Forget about beer. Not even an hour after finishing their Wednesday gig -- on the opening night of the South by Southwest music festival -- the members of Phoenix rock band Blanche Davidian are standing by the bar at the Elysium in downtown Austin, doing shots of Robitussin.
Make that Robotussin, the band's signature drink.
Eyeliner smudged and inky black hair still drenched in sweat from his Johnny Rotten-channeling performance, singer Jamie Monistat VII explains that the band's own concoction, a blend of Jagermeister and Razzmatazz, tastes just like the sometimes recreationally consumed cough syrup. "But it's also the name of one of our songs, 'Robotussin,'" he says.
"It's a mind-eraser," somebody else chimes in.
Why would these guys want to forget their show at Pyramids, where they blazed through a deafening set of glam-tinged, hard-rockin' punk, complete with smoke machine and strobe lights?
Maybe it's because there were at most two dozen people at the show, who stood back from the stage, nursing their Heinekens, while Blanche Davidian played as if the crowd was 10 times as big.
It's not easy being an undiscovered Phoenix gem at a sonic orgy like SXSW, where you're competing against other knowns and unknowns who are appearing in the exact same time slot at 54 other venues. At worst, the situation can be downright depressing, in the same way the Valley music scene is sometimes described: People only want to come out for bands they've heard of. But in the most optimistic sense -- which was how the Blanche guys started to feel after the "Robotussin" kicked in -- Austin's annual live music showcase is a killer opportunity to make connections with record labels and other bands, see what's going on in the national music scene, and maybe even surprise new audiences with what Phoenix has to offer.
On Friday, two days into the festival, the members of Phoenix's indie electro-punk duo Peachcake are lurking around Austin. But they're not here to perform. Vocalist Steffan Pruett and his bandmate John O'Keefe are just taking it all in, and, one suspects, plotting their return next year -- to perform.
"We've just been handing out demos and making friends with bands," says Pruett. "So far it's going really well."
And talking on his cell phone en route to a show in Dallas, where his Tempe-based rap-rock band Fallguy kicks off a two-week tour, singer Will Glass tells New Times that 200 people came out the previous night for the band's show.
Competition for audiences is stiff, and since most of the acts on the SXSW roster don't start playing until 8 or 9 p.m., a band that's not officially part of the festival has better luck playing at off-the-map bars or in earlier time slots.
Or both, in the case of Valley singer-songwriter Mary Lemanski, who's scheduled for 7:15 p.m. at Trophy's Bar, a bare-bones dive on the far southern end of Congress Avenue, a few miles away from the rest of the action. Lemanski's part of "Invasion of the GoGirls," a free show promoting women in music, hosted by the Web site GoGirlsMusic.com. Every performer until midnight is given the chance to do just two songs.
A red-headed woman wearing glasses and a sparkly Hello Kitty tee shirt stands onstage, announcing that Lemanski's from "Tem-pay, Arizona," and the 40 or so people in the room -- mostly femmy, folkie women or androgynous lesbians -- hoot and holler from their seats.
Lemanski, donning a floppy denim hat pulled down to her eyebrows like Paddington Bear, with wisps of blond hair framing her face, sits down at the keyboard in the middle of the stage, where amps and mike stands are strewn with brightly colored feather boas. Her songs are vaguely bluesy and her voice is deceptively sweet, with a hint of naughtiness during the choruses.
But in front of this crowd, she never loosens up. She plays her piano well, but a little stiffly, and her voice falters at times with nervousness. Lemanski's same two songs would likely be far more sensual after a warm-up, but the poor girl's working a cold room. Those in the audience who are paying attention give her healthy applause for her efforts, but others are engaged in conversations, or preoccupied with the takeout sandwiches they got down the street.
A few hours later, the mood couldn't be more different at the Continental Club, farther north on Congress, where an official SXSW concert has just started. At least 30 people are eagerly waiting in line out on the sidewalk. The doorman is only letting folks in as others leave.
Inside, hundreds pack the retro-chic room, where Chandler's Jessi Colter sits at an electric piano in front of a lush crimson curtain, surrounded by a full band that includes her handsome, twentyish son, Shooter Jennings. Bathed in a red glow from the lights, Colter looks dazzling in a sheer black top, black leather cap, and ornate jet necklace. She sings along to the honky-tonk thump of upright bass and sassy harmonies of electric fiddle, sounding confident and sexy -- and the swaying crowd, which includes Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver, is totally enamored.
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.
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.
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