We now continue with the latest installment of Matt Sander’s life and times at this year’s SXSW…
Okay, so Friday was kind of a Fail. Not totally – I still saw brilliant sets by Longwave, Yo La Tengo and The Felice Brothers among others, but in comparison to the epic nature of Thursday’s schedule, it was a bit of a letdown. Then again, I was starting to think that Thursday was a bit of an anomaly and that by sheer luck, everything had just worked out without my feet or legs giving up on me. The point is to see some good live music and have a good time, right? It doesn’t have to be fifteen bands per day, does it? Of course not. So with a renewed sense of perspective, I headed out Saturday morning determined to let it roll and make the most of whatever the day offered.
After a nice brunch with friends at the Hyde Park Cafe, we took a drive out to the far-flung Mean Eyed Cat (located just across the lake/river from Zilker Park) for the MOJO Bootleg BBQ. Free barbeque, free beer and another chance to see The Felice Brothers playing on their outdoor stage made for a great way to kick off the day. And while the shotgun shack facade was entirely contrived upon closer inspection, the crowd, staff and general vibe at Mean Eyed Cat could not have been more welcoming. We were treated to the final few songs by folkie Liz Green whose mournful vocalizations and simple guitar accompaniment sound like she just popped out of the grooves from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The Felicers arrived (sadly in a pickup truck and not their Winnebago) and set up for a lively set that really jump-started the crowd and the day overall. Christmas must have been feeling better as he slung on his bass and played the entire set without incident. They seemed genuinely happy to be there and fit in well with the overall vibe.
Following their performance, we made our way back across town to the convention center to finally check out Flatstock 16 – the poster convention sponsored by the American Poster Institute and featuring dozens of poster makers from around the world. It’s always a sight to behold and while there were countless examples of gorgeous poster art, I couldn’t help but feel like someone was pumping nitrous oxide into the convention hall as I became sleepier and sleepier. Before heading out, we also tried to scam an official swag bag from the SXSW registration booth, but to no avail.
Next up was a stop at the Palm Door where SxSeattle was being held. More open bar and freebies, but unfortunately we arrived just in time to catch The Shackeltons, yet another tired new wave revival band which featured an entirely off-putting lead singer whose distracting onstage antics included a lot of thumbsucking.
After re-loading on the free Fuze, we grabbed the car and found a parking spot near Red Fez, a tiny venue next to Antone’s not typically used for live music. Nevertheless, they hosted one of the best sets I saw all weekend when The Soundtrack of Our Lives appeared on the tiny stage. The narrow room was pretty well packed, so with my free Ziegenbock in hand, I (and many others) resorted to standing on my seat and peering over the high back of my booth to witness the Swedish rockers put on a powerful showcase jam-packed with new and instantly likeable songs. Lead vocalist Ebbot Lundberg positively owned the entire club as he led the band and commanded the crowd with all the authority of the clergyman he was seemingly dressed as.
Revitalized, we crossed the river for another jaunt on South Congress, this time to Home Slice Pizza with the hopes of seeing Joseph Arthur. Upon parking, approaching the restaurant and seeing Mr. Arthur walking the other direction, it seemed like they might be running a wee bit behind schedule. Taking the opportunity to chill, we scored seats at the counter inside and proceeded to be as thoroughly entertained as we had been all week by some guy named Mongo spinning pizza dough with what can only be described as reckless abandon. The pizza itself was delicious as were the Fireman’s #4 beers on tap. Heading outside to the patio where the music was, we heard the last few songs by Earlimart, who were perfectly fine though not demanding of another listen. It was then realized that the schedule was running more than a wee bit late and we were getting reports from friends waiting in line for Jim James that we better get there soon if we wanted to make it in.
Back in the car and back over the river to St. David’s Church – one of the more unusual SXSW venues. This Episcopalian church just north of 6th Street features a small worship area that is used for official showcases during the festival (mostly acoustic, I imagine) and seats maybe 250 people. By the time we arrived, badge holders and wristbands had already been admitted, but there was still a long line of people looking to pay the $15 cover to enter. This is the one time when my wristband actually came in handy as we went straight to the front of the line and were allowed to enter and grab seats almost immediately.
The opening act was the unforgettable Jacob Golden – sadly unforgettable for his flagrantly repulsive songs. The guy could sing and play guitar just as well as any other sad-eyed folkie, but the hyper-confessional lyrics laced with forced references to Aphex Twin and George Harrison among others left a sour taste in the mouth and was easily the worst performance I witnessed all week. Things improved somewhat with M. Ward taking the stage next. Although many of his songs tend to lack hooks or memorable melodies, he was a dramatic step up from Golden and his Muppet-like vocals and stage presence was oddly compelling. He is much more adept and at home on his acoustic guitar as opposed to his stultifying performance on the electric guitar just a day earlier. Perhaps a half hour into his set, he was joined onstage by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and the set received a sublime boost. After one or two duets, it became James’ show and he delighted the crowd with a lengthy revue featuring numerous songs from the forthcoming MMJ record as well as a hearty selection of old favorites. M. Ward stuck around to support for a while, but ran off with Zooey before long to make their own showcase appearance, leaving James with fellow MMJ bandmate Carl Broemel to accompany him on pedal steel. Having been a casual MMJ fan for the past couple of years, I had never paid careful attention to their lyrics, so I was struck by the spirituality evident in many of James’ songs and that realization brought the show to a whole new level for me.
While there were other late night showcases going on that evening, the Jim James set seemed like a good natural ending point for the day and the festival as a whole. We adjourned the 6th Street area and headed up Guadalupe for a post-mortem at the outstanding original Ruby’s BBQ near the UT campus. And though the festival was all but over, we still had one more day in Austin to go and one more Felice Brothers performance on tap.