Sunday, March 18, 2012

SXSW Friday and Saturday: The War on Drugs; John Velghe; a gigantic stage designed to look like a Doritos vending machine; just wanting to come home

SWSW mercifully comes to a close.

Posted By on Sun, Mar 18, 2012 at 7:39 PM

The northbound 481 bus (they call it the Night Owl) that arrived at Seventh and Congress around 2 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning was like the last chopper out of Saigon — a very desperate, lawless, death-trampling type of situation. I made it on. Those who didn’t would have to wait at least another hour, or walk many miles, or pass out in a bush somewhere, or kill themselves — all options I was weighing.

It was St. Patrick’s Day, and the last day of South By Southwest, and a Saturday night, and everybody was drunk and angry and tired. Public transportation in Austin, at least during SXSW, is pathetic. It’s impossible to find a taxi. The buses run at infrequent intervals, and when you finally board them, they roll like snails. Fuck this place, I thought as we pulled away.

It’s Sunday now, and I am feeling a little more forgiving of Austin’s civic shortcomings. Lord knows we’ve got our own in Kansas City. SXSW is over at last. Not technically, actually; there are some closing-night events this evening. But I will not be in attendance. I will be sitting in a quiet place, reading or watching television or staring at a wall — anything that doesn’t involve walking around for nine hours, drinking 16-oz. Lone Stars, or having early onset tinnitus. Not that it hasn’t been a fantastically fun week. But everything in moderation. Everything in moderation! What’s been going on down here the past few days? Here are some things I saw:

The War on Drugs
  • The War on Drugs
*A jammy, blazed-out set from the War on Drugs at the ACL Live at the Moody Theater, which is where they film the Austin City Limits TV show. “This is our first time at South By Southwest,” singer Adam Granduciel said. “Or, our first official South By Southwest. We were here a couple of years ago. We played, you know, the bathroom of a taco truck. Or the janitor’s closet at the Four Seasons. The Jiffy Lube Fort.” A solid bit.

*Free Energy at ND on Friday. It was my first time seeing the Philly band, which combines the power pop of Thin Lizzy with the power pop of Third Eye Blind. I have been obsessed with their song, “Hope Child” for a long time, and they closed with it, which was incredible. I was surprised that the singer, Paul Sprangers, didn’t play an instrument; it made them seem like a minor-league version of Van Halen, which I mean as a compliment, of course. I was bummed that they didn’t execute the twin guitar solos live, because that’s my favorite part of their sound. Sprangers was boyishly enthusiastic throughout the set, almost as though he weren’t the real singer, just a superfan who had won some drawing to play with the band. “Kinda cheesy,” my friend said. It was, but I am more willing to forgive cheesiness than ironic detachment, and I think there should be more bands willing to risk cheesiness, so I give Free Energy the thumbs-up.

*A huge line of kids wrapped around a building at Second and Trinity on Friday night. I asked no less than five different people who they were waiting to see, and not a single one could answer me. I discovered later that the place was offering free booze until 4 a.m.

*A line too long to wait in for Alabama Shakes. Heard good things, though.

*Sixth Street at midnight on Friday: A living hell.

*The Drums headlining Stubb’s Friday night. Maybe I was getting tired and crabby, but my notes say, "Overhyped horseshit."

*A guy with a Carcetti for Mayor T-shirt. I gave him a high-five.

*ATMs throughout downtown with $5.75 fees. What is this, a strip club?

Velghe and the Prodigal Sons
  • Velghe and the Prodigal Sons
*John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons playing an amped-up set at Maria’s Taco Express on Saturday afternoon. The band featured a brass section — Mike Walker, Hermon Mehari, and Sam Hughes, who he referred to as the “Waldo Horns” or something like that — plus Mike Alexander from Hipshot Killer, and a couple of other guys (forgive me). Alejandro Escovedo (who curated the afternoon’s entertainment) introduced Velghe as a dear friend. Being at Maria’s, which is way south of downtown, was a nice respite from the hyperactive overstimulation of official SXSW. And watching Escovedo work the room was good entertainment — that dude knows everybody in Austin, and everybody in Austin loves him.

*A bunch of people wearing green clothes taking Irish car bombs at Champions, the bar in the Marriott Courtyard hotel. By the end of the week, Champions had become my favorite bar in downtown Austin. The food is gross, the beers are kind of expensive, and the décor is stupid and sportsy, but you could reliably walk in, sit down, watch the NCAA tournament, and get away from a lot of the SXSW insanity.

Michael Kiwanuka
  • Michael Kiwanuka
*Michael Kiwanuka at Stubb’s. Kiwanuka is a British singer with Ugandan roots and a gorgeous voice. He played an acoustic guitar and was accompanied by only a bass player. His songs sit somewhere between Ben Harper and Bill Withers, and I could easily see him grabbing a part of the Jack Johnson-Ray Lamontagne folkie market share in the next year or so.

*Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle, following Kiwanuka at Stubb’s. Earle dresses in what my friend characterizes as “uptown hillbilly” style (he wore a plaid jacket) and was playing with a full band for what he told us was only the second time. He seemed a little nervous and awkward, and his set of classy, sturdy alt-country tunes was pleasant, if a little boring.

*New Jersey’s Delicate Steve at Mohawk, playing a set of ramshackle rock with chaotic guitar solos. After Delicate Steve, I caught White Denim, an Austin-based act that's equal parts Phish, knotty indie rock and Black Keys, and also indulges in wild, meandering guitar solos. The War on Drugs also mine that territory. Are we on the verge of the age of the indie-rock guitar hero?

*White Denim was playing the Doritos Jacked stage. There was a stage, and then above the stage were these 15-foot “bags” of different flavors of Doritos lined up inside a rig that had been designed to look like a vending machine. Here, this picture kind of helps:

Enchilada Supreme flavor, yall.
  • Enchilada Supreme flavor, y'all.
*They were giving away free bags of Doritos Jacked at the show. Ten-ounce cups of shitty beer were going for $4.

*See you guys in a few days!

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