Third Eye Blind Returns Recharged at SXSW

My god, Stephan Jenkins is so fucking hateable.

His strut. His ego. His ageless face. His constant gesturing to the crowd. His screeching howl that is the pop music equivalent of fingernails connecting with a chalkboard. His San Francisco accent. His smug smile. His insistence on keeping his leather jacket zipped only halfway, as though he was guest-starring on an episode of Happy Days. His slanted microphone stand that doubles as a stage prop. His inability to keep the same band not just between records, but tours.

One look at him Friday night prancing around on the Pandora Porch during the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, and you’d agree: The leader of the cult that has become Third Eye Blind has a whole gallon of Kool-Aid for you to drink, and even if you don’t like the taste, he’ll be quick to make sure that not a drop has been left behind.

It’s intoxicating, really. No matter how hard you try to reject the opening acoustic guitar chords of “Jumper” or the bubble gum refrain of “Never Let You Go”, there is something about each movement of his that ends up somehow being both obnoxious and addicting. Just ask the throngs of people who turned up for his band’s performance that inevitably forced the Austin police department to shut the entire operation down.

And just think — the boys in blue probably weren’t even within blocks when Jenkins and his merry band of followers kicked into “Narcolepsy” to begin their remarkably concise set 45 minutes prior.

It was indicative of what Third Eye Blind has become in recent years: A ‘90s pop band that is one of the very few acts from the era still standing and beloved unironically. How it got this way is anybody’s guess. There has always been a level of introspection within Jenkins’ work that isn’t common among chart-toppers, but even so, the staying power of what has essentially become a solo venture masked under the TEB moniker is unprecedented at worst and fascinating at best. Four studio albums in a little more than 15 years isn’t exactly the most reliable way to keep your fan base intact, yet for every one-off show or tease to a new record that never seems to actually exist, the guy’s admirers refuse to waver in their affection for him and his artistry.

This was reiterated in a somewhat breathtaking manner as everyone from hipsters to soccer moms gathered to profess their love Friday night by yelling each word to nearly every song, save for the completely unexpected performances of three – yes, three! – brand new tracks that Jenkins claimed “may or may not be on the record.” Actually, the previously unheard tunes blasting through the speakers weren’t the only moments of change the group offered up — a spot on the left side of the stage was reserved for a keyboard/organ, breaking from the traditional quartet look to which the group’s leader has stayed true over the years, regardless of how many hired guns he could bring to the party.

Of all the acts that appeared throughout the week’s festivities who saw their most profitable years climax in the mid-1990s or early-2000s, none felt nearly as triumphant as Third Eye Blind. The display was a testament to the appeal of Stephan Jenkins. Part of why he’s so detestable is his massive ego. The way he trots around, exuding the confidence of a guy who believes he just penned “A Day in the Life” rather than a song about a semi-charmed one, is so endearingly annoying that you can’t help but buy into it by the time his wide smile flashes those picturesque teeth for the set’s final instance.

More improbable, however, was the organic nature of the unforgettable scene that formulated as Austin’s finest told the group to wrap it up. It felt like the culmination of a project that has found perfection at times by using, and subsequently building from, its flaws. That precise concentration on contradiction has made Third Eye Blind such a curious case over the years. All told, you probably couldn’t find five logical reasons why it’s still fashionable to be a fan of the “How’s It Going To Be” lads while such mid-90s peers as, say, Matchbox Twenty or the Goo Goo Dolls couldn’t even imagine being embraced so warmly by so many different sects of music fans in 2013, let alone playing a showcase at South By Southwest.

But, lo and behold, nearly 16 years to the day after that self-titled debut hit record store shelves in April of 1997, Stephan Jenkins was still able to deliver the goods this week in part because of how well he continues to play the part of Stephan Jenkins. I still have no idea why I can’t get enough of that cocky, egomaniacal former-but-not-still pop star jerk, but that doesn’t make his band’s live show any less interesting or his musical output any less desirable. All that really means is that I have no idea what any of it means.

“Hello, Austin, Texas,” the lead singer said early in his band’s set. “We’re a brand new band from San Francisco called Third Eye Blind.”

Some of the crowd laughed. Some of the crowd ignored him. Some of the crowd cheered. Some of the crowd yelled for the next song. None of it mattered.

Because as this brand new band proved at 2013’s South By Southwest, personal affection or personal hatred or personal perception means nothing to anybody as long as the sum of those sometimes fucking hateable parts can draw an audience. And, if nothing else, Stephan Jenkins and Third Eye Blind proved Friday night that even after all the years and all the obnoxious antics and all the delayed album releases and all the interchangeable band members and all the overly confident stage tricks and all the high-pitched screams and all the tender moments and all the loud moments and all the somewhat hollow displays of humility … they can still draw an audience.

My, oh my, they can still draw an audience.