Bass Concert Hall, March 25
The pre-Christian Celts believed in a pure immortality of the soul, a spirituality that imbued even the most inanimate and benign objects with great significance. Add that component to the more contemporary Irish propensity to celebrate whatever condition or situation -- no matter how miserable or exuberant -- with music and song and maybe, just maybe, you can begin to understand the Chieftains. On a cold, rainy Tuesday night in Austin, the multi-award-winning Irish sextet played two near-perfect hours of music that drew equally from the far reaches of the ancient Celtic world -- including Spain, Germany, Italy -- as it did from the Rolling Stones (for whom bandleader Paddy Moloney drolly passed on regrets for not attending). That's a hell of a stretch and it illustrates not only the primal senses touched by such music, but also its absolute connection to this moment. For 35 years, Moloney and company have plied their native music with such improvisational panache and dedication that even the most curmudgeonly find the lilts, ballads, and reels irresistible. In a manner more befitting of a comedian, Moloney led his five bandmates through an aural history that seemed to begin in the depths of the Sidhe underworld with the heartbeat of a bodhrán and emerged victorious like warrior troubadours. Along the way, the Chieftains touched their various milestones, taking great pride particularly in the medley of tunes from their most successful album, Long Black Veil (a potent reminder of the link between American country and Celtic music if you've ever heard Don Walser sing that track). Here, they utterly charmed the already rapt audience with snippets of Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" strung together with "The Rocky Road to Dublin," in which they inserted a few bars from "Satisfaction." Tapping into the more recent Santiago, they invited two Spanish guitarists, Diego and Sancho, and a handsome, prodigiously talented piper from Galicia named Carlos Núñez (who all but stole the show) to join them for the remainder of the superb evening. Glorious, magnificent, splendid... words indeed fail the eire anam -- Irish spirit -- the Chieftains bestow upon willing ears. Mánam don sleibh!
-- Margaret Moser
SHUDDER TO THINK, BRAINIAC, SKELETON KEY
Emo's, Wednesday 26
In rock's more conscientious quarters, self-loathing has become a way of life. Colleges overeducate people by the thousands, then leave many of them with nothing to do once they're out but pick up a guitar and start a band -- something they've wanted to do since they were 12 anyway. So what exactly were all those student loans for again? Skeleton Key, for one, cashed them in to bang on things. Inspired by African drum circles and 4am booty calls, these NYC noisemakers beat rock's precious backbeat to a bloody pulp. As Rick Lee whomped on every kind of small metallic item imaginable, from wagons and dishes to gongs and cast-iron doodads, melodies emerged from the oddest places. Riffs and patterns previously stamped "guitar players only" showed up in the rhythm section left and right, all primal percussive power and taunting throb. Middle band Brainiac took a more mocking, sarcastic approach to get the same results. The Dayton, Ohio quartet, visibly peeved at growing up with an Eighties/New Wave puzzling musical asexuality, restructured this most sterile of rock forms into the seediest, smart-person music imaginable. Frontman Tim "Not the Tool Man" Taylor's Moog must have been born out of wedlock; the guitars simply pulled their pants down and peed on everything the Men at Work ethic represents. Then the drums & bass took over, injecting this cerebral music with a stiff shot of hip-hop (and a dash of jungle once or twice), and it was all over. The machines hadn't won, they'd been danced out of town. In celebration, closers Shudder to Think came on with the most guitar-heavy, pop-conscious set of the night. Even so, their shiny, happy tunes served mostly to cover up emotions people usually only confront on the witness stand. Singer Craig Wedren's eyes twitched and darted like something was out to get him, but he wasn't quite sure what. Perhaps that's caution -- they are from D.C. -- but judging from the evening, it was probably that gnawing sense of guilt that comes from having Too Good a Time.
-- Christopher Gray
Hole in the Wall, March 26
When Debbie pours free shots for the band on a sparsely populated Wednesday night at the Hole in the Wall, you know you've stumbled onto something special -- like finding the doughnut shop with the most cops in it. This night's sugar-dusted creampuff was Handful, a five-woman sugar rush careening through an exhaustive set despite the handful in attendance. Handful rematches Meg Hentges Band expatriates Shannon Wade and Lisa Wickware, who both gave that outfit a noble tour of duty before being mysteriously handed honorable discharges. Why Wickware isn't better-known as one of this town's finest metal masters is a mystery. Shyly wagging her Pippi Longstocking locks doesn't exactly showboat her swaggering leads, but she can out-noodle the cockiest. Wade provides a perfect chug-a-lug foil to Wickware's understated grandstanding, sometimes stepping out to match leads note for note. Tallboy/Ursa Major drummer Susie Martinez and bassist Andy Maguire (Ursa Major, ex-Spoon) make like glue and keep it deliciously sticky and gooey. Foxy, dudelike Sara the singer is a rare, unpolished gem (I kept expecting her to grab her family jewels). While the band's affinity for Ozzy is obvious (I cannot recall a Wickware project where she didn't whip out the intro to "Crazy Train" at least once), their mainstay is more Runaways. Late into this night, Handful ran out of songs. The "crowd" would have none of that. In two strokes of genius, the band began "Medusa," an incongruous Girls in the Nose number, replete with two-hands-on-the-neck Wickware pulling off a hysterical neener-neener solo from the icy Eddie Van Halen Age. Ah, nostalgia! But the true treat came when Wickware took chords from the audience (thanks for the F#7, by the way) and composed a ridiculous spot-on metal number right on the spot. Jaegermeister and cruellers for everyone!
-- Kate X Messer
La Zona Rosa, March 27
The history of Austin music is littered with more should-have-beens that didn't and can't-misses who did than your high school hall of fame. Knowing you're history -- the Reivers, True Believers, even the Arc Angels -- will make you temper your enthusiasm with a wee bit of caution. But screw that. Abra Moore is the complete package, the real deal, whatever. Her Edie-Brickell-as-Rickie-Lee-Jones (has anyone come up with a different comparison?) voice is innocent but devastating, rich but controlled, childlike but, thankfully, completely unlike Victoria Williams. She can turn bland folk into something beautifully ethereal and routine rock into, well, something beautifully ethereal. She can on album anyway. Thursday night at La Zona Rosa, it just wasn't clicking. In fact, it was worse than just not clicking -- it was inconsistent. There were moments that were near perfect, like the elevating rhythm and spirituality of "Don't Feel Like Cryin'" from Moore's upcoming Arista Austin release Strangest Places, and moments that were borderline felony, like the violation of the faint shuffle in "Sweet Chariot" by an onslaught of guitar (man, Mitch Watkins can play, but sometimes he needs not to play). Inconsistency was a bigger sin than plain ol' mediocrity, because it means there were moments when it was all there, which of course begs the question: Why can't it be there all the time? Moore and band would stumble across it for a little bit, then lose it for a song or two. It was frustrating. And being frustrated is worse than being disappointed, as disappointment is just a function of expectations. -- Michael Bertin
SURVIVAL RESEARCH LABORATORIES
Longhorn Speedway, March 28
Right now, somewhere in Austin, a dumpster fire rages on and nobody's paying $15 to see it. But call a less stimulating fire Survival Research Laboratories, and you've got an "event" that somehow tries to lend punk credibility to a glorified truck & tractor pull. In reality, SRL founder Mark Pauline is just a punk P.T. Barnum, hawking fireworks and scrap metal as "freedom," "chaos theory," and "social eradication." Don't believe the hype. First, SRL organizers apparently chose not to believe the lines and continued to sell walk-up tickets despite a two-hour, thousand-person queue. By the time the crowd finally got in, and found the lack of seating, music, and security, it was obvious Pauline's idea of "freedom" is freeing fans of $15, and local spokesperson Gibby Haynes of some credibility. As for the "danger" that Pauline implied the crowd would be submitting themselves to, there was more risk of having the Longhorn Speedway's dilapidated wooden bleachers cave in than in being struck in the eye by the 50cents fireworks the SRL crew used as the show's centerpiece. And if Pauline really had Altamont-style danger in mind, he would've opened a post-show refund booth and watched the rush of thousands. Sure, there was the promised fire, but blowtorches on plywood hardly qualifies as creative arson. And the robots? More Sanford & Son than Star Wars. They were just bit players, anyway -- props that ripped and tore at inanimate objects. The blender in your kitchen will eventually knock into your toaster if you let it run long enough. Ultimately, all the talk of "You won't see this for another 10 years," made sense; it'll take that long before we forget that this traveling scam is in reality less exciting than most Saturday morning toy commercials. SRL's real lesson?: Not only is yelling fire in a crowded theater criminal, so's having people pay to watch a dumpster fire in an overcrowded speedway. SRL? So Really Lame.... -- Andy Langer