14th annual Swollen Circus - hosted by Michael Hall and Walter Salas-Humara
Peter Blackstock, Dickie Lee Erwin, Andy Friedman, Romantica, Freedy Johnston, The Savage Trip, Grant Hart, The Silos, Amy Cook, The Blue Aeroplanes, Michelle Anthony, David Halley, Chip Robinson & Terry Anderson

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17-March 2009 2009  /  Photoindex  /  Home

Peter Blackstock
The original schedule for the 14th incarnation of the Swollen Circus had listed the first band for 9 pm. When I arrived at 8:40 pm a last-minute addition to the line-up was just getting ready on stage: I had seen former No Depression magazine editor Peter Blackstock sing a song with Mary Lou Lord many years ago, but I must admit that I had no idea that he was a songwriter in his own right. He kicked things off with two of his own tunes: "Down Time" (later recorded by Gary Heffern) and "Julene", a SXSW-inspired song. He wrapped his set up with a nod to one of the hosts: "Roll Around Heaven This Way", the opening track from Michael Hall’s first solo album.

Dickie Lee Erwin
“Dickie Lee Erwin sings and performs with his gospel bluegrass band the Altered Boys as well as his hard-country group the Dickie Lee Erwin Band. Texas Midnight Highway is firmly on the secular side of the equation, with a rough, blue-collar country sound driven by a powerful band anchored by producer and drummer Hunt Sales (noted for his work with David Bowie and Iggy Pop) and Erwin’s gruff tenor. […] Erwin’s not a pretty boy and he’s not young, and the miles he’s traveled are evident in his singing, lending his words an authenticity that many of today’s prefab country outlaws can only pretend to possess.” - J. Poet , No Depression
This year, the Swollen Circus had moved from the tiny, crowded main room to the more spacious back room. This made it a bit easier to move around between sets and the sound was considerably better. Dickie Lee Erwin reminded me a lot of Billy Joe Shaver and played “Just One Night” from his most recent Poppin’ John album, followed by the title track from Texas Midnight Highway, and "Sleepy Bird".

Andy Friedman & The Other Failures
“In autobiographical tunes like "I Miss Being Broken, Lowdown, and Alone," "Guys Like Me Don't Get Grants," and "Freddy's Backroom," this third-generation Brooklynite and his band the Other Failures nail the ambivalent impulses confounding the hearts of hard-drinking, Haggard-spinning, middle-aged urban family men everywhere.” - Richard Gehr, Village Voice
The place was starting to fill up a bit more by the time Andy Friedman and band played their three songs, although it was hard to tell with the constant flow of green-clad St. Patrick’s day revellers making their way to the back patio. The Other Failures cranked up volume and energy-level and got a good reaction from the crowd.

“For anyone worrying that the Americana genre has become a repository of the bad irony of hipsters and has-been quacks, fear not: Romantica is here to save the day. […] Kyle - in songs and voice that sit comfortably between Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams - dwells comfortably in the long shadows cast by his forefathers while leaving his own undeniable stamp on the proceedings.” - David Mead, Paste
Unfortunately Jessy Greene (Geraldine Fibbers, Jayhawks, Wilco) who played violin on Romantica's America album tours with Pink (!) these days and couldn’t make it to the Swollen Circus. Nevertheless, Romatica played a solid set
of relatively straightforward Americana/Alt.Country material and brought the first dancers out on the dance floor.

Freedy Johnston
“A gifted songwriter whose lyrics paint sometimes witty, often poignant portraits of characters often unaware of how their lives have gone wrong, Freedy Johnston seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the early '90s and quickly established himself as one of the most acclaimed new singer/songwriters of the day.”  - Mark Deming, allmusic.com
Freedy Johnston lives in Austin these days where he has assembled an ace band: Jon Sanchez (Summer Wardrobe) on guitar, Mark Addison (The Borrowers) on bass, Dony Wynn on drums and Jon Dee Graham on lap steel. They ended their set with a wild version of “Substitute”.

The Savage Trip
They still don’t have a real presence on the web, but compared to their appearance at the Swollen Circus in 2008 Michael Hall (git, voc, keys), Julie Lowery (vocals + keys), Randy Franklin (git) and Jenny Smith (violin, vocals) had added a rhythm section to the band, which resulted in a much fuller, psychedelic-tinged sound. They finished their much too short set with  "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)", a Sonny Bono song originally recorded by Cher.

Grant Hart
“As one of the co-leaders of the seminal post-hardcore punk group Hüsker Dü, Grant Hart was one of the most influential musicians of the '80s, blending raw sonic aggression with pop melodies and songs. Following the group's demise in 1987, he launched a solo career that was marked by an erratic work schedule. After releasing one solo album, he formed a trio called Nova Mob in 1989, which released two albums between 1991 and 1994, when Hart became a solo artist again.” - Stephen Thomas Erlewine, allmusic.com
In the 80’s and 90’s I had closely followed Grant Hart’s work from his days in Hüsker Dü to Nova Mob. In fact, the last time I had seen Grant was in Seattle almost 15 years ago on October 13, 1994: the show was billed as Nova Mob, but the band had disbanded in Portland the previous night, and it turned out to be solo show by Grant. It was great to see him on stage again after such a long time. 
He introduced himself (“Hey, my name is Grant - I’m gonna play now”) and launched into a set which included Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy”. Last year Grant Hart had released a CD containing three live songs of Hüsker Dü in memory of saxophone player John Clegg, who recently died of cancer. He handed out the CD for free to everyone who was not Irish and wasn’t wearing green. Just the right thing to do on St.Patrick's day!

The Silos
“The music of Salas-Humara and his bandmates is the sound of ideas, styles, and maybe even cultures colliding. It deftly combines a big beat with a nothing-wasted leanness, and it's music that possesses a unique blending of intensity and approachability, with the ferocious rockers tilting you back on your heels just as quickly as the hushed, tightly coiled ballads draw you closer.” – SXSW Band Info
The introduction “The Silos from Flagstaff, Arizona” still sounded a bit strange to my ears, but following Walter Salas-Humara’s move to Arizona, the Silos are becoming more of a collective with members in New York City, Austin and Flagstaff. This appearance marked the first time in many years I had seen Walter play an electric guitar, with Randy Franklin and Jon Dee Graham completing the 3-guitar attack. Konrad Meissner on drums, Steve McAllister on bass and Michelle Anthony on keyboards completed the line-up at the Swollen Circus for a set of new songs: "Teenage Prayer", "Getting Trashed" and "The Ring Of Trees". Listen to "Behind Me Now" from their last album here (SXSW web site).

Amy Cook
“Forget that Austin/Marfa's Amy Cook almost became the thinking emo girl's Joni Mitchell when TV shows such as Dawson's Creek, Veronica Mars, and Laguna Beach used her evocative compositions to illustrate youthful angst. Her Sky Observer's Guide gazes far past that realm and closer toward the environs of folk-informed rock. That she's an engaging performer live only adds to her myth-in-process.” – Margaret Moser, Austin Chronicle
With David Pulkingham on guitar, Amy Cook played a set of complex and quirky yet highly melodic songs which required the audience to listen. Alejandro Escovedo signed on to produce her next album, further evidence to the strength of her songwriting.

The Blue Aeroplanes
“Seemingly lost in time among the grunge and Britpop of the early 1990s, the Blue Aeroplanes released several albums of poetic post-punk mingled with folk-rock jangle that drew comparisons to Lou Reed and R.E.M. Led by vocalist Gerard Langley, the Bristol-based group has been on and off since 1995 but is readying When Things Are Good for release this spring.” – Jim Caligiuri, Austin Chronicle
The Blue Aeroplanes played one of the most energetic and impressive sets of the night. Vonnie De Brett of The DeBretts joined the band for “25 Kinds Of Love”. Listen to "Jacket Hangs" here on the SXSW site.

Michelle Anthony
“Michelle Anthony has a big, full-throated, blues-tinged voice reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt or Lou Ann Barton, but she lacks much interest in plowing the same old roots rock field one might expect from a singer with this kind of instrument. Aimee Mann's post-punk take on the '70s singer/songwriter sound is much more what Anthony has in mind on her second album: […] The only problem with Frozenstarpalace is that at seven songs in just under 25 minutes, it's too short by half.” - Stewart Mason, allmusic.com
Michelle Anthony had played the Swollen Circus once before – in 2005 when she was still living in Wisconsin. Since then she has moved to Austin and assembled a band which included John Chipman on drums. She played the piano on two songs, then switched to bass, but still managed to pound the keys with her left foot. Hopefully a new record from her will be released in 2009.

David Halley
“[David Halley], known originally as part of Lubbock's songwriter Mafia, writes uncommonly somber tunes with heart-rending lyrics that are a perfect match for his smoky voice.” – Jim Caligiuri, Austin Chronicle
David Halley had played the very first Swollen Circus in 1996, shortly after releasing two critically acclaimed records in the early half of the 90’s: Broken Spell and Stray Dog Talk. I had not heard about any other musical activities since, although his website indicates that he most recently collaborated with Jo Carol Pierce on her Dog Of Love album. It was nice to see him play after such a long time, although it was difficult to keep the attention of the crowd with his solo performance of relatively quiet songs.

Chip Robinson & Terry Anderson
For the final set of the night Chip Robinson & Terry Anderson cranked it up a bit more. Chip sang on the first two songs (the title track from his upcoming album Mylow and the old Backsliders tune “Abe Lincoln” from the Southern Lines record), before handing things off to Terry’s Olympic Ass-Kicking Team.

All photos (c) Steffen Paulus 2009