Born Ruffians Live at The Phoenix in Austin, Texas on March 17th, 2010 (Warp Records showcase at SXSW)

It was a beautiful night in Austin, Texas for SXSW 2010.

A lot of folk were milling about the entrance to The Phoenix, which had a serious-looking carved metal sign out front and a staircase you’d like to see ladies in Victorian dresses standing atop of. I mounted the carpeted steps, headed up, and as the music grew louder, I grew more excited, because it was Pivot playing, and they sounded like electrified magic potions.

It turned out to be the last song of the set, but all was well, for Born Ruffians were up next. And as I watched the trio post up under the large (crystal/acrylic) chandelier hanging over the stage, my first thought was that they looked older.

When I saw them two years ago, the band was red, yellow, blue and bubbly. This year they struck me as more green, yellow, purple and pensive. If I remember correctly, drummer Steve Hamelin quit the band at some point in those 730 days. He’s back now though, with a beard, and it appears as if the Ruffians have also recruited a 4th member for live shows. Strapped with a ‘lectric guitar and an electro Nord, dude didn’t say much, but he sure did contribute.

The power trio out of Midland, Ontario began their set with new devilry from the upcoming sophomore effort, Say It. The tune had a frothy bass line, perfect for foot skipping about, and a rolling gait of a rhythm. Hamelin was  all master lock and step machine, hitting the heads on the house kit with controlled steam. Singer/guitarist Luke LaLonde did a little side to side shuffle, while bassist Mitch Derosier marched in place as if stomping cockroaches into goopy jelly. The Ruffians sounded tighter than ever before, and “Born Ruffians Tight” is tight already. Tight like all the girls’ leggings I be seeing.

They played “Sole Brother” next, which I did not like when I listened to it on bad headphones a few weeks ago, but seeing it live cured me of that negative Nancy. After a gradual build all “Brother” long, the emotional explosion at the end really thumped the track into stand-out status.

Another new song, “The Ballad Of Moose Bruce,” leapt into existence with a pounding kick drum and rapid fire floor-tomming from Hamelin. Drum fills increased incrementally, like bubbles in hot water on the brink of boiling, and as the song chugged along, it sounded like it would soon explode into something beautiful (kind o’ like a Phoenix, tee hee). And I reckon it did, though not in the expected blaze of fireworks. The song turned out to be more of a character study, versus a summer blockbuster. But I didn’t mind at all.  Dug it, actually. Seasons have obviously come and gone with Born Ruffians, and that’s a hell of a lot better than a never-ending summer.

“Say It” was the shiniest gem of the set, however. The lyrics deal with not being able to talk after drinking too much, and that seemed like a really apropos topic for SXSW. LaLonde’s high voice cracked not a bit, and the quirky range of his vocal chords paired perfectly with the sweet Pixy Stick sound of his guitar twanging. It’s an incredibly dynamic song, and if most bands make static songs like 4 door sedans, than the Ruffians are manufacturing rides akin to Jetsons-like hoopties. There were lots of stops, time shifts on the quick, and it suddenly occurred to me that looking at this song in wave form might mirror marks made from Morse Code blips.

Derosier dedicated the next song to a friend who got sick at IHOP earlier that day. He also commented on the chandelier, saying it made the mood rather majestic. In fact, the bassist did most of the talking throughout the show, and frontman LaLonde didn’t say anything directly to the audience other than “thank you,” or “this is a new song.” Oddly enough, when I saw them two years ago, Derosier never spoke to the crowd and Hamelin did all the talking.

Maybe they draw lots before shows.

As the night was dedicated to fresh material, the Ruffians only played two songs from Red, Yellow and Blue, and those were “Foxes Mate For Life” and “In A Mirror.” These selections convinced me even more that the state of Born Ruffians is no longer as bright, chipper and colorful. But damned if they aren’t a better band all-around. It’s certainly a more mature sound, with deeper shadings and pixel-dot attention to detail.

As I walked back down the grand staircase, my ears, after conferring with my brains, decided that yes, I will be buying the new Ruffians record when it drops via Warp on June 1st. And once the sale is final, my first words will be ripped straight from the lyrics for “Badonkadonkey,” off of Red, Yellow and Blue:

“I, I got you in my pocket/ For when I get home/ Keep you in my pocket/ For when I get home/ I keep you in my pocket/ For when I get home/ When I get home/ When I get home.”

I just wonder what color the wax will be.

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– Matt Lehtola


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