19 Mar 09
It’s 8.30 am and I have already travelled from Nashville to Dallas where I await my Austin connection surrounded by scrawny, hairy male musicians clutching guitars and the odd soldier To be honest I’m about ready to go back to bed, but I am looking forward to four days of great music, company and sunshine.
My all too brief visit to Nashville was as enjoyable as always although I didn’t do as much, or see as many friends as I would have liked. The fault was all mine, well actually, the fault was all the Nashville wet weather and the cute kitten I was living with, which combined gave me the worst allergies I think I’ve ever experienced – my eyes felt as though they were filled with a mixture of gravel and itching powder and I still have a killer cough which is going to really annoy everyone at SXSW (sorry, it’ll annoy me too!). Therefore I didn’t feel much like doing a lot. That said, it’s not as though I sat around feeling sorry for myself all the time. On Saturday night, after a detour to Franklin to see Lou Vargo who works at the Saffire Restaurant, I made my first visit to The Family Wash in East Nashville with my friend Colleen. Kevin Gordon was playing which gave me a good excuse to go. I tasted the famous shepherd’s pie (veggie version) – not bad, although I thought the potato topping / filling balance was a little off. Kevin was great though and I loved the room. It was exactly as I had imagined, a real comfortable, cosy, friendly neighbourhood bar. There were a few familiar faces there – Stephen Simmons with a group of friends, a drummer called Marty who I had met at Eric Brace’s party in March 08.
I also spent time watching Irish musicians perform. Belfast and Nashville are twinned, and there’s an annual Belfast-Nashville Festival in February in Belfast, which I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never yet been too. To celebrate St Patrick’s Day the Irish came to Nashville for an event at the Belcourt Theatre. But the night before they did an in-the-round at an Irish Bar downtown where they were joined by American song-writer Mark Selby. Now, you may not know his name, but he’s famous for songs such as I Hope We Dance the mega-Lee Ann Womack hit, written with Tia Sillers as well as “There’s Your Trouble (Dixie Chicks) and Blue on Black (Kenny Wayne Shepherd) amongst others. I actually have one of his CDs somewhere. The Irish contingent included Bap Kennedy, Ben Glover and a lovely female singer called Eilidh Patterson. I bumped into Korby Lenker who gave me his new CD. Nancy Griffith was in the audience. The following night, at the Belcourt (lovely, comfortable old theatre) there were two in-the-rounds. The first Bap Kennedy, Eilidh and Ben from Northern Ireland with Gary Nicholson (another well known US song-writer) and Lee Roy Parnell. Gary’s guitar playing was great on everything. Bap performed 3 songs from his forthcoming concept CD about astronauts. Eilidh has a love song “Still Learning” inspired by a plaque she saw in a shop and Ben was great, he did two from the excellent “The Week The Clocks Changed” and one I wasn’t familiar with.
After a short break the second in-the-round featured Nancy Griffith, Guy Clark and Irishmen Ken Haddock and Anthony Toner. Nancy kicked off with the title track from her forthcoming album and Guy did two brand new songs, the second of which was excellent (a ghostly tale about an old guitar in a shop). By that point my allergies were so bad that my eyes really hurt and I was finding it hard not to cough, so I left. A shame as it was very enjoyable.
Of course I also spent plenty of time at Fido, and also visited my other coffee shop Portland Brew where I met up with Jim Reilley (he’s putting together a band). My host Tiffany was great too.
And that was pretty much it for Nashville. As I said, didn’t do a whole lot, but actually I needed the break, especially before the 4 days of madness that are SXSW.
I caught a 6am flight to Austin on the Wednesday morning, which immediately wrote me off for the day – I’m useless without sleep! However I bravely persevered and was rewarded with lovely sunny weather and some good music. My uncle Ed and I went to Fado’s the new home for the annual Guitartown/Conqueroo Party. They had an impressive line-up but the outside space isn’t the most comfortable. I saw Randy Weeks, who performed songs from his new CD, produced by Will Sexton, who joined him on bass. Tony Gilkyson, brother of Eliza, was on lead guitar. Enjoyable set, better than I remember him.
He was followed by David Olney accompanied by Sergio Webb on electric guitar. This set reminded me in many ways of James McMurtry, the same driving guitar beats. Very different from the last time I saw David play at the ComboPlate party a few years back when he was solo acoustic.
In need of a more comfortable setting (Ed that is, not me), we left Fado’s and went to Threadgills. Unfortunately I missed the two acts I most wanted to see – Romantica and Amy Speace, but I did see The Winterpills (not hugely impressed) and Kaiser Cartel from New York who are a male/female duo. The guy primarily played drums, but when he picked up an acoustic guitar it sounded so much better with some lovely harmonies. Carrie Rodriguez and Alejandro Escovedo were hanging out having a drink and watching the music. I was ever-so-slightly interested to note that I couldn’t see a single SXSW wristband. There were a few passes, but that was it.
I had dinner with Ed and my Aunt Nora then, I’m ashamed to admit that I collapsed. Killer cough, headache and 3 hours sleep finally got the better of me. But I hope this means I’ll be ready to tackle the next 3 days.
20 Mar 09
Thursday morning I woke up refreshed and ready to go, although sadly the cough remains with me. Beautiful sunny day in Austin, but I spent most of it indoors.
First stop was Jovitas for Day 1 of the annual Twangfest event. 2 day of music on 2 stages. Everything I was interested in on Thursday took place on the indoor stage – Hot Club of Cowtown, James Intveld, Howe Gelb and Chuck Mead. I found my friend Phil and his friend Mark already there, there was even room for me where they were sitting, at the side of the stage which was perfect. Hot Club of Cowtown began pretty much as soon as I’d sat down. I’d seen Elana James before with her trio, and also performing with Tom Russell many years ago at Gruene Hall, but this was the first time I’d caught her band. Excellent set, Elana especially, looked really happy. The only song that didn’t really work for me was a Tom Waits cover. This is the kind of music that I love seeing played live. A few folk – mostly one man and a different woman each song, were dancing and it was the perfect way to start the day.
Next up was James Intveld. I saw him on my last Nashville trip at the AMAs, he was the “special guest” after the Glen Campbell Tribute show at the Cannery. I admit that I had been a little disappointed, expecting someone a little more “special” shall we say, and my review of his show wasn’t entirely positive – and a friend/fan of James complained! So, apologies to her, as I’m not going to be entirely positive this time either. James isn’t bad, his songs are decent, he had a good, tight band, including Lorne Rawls (Robbie Fulks, Steve Forbert and many more) on bass. He has the looks and he has the moves (definitely spend time studying Elvis), but there’s something missing. I just don’t engage. The set, although enjoyable, was workman like, there was little passion or life. Compare it to both the Hot Club of Cowtown or, later on, Chuck Mead, and James fell short.
Next up was Howe Gelb, formerly of the alt-country band Giant Sand. I have one of their CDs – All Over The Map – which is pretty good and I was looking forward to hearing him play. Accompanied only by a stand-up bass player, he had 2 mics in front of him, one of which had all kinds of effects on it. Initially this didn’t really work, but it did get better. Although he was using an acoustic guitar, it too had a number of effects pedals so all kinds of strange noises came through it at times. The set was a little hit or miss for me. I like Howe’s singing style and some of the music was lovely. Other bits were a little weird and didn’t really work in the setting.
The last band I saw at Jovitas were Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys. Chuck was of course (and might still be, I don’t know), singer in the band BR5-49 although he was temporarily eclipsed by the brilliance of Chris Scruggs. I’ve also seen him with The Hillbilly All-Stars (Robert Reynolds, Paul Deakin, Chris Scruggs) a couple of times. He does great honky-tonk, always with a grin on his face. Very enjoyable set. The band have a CD out soon so I’ll look out for that.
We left Jovitas after Chuck’s set and headed down to Threadgills for a bite to eat. James McMurtry, who came to the UK for the first time this year generating huge amounts of excitement amongst UK fans, was playing in the room next door, I could just about make out the songs. I thought it amusing, that here, in Austin, James is just someone who plays lots of gigs, he’s nothing special. I’ve seen him countless times – very good, but I don’t feel any great desire to see him this time around.
I did however pop into the room to catch the beginning of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s set. He had his son on lead guitar (he did a pretty good job) and Rick Richards on drums. I heard Snake Farm and Rabbit, plus a new song then left as I didn’t have a seat and felt I was getting in peoples way.
I had a ticket to see Jimmy LaFave at Threadgill’s at 9pm, but having time to kill I went over to South Congress to Jos where there is always music in the carpark. They also do good coffee, so I bought a latte and found a little table and chair at the back, facing the stage (but quite a long way back, so no pictures as I didn’t want to move and lose it!). I saw the Handsome Family for the first time. I liked their last CD, although we interviewed them for Brand New Country at the time and Brett was a little weird – but there again so is their music so that shouldn’t have surprised me! This live set did nothing much for me at all. Even songs I knew and liked didn’t come across too well. They always sell out their UK shows, so I must be missing something…
Billy Joe Shaver took the stage about 20 minutes after his advertised start time. I’ve seen him at Jos a couple of times, most notably when Kris Kristofferson joined him for a few songs – that was a brilliant experience. However, I’ve seen him a few times since then, and nothing much has changed. The PA died halfway through the first number- “Georgia on a Fast Train” but I don’t think Billy Joe noticed until the song was over! I lost interest, so had a look in at the stalls, then walked back down to Threadgills.
Gurf Morlix was the support and he too was plagued by PA problems, so much so infact that they had to stop his set for 10 minutes whilst everything was replugged. The poor man and his band sat on the stage in the dark, but he took it pretty well! He had a band, all of whom played percussion, which worried me a little initially. Rick Richards who had played with Ray Wylie was on the drums and there was another young guy as well. The set was comprised primarily of songs from Gurf’s new CD “Last Exit to Happyland” and it was pretty good. I still prefer him in his roles of producer and guitarist though. He told a long story about Blaze Foley – it was during this that the PA packed in – played a Blaze song they’d written many years ago and followed it with a song from his album he wrote about Blaze. The audience, who were primarily locals, all seemed to know Blaze personally so this was a popular section of his show.
The first, and only time I think, that I’ve ever seen a full (SXSW) set from Jimmy LaFave was during one of my first visits to the Festival. It was at the Texas Music Theatre at the Cactus and his guitarist had a different guitar for each song, he’d still be sorting himself out halfway through each song, and it really spoilt the show for me. This time however I was delighted to see that Jimmy’s guitar player was the talented (and very good-looking) John Inman who I’ve seen with Eliza and I think with both Eliza and Jimmy at the Red House Party last year. There was also keyboards/accordion, drums (Rick Richards again) and bass/stand-up bass. It was a wonderful set. I love Jimmy’s voice. He doesn’t say a whole lot, but it doesn’t really matter. He’s known for his Bob Dylan covers, but he re-interprets them and they sounded great, especially the extended version of Just Like a Woman which he really made his own as did the band with their long instrumental. This was a lovely way to end the day and so much more civilised than standing in a crowded bar. Although, that said, had I had a pass I’d have been at Antones for the Doug Sahm Tribute followed by the Continental Club for Dave Alvin and his Chris Gaffney tribute. But, I had a great night, and am definitely not complaining – Jimmy will be one of my live shows of 2009.
21 Mar 09
I ticked a few of the “things I always do in Austin” boxes on Friday – lunch at Wholefoods, Amy’s Ice Cream (mexican vanilla with snickers crush’n) and some CD-purchasing at Waterloo Records. I also did something I’ve never, in 9 years of coming done, used the buses. I’ve taken the (no longer) free Dillo, but never the Metro buses, no idea why, especially as it’s only $1.50 for a 24 hour pass. I pay £1.50 for a single ticket to work in Glasgow. I’ve always walked everywhere here (if I couldn’t persuade anyone to drive me!), but those days are over, it’s buses from now on.
Anyway… I began the day with lunch at Wholefoods. I always load my platter with far too much food and it costs a fortune, but tastes great and is a tradition. Wholefoods have live music from Australia on the patio every lunchtime, and I found a seat on a wall and listened to a young male duo called The Kin. They are brothers from Adelaide, who, I think, now live in the US. Nice songs and some good harmonies. They handed out cards with details about 4 free song downloads, so I’ll give them a listen.
After a trip to Waterloo (bought Randy Weeks, Willie and the Wheel, Phosphorescent and Landon Pigg (who sounds spookily like David Mead), I went to the Red House / Signature Sounds party at Mother Egans. Last year this was quite busy, this time there was hardly anyone there which was a real shame, especially as I arrived to see an excellent set from Eilen Jewell. If it hadn’t been for the fact I recognised the songs and voice I’d have thought it was someone else. She’s done an “Alison Krauss” and is no longer the shy mousey girl she was a year ago. The hair is shorter and more stylish, the flattering make-up and a much more confident performance will definitely help her to be taken seriously. As I said great set too, a mixture of songs from the earlier albums and the forthcoming CD. I spoke to Jim Olsen from Signature Sounds afterwards and he gave me a copy of that album as well as two other new ones – Sometymes Why and Sweetback Sisters. It is one of my favourite labels so I presume both will be of a high standard.
Next up was Ray Bonneville. I seem to catch him intentionally or otherwise, every year at SXSW. I’ve always liked his music, although it all sounds exactly the same. He was joined by the bloke who played accordion for Jimmy LaFave (foreign name didn’t catch it) for a couple of songs.
The third, and last artist I saw at Mother Egans was Rosalie Sorrels. I admit, I received her CD from Red House a few months ago but have never listened. But I will! She’s 75 years old and a proper folk singer. There was a lot of talking between songs, mostly about her relationship with, and songs of, Utah Philips. All quite interesting. I’m not sure I’d want to see a long set from her, but I did enjoy the 20 minutes she was given.
There were a couple of other musicians at Mother Egans I’d have liked to have seen, but I wanted to go to Threadgills for some of the Burnside Distribution and Folk Alliance Party, so I jumped on a dillo which dropped me at the door. I arrived at the beginning of the set from the Folk Island Review which is a European song-writing collective + Kevin Welch. He’s had ties with Denmark for many years and this group have been working together off and on for a long time, in fact, they apparently released a CD a couple of years ago which I knew nothing about (will try and buy today). Sounded very good. But there again, I love Kevin’s voice!
There were 2 stages at Threadgills which meant an almost seamless transition between bands. Redd Volkaert was up next on the main stage. Initially he brought out the Lucky Tomlin Band for whom he plays guitar. They were ok, but were missing Earl Poole Ball who was stuck in traffic (lots of jokes about that!). After 2 or 3 songs, that band left the stage and were replaced by Heybale, who were much better. Earl appeared during the first song and sang the second. I’ve seen Heybale a few times at the old Texas Music Cafe on South Congress – a place I have very fond memories of. They were great, top quality honky tonk. Finally Redd brought up his own band and did a couple of songs from his new CD. He’s a funny looking little man with pudgy fingers, but he sure knows how to play the guitar and his deep singing voice works for me.
The final artist on the small stage was Linda McRae. Have to admit she pretty much passed me by. Nice. but nothing special. I was looking forward to hearing Miss Leslie and Her Juke-Jointers though. I have all the CDs and, as with most honky tonk music, it’s ok on CD but generally so much better live. She did a number of songs from her new CD, most of which seemed to be about drinking, All very enjoyable, however, this pesky cough I’m suffering from decided to over-whelm me, and I had to make a swift exit before I disrupted the proceedings. (so so irritating!!!!)
After my abrupt exit, I made my way up to South Congress and bought some ice cream to help the cough (well that was my excuse any way!), and a coffee at Jos. I sat on one of the stools facing the street and watched people go by. Ponty Bone and friends were standing next to me and I’m sure Darden Smith walked passed. When Mark Olson and Gary Louris took to the stage I turned around and watched most of their set from where I was – my SXSW policy is, if I have a seat to stay as long as possible! I saw them play at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass as an acoustic duo, this time around they had drums and bass, which, personally, I don’t think added a huge amount especially as the Jos sound isn’t brilliant. But, that said, it’s always good to hear those amazing harmonies on both the new songs and some old Jayhawks tracks.
I eventually gave up my seat and moved down towards the front and watched the last couple of songs. At this point the carpark was filling up for the Alejandro Orchestra. There was a long long intermission whilst the 16-piece band were sound-checked. More and more people arrived. Eventually Alejandro came on stage and the show began. It was loud, very loud, but, for the first time, I’d actually remembered ear plugs which helped a little – the guy who had very rudely pushed in front of me just after the show started looked in real pain at the volume (I was wickedly pleased). I digress. I’m not a massive Alejandro fan and have always avoided his band shows although I have seen him with the Quartet and with only his guitarist, both very excellent shows. This time around he had the quartet, plus a 4 man horn section, drums, bass, keyboards and singers. There were some beautiful instrumentals plus great versions of two of the songs I knew and liked – Baby’s Got New Plans and Rosalie. He also did a True Believers song and one from his new CD plus others I wasn’t familiar with. He’s a great performer and I can see why friends are such big fans. The band all worked well together and the sound, apart from the volume, was pretty good. The show was filmed, there was a camera on a long lever that passed over head a number of times, a little too close for comfort sometimes!
I didn’t watch the whole set, it was getting quite rocky and I’d stood for long enough. But I’m really pleased I went. It won’t convince me to do the Sunday night Continental Club show though! (not that I could this year as I have to go home tomorrow).
23 Mar 09
My last full day in Austin – this trip seems to be over before it’s even begun! Checked into my flights home at 11am, managed to get exit row seats for two of the three flights. Then jumped on a couple of buses to take me up to Jovitas (again, why oh why have I taken so long to use buses in this town?). Before I knew it I was in Jovitas back yard watching Romantica. This is a band who gave me their CD “Romantica” at The Basement in Nashville during the AMAs in 2007. I didn’t get to see them play then, but loved the album. So I was delighted to finally catch the band live, and even more delighted when they didn’t disappoint. They have for the most part melodic country/pop songs some with pedal steel and were joined by Carrie Rodriguez for one number. The last two songs were a little OTT, but aside from that I really enjoyed it as did everyone else sitting around me, most of whom were new to the band.
Steve Dawson, one half of Dolly Varden was up next. He has a wonderful soulful voice and some great songs. He was joined on stage by a couple of friends. Firstly Jack Higgins (I think), with whom Steve had worked in the past. Great gruff voice, enjoyed his song a lot and will try to find out more (meant to ask Steve but forgot). Edward Burch did a couple too which were also pretty good. Steve performed some of his new songs plus a few by Dolly Varden including The Thing You Love is Killing You and The Dumbest Magnets. Spoke to Steve afterwards and he hopes to get back to the UK sometime soon.
The next band outside were very loud, so I went indoors to find a seat in preparation for Slaid Cleaves set. Slaid was standing at the door so I had a quick chat with him and came away with a copy of his brand new CD, which is released in April. He’s planning a UK tour in the autumn. Slaid was joined on stage by Michael O’Connor on guitar. The set was comprised of older songs including his “big hit” Broke Down (which always reminds me of my first SXSW way back in 2001 when Slaid was the big winner at the Austin Music Awards and brought Rod Picott up on stage with him to collect the award for the Best Song – first time I’d ever heard of Rod) as well as songs from the new album including “Cry” which is a track he did live from Brand New Country back in August – liked it then, and it still sounded great. He finished with a Don Walser song talking about how Don had been a huge influence on him. Again, brought back memories of seeing Don on that very stage back in 2001 – a sad sight as he had to be helped into his chair and couldn’t move out of it, even during the break. Glad I had a chance to see him play though.
Slaid had mentioned to me that Rod Picott and Amanda Shires were playing at Opal Divine Penn Fields at 5, so I hopped on another bus up there. I had planned to go to Threadgills for the Folk Alliance show, but… When I arrived at the Penn Fields I found some friends I hadn’t seen all week so joined them. There were a couple on stage who sounded really good. Apparently the artist who was billed to appear hadn’t been able to make it, so John Conquest asked the audience if there were any folk singers amongst them. This couple – Abby and Mike I think – tentatively put up their hands. They were visiting Austin and had no idea that SXSW was on, but did have guitars in their car. It could all have been horrible, but in fact they went down really well and I wouldn’t be surprised if John invited them back!
Rod and Amanda were up next. I’ve only ever seen them play together in that same venue early one morning during last year’s SXSW. They only had time for a handful of songs on that occasion. This time they had 45 minutes and their set was a mixture of songs from their duets CD plus Amanda and Rod’s solo albums including Mercury, Angels and Acrobats and Workshirts and Turpentine. Their voices work really nicely together and Amanda’s fiddle playing adds a little something. Lovely set and I’m looking forward to seeing them in Scotland in June.
I ended up staying at the Penn Fields for another couple of hours. Saw Slaid again, slightly different set this time, and then the music changed completely. Larry Lange and his Lonesome Knights took to the stage. Larry was wearing the brightest shirt I’d seen all week and I was glad the sun was setting. This really wasn’t my kind of music, even although they did it very well. Other folk seemed to enjoy it though. The next band were going to be more of the same, and much as I wanted to see Sarah Borges at 9pm I didn’t think I’d be able to handle another hour.
So I went with my Aunt Nora and friend Sam down to Flipnotics, a coffee shop on Barton Springs. There’d been music there all day and when I arrived Beaver Nelson, with Scrappy Jud Newcomb, were playing in the back room. It was very hot, but, having not seen Beaver play for a few years I settled down to watch the set. It was very relaxed with quite a few jokes about the incredibly loud band playing across the street. I didn’t know many of the songs having missed out on Beaver’s last couple of CDs, but he’s improved as a live performer. Scrappy Jud’s accompaniment, as always, worked really well. Again, in the “olden” days I used to see Scrappy play with one band or another on an almost daily basis. Now I rarely catch him anywhere. Either he’s doing less, which is unlikely, or I’m just seeing different music now.
I ended the day as I had begun it, listening to Romantica. I only caught one song before heading home to pack. SXSW was over for another year.
This was my first year without either a wristband or pass. I had expected to pay to see a couple of official showcases, but the one night (Friday) when I looked to see who was playing, I saw nothing I was interested in. Wednesday I was too tired, Thursday I had Jimmy LaFave and Saturday I didn’t even look. SXSW was therefore a far more laid-back experience for me this year. I saw less music and visited fewer venues, but still saw some great music and bumped into most of the regulars I know who go. There were no bands that really excited me, but almost everything I saw I enjoyed. Notable bands were Hot Club of Cowtown, Chuck Mead, Rod & Amanda, Romantica and Jimmy LaFave – the latter was probably my favourite show. The weather was perfect this year too, not too hot and warm enough to be able to sit outside well into the night.
Would I do it without a pass again? Well, yes I think I would. There is so much choice of unofficial stuff and parties that there’s no need to pay money for a pass. It meant I had much earlier nights than in previous years, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m usually exhausted by 10pm having been on the go all day and it was nice not to feel pressured to stay out just because I’d bought a pass and felt I needed to get my money’s worth.
Will I come again next year? I hope so. It does of course depend on money, job etc etc, but I’d like to make it to 10 years then I’ll give it a break. There are other places I’d like to go. I also hope to make it back to Nashville for the AMAs in September