Monthly Archives: March 2009

Amerikaland #3: South By Southwest

“Stephen, you’re the Hunter S Thompson of legal highs”
– @vgan

Vivian Girls are the first band we see. They aren’t great this time round (doing a ton of gigs here) but they’re zippy, will be better later in the weekend and the bassist’s auburn winnie-fringe stretches one’s patience into the fourth song. Just what all-girl bands appreciate: being judged on their looks.

Queue for ages to score a wristband, then queue again round the corner to access a party run by a famous clothes store. A recurring motif on the first day, til we’ve aquired enough wristbands to get everywhere fun. Party involves a free bar serving Southern Comfort with obscure fizzy-pop mixers, so despite the early hour and lack of food I’m well disposed towards Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head from Seattle, a keys and drums quintet doing bouncy disco-pop where Ting Tings meet Shy Child or even Scissor Sisters. Lily Allen’s US tour support. Sarge dances loon enough to earn a shout-out. It’s fascinating how the US west coast picks up these ‘edgy’ Brit pop fads (like nu rave or 60s chic) and softens them for their own, more controlled and ‘talent’-driven musicians.

We can’t sneak into the rammed 4AD bash, though Annette from 4AD is our housemate. She’s at a label dinner in their hotel when we go say hi. We stand around chatting at a table containing Mr Coxon and various Future Of The Left members, none of whom I notice until Sarge tells me off afterwards for not saying hello. I’m still a shit networker after all these years.

Annette is super lovely (ah Christ I’ve picked up the American use of ‘super’) but she’s running around like crazy all weekend and we’ll hardly see her. I hope she’s comfy, I suspect Frank’s bunch of local guests on the final night will keep her awake. Annette also officially has the best haircut of the whole weekend, her fringe at a slight angle is intense.  

I’m more excited about Decemberists playing Hazards Of Love than anything. In the end, they’re brave and the music is great, an elaborate, beautifully realised folk-prog-metal concept piece about a love triangle (I think). The weakness is hesitancy or even nervousness in performance. Broadcast live on NPR too, to add pressure, yet still terrific. Guest singers Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) playing the protagonists almost steal the show and ‘I Was Meant For The Stage’ as second encore is fucking perfect.

Frank Turner with Steve Soto’s band backing him sets me thinking as well: last night Frank showed up at the condo at 2am after a nightmare journey and was then out before 9am to go rehearse with this bunch of much older, American bar band musicians he’d never met. At the British Music Embassy (wtf!?) it’s fun but not brilliant, they have the chops but not (yet) the love, though the tour should fix that: to play half a set after a few hours rehearsing was damn good. I miss Nigel though. Positives: St Francis is on fantastic vocal form, I suspect he’s stepped his singing up a level through the Gaslight tour. New song ‘Try This At Home’ gets the best audience reaction – always a good sign when your new material competes with your best-known stuff.

Catch up with Oliver at the Six Shooter Hootenanny, where the heroically good-looking Luke Doucet (pronounced, I’m told, Doo-set, rather than my choice Douche) is storming this little alt-country bar. I already loved some of his darkly self-abusive country-rock songs (especially heroin one sung by Oliver at his 60th birthday a few months ago) but I wasn’t prepared for this ferocious, quiffy guitar work, the guy is brilliant.

Hold Steady play a bunch of times, so we catch a celebratory singalong at an afternoon outside party. Kicks total arse, damn right. I steal a poster off the wall which is on thick card and beautifully printed, frameworthy. If FT hadn’t already got a Hold Steady tattoo I’d be considering it as part of my current “5 tats before I’m 40” obsession.

The @Vgan Cvar shows up and instantly fixes our condo’s wifi. He’s out with us sometimes but spends a chunk of time working. Afterwards we’ll almost convince him to join our roadtrip back to the coast, instead of flying home. He makes the right decision though, because he pulls as soon as we leave on Sunday. Maybe we’d jinxed him up til then.

Also catch up with D and N from SF who have special cookies, herbal E and big smiles. Yup, lovely to see them! We won’t cross paths often over the weekend because they’ve got a whole big groovy agenda of their own – but it’s nice when we do see them. Same deal with Countessian really, she’s out and about snapping bands and living too hard, as per. Sally too – but none of those LA girls’ scenester barriers come down: face-time is rationed according to whether our pool is heated and sadly it isn’t.

By day two-and-a-half we still haven’t hit a market for breakfast supplies, we’re still eating almost nothing of value, consuming far too many naughties, beginning to get a little crazed. I think SXSW is the weekend I ate least for a long, long time.

To a Canadian showcase for Sarge’s friend Trevor’s band Wet Secrets who dress as a marching band, with two women at the front playing trombone and trumpet. It’s great fun and they have songs too. Cleverly they walk around in costume all day inviting people to the show.

They’ll also be at the Six Shooter hootenanny where we’ll catch Luke Doucet… oh, so that happened later? Sorry, linear time is a victim to the mix, the weekend slides towards Jeff Noon territory and I can’t remember when I saw what but it doesn’t matter. Everyone is tweeting like crazy, til you find yourself tugged this way and that by different enticing tweet opportunities.

A moment of peace and sanity: Oliver hosts a dinner for us. Cast includes his friend Paul who hated Decemberists, John Parish and his band, minus Polly, plus me. We’re in a lovely Mexican place opposite Stubbs, where Paul talks us past the maitre d and makes a friend for life in the process. I’ve not met EDF before, sitting next to me. He’s bass and keys in John’s band and amazing company, really cool but I’m a bit overawed.

Thankyou Jay Jay Pistolet for solving my plectrum-loss problem on Saturday evening. I only caught a couple of songs of one of his sets but his singing was superb. And Beans On Toast has cut his hair! Looks quite attractive.

At some point during the morning I actually make it up and out to see Little Steven Van Zandt speak at the convention. He’s a charming, funny speaker but I disagree so vehemently with 95% of what he says, I’m working on a rebuttal blog entry. Be warned, it is coming.

…donate so we can buy the next keg…

The finest small band I’ll see is when Sarge drives us out to a suburban party in back of a bike shop where Local Natives are playing. 90% of the audience don’t have wristbands or owt to do with SXSW beyond hitting the edges and getting fucked up. Kids in the backyard pump beer into plastics from kegs and get off with eachother. Local Natives are a superb, duo frontman proggy outfit with unbelievable harmonies (especially given the crummy gear). Frantic keys, violin, electric lead lines. Hints of British Sea Power (especially in the two frontblokes) but more choruses. Fucking superb, basically. 

PJ Harvey & John Parish Utterly staggering. Beyond any expectations (and they were high) the show is all new album and the previous Dancehall… collaboration. Yet the songs and band are so impossibly good, PJ on such unbelievable vocal form, that the audience reaction is ecstatic to every track as if it’s a ‘hits’ set. So calmly they steal your breath. This is in my top 10 shows of all time, and I’m going to see them at least twice more 🙂

Stand through most of (post-Andy) Razorlight to make sure we get into the JP&PJ show. I’m prepared to give them a sincere go with an open mind, because Borrell still has a voice I enjoy… but it’s no good, a demoralising half-hour. No energy, which always sprang from the man behind the kit. No personality, ditto, and JB doesn’t give a fuck. They go off after 35 without playing America or a couple of the other biggies. Were they expecting an encore? 

In other circumstances Alessi’s Ark – who I know vaguely from doing songwriting workshops in schools – would be a real highlight, she’s developing into a classy songwriter and is shaking off the Newsom-isms to find her own voice. But it’s mere minutes since PJ&JP (oh, I’ve got my linear timeline back) so I’m too dazed to let her sink in. She makes me smile though.

I chased around all weekend but missed (every time) both Bearsuit and Graham Coxon. Can’t believe I didn’t even see the Bearsuiters in some social way. When I discover they have no more sets to play I really start thinking I’ve been at one SXSW and there’s been 100 others around the corner to have experienced and you’ll never know if yours was the right one.

Me After loving the beautiful woodeny old upstairs hotel bar venue and being treated well since I arrived, my 1am showcase set starts in a mess and struggles for a hellish 20 minutes of bad tuning, tinny sound and distracting street-noise spilling through open balcony doors around me. I’m wishing quite hard that I’d never been born.

I wonder how you recover, once you start to be embarrassed with yourself as a performer.

Thank fuck something clicks and it’s, well, it’s, I guess, not bad. A patient late-night audience which grows throughout, til luckily it’s really busy just as I improve – so at least more people see the better bits. Far too much American bourbon in the small hours with the charming organisers (a thousand thanks Chris and Wendy if you ever get near reading this). 

You know, I’d had a vivid pre-gig fantasy of destroying the room, then piedpipering the crowd out to the foyer to play a last song on the hotel’s delicious baby grand piano. In reality, I smiled, said “thankyou” and snuck tiredly into the backroom for more booze and contemplated getting a job and moving to the Isle Of Man. Like Piglet when he realised the Heffalump was Pooh.

Then we went and partied as hard as we could.

So, an un-fucking-believable few days – sublime and ridiculous. And it’s not done, I’ve got five more shows between here and the Pacific coast on this tour, before flying home at the end of the month…

I’ll post photos on Facebook.


Amerikaland #2

I’ll do a proper band-by-band-fuckup-by-fuckup blog for SXSW as soon as I have the time. Unbelievable musical strike rate, despite taking risks and heading for smaller parties further out. SXSW get their quality control dead on, which is rare for this kind of event. ‘swhy they booked me 😉 …

Saturday AM, I stumble into the living room for breakfast. F’s got a beer-and-cocaine brunch for me ready to go but it’s too early dude, I’m playing tonight and anyway Sarge is making eggs with mushrooms and dill for him, me and Annette.

Our condo is too gorgeous for words, I could live here forever if it wasn’t in Texas. Though of course, Austin is an oasis of progressive liberalism. Over three storeys (in fact technically it’s two condos turned into one), the furniture and garden and view are all luxurious. Pool too, so we lucked out. It’s also only a short 10 minutes down Red River from the insane human traffic and music overload of South By Southwest’s central 6th avenue.

It’s so clean and the art on the walls is so tasteful, the owner must be gay, no question. Plus there’s the gayest blue cut-glass menora I’ve ever seen. A gay Texan jew – that rocks. Only bummer is it’s far too nice an apartment to throw a party in, the interior design wouldn’t survive 50 kids and 6 acoustic musicians. We want to stay here again, not trash the place.

So, rewinding back.

San Diego

Excellent large-scale (50+) house party gig with other touring acts heading for SXSW. Word spreads between the travelling musicians, that police with sniffer dogs are stopping band vans between California and Texas. Our party host is a sweet guy deep into audio recording who turned half his house into a studio / party venue. He’s built one of the best homemade bits of furniture I’ve seen, by creating a glass-topped table with electric circuitboards underneath the glass.

Oddly he doesn’t seem to enjoy his party: constantly worried about cops shutting him down, he runs around picking up peoples’ glasses and doesn’t relax. Weird – he puts these gigs on every couple of weeks.

Best thing is Marc and Emma show up, they’re having a weekend in San Diego near the end of their year in L.A. – didn’t think I’d see them til Los Angeles next week, so that’s fab – and it’s almost like I fall upon them as friends I haven’t seen for a while, so I’m probably a bit too intense and talk too much. We discuss the ethics of zoos, because they’re debating whether to visit SD zoo. Must find out if they did.

Driving north, 50 miles out of San Diego at 2am there’s a kind of internal border patrol set up on the freeway, to catch illegals driving north. Scary. First thing you notice is high barbwire-topped walls and fences closing in on either side of the road. 

Sad – though the battle against illegals has strong support here even from many liberals, especially with Mexico’s drug war so intense and close by.

San Francisco

Ripped it up at Hotel Utah, a lovely show, sandwiched between two charming bands. People came and knew the words. Stayed with Daryl & Natalie nearby, Nat made a lovely breakfast and even supplied a care package that included lethal cookies. They’re coming to South By as well, so we’ll get to hook up again. We scored some immense coffee and then set off on the long drive south-east.

… California …  Arizona … New Mexico … Texas …

At one point we drive 300 miles on cruise control without touching the pedals. Empty, dead straight, dead flat roads through the desert. Jawdropping scenery on a vast open scale. Cowboy movies made flesh. No light pollution or clouds so the night sky is incredible.

Texas is much more hilly and surprisingly green (that’s relative though, it’s not Sussex), with a disconcerting amount of big deer roadkill, every so often on the side of the freeway. 

And then we’ve arrived.

Amerikaland #1

It’s 4am but I’m resisting sleep in case any UK-based people I love decide to email me.

I’m in a motel somewhere in Arizona. Anything American sounds glamorous but it’s no different from a travel inn off the M6. No, scratch that, it is totally glamorous: three hours ago we stopped the car on the freeway to swap drivers and, as we stretched our legs, we realised the night sky was totally incredible. There’s nothing between the cities in this bit of desert scrubland, just this immensely long straight road (in our case, the 10) and the occasional nuclear power plant, so hardly any light pollution. The stars are overwhelming. For Stephen too, because he’s in LA, where there’s no night sky. Earlier today we drove back down into the north-east corner of LA, coming off the 5 to head east. And the smog was thick as a tidemark on the horizon, high above the hills.

Isle Of Man 

To give you an idea how small the plane was, to fly between Belfast and the Isle Of Man, the safety instructions were given by the pilot swivelling around in his seat and just telling us them. 14 passengers. 22 minute flight, very, very shaky. Fucking Steam Packet ferry company bastards, not running a service til April.

We’d upgraded to a ‘gold’ ticket (about £15 extra) because I was worried about taking my guitar on the plane. This turned out to be a blessing, because it gave me access to BMI’s ‘executive’ lounge at Belfast Airport, where I piled into the free bloody marys for breakfast. Unfortunately Manx2 flights aren’t called in the BMI lounge, so I couldn’t relax in case I lost track of time.

IOM was awe-inspiring, thank-you Ballagroove, as always fantastic hosts. Ate at The Sound twice, the cafe overlooking the Calf, which is my favourite place in the world, official. Didn’t go there this time but will when the weather is warmer.

I always leave the Isle Of Man determined to move there. I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the most beautiful places around the world but somehow IOM takes the cake. Actually, the only thing wrong with the trip was I was dying for some cake after the trolley at The Sound looked yummy, but I never got any.

Gaza Gig

In and out and a bad set choice. Earlier in the day Rifa and me went to Deane City Farm, where they have a white peacock.

Later, for the Gaza gig at Kings College, I played the role of the political protest singer, rolling out all the lefty anti-war stuff and I wish I hadn’t. Some softer or more psych material would’ve actually really offset things. They didn’t need more politics. Jeremy Hardy was on just before me and he was terrific, still the same chap but harder-edged than his Radio 4 persona. He said ‘fuck’. The organisers were very sweet and the BBC acts were charming, so despite the usual chaos of a political event, a good time was had by all. Lovely to briefly see Skulls McMurphy and his charming new Missus. Odd culture/generation clash between the KCL union organisers and the BBC staff but everyone just seemed to enjoy it.

When I got home from the Isle Of Man I accidentally put my brand new passport in the washing machine. You can read about the outcome of that little moment in my new Morning Star column.

I’m going to sleep now, nobody emailed so it’s zzzzzzz time and I’ll write about San Diego and San Francisco tomorrow. 


Northern Ireland

Got in last night and caught up on the news – immediately feeling sad about the murders in northern Ireland because we were just there. Onstage in Derry and Belfast, Thursday and Friday, I paired up ‘This Gun’ and ‘Box To Hide In’ halfway through, introducing them with some nervous self-justification, for singing songs about terrorism to people who’ve got far more first-hand experience of it than me.

But that triggered a powerful internal repositioning and rethinking of the lyrics in my brain as I sang them. Always a rare treat because it takes you away from the danger-zone of singing the song over and over again, without real feeling. Songs written about the middle-east are suddenly brought much closer to home.

Actually in Derry I gave up on ‘Box’ – didn’t make it out of the first verse even. Nothing to do with vibe or content, just a technical problem:

The northern Irish crowd is enjoyably odd, in that they talk all the way through your stuff as if they’re not listening, but between songs cheer like madmen as if you’re a hero. I think they have a more balanced relationship with musicians, associating us (especially acoustic acts) with the old fella singing in the corner of the pub that they’re more familiar with than most parts of the UK, so it’s more equal, less inately respectful. A Good Thing but a bit exhausting. It’s only a problem if you’re concussed, haven’t got enough bottom-end in your monitors and therefore can’t hear to pitch yourself over the bar chatter.

I didn’t want to honk at the soundman for more foldback at the same moment as abandoning a song. So I came offstage and did ‘Tin Man’ unmiced on the floor, then went back on, did ‘M1’ and only after that, got the soundman to rebuild the mix, so the sound out front was quieter, and I had more monitors and a brighter mix. The rest of the set was fine but I wish I’d gone back and given ‘Box’ another go, because I felt the lack of an anti-violent counterpoint to ‘This Gun’. Especially this morning, when it felt retrospectively uncomfortably like rabble-rousing.

After the show I even got told off (in a nice way) by a couple of people who’d been chatting by the bar, because once I was on the floor, they couldn’t hear that song. A good night though and one of the cheapest breakfasts ever, in a Wetherspoons-type pub.

Belfast was more pro and we had a half-decent keyboard, thanks to Oppenheimer, so I was able to be Turner‘s bitch for a duo show. Izzy did merch and was a star. The soundman at Auntie Annie’s had bodged a broken keyboard-stand, fixing it with gaffer and nails but by the end I was holding it up on one knee, shoving it against a speaker at the other end, using the wrong foot on the pedal and desperately trying to keep going. For encore, the keyboard went high up on top of a monitor speaker. Maybe a rock’n’roll end but we did ‘English Earth’ and it was probably the weakest moment of Frank’s set because I couldn’t hear myself.

I found it reassuring that – despite rapidly impending international superstardom – Frank had the same challenge both nights with the background talking, so it wasn’t personal to me.

I was supposed to drive these Irish shows but missed my flight to Dublin, after some kid twatted me on his bike on Tuesday night and ever since I’ve got scary concussion in the corners of my eyes. Anyway, the back-up plan (much cheaper in the end) was travelling by taxi, so I was forgiven for letting the side down. Main arsehole was I missed Gaslight Anthem‘s end-of-tour party, which was probably epic and perhaps even an opening slot.

After saying goodbye to Frank and Izzy the night before, I had an early breakfast and took the smallest, shortest flight I’ve ever endured, full of shame about the carbon.

…and I’ll tell you about the Isle Of Man another time, if you’re fucking lucky.