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

Read More


Published on September 7, my new book is a light-hearted education memoir with dark elements, which will “ring bells” for many readers. It shows how I endured:
– a troubled adolescence in a minor private school
– heady days at university in the Swingin’ Sixties
– eventful spells teaching in Europe
– an illicit affair
– dark and bright days in a UK comprehensive
– a dramatic career change
and lived to tell the tale.

Pre-order the paperback here at the introductory price of £9.99:

Read More

Order Citizen Of Europe stickers

Show where you stand by sporting this 14 cm diameter colour glossy bumper sticker. If you don’t want to sully your vehicle’s paintwork, they are also ideal for luggage, instrument cases, laptop bags etc, etc. This is a non-profit sale and the price of £3.00 includes UK postage. Click here – you don’t need a Paypal account, just use your credit or debit card if you don’t have Paypal. Ironically I can’t ship to Europe, as it is too expensive! Please tell any of your friends that they can order here too. Best to send them the direct link to here as it might be difficult to find otherwise. Thanks!

Read More

Order Citizen Of Europe badges

Show where you stand by sporting this lapel badge (one inch colour button badge). This is a non-profit sale and the price of £2.50 includes UK postage. Click here – you don’t need a Paypal account, just use your credit or debit card if you don’t have Paypal. Ironically I can’t ship to Europe, as it is too expensive! Please tell any of your friends that they can order here too. Best to send them the direct link to here as it might be difficult to find otherwise. Thanks!

Read More

Why I Am A European

Why I Am A European
My father was a linguist and used his skills in the Intelligence Corps during the war to help defeat the Nazis. I was born in 1948 and from quite a young age, I always remember meeting people from other European countries. My mother had taken in Polish refugees in Scotland during the war and I remember a particular friend of my parents called Oki, who owned a Polish restaurant in London where we would occasionally go. He gifted me a set of Russian dolls which I found completely fascinating.
When we moved to the Cotswolds when I was four, various neighbours had au pairs from Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany. We couldn’t afford au pairs but somehow they gravitated to our house, possibly because Father could speak to them in their languages. This meant that my parents made many much-loved friends in Europe, even though they didn’t travel much themselves, and these lovely people would always visit us when passing and send us Christmas gifts.
When I started secondary school, I was mediocre in most subjects but immediately took to languages. I have a very strong memory of my French teacher, whose nickname was Prune. He would write declensions and conjugations on the blackboard at extraordinary speed and it was noticeable that I enjoyed copying then down and learning them while most of my classmates didn’t. As soon as it was possible to take up a second language, I opted for German and immediately realised that I would be destined to do something with this language in my adult life. There was something so orderly, respectable and logical about the language and I loved it even when I had to move to a different teacher, a tiny gentleman call Willie Waters who shared Prune’s lightning blackboard skills but had a short temper. I just found it easy and very satisfying to make progress, even through the A-levels which entailed painstaking word-by-word analysis of extremely tedious works by Goethe and Schiller.
In my mid-teens, Father took me to France with the intention of encouraging my linguistic tendencies. We stayed in a small hotel in a town called Mantes-La-Jolie outside Paris, where I was supposed to make friends with the proprietor’s son. I actually didn’t get on particularly well with him but was completely entranced by the other-worldliness of this country with its different architecture, customs and cuisine. Later on, I was sent on a summer course in Tours in the Loire valley, where I got my first minor taste of an adult experience, meeting people from a range of different countries. I stayed with a sweet family who were incredibly kind and generous to me in every way. This was where I learnt to be consistently outward-looking throughout my entire adult life. Although I happen by chance to have been born British, I have never had nationalistic feelings at all. Having been privileged to travel so much, I just adore the various cultures.
The following summer brought a completely life-changing exchange visit to a small town called Schöningen, right on the East German border. I was able to see the armed DDR guards and the border wall at close hand and form the clear opinion that cutting oneself off from other countries for ideological reasons was a terrible, inhuman thing to do. The way I was welcomed in Schöningen was absolutely wonderful. Everybody was bursting with hospitality and friendliness and I made numerous lifelong friendships with people like Detlev, Brigitte, Christa and Knut. Of course I ended up studying languages at university, where many of the lecturers were from France or Germany. The course was actually called European studies, a very early example of such a concept, and more and more I came to feel more European than British. This was solidified during the most fantastic ‘year abroad’ in the Baltic sea port of Kiel, where I made yet more lifetime friends like Jochen, Ilse and Albrecht. I loved it so much that I went there for another year after completing my degree.
I very much wanted to stay on but this was in pre-EU days and my qualifications wouldn’t have been recognised. Therefore I returned to the UK to do a PGCE teaching certificate and, as soon as that was completed, hightailed it back to Germany, where I was privileged to teach English for three years in a state grammar school. Once again, the way I was received was full of warmth and hospitality. I have to say I loved every minute of it and have remained close friends with colleagues and ex-pupils – in fact so close that I ended up marrying one particular ex-pupil nearly forty years ago. During this period, a colleague and I spent each holiday hitch-hiking round Europe, visiting a total of nine countries and marvelling at our freedom to do so without hindrance. The only exception was Berlin, where my (now) wife and I had to split up and use different ways into the East, because she was German and I was English. Never in a million years would we have dreamt that, forty years later, an extremist regime would once again inflict this indignity on us, and that that regime would be a British one.
I was now intending to make my life and career in this very orderly and friendly society, but at the end of the three years, a political situation grew up and, even though by then we had entered the EU, it was possible for the authorities to terminate my contract and hand it to a German national. Not even thousands of people protesting on the streets were able to change this, and a return to the UK was the only option.
Back in the UK, I landed on my feet in a major way by ending up in a school whose head teacher was a linguist who was utterly committed to the European ideal. Languages were a very important part of the curriculum and for over twenty years I taught in that comprehensive school where all the pupils were very open-minded and there was never the slightest trace of any anti-European feelings. Part of my duties entailed taking annual exchange visits to Germany, and to this day I regularly get ex-pupils telling me that it was one of the most important events of their young lives. We even took a large group to Paris each year and their wide eyes and smiles showed how much they enjoyed and appreciated being exposed to a new culture. I was able to spend a blissful term teaching in a secondary school in France on an EU-organised teacher exchange programme. There I had the same experience as when I taught in Germany: well-behaved, polite and enthusiastic pupils, unhindered by things such as ridiculous uniforms and an excellent social mix, because private, fee-paying schools are almost unknown. There was a great international mix, too, with a good proportion of Portuguese and North African pupils, all speaking perfect French.
Eventually, I quit teaching because my little publishing company had become quite successful. Every single aspect of that company was European, creating reading, listening and speaking resources that enabled so many ex-pupils again to tell me, when I met them in the street, how they were able to communicate on holiday and how much they adored visiting various European countries and being part of them, because of course by then the UK was a full member of the EU. Naturally, both our children are bilingual and massive fans of everything European, particularly their German family and French food!
I know a certain amount about the culture of most European countries but I know most about Germany. What sets that country apart from the UK is that it’s an almost entirely egalitarian society, structured so that few people earn vastly more than others, and there’s a very strong sense of social responsibility in matters such as the environment and education. The gigantic social gaps that are found in this country don’t exist in the same way, and there’s very little in the way of what we know as our class system. No wonder, then, that I am attracted to that kind of society and repelled by the kind of government this country currently has in place, presiding internally over obscene inequality and externally over policies of isolationism and xenophobia.
At the moment, of course, people are naturally concerned about the effects of Brexit on the level of the economy and their personal day-to-day well-being, worried about food shortages, increased bureaucracy, transport issues, pet passports and goodness knows what else. Of course I am worried about these things too, but I hope I have shown above that the most hateful aspect of Brexit is the arrogance and snobbishness that looks down its nose at foreigners. If any Brexiteer tells you “I’m not a racist”, it’s almost certain that he or she is lying or self-delusional. Go on any forum and ask them to explain what advantages will be gained from Brexit and they are completely incapable of coming up with any, other than meaningless platitudes about “sovereignty”, which they can’t explain. It’s nationalism, plain and simple. They are perfectly happy to be ruled over by unelected bureaucrats, as long as they are British unelected bureaucrats. They have no problem at all with the House Of Lords and the Monarchy so yes, they are racist, even though they may not recognise it in themselves. So, for me, it’s all on a personal level rather than a macro-level, and I was casting around to find some sentences to express my feelings when I came across a comment on a Facebook forum that did it for me. I have copied it and reproduce it here now:
“It’s so sad that Brexiteers never saw that the EU was about people, to give them as many freedoms and rights as possible, to live, work and love freely in any EU nation. The EU is far more than just trade. It’s about its people’s lives, and how they want to live. Brexit has taken away all this from us, and given us absolutely nothing in return”.
And this is it for me. It’s about people, human interactions and civilized, open-minded behaviour. People who go on about nebulous concepts such as sovereignty are comparable in my mind to religious fanatics, in that they are committed to believing in something that doesn’t actually exist.
One thing I struggle with is that I believe in tolerance and understanding and reaching out to others. This was a hallmark of my Sixties generation, so it’s particularly horrifying to note that people of my generation, whose parents, like my father, fought for the chance to remove animosity from Europe, now display exactly such animosity. Logically, my policy of tolerance should make me feel warm towards Brexit supporters and forgive them for what they have done. This is where I realize that I am a much harder person then I thought I was. These people have deliberately inflicted pain, inconvenience and cruelty on other human beings for no logical reason, and for that I will never forgive them.

Read More


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

Read More

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.

Read More

Glastonbury 2003

There are three things I’’d expected never to do in 2003. Number One was to experience Richard Thompson playing “Shoot Out The Lights” in full majestic electric flight. Number two was to experience Yes playing “Seen All Good People” live on a Sunday afternoon. And Number Three was to hear The Damned playing “Neat Neat Neat” in a full-on adrenaline rush at midnight. And guess what, I did all three within twenty-four hours at this year’’s Glastonbury Festival.
I’’ll be frank. I wasn’t really looking forward to the 2003 event, mainly because all the headliners had already played Glastonbury in recent years, some several times: David Gray, Manic Street Preachers, REM, Doves, etc., etc. It seems that the organisers, in the knowledge that they sell all 120,000 tickets within hours anyway, have become complacent about their booking policy. Either that or there aren’’t any superstars around any more. What? Radiohead? Yes, they were there too, but I don’t go to festivals to get depressed.
So strolling round the smaller stages was a deliberate policy this year, and how rewarding it turned out to be. On Sunday, the Acoustic Stage saw not only the return of Cerys Matthews, but also the birth of a new one in the form of Welsh chanteuse Amy Wadge. Neither of them are a patch on the the old Catatonia, unfortunately. Brilliant New York ex-punk Jesse Malin rocked himself a UK profile in the “New Tent” with a wild and wonderful performance which included a real Glastonbury Moment in the form of  “What’s So Funny ‘’Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”. I nearly cried. On the “Other Stage”, The excellently funky The Rapture were joined onstage by the Happy Mondays’’ Bez, looking disturbingly like Roger Daltrey. Shortly before, Arthur Lee with Love, all looking suitably baffled, had played the whole of  “Forever Changes”. Chuck Prophet, on the “One World” stage, wowed his devotees in the pouring rain, while remaining sprightly and dapper in a dogtooth jacket. He splattered mean and dirty guitar lines around like shrapnel and climaxed with a singalong version of the Clash’’s “Bank Robber”. This was just one of hundreds of Strummer tributes which movingly punctuated the weekend, this having been Joe’’s favourite stamping ground. The New Stage also featured a real tip for big future things in the form of intelligent Mancunian Gallagher lookalikes I Am Kloot. Up at the Acoustic Stage, I finally got the reason why Kathleen Edwards has so impressed North America. First, it’’s the upfront sexual chemistry between her and guitarist boyfriend Colin Cripps, and second, everyone likes a nice spot of Neil Young.
Meanwhile, on the bigger stages, we found all those American bands which play a variation on prog-rock with high-pitched vocals, multiple time signature changes, sumptuous keyboards and soaring melodies. Well, that’’s Yes, isn’t it? It’’s also the Polyphonic Spree (whose impact was diminished in direct relation to their desire to please), the Flaming Lips (who grabbed all this year’’s festival headlines on account of being themselves, but now more people have belatedly discovered their beauty and charm) and, of course, California’’s Grandaddy. This last band, having so comprehensively failed at SxSW, had pulled themselves together to the extent that their performance was rated by them, and the audience, as their best ever. Emotion hung heavily in the air as even that awkward old sod Jason Lytle allowed himself a few smiles. And Christ, were they loud. To think that this band used to be famous for their quietness. Main stage next year, beyond a doubt, and deservedly so.
REM were REM, David Gray was David Gray and Radiohead (so I understand) were Radiohead.
Really bad things: Do you know, there weren’’t any really bad things about Glastonbury 2003. Apart from Alison Moyet, who has completely lost it.
Really good things: The charming inability of any Americans to pronounce “Glastonbury”. To a person (Wayne Coyne, Michael Stipe, even Macy Gray), they invented a new form of fruit called a “Glastonberry”; Mogwai, genuinely playing “Happy Songs For Happy People” – who would have thought that?; David Gray’’s magnificent observation that, “It doesn’’t matter where you are, it always makes you feel better if you say ‘Fuck Tony Blair’”; Captain Sensible’’s equally magnificent observation: “Fuck Radiohead”; The Waterboys‘ “Whole Of The Moon”, live in all its glory on a sunny afternoon; and the fact that, when Yes’’s bassist John Squire brought out his triple-headed guitar, the entire audience, instead of whispering “far out, man”, simply screamed with laughter.
See you next year, 6 pm at the Cider Bus.

From Amplifier magazine

Read More

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. 

Read More

South By South West Festival 2016

I started sxsw 2016 with a nasty throat infection, which I blamed on the vicious ventilation on the plane. Was that why I found the music less interesting this year? I don’t think so, because it’s a brilliant event and I had a huge amount of fun, but somehow things didn’t click for me musically as much as usual.

First, all the good stuff. There were a couple of unique events that I’ll never forget. One was a “Song And Tell” session with Mercury Rev at the Ginger Man Pub. This took the form of Jonathan Donahue interviewing Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde and the band performing – sublimely – three songs: Holes, All Is Dream and Opus 40. It’s hard to describe how exciting it was to be close up with a band that more usually has to be approached through a mass of smoke and strobes. Indeed, that was the case just 24 hours later, as they performed a panoramic 90 minute greatest hits set at the Hotel San Jose. The bass was so loud that the ground quaked beneath us, which must have frightened off the assembled Texans, because at the end, I turned round to see that two thirds of the audience had left. Lightweights.

The other extraordinary experience came courtesy of Timmy Thomas. At the age of seventy, and having spent the last 20 years teaching music, Timmy’s career has experienced a sudden revival on account of “Why Can’t We Live Together” being sampled by Drake. Things got off to a strange start at Austin’s iconic Saxon Pub with Timmy lecturing us about world peace for ten minutes, not realising his mic hadn’t been switched on. But before long, his sublime band kicked in and hit a groove that had the place in ecstasy for an hour. It was such a privilege to be there.

Anyway, the whole point of sxsw is to check out new music and up and coming bands, so that is what I decided to do. It turned out to be less rewarding than I’d hoped, and I came home wondering whether music is in need of another punk-style shake-up. First, some official showcases. The much touted Hinds were a bit of a laugh, a cross between the Bangles and the Slits but without the chops of either. Talk about ephemeral. On electronica, Poliça was a bit pompous and Chvrches had better jokes than music. It was time to go off-piste.

First I went to Maria’s Taco Express, where the margaritas are cold and the salsa is red hot. Like other such venues in Austin, sxsw is used as an opportunity for band after band to play 30 minute sets with cursory sound checks. Performing here was Brian Whelan from LA, playing very infectious bar room rock, greatly entertaining but not really going anywhere. Following on from him was veteran Canadian Corb Lund and his band. Again, the sardonic country songs were enjoyable but generic and you had the feeling of having heard it all before. Is it unreasonable to want to be thrilled and amazed?

The search continued by way of two sessions at the Ginger Man Pub in central Austin. This is a great venue but it’s marred by a silly layout of extremely hard benches that run at right angles to the band, a sure recipe for a stiff neck. Here also, the format is an endless succession of bands that tune up, smash out six or seven three-minute guitar songs and disappear again. You only actually remember trivial things about them, such as that Blackfoot Gypsies had filthy trousers, Yoko And The Oh-Nos were a cross between ZZ Top and Boy George and that Soul Asylum should not try to perform their stadium anthems with acoustic guitars. You’d never consider buying a record by any of them and you wonder what exactly the point of them is. One band that stuck in the mind were called Dash Rip Rock. They came from Alabama and their songs included “Let’s Go Fuck In My Truck” and “Spank Your Panties”. It was alarming to be told that these weren’t ironic titles. The Bluebonnets stood out on account of being women, but that was really the only difference.

Please don’t get me wrong. None of these bands were bad as such. In fact, they could all play, they could all sing and rock out and they all had catchy songs and riffs. I went so far as to seek out the manager of the Ginger Man and congratulate him on the organisation. We didn’t see a single bad band there, but of real spark, innovation and brilliance there was little sign. A vicious thunderstorm that closed down many outdoor venues didn’t bother the Ginger Man, as, after a brief pause, they simply played on with yet another set of musos, this time some blisteringly loud, middle-aged rockers called The Sidewinders, who had forgotten they weren’t punks any more. I couldn’t bear to stay for the Waco Brothers, for fear it might be more of the same.

A lovely Saturday tradition is the Brooklyn Country Cantina, which showcases at least thirty roots / “Americana” bands over two stages. This is usually a great place to trawl for new talents, but not this year. David Wax Museum presented us with mock Mariachi, The Wild Reeds specialised in Coldplay-style soaring climaxes, Christian Lee Hutson was trying to be Andrew Combs and failing, Banditos were more banjo-thrashing and throaty vocals and as for Sam Outlaw, oh dear. Bland, good-looking young country singers, I’m so fed up with them. Whatever else this may be (and it may be commercially successful), it isn’t “outlaw country”. That I could handle. Things were redeemed a little by Daddy Long Legs and Daniel Romano, but they had both played the year before and so weren’t really “new”.

Well, okay, as I said, I started sxsw with flu but I don’t believe it tainted my experience and turned me into a grump. There definitely were positives to be found in the form of ubiquitous New Zealander Marlon Williams, whose songs actually sounded – phew – “different” and Canada’s Strumbellas, and “unique” is certainly a term you could apply to the brilliant BP Fallon, whose band currently includes Joe King Carrasco. The band to watch out of all this is Saskatchewan’s Kacy And Clayton, whose Fairport fixation permits them to write beautiful tunes, and Kacy Anderson had the voice of the week. In amongst all the rasping growls and yells of the other bands, her sweet, innocent tones stood out a mile.



Read More