When it came to seeing Thee Oh Sees at this year's SXSW Festival, I was beginning to feel like I had a curse set upon me. I tried to catch them at Red Eyed Fly, but a growing line deterred me. Later that day, I waited for them at Red 7, one of their two scheduled Wednesday night official showcases, only to be affronted by a set of rote, workmanlike punk-pop by Roll the Tanks, a Massachusetts band that lives between Bad Religion and the Dropkick Murphys. The venue reported that they were running at least 30 minutes behind, so I left for my own date with David Gedge's cult alternative rock band, The Wedding Present.
Gedge and cohorts released a handful of tough, tuneful, raw indie rock albums in the late '80s and early '90s. Now he's got a new album ready for release and a new line-up. The good news is Gedge still sounds like he always has and his new band rips into the material with a fervor. If the two new songs played are any indication, the band's new material still bears all the markings of well-made lean, muscular indie pop.
With the thoughts of curses out of my head, I trekked around catching a handful of buzz bands, including Zola Jesus, The Men and the Alabama Shakes. Zola Jesus haunted the Elysium stage, channeling a host of acts from Bjork to Gaga. She twitches and writhes will backed up by a gothic post-punk instrumentation that lets sparse, slow-burn arrangements provide the perfect musical scenery of Zola Jesus' vocal delivery.
Sacred Bones' labelmates The Men are a three-piece rock band that go for maximal delivery in their trio format. In that respect, they share a kinship with hardcore punk-proggers F**ked Up. Guitars are huge-sounding and both singers yelp and spit their way through songs that seem all too eager to hurtle off the ledge. There's a lot to like here, but not enough yet to really connect during a 30-minute showcase.
At Stubb's outside, the Alabama Shakes kicked out soul-roots revival led by singer/guitarist Brittany Howard. While sometimes her band let off the gas pedal with overly clean instrumentation, Howard herself evinced real grit in her playing and singing. Expectations for their debut album in April will continue to rise based on their sets here in Austin.
Stubb's also played host to Fiona Apple, who has garnered a considerable amount of attention on her return to the spotlight. She took the stage looking like she hadn't left, with all her stylistic twitches and eccentricities still in tact. Her backing band provided plenty of force to carry her off-kilter alternative pop during a set that lasted just long enough.
Her return to stage was far from the night's most powerful comeback. That belonged to Sixto Rodriguez, the Mexican-American singer-songwriter whose 1970 album Cold Fact is a cult classic. Now in his late 60s, Rodriguez is looking every bit of his hard life and his hard years. He was assisted to the stage by a handler, who kept his hydrated between songs and stayed near by if Rodriguez needed him. What looked like a a sad reminder of age dissolved away when he began to sing. The voice has not lost a single step from 1970, even when fingers fumbled on the fretboard. By the time he closed with "Forget It" the crowd at Mohawk was enraptured by the amazingly beautiful and unique event that had just occurred.
After that, I assumed the night had reached its apex and that whatever I saw would be a severe letdown. As I watched the Men play Elysium, the feeling remained, so after five songs, I decided to test my Thee Oh Sees curse one last time. The band was playing a 1:10 a.m. set, probably their fifth or sixth show that day, at the Beauty Bar Backyard.
And this time, the stars aligned. Guitarist/singer John Dwyer was leading a full-stage of musicians through his vision of psych-garage freakouts, while the crowd assembled before him freaked out right along. Crowd surfing and heaving, dancing, crashing bodies packed the outdoor tent and culminated with one of Thee Oh Sees guitarists climbing a tent pole half-way up, hanging upside down and kicking noise out from his guitar. It was a cathartic and exciting way to end my second day.