WATCHING MTV'S TABITHA Soren interviewing the members of Golden Smog in Austin last week--who were lounging poolside at the posh Hyatt Hotel and looking fabulous in matching Hyatt bathrobes--it seemed that South by Southwest, the annual music and media conference that took place last week, might have finally succumbed to industry overkill. The conference has changed over the years: once an indie-focused regional event, it's grown steadily and, since the demise of New York City's New Music Seminar, has become the largest band showcase in the country. But while too much biz attention was sucked off by established performers--among them Joan Osborne, Liz Phair, and P-Funk--there was still a wealth of musical discovery to be had among the 600-plus acts performing at the five-day fete.
As usual, the lineup was dominated by the sort of country-inflected roots music that has defined Austin as an alternative Nashville. But even this niche proved miles wide. There was the wild cowpunk of Chicago's Old 97s and The Waco Brothers (the latter featuring Jon Langford of Mekons fame). There was the delicate country-folk of Gillian Welch, whose CD debut next month should make her both a commercial and critical hit, and the back-porch surrealism of Jo Carol Pierce. Introverted populists Son Volt received a hero's welcome by one of the biggest audiences of the weekend, while Lucinda Williams previewed songs from her much-awaited new record and Joe Henry showcased a powerful new band featuring highbrow metal guitar hero Page Hamilton of Helmet (!). Maybe the best country music of the week came from Nashville's Dead Reckoning record label collective, a supergroup which included Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, and the brilliant singer-songwriter/fiddler Tammy Rogers.
Given its size and industry prominence, SXSW may eventually be forced to diversify its aesthetic focus more. But there were still plenty of twangless sounds to be found. We came across Prague underground legends Uz Jsme Doma, who made some of the most formally radical music of the conference, ripping through bizarre time signatures with vocals that ranged from pseudo-military chants to choral sobs. The Fugees, one of SXSW's few hip-hop acts, battled with and eventually triumphed over a rare Austin thunderstorm at a packed outdoor gig. Finland's RimmeRadio treated a couple dozen curiosity-seekers to a set of strange ambient techno grooves sculpted by a DJ, two guys pummeling electronic gear, and a sax player on a free jazz trip. And we were perhaps most charmed by Rasputina, a group of three girl cellists and one boy drummer (all clad in Victorian undergarments) who weave classical figures behind queer little songs about vampire concubines and dead boyfriends. It's something like an Edward Gorey cartoon made flesh, and if they could get signed (to Sony, no less), then commercial music may not be as moribund as it seems.
But at the end of the day, the most remarkable thing about SXSW is its confirmation of how many artists are making great, even miraculous music in relative obscurity. "Why is it," Son Volt's Dave Boquist asked over bourbon in the wee hours of Sunday morning, "that no one has heard of Hazel Dickens?"--the startlingly good mountain singer whose recorded work remains tough to find, but which blows most modern country off the map. It's a good question with a million and one answers--none of them adequate. (Will Hermes)
GIGS & THINGAMAJIGS
EXCUSE US IF we get tongue-tied when talking about The Spinanes; we just like them a lot. Manos remains one of indie rock's great records, full of seductive, prickly songs that demand repeated listening. The brand-new Strand (SubPop) finds Rebecca Gates summoning and dismissing lovers like an overworked civil court judge; the songs are roomier and sexier than first time out--some even verge on the ambient--and while her plaints may take longer to sink in, they'll get you. They'll be at First Ave. this Thursday; eclectic local hero Flour, along with returning faves Tripmaster Monkey and Sardina, make this a solid evening of music. $4/$6 at the door. Doors at 7 p.m. First Avenue, 701 First Ave. N., Mpls.; 338-8388... Kim Bromm--or "Kim the Soundperson" as she's affectionately better known--at least around the Uptown Bar--does have a double life as a stripped-down, bluesy country singer-songwriter. After five years techin' for Têtes Noires and a stint in the roots group Polk County, Bromm has finally finished her own debut, appropriately titled Long Time Comin'. Recording mates Dale Strength and Bruce Archer will play tonight's show with guest vocalist Amy Fisher helping out. Other surprises TBA, including Kim's crutch routine, developed after a nasty fall on her fibula. Come wish her commercial success and recuperative power Tuesday night. $3. 9 p.m. Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St., Mpls.; 825-3737... NRBQ are in town for a cozy club show to celebrate a celebrity birthday (you'll need to come to find out; no, it's not Prince). You're invited too. And while this may amount to heresy in some circles, we'll betchya opener Dylan Hicks gives the Q a run for their funny money. Hicks and his band Golf-Ball Sized Boogie have been wicked in some recent cabaret settings, previewing tracks from the upcoming LP, Won (No Alternative/TRG), plus all manner of uproarious remakes. Friday, call for set times. $10/$12 at the door. Fine Line Music Cafe, 318 First Ave. N., Mpls.; 338-8100... Los Toallitas are a nutty, swingin' combo from Chicago that jams Arabic funk against Latin rhythms with the irreverence of 3 Mustaphas 3 and the energy of Brave Combo. They'll be toting violins, tablas, vibes, horns, organs, and who knows what else; come prepared to dance and act foolish. Free. Saturday; music at 9:30 p.m. Loring Bar, 1624 Harmon Pl., Mpls.; 332-1617... When we saw NYC's The Goops at CBGB's during last year's Independent Music Fest, we knew the "ponk" (pop-punk) band with the blonde muscle-girl lead singer would not be an indie band for much longer. Sure enough, the band was soon signed to Reprise, which makes them label mates with musical soul mates Green Day and the Muffs. The Goops are nothing so much as a genetic splice of those two, but Eleanor Whitledge adds real vocal chops and hints of insightful social comment within the band's buzzsaw beat. The Goops play two shows with Jersey ponks Bouncing Souls Thursday. $6. 7th St. Entry. Doors at 4 p.m. for the all-ager, 9 p.m. for drunk punks... Hip-hop hooray for the efforts First Avenue and friends are making on behalf of live DJ culture, hip-hop, and all sorts of real soul music. KFAI's Saturday night hip-hop show Strictly Butter is copresenting two nights of cool soul sounds. Friday night's "Caucus" is billed as "a gathering place for hip-hop sounds, classic soul, acid jazz, and poetry." Guest DJs include KFAI's Selectah Raphael (Genesis Productions), and Jesus Juice. There's a cameo by Phull Surkle and Casino Royale, with your host Henry Moon. $3, 6 p.m., Mainroom. On Sunday comes "Milky," a night of live local hip with underground up-and-comahs such as DJ Eklipz, Abstract Pact, Mpls./St. Paul All Star Freestylers, and Next Born Clan. All ages, 7 p.m., $6. When you add in the Ave.'s ongoing "Live Onstage" DJ showcases, and the daring "Club Half-note" Saturday jazz shows, the Mainroom is becoming the main place to get down... This just in: The Peter Lack Band, with ex-Replacements/Bash and Pop drummer Steve Foley, just changed its name to the numeral 69, possibly the only two-digit band name in the world. The number doesn't stand for how many groups Lack and Foley have played in together, though that's believed to be a number between 6 and 9 (Routine 11, Bang Zoom, Supernaturals, Suprees, etc.). The lineup also features King's English-man Troy Thompson on guitar, and Bitstream Underground demigod Chuck Hermes on bass. 69 plays second on a bill of buzz band's Saturday at 7th Street with Push on Junior (fresh from SXSW), and the long-dormant but always dangerous Coup de Grace. Openers Ether Bunny have a new demo disc. The band is a 12 Rods side-ways project, with the Rods' singer Ryan Olcott on drums, and bassist Matthew Foust on guitar...With 69 on Saturday, this means that three of the best new pop bands in town will be on stage this weekend; Semisonic and T.H.R.U.S.H. share a bill at the 400 Friday night. Call 332-2903. (Hermes/Jim Meyer)
ON THE HOMEFRONT
SHOW US A local band that's not nearly as dumb as they let on, and we'll show you Hammerhead, the trio whose assaults are three parts aural and four parts mental. When these Fargo expatriates moved down here in '91, we imagined them as three quiet, dysfunctional teens out in the cold rural night, desperately trying to knock back every lonely corner of the big Dakota sky. It's a stereotype they seemed to give into with tongues in cheek on their early releases-- the backwoods themes of '93's Ethereal Killers, and the weird sci-fi concept behind '94's Into the Vortex. Not surprisingly, Hammerhead's third Amphetamine Reptile disc inevitably explores the urban realm, and is charmingly titled Duh, the Big City.
It's impossible to listen to Duh and ignore the fact that cofounding guitarist Paul Sanders left the group after recording it: Creative tension makes the disc explosive at times. The guitars are more incendiary than ever (we'll forego the ubiquitous Sonic Youth comparison--Hammerhead is on to something else); the vocals are thankfully refined (you'll even hear a harmony or two), and the lyrics cleverly harp on city slicker tragicomedy. Sanders role-plays a working drudge, screaming, "I work so hard/For television!" before retreating from the big city, and the band itself, in the title-track finale.
Sanders is reportedly working with Silver Salute's Mike Phillips (also a Fargoan) and Gnomes of Zurich drummer Matt Entsminger. Determined Hammerhead survivors Paul Erickson and Jeff Mooridian Jr. are catching raves on their current U.S. tour with new guitarist Craig Klaus (a London native and vet of Texas band Crown Roast). The homecoming gig-cum-Duh release party takes place Friday at 7th St. Entry; Silver Salute, Gnomes, and Trans Am open. $5. 8 p.m. Hammerhead will also perform at Garage D'Or Records, Friday at 4:30 p.m.
As for other new local sludge, Mickey Finn's self-titled sophomore disc marks seven years of underrated partnership between guitarist John Pucci and bassist Dana Cochrane. Mickey Finn builds on the promise of the band's 1993 debut, 3 on a Match, which is still one of the more exciting local noise rock discs; new songs incorporate a perplexing geometric equation that requires every long vocal or guitar hook to be repeated in industrial-strength multiples of four, which makes some songs a tad long (see "Just as They Predicted"). Mickey Finn's at its best, though, when exploiting its male-female vocals (which include those of new drummer Andrew Beccone). The spastic three-way attack is downright vexing on the literal "Sing Diaphragm Round Robin" and demented "Sister Kisser." But when Cochrane sings "I cannot be everything you want me to be" at the end of "Fake it for Now," she suddenly extracts more genuine emotion than the detached genre normally allows.
Back on the Amphetamine Reptile front, the Minneapolis music exodus continues: AmRep publicist Mike Wolf is leaving to start an American office for New Zealand's amazing Flying Nun Records. Last Friday, Wolf happily confided that he's found his dream job with his dream label, and he'll spend a "brainwashing month" Down Under before setting up shop in dreamy Chapel Hill, N.C. alongside the Merge Records/Superchunk folks. Wolf is a survivor of defunct U of M radio station WMMR and First Ave.'s Club 241, and, more recently, Rev-105 and the Polar Bear Club. He brought to these institutions an exquisite underground taste that will be missed.
Lower-case act raintribe, fronted by ex-Paisley Park producer Michael Koppelman, performs at the Red Sea Thursday (333-1644); Tea and Sympathy open the 9 p.m. show to celebrate raintribe's CD, Ancient Spaceman, on the Bitstream Underground Recordings label, a new offshoot of the online service specializing in "alternative music distribution on modes such as the Internet." Out-of-towners gig of the week goes to The Wedding Present, performing with Butterglory Saturday at the Fine Line. The anarchic Presents have always run two or three steps ahead of their Britpop zeitgeist, and Butterglory's a Lawrence, Kansas band that just might renew your faith in Amerindie; their hit "Waiting on the Guns," from their new Mini Plus EP (Cooking Vinyl), even gets covered by The Wedding Present. The always-mutating creative venture that is Mountain Singers opens. 7 p.m.; $8/$10 at the door...
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