Though the 2008 South By Southwest Music Festival is still fresh in some people's minds, this week's record-release party from local band Antenna Shoes sends my mind back to the previous year in Austin.
It was that dreaded, final Sunday when the streets take on a post-war feel and only a couple of bars host shows. At the Flamingo Cantina on 6th Street, the Six Degrees of Memphis event was giving a handful of attendees a Makeshift Records-heavy afternoon and evening. I practically needed a wheelchair to deal with the debilitating hangover caused by three days of madness, but one band was able to cut through the 3 p.m. haze and blow my mind: Antenna Shoes.
This Friday, at the Hi-Tone Café, Antenna Shoes will celebrate the release of Generous Gambler (Shangri-La Projects), the next chapter in Tim Regan's campaign to make himself and Memphis known for high-quality indie rock.
Regan is the co-founder and one-half of the songwriting force behind Makeshift's flagship band Snowglobe, as well as a founder of onetime local-scene fixture and excuse to drink too much on a weeknight, the Pirates.
Antenna Shoes is something of a solo project for Regan and a great excuse to be backed by an impressive hand of Memphis musical power: drummer extraordinaire Paul Taylor, guitarist Luke White of the Coach and Four, Snowglobe bandmates Nashon Benford (trumpet) and Brandon Robertson (bass), and the master guitar journeyman, Steve Selvidge.
As if all his Memphis activity weren't enough, Regan has also joined up with the Austin-based indie-pop band Oh No! Oh My!. All three of Regan's bands played SXSW this spring, but it was the Austin group that led Regan to a friendly encounter with Lou Reed.
"We played that showcase where Lou Reed was a keynote speaker, and each band did two of his songs," Regan says. "My Morning Jacket did two. Thurston Moore did two. I sang 'After Hours.' Lou Reed walked up to me right after and said, 'You did a great job with my song. What's your name?'"
Despite juggling three bands, Antenna Shoes is, in Regan's words, his focus. The band's life expands this week with the release of its debut album, one that is, in part, a result of the fruitful union of Regan and Shangri-La Projects' founder Sherman Willmott. It began when Willmott saw Antenna Shoes play with Snowglobe a couple of years back.
"I filed it under 'that was very interesting' and remember thinking that it was the most exciting Makeshift-related act at the time," says Willmott, who went on to include Antenna Shoes on the bill for his first annual Memphis Pops Fest in July of last year. The arguable show-stealer of the event, Antenna Shoes played a set that further fortified the band as something special. "When I saw them at the Pop Fest, that's when it really came together for me," Willmott says.
What would eventually become Generous Gambler was finished and being shopped around to all manner of labels.
"I've actually had this record done for at least a year," Regan says. "Sherman would show up at the Buccaneer, and each week he'd have a new favorite song from the record. So I asked him to do a vinyl of the album, but that turned into him doing the CD."
Once the songs on Generous Gambler are absorbed, Willmott's enthusiasm and Regan's tenacity are easy to understand. Snowglobe fans that lean toward Regan's unique, piano-driven songwriting style will be beside themselves. The talents of the band as a whole combined with Regan's chops result in a group on par or superior to the best efforts of underground pop's heavy hitters.
"He's got some of the best musicians in town backing him up. When they get on the road, I'll put them up against any band in the country," Willmott says.
Benford's infectious horn lines (something Snowglobe fans are familiar with) guide "Wait" along the path of "traditional pop song" (if Generous Gambler did indeed have such a thing). "Bitches in the City" is bolstered by Taylor's hyper-technical drumming (suggesting a heavy mid-'90s Tortoise/post-rock influence) and pulsating waves of keyboard, while Regan's hypnotic vocals float over the top, belying the biting nature of the song's title.
It's never a bad idea to anchor an album with rock, and four songs in, Generous Gambler veers in that direction with "Nonsense." The opening riff signals what's ahead, then Regan's pleasantly distorted vocals add an unclassifiable attribute — one of those "must hear to understand" situations.
When asked if he plans on keeping his base in Memphis, the perpetually touring, insanely busy Regan says, "I'm definitely going where it takes me, but this is where I grew up, this is my beat, and there's just too many good musicians here."
For a festival sometimes derided for resuscitating classic-rock dinosaurs or bringing the same acts back year after year, this year's lineup looks like one of the most diverse and novel in years ...