Benoît Delbecq Unit
Pannonica; Nantes, France

[03.23.06]

I
bought a season pass at Pannonica in January because I know pretty much
nothing when it comes to jazz. For a hip-hop fan, this is regrettable. For a
New Orleanean, it’s insupportable. The venue is relatively new: it’s odorless,
and the paint still sports a fresh latex sheen. Pannonica hosts an impressive
variety of shows, ranging from indie electronica acts to traditional jazz
musicians. Benoît Delbecq Unit fall somewhere between these two camps; the
concert flyer described their show as “jazz / sonic exploration.” The group I
saw included Delbecq at piano, a violinist, a saxophonist, a drummer, and an
upright bassist.

For music that was decidedly quiet and unhurried throughout, I felt frequently
overwhelmed. Ultimately, I found that the best way to take in the performance
was to focus on the musicians singly or in pairs. Studying the relationships
between them was far easier than trying to force a clumsy cohesiveness upon
the music. Sheet music circulated from time to time, but their “songs” seemed
to be written in oft-erased pencil rather than permanent ink. Hushed
conversations that took place even in the middle of several pieces affirmed
the impression that they were not afraid to retool and improvise while on
stage.

They played two sets, each an hour long, with a short intermission in between.
The first half was more cautious, ambient, and quiet. It was rare that the
whole quintet would play at once; instead, two musicians would work at what
was less a duet than a sort of dada dialogue. In the second set, the group
tightened their songs a bit, giving them a deceptive coherence that could be
unravelled in a moment, like a slipknot. The one-on-one dialogue gave way to
full band jams that retained the peckish uncertainty prevailing before the
break. Their constant play with textures and conflicting rhythm was like a tug
on a fishing line, providing a definite, but gentle surprise that unseated any
anodyne routine threatening to settle in. Surprises came also from their
unorthodox playing styles.

The bassist, for example, draped himself over his instrument and proceeded to
knock, tease, pluck, brush, rub, and fondle it. I had never heard a bass
whinny before. His lips moved in ventriloquist mumbles, as if the bass were a
giant puppet with an eccentric voice. He was stationed behind the saxophonist,
who seemed to be breathing through the sax rather than blowing into it. He
manipulated the keys with dexterity and imagination, unafraid to let tones
quail, falter, and disappear instead of inflating them to flamboyant squeals.
I’m used to thinking of a saxophone as a bold, sexy instrument, but he
uncovered a vulnerability that denuded grooves rather than encouraged them.
Delbecq was the first on stage, and he prepared his piano, Cage-style, with
pencils, wood blocks and other small objects. He and the violinist were
usually in conversation with one another, the seventh chords and arpeggios
creating a florid backdrop for her spare pizzicato and intermittent bowing.

I had the best seat in the house: right behind the drummer. Experimentation
has a way of both breaking a thing down to its simplest parts and then showing
off the variety that can result from the interactions of those parts, and this
wiry drummer reminded me that, at its foundation, percussion is simply two
things touching. His tactile approach to the kit brought forth sounds and
rhythms that both grounded and destabilized the songs. He used the rims of his
cymbals and drums as much as their heads, dragging ends of sticks, brushes,
and his fingers across them, playing with contrasts between soft and sharp,
hollow and full, metal and skin. What at first seemed like aleatoric jamming
came into focus as multibar patterns that would approach a tantalizingly
violent climax and then stop with the tacit closure of the hi-hat. I felt like
I was leaning into a seat belt anticipating a crash that never came.

The two hours I spent with Delbecq’s group taxed both my patience and
imagination, but I left feeling oddly satisfied and opened. For me, jazz is
something huge and historical and intimidating, and still relatively unknown;
I’m pleased that Delbecq and his colleagues were there as guides of one of my
first explorations of it.

Ted Leo/Pharmacists / The Duke Spirit / Les Aus
40 Watt; Athens, GA

[03-22-06]

The thing you should know about
Athens concert venues is that shows start at 10:30 pm--as in, the
opening band finally shuffles up on stage nursing PBRs when an hour away in
Atlanta a second group is setting up their gear. Townies and underage co-eds
with fake IDs are already on their third or fourth beer (even more if it's the
weekend or Thursday) and talkatively make their way into the now smokeless
clubs. I've arrived at a place like the Caledonia by 1am and not missed the
headliner. In fact, the last band's still finishing their set.

Perhaps it's indicative of the laid-back Southern mentality (face it, Atlanta
runs on corporate Eastern seaboard time) or maybe it's just that Athens runs
on "rock time." Either way, the occasional exception out of the late-night
norm has caused me to miss nearly entire sets by legends like Daniel Lanois.
Gauging the out-of-the-ordinary early set is difficult. You have to ask the
following questions: Is the performer older in his years? Will the people be
more the party-all-night, Guided By Voices crowd or the be-in-bed-by-midnight,
Death Cab For Cutie crowd? Is the performer worth staying up until last call?
Are you looking for an excuse to get toasted until last call, you lazy drunk?

I can now add a new factor: the performer's health. Ted Leo's been in and out
hospitals and therapy for vocal chord inflammation over the past few years. He
tours harder than most bands, talks with countless radio stations and fans not
heavy-handedly like a merchandiser but more like a rock prophet. I converted
with many in 2003 with the advent of Hearts of Oak, a record that
re-revitalized my hope for punk rock and music in general. The hooks were real
and vigorous, but it was Leo's vocal enthusiasm that solidified him as a
legend in the making. Imagine my concern when the veteran opened the show
saying that night was the first in a week they'd been able to play.

Because we arrived at 10:45 pm, my lady and I missed Les Aus, a group whose
description in the local weekly ("Catalan-sung psychedelia") sounded extremely
promising (on later exploration, I found out they did, indeed, rule). We did,
however, catch the tail end of The Duke Spirit, one of those "Breaking Out"
bands or something NME probably shit their trousers over, that sounded like PJ
Harvey fronting Spiritualized or maybe an extroverted Nico singing for a
friendlier Velvet Underground. I didn't really buy it. The lead vocalist,
Liela Moss, certainly acted like an energetic stage performer, beating the
tambourine within an inch of its life and dropping to the floor like the
famous live Doors footage you also see of Jim Morrison on VH1's 100 Most
Shocking Moments in Rock
montage. I can dig a musician as performer in the
latter role's "performative" sense, the qualities of the whole stage show, but
only when the performance is genuine and not presented as an object to gawk
at.

Despite Ted Leo's opening explanation, the audience and the band grabbed onto
each other immediately. After a week's rest and visibly a little discomfort,
Ted Leo wanted nothing more than to get back to what he does best: creating a
real relationship with the audience. At one point in the show when his voice
was giving out, Ted Leo told the audience to get off their lazy asses and sing
along, or more helpfully, get on stage and grab a microphone. No one,
unfortunately, took him up on the latter offer, but we did all shout the
chorus to a song off Shake the Sheets, to which Leo was appreciative.
After a one-two punch of Hearts of Oak material, the band introduced
"Army Bound," which still sounded like it was in its formative stages, but the
extended guitar solo was a nice surprise I hope comes through the recording.

Unfortunately, the whole time I couldn't help but think the man was a leader
with half an attentive audience. He's one of the few in rock ‘n roll that has
something honest and real to say both in lyric and in conversation. Watching
him was like seeing a solo Billy Bragg on national television a month ago: a
solid, heartfelt performance, yet almost wasted on a crowd only intent on
being entertained. Sure, entertainment is a large part of why people attend
concerts, but musicians like Billy Bragg and Ted Leo offer the possibility or
the challenge of change. This brings in the question of audience
responsibility: does it exist? Should the crowd invest in the performance as
much as the performer? More? Experience on the latter question suggests yes,
but there are still those who expect product shouting, "Here we are now,
entertain us!" (never thought I'd quote Kurt Cobain). Nevertheless, Ted Leo
will tirelessly continue to give his 110%, and I hope that, for rock ‘n roll's
sake, there are people out there giving back more.

Bring 'Em Home Now! Benefit Concert: Devendra Banhart / Conor Oberst / Michael Stipe / Moby / Peaches / Fischerspooner
Hammerstein Ballroom; New York, NY

[03-20-06]

As I
walked to the end of the line waiting to enter the Bring 'Em Home Now
concert, I observed the devolution of the liberal American protester. It
started with the old lefties who arrived early, simply out of habit, then
regressed to the young idealists with anti- this or that petitions in hand,
before ending in the primordial ooze of hipsters—their ambivalence gently
lapping at the shores of dissent.

Meanwhile, an attack was being waged. Pamphleteers trolled the line for
sympathetic eyes, offering communist newspapers for a dollar an issue, mailing
lists for everything but paper conservation, and various Bush puns on pins. It
was enough stimuli to make Times Square jealous.

Once inside, and having missed Margaret Cho's crowd warm-up—a feat no more
impressive than Yao Ming slam dunking on a Fisher-Price hoop—I found myself
watching a cross between Cirque du Soliel and Depeche Mode. The band was
Fischerspooner and their singer yelled, "This war is ridiculous!" I kept my
sentiments to myself. Sometimes a glass house needs to be broken.

Afterwards, Moby came on stage and prefaced his performance with the
reassuring disclaimer, "Not to sound like a crazy old hippie…" Then, with
vocal help from the Cultural Director of MoveOn.org, he strummed the
Forrest Gump classic
, "For What It's Worth."

This was the first sign that even the artists were facing an identity crisis.
While Moby recognized the stigma of the '60s protest hippie, others like
Devendra Banhart, fully embraced it. His freak-folk entourage and wispy "it's
simple, we don't want to kill" lyrics surely triggered a few LSD flashbacks.

On the other end, however, was Peaches. By no means a throwback, her brand of
barf-out-loud gender play is entirely of this generation: confused but certain
that shock value has meaning.

If any artist brought a sense of hope and individualism to our time of war, it
was Conor Oberst. Old Bright Eyes himself crooned the crowd to its feet,
singing "I guess God just calls a spade a spade, when the president talks to
God."

Incendiary and poignant, he sang, "In truth, the forest hears each sound, each
blade of grass as it lies down. The world requires no audience." Those just
hearing him for the first time smiled, like they'd just felt what they should
have felt all along. One even turned to me and said, "He's like Dylan."

Another throwback? No. Not this time. Oberst may draw comparisons, but it's
not in image. It's in words. Just as Dylan reminded folks of the way Woody
Guthrie made them think about themselves, Oberst has the ability to do the
same for a new generation. When it comes to politics in music, that's all you
can ask for.

Americans, for all our flag-waving, are a hard bunch to inspire towards
action. Those of us who know change is needed seem to think the struggle ends
at pointing it out. Michael Stipe fell victim to this during his set, saying
Noam Chomsky once lamented that in all his travels and lectures, Americans are
the only ones who ask "What can I do?" In nearly every other country Chomsky's
visited, people tell him what they're doing.

It was a point without a point, perpetuating the very complacency it derides.
But that was the underlying theme of the Bring 'Em Home Now concert: the
co-opting of various protest images in the absence of real protest substance.

Here's an idea: take that Hammerstein Ballroom full of people and tell them
something they can do. Tell them to cancel their newspaper subscriptions if
they want the print media to report the truth. Tell them to suspend their
cable payments until providers take Fox News off the air. Tell them not to pay
their taxes if they want the war to end in Iraq, maybe even send it to war
charities instead.

Imagine what would happen if those 6 in 10 people who supposedly oppose this
war just withheld their money from the government. That's what Cindy Sheehan
did. Too bad all the people who came out to see her at last week's concert
weren't motivated to do the same.

I'm one to talk. You won't see me doing any of these things either. So long as
my life seems unchanged by war and I am able to afford tickets that cost $30,
you won't even see me raise a stink.

What we need is someone to help us see beyond ourselves. Guthrie and Dylan did
that. And so did Oberst, for just a flicker of his three-song performance. If
we can inspire our musicians and artists to inspire us back, then maybe we
have a chance. People like me (and I'm sure that includes you—we online music
'zine readers aren't too different) need to know there's more than just safety
in numbers. There's power to force change.

The next time a protest concert rolls into your town (should you be so lucky),
forget about your inflammatory pins and t-shirts. Leave your
bureaucratic-bound petitions at home. They're just substitutions for the real
thing. Help raise the level of thought and action to something more than just
a vague bygone idea of the American protester.

SXSW: Day Four
03-18-06;

[03-18-06]

Reaching the final full day of festival activity, I was beaten-down but still
ready to be impressed. Strangely enough, it was raining in Austin (a rare
event these days). This blocked my first attempt to see Dr. Dog in the parking
lot of a pizza joint (Home Slice). I had seen the band at SXSW 2005 and found
them to be one of the highlights of the festival. Their glammy take on prog
and power pop is ambitious and packed with energy. Alas, I would have one more
chance to them later in the day.

In the meantime, I hightailed it over to Longbranch Inn on East 11th. It's a
great little neighborhood bar, yet, during SXSW, like most other watering
holes, it becomes a music venue. United State of Electronica were set to play
at 1:45 pm, but due to some shifting, had started early at 12:45. I came in
during their second song, and the crowd was already heaving with a boisterous
neo-disco pulse. That this can happen at 1 in the afternoon is a testament to
the character of USE's performance. Daft Punk-style guitars blazed over
rock-solid bass and drums pounding out a tight 4/4 groove. The vocal melodies
tended to be shortened to the simplest (and catchiest) of phrases so that one
or more of the six vocalists could easily rouse the audience into unison
chanting. One can tell that they've worked hard to hone their onstage skills
and that the work has unquestionably paid off.
It's sad that there are not many bands with the same commitment to the live
experience that USE has. Their ability to whip an audience into a frenzy is
almost unparalleled, at least for a band working with their means. It makes me
hope that they find the right backing so that they can some day develop their
stage show unfettered by limitations. Truly one of the most awe-inspiring
events of my time at SXSW.

My second attempt at making it to see Dr. Dog was thwarted, this time by an
obscene queue. In contrast with 2005 where I was never turned away from day
showcases by prohibitively long wait times, this marked the third time that a
line had kept me from seeing a band in 2006. A little rundown by the activity
level of the past few days, this disappointment sapped my energy, and I took
some time to regroup. Feeling that I should eat something before attempting
any night events, I went with a small crew of fellow festivalgoers to a
reputed southern cooking establishment. This was my big mistake.

Two smothered pork chops and a bevy of sides later, I waddled my way down 6th
Street towards Exodus, where the new Manchester-based XFM were hosting an
evening of entertainment. With this being the case, I wasn't all that
surprised to see Tony Wilson there introducing the acts; although, I must
admit that I was a bit starstruck. After all, here's the man who brought the
world Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column, Happy Mondays, and at the
very least, one of my favorite films (24 Hour Party People) is based
around him as the main
character.
Regardless, the first act upon arrival was Liam Frost, a focused
singer/songwriter with a warm, distinctive voice. His music was wonderful, but
as he rocked with acoustic fury, the warning signs of food coma were coming
on. My eyelids began to close uncontrollably while I was still standing. I
decided that I needed to find a bed as soon as possible, and with as much
energy as I could muster, I charged through the doors of the club. I barely
made it back to the car without collapsing on the sidewalk, but once there, my
saintly wife drove me safely to our abode. I was asleep in no time.

Upon reflection, this rather unceremonious end to SXSW 2006 holds some
important lessons for me. One, I need to remember that when running a marathon
(literal or metaphorical), pacing is the real challenge. Two, just because a
band is incredible and the beer is free doesn't mean that I should lose count
of my afternoon beverages. Three, that hole in the bathroom wall is not safe
to fiddle with. And four, I am a cranky old man. I hope to apply this newly
acquired self-knowledge to any future festivals that I'm lucky enough to
stumble into, but if I can impart any one festival lesson to you dear reader,
it would be this: if you see a man slumped against a club's wall drooling
gravy, please give me a friendly shake and ask the bartender to call me a cab.



(Day One)
(Day Two)
(Day Three)

(Day Four)

SXSW: Day Three
03-17-06;

[03-17-06]

Strongly
feeling the after effects of a poor diet and a couple of late nights, it's a
minor miracle that I was able to gather the wherewithal to make it to the
venues before evening. Attendance swelled, evidenced by the long lines snaking
out of any club offering a daytime show. Although my original intention had
been to circulate among various shows, I recognized the necessity of picking
one and staying with it. My decision was to wait for the Brian Jonestown
Massacre set at Red Eyed Fly--a show rumored to have free beer available.
Unfortunately, after waiting almost an hour to get inside, I was greeted with
the information that BJM wouldn't be appearing, and that instead, the local
garage psych-ers The Black Angels would be. Shortly following this, it was
made clear to me that the free beer was tapped out. Disappointed on two
levels, I sucked it up and took in a rather long, somewhat indulgent number by
The Black Angels, which was great for what it was, but my frustration overrode
their performance.

Cutting
my losses quickly, I marched southward to Emo's IV to see if I could catch a
bit of Frog Eyes before the afternoon wound down. Luckily, they were still
playing when I got there, and I was able to take in a few of their herky-jerky
rock nuggets. Stocky and with a bit of evil in his eyes, Carey Mercer
controlled the stage with his staccato guitar attack and his stinging vocals.
At one point, during a song where Mercer was chanting "I don't do drugs"
repeatedly, he stopped dead in his tracks to shoot a cold glance at a fan who
was singing along rather loudly. The fan seemed to take great pleasure from
this chastising, as evidenced by an expression of bliss crossing his face. I
can't honestly say that I've ever witnessed anything quite like that moment at
a live show before, which is indicative of the unique demeanor of Frog Eyes.
All in all, their performance was a nice recovery for my afternoon.

Taking a little time to refortify myself for the evening, I hit the Fox &
Hound where Mum were just finishing a (unremarkable) DJ set, and First Nation
were getting ready to hit the stage. A recent addition to the Paw Tracks'
roster, they are obviously from the not-playing-well-together-equals-u-r-xperimental
school of thought. For the most part it seemed that each member was
improvising without necessarily listening to the others. Vaguely Eastern
guitar lines clashed with smatterings of drum and bass, and the mess created
could best be described as uninspired. Having my bar lowered once again, the
next band, Storsveit Nix Noltes, practically floored me. A nine-piece ensemble
of Icelanders playing punk- and post-rock-informed Bulgarian folk music, it
was unlike any music I've encountered before. Their energy was palpable, and
the crowd really got behind them, dancing in the more lively moments and
standing in rapt attention for the subdued passages.

So
the scene was set and the stage was warmed for Ariel Pink. A definite recent
favorite of mine, I was looking forward to the opportunity of witnessing the
live persona of Ariel. The show started slowly with Ariel gently (and almost
undetectably) moving from soundcheck activities to his first song/noise
collage. Standing in front of a table of gizmos with a mic in hand, he wove
together hints of melodies with looping bass lines and cacophonous drum
machine rolls. Unwilling to engage with the audience, Ariel looked to the side
of the stage. After a couple of pieces, a four-piece band joined him onstage,
at which point he assumed a crouching position by a monitor, obscuring himself
from most of the crowd. The band was good, and their version of "Last Night at
Miyagi's" was impressive; however, Ariel's reticence kept them from whipping
the audience into the buzz that the song should have triggered. Ariel
unceremoniously cut the set short, leaving me unsatisfied. I guess it serves
me right for getting musical crushes on socially awkward people.

I waited through The Mutts and Tom Brosseau, neither of which made any impact
on me, in order to see Animal Collective. Having never seen them live before
and recognizing their constantly shifting sonic identity, I was prepared for
something heretofore unknown to me, and that's what I got. With an intense and
stuttering drum machine loop providing the backbone, AC played a set that was
in essence one sweepingly epic movement. Multiple times the band would build
to a state of frenzy where the chugging guitars and chirping vocals sounded
like some type of pagan mantra summoning a deity of musical inspiration. The
sound was not Feels-friendly, but the audience didn't appear to have
any problems with that. Leaving the audience excited and satisfied, AC were a
perfect closer to put a decidedly upbeat spin on a mixed-bag of a day.




(Day One)
(Day Two)

(Day Three)
(Day Four)

SXSW: Day Two
03-16-06;

[03-16-06]

With
one day behind me, a groggy morning quickly melted away with the prospect of
day shows. Although not part of the "official" SXSW schedule of events, the
day shows are a typical way for locals to enjoy music that they otherwise
wouldn't be able to see. Also, it's a way to fit in some of the bands whose
official showcase appearances conflict with others in the evening. The first
stop for me was Emo's, where I caught sets by Field Music and Dengue Fever.
Arriving primarily to see Dengue Fever, I found Field Music to be a bit of a
revelation. A three-piece pop outfit from Sunderland, these guys made pop more
lush than should be possible with their limited membership. The drummer
functioned as lead singer, with the synth/organist and bass player backing him
up with some tight harmonies along the way. They fell somewhere between Ben
Folds and XTC but outdid both in terms of melodic infectiousness. Truly a case
where, when their set ended, I was craving much more. Dengue Fever helped me
get over it, though, with their intoxicating resurrection and update of
Cambodian psych rock. Chhon Nimol's voice is a stunning instrument live—one
that she shows off with some impressive vocal runs. Their sound is so full
(not too full) with bass, guitar, and drums being nicely aided by the more
unusual elements of Farfisa and saxophone. The band was tight and surprisingly
lively for a 2 pm slot the day after a fairly late performance, and the
audience was definitely digging it, dancing far more than anyone should be
expected to at that hour.

From
there, the Whiskey Bar was hosting a local Austin act called Cue. Operating in
a decidedly post-rock mode in the vein of Rachel's or Godspeed, the band built
exquisitely layered instrumentals with an undeniably cinematic bent. As if to
confirm this, the band offered an inspired re-working of Angelo Badalamenti's
"Falling" from Twin Peaks. Replacing Julee Cruise's voice, Cue used violin,
which functioned in a similarly ethereal, mysterious way. Their originals were
just as sweeping and beautiful, and the drummer stood out with his ability to
juggle time-signature and other rhythmic shifts with the appearance of minimal
effort.

After a brief respite, the prospects of the evening were slightly
underwhelming. Without a sense of direction, my pal Kevin suggested that I
might check out Guillemots at Eternal. Arriving at approximately 8 pm, I
didn't get in until the band was at the very end of their set, which didn't
seem too impressive to my ears. However, while in line, I had learned that the
club would be the site of a surprise appearance by the Flaming Lips that was
to be recorded for later broadcast on BBC1. Unable to pass up the opportunity
to see them in such an intimate setting, I decided to stick it out until they
arrived. This meant standing through a performance by the well-meaning but
instantly forgettable Spinto Band. They aped The Beatles in their performance
(shaking their mop-top heads and singing duos clustered around a single mic),
but the music, while poppy, was decidedly more indie rock. Their backing
vocals and harmonies were rough approximations, and there was nary a hook to
be found. Boy Kill Boy hit the stage after with an overdriven synth-rock
sound. While they were a bit more palatable, their sound was a bit too
predictable after only a couple of songs to keep me interested.

When
Flaming Lips finally hit the stage, the place was packed to capacity. Wayne
incited the audience to make as much noise as possible during the show, as it
would enhance the recording. They smartly worked the audience into a frenzy by
kicking off with a cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody." The room quickly filled with
large bouncing balloons and confetti, which are by now to be expected. The
line-up was more basic rock band than I had seen them do in years, with live
drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards in effect. The new originals from the
forthcoming At War with the Mystics, like "Free Radical" and "Yeahyeahyeah
Song," played out amazingly well live, and the already-leaked nature of the
album was belied by the boisterous audience sing-along. Wayne was, as always,
a gracious master of ceremonies, making the whole affair thoroughly enjoyable
and setting the bar high for any subsequent performers.

I took the opportunity to hustle down to Fox & Hound for a late set by the
Brazilian Girls. Unfortunately, things were running way behind schedule (rare
for SXSW, which is normally run with breathtaking precision). I stood through
a significant portion of Particle's set, which reminded me how incredibly
boring and self-indulgent I find most jam-based music. With them wearing on my
nerves and me already being sorta exhausted, by the time Brazilian Girls
finally hit the stage (close to 2am), I was too disinterested to appreciate
their soothingly jazzy, down-tempo stylings. I decided to pack it in only a
couple of songs into their set, content that my night wasn't ending with the
wankery of Particle. With the high of the Flaming Lips still coursing through
my body, I couldn't help but feel that SXSW was only getting better by the
day.



(Day One)
(Day Two)
(Day Three)
(Day Four)

SXSW: Day One
03-15-06;

[03-15-06]

To a music
fan with an overabundant appetite, the music festival presents a contradictory
experience. On the one hand, there's the optimistic angle where the very idea
of so much raw talent collecting in one place is certainly a positive. On the
other hand, there's the pessimistic view, which, looking at the slate of
artists scheduled to perform next door to, alongside of, or even literally on
top of one another, yearns to just concede defeat, sitting out of the game
rather than destroying oneself in the attempt to cram too much into an
evening. Ultimately, this creates a fine line for festival goers to walk. Yet
it's a line that I approach with almost religious fervor. Here's to SXSW 2006,
in all the joy and frustration it has to offer.

The Velvet Spade offered The Reputation. Unfortunately, they fell into the
category of bands I'd heard of, but never actually heard, so I got stuck on
thinking about exactly what the name "The Reputation" was trying to signify.
When people have "reputations," it usually means one of two things: they are
quick to violence or easy to get in the sack. From the confident and slightly
angry tone of the pop punk emanating from the PA, I decided that it meant that
this band was a pack of bad asses, ready to take on all comers. Feeling a bit
on edge, I sauntered downstairs to catch some of The Strange Boys. Not
surprisingly, my wimpy-ass found their fragile and fractured pop to be a cool
and welcome salve for the heat and passion of The Rep. They immediately made
me think of Half Japanese doing a set of White Stripes covers. Appearing to be
somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 (my apologies if I'm
underestimating), the members had their stage personae surprisingly well
developed with a real sense of restraint and purpose. Hailing from Dallas,
these were the most local of the groups I saw, but they seemed good candidates
for more widespread fame should the right people hear them.

At the Eternal nightclub I caught a set from 2004's favorite Norwegian pop
songstress Annie. I should say here that I am a huge
fan of Anniemal and that the mere idea of being in close proximity to
this petite chanteuse gave me goose bumps on patches of skin which I'd never
felt before. When it came to show time, the experience didn't quite match the
expectation. Annie's voice is a delicate instrument, and hearing it live, it
was apparent that the tools available in a recording studio do much to bring
it into its full glory. In a club with a troubled sound system, her voice came
off as thin and crumbly rather than ethereal and smooth. Her musicians played
skeletal versions of the productions on Anniemal, including "Always Too
Late," "Chewing Gum," "Heartbeat," and "Come Together." What saved it for me
was her overwhelming grace and her kind demeanor with the audience. She
repeatedly joked with the audience between songs, and in the midst of songs,
she would dance infectiously and beckon everyone to join her. This goodwill
did much to endear her to me even more, so while I may not make it to her next
US tour stop, I'll still be among the first in line for her next album.

A major destination for the evening was The Parish, where Art Brut was
scheduled to perform at 1 am. However, with some time before then, I sampled
what was being offered on the two stages in the club. The Grates were
pleasantly immature and angsty with a lot of boisterous energy, particularly
emanating from lead singer Patience Hodgson. After their last couple songs, I
wandered into The Research's set. A sweet, slightly off-kilter pop combo, the
group has the ramshackly line-up of bass, shitty-ass keyboard, and
stripped-down drumkit. With catchy/witty/honest choruses like "It's not that I
don't love you / I'm just scared of fucking up," it would have been a chore
not to like them. Although my energy level was waning, I found myself
consistently tapping out the beat with my foot and nodding my head.

Then,
like a pre-race shot of etorphine in a horse's ass, I was clobbered by the
live phenomenon known as Gil Mantera's Party Dream. I feel almost dirty
talking about the experience, like I'm airing someone's dirty secrets. The two
brothers, Gil and Ultimate Donny Mantera, arrived onstage clad in largely
black outfits--leather, faux leather, suede, and the like. They immediately
preened their way through an instrumental number that had both of them
charging towards the audience with their guitars. The two brothers had an
almost unsettling rapport as they seemed to physically and psychologically
fight with each other throughout the performance. Donny sang with macho gusto
and righteousness ("I only want justice / I only want equality, yeah")
while Gil skulked about him, prancing and at times even upsetting his
brother's performance. Donny never really lashed back, but his face would
register disgust in these moments. It was family drama as rich as anything in
a Lifetime movie.

Donny's between-song monologues were absurdist send-ups of the conventions of
such banter. The brothers also denuded themselves down to their skivvies by
the end of their set. The overall effect was intensely magnetic, and as a
friend pointed out to me, almost all attendees were pressed up to the stage in
order to be as close to the duo as possible. The music was undeniably
infectious, if one can appreciate or at least abide the theatrics. 80s synth
pop/guitar rock with tongue firmly in cheek and obviously being done out of
love. I'd like to see these guys get an opening spot on a tour with
Fischerspooner. That audience will definitely dig what the Party Dream has to
offer in terms of performance art and pop.

Ending my night, I had to wait in a short line to get upstairs to catch a
portion of Art Brut's set. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I hadn't
immediately been struck by the band's recordings - particularly Eddie Argos,
who I thought to be a goofy take on Mark E. Smith. Still, I thought I'd humor
my friend and go along. Of course, I was immediately struck by how wrong my
assessment of Mr. Argos was. While his voice was precisely the same as on
record, he had two secret weapons--an arsenal of good sentiment and a
mustache. Also, what came across live was the amazing skill of the band in
playing their intensely rocking songs. The audience was enrapt, especially
during their renditions of "Emily Kane" and "Moving to L.A." I'm glad that my
first impressions were wrong, as this group puts on an incredibly charismatic
live show that more than backs up the Argos's ranting. A good end to a first
night with more joy than frustration, and the hope of more personal
revelations in store for the rest of the festival.



(Day One)
(Day Two)
(Day Three)
(Day Four)

Belle and Sebastian / New Pornographers
9:30 Club; Washington, D.C.

[03-05-06 ; 03-06-06]

Stuart Murdoch dances like he's
recently come off a stint of watching hours of The Breakfast Club on
loop. He twirls and kicks as if the ghosts of Molly Ringwald's past characters
have him possessed. His energy goes against my presuppositions about Belle and
Sebastian's live set--that its set possibilities would foster thoughts of
peaceful yawning and the desire for a seat. Two nights of the band's
fast-paced new sound at the 9:30 Club debunked these theories.

Night one, Sunday, March 5: The band eased the crowd into a warm bath with the
first bubbling notes of "Stars of Track and Field." Glowing in the warm shine
of the yellow lights and the welcoming rise of the violin, the audience
settled into their comfort zone and realized their surroundings, upping the
ante from bumbling foot-shuffling to all-out disregard for other people. "This
feels so cozy," Stuart Murdoch said. "It makes me want to get into my
pajamas!"

The roller-coaster of tempos, from "Funny Little Frog" to "A Century of
Fakers" to "I'm a Cuckoo," heightened anticipation and the possibilities. But
the band seemed to have pow-wowed beforehand, dreaming up the set with the
largest amount of prime opportunities to get down. They rocked "Electronic
Renaissance," with a city lights background, "Your Cover's Blown," with Stuart
thrusting his pelvis and hitting the cymbal simultaneously, and "White Collar
Boy," with fatter beats and more authentic-sounding harmonies than the
recording. After "I Don't Love Anyone," one of a few throwbacks to
Tigermilk
, Murdoch warned his snuggly new friends, "I hope you're glad to
know I've come a long way in my emotional development since then, and for that
I have this group of people to thank," pointing to the band of seven others,
including guitarist Stevie Jackson, expert hand-clapper in skinny-pants. The
weep-worthy encore, consisting of "Fox in the Snow" and "Get Me Away From Here
I'm Dying," left the crowd wistful and romantic. The entire set reminded fans
of songs they'd forgotten and put new emphasis on the overlooked, finer points
of their extensive catalogue.

Night two, Monday, March 6: Murdoch and co. obliged silent wishes for
infrequent repeats from the night before, starting with "Expectations,"
tossing in a little "She's Losing It" and breaking hearts with "The Wrong
Girl." They kicked the set into gear with the same electric feel of the night
before, Murdoch's energy replenished, his dance moves intact. "Me and the
Major" and "Judy and the Dream of Horses" capped off the show with an ending
fit for 1996.

Openers the New Pornographers are coming off their own avalanche of praise for
Twin Cinema, only the hottest woman in indie rock Neko Case and the
chain-smoking, self-loathing Dan Bejar were notably absent. A.C. Newman held
it together with his harmonic backup band, and they mixed up their set with
pieces from each of three albums--"The Body Says No," "Breaking the Law,"
"From Blown Speakers," and "Sing Me Spanish Techno." The precursor to Belle
and Sebastian's undying energy, the New Pornographers set the precedent of
fervency and singalongs. The combination unmatched, the choice of songs too
perfect, Belle and Sebastian and the New Pornographers created a sublime night
for awkward, lovesick fans eager to realize their dreams. -Rebecca A.

Photo: Photo M.Trayner

Animal Collective / First Nation
Neumo's; Seattle, WA

[03-02-06]

As I walked into the overcrowded
venue, the first thing I noticed was the band on stage. Three women will
always make a man turn his head, but in this case it was the music that
grabbed my attention--and not in a positive, "What is this?" tone but more in
an annoyed, "What is THIS?" tone. And I wasn't alone. First Nation was in the
midst of their set, and no one, not even the hipster dufusses, were into the
performance. This was a band that had listened to 7" of respectable noise
bands and thought they could replicate those sounds and that energy. Sadly,
they can't and--I have to be straight ahead with all of you--I don't think
they ever will. Maybe there is something salvageable on a plastic disc or
vinyl wax, but in a live setting these ladies couldn't pass the test with an
open and lively crowd. Most of the crowd couldn't muster applause after each
track, and the only round of cheering came when First Nation exclaimed how
cool Animal Collective was for having them open, housing them on Paw Tracks,
and giving them the gift of watching Animal Collective perform each and every
night.

It was a relief when First Nation exited stage left and the boys of Animal
Collective started piecing together their rig. For a moment I thought First
Nation may have been some joke or a way to make Animal Collective's
performance seem glorious by default, but I was soon to realize that Animal
Collective needs no propping. From note one, the band immediately commanded
attention. The disgruntled noises from Geologist's set-up came in every
direction, and the show began on a high note. The band slipped from one song
to the next seamlessly and we, the crowd, hardly noticed. Animal Collective
didn't shy away from mixing in songs no one could recognize (and lord do I
hope those songs appear sooner rather than later in a studio form) along with
songs from older releases when Animal Collective wasn't technically Animal
Collective. Again, the crowd didn't give two shits about not recognizing songs
(except for the putzes behind me who exclaimed "Finally! It's about time,"
when AC launched into "Grass," as the set died down); they were more into the
show and the sound itself.

If you've never seen Animal Collective live, it's hard for me to sum up the
onslaught of sight and sound. I'll try to put it this way for those of you who
have experimented with drugs: take some LSD or smoke as much pot as you can
without feeling sick and/or throwing up. Crank up your stereo as loud as you
can stand it--and the more speakers you can place around the room in varying
positions the better. Concentrate on the same spot or item for as long as you
can while taking in the waves of sound that surround you. You'll start to hear
things you've never noticed before, and you'll start to question your sanity.
Are you really hearing voices? Was that a guitar or a synth that made that
noise, or are you starting to crack? Is the face of the Avey Tare starting to
melt? Who said that!? These thoughts rushed in and out of my head all evening,
and I wasn't under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. Then it dawned on
me: I wish I knew stereotypical Grateful Dead/Phish fans so I could bring them
to see Animal Collective--they'd never touch a drug to listen to music again.
Listening to Animal Collective amounts to one giant trip.

The Buttless Chaps / Young & Sexy
The Red Room; Vancouver, BC

[02-23-06]

Like a solar eclipse but far less
random is the elusive double CD release party. Lo, here at the primarily
electronic nightclub The Red Room, Mint Records kindly bankrolled the release
of The Buttless Chaps' seventh album and the sick-of-being-compared-to-Belle &
Sebastian Young & Sexy's hotly anticipated third. I'd never been to this venue
before, and, to be honest, its close proximity to Hastings (crack central here
in Van) and the subsequent shootings outside had me a little nervous, but the
open dance floor area and cabaret-style seating sure puts The Red Room at a
level above Richard's On Richards peeling-paint banisters. Having built up a
substantial cult following over these many years, the combined hometown crowds
of each band obviously necessitated a venue of this size, but the class of
this more-recently-renovated-than-Dick's joint was the cheese in my grilled.
Hey, you can't go wrong with a $5 pint glass of peach margarita.

With the blossoming crowd inside by the time Young & Sexy hit the stage, there
was almost a birthday party atmosphere in the East side cavern (care of the
crazy dancing, post-punk, post-Barenaked Ladies opening locals The Doers),
which took a sudden turn towards a sullen, forgotten birthday once the sombre
interpretation of urban decay that is Y&S kicked in. Amid subtle monitor
problems, they didn't really hit stride till after "The City You Live In Is
Ugly," which was just in time for the harmonizing required by muse chanteuse
Lucy Brain and guitarist Paul Hixon Pittman for "Your Enemy's Asleep," a song
that took on more of a Shins feel live. I know, particularly with their first
album (2002's Stand Up For Your Mother) and its surrounding output,
that their emphasis is/was on alienated, morose seriousness--but I wasn't the
only one who thought Lucy's voice sounded more dynamic once she seemed to
lighten up a bit and let a few smiles across her face, coincidently when a
trumpeter/keyboardist showed up to make the band a sextet. I actually
preferred their earlier releases before this set, which picked a selection of
tracks covering all three records, but the live versions of their more
traditionally indie rock-sounding, newer Panic When You Find It tracks
brought them to life in a truly rewarding fashion right before my ears.

The assless ones took the stage without a word, launching straight into songs
mostly from their newest Mint album. While previously exploring the uncommon
dichotomy of new wave and country in great depth, the Where Night Holds
Light
-heavy set rested more on indie-tinged alt. country… so don't let the
country tag scare you. Garth "Dr. Pepper" Brooks, these guys ain't. This here
is a rare case of trumpet, accordion, banjo, and keyboards (among other
things) all together at last. This mêlée betrays an open-mindedness that is
crucial to the endurance of worthwhile independent music.

After five studio and two live albums, there's a pretty good chance you know
your shit. And so, the accurate renditions of the new Buttless tracks weren't
surprising. But while they didn't add too much beyond the studio, Dave Gowan's
off-the-cuff musing about "product" (hair gel), the obligatory Chaps cover of
Depeche Mode, and their live energy in front of a friendly crowd
unquestionably made the trip down worthwhile. They closed out the night on a
positive, laid-back note. You can probably tell from the tone of this review
that my mind wasn't exactly blown through the wall, but believe me when I say
it's nights like this that rekindle my faith in indie. Props to Mint Records.
Off the back of these releases and Neko Case's new one, this should be a
well-deserved big year for them.