They say that SXSW is above all a showcasing of the world's best new talent, but try telling that to the stacks of humans piled into LaZona Rosa last night to witness a performance by Tori Amos, who--and you've got to love her--has been around a very large block more than a few times.
Ms. Amos was there to play material old--going back to "Crucify" and "Silent All These Years" from Little Earthquakes--to brand new. "New" in this case means it being part of her soon-to-be-released Abnormally Attracted To Sin album, distributed by Universal Republic Records, the label sponsoring the night's entertainment--and as a special bonus, also offering performances by many of their latest acts. Talk about synchronicity!
Amos was greeted with cheers throughout nearly all of her performance--boy, her fans really like her--as she sat sandwiched between a grand piano and some other weird keyboard thingie, both of which were miked and afforded her the opportunity to play a little of each when the opportunity arose. And it often did. She was in excellent voice, the sound was fine, and overall, seeing her in these circumstances--diving back to her oldest as well as her newest material--it struck me that the major difference between her old stuff and new stuff is that, well, you can hum the early stuff if you want to, there's a melody and everything, but her most recent material has drifted toward talkie-theatre pieces, where the music almost seems an afterthought, an accompaniment, to the lyrical idea. Oh well--she looked good, and isn't that what music's all about?
Directly preceding Amos's performance was Erin McCarley, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter whose recent debut was fairly nifty--high praise indeed!--and whose performance here featured her with a few backing musicians and was, yet again, fairly nifty. A good but not great singer--not that she was hitting wrong notes, but she wasn't strikingly unique by any means--McCarley is of the sort who will rise or fall based solely on the quality of her material. And if that material is heard often enough, or in a strategic context--say as part of the soundtrack to a TV show aimed at young women--maybe she'll sell lots of records. If not? I don't know. I did find it interesting that the song that resonated the most with the audience was an unexpected cover of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner." I have seen the future of music, and it happened in 1987!
Sad to say, I arrived scant moments after the performance of young Australian singer Gabriella Cilmi, whose new record is quite good in that enviable Attractive Women Who Can Really Sing category, and many predict good things for her. Among them, one supposes, are her parents, her manager, her label, and--oh, what the heck--I guess me, too. I already missed her once at the Yahoo offices, but I plan to see her soon. Why don't I run a picture of her here just for the sake of aesthetics?
Pardon the scattershot chronology, but after Tori Amos performed came Iglu & Hartly, a highly respected law firm from exotic Echo Park, California, who have at least one radio hit under their belt and perhaps more to come. Fronted by a duo that seems alternately inspired by Kid Rock and the Righteous Brothers, the dudes rocked charismatically, seemed good humored, and featured a shirtless lead singer who spoke with a Southern drawl. Sort of like Reba McEntire, if she were a guy with straight hair and no shirt. It was hard to get a fix on precisely where they were coming from musically, but it seemed interesting. At least that's what I remember thinking as I walked out of the venue midway through their set.
Figuring I was in the mood for even more music I didn't feel especially strong about, I decided to follow up on an invitation to see Ben Harper & Relentless 7--the new group put together by guitarist/singer Harper, who seems to be the oldest remaining signing to Virgin Records' American imprint and has always struck me as being just one album away from moving to Rounder Records and doing his thing until the record industry finally, gloriously implodes. Won't that be something?
Harper & crew were playing at Stubb's and had just started when I arrived. They sounded fine, sort of serviceable in a George Thorogood sort of way, their instrumental deftness--they were quite good players--offset by Harper's slightly monochromatic vocals. A part of me thought that if these musicians were English or Irish and had been playing music like this back in 1969 or so, they'd be deemed quite important today. But today is 40 years later, and aside from a few interesting lyrical quirks--I mean,"you've got to live my life to get boots like these" is kind of peculiar, no?--this was music dwelling on the well-played but ordinary side of things. When Harper broke into a cover of the Queen/David Bowie single "Under Pressure"--this after having just seen Erin McCarley covering Suzanne Vega--I decided to exit the premises and in fact actually travel back to 1969. The Internet didn't work there either, but no one cared!
As always, overhead, spy satellites continued tracking the movements of every sentient life form in Austin.