Free Press Preview – Who to see in Houston

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed the sweat, blood and tears of a music festival, but luckily that is all about to change. Houston is offering up a smattering of awesome local, state-wide and national acts this weekend at the Free Press Summer Fest, and I scoured every single slot to give you my recommendations for best of the fest. Read on to get a short synopsis of who you should check out, as well as a song to peak your interest. See you in Houston!


Beauty Bar is 5 years old today

One of the premiere Austin venues for bands with buzz and DJs that will get you groovin’, the Beauty Bar celebrates its 5th birthday tonight. General manager James Taylor says, “New drink specials, a new cocktail menu (coming soon), and some new residencies that bring back some old talent and invite out some new… we’re really excited entering this summer and look forward to making an impression on you.” Sounds good to me. I’ll never forget catching Voxhaul Broadcast and the Local Natives at the Beauty Bar before they broke; head there tonight, ’cause you may just see the next big thing before they become the Next Big Thing. Plus, Zeale is awesome!

New Austin Music Roundup

It’s been a while since a record review has graced these virtual pages. Luckily, dear readers, a slew of great Austin-based bands have just released delicious recorded greatness, so read on and check ’em out!

Grab your earplugs. The Midgetmen are releasing their fourth album, Loud Enough, at the Mohawk on May 20th.

Austin360 put it best when they described the Midgetmen as “a band that take a good amount of care in making music that’s meant to be kind of messy.” The new record is definitely raucous, but the music is fun and will tug at the heartstrings of pop-punk enthusiasts.

At times, the Midgetmen remind me of a punk version of the Austin Lounge Lizards; perhaps it’s their big personality in the world of social media (check their Twitter), but there seems to be a tongue-in-cheek quality to their work.

My favorite track is “Glue Factory,” which has a Pixies-like sensibility, featuring shouted spoken lyrics on top of grungy rock. “Wheeling Downs” is one of the slower songs on the record, and the way the guitar parts weave in and out of one another makes you feel like you’re floating.

There’s an “everyman” quality to the music of the Midgetmen which has endeared them to fans and fellow musicians alike. And they give the love back — not only is the lineup at their release show a solid showcase of local talent (including La Snacks, the Sour Notes and the Pons), but the band is working with Graham’s Texas Tea/Treaty Oak Rum to provide free beverages on a first-come, first-served basis. There will also be a photobooth (described by the band as “the most drunken photobooth in the history of history”) by Birds Barbershop and Nash Cook, so RSVP here and prepare to have fun. You can also stream the album here.

Waldo Wittenmyer just put out a new self-titled EP, and it really highlights his growth as a songwriter. Many of the tracks give a nod to the beachy ‘60s vibe found infiltrating music by other contemporary bands like Best Coast and the Drums, and Wittenmyer’s gentle, breezy vocals enforce a laid-back summery feel throughout the EP. He’s got gigs coming up, including one tonight at Hole in the Wall. For a full listing, check out his website.

Stereo is a Lie just put out their first full-length record, and it features many of the tunes they’ve been perfecting over the years live in venues around town. The production is glossy, but with enough bite to stay true to the band’s alt-rock sound. Lead singer Glynn Wedgewood’s voice makes him sound every bit the long-lost Gallagher brother, and the band’s music would appeal to an Oasis fan, too.

Some of my personal favorites on this album include “It’s Too Late,” which features a lilting chorus and explosion of aggressive instrumentation, “Get It Right,” which screams (literally, thanks Glynn!) “101x hit,” and “Fine Lines,” which is one of the slower tracks on the album, but still manages to dig its chorus into your brain and live there for days.

The songs on the album are a strong advertisement for catching a live show from this group. Wedgewood and drummer Davy Hamrick are the show-stealers in live settings; Hamrick is a wild child on drums, often leaving the stage with bloody knuckles, and Wedgewood’s sweet offstage personality melts away into a commanding, fearless leader persona onstage, as he stares down audience members and sings every word with spit and vinegar. The group’s next official gig is the Manchester Orchestra/Cage the Elephant Official aftershow; for a full listing of upcoming shows, check their Facebook page.

Finally, Austin’s guitar god Ethan Kennedy just released a new song that shows tons of musical growth, and points to wonderful things to come. The chorus is gorgeous, proclaiming, “It’s the end of the world/And I can’t be there with you,” as threatening guitar feedback squeals in the background. I can’t speak highly enough about this track; it is full of life, bursting with energy. If you’ve never heard Ethan before, prepare to fall in love. He’s got a number of upcoming shows; I’ll be at Momo’s on Monday. See you there.

Arcade Fire take Austin through the suburban apocalypse

Photo by Enoch Lai

There is no such thing as a perfect moment. As much as one might try to will it into existence, it can never be. There is always grit, always a heaping hunk of reality that inserts itself into Hallmark situations to dirty it up a bit. As a self-imposed perfectionist and semi-anal control freak, this is generally very disturbing to me. I have a wild imagination (ask me sometime about my adventures on car trips as a kid with my family, and the various Pegasuses and other flying beasts that followed me on my journey to various grocery stores and friends’ homes), and this can get me into trouble. I’ll picture exactly how I’d love an event to go, get my expectations sky-high, and lose my shit when the tiniest crack peeks through. Now that you all feel very sorry for my boyfriend, I will say that as I have aged, I’ve come to be a little bit more based in reality, but I still do tend to want things to go the way I want them to.

Enter the Arcade Fire gig at the Backyard on Tuesday night. The day was picturesque; a gorgeous Texas day (albeit a bit toasty at around 4 p.m. in the afternoon, when boyfriend Zack and I arrived at the venue – read his review of the show here) that turned into a cool Texas night. Arcade Fire are one of my all-time favorite bands, and I’d been looking forward to this gig since it was announced in the beginning of the year. The Suburbs was my favorite album of 2010 and perfectly captured my childhood in the new-money northeast district of San Antonio, Texas. Funeral was one of the soundtracks to my brief period of unemployment early this year. Neon Bible is a new favorite that channels my frustration with a conservative country, my experience with religion and other more deeply personal aspects of my life. This band has managed to sing about every facet of my being, and they do it with honest-to-goodness passion. To say I had hung high hopes on this night is, as you can imagine, an understatement.

We camped out early, parking near a memorable landmark so we wouldn’t get lost later, and played cards in the dirt, getting covered in dust as we quietly listened in on other people’s conversations. We rationed water carefully, making sure to stay hydrated but not drink enough to have to leave prime spots for bathroom trips (always my biggest fear at shows like this). When the gates finally opened right around 6 p.m., I rushed through, trusting Zack would follow me to the stage and choosing not to look behind me. I managed to save us space in the fourth row from the stage, dead center. Zack caught up, then journeyed to get us some drinks, and we were set. I took just a few sips of cold Lone Star, a very welcome treat after braving the afternoon sun in warm clothes for two hours.

The first wrench in my imagined evening came when there turned out to be a second opener. I was only expecting Explosions in the Sky, my college-years band and hometown instrumental heroes. When five young girls took the stage in coordinated black shorts with different colored tights, I was very skeptical and slightly annoyed. We’d heard the band sound checking and I had reservations. When Schmillion kicked off their first song, though, they put my fears of an unbearable thirty minute set to rest. The girls show potential, and I love that they were put together at Girls’ Rock Camp Austin. The star of the group, far and away, is their lead guitarist (and sometimes-drummer) Frankie Blue. She’s got a fierce stage presence and big personality, and is a very talented musician, usually providing the most interesting parts to each of the bands’ songs. I stayed glued to her for most of the performance, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Strike one against perfection, but it turned out to be a good strike.

Next up was Explosions. The guys opened with “Your Hand In Mine,” the only song I recognized in their 45-minute set and the tune I used to spin during my college radio days. It filled the space in the venue, and allowed me to daydream as I just kept smiling, thinking to myself, “Bring the sunset, boys.” In the middle of their first song, Win Butler and Marika Shaw from Arcade Fire caused a stir when they came out to sit on some equipment off to the side and watch the gig. They headed backstage again after about ten minutes, remaining just long enough to get all of our hearts pumping a little faster. EITS’s set was serene, but ended with a nod to their name: in an explosion of heavy-hitting guitars and flashing stage lights.

The sun was finally setting and the wind was picking up, and my tired body started to doze as stage crew moved the band’s riser closer to the audience. Two giant screens at the top of the stage projected, “COMING SOON: ARCADE FIRE,” and the crowd let out a big whoop. In those moments before the lights dimmed, I hoped quietly that I wouldn’t get squished too badly when Win came close to the edge, and that the band played as long as they could possibly stand to. This was the first show in recent memory where I didn’t wish for “that one song;” there were too many I wanted to hear for me to single out one. Then I stood there with the thousands of others, holding my breath and feeling my heart swell with excitement when everything went black.

On the main projector in the middle of the stage, 70s-era video started to play, forewarning about gangs of the night emerging from bored kids in the suburbs. Then, Vanessa Redgrave sang “Lusty Month of May” over the top of a video of a man wearing a sign proclaiming the end times, “May 21, 2011.” Wicked, Arcade Fire. Wicked.

As the stage darkened again, figures spilled onto it, picking up instruments as screams arose from all areas of the park. The band exploded out of the gate with the appropriate follow-up, “Month of May.” Immediately, I could tell Zack and I were going to be mostly alone in our crazy rocking out, as all of the surrounding fans stood with cameras held high, viewing the show through a manmade lens. It made it all the more delicious when Win stared out at us, smiling right at Zack and I as he sang the line, “The kids are all standing with their arms folded tight.” My entire body felt alive again, and my grin reached from ear-to-ear. I kept frenetically surveying the entire band, blown away that this fantastic group of people won a Grammy this year, and blown away by how they seemed so blown away. Régine Chassagne is one of my biggest heroes; she is a charismatic beacon of light onstage, always dressed in something sparkly and seemingly shimmering from her insides-out. It was a toss-up between staring at her or her husband, my generation’s big brother, Win, who has one of the most infectious wide-eyed grins I’ve ever seen. It fills your heart immediately and makes you feel safe and guided.

At the end of “Month of May,” Win teased us by stepping out on a block in front of the stage that got him closer to my little section of audience. He held his instrument up like a gun, pointing it at fans in the crowd to egg them on and get them moving. Then I heard it — the transition I was hoping for, the song my soul needed. It was “Rebellion (Lies),” and I leapt up and turned to Zack, shrieking the song title giddily. I’d been to a few shows with Zack at this point, and never had I seen him react this way to a song. He was flush with joy, just completely overcome by the moment and his arms wrapped tightly around me as we jumped up and down to the song in unison, the only two people in the front pogo-ing, and loving every second.*

Photo by Enoch Lai

Though there wasn’t as much crowd movement around us as I’d hoped for, “Rebellion (Lies)” kicked off a sing-along that ran straight through the concert. Cries of “Lies! Lies!” lifted to the heavens, and Win approached the crowd, leaning across his block and onto the fence and front row. He sang right to us, and dropped his mic on someone at one point, eyes wide and smiling a surprised and embarrassed apology. My body was twisted in the crowd as people’s ribs locked together, everyone trying to inch just a little closer to Win, hoping to soak up some of his awesome.

“Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” offered me my first moment with Régine. I was shouting the lyrics, hair flying and fist pumping, and I looked over at my lady. She happened to look back at me at that moment, and we shouted lyrics to each other as I jumped up and down and she flashed a big grin at me. I was overcome with love, soaking up the band’s pleasure and performance. And then, Régine was front and center for “Haiti.” And then, everyone was in love with her. Her movements during this personal song seem to speak the words she sings, and her voice almost trembles with emotion, describing her home and the pain that is wrapped up in its history. I looked away from her for only a moment, to watch Win watch his wife, simultaneously in awe and supportive of her, stepping aside to give her space to be free and shine. The whole band seemed lighter as she twirled around the stage.

Win introduced “City With No Children” as a summer song, and the line “Dreamt I drove home to Houston” elicited whoops from a few Texans in the crowd. As the lights darkened for “Rococo,” Win whispered in time to the band’s maracas, “Sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy,” and at his command, twinkling green stage lights brightened the space, an eerie fantastical setting that made the twirling clown on the projector all the more unsettling. When Win begged in the song, “Oh my dear God, what is that horrible song they’re singing?” the crowd answered him, nearly zombie-like, with a chorus of “Rococo!” It was a strange dynamic, as if Win was singing the words to his fellow bandmates about all of us in the crowd. It wasn’t divisive or accusatory; merely observational.

Win addressed the crowd again. Describing the next song, he said firmly, “This next one is for anyone who was raised in the church, but wasn’t told the whole truth.” Organs blasted from the speakers, summoning “Intervention,” and my Catholic-raised non-Christian heart burst with joy at the sense of inclusion and understanding I felt in Win’s description and the song’s lyrics.

If anyone felt left out by “Intervention,” we were all a part of “The Suburbs.” It was the song about Texas, the song about modern youth, the song about an uncertain future. My eyes shut tightly for the devastating line, “So can you understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young? I wanna hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done. But if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask — then send me a son,” and Zack clasped my hand, sharing in this admission that everything feels up in the air for our generation. As “The Suburbs” melted into “The Suburbs (continued),” the stage got quiet and all that could be heard was a piano, Win’s voice and the chrowd in chorus, admitting with a tear that “If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted — I’d only waste it again.”

One of my favorite tracks on The Suburbs came next. “Suburban War” begins in an understated request, calmly observing the changing state of affairs. The song picks up steam, as the narrator becomes a little more restless, and then steps back again momentarily. At the crest, the words, “The music divides us into tribes. Choose your side, I’ll choose my side,” break into a rush of booming drums and guitars. Win cries, frustrated and near hopelessness, “Oh, my old friends, they don’t know me now!” My head jolted forward involuntarily, as I pictured the faces of people I knew growing up in San Antonio, people I hardly spoke to anymore if at all, with memories flashing in fragments through my brain.

The band kept the energy up with the one-two punch of “Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go,” a pair of Neon Bible favorites. Win explained that he wrote the next song, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” after moving up to Montreal from Houston ten years ago. “I moved there in the winter, and this is a song inspired by how fucking horrifying and traumatic it was, and then how wonderful it was after that,” he said. “But at first, it was really harsh, ‘cause I don’t think you people know what it’s like, but it’s really cold!” As the band sang the song and the audience clapped along, digital snowflakes fell on the screens behind the group, transporting us to that bitter winter with Win.

We were all waiting for the next song, and Win made us really wait, as the recognizable piano from “We Used To Wait” punctuated the night air and Win stood as still as a statue, staring hard at us and looking spooky with a spotlight hitting his jawline. He finally broke into the song, and immediately lurched toward the crowd again. He jumped on to the fence barrier, reaching out briefly to my middle section before he climbed toward the left and over by the sign language interpreter. He hopped back onstage and directed the crowd as we clapped and sang and, finally, jumped in unison. It was a song that felt like a favorite T-shirt; it just felt good to put on.

Win spoke the most devastating words next, and even seemed to choke up a bit himself as he said them: “All good things must come to an end. ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” the first Arcade Fire song I ever heard, ripped from the speakers, guitars jangling as bodies in the crowd really got moving. When Win sang, “Neighbors all shouting that they found the light,” we replied with a hearty shout of, “We found the light!” and Win gave an impressed, approving smile and nod, which made everyone around me break out in a gleeful smile.

As the dancey tune came to a close, the band waved and blew kisses and generally gave right back the massive affection we supplied them. There was more love in this exchange than I’ve ever felt between a band and its fans. Immediately after watching the last member disappear backstage, chants of “Arcade! Fire!” and “One more song!” sprung up amidst continuous cheering and whistling. The band hardly made us wait three minutes before they reappeared, replaying some of the music video for “The Suburbs”.

“Ready to Start” kept the energy level high, but “Wake Up” was the song that helped everyone reach transcendence. Those punchy guitars and that gut-busting drum insist that every voice chime in to cry, “Oh!” This is a song owned as much by the crowd as it is by the band, and the band hands it over, reveling in the participation. I think the reason it is so hard to review this Arcade Fire show is made most obvious in trying to review this song. I lost myself so deeply in this moment that it is difficult for me to describe. I was in some deep part of myself unknown to my conscious mind (and not even on drugs!), existing there happily for five minutes of my day, just being.

The band could not have ended their show on a more dazzling note than “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” My lady Régine was allowed center stage as she sang about the difficulties of being an artist and a dreamer and a lover of nature and freedom, and the stage lights appeased her as she insisted, “I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights!” The second time she sings this line, there is a short instrumental break that erupts in tinkling synth keys, and at that moment, the lights came on and Régine blossomed like some human flower, yielding delicate ribbons that she twirled all around her, delighting the fans. As the song came to a quiet close, Régine and Win gave us heartfelt thanks again, proclaiming their love for Austin as all the band waved and slowly exited. They had created a fabulous world for us to exist in for a little over an hour and a half, and then they left, and the world silently fluttered away, leaving us with a contented afterglow.

Before their very last song, Win spoke bluntly to us, insisting, “You have no idea how good you have it here. Keep it good.” At this statement, my mind was first directed to thoughts of our local music scene and arts culture, and how we all need to stick together and fight to preserve it. Then, I thought about my “perfect plan.” I thought about how badly I wanted to escape Austin after I’d graduated, and run off to my dream job in New York City. I thought about how none of that had happened, and instead I worked a very difficult low-paying job straight out of college, and how that led to me being laid off and unemployed, causing one of the most difficult periods of my life. And then I thought about how, despite not going according to my “perfect plan,” I had somehow managed to make a wonderful and exciting life for myself in Austin, stringing together a group of dear and close friends, finally feeling at home in a city, and becoming a part of its music and writing communities. Finally, I thought about the boy standing next to me, and how we’d met so serendipitously, and how  meeting him and forming such a strong bond with him came about because the universe took over and squashed my “perfect plan.” And I thought about just how — not perfect, but exactly right it all turned out to be, and how much more alive I felt. I thought about Win dropping his mic into the crowd, an unplanned mistake that caused his giant, warm and apologetic grin to grace us. I thought about breaking my ankle and missing the 2009 ACL Festival, and how I might have met Zack at the wrong time if I hadn’t gone through that ordeal. And I decided that Win was doling out some of the best big brother advice I’d ever received, and that from now on, instead of chasing perfection, I’d just try to keep it good. Because it is so, so good.

*It’s Zack’s thing (and, really, Zack’s homage to Bill Simmons’ thing) to use footnotes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t add in this personal tidbit here. I have never felt so blissfully happy participating in a hug as I did in this one with this boy at this show. It was like all the warmth on a perfect summer day stretched out on a beautiful beach near the ocean, wrapped tightly around me.

© Copyright Austin Writes Music - Designed by Pexeto