[EDITOR'S NOTE: The Reader is teaming up with Hear Nebraska to cover SXSW this year. HN editor-in-chief Andrew Norman's stories will run right here at TheReader.com. And you can find more Hear Nebraska coverage reviews, photos and videos at hearnebraska.org.]
I felt as if I'd been dead-legged by a gang of fifth-graders as I followed the lederhosen-clad Bolzen Beer Band through a sea of drunk people on Austin's Sixth Street during the height of its sloppiness on Saturday, the final and most sloppy night of SXSW. Rollie Fingers'-stached Brian Brazier lugged his tuba alongside Dave Socha, who was stalking the perfect busking location. Ciara Searight — mostly obscured by the olive-green military-style bag carrying her hi-hat — struggled to keep up behind them. After walking a couple blocks, the Lincoln polka-rock band chose a spot in front of the bar Last Stand at the Alamo near Colorado Street, where Searight set up her stool, snare and cymbals as Brazier and Socha began bouncing around, yelling at folks to get their attention. A curious crowd instantly formed in a circle around them.
"We're the Bolzen Beer Band from Lincoln, Neb.," Socha yelled, though his strained voice was barely audible above the intoxicated festival goers. Searight pounded on her snare a few times indicating her readiness and they launched into a traditional polka song more about the beat than the words (which you couldn't hear). Socha bounced around, kicking his feet into the air and getting up in people's faces while Brazier playfully interacted with onlookers that included three 50-something men wearing yellow, blue and green paper birthday hats. Blitzed college kids stumbled, skunked and prowled through the makeshift stage to become part of the show, and a young woman tickled the shirtless Brazier, a favor he returned while blowing big breathes into his horn and spinning in a circle.
Chaos is precisely The Bolzen Beer Band's element, and that's where I left them.
I hurried to Elysium to catch the second half of Harouki Zombi's set at the club Elesyium. Featuring Orenda Fink (Azure Ray, Art In Manila, O+S) and Nina Barnes (Of Montreal), this dance/performance art project aims and fires at all senses, with spinning dance beats providing the soundtrack to a cast of characters that included five geisha girls (who'd were at times danced with, felt up and grinded on by a Green Man). Feathers, fake blood, sex, smoke, and glitter bombs that ended up painting Hear Nebraska photographer Shannon Claire played prominent roles, as well. I won't pretend to know what the hell was going on, but it was awesome. HN's Hilary S-K will have more about this show Tuesday at hearnebraska.org.
Harouki Zombi drives me a few miles out of my comfort zone, removes my shoes and makes me walk home. But I ended my SXSW wrapped up cozy in a warm blanket of folk music played by punks who've slowed down some at Cedar Street Courtyard. William Elliott Whitmore, Chuck Ragan and Lucero represented my favorite three-act bill at the entire festival. The venue consisted of two wings of identical wine bars flanking a center courtyard whose brick walls were covered in dark-green ivy. Toward the back end of the courtyard sat a stage that I could see — and hear — perfectly through a window in one of the eastern bar space. It was like watching bands playing in an aquarium. Though the view allowed my legs some much-need rest, a place that sells PBR tallboys for $6 seemed like the wrong venue for three bands whose SOPs and songs stress substance over style. But it was a minor quibble. I was just happy to be catching these three great, grizzled songwriters.
Whitmore was up first. I first heard about this acoustic blues-folk musician from Lee County, Iowa, when he was featured on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" for his record, Field Songs, an ode to family farmers. A sucker for music that actually says something, I quickly downloaded his three Daytrotter sessions, which you should do, as well. Wearing a black fedora and with tattooed knuckles, he sat on a chair strumming an acoustic guitar and keeping beat with a kick drum. He played a set of slow rabble-rousers and social reconstructors including the Bad Religion song "Don't Pray On Me," and "Old Devils," pounding the final eight strums of which before standing up on his chair and yelling, "Chuck fuckin' Ragan is up next." Without saying another word, he hopped down and walked off the stage.
Ragan toured through Lincoln in December while supporting his new solo record, Covering Ground, and he'll be coming to Omaha's Slowdown April 1 with the Revival Tour, which includes Against Me!'s Tommy Gabel and Alkaline Trio's Dan Andriano. His legendary punk band, Hot Water Music, has a new record coming out this year, as well. Hopefully, Nebraska will be part of that tour. Backed by his outstanding standup bassist Joe Ginsberg and violinist Jon Gaunt, Ragan played a similar set to the one I saw at Duffy's, including my favorite song of his, "Broken Ears."
Lucero's new album, Women and Work, features a more mature band than I fell in love with on the band's self-titled LP a decade ago. With silver in his hair, frontman Ben Nichols still has that weathered voice that sounds like a 35-year-old faking a sore throat to stay home from school. But the songs have evolved from desperate, lonesome, barroom dirges that threatened to fall off their stool ("My Best Girl"), to desperate, lonesome barroom rockers that are well-produced enough to drive themselves safely home, like the catchy new one "On My Way Downtown." With Nichols backed by a pedal steel, keys, trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums, it's a more full, fleshed-out sound that will only grow Lucero's already huge audience.
The band played all the songs I wanted to hear, including Jawbreaker's "Kiss the Bottle," and "Nights Like These" — now with subtle horns. And Nichols managed to capture so much of SXSW in one sentence after being handed a shot of tequila. Holding the glass out to the crowd, he said, "This is probably a bad idea. But you know, hell, fuck it y'all."
Andrew Norman is Hear Nebraska's editor-in-chief. He's exhausted. Contact him at email@example.com.