SXSW Day 3- Bloodshot Day Party @ Yard Dog Gallery; March 19, 2010; Austin TX
I justifiably missed last year’s Bloodshot party at Yard Dog for the Wrens’ third and last show at SXSW. That wasn’t going to happen this year, though admittedly because the Wrens weren’t here. A month before when I promised the Ha Ha Tonka boys I would see them at least once in Austin, Brian insisted it should be this party; I didn’t need much convincing. In fact, after having such a great time working the merch table at their Beer-B-Q in Boston, I let owners Nan and Rob know I would be happy to do the same again today. After hanging posters with duct tape around the backyard space till my fingers were sticky, I watched the first two sets of the day under the tent before convincing Rob to take a break. Once I settled in behind the table I didn’t want to leave, even for Ha Ha Tonka’s set, insisting there was more room behind the table then on the other side of it due to the impressive crowd.
The Silos were first up. The band has always been Walter Salas-Humara and whoever he brings with him, and you never know who that might be. Today it was longtime drummer Konrad Meiser, who also took a turn on bass, in addition to Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter Michelle Anthony on keyboards, Yard Dog’s owner, the handsome, strikingly white-haired Randy Franklin, on mandolin, and another guy I didn’t know who played both bass and mandolin. The new songs are all very vocal-oriented, with everyone contributing, and sound very promising. I’m familiar with pretty much every band on Bloodshot’s roster (which makes me a pretty good merch girl), but I had no idea who the next band up, Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, were. I definitely had a much better idea by the end of the weekend.
Morgan and his band are the newest addition to the label that made its name on alt-country. They’ve been consciously steering away from that designation and widening their scope for a number of years, but signing this band certainly isn’t going to convince anyone they’ve given up what used to be their bread and butter. And honestly, who cares? Because these guys are awesome. They’re a classic outlaw country band from Morgan’s leather vest and personalized guitar strap to their frequent mentions of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Dale Watson. Morgan’s booming voice and self-deprecating manner make him an intriguing frontman, while his solid band provides all the cred he needs. Especially entertaining was Mike Popovich behind the kit, his animated drumming and amusing facial expressions were hard to ignore and I found myself watching him for most of their set.
Ben Weaver’s music requires an attentive audience, his quiet songs and smart lyrics can get easily lost on a noisy, drinking crowd especially when he’s playing solo, and I was worried that this noisy, drinking crowd would talk through it. Happily, they paid complete attention to his set which included quite a few new songs slated for his next release. In fact, my only disappointment was from Ben. He started “Anything with Words,” one of my favorite songs from his stellar 2008 release The Ax in the Oak, only to abandon it after a partial verse. The crowd that had been so quiet for his set exploded during Ha Ha Tonka’s incendiary set. It was obvious that they believed this was THE event of SXSW, and they meant to prove it to everyone. It was a pared down list from the standard set I’ve been seeing them do for months, but that didn’t matter a bit. All of the songs from Novel Sounds of the Nouveaux South are solid enough to bear repeated listens, and since I seldom listen to their debut Buckle in the Bible Belt so their live shows are the only time I get to hear its highlights like “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” (which Rob confided he believes to be one of the top five songs he’s ever released). Their CDs were selling themselves after that set. I kept that momentum going, repeatedly selling them throughout the day to people who hadn’t even seen them play.
The rest of the day went by in a blur. Rosie Flores and her band of cute young boys, including the very handsome Chris Scruggs, played a lovely set of bluegrassy folk. Exene Cervenka and her all girl band (including the first female pedal steel player I’d ever seen) brought to life the songs from her Bloodshot debut. Justin Townes Earle had replaced his ridiculously talented multi-instrumentalist Corey Younts with upright bass and fiddle, a mistake in my book, but his aw-shucks charm and honest songs still wowed the crowd. I’m not really much of a fan, but I am happy for his success for Bloodshot’s sake. Today his singular fashion sense saw him turn up for the show in blue pants, jacket, bow tie and glasses that made him look like Clark Kent, though it was impossible to imagine his gaunt frame turning into Superman.
The day ended with a fiery set from the always entertaining Waco Brothers. This was the first time I’d seen spitfire fiddler Jean Cook play with the boy’s club, but if anyone can hold their own with this group it’s Cook. Her inventive fiddling added a whole ‘nother level to their typically rambunctious set. I turned down an invitation to join the Bloodshot crew and the Wacos at Guero’s, a nearby Mexican restaurant, for a chance to hopefully get in to see Jon Dee’s showcase at Momo’s. After hearing about their legend-making, margarita-fueled evening, I almost wished I had joined them.
Whitey Morgan & the 78's
Ha Ha Tonka
Justin Townes Earle