SXSW Notebook Dump, Day 1

My afternoon started at the Guitartown/Conqueroo party with James McMurtry, whose set illustrated the power of an angry guitar. McMurtry’s songs depict people living in hard times, and they frequently don’t do a very good job of it. In one song, people walk in with dates and check out everybody else’s. There are no frills in his music – just a crushingly heavy rhythm guitar, equally spare and pounding bass and drums, and his limited voice, which he has made into a deceptively flexible instrument. At one point, he announced that Gen. Peter Pace had been let go.
“Yay,” one woman said.
“No, not yay,” he replied witheringly. “He was the one keeping us out of Iran.”

After McMurtry, Chris Stamey backed by Old Ceremony, and it was beautiful and sad. He covered Chris Bell’s “I am the Cosmos,” and his own “Something Came Over Me” was so fragile and lovely and complex. Unfortunately, the music world has never found a place for Stamey’s intelligent pop, and he wears it. He rarely looks like he’s having fun onstage, even when the music he’s making is remarkable.

Jon Dee Graham at least has fun, live. Unfortunately, this is the only place I get to see Graham, who only played New Orleans once in the last 8 or 9 years, and that was as a solo with an acoustic guitar opening for the Gourds. His electric guitar is a wiry, electrifying thing that really can go anywhere. He sings the line, “Nobody gets their heart’s desire” like he knows how powerful and sad that realization is.

From there, I move to an Athens, Georgia afternoon showcase headlined by Dark Meat, a 17-piece collective that includes two drummers with their bass drums face to face. The horn section set up in front of the stage – some of them can play, some are having fun. They introduce the first song, “This is a song about a brass band of ghosts that burns down a town and makes everything better.” Then a woman sings a pretty a cappella melody before the band slams in, and its not as chaotic as you’d expect. It is chaotic, but it’s not a mess. And when they play “their anthem,” “Three Eyes Open,” there’s a remarkably layered sound that starts to shimmer. Later that night, a cut-down version of the band – 9 members for most of the night – play the Stooges’ Fun House from start to finish. It was a beautifully perverse gesture, much like the 66-date tour they’re about to start.

I also saw Jeffrey Lewis and the Jitters, who breathlessly talked and sang, as if people were going to turn away if he stopped. He brought visual aids, pads of art paper with illustrations that look like coloring book pages telling the history of the Russian Revolution and … something. I don’t have a note on the second coloring book.

Lou Reed’s speaking this morning. Gotta go.