The set time, 9 pm, wasn’t ideal, but everything else came together perfectly for Zox as they made their inaugural appearance at the music industry blitzkrieg known as South by Southwest. The Providence boys played to a packed house at Emo’s, the renowned dive on the 6th Street strip, for the Side One Dummy label showcase. It helped that Zox was followed by popular Irish punks Flogging Molly, an act that brought its own on-rush of fans. But Zox did its best to capture and hold the imagination of an ordinarily obstinate and often skeptical hipster audience.
Led by frontman/guitarist Eli Miller and hyperkinetic violinist Spencer Swain, and backed by the boogie riddim section of John Zox and Dan Edinberg, the band careened through tunes from The Wait and beyond, veering from reggae to ska to jammy stuff and punk. It’s an exhilarating ride and the band demonstrated some massive chops in the process. Maybe it’s because they play 300 gigs a year.
The band came offstage looking happily stunned, flushed with that sweaty, post-gig high. Followers and strangers trailed them backstage while they off-loaded, asking them questions, patting their backs, and offering congrats. There was barely time to enjoy the moment what with all the work that had to be done. Though I didn’t follow them after their set, I’m assuming they had a more proper celebration later that night. They deserved it.
The local music scene asserted itself in other ways last week, and in other parts of Austin. For the first time in recent memory, three local bands were able to secure official slots. Dave Howard and the High Rollers played a big gig at Guero’s on Friday, while Willie Myette and his hipster friends in Katahdin’s Edge brought their jazzy steam engine to the Elephant Room Saturday night.
SXSW, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, seemed bigger than ever. While the corporate record world seems to be shrinking, the independent universe is expanding and gaining strength. It’s the indies that made SXSW in the beginning, and it seems now to be taking the festival back, as the big money people fade into the distance. There was also an ever-widening berth given to the international music scene, with bands, booths, and showcases hailing from Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Scandinavia, France, Mexico, Poland, and Italy and all points in between.
Another interesting development this year was that while the trade show floor seemed to be slightly smaller and somewhat less well-attended, outside showcases during the day — sponsored by magazines, labels, liquor companies, high-tech outfits, and the like — flourished all over the city. The allure of open bars and free food surely diverted significant attention from the lectures and panels, which are often pretty cool, in contrast to the trade show, which offers mints and trinkets and, if you’re lucky, a cheap T-shirt.
Highlights this year? There were actually quite a few . . . Wolfmother, a power trio ca. 1972, made quite a post-Sabbath splash, as did the Ark, a glammy, operatic rock band from Sweden. The Long Winters, the Ponys, and Corinne Bailey Rae also impressed. And the Go! Team, a soulful, funky, multi-racial clique, rocked the house and then some. The big shows featured the Beastie Boys playing a short, comparatively low-energy set. Gomez and the Charlatans both showed well for the UK. Arctic Monkeys didn’t measure up to all the hype. Nickel Creek was talented and ubiquitous, and Rosanne Cash, supporting her new Black Cadillac disc, also made a few appearances. The Sub Pop showcase, starring Rogue Wave, the Elected, and Band of Horses, sounded good.
Keynote speaker Neil Young and filmmaker Jonathan Demme proved to be a compelling tandem, talking about their new collaboration, Heart of Gold (currently at the Avon). Another surprise involved Judy Collins, who was interviewed by XM Radio’s Pete Fornatale. Collins was a great storyteller, and she ended the interview with a breathtaking a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” the song that made her famous. People left in tears, no lie. That stood in contrast to the prickly Chrissie Hynde, who was interviewed by native son Bill Flanagan. Gorgeous and venomous, Hynde wowed hundreds of onlookers with her brilliantly cocky insight and humorous fuck-all attitude. I can’t wait to see what happens next year.
The Wrong Reasons will be playing the Century Lounge this Friday (March 24) with the Rockland Rogues and the Cobra-Matics. The Reasons will have Greg Burgess and Jack Hanlon in the fold. Call 401.751.2255. At Cats on Friday (March 24) it’s a big rock show with Tomorrow’s Remedy, Skulltoboggan, and the Amber Code. Call 401.722.0150. Also on Friday at 7:30 pm, the Hoodoo Brothers (Tim Taylor and Mookie Kane) bring some lowdown hip-shakin’ blues to the News Café on Broad Street in Pawtucket. Filling in for the estimable, but always out-of-town Mike Dinallo will be guitarist John Ross, also a member of Kim Wilson’s Blues Revue and a former member of James Cotton’s band. Call 401.728.6475. Fresh off their triumphant trip to SXSW, Dave Howard and the High Rollers play the Woodland Meeting House in Foster on Saturday (March 25). Call 401.647.3838. And Chan’s on Main Street in Woonsocket presents an open mike blues jam with Ken Lyon and Friends on Wednesday (March 29) at 7 pm. Admission is free. Call 401.765.1900.