The Beatdown

South by So What? Not this year, thanks to Vaux and other Denver bands.

At the Austin airport a couple of weeks ago, heading home from South by Southwest, I ran into my buddy Iron Mike -- who looked like fifty miles of bad road. I'd last seen him a few nights earlier in the midst of an epic bender, when he was pleading with Mary Lou Lord -- busking as usual on Sixth Street -- to play him a tune.

"Hey, Mary Lou," he'd drunkenly bellowed. "Play 'Polaroids.' It's my bachelor party."

"I already played it, but I'll see what I can do," Lord had replied, shooting him a baffled look.

I'd been a bit baffled myself. Who in their right mind asks Mary Lou Lord to play a Shawn Colvin cover? Mike had obviously become a slave to that demon alcohol.

"You're better than any stripper," he'd told her with devilish chuckle.

Yeah, the whole bachelor-party thing was odd, too. On the surface, at least. Most cats on the verge of wedlock prefer to indulge in unspeakable indiscretions with random naked broads -- you know, some what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas type shit. But Mike's an insatiable music fan, and there's be no better place for a true male spin-ster to celebrate his last days of freedom than at the audiophile equivalent of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

"What's the best thing you saw all weekend?" I asked as we compared notes that Sunday at the airport.

"Modest Yahoo," he replied, then fired off a litany of more obscure hip-hop acts I'd never heard of. "And you?"

"Vaux," I stated flatly.

"Vaux?" he repeated, incredulous. "From Denver? A band that you could probably see anytime back home?"

Damn straight.

Mike may have had the inside track when it came to Hasidic rappers like Modest Yahoo, but he was clearly sleeping on Mootown's finest. Aside from a rare show earlier this month at the hi-dive, Vaux hasn't performed much locally. So you bet I was there.

"Who's the best band you've seen today?" Vaux frontman Quentin Smith had asked a few songs into the act's late-night set at SXSW. (Obviously, this was the most popular question in Austin.)

"Vaux! Vaux! Vaux!" the crowd chanted in unison.

"Well, that worked out rather nicely," Smith declared. "Didn't it?"

It was also the gospel truth. Despite being relegated to a 1 a.m. Saturday slot, Smith and company ripped through a mind-melting, seizure-inducing set of Muse-inflected scream theater. The Co-op's makeshift patio tent was about the size of my bathroom, making the hi-dive seem like a stadium in comparison. In fact, the postage stamp of a stage could barely contain the band's gear, much less all six members; guitarist Greg Daniels, who doubles as the group's lighting technician, was forced to play off to the side, underneath an archway opening that connected the back bar to the patio. None of that mattered, though: Vaux still whipped the crowd into a frenzy. For me, the best part was watching a lighting canister on top of bassist Ryder Robison's cabinet rock back and forth in tandem with Joe McChan's frenzied drumming like some sort of hexed metronome.

While most of Austin was hyperventilating over this year's batch of buzz bands -- Bloc Party, the Futureheads, the Go Team, Dogs Die in Hot Cars, Kasabian, the Bravery and Louis XIV -- Vaux was definitely the band to catch. As far as I'm concerned, Vaux is the best band in the country right now. "I don't know what to say," a stunned Jim Utley, former owner of the Blue Mule and my Lone Star co-pilot, said after the gig. "That was one of the best bands I've ever seen."

Just twelve hours earlier, my top pick would have been Black Lamb. Bespectacled and clad in a T-shirt and tight-fitting flairs, Brian Hagman had looked more like Mr. Bean assuming a Rivers Cuomo alter ego than a showstopping frontman as he watched Nightingale wrap up an energetic set at the Flamingo Cantina. But as Black Lamb took the stage, Hagman transformed before my eyes. Rearing his head back like Linda Blair, he expelled a harmonious maelstrom that sounded like he'd just huffed the spirits of Glen Danzig and Ian Astbury from a brown paper sack, letting loose torrents of melody. Lamb's set, along with that of the Omens, who played later that afternoon, easily outshone the more lauded nationals who rounded out the bill at the Larimer Lounge's day party.

Maybe it was the oxygen-friendly altitude, or perhaps it was because Operation Civic Pride was in full effect, but I could have sworn that the Denver bands sounded better in Texas than they do here. And they did so not by following trends, but by setting trends that others will inevitably follow. Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots, whose mordant backwoods dirges normally creep me out beyond belief, sounded stunningly beautiful both times I saw them. Cephalic Carnage's blistering, jam-packed set at Room 710 was as brilliant as it was suffocating. DeVotchKa and Hot IQs were on point, as usual (but if one more person goes on about how hot IQ drummer Elaine Acosta is, I just might kick him in the shins). And even D.O.R.K. had a decent show, although its members embody truth in advertising. ("I got my lip pierced because I wanted to be hard-core," said guitarist/vocalist Bryan Knoebel. "I don't know how hard-core it's going to be when my mom kicks my ass.") While I'd still file this group under one-dimensional, Hot Topic punk, it has improved dramatically and is infinitely more listenable since Knoebel and his shaggy-coiffed cohort, guitarist Schuyler Ankele, took over vocal duties. When those kids' balls finally drop, D.O.R.K. may well be heir apparent to Blink 182 -- especially with all the talk of the latter's possible retirement. And it was particularly gratifying to see a sizable percentage of Denverites supporting the home team at their shows.

As for Iron Mike, let's just hope that no incriminating blackmail photos -- like the ones Utley reportedly has of me with Frylock from Aqua Teen Hunger Force -- surface. Bad things, man. Really bad things.

Upbeats and beatdowns: On Thursday, March 31, Dent, Raahh Foundashun, Neil McIntyre and Mic Jones from Yo, Flaco!, as well as the Fly, Brown Bombers, the Life Krue and Apostle, will be on hand at the Soiled Dove to celebrate the release of Low Budget Soul, a stellar, local-centric hip-hop compilation. That same night, the Samples will be at the Gothic Theatre, then head to Boulder for a show on Friday, April 1, at the Fox Theatre. On Saturday, April 2, Orbit Service, Drop the Fear and Mingo stop by the Mercury Cafe.

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