SXSW DAY 3: DEERHOOF, OF MONTREAL, PRINCE RAMA, COXCOMBS, COSMONAUTS, GROWLERS, UGLY BEATS, FOXTAILS BRIGADE, SUN ARAW, CHRISTIAN BLAND AND THE RELEVATORS
If you’re a bleary-eyed space cadet with fatigue in your veins and a scribbled-out schedule of bands in your pocket, the Spider House has a good chance of utterly confusing you. On this particular afternoon, there was a Psych Fest going concurrently with another fest, and some bands on some stages were in one festival and some in the other, but both were kind of good, so wherever you turned, you’d stumble into a groovy band playing kick-ass hard psych boogie. The Spider House coffee house is a sprawling, ramshackle place, with half-rusted wrought-iron bathtubs and other junk yard rescues somehow providing seating and shelter to what must have been hundreds of people crammed into all the nooks and crannies. There was no bad vantage point. It’s Austin’s happening, and it freaks me out.
If you saunter around the entirety of the Spider House complex, through all the stages, you’ll find a door in a wall that leads to a pitch-black room—kind of like The Masque of the Red Death. It’s an old barroom that got annexed and converted into the more “conventional” stage in the complex, and it’s where we caught Cosmonauts. They were in top form today, especially drummer Jenn Agnew, who laid down the slow swampy beats of, say, Nick Knox from the Cramps, and has the added charm of looking a lot like this:
I had neglected to take mushrooms at this festival, and it’s a shame, because Cosmonauts would have made a great launching pad for mental space exploration. Near the end of their set, they started chugging along with an amazingly hard-edged Velvets groover, a perfect brute-psych segueway for Prince Rama, who may not have had quite the sense of monotony that the Velvet Underground espoused, but certainly loved rhythm and repetitions.
Based in an eastern mysticism that doesn’t sound exploitative, the two gals who make up the entirety of Prince Rama managed to be psychedelic without guitars, electronic without a prevalent drum machine, vocal without clearly intoned words. This duo is set to take over the world, but if they did, they’d probably make us give up all worldly possessions and roam barefoot in a procession of Perfect All-One Consciousness.
One thing’s for sure: sisters Taraka & Nimai Larson love being Prince Rama. Nimai had what a lesser man would call a “shit eating grin” the entire time she was drumming, as she danced and swayed with the beat. Taraka broke the spell of their mystic Indian vibe to say hi to all the friendly faces she knew—no doubt I would have lots of friends too, if I looked like a mixture of Ari Up of the Slits and one of Fellini’s femme-fatales. The crowd was throbbing as if in a religious fervor, and just when we thought things couldn’t get more regal, the gals made us free up some floor space, where they proceeded to jump out and do a synchronized DANCE.
And we did a skedaddle across the way to Tom’s Tabooley, where local garage rock kings the Ugly Beats were layin’ it out (and yes, the venue was a Middle Eastern restaurant! That’s just how hip Austin is). You might have seen them come out to L.A. for clubs like Satisfaction, but here at home there was a little less pressure to mod it up, and so the Ugly Beats tempered their cover of Les Fleurs De Lys with covers of seventies tunes by Roky Erickson and the Paul Collins Beat, who they’ll be playing with tomorrow at the Get Hip showcase. They kept the garage fuzz sound right through it all, which I noticed bandleader Joe Emery was laying out with a custom-made guitar which he later told me is called a “Janglemaster.”
We returned to the Spider House just in time to catch Foxtails Brigade, on the little stage right next to where the Coffee Shop keeps its muffins. They’re a folk quartet that has the energy of a Pentangle or Steeleye Span—maybe not the amazing pipes of those bands, but that kind of quibbling on my part just proves how much of a dick I am. Singer Laura Weinbach, with beautiful raven hair and a serious-looking classical guitar, actually did have a little dryness about the falsetto, something I can hardly blame her for considering my own parched countenance (it’s a tough town even to wake up in–there are living things in the air!). Their seven inch is one of my favorite folk tunes to put on in the cool of the afternoon, and rough voice or no, these kids were a cool breeze on this hot March afternoon after a stroll down the street. Their violin, bass, and cowbell-heavy percussion sounds made it feel like night had fallen, even though with Daylight Savings Time over, we still had some hours to go.
The Growlers were just starting to play outside—and yes, I know that your friends have told you that the Growlers are boring, but your friends aren’t paying attention! The Growlers have found a wonderful niche not found since the Doors, or maybe Morrissey (for the sake of this argument, let’s discount the entire genre of hip hop) where the band more or less puts down a groove for the singer to spin lots and lots and lots of poetic words around, prophetic and brash.
Of course, nobody seems to have embraced the Growlers with the kind of enthusiasm they deserve, and the Growlers haven’t exactly taken those lessons and tried to stretch their thing in the direction of what the people want. It seems like aside from the occasional big festival, where they play an early afternoon set, a semi-full house at the Spider House may be the biggest average crowd the Growlers will ever get. Not sure if they care—they seemed to have fun busting out their reggae and country-infused bass lines (slid into effortlessly by Anthony Perry), and to hell with the critics. Who knows, maybe their upcoming album produced by Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys will see their gypsy circus vibe transformed into something quaint and marketable, like Gogol Bordello! God, I hope not…
They kind of spoiled things for Ooh La La, who came on next. They played a style I like, sorta-psych jangle rock, like the Allah Las but slower. Actually, it was almost exactly like the Strange Boys but without Ryan Sambol’s childlike baby bluesman vocals. So, compared to the Strange Boys, it was a let down, and compared to the Growlers, it was a cool down, and so I wasn’t particularly enamored of the boys on this fair afternoon as the sun began to set…
But of course, then I realized that being Day 3 of South by Southwest, I am getting more than a little jaded, and a lot fatigued. If you haven’t been here before, let me warn you, this is part of the game. With so many bands flying in front of your eyes, like a thousand meringue pies, you start to only taste the most sour and most sweet and miss the subtle nuances that made you love fucking pie in the first place. That’s probably how I managed to watch an entire Sun Araw show and barely remember any of it—I wasn’t as samply or weird as their album, nor anything like a “garage” vibe, but psychedelic in a simple way that normally I might have just loved. As it was today, I found myself tracing the walls, exploring curtains of the Spider House Ballroom, where I eventually discovered an entire secret room behind the curtain much like the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks (no lie!).
I emerged from the curtained room in time for Christian Bland and the Relevators: once again, a band that interprets “psych” as being more mid-early-late 60s rather than late-mid-late 60s. Descending chord progressions, sinister and evil bad-trip kind of songs, echo on the vocals, narratives about losers and failures and mistake-makers. Lots of wah and echo and diatonic scale menace, with a solid Brian Jonestown Massacre chug… hey, a lot like the Cosmonauts did earlier! Something is in the air that says two chord rock with bleeding distorted guitar fuzz on top is going to enter my earholes as much as possible. And you know what? That is kind of groovy. I like living in the SXSW world, where my biggest problem is that too many bands are playing my favorite kind of music.
But fuuuuuuuck was it refreshing when Coxcombs started playing. You may know them by their former name of “Indian Jewelry,” or as I like to call them, “the most blistering Kraut-inspired shimmering, pulsating peal of noise and energy that has emanated from a small group of people in my lifetime.” Gone were the 3 minor chord rock jangles and songs about girls. Hello, the deepest recess of my mind, which became all brainstem, as I literally started shaking with a St. Vitus’ Dance fervor, my eyes rolling back into my head, my arms flailing at my sides, and my 5th chakra (or perhaps a genetic parasite lodged in all human DNA but long thought to be dormant) started to leap up and down inside my chest, as though my intellect had stashes away a mistress in my heart and was fucking her. Coxcombs is the Barry White of lizard brain chakra fucking.
But YACHT is the first, the last, my everything when it comes to peppy dance bands with brains and a sense of humor, and it seemed it was high time to abandon the backyard of the Spider House and hit the meat and potatoes of downtown Austin, where they were playing a weird venue called “Lustre Pearl” on Rainey.
Unfortunately, we weren’t the only fellows to have this idea, and the line was around the block. AND they’d already started playing by the time we got there. We were at a moral crossroads…
And then along came the members of Habits, walking down the street and looking for trouble!
They recognized us, twirled some of our party into the air in a gross approximation of a mosh pit, encouraged us to forget our failed dreams of YACHT and come on a quixotic quest for Of Montreal at Emo’s East. Why the hell not?
We were now a crew of 6, too many to fit into a cab, and too stupid to find a shuttle or somebody’s car, and so we walked! We walked by the highway, across the river, and down through the streets, finally arriving at Emo’s East. I had never been here before—from the street, it looked like a Sears.
But inside, the opening band was Deerhoof! I have only seen them in their original art-rock punk capacity, the way bands used to play a decade ago—drums on the floor, impossible to hear, crunchy bent pedals, and no breathing room at all for either music or people.
Tonight they proved to have grown into their maturity, not sticking to their roots but improving upon them, something like the Clash—and in fact, many of their songs had the cadence of “London Calling,” or even the blistering bagpipe-guitars of Big Country. Deerhoof have long ago annexed brutality to the punctuations of their songs rather than being the context of their songs. But what punctuation! Semicolons that pull apart ribs! Apostrophes of open-chord sailboats that they send crashing into craggy exclamation points, with all hands on deck! And there was no final period, just an ellipse carrying songs like “I Did Crimes for You” into an uncertain but bright future.
As good as Deerhoof was, most of the crowd seemed to be there from of Montreal. And despite the fact that Emo’s East isn’t the largest of venues (a silo, but not quite a warehouse), of Montreal pulled out a lot of stops to make sure their visual organ was overblown. Kevin Barnes in his “Georgie Fruit” persona is looking rather dapper himself nowadays, and his completely asymmetrical haircut with long raven locks on one side and short sheared hair on the other recalls the glory days of the Human League.
Musically they’ve become more of an ELO type outfit, with disco beats, glam/Prince guitar flair, and even a Jeff Lynne looking guy in the form of B.P. Helium on lead guitar, whose personal fuzziness is lending him a Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem vibe nowadays.
But visually they were in a league of their own, which we got hip to from about the second song, when dancers dressed as the Danger: Diabolik guy struck poses on stage and had psychedelic art projected onto the white cloth of their costumes. New songs like “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” with their lyrics about self-destructive yet ultimately enriching relationships (“you’re the only one who ever put money on me!”) veered towards the personal, but these dancers reminded me of the outlandishness of David Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, and seemed to take a page from the Flaming Lips’ stage production concept of “whatever’s fun!” By the end, there were inflatable costumes, and dummy dancers on wires, and then the brave ninja dancers actually crowd surfed with projections still covering their all-white outfits! Even a deaf man would laud the show’s praises.
After the show, we jumped into the Emo’s shuttle and headed home. Wished we had caught it on the way to the venue… my ankles feel like cashew bits wrapped around a balloon filled with sausage.
-D. M. Collins