SXSW DAY 4: PANGEA, TIJUANA PANTHERS, BON BON, TÜLIPS, ABLEBODY, HOTT MT, CIGARETTE BUMS, BEACH PARTY, EMPEROR X, LADYHEAT
My eyes were open for a full five minutes before I closed them again, and suddenly 10:30 a.m. became 2 p.m.
In what seemed like the literal blink of an eye, a dozen wonderful Friday performances became impossible to get to, everything from Shannon and the Clams at Barbarella, to Useless Eaters/Surgeons/Shark Toys/Peach Kelli Pop/Guantanamo Baywatch at the Cherrywood, to fucking Billy Bragg at Waterloo Records!
Oh my god, how could I have missed Billy Bragg?!? This being SXSW, he no doubt played a jam-packed but intimate show, cheerfully honoring song requests shouted out by the crowd, maybe even unreleased surprises dating from his ill-fated Wilco/Woody Guthrie project. Afterwards I’m sure he hosted an impromptu Q&A session, holding his own with impassioned fans and skeptical politicos alike, finally ending things with a wry off-the-cuff observation about Obama’s drone wars that made people smile all the way home as they clutched their autographed Kirsty MacColl records.
Meanwhile it was all I could do to get my crates of records into a car and drive to the Spiderhouse before the records warped in the March heat—god, what a mistake it was to bring an all-vinyl DJ set here, to the most humid city in west hipsterdom, instead of just putting some really killer MP3s onto an iPad. Here’s a photo of me, holding one of many classic pieces of vinyl that are now probably totally melted from the road trip, no doubt with someone’s beef jerky stuck in the grooves and ants crawling all over it.
Yes, not only was I covering the L.A. RECORD show at Spiderhouse on the Friday of SXSW, but I was also DJing it. All the work and none of the fun. On the upside, that made it impossible to miss HOTT MT today (in fact, I negotiated getting them onto the bill in the first place, which hints at how objective this whole article really is), who sounded quite a different experience than what I’d reported on from the cramped quarters of Cheer Up Charlie’s.
Maybe it was the invigorating ferns surrounding them, I dunno, but the HOTT MT gang relaxed a little more on Friday than they had on Wednesday, and they sounded more like the pure synth-savvy germ-free adolescents they really are. Don’t let the wild look in sometimes-bassist Bahd Bad’s eyes fool you, nor the blue locks and almost-jaguar print jacket on principal guitarist Spooky Tavi. These guys know restraint as well as dynamics, and can deliver an atmospheric, lyrically-rich tune without screaming or banging into things.
And they can all play multiple instruments, and they all have their own style. But even when she’s kind of half-wrapped up in a jacket/cape thing that she can’t decide whether to wear or not, your eyes are always drawn right back to front-woman Queen Ashi Dala.
Despite the regal title, Dala seems really down to earth and fun. And there’s some kid-like fun in her vocals, but also a little heroin deadpan. You know what I mean? It’s that place mastered by talk-savvy singers as diverse as young Lou Reed/Doug Yule, Ian Dury, the Violent Femmes guy, and whoever the chick from Mary’s Danish was, who despite their differing vocal timbres all tread the surprisingly solid walkway between shy teenaged confusion and sage street-wise wisdom.
In Dala’s case, I could almost compare it to Sean Solomon from Moses Campbell, if he were just a tad more feminine. I haven’t seen HOTT MT enough live to tell, but Dala might have been trying to save her voice a little on Friday, blurting the words quick and then letting them decay fast during the verses—I get the feeling she would have preferred a little echo to round things out and match her bandmates’ bright gooey sheen. But any terseness in her vocal delivery was more than compensated for by her expressiveness and wild interpretive arm gestures. During her between-song banter, she explained a little bit about the songs and the band’s name itself: it’s actually an acronym of “Hour of the Time, Majesty Twelve,” not “HOTT Mother Truckers” or whatever other interpretation you might have thought possible from those “ghetto hott” two T’s.
Dala was part of the band’s creation and foundation, but her performance today was felt more like an “and starring” role, like the capstone that holds a thing all together. We’re lucky to have someone like her in our little scene. She’s like the character you’d add to a TV show to spruce things up–not like that bastard Poochie from Itchy and Scratchy, but legit, like Flim Flam from The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo.
Ladyheat was next, basically a punk band, though inspired as much by hard-hitting 90s and aughties Brit-pop as by the Sex Pistols. They definitely turned up the loud-fast-rock energy a lot more than HOTT MT, though maybe a little less than by the standard they’ve typically set for themselves.
But hey, 7 p.m. is a weird slot for a band like this, and maybe one of the later acts might have been better to fill the sunset set. The fans were kind of treating the courtyard like, you know, an actual biergarten courtyard, talking loudly to each other and enjoying the early evening cool-down. Look at the expression on singer Blake Stokes’s face as he roams out into them, less interested in shocking them awake, I think, and more kind of agog that people were being quite so rude as to ignore the rock in front of them.
Steven Carrera, singer of the Cigarette Bums, was even more frustrated by the lack of audience engagement, and less subtle about it—he ended the set by hitting himself in the head with the microphone over and over again, a needless act of self-sacrifice in my mind because he actually played pretty well, and a lot of us were paying attention.
Their solid, slightly roots/OMFUG rock performance was twice as commendable because these aren’t the real Cigarette Bums. At kind of the last minute, it seems, bandleader Steven Carrera adopted punkers Criminal Hygiene to back him up on his SXSW tour. And they seem to be relishing the opportunity: there were shit-eating grins on their faces throughout the Spider House performance, bloody microphones and all.
By now the audience’s booze and other victuals were kicking in, and so Emperor X got to shine in a way he hadn’t on Tuesday. He had an audience, and he forced them through sheer showmanship and songwriting to be the fuck aware of him. He also become a they, a three piece band, which completely transformed his act from troubadour to troublemaker. These songs were actually far more raw and rockin’ even than the music Emperor X sent us at some point (and which I don’t think got reviewed—sorry Chad!).
Chad Matheny’s voice isn’t as gruff as old-school folk balladeer Barry McGuire, the guy who sang “Eve of Destruction,” but there’s something about Matheny’s songs that evokes McGuire. There’s the same sense of urgency, righteousness, and humor—though hopefully Matheny won’t follow McGuire into Christendom. If anyone in the Spiderhouse audience had been kind of dialing in their audience participation before, Emperor X really pulled people in. Now it was a show.
Bon Bon had the same transformation—when they played Tuesday they’d been good, but today they were more confident, happy even beyond Drew Denny’s normal smiley countenance.
Their harmonies were ringing loud and brassy, and drummer bassist Melody Carrillo’s deep voice fit a little better this night—it was sexy in a Greta Garbo way, not fleshy and feminine, but like Galadriel from Lord of the Rings. “I know what it is you saw…” Honestly, in a blind test, I wouldn’t know which of the singers below was the bassist for Bon Bon.
Really, and again, it might be drummer/singer Christina Gaillard who held down the band. It’s fucking tricky to sing and keep time like that, and I think we were all a little humbled at her skills. Someday they’re going to mike her as loudly as she deserves.
TÜLIPS, the next band, were a female-fronted trio with no identifiable front-person. On paper they had a similar scope and set-up to Bon Bon, but they wore their personal-is-political politics a little more on their sleeves, or at least in their post-show conversations. L.A. RECORD readers might recognize one of the self-described “Riot Gaze DIY Post-Punk Improv Bitches” at the helm of the band, Taleen Kali, who writes/edits for Dum Dum Zine and has twice appeared at A Rrose in a Prose. Tonight she was bringing it!
But so was Angie Bloom, TÜLIPS’s lead guitarist and other master of ceremonies. The two ladies traded off singing lead literally every other song, like they were co-consuls, each one becoming a three-minute president when she took the mike.
I guess the next band, Ablebody, were the precise opposite of that: drummer Anton Hochheim and singer/guitarist Christoph Hochheim are twins, born on the same day and with the same lanky good looks. They may have synched beautifully together, but this is Christoph’s solo project, he being the famous one from Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Depreciation Guild, and other musical moments of My Bloody Mosrite melancholy.
I wish I’d caught more of their set, but what I did hear was noticeable for what it wasn’t. This is the first big showcase for Ablebody since the January release of the All My Everybody EP, which was kind of the first “real” release this solo project has ever had (after a slew of tiny EPs of covers and intro-outros). All My Everybody is actually a fantastic listen, but it’s more like soaking in water than like splashing water on your face. It’s synth-y and intentionally surface-y, evoking 80s hits by Spandau Ballet, Heaven 17, and basically anything that might have played in a contemplative cross-cut sequence as a teenager drives home late at night in a really nice car after not getting the girl in a John Hughes film.
And so I was expecting this show to sound like that. But what I instead got was serious rock, more like Christoph’s old bands than like the release, and in some ways more accessible and powerful than all of the projects listed above.
I got in trouble for my SXSW Day 2 coverage for saying how wretched I find high-pitched indie rock vocals, and I think part of what angers me is that I normally love high-pitched male vocals. Done right, it can sound like the songs in this video: insistent, seductive, and strong, even while being adorable (there’s just the faintest of lisps on some of his consonants, which is so fucking hot that it makes me want to take these guys home and have a Hochheim sandwich, if it wasn’t for the slight creepiness of how that’s basically me aiding and abetting incest—but maybe Christoph could write songs about it?).
Even more than the vocals, the guitar playing was killer, going right past the last 25 years of shoegaze to stare its source material right in the eye… or rather, the J. Note the killer Dinosaur Jr. guitar sound that kicks in around second 35.
Beach Party played next, and while the audience response was mixed on these guys, probably because they were the most rawk of any band on the bill, I liked ‘em, just as I had a Cheer Up Charlie’s two days prior.
Tonight the Replacements influence was worn a little more on their sleeves (including some drunken ramblings between songs), but as influences go, those are killer! I almost said “you can’t go wrong,” but the Goo Goo Dolls proved that loving the Replacements can lead to a dark, dark place… Anyway, by the end of their set, they were jumping into some serious surf-influenced guitar, screaming, being raucous and rude and letting things feedback and oscillate and get uncomfortable…
But we hardly noticed, because the night itself was a blend of darkness and lights and blood and anger and love and bitter regrets and transcendent “don’t-give-a-fucks,” the perfect tableau for a set by Pangea.
I’ve watched these boys grow right in front of me, starting out as punk kid also-rans in the Burger Scene (or so I thought—maybe, like me, or like Sean and Lee from Burger themselves, the Pangea boys are young for their age) to one of the most imaginative bands around, growing and expanding when some of their peers were content to roost in a niche. Tonight they brought down the house, so much so that things were starting to get weird. The rules changed, and the ties that bind, even genetic, were slipping into a kind of solipsistic euphoria that was indistinguishable from The Isle of Lost Souls…
Only Tijuana Panthers could bring it all back home now, and they did, with aplomb. Seeing these boys surrounded by little flags of Pabst Blue Ribbon hanging from the ceiling made me think of the Untamed Youth’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, and how Tijuana Panthers come from a long tradition of surf/frat-rock revivalists—I’m glad we’re finally back to a place in rock where surf music is welcome, as these guys and the legitimately surfy cowabunga chords of a couple bands on tonight’s bill made clear.
What’s not exactly clear is how the night ended—I DJed some songs by Shocking Blue, and we roamed the Spiderhouse, watching other bands from other showcases. We may even have hit the streets with fireworks and an enthusiasm for diner food. But that’s a story for my future regressive subconscious memory therapist, not for here.
-D. M. Collins
NOTE: All videos in this article are hosted on my YouTube but were actually taken by Drew Denny. The praise, and the blame, goes all to her and the bands–I was just spinnin’ records at the time.