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SXSW Tales: I'm With The Band

March 15, 2012

It's clear to me that SXSW was never meant to be a trade show packed with tech goons on iPads hawking impenetrable and useless products that allow human beings to do things like rate their clout on the global Dance Dance Revolution scene or share their hamster videos.

Now that the goons have mostly departed, Austin feels more real. The crowds are still insane and Sixth Street continues to smell like urine and rancid barbecue. But at least people are looking up from their personal mobile devices every once in a while and bothering to listen to each other rather than acting in the spirit of sell, sell, sell.

Yesterday brought a wonderful mixture of music, fresh air and camaraderie.

The day began with a conversation between documentarian Stephen Kessler and the amazing songwriter Paul Williams. Williams, who looks like a garden gnome at only five feet two inches, is responsible for some lovely old tunes from the 1970s and 80s such as Helen Reddy's "You and Me Against the World", and the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays", as well as his contributions to films such as "Evergreen" from A Star Is Born and "Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie.

Kessler is a fan of the Williams' songbook -- he made a documentary entitled Paul Williams Still Alive.

Williams is more than still alive. I'd say he's a force of nature. During the hour-long presentation, the songsmith sang excerpts from his catalogue and entertained the crowd with his stories about Barbra Streisand and ASCAP.

I then took myself off on a long bike ride out into the park south of the downtown area and wound up at Flipnotics to see if I could catch a set by Tall Heights, the Boston-based cello, voice and guitar guys I had seen performing outside the convention center on Tuesday.

Flipnotics is a great, hippy-little cafe-bar with a sprawling deck and $2 beers. It's well off the beaten track as far as SXSW goes which made me exceedingly happy. I like good music and I hate overbearing crowds. Flipnotics offered the perfect place to experience under-the-radar gems in a chilled out setting.

The highlights for me included Tall Heights (more about them in a bit) and a lovely young San Francisco band, French Cassettes, half of whom look about 14 years old. Theirs is a sort of upbeat pop with a grungy edge. Think dirty bubblegum. They attract teenage girls. Their lead singer likes to act out what he's singing about with his hands, miming actions like knocking on a door and weeping as the lyrics dictate. It's very endearing. I am also very impressed with the French Cassettes' drummer, who keeps things going at a playful clip.

Paul (cello & voice) and Tim (guitar & voice) of Tall Heights, did not disappoint. I listened to their whole set in a state of rapture. It's those spiraling high male voices that always do me in. Plus these two are super talented songwriters, have a gentle yet captivating stage presence and are both beautiful. Tim, who is gangly with a mop of unkempt hair, an aquiline nose and kind eyes, has a warmth and easy going manner about him. Paul has a shock of black curls on his head and the most startling blue eyes I've ever seen on a musician. Or perhaps on any being I've ever seen besides a Persian cat I used to know.

Later on, after several beers and a trip to a nearby taco truck, and before several more beers, adventuring into town to hear some fantastic live music at St David's Sanctuary courtesy of the power ballad songstress Julia Nunes and the darkly sweet-voiced country maven Anais Mitchell, we would discuss why Paul and Tim prefer not to look at the audience when they're performing.

The songs Tall Heights sing are so emotional, lyrical and smart that perhaps making eye contact with the audience in a small venue would be too overbearing. One track, which is inspired by a remote, oceanfront hotel on the East Coast that removes its walls when a storm approaches in order to let the elements have their way, serves as a metaphor for Tim's aunt's battle with breast cancer. I can understand the need for an inward gaze when singing this song in an intimate space.

Tim and Paul say they like watching musicians who seem to be playing to themselves in a private room instead of overtly performing to a crowd in a public space. I dunno. There's a case to be made for keeping the emotion introverted -- it can help to build tension. But I also think musicians who look back at the people who are looking at them have the ability to forge a stronger connection with a crowd on the whole.

So the evening rolled as all the best evenings do. It was fascinating hanging out with two musicians on the make. As far as SXSW goes, Tall Heights is pretty much near or at the bottom of the totem pole. Tim and Paul certainly don't deserve to be there, and they will rise to the upper echelons, I'm sure of it. But the music industry is a tough place to be and this is Tall Heights' first time at this most massive and overwhelming of music events.

Tim and Paul had driven all the way at their own expense from Boston to Austin in a big car full of equipment, leaving behind their part time jobs and busking gig at Boston's Faneuil Hall for a few weeks. En route, they performed house concerts in a few towns before eventually landing in Austin for three gigs which they had set up themselves. Tonight at midnight or 1am, they will get to play one or two songs in a showcase for up and coming performers. I hope the audience members aren't so drunk and rowdy by then that they don't listen with the care and attention that Tall Heights deserves.

In addition to performing, Tim and Paul also here to seek representation. That's what the showcase is for. And really every interaction is a networking opportunity for these guys. For instance, when we met, I told them about my vocal radio music series, VoiceBox, and they obliged me with an audio interview, which we took care of on the deck at Flipnotics. At some point, the interview will wind up in a broader show about singers performing on the street, which is Tim and Paul's current milieu. Plus, we spent the best part of last night at St David's trying to track down some promoter (let's call him Sam) whom Tall Heights thought might be a good match for their work. None of us had any idea what Sam looked like so we kept trying to look at people's festival name tags in order to identify the guy. It was hard to do this surreptitiously. People look at you funny when you walk past them staring at their chests.

After I left Anais Mitchell's haunting hangdog moon over a prairie of a set (I didn't want to cramp the guys' schmoozing potential) I found out via text that they had succeeded in finding Sam and deemed their networking a success.

I hope Tall Heights gets a well-deserved break soon. I'd like to hear Tim and Paul perform on the west coast -- The Freight & Salvage's audience in Berkeley would eat these guys up.

In the meantime, I hope they don't get discouraged. When Julia Nunes announced that she had played on the Conan O'Brien show the previous week, Paul's eyes widened. "Conan O'Brien," he said with a sigh after Nunes had finished her set. "Shit."

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