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South By Southwest (Austin, TX) Friday, March 19, 2010

20 March 2010

I started off the day at one of the rival free festivals that pop up every year to bust SXSW’s balls. I was afraid it was the only way I’d get to see the JIM JONES REVUE, so I got there early and sat through the bands leading up to them, which was both bad and good.

First up was North Carolina’s LOST IN THE TREES, a new Anti- signing that sounds like a folky version of OKKERVIL RIVER or ARCADE FIRE, though a lot less overbearing. The singer was clad in corduroys and a sweater, which says it all, frankly. Next was Brooklyn’s SUCKERS, who played a chaotic mess of jangly indie pop, loud rock, electrobeats, mild worldbeat and bad vocals. There may be a workable formula in there somewhere, but these guys haven’t found it. Suckers were followed by the horribly named OH NO ONO, also from Brooklyn. Dressed like new wave refugees from the early days of MTV, the band played a mix of psychedelia, new wave and power pop, like GARY NUMAN collaborating with the BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE. Unlike Suckers, the quintet was skilled at balancing its different elements and was quite good.

Next was HACIENDA, an acclaimed garage rock/pop quartet from San Antonio. Actually, calling them a garage band doesn’t do them justice – this band ain’t interested in reliving the Nuggets past. Instead, the four young men play their Farfisa-kissed rock & roll and pop tunes as if they were as relevant now as they would be in any other era. Instrumental skill, sharp melodies and a palpable enthusiasm made Hacienda compelling – it’s a shame their mics went out in the middle of their short set, but at least the band proved it’s as good at soulful instrumentals (including a groove “Green Onions”) as it is with four-part harmonies.

Speaking of enthusiasm and mic trouble, the Jim Jones Revue has a surfeit of both. Constant electric shocks that the MWTX soundmen seemed uninterested in fixing meant that Jones couldn’t play guitar and sing at the same time. A lot of so-called rockers would have sat backstage glowering until the problem was corrected, but Jones didn’t want to waste time. Instead, he simply put his guitar aside for most of the set and reclaimed the slinky, rock & roll frontman he undoubtedly was while in THEE HYPNOTICS. Backed by a cracking quartet that included ELLIOT MORTIMER‘s expert boogie woogie piano, Jones cranked out groovy, riff-rocking sounds similar to his work in his previous beloved band BLACK MOSES, only with a less 70s-specific vibe. The Revue was inspired by 50s rock, especially LITTLE RICHARD, and it showed in the rootsiness of the grooves. But there’s just as much Detroit power rock (the guitars and bass were run through ultra-loud Orange amps, after all) and FACES soulshake in Jones’ vision, and given the group’s obvious love for its work, it made the set possibly the most exciting thing I’ve seen so far this year. And it wasn’t even the band at full strength, with Jones’ mic problems and his seriously hoarse singing. I’m not sure my heart could take the Jim Jones Revue firing on all cylinders, but I’m going to try to track them down again tomorrow to find out.

After being rocked into the ground by the Revue, it was off to finally catch a set by a band I’ve loved for years but have never gotten the opportunity to see play. The BLACK WATCH is no stranger to BT readers, having been championed by JACK RABID for a couple of decades, and with good reason: the band is a psych/janglepop treasure. The gig was listed as being at the Radisson Hotel; what that really meant was a makeshift stage inside the hotel’s TGI Fridays. It was a very odd setting for such a literate, craft-oriented act, but it worked out. The Watch simply got on with it, playing an eight song set of tunes new (the group has a new album recorded entitled Led Zeppelin V) and old (“Quartz Pink Cloud,” “On Another Plane,” “Blue Umbrella”) that alternated betwixt chime and fuzz. Guitarist STEVEN SCHAYER dominated the sound, but a Friday’s is hardly the place to truly appreciate JOHN ANDREW FREDERICK‘s brilliant songs anyway. With surprisingly good audio, a good time was had by all, despite the clashing of universes.

I ended my evening with Cheap Trick. I was unable to attend the band’s Austin City Limits taping the day before (too busy getting my face rawked off at the Small Stone showcase), so I took myself to the veteran group’s outdoor show at Auditorium Shores. The performance was pretty much everything I hoped it would be. The show opened with an audio montage mixing snippets of Trick tunes with quotes from The Simpsons. (I had no idea the show referenced Cheap Trick so many times over the years.) The group itself (ROBIN ZANDER, RICK NIELSEN, TOM PETERSSON, with Nielsen’s son DAXX sitting in for BUN E. CARLOS, plus keyboardists ROGER JOSEPH MANNING, JR. and DANNY LOUIS) came out swinging with, appropriately enough, “Hello There” (“Are you ready to rock?” asks the song without sounding cliched), followed quickly by “ELO Kiddies.” From there the Trick seamlessly mixed old classics, more recent tunes and what radio programmers call “deep cuts,” older songs that don’t get the exposure of the singles, or even the popular album cuts. Tunes from the band’s latest album The Latest (no, naming albums isn’t their strong suit) struck a particularly Beatlesque note – “Miracle,” “Miss Tomorrow” and “Closer (The Ballad of Burt & Linda)” show its Fab Four obsession in fine effect. “Sick Man of Europe,” on the other hand, kicked out the jams, just to prove the Trick still rocks hard.

Nielsen dedicated a trio of songs to the late ALEX CHILTON, beginning with the brief “Sleep Forever,” before seguing into “Heaven Tonight” and finishing off the trilogy with “That 70’s Song,” AKA BIG STAR‘s “In the Street.” The biggest surprise, though, was another threesome, as Cheap Trick lifted “Taxman, Mr. Thief,” “The Ballad of TV Violence (I’m Not the Only Boy)” and “Oh, Candy” from its 1977 debut. A portion of the crowd didn’t know what to make of this stuff, but longtime fans went nuts.

Of course, Trick played the hits as well, from “I Want You to Want Me” to “Dream Police” to an absolutely titanic “Surrender.” The band even opened its encore with “The Flame,” its only #1 hit and a song of which I thought they’d become embarrassed. But it lost a lot of its glossy mush onstage, and Zander, to put it bluntly, sang the shit out of it. And let us take a moment to praise Trick’s lead singer: he’s pushing 60 and still sounds the same as he did in the 70s. No mean feat – he’s the only singer his age I can think of who still has his original chops. And while we’re at it, why isn’t Nielsen placed on the same pedestal as other, less creative and fun guitar gods?

The band ended the show with an extended take of its disco subversion “Gonna Raise Hell” (just in case you don’t know, they ain’t talking about partying), followed immediately by “Good Night,” its inversion of “Hello There.” (They played a great pop tune between “Dream Police” and “Hell,” but I’m ashamed to admit I can’t remember the name of it.) While I could quibble about the absence of “She’s Tight” or “If You Want My Love,” that would be churlish. It was a great show, with impeccable sound and the kind of passion that comes from a band that still gets a thrill from performing its own music for people. It’s a lesson a lot of so-called “classic rock” bands could stand to learn.

SXSW 2010: Wednesday
SXSW 2010: Thursday


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