I'm writing this at 30,000 feet above some place between Austin and Omaha where dinosaurs once roamed the earth before the great Ice Age wiped it all away, long before anyone cared about weeklong music festivals in Austin, TX.
I recently had a conversation with another Omaha music critic who was giving me grief for skipping the last day of SXSW. "Why would you want to miss Saturday? I don't get it." Look, I said, I've never stayed in Austin for more than three days, ever. After three days of running around from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. listening to bands, I've had more than my fill, thank you very much. I see between 25 to 30 bands over those three days. If you haven't gotten what you need from the festival by then, you're not trying. But that's just me.
Day 3 started with a show sponsored by The Google on top of a parking garage just north of 6th St., providing gorgeous views of the chaos down below. The wind it did blow, and the sun it did scorch as Saddle Creek band Two Gallants took the stage sounding just like they did the last time I saw them a few years ago, before the duo went on hiatus, released their respective solo albums (to crickets) only to get back together again. Nothing had changed with their old-time ship-shanty folk rock sound. As always, when you hear one of their familiar tunes, you nod and say, "Aw right," but if it's a new song, well, you just want to get through it, especially after the 6-minute mark. Here's yet another band that would improve immensely if they shaved three minutes off each song.
Like yesterday, I had no clue who else was playing the Google stage, and was pleasantly surprised to discover next up was Grimes, the "band" I went to see at the Presbyterian church the day before, but missed due to scheduling issues. On stage was pixie-ish DJ/vocalist Claire Boucher, working electronic backing tracks and singing one-woman-band style. Grimes' music is brittle electronic dance stuff cast with a gothy Japanese sheen, thick deep beats balanced by her cooing voice. Later in the set a guy/person added even more percussion, but despite the head-bouncing beat, few (if any) were dancing. By the time I left, the half empty parking lot was really beginning to fill in, ballooning for day-party headliner The Shins, who would play in a few hours. Ah, The Shins. No thanks (though I liked them the first time 'round).
Instead it was across town to the coolest bike store I've ever seen -- Mellow Johnny's. In addition to having a gigantic selection of bikes, Johnny's boasts a ton of apparel, a coffee shop, and for this week, a stage, where red hot Brooklyn punk band The Men (not to be confused with androgynous dance band MEN) played an afternoon show for about 50 fans and bike enthusiasts. The band is riding a wave of rave reviews, including a Pitchfork "recommended selection." And I would add my name to that list for those of you into chunky Bad Religion-style rock. They're loud and fast and raw, with dueling guitar riffs and a couple solid vocalists/screamers. But like a lot of bands in this genre, it all begins to sound the same after three songs.
The first part of my last evening in Austin was dedicated to the Saddle Creek showcase, held at a 2nd St. BBQ restaurant called Lambert's. Whenever I tell someone I'm headed to SXSW, they always say, "Man, you've got to check out the Omaha bands and see how well they translate to an out-of-town crowd." That would be a good idea, except every time I've seen an Omaha band in Austin, the crowd consisted mostly of Omaha people who made the trip. Such was the case last night for Icky Blossoms. I looked around and felt like I was watching a show in O'Leaver's or The Waiting Room. There even was some guy I didn't recognize wearing a Waiting Room T-shirt. Needless to say, the audience of 50 or so was gracious with its applause, and, in fact, IB put on a sterling set, especially for playing at a rib joint.
We left a couple songs into Big Harp's surprisingly loud and rowdy set so we could get in line to see Eleanor Friedberger at the Merge showcase just a couple blocks away at a hot dog joint called Frank. I figured we'd have a hard time getting in, especially since their showcase capper was Bob Mould performing Sugar's Copper Blue album, so I was surprised when they waved us in with our badges -- no line at all. The cool little restaurant (everything is cool in Austin) never got crush-mob crowded, which is either a testament to the current state of Merge Records or the fact that Snoop Dog was performing across the street.
After a day of ear-bleeding noise, it was a treat to hear Friedberger do an intimate solo acoustic set. She's a modern-day Joni or Janis (or Bowie), but with a self-assured lyrical voice that's never cloying. This night she seemed distracted and slightly annoyed, and inasmuch said so during her set, telling the crowd that she'd been complaining just a little earlier, but that she was over that now. Her songs can be sad, but are sung with a voice laced in persistence, sounding not so much an optimist but rather a survivor. And I was literally standing right next to her.
So here was the sitch -- Friedberger sang at around 8:45. Mould wasn't scheduled to perform until 12:30. I could either leave and try to get back in and also risk being stuck way behind a roomful of pumpkin heads, or I could just hang out at Frank all night and soak in the other Merge artists. Easy choice.
I missed The Love Language to go upstairs for a chili dog and basket of waffle fries, but came back down for Crooked Fingers. In addition to once releasing a solo album on Saddle Creek, frontman Eric Bachmann has the distinction of (at times) having a voice that's a dead ringer for Neil Diamond. Another distinction is his hulking 6-foot-8 frame that makes him resemble a Viking farmer in a trucker cap. With a solid backing band and a rack filled with guitars, Bachmann and Co. ripped through a set of folk rockers that at its finest moments recalled Richard Thompson. Again, I was literally right in front of the stage, and did my best to slump down so as to not block the people behind me.
I moved back a couple rows for the next act -- Imperial Teen, a band that's been around literally forever, and by that, I mean since the '90s. Despite that, I knew virtually nothing, which resembled a group of schoolteachers (I would later find out that one of the guys was former Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum). Don't let appearances fool you -- they rocked like The Pixies but without the pretention. I will now be searching out their catalog.
Finally, it was time for Bob Mould. He was preceded on stage by a crew of grips rolling in a stacks and stacks of Marshall and Orange gear, piled along the rear of the stage. Mould strode in with his classic blue Fender and began plugging in the pedals. The last time I saw him perform he was strapping young, clean shaven rocker. These days he looks like a wizened college professor or scientist, sporting a gray beard and extra pounds around the middle. With no fanfare, he looked over at bassist Jason Narducy (Telekinesis, ex-Verbow) and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk) and said, "I guess let's just go" and tore into the opening chords of "The Act We Act," the first song on Copper Blue. The crowd, of course, exploded. Mould sounded fantastic, his guitar work as lethal as ever, his voice achingly familiar. From there it was right into "A Good Idea," "Changes" and "Helpless," one after another. Unreal. Every one a heartbreaking anthem. And being performed about 10 feet in front of me.
After "Hoover Dam," he stopped to explain how the show was a last-minute thing, how he'd just signed a deal with Merge the week before, and how the only thing left to do on the new album (slated for release this fall) was to record the vocals. With that, the band played what I assume were a couple new songs from that album, which were stunning. So no, this was not a performance of Copper Blue in its entirety (merely side one). However, after the last song, Mould came back out for an encore of "I Can't Change Your Mind" that blew the place away. Mould clearly was having the time of his life, and so was the crowd, making it the high point of my SXSW 2012 experience.
It was well past 1:30 when I left the club. When I walked out, there was no less than 50 uniformed police officers in what looked like riot formation standing in the middle of Colorado Street, cop cars with lights flashing bordering either intersection. The moment felt tenuous and chaotic. I asked a guy what was going on, but all he said was, "Man, this is typical South By." And with that, I headed back to Congress Ave. and my hotel, keeping my head on a swivel for whatever was going to happen next. Nothing did.
So much for South By Southwest for 2012. The old guys -- Jesus and Mary Chain and Mould -- were the standouts this year, though performances by Sharon Van Ette, Zola Jesus, Neon Trees, Eleanor Friedberger, Grimes and our very own Icky Blossoms were also on top of my list. And you're goddamn right that I'm coming back next year.
Read more coverage of SXSW in this Thursday's issue of The Reader.