By the time you read this, I'll be in Austin, knee-deep in free booze and barbecue, and lost in an inescapable maze of live music at every turn.
South by Southwest is like a rock 'n' roll (and rap and jazz and folk and blues, etc.) vacation, and every year, I feel like I need a vacation just to recover from it. Believe me, I'm not complaining.
Those remaining in Tucson would be wise to take advantage of all the acts passing through town on their way to and from Austin. This week isn't quite as insane in that regard as last week, but next week, it'll pick up again, and you'll have the venerable Gene Armstrong filling this column with his wisdom to guide you through it all—including the fantastic Festival en el Barrio Viejo.
But there's still plenty going on this week to sate any music fan.
If your wallet's slim from all the incredible shows that went down last week, I suggest these three shows, which provide, as Aristotle once said, "more bang for your buck."
Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., will host a four-act bill that simply can't lose. And it's diverse enough that if you don't like one of the acts, you'll probably like the next one. Plus, at four acts for $8, you won't feel like you're getting ripped off, even if you don't enjoy half of them.
The headliner is the perennially underrated singer-songwriter Damien Jurado. Whether he's performing with a full band, unafraid of squalls of noise amidst the calm, or solo, in which his sparse folk-pop and voice are all he needs to draw you in, Jurado spins harrowing minimalist character sketches that have drawn comparisons to Raymond Carver. However, Carver was never that great with a melody.
Touring in advance of their sixth album, The Future Will Destroy You, out in June, Portland duo Viva Voce has been a Tucson favorite for years. The band specializes in slightly psychedelic, winning indie pop that benefits from the vocal interplay between Anita and Kevin Robinson.
From 2005 until last year, Franz Nicolay was best known as the keyboardist for one of America's best bar bands, the Hold Steady. (For hipsters, he's that dude with the goofy facial hair.) He released a solo album while he was playing in that band, and last year, on the heels of his departure from it, Nicolay released a follow-up, Luck and Courage (Team Science). While songs like "Jeff Penalty," with its dense storytelling and anthemic chorus, betray his membership in his former band, he's also at home spinning his tales against a simple banjo arrangement, as in "This Is Not a Pipe" (a nice nod to Magritte). Just don't be surprised when the chorus gets loud.
As a journeyman singer-songwriter, David Dondero is probably even more underrated than Damien Jurado. A true songwriter's songwriter, he has been called "one of the best living songwriters" by NPR's All Things Considered; Conor Oberst, who has taken Dondero on the road with him and released some of his albums on his Team Love imprint, has acknowledged that he copped much of his style from Dondero. For all the accolades won by his songwriting, Dondero has done something a bit odd: His latest album, A Pre-Existing Condition (Ghostmeat, 2011), is an all-acoustic affair largely consisting of cover songs.
Doors open at 8 p.m., Sunday, March 20, for this 21-and-over show. Admission is $8. Club Congress is located at 311 E. Congress St. Head to hotelcongress.com, or call 622-8848 for more info.
Meanwhile, Plush has a pair of great shows this week, each for the same price as that one at Congress.
One of the most exciting aspects of music right now is an underground loaded with killer bands that use garage rock and pop hooks as a starting point to create their own sound, and the Strange Boys rank high among them. The Boys' twist is to add a bit of bluesy, twangy, swampy swagger that leaves no doubt they're from Texas. And like many of these bands, the Strange Boys are best experienced in a live setting.
Opening for the Strange Boys are O'Death, which takes cues from traditional folk music and updates them into a rowdy, theatrical and wholly engaging setting; and Natural Child, whose take on garage rock references '70s riff rock and British blues-rock. (Think a post-punk Foghat, and you're on the right track.)
The Strange Boys, O'Death and Natural Child begin playing at 9 p.m., Monday, March 21, at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. Admission is $8.
Two days later, Plush will feature a show headlined by another Tucson favorite, Seattle's Say Hi (formerly Say Hi to Your Mom, before Mark Wahlberg threatened to kick some ass). Say Hi is Eric Elbogen, who records his albums, including his latest, Um, Uh Oh (Barsuk, 2011), almost entirely on his own. Elbogen is widely regarded as a mope-rocker, but a few cuts on Um, Uh Oh might make people think twice about that tag.
Sharing the bill are Yellow Ostrich, another dude who records under a band name, though Alex Schaaf's songs are a bit moodier and lo-fi than Elbogen's; and Blair, who is perfectly described by her publicist as "a young singer-songwriter from Brooklyn (by way of New Orleans) who plays dreamy, hazy, '90s FM-radio-influenced indie pop."
This show begins at 9 p.m., Wednesday, March 23, at Plush. Cover is $8. For more information about either Plush show, head to plushtucson.com, or call 798-1298.
Currently in its 19th year as a band, Great Big Sea—from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador—boasts a great big sound that resonates as if it emanates from a heartland that simply doesn't exist (or maybe it just exists in Canada). On its latest album, 2010's Safe Upon the Shore, which was produced by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, the band delves further into Americana than on previous albums. Like every other critic who's ever written about them, I can't resist using the words "passionate" and "heartfelt."
Great Big Sea performs at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., on Tuesday, March 22. The all-ages show begins at 8 p.m. Advance tickets are $25 for general admission floor, and $29 for reserved balcony seats; they'll be $2 more on the day of the show. Go to rialtotheatre.com, or call 740-1000.
Tucson's longest-running punk band (26 years!), Bloodspasm, will play its only two shows of the year, back to back, this week for its annual Spasmfest. The first is an all-ages, six-band bill that takes place at Skrappy's, 191 E. Toole Ave., at 7 p.m., Friday, March 18. The other bands on that bill are Beelzebullies, Limbless Torso, O.C.D., Chicano Brown and In Our Blood. For more info, call 777-3704.
The following night, on Saturday, March 19, Bloodspasm will headline a show at Vaudeville, 110 E. Congress St., which will also feature Sick Sense, Sindicate, Standard Deviance and Negative Feedback, with emcee Mark Beef. That one is 21-and-up, and gets started at 9:30 p.m. You can reach Vaudeville at 622-3535. Admission to each show is $5.
The aforementioned shows are just the tip of a vast musical iceberg. Here's some more good stuff: Gabriel Ayala at the Pima Community College Center for the Arts Proscenium Theatre, in a benefit for the Gabriel Ayala PCC Scholarship, sponsored by the PCC West Campus Native American Student Association, on Monday, March 21; Hot Buttered Rum and Head for the Hills at Plush next Thursday, March 24; Diego's Umbrella, Writer, Some of Them Are Old and BOATS at Club Congress on Tuesday, March 22; EOTO and Zebbler Encanti Experience at the Rialto Theatre on Monday, March 21; Batwings/Catwings, Bear Fight and Glowbox at Dry River Collective on Saturday, March 19; Rescue Lights, Tracy Shedd and A House, A Home at Plush on Saturday, March 19; 500 Miles to Memphis at The Hut on Wednesday, March 23; Rainbow Arabia, Spoek Mathambo and Doc Adam at the Optimist Club at Club Congress next Thursday, March 24; Middle Class Rut, Dead Country and more at The Rock on Wednesday, March 23; Nancy McCallion's Wild Irish Review at Boondocks Lounge on Saturday, March 19; Birdie Busch and Amy Rude at the Red Room at Grill on Saturday, March 19; the Glamour Kills Tour featuring The Ready Set, Allstar Weekend and others at The Rock on Tuesday, March 22; the Squidling Bros. Sideshow at the Surly Wench Pub on Friday, March 18; Italian Japanese and Future Loves Past at Sky Bar on Monday, March 21.