Monday, November 1, 2010

Hell Is Other Robots

Quick notes from a music-filled Halloween in the best city I can afford to live in!

Anna and I keep attending A Giant Dog shows. The band themselves is a reliably sweaty, sexy good time, but beyond that they're one of the most successful in Austin when it comes to extending their brand beyond the time they themselves are on stage. I don't think I've ever been to one of their shows and not discovered another new band on the bill that I like. They play out constantly but they remain a solid draw because it's not the same show every time out. Talking to the band members I have learned how important writing new songs and finding new bands to play with is to them at all times. Sunday at the Parlor they were joined by The Bad Lovers, who have been on my short list for a while. Four-guy bands with two guitars, bass, and drums are about as remarkable as burnt orange shirts in Austin, but not all of them are made equally. Good songs, fine lead and backing vocals, and a great rhythm section set the Lovers apart from the crowd. I get asking people asking me all the time where all the good local punk bands are. Here is one. I especially like how the guitar players give the bassist and drummer space to be awesome, both in terms of their volume level and their arrangements. At a tiny venue with an overworked PA like the Parlor, there's no cheating. A band has to really know what they're doing to sound good, and the Bad Lovers sounded terrific. They were loud enough that you could feel it, but not so much that the bass and vocals were completely inaudible.

Dikes of Holland value loudness above all else, as I wrote after first encountering them at one of the Casual Victim Pile release shows some months back. They have developed more in the way of individual parts since the last we saw them, and although they still don't exactly have any memorable songs, I watched their whole set yesterday and felt entertained. They juggle lead vocals and instrument assignments in a quick, no-fuss way and the contrast between four different singers definitely makes them more interesting, although they're always hollering over pretty much the same beat. They really got into the spirit of the holiday, with detailed costumes for every band member. During one song their token female member, who was dressed as a pregnant nun, gave birth to a hamburger. Then she picked up a bass and played on what to me was the highlight of their set -- it was the first time I'd seen anybody in Dikes of Holland play any instrument with the slightest hint of restraint.

The Dull Drums of Tulsa were also on the bill. Their name has it absolutely right -- exact same rhythm on every song. More or less the same riff doubled by their guitarist and bassist, too. Get that weak stuff out of Austin! It might play in Oklahoma, but not here.

After a break we next made our way to Stubb's for the Invincible Czars Number of the Beast show. Shaolin Death Squad warmed up with a heroically faithful clutch of Mr. Bungle covers. Anything Mike Patton is good by me, and the SDS is populated by top-notch musicians across the board, but this performance left me utterly cold. Coloring within the lines when you do covers is never cool, even when it's one of the oddest bands of all time. The most amusing element of the set was watching the bandmembers without their bondage masks and makeup later in the evening. Terrifying on stage, they look like such normal guys when they're just bobbing up and down in the audience! It would have been far more interesting to watch them take on the music of a band they weren't so overtly influenced by.

The Czars and Iron Maiden made for a more creative, challenging, something's-got-to-give combination. The always-game Leila Henley admitted on stage she didn't know the album well but it allowed her vocal, flute, and sax performances to come from a different place entirely. Wearing costumes appropriate for the song subjects -- cowboy, preacher, Indian, rasta -- and frequently pushing the band out of its admirably broad comfort zone, Invincible Czars' Number was an end-to-end treat. I like how everyone but the drummer took a lead vocal, and loved watching scary-talented violinist Phil Davidson give singing, tambourine, and keys the old college try. Highlights included a darkwave, 80's disco-flecked "Children of the Damned," "Number of the Beast" performed as a medley with "The Saints Go Marching In" (leading to the unforgettable Josh Robins punchline "Oh, well, I want to be in that number... the number of the beast!") and "22 Acacia Avenue" done as a mash-up of several different blaxploitation and cop show themes (think wah-wah). As a send-off for departing bassist Adam Kahan, it couldn't have gone much better. By the way, who knew Adam had such a great singing voice? Phil and keyboardist Bill Petersen, not so much, but at least they were having fun.

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