Austin's South By Southwest music festival, which takes place in the Texas capital every March, might be the biggest underground rock gathering in the country. Festival passes are pricey, but for Memphians who don't want to make the trip or pay the fare, our city's status as logical tour stop on the way to or from Austin makes it possible to sample what SXSW has to offer without ever leaving the metro area. So far, we count 24 shows scheduled for Memphis or Oxford in March that are directly tied to SXSW, with a few more likely to emerge. What follows is a quick cheat sheet to a busy, busy month:
Saturday, March 6th
Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers (opening for Reverend Horton Heat)
Young Avenue Deli
Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers are a rowdy roots-rock band from Nashville that blends country, blues, and rockabilly (and, okay, punk) into a larger-than-life, theatrical blend. Formed by members of Hank Williams III's touring band, the Shack*Shakers have purportedly become quite the live draw in Nashville, and their debut album, Cockadoodledon't, released by venerable Chicago "insurgent country" label Bloodshot Records, confirms the suspicion that if you're a fan of Southern Culture on the Skids or Reverend Horton Heat and wish those bands would freshen up their schtick, then Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers are for you. And, luckily enough, their local show this month will be in support of the good Reverend, who have seemingly been on tour since 1928.
Sunday, March 7th
The Forty-Fives (with The Lights and The Sore Thumbs)
These Atlanta garage-rockers offer a sturdy, old-fashioned take on a durable genre, their sound full of fuzz-toned guitars, snapping backbeats, and stabs of organ. The band plays Memphis fairly frequently and has recorded here, but even if you've never seen them before, Memphis clubhounds should find something comfortably familiar in the Forty-Fives. They convey some of the '60s-style charm of Memphis' own Reigning Sound and quite a bit of the swaggering, for-those-about-to-rock-we-salute-you populism of locals the Subteens.
Wednesday, March 10th
Young Avenue Deli
West Virginia's American Minor is a five-piece, blues-based rock band whose sound has been compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd, early-'70s Rolling Stones, and Mountain. They'll be playing a free show as part of the Deli's ongoing "On the Road" series.
Friday, March 12th
I Am the World Trade Center and The Paper Lions
Young Avenue Deli
Do you sometimes pine for the swooning, danceable synth-pop of '80s bands such as Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and Human League? Well, Athens-by-way-of-New York's I Am the World Trade Center prove that you're not alone. The duo of singer Amy Dykes and musical mastermind Dan Geller formed in New York City pre-9/11, changed their moniker in the days after the towers fell, but eventually decided to go back to it. The romantic laptop pop style went over big last year in the hands of Seattle side project the Postal Service (which spun off from the city's indie cult band Death Cab for Cutie), and I Am the World Trade Center's catchy, endearing The Cover Up, which is due for release in May, suggests they can follow that lead into the fragile hearts of indie-pop fans everywhere. Atlanta's Paper Lions, who record for Kindercore Records, open.
Saturday, March 13th
The Unicorns (with Vending Machine)
After tours opening for such indie stalwarts as Hot Hot Heat, Cat Power, and the Walkmen, these Canadian indie rockers are starting to become something of a cause cÇlÇbre of their own, at least in the indie-rock specialist press, which is admittedly as navel-gazing as a subculture gets and not always reliable. The Unicorns offer lo-fi pop with "sacred" lyrics, and the band's playful, childish live sets are said to sometimes make use of puppets or films. Whether they live up to their minor hype or not, locals Vending Machine, Robby Grant's lovely experiment in alt-pop, is a sure thing. This will be an early show, with the Gamble Brothers Band scheduled to close things down at the Hi-Tone that night.
Sunday, March 14th
The Secret Machines and The Fever
This pairing promises to be one of the month's most intriguing shows. The Secret Machines are an epic, expansive band from Dallas (via New York), whose major-label debut for Warner-Reprise, Now Here Is Nowhere, is already available digitally (see secretmachines.com or iTunes). But it won't be released in tangible form until later this spring. The record is strong enough to suggest they could be one of the year's breakout bands. Some compare them to Pink Floyd, but I don't hear it. (Jeez, they're a trio.) I hear something more akin to mid-'90s Flaming Lips, when that band had a harder guitar sound, but with more straightforward lyrics (and equally straightforward emotions).
The Secret Machines shared space with the Fever on last year's scene-sampling compilation Yes New York, and the latter band's spirited, punky garage-rock (including a cover of Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life") is also a good bet to develop into something.
Decibully (with The Klopeks)
Young Avenue Deli
Decibully debuted last fall with the album City of Festivals, for increasingly prominent indie-rock label Polyvinyl. Featuring members of emo giants the Promise Ring, the band pulls the much-kvetched-about genre in a direction that embraces both alt-country and chamber pop.
This Philly trio concocts head-spinning, instrumental heavy-rock for fans of avant-garde jazz, progressive rock, and hardcore metal. The band's most recent album, Pretest, wallows in some murky atmospherics, but just as often traffics in thundering riffs and energizingly sprung rhythms.
Monday, March 15th
Constantines and The National
Toronto's Constantines record for Seattle's venerable indie Sub Pop, with their latest, last year's Shine a Light, a considerable hit on college radio. The band has a pretty traditional rock sound without sounding retro, leading one to believe that they could have been mainstream stars in a different era. They'll be joined by the New-York-via-Ohio country rockers the National.
Led by singer-songwriter Melissa Swingle, this Chapel Hill-based band is what bluegrass might sound like as imagined by a moody alt-rock chanteuse. The band has been recording for nearly a decade, mostly for Chicago's respected "insurgent country" label Bloodshot.
Tuesday, March 16
Modey Lemon and The Apes
Young Avenue Deli
Modey Lemon is a noisy, vaguely bluesy guitar-and-drums duo in the vein of the White Stripes, except that, instead of finding their inspiration in Depression-era blues, they reach all the way back to ye olde Iggy & the Stooges for a sound and attitude. But they pull it off in spades. Washington, D.C.'s The Apes, offer a similar kind of noisy blues-rock but follow it back to its garage and metal, rather than punk, roots.
Panthers and The Detachment Kit
Brooklyn's Panthers have shared stages with other currently hot NYC rock bands such as the Rapture, Liars, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and boast an experimental, political, punk style that's been compared to D.C.'s much-loved Nation of Ulysses. They'll join up with Chicago's angular indie-rockers The Detachment Kit, some of whose members have Memphis connections.
Wednesday, March 17th
Trans Am and Paris, Texas
Young Avenue Deli
Trans Am emerged from the mid-'90s "post-rock" scene whose most notable practitioners were Chicago's Tortoise. The band's experimental, largely instrumental sound takes on a newfound political bent on their latest, Liberation, which keeps their trademark sonic punchlines to a minimum. Instead, they splice together phrases from George Bush speeches in order to have him say things like "In the battle of Iraq, we destroyed hospitals and schools" to enthusiastic congressional applause. Openers Paris, Texas are an emo band from Wisconsin, so one can only assume that their moniker derives from excellent taste in film.
The Black Keys
As bluesy, indie-schooled guitar-and-drums duos go, where the White Stripes cite Blind Willie McTell and Son House and Modey Lemon reach back to the Stooges and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Ohio's Black Keys find middle ground between '60s blues rockers (Canned Heat, Mountain, like that) and the hill-country blues of recent years. They're the most straightforwardly bluesy band of their type, so it makes sense that they'd hook up with the label that brought hill-country blues to the rest of the world, Oxford's Fat Possum, which released the band's second album, thickfreakness, last year.
Saturday March 20
We Ragazzi and French Toast
We Ragazzi are a Chicago-based trio who mix and match keyboard and piano hooks, overactive drums, and Jagger-style vocals into a unique style. French Toast? Couldn't tell you.
Sunday, March 21st
Armor for Sleep, Liar's Academy, Silent Drive, and Bane
Upstate New York's Equal Vision is an indie punk and emo label that has gotten perhaps its most attention lately for Coheed & Cambria, the prog-metal-indie-emo outfit in town last month opening for AFI and Thursday. This label-showcase tour collects four of Equal Vision's other Northeast punk hopefuls: New Jersey's Armor for Sleep, Baltimore's Liar's Academy, and Massachusetts' Silent Drive and Bane.
Don Caballero (with The Circuit Benders and The Klopeks)
Young Avenue Deli
Pittsburgh's Don Caballero emerged in the mid-'90s indie-rock heyday with a form of heavy, smart instrumental rock for vaunted Chicago indie Touch & Go. A decade later, they're still at it, as a new generation of instrumental rockers like Lightning Bolt have followed their lead.
Monday, March 22nd
This Raleigh, North Carolina, indie-rock band released their debut album, The Rosebuds Make Out, last fall on Merge, the celebrated indie label that grew up around '90s icon Superchunk. For anyone who remembers that band fondly (and, yeah, I know, they're still together, amazingly enough), the Rosebuds' energetic, hooky brand of rock should be worth checking out.
Thee Shams (with Danny Black)
This Ohio-based psychedelic garage-rock band has joined the stable of Mississippi's blues-identified Fat Possum Records and recently recorded their label debut at Fat Possum founder Bruce Watson's Money Shot studio.
Tuesday, March 23rd
Ester Drang, The Reigning Sound, and Mr. Airplane Man
The quasi-locals on this bill --Reigning Sound with now North Carolina-based Greg Cartwright and the now Memphis-Boston Mr. Airplane Man --should be more than enough to pack the Hi-Tone, especially since every Reigning Sound show these days feels like it could be the last. But shoe-gazing Tulsa indie-rockers Ester Drang, who record for Delaware's respected Jade Tree records (Jets to Brazil, Pedro the Lion), could be worth the trip alone, especially if they make good on the ubiquitous comparisons to fellow Oklahomans the Flaming Lips.
Sleepy Jackson, On the Speakers, and Robbers on High Street
This atmospheric country-rock band from the wilds of Western Australia recorded their lavishly praised debut album, Lovers, for the dance/techno-identified label Astralwerks (home of Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx, among others). Though the album has a few electro elements, it's mostly a confident, expansive update of rootsy '60s rock, jumping from soaring late-Beatles pop ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps" springs immediately to mind) to Gram Parsons-style folkiness to glammy swagger. This is probably the most hyped new band hitting town this month, and it's not hard to understand why.
As for the openers: On the Speakers is the new project from Ian Sefchick, frontman for onetime coulda-been-contenders Creeper Lagoon, who released the well-regarded album I Become Small and Go in the late '90s but never really developed on that promise. On the Speakers is an attempt to hit the reset button, and the catchy indie-pop of the band's eponymous EP bodes well. Rounding out the bill are New York's Robbers on High Street, whose debut EP, Fine Lines, is set for release this month.
Friday, March 26th
The Ponys, THE FUSE!,
and The Lost Sounds
California's In the Red Records has emerged during the garage-rock "revival" of the past few years as one of the best and most reliable indie-rock labels in the country and one with considerable local connections. Label chief Larry Hardy has long mined the Memphis-Detroit garage-rock nexus (the label's flagship band, the Dirtbombs, representing the latter), and his showcase at SXSW this year will be headlined by locals the Reigning Sound and also contain one of the label's newest signings, Memphis' Lost Sounds.
On the way home, the Lost Sounds will bring a couple of their new labelmates for a smaller Memphis showcase that promises to be one of the month's best shows. The Lost Sounds you know (or should), but the Ponys, a co-ed quartet from Chicago, you need to get to know. The band's latest record, the truth-in-advertising Laced with Romance, which mixes the Ronettes and Richard Hell with equal ardor and understanding, might be the most durable and pleasurable straight-up garage-rock album I've heard since the Reigning Sound's Time Bomb High School. Rounding out the bill is Los Angeles mod trio THE FUSE!. I haven't heard them, but considering the lofty company they keep, there's bound to be something good going on.
Sunday, March 28th
Throw Rag (with The Angel Sluts)
This punkabilly would-be cult band from Southern California has been compared to the Damned and Social Distortion off the strength of their 2003 debut, Desert Shores, produced by indie-rock notable Tim Kerr. The Angel Sluts? I have no idea.
Wednesday, March 31st
The Tucson-based Calexico is a collaboration between multi-instrumentalists John Convertino and Joey Burns. Convertino and Burns are longtime bandmates who back Howe Gelb in the stalwart alt-rock outfit Giant Sand and have moonlighted in lounge-revival act Friends of Dean Martinez. As Calexico, they merge atmospheric Southwestern rock and novel instrumentation (marimba, accordion, cornet) with a typical guitar-bass-drums foundation.
Calexico is one of those side projects that was so successful that it became its makers' main gig, establishing the eclectic duo as modern-day Ennio Morricones. Indeed, most of their albums could work as a soundtrack for an as-yet-untitled Quentin Tarantino spaghetti western homage. With this band's potent use of not only Morricone but mariachi, tejano, and other styles atypical for indie-rock (country, jazz, surf, South American music, etc.), Calexico creates first-rate mood music for an America (real or imagined) that exists "out yonder where the snakes and scorpions run."