No one else will let me drone on for pages about the ups and downs of sxsw, but this is my blog and no one can stop me.
It started well, because the new direct flight to Austin means you can arrive not exhausted and head straight out on the Tuesday (each year it seems to start earlier). We caught Kelley Stoltz at Bar 96 (it had been less than a week since we saw him in the UK). By the time we’d sorted out the badges, it was time for bed, in an attempt to be fresh in the morning. This was foiled by the hotel turning out to be next to a liquor store.
By the way, references to ”we” in this mean me and my friend Paul, who lives in Oklahoma and comes over to Austin once a year to meet up and enjoy music.
Daylight revealed that on the other side of the hotel was a Mexican breakfast joint, so you can take it for granted that every morning consisted of a long lie-in followed by a blow-out of omelettes and such. I won’t mention food again.
A bus into town (you can ride the buses all day for two dollars, now there’s a public transport system) took us to one of Austin’s more quaint venues, Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop, where I promptly bought a branded hat (it actually is Lance Armstrong’s bike shop). Hurray For The Riff Raff were playing here. I was interested to see the effect of their signing to the Alabama Shakes label ATO. Well, there are no musical changes but an almost complete line-up change, with only Alynda Lee Segarra and Yosi Pearlstein remaining. Then it was on to the lovely suntrap that is the Ginger Man Pub for The Autumn Defense, sounding less like Wilco and more like Crowded House, which was just fine. It then took a while to find Capital Cruises, the take-off point for a riverboat ride starring, again, the Kelley Stoltz Band. Its been said before, these guys really know how to have fun. They duly warmed the cockles (it was bloody freezing) and we managed to drink the boat dry. By the end, all they had left was vodka and water. Staggering into nearby Threadgills, we briefly encountered Austin stalwart James McMurtry and friends.
Paul then inexplicably wanted to see Spandau Ballet (apparently they were great) so I nipped into the ever-intimate Cedar Street Courtyard for the Felice Brothers. They can occasionally be a bit flaky, but not today. They tore the place up. It’s easy to nip round the side and bag the front row, too. But now the infuriating side of sxsw kicked in. I wanted to see young UK singer Chloë Howl at Latitude. This rather unpleasant venue becomes the headquarters of British Music for the week, i.e. it is packed with UK music biz types (anyone ever read Kill Your Friends?). The bands think the Texans love them, but actually no Texans are there. Anyway, I’d heard a rumour that Chloë had failed to get a work permit but thought I’d risk it anyway. What a disaster. She was replaced by one of the most ghastly pretentious loads of tosh it has ever been my misfortune to experience. High As A Kite, they were called. Droning and warbling and groaning under the weight of their mountains of expensive equipment, their stodgy music made me almost lose the will to live. I was in a bad mood, I can tell you, and it soon got worse as I fought my way through the crowds of Sixth Street and headed for Stubbs, where St Vincent was similarly pompous and embarrassingly over the top. She used to be quite good, now she’s a poor person’s Lady Gaga. Oh well, better hang on for Damon Albarn. No chance. After forty minutes of watching roadies set up and check gear, I had to head off to the Flamingo Cantina where Angelo Moore was due to play (members of Chuck Prophet’s band were in there, so it could have been interesting). But they, too, were running very late. There were loads of people (too many) in the band, plus a bloody theramin (hate those things). As the clock ticked towards an hour after they were due to start, I gave up. That made over ninety minutes of listening to sound checks. It was a shit end to the first day.
You’d think I’d learn, but I never seem to. For months, I have been desperate to see London Grammar, since a friend of mine told me about them last Autumn. I was slightly put off them on learning that they are managed by Jazz Summers, whose terrible (obviously dictated) autobiography I had just finished, but still, Filter magazine organizes superb showcases at the Cedar Street Courtyard, a perfect place to see them, as they were one of this year’s buzz bands and playing much bigger venues. I’d gone through an advance rigmarole of RSVPing for this showcase and guess what? When I arrived, all the posters had been changed and London Grammar were nowhere to be seen. Sub-strokes Skaters, from New York, and nondescript waif-like songstress Nina Nesbitt were not adequate substitutes. If the Strypes don’t turn up, I’m catching the next plane home, I thought. Oh me of little faith. Those nippers blew the place apart, their music like a mash-up of the Who and Dr Feelgood. My heart melted and I was transported back to my teens. Music ain’t dead after all. They later proceeded to triumph at a series of bigger showcases and entrance the likes of David Fricke. Don’t mess up, guys.
Because I cover the festival for the Hampshire Chronicle, I need to find Hampshire bands. No problem there, as Southampton’s Band Of Skulls were kicking off a high-profile US tour and had promotional posters on every Austin lamppost. So off I trekked (a really major one this, probably a couple of miles) to Bar 96, where I’d again got onto the guest list for yet another Filter showcase. And bloody hell, yet again the posters had been changed and they weren’t there. It is so infuriating when you make such detailed plans, merely to be thwarted for what I can only assume must be business reasons. Still, I did get to see Deap Vally, two Courtney Love-style scantily-clad rock chicks with spelling issues.
Thank goodness Public Service Broadcasting actually did appear in their scheduled slot at Latitude. They are a lorra fun - my only worry is that there’s potential for them to be a one trick pony. If you see them a few times, the amusement wears off.
I really fancied the idea of seeing Gary Numan, so it was important to get to Brazos Hall (a new venue) early. Once again, this was a mistake, as the opening act (I don’t know their name and I don’t want to) was sub-operatic nonsense played at such ludicrous volume that people were literally running for the exits clutching their ears. I nearly had a fight with the sound engineer when I pointed out what was happening. He said I was too old to understand.
Luckily, Gary Numan was on top form, debuting strong new material (of course in the old style) and generally being a super-cool rock star. And after that, Blondie blasted out their greatest hits and some nice new songs too. Clem Burke is an absolutely incredible drummer. On the way home, we caught John Doe of X at the Continental, pretty much a Blondie contemporary, I guess. So that was what you might call a day of mixed fortunes.
One thing that’s always nice to do is head to the day stage at Waterloo Records. Its a fabulous shop and great bands play there. I found myself absolutely loving Turin Brakes, of whom I knew nothing. They managed to produce the guitar solo of the week, and there’s some pretty hot competition for that, I can tell you. Afterwards, Cate Le Bon charmed too, in quite a different way. But it was soon time to hit the annual Bloodshot Records party at the Yard Dog Gallery on South Congress. Ha Ha Tonka were just giving way to Lydia Loveless, who was excellent, like a punked-up Kathleen Edwards. It was a ridiculously crowded, wild and beer-soaked event, culminating in a soul/rock tour de force by Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, featuring a massive mosh pit and some failed crowd surfing (the bloke just fell flat on his back onto the concrete floor – ouch). Remember there was hardly a person there under fifty.
I planned to spend the entire evening at the Lou Reed tribute concert at the Paramount Theatre, but something wasn’t quite right about it. It was extremely well-meant but somehow it didn’t seem to be working. A really poor version of Perfect Day made the decision for us. Yes, one more attempt at seeing London Grammar, this time at Stubbs. And it worked. They are rather sweet, very English and natural, in a slightly Portisheady kind of way. Their longevity will depend on how much more material they can come up with.
Saturday was going to be real Austin, a country rock day and nothing was going to stop me. No more chasing buzz acts. No entering of lotteries to see Coldplay, Jay-Z or Lady Gaga. It was off to the outskirts for the real thing. And what a treat at the Broken Spoke. Singer-songwriter John Fullbright, performing to an attentive and packed front room, was my pick for the best solo performer of the week, with his beautiful songs and friendly wit. It’s so nice when someone can spring a surprise like that.
The back room at the Broken Spoke belongs to its regular clintèle of western swing dancers, and they aren’t about to let sxsw or Twangfest get in their way, determinedly dancing along to whatever gets thrown at them. Thus we witnessed local superstar Hayes Carll performing a gorgeously touching acoustic homage to his young son, called The Magic Boy - and yes, they danced along to it. Probably more to the dancers’ taste was new Loose signing Sturgill Simpson, a bit straight country for my personal taste, but with a hot band and really good.
I’m never going to miss Alejandro Escovedo’s annual Saturday party at Maria’s Taco Express, where the beer is cool, the salsa is hot and the margaritas are lethal. But even by his own standards, he excelled himself with this bill. The Mastersons (effectively Steve Earle’s backing band) have really tightened into a storming outfit with fine songs, while Garland Jefferies indulged his pleasure of marching into the crowd and barking into people’s faces. It’s more fun than it sounds. I absolutely adored the amazingly resilient BP Fallon, intoning poems rather than singing and backed by an amazing Austin electric duo called The Ghost Wolves. Things like this you do not experience every day, and it feels such a privilege.
Okay, I love Jesse Malin. He seems to have been a bit quiet lately but I think that’s about to change. Certainly, his electrifying set at Maria’s, complete with a hot band and a bunch of very affecting new songs, indicated that a major comeback is on the cards. You could almost touch the excitement (so much so that I actually went back for more of him and BP Fallon the next evening at the Continental, after sxsw was theoretically over).
And so to the journey home. A lovely, smooth and punctual flight. A seamless transfer to the National Express coach. Onto the 69 bus to Twyford and it broke down. Back to reality with a bump. Bed time.