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With the same kind of full-tilt, fist-in-the-air, earnest rock-concert energy that Bruce Springsteen brought to the same venue this time last year, Green Day returned from an extended sabbatical for a South by Southwest Music Conference gig Friday at the “Austin City Limits” theater. The official reason for the band being in Austin was to promote its new three-album series, “Uno!,” “Dos!,” “Tres!,” and a documentary on the making of the ambitious project. Unofficially, the show might have also been intended to simply get word out that frontman Billie Joe Armstrong is OK. In fact, he’s stellar.
Green Day’s wily frontman -- who has counted St. Paul as a part-time home (his wife is a Twin Cities native) – reemerged lion’s-den-style at SXSW after a rehab stint that postponed his band’s fall tour. A few songs into his beloved trio’s first high-profile gig since being sidelined, the 41-year-old singer/guitarist/cheerleader made only one glib reference to his troubles when he damaged a microphone that needed to be replaced. “And I wasn’t even on drugs,” he cracked after he got the new mic.
The two-hour set that ensued was an intoxicating adrenaline rush in its own right. Armstrong displayed the same kind of fireball energy and bratty charm he had at 21, and the band went that far back in the set list, too. “Christie Road” and “Welcome to Paradise” from 1992’s “Kerplunk” album were dropped in midway through the show, soon followed by the songs that broke the band in 1994, “Longview” and “Basket Case.” Two of the newest tracks, “99 Revolutions” and “Brutal Love,” were used as the opener and encore finale, respectively. A breezy overview of the three new discs peppered the show in between, with the especially heavy, Stooges-like grinder “Stop When the Red Lights Flash” proving a highlight. Best of all, familiar favorites such as “Welcome to Paradise” and “Know Your Enemy” – the latter delivered with help from a stage-diving young fan – created the kind of excited sing-alongs that are uncommon at Austin’s cool, often cynical festival.
Here’s a quick rundown of other highlights among Friday's tidal wave of performances:
SOLANGE KNOWLES: Beyonce’s hip younger sister has been regularly playing SXSW for a few years, but if feels like she’s finally coming into her own light this year. She played the Spin party Friday afternoon at Stubb’s sandwiched between Scottish buzz band Chvrches and burgeoning rap star Kendrick Lamar. Her set of lightly bouncing, atmospheric dance-pop felt like a cool blast of chilled-out calm amid the festival’s stormy pace. Dressed in a stylish, eye-pleasing soft pink shorts ensemble, she showed her true colors to the hipster audience by covering New York art-rock band the Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move.”
SALLIE FORD: A vintage rockabilly singer/guitarist with a punky, modern edge, the Portland up-and-comer played a riling set at Antone’s blues club that sounded like Wanda Jackson if Wanda had grown up a Sleater-Kinney fan. Her scrappy band, the Sound Outside, was also as tight as the set list to Prince's SXSW gig on Saturday night.
CHELSEA LIGHT MOVING: With Sonic Youth on the shelf following his divorce from bandmate Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore thankfully hasn’t tried too hard to separate himself from his past. His new band – which makes its Twin Cities debut next week at the Triple Rock – displayed a natural, apple-not-far-from-the-tree charm on the Mohawk outdoor stage, with two-guitar jams and booming, hard-thumping rhythms.
HANNAH GEORGAS: No wonder Kathleen Edwards recently picked this fellow Canadian singer/songwriter for a tour opener. She sure sounds a lot like Edwards. On stage at Maggie Mae's, the Vancouver newbie also showed more of an ethereal, synth-based tone -- yes. Bon Iver-like – in lieu of Edwards’ folky twang, with songs such as “Somebody” starting out mellow and crescendoing in dramatic fashion.
GARY LOURIS: A guy who has played more South by Southwests than he can or cares to remember – yours truly caught his Jayhawks here in 1990 when the fest and I were just babies – Louris had good reason to come this year. He’s bouncing back from health troubles that forced him to cancel a solo tour last fall, plus he’s working on a new album after the Jayhawks wrapped their successful reunion run last summer. He closed Friday’s showcase from Minneapolis-based company Green Room Music Source with a grabbag of tunes. Dutifully backed Kevin Bowe & the Okemah Prophets (who also performed before him), Louris delivered several underrated gems from his 2010 solo debut “Vagabonds” and latter-day Jayhawks staples such as “Tailspin” and “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” To the delight of the crowd of faithfuls, he called up Big Star drummer and one-time Golden Smog member Jody Stephens for a revival of the Smog’s “Until You Came Along.” OK, so Green Day didn’t have the only singalong Friday night.
Read our full festival coverage and see Tony Nelson's photo galleries at www.startribune.com/sxsw.
While I did take in a little bit of Dave Grohl's Sound City Players all-star show at Stubb's to see what it was all about -- the transition from Fear's Lee Ving to Rick Springfield as guest singers certainly proved interesting -- we made a point of bouncing around more during Thursday's South by Southwest showcases. Here are the stops that stood out the most:
HAIM (mtvU Woodies Fest, downtown parking lot): With a sprawling hi-fi staging area spread across dueling glitzy stages, the Woodies Fest recalled those cheesy spring-break broadcasts that MTV used to do from Daytona. The music lineup was quite serious, though, with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis headlining their umpteenth gig this week and fellow sister act Tegan and Sara going on after the three Haim sisters. Man, are they cute -- not in a hot-girlfriend kind of way but a sassy sisterly way. They’re pretty solid musicians, too, with Estes Haim proving especially pivitol in driving the band out of fluff-pop territory with her hard-driving bass parts. Estes also had the cutest of the many onstage quips: “I’m trying to bring back halter-tops and be more like Selena,” she cracked as she took off the blouse over in the late-afternoon heat. Their infectious single “Don’t Save Me” got the crowd dancing along, and their surprisingly taut cover of the early Fleetwood Mac blues-rock classic “Oh Well” impressed those of us non-mtvU viewers who never would’ve danced anyway.
JASON ISBELL (American Songwriter day party): We randomly stumbled onto the former Drive-by Trucker’s happy hour gig in east Austin and felt as lucky the property owners in the neighborhood must feel getting to rent out their humble places for big shindigs this time every year. Looking and sounding healthier than compared to a couple of his Turf Club gigs a year or two back, Isbell opened with a couple of vivid and dramatic songs off his upcoming album. He was accompanied by his new wife Amanda Shires – a reputable singer/violinist on her own – and they made for harmonious musical partners in “Outfit” and other older tunes.
LIANNE LA HAVAS (Empire Automotive): No wonder Prince is so into this 23-year-old London singer/songwriter. She certainly has got the look, recalling many of his past protégés visually. But more important she has a subtly seductive voice and versatile songs, one of which (“Lost & Found”) was covered by the Minneapolgenius during his three-night stand at the Dakota. La Havas’s showcase in the auto-shop-turned-nightclub was a low-revving affair, reminiscent of when Norah Jones had her big coming-out a decade earlier at SXSW with her lightly jazzy instrumentation, soft, elegant voice and lovelorn tunes. But La Havas's tunes also have a wry and sometimes even wicked undertone that adds to her charm. “If you have my record,” she said at one point, “you know I like to write songs about my ex-boyfriend.” That was an intro for “Forget,” so obviously we’re not talking happy pop songs. In “Age,” which she played sans her band and with cool thumb-picking guitar work, she sang, “He’s not the one for me because I fancy younger men.” Don’t miss La Havas’ Minneapolis debut at the Varsity Theater on March 31.
SNOOP LION (Viceland): I hesitate to review the once and future Snoop Lion’s coming-out as a reggae act because the warehouse-turned-venue where he played was so overpacked and disheveled, it was hard to hear and see him in action. Never mind the additional haze that come up once Snoop took the stage. What songs could be heard, though, sounded surprisingly tight and effective, sort of a halfway point between Bob Marley and his gifted rapper son Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley. The set included a reggae-fied slow-jam version of the Doggy classic “Gin & Juice,” but mostly he stuck to tunes from the upcoming album “Reincarnated.” One other reason to not go too into detail on the new Snoop: Word is he will be back to his old Dogg tricks when he plays in Minnesota over Memorial Day weekend at the Soundset festival (officially billed as Snoop Dogg).
FIDLAR, CHEATAHS, BLACK LIPS (various venues): These three other highlights from Thursday are heaped together because they all just plain rocked in classic garage-punk ways. Los Angeles’s Fidlar blasted through their seedy, rowdy songs with refreshing abandon, with Greg Ginn/Black Flag-style guitar bursts and such glib introductions as, “This one is about rehab; which sucks.” U.K. quartet Cheatahs boasted powerful, fuzztoned, whirring guitar work, poppy hooks but punky, hard-driving beats, sort of coming off as a shoegazer-rock version of Hüsker Dü. As for Atlanta favorites the Black Lips, they made for a wild end to the night with their psychedelic howl-along songs such as “O, Katrina,” which produced the first burst of crowd-surfing I’ve seen at SXSW this year.
See our full coverage from the fest at www.startribune.com/sxsw.
What’s the Minnesota presence like at South by Southwest this year? On Thursday afternoon, when three of the scene’s more prominent contenders in Austin this week played day parties, it felt like this:
THE CHALICE (Hydrive Shows/Crowdnoize party at Karma Lounge): “I’m gonna count every one of you [mofos] and be like, ‘No. 16, where you at?!’” So threatened Lizzo at the start of her hip-hop trio’s noontime set, which actually started over an hour late because of production issues. Even with the extra time to fill up, the venue was still devoid of more than a few dozen bodies. Lizzo did her part to ensure the people who did show up also made their presence known. She and cohorts Sophia Eris and Claire De Lune took that idea a few steps farther and walked off the stage into the crowd repeatedly during the set, in which each took turn a solo joint – Lizzo’s Lazerbeak collaboration “Batches n’ Cookies” leading the pack – between their rowdy group jams such as “Push It.” Lizzo’s Houston background also served them well when they introduced their White Castle-inspired song – she had to explain it knowing Texas is devoid of the original sliders palace.
THE 4ONTHEFLOOR (The Midgetmen’s Texas Jumpstart at the Sidebar): You know didn’t miss the start of the band you came to see when you run into the singer in line for the men’s room on your way in. You also know there’s a good turnout when there’s actually a line at the men’s room. Both scenarios applied at the 4onthefloor’s first of three gigs in town, this one hosted by an Austin band with a good following at one of the cooler and cozier bars off Red River and 7th streets. Frontman Gabriel Douglas soon made his way to the venue’s outdoor stage, where he and the other three Floormen performed under a high, blaring sun that added some sweet sweat value to the proceedings. The M. Ward cover “Magic Trick” had folks singing along, and the new single “King of the Jungle” had them joining in on the stomping rhythms.
DESSA (Nice-N-Clean Car Wash and Detail parking lot party): “We’re gonna have as good a time as we can at a car wash at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.” This wasn’t a fake car wash set up by Scion and Pandora as some kind of hipster promotional opportunity, in keeping with the norm for SXSW day parties nowadays. It was a real car wash deep in the Latino neighborhood on Austin’s East Side. Clearly a take-what-you-can-get gig -- which drew a mix of SXSW attendees and locals --the Doomtree rap songstress took it in stride and had a lot of fun with it.
While her band played it straight on stage, she stalked around the parking lot, getting eye-to-eye with fans. At one point, she even interrupted a couple guys working a basketball hoop, stopping to shoot a ball with one hand while holding a microphone in the other (looks as if Dessa’s prospects at a Lynx game will be restricted to half-time). On the serious end, she played a couple of the new songs from her upcoming album, about which her manager Doug Lefrak no-bull explained after the show how it could raise Dessa’s national prospects. Lefrak or somebody on Dessa’s team should have first negotiated a free wash of their well-worn tour van off this particular gig.
See our full coverage from the fest at www.startribune.com/sxsw.
Speaking out against her fellow Texan’s presidential policies earned her binders full of haters, and it maybe even put the kibosh on her once hugely famous group the Dixie Chicks. However, Natalie Maines’ voice is still her greatest attribute, and she used it in new and potent ways during her coming-out showcase as a solo artist Wednesday at the “Austin City Limits” theater.
Now an Austin resident with a newly shortened and punky hairdo, the 38-year-old country singer – or is it “ex-country singer?” – debuted a rockier new sound with a large band, which included hippie-rock stalwart Ben Harper on lap-steel guitar. All the songs they played appear on her solo album due out May 7, including two tracks originally written by Minnesota artists: “I’d Run Away” by the Jayhawks and “Free Life” by Dan Wilson (both Wilson and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris also co-wrote tunes for the Chicks’ last album). She reshaped the latter tune into a darker and stormier showpiece. She also dedicated "Free Life" to the newly freed West Memphis Three, whose overturned murder conviction championed alongside other celebs such as Eddie Vedder (the Pearl Jam frontman’s “Without You” is also part of her new song arsenal, as are two of Harper’s cuts).
Despite a nearly eight-year hiatus from regularly performing, Maines didn’t seem to lose one iota of power in her voice, and her musical transition sounded equally effortless and natural. She often sounded more in line with Ann Wilson of Heart than Anne Murray of Nashville in the Chicks, anyway, a point reiterated by the chilling rendition of Pink Floyd’s lonely classic “Mother,” which became the pinnacle of Wednesday’s set. Also the title track of her album, the Roger Waters-penned classic reflected Maines’ title at home in recent years as well as the figurative walls that went up after the Dixie Chicks political dust-up. It was a bold song choice, and at least in this case her gutsiness paid off.
LATER ON WEDNESDAY: We knew it would be a gamble exiting Stubb’s after Nick Cave to go catch Maines, given that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were on a few bands after Cave at the NPR showcase. Sure enough, the line outside Stubb’s screamed, “No, no no.”
Our frustration doubled when we bounced to a boat-shed-turned-nightclub called Viceland to catch the Joy Formidable, only to find the venue operating an hour behind schedule. That meant waiting through two nearly unbearable acts: Austra, an ethereal, classical-meets-trip-hop Toronto band fronted by three women sang like whales mating, and who could go home with this year’s Most Pretentious trophy; and Icona Pop, a duo of hip Swedish songstresses who acted like cheerleaders onstage and played to an equally hyper pop-dance backing tracks that sounded like Robyn produced by Will.I.Am.
The wait paid off, though. A SXSW discovery for many attendees in 2011, Welch trio the Joy Formidable returned to the fest a louder, faster, bigger-sounding band. Most of the songs in their strobe-laden set came off of the new sophomore album, “Wolf’s Law,” including the brooding but burning gem “The Ladder Is Ours” early in the set and the repetitious rattler “Bats” toward the end. While she had a little help with pre-recorded augmentation, frontwoman Ritzy Bryan still wringed an impressive amount of noise out of her guitar. Even the finale “Whirring” -- a staple of the band’s earlier live shows – had sharper fangs Wednesday. Too bad the hour or two beforehand bit so bad, but so goes SXSW.
“This is a dark song.” Hearing those words from Nick Cave is like having a dentist with a rusty, old drill tell you, “This is gonna hurt.” The dark lord of Australian music gave that warning before “Jubilee Street,” the last of three new songs that opened Wednesday night’s NPR Music showcase just as the sun set over the Stubb’s outdoor stage in Austin. It was also Cave’s kick-off show on a U.S. tour with a slightly made-over lineup of his powerhouse band the Bad Seeds.
Longtime Bad Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey’s absence was felt in the hour-long performance, as it is on the more spacious new album “Push the Sky Away.” However, Ed Kuepper of legendary Aussie punk band the Saints filled in with gusto, while violinist/guitarist Warren Ellis (Dirty Three) played a subtly pivotal role. The show opened with the “Higgs Boson Blues,” a creepy, freaky highlight of the new record, followed by the slower and dimly elegant “Wide Lovely Eyes.” Cave wasn’t kidding about “Jubilee Street,” either, which ended in a chaotic fury.
Spending most of the set with microphone in hand instead of at the piano, the 55-year-old heavy howler acted a bit put off by the usual SXSW surroundings. He snidely motioned for photographers crammed in front of the stage to leave after the first song , and he sang out to the picture-taking crowd about putting away “your crappy phone.”
However, Cave still displayed his uncanny showmanship throughout the performance, animatedly raising “Red Right Hand” and dramatically during “Mercy Seat,” which was reeimagined into more of an acoustic dirge. He also sternly emphasized the montage of lewd lyrics in “Stagger Lee” – probably not one the NPR folks will broadcast on the radio, but you can bet the folks lucky enough to have gotten into the show will be telling folks back home about it.
NPR did webcast Cave's set and the bands that followed (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alt-J, Cafe Tacuba and Youth Lagoon). Look for it archived online in the coming days at www.npr.org/sxsw. See the rest of our own SXSW coverage at www.startribune.com/sxsw.
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