Wednesday, March 15
Road Kings at Stubb's
Japanic at Soho Lounge
Sing a verse, quickly fingerpick a little riff, sing another verse, pick same riff. Repeat over and over until crowd is satisfied. Elvis popularized this recipe for rock and roll success more than 40 years ago. Fortunately for Jesse Dayton and his Road Kings, this formula still works.
Backed by upright bassist Jason Burns and drummer Eric Tucker, lead singer and guitarist Dayton spearheaded an hour's worth of steady psychobilly-verging-on-rock at super-sounding Stubb's.
Along a sloping courtyard, about 100 yards long and covered on one side with verdant trees and on the other with dead wood, nearly a thousand people thronged. Though the Road Kings kept the banter to a minimum, the trio conversed much with their instruments, though not always intelligibly.
Dayton played sloppily, especially when hoisting his blond Telecaster above and behind his head in an improv moment of muted and sour notes, and Tucker smashed at his kit loudly but uninventively all night. At least Burns at one point made an impression with a musically limited but physically expansive solo. With both hands Burns slapped his fretboard like a bongo player on the skins, reaching up, under and around his instrument's neck with his fretting hand, his right, while landing jabs with his picking hand, his left. His wildly circling mitts and ca-chunk-ca-chunka-ca bass notes made jaws drop.
The trio delivered solid live renditions of "Harder Than Your Heart," "Up One Side (Down the Other)" and "Gunslinger." A sure-fingered mix of heavy guitar with up-tempo shuffles and walking bass lines, "Gunslinger" showcased the Kings at their best, when all pistons were pumping.
But Japanic remains on the verge. Its showcase this year, at a venue that historically has avoided hosting live shows, was supposed to be another step in the band's march toward breakout. Too bad terrible sound and an enjoyable but schizophrenic performance may have briefly obstructed the trek.
Lead singer and charismatic front man Tex Kerschen tried to bring James Brownian soul to his band's half-organic, half-synthetic sound, loaded with keyboard washes and six-stringed atmospherics. He jumped all over the stage, vogued and occasionally dropped to his knees and raised a shaky palm aloft like a Baptist preacher feeling Holy Ghost power.
At times during this SXSW performance, though, this posturing didn't jibe with the band's intelligent, non-visceral, unemotional music. Live versions of songs sounded pretty much like their studio doppelgängers, and there was hardly any improvisation.
At least by the first few runs of the groovy introductory bass riff to "Orpheus Express," the band's signature song, Japanic had the audience hooked. A smart, shiny, mind-melting number about the Orpheus myth and Sodom and Gomorrah story, the tune ended too soon.
Thursday, March 16
Lifestyl/Powda/Chocstilli at Back Door
Sugar Shack at Emo's
Podunk at Babe's
People have been smoking weed for centuries, though by virtue of Lifestyl's Back Door show, you'd think cannabis was just discovered yesterday. "Is this the weed capital of the muthafuckin' world or what?" shouted Poncho Vila of Lifestyl at one point during his act's set, which was filled with nothing more than repeated references to the green stuff. Everyone crowding the huge, dimly lit club cheered. And cheered. And...
Shelving dope for sex, the slinky Powda scored the hit of the night with her single, "On Top of the World," and its undeniably catchy hook.
And even though everyone knows rap shows are nothing more than glorified karaoke performances, Chocstilli fudged his lines so terribly even ticket-buying teenyboppers seemed shocked.
At the other end of the spectrum, Sugar Shack looked to be a couple of beats away from punk superstardom, and Podunk (from Port Arthur) transformed strong melodies and tough, jangly guitar work into a radio-friendly frenzy.
Friday, March 17
Lunatex at Spiro's
Walking Timebombs at the Buffalo Club Patio
Koncrete Law/Oddiscee at Flamingo Cantina
Even though hardly anyone showed up for this early-bird performance, or perhaps because hardly anyone showed up, Lunatex and its huge beats essentially tried to tear down this smallish club, known more for its cheese-ball quotient than its friendliness to ravers, Lunatex's fan base.
Lunatex, a trio that performs live with sequencers and keyboards rather with vinyl, was brilliant early on. At one point high-pitched chimes pierced the air over a stomping bass drum, the pace of a marathon runner's heart. The beat stopped momentarily only to return in double time, accented by rat-a-tatting percussive accents. The ornamental rhythms ebbed and flowed as the chimes disappeared and what sounded like the theme from Close Encounters took prominence. Eighth-note synth hand claps and random sonic effects that called to mind the sheeeeeer of storm troopers' laser guns added to the wonderfully surreal and charged atmosphere.
The only tarnishes to an otherwise sterling performance were uninspired synth playing, in woodwind or sitar mode, the cluttered beats and the dependence on the simple boom, boom, boom of the bass.
Lack of drama also affected the Walking Timebombs. Alternating mainly between two solid riffs per song, the Timebombs appeared handcuffed by underdeveloped structures. Solos came out of nowhere, songs ended seemingly at random, and choruses were hard to decipher from verses.
Solo rapper Koncrete Law, with background help from vocalist and white guy Scott Szabo, exemplified Houston's Dirty South sound, which is hook-heavy and largely derivative. Good thing he does it well.
Oddiscee, who stood on stage with a black Stratocaster, which he even played momentarily, depended mostly on labelmate "D" Nasty's rapping to carry whole songs, though both performed and rhymed vigorously. DJ Raphiki from L.A., performing feats of prestidigitation on the turntables, never missed a beat.
Saturday, March 18
Los Skarnales at Saengerrunde Hall
Junior Varsity at Blind Pig
Clandestine at Speakeasy
Easily Houston's best SXSW representative, if not this city's best band altogether, Los Skarnales absolutely rocked the club's ass to bits. People stood on tables, bodies flew through the air, and even old white guys were putting dance combinations together. With false stops, various tempos, body-moving ska beats and melodic horn riffage, Los Skarnales may have been the best band playing in Texas at the moment.
And even though its first few notes essentially emptied the Blind Pig, Junior Varsity ultimately endeared many to its pom-pom rock shtick. Of course, dedicating one song to "South by Southwest -- for running out of beer" and having a bear mascot with droopy eyes dance on stage throughout the entire set appeared to keep even the hardest of hard-asses in the crowd lighthearted.
Clandestine, on the other hand, could've used a smile or two. Or a mascot. Whatever Irish-Scottish music is supposed to be, it is not the deadly serious business this quartet of self-important blowhards made it seem. Playing the Speakeasy, where many of the cheese balls were vocally more interested in scoring than paying attention to the stage, may have contributed to the band's obnoxiously regal attitude. -- Anthony Mariani
E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@ houstonpress.com.
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