After the first day at the South by Southwest music fest and seeing 15 bands or so the day before, I was pretty tired and ready to hunker down for Thursday’s music lineup. I knew it was going to be capped off by our crew arriving early to the NPR Music showcase featuring The Whigs, Yo La Tengo, and My Morning Jacket, so all I had to do until then was have a good time conserving my energy and try to catch as much new stuff as possible. Along the way that day, I think I easily accomplished my goals.
I hung at the hotel for a bit in the morning and waited a bit to go to the day parties. I was somewhat avoiding the sun, which had just started flaring up for a fantastic end-of-week run with weather that ended up keeping throughout the weekend. For me coming from Chicago, the sun was so much for my skin to handle right off the plane and I opted to grab some sunblock before I headed out into the daylight. On my way to the Sixth Street madness, I spotted and recognized Ryan from Muzzle of Bees. We stopped and exchanged pleasantries before heading onto my first stop at the Brooklynvegan party at Emo’s, where I got to meet THE vegan himself and hang out and enjoy the DJ set by Men. The tracks were slammin’, if I may say so myself.
After some time hanging out and watching some dudes dance in full body suits, I watched a set by Phosphorescent and another DJ set by Men, both of which were keeping the crowd nicely entertained until a larger set of people showed up for the party closer: Holy F***. I had connected with Sam and his friend Judd at this point, and we chatted a bunch about what to expect on the show coming up that night and what to expect for the festival in the near future. We went up towards the front of the venue to get a good spot for Holy F*** and ended up parking in a spot right in front of the main sound speakers stage-right. I put my earplugs in when the band started soundchecking, and I was glad I did the second they started playing. Their electro rock would have been way too much for my ears to handle; Sam looked half-miserable when he realized how loud it was going to be.
So as the band started on their set, this girl starts dancing to the left of me and starts butt-bumping with me. It was a little strange, for sure, but I clearly wasn’t going to spoil anyone’s fun by not dancing and playing along. “I must be damn hot-looking today,” I thought. So I did just that — when she wanted to dance with me a bit, I went ahead and played along even though I had the feeling that the girl might have had a little bit too much to drink — and this continued throughout the entire set. I realized that she was 100% s***canned when she asked my name, I told her, she acknowledged receipt, and then two minutes later she asked it again. She started to pull out her ID and credit card to make sure I knew her name, and she just handed it over to me without realizing that I wasn’t her boyfriend and that I wouldn’t necessarily want to carry her ID for her.
I ended up walking her out of the show, and after she kissed me on the cheek and told me that I was “really cool,” I kissed her on the cheek back and asked for her number (fully intending on not ever calling her). She gave me her number and couldn’t actually give me her full last name without laughing uncontrollably about two or three letters in, so I put her in my iPhone as “Katie from Holy F***” (seemed pretty logical at the time). I had hoped she really planned on connecting with her friends and bid her adeiu with the hopes that she was going to find someone to take care of her for the night. Her dancing and stumbling into the people around her started to make me a little nervous, because hey, “beer googles” are one thing but stumbling and stupid drunk is another. I hoped she would find someone to help her on her way…
Sure enough, I walked around the block and ended up kinda circling back through the area I dropped her off. She was sitting on the curb and had her arm around a guy that looked only vaguely similar to myself, in as much as he was seemingly by himself at the moment that she found him. His hair was kind of shaggy, too. And there she was, laughing, hanging, arms around him, etc. One might have found this moment to be one that could cause jealously, but for me, this was a huge weight off my shoulders. I no longer felt guilty for completely ditching a drunk chick that happened to fall in love with me during Holy F***, only to leave me right after the band finished (and why this would cause me to feel guilty is really anyone’s guess at this point). If there was anything to learn from this event, it would be that it’s cute when 22 year-old girls come to Austin, TX for Spring Break at SXSW, and it’s especially cute when they ask, “What’s a Holy F***?!” in your ear while you’re trying to get your groove on (because they’re making you get your groove on). I guess it was good to step outside of my comfort zone.
From there, I doubled-back to the hotel to change my shoes and get ready for the early arrival planned for the NPR Music showcase that was set to be the biggest event of the week for me (at least following up the R.E.M. performance from the night before). The rest of the evenings were going to be spent on smaller, up-and-coming bands so I viewed the event at the Austin Music Hall one of special importance (along with the consensus of our LMB crew in attendance). We knew we want to get there early and really see the entire thing as much as possible, so I think we arrived at the show when only 50 people had shown up. The floor was nearly empty, so we just headed right to the front and snagged a good spot in the second row (stage left was where Jim James of MMJ setup, so Sam got there and staked out that side of the stage as the better locale for the rest of the evening — he was right to make that decision). Once the venue started filling in and we had each shared another two or three Lone Star tallboys, the houselights went down and The Whigs strolled out on stage to start the event.
The Whigs are a powerful, three-piece rock band that combine solid songwriting with some classic showmanship, and the combination of the three members and their stage presence was truly captivating from the second row. The lead guy is a total madman on the guitar, and he’ll regularly bring in some of his “moves” to augment the sound of the performance visually (including spastic kicks, screams, and all around body thrusts). Totally entertaining. We all agreed that they played a great set and it served as a proper warmup for me, so much so that I hardly remember the setbreak between The Whigs and Yo La Tengo at all. Maybe it’s because The Whigs ended on something like this…
It could have been because we were so close to the front that we were in the middle of all the real action. It had been a long time since I had done that at a show, because I’m usually trying to avoid at least one of the openers for time constraint purposes. I used to see so few shows that the opener was exciting to me, even if they sucked. Nowadays I just move on and catch the bands I know I’ve given some time or attention to, but even in the best of cases or worst, catching the opener just isn’t something I strive to do. I was so out of my comfort zone that it was completely the jolt to the system that my brain needed; it got me to move past the uncomfortable and imperfection associated with staying up near the front (crowded, sweaty and/or smelly) and enjoy the pros and takeaways (like seeing Yo La Tengo for the first time close enough to see the band smile and laugh and catch each other’s improvisations). I’m glad that’s the spot we chose.
Given that I knew very little of Yo La Tengo’s catalog — I was only really familiar with the spirit of the band — I was pleased as hell when the band got three or four songs into the set and I realized that I loved everything they had played so far. The set started out with a straight-away noise rock tune, which turned into something a little less noisy, which then turned into something spacey and atmospheric (with a dual-drum approach to boot). That song was “Autumn Sweater,” and it truly captivated me. It was going to be hard to keep topping what I had seen previously in the evening, but every new tune by YLT kept getting better and better and kept me in a very blissful mindset. I believe the set ended in an explosion of noise, and this was everyone’s cue to move towards the front to get a good spot for the headliner of the night: My Morning Jacket. Our area immediately shrank and it became clear we’d have to do a lot to hold our ground. Mitch had a nice crew of friends in town that he knew from Madison, so we had enough of a group to keep everyone in line and hold our own at the front of the crowd. By this point, Sam was front row; not bad.
A huge anticipation moment filled the mini arena, which was immediately released when the house lights went down and the intro music that has graced their sets in recent years was played; it seems only functional really as to give time to the band to get to their instruments for a quick tune-up before the set began, or maybe it’s just to keep that anticipation running high. Regardless of the stage tricks that this band is known to employ, there was nothing tricky about the band opening up with a new one, “Evil Urges,” the title track off their new album set to be released in June. You could hear “Evil Urges” in the song lyrics, and you can heard the new sound of a band at the peak of their musical creativity. You could also hear the crowd explode after the first song, and it was at that moment where it couldn’t have gotten any better. The band was happy to be playing such an intimate show (relatively), and being up so close really made the difference for me.
Every song the band played that I was already deeply in-tune with, including “Gideon,” “Golden,” and “One Big Holiday,” were incredible to watch up close. Jim James and the rest of the band mates are really locked into each other, and these are the songs that don’t challenge them one bit. But on the new songs, of which there were eight played in all, you could see that the band had clearly just gotten off putting together an album where these songs would be practiced, produced, and reproduced a million times. So to us, they sounded so brand new and we had no clue where they were going, and it was impressive to watch this band play through them as if they knew them so well already. It was 100% tight. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about MMJ from seeing them and listening to some of their shows over the years — they seem to be one of the better practiced bands out there these days. They sound tight, they play tight, they don’t miss solos, etc. It’s very well crafted with just a few slight passages and times where improvs would be encouraged, but other than that it was clear that the band was locked in on all the new songs.
The real highlight for me in all of it was the closer of the megaset; it was a new song called “Touch Me (or I’ll Scream Pt. II)” that featured an electronic harpsichord lead or something of the sort. It sounded really good and fit perfectly with the semi-disco beat that lead the song into the space rock vibe. All of this was culminating into a classic, Jim James shouting bombast which dissolved into the same electronic part that lead into the song in the first place. The sound started to quiet a bit, and when the crowd started to get rowdy in anticipation for the next song, Jim James put his finger up to his mouth signaling to the crowd that it was time for them to stay quiet. We all complied nicely, which resulted in the crowd truly silent and in-awe of James playing with his electronic instrument. He ends up slowing down the temp of the loop until it’s crawling along, and with one final press of a button, a scream sample plays loudly and interrupts the slowdown line that James had just left looping. He simply runs off the stage. All of the other band members had already done so, which you may have missed if you were focused so intently on James (like I was).
I think everyone in the crowd let out a collective, “holy s***!” after seeing that, especially when we realized that we still had one or two songs left from the band before the night was over. Cheers upon cheers filled the arena, and you could tell that the famous folks in attendance were nicely blown away, also. Carrie Brownstein from Sleater Kinney was on hand for NPR, the guys from The Black Keys were in the balcony, and the bassist for The Whigs was about two people behind me at the time of the encore break — all of this was pretty cool to see from my vantage point right beneath Jim James’ short beard. It made me feel in good company.
The band came out and did not two but four songs for their encore, and we all went off into the night in true, stupid bliss. I decided there was no way that we were going to make it all the way across town to Emo’s to see the final portion of Yeasayer’s set (one of the many during the week), so I opted to head home after this show. I repeated, “that was incredible!” about 50 times over the next two days, and I’m still living on the memories from that night as one of the standout live music experiences of my life over the past few years. If you have any chance to catch any of the main draws on that showcase I saw, go see them now while you can still find the time and energy to make it to the front row. Music like this shouldn’t be something you see or watch while sitting down.