A bicycle shop isn’t the first place one might think to find a great rock & roll performance, but in a town like Austin, every building is a potential music club. Such was the case with Mellow Johnny’s this year, as the store turned its display floor over to Seattle public/internet radio station KEXP for its annual SXSW broadcast. This morning showcased Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 in one of a dozen shows (some as the Baseball Project with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck) the band would play over the course of the festival. A Wynn show is always an event, not only because of the man’s inestimable songwriting talent and the amazing chemistry he has with guitarist Jason Victor, bassist Dave DeCastro and drummer Linda Pitmon (easily his best band ever, and that’s no knock on the Dream Syndicate), but because when you see these folks in action, you’re seeing musicians who live to play. At 12:30 p.m. the band could’ve just phoned it in and been forgiven, but instead the quarter rocked its mixture of new tunes (“Consider the Source,” “Resolution”) and Miracle 3 classics (“Death Valley Rain,” “Cindy, It Was Always You,” the always amazing “Amphetamine”) into the ground. Victor attacked his Jazzmaster (and pedals and amp) with loving ferocity, while Wynn directed the action with an enthusiastic smile. They played for only half an hour, but there’s no way anyone could walk away from this blowout feeling cheated.
From there it was on to the Gingerman pub, for a day show featuring one of Wynn’s contemporaries. Richard Barone hadn’t released a solo record in over a decade when he put out the excellent Glow (produced by Tony Visconti) last year, and he’s making up for lost time with a series of performances at SXSW this year. Accompanied by violinist Deni Bonet, Barone surveyed his catalog with Glow songs and what a DJ would call deep catalog items. Stripping down the chamber pop of “Feel a Falcon,” “I Belong to Me” (from his classic solo debut Cool Blue Halo) and “To the Pure…” (a Primal Dream song Barone described as the running theme of his autobiography Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth) and the power pop of Bongos tunes “Tiger Nights” and “Numbers With Wings” (complete with its iconic e-bow intro – I didn’t know you could do that with an acoustic guitar) played up the sweet but sturdy melodies that have always powered his work; Glow songs “Radio Silence,” the title track and the spectacular “Gravity’s Pull” fit right in. Bonet was a marvel, the perfect balance of taste and grandiosity, and Barone’s ageless voice was the whipped cream on top of the sundae. It was immediately clear that these two old friends love playing together.
For a somewhat incongruous side trip, Barone invited Vanessa Hay, erstwhile frontperson of the much-beloved Athens (Georgia) indie rock pioneer Pylon, up for a cover of that band’s “Cool.” It came off as pretty atonal compared to Barone’s songs, but that’s true to the Pylon aesthetic. Still, coming near but not at the end, it felt like a bizarre digression, breaking the show’s flow.
From acoustic pop delicacy to electric power: next on my agenda was a visit to the Spider House for the Cynics. Though the “garage rock” tag continues to dog the Pittsburgh quartet, the band has progressed well beyond any easy tags by simply writing excellent, catchy songs and performing them with energy and power. Augmented by Ugly Beats leader Joe Emery on 12-string guitar, the group surprisingly highlighted its folk rock side, reminding all and sundry that gorgeous pop songs like “Circles, Arcs and Swirls” are as much a part of the Cynics legacy as scorchers like “Yeah” and “Baby, What’s Wrong.” Flamboyant frontperson Michael Kastelic, who could’ve been a glam metal singer in a former life, was in fine form, vocally powerful, perpetually wild-eyed and disinclined to simply stand on stage where there was all those people in the crowd to play with. The band ended its fine set with an audience request, its rocking take on the Paragons‘ delightfully silly “I Saw ABBA.”
One of the remarkable things about the free shows around SXSW is the likelihood of seeing in a small place an act capable of filling up bigger venues. So it was with The Soundtrack of Our Lives, a frequent SXSW attendee who also took the stage at Spider House (after passing up a more lucrative offer, or so the host claimed). Promoting its new best-of collection Golden Greats Vol.1, the Swedish sextet quickly dominated the room with its psychedelic rock & roll anthems. Setting a titanic tone by opening with “Firmament Vacation,” the band surveyed its startlingly consistent catalog with the skill of veterans and the enthusiasm of newbies. From recent songs like “Thrill Me” and “Second Life Replay” to classics like “Sister Surround” and “Instant Repeater ’99” and deep cuts like “Confrontation Camp” and “Galaxy Gramophone,” the band was firmly in command of its vast talent and didn’t mind letting everyone know it. Ending with the crowd-requested encore “Mantra Slider,” TSOOL burned and shined.
Following a palette-cleansing set at Headhunters by the Main Street Gospel, a psych/classic rock band which must stand out like the proverbial sore thumb in its punk/indie-loving hometown of Columbus, Ohio, it was time for some local flavor with Churchwood. The mutant blues quintet is made up of Austin music veterans, including Crackpipes guitarist Billy Steve Korpi, but the axis is guitarist Bill Anderson and singer Joe Doerr, who worked together a lifetime ago in the River City acts Ballad Shambles and Hand of Glory. Churchwood has little in common with the pair’s prior heavy rock adventures, taking the early Delta blues-inspired work of Captain Beefheart as its primary inspiration and going from there. Despite having two hotshot axe-slingers in the lineup, the music mostly eschews the guitar solos that dominate the Austin blues rock scene and instead weaves a tapestry of interlocking, complimentary riffs and jazzy grooves over which Doerr (a poetry professor) rants and rumbles with his baritone growl. “Rimbaud Diddley,” “Metatonia” and “Lived Ill Weed Eye” would probably baffle the average Stevie Ray Vaughan fan, but they’re shots across the bow of a mordant local roots rock scene.
Afterward I headed once again to the Billboard-sponsored showcase at Buffalo Billiards, arriving just in time for Screaming Females. I’d read the name but knew nothing about this New Jersey trio and was thus completely unprepared for this performance. With her black funeral dress, diminutive size and perpetual scowl, bandleader Marissa Paternoster looked like Mattie Ross (the heroine of the recent True Grit remake) with a Stratocaster, but her strident howl and oft-stunning virtuosity belie her modest exterior. While certainly a speed demon on the fretboard, she’s not really a shredder – she avoids tapping, doesn’t bother with a whammy bar and the band’s sound isn’t remotely metal. But she’s definitely an old-school guitar hero, likely to be worshipped by guitar magazines before her band signs its first major label deal. (Not that the band needs one, having already released four LPs on indie labels.) With a skilled, nimble rhythm section backing her, Paternoster rips riffs, chords and solos from her axe with furious intensity, coming to the edge of technical bombast but always just pulling back from it. Besides, tunes like “Bell” and “I Don’t Mind It” possess enough melody to justify the guitar godliness.
That eye-opening show was followed by another that was, if anything, even more spectacular. The Joy Formidable was the closest thing to a buzz band I saw this time out, as the Welsh trio played to a house packed with fans and the curious. After an unusually long set-up (apparently the venue had no idea what to do with an in-ear monitoring system), the band exploded out of the gate like a rocket held down after it had already begun to combust. Sitting somewhere between the towering shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine and the punk-infused guitar rock of the Pixies, the JF erected huge edifices of guitar noise and singalong choruses, only to kick them to pieces like a disgruntled toddler destroying a sand castle. Guitarist Ritzy Bryan was a perfect frontperson, all smiles and bright blue crazy eyes between songs, but a stunningly intense performer once the song began. Her chemistry with bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas, all silly grins, knowing looks and constant bouncing of ideas, made the band a joy to watch – clearly they love what they do. It’s a simple formula – burying simple, soaring pop melodies under a metric ton of effects pedals, reverb and feedback – but on “Cradle” and “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” it all sounded fresh and new. Ending the set with the astonishing melodic noise anthem “Whirring,” band and crowd communed in a frenzy of pogoing, hand-waving and high-volume joy. Wow!
Given the unenviable task of directly following the Joy Formidable, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart could only disappoint. The New York quintet’s catchy alt.rock isn’t bad at all, but after the JF’s masterful display, it just couldn’t rate. But the band did serve as a palette-cleanser for A Place to Bury Strangers, which is arguably the NYC version of what JF does. APtBS prefers a sheet-metal guitar sound that’s very American to the more luscious tones of its U.K. counterparts, giving its psychedelic shoegaze a dark tone, like the Warlocks without any sense of restraint. With guitarist Oliver Ackerman using his guitar mostly as a controller for his effects pedals and amp feedback, the trio built its cathedrals of sound on harsh shimmers and wild passion. If I have any criticism of the group, it’s that in the context of a live show where nearly every song ends with guitarist Ackerman throwing his Jazzmaster in the air and the noise building to ear-bleeding proportions, it becomes difficult to tell tunes like “Deadbeat” and “Exploding Head” apart. That said, it’s hard to argue with the band’s power, and any day that ends in a hail of screaming amplifiers and dying guitar pickups is a good day.