I think I set a new SXSW personal record yesterday. I managed to make it until almost the stroke of 5 p.m. without seeing any music. True, there was our company’s two-and-a-half-hour music-editor meeting and then another couple hours of hotel-room blogging, but it just goes to show that even though every nook and cranny of Austin seems like it’s filled with music this week, it’s still possible to go without. Why anyone would want to, though, is a question better left to the psychologists.
So after a couple of false starts – just missing Fivehead, one of my favorite Austin indie-rock bands from the days “indie-rock” meant Pavement and Guided by Voices – my musical day started at Beerland, a cool, dry cave on Red River and one of downtown’s few non-SXSW venues due to a dispute over the production budget, among other things. Har Mar Superstar was milling around, and my bartending friend David Thomson, longtime GM of Emo’s Austin and a founder of that club’s long-gone Houston counterpart, said his pick for the week was Tiny Masters of Today, a 12-year-old brother/sister duo from New York who played like the White Stripes minus the creepy sexual tension. (Hopefully.) The Masters go on 8 p.m. tomorrow at Cedar Street Courtyard if you’re curious. I kind of am, especially since Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers is a fan and “if Gibby’s going to get up with anyone this week, it’ll probably be them,” Thomson said.
My musical drought came to and end courtesy of Seattle’s Coconut Coolouts, whom I originally thought were from Miami, which at least would have made their song “Dolphin” make more sense. Two guys up front split singing and drumming duties, one on cymbals and snare and the other on toms. With rumbly-stumbly rhythms and jagged guitar, they balanced art-punk with a slight poppy Buzzcocks flair (one dude was playing a keytar, and getting his money’s worth) and shake-a-tailfeather garage rock a la fellow Northwesterners the Makers. They were decent, if ultimately unremarkable, but they did earn bonus points for having a song called “Party Jail.” Now that’s something I can get behind.
I wandered north to the Red Eyed Fly, where Phil from KPFT – still raving about the Judy’s at the Austin Music Awards Wednesday night, as well as Vampire Weekend, whom he had just seen at the Parish – pulled me into the Noise Pop party just in time for the Black Angels. The patio was completely packed, with several of the palest, skinniest girls I’ve ever seen wearing the biggest sunglasses I’ve ever seen. (I swear the sunglasses get bigger every year.) The Angels started with a bare-bones Doors blues before moving into 2006 breakthrough single “Black Grease.” As many times as I’ve seen them – dating back to one of their first-ever shows on the Scoot Inn patio a few blocks east – and as much as I generally like their brown-acid psychedelic grind, I wasn’t quite feeling it yesterday. Maybe it was that their drone player had recently left the band, or maybe it was just the daylight. I probably just wasn’t nearly stoned enough to fully appreciate it. Still, a line from “Black Grease” resonated with me: “You kill what you love.” There’s probably a lesson for SXSW in there somewhere.
After a dinner break at the Eastside’s teeming Rio Rita with my friend Ashleigh, then trying in vain to find B.D. Riley’s in time to see Austin Echo & the Bunnymen acolytes Horse + Donkey – it’s amazing how easy those faceless 6th Street bars are to forget – I headed to the Tap Room at Warehouse District dance club 6 (Lance Armstrong is one of the owners) for the Houston Press-sponsored showcase. Ramon Medina was still sweaty from his band Linus Pauling Quartet’s set. After introducing me (finally) to gifted Houston electro singer-songwriter Mlee Marie, aka Hearts of Animals – see her 9:40 p.m. tomorrow on the Bourbon Rocks Patio – Medina, never the retiring type, said “We played a brilliant set to about four people.”
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Me: “Welcome to South by.”
There were a few more than four people on hand to watch the Dimes, or, sorry, Young Mammals. They played jerkily, almost puppetlike, working their way up their fretboards while layering echo after echo. What little I could hear of the singer’s voice reminded me of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, but overall they’re squarely in the tradition of the Cure, Replacements, Guided by Voices and the Strokes – bash-and-pop guitar bands with a little more going on than they can express in three or four chords, but they get their point across well enough. They can also fly off on Yo La Tengo-like instrumental tangents, following one riff to the proverbial end of the rainbow. They did this on their last song, and considering it took up about a third of their half-hour set, it’s probably time for them to write some more songs.
Even coming away with one legitimate discovery at SXSW makes the whole enterprise worthwhile, so it was both ironic and appropriate that my discovery this year comes from Houston. This wasn’t so much discovery as confirmation: I knew about the Tontons before, from several testimonials and their MySpace page, but after watching them Thursday. Starting with a pair of slow psych-blues jams underneath 19-year-old singer Asli Omar’s Billie Holliday-like vocals (which, again, were pretty hard to discern, but she’s got some pipes), they picked up the tempo for some weatherbeaten, enigmatic modern rock not far at all from PJ Harvey. They closed with a hoppy go-go R&B number that slowly mutated into a funky Hendrix-like freakout from guitarist Adam Martinez, who didn’t let the fact that he somehow forgot his gear back in Houston stop him from singing the speakers. I can’t recommend their gig next Friday at Warehouse Live highly enough, especially since Omar is currently studying art history at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia and only makes it back to Houston every three months or so.
Martinez also plays guitar in Studemont Project, and started off the quintet’s set with a Beatles riff that gathered steam into some Red Hot Chili Peppers punk-funk, heavy distorted pure funk and a very Ventures-like (and very convincing) cover of the Cure’s “Killing an Arab.” Studemont, whose new album drops next month, isn’t a rap-rock band at all, thank God. They’re a straight-up rock band that happens to be fronted by two linguistically limber MCs, if that makes any sense. But they’re tight. Extremely. They’ll be at Warehouse next Friday too; I suggest you join them. – Chris Gray