Friday, May 01, 2015

The Creation Of “Buzz Band”

photo by Roy Moore

"It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock 'n roll." — AC/DC

Four and a half years ago, when I first started improvising with Karen Jane DeWitt as part of Local Genius Society, one of the first things we bonded over was music.  So often one of us would mention a band – The Raveonettes, Cults, Best Coast, Father John Misty, No Doubt – and the other would say, “Hey, I love that band!”

Much of my pre-Austin life was spent immersed in music – covering shows, reviewing albums, interviewing musicians.  I’d experienced the musical world as a journalist and a fan.  But in Austin more of my time was being spent on stage, improvising stories and characters.

Looking for a new artistic project, Karen and I thought about a way to combine our shared passion for music with our love of improvised stories, and we pitched the Institution Theater on an idea for a narrative show about the lives of musicians reaching for stardom.  We wanted to explore stories about what goes on behind the scenes, after the concert, on the tour bus, in between albums – we wanted to create real characters that are living in the moment and laying it all on the line chasing a big dream.

And we wanted rock and roll.

Looking to Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” Anthony Kiedis’s “Scar Tissue,” Chuck Klosterman’s “Fargo Rock City,” Keith Richards’s “Life,” and other rock texts as guides, we made it our aim to focus on stories with high personal stakes, moments of tenderness or triumph, and real emotion.

On top of this, we also wanted a specific kind of live music.  We weren’t looking to create a stage musical, with characters singing their feelings to one another, but rather a story, with spontaneous, improvised rock and roll.  (I love a good musical as much as the next person, but a rock concert is a different beast.)  We wanted to hear the band’s sound and see them in concert, or in the studio, or working on writing songs.  We wanted drums, percussion, electric guitar!  

We were incredibly fortunate that the Institution team saw promise in our idea and let us run with it.  And we were even luckier to be graced with the talents of a cast who can really do it all.  Not only are they generous and funny improvisers, they’re fearless musicians and genuinely kind people.    

Behind-the-scenes:  Luis Salinas and Dave Ronn

Karen and I wanted to allow for a really collaborative rehearsal process, and the cast has been imaginative, playful, and unafraid.  They’ve embodied the open-minded Yes-And attitude of improv, which, as first-time directors has been a great gift.

Behind-the-scenes: Megan Simon, Dave Ronn, and Jordan T. Maxwell

Special thanks to everyone who gave us advice, suggestions, and guidance as we’ve shaped this show – particularly Kareem Badr, Jon Bolden, John Ratliff, Asaf Ronen, Tom Booker, Sarah Marie Curry, Aden Kirschner, and our improvised storytelling idols PGraph.

Working on “Buzz Band” has been a great new adventure, and I couldn’t have asked for a more inspired and giving creative partner than Karen Jane DeWitt.  She’s got killer instincts and vital exuberance, and she’s deeply caring.  The best, man.

We are so excited to debut “Buzz Band” and unveil some improv rock stars.
It’s all happening.

“Buzz Band” at the Institution Theater
 3807 Woodbury Drive (near S. Congress and Ben White)
Fridays and Saturdays May 8 & 9, 15 & 16, 22 & 23 at 8PM

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Few Moments From SXSW 2015

If I made myself one SXSW promise this year, it was to not overdo it.  For once I wanted to make it through the festival without feeling like it would take my body most of the next week to recover.  For the most part that was achieved, as well as seeing some bands worth mentioning.    

On Tuesday night at Empire Control Room the two dudes that comprise South Africa’s Goldfish cranked out an oddball brand of EDM-inspired music, with Dominic Peters on keyboard and electric bass, occasionally sampling bits of Rodriguez (from “Searching for Sugarman”), and David Poole playing a mini-saxophone and the flute.  It was as surprising as it was danceable and the crowd was certainly dancing, as well as making cardboard cut-outs of goldfish swim through the audience.  


Wednesday at Ironwood Hall the already-exploding Twin Shadow played from behind a translucent white gauze that wrapped the stage.  Likely employed to showcase some dramatic lighting design elements, namely what looked like a four-poster bed frame equipped with incredibly bright neon lights, the gauze created a bit of a disconnected feeling between the audience and the stage.  You can say this is no ordinary love George Lewis, in your sexiest Sade-referencing voice, but it still feels like there’s something coming between us.  Specifically gauze.

At the Parish Thursday night London’s The Vaccines gave the crowd what they expected, banging versions of “Post Break-Up Sex,” “Wrecking Bar (Ra Ra Ra),” and “If You Wanna,” as well as a few tunes from their forthcoming album (due at the end of May).

Friday and Saturday saw some wetter weather in Austin, but that didn’t stop folks from trying to crowdsurf to Thee Oh Sees at the Mohawk.  While John Dwyer held his guitar like a machine gun and the two drummers pounded away at their sets, slippery fans tried to climb atop the thin crowd, with little success.

A few hours later at Empire Control room Emmett Miller was much more successful, jumping on top of the crowd while continuing to play guitar toward the end of Diarrhea Planet’s set.  Two years ago at South By everyone was talking about Diarrhea Planet, but admittedly I’d resisted seeing them because, well, that name.

Diarrhea Planet
The energy of the Nashville-based band is undeniable, with a sound driven hard by the four guitarists (the other two members play bass and drums), which under different acoustic circumstances (everything was turned up too high at Empire) can create a generous layered texture to their songs.  The members took turns getting spotlight time, reaching as close as possible to the crowd.

Oh course no one stirred people up more than the UK’s Palma Violets – not strictly because of their music, per se, but more thanks to a dude in the crowd who insisted on bringing people into a dance circle near the front of the stage.  It was unclear what his relationship to the band really was, but no one in the audience was safe from his potential pull.  Danger in the club?  You got it.

Palma Violets

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

10 Years At SXSW

Somehow this will be my tenth year at South By Southwest.

The first year I came, in 2006, I didn’t know anything about the festival.  I came for work, which meant I was doing product demonstrations in the Convention Center from 8am – 5pm.  At night we’d go to showcases.  It was an exhausting and exhilarating 11 days.

At Emo’s I saw Eugene Hutz jump into the crowd during a frenetic Gogol Bordello show.  I watched a tall blonde girl sing along to every word at MF Doom.  My company sponsored a small party that Sleater-Kinney played and we shyly met them after their set.

I had a flip phone that allowed rudimentary texting – you had to hit a button multiple times to select a new letter – but a co-worker sent me a text to show up to Stubb’s for a surprise show.  Pre-Twitter and iPhone and mobile internet access it really was a surprise.  People filed in and we watched the Beastie Boys play “Intergalactic” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.”  I heard people talking about another secret show in a fenced off parking lot near what was once a Spaghetti Warehouse.  Underneath the white tent top the Flaming Lips covered “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the crowd sang loudly and bounced beach balls.  It felt amazing to be in this space with all these people experiencing this.  It didn’t feel like we were attendees at a distance, it felt like we were active participants.   

That first South By became sort of a pivotal moment.  It helped change the way I wanted to experience music.  I wanted it to be up close and personal, I wanted to be right next to it. 
Gogol Bordello at Emo's (2006)
In the years that followed, South By became my annual pilgrimage.  I’d fly from San Francisco or Oakland or San Jose, wherever I could get a flight from.  One year I fell down a flight of stairs on my way to the airport.  I tripped over the strap on my suitcase and toppled onto the concrete outside my apartment.  A man driving by jumped out of his car to see if I was okay, leaving his car running in the middle of the street.  I thanked him and said, “I have to get to the airport.”  I slid myself into my car seat with a throbbing huge bruise on my right hip.  Another year all the San Francisco flights were cancelled so we sped to San Jose and pleaded with them to let us out.  I was a woman obsessed.  I didn't know too many people in Austin, but I knew I wanted to be there.

Two years in a row I stayed at the Town Lake Holiday Inn.  The second time was an accident – another hotel lost my reservation, but I got in a cab and the driver said he’d take me around until I found a place to stay.  The Holiday Inn had one room left.  Rainey Street had yet to be developed, so if I wanted coffee the closest place I’d really stumbled on was the Hideout, near Sixth and Congress.  (Little did I know what that spot would come to mean to me in the years that would follow.)

I started writing more about music, covering shows for 7x7, SPIN, and Ground Control.  South By was my chance to commune with other music writers and talk about who we loved and who we wanted to see.
Vampire Weekend at Stubb's (2008)
Surfer Blood at La Zona Rosa (2011)
At the Parish we saw one of She & Him’s first shows.  At La Zona Rosa we saw Editors and Secret Machines and Cold War Kids.  Band of Horses played Central Presbyterian Church and it was the closest thing to a revival I’ve experienced.  One year I ended up dancing at the Mohawk until 4am to a guy remixing 8-bit Nintendo sounds.  I saw Deer Tick completely channel Nirvana in an all-cover set that ended with them smashing their instruments.

In the last couple of years though, I’ve noticed more bands that seem to be exhausted from playing so many shows in a short span of time and fans that are anxious to move on to the next thing.  There’s always a better party and a better band and something you absolutely shouldn’t be missing somewhere else.  (With the proliferation of free daytime parties sometimes the nighttime showcases can seem a little shortchanged.  On a couple of occasions I’ve noticed that a band might pack a free daytime party, but not have a huge audience at a nighttime show.)

My worry is that folks may now be driven less by the want to see a certain band or to discover something new than by the fear of missing out on seeing something.  Not that this fear didn’t exist before, but it feels more tangible now.  Maybe part of what made those early years so magical for me was that I wasn’t really aware of what I missed out on.  I just knew that in that moment I was with a dozen other people watching the Black Lips start a mosh pit at Beerland.     

So, enjoy the moment – before you know it, 10 years will go by.