[20 March 2006]
As I was bumped from behind for the umpteenth time around 1am this morning, I succumbed to a premature longing for this whole business of courtesy-deprived social approximation. For days I had tried to deaden myself to the inevitable rudeness associated with mass maneuvers through dimly-lit, tightly-packed clubs. Now, as I took one last glance at the band playing the tiny stage at Maggie Mae’s and felt the familiar brush of cold contact on my back, I couldn’t help but experience the brief pang of farewell. Goodbye, inescapable crowdedness.
For some, this past week has been a fantasy, a sort of Magical Musical Kingdom full of wildest-dream sensory overloads; for others, it’s been an endurance test, a chance to find out just how much music they can subject themselves to like Nathan’s champions with hot dog bellies. I suppose I was transfixed most by the spectacle of it all, the tangible transformation of the heart of a city through the introduction of likeminded thrillseekers. It was a sight to see, to feel, to walk through, and, in lucky moments, marvel at a sight that, whether one considers it too big, exclusive, or commercial for its once-humble britches, attracted a helluva crowd, like all good things do.
It was 5pm and it felt too early for the kind of show the Ark was determined to deliver. Seeing lead singer Ola Salo waltz into Emo’s wearing nothing below the belt save shiny tighty-whiteys and white nylons signaled an on-deck decadence usually reserved for post-sundown festivities. They played as if we were 10,000 people, not 100: barely one verse into “Clamor for Glamour”, Salo had liberated himself from the stage, dancing on tabletops and grinding wooden columns in the middle of the club. Even in a tiny space, the Ark is delightfully exaggerated, its lavish embrace of tongue-in-cheek glam rock acknowledging the irony while not playing down to it. Already big in its native Sweden and poised to release its stunning new album State of the Ark in the US next month, the Ark could be a long-overdue sensation in 2006. Judging by its SXSW presence (at last count, a total of four official showcases), there’s a very strong chance that everyone at Emo’s this afternoon was very, very lucky. Next time they’re here, expect to be watching from the nosebleeds.
Acoustic shows were a difficult prospect for performers given SXSW’s meet-and-greet networking scene. Lower volumes in bars and clubs, especially at night, allowed people with discourteous dispositions the opportunity to answer cell phones or chat up the so-and-so standing next to them. Not much could be done if you weren’t close enough to the stage in these kinds of situations from the get-go, it was obvious that, for many, it’s more important to simply make an appearance than it is to pay attention.
Despite the pervasive low murmurs and random bustling, Richard Hawley‘s acoustic set was marked by a distinguished poise and dreamlike softness. His refined sense of melody and temperate delivery avoided the all-too-often trappings of singer-songwriterly indulgence. Hawley’s tone was buttoned-down but passionate, the definition of elegance armed with an acoustic guitar. At one point he mentioned his need to read from written song lyrics due to an over-infatuation with acid during younger years, and although it attracted a bit of laughter, it also served a telling point: Hawley may write from a place of instinctual inspiration, but onstage he dedicated himself to a practical pace.
The outdoor stage at Stubb’s was one venue that felt too big, like an altogether separate summer lawn show for the names that couldn’t possibly fit inside a club. How Rhett Miller has become one of those “names” isn’t quite clear, but a show at his hometown certainly drew a sizeable crowd. Miller’s cowpunk style has been battered into drab AOR both on record and live; his band was so pristine and spit-shined, I’m surprised the locals didn’t rise up in revolt. The stage was inundated with microphones, generating appallingly unfaithful instrument tones that were carried and phased by the wind. A small group of label employees, chain smoking while utterly disregarding their performing commodity, discussed Miller’s success in terms befitting a day trader’s meeting. I’m no expert, but I think I can spot cause and effect here.
The frenzied SXSW atmosphere did not apply to the Central Presbyterian Church, one of the funkiest and most unexpected of official festival locations. The audience’s deference for the location, reminded as it was by the giant cross affixed to the wall behind the band, offered the most respectful performance environment in the span of downtown.
It was a perfect environment for Ollabelle, whose gospel-loaded, backbeat-heavy folk fit the church like a groovy glove. Songs like “John the Revelator” acquired an even heavier spiritual emphasis within the sanctuary walls, which thickened the rich vocal harmonies and instrumentation with dense reverberation. All preoccupations with buzz and scene and business and industry were collectively forgotten during this particular hour; not only was the change of pace refreshing, but so was the indifference towards the madhouse that continued to rage on not even two blocks away.
The Deathray Davies required a few songs to settle into a comfortable groove. Soon enough, they were racing through their minimalist psych-spiked invocations of ‘60s British Invasion. Whirling pools of simple melodic motifs sang in fuzzy overdrive, needled on by the band’s energetic approach to sustained, mid-tempo power pop. The bar’s shoddy light system was an unpredicted benefit for the band, shrouding half of its members in shadow or deep red hues a druggy insinuation of hypnotic rock with druggy tendencies. The most impressive aspect of the Davies’ commanding, ragtag stage presence was how they were able to match the wired rigor of a bar band with the free associations of a more experimental outfit.
I’m not so sure I understand exactly what happened at Mystery Jets’ showcase. The amount of time it took for them to set up suggested they were assembling some kind of Frankensteinian time machine, when in fact it was just a complex set of synthesizer and percussion rigs that the English band put to dissonant, proggy use. There were a number of contradictions occurring all at once on Maggie Mae’s exceedingly small stage: an older George Martin-looking gentlemen played electric guitar alongside much younger bandmates; aggressive drums and bass pummeled alongside gentler sci-fi keyboard tones. Mystery Jets’ songs were knotty and regularly unstable, fluctuating between accessible and inaccessible in a manner befitting the victim of an identity crisis.
It felt just as knotty observing the band work its way through the convoluted compositions. This wasn’t a band necessarily having a good time; rather, it was a series of serious-looking fellows working out long division. The crowd shared a similar resistance to Mystery Jets’ lacking approachability. Bodies came and went like an oscillating enclave pondering long-term commitment if satisfaction didn’t rule Maggie Mae’s in this instance, surely challenge and intrigue did.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/lundy-060320/