I had the realization today that this is my sixth straight “working” SXSW (the first three I spent as a showcasing artist, the last three I’ve spent passing judgment on other showcasing artists), and it’s the first one in a long time that’s actually been fun. In years past I’ve been too caught up with my obligations to enjoy myself, but this week I set the simple goal of seeing one good show a night and letting everything else fall where it may, which has actually worked out great. Sure, I’ve missed a few dozen artists I was sort of curious about (Wavves, Vivian Girls, Telepathe, DM Stith, etc.) but nothing I’m not convinced I’ll never get the chance to see again, and the trade-off of not feeling pressured has been more than worth it. As a result, it’s been my most relaxed SXSW since I was just another Austinite using it as an excuse to party for four days—which is something of a miracle, considering reports indicate it’s the biggest one ever.
On a short list of regrets, not getting my shit together and picking up my media badge for Rachael Ray’s Please Help Assuage My Husband’s Sense Of Emasculation By Paying Attention To His Band Party is up there, although Josh’s report doesn’t make it sound like I missed much of anything besides bands I’ve already seen and delicious food I wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy because it was way too crowded. (Considering Josh et al. called me around noon looking for breakfast recommendations, I’m guessing they weren’t getting their fill on seven-layer sliders.) But as a consolation prize, I got to start off my final day at the always-beautiful Garden Party at the French Legation instead, where there’s plenty of room to stretch out on the lawn under the trees and just hydrate for a while. By the time we got there, Melissa Auf der Maur was already on stage leading a small band through some seriously dour dirges while looking equally bored and aloof. You may remember Auf der Maur for contributing competent bass work to the least essential eras of bands like Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, but did you know she also makes disposable music of her own? Her songs all apparently had some sort of thematic conceit about kings and queens or something, as she’s getting set to release a concept album later this year that also ties into a graphic novel and a film. I’m not sure where her ponderous cover of The Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before” fits in there, but I have to say that the title of that song has never been more ironically applied.
As soon as Auf der Maur finished and allowed me to finally quit typing out her name, a group of crusty-looking folkies popped up in the middle of the lawn with an upright bass and banjo they’d brought from home and staged their own guerrilla showcase for their similarly crusty friends. There’s probably some sort of statement to be made about “reclaiming SXSW for the people” or some such nonsense, but I’m too tired to make it; I’ll just note that they managed to drown out the whisper-quiet Laura Marling, and I guess I’m turning into one of those bloodless industry types, because all I could think was how I wished someone official would come and ask them to knock it off.
But whatever. I was really only there for two things: My annual visit from the Ice Cream Man, and to finally catch Dirty Projectors. Knowing that the group both had a new album coming out that I’m dying to hear and that it was touring with an expanded six-piece lineup made it imperative that I see them, but their performances the rest of the week had all been inopportunely scheduled against Grizzly Bear’s showcase and The Onion party. It was now or never. For a while there, though, it looked like I might not even get the chance today; the soundcheck dragged on interminably, pushing the start time back a good 30 or 40 minutes while everyone got increasingly restless and the sun went down. The piles of discarded food and attendant bees were also beginning to turn this formerly lovely little oasis into just another ravaged fairground, which made it even less comfortable. Then, when the band finally took the stage, it encouraged everyone to stand, which caused a lot of angry, vocal protests from all the people who had made their way into the tent early to wrangle chairs. As everyone abandoned their carefully arranged, respectful personal boundaries and became just another jostling crowd, some folks took those chairs and started flinging them to the side, forming precarious stacks and banging a lot of shins in the process. So much for the unusually laidback charms of the Garden Party; this had become just another packed tent show.
Fortunately the band was more than worth it: The songs from the upcoming Bitte Orca are its best yet (I think they may be better even than Rise Above, which I still can’t stop playing almost two years on), full of jaw-dropping complexity and precision. Even more surprising, for all their music scholar craftsmanship and intellectual pretensions, they’re dangerously close to being catchy. A mid-set show-stopper found Amber Coffman going solo on what sounded like a Beyonce number as co-written by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Tom Verlaine, and she pulled off incredible melismas that had more than one bystander dropping the words “Mariah Carey.” Between this show and the showcases from St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear, I have a feeling my top albums of the year are already a lock.
Having achieved everything of substance I had planned for SXSW, the wife and I decided to drop into Perez Hilton’s One Night In Austin, an annual celebration for a man nobody seems to respect but whom everyone pays attention to anyway. Last year’s party was a cramped, sweaty affair, but this year Hilton took over the same spot where the Playboy party had taken place, which made me somewhat reluctant to revisit it, so I figured we’d get it out of the way early then move on to better places with more convenient bathrooms. Just as we arrived, Hilton took the stage wearing a pink, sparkly version of Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day hat and announced that “this abandoned grocery store is our church now,” which made me laugh a little in spite of myself. Man, do I ever hate the way he’s cheapened the pop-culture discourse, but I’ll be damned if I’m not a sucker for a self-adoring, attitudinal queen. Unfortunately, we discovered from some friends that we’d arrived too late to catch the “special surprise guest.” All day long, rumors had been flying as to who would drop in and rock the 20 mystery minutes on the lineup: Would it be Lady GaGa? The Jonas Brothers? Would Kanye West hustle over from his not-so-secret Fader Fort appearance? Would Perez come out in drag and do some old-school Madonna? As it turns out, the “surprise guest” was only a surprise in the sense that no one could fathom what they were doing there: Indigo Girls, who popped in to do a quick preview of their Stubb’s set across town and bore the incredibly tight pants off of this crowd of well-coiffed gay boys and their fabulous female companions, who were all squirming until they could get back to dancing again.
They were rewarded (sort of) with the very ’80s electro-rock of New Zealand’s Ladyhawke, whose music is reminiscent of all the filler and none of the killer of your average Pat Benatar album. Then there’s “Paris Is Burning,” a song genetically engineered for runway shows and TV soundtracks—bubbly, tasty, and sort of sickening after a while, not unlike the Perez’s Punch that I sucked down three glasses of, because I am also a sucker for anything made with Alizé (thanks, Tupac). While getting girl-drink drunk and watching pretty young things play on the indoor swing set and Perez’s coterie of hangers-on somehow managing to make even walking look bitchy, I decided I’d had enough of beautiful people.
The antidote? The Esther’s Follies comedy showcase, where it’s nothing but wall-to-wall former ugly kids exorcising their lingering self-esteem demons. I got there just in time to see Eugene Mirman wrap up his umpteenth set of the week, but even though he’d probably run through his jokes about how calling Delta Airlines’ customer service for help finding your lost luggage is akin to “asking an amnesiac baby to solve a crime that it itself committed” around five or six times in the last 72 hours, he didn’t let it show. Near the end he brought out novelist/folksinger John Wesley Harding, with whom he’s been touring lately, and the two did a “duet” on Simon And Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” that consisted of Eugene poorly lip-synching to a prerecorded vocal track, then finishing with an electronic noise solo. It wasn’t exactly hilarious, but Mirman is so likeable it didn’t matter.
The same can’t be said for Sam Brown, co-founder of New York’s Whitest Kids U Know, whose one saving grace is that he had nothing to do with Miss March. Of course, merely not having a hand in execrable art isn’t enough to excuse poorly articulated comedy, and judging by the number of times Brown let his jokes trail off without any discernible punchline and stumbled over his words, his act needs some serious work before it’s stage-ready. On the other hand, former Austinite Howard “Dragonboy Suede” Kremer has markedly improved his act by doing less with more: His set used to include several awkward, tongue-in-cheek raps recalling the dark days of Barry Sobel (“Z-z-z-zodiac!”), but Kremer apparently decided that merely announcing the titles of songs like “Applebee’s: We Found A Way To Fuck Up Salad” and “Buy You Clothes, Do You In ’Em, Take ’Em Back” is funnier than actually making us listen to three or four verses of diminishing returns. He’s right.
Todd Barry has always been a master of minimalism, and his set was a study in raised-brow sarcasm and condescending silences. It was also nearly word for word what he did at the Onion party, so I spent much of it outside smoking and being stared at by Margaret Cho (perhaps because I am an evil breeder). I got back inside in time for the love of my life, Janeane Garofalo, who enumerated the number of pills she’d taken that day (including “four or five Lyricas and at least four vike-a-doodles”) before wandering off on a slippery stream-of-consciousness about being so much older than her fanbase and how Natalie Portman is so porcelain-doll perfect that she contends she’s never taken a shit. After hearing about last year’s self-purging wreck of a set—in which she seemed to be going through some sort of group therapy on stage—she seemed much better here: Still wacked-out in a way that makes me slightly worried for her, but at least her rambling is actually funny again.
Up next was Doug Benson, who seems to have taken his High Times awards very seriously and devoted his entire set to jokes about weed. He even gave out some of his swag from the High Times party earlier that day—which apparently happened?—including a “stash jar” and a book called 420 Things To Do When You’re Stoned! (Benson: “Fuck that. I’m not gonna read 420 things when I’m stoned.”) Making pro-pot jokes in Austin is like hot-boxing fish in a barrel, so it went over well, even if the eventual decriminalization of marijuana (it’s totally gonna happen, man!) is going to render all of this stuff about as funny as jokes about CB radio. “Funniest Person In Austin” winner Brendon Walsh followed with a set that featured a total gut-punch of a joke that started with “Y’all heard that Gene Hackman died today, right?” (the point of which was that we should all go home and write Hackman a letter, because it’s like we just got a second chance to tell him how much we love him) and a riff on the best song to pick at karaoke to ensure you’ll never be forced to do it again (“Zombie” by the Cranberries, naturally).
Then it was time for “comedian’s comedian” Andy Kindler, a guy who I’ve seen on the circuit since I used to watch Evening At The Improv as a kid, and whose reputation as one of the most underrated comics of his generation has only grown louder in recent years thanks to big-ups from people like Zach Galifianakis. Unfortunately I’m not sure tonight’s set—which was alternately about how underappreciated he was and how poorly conceived his jokes were—is going to kick-start that late-career renaissance he’s hoping for, as it was pretty light on memorable bits. Plus, Kindler’s still got this “oy vey,” Jerry Lewis shtick about him that reads as a little Catskills, even if his material is as caustic as any of his younger contemporaries. I’m pretty sure “comedian’s comedian” is going on his tombstone.
Although I’d planned to close out SXSW getting hammered while sitting on my ass in a comedy club, Josh convinced me to head over to Club DeVille for one last music set: New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus, who make slurry pub-rock punk that’s a barking mix of The Clash, Springsteen, and Against Me! The band looked worn out and ragged (and maybe even a little hammered themselves), and it threw itself into its music with plenty of “last dance” abandon, but by this point I was too far gone myself to work up much enthusiasm. I opted for a leisurely stroll back across the highway to my car, leaving behind the clamor and clutter of yet another SXSW—and for the first time in many, many years, with just the hint of a spring in my step.