Swapping Scenes

Last week Austin, Texas, sounded a lot like Chicago: every spring hundreds of musicians, journalists, industry types, and fans from these parts flock there for the South by Southwest music conference, and this year artists from the thriving local alt-country scene entertained bigger crowds than ever at official showcases by night and informal barbecues by day. Witnessing the scene in ultraconcentrated form emphasized what a diverse and prolific community it is–and Chicagoans weren’t the only ones who noticed. Next month one of the hottest attractions at SXSW–Seattle-based Neko Case–will become the latest to pull up her roots and join the party.

Case, who recently released her second album, Furnace Room Lullaby, on Bloodshot, was right at home among the Chicago contingent; after all, she’s already guested on albums by Kelly Hogan, the Mekons, and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. The singer, who got her start playing drums in the punkish rockabilly trio Maow while in college in Toronto, uses the new album to elaborate on the winning formula of her 1998 debut, The Virginian: irresistible pop rock sung with the sassiness of Janis Martin and the brassiness of Loretta Lynn. On her debut, which was evenly divided between covers and originals, Case’s voice sometimes got away from her, but here she corrals it with confidence–maybe because she wrote or cowrote all 12 songs. They range from soulful torch numbers like “No Need to Cry” to raucous shuffles like “Mood to Burn Bridges” to the meticulously melodic “Guided by Wire.” Most of Case’s lyrics are smart takes on universal themes like broken dreams and love gone bad, though “Thrice All American” is a biting waltz about the economic breakdown and bleak Wal-Mart future of Case’s beloved native Tacoma. “I would still live there to this day if I could get a job there,” she says.

Furnace Room Lullaby was recorded in Vancouver with help from nearly two dozen kindred spirits, including Hogan, former Freakwater and Wilco guitarist Bob Egan, singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, Dallas and Travis Good of the Sadies, Texas guitar hero Evan Johns, and former Shadowy Man Brian Connelly. Along with her regular band–bassist Scott Betts, drummer Joel Trueblood, and guitarist Carl Newman, known collectively as Her Boyfriends–they shift from hard rocking to soft comping at the drop of a hat.

Case likes the rotating-cast aspect of the Chicago scene–“In Seattle it never happens that people call me up and say, ‘Hey, come and sing on my record this week,'” she says–but she’s got other reasons for relocating as well, foremost among them gentrification. She thinks it’s worse in Seattle than here: “I’m almost 30 and I’m not gonna move somewhere else, fix it up, and make it nice only to get kicked out because some assholes and their fucking Jack Russell terriers want to move into my artist’s loft,” she says. “Seattle uses artists. They become part of the tourism trade–‘Oh, the lively arts community, blah, blah, blah’–and then we’re shafted every time.”

Neko Case & Her Boyfriends open for Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire Saturday at the Double Door.

Playing Dress-Up

Musically speaking, the biggest trend at South by Southwest this year was the return of rock with a capital R. Showcases organized by the Estrus, Sub Pop, and Man’s Ruin labels drew big crowds, though not necessarily attentive ones. On Friday night quite a few shit-faced festgoers milled around in the outdoor beer garden behind Emo’s while Sub Pop unveiled its current line inside. Young men affiliated with Vice, a magazine about music and fucking, shoved one another around and humped a tree; at one point in the evening an unknown man sucker-punched former NewCity music columnist Gil Kaufman, now a senior writer at SonicNet, and ran out the door.

More than anything the sets reflected the garish retro craze that continues to infect the fashion industry. While the Byrdsy Beachwood Sparks, Detroit R & B rockers the Go, and Zen Guerrilla, aka the MC4, respectively had sweet hooks, swagger, and raw power to recommend them, these assets were overshadowed live by exaggerated attention to period detail–and with as many white-guy Afros, big sunglasses, and embroidered cowboy shirts in the audience as onstage, the showcase felt more like a Halloween party than a concert.


New York Times contributor Adam Shatz was in town a couple weeks ago to write about the Chicago jazz underground for the New Yorker.

Wednesday’s concert by the Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd Quartet (see Critic’s Choice) at the Empty Bottle will be the first of many jazz and new-music concerts at the venue to be taped for broadcast on England’s BBC Radio 3.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Swinder.