SXSW Dispatch #8: The kingdom of heaven and the best band in the world

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Powell St. John, Joe Black and the Blacks, Space City Gamelan and the Marked Men

My last night at SXSW at least until next year began at Room 710 and the showcase sponsored by Birdman Records, the cool garage/psychedelic label run by David Katznelson, once the Flaming Lips’ A&R man at Warner Bros.

Launching the bill was a former beatnik and trailblazer in the Austin-to-San Francisco psychedelic pilgrimage of the mid-’60s: Powell St. John, who wrote songs for the 13th Floor Elevators, Janis Joplin, Boz Scaggs and Doug Sahm, among others.

Like many psychedelic pioneers/survivors, St. John hasn’t aged particularly well: He didn’t have much of a voice left as he sat singing between two acoustic guitar players, and much of his material was generic folk/blues. But it was a kick to hear the song’s author sing the Elevators’ classic “Kingdom of Heaven,” which ended the set, trumpeting the very psychedelic notion that said kingdom is within us all, just waiting for us to find the key to unlock it.

From there, I crossed the street to the lovably grungy Beerland, probably the non-SXSW venue with the best bookings throughout the week. My original plan was to pay the cover and camp out until the band I wanted to see: Denton, Texas, garage-punks the Marked Men.

As chance would have it, the first set I caught was another Chicago punk act, Joe Black and the Blacks, the new band fronted by Jim Hollywood, formerly of the Tyrades. The group delivered in fine, sweaty fashion, especially considering that it was its first show ever.

In fact, Joe Black and the Blacks are so new, they don’t even have a MySpace page yet. And they’re probably the only band in Texas this week that can say that.

Unable to stay in one club all night when there was so much music going on in so many other places, I took a chance that I wouldn’t be able to get back into Beerland later on and decided to go to church.

The Central Presbyterian Church is always one of my favorite venues at a certain point during SXSW: It’s reserved for the most avant-garde fare; the sound is exquisite, but most of all there are the pews, and after five long days and nights, I’m not ashamed to admit I needed to crash.

As big a draw as the pews, though, was Houston’s Space City Gamelan, an eight-piece group of young men and women dressed all in black, wearing red and white face paint and playing a mix of traditional Indonesian pieces and their own “polyrhythmic, psychotropic lullabies” on acoustic percussion instruments.

If you want to visit the kingdom of heaven, these entrancing and mystical sounds are as good a vehicle as any, and I came back down to earth and left the church only 11 hours before the start of Sunday school.

Finally, it was back to Beerland to hear the group a trusted pair of ears assured me was “the best band in the world.” The Marked Men are a quartet that plays frenetic buzzsaw punk laced with delicious British Invasion harmoniesbubblegum garage on speedas evidenced onstage and on their third album, Fix My Brain, released on Swami Records, the label started by John Reis of Rocket From the Crypt.

While I cannot endorse Gerard Cosloy’s hyperbole 100 percent, the Marked Men certainly were one of the three best bands I heard in Texas, and for that matter, one of the best bands Ive heard this year. And they were absolutely the perfect way to end my SXSW experience.

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