Each year, Austin, Texas’ media smorgasbord known as South by Southwest draws visitors by the hundreds of thousands, each looking for the next big cultural thing. Wouldn’t it be awesome if that thing came from here?
By the time Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears went on at 8:00 p.m., I had spent 24 solid hours at the Norman Music Festival. I was pretty well exhausted, and it was going to take a lot to please me. I hadn't been swayed by Black Joe Lewis' recorded music, but I kept an open mind. I'm glad I did.
The band rocketed out of the starting gate, swinging, swaggering and generally making a ruckus. The band was dressed up dapper, with button-downs and ties. The horn section, which doubled as backing vocals, swung their horns violently back and forth to the music, playing or not. Black Joe Lewis and his rhythm guitarist dueled. Lewis played guitar with his tongue more than once. Burlesque dancers had a dance-off onstage. The band's muscly, horn-laden delta version of rock just wowed the audience. That is, after the audience figured out what to do with the spectacle before them; as Oklahoma has no real musical equivalent to this band, the NMF audience was a bit confused on how to enjoy the band. But they figured it out, and things were festive by the end.
After stopping in at the busy Buffalo Lounge at Five for some refreshment, I went back out — Red Bulled and ready — for The Walkmen. I've previously seen them, so I knew what to expect. But it's still hard to prepare for Hamilton Leithauser's primal howl. Of the forty or so pictures I took of the band, over 3/4ths were of the lead singer, because he's just so electric on stage (well, and the rest of the band is, nicely put, static). The Walkmen's minimal set-up meant that they started pretty much right on time, which was wonderful. They proceeded to rip through their indie-rock songs, playing songs old and new. I loved seeing them play "The Rat" once again, which is just a killer song. They're not really a band to dance to, but they certainly are a blast to hear and watch.
So Cameron Neal (my latest local-rock man-crush) and his band of teenaged
ACM@UCO students (drummer Preston Greer was the only Horse Thief-er whose hands
lacked big, smeary X’s inside Friends Bar last night) sounded even larger, more
looming and fierce than their Sooner Soundwave show in Norman last weekend,
which was my first experience hearing them in person. With all the pressure and
anticipation of the festival, I feel like they really raised the bar on local
performances at SXSW.
First off, Mr. Neal has this awesome old man authoritative rock voice that he
adopts for narrative purposes on songs like “The Magician.” Most of Horse Thief’s
topicality is mystical nonsense wrapped around nuggets of wisdom, so it’s a
useful persona, and it gets really entertaining when he starts dumping sweat
and shaking it all out in his impressive beard.
But yeah, it was really nice to see — after The Boom Bang’s raucous mess and The Non’s cerebral movements — a throwback-style band that earnestly wants to rock, while also trying to innovate a bit (they’ve got a keyboard that generates an organ sound which distinguishes them from most any other local band I know of). Cody Fowler looks up into the sky when the song calls for his bass notes to wobble all over the place and Greer makes an O-face when he gets to punish the snares. And Danny Rose looks about as happy shredding his guitar apart as Kevin Durant looks when he hits a 24-foot-stepack three.
Also, it should be noted that two members of The Boom Bang got kicked out of Friends for being rowdy at some point during Horse Thief's set which is impressive, because there was only The Non's in between them.
Photo by Doug Schwarz
I'd never heard Modern Rock Diaries before their set at Buffalo Lounge, so I didn't know what to expect. They were listed as indie/ambient on the press materials, but that name. But, happily, the name is a complete misnomer: this band has about as much to do with Nickelback as Modest Mouse does.
The band, instead, truly does skew to the ambient, atmospheric side of indie rock. At their most upbeat and indignant, the vocalist can import an Isaac Brock-ian edge to the tunes via his delivery. At their most atmospheric, however, Other Lives is a better touchstone; the keys/violin/bass/drums configuration allowed for towering crescendoes.
In between, however, was "September," which saw one member pull double duty on violin and keytar. (Yes, they totally went there.) It's a unique mix of latent aggression (anti-corporatist, anti-political lyrics about being stuck in a cubicle), dancy rhythms, pulsing speed, and haunting atmosphere. It was easily the high point of the set, a song that I'll remember after this evening (and hopefully after the festival). Their widely varied set was still coherent and consistently entertaining; their new EP is definitely on my must-hear list.
A little-used definition of the word "elegant" is "pleasingly ingenious and simple." It's that definition I think of when I characterize Scales of Motion's post-punk/rock/other mix as elegant. The three-piece takes very complicated, technical instrumental work and synthesizes it in a way that feels pleasing, clever and interesting. Even when the drummer is playing seemingly erratic hits, the guitarist is banging a distorted chord, and the bassist is tracking all over the fretboard, you can be assured that a resolution will arrive. And it most often does in an incredibly satisfying way.
The three members all contribute vocals to the mix, with bassist taking the sung vocals, the guitarist taking the spoken and yelled vocals, and the drummer providing back-up harmonies. This democratic distribution of vocals only serves to enhance the song-first motive that Scales puts out: all the band members are incredibly talented at their instruments, but each is subsumed into putting out good songs. And with all the technical, rhythmic and melodic complexity, the songs are unique and memorable. You can sing along to some songs; other songs skew too hard or too wild for anthemic melodies. But Scales of Motion makes room for all of it in their amalgam, and that's what makes them a consistently interesting band.