SXSW 2005: Like A Record, Baby (Wednesday)
Day One: Pump It Up
Austin, TX, March 16, 2005 - I like schadenfreude as much as the next guy. Actually, as a New Yorker, I probably like schadenfreude rather more than the next guy. This is because we need to ride the subways. If we have to go through that whole mess just to get home, see, then you've got some coming too.
In any case, my pre-caf morning soul stirs a bit as I pass the mammoth long line for registration; we already picked up our badges and photo tags yesterday. The rest of Western Civilization is now packed in patient rows back and forth along the top floor of the convention center, which is so full that there's a growing queue on the street level as well.
The 2005 music rollout is more Texas-sized than ever. This year 8,604 registrants and 1,866 media folk are in town to swarm 1,334 bands at more than 50 venues over the course of four nights (technically there's a fifth night, but it's mostly for lying in your hotel room moaning "ow" and rubbing your feet). There are more and bigger foreign contingents than ever before, showcasing and hosting daytime parties and mixing jet lag with beer and tequila for fun and profit. On the home front, even the State of Louisiana is catering an outdoor party, presumably to make sure they aren't outdone in the Fun department.
Austin: Yep, this is about as good as it gets.
Willard Grant Conspiracy: singer and writer Robert Fisher is the pivot for a musical cast of dozens
Louisiana: Hi there! Have some of this spicy gumbo.
Night's Lights: In the rambly-tonk surroundings of the Hole in the Wall last night, Hitchhike's brief modimalist pop turn was deliberate and understated, like good paper. Kicking off Wednesday night on Sixth Street they seem to have some sort of volume agenda, and the music lurches out into the passing crowd minus its texture and the odd noodly restraint that attracted me in the first place. We barge into Nizlopi's cheery showcase just as Luke (vox, guitar) and John (double bass) announce that what they really really like is to get down with The People. They unplug and clamber off the stage and frolic a bit on the floor. We can't hear much, but do you have to? Their site is equally breathless, and when they claim kinship to Van Morrison they aren't far off. This is freecloud jam music for people who mostly hate jam bands.
I have an idea that most of the 8,604 registrants and 1,866 media folk in town are going to be ahead of me for tonight's Elvis Costello show at La Zona Rosa, so the leash is tight. One and a half songs by Austin's Housewife are too few by far; the jumpy impulse driving their music says 1981 to me, which I mean in a good way. Five bucks someone in this band has a well-worn copy of The Feelies' Crazy Rhythms, probably on vinyl. Sound trouble meets attitude trouble at The Vibe when one of the brothers in the amazing Pilots (Belfast), fresh from his Fiona Apple lessons, declares that he didn't fly 4,000 miles to play a bad show for us and stomps off stage with some choice words about the monitors. Instead he offers to meet us all at the bar to talk about the music we love. The bar is probably not where he needs to go. Chalk it up to a gritting case of jet lag, but it's a pity: I would have enjoyed another song or two. There sounded like there there, and what little I heard was atmospheric and arresting.
There's neither a Willard nor a Grant in Willard Grant Conspiracy so far as I know, but you'd never miss them. There is, however, an intersection of Willard and Grant in Boston, where the band originally sprang more or less from the forehead of Robert Fisher.
Tift Merritt: perky, peppy, and vivacious, but I like more soul with my country
Fisher has grown about five years of beard in the two years since I saw him last, and tonight he plays with most of Steve Wynn's Miracle Three plus the occasional Silo. Willard Grant Conspiracy bears an unlikely "Alt-Country" label in its SXSW profile, which I suppose is accurate in the way that "chowdah" is name enough for "soup with stuff in it" in parts of New England. The band travels the watchful, uneasy paths where Johnny Dowd and Lambchop walk their paces. Fisher is less twitchy-weird and not as subversive, a lake drawn placidly over cold depths, and his voice is capacious and enveloping. Perhaps it's the beard that sets me off in this direction, but the restless storyteller in him brings Walt Whitman to mind.
La Zona Rosa is not as crowded as I had feared, but it is close, and Tift Merritt, Nashville's Great Blonde Hope, is pacing through a show that lacks only sun, freckles, and tall glass of lemonade to be a Hallmark fantasy piece. I'm not really feeling it, but her praises have been sung so far and so wide that I'm happy to put it up to the time of year and the time of man.
Elvis Costello: Little Hands of Concrete Operational
The two-hour Elvis Costello concert that follows is sublime. Romping down 25 years and more of material, he touches on the odd and the obvious and gives proper consideration to songs from his newest album, The Delivery Man. My scribbled set list yields up 25 or so legible songs, plus guesses at new ones I don't know yet. From his first wham-bam sequence ("King Horse," "Uncomplicated," "Clown Strike," "Hurry Down Doomsday" and then "Radio Radio") the faithful know we're in for a lightning-strike show. Lightning strikes, and strikes again, and strikes again, and when it's done Elvis leaves us pretty much senseless, down by the perimeter fence.
Yes, he sings that one; and with the proper words, not the bowdlerized sanitary album version. It's comfortably past 2:00 a.m. when Elvis finally gives up his last guitar and steps off the stage, and we hobble home with the happy sense that it just don't get better than this.
SXSW - http://2005.sxsw.com/music/
The Amazing Pilots - http://www.theamazingpilots.com/
Elvis Costello & the Imposters - http://www.elviscostello.com/
Willard Grant Conspiracy - http://wgc.hinah.com/
Hitchhike - http://www.hitchhikemusic.com/
Housewife - http://www.housewifetheband.com/
Tift Merritt - http://www.tiftmerritt.com/
Nizlopi - http://www.nizlopi.com/
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