North by Northwest, Portland, Oregon, October 16-18
It's smugly satisfying when, as you review a weekend as full of great music as was this year's North by Northwest conference in Portland, you realize the best stuff you saw came from your home town. Catching Pat MacDonald playing solo acoustic at the Mt. Tabor Pub, I'm glad I had my Portlander hosts in tow, because everyone was mightily impressed. MacDonald's unmistakable voice was in perfect form, the slightly nasal-drawl infused, haunting tunes like "To Track You Down" and "Turn on Me" with a visceral resonance that accompanies such instinctive songwriting. Indeed, every selection from Pat MacDonald Sleeps With His Guitar smacks of a master comfortable with his craft. His lyrical wit is matched only by his understated charisma as a one-man-band of sorts: He plays guitar and harmonica while stomping a metronomic left foot on a miked steel pad for a contagious percussive effect (if only he had cymbals between his knees and a horn under his right foot...). After this, it seemed the highly touted Pete Krebs (whose Golden Delicious, a roots-bluegrass-rock band, put on a stellar show the following night) was just going through the motions. The non-Austin highlight of the weekend came Friday and made me think that maybe Roppolo's on Sixth Street wouldn't be such a bad venue for SXSW. Crammed into a back corner of Rocco's Pizza with about 15 other people, Faster Tiger, a Seattle trio, romped their way through a brilliant set of riffed-out pop songs, the bass and drum work providing the most fluid rhythm section evinced all weekend. By the time they broke into their version of "Any Way You Want It" (yes, Journey), both the pizzeria and the surrounding sidewalk were at capacity. The Cavity Search Records showcase closed the night with the totally competent Tupelo-mimicry of Richmond Fontaine and Krebs' Golden Delicious. Danny Barnes played Saturday, a solo-acoustic set of Bad Livers and gospel numbers, reminding me just how much I miss watching him pick. The weekend's highlight came Thursday, though, in another venue that made me long for the spaciousness of the Hole in the Wall. The Adults played Umbra Penumbra, a somewhat puny coffee shop where you had to get a key from the counter attached to a big flat tin plate to use the bathroom. At the outset -- immediately following a super sax-ual Superego -- the room was sparsely populated. Enticed by the pounding antics spilling out onto the sidewalk, however, it wasn't long before random passersby eventually shouldered their way in to see the Adults put on a set that almost felt too good for the place; shit, they didn't even serve beer at this place. And this is Portland! No matter. After this show, surely they'll score a slot at Rocco's next year. -- Christopher Hess
Electric Lounge, October 21/ Hole in the Wall, October 26
Isn't it great that MTV is giving Austin so much national exposure these days? Used to be an Austin band could blow up the Capitol Records building and not get a single blurb in Billboard. Now, between Austin Stories and thousands of screaming Sugar Ray fans in Zilker Park, we're getting more national face time than Elton John. And thank God. If anyone needs national exposure, it's Austin bands like the Mittens, whose personal vision is totally unrelated to all this corporate carpetbagging. A band that can generate as many eloquent phrases and nicely measured guitar choruses as the Mittens did at the Electric Lounge -- to a virtually empty room -- is simply worth its weight in gold wallet chains. There's nothing particularly slanted or enchanted about the way they sound; they're not as rowdy as the Grifters or as stringent as Silkworm, but they have the same kind of flickering incandescence onstage -- the knowing visages of a band for whom the songs come first. "This is our second time in six months to play this song," said their guitarist a few days later at the Hole in the Wall's Sunday night Free for All. "I think it's in D. Well, 90% of it is in D." It was, too -- and still better than 90% of Harmacy. And it wasn't just Sebadoh this local quartet were schooling; a good bit of the CMJ chart would be lucky to write such tersely appealing material. Sometimes it was clear the Mittens had something up their sleeves (Replacements, Flaming Lips), but never very much and never for very long. At the Free for All, they made their bid to join the growing ranks of Austin bands (Superego, Silver Scooter, Ursa Major, Trail of Dead, Adults, etc.) that are simply too good to share with the rest of America. "How about a hand for the Mittens?" said emcee Paul Minor at the conclusion of their set. "This was their first Free for All, but it's sure not their last." Best of all, MTV was nowhere in sight.
-- Christopher Gray
Hole in the Wall, October 23
Perhaps the proximity to Halloween explains why the Doenuts were trying on so many outfits last Thursday at the Hole in the Wall. Not content to draw from one type of rock and embellish that, they took a little bit of everything: Tex-Mex bounce, rockabilly, East Village noise, power indie pop, Detroit proto-punk, fist-pumping classic rock, New Wave, metal, and a straight-up cover of George Jones' "Tennessee Whiskey." At their best, this local group ingests the tangled ball of roots rock & roll and coughs it up like a hairball in the audience's face, blending style and substance until they are virtually indistinguishable. Sometimes, it was too much to swallow, and they wound up gasping for air. It was a bit of an off night, anyway, starting when the guitar player's amp blew before he even played a note. It was a bit spatially incongruous, too; the singers, who are female, and the players, who are male, sometimes seemed to be playing off -- not with -- one another (at least they have enough juice to handle two frontpeople). If they could bring the same kind of definition to their songs, Austin could find itself with a band on par with Boss Hog or Free Kitten. -- Christopher Gray
Stubb's, October 26
So the first six and a half hours of Beeblefest were as well-attended as a Saturday night band rehearsal. So what? It's only the first year for the Gourds' multi-band soiree, and yet all you ingrates got so swollen with stadium dogs and lite beer that you had to go home and take a nap before finally showing up late. For those of us into this kind of thing (and it was an intimate group all afternoon), the lineup was nearly perfectly chosen for the country-cult variety. The Diaz Brothers (a Prescott Curlywolf off-shoot) kicked things off, followed by the Damnations, who were overtly giddy from their three-day victorious sweep of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Kick-ass hour was granted by his holiness, Mr. Jon Dee Graham. Sorry for the old memories, but I haven't felt that spiritual about a song like Graham's "Place in the Shade" since I was 17 and at the Erwin Center crying at the end of Bruce Springsteen's "Drive All Night." And then came the "nearly" qualification mentioned earlier: The Skeletons from St. Louis were, well, let's call it a challenge for the sensibilities. One festival-goer dubbed them "middle-aged men playing middle-aged music." And then he defended their schtick as concept. I disagree. Try singing all the parts to Tristan and Isolde dressed as both sides of Bruce Todd's face while smoking a bone on stage -- that's a concept (and still not a very good one). Speaking of smokin', Tiny Town came all the way from New Orleans -- from the ashes of the Subdudes -- to play a hefty show that needed a hefty crowd. Unfortunately, most of you didn't get your asses off the couch. You showed up for the Gourds and the Old 97s, so we put up with your beer breath and hot dog farts in the interest of rustling up the dust to the bluegrass/Cajun/country sass of the Gourds and the Old 97s pulling chainsaws in the woodshed. The real celebration, however, began late in the evening, inside, long after you'd already gone home, when the Damnations and members of Prescott Curlywolf joined the Gourds for drunken renditions of Aerosmith and Green Day songs. Next year, don't be such a pussy.
-- Louisa C. Brinsmade
USTAD ASAD ALI KHAN
UT Bates Recital Hall, October 26
The Indian Classical Music Circle of Austin (ICMCA) added to their excellent track record of presenting the River City with first-rate artistic talent from the deep pool of Indian classical music by presenting Ustad Asad Ali Khan in a concert co-sponsored by the Center for Asian Studies at UT. Ustad Ali Khan, whose family traces their musical tradition back to the 17th century, is the undisputed master and one of the few remaining performers of the rudra veena, one of India's oldest and most respected instruments. The precursor to the more famous sitar, the rudra veena's mythical reference is to the god Lord Shiva, who is said to have crafted the instrument as a reflection of his beautiful consort Parvati -- her breasts and graceful arms, anyway. The instrument, with two beach-ball sized gourds on either end of a three-feet-long hollow and highly figured wooden neck, produces otherworldly notes, drones, and soulful overtones. The frets on the instrument are so high that the player can bend and pull the strings to get any possible pitch; this freedom permits the artist to expand and twist phrases to convey their full emotional weight. In the hands of a maestro such as Ali Khan, and in the acoustically friendly interior of the Bates Recital Hall, the effect was deeply moving. The nearly three-hour long concert (Ali Khan's first local appearance) featured music of the dhrupad style, a more contemplative and serious manner of playing than the khyal style, the more modern and well-known of the two Hindustani (North Indian) styles. The first piece showcased Ali Khan's strength -- subtle meditative solo playing that reflected the deepest parts of the soul and highlighted the lightest emotions; if you need a visual reference, think of riding a train through the Indian countryside as morning becomes day. While not in a train nor in India, the audience responded with polite, attentive fascination. Before the show, Ali Khan said he felt like a bird; following his lead, the crowd entertained thoughts of flying. All in all, an emotional ride on seven strings. -- David Lynch