Friday, March 29, 2013

Blackie Jackett Jr., Scott Kempner and Glen Matlock bring Canadian Music Festival to successful conclusion

The 2013 Canadian Music Festival concluded on a high note for me at the Rivoli with a set from some young veterans and two from veteran veterans.
Blackie Jackett Jr.

Blackie Jackett Jr. is a traditionally influenced country-rock outfit formed by Finger Eleven rhythm guitarist Rick Jackett and lead guitarist/backing vocalist James Black that released its Whiskey and Tears debut album in 2009. I’ve interviewed the duo (which has filled out to become a full band) a couple of times and liked the 14-song album a lot, but it had been two years since the last time I saw it perform so I was looking forward to its CMF set.

“It’s time to get inebriated,” Black sang in the opening number, which set the tone for a show full of songs celebrating drinking and getting drunk and high. (I was sober, so there was no way that I'm mistaken that a guy with a ventriloquist’s dummy sat down beside me and started talking.) Sandra Dee offered a nice vocal counterpoint to Black with her contributions, and there were also more women in front of the stage than I generally see for a band of this genre.

The set included Whiskey and Tears’ title track as well as staples “Dorothy,” “Stuck in Rewind,” “Married to the Highway” and “Burned (Fuck Me),” as well as new single “I Got Stoned and I Missed It.” Hopefully it won’t be too long before I hear a new album and see more shows, since a night out with Blackie Jackett Jr. is a good time.

Scott Kempner

Scott “Top Ten” Kempner is a founding member of The Dictators and The Del-Lords and has been playing with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Dion DiMucci for years, so the man has a rich pedigree and wide-ranging musical knowledge. He looked every inch the pompadoured rockabilly dude when he sat on a stool by himself with his acoustic guitar and opened an impressive set with The Del-Lords’ “Livin’ On Love” from its criminally overlooked 1984 debut album, Frontier Days, which showed how well rock-and-roll could mesh with country, pop, blues and folk influences.

Kempner’s voice and guitar tone sounded great as he continued with Del-Lords favourites “Burnin’ in the Flame of Love,” “Cheyenne” and “Heaven,” the Latino rockabilly-flavoured “Listening to Elvis,” “Stolen Kisses,” a wonderful cover of The Reflections’ 1964 hit “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” and ending with The Dictators’ “Stay With Me,” which was dedicated to the ailing Tommy Ramone, who Kempner replaced on this tour with former Sex Pistol and Rich Kid Glen Matlock.

The Del-Lords have reunited and have a new album called Elvis Club coming out on May 14, so Kempner introduced “Flying” and “Damaged” from it. I’m happy to say that they sounded as good as anything from the band’s ‘80s glory days.

Kempner offered a few amusing anecdotes between songs and, after noticing that I was the only person standing in front of the stage and that I expressed more appreciation than anyone else during his set, he gave me his song list and we had a great conversation for half-an-hour at the end of the night. He’s a genuinely good guy with lots of interesting stories to tell since he’s seen and done so much over a music career that now dates back almost 40 years. I wish I had my recorder with me. Kempner said he’d be back to Toronto with The Del-Lords, and that will be a show that you shouldn’t miss.

Glen Matlock

Glen Matlock was the Sex Pistols' original bassist and co-wrote 10 of the songs on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, but he’s largely a forgotten man since most people think of Sid Vicious playing bass (or at least sometimes trying to) with the Pistols. I’ve seen Matlock with the Pistols during two of their reunion shows, but tonight was a chance to see him on his own with an acoustic guitar playing songs from throughout his career.

After a number of angry and confused senior citizens looking for Andy Griffith were asked to leave the premises, Matlock opened with “Somewhere Somehow” that prompted the still relatively modest audience to move forward to the stage. That was followed by “A Different World” and then The Rich Kids’ “Burning Sounds,” which was inspired by Matlock’s favourite ‘60s bands. Matlock asked the audience to clap out a rhythm for the Pistols’ “God Save The Queen.” The crowd sang along and, while I enjoyed Matlock’s acoustic take, it obviously didn’t have anywhere near the impact of the original.

The audience was asked to sing along to the chorus of “Hard Work” and Matlock performed “Ambition” (which he co-wrote and performed on for Iggy Pop’s underrated 1980 album Soldier) in a blues style. The Rich Kids signature song, “Ghosts of Princes in Towers,” was next and provided a small thrill.

Matlock’s cover of The Kinks’ “Dead End Street” was okay, but paled in comparison to Ray Davies’ rendition. The covers continued with Scott Walker’s “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” and the best of them, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” (which has been done by Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Monkees, the Sex Pistols, The Farm and many others).

“Yeah Right” may have been my favourite from Matlock’s solo catalogue, but he also performed “On Something” and “Born Running” before ending with the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant’ that left me feeling pretty much the same way as his “God Save The Queen” did. 

Glen Matlock and Scott Kempner

Matlock elected to do an encore and called Kempner up to join him on a cover of The Faces’ “All or Nothing,” which ended things on a high and continued my Faces kick that began a week earlier at the South by Southwest Music Festival by hearing The Split Squad cover “Sorry, She’s Mine” and then Ian McLagan doing “You’re So Rude.”

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rivals, Savages, Invasions, Eyeballs, Brews and more on Canadian Music Festival’s Friday

Kendel Carson and Dustin Bentall

Dustin Bentall is one of those artists who comes through Toronto once or twice a year and I mean to see but never do. That changed last Friday when he performed with his band at the Horseshoe Tavern as part of the Canadian Music Festival.

The roots-rocking, artist is the son of ‘80s and ‘90s Canadian music star Barney Bentall, but I’ll take junior over pops. He sings and plays electric guitar in front of his band The Smokes (bassist Del Cowsill, drummer Rich Knox and female fiddler Kendel Carson — who I found to be quite smoking), and they play country songs that sound authentic and rock numbers that are full of passion. I’d definitely like to hear a longer set when Bentall and company tour in support of their forthcoming full-length album.

Young Rival has been a favourite Canadian band since the days when it was called The Ride Theory early this century, but its performance at the Horseshoe was the first time I’d seen it since guitarist Kyle Kuchmey left and the group became a trio in late 2009. A short and sweet ‘60s sounding instrumental was tossed amidst hooky rock numbers with vocals like “Two Reasons” and “Authentic” that also harkened back to that era, and a cover of The Deadly Snakes’ “I Can’t Sleep At Night” fit in with the repertoire perfectly.

Young Rival

If you like vintage-sounding, guitar-driven rock-and-roll and power pop, Young Rival should be on your radar. There’s not a lot of dynamism on stage, but musically the group reminds me somewhat of Black Lips without the accompanying mayhem. Young Rival should be much more popular than it is.

Savages, an all-female band from England, caused a buzz the previous week in Austin, Texas at the South by Southwest Music Festival, and that followed the quartet to Toronto for its first Canadian show. The members were all clad in black, and most of their post-punk music was equally dark. Singer Jehnny Beth is very animated, even if she often turned her back to the audience during a set that included “Shut Up” and “I Am Here.” Savages needs more songs, but the four girls are still young and have potential. For now, the group comes across as a blend of Siouxsie and The Banshees and Killing Joke.

Savages' Jehnny Beth

It was time to move on to The Silver Dollar Room and, on the corner of Spadina and College on my way there, I saw club booker Dan Burke get into a car. I thought that was ominous.

Invasions was already on stage when I walked in at 11:15 p.m. I ordered a pint of Molson Stock Ale for $5.75 and the bartender, who I’d never seen before, swiped my $4.25 in change off the bar while I was reaching into my wallet to give her a more sensible smaller tip. I told her to bring my money back and tipped her a buck. I probably shouldn’t have. A lot of the Silver Dollar employees were wearing retro ‘70s blue Adidas tracksuit jackets. I couldn’t help but think that they must have been the result of a Burke “negotiation.” The Silver Dollar can be a sketchy place.

Invasions is a Toronto surf-garage rock band that stands out a bit from the pack because one of its members plays trumpet when he’s not pounding on the keyboards. A not so well done cover of The Kinks’ great “Dead End Street” was inferior to some of the group’s original tunes. Invasions has all the elements of bands I like, but it just didn’t present them consistently enough. Still, I’d see it again.


In between bands, Burke ranted about the greatness of Michel Pagliaro and took over a pool table while proclaiming himself king. Then, as quickly as he appeared, he vanished.

Brooklyn, N.Y. band X-Ray Eyeballs was booked in for a three-night residency at the club, but the crowd thinned out a bit after Invasions. The quartet used dry ice and more of a light show than you usually see at The Silver Dollar, but I’d hoped for more musically. The two-male, two-female group lived up to its “new wave garage pop” billing in its 30-minute set, just not as adeptly as I had hoped for. It has a look and sound of something I’d usually be totally in to, but it lacked quality songs.

X-Ray Eyeballs

I hadn’t been to Sneaky Dee’s in about a year, and was disappointed that the beer prices had risen and the windows of the second-storey club had been covered when I arrived for Brews Willis’ 2 a.m. set. The Toronto trio is just what you want to hear at this hour after you’ve had a beer or seven. It’s fun, energetically melodic and slightly sloppy. It opened with “Sweaty Hands” and continued on with “Can’t Fight The Water,” “Hell No Fuck You” and a few others before ending with “Sun Burn Boner Boy,” which the band members continued to play as a friend came on stage and poured shots down their throats. It was an appropriate way to conclude the night.

Brews Willis

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stanfields were the class of Wednesday’s Canadian Music Festival

I arrived toward the end of the Collective Concerts-Ticketfly party on Wednesday to kick off my Canadian Music Festival. I missed the smoked meat sandwiches courtesy of Caplansky’s, but was in time to grab a couple bottles of Labatt 50 before the open bar closed at 8:30 p.m.

The Danks

That gave me time to reach The Silver Dollar Room by 9 p.m. to see The Danks, whose 2009 Are You Afraid of The Danks full-length debut was my fourth favourite album of that year. I hadn’t seen the Charlottetown, P.E.I. group (which shares members with Two Hours Traffic) perform, however, and had high hopes for this set.

They were soon dashed, however, as lead singer/guitarist Brohan Moore’s voice already seemed shot — which didn’t bode well for the rest of the band’s shows the rest of the week. Maybe it was Moore’s voice that threw me off, but I didn’t hear all of the power pop goodness that made Are You Afraid of The Danks so special.

“Die Young” was my favourite of the original songs and although The Danks tried to elicit bigger reactions from covering Devo’s “Girl U Want” and Pixies’ “Alec Eiffel,” it wasn’t in the cards. There was a lack of stage presence and little talking between songs as well, but I’m hoping that was just another part of a young band having an off night in front of a relatively small audience.

Toronto’s Rattlesnake Choir followed on the Silver Dollar stage at 10 p.m. with a roots rock and country set featuring Screamin’ Sam Ferrara on saw, cheese grater and a Slinky-like instrument to augment lead singer/acoustic guitarist/harmonica player John Borra, upright bassist Tony Benattar and keyboardist/accordionist Michael Boguski. The originals were perfectly decent, Handsome Ned’s “I’ve Come to Get My Baby Out of Jail” brought back fond memories and a familiar-sounding instrumental was also enjoyable.

Crazy Strings

Crazy Strings inherited the vibe that Rattlesnake Choir established and kept it going for a larger crowd that was looking to dance by opening with an excellent finger-pickin’ instrumental, covering Lefty Frizzell’s “My Baby’s Just Like Money” and capping things off with The Carter Family’s “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.” These five guys certainly know their way around acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo and upright bass, and their harmonies are nothing to sneeze at either. Humorous song introductions were the icing on the cake for a fun set from what may be Toronto’s favourite contemporary bluegrass band.
The best was saved for last, however, with a midnight set by The Stanfields at The El Mocambo. This Halifax quintet possesses both power and instrumental virtuosity and was riding high on two recent East Coast Music Awards, including the coveted entertainer of the year. This show illustrated why it won, as the crowd down front was dancing from the start to Celtic rock songs that tell stories and include both humour and social commentary.

The Stanfields

Passionate renditions of “Mrs. McGrath,” “Federal Hall,” “Run on the Banks,” “The Road to Guysborough,” “The Boston States” and “Invisible Hands” from last year’s excellent (and ECMA-winning) Death and Taxes sophomore album earned each band member a shot purchased by a fan. The group reached back to its 2010 Vanguard of the Young & Reckless debut for “Ship to Shore” and a rowdy “The Dirtiest Drunk (In the History of Liquor),” which ended the set and left the crowd roaring for more. It didn’t get it, but there was no-one in the room who should have left unhappy.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

SXSW 2013 day six: Alejandro Escovedo and pals put on a party

The final day of the South by Southwest Music Festival didn’t get off to a great start, as my Mixed Media Mongrels softball team had an influx of new and inexperienced players and we got smoked badly and were eliminated from the SXSW tournament after the first game. Luckily, there was lots of free and delicious barbecue from Ruby's to eat at the diamonds afterward and Alejandro Escovedo’s non-SXSW-affiliated show at The Continental Club provided a lot more thrills through Sunday night.

After licking my wounds and relaxing around the condo having a beer and watching Sixteen Candles, I trudged down South Congress Avenue and had a margarita at Guero’s outdoor garden stage while watching a local vintage boogie band getting couples up on the dancefloor.

I crossed the street to the Continental at 6:30 p.m., arriving in time to hear the last couple of songs from Rosie Flores — including one in which Kelly Hogan and other women sang back-up. Best of all, I found a seat. Standing at this show for 10 hours last year after a week of SXSW club-hopping almost did my legs and feet in, so the chair near the back of the intimate, 200-person capacity club was a godsend.

Mighty Stef, an Irish rock-and-roll quartet that’s better than its name, followed shortly thereafter. The audience sang along to “We Want Blood,” but there were no St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans like I’m sure must have been happening at other bars around the city. But colourful Halifax bar owner and former mayoral candidate Victor Syperek cut a dashing figure walking around the club in a top hat with feathers sticking out of the band.

I’d seen Willie Nile a couple of times before, but his 7:15 p.m. set was definitely the most incendiary I’d witnessed. The singer/songwriter/guitarist and his band opened in a big way with “House of a Thousand Guitars” and kept things pumping through a set that also included “Holy War,” “American Ride,” “One Guitar” (with Escovedo and two women singing harmonies) and a ripping cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” that had much of the room (including me) singing along.

I’ve seen Bobby Bare Jr. a few times in the past, but tonight I got to witness his namesake father, who was one of the biggest names in country music in the 1960s and ‘70s. He looks and sounds great for a 77-year-old, as he sang and played electric guitar in front of a five-piece band that included Jr. on backing vocals. He opened the set with his classic 1963 hit “Detroit City” that induced another sing-along. “Ride Me Down Easy” and a cover of “Tom Dooley” led to Escovedo’s “I Was Drunk,” with the night’s host walking out to share vocals. “Boll Weevil” and “John Hardy” carried the set through to a fine conclusion with Bare's 1974 chart-topper, “Marie Laveau.”

Austin sextet Pong was eclectic and amused me for a while, but I wasn’t sad to see its time on stage come to an end.

I’d first heard Barfield, "The Tyrant of Texas Funk" at Escovedo’s Continental showcase at last year’s SXSW and was pleasantly surprised. Mike Barfield has some interesting dance moves and his band definitely brings some rocking funk, including on one song that incorporated The Clash’s “Magnificent Seven.”

I’m not sure if Gordie Johnson and his bandmates in the reformed Big Sugar spend more time in Austin or Toronto these days. But the group, which got back together in 2010 and released an album a year later, reached back into its catalogue of Canadian hits and opened with 1996’s “Diggin’ A Hole” and ended with 1999’s “Turn The Lights On,” which included some of The English Beat’s “Rough Rider” in the middle. There’s a reggae vibe to more of the material now, not unlike what was found on 2000’s Alkaline side project album, and recent addition Friendlyness does a lot of toasting in addition to his keyboard duties. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would.

Kurt Bloch and Peter Buck

R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughey, along with Fastbacks guitarist Kurt Bloch, had been circulating around the club through much of the evening, but the time finally came for them to take the stage together for a 25-minute set heavy on songs from Buck’s self-titled debut from last year. Robyn Hitchcock was standing beside me when the band launched into “Monkey Mask,” and then a go-go dancer came out for “Give Me Back My Wig.”

The crowd got a particular thrill, and a chance to join in, when Mills sang the R.E.M. classic “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.” A few more rocking and raucous power pop songs followed before things came to an end the same way they do on Buck's album with “I’m Alive.” Buck wasn’t a vocal contributor to R.E.M. and he’s hardly a pure singer, but his rough-hewn growl is suited to the primitive-sounding material he dished out with a large dash of attitude during this performance.

I hadn’t really heard from or thought much of Atlanta’s Drivin N Cryin in 20 years, and didn’t know it was still together, but the quartet’s performance was a revelation and rocked much harder than I was expected. The group is now issuing a six-song EP every 90 days and included a song about “Hot Wheels out of control” from its latest one that seemed as strong as its past material. Given who was in the room, the band’s R.E.M. tribute song was perfectly timed and Mills and McCaughey showed their appreciation from the bar.

Buck joined the group for “10 Million B.C.” from his album and stuck around for Drivin N Cryin’s “Straight to Hell,” with Mills also coming out to add harmonies on the 40-minute set’s final number.

Escovedo had been coming on stage in his snakeskin jacket and ascot to introduce each band throughout the night, but the Continental’s owner did the honour for True Believers — a rocking roots band which he said first played that stage exactly 30 years earlier and changed the Austin music scene forever — which was formed by Alejandro, his guitarist brother Javier, guitarist Jon Dee Graham, drummer Kevin Foley and bassist Denny DeGorio. True Believers have reunited and this performance would be the last of several it did during SXSW.

True Believers

The Escovedo brothers and Graham traded off on lead vocals throughout the 40-minute set, which I enjoyed but could see really meant a lot more to the locals in the crowd who seemed to worship the group. “Rebel Kind” resonated most with me until the last song, a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion” that was injected with accelerant. That wasn’t enough for the audience, however, which included Fleshtones/The Split Squad singer/guitarist Keith Streng. It demanded and got an encore, for which True Believers sounded even louder.

The $20 cover charge was a small price to pay for such great music but, even better, it was all donated to The Palapa Society of Todos Santos, A.C., a multicultural, non-profit civil association dedicated to developing and administering scholarship, educational, medical and environmental programs for the benefit of children and their families in Todos Santos, Mexico. Buck is a big supporter of the organization, and holds an annual music festival in support of it, and he walked through the audience with a bucket to collect additional donations as True Believers played.

It was almost 2 a.m. and time to make my final walk back up South Congress to our condo. It had been another great week in Austin, and I never spent a penny on food throughout the music festival, which made it even better.

Thanks to everyone who I spent time with in one way or another. Let’s do it again.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

SXSW 2013 day five: Robyn Hitchcock, BP Fallon and their friends

I managed to get out earlier today, and my first stop was Mpressfest at Soho Lounge. I heard a couple of non-descript rock songs from A House for Lions and stocked up on free sandwiches and wraps to take with me on the walk down South Congress to the Yard Dog party.

The Split Squad

I arrived in time for “Aw Shit Man,” the last song of what I was told was a killer Minus 5 set featuring Linda Pitmon on drums. But I didn’t miss any of The Split Squad, which had thrilled me enough two days earlier that I went back for a second helping. It was a shorter set, but just as intensely entertaining, with guitarist Keith Streng once again up to his crowd-mixing antics. And this time he was joined by fellow guitarist Eddie Munoz, who was once again introduced by lead singer Michael Giblin as a great guitarist but a “terrible, terrible human being.” Pitmon was enjoying it from the side of the stage while dancing and playing a tambourine.

Watch part of The Split Squad's performance here, courtesy of Matzoh Ball. 

It was the same deal with beer as the day before. Pay three bucks for the first one and then just a dollar for refills if you kept your cup. This time I moved up in strength to Lagunitas Little Sumpin’, a hoppy, crisp and delicious ale that packed a 7.5-per cent alcohol wallop. Austin institution Allen Oldie stood behind me in line. I unfortunately didn’t catch his nostalgic band this year.

Ian McLagan

But I did see Ian McLagan and The Bump Band, who I’d meant to spend time with on past visits but didn’t. The 67-year-old former Small Faces keyboardist — who also sang and was accompanied by three excellent musicians — primarily stuck to solo material, including “Been A Long Time,” “Don’t Say Nothing At All,” “I Will Follow” and the closing “All I Want To Do.” But the blues-rock outfit also reached back into the Faces catalogue for “You’re So Rude,” which was the B-side to “Stay With Me.”

I had another Little Sumpin’ for Ian Moore and The Lossy Coils, who were joined on keyboards by Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star). Things began somewhat slowly and then picked up, and that back and forth pattern continued through much of the set, and my thoughts on it were also mixed. Scott McCaughey (The Minus Five, The Venus Three) joined on guitar and vocals for the final song.

The James Hunter Six

I made my way back north to the Auditorium Shores Stage, a large public space on the bank of Town Lake, to see The James Hunter Six. The nattily attired British singer/guitarist and his crack band (featuring upright bass, drums, keyboards and two saxophones) exuded class with their mix of soul, blues, rock and pop on songs including “One Way Love,” “Chicken Switch,” “Let The Monkey Ride,” “The Gypsy,” “Minute by Minute,” “Jacqueline” and “Carina,” which had a pleasantly surprising ska flavour. The 50-year-old Hunter ended a more than impressive set by playing guitar while doing a Cossack dance on “Talking ‘Bout My Love.” You try doing that in a black three-piece suit when it’s 35 degrees Celsius. Consider me a convert to this man and his band’s classic, timeless music.

Women standing sidestage during Hunter’s set were dancing along and signing the lyrics, which was appropriate since the Texas School for the Deaf was just down the street. It was a nice touch.

I dropped by The Agency party at Lambert’s for a couple of free margaritas and to pay my respects to a few people before stopping for a beer and some catch-up on my computer before it was time to venture out again to see Robyn Hitchcock and several of his friends at The Ginger Man at 7 p.m.

Robyn Hitchcock

I’d talked to Hitchcock earlier in the week for Spinner about this show, and other things, and this extended set was one of my anticipated highlights of the week. It didn’t disappoint. I found a seat at a table near the front with my Bear Racer 5 IPA, and Hitchcock walked out by himself with his acoustic guitar and opened with “Nietzche’s Way.” He put on the harmonica for “Only The Stones Remain” and acknowledged his recent 60th birthday by saying, “I’ve crossed the valley into senility.”

Hitchcock continued with “Dismal City” before Linda Pitmon (who rejected my marriage proposal at SXSW several years ago, but I’ve never held it against her) walked out to join him by adding percussion via maracas, tambourine and a shaker. R.E.M.'s Scott McCaughey (bass) and Bill Rieflin (percussion) joined shortly thereafter for “Be Still” from the new Love From London album. A Hitchcock rap about the new pope morphed into “Ole Tarantula,” with R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills adding his voice to all of the fans who sang along with the chorus. Another Venus 3 song, the rollicking “Adventure Rocketship,” followed.

Robyn Hitchcock, Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughey

“Queen Elvis” continued the momentum, as did a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue,” which accompanied me to the bar to buy a pint of Texas-made winter stout whose name escapes me, and a cover of David Bowie’s “Soul Love.” Ken Stringfellow and Kelly Hogan joined the ensemble to add backing vocals and “Madonna of the Wasps” stung beautifully before Hitchcock’s long introduction to “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs.” Stringfellow played keyboards on “Airscape.”

A birthday cake was brought out and the audience sang the requisite song before Hitchcock strapped on an electric guitar, Rieflin got behind the drum kit and The Fastbacks’ Kurt Bloch came on with his guitar to join McCaughey, Pitmon and Stringfellow on three brilliant Beatles covers to end the 90-minute set: “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “One After 909.”

Tijuana Panthers

I was sure nothing was going to surpass what I just saw, but there were still five more hours to fill before the clubs closed, so I moved on to a relatively uncrowded Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room to see Long Beach, Calif. garage/surf/punk trio Tijuana Panthers. I liked things more as the set went on, with a cover of Buzzcocks’ “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” and a song that sounded a bit like The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” standing out above the rest.

There was more garage rock happening at The Parish Underground, beginning with Subsonics at 10 p.m. The trio was fun, but not as special as I was hoping for, although it did become more energized as the set went on. 

Watch Subsonics perform "I Made You A Clown" here, courtesy of Matzoh Ball. 

The Ugly Beats' Jeanine Attaway

I wasn’t feeling particularly energized, but I found a comfortable seat and decided to be lazy and stick around for The Ugly Beats. I’d seen the Austin band at past SXSWs and enjoyed its brand of good-natured, hooky garage rock, and it was the same story tonight when the quintet crammed on to the small stage. Keyboardist/tambourinist Jeanine Attaway definitely isn’t ugly, but I’d probably think that Abe Vigoda was hot if he was playing an Acetone the way she was. “Throw Me A Line,” “Brand New Day” and a rocking instrumental were among the highlights that rejuvenated me enough to move on at the end of the set with new vigour in my step.

I arrived at Dirty Dog Bar before BP Fallon began his set and I briefly talked to the diminutive, soft-spoken, 66-year-old Irishman, who reminded me a bit of Charlie Chaplin in his black suit and bowler hat. Fallon has a dry, droll vocal delivery, but his group The Bandits had a lot of power behind him. The band is Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison and drummer Clem Burke along with guitarist Aaron Lee Tasjan, who played with the reformed New York Dolls. And Stooges drummer Scott Asheton even subbed in for Burke for a song.

Fallon opened with “I Saw Her Face” and worked through a thoroughly entertaining set that also included “Fond of Cocaine,” “Does Anyone Care What Anyone Says in Rock’n’Roll” and a killer cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” where Fallon relieved the pressure on his pink Chuck Taylor-adorned feet by getting down on his knees to sing.

BP Fallon & The Bandits

In case you’re wondering how someone you’ve likely never heard of can attract such star power into his band to help record his Still Legal debut album at the age where most people are retiring, here’s a sample of Fallon's resume: He's an author and photographer who worked with the Beatles in the late ‘60s, was the publicist for Thin Lizzy and T. Rex and toured with Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s, represented Ian Dury, appeared in John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” video, DJed on tours for U2, My Bloody Valentine and The Kills, opened the Death Disco club with Creation Records founder Alan McGee, and was approached by Jack White to make his first seven-inch single.

I went from old to very young for my last band of the night, moving on to Latitude 30 to see British buzz band The Orwells. The punk-based outfit was good, but I’d hoped for more, although I was impressed with its cover of The Stooges’ “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Give this band a few years and it should be capable of achieving big things.

I wound down at the condo with a couple of nightcaps, my friends and my laptop until the time felt right to hit the sack at 4 a.m.

Amount of money spent on food during SXSW thus far: $0.

Friday, March 22, 2013

SXSW 2013 day four: a Waco afternoon turns into a Specials night

It’s been my tradition since first coming to the South by Southwest Music Festival to cross Town Lake to the South Congress neighbourhood and the Yard Dog Gallery for the Bloodshot Records party and margaritas across the street with the Waco Brothers. It’s a tradition that was continued this year and I don’t see it ending as long as all the involved parties are in Austin.

I arrived at the Yard Dog at 3 p.m., where I caught Lydia Loveless’ last song. I would have liked to have heard more, since I’m a fan, but luckily I caught her in Toronto a few months ago.

Luke Winslow-King
Lagunitas IPA was selling for three dollars, but it was just a buck if you kept your cup for refills, so I ordered my first beer while waiting for Luke Winslow-King to begin at 3:15 p.m. He sang and played guitar and was accompanied on vocals by Esther Rose (who added percussion with both a rub board and by striking a horseshoe with a screwdriver) and an upright bassist. The trio had a rootsy, folky, down-home sound that was nice, but not particularly inspiring.

I went inside the gallery to check out its great collection of folk art and then back outside to the Bloodshot merchandise table where I bought both a Bloodshot work shirt and bottle opener for just five dollars.

Waco Brothers
I then went to Guero’s and bellied up to the bar for margaritas and conversations with old friends, new friends and all of my friends in the Waco Brothers. I was going to briefly check out and go down the street to Jo’s Coffee to see The James Hunter Six, but Wacos drummer Joe Camarillo had already bought me another margarita so I stuck around and chatted more until just before 5:30 p.m. when the band left to take the Yard Dog stage.

I don’t know if you’ll find a more entertaining rock and roll band than the Wacos, and this set featured a fiery set of original songs and choice covers. Jo Walston from The Meat Purveyors jumped on stage for George Jones’ “White Lightning” and Jon Langford reciprocated by jumping into the crowd during Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” but the boys were generally better behaved than at past Bloodshot parties. And yet another Friday at SXSW tradition was upheld when Craig Laskey kept drinking my beer.

Green Day
I made a pitstop back at the condo before it was time to go to ACL Live at The Moody Theatre to see Green Day. You can read my Spinner review of that outstanding show here.

When Green Day had finally finished after playing for more than two hours, I dropped my laptop off at the condo and went across the street to The Ginger Man to see The District Attorneys. Some friends are working with the band, and they should because it’s really good. The relatively young Athens, Ga. group features two guitars, drums, bass and keyboards, plays melodic alternative rock, and goes down fine with a pint of IPA. I’d be happy to be in court with these guys.

The Specials' Terry Hall
The Specials were playing again at Stubb’s at 12:30 a.m., and I got there early so I could grab a tallboy of Lone Star and get right up front where hopefully I’d encounter more real fans of the second wave ska kings than I did the night before. A few people spotted my Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice T-shirt and waved me over to join them. It was a similar set to the previous night, with perhaps a few more songs thrown in, but I was too preoccupied with moshing and skanking to take notes. The Specials once again left me on a high on the walk back to the condo for the usual socializing and debriefing.

Amount of money spent on food during SXSW thus far: $0.

SXSW day three: Warm Soda, The Split Squad and The Specials

Warm Soda
I elected to plant myself at The Side Bar for a few hours from 3 p.m. onward on Thursday to take in a bill of rock-and-roll that began with Warm Soda. This full-on, rockin’ power pop quartet is part of what seems to be an interesting music scene developing in Oakland, Calif. A number of friends had raved about the group, and they weren’t wrong — and many of them were in the front of the stage when I arrived for a set that included “Jeanie Loves Pop,” “Spellbound” and several other songs I’m still getting familiar with. There was a relatively small crowd on hand, but it was justifiably enthusiastic.

I moved from the bar’s inside stage with my pint of 512 Wit Bier to another one set up on a back patio to catch the final number from Minnesota’s 4onthefloor that was an up-tempo, blues-based rocker.

A pint of Austin IPA and Spider Bags took me back to the inside stage. The group members are punky, meat-and-potatoes, rock-and-roll practitioners who played very loud in the relatively small room. It was okay but didn’t live up to my expectations.

The Hounds Below
I returned to the glorious sunshine for The Hounds Below, a group I tried to see on Tuesday night but didn’t, which is fronted by Jason Stollsteimer from The Von Bondies. The band wasn’t as intense as Warm Soda or Spider Bags, but was definitely more melodic than the latter. A drunk dancing in front of the stage was attracting as much attention as the band, and I concluded that I prefer The Von Bondies over The Hounds Below. I felt like beating someone up and not talking about it when the group concluded with a cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”

I drank some of my FM966 Farmhouse Ale pint at the inside bar to catch a bit of Diarrhea Planet, which was better than its name and fit in with the sound and spirit of other bands on the bill.

Glasgow, Scotland’s Paws was another band I’d heard great things about. The young outfit plays perky power pop that packs a decent punch and abundant hooks. The aforementioned drunk dancer grabbed my pen and notepad and scribbled or drew something that a really loaded guy might create before he bounded off. While I was certainly impressed with Paws, I had to cut out with two songs to go see something else I was curious about.

I spotted Billy Bragg walking down Sixth Street by himself while on my way to Latitude 30 to see another young United Kingdom band, China Rats. The quartet plays and writes songs beyond its years, and its spiky, energetic, melodic mix of pop and rock is full of promise. A surfy, garage-y tune reminded me a bit of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” and the band stopped it mid-song a couple of times for dramatic effect. Paws and China Rats should draw from the same fan base, and hopefully it will be a large one.

The Split Squad's Keith Streng
I didn’t realize that Patagonia was a clothing store and not a club until I arrived and was given a free slice of pizza and a bottle of sparkling cider on my way in to see garage rock’s new supergroup: The Split Squad. Bassist Michael Giblin from Parallax Project handles most of the lead vocals, and his peers have even more impressive resumes. Drummer Clem Burke is from Blondie, guitarist Keith Streng is from The Fleshtones, guitarist Eddie Munoz is from The Plimsouls, keyboardist Josh Kantor plays at Boston Red Sox games at Fenway Park and Scott McCaughey plays in too many bands to remember, but they include R.E.M., Young Fresh Fellows and The Baseball Project.

This was The Split Squad’s first show, but you wouldn’t have known it by the performance. The group’s debut album (which includes contributions from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Gang of Four's Hugo Burnham and The Figgs' Mike Gent) will be out this spring and you won’t get anything unexpected, considering the members’ pedigrees, and that’s alright. If you’ve ever seen The Fleshtones, you’d know what a dervish Streng is — spinning around, doing jumping scissor kicks, immersing himself in the audience and climbing on amplifiers, all while playing crisp guitar lines. Original power pop, garage and glam rock songs formed the backbone of the set and had people dancing, but covers including The Small Faces’ sparkling “Sorry She’s Mine” and a rawking encore run through Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” shone a spotlight on both the musicians’ skills and music knowledge.

Chuck Mead and The Grassy Knoll Boys

I left the store on a high and returned to our condo to check a few emails, and a couple of breakfast tacos that had been given away this morning and refrigerated were thrust at me as I made my way out the door to see Chuck Mead and The Grassy Knoll Boys. Mead is the former frontman of the much missed BR549, but this very traditional country music combo he’s put together could go a long way to making people cherish his present and future as opposed to his past. The vintage ‘50s country and honky tonk sounds that came from Mead’s electric guitar and the three accompanying musicians on mandolin/steel guitar/harmonica, upright bass and snare drum infused the original songs and carried over to covers of Del Reeves' “Girl On The Billboard” and Little Willie John's “Leave My Kitten Alone.” I may not be as nimble as the couples that started two-stepping and spinning each other around on the dancefloor, but I was just as happy as they were by the time Mead and the boys left the stage — and that wasn’t just from my Red Hook Audible Ale.

Capsula is a rock trio from Spain that I’ve planned to see for the past few SXSWs, but haven’t been able to squeeze in. The group mixes late ‘60s hard rock and psychedelia and plays pretty loose, which perhaps makes sense considering its Stooges influences. The lead singer/guitarist vibrated his instrument against various ceiling and wall pipes to see what would happen and had a lot of energy, and I found the female bassist/singer sexy. But it wasn’t quite what I expected, which dampened my enthusiasm a bit. Capsula will record its next album in two weeks.

There were no nearby must-see bands for 10 p.m. on my list, and I had met friends at Capsula who I warmed to seeing Warm Soda, so I elected to order a second pint of Ziegen Bock and stick around to see the band for the second time today. It played many of the same songs again, which I was cool with, as this is definitely a band to watch out for.

I arrived at Hype Hotel at 10:40 p.m. and heard the last couple of songs from Beach Fossils, which I pretty much ignored -- but it let me know that things were running late and I’d have to wait longer than expected to see The Specials. But The Specials are worth waiting for and admission to the large venue included two free drink tickets and two free tacos — and my guile and charm got me four more free drink tickets that I quickly turned into more easy-drinking maple bourbon and colas. It made the wait go much easier.

I saw two members of unique Finnish punk rock band Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day in line to get in and again inside the venue and tried to talk to them and told them I had reviewed the documentary made about them last year, but they either didn’t understand or appreciate what I was saying. I also realized that a lot of people in the room didn’t appreciate The Specials, as a number of them walked up to me to ask who the band was when it came on stage. It made me miss my reserved skanking spot that was set aside for a few hardcore fans when the group played Toronto’s Sound Academy in the summerof 2010.

The Specials finally came on and launched into “Do The Dog,” but the backing vocals were mixed too low. Luckily, that problem was soon resolved. The absence of Neville Staple unfortunately wasn’t. His vocal and camaraderie contributions were missed.

“New Era” followed and, while most people were just standing around, I told them to give me some room to dance and sing along as I moved a bit closer to the stage. The hits came in quick succession, with “Gangsters,” “Monkey Man,” “Rat Race,” “Doesn’t Make It Alright,” “Concrete Jungle,” “Man at C&A,” “Do Nothing,” “A Message to You, Rudy,” “Nite Klub” and finally a closing run through “Too Much Too Young.”

By this time it was after 1 a.m. and I knew I wasn’t going to see anything better, so I walked back to the condo and stayed up until around 4:30 a.m. writing, talking, eating and drinking.

Amount of money spent on food during SXSW thus far: $0.

Friday, March 15, 2013

SXSW 2013 day two: Billy Bragg, Allah-Las, Thermals and Skatalites

Since I’m yet again endeavouring to make it through another South by Southwest Music Festival without paying for any food, my awesome host Tara King-Cohen made me a breakfast of scrambled eggs and brisket as I was typing away through Wednesday morning.

Billy Bragg
Music for me began at 3 p.m. at the Hangar Lounge with Billy Bragg. I interviewed him over the phone last Friday and had a few words with him in person at the bar before he did an on-stage interview and a four-song, solo acoustic set. A bee or a hornet or something stung my arm while I was sipping my Shiner 966 Farmhouse Ale, and it’s still slightly swollen and painful, but that didn’t draw my attention away from Bragg opening with two songs from his new Tooth & Nail album: “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” and the humorous “Handyman Blues.” He followed it up with his biggest American hit, 1991’s “Sexuality,” and ended with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “My Flying Saucer” from 2000’s Mermaid Avenue Vol. II.

The Allah-Las were one of my priority acts to see here, so I caught a 3:30 p.m. set at the packed back tent at The Stage on Sixth. I couldn’t get that close to the young Los Angeles garage rock quartet, so I hung back by the bar enjoying a very nice, dry-hopped Red Hook Long Hammer IPA, and the band sounded great from there. The chiming guitars would fit perfectly on the Nuggets box set. The playing is strong and the lead singer has an edge to his voice without being close to out of control, and subtle backing harmonies rounded everything out nicely. The Allah-Las don’t have a lot of stage presence, but they certainly have songs and a sound that I totally appreciated.

I saw The Thermals for the first time down here three years ago, and the dynamic, spiky rock trio’s high energy left a big impression and prompted me to catch the 4 p.m. set at The Parish. I stood at the bar with a Stash IPA and listened to a set heavy on songs from the group’s Saddle Creek Records debut, Desperate Ground, which comes out on April 16. I loved the last album, 2010’s Chris Walla-produced Personal Life (via Kill Rock Stars), so I’m looking forward to this new one. The 25-set left me wanting more, but the Portland, Ore. group is playing several SXSW shows so I may catch another one.

I then made my dutiful appearance at the Canadian Blast party in Brush Square Park, where I heard Paper Lions playing on the other side of the VIP area as I ate free barbecued chicken and beans and drank a bourbon and cola while catching up with the lovely and talented Jennie Punter, who’s here from Toronto covering films for Variety.

The Skatalites
She accompanied me to The Ginger Man, where we drank nicely hopped pints of Bear Republic Racer 5 while grooving on the back patio to The Skatalites. Alto saxophonist Lester Sterling is the only founding member of the legendary ska group still remaining, but the nine-piece band still plays the old favourites, including “Phoenix City,” “Guns of Navarone” and even the Flintstones theme. Doreen Shaffer got up for Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” which increased the dancefloor action.

I was assigned to cover the Spinner showcase at the ACL for the entire night, so you can read what I wrote about Natalie Maines, Dawes, Iron & Wine, Family of the Year and Lord Huron while drinking free IPAs at ACL Live at the Moody Theater here.

I returned to the condo for beer, barbecue, conversation and writing until turning in at 4:30 a.m.

Amount of money spent on food during SXSW: $0.

SXSW 2013: Hanging with a legend and two new discoveries

Maria Elena Holly slums it with me.
The South by Southwest Music Festival officially begins for me once I receive my first free drink at a bar, and this year it was on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. at The Cedar Door, where I stopped in on the Fast Company Grill party while on my way to the Austin Convention Center to pick up my photo pass.

I’m not sure why I was invited, but I was given a Target-branded pair of sunglasses when I walked in and then bellied up to the bar for a stiff margarita. Outside in the sunshine, actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto was being interviewed about advertising, the Internet, film and the media. He directed a film called Artifact about the making of his band’s This Is War album and his ensuing battle with EMI over it, and it’s being screened in Austin this week. He said he was at NASA last week to launch the “Up In The Air” single from the group’s forthcoming album into space to join the International Space Station. Leto didn’t seem like the dick that I’ve read in a number of places that he apparently can be.

El Vez
I got caught up with my filmmaking friend Mitchell Kezin (look for his Jingle Bell Rocks! documentary on obscure Christmas music before the end of the year) over a couple of pints at Casino El Camino before we headed next door to Flamingo Cantina to see El Vez, the “Mexican Elvis,” perform a punk rock-themed show. Robert Lopez is a flamboyant entertainer and his thoroughly enjoyable set included multiple costume changes in just 40 minutes. His songs mix comedic moments with relevant socio-political commentary and always leave me with a silly grin on my face. El Vez is in Kezin’s film and, so far at least, so am I (as my Mexican wrestling Santa Claus “Santez” alter-ego). Those are two great reasons why you should see it, and here’s a third: Wayne Coyne.

I then had to rush off to a condo owned by my lawyer friend Stephen Easley for a poolside party he was throwing to announce two new prizes on behalf of The Buddy Holly Educational Foundation. I sat down and chatted with Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena, and you can read that interview on once its posted. 

The party included heartwarming performances by Colin Boyd, Paul Burch, the reunited Wagoneers, 2012 Grammy Award nominee Seth Glier and Willie Nile that were heavy on Holly covers. I interviewed Burch last year about his collaborative Great Chicago Fire album with The Waco Brothers, and he released a Buddy Holly tribute album titled Words of Love in 2011. I never thought I’d get a chance to see the Monte Warden-fronted Wagoneers, so watching these Texas Music Hall of Fame inductees cover Holly’s “Well Alright” and “Maybe Baby” as well as new originals from the band’s forthcoming first new album since 1989’s Good Fortune was a special treat. Match this great music with delicious food, cucumber and hot pepper-infused margaritas, Shiner Bock and a worthy cause, and you had a great way to start an evening.

The Wagoneers
Austin’s Rainey Street neighbourhood has really taken off since I was here last year, with lots of houses being converted into bars with backyard stages. I’d planned on seeing The Hounds Below at one of them (Javelina) at 10 p.m., but was told upon my arrival that the music for the night had been cancelled. Luckily, Jason Isbell was playing less than a block away at Blackheart, so I caught the second half of his acoustic set while sipping a hoppy, microbrewed IPA.

I stayed there for another IPA and Spirit Family Reunion, a young band with its own take on bluegrass and traditional country that it calls “homegrown American music to stomp, clap, shake and holler with.” The harmonies were tight and the fiddle and accordion added flavour to the sounds coming from the acoustic guitars and rhythm section. This was my first happy discovery of SXSW.

My second one happened immediately afterward at Latitude 30, where young New Zealand native Willy Moon jumped on stage with attitude, a ‘60s meets ‘80s vibe and a look that harkened back to a youthful Bryan Ferry. A female guitarist and dancer were part of the band that knocked out energetic renditions of songs from his upcoming Here’s Willy Moon debut album, including covers of The Blasters’ “Shakin’” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You.” This eclectic artist is playing several shows this week and is worth investigating.

I had planned to go up to Red 7 Patio to close the night off with The Polyphonic Spree, but ran into people at Latitude 30 and started talking, so I just stayed there to close out the night before walking back to our condo.