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Thursday, March 18, 2010

SXSW10 Day 1: The luck of wandering [Paul Thompson]

Posted by on Thu, Mar 18, 2010 at 2:43 PM

click to enlarge Gates of Slumber (Photo: Paul Thompson)
  • Gates of Slumber (Photo: Paul Thompson)

Every year I come down here, I swear it'll be different. I tell myself I'll get a schedule going way out ahead, plotting my days out to the minute so as to avoid that creeping feeling that I'm missing something. I promise I'll make my travel plans early to ensure a cheap flight in and a prime spot downtown. But the main thing is always this: Don't fall back on stuff you know just because it's there. I'm not a fan, I'm a journalist; ostensibly, that's why I'm here—o discover stuff.

So how in tarnation did I end up catching Jeremy Jay for the third year running, then driving 20 miles out to my hotel? I tell you, I think St. Patrick had a lot to do with it.

Look, I was raised Irish-Catholic, and I enjoy a snifter of port as much as the next guy. I'll cop to some premeditation on that green shirt I was wearing yesterday. I am familiar with the concept of a car bomb, and I don't disapprove. But you take a drinking festival like South by Southwest—look, Lemmy's here, there's drinking—and match it up with the sloppiest 24 hours of reverie this side of Flag Day and things are bound to escalate. Food lines were bonkers. 6th Street, typically at least walkable without padding until 8 p.m., glistened with puke and beer sweat and green beads. And any show with any name anybody might've possibly heard of seemed a mob scene even before you'd slip in. It was duck and cover all night.

So, after being thwarted at the door of the big NPR showcase at Stubb's—no small place, but stuffed to the gils with exceedingly patient James Mercer fans all the same—and passing by a couple-three more equally daunting lines for hot stuff, I wound up at a just-shy-of-capacity Club deVille to check out Here We Go Magic. The buzz around Here We Go Magic right now is louder than a motel fridge; word is their new album is really something special, and while I haven't heard the thing, its first single "Collector" is a squiggly, self-assured testament to good things on the bound. But their music's fairly technical and relies on a lot of studio fussiness to work, nearly all of which was lost to the din of the increasingly disinterested crowd. Even when they pulled out "Collector"—an inevitability for indie-bigness, even though it hasn't happened yet—the response was fairly muted, although if HWGM blow through in May or so that tune's gonna perk up at least a few more ears. I did see one guy in cargo shorts and green beads tell his girlfriend "All right, we're going up front" maybe halfway through their set, so perhaps it's happening already.

An errant "woo" off the street every once in a while littered the atmosphere, but that was nothing next to the roar coming from next door; Bison B.C. had just finished their outdoor set at the Mohawk Patio, which practically backs up into deVille, and Gates of Slumber were just about to get started. A little bored of HGWM and unable to ignore metal-making going on a dozen yards away, I slipped over to Mohawk just in time for Gates' opening. The guys in Gates of Slumber look like they are completely unqualified for anything except making metal music, hairy walrusy sorts with gruff voices and black T-shirts and that whole bit. I've often found their music on wax a little generic, Viking-tinged stoner metal with all the usual trimmings, but with the stink of Lone Star and a not-quite-there-yet indie band in the air, they sounded pretty fucking great. I realized the lack of character I'd been responding to on record was just a complete lack of frills; they're not doing anything Matt Pike's High on Fire isn't doing a few hundred times better, but they're doing it proficiently and without drawing too much attention to themselves. Beyond the walrus mustache, I mean.

I could've stayed for Zoroaster, who I adore, and maybe I should've. I could've posted up at the Paul Wall/Chamillionaire show at La Zona Rosa and hoped they'd go on anywhere near their late set time. I suppose I could've seen some chillwave. But in the interest of discovery, I hit the street—by this point, littered with green bodies doing the lo' Bailey's back-bend—and plopped myself at the Beauty Bar for the Asthmatic Kitty/K/Tomlab/Sounds Familyre showcase. As the semi-major indies go, those are the weird ones, and they had the showcase to match: I'd never even heard of half these bands, and most of the rest I've somehow managed to avoid (I blame Sufjan). I only caught enough of Cologne, Germany two-piece Niobe to take a picture, but what I heard sounded very much like one of those Juana Molina numbers that can only charitably be called a song.

Indianapolis' jerk-funkers Jookabox have an unfortunate name and more than a passing resemblance to 311 and should be avoided. Cult-folk coterie Danielson, who I thought I hated, turns out are much better to listen to than think about; their songs are way too knotty to come across that well in a backyard bar on a Wednesday night, but the conviction's there even when the melodies are all over the place. Also, that guy looks a lot like Bobby Flay, which is fascinating. Munch Munch, with their arty vocal swoops over otherwise indistinct mood-rock, sound an awful lot like Wild Beasts with their claws retracted. And Rafter, who've made a wretched new album, actually turned their geek-boogie into something genuinely charming and infectious by basically acting like we were the crazy ones for not getting more into it. Oh, but we did; by the time their third song rolled around, a cadre of (very good) dancers had formed around the left speaker, while the green-bedecked curious, while maintaining their distance from this weird dork imploring them to shake, did indeed get a little down.

Nothing could compare to the scene one room over, though, where the temporarily Irish were getting permanently frisky to the typically demure strains of one Jeremy Jay. As I say, I've seen Jay at every South by Southwest since 2007, and while he rarely disappoints, his buttoned-up throwback mope-pop isn't exactly a partystarter. But people, painted shamrocks melting off their cheeks, wanted to party, and Jeremy gave it to him. He seemed a bit startled to find so many party people at his feet once his set started, but their energy fed his, and his oft-blank stare occasionally turned to something of a smile. The new stuff from the lukewarm Splash felt reenergized, and his old tunes sounded better than even, with Jeremy peeling off fidgety guitar solos and even pulling the axe-held-high move I'd seen previously at Gates of Slumber.

Maybe after a few years down here, Jeremy—not exactly a household name—is gaining some footing. Or maybe people were just drunk and wanted to dance. When I hit the street to look for my rental car and make the long slog home, it was a truly ugly scene: idiots baiting cars, throwing cans, emptying stomach linings onto themselves and others. But then again, it was St. Patrick's Day, and that's just how these things go. You take a huge, city-upsetting thing like South by Southwest, add a few shots of Jameson, and you're bound to have a little chaos: long lines, squishy sidewalks, overbooked hotels, that sort of thing. I saw bands, people got drunk, and ultimately the two things managed to coexist just fine. But I'm here to work, not get burped on, and working was no easy task last night. I shall miss my Irish brethren, sure, but I do hope those hangovers keep them out of the dayparties.

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