Austin Translation

A Phoenix passport to South by Southwest

Now here's a woman who's really winning hearts at SXSW.

On Saturday night, plodding up the steep, dark staircase at The Ritz, you can barely see ahead, and ominous screams fill the passageway. It's like heading straight into hell -- if only hell were upstairs instead of downstairs.

Stairway to hell: Graves at Sea blows minds -- and eardrums -- at The Ritz.
Stairway to hell: Graves at Sea blows minds -- and eardrums -- at The Ritz.


Photography by Michele Laudig.

Phoenix's Graves at Sea is in the middle of an ear-splitting performance for a few hundred people who fill a packed, tiny floor area and perch at tables on the tiered seating levels that rise to the rafters. Almost everyone here is dressed in black, and those standing have their arms crossed in concentration. If anyone moves at all, it's to bob their heads to every hard, deliberate crash of the cymbal. The bass is so loud that it makes your arm hair stand on end.

There's no stage, so the four tattooed and black-clad guys play in the corner of the room, where the only color is a neon Dos Equis sign and a giant stack of three Orange speakers. Singer Nathan Misterik serves up his evil as slow as syrup, his face flushed and sweaty as he lets out deep, lusty shrieks and agonizing, drawn-out, indecipherable growls. Holding a bottle of MGD in one hand and the mike, with its cord wrapped around his wrist, in the other, Misterik sings with his eyes shut tight, his elbow-length dreadlocks flying in the spotlight.

After the set, the sudden swarm of gangly, longhaired dudes in line at the merch table signals that Graves at Sea just made a roomful of new fans. Guitarist Nick Mullins says that from Austin, the band heads out for a two-week tour of the South. With a new seven-inch coming out on Southern Lord, the label home to the buzz-worthy metal band Probot, Graves at Sea could easily put Phoenix on the map of metal's newest wave.

A few blocks away and only 20 minutes later at the Bloodshot Records showcase, the legendary Antone's is jammed with more than 500 people, a slightly older crowd with scattered twentysomething hipsters in Western shirts and a handful of Japanese fans up front. Phoenix-based Jon Rauhouse, dark-haired and bespectacled, sits serenely behind his pedal steel, off to the left of his band, and introduces Carolyn Mark and Kelly Hogan, whose sultry, echoing vocals on the swaying "Smoke Rings" sound like an old 1940s recording, and later on, Sally Timms, who offers a dreamy rendition of "The White Cliffs of Dover."

Rauhouse gets wild applause after every song, and at one point, a cluster of men in front of the stage starts chanting, "Rauhouse! Rauhouse! Rauhouse!" The music is passionate, slow Western swing, but for some reason it gets people really pumped up.

Before singing "Prisoner of Love," Hogan tells the crowd, "This is a song that your grandparents probably made out to. Not to give you that visual, but some of you probably owe your existence to this song."

Around 1 a.m. Sunday, SXSW is reaching fever pitch as thousands of people fill Sixth Street, heading to see the final acts. The air is unseasonably warm and humid, so everybody's dressed to the hilt: indie rock boys wearing skinny tee shirts and shaggy haircuts, hip-hop guys in full gangsta regalia with miniskirted, high-heeled honeys in tow, pierced rocker girls with dyed-black hair donning '80s vintage dresses, and punks pulling out all the stops with plaid, chains, studs and all kinds of spiked hair.

Since the street's closed to traffic, it's one big sea of faces. If you close your eyes and listen -- to the talking in different accents and languages, the shouting, laughing and screaming -- the sounds of the mob create their own music that competes with the rap, rock, country and electronica blaring out from every bar's open door. Every few feet you walk, the smell of a different food wafts by, whether it's pizza from Hoek's, a heavy metal hole-in-the-wall that has a long line for window service, or sausage from a corner vendor. Music lovers stream out of every club, while dozens more wait to get inside.

Surrounded by all this chaos, it's subversively gratifying to know that somewhere in the crowd, there are performers of all stripes from all over the Valley who have infiltrated the national music scene -- if only for a few days.

E-mail, or call 602-229-8497.

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