SXSW 2013: What’s the Secret to Gringo Star’s Ever-Sweating, Yeomen Rock and Roll?

Dick Sullivan is in Austin for South By Southwest. Over the next three days he’ll share three bands that have impressed during the festival. To read all the profiles go here.

In early October of 2007, Gringo Star was scheduled for an in-store performance at Good Records. My friend was coming into town for the weekend and, though neither of us had ever heard of the group, we thought it seemed like a good use of a Saturday afternoon. But when we got to the store, it was empty, save for a young couple and the Good Records store clerk, who was doing his best to convey smug disinterest. Meanwhile, Gringo Star loaded in their gear, untroubled that the audience consisted of five, one of whom was paid to be there.

What followed impressed me for years afterward. The four-piece from Atlanta raced into their set like it was their last gig on earth and it was happening at Madison Square Garden. They played dirty pop with three-part harmonies, buttressed by a restless, galloping rock and roll. And they were playing it all with an unflagging desperation that had captivated the attention of the only four people there to share the moment (the clerk was still disinterested). When they finished their set, and I have no doubt that they played every last lick on their set list, the band was sweaty. Gringo Star got sweaty for less than half a dozen people. I have told and retold that story ever since as a yardstick for musical integrity.

When I catch up to Gringo Star at this year’s SXSW showcase at Red-Eyed Fly, they are every bit the yeomen I recall, laying down their set like a band that has had an extra five years of polish. Their songwriting is still modeled on the three vocal, pop melodies cruising in a 1965 Rambler. And they still swap guitars, basses and keyboards between every song, a result of either undiagnosed ADD or instrumental cockiness. I count the audience at around 40, an eight-fold improvement.

But after their performance, when I ask them about the Good Records gig, which they only vaguely recall, I receive the most dissatisfying explanation. “We pretty much do the set we do,” says a shrugging Nicholas Furgiuele. His brother, Peter, offers a more detailed explanation, “We probably got really stoned before that.” In fact, as relaxed as the brothers Furgiuele are for the interview, it is one hundred percent possibly they are high now.

I have made much more of a diatribe out of that inspiring performance than they ever imagined. It occurs to me that, while I admired Gringo Star for not having an off switch, perhaps the inverse is true. Maybe they don’t have an on switch. Maybe it’s the same performance every time because, for them, sweating out their rock and roll is as essential as breathing. But even from that vantage, it’s still admirable. And I am untroubled by the role marijuana apparently played in one of the best performances I have ever seen. The Gringo Star Good Records anecdote will live on.

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