Monterey County’s most ambitious musicians seize South By Southwest’s unique platform.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
AUSTIN – Wearing only tight green briefs and a Robin Hood hat, Rushad Eggleston dangled upside down like a bat from a rusting, two-story-high piece of scaffolding. Somehow, he managed to hold onto his oversize cello while he sawed on it like a frantic lumberjack. His band, Tornado Rider, continued playing his song “I’m a Falcon” from the nearby stage. The music-savvy crowd at the Vortex venue oohed and aahed like they were taking in a death-defying circus act.
Given the reach and the scale of the four-day South By Southwest music orgy, the fact that Tornado Rider – and a roster of other up-and-coming Monterey County-connected acts – performed shouldn’t come as a shock: After all, more than 1,800 bands from around the world show up, or roughly 10 times as many as the massive Bonnaroo festival. But the fact that they made such a memorable impression in the “Live Music Capital of the World,” given talent assembled that included British arena rock band Muse and resurrected ’90s rock behemoths like Hole and Stone Temple Pilots, should surprise.
At another Tornado Rider set at the Western Union Showcase, an unofficial event put on by Carmel-native-turned-Austin-resident Andrew Pressman, Eggleston knew he had to turn on the heat after a day of easygoing folk and country rock. He promptly acted like a defibrillator, resuscitating a mellowed crowd reclining on blankets and chatting on a large wooden deck at the showcase.
He hopped and spun spastically like a lit Roman candle. He bounded off the wooden stage onto a trampoline that catapulted him precariously close to the crowd. During “I Saw You Working in a Restaurant,” he sat down Indian style, placed the bow between his feet and rubbed his giant cello over it suggestively. On the punk-ish “Stealer,” a bare-chested Eggleston unleashed a torrent of pelvic thrusts and splits.
After he had scaled the metal tower (yelling “Who’s a falcon now?”), he closed by jumping offstage and crashing into a sitting audience member. The crowd had as much trouble catching its breath as the startled man he struck.
“This is the craziest show I’ve ever seen in my life,” Austin resident Jenny Carroll said. “This is the best thing South By Southwest had to offer.”
• • •
Where Eggleston seized the spotlight with manic antics, fellow Carmel native Ryan Scott offered subtlety and impeccable musicianship during an official SXSW showcase at St. David’s Episcopal Church.
Though tie dye-wearing staff members were selling cold Lone Star beers, the peaceful place of worship offered a dramatic shift from the frothy throng in the street a block away, where gutterpunks and suited industry execs alike grazed on pulled-pork chili dogs, raucous street performances and omnipresent noise.
Performing with his girlfriend and musical collaborator Christina Courtin on the opener “Bundah,” the now New York City-based Scott unwove tangles of sound from a metal-bodied, resonator guitar that looked as buffed as a hot rod. Aided and abetted by a string quartet, Courtin and Scott set up a headlining set by Suzanne Vega, the long-running eclectic folk artist who hit Billboard gold with the songs “Tom’s Diner” and “Luka.”
Opening for Vega is just one of the duo’s many recent musical coups. They are currently signed to Nonesuch Records, a label with some of the world’s most recognizable musicians including Bjork, Phillip Glass and Joni Mitchell. Courtin and Scott cut their debut Christina Courtin last year with the help of rock luminaries Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and guitarist Marc Ribot, who has worked with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Robert Plant & Alison Kraus.
“It was like the dream band of a lifetime,” said Scott, who began his music career in the Carmel blues and funk band Blue Nova.
The fans who chose to attend their show – though big-time national acts like Broken Bells and Ozomatli performed nearby in Austin during the same time slot – demonstrated how quickly they’ve established their credibility.
During “All You Had to Do Was Ask,” Scott turned his gaze from Courtin to his guitar and wrung out a solo that caused the audience to burst into boisterous applause. For “Lenore,” Courtin picks up a fiddle. To her left, a violin and viola player moved their bows across their instruments in windshield-wiper synch as the duo stared at one another like a couple on a Valentine Day’s date. Later, during Courtin’s closer “Varsity,” a guy pumped his fist from a nearby pew during Scott’s guitar solo.
• • •
At every step along Austin’s Sixth Avenue, rock, metal, jazz, country and rap spilled out of windows, over curbs and into eardrums – from coffee shops, restaurants, sports bars and virtually any other businesses temporarily transformed into a top-shelf venue.
Pacific Grove High School graduate Erik Telford joined the torrent, blowing trumpet with Akina Adderley and the Vintage Playboys from the rooftop of a club called Maggie Mae’s. Currently based in Austin, Telford won the Monterey Jazz Festival’s first Jimmy Lyons Scholarship in 1997, to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music. He plays New Monterey’s Wave Street Studios in April.
A few venues away, Seaside resident Hanif Panni (stage name: Hanif Wondir) spun tightly crafted lyrics with his hip-hop act Animal Farm at the first of a half-dozen shows. Panni, a production intern at the Weekly, spins music Thursday nights at Carmel’s Mundaka; Animal Farm’s deep and dynamic ensemble, meanwhile, has a local debut planned for April.
On the outskirts of town, Andrew Pressman, the Carmel High School graduate who organized the Western Union Showcase, plucked the standup bass with a handful of bands including Raina Rose and Jack Wilson & Squinto at a variety of bootleg South By Southwest parties.
Their efforts helped feed a party with a purpose: Bands were trying to find fans; fans were trying to find bands; and the flailing record industry was trying to get the two together and make a few bucks in the process. That included some local reps making moves in the music industry without hopping onto any crowded stage.
Josh White, formerly of the local alt rock band Brea and a booking coordinator at the now-dark Monterey Live, attended with L.A. employer Dangerbird Records, scrambling to take in the keynote speech by Motown legend Smokey Robinson and still catch shows by The Very Best and Raphael Saadiq. Seaside resident and Folk Yeah Presents founder Britt Govea worked on securing a deal to distribute the upcoming Graham Nash tribute album he’s producing, then scouted for new talent to bring to Big Sur. Carmel-based musician representation company Monterey International touted their acts in a studded showcase featuring the Mother Hips, Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker.
• • •
Monterey musicians and industry movers and shakers had already piled into their touring vans or braved the amusement-park-worthy lines of Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport to leave town. A handful of former Monterey County residents, however, stayed behind in Austin. One of the most notable is Matt Sever, who performs as Matt the Electrician.
The Pacific Grove High School graduate-turned-Austin music fixture closed out the first day of Twangfest, a music showcase that included performances by Texas-based KPIG fave Ray Wylie Hubbard and Violent Femmes’ frontman Gordon Gano’s new roots rock outfit. It took place at Jovita’s, a Mexican restaurant located a ways from Austin’s city center and the hordes of hipster musicians strolling Sixth in skinny jeans that seem to have been vacuum-sealed.
Sitting on a cajon, a thick block of wood that doubles as a percussion instrument, Sever’s leg twitched and pumped like an oil derrick as he strummed a bizarre banjo ukulele on the title track from his latest CD Animal Boy. Nearby, a middle-aged man with a beer gut and a tight shirt drank a can of Lone Star beer and completed a few sloppy strums on an air guitar. Later in the laidback set, Sever introduced his song “College” with his trademark low-key humor.
“This is a true story about my college career,” he said. “Stay in school. Or don’t.”
A straight-forward folk pop number, it began with Sever stating that he still owes $35 to the Humboldt State University Library and ends with him defiantly adding that, “I haven’t paid it, and I’m still not gonna.”
Then he picked an acoustic guitar like Taj Mahal on “My Dog,” while delivering lines like: “My dog don’t bite/ He’s as gentle as a butterfly.”
Before his last song, a cover of Journey’s “Faithfully,” Sever described why he was inspired to record the power ballad. He said that the 1983 hit was his wife’s favorite song, and that now, after years trying to juggle a family and a music career, he has discovered why. “I recorded this song as a kind of present for her,” he said.
While singing lines including “they say the road ain’t no place to start a family,” Sever stripped the ballad of its accumulated kitsch and revealed its sincere core. It was an apt parallel for a festival that, beneath all the distracting promotional trappings, thumped with a passionate heart of music.
Onstage, Sever, who began his music career in Pacific Grove at 15 and performed with a local band, Slow Children at Play, at the Feast of Lanterns, seemed comfortable in his adopted hometown. Though he has lived here since 1996, the accolades have only arrived recently. At the 2009-2010 Austin Music Awards, he placed high in a handful of categories, being voted number seven on the list for the city’s Musician of the Year and even besting noted Texas songwriter James McMurtry by landing number five in the Best Songwriter Top 10.
Past performances at South By Southwest have clearly helped Sever’s music career. After a group of Japanese promoters saw him perform at the famed fest, they brought him over to Japan for a tour. He’s been back twice.
This year, though, Sever said he didn’t even apply to perform at any SXSW official events. Sporting a beard and frequently referring to his domestic life, Sever felt no need to be a part of the group of musicians who flood Austin’s downtown seeking the rare prize of a recording contract.
“The big misconception of South By Southwest,” he said, “is that people make it there.”
• • •
The brisk bacchanalia of Sixth Street had evaporated – the earnest busking, the upstart entrepreneurs handing out earplugs, the snaking lines seeking a glimpse of breakout bands like epic punk rockers Titus Andronicus, or just a bite of minced brisket drenched in a sweet barbecue sauce, had been carried off on the stiff Texas Hill Country breeze that chilled Saturday’s outdoor shows.
By noon on Sunday, where marauding spirits once consumed the streets, there was only what, by contrast, felt like a ghost town. But a thundering tractor beam pulled those on the street into a strategically located spot called Encore.
Inside, red light soaked into the dance floor. Bartenders mourned their lack of sleep.
San Francisco’s French Miami charged through a set, driven by Chris Crawford’s drums and drips of Monterey High alum Roland Curtis’s active and unconventional guitar tapping over blasts of bass-like synth from keyboard player/guitarist Jay Heiselmann. Each of the three musicians lunged chest-first to the music. Their movement, and their enthusiasm, seemed involuntary, driven from a deep place.
Curtis, an alumnus of local acts Sol Asunder and Soylent Green, seemed illogically lively this late in the week. He suggested that’s not so much because French Miami eased off an eight-shows-in-three-days schedule from a year ago, but because of the amount of music he’d absorbed in a whirlwind few days. The inspiration was energizing: “We’ve seen Twin Tigers, Jeremy J [of Carmel], Maps and Atlases, the GZA, Crystal Antlers,” he said. “Toy Castles, Liars, Holy F**k.”
He cited how much there is to learn from other groups and added that it might be a greater motivation to come than any hope for a big break.
“You don’t want to set false expectations,” he said, but he knew firsthand that a standout performance at South By Southwest can reap serious rewards. French Miami released their 2009 self-titled CD on Take Root Records, which represents breaking Nashville act The Ettes – and recorded their upcoming album for Old Flame Records – only after exposure they received at last year’s South By Southwest.
There’s another, more fundamental reason he was here in the middle of the day for one of the final sets of the week – before French Miami loaded all of their gear in a Chevy van and undertook a grueling drive to Los Angeles – “I like playing music,” he said. “I just love it. I have to do it.”