Over The Weekend: Dia de Los Toadies at WhiteWater Amphitheater in New Braunfels

Toadies, The Sword, Black Angels, Ume, Quiet Company, The Orbans, others
WhiteWater Amphitheater in New Braunfels
August 27, 2011

Better than: getting chased by a serial killer around Possum Kingdom Lake.

Four years into their comeback, which has come with the creation of their own annual August festival known as Dia de Los Toadies, and there's still no sign of the Toadies slowing down. If anything, actually, things might be speeding up.

It helps that, after two years spent searching for a home, it seems as if the Toadies have found their place, both figuratively and literally. After the initial Dia de Los Toadies, held back in '08, was thrown, fittingly, at Possum Kingdom Lake and the second offering was hosted in Glen Rose, the band last year settled on this New Braunfels locale.

It's an interesting venue, WhiteWater Amphitheater, a 5,500-capacity venue/tubing facility on the edge of Hill Country and the shores of the Guadalupe, which normally serves as a touring option for the Red Dirt scene and, from time to time, a legendary figure like Willie Nelson or, just a few months back, Bob Dylan. For the Toadies and their handlers, the space boasts a number of positives -- tops of which would be the infrastructure of the stage and staff (neither of which were in place at Possum Kingdom or Glen Rose), although that's only slightly tailed by the fact that the venue also boasts a second stage.

And any doubts that the space wouldn't be able to handle the band and their festivals' harder sounds were quickly erased early on in the day.

If not the easily most impressive Dia de Los Toadies, this one was certainly the loudest, its Austin-heavy offering featuring sets from The Sword, Black Angels and Ume among its all-Texas bill.

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But it was a more melodic band early in the day that really got things going: Quiet Company, a former Dallas touring mainstay now earning a nice buzz off their new record and their increased Austin radio play, was the first band to draw any crowd of note, with somewhere around 100 or so taking in the band's sweaty offerings. Clad in suits, the band's indie rock was perhaps the most sonically pleasing set of the day. The night before these chops reportedly did the band well; performing as the Toadies' opener on Friday night's semi-acoustic affair, the band even drew a standing ovation from its audience. On this day, however, it's tough to say if their chops were a good thing. If only in terms of volume, Quiet Company's set was soon drowned out.

Austin's Ume, performing at the hottest point of a very hot day, impressed as the band has been known to do of late, as frontwoman Lauren Larson, clad in a flannel shirt, channeled any number of bygone grunge heroines, her hair flailing about, topped only in speed by her fingers running along her fretboard. The three-piece's heavy, almost math-y offerings pleased the growing crowd immensely -- to the tune of multiple encore requests, even, which the band sheepishly refused, unable to continue because of a broken bass string.

Ume's performance began the female-centric portion of the afternoon, segueing into the formerly Denton-based Faceless Werewolves' garage-rockin' set on the side stage, which, if it didn't draw an especially large crowd, at least drew members of the Toadies to the side of the two-thirds female group's stage. After Faceless Wolves, back on the main stage, The Black Angels, with drummer Stephanie Bailey, continued the females first initiative, performing a Phosphene Dream-heavy set, their psychedelia a perfect pairing to the only-starting-to-set sun. Next up: Fort Worth's The Orbans, down a member and performing as a four-piece, but sounding no less crisp, provided a much-needed break from the melee, their pop-heavy Wilco-aping offerings pleasing in the much-desired shade provided by the back stage.

Any respite offered by The Orbans, however, was soon destroyed by Austin's almighty The Sword, easily the second-biggest draw on the bill. Relying heavily on Warp Riders, their 2010 release, the live four-piece was unrelenting, offering riff-upon-riff-upon-riff -- enough clout to match the still-beating sun, which, soon after the band started, dipped below the behind-stage treeline, as if some higher power knew that Dia attendees could only handle one such beast.

The band notably noticed as much themselves.

"Hey, the sun's going down," Sword vocalist JD Cronise said. "We're all gonna make it, y'all."

Then, almost as a peace offering, came something unexpected -- a cover of ZZ Top's "Cheap Sunglasses," which duly showed the band as capable of more than simply melting faces.

Next, following a rather unforgettable final set on the side stage from the unfortunately named band The Couch, it was time for the Toadies to preach to their choir.

Only two songs in -- following an opening performance of "Velvet" from Rubberneck -- came "Heel," the Hell Below/Stars Above song that might as well (or perhaps should) be called "Heal," considering the way in which frontman Vaden Todd Lewis reaches out his hand each time he shouts the single-word chorus. At set's start, Lewis' intensity was matched only by guitarist Clark Vogeler, whose guitar flourishes and hissing fills gave new life to the band's 17-plus-years-old material. The crowd seemed euphoric, shouts of "You're my favorite band!" coming from seemingly every direction.

Indeed, it was a receptive, reverential crowd, as is the case with all Toadies shows these days. Perhaps, though, it was too reverential? The crowd didn't seem to mind when, about an hour in to the band's 100-minute offering, Lewis stumbled over a lyric in his band's biggest song. He swapped the second and third bridge's in "Possum Kingdom" -- a perhaps understandable, but more importantly, almost unnoticeable error -- but, clearly, was fazed by the mistake. The previously swaggering frontman stopped the song halfway through, genuinely or otherwise blaming his in-ear monitor, technical difficulties and the fact that the band's management was recording the show. Lewis never fully regained the charisma he'd boasted earlier in the set, when he was seen jabbering with the crowd and mocking the fans who prefer the band's "pretty" songs over their heavier ones.

Still, shaken as he may have been, the crowd didn't seem to mind. When the ever-snide Lewis re-introduced the song some 10 minutes later in the set, saying "You may have heard part of this song earlier," the crowd responded just as enthusiastically as it had the first time, pogo-ing and circle-pitting and fist-pumping with glee. The only bigger response came at the end of the night when, as expected, the band closed out a three-song encore with the usual night-ender, "Tyler."

Then, with promises of a fifth Dia de Los Toadies to come next year, likely at the same venue, it came to a close. Too bad, too. Only when the festival ended did the cool, Hill Country air start to wash over the venue. Perhaps, earlier, it was too scared to bother -- despite the overall welcoming vibe of the festival.

And that, certainly, was this day's lasting effect. It was a cool scene -- both in the sense that these rather-hip opening bands were hand-picked by the Toadies and in the sense that they were so happy to be there, opening for them. It was a mutual head-nod from artist to artist, from one rock generation to another.

For that, the whole festival deserves a good nod itself.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
My favorite band is the Pixies, a clear influence on the Toadies. But I can't see the Pixies three times a year, so, hey, they ain't a bad replacement. This was my first Dia de Los Toadies, though, and, let me say this: It's a great take. Good music, a beautiful part of the state and -- lest this was a concern for North Texans -- a whole gaggle of friendly, familiar faces bounding about.

Random Note: Line of the night belonged to Sierra Bravo Productions' Scott Beggs, who, in introducing the Toadies to the stage as he did for all acts, scolded crowd members for bitching about the heat. This, after all, is Texas, Beggs said. It's three months a years. No need to complain. The better tactic he suggested: "Let's Thank Texas Jesus for making our women so hot, too." The crowd sure liked that bit.

By The Way: Considering that the folks behind Dia are intent on keeping their festival Texas-centric, there are really only so many bands left to choose from before they start repeating too many performers. But some big names haven't yet performed. Two names in particular make perfect sense. I asked the organizers about them while standing around, waiting for the Toadies' set to start. I won't say who I mentioned, but was confirmed that both had already been contacted. I'll let you guess who. Shouldn't be too, too difficult to figure out...

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