It’s a good thing the doom-forecasting Christian fundamentalists remembered they were in Texas when they made those signs about us SXSW-goers’ moral decrepitude. Everything is bigger in Texas, so yes, the detailed pictures of my probable life in heaven and hell were illustrated on the largest slabs that could be held up by human hands. They were impossible to miss, hoisted heavenward like tablets of fear in the heart of E. Sixth’s congested stream of people.
Gotta give them a hand, though: it takes a lot of self-righteousness to set up a soapbox shop in the middle of the street and preach to a multitude of tipsy hipsters with budding tinnitus. While some offended or just plain confrontational folks felt the need to stop and debate, most pedestrians ebbed and flowed around the not-so-intimidating attempt at intimidation, just another sight in the day’s sensory overload to gawk at, discuss, and ultimately forget.
With the arrival of Day Two came a noticeable swell in crowd sizes, which is likely why the tourist-preying opportunists came flocking to protest. It was also muggier than the day before, rendering the excruciatingly long lines for high-profile shows like Neko Case and Morrissey as exceedingly unwanted adventures with nothing to gain. The non-participating denizens of Austin those who prickle at the festival’s week-long invasion no doubt shake their heads at what can appear to be one futile waiting game after another. “I just can’t imagine the stamina some of you must have,” my jaded Austinite cabbie said during tonight’s late ride home. Marveling at my own, I had to agree.
Hometown: Charlotte NC
Thursday, March 16—7:45 p.m.—La Zona Rosa (612 W 4th St)
We’ve all seen the ostentatious configurations that pass as R&B bands these days, backing up big names like Alicia Keys and Destiny’s Child on television award shows. Multiple tiers of synthesizers, bass players who live in a fantasy world of early ‘80s fusion, and drum kits that taunt Neil Peart in his wildest dreams have seemingly left the economic and robust combos of decades past drowning in their gaudy wake. It’s one thing to see these spectacles of bad taste on television, in the greater context of pop culture’s embrace of overkill, but to witness them in person really drives home the synthetic state of contemporary soul music.
It’s not Anthony Hamilton‘s fault that his band lays on the virtuosic fireworks thick; sure, he may have hired them, may have even encouraged their glitzy display of the Tonight Show Band aesthetic, but his own talent remains raw and inciting. He prowled the big stage at La Zona Rosa with his heart bursting through his vocal cords. His band, on the other hand, constantly made unforgivable creative choices, molesting the myriad drum toms and cymbals, coaxing Yanni-isms from one synthesizer and even playing a saxophone solo on another. (Just in case you skimmed that last sentence: fake sax solos are not acceptable. Ever.) Listen, y’all, this is soul music, not Blade Runner and not They Might Be Giants. How about, at the very least, a real horn section? Hamilton (whose thunder, incidentally, was briefly stolen by one of his wickedly passionate backup singers) was poised for a takeover, but lacked the support to make it all the way.
South Austin Jug Band
Hometown: Austin TX
Thursday, March 16—9:00 p.m.—Cedar Street Courtyard (208 W 4th St)
Talk about night and day: the South Austin Jug Band‘s organic instrumentation (two acoustic guitars, stand-up bass, fiddle, and mandolin) was the exact opposite of Hamilton’s. The Cedar Street Courtyard, a tiny recessed area nestled below street level, was the perfect environment for the group’s cozy bluegrass. It was the first showcase I had been to that didn’t feel like an appropriation of the local community. In a sense, it was like a friendly gathering in someone’s backyard: people danced up front, hollered from the rear, and made as much appreciative noise as was necessary to inform the band they were having an equally good time. The award-winning group relied more on its instrumental expertise than intricate vocal harmonization, including swift fiddle duels and sprightly mandolin runs. I’m lobbying for a steel cage match between them and Nickel Creek before the end of the weekend.
Hometown: Denver CO
Thursday, March 16—10:00 p.m.—The Velvet Spade Patio (912 Red River St)
Atop the Velvet Spade’s roof deck of sorts, DeVotchKa was ambiance incarnate. It seemed to have such powers of invocation by virtue of being that much closer to the stars. As the nighttime air lost a little more of its humidity, DeVotchKa’s folk-based and inherently mystical Eastern European flavors were wrangled, via accordion and red Christmas lights-laced tuba, into something resembling a patient rock combo. It felt like some exclusive cocktail party (the Patio’s tiny space, crammed with people, gave the illusion of a huge crowd) presided over by well-dressed critical thinkers and conceptual activists. A little exotic, a little pretentious, a little groovy: music at higher altitudes isn’t dizzying, just unusual.
Hometown: Seattle WA
Thursday, March 16 10:00 p.m.—Emo’s Jr.—(603 Red River St)
David Bazan, formerly of Pedro the Lion, has one of those rabid indie followings that see him through and forgive him everything. They were out in droves tonight, lining up in impatient anticipation outside and transfixed by Bazan’s new synth-and-drums duo project inside. Bazan looked like he was the least happy to be there, one hand planted frumpily inside his jacket while the other hand begrudgingly fiddled with the small keyboards in front of him. The whipsmart kick of the sparse drum kit worked furiously to make the downer duo perk up, but it was a worthless endeavor. Headphones’ music looked absolutely miserable to play, and as a result, was at least half as miserable to watch.
Hometown: Seattle WA
Thursday, March 16—11:00 p.m.—Emo’s Jr. (603 Red River St)
Crystal Skulls put on the kind of electric, buzzworthy performance that, in a perfect world, would land their name on the lips of this entire town. It’s clichéd to say, but the young Seattle band played to a half-filled Emo’s Jr. as if it were a most momentous night in front of a mass of elated bodies. They navigated their way through the blocky, serrated terrain of challenging chord progressions with the slightest hint of effort, roughening up the smooth exterior of songs from last year’s overlooked Blocked Numbers. Even stouter were songs from the band’s upcoming sophomore record, which have a more meat-and-potato structural basis and, perhaps, a more immediate live payoff. “Baby Boy”, in particular, was forcefully delivered with a straightforwardness that some of their first songs only danced around. As a live act, Crystal Skulls actually complement their recorded work by scuffing the edges of their ‘70s AM-friendly, ambiguously indifferent rock. Anyone who was lucky enough to catch them knows exactly what I’m talking about; everyone else can start their jealousy motors… now.
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Genre: Alt Country
Hometown: Hendersonville TN
Thursday, March 16—11:00 p.m.—Antone’s (213 W 5th St)
If you really wanted to feel the Texas vibe, Antone’s was the place to be tonight. Engulfed in a sea of tattoos and ten-gallon hats, we were all one Patrick Swayze away from some serious Roadhouse action. Marty Stuart‘s band ripped the roof off the joint with the kind of exquisitely polished contemporary country music that has its heart in the old school. That trad-country connection was made even clearer by the covers of Johnny Cash and Pops Staples songs, the latter sung a cappella by all four band members around one microphone. When he had rocked himself to contentment, Stuart strapped on a mandolin and produced a one-man cyclone of jaw-dropping speed. Completely deserving of its showiness, this was the kind of stuff you dream about being greeted with when stepping in from out in the street.
Hometown: Maui HI
Thursday, March 16—12:00 a.m.—La Zona Rosa (612 W 4th St)
Earlier in the evening, there was a certain domesticated faction of Kris Kristofferson‘s fan base that had emerged from comfortable living rooms: these were some of the unlikely festival attendees who, as early as 7pm, were lining up outside La Zona Rosa to purchase tickets for Kristofferson’s 12am acoustic performance. When Kristofferson took the stage, however, the audience had a much more visible concentration of the intrigued, those who were drawn by the magnetism of his celebrity. They populated the perimeter of the embedded crowd, brought there by his association with the outlaw country sect or maybe his role as Whistler in the Blade movies, promptly lost interest, and started up a multitude of time-killing conversations. Every once in a while, some of them would reconnect with the performance by attempting to express some kind of solidarity with Kristofferson’s ideology; a gaggle of grown men spread throughout the room would respond to any anti-authoritarian line (e.g. “don’t let the bastards get you down”) with a Bud Lite-lubed “WOOOOOOOOO”.
Granted, you can’t really blame them for losing whatever interest they had. The promise of a Kris Kristofferson appearance wasn’t exactly upheld by the actual performance. There’s a reason Kristofferson’s known as a songwriter first and foremost: as a performer, he’s distant and bland, injecting his songs with very little charisma. Though he came off as joyful and contented, he seemed to merely offer up the songs as inflexible showpieces, not malleable, lived-in entities. So when I say, “I saw Kris Kristofferson at SXSW”, I mean that in the most literal sense the man was there, as were his songs, but neither succeeded in moving me.
Genre: Alt Country
Hometown: Athens GA
Thursday, March 16—1:00 a.m.—La Zona Rosa (612 W 4th St)
The efficiency of SXSW’s on-the-hour scheduling system was briefly compromised due to an overly meticulous road crew scrambling back and forth across an unprepared stage post-Kristofferson. Not exactly something you want to wait through after hours of standing, walking, and waiting. As a result, the Drive-By Truckers didn’t appear until nearly 40 minutes after they were scheduled to. They immediately released the proverbial hounds, unleashing their three-guitar wall of sound on an audience desperate for something visceral to reawaken their deflating buzz. Their set was a nuance-destroying attack of muddy, minor-key strums, exemplified in steamrolling thunderclaps like “Never Gonna Change”. The force of it was exhilarating, as was the band’s infectious enthusiasm, but the mix was so clogged with noise and intensity that it eventually overtook the music that was being played.
The organization of SXSW is such that audiences are allowed to stand watch as bands assemble and disassemble their equipment and stumble through soundchecks—a prosaic element of the festival, of course, but an important one that renders the dividing curtain between performer and spectator meaningless. The Truckers’ set, like other late-night sets by big-name artists, disregarded those shared moments and felt more like just another tour stop in just another town. I didn’t feel cheated, but I realized for the first time, at nearly 2am, that the night’s intimacy had been slowly wearing thin to make way for bigger things.