South by Southwest is a little like the Olympics. The event is supposed to celebrate the amateur spirit, but mostly it's about star power. An unsigned band lucky or good enough to be invited to the showcase competes for attention with bands playing forty other sanctioned venues simultaneously. And, dirty little secret be known, most attendees watch bands that already have record deals or a serious buzz, just as NBC shows the Dream Team in prime time while Greco-Roman wrestlers lather in obscurity.
Cleveland artists put brave feet forward at last week's conference. Wednesday night, Poplolly, fronted by Gina Jacocks, played Maggie Mae's East, a club on a street corner with glass windows befitting a taffy shop. Backed by 3D guitarists Michael Purkhiser and Marky Ray and drummer Bob Szeles of In Fear of Roses and Indian Rope Burn, Jacocks played tidy pop-rock songs competently, but struggled to engage the crowd. For most of the set, a cow could have been slaughtered in the empty space in front of the stage. It doesn't seem in Jacocks's nature to chat up the audience or play up her elfish good looks. Given the less-than-groundbreaking nature of her material, she may have to.
A few days after the show, Jacocks said that she received "really good feedback" about Poplolly's performance. She wants to audition a permanent band after returning to Cleveland. Ray and Purkhiser "need to concentrate on what they're doing," she said. "I don't want to take them away from that." The two guitarists were spotted at the SXSW trade show shopping 3D's wares and talking to a beefy man wearing a pea coat and a beret. It turned out to be Smithereens frontman Pat DiNizio, who's packed on a few since cutting "Only a Memory."
Hillbilly Idol had a busy Friday. The country band appeared on an Austin radio show in the morning, did an in-store at a record shop in the afternoon, and played the famous Broken Spoke at night. Around the bar of the Spoke are pictures of the owner arm-in-arm with celebs ranging from Willie Nelson to Clint Eastwood. "This place just has so much history," said Hillbilly Idol pedal steel guitarist Al Moss. "You're inhaling it, you know?"
First on the bill, the band pleased a crowd that was just arriving for a night of beer and line-dancing. Boots made soothing shuffling sounds on the dance floor, as Hillbilly Idol played old-time country with swaths of bluegrass and honky-tonk. The club's low ceiling forced tall singer/guitarists Paul Kovac and David Huddleston to stand with their legs splayed.
Willoughby spoken-word artist Ray McNiece mixed rock and roll attitude with Angela's Ashes-type memories at his performance at a coffee shop. His best piece examined his Scotch-Irish roots. "What did I learn from my people but to slur nostalgic songs and drink before I think," he rapped. Akron native Joseph Arthur, who performed at roughly the same time as McNiece did, reportedly turned in a brief but interesting set of Peter Gabriel-inspired tunes.
Flying the pirate flag in SXSW's face, man-about-town Jim Clevo captained the tenth annual Regional Roundup Party on Saturday night. Ten bands played the unofficial event, including Cleveland punkers Hostile Omish. Clevo said that, after their set, the Omish boys took their butter churners into the street and busked, earning $60. The money, Clevo figured, would cover the Omish's gas money, provided they didn't "blow it at Graceland on toenail clippers or something."
"I should never have left" goes the chorus of the first song on the Revelers' new CD, Day In, Day Out. The band did leave Cleveland, but only briefly. For three months in 1997, the Revelers lived in a New York efficiency, hoping to catch their star. "I don't know what we expected," says singer/guitarist Andrej Cuturic. "We hoped something would happen. It was kind of dumb."
Safely back in Cleveland, the ten-year-old band hails the release of the new CD at the Euclid Tavern Friday, March 26. Day In, Day Out is an irresistible celebration of rock and roll, ranging from garage pop to Springsteen-type rave-ups, with Cuturic sounding like a cross between Morrissey and Robert Smith. The record is being released by Spin Art, a New York indie. The band will tour for three weeks in April and hopefully make it out to the West Coast in the summer. Cuturic sounds contented with life on an indie label; he says that the Revelers aren't as concerned with the big-label hustle as they were in the past. "Now we're at a point where things like that don't mean so much anymore," he says. "It's more back to the music."
He adds: "If there's a theme to the record, it's realizing I have no marketable skill, except music."
The song "Heartburn" on Al's Fast Freight's new CD, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, is not a metaphor for love turned bad. Singer/songwriter Howard Micenmacher says that the song is about . . . heartburn. For years he suffered from the condition, until taking the right medication. "Think of the worst case of heartburn, and think of having it twenty hours a day," Micenmacher says.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is the band's full-blown Americana record. The two previous discs had an R&B influence that Micenmacher says "we kind of flushed out completely." Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is awash in fiddles, mandolins, and a good dose of humor. The first track is called "I Need a Word that Rhymes with Idiot."
Micenmacher thinks that alt-country has become so popular because musicians find it natural to play and listeners are tired of manufactured rock and country acts. "I don't like to call it the common man, but to me it's something middle America relates to."
The band sold 90 percent of its last CD, I-90, to people living outside Cleveland. Alt-country fans may not number in the millions, but they tend to be more willing to give new bands a listen. Micenmacher says that the band has received orders from former Axis powers Italy, Germany, and Japan. "I'm not talking great numbers," he says. ". . . I think nobody in this genre thinks they're going to be giant."
The CD release party is an early show (7 to 9:30 p.m.) Saturday, March 27 at the Barking Spider.
Bid farewell to Bolder Brain. The band's March 27 show at the Phantasy Nite Club is its last...Blow out the candles with birthday boy Robert Lockwood Jr. at the Savannah Bar & Grille March 28...Two films of note for music fans: The Robert Johnson documentary Hellhounds premieres March 25 at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The Cleveland Cinematheque screens The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, which turns its gaze on the L.A. punk scene, Saturday and Sunday at the Cleveland Institute of Art.