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.

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