As long as this webjournal of little purpose and even less interest has unexpectedly morphed into a fanzine, I figured I’d keep it going for a bit and rejoin the effort to dispense of our South By Southwest (or, as the one and only Brown Wizard put it, “That Clusterfuck”) trip that concluded more than two months ago.
That’s the way we roll around here: always late, and sometimes never.
Thursday, March 15 dawned clear in the sky and foggy in our heads. We awoke at our temporary digs at 10th and Lavaca. With the limestone dome of the state Capitol looming in our rear, it seemed we were part of an alternate-universe set for Austin City Limits.
The good and unimpeachable folks at Wikipedia were kind enough to supply a few factoids about the Texas capitol, for entertainment purposes only.
I’ll take that there land, boy: Instead of cash, the builders accepted more than 3 million acres in the Texas panhandle, the subsequent site of the world’s largest cattle ranch. They do things a little different here.
Cheap labor: Being Texas and all, the $3.7 million Renaissance Revival structure was built primarily with the use of convict and migrant workers. Texas always has been flush with inmates and immigrants. Texas today ranks second only to California in raw number of incarcerated people, though it has a much more impressive per-capita figure.
Remember the Alamo: The building opened to the public on April 21, 1888, San Jacinto Day. It was the 52nd anniversary of the day Sam Houston routed Santa Anna’s forces, killing 630 Mexicans in 18 minutes and all but clinching the Republic of Texas’ status as a sovereign nation. That lasted about nine years, until we swooped in, annexed Texas and stole a swath of land from Mexico about the size of Western Europe.
Anyway, we got our bearings and got on our way, slowly making our way west to Lamar and then south to the YMCA. We all were feeling good as like-new after a workout and a shower. We headed to Jovita’s on South First for Day 1 of Twangfest at Jovita’s.
Among those on the bill were Elizabeth McQueen Meets the Lazaroff Brothers, Chuck Mead, Carrie Rodriguez, John Doe, William Elliott Whitmore, Water Liars, Brown Birds, Sleepy Kitty, The Figgs and more.
Oh but first, we had to get ready for the show. And you know that can take some time.
This guy, he’s ready to party:
This guy, too:
And last, and most certainly least, the boy who never grew up:
Now we’re ready. If
your you are going to Austin for SXSW in 2013, KDHX’s Twangfest parties are recommended without reserve. We pulled our lumbering camper into the parking lot at Jovita’s early and left it there all day. The shows are free. And they’re open to all ages, which is handy if you’re bringing along a madcap 4-year-old. There’s plenty of open space for the kids to play in the back.
John Doe was there, sure. He’s good. Got pictures of him, but they all suck.
William Elliott Whitmore was the highlight of the set. His Wikipedia page describes him as a blues singer. He’s not a blues singer. Not that he doesn’t know the blues when he sees it.
He’s a snarling evangelist for the poor and afflicted, a working-class warhorse, a 21st century Woody Guthrie with tattoos and a bad attitude. He comes from Iowa, and he’s not happy. He’s a troubadour for troubled times.
He played about 40 minutes, alternating between banjo and guitar. Voice and words, though, are his primary instruments. The gutbucket growl comes up from somewhere deep, dark and destitute, a swirling dust bowl of the soul.
But he’s also got a good sense of humor.
“Let’s all get drunk for once in our lives,” he said following a rousing, a cappella version of “Mutiny,” a thinly veiled allegory about America during the reign of Bush the Younger. “Just for once. Just treat yourselves. Come on, just once.”
The he grabbed his guitar and launched into the closer, “Old Devils,” the title track from his 2009 disc “Animals in the Dark.” And just in case you thought William Elliott Whitmore was hopelessly obscure, Wikipedia informs me “Animals” shot all the way up to No. 50 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. So you know he can bring the heat.
“They tell me there’s a war without no end,
the old devils are at it again.
And they die by the millions children, women and men.
The old devils are at it again.”
They sure are, William. They sure are.
The entire performance is accessible on the youtubes. Check out “Old Devils,” which begins around the 35:45 mark.
I neglected to mention, the Twangfest parties feature two stages operating in alternating fashion. We stayed inside most of the day, though Charlie did venture out to see Lydia Loveless. I sneaked out later and caught the tail end of Water Liars, a promising guitar-and-drums duo from St. Louis. They are Justin Kinkel-Schuster (guitar) and Andrew Bryant.
The song they finished with is called “On the Day,” a solemn, hypnotic meditation on the difficulty of living a good life and the inevitability of death.
The piercing, poetic quality of the song struck me and has stuck with me since.
“And the ones who have loved me will suddenly feel something cold,
as my black, black soul tries vainly to rise and turn gold.”
Here’s Water Liars from the same set, doing something I missed entirely:
Eventually the festivities at Jovita’s wound down and we returned to the Y. This was not a sanctioned stay. The following morning Charlie overheard someone on a cellphone saying “We’ve got an RV in the lot, and I’m sure it’s South by Southwest.” Only then did we notice the signs that read, “No SXSW parking!” We knew we’d be staying somewhere else tonight.
I don’t remember, but it’s likely we availed ourselves of cheap tacos prior to returning to the YMCA. If the music’s No. 1, the ubiquity of inexpensive tacos is No. 1-a.
Eventually Chuck and I left Becky and Max behind and set out on a northward jaunt to Antone’s at 5th and Lavaca.
We got in line for the Americana showcase. The Gourds were on the bill, and we never go to Austin without seeing the goddamn Gourds. We loves us some Gourds.
The cover was $15, I didn’t have any cash. Charlie had to pay. For some reason, this situation kept repeating itself for the rest of the week. I don’t know why. Poor Blind Charlie. He’ll probably have to work at the Sun an extra year just to pay off his inflated SXSW tab. It’s a shame I’m such an asshole. It really is.
The much-ballyhooed Punch Brothers were first to the stage. They are led by mandolin virtuoso
Justin Timberlake Chris Thile and banjo superstar Noam Pikelny, ex of Leftover Salmon. I just don’t get Punch Brothers, much like I didn’t get Nickel Creek, Thile’s formative band.
Perhaps it’s my appalling lack of sophistication.
They’re wonderful musicians, no doubt. What other Americana band will you find playing Bach and Mozart. That’s cool, and edifying. Inspirational, even. Just seems a trifle pretentious on some level.
Somehow in the end they seem to add up to less than the sum of their parts.
The most engaging song of their set was the Band classic “Ophelia,” which even Thile had to admit he wished he’d written.
Next up came HoneyHoney, and they were something of a revelation. They are fronted by sultry Suzanne Santo on vocals, banjo and violin and Ben Jaffe on guitar and harmony vocals. In simplistic terms, because I’m getting tired of thinking up hi-falutin’ ways to say the same thing, I liked them. A lot.
Here’s their new video, which includes an appearance by Martin Starr of Freaks and Geeks fame:
Then the came the closer: the Gourds. And they did it in their inimitable, rollicking, sticky and sweet fashion. They played just seven songs, but that was more than enough to get us out the door, back across the Colorado and to the safe confines of the behemoth.
Now it felt like we had found the rhythm of the festival.
Until next time …