The SXSW music recap, part two

>> Monday, March 28, 2011

So the first day of shows in Austin was exhausting and wonderful at once. Though I didn't get drunk off of free showcase beer, it seemed prudent to cut back anyway, and drink more water and take it easier. One of the consequences of this decision was that I ended up only seeing three acts after the day's panels and Bob Geldof's keynote address.




Thursday, March 17th, 2011:

The Strokes, Auditorium Shores Stage

Auditorium Shores Park is an open space on the south side of Lady Bird Lake, an artificial reservoir created by the Longhorn Dam. Wikipedia says Austin had pollution issues back in the day but they've been cleaned up, and what I saw of Lady Bird Lake while I was there was lovely--rowing teams (from UT, I presume) practicing in the mornings, fleets of black ducks chasing each other around, joggers and hikers on the trails.

For SXSW, a stage was set up in the park for some of the larger showcases; anybody could get into the free shows, but if you had a badge you got to go through the short line and hang out in the little cordoned-off area with the bar platform and TV monitors and a couple of rows of metal bleachers for those so inclined. If you weren't in a VIP area, the place was your typically-anarchic outdoor festival scene: a perimeter of tents selling beer and carnival food surrounding a dense-packed throng bouncing balloons overhead.

The Strokes have a new album that's out now, and the good news is the bad news: it sounds like a Strokes album. And what I mean is that The Strokes can be praised or damned as you see fit for being maybe the most consistent band on the planet right now; it's not that every song sounds the same (they don't), but every song does sound like The Strokes, and if I were to play you tracks from their first three albums interspersed with anything I've yet heard on the new one, you'd be hard pressed to even venture a guess as to where the individual songs might fall in the band's career. It's good news insofar as if you buy the new Strokes album, you know exactly what you're getting; on the other hand, if you already own a Strokes album, you already have the new one.

But if the band doesn't seem to be growing (or regressing or changing in any way), their live show delivers. It was a good arena/festival-style rock show, though here again I find myself inclined to damn with the praise despite the fact I like The Strokes a lot and think they're a damn good band.

There are acts that deliver transcendental arena shows, shows in which the spectacle is unlike anything you'll ever see anybody else deliver (Pink Floyd in '94 comes to mind for me, personally, though probably any Floyd show would qualify) or shows in which the artist has such command over the stage and audience that 20,000 people might as well be twenty in his living room (here, for me, Springsteen comes to mind, any of the times I've ever seen him). Some bands (U2 at their best, for instance) deliver something of both, a bit of spectacle and a bit of charisma.

The Strokes deliver a more-than-competent show. Which is a great thing and a helluva hard one to do, and a thing that a lot of bands fail at when they get to that level. But it stops there, too: you're going to get your money's worth, but the account will be settled to the cents. You won't be disappointed, but I also can't imagine that you'll be looking back on a Strokes show two or three decades later and remembering it as one of the epochal events of your life.

The problem isn't that The Strokes gave everybody and their mother a chance to take cheap shots like the one I'm about to take when they called their full-length debut Is This It; the problem (or maybe not, depending on how you look at it) is that the answer so far is "yes."

Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison; Emmylou Harris, at Antone's

Before I went to Austin, my sister gave me a copy of Kinky Friedman's The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic: A "Walk" In Austin, which is sort of a guide to the city by way of Kinky Friedman's wonderfully odd mind. As things happened, I made it to very few of the places Friedman says are essential to Austin (nor did I see him at South-By, though I hear he was ambling about the city and showing up there and there and over there--but not here, or I might have seen him and even thanked him for the book if he'd drifted by closely enough). But one of those places was Antone's a legendary blues bar in downtown Austin, perhaps most famous for being more-or-less the launchpad for the late Stevie Ray Vaughn back in the day.

Thursday night, Antone's was hosting the alt-country showcase. If you're wondering what "alt-country" is, well, alt-country is what they call country music now that country music is what they call warmed-over pop derived from the California scene of the 1970s. If you're playing a Hank Williams, Sr. cover, you're alt-country; if you spent $500 on your hair and are crooning a song that sounds like something The Eagles didn't think was good enough for One Of These Nights, you're country. If you have a hole in your guitar and wrote songs for Patsy Cline, you're alt-country. If you're a singing vegetarian Revlon model who's married to the guy who used to produce Def Leppard and Bryan Adams, you're country. To confuse matters even further, country is now a favorite genre for people who used to listen to rock when rock was really contemporary pop, while alt-country appreciation has sadly been infiltrated by hipsters, who possibly mistake authenticity for irony. And if you're thinking this sounds like it might be a part of the music industry's woes, congratulations; the problem not being one of legitimacy so much as being a problem of genres becoming so debased towards a nadir of lowest-common-denominators that popular music is mostly all swill, really.

So, Thursday. I saw two alt-country acts, by which I mean I saw two country acts, one of them a legend.

Something I have to say before I give short shrift to Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, who don't deserve it: that Antone's was crowded to capacity--I'd swear it had to be beyond capacity, though what do I know and they might have been well within their limits. But the crowd was packed as tightly as neutrons in a spent star's dwarfed corpse and I was jammed in there with them. There was one guy near me who carried himself like some sort of VIP but dressed like a math teacher from a grainy late-sixties movie about faculty members at a small New England college who drink too much, have affairs, and struggle for relevancy in the context of the counterculture; he seemed mostly interested in beer and stepping on people's feet and he doesn't have anything to do with anything except as I stood and shifted in the motley throng he became a recognizable icon for my discomfort, a symbolic representation of how increasingly awful I was feeling in the press.

I have this crowds thing. It's intermittent, sort of, in the sense that it doesn't always appear or it doesn't always get bad; but when it does get bad, I find myself increasingly feeling the pressures of a panic attack. I was in Antone's and I was pushed further and further from the door and if terrible things happened, I would be in the tangled pile of bodies to be sorted through, or something, I don't know. At a certain point in the evening, during Willis and Robison's set, I didn't want to be there anymore--not because of Willis and Robison, who were talented and wonderful but whose songs I didn't carefully note or give the appreciation they deserved--but because this crowd was around me like a python and somehow there was less air than there was supposed to be despite the fans circulating it. And I was inclined to leave, probably should have left or at least bullied my way to the bar for a stronger drink, or two stronger drinks or at least enough alcohol to make the waves rocking the building beneath my feet a bigger worry than the infinite omnipresent fleshpile, but I was going to endure, overcome, I would clench my teeth and focus my hatred on this poor obnoxious man and withstand, yes.

A long way of trying to explain why I didn't enjoy the concert as much as I should have.

And I should have enjoyed Emmylou Harris' set immensely. I'm not sure how many times I've seen her before--quite a few--but she's always wonderful, and this night she had a special treat for the crowd at Antone's: she performed her upcoming, to-be-released album in its entirety, start to finish. No old material, no classics, just all these wonderful songs hardly anybody in the whole wide world had ever heard before, and just for us. If you don't know, Emmylou has been on a good run lately, has released a string of extremely good records, and this one will be another one, I think. And she's writing again--she went through a number of years where she was almost entirely doing covers, nothing wrong with that (and some of the covers bested the originals) other than she's a damn fine songwriter. The new record seems like it will mostly be originals.

She chatted between songs. This one was inspired by a painting a friend gave her, and then she realized it was about her parents, who she'd never really done any songs about, and how her mother must've felt when her dad, a Navy man, was called to duty. This one was a song about a dog she rescued. Here was a song she'd written for Kate McGarrigle, who passed away of cancer last year. This is the kind of thing that's your classic great show experience, the legendary singer-songwriter casually playing the new stuff for the faithful, peppered with the anecdotes and explanations.

I wish I'd enjoyed it more.

It wasn't the artists, it was me. Or the venue. Or the crowd. Or the mixture. It wasn't a bad crowd, not really. It was just too many people standing in what felt like too small a space (though Antone's is big, with a sizable floor in front of the stage), craning their necks while I went neurotic.




I staggered out into the cooler air of the misty night and pulled myself clear of the crowd gathered at Antone's front door, milling about, trying to get in or stepping out for a breath of fresh air or a breath of nicotine. And my head hurt and my body felt brittle and I was aware of my heart though I couldn't hear it.

The Old 97's were due to follow Emmylou Harris, and the Old 97's are awesome and I really wanted to see them. But I just couldn't go back inside. Couldn't, couldn't, couldn't. It was a form of cowardice, or weakness, or whatever you want to call it. I found my legs where I'd left them and began to stumble back to the hotel on the other side of the river--right next to Auditorium Shores Park, where I'd started the evening's shows, actually. And there were still performers I wanted to see--The Old 97's, obviously, or if it was just Antone's I couldn't take anymore, ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead were slated for the Beauty Bar at one a.m., or--oh, hell, so much better yet--or Peter Murphy, the Peter Murphy was going to be moaning and growling and crooning at The Ale House.

But I was brittle and full of loose bones.

Marker 10, The Hyatt Regency bar was closing when I got there, but they had one more drink for me. Not a bourbon and not a whiskey, but a stiff glass of Herradura Silver on the rocks, clean as water but full of fire and I sat at the bar and managed to remember myself before I turned round and took the elevator up to the room where I had a rented bed.






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