A month later, no wonder I can’t recall what I did all afternoon on my third day in Austin. But at some point, in the cavernous confines of the Austin Convention Center, I ran into my old friend Peter Jesperson. In 1975-1977, we worked together at Oar Folkjokeopus Records (Minneapolis MN) when he managed the store for owner Vern Sanden; today, Peter is senior VP of A&R for the estimable New West label, where he’s worked with John Hiatt, Drive-By Truckers, and Kris Kristofferson to name a few.
We hopped in my rental car and drove across the river to the Congress Avenue parking lot of a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store that — like every other available space in town, it seemed — had been converted into a music venue for the week. In so doing, we enjoyed that rarest of SXSW commodities, “quality time” — precious minutes of relative peace and quiet in which to carry on an actual audible conversation, catch up on each other’s lives, etc. Peter was another old friend of Alex Chilton who was coping with the shock and pain of his death amid the overwhelming hub-bub of Austin; I think it helped, a little, for him to tell a hilarious Chilton anecdote dating from the re-formed Big Star’s first gig, in 1993 in Columbia, Missouri. Anyway, we soon arrived at our destination to see the L.A.-based country rock band Leslie and the Badgers.
Peter’s enthusiasm for this group is boundless — I remember him carrying on in much the same way over David Bowie’s Station To Station in 1976 — but in this case did not prove wholly contagious. Leslie Stevens is a good singer, reminiscent of Emmylou Harris or Nicolette Larsen, but not an exceptional one; likewise, her band played well but not with any special fire or left-field surprises. My favorite song of the set was the Patsy Cline-inspired “My Tears Are Wasted On You,” a country weeper with a touch of jazz in the chords and melody. Leslie & the Badgers play the Mercury Lounge in NYC on Tuesday, 5/17/2010 — you can listen for yourself on MySpace.
My next stop — and last for the day, as I ended spending a good three hours there — was St. David’s Episcopal Church for a night of new-school UK folk music under the heading “Looking For A New England.” This show was made possible by funding from Arts Council England, i.e. the UK government’s cultural wing. I mention this fact because (a) the gig was truly great, the best multi-act showcase I attended at SXSW, and (b) it could never have happened without that government support. (Did you know that a US visa for a UK touring artist now costs upwards of $4,500.00?)
In any case, it was with a genuine sense of relief that I took my seat alongside a few dozen other listeners in the church sanctuary, an oasis of calm and tranquility just two blocks from the alcohol-fueled din of the Sixth Street club corridor.
It was now 9:00 p.m. so I’d already missed Gadarene and Olivia Chaney, but vocalist/violinist Jackie Oates (who’s from Dorset) had me from her first number, flawlessly accompanied by Mike Cosgrave on piano and acoustic guitar and James Budden on acoustic bass. I was especially taken with Jackie’s take on the traditional English ballad “Young Leonard” and a very moving lost-love song called “Past Caring,” but the whole set was excellent and later compelled me to purchase Jackie’s latest recording, Hyperboreans, which did not disappoint.
JACKIE OATES – “HYPERBOREANS” with James Dumbleton (acoustic guitar) and Mike Cosgrave (accordion)
Next up was Jim Moray (vocals, electric guitar), who offered a more rock-and-funk infused version of the folk music of the British Isles. Although he didn’t mention it, Jim is Jackie’s brother and he produced her aforementioned Hyperboreans CD, possibly at his own studio in Bristol (there’s no facility credited on the disc). His band included drums, violin, programmed bits from a laptop DJ, and another chap who doubled on violin and hurdy-gurdy. Jim seemed a bit nervous and talked a little too much between his numbers, of which my favorite was a twin-fiddles rendition of “The Wild Boar.” For a Child ballad (the title of which eluded me), Jim brought up rapper named Bubz. This combination almost worked as intended but not quite, and the same could be said of set closer “All You Pretty Girls,” a game attempt at an audience sing-along on this centuries-old sea shanty.
Trembling Bells, from Glasgow, may have sounded great. But at this point, exhaustion caught up with me and I confess to having nodded off for much of their set. Through the fog of half-sleep, I was stirred occasionally by the combination of Lavinia Blackwall’s pure soprano voice and the buzzing psych-rock flair of Mike Hastings’ lead guitar. Simon Shaw plays bass and the TBs’ excellent drummer Alex Neilson writes the songs. Fans of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and the like should give a listen to Trembling Bells on MySpace.
It was Geoff Travis of Rough Trade who, earlier in the day, had urged me to see The Unthanks: “If you ask me who you should see, Andy, I’ll always name one of my bands because of course I think they’re the best!” I must thank Geoff publicly and profusely for this particular recommendation, because I loved the Unthanks. Initially I thought their name was some kind of punk-rock gesture, like calling your band No Thanks or Thanks For Nothing. In fact, it is the surname of the lead singers Rachel and Becky Unthank, as I would’ve discovered had I ever listened to an earlier version of the group known as Rachel Unthank & Winterset whose 2008 CD The Bairns was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in the UK.
The Unthanks were at full strength for their SXSW shows with pianist Adrian McNally; Chris Prince on guitar, bass, and ukelele; Dean Ravera shifting with equal skill from drums to acoustic bass; cellist Jo Silverstone, and the radiant violinist and harmony singer Niopha Keegan. They opened with “Twenty Long Weeks,” from Winterset’s 2006 album Cruel Sister, but much of the set was drawn from the Unthanks’ new Rough Trade CD Here’s The Tender Coming. Becky Unthank even did some lively clog dancing on “Betsy Bell,” the hidden bonus track that closes the album.
Of course, I hadn’t heard any of these songs before and perhaps it was due to this surprise factor — combined with a certain emotional susceptibility brought on by lack of sleep — that “The Testimony of Patience Crenshaw” brought tears to my eyes. The story told by the lyrics (in which a young woman coal miner describes her hellish working conditions), the beautifully performed music, Rachel’s heart-piercing lead vocal and even her distinctive Newcastle accent — on that night, in that room, the combination was just devastating. Here’s an earlier (undated) live performance of the song:
THE UNTHANKS – “THE TESTIMONY OF PATIENCE CRENSHAW”
Rachel Unthank later explained to me that this song is not of 19th century vintage but was composed in 1969 by the obscure English folk musician Frank Higgins — who based the lyrics on the written records of the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842, the official inquiry to which the real Patience Crenshaw gave her real testimony. For further insight into the nightmare world of female and child miners during this period of British history, just read this Wiki entry for “hurrying.”
On the road in Europe at this writing (4.23.2010), the Unthanks have a North American tour set to begin in late June including an appearance at Joe’s Pub in New York. I’ll see you there.
Andy Schwartz at South X Southwest 2010 (earlier posts)
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