Though I went as a music journalist, at the tender age of 19, I had no hope of entering most of the clubs of Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest. Acts I would not see over the course of the festival include: Paul Oakenfold, the Crystal Method, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Autre Ne Veut, Deadmau5, and (this one broke my heart) Snoop Lion.
But that’s alright. Instead, I saw these guys:
I’d been taking 30-second videos of street performers up to this point, but found myself rooted in place, unable to move save to capture the reactions of various dancers. I’m far from a skilled videographer, but I think the crowd’s joy comes through. Austin’s reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World aside, most of the buskers I saw were competent instrumentalists, but without much flair for showmanship or a catchy repertoire (though there were other notable exceptions). Who’d have thought two saxophones and a drummer were the magic recipe for success?
Once the band finished their set, I turned to leave. I dropped my pen, however (I’d been taking notes), and when I rose from picking it up, I saw that some new musicians had entered the scene.
I don’t know what those white tubes are called, but these guys were clearly veterans. (I saw them playing on the streets, often with other musicians, three of the next four nights.) You might not be able to tell from the video, but that drummer is grinning ear-to-ear behind his hair. How often does one get the chance to improvise a jam with two skilled strangers who play the same instruments as your friends, when your friends are both saxophonists? I wish my audio had been better: you could feel the brass in your bones if you stood close enough, and the rhythm was even catchier in person.
Once the jam ended, the young drummer stood to shake hands with the veterans, and his bandmates joined him. I stuck around to watch the conversation. Couldn’t make out what was being said, and eventually left. Then, heard a riff from behind me. The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. It stopped. Then, another riff, this one perhaps even more familiar to my generation. I turned around and began recording.
Ladies and gentlemen, for your viewing pleasure, “Thrift Shop”, as covered by four saxophones and one drum set.
I approached the drummer after the set to thank him for what was, after all’s said and done, one of the five best concerts I saw in my time at one of the world’s largest music festivals. He told me that his name was James Muschler, and that the band’s name was Moon Hooch. They met at the New School, a college in Manhattan, where James picked up a BA in jazz performance before bandmates Mike Wilbur and “Wenzl” McGowen left school with him to play full-time (Mike and Wenzl also graduated, though I’m not sure if they were performance majors). Though they started out as buskers in subway stations, they were discovered by solo artist Mike Doughty and found themselves “playing above ground” and even opening for bands like Lotus and They Might Be Giants.
Wait, They Might Be Giants? Then what are you doing out here?
James ignores the question’s rudeness and gives me a straight answer, plus a big winning smile: “We started out on the streets. And now we’re bringing our music back to the streets.” Handshakes all around.
In short: These guys are wonderful. I just bought their album on Bandcamp. If you like funky dance music with a good story behind it, you’d be well-advised to do the same.