Wednesday, March 17
9:14 PM: The Narrator @ The Copper Tank
The drive across the desert has left us faded. Thanks to ephedrine (read: shitty trucker speed), dirtweed and a diet consisting of taco meat and energy drinks, we’ve been awake for 42 hours. Faded isn’t extreme enough; we’re subhuman and hollow, like the candy bunnies you get at Easter, but instead of chocolate, we’re shells of sun-baked, flesh-colored vinyl. But this is the perfect state of mind for the Narrator: a Chicago quartet that boils with spitty rage while nearly ripping the strings off their guitars. Forget about post-this-and-that descriptors — it’s disjunctive, threatening punk rock built on the shoulders of Fugazi. It’s brings us out of the road haze like a hellish alarm clock.
10:05 PM: The Von Bondies @ Stubb’s
Feel the wrath of my elbows, stripy shirt hipster girl! I wiggle up front to see if Jason has any noticeable scars. But, alas, there are none. One-time Sights drummer Dave Shettler told me, “Jack White punches like a girl,” and it must be true. In the lights Stollsteimer’s face is just as disappointingly pretty as ever. And as good as he looks, he sounds better, singing the tunes from the Von Bondies’ recently-released Pawn Shoppe Heart that don’t need to be qualified by the flavor-of-last-week prefix of “garage.” Buttressed by his fellow Bondies, he’s on an energetic tear and the show is worthy of all the anticipatory lip service that’s been circulating through Austin all day.
10:41 PM: The Go @ Hard Rock Café
The Go, on the other hand, don’t prove very worthy. When they hit the stage down the street to a crowd of girlfriends-then-and-now, they’re parody. The band’s “evolution” includes lifting licks from Lynyrd Skynyrd and pink hair dye. Take a cue from Sub Pop, kids: Just say no to The Go.
12:17 AM: The Paybacks @ The Jackalope
The drinks are kicking in when the Paybacks give the capacity crowd at Jackalope something to holler about. Wendy Case’s two-pack-a-day growl and Cheap Tricked sing-a-longs are enough to make your average Texas-born alpha male into a rock sadist. It’s like there’s a thought bubble coming from every phallus in the room: Please, Wendy, take me home and make a man out of me.
1:10 AM: The Fags @ Vibe
Coming from the packed den of the tiny Jackalope to this moderately attended, much bigger venue could kill any buzz. And it seems like the band feels that way too. To be sure, the Fags’ set is all right; a standard 40 minutes of tight harmonies, huge riffs and airtight musicianship, but it’s just all right. Something is amiss and the Fags are on autopilot. Their proudly hung banner and uniform dress (white shirts, black skinny ties) and perfectly safe performance seem too professional. All told, they play like a band that is playing a showcase, not a show.
Thursday, March 18
10:13 PM: Blanche @ Exodus
Blanche is losing an uphill battle. They’re a country band from Detroit, playing in a city that’s known as Texas’ home of country music, in a club that is normally a venue for University of Texas sorority girls to dance to high-energy techno. Their timeslot has them scheduled between two of the day’s biggest buzz bands and even though they’re facing a packed room, the soundman is determined to make the snare drum the star of the show. But that’s not why the set is wonka. Blanche frontman Dan Miller starts with an earnest solo number that drops “Jackie” White’s name like a 20-pound BBQ pork chop, as if his relationship as Jackie’s personal manager wasn’t already the elephant in the room. (Get it? Elephant?) A disenchanted Jack Lawrence is standing in for Brian “Patch” Boyle, Blanche’s banjo/autoharp player, and though Lawrence is more than able, Boyle’s presence is sorely missed. What’s worse is that Miller’s usual shtick — a kind of gee-whiz gothic country — has lost most of its homespun innocence.
Friday, March 19
8:15 PM: The Greenhorns @ The Red Eyed Fly
The Greenhorns will never win any awards for choreography. They bear stonewall expressions and stand completely motionless while riffing through updated Animals sound-a-likes. But for some reason, the rigor mortis routine is part of the band’s charm. The trio (sans guitarist Eric Stein) effortlessly blows through selections from Dual Mono and some new songs (which sound mostly like old songs) but people really dig in.
9:05 PM: Starlight Desperation @ The Red Eyed Fly
The Los Angeles-via-Detroit-via-Los Angeles quartet, Starlight Desperation, doles out a sour lesson in opposites. Where the Greenhorns are all about playing unaffected songs without the clichéd rockstar pose, the Desperation seems more invested in bad haircuts and staid ’70s riffage. As we push past the herd of catty Capitol Records folks at the back of the room, Dante White’s howling makes for some irritating exit music.
9:20 PM: The Waxwings @ Pecan Street Ale House
It’s so packed, the Waxwings’ manager can’t get in. When we finally force entry halfway though the set, the ’Wings are in the heat of their schoolboy psychedelics. Bassist Kevin Peyok is on his knees, guitarists Dean Fertita and Dominic Romano are both sweat-soaked and wanking. It’s like catching a porno during the money shot and missing all the foreplay. We get stuck on a rickety balcony where we can’t see shit. So, faced with no options, girlfriend and I start to dance. And — voila! — the golden key to understanding the frustrating riddles of the Waxwings descends from the heavens. Forget about thinking of them as “that band that dick sent the e-mail about,” forget about considering them the unsung underdogs of Detroit rock, forget about the fact that Fertita was in Reigndance. Just dance.
10:00 PM: Dykehouse @ Zero Degrees
Before the first note is played, Mike Dykehouse of Ann Arbor’s Dykehouse announces, “This is the first time we’ve ever played live, ever.” It’s a brave confession considering he’s playing the hipster-jammed showcase of Ghostly International. Debuting at SXSW? Madness. Like any first show of any band anywhere it’s terrible. But let’s clarify: It’s not the music that’s terrible; it’s the show. And even that is only terrible because the CD of prerecorded backing tracks keeps skipping out of sync and fucking everyone up. When things do fall into place, Dykehouse refreshes ’80s and ’90s innovators like Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. But when things go haywire (and they do often) it’s even better. And seeing a genuinely promising band play a ragged premiere show should make anyone feel lucky. When things are out of control, Mike Dykehouse comes off like a cracked laptop-rocking genius who has been locked in his bedroom studio for the last two years and is finally turned loose on the world — which is what he is. And with all its professionally groomed soullessness, it seems such heartfelt, inspiring disasters might be just the thing Austin — and maybe everyone in the industry — really needs.Nate Cavalieri is an itinerant freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org