OC Bands Free the Robots, God's Good Soldiers, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band at South By Southwest

OC bands bring their noise to SXSW

If a nuclear bomb drops on Austin, Texas, any time from March 12 to March 16, about 30 percent (conservative estimate) of the music industry and the media pros who love/hate it would be history. That's how gargantuan the South by Southwest music conference and festival has become. Into that sonic clusterfuck tread several Orange County bands eager to slay crowds, make key connections, get excrement-visaged and perhaps hook up with attractive festival-goers. We profile a few local groups venturing to this annual bacchanal of aural and alcoholic gluttony.


Free the Robots—Santa Ana DJ/producer Chris Alfaro and keyboardist/guitarist Phil Nisco—recently shared a bill with hip-hop/electro legend Afrika Bambaataa. They proceeded to make Bambaataa seem hopelessly stuck in the past and, one hates to say it, kind of redundant.

That gig showcased Free the Robots' inventive instrumental hip-hop, which has been making inroads into the international club scene thanks to their unconventional productions (see their self-titled EP on Elsewhere Studios) and Alfaro's eclectic DJ sets under the name Urthworm; a promising collaboration with LA's Gaslamp Killer is imminent. Both band members are young, but they possess a deep awareness of jazz, funk, rock, hip-hop, world and electronic music.

Recalling the freewheeling MC-less hip-hop that issued from the Ninja Tune and Mush labels at their zeniths, Free the Robots transmute obscure samples into tracks that reference the past while pointing to the future.

“Hip-hop—and most music in general—has been pretty fluid for quite some time,” Alfaro says. “I can't exactly say I've created a new sound, but like a lot of artists in this genre, we've adapted new ideas and are constantly evolving. Artists like DJ Shadow, Jel and Nobody have been doing this for years; I'm just here to keep things moving.”

Asked whether there's anyone in Orange County on his wavelength on the beatmaking tip, Alfaro observes, “I've found my heaviest influences come from friends, collab partners and local bedroom producers who just do it to do it. There's so much unheard talent in OC that needs to be recognized. My other local favorites—Exile, Aloe Blacc, Josh One, etc.—have paved the way for artists like me and established themselves in the music scene. Their talent is undeniable. We all have built from one another.”


Orange County quartet God's Good Soldiers strike classic '90s indie-rock paydirt with tuneful songs that pack deceptively tough fistfuls of bristly guitar tones; they balance the bitter with the sweet without tipping into maudlin or overwrought angst. Leader Cristobal “Cris” Cordero comes across like an endearing combo of Guided By Voices magus Robert Pollard and Afghan Whigs lothario Greg Dulli, with a dash of Alex Chilton-esque falsetto to handle those delicate, poignant songs. But these are coincidental similarities rather than overt emulations.

God's Good Soldiers aren't a one-man show, however. Assisting Cordero are Joshua Jones (rhythm guitar), Randy Lyons (drums) and Josh Mayhood (bass). On their debut album, Why Can't God Cure the Baby? (which is currently without a label, a situation that ought to be remedied posthaste), the band prove they're a serious force to be reckoned with among OC's melodious-rock gene pool.


Plenty of young bands adapt the stylistic tics of classic rock, much to the chagrin of people who know that calendars don't have rewind functions and who want music that at least tries to sound fresh. That being said, it's never been harder for a new group to make classic rock not come off like a fourth-generation copy of a Bad Company 8-track.

So credit must go to Dusty Rhodes and the River Band, who clearly love rock from the Nixon era, but their zealous passion (okay, soul) and impeccable chops imbue their songs with a rawness and finesse that sandblast any gripes about retro-itis. The Anaheim quintet's debut album on Side One Dummy, First You Live, overflows with duende, like some unholy collaboration among third-LP Led Zeppelin, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Van Morrison after a liver-defenestrating Jack Daniel's bender.

Not-entirely subtle gospel undertones buttress many of First You Live's tunes, but by disc's end, they had even this atheist shouting, “Hallelujah!” (Banjo/lap-steel guitarist and singer/songwriter Edson Choi used to play in a gospel-rap group, and the lead singer's name is Kyle Divine, for Christ's sake.) The band's use of accordion, mandolin and banjo ensures that some unexpected eccentricity sneaks into Dusty Rhodes' lustrous bluster. Hell, these true believers could probably pull off a cover of “Free Bird” that wouldn't reek of mold. Do you believe in miracles?


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