The 400 mile drive from the bayou of Southern Louisiana to the desert oasis of Austin sweeps you through Anne Rice plantations and John Ford ghost towns to metro urban chic. Barreling west down I-10 through East Texas past Houston, the green of Louisiana rice and sugarcane fields slowly gives way to sunburnt, scrub-brushed prairie, long-horned steers, and silent ranch entrances. A turn onto North 71 and you pass through La Grange and other ghostly one gas station towns, sporadic markers of civilization. Even if the gasoline-powered trip from swamp to desert takes just six hours, the sights quickly teach you why Western lyrics are dominated by loneliness sheathed in ornately jeweled dreams. North 71 leads you through this barren yet fertile American legend and lore, until eventually the distant diamond of the Austin skyline sparkles on the horizon.
Despite its diamond status, modern Austin has been at war with itself for a decade. “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirts have dominated Sixth Street denizens and shop windows as locals battled corporate and mainstream infiltration of downtown businesses, nightlife, and music venues. During my early evening walk to Emo’s Alternative Lounge at Sixth Street’s far east end, the dance clubs seem empty and the pubs are filling. It seems downtown Austin is noticeably winning its battle. Emo’s, a supporter of original local and national acts, is a key link in the battle for the soul of Sixth Street. You won’t find any tourists or Stevie Ray Vaughn sound-a-likes here, and judging from the crowd I see gathered for the AA Bondy and Cold War Kids show, this is all to the good.
After a half hour of confusion over which line leads into Emo’s lounge and which leads to its outdoor concert area, the doors to Emo’s Outside open a few minutes before nine, and the sold out crowd pours into seventy-five yards of wooden-roofed concrete backyard. In the corner, a small stage is penned in by scuttle-butted cement floors, industrial iron lattice work and support poles, three tin-roofed bars, and Texas serial killer caricatures on plywood on brick, reminding you that iced beer, undisguised ironwork, and serial killers provide atmosphere as much as any sixty dollar sushi boat. The gathering crowd is all ages and is Austin at its egalitarian best.
For Louisiana native AA Bondy, Austin is a near return to roots. Bondy’s half-spoken baritone and Appalachian influenced indie-folk seem at home in Austin, even if he is an unlikely complement to the boom and chaos of Cold War Kids. I wonder if a lack of sonic force will be a problem in a venue with three well-stocked bars and a crowd that paid to see the headlining act. Around ten o’clock, my pondering receives small answer. The lanky, scruffy-haired Bondy walks on stage with his harmonica and acoustic guitar. Without a word, he blows a long sustained note on his harmonica, letting the note swell as he steps up to the microphone.
These are the opening notes of Bondy’s solo acoustic piece, “Witness Blues”. From my place on the sidelines, the extremely social crowd tests his volume with their own. By the second chorus, I’m fairly certain the crowd is winning. But as the song ends and Bondy’s band joins him on stage, the large middle section of the room lets loose a cheer. Emo’s, it seems, is big enough for both an attentive and an inattentive crowd.
Once his two-man band joins him, Bondy begins to lure the inattentive. But the trio’s first song, “There’s A Reason”, is slower than the first number and centers around a lazy two-note bounce stolen from traditional country. With only drums and bass in support of simple folk song structures, there is little call for frenetic or velvet guitar work. Two songs in, Bondy is showing signs that he has a limited bag of tricks to capture and hold the audience. The margins of the crowd, drinking, talking, and buying Cold War Kids shirts by the dozen, remain restless.
The restlessness eases when Bondy switches to electric guitar for the rest of the set. With a laidback folk demeanor, his habit of singing and slanting his guitar neck as if he is about to drive it into the ground helps give him a sharper presence in this mid-sized venue. As bass player Lawson Feltman switches from bass to keys and adds background vocals, and Bondy himself adds brief lead breaks, the folk textures begin to morph into more cutting tones reminiscent of an amped up Neil Young. The traditional title of his fourth tune, “John the Revelator”, cannot hide the band’s slow transition from folk to rock that finally grabs the talkative margins and begins to soak this Cold War Kids crowd with their rock ‘n’ roll wishes.
With the margins slowly being absorbed, I move to the energetic and focused center of the crowd. I’m standing about thirty yards from the stage, and things have solidified. You can no longer politely fight your way to the front. Bondy’s set list sounds less folk-influenced now. He has begun the airy chording of “Rapture (Sweet Rapture)”, with its brooding minor chords that could find a home in a modern rock or emo arrangement, if not for the lyrics. “Mary, you see that levy, it’s a-bound to break / So put the children in the boat,” Bondy sings, just as the band gives a few quick thumps and the song becomes a grinding honky-tonk equal to anything the Stones ground out on Exile on Main Street.
The second half of the ten song set reveals more energy and songwriting range. “Vice Rag” makes the best transition from acoustic finger-picking to rock. Its cascading guitar figure punctuated by a jaw-breaking thump every six measures lets drummer Nick Kinsey in on the fun. And the song’s refrain of “Sweet Sweet” cocaine, whiskey, and other vices is an easy catch for the Friday night crowd. People around me are trying to sing along by the third refrain.
Before closing with his signature number, “American Hearts”, Bondy and his band open things up during “Killed Myself When I Was Young”. When Bondy plays the number acoustic, the open-tuned, hard strummed song has a tragic feel somewhere between blues suffering and Springsteen’s modern American suicide. When electrified, “Killed Myself” foregoes lament and moves toward a pensive drone, letting Bondy’s vocals become grittier than normal. Tonight, the song lets the trio open up as well. They move out of the confining verse-chorus scenario of Bondy’s solo arrangements for a few minutes of feedback and bashing that, even if perhaps too well-conceived, still gives the crowd the unpredictability they had been craving.
The set closes with Bondy’s mid-tempo “American Hearts”, the title track of his album. “And the mothers will cry, father stay up all night, with the worry that goes to the bones,” Bondy sings, both observer and protestor. This position typifies Bondy—a musician weaned on folk influences who seems to find much of contemporary America not so different than folk America. The crowd, stymied by the song’s 3/4 rhythm and lack of a catch phrase, stick with Bondy, doing what they can, slowly swaying in place. One show from finishing his stint with Cold War Kids to headline the Midwest and Southeast, Bondy thanks the Kids and unassumingly leaves the stage.
Two hours later, Bondy and his band make a final appearance, jamming with Cold War Kids on the night’s final song, “St. John”. Afterwards, the crowd slowly leaks from the giant steel doors of Emo’s onto Austin’s Sixth Street. Inside Emo’s there was no need to worry about keeping Austin weird. But now, at one in the morning, a pandemic of Paris-Hilton-baby-doll-club-princesses parade up and down Sixth Street, two drunken polo-shirted frat boys decide to punch it out in the middle of the street, and electronica bleeds loudly from packed dance clubs. While Austin remains safely eclectic because of dedicated clubs like Emo’s Lounge and musically literate citizen crowds, it is hard to tell whether eclecticism is the main event or the noise on the fringe. I walk Sixth Street praying that Austin doesn’t remove the “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirts from their storefronts or chests just yet.