Music » Music Features

GonerFest: Take 5

A blow-by-blow guide to the city's wildest rock festival.



Garage rock, power pop, punk rock, and a few other visceral permutations of rock ruled the game at last year's GonerFest, a now semi-legendary rock festival curated by local record store and label Goner. This year, the evolving festival — which begins with, of all things, a Ping-Pong tournament Wednesday, September 24th, before the musical assault launches the next day — expands beyond its garage/punk base, roping in a diverse landscape of independent rock bands over four days and nights at five locations.

GonerFest stalwart King Louie One Man Band kicks things off with a 5 p.m. performance Thursday at the Goner Records store in Cooper-Young, which also will be hosting a photo exhibit by the San Francisco-based Geoff Ellis, the man behind Sad Kids, the wonderful photography zine that focused its last issue on GonerFest 4.

"I wasn't getting the attention I wanted through gallery openings, and doing a zine in 2008 actually puts me in a unique area," says Ellis, a onetime Memphian who recently shot the cover for comedian Brett Wienbach's next album. "People pay attention to it, because the web is saturated with photography blogs."

Thursday night's set at the Hi-Tone Café starts with San Francisco's Sic Alps, one of the more talked-about bands of the festival. Sic Alps' sound is informed by the lo-fi indie rock of the '90s, along with the primal stomp of early garage-rock bands such as the Troggs or Pretty Things, unifying these influences via an inspired melodic sense and with the guts to blanket choice moments in layers of noise.

The more-pop-than-garage Crusaders of Love will represent France on their first U.S. visit. A totally different but no less interesting mindset will follow when Dan Melchior takes the stage. Melchior, a Brit who has been based in New York and, more recently, North Carolina, has appeared on more than 30 releases during the past 11 years, collaborating with Billy Childish and Holly Golightly, recording solo, or fronting Dan Melchior's Broke Revue. The latter released three great, full-length albums from 1999 to 2002 on the labels Sympathy for the Record Industry and In the Red.

Continuing Thursday night's overload of goodness and hailing from the same San Francisco scene that spawned Sic Alps, Oh Sees are the current brainchild of John Dwyer, veteran of, in his estimate, "20 to 30 bands and creative monikers." The long list includes the sadly defunct Coachwhips (which also featured Sic Alps' Matt Hartman), a stripped-down garage-rock band that recalled the glory days of John Spencer's legendary Pussy Galore. Before that, Dwyer led the unclassifiable Pink and Brown. "After being in so many bands over the years, Oh Sees are seven or eight of my creative outlets crashing into one band, so to speak," Dwyer says.

Among the lineup at this year's Gonerfest: Vivian Girls
  • Among the lineup at this year's Gonerfest: Vivian Girls

For those who are not too hungover or still asleep or both, the first of the official GonerFest satellite shows will take place Friday afternoon in the backyard of Light Years Vintage at 885 S. Cooper. The Touch-Me-Nots, a Bay Area couple who play country-tinged pop, will kick things off around 2 p.m. More pop will come by way of Indiana's Eric & the Happy Thoughts before the set concludes with the promising punk-rock assault of locals Dead Trends.

Friday night's show at the Hi-Tone commences with Jeff Evans & His Southern Aces, a new project that the Goner site refers to as "Evans backed by a new crop of Alabama studs." Should be interesting.

Evidenced by the strength and increasing popularity of their eponymous debut on In the Red, Cheap Time have made serious strides since longtime Goner regular Jeffrey Novak (late of his one-man band the Rat Traps) formed the band in 2006. The cover design of Cheap Time's album screams "power-pop throwback," but the sounds within benefit from a revamped lineup and an appreciation of early-'70s glam.

"The Ooga Boogas were my favorite act of last year, and that was only their first performance in the States," says Goner co-owner Zac Ives. "I'm really looking forward to seeing how they are a year later, after releasing an album."

The place that the Ooga Boogas are coming back from, to be precise, is Australia, where they are sort of a sister band to soon-to-be-omnipresent (just wait) Eddie Current Suppression Ring, the most recent addition to the Goner Records stable (with the release of this month's Primary Colours full-length).

Among the lineup at this year's Gonerfest: Oh Sees
  • Among the lineup at this year's Gonerfest: Oh Sees

The "B" side of the Vivian Girls' seven-inch debut ("I Believe in Nothing"/"Damaged") is one of my most frequently played pieces of new music in 2008. The band's full-length debut will be released in a matter of days on In the Red. The album and the band are tough to pin down sonically — perhaps a low-budget My Bloody Valentine with gorgeous vocals, big hooks, and everything pushed through the speakers with drumming that evokes the Velvet Underground's Mo Tucker.

They have two out of three predictions correct when it comes to GonerFest 5: "My vision of coming to Memphis is buying records at Goner, eating a lot of pizza, and partying a lot. People have warned us that there will be a lot of partying," bassist Kickball Katy says.

Clocking in dangerously close to when some revelers will be rising after a round of early-morning after-parties, double-stage Murphy's lineup for Saturday afternoon is alone worth the price of a three-day golden pass.

Blasting off at 1 p.m. with Chicago's AV Murder, the lineup also includes the spazzy, fidelity-challenged pop of Eat Skull. Featuring former members of the Hospitals, Eat Skull are active participants in the rebirth of the Siltbreeze label, once a '90s safe house for noisy, no-fidelity bands droning and screeching from the margins of underground rock (Dead C, Bardo Pond, Strapping Fieldhands).

To music fans who consider Arcade Fire or the Decemberists challenging fare, the Columbus, Ohio, trio known as Psychedelic Horseshit may sound like exactly that.

Among the lineup at this year's Gonerfest: Intelligence
  • Among the lineup at this year's Gonerfest: Intelligence

But ears trained in the above-mentioned noise-pop movements will hear mind-blowing hooks and inspired lyrics underneath the prickly blanket of noise and loose rhythm. They are highly recommended.

No strangers to a local stage, house party, or in-store performance, The Barbaras return to this year's GonerFest with a Goner-released single ("Summertime Road") under their belts and a Jay Reatard-produced full-length debut on In the Red scheduled for the near future. They command a whimsical pop sensibility somewhere between skiffle, the Beach Boys, and the forgotten glam of Roy Wood's Wizzard.

"We've issued a challenge to certain audience members, and that challenge is to surprise us with something while we're playing, just so long as it doesn't interrupt the music," says band member Bennett Foster. "If no one ends up doing a good prank or stunt, we have something that we're going to unleash. Well, we'll probably unleash it regardless."

There's no need to panic if attendance swiftly rises during the fourth hour. It just means that Jay Reatard and his band (Stephen Pope and Billy Hayes of the Barbaras) are about to take one of the stages. Moments later, Sector Zero will take an opposite stage. A vehicle for Goner co-owners Ives and Eric "Oblivian" Friedl, the band also includes Reatard on drums.

Also working to make this a very special afternoon are local hardcore hopefuls No Comply, The Oscars, with their first show in who knows how long, Alabama's Wizzard Sleeve, Earthmen & Strangers, and Turpentine Brothers.

By this point, after processing the band schedule already covered, some readers probably are feeling phantom hangovers or hallucinating that their ears are ringing. Toughen up. It's time for Saturday night back at the Hi-Tone.

Charging out of the gate will be Pierced Arrows, or Fred and Toody Cole of Dead Moon reborn with a different drummer. Lifers? The word doesn't even begin to explain this couple. From his brushes with garage and bubblegum stardom in the '60s (with the Weeds and the Lollipop Shoppe) on through countless bands until settling on the incredibly consistent Dead Moon in the mid-'80s, the Coles always have possessed more energy and passion than the vast majority of bands in their early 20s and will continue to do so two or three decades from now.

Regardless of this year's impressive variety, there is no band playing GonerFest 5 that sounds quite like Intelligence. The baby of Lars Finberg, this Seattle band was long affiliated with A Frames due to Finberg's membership in both. The (now-defunct) A Frames' sound was an industrial post-punk wasteland with very rough edges, but Intelligence is less apocalyptic and more open to pop.

"When I saw this year's GonerFest lineup, I thought, wow, it'd be great to play one of these things. [It includes] so many of my favorite bands right now," Finberg says. "And then we were actually asked to play. I was really excited."

The proverbial 25th hour of GonerFest 5 will be colored with the punk-rock slap of Static Static (John Henry, formerly of Detonations) and the decidedly different Box Elders, an up-and-coming Ohio trio. "Box Elders will be a dark horse coming out of nowhere this year and blowing people's minds," Ives says.

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