Before we took off for the park Saturday morning, we bought grab-and-go breakfast from the little Starbucks-like coffee shop in the lobby and carried it out to a patio that also acts as a smoking area, complete with flat-panel television. While unwrapping my cresc-sandwich, I noticed someone pacing like a caged tiger along the sidewalk, her cell phone and backpack lying on an outdoor table. It was Janean Garofalo, the once-star of movies turned professional left-wing talk show guest. Standing around 4 feet tall and covered in tattoos, Garofalo looked angry and impatient, tracking back and forth behind me while I unwrapped a carrot-cake muffin. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen her in Austin. We crossed paths the day before as she marched with her backpack across the Congress Avenue bridge. I guess she was tired of making the hike and was now waiting for someone to pick her up, someone who obviously was late. She stopped her angry march occasionally to stare at the flat-panel, which was showing Fox News. I wondered if that also was why she was seething, and I decided not to say hello fearing that she would lean over my table and try to bite me. We finished our breakfast and left her there, circling and scowling. I wondered what she thought of Ben Stiller these days, her old boyfriend and now a multi-millionaire movie actor married to a model, while she still slummed the comedy circuit and got by with the occasional guest role on “24,” a show that ironically airs on the network she despises.
She was quickly forgotten as we began our own forced march toward 6th St. Waterloo Park is a few blocks north of the action near the edge of the U of Texas campus, and rock-throwing distance to the State Capitol Building. The entire park had been incased in chain link fence for SXSW. We made our way inside and found the small “side stage” where Sleepy Sun was playing, then walked over to the much larger main stage, where fewer than 100 onlookers watched Cut Off Your Hands walk through the same set I heard Thursday night. Were they still New Zealand’s Tokyo Police Club? They were to me, playing that same style of jump-rock indie music, complete with its earnestly young tone. We left and ate lunch and came back for King Khan and the Shrines. By then, the lower bowl was half full. On stage was the Shrines in matching black shirts and ornamental neckware, preceding Khan, who entered to much fanfare wearing a crown and cloak and accompanied by a cheerleader with pom-poms who danced throughout the set (see photo). The whole thing had a James Brown-by-way-of-Hawaii feel to it that was wasted on a crowd composed of afternoon picnic-ers and hungover hipsters.
Afterward we walked back over to the side stage for Abe Vigoda — not the actor but the band named after the actor who, judging by their age, probably never heard of Phil Fish or Tessio. The guy playing bass thought he’d throw a few bombs before they lit into their set: “I used to listen to Cursive when i was in 9th grade,” he said, apparently miffed that Cursive was playing on the big stage. “Don’t get me wrong, Domestica was a great album, and I don’t mean that factiously. But that was 9th grade.”
Shit talking is an odd way to greet your audience, and can be audacious and ballsy if you can back it up, but Abe Vigoda couldn’t. The four-piece played a flaccid set of run-of-the-mill indie rock sung by a guy who couldn’t sing. Listen, if you’re trying to be punk and can’t carry a note, at least try to scream the lyrics so no one notices. Instead, it was typical wonky Modest Mouse-flavored indie rock, poorly played and sung by a band whose only memorable quality was its name. By chance, I ran into Tim Kasher later in the evening and passed along Vigoda’s pre-set soliloquy. “Don’t worry, we’ll get them back,” he said. Anyone familiar with Kasher’s famous between-song rants knows what he’s talking about.
We left halfway through Vigoda’s set and caught the tail-end of Cursive. By then, the field was filled and the band had turned their sound into a monster roar, waves of feedback crashed against the trees.
By the time Cursive ended, it was already around 3 o’clock, so we hiked back to the Austin Convention Center where Echo and the Bunnymen were scheduled to play at 5 at “The Bat Bar” — a made-for-TV lounge that was nothing more than an exhibition hall turned into a sound stage. After waiting in line for an hour, they finally let us in and reminded us over and over that the performance was being televised live on Direct TV — so “make some noise, you’re going to be on TV, too!” Moments later Ian McCulloch stepped on stage with the rest of the band and stood there while we all waited for Matt Pinfield to finish an interview somewhere else. It was strange and awkward. McCulloch tried to pass the time talking about European Cup “football” to an audience that had no idea who Manchester United was, nor cared. Finally, he got the cue and tore into his set. I’ve never been a big fan of Echo and the Bunnymen. To me, their music was a watered down version of stuff I really liked by bands like Psychedelic Furs and Teardrop Explodes. But McCulloch sounded terrific, not a bit of age showed on his 49-year-old voice. I recognized a couple of the songs, including set closer “Lips Like Sugar.” He also played a few new songs that sounded just like the old songs.
We stayed on 6th St. and caught the Oh Sees playing outside at Beerland — not nearly as good as the Emo’s Jr. set from Thursday night — before heading over to Stubbs to find something to eat and wait for PJ Harvey. This turned out to be an agonizing decision, as the food was bad and so were the bands preceding PJ, including the Razorlight, a British act that wants to go the U2 route but doesn’t have the songs for it. They started out strong and quickly became boring. The crowd mulled around just waiting for them to get it over with.
Everywhere people were jockeying for places to sit down, their backs and feet like open sores, dying for some relief but finding none. The crowd shifted from foot to foot just trying to get through the next two hours, while bouncers came by and shooed people off booze loading ramps and camera platforms. We found a spot near a railing where we could at least lean. Down below was a table full of water coolers that had long since gone dry.
PJ came on at 10 sharp, dressed in a white satin outfit with a big white “thing” in her hair — we were too far away to make out what that “thing” was. She kicked into a set of rather low-key songs off her latest album, which sounded good, but I preferred the old Polly Jean, the one that played electric guitar on 4-Track Demos, instead of this modern version of Annie Lennox.
Next it was off to see Alessi’s Ark — the same Alessi that recorded in Omaha a couple years ago at ARC with Jake Bellows. The venue — Stephen F’s Bar — was hidden on the second floor of a 7th St. luxury hotel. Inside was all oak paneling and French doors that opened to a balcony that overlooked the flotsam in the street below. Alesssi played a set of acoustic songs with guitar to a crowd of around 50 — nice stuff.
Finally it was off to punk rock central in the form of Red 7 for Box Elders. I figured it might be my last band of SXSW, why not go out with a bang? There on stage was Dave Goldberg and the McIntyre brothers in their respective get-ups (the too-short shorts, the gold lame smoking jacket) doing their garage band thing to a crowd of 100 punkers and scenesters who got into the vibe. Halfway through the set, Goldberg bit into some sort of capsule that made him drool green foam maddog-style. It was all well received (see photo).
I considered heading over to Emo’s for Daniel Johnston and even got as far as getting into the club, but the previous band was still on stage and I figured they wouldn’t be done ’til past 1:30. So instead I left to find a brat and was hit again with the Mardi Gras-on-amphetemines atmosphere of 6th St., rowdier than ever, but this time The Man was in full force. Crossing Brazos I ran into a battalion of cops headed somewhere, ready for action. A glance down the street revealed a wall of red and blue strobe lights and mounted police surrounding some sort of melee. Fleets of cops in cruisers flew over Congress Ave. bridge, looking for trouble. A couple kids in a black VW GTO sped by us, one of them standing out of sunroof yelling with glee, just glad to be alive — then boom — squad lights, busted. When I passed them walking to the hotel I could see the two kids inside the VW looking scared, digging through their glove box for papers as a second squad car pulled up next to them — a bad scene, but a suiting way to end three days of rock ‘n’ roll chaos. Tomorrow, what it all means and was it worth it.
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