Saturday, October 3, 2009

I Paid My $0

Broken Social Scene, The Generationals, Corto Maltese
Seaholm Power Plant, 10/2

Even though it wasn't officially connected to the festival of corporate has-beens taking place elsewhere in Austin this weekend, I had my reservations about the "free show" at Seaholm on Friday night. Things advertised as free are seldom so in actual practice and no gathering with this many greedy sponsors attached to its fliers could possibly be absent a profit motive. It was as you would expect, a cage for hipsters with no ins and outs, no outside food or drink, and $2 water. It was pretty lovely in Central Texas last night, a cool evening with a ring around the full moon and a cold front moving in for rain today, but if it had been hotter, things could have gotten ugly. I know it's very difficult to avoid taking advantage of Austin's leisure class and their overflowing wallets, but as supposed defenders of independent ethics, should know better.

It could have been worse. Despite my misgivings, the free wristbands that allowed entry to this fete were indeed free, not "free with purchase" or similar such doublespeak. Bringing a slimmed-down iteration of Broken Social Scene to such a picturesque venue and not charging for it beyond the expected massive surcharge on watered-down drinks has to rank as a net positive. Other than Corto Maltese, of course. Of all the local bands in this town dense with musical talent, why these jokers? Broken Social Scene are a band that depend very highly on a carefully-balanced sound field. During Corto's opening set, I was terrified that we'd showed up three hours early for what would end up an unlistenable evening of muddy amplifier hum.

Fortunately no, the problem was not with the venue nor the sound system provided. The problem was that Corto Maltese are a horrible band. Their singer has a good voice, although he screws up his own songs rather a lot (and then draws attention to it in an obnoxious and unprofessional manner). That is exactly all they have going for them. Their drummer has no imagination and can't keep time during the slower tunes. Their second guitar player and bassist add absolutely nothing to the songs, which are dull and repetitive. Their keyboard player too merely pounds eighth notes along with the rest of the band. When he picked up a guitar midway through the set, the band had no less than four guitarists (if you count bass) all playing the same part in unison. No dynamics, no counterpoint, just muddy strumming of witless compositions. At one point the singer tried to add some color with a finger-tapping section, but he executed it so badly that people in the crowd laughed at him. Their efforts at backing vocals were hideously poor.

There's a reason that most serious musicians in Austin are ambivalent, if not openly hostile, to the two major corporate outside-music festivals the city plays host to each year. The selection of Corto Maltese for the only slot given to a local act at this high-profile gig is it. Who picked these bums? They weren't at all ready for it, and the crowd were bored by their antics. When their singer tried to get some fist-pumps going, maybe 20 people out of 1,000 paid him any heed. Your gigantic evil corporate sponsors don't listen and don't care about the music you love, so they act arbitrarily and figure if they put a band in front of you and tell you it's good, you will like it (and buy a t-shirt). The music fans of Austin bear equal responsibility for such travesties, because by and large, they don't listen real closely either. They text-message and commiserate over $8 mixed drinks. We're approaching the end days when bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! (who Corto Maltese are perhaps slightly better than) are popular. At least Corto, showing their true colors as incompetent louts, neglected to even mention their name while they were on stage, thus blowing what will most likely be the biggest show they will ever play. They belong playing second of four bands at Beerland on a Wednesday night; I hope they go back there and we never cross paths again.

Having my opinion of WOXY's take on Austin music lowered to about its practical nadir, I had no expectations whatsoever of Louisiana's Generationals, the second supporting act. They exceeded those expectations! I wouldn't say any of the four youngsters had flaming musical chops of any kind, but being able to play your instrument really well isn't at all required to play beautifully as a band. The Generationals were so much better than Corto Maltese in every imaginable way. Their drummer kept time. They didn't choke their arrangements with so many massed rhythm guitars that the words to the songs couldn't be heard. Instead, they delivered wall-to-wall melodies in a fun, unassuming fashion and kept toes tapping and voices humming for their whole set. Their songs consist of very simple parts played on drums, keyboards, guitar, bass, and sometimes melodica, but every part is picked for a reason, and the Generationals get how to build and deliver a tune for maximum effect. Rather than just tugging away on their guitars with no feel or syncopation, they delivered well-crafted band performances that flattered everybody playing. A surprising choice for a big outdoor show given their quiet volume level and twee sensibilities, but they met the challenge. I'd see them again.

Broken Social Scene arrived with a somewhat diminished lineup, being occupied in Chicago with the construction of their next record when this invitation to play in Austin arrived. Kevin Drew apologized for bringing "only" a ten-piece band! The absence of diminutive demigoddess Leslie Feist probably disappointed the largest percentage of those in attendance, but I was more concerned about whether the band's secret weapon, muscular drummer Justin Peroff, would turn up. Indeed he was there, and as such Broken Social Scene sounded no less majestic than they did when I saw them last at the Boulder Theater shortly after the release of their self-titled third record. When a band uses as many instruments, and particularly guitars, as does BSS, a drummer with an uncanny sense of time and rare power is needed to keep all of the overlapping rhythms harnessed to a collective purpose. Peroff is that kind of drummer, and although the lack of female vocalists kept the Scene harnessed to only two or three of their normally unlimited range of moods, the songs that they were able to perform sounded agreeably massive.

Drew and bassist/guitarist Brendan Canning are the only really permanent members of the band. Each has begun a solo recording career in earnest since the release of their last album under the group banner, and it's nice to see that they're working now in closer collaboration than ever. Canning was singing more than the last time I saw them, including a lead vocal for one verse and strong harmonies on the new "Texaco Bitches." The new material seems to have a more extroverted approach, with assertive lead vocals and more standard verse/chorus structure that the often electronica-influenced Broken Social Scene of You Forgot It in People and the self-titled album. They've had a truly unique career arc, beginning as an atmospheric instrumental band (their somewhat overlooked debut Feel Good Lost is absolutely wonderful and maybe still my favorite record of theirs) and slowly working backwards to traditional song forms. This along with their commitment to teamwork, mania for adding members (an Explosions in the Sky ringer came on board for last night's rendition of "KC Accidental"), and overall humility is the singularly Canadian core of Broken Social Scene's wide appeal.


  1. Your brutal honesty is refreshing. Too many bloggers in town are essentially unpaid publicists. I've literally seen other blogs publish press releases from PR companies verbatim without telling the readers. I know this because I get a lot of the same press releases. You'll start getting them too if you put yourself out there. Stay true to your values. This is already one of my favorite Austin blogs and you've only been here a month. A bit too verbose at times? Yeah. But that's your style and it works for you. I prefer that to the illiterates who try to write blogs (and there are plenty in this town). Cheers!

  2. Thanks! If only I got paid by the word.