The History Of Automatic Dlamini

The History Of Automatic Dlamini

When John Parish joined Winchester new wave band Thieves like Us in 1979, the group thought they were getting a drummer. The nineteen-year-old from Yeovil had answered an advert in the Melody Maker and travelled up to St John’s Rooms in Winchester to audition. They had no idea that before long it would spell the end of the band, because John’s creative input and determination would immediately become so influential and upset the internal balance. Within weeks he was contributing his own songs and suggesting changes to the arrangements of existing ones, and it was already clear that this was going to be beginning of a long and productive career.

In 1981, after the record deal they signed turned out to have little value, the band split and John returned to Somerset with new, different ideas in mind. Browsing in WH Smiths in Yeovil, he was recognised and approached by drummer Rob Ellis, who worked behind the counter. Ellis had been impressed by the fact that John was one of a small handful of people from Yeovil to have appeared on a record (TLU’s Mind Made in 1980). The two became friends and formed a band called The Headless Horsemen. Initially, it was a six piece, including Mark Vernon on keys. Vernon later became PJ Harvey’s short-lived first manager, but the Headless Horsemen quickly settled into a format featuring Parish on vocals and guitar, Ellis on drums and Dave Dallimore on bass.

The trio gigged extensively in the Somerset and Dorset area and made a fine demo tape, three songs from which were featured on a South Of England compilation called Burnt Offerings. Standout tracks were a fairly straight version of the Beatles’ Drive My Car and an extraordinary slow song called Hopeless, whose sparse instrumentation and deep-thinking lyrics pointed to a way forward. The band’s only vinyl appearance was on the now-legendary 4-track Sheep Worrying EP (on a local label), which featured their song A Glimpse Of Heaven. Parish’s outfit of choice on stage in Headless Horsemen times was a bright red Spiderman jumper. He was an avid collector of Marvel comics. Also during this period, and for several years after, Parish was known by his nickname Scott Tracey, because of an alleged resemblance to the Thunderbirds character. Ellis, meanwhile, was known simply as Rabid. These names persisted well into Automatic Dlamini days, being used in official press releases, interviews etc.

In 1982, Parish wrote a song called Whose Business Is It Anyway?, in which he abandoned his guitar and instead, played drums and percussion along with Rob Ellis, and the two of them sang in harmony all the way through. The sound was very unusual and the song got an immediate reaction when played live (in venues such as Salisbury’s Cathedral Hotel). That song marked the genesis of the Automatic Dlamini sound and coincided with Dave Dallimore leaving the band to go travelling. Rather than continue as they had been, Ellis and Parish decided to start a new band with a whole new set of music that was based entirely round the sound of double drums and percussion, plus bass and vocals.

Initially just Parish and Ellis started work on the project as a duo.  Rob Ellis recalls, “There were a good few months after the end of Headless Horseman when John and I functioned basically as a recording-only two piece, and made a home 4-track cassette set of three or four songs, not limited by having to be performable live. We were very much inspired by our both loving The Dreaming by Kate Bush and the percussive and vocal and experimental abstract sound of that (which was a big factor in establishing the sound of Dlamini as it became). We actually sent the tape to Ms Bush at the time and received a lovely complimentary letter back from her!”

Their search for a bassist came up with Jamie Anderson (who’d been a guitar pupil of John’s) just in time for their debut performance, at the TDK Battle Of The Bands contest in Plymouth. Encouraged by the reaction (all the other contestants, apart from the winners obviously, opined that Dlamini should have won), the trio holed up in a rented cottage outside Crewkerne to “get it together” in the time-honoured tradition. Eventually, they had created enough material for a full set.

It was by no means a casual project, and it involved a great deal of hard work. John Parish’s reputation of determination and perfectionism was a deserved one. Jamie Anderson (who is now an estate agent in France but still plays music) remembers: “The idea was quite clever. John believed that a lot of people would not like either the sound or the look of the band, as it would be perceived as being too different at the time. If, on the other hand, we played everything perfectly every time, and the band was supremely tight, then people would feel comfortable with that and listen to what was being offered, and look at what was going on. We adopted that theory and found that, just by rehearsing to the level where we couldn’t get it wrong, we could carry an audience with us, that might otherwise have been hostile towards the band.”

When ruminating on what to call the band, Parish remembered a story which gave him an idea. “At the time, a friend of mine was working as a soil scientist in Swaziland, where Dlamini is a very common surname. Some of my friend’s co-workers had unusual first names, Automatic being one of them. He had a brother called Torquewrench. We just liked the sound of it.” 

The band looked and sounded unlike anything else around at the time, which enabled them to establish a strong local reputation. Parish/Tracey was stage front, leering rather frighteningly as he walloped his collection of ‘found’ percussion instruments, which included a Castrol can and a plough share, emphasising their bucolic environment. The bass was the only melodic instrument and innovative use of head microphones gave them freedom of movement on stage. Meanwhile, the harmonies were other-worldly and the stage outfits ever-more eye-catching (varying from track suit bottoms held up with braces over T-shirts to brightly coloured one-piece boiler suits). In this format, they gigged at venues such as the Antelope Hotel in Sherborne, before a major break in the form of an appearance on the Bristol TV arts show RPM. 

In 1983, Rob Ellis discovered the Wall Of Voodoo album Call Of The West and both he and Parish became obsessed with it. A friend of theirs knew Richard Mazda, the album’s producer, and offered to send him an Automatic Dlamini demo. A couple of months later, Mazda called Parish up out of the blue, said he loved the Automatic Dlamini stuff and offered to cut some demos with them at IRS studios in London, which he could blag for free, as he was associated with Miles Copeland at the time. Sadly, the masters of these recordings have been lost. “It’s a shame”, says Parish, “because I think these were some of the best recordings the original three-piece ever made. Those couple of days in the studio with Richard were also foundational for me as a producer and informed my understanding of what a producer could bring to a session”.

Over the next few years, the band continued playing shows, building a cult following around the south west, but never achieved a breakthrough. Recordings were issued sporadically. A song called I Don’t Want To Hurt My Father was included on a local compilation vinyl LP called Class Of ’83, which was memorably launched at a riotous party in Milborne Port. Their most prominent release was a four track 12” EP (The Crazy Supper EP), which was self-produced apart from Me And Judy, produced by Richard Mazda. They followed this up with a 7” single, I Don’t Know You But, again on their own DforDrum Records.

It was at this stage that the band flirted with the mainstream music industry. Jamie Anderson takes up the story: “After a gig in Taunton, we were introduced to Carlin Music by a management team that wanted to produce us. One session with them proved that we wouldn’t see eye to eye with them, but we had the deal. They gave us a creative manager called Kip Trevor, who was great fun and enthusiastic, but who wanted us to sound like Adam and the Ants. However, he agreed to sessions at Bram Tchaikovsky’s studio in Lincolnshire and sessions at Crescent, where we recorded the Crazy Supper EP. Kip used to try and visit during the sessions, much to John’s horror, so I got press-ganged into taking him to the pub. But it was the Carlin deal that enabled us to do the Crazy Supper and I Don’t Know You But… EPs.”

By 1986, band leader Parish was growing tired of the three piece drums/percussion/bass sound and wanted to introduce another instrument. Giles Smith, who was later to become a sports journalist and author of Lost In Music, joined on guitar and percussion and the first four-piece Dlamini show was at Yeovil College in December 1986. The line-up then went into a state of flux with Andy Henderson (later of Echobelly) replacing Rob Ellis, who went on sabbatical for six months. Jamie Anderson was replaced on bass by Ian “Olly” Olliver, a Yeovil musician who later went on to a career in the police force.

In April 1987, after years in fairly sordid and invariably freezing rented farm cottages, Parish, Ellis & Olliver all relocated to Bristol. A couple of months later, Giles Smith left the band and was replaced by Jeremy Hogg on guitar/slide guitar, whom Parish had met through Maria Mochnacz. Hogg was to become a long-term collaborator with Parish and indeed is still in the John Parish band today. Rob Ellis rejoined the band at the same time and the new four-piece line-up remained in place for the next year, issuing a 7” single called I Don’t Know You But …

With the help of Carlin Music, the band graduated to the Idea record label in 1987, issuing Me And My Conscience on 7” and 12“, followed the same year by the album The D Is For Drum, which collected together all the single/EP releases, plus four previously unreleased tracks. This was a vinyl-only album, self-produced apart from one song, Your Idea Of Heaven, produced by Richard Mazda.  The D Is For Drum was a high point for the band, being licensed to labels in Germany and Spain, and being renowned for the sprayed graffiti of the front cover, which will always be the emblem of Automatic Dlamini. The sleeve, designed by Rob Ellis and photographed by Maria Mochnacz, featured the now four-piece band cavorting in front of Bristol’s old prison gates on Cumberland Road. The painted album title was prominently visible on the gates for years to come.

By 1988, Rob Ellis had become unhappy with the guitar-led version of the band and decided to leave. Andy Henderson again returned to replace him and at the same time, the band was augmented by an 18-year old singer and saxophonist called Polly Harvey. She had been turning up at Dlamini shows in Dorset and presenting the band with cassettes of her songs. This represented a stylistic turning point. The first show of this short-lived line-up was in the summer of 1988 at the Moon Club in Bristol. After only a couple more shows, however, Olliver and Henderson left the band to pursue other interests, leaving Parish, Jeremy Hogg and Polly Harvey to form the core of Automatic Dlamini Mark 2 (1988-1991).

Dlamini had been invited to play in Warsaw and Berlin (where a German label had licensed the first album) in October 1988. As the shows took place behind the Iron Curtain, it wasn’t possible to take money out of Poland, so they decided to spend the fee on a recording session in Warsaw, where they recorded three songs, including Giraffe in Warsawa. This was an iconic song which arguably encapsulated the archetypal Dlamini sound, with strong vocals (Parish singing lead but Harvey beginning to make her presence felt in the background), loping, fragmented percussion and bizarre lyrics. It ended up on the unreleased Here Catch… album. On the Poland trip, they were joined by Jerome Ball from Parish’s old school band Godot (keys/drum programming/vocals).

After a series of auditions in early 1989, they finally settled on a new rhythm section consisting of Ben Groenevelt on bass and Japanese percussionist Ichiro Tatsuhara on drums. This line-up was arguably the strongest and certainly the most memorable of Automatic Dlamini’s career. They played frequently in1989, including a three-week tour of East and West Germany and a two-week tour of Spain, as well as many UK club dates, but, returning from a Spanish tour, they found themselves stopped by immigration. Drummer Tatsuhara, not having a valid visa, was immediately deported to France. It took several months for him to get the necessary papers to get back into the UK, and meanwhile, Dlamini had gone into Chris Baylis’s VM Studios in Oxford to record the second album, Here Catch Shouted His Father. Alan Hodgson from Oxford drummed on the first sessions, but Tatsuhara was back in time to drum on the later tracks.

The album was finished by early 1990, but they failed to find a label to put it out, so the band began to lose momentum. This seems an extraordinary state of affairs, when you consider the huge worldwide success to which the core of the band was to go on. It also makes little sense when you listen to the album, which is a thrilling combination of innovative songwriting and imaginative playing, but it’s a familiar tale in the music industry. Few people have heard the record other than in bootleg form.

For several years, John Parish had been developing his parallel career as a record producer, working with west country bands like The Brilliant Corners and The Chesterfields. Again though the Richard Mazda connection, he had become friends with Wall Of Voodoo, playing percussion on the Seven Days In Sammystown album. In early 1991, he joined Wall of Voodoo guitar player Marc Moreland’s new band The Ensenada Joyride, while Polly Harvey started putting together her own band with ex-Dlamini members Rob Ellis and Ian Olliver. This (with Steve Vaughan replacing Olly during its recording) was to become the original PJ Harvey trio which was to record Dry, and later Rid Of Me. For a while, the two bands existed alongside each other, as an extraordinary situation developed regarding record releases. The last show of Automatic Dlamini Mark 2 was on June 7 1991 in Stokes Croft, Bristol, but this wasn’t quite the end of the story.

In July 1991, Parish, Jeremy Hogg and Polly Harvey recorded three tracks at Press House Studio, with Mark Tucker engineering, for a radio session. All three songs ended up on the final Automatic Dlamini album, From a Diva to a Diver. The rest of that album was recorded in Yeovil in the latter part of 1991 by Parish and Hogg, with contributions from Harvey, Andy Henderson and Ian Olliver. The album was engineered by Martin (Bastie) Beresford, except for the three radio session songs by Mark Tucker. Meanwhile, other things were happening. Parish took a job as a lecturer at Yeovil College on a new Performing Arts BTEC course, and his classes were taught at the Ice House, which was the new studio opened by Dick Bullivant in Yeovil. Affectionately known as Head, he was and remains a vital part of the PJ Harvey camp, being in charge of her live sound to this day.

The previous album having failed to attain a release at all, Parish was determined this wouldn’t happen again, and went about finding innovative ways of getting it out to the public. His wife Michelle Henning came up with a stunning sleeve design. An old friend of Parish was running a publishing business for schools, so had access to CD duplicating facilities and was able to finance the manufacture. As for the parallel vinyl release, that was taken on by a local label based in Street, Somerset, run by Jon Mates and called Big Internation. Thus it was that From A Diva To A Diver was released on the Revilo/Big Internation labels in September 1992. It was a happy affair, because stocks sold out quickly, leading to re-pressings and no one being out of pocket. It was fitting that Automatic Dlamini should leave a final recorded legacy and it’s a product that everyone involved views with satisfaction.

A final version of the band toured to promote the record, doing several shows at venues such as The Gardens In Yeovil and the Bristol Bierkeller, supporting the PJ Harvey trio. PJH mania had already broken out and many in the audiences probably had no idea of the history of everyone involved. The shows were emotional affairs as Parish, Olliver and Ellis again shared the stage – but not necessarily in the same band! This five-piece Dlamini consisted of Parish, Jeremy Hogg and Elisa Young with Olly back on bass because, by now, he’d been replaced in PJ Harvey by Steven Vaughan. On drums was James Powell, Georgie Fame’s son, replacing Andy Henderson.

The remaining final dates weren’t a triumphant swansong. The last show was in late 1992 at the Louisiana in Bristol, but prior to that was a gig at the Kennington Cricketers in London, where there was a total of one paying customer. But far from being a sad end, it once again signalled a new beginning, and this time on an incomparably bigger scale. Parish started to write more abstract instrumental music, initially for college theatre productions, and that led to the Dance Hall at Louse Point collaboration between him and Polly Harvey in 1996. Since then, with a few ups and downs in between, they have been pretty much inseparable musical partners, producing seven PJ Harvey albums together and touring the world. Parish’s production career has gone from strength to strength, with albums for the likes of Eels, Tracy Chapman, Aldous Harding and many, many others. Plus he still has his own band with a new album in current production. Meanwhile, Rob Ellis, too, has gone from being PJ Harvey’s long-term drummer to carving out a distinguished production career in his own right, working with Anna Calvi, Marianne Faithfull and Placebo.

Asked what he had gained from his youthful days in Automatic Dlamini, Ellis gives a revealing answer: “I learned how to play drums loudly and as a feature in a band and actually hone my ability to play the drums and sing at the same time, which came in pretty useful later on in the PJ Harvey days. One thing I remember fondly is very early on, maybe at our first ever gig, we played at a party in someone’s garden and we did a cover of Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby with just drums, percussion, vocals and bass, with me and John doing the duet exchange. That was an amusing and inventive twist on the original version.”

The one remaining mystery is the Album That Got Away. The much-bootlegged Here Catch Shouted His Father has never received an official release (Cherry Red expressed interest but nothing came of it). When quizzed about this, Parish replies in typical fashion: “There are several reasons. I have so much stuff going on now that I’m really interested in, that I find it hard to commit any energy to something that for me is the distant past. Also, there are so many different people involved at different levels in the various Dlamini recordings – many of whom I lost touch with years ago – and trying to figure out the mechanics seems like way to much effort for something that feels done to me. Plus, any interest that a Dlamini compilation would spark now would be mainly because of Polly’s involvement – and I don’t think that’s fair on Polly, or me really!”

Always looking to the future and seldom backtracking – that’s John Parish in a nutshell.

Automatic Dlamini discography

Class Of ’83 – one song, I Don’t Want To Hurt My Father on compilation album, Rapp Records 1983

The Crazy Supper EP – DforDrum records 1986. 4 song 12” EP. 3 songs self produced, 1 song (Me and Judy) produced by Richard Mazda

I Don’t Know You But… B/W I’ve never been that colour anywhere before – DforDrum records 1987.  7” single  

Me And My Conscience B/W Me and My Conscience (family edition) 7” and 12” single – Idea Records 1987  (12” single also has two mixes of Love Smarts.)

The D Is For Drum – Idea Records 1987         (licensed to Ear-rution in Germany 1988, and Fly in Spain in 1989. Vinyl only album. Self produced except for two songs Your Idea Of Heaven and Black & White, produced by Richard Mazda

Johnny Pineapple B/W Whose Business Is It Anyway? Both produced by Richard Mazda – Unreleased 12” single – due to be released on Roustabout records in 1988, but distribution fell through at last moment.

Here Catch Shouted His Father – Unreleased (but much bootlegged) second album from 1990

From A Diva To A Diver – CD/Vinyl album. Big Internation/Revilo Records 1992

BoysGirlsMenWomen – flexidisc single. Big Internation 1992

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Chuck Prophet And The Mission Express

I know plenty of people who claim that Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express are the best live band in the world, and it’s something I’d find it hard to argue with. There are certain bands that you can see again and again and never grow tired of, and the Mission Express certainly fit that description. I’ve seen them more than thirty times, often doing very similar sets, yet the excitement never wanes. The current line-up features, from left to right, Stephanie Finch on keyboards, James DePrato on guitar (depending on the stage configuration, he might either be to the right or left of the front man). At the back is drummer Vicente Rodriguez and next to him, always at the rear of the stage, never the front, is bassist Kevin T. White. Front and centre will always be Chuck Prophet but he will always be in a line with the others, never projected forward as the traditional front man. To his audiences, he will always be the supreme entertainer. When I first came across the Mission Express, it was a different line-up. On rhythm guitar was the affable Tom Heyman, the drummer was Todd Roper from the band Cake, but the other three were in place. A Mission Express without Kevin T. White is simply unthinkable, his bass playing being the anchor which holds together the music. A beatific smile permanently on his features and a signature pork pie hat forever on his head, Kevin is the bedrock of the Mission Express, the kind of person you trust with your life. He lives outside San Francisco with his delightful wife Lisa and plays with countless other bands. When the Mission Express is off the road, he’s in permanent demand. Vicente is the drummer who succeeded a series of previous incumbents, who in recent years have included Kyle Caprista and Paul Taylor. Vicente has survived numerous world tours and now is as much of a Mission Express institution as Kevin and second guitarist James de Prato. James is a model of professionalism and his massive stage presence has helped develop some of the Mission Express’s finest songs into irresistible Thin Lizzy-style twin lead workouts. Stephanie Finch is often referred to as the power behind the music. She tends to have her keyboard positioned at right angles to stage front, which enables her to keep an eye on what is going on and crucially, to be ready at any moment to interact with her husband’s stage activities. She tends to look quite serious and inscrutable but she’ll suddenly burst into the most glorious smile when something particularly musically infectious occurs. I’ve never encountered a greater front person than Chuck Prophet. I knew I was going to like him just on the basis of his name, which encapsulates the coolness which he naturally possesses. How can we describe him? With the excellent hair that all rock stars require, a seemingly casual yet perfect wardrobe sense, a unique and expansive sense of humour plus, of course, towering guitar playing ability, he holds the eye of the audience riveted throughout any set. You wouldn’t say he has a brilliant voice in a conventional rock sense, yet he sings in a way that could never be mistaken for anybody else. A typical Mission Express set will be close on two hours and will normally feature about 50 percent new songs from whatever album the band is touring at the time. They tend to release an album every two years and tour around the world twice for each release. The remaining songs will be Prophet classics, selected according to his mood. The only two that are more or less guaranteed to be played are Summertime Thing and You Did, both featuring the guitar pyrotechnics for which Chuck is renowned and revered. How to describe them? Well, they’re made from his trademark slightly battered Telecaster and the soloing seemingly owes no debts to any guitar style that has gone before, no blues clichés, no twiddly-diddly rock showing off, just the perfect spattering of notes in a way that beguiles the audience and hits the soul in a deeply satisfying way. Sure, he sweats, jerks and grimaces like all good lead guitarists should, but not in a way that is in any way derivative or inviting comparison with anyone else. Unlike many in his position, fronting a band that plays his own compositions, Chuck is funny. Some in the audience are there to connect with his stories and pronouncements almost as much as for the music. No two nights will ever be the same, but certain institutions can never be omitted, such as the warning before You Did that anyone with a weak heart condition should leave the room before the song commences. My favourite Chuck show-opening gambit was from the Temple Beautiful tour, where he would leap on stage, cast his eye around whatever inevitably seedy venue they were performing in, and pronounce, “It’s great to be back in (insert the venue name). If these walls could speak they’d say … ‘Clean me, it’s f****** dirty in here’”.
Our shows with Chuck Prophet however have never been entirely straightforward. The first time we put him on at the Railway, the show was marred by the presence of a complete maniac in the audience. We had over-filled the venue and this guy was pressed right against the low stage at the front, straight in front of Chuck. I remember him being a small bloke, dressed incongruously in a black suit. He decided to spend the entire evening heckling, not necessarily in a nasty way but shouting incomprehensible stuff into Chuck’s face throughout the set. Not being used to such behaviour, we had no security in place and I had to dispatch my brave wife to lure this guy away from the front and get him out of the room, whereupon the landlord ejected him into the car park.
Another day I remember with mixed feelings was a “double show”, during which the Mission Express played two shows in one day at the same venue. A friend told me that some close friends of his were getting married that day and that their greatest wish would be to bring all their guests to the afternoon show. It sounded like a great idea, but what I hadn’t realised was that a lot of drinking had already gone on before they arrived. Some of the guests were quite rowdy, but Chuck coped with it all in true professional style, inviting the happy couple on stage to waltz through a rendition of “Then He Kissed Me”. Truth to tell, the bride was paralytic, and before long, she was annoying members of the audience, and one in particular who confronted her. I feared a wedding brawl was about to break out, but Birgit, peacemaker supreme, managed to defuse it. The audience member demanded a refund, which I granted with painful reluctance.
I don’t know what it is with Chuck, but when we put him on in a venue in Southampton, something awful happened. After the show, his priceless notebook containing lyrics, notes, set lists and other vital material was stolen from the stage. It absolutely ruined an otherwise happy evening and Chuck, of course, was devastated. I was certain that it would never be returned but amazingly, two weeks layer, someone slipped into the venue and left it on the bar in a plain package. The relief was overwhelming. I guess the person who took it had a conscience after all or maybe had just been drunk and realised what a stupid and cruel thing it had been to do.
It was at yet another Chuck show, this time in the Talking Heads in Southampton, that we nearly had our first murder. The support act was Bob Frank and John Murry, performing, appropriately, a set of murder ballads. Chuck had a particularly stern tour manager, who decided that Bob and John were over-running. Tactlessly, he simply pulled the plug on them, even though they were going down a storm. Within moments, John Murry had the roadie up against the wall with his hands round his throat. Of course he was pulled off but what were we to make of it? Well, uncharacteristically, I sided with John. He’d been unprofessionally treated and was also (though I didn’t know it at the time) in the throes of a terrible heroin addiction. Now that John is my friend, a friendly, peaceful, unaddicted and fiercely intelligent artist, we laugh about it, but it was hairy for a moment!
The reason for this series of shows in Southampton was an attempt to increase the size of the audience. The Railway was filled to capacity but every time we did a show in Southampton in a bigger venue, the numbers stubbornly refused to go up. That’s why we eventually ended up doing the two shows in one day at the Railway. The final Southampton show was the one I remember with least pleasure. In the dressing room, the band was accompanied by a hanger-on who was taking photographs. In contrast to the charming band members, this person behaved in a demanding manner, ordering a bottle of red wine on my tab without asking me and complaining bitterly when they ran out of milk for tea, claiming I had not provided enough. That might have been true but there was a small convenience store just a few paces away and it might have been simpler just to go and buy a bottle of milk rather than kicking up a fuss. Then, unbelievably, there was yet another maniac in the audience, this time a young guy who was over-enthusiastically dancing around and knocking into people. One of my regulars came up to me in an absolute rage demanding that I do something about it or he would sort it out himself. From the look in his eye, I assumed a brawl would be in the offing, but in the nick of time, the ever-professional Chuck engaged the troublemaker in conversation and ended up actually handing over his acoustic guitar for the guy to strum a few chords on it mid-set. As audience interaction goes, that was a hard one to beat.
Normally the band stay at our house but Chuck and Stephanie prefer hotel accommodation, fully understandable and very sensible. Not even that has always been straightforward, though. On the occasion when Stephanie Finch and the Company Men played at the Railway, we emerged after a beautiful musical evening to find that it had been snowing outside during the performance. Chuck and Stephanie’s hotel was the Travelodge in Eastleigh, to where Birgit managed to transport them, just before the blanket of snow would have made it impossible. In the morning I drove over to collect them for breakfast, my small car slipping and sliding all over the road and threatening to crash into trees. I’m not sure how we made it. The result was an extended stay and a cancelled show the next day, as road conditions were so poor that it would have been dangerous to travel.
Normally we would put the couple up in a nearby B and B in the village, a typical chintzy establishment, no doubt with nylon sheets and comprehensive rules and regulations. Anything less American would be hard to imagine, especially the rule that breakfast had to be completed by 9 a.m. This was quite unreasonable for people who had been energetically performing music till late the previous evening, but the stern landlady remained steadfast. She had met her match in Chuck Prophet however, who treated her to his opinions in uncensored language, vowing never to darken her door again. She, in turn, contacted me, assuring me that she would never again put up any rude Americans. In the end I took her some flowers and we called a truce.
I thought I would make up for this by putting the couple in a really nice hotel when they came as a duo to play at my 70th birthday party. Surely nothing could go wrong this time, but it did. Having spent two hours doing a comprehensive soundcheck, just before they went on stage somebody tripped over the lead to the mixing desk and all the settings were lost. To say that they were upset would be an understatement, but as professionals they were of course quite right to be peeved and the show went on with nobody in the audience realising the drama.
When the Mission Express toured with Willy Vlautin as support, they discovered in the morning that their van had developed a serious fault which would make it dangerous to attempt to drive up the motorway to their next gig. This meant that I spent the day with Willy Vlautin, wandering round the environs of an auto repair shop in Fareham, cementing a friendship that has lasted for many years. That was a good result. It also meant that yet again, the next day’s gig was unavoidably cancelled.
We thought we’d be hosting Chuck and band again later this year, but would never have dreamed that he’d fall ill and have to cancel all his dates until recovery. But his doctor said it would be fine for him to play a few shows in Austin while I was there in March with my friend Paul. We decided to take the opportunity to follow the band around for a day – this wasn’t creepy, by the way, just an opportunity to catch some great music. Few artists inspire admiration and loyalty like Chuck, and the air was filled with emotion, a mixture of joy and sympathy. The afternoon show was at Lucy’s Fried Chicken on South Congress. The band members were beaming with nervous happiness and Chuck himself, despite a hint of frailty, was exploding with his usual energy and good humour. During “Wish Me Luck”, tears were flowing round the room but one thing I knew for sure: Chuck would treat his recovery with the same determination as this performance and would be back.
Now things became even more surreal as we scootered to a house concert held in the garden of a multi-millionaire businessman, whose house was named The Castle. Indeed it was a castle, with a full stage in the garden. It felt like a scene out of some Netflix movie, as servants flitted discreetly around, firepits crackled beneath the uplit palm trees and, most worryingly, mysterious men in black suits sat in sinister groups, speaking an unidentified language. This was a rare outing for the Mission Express cabaret set (no You Did, but a sublime Summertime Thing), which was performed with good humour to an audience of largely disinterested non-music lovers. What an extraordinary experience.
Their third show of the evening was held down the road at C-Boys. The doorman tried to extract 25 bucks from us, so we went to Saj, the Pakistani owner of the adjacent food truck, who simply opened the side gate and let us in, in exchange for us purchasing some of his excellent falafels. On the minuscule stage, Chuck and the Mission Express, seemingly indefatigible, laid waste to a wild audience, climaxing with a mind-boggling version of “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat” featuring Charlie Sexton on third guitar. Seldom has any musical experience ever felt so intense.
Photo: Paul Dominy

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They’’re coming your way, so you’’d better get ready. I’’m talking about a new band from Southampton, UK called the Delays. Melodic pop-rock from a band with perfect hairstyles is always in with a chance of crossing over, and the Delays have a better chance than most. But what is most shocking about them is that they cite their main musical influence as the Hollies.
It’’s fair enough. Like the Hollies did when they started out (and much like recent Amplifier cover stars the Cooper Temple Clause), the Delays pay massive attention to their hair and how it looks. Most importantly, though, they specialise in harmonies and high-pitched lead vocals from singer Greg Gilbert. Not Muse-style falsetto, but a Graham Nash high harmony. They sound lovely.
The Hollies are out on a fortieth anniversary tour right now. It takes them all over the world, including the US where, lest we forget, they once enjoyed a number one chart hit with “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”. Graham Nash, no longer with them but stull on great terms, has a travelling exhibition of his brilliant black and white photos doing the rounds, very well worth a visit if you get a chance. Nash and his various projects have always been considered cool, but the Hollies never achieved this cachet. If it’’s okay for the Thrills to be proud of sounding like the Beach Boys, then well done to the Delays for rehabilitating the Hollies. And congratulations to Amplifier for never having been afraid to include the Hollies in their musical orbit.
Well, the other day, I got to meet one of my childhood heroes, namely Bobby Elliott, the Hollies’ drummer. Bobby it was who was indirectly responsible for my receiving a beating from my Latin teacher, who cought me thwacking out the drum part to “Stay” with my fingers on the school desk. Bobby had heard about this injustice and wanted to make it up to me. It was amazing how many of my friends were insanley jealous, I guess because Bobby is quietly acknowledged as one of the great rock drummers, certainly head and shoulders above most Sixties’ tub-thumpers. But what they all wanted to know above all was “Is he really bald?”
Listen, of course Bobby Elliott is bald. He was bald from the very beginning, which was always a problem for Hollies photo sessions. Currently, he sports a baseball cap, but previous attempts at disguise have included a straw hat, a fedora and, during the seventies, a very obvious blonde wig. Nowadays, with image at a premium, it would present an even bigger problem, Could you see the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand or the Delays with a bald member? I don’’t think so.
The Hollies put on a tremendous show, featuring brain-scrambling psychedelic back-projections, a slight anomaly from this most undruggy of bands. The music is intact but nowadays increasingly incongruous. Last year, singer Allan Clarke retired to nurse his ill wife (retirement from a band being another previously unknown concept) and was replaced by Carl Wayne from The Move. Despite his excruciating cabaret patter, he does provide the opportunity for a selection of Move songs, reminding us what a fine band they were. Unfortunately, the bassist from Mud is also present, and we don’’t really need a selection from them as well.
With the obvious exception of Bobby, hairstyles, playing skills and above all, the harmonies, are reassuringly intact. Not many of us will be around to see it, but here’’s hoping the Delays will make it to their 40th anniversary tour. And that none of them will be bald.

From Amplifer magazine

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SXSW 2018

Here’s the full blow-by-blow. I only do it because my memory is going and I want to be able to look back in years to come.
Paul (photographer in chief), picked me up from Austin Bergstrom airport after the flight landed 30 minutes early and I’d been standing in the stifling heat in my UK winter gear. As usual, the airport was packed with cool-looking people unloading enormous flight cases filled with instruments and gear.
The music festival has been starting earlier each year and now they even list Tuesday in the official booklet, despite the dates actually being Wednesday to Saturday. I picked up my badge from the Convention Center, where it was noticeable that the traditional queues were completely absent. The general “quieter than usual” feel continued throughout the festival. What has happened is that the big names have almost completely disappeared (the biggest stars were Keith Urban and a secret show by ZZ Top). The result is a return to the original ethos of sxsw as a showcase for new talent.
We tried to find a parking space to start checking out the music early but failed, opting instead to pay a first visit to legendary Tex-Mex joint Gueros before having an early night. Planning sxsw in detail is essential and I’d done my homework in advance, ready to leap straight in. Remember that, although the official programme only starts at 8 pm daily, shows actually happen at hundreds of venues across town all day. All bands play multiple shows (I spotted one that played twelve but that is probably by no means a record). You see them pitch up in their vans, lug all their own gear on stage, set everything up, do a cursory sound check, play an energetic set and instantly have to vacate the stage with all their gear as the next band is already setting up. It’s an object lesson in professionalism.
We aimed to start at around 1pm each day, which left time for breakfast in Star Seeds Café. This was normally the only meal of the day, further nutrition being taken in the form of beers and margaritas.
Wednesday was largely spent at South By San Jose, an always reliable line-up in the sweltering car park of the Hotel San Jose on South Congress. An early highlight was Josh T Pearson, about whom I’d read a huge article in Uncut on the way over. Josh was on rollicking form with his new crowd-pleasing image. Despite his popularity in Europe, he’s almost unknown in his home town, with the audience at Hotel San Jose being sparse. I’d last seen him at the Mean Eyed Cat in 2011, when he was in his “meaningful bearded singer-songwriter” phase. The contrast could hardly be greater, as he is totally transformed into a smart, sophisticated white-jacketed all-round entertainer, introducing his “straight hits”. It was great fun and he finished off with a cover of a Neil Halstead song, before complimenting me on my John Murry t-shirt. If you look into their respective life stories, it’s no surprise that these two should like each other.
Straight after Josh came Jesse Dayton. Despite having the aura of a Texas road warrior, Jesse is in fact a sensitive, deep thinking individual as well as a spectacular guitar player with an unimpeachable band. Josh T Pearson was soon two-stepping to Jesse’s music with a very stylish lady. Soon, a circle formed round the golden couple to cheer them on. It was an utterly charming scene.
Next door, Gueros’ garden was overflowing with adoring fans awaiting the arrival of UK troubadour Frank Turner. I’m on record as not being a fan of his “shouty-strummy-preachy” style, but you’ve got to hand it to him. Everyone in the rammed venue knew all the lyrics and sang along enthusiastically, even when he was exhorting them to “Make America Great Again”. He had another eight shows to go, so disappeared quickly afterwards.
Antone’s is a much more intimate venue since its move, but an improved one too, with good sound and sightlines. I was excited because Joshua Hedley, a man who has played in my garden, has been signed to Jack White’s Third Man label and was showcasing here. It was a trifle embarrassing because it was so “straight country” that Paul hated it. Myself, I was in awe of the incredible collection of Nashville musos (in uniforms) that Joshua had brought with him, and loved the smooth professionalism of it all.
I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that my free tickets are dependant upon doing a number of reviews for different publications – fair enough. But it does mean that I have to check out Hampshire artists, of whom there were several. So off I went to the relaxing confines of the Central Presbyterian Church for Portsmouth singer Jerry Williams, who’d crowdfunded her trip. It’s probably rude to say that I can’t remember any of her songs, but it’s also true. Next up was Winchester’s Flyte, the brother of one of whose members went to school with my daughter (hope you’re following this). They feature CSNY style harmonies and are normally an electric band, but on this occasion they went acoustic with a grand piano and it all sounded impressively ecclesiastical.
Having loved Low Cut Connie at last year’s festival and then at the Borderline in London, it was vital to go and see them at least once. This was a show in the bedlam of 6th Street at a long-established venue called The Parish. The sound was too loud, the lights too flashy and somehow the vibe wasn’t quite right, but nevertheless we were knocked out by a crazy band from Oklahoma called Broncho. More of both these two later. Bed was at 2.30 am.
Thursday started with a visit to the Day Stage in the Convention Centre, a pleasing oasis of calm and comfort. Not many people seem to actually find it, which is surprising in view of the fact that the sound and the sightlines are the best of any sxsw venues. Considering that Courtney Marie Andrews is a very fast-rising star, the number of people there was tiny. The environment suited her, though, and she performed a short but effective set. Some reviews have pointed out that there’s little variation in her strong-lunged approach to each song, and it’s true but it’s fine by me. Still miss Caitlin Rose, though – anyone know what she’s up to?
One of the best places for music at sxsw is the Day Stage at the legendary Waterloo Records, and that’s where the afternoon was spent. A Place To Bury Strangers made the most wonderful racket and finished their set by playing with something like an air hostess’s trolley out in the middle of the crowd – very exciting stuff. Apparently, on other occasions, they start out in the audience before heading to the stage later. Then came the most unlikely ever signing to the country-focused New West label, a feisty pop band led by Caroline Rose. Dressed in sports gear and medical scrubs, they entertained the crowd cheerfully. The Weather Station, who played numerous shows over the weekend, were less memorable, but not as dire as the turgidly dated (although very popular) sub-Coldplay anthems of Dashboard Confessional. Ugh. Time for some much-needed healthy food at the adjacent branch of Whole Foods.
A long walk back downtown took me to an Irish showcase in the tiny Velveeta Room on Sixth Street. Here is a good point to mention something that has been increasingly clear in recent years, namely a sort of involuntary segregation that has been developing. Sixth Street has become the hub for urban and rap music, while the traditional venues featuring more white music have largely dispersed themselves along Rainey Street and East Fourth Street, both endowed with scores of bars with music facilities.
The Irish showcase was extremely enjoyable and a good advert for tolerance, taste and good behaviour in a music venue. First up was a spiky punk trio from Derry with Undertones undertones, called Touts. I could have been their grandfather, and would have been proud to be. One of their songs was called “Go Fuck Yourself”. Next up was the acoustic harmony duo The Lost Brothers. I was fearful they’d die a death but no, the audience listened respectfully and appreciatively to their music. Finally, The Strypes generally laid waste to the place with their attitude-laden Feelgood-ish chunky, melodic two-minuters. They’ve invested in some great threads and look perfect. I was convinced when I first saw them here four years ago that they’d be huge, but they aren’t. Maybe it’s just true that there is no market for guitar bands any more.
A long and bracing walk took me to Rainey Street and a Tulsa showcase at The Bungalow. I feared the worst as a pop act called Branjae was playing and was worried for John Fullbright, who was following and I’d only ever seen solo before. No need to worry though, as he was playing with a bunch of friends and it was a very cheerful gathering. It was noticeable, however, that the momentum dipped whenever a friend came up to play and re-gathered pace whenever Fullbright took the lead, with his vocal and instrumental power. And what’s this? Yes, it’s Broncho again. You could hardly imagine a greater musical contrast. In my search for a way to describe them, I came up with “a mash-up of My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus And Mary Chain and Hawkwind”. Add in a bit of The Cure (singer Ryan Lindsey is a dead ringer for Robert Smith) and you have a potent and very atmospheric cocktail, as Lindsey jiggles as if flea-ridden, sings lyrics which may or may not be actual words and merges each song into the next with no breaks for applause or even a greeting. Anyway, I found them so irresistible that I went to see them three times in total.
Friday saw me wending my way again to Rainey Street for a showcase at Blackheart that I hoped would end up with Ezra Furman. What a pig’s ear the organisers had made of this. There was a spacious yard outside with a stage, yet they had programmed Ezra Furman and Frank Turner in the minuscule and very claustrophobic inside room. Luckily, that meant I was unhindered while watching Aaron Lee Tasjan outside. The previous year, I had been baffled by a low-key and – dare I say it – boring show from Aaron, and confused by the adulation. Then, at the End of The Road Festival in September, he appeared solo acoustic on the Garden Stage and went down a storm with a charming and funny performance. Here at Blackheart, he was in his electric guitar-shredding guise and the performance was thrilling. Clearly a man of many and diverse talents.
Amy Shark and a couple of other forgettable artists played outside but I ventured in to try and get a spot to at least catch a glimpse of Ezra Furman, but it was not to be. His band and crew dutifully set up all the gear but the frantic phone calls gave a clue as to what would happen: He simply didn’t turn up. An announcement gave mixed messages: He’s not well, but do come and see him (in a bigger venue) tomorrow. Who knows the explanation but I’d guess the overcrowding must have been an intimidatory factor. Never mind, normally sxsw throws up many of these situations (indeed, for many, it later did with cancellations relating to security issues).
We had a date with Lee Bains III And The Glory Fires (who played, I think, eleven times over the four days). This was at the Side Bar, next to Stubbs, and turned out to be a classic sxsw occasion. Inside the dingy venue was a set-up for bands that offered neither stage nor lights, so it was only possible to see the silhouettes of Cold Fronts, a great Pavement-esque outfit from Philadelphia. Outside on the sun-drenched patio, Lee Bains was on paint-stripping form. For me, he took the title of Best Band I Saw At SXSW (a rather subjective category, admittedly). Hurling himself round the tiny stage and challenging the audience with incredibly articulate political speeches and lyrics, Lee eventually ended up in the audience being mobbed by the ecstatic crowd. Wonderful in-yer-face stuff that made you feel glad to be alive and able to feel positive in a difficult world.
What a contrast the evening was. A friend of my daughter’s was organising a showcase in St David’s Historic Sanctuary, so of course I attended. The artist I saw was Lucy Rose. Fair play to her. She’s been through the industry mill, having been hyped by a major label to little avail. The current angle is that she’s now independent and succeeding against the odds, but boy, was her performance bland and inconclusive. But pay no attention to me, the audience lapped it up.
Next was a hike all the way to the wonderful Scoot Inn, where the musical quality was outstanding. I’d fallen in love with Austin’s Bright Light Social Hour on the Tropical Heatwave Cruise (see a different “note”) and it was lovely to see them wowing their home town. I feared for Hiss Golden Messenger when I saw that it was an acoustic duo set-up, but no, yet again they were treated with respect and attention by a well-oiled party audience. You don’t get that everywhere. Last on were Okkervill River. Yes, they exist again, nowadays in a completely different and much more quirky (but appealing) five-piece format.
The plan for Saturday was to take things a bit more easy. First up was Lucy’s Fried Chicken, a venue that always has an entertaining line-up. The problem is that it is what it says: If you don’t like fried chicken you’re going to starve. They don’t even do tea or coffee. Also, the sightlines are bad, so it’s not the best place to see a band. But I wanted to be there because of the Rublilators, the new band of Jon Notarthomas, who was Ian McLagan’s musical partner over the last years of Ian’s life. Jon did me the most enormous kindness this time last year and I was glad we made the effort, as the Rubilators are a bunch of enthusiastic Austin veterans who rock out with infectious style. After them came John Doe (of X), who has now made Austin his home and has a new acoustic trio.
Chickengate meant that we did the ultimate in sinfulness, namely having beer and margaritas for breakfast, back in Gueros. Just up the road is the Yard Dog. Normally we’d spend a lot of time in there but the crowds made it impossible even to see local act Li’l Cap’n Travis, although they sounded good. So instead it was off to the other side of town to the traditional Saturday Country Cantina at Licho’s. The line-up was less inspiring than in recent years but we saw Billy Strings, Dead Horses and Australia’s Ruby Boots in quick succession.
Back in town we entered a rather smart bar to see Christopher Rees, who’d been having a trying time on account of a banister-related ankle incident. Nevertheless, he was in fine voice. He’s one of the very few UK Americana artists who sounds really authentic.
The last evening was shaping up to develop into a disappointment. For years we’d been going to showcases organised by Canadian label Six Shooter, but the bigger they’ve become, the less fun the events are. This one contained many irritating factors: A cliquey atmosphere, people annoyingly smoking everywhere, sound leakage from next door, massively over-priced drinks (more than anywhere else in Austin), terrible sound plus a self-consciously quirky and not very good band (The Wet Secrets). Tempting though it was to stay on for Whitney Rose (simply so I could call this article The Wars Of The Roses on account of the many so-named singers), the temptation of another dose of Broncho and Low Cut Connie in the adjacent Clive Bar was too great.
And what a wise decision that proved to be. The vibe, with free St Patrick’s Day light sabres and flashing necklaces, was incredibly convivial and Broncho were even more mind-boggling than before. Low Cut Connie, meanwhile, were back at their sparkling best. The extraordinary Adam Weiner of LCC took the showmanship honours with his piano acrobatics and gradual disrobement, backed by a grittily committed bunch of highly supportive musicians. They all certainly know how to work an audience and the audience succumbs willingly, wreathed in smiles. I saw Rolling Stone’s David Fricke (who really has seen everything) being clearly overcome. In print, he declared the band and their classic new single Beverley to be ready for world domination. I can only agree.
That was it. Bed and the long trek to a snowy home via Amsterdam presented a climate challenge, but that’s another story.

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sxsw 2017

SXSW has got its mojo back after overcrowding and over corporatism had changed the vibe in recent years. I also got my own mojo back this year with the help of better selection of artists, familiarity with great and cheap eating places and a week of uninterrupted sunshine.
I’ll be clear: I had decided this would be my last sxsw. After fifteen consecutive years and with a bad ankle that made the traditional lengthy hikes impossible, this was to be the end. Now I’m not quite sure but on balance I’m thinking it’s a good idea to go out on a high. We’ll see.
A new policy sought to avoid the endless walking. It entailed selecting events in advance to go to and simply stay put. This was possible thanks to my friend Paul, who not only is a great photographer but also is conveniently a non drinker and therefore was willing and able to drive us around. The only issue was parking, but even in this we managed to get lucky most of the time.
The first morning saw us heading to Waterloo Records, a super music emporium that stages large scale daytime outdoor events to coincide with sxsw. It is luckily situated opposite a branch of Wholefoods that has a giant car park. At Waterloo you can see artists who will play showcases later in the day in places that are less accessible and more crowded, such as Stubbs. The whole thing is organised by Jessie, wife of Will Johnson of Centro-Matic.
The sun blazed on our necks as Hooray For The Riff Raff played one of their eight shows, Beach Slang came up with some very entertaining lighthearted grunge, Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift demonstrated their mutual devotion and Modern English, on a “comeback” tour, were hysterically pompous and dreadful. A quick visit to the atmospheric Ginger Man pub downtown for a nice encounter with Tom Heyman was followed by a very rewarding evening at Easy Tiger.
This event was the twentieth anniversary of Bella Union, in my opinion easily the best record label in the world. How exciting it was to experience BNQT, which is Midlake joined by Jason Lytle and Travis’s Fran Healey for a joyful run through of their various hits plus some new songs too. Other artists playing included Oklahoma’s excellent Horse Thief, and it was intriguing to observe label boss Simon Raymonde and his wife bopping along to every single act with endless enthusiasm. Their dedication to music is all too clear.
The next day saw a visit to Yard Dog Gallery on South Congress, which has a yard at the back that is covered by a gazebo during sxsw. It is really worth spending a whole afternoon there, because the music is invariably top notch and the audience respectful and very much “up for it”. A common characteristic of all the places I shall describe is the superhuman amount of alcohol consumed. I’m by no means teetotal but I tell you, the amount these guys put away is mind-boggling. Nursing a three dollar local IPA, I was hugely entertained by a highly-wired Austin Lucas (whose Alone In Memphis always brings a lump to the throat), who also duetted with Mara Connor. After that, the place was trashed by an incredible band from Philadelphia called Low Cut Connie, whose singer Adam Weiner spent most of his time leaping on and off his piano and into the audience, while his band crouched and prowled around him. Not since the Jim Jones Revue at the Mean Eyed Cat has such a seedy and dangerous boogie groove been heard in Austin. Could that be topped? Oh yes, with the supercharged political punk of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, music at its most primal and at the same time its most intelligent.
There’s much anguish in Austin as the quaint out of town venues are gradually being knocked down to make way for condos. Such is the fate of Maria’s Taco Express, so we made a final pilgrimage to sip a frozen Margarita, chomp some chips with salsa and enjoy the Mastersons, a duo that keeps getting better and better. Prior to that, Waterloo had hosted a slightly hungover Grandaddy and later, Austin’s own Spoon, who caused consternation as the surrounding roads were blocked by the crowds swarming to see them. We had to listen from the car park, as sxsw badges cut no ice here.
That evening saw one of the few Americana showcases taking place in a central venue. It was that of New West records, a label with an enviable roster of talent. Laying out their wares were the Secret Sisters (how must they feel now that sweet-voiced duos have become such an overcrowded market?) and Sara Watkins (slightly troubled by intermittent power cuts). Andrew Combs caused confusion – at least to me – by performing with Cale Tyson’s backing band (see below). Some members of the Deslondes used to be in Hurray For The Riff Raff and continue to pursue that rootsy direction with skill and energy. HFRR, meanwhile, have long since moved on from Americana showcases and were displaying their new political indie-rock direction at bigger events all over the city. The much-anticipated Aaron Lee Tasjan started on a tremendous high but rapidly declined into a set of bafflingly bland material that belied his flamboyant image.
The Americana highlight of my sxsw is undoubtedly Saturday’s annual Brooklyn Country Cantina extravaganza at Licha’s, curated by “Bug” Jenkins of the Defibulators. This exhausting succession of 25 artists (count them) lasts from 11 am to 11 pm over two stages and always throws up surprises and exciting moments. Cale Tyson and his (other) band brought things to a rousing climax (apparently he has different bands for different regions) but for me the highlight of the day, and indeed the whole festival, was a highly-emotional and deeply affecting twenty-minute set from Nashville’s Langhorne Slim. They don’t come better.
During that evening, I was gripped by a desire to nip to the nearby Hotel Vegas to see The Sloths , an ancient band of shock-rockers who’d reunited for sxsw. This was because we’d recently become sloth enthusiasts on a family visit to Costa Rica. The Sloths were hilarious (and I also bumped into the multi-talented Rusty Miller, from California). At one stage, I found a place to perch and try to make sense of the surrounding madness. Four deafeningly loud bands were blasting out from four stages all around, the sound melding into the craziest cacophony imaginable. Everyone in the crowd was drunk, drugged up and chaotically, blissfully happy. To most people, it would have been hell on earth. To me, with my unstoppable music addiction, it was classic sxsw and the purest bliss. 

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The History Of Corey Zander

Corey Zander, born Alexander Cruz, was the only son of Pino Cruz and his wife Aileen, delivered in their small house in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in January 1958. Corey’s great grandfather was a Choctaw Indian who had arrived in Oklahoma on the Trail Of Tears, the popular term for the forced relocation of Native American nations from the south east of the US in accordance with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The expression “Trail Of Tears” refers to the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831 from their native homelands in Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina. Many of the relocated Native Americans, including Cherokee, Choctaw and Muskogee, died of starvation, exposure or disease on the cold and chaotic trail to Oklahoma. The Choctaw were the first to be removed and seventeen thousand families made the move to Oklahoma, originally called Indian Territory. Having effectively been ethnically cleansed, they eventually became known as the Choctaw Nation Of Oklahoma.

By the time Pino Cruz was born in 1938, the dustbowl existence of his family had become bearable, if hard. Pino himself was able, as an adult, to earn a tolerable living as a general handyman in and around Tahlequah, while Aileen looked after young Alexander. It was when Alexander was seven that Pino was accused of stealing from one of his clients. As it happened, it was a bottle of bourbon that went missing from a house where he was repairing the roof while the owner was out. He couldn’t deny it, as the bottle, now a couple of fingers lighter, was found at the bottom of his tool bag the next day, when the angry homeowner called in the police. Dissatisfied with the quality of Pino’s work, and probably looking for an excuse not to pay, the owner pressed charges on what was, on the face of it, a trivial case, and Pino was fined, but what was worse, disgraced within the local community, where the word spread that anyone who employed him was likely to get burgled.

There was another unfortunate result of his foolishness, as those few slugs of deadly liquid re-awoke an interest in liquor which had long lain dormant. Financial necessity and the strong disapproval of his wife, who was frightened of the effect of whisky on Pino’s temperament, had ensured many years of sobriety up to that point. It wasn’t quite on the level of Shakespearian tragedy, perhaps, but that light-fingered moment represented a significant turning point in Pino’s life. If he’d rationalized it, which he surely didn’t, he’d have said something like “What the hell, if I work hard and a small transgression can pretty much ruin my life, what exactly is the point?” Unable to find work, and finding the stress of responsibility for a young son tough to cope with, Pino took to thieving on a regular basis, using the proceeds to fund visits of varying success to a nearby Indian Casino. When he won, he would celebrate with whiskey. To his credit, he purposely didn’t drink in front of Alexander, keeping his binges until after the lad was in bed. It did mean that he was normally ill-tempered in the morning, but he wasn’t the kind of drunk who’d lay his hands on his wife or son. He just felt unhappy most of the time, and the atmosphere would surely have been bad enough to encourage Aileen to leave, if she’d had the choice. But she had nowhere to go.

It would have been advantageous from the point of view of creating a myth about the upbringing of the future rock star Alexander if his father Pino had died a violent death in a car crash or a bar fight, but the reality was more mundane. In 1968, when Alexander was just 10, Pino’s liver gave out and Aileen was left alone to look after the boy. By that time, the family had long since been forced to leave their small house in Tahlequah and now resided in a quite scruffy trailer in the woods near the Illinois River, just off Highway 62. But, as so often seems to be the case, the cliché applied that they were poor, but they were happy.

Aileen, who worked as many hours as she could get in a hair salon in Wagoner, not far from Tahlequah, had long harboured a wish to be a teacher. This was a wish that could never officially be fulfilled because of the lack of requisite qualifications, but it did come in useful when, almost inevitably, the teenage Alexander began to be an unreliable attender at school. It was a pain to get there, especially in winter, when a lengthy walk to the nearest road to pick up the school bus could be an unwelcome prospect in the early mornings. Aileen certainly didn’t sanction these absences, which were followed up half-heartedly by the school authorities, but she did believe Alexander’s pleas that he often felt unwell, with stomach pains and headaches. Please could he stay at home, just for today? Okay, just this once, dear, she would accept, realizing she would have to beg for extra shifts if she was to purchase more heating oil for the mobile home, which was isolated and could be bone-crackingly cold.

It was many years before the concept of home schooling became commonplace and monitored by education authorities, but in a way, Aileen and Alexander were pioneers in the field. Mathematics and particularly, literature were on the agenda, as Aileen made sure that the many absences from school were not to hinder Alexander’s education. He never told her, but in later life he realized that the stomach cramps were most probably caused by the sneering comments of his classmates about his poor home and his ostracized father. Yes, his therapist in the eighties would confirm, you were suffering from stress.

This was the pattern for much of Alexander’s teens. Most afternoons, Aileen would be collected by a work colleague for shifts at the salon, which would be the opportunity for her son to pick away at the various decrepit musical instruments his dad had left behind. Pino had claimed there was a rich musical tradition in his Native American background, but had shown little skill himself. Occasionally, as the alcholism took hold, he had deluded himself with the hope that he might be able to make some cash by performing in the bars of north east Oklahoma, but the bitter reality was that he could hardly play and he certainly couldn’t sing. Listening to Alexander, Aileen was surprised and gratified that maybe there was indeed a talent there, and that it had simply skipped a generation. It certainly wasn’t from her side of the family – white middle class with no musical instruments anywhere near their home – and Aileen was pleased to give Alexander every encouragement.

The teenaged Alexander tried out the banjo but found it displeasingly harsh and unyielding, at least in his hands. But armed with his dad’s ancient acoustic guitar and a harmonica in a holster he crafted himself from an old metal coat hanger, he could really fancy himself as a Bob Dylan figure, as he droned out folksy classics like “Down By The Riverside”, “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Oh Susanna”. He struggled with finger picking, so his style ended up pretty much as the kind of strumming beyond which most people’s guitar skills don’t develop. He even tried his hand at writing a few songs of his own, using his limited arsenal of chords, but really, he didn’t have much in the way of subject matter to work with. Aileen was impressed by these works of art and proud of her boy when he would play them to her on her return from work.

It was inevitable that Aileen would eventually meet a new man, and it brought a welcome change in circumstances to the small family. Lance Wilson was a friend of Aileen’s boss and ran a small diner in the centre of Tahlequah, aimed at the motorists and tourists plying the historic road Route 66, which ran right through the town. Lance, not long divorced, was an astute businessman and all-round good guy, and before long, life in the apartment above the restaurant was a good deal more comfortable and convenient than it had been in the trailer in the woods. The trailer was sold to a dodgy-looking couple who would doubtless use it as a drug den, but then that wasn’t the Cruz’s problem any more.

Aileen was now in a position to do more shifts and Alexander, recently turned sixteen, was able to earn some cash as well, by means of the traditional rite-of-passage of burger-flipping. He was no longer required to attend high school but he had survived that long on account of being unobtrusive and co-operative on the occasions he’d been there. He certainly never caused any trouble and in the main, teachers had been impressed by how he had dealt with his unconventional upbringing. Half-hearted attempts to persuade him to stay on for further education after high school failed, because, having moved into town, Alex (as he was now, more coolly, known) was in the process of developing a social life.

Alex hadn’t exactly been a loner, but living in the woods had made it hard to get out and about. Two other friends who had quit school at the same time as Alex were Jesse Allen and Mark Houghton. With a mutual interest in music, it was inevitable that they would form their first band together. Mark played fiddle, while both the others fancied themselves as guitarists. In the end, Alex conceded the more prominent rôle and agreed to teach himself double bass, on an ancient instrument that Lance Wilson bought for him from a second hand music shop in Tulsa.

Using the hours when the restaurant was closed, the trio christened themselves the Woodsmen in honour of Alex’s old home and rehearsed enough folk songs to be able to get some (unpaid) gigs in a couple of the local bars. Using their dubious carpentry skills, they even constructed a makeshift stage in Lance’s restaurant (which he predictably called Sir Lance-A Lot). They built up quite a following as passing truckers and local drinkers chomped their Lanceburgers and swigged their Route 66 beer.

And then … punk. Well, it happened to many bands around 1978. Not only were the Woodsmen planning to “go electric” and add drums, they were about to turn into a kind of band for which their particular corner of Oklahoma was unprepared. The way it came about was pretty fateful. A regular customer at Sir Lance-A-Lot, and indeed an occasional solo player there, was David Blue, drummer of a respected local soft-rock band called Bliss. It was David who told Alex about a show that Bliss had been booked for at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, opening for an English touring band. Would he like to come along for the ride? It promised to be something really special.

Alex was doubtful. Cain’s Ballrom, while a legendary venue, was known for Western Swing, a type of music that the Woodsmen were trying to get away from. But the idea of being an honorary roadie for the night, carrying in David’s drums and helping to set them up, was tempting. The date was January 11th 1978, the admission fee (from which Alex was excused on account of being “crew”) was three dollars fifty, and the headlining band, “all the way from London, England” was the Sex Pistols. The following night, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, was to be the Pistols’ last-ever gig, but no one knew that at the time.

Presumably, some of the people in attendance had known roughly what awaited them. Certainly, Alex and the band were well aware of punk. He’d read interviews with the Ramones in Rolling Stone and had already booked tickets to see them, due to play at Cain’s a month later. The cool, high-energy rush of bands like the Ramones and the New York Dolls was appealing to the teenage Woodsmen, feeling pretty isolated in their geographical and cultural backwater. Without the offer of a lift and a free ticket, Alex probably wouldn’t have bothered with the Sex Pistols, as their reputation for chaotic live shows didn’t appeal to the musician in him, even though this was their first (and, as it turned out, only) American tour.

The band’s reputation had preceded them, and outside the quaint ballroom, quite a large crowd of banner-waving, bible-punching protesters had gathered in the road. Rural Oklahoma was a conservative and deeply Christian environment. One of the banners read, “Life is ‘Rotten’ Without God’s Only Begotten Jesus.”

The audience was an uneasy mix of punk followers, the normal Cain’s audience and the merely curious, some seeking trouble. There were also a number of journalists from national music magazines, and a smattering of undercover police, on the alert for any potentially lewd behaviour onstage. Alex was unaware of any of this, armed with a backstage pass and dutifully carrying in the drums in the freezing conditions; Bliss had barely made it to Tulsa though the snow.

The Pistols had arrived early. They’d driven overnight from Dallas, partly to combat the bad weather and partly because Johnny Rotten had allegedly smashed a Texan reporter’s camera and they were concerned about his wrath and the police’s. Bliss weren’t granted access to the Pistols’ dressing room, but they could hear them living up to their reputation, swearing and being contemptuous of any questions they were asked. Bliss performed a short and largely ignored set, and Alex was out front when the Pistols came onstage and blasted into their show. It was loud, it was rough and ready, but it certainly wasn’t chaotic in any unintended way. Like millions of other youths the world over, Alex had his life changed that evening, as Johnny Rotten leered into the microphone, Sid Vicious snarled and sneered, and Steve Jones studiously ignored an entire pitcher of beer that was thrown over him. This wasn’t just hype, it was pure excitement.

Afterwards, Alex witnessed Vicious and Rotten stubbing out cigarettes on their arms as their fee was counted out to them by venue manager Scott Munz, who was later quoted in the local press as considering them “blasphemous, provocative and irreverent”. These were all attributes which appealed to young Alex, and when he described his evening out to the other Woodsmen, the band’s change of direction became a matter of course. Within weeks, Alex had switched to electric bass, amps had been bought (Mark built his own cabinet), a drummer had been recruited, Jesse had switched from fiddle to electric guitar and the band name had been changed.

Was it arrogance, provocation or youthful idiocy which led them to christen themselves The Chocs? Jesse, too had a Choctaw family background and the name sounded to them both snappy and memorable. From a publicity point of view in the era of punk, they couldn’t have done better, but as soon as the first gig posters appeared (their slogan was “Chocs Away!”), there was outrage in the community. The Oklahoma Choctaw Historical Society declared it a slur on their traditions, while the Tahlequah Daily Press called for the group to be banned. In music business terms, it was a PR triumph: scandal and notoriety before the first gig had been played.

Checking out a rehearsal, in which he discovered that the cheery folk tunes had been replaced by aggressive, three-minute shoutalongs, Lance politely made clear that his restaurant would not be a suitable place for them to make their début. Business was tough at the best of times, and he certainly couldn’t afford a potential boycott. Although keen to support her son’s efforts, Aileen agreed, so the Chocs’ first gig took place at a local college (where the principal insisted they were billed merely as “special guests”, to avoid the posters causing further offence). Apart from a few scuffles and some derogatory comments from some of the male students, who didn’t like their girlfriends checking out the guys’ newly-purchased skinny jeans, it went well enough to generate the beginnings of a following. There was certainly no competition in the way of other punk bands in town.

Modelling themselves vaguely on the Ramones, the Chocs died their hair black and, doing their own bookings, played anywhere they could in the area. Playing various local roadhouses, they were generally received with hostility, but this merely helped to enhance their anti-establishment reputation). There were a few higher-profile gigs in places like Eureka Springs, over the border in Arkansas, and the Crystal Pistol, the newly-established punk venue in Tulsa. They even pitched for the Patti Smith Band support slot back at Cain’s Ballroom, but it was already taken. It was at one of their Crystal Pistol shows that they met Larry Goldberg, who was to become their manager and sign them to his Stud record label.

Larry fancied himself as in the same mould as Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire Records. Respected for his maverick personality and ability to find quirky and original new wave acts, Stein had built up a successful empire and Larry Goldberg planned to emulate him. He was actually a New Yorker but was visiting friends in Tulsa that night, and had read a news item in the local paper about the Chocs being pulled over on the highway on suspicion of dope possession. Nothing had been found, but the cops had allegedly pushed them around a bit and spoken to them demeaningly. Alex’s mum Aileen, by now becoming quite enthused about the following the Chocs were building, had written to a journalist under a pseudonym, complaining of victimization. This led to a nice piece of publicity for the band.

The police were probably a bit out of date in what they were searching for. Most of the hippie groups they were used to would undoubtedly have had a stash of weed somewhere in their van, but the Chocs were a high-energy band and needed to do a lot of late-night driving, so speed was their chosen stimulant. There were almost certainly some little pills flicked out of the window onto the grass verge as they were being pulled over. No matter, they got their piece in the paper and Larry Goldberg came to their gig.

It wasn’t particularly Larry’s style of music, but he was an astute impresario and could see which way the wind was blowing musically. The Chocs fitted the mould nicely and the next morning, over coffee in Lance’s bar, he offered the band a deal.

“Listen, boys, I can take you out of here and make you into stars.”

It was such a cliché that it was almost laughable, but the Chocs were willing, and – let’s face it – naïve victims.

“You mean we’ll be able to travel all over the world?”

“Sure thing. You guys are the future of the music business.”

A few days later, the contract arrived in the post. Cautiously, Aileen asked a lawyer friend to look it over. The friend was actually a real estate expert and found it hard to work his way through the dense music business legal terminology such as “points” and “redeemable but not recoupable”, but nevertheless declared that it seemed “all right”. All the song publishing was assigned to Larry. With local friends as witnesses, all four members signed the contract. Cue joy. It hardly seemed possible.

Larry had a record producer friend who had a studio in Oklahoma City, and, after a few weeks working on arrangements and rehearsing, the Chocs came up with ten songs which they considered representative, almost all of them three-minute rants with few chords, and therefore relatively easy to record. The line-up was now the classic rock group configuration: Two guitars, bass and drums. For the album title, “Rock With The Chocs” was rejected by consensus as naff and replaced by the hardly less naff “Don’t Knock The Chocs” – seen as having echoes of “Never Mind The Bollocks”. The song chosen for a single was the one which least represented their style – a stadium-style rock anthem called “Mad And Bad”, written by Alex, with a singalong chorus inaccurately plagiarized from John Lydon. The day after Alex had seen the Sex Pistols, they had played their last ever show, in San Francisco. Johnny Rotten famously signed off with the question, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” In Alex’s song, it came out like this:

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been had? Baby baby, I’m mad and I’m bad.”

No one had jobs they were committed to, so when Larry recommended relocating en masse to New York, the Chocs were up for it in a big way. The loft apartment they were installed in seemed to be mysteriously rent-free. It was a long time before they realized that this was just one of the many items being put down by Larry as recoupable expenses, but for the time being, life was sweet. Larry’s contacts book was strong enough to secure them a residency at the legendary CBGBs and regular shows at other significant New York venues. When he sent them on a coast-to-coast tour, all meals and motels were paid for even though the fees at the murky fleapit venues they played were tiny. The euphoria when “Mad And Bad”, on the Stud label, peaked at number 42 in the Billboard charts on the back of an interview in Rolling Stone and a healthy amount of radio airplay, was enough to make the Chocs feel they had truly arrived. Back in Tahlequah, the Daily Press suddenly had a new attitude to them: “Chocs Away! Local band storms US charts.”

Alex expressed quiet satisfaction to his mother.

“I thought I could write songs, Mom, and now I’ve proved it.”

Although he normally co-wrote the band’s songs with Jesse, “Mad And Bad” had been a solo effort, a throw-away idea, really. Alex was confident that the songwriting royalties would soon start to flow.

“I’ll share it with the other guys, Larry, they deserve a cut too.”

“Yep, it won’t be long before the cheques will start to arrive.”

In the meantime, however, all four Chocs were busy being very stupid and above all, in the tradition of young, naive rock groups, boringly predictable. Cocaine was de rigeur for almost all rock bands at the time, but not everyone went further. Alex was foolish, but, in his defence, many young musicians of that era really had no idea what they were getting themselves into. He first tried freebasing crack in the Château Marmont Hotel in LA after a gig at the Whiskey A-Go-Go. The singer of the headline band told him he just had to give it a go, and wouldn’t believe the high that could be achieved. Everybody was doing it, even venerable elder statesmen of rock like David Crosby, so it didn’t seem much more significant than slamming down a Tequila. The band members’ consequent mood swings and volatile behaviour (all the Chocs indulged to varying degrees apart from Mark, and even he developed an alcohol problem) meant that further fame or fortune were doomed never to materialize. Their live performances became unreliable, their second single made no ripples and “Don’t Knock the Chocs” was a sitting duck for the barbed-pen music critics, who gave it a royal trouncing as naïve and derivative.

An inability to deal with drugs wasn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll feature of Alex’s personality. He indulged enthusiastically in the delights of the flesh too. The groupie scene offered itself to him and he certainly wasn’t going to decline. But sometimes, he would take liberties which went beyond casual sex. On one occasion, in Detroit, he had to get out of town fast when a furious father with a gun was after him for allegedly going too far with an under-age girl who had resisted his advances. He’d misunderstood her flirtatious behaviour as being an invitation for sex, and didn’t like it when she was reluctant. “I thought she was asking for it,” he told the other Chocs.

The cool intelligentsia of the New York music scene had no place for these literal hicks from the sticks, so it wasn’t really a surprise when, in March 1981, they were called to Larry Goldberg’s Manhattan office.

That was the day when the Chocs realized that they really should have looked into their contract in more detail. The second album which they had been looking forward to recording turned out merely to be an “option”, that Larry could have taken up if he’d wanted to. The publishing rights for their songs rested with Larry too, with only a tiny percentage due to the writers, and in any case, any royalties due from record sales or publishing had long since been eaten up by their day-to-day expenses.

“Boys, you have no idea how much I’ve invested in this project.”

“But we’re the ones who’ve done all the work.”

“Without me, you’d never have had the work in the first place. You’ve had a great time, you’ve travelled all over the States, you’ve been on the radio, you’ve even had a hit record. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be doing dead-end jobs in Tahlequah. But the time has come where I’ve got to cut my losses. I’m sorry, boys.”

The way Larry presented it, he’d been doing the band a massive favour by enabling them to pursue their brief career.

For the three other Chocs, it was the end of an adventure they’d never really planned in the first place. Mark, Jesse and drummer Brian returned to their families in Oklahoma, got jobs and continued to play local venues in amateur bands. Alex however, decided to stay in New York.

It had been while attending an acoustic show in the Bottom Line Club in Greenwich Village that Alex had got chatting with the girl doing the door. Molly was a pretty art student and also a part-time musician who was aware that Alex had been a member of a “signed” band. Before long, they were partners in life (Alex moved into Molly’s tiny apartment in the Bowery), in music (they started writing and performing together) and yes, in crime (they bonded over a shared interest in hard drugs, specifically heroin, onto which Alex had moved in the wake of the band’s split-up.). The couple eked out an existence doing poorly paid support slots as an acoustic duo, but that wasn’t enough to live on. Their reputation around town became that of a surrogate Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, as they eventually ended up emulating the likes of Peter Perrett and Johnny Thunders in a sordid lifestyle funded by their own dealing. That old cliché about how you have to hit rock bottom before starting to climb back held true for the pair, who were struggling to cope when their baby daughter, Lucy, was born in October 1983.

Keen to meet her granddaughter, and unaware of the lifestyle change that had affected her son, Aileen drove all the way to New York to bring the young family home to Tahlequah for Christmas. That something was wrong soon became obvious. Unmistakable clues were a lethargic baby, a mother who kept dozing off, and a father who had to make regular trips to visit unidentified “friends”, usually late at night. All those fears about what might befall her son in the Big City seemed to have been justified.

Things had been looking up for Aileen and Lance. They’d gone into business together and their Sir Lance-A-Lot brand had expanded into a small chain of outlets; the concept of burgers and live music had caught on. Shocked and ashamed at what had befallen Alex, Lance was at least in a financial position to offer his adopted son and his new family a spell in a local rehab facility. Feeling less anxious back in his childhood environment, Alex was in a good position to summon up the willpower required, but Molly’s attempts at withdrawal soon petered out. The lure of heroin was so strong that, after a few weeks, she opted to return to New York and the oblivion it offered.

Against all advice, and contrary to Alex’s wishes, Molly took the infant Lucy with her, but it wasn’t long before Lance again had to head up to the Big Apple to retrieve the child. After a couple of months, poor Molly was dead, found slumped in the rest-room of the Max’s Kansas City after taking an overdose. Nobody knew whether it was intentional or not.

With Alex away in rehab, Aileen unexpectedly found herself being a mother again – this time to her granddaughter. Little Lucy, often parked in a buggy in the office from where Aileen administered the Lance-A-Lot empire, gradually regained health. Alex took months to get over the death of Molly, but in a way the pointlessness of it galvanized him, until he was eventually able to resume fatherly duties and effectively start his “solo career”, touring the Lance-A-Lot chain with an acoustic guitar, doing a set of originals and a few covers by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello. The climax of each show was, inevitably, a singalong version of “Mad And Bad”, the nearest thing Oklahoma had to a state anthem until, many years later, the Flaming Lips released “Do You Realize?” Predictably, the lyrical preoccupations of Alex’s songs tended to centre around the torment of withdrawal, the cruel vagaries of the music business, the agony of lost love and the joys of fatherhood.

A second try at stardom wasn’t on the agenda at all until Green On Red hit Oklahoma City in mid-1985. Country rock and its indie branch-offs had attracted Alex’s interest and his set already contained Byrds and REM covers, so he drove over to see the pioneering Los Angeles band, unattractively classified by the press as “cowpunk”, or more coolly as the “Paisley Underground”, having been joined in 1985 by Chuck Prophet for the “Gas Food Lodging” album. In a corridor after the gig, Alex bumped into Green On Red’s front man Dan Stuart and their brief conversation about music was enough to convince Alex that his next step would be to form a psychedelic country rock band back in Tahlequah.

From the original Chocs, both Jesse and Mark were interested. Alex purchased a 12-string Rickenbacker and switched from bass to lead guitar. A drummer called Will Sharp was recruited via a notice in the local music store, and once again, the search was on for a name. This time, it was easier and less controversial. Gram Parsons was the acknowledged king of country rock and “gram” was a drug measurement, so The Grams was a cool name with all the requisite rock and roll connotations.

Things moved fast. The country rock that the Grams were playing chimed exactly with what the music industry required at that moment, and by mid-1986, they had completed tours supporting REM and the Dream Syndicate and also been signed by a proper label, a subsidiary of A & M. Their first album, “Desert Grave”, largely written by Alex, while not charting, hit all the right notes with publications such as Melody Maker and NME in the UK. They even made the front cover of “Sounds”, although not with a photo, just a flash heralding an interview on page 6. Ironically, despite being recognized far more in Europe than in the US, they never got to tour over there, partly for financial reasons and partly due to managerial incompetence.

The Grams were dropped in 1990, having only got as far as demoing their second album but not recording it. They hadn’t hit major headlining status, but they had certainly achieved respectability. Sales, however, were more important to the record company than the much-coveted kudos of a “cult following”. But without that cult following, Corey Zander would never have reached Wikipedia. Alex’s friends had called him Zander for years, and Corey Zander was his idea of a cool country rock name. He adopted it when the Grams were signed, partly to avoid unwelcome comparisons with the Chocs, and partly to draw a line under his previous espousal of the darker side of rock and roll. The Grams were a band that was entirely free of hard drugs, although none of them were averse to the odd slug of bourbon to help out with onstage confidence, and calming joints were a familiar feature of the dressing room.

The Grams had spent time in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but their base had always been in North East Oklahoma. Thus, Corey (as he was forever henceforth to be known) remained close to his daughter Lucy, with Aileen helping out when the band was on tour. But many of the musicians Corey was meeting on the road hailed either from Nashville or Austin, Texas. Corey felt that Nashville was probably a bit “straight country” for him, but Austin, the self-appointed “live music capital of the world”, was an alluring prospect. Still not comfortable with the prevalent right-leaning, church-orientated ethos of Tahlequah, Corey was intrigued by tales of this liberal-minded University city where music was king. Austin, so he was told, was home to hundreds of music venues and like-minded blues and roots musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan (the most famous), along with the likes of Joe Ely, Doug Sahm, of course, Willie Nelson. It sounded very much like the kind of place he’d like Lucy to grow up in. Corey relocated to Austin in 1991, never to return and has resided there as a minor luminary of the Austin scene ever since. He lives there quietly with Lucy, who grew up in a laid-back atmosphere near the bohemian South Congress area, filled with music bars, where Corey plays to this day.

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Looking After Mr Baker

It was because of my extreme age that I was selected to be the genial host for Ginger Baker’’s show at the tiny Railway in Winchester. All the other guys at the venue are in their twenties and were, frankly, intimidated by the thought of the great man about to grace the back room of the pub. It certainly seemed surreal; Ginger is a superstar, a legend, surely the biggest star ever to have played the Railway. And the people there quite rightly wanted everything to run smoothly. They needed someone to meet, greet and keep an eye open.

Well, I’’d seen and loved Cream, kept abreast of his famously dissolute lifestyle, worshipped his drumming and read the autobiography. It was going to be a doddle, a privilege, and fun.

But that was before “Beware Of Mr Baker”, the documentary about Ginger which appeared, with uncanny accuracy, just before the start of the tour, of which the Railway was the very first date. All of a sudden, my friends were taking the piss in a major way. It didn’t help that I’d just completed a novel centred around an innocent person being murdered in a music pub, and that apparently the film starts with Mr Baker using his walking stick to break the nose of the director, who had had the temerity to mention Jack Bruce. Facebook positively lit up with comments speculating on my chances of survival. Someone even sent me an anonymous threatening postcard purporting to come from Ginger.

Was I worried? Actually, no. If he turned out to be as big a bastard as the reviews were saying, at least I wouldn’’t be surprised. I had no intention of saying anything to inflame his ire, and a friend who had seen him recently said he was completely harmless. I suspected, and still suspect, that many of the articles in the papers were re-hashed press releases designed to sensationalise the film and put bums on seats.

I was more worried about the audience than about Ginger. Many of them would be decrepit, and the small size of the room meant that we didn’’t have room for more than a few chairs. Others, towards the back, would be unlikely even to catch a glimpse of their hero, and might complain. Recently, we’’ve had trouble with irritating people talking loudly during shows (they nearly ruined an appearance by Terry Reid) and I might have to shut them up. My greatest fear was that some idiot might call out for Cream numbers, in which case the shit really would have hit the fan.

Jim, the Railway’’s booker, had prepared well. He’’d bought every last item on the rider, prepared the dressing room, printed out running orders, “”Quiet Please”” signs and a full page of instructions for me. My job was to get to the Railway at 4 pm, when the band would allegedly arrive, and generally attend to their every wish. But in fact, the only person there at four was tour manager Doug, an implausibly young but very friendly individual, whose job was to do pretty much everything. He explained that Ginger himself would simply be collected from his hotel at 8.15 and walk straight onstage without sound checking. This sounded like a recipe for disaster to me, but I had reckoned without the super-efficiency of Doug, who took two meticulous hours to set up Ginger’’s enormous drum kit and its numerous attendant percussion nick-nacks, before sound checking comprehensively on his behalf. Blimey, I thought, Ginger’’s going to have to go some to be better than his drum tech.

The other band members gradually arrived. There was the very affable Alec Dankworth, an absolute dead ringer for his famous dad. Normal sax player Pee Wee Ellis was absent, being replaced, just for one show, by another impossibly youthful musician called Josh Arcoleo (whose name Ginger later amusingly forgot). “This is never going to work”, I thought, but the moment he played his first note, it was clear he was a virtuoso and completely unfazed by the potentially intimidating situation. Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo was full of joie de vivre and obviously very concerned about Ginger’’s welfare. All of them exuded concern that nothing should happen which could upset him.

A potential problem came up straight away, and that was how to handle the interval between the two sets. The dressing room was up two flights of stairs, and Ginger doesn’’t really do stairs. An alternative would be to come into the front bar, but Ginger certainly doesn’’t do mingling with the fans. Or he could hang around outside, but it was freezing cold, windy and pouring with rain. No one liked the idea of coming off stage all sweaty and potentially catching a cold at the beginning of a lengthy tour. In the end, a compromise was agreed whereby he would sit in the upstairs bar, which was almost empty.

By way of preparing the young saxist, a very lengthy sound check then took place, so lengthy that, by the time the rest of the band went to a local restaurant for dinner, it was clear that the start time was going to be missed. The audience didn’’t seem bothered or even to notice, but I was getting twitchy as the inevitable happened: Doug arrived with Ginger in his car and was about to enter the stage door when the band wasn’t even in the building. As he stepped out, wearing a beige cardigan and a woolly hat, he looked dangerously frail. I ran up and, with no introductions taking place, guided him slowly to the upstairs bar to wait. The downstairs bar was full of fans, who were transfixed to see their hero ambling past the pool table and up the stairs. “Shall I try to engage him in conversation?” I wondered, instead deciding to go in search of the band.

Eventually all were convened and I pushed through the audience to open the side door and let them in. It was instantly obvious that all was going to go well. The room was warm and packed, and the affection that greeted Ginger as he entered was quite moving. He was smoking a cigarette, which caused a great laugh. Still a rebel! He stubbed it out in the ashtray which forms part of his kit. He looked a completely different person, back straight upright, and as soon as he started to play, he lost twenty or thirty years in a flash. Has he still got it? He sure has.

I’’d forgotten that jazz shows are peppered with audience applause for every solo. And boy, were there solos. Each number started with a sax riff, proceeded to some improvisation, a bass solo, a percussion solo, more improvisation, a drum solo and finally back to the riff. The quality of the playing from all four members was quite astonishing. What’’s more, all of them, including Ginger, were smiling at each other. ““That’’s a good sign”,” said Doug, standing like a coiled spring, ready to leap into action at the slightest sign of a problem. “”They don’’t always smile.””

After 40 minutes, it was time for the interval, so out we came again, down the side alley and into the upstairs bar again. Would they like a beer? No, but a coffee would be nice. I went and made a couple of Nescafés, and that was when I had my conversation with Ginger Baker. I could only carry two cups, and as I placed them on the table, he looked up at me dolefully.

“”Milk!”” he said gruffly.

“”Of course.”” I turned round to go and get it.

“”Sugar!:” he called out after me. I nodded, returning shortly later with both.

““Spoon!”” Damn, I’’d forgotten the spoon.

Then it happened, as I came back with the spoon. “”Fank yew”,” he said, and smiled. Now according to Ginger’’s reputation, he should at the very least have nutted me for my forgetfulness, but not at all. Ginger Baker was thanking me. It’s been a good night, I thought, and it was only going to get better. The second set was even more exciting, with the audience reaching fever pitch.

What I only found out later was that Ginger had had a barney with the security guy, who had told him off for smoking in the building. But he seemed to get over it very quickly, and Doug made a point of going to the security man and apologising. The second set started with a typically abrupt introduction from Ginger: “”The smoking laws in this country are absurd. So we don’’t get cancer, they make us smoke outside, so we all catch pneumonia.”” And then, before the last number, noticeably out of breath (a man half his age would have been): “”This will have to be the last number, that is unless you want to watch me die onstage.”” This drew a bitter-sweet round of applause.

There was no encore, of course. Ginger was into the car and off into the night in a flash. The others hung around for a while, saying how much they’’d enjoyed it. Doug, stuffing the remains of the rider into his bag, even said, “”See you next time”.”

So there might be a next time? Yes please.

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sxsw 2012

sxsw 2012
I’’m going to try to give an idea of what it’’s really like coping with sxsw. You’’ll probably find the detail wearisome and you’’ll probably be disgusted by some of the music. I have very Catholic tastes. But when I am too old and knackered to do it any more, maybe I’’ll read this back and wallow in the memories.
Getting up a 4 am to catch the 5 o’’clock coach to Heathrow was challenging, but actually there was something rather relaxing about being in town at that quiet time of day. Everybody on the coach was asleep apart from a couple at the back who had a blazing row which lasted the entire journey. What kind of energy must you have to fight at 5 am?
I’’ve never had such a lovely flight. Following the merger of Continental and United, there is over-capacity on transatlantic routes and the plane was less than a quarter full. I lay down across three seats and, after a lovely veggie lunch, used the three blankets and three pillows to create a bed and slept like a lamb for the entire flight.
Actually, I hadn’’t booked this route at all (via Newark). I’’d booked via Houston but received a casual email saying the route had been changed. This meant a very short connection in Newark, so I was hoping for a smooth immigration process. Inevitably, I chose the only queue with an over-zealous officer and a series of people with apparent problems. As the other queues were waved by with a smile, mine stubbornly refused to move. Then came security. The queue I chose was hijacked by a series of people in wheelchairs. In my panic, my natural inclination to give them the consideration they merited was almost overcome with a desire to shout “”Get out of the bloody way, can’’t you see I’’m in a hurry?”, – but not quite, of course. I literally ran all the way to the gate, huffing and puffing in at the last moment. On the plane, I sat next to a very nice Dutch agent. Unfortunately he had a streaming cough and cold and I had to try to face away from him while still maintaining a conversation. Buggered if I was going to let my sxsw be ruined by a cold.
My friend Paul was waiting at the airport and we headed straight for the Convention Centre to get my badge. As I’’d slept so well, there were no jet lag symptoms at all. I was desperate for a shrimp enchilada and luckily such an emporium was just opposite. The waitress tried to convince us that the obviously chain establishment was owned by her father.
We headed straight for the “British Embassy” at a club called Latitude just off Sixth Street. This is where, each year, a succession of usually mediocre and never to be heard of again UK bands play apparently at our expense. It certainly seems from the brochure as if many of them are funded by local councils. I wonder how many council taxpayers are aware of their cash being used for these guys to have a full scale jolly and try to further their careers in the States? In effect, all the bands just play to each other, as there is a distinct lack of local accents. “Thank you Austin,” they all chant as they announce their long-awaited final numbers. Among those playing this year were Charlie from Busted (honestly) and the ghastly Frank Turner.
One of the quirks of my annual visit is that I have to write about bands from my area for the local paper. Frank Turner is the only “famous” rocker ever to have come from Winchester (apart from Mike Batt but he does’’t count). I really am not impressed by Frank Turner. It’’s not so much that he’’s an old Etonian pretending to be a man of the people, it’’s more that the songs are so poor and the performance so full of bluster. But I had to get a photo of him, so in we went. It turned out to be a good move, because we caught a great band from Wales called Future Of The Left, who were highly political and roared like buffaloes on heat. After that, Frank Turner announced he was going to play his “hits”. I wasn’’t aware he had any.
After a nice sleep in the Homestead Suite which was home for the week, it was time to make some of the awful decisions that have to be made every few minutes at sxsw. At any given time, there are probably at least twenty bands you’’d like to see, all playing miles away from each other. Plus there are loads you never get to find out about. The daytime “fringe”, mainly situated round the South Congress area, is now at least as big as the festival itself. Daytime activities on the Day Stage of the Convention Centre have become much more exciting than they used to be, and here you can catch many of the “buzz bands” in the almost plushy comfort of this large seated venue, complete with huge, dreamy bean bags. Thus it was that we were able to see three acts in just over an hour: Michael Kiwanuka (I think it may have been his US debut) being very pleasantly soulful, the lovely Whitehorse, (Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland demonstrating their new-found technological expertise in the adjacent Brush Square) and then back to the Day Stage for the rightly much-anticipated Alabama Shakes. They fit the bill for the Adele audience perfectly and it’s not unrealistic to imagine similar success for them.
Now here’’s an odd thing. As well as the clashes, there are moments when there’’s nothing to do. Such was the case next, so we wandered over to the South Congress area. This is where all the cool art galleries and eateries are, plus the yards where band after band can be found playing, so there’s always some music to catch. After another round of shrimp fajitas (I could have them for breakfast, lunch and tea for the rest of my life), plus some happy hour beers (Dos Equis, two dollars a bottle), we hung around for some great music featuring Scrappy Judd Newcombe and an unidentified vocalist who looked as if he were about to die but sang like an angel. Then, via the already burgeoning mayhem of Sixth, we caught Jeff Klein’’s My Jerusalem at Trinity Hall.
Emo’s has been re-named The Main, which caused a bit of confusion. We got there early for Jimmy Cliff, whom I’’d never seen. It was an acoustic set, which was unexpected, and took forever to set up. And then, how do I put this? The lovely “Many Rivers To Cross”, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, “The Harder They Come” etc. were rather spoiled by the fact that Jimmy’’s flies were gaping open throughout the entire set. Well, I’’m sorry, but it ruined the vibe, because everyone was talking about it and pointing at it but no one liked to say anything. Shame.
I’’d heard of Dry The River (or maybe it was one of the many other bands which have river in their name), so off we went to the Red Eyed Fly. Well, I hadn’’t done my research, because they weren’’t American but British. They were weird, but not in a good way. There was something disconcerting about the giant tattooed bassist leaping on and off the drum riser and then introducing the next song in a fey Home Counties accent entirely at odds with the image. I’’d expected something authentic, which this certainly wasn’’t.
It’’s always worth paying a visit to the 18th Floor of the Hilton, a tranquil oasis away from the mayhem. Freedy Johnson was lovely there at midnight, playing “Cruel To Be Kind” on a ukelele. One of the highlights of the week actually, and how nice to relax on a comfy seat.
That day’’s final madness was the misguided idea Paul had that a band featuring Wayne Coyne’’s nephew from Oklahoma must signal a secret show from the Flaming Lips. It didn’’t, but they were fun nonetheless. Not enough fun to prevent us from heading for the hotel though.
Thursday was going to be Springsteen day. Attendance at his show was to be decided by lottery. So far so good, but the winners were to be notified by email. My phone wasn’’t so technically adept, so I was reduced to asking people if I could borrow their iPhones to check. I never heard anything, but soon was cursing my stupidity.
No one knew where the concert was to take place, but I should have spotted it. I’’d noted down Low Anthem, one of my favourite bands, as a show to go to at the Moody Theater. Straight after was Alejandro Escovedo, followed by nothing. As Alejandro and Springsteen share a manager, it was bloody obvious what was going to happen – and I failed to realize. Pathetic. Anyway, first we had something else to see: Luke Doucet and a huge array of guitarists at Trinity Hall, accompanied, I’’m pleased to say, by delicious breakfast tacos courtesy of Six Shooter Records. Yum.
But time waits for no one, and particularly when it’’s a question of getting into the Cedar Street Courtyard. This is arguably my favourite sxsw venue, a small open-air quadrangle with a stage at one end, capacity about 200 I guess. The showcase I had spotted showed an afternoon sequence, in this order, of Band Of Skulls, Kaiser Chiefs and Keane. Few things are as thrilling as being very close to a huge band, even if they aren’’t necessarily your favourites. Last year it was the Bangles (bliss) and the year before it was Primal Scream (brain-scrambling). This year it was essential to be in the front row for Band Of Skulls because, guess what, they’’re from Hampshire. But to achieve all this, you have to go several hours early and tolerate the innumerable supports, because obviously a show such as this will be ridiculously over-subscribed.
Well, it’’s very annoying for someone like me, who prefers things to be as they should. Admission to this showcase was supposed to be only for those who have RSVPd in advance and received an acknowledgement, a procedure which I had dutifully followed weeks before. In the event, what actually happens is that they simply randomly let everyone in regardless until it’’s full. Luckily I knew this, which was why we arrived two hours in advance. Imagine how furious you’’d be if you arrived, having carried out all the application procedure, and couldn’’t get in because of the place being full of uninviteds? Basically, they shouldn’’t even bother with the rigmarole in the first place.
Duly installed dangerously in front of the speakers, we settled down for the afternoon surrounded by lots of affable and mildly intoxicated new friends. The first band were awful Simple Minds clones, the second were certifiably insane and the third was Band Of Skulls. They have deservedly gone mega in the States and I genuinely felt proud to come from (near) Southampton. Plus they are all very photogenic, by which I mean that photos come out showing them as they actually are, rather than gurning. Next up: Kaiser Chiefs, loads of fun, swaggeringly confident and essentially going through the motions, but still a thrill greater than you’’d get from seeing them in a stadium. Keane were quite unable to follow them. I’’m sorry, but you don’’t come to Austin without a guitar.
It goes without saying that any spaces between acts are always filled by lengthy walks, interspersed with sticking your head into venues (almost every building is a venue) and catching a moment or two of random unidentified bands. I wanted to see Portland’’s Laura Gibson but got the time wrong (just the first in series of blunders). This meant tolerating a succession of no-hopers at the Red Eyed Fly. Happily, Laura and her band brought a blessed element of subtlety and relief.
I’’d been recommended The War On Drugs, so after sitting on the kerb eating a huge lukewarm chunk of pizza, I headed to the Mohawk Patio early, fearful of crowds. I ended up crushed against the front of the stage, far too close to the speakers. In fact, my ears are still ringing a week later. It meant that the sound was so distorted that I couldn’’t work out whether I actually liked them or not. I’’ll have to give them another go.
What followed was an unexpected highlight. Billed at the Hilton (ground floor) was “”Special Guest (Framingham, UK)”. All the acts are listed together with their provenance. This could, of course, only mean Ed Sheeran, so I got there early, assuming it would be rammed, with queues round the block. Ed was doing several other shows during the week, all in much bigger venues. But that was without reckoning on the difference of tastes between the UK and the US, nor the way that careers develop at different rates in different countries. Basically, the place was half empty, and it was only a small hotel conference room anyway, laid out, cabaret style, with tables, chairs and candles. At first I blundered straight into Ed’’s dressing room and had to beat a hasty retreat. Then (I’’d had a couple of drinks), I marched straight to the front and sat down at a table by the stage. This gave a good vantage point, firstly for the excellent Marcus Foster, then for Ed himself.
Bloody hell, he’’s good. I am instinctively prejudiced against anything commercially successful, particularly if bound up with Brit Awards and the like. Also, the “solo bloke with acoustic guitar and loop pedals” concept is so hackneyed. Well, not this time. He’’s ridiculously talented as a songwriter, uses the gizmos brilliantly and brought the house down with his rapping. At the end (he always does this but I’’d forgotten), he clambered on top of my very table and did a couple of unamplified songs. He was wearing very baggy shorts and it was tempting to point my camera up them. I resisted.
By the end of the long walk home, I was knackered enough to cancel morning appointments and opt to sleep instead. Just as well, since it would be another long day. It started with the beginning of a ridiculous but magical Chuck Prophet odyssey. He was playing at the excellent Ginger Man Pub, not even listed as a venue, but centrally placed and with a great patio and stage. Here I found a nest of UK promoters, all discussing the Springsteen show. Apparently it had been possible just to walk in there unchallenged. There’’d even been empty seats. People were saying it hadn’’t been anything special – – phew. In fact, a couple of songs into Chuck’’s set, all the talk was about Chuck being significantly more exciting. Basically, you’’ve never seen a better rock band. His band is astounding and the new songs from “Temple Beautiful” uniformly appealing. And Chuck’s guitar shredding is beyond belief. So when Peter Buck stepped up and joined in the “You Did” finale, it was more that anyone could ever have hoped for on a Friday lunchtime.
Time for a bit of comfort at the Day Stage. The target was Blitzen Trapper but I arrived in time for the end of Ben Kweller’’s set. This guy was being hyped all over the place, on billboards, buses and taxis, but it was hard to see why. Blitzen Trapper were much more interesting.
Next was a long trek to a venue called Lustre Pearl. On the way, we saw a bleeding guy who’’d been knocked off his bike. More of this later. The show was organized by the same magazine as the previous day’’s Cedar Street showcase, so needless to say the same chaotic admission procedure reigned and my RSVP was cheerfully ignored, indeed laughed at. Eventually we saw snatches of Deerhof (good) and The Drums (Strokes clones) but the call of hunger was irresistible and a visit to a nearby chain burger joint reinforced what we really already knew: avoid chain burger joints.
Then I did something silly. Keen to see M. Ward, I set off for a small venue called Frank. Wandering past a quarter mile queue (they call them “lines” over there), I vaguely wondered who was causing it, until I got to the venue and realized it was the front of the queue. Bloody stupid, of course I should have realized M. Ward was far too big for a little venue and that I should have gone along hours early. Nevertheless, I joined the line but it didn’’t move at all and eventually we were informed that it was “one out, one in”. So that’’ll mean getting in some time next week then.
But there was an alternative. Over at Joe’’s on South Congress, Alejandro Escovedo’s Orchestra was about to start playing. But it was a hell of a long walk, so the time had come to try out the ubiquitous bike rickshaws. I was a little surprised that a clutch of them declined to take me when I said where I wanted to go. “”No thanks man, that’’s up a hill”,” was the response. Eventually one agreed to do it for twenty dollars. It was actually a bit hair-raising. Austin prides itself on its eco-friendliness, but it hasn’’t really got its act properly together. Taxis are not to be found in the centre during sxsw because gridlock reigns and they’’d never get anywhere. The status of the rickshaws seems vague. As we trundled along the road, motorists charged dangerously by, honking at us to get out of the way. So then we took to the sidewalk, whereupon we were quite rightly shouted at by angry pedestrians. On a couple of occasions I had to dismount because we couldn’’t get through gaps left by parked cars. Anyway, we eventually got to Joe’’s, where a huge crowd was being entertained by the orchestra. There were no “special guests” but a great version of “Rock The Casbah”.
It was back to the mayhem of Sixth for a moment, where I was tapped on the shoulder and turned to find the son of a friend of mine from Cornwall. That’’s crazy! As was Grant Hart, who I was interested to see because Bob Mould was in town performing “Copper Blue” but I couldn’’t work out where. Hart was shambling alone in front of a sparse audience and appeared to have no teeth. I lasted thirty seconds.
Shearwater was strange too. They’’ve suddenly turned into a rock band, losing two of their most important members (drummer Thor and bassist Kim Burke). They were good but had lost much of their original appeal and I wonder whether audiences on their forthcoming Euro tour will feel short-changed? I was cheered up by bumping into my friend Al James from Dolorean but shocked to find the beers at Red Seven cost 6 dollars each. Cheek!
Saturday started with something very pleasant, a secret show from Laura Gibson and band in her hotel room, complete with delicious breakfast courtesy of her record company. Things like that are so special . But the rest of the day was to be Chuck Day. Paul had decided he wanted to follow Chuck round Austin because he was so bloody good. Paul had a car, I was feeling less inclined to rush around checking out other artists and basically, the idea was irresistible. So there we were at Jovita’s, drinking beer at 1 pm (it feels deliciously decadent) and having our brains blown out by the storming Mission Express. Someone videoed lots of this show, try putting Chuck Prophet, Jovitas into You Tube. The ear to ear grins sported by the entire band tell you everything.
After a few minutes of the Waco Brothers it was off to the wonderful Yard Dog Gallery courtyard for the next Chuck instalment. This was enlivened by two power cuts, which hardly seemed to matter, because the audience just kept on singing until it was sorted out. Noticing that Ian Mclagan would be playing at the Yard Dog later, we zipped over to Maria’’s Taco Express, where the impeccably dapper Alejandro Escovedo was presiding over his annual taco party and a huge array of bands of wildly differing style and quality. Plus gorgeous food and margaritas. Back at Yard Dog, the Mekons’’ Jon Langford and the indefatigable Ian McLagan were finishing off the day in style. Austin residents and expat Brits both, they sum up the joy of being a musician in this particular town. Mac observed that he had now lived in the US as long as he had lived in London. He also invited everyone to visit Austin outside of sxsw, when there is still masses of music to choose from.
Getting towards the end now, I had a hankering to check out hotly-tipped new Scottish band Django Django, and it was worth it. Despite being at the oddly-shaped and very uncomfortable Latitude club, they impressed with their stoned synths and raging percussion. Plus their bassist was a dead ringer for Thomas Dolby (who was also in town somewhere). In fact, they were a pretty oddball bunch all round.
My plan was to finish off the week with a nice quiet dose of Hurray For The Riff Raff, but it turned out they had actually been on at 12. 30 lunchtime rather than midnight, so the trip had been fruitless. The only solution was another rickshaw (and another complaint about pedalling uphill) back to the Continental Club for a final helping of Chuck, preceded by a frighteningly loud Jon Dee Graham and Freedy Johnson, quite different from the acoustic version previously encountered. I don’’t know if it’’s true, but it’’s claimed that Elvis once played at the Continental, and it certainly feels as if the spirit of rock and roll is embedded in its walls.
And so to bed and a completely uneventful trip home. Next year i’s already booked.

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Johnny Thunders in Winchester, 1977

Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, King Alfred’s College, Winchester, May 11, 1977

A traditional teacher training college in the city of Winchester was not the place you’d have expected to experience Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. Rising from the ashes of the New York Dolls and beset with every imaginable problem from work permit issues to hapless heroin addiction, they were working their way round the UK to keep body and soul together. Darlings of the music press, who loved Johnny Thunders’ “wasted elegance” (Julie Burchill described them as “the most immaculate combo on the planet”), the band had been booked in what seems to have been a deliberate attempt by social secretary Don Allen to provoke unrest among the staid college authorities and the thuggish rugby playing student elite. Previous college bookings had been the likes of Julie Felix and the Albion Band, and the Heartbreakers show was originally scheduled for the plush, seated John Stripe Theatre. On the day, however, scruffy punks from all over the country started pitching up and it was hastily moved to the Great Hall, deemed to be harder to trash.

Now a respected author, Mark Hudson then fronted local support band The Ba, effectively Winchester’s only punk outfit, based down at the Art College. Hudson’s memories of Winchester in the seventies accurately recall a certain era when violence was never far from the surface.”“It was a cathedral town with a seedy underbelly. I’d been corralled into the college band, which was led by a guitarist called Nick Jacobs, who dyed his hair aubergine, made his own clothes out of furnishing fabrics and was trying to create an alchemical fusion of Syd Barrett and Dr Feelgood. Our gigs were shambolic affairs, mostly in the dank shed of the students’ union, or in down-at-heel local pubs – our audiences always in a drunken frenzy.”

Andy Dobbs, now a record dealer in Lincoln, was one of the incipient teachers at King Alfred’s. Being a member of the social committee, he was privy to all the shenanigans, of which the audience was blissfully unaware.

“From midday on the day of the gig, we became aware of a sizeable crowd beginning to assemble in the car park. It was decided quickly that we must do whatever it took to change the venue, as already the drama department were freaking out at the very idea of letting the crowd into the theatre. The Great Hall had been booked by one of the PE tutors for a dance class. Eventually, she reluctantly agreed to cancel it.

Then the second problem confronted us, in the form of the HBs’ tour manager, the truly scary Gail Higgins Smith, who declared that the band would be playing for cash, to be paid at the end of the gig. It had been clearly stipulated in the contract, signed weeks before, that payment would be made (for legal and constitutional reasons) by cheque. While the crowd waited outside, contemplating their evening, the KAC Ents committee were locked in a fierce argument in one of the offices over whether we should break with Union rules, or risk the band pulling the gig, with the probability that cancellation might not be well received by the assembled masses.”

Remembering the drugged and desperate remnants of the New York Dolls, Mark Hudson recalls meeting the band in the city centre. “Thunders had very dark, possibly dyed hair, which accentuated alarmingly pale, washed-out skin – so much so that the blood in the rims of his eyes really stood out. Seeing him walking down the high street past the Buttercross with the tour manager, a very big, peroxide blonde American woman, was a surreal sight.”

Mark recalls his contribution to the evening: “‘This one’s for Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’, I yelled. And we’re a lot better than they are!” As I spat out our lyrics, I could see Johnny and his boys, standing in a line at the back, watching us, their unassailable cool disrupted by a look of curiosity that asked, “What is all this about?”’”

The only verbal contact the Ba had with Thunders was when he asked Nick Jacobs what he played:

Nick: “I play guitar.”

Johnny: “Really, I play guitar too.””

Nick: “Do you want a ginger biscuit?””

Johnny: “Not just now, thank you.”

Me, I was there covering the Heartbreakers for the local paper and my memories are of pure enjoyment, and of being surprised how good this supposedly washed-up lot were. How fickle is the memory. When I now look back through my archives, I discover that my review was as sniffy as if it had been written by the college authorities themselves, sanctimoniously referring to them as bad tempered and sneering and as competent as any band of schoolchildren. Well, it was pretty much true, but as a fully paid up punk follower, you’d have thought I’d have been a bit more supportive.

While arguments raged among the Ents committee as to how to solve their various problems, guitarist Walter Lure was causing problems in the student canteen. Failing to understand the convoluted ticketing system, he ended up calling the checkout lady a fucking whore. Meanwhile, the rest of the band was busy spraying “Fuck you, Richard”, presumably a reference to erstwhile member Richard Hell, on the wall of the dressing room.

There were security issues, of course. Andy Dobbs describes the usual hassle of  “the morons from the rugby club who would try to gain access to the gigs solely to start fights. On this night, the security guards stayed until after the end of the gig, for no other reason than to keep student troublemakers out of the hall.””

The band was to split acrimoniously within six months and Thunders himself died in 1991. As for King Alfred’s, the feathers of this traditional establishment had been well and truly ruffled. The subsequent fallout among the student community lasted months, but for everyone else, the memories (even if they do have the benefit of hindsight) are of a wild, unique and legendary evening.

Mark Hudson’s latest book, ‘Titian, the Last Days’ was published by Bloomsbury in October 2010.

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SXSW 2010

People always ask me, “What is sxsw really like?”. “Well”, I usually reply, “it’s quite difficult to explain …”, and the conversation moves on. This year, I thought I’d try to put down in words a feeble attempt to capture what the festival actually is like for one punter. I hope it is interesting.


I never have problems sleeping, except on one day each year. That is the day when I travel to Austin for South By South West. The route is Southampton – Manchester – Chicago – Austin, and the flight is very early in the morning.  I have booked a taxi and set the alarm, so that should be sufficient, but no. What if the alarm fails to go off? What if the taxi driver’s alarm doesn’t go off and he fails to turn up? Best not to risk going to sleep then, but in this case it’s immaterial, because I have such a savage cough that sleep is out of the question anyway.

That cough. For days, I’ve been worrying on behalf of whatever poor person will have to sit next to me on the eight hour transatlantic flight. Now I am sure I have the answer. I have bought a bottle of cough mixture and cleverly decanted most of it so that less than 30 ml is left. Unfortunately that cuts no ice with the officials at Southampton Airport, who insist it is thrown away. They assure me, though I don’t believe it, that cough mixture is on sale in the departure lounge.

Astonishingly, I am wrong, and purchase a replacement bottle which enables me to spare my germs from the businessmen who make up the entire passenger list of the commuter flight to Manchester. I look around and confirm that I am the only person present who is not wearing a pinstripe suit. I feel rather proud that my next few days are not going to be as dull as theirs will be.

Transferring to the next flight makes you feel good, as you are fast-tracked to the front of the queue. To my relief, the security gentleman doesn’t make me throw away the cough mixture again, and I board the plane. This time last year, it was a huge jumbo which allowed me to stretch out across three seats, just behind Jarvis Cocker, who was doing the same. This plane, however is much smaller and inevitably I am squashed next to someone of enormous girth who spills over on to my seat. Boarding is an hour late because – get this – the incoming flight has had to be diverted round Iceland because of an erupting volcano. Then, we sit for a further hour and a half while engineers try to supply the plane with water, not for the radiator as I naively assumed (I suppose jet planes don’t have radiators), but for the loos and the tea. In the event, the tea tastes as if the water came from the loo anyway. My handy pocket book of crosswords comes in useful in passing the time, in contrast to two truly terrible Ricky Gervais Hollywood films which are played back to back on the neckache-inducing screens. I find myself star struck when I find that my vegetarian lunch is labelled “Rachel Unthank”. I wonder if she is just as thrilled to find hers is labelled “Oliver Gray”. I’m sure hers tasted just as crap as mine did.

The lateness means a quick stopover in Chicago and before I know it I’m in Austin, where my friend Paul collects me from the airport. By way of explanation, Paul is my best mate, even though he now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We became pals back in the early eighties when both he and I were managing bands in Hampshire. He emigrated a decade ago and our annual treat is a visit to sxsw, where I write articles and search for new bands, he takes photos and we generally drink and laugh ourselves into oblivion for a glorious four days of musical overdosing (much like everyone else there). So from now on, most references to “we” and “us” will be shorthand for “me and Paul”.


It dawns warm and sunny, and my cough is in full retreat as we stroll from our conveniently-situated Super 8 Motel along Red River and towards the Convention Center, where our badges are to be collected. This used to be a tedious and slow experience but technology has helped enormously and now it is sorted in a flash, with the customary American welcoming politeness which is a hallmark of the entire event. They give you a huge bag of merchandise which weighs a ton and demands to be jettisoned immediately, so it’s straight back to the hotel with that before anything else can be undertaken. The hotel is pretty basic but has the merit of being affordable even though it is central. It does triple its prices during sxsw week, and its “complimentary breakfast” consists of donuts, muffins and coco pops and thus you’re not missing much when you sleep till midday, which is of course inevitable after each late night.

My request for the afternoon was to re-visit a place I went to with my wife when we first visited Austin ten years ago. The Oasis is an extraordinary restaurant built into a series of decks overlooking Lake Travis. It recently burned down and is in the process of being rebuilt as something much more posh. We chomped burgers and revelled in the sunshine.  I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten the sunscreen.

That was it for the car. From now on, beer was going to be a major part of our diet, so the car remained behind and it was down to feet and the very occasional taxi in time of need. Just for the record, I am suffering from a very painful foot. This kicked in more or less immediately and remained agonizing throughout the four days, so anything I describe as “walking” should actually read “hobbling”. This is significant, as any visit to sxsw entails many, many miles on foot. I’m going to attempt to describe the scene.

At first glance, everything seems reasonably reachable. There is a slew of venues on Sixth Street, and on thoroughfares like Red River, which cross it. There is nothing to stop you just staying in this temporarily pedestrianised area, the most crowded, but you’d miss out on an awful lot if you did. Some bigger venues, such as the open air one at Town Lake, and also La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall are quite a serious hike away. Here is where big names are likely to appear (examples this year being Smokey Robinson and Ray Davies), but we have bitter experience of long journeys followed by fruitless hours standing in queues, and now ignore these events. Some of the best shows are in venues such as Opal Divines or the Continental Club, both of which are a long way from the main action. A few places, such as the improvised venues on South Congress (Home Slice Pizza, Yard Dog Gallery), the Mean Eyed Cat (home of Mojo magazine) and the Hole in The Wall (out by the university) are actually quite a hefty taxi ride, but normally worth the effort. One or two bars (very few indeed) actually choose to opt out of sxsw altogether:

That badge thing: Most people have badges, which don’t actually guarantee you entry to anything. There are also wristbands, which put you in a different and slower queue. Some people try to get by without paying at all. This is pretty hopeless in the evenings, when the official showcases are taking place, but during the day parties, you can go almost anywhere you like and, with patience, will get to see virtually any band, because they all play several shows, some managing as many as ten or more over the four days. The main difficulty is finding out who is playing where and when. I am embarrassed to say that it took us two years to discover that the daytime scene exists at all, since the officially documented events only run from 8pm to 1 am. This is, of course, the teeniest tip of the iceberg.

Sometimes you will find out what’s what because you are on a particular band’s mailing list. Sometimes there are posters which give you clues. Word of mouth is very active, plus nowadays there are all sorts of social networking devices which I don’t comprehend. Sometimes you can strike lucky by spotting a long queue and attaching yourself to it (a couple of years ago, I got to see the Flaming Lips in a tiny club by doing this). One thing which it is honestly worth ignoring is when word gets out that a big, unbilled band is playing in a small place (this year, it was Muse at Stubbs). You are in severe danger of standing in the queue for five or six hours, missing a load of other good stuff, and still not getting in.

It’s not really like Glastonbury at all (for a start, most of sxsw is indoors), but one thing the two do have in common is the problem of awful clashes. With nearly 1500 on the bill, when you search the schedules, you sometimes find a certain time when there is absolutely no one you want to see, followed an hour later by five or more acts you are desperate to see, all playing at the same time in different places. Or, in a variation on the theme, someone at six o’clock followed by someone else at seven o’clock but unfortunately five miles away. If you’re not careful (and I’m not careful) you catch the first few songs of Act A (you know, the unfamiliar ones from their new album), miss the rousing climax and arrive at Act B just in time to catch the immortal words “Thank you, good night”. You then listen to the crowd discussing what an incredible set it has been.


I started sxsw 2010 in the same way as usual, the Canadian Blast, which takes place in a tent in Brush Park outside the Convention Center. Canadian music is government supported and usually this event is great, but this year I was unfortunate enough to encounter a series of rather nondescript bands, with the exception of You Say Party! We Say Die!, who were actually quite good, but I couldn’t take them seriously because their singer reminded me too much of Miss Jones from Rising Damp.

It was time to head for Lamberts, a far-flung upstairs venue which is actually a smart restaurant in normal life. Here you can find the most expensive beer of any sxsw venue, but it is very good beer. By contrast, the toilet was one of the very worst (and there’s lots of competition). The seat was broken and the floor awash with urine.

Mark Mallman, from Minneapolis, is one of my very favourite US artists, his melodies presented in a wild and eccentric stage act which comes across as a mixture of Elton John and Alice Cooper. On this occasion, he was performing with his other band, bouncy electro-poppers Ruby Isle. I wanted to talk to Mark about a possible UK tour with Chuck Prophet, but the news was bad. The proposed fee would mean a big deficit for Mark, and he doesn’t have record company support. Despite that disappointment, the show was great (how many bands feature a step ladder?) and Mark is always ideal for a good photo opportunity.

Opal Divines is a long way from Lamberts but I had promised to visit Welsh singer songwriter Christopher Rees, who was excited to be playing with the South Austin Horns. It was a flying by the seat of the pants show, but a nervous Christopher came across really well with a soulful performance, quite different from his normal more country stylings. The only problems were the lugubrious concentration of the sidemen and the almost complete lack of an audience. I had to set off before the end on a hike to see someone who, no offence, beat the horns hands down in the beauty stakes.

Asteroids Galaxy Tour is a Danish band we stumbled upon by chance at last year’s sxsw.  Their claim to fame is having their tune Around The Bend used in a TV commercial, but they are fantastic fun, with the stunning Mette backed by what amounts to a soul band, complete with horn section. In truth, they haven’t moved on for a year. They are still great entertainment but you wonder what the future holds for them. It’s a miracle that industry types haven’t tried to transform Mette into a Gaga-style electro-Diva, but she seems the sort of person who wouldn’t take kindly to attempted manipulation.

Just up the road is Club De Ville and my next plan was to see a band I’d wanted to see for a while, namely Bowerbirds. It turned out to be an object lesson in the Unacceptable Face of sxsw. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s infuriating. Along with a couple of hundred other people, I stood for over an hour as a completely hopeless excuse for a sound crew failed to enable the extraordinarily patient band to conduct a sound check. The crew were communicating over the PA, which revealed that they genuinely had no more clue what they were doing than most of the crowd would have had. Along with many other people, I eventually gave up and left without hearing a note, sad that we had potentially missed something good round the corner. That’s why I was headed to Stubbs, to try and get in early for Austin’s finest (equal) band, Spoon. It was a big deal for them to be headlining the prestige (if quaint) venue and they pulled it off with aplomb, aided by the fact that they only have a few members and instruments and therefore don’t need complicated sound checks. Plus, bless them, they do a sweetly lugubrious cover of the Damned classic “A Love Song”. As usual at Stubbs, we nipped down a secret side alley which heads to the stage and got a deafening ringside view and the traditional telling-off from the bouncers for using flash photography.


Yesterday, I had made the embarrassing error of heading to a Shearwater show 24 hours early, having mis-read the schedule. The Galaxy Rooms is a strange place which seems to change hands and name each year. It is currently up for sale and completely empty, which actually makes it great for gig-going. They have brought in a stage and a PA, which is pretty well all you need. I make no bones about adoring Shearwater (prog roots revealed) and they delivered as usual. They all look so blissfully happy, it’s no wonder the music comes out so brilliantly. In the wrong hands it could be pompous, as it is, it’s sublime.

The afternoon panned out in perfect style. At two, we were at Headhunters, a homely metal dive which annually plays host to the Six Shooter Hootenanny, a label shindig for Toronto’s finest. With free Tequila and lovely tacos and salad, the atmosphere is fantastic and the music invariably great. Each act does just a couple of numbers and lots of cross-pollination goes on. Each year, I find something new and fun here, and this year it was Hot Panda.

Long-time favourites Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland entertained next, before we had to head off for an hour.

What could possibly drag us away from the Hootenanny? Probably the best band of the festival, that’s what, namely Rhode Island’s The Low Anthem, who had triumphed at the End Of The Road Festival back in September, and who triumphed again at the Galaxy Rooms. How lovely that such quiet, slow, intelligent music can hold an audience so rapt amidst all the mayhem on the streets outside.

Back to Headhunters in time to catch the wonderful Justin Rutledge rocking out to a much greater extent than usual with backing from The Beauties, newly signed to Six Shooter.

I was on a mission by now, doubtless fuelled by the Tequila, and needed to see one off my favourite artists, Jason Lytle (previously of Grandaddy). Lytle famously hated the pressures of fame and now has gone so far as to assimilate himself anonymously into a band called Admiral Radley, which played six times during the festival. Unfortunately we chose the wrong show because (are you seeing a pattern here?) they had trouble sound checking and by the time they got going, only had time for three songs, ignominiously playing behind a flickering projection of a sponsors’ logo. But I would later encounter Jason again.

After a quick peek at the excellent Besnard Lakes at Stubbs, I was off on a hunch. A friend had recommended Nive Nielsen, a singer from Greenland, to my knowledge, the only artist from that country ever to play at sxsw. Also, she was playing on the eighteenth floor of the Hilton Garden Inn, a plushy oasis where the beer is surprisingly cheap and the seats unusually comfortable. I like to go there at least once a year for a rest from excessive volume. Nive was enjoyable but suffered from a condition afflicting many this year, namely an inability to resist using loads of unnecessary musicians. Many of the songs got lost in the convoluted arrangements and it was always a relief when she did something solo. Plus, ahem, it entailed very lengthy soundchecking.

Everyone says how brilliant the Drive By Truckers are, so in the spirit of supporting local music, we headed back to Stubbs. Last time I saw them I found them to be lumbering, bog-standard alt-country with few redeeming features, and this time I found them to be – er – lumbering, bog-standard alt-country with few redeeming features. Surrounded by a crowd of Truckers fans, we survived five songs before heading off to a far more important Texan band.

Centro-Matic have been a highlight of all the “South Bys” I have attended apart from last year’s when they unaccountably didn’t play. After the disappointment of the cancellation of Will Johnson’s tour with Jason Molina (owing to Molina’s illness), it was essential to see them this time and, of course, they never disappoint. Even in the characterless Emo’s Annexe, the trenchant rock and Johnson’s soulful vocals underlined their uniqueness. It was terribly sobering when Johnson dedicated one song to the memories of Alex Chilton, Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous. That is way too many dead geniuses.

Buffalo Billiards is normally one of my favourite sxsw venues. Situated upstairs, it tends to host the hottest shows. This was where I was in the front row for Franz Ferdinand’s breakthrough show, one of the most exciting experiences of my life. Here, too, I shared the ladies’ toilet with Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs, but that is another story. This was where I rushed to after Centro-Matic, to catch another bunch of heroes from Denton, Midlake. Surprisingly, there was no queue, but a musical problem for me. Despite their “The Courage Of Others” being one of my top albums of 2010, they also suffer from having too many extra members. Because most of their instruments, including non-rock and roll items such as flutes, are acoustic, they – guess what – soundchecked forever and then gave a muted and, oh dear, I’ll have to say it, rather boring performance. Oh well, bed time anyway.


This is a good moment to add that the bands mentioned here are only a sample of those we saw. Nipping in and out of bars, you catch snatches of scores of bands you never identify, plus others you fail to remember. And while it isn’t really a street festival, you do come across gems on street corners, such as the Coal Porters, playing their hearts out outside a bank on Sixth Street.

Whenever I am at South By South West, I keep my eyes open for Hampshire bands. This is a strange thing to do in Texas, but I am aware I’ll be doing reviews for Hampshire publications and that they like a “local angle”. It’s normally quite a hapless task because, although half the musical population of the UK is present, there seldom seem to be any Southampton musicians around.

So it was with a certain amount of joy, not to mention surprise, that I spotted in the programme a reference to Southampton. What’s this? Band Of Skulls? God, it sounds like some horrible hardcore band, but I’d better investigate.

Investigation proved fruitful. They sounded great, they seemed respected and they were about to tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But – my blood ran cold – it seemed I knew them after all. It dawned on me that this was a band previously known as Fleeing New York, about whom I had once written a stinking review. Now I may not have been wrong about that particular band, but obviously things had changed in a major way.

So in Austin, I was determined to find Band Of Skulls and make amends. The show I had decided upon (out of several) was to take place at the Cedar Street Courtyard at 1 pm, an outrageously early time by sxsw standards, but the alternative would have entailed going to something called the British Music Embassy, a nastily jingoistic establishment populated by freeloaders and the rump of the music industry. The Cedar Street Courtyard, on the other hand, is the ultimate place to see A Big Band In A Small Venue. Last year, I stood through four acts I didn’t want to see in order to be in the front row for Primal Scream on a stage the size of a pocket handkerchief, while in previous years, I’ve got close to the Kaiser Chiefs, Embrace, Billy Bragg and many others. The intensity is very rewarding, but this time there was a problem. There was only one queue, and it was plain that hundreds of hopefuls were employing my “get there early” technique in order to see BRMC, scheduled for later in the afternoon.

On this occasion, someone had decided to roll all the queues into one, which was not exactly fair for people like me, who not only had a badge but had also gone though a lengthy online rigmarole to reply to an invitation and acquire a confirmation. Well, I’m not proud, but I wasn’t going to miss this band, so, in an entirely uncharacteristic Margarita-fuelled attack of bravery / aggression, I barged past the doorman and charged into the crowd before anyone could stop me, rather startling the smartly dressed delegation from the Hamburg Reeperbahn festival, whose promotional stall I knocked over in the process.

The reward was ample, though. Sneaking through the side bar to prime position in the front row, I felt a warm glow of pride as the compère announced that he was a radio DJ and that Band Of Skulls was the most requested band on his station. A Southampton band making it big in the States? How exciting is this? And how could it be?

Well, how it can be is that this is not just a band name change, it’s an entirely new and very American sound. You know how the White Stripes and the Black Keys have that spare, bluesy earthiness but sometimes you wish they had a bass player? That’s the trick that Band of Skulls pull off. Bassist Emma Richardson looks and sounds great, cool in a Hynde way but somehow rather English Rose-like. Guitarist Russell Marsden is more unkempt but wrestles out abrasive squalls of sound and makes a grand job of that most excellent rock and roll tradition of kneeling on the floor, extracting groans and screeches from his effects pedals. Plus drummer Matthew Hayward, with his minimalist style, outshone at least two thousand other drummers in town. The hooks on many of the songs are almost chants, simple yet not obvious. Wow! For a second, I toyed with shouting out “Go Southampton!” at the end of the set, but resisted, for fear of being branded a football hooligan. And, for obvious reasons, I chickened out of trying to speak to them. I would have apologized for my age-old petulance, of course.

I had already booked Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles to play in Winchester, so wanted to make sure it had been a good idea. The Belmont is one of the most salubrious sxsw venues, and I have to admit that, lolling on the patio in the blazing sunshine, eating a “cone of shrimps” and nursing a Dos Equis (the most glorious Mexican beer), I felt all was very good in the world. So it was that, when I spotted the notoriously shy and un-showbizzy Jason Lytle in the crowd, I simply marched up and started talking to him. I don’t know what came over me, that’s just what sxsw does to you. Luckily, the mood seemed to have got to him too and he was charm personified, allowing me to feel that I hadn’t entirely made a fool of myself. Sarah Borges was great, too, so visiting the Belmont was a good result all round.

Paul, meanwhile, had adored Low Anthem so much that he insisted on trying to get in to what turned out to be a private media showcase, and had lengthy and unfruitful negotiations with an unbending security team. So we met up again to try to get to the Hole In The Wall, a distant venue where Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express were playing the first of their many shows. The taxi we eventually found was driven by a militantly gay chain smoker, maybe not the kind of thing people associate with Texas, but this is Austin. On the return journey, the driver was an outspoken and vile homophobe. Ho hum.

The Chuck show here was intensely vibrant, maybe not one of their tidiest (he told me afterwards that he “didn’t know what the hell was going on”) but with all the unique excitement that a full-on Mission Express show can stir up. Here, as all over town, the spirit of Alex Chilton was palpably present. Alex had been billed to play at Antones with Big Star but sadly passed away in New Orleans on the Wednesday. Chilton songs are always a feature of Chuck Prophet shows and this was no exception. I was so excited that I forgot to take any photos, but I did manage to film one song:

A long walk and a nice meal later, it was time to hit the Central Presbyterian Church, one of several ecclesiastical venues brought into sxsw service. Just as well we arrived early, because they can’t just pack more and more people into the pews, so there is a more finite capacity than elsewhere. A long and friendly queueing procedure (with no alcohol or loos available) was eventually rewarded by Band Of Horses, playing melodic, Eagles-ish music which seemed entirely appropriate. Hard on the bum though.

For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to see Boxer Rebellion at Maggie Mae’s but I was wrong, as they turned out to be a bombastic, sub-Muse affair. Entertainment was to be had, though, observing one gentleman pouring beer from the balcony into the upturned mouth of his mate on the ground floor below, with quite impressive accuracy. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to get early into the line for Red Eyed Fly, a venue where queuing is very dangerous because it is in a busy car park. Fruitless, too, on this occasion, as after forty minutes of immobility it was clear we were never going to get in to see Deer Tick. So time to trouble the shoe leather again in a challenging trek to the Continental Club. This is one of the most atmospheric Austin venues. Someone once told me that Elvis played here. It’s probably apocryphal but I choose to believe it. This journey was teeth-grinding as it was, because it meant missing Chuck Prophet’s “official showcase” at the same time, but Elliott Brood were only doing one show and I wasn’t going to miss it. I arrived in time to decide I loved the Deadstring Brothers after all. I’ve had an on-off relationship with their music over the years, but this environment suited them perfectly.

Elliott Brood is a hellraising trio from Canada, whose wild stage show is renowned. On certain occasions (for example, this one), they supply the audience with wooden spoons and baking trays, employing them as a vast percussion section. The show lived up to expectations, complete with stage invasions, collapsing equipment and the aforementioned mass culinary accompaniment.

After that, something calming was required and that was provided once again in the sanctuary of the 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn. I can take or leave Tom Brosseau, but his decision to dispense with all forms of amplification was a blessed change from the rowdiness of the day.


The best-laid plans … The idea today was to amble out to the Mean Eyed Cat for the Mojo day party, but no one had anticipated the weather intervening in such a dramatic way. Overnight, the temperature had dropped by forty degrees fahrenheit! In the morning, there was sleet in the air. All day, the whole of Austin was remarkably quiet, the queues non-existent and the few brave souls around the place were wrapped in blankets and cagoules. Most of us, of course, had no such gear with us. I ended up buying three tee-shirts during the course of the day and wearing all of them on top of the two I started out with. Thank goodness for the sanctuary of the Six Shooter House, where we had been kindly invited to spend the  morning but ended up spending hours, because everyone there was so convivial, the endless Margaritas and quiches so irresistible and the music so wonderful (they set up a studio in the cellar and do impromptu live recordings).

Luckily, the house was a stone’s throw from Home Slice Pizza, a mine of cool music, and the inimitable Yard Dog Gallery, where we caught Jon Langford, followed by yet another Chuck Prophet show. Goodness knows how any of them managed to play any chords without their digits falling off.

At this stage I had planned to see Athlete, but had been saddened the day before to see a snatch of them reduced to an uninspiring acoustic duo. When their first album came out, I’d have bet on them being a world-beating band, but it’s been pretty much downhill from there. So it was off for a final visit to Red Eyed Fly (this time no problem about getting in, for obvious reasons) to listen to a few great new songs by Ben Weaver. When I shook his hand it literally felt like a block of ice, so goodness knows how he managed to play the banjo. Wrapped up in his hoodie, he had the air of a benevolent monk.

Now this is pretty shaming, but at this stage, I chickened out. On my list of unwatched bands for Sunday evening, I find Gemma Ray, Drums, Ian McLagan, Grant Hart and Swervedriver, but not only was the cold unbearable, but I was back into “panic about waking up” mode. What if I don’t hear the alarm clock? What if the taxi driver doesn’t hear his / her alarm clock? Oh god, how will I ever get home (etc, etc)? But the next day, remembering previous years when I have partied till 2 am and then had to get a morning flight feeling completely shit … well, I didn’t regret it.

And the best thing about the return flights? Waving goodbye to my bag at Austin Bergstrom airport and seeing it pop out in Southampton. It always seems like some kind of miracle, to be repeated next March (of course).

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