The Mohawk is one of the premiere bars at South By Southwest, a grand inside/outside facility whose outdoor stage is surrounded by high-tiered seating. It’s on the top of almost everyone’s list of favorite venues and has been for years. If my schedule is correct, X should have been playing the outdoor stage at around the time the drunk driver slammed into the crowd standing outside of Mohawk, a line that had been there all night.
it should be mentioned that Red River St., where the accident took place, is no different than 6th St. in terms of being a full-on bacchanal late into the evening during the festival, and certainly was as I was walking away from it on my way back to my hotel about 20 minutes or so before the carnage took place. Mohawk has apparently already cancelled today’s shows, which included the House of Vans: Stereogum day party (if my sched is correct). Who knows what else will be affected by the incident. No doubt a pall — albeit temporary — has fallen over SXSW, though I won’t be surprised if it isn’t business as usual along Red River after the sun goes down.
The possibility of this sort of tragedy crosses everyone’s mind at some point during SXSW. The huge crowds, the huge number of drunks, the overall chaos is hard to describe, something akin to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The shadows of the Boston Marathon also come to mind, though none of those thoughts are enough to prevent the tens of thousands from enjoying this festival, and likely won’t stop them tonight.
Lots of foreigners here at SXSW struggling with the language. Case in point, a French guy walked up to me while watching Coachwhips perform at French Legation Park (the Pitchfork Day Party) and yelled, “Who EEs thees?”
I yelled back “It’s the Coachwhips.” He looked at me, confused. “COACHWHIPS” I yelled, then made a whipping motion with my hand and an imaginary whip, complete with a crack sound effect *sha-kow!” Then he got it. He smiled and rattled off something in French to his compatriot.
Yesterday’s day party underscored what I said in this week’s column. The day parties are where it’s at when it comes to South by Southwest. They’re usually held in large compounds — in this case in a scenic park east of downtown. No lines. Plenty of food trucks. Microbrews. Rows and rows of porta-potties. And the parties are absolutely free — no badges needed to enter. The bands are top-notch. Yesterday’s performances by Coachwhips and Protomartyr at French Legation Park are among my favorites so far at SXSW.
Contrast that with a typical SXSW night -- the long lines, the cramped clubs, the lack of restrooms, the expensive beer — all yours for the price of a badge. It's a good argument for attending SXSW without official credentials.
PROTOMARTYR is a band I’d never heard of prior their performance, but will be seeking out in the future (don’t bother looking in Spotify, btw). The Detroit-based punk band is fronted by a guy who looks like an insurance salesman, complete with a sensible haircut and full-on business attire, but who has a singing style akin to Husker-era Mould or The Fall's Mark E. Smith. Deadpan anger, straight-faced disgust, like an upset father with a controlled rage and a back-up band that is pure Gang of Four post punk. These guys are on the top of my list.
They were followed on the second stage at French Legation Park by John Dwyer’s COACHWHIPS, which were everything I hoped for and more. Dwyer was having a good time barking out the hits into a distorted condenser microphone, banging out chords on a beat-up metal-neck electric guitar. The crowd pushed right up to where the band stood and bounced along to the brittle good-time punk. I saw Dwyer’s other band, The Oh Sees, at SXSW in 2009 and have been floored by him ever since. Why can’t we get one of his bands to play in Omaha? Come on, promoters.
A fellow Omahan at the festival described EMPRESS OF as being sort of like St. Vincent, and “sort of” was the right description. Front woman Lorely Rodriguez is no Annie Clark. The quirky electric indie tuneage was good in small doses, but lost me after about three songs.
That was it for the park as I had to meet Teresa, who had just flown in that afternoon. After we got her badge situation squared away, we headed back to Red River and Cheer Up Charlie’s, which has become my go-to venue this year — easy access, no lines, food trucks, Shiner and decent bands (btw, it’s right next door to Mohawk). Yesterday was the Terrorbird Publishing day party (also free, no badges necessary) and the line-up was solid.
Among the line-up was ETERNAL SUMMERS, a Roanoke, Va., trio on Kanine Records that plays straight-forward post-rock with clean, clean lines. Unfortunately front woman Nicole Yun was having an off day (or couldn’t hear herself) as every note sounded off key and wonky. It was bad enough to drive me outside to catch the last few songs of THOSE DARLINS’ set. The band has its fans (many among the Hear Nebraska crowd). This was my first time catching the southern-fried twang, which was a bit too corny for my tastes (Sorry Andy).
We strolled down to Beerland and were told we had to catch a set by the legendary BEN WALLERS of low-fi giants Country Teasers. There he was on stage dressed like William S. Burroughs croaking out one song after another above his groaning guitar. No one can rhyme “vagina” and “inside ya” like Wallers.
Right afterward DESTRUCTION UNIT launched into a blistering feedback-laden set on Beerland’s outdoor patio. This is an amazingly band that finds sinewy melodies amidst the densest noise imaginable. It was impossible to actually see them from the street through the mob that formed outside the railing. Intense. Loud.
The evening festivities began once again at Cheer Up Charlie’s (a name that will seem oddly appropriate tonight). Breakthrough band GARDENS & VILLA were on the outdoor stage at 10. I saw these guys a couple years ago at SXSW (at Mohawk) and was less than impressed. However, their new album, Dunes (Secretly Canadian, 2014) is a real keeper - bouncy electronic dance music perfect to play in the background when you’re working. Needless to say, their live set was less than dynamic, somewhat flat. I’m not giving up on these guys, though…
Finally it was time to catch some local heroes. TWINSMITH’s only showcase was last night at Bar 512. A crowd of 50 (with at least a third from Omaha) saw the band pull off a tight set of their best music including a couple new ones. Call it a testimony to their appeal, but at least a dozen people were getting their groove on in front of the stage (which is to say, they were dancing). Can one performance at SXSW make a difference? Doubtful. To really make a dent and get a buzz going, bands need to play at least a half dozen times (or more) so their name keeps showing up on schedule after schedule throughout the week. One and done is tough.
Dead-dog tired, I almost called it night after Twinsmith, but figured I’d never get another chance to see KURT VILE. The odds of him getting booked in Omaha are pretty slim. So I made my way back to Cheer Up Charlie’s and squeezed into the packed crowd. There was Vile, seated throughout the performance, playing a solo acoustic set that sounded painfully brash. Vile sounded almost as tired as I felt, giving a performance that was anything but dynamic. After four songs I headed to the door and onto Red River St. 20 minutes before it would explode.
Check out all the photos from yesterday here at Lazy-i.