Trunk Road @ SXSW: Of Monsters and Men, JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound, Built To Spill, Titus Andronicus
Thursday @ SXSW, March 15
Like a large majority of badgeholders and wristband wearers, the morning greeted me with an e-mail from the South By Southwest Festival & Registration committee regretfully informing me that I wouldn’t be going to see Bruce Springsteen tonight. There is likely no manner in which being told you’re being frozen out of the biggest gig of the festival can be made pleasant. I would wager though, that since the Soup Nazi actor is apparently taking acting gigs as his alter ego, an video e-mail tersely proclaiming “No Springsteen For You!” would have beem mildly entertaining.
In lieu of seeing Springsteen, SXSW offered me an alternative itinerary that included a Diplo DJ set, Quantic and Guards at locales inconveniently dispersed around downtown Austin. It’s unclear whether SXSW thinks these bands would be an adequate replacement for Bruce or simply wants to run me around Austin and tire me out like I’m an infant. In protest, I am boycotting The Boss’ keynote speech at the Austin Convention Center. I shall listen to it at my leisure on NPR. (Hmmph! That will show them.)
Even before lunchtime, 6th Street is already bustling with the line for NPR’s annual day party at The Parish already in fine form. The Sennheiser/Paste Magazine day party occupies the main room at The Stage at 6th as well as the backyard tent. Dinosaur Feathers opens the event with a noon-time set and based upon the last five minutes, they seem like the best sort of young, thrashy guitar rock band. However, based upon other media, I might be basing my opinion on an overly small sample size.
Howler from Minneapolis kicked off the tent stage. Plagued by technical problems and a broken kick drum, Howler exhibited a fine stage presence. Failing to be rattled by the delays, the band went into banter mode and proved highly entertaining. Seriously, how do you hate a band that gets introduced as being from The Mines of Moria and then bellow for a battle axe? With working equipment, Howler are a nifty little band and bashed out a really enjoyable set of economical guitar based rock. They definitely have the intangibles that help a band along.
Rocking the coolest sideburns in a city that prides itself on its hipster facial fair, Ty Taylor of Vintage Trouble channelled the great frontmen and soul singers of old. Don’t be mistaken, this is no throwback band: Taylor sings like Corey Glover and cribs moves ranging from Prince to James Brown, which may not seem like a wide range until you pull a hamstring trying it. The trio of vintage vest-clad musicians behind Taylor are like putting a bad-ass rock band backing up the likes of Jackie Wilson and setting them loose on unsuspecting crowds makes for an enlivening set. Soul based rock and roll at its finest, Taylor perched himself atop a table in the middle of the jampacked main room, getting the room down to its knees as if The Isley Brothers crashed a Delta House toga party.
The vintage revival appropriately continued inside the tent with J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound. With odes to weed and a haircut reminiscent of Kid (from & Play) and Bobby Brown, it would be easy and convenient to write Brooks off a novelty, especially when he breaks out some marvelously dated dance moves. Such would be a shame. A charismatic front man, Brooks is confident and personable and most importantly, can really sing. There’s much of the old soul style and gospel spirit within Brooks & The Uptown Sound and Brooks can emote like Sam Cooke when he deigns.
With Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Pórhallsson singing beautiful harmonies and strumming acoustic guitars, Iceland’s six-piece Of Monsters And Men gives off a distinctly Head & The Heart feel. A really nice set and you could very likely cut praise from a Head & The Heart review and paste it here.
I didn’t pay enough attention to the dbs to write anything more about them other than that I didn’t pay enough attention to the dbs to write anything more about them than that.
Rubblebucket made for a really interesting live set. Mixing synths and an abundance of horns, they play a brand of pop that feels far from lightweight. When it blends together, it sounds a bit like The Human League when they were at their synthy best. They created the biggest spectacle of the day when a pair of puppeteers brought a pair of four foot silver robotic-aliens through the crowd to cavort and dance to the music. They concluded by accompanying lead singer Annakalmia Traver on a victory lap of the crowd during her sax solo.
To the best of my recollection, We Were Promised Jetpacks have been down at SXSW for a couple years running. A David Fricke rave sure didn’t hurt the Scots from securing a number of featured slots this year and the backyard of The Stage at 6th was filled to its modest capacity. For the most part, WWPJ sounded a like The Twilight Sad, the other Scottish band making the rounds. I guess its not a Big Country after all. (Really, you thought I was going to write about two bands from Scotland with nary a Fields Of Fire reference?) If a brawl broke out I think the guys from The Twilight Sad could take the Jetpacks crew. I’m guessing if these were two Irish bands, I’m thinking that pondering that subject might be a tad insensitive. Yikes, this kinda digressed from the music, didn’t it. Let’s leave this with relating that the Jetpacks finale was pretty epic and maybe I should sit out a play or two.
Blitzen Trapper’s main room set was susbtantially similar to their one the day before at The Hype Hotel. Suffice to say, if you are a Hidden Track reader, Blitzen Trapper should be on your radar and in your playlist.
The Paste event is a two-day affair and Nineties era rockers Built To Spill are closing out the first day. I’ve mentioned before that I am woefully undereducated as to BtS and ignorant as to their relevance. Judging from the excitement over their presence in Austin, I think I’m safe in saying that this is a failing of mine not theirs. As Built To Spill doesn’t have a new album coming out, I can only presume that their set consisted of catalog material. If I’m right (and really, why wouldn’t I be), the Idaho troupe serves a nice reminder that not every rock band of the Nineties sounded like Live and Collective Soul. They were the one band at The Stage today that had a sound designed for infinitely larger rooms, finishing with a lengthy and weighty instrumental coda laden with majestic rock aura.
Oh, I’m pretty sure I forget to mention that in covering I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, JB Brooks & The Uptown Sound showed that Jeff Tweedy could write one soulful tune. It’s possibly the best Wilco cover ever.
The rooftop deck of Cheers Shot Bar has habitually played host to a number of fine sets, many of them taking place in the hours that bridge the day parties and the official functions. In form and function, the entire venue is a college bar which makes it the perfect venue for bands that inspire a crowd to move a little bit. Tea Leaf Green, a band that should be no stranger to readers of this site, not only took over Cheers for an hour, they had the decktop bouncing like no other that I can remember.
Following TLG, California skaters The Shrine thrashed their way through a high-powered set with guitarist Josh Landau tearing through some ferocious riffs.
Over at Buffalo Billiards, Dinosaur Feathers showed that the final five minutes of their set at The Stage at 6th was the best part of their set.
The original plan of catching Tenacious D at Haven was frustrated by the sheer number of others that though that Jack Black and Kyle Gass might provide a fine night of entertainment. Plan B at The Belmont, a little futher uptown involved just as much rock and tons more volume.
New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus blasted out one of their typical sets of highbrow hard rock. With Amy Klein being the latest member to leave the fold, a newly clean-shaven Patrick Stickles seems like he’s moving to the head of the pack, trying to find a committed pack that will follow his vision. At The Belmont, Stickles held court, leading the band through songs old (egads 2010 – an eternity in SXSW years) and new (the oddly titled Food Fight, which for all I know may be an old song). Showing a bit of humor, Stickles generated a warm drone of feedback by waggling his guitar and taunted the audience that was there to see the headliner, chiding everyone with an “oh, you love that don’t you? Yes. You do.”
Stickles was making reference to the Jesus And Mary Chain which closed out the night by finishing my re-education in Nineties rock and breaking my brain in the process. It’s been an hour since they hit their last high decibel, droning note and I still can’t hear right. I’m sure every band that makes bank on a three note descending chord progression praises the Jesus & Mary Chain. I am willing to entertain debate as to whether that glorious noise is worth going deaf.
As I prepare to go to sleep in the wee hours of this Austin night, I pray I don’t awake to news of an awesome Springsteen SXSW show (ed. note – sorry, Dave). Then again, given that the Jesus & Mary Chain broke my head, I probably won’t hear the news anyway.