SXSW 2013: Day 4 evening – hits and misses around Sixth Street, and Kilimanjaro and PRS for Music showcase at Latitude 30 – 15th March 2013
After a bit of a breathless afternoon running after Irish bands and in and out of venues on Sixth Street, I gave myself a break on official festival evening #4 at SXSW 2013 to have a civilised dinner at a steakhouse (paid for by a Christmas gift card from work) before I was out and about again for shows. The initial plan was simple: I was going to try and see a couple bands near and dear to some of my writers, capping off the night with one of my favourites. It didn’t entirely go to plan, but actually, later that night, things turned out better than I ever could have imagined…
The first stop was dive bar 512 for the Virginmarys. This was the stop for WWJD, as in “what would John do?” The queue assembled outside the club was kind of what I expected: hard-looking men with or without long hair. Being a Friday, a lot of locals were trying to buy their way in with single tickets, but I was whisked right through the doors with my wristband. Then came probably one of the loudest, most punishing sounds I’ve ever put my body to the test with.
I really tried, John, I really did. But I could only hold my own against the Virginmarys for a grand total of two songs. It’s not uncommon for my body to feel like it’s vibrating when I’m seeing a dance band, but having the skin of my cheeks vibrating from a rock band some good distance away from me? Guitars crashed and the drums bellowed as frontman Ally Dickaty gave it his all in screamy, growly vocals. Yes, hard rock is alive and well in Macclesfield. You can be sure of that. While I made my getaway, I watched as Austinites headbanged with unbridled delight to the music. This band might not be for me, but they were definitely ticking off the boxes of many punters.
Next on my agenda was to head to Bethell Hall, a smaller multi-purpose room at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary, located in the same building where I’d seen the Communion showcase in 2012. I was going in that direction for the Dunwells, who Cheryl saw and interviewed in Washington when I was in hospital the previous month with flu. I had looked forward to that DC gig for so long and to have it robbed from me, the only recourse was to see them in Austin and say hello. In hindsight, I should have done some more research on what exactly this ‘Grammy Museum – Musical Milestones: 50 Years of the Beatles’ was. I arrived to hear the recognisable musical strains of ‘Yesterday’…sung in Italian. What?
I had been so confident – probably overconfident – that since nearly every showcase I’d attended had started and run late that week, I would have arrived just in time for the Dunwells. But instead on ‘stage’ was long-running and beloved by his countrymen arrist Jovanotti, oddly wearing a red knitted hat like the bassist in Y Niwl on Tuesday night at Huw Stephens’ UK Trade and Investment showcase. He made a joke about translating English into Italian isn’t always accurate, which caused a roar from the crowd. I frowned as he jauntily launched into an entirely Italian version of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. As a longtime, longtime Beatles fan, let me just tell you, that is probably one of the weirdest moments in your life, hearing a song that is burned into your brain…but it’s an entirely different, unexpected form. Batting 0 for 2 so far for the night.
Getting to the church requires scaling a hill, and I flipped through my SXSW guide for where to go next. I decided to cut my losses and go back down the hill and straight to Latitude 30, even though I’d done no research for all but two of the bands playing there that night and had not expected to arrive so early. Helpfully, George Waite of the Crookes explained to me that Kilimanjaro was a tour promoter in Britain, so at least I knew the background of our hosts; the other ‘host’ was PRS for Music, who benevolently has granted many a UK band funding to come over to America for SXSW. I missed highly-feted Luke Sital-Singh and just hung out until the next band was due on stage. Okay. Can someone tell me when turtlenecks are ever necessary in Austin? I could say the same thing for red knitted hats, but this turtleneck thing was a first in the week.
The Ruen Brothers, actual brothers Rupert and Henry Stansall from Scunthorpe, get extra points for purposely coordinating their outfits and hair (white turtleneck and platinum blond hair; black turtleneck and dark hair) but I seriously questioned their wisdom wearing the turtlenecks *and* blazers even in the thick of an Austin night. Their bass player had a quiff to rival Boz Boorer‘s. This should have given the first clue to what kind of music they play. (In case you haven’t heard of Boz Boorer, he’s a rockabilly artist with his own band the Polecats but he’s also famously known as a guitarist of Morrissey‘s touring band.) And rockabilly is exactly what we got, with their lead singer fancying himself the second coming of Elvis, complete with the curled lip and swiveling hips and vaguely sounding like Roy Orbison. Okay, but not great.
Then we went from a bunch of guys in suit jackets to a bunch of kids in denim and t-shirts. China Rats from Leeds were in the building. I’ll admit, the one song that stuck with me when I looked them up for the TGTF Guide to SXSW 2013, ‘(At Least Those) Kids Are Getting Fed’, sounded pretty good live. I think what kind of irked me about them – and something that I am sure kids here in America will love and latch on to immediately – was the sneery, Sex Pistols-y, anti-establishment vibe I was getting from them.
And indeed, Nylon magazine here have already taken a shine to them, which shows how the tide back to guitar music has already turned here in this country: just a few years ago, the same rag was getting hot and bothered over Friendly Fires and Patrick Wolf. If anyone dares to remember, their grammatically incorrect debut single ‘To Be Like I’ is a lot sweeter and Beatle-y, sounding nothing like this punk version of themselves they are now. Similarly, ‘Take No Prisoners’ is a less frantic attempt at the Libertines. China Rats have been compared to the Clash and the Ramones by Clash Magazine, but hold up here: they’re very young and I think we need to see some longevity and in this version of the band before making any hasty comparisons!
You know how I was whinging about bands cancelling earlier in the week? This night, I was actually glad that another band I knew had cancelled, because I otherwise would have had to split the difference between a club on Red River Street, many, many blocks northeast and Latitude 30 for the 11 o’clock hour. With the other band cancelling, I was free to watch Sheffield’s Crookes without having to worry about having to up and go to see someone else.
The British Music Embassy at Latitude 30, from what I gather, is truly where British bands come to play, wanting – and needing – to shine while they are here in America. While I think ‘make or break’ is the wrong term to use because it is so final, you definitely want to bring your A game to your BME appearances, and for most bands, you only have one such shot all week to prove to the people watching you that you matter. And in some cases, that you deserve an American recording contract. For Reverend and the Makers and Cave Painting, Wednesday afternoon was when they needed to and did shine. For a poorly Jamie N Commons who did not appear on Friday night and was replaced by Berlin-based Englishman electronic artist Seams, it was an opportunity wasted. For the Crookes, they had a coveted evening slot on Friday night with I’m sure many industry folks in attendance.
As a longtime fan of the Sheffield band since they got their first plays on BBC Radio and having seen them totally smash it at a daytime showcase for the Orchard at the Great Escape last year, I was now interested to see how the new songs from summer 2012’s ‘Hold Fast’ album would go down in Austin. As mentioned in my Friday afternoon report, there was a devoted American contingent of mostly Austin and Dallas natives who were following the Crookes around wherever they were playing. In 2010 I had a conversation with a punter and small time DJ from San Francisco at a Postelles show at DC9; I had recommended him that if he liked the Postelles, then he would probably like the Crookes as well. (Bit of trivia for you: both bands independently covered Wreckless Eric’s ‘Whole Wide World’. What are the odds? They were meant to be together!) “The Crookes? Who are the Crookes?” He gave me a look of confusion. And that is usually the expression I get when I tell anyone I know in DC about one “English band I like” or another. So to have a specific group of people who knew all the words to the songs, who knew when to clap or snap their fingers without being told by the band *and* them not being English themselves, that really blew my mind. I had serious reservations that I would be the only person at their shows singing along, but instead, I got drowned out!
As it should be, the band concentrated mostly on the new album material, but they couldn’t leave out old favourites ‘Bloodshot Days’ or ‘Backstreet Lovers’ (but of course). It was at this show that I fully came to appreciate ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, a song written for their former guitarist Alex Saunders, who left the band in 2011 to get a ‘real’ job: “you’re on the clock, I’m out of time / were you ever a friend of mine?…you work to live, I live to dance”. It’s a tender ode to a friend who used to be part of their tight unit of brothers, their gang, until reality ducked its head into their lives and changed things forever for the band.
It was then, as our merry group of revelers danced to the immortal words “I wonder if you know / we don’t dance alone!” that I was reminded why Daniel Hopewell’s lyrics are often compared to Morrissey’s in his Smiths days. There is something incredibly comforting in being able to dance your cares away, to lose yourself in a joyful melody, but wrapping yourself in lyrics that touch your heart in that moment and mean so much. Of the ones I have been able to decipher and put my finger on, Hopewell’s lyrics have always been a happy and emotional discovery to me and proven to me that the Crookes are not just four young, cute English boys who happen to play in a guitar band. While the first part of this is clearly true from their very devoted ‘Bright Young Things’ young fanbase who I’m guessing are mostly fond of the frenetic pace and carefree guitars of their seemingly happy-sounding songs, I’ve learnt how empathetically intellectual their songs are for me. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will get signed here soon for the former reason and that the wealth we are being given from the latter will bleed over to the fans once they make it here.
The crowning moment of their set was at the end, when they jumped into the crowd to do an impromptu version of ‘The Cooler King’. Hopewell was tasked to play acoustic guitar, while singer/bassist George Waite harmonised perfectly with guitarist Tom Dakin and drummer Russell Bates, all providing the requisite claps and wolf whistles to faithfully recreate the same feeling of the track from the album but in a live setting. Of course our group had to participate as well. Hopewell stated in a past interview with us that ‘American Girls’ was inspired by their first trip to SXSW in 2010; I hope that means that on the next album there will be a song written alluding to the magic of this night, because I don’t think it really gets any better at SXSW than this.
Just Like Dreamers
Maybe in the Dark
Where Did Our Love Go
The Cooler King (acoustic and in crowd)