Photos: Jennifer Kelly
After a long, ultimately fruitless wait for a table at Nuevo Leon, I am again faced with the choice between food and music. Guess which I choose?
That’s right. Fuck tacos, Kurt Vile is on at Mrs. Bea’s. As I excuse myself I am trying to explain to my dinner companions who I want to see, and they think I’m checking out Kurt Weill, you know, the Threepenny Opera guy, who is, I think, fairly dead by now. No, no, no, this particular Kurt Vile is a sometime participant in War Against Drugs greatness, and also has his own pretty fantastic album, Constant Hitmaker out on the Gulcher label. He is, at the moment, of some interest to at least three big indie labels, so you may be hearing more about the guy later. For now, let us just say that he is a slight, shy fellow, with his hair falling down over his eyes, who somehow manages to evoke the lo-fi purity of New Zealand bands like the Clean as well as larger scale Dylan-into-Springsteen Americana anthemic-ness. He is digging into the slanted epic expansiveness of “Freak Train”, when I arrive, a long jammed-out track with just a hint of California country psych from his upcoming Childish Prodigy. His bass player switches to harmonica for “Freeway”, my favorite of all his songs, his drummer is hitting the toms with the open palm of one hand, the other shaking a maraca. It is, as the name implies, a breezy, endless highway, wind through the open windows kind of song, full of that relentless optimism that comes with starting over, and Vile’s guitar, a wooden Les Paul, arches through its shimmery textures like a rainbow after a long storm. He switches to a flower-engraved Ensenada 12-string for the next song, whose title I can’t catch, coaxing a shivery, ghostly tone from it that is a little bit blues, a little bit folk.
caUSE co-MOTION sets up almost immediately after Vile, and I have to say, their album It’s Time, a collection of singles, left me a little bit cold. It seemed like a fairly pale rehash of a lot of things from 1978 - 1981… the Clash, Fire Engines, English Beat, etc…. and without any really memorable songs. I like the show a whole lot more than the record, though, because they are working their songs so very hard. The bass player, in particular, is all over the place, doing the leaps and kicks and lunges that, like MSG, make everything taste a little sharper. The drummer plays a short-order kit, no bass drum, just snare, cymbal and floor tom, getting the most of out it, though with frantic, marching-band-on-speed snare fills, sticks bouncing straight up to perpendicular with the impact. The singing is laconic, flat and stream-of-conscious, classic first-wave punk to the core, but feeling less like an imitation, more like a personal style in the live context. As in much of late 1970s punk, there’s something vaguely ska-ish about the guitars, which sting and chime in a trebly upper register. And here’s the thing, I thought the songs weren’t that memorable, but I remember a whole bunch of them, “Which Way Is Up” with its left-turn triplet break, the razor-y jangle of “This Just Won’t Last”, the summer-y angst of “This Time Next Year”. This band is better than I thought, and way, way, way better live than on the record.
Psychedelic Horseshit is the kind of band that, even if I knew nothing else about them, I would go see just for the name. In this case, though, there’s a lot more to love than the band name, especially if you like that grimy, diesel-fueled punk rock that sounds like the Fall recorded in someone’s shower stall—with the water on. Some of the band members are wearing hand-markered T-shirts that read “Wavves Suxx”, a double consonant eddig at the one-man garage phenom receiving inexplicable love from the blog world. (Wavves is playing later at the same party, but I’ve heard so many people trash him by that point, that I leave beforehand.) “I Fucking Hate the Beach” says the singer, maybe a song title, maybe a statement of purpose, but in any case, the beginning of the kind of mayhem where amps and cymbal stands fall like dominoes and everybody keeps going. Another song is said to be called “We’re Pink Floyd Bitch”, is played from a guitar held together with hope and duct tape, from which sudden flares of wah emerge from something between a drone and a rant. Then they play my favorite, “Rather Dull” just as chaotic and fine as on the record, and maybe a little better sound, and it’s over.
Blank Dogs is another band I mean to see before I go home, just missed him a couple of days ago at Beerland, but bought On Two Sides at the table anyway. It’s super fun, echo-distorted, keyboard-heavy, post-punk, more synthetic and along the lines of Joy Division or Echo and the Bunnyman than say, the Fall or Gang of Four. It’s getting pretty packed by now, and I have to slither a little to get close enough for a photo. Mr. Blank Dog is reverbed to the max, his voice echoing like a horror movie soundtrack. He plays a few songs, ending with a really great version of “Leaving the Light On”, and then something technical goes wrong and the set is cut short.
That means it’s time for the Ohsees, John Dwyer’s current band (old ones include Pink and Brown, Hospitals and the Coachwhips) out of San Francisco, who totally kill, absolutely the best band of the night. Ohsees started out as kind of a lo-fi blues-folk taping project, much mellower than Coachwhips (almost everything is somewhat mellower than Coachwhips, but this was really toned down). It has evidently evolved into something much more garage-y and hard-rocking. Dwyer is typically, maniacally charming, switching between at least three well-worn guitars, biting down hard on the mic, jumping and twitching and yowling a punk rock blues, trading cracks in reverb-echoed god-voice with Todd P. and generally tearing the shit out of his tunes. For the last song, he invites Kyle from the Fresh and Onlys (also Ty Segall’s drummer on Wednesday) up and sets a two-man drum train, for a monster-chugging, amp-damaged, blues-rock frenzy… fantastic stuff.
Eat Skull plays next, if anything even better than on Wednesday, the sound sharper so that you can actually hear the words. The singer, Rob Enbom (like Dwyer , ex- of Hospitals), has twisted his ankle, and so performs the whole set sitting on the floor, but it doesn’t seem to slow things down much. In fact the fuzz has cleared a little, and I am getting, for the first time, a little whiff of the Sex Pistols out of this band. Another great set, and by this time, the whole backyard, plus the empty lot next door, plus the parking lot behind the stage, are full of kids, some sitting on top of their cars, some hanging out of trees, some climbing onto the railings around the stage, to hear the music. It’s like a punk rock Woodstock, without the mud, but plenty of broken glass to step over, watch your step.
Woods has, by this time, set up on the concrete below the stage. They play a set of mostly fairly ethereal psychedelic pop, with high eerie harmonies and dense New Zealand lo-fi guitars. Then right at the end, they all switch instruments, and the sound turns totally punk.
Crystal Stilts comes next, a band whose full-length Alight of Night I’ve enjoyed a lot, but I’ve heard, over and over, that they are not very good live, and they are truly not. A muddy wash laps over their slacked-out, early 1980s sound, a drone so dense that you can hardly tell the songs apart. I move closer to the stage and further away, trying to find a spot where I can hear, but it’s all just a mess. Getting colder all the time, too, and I’ve dressed for mid-1980s sunshine. Wavves is coming on next, and after that, No Age, but it’s too crowded to see much anymore, and I wander off, thinking vaguely of checking what’s at Beerland. Once I get there, though, exhaustion and overload takes over, and I hail a cab home. Hate to end on a down note, but there it is, my final band at SXSW 2009.