Thursday morning I woke up feeling kind of how Robert Downey Jr. looks in Less Than Zero, thanks to the Red Bull Drive Way The Fuck Out Here For Nothing party, so most of my day was already shot. I think maybe in SXSWs past I was able to force myself to get up and go to day shows even if I had stayed up until 5 a.m. the night before, but these are different, thirtysomething times. Besides, we have five voices chattering out here in the SXSWilderness, so what does it matter if I opt to stay home and recharge? Y’all ain’t the boss of me!
Anyway, I really only had one objective today (which has been my objective ever since the festival lineup was announced): See Grizzly Bear at the Central Presbyterian Church. It’s funny; I’ve never set foot inside that place before, for reasons spiritual or sacrilegious, but now I’ve spent two nights in a row sitting in a pew, staring up at a big ol’ crucifix, just to catch some indie rock. In my mind, this makes up for years of agnosticism, so I’m fully expecting to get into Heaven now should it turn out that that place exists.
Since yesterday’s 4AD showcase was such a fiasco, I made sure to get there way early, only to find a whole new breed of clusterfuckery, where the “imaginary wristband” people far outnumbered actual wristbands and badges, and no one seemed to know how to form a line. The security people didn’t make it any easier: Asking the wristbands if there was anywhere they could back up—say, over the shrubbery—and make the single file line into something that didn’t make a mockery of the notion of lines in general, they received a vociferous response that no, there was nowhere for anyone to go, because of things like, uh, the law that states two solid objects cannot occupy the same space, and other fun science facts. The security people then just shrugged and said, “Well… You should try.” Cue several dozen quips about the power of faith and parting the Red Sea.
Fortunately we made it inside without a Martin Luther-esque revolution breaking out in front of the church door, and I managed to snag a seat in the front pew, dead center of the stage. Of course, I was also two hours early, which meant I had two opening acts to get through. The first, San Francisco’s Girls, is a fairly new band with barely a 7-inch to its name, but it’s already racked up a few minor accolades from various blogs of note. The group’s fuzzy paisley-pop is shot through with a palpable sadness thanks to its singer’s fragile quaver, a pinched and nervous thing that sounds alternately like Elvis Costello and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner—though I could also be drawing that parallel because he spent the entire set hunched over his mic, his face hidden behind a curtain of long, greasy hair. Most write-ups I’d read before the show suggested that Girls is poised for a breakout when it finally releases its debut this summer, and given the recent glut of bands taking ’60s melodies and running it through shoegaze textures, I believe it—as long as the endless revival cycle doesn’t latch upon something else first. However—and honestly, I’m trying really hard this year not to make these kinds of judgments—it was almost impossible to get past the guitarist with his huge, floppy hat, long blond curls that he kept playing with in between songs, high-waisted white bellbottoms, and polyester shirt embroidered with DayGlo daisies. That’s one retro trend I defiantly cannot get behind.
The next band up, The Rural Alberta Advantage, were a complete surprise. I had never come across the name, and didn’t bother tracking down any songs beforehand; the eMusic honcho who introduced them said we were “in for a treat,” and it turns out he was right. The Canadian trio (“rural Alberta” isn’t just a clever name, apparently) makes a sort of rustic, scorched-earth Americana not unlike Centro-Matic, though far heavier on the percussion—and way livelier, thanks to the antics of Manic Pixie Indie Girl Amy Cole, who spent most of the set bouncing from place to place, banging on tambourines, whipping out the occasional glockenspiel solo, and adding the cooling undercurrents to singer Paul Banwatt’s ragged ruminations. Things started a bit slow with more run-of-the-mill country-ish numbers, but they won me over the minute Banwatt ended a song by beating on his acoustic guitar, then sheepishly pronouncing that it now had “a big SXSW crack in it.” (I feel like I’ve been on SXSW crack for a couple days now.) At set’s end, the three of them filed off stage into the middle of the aisle to play “Good Night” acoustically, which they said they’d always wanted to perform in a church. The sparse, mournful number was ridiculously quiet and intimate but still filled up the chapel—really, you could have heard a proverbial pin drop—and you could even see faces starting to mist; it was one of those “special” concert moments that are far too rare these days, and it’s safe to say RAA won quite a few new fans in that moment.
Grizzly Bear doesn’t need any new fans; there were so many of us crammed into every available space that the fire marshal was apparently making threats to shut the show down before it even began. It’s been interesting to watch the band’s ascendance from critically and cultishly adored to whatever you call this, but suffice to say I’d be surprised if it wasn’t forced to graduate to Stubb’s-sized arenas next year, as soon as Veckatimest drops and “Two Weeks” becomes inescapable. In the meantime I was damn lucky to be front and center to see what is, in all honesty, my favorite band in the world right now, and short of a surprise “reggae reworking” of the material, there was absolutely no way I was going to be disappointed.
But of course, “satisfied” isn’t nearly hyperbolic enough to describe a show like that—and neither am I going to resort to “religious experience” quips just because we were in church. So: Moving, awe-inspiring, achingly beautiful. Take your pick of my slavering fanboy appraisals. To my ears, Ed Droste’s voice is one of our greatest national resources, and the level of musicianship in that band is so masterful it’s humbling, blah blah blah. I’m more comfortable writing about things I dislike, because genuine love is so hard to put across without resorting to cliché and inviting ridicule. But suffice to say that there was probably no better setting to see the band in, and I’d do it again tonight (and every night) if I could.
As for specifics: The set was evenly split between new songs like “Cheerleader,” "Ready, Able," and the gorgeous “Fine For Now”—some of which (according to Ed) were apparently being played live for the first time—and old favorites like “Little Brother,” “Knife,” and “On A Neck, On A Spit” (just the “Spit” half, though), with nary a disappointing moment or missed note to be found. If there was anything to be disappointed about, it’s that I didn’t actually hear more of Veckatimest; I was really looking forward to seeing songs like “Southern Point” and “I Live With You” realized live—but then, I guess I’ll just have to wait for the summer tour. Until then, on my list of “favorite live shows of all time,” Grizzly Bear now occupies two spots near the top.
Once church let out, it was time to go get our hedonism on at the Playboy party, which you’ve already heard plenty about from my colleagues who drank way less than me—save Kyle Ryan, I guess, but he was drinking blackberry Izze with vodka like a dainty little lady while I pounded somewhere in the neighborhood of eight or 10 manly Jack-and-Cokes, so it doesn’t really count. Kyle’s not kidding about the Bassnectar set; I’d swear it’s still going. While trying not to have a seizure from all the strobe lights, I amused myself by sending out fake celebrity sightings to Twitter (sorry folks, but I was totally lying about seeing Ernie Hudson and the cast of Home Improvement) and standing in the line for the eight porta-johns they’d brought in to service those thousands of people, a situation that eventually got so bad that, if you thought maybe you might want to go sometime within the hour, it was wise to go ahead and get in it. I would like to meet the person who made this executive decision and kick him in the kidneys repeatedly.
As for the actual, not-just-playing-other-people’s-music artists, Kenan Bell fulfilled my daily required dose of hip-hop, backed by a live band that added an aggro rock touch to his swaggering braggadocio. Again, not the most imaginative MC out there, but he did manage to whip out a couplet rhyming Lee Harvey Oswald with Steve Harvey (which is probably a lot funnier in my whiskey-wiped mind than it would be if I heard it again).
Finally, some band called Jane’s Affliction played. It had the dude from Satellite Party in it, but they didn’t play “Wish Upon A Dog Star” or anything. I guess they were pretty good. Although, couldn’t the guitarist have put on a nice shirt? He’s playing a show, after all. His mother would be mortified.