For an industry enjoying such resurgent interest in and consumer hunger for real artists, real independence and plain ol’ real music (just pretend American Idol doesn’t exist for about five minutes) from new bands and newer-by-the-minute technologies, there sure was a hell of a lot of Austin ink spilled last week over a classic-rock radio fixture who sang about squeezed lemons and stairways to heaven more than 30 years ago.
Keep the lid on the Haterade: Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, the keynote speaker at the 2005 South by Southwest Music Conference as well as a featured performer, certainly deserves recognition for his always-evolving creativity, dignified longevity and everything else that’s eluded uppercase Rock Stars from Ozzy Osbourne to David Lee Roth. As Robyn Hitchcock noted in the Austin Chronicle, “[Elvis] Costello and Plant were the only shows I actually saw … It was great to see two men still so in love with what they do, sharing it with the welcoming crowd.”
Astute sentiment that nonetheless doesn’t explain “buzz” acts at SXSW ’05 straight outta ’85 and ’75, like Billy Idol (sneer now attributable to rigor mortis) and the New York Dolls (minus the three-out-of-five dead ones), at a music-biz gathering that’s ostensibly about the new and vital blood that’s going to keep this beast alive for the future. But, in an otherwise killer-over-filler year that saw higher attendance and enthusiasm than most in recent SXSW memory, that’s just nitpicking.
In fact, the band that City Weekly’s annual Showdown sent to Austin this year couldn’t be further from the music industry’s current ideal of The Next Hot Thing: Two scruffy dudes from Ogden stompin’ out classic roots-blues with just a guitar, harmonica, Porch Board (the duo’s lone concession to the 21st century, an electronic percussion device) and a voice that sounds like 35 miles of dirt road littered with cigarette butts and broken Jim Beam glass. The only things the Legendary Porch Pounders have in common with the Killers and their dandy new-wave ilk are their taste in natty thrift jackets and a way with a tune.
Last St. Patrick’s Thursday, singer-guitarist-songwriter Dan Weldon and harmonica player Brad Wheeler fulfilled their oft-repeated, literal and figurative dream of reuniting with guitar legend Bill Kirchen, the Austin resident who bestowed the Porch Pounders’ name after jamming with them at a Sun Valley arts festival last year. The slight snag was, the nonsmoking, well-lit and surreally clean Hard Rock Café on the otherwise gritty and bustling Sixth Street (where more than half of SXSW’s 50-odd performance venues are located) seemed a less likely blues joint than Coyote Ugly a few blocks away.
But the LPPs, fueled by extra fire from Kirchen’s stinging Telecaster licks, handily made the Hard Rock their own approximation of Ogden’s Brewski’s for an hour. Thanks to the unrehearsed player sitting in, their SXSW showcase was a bit more loosey-goosey than the average Porch Pounders set, but undeniable sparks flew: Said Wheeler afterwards, Kirchen’s wife was moved to strongly suggest, in that wifely way, that he hook up with Weldon and Wheeler on a more regular basis. Wheeler hasn’t mentioned having a dream about that scenario yet, but we’ll keep you posted.
Other sightings during my two-day whirlwind tour of SXSW 2005:
Canadian fashionistas Hot Hot Heat living up to their name, walking down Sixth Street in the mid-day 75-degree sunshine, looking like they’d just stepped out of their Entertainment Weekly photo shoot, wearing this year’s gear of sport coats, scarves and dirty stuck-to-yr-face hair. That night on the same street, I encountered the Aqua Teen Hunger Force, who looked somewhat more real.
• Dan Finnerty & the Dan Band, best known outside of Los Angeles as the wedding band tearing through “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in Old School (“I f—kin’ need you now tonight!”) hysterically upstaging the entire punk roster at a SideOneDummy Records showcase with cheesy ’80s hits originally sung by women—complete with choreography! Sheer. Genius.
Canadian robo-metal duo Death From Above 1979 laying waste to a 1 a.m. crowd at the Blender Bar with a ferociously hostile, confrontational and LOUD!!! set that sounded/felt more like a hundred jet turbines than simply a bassist and a drummer. “It’s not a festival, it’s a conference,” singer-drummer Sebastian Grainger sarcastically chided drunk SXSW revelers who could still hear. Love that DFA79.
British-American art-blues duo (it’s all about the twosomes this year) The Kills sexing up an already sweaty throng at Emo’s; singer Allison Mosshart prowling the stage like the alleycat lovechild of Angelina Jolie and Patti Smith, guitarist Jamie Hince stroking machinegun stutters, fingering the drum machine and dry-humping Mosshart. If they ever make it to Utah, the venue had better have an SOB license.
British rave-rockers Kasabian inheriting the Doomed Major-Label SXSW Debut mantle by playing outdoors at Stubb’s, site of the beginning of the Von Bondies’ slide into obscurity last year. In 2003, it was … damn, can’t remember.
Japanese garage-punk pioneers Guitar Wolf going absolutely arena apes—t, stage-diving and crowd-surfing (floor-level!) at Beerland, a club that, despite its name, is approximately the size of a Doc Marten’s shoebox. It was the last thing I saw at SXSW ’05; I feel fulfilled.