Ume / Tia Carrera / White Denim
The Mohawk; Austin, TX

[01-27-2007]

Of all the shows that took place in Austin this evening, this one excited me the most: three of the city's best power trios playing at one of the city's best new clubs. In its first year of existence, the Mohawk has succeeded where previous clubs in its location have failed, thanks to a combination of smart booking, technological savvy (all of the venue's shows are videotaped, the best of which are spotlighted on its MySpace profile) and great amaretto sours. The soundman is occasionally ornery: last November, Pattern Is Movement's frequent pleas for mixing adjustments compelled him to turn the house jukebox on after their fourth song. What club nowadays doesn't have an ornery soundman, though? Fortunately, he was both pleasant and professional this evening.

Earlier this month, the Austin Chronicle published a list of "10 ATXers to Watch in 2007." Opening act White Denim placed ninth on the list, and the band's set this evening completely justified the accolades. Their kinetic sound recalls everything from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's garage stomp to Old Time Relijun's lo-fi voodoo to the Minutemen's funk-flavored punk. The drummer did awe-inspiring things with polyrhythms and beat displacement. The bassist played fleet-fingered runs with such intensity that his glasses frequently flew off of his face. The guitarist glided through quick chord changes and bluesy solos. All three members sang in goofy yet strong voices; the guitarist, in particular, has a killer falsetto. The band's charisma ruled out the polite indifference that opening acts are usually greeted with, as each song was greeted with increasingly uproarious applause. The highlight of the set was "Let's Talk about It," which boasted a cowbell-driven groove that could've cured Christopher Walken's fever in seconds flat. Bring on the album, guys!

Tia Carrera followed White Denim with a set of mind-melting stoner metal. Think of the best hard rock concert you've ever seen, and fast-forward to the moment where the guitarist starts soloing like crazy, slowly coercing the rest of the band to join him in a collective burst of improvisational frenzy. Well, Tia Carrera's songs BEGIN at that point and get even wilder for the next 15 to 20 minutes. Guitarist Jason Morales went totally "Machine Gun" on us, dousing every solo with heaping helpings of fuzz, flange and wah. Erik Conn's drumming was both hard and fluid: each snare and tom hit felt like a gunshot, and every other bar ended with a newer, trickier fill. Bassist Andrew Duplantis switched back and forth between playing against Erik and playing against Jason. Like all good improvisational bands, Tia Carrera knows when to come together to state a musical theme, and when to diverge from it; the members actually listen to each other, and this synergy gives their jams a discernible structure. They played for 35 minutes, only stopping once, and would've played longer if Andrew hadn't broken a string. Put these guys on a bill with Boris, and enough head-banging will ensue to fill the emergency room of St. David's with whiplash victims. (Unfortunately, the comely Hawaiian actress from whom the band gets its name did not attend the show.)

Two years ago, I panned Ume's debut album Urgent Sea on another website, dismissing it as a second-rate Sonic Youth imitation with a slight metallic tint. When they played at last year's SXSW, they made me eat my words with a downright feral set. I've seen them live four times since then, and they've never disappointed. No one who sees Ume perform can take their eyes off of singer/guitarist Lauren Larson. Off stage, she's a diminutive, dollish blonde with a timid speaking voice; on stage, she is a rock machine with stage presence to spare. She frequently stepped away from the microphone to convulse around the stage, hair flying everywhere, swinging the neck of her guitar up and down as if she were jousting. Her voice switched effortlessly from a kittenish coo to a frightening growl, outdoing her recorded performances by a very wide margin. At this point, Lauren's Kim Gordon impersonation is even better than the real thing! Her guitar playing is even more impressive: she adorns each song with long-lined melodies of an almost classical grandeur.

By no means, though, is my emphasis on Lauren meant to discredit Ume's rhythm section. They restarted "Hurricane" a few times because drummer Jeff Barrera kept playing the intro too fast, an oversight that he blamed on drunkenness. That blunder aside, he and bassist Eric Larson did a fine job supplanting Lauren with hefty, propulsive backdrops. The band's newer songs, which took up half the set, are better than those on their debut: Lauren's vocals make more room for melody, and the changes in tempo and dynamics are smoother. Although I still don't listen to Urgent Sea that often, I definitely consider myself an Ume fan, for their live shows have made me eager to hear their next album.