Prima Donna: #4 of John’s ‘Fantastic Four of SXSW 2011’

Prima Donna performing at SXSW, 3/18/11 - Photo by Erica Bruce/Between Love & Like

As noted previously in my post in praise of Biters, I dig me some glam rock. In that earlier post, I referenced T. Rex, since Sir Bolan struck me as being the most apt reference point to the band at hand, but I’m also an ardent admirer of take-no-prisoners gutter glam as practiced by the New York Dolls, so when Prima Donna‘s “Stray Doll” came up in my perusal of the second of this year’s SXSW 2011 torrents with its spoken intro reminiscent of the Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss,” its swaggering groove influenced by ‘50s rock but dragged through a ‘70s gutter, and its prominent saxophone (!), it was L-U-V at first listen. By the time South-by rolled around, I’d listened to the .mp3 enough times to proclaim to friends in advance that, based on this one song alone, Prima Donna was the band I was most looking forward to seeing in Austin this year.

Audio Download: Prima Donna, “Stray Doll”

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I’m well aware that expectations of that sort can be a dangerous thing but, as it turned out, I had nothing whatsoever to fear in this case. Did Prima Donna’s dedication to Dolls-influenced glam extend to their hairstyles, clothing, and onstage posturing? You bet it did, and it was when I noticed Dolled up band members posing for pictures with excited (female) fans before they had even played a note that I realized the showcase ahead promised to be quite the rock ‘n’ roll spectacle. And as to the showcase itself, did Prima Donna craft original songs with a spirit, style, swagger, and sexiness of the Dolls in their prime? Oh my, yes. Did the showcase feature a front-of-stage lined two-deep with admiring women who were practically delirious, and fully under the spell of the band throughout the set? Oh, indeed.

Prima Donna’s set got underway with my second-favorite quote of the week when frontman Kevin Tyler Preston intoned, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called South by Southwest.” The set which followed was chock full of originals guaranteed to put a smile on the face of any fan of glam from virtually any period, from the golden age of Bowie/Mott/T. Rex and the proto-punk glam of the New York Dolls in the ‘70s to the Sunset Strip glam metal of the ‘80s. The only exception to the addictive originals that was included in the set was the band’s choice cover of Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds,” which I invite you to enjoy now, courtesy of video captured by my friend Jamie:

Incredibly (and admittedly somewhat disappointing for me), given that it was the song they chose to represent them on the official SXSW site (and, consequently, in the torrent), the originals played at Prima Donna’s Friday night showcase didn’t include the aforementioned “Stray Doll.” It did, however, include a number of other choice cuts which I’ve since come to love, most especially the showstopper, “Soul Stripper.” As well, Prima Donna delivered their barnburner of a set with such zeal that their show culminated in that rarity of rarities: the South-by encore.

One thing I know for sure… if you see Prima Donna’s live show, by the time it’s over, I guarantee that you will walk out the door knowing that, by god, you’ve just seen a rock ‘n’ roll band. Odds are good that you’ll also be humming a new favorite melody and grinning from ear to ear too, all while still digesting the rock ‘n’ roll spectacle you just experienced. And that, my friends, is always an exhilarating feeling … and it’s no accident that the hunt for that sensation of exhilaration is the primary reason that 2011 was my thirteenth straight year traveling to SXSW for rock ‘n’ roll spring break.

See you there in 2012?

Twangville gratefully acknowledges Erica Bruce/Between Love & Like for the use of her photo.

Hunx & His Punx: #3 of John’s ‘Fantastic Four of SXSW 2011’

Hunx & His Punx at Red 7, SXSW, March 18, 2011 - Photo by matzohball77

In a world where boys who can’t sing aren’t allowed to be lead vocalists in 1960s-style girl groups, only one hero was gay enough to defy the odds: Hunx

-eMusic’s capsule description of Too Young To Be In Love, the debut album from Hunx & His Punx

I first heard Hunx & His Punx in the second of the two SXSW 2011 torrents which dropped just a week before South-by got underway and included the instant-classic-in-my-world “Too Young to Be in Love.” Featuring a frontman whose nasally vocals evoke pleasing (to my ears anyway) thoughts of a young Jonathan Richman fronting a band that amounts to a stunning contemporary rendition of ‘60s girl group goodness, this ‘60s girl group pastiche is delivered pleasantly devoid of any evident camp or insincerity… Hunx & His Punx play it straight.

Audio Download: Hunx & His Punx, “Too Young To Be In Love”

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It’s probably worth noting, however, that his approach to the material is pretty much the only thing about the rather flamboyantly gay Hunx that can be described as “straight.” Of course, in this context, all of the songs about “boys,” “boyfriends,” “ex-boyfriends,” and (of course!) dead boyfriends, work like a charm, just as they did with the original girl groups … you know, back when they were fronted by girls. Hunx & His Punx play their delightfully refreshing, note-perfect take on ‘60s girl groups with what’s clearly great affection for the form, and they’ve captured the spirit of those teenage crush stories perfectly … albeit with the aforementioned gender-bending change-up of having a gay, male lead singer fronting an otherwise all-girl group.

I was extremely curious as to how the songs of Hunx & His Punx would go over in Red 7, one of Austin’s most venerable bastions of punk rock (and where I’d seen the Riverboat Gamblers and Fake Problems rock out earlier in the day). But when the band and their ‘60s girl group sounds went over not only well but extremely well with the near-capacity crowd in the sweat-soaked dive bar, it occurred to me that, really, what could be more punk than a flamboyantly gay man fronting an all-girl ‘60s girl group-style band in 2011?

Song after song throughout their set, Hunx & His Punx (Punxettes?) showcased their original compositions in the time-honored ‘60s girl group tradition, with nary a cover in sight, which only served to make them all the more impressive. Or at least if there were any covers in the bunch, they were songs that were unfamiliar to me anyway, and I like to think I’m reasonably familiar with the classic girl groups.

Bottom line: Somewhere in the California penal system, Phil Spector ought to be smiling. Doubly so, in fact, given that Spector’s work producing the classic girl groups of the ’60s and his later work with the Ramones likely had an equal (and equally seismic) effect on a young Hunx.

Postscript: I wrote my first draft of this piece on March 29, which was the day that Too Young To Be In Love (the album) dropped. As you might’ve inferred from the epigraph at the head of this piece, the record is available on eMusic, where I purchased a booster pack that very day in order to pick it up. What’s not available on eMusic (and more’s the pity), however, is the previous release from Hunx & His Punx, a compilation of singles appropriated titled Gay Singles. It’s that earlier collection that I’d been listening to for the better part of a week since my return from Austin, and though it’s not in the same girl group style as Too Young To Be In Love, and features a more ‘50s rock-influenced style of music (albeit thrown into a blender not dissimilar to the one the Ramones applied to their own approach to early rock rhythms), it’s about as addictive a collection of singles as you’re likely to come across, and I commend it to your attention as well.

Interestingly, while seeking video to accompany this post, I discovered an earlier version of “Too Young To Be In Love” by Hunx & His Punx, done not in the girl group style of the version which appears on the album (and despite the fact that the video features Hunx’s Punx as his fellow gang members), but sounding very much of a piece with the semi-punky ‘50s-influenced style of the songs featured on Gay Singles instead. It’s every bit as great as the album version though, and I’d buy it on the spot if I could find it for sale anywhere:

The only words of caution I’d offer with regard to Hunx & His Punx are that they’re probably not for a) homophobes or b) those to whom adenoidal vocals are anathema. Anybody else who loves rock ‘n’ roll, (and especially ‘60s girl groups), however, is doing themselves a disservice if they don’t get some Hunx & His Punx in their lives and onto their iPods (or iPod equivalents).

Twangville gratefully acknowledges matzohball77 for permission to use the photo above. Thanks!

Biters: #2 of John’s ‘Fantastic Four of SXSW 2011’

Biters - photo by Jackie Roman / The Hell Gate
It’s no secret that I love me some power pop, so when I was cruising through this year’s SXSW torrent and Biters leaped out of the speakers with “Melody for Lovers” (bar none the best new-to-me power pop song of the torrent, and a shining example of power pop perfection), I snapped to attention immediately. Shortly thereafter, I sent an email to a group of friends who would also be attending SXSW proclaiming Biters as the new band “most likely to righteously sate your power pop jones.” Quite rightly, and not terribly surprisingly, several of those same friends had already come to a similar conclusion on their own, and had slotted Biters into their own schedules accordingly.

Audio Download: Biters, “Melody For Lovers”

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In addition to power pop, I love me some down-and-dirty T. Rex-style glam rock. As a result, when I saw Biters live, I quickly realized that, despite the power pop perfection evinced by “Melody for Lovers,” and (given their sound) despite the surprising-to-me fact that they were rocking denim-on-denim in all its sartorial splendor, these lads have managed to perfectly blend Cheap Trick-style power pop and T. Rex-style glam rock to create their signature sound… shall we call it power glam? With that realization, my South-by Friday night was off to a thrilling start, and that night would end up being the MVP of 2011 South-by nights for me, with three of my “Fantastic Four” bands all appearing in showcases the same night. One song after another, Biters delivered a highly addictive set of “power glam” earworms. By the time their head-rush of a set was over, I realized they hadn’t even played “Melody for Lovers,” the song that hooked me in the first place (and had gotten me to make the considerable hike over to the Scoot Inn). Under normal circumstances, a setlist exclusion like that would tend to irk me, but in this case it honestly mattered not at all, given that nearly every song in their outstanding set was as good or better (!) than that gem.

I should probably mention one other influence that finds its way into Biters’ sound on occasion (though infrequently, it must be noted), and it was this influence which was evidenced with the cover they played to end their set. Frontman Tuk introduced the selection saying, “We just watched Detroit Rock City yesterday… again! [So] we’re gonna play a Kiss song. If you don’t like it, kiss my ass. If you like it… alright!” As much as I loved the rock ‘n’ roll attitude of such a statement, and as much as certain Kiss songs can pleasantly transport me back to my youth, their chosen selection of “Strutter” isn’t exactly one of those songs for me. Personally, I’d have voted for “Melody for Lovers” as being not only the better song, but the better set-closer, but since I suspect that Biters would interpret that compliment as being tantamount to heresy, I should probably keep that thought to myself. Oops.

“Born To Cry” is the first single from All Chewed Up, Biters’ new EP, and it’s one of the songs they played that I’d say is even better than “Melody for Lovers,” but why don’t you give it a listen and decide for yourself?

Audio Download: Biters, “Born To Cry”

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Including the latest release, there are three Biters EPs now available, and since my return from Austin, I’ve picked them all up, and can tell you that each one is better than the one before. Make no mistake, however, the first one is great (and “Melody for Lovers” appears on the second), but they’ve truly perfected their sound with the latest release. As a result, it’s All Chewed Up that’s most indicative of their live sound … and it’s a sound guaranteed to get the blood pumping and the ass shaking of anyone who truly loves rock ‘n’ roll.

Biters are out on the road now, making their way from the West to the East Coast, and they may be coming to your town soon, so check out the tour dates. Personally, I’m lamenting the fact that D.C.’s getting skipped, but I may just have to make the Baltimore run. After all, though Biters sated my power pop jones in Austin, I’m already in need of another fix.

My Jerusalem: #1 of John’s ‘Fantastic Four of SXSW 2011’

My Jerusalem performing at Esther's Follies, SXSW 2011 - photo by Andrew Norman at HearNebraska.org

My Jerusalem, the band that I would leave SXSW 2011 proclaiming to everyone willing to listen as having been the best new band I saw all week, and the one that I knew would present me with the tallest order in terms of doing them justice with mere words, was a band that I hadn’t even intended to see while in Austin. Not out of any conscious, decision-making process, mind you, but because, embarrassing though it is to admit, I was completely unaware until just a few hours before their Thursday night showcase that Jeff Klein (of whose solo work I’ve been an admirer for going on ten years now) had even formed a band called My Jerusalem, a collective including members of the Twilight Singers, Great Northern, Cursive, the Polyphonic Spree, and Midlake. (And yes, I now realize that I somehow missed Mayer’s recommendation of the band in his August Playlist last year, and at least one previous SXSW appearance of theirs. Mea culpa.)

By turns haunting, evocative, ethereal, and raucous, the songs of My Jerusalem are rock ‘n’ roll practiced at the highest level; rock ‘n’ roll as Art. Yes, friends, My Jerusalem make music of a caliber that merits even the pretentious use of the capital “a” in Art. Every now and again, the devoted rock ‘n’ roll acolyte is granted a vision of a band that, in addition to simply crafting songs composed of words and music that speak to the listener, whose songs also feel instantly like letters-in-music-form from a dear friend. My Jerusalem is a band that’s making music that feels important, music that feels like it genuinely matters, and that gets under the listener’s skin and scratches their very soul. I don’t know about you, but I’m not made to feel this way too terribly often by a band, but My Jerusalem has accomplished the feat, and it all started with the magnificent, jaw-dropping performance I witnessed in Austin just a couple of weeks ago.

That a rock ‘n’ roll band evoking such feelings would consist of a group of gifted musicians is kind of a given, but that such a band would employ (as My Jerusalem does) both a horn section and strings to augment and complete their sound might be somewhat less of a given. Pretty much anyone who knows me, however, is all too aware that the inclusion of a horn section is among the quickest ways to my heart musically, and the addition of horns and strings to a live rock ‘n’ roll band has been known to positively lift my spirits to the heavens in the past (cf. my review of the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra in this space two years ago). My Jerusalem, with just such a winning combination of rock ‘n’ roll, horns, and strings, along with a supremely gifted songwriter and frontman in Jeff Klein, has once again moved me to a paroxysm of praise.

For a representative sampling of the austere majesty of My Jerusalem, may I humbly suggest the album opener, “Valley of Casualties” which, if I recall correctly, was also the opening number of their SXSW showcase. It’s also my current favorite song of theirs, though in truth, there are already several others jockeying for that title.

Audio Download: My Jerusalem, “Valley of Casualties”

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Needless to say, since I didn’t even know the band existed until just three hours before the show, I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs played, but I can tell you that there wasn’t a single song in the bunch that was anything less than remarkable. If I were to compare their sound to that of other bands, I’d reach for a combination of Crooked Fingers and the National, but though there are elements that remind me of both those bands, make no mistake, My Jerusalem’s sound is wholly their own, and it’s a sound that I find hard to believe wouldn’t resonate with pretty much the entirety of the Twangville audience.

For a taste of the live experience, as well as a sample of the most raucous song in My Jerusalem’s catalogue to date, NPR provides a one-minute snippet of “Sweet Chariot” from the very SXSW showcase of which I write:

As a final note, I’ve already privately thanked the friend who tipped me off to the existence of My Jerusalem, but I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him publicly as well. Todd Ohlhauser is the man behind the Mercy Lounge and the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville, and it was he who clued me into New Jerusalem and their (only) SXSW set, so if this post helps turn you into a fan of the band, and if you live in/near Nashville (or plan to visit), why not stop by the Mercy Lounge, have a drink, catch a show, and tell Todd “cheers” for the My Jerusalem tip while you’re at it? Better yet, tell him Twangville sent you.

And hey, word on the street is that My Jerusalem will be hitting the road, and departing their Austin home base for a string of U.S. tour later this year, so you might even be able to catch them at the Mercy Lounge. If they’re coming to your town though, whatever your town might be, please don’t miss an opportunity to see this band perform live. And hey, feel free to tell them that Twangville sent you too.

Twangville gratefully acknowledges Andrew Norman at HearNebraska.org for permission to reproduce his photo from My Jerusalem’s SXSW appearance.

John’s SXSW Roundup, Starring Alejandro Escovedo, Jesse Malin, and the ‘Fantastic Four of SXSW 2011’

Given that friends and colleagues always ask upon my return from Austin who were my absolute favorites of the new bands I saw at SXSW each year, I’m going to focus my attentions entirely on the new-to-me bands that I left Austin wishing most fervently that I could see play again right now. As it turned out, all three of my favorites this year were bands I had been eagerly looking forward to seeing based on their .mp3s in this year’s SXSW torrent (the primary means I use to “audition” bands for a spot on my South-by schedule), but the very best new band I saw all week proved once again that man can’t live by his predetermined SXSW schedule alone, and that allowances must be made to call an audible every now and again when in Austin.

More on all four of those bands later, he said, shamelessly burying the lede.

I should mention that this focus on the most exciting new-to-me sounds discovered in Austin is fully in keeping with my philosophy when in Austin for SXSW. I’m there to discover my soundtrack for the year ahead (and beyond), the new sounds that will have me tapping my toes, dancing around the house (badly, but with enthusiasm), and singing along (also badly, to say nothing of loudly, but with equal enthusiasm), and that’s a process that begins with the torrent. This year there were two torrents released, compiling between them all of the .mp3s provided by participating bands from the official SXSW site, totaling over 1,100 songs (one per artist). That’s a lot of songs to audition, but it’s still just slightly more than half of what were reportedly upwards of 2,000 participating bands this year, so consider this my annual plea to all bands playing SXSW: If you want potential fans to come see you, please include an .mp3 with your bio!

Alejandro Escovedo & the Sensitive Boys performing at the Continental Club, March 20, 2011 - Photo by Sean Phillips

There is, however, one guaranteed exception to my dedication to the discovery of new sounds each year, and that’s Sunday night’s always excellent and never-less-than-essential closing ceremonies for the, ahem, South-by “true believers,” as hosted by Alejandro Escovedo and Friends at the Continental Club. Given my stated purpose of concentrating on the new, I’m not going to devote an entire post to the show this year as I have in years past, but suffice it to say that it was another superb night of live music, culminating in a special, guest-filled, only-in-Austin-for-South-by set from Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys. I haven’t missed one of these shows since it moved to the Continental Club twelve South-bys ago, and it’s consistently been a highlight (if not the highlight) of SXSW for me every year. Featured guest shots during Alejandro’s set this year included Lucinda Williams who joined Al for a duet on “Pyramid of Tears”:

Frequent “South-by Sunday” guest Charlie Sexton took a break from his role as Bob Dylan’s guitarist on the never-ending tour to lend his trademark guitar fireworks to a trio of covers that brought the show to its rousing close. Included among the three were two covers that it was my privilege to be hearing Alejandro play for the first time. The first of these was the Stones’ “Miss You,” also featuring Wammo from the Asylum Street Spankers on harp, and presented to you here courtesy of my friend Jamie who captured the moment on video:

Next up was a cover of the Band’s “It Makes No Difference” which, simply put, was easily and absolutely among the highest highlights of a typically highlight-filled South-by for me this year. This one was otherworldly, folks, and I doubt that any recording could truly do it justice, so it’s probably just as well that, as far as I can tell, none has surfaced. If you were there at the Continental Club, you knew you were witnessing something truly special, a performance unlikely to ever be forgotten by those in attendance on this most special night of South-by. Heck, I was even talking after the show with some of the performers who’d shared the bill, and who were equally awestruck and at a loss for words to adequately describe just how powerfully moving the set-closing performance of “It Makes No Difference” was.

The show was brought to a close with a one-song encore in the form of an extended version of “Beast of Burden,” another Stones number (a band in whose honor Alejandro seems to be well on his way to having recorded a live tribute album at this point), in an appropriately raucous, and equally joyful performance … both among those onstage and among those in the audience, several of my friends and I most definitely included.

Sheesh, even when I try not to write about the magic and the majesty of South-by Sunday night at the Continental Club, it seems I just can’t help myself, huh?

On that note, I’ve got one more item from the show that I need to share. In my humble opinion, the quote of the week occurred during Jesse Malin & the St. Marks Social’s typically scorching set when Jesse told the assembled faithful, “We came down here for SXSW not to get a record deal, find a manager, or gain Facebook status … we came because Alejandro asked us.” How can you not love that, right? And hey, guess what, Alejandro fans? Jesse Malin & the St. Marks Social are heading out on the road with Alejandro & the Sensitive Boys for a couple of weeks from April 21-May 6, so whatever you do, make sure to arrive early to catch their opening set if the tour is coming to your town. You can thank me later.

OK, so enough with the prelude already, right? Let’s get down to the business at hand … revealing the four bands that I’ll be coming at you each day this week with a new post dedicated to detailing my newfound love for their music (and, if all goes according to plan, turning many residents of Twangville onto them in the process). For anyone who’d care to study up in advance of my coverage, what follows are what, comic book geek that I am, I’m calling the “Fantastic Four” of SXSW 2011 so, without further ado, here they are … my picks for the Fantastic Four of SXSW 2011, or, John’s Picks for the World’s Greatest New* Bands at SXSW 2011…

My Jerusalem
Biters
Hunx & His Punx
Prima Donna

*New to me, anyway … I realize I’ve been sleeping on these bands for up to a couple of years already. I already lament the years of lost potential listening time enough as it is though, so please don’t rub it in.