Monday, March 19, 2012

SXSW 2012 Final Report

Country break dancing at the Austin Moose Lodge
I spent Saturday night, my last night in Austin, at The Austin Moose Lodge.

Moose Lodge? Isn't that the kind of place where your folks would play bingo in the '50s and '60s? Don't their roots go back to prehistoric days when Fred and Barney belonged to the Bedrock lodge of the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo?

That's right. The Loyal Order of Moose, by God. It's an off-the-beaten track venue on the east side of Austin. There was plenty of parking and few, if any, people there actually part of the South by Southwest festival.

It was a perfect place for the "Saving Muddy Hillgrass" party.

This was a two-day event (unfortunately I missed the first day) organized by three institutions of the "underground country" scene -- Saving Country Music, The Muddy Roots Festival, and Hillgrass Bluebilly Records.
Calamity Cubes

I arrived at the Moose Lodge just in time to see The Calamity Cubes, an acoustic trio from Kansas.

They look like villains from a Rob Zombie movie. Singer/guitarist Brook Blanche is a huge hairy guy who, if he was a pro wrestler would be named "Man Mountain" something,

When they pick up their instruments, you might expect them to be a raucous punk-bluegrass band. And indeed, they are capable of that. Their first couple of tunes Saturday fell into that category.

But the Cubes' most memorable songs are Blanche's slow, soulful, mournful country weepers. Many, perhaps most of the songs they played Saturday were from their upcoming album Old World's Ocean. I'm not sure of the titles but among my favorites is a minor-key dirge that starts out, "You and I, we're like cattle in the slaughter house." Nothing short of stunning.

Also excellent is the one I think they call "Empty Bottle" (it starts out "I'd rather have an empty bottle than no bottle at.") At first you might think is going to be a funny drinking song. But it's much deeper than that.

 I bought a CD-R copy of "rough mixes" of the album and my favorite songs they did Saturday are on it. When I get back to doing my radio shows next month, I'll be playing it.

Other bands I saw at Saving Muddy Hillgrass were:

Soda Gardocki
Soda & Friends
* Soda Gardocki: He's a singer/banjo picker from Knight's Ferry, California with a gruff voice and punk-rock past.  He performed many songs solo, but my favorites were those in which he was joined by various friends.

On several songs he had a fiddle player, but a few included mandolin, guitar, accordion, stand-up bass and drums. On song, he said, he wrote with his late grandmother, who was 97 at the time.

Hellbound Glory
Hellbound Glory

* Hellbound Glory. This is a good, rowdy country rock (they call it "scumbag country") group from Reno, Nev.  featuring a lap steel and a stand-up bass -- but no drummer on Saturday  (except singer/guitarist Leroy Virgil, who sat on an played a bass drum on some tunes) Opening with Billy Joe Shaver's "Georgia on a Fast Train" they show a fine grasp of the spirit of '70s outlaw country. Though playing mostly originals, Hellbound later in the show did a fine version of David Allen Coe's "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" (with an updated verse to make it the "perfect country western" song.)

* James "Slim" Hand. While I was watching Hellbound Glory, a man in a cowboy hat came up to me and shook my hand. "I'm James Hand," he said. A friendly gesture for sure, but I couldn't figure out why.

But later, during his set at the party, he said he wanted to shake the hands of everyone in the audience. I guess with me, and probably others, he was just getting a head start.
James Hand (Speedy Sparks, right)

Hand is a long-time Texas honky tonker (a real Waco brother!) who never got famous beyond the Lone Star state but is well-respected and loved in Austin music circles. (Hell, he has a testimony from Darrell Royal on his website!)

With a band that included bassist Speedy Sparks (he's played with Doug Sahm, the Texas Tornados and jillions of others) Hand delighted with a mix of country and rockabilly standards (fine, fine versions of Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm"; "Mona Lisa," which sounded like it was based on Carl Mann's arrangement; and a hillbilly blues take on Jimmy Reeds' "Take Out Some Insurance."

There were a couple of more acts on the bill, but I was a tired old man with a long drive home the next day. And I couldn't think of a better way than James Hand to end my 2012 South by Southwest.

UPDATE: You can find my snapshots of the music I saw last week HERE.

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