Gibson Goes To South By Southwest

The 21st annual South by Southwest festival recently transformed the muggy spring streets of Austin, Texas into a heaving labyrinth of immaculate Japanese mods, haggard Australian cowboys, flamboyant Laurel Canyon hippies, bratty Memphis punks, rootsy Chicago proletarians, shaggy New York avant-garde-ists, white-shoed French rockers, Blackberry-toting industry types, drunk unshaven rock critics, and everything in between.

All converged on SXSW—arguably the world’s most eclectic, envelope-pushing music festival—to witness more than a thousand indie rock darlings motor through high-octane sets. All across Austin, the Gibson name shined on the headstocks of hundreds of guitars, played everywhere from spontaneous parking lot combos to the Austin Music Awards by Pete Townshend himself. An old LG1 was strummed during a patio concert, an SG tapped with lightening speed at a Mexican bar, a Flying V battered at a punk show, a pair of ES-335s conversed at a fashion party, a pair of Les Pauls cranked up in a giant field, and the list doesn’t stop there.

Block after block, the sound of one band faded into the next with a different procession of songs in either ear all the while. For one week the music never stopped.  

Emperor Jones Records’ When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth were crammed onto a stage behind South 1st Street’s Bella Blue early Thursday afternoon. The complexity and vigor of WDRTE’s prehistoric Epiphone Sheraton II-driven stomp is utterly seizure inducing. Performing at an event impressively curated by local college radio station KVRX and I Eat Records, these local Austin heroes, with their two guitars, two drums, two vocalists, and lone bassist, woke their audience with an electric jolt of deafening, mesmerizing rock. One of the most unique rumblings to come out of Austin in some time.

Shellshag

Around the corner at End of an Ear Records, David Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors, who feature Les Paul slinger Amber Coffman, were already deep into their acoustic set by the time WDRTE wrapped it up. A few feet away, Brooklyn’s Shellshag (left) were just getting ready to roll in the parking lot outside of the Opera House vintage store. The Texas sun was beating mercilessly against the concrete as the husband/wife duo took off with their unique brand of barebones gutter punk rock that is at once aggressive and tender at the same time. Johnny put his Explorer through every trick and gesture in the rock encyclopedia as Jen stood up to pound her drums into mush. For the finale, her drumsticks found their way to Johnny, were banged against the strings of his guitar, and, one by one, found their way into the crowd.

The Transgressors

About an hour later the patio of East Side cantina-cum-coffee house Rio Rita was shaded by a couple of Austin’s darkest rootsier bands. Shamrock Records’ the Transgressors (right) paint a gloomy Western dreamscape that sounds like a tag-team wrestling match between Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Marty Robbins, and Bobby Fuller. A high point of their set was when vocalist/guitarist Chad Nichols, a veteran of a number of Austin’s finest bands, employed his Les Paul Custom to cut the afternoon into tiny black ribbons with guitarist J. R. Keyton.

Knife in the Water

Another classic Austin institution, Knife in the Water (left), whose meditative country-tinged pop songs are typically performed by a full band that includes pedal steel and organ, were this time pared down to the duo of Aaron Blount and Laura Krause. Caressing a 1963 LG-1 that he initially sought out “cuz Lightnin’ Hopkins played one,” Aaron bounced a fluid series of unique progressions, arpeggios, and single-string lines up against the counterpoint of Laura’s electric piano. The absence of their typically elaborate instrumentation accentuated their soaring harmonies and top-notch songwriting. They even had the good taste to sneak in covers of Lee Hazelwood’s “Night Before” and Warren Smith’s “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache.”

Marnie Stern

A couple blocks west of Rio Rita, Brooklyn promoter Todd P took over local Mexican icehouse Mrs. Bea’s to present dozens of underground bands over three days. Recent Kill Rockstars Records’ phenomenon Marnie Stern (above) took one of the two stages in the early evening. Stern is an innocent looking petite blonde who bashfully strapped on her white SG and proceeded to assault the audience with some of the most blazing two-handed fretboard action found anywhere east of Sunset Boulevard in the last couple of decades. America’s latest and greatest guitar heroine ignited her bonfire by striking aggressive post-Sonic Youth guitar dissonance against Eddie Van Halen neck-tapping. Beyond belief.

Later, at an official performance, another Kill Rock Stars act, the Gossip, stormed the main stage at Emo’s for the Kork Agency showcase. The sensational Arkansas trio gave it their all, as usual, with chanteuse Beth Ditto stripping down to her undies while guitarist Brace Paine drew blood with his Thunderbird. Amidst the excitement, they made Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” their very own.

Next door at Emo’s annex, Matador Records’ the Ponys demonstrated their new wares and a few oldies for a crowded showcase. These Chicagoans continue to broaden their Television-informed scope to encompass more subdued indie pop territory. Jered Gummere’s half of the harmonically elaborate duo guitar intricacies were executed with an Epiphone Dot.

The Buzzcocks

A combination of fans, artists, and industry folks filled the vast lawn of Stubb’s to the brim early on Friday to catch one of the most anticipated bands of the festival, the legendary Buzzcocks (left) . Pete Shelley and his trusty not-so-secret weapon Steve Diggle, who both continue to play vintage Les Paul Specials, tore into a set that combined standards like “What Do I Get” and “Orgasm Addict” with less-obvious gems like “Noise Annoys” and "Whatever Happened To.” Thirty years since their recording Another Music in a Different Kitchen, the Buzzcocks proved why they’re widely considered one of the best bands of all time—leaving harmony in the heads of an elated multitude.

Turbonegro

Shortly afterwards, Norwegian punk Vikings Turbonegro (above) conquered the Vice party in a field across from East Austin’s Long Branch Bar. Decked out in a combination of sailor wear, military garb, and, in the case of their singer, Hank Von Helvete, low-rent Alice Cooper getup, Scandinavia’s most famous punk practitioners didn’t disappoint with a typically riotous set. Rune “Rebellion” Gronn’s SG laid down dense logs of rhythm for Knut “Euroboy” Schreiner’s Les Paul to ignite with fiery leads. As in the case of the Buzzcocks, this reunited band of veteran punks showed a field full of adoring fans that they hadn’t forgotten how to slay rock dragons.

Qui, the new project led by Scratch Acid/Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow, took the Vice outdoor stage around sundown. Yow’s psychotic tension and release balanced the tight drum-and-guitar team of Paul Christensen and Matt Cronk with a loose untamed energy. Yow wound up in an altercation that resulted in a merciless beating from an overly enthusiastic female fan, but he continued the set with the resilience of a champion prizefighter—filling the roomy stage with his gigantic presence as the rich tone of Matt Cronk’s Gibson ES-175 fleshed out the skeletal accompaniment.

Jay Reatard

 

After Qui, In the Red Records’ Jay Reatard (left), formerly of such important Memphis underground rockers as The Reatards and Lost Sounds, destroyed the Victory Grill next door. Jay plugged in his white Epiphone Flying V and proceeded to put on a show that was so punk it made the Buzzcocks look like Simon and Garfunkel and Turbonegro like Earth, Wind, and Fire. The rough, rowdy, and ready crowd went wild, throwing each other around and hurling an assortment of objects at his relentless band. Hit by a flying beer, Reatard stopped playing and hurled a full one back—landing square between the offending crowd member’s eyes and knocking him off balance. The band tore through fast and catchy songs while Jay hollered tunefully and whittled solos all over the neck of the guitar in a wild blur of rock action. He mustered up the energy to put on an equally uncompromisingly violent performance later that night at The Scoot Inn.

A couple of hours later Jay’s former Lost Sounds bandmate, Alicja Trout, Memphis guitar hero and proprietor of Contaminated Records, showed up at Beerland fronting one of her half-a-dozen or so Memphis ensembles, the River City Tanlines . While some of Alicja’s other projects have been more experimental in nature, the Tanlines, in which she’s backed by a rhythm section consisting of two of the late blues legend R.L. Burnside’s occasional sidemen, play electrifying no-monkey-business straight-for-the-jugular rock ’n’ roll. The trio burned as Renaissance woman Alicja, armed with a beautiful white Gibson Flying V, proved that she’s a force to be reckoned with on the mike, the guitar, and the stage.

Jealous Girlfriends

 

Brooklyn’s Jealous Girlfriends (left) casually assembled on the Scoot Inn stage early Saturday afternoon and slid into a collection of their well-conceived pop songs. With a new recording produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, a song landing on Showtime’s The L Word, and another winning the iPod Music Video Contest, the new-ish band proved that their recent notoriety is not unfounded, and translated their highly textured sound into live performance with the most minimal of sound setups. Josh Abbot, playing an Epiphone Sheraton II, harmonized perfectly with Holly Miranda while the rhythm section of Alex Lipsen and Williamsburg’s hardest working drummer, Michael Fadem, laid it down and spread it out.

Another Williamsburg band, stellar beard rockers VietNam, played their fifth and final show of the festival at a party hosted by their label Kemado Records late Saturday night. This consistently powerful quartet’s dueling ES-335s were crying, flying, and dying high over their tastefully tight and soulful rhythm section. Vocalist Michael Gerner, eyes firmly shut, emoted his confessional tales of urban misadventure with every ounce of his being. At the end of a week cluttered with dozens of amazing bands, VietNam still shined as of the festival’s brightest diamonds.

By Saturday, thousands of South By Southwesters shuffled through the streets of Austin weary from sleep deprivation, hungover from beer, fat from enchiladas, and deaf from non-stop rock. There were still a handful of extra shows on Sunday, but most folks were already on their way back home. Despite the mass fatigue, most of ’em were aware that they’re destined to be back to do it all over again at
SXSW 2008.

Perhaps the inimitable Jay Reatard, who went at it harder than most, is best suited for expressing the general attitude: “SXSW was five shows, one broken nose, one meal, one night of sleep, countless drinks, one broken Flying V, and four beaten up audience members for the Reatard camp! It’s all a blur, but I think we had a blast.