Thursday, December 30, 2010

Free City, Part One

I know what you're wondering... is the post title an allusion to Sonic Youth, or Nelly and the St. Lunatics? The answer... is both.

This is it for Anna and me. Free Week is like Kwanzaa, the Super Bowl, and Martin Luther King's Birthday Observed all in a row, a whole seven days and change of warm fuzzy hats, club doors thrown open, and the whole of Austin local music rubbing its eyes (unused as we all are to natural light) and realizing for a cold fortnight or so that we're a community. It would be really nice if there was another comparable event in the summer... but until local bands start bringing in capacity crowds, you can't really blame local club owners for trying to run their businesses profitably. But for just the first few days in January, there's no bands touring and the university is on break. There's nobody left but we musicians and our loyal friends.

All right, I say this over and over again, so much so that I've made up a mantra-like chant of it: If you're in a local band, go to local shows. If there's any good Austin band that you've heard about before but haven't gotten around to seeing, go do it now. Even if you've had your head buried in the sand behind your practice space for eleven months, just pick a show at random or go to a club you like and see some bands. For gosh sakes. If you have a family or a real career and you play music for fun, that's one thing. But there are untold legions of pinheaded Austin guitar nerds who moved here to Make It Big who have never been to a show downtown that they didn't pay a steep service charge (or a scalper) to get into. Go out and learn something, you mooks!

And maybe meet some people. Anna and I had curry and a six-pack with many of The Sour Notes to celebrate their new 7" and their New Year's show recently. We've always gotten along like gangbusters with leader/guitarist Jared and bassist Amarah (we had Christmas dinner at their place) but I also appreciated the chance to get to know gently intense guitarist/utilityman Chris Page a bit better. Chris related an anecdote that night that has been ringing in my ears quite a lot recently. He talked about being in a music class in college and the professor asking for a show of hands. How many musicians would be happy playing covers of established genre hits their whole lives, if it meant they could make a living doing it? Ninety-seven percent of the class, according to Chris, had their hands raised. He and only two or three others demurred. Think about that. It takes a special kind of person to dedicate their lives to making music on their own terms. It usually involves sacrifice, back-breaking labor, and little to no financial reward. It can get lonely. That's just one more reason why people in local bands should seek out and support other Austin bands. Even if they don't make remotely the same kind of music as you, you probably have a ton in common with them.

It's not technically a part of Free Week, but the show at Cheer Up Charlies New Year's Eve doesn't cost anything and is jam-packed with Austin bands you need to see: Follow That Bird!, Mermaid BlondeNo Mas Bodas. Plus a unique Zorch-Cartright faceoff! I have absolutely no idea what to expect from that set... the regularity with which they completely defy my expectations is what makes Zorch my single favorite band in Austin right now. Another cool thing about this show is that the estimable Tiffanie Lanmon will be playing with both her bands (the Bird and the Blonde). You don't have to be a dude to be a capable guitarist slash bassist slash drummer. We need to work on teaching Anna the drums. Guys, when you see us New Year's Eve, tell Anna she should resolve to learn drums next year. (We could start her on bass, but when she tries to wield mine she tips over.) All this, and (show organizers) The Sour Notes release their seven-inch and launch a tour! Almost forgot: They're raffling off some cool stuff; RSVP at this link to have a chance to win if you go to the show.

Even if I just restrict my comments to the bands I have seen play before and enjoyed, this is going to take a while. But too many of these bands deserve props! I will go on at length, because I'm as much convincing myself to get in gear and go out every night as I am others. But it's totally contrary to my nature to write anything of this scale and not include some pointed criticism. I'm happy to be recognized for my enthusiasm and my energy, but I hang my hat on my honesty! If I wrote a whole post only praising Austin bands my reputation would be ruined. So I'm including some of the bands that I have seen before and don't wish to see again immediately, and telling you why. I'm not discouraging you from going to see those bands. Mine is only one perspective. If it makes you terribly angry that I gave my honest opinion about a band you love and you think I'm totally wrong, then make your own argument as to why! I might be harsh but at least I'm totally up front about why I like what I like. Maybe if your band pays real close attention and improves, I'll reverse field and recommend you next Free Week!

For me "supporting" doesn't meet "unambiguously praising everything." It means showing up and listening really intently and then being honest about what I hear. I wish more people felt the way I did.

Beauty Bar: Motel Aviv, Masonic, Lovies, Last Nighters
Beerland: Shells, Blue Kabuki, Killdeer, The Gary
Emo's: Crooks, Western Ghost House, Black Books
Mohawk outside: Hundred Visions, Lean Hounds, White White Lights, Watch Out for Rockets
Mohawk inside: Butcher Bear & Charlie, Til We're Blue or Destroy, The Laughing
Red 7 outside: Car Stereo (Wars), Parking, Gobi, Politics
Red 7 inside: Yuppie Pricks, The Distant Seconds, Mistress Stephanie and Her Melodic Cat, Jesus Christ Superfly, Blowhole
Scoot Inn: Vanished Clan, Opposite Day, Muchos Backflips!

Shells are a terrific laid-back trio with a talented lead guitarist and a sound that is bravely the opposite of what you'd expect from a current blues-influenced indie band, crisp, restrained, and sort of timeless. Blue Kabuki are a duo, girl guitarist/singer and drummer, who were one of the highlights of the Midgetmen's Neil Young hoot night for me. I haven't heard an original set by them yet, but I can't wait! Stripped back, with mean riffs and powerful vocals, Sleater-Kinney is a good comparison for them... only a more overtly classic rock S-K. The Gary are fantastic and even the Chronicle knows it, although I wish they'd chosen to recommend their other show Wednesday since I booked it. I don't care when you see them; go see The Gary. Dave Norwood's passion and intensity as a singer is something I have overlooked before since I admire their guitar-bass-drums combination so much; but so many people have told me they've been moved by watching Dave and The Gary play that I've started listening to them from a whole new perspective. His lyrics are great, too. Any other time of year the show at Scoot Inn would be a must for me. It's a new band that I have high hopes for in the cinematic instrumental post-hardcore Vanished Clan, an established veteran band that amazes me each and every time I see them in Opposite Day, and another Austin institution I somehow keep missing but need to see soon in Muchos Backflips!. I'm glad Opposite Day are playing during Free Week because I always feel like I should be doing more to spread the word about them. I think a lot of other writers have faced the same problem before me: How do you make a compelling argument for a band that really has no single obvious comparison point? Elvis Costello meets Primus? No... Richard Thompson meets Oingo Boingo? I'm stumped. They change meters and play bewildering figures like a prog band, but have many hooks and harmonies you don't need a calculator to appreciate. No matter what your tastes are, I defy you to watch Opposite Day and not come away astounded by their musicianship. Not only that, they've never let their ridiculous technical ability get in the way of songwriting -- "Safety First" is unforgettable -- and despite their long years of high effort and low rewards, they still maintain a palpable enthusiasm and good spirit when they're on stage. I guess I just convinced myself which show to go to Saturday. UPDATE: Sadly, Opposite Day are not in fact playing (see comments). I'm going to leave up everything I wrote though, and I might reprint it word for word the next time they play in Austin.

However... Unless you really like costumed men and distorting electronic beats, maybe skip Butcher Bear and Charlie. I've been jamming to a big stack of Butcher Bear-related material lately, and his new record Car Bomb is the bad apple in the bunch. I felt the same way at Fun Fun Fun Fest: as a producer/songwriter/force-of-nature, the big red guy needs a foil with a ton of charisma. Pretty but totally uninteresting singer Charlie isn't it. She makes absolutely no impression on their record, except for the part where she steals lyrics from the Gin Blossoms. She has no personality, nothing in particular to say, and totally fades into the background, which I don't think was the plan. The jams with guest rappers, and where Butcher Bear himself takes the spotlight with his lovably bizarre half-shouting, half-toasting style, all suggest that he's better off working with a wide variety of guests like he has in the past with Attack Formation. And Watch Out for Rockets are every bit as terrible in concert as their lazy, self-involved recordings suggest they would be. They just have no rhythmic sense at all, which is a shame because they do have good melodies. They should start over as a real band instead of one guy's four-track fantasies.

Beauty Bar: Sex Dragon, Not in the Face, Vitamins, Shitty Carwash
Beerland: The Lilies
Club Deville: She Sir, Candi & The Strangers
Emo's outside: Let the Dead, The Brigade, Falsetta, Set Aflame
Emo's inside: The Riot Scene, Say Hello to the Angels, Jesus Christ Superfly, The Blind Pets
Mohawk: Amplified Heat, The Hi-Tones, The Boxing Lesson, Black Forest Fire
Red 7 outside: Gods Are Ghosts, Fatback Circus, Obsolete Machines, Sheer Khan & The Space Case
Red 7 inside: White Rhino, Lights Go Out, Sideshow Tragedy, White Dress

Amplified Heat have had kind of a low profile lately, but they're another in a huge group of Austin bands who would have the key to the city by now if they lived nearly anywhere else. A searingly loud mixture of (mostly) Electric Church psychedelic blues and (just a little) punk attitude, they can wear sunglasses at night in January and pull it off. The Riot Scene are a taut local punk outfit with really good songs. I haven't seen them in a long time but I remember their guitarist/singer Jimmy and his talent for playing weird rhythms off of his vocal melodies using palm mutes quite clearly. Sheer Khan & The Space Case are a guitar effects-crazed hippie jam band. They're a good one, if you like that sort of thing. And White Rhino are a mighty, crusty, gas-guzzling 70's American muscle car of hard rock, with a sense of humor and a surprising depth of influences in their songwriting. I have yet to see them somewhere with great sound. Too bad they're playing inside and not outside.

However... I like the idea for Obsolete Machines' sound, but the last I saw them, they had yet to fill in the details. All their "songs" rode the same keyboard patterns for six or seven minutes, and the supporting cast around their supple-voiced frontman didn't bring much to the party. Thinking out loud, it may be time for me to check them out again, because they've had a lot of time to get better. White Dress are a band we've had recommended to us a few times. We were psyched to finally see them at Ditch the Fest Fest, but they left me totally empty and, surprisingly, Anna too. (She's coming along but still tends to give any band with a female guitar player extra slack.) Sometimes guitar and drum duos sound just fine, and sometimes they don't. In White Dress's case it might be a fit issue, because while their frontwoman's guitar playing is gnarled, busy, and interesting, as a whole they just kind of cancel one another out, and the vocals don't punch through like they theoretically should. This is another thing that totally could have improved through experience. Great, as if I didn't have enough bands I already like to see, now I'm starting a list of bands I don't like that I should watch again.

Beauty Bar: One Hundred Flowers, Deer Vibes, The Bubbles
Emo's outside: Pack of Wolves, Eagle Claw, Tia Carrera, Scorpion Child, High Watt Crucifixers, Black Earth
Emo's inside: Wild America, Tenement (Wisconsin), Women in Prison, Uppers, Serious Tracers
Mohawk: Hatred Surge, Shitty Carwash, Naw Dude, Night Siege
Red 7 outside: Sober Daze
Red 7 insideZest of YoreBike ProblemsDistance Runner, Medium Head Boy
U.S. Art Authority: Ringo Deathstarr, She Sir, Hidden Ritual

Eagle Claw are a good band, nice guys, and a classic story. Four musician dudes all met at their job and started a band together, playing what they felt like (instrumental but not that progressive metal, pretty much just cool riff after cool riff with not too much mucking around and everybody drilled to precision with their parts). Because they're good, and friends with seemingly everybody, they've gotten to play some bigger shows and they haven't taken the opportunities lightly. In contrast to the many musicians who arrive in Austin assuming that the world is going to be delivered to their door, these dudes put community first. I still have to take bassist Luther up on his offer to get together to watch MMA videos. Distance Runner are a band in the pop-conscious, but not formulaic style of rock I'd term "post-emo." The funny thing is, back when I was originally introduced to the idea of "emo," it meant bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Cap'n Jazz who were pretty structurally sophisticated. Then things devolved. Now we're back where we started. Distance Runner separate themselves with strong vocals and prominent use of keyboard... often the guitars follow the keys rather than the other way around, and that's cool to see in any style. UPDATE: Whoa, how did I miss this one, this is a goodie: Ringo Deathstarr and She Sir at the USAA. I try quite hard to listen to bands on their own merits, not judge them for choice of style... whether it's a popular one or unpopular. I haven't quite caught the nuances of She Sir's style yet, but when I saw them I could for sure hear that there was legitimate songwriting going on. Anna owes them a second chance after She Sir's Matthew Grusha (mildly) wrote and said that her lack of interest in his band versus Ringo Deathstarr might take different perspective were she to know that he was their previous bass player.

However... The loutish Hatred Surge are an example of the kind of band that turned me off from metal in the first place, loud and violent but with no tact or cunning. Effective heavy music has to use tension and release, put some quiet in with the loud, not just beat you over the head. When I was 12 I went to my first-ever rock concert at the World Music Theater in Tinley Park, Illinois. The band I was all fired up to see? Megadeth. And they might have been awesome, for all I know, but all I remember of the experience was being surrounded by gigantic tattooed drunken assholes who thought it was perfectly cool to shove a 12-year-old kid in the face. Just because you love "Hangar 18" doesn't mean you've signed up to get the crap kicked out of you by Berwyn's chapter of the Hells Angels. From 1990-92 I was all about metal, but that one show scared me away for nearly 20 years. (OK, that and the fact that right about that time Pantera showed up and killed metal's artistic development for the rest of the decade.) I love powerful music. But I hate senseless violence. If you're the sort of band that holds shows as an excuse for your friends to get wasted and punch each other, I am not your friend. I'm not saying that is Hatred Surge's intent (although look at their name). I'm just saying I am strongly conditioned to reject music that is all force, no shading. Also, Zest of Yore are one of a very few local bands that I'm pretty sure I have seen and yet remember absolutely nothing about. Punkers Bike Problems... their bassist/singer's snotty humor is great, their drummer sways back from side to side like a violent human metronome for every minute of every song, but I want to tell their guitar player it's OK to move. You're good! You can really play! Go ahead and rock out, man, the music is calling for it!

Wow, it's 1 AM and I am only on Monday. Do I have to get on a bike and ride to work at 8:15 tomorrow? As it so happens I do. Part Two will be up well in advance of Tuesday! Parting note: If Googling "[your band's name] band austin" doesn't bring up one of your links within the first two or three hits... you probably need to change it.


  1. Thanks for the ridiculously generous shout-out and kind words but due to some miscommunication we're not actually playing the New Year's show. I am in Australia and currently we can't find a guitar cord long enough...

  2. Oh no! The Opposite Day curse strikes again!

  3. If people were to only go to shows based on one person's opinion of someone's past performance or performances, I'd like to direct them to the YouTube video of The Bell Riots playing. I think it sucks, guys. So bad its embarrassing. Cocky, lazy, stupid, absolutely no solidarity in playing, with awful, atrocious, drumming riddled with mistakes and a pace that would put an elephant to sleep. The word amateur doesn't even do the lousiness justice. I know I know, it may take lots and lots of playing live for a band to get good, but I don't really care about that because I'm giving my "honest" opinion here! Who needs room for growth when that one video, blows, so bad, it's actually vindicating to anyone else who is just starting out! Who cares what they will become! So, hey guys, The Bell Riots, they are playing a free show next week, but I don't think its worth anyone's time, no matter how many free donuts there will be. Oh! And don't forget to support Austin music!!!!!!

  4. I've been waiting for ages for someone to do that! Thank you, we had it coming.

  5. "I'd like to direct them to the YouTube video of The Bell Riots playing. I think it sucks, guys. So bad its embarrassing"

    Way to totally attack this video on youtube, 14 plus bad comments all from the last two days. When the video has been up since October, "ME" you and your band or friend's band just look silly and bitter. It's just westy's opinion you and your friends should get over it. I love how 70% of the bad posts are about his drumming not even about the band.

    Folks you should go to youtube just so you can see how much of a Wanker "Me" is.

  6. Wow, I agree that the youtube video of the Bell Riots does not sound good at all, but try not to sound so bitter ME. Its pretty obvious that you got a bad review on here and can not get over it. Maybe you should go practice your instrument instead of being an obnoxious prick.

  7. I post all the negative comments I get, unless they're vulgar or a direct personal attack. People who can't accept criticism reveal themselves in how they attempt to criticize others.