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Neon Reverb, March 22-23: The new frontier


To best appreciate Friday night's Neon Reverb showcase at The Bunkhouse, a little perspective is in order. Here we all were, watching a showcase completely dedicated to Americana and traditional music. Three years ago, that was a hard bill to pull off. Five years ago, promoters had to creatively match a band like The Clydesdale with other acts possessing any (often neglible) measure of musical overlap. 

The western-themed Bunkhouse was a natural setting for the one-two punch of The Clydesdale and Coastwest Unrest, both releasing albums and capitalizing on the bigger crowds that Neon Reverb tends to bring. As such, both acts were granted access to the venue's outdoor stage, which doesn't get used enough. A shame it wasn't warmer, though. Many of us underestimated the wind chill and were left shivering during the bands' anticipated sets. Apparently, some of us will never learn. 

Temperatures hadn't dipped too badly during Fuzz SoLow's solo blues-a-palooza. James "Fuzz" Berg took nearly the full hour to show off his dexterity with his guitar, kickdrum and sequencer set-up, relying on his feet and various looping samples to accomplish the work of three or four men. It wasn't without hiccups. His sequencer failed him at one point, and he had tuning issues with his vintage, square-bodied guitar — think Bo Diddley — which prompted him to quip, "It's like a woman — it's touchy." But he fired on all cylinders otherwise, at one point looping his guitar melodies, backbeat and ephemeral noise while he ventured into the crowd to greet every one of us. 

Another local act, Bogtrotter's Union, followed inside the bar. Their roots-influenced music is largely Irish-flavored, with some bluegrass and a bit of punk and ska. It's almost always upbeat, charged and sincere — a full-throated hoedown (with planety of harmonies) and thankfully the band balances whatever genres its incorporating into any particular song. But for traditional dance music, few were dancing. The band also fell into a familiar archetype, both musically and beyond. When one of the members gave a shout out to St. Patrick's Day and the still-lingering high he felt from last week's big holiday, I officially felt more like I was in a casino pub watching a Celtic tribute band as opposed to a downtown showcase for original music. 

Coastwest Unrest battled through the cold and what sounded like a blown speaker with an uplifting, buoyant set that mirrors the energy and high-spirits of its new record, High Times on Lowly Streets. This was needed: Vigorous drumbeats to compel people to move about as the temperature dropped and the wind kicked up. And for most of Coastwest's set — spanning its repertoire but concentrating on the new record, with such gems as "Empty Handed Painter" and the fantastically titled "Henry Miller Library Incident" — that energy sustained. Violinist Alex Barnes delivered plenty of throwback on the violin, but the focus gravitated toward frontman Noah Dickie, frequently evoking latter-era Beck with his husky baritone and a Pentacostal preacher minus the zealotry. "If there's a God, won't you descend?" he asked mid-song, answering right back, "He said, 'I'm on my way.'" 

Up until this point, Neon Reverb in general and the night in particular kept time with the schedule. So it was with some irony that organizer Jason Aragon's band, The Clydesdale, was 20 minutes late. And then had to stop in the middle of the first song due to singer/guitarist Paige Overton being shocked by her mic. This delayed the set about another 15 minutes, and when the band returned, it inexplicably launched into an acoustic suite to restart its set, to "warm us up," explained Overton. Well, this warmed us up neither literally nor figuratively. The more electric and upbeat numbers came two songs later, as we finally had the beat to shuffle around, The Clydesdale delving into its spunky version of the Wild West by way of a straight-through performance of its new EP, The Trail of the Painted Pony. Things took a turn for the unexpected when usually banter-resistant guitarist/vocalist Andrew Karasa offered random, giggle-worthy observations in between songs, even venturing into the sort of poop remarks we'd expect from his wife, Big Friendly Corporation keyboardist Melissa Marth. Nonetheless, we weren't complaining — except for that still-likely-blown speaker and the cold, of course. 

It was a tad warmer Saturday night, though we had bundled up quite a bit in anticipation for Beauty Bar's backyard showcase, a much smaller one than The Bunkhouse had been accustomed to staging throughout the festival. We got there in time for Brendan Scholz's solo Mercy Music set, and when we mean solo, we mean it was just him and an electric guitar, sans pedal board, drum machine, sequencer or anything. But that's all he needed. The raw emotion in his voice and the classic melodicism of his straightforward rockers not only meant each of his songs was a direct hit, but made it impossible to be distracted by anything else.

Scholz, however, was understandably thrown by some jerk who walked up to the front of the stage and kept making slashing gestures to his throat. At first, Scholz calmly asked the guy why he was interrupting him. Dude retreated back a little ... only to keep pointing toward the stage in an antagonistic fashion, and that's when Scholz lost it, pushed aside his guitar, and prepared to jump the stage and confront his passive-aggressive heckler. Fortunately, Scholz's friends and fans chased the guy out of the patio area, and the show continued, ending with a small mosh pit and a big crowd response. Short, sweet, but the most indelible set so far of the festival. The minute I think of it, the chorus to one of his songs pops into my head. 

If Bogtrotter's Union inched toward cliche territory, Old Man Markley skirted any steretotypes with its unique and punk-spirited take on bluegrass and Appalachian music — the septet even covered a Screechin Weasel song — delivered boisteriously and with buckets of charm to large gathering of urban hillbillies, punks and curious onlookers in boat shoes. The L.A. band incorporates every old-time instrument you can imagine — stand-up bass, fiddle, a washboard — and the blend delivers authenticity even with the punk flair and irreverent lyrics (one song addressed the insanity of Gary Busey). Much of the charged set sounded like a Red Bull/moonshine cocktail, inspiring a few mosh-pit jigs and crowd chant-a-longs that only pushed the exhausted band — it had barely gotten to town thanks to bus problems — even harder. Even the set's technical challenges couldn't derail this hurtling steam engine, sending us off into the night in high spirits.