Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Knee Deep at SXSW: Day 3 - Killer Parties Almost Killed Me

This is the day that SXSW almost killed me and, if it wasn't for the Hold Steady I wouldn't have made it to 2 AM. The night before I remember getting up after checking e-mail and trying to walk to the bathroom at the hotel and barely being able to do it. It's my own damn fault really, and I realized it was time for my stupid low-top Chucks phase to end. Word to the wise: PLEASE WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES WITH ARCH SUPPORT TO SXSW. IT IS WAY MORE IMPORTANT THAN TRYING TO LOOK COOL. Anyway, so I didn't know if I was going to make it through the day.

As usual, we got to 6th and Red River at 11:30, about a half hour before everything started up. We stopped by the Planetary promotions party because they had free swag and we got these sweet-ass Fidel Castro-esque hats that would become fixtures on me, Alison, and Sean's head for the next couple of days. But the party kind of sucked. There were a couple of bands I wanted to see (I forget who though) but they weren't playing until later AND it was at Maggie Mae's (which is a fucking shitty venue) AND the band playing when we got there was easily the worst band I have ever seen playing songs in a live setting in my entire life. I don't even want to know what they were called, it was probably something really stupid. But anyway, I split.

After that we all wound up at the AAM day party for the last bit Parenthetical Girls. Again, I love this band but of course, like almost all bands at SXSW, they were playing the same set as the other night...only no one was there and they just looked kinda tired or maybe bummed. The music was still great though, in particular that point in the Orchestral Manoeuveres in the Dark cover they do where it ends with all four of them beating on the drum kit. That was pretty awesome.

Had there been seating anywhere, I probably wouldn't have left the AAM party because the line-up was so super solid. Even the bands playing first were solid, including That Ghost, who I never would have seen had they not been on such a solid bill. I checked them out inside mainly because their latest record got voted into rotation so it must have been decent...and there was nowhere to sit. But I was glad I went inside because they were pretty good! Of course, they weren't that good, given that I can't remember what they sound like at all (indie____) . Like, seriously. I cannot even remember so, you know. But I do remember it wasn't bad.

Fortunately, HEALTH started playing outside soon after and that really picked me up a bit. I'd never listened to HEALTH. I thought they were another one of those myriad electronica bands that all the kids love right now but man was I fucking wrong because these guys slayed. But of course, I was lame and only watched 60% of their set because my feet were about to fall off and I found a chair inside where I sat. God, how lame is that! I started wishing that some of the downtown shops would sell insoles at ridiculous prices because they could make a bunch of money in that racket I think. Anyway, HEALTH was one of the myriad bands I caught at SXSW that made me want to check out their record when I got home.

Inside, Titus Andronicus played and this brought me back to life. Titus Andronicus are one of my absolute favorite bands right now, and I only realized this in February when I saw them open for Los Campesinos! I realized that their debut LP The Airing Of Grievances, which I initially panned, was fucking brilliant and that Patrick Stickles is one of the most interesting songwriters of right now. They kind of remind me of a less polarizing Hold Steady. Very wordy with lots of old-school rock and roll influence played by dudes that play it because it's fun to play old school rock and roll and bust out guitar solos. At the same time, they sound nothing like the Hold Steady. They sound exactly like Titus Andronicus though, and the set killed. I secretly hoped they'd bust out the 7-minute jam "No Future Part 1" but it was OK that they didn't, I don't think I could have handled it anyway. What I COULD handle though was finding that as soon as they started up with "Titus Andronicus" my feet were suddenly fine and I could rock out and sing along as much as I wanted without dying. Other jams included "My Time Outside the Womb," monster jam "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape with The Fall of Icarus,'" "Joset of Nazareth's Blues," and closing with "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ." I watched patiently on "Fear and Loathing," watched the quiet build up and then watched all of the band members' faces when they all shouted "FUCK YOU" and that was really transcendent. These guys give a fuck. They all kind of seem to hate life a little bit but this is how they're fighting back, or something.

And man, for a rock triumvirate, The Mae Shi played outside next. I wanted to catch them in Austin so they could give me a reason to listen to their records and they did a hell of a job of that. I could only stick around for about half of the set (as my feet started quitting again) but from what I saw I could easily see myself getting obsessed with this band within the next couple of weeks. What I want to happen is that I fall in love with them and then call myself a big baby for not seeing their whole set (I really wish I caught them at the Four Square Punk thing where Alison and Sean raved about the whole elementary school parachute thing they did, that would have sealed the deal). "Oh, my feet hurt, boo fucking hoo." But yeah, I'm an idiot. Always get arch support, otherwise you watch half of the Mae Shi's set and then realize if you don't sit down you're going to fall over.

So I got a sandwich at that same sandwich shop from the night before, and the rest of the day is kind of fuzzy. I don't remember what I did at all, but I'm sure it involved a lot of sitting and a lot of drinking water. OH, you know what I did! I remember now. I walked around and waited in lines. That's actually the opposite of sitting, come to think of it. But I walked to Club DeVille to try to get in to see the Thermals and the Hold Steady but the line was ridiculous, then to Emos Jr to see the Dirty Projectors, where the line was also ridiculous. So I went around the side of Emos and went in there, where there was no line. Why did I go to Emos? Was it because Wavves was about to play? No, because I knew I could sit somewhere. And then somehow I ended up back at Club DeVille an hour later and the line was much shorter and I got right in. This is where the day started looking up.

So, I get into the place and they're selling "unlimited beer" wristbands for two-dollars. It's pretty late, and I regret not getting here earlier and taking advantage of this sweet deal, but given that I'm about to see the Hold Steady, where it is improper to see them without a beer in your hand to raise on lines like "Gonna walk around and drink some more," I figured I'd better do it. The place was packed with people who, again, probably didn't give a shit about the Hold Steady so I moved my way as close as I could to the edge of people who were into it. I figured if someone gave me shit for getting in front of them I would ask why they weren't rocking out and to shut up or something. This band does things to me, I swear. Surprisingly, their set is different from the day before and I don't know why I think this is surprising, given that the Hold Steady are pretty much the greatest band ever and of course they would switch it up. Of course, the monster jams like "Sequestered in Memphis," "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," "Stuck Between Stations," and "Stevie Nix" are there, but they're mixed in with some deeper cuts from the first record that I hadn't heard them play live, including "Barfruit Blues," "Hornets Hornets," and my all-time favorite Hold Steady jam "How a Ressurection Really Feels." Hearing that opening riff I completely lost my shit and sang along with the people singing around me. It was a transcendent moment. I realized that during their whole set my feet didn't hurt at all, and that it was going to be absolutely necessary for me to see them at midnight next door at the Mohawk. This was decided. This was how I was going to get through SXSW. And then they eventually broke into "Stay Positive," and when I was chanting along the chorus "Whoa OH oh, Whoa OH oh, we've gotta stay positive" I knew that is exactly what I needed.

Again, at 6 PM I stumbled back to meet the crew for dinner in a euphoric post-Hold Steady daze.
Dinner involved hiking, but it also meant eating at a fancy-ass Thai restaurant where we, us grungy sweaty t-shirted kids, dined amongst fancy folk wearing ties and shit. But whatever, it was good. HERE IS A PICTURE OF IT. Here is also a picture of my little bowl of rice that came with a carrot heart. SO CUTE!

With some great fortune, the Thai place was literally a block away from the Karma Lounge, where I had prepared to start off Friday night seeing one of my favorite new bands the Manhattan Love Suicides at 8:20. Since it was about 7:30 and I had nothing to do, I figured I'd catch openers I am David Sparkle. I got to the place at 7:30 sharp and nothing was happening, they were still setting up their stuff and this went on for about 40 minutes. I didn't mind that much, as I had an ice cold Lone Star in hand and was content to sit on the funky couches that you might expect to find at a place called the Karma Lounge. Eventually one of the SXSW workers says that the technical difficulties are solved and the show starts at about 8:10. I Am David Sparkle are kind of what SXSW is all about, or what I realized it should be about: seeing bands you've never heard of and then, subsequently if you're lucky, really enjoying them. I Am David Sparkle are four dudes from Singapore playing Mogwai/Explosions in the Sky/Do Make Say Think influenced post-rock...and they're really good. I don't even listen to post-rock that much (I have the attention span of a gnat when it comes to music sometimes) but this stuff is really good. Nothing too outstandingly original, but still really solid. At one point the SXSW worker goes to the side of the stage and says they can play as long as they want and don't have to cut their set short since the Manhattan Love Suicides said they'd cut theirs short, or something. In front of me, a British woman gets VERY CRANKY at this and takes the worker aside to complain. "I came to see the Manhattan Love Sucides! I'm on a schedule!" and the worker rightfully gives her a "what is your fucking problem lady?" look and brushes her off. The woman's face is priceless, she pouts and throws a little fit and stands with her arms crossed like a five year old. She's gotta be in her fifties. Anyway, somehow this doesn't bother me, the Manhattan Love Suicides set getting cut short because right now, I am really enjoying I Am David Sparkle.

Do you want to know what the worst feeling in the world is? Well, not worse than like, having your ankles feel like they're about to fall off or heartbreak, but like, hyperbolically? It's when you see a band you love's setlist and you see the ONE song you REALLY REALLY wanted to see crossed out in black sharpie. That's what happened with the Manhattan Love Suicides, crossing out "You'll Never Get That Guy." I sighed, but it didn't matter too much as I saw they were opening with "Keep it Coming," my second favorite jam. Their live set is incredibly short and I regret not seeing them earlier in the week. So, the Manhattan Love Suicides do not come from Manhattan, they come from England. And they play noisy, shoegazey indie-pop loaded with genius pop hooks. I'm sad that they breeze through their set in about 20 minutes and they don't play my favorite song, but at the same time I'm satisfied.

After the show I finish my beer and head outside. I pass a couple of the dudes from I Am David Sparkle and tell them what a great show they put on and I notice there is a dude videotaping me. His name is John, and he is doing a documentary on the band's first trip to America. We had a long conversation about indie music in Singapore and Asia and he told me how hard it is for bands like I Am David Sparkle to get by because there is no local support there, and about how a band like Mogwai will come play and it will cost five times as much to see them there than in America. It made me want to be an ambassador or something, helping bands get to America where their music will stand a chance without being fetishized like Asian music often is here. I thought about the myriad Japanese punk bands I'd seen walking to and from the convention center--all leather with huge mohawks and caked on make-up. It was a good conversation. Then the topic veered to who we'd been seeing at SXSW and he mentioned he'd seen Grizzly Bear at the Central Presbyterian Church the other day and I was a little jealous. Based on his recommendation, I decided that I would try to see them at the Cedar Street Coutryard at 11:45 that night and headed that way when we were done talking.

I got there and it was packed. Not packed in the sense that say, the Bottleneck is packed and people go home when it is sold out. I'm talking inside the tiny courtyard people could barely move and there were at least a few hundred people crammed around outside trying desperately to get in. I managed to find the tiny badge line amidst the sea of people and talked to an older couple about it. They were there to see Dinosaur Jr (playing after Grizzly Bear, what a bill right?) and they expressed their disgust that none of the younger kids they'd talked to even knew who they were. I shared this disgust with them and then we got in. The place was more packed than I thought and made my way to the bathroom where I waited twenty minutes. In this twenty minutes of waiting, I had a revelation. Sure, I could see Grizzly Bear here but I wouldn't enjoy it. I would be seeing Grizzly Bear for the sake of seeing Grizzly Bear and my feet hurt and I would feel miserable afterward. Plus I'd have to suffer through Peter, Bjorn and John, which I absolutely did not want to do. So, after the bathroom I fought my way out of the crowd, offering up my spot in the courtyard to someone willing to tolerate that mess of people.

I realized that it was Friday night and that I wanted to party. I had been such a baby the last day and a half, I needed to shut right the fuck up and get down. So I hiked down 6th street through the mass of people simulating Mardi Gras and onto Red 7 where I hoped Nick was up to something nefarious at a pop-punk show. My pop-punk roots drove me there and when I got there I felt right at home, even more so with a Lone Star tallboy in hand and watching The Girls. They were nothing special, but it was better than forcing myself to watching some hype band for the sake of watching a hype band no matter how much I loved their music. This, you see, was my pre-party because at midnight I would go see the Hold Steady again at the Mohawk and I had a good hour until that started. I drank more beers and hung out with Nick until the Cute Lepers started.

Thought I've kind of cut my ties with pop-punk, and modern pop-punk even more so, I really like the Cute Lepers. We had their last record in rotation and it's just a good time. Their stage set-up is really strange and wonderful, too. To the left on bass and guitar are dudes who look like Rudeboys. To the right there are two beautiful back-up singer-type girls. The drummer looks like a punk rock drummer and frontman Steve E. Nix looks totally dapper in a pink button down shirt. It makes sense that I would like the Cute Lepers because I always liked the Briefs between the ages of 16-18. It's a good time, better than waiting on pained feet to see Grizzly Bear and when they wrap up I finish my beer and head to the Mohawk (just a little early) because there is more preparation to be done if I'm going to see the Hold Steady properly.

No more pictures exist between 11:30 and 1:30. Despite the fact that the screen on my camera got broken earlier from rocking out to the Hold Steady (messed up by my lighter or my keys) , despite this I specifically put the camera in my bag because to hell if I was going to interrupt my rocking out with picture-taking. Especially since I was planning on forcing my way to the very front of the stage to sing along with every word.

I got into the Mohawk no problem (thank you to the gods for getting us badges instead of wristbands this year, surprisingly after we got the badges I decided to use the hell out of mine). I doublefisted a doublewhiskycokenoice and a Lone Star and finished them quickly, in time to grab one more Lone Star before they started. This timing worked out perfectly and by the time the Hold Steady took the stage I was absolutely ready. Beer in hand, ready to raise it to St. Joe Strummer and anytime Craig Finn mentioned partying. I realized that this was exactly where I needed to be at this very moment in time, and the crowd seemed a lot better than earlier. A little thinner, more room to move, and I made my way to the front, where I patiently waited until the first song broke open.

And of course, they started with "Positive Jam," because as Craig Finn notes, "You gotta start it with a positive jam." Keyboardist Franz Nicolay, the classy motherfucker he is, is sipping from a bottle of cheap wine at the side of the stage and the crowd is patiently waiting for the signal to lose their shit. I read on some other blog that Hold Steady shows usually have twenty people who are completely obsessed. I am one of those twenty people, and sure enough, there are twenty people here just like me. I spot them right up front and center. As soon as the band lays into the Husker Du inspired buzzsaw guitar riff on "Constructive Summer," I split my way through couples holding hands and photogs holding cameras to join these people. At a Hold Steady show, these people are your friends. There's no arguing about who's the bigger fan because you're ALL the biggest fan because you're all holding beers or drunk (or both, hopefully) and you know all the words and you came to have a good ass time. Here's a video of this pulled from youtube:

This is why I am a music geek. A rock chump. There is something about this that makes me feel amazing, something amazing about bumping into strangers and having some random dude say he hopes they play "Slapped Actress" and me screaming back in his face "I HOPE SO TOO" and when they play it, something about the bond we have in our mutual howls of "OH FUCK YES!" I think we almost hug we're so excited. The whole set is like this, and I dare say it might be the best show I've ever seen, rivaling the first night I saw them back in the last days of 2006 (which has stood as my favorite show of all time since). They play everything I want to hear, or as much as they can play given that I want to hear every song. "Stuck Between Stations" is epic and I almost cry and I REALLY almost cry when they close with "Killer Parties," the same song they closed with at that show back in '06 and the most fitting song for the Hold Steady to close a show to. "Killer parties almost killed me," Craig Finn intones to us. He opens the song with a little off the cuff SXSW banter. "I've seen some old friends, I've met some brand new creeps, and a smarter man than me said 'it's only rock and roll, but I like it,'" he says, quoting the Stones. "And today here's what I say: There is SO much JOY in what we do up here. I want to thank you all for being here tonight to share that joy with us," he finishes as the song comes crashing in. It literally moves me to tears, somehow validating everything in my life and every reason why I love this band and why I saw them three times at SXSW. It may only be rock and roll, but I like it, and I like that a band with this much love for playing music exists and they bring it EVERY SINGLE TIME. Here's some more youtubed video of that:

After the Hold Steady there is no way I'm going to see another band. Crystal Stilts are playing at Emo's Jr but I can't really handle anything else right now but sitting and waiting for 2AM. I run into Nick at one of the little stores while picking up a bottle of water and we head to Emos because I think the Black Lips are playing and well, why not. I'm wrong and it's King Khan & the Shrines and I'm AGAIN too tired to do anything but sit and watch. It's insane, I can't believe that there are so many bands here going insane and playing their hearts out and making me believe that everything is going to be OK and that modern music is a wonderful, wonderful thing and that rock and roll is very much alive and well. Here's me in a post-Hold Steady haze not knowing what else to do but just enjoy it. I think I'm a little surprised that I can still stand after that...

That was the third day of SXSW. Stick around for the electrifying conclusion in which it's darkest before the sun rises.

Ian Hrabe
KJHK Music Director

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