I’ve been deflowered by the rock ’n’ roll succubus of SXSW. Last week I was a happy virgin, living in ignorance of just how complete is the insanity that is Austin, Texas, every March. I left as a simple Detroit writer tracking a simple “fish out of water” story about the 24 or so Detroit bands and artists performing at this year’s event. I returned as a hoarse, half-deaf, wholly hung over shell of a music fan. Here is my story:
After I’ve hoofed 12 blocks, I’m as pissed as the next guy when John Sinclair is a no-show.
There’s a gaggle of kids and grownups piled into the Tequila Rocks for Pas/Cal. The bar’s got a converted strip-club vibe, complete with loungey balcony and platforms halfway up the stairs for sexy dancing. Keyboardist Richard Panic takes full advantage of this, hot-lapping the joint like a combination cha-cha dancer/ecstatic rock star, tambourine in hand. Pas/Cal has the crowd shouting like howler monkeys. It’s a thing of beauty. They rock out “Grown Men Go-Go” and a cover of T. Rex’s “Jeepster” before the SXSW folks pull the plug, leaving the crowd giddy and hanging.
I take off on foot to see Sponge. Yes, Sponge is a band again, and judging by the couple hundred folks in attendance (at least a dozen rabidly pogo up front, adding fuel to front man Vinnie Dombrowski’s rock-savior schtick), they’ve been missed. Somewhere between the note-perfect energetic versions of hits “Molly,” “Wax Ecstatic,” “Say A Prayer For Me” and their newer material, it’s clear that Sponge is in spirit (if not form) kin to the nü-metal brigade.
Dombrowski is a great front man, but to look at the 1000-yard stare in his eyes, you have to conclude that either A) he’s pretending he’s playing to a packed stadium or B) there’s not much emotion behind the words he’s penned.
(Jawbone, The Electric Six, Dirtbombs, The Go)
I promise I’m going to keep a safe drinking pace. I wander the streets with Bob Zabor (aka Jawbone) while he scouts a spot to busk. For my money, Zabor’s got a boatload more guts than the bands who take the stage at showcases. It’s tough enough to get attention playing solo, let alone playing on the street with a bunch of drinkers, fans and industry weasels stumbling by. His attitude is refreshing: Go out, play for a while, meet a few people, make a few bucks maybe, pack up.
Once Zabor goes off to become Jawbone, I head to Emo’s and what I hope will be some sober reportage of the Detroit Phenomenon in action. This is one of the most heavily hyped nights of the fest, featuring three of Detroit’s finest exports. I camp out, communing with the frazzled Dirtbombs, who have limped into town barely in time for their one paying gig of the weekend and a little worse for wear.
Emo’s is Magic Stick-South. Hipsters, hucksters and scattered Detroiters pile into the place until there’s more hugging than at a group therapy session. The A&R dude from V2, Leo — one of the people behind the cross-pond popularity of the Detroit Brand — holds court at the bar with a steady stream of 313 courtesans.
I mingle. This means drinking beer. By 9 p.m. I have a wicked headache — and the beer isn’t helping. The Electric Six go on. Having not seen the Six since they toured the UK and Europe and made No. 2 on the UK pop charts, I am not surprised that they’ve worked their particular brand of weirdness into a well-oiled, disco-metal leather whip.
My headache is gone. The crowd doesn’t know what to make of front man Dick Valentine’s gyrations, single black glove and ruminations on the apocalypse and gay bars, but the faces show grins of confusion instead of scowls.
By the time they get around to the hit single “Danger! High Voltage” (announced by guitarist Surge Joebot as “Girl, I’m Gonna Miss You” and featuring the prescient, disquieting lyrical refrain “Fire in the disco!”), it’s a party.
The 45s and the D4 also play. They have guitars and drums and they yell, but it’s just garage rock.
The Dirtbombs assemble in front of 600 or so, packed tight and yelling requests for obscure B-sides. The set is funky and loose — pulling a good chunk of material from Ultraglide in Black, but also letting loose a few new, decidedly power-pop jams and some old-school Dirtbombs tracks. Tom Potter dives into the crowd, drummer Ben Blackwell climbs the rafters with his high-hat between his feet, Mick Collins gets his lip cracked when the mic is knocked over by an exuberant fan. It is the good kind of chaos. The Go has to follow it.
The Go look and sound tired. I’m sure it’s demoralizing to see the crowd dwindle in the wake of the Dirtbombs’ set. I haven’t seen the Go since they were reborn as a four-piece, but one of the great things about the Go has been their rock-star cockiness. That bravura is a no-show. They soldier on. But it is a downer show in an upper scene.
(Detroit @ sxsw Party, Whirlwind Heat, Blanche)
A brief detour into the absurd. Friday afternoon features an opportunity to get the serious drinking started early at the Detroit @ sxsw Party at the Whisky Bar. The embarrassing party is partially redeemed by the raw rawk sounds of Gold Cash Gold, and further diminished by the truly horrid rap-rock fusion of Trip (partying like they thought it was still 1999). There are other outfits I don’t catch. The whole thing is MC’d by pop schmaltztress/Red Wing wife Stacia Robataille. The free beer is Bud Light.
Whirlwind Heat, a Grand Rapids spazz-synth trio, will have its inaugural release on Jack White’s Third Man label. The band scores the 10 p.m. spot on the heavily hyped V2 Records showcase at La Zona Rosa. Whirlwind Heat plays a blistering, precise set of their herky-jerky, frantic rhythm-rock weirdness, but the crowd is split between enraptured and the indifferent, with the latter taking the lead. Still, of the 20 or so people in the front row, two are Dirtbombs, eight are really pushy photographers trying to catch a clear shot of singer/synth player Dave Swanson, and one is this little bespectacled dude who laughs too hard at some kind of musical inside joke only he’s got.
Then there’s me, up front during the Heat’s set, trying to figure out why Swanson isn’t rightly celebrated for his innovations in dance movement. He’s one of the single most idiosyncratic movers I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen a shitload of modern dance in my day.
At Club Continental, Blanche accomplishes what many bands can’t: They keep the crowd from the midnight act intact — and get some of them to dance. Blanche’s show feels like a late-night jam session at a very, very odd family reunion after all the wine has been drunk. They play new songs like they’ve played them forever, stretch and slow old tunes like “Who’s To Say?” into new meditative forms and, of course, get the crowd to hoot along with “Garbage Picker.”
(Peelander-Z, Ed Harcourt, Men of Porn, Erase Errata, Supergrass)
After wandering for a good part of the day, catching treats like the band of 12-year-olds playing rollicking zydeco in a park on Congress, I am ready to give in to as many random temptations as Austin can offer. I find myself amid 7,000 protesters marching from the state Capitol to the river, beating primal anti-war drums, laying in the street to have chalk outlines drawn. It’s a diverse group — freaks, old hippies, straights, street punks and sundry regular citizens. It puts SXSW, beer drinkin’, rockin out and shmoozing into context.
I check in to catch the absolute madness of Japan’s Peelander-Z and the sublime UK songwriter Ed Harcourt. Then I’m off to catch some disturbingly good hesher rock at the Small Stone showcase (where Elijah Wood is working merch for some reason).
After weaseling my way in to see both Erase Errata and Supergrass, it is time to pull the plug, get some Gatorade, pop another “Emergency Pack” of vitamins. It is closing time and the bars are forcibly unhooking humans from the alcoholic teat. Throngs pour into the street, stumbling, yelling into cell phones, swaying in an unfelt breeze, groping each other like the plane is going down and leaving a wash of trash in their wake. The party is over. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org