The Old 97's have been the darlings of South by Southwest since their first appearance, playing high-profile gigs every year at packed venues--including last year's festival-ending performance with X's John Doe at the see-and-be-seen Spin party, traditionally the toughest invite in town. The festival has been good to the band, garnering it a major-label deal (well, sort of) with Elektra Records and famous and semi-famous fans, including Waylon Jennings and Janeane Garafalo. And this year's gig was no exception, except the star power was a little less bright. Sorry, fellas--an appearance by the remarkably short Elijah Wood doesn't exactly up your hip quotient, unless all of your fans are 15 years old and girls.
For the first time in several years, though, the Old 97's Thursday-night show at La Zona Rosa wasn't the place to be. Well, it was, but not because of them. Or at least, not solely because of them. This year, the band had the fortune of being sandwiched between a couple of this year's festival's mascots: Lo-Fidelity Allstars and Built to Spill. And also for the first time, the Old 97's weren't headlining an alt-country hootenanny, which--if you've heard any of Fight Songs, the band's next album that's coming to a store near you on April 27--makes complete sense.
If you haven't heard Fight Songs yet--and why not, seeing as how everyone in town seems to have a copy?--know this: As singer-guitarist Rhett Miller recently admitted, the album is a return to the sound of Miller and bassist Murry Hammond's previous band, Sleepy Heroes. Don't be alarmed, because it's not that big of a jump. All it really means is that Miller's twang gets ironed out and that guitarist Ken Bethea trades in his single-string guitar leads for something with a little more pop. It's not as if Fight Songs is a return to Rhett's Exploding, which Miller still insists is a good band name. Como se dice "not really"?
Surprisingly, Miller and the band decided to unveil only a trio of songs from Fight Songs, including the lead single "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)" and one of the best songs Hammond has ever had a chance to sing, "Crash on the Barrel Head." Not exactly the best way to get a buzz started about a markedly different new record, especially one that Elektra has high hopes for. Of course, Elektra may already have that problem sorted by arranging to have a song off of Fight Songs, "Nineteen," appear as the main song in the new ad campaign for Felicity.
The set was unexpectedly short, as well, ending abruptly after fewer than 10 songs. But at least the boys went out with a bang. Joining them onstage for the set-closing "Four Leaf Clover" was former X singer Exene Cervenkova. Her arrival finally enlivened the band, which had been dealing with technical problems up until that point. Especially animated was Miller, a devout X fan. For Miller, it was the completion of a cycle: Two years ago, Cervenkova joined the band during the same song on Stubb's outdoor stage. At the Spin party last year, Miller got a chance to play Exene to John Doe's, um, John Doe. This go-around, Exene let him be Doe. Next year: Rhett Miller as the baby-faced Billy Zoom.
Even though the Old 97's gig didn't live up to past performances, the band has still played more shows at South by Southwest than The Deathray Davies have, well, ever. Making its third appearance on Wednesday night at Emo's, the band--singer-guitarist John Dufilho, drummer Matt Kellum, organ player Rachel Smith, bassist Jason Garner, and Peter Schmidt on guitar--didn't have much of a chance to make an impression. By the time the Deathrays finished up, only a handful of people were in the room.
The light attendance couldn't really have been helped, and the band certainly didn't warrant it, playing most of the songs off its impossibly catchy new disc Drink With the Grown-Ups & Listen to the Jazz, which has only been out a few days. The problem is, playing a Wednesday-night showcase is like not playing one at all, since most people don't arrive until Thursday anyway. And most of the people who were in town were at the Toadies' set down the street.
But the Deathray Davies at least proved to a few people that they can do it live as a band as well as Dufilho did it on his own on Drink With the Grown-Ups. Plus, it was the first time former Funlanders Schmidt and Toadies guitarist Clark Vogeler have been onstage at the same time in about three years, albeit separated by two blocks and a few thousand fans. And Dufilho gets bonus points for not only showing up, but playing back-to-back shows with Bedwetter and the Deathray Davies, even though he reportedly had been sick as German porn for the previous two days, subtracting everything he tried to add.
And speaking of drinking with grown-ups (and possibly regretting it later), the members of Go Metric USA may want to lay off of that practice for a little while. Or ever. The band's set Thursday night at Maggie Mae's degenerated into a shouting match between guitarist Michael Cullen, singer-guitarist Mitch Greer, and bassist Lindsay Romig, culminating with Greer screaming into the microphone, "This is fucking anarchy!" Apparently, the guys and girl had patched things up by Saturday, when they were spotted hanging peacefully at a party for online 'zine Insound at Club DeVille. And Greer still believed Go Metric had been able to pull it off, that the drunken war of words wasn't that noticeable. Which, I guess, is all that counts.
The lull of the crowd
Couldn't help but notice the Austin American-Statesman referred last week to the Toadies as a band suffering a "career lull." Is that a nice way of saying, "Not gone, but forgotten?" If so, that didn't seem to bother the two thousand or so gearheads and critics standing in the light drizzle that coated the crowd in something resembling oil and vinegar during the band's Wednesday-night set at Stubb's. Hell, they were partying like it was 1994, even the hundred or so folks lined up on the bridge behind and above the outdoor stage. Heads nodding, fists pumping, the crowd crushed in front of the stage, jumping up and down in time with new songs they hadn't ever heard. That never happens, not at South by Southwest.
Living in Dallas, it's easy to forget that this band sold one million copies of Rubberneck--for God's sake, they're bona fide stars outside of Deep Ellum, big enough to have a Hit Single that isn't "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Everybody, now, sing along: "I'll show you my dark secret!" Wait. Can't hear you over the roar of the crowd.
The one thing that sticks out about the Toadies' show--save for the fact that it was preceded by a bill of porn stars, all of whom seemed to have disappeared by 1 a.m., damn it--is how utterly, recklessly rock it was, every note louder than the one that came before. The new songs, even the old ones, sounded like they were played on anvils and power drills. For a band that used to turn a riff into a lifestyle, suddenly it seems as though the Toadies are all about the sustained barrage--it's all catharsis, everything coming unhinged, raw power above all else. Two days after the set, critic Lorraine Ali (one of the few noble people in this so-called profession) was still talking about it. "They rocked," she said over lunch on Friday, to no one in particular.
Maybe one day, the band will put out its second record. Interscope, mired in the Universal Music Group restructuring, has told the band to take its time. There is no rush--not unless you count the one you get from hearing 2,000 people hollering along with a band that's supposed to be in the middle of a career lull.
It was exactly the opposite experience 24 hours later, when a colleague and I stumbled into Mercury--a walk-in closet on Sixth Street--only to find Arts Magnet graduate Roy Hargrove on stage, playing a non-SXSW-sanctioned gig. Discovering Hargrove on Thursday night, when the only other great act playing the conference was Ronnie Dawson at the Continental Club, which had been emptied out by Austin cops in riot gear earlier that evening for overcrowding, was so tremendous, there were people running in off the rain-slick street yelling, "Sanctuary!" Imagine thinking you're going to be stuck listening to the Donnas play a half-assed Ramones tribute down the street, only to stand a few inches from a stage where a man blows Gabriel's horn.
Hargrove was dressed in a black T-shirt and khakis, his head covered in budding dreadlocks; he looked more like a young funk soul brother than a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He played it hard, played it soft, played it so beautiful and consummate that even the frat boys in the tiny crowd watched in admiration, adoration. Never have so many baseball hats bobbed in time to whispered bebop. And so often, Hargrove would just stand to the side of the stage, cradling his trumpet, letting his bassist or pianist or sax player do their parts in peace. He would just watch, dance a little, nod his head yes-yes-yes with eyes closed as he kept the beat on his pants leg.
The only thing even close to that experience came Friday night, during Marchel Ivery's set at the Green Elephant, part of Leaning House Records' showcase. (Also on the bill were Fred Sanders and Earl Harvin's bands.) Ivery, among the last of the Texas Tenors and a man who deserves a statue in town (or at least an entree named for him at Sambuca), put on a dazzling set. You've never seen someone do magic tricks as effortlessly as Ivery when he has a sax in his hand.
But the real revelation that night was Ivery's 70-year-old drummer G.T. Hogan, released not too long ago from the Texas Department of Corrections. Hogan, born in Galveston, had been sent up on three convictions of possession of narcotics with the intent to sell. Seems no one really cares that you played with Billie Holiday or hung out with Charlie Parker when you're holding smack and they're throwing you in the slam.
Hogan can barely walk up a flight of stairs, can barely hold a conversation. But he can play the holy shit out of a drum kit; never have I wished a 10-minute drum solo would run on 10 minutes longer. Hogan, who plays on Ivery's forthcoming Leaning House record (recorded in New Orleans two weeks ago, due from Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster's label later this year), is the sort of musician SXSW is meant to help--so brilliant, so unknown. And he is precisely the sort of musician no one will ever know anything about, save the lucky few who stood behind him that night and watched him whip up a thunderstorm.
Hole in one
Meredith Miller has played Hole in the Wall a million times, with and without SXSW. She can tell stories about her earlier days there, back when she was living in Austin and not altogether sober, about sloppy pool games in the back room and sloppy sets from the stage. Her music likes this room, this dark and woody pub across the street from the University of Texas. It's warm and earnest and relaxed--much like Miller's voice. And the regulars at the club sure like that voice.
Which gave the early Thursday-night set an odd, out-of-the-loop feel, completely detached from the hype and clamor of the festival. Most of the crowd looked like the kind of music-loving Austinites who wouldn't wander downtown anytime that weekend or any other, the kind who show up to see Miller rain or shine every time she hits town, which is still pretty often. It was pouring that night, the climax of a week of threatening clouds. Not many Manhattan publicists with rental cars would risk the drive from the Omni Hotel or wherever, even if they had heard of her. Of the hundred or so people sipping beers, only a handful sported the dreaded industry badge.
Miller's new indie CD (titled madami'madam) had just come off the press, and Miller, who still hadn't unwrapped one from its plastic to study the finished product, hawked it--deadpan, smirking--from the stage: "I guess there's enough here for everyone to have two." She plucked one from a full box. "I hear that inside there's a picture of Dave [Monsey, her bass player] in a dress. I dunno."
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The set was short but solid: a wet-haired Reed Easterwood swaying lazily over a banjo and a pedal steel, drummer Brian Wakeland and Monsey keeping their trademark low profiles. At one point, Miller pointed out the big window behind her toward a huge bus parked in the storm. "Did you see our tour bus?" she asked, and the audience laughed. "We're gonna have a party after the show, if anyone wants to come." The bus belonged to Willie Nelson, who was taping a private concert for Austin City Limits across the street, making the over-crowded parking near Hole in the Wall the only reminder that SXSW was even happening.
Later in the set, when introducing her one cover, an old Tom Waits tune, she sealed everyone's suspicion of her true feelings about the festival. "Tom Waits isn't on a label. So he's in town this weekend to try to get signed." She smiled at the absurdity, of the very image of the remarkable crooner shuffling up and down Congress, trying to hand out demo tapes to mouth-breathing label reps. (Waits does in fact have a deal, with the indie Epitaph.)
The audience whooped and applauded, and Miller quietly launched into a rendition that was as sad and sweet and wrenching as anything that would be played by a thousand bands, a thousand musicians who may as well not even have been in town.