Friday was the last day of SXSW for me and most of my friends. I think that if we’d stayed any longer we wouldn’t have made it out to the shows until early evening, anyway. While I would like to say I missed Birds of Avalon and Voxtrot Thursday night to get some much needed, quality alone time with my hotel mattress, the truth is that the lot of us wound up plying ourselves with whiskey and beer into the wee hours of Friday at the restaurant next door and having a mini iPod party in the hotel parking lot. “What’s your favorite Band song? ‘Bessie Smith’? DUDE, me too, let’s listen!”
Sound lame to you? Trust me, it wasn’t nearly as lame as the line to get into the early afternoon Chunklet party, a.k.a. the “Mess with Texas” party, at Red 7 on Friday. We called our Chunklet connection about helping us break the line to get inside to see Les Savy Fav and a few others, but it just so happened that said connection was out with Tim from Les Savy Fav planting drug paraphernalia on people and pretending to be narcs. Supposedly we’ll be able to catch a video within a week or so at SuperDeluxe.com.
After a few minutes, we retreated from the Red 7 line and waited on a table for some barbecue (finally!) at Stubb’s. In the meantime we drank free beers and margaritas and went out back to hear Galactic play a craptastic set for a bunch of people who, unbelievably, were into it. The only explanation I could come up with was that they were very, very drunk and probably didn’t understand what they were doing.
Instead of getting back in the line for the Chunklet party post-barbeque and fried okra, we headed a few blocks over to the No Depression party at Habana Calle 6. We made it just in time to catch the end of Elvis Perkins’ set around 4:30 p.m. and to see Jim White, who was on my short list of must-sees, play at 5. I had seen Jim White open for The Handsome Family at the Echo Lounge in Atlanta back in 2003, and I loved him in Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. He had lost quite a bit of weight, had become a bit gaunter as a result, and had gotten a much shorter haircut, but he was as witty and entertaining as he always is. He asked his wife to come onstage and sing with him. He commented that she had “just given birth,” so he figured he could get her to sing with him. He didn’t exactly indicate what it was she gave birth to, and we weren’t sure what the connection between giving birth and being able to sing was, but it was a good performance nonetheless. He told several jokes and engaged the crowd in laughter, but my favorite moment was when he played “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes.” As he sang the lyric “When the wild wind whips around your head you know/ that you have found a perfect day to chase tornadoes,” the wind began to blow very hard and gave the song an eerie atmospheric quality that made him seem prophetic. That wind gave his lyrics more weight than they would have had in a more ordinary setting, and of course the Alabama in me loves his notion of the God-haunted South coupled with trailer-trash aesthetics and small-town folklore. After all, the man does have a song about bars being like churches that serve beer.
We met a few industry folks after White’s set and made nice before heading to the Austin City Limits studio to catch Beirut at the KEXP showcase. I’m a casual Beirut fan; I’ve listened to several tracks on The Hype Machine and have generally enjoyed what I’ve heard, but I loved their live performance. Horns seemed to be a popular addition to indie rock sets at SXSW this year in general, but Beirut get major props for going all the way. In fact, I think we’d find it challenging to come up with many wind instruments that weren’t represented in their set. Zach Condon reminded me of Jody Nelson from the Through The Sparks show we caught earlier in the week in that he spoke quietly and infrequently but maintained a hushed confidence. When he stopped playing to sing, he hoisted his flugelhorn on his shoulder proudly and in doing so somehow made it seem cool to play a flugelhorn. Still, it was hard to shake the impression of the band as a bunch of dorky high school marching band kids who got together and thought it would be neat to start a horn-toting rock band.
A quick cab ride back downtown took us to the Billions Showcase at Antone’s. We were particularly interested in hearing the amazingly beautiful Annie Clark perform as St. Vincent. I really like her music, and I thought her presentation was ideal. She came out alone and played a few songs on her guitar and on her keyboard. Before the audience had a chance to become bored (if that were possible), her boys, as she called them, came out dressed in brown button-down, collared shirts with small black ties. My friend pointed out that they looked like a cross between western cowboys and boy scouts. Clark played a few songs with them before calling out the horn section for her grand finale. The gradual addition of instrumentation really helped to build crowd interest and energy, and the guys in our group were mesmerized by her Billie Holiday-ish vocal phrasing. The really humbling thing is that she could probably play guitar much better than any of them, too.
Next up was Margot and The Nuclear So and So’s, but I hardly felt like reliving that mistake since they played in my hometown too recently for me to forget. Instead of hanging around, we wandered out into the street and somehow wound up in the crappy Viper Room being hit on by a dude whose best pick-up line was “All I care about right now is your hair” and another dude whose line was one of those wrist slappers we all used to carry around with us in the ’80s. Perhaps we should’ve stayed at the Margot show? Perhaps.
A few creepy dudes, beers, and slices of pizza later, we wound up sitting in the lobby of the Austin Convention Center watching Aqualung -- who was playing in the next room — on the television set propped up just outside the venue. It’s not so much that we cared to see Aqualung; our next plan of attack was to make it to the front row of The Polyphonic Spree showcase for a grand SXSW finale. I’m not a big fan of Polyphonic Spree records, and that song “Soldier Girl” makes me want to become a violent woman, but we were aware that witnessing the band live would be quite a different experience.
Surely enough, their set was an aural and visual overload. We couldn’t watch musicians on one side of the stage for very long because we worried about missing something on the other side of the stage. There were six singing/dancing girls in the middle of the stage, Annie Clark in front of them playing her guitar and making “I keep surprising myself” faces at the audience, Brian Teasley to her back-right throwing his drumsticks up in the air (not catching them more than half the time), and wild-eyed Tim DeLaughter creeping us out with his over-the-top antics in front of it all. And this doesn’t even cover half of the people onstage. Luckily for me, there was no “Soldier Girl,” and the songs the band did play were epic in scope, quite the spectacle. For the final song, the band went nuts; Clark threw down her guitar and danced upon the strings, Teasley grabbed a snare drum and jumped into the crowd, and the girl choir thrashed around rabidly. I still can’t say I’ll ever own a Polyphonic Spree record, but I’m now sold on the idea that their live show is not one to miss.
The Polyphonic Spree ended their set — and my first SXSW experience — around 2 a.m., and I went back to our hotel feeling like I had seen plenty. I’d missed countless bands I had wanted to see -- The Broken West, Bob Egan, the M’s, Les Savy Fav, and the Bon Savants, to name a few — but I’ve learned that one of the biggest mistakes SXSWers can make is to stand in long lines or even travel across the city to see certain bands when so many others are right there. After all, SXSW is supposed to be all about discovery, and who’s discovering anything new if everyone’s lined up for a mile to hear The Stooges?
All photos by Leah Hutchison, except The Polyphonic Spree photo by Traci Edwards