"'Come down to Texas! Play on a rooftop! It'll be great!'" That was Capstan Shafts mainman Dean Wells, speaking from the Wave Rooftop around 9:15 last night, who I'd suggest was dripping with sarcasm were said sarcasm not frozen to his temples. It was cold yesterday, man. Cold in a way Austin, Texas isn't used to, certainly not in the back end of March. And windy, too; oh lord, was it ever windy. Long walks between venues were swiftly reevaluated. Souvenir sweatshirts were purchased en masse. And a whole bunch of people seemed to think three days of music was just quite enough for them, thanks.
The inclement everything certainly had me reconsidering my plans, which were to just go nuts: last day, good lineups all around, and a few things I considered must-sees. All things considered, I did better than expected (thanks, souvenir sweatshirt!), but I wound up stuffing my critic-hat into my back pocket and coming at yesterday like a fan. In that weather, I wasn't about to trek across town for an unsure thing, some untested heat I expect to hear more about in six month's time; I think anybody out there yesterday would've agreed with me. If you were willing to brave the whipping winds and the sour moods, you really wanted to be where you were going.
Today is David Hackney’s birthday. David, who passed away from lung cancer in 2000, was the lead guitarist for the 1970’s all-black punk-band, Death, compromised of David and his two brothers Bobby and Dannis Hackney, back when the concept of an all-black punk band from the Motown-stained streets of Detroit was a cultural and musical anomaly. Long story short—the band-name “Death” didn’t sit well with major labels that would have otherwise signed the group and possibly led them to worldwide notoriety. Today, however, during a SXSW interview panel discussion about Death’s recent resurgence, Bobby Hackney sits next to his brother Dannis and guitarist Bobbie Duncan (David Hackney’s replacement) in a meeting room on the fourth floor of the Austin Convention Center and recalls the day that he and his brothers anxiously attended a David Bowie concert in Detroit, where unbeknown to everyone, Bowie would be debuting his Young Americans album.
“He came out dressed like Al Green.” said Hackney. As disheveled as everyone else in attendance that night, the three punk musicians, who had previously worshiped David Bowie’s rock-n-roll image, left the venue wearing blank stares. David Hackney looked at his brother, Bobby, and said, “Disco has taken over.” In retrospect, Bobby believes that this incident marked the beginning of what he likes to call the “disco tsunami." For the next 30 years, Death would be virtually forgotten and the master tapes of their recordings would remain stashed-away in Bobby’s Burlington, Vt., attic. Now here we are, three decades later, at SXSW, listening to two brothers share the legendary story of their great rock band, Death. Later that night, they performed at Mohawk Patio and played their coveted music—the same music that their brother, David, once told them that world would come looking for someday.
Did we mention how cold it was? All everyone at SXSW Day 4 could talk about was an actual wave of chill, and you couldn't really blame us for complaining—the 40 degree temperatures and skin-cutting wind would've been odd for January in Austin, and were downright cruel for March 20th. Given that and the natural fatigue of running from show to show for days, I decided to treat Day 4 rather randomly, yet somehow ended up seeing almost nothing but energetic, animated, hard-working bands. I guess it was something in the air-- it was like these groups were all trying to either blast some body heat into the cold, or just blast off back to their warmer non-Texas homes.
I was standing there checking my phone, half-watching Bethany Cosetino of Best Coast plow through another Ronettes song of her own making, when a friend told me to fuck that noise and hit the back patio: GWAR was here. Not to pick on Bethany, who has a few good songs and really loves cats and was very sweet when I met her the other day, but watching GWAR, clad in full battle armor, blow through a crowd of half-aware, half-bewildered hipster types to talk their shit and prominently display their pockmarked, fake-bloodstained buttcheeks, well… I could see Best Coast some other time.
So far, I’ve had two cab drivers tell me that if it weren’t for their kindness, I’d be spending hours trying to hail a taxi. Apparently, being a black guy in Austin has its limitations and even I, a non-threatening African-American-out-of-towner, wasn’t immune to the cabbie-cold-shoulder. But gimme a break! There’s plenty of undesirables in this town for cabbies to be worrying about rather than targeting me—the black guy walking around town looking for a ride, wearing a badge with his name and face on it, the city he lives in, and the newspaper that’s he’s representing. I wonder what would have happened if I would have been dressed like a guy like Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Do Austin cabbies like those sort of characters instead?
Armed with his usual bag of musical artifacts, music savant, Nardwuar had just left Spin's private party at Stubb’s where security denied him access to interview Courtney Love after her band, Hole, performed in front of a couple of thousand people. It could have been the second time he talked to her on-camera since 1994, when he sat down backstage with her and the late, Kurt Cobain for a spiky, yet informative interview after a Vancouver, Canada, Nirvana show. Nonetheless, he shared other details with me about his recent interview with Snoop Dogg, delighted about the part when Snoop showed him how and why to microwave a joint—apparently it seals in the smell. Doot Doo!! (as Nardwuar would say).
Had he stayed with the group that I was with, consisting of Peter Rosenberg, The Kid Daytona, and some other folks, he’d have chowed down with us on some unbelievable Mexican food at Las Casuelas and then headed down the road to Scoot Inn where the NY-based, hip hop label Duck Down Records was celebrating its 15th anniversary. There couldn’t have been a more perfect place other than SXSW to mark hip hop’s longest running independent label. The Duck Down 15 Year Anniversary SXSW show at Scoot Inn was the official gathering of rap heads in Austin. The magnanimous DJ Evil Dee provided consecutive, throwback gems between sets of new Duck Down signees, Promise and Team Facelift, as well as Rustee Juxx, Pharoahe Monche, Smif-n-Wessun and Torae. Without introduction, Boot Camp Click’s Sean Price hit the stage wearing a “FUCK RAP” t-shirt for a brief, roughneck set, despite obvious issues with his set list and most importantly the fatigue of having just flown in from New York where, on the previous day, he sat by his wife’s side as she gave birth to their daughter. None of this made Price any less hostile or focused, and as always, he used his signature, appalling punchlines to insult every rapper in the industry and everyone in the crowd.
Outside of Karma Lounge, a kid who was waiting in line kept on shouting, “I slept with a Baldwin brother. Will that get me in?” I’m not quite sure if that worked out for him, but that’s the last I heard of the outside world before walking in just in time to hear Breakestra at the apex of “Getcho Soul Together”. Here’s where any self-respecting funk lover wishes that he or she could breakdance or at least bang on a drum kit in the same crazed rhapsody that Josh “Wallet” Cohen does. Mixmaster Wolf is a shoe-in for being the most bad-ass vocalists in this genre, but featured guest Afrodyete seared through a gospelly, juiced-up version of "It's My Thing (You Can't Tell Me Who to Sock It To)” as if Marva Whitney herself was in the audience givin’ out grades. The only act rivaling this show was going on down at Austin Music Hall where I presume Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings were also throwing down a similar workout.
Flosstradamus’ DJ set at Emo’s Jr. featured an amped-up Kid Sister, who’s flawless glamour is both candy girl and Cover Girl, but just not enough to make-up for failing vocal chords—strained from doing multiple shows over the past few days. That was one factor I hadn’t considered when I repeatedly postponed catching her other shows. Oh well.
As I strolled along a side road that led to I-35, passing by cars lined up in the late-night traffic jam, my feet began to hurt from all of the walking I’d done that evening. The thought of finding a cab driver that who didn’t think that I was going to rob and murder him began to give me a headache. I eventually found a willing cab driver, but the headache still exists and my feet still hurt. Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so ruff. Doot Doo!!
On the PGA Tour (yes, I follow the PGA Tour), the third day of a four-day tournament is commonly known as "moving day"—the day when you'd better move up the leaderboard or spend the final round just trying to stay out of last place. Day 3 of SXSW felt a bit like that for me. I had seen tons of great bands the first two days, but Friday was the day to make sure I saw every last must-see left on my list. With Saturday already looking unpredictable (rain in the forecast, a bunch of groups leaving to play at Todd P's Mexican fest), I needed to get a move on to see four bands I'd kick myself if I left Austin without witnessing.
I saw Bill Murray last night. Then I saw a UFO. They have to be related.
The eternal dilemma at SXSW is how long to stick around at any single venue. There's at least five bands, sometimes more than 10, playing in every possible location. So the temptation is to dart all over Austin catching snippets of everything. That strategy works well at night, when more of the shows take place in the radius of a few downtown blocks, and on-the-hour schedules are more strictly adhered to. But during the day, things can happen miles apart, lineups drift off time and rearrange by the second, and crowds swell unpredictably. So you can spend 30 minutes to get from one show to another only to find out the band you want to see either isn't playing yet, already played, or will be done by the time you can get through the line outside. It seems absurd to camp out anywhere for too long when so much is going on everywhere, but during the day, if you can find one venue hosting a lot of great stuff, it's a pretty good option.
My official SXSW initiation came with having a stranger find and return my Blackberry to me after picking it up it in the middle of 4th Street, severely injuring my big-toe after tripping over a pole-stump and later holding a brief conversation with Madlib about his two-inch wide, gold, arm-bands that he inherited from his grandmother. “It’s for protection,” he said before following J-Rocc’s DJ set at the cozy Stones Throw showcase. “She was on that voodoo-shit. All grandmothers look out for their grandkids.” I couldn’t have agreed more. So, waking up today and thinking, “Wow, today, maybe I should ask all of the musicians that I run into about their grandmothers," didn’t seem like a bad idea. Until, that is, I realized that it was a bad idea.
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.