expected Jackson Browne to join them. In March I said "it should make for a harmless summer '90s revival," and voila.
How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, was the latest casualty Sunday afternoon of sound check delays at the Blue Stage. Leading the group as singer only, just a drummer/keyboardist and a string section (complete with conductor), Krell didn't quite gel. HTDW's music has lit up blogs based on its ephemeral nature, the ghostly ways he weaves his R&B-inflected vocals underneath subtle samples and gossamer synth sounds. At Pitchfork, the soft strings and simplistic drums weren't enough to support Krell's ambitious, quivering falsetto. His so-far signature tune "Ready for the World" came on too strong, and "Decisions" didn't make enough. "We're still working out the kinks," Krell said midway through.
Philadelphia singer-songwriter Kurt Vile — he of the shaggy long hair, like almost everyone in the band — returned to Pitchfork with a bigger, bolder sound. Vile was at this festival last year, when he was still getting the Nick Drake comparisons. Sunday's set, full of muscled guitar and songs about trains, strove for Springsteen, complete with a sax solo on "Freak Train."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Cut Copy, TV on the Radio, Deerhunter
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2011 11:21 PM
Cut Copy was the hit of the Pitchfork Music Festival's third night, delivering a set of its '80s-inspired dance-rock that had Union Park jammed and jumping.
They're just four clean-cut Australian blokes in nice shirts. But in the middle of "Saturdays," just as the sun was fading out a broiling afternoon, Dan Whitford called out a simple arena-rock, crowd-juicing trick — "On the count of three, I want you to go crazy! One, two, three, go!" — and craziness ensued. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing to watch a crowd of nearly 18,000 people jumping and waving hands in time, freaking the frack out, throwing inflatable things around and spraying water, with wide eyes and smiles from ear to ear.
The crowd was putty in Whitford's hand, a dynamic performer who makes up in audience engagement what he lacks in his pinched voice. Whitford commands the stage with a kind of authority that produces results; when he sings about something "in the sky" and points toward it, you look up.
Cut Copy is not a complicated band — this is basic pop with disco grooves and lyrics about reaching for the stars, holding onto your dream and trying to get you on the phone — and the crowd was full of fans, people who knew when to "ooh," when to "yeah!" and who cheered the songs they recognized just from the first synthesizer note. The band pulled from its whole catalog, including tracks from the latest album, "Zonoscope," and the new single "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution" (a song from 2010, though it gained some note during the Arab Spring, so now it's a new single out July 25, packaged alongside a remix by fellow Pitchfork performer Toro Y Moi). When they started "Lights and Music," a propulsive tune with dissonant synths and the bassline from the Pretenders' "Mystery Achievement," the park went crazy without being told. Even Whitford was taken aback by the crowd's enthusiasm, blurting a "Wow!" when the song ceased.
As acts compete to fill the void left by LCD Soundsystem, the Oprah of indie dance-rock, Cut Copy might have a chance for a breakthrough.
Before Cut Copy was Deerhunter, Atlanta's wall of noise rock band. Deerhunter recently covered a band that gets to its root influences, fellow Georgians Pylon, and their Sunday set was an irresistible and daring mix of the same dance rhythms and guitar drone. The quartet opened with several minutes of guitar wash and cymbals before collapsing into "Desire Lines," a song of tightly controlled jangle, an evolving rhythm and several showcases for guitar scrapes within guitarscapes — towering leader Bradford Cox ringing one chord for what seemed like days, while guitarist Lockett Pundt worked up and down scales. Reverb drenched the instruments and the vocals, so eventually everything was ringing, ringing, ringing. The band let layers of sound pile up, and often left them there — buzzing on for several minutes, while the rhythm section kept it afloat, until the tension was almost too much. "Little Kids" crumbled into waves of feedback. "Nothing Ever Happened" snaked through its verses before stretching itself to the breaking point. Occasionally they dabbled in barroom stomps and slow, Red House Painters narcotics, but mostly it was walls and walls of sound.
After Cut Copy was Brooklyn's revived funky bunch, TV on the Radio. The band released the acclaimed "Nine Types of Light" on April 12, eight days before bassist Gerard Smith died of lung cancer. Sunday night they were just as eclectic as ever, mixing up Southern boogie, post-punk, electronica, blues and balladry, sometimes in the same song. Their headlining set seemed extra funky, at least at first, tripping explosives in "New Cannonball Blues" before going slow jam for a few tunes. "The Wrong Way," however, was a hot soul stomp utilizing the competitive vocals of both Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone to conjure the revelatory dream the song's poetry describes. Such a swampy mix of music: they're indie-rock's Little Feat.
Pitchfork and Odd Future: At least we talked about it
By Thomas Conner on July 20, 2011 4:32 PM
One of the first things you learn to do in journalism school is rewrite press releases, but when they come along as eloquently written as this one that arrived today — from Between Friends, the Chicago domestic violence preventative organization that was one among several advocacy groups at the Pitchfork Music Festival last weekend trying to counter the frequently hateful message in the lyrics of rap group Odd Future and their Sunday performance — I say run the thing verbatim.
It's a fine coda to an odd moment in a great festival ...
CREATING THE DIALOGUE FOR A SAFE FUTURE NOT AN ODD FUTURE
CHICAGO (7/20/11) — The odd choice of Pitchfork Music Festival organizers to include Odd Future, known for their misogynistic lyrics, provided the perfect platform for creating a dialogue that was heard around the world about violence against women and the LGBTQ community. Colleen Norton, Prevention & Education Manager at Between Friends, where we focus on building a community free from violence against women, enlisted the help of several other organizations - Rape Victim Advocates, the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Center on Halsted, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and others, and created a successful campaign to raise awareness about how such violence is often glorified, minimized or ignored.
This campaign generated a huge response from the local, national and international community. One woman wrote: "I'm from Australia and I've been very concerned about Odd Future's lyrics and performances. Even if they're meant to be 'ironic or protesting in some way against all the toxic rubbish in the media, I absolutely oppose their approach...so I just wanted to send a message of support to you for your awareness-raising campaign at Pitchfork. If I was in Chicago that day I would definitely join you!" Back in Chicago, as we ran out of the 7,000 fans passed out to concertgoers. A young woman, who took one, came back after reading it and told us, "It really means a lot. Thank you for being here." More telling are the numbers of concertgoers that came to us after Odd Future's performance, voicing their discomfort with the lyrics and asking for the fans we used to decorate our booth!
Others completely missed the objective of the campaign by questioning the "lack of protest". Maybe we are watching too much reality TV to understand the art of generating real conversations that lead to a shared understanding? Media regarding Odd Future being booked at Pitchfork was indeed a catalyst for us to seek a presence at the festival. However, picketing Odd Future's performance would have been shortsighted and distracting from our real goals. Instead, our fans were in the hands of 7,000 supporters waving the message: Cool it! Don't be a fan of violence.
So what did we accomplish? We mobilized others to: 1) Think critically about how violence against women and the LGBTQ community is portrayed in their community through music, art, and the media,
2) Talk about ways to end such violence, and 3) Seek help from the resources provided. The conversation spread quickly with every online article, blog, picture, and comment posted engaging everyone in the dialogue both locally and around the world!
Between Friends and our partners thank the thousands of you who supported this campaign and helped us achieve our goals! Now we encourage you to continue the dialogue - wherever that takes you! Hear more online at our Facebook page - http://www.facebook.com/BetweenFriendsChicago.
About Between Friends
Between Friends is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to breaking the cycles of domestic violence throughout Chicagoland. Between Friends offers domestic violence survivors resources and support to help them rebuild their lives and move into safer and healthier situations. In addition, Between Friends addresses domestic violence as a community issue and offers extensive education and training programs for groups throughout the Chicago area to help prevent domestic violence before it begins. For more information visit www.betweenfriendschicago.org.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
Rolling into town for SXSW, so is Jack White's Rolling Record Store
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2011 4:58 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — When I first attended South by Southwest, the annual pop music conference and festival in Austin, Texas (the music industry's spring break), it was 1996, just shy of the event's 10th anniversary — and everyone was already complaining about how big it had gotten. Too many bands, too much press, too much traffic. The film fest had barely started.
This year is the 25th anniversary of SXSW's music showcases, which are now preceded by SXSW Interactive and the SXSW film festival. The whole things stretches on for 10 days, with a lot of entertainment, a lot of media and a ton of traffic — and now most of the complaints about size and impact have shifted to Interactive. But we're all down here because SXSW still has a rep of previewing the films, music and online experiences that we'll be geeking out about for the rest of the year.
It starts the moment you get off the plane, where a brave singer-songwriter strummed her guitar on a makeshift stage at the airport bar next to the baggage claim escalators. For the next four nights, the Texas capital will echo with more than a thousand musicians hoping to turn the heads of writers, talent agents, music supervisors, film directors, label execs and more.
Jack White was first into the fray this afternoon ...
White's in town to unveil his latest venture after his recent confirmation that the White Stripes are no more. White is on a mission to salvage the experience of record buying for a generation of iTunes downloaders. He's put together the Third Man Rolling Record Store — basically a food truck that peddles vinyl LPs, T-shirts and such, plus a sound system. Wednesday afternoon, White worked that system, playing a set in front of the Rolling Record Store, which had set up outside Frank's Diner. He played a handful of songs solo, including a Buddy Holly cover, plus the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
The mobile shop rolled here from Nashville for SXSW. White says he plans to travel the country with it, hitting the summer festivals.
SXSW Wednesday: Colourmusic, Wolf Gang, the Kickback, Admiral Fallow, Pete Wentz's Black Cards
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:56 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW is basically a musical March madness. Here's one man's brackets at the end of Wednesday night's series of showcases:
BRONCHO: When in doubt, follow Martin Atkins. The famed drummer for Public Image Ltd. and Pigface led a spirited panel Wednesday afternoon advising newbies to the music business, then started his evening at the Oklahoma showcase, seeing BRONCHO. Funny about that name: it's in all caps, for some reason, and it's pronounced so it rhymes with honcho. Tulsa's BRONCHO is the latest project from Ryan Lindsey, who manages to meld his experience in the alt-country band Cheyenne and early indie-rock hopefuls the Starlight Mints into a sweaty mix of loping cowpunk and Stiff Records guitar aggression. Atkins was bobbing his head, anyway.
Colourmusic: Another Okie quartet, Colourmusic, hoisted the freak flags over Austin's Sixth Avenue early, unleashing a squall of early Flaming Lips feedback, general high-pitched shrieking and, surprisingly, some meaty funk grooves. This is some serious evolution for a band that started as a more folk-driven, Britpop act (see their more accessible debut, the cumbersomely titled "F, Monday, Orange, February, Venus, Lunatic, 1 or 13") — and then they met the Lips' Wayne Coyne. Underneath the Brainiac-like furor, though, are some solid, funky rhythms. One fan was moved enough to tear off his shirt, jump on stage and dance ecstatically for all to see.
The Kickback: Guitarist-singer Billy Yost quipped between songs, "If you work in the entertainment industry and would like a hot record to put out, boy would we like to talk to you!" Here's hoping they had their chat. Chicago's the Kickback is a fierce power trio within a quintet — Yost, his brother Danny Yost on drums and bassist Zach Verdoorn. Tighter than a flea's undies, these three plow through every dynamic, from sweetly tuneful to apoplectic fury, buttressed by Billy Yost's apparent natural edginess (his stage banter was taut, nervous, like he was spoiling for a dust-up) and a vein in his neck that bulged whenever things got really good and really loud. It was almost like seeing David Garza at SXSW all those years ago.
Admiral Fallow: Here's the next Scottish band to watch. In the tradition of Belle & Sebastian, but with a more rock edge and a significantly grandiose songwriting perspective, Admiral Fallow is fertile with song styles and instrumentation. Opening their set late with a quiet tune, a lyric buoyed by rhythm guitars just for atmospherics, not melody, this six-piece played pastoral pop for those who've also been turned on to Mumford & Sons or their own countrymen, Frightened Rabbit. I heard the urgency and persistent rhythm of Dogs Die in Hot Cars (a fabulous but, with that silly name, defunct Scottish band), as well as a lyrical landscape of losers and big spaces that reminded me of American Music Club. With their flutes, clarinets and big drums in addition to the guitars, they could be Scotland Music Club, and they should start opening for the National immediately.
Black Cards: A small crowd waited for Pete Wentz to shag it from the mtvU Woodie Awards across downtown and finally debut his new band. He jumped on stage early Thursday morning with a crazy fur hat on and cranked up a fairly dime-a-dozen set of dance-rock. Black Cards is led by Bebe Rexha, a personable newcomer who comes off vixenish without being too affected. She's got a great voice, but Black Cards are still waiting for a full house. The groove-based music is deftly led by Wentz's bass, much the way John Taylor's bass was at the forefront of Duran Duran early on, but in the end it was sub-Garbage, especially when the songs took on a reggae flavor, which suited neither Wentz's nor Rexha's strengths. Clutching his Miller Lite, Wentz mubled some stage patter about how "weird it is when you do something different and people are like, 'That's lame.'" In that sense, yeah, this was weird.
Wandering Sixth Street: In addition to the smorgasbord of music down here, Chicagoans, it's also in the 70s. Strolling the main music row thus makes for easy shopping, with a band neatly framed in the open windows of most clubs. Practically next door to the Colourmusic show was another band with British spelling: Chicago's own Secret Colours, which turned in a set diametrically opposite of Colourmusic's brave frenzy; Secret Colours plays a tender swirl of '60s autumnal folk and '90s shoegaze. Down the way, Ha Ha Tonka smartly showed its Ozark roots in some ripping country-rock, featuring a mandolin player with a harmony voice as high as his instrument and a rhythm section with a driving backbeat. These Missouri boys had the crowd clapping along — and this was the SXChi showcase, sponsored by Chicago's JBTV and Threadless. Around the corner at Latitude, the unofficial British embassy for the duration of SXSW, Lonndon's Wolf Gang drew a crowd. Here's a band that looks like an anachronism — Spandau Ballet's wardrobe, Adam Ant's earring — but sounds timeless, luring a dancing mob on the street with rich melodies and crisp playing. A fellow next to me was lured away from another showcase by the sound. "American music is so muddled," he said. "This is so British — so clean and clear and, I don't know, some kind of tune to take away with you."
SXSW keynote: Bob Geldof pleads for rock's continuing social conscience — 'Say something to me!'
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:25 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A fine new biography of Queen by Mark Blake, Is This the Real Life?, was recently published. The first chapter details the band's performance at Live Aid in 1985, as fine a piece of stadium showmanship as you'll ever see. It inspired me to drop the cash on a used set of Live Aid DVDs, the four-disc set that was finally compiled a few years ago. Watching the whole spectacle over a long weekend while the spouse was away, I finally came to terms with the fact that, sure, Dylan was there, but so were Spandau Ballet and the Style Council (themselves the picture-perfect illustration of style trumping substance in the mid-'80s). It happened when Elvis Costello came onto the stage. He had one song. He didn't pick one of his own, he didn't push the hit, he instead sang "All You Need Is Love." Live Aid is peppered with such moments, when the music itself reminds us of why we're here — much moreso and certainly more effectively than the marathon concert's occasional news reels about the African famine — and what we should be talking about.
This is exactly the kind of thing Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof says is lacking in current music — or, if it's there, at least the democratization of the Internet has prevented him from finding it.
Surprising and inspiring, more optimist than doomsayer, Geldof began Thursday's keynote address at SXSW 2011 with a pleasant ramble but focused his remarks on pop music's history of affecting social change, however indirectly, and the future of that crucial power.
"I don't think the American revolution is over," said the activist-musician. He didn't mean 1776. "The music of the American revolution was not fife and drum. It was rock 'n' roll. It is entirely understandable to anyone in the world. That's why Live Aid worked."
Geldof recalled his youth in "cold, damp, gray" Ireland and the personal (which, once he took action by joining a band, inevitably later became social) revolution that occurred when he first heard rock music. His realization, he says, was, "I can use this thing." He saw the music as a tool to change his own circumstances, and then to have a voice in the world.
But it's the nature of that voice that Geldof focused on. What kind of voice, and through what medium will it come? The Internet isn't enough, he said. "We can talk these things through, which is the limitation of the web," he said, salting his impassioned speech in several places with his distaste for blogs and for the ability of anyone to shout their views unmanaged into cyberspace. An increase in the quantity of voices has drowned out those with quality — "Everybody's got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say," Geldof said.
No, blog screeds and even Woody Guthrie-esque didacticism are not going to keep the American cultural revolution alive and growing. For music to have any impact, he said, "it must suggest, not state ... It has to be about society. The revisiting of context is crucial. When rock becomes about the height of the platform boots and the size of one's country manor, it's meaningless." He called rock music a "vivid, livid argument with the constituency," adding, "This thing we call content now is about the conversation society has with itself."
The power of shaping ideas still lies in the music, he said, though finding it and experiencing it has grown more difficult without clear arbiters and filters online. "Where are the Ramones of today, the Sex Pistols?" he asked. "They're out there, but will they be found? That's the point."
To the musicians at SXSW, Geldof pleaded: "Say something to me!" He also encouraged them not to be taken in by the illusion of community offered by the Internet and to realize that "a fan club is more powerful than 6,000 [Facebook] friends." Then he started to get angry, exactly in the way he wanted musicians to be. "I don't hear it! I don't hear that rage! I don't hear the disgust in music" -- and this after a laundry list of injustices, including the Wall Street scandals and the new McCarthyism of Rep. Peter King (whose hypocritical former ties to the IRA brought real color to Geldof's cheeks) -- "and I need to! It doesn't have to be literal. Ideas are shaped in music. That's why music is dangerous, and always has been. Rock 'n' roll is the siren cry of individualism acting together."
Individualism acting together. Nice. Sounds like America to me. And the voice of that collective individualism is still desperately needed throughout the world, Geldof said without even citing the examples of current uprisings through Africa and the Middle East. "We still need you. Still the voice of the American revolution must pound on."
Amusing postscript: In the Q&A that followed, one questioner brought up contemporary outspoken punk bands and focused on Chicago's Rise Against, who Geldof seemed familiar with. But their name is too literal, he complained. "I really don't think pop should be that literal," he said. "I suggest that they ... move to transliterating what they're feeling."
That said, it should be interesting to compare the directness of lyrics on Rise Against's new album, "Endgame" when we finally hear Geldof's new album, "How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell," this spring.
SXSW Thursday: The Strokes fill an amphitheater on autopilot, plus Abigail Washburn, Yelawolf and more
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Ringing in the second full night of music at SXSW, as they rang in the 21st century, New York City's venerated Strokes plodded into a set cherry-picked from their retro-hipster catalog. In the early stages of a tour that appears to be dreadfully duty-bound, supporting the band's first new record in five years, "Angles," these once refreshing rock revivalists played a free concert for a capacity crowd at Austin's Auditorium Shores outdoor amphitheater. (Capacity of the outdoor venue is listed at 20,000; by mid-show, the entrances were closed to incoming fans, some of whom then knocked down the fences to get in.)
While the evening was temperate and breezy, the music wasn't quite the same. Opening the show with a wink-wink choice for this "comeback," singer Julian Casablancas slumped onto his microphone and wheezed, "I want to be forgotten / and I don't want to be reminded / You say, 'Please don't make this harder' / No, I won't yet." But it's not easy listening to a band that sounds so talented and proficient — and so bored. The Strokes' Thursday night set clearly thrilled the mob of fans, but it sounded like "Angels" does — labored, merely capable, not completely forced but close. Bob Geldof in his keynote Thursday morning said, "America, you look exhausted." Case in point: Julian & Co., not exactly a festival band (see last summer's Lollapalooza) playing-by-numbers and trying to determine what cultural contrast existed that made them sound genuinely fresh and exciting a decade ago. In the new single, "Under Cover of Darkness," Casablancas sings, "Everybody's singing the same song for 10 years."
I bolted and hit the west side of downtown to explore some unknowns — the founding purpose of SXSW — before closing the night with some other known quantities ...
Curiosity led me into the ACL Live at the Moody Theater, a new venue attached to the W Hotel and reflective of its clean lines and modern personality. It's a great, three-decked theater, and the band on stage was, I'll say it, smokin'. The New Mastersounds is a quartet with a formidable keyboardist, Joe Tatton, dancing up and down the ivories of a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhodes. The rhythm section is pure New Orleans backline, and singer Eddie Roberts calmly played an intense guitar solo at the end of the set — smiling to himself when he was done because he knew he'd nailed it. Hot funk, and you'd never believe where they're from while you're standing there doing the chicken dance like you're at Mardi Gras. They're from freaking Leeds.
Abigail Washburn, a k a Mrs. Bela Fleck, struggled against the room at Antone's, kicking off a strong night sponsored by the Americana Music Association also featuring Emmylou Harris and the Old 97s. Washburn, an Evanston native, is a crafty clawhammer banjo player, and she leads a very adult and understated Americana quintet that includes upright bass and pedal steel. Washburn's voice is cool and salty, and her songs are supple and slow-building, like little Appalachian operettas — not the best fit for a big beer hall. But she easily steered several songs into brief breakdowns that caused couples to dance and Washburn to try out her clogging while crying, "Eeee-yeah!"
The Austin Music Hall was smoky with a fiery hip-hop bill. Trae the Truth, a Houston collective built around Trae (born Frazier Thompson III), had manic mouths and big beats, rapping about "the South Side" and getting a lot of crowd participation with exchanges like this:
Trae: "You ain't sh-- if you ain't ever been..."
Crowd: "...screwed up!"
Brooklyn's Yelawolf hit the stage with several times that energy, jumping from side to side in his grungy plaid shirt and ridiculous pom-pommed stocking cap. He juiced the crowd while spewing redneck raps that change gears suddenly between regular time, double time and triple time. Born Michael Wayne Atha in Alabama, Yelawolf is signed to Eminem's Shady Records; he sounds like a Southern Shady, but with much less to say. Yelawolf just wants to par-tay. After Trae joined him on stage for some more call-and-response with the crowd — the youngest and across-the-board most diverse I've seen here yet — Yelawolf got introspective for the briefest moment, stalking the stage and talking about a girl who left him "for some Abercrombie motherf---er." Then he started singing, soft and fluttery, "Love is not enough" — before shrieking, "F--- that bitch! I just wanna party!"
More SXSW Thursday: S.O.S. for B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 PM
The first SXSW S.O.S. went out Thursday morning, after Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco — a buzzed favorite on the schedule especially since his controversial "Lasers" album just went No. 1 — canceled his show, as did Cee Lo Green after him, both for undisclosed reasons. They were scheduled headliners at the Atlantic Records showcase at La Zona Rosa, but Atlantic has plenty of hot commodities to choose from right now. The new lineup became: B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae.
B.o.B. impressed me playing the very first set at Lollpalooza last summer in the brutal morning sun, mostly because this 22-year-old from North Carolina is a triple threat: a rapper with flow, a capable singer and a pretty hot guitarist. All three talents we on stage Thursday night, but showing some wear. Two of his biggest singles from last year's "The Adventures of Bobby Ray" are collaborations, and since Rivers Cuomo and Bruno Mars can't follow B.o.B. on tour to sing their melodious parts of "Magic" and "Nothin' on You," respectively, B.o.B. simply plays their tracks and dances while their voices dominate the chorus. He's got a half dozen guys on stage with him; one of them can't fill in for the live concert? When he straps on that guitar, thou, he's hot, as he did to rip through "Don't Let Me Fall" and "Electric."
Wiz Khalifa, whose "Rolling Papers" CD, due March 29, is one of the year's most anticipated, moseyed on stage and filled the interim with a hazy set. Hardly polished, this sub-Snoop Dogg rambled about the stage, looking like a deer in the headlights but raising the temperature of the place with his carefree party raps, mostly along these lines: "If you don't smoke, I don't know why." Surrounded by members of the Taylor Gang, Khalifa ping-pongee back and forth, laughing to himself and transmitting a generally slap-happy vibe, which the crowd picked up on and rolled with. Before closing with his hit "Black and Yellow" (go, Steelers!), he freestyles a tribute to the late Nate Dogg.
Janelle Monae has announced a spring tour with Bruno Mars (May 27 at the Aragon), and just this week announced some dates opening for Katy Perry. But if the public finally latches onto her in a bigger way, she's already prepared to handle her own headline. A tiny thing (the pompadour adds at least half a foot), she proved Thursday night she can command the stage. Backed by a tight eight-piece band, Monae hit the stage in a flowing cape while three dancers in monk robes knelt around her. She quickly went into her thesis, "Dance or Die," moving the crowd with the tight-tight-tight funk (sometimes that rhythm section was even a little overpowering) and prodding their minds with the sci-fi concepts from her fascinating debut album, "The ArchAndroid." Midway through, she cooled things down with a rendition of Judy Garland's "Smile," then brought the show to a close with the hit, "Tightrope," expanded into a Vegas-jazz marathon with about seven endings. Didn't bother those of us who didn't want it to end.
Let's put on a show! Hanson throws together online telethon for Japan earthquake relief at SXSW
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 5:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Hanson returned this year to the festival that made them famous — and then they got all Bob Geldof on us.
The three Oklahoma brothers first came to SXSW 17 years ago, strolling the streets as under-age hopefuls, singing for anyone who would listen (and getting kicked out of the Four Seasons lobby for doing so). One guy did, and the rest is "MMMBop" history. Now grown up, married, each with kids, they look around Austin and Zac, 25, sighs and says, "South-by definitely put a mark on us."
This year, the Hanson guys returned to SXSW to play a showcase — only their second time to do so — in support of last year's spot-on pop-soul record, "Shout It Out," their eighth. But then something else happened. Maybe it was the presence of Geldof, but Hanson decided to whip together, in the span of about two days, a telethon to raise money for the recovery efforts in Japan following the massive earthquake there and subsequent nuclear power threats.
"When we got to South by Southwest, we expected to see more of a unified effort," Zac said Friday afternoon from a makeshift base camp in an office building on North Congress Ave. "It was like, all we've got going is four tables at the convention center? That's not great. ... All these important people are here, from IFC to CNN, arts and culture people who should be talking about this, and no one really was. So yesterday we decided to throw this thing together, and started calling everyone we know to participate."
"And everyone we don't know," added Isaac Hanson.
The result, they hope, is a 12-hour live stream from noon to midnight Saturday, viewed at sxsw4japan.com (a different address from sxsw4japan.org, but related), featuring live and pre-recorded performances and messages from a variety of musicians. It was still early when I spoke with them, but on board a day ahead were Widespread Panic, the Boxer Rebellion, Ben Folds and the Courtyard Hounds.
"Even if we raise $12, we just felt something had to be done -- by someone, and if we could step up and be those people, OK," Zac said. "We don't want to be so jaded and say, 'Well, we helped out with Haiti, and that was pretty recent ...' I've heard people say, 'Well, it's Japan, they've got money.' It didn't seem right."
Money raised through this awareness project will be via text messaging and go directly to the Red Cross.
Hanson will oversee the stream and appear several times. When it's over at midnight, they head to Antone's for an all-ages showcase at 12:30 a.m.
"Live Aid was put together in two weeks," Isaac said. "We can do this in two days." He looked at Zac. A beat. "Right?"
SXSW Friday: Cool Kids, Mac Miller, Yuck, Wild Flag, A Lull
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 11:45 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Chicago's Cool Kids, Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, show the folks gathered for SXSW just how much the music business has changed. Since popping up in 2007, the talented rap duo has yet to record a proper album. Instead, they've built a sturdy career on blog-loved singles, EPs, mixtapes and remarkably solid performances like their stand Friday night at Austin's La Zona Rosa. They're doing well enough that Mikey Rocks can strut the stage in a red Neiman Marcus tank top and rhyme about his "new pair of shoes," his "ATM credits," how he swaggers around "with a little bit of gold and a pager" and, finally, snorts derisively: "You shop at the mall!" Still there's talk of an album being recorded, but who cares? The crowd was singing and shouting and dancing wildly. Chuck and Mikey brim with confidence, pacing the stage while calmly but firmly delivering their lines — not too wacked-out, but none of that rapid-fire stuff — over rocking beats and minimal electronic sounds. But it's not all about the coin. "They say if you ain't got no money take yo broke ass home," Chuck said in "Basement Party," the closer. "I say if you got you two dollars, then come through to my party."
Next up was a rapper to watch: Mac Miller. Backed by a DJ scratching actual vinyl, this 19-year-old white rapper from Pittsburgh stumbled into his SXSW debut in a grubby sweatshirt and backwards cap looking and acting every bit the stoner guy from "Clueless." "Anyone drunk or f---ed up?" Miller asked the crowd, which roared the affirmative. "Man, there's so much sh-- backstage," he chuckled, smacking his cheek in amazement. Whatever his state of mind, Miller warmed into an engaging and occasionally goofy set of quick rhymes (he tends to rap on the same note for long stretches). He's got flow, but his set doesn't. He stopped after every song to stumble around some more and yammer on about partying and generally being a good-natured doofus. ("I love to party," he said, then added his thesis: "You gotta goof around a little bit." Someone in the audience said no, you don't. He responded, "Well, I do.") Expect to see him on college campuses all year long — or, with his feisty "Nikes on My Feet" ("Lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em / Blue suede shoes stay crispy like bacon"), on a shoe commercial soon.
Earlier in the week, I saw Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, hosts of public radio's "Sound Opinions" show. The subject of Yuck came up — possibly the buzziest of buzz bands at this year's SXSW — and the two instantly broke into their Siskel & Ebert dynamic, with DeRo claiming Yuck was just retreaded shoegaze rock and Kot disagreeing, saying he hears a lot of Pavement. They're each right, depending on the song. Sometimes, as on "Holing Out," the guitars from Yuck's Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom are wonderfully lush and streamlined (kinda shoegazey). Sometimes, as on "Get Away," the melodies take sharp turns and the bass line gets up and runs around the room (kinda Pavementy). In all, it's a pleasant sound that washes over you without leaving behind much sediment. Yuck, a quartet from London, has played here, there and everywhere this week; Friday's showcase at the Kiss & Fly lounge had a line a block long waiting to get in. It's not really worth all that, but it should make for a harmless summer '90s revival.
Those fans should have been in line for Wild Flag. Amazingly, there was no line for the most exciting revival of the night — from Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and currently a co-writer and actor on the buzz-worthy IFC sketch comedy show "Portlandia." Her new supergroup — featuring singer-guitarist Mary Timony (ex-Helium), keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders) and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss — played a rollicking set Friday night, with Brownstein ping-ponging around the stage in a red dress. This is not Sleater-Kinney — it's much more fun. Pop hooks rule, with spirited vocals from the whole band (including a lot of girl-group ooh's and ahh's in the back), and only occasionally (but thankfully) does a darker S-K undertone show up, particularly in Brownstein's guitar breaks, which thrash about in the pop pool making welcome waves. Cole is the band's secret weapon, though, laying down determined organ lines that give Brownstein and Timony a steady something to cling to. A debut disc is due later this year on Merge.
I capped the night next door with Chicago's A Lull, which crammed onto the closet-sized stage at the Bat Bar with four members playing drums. Digging into the most primal corners of rock, A Lull (Nigel Evan Dennis, Todd Miller, Ashwin Deepankar, Aaron Vinceland and Mike Brown) has released recordings that utilize any available sound they think hits hardest, including hitting drums with microphones and beating things against a wall. Friday's showcase was less destructive physically, but pretty pummeling otherwise. With two drummers, a bassist also occasionally hitting drums and a bongo, a guitarist with drums and a xylophone, and a singer lurching over repeating keyboard whims, A Lull was hardly a pause in anything. But the pounding compositions possess shape and texture and bode well for their full-length album, "Confetti," due April 12.
'American Idol's Crystal Bowersox plays lively SXSW showcase with John Popper
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 1:07 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — The way "American Idol" runner-up Crystal Bowersox and Blues Traveler frontman John Popper were getting along on stage at SXSW, you'd think they'd been BFFs for a long time. But they met just 30 minutes before the show.
Bowersox explained that she had contacted Popper online via a mutual friend (see below for geeked-out backstory) and asked the harmonica virtuoso to play during one song at her showcase Friday night in the Victorian Ballroom of Austin's Driskill Hotel. Popper wound up playing the whole set with Bowersox and her country-rock band.
The two played off each other nicely — Bowersox's acoustic strumming and strong, soulful voice balanced by Popper's high-pitched harp solos. Sometimes Popper (in town with his own band, John Popper & the Duskray Troubadours) went a bit too far, egged on by the applause, and threatened to overshadow Bowersox's first SXSW spotlight. As great a player as he is, he's never one for playing few notes or leaving the slightest space between them. But he added to a rich performance, seeming to enliven mandolin player Charlie King, bassist Frankie May and, for "Mason," Bowersox's husband Brian Walker.
Bowersox, who lives in Chicago, sang and played like a veteran, clearly in command of the band. Each player watched her for cues and chords, as she fearlessly played a set that included carefully constructed folk-pop like "Mine All Mine" and revved-up soul-rockers like "On the Run" and "Kiss Ya." All original, too, thank heavens. Her "Idol" experience is well on the way to becoming a footnote in her bio. "You might know me from a certain television show," she said early in the set. "... 'Extreme Makeover.'"
The show turned into as much a comedy set as a musical one, with Bowersox and Popper veering into a bizarre, slap-happy run of poop jokes. It began when Walker joined her on stage for "Mason," their wedding song, wearing a white shirt and jeans. Bowersox wore the same combo, and she quipped, "Even our poop is starting to smell the same." The scatological humor kept on throughout the set. Backstage afterward, Popper said, "I've never met another singer with such soul and fecal humor."
When will Bowersox finally play a full gig in Chicago again? She didn't know. She and Walker live on the North Side. Walker, however, plays April 7 at the Bottom Lounge, and she'll be backing him up.
** How Crystal met John: If you watch "American Idol" closely, you might have heard Bowersox say something odd during a post-performance interview during the finals in May 2010. She said, "Meow is the time." It was a bet, she said, between her and a friend, Steve Lemme, an actor who was in the 2001 comedy "Super Troopers." In that movie, Lemme's character, State Trooper MacIntyre Womack, is wagered by his buddy to say the word "meow" 10 times during a traffic stop. "Meow is the time" counted as one. Lemme also knows Popper. Bowersox made the original connection online via Lemme. When she hit Austin on Friday, she texted Popper and he came right to the venue. It's a small festival, after all.
Kanye West, Jay-Z, John Legend and more party late into the night for SXSW diversion
By Thomas Conner on March 20, 2011 12:28 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A rare, full "super moon" shone over the Texas capital Saturday night, but only one music star was big enough to eclipse not only that but nearly all of the annual South by Southwest music conference and festival: Kanye West.
Announced via a cryptic online video weeks before SXSW (with the audience enticed via a Twitter/texting RSVP, which the sponsoring company admitted failed terribly, with hundreds turned away) West hogged the spotlight on the festival's final night and set up shop in an unusual venue, a decommissioned downtown power plant. By early Saturday morning, fans were already lined up for the midnight show; at showtime, a mob of ticketless fans mashed the barricades outside, hoping to get in. The venue's capacity is just over 2,000; the event guest list received more than 10,000 requests in its first hour.
From 1 to 4 a.m., West trotted much of the roster of his G.O.O.D. record label across the stage, including Mos Def (who was surprisingly basic and dull), Pusha T (his "Fear of God" mixtape is due Monday) and Kid Cudi (a crowd favorite and a snappy dancer). Most blended in, one after the next, except the arresting Cyhi Da Prince (whose crazy-fast rhymes were paired with the masked Mad Violinist for "Sideways") and the aberrant Mr. Hudson (a bleach-blond white singer who sounds like Midge Ure and covered Alphaville's "Forever Young"). The concert was filmed for an online broadcast scheduled for April 22 — Good Friday.
West himself slipped on stage without pomp and launched a set that swung between brilliant and boring.
Fiery as he is — and certainly was in hot flashes during "Gorgeous" and "Hell of a Life" — the concert benefited most when he added extra theater, such as the cymbal-flipping marching band that joined him (a la "Tusk") during "All of the Lights," John Legend leavening the mood with elegant piano playing (first during "Christian Dior Denim Flow" and "Blame Game," then for his own "Ordinary People") and the big-guns set of the night — Jay-Z showing up for six of the set's 19 songs. When Jay-Z is on stage, Kanye actually looks humbled, standing there with not much to do while Hova roared through "Big Pimpin'." Alas, no announcement of a release date for or even the status of the pair's teased collaboration album, "Watch the Throne."
Ultimately, though, this concert merely crashed the party. Assembled and promoted by an online video service, not the festival itself, West's parade of salesmanship only managed to draw a crowd away from aspiring bands that came to SXSW, one of the few opportunities they have to possibly be heard without the ruckus of Kanye-sized competition.
Kanye & Co.'s set list Sunday morning: "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous," "Hell of a Life," "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Christian Dior Denim Flow" (with John Legend), "Blame Game" (with John Legend), "Ordinary People" (John Legend), "Power," "Say You Will," "Runaway," "All of the Lights" (with marching band), "H.A.M." (with Jay-Z), "Monster" (with Jay-Z), "Swagga Like Us"(with Jay-Z, but cut short when Kanye laughed and confessed, "I forgot that thing"), "PSA" (Jay-Z), "So Appalled"(with Jay-Z), "Big Pimpin'" (Jay-Z), "Lost in the World" (with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon), "Good Life" (with the G.O.O.D. crew).
Violence and crowd control problems cause SXSW to consider limiting events
By Thomas Conner on March 21, 2011 1:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Injuries and incidents of violence pockmarked this year's SXSW music festival in the Texas capital, causing organizers to consider scaling some things back for 2012.
At a 1 a.m. Saturday show by '80s pop band OMD, a camera boom broke and fell into the crowd. Four people were taken to the hospital with moderate injuries.
SXSW director Roland Swenson called the accident "disheartening" and added, "This is our 25th year, and we've never had anyone permanently injured."
On Friday night, Chicago pop-punk band Screeching Weasel's show in east Austin was cut short when singer Ben Weasel (Ben Foster), after lengthy diatribes between songs and some taunting of the audience, ended up in a brawl after someone threw an ice cube that hit him in the eye.
Crowd control was a problem at several concerts.
Late Saturday night, a throng of fans unable to get inside pressed against an alley fence at the venue where reunited Canadian noise-rock band Death From Above 1979 was playing. Eventually, the fence was pushed down, "inciting a mini riot" according to the venue.
"Some kid came over the top [of the fence], as soon as he came over the top the fence kind of went and everybody started coming in," the bar owner said.
Police on horseback intervened and cleared the alley, allowing the show to continue.
Thursday evening, the Strokes filled the downtown Auditorium Shores amphitheater to its 20,000-person capacity. When the gates were closed to any new concertgoers, several climbed the fence and jumped off the tops of portable toilets to get in. Minor injuries were reported.
Late Saturday night, crowds mobbed an unusual downtown venue, a decommissioned power plant, where Kanye West had scheduled a midnight show.
This concert was not an official SXSW event, and it was free — to anyone who saw a tweeted promotion and RSVP'd via text message to the concert's organizer, the online video service Vevo. The company reports receiving 15,000 texts within the first two minutes after announcing the show. Capacity at the venue was 2,500.
Things soured when several thousand people who had received text messages saying they would be admitted to the show then received a second message apologizing and adding that they did not have a ticket, after all. Vevo issued a public apology, admitting "we missed this up" and saying they were "asked by the Austin Police Department" to limit the size of the crowd. (Kanye himself was uninvited to a fashion show earlier in the week.)
Despite that — and the fact that entry would be granted only to those with a confirmed RSVP or other VIP access — fans began lining up outside the venue early Saturday morning. Crowd control, I can tell you, was poorly planned and managed, with hundreds of hopeful and some angry fans pressing against a barricade demanding entry and shouting at police and security personnel.
MTV reports a spokesperson for SXSW says the festival will reexamine its approach to free events, "which appear to have reached critical mass," plus Austin city officials plan to limit permits next year for free shows.
In the video below from Austin's KXAN, Swenson attributed the restive attitude at some events this year on too many free events, which "attract an element of people who are troublemakers."
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lollapalooza 2010 starts, rocks and raps with B.o.B.
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 12:23 PM
11:30 a.m. in the sun, and the sixth annual Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park is under way. Already people are lined up at the bars, and the faint breezes are redolent with sun lotion, damp lawns and — there it is — a little marijuana smoke.
The first act of the day is one who doesn't deserve the crappy time slot: B.o.B., a chart-climbing hip-hop newbie with one of the year's best-selling records. He's a double-edged attack — one minute spitting quick, punchy rhymes at the growing crowd, the next playing guitar like an indie rocker, even covering a little of Vampire Weekend's "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance." (There's a cynical joke in there somewhere about the kids about to be assaulted by corporate shilling for three days ...) Atlanta's B.o.B. can deliver something for everyone. "Letter From Vietnam" is a guitar ballad, a '60s — or maybe just Lenny Kravitz-like — protest song. He picked up a guitar for it, then asked permission to keep playing it, as if he were breaking some rules to crossover back and forth. He held up his hip-hop, taunting us with "Past My Shades" and making the women in the crowd smile with "Nothin' on You" ("Beautiful girls / all over the world ..."). He mixed the rock and the rap in "Don't Let Me Fall." Fun, cheery, a good opener to the weekend's smorgasbord.
The fields are filling up, and be warned: They're not completely dry from the rain earlier in the week. Several spots are still squishy, with the potential for turning into complete pudding once the weight of thousands squeezes the water out. Don't wear your favorite shoes.
Lessons in old-school from the Walkmen, Raphael Saadiq
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 3:45 PM
Mid-afternoon Friday in the south field at Lollapalooza was about being old-school.
The Walkmen have been together 10 years. They manage to sound relatively fresh while drawing upon sounds and song styles much older than themselves, namely the squeezing, wheezing Dylanesque singing of Hamilton Leithauser, the 1950s-echoed guitar of Paul Maroon and the eerie cocktail organ of Walter Martin. Here's a band that began — born from the ashes of short-lived but explosive Jonathan Fire*Eater — all about creating certain instrumental tones. But the acquisition of Leithauser wound up deepening not only the sound but the songwriting. The new songs played from the band's upcoming next album, "Lisbon," due Sept. 14, are rich tales of wary living ("You're one of us or you're one of them," Leithauser shouted over and over) and worn romance ("There's a girl that you should know / she's from my not so long ago"). In a white button-down shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and a black tie, he leaned into the microphone, plungering his tenor through the very top of his sinuses for an incredible elongated moment during "All Hands and the Cook." One wonders how he maintains his voice over the course of a tour, but he sounded great here. Looking forward to the next disc.
After that, as Chicago's Mavis Staples took the stage in the north end of the field, a younger soul icon brought his own lessons in old-school on the main Parkways stage: Raphael Saadiq. Once a pioneer of New Jack Swing (we can now justifiably giggle at that label) in the group Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq now looks like a traveling education in classic soul, complete with almost 12 band members in black Blues Brothers suits. He can lay down smooth, supple grooves, with a band that sounds as if they could back B.B. King later tonight, and talk sexy to the crowd simply singing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and then punch it up with a rock 'n' soul hit like "So Lady."
Are we not men? Well, they are still Devo!
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 6:47 PM
Is Devo sympathizing with humanity's plight, or just making fun?
In what was surely the most subversive set at Lollapalooza today — Lady Gaga's still to come, but she seems merely flashy and bawdy rather than really subversive — 1980s icons Devo blasted their modern folk songs about the plight of the working man and the diminishing of humanity in our automated world. Jogging on stage in gray uniforms and "Phantom of the Opera"-like half-masks, these plainly old men seemed to be rolling with the wonderment of being back at Lollapalooza, which they played years ago when it was a traveling festival (and even then were the quaint ol' vets). "It's 2010!" said Bob Casale, midway through a dynamic, multi-media set. "And we're here to f—-ing whip it again!"
Singer Mark Mothersbaugh leapt about the minimalist stage — just a drum set, two synth stands and guitars, spaciously arranged — looking extra robotic, wearing mirrored shades over his mannequin mask. But though their music has the rhythm of machinery, these are songs about the sad and worsening state of man. Even an old hit like "Girl U Want" has Mothersbaugh singing, "Look at you with your mouth watering ... she's just the girl you want." It's a common theme to Devo songs, blippy and innocent as they may appear on the surface. Look at yourself, they say. Be aware of your "Uncontrollable Urge," fight against "Going Under." Pay attention, because Madison Avenue is exploiting your urges and your apathy to make you buy things. And, hey, so are we.
As they sang "What We Do" ("breeding, pumping gas, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, do it again"), silhouetted images of various product icons flashed on the screen behind the stage, icons like the PlayStation controller and other basic "necessities" being hawked several hundred feet behind the crowd amid a forest of logos. It's machine music about reminding ourselves that we are men, not necessarily de-evolving, and it sounds as important today as it did in 1980 when computers and synthesizers were newfangled. After all, as Mothersbaugh sang to close the set — after jumping around with pom-poms, again either cheering this downward slide for our species or trying to empower us to reverse it — "A man is real! Not made of steel!"
Devo was bookended late Friday afternoon in the south end of the field by opposite ends of the energy stream. The Big Pink played beforehand, defining dullness. A limited grayscale instead of a declaration of color, they whined through a short set of electronic drone and drudgery ("fall like dominoes, fall like dominos," zzzzz). After Devo, however, came the perkiest kids in indie-rock: Matt & Kim. Every now and then, one of these coupled drum-and-something duos comes along, but never as relentlessly cheery as Matt Johnson (vocals, keyboards) and Kim Schifino (vocals, drums). Opening with one of several instrumental fanfares they'd play, Johnson asked both Schifino and the crowd, "Are you ready to get wild?" It takes some doing to pump up a festival-size crowd when you're only two strong, but these two have tactics. Schifino smiles so wide and so hard its almost threatening, the kind of unwavering grin you can only learn in realty school or have drilled into you by Sue Sylvester. Johnson doesn't allow the keyboard to hem him in; he jumps, he kicks, he climbs, he strikes Grecian urn poses. He had to catch his breath after only the third song. The songs — "Good Old-Fashioned Nightmare," "5K," "Light Speed" and, yes, "Lessons Learned" (the one with the video of them stripping down in Times Square) — with Johnson's plunky, piano-lesson melodies, don't always live up to the party vibe of the hosts, but they throw a lively one nonetheless.
Lollapalooza centers on Lady Gaga's Broadway bluster
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2010 11:53 PM
Early this year, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell said Lady Gaga's performance would be the "centerpiece" of this summer's sixth annual concert festival in Grant Park. He said $150,000 was spent on the staging for the pop star's Monster Ball Tour theatrics.
In a conversation backstage Friday afternoon, Farrell said, "Did you see how many trucks she has? 18! And one of them is just for her wardrobe."
At this point, after a rise in the pop culture that defines meteoric, Lady Gaga is the centerpiece of any space she inhabits. Her gravity sucked most of the total crowd — estimated by Farrell at 80,000 strong Friday — from Friday's other headliner, the Strokes. The guy standing next to me throughout Gaga's show? Wearing a Strokes T-shirt.
So rock is dead, and somehow Broadway won. Lady Gaga's performance was a highly scripted, bewildering, bedazzled psychological drama, with production values right off the Great White Way.
Her two-hour set played like a jukebox musical — a bunch of Gaga hits strung together with a loose story line about kids in a broken-down car trying to get to the Monster Ball.
Our Lady first appeared in silhouette, singing "Dance in the Dark" in the first of many outlandish costumes fresh off the semi, including enormous shoulder pads, a nun's habit with a see-through plastic suit, a huge fringed lampshade, even the same disco-ball bra she wore when she played a Lollapalooza side stage for a small crowd as an unknown in 2007. She tackled all the hits — "Just Dance," "Love Game," "Poker Face," an encore of "Bad Romance" — from her two albums.
But the songs themselves seemed inconsequential next to Lady Gaga's evangelism. If you've ever been picked on, scorned, denied or in any way counted out, Lady Gaga wants you to know, she understands. Numerous litanies — frequently punctuated with unusually hoarse, throaty, Courtney Love screaming to get her point across — hammered this point, even if the songs only do indirectly. Born Stefani Germanotta, she was picked on in school, which she mentioned four times. Her conquering of pop culture and filling of Grant Park, she seemed to conclude, is vindication and validation. And you can have this, too. Let your freak flag fly with pride and you, too, shall be saved!
Someone's gotta say this to every generation, and it might as well be her this time around. She's just not adding a whole lot to it other than an overload of drama. Girl kinda needs to get over herself.
The attitude behind this is very aggressive, too, and you can see it in the choreography — all punches and thrown elbows and monster claws. Everyone on stage frowns and sneers. The band members flip each other off. The bassist is dressed like a military commando. Gaga's expletive-laced homilies end with screams that say, in essence, "F—- you, world!" She rips her stockings, she smears herself with blood, she's seen in a video dressed in delicate chiffons — and a gas mask. She strives to obliterate every convention of beauty, and she says she's doing it so we can "be FREEEEEEEE!"
"What I really hate," she added, "I hate money." (spit take!) Then the ridiculous scream again: "I don't want your money, I WANT YOUR SOOOOOOUL!" This before she tried to out-sacrilege Madonna (a profane prayer, a bleeding angel statue, comparing herself to Jesus) and added, in possibly her truest statement (despite also explaining that, next to money, she really "hates the truth"): "I don't care who you are or what you believe, all I care about is what you think of me."
What I think of her: She's an incredible talent, but she's buried it in all this showy nonsense that she seems to think has grand, transcendent meaning. When things quieted down and she sat at the piano, alone, she was stunning and truly entertaining, holding the crowd in the palm of her hand with greater power than the dancing and the mugging and the light show. She's got a helluva voice and can control or dish the vibrato with a master's skill. "Speechless" easily leaves a listener just that way, and a new song, "You and I," was a killer ballad with meat on its bones. She sounded like Bonnie Raitt when she sang it, and she certainly left us all something to talk about.
These piano ballads were also the only time we saw a sign of real humanity from Lady Gaga. She smiled. Before and after these two moments, she strutted through her performance with an eerie lack of facial expression, a completely vacant face, even when screaming. Here, she gave a shout-out to her dad. She brought out her former partner, Lady Starlight, for a brief dance routine to Metallica's "Metal Militia." She laughed. As she pounded out "You and I," she looked moved, awestruck, impassioned.
But the humanity disappeared once back on script. Then it was little more than cues and costumes and ... fireworks. It was "family night" with the Chicago Bears tonight at Soldier Field. Just as the curtain went up for Gaga's third act, a barrage of fireworks went off directly behind the stage (and over Soldier). A lot of people in the crowd wondered if this was part of Gaga's show — understandable given the aforementioned $150K spent, her obvious penchant for production excess and, hey, the fireworks lasted exactly as long as it took for Gaga & Co. to dance their way through "Monster."
No, they were really just an omen. See those, Stef? See how brightly they burn, and how quickly they fade?
Making it work with Wild Beasts, Stars, Soft Pack
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 5:17 PM
Saturday lunch hour and the north field of Lollapalooza is lurching and leaning into the straightforward rock of the Soft Pack. This San Diego quartet effects nonchalance — "Here's a new song. Whatever." — but plays like they mean it, filling the park, already packed with reddening bodies, with a grinding, fat-bottomed sound. They're the Fall, no, now they're the Hives. Matt Lamkin is as exciting singing lazy "all right's" and "oh yeah's" as he is roaring with conviction that you should "Answer for Yourself." Basic and emboldening, the way a Saturday morning should be.
In the park's Petrillo Band Shell, next came the Wild Beasts. Such nice blokes, these British boys. Not beastly at all, thanking us kindly for our attention and wishing us a wonderful day. And the music, all chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Just beautiful.
Until you start hearing what they're singing about. There are tales of hoodlums running wild in the streets, "scaring the oldies into their dressing gowns." There are serious threats against "any rival who goes for our girls." The title track of the British band's sophomore CD, "Two Dancers," recounts almost "Clockwork Orange"-like violence: "They dragged me by the ankles through the street / They passed me round them like a piece of meat." The disc's opening track, all humming synthesizers and beautiful bass lines and wood-block rhythms, finds singer Hayden Thorpe, sounding like a demented Jimmy Somerville, howling, "This is a booty call ... my boot, my boot, my boot up your ——hole." Alas, there was no one posted to the sign language station for this show; demonstrating those lyrics would've been added entertainment.
But the Mercury Prize-nominated Wild Beasts are a surprisingly great festival band, their cinematic songs and layered effects luring half-interested fans to the sun-baked pavement in front of the band shell. The sun is warm today but not brutal, and occasional relief from clouds add to the dreamlike feeling, especially with the right music. Thorpe sings mostly in an airy falsetto, a rare treat in modern rock, and it's more than a gimmick. It's difficult to imagine this music wrapping around another kind of voice, not with that light, vibrating timbre to the bass, not with that ringing Johnny Marr-ish guitar. Yes, there's the Smiths reference. Listening to the Wild Beasts, it's not unrealistic to trace the family tree of their leering, melodic style back through Gene (the Smiths of the '90s) to the debut of Morrissey, another daring high-scale singer. Bassist Tom Fleming takes occasional lead singing duties, too, alternating between a low bellow and his variation on the upper register as he did on "All the King's Men," from "Two Dancers." Earlier material had more spunk, a livelier step ("Brave Bulging," "The Devil's Crayon"), but the show came to a big, satisfying finish with the new "Hooting and Hollering."
Some bands, though, struggle to present themselves well in the heat of the afternoon sun. Canada's Stars tried to puff up their delicate sound, making themselves seem larger — good advice if encountering a bear in the woods, but as successful if encountering thousands of expectant fans in an urban park. This is a band that crafts intelligent mini-suites about romantic intrigue, led by two singers (Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan) with thin, soft voices. With the tracks carefully separated on CD, it's moving and magical. Live, it's sometimes a challenge, moreso outside of a dark club or theater. The band started slowly on Saturday, moving in slo-mo for some kind of effect and showering the crowd with white roses and the mylar debris of several hand-held confetti cannons. But that couldn't quite fill the void. Millan was sometimes hard to hear, intoning almost at a whisper (on "One More Night"), and Campbell forced his voice a little too hard in an apparent effort to be heard, though often he wasn't, either. When they joined together for "We Don't Want Your Body" — a new song that one of my companions said sounds alarmingly like a Debbie Gibson comeback effort — they at least began to pick up steam, charging to the end of the hourlong set with ripping takes on "I Died So I Could Haunt You," "Take Me to the Riot" and the closer, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead."
Green Day plays on ... and on and on
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2010 10:29 PM
Friday night, Lady Gaga enjoyed the surprise addition of fireworks to her show, courtesy of a fortuitously timed barrage from the Bears' family night at Soldier Field directly behind Lollapalooza's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field in Chicago's Grant Park. Saturday night, pop-punk trio Green Day brought their own.
In a two-hour-plus set, singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool filled the stage with good ol' rock 'n' roll stage antics. Here's a band that has actually gone Broadway, creating a stage musical out of their hit concept album, "American Idiot." But instead of loading down their show with scripted theatrics, they relied on the basics — pyro, fireworks, pulling people on stage and endless exhortations to fans to put their hands in the air.
Note to Green Day fans: Want to get close to Billie Joe? Your chances aren't slim. Study the attention-getting tactics of audience members on game shows such as "The Price Is Right" and "Let's Make a Deal," because that's what a Green Day show has become. Armstrong spends much of the show shopping for fans to bring on stage. Five times, in fact, starting with a student from France, Matthew Sauvetre. He'd been waiting against the barricades all day, and he took the stage during "Know Your Enemy" waving a French flag. After that, Billie Joe pulled a young girl (not older than 10, who he then proceeded to ask, "Keira, do you want to start a f—-in' war?!"), an older woman to help him sing "Are We the Waiting," a small crowd of people and, near the end, a young guy to sing the entirety of "Longview."
Classic gimmicks and a program of three-minute rock songs, however, necessitates brevity. Green Day dragged it on and on. Here's to the simple joys of rawk blown up bigger than life, but by the time we crossed the two-hour mark with the same shtick — pop! roar! OK, my hands would like to lay still for a while — it was beyond wearying.
Thirty years ago, in the heyday of the Ramones (whose recording of "Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?" played before the show started), we never could have dreamed that a handful of power chords could propel one band to such heights — 65 million records sold, four Grammys, a Broadway show, headlining Lollapalooza before tens of thousands (Saturday's crowd was again estimated at 80,000 total). An inevitable loss of edge occurs at those altitudes. A decent catalog of socially conscious material was presented Saturday night mostly as mere fun, then devolved into time-filling quotations of hard rock hits (from Ozzy to GNR) and, yegods, "Hey Jude." What WAS fun was when Billie Joe ripped through the power-chorded nuggets with abandon, like "Nice Guys Finish Last," which he finished with a quick, self-satisfied grin.
Pack your poncho, and other reading
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:33 AM
Uh oh, rain. A swath of light rain stretches form Chicago due west, with storms in northwestern Illinois. It's all drifting to the southeast and might not trouble the bulk of Lollapalooza's afternoon. But it will heat up today, reaching into the 90s for the first time this weekend. So pack your poncho (no umbrellas, please, people behind you want to see the band) and your water bottle, and look for the booths where you can fill your water bottle for free.
Beyond this blog, other reading for today ...
Soundgarden plays tonight, reunited after 13 years. But their first show was Thursday night at the Vic.
An interview with Yoshiki from X Japan, playing at 4 today.
You dudes and your bandanas.
Lollapalooza takes over Grant Park, so tourists visiting Chicago this weekend are denied seeing one of our most famous landmarks: Buckingham Fountain.
Which, of course, means that when it heats up today, we can jump in it.
Plus: more food options!
It's the Cribs, not the Smiths
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 3:48 PM
How did the Smiths' Johnny Marr become indie-rock's hired gun?
Since the dissolution of the Smiths, Marr has played with a lengthy list of other stars — from the Pretenders and Neil Finn to Modest Mouse and now the Cribs. They don't seem to pick him as much as he picks them up, sidling up to them like a swinger and telling them how much he loves their music. His cred — the ringing, complex guitar he contributed to the Smiths, not his proximity to Morrissey — makes them salivate and, voila!, Marr stays employed.
His work with the Cribs in their early-afternoon set Sunday at Lollapalooza sure seemed like that: work. It's not like he's adding much more than muscle to this band, a trio of brothers before Marr joined a couple of years ago — no distinctive Rickenbacker, no skipping "This Charming Man" kinds of melodies. Just good, hard grinding with the other Jarman boys (singer-guitarist Gary, bassist-singer Ryan and drummer Ross). Which is no complaint; he holds the line solidly — doing his bit on the side of the stage with confidence and a general lack of expression — while Gary and Ryan are free to caterwaul and fling themselves (and their melodies) all over the stage. His chords underneath the desperate squeals of "Cheat on Me" certainly sounded like the Marr we (older fans, that is) could easily recognize, and then finished with use of the whammy bar and a slide. But as the last song disintegrated in feedback, with Gary and Ryan rubbing their instruments on their amps for maximum noise, Marr was putting his jacket back on. Shift's over.
A focus on Marr, however, is just another tragic result of a Gen-X Smiths fan at the helm of this particular report — an unjust diversion from a perfectly good, punkish rock band. The front Jarmans are the real entertainment, Ryan of the bowl haircut and spit-out lyrics, Gary of the pigeon-toed, neck-straining leaps toward the mic. For "Men's Needs," Ryan leapt to a lower platform, pricking a brief solo before the girls in front (wearing Smiths T-shirts). The Cribs lash out at their own songs, yelp-singing and thrashing around, knocking over mic stands without a hint of script. A labored "Be Safe," with jagged video accompaniment of some guy whining about "the complacent ones" (eye rolling here), completely stalled the band's momentum midway through the set, but they rallied.
Arcade Fire brings the heat at the end
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2010 11:15 PM
Twitter, if you haven't learned this by now, is full of lies. Sunday night, for instance, the Twitterverse was full of cruel rumors aimed at festivalgoers at either end of the park during this final night of Lollapalooza 2010. First, news spread that Eddie Vedder was in town. The mind reeled — maybe we'd get an appearance with south-field headliners Soundgarden, maybe a duet with Chris Cornell on "Hunger Strike"? Nothing happened. Then came word that David Bowie was going to appear with Arcade Fire, headlining the park's north side. He's done it before, albeit a few years ago. Again, alas, nothing doing.
But who needs Bowie? Arcade Fire emerged onto the stage from a bath of amber lights, underneath a video screen showing sunsets, horizons, billowing clouds. Then they launched into "Ready to Start," a song from their acclaimed new CD "The Suburbs." The band's return to Lollapalooza could be likened to Lady Gaga's — once on a smaller stage (in 2005), they now return as triumphant, headlining scenesters. Sunday's performance proved it was no fluke.
Arcade Fire lays down bombastic hootenannies, squeezing every ounce of drama from its dense, epic arrangements and lyrics of challenge and hope. Win Butler, grandson of lounge-era bandleader Alvino Rey, and Regine Chassagne led the large ensemble through an hour of what the Waterboys used to call "the Big Music." An hour and a half set built slowly, full of little pop suites that crept around the stage and eventually exploded with the propulsive force of, um, the band's fiddles, accordions and hand percussion.
From the machine-gun rhythms of "No Cars Go" to the encore of "Wake Up" (what was, in previous years, the Bowie moment), the band cemented its updated art-rock thesis, attributing the previous work of Talking Heads and Mercury Rev but also more mainstream bluster like Springsteen and, especially when Butler sang "Rococo," Neil Young. Somehow, Arcade Fire gets away with everything, no matter how high the moon they're shooting for, and Sunday night's set ended with a distinct ring of validation.
Before Arcade Fire, the National filled the north end of Lollapalooza with its stark but gently applied folk-rock. Sounding like U2 on a bender, or pretty much every American Music Club album, the band was joined early on by Arcade Fire's Richard Parry (introduced as "Richie from Soundgarden") on "Anyone's Ghost." National singer Matt Berninger (right, photo by AP) is a surprising rock star, sheepish, doting, poking his deep voice into mushy staccato singing, while the band hums and plods behind him in its abrasive drone. It all built to a studied squawking and yowling before Berninger plunged himself into the crowd. Despite the racket, though, there's a lot going on in this band; they'd benefit from a more focused showcase here, like (hint, hint) a Millennium Park show.
X Japan makes U.S. debut, wins converts
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 12:20 AM
The other night, referring to the small crowd for the Strokes and the triumph of Lady Gaga, I quipped that rock is dead. I stand corrected.
Making its U.S. debut — after forming in 1982 and re-forming in 2007, with massive popularity in its home country — X Japan took to the Lollapalooza main stage Sunday afternoon and delivered a spectacular, almost operatic performance of big ballads and speed metal.
Given the circumstances of the premiere, a small knot of hardcore fans clustered down front for the show, some of whom traveled from all over the country for this event, dressed to the nines in X Japan's glam-anime style called "visual kei." But by the end of the show, even the mildly curious were won over by the infectious rock drama. Fists were pumping, guys were playing air guitar, people were chuckling at themselves while following suit, making the X Japan sign by crossing forearms in the air. One guy in front of me was so involved in his air guitar, he sloshed beer all over nearby fans.
X Japan only played six songs, but the theater — on the same stage where 36 hours earlier Lady Gaga had brought her bawdy Broadway peep show — was captivating. Bursting to life with plumes of pyro, the quintet launched into "Rusty Nail" with a driving rock melody that dissolved into synthesized strings. Such is the duality of X Japan, moving between hard rock and classical structures sometimes within the same measure. A new song, "Jade," opens with a kind of rumbling guitar attack that would make Metallica take notice, then it's a lumbering power ballad, then it's chugging at a breakneck pace, finally erupting into a guitars vs. drums battle. All the while singer Toshi Deyama — he looks like Roy Orbison and sings with a pinched high tenor like Steve Perry — wails away unlike a man who'd been virtually out of commission for a decade before the group re-formed.
The band's late guitarist, Hide, was able to make the debut, too, several years after his suspicious death. He appeared on the video screens while Toshi sang a slice of "Kurenai." The heart of the band, composer and drummer Yoshiki Hayashi, pounded and rolled his drums (wearing a neck brace to protect himself following drumming-related back surgery) and occasionally moved to a see-through grand piano for transitional music or to kickstart top-heavy ballads like "I.V."
At the end, Toshi asked, "Are you ready to rock?!" But the question wasn't too late, because the crowd, swept up in the frenzy, finally had an answer. "We are!" band members began shouting. The answer was to cross your forearms, marking the sign of X Japan. Over and over, this call and response continued. Once he realized he'd converted the Lollapalooza throng, Toshi changed the chant to "You are!" And we were.
Company of Thieves and other final notes
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 9:45 AM
Some bands from the last loose pages of the notebooks ...
Sunday morning was surprisingly delightful and refreshing for several reasons, which were focused in one area of the park. Rain showers and breezes cooled things down briefly, the Sony Bloggie Stage benefited from this more than most because of its tree-lined, green surroundings, and one of the first acts to grace this stage was Chicago's Company of Thieves. Playing to a remarkably full crowd at this small side stage, the Company played hard. With her band giving its all behind her, singer Genevieve Schatz danced all over the stage, wailing with abandon — throaty in her range, breathy above it, never stopping to think about which was which, just going for it. This isn't a complex band, they play pretty basic pop-rock, but they were certainly spirited Sunday morning, closing with "Oscar Wilde," a popular download from their latest album, "Ordinary Riches." They were joined on the final number by pirouetting youngsters from Framework Dance Chicago; it was a little "Fame," but fun. When the show wrapped, the people around me gave it three "wow's" and a "holy crap." I heartily agreed.
Company of Thieves was on "Live From Daryl's House" once. Some other pals of Hall & Oates, Chromeo, played in the south field Friday evening just before Lady Gaga. Hearing this gig, I wouldn't put them next to Hall & Oates, though. Klymaxx, maybe, or Rick James, Sylvester, certain corners of the Prince catalog. This Montreal duo gets a not-quite-disco groove on, but it never builds a full head of steam. Even the duo's last song, their new single, "Don't Turn the Lights On," sounded like warm-up music on the PA.
Sort of like Switchfoot, ick. The Christian-mainstream band's early Sunday set didn't sound like a live band, just a modern-rock radio station cranked really loud, all pinched and compressed. "Can you hear me? / This is the sound of the desperation bound," they sang in their penultimate song. Yep.
Dawes, midday Saturday on the Bloggie stage, is a curious new artifact. An L.A. quartet of young bucks, they play a dusty genre of country rock harking back to the 1970s Laurel Canyon days (Jackson Browne, CSN, etc.). Their debut disc is called "North Hills." It's bizarre: here's an up-and-coming indie-rock band — young ones, no one's older than 25 — plying a style of music redolent of some of the industry's most bloated corporate-rock indulgences. Just further proof that everything comes back to us. Dawes is good at refreshing this sound, though, a meaty band with a guitarist, singer Taylor Goldsmith, who knows how to punch and pull his lines (just what the world needs, a new Waddy Wachtel). When they harmonize on "Love Is All I Am," they sound not like Crosby, Stills and Nash or Fleetwood Mac but the branch of country music that listened to them. After moseying through "When My Time Comes," I expected an encore of "Magnet and Steel."
Biggest crowd, plus no sitting on the fence at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 9, 2010 2:20 PM
Lollapalooza's attendance for 2010 marks its biggest yet in Chicago: 240,000 — that's 80K each day — filled Grant Park this weekend, topping last year's three-day record of 225,000 for the weekend.
The extra bodies had extra room, too. The festival grew 35 acres this year, filling 115 acres. This allowed for significantly easier traffic flow north and south, turning Columbus Drive into a mile-long sidewalk, and avoiding the bottleneck around Buckingham Fountain that caused so many missed sets in previous years. Perry's Stage, for DJs and electronic acts, grew considerably, as did the food area.
Still, the increased space allowed for up to 95,000 participants a day. Festival organizers C3 Productions said they capped attendance at 80,000 this year to "focus on flow and room for the patrons" in the new layout, according to C3 spokeswoman Shelby Meade.
Bigger space also meant more fenceline to patrol — and more opportunity for jumpers who don't want to pay admission.
We watched this happen all weekend long. Anders Smith Lindall reported on one breach involving 30 to 60 jumpers; he got photos of others.
Saturday evening, three young guys rolled over a fence and seemed startled to find themselves behind a bar. They scattered, and security personnel went after them. I saw one apprehended, a teenage boy in a black-and-white checked shirt. He was handcuffed and led out of the fence by security. More than a dozen jumped over the fence Sunday night into the media area. Security later said 15 had been rounded up from that breach. They then sat down and compared wounds — a cut hand for one, bruised leg for another. They chalked it up to "kids being kids."
That said, as of Sunday morning, Chicago Police said they had made just 27 Lolla-related arrests, most of them for fence-jumping.
The extra bodies also mean more money for Chicago's parks.With three-day passes costing $215 this year, the added capacity was expected to bring more revenue to the parks, which get 10.25 percent of receipts.
Last year that meant about $1.9 million for the district's fund-raising partner, Parkways Foundation. The money helped pay for everything from repairs to Buckingham Fountain to scholarships for some of the city's neediest kids to go to park district camps, said Brenda Palm, Parkways' executive director.
Pitchfork Music Festival 2010
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival opens ... sounding pretty folkie
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 4:40 PM
Bright sun, water bottles, brooding singer-songwriters — this must be the sixth Pitchfork Music Festival. The annual hootenanny is now under way in Chicago's Union Park ... and it sounds like a hootenanny. The fest opened Friday afternoon with two fine strummers that made the venue sound more like a folk festival than the go-to shopping mall of indie rock.
Sharon Van Etten had the daunting job of not just kicking off the afternoon's music but doing so by squinting and singing directly into the July sun. Van Etten warbled her shy solo tunes. The crowd gathered. A warm-up indeed.
But it was the Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, who brought the first real musical heat. Skinny, scruffy, charging boldly around the stage with his small-body acoustic guitar, Matsson played some fine folk songs. Opening with the title track to his new CD "The Wild Hunt" and strumming hard through to "King of Spain," Matsson growled and howled through a set of easy chords and pastoral lyrics in the tradition of America's best traditional music. Which is all the more impressive since he's here from Sweden. Small wonder he was so enthusiastically received at the Sasquatch Music Festival earlier.
This weekend each year I'm often instead at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Both Van Etten and Matsson could swing hard on the folk fest circuit. The fact that they are welcomed so warmly in the heart of indie rock — Matsson numerous times thanked the crowd "for being so lovely" — hopefully is a pleasing portent for the "genre."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Believing in the Liars
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 6:06 PM
Ain't no folkie fest no more.
Angus Andrews, singer for the Liars, is prowling the Pitchfork main stage, shrieking over the band's fractured, stop-start rhythms. The cacophony he's raising is terrible and terrifying. His vocals — a series of owl cries and electronically distorted yowls — rise and fall over guitar lines played carefully just a half tone off where they should be, and the bass lurks and dodges in the lengthening shadows. This doesn't sound like a 10-year-old band. The Liars are still throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, like an underpracticed, angry Supergrass, though they've definitely ramped up the intensity of their caterwaul since the release of this year's "Sisterworld." "The devil's in Chicago at motherf—-in' Pitchfork!" Andrews shouts. Then, in his lovely British accent, he politely and demurely says, "Thanks so much for having us" and preaches for a second about not throwing water bottles. I knew it was all an act.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Stay cool with cheaper water
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 9:28 PM
Friday's late-afternoon start to the Pitchfork Music Festival was certainly hot in Chicago's Union Park. But it's been hotter, and staff reported no unusual increase in heat-related medical care. Just to be on the safe side, however, the festival decided Friday to cut the cost of water in half. Bottled water is now available for $1, and will remain so throughout the weekend.
"Out of concern for the heat, we're trying to be proactive," said Pitchfork staffer Anders Smith Lindall. This came shortly after an announcement from the main stage that water would be handed to concertgoers pressed against the front barricades, where some fans had already been pulled and treated for heat exhaustion.
Music starts earlier in the day Saturday and Sunday, meaning more time for fans to be under the sun. A high of 90 is forecast each day.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Rockin' Robyn!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 10:46 PM
Who knew the best performer of the day would be a blonde bombshell spinning Euro-disco? Robyn — another Swede on Friday's bill and a former child star who's fought hard to regain her own artistic control — came out fighting, throwing punches in the air when she wasn't doing that elbows-high, shoulder-leaning dance all '80s female singers used to do.
Feisty, sexy, spunky Robyn opened with the virtues of being a "Fembot," assured us that love hurts "With Every Heartbeat" and sang flawlessly through new single "Dancing on My Own" in front of a band dressed in all white, twiddling knobs and pounding synth-pad drums. The latter really exploded at the end of "Cobrastyle," with Robyn showing some kick-box dancing. Her Pink-ish feistiness reached its zenith in "Don't F—-ing Tell Me What to Do," during which she led some kind of aerobics class (sporting a totally Pat Benatar green beret, too).
And she was the crowd favorite.
Go figure. I had grown to assume this was a fairly rockist crowd, and I was originally surprised by the booking of this talented but very dance-pop artist on the venerable Pitchfork bill. But she embodies the spirit of whatever "indie" started out to mean. She debuted at 16 as an R&B starlet, and she's faced consistent and constant stumbling blocks in her business dealings which have kept her from the States. Even back in 2003, she was collaborating with experimental synth-pop outfit the Knife while her label was releasing a sugary best-of over here. She bought herself out of her record contract and started making the kind of music she wanted, and suddenly she won Grammys (in Sweden). Now she's doing her thing, releasing three "Body Talk" EPs — the second one's due Sept. 7 and might include a collaboration with Snoop Dogg! — and finally making an impact in the United States. Just last night she was singing at the Arvika Festival in Sweden, and after Pitchfork comes a North American tour, co-headlining with Kelis.
Judging by the diversity of the people dancing determinedly to her songs tonight, it should be a great tour.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 11:18 PM
Sundown slowed down with Broken Social Scene, a sprawling Toronto collective with a few Chicago roots. This band makes a lovely sound, even if the songs don't always gel behind the chiming guitars and palpitating drums.
Thirty-one musicians appear on the band's latest CD, "Forgiveness Rock Record," recorded in Chicago under the guidance of John McEntire from Tortoise and the Sea & Cake. McEntire himself played a second drum set on stage Friday night, adding needed extra heft to gauzy arrangements that tend to sag if not tended carefully.
This loosey-goosey ensemble, which tends to trade instruments among each other, was most engaging when they got the pulse going, rollicking through "Texico Bitches" and the rumbling furnace of "Cause = Time," which featured five guitars. The set ended in a see-sawing riff with strings that evoked the most intense Poi Dog Pondering drones.
Alas, the evening wrapped with Modest Mouse, a rodent of a band whose major-label indie rock (work that phrase out for a while) deserves the restraint implied by its name.
Now that the trinket of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is being worn by another indie-rock sweetheart (the Cribs) — though new guitarist Jim Fairchild did a helluva job filling those shoes, particularly during "Satellite Skin" — Modest Mouse is just a tuneless junkyard of discarded song parts. Frontman and the band's sole constant Isaac Brock is one of the most difficult singers to enjoy in rock and roll, and when he picks up that banjo for "The Devil's Workday" and sings about hanging himself for treason, well, hey, we got some rope. The God-awful funk beats of "Education," the stand-up bass — they're just a dissonant Dave Matthews Band, and the neo-hippies in the crowd were twirling in their calico prints to prove it.
Pitchfork Music Festival: In a Delorean, plus Dam-Funk
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:40 PM
Delorean in the summer heat is a weird and wonderful experience. Hitting the stage switched on, they build layer upon layer, loop upon loop — dreamy synth sounds that build and build and then ease off, one tune blending into another. That has the effect of inducing a dreamy state, which coupled with the blaring sun on your neck could induce a crazy euphoria. Or, like the guy behind me, you could just complain, "They've been playing this same song for half an hour." But listen closely, behind bassist Ekhi Lopetegi's thin vocals, and there are intricate patterns in the sampled piano and the vox humana. Despite the scraggly page-boys and beards, this band is not grounded in rock but draws more from the Balearic house music of their native Barcelona, Spain. Lopetegi's bass, though, and Guillermo Astrain's guitar bring enough vibration to a rock crowd to keep it on its feet. Primal Scream, we hardly knew ye.
California's Dâm-Funk (DJ Damon Riddick) got a late start on the shady balance stage, but in no time he laid down some fat beats and was advising us, "You gotta keep your hood pass intact, y'all." Dâm-Funk (it's pronounced "dame") mostly just turned on sounds and rhythms, then stalked the stage singing like a lost DeBarge. Then he pulled out the keytar and started into his trademark, slow, mostly instrumental jams. Joined by a live drummer and an extra synth player, Dâm-Funk updated '70s and '80s urban soul, and he stayed classy even when the shouts from Wu-Tang's Raekwon intruded from across the park. Since he was late starting, he even cut his set short. "We gotta respect the other bands, y'all," he said, removing the keytar. "We got four more songs, but f—- it. Peace!" Such consideration! Only at Pitchfork.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Titus Andronicus is no tragedy
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:47 PM
Best band of Saturday afternoon: Titus Andronicus, a blazing band from Glen Rock, N.J., a location that has allowed them to absorb the best of bombast from Springsteen, the fire of post-punk from New York and possibly even a little Philly soul. "I'm sweating like a pregnant nun talking to the pope," said frontman Patrick Stickles after lurching out of another of the band's nihilistic songs, "No Future, Part 3." But their outlook isn't completely bleak. The song hammers a refrain, "You'll always be a loser!" over and over before concluding: "But that's OK." The quintet was augmented by a few support players, piano and strings and horns; the extra players weren't necessary, but Titus Andronicus songs are multi-level, architectural creations with a capacity for a lot of extra decor. This is band that can write as well as it rocks, and God does it rock. At one moment Stickles is picking a spidery melody on his guitar, next the kinetic Amy Klein is crunching into the tune, and — as in the sprawling "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" — it all builds to a triumphant bashing. Near the end the guitars screeched in harmony and hit a northern highlands rhythm like they were Big Country. Then they turn around with the panache and the chops to introduce the band via a jump-bluesy tune, "And Ever." Brutal and friendly, vicious and tender, Titus Andronicus has it all.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The rain doesn't really help
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 2:00 PM
Day 3 of the sixth annual Pitchfork Music Festival, which began in 2005 as Intonation, is under way in the sultry summer heat. A noontime thunder shower moved through quickly, cooling things off for a matter of moments before the sun returned and added the evaporated rain to the day's humidity totals.
Water remains at half price, a dollar a bottle. Still, the line for the free water is longer than that for the bottled variety. Pitchfork staffer (and occasional Sun-Times contributor) Anders Smith Lindall says festival workers are handing out water bottles to distressed concertgoers when the line gets excruciatingly long.
Those who don't mind earning their reward — and helping to keep the park clear of debris — can earn one beverage ticket (worth a buck, for one bottle of water) for every 10 discarded plastic cups collected and returned to the recycling booth.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Best Coast is the best
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 3:30 PM
Sunday's music at the Pitchfork Music Festival began with dessert. Between the dull, thudding chords of Cass McCombs and the first laconic and then tortured feedback of the Girls, a fresh, sunny new pop band called Best Coast held down the Balance stage — the "small" stage, under the trees — with a workmanlike attitude and a handful of cheery love ditties. Ultimately unpretentious, Best Coast (Bethany Cosentino and two pals) ran through songs from the debut "Crazy for You" CD, filled with bright major chords and lyrics like "I'll try to make you mine" and "that's just not your deal." The crowd got a big chuckle when she sang, "I lost my job / I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk." She closed with the trendy single "When I'm With You," the repeated refrain of which is, "When I'm with you, I have fun." So true.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Local Natives are fleet and foxy
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 5:19 PM
Seattle's Fleet Foxes brought beautiful harmonies back to modern music, rescuing three-part tenor singing from the vaults of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But as beautiful as "White Winter Hymnal" can be, the band hasn't yet jumped up and shown any oomph.
Orange County's Local Natives have seized that opportunity, and Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival they delivered a set of exciting, rhythmic music laced with the energy of post-punk as well as those sweet, core harmonies. Much of their music is built around what their voices can achieve, and the fact that they achieved it the brutal July Chicago heat is impressive. But these harmonies have teeth. Kelcey Ayer took charge of most of the proceedings, hitting beautiful high notes while bashing the bejesus out of his small stand-up drum kit. The beats he added to the regular drummer's rhythm — sometimes Ayer would play keyboard with his left hand and drum with his right — made songs like "Airplanes" blast like a jet engine. "Camera Talk," the evolving "Shape Shifter," the cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Signs" — it was all fleet and (dig guitarist-singer Taylor Rice's stache!) very foxy.
Earlier, clouds provided sweet relief from the heat just as Beach House began its Sunday afternoon set. Mother Nature knows how to set the mood. Despite the summery name, Beach House makes cool — no, chill — music. With piercing vocals and a hushed, daydreamy tone to the hypnotic sounds, Beach House is made for a little less light.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Major Lazer, Big Boi
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 10:41 PM
Saturday evening began with the digital dub attack of Major Lazer, a computerized dancehall project of Diplo — marking a return to Pitchfork — and Switch. For an hour they assaulted the adoring crowd with very little music, mostly just bleats and blasts that sound like various industrial park alarms. The noises dodged and moved — a frenetic mess for the ADHD set — and Diplo spent most of his stage time shouting the name Major Lazer (at least four dozen times) and begging the crowd for hands in the air.
Big Boi doesn't have to beg.
Strutting on stage with one of his Atlanta MCs, the other half of hip-hop's acclaimed Outkast starting flinging syllables, eventually firing fastfastfast through "Ghetto Musick" over a machine-gun beat. A relentless hourlong set featured several Outkast hits (a snappy run through "Ms. Jackson") and a few guests, ranging from guest singer Neil Garrard for the tuneful "Follow Us" to a trash-talking youngster. The set dragged on and the beats became monotonous, but when he launched into "ATLiens" and hollered, "Put your hands in the air!" it was superfluous. They'd been up for a while.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Pavement resurfaces
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 11:45 PM
Pavement has worn all three tags hung on this music. Here's a band that was serviced to college radio, came to define a certain smoky corner of alt-rock and now is lionized as indie heroes with a worldwide reunion tour and headlining slot at the Pitchfork fest. The band's much-anticipated set couldn't have begun more appropriately — first with a long, meandering introductory rant by Drag City's Ryan Murphy about the contrasts between this festival and Lollapalooza, among other topics, and then a false start to the opener, "Cut Your Hair." The band that worked hard but looked like slackers is still in perfect non-form.
Band leader Stephen Malkmus played facing stage left, and other band members frequently played with their backs to the crowd. Malkmus kept throwing sidelong glances at his old mates as if he wasn't sure what came next. As he maintained a carefree composure — all casual smirks, air drumming and lazy twirls — multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich jumped around most of the time like a devilish imp, hollering through "Debris Slide" and rapping, if you call it that, through "Unfair," which built to such caterwauling mayhem that guitarist Scott Kannberg even tried a scissor kick.
One minute it was amazing the whole thing was still on the rails, like they should be following the Smith Westerns on the B stage, the next — such synchronized beauty and cacophony. The end result being, hey, Pavement has a serious legacy, after all. The echoes we've been hearing at this festival, this weekend and years past, they all came together in one joyfully sloppy master class of indie rock.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Tulsa World
Tulsa band Fanzine gets a chance to shine at SXSW showcase
By Thomas Conner 03/19/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — The sound man at Opal Divine's Firehouse
was filling the pre-show dead time with his own selection
of classic-rock greatest hits: a couple of cuts from the
Eagles' "Long Run" album, a smattering of Zeppelin, a lot of
Journey. A few minutes before showtime, he played Cheap
Trick's live cover of "Ain't That a Shame," and Fanzine
drummer Don Jameson started air-drumming.
"Oh, yes!" he said, tapping into the song's lengthy
introductory groove. "This is what it's about, right here.
It's not, 'Won't you step back from that ledge, my friend' "
— making a face, making fun of the Third Eye Blind hit
"Jumper" — "It's about the shaking of the booty. It's about
being larger than life . . . There isn't an arena big
enough to hold us."
This weekend it wasn't arenas, just a small club patio
on the edge of Austin's hottest nightclub scene and in the
middle of its yearly music-industry lottery.
On Wednesday night, Jameson and his Tulsa-based rock
band, Fanzine, kicked off the South by Southwest music
festival, an annual congregation of music-business talent
scouts and international media all searching for the Next
Big Thing. Nearly 1,000 bands — a record — from around the
world were scheduled to play hourlong sets in clubs
throughout Austin this weekend, and Fanzine had the
daunting task of playing in the first showcase slot on the
first night of the festival. In just a few hours, and
certainly over the four days of the festival, these four
players would learn what, indeed, it was all about.
It's all about the gig
South by Southwest is basically a live-music mall.
"Buyers" from record labels, management companies and music
magazines stroll up and down Austin's nightclub-lined Sixth
Street and shop for the hottest new fashions in pop music.
So when your band is fortunate enough to land a showcase
here, you want everything to be perfect. For Fanzine,
it very nearly was.
"How lucky are we to be playing right before the
Mayflies?" Jameson asked when the band finished sound check.
The Mayflies, an up-and-coming pop band from Chapel Hill,
N.C., were listed by many SXSW forecasters as one of the
most interesting acts to see this year. They would thus be
drawing a crowd of scouts and record company reps, and many
of them would come early — and hear Fanzine.
"We're blessed tonight. This feels good," Fanzine singer
Adam said before the show.
The band arrived in Austin on Tuesday and immediately
went to work with staple guns and smiles, tacking up
posters advertising the Wednesday night gig and thrusting
handbills into the palms of any passers-by.
"We came all this way, I just want someone to see us,"
Jameson said. "Tonight's all about being seen — eyes on us."
And, of course, ears.
It's not about the gig
Still, Jameson and the other Fanzine players weren't
expecting miracles. Their set coincided with the Austin
Music Awards — a ceremony honoring the best of local talent,
much like Tulsa's Spotniks — the big event of Wednesday
night. The band's 24 hours in town wasn't a lot of time to
spread the word about its showcase. Most music reps and
media don't arrive until late Wednesday or Thursday,
anyway. "I really expect very little tonight," Jameson
said. "It's the first night, and this club's off the beaten
path, but this sure is great to put (in the press kit). It
means we've been chosen among some kind of selected upper
The World Wide Web was certainly an aid in advance
promotion. Word of the showcase spread quickly on, oddly
enough, Web sites and newsgroups for fans of the Toadies.
Plus, Tulsa radio music directors e-mailed their record
company contacts en masse, advising them of the Fanzine
One of them, KMYZ 104.5-FM music director Ray Seggern,
attended Wednesday's show. Seggern is an Austin native,
having worked with the city's popular modern rock station
for several years. He knows people, and he dragged as many
as he could with him to see the Tulsa band.
But even Seggern was realistic.
"It's not about the gig," he said. "The gig is the least
important part. (What's important) is the networking, the
experience, the mindset. Just being here and wearing a
badge is important."
Case in point: Hanson. The young Tulsa trio spent
several days at SXSW early in the '90s. Too young to even
play in the local bars, they strolled the streets and
softball-park bleachers, singing for anyone who would
listen. An astute music manager did, and the rest is
It's about support
For Fanzine's show, though, Opal Divine's was packed.
Most importantly, the crowd stayed and stared. Many SXSW
showcase audiences often are indifferent groups of jaded
music-industry mavens concentrating on wheeling and dealing
with other industry folk rather than listening to the
bands. Fanzine's crowd, though, stopped, looked and
listened. The band was on point, too. Tighter than
they've been in many months — and fueled by more adreneline,
no doubt — they tore through 40 minutes of their
groove-stuffed, flashy and unrelenting rock 'n' roll. Adam
threw off his bright orange jacket ("You like me mack?") by
the third song and was soon shaking his tambourine all over
the club's outdoor wooden deck and dancing with Beatle Bob,
an eccentric music-industry analyst who came to the show
and danced his trademark swingin' dance.
Many in Wednesday night's crowd were Tulsans, checking
out their hometown band on Austin's turf. Tim Kassen, a
Williams Company agent who also books bands for Tulsa's
Bourbon Street Cafe on 15th Street, was in town and said he
made a beeline to Fanzine's show. "Nobody performs like
Adam, with all that energy," he said. "Heck, if I had the
money, I'd sign them."
Also looking on were T.J. Green and Angie Devore, the
husband-and-wife team at the helm of new Tulsa band
Ultrafix. They weren't scheduled to play in Austin this
weekend; they came down just to attend the conference and
meet music-business folks and other musicians. They had
planned to arrive in Austin on Thursday but came a day
early to be present for the Fanzine show.
"It's all about support, man," Green said.
By George, we got us a rock show
By Thomas Conner 03/19/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — When South by Southwest occurs each
March, the Texas capital is literally overrun by music
businesspeople and musicians. How invasive is the
conference? Just ask presidential hopeful George W. Bush.
When the Texas governor realized he was going to sweep
Tuesday's second big round of Republican presidential
primaries, his campaign staff decided to book a local
ballroom to host the celebration and inevitable victory
But they couldn't find one. Every ballroom, theater and
public venue in town was booked up with SXSW events. Bush
and his supporters wound up in far northwest Austin,
patting themselves on the back in a gymnasium at the Dell
Jewish Community Campus.
Talk about rocking the vote.
Rangers in command
Storms raked the Texas hill country late Thursday
afternoon. The Ray Price show in the park surely was
doomed, so we headed for indoor shelter. The fact that it
had tortillas, margaritas and the Red Dirt Rangers made it
The Oklahoma roots-music band played the first of its
five SXSW-week gigs ("Six," Ranger John Cooper said later — "We
actually got one that pays!") at Jovita's, an authentic
Mexican restaurant south of downtown Austin.
And I mean authentic. The walls were arrayed with rich,
colorful murals, mostly depicting masked rebels in olive
drab, including a giant portrait of Che Guevera. The tables
were so sticky we had to paper them over with copies from a
stack of someone's Spanish-English poem entitled
"Crossroads." Our waitress had two breathtaking parrots
tattooed on her shoulder blades.
As the storm pelted Jovita's corrugated skylight, the
Rangers blasted through their typically invigorating set of
Okie rock 'n' soul, opening the show with two Woody Guthrie
covers, "Rangers' Command" (the title track to the Rangers'
latest CD, recorded in Austin) and "California Stars" (one of
the Woody lyrics put to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco) — a
nod to Woody's younger sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, sitting in
Also watching the Rangers was fellow Stillwater native,
now Austin-based songwriter Jimmy Lafave. The Rangers also
played his song "Red Dirt Roads," rocking it more than Lafave
probably ever envisioned and using it as a sparring match
between electric guitarist Ben Han and new steel guitarist
Roger Ray, also of Stillwater's Jason Boland and the
Stranglers. Whoops and yelps all around.
This ... is Wanda
Conversation overheard on the sidewalk outside the
Continental Club, Thursday night in the freezing cold,
waiting in vain to get inside and hear Oklahoma City
rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson:
She: "We'll never get in."
He: "They're full? At eight o'clock? Who is this woman?"
She: "I don't know. She looks like Loretta Lynn."
He: "Loretta Lynn never had a stand-up bass player like
She: "Can you see her hair?"
He: "That's all I can see. I could be back at the hotel
and still see that hair."
She: "It's not that big."
She: "Nothing. I was wrong."
Talking 'bout Tulsa
Tulsans protested the derogatory mention of the city in
a recent Best Western ad campaign, but our hometown creeps
into the world's consciousness in strange and mysterious
Take, for example, a song by Astrid, a spunky and
tuneful guitar band from Scotland. Near the end of the
band's hard-hitting showcase, they played a song called
"Cybersex," which the singer was good enough to point out "is
about cybersex." The refrain, from the point of view of the
narrative's libidinous web surfer: "It's 3 p.m. in Idlewild
/ Kansas, Tulsa, Arkansas."
Norman band Starlight Mints were lucky enough to land a
SXSW showcase this year, but it was nearly ruined by
equipment problems that delayed them 20 minutes — nearly
half of their allotted playing time. (And SXSW showcases
begin and end on time, or else.)
Still, the embryonic rock band impressed a capacity
crowd at the intimate Copper Tank North club with its
herky-jerky melodies and noises. My notes include this
absurd but revealing description of the band's music:
"Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) singing, Thurston Moore (Sonic
Youth) on guitar, chick from the Rentals (Maya Rudolph) on
keys, all aboard a carousel at Wayne Coyne's (Flaming Lips)
For the record
While SXSW takes over Austin with live music, another of
the country's biggest musical events occurs here at the
same time. This one involves recorded music: the annual
Austin Record Convention, the largest new-and-used record
sale in the country.
Hundreds of record dealers from all over the country
huddle over tables in the Palmer Municipal Auditorium and
hawk more than a million CDs, LPs, 45s and even 78s. With
the world's music business leaders in town, these dealers
have to face a particular and knowledgeable clientele.
"This is the reissue, though. See, it's dated '92. You
don't have the '84 original with the six extra versions?"
That's pretty standard discussion fare at the
convention. One dealer from Minnesota boasted a
pristine, still-wrapped copy of former Tulsan Leon
Russell's "The Wedding Album." Asking price: $100.
A C-note? Has he heard it?
"No, but my books tell me that's a steal."
A rose by any other name ...
Part of the fun of perusing the SXSW schedule is the
humor and daring of some of the band names. The chucklers
on this year's list: Alabama Thunder Pussy, ... And You
Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Bastard Sons of Johnny
Cash, Betty Blowtorch, Camaro Hair, Del the Funky
Homosapien, the Dino Martinis, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, I
Am the World Trade Center, Man Scouts of America, Maximum
Coherence During Flying, the Psychedelic Kinky Fellows,
Roar! Lion, Sci-Fi Uterus and the Tremolo Beer Gut.
Food for the soul
If you want music media to come see your band, set up a
free buffet. A table of sumptuous Texas barbecue and an
absence of cash registers filled La Zona Rosa with SXSW
registrants Thursday afternoon to see the Nixons open for
Texas guitar hero Ian Moore. Greasy hands clapped for the
Nixons' timeless (as in, stuck in 1993) grunge rock.
The band sported a new record label (the showcase sponsor,
Koch Records), new songs ("P.O.V." and the wildly cheery
"Blackout") and, well, a new band. Singer Zac Malloy is the
only original Norman-native member left, having jettisoned
the rest of the crew for a new batch of Dallas-based
The Nixons started in Norman as a cover band, scored a
modern rock hit early in the '90s with "Sister" and now are
based in Dallas. A new album is due April 11.
'What about the amps?'
Austin is full of colorful, sometimes downright
eccentric, characters, so when we noticed the guy talking
to himself on Fourth Street, it was no big shock.
He stood in the hot afternoon sun, pacing in circles,
gesturing wildly and talking, talking, talking — by himself.
"What about the amps?" he kept asking. "Where are the amps?" We
skirted him just off the curb, thinking to ourselves, "So
young, and already so nuts." Then we noticed it.
The earpiece, the hidden microphone — a hands-free cell
SXSW snapshots: The high, mighty and downright loony go wild in Austin
By Thomas Conner 03/22/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — More than 30 years after his death,
musicians — and, indeed, Americans — are just now figuring
out what Woody Guthrie was about.
Greg Johnson, owner of Oklahoma City's revered Blue Door
nightclub, summed it up ably during a South by Southwest
panel discussion entitled "Made for You and Me: Woody
Guthrie's Dust Bowl Legacy."
"Woody was about freedom and community," Johnson said. "He
was about propping people up. Bruce Springsteen used to say
it this way: 'Woody was about the next guy in line.' "
Veteran music journalist Dave Marsh led the panel, which
also included Austin-based songwriters Jimmy Lafave and
Michael Fracasso. The star of the panel, though, was
Guthrie's youngest sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, who regaled the
crowd with homespun tales of her proud father, her
misunderstood mother and her iconic older brother. "I
was reared on music all the way up to here," Edgmon said,
pointing over her head. "Woody taught me chords on the
guitar. I got really good at that C chord, I guess it was."
Edgmon spoke proudly of the "1,000 percent turnaround" in
America's perception of Woody, particularly in his Green
Country hometown of Okemah. She said she's thrilled to see
the misunderstandings about Woody's political and spiritual
beliefs clearing up.
"I want the world to understand that the Guthrie family
was not trash, that Woody was as good a man as there is,"
Lafave and Fracasso both punctuated the panel session
with performances. Fracasso sang Guthrie's "1913 Massacre"
and one of his own songs directly inspired by Woody's
songwriting (Fracasso's chorus: "From the mountains to the
valleys / from the prairies to the sea / If you ain't got
love, you ain't got a nickel"). Lafave sang a song about
Woody called "Woody's Road," written by acclaimed Oklahoma
songwriter Bob Childers, and then closed the afternoon
event with a rendition of Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills," joined
by members of the Red Dirt Rangers and Edgmon herself.
Paint the town Redd
Austin's Top of the Marc is a clean, classy place — not
your usual SXSW mosh pit. The clientele shows the proper
amount of cuff, and the bar has drambuie. Festival
organizers couldn't just stick another all-girl Japanese
punk band in here. They needed class. So they called
upon Charlie Redd and his boys.
Decked out and dynamic, the Full Flava Kings brought
Redd back home in style. "Bring it on home, y'all!" Redd
would shout in a song's closing jam, though it was unclear
which home he was referring to — his native Austin or his
new Tulsa HQ. Either way, his Austin friends and fans saw a
new Redd on Saturday night: more groovy, more gravy and
drizzling a more honeyed baritone over the band's dense
rhythm-and-funk. In addition to charter Kings Dave
Kelly on guitar, Brian Lee on keyboards and Stanley Fary
beating the drums mercilessly, the Full Flava Kings debuted
new guitarist and veteran Tulsa funkmeister Travis Fite
(Phat Thumb) to the Austin crowd.
Their response? Ask the female stranger who tried to
start The Bump with me during the show.
Here come the brides
Tyson Meade, the colorful leader of the Norman-reared
Chainsaw Kittens, used to wear dresses on stage as a rule.
After his Friday night SXSW showcase, he took the fixation
to a bold new level by getting married to another man in
full white-gown fabulousness.
Before the next band (the bizarro but like-minded Frogs)
took the tent stage outside the Gallery Lombardi Lounge,
Meade reappeared in a wedding processional that parted the
crowd. The wedding party included several maids, matrons
and misters of honor in various degrees of Mardi Gras-esque
garb, all of whom surrounded the officiating Hindu priest
for the brief ceremony.
In a flurry of toasts and funny-but-heartfelt vows,
Meade and Skip Handleman Werner — who was always preceded by
the mysterious title "international pop star" — were
pronounced unlawfully married. They smooched, and the
wedding party bunny-hopped from the venue as "Y.M.C.A."
Reports of this high camp should not overshadow news of
the Kittens' triumphant return. Still without a record deal
after the sad demise of the Smashing Pumpkins' Scratchie
Records, the Kittens blasted back into action Friday night
with an explosive set of old and new glam-punk songs.
Meade, juiced by pre-wedding jitters, took the stage in a
royal blue feathery jacket and furiously belted and
screamed his way through the serrated set of Kitty classics
reaching all the way back to the band's debut album,
I can't chaaange
Billy Joe Winghead's lead singer, John Manson, took out
his personal angst about Meade's marriage (he was
distraught over not getting to, um, kiss the bride) through
BJW's two sets of roadhouse rock. The OKC-Tulsa band
blew into Austin late Saturday and played back-to-back
shows at the Hole in the Wall, a University of Texas
hangout, and Cheapo Discs. Shoppers at the latter venue
were typically unfazed by the blaring band over in the
corner — until they played "Free Bird."
A cliche request that normally turns off young rock
audiences always turns heads when its coming from the
five-piece Billy Joe Winghead. Tulsa bassist Steve Jones
sings over the guitar grind while Manson waves out the
melody on his green theremin. Amid the band's repertoire of
songs about rest-stop sex, doomed B-filmstars and car
salesman lingo, "Free Bird" is practically the crown jewel
and always a crowd pleaser.
Hit me with your best shot
Readers of the Austin Chronicle voted David Garza the
city's second-best musician of the '90s. (Ask a blues fan
who was first.) It's not simply because he writes
well-rounded pop songs and executes them gracefully on
record with his band; it's that he really doesn't need his
band at all.
On the Waterloo Park stage late Saturday afternoon,
Garza held his own with only his pretty red Gibson guitar
to keep him company. Songs that on record seem pieced
together by clever arrangements of drum machines, acoustic
guitar and Garza's versatile voice — like "Discoball World" --
evened out in frenetic and energetic solo jams. Near the
end, he took requests, cheerfully tearing his fingernails
off by barreling through "Take Another Shot."
Thank you, sir, may I have another?
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Rumor of the week: That Neil Young was the mysterious
"special guest" billed immediately before Steve Earle's
Friday night set at Stubb's. Young was in Austin for South
by Southwest, but not the music part. His latest concert
film, "Silver and Gold," was premiering. The special guest
was Whiskeytown singer Ryan Adams.
Patron saint of the festival: Doug Sahm. The drive-train
for the Sir Douglas Quartet may be dead but he hasn't left
Austin. From two star-studded tributes to him — one at
Wednesday night's Austin Music Awards (featuring Shawn and
Shandon Sahm), another Friday at the legendary Antone's
blues club (featuring former bandmate Augie Meyers and,
straight from the where-is-he-now bins, Joe "King" Carassco) --
to posters in Mexican restaurants advertising prints of his
portrait for sale, Sahm has edged out Townes Van Zandt as
the bandwagon who bought the farm.
Best TV footage no one could use: Steve Earle's Thursday
morning keynote address. Earle delivered his words of
wisdom wearing a T-shirt that read, "I'm from f—-ing outer
Comeback of the week: Former Byrds icon Roger McGuinn,
whose Friday night performance brought overplayed standards
back down to earth with grace and style.
Best T-shirt: "My lawyer can kick your lawyer's ass."
Most shameless self-promotion: Dallas rap-rockers
Pimpadelic not only drove around downtown blocks in its
giant tour bus with the band's name emblazoned along the
sides, the band also spent its free time walking around
Austin with dancers it hired from the Yellow Rose strip
club, all of whom, of course, sported tightly cropped
T-shirts bearing the band's name. Watch for the band's
debut on Tommy Boy Records.
Most prominent foreign country: The Netherlands, buoyed
by waning interest in the annual Japan Night and extensive
lobbying by the Dutch Rock and Pop Institute.
Best non-SXSW show: Austin's ear-splitting Hotwheels Jr.
on Friday afternoon in a tiny CD shop way out in north
Austin. They spell it r-a-w-k.
Favorite new discovery: Scotland's newest guitar pop
band Astrid, with a debut album, "Strange Weather Lately,"
out now on Fantastic Plastic Records.
Best diversion on the way to another gig: The strolling
horn band Crawdaddy-O, which braved the frigid cold
Thursday night livening people's steps with funky Dixieland
jams, including — at Adam of Fanzine's request — some
sizzling James Brown.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Tulsa World
Go SOUTH-West Young Man
By Thomas Conner 03/23/1997
AUSTIN, Texas — Shortly after I checked into the Lazy Oak Inn
in Austin, I met Flash Gordon. This should have clued me into just
how far out this weekend would be.
Flash sings and plays flute in a basic Florida bar band called
the Pundits. They didn't make the cut for one of the nearly 750
showcases at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but
Flash and his wife, Jo, came anyway. When your band gets rejected
from SXSW, the conference offers you registration at half price,
which we determined was reason enough to apply each year.
We sat on the porch, soaking in a warm Austin evening and
watching Molly, the inn's resident pooch, chase imaginary squirrels
around the inn's massive namesake tree. Everyone had their SXSW
booklets out and was making notes, circling band names,
highlighting times in the schedule. You have to plan your attack
carefully. At the top of each hour, about 40 musicians and spoken
word artists will begin a new set in clubs all over town. Just as
any sage would advise, you first must accept that you will not be
able to see it all. Then you plan your route, lace up a comfortable
pair of walking shoes, and hit the bricks.
It's all highly subjective.
Wednesday, 7:55 p.m.
The music part of the conference (film and multimedia kick off
the week) always begins with the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday
night. Storyville, the rootsy band that's been through Tulsa (and
will be back April 4), dominates the awards, winning Band of the
Year, Song of the Year (“Good Day for the Blues''), Best Rock
Band, and so on. Ian Moore lands Musician of the Year. Junior
Brown, of course, wins Best Country Artist. And everyone is
obsessing about the January death of local hero Townes Van Zandt,
who is inducted into the Austin hall of fame.
Wednesday, 10:15 p.m.
Always on the cutting edge of
cowpunk/twang-core/alt-country/whatever it's called now, Jason
Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers tears up Liberty Lunch in a
flurry of fringe and wins the Michael Stipe lookalike contest with
a freshly shaven head. Warner Hodges remains one of rock's most
overlooked and electrifying guitar masters.
Wednesday, 11:45 p.m.
Decked out in shiny silver space suits and flailing around far
more than keyboard players should indeed flail, Roger Manning and
one of his partners from the Moog Cookbook dazzle a slovenly
audience of media registrants at the Iron Cactus restaurant. It's
the first performance of the all-Moog “band'' outside of L.A. or
Thursday, 12:10 a.m.
As Tito and Tarantula start their set at Steamboat, film
directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrantino are refused
admittance to see the bunch that played the vampire bar band their
film, “From Dusk Till Dawn.'' The fire marshals had been
ticketing club owners for overcrowding their establishments, and
the film moguls had to get over it like everyone else.
Thursday, 10:30 a.m.
Carl Perkins delivers the conference keynote address in the
Austin Convention Center. Certainly one of the most surreal
experiences of the week, Perkins noodled on the guitar while
speaking, mostly about Jesus but he did demonstrate the difference
between Bill Monroe's version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky'' and that
of Elvis Presley.
Thursday, 3:15 p.m.
Tanned, rested and ready, Tony Bennett sits down for a Q&A and
talks about his “comeback'' and his irrepressible love of singing.
When talking about getting booted from Columbia in the '70s, he
told the story of Duke Ellington's similar fate years earlier:
“They called him into the office at Columbia and said, "We're
going to drop you from the label.' Duke said, "Why? What's wrong?'
and they said, "You're not selling records.' Duke said, "Oh, I
thought I was supposed to make the records and you were supposed to
Thursday, 5 p.m.
Tulsa modern rock band Epperley takes the stage at the Voodoo
Lounge for a “pirate'' show — one not officially part of the SXSW
showcase. Perhaps that officialdom has its advanatages because the
quartet plays its heart out for an audience of about 12 listless
club rats. In whatever setting, though, Matt Nader is a thoroughly
entertaining live guitarist.
Thursday, 9 p.m.
Fulflej plays a subdued but affecting set at Liberty Lunch,
including a cover of Sinead O'Connor's “Nothing Compares 2 U.''
Guitarist and singer MC No Joke G uses the lingo (he actually said
“homies'') like he's the hippest dude around, but the music is
more deeply rooted in arena rock and power pop to allow his thick,
dark curls to become dreads anytime soon.
Thursday, 10:30 p.m.
Now that his original power pop band 20/20 has resurfaced, Tulsa
native Ron Flynt tried out his solo chops in the tiny space of Bob
Popular's Headliner's Room Upstairs. With fellow 20/20 member and
Tulsa native Steve Allen adding lead guitar flourishes to Flynt's
acoustic strum, the two rolled easily through a warm set of 20/20
classics and new Flynt originals. Flynt's soft, childlike voice is
better suited to this folkie setting, but Flynt is still concerned
with his primary (and unabashedly pop) lyrical topic: the love and
loss of chicks.
Thursday, 11 p.m.
Dwight Twilley takes the first step in his, what, fourth
comeback? Safely rooted in Tulsa once again, Twilley and his new
band lean into the set of power pop gems they'd been trying out on
small crowds at Caz's last fall. The large patio of Austin's
Waterloo Brewing Company is nearly SRO for this gig, and Twilley
looks as young and sounds as fresh as he did in 1975. He plays a
classic like “I'm on Fire'' right next to something brand new, and
no one knows the difference. He isn't slumming for the nostalgia
addicts; he's just doing what Twilley does — rocking with more
melody than the radio has played in 10 years. Susan Cowsill, a
former Twilley sweetheart, backs him up at the mike for three
songs. The set is flawless and exciting.
Friday, 12 a.m.
20/20 follows up Twilley at the Waterloo with more stripped-down
and direct rock 'n' roll. Fresh from his solo gig, Ron Flynt now
wears shades and Allen's finesse on the electric guitar proves
that's his real forte. Opening with the classic “Remember the
Lightning,'' they charge into last year's “Song of the Universe,''
a driving melody that gets better every time I hear it. The crowd
cheers every solo from drummer Bill Belknap. Flynt introduces “The
Night I Heard Her Scream'' as “a song from our second album, or is
it third? We've got four or five. I don't know.'' Someone from the
audience shouts, “I bought one!'' Flynt looks relieved and says,
Friday, 1 a.m.
Justly introduced as “one of the great songwriters of the
universe,'' Okie-born songwriter Jimmy Webb slides behind a grand
piano in the Driskill Hotel Ballroom and pounds out several of his
touching, smartly arranged songs. He sings with much more power
than he gives himself credit for (“These songs were made famous by
others who can actually sing''). Sure, Barbara Streisand wrapped
her silky voice around Webb's “Didn't We,'' but when Webb sings
it, the nuances of each original emotion are wrenchingly vivid. He
pounds the piano with a confidence that's built up for 30 years,
but his voice still caresses the yearning for that 21-year-old
woman on a Galveston beach. There is indeed magic in the Webb of it.
Friday, 2 a.m.
La Zona Rosa is offering “breakfast shows,'' featuring non-SXSW
acts whooping it up next to a spicy buffet line. Tonight it's
Oklahoma City's Red Dirt Rangers. Someone always dances at a Red
Dirt Rangers show, and one woman was so eager to get to the
dancefloor that she beaned me in the head with the Miller longneck
in her grip as she ran by. No problem, though, the slow laments
like “Blue Diamond'' and the male bonding of “Dog on a Chain''
had already knocked me out. Multi-instrumentalist Benny Gene Craig
absolutely wails on the steel guitar.
Friday, 4:10 p.m.
Thomas Anderson, a spaced-out folkie (a native of Miami, Okla.,
now based in Austin), finally goes on at ABCD's and once again
proves the strength of his songwriting skills. Anderson, exactly
like Elliott Murphy, writes intricate and intriguing character
sketches — songs that are too big for his timid, thin vocal chops.
In trademark shades, doo-rag and blazer, he sings of Bill Haley's
tragic death in Mexico and a freaked-out killer named Nash the
Slash. Even with subjects that could easily have been far too
precious — the admiration of Deadheads in “Jerry's Kids'' and the
touching “White Sands'' — Anderson boasts a tenderness that's
usually hard to find in songs of this intellectual caliber.
Friday, 5 p.m.
This time, Epperley drums up a teeming crowd at a skate shop
called Blondie's. They sound better, too, playing mostly new songs
— “She's Like a Marine,'' “Jenks, America'' and “You're So
1988.'' The crowd whoops it up and cheers without the prodding of
the band's rep from Triple X Records.
Friday, 6:20 p.m.
Just as every public establishment in New Orleans has a cocktail
lounge, every place in Austin books live music, especially this
weekend. As we savor the Mexican food at El Sol y La Luna, one of
those South American bands with the drums and pan flutes fills the
place with tropical ambiance. Greg Brown, the guitarist for Cake,
is at the bar. “I see guys like this everywhere I go now,'' he
says with a hint of boredom. “Better not go to Tulsa's Mayfest,''
Friday, 9:10 p.m.
On that note, there's even a band scheduled to play at the inn
where I'm staying. Scheduled at 8 p.m., Seattle's urban-folk
progenitor Caz Murphy arrives late. His excuse? He was taken to the
hospital after being bitten by a bat on the Town Lake bridge. I
love this town.
Friday, 10:05 p.m.
I could bypass the lengthy line and get into Stubb's with my
snooty press badge, but I opt to watch from outside the fence with
the cheapskates; the sardined crowd on the Stubb's lawn is
wallowing in mud from the previous week's rains. Supergrass plays a
solid set of very British Invasion rock 'n' roll, looking a great
deal more mature than the superb but spastic debut album that
spawned what fans feared would be the band's wondrous one hit,
“Alright.'' New songs from the album due this May included “Cheap
Skate,'' “Richard III'' and the Who-ish “Silence the Sun.''
Friday, 11:20 p.m.
It's Japanese Night at the Tropical Isle, and I wander into the
adorable screech of Lolita No. 18. Fliers on the tables declare
that the band “captive (sic) the heart of both punk rock fan and
cartoon fan immediately.'' True enough — the all-girl thrashers
are, to our Western sensibilities, cute as cartoons, and any punk
fan would enjoy their racket. Singer G. Ena squawks with a smile
over the band's quirky time signature shifts. Suddenly I recognize
one of the choruses — my God, it's “Hang on Sloopy.''
Saturday, 12:30 a.m.
After an interminable delay, Spring Heel Jack finally begins
their set, only you can't really tell. They remain in the dark on
Bob Popular's inadequate stage, and the ambient techno the London
duo begins punching out of a huge bank of machines is not
discernable in quality or style from the tape that was filling time
between showcases. Techno of any kind is simply unsuitable for
environments outside a dancefloor.
Saturday, 1:05 a.m.
The Mysterious John pleads for quiet through a bullhorn at the
start of the Asylum Street Spankers' show, declaring that “we make
music the way God intended — without the use of de-e-e-mon
electricity!'' When some patrons continue talking, the elder
ukulele player jumps out of his chair and shouts, “Don't make me
cut a switch!'' The bawdy songs — played with clarinet, ukuleles,
guitars, banjos, kazoos, washboards and a little soft shoe --
highlight the roaring part of the '20s (“Roll Me One of Those
Funny Cigarettes''). As homespun and rollicking as bathtub gin.
Saturday, 1 p.m.
Art Alexakis, leader of Everclear, is the first hungover
musician to take the Daytime Stage for a string of sets benefitting
Artists for a Hate-Free America, which Alexakis helped to found.
With just an acoustic guitar (he obviously writes with an electric
— listen to those strings buzz!), the songs about trying to kick
yourself out of the gutter are somehow more ostensible. I must have
been hungover, too, because I swear he introduces one song as being
“about my dog.'' The lyrics make sense: “You know I'm never home
/ I call but you don't talk on the phone.'' Later I'm told he said
Saturday, 2 p.m.
Back to the Daytime Stage for my hero, Mark Eitzel, former
frontman for American Music Club and a patron saint to all who
drink for reasons other than escape. He knocks out five of his
gems, getting lost in every song, flailing his body awkwardly and
with abandon (so much so that during “Firefly'' he hits the mike
with his head). He finishes a new song, with a chorus of “Why
can't you leave my sister alone,'' this way: “That song's about my
sister. She's a pro-rights kind of person. Her brother-in-law
banned her from seeing the kids because he said she was from Satan.
My sister is not from Satan.'' Despite that conviction, Eitzel
momentarily retreats into an unusually potent moment of pessimism:
“They told me to say lots of nice things about a hate-free
America. Is there such a thing? No. This country is finished.''
Someone in the crowd asks, “Then where are we going?'' “We're
going to hell, man,'' Eitzel replies.
Saturday, 4 p.m.
About 2,000 people cram into the second level of a downtown
parking garage to hear the Car Radio Orchestra, an experiment led
by Wayne Coyne of Oklahoma City's Flaming Lips. Lips manager Scott
Booker says they had expected about a fifth of this crowd. “I'm
just trying to keep people from destroying my car,'' he said. “I
wish I'd used a rental.'' (Though, in a Dallas Morning News note
about the event, Coyne had advised that most rental cars “won't
have adequate sound systems for the experiment.'') After an hour of
positioning 28 vehicles and running two tests, the real music
begins. Coyne gives each driver a pre-mixed cassette and instructs
them to press play and blare it on cue. Soon, soothing synthesizer
parts are swelling from various auto systems, and then the sound of
a gasping, moaning woman begins building from Coyne's car in the
center of the fray. The sounds build to a, well, climax, whereupon
the ecsatic female cries are sped up, manipulated and squelched and
begin rapid-firing from every car. The piece is called
“Altruism,'' subtitled “That's the Crotch Calling the Devil
Black.'' The second piece uses more looping drum sounds, but the
ending fizzles because the principle sound was on tape no. 16 --
and that car had blown a fuse.
Saturday, 10 p.m.
My one and only personal indulgence — Paul K. and the
Weathermen play at the Atomic Cafe. Even though he wears a
turtleneck tonight, the darkness of his tales of a criminal past
are not blunted. The fiddle player is superfluous, and the rhythm
section only adds spine to the brooding, mythical post-punk-blues
Paul pulls from his surprisingly powerful acoustic guitar. “30
Coins of Gold'' tells the spooky story of a beggar who posed as
Judas for da Vinci's rendering of “The Last Supper.''
Saturday, 10:45 p.m.
A Ryder truck is parked on the edge of Red River Avenue, and
there's a big film screen in the back door showing a director's
reel of film and video clips produced by L.A.'s Underground Media,
which has provided videos for everyone from Marilyn Manson to David
Bowie. This reel is dominated by videos for Cottonmouth, Texas — a
group from Dallas featuring musicians from the New Bohemians
providing a backdrop for the clever spoken musings of an ex-junkie.
The work is more accessible than that sounds. Watch for the Virgin
Records debut this summer.
Saturday, 11:20 p.m.
Who knew Fred Sanford had given up the salvage business and
launched a hip-hop career? Endlessly toying with his voice effects,
Mike Ladd slops through some captivating rants. The crowd was
paltry but enthused, and Ladd will probably get used to that
because his raps are about topics that matter, not sex and guns.
When he gets furious, as he does in his lambaste of Richard
Herrnstein's race-and-education theories in “The Bell Curve,'' he
sounds like he's about to clutch his chest and have “the big one.''
Sunday, 12:05 a.m.
Deborah Harry may not be aging gracefully, but her vocal chops
are juicy in her latest project, the Jazz Passengers, a sharp jazz
outfit that sidesteps the latest retro-lounge fad in favor of
stream-of-consciousness, almost avant garde compositions led by sax
and trombone. Harry's role as singer is well-suited to her dynamic
voice, purring one moment and roaring like a tiger the next.
Sunday, 1 a.m.
Figures. The best punk show I've seen in years is by the three
nellie queens in San Francisco's gay punk pioneers, Pansy Division.
Venting about kinky boyfriends (“James Bondage''), the men north
of the border (“Manada'') and right time alternatives to night
time (“Horny in the Morning''), this trio puts out the most
entertaining and energetic set of the week. Bassist Chris Freeman
is in a skirt and flaming out all over the stage while guitarist
Jon Ginoli (wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I Dream of Weenie'')
this time plays it a bit more, uh, straight, offering an unexpected
moment of seriousness in his solo tale of “Denny.''
What Is South by Southwest?
By Thomas Conner 03/23/1997
The South by Southwest Music and Media Conference takes place
each March in the remarkably hospitable city of Austin, Texas. It
could take place in no other city, really — Austin is, per capita,
the live music capital of the world.
Conference organizers book about 750 acts (solo musicians,
singers and bands) to perform one-hour showcases during five nights
in 36 clubs around the city, mostly concentrated on Sixth Street
downtown. (Every other club in town, though, books “pirate''
shows.) The purpose is to provide one-stop shopping for music
industry talent scouts and journalists (and, oh yeah, fans) looking
for the Next Big Thing. Among the scores of up-and-coming bands are
scheduled shows by well-established artists — it helps draw the
The event calls itself a “conference'' because it also includes
panel discussions of music industry issues and a trade show, all of
which helps to justify a week of listening to rock 'n' roll in bars.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.