Not going deaf for a living

Well, at the weekend I had my first SXSW experience, and it was a good one. Last year I managed to miss John Watts, but this year I was prepared. We went to The Hideout downtown about an hour early, and waited in line. The rule was SXSW badges first, then wristband holders, then if there was still space in the venue proletarians could pay $8 each to get in.

The band before Watts was Asakusa Jinta, a kind of psychedelic heavy metal marching band from Japan. They apparently had a lot of buzz, as the venue was full to capacity and there were 20 or 30 people lined up in the hope of getting in. From what we could hear from the corridor, Asakusa Jinta are indeed pretty awesome, but not necessarily a band you want to share an enclosed space with, even if you have earplugs.

Eventually the band stopped, and lots of people left. John Watts wandered past with his promoter handing out flyers. The line thinned out, and we were left standing with some Germans, and two local girls who were apparently hosting Mr Watts during his stay, but were unacquainted with his music.

Back in the late 1970s, John Watts founded Fischer-Z. At the time they were compared to Talking Heads and XTC, but for some reason they never had the commercial success of those bands. The original band broke up after 3 albums, but Watts then reformed Fischer-Z with a new lineup.

The style of music is the usual pop/rock range, but sprinkled with the musical twists that keep my interest. The lyrics are sometimes melancholy, occasionally angry, but there’s always humor there that prevents things slipping into punk (or Depeche Mode) territory.

It all strikes me as very English, but for some reason their biggest fans were in Germany. If you want to hear some Fischer-Z right now, your best bet is either to switch the iTunes music store to think you’re German (using the drop-down at the bottom of the front page), or to head to FineTunes Music Shop, a German MP3 vendor. [Update: Fischer-Z albums also available from Audio Lunchbox.]

Anyhow, John Watts has now moved into solo performance, and seems to have taken on a kind of “wandering troubadour” role. For his latest album, he bought a 30 day railcard and traveled around Europe talking to random people—and then wrote songs about their stories.

His SXSW performance was just him with an amplified acoustic guitar. I particularly appreciated that he was picky about the sound, and insisted on getting it to a loud-but-comfortable level, with the vocals clearly audible. If only all artists were prepared to argue with venue sound guys.

So all in all, one of the simplest—yet also, one of the best—live music experiences I’ve had. Hopefully he’ll be back next year.