Some years this festival crawls by at a Groundhog Day-like pace, where it seems like the parade of day show/showcase/after-party will just go on forever. But this year has passed so quickly I’ve felt kind of like the white rabbit in Alice In Wonderland, forever running late to all my very important dates. (By the way, that’s a last-minute substitution for the metaphor my tired brain coughed up yesterday, which was “a monkey chained to a speedboat.”) It’s probably because, for the first time in my 10-year SXSW history, I’ve been trying to get at least seven hours of sleep a night, a luxury the younger me simply wouldn’t have allowed. The advantage to this is it’s made me far more appreciative of everything I do catch, since I’m less likely to resort to knee-jerk cynicism out of weariness. The flipside is I’m missing way more shit—like most of our own day party, for example.
By the time I got to Radio Room (after a long detour to spend nearly 15 minutes on the other side of downtown, cajoling two media passes to the Perez party), Parenthetical Girls were already in the middle of setting up. Not long after I arrived I was pressed into emcee duty, and asked to introduce comedian Alex Koll, a guy whom I’ve never met nor even heard of, which I believe are the minimum requirements for making introductions. Therefore my intro was a total sham: How did I know this guy was “very funny”? How did I know you would like him? Luckily he didn’t make a total liar out of me, as he was sort of funny—though I’m still not sure I get his fake song, “I Just Called To Say I’m Sorry,” which mostly consisted of him yelling, “World War II! Vietnam!” over and over. It probably kills in San Francisco, though.
Parenthetical Girls was my addition to the lineup, as Entanglements was one of my favorite records from last year so I voted for adding them, and as such I felt a little personally responsible for their performance. Clearly the group wasn’t everyone’s cup of weirdo cabaret tea, but fuck ’em—especially Marc Hawthorne, who asked me if I “seriously sat around [my] house listening to this.” (I’m just gonna note here that Marc Hawthorne really, really likes Third Eye Blind and leave it at that.) Singer Zac Pennington is like a far more outré Rufus Wainwright, and he makes the most of his band’s twisted Bacharach tunes by virtue of his sheer, wild-eyed will, forcing his way through the crowd and even singing to the disbelievers gathered sneering on the patio, and that to me is punk as fuck. Pennington made a personal promise to me to attempt “Song For Elle Greenwich,” even though he acknowledged just before playing it that it was “probably a mistake” (mostly because it benefits greatly from its full orchestral arrangement on record), but I thought it came off smashingly. Hey Marc, I’m listening to that song again right now, sitting around my house, and it’s awesome. The added bonus was the cover of one of my favorite OMD songs, Joan Of Arc,” which found Pennington drumming on every available surface in the club. That’s what you call making the most of it.
This was the first year we went head to head with the Pitchfork party, which I was bummed about, but P-Girls made me feel a little better about missing Dirty Projectors. Then Future Of The Left absolutely killed it, and there was officially no other place I’d rather be. Caustic, cathartic, insanely heavy and loud—everything you’d want from a 4 p.m., third-day-of-SXSW set. At one point bassist Kelson Mathias threw his lanky frame out in the crowd and started gibbering the words to “Sexyback,” just because. I know everyone was psyched to see Metallica tonight, but from where I was standing, Future Of The Left crushed them.
The rest of the party is sort of a Pabst-y blur of meeting folks like Marc Maron (who got off onto a bit of a rant with me about the difference between supporting the war and supporting the troops that I swear I’d already heard him do on Air America) and watching Todd Barry barely conceal his contempt for his audience. At one point some dorkus malorkus stopped by the stage, pointed at Barry, and did a little “Arf! Arf!” nod to his Flight Of The Conchords bit. Barry didn’t notice, which is a shame; I’m sure he would have had 15 minutes worth of dressing down to give that guy, as that’s definitely where the majority of his comedy comes from. (Not so much with the writing new jokes, as nearly all of his routine seemed recycled from last year.) After his set, a recruiter from the Armed Forces Entertainment squad came up and started convincing Barry to go perform for the troops, so if someday Todd Barry ends up like those Playboy bunnies hanging from the helicopter in Apocalypse Now, I guess it all traces back to us.
After the party I made my way up Sixth Street for one of the first times this week and finally saw the annual Mardi Gras of shameless self-promotion at play. Musicians wearing their own T-shirts and holding banners with their names on it; a marching band made up of people wearing animal masks; and Austin’s own Quiet Company, giving out “free hugs.” I played Promotional CD-Ditching Frogger until I got to the Driskill Hotel and found my friends in I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, who were waiting to be interviewed by “uh… somebody from some paper or blog or something.” Ah, what a noble line of work I’m in.
Once again, I only had one goal for the nighttime: Catch Devo at Austin Music Hall. We got there early enough to make sure my wife and her lowly wristband could get in, which meant we were in time to catch Austin’s The Black And White Years. The group has rocketed to fame in the last year thanks to its single “Power To Change,” which has become ubiquitous on local radio. Earlier this week it absolutely cleaned up at the Austin Music Awards, so expectations are high for them to break wide this year. Its herky-jerky dance rock impressed Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison so much at SXSW 2008 that he offered to produce their record; that’s led to a lot of lazy Heads comparisons, but TBW&Y are a bit more glam and outsized than that, with a dash of Of Montreal and a huge dose of Sparks. Check ’em out.
After that was, as anyone who’s been following my Twitter feed already knows, one of the worst bands I have ever seen in my life, and definitely the worst band I’ve seen at this festival: Stardeath And White Dwarfs. It took the stage surrounded by huge, expensive-looking amps topped by glowing lights and received a glowing introduction from a BMI rep, who said that they were on Warner Bros. Records, all of which seemed to suggest that they must be doing pretty well, despite the fact that I’d never heard of them. Once the fog machines were properly set to “Spinal Tap blast,” the band launched into its opener: A cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” that was convincing right up until the moment the singer opened his mouth. His flat, nasally monotone was so weak and off-key that I was convinced he was just taking the piss out of everyone, and maybe the song was just a joke that would lead into something else.
As it turns out, I spent most of the set fully convinced that this band was a put-on: After only three songs, a huge smoke bomb went off and the singer disappeared, and the drummer and bassist went off on an interminable solo that must have lasted six minutes before he finally came running back, newly clad in a skintight green jumpsuit, and joined in on the “jam” for another four minutes or so. Then it was time for a spaced-out electro cover of Madonna’s “Borderline,” followed by its final song, an acoustic guitar-driven, faux-Bowie number that contained the lyric, “The age of the freak is in your mind.” So just to recap: In the course of one 30-minute set, we had two covers, one extended “jam session,” one costume change, and three original songs, plus a shit-ton of strobe lights, rolling fog, and innumerable Jesus Christ poses from the singer. At one point I had actually convinced myself that maybe this was one of Devo’s faux opening acts—like they used to do with DOVE—and if so, then it was brilliant. As it turns out, it’s something far less interesting: Nepotism. Google tells me that Stardeath’s lead singer is Dennis Coyne, nephew of The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. So anyway, now it all makes sense.
Stardeath put me in an especially bad mood for electro goofballs Datarock, who at least acknowledged their sub-Devoisms up front by saying how excited they were to be playing with their number-one influence, and opening with a song whose chorus was just them shouting “Devo!” repeatedly. The audience had started to fill up by now with folks in energy domes and jumpsuits—some purchased from the official store ($30!), others more homemade, like the woman in the “Girl U Want” variety that prompted a guy near me to shout out, “Maybe 20 years ago!” It was obvious that almost no one was there to see Tricky, whose music I can’t really begin to describe these days. It’s not trip-hop anymore (though my wife recognized a couple of songs from Maxinquaye in there), some songs bordered on rap-rock, and others were just a more sexed-up version of Lenny Kravitz’s glam-stomp; I finally settled on “music to sell clothes to” and left it at that.
Finally the huge screens lit up with an eye-gouging video collage of the past 30-plus years in Devo history, building the now-capacity crowd into a frenzy as the members of Devo themselves—who looked like the goofy dads to the young blades in the archival footage—took the stage wearing gray jumpsuits and orange safety vests. The set was top-heavy with new material, beginning with “Don’t Shoot, I’m A Man” and other songs from its in-progress album; they’re remarkably loud, with an emphasis on distorted guitar and relatively light on synthesizer, and they’ve updated their techo-critiques to include references to text messaging and web-surfing, but otherwise they're far closer to the "Devo sound" than anything I was expecting. I'm actually psyched for that album now.
But while the new stuff didn’t disappoint, it was just a warm-up to the barrage of classics the band unleashed, beginning with “Girl U Want”: From there it was non-stop Devo-that-everybody-loves, including “Whip It,” “Satisfaction,” “Mongoloid,” “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA,” “Gates Of Steel,” “Freedom Of Choice,” “Jocko Homo,” and “Gut Feeling.” My personal highlight was “Uncontrollable Urge,” where the band precisely replicated the stop-start choreography of its Urgh! A Music War performance (which was my only exposure to the live version of that song). In fact, the whole set felt like a well-oiled machine that, while maybe it had been gathering dust in the garage for a while, needed only a quick tune-up to get into peak condition again. Yes, Devo are a bit older, grayer, and larger, but their music was always about removing the human element, so such things shouldn’t even matter, right? By the time Mark Mothersbaugh returned to the stage wearing his Booji Boy mask to sing “Beautiful World,” all question of whether Devo has sold its “cultural de-evolution” message short by lending its songs to Target commercials and the like was rendered moot. I mean, it has, but the truth is we’re all going down together (we’re all Devo, yeah?), and if the apocalypse is coming, it’s nice to have these guys back together to sing us a swan song.