If you attend South By Southwest for more than a few days, you’re bound to see the same acts more than once whether you want to or not. Yesterday being my fourth day, it was inevitable I’d collect a couple “doubles.”
Typical sets at SXSW are only about a half-hour — long enough to get a good sense of the band’s music and style, but short enough to limit the suffering if it sucks. SXSW “officials” are hardcore clock-watchers. Unlike local festivals whose schedules can get way out of whack, SXSW runs like a finely tuned Swiss timepiece. Bands go on stage precisely when they’re supposed to, and are briskly given warnings to wrap it up five minutes before getting the hook.
These short sets are one reason a band can play eight or more shows over the course of a couple days. They also make it possible for an industrious lad to see as many as 20 bands per day if s/he scheduled them just right. S/he also would have to be out of his/her mind. The most I’ve seen in one day is probably a dozen sets, almost always on my second day of SXSW, when I’m still eager and my feet and back are pain-free. By Day 4 fatigue sets in, and I begin to wind down.
That said, yesterday was an oddly productive day of shows. It began at Waterloo Records, a massive music store on the west side of town, one of the biggest independent record stores I’ve been in outside of New York City. It’s essentially two gigantic adjoining rooms filled with new stock and everything else a music fan might want to buy. Walking its well-organized aisles I wondered if stores like Waterloo will still be around in five years.
Waterloo’s SXSW day parties take place in the parking lot on a large temporary stage. First up (for me, anyway) was CATE LE BON, a Welsh singer/songwriter who now lives is LA. She and her band played a number of songs off her most recent album Mug Museum (2013, Turnstyle). The uptempo music combines post-punk and English folk, kind of like Richard and Linda Thompson music sung in a low, flat voice that recalls ‘60s siren Nico. The music can be both loopy and choppy, powered by minimal synths and Le Bon’s own economic electric guitar solos. Very avant-poppy and oddly European.
Right after Le Bon on the same stage was, once again, PROTOMARTYR. Who knows how many times they’d played up until then, but frontman Joe Casey looked like he was phoning it in compared to their performance two days earlier at French Legation Park. Casey’s bitter spewing sounded more like annoyed mumbling, but the band was still solidly on point. “This next song is about feral cats,” Casey said flatly by way of introduction. “They say there’s more feral cats in Detroit than anywhere in the world. I don’t believe them.” And with that they appropriately snapped right into “Feral Cats,” off No Passion, All Technique (2013, Urinal Cake).
Teresa wasn’t at Tuesday’s Protomartyr performance, and was amused by Casey’s between-song facial expressions — a cross between curiosity, surprise and annoyance. He also made these faces during songs when he didn't have anything else to do but stand around and wait for the chorus to come back 'round. Backstage during Le Bon’s set I could see Casey smiling, wearing a Detroit Tigers ball cap with nary a scowl in sight. Shtick? Maybe.
The rest of the afternoon was beset with mishaps. Every day party — from The Ginger Man (featuring Drivin’ and Cryin’) to shows on Rainey Street south of downtown — had huge lines snaking from the front doors that did not budge. Having a badge got you nowhere, as none of them were “official showcases.” I suspect we were seeing what happens when the locals take Friday off to enjoy some free entertainment (And who can blame them?).
We didn’t get back over the river until later that evening, when the official SXSW showcases were in full effect. First stop was the Central Presbyterian Church. Located on 8th Street, it’s a large, old-fashioned, stained-glass-and-pews church complete with a giant cross and a covey of helpful church folks delighted to have all these young people paying a visit to their house of worship, even if their music was laced with sex, death and obscenities.
Like every big ol' church I’ve been in, the acoustics were dramatic — deep echoes bounced off wooden pillars high-high-high into the vaulted ceiling. Adding to the din was a small PA consisting of a couple amp towers.
First up was EMA — a.k.a. Erika M. Anderson. The South Dakota singer/songwriter had a hit in 2011 with buzz-how droner Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions). Her next album, The Future’s Void, comes out April 7 on Matador, and judging by what she played last night, will be more of a straight-forward post-rock album with just as much drama but a lot more rhythm. When she got on the alter with her band, Teresa commented that she looked out of it. Anderson announced from stage that she was sick, but you couldn’t tell from her voice, which only frayed on the highest of notes.
EMA was followed by red-hot indie upstart ANGEL OLSEN and her band. I’ve listened to Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar) a few times and am still not feeling it. Pitchfork went completely ga-ga for the record, anointing it with their “Best New Music” label. Truth be told, the material came off better live. Olsen has a touch of Tammy Wynette in her voice, though her music is typical indie singer/songwriter fare (with a twang). Maybe I just need to spin this record a few more times (or maybe Pitchfork got it wrong).
SXSW just isn’t SXSW unless you catch at least one old-fashioned legend. This year’s legend for me was URGE OVERKILL. I have no idea why the band is even out playing — they haven’t released anything since their self-released Rock and Roll Submarine in 2011. Still, it’s hard to pass up the band behind ’93’s Saturation, and the classic single “Sister Havana.”
The capacity crowd upstairs at Maggie Mae’s got their “Sister Havana” fix, along with a handful of other UO classics played by two of the original members — Nash Kato looking cool as ever in his wrap-around sunglasses, and a very sweaty Eddie “King” Roeser. Blackie Onassis was MIA.
Yes, the guys looked older, yes, they flubbed up a couple times, and yes, their voices were hoarse (They’d played a set just that afternoon at The Ginger Man, and said they had one more set after this one), but it didn’t matter to the aging fans in the crowd, a few even pumped their fists in the air all night.
So here was the deal: They don’t serve beer at the church, and there was no way to get a drink at the overcapacity Maggie Mae’s. Dying of thirst, we noticed Red 7 didn’t have a line, so we hightailed it over with no idea who was playing. On stage, DESTRUCTION UNIT, who we just saw the day before on the Beerland patio, hardly the height of quality acoustics. Every band that plays on that patio sounds like a bag of chainsaws, so it was nice to hear these guys on a proper stage with a proper PA. The difference -- you could actually hear melody, rhythm, separation, dynamics, even though it was ear-bleedingly loud. Awesome.
Next stop was EROS AND THE ESCHATON up the hill at Valhalla. This rendition of the band consisted only of Katey Perdoni on keys and guitar, and Adam Hawkins on keys and drums, and that was all they needed. The crowd of 40 or so looked entranced by the duo’s drone, including a handful of Omaha folks come to see the former homeboy behind It’s True.
Unfortunately we could only hang around for a few songs because one of my punch-list artists was playing back at the Central Presbyterian Church at 11:45. MARK KOZELEK is the guy behind Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon as well as his own amazing solo output. I’ve been a fan for years and figured I’d never get to see him perform live. And now here he was, sitting in the dark up on that alter, accompanied only by a drummer/harmony vocalist (Steve Shelley?) hidden somewhere behind him.
It was a gorgeous performance of music from his latest Sun Kil Moon album, Benji (2014, Caldo Verde), which I hadn’t heard prior to this set and have been listening to ever since. Kozelek was in perfect voice, artfully playing his acoustic guitar, creating waves of beauty and despair. I admit, there are certain times when I simply cannot listen to Kozelek music because of its dark, desperate, lonely, depressing mood. This new record is all of that in spades — a collection of songs about death and dying and living, each song a mini biography about someone in Kozelek’s life who no longer is, or soon no longer will be.
Between songs, Kozelek lightened the mood with fun, funny and sometimes biting comments, including a few jabs at the event’s sponsor, Pitchfork, who he both lambasted and complimented, specifically for giving Benji a 9.2 rating, and then asking why they couldn’t have simply given it a 10. Afterword he wondered out loud if he’d be getting a call from his publicist tomorrow telling him that Pitchfork was withdrawing its offer to have him play their festival in Chicago this summer. Very unlikely.
Kozelek played for almost a full hour. And despite not playing any of his classic RHP back catalog, it was one of the best concerts I’ve seen not only at SXSW, but anywhere. The whole time I was sitting in that pew in the dark I was thinking how lucky I was to be hearing this performance, and in this most appropriate of places for such divine music.
Every year at SXSW there’s at least one performance that stands as a “perfect moment.” In 2010 it was the Big Star All Star Concert played just days after the death of Alex Chilton. Two years ago it was Jesus & Mary Chain, and Bob Mould performing Copper Blue. I was beginning to wonder if I would get one of those perfect moments this year. Kozelek came through. It also proved to be the last set I'd see at SXSW 2014, as we packed up and headed home the following day.