Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No Holiday Tie-In Intended

I can't stand holidays. To me the implication of special days set aside to recognize our loved ones, our veterans, our greeting card industry is that it's perfectly OK to completely take those things for granted the rest of the year. And Halloween! Girls (and boys), why indulge your impulse to dress like streetwalkers only one day a year? Why can't we have Shamrock Shakes all year round, why? So I insist that it's an unrelated coincidence that tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I just happen to be filled with gratitude and goodwill towards men today as I post. There's no calendar correlation whatsoever.

Anyway. On Monday I got to participate in a pretty special show at the Cherrywood Coffeehouse. Sean Padilla, sometimes known as The Cocker Spaniels, was celebrating his intact return from a five-week guerilla tour of the right-hand half of our states united. Giddy from elation and exhaustion, it was tough to get a coherent sentence out of the man. He looked like he needed a three-day nap and I hope this weekend he gets one. But Sean refused to consider the tour completed until the last note of the very last show, and he was determined to make his return to Austin a triumphant one. He drove his custom-painted tour van right up in front of the stage at Cherrywood, set mic stand and amp right up on top of it, and rocked from there, jumping down to dance with the audience and cue up new backing tracks from his laptop. Said laptop was a gift from one of the hundreds of devoted fans the C. Spaniels rocked on the tour, granted in Milwaukee after Sean spilled water on his own computer. The power of music and friendship combined is terrifying indeed. It can move mountains, or at the very least, certainly vans.

Dancing enthusiastically to "The Overeducated Underclass" I looked around and saw that everybody rocking out with Sean was a fellow Austin musician. Many of those in attendance were members of bands I've written about, friends I've made through my blog that I've been able to introduce to the Cocker Spaniels' music and that of many other buried gems right here in our home city. After many long years, indeed a lifetime, of feeling isolated, ostracized, and irrelevant it was galvanizing indeed to see people dancing, singing along, and having a good time and perceive my own small role in assisting that to happen. I feel strongly like Sean deserves audiences like that wherever he goes and in Austin, at least, it was within my power to help give him one. If anything I write helps bands that I love to grow their audiences, I have a purpose.

I started doing Big Western Flavor for a selfish reason: When I moved to Austin I really wished there was a site that recommended local bands based on how good and original a live show they put on, as opposed to how slick-sounding the clips on their MySpace page were. I'm perturbed by the fact that the bookers and media outlets in Austin that have the most say in which local bands get wider attention pretty much don't listen to any local music, and they sure as hell never go to any local shows. By and large, the local rock bands who get the most support from Austin music promoters make blandly inoffensive, middle-of-the-road formula sludge that reflects none of Austin's diversity, spirit, or uniqueness. Radio programmers and music "journalists" here aren't in the business of challenging local audiences or fostering the development of creative artists. Their job is to make their readers and listeners feel good about themselves by reinforcing what they already know. Take comfort in the familiar! I guess it's not that different in other American cities, but I feel like given Austin's reputation it ought to be far better than it is now.

Seeing The Cocker Spaniels again made me think about my own approach to writing. Despite different backgrounds, Sean and I are very similar in the ways we think about music. We're obsessively attentive to detail and we hear every element. As such sometimes I see my own flaws amplified in Sean, and I hope he will forgive me for bringing up this weak point in order to make a larger argument. I don't think either of us realizes, most of the time, that nearly everyone else doesn't hear music as completely and as comprehensively as we do. For a lot of people it can be more a vague impression or a feeling than any sort of advanced structural analysis. To me the job of a music writer is to help serious listeners to evolve past that point -- to teach them how to start hearing all of the parts in the whole. That's why reducing reviews to a string of comparisons, or merely relating one's personal feelings, doesn't count as "criticism" in my estimation. The idea is to provoke new thought, not to do someone else's thinking for them.

A year or so into my Austin existence, I realize that I can't make everybody think the way I do. It's just not going to happen. I can't even get Anna C. to put her jacket and shoes away after we come home from a show, or get our roommate to clear his dirty dishes from his room. Grudgingly, I admit that I have to make allowances for the way most people think if I want to set and meet achievable goals for Big Western Flavor in its second year of life.

Here's what I want to do: I want to get bigger crowds at local shows for bands that deserve it. I want to introduce local musicians to a larger pool of good Austin bands, so they can book more diverse shows and make it more worthwhile for fans to show up at gigs, not just once or twice but regularly. I want to create more opportunities for musicians lately arrived in Texas -- so many people move to Austin expecting to find it a musical paradise and grow quickly bitter and jaded. It's not because the opportunities aren't there, it's just that the noise to signal ratio is overwhelming. I want hardcore music fans in Austin who spend all their money on digital downloads and concert tickets and yet never even consider going to local shows to get their heads out of their asses, stop reading Pitchfork, and start reading Big Western Flavor. I never want to hear the question "What kind of music do you like?" asked again unless the answer is a resounding "LOCAL MUSIC!" We all live our lives on iTunes shuffle nowadays; might as well rearrange our listening priorities around the community instead of the fickle whims of smug out-of-towners. It's bad enough having to give our city over to these overindulged airheads every March; I don't see why we have to bend over backwards trying to behave like them the whole year round. Animal Collective suck.

I didn't come up with those goals all at once. I started doing the blog, and doing it allowed me to meet a lot of Austin musicians. Talking to them and seeing what worked and didn't work made it gradually clear what possibilities existed for bands in Austin to take a less than ideal environment and reshape it by their own actions. Nobody's going to do it for us.

All right, so what do I need to do to help bands and fans in Austin help themselves? The first thing I have realized is that most people don't absorb information the way I do... If I read or hear one detail about an Austin band ten months ago, I still have it verbatim at my fingertips right this moment. I just don't forget stuff. If you tell me you have a show, you can have faith that I will remember when and where it is. I might not go to it, but I won't forget about it! So it doesn't necessarily occur to me that if I recommended a band back in say, April, and they're playing a show this weekend, my readers are not going to be able to go find the show listings, recognize that band's name, know where the venue is, know that the other bands playing are cool too, show up, and have a wonderful time. I don't know why you people are all so dense, but I guess if I have to I will start doing weekly show listings, which is something I have resisted for a long time because I personally don't find such things to be of any utility. See, I'm meeting you halfway!

I guess that is a very labored way of introducing a (sort of) new feature but if you know anything about me and my weird brain you know change is something I resist with fingernails dug into the floor, sometimes literally. Anyway, going to start doing this Mondays. Please continue sending me show announcements. I draw the line at posting fliers, though. Some of my bizarre Luddite idiosyncrasies I will defend to the death.

WEDNESDAY Exploded Drawing 2 featured performer Chili is at Beauty Bar. Now in Austin by way of Boston, Chris Palmer works the MPC with a bit of epic drone-rock influence seeping in under the booming beats. Free Lone Stars from 9-10. Instrumental rockers vanishedCLAN play Red 7; fans of the rhythm-focused, gradually burning San Diego style (Drive Like Jehu, Three Mile Pilot) should check them out. Band members told me the show I discovered them at was their worst ever and I still thought they were pretty good. They've had some time to evolve and have added butt-kicking bassist Giuseppe Ponti (Tofu Kozo, Boy + Kite), so I am eager to see them again.

FRIDAY Muchos Backflips! and The Baker Family are at Emo's; an interesting contrast. The former is a long-running "adventure rock" outfit, well steered by marvelous drummer Eric Brown (also of Squidbucket). They get heavy, in between trumpet solos and spooky melodic breaks. Austin has a whole scene of smart-heavy bands and along with Invincible Czars Muchos Backflips! are the flag-bearers. Poppier, bordering on twee, The Baker Family reformed in Austin after its eponymous couple (Stuart and Liz) picked up roots from North Carolina. They balance their electro-pop inclinations with a more rustic approach on ballads, and plus vocals in either case. I'm not knocked out by any of their songs on its own, but I'm impressed by the confident way they can shift gears.

SATURDAY The winsome tenor vocals, lovey-dovey lyrics, and power-pop power chords of Quiet Company led me to initially categorize them in that group of MOR crowd-pleasers I detest, but it has been difficult to persist in disliking them. Their latest EP, Songs for Staying In, shows a real restless push towards change... having worked out how to do the pop single thing, they're seeing what else is out there. Of course, they still have choruses to make the young girls swoon. They rock surprisingly hard live, also to their credit. They're always trying to find new ways of reaching out and engaging fans, and their show Saturday at the ND is their first Twitter show... those in attendance who check in can see their tweets up on a big screen. Good luck tweeting more prolifically than Paul Osbon, their brilliant and tireless manager. Alt-country standouts Guns of Navarone are on that bill as well.

There, that wasn't so bad. We'll do this again Monday!

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