Monthly Archives: March 2011

Spencer Bell Legacy event in Austin was great music experience – and (bonus!) it helped a great cause as well

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I didn’t mind supporting a good cause, but I admit I attended last weekend’s Spencer Bell Legacy benefit at the Mohawk in Austin last Saturday for selfish reasons: I wanted to see Tin Tin Can, a band from Chicago that I’ve been enjoying for over a year but hadn’t seen live yet. Indeed, they put on a hell of a show. I also discovered some other new favorites. If you’re not familiar with it, SBL is a foundation that raises money to fight adrenal cancer, the disease that killed a young musician named Spencer Bell. In addition to a lot of great music, there was a silent auction and a raffle.

The common thread among most of the bands — aside from the fact that they were passionate SBL supporters — seemed to be a rootsy, Southern musical influence. Austin reggae band Axis Unity was an exception. Very good. I’ll remember them when I want to scratch that particular itch.

Shawn Fernando gave a nice solo performance, singing and playing keyboards. His song “In the Motherfuckin’ ATX” was a real crowdpleaser. He also turned up in sets by Kissing Club and The Stevedores. The Stevedores, based in Madison, is actually his band I believe. And btw, Spencer Bell was lead singer and songwriter for The Stevedores before succumbing to adrenal cancer in 2006.

The Kissing Club had a nice country rock sound, as did The Stevedores.

Mechanical People, a band out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had a great Southern vibe. Reminded me a bit of Deer Tick (who are not Southern). They were also very animated on stage, especially the lead singer. “Magnolia” was a very impressive song that really jumped. The drummer played bass guitar for one song I liked, something about an alley… I enjoyed their set a lot. I picked up a demo EP and it is OK, but it doesn’t do them justice.

Netherfriends impressed me a lot. Right up there with fellow Chicago band Tin Tin Can in my estimation. They were lush, with harmonies, some vocal looping, and some junkyard percussion providing a lot of texture — the lead singer drummed on a butane tank for one song. The drummer took on vocals for one song. They had folks in the crowd dancing. Very good show. Didn’t manage to snag a CD of theirs, which I regret.

Tin Tin Can surprised me by putting five people onstage. Three people on guitar, one on bass and keyboard, plus a drummer. I’m not sure if they were all regular members or not — the liner notes for The Devil and the Mockingbird EP only lists four. They put on a hell of a show, as expected. They performed songs I already knew and loved — “Arkansas” and “Celebration of the Damned,” plus some I didn’t know yet, including “Tourist,” a song written by Spencer Bell himself. There was quite a lot of switching, guitarists taking on bass and vice versa. Drummer taking on vocal duties for part of a song. They reminded me of Blue Oyster Cult in that respect. They still had that Southern Gothic sound that won me over when I first discovered them on T61.

Definitely a great night out. I hope the cash I plunked down getting in and picking up CDs made some difference. I would’ve given more if I could. SBL seems like a worthy cause. Check it out and see if there’s something you can do to help.

And give Spencer a listen if you’re new to his music as I was before last weekend:



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Has South By Southwest gotten too big for its britches?

Now that South By Southwest is over, I’m seeing a lot of postmortems, some not very complimentary. As always, plenty of people enjoyed it, but the bitching from those who didn’t seems a bit louder this year. There was plenty of fodder for bad reviews: Big crowds, some quite rowdy — a bunch of people who didn’t get into the Strokes concert on Thursday pushed their way through a barricade; there was an actual mini-riot where police had to pull out the stun guns and pepper spray; a camera boom fell on the crowd at the OMD show, sending several people to the hospital; and the lead singer of Screeching Weasel punched a couple of women in the face, allegedly for throwing ice.

One particularly scathing review compared SXSW 2011 to Altamont, the infamous 1969 festival that was marred by violence, including one murder. The writer calls SXSW a “music industry dinosaur” and has some sexually explicit and very funny insults for the festival’s organizers. I think he’s unduly harsh to say the least, but there’s no doubt about it, this year’s festival has finally gotten big enough to make people wonder if it has become more than just an inconvenience that Austin has to put up with in exchange for an infusion in cash and some great rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it’s on the verge of becoming both irrelevent and dangerous?

I would not go that far. I did not buy a wristband or a badge this year and did not get in under a press pass as I’ve done before. I saw some very good shows, all of which were free except one — and that one only cost 5 bucks. I discovered some new favorites, made some new friends and all in all had a great time.

I do not think SXSW 2011 was “Altamont.” I would say this: Enough things went wrong that SXSW should take it as a warning and make some changes for next year.

Number one issue: crowd control. When a very popular act performs in a venue that is too small and crowds of “might-get-in-probably-won’t-just-wait-and-see” are allowed to build up, or crowds of people first get invited to a show, then get unceremoniously dumped via text message, that’s a recipe for disaster. What I’m afraid of isn’t another Altamont, it’s a repeat of the 1979 stampede that killed 11 people and injured dozens more at a Who concert in Cinncinati.

They either need to put big acts like The Strokes into much larger venues or stop letting them play at SXSW.  It draws a lot of people and that makes SXSW a lot of money, but it’s liable to get some folks hurt.

Number two: Make it relevant again. SXSW has turned into a huge party and a cash cow for the local economy, but it isn’t so much about the little guy any more. People like The Strokes and Kanye West suck up all the oxygen so independent acts don’t get the attention they deserve, in my opinion. SXSW used to be about discovery. I found Gogol Bordello there, Kinky, Melissa McClelland at SXSW. The Decemberists have since gotten huge, but they played a tiny venue the first time I saw them at SXSW. You used to get these exciting news stories about the unknown band that wowed everyone and got that big record deal. It shouldn’t be about going to see a huge concert by a popular artist. You can go to that person’s show in some arena if that’s what you want.

Popular artists don’t just create dangerous crowd situations in my opinion. They attract narrow-minded music fans and they attract meatheads, the kind of people who only go to see the bands they already know, and will disrespect any bands they don’t — by not paying attention during the shows, talking, heckling, etc.

Bradford Kinney, an indie musician and indie music fan told me he wasn’t worried about “meatheads” or the big artists stealing the little guy’s thunder. “I went to plenty of shows of small-to-medium-time bands this year, and the attendance at all of them was at least healthy,” he said. “At our show [No Strings Attached], we didn’t have a big headliner, and we got pretty much exactly the crowd size that we wanted.”

The shows I saw were well-attended and they weren’t by extremely well-known acts and the crowd was pretty friendly. Practically lovefests. There were plenty of examples like that I’m sure.

On the other hand, Matthew Morden, aka Bubblegum Octopus, had some of the aforementioned meatheads at some of his shows, acting like jerks. There has to be a reason for that. Perhaps as Bradford suggested, when guys like that come for the big name and the venue is too small for them to get into, they’re more likely to spread out and cause problems at the shows they do attend. Bradford suggested opening Longhorn Stadium for the free concerts and big name artists. That might work. Or the Erwin Center maybe?

Whatever they have to do. I personally don’t think artists like The Strokes or Kanye West belong at SXSW, but if SXSW must have them, I wish they would find a way to keep their fans out of everybody else’s hair.

Finally… It’s too damn expensive. $750 for a music badge, $165 for a wristband… Really? When I went for the first time a wristband was less than $100. Marc Campbell, the guy who made the Altamont comparison, did have a good point: You could see an awful lot of great shows throughout the year for that amount of money. If the price keeps skyrocketing, people are going to figure that out eventually.


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Bubblegum Octopus – Breakcore? Chiptunes? Not sure what it is, but I like it

I didn’t get a chance to check out Bubblegum Octopus (aka Matthew “Matt the Cat”) at SXSW, but I’ve been hunting down Youtube vids for the past several days and I’m very impressed. It was confusing the first time I heard it – wasn’t sure if I loved it or hated it — but that’s often a tell-tale sign of something really creative and different. The sound is what I’ve come to think of as chiptunes — songs made to sound like video game music. His singing alternates between straight-up, funny falsetto and a black metal growl. Also he likes to sing about cats. Listen for yourself.

I was a bit bummed that I didn’t get to see him  at the No Strings show on Sunday. He got vertigo and nausea and had to cancel. I’m also disappointed that he got a bad impression of Austin because he had some “tools” in the audience at a couple of shows. I want to think those people were from out of town. I’ve seen meatheads at SXSW before, guys who talked and shouted and clinked their beers during shows. With the big influx of people for SXSW, it is fairly likely they were from out of town, but every city has some of those, even Austin. I think maybe he just wound up in the wrong venues? I hope he will forgive us in time, because I really want to see him perform someday.

Anyway, I think Matt the Cat is a unique artist who deserves to be heard. Check him out and send a little love his way if you can afford it.

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No Strings electronic music/puppet event pushes boundaries

Particle Kid

Orange Rex


I don’t have a lot of experience with the art of puppetry. I believe I was in kindergarten the last time I was in a puppet show. I seem to remember the puppets were made out of pudding boxes. I’m sure when I was a kid I must’ve stuck my hand into a sock on more than one occasion. A lot has changed since then… Or, come to think of it, maybe not. You can make a puppet out of whatever you want, however you want, and long as you’re creative and express yourself, you’ve created art. Very much like music — especially the experimental DIY music I enjoy so much.

That synergy led to an event called No Strings Attached at the Salvage Vanguard Theater on Sunday, March 20, the last day of South By Southwest. It was organized by Bradford Kinney and Katie Rose Pipkin, members of the non-profit arts group Church of the Friendly Ghost. As sore as I was from traipsing around Austin, even knowing I had work the next day, I couldn’t resist.

FM Campers were amazing, just as they were  the first time I saw them a week before. I was sad that I didn’t get to see Bubblegum Octopus, who got sick and had to cancel. I also had to leave before Zorch came on.  I did get so enjoy some strange and exciting music, videography, noise and puppetry. I made a great discovery in the form of a talented multi-media artist Particle Kid, aka J. Micah Nelson.

The show started with Ghost of Electricity (Bradford Kinney) creating electronic atmosphere and songs, accompanied by video projections and puppetry by Katie Rose Pipkin, who made evocative shadow plays using paper cutout characters and objects projected on a screen. As the show went on, the shadow puppets began to integrate with the video projections, which began as abstract art and geometric shapes. The songs and scenarios seemed to be about heartbreak, including a retelling of the Icarus myth.

Next was a show from Glass Half Full Theatre group, which stretched the boundaries of puppetry by using everyday objects on top of a table: paper cutter, typewriter, staplers, staple remover, electric pencil sharpener, Scotch tape, etc. They made the objects fight, the pencils had sex with the pencil sharpener, and there was all sorts of mayhem, accompanied by silly noises. Maybe I got it wrong, but I think it was a “survival of the fittest” story.

FM Campers blew the doors off just as I expected. Their show, accompanied by a puppetry free-for-all and vintage videos of a wildfire threatening a family farm, an ant colony and kaleidoscope shapes, was especially moving and psychedelic. I love how the drummer sits with his back to the audience. Really gets you involved in the music.

House of Wolves, featured Rick Reed and Brent Farris making electronic soundscapes. A film played out next to them, projected onto a screen from behind, while a shapely young woman made silhouette poses, James Bond intro-style.

Particle Kid (J. Micah Nelson) put on a fascinating show in the gallery.  On a screen was an image of a lightbulb. A few ripples revealed that it was in fact reflected in water, which was in a dish on top of some kind of speaker or amplifier. He played keyboards, making vocal loops and building up various chords and harmonies. As he did, fascinating patterns began to form on the water. The piece started out very ambient and grew more and more lively, adding some beats. The water began to grow chaotic and splash out of the dish, and had to be replenished a couple of times. All the while, a woman wearing a bear hat gave a performance featuring an umbrella and little birds hanging from a mobile.

I’ve since looked into this guy and find he’s way more than a musician. He’s also a talented visual artist.

You can hear some of his experimental music here:

You can also find out more at:


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Atash – best SXSW 2011 find so far


I was about an inch away from wussing out and going home early last night. Thank God I didn’t. I ended up seeing my favorite show of the weekend: Austin’s own Atash.

I went out for a second night on Saturday, hunting for unofficial and hopefully free music shows at South By Southwest. Started out feeling hassled. Forgot to get cash for parking till I was downtown, then couldn’t find a bank. Wound up on the west side of town when I wanted to see some shows on the east side and got bogged down in traffic trying to get back over there. Got to Domy Books too late to catch Castanets.

Wound up parking on the street and was paranoid about possibly getting towed or ticketed. Walked up Comal Street and found a free “Psychfest” showcase. Saw a band that was OK, playing basic rock ‘n’ roll, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Went back and got the pickup, headed west and kept getting caught in traffic, finding exits blocked off by the cops, etc. Somehow I wound up north of downtown on Lamar and decided to check out Central Market, where I’ve seen some great free shows in the past. And voila! Best show so far.

I had heard of Atash before and thought they sounded like a group I would like, but for some reason I never checked them out. Now I’m going to have to see them again. And again and again…

It was very much a family affair. I saw a lot of little kids on their fathers’ shoulders. Dads dancing with daughters. One girl dancing with her teddy bear. A lot of the audience must have been from Persia or some other place in the East, because so many of the women were dancing using their arms and hands in that sinuous way that you don’t see among Westerners. I also heard people singing along to songs that I think were in Persian.

BTW, an Asian girl, maybe in her 20s, maybe a bit younger, REALLY knew how to dance. She was almost as big a star as the band. I almost wonder if they brought her along as part of the act.

Apparently the ensemble has changed over the years – I’ve seen some versions with sitar and tabla players and some with no vocalist. This is closest to the version of Atash I saw (in fact, they played this song):

You can find out more at

Also check out their Facebook page.

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More unofficial SXSW ramblings

Mike Watt - original member of The Minutemen


Went down to Austin Friday night, March 18 and caught some great shows — some were at a free party (even got a free beer), others at an unofficial show that only cost $5 to get into. Made some good discoveries and got to see a punk rock legend. I got excellent tips from local musician Bradford Kinney, who has very good taste and has been milking SXSW for all it’s worth.

I parked in a lot at 11th and Trinity. It was early, but everything close to 6th Street was full. Had a lot of walking ahead of me as both venues were on the east side of town (Protip: if you don’t have a SXSW wristband and you’re desperate to use the bathroom, try a hotel lobby. Usually clean and you probably won’t get hassled).

Started at Domy’s Bookstore on East Cesar Chavez. There was a free party in the back, where they were giving away free Lone Star beer. It was being put on by Los Angeles radio station KXLU. The big draw was Japanther, but the group I really liked was called Tearist. It featured a guy doing electronics and a sexy girl with a great voice, long black hair singing and thrashing around onstage in a tight black dress. Sort of an ’80s goth vibe.

I stuck around for a while and heard Kid Infinity — white rapper with a synth/programmer. Kind of a techno Beasty Boys kind of act. He was OK, but not really my style. Lots of people were there for Japanther, and I stayed to find out what the hub bub was about, but they didn’t really do it for me. Too straight up punk for me. I love the punk ethic and I love the Ramones, Sex Pistols, etc., but I can only hear so much of that at a time. I’m more of a postpunk fan. Plus they let another group do a couple of songs and that group nearly obliterated my ears with feedback. Even young people were holding their ears.

I tried to get into private party a few blocks away  that had a band playing, was rebuffed. Headed north and walked my ass off till I got to Baby Blue Studios at 1522 East 12th. Paid $5 to get in. Went into the building, which was packed full of people and stiflingly hot even though it was nice and cool outside. And heard maybe my favorite act of the night: Tune-Yards, or as I’ve seen it stylized on the web, tUnE-yArDs (I’m only gonna do that once).

I couldn’t see a damn thing. Never saw so many tall people on the front row of anything. But the music was awesome. Very unique style. The singer (Merrill Garbus) played a ukulele and was backed by a drummer and some people playing the saxophone. She may have done some drumming too, but I’m not sure since I couldn’t frickin’ see. The vibe was sort of a mix of African influences, reggae, maybe a bit Ethiopian sounding. Her vocals reminded me a bit of yodeling. Hard to describe, but very good. Very funky.

Next I saw a group from Tokyo, Japan called Mi-Gu. Cute Japanese girl playing a drum kit and reciting poetry, and a very impressive guitarist who really knew how to shred. Kind of jazzy, kind of beatnik. Mike Watt sat in on bass for a couple of songs. Unfortunately his amp started cutting out on him and he was nearly done by the time a replacement amp turned up. It was still a treat to see the man, however. I of course have the classic Minutemen album Double Nickels on the Dime I read all about the band in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life and got to feel like I knew the man.

And that was it. I’m gonna try to catch a few shows tonight even though my feet hurt.


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Got No Strings – free & freaky entertainment during SXSW

Don’t feel too bummed out if you don’t have a badge or a wristband for South By Southwest. There are still a lot of shows in Austin this week — many of them free. Check this out. There are also in-stores and unofficial shows all over town. Look around and see what you can find. The official shows aren’t the only shows (plus you can get into some of those if you show up very early and pay at the door. I’ve been to SXSW several times though, and I would pick lesser-known artists and get there at least an hour early, maybe two. If you’re scared of crowds and don’t want to walk a long way from your parking spot, you might want to look for something to do elsewhere.)

Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I plan to go to a free event (not affiliated with SXSW) on Sunday, March 20 that promises to be fun and freaky: “The Church of the Friendly Ghost Presents Got No Strings” — a series of shows featuring experimental underground music and puppetry at the Salvage Vanguard Theater (2803 Manor Rd.). Yes, I do mean puppets. I haven’t been to a puppet show since I was 5. I have a feeling this will be a bit different.

Bands include FM Campers, Zorch, Ghost of Electricity and House of Wolves. More information here: No Strings – a puppet theatre and electronic music symposium

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