I headed out on Thursday at SXSW with a sketchy plan: A) Check out an afternoon set at the Pitchfork party by Car Seat Headrest, the wunderkind songwriter who released 11 albums on Bandcamp under that name before graduating from college, and who I had an interview scheduled with that you'll get to read when he comes to Philadelphia to play the Non-Comm convention in May, and B) Don't miss Loretta Lynn, who was kicking off a BBC sponsored showcase at Stubb's BBQ.
Everything else was see-what-happens, and as tends to at SXSW, plenty did. The schedule was running behind, so at Barricuda - the former Red 7, if you're a veteran Austin music goer and you're keeping score at home - I caught bits of two acts before Car Seat come on: rugged Canadian melodic punk band White Lung, fronted by singer Mish Barber-Way, and sly North Londoner rapper Little Simz, born Simbi Ajikawo. Both worthy of further investigation.
Car Seat Headrest, the nom de rock of Will Toledo, the 23 year old native Virginian now based in Seattle who is a homemade songwriting wiz with a sound that reaches back to '90s acts like Pavement and Beck, but which, he explained after the show, really pulls from those bands predecessors, specifically The Beatles, The Who and Pink Floyd.
In the fifth of his 10 shows in town, he fronted a taut quartet - also called Car Seat Headrest, a reference to the family Subaru where he would set up to record vocals as a teenager - that convincingly made the transition from low-fi one man show to a full band aesthetic.
After talking with the soft spoken and smart Toledo at Easy Tiger, a bakery and bar that, like every other suitable space in Austin this week, has temporarily morphed into a music venue, I walked out into the street and heard a siren's call. It turned out to be Lydia Loveless, the Columbus, Ohio country punk singer who was playing across the street at Gatsby's, an outdoor venue that this week is Internet radio service Pandora's 'Discovery Den.' I heard to two songs, full throated and rocked out, but moving toward an uncompromised mainstream sound that hinted at Fleetwood Mac.
Public service announcement: For a look at most of the band's I'm mentioning, go to my Instagram @delucadan.
On from there to see what was going on at the Austin Convention Center. On the International Day, it was Rozi Plain, pristine folk with acoustic guitar, drums and a hint of electronics. Quiet, calming, maybe a bit unsettling under the surface. i planned on sticking around for the Dubiova Kolektiv from Sarajevo, but they took forever to set up.
Next! That turned out to be The DMAs on the Radio Day stage, where Philadelphia's WXPN will be one of the sponsors of a show beginning at 1 p.m. Friday live streamed on the VuHaus viewing platform that will include Spanish quartet Hinds and Brooklyn duo Lucius. The DMAs are an Australian pop rock band that lacked grit and whose two songs i heard weren't enough to keep me in the room. Unfair, but: Next!
I went strolling down the corridor looking for a panel called 'Goodbye to You Tunes? Tech's Race To ave Music.' Sounded interesting, but i never found it. Dropped into 'Music Industry Indicators and Other Fun with Data' but it was deathly boring. Kept browsing and stumbled upon Under The Big Black Sun: A Conversation with John Doe and Mike Watt.
A winner for sure, it found the two original California punk pioneers - Doe with X, Watt with The Minutemen - talking with Tom DeSavia, who co-wrote the UTBBS book, that collects personal essays from denizens of the scene that was also the focus of Penelope Spheeris' documentary The Decline of Western Civilization.
Persevering, broad minded punks Doe and Watt are both thoughtful, well spoken raconteurs, with stories to tell in a conversation that touched on rockabilly, Beat poetry, Little Richard and Walt Whitman.
Best moments, maybe. Watt on hardcore punk: "If you've got a curious mind, it gets a little tired." And Doe talking about the rage and nastiness that would sometimes emerge in the scene, when anti-racist and anti-rape songs would get misinterpreted by intolerant elements as having the opposite message: "It's when people get pushed to a certain place, and they say, 'I don't like that.' or: 'I don't like you.' Kind of like what's happening now in the Presidential race."
Okay, to the hotel to charge the phone, and regroup. Time for dinner? Nope. Back to Stubb's BBQ to grab a pork sandwich and Fritos - they seem to love Fritos down here - and get a good spot for Loretta. Speaking of the Presidential race, did she talk about supporting Donald Trump, as many have already asked me? No, and she didn't dedicate "Fist City" to him either.
The 83 year old country maverick did come out looking resplendent in a sparkly red gown, and she sounded great on everything from "If You're Looking At Me, You're Looking At Country" to Patsy Cline's "She's Got You." Punk rock moment: After a few songs, Lynn took a seat at stage center on a chair with her name spelled out in rhinestones on the back. One of her guitar players asked her if she now didn't want to do "Everything It Takes," her terrific duet with Elvis Costello, from Full Circle, the album she was in town to promote?
"No," she replied, she didn't. The band started to play it anyway, and while noted that they don't listen to anything she says, she simply sat there and refused to sing the song. Sorry, Loretta Lynn's band, you don't make the set list. She (wonderfully) sang her flinty "Everybody Wants To Go Heaven" instead. (Later, after her daughter came out to sway her, she relented and served up "Everything It Takes." followed by "Coal Miner's Daughter." After which she exited regally, blowing kisses to the crowd.
Where to next? I contemplated L.A. country rocker Sam Outlaw at Gatsby's, and while the song I heard from outside seemed perfectly fine, i did an about face and acted on a tip from Car Seat Headrest to see Julien Baker, the young singer from Memphis, Tenn., who he had played with the previous and, he said, resembled Jeff Buckley, but musically and physically.
Okay, I'll bite. Though the battle through the drunken St. Patrick's crowds on Sixth Street made me question my sanity. It's a moment every SXSW goer has with increasing frequency: My God, this place is nasty, brutish and smelly. What am I doing here?
Getting inside the second floor band room at The Parish provided the answer. Baker has a ghostly, powerful voice that quietly soars, and she makes solo electric music that was compelling and beautiful on first listen. She joked that the disco ball swirling around her made for winning counterpoint to the sadness of her songs. Then she did a cover of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" that absolutely floored me. Bravo!
Sorry, this is getting long. Cut to the chase, DeLuca! I planned my next move on the go and headed to Russian House, where there was a bill of bands from all around the world, none of whom I had ever heard of. the winner was Chirkutt, from Dhaka, Bangladesh, the first band fro their country to ever play SXSW. Armed with an electric sitar, six string banjo, pounding rock drums, violin and male and female ululating vocalists, it was at once exotic and strangely reminiscent of bluegrass and rural American mountain music. Also: An international crowd, and not a hipster or a drunken frat boy in sight.
My pal Trip texted me and told me the line looked too long to get in to see Dion at the tiny Victorian Room at the historic Driskill Hotel, so I blew that off and saw New Jersey American band Pinegrove at the Dirty Dog. Affecting, impressive stuff, though the audience's attention to the stage was distracted by the TV screens showing not NCAA tournament games but soft core porn cable TV movies. I guess they don't call it the Dirty Dog for nothing.
Back to Barracuda for a second go round, with L.A. trio garage rock trio Bleached. A good, giddy choice, made even better because the club's adjacent indoor room had Marlon Williams, a New Zealand country-noir singer who made most effective moody sounds leading up to the women of Bleached.
Phew! Tired yet? Not really. With one more goal in mind, I headed to the Mohawk - the Red River club near where the car crash into a SXSW crowd resulted in several deaths two years ago, which has resulted in way more barricades on the streets and a still notable heightened police presence - to catch Anderson .Paak, the Dr. Dre protege of sorts from Oxnard, California whom I have to see before I leave town.
Sorry, the huge line outside wasn't moving, and his set had already begun. Will have to try again Friday night. I elected to not join my friends in eating disgusting looking fried food truck catfish, or go see deranged rapper Kool Keith at Sledge Hammer and head home instead, so I would have the energy to write this in the morning. The thanks I got for that came in the form of a text message that, never mind Kool Keith, Shinobi Ninja, the Brooklyn rapper who preceded him on stage, was "fairly spectacular."
Dang! I should never have gone to bed..