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The Rust Belt Represents

South by Southwest better look out for the Cleveland rockers heading its way.

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Austin beware: Chris Kulcsar (center) and This Moment in Black History. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Austin beware: Chris Kulcsar (center) and This Moment in Black History.
Rusty old Cleveland never sends as many bands to South by Southwest as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but we manage to represent come March. This year, the annual Austin-based music festival has invited three C-Town bands that truly capture our love for heavy music: This Moment in Black History, the Alarm Clocks, and the Vacancies. From old-school garage to rowdy punk to pile-driving post-hardcore weirdness, those networking hipsters boozing it up in Texas will soon learn that we who live along the banks of the crooked river don't mess around.

"It's in the vein of the originals," Alarm Clocks frontman Mike Pierce says of The Time Has Come. "It's definitely '60s-style rock and roll. Everybody's saying 'Your story's as good as the music.'"

Back in '66, the Alarm Clocks recorded a 45 called "Yeah." They sold some copies at high school dances and battles of the bands, where they'd cover favorites by the Kinks and the Yardbirds. The single didn't take off, and the group broke up in 1967. Copies of it circulated for years, and "Yeah" became a choice cover on the retro-garage circuit -- popular for its fiercely ecstatic vocals. In 1983, Crypt Records' Back From the Grave featured the single alongside other nuggets.

In 2000, New York's Norton Records released Yeah, a CD that compiled the single and some unreleased covers from the same sessions. Still, the band remained an underground secret. Even Pierce didn't know about the reissues and had all but forgotten about his former group by 2005. Then Tom Fallon, a Cleveland guitarist who helped get the band on the Grave comp, tracked the members down and persuaded them to reunite for a reunion show by the Choir, the group that prefigured the Raspberries (power-pop legends from the '70s featuring Eric Carmen). With Fallon supplementing the original trio, several well-received sets at festivals around the country led to the new record.

The band has a deal with Norton for two more albums. Pierce says he's written 26 more songs, and the band plans to record its second reunion disc this year.

This Moment in Black History screamer Chris Kulcsar must share an ancestor with the Tasmanian Devil. How else to explain the manic jitters and spasms that accompany his singing -- a kind of anguished yelp that becomes another screeching vehicle in This Moment's sonic pileup.

The quartet's taut, careening rumble always makes a big impression, especially on It Takes a Nation of Assholes to Hold Us Back, last year's hyper-combustible epic for the Cold Sweat imprint. But for the Music Saves second-anniversary show a little while back, Kulcsar was even more destructive than usual. At one point -- during a leaping, screaming, writhing fit -- he took out one of the Beachland Tavern's ceiling panels with a flailing arm.

"If I wasn't stupid, I wouldn't have a place in this band," Kulcsar announced, coming off like some tweaked-out poli-sci major. Then the band blitzed into its next tune, "White Teeth." Again, Kulcsar went flying around the stage, mic in hand, as axeman Buddy Akita and bassist Lawrence Daniel Caswell nervously edged away from him.

This Moment's beefy bottom end, crunchy shards of guitar, and wavering blasts of color from Kulcsar's cheap Radio Shack keyboard -- an unruly mix of Drive Like Jehu, Monorchid, Minutemen, Bad Brains, and just about any other high-strung punk classic -- all contribute to a persuasive ugliness that's hard to look away from. The 40-minute set was exhausting just to witness. Damn. If the adage about great art happening by accident is true, This Moment in Black History feels like a derailed freight train slamming into the art museum.

Back in 2005, the Vacancies were an up-and-coming punk revivalist act that totally scored when tough-chick rocker Joan Jett signed it to her Blackheart label -- a long-standing indie with major distribution.

"The Vacancies are an incredible live band," says Jett. "They have great songs with excellent lyrics that apply to people's everyday lives."

The band met Jett after she heard its 2002 Gutpunch CD and chose the Vacancies to open for her in Cleveland and Cincinnati. The Cleveland show fell through when drummer Sean Watkins left, but the band regrouped for the Cincinnati concert, adding skinsman Angelo Merendino and leaving a good impression. Jett kept with the young punk snots and eventually offered them a one-album deal.

"This is the kind of label we saw ourselves at," says singer Billy Crooked. "It's indie, but they have the resources to get the record to people. There are no label bigwigs. It's so much more personal. They're not trying to get a huge pop record out of us. They signed us because they like us."

Titled A Beat Missing or Silence Added, the band's debut for Blackheart (its second album overall) was even produced by Jett and Kenny Laguna, her longtime manager and producer, formerly of Tommy James & the Shondells. Facing that kind of pressure, the band rehearsed until it worked up a lather, then recorded 16 tracks in six days at Long Island's Cloud 9 Studios and Manhattan's Soundtracks Studios.

The Vacancies must have done something right, because Tantrum, their second disc for Blackheart, is due out this spring. And what's more, Jett will be taking the stage with the Vacancies down in Austin at the Blackheart showcase.

Who said punk is dead?

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