March Madness 1998

Friday, 13-March-98

I arrived a few days before the festival started.

16 Horsepower @ Tower Records
16 HP was in town opening for Ratdog and stopped at Tower for a short 4-song in-store. This band is best experienced in a dimly lit club, but even in bright daylight they put on a convincing set. Old instruments in a new context. Only very few bands are able to create such a unique sound. Highly recommended!

Come @ Electric Lounge
Easy listening - not. "Come makes wild and cathartic rock contained in a tight, dark box, whose sides threaten to burst from the force of the furious sonic strain trying to get out" (Austin Chronicle). But they added just the right dose of guitars and melodies to keep me interested.


Saturday, 14-March-98

George DeVore & Roam @ La Zona Rosa
I had heard good things about George, but this 45 minute set did little to convince me. 70s Springsteen? Maybe, but why copy it 20 years later? Standard Rock fare...

Abra Moore @ La Zona Rosa Abra cleverly mixes Rock, Pop and Alterna elements in her songs. Lilith-fair material. She was recently nominated for a Grammy. This was her homecoming show after being on the road for a while, and it was indeed a very enjoyable evening.

Sunday, 15-March-98

Reckless Kelly @ Gruene Hall
Gruene is a small, historic village about 45 minutes south of Austin and Gruene Hall is one of the oldest Dancehalls in Texas. Neat place. Walking up to the venue, I could have sworn  I heard Steve Earle playing inside. It turned out to be Reckless Kelly, the five of them sitting side-by-side on a bench and rocking the crowd. They managed to connect with virtually everyone in the place. Not an easy task considering the audience: kids, old people, hard-core line-dancers, wanna-be cowboys, real cowboys + cowgirls and the kind of people who get drunk at 4 in the afternoon. Fun.

Alejandro Escovedo @ Continental Club
Every time I see Al, I like his show a little more. Maybe he just keeps getting better, or maybe I'm just getting used to his stuff. A solid performance in his hometown.

"Scrappy" Jud Newcomb & The Southbound Monarchs @ Continental Club
After the demise of the Loose Diamonds, Scrappy Jud now has his own brand-new band, The Southbound Monarchs. He certainly is an outstanding guitar-player, but this band still needs to find its own identity. A few Loose Diamonds songs, new material and an unnecessary Chuck Berry cover. Scrappy Jud, I know you can do better than that.


Monday, 16-March-98

Reckless Kelly @ Lucy's Retired Surfer's Bar
I was hoping to see the "Rock" version of the band, but it was yet another seated setting. Still, very entertaining. They aren't covering any new ground, but they are solid at what they do.


Tuesday, 17-March-98

3rd annual Swollen Circus hosted by Michael Hall and Walter Salas-Humara @ Hole In The Wall

 This is the traditional "the night before the madness starts" event. The aptly titled "Hole In The Wall" has a shitty soundsystem, but the "everyone plays with everybody else" attitude of the event always guarantees an enjoyable evening.

Last years' performers included Trish Murphy , Kacy Crowley and Jon Dee Graham , all previewing material from their upcoming (and by now critically acclaimed + successful) albums.

This year, it was good to see Michael Hall + Band back on stage. Mike has a day job these days, so music is not his first priority, but he hasn't lost his ability to write remarkable songs.

Clovis is a new project of Lisa Mednick and Kevin Carroll (ex Sleestacks). Not bad, but lots of technical difficulties made it hard to hear the songs. I'd like to hear more.

The Willard Grant Conspiracy played melancholic, slow-motion songs featuring Walter Salas-Humara on drums and Lisa Mednick helping out on accordion.

Larry Seamen and Mike Nicolai are apparently well respected songwriters from Austin, but  three songs each showed little beyond the standard "middle-aged guy with an acoustic guitar" fare. Beaver Nelson was just a little too drunk to show his true potential. And Gerald Bair's songs just drowned in the bad sound and noisy audience, but he has a new CD out which is supposed to be quite good.

Barbara K (Timbuk 3), Ginger MacKenzie and Lisa J. Cornelio represented the female singer/songwriter guild. Again, two or three songs are just not enough to say much about an artist, but Lisa seemed to be the most interesting one of the three, if just for the unexpected, ultra-cool cover of "Superstitious" (and I don't even like Stevie Wonder!). And of course for her good looks.

The Silos (all-star line-up: Steven McAllister on bass, Dave McNair on drums, Jon Dee Graham on guitar and Walter Salas-Humara on guitar + vocals) played only material from their upcoming "Heater" CD. Great new songs played by a superb band.

Wednesday, 18-March-98

Let the games begin! This year the Wednesday was (almost) a full SXSW day, with the Austin Music Awards at the Austin Music Hall and showcases at 30 of the 40 clubs.

John Wesley Harding @ Borders
Wes played together with Robert Lloyd on accordion and once again proved that he's a gifted performer. His studio recordings only hint at his true potential. He will be touring the US this spring - go and see him if he comes to your town. You won't be disappointed.

Shitty shows 0, good shows 1

Boy Wonder @ Atomic Cafe
No, this is not the next Boygroup (Backstreet Boys, Boyzone). Boy Wonder is fronted by a girl and plays pure and simple Pop music. Think 50% Letters To Cleo + 50% No Doubt. Next band, please...

Shitty shows 1, good shows 1

Blanche @ Tropical Isle
To quote Daphne Diamant (great name!): "When I go see a band, if I don't feel like I want to have sex with any of the band members, I consider them a lost cause". Hmm, I guess it's different for girls. Anyway, they sounded a lot like (fellow Canadians) National Velvet or Sass Jordan. Oh, and I didn't feel like having sex with any of the band members...

Shitty shows 2, good shows 1

The Skydiggers @ Tropical Isle

Things were improving with this band from Toronto. Basic FolkRock, but a solid performance. Very refreshing to hear them on a warm and humid Texas spring night, singing about "November In Ontario, cold water and early snow". A perfectly pleasant show, if the singer would just stop acting like Gordon Downie (Tragically Hip) on stage.

Shitty shows 2, good shows 2

Starling@ Tropical Isle
The write-up promised that Starling "is doing the same thing to the Kinks and Cheap Trick that Oasis has done to the Beatles", "bright melodies over dense, glam-pop arrangements". And that sums it up quite nicely. Boring.

Shitty shows 3, good shows 2

Tommy Keene @ Liberty Lunch
This was one of the highlights. Tommy Keene is the godfather of guitar-driven PowerPop. No need to say more. Jay Bennett (of Wilco) added rhythm guitar.

Shitty shows 3, good shows 3

Volebeats @ Copper Tank (Main Room)
Subtle. Atmospheric. Transparent. Great. A perfect way to end the evening.

Shitty shows 3, good shows 4

Missed: Citizens' Utilities, John Strohm, Hotwheels Jr., Beaver Nelson, Nadine, Tina + The B-Side Movement, Carolyn Wonderland & Imperial Monkeys, Slobberbone.

Thursday, 19-March-98

Fred Eaglesmith @ Waterloo Records
Good. Nothing more, nothing less. A percussionist who carries all his instruments on his body. And on his head. Entertaining.

The Handsome Family @ Yard Dog (Schuba's Tavern presents...)
Beatle Bob was dancing up front and turned bright red when Rennie said: "Hey Beatle Bob, I'm surprised to see you here after that shitty blowjob I gave you the other day!". Welcome to the world of the Handsome Family. Brett on guitar, Rennie on bass and assorted other instruments, plus a DAT machine providing the drum sounds played their typical mix of sweet, traditional C&W melodies and twisted lyrics.

Mount Pilot @ Yard Dog (Schuba's Tavern presents...)
This Chicago-based band just released its debut (produced by John Keane) on Doolittle records. The groups' influences are diverse (Country, Bluegrass, Folk and Rock), but the band fails at melting those styles into a unique sound. They started off with a Rock song, then played a Country song, followed by a Bluegrass song... You get the picture.

Genghis Angus @ Yard Dog (Schuba's Tavern presents...)
This band is certainly very professional, but comes across as way too slick and polished, somewhere between Hootie and Toad The Wet Sprocket.

Shift @ Stubb's
Hip, Radio-friendly, corporate Post-Alternative Rock. Yawn.

Chantal Kreviazuk @ Stubb's
Chantal is already a star in her homeland of Canada with her Matt Wallace produced debut CD "Under These Rocks And Stones". The record is good, but sometimes it sounds very streamlined for the "waiting for the next Alanis Morissette CD" market.
However, unlike Alanis, Chantal has a voice, she can actually play an instrument and the songs are not only catchy but have substance, too.
Live it was just Chantal and her piano. And it worked. Stripped bare, the songs sounded as good or better than on CD. Expect to hear more from Chantal. If you don't, then it's because nobody can pronounce her last name.

Evan & Jaron @ Fat Tuesday
This is what SXSW is all about: I was walking along 6th Street towards Babe's when the sounds of Evan & Jaron (as I found out later) drew me into Fat Tuesday. Jackopierce doing Toad The Wet Sprocket songs? Just better. Where Toad or Jackopierce get boring, Evan + Jaron crank it up and wake you up with some crunchy guitar. They sure sounded good to me and the audience loved them!
Apparently they have built a "live reputation for adding serious groove and a powerful pop aesthetic to their contemporary folk foundation" (Austin Chronicle) and were recently signed to Island. Their Danny Kortchmar/Peter Denenberg produced debut will be out in April and is appropriately titled "We've Never Heard Of You Either".

Tom Freund @ Babe's
Tom (ex Silos) on stand-up bass and guitar and Chris Searles (currently with the Abra Moore band) on drums/percussion showcased songs from Toms’ forthcoming debut CD on Red Ant/Mercury. It all sounded very unrehearsed and the arrangements were sparse, but clearly showed his songwriting talent. Tom certainly sounds better with a full band and I'm looking forward to hearing the finished CD.

Matthew Ryan @ Waterloo Brewing Co.
11pm. 4° C (or about 40 Fahrenheit for you Americans out there) and this was an outdoor show. 150 or so people were huddled close together trying to stay warm, but nobody left during Matthew's 40-minute set. I had read about this guy, but this was the first time I actually heard his music. And he played some of the strongest songs I heard all week. It took a lot to keep me out in the cold that night, but I enjoyed every single minute of this show.

The Backsliders @ Liberty Lunch
Everybody seems to love the 'sliders. Well, I don't. And I'm trying. I've been listening to the CD over and over again. I saw them at SXSW last year. And here I am again. Not sure what it is, maybe just too much Honky-tonk. Sorry guys, it's just not for me.

Sand Rubies @ Hole In The Wall
1am, Thursday night. Well, actually Friday morning. The worst slot of the whole festival: The Silos, Jason & The Scorchers, Todd Snider, Joe Ely and Giant Sand all played at the same time. I decided to see the Sand Rubies, and I have no regrets. The have been one of my favourite bands for many years, and they were ON that night.

Missed: Kim Richey + Neal Coty, Holly McNarland, Paul K, Prescott Curlywolf, Allison Moorer, Clarissa, Calexico, Royal Neanderthal Orchestra (feat. Curt Kirkwood, ex Meat Puppets), Chris Knight, Lonesome Bob, OP8, Schramms, Soul Asylum, Silos, Giant Sand, Joe Ely, Jason & The Scorchers, Troy Campbell, Todd Snider.

Friday, 20-March-98

Elaine Summers @ Maggie Mae's (Sony Music Party)
"Transplanting", Elaine Summers' debut album, is a mixed bag. There are well-crafted songs, but sometimes she's just trying too hard - to sound like Sheryl Crow. The Elaine Summers I saw that afternoon was different from the one on CD. Backed by Pete Droges' band, she rocked the house. Not an easy thing to do, with free buffet and plenty of sunshine out on the balcony. A great performance. Another highlight!

Pete Droge @ Maggie Mae's (Sony Music Party)
People say he's just a Tom Petty rip-off. People say there's nothing original about his music. People say they heard it before. Well, I have to confess: I am a Pete Droge fan. I'd never seen him live before, but he certainly lived up to my (high) expectations. He blasted through mainly new material, finishing off with "If You Don't Love Me, I'll Kill Myself". The emphasis is on "blasted". He was LOUD! Go out and buy "Spacey And Shakin'"!
Then it was time to line up for the buffet and I found myself next to Janeane Garofalo. What a babe, and funny, too (well, I guess you can expect that from a comedian)!

Damnations @ Tower Records
Mmmh. I hear they are excellent. I thought they were okay. But I still had Pete Droge playing in my head. Or was it Janeane talking? Guess I need to give this band another chance.

Memory Dean @ Stubb's
Southern Rock. Modern Rock. Frat Rock. Now, take the worst elements of each genre, mix them up and you get - Memory Dean. Now, their CD is kind of okay, but live they were so bad it was almost funny.
They entered the stage with a cool "What's up?" and some cool sampled sound wearing very cool, hip outfits. "Hey, y'all check this song out...". The longhaired, Skynyrd-style drummer had an ashtray mounted to his drum kit. "Y'all check out our Web site". The two singer/guitarists urged the audience to clap along, jump up + down and made the girls scream. "Let's make it funky". They had a funny chick song called "You Bitch". "Y'all check it out."
Oh boy, what a waste of time... Hands down - this was the WORST showcase I saw this year.

The Honeyrods @ Stubb's
"Guitars, guitars, and guitars. Then even some more guitars. The Honeyrods' self-titled debut is loud and melodic, and tightly wound in nice four-minute intervals." That's what the Austin Chronicle wrote about the band. Sounds great, doesn't it? The show by those five milk-faced teenagers (not sure how old they are, but they look very young) had its moments, but I think I need to hear some more to be convinced.

The Buicks @ Babe's
REM meets The Clash? That's what the write-up promised. It sounded more like The Beatles meet the Beach Boys to me! Sorry, but this quartet from Alberta was just not right for me...

Pinehurst Kids @ Copper Tank (North Room)
A pleasant surprise. Straight ahead guitar-rock with lots of punk energy. More, please!

Mysteries Of Life @ Bob Popular's (Upstairs)
"Hypnotic slice of heartland rock with flashes of rhythmic touch and pure pop melody." Fits perfectly. I haven't heard any band that comes closer to the typical Vulgar Boatmen sound. Not a big surprise: Main-Mystery Jake Smith also plays bass for the Boatmen, and none other than Boatmen mastermind Dale Lawrence joins them on keyboards and harp. This show was well attended, and the band had the crowd dancing for the entire show.

Box The Walls @ Bob Popular's (Upstairs)
And another disappointment. Their 96 showcase was good. 97 they were great. 98? All new songs, out of tune and boring. An off night? Maybe. I left after 15 minutes.

Missed: Clovis, Tim Carroll, Sherry Rich, Reckless Kelly, Duane Jarvis, Damnations, Jim Lauderdale, Michael Fracasso, Chuck Prophet, Gourds, Psycho Sisters, Sally Timms, Damon Bramblett, Richmond Fontaine, Come, Pee Shy, Handsome Family, Nashville Pussy, Kelly Willis, Jeff Black

Saturday, 21-March-98

1pm is definitely not my preferred time for live music, especially not after three days of SXSW, yet another late night and no breakfast. But once you enter the dark, dark Saxon Pub, you enter a different time zone. Blue Rose Records took over the pub for its SXSW party.

Todd Thibaud @ Saxon Pub (Blue Rose Showcase)
Todd’s "Favourite Waste Of Time" (produced by Kevin Salem; now out on Doolittle Records in the US) made my personal Top 5 in 1997. So I was very anxious to finally see him play live. I was wide-awake when he hit the stage and launched into "Sweet Destiny". 35 minutes just passed just too fast, a perfect way to start the day.

Russ Tolman @ Saxon Pub (Blue Rose Showcase)
Nice, but nothing special. Russ played a mix of old and new songs. Loved the one about the rowboat...

Shakin' Apostles @ Saxon Pub (Blue Rose Showcase)
The Apostles certainly won the prize for the most outrageous stage outfit. And they rocked.

Patty Spiglanin @ Saxon Pub (Blue Rose Showcase)
Patty is the singer for the Naked Barbies , the newest addition to the Blue Rose roster. This Bay-area band plays, well, let's call it AmericanaRootsGuitarPop. Patty played a short solo set, keeping the undivided attention of the audience. Which was not an easy task considering the generally noisy Party atmosphere. "Living Independently" is the title of their new CD, their third and best effort so far. Highly recommended!

Continental Drifters @ Saxon Pub (Blue Rose Showcase)
Wow! You can find lots of gifted musicians at SXSW, but it is rare to see so many of them in one band. In a band with a working chemistry, that is. When these guys set up, they look so unorganised + chaotic. But once they start playing they are simply A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.! WOW!

Kris McKay @ Fat Tuesday
She was billed as a "Country-Folk-Rock mainstay on Austin scene", but she now lives in Los Angeles and is apparently trying to cover new ground musically. If you read my reports from past-SXSW shows, you know that I always sang her praises as a performer, but this year's showcase was a disappointment. Backed by a new band she played six new songs, five of which were boring and/or annoying. Luckily the whole thing lasted less than 30 minutes, so it wasn't too painful.

Trish Murphy @ Fat Tuesday
I've seen Trish at various times over the past 12 months since her Dave McNair produced debut "Crooked Mile" was released. And I'm just amazed at her growth as a performer. She doesn't have much of a voice, but she has strong songs and she looks very comfortable on stage. With relentless touring, she has built a solid fanbase in Austin and across the US, so it wasn't a surprise to see a capacity crowd inside and long lines outside. She played a few new tunes and it seems that she's heading more in a "Rock" direction, while keeping her Pop and Country influences intact. Highly recommended.

Continental Drifters @ Scholz Garten
My second Drifters show for the day. This time they rocked harder than in the afternoon. I can't imagine how anyone could not like this band!

Todd Thibaud @ Hole In The Wall
And my second Todd Thibaud show for the day. Similar to his afternoon showcase, but marred by the notoriously bad sound at the Hole.

Big Back 40 @ Ruta Maya Coffee House
Ahh, what a way to end the day. Just the right mix of straight-ahead rock with a little pedal steel now and then. Very convincing.

Brave Combo @ Waterloo Brewing Co.
Have you ever seen a parking lot full of polka-dancers at 2am in the morning? Well, I have. Yes, I had plenty of beer throughout the day, but I swear I wasn't that drunk! On the way to my car I passed the Waterloo Brewery and the notorious Brave Combo had no intention of stopping until the power was shut off. Polka-Rock. Weird shit. But cool.

Missed: Peter Case, Jim Cuddy, Delphines, Farmer Not So John, Fastball, Jon Dee Graham, Hangdogs, Jack Ingram, Cheri Knight, Moonshine Willy, Mudgirl, Jo Carol Pierce, Amy Rigby, Rusty, Jules Verdone, Waco Brothers, Chris Whitley

Sunday, 22-March-98

Steve Earle @ The Backyard
A great venue. A fairly intimate amphitheatre, where you can sip your Shiner Bock sitting under Oak Trees. Steve's set was very similar to his European shows last fall. Same songs, same jokes. Charlie Sexton joined Steve and his band for the second encore.

Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra @ La Zona Rosa
This is traditionally the last show of SXSW. And Al was "on" tonight. I don't think I've seen him any better. The perfect way to end March Madness. See y'all in 1999...

My personal Top 10 (in alphabetical order):
Big Back 40, Continental Drifters, Pete Droge, Evan + Jaron, Tommy Keene, The Mysteries Of Life, Matthew Ryan, Sand Rubies, Elaine Summers, Todd Thibaud

Disappointments (in alphabetical order):
The Backsliders, Box The Walls, Kris McKay, Memory Dean, Starling.