For Lack of a Better Phrase, NOLA Bands “Killed It” at SXSW

Hours before my fourth trip to South by Southwest Festival would take a decided turn for the Kerouackian, when I’d find myself sleeping among a sea of strangers thirty deep in what appeared to be a furniture-free detox safe house for strung-out teens with an elderly black man walking around smoking a cigarette preaching the Bible and talking from personal experience about the ills of intravenous heroin (but what was actually a Craigslist rental occupied by blog rappers and rock and roll bands on their last physical leg of energy), I was sitting in my car, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, in the heart of downtown Austin. I was exhausted and listening to a voice on the radio – that of a young KVRX DJ, with an intonation perfectly metered for spoken poetry and prose, who had turned 21 the night before.

“Last night being the first time in my life I’ve been able to legally partake in the chaos that is South by Southwest,” he began, “my evening was very memorable. Or, rather, unmemorable, I should say. But as I arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, I had the opportunity to witness the sunrise, mother Earth‘s waking yawn. As I stood there on the corner in front of my house, taking everything in – the public bus just getting started, its hydraulic sigh complemented by the echoes of factories in the distance – I had a thought.” After taking a deep breath for a somewhat lengthy pause (because, as I said, the kid could meter), he finished, “The morning cigarette of the American Empire. Just something to think about.”

Yeah, it was pretty pretentious, but maybe a little fitting nonetheless. Anyone who’s known me in the past twelve months also knows my unfavorable – even downright antagonistic – assessment of South by Southwest  in 2011. As viewed through the lens of that festival, Austin is, on one end, way too inviting of bottom-line, Middle America mass consumerist culture (the kind that draws people in with wasteful amounts of free shwag like Frisbees, T-shirts, coozies, tote bags and polyurethane wristbands all paid for by the bottomless marketing pockets of corporations lacking a relation to music or the arts in any passable fashion) while on the other end embodying all that is annoying and repugnant about feigned intellectualism and musical elitism.

A year ago, I would have bashed in the entire radio console with my forehead, ripped out the pieces and flung them at oncoming bicyclists. Surprisingly though, I wasn’t bothered by any of what amounted to armchair political hyperbole as expressed from the heart of what conservative’s like to call “entitlement culture”; in fact I enjoyed  it. The guy was a phenomenal speaker, and if he’s correct that America is indeed an “empire”, I can at least offer the perspective that empires aren’t built on gratuities and freeloading assholes, but hard work. And what I saw in Austin during SXSW this year was no less than the sum of people’s tireless, penniless, unapologetic physical labor.

Offering an oddly perfect dichotomy, the notion that artistic industry should yield some form of concrete payoff is lost on much of the New Orleans music community. It’s the reason our artists routinely give away their music for free, play for no cover, give all of a show’s profits to touring acts and have no problem working menial jobs to subsidize the entire lifestyle. So the idea of traveling all the way to Austin to play a string of no-pay shows is nothing new to the slew of local bands that made the trip this year. What was new, for me, was the opportunity to see the live prowess of NOLA artists knock the socks off of concertgoers on someone else’s turf and, in turn, find their own home court advantage in the backyards, communes and parking lot parties of Austin. For lack of a better phrase, New Orleans acts fucking killed it at South by Southwest.

No doubt Sun Hotel has become something of DIY royalty. The frequency with which they leave me awestruck is beyond punchline fodder at this point. But at SXSW, headlining a host of buddy-booked shows in the city’s outskirts, they presented yet another thrilling novelty by managing – right in front of my eyes – to continually foment new mini-followings of young music fans, the same way they did to me several years back. In the small string of performances I attended, I witnessed the band get broken up by the cops twice; I once observed them get invited to headline a house party immediately following a house party they had just headlined; I heard bassist John St.Cyr receive accolades specifically pertaining to his use of bass chords and reverb no less than two times; and I couldn’t even count the numbers of kids who absolutely lost their shit, attempted to glad hand all four members and stumbled to articulate their excitement over this band.

Louis Paul Bankston often finds himself, for the most part, under the radar of New Orleans’ underground youth culture nowadays, which is no surprise considering the unobtrusive demeanor of this short-statured, red-faced, badly self-groomed Bywater regular. To anyone not digging for the information, King Louie (as he’s better known) is just another lovable Crescent City kook. Take this man to Austin for South by Southwest though, and watch people fill a fucking room faster than he can pop his bowl-cut head in the building. At Spiderhouse on Saturday night, alongside the likes of heat-seeking young garage punk acts Barreracudas, Mean Jeans, White Mystery, Night Beats and Apache Dropout, King Louie’s Missing Monuments were the band of the evening. Packing the tiny, redlight-saturated off-ballroom bar to fire marshal levels, the double Gibson Flying V assault of Louie and Julien Fried emphatically gave a roaring third dimension to the band’s rock n’ roll punk roots, at which their debut record Painted White only hints. If there was ever an experience that offered insight to how the now-mostly-deceased Oregon-based tragic legends the Exploding Hearts (whom King Louie, like a garage rock Brian Eno, aided in the writing and recording of their sole album) sounded in person, this was it.

I have certainly not been quiet about Vox and the Hound‘s insane 20ROCKIN12 live prowess. In three short months, they’ve taken to New Orleans venues of every size and neighborhood, and humanity be damned if they haven’t destroyed every single one of them. In Austin, at Shiner Saloon on Saturday evening, the tale was the same and then some. A deep, airy, natural-lit barroom with a tiny stage that belies its overall size, Shiner was crowded to the gills with drunk-as-shit St. Patrick’s day revelers by 6pm. In one of those all-or-nothing situations where green beer revelry could quickly give way to unmanageable heckling, Vox seized the day and treated their audience to one of the most energetic performances they’d see all weekend. By the first chorus of “Mom’s Origami”, there was an overwhelming sense that the people who booked this “Future of Music Showcase” had stumbled upon what was either a group of serious up-and-comers or an established band of pros who accidentally arrived at a show many leagues beneath them. The performance itself was one of the best I’ve seen from Vox – and certainly the most fun. On stage right, D-Ray traded high fives with audience members after every keyboard solo and garnered raucous applause when he picked up his trombone; singer Leo DeJesus politely made room on stage for a number of drunk girls intent on dancing by his side and whispering sweet nothings in his ear; and too boot, bassist Andrew Jarman literally and unironically found himself signing autographs after the set had concluded.

The undisputed (though not technically New Orleanian) winners of the weekend, however, were Zac Traeger and Shmu, better known as Austin-based psyche electronic act Zorch. This duo is obviously known for its manic, odd-ball work ethic (an ethic that has somehow enabled them to reach the radar of nearly every major national media outlet with only six formally recorded songs since 2009), so to say that Zorch outdid themselves wouldn’t necessarily be an understatement but it nonetheless wouldn’t do their SXSW presence the justice it deserves.

I was party to the tail end of “Zorch by Zorch Mess“, an operation consisting of multiple performances each day for ten straight days, all over the city of Austin from the heart of downtown to the depths of its outskirts. Everywhere you walked, biked or drove – every place you visited or simply passed by – bore the footprint of Zorch; I myself visited no less than four venues they had already played by Thursday evening. Simply put, no one that weekend was a prolific or present than Zorch. So how, in the middle of all their calculated madness, they found the time and energy to singlehandedly (really “doublehandedly”, but still) organize and curate a massive, late night party on Friday is beyond me.

The 21st Street Co-Op, for live music purposes, might be the most absolutely sensational venue in the entire world, without exaggeration. Engineered with a construction resembling a dystopian frat house – complete with a mess hall, courtyard and individual apartment balconies overlooking all of it – the 21st Street Co-Op was host to the likes of Andrew W.K., Maps & Atlases, Japanther, Grimes, Dan Deacon, Caddywhompus, The Eastern Sea, Ava Luna, Netherfriends and, of course, Zorch. Beginning with Caddywhompus‘ phenomenal late-evening set onward, the place was sardine packed to its huge capacity with concertgoers (a good number of which were other musicians who simply wanted to take a night off and witness the bedlam for themselves) flooding the outdoor stage area courtyard for a de facto BYOB celebration and nearly splintering the floor of the sweaty, second story dance hall above with the massive weight of several hundred pairs of feet. Most amazing: this level of kinetic excitement was the rule, not the exception, of the evening until at least around 5:30am when Mr. W.K. finally brought the party to a close with an absonant finale.

I’ve attended South by Southwest three times before as a downtown touristy consumerist-type, but my first experience as a low-profile, backwoods house party concert jumper was a revelation. Though the symbiotic Texas-Louisiana connect is well known and deep-rooted, unofficial SXSW may be the one week each year that illuminates it above all others. Finding themselves in Texas playing with New Orleans bands were musicians from all over the country who could just as easily have been from New Orleans themselves, and vice versa. It’s a synergy built on mutual respect and a reciprocal work ethic, in which it’s understood that without backbreaking effort there will be no fun for anyone involved, if there is to be any at all. Certainly it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Most of the successes I bore witness to were the result of bands’ several years of experience at SXSW. Newcomers have no choice but to fly by the seat of their pants and hope they make it out alive because, for every Vox and the Hound whose first experience at the festival is a humble success, there is at least one Glish, all of whose bookings fall through practically while en route to Austin and who have to make do with nothing.

I myself was in the very same boat – attempting to see, hear and photograph everything I possibly could on virtually no sleep and even less nourishment – at times when I’d arrive at a show to find out it was cancelled, when a grouchy lead singer would wantonly chuck his microphone at me in an attempt to break my camera, or when I’d come to my place of rest to find a raging party and nowhere to sleep. Like just about every band I had occasion to see, my successes were modest and hard fought. But good lord, when you dig deep down to find the energy to keep going, South by Southwest is a fun fucking experience.

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Twin Killers Release New Single “The Two Fridas”

Though still a young band, Twin Killers have quickly established themselves as the clear representatives of a Baton Rouge music scene that for over a decade has been usurped by any number of ultra-talented though overly-kitschy cover bands, with only the occasional Meriwether capable of making any waves beyond the city limits. Benefiting not just from an unpredictable hodgepodge of psychedelic pop and progressive mathrock but from a wholly unique onstage dynamic, this five-piece has in just one year managed to embark on multiple tours and put out a spellbinding record. That release – the hefty four-song Lemon Heart Opera EP – revealed Twin Killers as both highly inventive and attentive to technical compositional detail, while at the same time able to maintain a strangely collaborative personality around the central songwriting of Jermaine Butler and Andrew Martin.

If that’s also the way the band approached its new single “The Two Fridas”, then they’ve broadened their creative boundaries wider than anyone could have anticipated. Complemented heavily by Matt McClellan‘s nightmarishly brilliant mixing and mastering job, the song immediately highlights the otherworldly high-register vocals of Jessica Ramsey – possibly for the first time captured perfectly on record. Whereas on Lemon Heart Opera she was a newcomer attempting to abstractly croon in unison with Butler’s capricious drum work and Jeffrey Livingston’s smooth-edged basslines, here, above the Cave In-esque strings-of-heaven guitar harmonies of Martin and Chris Lott (formerly of championed post-hardcore act As Cities Burn), Ramsey has comfortably and emphatically settled into her dual role as raconteur and ombudswoman – at times less a lead singer than a bona fide intermediary between the band and the listener.

Having just completed an amazing mini-tour with compatriots Sun Hotel, Caddywhompus and Zorch; and with what is easily their most superb recording to date, it will be very interesting to see what Twin Killers have to offer in the remaining half of 2011.

MP3: Twin Killers: “The Two Fridas”

Twin Killers on Facebook

Live Picks: 08.11.2011 – 08.17.2011

08.11: Gillian Welch – Tipitina’s

08.12: The Tontons + Felix + In Elevators – The Big Top

08.14: Zorch +Caddywhompus + Sun Hotel + Twin Killers – One Eyed Jacks

Austin, TX’s relative newcomers Zorch have quickly made a name for themselves through the perfect employment of quirky, spectacular behavior and a seemingly never-ending flow of creative output, the multiple avenues of which have painted this two-piece keyboard and drum combo as being never less than one step ahead of everyone trying to keep up. Though no strangers to unique and attention-grabbing marketing techniques, Zac Traeger and Shmu Chown totally outdid themselves last month when – in what is possibly the most direct attempt at a tail wagging the dog wagging the tail paradigm – they began releasing songs written for and about notable and influential music critics (the strangest being some sort of Civil War-esque salute song to Pitchfork Media’s own Union General, Ryan Schreiber).

At the very least, Zorch’s latest stunt could give tastemakers an incentive to sample just thirty seconds of their latest release (the two-song Cosmic Gloss/E.M.F. cassingle), after which they’ll all be completely absorbed by this mammoth endeavor of heavy, yet subtle, jazzy drum work; flashy, crystalline synths; and whirling, Prince-inspired “oohs” and “ahhs”. While they’ve yet to release a proper full-length under the Zorch moniker, Traeger and Chown have managed to put out numerous mix tapes of demos, improvised jams, and other avant-garde sonic experiments since 2009, all with the humble goal of offering blogosphere beat makers something free and interesting to sample.

It needn’t bear repeating how mind-blowing of a performance Zorch put on last time they were in New Orleans save that it was loud and there was a startling array of LED lights saturating the bottom floor of the Dragon’s Den. With that in mind, they’re finally making their return to New Orleans – this time on the considerably larger stage of One Eyed Jacks and in the company of a tight-knit regional network of brother and sister bands that share a similarly unconventional creative and public ethic. Joining them are Baton Rouge’s unpredictable and erratic progressive rock heroes Twin Killers, hot on the heels of releasing of their most glorious genre-bending single to date; Sun Hotel, reformed after a summer that found them taking time to record a new EP among a slew of solo endeavors; and Caddywhompus, whose performance this Sunday will mark their first in New Orleans since June’s earthshaking Big Top Tour Stop.

MP3: Zorch: “Cosmic Gloss”

Check out our New Orleans Music Calendar for a full slate of constantly updated live picks

Live Picks: 05.12.2011 – 05.18.2011

05.12: Junip + The Acrylics – Republic

05.13: Smiley With A Knife + A Living Soundtrack + Black Belt – One Eyed Jacks

It is hard to get too excited for a show when you know it is going to be a band’s last, especially when the band at issue is local instrumental face-melters Smiley With A Knife.  It was at many a Smiley With A Knife show that Barryfest’s mission was conceived and fleshed out, as the virtuosic experimentation taking place on stage – or, more commonly, on the floor in the middle of the crowd – simultaneously blew our minds and helped open our eyes to the magnificent diversity the New Orleans music scene has to offer.

In this vein, Smiley With A Knife was more than just a really great local band, they were ambassadors for progressive and instrumental music, supporting legendary national acts such as Tera Melos, Unwed Sailor, and Zorch when they passed through town as well as spreading the gospel through their own intricate yet accessible compositions.

This continues even as SWAK bids us farewell: the bill also includes newly re-vamped performance art-rock outfit A Living Soundtrack and long-time New Orleans underground institution The Black Belt Band.  And seeing as it is only a matter of time before the talented members of Smiley With A Knife pop up with new musical projects, there are, in fact, plenty of reasons to be excited for Friday night.

MP3: Smiley With A Knife: “Egyptian Porridge”

05.14: High In One Eye + Proud Father – Mudlark Theater

05.15: Lovey Dovies + Sam Cammarata + Big Blue Marble + Felix + White Colla Crimes – NOLA Brewery

05.16: Mustard Plug + The Lollies + The Local Skank + Joystick –  Dragon’s Den Upstairs

05.17: Marcell Benetti + Helen Gillet + Rex Gregory – Blue Nile Balcony Room

05.18: Camper Van Beethoven + Cracker + Mahayla – Tipitina’s

Check out our New Orleans Music Calendar for a full slate of constantly updated live picks

Foburg, Day 1: 03.11.2011

I was worried that the slightly altered format of this year’s Foburg Festival would greatly eliminate the wild west-frontier spirit that consumed me as I bounced around Frenchman Street in the spring of 2010.  The addition of Bywater venues Hi-Ho Lounge, Siberia, Saturn Bar and AllWays Lounge – not to mention greatest rock club in the city, One Eyed Jacks – was no doubt welcome, but the expanded footprint of the event coupled with an abbreviated nightly schedule offered myriad logistical challenges for those hoping, as was possible last year, to hit every venue each night.

Seeing as not everyone descends on a weekend music festival with the megalomaniacal desire to see every band at every club for the purpose of bragging about his or her exploits on a fledgling local music blog, this was hardly a non-starter.  More precise and thematic programming led to some fascinating monster bills, and, at the end of the day, it was hard to be disappointed about missing one killer show when you are getting your brains blown in by another.

My decision to spend the first night exclusively on Frenchman Street came at the expense of a lot of heavy hitters who set up shop on St. Claude or Toulouse, but a unique and dense schedule offered the greatest chance of reliving the glory days of yore.  All five venues in the Marigny proper were hosting bona fide blockbusters – from the alt-folk throwdown upstairs at Blue Nile to the freak-out progressive showcase in the belly of the Dragon’s Den – and the evening’s perfect weather made the decision to stay in the area with the greatest walkability score a relatively guilt-free one.

In what has become an ad-hoc New Orleans music festival tradition, my weekend began taking in the soulful croon of Luke Winslow-King, who was accompanied this evening by the lovely and talented Esther Rose on washboard and backing vocals.  I’ve already gone on record with enough glowing compliments about King – both in print and otherwise – that I’ve ran out of colorful adjectives to cram into dense, grammatically suspect sentences describing his uniquely haunting take on Dixieland music and its antecedents, so I’ll just say that once again he was fantastic.

From there it was off to the races, but not before a quick pit stop in the front room of Maison to check out Booty Trove, a 9 piece brass band popping up at more and more rock shows around town.  Up until now, I have not really know what to make of them, as raising the bar when dealing in the indigenous, horny funk in which they specialize is no small feat for any band.  On this evening, however, they sounded fresh and tight as they sparked through an incendiary set of originals, standards and inspired covers.

In retrospect, my memories of the shuttle run up and down the stairs of Blue Nile and back and forth between the Maison and Dragon’s Den have already become hazy and disjointed, but I will not soon forgot what went down at the latter venue when Austin-based avant-experimental duo Zorch took the stage. For 45 dark, loud, mind-blowing minutes they powered through a collection of synth-driven, psychedelic manifestos that were as disorientingly brilliant as they are impossible to describe (although if I were to give it a shot, I’d start by calling  Zorch’s music something akin to an gonzo combination of Z-era My Morning Jacket, On The Corner-era Miles Davis, Speaking In Tongues-era Talking Heads, and Green-era Universal Indicator; drenched with an additional dose of heavy, nimble drum work just for good measure).

A whacked-out light show and bag full of prop tambourines only added to the mayhem, and after their show I could have easily gone to bed and slept through the rest of the weekend without regrets.  So imagine my delight when unavoidable long-bill start time creep allowed me to catch a large chunk of both Hurray For The Riff Raff and Native America‘s set before diving headfirst into the ramble that was Debauche’s headlining spot back where my night began.

Photoset // Foburg, Day 1: 03.11.2011

Luke Winslow-King, Booty Trove, Native America, Hurray For The Riff Raff, Zorch, The Yes Way, High In One Eye, Sun Hotel, Debauche and Flow Tribe performing at the 2011 Foburg Music Festival on March 11, 2011

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