Is It Feedback I Hear
Or Is It Just The Accordion?

Austin, TX: 3/17/04

It’s opening night at South By Southwest. While all the fancy folks are at the Austin Music Hall for the annual Austin Music Awards (Los Lonely Boys win big, OK?), Linus and I set out to explore and in typical fashion start with a New York band that’s eluded us so far on the home turf: Sea Ray, at Buffalo Billiards. Splendid band (but stupid pop-up web site!) with lush soundscapes over a twitchy background video of lights, shapes, and colors. They start late, we leave early to cross the street and check out French actress Julie Delpy. The place is packed with bold names, we’re told; the music sounds like an uninspired rehash of American standards. We move on.

On our way to Momo’s, we espy Mary Lou Lord in disarray: usurpers have taken over her favorite spot on 6th Street, across from the Driskill Hotel! What’s the world coming to? We walk on. Danielle Howle is at Momo’s, just above Katz’s Deli. Keeps things familiar! We sit right at the edge of the stage at the owner’s table, unoccupied for the nonce. Danielle is a slip of a singer with a huge voice, full of élan and fun, who blends effortlessly blues, jazz and country, with even an occasional nod toward flamenco; she tells stories and sings songs of relationships gone weird –and all those preventive measures that should have been taken, but usually were not.

Rose Polenzani follows, and with her comes the first accordion of the evening, wielded by her banjo player. Her guitar picking is delicate, her voice so small compared to Danielle Howle’s that it’s unfair; but most of all, she is plagued by obnoxious feedback that squeals and squeals without pity. It is anyway time to leave: the proprietor is soon to reclaim our table, and we have to hurry a few blocks to the Cedar Street Courtyard for Marynka and her Lovely Girls, whom I’d missed in New York last June. She’s Russian, she lives in Amsterdam, she plays keyboards and accordion, but by the time we get there the accordion has already been squeezed. The music (keys, fiddle, bass, percussions) is somewhat drony, with fractured rhythms and vaguely Eastern modes. The songs are happy, exuberant, narcissistic –in a good way. We catch a few songs, it’s the end of the set and Marynka comes out from behind her keyboard, wearing a transparent veil skirt over a thong –in a good way. We can’t stop to … er, never mind … Back toward Buffalo Billiards.

Mary Lou Lord is still across from the Driskill. The interlopers are still there and she is about to give up, but a bird has just made a donation on her windbreaker. I counter with a donation of a couple of moist towelettes, and we forge on.

The Dears (another annoying pop-up web site!), from Montreal, are still trying to figure out various sound problems. Eventually somebody connects the proper tongue to the appropriate groove and finds the vocals somewhere. The music is an effective blend of shoe-gazing and head-banging, with swirls and swoops, and big noise. The twin keyboards drone on, guitarists and bassist jump and crouch and whirl. An original mix from recognizable elements, all very good, but we can’t stay: the Dresden Dolls are already on stage at the Hard Rock Cafe. This duo’s Teutonic “Nico-meets-Clockwork Orange” cabaret sound is at odds with the room; they really belong more in an ill-lit underground cave in the Latin Quarter, but they sound splendid, cerebral and theatrical, funny and deep. They close their set with a Jacques Brel cover, “Amsterdam”, which would have been perfect in French but still hits the spot in English translation.

Ever eastward, to Emo’s Annex for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. I’ve seen them a couple of times in New York, but it’s a premiere for Linus, who I’m sure will expatiate at length on their subject in his Music Dish column, so I’ll just say that they are solemn and bombastic as ever, and would be hypnotic if they weren’t so manic and funny. The front line consist of a violinist with a dendritic flash-of-lightning make-up, a lead vocalist in pigtails and bushy throat beard, and a Klingon with a triune Mohawk chanting monasterial drones in whiteface. In the back, they hit on objets trouvés, up to and including the kitchen sink. By far the best show of theirs that I’ve seen!

To close the evening, we await Secret Chiefs 3. And await, and await. There are 9 of them, and they all experience glitches of one kind or another. There’s a violin and a viola, an oud (electric), a sarod (electric), a samisen (electric), a mundane bass, things to hit, things to pound. And an accordion. Now, frankly, between you and me, you have an oud (electric), a sarod (electric), a samisen (electric), and you need an accordion? Do you?

It’s now 1:45 a.m. and Austin locks up and goes home at 2:00. The band is finally tuning up. They start playing; they’re damn good, but even stretching the official clock, they’ve got 20 minutes to play, max; for them, that’s about two songs and one ditty. They sound as fascinating as their line-up suggests, a blend of Asian and western Arabic rhythms and melodies, but they’ve barely begun and they are done. The stage manager is firm, no encore. Go home, go to sleep. Little Richard is coming to town at 10:30 a.m. and you don’t want to miss that!

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