SOUNDING OFF"The letters don't like the north wind."
The old hippie with the Father Time beard, carting cases of bottled water into Fort Worth's Ridglea Theater, was correct. Missing from the marquee of the Art Deco former movie palace, built in 1948 and voted Cowtown's best rock venue last year, were the "W's" in Low and the New Year, the "K" in Midlake, and the final "er" of Okkervil River. That north wind blew those four bands, and dozens more, to Camp Bowie Boulevard for last weekend's second annual Wall of Sound festival.
Begun last year to showcase the surfeit of space rock and shoegaze groups that make Denton a top market for guitar effects-pedal manufacturers, Wall of Sound outgrew its original home at Denton club Hailey's as soon as the final notes faded into the North Texas night. Again organized by Lance Yocum of Denton-based Spune Productions, the 2006 edition metastasized into an ACL-like 88 bands and performers over two days and three stages, amounting to well over 24 solid hours of music from every bandwidth of the artistic spectrum: country-rock, post-punk, psych-folk, quasi-classical. It was both exhausting and enchanting.
Due largely to the efforts of Austin promoter Rosa Madriz of Green Potato Ventures, 18 Bat City acts, nearly one-fourth of the total, made the trip up I-35 this year. The first was Quien es, Boom!, who seasoned their dense, circular passages of indie rock with harpsichord and accordion. Following in short order were Loxsly, overcoming early sound problems to stir up an admirable Flaming Lips-style clamor, complete with a bubble machine; the many-layered instrumental quartet Cue, whose dramatic shifts in dynamics and density by turns buried and emphasized their captivating minor-key melodies; and Chris Simpson's spare folk-rockers Zookeeper, whose fragile twang and forlorn lyrics hinted at something just out of reach.
Later on, My Education, with keyboardist Kirk Laktas clad in an Italian flag, grew from pastoral beginnings to sudden crescendos capped by mournful viola and glittering vibraphone. Upstairs, Pink Nasty brought heavy, snarling pop similar to PJ Harvey, with come-ons that doubled as threats and lyrics that touched on fast food and binge drinking. Experimental Aircraft featured more films and swooping slide guitar, a strangely understated brand of noise-pop brought down to Earth by Rachel Goldstar's drily melodic vocals.
Bathed in blood-red light, the Black Angels began their early evening set with Alex Maas' underwater vocals issuing sinister invocations underneath the band's steadily increasing drone; this kept up for several songs until they released the rapt audience with the macabre "kill kill kill" benediction of "Black Grease." With their dreamlike dispatches from the clearinghouse of lost souls, Aaron Blount and Laura Krause of Knife in the Water brought a similar blend of stillness and violence upstairs, and some unintentional comic relief when Krause spilled her drink on an amplifier.
AM Syndicate, dressed for church and crowded six deep into the small upstairs balcony stage, used suggestive rhythms, spindly guitar lines, and eclectic instrumentation maracas, jingle bells, wood block, violin to construct abstruse songs that went from delicate to dervish in a heartbeat. Much later, well past midnight, Single Frame closed out Saturday's Austin component with a robotic, caffeinated upstairs set that indirectly evoked Bach, hip-hop, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as the bartender played air drums and bleary-eyed members of Knife in the Water, AM Syndicate, and Cue looked on.
Sunday, the sizable crowd that packed the theatre for Low and the New Year's hypnotic slowcore never materialized, and the booking leaned much heavier on rock and New Wave, so the day felt more like a party than a concert. The Lemurs were the first Austin band on the chopping block, and their tight, energetic set resembled the Editors or She Wants Revenge: all the proper Eighties reference points with snarling Link Wray licks on the side. Hungover Arm frontman Sean O'Neal held his head as the quartet spit out a vitriolic set that sandblasted their obvious disappointment with the sparse turnout; knowing what awaits them this weekend (see feature), TCB enjoyed having them all to himself one last time.
Just back from their post-SXSW tour (and recording new songs with Spoon's Jim Eno), What Made Milwaukee Famous was as bright and sunny as the weather outside. Spurred by new drummer Jeremy Bruch, their acumen for transmuting stormy relationships into irresistible pop songs continues to grow. With a new CD of their own in the can, the Lord Henry attacked with heavy Foo Fighters guitars and disco drums, a frenetic rush that had three high school girls joyously dancing in place up front. "I'm deaf now," quipped WMMF singer Michael Kingcaid afterward.
Hours passed. TCB enjoyed a nap and several of the non-Austin bands on offer, then trekked upstairs one last time. As per usual Sunday, the balcony was packed while the main area was empty, and after borrowing an amp from Okkervil River, Sound Team upped the sweaty ambience considerably with tremulous guitars, floor-shaking bass, and whirling keyboards. It was an ideal opportunity for guitarist Matt Oliver to spring on and off the speaker cabinets at will and for bassist Bill Baird to duck-walk through the undulating crowd. Back downstairs, the Octopus Project was simply in a class by itself (see sidebar).
As with the Arm, closers Okkervil River played before the smallest audience they have, or will, in years. It didn't matter a lick, and frontman Will Sheff commended the crowd for its stamina. They needed it, because Okkervil's pas de deux of love and violence, present from the opening Spanish strains of "A King & a Queen," takes no prisoners. Whether they were jumping around while bashing out "The Latest Toughs" or standing stock-still for the heart-stopping "You Love a Stone," the band poured every ounce of energy they had left into songs so emotionally fraught it's a wonder Sheff doesn't break down in tears. The anguish finally poured out for good in the crushing coda of "Black Sheep Boy," and what remained, in a word, was relief.
OUTLANDERSNoteworthy Wall of Sound bands not from Travis County:
8MM: Evening-attired duo with chilly Portishead vibe and shaken-not-stirred cover of Carly Simon's Bond theme "Nobody Does It Better"
CURRENT LEAVES: Meaty, melodious country-rock with a heavy debt to Gram Parsons
KRISTY KRUGER: Heavy-lidded Dallas Americana songstress with the vox and gumption to remake Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down" as a bluegrass rambler
BABOON: Denton-born happy hard rockers who finally have a new CD forthcoming
DEATHRAY DAVIES: Dallas rock chameleons who skittered from the Who to XTC with the shake of a tambourine
GOLDEN FALCONS: Ragged but right Dallas rockers with the most charismatic frontman in four states
CZARS: Classical flourishes and scabrous lyrics from solo pianist in trucker hat
STARLIGHT MINTS: Okie pop orchestra that deserves its own off-off-off-Broadway musical about pumpkins, black cats, and switchblades
BEST IN SHOWFour reasons the Octopus Project ruled:
1) Guitarists Josh Lambert, Toto Miranda, and Brandon Durham bobbed up and down like Metallica while Theremina Yvonne Lambert stood calmly at center stage like she was assembling a jigsaw puzzle which, in a way, she was.
2) They switched instruments several times each song without skipping a beat.
3) They draped sheets with faces on them over their amps, complete with cones to make kitty-kat ears.
4) They sold stuffed animals, hand-sewn by Yvonne Lambert, at the merch booth. "It's so funny when a big burly guy comes up and wants to buy one," she said.Cortés watches over Knife in the Water's Aaron Blount