Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly SXSW Finals '99

By Bill Frost

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  For the second year running, City Weekly is sending a country-rooted band to the South by Southwest Music & Media Festival in Austin, Tex. Weird, huh?

Sunday night's round-robin event at the Zephyr Club featuring nine Utah bands--chosen from about 45 from the previous weekend--was all over the map musically and light on good old guitar-rock, just like the year of 1998. Four judges (no City Weekly employees--learn it, know it, live it) tabulated scores on a very cold and very long Sunday night; KRCL 91 FM, Uinta Brewing, Counterpoint Studios and Soundburst Distributing co-sponsored; lots of folks braved the weather, ignored Sundance and cheered on; and the Zephyr's Charlie Newman was again sorely disappointed that Cheap Trick didn't win. No, they didn't enter--it's a Charlie thing, OK?

Drawing the Futile Death Slot of 6 p.m. was buzz-band Triskel, who opened the night right with a healthy dose of high-octane blues and just-glad-to-play attitude. Probably the most talked-up, relatively unknown band on the bill, this trio won over more than a few new listeners with hard-rock grooves and dropped-D slide-guitar sizzle that hit like a tight splice of Led Zep and Ben Harper. Triskel is definitely the new blues-blood to watch for.

For a couple of years now, the Gigi Love Band has experienced a higher turnover rate than your local Burger King and the International Olympic Committee combined--at one point last summer, she considered dropping the band idea altogether and just sticking with her solo acoustic gigs. Luckily for loud Love lovers (fun with alliteration, kids), she's finally held a group of ace players together long enough to form a functional unit and actually write a new song or two. Latest guitarist Keith Musig's tasty leads and way with a tune are a great compliment to Love's hippie-chick angel voice and Earth-mama stylings.

Love was one of two females in the boy-dominated SXSW finals line-up: Provo's Sunfall Festival, fronted by young singer Amy Greetham, were up third and apparently working to distance themselves from the lightweight, dream-pop sound that most people automatically associate with them--they were loud, damned loud. Even with all that noise going on, you couldn't help but notice that the foursome looked more like a high school yearbook staff than a rock band. Guitarist Scott Wiley actually shined brighter than doe-eyed focal point Greetham, peeling off soaring, atmospheric solos and swirling rhythms with ease. And hell, who needs SXSW when your band is a finalist in Conan O'Brien's '99 College Band Search? It's true!

Trio Big Bang from parts unknown held down the fourth slot of the evening, cranking out energetic power-pop that fell somewhere between Everclear and Counting Crows. They didn't suck, but they weren't great--in the vernacular of those blazing wordsmiths at the Deseret News, Big Bang was "OK." My pal Andrea was more impressed: "I like these guys, they're really trying hard to work the audience--I'll bet that this singer got beat up a lot in school, though."

Ogden bluegrass wizards Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand took the stage fifth like the seasoned pros they are--you don't win awards at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for wearing cool shirts, even though Shupe has his fair share of those, too. As they were at last year's SXSW showdown, Shupe and the boys were an unknown quantity, the band most everyone has heard of, but never actually heard. Watching the uninitiated being blown away by the RubberBand's insanely honed chops is the definition of Big Fun; listening to Shupe's rapid-fire twang vocals and blinding string finesse is, as I said in last year's review, humbling. These guys were having a good time, period.

Newgrass riders: Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand win the SXSW finals by a narrow margin, mostly due to excellent musicianship, great hooks and Shupe's lucky shirt.
photo: Fred Hayes

Utah ska vets Insatiable are incapable of having a bad time, even having to follow a tough act like that. Easily the sharpest-dressed band of the night, Jeff Evans and crew have been around probably longer than any currently active group on the Salt Lake scene, and they still can't catch a break! Flailing bodies, intricate hornplay, tunes that stretch the usual limits of ska--no one puts on a more entertaining show using just music, flesh and bone. If they can't move you in one way or another, you're either dead or the vice president. The few, the proud, the Insatiable--these guys deserve a medal or something, but I'm sure they'd accept cash.

Made up of former members of Riverbed Jed, Loose and Abstrak, Swank 5 are a brand-new groove-metal band who really aren't: They've all played around enough separately to hit the ground running when they finally came together, which is exactly what they did--the SXSW showdown was probably their second or third actual gig, but you'd never know it by hearing them. Establishing their own identity will take some time--it's tough to hear singer/guitarist Chad Herd's booming voice without thinking of Riverbed Jed--but, at least according to the Zephyr's Newman, "Swank 5 are the best thing happening in Salt Lake right now--they're it." Next to Cheap Trick, of course.

Highwater Pants fly in that Matchbox 20, radio-ready slipstream of sincere rock & roll for the common dude that sounds best blaring out of a sport-utility vehicle deep in the suburbs--there's an audience for this, but I ain't in it. They had their sound down cold, and at least they looked like a rock band.

Super-skank action: Insatiable shake 'n' bake the house for second place.
photo: Fred Hayes

As opposed to the final act of the night, Royal Bliss, who may as well have been going on a fishing trip. Charismatically challenged to the max, Royal Bliss are obviously young and learning the ropes; musically, they play a kind of vague, frat-ska that keeps you looking around for the non-existent horn section--think Reel Medium Fish. The kids love 'em, though, so what do I know?

When it was all over, it all came down to a tie between Ryan Shupe and Insatiable. The judges were taken out back and beaten, a tie-breaking vote was convened, and Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand barely squeaked by in the stretch. No outbursts or injuries were reported.

So, after sending country-swingers Atomic Deluxe to Austin in '98, City Weekly will proudly ship another countrified local act down South for the big SXSW fest happening March 17-21. The action can be followed at www.sxsw.com, which is being updated more often as go-time draws near.

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