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SXSW 09: Katzenjammer, Drew Smith's Lonely Choir, the Crystal Method


By Abbie Kopf

Before I start in on my fourth and final day at the glorious SXSW Festival, I have to purge this almost forgotten thought from my sun-and-beer-fried brain. On the second day of SXSW, my friends were lucky enough to happen upon a band that, like many artists looking for the maximum amount of coverage, was performing on the busy streets of downtown Austin. Generally, these people are playing on the street for a good reason, but Katzenjammer, a girl group of four huggable cuties from Oslo, Norway, belongs on a stage playing to enrapt admirers. In fact, as they played the streets, an enormous crowd (including yours truly) gathered around to gawk, mouth agape, at their fantastic talent and kooky music.

Katzenjammer plays from a buffet of instruments (some of them include: accordion, mandolin, guitar, piano, balalaika bass, glockenspiel, trumpet, kazoo, melodica, drums, and banjo) and indeed they had a heavy arsenal of noisemakers that lay scattered around them on the street. Katzenjammer plays an odd amalgam of polka, folk, and pop that is the music version of that ugly couple that has an adorable baby. You don't know how the wacky bastard came OK, but it did. Aside from their instrumental prowess, Katzenjammer offers four pure, powerful, and transparent voices that could sound out above the din of the street and still come across as sweet and inviting. They are definitely quirky, so try to quell the urge to understand them. Download: “Tea With Cinnamon” or “Play My Darling” to get a taste of these odd but fun girls.

Phew! Now that's off my chest, let's get back to Saturday evening when I had the pleasure to witness Drew Smith's Lonely Choir, an Austin-based band that has won over critics with its smooth and familiar sound. I relished the opportunity to see this band at their Momos showcase, mostly because I had witnessed a fair amount of shit over the week at SXSW. It seems that a lot of people believe that because they have fingers and voices than they can start a band. They should not. But Drew Smith and his battalion of backup musicians were talented, disciplined, well-practiced, and sober. Incidentally, they did also have both fingers and voices.

As soon as the first notes reached my ear, I felt a wave of euphoria as I caught a big ol' strong whiff of Van Morrison emanating from the band, and it smelled delicious. I found it particularly enjoyable because the band wasn't reduced to being a Van Morrison tribute â?? they took elements from the legend and substituted their own vibe of alternative country, poppy folk, with a sprinkle of blues thrown in for taste. As a lyricist, Drew Smith utilizes a precise compass of intelligent and meaningful poetry which points towards the familiar themes (love, loneliness, playing music) without being tiresomely cliché or obvious. Smith's voice has been compared to Randy Newman and Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows, but his voice isn't what makes the band. Don't get me wrong, he controls it well, and it is entirely sufficient, but he would be nothing without his lonely choir, which deftly and professionally carries his sound to the next level. The horn section didn't squawk, and the drums and guitar were consistently tight and energetic. His keyboardist even treated the audience to a keen solo that was beautifully performed and technically sound. Together, they synthesize with Smith's charisma and obvious talent to create music that goes down easy and is equally as digestible.

I ended the festival with an indulgence I can only attribute to my love of gay bars and raves when I caught the Crystal Method at La Zona Rosa. This duo of mix-masters has been around for awhile and they have either become fantastically efficient or they've lost the thrill, because the most outward display of rocking out was the occasional fist pump or drink of water. Maybe they have mastered the craft, because the audience had its hands in the air for the entirety of this ode to dance and techno, while even wallflowers couldn't help but tap a foot or nod the noggin. They didn't come with any tricks up their sleeves, nor did they switch up their classic electronic sound to suit the venue. They did offer up the usual: big, drippy beats and bops, thrashing record spins, and adrenaline-inducing dance anti-melodies that assure them a place in the techno hall of fame. All in all, if I were on ecstasy the show would have blown my mind. Though my mind is still intact, it was reeling on a furious high that only glorious dance beats can engender.

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