SXSW Day 2: Court Yard Hounds, Roky Erickson and the partnering spirit
The craziest rumor I heard Thursday night at the South by Southwest Festival was that David Bowie was lurking around somewhere, possibly planning to jump onstage with Roky Erickson. The idea that the seemingly semi-retired Thin White Duke might show up for the annual set by Austin's beloved psychedelic outsider artist was utterly preposterous. But this is American pop's most hyperactive week and stranger collaborations have certainly happened within the mad din of thousands of artists playing nonstop for four days. So I headed over to La Zona Rosa at the end of my evening to check it out.
My fantasy mismatch turned out to be a ruse, but Erickson's set with the band Okkervil River still satisfied. The collaboration between the 62-year-old founder of the 13th Floor Elevators and the youngish, also Austin-based rock band was born at this fest a few years ago and has borne the fruit of a new release, "True Love Cast Out All Evil," coming from Anti- Records April 20. Performing songs from that project and a few Erickson faves -- including the garage rock Rosetta Stone "You're Gonna Miss Me," which provided a name for the heart-tugging 2005 documentary about Erickson's struggles with mental illness, Erickson and Okkervil (Rokkervil?) pushed every song toward grandiosity, but kept a sense of humor too.
I've seen Erickson with various collaborators over the years; he's often clearly nervous onstage. Relaxing into this matchup, he seemed completely at peace, without the stiffness and introversion that sometimes plague him. His grainy, cutting tenor sounded rich and redolent of the blues. Okkervil River singer and songwriter Will Sheff, who produced the new album, beamed at him and shared tattered harmonies. The whole set felt familial, no celebrity cameos required.
Just before seeing this show, I caught another family act, and this time a famous friend did lend a few harmonies. The formal club debut of Court Yard Hounds attracted a vehemently supportive audience -- as might be expected for an endeavor undertaken by two-thirds of country's groundbreaking trio, the Dixie Chicks. Sisters and multi-instrumentalists Emily Robison and Martie Maguire share the spotlight in this group, taking a breather from the vocal leadership of the more idiosyncratic (and glamorous) Natalie Maines. The sound they've developed in this more-than-a-side project -- the band's debut album comes out May 4 -- is surprisingly rocking and predictably classy.
Robison took the vocal lead on most songs, but the Court Yard Hounds' sound is essentially collaborative. Sibling harmonies dominate, and the sound, fleshed out by a full band, is more roots rock than country pop. Mcguire sometimes bent the notes on her fiddle as if it were solid-body Fender, and the banjo and mandolin parts melded with organ and electric guitar to create a sound that fit into the country-minded rock tradition extending from Gram Parsons to Linda Ronstadt and, later, lesser-known artists like the Long Ryders.
At times the music recalled some of Sheryl Crow's material, but at other times it was more like the Bangles. Robison and Mcguire led the group with confidence and obvious pleasure. Robison's singing lacks the sharp flavor of Maines', but in combination with her sister, it held a gravity that suited the material, which expresses the complicated concerns of an adult woman (one, it happens, who recently went through a divorce, from the country singer Charlie Robison). Sometimes the lyrics slipped toward banality, but other moments were witty, and those harmonies made even well-worn phrases transcendent.
The Court Yard Hounds made a big sound on their own; it grew even richer when Jakob Dylan strolled onstage in a fedora to join for two songs. The first was an original, an aching love song reaching back to Parsons' duets with Emmylou Harris. Dylan earned his keep, holding the harmony line right up front and adding some extra counterpoint.
Things got rowdier and less organized when the band covered Rod Stewart's "You Wear It Well"; at one point, Dylan forgot the words and resorted to reading them from scraps of paper. He laughed and looked sheepish, but no one in the crowd complained. It was a typical special South by Southwest moment: a partnering so comfortable, it had to come true.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Roky Erickson performing with Okkervil River, March 17, 2010, at the Galaxy Room in Austin. Credit: Tony Pierce