[17 March 2006]
Within 15 minutes, I had a personal invitation to visit her ranch for some horseback riding. Next time I’m in town, when I’m not busy with this festival madness. Here’s the number. Though a 900-pound horse once broke her foot, there’s no reason to be frightened: they’re gentle creatures who respond to your telegraphed compassion and commands. A friend once told her that a horse walked her into a tree. No honey, she replied, you walked that horse into the tree.
So this is Austin: where even the cab drivers are instant acquaintances. The welcoming thing about hospitality is that it’s easy to relearn how to accept it, how to sort of tumble back into its waiting graciousness.
You can’t blame the city if, by the end of this week, its otherwise hospitable patience wears a bit thin. It’s only Wednesday, but the SXSW presence is a palpable strain on Austin’s carefree atmosphere. The local traffic is snarled through major and non-major intersections alike, held up by pedestrians with festival lanyards draped over their necks; every other doorway on every downtown street throbs under an attempt to withhold the noise being made within. It seems Austin both lives for and buckles under this prolonged moment.
I ended up at Emo’s afternoon party while post-disappointment wandering; I had come from an arduous wait in line for the Levi’s/Fader party, which was positively swelling with people by mid-day. On Emo’s outdoor stage, Shearwater was knee-deep in near-spiritual apocalyptic folk, led by banjo, upright bass, and a lead singer who looked like a possessed hybrid of Britt Daniel and Ted Leo. It was uneasy music for a Wednesday afternoon, these folk hymns scared up and bespoke into some kind of almost-pop séance. The crowd responded in kind, hapless victim to the Appalachia-via-Manchester theatricality that Shearwater convincingly delivered.
Scott H. Biram was conjuring swirls of psycho-billy dust when I arrived at the Tap Room, a venue somewhat off the beaten path of the central SXSW insanity. A small, enthusiastic crowd had assembled around the bar, heads bobbing to the strict 4/4 beat he pounded with his foot while viciously attacking a guitar and howling through a distorted microphone. At one point he lobbied, through his thick woodsman-esque beard, for “a hallelujah and all that bullshit”. Ambiguous belief? Perhaps so, but fanatically played.
The tiny collection of people got even tinier as soon as the Moaners took over, an unfortunate reality that didn’t go unnoticed by the bluesy duo: “There’s too many people,” singer-guitarist Melissa Swingle drawled in her Lucinda-Williams-with-a-tongue-shot-of-Novacaine voice during the chorus of “Too Many People”, and then cheerily added, “Not here!” Swingle, who hid her face behind a low-slung camouflage trucker’s cap, and drummer Laura King, in Mitch Mitchell fill-laden ecstasy, plowed through a hefty set of songs from last year’s excellent Dark Snack despite the low turnout.
Austin trio Oh, Beast! has the kind of instinctual quirk that can’t be manufactured: colicky and rough like a pre-polished Modest Mouse or Wolf Parade. They roused the small crowd at the Molotov Lounge to attention through their instrumental diligence. Their music, announced with a tongue-in-cheek superiority, is punkish math rock, if math were a furious science full of glass shards and loopy intimidation. The songs were spiked with frenzied fret dances and convulsive shudders; lyrics were more like harmonized hoots, hollers, grunts and grumbles than linear choral statements. Somewhere a gang of rag-tag post-punk Muppets, perhaps cloth-and-stitch doppelgangers, are holding their fuzzy fists to the sky, teeth clenched, crying foul.
The only thing weirder was the follow-up act: Gretchen Phillips, a Camille Paglia lookalike in a gray business suit hastily navigating a Gibson SG guitar. Her band included a guy on melodica and a drummer who looked like he stepped off the Rusted Root tour bus. Does SXSW allow the Austin public school faculty to play the showcases? I am not making this up.
This is, in a nutshell, how I was unfortunately subjected to the painful mediocrity of Amos Lee and how technology, which I had cursed earlier in the day, came to my rescue like some deus ex machina. My intentions were good: go see the possibly triumphant return of World Party at 11pm, a risky proposition which nonetheless wielded some nostalgic interest. I got to Exodus an hour early, thinking I’d beat the rush, find myself a little 5x5 plot of the club to call my own, and get ready to experience the wistfulness of a collective audience reliving the ‘80s.
I barely made it through the front door before the place reached capacity. It was teeming with people inside. Lee began as soon as I sandwiched myself between guys wearing Citizen Cope t-shirts and girls who actually go out in public with guys in Citizen Cope t-shirts. Some underage kids sneaking some contraband hooch with conspicuous X-marked hands were raving that this inoffensive music was like religion or something. That did not bode well. These people were ravenous for Lee’s middling material. They had all hoped and wished and prayed that their visit to SXSW would be blessed with something akin to Jack Johnson averageness, and here, in the flesh, was their reward. They came all the way to Austin, these halfway-to-a-blackout girls singing along to every other word and the burly men who held them up, patiently waiting for their intoxicated invitation to commence groping, for this. (Seriously, I’m not looking to offend a cross-section of the Lee crowd, but the opportunistic horndogs seemed congregated together at Exodus.)
I couldn’t stand it. I felt like Charlton Heston in a sea of Soylent Green deniers: as they all swooned to the sound of their brains getting smaller, I suppressed the urge to shout out life-saving directions to the nearest exit. Claustrophobia set in, followed by a mild panic attack, a minor existential crisis, and inevitable humiliation. Dear God, what if the world were to end right at this moment and my final experience on this planet was Amos Lee? An unacceptable scenario, but wholly realistic, since fate is cruel like that. I’d like to think that my friends and family would treat my remembrance to a layer of thinly veiled embarrassment, like a priest who dies in a hooker’s bed.
Even if I hadn’t another place to go, I would have eventually summoned the courage to escape, even if it was to the crowded, event-less street, that I would have finally come to the realization that World Party just wasn’t worth another 40 minutes of torture. It was my cell phone that saved me, vibrating inside my jeans’ pocket; earlier that day, I had spoken ill of the mobile text updates I had signed up for, as they weren’t providing truly useful information, but this one was different: “Flaming Lips 11p Fox and Hound”. As another wave of rapturous applause erupted, I elbowed my way out to the street, leaving the masses to their precious mediocrity.
The scene at the Fox and Hound was borderline hysterical; the Lips had, until recently that evening, been the “Special Guests” on the club’s roster and now a throng of people scrambled to get inside the gate and under the tent. There was a genuine excitement in the air, a communicable acknowledgment that one of those whispered secrets had finally been revealed, and here we were, all having managed to haul our asses down to an outdoor tent where it would unfold.
The Lips stormed out of the gate with a colossal rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a thunderous hunk of momentum complete with the expected assortment of audience stimulants: balloons, fog machines, confetti, strobe lights. The crowd devoured it all, singing along at the top of its lungs, reaching out to touch the tangible good vibes that emanated forth at lead singer Wayne Coyne’s command. They continued to transfix us through an hour-long set that included euphoric sing-a-longs like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” as well as raucous new songs like “Free Radicals”, from their upcoming At War With the Mystics. In the end, it was unique and memorable as only the Lips could make it: Coyne brought a guy up on stage to propose to his girlfriend, indulged in an instrumental jam that hinged on cow moos and duck calls, and then, for an unexpected encore, welcomed a caped Peaches and her dancers, who led the band through a devastating cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”.
I spilled onto Guadalope with the majority of the crowd, experiencing honest-to-goodness euphoria from the Lips’ performance. It felt vindicating, in a way, this obvious festival highlight so early in the week after a less-than-promising start to the evening’s main event. It was raining lightly by then, the skies finally conceding after threatening all day with overcast pregnancy. Downtown, the pedestrian-only portion of E. Sixth was saturated with nightcrawlers. Music shot from windows and doors and dissipated into the misty air. Everyone seemed to be getting their something. I suppose I had found mine, but now my feet hurt. Above E. Sixth’s collective noise, I heard a bed calling my name.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/lundy-060317/