music that's Lola approved.
Every March, the internet is abuzz with bands from SXSW. I remember my first venture there. It was Franz Ferdinand’s first state side-show. I got to see Prince Paul and Dan the Automator perform together as Handsome Boy Model School. Got to see N.E.R.D. right before they released their second album and blew up. Crazy shows with Broken Social Scene and The Polyphonic Spree. But the shows that stood out were the smaller, more intimate shows, of which there were many. Murder By Death, Quasi, Pinback, and The Dillinger Escape Plan were just some that stood out.
But later that year I moved from Arkansas across country and couldn’t make it back. I spent ten years reminiscing and wishing to go back because of the environment of like-minded people who it felt really wanted to just enjoy the music. Bands came out of it with buzz because people were genuinely interested in hearing new music and stumbled across them. You had some known artists mixed in with little known artists who didn’t even have an album out yet. But it seems as those years have taken its toll on SXSW. It’s like looking at your friend from college who did things because he loved it and seeing that they compromised their values for corporate sponsorships and money in general. It’s sad. Everything about SXSW this year seemed to be about artists that have made it already. Lady GAGA‘s puke performance, Tyler the Creator inciting a riot, Jay Z and Kanye West together. None of these artists needed any publicity or buzz. And I’m just as bad, as I posted the GaGa performance.
But then, even before SXSW was over Hot Springs, Arkansas, hosted its 10th annual The Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival (VOV). And it was amazing! The Valley of the Vapors is hosted by Low Key Arts (co founded by Bill Solleder and his wife Shea Childs) which is a non-profit public charity supported by numerous volunteers and Arkansas Arts Council, an agency of the Department of Heritage, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In its tenth year, the VOV boasts a history of over 2000 acts from all around the world viewed by more than 10000 festival goers. It’s held annually right after SXSW which makes it a great stop for artists and bands to and from their Austin engagements. The festival is beginning to make a name for itself as they have had to turn down numerous requests to perform. They could have had over 200 shows this year before narrowing it down to the 41 they chose. But what makes this festival amazing is the environment. All shows are open to all ages. The setting is very intimate. And you actually get a chance to talk to the performers before and after their shows. Not to mention, the festival continues afterwards with after parties, and there’s secret shows announced the day of the show via Facebook and Twitter, and workshops, and just great people.
The festival snuck up on me, and I didn’t get to go the first night. I knew it was all ages so I took my seven-year old daughter who had never been to a concert before. We caught the 4pm workshop where she learned how to screen print and got to make a patch which is still prominently displayed in her room. Then we caught Doom Squad for the secret show at Deluca’s. She wasn’t digging them as much as I was. They were a little too different for her. I felt they reminded me of a psychedelic !!!. They had the disco-funk vibe, but all new aged out. Plus, one of the singers had to have one of the coolest sets of shoes I’d ever seen, they were boots with what looked to be a feathery fox tail? The first show we saw over at Low Key Arts was Big’n, a noise rock group outta Chicago. Not really my kind of music, but my daughter loved it (she’s like her mother in the sense she likes bands with screaming vocals). I could tell she was still coming out of her element being around people she didn’t know. The next band, Water Liars, was one of her favourites. She absolutely fell in love with Backbone. You could tell the music was begging to move her and she wanted to get up. After the show she got to met the lead singer, Justin Kinkel-Schuster, and talk for just a bit.
Next, we saw Ohio band Motel Beds who just brought a good time. At this point, it was too much for my daughter, she had to get up and dance. And dance we did, well into 11pm. Then she was exhausted and in-between sets began to yawn so much I had to leave. Which was upsetting because the next act was R. Ring, which was Kelley Deal from The Breeders‘ new band. I heard the set was amazing. The same was said of My Gold Mask who closed the night.
During work the next day, I received a text with a link to VOV X DAY 2 short video recap which showcase some of the events from the day prior which to my surprise had Zoë and I dancing at the end, which she was super excited about. How often do you get your first concert experience captured?
I missed DTCV‘s secret show which had James Greer, a former member of Guided by Voices and senior editor at Spin. I even missed the first band that night due to my wife’s improv group Cult Fiction having a rehearsal. But I did get there in time to catch Habits which was an experimental band from Los Angeles who kept things weird and funky with a sound like that of a man and a computer in a rap battle. Even that description is still lacking in pin pointing it’s originality. It was different, fun, and funky for sure. I don’t know the name of the song, but the lines “there’s no way that this could be right” were repeated numerous times in one song that was so catchy I’m still humming it. For me, on Sunday night, it was Disco Doom from Switzerland who snuck up on me. They totally rocked my socks off. Produced by Jim Roth of Built To Spill fame, Disco Doom was a band that had such texture and landscape to their music that you could taste it. It was a musical journey with highs and lows which crawled and exploded numerous times much to expose moments of almost serene clarity. From there things shifted to a make shift platform that was slid out into the middle of the audience and Jack Toft exploded on the mic like the true MC he is. Tofts sound was eerily similar to some nerd core rappers of yore, but the things he rapped about were more common like his pizza girl. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention he brought his own fly girl/hype man. I really enjoyed this set. AAN was the last band I saw this night as I had to be at work early the next morning. I totally missed Fenster who I heard mixed reviews from. But AAN was great. The Portland group had a singer with such a unique voice and sound that comparing them becomes difficult. The musical sound reminded me a little of Modest Mouse, but then again, nothing like them. They were another band with a sound that built and crashed so beautifully. It was great way to end the night.
Day four was by far my favourite. It was also St. Patrick’s Day where Hot Springs holds its annual worlds shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade where Texas women throw green tortillas with dollars stapled to some and the VOV float shot labeled ping-pong balls by air compressor to parade goers, some three stories high in buildings. Again, I missed the opening band Darsombra who handed out these trippy glasses to enjoy their visual show. (I really wished I had caught it.) I think Gorilla Toss was the first band I caught. They were interesting. Reminded me of Primus performing in the jungle. But then, the night got great. I got to see Tweens who I was most excited about. Having only released two songs from their album coming out in two weeks, this band has begun garnering a lot of internet buzz. It’s already rumored online the band’s quick rise to fame is in part to The Breeders liking their sound and picking them up for some of their tour. Which makes sense, since Kelley Deal was at the festival too. They were a blast. The sounded like a shy Karen O and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Performers none the less as lead singer Bridget Battle played through her second song with only three strings as one of the only four she plays with broke. She did get another guitar from one of the guys from Diarrhea Planet who played later.
Ryan Power was next with a show I just couldn’t get into. It was probably more my mood and pacing of all the other bands that this smart pop set just didn’t resonate with me at this time. It wasn’t bad at all, just not what I was in the mood for. But that lasted only for a bit as Radkey decided to go balls to the wall insane. This high-octane energy punch to the face backed with a deep voice was just what I needed to get pumped back up. They were awesome playing original works with a cover even thrown in for good punk measure. Again, being the party pooper that I was and as midnight approached I knew work beckoned at 7am and the night needed to end soon. But not before seeing what Diarrhea Planet at least sounded like. The name alone had peaked my interest since I first looked up VOV. And holy crap! Diarrhea Planet was the best set in my opinion of the whole festival. Because seriously two guitars in a band is just amateurish, you really need three. Which is why they had four. And I’m not even kidding when I say on their last song (Ghost With A Boner), they called up Tweens drummer Jerri Queen to add a fifth guitar. The entire show was just epic. Serious power rock with insane guitar solos and oozing charisma from all lead guitarists. Crazy great show! And some epic finales that ended with pick pointing backed by intense eye stairs. Very rock n roll.
The last nights main set started with Lost In Society in which I caught the tail end of, so I didn’t really get a good feel for. But the next band, Schwervon, was quite entertaining and endearing. They were very reminiscent of 90s indie rock splashed with poety that was interpreted through an improvised tap dance and witty banter. You can’t help but fall in love with these guys. Banditos took the stage next and turned into the Mary Beth Richardson showcase where the female vocalist totally stole the show with songs like No Good where she viciously attacked the microphone sounding like a modern day Janis Joplin. Another mentionable moment of the band’s was Stephen Alan Pierce II’s wicked awesome banjo picking. Just an all out rock and roll ho down with so much soul. Then just when you think the night couldn’t get any better, Swearing at Motorists take the stage. They also played SXSW 10 years ago when I was there but with longer hair and bigger sideburns. And let me tell you what, Dave Doughman, the lead singer knows how to put on a show. The gregarious nature of this performer demands so much attention and interaction so as to percolate the energy and spew it back ten fold resulting in a performance with so much energy you can’t help but be hyped up. He was so appreciative to be part of the festival and of the audience, he even requested for someone to throw an after party because he wanted to play some more. That’s one after party I wish to god I could have attended. If they are near you, I highly recommend their show. Next up, we saw Good Graeff, a set of twin sisters from Florida playing folky rock cello driven ballads. I was super excited about seeing this band, and they didn’t disappoint. The lead singer was sick and having hallucinating sweat dreams and still pulled out a Jordan game six performance. Even though there was three bands left, my night wrapped up early again with Starlight Girls. It was an awesome way to end the night as the Brooklyn based band had a chilled out indie feel sound that made it feel like you were at an invite only party for hipsters. Very synthy, with awesome drumming, and on occasion some flute thrown in for good measure.
All in all, this festival felt like a close set of friends. It was intimate enough to get to mingle and really get to know bands. On numerous occasions, bands would comment that they didn’t know what we put in the water here, but they loved it. It was a place the music moved your emotions and was very uncommon for there not to be dancing of some sort up front by the stage. When you got hungry a portable taco stand was open right outside. You met new people, heard great new bands, and just came away with a new appreciation for life. Valley of the Vapors is truly a unique event that anyone with an appreciation for music must experience. This truly is one of Hot Springs best kept secrets. Plus they have a rad ass hand symbol.
Hit the jump to hear audio from somer of my favourite bands.