SXSW 2003

If drums and wires rather than milk and honey in the Elysian fields is your idea of Heaven, then South By South West is the place for you.
Comparisons are often made between SXSW and Glastonbury, but apart from evil toilet facilities, they don’t have much in common. In Austin, the 110 dollar wristband which gets you into most events is good value, but there’s no camping, so you have to find your own accommodation. That’s either central and pricey or non-central and inconvenient. Either way, you’ll spend your four days in a frenzy of charging from venue to venue and stamping with frustration that the only five bands you want to see are all playing at the same time in different extremities of the city. Have you made the right choice? You’ll never know.
I counted 1243 bands playing, and that’s just the ones listed in the official programme. The furthest I had to hike in one go was from Stubbs on Red River to the Continental Club on Congress, a distance of about three miles. There were showcases from Japan, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada, the UK and countless other countries, as well as presentations from scores of individual US towns and cities. There was folk, jazz, rock, indie, country, metal, rap, dance, thrash metal and any other musical subculture you could care to imagine. So any review of SXSW can’t fail to be be a reflection of one person’s experiences. Here we go …
First, the peculiar things. The Joe Jackson Band played a storming free open air set to a huge crowd, and then a paying one indoors just a few hours later. This was surely a flawed managerial decision, and so it proved. The indoor show at the Austin Music Hall was sparsely attended and Joe had lost his voice, cutting short the performance. Stranger still was Grandaddy’s appearance at a V2 showcase at La Zona Rosa. They were so woefully unrehearsed that they struggled through a disastrously disjointed show and were plainly relieved when the stage manager made the cut-off sign. All other bands used this as a signal to do one more number, but Grandaddy gratefully scuttled for the exit. What a disappointment from a great band.
The “secret” appearance of Blur, also at La Zona Rosa, was fascinating. Alex James had failed to obtain a work permit, so a stand-in bassist was used. What with new guitarist Simon Tong being so understated as to be virtually invisible, this was the Damon Show in a big way. Luckily, he was up to the job and Blur satisfied everyone with old favourites like “Song 2” (Introduced as “Fuck You”) and a slur of new songs (all, contrary to rumour, perfectly accessible). It would seem that the new album is a killer.
The essence of SXSW is cruising the bars of Sixth Street, sticking your head into each one (earplugs a vital necessity) and seeing what gems you can discover. You catch snatches of scores of bands whose names you never find out, but some you remember, for diverse reasons. Here’s my list: Austin’s Andrew Kelly at Mercury (for being quiet); Kinski and Maserati at Emos (both for being magnificently noisy and sonically ambitious); Spiraling at the Hard Rock Café (whose big showcase moment to an empty room was hit by an exploding PA half a song in); Pineforest Crunch at Maggie Mae’s (for being sweet, Swedish and using a Stylophone); Voyager 1 at Spill (for being the only post-Gong space rock band at the entire event); The Features at Spill (for being like XTC and for the feeing I’ll one day be boasting about seeing them when they were “small”); and New Jersey’s Rye Coalition (for being the hardest-rockin’ muthafuckers of very many hard-rockin’ muthas).
Being in Texas, it was vital to catch some country rock. It was odd, then, that the best country came from Canada (Kathleen Edwards), from Australia via the UK (Grand Drive) and from Devon (Peter Bruntnell). Edwards, despite her engaging personality, upfront lyrics and rocking band, gave little real clue as to why she has so suddenly burst forth from a very crowded and competitive market. Of equal interest was a young Austinite called Sarah Sharp, who popped up all over the place. Grand Drive stole the show at a UK showcase at the Ritz, admittedly not much of an achievement, since this over-promoted but under-attended event featured some of the UK’s most sludgy, uninteresting rock bands. And as for Peter Bruntnell … well, I’m a fan, that’s all, and unashamedly caught three of his four performances.
Now the bit my editor hates, namely the cool bands which I missed. Excuses include: inability to locate the venue, clashing with something possibly inferior, and having to eat or else fall over. Here’s that list of shame: Kaito, Cat Power, Raveonettes, Longwave and Drive-By Truckers. Other categories include those where overcrowding meant it was physically impossible to get in (The Coral at Stubbs); ones where I didn’t think it would be good but apparently it was (Leona Ness, complete with Peter Buck), and bands I missed on purpose because I hate them (British Sea Power).
In an environment which was often more that a tad self-reverential, some welcome humour came from the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. The excellently geeky dad, accompanied by his young drummer daughter Rachel, are a Moldy Peaches-type novelty act, which certainly puts a new perspective on White Stripes / Kills-style duos. Their songs are written round old 35mm slides which they find at flea markets and, as the man from the Austin Chronicle said, you ain’t lived till you’ve heard a nine-year-old girl demanding “more vocal in the monitors”.
The rejuvenated Camper van Beethoven, also at La Zona Rosa, were another high point. Not only was David Lowery one of the surprisingly few people to make a clear, unequivocal and impassioned anti-war speech, but they also did a roaring “Take The Skinheads Bowling”, following up with their unique take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and, yes, Status Quo’s “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”. And then, in an event overflowing with yawnsome sound-and-light freakout grand climaxes, they produced by far the most explosive and entertaining one of all. Phew!
All of which brings us to the answer to the inevitable “What was the highlight?” question. Luckily, there was no competition. On their home turf, completely selling out the huge Music Hall and then making it impossible to get anywhere near Stubbs, the Polyphonic Spree proved that they are one of the most original, intelligent, charming and just plain brilliant acts in the history of rock music, ever. And boy, were they on form. We worked out that you’d have to see them 23 times to fully appreciate them, as each member merits study for the entire performance. My friend Paul’s tip: front row, extreme left of the choir. My tip: the theramin player.
That’s SXSW, then. Hope I’ll get my breath back before next year.

From Amplifier magazine

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Dance Hall At Louse Point review

PJ Harvey has made several good albums, but she’s only ever made one great one.
“Dry” (Too Pure) was one of the most memorable debut albums of modern times. It portrayed Polly and her original band in its purest form, very much in the indie mould as regards recording and presentation, yet far more adventurous in its scope. It contains a number of songs (“Victory”, “Water”) which she has not subsequently surpassed in quality.
“Rid Of Me”, the same band’s first Island album, is probably their least commercially accessible recording, on account not only of Steve Albini’s raw production techniques, but also because of the confrontational nature of the lyrics and the performance. From this record stems the horror story image that Polly has struggled to shake off ever since. But it was a conscious move and right for its moment.
“To Bring You My Love” was designed to redress the commercial balance somewhat. The record company wanted something a lot more saleable than “Rid Of Me” and this was as far as the new band was prepared to go. Co-produced by Flood and John Parish, it contained some lovely songs (“C’mon Billy” and the title track) which remain in the band’s repertoire today.
“Is This Desire” was Polly’s most patchy recording. A clear attempt to build on the success of “To Bring You My Love”, it has all the hallmarks of her career in that you can hear the musicians, the business people, the producers and the artist herself all pulling in different directions. It does, however, contain a true gem in the form of “Angelene”. Why this was never a UK single remains a mystery.
“Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” is PJ Harvey’s newest, most commercially successful (by a mile) album and (also by a mile) my least favourite. The record company (now owned by Universal) rubbed its hands in glee as Polly finally came up with the goods it had been awaiting for nearly a decade: a collection of accessible love songs in a USA-friendly grunge environment. It isn’t bland (Polly could never be bland) but it represents a large step towards the middle ground.
So which is the best? None of them, actually. PJ Harvey’s best album is her 1996 collaboration with her musical colleague John Parish, entitled “Dance Hall at Louse Point”.
Recorded almost entirely on a home studio, and designed as music for a ballet production, “Louse Point”, which the duo insisted should be a full-scale release in the wake of “To Bring You My Love”, caused complete dismay at Island Records, with expressions such as “commercial suicide” being bandied around. But if ever a record merited a re-assessment, it is this one. It is plain brilliant.
The opening track (after a brief introduction called “Girl”), is “Rope Bridge Crossing”, and sets the agenda with Polly talking and whispering over spidery patterns of acoustic and electric guitar. This must be one of the few songs ever to begin with the word “and”, becoming almost surreal as Polly intones the immortal words of Reg Presley, “you mooooove me”.
“City Of No Sun” features the most startlingly high-pitched vocals that even Polly has managed, while “That Was My Veil” remains her tenderest and most melodic song of love and loss.The mournful keyboards contain echoes of Nico.
The album comes the closest it will ever get to rocking out on track 5 (“Urn With Dead Flowers In A Drained Pool”), with many changes of pace and even the odd jokey nod towards the clanky percussion of John and Polly’s old band, Automatic Dlamini. On “Civil War Correspondent”, we are back to the Nico harmonium for a sombre, slide-dominated song which wouldn’t have been out of place on “Dry”.
Complete madness breaks out in “Taut”, as Polly spits out incomprehensible lyrics like one of Macbeth’s witches. Every so often, they are interspersed with an almost angelic chorus of “Jesus save me”, and the song is thankfully rendered less terrifying by the singer’s inability to disguise her Dorset accent: “Even the son of God had to doy, moy darlin'”.
“Circle Around The Sun” is a far more sober affair which borrows directly from Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”. This is the nearest Polly has come on record to the purity of voice of Sandy Denny.
“Heela” has a backing which could be vintage Pink Floyd, as John and Polly develop the kind of semi-spoken vocal counterpoint originally pioneered on Automatic Dlamini’s “From A Diva To A Diver” album. For most of the second half of the track, Polly is singing in the falsetto style normally left to her regular drummer Rob Ellis.
“Is That All There Is?” (probably the most depressing song ever written) is Louse Point’s token cover version, causing all sorts of ructions as the artists successfully fought the record company’s attempts to release it as a single. The verses are spoken to a backing straight from Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”.”Let’s break out the booze and have a ball”, sings Polly, in a tone of total despair.
The title track is a cheeky instrumental which actually quotes a musical pattern from Automatic Dlamini’s unreleased album “Here, Catch, Shouted His Father”, before the album signs off with “Lost Fun Zone”, a short piece which disconcertingly has Polly warbling “Take me one more time” over a boogie backing.
At the same session, the duo also put down a track which is certainly the most light-hearted song PJ Harvey has ever recorded. “Why D’ya Go To Cleveland?” is a cheerful companion piece to REM’s “Don’t Go Back To Rockville”, and is much sought after by collectors, but treated by its creators as just a bit of a joke. Try calling out for it at a gig and see what sort of response you get.
The songs on “Louse Point” were only performed live a few times, in Bridport, Bristol and on a brief European tour with the Mark Bruce Dance Company. These dates have been comprehensively bootlegged, the pick of the bunch being “Strychnine Ballroom”.
From ZABADAK magazine, October 2001 

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The Warlocks – Joiners Arms, Southampton

 
We live in a time of low inflation, but this is not a concept with which the (don’t mention the) Warlocks are familiar. There are loads of unnecessary members, notably one hapless guitarist who cringed against the wall throughout in order to avoid being splatted in the face by the bassist. And two drummers … well, very few bands apart from Pavement benefit from such excess, and this one certainly doesn’t. To produce the monotonous, tub-thumping beat maintained by the Warlocks throughout their entire set, one drummer is an elegant sufficiency, thank you very much.
In the front bar, the video was showing Black Grape, up at the Railway the Equidistant Sound were re-creating the Happy Mondays, so it was spooky that Warlocks singer Bobby Hecksher bases most of his oeuvre (apart from the bits where he imitates Chris Martin) on the talents of Shaun Ryder. But there’s more: The Warlocks have their very own Bez, in the form of an embarrassed-looking Laura Grigsby, who bangs inaudible tambourine and occasionally waves a finger, Linda McCartney style, at a keyboard.
The Warlocks are from California, usually rather a friendly place, but tonight they seem a pretty fed up bunch. This is a band whose idea of musical subtlety is to play for an hour without a single change of pace, whose idea of lighting ambience is to keep the strobe on the entire evening, and whose idea of audience communication is to bark “More Monitors” (not a hint of a please) at the sound engineer.
The only entertaining moment came as they left the stage to a ripple of applause and huddled beside the stage for a moment (the Joiners exposes such things) before rushing on for an undemanded encore. Suddenly, Hecksher, in a Michael Jackson falsetto, had something to say: “Oh, sometimes this shit can be so hard …” Poor lamb, he must have had all of 20 yards to walk to his luxury tour bus.
From LOGO magazine

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SXSW 2005

Shivering at Stubbs on Wednesday evening, I was wondering whether the festival was peaking too soon, as the very first band on stage was so fantastic. The Hammond heaven of Detroit’s The Sights was like a 2005 take on The Nice. After guitarist Eddie Baranek had destroyed his own instrument, he disembowelled the Hammond as well. Judging by the horror on Bobby Emmett’s face, this wasn’t rehearsed.
At the Vibe, it was criminal to see artists of the calibre of Willard Grant Conspiracy and South San Gabriel reduced to begging the sound technicians to allow them to hear themselves. Add to this a vile, stinking “bathroom” which made Glastonbury seem like The Ritz hotel and you wonder whether the show’s sponsorship by Uncut might have done the magazine’s reputation more harm than good.
The super Ambulance Ltd managed only three songs in an afternoon monsoon before zooming off for their packed show at Exodus. Other bands “doing the rounds” included the ubiquitous Duke Spirit, who did themselves much good with music which is likely to appeal to an American audience. The Kaiser Chiefs made a good fist of their battle with Bloc Party for coolest new band, almost suffocating under the weight of BBC radio DJs fawning over them. Hobbling around on a walking stick with his rosy cheeks and striped blazer, KC’s singer Ricky Wilson has the air of a country squire.
Dogs Die In Hot Cars were a lowlight of a mainly unexciting “British Invasion”. Their unimaginative and derivative set contrasted tellingly with last year’s equivalent, the show from Franz Ferdinand which sealed their international career. Soundtrack Of Our Lives, fronted by a tribute Demis Roussos, proved that you need a lot more than posing around to really ignite an audience.
There were more than enough really great things, though. The perfectly-formed Ash were on fire, and the unlikely triumph of an incendiary Wreckless Eric at Elysium was a joy to experience. Who else would serenade a Texan audience with a song called “The Golden Hour Of Harry Secombe”? Nashville’s Legendary Shack*Shakers, opening for Robert Plant, were a revelation, hurling themselves into their rockabilly circus with total abandon. Plant himself brought the house down, the audience pinching itself at hearing “Whole Lotta Love” in all its glory. Among other fine performances were the ever-brilliant Richmond Fontaine, the charmingly natural and always engaging Embrace; Willy Mason, seemingly on every street corner; The Bravery (over the top but fun); and an absolute stunner of a show from those uniquely edgy, sexy Kills.
Yes, but who was best? Well, for me, the most exciting, most musical, most emotional, most real and unpolluted band was Centro-Matic, from just down the road in Denton, Texas. Forget their unstudied image and lose yourself in their beautiful, challenging, tough-as-nails music. They are at the heart of SxSW, and they embody its excellence.

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Richmond Fontaine – Railway Inn, Winchester


First night of the UK tour, and where are Richmond Fontaine? Twenty minutes to door opening and Dan Eccles is on all fours screwing valves into his amp while Willy Vlautin is languidly stringing his guitar. It has somehow taken them six and a half hours to do the one-hour journey from London but they are charmingly laid back and blissfully unaware of their media profile and the fact that there is a capacity crowd outside baying to get in. “Gig of the Week in the Independent? Gee, man, that’s awesome!”
And awesome is the performance; it takes more than a minor detour to faze this decade-old Portland, Oregon quartet, which is just beginning to grab the UK public’s attention. Vlautin is in his element, telling tales both in song and word, and exchanging good-natured banter with the audience. Dan is headbanging like a true punk rocker but the tracks from “Winnemucca” and, more particularly, the hugely admired “Post To Wire” are performed with the intensity they deserve. Opener “The Longer You Wait” recalls the best of American Music Club”, while “Allison Johnson” wouled’t be out of place in a Nick Cave set. The sequencing is a tad bitty, but that’s half the fun, as they take the opportunity in this tiny venue to bed in a programme which will later in the tour slay audiences in much bigger halls. The audience, feeling truly privileged, stayed behind en masse way after closing time.

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Mercury Rev – Bierkeller, Bristol

Isn’t life cruel? No sooner have Grand Drive achieved their long-awaited critical breakthrough with “The Lights In This Town Are Too Many to Count”, than their drummer leaves them seriously in the lurch. They have to cancel their high profile showcases in favour of opening for Mercury Rev as an acoustic trio. Still, they are veterans of adversity and more than capable of bouncing back. With their silken Aussie harmonies and impeccable songwriting, Finn Brothers comparisons are unavoidable, but who better to emulate?
If you like glorious melodies and don’t mind admitting to a penchant for prog, Mercury Rev have the music for you, especially if you prefer your bands to be eye-pleasing. The super-elegance of Jonathan Donahue (the widest smile in rock) and the biker chic of Grasshopper see to that. A slightly altered line-up tried out a raft of new songs from their forthcoming album “The Secret Migration”, some of them more acoustic – poppy, even – than we’ve been used to from Mercury Rev. Fans were also treated to the usual sigh-inducing favourites such as “Spiders and Flies” and “Goddess On A Hiway”. Music doesn’t come any more enchanting than this.

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Jesse Malin / Jeff Klein – Borderline, London

It’s really exciting when the Yanks send over their cool young talent to be discovered first by the UK music press, then the UK public, and then re-exported back to them. Following that, of course, we Brits go over the top in our enthusiasm, the floodgates open and quality control collapses. It’s already happened in the world of handsome and noisy NYC garage bands, next it’ll be the post Ryan Adams / Pete Yorn area of equally handsome but less noisy country-rock singer-songwriters. Meanwhile, let’s just be happy that dear old Jesse Malin is the real rock and roll deal and revel in this classic, media-swamped sweatbath of a showcase.
First up, all the way from Austin, Texas (the place where I wish to wake up after I die) is Jeff Klein. Jeff’s motto is: “No matter how bad things are, everything could probably be worse” – and that’s just how his publicity sheet tries to attract us! With a truly terrifying beard, he looks and sounds like he wishes he was in … Trail Of Dead. Jeff can make a lyric like “Everything’s gonna be all right” sound like a threat. His best song was about being caught mid-wank by his dad, but still we liked him.
And so, as the cellar threatened to turn into a home-made volcano and explode upwards through the pavement, Jesse Malin and his band lived up to the hyperbole. Are they all they should be? Yes sir! Tears started flowing from the off, as the band (dressed, as all alt-punk bands should be, in head-to-toe black) took the stage to the strains of the Clash’s “Bank Robber”.
There’s something reassuringly wholesome about what Jesse does. His presence even brings to mind Ray Davies, while the ecstatically-greeted “Wendy” is a full-scale pop classic. And what a charmer, as he winks to the adoring girls in the front row and tells us tales of Barbra Streisand’s furniture. Call it alt-whatever (it’s youthful, punked-up Neil Young, actually), all the music is crisp, timeless rock and roll with its best, least affected face on. “Death Or Glory” was dedicated to Jesse’s friend Joe Strummer, plus a few choice (sadly probably unheeded) words of advice to G.W. Bush. The almost unbearably poignant “Brooklyn” rapidly turned into a full-scale crowd singalong, and the evening ended with some serious moshing to Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?”. In the Borderline! And I joined in! Well, it would have been rude not to.
Go, Jesse! You truly are a King of the Underworld.
(from LOGO magazine) 

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Athlete – Shepherds Bush Empire

You know that feeling which overwhelms you occasionally, when whatever it is you’re experiencing is so perfect that you are desperate to preserve it in your memory forever? The words that come into your head are: “Oh, this is beautiful, I’ve got to soak it up”.
So when Athlete display the genius to write a song with exactly that chorus, that’s good enough. When they add it to an irrestibly anthemic tune which forces the audience to bellow it en masse, the subject of the song somehow ends up describing itself. It is beautiful and we are soaking it up.
And who can pretend they haven’t identified with the chorus of One Million: “It was just one of those days I needed to deal with”? First, we had to deal with interminable performances by two of the worst support bands ever to sully Shepherds Bush. Good thing nobody knew who they were, I might have had to be cruel about them. Athlete, though, warming up for the V Festival and taking a brief break from recording their second album, were just perfect. Not just “part of the rock scene” (Westside), they tower above all the competition right now, a model of unpretentiousness and letting the music and songs speak for themselves. To follow the Mercury-nominated “Vehicles and Animals” might seem a well-nigh impossible task, but new songs such as “Tourist” bode well. You almost felt like joining in on first hearing, but you were already too hoarse from yelling about the doubtful merits of El Salvador and Dungeness. Not that I would do anything like that, you understand.
A truly knockout set of killer tunes and genius lyrics. You can’t ask for much more.

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The Datsuns, The Polyphonic Spree, Interpol, The Thrills – Portsmouth Pyramids

 
This years’ NME tour is an entertaining set of contrasts but, with one notable exception, as derivative as hell. It was 2003’s equivalent of a package starring Smokie, Joy Division, The St Winifred’s School Choir and AC / DC. And oooh, how they’ll hate me for saying that.
The Thrills are sadly-misnamed. Battling a disgraceful sound quality on this occasion, they’re a sort of cross between Wilco and Mercury Rev without the charisma or bite of either. Still, it was an undemanding start to the show. “When are they going to play ‘Hotel California’?” asked my neighbour.
Looking like Kraftwerk fronted by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, Interpol were certainly a bit more stimulating, both visually and musically. There’s a disciplined sparsity about their sound which almost makes you forget that Joy Division were doing this stuff two decades ago. But who can blame today’s students for wanting a slice of such action? Style, content, perameters: 10 / 10. Originality? Hmm … They’re not much use if you like any soul in your music, and if that ugly bassist keeps on smoking like that, he won’t live long enough to appreciate his success.
Four things that I like are: friendly people, The Eels Orchestra, Texas (the state, not the band) and the Flaming Lips. As the Polyphonic Spree are all four, I was in heaven as they comprehensively slayed this “cool” audience and elicited mass adulation, despite being a huge gang of berobed hippies. Mind you, they had a cheek expecting us to pay money for all that pretentious droning on their album. Luckily, live, they stick to the tunes. Even the soundman woke up for a while. You can’t help but wonder what kind of salary the members are on. Still, at least there’s no problem if someone leaves – they probably wouldn’t even notice.
And so to the Datsuns. If you like third-rate cock-thrusting seventies heavy metal, this is your band. If not, it isn’t. We need punk, NOW.
From AMPLIFIER magazine

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Jon Amor – Borderline, London

With the strength of interest in guitar rock at the moment, it’s a mystery why Jon Amor seems to have hit a plateau of popularity beyond which the public stubbornly refuses to move. Yet songs are pouring out of him like a jackpot from a fruit machine, and when the UK’s best live act hits the Borderline’s stage with the merciless kick in the balls that is the as-yet unrecorded “Fool Enough”, the already up-for-it audience is slack-jawed with amazement. Not since Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” has such a rifftastic creation opened a show in the cellars of London.
Amor fans, horrified at the band’s stated intention of dropping the show-stopping “Hit So Hard” from their set, were threatening physical protests, but the result is a happy one. They’ve pared this brilliant song down to its bare essentials and made it even more dramatic. And what other band could overcome a mid-set amp failure without any loss of momentum? Following the running repairs, they simply pick up the bullet train that is “1999” from where they’ve left off and continue the aural assault. By the time the muliti-orgasmic climax of “Hard Hat” is reached, the entire band has entered orbit, Jon playing in a frenzy of dexterity that is almost superhuman.
What with one thing and another, it’s clear that Jon Amor is a troubled soul. In “Sweep The Room”, he sings about the “words left unspoken of the bones that I’ve broken and the pain that I’ve caused”. There’s nary a hint of a twelve bar, but this is still the blues in the truest sense of the word.

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