Festival review: SXSW 2013 comes to a crescendo with Jim James, Green Day, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, Twangfest Day Parties, Heartless Bastards, Frankie Faye, FIDLAR, Ozomatli, Vampire Weekend and a softball triumph, March 15-16
With only two earnest SXSW Music nights left, and an overstuffed head of unforgettable memories and music, I set out with a now insatiable appetite for more. More venues, more music, more Austin, as much as possible, as much as I could live; the unfortunate end to the sheer dreamlike sequence I’d been savoring was looming.
Offering by far the best views of Austin’s skyline, thousands joined at the Auditorium Shores Stage for Jim James’ brand of freak-rock-R&B. James contented himself and the crowd by thoroughly jamming on his stunningly beautiful mahogany Gibson Flying-V. Even if not catching a show at the venue, a must-do in Austin is to take a walk from the Shores stage across the 1st Street Bridge at sunset: unmistakably breathtaking.
Lucky enough, after failing to come up with tickets through any drawings, my brother and I took the time to check out Austin City Limits. Twenty minutes later, minimal shenanigans necessary, the regal interior of Austin City Limits welcomed us. Green Day, coming out to the Western-defining whistle of Ennio Morricone’s “Good, Bad and the Ugly” theme, kicked off a two-hour set. Flying through newer stuff to start, the band went all the way back to “1039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours” — the collecton of EPs marking their Lookout! Record’s debut from 1991, pre-Tre Cool’s joining the band — to play “Disappearing Boy.”
Billie Joe Armstrong, recently having completed a rehab bit, actually seemed to carry even more intensity; the direction of it now accurately aligned the only difference for the frontman. The band galvanized its inhuman work ethic to once-in-a-lifetime results for a couple of Ohio kids who weaned themselves off mom ‘n’ dad’s picks with “Welcome to Paradise.” Accomplishing at least the same for a string of crowd members that were brought on stage, Green Day’s exponential desire to please proved a constant. The first fan brought on stage got an Armstrong lip lock while the last enthusiastically led the crowd into saving him from his lie about knowing the third verse to “Longview” — they all, save for the already entertainingly overjoyed sign language translator, took their rightful stage dive. “Burnout” and “King for a Day,” respectively a personal first live and a set staple, also made for highlights in a show that included “Sweet Child O Mine,” “Hey Jude” and “Highway to Hell.”
A quick stop at the Belmont for another Eagles of Death Metal show, before catching the tail end of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound at the Tap Room at Six, was too enticing not to make. Mike Dirnt and Jason White, the man that officially made Green Day a quartet, coincidentally also helped themselves to the post-punk soul. The quite-humble Mike ended up taking our picture. Admitting fan status of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, he filled us in on having put them on their guest list for the show hours before. The meeting of a childhood hero, his instantly welcoming conversation and the utter “Holy shit” factor combined to keep me from sleeping that night.
Having already reserved Saturday for KDHX’s own Twangfest day parties, the shows became the theme of the final day. Held at the incomparable Broken Spoke — an enjoyable hearkening back to farmhouse dance halls, it features two stages, a dusty, empty “Tourist Trap,” a troth in the men’s restroom, and a sign warning that there’s “No Standing on the Dance Floor.”
Laura Cantrell’s gentle voice carried the place through the two-stepping it had been itching for while honoring her personal hero, the first woman to top the U.S. Country Billboard charts, Kitty Wells. Better yet, this even afforded the opportunity for our editor, Roy Kasten, to prove that his dancing skills far surpass mine. [Editor's note: Given Kasten's moves, that's not saying much.]
Pokey LaFarge, to close out a stellar set that had the dance floor jumping, decided he needed to be closer to the crowd. Quickly moving his band (much expanded beyond the South City Three) to the middle of the boot-scooters, the guys wrapped KDHX’s excellent day party by leaving their own mark on the renowned “Best Honky-Tonk in Texas.”
A quick stop at South by San Jose, a free all-day show put on by Hotel San Jose and Jo’s Coffee on South Congress, allowed for a Heartless Bastards listening session. The group’s moonshot melodies, along with Erika Wennerstrom’s inerasable vocals, filled the outdoors crowd to the sidewalks. Next door at Guero’s Taco Bar hosted Pete Simple, a lucky find that seemed to start each song with Texas alt-rock before letting its two-piece brass section bring the groove home to New Orleans.
Frankie Faye ended the day’s personal theme at Papi Tino’s on the East Side of Austin with excellent and straightforward country, albeit singing the dangers of laments past. Fortunately, the brewery on-site made sure not to let the striking lyrics linger on a night still so young.
Next up, hardly a block away at Hotel Vegas, FIDLAR held down the at-capacity portion of the Burgermania showcase. Quite a pull, considering the around-the-corner line trying their luck with “one-in, one-out,” an extra 30 or so crowding the sidewalk windows and a policeman stopping by in an apparent attempt to enforce fire code. Even more so seeing as Smashing Pumpkins, Justin Timberlake and Prince (with Tribe Called Quest opening) were gearing up around town. Arpeggio’s throughout — like one should expect from a group of dudes who live on the beach — mixed rather melodically against the palm mutes and group shout-chants. They earned the crowd while the crowd earned its sweaty moshing — damn the heat exhaustion on their faces.
Staying on Sixth Stree, I caught Ozomatli who hadn’t quite finished putting hips in motion just a few blocks away. The exquisite bounce, created by the dozen or so on stage at a given moment, literally hits all the danceable genres at once. Stepping out back to the Stage on Sixth Patio produced an instant realization how far SXSW reaches. Terakaft, via Kidal, Mali, struck an untouched niche while further promoting their cause: northern Mali refugee aid.
At Stubb’s, Vampire Weekend walked onstage to the DMX classic “What’s My Name,” an aggression neutralized by the band’s constant ear-to-ear smiles at the full house. The band treated the mass to four new tracks off the upcoming “Modern Vampires of the City” — all showing that perfect, promising balance of an evolving wheelhouse. A faux-closing on “Giving up the Gun” drew raucous cheers before an opportunity for the female half of the crowd to pretend text in the direction of Alexander Skarsgaard of True Blood, watching from the V.I.P. staircase.
The guys came back out to hit set staples “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” a song made more fun by the wider range of notes heard from its sing-a-long portion, and “Walcott,” precisely encapsulating every bit of euphoria anyone in Austin achieved.
The next day, running on six hours of sleep out of the past 48, offered one last South by experience: the close-out BBQ and Softball Tournament put on at Krieg Field. Able to join thanks to the hungover-in-action, no-show registration period, the team, Record Companies, took off. We were rewarded — ok, at least me — with a first, running color-commentary on the game in which we were playing. Playing a championship the announcers billed as “the Evil Record Companies vs. the Good South by Staffers,” allowed for indulging in some good-natured villainy.
Not left out were any quotes from the cult classic Major League series, blown kisses to fans and non-stop ribbing from the two guys holding the mics — I typically stepped to home plate monikered “hippy,” “scoreboard,” or “the Ramone’s Jr.” while the team suffered such RIAA-themed jokes as “…But I’m only sharing it with my friends.” No matter, the gratifying end result — a mercy rule enactment at ten runs clear — earned team medals declaring us “SXSW 2013 Champions.”
In closing, on my own microphone, a sincere thanks:
Thank you to all the volunteers and all the employees that made everything happen; to KDHX for allowing me the pleasure, particularly my editor, Roy Kasten; and to Austin, Texas, for defining live music at its finest.
I am eternally grateful.