Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Focus!

Focus Group
Cheer Up Charlie's, 6/19

How do I choose which bands to go see? Sometimes it's totally random -- Anna and I get bored and we check the listings to see what looks cheap and interesting. There can be slightly more planning involved. If I hear something good online or off a CD I try to make a note to go check the band out live and make sure they're legit. This doesn't always work out exactly right. Bands make it harder than it should be sometimes. There are a few venues in town that I have no interest in ever going to again (Trophy's), and there are some other joints that insist on charging a cover for a collection of bands thrown together at random (Red-Eyed Fly). Whether you're new or old to the scene, don't get myopic and fixate on downtown. Play north, east, south, and San Marcos and play free shows. For heaven's sake.

If I haven't seen your band yet, it might not be because I don't think there's any hope you are good. It might just be because you're not using enough of your imagination and your networking skills when it comes to setting up gigs. This is Austin -- even on the weekends, more often than not, there are free concerts with multiple good acts featured going on. If you can't find a venue that doesn't charge a cover and two or three other bands that you yourself would be happy to stand and watch for a whole set with whom to play, you flat-out aren't looking hard enough.

And another good way to get me to come to your show is to invite me. Focus Group used the direct approach, and I'm glad of it. I think the band is really original and exciting, and that's all coming from the live show. If I'd written about them first having only heard their recordings, I probably would have undersold them pretty dramatically. Their new EP Unicornography is interesting but flawed -- the pieces once introduced just kind of sit there and buzz. The music is composed, but there's a lot going on in the same rhythmic space. As recorded, the band has a lot of energy but no center. Absent any fixed point around which all the competing figures can build, a lot of it sounds likes noodling.

From the top down the many layers of imprecisely joined guitar, keyboard, bass, trombone, and MPC noises seem chaotic and random. Focus Group have a cheerful indifference to rounding off the edges of any one player's particular style. Rather than dictated changes by the whole group, each instrument continues chipping away in its own space. The sampler player follows the beat like an electronic musician, the bassist/guitarists are off somewhere slightly different listening to instrumental/"post-rock" in their heads, and the keyboards have a third, jazzier feel. To see them live, it's clear how closely written the pieces are -- the individual guitar and keyboard figures are recognizable right away. What really doesn't translate on to CD is how well all of these building blocks are stacked together.

This music which appears to have no center on CD achieves an entirely different character live. Possibly because they're smart, maybe because they're superior listeners, certainly because they're good musicians it's clear where the main groove is when the Group starts playing. Even though many busy parts layer over it as the songs develop that central big thrust doesn't get obscured the way it does on Unicornography. The same guitar parts that seem like noodling on the record sound just right between the middle and the back of the live mix.

There's a force and drive to Focus Group that's hard to appreciate until you see people really getting down and moving to their live show. The band is hard to pigeonhole, but they're funky in their own way, so it stands to reason they're attracting fans who know what they like and don't care what others think. For a diffuse art-rock act the Group fill a floor with sweaty, happy dancing people as effectively as a good DJ. Can they make better records? I think I'll save that for a proper review of their CD. What you need to know for now is that they put on a great show. They're also doing work to break down barriers between genres in Austin, inviting remixers to contribute to their record and filling the bill at Cheer Up Charlie's with enjoyable, skilled DJ sets. Khary Kadaver, who played a set right before the band, rivaled a rock band with his varied grooves and performance-conscious stage presence.

The week in free shows: Tonight (Tuesday) at Trailer Space The Cocker Spaniels are playing. My colleague and friend Sean Padilla is one of the best songwriters in Austin, period. I wish he would get himself a proper rock band one of these days, but by his lonesome he has more intensity and passion than any number of four-piece groups you could mention. It's the five-year anniversary for Southside record store End of an Ear and they've got shows running Wednesday through Sunday. Windsor for the Derby on Saturday afternoon, pretty cool. On the subject of weird instrumental local rock, Bee vs. Moth are at Hole in the Wall on Wednesday. On the subject of bands that have "bee" in their names, Bee Sting Sessions play Saturday at Austin Peace Pipez, on North Lamar right in my neck of the woods. A few of their songs are still sneaking around in my memory after I reviewed their record... they're definitely apart from the norm and you should check them out. I think that show is five bucks... all others mentioned are free.

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