Friday at SXSW: The Wrens, Titus Andronicus, Cursive, Jeremy Messersmith, Mark Mallman, more; Aponik report…
The goal of my Day Two (yesterday) was to figure out the ins and outs of the so-called “day parties” at SXSW. In the end, I never really figured them out, or I never actually found them. All the performances I had logged into my schedule were at the same clubs where I’d been the night before, with a couple exceptions. The only difference about day parties is that they’re absolutely free — no badge needed for entry. A person could have a good time at SXSW without ever buying a wristband or badge, as the best show of the night for me also was free-entry.
First stop was at noon. We hustled over to Mohawk Patio, an outdoor venue with multi-tier concrete and steel decks that wound around a stage below on the floor (see photo). Stairways led up and up (but only VIPs were allowed to the very top, where someone grilled an assortment of meats; needless to say, we weren’t VIPs). It was a hot, burning sun — nothing to complain about after this past winter — but still, sunblock was needed, or shade. We watched from the center tier next to a guy who was filming the entire performance. The Wrens sounded no different than the last time I heard them a few years ago, though the group had gotten a bit more gray around the temples. I recognized a few songs off older albums, and so did the crowd, all of whom were busy getting started on a long day of binge drinking thanks to free Pabst tickets handed out to everyone who came through the door.
SXSW is a drinkers’ paradise, though I didn’t notice many “free beer” events. Ordering soda pop is looked upon as quaint. But despite the heavy alcohol intake, there were few — if not any — drunks flopping around… in the daytime. At night, well, that was a different matter. We hung around and watched the first 15 minutes of Bishop Allen — a real snore — before heading off to another outdoor venue — which was little more than a large tent constructed in a parking lot behind a bar on the east end of the strip called Habana Calle Annex 6. I figured Titus Andronicus would be playing outside, but instead they played on the stage inside the tiny bar (see photo). I liked their most recent album enough to place it on my 2008 top-10 list — it’s rowdy and rough and young, with unbridled energy — and so was the band, bashing away on stage, the frontman sporting the new-hipster unibomber beardo look. It was loud, but forced — they never got into an angry groove heard or maybe it was just too early for that sort of thing.
It was already approaching 3 p.m. One thing I was dead wrong about in my column: I said there was no way that the venues would stay on schedule. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Bands hit their mark timewise at every showcase. There were no exceptions. I assume either the SXSW organizers or the venues are responsible for drilling the schedule into the bands’ heads. In fact, three or four times during the day, a band commented on how much time they had left. “Just 8 minutes; I better make this a good one.” And so on. Everyone is carrying their own schedules in their hip pockets or saved on their iPhones; and instead of enjoying what they are watching, they’re planning three gigs ahead, tracking their path in their minds, trying to figure out how they’ll get across 6th St. in time for whatever they want to see. A band running late wasn’t going to stop them from heading out when they needed to.
Knowing that we’d be heading back toward the hotel afterward, we figured we’d trek further down the strip. It’s here that I decided to break my own rule and go see an Omaha band — maybe the only Omaha performance of the trip (unless we see Box Elders today). I figured if I’m going to see only one Omaha band, it might as well be Cursive. So we hoofed it west a mile down 4th St. to La Zona Rosa, the newest and most pristine of all the venues and quite a contrast to the usual crap-panel walls or paint-everything-black exterior of most clubs located further east. The place had a stage, sound and lights that rivaled Slowdown’s (see photo). It only made sense that Dan Brennan was there to run sound for our homeboys. They played a strange set, heavy with songs from The Ugly Organ and only two or three from the new album, skipping entirely the big closer, “What Have I Done?” instead opting to close with “Dorothy at 40.” The huge crowd (400?) ate it up. So how did this out-of-town crowd react to an Omaha band? No different than any typical Cursive crowd at TWR or Sokol or Slowdown. Kasher struggled with his voice, and I wondered how he was going to sound at 1 a.m. that same night at the Saddle Creek Showcase at The Radio Room. But I never found out. Cursive is playing the hell out of SXSW — a show Thursday, two on Friday and again today out at a park.
After the agony suffered after Day One, I knew I wouldn’t make it a full day and full night walking/standing around. After Cursive we headed back to the hotel for a dip in the pool and a nap, which made all the difference. We got rolling again around 7, but discovered that none of the night showcases were starting until 8. Sixth St. was crowded with people looking for food options, and finding very little other than pizza, hot dogs and other street vendor fare. This is the worst food I’ve eaten on a trip in years.
With few options, we figured we might as well head east across the freeway to see Peter John and Bjorn. Little did we know that we were entering the dirty side of town, at least compared to 6th St. It not only felt like we were in a different city, but a different country and time — Tijuana circa 1973. Houses like shacks. Dirt lots and rusted fences that surrounded exposed junk yards and auto graveyards. When we got to Fader Fort we found a line that stretched more than a block long. I talked to someone wearing a headset at the front, asking her if there was a badge line. The gig wasn’t really part of SXSW, and you had to RSVP to get in. I RSVP’d to a ton of stuff over the past two weeks but couldn’t remember if that show was one of them, and I couldn’t find out until I made my way through that block-long line that barely moved as every individual had to be looked up in a database on a small white Macbook. No.
We walked up a block to where Mark Mallman would be playing at 9, a place called The Iron Gate Lounge. A shitty haphazard fence had been thrown around the crushed-stone parking lot, a portable stage placed against a retaining wall was covered with one of those portable tents. Two porta Johns were pressed up in the corner. It was seedy but fun (see photo). Up the weather-worn deck steps stood a young mutt with the traditional hippy dewrag tied around its neck that couldn’t have been more than 5 months old. The pup was being walked on the lawn next to the house-like bar, where old power-line cable spindles were being used as tables. Pot smoke wafted in the air as people blazed up in lawn chairs on the tiny side lot, right in the open. Back down on the crushed-stone lot someone sold hippie artwork. I glanced behind a barrier curtain and two guys sat in folding stadium chairs picking through through buds, rolling joints. This was the other Austin that no one on Sixth St. would ever see unless they moved here.
Another non-sponsored event – everyone was allowed in — the crowd looked like it was made up of neighborhood locals. The whole thing felt like O’Leaver’s 5-year anniversary block party. And here’s where the beauty of SXSW comes in: I had no idea who was playing before Mallman, nor did I care. We figured we might as well just stay there instead of hiking back to Sixth St. As luck would have it, the guy playing first was fellow Minnesotan Jeremy Messersmith, who’s self-released album was one of my favorites from last year. With a sideman on electric guitar and a beat-box synth gadget, Messersmith played what wound up being my favorite set of the evening.
Right after him was Mallman with a full band — quite a contrast to the last time I saw him play (a solo set at the long-gone Johnny Sortinos Pizza joint where Wal-mart now stands and I was the only one in the crowd). With his full band, Mallman became an unbridled madman, hyper beyond words, throwing himself on top of his keyboard, doing leg kicks and tossing his piano stool. It was worth it just for his theatrics — entertaining, though the music was sloppy and marred by technical problems. I think Mallman was trying too hard for a crowd that was too small to make his efforts worth it.
We left Tijuana and headed back to 6th St., back to Mohawk Patio this time for The Ettes, a poppy punk four-piece with a bubbly female singer who had the buoyancy of Belinda Carlisle before she got old and fat. The Ettes have enough to turn this relatively straight forward punk into something harder, and do. Not a bad band, though none of their songs stood out.
I considered staying at Mohawk for The Hold Steady, who was playing at midnight, but figured I could see them in Omaha soon enough. Outside, a huge mass of humanity crowded the street, trying to get a glimpse of Metallica playing inside — people stood on top of a nearby parking garage, tossing devil horned salutes down below. I pushed through and headed back to Emo’s Jr. for the other most hyped group of the weekend: The Pains of the Pure at Heart. Once inside, it was a crush mob, mostly girls, many who longingly mouthed the words to the songs (see photo). Their music was standard-issue indie with a pop slant that recalled ’90s acts like The Trashcan Sinatras. It was well-played, but boring and flat. Very run-of-the-mill, but that won’t stop them from riding a hype train all the way to SNL.
I figured I might as well stay for The Black Lips, who I missed at TWR last week. Something was up as their set was running late and there was a lot of back and forth with the sound guy. Finally on came the band with another SXSW surprise — a guest appearance by what I assumed was a member of the Wu Tang Clan based on how the crowd reacted by throwing up the classic thumb-fingers “W” symbol. I have no idea who it was as I was never into WTC. Needless to say, the guy laid down some lyrics while the Black Lips tried to back him. It didn’t work out very well, and the EmCee bossed order throughout the half-hour endeavor, before leaving the stage. After being told to “bring it down” by hip-hop guy so often, the Lips’ set was flaccid and half-assed.
It was well past 1 a.m. when I made the long walk back to the hotel. Sixth St. had turned into a drunken bacchanal — thousands of people stumbling around, yelling, chasing after each other. I expected to see someone carrying around a golden calf. The streets turned from carefree to angry and weird, as huge lines formed behind hotdog carts, people looking for anything to eat to kill their daylong buzz.
* * *
Chris Aponik turns in his report:
Punk band reunion shows are often little more than a desperate money grab by over-the-hill misfits who no longer give a shit. But that ain’t Keith Morris. Circle Jerks owned Beerland with an hour-plus set that transported the churning, sweaty crowd back in time. What’s more is the band was totally into it as well, with Morris telling stories, ranting and pouring out an impassioned vocal performance. He kept the crowd vibe right, going as far to lecture one unruly member about the message of one of the band’s songs. Sure, the Circle Jerks are a seminal hardcore progenitor, but last night’s set at Beerland was seminal as well.
Other standouts included TV Ghost, a no-wave basement punk act that throbs with mechanical menace. Their singer shouts his lines as if giving an incantation. Blank Dogs created an insular punk-pop with vocals processed into some echoing ’50s alien sci-fi effect. Sam Roberts Band won me over with power-pop that also nodded to the Stones, while Mark Sultan (aka BBQ) knows his way around doo-wop stylings. Tim Easton impressed by finally re-embracing a rock band to put a live wire under his alt.country folk stylings.
Meanwhile, Crystal Stilts proved not up to the buzz, as their indie-pop flirts with post-punk atmosphere. Sometimes it clicks, but mostly it seems stuck in indecision. The Living Things don’t have any trouble deciding however. The major label rock act rocks with a capital “R.” They are the Makers with a brasher, glammier sound. Turn off your mind or you’ll just be turned off.
Today, I just don’t know. I’m definitely hitting up the unofficial In the Red Records showcase at Beerland. I’ve already had Tamale House breakfast tacos, so I’m ready to roll.
Addictive: Tim Easton, TV Ghost,
Memorable: Sam Roberts Band, Blank Dogs, No Age, Red Red Meat, Mark Sultan, Crystal Stilts, Greg Ashley Band
Listenable:Army Navy, Living Things, Two Hours Traffic, Naked on the Verge, Baptist Generals, Nite Jewel, Ancestors — Chris Aponik
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