SXSW 2009, Day 2: Quincy, Unlearn Guitar, more

Welcome back, my friends, to the post that never ends — or at least it seems that way. For here I am, Ken Richardson, back at the laptop at the end of Thursday, to give you the very latest from SXSW (including U Can Unlearn Guitar, shown above).

The day began with the conference's "Keynote Address" by Quincy Jones. Note the quotes; it was indeed an address (complete with TelePrompters), but instead of dealing with the state of the music industry at large, it was mostly in the key of Q. Or, as Will Smith said in one of the many video tributes that accompanied the address, "It's the power of the Q."

In other words, Quincy's speech was nearly entirely about Quincy. Admittedly, the man has had a genuinely historic career for 60 years. But after so much name-dropping of his "homies" (Sinatra! De Niro! Bono!) and all of the birthing technologies that he witnessed firsthand (stereo! cassette! optical disc!), my ears tended to gauze over.

What was slotted as a 75-minute speech ended up running more than 2 hours. And it wasn't until 1.5 hours in that Quincy said, "So, let's talk about the state of the music business." Sigh. It's certainly not the first time that SXSW has booked a keynote speaker who would spend most of his or her speech going off on a personal tangent, but this was . . . a bit much.

However, something remarkable happened at that 1.5-hour point . . .

At long last, Quincy got truly emotional. "We have an entire generation that doesn't know that you used to pay for music. . . . We have invented ourselves out of the business, without finding ways to make new revenue streams. We've tried everything, like iPods and iTunes, and believe me, we're still getting iScrewed. . . . We must find new revenue streams because, baby, the train is on the way, and it's coming fast."

Then, he mentioned his campaign to establish a Cabinet-level Secretary of the Arts. "Every other country has a Minister of Culture. Here, music is treated as a disposable culture."

Finally, summing up the experience of his speech, he said: "You've given me much more than I've given you, because you let me be myself." He then had us all stand up, join hands, and recite after him various tenets of his four missions in life: love, laugh, live, and give. And golly if there weren't some moist eyes in the house. What started as a yawn ended up a ringing revival meeting, complete with some impressive surprise performances by 13-year-old America's Got Talent winner Bianca Ryan (who sang "God Bless the Child," convincingly) and 23-year-old Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez (who floored us all).

Still, Q's speech ran so long that most of my other plans for the afternoon were shot to hell. I did, however, manage to catch the Grates a second time (see Day 1 post), in my continuing quest to follow them around during this SXSW like a faithful puppy (read: fan). They were marvelous again, but I should single out two things: (1) During "Rock Boys," when singer Patience Hodgson usually wields a gymnastics ribbon/streamer, the crowd was so tight that she had to sit on the shoulders of a fan; impressive! (2) The band's sound man deserves a prize. This gig and yesterday's show were in two very different venues, but both times, the sound mix was perfect — and never too loud. Thank you.

And this night's roster of festival shows? Well, Q's speech should have tipped me off that my evening wouldn't be going as planned, and that it wouldn't allow me to categorize bands the way I did in yesterday's post. So, buckle up for a fast-paced, boldface-named thrill ride through the streets and haunts of Austin.

First, I'm off to see the taxicabaret singer Nellie McKay (Harlem, NY) at 7 p.m. at St. David's Church. But the 8 p.m. performer had to cancel because of food poisoning, so Nellie allows substitute James Harries (Prague, Czech Republic) to precede her. Notecards at the venue quote the Daily Express on Harries: "Think of a jet-powered Jeff Buckley or a demon-possessed Damien Rice." After the gig, a self-professed/possessed expert behind me says this: "Jet-powered? Demon-possessed? That's not accurate. Whoever wrote that wasn't paying attention to the act. This guy is just an acoustic folkie." And I have to admit, he's right. And then along comes Nellie, who's such a dazzling artist that she falls into the category of Previously Known Acts That I Allow Myself to See at SXSW. Wearing a flapper-fringed red dress and silver cowboy boots, she plays a fine set of material new ("Second-Hand Nell," "Ghost of Yesterday") and old ("David," "Real Life," "Oversure," "Pounce"), along with nods to both Blossom Dearie and Ella Fitzgerald. What a pro.

But now I'm late for my 8 o'clocker, so I rush off to the multi-club venue known as Maggie Mae's. And my 8 o'clocker becomes a multi-band sampler. Maggie Mae's Rooftop: Bang! Bang! Eche! (Christchurch, New Zealand), five guys with lotsa shouting, lotsa flailing, and not much content. Says the lead singer: "This is a pop song." Brrrraaaaangggggg. Enough of that. Off to Maggie Mae's Downstairs: Charlie Mars (Oxford, MS), an acoustic guitarist with a band. Pleasant enough Americana, but the sound mix goes into overdrive, so enough of that. Off to Maggie Mae's Gibson Room: The Features (Nashville, TN), a quartet that's almost Brit-country-pop-sounding, and they even end with a punkish flourish. So I declare the Features to be the winners of tonight's Maggie Mae's funfest.

But wait, there's more Mae: back downstairs and back up the other stairs to the Rooftop for my 9 o'clocker, on the recommendation of Amy Treco of the PR firm m.f.h.: BEAST (Montreal, Quebec). News flash: Amy Winehouse goes to rehab, cuts hair, forms a techno band! Or so it sounds. The band ain't run-of-the-mill, and neither is the singer here. But after a while, things tend to blur, and the singer's wah-wah-Winehouse voice starts to nag. In fact, after I leave the club in the middle of the band's set, I can still hear her voice wah-wah-ing after me, even though I've already passed another windows-open club.

The night goes on to include the Clutters (Nashville, TN), whose sound is the furthest thing from being cluttered. Indeed, rock & roll doesn't get much more basic than this — in a good way. Although, of course, you can only go so far with it, and I dare say that there must be at least 50 other bands playing SXSW this year who could do it just as well.

Heading for the sweaty Flamingo Cantina, I catch the very end of a set by Bomba Estereo (Bogota, Colombia) — and I wish I'd seen the whole thing, cuz this gal and this band are hot hot hot rock en espanol. Ah well, I've come here to see the enigmatic Natalia Lafourcade (Mexico City, Mexico) in the 1 a.m. slot. However, by 1:20 a.m., people are still fiddling with mikes and plugs, and my stamina simply runs out. I head for my room to start this post.

Which is a shame, because I also missed Natalia's performance at the Day Stage in the Convention Center. So many bands, so little time! Then again, my disappointment is tempered by the fact that I was able to see something wild a couple of hours before:



U Can Unlearn Guitar
(Chicago, IL;
     Okay, stay with me on this one. Intrigued by the name, I arrive at a nearly empty club called the Hideout. On comes a guy with an acoustic guitar, and a gal with a cello. The guitar is very tinny, and the guy — one Andrew Alper — sings depressing singer/songwriter lyrics while the gal saws away intently.
     And it sounds real bad. Off-tune. Ramshackle. With Andrew, between songs, saying things like: "What time is it?" "Where's the set list?"
     Then he calls for a drummer. Out from behind a curtain comes a guy who . . . has no drums. So he sets up some cheap learning guitars (and their empty boxes) on the floor and starts tapping them with . . . dinner knives. And it's at this point that a certain ghost of yesterday comes to mind: Andy Kaufman.
     Is this for real? Or some sort of performance-art comedy bit?
     I'm thinking the latter when Andrew suddenly announces that U Can Unlearn Guitar has run its course as a band, and he's now starting another band, right there, on the spot, called Cello Shots: "a dance band (with a cello) that promotes drinking alcohol." At which point, two audience members (or are they intentional plants?) join the band playing other learning guitars, badly tuned.
     It doesn't take long for Andrew to declare Cello Shots a disaster. He needs to not only break up the band, right there, on the spot, but also "purge" himself of the band. Accordingly, he and the cellist and the drummer proceed to destroy those cheap guitars by pulling out their strings and ripping apart the frames with their hands.
     And so U Can Unlearn Guitar is re-formed — just in time to play one last parody with lyrics so riotously depressing that I'm clapping like a maniac.
     You can't make this stuff up.

See ya tomorrow. In the meantime, here are the links for tonight's other artists:

James Harries:
Nellie McKay:
Bang! Bang! Eche!:
Charlie Mars:
The Features:
The Clutters:
Bomba Estereo:
Natalia Loufourcade:

— Ken Richardson