SXSW Finale: Alex Chilton Big Star All-Star concert, Matt Pond PA, Frightened Rabbit…

Category: Blog — @ 10:13 pm March 21, 2010

by Tim McMahan,

I type this in Earl Campbell’s Tyler Rose Lounge at DFW waiting for my flight back to Omaha early the next morning after a 3 a.m. night to close out SXSW. And what a night it was.

I won’t bore you with details about how cold and windy and awful the weather was in Austin yesterday, except to say it was cold and windy and awful, especially after a couple days of tanning in the 70s. Instead, let me tell you about the Alex Chilton memorial concert with Big Star and special guests, a show that I felt lucky to get into. It was a badge-only gig — no wristbands, no cash tickets. You also needed some luck. The person in front of me was the cut-off guy in line, which meant that I spent about a half-hour standing next to the door, waiting for someone to leave to get in. And while there, I heard every con and bullshit line by every swinging dick wanting through those doors — all to no avail. The concert started at 12:30 a.m. I finally got inside Antone’s (capacity guestimate, about 600) at 11:30 p.m. to hear a young, indie power-pop band called The Postelles play a set in front of was was likely the most powerful industry audience in Austin that week. Too bad no one was there to see them. The crowd was mostly grizzled veterans and old-school journalists who still took notes with pencil on notepad. Lots of gray hair, and lots of somber faces in a crowd that became rousing once the music began.

Jon Auer, Jody Stephens and Ken Stringfellow — the surviving members of Big Star — hit the stage right on time. But before they began, a friend of The Chiltons read a letter by Alex’s wife, Laura, where she talked about her husband and how he lived his life, his favorite music (highlighting how much he loved working with The Cramps and The Gories), and his “direct” way of communicating. It was a sweet remembrance that ended with a story about how her husband didn’t have time to think about death. In fact, he didn’t like to sleep, and wished he could stay awake 24/7, unlike his wife who preferred to take naps, “which is what I’m going to go do right now,” the message read in closing. “And if Alex were here, I know what he’d would say. He’d say, ‘G’nite, Shoog.'” That’s short of Sugar.

Then came the music. I can’t list all the songs because I don’t know all their names. It was a greatest-hits performance and included a lot of my favorites, like “September Gurls,” “The Ballad of el Goodo,” “Don’t Lie to Me” and “Thirteen” off #1 Record Radio City, and “Thank You Friends,” “Big Black Car” “Jesus Christ” and “For You” off Third/Sister Lover (but no “Holocaust,” which I guess is appropriate). It really was an all-star cast who performed with Big Star, including Curt Kirkwood, Chris Stamey, M Ward, Chuck Prophet, John Doe, Mike Mills, Sondre Lerche, Evan Dando, Susan Cowsill, The Watson Twin and fellow original Big Star member Andy Hummel.

Big Star by themselves sounded amazing. Auer handled most of the vocals (when a guest wasn’t on stage) with Stringfellow chiming in here and there. There’s nothing more to say, other than it was a special night that went on past 2 a.m. It’s the kind of moment that you hope to experience at SXSW — but not under these circumstances. Chilton really was a genius. He wrote and performed some of the most influential pop music of the last half of the last century. Last night’s concert was a fitting way to pay tribute to him. And I can’t think of a better way to cap off my time in Austin (See photo).

I should stop right there, but I’d be remiss not mentioning the rest of yesterday. It was something of a bust, made agonizing by the weather. I didn’t get rolling until around 3 p.m. after a sit-down Mexican meal (the first real food I had on this trip). First stop was the obligatory journey to Beerland, the infamous SXSW-hating punk-rock venue (hide your badge before you get there). The bar is a concrete-block bunker, probably a converted machine shop or garage, with walls covered in photos, neon, showbills and booze signs. In the back was the iconic Beerland stage, where The Goner Records showcase was in high gear. For the next hour I listened to Cococoma (see photo) and Wes Coleman (see photo) while the NCAA tourney glowed from an old-fashioned TV set overhead. It was like being at O’Leaver’s — same crowd, same smell.

The best part about Beerland was that it was warm. Teresa and I next headed to Cedar St. Courtyard, an outdoor venue sandwiched between two buildings that acted as a wind tunnel. Brisk, bracing, uncomfortable. London band The Boxer Rebellion (see photo) played a set reminiscent of mid-career U2, thanks to a frontman whose voice was a dead ringer for Bono’s. Too bad the band didn’t have U2’s melodies or charm.

Next was Frightened Rabbit — a bunch of Scottish guys last seen at The Waiting Room back in June 2008. They took home the award for The Act With the Most Buzz, coming into — and out of — SXSW. More than one person (including a famous local record label executive) told me that Frightened Rabbit was the best thing they’d seen all week. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say they’re on the verge of something — their music blends indie, adult alternative and Van Morrison in a way that will please any crowd. Now watch them explode (see photo).

It took two hours to thaw at the hotel before I headed back into the icebox to catch Matt Pond PA at The Galaxy Room (see photo). Pond and his band cranked out a fantastic set of folk rock to a packed, appreciative crowd of around 250 that included a front row that sang along with every word. Seems like Pond’s been around forever waiting for people to figure out how good he is. Maybe it’s finally starting to happen.

Afterward I marched up Red River to see The Oh Sees at Mohawk Patio, but got stuck in a hold line that didn’t move. So I hightailed it east under the freeway to “The Music Gym,” one of the many temporary venues that were “created” for SXSW, and which are very likely gone this morning. The temporary nature of the place was fine with UUVVWWZ frontwoman Teal Gardner, who looked like she was having a good time playing to a crowd of around 30 outside in cold, despite having to fight a north wind blowing directly in her face (see photo).

After that, it was off to Antone’s for the Big Star show.

And so ends another year at South by Southwest. It was a fun endurance test, where I saw more bands than last year. The best of the bunch: Tobacco, The Silos, Pomegranates, The Mynabirds, Sondre Lerche, It’s True, Quasi, Bear Hands, Matt Pond PA, Frightened Rabbits and, of course, Big Star. Look for the condensed summary of SXSW in this week’s issue of The Reader.

And now Chris Aponik’s final dispatch from the trenches:

Part of the appeal of SXSW is that it’s supposed to be warm by mid-March in Texas. Saturday was a cruel, cold slap in the face as temperatures dipped well below 50 degrees. Anybody hoping to sit outside at one of the many outdoor venues or those even planning to go between venues were greeted by high winds and a bone-chilling blast of cold air. I quickly scrapped plans to check out a few bands out at Auditorium Shores in favor of warmth indoors.

My day started with the Goner showcase, which featured a nice sampling of the Memphis label’s roster. The showcase peaked with a packed house during a set by the Magic Kids, who play saccharine sweet sock-hop rock that has been transplanted from the 1950s malt shoppe with little modern revision. Unless you have a serious taste for this melodic candyfloss, these Kids can cause quick overload. Beforehand, Ty Segall built interest in a forthcoming Goner full-length by playing rough garage pop with a tight power trio that indicates they are ready for bigger stages and a bigger sound.

The evening all pointed to one thing, a one-off semi-reunion of Destruction Unit. The band was the brainchild of Arizona native Ryan Wong of Tokyo Electron. He quickly recruited Memphis rockers Alicja Trout and Jay Reatard to form a solid line-up. Reatard passed away earlier this year. As a tribute, Wong and Trout joined together with Digital Leather’s Shawn Foree to play a Destruction Unit show during SXSW week. With three other additional DL members in tow, Destruction Unit ripped through jagged trashy garage rock combining Wong’s southwestern venom with the two synths played by Foree and Trout. It was a quick set that ended just before chaos totally overtook it.

Thee Oh Sees ended the night on the club floor in the middle of Beerland playing another well-honed set of psych-oozing ’60s throwback garage rock of which John Dwyer is undoubtedly the master.

Great: Destruction Unit
Very Good: Wes Coleman, CoCoComa, Ty Segall
Good: Magic Kids, Flesh Lights, Harlan T Bobo, Thomas Function
Okay: Sunny & the Sunsets
No: American Cheeseburger

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area.

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