Austin's South By Southwest Music Festival might be the biggest and best annual musical gathering in the country. But even if you don't have the time or inclination to make the daylong drive, brave the crowds, and spend the dough to do SXSW yourself, Memphis' proximity to Austin yields a chance for local music fans to sample the festival every March, because bands make pit-stops in the Bluff City on their way to or from Austin.
The number of SXSW-related shows hitting town this month is down a little from last year (as are the number of Memphis bands heading to Austin, from 10 last year to four, officially, this year: Lucero, Bloodthirsty Lovers, Retrospect, and Epoch of Unlight). But the dynamic still spurs a richer, deeper club schedule than at any other time of the year, and the following cheat-sheet doesn't even include SXSW bands with Memphis stops scheduled for later in the spring (Hella, Mosquitoes, Golden Republic, Dead Meadow) or late additions sure to pop up after press time.
Melissa Ferrick (with Garrison Starr)
Ferrick and former Memphian Starr both broke out during the alt-rock/Lilith Fair boom of the mid-'90s and have kept on touring and putting out records long after major labels determined that left-of-center women were the absolute last thing they were interested in.
(with Harsh Krieger and
40 Watt Moon)
Young Avenue Deli
On his debut EP Shoot Me Shoot Me Heaven, this Birmingham, Alabama, rocker offers a more than credible take on the bluesy, swaggering, post-Stones punk-blues of bands such as the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers.
This uber-talented Seattle singer-songwriter drops his debut album, the Beatlesque Hold a Match for a Gasoline World, next month. With his novel arrangements, precise singing, and smart songwriting, Temple could be on the verge of something big.
Tristeza and Nora O'Connor
This is an odd pairing: an indie rock quintet (San Diego's Tristeza) that specializes in moody instrumentals and a veteran alt-country siren (O'Connor) with the vocal chops to go mainstream. A former member of the Blacks and Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire and a recently ubiquitous background singer, O'Connor's torch-song-y country is every bit the rival of similar but more heralded artists such as Alison Moorer and Mindy Smith.
(with I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House)
Young Avenue Deli
Elizabeth Elmore's college band, Sarge, was one of my faves: a nifty little pop-punk answer to the sharp-fanged, male-centered relationship analysis of early Elvis Costello or a less grandstanding alternative to Exile in Guyville. Elmore's lyrics are only slightly less distinct in her grad-school band, the Reputation, but she still rocks out with a surly Chrissie Hynde flair.
Son Volt and Anders Parker
Over the past decade, Jay Farrar's solo career has drifted into irrelevance with each passing year as his onetime Uncle Tupelo sidekick Jeff Tweedy has turned Wilco into one of America's biggest bands. Maybe that's why Farrar is touring under the name of his post-Tupelo band, Son Volt, even though the "band" contains no other original members. Son Volt, second edition, has a new album out in September, with the original lineup celebrated this spring in a live record from New West and a retrospective sampler on Rhino. But regardless whom he's playing with, one imagines that Farrar's deep, rich voice remains a powerful weapon. Parker, the driving force behind alt-country-connected Varnaline, opens the show in Memphis and got an assist from Farrar on his latest solo record, Tell It to the Dust.
The Apes (with Vending Machine and the Klopeks)
Young Avenue Deli
This Washington, D.C.-based quartet, which eschews guitar in favor of an organ-driven hard-rock/garage style, has made Memphis a regular stop on their trips to Austin over the past couple of years. This spring, they'll be playing a showcase for their new label, Birdman Records, which will be releasing a new full-length, Baba's Mountain, next month.
Zombi (with Simon and SonsofBitches)
This could well be the sleeper show of the month. The instrumental duo from Pittsburgh builds horror-movie soundtrack music (they may share a hometown with director George Romero, but their music evokes Italian scare-master Dario Argento) from a battalion of keyboards, synthesizers, and drums. Watching them re-create the sound live should be quite a sight.
The Bloodthirsty Lovers (with Noise Choir)
Young Avenue Deli
This longtime "solo" project from ex-Grifter Dave Shouse is now a collaboration with ex-Big Ass Truck guitarist Steve Selvidge. Rounded out as a live band by a New York-based rhythm section, this ostensibly "local" band doesn't play around town much at all. In fact, this will be the first local appearance since the late 2004 release of their album The Delicate Seam.
Enon and Swearing at Motorists (with Circuit Benders and Color Cast)
Five years ago, Enon's debut, Believo!, sounded like a totally original brand of industrial dance-pop: Philly soul as performed by robotic droids or something Prince might concoct if cryogenically frozen and thawed out during some future dystopia. I'd lost track of the band since then, but the new Lost Marbles and Exploded Evidence, which sounds totally different and yet oddly the same, brought my old appreciation back in a familiar rush: disco-funk baselines bouncing off girl-group vocals, straightforward songcraft blended with car-factory percussion, a new spin on indie-rock trip-hop. Ohio's Swearing at Motorists proffer a more earthbound strand of lo-fi indie rock.
Guitar Wolf and Fantasy's Core
(with the Secret Service)
Young Avenue Deli
A week packed with Japanese bands begins with Tokyo's loudest, fastest punk-rockers, who boast more than a couple of connections to Memphis' own garage-punk and trash-culture scenes. They bring with them Nagasaki's Fantasy's Core, a bunch of yakuza-movie enthusiasts who operate under the slogan "Eccentricity & Chaos & Eros & Humor Rock'n'Roll!!"
DMBQ and The Immortal Lee County Killers (with the Oscars)
Young Avenue Deli
These labelmates on garage-rock-oriented Estrus Records promise perhaps the loudest show of the month. DMBQ is a psychedelic Japanese rock band featuring members of Shonen Knife and Damo Suzuki. They've been around since the late '80s and attack with a sound that submerges screaming Hendrixian guitar solos and triple-time Bo Diddley beats in art noise. Not as out-there as countrymen the Boredoms but definitely in the ballpark. Southern boys the Immortal Lee County Killers aren't from these parts, but their heavily blues-based garage-punk fits neatly into one of Memphis' most fruitful sounds over the past decade.
Electric Eel Shock (with The Thieves)
This Japanese punk trio has a domestic full-length out this month called Go USA!. The same album apparently did pretty well in Europe, where it was released with a different title: Go Europe!. If that amuses you, as it does me, and you like basic, noisy punk rock, then this is for you.
Clem Snide and The Marbles
Though not as flashy as some of the louder bills on the calendar, this might be the best show of the month. Recently relocated from Brooklyn to Nashville, Clem Snide marries elegantly arranged but never-too-neat acoustic-based rock to one of the most compelling and distinct songwriting personalities you'll ever hear. Band bard Eef Barzelay walks a tightrope between empathy and sarcasm, sans net, on nearly every line of every song. (Barzelay to a sensitive young thing who thinks his pain is unique: "The first thing every killer reads is Catcher in the Rye.") He's back in vintage form on the band's new The End of Love after the relatively straightforward sincerity of the underrated Soft Spot. Unlike most low-key, lyric-focused bands, Clem Snide delivers live, especially with their penchant for inspired, totally straight-faced covers (on their last two visits: Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" and P.Diddy's "Bad Boy for Life"). Opening act Marbles is actually Apples in Stereo founder Robert Schneider gone solo, trading that band's '60s-style rock for a more '80s blend of synth-pop but with the same supernatural skill for melodies and hooks.
Full Moon Club
This Denver metal band records for stalwart Relapse Records, which means they're more likely to spin your head around with ear-splitting riffs and avant-garde sounds than get high with your girlfriend backstage after the show. Not that the Full Moon Club has a backstage.
Heartless Bastards (opening for
The Drive-By Truckers)
Okay, let's get this out of the way first: Regardless of what you may read elsewhere, Heartless Bastards singer Erika Wennerstrom doesn't sound like Janis Joplin, not even when she really belts it out, as on "Runnin'" from her band's recently released Fat Possum debut, Stairs and Elevators. Joplin was a force of nature. But you can see where the comparison comes from, because this Cincinnati band plays a brand of blues-rock you might have heard at the Filmore West back in '67. Yet, there's something more agreeably modest about Heartless Bastards than any other good blues-rock band I can think of. Chalk it up to Wennerstrom's honest, matter-of-fact songwriting, which is often inspirational without ever striving for that effect. I can't vouch for the band live, but Stairs and Elevators is one of my favorite records of this young year, and you can always head down for the headliners: The Truckers are one of the best live bands on the planet and now boast the best trio of songwriters in one rock-and-roll band since, I dunno, the Beatles?