There is an inherent irony in traveling a thousand miles to the world's biggest musical festival, an internationally renowned event featuring acts from far and wide, and spending the bulk of your trip watching bands from your hometown.
As the IRS can attest (after getting my 1999 return claiming $13,000 worth of bar receipts as a "business expense") Bash & Pop is a frequent Valley clubgoer who loves to check out groups from this here burg. It's just that, well, it seems kind of silly to go all that way to watch the same stuff you could see on any Tuesday night in Tempe.
That was the feeling going into this year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, but it all changed after watching the Van Buren Wheels perform. Like most Valley music aficionados, we've had few chances to see the Wheels play of late, due in part to the group's infrequent concert schedule and a recent lineup change.
Despite all that, the band's Saturday-night showcase at the Lombardi Gallery outdoor stage proved them to be the best and brightest development in the local rock landscape in nearly half a decade. While some would inaccurately dismiss the group's music -- a Vox organ-powered blend of rock, soul, and R&B -- as anachronistic, it's the timeless nature of the style that has allowed it to be used to equal effect by everyone one from 1960's Chicano rockers ? and the Mysterians to Brit punks like Elvis Costello and the Attractions
While other metropolises can boast a rash of similarly styled combos -- among them fellow SXSW attendees The Delta 72 (Philadelphia) and the Forty-Fives (Atlanta) -- few groups in recent Valley memory have tried their hand at the subgenre, and none has managed to pull off the feat as well as the Wheels.
Chief among the strengths of this stunning five-piece are the vocals of Vic Bochini, the "c'mon, all right!" abandon of bassist Brew Kerr and drummer Chris Hewlett, and the six-string ballast of guitarist Steve Shelton. A new wrinkle in the group's sound is the arrival of Valley vet Richard Taylor, who replaces organist Jamie Lamb, a casualty of substance-abuse problems. Late of alt-country kingpins the Revenants, Taylor spent most of his Wheels debut pumping out fat keyboard rhythms and supplying with piercing conviction the high harmonies he once provided for Bruce Connole's country laments.
If the musicians were nervous about the high profile of their first gig in months, and their first with a new cast member, they didn't let on to the small crowd huddled underneath the Lombardi tent. The only complaint with the band's showcase slot was that SXSW organizers saw fit to bump the Wheels from their original venue and place them so far from the action, west of downtown and in an area populated mostly by warehouses and car dealerships. In fact, the makeshift outdoor stage was smack in the middle of a massive construction site, complete with bulldozers and scaffolding. The setting evoked the urge to strap on a hard hat and lace up some Red Wings, but the Wheels overcame the handicap.
Ripping through a 12-song set heavy on originals ranging from Nuggets-like anthems ("Girl Without a Soul," "I Guess") to R&B screamers ("Moody Joody," "Lips of Fire") to tender Stax-Volt ballads, the group topped off its Texas stand with a downright dirty version of the Sonics' "Have Love, Will Travel"
After the show, guitarist Shelton was genial, assuring us that the Wheels will resume a regular performing calendar once they return home. He handed Bash & Pop an amazing eight-song demo CD, printed ostensibly as a promo tool for any interested ponytailed A&R types attending the conference. With any luck, someone will pick up the band or release the recording, which features the brilliant Beatles-esque soul workout "Love for Sale," arguably the best (and only) song about male prostitution to so cleverly employ the phrase "doo, doo, doo, doo, doo."
While the Wheels' Saturday-night set proved to be the week's biggest revelation, the contingent of local bands making their way through town actually began three days earlier.
Local pop punks Pollen kicked off the festivities with an early turn on Wednesday at Maggie Mae's West, an open-air venue set in the heart of Austin's bustling Sixth Street area. While the bill turned out to be a good one -- musical soulmates and Dallas natives Adventures of Jet's later set was a perfect complement -- the sound quality of Maggie Mae's bunkered, cinder-block setting proved to be the biggest obstacle of the evening. Still in the midst of a two-month national tour, the group's 45-minute showcase offered the handful of assembled Pollen partisans a chance to see them perform with a new lineup that features bassist Sean Felcyn of Cali-punks Co-Ed. Felcyn stood in for non-touring permanent member Chris Serafini.
Despite Maggie Mae's dubious acoustics, the group pulled off spirited and tight readings of material from their recently released Chip (Fueled by Ramen), which seemed to make converts of an audience that boasted several music biz luminaries, including Drive Like Jehu drummer/producer Mark Trombino (familiar with the band through mutual connections to Jimmy Eat World front man Jim Adkins) and Smithereens leader Pat Dinizio, fresh off his much-hyped "living room" tour, which, judging by Dinizio's expanded girth, could have more accurately been dubbed the "home cooking" tour.
Phoenix faves the Phunk Junkeez (featuring new guitarist Danny P. of Surf Ballistics fame -- so you know we're big fans) played later that night at the Atomic Café, where the group would return on Friday to perform at a well-attended private soiree sponsored by the Arizona Music Forum. The folks over at the AzMF made a pretty big splash at their first SXSW, judging from the ubiquitous party laminates which seemed to dangle from the neck of every other wag in Austin.
Thursday saw the local hip-hop/DJ scene represented with Z-Trip's midnight ride through the patio stage of the Velvet Club. The Tripper's recent nod in Spin as well as several other high profile honors (see story on page 101) earned him a coveted slot, preceding noted New York turntablists the X-ecutioners and an indoor Velvet set from Oakland rappers Blackalicious.
Friday brought a St. Patty's Day bow from Big Shot Allstar at the Waterloo Brewing Company. The group, which snagged a contract from Mammoth Records late last year, did so with such little fanfare that it left many in local circles wondering just who the band -- formed less than a year and half ago -- even was. Playing a Mammoth showcase that included Norwegian rockers Locomotiv and L.A. metal-punks Frankie Machine, the Big Shot boys did not disappoint. Even with an alt-rock-radio-ready sound that's a little too tame for these ears, the infectious charisma of the group could not be denied, while its energy proved a welcome reprieve from the detuned Sabbath cum Zeppelin skronk of the preceding Mammoth act, stoner-rock lynchpins Fu Manchu, who despite their love for all things sludgy and '70s, were like, um, dude, really lame.
Saturday's SXSW climax predictably unleashed a sea of humanity in downtown Austin that would have been the nightmare of any agoraphobe. Working through the mass of bodies, Bash & Pop weaved a path toward Lucy's for a New Times-sponsored festival appearance from local legends Dead Hot Workshop. Playing to a packed house, including a vocal cadre of supporters from Tempe, the group tore through a passionate, if all too brief, 11-song set.
The only real disappointment was that the group chose the same song list it's been using since reforming in October. Relying heavily on material from 1998's Karma Covered Apple as well as a handful of new songs ("Waiting for Lefty," "My Friend"), an older chestnut like "Fuck No" or "Slice of Life" would have been a nice surprise. Even more appropriate would have been the 1001 track "Lead Thoughts," which received some airplay on Austin radio when it was released in 1995. Nevertheless, it was gratifying to see one of the Valley's most important and underappreciated combos getting some well-deserved attention from the crowd. This included the effusive praise of one zealous fan who "claimed" he had come all the way from the midlands of England to catch the group's performance. (He was rather pasty, used the phrase "piss off" frequently in conversation and said his name was Ian, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.)
After Dead Hot's set, it was time to head west along Sixth Street toward the massive Buffalo Billiards club, where Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers were set to perform. Bash & Pop was immediately stopped and cornered in mock threat by Peacemakers guitarist Steve Larson, who assured us that he enjoyed the good-natured ribbing we lobbed at him in the March 9 edition of this column. Boy, it sure does our hearts good to know someone still reads New Times for the articles and not just for the ads for "breast enlargement surgery."
Squeezing through the club to take a place at the bar, I recoiled in horror as my elbow brushed against what seemed to be a grizzled animal of some kind. I turned to find that it wasn't a piece of misplaced road kill, but rather the flowing beard of ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. Literally having had a "brush" with the head hombre of the "lil' ol' band from Texas" I can personally attest that Mr. Gibbons really is quite bad and thoroughly nationwide (though I was unable to corroborate Gibbons' well-known assertion that "every girl crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man." Still, it was readily apparent that the comely ladies tossing inviting glances toward Mr. Gibbons are extremely fond of short, gnarled men who look as if they've been prospecting for gold since the turn of the century -- or at least the ones who have $25 million recording contracts from RCA).
The Peacemakers played a fairly rote set of songs from Honky Tonk Union, though guitarists Larson and Scott Johnson engaged in enough six-string heroics to please even the less-devout fans in attendance. If anything, the emphatic crowd response proved that Clyne's cult of personality isn't a phenomenon exclusive to Phoenix. The group has already achieved enough Lone Star acclaim to headline in an Austin club next month.
Though he didn't have a showcase of his own, the award for busiest Arizonan at the festival has to go to pedal steel picker Jon Rauhouse, who played with six -- count 'em, six -- different bands at SXSW. A favorite of the alt-country set who's been touring worldwide and nonstop for much of the past year, Rauhouse appeared with Cash/Clash exponents the Waco Brothers, as well as Tucsonans Calexico and Giant Sand, "goth-country" gal Neko Case, Bloodshot Records songstresses Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan and British punk legends the Mekons.
Hopefully Rauhouse will be able to get some rest before next year's SXSW.
Ay Like It: It's not a stretch or unwarranted hype to say Chicano Power Revival is unlike anything local music buffs have ever seen. The group is first and foremost an amazing interpreter of true Latin music, and we're not talking about the Ricky Martin/Marc Anthony kind, either. In truth, even a broad term like "Latin" fails to accurately capture the breadth of the CPR sound -- the 11-piece big band simply defies most genre constructs. Playing an amazing melange of original music, ranging in style from traditional salsa to modern rock, the group begins a regular monthly set on March 29 at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Be sure to check these pages for a full-length profile of this amazing collective in the coming weeks, and more importantly, be sure to catch the band's Nita's set this Wednesday.
Chicano Power Revival is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, March 29, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Mamma's Pride and Joy: Lois Maffeo is very indie rock. The Arizona native is so immersed and identified with the genre that even Maffeo's mother seems to know more about the indie world than most music critics. "She called me last week and said, 'Well, the New Times better do something on you when you play here because they just ran a big article on Love as Laughter,'" chuckles Maffeo, on the phone from her Washington state home. "I just love the fact that my mom even knows who Love as Laughter is."
Aside from a familiarity with obscure Sub Pop bands, Maffeo's mother is absolutely right, her daughter deserves some serious media attention, not only for her contributions to the Pacific Northwest's underground rock scene but for her role as a consistently engaging artist in her own right.
A frustrated Catholic schoolgirl and Xavier High School grad, Maffeo bolted Phoenix in 1981 for tiny Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. Little could she have guessed then that the campus and city would become ground zero for a rock revolution, serving as home base for the venerable K Records imprint, as well as headquartering the Op zine, which would later become Option magazine (a stirring history of K and the whole Olympia scene can be found in Heather Rose Dominic's new video documentary, Shield Around the K: The K Records Story).
Maffeo began her career as a DJ on Evergreen's college station KAOS, hosting her own specialty program Your Dream Girl, which would serve as an inspiration for a whole generation of aspiring riot grrls. Maffeo elected to get on the other side of the mike, forming her first band, the Cradle Robbers, with Rebecca Gates, who would go on to fame with the Spinanes. Maffeo later found some short-lived success with Courtney Love (the band, not the "actress"), issuing a trio of singles before the duo disbanded in 1990. Relocating to Washington, D.C., Maffeo began playing her brand of ethereal indie-pop under the moniker Lois. A quartet of critically lauded LPs followed on K, including 1992's masterful Butterfly Kiss.
Her new album, The Union Themes (Kill Rock Stars) is Maffeo's first in almost four years. Written, recorded and co-credited to Fugazi drummer and multi-instrumentalist Brendan Canty, the disc features 10 of her trademark lyrical vignettes. This time out, she and Canty have expanded the musical formula to include hints of folk, soul and even a couple stabs at '60s-style girl-group pop.
Though she's been on hiatus, Maffeo has stayed busy in recent years contributing to projects by everyone from Scotch "Teen-C" revolutionaries Bis to Seattle indie rockers Red Stars Theory to Native Tongues-styled hip-hoppers the Evil Tambourines.
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Maffeo has also spent the bulk of her downtime pursuing what she lists as her "full-time occupation" -- journalist. A gifted writer, Maffeo's work and criticism have appeared in Salon, CM J, The Stranger and New Times' sister paper the SF Weekly.
Though she admits to getting "pretty fed up" with the touring grind that accompanied her last record, 1996's Infinity Plus, Maffeo insists that her return to the road this time out will be a much more moderate endeavor. Bash & Pop urges all indie-pop fans and the civic-minded alike to catch this homegirl's return to the Valley on March 26. After all, it would make her mother proud.
Lois Maffeo is scheduled to perform on Sunday, March 26, at Modified, with Go by Go and Yolanda and Joel from Chula.
Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: email@example.com