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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Milwaukee Rocks South by Southwest

Local bands go forth to Austin festival

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The record number of Milwaukee bands that made the 1,200-mile trek to Austin, Texas, for this year’s South by Southwest Music and Media Conference & Festival (SXSW) made our city proud with their enthusiasm and compelling performances. More than a dozen Milwaukee bands played in or around the Texas-sized festival that is one of the largest and most prestigious of its kind, with 1,900 official acts from 55 countries playing on 89 official stages, not including the countless unofficial shows and day parties that swirl around the musical maelstrom.

Milwaukee wouldn’t have been nearly as well represented if not for Ryan Matteson, founder of Muzzle of Bees, a popular music blog featuring daily concert and album reviews of local and national musicians. Growing up in a tiny town near the Wisconsin Dells, Matteson moved to Milwaukee to immerse himself in its music scene, and has been a relentless champion of the city’s musicians ever since.

“I’m always looking to discover new bands that I like—it’s the thing in life I enjoy most,” Matteson explains. “Being able to share music with other people is something I can’t imagine not doing.”

After covering SXSW for his blog since 2005, the idea of showcasing the great bands of Milwaukee at the annual festival was a natural progression. Matteson already knew where he would host his Milwaukee showcase: Habana Calle 6, a Cuban and Caribbean restaurant that boasts not only a stage in its lower level, but also one of downtown Austin’s biggest—and most appealing—outdoor patios. Tucked behind the club’s long and narrow interior, the large, creek-side patio is accessible to bustling Sixth Street by a stone stairway. Matteson bet on festivalgoers hearing live music drifting up from the patio and venturing down the steps for a closer look at what Milwaukee had to offer.

Knowing that Kings Go Forth have recorded a highly anticipated record, Matteson spoke to some of the members of the dance floor soul collective and invited them to headline Muzzle of Bees’ unofficial “SXSW vs. MoB” showcase. “With a big label [David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records] behind them, when Kings Go Forth said yes, it was really an opportunity to ask more bands,” Matteson says. And so he did. Invade Rome, Juniper Tar, Group of the Altos, Conrad Plymouth and Pezzettino accepted the invitation to play a Milwaukee showcase at Habana Calle 6 on Thursday, March 18. Matteson augmented the schedule with national bands such as Peter Wolf Crier, Blair, Charlie Parr, Strand of Oaks, Common Loon and Roadside Graves to help draw people to the venue.

At 2 p.m., the guys from Invade Rome played their entire set—half new material, half from their 2009 release, Light Eyed & Villainous—at full throttle and never dropped the pace. Singing with soul-streaked passion, singer Chris Vos played his guitar like his very freedom depended on it. Afterward, Juniper Tar took to the stage, treating audiences to the first of three shows they would play at SXSW. Bolstered by the band’s sweet vocal harmonies, the gig consisted of tunes from their newly released The Howl Street EP, as well as a Townes Van Zandt cover.

Milwaukee’s Official Presence

A handful of Milwaukee acts could also be found on the official SXSW docket. On Friday, the BoDeans performed to a setting sun at Auditorium Shores on Lady Bird Lake. One of Milwaukee’s favorite sons, Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes fame, played an official showcase at Valhalla, in addition to a couple of day parties. Gano performed a 35-minute set in the backyard stage of the Galaxy Room with brothers Billy and Brendan Ryan, founding members of The Bogmen. In a perfect example of six-degrees-of-Milwaukee, Gordon says, “We found out we had the same producer on our records, Jerry Harrison, another Milwaukee boy.” The threesome performed an energetic, well-received set that pulled from their first collaboration together, September’s Under the Sun, and some of Gano’s most popular tunes from the Femmes’ debut album.

Twenty-three-year-old rapper Juiceboxxx killed his less-than-ideal 8 p.m. time slot at Beauty Bar with a raw, uncensored performance that drew from his debut mixtape, Thunder Zone Volume One. Overturning a loaded trash can and crawling to the top of the giant speakers, Juiceboxxx worked himself into a sweat-dripping frenzy. Even though it was still early and the venue was slow in getting people through the entrance, Juiceboxxx’s thumping house beat had people moving. “It doesn’t matter where or when I’m playing,” Juiceboxxx says. “I’ll give you the same amount of intensity.”

With the energy and fervor of a headlining gig, experimental rock group Collections of Colonies of Bees performed on Friday night at the 21st Street Co-op, a super-liberal student-housing complex. Playing to a packed room, the group satisfied with ethereal, spacey tunes that slowly constructed themselves into a complex weave of guitar riffs, percussion and electronics before peaking with a moving crescendo.

Fresh from inking a deal with indie-rock label Sub Pop Records, Milwaukee garage-pop ensemble Jaill could be found all over Austin, playing both official and unofficial venues. They drew an eager crowd to a blue sheet-metal warehouse and garage on Austin’s far east side, where peanut butter and jelly sandwiches wrapped in plastic were being sold for $2. They played a fun, loud, six-song set under a graffiti-tagged basketball hoop, splitting their performance between new songs and some of the tracks from their album There’s No Sky (Oh My My).

The Milwaukee band with the most buzz at South by Southwest was, without a doubt, Kings Go Forth. Sporting matching tunics, the 10-piece funk band performed a number of high-energy shows at unofficial showcases, but it was their official 10 p.m. backyard showcase at the Galaxy Room that commanded the most attention. James Mercer (of The Shins), Danger Mouse, The Black Keys and various members of Broken Social Scene lined the sides of the stage to catch the band’s platform prowess. The fiery, focused rhythm section and passionate vocal harmonies that Kings Go Forth delivered to the SXSW audience thrust the group into the spotlight in a grand way.

The Milwaukee bands that made the journey south invested a considerable amount of money, time and energy in taking their show on the road. So why do they go to all the trouble? The resounding consensus: for fun. None of the Milwaukee bands buy into the myth of the suited A&R rep catching a show and signing them to a three-record deal, but the festival still affords them a chance to catch up with friends from around the country and network.

“No one comes down here to play because it’s easy,” says Collections of Colonies of Bees’ guitarist Chris Rosenau. “If you’re thinking you’re going to get signed, you’re going to be disappointed. Come down here to meet great bands and have a good time.”

2010-03-24

All photos by Matt Schwenke