I saw more than 30 bands in Austin last week, but two stood out above all:
Art Brut: This British band's 2005 debut Bang Bang Rock & Roll (which still awaits a U.S. release) is one of my favorite albums of the past year, but it only took a few minutes into their Wednesday showcase at the Parish for my ardor to spill over into near obsession. Sui generis frontman Eddie Argos (who boasts the finest eyebrow/mustache combo in all of rock) leaped on stage in an ill-fitting suit and looked for all the world like something out of an Andy Kaufman routine. The band surrounding him was like an elaborate sight gag on musical trends past: one spiky-haired, T-shirt-clad guitarist a circa-'77 CBGB holdover, the other a baby-faced, tie-wearing extra for a Quadrophenia Broadway adaptation, while the bass player seemed to have shown up for an early-'80s Go-Go's tour. And their music was equally theatrical, with Argos not singing so much as speaking directly to the audience, like a stand-up comic over riffs and beats.
Basically, the band's signifiers suggest hipster-centric sarcasm and irony, with music funny enough to make you think that's all there is. But listen close and you'll hear utter sincerity, a band communicating as precisely and directly as possible and meaning every single word they say. (Is there a truer, funnier, more guileless love song than "Good Weekend," where Argos celebrates his acquisition of a new girlfriend by exclaiming, "I've seen her naked! TWICE! And it's going to happen again!"?)
The result was dizzying, disorienting, inspiring. FUN. A band with a worldview to match their hooky, spiky sound: POPULAR CULTURE NO LONGER APPLIES TO ME and MODERN ART MAKES ME WANT TO ROCK OUT were the lyrical slogans emblazoned on the band's T-shirts, the latter lyric chanted by Argos sans microphone as he ran through the crowd pumping his fists. Later, he implored everyone in the room to form their own bands lest they risk provoking his mild disappointment.
I saw them again Thursday at a day party. Tried to see them a third time Saturday, but just missed. They'll never play Memphis, but if St. Louis or Nashville show up on their tour schedule, I'm planning a road trip.
Gogol Bordello: More than one reliable source suggested that this New York-based gypsy-folk punk act was the best live band on the planet, the kind of hype that's usually a set up for disappointment. But since I love their 2005 album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (yes, they sound EXACTLY like that title), I decided to pass up tantalizing concurrent showcases from Devin the Dude, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and the Drive-By Truckers to see for myself.
The only response I could muster at the end of their exhausting, exhilarating 1 a.m. set at Emo's Thursday night: OH MY GOD. Lanky, frenetic frontman Eugene Hutz wielded an acoustic guitar and was flanked on fiddle and accordion by a couple of middle-aged comrades who looked like stock characters from a Russian mob movie. Not a promise of punk glory, you might think. But you'd be wrong. Later, the band was joined by a couple of fierce women, one smashing cymbals, the other playing a huge marching-band-style drum. When over-eager fans in the front row pulled the drum into the crowd, the woman dived on top of it, continuing to pound away. Not to be outdone, Hutz swung from the rafters and landed on top of the drum as well, sitting side-by-side with his female companion, riding the wave and pounding away with the microphone. I've never seen a show so completely chaotic that also managed to be so bracingly musical. Stunning.