Friday, March 28, 2008


Here's the final installment of my SXSW stuff for The New Mexican. Like last week's faithful blog readers will recognize some of the items here from my blogging from Austin.

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 28, 2008


I know the South by Southwest Music Festival has been over for nearly two weeks now. But I saw way too much music I feel compelled to babble about, so here’s Part 2 of this year’s SXSW saga.

One thing you can count on in Austin, Texas, during SXSW week is that music is everywhere. Besides the bars and restaurants, Austin’s art galleries, parks, vacant lots, and alleys become instant venues. And sometimes surprising musicians pop up in odd corners.

During Roky Erickson’s Psychedelic Ice Cream Social at Threadgill’s, I went inside the restaurant to use the ATM. A kind stranger told me, “Hey, Ray Wylie Hubbard is playing in the back room.” Indeed he was. Hubbard — who is best known for writing “Redneck Mother,” though he has written dozens of superior tunes — was doing a short acoustic set of blues songs with his teenage son Lucas, who’s getting pretty good on guitar.

The next night, I met with a huge group of friends and friends of friends at Artz Rib House. There I was introduced to singer-songwriter Jeff Talmadge. “You’re from Santa Fe, you must know Jaime,” he said. Jaime who? “Jaime Michaels, the guy who just finished playing. Indeed, the Santa Fe singer had just done an acoustic set a few feet behind me, but I’d been so busy yakking with my pals that I missed him.

Here’s some more music that I did see:

* My Morning Jacket: I have some qualms about this band. Sometimes MMJ veers dangerously close to classic-rock pabulum. Sometimes they sound like an overblown country-rock band. But Jim James’ musical vision is so unusual that most of the time he’s able to transcend these influences. The lords of Louisville, Kentucky, played for nearly two hours, starting off with a great rush of energy and songs that were powerful and intense. I believe they were mainly new tunes from the group’s upcoming album Evil Urges, though the set was liberally sprinkled with songs from its albums Z and It Still Moves. The middle of the first hour sagged a bit as James and crew concentrated on slower, more country songs. But then they got their footing again, and nearly every song in the next hour and 15 minutes sounded like a blistering climax.

JOHNETTE NAPOLITANO * Johnette Napolitano: I was apprehensive about this show when I learned it would be a solo acoustic set. But those fears vanished once Napolitano opened her throat and started wailing. In her sexy Morticia Addams dress, she showed that singer-songwriter gigs don’t have to be gimpy. I’d seen her twice before with Concrete Blonde, but this might have been the most powerful performance of hers I’ve ever witnessed. Napolitano balanced the set with newer tunes and familiar Concrete Blonde songs like “Joey” and “Mexican Moon.” The highlight had to be her a cappella version of “Tomorrow Wendy.” Even though she left out the verse that begins, “I told the priest/don’t count on any second coming,” the song was just devastating. She’s been doing the song for nearly 20 years, but the emotion that night was raw and deep.

* Van Morrison: I was only able to catch thean the Man’s showcase. It was the first time I’d ever seen him, and he was flawless and soulful as expected, playing new or less-familiar songs. But later that night, when I saw Napolitano’s show, it was obvious that the venerated Belfast Cowboy hadn’t exactly poured his guts into his show the way she had hers.

* Bayou City Beach Party: After my pals — who didn’t have wristbands or badges — were told they couldn’t get into the R.E.M. show at Stubb’s Bar-B-Que, we decided to go to Headhunters across the street. I’d stumbled into this joint the night before and appreciated the tiki decor and biker/punk vibe. This band, from Houston, was an energetic bunch. Singer Blake Shepard is young but a born showman, and he romped through his Stooge-y punk-boogie tunes.

* Yo La Tengo: This New Jersey trio played an amazing set at Austin Music Hall. I arrived late, and they were playing some of their weird, poppy material with frontman Ira Kaplan on keyboards. I guess I’m just a guitar-centric kinda guy, but referred it when he switched back to guitar. Like Sonic Youth at its best, Yo La has a great knack for creating beauty out of sonic chaos. The band’s version of “Tom Courtenay” was as gorgeous as Julie Christie, who is name-checked in the lyrics.

* The Breeders: The Deal sisters’ show at the Mess With Texas festival in Waterloo Park probably was my greatest disappointment at this year’s SXSW. I’ve been a fan of The Pixies, as well as The Breeders, for years. I thought The Breeders’ Last Splash was one of the unsung albums of the ’90s. I confess I did enjoy their version of “Cannonball” and “Divine Hammer” from that album at the SXSW show, but most of their music, including songs from their upcoming album Mountain Battles, didn’t jell that night. Part of it was the sound system. In the middle of the show it sounded as if an amp was blown. But even worse, the playing often seemed half-assed. In dorm rooms all over the country there are guitar noodlers who could do better than Kim Deal on some of her s Their cover of the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” started off well but fell apart by the end as the band seemed to struggle to make it to the conclusion.

* Andre Williams: I caught this old R & B warlord kicking off the Bloodshot Records party at the Yard Dog Gallery. Williams, who had some minor hits in the 1950s and early ’60s, is best known for “Shake a Tail Feather,” which, curiously, he didn’t perform that afternoon. After years in obscurity, Williams started recording again with punk-based groups on independent labels, where he’s allowed to be as raunchy as he wants. He’s recorded with The Dirtbombs and, backed by the surf/country Sadies, did a “country” album for Bloodshot back in 1999. At the Yard Dog, Williams emphasized his early rock ’n’ roll background. My only complaint is that his 30-minute set wasn’t long enough.

* The Waco Brothers: I caught them twice — once at the Bloodshot party, then the next day at Jovita’s. As I knew they would, they lived up to the promise of their live album, which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago.

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