SXSW09, Day 1: Word on the street is you suck [Paul Thompson] | Music
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

SXSW09, Day 1: Word on the street is you suck [Paul Thompson]

Posted by on Thu, Mar 19, 2009 at 12:57 PM

During South by (look, that's what the cool kids call it), news ripples through Austin like taco wrappers in the breeze: Who's scheduled to throw down at the Fader Fort with whom, who's pouring the strongest margaritas gratis, just which Vivian Girl just ducked into that Portajohn yonder. So what was on everybody's lips Wednesday, as the tech geeks from SXSWi said their farewells to Austin and the, uh, tech geeks from the music portion of the program were ushered in? "Man, Wednesday sucks."

Yep; in the middle of the single greatest gather of bands since, y'know South by Southwest 2008, there were a lotta folks wandering around without a plan, griping about the lack of luster in whatever showcase they "had" (this is groaned more than spoken) to go to. Legendary sorts like Roky Erickson and Echo and the Bunnymen took to the showcase stages last night, as did theater-fillers like the Decemberists and Camera Obscura, and just about every indie band under the sun who could catch an early morning flight popped in at a day party or two. And you know what? It did suck. Kinda.

Part of it's tradition: For the longest time, things at South by didn't really get going 'til Thursday night to make room for Wednesday evening's self-flagellating Austin Music Awards ceremony. Part of it's settling in: If you've got a badge, they hand you a big bag full of shit you've got to stash somewhere before the rocking commences, and I personally had a hell of a time hitting day parties while negotiating a mid-afternoon key-dropoff with my roomie for the week. But the biggie was the mighty slim pickings both before and after dark. How spoiled we must sound, I know, but I most certainly was not alone in my assessment. This was, after all, the word on the street.

The venerable Kill Rock Stars roster, joined by the party people at Bitch magazine, threw down a day party over at Club Deville. The lineup was strong, with appearances from the Thermals, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, and the under-appreciated Shaky Hands. Portland's Horse Feathers impressed me out of my ignorance; sure, they sound a lot like Sufjan—a lot like Sufjan—but they sound like the Sufjan songs and not the Sufjan wankery orchestral flourishes to nowhere, and it was as pleasant (if largely forgettable) an introduction to an otherwise hectic afternoon. Thao hadn't played in a while, though you wouldn't have known it if she hadn't pointed out just how breathless she was after song one. Okay, actually, you might've. The gal was panting hard every time she launched into a new one, but managed time and again to catch the wind just as verse one set in. The best bit of Thao for the day, though, came via a story Kill Rock Stars vice president and all around cool lady Maggie Vail told me and a bud: Somebody'd given Ms. Nguyen a plate of tamales, and Thao insisted they pick her setlist for her.

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I left Thao, who I like OK, to duck over to Maggie Mae's to see Glen Rock, N.J.'s Titus Andronicus (at Local 506 Wednesday), who I like very, very much. I've seen Titus live about a half-dozen times in the last nine months or so, and this was as good a set as I'd seen them play, rangy and somewhat maniacal yet remarkably tight and visceral. They blasted through all the highlights from your reporter's favorite album of the last several years, 2008's The Airing of Grievances, as well as a cover of the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" that bested the Ramones' semi-classic take on the tune in matters of pure inertia. Apropos of a free round from the crowd, frontman Patrick Stickles—ever a card, that one—ran through the "Most Interesting Man in the World" Dos Equis commercial, then introduced "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape With the Fall of Icarus" as a cover of lo-fi buzz band of the moment Wavves. That drew boos, though I will admit I might not be completely innocent in that.

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So let's not disparage the day parties too badly, then; If you're a band and you're down here already, you probably played one yesterday, and though the offerings weren't quite as wide-ranging as they can be, there was music to be had. The source of the major complaints, it would seem, was last night's showcase lineup. We've got a six-person team down here, and I hear tell a couple of 'em wound up at the same gig last night out of some combination of necessity and desperation; that kind of thing would be unheard of tonight, for example, when there's simply too much to see. A bit vexed by the offerings—no, I am not going to watch the Decemberists play their new album all the way through—I decided to split my time between the Tomlab/K Records showcase and law-skirting Brooklyn promoter Todd P's big to-do way the hell out at Ms. Bea's, thinking quantity might just trump quality this evening.

I showed up to the Beauty Bar to catch the last several songs from Vancouver, British Columbia's No Kids, an oddly sexy trio of geeky sorts who make oddly modest bedroom-ready R&B. It's wonderfully awkward music—not quite this, not quite that—and it was a just a little wonderful to see how awkwardly the kids (and Owen Ashworth of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, incidentally) danced along. In the next room, some weirdos in stripey eye makeup called Fol Chen broke out a groove worthy of either Medeski, Martin or Wood, and when the irony of an honest-to-goodness (though not especially engaging) jam band in silly costume making the jam-phobic crowd shimmy hit me, I had to duck out. Plus, Desolation Wilderness were about to go on, and they are boring.

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I ran out to Todd P's deal at Ms. Bea's only to catch the final three seconds of Brooklyn's Telepathe; which, if you have to listen to Telepathe, is the perfect amount of time to do so. Conflicting reports had suggested that once the "New York Noise" portion of the evening ended with the very un-noisy Telepathe, there'd be all kinds of goings-on besides, but what emerged was the kind of silly dance party we non-Brooklynites imagine breaking out spontaneously along Bedford Avenue on the daily. Taking in that "Pacific Coast Highway"-biting Janet Jackson song wasn't especially what I had in mind for my time in Austin, so once the Corona was done, so was I. I could've returned to the K/Tomlab shindig to catch the back half of that spotty but generally agreeable lineup, but the queue outside Emo's for the Vans showcase was half what I'd expected, and—buoyed by the possibility of seeing the one band I really wanted to see last night—I eventually made my way inside.

That band was goth-poppers Echo and the Bunnymen, and damn if they weren't worth catching the very sad spectacle that is the 2009 incarnation of the Circle Jerks—those dreadlocks, yeesh—and actress ternt sanga Juliette Lewis and her Licks. I will say this about Juliette: She means it. I will say this about the crowd's disinterest: They meant that shit, too.

But, 45 minutes late and with nothing in the way of an apology, Ian McCullough and his Bunnymen took the stage and goth-popped with nary a show of effort, and all of the evening's past indiscretions were forgiven. I'm not sure why I kept describing it in my head as "not at all disappointing" instead of "totally rad," 'cuz it was, but you know how these things can go. Those dudes are planning a record for '09, but they don't play out all that often. Any band of that vintage playing a showcase as crappy as the Vans one is generally subject to a little premature cynicism. It was unwarranted; they didn't just play the best few songs from Crocodiles and all the hits besides, they killed 'em.

Of course, it's Echo and the Bunnymen, so zero cool anti-showmanship is the thing; Ian McCullough's accent's as thick as Mike Myers thinks Keith Richards' is so banter's basically a non-entity, and his idea of a cool frontman act consisted of smoking an entire cigarette while singing "The Killing Moon". I've heard similar things about the Crystal Stilts, who I like, but it's hard to justify the existence of a band like the Crystal Stilts when Echo and the Bunnymen are still around and still this good. The crowd, largely leftovers from the night's scattershod bill with only a few true pockets of excitement for the Bunnymen, sucked, but their sheer size kept me from taking a printable picture. I assure you, though: Everyone in the band was wearing black.

So Wednesday sucked, did it? In relative terms, maybe. But down here, if you know when to leave and when to wait things out, you'll eventually catch a good one. Me, I kinda can't wait to get back out there and see what the word is today.

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