I promised myself that I wasn't going to kill myself this year at SXSW, but the way I felt this morning, I think I'm doing a pretty good job of it.
We got into Austin early yesterday afternoon, which I figured would mean an abbreviated show schedule. But no. We still had time to see nine bands. That's the amazing thing about this festival and why I keep coming back year after year despite the obvious toll it's taking on my body -- you can see the hottest, most talked-about bands the same day as you get to see some all-time classics, sometimes in clubs literally next door to each other.
After a lightning fast registration process (SXSW has figured out how to get you in and out of their convention center with a badge around your neck in less than 15 minutes) it was off to the first band: Nashville garage trio The Ettes at The Ginger Man, a dark, cozy out of the way club on 3rd Street that opens to a sweet hidden patio performance area in the back. People were lined up along benches facing the stage waiting for the overcast 3 o'clock sky to burn off whatever cloud cover had hung around from the morning. We wisely had "blocked up" before leaving the Hyatt Regency -- overcast skies can be deceiving, and misreading them can mean a week of skin-peeling pain.
Despite have a tough(er) garage punk sound, The Ettes will never be able to shake their "cute factor" with adorable little Lindsay "Coco" Hames at the lead, with a sassy voice bordering on boopsy at times (but more Patsy at most), as well as her stage mannerisms, which are just plain endearing, even when she's calling out someone in the crowd from Boston with "I'll tell you about it after the set." Countering her cuteness was the vicious cool of drummer Maria "Poni" Silver, who looked like she could take you AND your buddy in a fight, and look damn good doing it. Rounded out by red pants wearing bassist Jeremy "Jem" Cohen, they were one snarling unit, as Hames sweetly barked "I'm not not not not not going to break your heart." What a way to kick things off.
Next on the list was Thee Oh Sees at Red Eyed Fly, one of a batch of clubs that sit about a block north of 6th Street along Red River, where arguably all the best clubs are situated. I saw the line snaking from the door into the street and asked fellow Omahan Mike Tulis (you'll always run into a lot of local folks at SXSW) 'what was the deal?' He said it was the holdout line for a reunion performance from the classic '90s band The Wedding Present.
Glancing at my watch, I knew we'd never make it inside in time for Thee Oh Sees, so we walked down the street to Austin favorite Mohawk Patio not knowing who was playing. Look, you can't schedule every move of your SXSW experience or you'll miss most of it. Go with the flow, baby. Have fun, that's what this is all about.
On stage was a tall black guy standing alone torturing an electric guitar Prince-style backed by prerecorded tracks -- your typical one-man band shtick. The Xeroxed band list next to the beer cabana said the band was Blood Orange -- never heard of them. But a quick google later and I recognized who I was looking at. It was Dev Hynes of Lightspeed Champion, all growed up. I'd interviewed Dev for my column in The Reader way back in 2007 when he was in town recording a Lightspeed album with Mike Mogis at ARC Studio. Our interview back then concluded with a trip to Crossroads Mall, which was in the same state of decay as it is today.
Now here was Dev, easily a foot taller and looking like a college fullback despite wearing the same geeky round glasses that he wore while shopping in Target all those years ago. He apparently had turned his back on Lightspeed's chamber pop for something more rock, soul and funk based that could turn into an astringent guitar solo at the turn of a dime. Despite his appearance, his high croon hadn't changed. The packed crowd on the patio ate it up, grooving to his pre-recorded beats.
About halfway through the set and in the middle of a song, Hynes stopped. "I'm sorry, I know I'm just one guy on stage, but do you think you could wait until after I'm through with my set before you start loading in?" he said to either the stage grips or the band guys who had been fumbling around on stage behind him while he played. "I mean, what the f***? I'll be done in 20 minutes." The crowd applauded in approval, while the grips slunk off stage and Dev started back up again, finishing the song by jumping off stage and playing a solo in the middle of the crowd.
It was after his set that we got our first celebrity sighting. While sitting on a retaining wall that surrounds the patio, a small crowd formed around Dev, literally at our feet. Running up and giving him a big hug and a hello in her pseudo British accent was none other than fashion model Alexa Chung host of 24 Hour Catwalk, another in a long series of Project Runway-style reality shows. Okay, okay, maybe I should have said it was a "Lifetime TV celebrity" sighting.
We made our way back down Red River, past the still snaking line in front of Red Eyed Fly and stumbled into the darkness that is Beerland, a club that doesn't "participate" in SXSW, instead hosting free shows all week long. On stage was the band with the festival's possibly most offensive name, Puffy Aureoles, a HoZak Records punk band that in addition to sporting a hard garage sound also sports a saxophone. Frontman Teets took a moment between a couple rumbling songs to say something like "You're gonna get a better show in here than in there," referencing the Wedding Party show next door at Red Eyed Fly.
He was wrong. When we got out of Beerland we noticed that the line had shrunk to maybe a half-dozen people being let into the Wedding Present show on a one-in one-out basis. Thinking it may be the only time that I'll get to see this amazing band, we took a chance and got in line and were rewarded with some witty-ness by the doorman, who looked like a ginger Scotsman. As we got closer and closer to finally getting inside, a guy in his 40s walked up to complain. At first I thought he was the doorman's mate, but then he started getting in his face about how "he was from Austin, man, and I work in television and I know what you're doing. I can see that there's plenty of room in there. You're on some sort of power trip. If you don't let me in I'm going to post about this on my Facebook page." We all busted out laughing as the doorman told the guy to f*** off and leave. The small crowd began to clap, and the doorman said "Dude, they're clapping for me, not you." The whiney Austin TV man scowled and eventually slunk away.
We got in seconds later, in time to catch most of The Wedding Present's set, and it was as if time had stood still for British frontman David Gedge. He looked and sounded as he did in the '90s, despite being in his early 50s. I only own one Wedding Present album, 1994's Watusi, but loved it then and love this band now. If you're going to do a reunion, you best do it like this, without missing a single, stripped down, bass-fueled, cocksure, angular beat. Someone bring them to Omaha, please.
Looking at the schedule, the next natural stop was Fiona Apple at Stubb's, the huge outdoor stage just a street away from where we were. Though the set wasn't supposed to start until 7:45, there already was a huge line for badge holders at 6, waiting to get in. But seeing as my back and feet were already killing me, it gave us a chance to sit down on the curb and recover while waiting in line. Within a half hour, the line was literally a half-mile long, stretching three blocks behind us cross a street and up and over a hill. Meanwhile, a second line almost a long stretched down the street -- this one for people with wrist bands, not badges. People's oh-shit reactions when they turned the corner and saw the huge lines were priceless.
Well, they began letting us in at 7 and we were in the door by 7:10 and so was everyone else. Stubb's must hold more than 2,000 people, judging by the size of the crowd. At 7:45 she came on stage backed by about 5 people, including a keyboard player, and began braying through her set. I've never been a Fiona fan, but she plays so rarely I figured I'd be crazy not to catch her set, and besides, I really wanted to see the band that followed her.
It was the same flaccid Fiona I remember from the '90s, a woman who I always thought got by more on her looks than her talent. Her music had more in common with wonky Broadway show tunes than rock, fueled by awkward arrangements and her own awkward stage presence, though the crowd absolutely loved her.
The second she got off stage there was a mass pilgrimage to the door, which was fine by me. I walked right down by the stage and got ready for Sharon Van Etten, who I'd really came to see. Backed by a small four-piece band and with guitar in hand, she performed a stunning set of indie folk reminiscent of Chan Marshall (Cat Power), but with better melodies. When I turned around after the first couple songs, I noticed that the place had filled back up to capacity, this time for an artist that deserved the attention.
Getting near 10 p.m. the streets were beginning to fill with the crazies. I took a quick stroll to nearby Elysium to try to beat the crowd for Zola Jesus, and got right in to see Philly drone band Amen Dunes, whose sound can best be described as Lithium-fueled underwater buzzcore rock sung by a team of tribal shamen. Actually, not bad if you're into Nyquil rock.
But nothing compared to Zola Jesus, perhaps the most hyped indie band since, well, Lana Del Ray, though LDR has managed to leverage her hypeness into international fame. Zola Jesus is merely creating a rather massive cult of followers who view her as a second coming, and after last night's gig, may be onto something.
Frontwoman Rosa Danilova is an indie Gaga -- slight and almost fragile, wearing a ghost-white silky one-piece translucent draped dress, the tiny woman explodes into stage calisthenics the minute her band breaks into their dreamy, almost spiritual post-ambient rock that features synths, guitar and fantastic drums, while Danilova croons and prances on stage. I've heard her and her music compared to Cocteau Twins, and that did come to mind, though sonically there really is no similarity. Danilova, however, is amazing to see and hear on haunting songs that have a tendency to blend together, though it only makes the songs that stray from the formula shine even more.
I talked with fellow Reader music writer Chris Aponick during her set, asking how he thought she'd draw in Omaha. He thought she'd never sell out The Waiting Room, and pointed out there's a reason why she's only played down in Lawrence. He was right. As amazing as Zola Jesus is, the band is a hidden commodity in Omaha except for diehard indie fans, record store geeks and music writers. At least she is right now. I have no doubt that she could blow up as big as LDR if she ever got her break on SNL.
Finally at midnight, I made my way up to the 18th Floor of the Hilton Garden Inn and caught a solo acoustic set by '90s indie rock legend Freedy Johnston. Freedy used to be one of my favorites, and his albums from the '90s are still heard often in my car and earbuds. Despite my love for his music, I've never had a chance to see the former Lawrence-native play live, until last night.
There he was in the corner of the hotel's sky lounge surrounded by rows of chairs and a crowd of 50 that was a mix of older people and a handful of young hipsters who knew a good thing when they heard it. Johnston complained of a rough throat and apologized for his voice throughout the set, but he sounded just fine to me as he played through the favorites including "Evie's Tears" "Bad Reputation" and one of my all time faves, "Trying to Tell You I Don't Know," from his breakout album Can You Fly. It was a sweet way to end a sweet day in Austin.