I was getting crushed. It was 7:59 PM in Austin Texas, I was covering South by Southwest, and I was trying to maneuver my ass through the crowd and up to the stage that held the Crash Kings gear. Crash Kings, for those of you just tuning in, are a three piece out of LA: Tony Beliveau on vocals, piano, and keyboards, his brother Mike Beliveau on bass, and Jason Morris on drums. Right, no guitar. And while I’m on the topic, let me say this here and now: any music writer that claims they’re like Ben Folds Five is a lazy fucking douche that couldn’t identify a chord progression or song structure with a musical road map.
At any rate, the show was at 8 and I had, of course, gotten there considerably later than I’d intended and it was packed. No way it was I making it to the front. I settled for stage left, behind Mike’s basses, but I was bummed: this was one of the shows I was most excited about catching in Austin this year, my photo pass meant next to nothing at venues without a photo pit, and here I was arriving too late to get up front.
Totally my fault of course. I’d been staying with friends on the other side of town, and earlier that day had made the mistake of grabbing a cab back to their house to take a shower after an aborted Rogue Wave interview. When it was time to head out again, I couldn’t find my phone, which I needed to contact exactly everyone I had to meet at SXSW.
“Oh no,” I whinged to myself (yes, even I have to listen to me), “I had too much stupid Fat Tire beer at stupid Lance Armstrong’s stupid bike shop during the stupid Rogue Wave show and I spaced the phone in the cab.”
With no land line phone in the house, and no neighbors answering my door-pounding and yelling, I was sure I was boned. And then the dude hanging out in the park next to my friends’ house chucked me a cell and said “just bring it back to me when you’re done” and went back to his conversation. So thanks, beer-drinking, dog-walking, talking-with-friends guy-from-park.
Going back inside and calling my phone located it right on a table out in the open, which makes me 100% the idiot I feel like most of the time, but at least it let me stop whimpering. Plus, I was on my way the Crash Kings show.
“No way to catch a cab,” I thought. ”I’m hitching.”
Here’s my thinking: it was Austin, it was the middle of SXSW, and I don’t have the face of a rapist. Much. So someone will give me a ride. Except they didn’t. Not the hot blond in her Porsche convertible, not the VW busload of hipster-assholes with NY plates, not anyone. I ended up walk-run-walking with my thumb out for about a mile and a half before I found a cab. I got to the show with one minute to spare, but no time to stick my head into the Clavinet to see its guts, an activity that Tony had promised me, and one that I was hella-excited about.
Because, see, it has a whammy bar. A keyboard, with guitar strings and pickups, and this one with a frigging whammy bar. Which makes it one of the single coolest keyboards ever. Ever, I tell you. Here’s a taste of the proof:
The first day I sat down to talk to the band, Tony told me the story of how he got his hands on that Clav. He’d been looking for an old Roland, a Juno 106 I think (or was it a 60?). At any rate, someone he knew thought he might have one in a storage facility, took Tony down there and they looked around. Turns out there wasn’t a 106, but they did come across the old Clav, beaten up and needing help, but complete with whammy bar. And the dude gave it to him.
So it’s like that Porsche in the barn thing, the kind of story almost too good to be true, the kind of story that usually makes me jealous as hell of the person that got lucky. This time though? Not so much jealousy. Because it’s not sitting in a studio somewhere with a “Do Not Touch” sign, it’s being lugged all over the country in the back of a Ford van, dragged onto stage night after night, and banged on like a muh-fucker at every show, just like it should be. And Tony gets that, and he can play the hell out of it, which is why I can’t think of a son of a bitch deserves to have it more.
Anyway, as cool as that video is, it’s almost unnecessary. What I mean is that their music, that shit stands on its own, very cool whether you catch it live or listen to their eponymous album. In fact, the only knock I’ve got on the record is that it doesn’t last long enough. The opening cut, Mountain Man is a grind-it out chuck of rock goodness (clavcore?) that features the whammy-Clav (as I’ve now decided to call it – or should that be a Clavi-wham?).
From then on out, Crash Kings deliver nine more tunes, each of which has its own identity, but which still hang together beautifully. You could cop out and claim that’s due to the slightly uncommon lineup, but that’s only a small part of it. The album works so well because of the great writing, Tony’s unique voice, and the production from Grammy award-winner D. Sardy.
From the slick pop greatness of “1985″, to the kind-of-a-ballad-but-not-remotely-boring “Come Away”, from the huge arrangement on “Non-Believer” to the distorted-base awesomeness on “14 Arms” and “Raincoat,” then right up through the closer cut, “My Love,” this record doesn’t have a throw-away, phone-it-in dog anywhere.
But that’s only half the story. Because aside from being able to write and record music well, aside from being able to bust out guitar sounds on a vintage Clav, these bitches can play. Really, really play. It’s actually kinda shocking how many people can’t you know, how many can’t even play their own damn album, and it’s always a big relief for me to find people that can. So after running halfway across Austin, then elbowing my way to a spot alongside the stage, I was hugely happy that they blew the doors off the joint.
The crowd knew it, too. Crash Kings got one of the most prolonged and boisterous rounds of applause I saw the entire time I was in Austin, and that includes all the bands I caught that came into SXSW with a hell of a lot more buzz around them than Crash Kings had.
Crash Kings were supposed to play another set on Saturday, but the weather didn’t cooperate, and they canceled it, much to my chagrin. But even that worked out, because Tony decided to do a simple set, just him and a keyboard (not the Clav this time, so still no sticking my head in it), in a tiny room lit dimly by red lights. I grabbed a bit of video with a less than stellar camera, but it demonstrates that the dude’s got skills, and balls too: there’s no where to hide here. Either you deliver the vocals or you don’t. First up, “Non-Believer”:
After his set, Tony and I were talking outside while he waited for the van to come by and load up before heading to Colorado. We’d been talking about his set, when all of a sudden he says:
“There was someone singing harmony on ‘Come Away.’ What was going on with that?”
“Oh – that was this crazy gray-haired cat lady-looking broad that was standing behind me,” I told him. “I asked her to quiet down, but she was determined.” Before the set started, she’d regaled me with stories of helping her husband move his gear around to gigs, back in the hippie days. She seemed to have a real thing for Tony now, though. Last up, a rare duet, Tony Beliveau and the Crazy Cat Lady:
By the end of the week, it was clear: Crash Kings are coming. Their record is great (and you can score the MP3 version for six bucks on amazon.com), they’re really good guys, and they actually know how to play their instruments. If you get the chance to seem them, you must: they’re a great, great show. Plus, I’m fairly sure that you aren’t going to have the chance to see them in small clubs for much longer, so I’d advise you to grab yourself some tickets if they roll by within driving distance.
Look, I’ll admit that being a bit of a vintage keyboard geek, I’m probably predisposed to liking a three piece with a keyboardist that favors a whammy-Clav, (or Clavi-wham). But even without that prejudice, I’d still be calling the Crash Kings record one of my favorites of 2009, and telling you that their live shows are worth running across town and fighting through a crowd for, any time.
For those of you in South Florida, they’ll be playing SunFest in West Palm Beach on Wednesday, April 28th. I’m planning on dealing with that crowd just to catch their show (and hopefully finally get my head inside that Clav – I’ll let you know). For more about Crash Kings, visit their site.