Buddy Miller, The Belmont
Far away in another time, Buddy Miller, before he moved to Nashville and became a legend, earned his bread as a bar band guitarist in the live music capital. So it was as a sort of godfather to the scene that’s emerged in Austin that Mr. Miller took the stage at the annual New West Records day party at The Belmont. With him for the first time live was Joel Guzman, the accordionist who plays alongside Miller on the soundtrack to Crazy Heart. Switching back and forth between a Silvertone and Wandre electric guitar, Miller’s tone is a thing of absolute beauty: decaying, spongy, primordial. Special guest Patty Griffin came out to much crowd fanfare to duet with Miller on songs like “Gasoline and Matches” and “Chalk,” both from last year’s New West release Written in Chalk, and the latter sung on the record by Griffin herself. Hearing Miller sing the opening lines to “Chalk”—”All I did was help you tell a lie”—I was fighting back tears; while on rockers like “Gasoline and Matches” we all dug into the earthy groove. The recent death of Stephen Bruton seemed to be on everyone’s minds and Buddy sent out a version of Bruton’s “Heart of Hearts” as homage. While much fuss is made every year over the buzziest new bands at South by Southwest, seeing an old pro like Miller, world-weary but wise, helps to bring balance to the week.
The xx, French Legation Museum
The xx hardly needs a write-up from anyone to qualify as one of this year’s most important SXSW acts. In fact, they are beyond the status of buzz band, and broke through the music clutter in 2009 practically overnight with their self-titled 4AD release. So it is somewhat retroactive to call them a SXSW 2010 band, but all the same, I rushed over to see their late afternoon set at the French Legation Museum, a beautiful open space of lawn and trees that is playing host to some very nice day parties this year. Unfortunately for me, the party was pretty much over. The xx were working through their last couple of songs and the crowd was sunburned and faded after a day in the sun. The band was also scheduled to play later that night with a prestigious headlining set at The Mohawk’s patio stage. I can only imagine that their pillow-talk vocals and super-sedated arrangements came off stunningly in those wee hours.
Generationals, Club DeVille
Generationals, a New Orleans duo (a quartet this evening) who play electro pop tunes, played the somewhat random party at Club Deville on Thursday night, where a not-quite attentive audience hung out and danced but never seemed completely committed to the evening. There’s a whiny, ’60s girl group timbre to Ted Joyner’s voice, which is pulled off quite nice; but, ultimately, he and partner Grant Widmer’s music is very down, and even on the catchiest tunes like “When They Fight, They Fight,” there’s a sort of depressing spirit.
SPOTLIGHT: ATHENS BANDS IN AUSTIN
Athen’s Futurebirds earned a spot on the taste-making Aquarium Drunkard showcase on Thursday at Lambert’s BBQ, in the trendy stretch of 2nd Street west of Congress. The band has emerged over the last year to prove they are not just another college rock band, but a real unit, with their own sound: twangy, Gram Parsons-leaning melodies, classic rock hooks and just enough of an effects hum to keep things interesting.
Gift Horse, Cheer’s Shot Bar
Another Athens group who did not earn an official showcase at SXSW but booked a number of shows anyway and made the 15-hour trip. Gift Horse surely fits into the Athens psych rock category and takes it one step further with tense, dark arrangements that drone on and on, somewhat lifeless by design.
Dead Confederate, Habana
This Athens group, like their buddies The Whigs, has pushed past the local scene to become legitimate rock stars beyond the Georgia line. They earned the headlining spot on Billboard Magazine‘s Thursday night showcase, and have been playing sold out shows in New York and on the west coast. I’ve heard the word “twang” used repeatedly to describe their music. Southern gothic—call it swampy even—but twang it ain’t. There’s just nothing quite upbeat enough in Dead Confederate’s sound to qualify in my mind as twangy. There’s a definite nod to grunge music and Nirvana seems an obvious influence. Their sound also dates to the analog-heavy ’70s, which they achieve with an eye for vintage instruments and amplifiers. I get the feeling that Hardy Morris’s lyrics just might be fascinating and morose, with narratives in the vein of some of the great Southern poets. But there’s just not a word discernible on stage; and, unfortunately, it seems that’s the point.