Scheduling SXSW to coexist with St. Patrick’s Day is a faux pas of urban planning that’s nevertheless embraced as a good thing, like how a Red Sox day game complicates the city-crippling insanity of the Boston Marathon.
Tonight was unexpectedly disorienting. The swarms of St. Patrick’s revelers, mostly college students doused in all things green and liquored up like Scott Stapp at the airport, merged with the SXSW crowd. After acclimating myself to the festival’s demographic over the past few days, the introduction of a new group of crazed streetwalkers caught me off guard; I felt at times as if I had walked in the wrong direction and ended up in a part of town that was familiar yet newly foreign. I blame the shamrock infestation.
By this point in the week, musical pleasures were starting to blur into one long avalanche of meter, melody, and rhyme. My ears get a 10-minute rest on the hour, give or take, and after gorging myself on all the clubland prospects that don’t heed decibel bounds, I had fostered a head of indistinct ringing. As a result, it had become easier to simply take in act after act without stopping to really marvel at the distinct perfections and flaws that each had to offer, the sum of which makes this festival such an excessively rich anomaly in social design. Only now, in these after-the-fact recaps, have I tried to formulate some perspective and extract each experience from the night’s series of commotions.
Hometown: St Louis MO
Austin Music Hall 7:30pm
I scrambled down to the west side of the city to catch Bettye Lavette’s set at La Zona Rosa, hoping in part that my quest for some sweet soul music at SXSW would finally be rewarded following the previous night’s disappointment. When I breathlessly arrived 15 minutes late, Lavette had not yet begun not surprising given the club’s prior issues with time management. I waited another 10 minutes until a club employee walked on stage, shut off the amplifiers, and, as I took the first sip of my beer, announced that Lavette would not be appearing due to an unspecified “situation”. The entire club heaved a reluctant sigh of anticlimactic dismay and then immediately emptied out as everyone hustled to put Plan B into action.
I walked the one block down to the Austin Music Hall, where Living Things were opening the night’s showcase. The Music Hall is likely the festival’s largest venue, which has the unfortunate décor of an airport hanger. Very few people had gathered this early in the evening, so when Living Things strode onstage, they faced a pathetic hall of subjects. Their performance proceeded awkwardly and was rife with stylistic inconsistencies. The musicians seemed incapable of making their instruments coagulate into the hard rock fist that made their Ahead of the Lions record so kinetic; even the simplest thing, like wielding command over a basic yet vital guitar riff, sounded like a challenge that didn’t want to be met. Perhaps it was the lack of enthusiasm from the low-turnout crowd, the enormity of the space, or even the championing of appearance over substance (lead singer Lillian Berlin, dressed in a skin-tight white suit and cowboy hat, wasted most of his time indulging in Mick Jagger mannerisms), but whatever assault Living Things had planned to bring was limply blunted.
Hometown: Liverpool UK
Having played their official showcase the night before on a bill with Morrissey and Goldfrapp, the Zutons made a “special guest” club appearance that was only announced earlier in the day. This band is tailor-made for the intimate, inescapable confines of a club atmosphere, and their Liverpudlian flair contributed to this set’s rousing success. Admittedly, I was on the fence regarding their debut Who Killed the Zutons?, but there’s no question about the Zutons’ excellence when they’re caught in this particular situation. Their numerous musical allusions (Sly & the Family Stone, Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix) were downright incendiary when mustered, subconsciously seeping into the heads of all that stood watch, heads bobbing and midsections twisting. As they brought their brief set to a stirring close, it felt as if the Zutons could do this all night long, all this banging on the backbeat and taking us higher, and we wouldn’t even notice how time dragged on.
Bailey the Singing Dog
E. Sixth Street 9pm
As Terry Sawyer indicated in yesterday’s coverage, there are many other alternative “festivals” being held throughout the city, little Davids to SXSW’s Goliath, not to mention a plethora of street performers on accordions, penny whistles, turntables, and poorly tuned guitars. (If you came to Austin this week looking for peace of mind, fire your travel agent.)
I was eating a late “dinner” on the run in the middle of Sixth Street (a slice of cheese from a heavy metal pizza place, of all things) when I gravitated toward a crowd surrounding Bailey the Singing Dog and his two human companions. They were performing this sort of traveling show, wherein following a brief bit of pun-filled banter, the Golden Retriever would howl along to his human’s accordion accompaniment. I think they did “In a Gadda Da Vida” an abridged, ten-second version, but any dog that can kick out the Iron Butterfly jams is certainly preferable over the cover band that was ambling its way through “Peace Frog” two doors down.
Spider and the Webs
Hometown: Olympia WA
Friday, March 17—9:30 p.m.—Red 7 (611 E 7th St)
Olympia’s Spider and the Webs are a three-tiered flashback: first, to the adorable punk manifestations of the early ‘90s Pacific Northwest; second, to psychedelia’s eddying essence; and third, to the primal drive of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll. The effervescent trio jackhammered watusis and twists laced with squawking feedback and shoegaze white noise, yelped bubblegum pop with sharp tongues, and even attempted goofy dance moves while performing. They were instantly endearing, the kind of playful garage rock that gets cagey as soon as you get too comfortable, following up a cutesy siren’s call with an ear-splitting guitar battering.
Genre: Alt Country
Hometown: Brooklyn NY
Friday, March 17—11:00 p.m.—Antone’s (213 W 5th St)
Marah certainly brought the rock to the packed house at Antone’s, but there was an undeniably pervasive element of contrivance to it all. The band members’ fashion, first of all, was self-consciously working-class chic (fingerless gloves, floppy knitted hats, jackets with the sleeves rolled up), creating an uneasy impression that a style they had once worn for necessity was now spruced up to fulfill a manufactured image. That hard-working image was bluntly communicated through their hammy accentuation of every on-stage body movement; chords were hammered out with the kind of magnified attention-grabbing that unquestionably signaled that, yes, a rock band was playing and, yes, it was really breaking a sweat to give us 110% of the promised rockitude.
I don’t mean to sound too negative about Marah’s delivery, for there’s an innate contrivance behind any band’s performance; there was simply no need for them to work so hard to persuade us all of their dedication. They dug into their scraggy rock ‘n’ roll like excavators working in a trench of stone, and even older songs like “It’s Only Money, Tyrone” were treated to fresh interpretations. But with their feverish intensity came this expectation for us to respond in kind, as we were bombarded with repeated demands from the stage to applaud louder and longer all things we would have done anyways, maybe more so if their sincerity hadn’t been spiked with exaggeration.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
Hometown: Brooklyn NY
Friday, March 17—12:00 a.m.—Antone’s (213 W 5th St)
For sheer enjoyment, Sharon Jones reigned supreme. Her hot-buttered JBs funk, a riotous resuscitation of classic soul, was at once enchanting and liberating, setting free every last ass in the room not even the wallflowers, mighty-than-thous, or disillusioned could resist Jones’s sultry temptation. It was, without a doubt, the one showcase that every attendee at the festival shouldn’t have missed. After a brief warm-up, the Dap Kings, a rock-solid, impeccably dressed rhythm and horn section, welcomed Jones, who ripped through altogether infectious songs like “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” with the appetite of a believer who can visualize the path to transcendence and is determined to take everyone there. She did her thang over every inch of the stage, and not one eye in the house broke concentration for a full 45 minutes.
When she had to leave, our bodies still moving with total disregard for the duration of our collective dance or the fatigue suffered from a full day’s worth of walking and standing and waiting, Jones departed with a resounding emphasis. Every pair of hands in Antone’s were held high and riddled with motion, an ovation wrought by rapture and sustained until the last piece of equipment was torn down. It was the kind of moment that put everything back into focus, that cleared the excess holiday glaze from the day’s palette and, in the end, reinforced the week’s memorable inclinations.