Tragedy Hangs Over SXSW After Two Days of Music

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Roy Kasten - The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady
Roy Kasten

Some facts as I know them at deadline: Two are dead and dozens are injured after a high speed chase along Red River Street. in downtown Austin, Texas last night. After being pulled over by police for a suspected DWI, the vehicle sped off against traffic, crashed through a barricade and plowed through dozens along Red River near and in front of the Mohawk night club during Wednesday night's SXSW Music showcase. The suspect is in custody.

[Update: Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo says the crash was "intentional," and that the car was reportedly stolen. The suspect's name is Rashad Charjuan Owens, 21. Two were killed, 23 were injured, eight were transported to the hospital and three people are still in serious condition in the ICU. "This is an individual who showed no regard for the human beings he plowed through," Acevedo said." The results of a BAC test have not yet been released. More info here.]

I was inside Mohawk last night, standing 30 feet away from the street. I did not hear or see the crime. 20 minutes earlier, I was standing in the line that was hit by the car. I had come to Mohawk to see LA punk band X, and the band played a full set. Tyler the Creator, who was to follow, did not.

See also: Two Dead, 23 Injured in Grisly SXSW Tragedy [Updated With Video]

Like hundreds of others, I left the club at 1 a.m. and walked to the west, away from the corner intersection where police and emergency crew did what they could. Everyone I passed and who passed me was stunned. Some were crying. We had to head back down towards Sixth Street, where the parties and music played on unknowing.

If you've never been to Austin during SXSW you should know that this part of town, just a few blocks west of Interstate 35 and just south of the Capitol building, is one of the most highly trafficked by both pedestrians and cars in the downtown area. In all the years I've come to SXSW (over a dozen but I've lost track) I've never reflected on how dangerous these streets could be.

It feels surreal writing this review now, on the morning after the worst catastrophe, surely, in the history of the South By Southwest event. In past years, I've tried to tell a story of my days and nights in Austin in the spring, and I try to do so with humor and irony. That's impossible this time.

Here instead, and at risk of callous brevity and in chronological order, is my consideration of the bands I saw on the first two days of SXSW 2014. I hope the next three days bring only music and community.

Tuesday, March 11

At Empire Control Room for Danny's free day party on my first afternoon in Austin, Marmalakes cut its trio semi-pop tendencies with proggy flourishes, getting louder somehow when the guitarist switched to acoustic. Any song with a joyous "Victoria!!!" chorus and a bit of noise-jamming in the place of solos will always move me.

But the band I had come to see, the Black and White Years (from Austin), was even better. Though reviews of Arcade Fire's recent exploits have rendered Roxy Music comparisons all but meaningless, that's the comparison that comes first to mind, with singer Scott Butler delivering a deliciously decadent and not-quite-but-nearly paranoid vocal quaver across the corkscrew synth lines. A band this pale shouldn't be having this much fun in the daylight.

Dana Plonka - The Black and White Years
The Black and White Years
Dana Plonka

My Tuesday night showcases started late but memorably at 9:15 p.m. on Rainey Street for the Danish party and the band Mister and Mississippi, about whose name I had my doubts but about whose music I didn't. Like Mazzy Star cut with a bit of twang and glockenspiel, the band floated through a short set of dreamy songs you could still dance to, though the kids sat on the astroturfed patio instead. Maxime Barlag has a lovely, generous alto, and if its name doesn't hold them back, this Utrecht-formed band might have a future in the New World.

Mister and Mississippi - Dana Plonka
Dana Plonka
Mister and Mississippi

At Cheer Up Charlies, my first night continued with the Sour Notes, a psych-drone band from Austin with actual songs and a singer who can deliver a line with more tenderness than you'd expect from a neo-pedal pusher. The weed smelled fine around me and the light show, featuring disembodied floating cat heads (the band's cats, apparently) was a strange but sweet touch. It was a free show, so the band gave away cassettes after its set. Rock & roll youth should always be like this.

Midnight found me at the Intercontinental Hotel bar for Falls, a Sydney, Australia duo who will likely never outlive the Civil Wars comparisons. But they should. Backed by a string quartet, Melinda Kirwin and Simon Rudston-Brown performed exquisitely to a full room, seeming to savor each moment on stage. "Tell her I'm headed for forgiveness/I know it's rough some days" is a line I'll remember. Ditto for a good, harmonica-full cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."

To close out my first night, I selected Sub Pop band Avi Buffalo. The band started late, and singer Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg seemed to have barely woken up after a long haul. "Your fly is open!!" called out a few members of the audience. "I know. I broke the button. But I have two pairs of underpants on, so it's OK." The set sounded so much better than it looked, especially with Zahner-Isenberg's voice, a high falsetto that may not be a falsetto at all, cutting across the Byrdsy groove and chime. Half the audience sang along with "What's It In For" and the other half loved it. Axiom: When you have songs and melodies you really don't need anything else, least of all a working zipper.

Continue to page two for more.

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