One of the best music venues at the South by Southwest Music Conference is the Austin Convention Center. Each day, two large rooms host showcases. One is the International Day Stage; the other is the Radio Day Stage. Both feature bands and performers who are off the mainstream radar screen, as they did Thursday afternoon.
The International Day Stage delivers the most variety. Levante, from Turin, Italy, opened the stage on Thursday. Levante is Claudia Lagona, a 26-year-old singer, guitar strummer and leader of the electric-folk trio. She sings in Italian, adding some exotic flavor to her songs, which are folky and tuneful and, despite the language barrier, convey a variety of emotions and bear resemblances to Sixpence None the Richer and other ’90s indie folk bands. Her lead guitarist’s elegant embroidery sounded like he has studied the ways of Mark Knopfler.
Macaco is a Spanish pop band from Barcelona, led by the charismatic Dani Carbonell, a polyglot and master of vocal tricks and feats, like Bobby McFerrin. Carbonell speaks five languages, English included, and he and his five-piece band immediately connected with the crowd of several dozen. Their music is rooted in several styles. Before their final song, a ballad with a reggae sway, he explained it was about the contradictions within love and relationships, and then orchestrated a sing-along in Spanish.
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The International Day Stage is famous for presenting wildly unique bands. Toffee is one of them. They are a five-piece from Taipei, Taiwan, that mixes pop with hip-hop. They are led by MC GaWeed, who reigns over a kettle drummer and three ladies, Yuna, Kaye and Linda — who sing and perform on traditional Chinese instruments. They sing mostly in Chinese, as in a song about the slippers Chinese girls would make for themselves before their arranged weddings, but they did perform a song in English called “High Five.” The lyrics went “High five, won’t you hear me now?” and included a chant of “awesome!” GaWeed ventured into the crowd and exchanged high fives with audience members.
The string duo Black Violin wasn’t booked at either of the day stages, but performed inside the convention center. They entertained the audience waitng for “The Who at 50” panel discussion. The duo comprises Keve Marcus (violin) and Wil B. (viola), classically trained musicians from Florida. They reinterpreted Who songs, including “Who Are You” and “Baba O’Riley,” lavishly embellishing the violin solo in the original version.
‘The Who at 50’
The Who panel convened a variety of musicians who are also fans of the British band: Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band; Clem Burke, drummer for Blondie; Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent of the Zombies; singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet; and music journalist Holly George-Warren. Bob Santelli, writer and executive director of the Grammy Museum, moderated.
For much of the discussion, which lasted nearly an hour, panelists lauded the band and each member for their their vast contributions to rock and roll. The band is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tour, which stops at the Sprint Center on May 5.
High praise flowed. “Once we discovered them, it was incredible,” Van Zandt said. “There was no group like them ever. Everyone was discovering people in those days. I felt like I discovered the Who. ... I remember playing it for the music class in high school. It was a shocking thing for people to hear.”
Burke recalled seeing the band’s infamous performance on “The Smothers Brothers Show” in September 1967, when Keith Moon blew up his drum kit. “To me, that was almost bigger than seeing the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan,’” Burke said. “That was an epiphany for me.”
The Zombies were contemporaries of the Who, and Argent and Blunstone recalled performing with the band very early on, before the Who broke big in America. The first time, the Who wasn’t so special, Blunstone said. But the second time, they were “absolutely fantastic, brilliant. And I knew they’d just had all their gear stolen. Everything was stolen, so they were playing with borrowed gear. And they were breathtaking.”
The third time, Blunstone said, Moon fired a starter’s pistol loaded with tear gas backstage, just before the Zombies went on stage, blinding the band in their own tears.
Van Zandt talked about the Who’s wild, destructive ways, back when the band was doing several shows a day, thanks to disc jockeys like Murray the K, yet they didn’t relent. “They were smashing their equipment and taping it back together,” he said. “They were in debt halfway through ‘Tommy’ because they were breaking all this stuff.”
The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” was discussed. Van Zandt, who said he was a bigger fan of the band’s earliest albums, called the album “a miracle.”
“It’s miraculously good,” Van Zandt said. “I love the idea of concept albums. ‘Tommy’ is the gold standard.”
Lots of tales were told: Roger Daltrey getting fired (briefly) before the first album was recorded for punching Moon in the face. Pete Townshend refusing to go on at Woodstock until the band got paid in cash and then knocking Abbie Hoffman of the stage.
“(The Who) were the precursors to punk,” Burke said.
The Who was wild, but all four were also gifted musicians. The panel talked at length about Moon and his vital role in the band and in rock and roll.
“He was like a one-man symphony,” Burke said. “A lot of those song wouldn’t be what they are without his drumming. He was very unique.
“The Who were a band of equals. They were four stars, and Keith was one of them. I just think he was very influential.”
Thursday was Day 2 of the Midcoast Takeover, the four-day showcase of bands from Kansas City and Lawrence, which is free and open to the public. Day 1 went smoothly, organizers said, except for one accident: William Sturges, bassist for Not a Planet, broke his ankle when he didn’t stick the landing in a jump off the stage. The sound and production here is as good as any in the festival, including the official SXSW venues.
The final five hours of Thursday’s lineup at the Shangri-La, east of downtown Austin, was all over the place, stylistically. The music of Dolls on Fire sounds like show tunes from a lavish rock opera. The Medicine Theory is a guitar/drum/cello trio that deliver a dark, subversive mix of experimental punk and metal. How dark? The song “Timmy” was about a kid who liked to play with dead things.
The Bad Ideas play hardcore punk that is as fierce and invigorating as it is disheveled. They got a loud response from a crowd of a hundred-plus. Me Like Bees, a quartet from Joplin, played a lively set. Their music evokes the sounds of Modest Mouse, Talking Heads and others. The cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” was a highlight of the evening.
The Austin band Sphynx made a last-minute guest appearance, drawing lots of locals into the venue. They do a kitschy, campy blend of dance rock — Phoenix with a heavy dose of glam and narcissism.
The Architects closed Day 2 of the Takeover because nobody closes a night as explosively as they do. They shut down the place with a salvo of melodic hard-rock/punk anthems, including a great cover of the Clash’s “Bankrobber.”
The weather forecast is calling for a couple days of heavy rain — biblical, depending on what forecast you listen to. So contingency plans have been made to shuffle the lineup on Friday and move as much of it inside as possible, if necessary. Either way, Austin will get another big dose of our local music scene.