Kneeling down at the edge of the stage at the big outdoor venue of Stubb's in Austin, Nick Cave cradled a young man's head in his hands and sang his death-filled take on the deathless "Stagger Lee" myth. The jammed-in crowd laughed a little nervously. Cave stared down at the kid, who just kept nodding his head as if nothing were happening. The band, the Bad Seeds, played like the armies of the night.
Five-thousand miles away a new pope was about to take the throne. Oh hipster, my hipster, I'm not saying these things have never happened before, but you try telling Austin (or the world) that, not to mention the kid whose head will never be the same.
Nor will mine, after the first two days of SXSW Music 2013.
On Tuesday, March 12 I landed in Austin for the oft-maligned, much-misunderstood, over-exposed (I realize the irony), frequently pain-giving conference/festival/marketing-orgasm, my eleventh or twelfth such South By. I've lost count. The weather was edenic, the flight on time to the second, the rental car an easy-to-park Fiat, the Austin Convention Center just ten minutes from the airport, even with a bit of lunchtime traffic. And then the first of many snafus, always and forever built in to SXSW: the driving in circles past Saran-wrapped, after Saran-wrapped parking meter, with no lot less than $20 in view. One learns to accept these annoyances, though with each wasted minute another band, another free cocktail, another taste of the special, not-going-to-happen-again slips away. Five hours later, credentials in hand, unpacked at La Quinta (five miles out of town; don't even think about getting a downtown hotel), I was sitting at a sidewalk table at Guero's Taco Bar on South Congress, having my first margarita, the kind you rarely find in my beloved St. Louis. Happy-hour pricing was still in effect.
The first band of the week turned out to be the dream-popists of Gliss, playing for free at Guero's. This made no sense, of course, though the flickering drone suited the Hipstomatic-ready, late-afternoon light. I heard but one beautifully shaped song before Gliss ended and my table was ready.
I note the moment only to remind myself, now and then, that such stumbled-upon snatches of surprising music must be tallied against the moments of bullshit, of which there will always and forever be many.
Speaking of which: At the first Viceland party, taking place Tuesday night at a makeshift stage and quasi-complex across the street from the convention center, nobody seemed to be in charge or knew enough to even come close to being in charge. Three, four or five different lines were forming, all trying to gain access to a killer bill featuring late acts Japandroids and Divine Fits. I entered the Jansport-propagandized holding pen, where the free vodka tonics made the queue a little less irksome. An hour later, I still hadn't inched closer to the open-air event space; security was shutting shit down and clearing the holding room.
In vain I tried to start the bum rush at the door. It's just as well that I failed, though Japandroids sounded like it was taking aim and kicking the fire marshal's ass. Even with a badge, you don't always get to witness the pleasures of rock & roll firsthand.
Before all that nonsense it was Ivan & Alyosha at the Hype Hotel, in some nondescript, stripped-out commercial space in the heart of the city, my first official showcase of the week. The band has been through St. Louis to little notice or attendance. It deserves your attention, as the songs are growing ever more clear and pop-conscious, with echoes of All Things Must Pass Harrison here and there, and excellent three-part harmonies, with new song "Running for Cover" closing out the fully-into-it set with all the joy I'd hoped for.
The rumors on Twitter were false: Macklemore and Lewis were not playing at the luggage carousels at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, but the flavor-of-the-past-few-months was playing just about everywhere and anywhere else this week, so I figured I'd cross it off the list early. Not so, as the line for Mr. Haggerty's showcase at the venue formerly known as Emo's was prodigious.
I hoofed it up to the Central Presbyterian Church for a seat at the Milk Carton Kids' first official gig at this year's SXSW. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan sounded nostalgic, recalling their initiation as a duo right here in Austin just few years ago. Dressed in their best Bible salesmen's jackets, the two singers and guitarists harmonized like the Everlys, tossed off droll self-and-audience deprecations (the two know what banter is, so don't ask for more from the cheap seats) and seemed to joke about quieting down a quiet crowd; they weren't kidding about that. Pattengale's guitar playing owes a major debt to David Rawlings, as do the Kids' co-written songs to Gillian Welch, but that's not a dig. The songs sounded like dreams. And thus ended my first night of the week.
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