South By Stateside Day 2: Viva Voce, David Dondero, and More

It's a real shame that Mother Nature didn't see if fit to cooperate with Stateside Presents' plans for South By Stateside: Day 2, the annual Phoenix run off of indie-bands on their way to the West Coast from Austin's South by Southwest Festival.

The nine band bill was divided pretty evenly between dancey-pop oriented acts and less showy solo performers (with Viva Voce falling somewhere between the two extremes).

The goal was to use both of the Sail Inn stages, indoor and outdoor.

But with rain looking imminent all nine bands ended up playing inside.

The shift made for a strange event. It's hard to imagine another gig where the bummer-folk pop of David Dondero would be sandwiched in with the thumping pop of Foster the People, or where Franz Nicolay's vaudevillian accordion show would be placed alongside Viva Voce's pysch-pop. Though I've never been, I imagine SxSS has a lot in common with SxSW; It's a real grab bag, and you better be loud to attract attention.

David Dondero opened the show early, at 6:30. Attendance at this point was slight, and it was a  real shame, because the Austin based Dondero's songs were fantastic. Imagine hearing Connor Oberst's sly, drunk uncle, which is fitting, as his latest album, # Zero with a Bullet, released by Oberst's Team Love imprint. The record is filled with the kind of sad/funny tragic comedies that I wish Oberst spent more time writing.

Opening with "Building a New Berlin Wall," a stinging, Randy Newman-like political satire, and closing with "Just a Baby in Your Momma's Arms," Dondero hunched over the mic with his acoustic guitar, winning over those wandering in. Dondero's voice is weathered and worn, and I couldn't help but feel like the weariness in the tunes was hard earned after a particularly busy few days in Austin's maw.

Franz Nicolay is known for his roles in The Hold Steady, Against Me!, and World/ Inferno Friendship Society, but last night found him performing tunes from his solo album, Luck & Courage.

Nicolay has typically garnered more ink for his mustache and debonair style than his music, and it's easy to see why: Nicolay works exceedingly well as a supporting actor, playing the rakish foil to Craig Finn's Midwestern lead character.

There's only so much noise one man and his accordion can make, and it was difficult to discern exactly what was going on over the talkative crowd (this wouldn't be the last time this happened during the night).

Alternating between banjo, acoustic guitar and sqeezebox, Nicolay was clearly upset by the crowd, proclaiming that he could be louder than everyone, having "electricity on his side."

He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, noting that this was act was not a joke.

Certain songs carried a carnival barker via Tom Waits feel, but the best was the one that reminded me of The Hold Steady, a tune called "Jeff Penalty," a song about a friend of Nicolay's who fronted the reformed Dead Kennedys. It's the kind of strident anthem that the Hold Steady excel at, though last night, I wish Nicolay had the power of a rhythm section and some guitarists to help him sell the point.

Foster the People took awhile setting up. Okay, Foster the People took a really damn long time to set up. Excruciatingly long. Despite the fact that other full bands had already played and managed to get things going quickly, something wasn't working for FtP, and the crowd wasn't having it.

With most of their goodwill used up, I was blown away by how quickly the band won the audience over. A good chunk of the crowd was there specifically for the band, and was into it, with hands in the air and some serious Jersey Shore style fist bumps going on.

I listened to the band when music editor Martin Cizmar raved about them, and on record they sounded like Peter, Bjorn and John. Live, it was a different story, with the band coming across like TV on the Radio if they were a top 40 band. The band had all the effervescence of a Diet-Coke ad, and the energy to match. Energy that inspired lots of dancing, but also a genuine fight, breaking out mid-set and resulting in some folks getting kicked out.

Their big single, "Pumped Up Kicks," was the highlight of their set, and it was impressive to see a crowd get so involved, singing along and shaking, especially after watching Nicolay so clearly struggle with keeping the crowd's attention. The band clearly has star power. 

After Foster the People's wall of sound approach, Viva Voce brought a welcome sense of space to the evening. The married duo, Anita and Kevin Robinson, kicked up a lot of noise with two guitars, a sample pad, drum set and their two voices, but also brought a groovy classic American rock groove to the evening. New song, "The Future Will Destroy You," from their forthcoming album of the same name, sounded pleasantly like the Pixies, as did much of their set of grunge pop, psychedelic rock and folk.

I was especially happy when they closed with their best jam, "Alive With Pleasure," which gave Kevin a chance to really let loose on the drums, and Anita a moment to totally shred.

As of last night, I've seen Damien Juardo four times. Last night was entirely different than the others, which involved sitting and intent listing. Jurado soundchecked for about one minute, before launching straight into "Cloudy Shoes," from his most recent album, Saint Bartlett. It's a beautiful song, but the chattiness of the crowd has grown to pretty much a roar, with plenty of excited folks ready for closer Toro Y Moi.

Jurado barely acknowledged it though, just plugging through his songs. Perhaps a backing band would have helped command some attention, but as it was, Jurado's set would have been magnificent if you could hear it, evoking Springsteen's Nebraska with its desolate beauty. After playing a scant five songs, Jurado just stood up and thanked the crowd. I couldn't blame him for wrapping things up the way he did. For the acoustic guys, tonight felt like a SxSW hangover, for everyone else, it was a killer excuse to dance.

Critics Notebook

Last Night:
South By Stateside: Day 2, featuring David Dondero, Franz Nicolay, Foster the People, Viva Voce & Damien Jurado

Personal Bias: I guess my Jurado fanboy-ism counts...

The Crowd: Split between Sail Inn regulars, hipster kids and the Mill Ave crowd.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Check check, check my ass!" in response to Foster the People's long setup.

Random Notebook Dump: "Something like Gordon Lightfoot," Kevin Robinson's answer to the soundman when asked how he wanted to acoustic guitar to sound.       


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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.