SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 4: The Watson Twins, again

I’d found The Watson Twins’ Friday day party set at the Belmont to be somewhat disappointing, but was still intrigued to see their 9:00 Saturday headliner set at the Central Presbyterian Church on 8th Street. Boy, was I glad I made it. This is an incredible venue since it is, as it sounds, an actual church with otherworldly acoustics that were perfectly suited to enhance the Watson Twins’ dynamic sound to a higher level. There’s no booze for sale, but I took that as a sign from God that I should slow down on my drinking for an hour.

The Twins opened with “Modern Man” again, but I was now hearing the new material in a whole different light. I still find the new album to be missing the rich melodic hooks of some of their earlier material (“How Am I to Be,” “Dig a Little Deeper,” “Bar Woman Blues,” “Waves”), but hearing the new songs sparkle in this setting provided a new window into what the Twins are going for on Talking to You, Talking to Me, with jazzier and torchy soul flavors. “Harpeth River” took on a shimmering evening ambiance that was missing on Friday afternoon, and the sexy dancing between Leigh and Chandra Watson definitely enhanced the vibe. Chandra said she had enjoyed seeing Everest and Billy Bragg, as well as visiting East Austin, which she felt provided the “true Austin vibe” that some may find wanting on the more commercialized 6th Street. “Devil in You” also featured an extra shimmer with the brilliant church acoustics, with Chandra proclaiming the song as an exorcism.

Leigh donned an acoustic guitar on several tunes, including the melodic closer “U N Me,” which once again sparkled in a new way in this fantastic setting. The band jammed it out a bit and received a rousing ovation for what was most definitely a triumphant set and another top highlight of the week. The Central Presbyterian Church is a venue not to be missed at SXSW.

The Watson Twins, SXSW 2010
Photo by Steve Hopson

  

SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 3: The Watson Twins

The Los Angeles-by-way-of Louisville twins’ Friday day party set at The Belmont focused almost entirely on their new album Talking To You, Talking To Me, which is a bit of a departure from their debut album Fire Songs. There’s less rock and a jazzier, torchier flavor. The dark-haired twins still sound fantastic together, although they harmonize less. This was apparently a conscious decision, as they note on their MySpace page how they chose to back each other instead of harmonize as much as they have in the past.

The new tunes weren’t really grabbing me for the most part in this sunny, mid-day setting, although I suspected this might be the case since I’ve had a hard time getting into the new album. Tunes like “Modern Man,” “Savin’ You” and “Devil in You” sounded pleasant enough, but didn’t really resonate on a particularly memorable level. “Midnight” opened up into a big jam led by the keyboardist however, where the Twins briefly left the stage while the band rocked out. Still, the performance felt nothing like the September 2008 set at The Fillmore in San Francisco that had blown me away. I felt that an evening headliner slot might fit the Twins better, so I still had them on my schedule for their 9:00 showcase on Saturday night.

The Watson Twins, SXSW 2010
Photo by Steve Hopson

  

SXSW Music 2010, Day 4: Neither Wind Nor Rain…

The weather took a decided turn for the worse in the middle of the night when a big rainstorm hit town. Festival-goers were spared precipitation on Saturday, but the temperature dropped into the 50s and it was cold and windy throughout the day. It felt more like a late-autumn afternoon in the Midwest than Spring Equinox in Austin, but the chilly conditions would not stop SXSW music fans from getting their fill on the final day of the conference/festival.

The big highlight of Saturday afternoon was Rachel Ray’s day party at Stubbs BBQ, which required a special invite. The general RSVP line was going nowhere, but thank goodness a friend had an extra pass. Free margaritas and bloody Marys were served along with chicken quesadillas and meatball sandwiches. Jakob Dylan and Three Legs (featuring the dazzling Neko Case) played a strong set that had a sound not unlike some of the recent work of Jakob’s dad – slow-burning blues and Americana sprinkled with the Tex-Mex flavor. Case’s backing vocals added an extra element to raise the songs higher for what sounds like some of the younger Dylan’s best work.

Street Sweeper Social Club stole the show though with an incendiary set that provided a needed infusion of heat to the chilly conditions. Tom Morello, Boots Riley and company rocked a heavy sound with a definite Rage kind of vibe that had people bouncing. This was one of the best sets of the week.

She & Him closed out the party with a strong set of their own. Zooey Deschanel sounded great, especially with the Chapin Sisters appearing as guest to harmonize with her. M.Ward led the able band, which even rocked out a deep jam at the end.

Getting indoors became the next imperative and there was a large crowd inside Lovejoys, one of Austin’s best dive bars. They had music too, of course, with Middle Distance Runner rocking a heavy sound. The guitarist even pulled one of Tom Morello’s slide guitar tricks. Caitlin Krisko & the Broadcast followed with a bluesier sound, with the charismatic blonde frontwoman belting out some powerful tunes, while a conga player helped provided polyrthythms.

After a break to eat some dinner and catch some March Madness (how about those Northern Iowa Panthers), it was over to Spill on 6th Street where Antennas Up were showcasing at 8 pm. The Kansas City band has a funky sound accented by some trippy synth samples. They’re clearly into the space vibe with astronaut helmets that were donned during one tune, and Space Invaders stickers on the drum kit.

The highlight of the early evening was the redemptive 9:00 set from the Watson Twins at the Central Presbyterian Church on 8th Street. The venue is an actual church with amazing acoustics. Combining this with an evening headliner slot had a dramatic effect on the Twins, with this set highlighting their dynamic sound in a way that their Friday day party set could not. They still didn’t play anything off their first album, but the new tunes sparkled in a new light in this setting.

The 10:00 hour fell flat for a variety of reasons, but Dengue Fever stepped up with an 11:00 set at Emo’s main to get things rocking again. Cambodian vocalist Chom Nimol started off the set wearing a hoodie and skullcap, but she and the band quickly heated things up with their groovy sound, causing Nimol to strip off layers until she was just wearing a pretty blue dress.

Then it was over to La Zona Rosa on West 4th Street for a great SXSW finale with Pretty Lights, who blew up the joint with their funky beats and trippy sounds. The Colorado duo’s spectacular light show provided a dazzling accompaniment to the dance party which went right up until 2 am.

Much more on the past four days coming in my wrap-up report within the next 24 hours…

  

SXSW Music 2010, Day 3: Heavy Hitters

It was another day of highlights, many of them provided by female rockers who are out in force at SXSW 2010, which is great to see. But the day started with a great panel featuring Robbie Krieger of the Doors (fresh off his electrifying sit-in with Stone Temple Pilots the previous night). “When You’re Strange” featured Krieger and the current Doors manager discussing the upcoming feature-length documentary on the band that sounds like it will be amazing, with direction from Tom DiCillo and narration from the great Johnny Depp.

Over at the Belmont on West 6th Street, things were running behind schedule at the Paste/Sugar Hill Records/Vanguard Records day party, which enabled me to discover Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles. This bluesy gal looks like a cross between Sarah Silverman and Amy Winehouse, but she rocks! I liked her set better than that of the Watson Twins, the act I went to see. These girls are fab, but their new album is just plain disappointing compared to their great first album. The ladies still sound great, but the new tunes just don’t have the rich, melodic hooks of their debut, Fire Songs.

I caught up with Sass Jordan at the Canadian Blast party at Paradise on East 6th Street, where free enchiladas with rice and beans were served. She only had two acoustic guitarists with her instead of a whole band, but she sounded fabulous on strong material from her new album as well as her early ’90s hits “Make You a Believer ” and “High Road Easy.”

Then it was around the corner to Rusty Spurs, where Grace Potter & the Nocturnals followed up their stellar Thursday night set at Antone’s with another powerhouse set that rocked a packed crowd. Bassist Catherine Popper continued to show why she should win an award for best new addition to a band, while Potter won over a number of new fans with her sultry blues power.

Then it was over to Stubbs BBQ, where Metric warmed up the stage for semi-secret headliners Muse before a jammed house. The power-pop rockers threw down a heartfelt and well-received set that showed they can deliver the goods live. Muse then hit the stage at 10 pm and rocked the house in a triumphant set that was worthy of filling the slot occupied last year by Metallica. The Brit prog-rockers demonstrated a Metallica influence that they mixed up with Radiohead, Queen and Smashing Pumpkins for a sound that was intense. The laser light show was also spectacular, an arena rock spectacle in an intimate setting.

San Antonio’s Girl in a Coma were rocking it at Buffalo Billiards in the 11 pm hour, highlighted by a guest sit-in from none other than Cherie Currie of the Runaways for a charged rendition of “Cherry Bomb” that thrilled the assembled. Guitarist/singer Nina Diaz has a presence that just owned the room and this Tex-Mex grunge trio showed that they are just getting better and better.

There were many options in the midnight hour and 1:00 hours, but I passed on the easy path and fought my way into the Dirty Dog Bar for Hole’s late night set. It’s amazing that the fire marshal didn’t come and shut it down, this little bar was jammed well over capacity. The likes of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey made the scene, watching from the side of the stage. It was a claustrophobic clusterfuck until about 20 minutes into the set, when some people gave up and elbow room was finally achieved. The band rocked but Courtney Love’s voice was shot, which she blamed on playing so late when she’s a chain smoker. Maybe it’s time to cut back on the smokes, doll. She chastised her guitarist for playing too loud, and at the end she said it was her worst show ever. But tunes like “Malibu,” “Doll Parts,” “Gold Dust Woman” and some of the new stuff sounded strong. Someone just needs to take better care of herself, but it looks like that’s not going to happen.

Rain threatens Day Four on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see how the masses respond as the outdoor shows could become less attractive…

  

Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2008: Staff Writer Greg Schwartz’s picks

2008 has been a fantastic year for rock & roll to this reporter’s view. Last year, I felt like I was struggling to come up with enough albums just to fill a top 10. It’s been a far different story this year as sifting the top 10 from the many worthy honorable mentions has been a tough process that has required rigorous listening and re-appraisal. When new albums by longtime personal faves like the Black Crowes and King’s X can’t quite crack my top 10, I can only pay homage to the music gods for such a plentiful bounty.

Top 10 Albums of 2008

1. Jefferson Starship: Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty
One of the greatest rock heroes of the ‘60s comes back with superb new relevancy as Paul Kantner hits the jackpot again with Cathy Richardson, the band’s dynamic new vocalist. The soaring harmonies between Richardson, Kantner and David Freiberg are simply majestic, adding a revelatory new flavor to songs that are mostly covers of ‘60s tunes that inspired the Airplane back in the day. But the new “On the Threshold of Fire” might be the song of the year – no other gave me chills like it did.

2. Susan Tedeschi: Back to the River
The blues diva delivers her best album yet, packed with soulful rockers, guest stars and oh so compelling vocals that assure the blues are in good hands with the current generation. “People” is one of the top tracks of the year and should have been Obama’s victory song in Grant Park. It’s among several tracks that offer a taste of the musical magic that occurs when Tedeschi and hubby Derek Trucks (slide guitar) join forces. Look for a Soul Stew Revival album featuring that combo to top this list in 2009 or 2010.

3. Michael Franti & Spearhead: All Rebel Rockers
Franti and his rock/reggae/hip-hop/funk/soul crew help keep the Bay Area at the cutting edge of the music revolution with their best album since 2001’s album of the year, Stay Human. There’s no one else mixing it all up like Franti, and no one else lyricizes the zeitgeist of the times like he does. Guest vocalist Cherine Anderson sounds like a star in waiting.

4. Guns n’ Roses: Chinese Democracy
It’s overproduced, should probably be labeled an Axl Rose solo joint, and should have been released at least six years ago. But all that aside, Rose has finally delivered the unique type of kick ass rock n’ roll that only he can (although the lyrics aren’t nearly as accessible as they used to be.) He’ll probably never live down the backlash over the album’s tardiness, but tunes like “Better,” “There was a Time,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “I.R.S.” are epic rockers that conjure that classic Gn’R sound. Now if only Axl would pick up the phone, apologize to Slash & Duff for being so difficult, and get the band back together. They’d sell out every arena in America.

5. Blue Turtle Seduction: 13 Floors
I’d never heard of these Lake Tahoe jam rockers until they saved last New Year’s Eve in San Francisco with their stellar “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the 12 Galaxies” show to usher in 2008 in festive style. Then they issued this superb album packed with tight playing and a bunch of tunes that sound like instant classics. Is it rock? Bluegrass? Funk? Punk? All of the above and more.

6. Sound Tribe Sector 9: Peaceblaster
These electronica-oriented, yet still organic jam rockers make their bones with their incendiary live shows, but this release captures that energy and delivers it in an album form that can get ya bumping in your car or grooving around the living room. The production value is dazzling, as the electronic layering is expertly mixed with top-shelf percussion and superbly tasteful guitar on songs that still inspire deep thoughts even though they’re instrumental. The band also put up a great informational companion site, www.peaceblaster.com

7. Alanis Morissette: Flavors of Entanglement
Alanis joined up with British electronica producer Guy Sigsworth to create a dynamic album that’s her most compelling work since her 1995 breakthrough. Tunes like “Citizen of the Planet,” “Straightjacket” and “Giggling Again for No Reason” ripple with unique sonic energy, while the rock goddess delivers an array of dazzling vocals demonstrating she’s still one of the best in the biz.

8. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Cardinology
This album could have ranked higher but the songs are too short (it clocks in at a mere 40 minutes) and it could really use a couple more rockers. Still, Adams’ uniquely cathartic vocals are superb, the pedal steel guitar from Jon Graboff is majestic and it’s another solid collection of tunes. But it’s starting to look like Adams is falling victim to jam band recording disease – plays amazing live shows, can’t quite capture the same fire in the studio. Still waiting for another album to approach 2005’s best of the year Cold Roses.

9. The Watson Twins: Fire Songs
These Los Angeles-by-way-of Louisville gals break through in a major way with this compelling platter of alt-country magic. The identical twins’ otherworldly mix of country, soul, gospel and rock is mesmerizing – their voices are akin to the sirens they sing of on the ethereal last track, “Waves.” The girls can sort of rock ya too, on tunes like “Bar Woman Blues” and “How Am I to Be.” This is the first album since I can’t remember when that I was inspired to rush out and buy after witnessing a performance by a band I wasn’t so familiar with, following their revelatory Saturday night set opening for Railroad Earth at the Fillmore in September.

10. Anti-Flag: The Bright Lights of America
These political Pittsburgh punks polished up their sound a bit here to deliver an album of arena-ready rock that sounds big but still rails with punk angst and energy. The lyrics are a spot-on indictment of Uncle Sam’s paradigm of Titanic turmoil, and what could be more punk than that? Rolling Stone should be utterly ashamed to have given Bright Lights only two stars. Green Day’s American Idiot is the only punk album of the decade that tops it.

Honorable mentions (in no particular order)

King’s X: XV
Ty Tabor: Balance
The Black Crowes: Warpaint
Donna the Buffalo: Silverlined
Indigenous: Broken Lands
Widespread Panic: Free Somehow
My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges
Jenny Lewis: Acid Tongue
Tea Leaf Green: Raise the Tent
Joan Osborne: Little Wild One
Railroad Earth: Amen Corner
Mike Gordon: The Green Sparrow
Lotus: Hammerstrike
Los Lonely Boys: Forgiven
Aimee Mann: @#%&*! Smilers
The Black Keys: Attack and Release
Taj Mahal: Maestro
Buddy Guy: Skin Deep

Strong albums by unsigned regional bands

Cleveland – Mifune: Time Is Watching Us
Husband and wife team Jacob (guitar) and Chris (vocals) Fader dial up a dazzling sound on their second album that blends the rhythms and horns of an afro-beat instrumentation with a groovy psychededelic jam vibe. The politically edgy lyrics continue a band tradition of looking for trouble with authority, and modern rock can always use more of that.

Dallas – The Bright: In Lucid Dreams
Formerly known as Superstring, the Bright’s mix of alt-rock edge with power pop grandeur and charismatic vocalist Julie Lange is a winning formula. The production value here is superb. They’ve licensed songs to MTV, but the major labels still haven’t called for some reason. The band’s cover of “Kashmir” is epic.

Oakland – The Passive Aggressives: Conflict Resolution
Take an alt-rock power trio with a heavy Les Claypool influence, add in a vocalist who’s like a cross between Alanis and Amy Lee, and you’ve got a powerhouse sound. Former Israeli Defense Forces member Keren Gaiser is a breakout star on the verge now that she’s shed her Celine Dion-style past and found her inner rock goddess.

Breakthrough artist of 2008

Cathy Richardson of Jefferson Starship – She not only sounds amazing on the album, she delivers stunning power and mesmerizing rock ‘n’ roll mojo onstage, from Airplane classics to the new mashup “Imagine Redemption.” She’s got the skills to land next to Grace Slick in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some day.

Live performance awards

Multiple-night performance of the year

Phil Lesh & Friends @ the Warfield Theater, San Francisco CA
May 13-14, 16-18
This monumental run of five shows in six nights to close down the Bill Graham Presents era at the venerable Warfield was simply stunning, in so many ways. Start off with the fact that the 68-year-old bassist is not only still truckin’, but is at the height of his powers. The first three shows offered the Grateful Dead’s first six albums played in their entirety, but of course way more jammed out, which was tremendous. The sets featuring the GD’s eponymous debut album on night one and American Beauty on night three were among the best sets that Lesh has played since Jerry left us.

Night four featured two live albums in their entirety and then the finale was a three-set, six-and-a-half hour marathon akin to New Year’s Eve in May, complete with “Sugar Magnolia” balloon drop to kick off the last set. Lesh topped that off by offering up a free soundboard of the electrifying 5/13 show, a magnanimous gesture he is generally known to grant at least once per tour. How many other artists can say the same?

Unprecedented collaboratory jam of the year

New Monsoon + EOTO @ The Fillmore – San Francisco, CA – February 9
EOTO, the new electronica project from String Cheese Incident percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann, warmed up the night – with guest help from SCI mandolinist Michael Kang – for a set that blew the roof off. New Monsoon’s second set opener then built one by one until all members of both bands were onstage for an epic jam that summoned all of the Fillmore’s legendary psychedelic power.

  

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