Decisions, decisions… up to the very last minute, I can’t make up my mind whether I want to spend the night with Sub Pop (Obits, Red Red Meat, BBQ) or the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Ocean folks (Julie Doiron, Akron Family, BLK JKS). I’ve told people I’m going to the Mohawk for Secretly Canadian but I still pause for a minute in front of the long line at Radio Room and think about that fantastic Bunny Gets Paid reissue and sigh. Life is full of hard choices, and SXSW is full of life.
I end up at the Mohawk in time for Richard Swift, whose fourth solo full-length The Atlantic Ocean will be out on Secretly Canadian in April. Swift has a big funky band in tow, two guitars, bass, drums and himself on keyboards, and the sound bounces and bounds, good times to the core, with flashes of jazz, blues, doo-wop funk, and jam-band exuberance. (I write down “Nice, but a little Phish-y.”) Things turn soulful with the piano blues and soft, falsetto’d harmonies of “Lady Luck”, a silky, no-guitars venture into Motown territory.
Mount St. Helens Vietnam Band
Inside, Mount St. Helens Vietnam Band is donned matching flowered vests for its jittery pop set. This is sort of interesting—the band’s main singer, Benjamin Verdoes, is married to percussion/keyboarder Traci Eggleston-Verdoes and the drummer, Marshall Verdoes, is their adopted son. So, heads up all you bands out there with drummer problems: Just adopt one. The family connection, plus the matching outfits, gives the whole enterprise a vaguely Von Trapp Family Singers vibe, but it evaporates like Alpine dew as soon as the band gets going. This is nervy, sunny, jittery punk pop, pushed frantically for speed, then interspersed with lyrical, melodic intervals.
By the time Julie Doiron sets up, a pipe in the Mohawk’s ceiling has started to drip steadily, creating that difficult combination of water and electrical equipment. “It’s just water,” the venue’s guy assures her, after someone raised the question of sewage, but water is bad enough. Doiron’s a little rattled. She’s just changed a guitar string on a stool near the bar (with two Japanese teenagers videotaping the whole event), and now she thinks her guitar is “brutally out of tune.” She’s just like her music, though, fresh, natural, unpretentious, and so clearly a really nice person who doesn’t like to make trouble. She apologizes during nearly every song break, which isn’t necessary at all, she sounds fine, better than fine actually, in the full-rock mode of I Can Wonder What You’ve Done with Your Day.
The new album, out last month, is kind of a love letter to Fred Squire, her new romantic and musical partner, who is sitting at the drum kit behind her. “I was not built for this kind of lo-oo-oo-ve,” Doiron breathes into the mic, her voice unembellished with any kind of reverb or effect, but she is clearly happy and flourishing, looking to Squire for reassurance when anything goes even slightly wrong (and, even better, getting it). Her set includes lots from the new album, “Glad to Be Alive”, “Heavy Snow”, and others, and she gradually gets comfortable. For “Consolation Prize”, one of the album’s heaviest, most guitar-centric cuts, she says, “We’re going to try this,” then, “You know how it is when you’re recording and you write a song really quickly and it turns out great and then you don’t practice it?” Probably no one else in the audience “knows” any of this, but we nod, and the song sounds fine, Doiron’s soft singing in contrast to rackety, aggressive guitar chords, the rough and the smooth, the sweet and the bitter together. Her last song, she says, is from 2004’s Goodnight Nobody—and noticeably less upbeat than recent material. But she makes it rock and at the end she turns around to Squire and flashes him a big squinty smile… drips, broken strings, and all, she’s happy at last and in love.
Just a glimpse of Matthew Houck’s Phosphorescent from the balcony of the massively crowded outdoor stage, as he croons high and haunting tunes from his Willie Nelson tribute. The air on the patio is fine and soft, and he sounds great, but maybe it’s time to get a better spot for the next band?
That would be Foreign Born, out of San Francisco, a huge band, setting up racks of drums, keyboards, congas, guitars, and a bass on the stage inside. Sunny, high energy, vaguely tropical indie rock is the thing here, with shaken percussion all round, a syncopated, calypso low-end and island warmth and clarity in the guitars. Fun stuff, but not quite over the top into great.
If I were smarter, I would have left Foreign Born early to try to get a spot for BLK JKS, the super-hot township-reggae-art-fusion collective out of Johannesburg, South Africa. As it is, I’m way in the back, barely able to see, and only catch the frenzied, bass-thudding, hip-hop-punk-noise “Shark Attack”, with hundreds of bouncing, bobbing bodies between me and the stage.
Wising up, I stay in place for Akron/Family, one of my favorites since their soft-spoken self-titled, through their collaboration with Angels of Light and on to the latter day collective jazz-funk-rock-improv overload of upcoming Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free. The flag from the cover of that album, with a tie-dyed whorl where the stars should be, hangs briefly over the SXSW banner, but someone moves it. Artistic expression is okay, as it turns out, as long as it doesn’t block a sponsor’s logo. Foreigner, of all bands, is playing in the bumper music, and Seth and Miles strike a series of goofy guitar-hero poses, as the set-up finishes.
Let’s just say this up front: Akron/Family killed. They were the best show of the night—edging even a reunited Dinosaur Jr. and flat out demolishing everyone else. No breaks between songs, no real differentiation between songs, no pauses, no banter, just one continuous freakout that touched the highlights of their new record, easily their best, without slavishly replicating it. A bit of “River”, an exhilarating chant of “Higher Higher”, the percussion-mad long intro to “Everyone’s Guilty”, the plaintive campfire sing-along about hard years gone and better ones ahead—it was all there, all mixed and spliced and conjured into something else again, something living and breathing and dancing its ass away. (Mine is smaller today, I checked.) Do you know that feeling you get sometimes, that “I’m so glad I’m still alive so I can still go to shows and be blown away?” feeling? I was overcome by that feeling. It felt good.
I go upstairs to get some air, and I see Kyle from Witch and Feathers, and suddenly it clicks that the “secret guest” has to be Dinosaur Jr. “Is J playing?” I ask him, and he says yes, and so I go back downstairs to start getting a good spot. It’s pretty strange, but I’m wearing a shirt from a show in Northampton in 2006 where both Mascis and Barlow played sets separately, and even did a couple of songs together in a short reincarnation of Deep Wound. But I’ve never seen Dinosaur play, so that’s exciting. And then first Barlow, then Mascis wander onto stage and everybody knows, and all the sudden everyone is high fiving each other just for being there… it’s that kind of feeling. And rightly so, what a band, what a show.
More than 20 years on from their SST days in Western Mass, the three of them put on a searing, thundering performance, with songs from last year’s Beyond, but also “Sludgefeast” and “Tarpit” from You’re Living All Over Me, “Feel the Pain” from Without a Sound, “Freak Scene” from Bug, and “Out There” from Where You Been. Barlow is in full head-banging mode, stalking the stage and bouncing up and down with his bass, sensitive Sebadoh-guy subsumed in punk rock aggression. Mascis doesn’t do guitar face or poses, doesn’t move much at all in fact, except for his fingers, sliding up and down the fretboard, spinning high spiraling solos that lift you up and out of the turmoil. It’s a freakily volatile, exciting combination, the guitar bravado in the midst of the hard rush of punk, as monumental now as in the mid-1980s, and maybe more familiar but not in the least safe or tired. The Bishop Allen guys are slamming side to side in front of the stage. The members of Women push right up to the front after their set is over. One guy surfs the crowd. Everyone’s out of control, grinning stupid grins at their luck in being there.