Festival review: SXSW 2013 comes to a crescendo with Jim James, Green Day, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, Twangfest Day Parties, Heartless Bastards, Frankie Faye, FIDLAR, Ozomatli, Vampire Weekend and a softball triumph, March 15-16
With only two earnest SXSW Music nights left, and an overstuffed head of unforgettable memories and music, I set out with a now insatiable appetite for more. More venues, more music, more Austin, as much as possible, as much as I could live; the unfortunate end to the sheer dreamlike sequence I’d been savoring was looming.
Offering by far the best views of Austin’s skyline, thousands joined at the Auditorium Shores Stage for Jim James’ brand of freak-rock-R&B. James contented himself and the crowd by thoroughly jamming on his stunningly beautiful mahogany Gibson Flying-V. Even if not catching a show at the venue, a must-do in Austin is to take a walk from the Shores stage across the 1st Street Bridge at sunset: unmistakably breathtaking.
Lucky enough, after failing to come up with tickets through any drawings, my brother and I took the time to check out Austin City Limits. Twenty minutes later, minimal shenanigans necessary, the regal interior of Austin City Limits welcomed us. Green Day, coming out to the Western-defining whistle of Ennio Morricone’s “Good, Bad and the Ugly” theme, kicked off a two-hour set. Flying through newer stuff to start, the band went all the way back to “1039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours” — the collecton of EPs marking their Lookout! Record’s debut from 1991, pre-Tre Cool’s joining the band — to play “Disappearing Boy.”
Billie Joe Armstrong, recently having completed a rehab bit, actually seemed to carry even more intensity; the direction of it now accurately aligned the only difference for the frontman. The band galvanized its inhuman work ethic to once-in-a-lifetime results for a couple of Ohio kids who weaned themselves off mom ‘n’ dad’s picks with “Welcome to Paradise.” Accomplishing at least the same for a string of crowd members that were brought on stage, Green Day’s exponential desire to please proved a constant. The first fan brought on stage got an Armstrong lip lock while the last enthusiastically led the crowd into saving him from his lie about knowing the third verse to “Longview” — they all, save for the already entertainingly overjoyed sign language translator, took their rightful stage dive. “Burnout” and “King for a Day,” respectively a personal first live and a set staple, also made for highlights in a show that included “Sweet Child O Mine,” “Hey Jude” and “Highway to Hell.”
A quick stop at the Belmont for another Eagles of Death Metal show, before catching the tail end of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound at the Tap Room at Six, was too enticing not to make. Mike Dirnt and Jason White, the man that officially made Green Day a quartet, coincidentally also helped themselves to the post-punk soul. The quite-humble Mike ended up taking our picture. Admitting fan status of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, he filled us in on having put them on their guest list for the show hours before. The meeting of a childhood hero, his instantly welcoming conversation and the utter “Holy shit” factor combined to keep me from sleeping that night.
Having already reserved Saturday for KDHX’s own Twangfest day parties, the shows became the theme of the final day. Held at the incomparable Broken Spoke — an enjoyable hearkening back to farmhouse dance halls, it features two stages, a dusty, empty “Tourist Trap,” a troth in the men’s restroom, and a sign warning that there’s “No Standing on the Dance Floor.”
Laura Cantrell’s gentle voice carried the place through the two-stepping it had been itching for while honoring her personal hero, the first woman to top the U.S. Country Billboard charts, Kitty Wells. Better yet, this even afforded the opportunity for our editor, Roy Kasten, to prove that his dancing skills far surpass mine. [Editor's note: Given Kasten's moves, that's not saying much.]
Pokey LaFarge, to close out a stellar set that had the dance floor jumping, decided he needed to be closer to the crowd. Quickly moving his band (much expanded beyond the South City Three) to the middle of the boot-scooters, the guys wrapped KDHX’s excellent day party by leaving their own mark on the renowned “Best Honky-Tonk in Texas.”
Concert review: Rough Shop, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Kevin Gordon and John Doe put the wraps on Twangfest 16 at the Duck Room, Saturday, June 9
Despite the band’s name, its set was anything but rough. Rough Shop kept a groove that you could set your watch to and they meshed very well together, both vocally and instrumentally. Lead lines and solos rose up from the background and faded back so smoothly that the transition was barely perceptible. The vocal harmonies were wonderful regardless of who was singing. Rough Shop showed the bright and bouncy side of Americana with great aplomb.
Seattle is the last place I think of when country music is involved. Thankfully, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers added it to my list of cities with great country artists when they hit the stage after Rough Shop. Zoe herself is a fine guitarist and has a sweet, soulful voice that hearkens back to classic artists like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.
And much like those country stars, Zoe has a penchant for writing songs that tell tales of love, both true and unrequited, and surrounding herself with top-notch musicians who can propel her voice into the far corners of the venue. I was most impressed with the group’s ability to stick very close to the roots of Americana without sounding dated or rehashed. This twangy set could not have been any more country and western if had it been performed in the rowdiest honky tonk north of San Antonio — it was by far my favorite of the evening.
Appearing for his third time at Twangfest, singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon showcased the gritty side of country blues. Cranking out some of the most desperate, down-on-his-luck sounds from his amplified acoustic guitar, Gordon played songs about loss and life in general as seen from the bottom of the barrel. Being about as far from twang as you can get and still be country, some of his tunes showcased the bluesy side of rock or maybe the rocking side of blues. Playing the role of the songwriting storyteller to a T, Gordon translated his joys and sorrows into something that really spoke to the crowd. After his set, he came back out for an encore at the fans’ request.
Concert review: Ha Ha Tonka, Langhorne Slim and the Law and Kasey Anderson and the Honkies tear up Twangfest 16 at the Duck Room, Friday, June 8
At the end of the third night of Twangfest, I was surprised the building was still in one piece. Luckily for the Duck Room, the structure is made from the same hard substances that has kept so many St. Louis buildings standing for so many years — brick, old stone and concrete.
A full-blown evening of rock ‘n’ roll began promptly at 8 p.m. with a welcome from Twangfest board member and KDHX DJ Chris Bay. Kasey Anderson and the Honkies opened night three with a solid set. Anderson advised that his Pacific Northwest-based quartet brought along songs mostly culled from his 2011 record “Heart of a Dog.” After opening with “Kasey Anderson’s Dream,” the singer dryly welcomed the crowd to the show with, “Welcome to Bonnaroo.” After some witty banter, he continued by saying, “We like your city a lot. It’s a lot bigger than we thought. There are a lot of bricks.”
During the hour-plus set, Anderson stood at stage center with a laid-back attitude and a sense of cool. Wearing a Roky Erickson t-shirt, newsboy hat and jeans, the thin musician strummed a guitar borrowed from Son Volt sideman Mark Spencer and sang with the same rawness of a young Steve Earle. The band promptly ripped into “Mercy,” a song that harkens back to early ’70s blues rock made famous by the Rolling Stones or the Faces. With a opening slide guitar burst from Andrew McKeag “Sirens and Thunder” kicked in with the power of a perfect summer road trip song.
The classic rock vibe continued with “Exit Ghost” which Anderson neatly transitioned into a medley adding Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” to the end. Anderson doesn’t seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel with his music, but certainly follows in the footsteps of giants as he grabs parts here and there for his own custom sound.
Later in the set, he dedicated his new song “Some Depression” to Peter Blackstock and Kyla Fairchild, former impresarios of No Depression magazine. The song, a witty dig on the alt-country scene contains sharp references to over zealous fans including the line with roots in the local scene, “You got Tweedy and Farrar on your vanity plates driving your Prius down the lost highway.” Bringing it all back home, the set ended with a raucous version of Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues” with McKeag and Mark Spencer trading scintillating solos as Anderson sang and took a back seat to the guitar theatrics. The evening already had a great start.
As a changeover ensued, the crowd refilled their drinks, checked out the Twangfest merchandise and records from the bands and waited for the appearance of Langhorne Slim. When he appeared on stage in his black sport coat, and black hat pulled down tight, the women in the crowd, of which there were many, swooned. With his band, the Law, featuring Jeff Ratner on upright bass, Malachi DeLorenzo on drums and David Moore on keyboard and banjo, Langhorne Slim gave the evening a soulful vibe in the middle of a whole mess of rock. On record Slim can be great, but in the live setting he can be simply amazing which keeps his fans coming back time and time again. The band played a raw set that was loose and altogether tight at the same time, but much like the whirling dancers on the floor.
Concert review: Americana and rock burn on at Twangfest 16 at the Duck Room, with Kelly Hogan, Wussy, Deano & the Purvs and Pretty Little Empire, Thursday, June 7
For night two, Twangfest moved to the Duck Room — a rightful home, since the basement that was once Cicero’s birthed so many punk-influenced country bands whose legacies were loud and clear last night.
St. Louis’ Pretty Little Empire started the night, playing like they were the headliners with beautifully-rendered vocal harmonies often followed by breakneck punk guitar barrages. Singer/guitarist Justin Johnson shakes with a building energy on every songs. The band introduced a new song they haven’t recorded — they’re in the studio making the follow-up to last year’s “Reasons and Rooms.” The song sticks with the band’s formula, a relationship dirge rooted in a heavy, plodding beat topped with sparkling guitars.
Deano & the Purvs collides members of Chicago’s Waco Brothers with Austin’s Meat Purveyors. As Deano described the band, “a Taco Bell menu list” from the other bands, which leaves a loose band that plays honky tonks where the grass is blue. Bill Anderson’s whiskey-lit lead guitar could burn the whole place to the ground.
Dean Schlabowske and Jo Walston trade vocal duties, swinging from lovelorn to drunk to down-right homicidal in a whirlwind of country punk. They’re not a polished act, and they wouldn’t work so well if they were. Walston rifled through a pile of lyric sheets, which Deano dubbed her “steampunk teleprompter.” While her vocals sometimes veered off-key and hot, they create an emotional rawness. If Liz Phair had gone country in 1991, this is what she would have sounded like. She’s at her strongest when she can’t find her lyric sheet to “Dead Wrong” but plows through with her sharpest performance of the night, and when trading spitfire verses with Deano on their “bastardized” punked-up take on Bill Monroe’s “Little Red Shoes.”
All this raucousness is rooted by Joe Camarillo on drums and Alan Doughty on bass. The former’s steadfast and thorough. The latter is a whirling dervish, playing bass at lead guitar strength. All the elements implode into traditional country covered in heat blisters.
Three songs into their set Wussy‘s singer/guitarist Chuck Cleaver apologized for his behavior at previous St. Louis shows, which were often fueled by free shots of Jaegermeister. For all his tales of the debauchery of his Ass Ponys days and current crankiness, at one point claiming his beer tasted like “baby piss,” Cleaver’s vocals reveal emotional depth. He’s a tender fellow, his lonesome angst as evident in his quietness on “Grand Champion Steer” as co-singer Lisa Walker’s is in her high-reaching warble.
The Cincinnati quintet went from shades of John Doe and Exene Cervenka in their heyday (“Pulverized”) to jammy My Morning Jacket-style fuzzed psych guitar and falsetto vocals (“Pizza King”). Regardless of the style, Wussy weaves the set list together with the constant of Cleaver and Walker’s pop harmonies, particularly amid the guitar destruction of “Airborne” with its do-do-do refrain over fierce feedback. In “Muscle Cars” Walker lead Cleaver in a call-and-response chorus that rises, suddenly dropping to a soft landing instead of the soaring climax predicted by the frenetic beat and insistent, rising urgency while Cleaver and Walker beg to be pulled under.
Concert review: Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, Humming House and Prairie Rehab open Twangfest 16 with a bang at the Schlafly Tap Room, Wednesday, June 6
Lead singer Lacie Mangels and her band (former members of the Linemen) wound jazz and country-power-pop into a mélange that would satisfy any wayward cowboy plunking his hat down on the bar. While Mangels’ verbal precision distinguished her from contemporaries, it also fuels comparisons with other countrified lady troubadours such as Joanna Newsom and Kathryn Calder.
Next Humming House appeared with the bridge of recent single “Cold Chicago,” from the Nashville band’s 2012 self-titled debut record. Vocalist and percussionist (and occasional melodica player) Kristen Rogers performed with a soulful voice that sprang and danced before the audience. “Stop Me Still” featured a Caribbean vibe, a fine whiskey pun and wonderful dynamics, while “Mrs. Wurley” was down-home and covered with a rusty, country anti-sheen.
Humming House, with their Mumford-and-Sons-meets-Avett-Brothers style, is a sure pleaser, but what impressed me more were moments that subverted such references, like when, in the folked-out “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Rogers stretched her pipes, conjuring a sultry, dark sound to revitalize the well-known Bill Withers tune.
Covers of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic,” decadent hits that indulged the audience, also showcased Humming House’s versatility, although I couldn’t help thinking that of the three covers, two were by recently deceased musicians. Perhaps such is the nature of paying tribute, but ah, death was in the air, a suggestion later sealed when Pokey LaFarge dedicated a tune to Doc Watson.
Soon, Pokey LaFarge, complete with his best John Dillinger haircut, was introduced by KDHX’s Roy Kasten to a crowd that whooped and roared as LaFarge and his boys steamed into “Devil Ain’t Lazy” by Bob Wills. The tune wove images of spurious back-alley deals and smoky poker rooms — all without the use of a muted trumpet. Toward the end of the track, the audience chanted back “No Sir-ee” at LaFarge as he sang, “The Devil ain’t lazy…”.
“Can’t Be Satisfied” featured LaFarge asking a lost love, “Where you gonna run to?” Ryan Koenig harped-out an incendiary harmonica solo during an extended bridge as the mutton chop-adorned Joey Glynn swung his upright bass and gave us all a joyous grin.
If you were cooking up a dish of Kevin Gordon‘s music you’d start with a solid base of rock ‘n’ roll, and then add in various complimentary ingredients of country, folk and blues.
Fans of the country and rhythm and blues records of Memphis and Nashville of the ’50s or songwriters like Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen and even the Hold Steady will find something enjoyable in his deep, soulful music and poetic lyrics.
I spoke to Gordon via phone the afternoon before he was going to take his teenage son to see Jack White perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. When he’s not on the road, Gordon runs an art gallery and retains his chops playing every Wednesday at the Family Wash, a bar a couple of blocks down the street from his East Nashville home.
Kevin Gordon performs with a full band at Twangfest 16 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on Saturday, June 9.
Scott Allen: So, you grew up in Louisiana, correct?
Kevin Gordon: Yes, that’s right.
Which artists influenced your music when you were growing up? What stuck out for you?
Everybody goes through those changes when they grow up, but I was always interested in roots music, I guess. When I was a little kid my parents would have these parties and I heard a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and things like that. I had a bit of an Elvis fixation a few years later. I guess through Elvis Presley I first heard Jimmy Reed songs and things like that he would cover. In high school, I was a skateboarder and through that I got turned on to punk music. I was into the bigger bands really — the Clash, the Ramones and X. Definitely X was a huge influence.
I would imagine that it would be hard to get some of the records from the lesser-known groups in Louisiana — if you’re into punk especially back then without the Internet. Today you know everything. It might not always be right or correct, but you know it.
[Laughs] That’s right! To see any of those bands we would have to carpool to New Orleans or to Dallas. Sometimes to Jackson, Mississippi which was a little closer. It was an adventure to go. My pals and I went to see the Ramones twice in New Orleans and X at a club in ’83 which was incredible. The Dead Kennedys which was really something. Through that I kinda came back to roots music in a way….
The Ramones covered a lot of ’60s underground and garage rock and hits like Chris Montez. They harkened back to that even though it was a darker image of that music. In many of the interviews I’ve read you mention that you have your Master’s in poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I am more curious in what took you in that direction.
I started playing guitar when I was a junior in high school and almost immediately started trying to write songs, so I was in bands when I was writing my first attempts at songs. I was also heavily into poetry which I got into in junior high. My stepdad was my ninth grade English teacher, a great reader that turned me onto a lot of stuff. I was writing what is loosely described as poetry, which was an emotional outlet for me for the usual adolescent complaints.
My folks had split a few years earlier and I was dealing with that emotional mess. I just kept on doing it. I was lucky enough in college to have a writing professor who knew something about what was going on now in American literature or world literature, for that matter. This was the first time I had ever seen a literary magazine that was current. This was my third year in college. So, he was a great teacher and really helped me with my work.
When it came to my senior year he encouraged me to apply to some graduate writing programs. That year we also had a visiting writer who was on the faculty at Iowa then, who has gone on to be a writing superstar, a MacArthur fellow. She read through some of my work while she was there and encouraged me to apply to Iowa, so I did. Slacker that I was I let all the other deadlines pass for the other programs. I guess I’m lucky because I got in.
When I did get accepted, I took that as a sign as that’s what I was going to be doing for the next two years. I had gotten a B.A. in English, but had not gotten a teaching certificate. That was the last thing I wasted to do was teach. It’s probably still the last thing I want to do. [Laughs] I taught the first semester we moved to Nashville as a way of paying the rent. There were moments that I will never forget. I was teaching at a vocational college where nobody was interested in hearing about poetry or anything other than getting their degrees so they could get a job. I say that with great sympathy. I had a good time trying to turn those folks on to Theodore Roethke and Victor Hugo.
‘”This Land is Your Land” should be sung next to the national anthem at baseball games’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Kasey Anderson
Kasey Anderson‘s a wiry guy in both stature and intellect, a quick wit with an old soul. He’s also one hell of a songwriter.
The Seattle-based musician has performed solo and with his band, the Honkies, for the better part of the last decade, releasing three studio albums and a live set. He’s drawn well-deserved comparisons to Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, but for Anderson those names are kindred spirits more than they are molds to follow. His songs carry the indelible mark of a writer that’s seen, felt and ruminated on everything he’s ever put to paper. They’re truths pulled from a young life honestly lived, and if you let them, they’ll point you toward some of your own, as-of-yet-unseen truths.
I chatted with Anderson recently via phone, just after he wrapped a practice session with the Honkies. Topics ranged from his friendship with Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz to his prolific usage of Twitter to the legacy of Woody Guthrie.
Kasey Anderson and the Honkies performed at the Twangfest SXSW day parties in 2011, but their set at Twangfest on June 8, with Ha Ha Tonka and Langhorne Slim, will be the band’s first St. Louis appearance to date.
Chris Bay: Something that’s been mentioned quite a bit lately regarding your band has been the Counting Crows situation. They covered your song “Like Teenage Gravity” for their new covers record, “Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation),” and they’re also going to take you and your band out on tour this summer. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship?
Kasey Anderson: I’m not sure exactly how Adam [Duritz] came across my songs. He and I started interacting, oddly enough, via Twitter a couple of years ago. I think that someone just turned him on to my record. I was in L.A. off and on for a while last year and he hit me up, saying that they were making a covers record and they were covering one of my songs. I happened to be in town while they were doing that so I swung by the studio and listened to them. And we’ve just stayed in touch and become really good friends since then. The last time I talked to them, they were getting ready to set up their tour for the summer and he asked if we’d come along. And of course that’s an easy question to answer.
That’s very cool. So the relationship started because of his admiration of your music.
Yeah. Someone must’ve just turned him on to my record, and he evidently liked it quite a bit. He also saw us play at SXSW, I guess that same year that we did the Twangfest party, not this year, but the year before. He saw the band play and he saw me play a solo show. In the liner notes for the Counting Crows record he cites that as the moment that he really became a fan.
You’re an avid Twitter user, and most of your tweets are extremely funny.
From folklore to barnstormer jams, Ha Ha Tonka play music true to the woodsy Ozark parkland that shares its name.
The quartet of college buddies has been ripping up the countryside since 2005 with their brand of bluesy Southern rock, crisscrossing the country at festivals and even barbecuing for Anthony Bourdain on an episode featuring Ozark cuisine. Their latest record, “Death of a Decade,” is a mandolin-inflected assortment of spooky stories (“Jesusita,” “Dead Man’s Hand”) and two-steppin’ numbers (“Usual Suspects”) that feature the band’s trademark tight barbershop harmonies and reflect the evolution of their style as a harbinger of the sounds of the “nouveau south.”
I caught up with Brett Anderson — a multi-instrumentalist who lends his guitar, vocals and burgeoning mandolin talents to Ha Ha Tonka — as the band was headed to Milwaukee for the fifth show of their summer tour.
Ha Ha Tonka arrives in St. Louis on Friday, June 8 for a show at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room for Twangfest 16.
Annah Bender: I hope this doesn’t sound creepy, but I’m looking at a picture of you right now, you and your band, and I think I know you. I graduated from Missouri State in 2004, and I’m friends with all the guys from Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, and Jody Bilyeu of Big Smith was my advisor in my bachelor’s program. So I don’t know if our paths have crossed in some ways before, but you just look really familiar to me!
Brett Anderson: What is your degree in?
In English, yeah, ok. I was definitely there at school at that time, and I’m friends with all those guys as well, so, yeah.
Well I just thought that was funny.
Maybe if I saw a picture of you, we could put two and two together…
Well, I’m planning on coming to the show at Twangfest, in a week or so, so maybe then we’ll meet each other and figure this out.
So I am listening to “Death of a Decade” right now and I see that it’s a departure from previous stuff like “Buckle in the Bible Belt” — which is an awesome title, I really like that name — but “Buckle in the Bible Belt” just seems a lot more story-based, and even the sound seems more southern rock ‘n’ roll. And this is total speculation on my part, but I imagine that you all are in very different places in your lives now than when you recorded “Buckle in the Bible Belt,” so I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the evolution of your sound and songwriting.
Yeah, absolutely. With the first record, we were all very, very broke, we had just graduated college and we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives, and we were just kinda playing shows on weekends. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad place, but I think you can hear a lot of that stuff if you listen to our second record, “Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South.” And so with “Death of a Decade” it was our time to shine, we felt like, you know, with what we’ve become. We introduced a new instrument which I think kinda took it in a different direction, which was the mandolin which I started playing a couple years ago. I think that really kinda changed the sound a little bit.
You are correct in the fact that “Death of a Decade” is not nearly as much storytelling, not as much as “Novel” or “Buckle in the Bible Belt,” but since then, we wanted to make everything more relatable in a way. I think, musically, the accessibility is a lot more there than in previous records.
It seems like with “Death of a Decade” I get the sense that it’s more personal, whereas with “Buckle in the Bible Belt” it’s like a story about something else that happened, like Missouri folklore or whatever, and stuff on the new record is coming straight from y’all’s experience.