March 26th, 2013 | Live reviews

Every SXSW ends up with the same dilemma for a writer, of how to really enjoy one’s self and see good bands while still writing down what you see.

And the answer is that you can’t be in all places at all times. So it was with a heavy heart that I missed the Grand Ole Echo showcase so I could interview Dead Angle and eat some deliciousness at Counter Culture. I tell ya, nothing lightens a heavy heart like some jalapeno cornbread.

One interview completed and stomach filled, I headed over to the Electric Jubilee at El Mercado Restaurant. I just had to see HOTT MT again, and I was so excited to get the chance.

And I totally missed their set.

But I didn’t miss Lovely Bad Things, whose deep dark loud guitar sound was such a maelstrom that, like with Sam Flax (but for different reasons), it just didn’t seem like we deserved the opportunity to witness it. How could it be okay that one could just saunter on in, from outside on a fucking sidewalk in the nice warm sunshine with a cheery breeze and the chirping of grackles, and run smack into this? This should be part of a ritual. This should be difficult to have access to. Yet here I am, getting a frosty Lone Star beer from a smiling waitress right in the very next room, where there were families and kids sitting around—I just saunter into the band room, plop down into a booth, and bam, an overwhelming sonic tidal wave. At the breakneck pace they were playing, the tunes sounded less like garage and vintage-rock inspired songs and more like some tough, shit-kicking shoegaze, like the bands who beat up Ned’s Atomic Dustbin fans in the early 90’s used to play. And you know, they really were staring at their shoes, especially Lauren Curtius, who was going a little Cousin It while playing the guitar.

There was definitely an atmosphere of calm mixed in with the madness, not least of which was that the crowd was so sparse, just as it had been for some bands at Cheer Up Charlie’s the day before. Of course, it was still a weekday for the working folk of Austin, and the spectacular weather definitely tempted some El Mercado patrons out to the backyard, within earshot but away from the stage. But the event was still quite under-attended considering all the talent inside. I don’t know that there had been much promotion; I think this show was meant more as an industry event—I got the vibe that it was a literal “showcase,” meant for the eyes and ears of kind-of-a-big-deal record and show folks (and of course, hot honcho music journalists like me!).

Either the bands thought so too, or they just felt like giving it their all anyway—certainly the Lovely Bad Things played as though they were already on stage with Best Coast on their upcoming tour, even getting a little nuts for their last song (which a friend told me the name of and which my new iPhone 5 deleted later that night)!

I also deleted the name of this band (someone want to tell me who they were so I can compliment them?).

They were good, but I didn’t see much of them, since I was interviewing HOTT MT out back for a lot of their set. It was good and rocking, but they were kind of the uncomfortable meat in a music sandwich that had Lovely Bad Things on one side and Leopold and his Fiction on the other!

I’d seen Leopold & his Fiction only once, methinks, and actually it wasn’t really them—it was their semi-alter ego, the folk-friendly band Cowboy and Indian, who played at last year’s L.A. Folk Fest. I’d described them then as “a bit Jefferson Airplane mixed with ‘Ride a White Swan’ era T-Rex”—pretty hippie, except for the fact that singer Daniel James was all muscle-y, “a manly guitar player with Hitler’s haircut and Freddie Mercury’s mustache.”

This time, James left his baby and flower-child vibes at home. This was all rock and soul. They had a beefcake, boogie, balls-to-the-wall sound that was tighter than a baby’s booger hole, with talent enough to deliver the goods but restraint enough that you didn’t want to punch anyone for noodling, which wouldn’t have worked anyway, because clearly James works out a lot and probably would, like, just tap you on the nose and put you in traction for weeks!

This was not so much reminiscent of old old bands as it was of bands like the Superbees and the Bellrays, and other Detroit-esque heroes who all suddenly sprung up at once around the mid-90s,around the time that America rediscovered punk’s MC5 hard-groove history. And Leopold & his Fiction were to be followed by another historical figure, one only recently re-discovered by the psychedelligentsia, and that is Autosalvage, an oddly non-hard, non-twee psych-pop ensemble from the late 60s that reformed for a few dates at SXSW and who I couldn’t bear to hear one note of, because I knew it would break my heart not to get to hear the whole thing…

But I had to get my ass over across town to get gear together and hit Hotel Vegas, where Spindrift was scheduled to play! I got there just in the nick of time. Never having been to the venue before, I was expecting an actual hotel. But nope, it was a bar with a big dirt lot behind it, a dirt lot that after 7 p.m. had turned into a badge-only industry event, and not the kind that was impressed by my L.A. RECORD credentials. By the time I’d scammed my way inside through some kind of quasi-bribe/lie/bouncer cajoling, the gang had already set up, and Michelle Vidal from the Fur Traders was rocking out on keyboards and background vocals as though she’d been playing with Spindrift for years, not days.

If you were at the 2012 L.A. Folk Fest, or merely read my review, you’ll note how vastly different that Spindrift sound was compared to what we heard today—that was pure, glorious soundtrack, and this was like characters out of a work of fiction, something someone else would write a soundtrack about. Meshing well with the Leopold & his Fiction show I’d just come from, Spindrift played Hotel Vegas with a bad-ass boogie rock sound, like something the Hell’s Angels would have been listening to in the 60s if they’d been less right-wing and instead joined forces with John Sinclair and the White Panthers to legalize pot and make love in the streets.

This Spindrift was a little stripped-down sounding, so much so that the famed Jason “Plucky” Anchondo only deigned to jump on stage now and again for the percussive parts.

KP was particularly visceral, and Michelle Vidal in both her performance and her staid manner was a fantastic female presence to counterbalance the gruff machismo oozing from every pore of Plucky’s Y-chromosome Warlock-whiff. He had this terse demeanor on his face, though maybe it was because the Warlocks themselves had canceled their performance, putting me into a tizzy (actually, who knows if Plucky would be playing with them or not—it’s kind of a fluid line-up over there in Warlock land, but recently they’ve been playing out a lot and I was super sad I wouldn’t get my one chance to catch them).

The Go were next, and they were also more brash and manly than I gleaned from their Burger cassettes. This is actually a band the Burger guys have been backing since jump, and like many of their investments, this band took awhile to “catch” in the public mind—in fact I believe the first cassette the Burger guys ever gave me for free was the Go, and they are perhaps the last Burger band of the first generation of Burger bands to start getting some fame. It just goes to show that Sean, Lee and company are never wrong.

And part of it may be that the Go has gotten with the times as far as their stylistic choices. Though the Go’s harmonies and psychedelic “White Bicycle” guitar solos were as tight as ever, they’d squeezed most of the 60’s stuff out of their set. Certainly this was not garage-y, sounding more like a mix between some undiscovered Voxx records gem from the mid-80s and a lost session from Ram Jam of “Black Betty” fame—i.e. a whole lotta the 70s but with none of the Deep Purple noodling. Maybe that’s the way their sound is veering recently, or maybe they just subconsciously didn’t want to compete with thee Oh Sees on their own psychedelic turf later.

I got away from the main stage long enough to check out some inside bands, partially because that was where the easy bartending access and short-line bathrooms were. Residuels from Philadelphia were kind of wrapping up when I got to the “Volsted” stage—it wasn’t exactly my thing, like bottleneck blues without the blues or the bottleneck, but I feel like they’re just starting out and kind of grasping what it is they want to do. Certainly as a duo they had more of a full sound, more rock power, than many of the five pieces outside.

And Night Beats had more power than perhaps I’ve given them credit for in the past. I’d never thought the Night Beat boys were terrible, but maybe in the past I had put them in the back of my mind as “just another good Burger band,” no doubt in part because they’ve always paired themselves up with some of the best of the best, like the Strange Boys, Black Lips, Ty Segall, and Roky Erickson. That’s a position I wish to completely retract, after seeing their blistering (though maybe a teeny little bit tired? It had been a long day) set at Hotel Vegas. These guys definitely lived up to the “Beat” in their name, keeping my legs in a permanent throbbing 4/4 jitter.

It wasn’t exactly a psychedelic show, which was fine by me, because actually, when I saw Night Beats open for Roky Erickson at the El Rey last year, I was a little underwhelmed by that approach—though I’m thinking in hindsight it might have been 110% the fault of the El Rey’s sound system, which could have muted and castrated the grating gravy flavor of these boys—by the end of this set, I was hoping for a little of the Texas psych sound that their music hinted at on the cassette I bought at that show, which they did bring, but more in the fucked-up-crazy-Sir-Douglas-Quintet way and not quite as much of a Shiva’s-Headband-slash-Red-Crayola way. All in all, this was definitely more of a Bo Diddley/Yardbirds rave-up kind of performance. It was hard to get good pictures, because people were getting all loopy while dancing around to the guys.

I want to point out that bassist Tarek Wegner looks EXACTLY like I wish I looked all the time, and  like I sometimes almost kind of do, right down to the cool vest with the buttons on it. Note the lackadaisical way Tarek’s face is all like “oh, sure, I guess it’s time for me to play a snarling groovy bass beat that will tear the pants off any living human within a 20 yard vicinity.  Hmmm, yes, I suppose I might use my fingers to make my bass throb with the kind of vicious sexual oomph that makes indie bands like Voxhaul Broadcast piss themselves. Sigh… oh, I reckon pouncing up and down the frets onto these solid, soulful notes like a feral puma isn’t any harder than thumbing through the giant list of girls’ phone numbers in my back pocket…”

Oh, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, next were Thee Oh Sees. It’s hard to describe a band who have gotten so good live that seeing them feels like a dream later, so let me explain at least how the crowd reacted: with the kind of stage-rushing fandom that borders on mania. Forgive the shaky photos—to see the band at all, I had to join my friend Daniel Clodfelter of Shark Toys on a rickety bench that at least two other people were standing on, which rocked not-so-gently to and fro as the sound of Thee Oh Sees pummeled us nearly as hard as the fans squeezing up to the stage and then being repelled back by the forces of physics and sheer rock refraction.

John Dwyer was threatening to pull down the tent itself, holding onto poles and flaps and PA speakers that god never intended to be touched, let alone nearly toppled. It was hard for him to move, what with that many band members on stage, fans rushing with hands and moans like some kind of zombie apocalypse moving in, and about 8 dudes with cameras crouching on stage around the band pretending they were some kind of “official” photographer and therefore deserved to block the fuck out of my shots!

I’m a shitty photographer, and I’m a shitty journalist for not being able to report which of their songs Thee Oh Sees played. But you’ll have to forgive me—they have over 30 albums including EPs and compilations! And yes, dear hearts, I bought them all after the show, at least all the official LPs, from a very gracious Brigid Dawson and John Dwyer himself, who gave me a good deal and revealed to me the secret of which album he likes the least out of their discography (I refuse to reveal it, but let’s just say it’s “in the middle”). If only Nick from White Fence had been able to get on stage like last year, I think my night would have been complete.

But it wasn’t complete, not without a tour through some of the other bands in the fest: The Blank Tapes were poppin’ up quite right in one room, all moustaches and cowgirls and solid amazing pop-rock wonderfulness that makes you feel a bit like Jesus (like, aw shucks, you don’t really even deserve to hear music this good, but we’re so full o’ love that we’ll let it slide), while MMOSS were mostly missed (in both senses of the word) in another.

I did catch quite a bit of the set of Fungi Girls, which contained no girls but a lot of fast punk rock strums and agro-driving beats and occasional ostrich guitar solos, combined with relatively smooth and calm vocals by singer Jacob Bruce.

Do you see that guy’s hand? No you don’t, because that was some fast-ass fucking strumming. These guys were not as good as Thee Oh Sees, and you could see a touch of frustration, despite the fact that the room was full and people were watching—but maybe it just wasn’t quite as nuts as Thee Oh Sees were getting. Some of the songs reminded me a bit, actually, of Shark Toys, though just a little bit faster and just a little bit less frustrated and accessible–if Fungi Girls could have more songs about staying up all night, listening to records, I might be just a tinge more captivated. Again, the show ended too soon, which is what happens in a festival when you have 60 bands.

Normally I would have been more into bands like the Soft Moon, but by this point we were getting a little bit of band numbness, which we fought by lighting off bottle rockets by the nearby graveyard and then trying to see bands at the famous Trophy Club, the bar on 6th Street with a mechanical bull. We missed everything and ended up heading to the not-so-secret Brooklyn Vegan showcase on the pedestrian bridge at Lamar and Riverside—a trek we waaaay underestimated the distance to, with the result that eventually we had to catch the attention of one of those bike-taxi guys, who took us to the correct bridge (we’d actually walked on the wrong one). This was the same bridge where Big Whup and a bunch of bands had a generator show powered by Colt 45 a few years ago, where Bill Murray showed up (and was swarmed) and eventually made friends with the Burger guys while too-cool-for-school journalists like myself abandoned ship. (Notice I have no link about it. I have no idea why I don’t have coverage about that night. If you were on a pedestrian bridge in Austin at SXSW in 2011, please find me!)

This time, we abandoned ship pretty early, in the middle of a Merchandise performance. Truth be told, the bridge wasn’t as much fun this time around, when we had no booze and no possible way of seeing the band, since the crowd was so huge and there were no cement benches left to stand on and get some kind of vantage point. Even the fireworks I’d packed were duds—two that I threw just went dead on the ground, and when I needed a light for the third, who should be offering up his matches but Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer, going all incognito in a hoodie. One disappointingly small bang later, we abandoned the bridge–not only could we not see diddley, but the vibrations from people bouncing up and down made us slightly suspicious that the whole bridge might collapse, an eventuality we all wanted to fight. If we all pitch in, we can eliminate BC in our lifetime!

– D. M. Collins