A million voices rising up from Red River
99 dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon.
It's all over and I'm standing pretty
In this dust that was a city.
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here.
Nena, "99 Luftballoons"
On May 7, Austin went to the polls, and 52% of voters registered in favor of a citywide smoking ban. Many local club owners and music lovers, especially those for whom the lifeblood of the Austin music scene stems from the DIY aesthetic of Red River, shuddered when the results came in. Was this an outright attack on the live music venues of our city? Was this the end of a fertile breeding ground where musicians young and old tune their creativity? Most businesses that still permit smoking are either bars or live music venues, Red River rock havens like Room 710, Red Eyed Fly, Beerland, etc., businesses with nonexistent profit margins easily affected by any change.
Two months away from the ban's institution, on this same strip where club owners are still considering their nonsmoking options, the local music scene has never been so rich. Oversaturated with bands of every genre rock & roll, punk, post-rock, experimental, country, jazz, metal, you name it Red River is alive. For six weeks (as opposed to "31 Nights"), mid-May to the end of June, we took the scene's pulse. Ninety-nine bands from Austin, San Marcos, and San Antonio. Not all of them masterpieces, not all of them inspiring awe, not a one of them anything less than rock & roll.
Veterans and Newborns
Who best represents Red River? There is, of course, no single answer, but Austin's Single Frame is a singular place to start. Art rock: static TVs, glowing traffic cones, paranoid projections, all on the tiny Emo's indoor stage. Simple, exact, and bassy, the trio's harmonies lend a different attitude to each song. When drummer Adreon Henry pulls out an old typewriter, all rules are broken. Because that's what Single Frame does.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are bands fresh out of the garage, rough edges blaring and ego intact. Beerland has a well-earned reputation for being a young act incubator, and on the second night of this odyssey, three of the newest try out their wares. Parque Touch starts out the night, their first show. Another trio drums, guitar, and vox in dire need of some low-end, but yes, they'll touch you. The Tigers follow, five youngsters with a flailing, screeching female fronting the chaotic jumble of instruments, not one of them the lead. The closest thing is former Jeww Omari Yoshihiro's drums, balancing out the piercing screams at the mic.
Last is Peach Train, a hot-shit quartet with Mudhoney and Nation of Ulysses whispers. Ari Audrey sings only between history lessons, and with youth comes drama. Lucas Anderson, Parque Touch's guitarist: "Shut up!"
Audrey: "I'm sorry?"
Anderson: "Play the next song, man!"
Audrey: "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm gonna have to ask you to leave. Because, as you can see, we're on stage, and you're not."
With that, Anderson packs up his gear and exits the club.
It Takes a Village
Regardless of lifespan, most bands come together to form as tight-knit a family as many have ever known. In that sense, the Red River music scene is much more than an industry. It's a community. Bouncing from club to club, every stripe represents. In one night alone, a million voices sing.
Doug Ferguson stands on the Emo's stage, atypically backed by a full band. Better known for his Theremin leads and solo performances, Ferguson comes with guitar in hand tonight. A Lynchian sound and look. Twenty minutes later, Rubble stands behind a gauze scrim. Butthole Surfer King Coffey beats like the devil, and despite a last-minute bassist switch, the psych-metal storm blows everyone away. Meanwhile, down the street at Room 710, Amplified Heat is bending strings. Three Latino brothers, two Fender stacks, and more testosterone than Vin Diesel. Not sure any threepiece needs that much amplification, but hell, it sure blows your hair back. At Emo's, A Five and Dime Ship begins to rock in waves until the entire bar is asleep. Instrumental bands are multiplying, but that remains a risky proposition. Lyrics add layers, and without them, a band is naked.
Elysium is home to the dark and unusual, but this Friday is an exception. Local rock quartet the Action Is steps up first. They rock harder live than on disc, as most Red River acts do, but the words "Corporate Aspirin" leave a metallic taste behind. The Black Novas are what the Action Is wants to be: balls-out, kick-your-heels-up rock & roll. Next door at Beerland, the Innocent fuzz out, but Echo & the Bunnymen worshippers might only sound right in Liverpool.
The next night, La La Land plays crystalline indie pop, and from where the petite bassist Ruby Painter stands on the 710 stage, the future looks blinding. Or is that the house lights? Across the street, the Whale Trio is just getting started at Beerland. Not at their typical joint, the jazz trio has just enough groove to make it not freaky. Squeak toys, bells, and other things that would only be seen if the bassist turned around.
Opposite Day sets up at 710. If this truly were opposite day, they would mesh funky basslines, spurts of guitar, monotone lyrics, and hilarity. Sadly for this trio, it's not. Numbers on the Mast make a save at Beerland. From airplane hangars to gurgling creeks, NOTM build on every last sound, sometimes background, sometimes deafening. Back at 710, the Midgetmen create a cranky din. Although not punk rock by a length, the fourpiece won't hesitate to remind you that they were voted second-best punk rock band in the Austin Music Awards.
The Cream of the Crop
Record releases at Emo's are a dime a dozen, but this Thursday shines with power-pop brightness. The surreal experience of walking into a room while four grown men in shag-cut wigs and brown suits sing Beatles songs altered to their taste is unlike any other. The Dung Beatles close with a silly rendition of "Please Mr. Postman," and the crowd is enamored. What Made Milwaukee Famous can't quite compete with their humor, regardless of their name, but they've swiftly become one of Austin's best indie rock bands, deftly balancing melody with muscle. WMMF proves that their label-scout attention is warranted.
Here's a tip for all of you showgoers. When a man gets onstage with nothing but an acoustic guitar, don't elbow your way to the front of the audience only to converse with your neighbor. Please, shut the fuck up! That's what the courtyard is for. Regardless of the immense din of juvenile chatter interrupting the set, Britt Daniel lays down song after song of perfectly crafted indie rock, some tunes off Spoon's ridiculously good Gimme Fiction LP, some older tracks, and a handful of covers. Time for Sally Crewe & the Sudden Moves. The recent Austin transplant and her twinsy band members, decked out in pilot gear complete with wings and stripes, drop the new Shortly After Take-Off, a haphazard mix of candy pop and twee bop. Crewe leads the band through a strangely weighted set, belting out the numbers often off-key as Britt lovers file out of the room.
The vacuumlike rush of people to the Emo's mainstage on Tuesday night as the Riverboat Gamblers go on is meteorological: One moment they're milling around the courtyard or in front of the bleachers; the next they're front and center. Singer Mike Wiebe dangles from the rafters, and people old enough to know better instinctively start moshing to gale-force punk. Stuck in the uncomfortable opening slot, the Arm squeezes 45 minutes of declamatory agitpop into a half hour; the hyper-rhythmic, twitchy music both obscures and highlights Sean O'Neal's cultivated frontman indifference.
And there it is, seven days in May. Just a taste, just a dent, just the beginning.
Wednesday, June 8
23: Stories From the Frontier
Accessible California pop fed through an Earlimart filter. A sixpiece including violin that isn't afraid to plug a guitar solo or four into their formulaic songs.
24: The Shim Shams
An English beat trio reminiscent of the Peenbeets. Happy, silly, and energetic, decked out in minidress and checkered ties and hats.
25: Girls in a Coma
God-awful, all-girl San Antonio trio that would make Morrissey cry in his pillow with their nasally rendition of "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want."
26: The Transgressors
When Chad Nichols hits the perfect mix of Social Distortion, Johnny Cash, and Nick Cave, it's mesmerizing.
27: The Cooties
A cutesy trio more Shaggs than Ramones, the Cooties used to be the Butchers. Simplicity is bliss.
28: Our Black Love Song
Fans of Orgy rejoice! OBLS loves some mood lighting, gel, and black eyeliner. Somebody get that keyboardist a swivel stand!
Thursday, June 9
29: Leaving July
A white-belted screamo fourpiece that knows the power of a sing-along.
The vein-popping emocore troupe mixes hardcore with some pretty bits.
31: Near Miss
Harder than Leaving July, but still screamo. "I'm the only white kid in the front," the guitarist jokes. "It's like football all over again."
Emo's Caritas benefit continues with old-school Mexican metal played like Metallica used to play. Ferocious.
33: Born to Lose
Rancid/Operation Ivy rock, and everyone knows all the words. Who can resist a nostalgic cover of "Ace of Spades"?
34: Warwulf 35: In Praise of Folly
Four bands, two venues, two hours, and they all sound the same. Hardcore fans will surely disagree. Warwulf, In Praise of Folly, and Games & Theory all play the Caritas benefit at Emo's. While G&T incorporates actual music into their set, there's just no excuse for this much testosterone. The Dailys headline at Beerland; repeat prior sentences, and add a smoke machine.
Friday, June 10
38: Tia Carrera 39: Cue 40: I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness
Improv trio Tia Carrera warms up a mixed Emo's crowd with the hard ebb and flow of stoner jams, incorporating guest Dan Muldoon's oud, which is completely drowned out. Cue follows with an Explosions in the Sky formula, adding in violin as the lead instrument. I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness headlines, less moody this time around, but tight and dark as usual.
Saturday, June 11
41: The Dakota Building
First-time Tuxedo Killers offshoot the Dakota Building likes a dose of noise with their Beerland punk rock, while the Kodiaks' freak-out punk is more subdued than usual. San Antonio headliners Skullening get better with every show, kicking off their tour with anti-guitar.
Sunday, June 12
The artsy dance-punk trio switches instruments almost as frequently as drummer Toto Miranda's other band, the Octopus Project.
Wednesday, June 15
45: Pocket Symphonies
Elton John pop as theatrical as it is confusing. That drummer just loves to twirl his sticks. Too bad his catch is off.
46: Molly & the Hatchets
Classic, sloppy rock & roll quartet from San Marcos fronted by Molly and her opera vox. Mötley Crüe they aren't.
47: Youngmond Grand
Melodic indie rock rising from the wreckage of Spacetruck and exploding in spurts of volcanic cinder. Twinkling guitar lines offset the intensity.
48: This Will Destroy You
A post-electronic instrumental fourpiece from San Marcos that worships at the altar of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but with laptops. With crescendos and valleys that will make you cry, their power is in the measures.
49: Mr. Lewis & the Funeral Five
Mr. Lewis leads the most unique band in Austin. Blending polka with psychobilly all fronted by a modern Frank Sinatra, the Five transcend categorization.
50: Naptown Amplifier Co.
After a short hiatus, this Austin trio presents their 18-song LP, which they play in its entirety. A Sonic Youth/GBV blend whose vocals could use some honey.
51: Condition of Sale
Generic trio of low-end lovers. Fans of QOTSA and the Stones.
Thursday, June 16
52: Quien 'es, Boom! 53: Black Before Red 54: The Glass Family
Quien 'es, Boom! starts off dusty and galloping, a melodic Wilco with dynamic riffs. Black Before Red follows with a page from the Beatles, and the inestimable Glass Family pays homage to Nineties rock & roll. The Family meshes more with each appearance. College rockers Zykos are back from tour, and Michael Booher makes you feel it.
Friday, June 17
Two words: Fuck yeah! Leather, spikes, and chain mail. Totally professional and totally at home at the Red Eyed Fly. The Priest should watch their backs.
57: Pretty Beat-Up
Too hip to be garage rock, too loud to be fuzz, the fourpiece loves Nico more than Lou Reed.
Who's more confused: the Asian singer dudded up in Jimi Hendrix scarves or the gothic Backstage Suicide audience at Elysium?
Saturday, June 18
59: Weird Weeds 60: Tuxedo Killers 61: Oh, Beast!
Incorporating random time changes, Weird Weeds are very minimalist, mostly instrumental, and more creepy than pretty. Tux Kill follows with the release of their 7-inch, short and scrappy tracks held together by energy and rhetoric. The Bearded Ladies of Oh, Beast! put on one of their best shows of silly rock & roll on bassist Josh Chalmers' birthday.
62: The Lord Henry 63: The Stepbrothers
Classic rock & roll opens up a packed Beerland show, and you can't help but shake your hips to the Lord Henry. The Stepbrothers are full of soul; that organ is a time machine. All the drunkenness and spite you'd expect from a weathered garage band.
64: Li'l Cap'n Travis
The Austin faves plow through more rock than usual, but "The Wichita Lineman" still shows up. Their rugged Texas twang might be ready for a boost.
Wednesday, June 22
65: The Sapphires
This is what country music is supposed to sound like: Banjo, guitar, bass, and drums, with a Tammy Wynette voice courtesy of Rebecca Cannon. The quintet is recording with Lloyd Maines soon and due for serious attention.
66: The Casting Couch
Pretty pop and the perfect accompaniment to Architecture in Helsinki.
67: The Shells
Not seen in a while, the Shells return with high-energy indie pop. Unfortunately, the vivacious crew is only digestible by Fivehead fans.
68: Ralph White
The Bad Liver takes the Beerland stage solo, a menagerie of instruments at his feet. In a trance he picks the banjo, his stomping foot providing rhythm.
Thursday, June 23
69: Horse Plus Donkey
The droning quartet kills. Reverb swells beneath thumping bass and indecipherable yelps, H+D is more MBV than Low. Awesome.
There comes a point when having fun onstage just isn't enough. White trash rock & roll from Teabag, whose frontman mixes Fred Durst with Henry Rollins. Super Heavy Goat Ass follows suit.
Shake, Rattle, and Roll
Seven days left and not a hint of boredom. Every night's a new experience, another glimpse of the puppetmasters. As if every single fan had strings attached and the musicians pulled them all at once, Friday night feels the dance groove. Starting on the corner, a closet of a club usually reserved for thrashers and bangers, Laurel and Hardy ham it up on the minuscule Headhunters stage. Between routines, Hit by a Car pops out fast, hard, and sometimes jarring sounds. South at Emo's, shiny happy people gather for Belaire, an indie-pop quartet made up of one Voxtrotian, two twins, and a drummer. Simple, fun, and rhythmic.
Beerland, too, is grooving, but to an older beat. One of the most underrated bands in Austin, the Nervous Exits are bearing down. With a baby face fronting and blues backing, the Exits walk the thin line between garage and punk with an electric slide and a wink. Back at Emo's, Austin's youngest scene veterans, Voxtrot, entrance a nearly sold-out crowd with Eighties nostalgia mixed with indie rock. Voxtrot has grown into its own, becoming a viable band poised for success.
Saturday marks Spoon's return from a lengthy tour, and a sold-out Stubb's crowd beams back at a glowing Britt Daniel. Perfection from every angle: the songs, the smiles, the shake, and the swagger. Afterward at Beerland, the Crack Pipes warm up a packed crowd with the Rev. Ray Pride preaching to the masses. As the Boom Chica Boom go-go girls shimmy for the last time, Austin's version of the Blues Explosion, Enduro, sets up. David Bucci and Chad Nichols grab the crowd by the balls and tell them off Sixties style. Break.
The breeze that blows down Red River comes not from the sky but from the power of decibels as many as the city of Austin will allow. Red River would be nothing without the rock. It's religion around these parts.
Sunday brings a free night of rock to Emo's. Before meeting the door, the sidewalk rattles with the beat of the Cutaway's bass. Unfortunately, the melodies are calling it quits: half of the band is moving to L.A. for a better shot at the music industry brass ring. Tim Lasater has the perfect rock & roll voice: too low for emo, too high for goth. It's passionate rock that melts like sugar in water.
The same can't be said for Svengali. This is what's wrong with emo. It's not a lack of talent or skill, but there's nothing differentiating this band from the thousand others waiting in line. Oversaturation breeds commonality.
Down at Beerland, a new sound is breeding. A juvenile gang of spastic rockers, the Sneezes are jaw-dropping. Dustin Pilkington bounces around the stage like a flea, screaming and roaring and rapping and smiling. With every song stretching to the minute mark, the excitement is over in less than 15. Orgasmic.
Vise Versa continues the show at Emo's, with singer Kemble Walters taking a break from Juliette & the Licks in L.A. The fourpiece has traversed hardcore and arrived at straight-up rock & roll. Not exactly unique in formula, the songs rip, and the girls swoon.
The next night, 1986 continues the hard-edged trend with an opening slot for Brooklyn's Say Hi to Your Mom at Stubb's. The quartet rolls through oohs and ahhs, using harmonies to its advantage. A little too silly, the band is catchy. Same spot, following night: For Those Who Know is met with sound problems, but the Eighties-leaning fuzz band perseveres. Without matching the glory of their self-titled debut, they please the crowd waiting for Cincinnati's Heartless Bastards and their concrete indie rock anti-blues.
Nothing could prepare for Cardinale's set at Beerland. The Sea of Thousand project roars and belches, each song louder than the last. While the stacks of amps are intimidating, the rattle magnetizes the crowd. You can't ask much more from a band playing their first show. Velorum follows, back from tour. Pop-punk for the of-age set, they excel at sing-alongs and head-bangers alike, while the Bricks ATX throw the latter at a sparsely populated house at 710.
At Emo's, general manager Bill Corsello brings his baby to his home stage. Good Times Crisis Band is hard digestion after Cardinale, but then everything is. Eardrum damage is quickly corrected by Corsello's pleading and clanging guitar. But when you can hear a man tuning his guitar from across the room, that empty space seems like infinity. Where is everyone?
Only the Beginning
This is all circular. As soon as a band dies like the Cutaway, Our Black Love Song, or hundreds of others that will meet their demise this year a myriad of faces, voices, acts, and attitudes pop up in its place. It's the story of life, be it here on Red River or in your own neighborhood.
The last six weeks have been littered with teething infants Ghost of the Russian Empire is not alone. This young, sometimes-long-winded crew must have OK Computer on repeat, as Brandon Whitten's reverbed vox mimics a more subtle Thom Yorke over a sea of layered textures. Pompeii follows, another young and eager band taking their cues more from Death Cab for Cutie than Radiohead. Emo with a cello and potential.
On a harder note, Rend prepares to thrash at Room 710, a club getting heavier by the minute. With metal on their minds, Rend's more concerned with headbanging than playing. Across the street, Storm the Tower blasts Beerland. Politipunk at its finest, the veterans of Tower are mentors without realizing it: tight, fast, and dressed in black. Melanoma's fashion is similar, but not their music. Are you considered death metal if your name is cancerous? The 710 act and Back Room regulars have good riffs, but lack something meaningful.
After a night of metal, punk, and emo, My Education is the perfect ending. Instrumental bliss, their songs reverberate. Sounds roll off the stage like waves, dynamic and strong, only to come back down to earth. A band deserving of everything to come their way, My Education is brilliant.
The Bad Rackets start off the last night of this endeavor at 710, a bar rock fourpiece that's gonna rock all day and roll all night. Across the street, the Addictions meld their sweetness with a rock edge, Beth Richard belting it out as if she were at the Frank Erwin Center (another Red River stalwart). The Secret Weapons, one of nearly 25 bands out of 99 that include a female player, start up back at 710. Ashleigh Daniel serenades her garbage man, her naughtiness spread out on the stage. Against a bubbly backdrop Peter Elliott & the Sellouts cover Christina Aguilera (ugh) and toss some originals into the fray, while the Score ends the evening.
The 99th band is admittedly a bit anticlimactic, but this is truth. Sloppy, careless, and fun-loving, the Score is the epitome of every band on this strip. Because when it comes down to 2am, sometimes you really just don't care about talent, tightness, or ambition. Sometimes all you need is to rock out.
This is the future and the past. It's more than entertainment. For many, it's a reason to get up in the morning. Regardless of your pleasure or plight, you belong here. Red River is home to everyone, and there's no better reason to go out and support live music than that.