Astronautalis and The Riverboat Gamblers Return to Town
I can hear the boo-birds already...
"C'mon, Pete! Enough of this Astronautalis guy!"
I know, I know...
"He lives in Seattle and was born in Jacksonville. How is he considered local?"
Hey, I hear ya...
Oh, c'mon on, now. That's just uncalled for.
"Can you—and Quick, too, for that matter—just stop writing about Astronautalis already?"
Can't speak for Quick, but, yes, I absolutely can. Right after this here column.
Because, whether or not former SMU student Andy Bothwell truly should be considered a local artist, the man who goes by the name of Astronautalis offered up a heavily local affair on Saturday night. And regardless of what you think of his town-skipping ways or his nigh-spoken-word fusion of hip-hop and indie rock, his show at the Double Wide on this night was one of the most exciting shows I've seen put on by a crew of local artists in this town.
And that's the thing: Regardless of how much time Astronautalis actually spends in the DFWd region these days, he's got a crapload of friends in the area. In fact, seven of those friends joined Astronautalis onstage throughout this performance: Nervous Curtains leader and Paper Chase piano virtuoso Sean Kirkpatrick; scene vet, radio host and improvisational guru Paul Slavens; Midlake (and sometime Fieros) drummer McKenzie Smith; Polyphonic Spree members Audrey Easley (flute) and Tamara Cauble (violin); cellist, Granada Theater booking agent and general man-about-town Kris Youmans; and singer-songwriter extraordinaire Sarah Jaffe.
Their onstage efforts pretty much single-handedly answered the pre-show question of why so many local musicians were at the show (there were others too: John Dufilho of Deathray Davies and I Love Math and Brandon Curtis of The Secret Machines among them), but the local love for Astronautalis is nothing new. Earlier this year, in our Dallas Observer Music Awards, Astronautalis had enough local support to earn himself a nomination in the Best Rap/Hip-Hop category. And he further trumped the odds (and rational thought) by taking home the prize in that category—something Astronautalis sure seems to get a kick out of, still. While performing the song "Skeleton (Everybody's Favorite)" from his 2006 release, The Mighty Ocean and Nine Dark Theaters, he changed the lyrics to the final line from "I used to run this town, but it just ain't the same place that it ever was" to "I used to run this town—and somehow I still win awards in this town."
The crowd certainly got a kick out of that one.
But the crowd and Bothwell's guest performers were in high spirits throughout the night, which was, at least in part, held as a release party for Astronautalis' new album, Pomegranate, to which many of Astronautalis' onstage guests contributed.
And in the four or so songs they contributed to during Astronautalis' set, their chamber-like backing efforts helped launch this show into fairly uncharted territory as live hip-hop goes. It was loud, sweeping, epic and, best of all, real—something many hip-hop performances painfully lack (as this one did at times) when the backbeats are left to inanimate laptop re-creation.
Most of all, though, their efforts were inarguably unique.
One thing Astronautalis will never be mistaken for is a follower, but on this night, where he truly shined as the night's jack-of-all-trades host, resident comedian and freestyler (twice, Bothwell wowed the crowds by taking topic suggestions from the crowd à la an improv comedy troupe and turning them into stunningly coherent rants), his originality and outsider approach to music were what impressed the most. A performer being supported onstage by a chamber backing band is hardly new concept, but considering how quickly this one had been thrown together made the showcase all the more impressive (that, and the band's own downright spell-binding collaborative improvisation, which came during Astronautalis' final freestyle song of the night). Astronautalis bragged to the crowd that he'd called the collective up and asked them to perform just minutes before his set started; in reality, it was a much longer process, but you'd never guess that, by the time the band hit the stage, its only rehearsal had come during that evening's sound check.
It was a testament to the collective talents of area musicians, something Astronautalis deserves plenty of credit for noticing, even if he should be considered more of an outsider to the scene at this point.
Those who missed this show, which also featured performances from Jaffe, Picnictyme (joined on stage by Headkrack) and Info Red, aren't completely out of luck: On Thursday night, Astronautalis will perform a second area CD release show, this one at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton, where Astronautalis will share a bill and, at least for a few songs, the stage with The Riverboat Gamblers.
Speaking of the Gamblers, the once-Denton-based punk act that, four years ago now, packed up and moved to Austin: In addition to the Thursday night Rubber Gloves show with Astronautalis, the band will perform a set on Saturday night for the third installment of the Granada Theater and Downtown Dallas' collaborative free-if-you-get-there-before-five-o'clock outdoor festival alongside Record Hop, The Drams and The Reverend Horton Heat.
Catching the Gamblers at Rubber Gloves almost certainly ensures a typical set from the crazier-than-you-could-ever-be punk rock act: jumping, flailing, stage diving, falling, moshing and all the other reasons the band made Spin's list of the 25 greatest live bands around in 2006. But the Saturday show at the Main Street Live stage might be a little different.
Hanging from the rafters is kind of tough when, y'know, there isn't a roof. But frontman Mike Wiebe says he's doing his best to come up with ways to bring the small-club energy to the band's bigger venue sets: "That's something I've never perfected," he says. "We're lucky that we've had to deal with the problem of playing larger stages, but it's really different. You have to think about it from the perspective of the people who are far away and aren't right there in the middle of a visceral club environment. It's more like theater, I guess, or watching a band on television. You've got to focus more on singing and hitting every note—which I can't really do—and not just jumping around and flailing."
It might not sound wholly compelling—at least not as much as the club shows tend to be—but anyone who saw the Gamblers almost steal the show while supporting The Toadies at the Palladium Ballroom in August knows that, even in a large setting, the band still manages to pack a punch. And, at this week's performances, Wiebe promises another treat: The band will be performing a few new tracks from its upcoming March release, Underneath the Owl, which Wiebe says is a little darker and more experimental than previous efforts—but not too much.
"It's not jazz fusion or anything," he says, "but we didn't want to release the same record again."
The onstage antics, though? They're not going anywhere.
"I'm doing pretty mundane stuff during my downtime," he says, describing his day-to-day life working at a bar in Austin. "So, onstage, everything just kinda comes out."
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