SXSW Day 1, BTR Showcase

Well, BTR’s SXSW showcase 2010 is in the books.

The situation went down at the Palm Door on Sabine Street in Austin, Texas; a barn-like structure that used to be a carpentry workshop (a fact I learned from the sound engineer). It has the most badass plank wood floors I’ve ever seen in a venue, and the long ramps leading up to the doors also make it the most wheelchair accessible stage I’ve ever trod.

There is one serious oddity about the place, however, and it’s something every act strolling across the maritime-looking deck has to factor into their approach. A hilariously inconvenient roof support stands smack-dab in the middle of the stage, exactly where the main microphone should be. I caught Wanda Jackson & Green Corn Revival there later that night, and Jackson, looking at this awkward white post, noted “there’s only one other place that has one, and it’s in Sweden.”

But that was way later.

This beautiful Wednesday afternoon was all about us BTR DJs throwing down with some of our favorite bands. And we had a very good cross-section of America represented in the lineup: Wild Yaks hail from Brooklyn, New York, Drink Up Buttercup reps for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Battlehooch dwells in San Francisco, California and Morningbell brings the Orange from Gainesville, Florida.

The veritable Florida foursome opened things up in magical fashion, all hyped about playing their first show in Texas. Frontman Travis Atria was resplendent in an all-white suit, with kicks to match, and the quartet played a hearty heaping of tracks from their latest long player, Sincerely, Severely. Bassist Eric Atria gave me a stack of copies to give away before the show, so I had the honor of handing out free solid audio gold while Morningbell did they thang. The moment made for the the perfect pitch, actually, as I would approach a person and be like “Yeah, dig this song? Solid right, you can have it, free, this ain’t no wack promo disc full of filler, nay, this is a full studio album that will leave your music library NOT.” Plus, Morningbell also came strapped with a free batch of handy carabiners, complete with bottle opener and ‘Morningbell’ stamped on the side, and everybody had one hooked to a belt loop by the show’s end. As usual though, I couldn’t decide if I liked “Marching Off To War” or “Let’s Not Lose Our Heads” better. Both are such perfect live songs, complete with group sing-alongs and dynamic moments that build to crashing crescendoes.

After Morningbell christened the stage for the day, the mood was “Born and thrown on a hook/ And tossed out into a sea of normal/” via Philly’s own Drink Up Buttercup, who played so fiercely they punched a hole in the kick drum head. The perimeter of bassist/co-keysmaster Ben Mazochetti’s incensed romping was as dangerously close to catastrophe as always, and it’s amazing the man has not  yet accidentally kicked someone’s teeth out. Combined with Mike Cammarata’s daredevil drumming/balancing act, Farzad Houshiarnejad’s beautiful mad scientist synth work and frontman Jim Harvey’s gladiator vocal chords, powerful enough to raise goosebumps on skin and hair  follicles in between, Drink Up Buttercup come at you both hard and amazingily harmonic. Also, it was the first time I heard “Pink Sunshine” live, and as such it was a moment I’ll never forget. That harmony at the end, Gods, they’ll be singing it in bars, TV singing contests and karaoke nights for years to come.

After that Battlehooch exploded upon the stage like a mortar round, complete with crazy visuals projected onto a white sheet hanging from the rafters. They played as if all 6 members had just pounded 5 Hour Energy shots laced with absinthe, and their physical stances seemed to say, “yeah, we are the vanguard, step aside.” Phil got some amazing pictures, and I admit it was damned funny watching the look on his face (nevermind the facial expressions of DJs Lottie & Emily) as the BTR airstaff absorbed this show from the ‘Hooch. None of us had ever seen the sextet live before, and, being DJs, you could practically hear the gears turning in our heads as our ears processed the experience.

(Patrick of Battlehooch – photo by April Williams)

Rapt,  we listened and stared intently as our collective live Battlehooch cherry popped. “Caliphate” stuck out for me, as did the cover of “Only Baby Sharks,” which really showcased the West coast band’s ability to slow things down. Much love to fellow BTR DJ Mike G on that front, who covers the Bay Area scene and helped us in bringing Battlehooch to Texas.

Wild Yaks finished things up with enough feral intensity to terrify a grizzly bear, plus a new song and all that classic Yak between-song banter. I had first caught the Yaks at the Laboratory in Gainesville, Florida, on February 5th, and, as fate would have it, I’ll be seeing them again on Tuesday, March 23rd in Gainesville, Florida (this time at the Common Grounds). The band from Brooklyn has been on the road the entire time in between, and frontman Robert Bryn said (when I interviewed him later) that he thought it was the 49th day straight. Still, they brought the stampede, and hearing “Pondering Philosopher” again made me fidget with those tingles only music can create, and “River May Come,” man, what can you say, other than I never (with gruff authority), “let fear get the best of me!”

(Robert of Wild Yaks – photo by April Williams)

Afterwards, myself, DJ Lottie, DJ Wynn and DJ Emily all agreed that every band sounded stone-heavy solid. And that means something, coming from 4 seasoned show whores like ourselves (who go to shows like other people go to movies). Also, the weather was simply beautiful all afternoon, with a blazing sun and blue sky to boot. I was able to interview every band under these lovely rays at some point in the day, though I’d have to wait until Thursday to catch up with Drink Up (who had to immediately book over to 6th Street for a show at Peckerheads after their set).

There should be more details for me to colorfully spill here, but, for real, I spent so much time handing out BTR shirts, buttons and Live Studio compilations that it was impossible to focus 100% on the music. Everyone that walked through the doors fell subject to my promotional wrath and, after 4 years, describing BTR in under a minute to total strangers (with illustrative anecdotes) is gravy.

After we packed up the merch, thanked the Palm Door folk and bid adieu to all of the bands, it was back to the hotel lobby to drop off our gear, write a quick blog and re-assemble for the evening portion of Wednesday at SXSW 2010. The Warp Records showcase was lookin’ sexy, with Born Ruffians, Pivot and Flying Lotus, but I wouldn’t know where the bread crumbs would lead until I got back downtown.

UPDATE:

Just got back, almost 3 AM, dead on my feet like a zombie. Check back tomorrow to hear about my adventures from Wednesday’s festivities. Right now I’m lamenting the loss of my iPhone wall charger attachment, which no doubt got lost somewhere between the shuttle and Sabine Street. Sumbitch.

UPDATE:

Back from the hotel, my first order of business was to swing on back to the Palm Door on Sabine Street. Maybe some kind soul had found my iPhone wall charger piece and turned it into the bar. Not a very realistic idea, true, but everybody we have met on the local side of thangs has been awesome, so who knows?

Well, there was no little white plastic cube to be found, but I did stumble upon a show by Wanda Jackson and Green Corn Revival. Thing is, I missed the name when she was introduced, only hearing the words “Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.” The place was packed to the rafters, and there was a deep tone of respect in the MC’s twang, so I knew something special was afoot.

Also, where we had set up our lil’ table of free BTR T-shirts, glow-in-the-dark BTR buttons and BTR Live Studio Compilations (volumes 1 & 2), there was now a wall-to-wall rack of cowboy boots at least 5 levels deep, maybe for sale? I did not check fully, as I was too busy looking for the Palm Door’s manager to ask about my lost charger.

After settling that issue (hadn’t seen it), I focused on Wanda Jackson, who had jet black hair, a red dress and big ol’ sparkly ear tinsel. She started singing “Mean Man,” and it sounded amazing. Her voice still has all that sass and sly winkiness to it, and I’m a sucker for it. She yodeled a bit in a another number, and then she did a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.”

As the description in the article about the show I read this morning, “Dylan and Springsteen successfully lobbied to have her inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. She dated Elvis!”

Then it was on to try and catch a set from Here We Go Magic at Club Deville, for the Brooklyn Vegan showcase. Walking along Red River, we heard The Walkmen launch into “The Rat” at Stubb’s. Only at SXSW do you just walk on by a band playing one of the best rock songs ever.

The line was ghastly at Club Deville, so we traveled to The Phoenix instead, for the Warp Records Showcase. On the way I bought a cupcake from a vendor on the main drag, and that was dinner.

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.

With my phone on the verge of death and my pocket schedule in someone else’s pocket, I gambled on again Cub Deville and was rewarded with Bowerbirds at the Brooklyn Vegan showcase.

I caught two songs from them in front of that ‘ol rock wall, one being “The Ticonderoga” and the other being “In Our Talons.” Both were beyond satisfactory, and I walked on down the hill to Beauty Bar whistling them “de de deeeeeeeees.”

‘Twas my second year in a row seeing Rafter at SXSW, my second year seeing him at Beauty Bar, and my second time interviewing him. This time, however, he was playing on the stage out back of Beauty Bar, with that downward-sloping asphalt floor. The Asthmatic Kitty showcase was in full swing, and Rafter was sandwiched between sets from Danielson and Diamond Rings, sticking out like a big, shiny disco ball.

When I interviewed him last year (on a weird staircase off 6th Street), he had been in the midst of crafting his fourth LP, Animal Feelings. Tonight’s set featured a bevy of material from that new business (dropping April 13th), and I got to say it was incredibly sexual, dancey, and full of BASS.

Busting red anvil sideburns and something of a natural pompadour, just as red, Rafter was dressed in a short sleeved black n’ green flannel shirt, centered on a narrow black tie. The black glasses were back, a ‘course, and so was Rafter’s lady fair, Lizeth Santos (Smile Now Cry Later) who had danced and sang back-up vocals last year. Her role expanded this South By, however, as it was her job to judge the best body mover in the crowd, and gift them with a fresh copy of Animal Feelings at the show’s conclusion.

There was a bit of a sound issue at first, which Rafter identified, analyzed and dealt with by saying “The monitor is gone, but we soldier on!” He danced about regardless, part robot, part Prince, working those Zapp-ish vocals out of the black Talk Box tube fastened to his microphone. His guitar sounded like a video game, and to say he coaxed unorthodox effects out this electric axe would be an understatement.

Featuring a hole-punching pulverizer of a beat, “A Frame” was an early Animal Feelings highlight. Santos was dancing up a storm for it, as were a tribe of tightly clad music fans near stage right, so it was no surprise when Rafter traveled over to their ring and joined the jumping for a bit.

He plucked “Fruit” and tore off “Paper” next, the first single from Animal Feelings. About halfway through, said Phil (AKA DJ Wynn, hosts Mondays on BTR), “The dance party’s going off right now!”

It was then that I noticed a phantom 4th member of the band, in addition to Rafter, Santos and drummer Andy. This hidden character was posted up behind the PA stage left, and if you were standing anywhere besides the extreme right and left of the space, chances are you would never even know dude was there.

He was busy though. Methinks a keyboard, perhaps an MPC?

“No Fucking Around” was next, and Rafter introduced it by telling everyone that there were official Rafter shirts saying “No Fucking Around” available at the merch table. You know I bought one, and I am tempted as Tantalus to frame it. This is going to be a shirt I wear only at significant circumstances…

Title track “Animal Feelings” culminated with Rafter repeating the chorus over and over again, singing it each consecutive time in a higher pitch, so by the last round he sounded like a screeching baby singing falsetto. It was probably the most unexpected (and most unfuckable with) sonic twist I bore witness to all week. That, and the straight-up Miami bass that peppered all of Rafter’s new songs. Not sure if I will actually go through with it, but it’s damn tempting to rent a bus, fill it with thumping Punches and drive around town bumping “No Fucking Around.”

The winner of the dance contest turned out to be a rubbery-limbed fellow in a green shirt, and not the pot-bellied blonde who appeared halfway through the set and danced somewhat creepily (with them ol’ crazy eyes in FULL effect). Santos stepped down with a smile, handed the winning shuffler some Animal Feelings to take home, and soon after that, Rafter peaced out, wishing everyone “magical moments at the festival.”

I did a quick interview with him afterwards (Rafter was rad as always, look for the audio in future editions of In The Den) and then it was back to the shuttle, back to the hotel, and back to the computer to document the day’s events.

-Matt Latola

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